Melville's Secret Sex Text, Original Version, Part 1.

As one of those adventurer-historians now stalking the wild erotic through tangled jungles of the past, I send back from this uncharted land of lust news of an intriguing discovery: a secret sexual subtext not previously detailed in Herman Melville's novel Redburn.

Melville's Redburn His First Voyage, first published in New York in 1849, turns out to be an example of what may be called "the passing novel" -- fiction which passes, casually, as "respectable," but whose coded theme is an illicit erotic intimacy of males -- a subject about which Melville could not speak directly in mid-Victorian America. That Melville did find ways of talking, sometimes outrageously, about this tabooed eros is amusing; but his secret sex text is also central -- the fleshly body of his story of unfulfilled yearning, thwarted intimacy, and the abandonment of male by male.

All is not failure, however, in these Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman in the Merchant Services. For Redburn's recollections are his (and Melville's) way of owning up to and making amends for that earlier failure of friendliness. Redburn apologizes for and explains that disappointment in love, eulogizing the erotic, effeminate friend abandoned to his fate.

Redburn's First Voyage is a classic journey of discovery -- a youth's dis­covery of himself and others as feeling, yearning beings, and his discovery of their society as a place of puritanical suppression, poverty, starvation, and commercial exploitation of a range of emotional and physical desires. Though this novel combines fiction with details of Melville's first trip as sailor in 1839, my focus here is not on Melville's life, but on those "dirty" jokes he inserted in his coded text. Melville filled this novel with archaic sexual words, sexual puns, symbols, allusions and other coded references to male-male eroticism.

Color-coding these references was one of Melville's means of speech: red and its variations are used, not only in commonplace ways, but repeatedly as a way of signing the unspeakable male-male eros. A "purple" light hangs outside a high-class gambling den that also seems to serve as a male whore house. An effemin­ate hairdresser and heartbreaker named "Lavender," wears "claret colored suits" and "red velvet vests." The skipper of a red-sailed boat, an "old ruby of a fellow," with a "rubicund" nose, propositions young Redburn. The pale, sickly, red­shirted Jackson, vampire-like studies the "red cheeks" of a handsome, healthy sailor. Another sailor comments on the name "Redburn": "scorch you to take hold of it." That name connotes the yearning for intimacy with a male burning within this lonely youth -- a subject too hot to handle directly in Victorian America.

In 1915 Dr. Havelock Ellis published the report of an American "invert" who said that the color red symbolized "sexual inversion" in New York City -- to wear a red necktie in the street was to invite embarrassing remarks from newsboys.

Melville's use of red suggests that in the late 1840s the color connoted to him, not just lust in general, but the lust of male for male.

In this novel the death and bankruptcy of Redburn's father, an importer, dislodges the son from his protected home and class, forcing him to work for wages as a common sailor. In the first sentence of this novel, Redburn, to save money, accepts as a present an old, upper-class sportsman's "shooting-jacket" with "fine long skirts." Melville thereby introduces two recurring themes: the equivocal gender symbolized by those skirts, and an influential, anti-human economy and ensuing social dislocation. Redburn's jacket causes continual class conscious, ironic comment from his fellow sailors.

Redburn is hired on to the Highlander, a merchant ship bound for Liverpool, a city to which his father had traveled more than thirty years earlier. There Redburn discovers his father's guidebook is hopelessly outdated, a patriarchal failure spelled out by Melville: "the thing that guided the father, could not guide the son."

Old guidebooks, Redburn continues to muse, "tell us the way our fathers went, but how few of those former places can their posterity trace, amid avenues of modern erections." Those "modern erections" are one of Melville's first puns, this one prophetically anticipating present-day men's endeavors to find our ways down uncharted streets of desire. 

A varied eroticism pervades the relationships of Redburn's shipmates with him, and equivocal lusts are hinted at in descriptions of more than half-a-dozen sailors.

An ominous undercurrent informs one sailor's hostile response to Redburn's aristocratic hunting jacket: "Come here, my little boy, has your ma put some sweetmeats for ye to take to sea?" In the mid-nineteenth century, says Eric Partridge, "sweetsmeat" was "low" English for the "male member," as well as a female mistress.3 This sailor thus metaphorically threatens molestation.

