Friday, July 16, 2010

Reflections on Typee

The Melville, Pennsylvania Project - Book X

Herman Melville’s first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, was published in 1846 to modest acclaim and fairly robust sales, for an adventure yarn by an unknown literary commodity. It was based on real-life experiences Melville acquired four years earlier, during his travels in the South Pacific seas. He took the challenges he encountered and overcame, first as a young sailor, then, later, as a deserter living in the wild among Polynesian natives, and he ficitionalized them in such a way as to compel, educate, shock, and entertain readers.

It if sounds as though the novel that landed Melville on the literary map was ready-made – that all he had to do was simply write down what he witnessed and presto! a best-seller – I can tell you even from my own personal experience that this is an illusion. Just because Typee flows smoothly and makes a rollicking entertainment doesn’t mean it was easy. I tried to pull off the same thing with my own early experiences as a soldier – not once, but twice. I first wrote a complete nonfiction account called Mech Soldier, about my first year as a mechanized infantry platoon leader; years later, as my graduate school thesis, I’m ashamed to admit, I worked for over a year on a foundering “novel” based on the same material. Both of these writings today are consigned to the loamy literary graveyard known as my basement, where they have earned their plots.

The point: it ain’t as easy as it appears. Melville’s novel, though not the mature and penetrating work his reputation rests on today, is an impressive, remarkably entertaining book. It has exotic backdrops, adventurous journeys, chases, tribal rituals, drug use (in the form of smoking strange weeds), humor, violence, inferences of sex (evidently edited down from earlier drafts, for fear of scandal), and, if all that’s not wild enough for you, an appetizing dollop of cannibalism. These disparate elements are blended together skillfully by the young Melville, who was obviously uncovering a gift for narrative structure, and knew how to present the material in digestible chapters that made readers hunger for more. He was not very advanced in years (he was about 25 when he wrote the novel), nor was he very long in the tooth in terms of literary experience. Prior to publishing this book, he had only written a few pieces for a newspaper called the Democratic Press in upstate New York, the most notable of which were two parts of a longer story called “Fragments from a Writing Desk” – a dark tale that testifies most convincingly to the long influence of Edgar Allan Poe.

So how did Melville bring off Typee? He did it the only way writers can: he recognized his talent and pushed it to its limits. In other words: hard work. A segment of a great volume I read earlier this year called Tales, Poems and Other Writings examines in detail an earlier version of Typee’s 14th chapter, the manuscript of which has fortunately been preserved. It clearly reveals the revisions and re-writing Melville put in to just this one section, toning down certain places, embellishing others, sometimes simply going through three or four individual words before settling on the correct choice. The result is impressive. Typee rolls right along, as though Melville himself were telling you the tale around a hearth – which, by all biographical accounts, was more or less the original method of delivery.

The story itself is about a young sailor on a whaling vessel (what else?) in the South Pacific who decides that the brutal conditions aboard the ship are not for him, and determines to make an escape. According to critic Andrew Delbanco, “something like two-thirds” of all whaling crew members deserted “at one stop-over or another”. At the last moment, the sailor enlists a comrade who is of a similar mind, by the name of Toby. Together they successfully desert when the ship comes to port on an exotic island near the Marquesas, populated by two native tribes – the Happar and the Typee. Their information, acquired from other sailors, is that the former of these tribes is receptive and kind to visitors, whereas the Typee are vicious and belligerent cannibals. So the two adventurous men set out to cross the untamed island, dangerously straddling the line between getting caught and brought back by their own crew to face justice, or running smack into the Typee people. What they hope they will find first, of course, is a Happar settlement.

Melville writes of their initial escape and treacherous journey across the island convincingly. It’s no leisurely stroll through sparkling waterfalls and lush valleys:

The most annoying hindrance we encountered was from a multitude of crooked boughs, which, shooting out and almost horizontally from the side of the chasm, twisted themselves together in fantastic masses almost to the surface of the stream, affording us no passage except under the low arches which they formed. Under these we were obliged to crawl on our hands and feet, sliding along the oozy surface of the rocks, or slipping into the deep pools, and with scarce light enough to guide us. Occasionally we would strike our heads against some projecting hub of a tree; and while imprudently engaged in rubbing the injured part, would fall sprawling amongst filthy fragments, cutting and bruising ourselves, whilst the unpitying waters flower over our prostrate bodies.

