A few weeks ago, while I was visiting the US (on a Liverpool-London-Detroit-New York-London- Liverpool journey), I reread Herman Melville‘s Redburn in preparation for my class this autumn, Writers in Victorian Liverpool.
Redburn, the titular character, is a young American, who because his family has fallen on hard times, decides to become a sailor on a merchant vessel from New York destined for Liverpool. As a novice who is unfamiliar with both cities and with sailing, Redburn is the best of observers, explaining not with the casual acceptance of a hardened and experienced man, but with the pain of one experiencing and questioning its cruelties for the first time. Indeed, much like Ismael’s narration in Melville’s great work Moby Dick, Redburn’s narration meanders like the ship it describes, often leaving the main thread of the narrative to recount anecdotes or offer detailed descriptions, impressions or explanations of ship life.
Redburn does eventually go ashore, and his descriptions of New York and Liverpool are striking. Not only their architectural changes, as the Melville Map produced as part of the Moby Dick on the Mersey Marathon shows so vividly, but also for the social differences between the two countries. Redburn is surprised that his black shipmates are treated with equality in Liverpool in a way they would not have been in New York, but he is in turn shocked by the Liverpudlians’ dismissive treatment of a starving woman and her children.
As a sailor with very little money, Redburn spends considerable time on the docks, where merchant ships of every nationality can be found. It is in this centre for international shipping that he sees a microcosm of America:
There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled, that, in a noble breast, should forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You can not spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. Be he Englishman, Frenchman, German, Dane, or Scot; the European who scoffs at an American, calls his own brother Raca, and stands in danger of the judgment. We are not a narrow tribe of men, with a bigoted Hebrew nationality–whose blood has been debased in the attempt to ennoble it, by maintaining an exclusive succession among ourselves. No: our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world; for unless we may claim all the world for our sire, like Melchizedek, we are without father or mother.
For who was our father and our mother? Or can we point to any Romulus and Remus for our founders? Our ancestry is lost in the universal paternity; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world’s as our own. We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance. On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and people are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearthstone in Eden.
Standing in lower Manhattan, overlooking the stretch of water that is home to Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty, I felt this connection to the world, amidst the buzz of tourists and businessmen, construction workers and hawkers, restaurateurs and street vendors. It helped that one set of my grandparents crossed these waters as immigrants and arrived at Ellis Island. Diversity, Melville argues, is America’s glorious shared history, and this unification creates an uncommon ownership and solidarity. Looking over the names of the fallen at the 9/11 Memorial, names from every race and creed, I was reminded powerfully of Melville’s text.
Writers in Victorian Liverpool will meet Wednesdays from the 25th of September, 4-6 pm. We’ll be looking at the following texts:
Redburn, Herman Melville
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
‘Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond’ in A Widow’s Tale and Other Stories, Margaret Oliphant http://archive.org/stream/awidowstaleando00margoog#page/n6/mode/2up
‘Consular Experiences’ and ‘English Poverty’ in Our Old Home, Nathaniel Hawthorne http://archive.org/stream/ouroldhome00hawtgoog#page/n12/mode/2up
We will also be considering journal articles, diaries and poems from Victorians who lived or worked in Liverpool. Sign up today at Continuing Education.