Sunday, May 15, 2011

Herman and the Cannibals

Lately I've been reading a book called Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, a mostly-autobiographical account of its author's adventures on the South Pacific island of Nuku Hiva after he jumped ship from a whaling voyage. First published in 1846 to widespread success and acclaim (that included glowing reviews by such esteemed literati as Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne), it was the author's first novel and vaulted him almost overnight to the heights of literary stardom.

Even though you've never heard of Typee, critics and readers of the nineteenth century counted it the premature peak of what seemed like such a promising literary career for the young Herman Melville. It's very likely that around 1860 or so, a couple of thirty-somethings sitting down during their lunch break to reminisce about the fondly-remembered plays, books, and pantomimes of their youth, had a conversation that went something like...

JOHN: Hey, remember that book "Typee" that everyone was reading back in the day? You know, the one by that fellow who lived with that cannibal tribe in the South Pacific?

SMITH: Oh, yeah! I haven't thought about that in years! It was great! Who was it by again? That guy, what's his name -- Herbert Melville, right? Whatever happened to him, anyway?

JOHN: Oh, he wrote this piece of shit called "Moby Dick" and no one ever heard from him again. 

SMITH: *sigh* What a waste of talent.

Just to be on the safe side, it might be best to wait a hundred years or so before appraising the value of an artist's work. Today's multiplantinum artist might be the twenty-second century's "Lady who?" while the record or book that sold only 500 copies in its first and only printing run last year might very well be canonized by the listeners and readers of the next generation.

At any rate, a portion of Typee's fame and popularity might also be attributed to the public reaction to its controversial subject matter. The right-wingers of Melville's time took no small degree of umbrage at his suggestion that Western intervention in remote tribal areas stank of deceit and cruelty, and that dispatching missionaries to forcibly proselytize and "educate" the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific was the very antinomy of civilized behavior. For instance:

The French, although they had gone through the ceremony of hoisting their colors for a few hours at all the principal places of the group, had not as yet visited the bay of Typee, anticipating a fierce resistance on the part of the savages there, which for the present at least they wished to avoid. Perhaps they were not a little influenced in the adoption of this unusual policy from a recollection of the warlike reception given by the Typees to the forces of Captain Porter, about the year 1814, when that brave and accomplished officer endeavored to subjugate the clan merely to gratify the mortal hatred of his allies the Nukuhevas and Happars.

On that occasion I have been told that a considerable detachment of sailors and marines from the frigate Essex, accompanied by at least two thousand warriors of Happar and Nukuheva, landed in boats and canoes at the head of the bay, and after penetrating a little distance into the valley, met with the stoutest resistance from its inmates. Valiantly, although with much loss, the Typees disputed every inch of ground, and after some hard fighting obliged their assailants to retreat and abandon their design of conquest.

The invaders, on their march back to the sea, consoled themselves for their repulse by setting fire to every house and temple in their route; and a long line of smoking ruins defaced the once-smiling bosom of the valley, and proclaimed to its pagan inhabitants the spirit that reigned in the breasts of Christian soldiers. Who can wonder at the deadly hatred of the Typees to all foreigners after such unprovoked atrocities?

Thus it is that they whom we denominate "savages" are made to deserve the title. When the inhabitants of some sequestered island first descry the "big canoe" of the European rolling through the blue waters towards their shores, they rush down to the beach in crowds, and with open arms stand ready to embrace the strangers. Fatal embrace! They fold to their bosom the vipers whose sting is destined to poison all their joys; and the instinctive feeling of love within their breast is soon converted into the bitterest hate.

The enormities perpetrated in the South Seas upon some of the inoffensive islanders will nigh pass belief. These things are seldom proclaimed at home; they happen at the very ends of the earth; they are done in a corner, and there are none to reveal them. But there is, nevertheless, many a petty trader that has navigated the Pacific whose course from island to island might be traced by a series of cold-blooded robberies, kidnappings, and murders, the iniquity of which might be considered almost sufficient to sink her guilty timbers to the bottom of the sea.

