Monday, October 20, 2008

Melville's Typee - a gesture expressive of deep commiseration

Moby-Dick was Herman Melville's sixth novel. Typee (1846) is his first. They are all sea novels, more or less. These are the only two I have read, the first and sixth. I can hardly tell that they were written by the same man. I can hardly believe that there is only five years between them.

In Typee, two whalers jump ship on an island in the Marquesas and hide out with the isolated Typee tribe, where they are both guests and prisoners. One of the sailors gets out quickly enough, but the Melville-ish narrator, "Tommo," has an injured leg so is stuck for a while. It's summertime every day, the livin' is easy, the breadfruit is abundant, the women are nearly nude. Only the fear that he may at some point be eaten by his hosts disturbs the idyll.

The models for Typee seem to be travel books rather than novels. Chapters discuss religious rituals, tattooing, sexual division of labor, warfare - anthropology. It's mostly pretty interesting.

It's the prose that really surprised me. It's so ordinary. I mean it's good, quite good, but nothing like what it would become only a few years later, in Moby-Dick, or even weirder books like Pierre. Where are the cadences of the King James Bible, or Sir Thomas Browne?

A few months ago I read the Penguin Classics selections from the Private Journals of William Reynolds, an officer on the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. I don't remember whether Reynolds visited the exact island of Typee, but he was at least nearby, and Melville was familiar with and made use of the offical accounts of the ExEx. One of the most pleasurable things about Reynolds's book is watching him become a much better writer over time, funnier, more adept at description, more judicious in his details. The Melville of Typee is about as good as William Reynolds. The Reynolds book has more variety of incident.

Here's an uncharacteristic example of weirdness, from near the end of the novel. Tommo should be napping, but is instead watching his odd "host father":

"All alone during the stillness of the tropical mid-day, he would pursue his quiet work, sitting in the shade and weaving together the leaflets of his cocoanut branches, or rolling upon his knee the twisted fibres of bark to form the cords with which he tied together the thatching of his tiny house. Frequently suspending his employment, and noticing my melancholy eye fixed upon him, he would raise his hand with a gesture expressive of deep commiseration, and then moving towards me slowly, would enter on tip-toes, fearful of disturbing the slumbering natives, and, taking the fan from my hand, would sit before me, swaying it gently to and fro, and gazing earnestly into my face." (Ch. 33)


  1. One positive thing that came out of my experience with Susan Cheever's American Bloomsbury was realizing that I know almost nothing about Herman Melville. He was mentioned a few times in the book, mostly in relation to Hawthorne. I'm ashamed to admit I didn't know he'd written anything other than Moby Dick.
    I've got some Melville titles on their way from bookmooch - nice timing!

  2. Melville's career was a strange one. Moby-Dick overshadows everything, except perhaps "Bartleby the Scrivener". Billy Budd was not published until more than 30 years after his death. After nine novels and some stories he abandoned prose fiction entirely and switched to poetry. It's a mess.

  3. Yeah, but he was so *sincere* about it. I just can't be mean to Mr. Omoo. I went through a phase where I kind of felt like I was having an actual relationship with Herman Melville. So I look upon him fondly, crummy poetry and all. Besides, it's not like I could do any better. Hee.

  4. Crummy or not, Melville's poetry is On My List. "Battle Pieces" is good, isn't it? Well, I'll read it someday, regardless.