Herman Melville’s career as a novelist breaks down, somewhat too neatly, into a three-part voyage of frustration and disappointment. The first part of his career is characterized by the heady successes of Typee and Omoo; the second by the frustrating failure of, among others, Moby Dick; and the third by his increasing withdrawal from publication and the final discovery of and acclaim for Billy Budd, Foretopman, thirty-two years after Melville’s death. After the initial successes of Typee and Omoo, Melville never again achieved anything approaching popular success, but it was the acclaim over those two novels that assured Melville that he should attempt to make his way as a novelist. It probably did not occur to Melville at the time, but he was introducing a new genre into American literature.
Typee struck the American public like a ray of sunshine falling into a darkened room. The fresh descriptions and intriguingnarrative of an American sailor trapped among the Rousseauesque natives of the Marquesas Islands were hailed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and its sequel, Omoo, was received even more enthusiastically. The problems inherent in Melville’s harsh treatment of missionaries and imperialism and the general disbelief of the veracity in the author’s tale aside, the works satiated a public thirst for exotic places. That Typee and Omoo have survived in the estimation of critics is testimony to Melville’s art even in those early stages of his development.
Whether it is the simple narrative or the dramatic suspense of impending doom that holds the reader, Typee offers a flowing romantic atmosphere of timeless days, pointless endeavor, and mindless existence. The Happy Valley in which Melville’s Tommo finds himself trapped is an idyllic setting for the lovely Fayaway and Tommo to live and love. In Typee there is none of the agonizing speculation on life, humanity, philosophy, or the cosmos, which readers later came to expect of Melville. With only slight exaggeration and minimal research, Melville created the picture of a world that was beyond the ken of his readers but that would never die in his memories.
Omoo, a sequel to Typee, is only an extension of that idyll. There is a basic difference between Typee and Omoo, however. Typee is a tightly woven dramatic narrative, incorporating the day-to-day suspense of whether Tommo would be the Marquesan cannibals’ next meal; Omoo is a more picaresque representation of the events, the charm in Omoo depending solely on the loosely tied chain of events encountered by the narrator and his companion, Dr. Long Ghost, among the indigenous of Tahiti. There is no threat hanging over them, as in Typee, and there is no necessity for escape. Omoo also differs in that it takes place in a tainted paradise. Tahiti has been, in Omoo, Christianized and settled and, thus, the natives are familiar with the white sailor and his games. This reduction of innocence colors Omoo in a way not reflected in Typee.
There is an inescapable glow of romance throughout Melville’s two Polynesian novels. The record of missionary abuse and the encroachment of civilization does not make an overbearing appearance, but it does lay the groundwork for the reflections of Melville’s despair and convoluted indictments of humans and their world in later, more mature works.
Mardi, Redburn, and White-Jacket rapidly followed Melville’s early successes. Mardi, opening like a continuation of Typee and Omoo, shocked readers when it lapsed into philosophical allegory. Mardi’s subsequent failure prompted Melville, in search of fame and funds, to return to sea narrative in Redburn and White-Jacket, but despite their modest successes, Melville reviled them as hackwork.
With Moby Dick , there is evidence that Melville intended the work to be little more than a factual account of the whale fisheries in the South Pacific...
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- Critical Essays