Another threatening sailor, looking at the huge buttons adorning Redburn's jacket, simultaneously unmans and eroticizes him: "Why didn't they call you Jack, or Jill. . . . But I'll baptize you over again . . . .. henceforth you name is Buttons."4

The seasick Redburn is offered an alcohol-based tonic by a Greenlander with "handsome blue eyes" and "curly flaxen hair." This sailor always talks of the "nice ladies" he knows; he dresses "as if he knew he was a good-looking fellow," wearing white duck pants, "a handsome pair of pumps," "gold anchors in his ears, and a silver ring on one of his fingers." (The "gold anchors" are later referred to as "ear-rings hanging from his ears.") He "might have better left his jewelry at home," thinks priggish Redburn. Those hanging "ear-rings," "ptm1ps, and "ring" suggest this sailor's "nice ladies" may have been accomodating laddies.

One sickly shipmate, Jackson, dresses "like a Bowery boy" (a New York rowdy), with blue pants and "three red woolen shirts." He particularly disturbs young Redburn because of his "squinting eye" -- the ""most deep, subtle, infernal looking eye, that I ever saw lodged in a human head . . .  . it haunts me to this day." Jackson's stories reveal "he had passed through every kind of dissipation." That Jackson "could have plunged into such infamous vices" without being killed amazes Redburn. But Jackson carries with him "the traces" of his vices: he is marked by a deadly disease, "like that of King Antiochus of Syria."

Redburn fancies it is Jackson's prospect of dying like a dog, in con­sequence of his sins, that made this poor wretch always eye me with such malevolence. . . . . For I was young and handsome, at least my mother so thought me, whereas he was being consumed by an incurable malady, that was eating

up his vitals." A "shudder ••• would run through me," says Redburn, "when I caught this man gazing at me, as I often did. "

All the sailors lived "in mortal fear" of Jackson, and "cringed and fawned about him •• , and used to rub his back, after he was undressed and lying in his bunk." Jackson especially hates one sailor "because of his great strength and fine person, and particularly because of his red cheeks."

Jackson, says Redburn, "seemed to be full of hatred and gall against everything and everybody in the world; as if all the world was one person, and had done him some dreadful harm, that was rankling and festering in his heart.

This Jackson first seems to Redburn branded with "some inscrutable curse," making him go about "corrupting and searing every heart that beat near his."

But after more reflection Redburn modifies his opinion: "there seemed even more woe than wickedness about the man; and, his wickedness seemed to spring from his woe." Without exactly specifying the character of Jackson Is lust for the life he sees in other sailors, Melville portrays him as a social outcast whose hatred of humanity mirrors society1s opinion of him.

Near the novel's end, Jackson's illness worsens, even while his tyrannical hold over the sailors continues. Jackson reminds. Redburn of the "diabolic" Roman emperor Tiberius, described by the historian Tacitus. "Imbittered by bodily pangs, and unspeakable mental terrors," Tiberius "did not give over his blasphemies" but tried to drag down "all who came within the evil spell of his power." Of Tiberius, historian John Boswell says that probably exaggerated
reports by Suetonius have the Roman emperor popularizing "chains of persons joined front and back in sexual union," "training children to gratify him while he swam (he called them his 'minnows')," and "making of his retirement palace on Capri a center of every sort of imaginative sexuality."

Jackson dies, finally falling from the rigging, leaving a sail "spattered with a torrent of blood" -- a red flag of his secret disposition. 

A sensual cast characterizes Redburn's first appraisal of his captain: "He was a fine-looking man . . , splendidly dressed, with very black whiskers . . . . I liked him amazingly. He was promenading up and down the cabin."

During the early part of the voyage, Redburn thinks favorably of his captain, as a kind of father who would "comfort me in my loneliness." He adds: "I could not help regarding him with peculiar emotions, almost of tenderness and love."

When the naive Redburn readies himself to make a friendly social call on the captain the crew objects to this breach of etiquette. But Jackson orders:

"' him go; the captain has some nuts and raisins for him'; evoking the "sweetmeats" mentioned earlier, and the candy the archetypal child molester offers his victims. The chief mate similarly warns Redburn: "'You are very green . . . but I'll ripen you."

