Typee (American History Through Literature)
Modern readers typically know Herman Melville's (1819891) Typee (1846), if they know it at all, only as a modest first novel, certainly a lesser work compared to Moby-Dick (1851), Pierre (1852), or Billy Budd (written 1885891 and published posthumously in 1924). But Typee was not intended as a novel; Melville and his publishers represented it as a strictly factual narrative. And far from being a lesser work, it was the most popular of Melville's books in his lifetime; readers into the early twentieth century considered Typee to be among the author's best works. It was during the so-called Melville revival in the 1920s that Typee was nudged aside in favor of the later and more self-consciously fictional works.
Typee was, in fact, based on actual experience: Melville did ship aboard the whaler Acushnet, only to abandon her in the Marquesas Islands, where he sheltered in Nukuheva's Typee Valley for a few weeks among an indigenous tribe with a reputation for ferocity and cannibalism. In the book's preface, Melville speaks of his "anxious desire to speak the unvarnished truth," but some of the author's fictional "varnish" is rather obvious, such as his decision to name his first-person narrator "Tommo" rather than Herman. Even early reviews of Typee debated its credibility, and scholarship in the 1930s revealed more pronounced departures from fact, such as ships' logs showing that Melville's total time on Nukuheva was four weeks rather than the four month's residence the book claimed. Nonetheless, for about three-quarters of a century, Typee enjoyed a reputation among credulous readers as, among other things, a reliable source of firsthand anthropological knowledge. But informed modern readers must approach the work as a mix of experience and imagination and even as a synthesis of source works Melville used to "fill out" his manuscript. Though he would drop the pretense of direct autobiography in most later works, the blend of materials Melville employed for his first book would continue to inform his writing process throughout his career.
TYPEE'S MANY TEXTS
Further complicating how one reads Typee is the fact that it is not a single book. Owing to the circumstances of its publication, Melville's debut work was available in several distinct versions throughout his lifetime. When Melville's brother Gansevoort left for a diplomatic post in England in July 1845, he took a partial manuscript of Herman's book in hopes of finding a publisher. The brothers' plan was to try to bring out English and U.S. editions simultaneously. After some time, Gansevoort secured an agreement with the London publisher John Murray, who would include Typee in his nonfiction "Home and Colonial Library" series, and in January 1846, accompanied by an enthusiastic Washington Irving, Gansevoort shopped Murray's partial proof draft at the London offices of the American publishers Wiley and Putnam.
Wiley and Putnam soon brought out the book in New York, prepared from Murray's proofs but altered somewhat to align the text with their own house standards and with American spelling and usage. But Mr. Wiley was not comfortable with the work as published. It seems likely he had not read the book before publishing it, proceeding on the strength of Irving's recommendation alone. Wiley found parts of the narrative too racy for his taste, and he particularly objected to Melville's criticisms in the book of Protestant missionaries. Under Wiley's direction, Melville almost immediately began to revise and expurgate passages from the book for a revised American edition, which appeared in September 1846 and became the standard text for American readers in the author's lifetime.
The differences between the standard English and U.S. editions of Typee are not superficial, nor does
The story of the early editions of Typee does not end simply with the competing first English edition and revised U.S. edition. After Wiley and Putnam brought out the revised edition, Melville wrote to the English publishers recommending they bring out a second edition of their own based on the new American edition. Murray declined to adopt Melville's emendations and expurgations, but he did consent to reprint Typee with the "sequel." This brought to four the number of variant versions of Typee in print simultaneously.
After the publication of the English edition with "The Story of Toby," the text remained relatively stable throughout the rest of Melville's life. Subsequent printings in both the United States and England differed in ways attributable to plate damage, printer's style, and the like, but no substantive variants were introduced. At the end of Melville's life, however, Arthur Stedman sought permission from Melville to publish a new edition of Typee. Melville is known to have suggested two minor changes for the new edition, but as Stedman's edition came out in 1892, the year after Melville's death, later scholars would decline to consider it "authoritative." Along with reissues of the book from its English publishers around the same time, however, the 1892 edition sparked a revival of interest in Typee that carried its reputation into the twentieth century.
