Herman Melville’s Transatlantic Epistemology of Hunger

Brian Peter Crowe
Brian Peter Crowe

In ‘Emigrants and Exiles’, a seminal work of Irish immigration history, Kerby Miller argues that the sense of alienation among nineteenth-century Irish Americans, many of whom immigrated during the Famine years, led them “to perceive or at least justify themselves not as voluntary, ambitious emigrants but as involuntary, non responsible ‘exiles,’ compelled to leave home by forces beyond individual control”. Although not an Irish American himself, Melville is similarly affiliated with nonresponsibility and exile in many of his texts.

Written and published during the midst of the Famine, Melville’s ‘Redburn’ (1849) depicts the emigrants and exiles of the transatlantic world as non responsible victims, allowing his readers to map out their collective sympathies. Exile and nonresponsibility are paradoxically liberating traits for Melville, and his eponymous narrator’s strange feeling for the exiled and not responsible Irish depends upon their hunger.

Ultimately, Melville’s representations of hunger — which for him is intimately connected to exile — deserve to be read as part of an emerging transatlantic canon that continues to interrogate questions of nationality, race, and ethnicity within and beyond the nineteenth-century.

This complex idea derives in part from the peculiarities of the Famine Irish themselves. Perhaps exceptionally among nineteenth-century immigrant groups, the Famine Irish were associated with hunger, and their specific experience of that hunger, for Melville at least, qualifies them for potential acceptance as Americans.

Through his eponymous narrator and protagonist in ‘Redburn’, Melville views the Irish as transatlantic citizens, an oxymoronic yet apt phrase that implies support for their American nationhood while recognising their precarious “in-betweenness” as immigrants and exiles in need of sympathy and socioeconomic assistance.

Although Irish hunger was seen by many as a menacing alien presence within the American body politic, ‘Redburn’ challenges such assumptions and emphasises that hunger, in both physical and psychological senses, may be a sign of access to citizenship rather than a reason for rejection.

While there is no single American response to the Famine, ‘Redburn’ offers a provocative and informative sample of the ways in which Irish immigrants were seen by mainstream readers and canonical writers of the antebellum period.

Melville’s view of the Famine Irish as victims of hunger, along with his desire to sympathise with them, contrasts with, yet ultimately reinforces, the supposed self-reliance and individualism at the centre of nineteenth-century American ideology. The paradox here is between either rejecting the Irish because they are hungry (and, therefore, not self-reliant individuals) or accepting them because they are deserving of sympathy.

While Melville knows he does not belong among the Famine Irish, he identifies with them in Redburn as members of an imagined community. He desires to share in their “in-between” status as exiles and emigrants, yet he reserves distance for himself so that he can remain a witness and thus maintain a comfortable middle-class point of view.

Among other racially and ethnically diverse figures in the novel, the Irish characters are the most transformative of Redburn’s way of thinking. His emotional epistemology depends upon the Famine Irish, who serve a peculiar role in Redburn as a population “in between” empathy and pity, recognition and blame, self-reliance and independence, hunger and satiation. Thus, ‘Redburn’ emphasises the multinational dimensions of hunger and shows how witnessing hunger challenges one to think differently about related issues of poverty, immigration, and class.

Building upon the uncertain history of the Famine Irish and their reception in the United States requires careful attention to text and context, reality and symbolism, especially Melville’s use of the key phrase strange feeling.

In chapter VII, Redburn uses the phrase merely to describe the physical sensation he experiences after the ship rolls for the first time. However, in chapter XLI, entitled ‘Redburn Roves About Hither and Thither,’ the phrase takes on more important social and psychological dimensions as Redburn experiences anxiety and alienation while wandering the shady streets of Liverpool, England.

Strange feeling, the very vagueness of which gives it personal gravitas and political potential, is a fundamental concept for this dissertation’s investigation into the American literary response to Irish Famine immigration. The fundamental claim here is that Melville engages in strange feeling through his literary representations of hunger.

