Sailor Boy Confessions

It’s crazy how life can sometimes be so wretched and so wonderful at the same time. (A deep, clichéd beginning for my triumphant return to blogging, that.) I have a pinched nerve in my back; it’s been 10 weeks; it’s okay except when I’m sitting, trying to sleep, or am conscious for any reason. I am not a stoic; my desperation has been prolonged, messy, noisy. I need this to stop, now. Typing this demand aggressively at the universe doesn’t seem to have changed anything. Let me go on.

On top of having the back of a broken old man, I’m still adjusting to the glories and tragedies of daily desk monkey-ism–but I think I am adjusting; I certainly don’t feel as though I literally can’t handle another day of this 9 to 5 business, which is how I felt pretty much every day for the first three months. Okay 4.5 months. It helps that my coworkers are amazing, the job generally interesting and the office positively swimming in natural light. (Ah, there I am! A triumphant return to mixed metaphors! And this, also, serves as my triumphant return to rampant tangentialism.)

I’m really here about the Melville. Moby Dick is one of my most favourite novels of all time. I’ve read it three times; last year, I bought a pristine new copy to read it again but am now rationing it, and am not sure why. Knowing that Melville was a genius of the first and most horrendously (during his lifetime) underappreciated order, I can’t understand how it is that I’ve not already read all his works. (But then, I’m also feeling precisely the same way about Chekhov, Turgenev and Stevenson. All this means is that my reading life currently reaching a level of glory I’ve never experienced before; so what’s the problem??).

I’ve just finished Redburn. I bought it because it was Melville; I read it sooner than planned (I’d intended to begin it on our birthday (Aug 1)) because of its sub-title:

Being the Sailor Boy
Confessions and Reminiscences
Of the Son-Of-A-Gentleman
In the Merchant Navy

Sailor Boy Confessions! How could I not drop everything and read this? In case you’re wondering, yes: Redburn is as good as the subtitle promises. Better even.

Redburn Herman MelvilleThe story, drawn a great deal from Melville’s own first stint in the merchant service, might also be called The Rude and Rough Education of A Greenhorn of the First Order. Wellingborough Redburn is young, poor, painfully innocent (nay, crushingly innocent), earnest, sentimental–a boy in for some big and terrible surprises, in other words.

Redburn was Brought Up Right and so the drinking, swearing, blasphemies, and cruelties of life amongst a bunch of sea-goers with no respect for landlubbers who happen also to be members of their local Temperance Society fill him with a great deal of regret–when he finds himself far from land and powerless to change his position.

There’s no choice but for young R. to adapt himself to his situation, of course; his notable absence of a fear of heights helps him and he becomes something better than useless on board the Highlander. By the time they reach Liverpool, he’s fairly comfortable; by the time they return to NY state, he’s an old hand. He’s still innocent but his view has been made, if not as long as the horizon from the point of view of the middle of a choppy ocean, at least he can see well past his own sunburnt nose.

But Redburn‘s not just about the story; even when there’s a great deal of story (Moby Dick; not here), for me Melville’s importance is always mostly in the how and not in the what. The pure delight he so clearly took in writing translates directly over the long years to the pure delight in reading he gives me. Every sentence is a joy, but some are simply ecstatic; though a very different sort of writer than Dickens, I think of Melville as similarly unable to contain himself: the words themselves are worth–simply everything.

Perhaps mid-way through the book, Melville bestows this glorious phrase upon a less than minor character who stays for one chapter and says not one word: “the vast diameter of his paunch.” The whole book is like this. Some favourites, to give you a sense. But if that paunch bit hasn’t convinced you already, I don’t know what to say.

On seeing whales for the first time:

A whale! Think of it! whales close to me, Wellingborough;–would my own brother believe it? I dropt the clapper as if it were red-hot, and rushed to the side; and there, dimly floating, lay four or five long, black snaky-looking shapes, only a few inches out of the water.

Can these be whales? Monstrous whales, such as I had heard of? I thought they would look like mountains on the sea; hills and valleys of flesh! regular krakens, that made it high tide, and inundated continents, when they descended to feed!

It was a bitter disappointment, from which I was long in recovering. I lost all respect for whales; and began to be a little dubious about the story of Jonah; for how could Jonah reside in such an insignificant tenement; how could he have had elbow-room there? But perhaps, thought I, the whale which according to Rabbinical traditions was a female one, might have expanded to receive him like an anaconda, when it swallows an elk and leaves the antlers sticking out of its mouth.

Nevertheless, from that day, whales greatly fell in my estimation.

On one of his fine shipmates:

[Jackson] had such an overawing way with him; such a deal of brass and impudence, such an unflinching face, and withal was such a hideous looking mortal, that Satan himself would have run from him. And besides all this, it was quite plain, that he was by nature a marvelously clever, cunning man, though without education; and understood human nature to a kink, and well knew whom he had to deal with; and then, one glance of his squinting eye, was as good as a knock-down, for it was the most deep, subtle, infernal looking eye, that I ever saw lodged in a human head. I believe, that by good rights it must have belonged to a wolf, or starved tiger; at any rate, I would defy any oculist, to turn out a glass eye, half so cold, and snaky, and deadly. It was a horrible thing; and I would give much to forget that I have ever seen it; for it haunts me to this day.

On–. No. I will not reproduce the whole novel for you. Suffice to say, Melville, like those other authorial glories of the 19th century mentioned above, is to me emblematic of what reading should be–pure joy. Not only pure joy; but at least that. I am certain much more than expressions of unadulterated fandom could be provided here; but I don’t feel like doing it myself.

I’m frankly just happy to be back at Jam and Idleness, even if it turns out to be momentary–happy in the same very simple, but nonetheless profound, way I was to be reading Melville again (and as I am to be reading Chekhov now).

I don’t know when I’ll be back; I hope it’ll be very soon. In the meantime, I’ll be reading as, I trust, you will be.

10 thoughts on “Sailor Boy Confessions

  1. There are certainly many fine things in Redburn. How nice to read about someone reading it. Melville’s book has some curious resemblances to Mary Barton.

    When you, reading all of Melville, are ready for Clarel, please remember the great bibliographing-Wuthering Expectations readalong from many years ago, still archived on the internet.

  2. We are happy you are back too! I have read no Melville. Is that true? I think I was assigned Billy Budd once – but wouldn’t I remember it, if I had read it? Maybe I can assign myself Moby Dick for my sabbatical next winter.

    • Tom, I’m puzzled by your comment “both writers wrote in aid of the English poor”. I have no doubt that was true of Gaskell, but Melville was American. Surely there were American poor who needed help. But Toni Morrison has a theory – that Melville was writing against slavery. She presented her theory in “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature”, 1988.

    • Oh, I am referring to a specific scene in Redburn, which I describe in the post I linked. I think I describe it. Now you have me worried that I did not. No, I did.

      Anyway, I am not making a general statement about Melville or Gaskell for that matter. General statements are for the birds. The scene at hand, in the Melville novel, is in Liverpool, not Gaskell’s Manchester, but a lot closer to it than Nantucket or the South Pacific.

  3. Yay for your return! Though sorry to hear about your poor back. And Yay for Melville. He is a good one though I’ve only read Moby Dick twice and a few short stories. Must read more, clearly :)

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