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  • Combustible Man:Consumption, Cannibalism, and Commodity Horror in Redburn
  • Ian Green (bio)

As an attempt at writing an orthodox maritime travel narrative, Herman Melville's 1849 novel, Redburn: His First Voyage, must be considered a failure. It refuses hegemonic bromides, forecloses possibilities for human connection, and renders the relationship of one character to nature resolutely pessimistic. Consequently, at the time of its publication, it was generally met either with amused condescension or outright scorn—even from Melville himself. Where Redburn succeeds, however, is as a horror novel about the uncanny effects of market relations in the Atlantic. As readers reencounter Melville on his two hundredth birthday, it is only right to reconsider a novel that has struggled to escape its reputation as a minor step toward more commanding work to come as, instead, a major achievement in horror fiction. This is not an adventure, or even a documentary account of merchant service, but a novel about fear and victims—principally among the class of merchant sailors who give their lives for the sake of Atlantic trade. It describes a market that has attained divine cosmic status by commodifying, consuming, and sacrificing its human servants. Even so, Melville presents a novel whose tensions are telling. The protagonist is given to melodrama, but his most romantic expressions address labor conditions that everyone around him recognizes as banal. Meanwhile, the horrific fate of the laboring class appears in a prose that often seems cunningly dull. And why not? The violent incursions of capital into ordinary lives are constant, ordinary, and deeply terrifying.

Although Melville explained to English publisher Richard Bentley that it contained "no metaphysics, no cosmic sections, nothing but cakes & ale" and was "picked up by [his] own observation under comical circumstances," readers should make no mistake: Redburn is a horror novel and an important one. Melville gives the game away when he observes that books "calculated merely to please the reader" arrive "masqued in an affectation of indifference or contempt" (Letters [End Page 97] 109-10). He cannot help himself. His contemptuous smuggling of theme into a text that proclaims its lack of one is its most potently horrific element. A product of capitalist necessity, the book mirrors the aspect of capitalism itself, which remains not only indifferent to the very public that it appears to serve, but that also offers up violence as unremarkable. In fact, it cannily presents one of the most shocking deaths in fiction—the spontaneous combustion of impressed sailor Miguel Saveda—in a tone so matter-of-factly as to very nearly escape attention. Death in the Atlantic accretes, until people forget to be shocked by it.

It is critically easier to describe Redburn as horrific than to classify it as a horror novel but, when critics consider its use of horror tropes in combination with its overall conclusions, it is clear that it merits placement in the lineage of American horror fiction. It is true that Redburn mobilizes familiar Gothic tropes toward its biting critique of Atlantic capital's deadly obliterative power. It also promiscuously interpolates social realist polemic, travel narrative, and melodrama alongside its Gothic tropes. It might also be read as a naturalist novel, given that Atlantic capitalism is not so much evil in Redburn as it is disinterested. Thus, it takes not sublimated psychological anxieties as its subject, but rather intrusive capitalist anxieties.

In some cases, Melville's treatment of horror—especially Gothic horror—tropes borders on the parodic. For example, Melville recontextualizes his protagonist's Byronic heroic aspirations as pure naiveté in the face of something much worse than emotional strife. Redburn imagines: "a vague prophetic thought, that I was fated, one day or other, to be a great voyager" (11). He embarks on his adventure very nearly delighting that "cold, bitter cold as December, and bleak as its blasts, seemed the world then to me" (15). In his first encounters with the world of maritime travel and adventure, the young narrated Redburn swells, even as the older narrator Redburn shrinks. The narrator reflects: "I know not how to account for my demoniac feelings, of which I was afterward heartily ashamed…The devil in me then mounted up from my soul...


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pp. 97-118
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