Redburn finally understands the ban on casual intercourse between social unequals; he is also disillusioned to find the captain's whiskers are dyed and that he is an "imposter." This prudish youth is further disillusioned by his father figure when he learns that the captain has with him "one pleasant companion." Only much later is the captain's special friend revealed to be a woman; the reader is at first free to surmise the gender of the captain's paramour. That Melville finally transsexed the captain's companion for the sake of propriety is suggested by his gratuitous description of her as "a martial-looking girl," a "hoydenish nymph."

The steward on the Highlander, a "handsome dandy mulatto," who had once been a barber on West-Broadway, "went by the name of Lavender." This name, it seems, derives not only from his past occupation of haircutter but from certain peculiarities of character. Lavender keeps his own hair "well perfumed with Cologne" and sometimes sports "a gorgeous turban," and an "uncommon large
pursy [fat] ring on his forefinger with something he called a real diamond in it." He reads sentimental, romantic novels and carries a lock of hair which he shows to sympathetic viewers~with his handkerchief to his eyes."

The ship's Black cook, a religious man, reads the Bible to Lavender, "whom he knew to be a sad profligate and gay deceiver ashore; addicted to every youthful indiscretion." "Gay" was probably not yet used in America specifically in reference to same-sex lust, but denoted a whole underworld of illicit Victor­ian sexuality; a "gay woman" was a prostitute, a "gay house" was a place of ill-repute. (Redburn's captain is later called a "'gay deceiver'" and the "'fascinating gay Lothario of all inexperienced, sea-going youths'.")

Lavender admits to the Bible-toting cook that "he was a wicked youth." He "had broken a good many hearts," and left many "weeping for him." But he was not responsible for such emotional devastation: he had not created "his handsome face, and fine head of hair, and graceful figure." Those who fell in love with him were to blame for his indiscretions, "for his bewitching per-son turned all heads, and subdued all hearts, wherever he went." Looking
"serious and penitent," Lavender would then glance in the mirror, fix his hair, "and see how his whiskers were coming on."

Lavender's clothes, manners, and the conspicuous absence of any reference to the sex of his lovers, strongly suggests that Melville created here one of the first American portraits of an effeminate, Black male sodomite. (This is also the earliest known portrait of the sodomite as hairdresser.)

Another sailor on the Highlander, Jack Blunt, has a Dream Book with red covers, which tells how to foretell the future. Without indirection, Redburn reports: this Blunt "had a sad story about a man-of-war's-man who broke his heart at Portsmouth during the late war, and threw away his life recklessly." That blunt statement is probably the first in American fiction in which male comes out so directly as lover of male.

Another "incomprehensible" story of Blunt's is about some "sort of fairy sea-queen ;" In the late nineteenth century, says Partridge, "queen" or "quean" was used to refer to "A homosexual, esp. one with girlish manners and carriage."

Melville's use of "queen" suggests the word had some such meaning by mid-century. "Fairy" is first known to refer to homosexuals in 1896. But Melville's use of "fairy" in 1849 hints that that word also referred to an effeminate male by mid-century.

Yet another sailor, Larry, a "whaleman," was "a somewhat singlular man . . , with his eyes cast down." Downcast eyes would, a hundred years later, be called a sure sign of homosexuality; a friend recalls reading in 1955, in a popular magazine of such a symptom.

Larry's travels as a sailor had familiarized him with the "life of nature," and he is said to cast "some illiberal insinuations against civilization" -- and Christianity. In "Madagasky," he says, "You don't see any Methodist chaps feeling dreadful about their souls." What's the use of being "snivelized" Larry asks Redburn; "Blast Ameriky, I say. Attacks against "civilization" were associated with several early sodomitical defenses.12

A sailor named "Max the Dutchman" is called by Redburn "the best-natured man among the crew." Max, "an old bachelor . . , very precise about his wardrobe," treats Redburn "better than the rest." This sailor's "hair, whiskers, and cheeks were of a fiery red; and as he wore a red shirt," he was "the most combustible looking man." Redburn recalls: "Max sometimes manifested some little interest in my welfare." Later it turns out Max is not a "bachelor," as first stated, but has two wives, usefully domiciled three thousand miles apart, in Liverpool and New York. When Redburn ventures that bigamy is "every way immoral," the furious Max tells him not to meddle in other's lives. Did not the Biblical King Sol have "a whole frigate-full of wives," asks Max, his nautical metaphor alluding to shipboard "marriages" of males. The angry Max warns Redburn: "mind your eye, Buttons, or I'll crack your pepper-box for you!" -- a covert threat of sexual assault.13

Even the wooden figurehead on the Highlander displays an equivocal sexuality. The ship sports a male figurehead -- a kilted Scotsman called "Donald," with "blue bonnet and the most vermillion of cheeks" -- an appearance suggest-­ing a definite ambiguity of masculinity.

