I recommend all adventurous youths who abandon vessels in romantic islands during the rainy season to provide themselves with umbrellas.
— Herman Melville, Typee
When Herman Melville published his first book, Typee, in 1846, great controversy arose around its content, specifically: the validity of the events described therein and the portrayal of the native Typee people, with the latter not being so much of the marked contrast between what was expected to be told about such “savages” and what was actually written, but of Tommo’s — or rather, Melville’s — criticism of white missionaries. Naturally, Melville would have a bias toward the natives that had cared for him, critics conceded, but to deride the brave men who spread the Good Word to uncultured savages was abhorrent. “Seldom . . . has Christianity owned so ungrateful a son” (Higgins and Parker 15), wrote one critic disdainfully. The idea that the Typee people acted more “civilized” than missionaries, or indeed, that “savages” were as good as whites, troubled Melville’s contemporaries and they ridiculed the notion out of fear. That is not to say this was Melville’s true intention or Typee was intended to be anything more than a hyperbolic retelling of his own adventures, but the reaction of his critics toward the binary of savage versus civilized is interesting, especially when discussing the book’s own racism.
Much debate can be made about whether or not Typee helps or hinders stereotypes. One must take into account the sort of genre this book fits into, the sort of “ripping yarn” that young boys would read at boarding school. Its authenticity being irrelevant, Typee has all the trademark tropes: sailors jumping ship, mysteriously dangerous jungle, foreign peoples, and beautiful women. That is the type of story that people expect, such as the armchair traveler who lives vicariously through literature and the homebody who uses such stories as reasons for not leaving the comforts of home and country. Note that it is almost entirely whites who enjoy travel novels, given the ability of said books to be categorized as “other” and thus, inferior. The anti-colonialism dogma, then, that crops up in Typee comes as a sort of shock for certain readers. Adventure stories are not meant to be educational, merely entertaining. Typee is meant to be the nineteenth century equivalent of a blockbuster flick, all sizzle with no substance.
Melville’s opinion cannot be discredited, but nor can it be fully ascertained; whether he was truly against imperialism and the exploitation of native peoples, or merely making some rather astute remarks about society, is unclear. Tommo’s character in Typee suggests a compromise between the two, if not a happy medium (“Truth, who loves to be centrally located, is . . . found between the two extremes . . .” [Melville]). To be sure, his condemnation of missionaries is not unwarranted, given that, at the time, they were generally little more than business scouts, seeking land and resources for their home countries. “But if the great end proposed by it be spiritual, the agency employed to accomplish that end is purely earthly . . .” (Melville) Tommo notes. Regardless of political affiliation, businesses and governments find it difficult to have a paradisiacal abode exist with its resources being utilized by those they consider to be uncivilized. “[N]o sooner are the images overturned, the temples demolished, and the idolaters converted into nominal Christians, that . . . hordes of enlightened individuals . . . settle themselves within its borders and clamorously announce the progress of the Truth” (Melville). Tommo recalls the horrifying sight of natives being treated little better than slaves on their own land, with the missionaries lazing about, effectively the masters. He waxes poetic about the civilized man versus the savage and wonders at the publically accepted imagery of the two, admitting that the “white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth” (Melville). Critics had difficulty in sympathizing with this sentiment.
To be fair, Tommo contradicts himself in respect to his view of the natives and indeed, his eagerness to escape from the village indicates only mild respect for the Typee people, not love. He exoticizes them, being fine with some areas of the culture, ultimately picking and choosing between what he likes and of what he disapproves. A London critic put it rather succinctly: “[T]he points on which he expatiates are those only favourable to his purpose — the social condition is neither sufficiently scrutinized nor described” (Higgins and Parker 15). Elements that the modern reader would find problematic, such as the treatment of women, Tommo has no issue with, the sexism of 1800 Western society being similar to that of the Typee community. Also, the reader does not forget the Typee people as a racialized other due to the ethnocentric nature of the work, with Tommo taking pains to point out the more negative aspects of the Typee life, such as cannibalism and lack of technology.
The main point of contention the critics took up with Typee perhaps is not so much the favorable portrayal of the Typee natives, for one reviewer was completely won over by their descriptions, claiming that “This book divulges the cant, humbug, and glaring inaccuracy of the nense respecting Polynesia” and that “If alone as likely to correct the popular notion regarding the character of savages, this book will perform a high mission, and is deserving of every possible praise” (Higgins and Parker 26-7). The controversy apparently arises over the fact that Tommo seemingly dismisses the entire Christian religion in favor of his new heathen friends. While it is true that Tommo rarely reflects on religion and does not seem to refer to God much at all, he only questions the attempt at conversion by missionaries, rather than the belief system itself. “The worse attendances on civilization shall have driven all peace and happiness from the valley” (Melville), Tommo prophesizes. The London critic called this a “gross and willful exaggeration” and further criticism of missionaries “may betray the unthinking into confidence in [Melville’s] statements, believing that he has the real interests of Christianity very seriously at heart” (Higgins and Parker 15). Again, the idea that white intervention is superfluous, that natives have no need or desire for improvement and are indeed on relatively equal status with whites, frightens those of that persuasion, the status quo being disrupted. The line between savage and civilized is blurred, and Melville acts as the perfect scapegoat.
Typee is by-and-large a novel of the times, filled with fantastic “yarn” imagery and representative of racist and sexist thinking of the period. It is unique for its perceptions on the Typee people and one might even say that certain critics missed the entire point of the story by focusing so heavily on the religious commentary. If Melville simply wanted to entertain or to actually make some sort of political statement, either way, his goal was fulfilled.
- Higgins, Brian, and Hersehl Parker, eds. Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print.
- Melville, Herman. Typee: A Romance of the South Seas. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2012. Amazon.com. Web. April 2013.
Here is the first essay of that 2013 Melville class I’ve mentioned. I was not particularly thrilled to take this class, but I liked the professor — and it was one of the few available that fit my schedule. I was a little hesitant about posting this essay, since it deals with racism, which I have little personal experience with, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone nowadays who could argue that Typee is anything but gross and racist. Here is the feedback from my professor:
This is a well-written essay, and you did a good job of using a primary source. Your response to the contemporaneous critics demonstrated a good understanding of the time period and offered new ways of understanding Melville’s portrayal of the savage vs. civilized debate. I particularly appreciated your nuanced reading of Tommo’s perception of the civilizing mission.