Since 1968 readers and scholars have had an excellent critical edition in the form of volume 1 of The Writings of Herman Melville, known as the Northwestern-Newberry edition. This version, titled Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, follows Sir Walter Greg's theory of copy text: the editors of the volume have tediously reconstructed the text they judge best represents Melville's final intention for the work (though discounting his final instructions to Stedman), and they have appropriately detailed the basis for each choice they have made among variants and listed all documentary evidence in appendices. Although the presence of a thorough, well-documented critical edition standardizes the work for modern readers, the critical text is not, technically speaking, Melville's text, but rather an informed synthesis of several texts. To discuss Typee as a book, then, one might legitimately ask the question, "which Typee?"
THE YOUNG AUTHOR AS SOCIAL CRITIC
Many of the issues that fueled Typee's textual instability have remained central to its reputation. As noted earlier, Melville was pressured by his American publisher to revise and expurgate his book. Wiley chiefly objected, it seems, to the novice author's frank criticism of the Protestant missions in the South Sea Islands and his willingness to compare his own culture unfavorably to the "heathen" practices of the Typee people. The publisher's discomfort was not without justification: while Typee was greeted with delight by many early readers and reviewers, it was roundly savaged by the influential Protestant press in America. In addition to their umbrage at Melville's criticism of missionaries, religious critics blasted even the expurgated edition for depicting in a favorable light what a reviewer for the Honolulu Friend called "a tribe of filthy and debased savages" (1 June 1847).
Even as those offended by Typee railed against Melville's portrayal of the intersection of Western and Polynesian cultures, reform-minded readers praised the book along much the same lines. Writing in the Harbinger on 4 April 1846, the radical transcendentalist Charles A. Dana applauded Melville's veneration of Typee society, suggesting that here was a model Americans could apply in reforming their own industrial economy. On the same day, Margaret Fuller cautioned readers of the New-York Daily Tribune to consult Melville's descriptions of missionary activity in the islands before contributing money to such enterprises. Henry David Thoreau read Typee while in residence at Walden Pond, and he no doubt felt sympathy with Melville's perspective as a traveler who gains insight into his own society through his separation from it.
Melville's social critique in the book could be subtle and deftly nuanced, often injected after a seemingly innocuous humorous anecdote. An example of such layered criticism occurs at the end of chapter 14, following a scene Melville dubbed "Producing a Light à La Typee." In a slapstick depiction highly evocative of masturbation, the narrator describes the character Kory-Kory's labor to produce flame by straddling a stick and rubbing it vigorously with another. The action concluded, the narrator makes a characteristic comparison between Typee society and his own:
What a striking evidence does this operation furnish of the wide difference between the extreme of savage and civilized life. A gentleman of Typee can bring up a numerous family of children and give them all a highly respectable cannibal education, with infinitely less toil and anxiety than he expends in the simple process of striking a light; whilst a poor European artisan, who through the instrumentality of a lucifer [a match] performs the same operation in one second, is put to his wit's' end to provide for his starving offspring that food which the children of a Polynesian father, without troubling their parents, pluck from the branches of every tree around them. (P. 110)
On its surface, this is a simple and rather tame critique of Western industrial society. But the passage may also involve a subtle, broader criticism of Melville's culture. Through his hilarious description of Kory-Kory's efforts, Melville implies another "wide difference between the . . . savage and civilized life." After describing how Kory-Kory grasps a stick and "rubs its pointed end slowly up and down" (p. 109), the narrator seems to warm to the bawdy possibilities of his subject:
At first Kory-Kory goes to work quite leisurely, but gradually quickens his pace, and waxing warm in the employment . . . the perspiration starting from every pore. As he approaches the climax of his effort, he pants and gasps for breath . . . with the violence of his exertions. (P. 109)
It seems unlikely that the strong hint of masturbation here is accidental. Throughout Melville's youth and adolescence, he would have read widely popular advice manuals such as the New England evangelist John Todd's 1835 volume, The Student's Manual (which Melville's older brother Gansevoort owned). Such books explicitly and repeatedly warned young men that masturbation was not only sinful but deeply corrosive of the very fabric of society. The general premise of these writers was that "self pollution" undermined a young man's willingness and fitness to be productive in an industrial economy. By setting up a playful equivalent between this most arduous and necessary task in Typee society and the most reviled and pernicious practice of masturbation, Melville coyly subverts the convictions of the arbiters of morality in his own society.
