Herman Melville Redburn
Redburn is clearly shallow, all the more when juxtaposed to a huge metaphorical construction like Moby Dick or a subtle metaphysical mystery like The Confidence Man. Figures pregnant with symbolic weight such as the mysterious Harry Bolton and the sinister and fated Jackson never ripen into meaning. The book is in fact filled with such false starts: the wholly fantastic trip to a London pleasure palace, for instance, or the use of the outdated Liverpool guidebook. Melville feels free to include divigations on whatever comes to mind without tying these remarks to the rest of the text. (The discussion of immigration in Chapter 58 and the passage at the end of Chapter 29 questioning whether sailors can ever “be lifted wholly out of the mire” are examples.) His several lapses into common piety (such as the conclusion of the same chapter: “God is the true Father of all”) likewise play purely to received ideas in a way the later Melville avoided. Redburn is part self-portrait, part unconvincing artifice (his ingenuousness is forced when, for example in Chapter 42 he wanders into a private club and expresses surprise at his expulsion).
The biographers tell us that Melville was writing speedily for money when he produced what he called “a little nursery tale,” “beggarly Redburn,” “calculated merely to please the general reader, & not provoke attack.” In spite of his announced ambition to write “those sort of books which are said to ‘fail,’” economic pressure led him to write Redburn in less than ten weeks. He wrote in his journal “I, the author, know [Redburn] to be trash, & wrote it to buy some tobacco with.”
Its strengths include the simple inclusion of the details of sea life which he knew so well: rigging, slang, the social order on board. One finds excellent paragraphs throughout such as the one in Chapter 24 describing Redburn’s learning to work aloft, comparing his sense of mastery over the canvas to Richard II’s satisfaction as quashing the Peasant’s Rebellion.
Robert Greene Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Robert Greene’s name is most commonly recalled as the author of A Groats-Worth of Wit, itself remembered only because the pamphlet satirizes Shakespeare, but he also wrote a number of romances and plays, including Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Though educated at Oxford, he acquired a reputation as a demimondaine and his leaflets display considerable knowledge of the libertines and confidence men of his era. He is rightly associated with Marlowe, not merely because this play includes devil-conjuring like Faustus but also because the author was reputed to live loosely and cultivate scandalous conduct as well as opinions. Greene’s “celebrity” image, if such a term can be used of a sixteenth century man, was that of a daring immoralist, and his readers and listeners must feel a bit of the savor of safely second-hand license.
The play is lively and entertaining enough, as it drifts from romantic reverie to slapstick to melodrama, ending in marriages. Bacon’s unregenerate servant Miles is carried off by a devil, scapegoat for all the darker psychic contents churned up by the story. After all, viewers have witnessed Lacy’s abrupt and cruel testing of his beloved, the senseless deaths not only of Serlsby and Lambert but of their sons as well, in addition to a considerable dose of Satanic conjuring, which may have seemed worst of all.
The verse is agile and imaginative, lit with the ornaments of an age that enjoyed language, but it lacks powerful image systems. Green’s word-play entertains, no mean achievement if not the highest praise.
There was surely plenty of spectacle (a theatrical quality that seems to dominate Broadway and a good number of today’s movies). Thematically, in the primary plot of the victory of Friar Bacon’s better self, Greene works the basic gambit of warning spectators against immoral conduct by exhibiting it for their edification. Of course, his reformation is caused not by enlightenment but by the most mundane of failures, simple fatigue and his servant’s irresponsibility. The love story of Lacy and the Fair Maid of Fressingfield, complicated by Edward’s lust as well as by Lacy’s strange misleading of his beloved, ends as satisfactorily as it would have in a ‘thirties film. The four deaths are tossed with very little reason other than to keep the pot boiling.
Philip Whalen Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head
I have often lamented the fact that the hip people of my own generation recorded so little of their experience. In contrast to the passionate authors of the fifties, many of whom were intellectual as well as adventurous, many rank-and-file bohemians of the next wave, ten years later, took their principal art to be rock and roll. In this and in his other novel You Didn’t Even Try, Philip Whalen, the “Warren Coughlin” of Dharma Bums, records life among his Berkeley friends. Written in the sixties while he was living in Kyoto, practicing zazen, and teaching English, the title of the novel derives from Robert Greene’s play and its origin is more than coincidental, for it shines a spotlight of the learning cultivated by Whalen and the people of his circle. Though it may not be a novel of the highest standard, Imaginary Speeches reminds us that the hip scene was never limited to Kerouac and Cassady, and the discourse in the counter-culture of the time was not necessarily dominated by “goofing.” Though they do violate taboos (smoking a bit of dope and hanging out with gay people was much more edgy half a century ago), Whalen’s characters also pursue “elite” high culture: they prepare elaborate European meals and play string quartets with their friends. One of the principal figures in the book is a poet of somewhat irregular habits, but another is a linguistics professor at Berkeley who seems fully to participate in academic hustling. The reader is best advised to first go through Whalen’s poetry, some of which is first-rate, but the novels have for me a casual charm of their own.