It should be apparent by now that Redburn's mates constitute a nautical rogues gallery. The sailor who refers to Redburn's "sweetmeats," the one who calls him "Buttons, " the kindly Greenlander with the ear-rings, the evil-eyed Jackson, the captain, Max the Dutchman, the steward Lavender, and even the figurehead Donald, are all described so as to hint at some ambiguity of gender;
almost every sailor characterized in any detail displays some tendency to erotic or gender deviancy.

The young Redburn finally arrives in the "great commercial city" of Liver-­pool. Narrator Redburn uses this occasion to warn readers of the "perils" the visitor runs there "from the denizens of notorious Corinthian haunts in the vicinity of the docks, which in depravity are not to be matched by anything this side of the pit that is bottomless."14

On those depraved Liverpool docks, we are told, "all nations of
Christendom, and even those of Heathendom, are represented." Each ship docking there is "an island, a floating colony of the tribe to which it belongs."

In those docks, "under the beneficent sway of the Genius of Commerce, all climes and countries embrace; and yard-arm touches yard-arm in brotherly love." Those embraces under the sway of commerce signify an intimate intercourse of economic and genital politics.

"Yard" was an American colonial word for penis. A "yard-arm" is the long, slender spar projecting at a right-angle from a sailing ship's mast. The yard-arm that touched yard-arm in brotherly love is thus another of Melville's punning references to male-male erections and connections. That Melville endowed "yard-arm" with such a double meaning is supported by events that follow.

Every day a new ship docks beside the Highlander: a Glasgow brig, manned by "sober" Scotsmen is "replaced by a jovial French hermaphrodite," its decks "echoing with song" and "much dancing." A "hermaphrodite" was a sailing vessel combining the characteristics of two kinds of ships. But that Melville intended another double entendre is clear. "Hermaphrodite" was an old term for an "effeminate man or virile woman," as well as for a "catamite" (partner of a pederast).15 Melville's well-named "hermaphrodite" was "jovial" with song and dance, as male no doubt partnered male in gay abandon.

In Liverpool, Redburn recalls, he went on board a "salt-drogher," one of the small boats with "red sails" which carry cargo to ocean-going ships. This salt-drogher was manned by "a bachelor, who kept house all alone," and "had an eye to having things cozy around him. It was in the evening; and he invited me down into his sanctum to supper; and there we sat together like a couple in a box at an oyster-celler.11

Privately coupled, like a man and woman on a date, the skipper tells Redburn that "' Just before going to bed" he has a nightcap and smoke: "'but stop, let's to supper first.'" Redburn consumes a meal and a good quantity of beer with this "old ruby of a fellow,"
with a "rubicund" nose. Then, feeling guilty about such oral satisfaction, Redburn moves to leave: my conscience smote me for thus indulging in the pleasures of the table.

"Now, don't go, said he; don't go, my boy; don't go out into the
damp; take an old Christian's advice," laying his hand on my shoulder; . . . if you stay here, you'll soon be dropping off to a nice little nap."

But notwithstanding these inducements, I shook my host's hand and

Still secure in his virtue and innocence young Redburn survives his first proposition from a male.

In the Liverpool sections of Redburn Melville introduced a devastating social critique. Redburn finds his father's guidebook is not only outdated, it lies: its prettified pictures are contradicted by horrifying poverty. He learns that this city's "principle commerce" had once been "the African slave-­trade"; its present private enterprise is associated with sights of starving beggars, dying women and children.

Melville had earlier introduced a satirical critique of commercialism. On his way to Liverpool, Redburn had tried to read Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, but "fell asleep" and "never slept so sound before." He found Smith's book most useful as a "pillow," though after laying his sleeping head upon it, Redburn "sometimes waked feeling dull and stupid."