By tracing the Irish presence in Redburn, one can learn more about Melville’s strange feeling, which describes both the physical and psychological effects of witnessing suffering. Melville is fascinated with the figure of the exile, and in Redburn, his exiles are Irish, and most of them are hungry.

Strange feeling involves more than just the Irish, but it begins with them in Redburn. Hunger, then, is both a universalising and individuating force for Melville. It unites him with the Irish while simultaneously separating him from them; no matter how much he feels for them, he will never be as hungry as they.

Ultimately, strange feeling is best defined as an ambivalent, anxiety-ridden combination of alienation and sympathy with those who suffer, and it is best understood through Redburn’s American perspective of Irish hunger. For Redburn (and for Melville) strange feeling is non-sentimental and nonresponsible; it represents a new transatlantic epistemology based on his witnessing of hunger and its association with the Irish Famine.

To some Melville scholars, his progressive politics were admirably ahead of his time; to others, he remains an ambivalent individual whose views on important issues are masked through his complicated narrative techniques and ambiguous uses of symbolism. This “beggarly Redburn,” as Melville called it, is considered by many to be an admirable failure, emblematic of Melville’s youth as a writer not yet come of age (Breitwieser 100).

Melville himself disparaged the novel as a “job,” a “thing,” “a plain, straightforward, amusing narrative of personal experience […] nothing but cakes and ale” (qtd. in Baker 81). Redburn was written to make money — as were the greatest works of writers like Charles Dickens — and some would say that such ambitions hardly produce the stuff of great literature.

In contrast, those critics who consider the artistic merits of Redburn also recognise its political engagement and social commentary. One cannot dispute that Redburn represents a departure from the exoticism of Melville’s novels of the South Seas, nor can critics deny the progression of Melville’s social interests in later works like ‘The Confidence-Man’ and ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener.’

Despite Melville’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek protestations, Redburn should be read less as a narrative of personal initiation — as most twentieth-century critics contend — than as a story of social dissatisfaction invested in the imagery of hunger. Written rather hastily — and justly criticised for its somewhat abrupt concluding chapters — Redburn is nonetheless a novel of real social engagement, in which the relatively innocent narrator encounters the vices of the larger world around him and undergoes a self-revelation regarding the poverty, corruption, disease, and hunger that were so much a part of nineteenth-century Atlantic migration.

It is at once both romantic and realist, moving ineluctably more towards the latter as it proceeds. In the end, Redburn represents Melville’s transition towards a more deliberate intervention in the social issues of his day, and the Irish immigrants whom Redburn meets at sea and in port play a pivotal role in the development of this social conscience.

The following pages of this chapter set out to prove, through a close reading of Redburn and consideration of other sources relevant to the novel’s social engagement, that Melville’s representations of hunger connect directly to his concern for the Famine Irish.

The initial, larger section, subtitled ‘The Spectacle of Strangeness,’ focuses in deliberate and stark detail upon hunger imagery and specific mention of the Irish in order to better understand Redburn’s strange feeling for them.

This section is organized around the categories of class, race/ethnicity, and nationality in order to provide a clearer representation of Redburn’s use of hunger as a marker of identity that cuts across such social concerns.

In addition, this initial section culminates with a discussion of the character Harry Bolton, Redburn’s rather privileged yet ill-fated friend whose own hunger offers a telling contrast to the hunger of Irish immigrants and others within the novel’s preceding chapters.

In the closing section, entitled ‘To Eat or Not to Eat, That is the Irish-American Question,’ I consider Redburn as part of Melville’s mid-career engagement in the social issues of his day, and I show how Redburn’s specific concern for Irish hunger fits within Melville’s larger oeuvre and reflects upon his other important texts.

To complement my analysis of Redburn, relatively succinct but nonetheless meaningful mention will be made of the ‘South Sea tales Typee and Omoo’, along with ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener,’ ‘Poor-Man’s Pudding,’ ‘The Confidence-Man,’ and ‘Moby-Dick’. One can witness among Melville’s texts several examples of strange feeling for the suffering of others, but above all, Redburn offers the clearest and fullest exploration of Melville’s concerns for social justice due to its singular emphasis on Irish hunger.

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