FROM SPINNING YARN TO THE ORIGIN OF A GENRE
In spite of its considerable impact as social critique, Typee was largely popular for the simple fact that it fed the public's appetite for dramatic accounts of adventure and exotic locales. Readers both in England and the United States were simply fascinated by Melville's tale: by the suspense, the remarkable characters, the relatively frank sexuality, and, perhaps above all, by Melville's considerable descriptive powers. Even critics who bitterly denounced the book often conceded that it was a spellbinding read.
It is likely Melville had some sense that the demand for such a book existed, as he appears to have written the book in the first place at the behest of friends and family. Certainly, Melville did not approach the experience from the outset as an author looking for material. Though he had published a couple of largely imitative short stories before shipping aboard the Acushnet, he did not keep a journal of his voyage or, as far as scholars can tell, keep any notes or other records of the trip. This fact has implications for how Melville composed Typee, including probably his reliance on materials from other published accounts of the Marquesas.
What Melville did have at his disposal was more than three years of rehearsing Typee as an oral text for various audiences. Of course, no direct records of Melville's oral text exist, but there is enough evidence to confirm that the author can be taken at his word when he writes in Typee's preface, "the incidents recorded in the following pages have often served, when 'spun as a yarn,' not only to relieve the weariness of many a night-watch at sea, but to excite the warmest sympathies of the author's shipmates" (p. 1). No doubt the first draft of Typee was begun quite soon after the young castaway was picked up by the whaler that bore him away from Typee Valley, the Lucy Ann, and continued to develop as Melville made his way home by way of his brief detention in Tahiti on mutiny charges; passage on another whaler, the Charles and Henry; a stint as a clerk in a dry-goods store in Honolulu; and, finally, a tour with the U.S. Navy on the man-of-war United States. This three-year succession of shifting audiences doubtless provided Melville ample opportunity to hone his story, experimenting with different strategies for inducing suspense, humor, and, of course, sexual arousal among his peers.
As his audiences became further removed from the facts, his opportunities for invention would have increased. The sailors aboard the Lucy Ann would certainly have demanded accounts of their new ship-mate's escapades among the islanders, but they also would have known some facts, such as the relative brevity of his stay, that put limits on his creative freedom. On later ships, the storyteller may already have begun to exaggerate the time frame in order to increase suspense and lend greater credibility to his more "anthropological" observations. Clearly, though, of greatest interest to each of the all-male crews, cut off for long periods of time from female society, would have been sexual material, and, preferably, explicit sexual material.
Upon his return to New England, Melville's audience would change dramatically. Before returning to his family, the young adventurer visited the family who would become his in-laws: the home of Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw and Melville's future wife, the judge's daughter Elizabeth. In this new context, Melville would need to revise his stories to suit the taste of a more polite, mixed-gender audience. The racy sexual content, his shipboard mainstay, would have to be toned down. But rather than abandon it altogether, Melville found he could recast it as sly innuendo and excite "warm sympathies" in the parlor without crossing the line of good taste. At the same time, his role as an observer of social customs would take on greater importance as titillating details gave ground to cultural ones for the more literate audience.
As his stories shifted to meet the demands of new settings, Melville's "yarns" were evolving into a text that would come to define the "South Sea travel narrative" as a genre. Of course, accounts of the South Sea islands existed before Melville wrote Typee. In fact, Melville consulted several as he revised his manuscript. To put it simply, Melville did not have enough material from his four-week experience to sustain a book claiming a four-month time span, and his memory for details had to span a gap of three years. In order to fill the gaps, he turned to accounts of earlier visits to the Marquesas by explorers, missionaries, and military campaigns. More often than not, Melville incorporated information and descriptions from his sources without acknowledgment or attribution. When he does refer explicitly to his sources, it is typically to criticize the authors for their superficial encounters with and ill treatment of the indigenous people.
