I went into this with trepidation. Melville has become my favorite writer over the last year or so as Moby Dick surpassed Pale Fire at the top of my list of novels and I’ve started to read other his works. His short stories are excellent and The Confidence Man really blew me away earlier this year. Given that, I was a little worried about this, his first book, part travelogue of his time spent with the indegenous people of a Polynesian island and part fictionalized account of the same.
While Melville does things like writing black dialog phonetically and using language that would never fly today, he seemed to genuinely value people of other cultures and treat them as equals. It is dangerous to and nearly impossible not to read contemporary mores onto works of the past. It’s difficult to escape your own ideology and assumptions. Some condemnation of past writers is completely justified; but it definitely needs to be placed as much as possible in historical context. For instance, Lovecraft, for all the things that are good in his work, was incredibly racist even by the standards of his own time. I was afraid that in getting to Melville’s debut work that I would find something so egregious that I’d have to adjust my reading of him.
I’m pleased to say that while he does use words like savages, I’m comfortable chalking that up to his being of the time in which he lived. While he didn’t have the language of post-colonialism, he definitely understood that the bulk of blame for problems between native populations and Europeans is properly placed on the latter. Melville returns to this idea several times throughout the course of the book, but this example from chapter four is representative: “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.”
Once I was relieved on that front, I did mostly enjoy the book. Near the beginning, Melville and a friend jumped ship trying to get away from an overbearing captain and ended up living among the Typee, reputed to be cannibals, as a honored guest/prisoner. The book is enjoyable and I can understand why people in the 1840s made it a bestseller. That said, it suffers greatly in comparison to Moby Dick, The Confidence Man or most of the Piazza Stories. I’m glad I read it, but, unlike that later work, I am unlikely to read it multiple times.
Recommended (mainly to Melville completists)
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 56/75