In a standard narrative of Herman Melville's career, the author's initial tendency toward cultural nationalism—most famously displayed in his 1850 essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses”—gave way during the early 1850s to political misgivings and increasingly dark novels. The Democratic Party and the “Young America” movement seemed to take a sinister turn with the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and Melville grew disillusioned with Young America's literary side following the poor reception of Moby-Dick (1851). Melville's fourth novel, Redburn (1849), though regarded as one of his secondary works, merits greater attention as a counternationalist meditation on the origins of U.S. culture. Because it was written before the political events of the early 1850s and Melville's falling-out with the New York literary establishment, Redburn focuses our attention on a different context for the deepening and darkening of Melville's work: the apparent realization of U.S. “Manifest Destiny” in 1848, with a massive territorial conquest from Mexico. Hager explores the political implications of Redburn's spatial tropes, paying special attention to the architectural history of the New York customhouse and the way Melville expanded the novel itself. As this essay argues, Redburn suggests that excesses of space—architectural, textual, and territorial—obscure the origins and founding principles of the nation.
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Christopher Hager; Melville in the Customhouse Attic. American Literature 1 June 2010; 82 (2): 305–332. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2010-003
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