In chapter 46 of Melville’s novel Redburn, the hero, an American boy who has turned sailor, spends the night in a London establishment called Aladdin’s Palace. The hero is led there by a fey young English friend, who deserts him until morning. The furnishings are lavish, some of the oil paintings are pornographic, and it seems to be a den of iniquity, but the sort of iniquity is uncertain. The hero suspects his friend of gambling, but some modern scholars have speculated that Aladdin’s Palace might have been a homosexual brothel.
Recently I came across a scene that reminded me of Aladdin’s Palace, in the not-terribly-funny dialect sketches collected as High Life in New-York by Jonathan Slick. Slick was a character invented by Ann S. Stephens, and the sketches originally appeared in the New York Express in 1843 and 1844. In a late episode, a handsome young woman slips a note to Slick as they are leaving the Park Theatre, inviting him to visit her the next morning. When Slick calls, he is let into a house that is opulent, but in post-party disarray. Here is his description of walking up the main flight of stairs:
I swan tu man, Par, it was like walkin through a footpath kivered over with meadow grass and wild posies, as I went up the stairs, all carpeted off and a shinin with bars of gold. Jest at the top stood a black figger, a’most as large as life and all but naked, a holdin one finger tu his lips and with a lamp in t’other hand, that seemed as if it had burnt itself out, for there wasn’t any ile in it, and the wick was sooty . . .
Accompanying the black male statue is a white female one, “as white as if it had been cut out of a fust rate cheese curd,” holding flowers and also not quite dressed. Soon Slick finds amid the statuary the young woman of the theater, named Miss Sneers, and after a flirtation, is invited to return in the evening. When he does, he is inveigled into drinking cider and tricked into gambling away everything he owns.
The disorganized lusciousness of Miss Sneers’s lodgings reminds me of Aladdin’s Palace, and more particularly, Miss Sneers’s black statue reminds me of a statue that Melville’s hero found there. He described it as follows:
In the principal pier was a marble bracket, sculptured in the semblance of a dragon’s crest, and supporting a bust, most wonderful to behold. It was that of a bald-headed old man, with a mysteriously-wicked expression, and imposing silence by one thin finger over his lips. His marble mouth seemed tremulous with secrets.
In Redburn, the statue is a way to order room service; if you speak in its ear, servants hear your instructions and execute them. Miss Sneers’s doesn’t seem to have been as multifunctional, but perhaps it was a model for Melville’s nonetheless.