N THE BEGINNING of Melville, back before the White Whale, there was Typee, the true-life account of the soon-to-be novelist’s adventures in the South Seas—the scandalous, enthralling, and, yes, titillating story of the man who lived among cannibals. And even at this primordial moment, even in this youthful telling, all of Melville is there: the effortless style, the lush and poemlike descriptions, the Joycean humor (why is everyone always so serious about Melville?). On top of all that, it’s a great read, a legitimate adventure. Are our wounded hero’s newfound pagan friends feeding him or fattening him, and how exactly will he ever escape?
How amazing that Typee ever came into being at all—it is the almost accidental birth of a master. There was young Herman, just returned from sea, the son of a well-born but failed businessman, a near ne’er-do-well who had dabbled in schoolteaching, who had tried his hand at a few little pieces for the local newspaper, and who, seemingly for lack of anything better to do, found himself on a whaling ship with a sea captain who was not terribly interested in workplace morale: Captain Pease on Melville’s first whaling ship, the Acushnet; Captain Vangs in Typee; later to be born again in hell as Ahab. Even on a good ship, whaling was tough, a semi-consensual version of slavery, a life of hard crackers and stale water in the cramped infinity of the great sea. “Oh! for a refreshing glimpse of one blade of grass—for a snuff at the fragrance of a handful of the loamy earth!” goes the longing cry at Typee’s outset. When young Tommo, as thenatives refer to the narrator, arrives in Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas Islands, he is greeted in the tropical bay by a boatless flotilla of local maidens (“these swimming nymphs”) who eventually board the whaling ship—a scene that was censored from the first editions: “Our ship was now wholly given up to every species of riot and debauchery. Not the feeblest barrier was interposed between the unholy passions of the crew and their unlimited gratification.” In a few days, the young sailor hatches a plan. He will escape into paradise.
Tommo is accompanied by a shipmate, Toby, energetic and fearless whereas Tommo is reluctant and a bit of a snob, the slighly detached (read: Ishmaelean) adventurer. They head for the hills—the large verdant, nearly impenetrable, volcanic hills—wary of the village of Typee, where, sailors’ lore has it, a fierce band of cannibals lives. It’s a harried trip, low on supplies, high on directionlessness. On several occasions, Tommo nearly kills himself trying to keep up with Toby. The misadventures end up sounding like one of those old Bing Crosby and Bob Hope buddy movies: The Road to the Marquesas. Naturally, the two wind up in the wrong village. Soon enough, they are—whoops!—dining with cannibals.
Are they being treated graciously or being fattened? Toby doesn’t stick around to find out. Tommo, meanwhile, is stuck with a bad leg, the pain and inflammation of which fluctuates in proportion to the imminence of danger. Still, Tommo thrives, investigating the practices and customs of what he eventually comes to call the Happy Valley. He makes friends with the local chieftain, visiting him each day like a beat reporter checking in regularly with the desk sergeant. Tommo is assigned a valet, Kory-Kory, who, Queequeg-like, is a friend, respected and even loved despite if not because of his differences. Typee is the birth of the ardent anti-racist: in the beginning, Melville was a radical.
Tommo also finds himself in the everyday heap of bodies that naps through the humid days and snores through the night on the dirt floor of the hut. Specifically, he is alongside a young woman named Fayaway. Fayaway is beautiful, in a word, something Jean-Jacques Rousseau might have come up with if, instead of Emile, he had written soft porn. Not that there is anything illicit in Melville’s portrait. The passages regarding Fayaway are at once friendly, funny, and sensuous—in detail of flesh and landscape, Typee is a very sexy book. Once, in a canoe, Fayaway stands and spreads out her shawl of tappa, in imitation of a sail. “We American soldiers pride ourselves upon our straight clean spars,” the narrator states, tongue at least partly in cheek, “but a prettier little mast than Fayaway made was never shipped aboard of any craft.” (For insight into the richness of Melville’s entendres, go find out what the word mast meant in the local patois, which need not be discussed in detail here—this is a family introduction, after all.)
If Typee was to be excerpted in a contemporary outdoor and travel magazine of today—and modern adventure-mag editors would kill each other for it, take it from me—Melville would no doubt be asked to pick up the pace a little and cut some of the amazingly detailed descriptions, but the ending might just work: there’s blood, tears, home, and, jarringly, mother. Suffice it to say, Tommo somehow survives the cannibals and escapes, and—talk about anticlimaxes—turns back into Herman, who ends up living with his mother in upstate New York. It doesn’t take a Melvillian imagination to visualize the newly returned sailor wowing little parties of ladies and gentlemen with his inelegant remembrances of sumptuous South Pacific rainforests, of naked natives, of people eating people. He must have been quite pleased when people suggested he write it all down. He quickly did, padding his own photographic memories with notes from the reference works of the day. He found a publisher. Some revisions were called for. It was suggested that the author strike a number of the classical references, for instance; his publisher felt sales would improve with a dumbing down. His brother passed it on to some friends in England. Eventually, Washinton Irving read a draft. In a flash, Melville was famous, off and running at twenty-seven, cranking out books, on hiw way to The Whale.