Melville's Secret Sex Text: The Essay

As one of those detective-historians now tracing a missing Eros through darkest byways of the past, I send back from this mysterious land of lust news of an intriguing discovery: a secret sexual subtext in Herman Melville's novel Redburn, His First Voyage.

Though Edwin Haviland Miller's Melville (1975) initiated my interest in Redburn, Miller's comments are so straitjacketed by smug references to "arrested" sexual development and other thought-stopping Freudian orthodoxies that he fails to fully explore the novel's sustained allusion to raunch. But decoding Melville's secret sex text exposes his dissenting discourse on the political economy of lust.

First published in 1849, Redburn passes as "respectable," but its coded subject is illicit eroticism--especially those sparks that fly between males. In the mid-Victorian era, Melville found ways of talking, sometimes outrageously, about this tabooed eros. His joke on propriety is amusing; but his secret text is also central--the fleshly body of his theme of thwarted intimacy between males.

All is not failure, however, in these Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman in the Merchant Service. Redburn's confessions are presented as a way of owning up to and making amends for his earlier abandonment of his friend Harry Bolton. Redburn apologizes for that failure and eulogizes that equivocal, effeminate friend.

The older Redburn's account of young Redburn's maiden journey into the world includes the youth's discovery of himself and others as feeling, yearning beings, his discovery of their society as a place of puritanical suppression and commercial exploitation of sexual, emotional, and physical desires. The organization of commerce is linked by Melville to the economy of lust, a connection between the political and personal lost to us until titles such as Sexual Politics startled with their reassertion of that missing link.

Color Coding
Melville coded his references to a lascivity that was unspeakable, at least directly. He filled the novel with sexual puns, symbols, archaic sexual words, and covert historical references to cupidity. Color-coding his lubricious references was one of Melville's means of speech; he repeatedly used red and its variations as a way of signing the unspeakable eros.

An effeminate hairdresser and heartbreaker named Lavender wears "claret colored suits" and "red velvet vests." The skipper of a red-sailed ship, an "old ruby of a fellow," with "rubicund" nose, propositions young Redburn. And a sailor comments on Redburn's name: "scorch you to take hold of it."

Melville's use of red suggests that in 1849 that color connoted to him both lust in general, and the lust of male for male. Though his stress was on lust between males, the libido of his day was not thought of as split clearly into same-sex versus different sex. The homo/hetero opposition had not yet been invented. Though Melville portrays several persons of equivocal gender, and a variety of illicit eroticisms, his world of freefloating, fluid lusts was not divided clearly into sodomites and others.

Before Heterosexuality and Homosexuality
How Americans perceived and responded to eroticism before the invention of "heterosexuality" and "homosexuality" is a mystery just now beginning to be researched. Strange as it may seem to 20th century sexual enthusiasts who grew up taking "heterosexuality" for granted as "normal," "natural," and eternal, the term "heterosexual" was first used in the U.S. in May 1892, in a medical journal article by Dr. James G. Kiernan, and more widely distributed in the translation of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, 1892-1893.[2] The term "heterosexual" first appeared in Merriam-Webster's New International Dictionary in 1923, as a medical term meaning "morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex." Only in 1934, did Merriam-Webster define heterosexuality as a "manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality."[3]Heterosexual was first used in The New York Times in the early-20th-century, registering the distribution to a mass audience of an ideal romance legitimately hetero and sexual.

In Melville's day, the official, mid-Victorian True Love, as pictured in countless sentimental novels and marriage manuals, was a fine romance with a minimum of nasty lust. Even Victorian "free lovers" and birth control advocates (the sex radicals of the day) argued in terms of control over one's body, not in terms of catering to fleshly appetites. Among mid-Victorians, lust had a bad name. As an improper Victorian, Melville saw the potential, as well as the danger, of lust.

