Herman Melville’s assertion in Moby Dick (1851) that a whale ship was his Yale and Harvard reminds readers of how central to his development the sea adventures of his youth were and how strongly they would shape his writing. It was from the whaler Acushnet that Melville jumped ship in the Marquesas to spend a few weeks among the Nukuheva natives. The episode ended, sooner and less dramatically than in Typee, when he departed the island on another whaler, eventually to join the American warship United States, for a voyage back to Boston. Though the adventure ended in actuality, it began imaginatively for Melville only when he sought to discover its meaning in the fictionalized account of his sojourn among the cannibals that he called Typee. Though actually a novel based upon experience, Typee was regarded generally as simply a travel narrative when it appeared, and the work’s reputation since has had to fight against that classification. In fact, Typee contains more of the basic elements of Melville’s later fiction than its detractors have realized, and it deserves a primary place among such other early works as Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850) that give meaning to the idea of Melville’s education on board the ships he sailed as a young man.
The essential facts of Typee, except for the time, which Melville considerably exaggerates, are true. He did jump ship in company of a friend named Toby Greene and spent a few weeks among the natives of the Typee valley, where he enjoyed a somewhat ambiguous status as a prisoner-guest. Melville did injure his leg escaping the Acushnet and allowed Toby to go for medical supplies. Toby failed to return, having been shanghaied by another whaler, and, after a few weeks Melville was taken off the island by a whaler in search of crewmen. The novel, however, is more than the sum of these few facts, and it cannot be done justice by a reading that regards it as no more than a slightly fictionalized autobiographical narrative. Far from simply recounting his adventures, in Typee Melville is examining the fundamental ambiguities in humanity and nature that would characterize his best work as the basis for the unanswerable questions his novels propose.
From its very beginning, the boys’ journey into the Typee valley promises to be more than it seems. Running not only from the ship and its cruelly authoritarian master but also from...
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