Redburn's old copy of Wealth of Nations is inscribed: "Jonathan Jones, from his particular friend Daniel Dods, 1798." The hint is that this economic classic was once the gift of Dods to his male lover. If this seems far-fetched, "particular friend," by 1828, referred to "a favorite mistress," as well as close friend. Melville hints throughout Redburn at a close conjunction between the personal politics of intimacy and the economic politics of a commercial system. (This is clearest in the Harry Bolton sections discussed later.)

While in Liverpool, taking a "ramble into the country," Redburn "Makes The Acquaintance Of Three Adorable Charmers" -- as the chapter title coyly insists. At a country cottage, he discovers three young women, one of whom inspires in him, he claims, an "ardent admiration": she is "the most beautiful rosebud" he has seen in England. Sharing with these charmers a meal of tea and buttered muffins, he watched them consume their muffins and "wished I was
a buttered muffin" (the wish to be eaten expresses a passivity not commonly associated with the Victorian male). He briefly fantasized, he says, taking home one of the charmers as "a beautiful English wife," but admits he went off, and has "never seen them since: . . . but to this day I live a bachelor on account of these ravishing charmers."

With this insufferable romantic nonsense Melville formally established Redburn's "ardent" interest in damsels (and his "bachelor" status) and, in the very next chapter, introduced the "handsome," equivocal Harry Bolton.

Melville's strategy was clearly to balance a "dubious" male-male intimacy against a male-female love interest -- a ploy anticipating that of Whitman who, in 1860, balanced his "Calamus" poems of male-male love against his

"Children of Adam" poems of male-female attraction. But Melville's coy description of the "charmers" is so clearly sentimental, inflated, and false, his arrangement of chapters so transparently calculated, they seem as much designed to be seen through as to disguise. Like Whitman, Melville displays a simultaneous impulse to confess and to hide his interest in male-­male intimacy.

Melville balances Redburn's intimacy with Harry Bolton against his
hero's alleged attraction to a woman, suggesting not any authentic bisexuality of character, but an intent to deceive middle-class readers. These were assumed to perceive an illicit male-male eroticism and a proper male-­female attraction as mutually exclusive; Redburn's interest in a woman was intended to free his attraction to Harry Bolton from sodomitical taint.

But many of the sailors described in Redburn convincingly display
erotic interest in both men and women. This points to an important difference in the eroticism and perceptions of working-class and middle-class men at mid-century.

The middle class apparently assumed male-male and male-female eroticism to be absolutely opposed and canceling. That assumption lay behind Whitman's claim to the upper-class John Addington Symonds that he had fathered six children -- the implication being that he could not, therefore, be a celebrant of physical intimacy between men. In contrast, Melville's working-class sailors seem to accept the simultaneous existence of male-male and male-female attraction.

Melville's felt need to balance Redburn's intimacy with Bolton against Redburn's attraction to a woman also means that by mid-century, even for the middle class, close friendship between men was becoming suspect --­ requiring that it be distinguished from the sodomitical. Just a year after the U. s. publication of Redburn, Tennyson's "In Memorium11 caused an uneasy
stir due to the intensity of male-male love it evoked, even though the dear departed was conveniently dead and buried, preventing any physical intercourse of bodies. But it was not until the 1880s that American doctors would lead the onslaught on the old romantic friendships between men and between women, pointing out their illicit and previously unperceived eroticism.

(In Part II, continued in the next issue, Wellingborough Redburn meets Harry Bolton, and Carlo and his organ.)


1  A number of the erotic allusions in Redburn were discussed by Edwin Hav-­iland Miller in his biography Melville (N. Y.: Braziller, 1975), initiat-­ing my interest in the novel. But Miller's thinking is finally so strait-­jacketed by smug references to "arrested" sexual development and other
thought-stopping Freudian orthodoxies he fails to fully explore and ad-­equatedly interpret Melville's sustained allusions in Redburn to raunch.

Sexual Inversion, quoted in Jonathan Katz, ed., Gay American History (here-­af'ter GAH: N. Y.: Crowell, 1976), 52.

