A Peep at Polynesian Life

by Herman Melville
Publisher: Modern Library
Trade Paperback, 336 pages
Price: $12.95

Based in part on Melville's own experiences as a whaling shipdeserter in the South Pacific, Typee was his most popular work during his lifetime. More traditional than his greatest works (Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, Bartleby), this adventure story nevertheless demonstrates the author's developing genius and evidences his foray into themes he would explore more fully later. Tommo, the narrator, struggles with his own identity amid the shockingly unfamiliar culture of the natives he and Toby encounter, raising questions of race, class, and innocence.

Far more standard adventure story than is typical of Melville's work, the narrative begins with Tommo and Toby abandoning the Dolly, a whaling ship cruising the South Pacific. The island on which they disembark is a tropical paradise and the home of a tribe of cannibals. This danger becomes a controlling metaphor for the novel as Toby struggles not only with a fear of being consumed, but more deeply (as he and Toby are gradually accepted into the islanders' society)with a fear of becoming subsumed into native culture and losing his own cultural identity. As a19th-century American, even this fear is representational of the national experience and its amorphous ethnicity derived fromthe influx of culturaldiversity then experienced by the young country.

While the novel enjoyed considerable success in its day, many readers were shocked byits frank violence and sexuality. Though the language is at times overblown and much of the content highly mythologized, Typee remains one of the period's most visceral and honest depictions of islanders and their culture. The style that would make Melville famous to later generations, though still unperfected, is nonetheless evidenced here in his elegiac descriptions of island life and landscape, as well as the discursive philosophical asides that would reach full fruition in the masterpiece Moby-Dick. Part adventure story, part mystical awakening, part social commentary, Typee is entirely the work of a true literary artist just reaching the beginning of his powers.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviewshere.


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Exodus Rating:
FLAWS: Violence, language, sexuality
Summary: Tommo and Toby desert the American whaling vessel they'd shipped on, and struggle to survive in Polynesia despite their fear of cannibals.

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