The OF Blog: Herman Melville, Typee and Omoo

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Herman Melville, Typee and Omoo

In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve; – the heart burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make up in units the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated people.

But it will be urged that these shocking unprincipled wretches are cannibals.  Very true; and a rather bad trait in their character it must be allowed.  But they are such only when they seek to gratify the passion of revenge upon their enemies; and I ask whether the mere eating of human flesh so very far exceeds in barbarity that custom which only a few years since was practised in enlightened England: – a convicted traitor, perhaps a man found guilty of honesty, patriotism, and suchlike heinous crimes, had his head lopped off with a huge axe, his bowels dragged out and thrown into a fire; while his body, carved into four quarters, was with his head exposed upon pikes, and permitted to rot and fester among the public haunts of men!

The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death-dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on our wars, and the misery and desolation that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth. (pp. 149-150, Library of America edition)

Although more famous today for his 1851 novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville experienced his greatest commercial success during his lifetime with his first two novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).  Based in large part upon Melville's own experiences in Polynesia during the early 1840s, these two novels are a fascinating read nearly 170 years later for their detailed depictions of life on the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti just as European governments and missionaries were beginning their efforts to transform these islands and their inhabitants into "civilized" regions and cultures.

Typee is loosely based on Melville's month-long sojourn in the Taipi Valley of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas during July-August 1842.  It is not a plot-driven novel; there is a thread detailing the first-person narrator's adventures from the time he deserts a whaling ship with a companion until he is "rescued" by another ship a four months later, but it is secondary to descriptions of the flora, fauna, and customs of the Taipi people.  Typee's narrative power resides in these depictions of native customs and habits and in their juxtapositions with industrializing Western societies.

Melville carefully balances out these "exotic" stories.  They do not exist merely to entice curious American and English readers into reading his narrative for titillating descriptions of tattooed women and their relatively licentious ways, but instead each chapter/scene explores how and why the narrator finds himself reflecting on how his own reactions (such as his initial visceral disgust at the tattooed leaders he encounters) are in a constant state of evolution the more he comes to know and (partially) understand the Taipi.  In some senses, there is an almost anthropological field study element to his writing, albeit one that serves mostly to provide depth to the adventure aspect of the novel.  Melville certainly digresses at times in his explorations of perceived differences in approach to life, sexuality, and societal customs, yet these digressions mostly serve to appeal to readers who might otherwise find the "adventures" here less swash-buckling than they might have desired.

Typee, however, is still at its heart a story of exploration and new experiences and on the whole, it succeeds at conveying the narrator's (and by extension, the author's) wonder at what he encounters.  It is a deeper, more ponderous work than most of the adventure novels of the late 19th century set in this region, but it also rarely fails to entertain as a narrative devoted to what then was a scarely-known region of the world for Westerners.  It is not without its difficulties –  the narrative style does take several chapters to establish its rhythm – but on the whole, it is still a vivid adventure that presages the more anthropological/social novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Omoo is a direct sequel that focuses more on the maritime aspect of exploration.  It continues Melville's exploration of Polynesian adaptations to European/American intrusions.  Similar to Typee, Omoo is not a mere fictionalization of Melville's experiences.  Rather it is an elaboration that meshes those recollections with other, secondary histories, creating a work that is substantially more fictitious than what it first appears to be.

There is more of a plot to Omoo, namely dealing with the narrator's experiences on a whaling ship after his "rescue" at the end of Typee and the crew's experiences after being jailed in Tahiti after a failed mutiny.  While Melville himself was put ashore in Tahiti in late 1842 after a mutiny failed, the account in Omoo is much more elaborate, devoting several chapters to discussing how life in Tahiti was changing under nascent French administration and how the natives were assimilating Christianity and European legal practices into their culture.  There is a more focused narrative here, concentrating more on how the sailors are dealing with their immediate situation, yet Melville still manages to weave in several examinations of societal change and cultural assimilation in a fashion that strengthens the narrative, feeling more unified than in Typee.

There are traces in both novels of the thematic elements that were later explored in Moby Dick, but here they are less prominent, as the adventure novel aspects are more front-and-center than in the later novel.  The prose tends to be less elaborate than in Melville's later works, yet there is still a sufficient level of narrative depth to make these two early novels worth reading not just for fans of Melville's later work, but also for those readers who enjoy reading adventures set in the South Seas.


Mondy said...

Welcome back. Great review as always and looking forward to more. No pressure ;)

Larry Nolen said...

Thanks! I should have a review of Mardi up shortly. Sometimes, it's just more fun writing about books/stories/poems written long before my time, because there is not that sense that I have to write for anyone but myself. However, it is a bonus when others find things to enjoy from these reviews :D

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