Political Economy
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. Redburn is hired on to the Highlander, a merchant ship bound for Liverpool, a city to which his father had traveled more than 30 years earlier. There, Redburn discovers dad'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 muses, "tell us the way our fathers went, but how few of those former places can their posterity trace, amid avenues of modern erections." Melville's "modern erections" punningly anticipates Redburn's endeavors to find his way 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 half a dozen sailors:

• One threatening sailor, antagonized by the huge buttons adorning Redburn's aristocratic jacket, simultaneously unmans and eroticizes him:'" 'Why didn't they call you Jack, or Jill.' But I'll baptize you over again ... henceforth your name is Buttons.' " That name connotes effeminacy and various anatomical appurtenances: tits or clitoris; Rabelais used bouton de rose to refer to the head of the penis.

• A sickly shipmate, Jackson, dresses "like a Bowery boy" (a New York rowdy), with "three red woolen shirts." Jackson reveals "he had passed through every kind of dissipation," and carries with him "the traces" of his "infamous vices." The hint is venereal. Jackson's prospect of dying for his sins, Redburn thinks, "made this poor wretch always eye me with such malevolence ... For I was young and handsome, at least my mother so thought me." Jackson hates one sailor "because of his great strength," and "particularly because of his red cheeks." Without exactly specifying the lust for life Jackson sees in other sailors, Melville portrays him as a sad social outcast whose hatred of humanity mirrors society's opinion of him. Near the novel's end, Jackson's illness worsens, though his tyrannical hold over the sailors continues. Jackson's life climaxes, finally, while he is riding the ship's "yard-arm," a phallic, equestrian symbol, at "a moment of frantic exertion." He utters a "blasphemous" profanity and falls headlong "from the yard, leaving a sail "spattered with a torrent of blood" -- a red flag of his lustful disposition.

• The captain of Redburn's ship first seems a kind father who would "comfort me in my loneliness." Redburn "could not help regarding him with "peculiar emotions, almost of tenderness and love." When the naive Redburn prepares to make a friendly social call on the captain, the crew objects to this breach of class etiquette. But Jackson orders: "'He's a nice boy. Let him go; the captain has some nuts and raisins for him,'" evoking the candy the archetypal child molester offers his victims. The angry chief mate threatens to tie Redburn into the rigging: "'You are very green,' said he, 'but I'll ripen you.'" The implicit threat is again of sexual abuse. Later, for climbing the rigging a slight, silent, stuttering passenger is punished by the sailors: the culprit is tied to the ropes according to an "old custom" called "making a spread eagle" -- a symbolic rape.

• Lavender, the steward on the Highlander, is a "handsome dandy mulatto," who was once a barber on West Broadway. His name, it seems, derives not only from his past occupation of haircutter, but from certain other peculiarities. Lavender keeps his own hair "well perfumed with Cologne," and sometimes sports "a gorgeous turban," 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." The word "gay" was not yet used in America in reference to a specifically same-sex lust, but did denote an illicit underworld of Victorian sexuality.

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." (The sex of those sad lovers is, significantly, never specified.) But he is not responsible for this 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 person 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 and manners, and Melville's reticence about the sex of his lovers, suggest that this is one of the first American portraits of an effeminate black sodomite. (This is also the earliest known portrait of the sodomite as hairdresser.)

• Another of Redburn's mates, Jack Blunt, has a Dream Book with red covers which explains how to foretell the future. 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." Though the slightly ambiguous pronoun somewhat blunts Blunt's bluntness, his story is one of the first in American fiction in which male comes out so clearly as lover of male.

• Max the Dutchman, the "best natured man among the crew," treats Redburn "better than the rest." "Very precise about his wardrobe," 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." But Max was not alone in this, "for everyone had a finger, or a thumb, and sometimes both hands, in my unfortunate pie."

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

The young Redburn arrives finally in the "great commercial city" of Liverpool, providing Melville the occasion for a severe social critique. Redburn finds his father's guidebook lies: its prettified pictures are contradicted by horrifying poverty. This city's "principal 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 commented satirically on the manifesto of laissez-faire capitalism, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. On his way to Liverpool, Redburn had tried to read Smith's classic, but "fell asleep" and "never slept so sound before." The book was most useful as a "pillow," though after laying his head on it, Redburn "sometimes waked feeling dull and stupid."

