In 1841, at the age of 22, Herman Melville signed on aboard the Acushnet, a New Bedford 3-master headed for the whale-killing fields south of the Line. Like Captain Bligh 50 years before him, and Gauguin 50 years after, Melville was about to make his own fateful voyage to the South Seas. His first, unhappy experience at sea -- a 3-month stint on a merchant trader when he was only 17 -- may have been a lark, but this decision to go whaling was made with eyes wide open: he'd be out for 3, 4, even 5 years; the living conditions would be awful; the whales would be lethal; and his shipmates -- most of them misfits and malcontents of one sort or another -- would be worse.
Melville too was a misfit, but of an educated, middle-class sort. He'd tried banking, clerking, farming, even teaching, but found them all too cribbed and confining. With over 300 whaling ships coming in and out of the ports of New England, needing 10,000 men to man them, he had options. "I always had a roving disposition," he would later write, "and an itch for things remote."
After 15 months at sea, the last 6 without even sight of land, Melville had other itches. When the Acushnet finally came to anchor in the Marquesas Islands -- greeted by a flotilla of friendly and naked women -- he and a mate jumped ship. Forewarned that one of the valley tribes, the Typees, were cannibals with a taste for, as they put it, "long pig," the two men headed for the hills. Within a week they were too starving, exhausted and injured to go on. On July 14, 1842, they literally fell down a hillside and into the arms of the dreaded Typee.
Melville's first and, as it turned out, most popular book, Typee, describes the 4 months he spent in friendly captivity among the cannibals: how he came to admire and respect much of their lifestyle, and to abhor the Christian missionaries who were trying to change it; how he developed a special relationship with the young and beautiful Fayaway, his naked, pipe-smoking companion; how he one day managed a glimpse into the cooking pot, where "my eyes fell upon the disordered members of a human skeleton, the bones still fresh with moisture"; how he narrowly and violently escaped aboard an Australian whaler.
When Typee was first published, on February 26, 1846, it "made the multitude crazy with delight," wrote a London magazine. "A book," wrote Walt Whitman,"to hold in one's hand, and pore dreamily over on a summer's day." The moralists decried the sex, the churchmen defended the missionaries, the well-bred denied that savages could have any sort of culture, let alone a superior one -- but everybody read the book. In the next 5 years Melville dashed off 4 other books on his sea experiences, and by 1850, at the age of 31, he was one of the most widely-read novelists in America.
His biographers struggle to explain how, over the next 40 years, he became one of the most forgotten novelists in America. His next book, Moby Dick, while a classic in the 20th century, was reviled, misunderstood and mostly ignored at the time, and Melville never seemed to recover. Burdened by a host of personal problems, he gave up writing novels while still in his 30s, took a job as a Customs Inspector and became a brooding, enigmatic recluse.
He scoffed at his early popularity and, in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, scorned the idea that he would die famous only as "the man who lived among the cannibals." In fact, his death on September 28, 1891 went virtually unnoticed. As one contemporary put it, of those few who remembered him at all, most thought he had died long before.