Redburn and White-Jacket are what Melville wrote in a hurry after Mardi tanked. He was in danger of not being able to make it as a professional writer, but not willing to give up on it. So he wrote a couple of quickie conventional novels. Well, conventional as he could get. They restored his fortunes, commercially, and allowed him to write Moby Dick. So goes the story.
I read Redburn last summer and can't remember a damn thing about it. I just finished White-Jacket a couple of weeks ago and am in a better position to comment about it; but what I mostly recall about the experience of reading Redburn tallies with what I felt reading its successor. These are bad Melville.
For one thing, he's milking his seafaring experiences pretty dry by this point - on the evidence of these books I would have advised him to find a new theme; but then he wouldn't have written Moby Dick, so what do I know? But his success-to-come in this genre doesn't really redeem the sense that he's just rewriting the same old observations about life at sea. I'm not familiar enough with early 19th century maritime books to say for absolute certain, but I'd wager a fair amount that most of the detail he gives us in these books was readily available in other books. I doubt there's much new here, in other words, and yet he's presenting it all as if he's chronicling for breathless readers a world never before revealed. Yankee hucksterism, it smacks of.
For another thing, in both books he's trying his best to restrain his poetry, when in fact his poetry is all he has going for him here. In White-Jacket in particular, he does let himself go from time to time, and it's only there that the book begins to transcend. F'rexample, when he falls off the yardarm into the sea at the end of the book and we get this wonderfully lucid, evocative description of the moment after the plunge:
With the bloody, blind film before my eyes, there was a still stranger hum in my head, as if a hornet were there; and I thought to myself, Great God! this is Death! Yet these thoughts were unmixed with alarm. Like frost-work that flashes and shifts its scared hues in the sun, all my braided, blended emotions were in themselves icy cold and calm. (p. 397, Oxford World's Classics edition)Here the allegory (plunge into the water at the end of the voyage as metaphor for death at the end of life) comes so close to the surface narrative line that the two merge, and I think that's part of what looses Melville's tongue here.
Elsewhere, as in Mardi, he's dedicated to maintaining the proper relationship between surface narrative and allegorical significance, and the results are as cloying here as they were there. It's not that he ever really submerges the allegory - far from it. He likes to just keep it floating alongside, so he can point to it at any time and say, see? This is what this means. But the meanings are so obvious that you just want him to stop pointing it out; not to mention, they're so pedestrian that you wish he wouldn't work so hard to bring them up.