Liverpool's commercial intercourse also causes Redburn to warn readers of the "perils" of that city's docks, "which in depravity are not to be matched by any thing this side of the pit that is bottomless." (The inflated language mocks the morality.) On those depraved docks, we are told, "under the beneficent sway of the Genius of Commerce, all climes and countries embrace; and yardarm touches yard-arm in brotherly love."

A "yard-arm" is a long, slender spar projecting at a right-angle from a sailing ship's mast; "yard" was a colonial-era word for penis. The yard-arm that touched yard-arm is thus another of Melville's punning references to male-male erections and connections under the sway of commerce.

Every day a new ship docks beside Redburn's 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. "Hermaphrodite" was also an old term for an "effeminate man or virile woman," as well as for a "catamite" (partner of a pederast).

In Liverpool, Redburn goes on board a "salt-drogher," one of the small boats with "red sails" which carry cargo to oceangoing ships. These particular red sails are furled 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-cellar." 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, then feels guilty about such oral satisfaction:

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 departed.

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

"Three Adorable Charmers"
One day, venturing 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 watches them consume their muffins and "wished I was a buttered muffin." (The desire to be eaten expresses a passivity not commonly associated with Victorian males.) He briefly fantasized, he says, taking home one of the charmers as "a beautiful English wife." He admits, however, that 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 establishes Redburn's "ardent" interest in damsels (and his "bachelor" status), and neutralizes the very next chapter's introduction of "handsome," "equivocal" Harry Bolton. (Melville earlier used the lady-friend ploy to protect himself from sodomitical suggestion, briefly describing Lavender walking out with a woman on his arm.) Melville's strategy was clearly to balance a "dubious" male-male intimacy against a male-female love interest -- a ploy anticipating 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 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.

Harry Bolton
Handsome Harry Bolton, the "orphan" who becomes Redburn's soulmate, is introduced "To The Favorable Consideration Of The Reader." He is "one of those small, but perfectly formed beings, with curling hair, and silken muscles, who seem to have been born in cocoons" -- Bolton is butterflylike. His complexion was "brunette, as feminine as a girl's; his feet were small; his hands were white; and his eyes were large, black and womanly; and, poetry aside, his voice was as the sound of a harp."

But where, Redburn coyly asks his readers (among those depraved docks), did he meet this "courtly youth"? He answers: "Several evenings I had noticed him in our street of boarding houses, standing in the doorways." What Bolton was doing in those dusky doorways is not discussed, but Bolton's prostitution is hinted at later.

Harry Bolton claims to have worked as a sailor in the East India service, where he was known as a "guinea-pig." Redburn explains this is "a humorous appellation" bestowed on student naval officers. He adds: considering the "perversity" of Bolton's behavior, "his delicate form, and soft complexion, and that gold guineas had been his bane, this appellation was not altogether ... inapplicable." But "guinea-pig" also referred to any professional whose fee for service was a guinea. Melville's hint again associates Bolton's attractive effeminacy with money.

That Bolton had earlier been a high-class male whore is suggested delicately by his account to Redburn of an intimacy with "My old chum, Lord Lovely." In Liverpool, Bolton and Redburn encounter this Lovely, whom Redburn calls "not much of a Lord to behold; very thin and limber about the legs, with small feet like a doll's, and a small, glossy head like a seal's. I had seen just such looking lords standing in sentimental attitudes in front of Palmo's on Broadway." Outside Palmo's Opera House in New York City, in Melville's day, there apparently lounged numbers of doll-like, aristocracy-aspiring males of doubtful character.

Another of Bolton's stories, about the Marquis of Bristol offering him a home, begins to breed, even in innocent young Redburn, "some suspicions concerning the rigid morality of my friend, as a teller of truth." Redburn "cherished toward Harry a heart, loving and true." But "suspicions" about Bolton's morals made Redburn "hold back my whole soul from him; when, in its loneliness, it was yearning to throw itself into the unbounded bosom of some immaculate friend." Poignant regret at this opportunity for intimacy, lost due to puritanical strictures, summarizes Redburn's relationship with Bolton.