Dictionary of Slang, 6th ed. (N. Y.: Macmillan, 1967), 854.

4  Buttons" may have meant "tits" and/or suggested some other specifically erotic reference. The French "bout on" meant "teat" and the female sexual organ; Rabelais used "bouton de rose" to mean "the head of' the penis"; and "bout on damour" referred to the clitoris; see John Stephen Farmer, Vocabula Amatoria (London: 1896), 45-46. By 1912 Gertrude Stein had composed a prose poem "Tender Buttons," whose title Virgil Thomson has suggested, had erotic connotations; see Thopson's "A Very Difficult Author," New York Review of Books, Ap. 8, 1971, 4. In 1936 the Black singer Lil Johnson recorded"Press My Button, Ring My Bell," in which "button" referred to the clitoris; cited in Peter Tamony's unpublished paper "Dike: A lesbian" (1972), 5.

5  Albert Barrere and Charles G. I.eland, eds., A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon Cant . . . (London: Ballantyne Press, 1889-90), v. 1, 172.

6  Of the thirteen Syrian kings named Antiochus I have not identified forcer-­tain the particular one to whom Melville may refer, or the particular disease of which Melville hints, though his suggestion is venereal. The Encylopedia Britannica, eleventh edition, says that Antiochus IV (176-164 C.) was orig­inally made king by Caligula, was "half-brilliant" and "half-crazy," had an enthusiasm for Hellenic culture -- or, at any rate, for its externals," and "scandalized the world by his riotous living and undignified familiarities." He died "after exhibiting some sort of mental derangement 11; (Cambridge, Eng.: University of Cambridge, 1910-11), v. 2, 132; v. 24, 605. In English literary tradition the name Antiochus is associated with father-daughter incest; see
Shakespeare ("Pericles," Act II, Scene 4.) I thank Walter Kendrick for help with this research.

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980), 80 n. 91, Also see Vern L. Bullough, Sexual Variance in Society and History (N. Y.: Wiley, 1976), 135, 139, 141.

Oxford English Dictionary (hereafter OED), v. 4, part 2, 86-87; Supplement to the OED (1972), v. 1, 1206.

Dictionary of Slang, 676. "Queen" is also later applied to Harry Bolton; see Part II.

10  Katz, GAH, 44; the OED date for the same document, 1895, is incorrect. Partridge's Dictionary of Slang also incorrectly states that "fairy" was not used to mean homosexual until about 1924.

11  My informant is David Roggensack.

12  See, for example, Charles Warren Stoddard's letters to Whitman, and Stoddard's "A South Sea Idyl" in~, 501-08. The works of Edward Carpenter also include not only Homogenic Love (1894), but Civilization, Its Cause and Cure (1889).

13  Re "crack your pepper-box, Shakespeare used "crack" to mean a "rupture of [a woman's] chastity"; he also used "box unseen" to refer to the female sexual organ; see Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (N. Y.: Dutton, 1960), 78, 96. The meaning of "box" was thus readily extended to the anus. "Pepper" (hot) and "box" (anus) suggests the modern American phrase "to have a hot ass" (to be erotically aroused). The threat of anal penetration suggested
by "crack your pepper-box" is also suggested in another scene in Redburn in which the crew, taking advantage of a slight, silent passenger (a stutterer), punishes him for climbing up the rigging -- by tying him to the ropes according to an "old custom" called "making a spread eagle11 of the man -- a symbolic rape.

14 Corinth, the ancient Greek maritime and commercial city was famous for its whore houses, erotic festivals and temple rituals; see Hans Licht, Sexual Life in Ancient Greece (London: Abbey Library, 1932), 87, 129, 340-41, 388 ff, 457-58.

15  OED, v. 5, part 1, 243; in Ten Years Before the Mast (1840) Richard Henry Dana referred to a "hermaphrodite brig."

16  Partridge, Dictionary of Slang, The French "Des Amitie's particuliares" was early used to refer to potentially erotic male-male intimacy; see 289. "Jonthan Jones" was possibly based on a Rev. Bradford, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, Albany, N. Y., which Herman Melville's family attended prior to 1818; see William Gilman, Melville's Early Life and Redburn (N. Y.: New York University Press, 1951).

17  Whitman, quoted in Katz, GAH, 349-50.