In some ways, Melville's use of sources points to what separated his narratives from the very works he borrowed from, and hence what set it apart as a new kind of travel narrative. The extant accounts of South Sea travels shared an implicit European colonial bias and a detached quasi-scientific focus. The opinions of Melville's most brutal critics, "that the islanders were simply filthy heathens," were opinions held by the writers Melville turned to in order to pad out his narrative. With his open criticism of these writers, Melville established a unique voice on the other side of a cultural divide. But perhaps more important, his perspective allowed him to portray the islanders as distinct, human charactersnd these characters appealed to readers in a way the earlier superficial and judgmental accounts did not. Melville's uses of source material, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, signal his departure from their assumptions as well as a crucial and ultimately influential stylistic break. That is, Melville's blending of his own experience with the product of his imagination and details borrowed from other accounts of the islands results in an entirely new kind of book, something that flaunts a range of implicit rules of travel narratives, from their adherence to detached observation to their charge to be morally instructive along narrow, preconceived lines of Protestant orthodoxy. It was this novelty in approach that made the book so appealing to its readers and endured to inspire important later writers such as Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson.
In 1851, while composing Moby-Dick, Melville wrote to his friend and colleague Nathaniel Hawthorne: "From my twenty-fifth year, I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself." His "twenty-fifth year" was the year Melville began writing Typee. And indeed, the habits and techniques he established at the beginning of his career remained part of his creative process as he continued to grow and unfold as a writer.
Not only did Melville continue to draw on firsthand observations and experiences throughout his writing career, but he also supplemented his own experience and imagination with extensive research and even occasional "borrowing" from other sources. In fact, after Typee, Melville would begin his writing projects by purchasing and borrowing vast numbers of books related to his subject. He would also turn time and again to the oral tradition of "spinning yarn" as a storytelling technique. Consider, for example, the "Town-Ho Story" in Moby-Dick. Melville sets up this famous encapsulated story as an entirely oral narrative, related in the book as told in a completely different time and context. The self-consciously constructed scene of storytelling hearkens back to the genesis of Typee, and given the author's enduring influence, it looks forward to such important later works as Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness (1902). Moby-Dick also retains Typee's careful blend of fact and fancy, appealing at once to the reader's wish to be informed about unfamiliar people and places and his desire to be carried away by adventure.
Melville later resented the popularity of his earlier books like Typee because they overshadowed what he considered his higher, more serious works. The public knew him as the "man who lived among the cannibals," but to Melville himself, that reputation competed with his desire to be known as serious writer. These competing views of Melville were reversed by twentieth-century scholars: long after his death, Melville achieved the reputation he sought in life, but then, paradoxically, the importance of his earliest books was largely overlooked. Since the late twentieth century, however, scholars have begun to recognize Typee's crucial place in Melville's canon. We likely owe Melville's continued writing career to the popular success of his first book: if Typee had not sold, he would have had to look for a job. But more than that, writing and publishing Typee taught Melville how to write and publish books, and with its social criticism, cultural exploration, and probing psychology, Melville's first book launched the author's lifelong project of speaking Truth without obsessing over the facts.
See also "Bartleby, the Scrivener"; "Benito Cereno"; The Confidence-Man; Exploration and Discovery; Moby-Dick; Nautical Literature; Sexuality and the Body
Melville, Herman. Correspondence. Edited by Lynn Horth. Vol. 14 of The Writings of Herman Melville. Evanston, Ill., and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1993.
Melville, Herman. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. 1846. Vol. 1 of The Writings of Herman Melville. Edited by Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston, Ill., and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1968.
Melville, Herman. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. 1846. New York: Penguin, 1996. A paperback edition of the Northwestern-Newberry text. Page citations in article refer to this edition.
Anderson, Charles Roberts. Melville in the South Seas. New York: Dover, 1966.
Bryant, John L. "The Typee Manuscript: A Reading Text." In Herman Melville, Typee: A Peep At Polynesian Life, edited by John L. Bryant, pp. 29311. New York: Penguin, 1996.
Bryant, John L. "Versions of Typee: Typee, Chapter 14." In Herman Melville, Tales, Poems, and Other Writings, edited by John L. Bryant, pp. 145. New York: Modern Library, 2001. An experimental "fluid text" edition of chapter 14 of Typee with parallel passages transcribed and annotated from the extant fragment manuscript.
Herbert, T. Walter, Jr. Marquesan Encounters: Melville and the Meaning of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.
Higgins, Brian, and Hershel Parker, eds. Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819891. Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951.
Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography. Vol. 1, 1819851. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Samson, John. White Lies: Melville's Narratives of Facts. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.
Stern, Milton R., ed. Critical Essays on Herman Melville's Typee. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
Patrick W. Bryant