Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life

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Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life:

Typee is available as an online text

Publishing History

First British edition (entitled Narrative of a Four Months' Residence among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands) published February 26, 1846 by John Murray, London, as volumes 30 and 31 of Murray's Home and Colonial Library. First American edition published March 20, 1846 by Wiley & Putnam, New York, as volumes 13 and 14 of the firm's Library of American Books.

Typee was originally submitted to Harper & Brothers in New York, but was rejected on the grounds that it was too fantastic to be true. Melville's brother Gansevoort, recently appointed Secretary of the American Legation in London, took the manuscript to England and persuaded John Murray to publish it provided that Melville supply supplemental factual material to make the story seem more realistic. Despite the addition of three chapters (XX, XXI, and XXVII) of such material, many continued to doubt Melville's veracity. Much, however, was eventually done to dispel such doubts, at least in the United States, when on July 1, 1846, the Buffalo, New York, Commercial Advertiser published "A Letter from Toby". This was an attestation by Melville's friend and fellow ship-jumper Richard Tobias Greene that the adventures related in the book were indeed true.

Gansevoort Melville also contacted George Putnam at the London offices of Wiley & Putnam, who agreed to publish an American edition to be typeset in New York from Murray's proof sheets. Putnam's partner John Wiley was offended by many of the passages dealing with sex and religion, but was unable to edit the book before it went to press; he subsequently pressured Melville to delete the controversial passages for the second edition. This "revised version" of the American edition was published in August of 1846, and included a "Sequel" entitled "The Story of Toby", an account of Greene's adventures after he managed to escape from the island.

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Six months at sea! Yes, reader, as I live, six months out of sight of land; cruising after the sperm-whale beneath the scorching sun of the Line, and tossed on the billows of the wide-rolling Pacific -- the sky above, the sea around, and nothing else! Weeks and weeks ago our fresh provisions were all exhausted. There is not a sweet potatoe left; not a single yam. Those glorious bunches of bananas which once decorated our stern and quarter-deck have, alas, disappeared! and the delicious oranges which hung suspended from our tops and stays -- they, too, are gone! Yes, they are all departed, and there is nothing left us but salt-horse and sea-biscuit. Oh! ye state-room sailors, who make so much ado about a fourteen days' passage across the Atlantic; who so pathetically relate the privations and hardships of the sea, where, after a day of breakfasting, lunching, dining off five courses, chatting, playing whist, and drinking champagne punch, it was your hard lot to be shut up in little cabinets of mahogany and maple, and sleep for ten hours, with nothing to disturb you but "those good-for-nothing tars, shouting and tramping over head," -- what would ye say to our six months out of sight of land? --opening paragraph

Typee or Happar? I asked within myself. I started, for at the same moment this identical question was asked by the strange being before me. I turned to Toby; the flickering light of a native taper showed me his countenance pale with trepidation at this fatal question. I paused for a second, and I know not by what impulse it was that I answered "Typee." The piece of dusky statuary nodded in approval, and then murmured "Motarkee?" "Motarkee," said I, without further hesitation -- "Typee mortarkee." --Chapter X

As the vessel had been placed in its present position since my last visit, I at once concluded that it must have some connection with the recent festival; and, prompted by a curiosity I could not repress, in passing it I raised one end of the cover; at the same moment the chiefs, perceiving my design, loudly ejaculated, "Taboo! taboo!" But the slight glimpse sufficed; my eyes fell upon the disordered members of a human skeleton, the bones still fresh with moisture, and with particles of flesh clinging to them here and there! --Chapter XXXII

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Contemporary Criticism and Reviews

... [N]otwithstanding a tendency to make too much of things by writing about them, wherever there is a story, however slight, the book is very interesting. The descriptive parts are not of so striking a character. The American fluency, which even in the narrative verges upon prolixity, becomes rather uninteresting where there is no action to relieve it: especially as Mr. Melville's mind, though vigorous enough, has not been trained in those studies which enable men to observe with profit....
Striking as the style of composition may sometimes seem in a Residence in the Marquesas, there is nothing in it beyond the effects of a vivacious mind, acquainted with popular books, and writing with the national fluency; or a reading sailor spinning a yarn; nothing to indicate the student or the scholar. --London Spectator, February 28 1846

