Monday, November 4, 2013

Typee by Herman Melville (1846)

Got this great unopened Franklin Mint 1979 copy of Typee at a local estate sale for just a few dollars.

My overall impression of the book is good; more of a travel log than a complete story of intrigue or mystery. The least favorite aspect of the writing is the endless 1st person; without any other characters that speak English or Toma speaking Typee it was a little tiring after a while.

In general however understanding the Seascape of the period is very enlightening; the mid 1800's was the end of imperial Europe's land grab by way of sailing around, finding stuff, and declaring it to themselves.

Melville goes on some serious rants on the subject of saving the "Savages." Early on Melville 1st mentions atrocities perpetrated on the islanders after which the retaliation is seen as barbaric when in fact the original offense was the uncalled for aggression.

"In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though
few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are
unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts,
holds a hundred evils in reserve;--the heart-burnings, the
jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the
thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make
up in units the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown
among these unsophisticated people."

About midway through the book Melville starts too get it out of his system, not unlike in Moby Dick but much more plainly. Mind you this is not written from a great distance; all these things and more were happening as he wrote them down. It makes me think that the saving of the few lone "untouched tribes on earth is a miracle and very worth the efforts.

"One of the most dreadful
curses under which humanity labors had commenced its havoc's,
and betrayed, as it ever does among the South Sea islanders, the
most aggravated symptoms.  From this, as from all other foreign
inflictions, the yet uncontaminated tenants of the Typee Valley
were wholly exempt; and long may they continue so.  Better will
it be for them for ever to remain the happy and innocent heathens
and barbarians that they now are, than, like the wretched
inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands, to enjoy the mere name of
Christians without experiencing any of the vital operations of
true religion, whilst, at the same time, they are made the
victims of the worst vices and evils of civilized life."

Melville mentions several times the Sandwich Islands currently known as the Hawaiian Islands and how there fate was one of horror.

"Let the savages be civilized, but civilize them with benefits,
and not with evils; and let heathenism be destroyed, but not by
destroying the heathen.  The Anglo-Saxon hive have extirpated
Paganism from the greater part of the North American continent;
but with it they have likewise extirpated the greater portion of
the Red race.  Civilization is gradually sweeping from the earth
the lingering vestiges of Paganism, and at the same time the
shrinking forms of its unhappy worshipers.

Among the islands of Polynesia, no sooner are the images
overturned, the temples demolished, and the idolators converted
into NOMINAL Christians, that disease, vice, and premature death
make their appearance.  The depopulated land is then recruited
from the rapacious, hordes of enlightened individuals who settle
themselves within its borders, and clamorously announce the
progress of the Truth.  Neat villas, trim gardens, shaven lawns,
spires, and cupolas arise, while the poor savage soon finds
himself an interloper in the country of his fathers, and that too
on the very site of the hut where he was born.  The spontaneous
fruits of the earth, which God in his wisdom had ordained for the
support of the indolent natives, remorselessly seized upon and
appropriated by the stranger, are devoured before the eyes of the
starving inhabitants, or sent on board the numerous vessels which
now touch at their shores.

When the famished wretches are cut off in this manner from their
natural supplies, they are told by their benefactors to work and
earn their support by the sweat of their brows!  But to no fine
gentleman born to hereditary opulence, does this manual labor
come more unkindly than to the luxurious Indian when thus robbed
of the bounty of heaven.  Habituated to a life of indolence, he
cannot and will not exert himself; and want, disease, and vice,
all evils of foreign growth, soon terminate his miserable

The description above of the fate of one island after another brings to light how the Western man won and how (and why) we are viewed with such skepticism from so many quarters.

It is easy to see how the book would have been such a big hit in the 1800's; its exotic stories were truly foreign to the Victorian ear. Maybe this was in fact the older day likeness of a reality show... here the man sets out into the wilderness for adventure;a bit like Survivor?