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The Historical and Literary Sources of Redburn’s “Mysterious Night in London” JONATHAN A. COOK Notre Dame Academy hapter 46 of Redbum, “A Mysterious Night in London,” has long remained a sticking point in a number of critical evaluations of the Cnovel. The story of young Redburn’s traumatic overnight experience with his new friend Harry Bolton at Aladdin’s Palace, a fashionable London gambling “heII,”is, in the opinion of some commentators, a melodramatic excrescence in an otherwise compelling account of a teenage boy’s initiation into the evils and injustices of the world. Hershel Parker, for example, argues that the scene is “lurid” and “unconvincing,”an exercise in literary padding. Robert K. Martin similarly suggests the inadequacy of the same episode, adducing the author’sattempt to depict an upper-class London gambling club and ostensible “malebrothel” without actually having patronized these establishments .’ Although the scene has defenders who point to its garish intensity and its revelation of the character of Harry Bolton, others agree with Parker and Martin that the events at Aladdin’s Palace are too factitious and overdrawn to serve as an authentic picture of fashionable vice in what was intended as an upper-class counterpart to the depiction of lower-class misery in the port of Liverpool.2Moreover, despite its alleged artificiality,several critics assume, like Martin, that Aladdin’sPalace hints at a male brothel as well as a gambling hell; Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: A Biography: Volume I, 1819-1850 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 19961,642;Robert K. Martin, Hero, Captain, arrd Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville (Chapel Hill: University ol North Carolina Press, 1986), 50-51. Among earlier critics, Newton Arvin noted that the scene at Aladdin’s Palace was “the one chapter of Redburn in which Melville seems to be indulging in deliberate mystification. . . . For the rest, though the chapter is not without a genuine vein of dreamlike intensity, it is vitiated as a whole by the kind of unnaturalness into which Melville so easily fell with such themes”; see Herman Melville (William Sloane Associates, 1950), 105, 106. So, too, for Ronald Mason, “The fanciful and unconvincing London episode belongs to the early stages of Redburn’s acquaintanceship with Harry - a melodramatic and rather confused picture of what Melville presumably thought was a typical scene o f night-life among the well-to-do”;see The SpiritAbove the Dust: A Stud-y o f Herman Melville (London:John Lehmann, 1951), 76. In a more positive evaluation of the scene, William B. Dillingham observes: “The description of Aladdin’s Palace constitutes a highly imaginative and elaborate metaphor for Harry Bolton. . . .He does not know what it is, but Redburn is sure that there is something badly wrong with Harry much as there seems to be some secret evil lying below the surface of Aladdin’s Palace”; see An Artist in the Rigging: The Early Work of Herman Melville (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1972), 43, 44. L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S9 J O N A T H A N A . C O O K but no one so far has attempted to substantiate this claim with relevant literary or historical evidence.3 In his informative study of Redburn, William H. Gilman first demonstrated that the experience described in “A Mysterious Night in London” could not have been based on the author’sfirsthand experience since during his stay in Liverpool in August 1839 Melville apparently had no time for a trip to London. As a result, Melville presumably relied on literary and historical sources for the conception and details of this chapter. Gilman notes the similarities in imagery between the luxurious furnishings in Aladdin’s Palace and the lush setting of the second of Melville’s 1839 “Fragments from a Writing Desk,” both of them bearing the stamp of the popular Romantic Orientalism of the day,as found in Byron (“TheBride of Abydos,”DonJuan), Moore (Lalla Rookh), and The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. In addition...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 9-33
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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