February 23, 2018

Young Melville and the Cannibals

On this day in 1841 twenty-two year-old Herman Melville set sail aboard the Acushnet, a New England whaler heading for the South Seas. His experiences on this and several subsequent voyages would provide the basis for a half-dozen sea novels written in a five-year burst, 1846-51. In his lifetime, and much to his disgust, Melville's reputation was not made on the last of those, Moby Dick, but on the first, Typee, and its sequel, Omoo.

As the title of the earlier, British edition makes clear, Typee is the Narrative of a Four Months' Residence among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands. Chapter 2 describes the traditional welcome given the Acushnet as it sailed into harbor: a "shoal" of "nymphs" swimming out to the boat with their simple clothes held above their heads, in order that the following foreplay might proceed:
    What a sight for us bachelor sailors! how avoid so dire a temptation? For who could think of tumbling these artless creatures overboard, when they had swam miles to welcome us?
    In the evening after we had come to anchor the deck was illuminated with lanterns, and this picturesque band of sylphs, tricked out with flowers, and dressed up in robes of variegated tappa, got up a ball in a great style. These females are passionately fond of dancing, and in the wild grace and spirit of their style excel everything that I have seen.
Melville's narrator appears to be a man of dance-card etiquette, and a non-participant in "every species of riot and debauchery" that followed; Melville himself, along with fellow sailor Tobias Greene, soon jumped ship and headed for land. The two were almost immediately 'captured' by the Typees, a generally friendly tribe but one with a taste for, as they put it, "long pig."

The cannibalism, naked women and religion-bashing in the book caused it to be rejected by American publishers as too fantastic, but Greene published an open letter in a Buffalo newspaper attesting to the truth of the events as described by Melville. This, and the fact that the British edition was selling very well, prompted Wiley & Putnam to venture an American edition. Having forced Melville to eliminate some of the sexual and religious bits, the American edition was, as the subtitle suggested, only A Peep at Polynesian Life, but it included this eye-opener:
    In passing along the piazza, previously to descending from the pi-pi, I observed a curiously carved vessel of wood, of considerable size, with a cover placed over it, of the same material, and which resembled in shape a small canoe. It was surrounded by a low railing of bamboos, the top of which was scarcely a foot from the ground. As the vessel had been placed in its present position since my last visit, I at once concluded that it must have some connection with the recent festival, and, prompted by a curiosity I could not repress, in passing it I raised one end of the cover; at the same moment the chiefs, perceiving my design, loudly ejaculated, 'Taboo! taboo!'

    But the slight glimpse sufficed; my eyes fell upon the disordered members of a human skeleton, the bones still fresh with moisture, and with particles of flesh clinging to them here and there!
At this moment the narrator's internal debate over his hospitable captivity -- food, leisure, and the fetching Fayaway versus a worry over being forcibly tattooed or otherwise made fit for Typee society -- escalates: "Where, thought I, desponding, is there the slightest prospect of escape?"

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