A well known fact of Herman Melville’s biography and career points out that the author’s reputation–at least his reputation during his lifetime–peaked long before he got around to writing about a crazy sea captain and a white whale. In fact, Melville’s greatest critical success and sales came with his first two semi-autobiographical books, Typee and Omoo.
Typee, I have to begin, is not particularly good taken either as memoir or novel. Obviously, there is not much suspense in whether our narrator will survive his encounter with the Typee tribe. Personally, I did not particularly care if Toby, who disappears midway through Melville’s captivity, survived or not, and Melville, in the original edition of the book, had not answered that question either.
I do not ask why Typee was successful. As H.L. Mencken famously said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people.” This book had just the sort of sensational fare that would be appealing to a reading public confined to lives increasingly free from adventure. In Polynesia, Melville found physical danger, exotic settings and characters, noble and sketchy savages, suggestive eroticism–mild by contemporary standards but pushing the envelope of respectability in 1846–and a character who strains against authority but does not utterly jettison the standards of the day. In his balancing act between admiration and censure, between rebellion and conformity, Melville allowed a glimpse of the genius that he would, in later years, unfurl.
What I find most interesting in this first novel is the manner in which Melville lives within and rejects constraint. One can immediately see the conformity of the writer, typical of a beginner, as his narrative is quite conventional. Compare this pedestrian narrative structure with the complexity of Moby Dick or, even more so, The Confidence Man. Yet the Melville character in Typee derives his very reason for writing from a refusal to be constrained. Signing onto a whaler, our host seems surprised when that life involves spending trying time at sea. From the very first words of the story, he complains.
Six months at sea! Yes, reader, as I live, six months out of sight of land; cruising after the sperm-whale beneath the scorching sun of the Line, and tossed on the billows of the wide-rolling Pacific—the sky above, the sea around, and nothing else! Weeks and weeks ago our fresh provisions were all exhausted. There is not a sweet potato left; not a single yam. Those glorious bunches of bananas, which once decorated our stern and quarter-deck, have, alas, disappeared! and the delicious oranges which hung suspended from our tops and stays—they, too, are gone! Yes, they are all departed, and there is nothing left us but salt-horse and sea-biscuit.
Unlike Ishmael or Billy Budd later in Melville’s career, this figure brings rather petty complaints as his rationale for abandoning his post on the ship, focusing his thoughts mostly upon food. Yet when Melville and Toby abandon their shipmates, they recognize that they will be stranded on the island and perhaps fall into the clutches of the cannibals. Indeed, one constraint is exchanged for another, leaving the sailors to fear that in the midst of the Typee plenty of foodstuffs, their own persons might add to the buffet. In order to escape this captivity and his residence on the island, Melville is forced to sign onto another ship.
This rather young, inexperienced Melville, despite his considerable travels, has not come to the recognition that most human experience takes one from captivity to captivity. He is, instead, rather like a young Jacob, seeking quick solutions to lifelong problems.