Thursday, 15 August 2013

Herman Melville and Typee

After many weeks of reading a few pages on the bus to and from work, I have now finished this novel. And what an interesting read it has been. Who was Herman Melville you may ask, and what is Typee? Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American writer best known for the novel Moby-Dick. His first three books gained much contemporary attention (the first, Typee, became a bestseller), but after a fast-blooming literary success in the late 1840s, his popularity declined precipitously in the mid-1850s and never recovered during his lifetime. This is an image of Melville about 1846 ish just after Typee was published . It is clear that Melville, on January 3, 1841, sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts on the whaler Acushnet, which was bound for the Pacific Ocean. He was later to comment that his life began that day. The vessel sailed around Cape Horn and travelled to the South Pacific. Melville left little direct accounts of the events of this 18-month voyage, although his whaling romance, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, probably describes many aspects of life on board the Acushnet. Melville deserted the Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands in July 1842. For three weeks he lived among the Typee natives, who were called cannibals by the two other tribal groups on the island—though they treated Melville very well. Typee, Melville's first novel, describes a brief love affair with a beautiful native girl, Fayaway, who generally "wore the garb of Eden" and came to epitomize the guileless noble savage in the popular imagination. Melville did not seem to be concerned about consequences of leaving the Acushnet. He boarded an Australian whale ship, the Lucy Ann, bound for Tahiti. So the author allegedly lived on the Marquesas Islands with the Typees, one group of residents on the island of Nukuhiva. But reading his novel, creates a completely real and detailed world. Did he experience even a percentage of that world, or is it all or partly a fiction? The hero's adventures with the Typee seem sufficiently authentic, but at the same time I find it difficult to believe and wonder if Melville wasn't being a commercial writer and simply pandering to the tastes of people who had specific expectations of what non-europeans did and how they lived. This is a most extraordinary book, is downloadable for free because it is out of copyright, and should be something everyone examines in order to consider how we view people who are different from ourselves. Underpinning the novel are assumptions about how the world is and how it ought to be. Over 150 years on, I find it fascinating that a person could describe a situation and its people as savage, when nothing of the sort has been shown - a historical blimp. Yes, captivity in such a place makes a paradise a prison, however to see every practice as an example of savagery is very much of those times and not ours (I would hope).