In order to recover a "considerable sum" of money lost at gambling, Bolton travels to London, taking Redburn along for a "Mysterious Night." This is spent at a "semi-public place of opulent entertainment" in the West End -- Bolton tells the cab driver, "'No. 40,'" the" 'high steps there, with the purple light!'" (Melville tends to advertise his symbols with exclamation points.)

Seated in this den, Redburn observes one of its "obsequious waiters ... eyeing me a little impertinently, as I thought, and as if he saw something queer about me." The word "queer" is first known to have been applied to American homosexuals in 1920, but Melville's use of it here is certainly suggestive. Trying to be nonchalant, Redburn "threw one leg over the other" -- only succeeding in looking queerer -- and felt his "face burning with embarrassment," as if he was I, "guilty of something."

Bolton leads Redburn upstairs to a Persian carpeted room hung with "mythological oil paintings" of lewd character: "such pictures as Martial and Suetonius mention as being found in the private cabinet of the Emperor Tiberius" --and other obscene pictures are described vaguely. William Gilman's study of Melville's Early Life and Redburn (1951) showed that only one of those mythic pictures referred to an actual historical work: Suetonius does mention a painting which Tiberius kept in his bedroom. In a modest backnote Gilman says this pictured "Atalanta performing a most unnatural service for Meleager." My own research, with John Boswell's expert help and translation, indicates the exact act referred to was a "blow-job." (The original old Latin translates literally as "to gratify with the mouth.")

But Melville's other "mythological oil paintings" are literally just that, mythological -- Melville's little joke, intended to excite readers' prurient curiosity. The nonexistence of those paintings is no failure of "realism" on Melville's part, as Gilman stuffily says. Those paintings are Melville's means of inciting pedants like Gilman to explore the history of what, in 1951, was still called "unnatural" sex.

Upstairs in this fun house Bolton declares: "'We are at home.'" He has made this house his home. Bolton disappears for a time. Redburn sleeps uneasily. Bolton returns: Redburn asks if he has been gambling. Bolton suggests he has, but not in the usual way. I suggest that Bolton has wagered his body -- that he has lost his gamble is indicated by Melville. Bolton speaks of suicide. Suddenly angry at all the mystery, Redburn demands: "'tell me your secret, whatever it is. Bolton commands him to swear, "'as you love me,' " that he will never ask again " 'about this infernal trip to London.'"

If Bolton's background did involve illicit sexual commerce, he was not the only such emigrant the Highlander carried back to America. On the ship was a "rich-cheeked, chestnut-haired Italian boy; .. not. above fifteen," a youth with pensive "morning eyes." The Italian's head was "heaped with thick clusters of tendril curls," says Redburn, and "reminded you of a classic vase." From "the knee downward, the naked leg was beautiful to behold as any lady's arm; so soft and rounded." This Carlo had no father and "from the first, Harry took to the boy."

Carlo, it seems, had made a living at music -- playing a "hand-organ":

"But do .you not sometimes meet with cross and crabbed old men," said Harry "who would rather have your room than you; music?"

"Yes, sometimes," said Carlo, playing with his foot, "sometimes I do."

"And then, knowing the value of quiet to unquiet men,I suppose you never leave them for under a shilling?"

"No," continued the boy, "I love my organ as I do myself, for it is my only friend, poor organ! it sings to me when I am sad, and cheers me; and I never play before a house, on purpose to be paid for leaving off ...."

Melville's reference to men wanting Carlo's "room" rather than his music, his casual allusion to the blackmail of sodomites (Carlo's "knowing the [money] value of quiet to unquiet men"), and his pun about Carlo's "organ," are such blatant references to illicit I sex it is difficult to understand why they were not recognized as scandalous.