Sometimes vague accounts of such thing's reach our firesides, and we coolly censure them as wrong, impolitic, needlessly severe, and dangerous to the crews of other vessels. How different is our tone when we read the highly-wrought description of the massacre of the crew of the Hobomak by the Feejees; how we sympathize for the unhappy victims, and with what horror do we regard the diabolical heathens, who, after all, have but avenged the unprovoked injuries which they have received. We breathe nothing but vengeance, and equip armed vessels to traverse thousands of miles of ocean in order to execute summary punishment upon the offenders. On arriving at their destination, they burn, slaughter, and destroy, according to the tenor of written instructions, and sailing away from the scene of devastation, call upon all Christendom to applaud their courage and their justice.

How often is the term "savages" incorrectly applied! None really deserving of it were ever yet discovered by voyagers or by travellers. They have discovered heathens and barbarians whom by horrible cruelties they have exasperated into savages. It may be asserted without fear of contradictions that in all the cases of outrages committed by Polynesians, Europeans have at some time or other been the aggressors, and that the cruel and bloodthirsty disposition of some of the islanders is mainly to be ascribed to the influence of such examples....

It so happened that the very day I was in Tior the French admiral, attended by all the boats of his squadron, came down in state from Nukuheva to take formal possession of the place. He remained in the valley about two hours, during which time he had a ceremonious interview with the king. The patriarch-sovereign of Tior was a man very far advanced in years; but though age had bowed his form and rendered him almost decrepid, his gigantic frame retained its original magnitude and grandeur of appearance.

He advanced slowly and with evident pain, assisting his tottering steps with the heavy war-spear he held in his hand, and attended by a group of grey-bearded chiefs, on one of whom he occasionally leaned for support. The admiral came forward with head uncovered and extended hand, while the old king saluted him by a stately flourish of his weapon. The next moment they stood side by side, these two extremes of the social scale,
the polished, splendid Frenchman, and the poor tattooed savage. They were both tall and noble-looking men; but in other respects how strikingly contrasted! Du Petit Thouars exhibited upon his person all the paraphernalia of his naval rank. He wore a richly decorated admiral's frock-coat, a laced chapeau bras, and upon his breast were a variety of ribbons and orders; while the simple islander, with the exception of a slight cincture about his loins, appeared in all the nakedness of nature.

At what an immeasurable distance, thought I, are these two beings removed from each other. In the one is shown the result of long centuries of progressive civilization and refinement, which have gradually converted the mere creature into the semblance of all that is elevated and grand; while the other, after the lapse of the same period, has not advanced one step in the career of improvement. "Yet, after all," quoth I to myself, "insensible as he is to a thousand wants, and removed from harassing cares, may not the savage be the happier man of the two?"

Speaking of the refinements of progressive civilization, I've been having a lot of fun (though not much success) trying to track Melville's footsteps across Nuku Hiva via Google Maps.
Also, perhaps you've noticed that I've retroactively tagged the Beyond Easy archives for easy future perusal, should you find yourself desirous of perusing archived posts in the future.


  1. So how did Melville make a comeback? And such a big one? The first time I read Moby Dick I gave him a pass because he was famous, but the second time, I was that person going enough with the whales already.

    Faulkner too. If I saw that on a slush pile I think I'd want to kill him. I genuinely enjoyed reading Faulkner, but I think a lot of that had to do with an established trust. Because he was famous I believed there was a point to untangling his sentences and did the work. But if he wasn't? I'd probably think--oh, hell, this guy can't write for shit.

  2. Modernism. Experimental narratives became trendy; the times finally caught up with Melville, and Moby Dick was catapulted to the heights of the American canon.

    The funny thing about Melville is that he really, REALLY would have benefited from a good editor. He's not the best craftsman in the world; his prose is often sloppy. I sorta feel like that works to his advantage in Moby Dick, though. A writer like Hemingway is like a guy breaking a horse, taming and training it to obey his every command with finesse and effectiveness. In Moby Dick, Melville is like a guy holding on to a bucking bronco. He's barely in control. The idea seized him and all he could do was hold on and try to ride it.

    As for the book's meditative digressions about whales and whaling, there's not much I can say. You either dig it or you don't.