Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life by Herman Melville (1846)
Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas by Herman Melville (1847)
I read Typee many years ago as part of a brief infatuation with Polynesia (never went) as depicted in literature. Now I read it again as part of a new interest in Melville, spurred by finally reading Moby Dick last spring and realizing that it’s the best novel ever written. (I mean, like, duh.)
Well, Typee’s not Moby Dick. Nothing is. It’s good, though. Well-written, with beautiful prose that every so often shows a flash of the pugnacious brilliance of his later masterpiece. Nicely fuses ethnographic pretense with a determination to shock staid New Englanders. It’s a bit disappointing, though, that he allowed his bitterest critiques of what missionaries do to South Pacific cultures to be expurgated from the American edition. Wimp.
Basically, the narrator, Tom, or Tommo, a lightly fictionalized version of Melville (these are true stories, more or less), is a whaler who jumps ship on the island of Nuku Hiva, one of the Marquesas, because he can’t take the captain’s cruelty anymore. He and his buddy Toby wander the island for a while until they fall in with the Typee people, who are reputed to be ferocious cannibals. Of course they turn out to be thoroughly charming innocent savages living an idyllic life. Very Rousseauian. Most of the book is Tommo’s account of their life and culture, what he can make out (he never really learns the language—he’s only there a couple of months, and in real life a couple of weeks). It all sort of leads up to the horrifying revelation that yes, they are cannibals—but only as a sort of religious ritual as they consume defeated enemies to partake of their valor or something. Still gross, but Melville succeeds in making us see this as only an isolated unfortunate custom in the midst of an otherwise admirable lifestyle, rather than as the excuse for colonization that other Westerners would see it as.
That’s what lasts about this book, I think, is Melville’s determination to escape, at least in his own mind, the hypocrisy and repression of his own society. Sexual, mental, emotional freedom is what he finds in the Typee; honesty, affection, and a deep morality. Maybe it was really there, maybe not, but his willingness to see that in them, and see that as a reproach to his own society—that doesn’t die. Although, he never went back…he wasn’t a Gauguin.
Two months later (and that ought to tell you something), I finally got around to finishing Melville’s sequel to Typee. Omoo picks up where that left off, with Tommo (here he gets nicknamed “Typee”—Melville’s wishful thinking?—but basically doesn’t use a name) being rescued from Nuku Hiva. Unfortunately, the whaler that picks him up is a losing proposition—incompetent captain, tyrant of a first mate, crew utterly lacking in morale. Before long a mutiny is in the works, and the narrator takes part, somewhat reluctantly, and in the aftermath ends up staying in Tahiti when his ship sails. He’s imprisoned, but after a while the local consul basically loses interest, and the narrator ends up just wandering around Tahiti and the neighboring island of Imeeo (now spelled Eimeo) for a while, before finally, at the end, getting back on a whaler and (presumably) setting out for home.
This is kind of a mirror image of the first book. There we were basically stationary for the whole time, static, the book unfolding sideways with Tommo’s account of Typee society, rather than providing us with a strong linear narrative (although it does build up to the climax of Tommo’s escape). This one is mostly movement, both through space (sailing on the ill-starred Julia, then traversing Imeeo) and events, as the narrator chronicles the progress of the mutiny and its aftermath, then his stay in a Tahitian prison, and finally his adventures on Imeeo as he tries to find pleasant employment on the island (first with some foreign planters, then with the Tahitian queen).
Also, and more importantly: the first book took place in a Polynesia mostly untouched by European civilization, allowing Melville to present his romantic vision of the superiority of the supposedly primitive native Polynesian ways to those of his own so-called civilization. This book takes place in a Tahiti that has been under the sway of English missionaries for a couple of generations, and has just been claimed by the French. Typee contained several digressions in which Melville told of the disastrous effects of European contact elsewhere in Polynesia, by way of celebrating the Typee valley’s blessed freedom from same; Omoo is an up-close look at just those disastrous effects, as we see the degraded lives of the sailors, then the collapsed and demoralized Tahitian society under the missionaries’ thumbs. The first book finds humanity in a close to paradisiacal state in untouched Polynesia; the second book finds humanity in a close to infernal state, in the societies of Europeans and the parts of Polynesia they control. A mirror image, as I say.
