Typee, a peep at Polynesian life

by Herman Melville

Hardcover, 1968





Evanston, Ill., Northwestern University Press, 1968.


From its publication in 1846, Typee, Herman Melville's first book, was recognized as a classic of travel and adventure literature. Based on the author's own experiences, as well as oral and written sources, in the South Seas, Melville's story of two runaway sailors held captive by the Typees is a vivid portrait of Polynesian life. Many readers delighted in its racy scenes, but religious fundamentalists saw to it that criticism of missionaries was expurgated from the American text. Five years later, the religious press took revenge on Moby-Dick when Melville again displayed his persistent skepticism and irreverence and celebrated cultural relativity as he had done in Typee. As Melville's fame declined after the 1850s, readers forgot the old religious denunciations and remembered Typee as the best of his books. Throughout his lifetime, Melville's most famous and popular character was Fayaway. This text of Typee is an Approved Text of the Center for Editions of American Authors (Modern Language Association of America). Book jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member ErnestHemingway
“… we have had, in America, skillful writers… It is skillful, marvelously constructed, and it is dead. We have had writers of rhetoric who had the good fortune to find a little, in a chronicle of another man and from voyaging, of how things, actual things, can be, whales for instance, and this knowledge is wrapped in the rhetoric like plums in a pudding. Occasionally it is there, alone unwrapped in pudding, and it is good. This is Melville. But the people who praise it, praise it for the rhetoric which is not important. They put a mystery in which is not there…”
Green Hills of Africa, pg. 20-21
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LibraryThing member edgeworth
The first novel by the famed author of Moby-Dick, Typee walks a fine line between fact and fiction. The author relates it as a true account of the several months he spent living amongst natives of the South Pacific; whether this is true or not is a matter of contention, and something that lingered in my mind throughout the book.

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.
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LibraryThing member usnmm2
Had read this many years ago, but really enjoyed it much more this time around. What Melville wrote is part travel log, part sea story (tall tale) and idyllic and sometimes romanticized look on a way of life that has disappeared.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member markbstephenson
More a memoir than a novel, but a great read! Sometimes hilarious but also has some trenchant critical observations comparing the failings of western civilization with the Typee tribe with whom he lived a short while.
LibraryThing member ekissel
Typee is an often humorous account of what Melville purports to be his own adventure of being voluntarily marooned in the Marquesas. I've read so much contemporary fiction lately that I've forgotten how entertaining it is to read an author who is a master of language.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member jasongibbs
For many, Moby Dick is the only Melville experience they'll ever have, but Typee is a South Sea adventure that deserves reading. It puts the reader right in the heart of the Tahitian Islands during the age of great sailing ships.
LibraryThing member Stevil2001
Despite its slim size, this book never really picks up. Though I think Moby-Dick has its problems, there's no denying that there's some damn riveting material in there. This book has nothing of the sort. How can cannibals be so boring? (Answer: they never actually eat anything, though the narrator persists in calling them cannibals. Trying to figure out whether this is a deliberate move on Melville's part or a cultural blindspot of his own is about as exciting as this book got.)… (more)
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
I found the grammer stilted and the vocabularly cumbersome yet it still flowed poetically one can predict what will be said in spirit just before it is said, a strange yet magical connection between author and reader across 170-years that trancends words. It is easy to see why this was so popular - sunshine, tropical beaches, naked natives, no work all play - the spirit of the California beach bum surfer can be found in Melville.… (more)
LibraryThing member David_Cain
Half novel and half anthropology/sociology text, Typee is a marvelous bit of pre-modern fiction/prose from one of the best modern novelists.
LibraryThing member ErnestHemingway
“… we have had, in America, skillful writers… It is skillful, marvelously constructed, and it is dead. We have had writers of rhetoric who had the good fortune to find a little, in a chronicle of another man and from voyaging, of how things, actual things, can be, whales for instance, and this knowledge is wrapped in the rhetoric like plums in a pudding. Occasionally it is there, alone unwrapped in pudding, and it is good. This is Melville. But the people who praise it, praise it for the rhetoric which is not important. They put a mystery in which is not there…”
Green Hills of Africa, pg. 20-21
… (more)
LibraryThing member robintuttle
A very interesting account of Melville's time spent among the Typee tribe of people in the Marquesas Islands in the South Seas. He recounts many of their customs; dietary, social, religious, etc. at first finding himself in their midst, he is terrified by their fierce reputation amongst sailors and fears they will kill and eat him. As time goes by, however, he realizes that they are some of the most kind and generous people he has ever known; albeit, still fierce in their occasional battles with neighboring tribes.