I quote the above passage at such length because I appreciated the sheer earthiness of the writing, and I think it is illustrative of one of the most impressive features of Typee. It is written vividly enough to make you feel as though you are right there with the two fugitives, and honestly enough so that you don’t get the sense that they traveled with ease over totally unknown, rugged land. I think audiences responded to Typee for its particularly strong delivery of a “you are there” experience for a readership that would, in the greatest likelihood, never experience anything of the kind.

The two sailors – “Tommo”, as the protagonist comes to be known, and Toby, eventually run into a pair of ragged native children, reminiscent of Dickens – one boy and one girl, who lead them tentatively into the settlement of their tribe. But which tribe is it? Melville creates tension by presenting the village and its inhabitants from the perspective of the visitors, who have no idea if they’ve reached paradise, or a sadistic dinner party in which they themselves are the main course. Quickly they learn the truth, which is that they have landed among the Typees. But luckily for Tommo and Toby, what they have told by others about the nature of the tribe does not correspond to their experiences among the people.

Another of the great strengths of Typee is its debunking of expectations and stereoptypes, and its compassionate, sometimes philosophical reflections on the differences and the similarities between “civilized” 19th century society and communities built and perpetuated by “savages”. Nothing is quite as it would seem within the world of the Typee, Tommo learns. He and Toby are treated humanely, even to the point of being pampered with large meals, entertainments, rudimentary medical treatments, even luxuries like tobacco and massages. Tommo is continually impressed with the natives’ treatment of not only himself and Toby, but of one another:

Entering their valley, as I did, under the most erroneous impressions of their character, I was soon led to exclaim in amazement, “Are these the ferocious savages, the blood-thirsty cannibals of whom I have heard such frightful tales! They deal more kindly with each other, and are more humane than many who study essays on virtue and benevolence.” I will frankly declare, that after passing a few weeks in this valley … I formed a higher estimate of human nature than I had ever before entertained.

Toby and Tommo, against expectations, are taken in and treated as venerated guests. Tommo is even allowed a kind of valet or personal assistant, by the name of Kory-Kory, who attends to him every waking moment. But eventually this begins to smother Tommo; he can’t help but wonder why the fawning and preening. It dawns on him that he is never left alone at any moment. His other problem is that he sustained an injury to one leg on the trek to the village that appears to be festering. When news reaches them that a ship from the “advanced” world has arrived on one of the coasts, the natives allow Toby to set out for it in the hopes of finding medical assistance for Tommo. Toby swears he will return, but is not heard from again, leaving Tommo to wonder if he was betrayed, or if Toby suffered some kind of unspeakable misfortune along the way.

While his leg eventually heals, Tommo grows more accustomed to the natives’ way of life, even exploring a semi-romantic relationship with a beautiful island woman named Fayaway. But it soon becomes crystal clear: the native don’t intend to let him leave. Have the Typee grown too attached to him? Do they want their “secrets” preserved? Or is it more sinister than that? One day Tommo strolls into a hut where he is clearly not expected, and sees some of the women and the men hastily wrapping up packages that appear to contain human heads. Understandably, from this point forward, Tommo wants out. Has he been pampered all along for a specific, horrific reason? Not particularly wanting to find out, he begins to actively seek a means of escape. This provides the set-up for the book’s gripping final quarter.

There are many reasons why Typee works, and has endured as one of Melville’s most venerated books, if any of his books outside of Moby-Dick are venerated. It frightened, provoked, even titillated readers. But Typee also asks larger questions about the nature of mankind and its relationship to both the natural world and to one another. Who is “civilized”? Who is a “savage”? Has the western way of life acquired a greater degree of moral solvency than others? Melville himself, in his novelistic inquiry, seems to uncover a convincing case in favor of the island society over our own:

There were none of those thousand sources of irritation that the ingenuity of civilized man has created to mar his own felicity. There were no foreclosures of mortgages, no protested notes, no bills payable, no debt in honor of Typee, no unreasonable tailors and shoemakers, perversely bent on being paid; no duns of any description … no beggars, no debtors’ prisons, no proud and hard-hearted nabobs in Typee; or to sum it up all in one word – no Money. The “root of all evil” was not to be found in the valley.

There’s an indispensible anthology of short fiction out there called You’ve Got To Read This, edited by two writers I admire greatly, Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen. The angle of this collection is that contemporary writers were asked to introduce short works of fiction that “held them in awe”. In this book, there is a wonderful piece by the novelist Mary Gordon in which she introduces James Joyce’s justifiably classic short story “The Dead”. Gordon closes her narrative hilariously with these lines, which I now borrow to conclude my own thoughts about Herman Melville’s impressive debut novel:

And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.

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