That much is admirable: Melville has constructed his book with a lot of art, and I can certainly applaud his message. The problem is, it’s not really new. He already said what he had to say about the missionaries and their treatment of the Polynesians in Typee: here we get to to see why he said that, but the fact remains, he’s already said it. That may be part of what keeps this book from ever really taking flight. It’s just not as enjoyable, not as readable, despite being more densely plotted, and written with a fine ironic tone.
Still, if you read one you should read the other, and it’s worth reading both (if you clicked on the Wikipedia links above you've probably realized that nobody reads Omoo, which is a shame). They both have fine moments. In Typee it’s the golden descriptions of the island; in Omoo it’s the intriguing character of the narrator’s companion, Doctor Long Ghost, an Australian ship’s physician who flees the Julia with the narrator and stays with him until the end of the book. He’s not quite fully-realized as a character, but nonetheless he’s intriguing—tall, sardonic, independent-minded. The editor of the Penguin edition (Mary K. Bercaw Edwards) compares him (and the narrator) to characters from Cannery Row or On the Road; for some reason the Doctor reminded me more of Dr. Gonzo. But don’t expect too much: as I say, he’s not really a fully-realized character. He’s just a sketch.
Besides the mirroring, the other thing that really strikes me about these books is Melville’s employment of terms like “savage” and “cannibal” when he describes the natives. As in, he’s doing it with an irony that I’m not sure I can quite enunciate. Clearly it starts with his awareness that his own society tells him the Marquesans and the Tahitians are savages and/or cannibals, an inferior order of humanity because they lack Christian civilization. This is combined with Melville’s own sense that it’s Christian civilization that is, if not always than all too often, savage, and the Polynesians, at least in their original state, who really know how to live like human beings. So when he calls them “savages” it’s a reproach to “civilization” itself. That much is pretty obvious.
It goes beyond merely bandying about loaded words like “savage,” though, and this is where it gets a little complicated. Take a fairly minor passage like this one, from Chapter 75 of Omoo:
“As we sauntered along, the people we met, saluted us pleasantly, and invited us into their houses; and in this way we made a good many brief morning calls. But the hour could not have been the fashionable one in Partoowye; since the ladies were invariably in deshabille.”
The ladies in question are, of course, native Imeeose (as he calls them), so what he’s doing here is making a funny. Imagine a “fashionable hour” in a place like Partoowye, as if it were Boston or London! And, hey, aren’t the native “ladies” always “in deshabille?” He does this a lot in these books, imputing familiar Euro-American ways to islanders for comic effect. In spite of his very real sympathy for Polynesian ways, Melville’s not above making fun of them for his readers back in New and Old England. To that extent, they may still be to him, without any saving irony, “savages.”
But I’m not entirely sure about that. The other way to read this is as Melville assuming that, no doubt, Tahitian society does indeed have its “fashionable hour,” and that Polynesian women do have gradations in dress, even if neither are immediately discernible to the outsider. I’m not sure if he’s actually suggesting that in this particular passage, but let’s look at another, from Chapter 67, describing an old couple he meets on Imeeo:
“While employed among the calabashes, the strange, antiquated fondness between these old semi-savages was really amusing. I made no doubt, that they were saying to each other, ‘yes, my love’—‘no, my life,’ just in the same way that some young couples do, at home.”
He’s laughing at the couple, sure, but mainly because in old age they’re acting like newlyweds—a delightful thing, to be sure. And a recognizable thing—he calls them Darby and Joan—the point being that he finds in their behavior something universal. There’s humor in him conflating them with “young couples…at home,” but also a recognition of common humanity. Even as he calls them “semi-savages.”
Melville does this kind of thing a lot in these books—it’s kind of his default mode of describing native ways. That’s why it interests me. I’m not trying to judge his degree of political correctness or anything: I’m just trying to figure out what his language can tell me about exactly how he felt about the people he was describing. It’s not a simple thing. I think both of these things (and probably more) are going on—he’s trying to make it as a writer, trying to sell books, and after all he’s a creature of his society, so I’m sure he is having some laughs, and hell, why not? But at the same time I do think he’s on a bit of a crusade to show that terms like “savage” and “civilized” don’t really mean much, when we can recognize common patterns of human behavior anywhere. Anyway, it's worth a think.
Good books. There’s more to Melville than the white whale.