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Typee

Typee (1846; in full: Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life) is American writer Herman Melville's first book, partly based on his actual experiences as a "beachcomber" on Nuku Hiva (which Melville spelled as Nukuheva) in the South Pacific Marquesas Islands and the title comes from a valley there called Tai Pi Vai. It was Melville's most popular work during his lifetime; for 19th century readers his career seemed to go downhill afterwards, but during the early 20th century it was seen as just the beginning of a career that peaked with Moby-Dick (1851).

Background

At first Typee provoked disbelief among its readers until two years after its publication the events were corroborated by Melville's fellow castaway, Richard T. Greene, who appears in the story as the character Toby. Until the 1930s, it was seen as factually based tinged with romance, when Robert S. Forsythe and Charles R. Anderson exploded the myth showing there were no factual sources available to verify the details of the story. It is now generally accepted that Melville exercised his artistic license so much that Typee is properly considered a work of fiction: the three week stay on which he based his story is extended in the narrative to four months, and he drew extensively on contemporary accounts by Pacific explorers to add cultural detail to what might otherwise have been a straightforward story of escape, capture and re-escape.

Analysis

Critical opinion on Typee is divided. Scholars have traditionally focused attention on Melville's treatment of race, and the narrator's portrayal of his hosts as noble savages, but there is considerable disagreement as to what extent the values, attitudes and beliefs expressed are Melville's own, and whether Typee reinforces or challenges racist assessments of Pacific culture. The issue of class also plays an important role, albeit largely subliminated, with Tommo (as the natives call the narrator) struggling to assert his identity as a member of the working class in a society where work, in the modern capitalist sense, is unknown.

But there can be no doubt Melville was sympathetic to the "savages" he encountered, and sharply critical of the missionaries' attempts to "civilize" them:

How often is the term 'savages' incorrectly applied! None really deserving of it were ever yet discovered by voyagers or by travellers. They have discovered heathens and barbarians whom by horrible cruelties they have exasperated into savages. It may be asserted without fear of contradictions that in all the cases of outrages committed by Polynesians, Europeans have at some time or other been the aggressors, and that the cruel and bloodthirsty disposition of some of the islanders is mainly to be ascribed to the influence of such examples.

The naked wretch who shivers beneath the bleak skies, and starves among the inhospitable wilds of Tierra-del-Fuego, might indeed be made happier by civilization, for it would alleviate his physical wants. But the voluptuous Indian, with every desire supplied, whom Providence has bountifully provided with all the sources of pure and natural enjoyment, and from whom are removed so many of the ills and pains of life--what has he to desire at the hands of Civilization? She may 'cultivate his mind--may elevate his thoughts,'--these I believe are the established phrases--but will he be the happier? Let the once smiling and populous Hawaiian islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer the question. The missionaries may seek to disguise the matter as they will, but the facts are incontrovertible; and the devoutest Christian who visits that group with an unbiased mind, must go away mournfully asking--'Are these, alas! the fruits of twenty-five years of enlightening?'

In the final analysis, it is certain that Typee delineates a crisis of identity, whether racial or economic: much as he enjoys his sojourn, Tommo is terrified of being permanently absorbed into native society. Much attention has been given to Tommo's fears that he will become a victim of cannibalism, although this fear runs in the face of much evidence (he is not, after all, eaten). Melville does claim, however, to have caught the natives eating an inhabitant of one of the neighboring valleys on the island. The natives who have captured Melville reassure him that he will not be eaten, although he does state that he believes that the only thing preventing him from being eaten is an infection in his leg, for which his friend Toby is allowed to leave in search of a cure, so Melville can be healed and then eaten.

Typee is one of the first and arguably the most intelligent contemporary account of Western and Polynesian cultural interaction in the nineteenth century Pacific, and provided many later writers (such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Louis Becke and Jack London) with the themes and images that came to symbolise the Pacific experience: cannibalism, cultural absorption, colonialism, exoticism, eroticism, natural plenty and beauty, and a perceived simplicity of native lifestyle, desires and motives.

Critical response

The Knickerbocker called Typee "a piece of Münchhausenism".

Publication history

Published in 1846, Typee was Melville's first book, and made him one of the best-known American authors overnight. First published in England, by a publisher who believed it to be factually based. The same version was published in the United States; however, critical references to missionaries and Christianity were removed by Melville from the second US edition at the request of his publisher. Later additions included a "Sequel: The Story of Toby" written by Melville explaining what happened to Toby (although this, also, has never been factually verified).

Before its publication, the publisher asked for Melville to remove one sentence. In a scene where the Dolly is boarded by young women from Nukuheva, Melville originally wrote:

"Our ship was now given up to every species of riot and debauchery. Not the feeblest barrier was interposed between the unholy passions of the crew and their unlimited gratification."
The second sentence was removed from the final version.

The inaugural book of the critically acclaimed Library of America series was a volume containing Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, published on May 6, 1982.

References

External links

  • Typee, 1846 first edition, scanned book via Internet Archive, other later editions available.
  • Typee, HTML version from Ye Olde Library
  • Typee, audibook from LibriVox
  • Typee, audiobook with accompanying text from LoudLit
  • Typee, Fluid Text Edition at the University of Virginia Press

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