In the language of the Marquesan islanders, omoo signifies a rover, one who travels from island to island among the island groups of Polynesia. These islands provide the setting for Herman Melville’s first two works. In Melville’s day, these islands were still fairly unknown except to missionaries and whalers, and since the latter ships tended to follow known courses through the region, it was still possible to come in contact with islands that had rarely been visited by European or American peoples.
A sequel to Melville’s popular first travel novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Omoo continues the story of Melville’s experiences in the region. The question of how factual a reader should consider these experiences has been much debated since the book was first published in 1847. Reviewers objected to various aspects of Melville’s first two books, declaring they must be fiction. Melville responded that he had observed “a strict adherence to facts.” Research in the twentieth century showed that he had embellished his true experiences—that he had lived one month among the Typee people of Nukuheva, for instance, rather than four as he had claimed. As a result, readers must consider both of these books novels, in which Melville has felt free to alter the details of his experience to deliver a better story.
Omoo stands out among Melville’s novels as his most reckless and carefree. Perhaps, for an author associated with darkness, depths of thought, and brooding about the nature of evil, it is Melville at his happiest as well. Like Typee, it contains some complaints about missionary activity in Tahiti, but Omoo is mostly a light and comical travelogue, as Melville and his shipboard companion, Doctor Long Ghost, tour and have adventures on Tahiti and neighboring islands. This free spiritedness implies a Melville who has escaped his Puritan demons, a Melville whose narrator can give himself over to pleasure without guilt and to desire without comeuppance. Unlike Melville’s other books, there is no dark side to pleasure in Omoo, and Melville and Doctor Long Ghost laze around, a couple of beachcombers, throughout much of the novel, entertaining themselves with various escapades.
Doctor Long Ghost is, like Melville himself was, well read. In the first part of the novel the two play chess and quote poetry from memory to each other aboard their ship, the Julia. The two also regale each other with tales of their travels. It was this type of characterization to which British reviewers most objected at the time of Omoo’s publication; they argued that no common seaman would have had the breeding to be exposed to literature and the finer pleasures of life. This, Melville countered, was a demonstration of America’s democratic, classless society, versus England’s more rigid class system. The nineteenth century United States was still new to the world in these respects. In Melville’s day, public education allowed the working class to be educated, and learning did not mean that one who had it considered physical labor demeaning.
Democracy is an issue in Omoo. Protesting various injustices and the questionable seaworthiness of their captain and ship, several members of the Julia ’s crew engage in a democratic resistance. Each participant signs the declaration of rebellion, so that no leader may be singled out, with the narrator authoring the document, in effect becoming their Thomas Jefferson. The mutineers are locked up once ashore and for a moment it seems as if all the forces that would seek to restrain American-style democracy are arraigned against them: “four or five Europeans,” figures of decadent authority, as well...
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as the ancient ship’s articles, “a discolored, musty, bilious affair,” are pressed into service far past the age when they might have been relevant. These are more symbols of the forces that once held democracy in check than they are the forces themselves. When the men are not intimidated by them, they are simply allowed to escape by the native warden, Captain Bob.
In its illustration of the possibilities of democratic organization, then, Omoo stands out among Melville’s work. Melville is more often obsessed with describing the dangers to democracy in his works. In Moby Dick (1851), Captain Ahab destroys the possibility of democratic organization among the multicultural crew of the Pequod by ruling them with an iron hand and subjecting the desires of all of his crew to his monomaniacal quest to hunt the white whale. Once at sea, there is nothing that can restrain the tyrannical authority of the captain, and dictatorial sea captains are seen as well in Typee and Redburn: His First Voyage (1849). A mutiny fails to achieve its desired end in Moby Dick’s “Town-Ho’s Story,” and Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924) illustrates the typical severity of justice at sea.
Omoo, one of Melville’s most neglected works, reveals much about the young Melville and provides interesting commentaries when viewed in the context of the author’s work as a whole. The book provides evidence of his commitment to the American project. Melville abandoned one ship and helped lead a mutiny on another; he was often highly critical of Western influence, in the form of missionaries and armed intrusions, in the South Seas, but he never imagined a life apart from the American ideal. Melville’s critique of American abuses of democracy in later works should be viewed as expressions of patriotism, for Melville is an author who examines democracy seriously.