- “May I Never Be a Man”:Melville’s Redburn and the Failure to Come of Age in Young America
“There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:— through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then skepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men and Ifs eternally.”—Herman Melville
After Melville’s death in 1891, a quotation was found affixed to the inside of his desk: “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.”1 Scholars have interpreted Melville’s affinity for this adage, by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, in a number of ways: as an attempt to “persuade himself of the transcendent, if not, transcendental, value of his life,” as a reference to his father, and as a reminder of early religious aspirations.2 In this essay, I consider Melville’s attachment to this motto as a point of departure for thinking about his representation of youth as an endangered realm of dreams and ideals that one must protect. Indeed, the quotation suggests that one should remain faithful to the “dreams of thy youth” rather than replace them with more mature or appropriate ambitions. Published during a moment in which calls proliferated for individual Americans and the nation at large to come of age, Melville’s [End Page 553] semi-autobiographical fourth novel, Redburn, exposes maturation as profoundly ideological, tied to capitalist and nationalist agendas. Like the quotation pasted to his desk, Redburn champions the “dreams of youth,” rejecting the trajectory toward adult masculinity defined exhaustively in this moment as the basis of American development.
Historians have dubbed the nineteenth-century America’s “adolescence,” a period of growing pains and turmoil that ultimately resulted in the economic prosperity of the twentieth century. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, for example, writes that in the nineteenth-century “America itself was the adolescent,” and Joseph Kett similarly describes Jacksonian society as adolescent.3 Beyond these retrospective descriptors, however, many contemporary Americans thought of themselves and their period this way. Immaturity and youth were buzzwords in the antebellum United States, perhaps espoused most memorably by the Young America movement, a loose collective of New York City intellectuals, which included John O’Sullivan, Cornelius Matthews, Evert Duycinck, and Walt Whitman.4 Beginning in 1837, these writers and thinkers gathered in barrooms and basements in the city and published their ideas in the United States and Democratic Review. They admired Andrew Jackson’s fervent populism and rejected the cultural elitism of the Whigs, aspiring instead to be the “roughs” of Whitman’s famous formulation. They lamented being born too late to participate in the Revolution and therefore decreed that the Revolution was unfinished; Americans were too dependent on their forebears and European counterparts and needed to finally break away and begin anew. As Emerson bemoaned his generation’s dependence on the “dry bones of the past,” these writers actively sought to embody the present and to produce works of literature that represented the nation in all its vitality.5 By 1845, they had begun to refer to themselves as “Young Americans,” celebrating youth and newness as core values and emphasizing the need for a new vision of national futurity distinct from the plans of previous generations.
Over the course of his career, Melville’s relation to the Young America movement shifted from ardent support to ambivalence and ultimately to disaffection. While he was often [End Page 554] vocal about his commitment to literary nationalism, most famously in “Hawthorne and his Mosses” in 1850, he satirized the group in his 1852 novel Pierre; or the Ambiguities. In a chapter titled “Young America in Literature,” Melville describes a literary marketplace in which authors are “haunted by publishers, engravers, editors, critics, autograph-collectors, portrait-fanciers, biographers, and petitioning and remonstrating literary friends of all sorts.”6 This description seethes with Melville’s hostility toward a marketplace that makes crass, commercial demands on authors and thrives on networking and publicity; these were precisely the expectations that the...