The writer of this narrative, though filling the post of a common sailor, is certainly no common man. His clear, lively, and pointed style, the skilful management of his descriptive, the philosophical reflections and sentimental apostrophes scattered plentifully throughout the work, at first induced us to suppose it is the joint production of an American sailor and man of letters, of whom the one furnished the raw materials and the other gave them shape, order, and consistency, so as to tell with more effect upon the public....
The predominant and most objectionable characteristic of this book is the obtrusive earnestness with which its author supports a favourite notion that savage is preferable to civilised life.... Seldom have savages found so zealous a vindicator of their morals; rarely, too, has Christianity owned so ungrateful a son....
One more censure we have to pronounce.... In the course of his remarks he has frequent occasion to advert to the labours of the missionaries among these and other islanders of the South Seas; and it is remarkable that he never speaks of them but in terms either of downright disrespect, of ridicule as often as he can, or to charge them with gross and wilful exaggeration in their statements, or with credulity and blindness in their dealings with the natives. To such an extent does he carry this, that, having a misgiving it will be offensive to his readers, he purposely excuses it as best he can in the preface to his book. The tone of mock respect in which he does this is the more despicable and mischievous because it may betray the unthinking into confidence in his statements, believing that he has the real interests of Christianity very seriously at heart. We caution all such against delusions of this nature, and tell Mr. Melville that a twelve months' mental discipline under the weakest of the disinterested [missionaries] whom he reviles would be to him of the greatest service; it would teach him the value of moderation, charity, and truth-seeking, -- to draw conclusions warily and after mature consideration, and thus better qualify him for a censor of morals and commentator on a people than he has proved himself in this book. --London Critic, March 7 1846

The narrative is skilfully managed, and in a literary point of view, the execution of the work is worthy of the novelty and interest of its subject. --Nathaniel Hawthorne, in Salem, Massachusetts Advertiser, March 25 1846

Although with little pretension to author-craft, there is a life and truth in the descriptions, and a freshness in the style of the narrative, which is in perfect keeping with the scenes and adventures it delineates. --London Douglas Jerrold's Shilling Magazine, April 1846

Mr. Murray's Home and Colonial Library does not furnish us with a more interesting book than this; hardly with a cleverer. It is full of the captivating matter upon which the general reader battens; and it is endowed with freshness and originality to an extent that cannot fail to exhilarate the most enervated and blasé of circulating-library loungers.
... His descriptions of scenery are lifelike and vigorous, sometimes masterly, and his style throughout is rather that of an educated literary man than of a poor outcast working seaman on board of a South Sea whaler....
The evidence against the authenticity of the book is more than sufficient to satisfy a court of justice. Our limits forbid us to prosecute it further. Of evidence against the smartness and talent of the production there is none. --London Times, April 6 1846

The book abounds in praises of the life of nature, alias savageism, and in slurs and flings against missionaries and civilization. When the author alludes to, or touches matters of fact at the Sandwich Islands, he shows the sheerest ignorance and utter disregard of truth.
The work was made, not for America, but for a circle, and that not the highest, in London, where theatres, opera-dancers, and voluptuous prints have made such unblushing walks along the edge of modesty as are here delineated to be rather more admired than we hope they are yet among us. We are sorry that such a volume should have been allowed a place in the "Library of American Books." --"H.C.", in New York Evangelist, April 9 1846

The author seems to possess a cultivated taste and a fair education, but a deficient reading, and to this latter cause we assign many of his errors of general fact, as well as gross misstatements concerning the missionaries....
Before proceeding to our investigation of his statements concerning the missionaries, we remark of the book generally: 1. It is filled with the most palpable and absurd contradictions; 2. These contradictions are so carelessly put together as to occur in consecutive paragraphs; 3. It is throughout laudatory of the innocence and freedom from care of the barbarians of the South Seas, particularly the Marquesans; 4. It compares their condition with civilized society as being the more desirable of the two; 5. It either excuses and wilfully palliates the cannibalism and savage vices of the Polynesians, or is guilty of as great a crime in such a writer, that of ignorance of his subject; and, 6. It is redundant with bitter charges against the missionaries, piles obloquy upon their labor and its results, and broadly accuses them of being the cause of the vice, misery, destitution, and unhappiness of the Polynesians wherever they have penetrated....
We are inclined to doubt seriously whether our author ever saw the Marquesas; or if he did, whether he ever resided among the Typees; or, if he did, whether this book is not a sort of romantic satire at the expense of the poor savages.... --William Oland Bourne, in New York Christian Parlor Magazine, July 1846

The Evangelist speaks rather disparagingly of the book as being too romantic to be true, and as being too severe on the missionaries. But to my object: I am the true and veritable "Toby," yet living, and I am happy to testify to the entire accuracy of the work so long as I was with Melville, who makes me figure so largely in it.... --Richard Tobias Greene in Buffalo, New York Commercial Advertiser, July 1 1846

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