Typee is a fast-moving adventure tale, an autobiographical account of the author's Polynesian stay, an examination of the nature of good and evil, and a frank exploration of sensuality and exotic ritual. For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
Green Hills of Africa, pg. 20-21
After six months at sea, the horrors of which are described in a very strong opening chapter, Melville's whaling vessel puts into the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia to resupply. Unwilling to spend another stretch in the hellish conditions of the whaler, Melville and his comrade Toby jump ship and trek across to the other side of the island, seeking shelter with the natives in a valley called Typee. They are welcomed by the natives and treated like kings, before realising that the people of Typee have no intention of letting them leave. Melville is sick, and Toby attempts to leave and fetch help; he does not return, and his fate is not resolved until the end of the book. Melville spends three months living with ease amongst the natives in their tropical paradise, but this idyllic existence is tempered by his unease over what happened to Toby, his suspicion that the people of Typee engage in cannibalism, and his terror of being permanently imprisoned. He is perplexed as to why they are so determined to keep him there, and the islanders will not explain themselves; indeed, the reason for his imprisonment is never resolved.
As non-fiction, this book is excellent. It combines a tale of adventure with a first-hand account detailing the way of life of an average Polynesian tribe, something unheard of at the time. Unfortunately, according to most modern scholars, it isn't non-fiction. Details are hazy, but the best records indicate that Melville spent less than three weeks living with the natives, and embellished his story with tales gathered from other Pacific sailors and explorers. And, judged as a story, it fails on a number of levels - it's poorly paced, intersparsed with tedious details about the minutae of island life, and quite repetitive. None of this would matter if Typee were a work of non-fiction, but in a novel they seriously impair the narrative. This is an interesting book for somebody interested in the genre, or in the history of the South Pacific, but is otherwise not reccomended.
This copy is based on the oringinal text that was printed in England. A much edited version was printed for the U.S. market where the more 'explicit' parts and the not so flattering look at the Missionaries were omitted.
Green Hills of Africa, pg. 20-21
Melville's description of the sight of a ship after it's been at sea three times longer than planned is expert and hilarious. The characters are mysterious and relatable in the same breath. The tale is long and enjoyable if you appreciate a well-turned phrase.
This is the story of Tom and his friend Toby, two men (whose adventures are loosely based on Melville and his friend) who abandon the whaler they've been working on and hide out on the island Nuku Hiva in Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. They quickly get lost, lose all their food, and are at the mercy of the elements before coming into the valley of the Typee. A first the two sailors are afraid because they heard from other sailors and islanders that the Typee were vicious cannibals, but they are treated well and soon settle in to island life. The conflict comes when they try to leave -- the islanders will not let them go back the way them came or approach the sea, and when Toby finally does convince them to let him greet a ship that has pulled into the bay, he disappears and no one will tell Tom where he went.
This book is at its best when it skews to the adventure genre -- the first third of the book with Tom and Toby planning their escape, hiking through the wilderness, and searching for food and shelter is great. It's not so good when it gets anthropological. Melville consistently either infantilizes the native people on the island or puts them up on a pedestal of purity because they are untouched by "civilization." Melville has nothing nice to say about missionaries either (which scandalized his publishers almost as much as the nudity!). These racial attitudes are true to Melville's time, but still pretty frustrating to read.
Luckily, Melville is also frequently hilarious, which helps balance out the text. I wouldn't recommend this book to everyone, but I would recommend paragraphs like this one where we see Melville really play around with the English language:
"When I remembered that these islanders derived no advantage from dress, but appeared in all the naked simplicity of nature, I could not avoid comparing them with the fine gentlemen and dandies who promenade such unexceptionable figures in our frequented thoroughfares. Stripped of the cunning artifices of the tailor, and standing forth in the garb of Eden -- what a sorry set of round-shouldered, spindle-shanked, crane-necked varlets would civilized men appear! Stuffed calves, padded breasts, and scientifically cut pantaloons would then avail them nothing, and the effect would be truly deplorable." - p. 164
Melville begins his narrative when he describes the captain of the “Dolly” deciding to head to the Marqueas Islands and then events surrounding the ship’s arrival at the island as well as the actions of the French who were “taking possession” of it. Then Melville and a shipmate named Toby decide to ‘runaway’ to the valley of the Happar tribe and execute their plan when they get shore leave. Climbing the rugged cliffs of the volcanic island, they hide in the thick foliage from any searchers but realize they didn’t have enough food and soon Melville’s leg swells up slowing them down. Believing they arrived in the valley of the Happar, they make contact only to find themselves with the Typee. However the tribe embraces the two men and attempt to keep them amongst their number, but first Toby is able to ‘escape’ though Melville can’t help but think he’s been abandoned. Melville then details his experiences along amongst the cannibalistic tribe before his own escape with assistance of two other natives of the island from other tribes.
The mixture of narrative of Melville’s adventures and the anthropological elements he gives of the Typee make for an interesting paced book that is both engaging and dull. Though Melville’s lively descriptions of the events taking place are engaging, one always wonders if the event actually took place or was embellish or just frankly made up to liven up the overall tale. The addition of a sequel as an epilogue that described the fate of Toby, which at the time added credibility to Melville’s book, is a nice touch so the reader doesn’t wonder what happened to him.
Overall Typee is a nice, relatively quick book to read by one of America’s best known authors. While not as famous as Melville’s own Moby Dick, it turned out to be a better reading experience as the semi-autobiographical nature and travelogue nature gave cover for Melville to break into the narrative to relative unique things within the Typee culture.
This is very much a book in which Melville tries to reconcile the "civilized" world's view of these "savages" and his own experience of them, with the civilized world getting the worst of Melville's treatment. He realizes that although the Typee people do not have the conveniences of modern life, nor do they have a ver evolved intellectual life, they do indeed possess a happiness and community harmony that the advanced nations long ago lost.
This is the first Melville I've read since getting a few dozen pages into Moby Dick and giving up. I found the book well written with many an interesting turn of language, a vocabulary that had me going to the dictionary many times, (but since I read on a Kindle, that is made very easy), and, to my surprise, a very lively sense of humor.
I definitely recommend this book to those who have an interest in aboriginal societies and who enjoy a ver well written book.