Imagine that Herman Melville goes on Oprah to discuss his experiences as a captive of a cannibal tribe in the Marquesas Islands. His book Typee is a bestseller. (Moby Dick, with its nonlinear storytelling and its long, philosophical sidebars won’t be nearly as popular.) Melville shows a surprisingly non-racist awareness for a man of his time, even criticizing the hypocrisies of the missionaries of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and the rapacious way in which the leaders of Polynesian tribes collude with the white men, resulting in poverty and enslavement for their peoples.
Oh, sure, there are the usual ideas about the noble savage and the promiscuousness of island women; the usual judgments about the laziness of southerners and disrespect for their gods. But Melville seems to me to genuinely admire the peacefulness of the island people; how even in the midst of violent hatred between the Typees and the 2 other island tribes, they don’t venture into each other’s valleys bent on killing.
Melville was captivated by the easiness of life where all the food you need grows on trees year-round. Where old tribal women cook up the island’s three famous breadfruit dishes most expertly – if you’re a man, you just let the women work for you. Where the people’s days are filled with nothing more strenuous than napping, swimming (Melville calls it “bathing”), eating, and gathering tropical flowers.
Annnnnnd…then one of Oprah’s researchers, perhaps her friend Gayle, discovers that Melville has made the whole thing up. Yes, he once shipped on a whaler that visited the Marquesas. That’s about it. He’s written Typee mostly by reading books written by men who actually did live in the Marquesas, and sometimes he’s gotten his facts wrong.
Had this scenario actually played itself out today, I believe his readers would have been angry. Oprah herself would have felt as betrayed as she did when she found out that James Frey had only spent a few hours in jail, rather than the 87 days he wrote about in his “memoir”, A Million Little Pieces.
What I Shall Assume, You Shall Assume
But! In Melville’s day, this sort of literary deception was common. In graduate school, I read a number of novels which began, Dear Reader. It was understood that the author would be inventing a few things. That’s why it is called “creative” non-fiction. In modern times, our understanding has changed and we have come to use the yardstick of “truth” as the basic difference between fiction and other genres.
And boy, is that truth subjective. I just saw a PBS documentary where an early anthropologist at Machu Picchu identified bones in a cave as more than 80% female, thus leading to the erroneous theory that he and the explorer had found the remains of the “Virgins of the Sun”. Modern bone men, while not entirely free of their own set of assumptions, discovered that the bones were in fact equally divided between male and female. The first scientist had assumed, based on his knowledge of the bone size of Europeans and Africans, that these small bones must belong to women. When in fact native Peruvians even today are much shorter than other nationalities.
Poe, Hawthorne and Melville
In my early American lit class at University of Idaho, we learned that Typee, like Omoo, was a “potboiler” – a worthless piece of genre fiction Melville wrote to live on while he worked on his “masterpiece” Moby Dick. The back of Typee, on the other hand, insists that it is Melville’s finest and most popular work. Hmm. As a look at the attitudes of New Englanders toward Polynesian islanders in the 1800s I find it fascinating. As a story it leaves a lot to be desired.
I didn’t find it to be “a thrilling adventure” due to the fact that nothing very much happens. Tom, or Tommo, as the natives call him, deserts his ship because he thinks the captain is greedy and finding excuses not to return to New England, so the sailors are having to serve longer than their original contract. He’s worried that he’ll be captured by cannibals. But as he and fellow deserter Toby are unable to survive on their own – Tommo suffers a mysterious leg wound that keeps getting worse – they descend into the valley of the Typee, where the indigenous people take an unexplained liking to Tommo and treat him like a king. A prisoner king, because they won’t let him leave, although they finally allow Toby to go.
This plot device is never explained. And while Tommo is very afraid of cannibals – (imagine if Leon, the Borneo tribesman who enjoys teasing Redmond O Hanlon about headshrinkers had gotten ahold of him!) – they never materialize, somewhat to the reader’s disappointment. Most of the “action” is simply a description of everyday life among the Typee – what they eat, how they build their houses, what the inside of their temple looks like. Yawn. This would be more interesting if we got the indigenous people’s feelings and emotions – if it were written from the inside out, rather than from a foreigner looking on with a huge lack of understanding. For one thing, the fictional Tommo makes zero attempt to learn the language.
James Frey may have believed that his work wouldn’t sell as well if he told the truth – that it was fiction. I think he is right about that. Why? Why are people so fascinated with “reality” TV shows and autobiographies and memoirs? Personally, I have a fascination with how other people live; what they think, how they solve or do not solve problems. No amount of fiction, unless it is written so well that it could be non-fiction, can compete.
While I’m not sure Melville has accomplished that here – I certainly enjoyed the book more than Moby Dick!