Typee

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Typee (1846; in full: Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life) is American writer Herman Melville's first book, partly based on his actual experiences as a captive on Nuku Hiva (which Melville spelled as Nukuheva) in the South Pacific Marquesas Islands. The title comes from the name of a valley there called Tai Pi Vai. It was Melville's most popular work during his lifetime. For 19th century readers, his career seemed to decline afterward, but during the early 20th century it was seen as just the beginning of a career that peaked with Moby-Dick (1851).

Contents

Background

Typee provoked disbelief among its readers until two years after its publication, when many of the novel's events were corroborated by Melville's fellow castaway, Richard T. Greene;[1] Green may be represented in the novel by the character Toby. Until the 1930s, many critics viewed the text as factually based, but elevated by mythic themes and language. Notably, Robert S. Forsythe and Charles R. Anderson [2] viewed the text as lacking factual sources to verify the details of the story. The three week stay on which Typee is based takes place over the course of four months in the narrative. Melville drew extensively on contemporary accounts by Pacific explorers to add cultural detail to what might otherwise have been a straightforward story of escape, capture, and re-escape.

Analysis

Critical opinion on Typee is divided. Scholars have traditionally focused attention on Melville's treatment of race, and the narrator's portrayal of his hosts as noble savages, but there is considerable disagreement as to what extent the values, attitudes and beliefs expressed are Melville's own, and whether Typee reinforces or challenges racist assessments of Pacific culture. The issue of class also plays an important role, albeit largely subliminated, with Tommo (as the natives call the narrator) struggling to assert his identity as a member of the working class in a society where work, in the modern capitalist sense, is unknown.

But there can be no doubt[citation needed] Melville was sympathetic to the "savages" he encountered, and sharply critical of the missionaries' attempts to "civilize" them:

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. The naked wretch who shivers beneath the bleak skies, and starves among the inhospitable wilds of Tierra-del-Fuego, might indeed be made happier by civilization, for it would alleviate his physical wants. But the voluptuous Indian, with every desire supplied, whom Providence has bountifully provided with all the sources of pure and natural enjoyment, and from whom are removed so many of the ills and pains of life--what has he to desire at the hands of Civilization? She may 'cultivate his mind--may elevate his thoughts,'--these I believe are the established phrases--but will he be the happier? Let the once smiling and populous Hawaiian islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer the question. The missionaries may seek to disguise the matter as they will, but the facts are incontrovertible; and the devoutest Christian who visits that group with an unbiased mind, must go away mournfully asking--'Are these, alas! the fruits of twenty-five years of enlightening?'

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