How these references escaped notice in 1849 becomes clearer when we consider that such sustained erotic themes are still not officially recognized in the 1980s. While a Melville industry flourishes in academia, one still risks job and violent critical attack by devoting book or thesis to a close textual analysis of lust. (See, for example, Richard Boyer's foaming-at-the-mouth response to The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry, by Robert K. Martin, Times Literary Supplement, May 30, 1980.)

Melville's seminal puns, archaisms, and other allusions indicate his belief that respectable readers would not discern his outrageous sex text. As a fuck-and-forget-it adjunct of procreation, lust was assumed to have been buried deep in the minds of proper, middle-class Victorians, consigned to the distant, erotic, exotic ghetto of the "lower orders," or banished to a separate sphere of prostitution, sodomy, or sapphism, making safe the sexual secrets of this story.

Continuing on about his organ, Carlo castigates just such proper Victorians. When these people drive him from their homes, " 'I do not think my organ is to blame, but they themselves are to blame; for such people's musical pipes are cracked, and grown rusted, that no more music can be breathed into their souls.'" "'Behold the organ!'" exclaims narrator Redburn, waxing ecstatic. Surely, if much melody lurks in the "old fiddles" of Cremona, "what divine ravishments may we not anticipate from this venerable, embrowned old organ."

"Play on!" Redburn commands the world's organs, "for to every note come trooping ... armies" and he imagines "the martial neigh of all the Persian studs." But now "the pageant passes, and I droop." Perking up again he declares: "All this could Carlo do -- make, unmake me; build me up; to pieces take me; and join me limb to limb."

Redburn's (and Melville's) ode to Carlo's organ ends with a curse on any "slave" who drives from a lord's "door" this Italian boy's "wondrous box of sights and sounds." Melville's last reference to Carlo is similarly suggestive. In New York, before the Highlander can dock, this up-and-coming lad, promising some watermen "to pay them with his music, was triumphantly rowed ashore ... his organ before him." Redburn "never saw Carlo again." But the reader leaves Carlo and his organ sure that both will soon rise to success.

Bolton Again
Meanwhile, back on the ship, Redburn becomes more intimate with Harry Bolton, who has hired on as a sailor. In New York, however, Redburn dumps Bolton on a friend who agrees to help handsome Harry get a job. Leaving Bolton "looking helpless," Redburn makes a rather abrupt and formal apology, returns to his family, 180 miles away, and "never saw Harry again." Times are bad; unable to find work, Bolton goes back to the sailoring he detests. Redburn later hears that Bolton died in an accident at sea.

Considering the economic ruin of Redburn's dead father, the failure of the father's guidebook, the satire on Adam Smith, the picture of beggardom and death by starvation in Liverpool, and the subtext on erotic interchange between males, Redburn emerges as a conscious, critical commentary on the moral bankruptcy of commercial capitalism and the failure of patriarchy, and a poignant exposition on the potential of sex-love between men, once free from puritanic ban.

Melville's Redburn is a portrait, the very painting of which helps to subvert the ravaging moral economy it portrays. Melville presents Redburn's "reminiscences" as a memorial to his dead friend: "But Harry! you live over again, as I recall your image before me. I see you, plain and palpable as in life: and can make your existence obvious to others. Is he, then, dead, of whom this may be said?"

Melville's Redburn reclaimed the world's Harry Boltons from oblivion. He tenderly elegized and called attention to the existence of a "girlish youth" -- one who even "among the droves of mixed beings and centaurs" stood out "like a zebra" in a group of elks. The novel remains a cautionary travel tale, a how-not-to-do-it guidebook for wanderers on the bumpy road to lust -- a funny, sad, and loving tribute of man to man.


  1. My abettor at The Village Voice Literary Supplement was M. Mark, its founder and editor, who provided one of the most memorable, educational editing experiences of my writing life. The original, 15-page version of this essay contains backnote citations to sources.
  2. Jonathan Ned Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality (NY: Dutton, 1995), page 19.
  3. Katz, Invention of Heterosxuality, page 92.