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.
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LibraryThing member kristykay22
I bought this book at a friend's garage sale almost nine years ago, and put off reading it because I expected it would be pretty blatantly racist. And, you know, it is. It's also Melville's first novel (published in 1846) and the one that sold the best in his lifetime -- allowing him to marry and to dig into the writing of Moby Dick.

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
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LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Who says Melville can't be fun? This was totally fun. It was really cool to speculate on how much of it is Münchhausenism (I'm going to assume it's all 100% true until shown evidence otherwise), and to see the Typees get the noble savage treatment (Wordsworth, e.g., was STILL ALIVE when this book came out. We think of Melville as, like, global, industrial, imperial, a far cry from the Romantics, but … not THAT far). And as a coconut aficionado I cannot but recommend this yarn.… (more)
LibraryThing member mattries37315
While known today for vengeful captain chasing a white whale, Herman Melville’s writing career began with a travelogue of his adventure on the Nuku Hiva and was his most popular work during his life. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life is a semi-autobiographical book that Melville wrote about his approximately 4 week stay that he “expanded” to 4 months in the narrative.

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.
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LibraryThing member steller0707
Typee was Melville's first published novel and it was a popular success. It is based on his sailing experiences aboard a whaling ship, as were his other famous works. In this one, two men - our narrator and his companion Toby - aboard a whaler conspire to leave the ship and its loathsome living conditions, and escape inland in the Marquesas Islands where they are anchored. Thus begins their adventure in the Typee Valley.

The text is very well written and accessible for today's readers. It flows easily as the narrator describes the village life of the Typees - what they eat, what they wear, how they spend their day, their festivals, and so on. But there are also reflections on the relationship of the white man to the natives:

It is no wonder that the natives call the European "savages." They welcome them first; but when they plunder, kill and burn they earn their name.

I picked up this book because I hadn't read Melville and knew I wouldn't get through Moby Dick. I still probably won't tackle that novel, but I just might read another Melville.
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LibraryThing member AliceAnna
Really quite good. A nice look at the life of the "savages" of the Marquesas. Aside from a little cannibalism of enemies, I wouldn't characterize this group as savage and would love to have spent a little time in their midst. I would rate the book higher, but Melville gets a little too bogged down in the minutae of things from time to time. When the focus of the book is the actual story of his adventure, it is really very compelling.… (more)
LibraryThing member lydia1879
I read this book quite a few years ago, after reading another book that was a fictionalised story of Herman Melville's life. (I should find that book and review it!)

This book is a fictionalised account of what happened to the author himself when he was stranded on a Polynesian island. I found the book interesting, but I think it's a certain type of book for a certain kind of person. Melville can be quite dry, and he goes into great detail about the lives of the people he ends up living with.

I can imagine exhausted sailors on a massive, creaking ship, listening to this story, thirsty, exhausted, skin peeling off their shoulders from sunburn, and hanging on his every word. I can imagine people in various dinner parties leaning forward, too, forgetting their drink next to their hand because of Melville's words.

I found this book more interesting as a historian than I did as a reader. It doesn't really have an epic feel to it like Moby Dick does (though I haven't read it). Nonetheless, I thought it was an incredible story and it's quite nice to see Melville render these Polynesian people as truthfully as possible. While their customs, tattoos and culture may be strange to him, the main character is tolerant and more accepting of their views - which is certainly refreshing to see of this time period.

I enjoyed reading about this sensual little island, but it dragged on a little bit for me, so I will give it three stars. c:
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LibraryThing member Athenable
Typee is my favorite Melville work.
LibraryThing member crunky
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Melville’s "Typee." I picked it up at a book sale and as I flipped through the pile of books I brought home it nabbed my attention and I ended up reading a good third of it that same day. The entertaining prose was the main highlight. It was easy to identify with the narrator, not only as an adventurer, but as someone who, while desperately curious about his captors and their intentions, is able to keep an open mind about their customs and lives. Digressions into some of these aspects didn’t last so long as to become wearisome, and if one or two threatened to, it was no problem to simply skim ahead to the next topic. Even when the subjects of the narrator’s observations were not overly gripping, the enjoyable style of prose usually kept me engaged.… (more)


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