Saturday, February 26, 2011

History or historical fiction?

I have already closely and critically read Typee, so I have excerpts from a preface written by John Bryant. In both of Melville's works; Moby Dick and Typee, there is a question raised as to whether or not the stories are fictional, and loosely based on Melville's real life or a true nonfictional account of it. Many critics of Typee say that it is historical fiction, pieces of truth and fiction, backed up by the fact that Melville uses fictionally named characters and that he really left no account of whether this work was a story brewed in his mind, or a true account of what happened to him when he traveled to the Marquesas Islands in 1841. The solution is left up to the reader; they need to take the textual evidence given throughout the book, and make the decision for themselves. It is the actual historical events in Melville’s life that lend credence to the story. The introduction is extremely important in the understanding of the book. Most would overlook it, but with this book it is imperative to read the prefaces to the story. The introduction by John Bryant gives the reader a background of not only Melville, but also the Typee people then and today. One of the most important accounts in the introduction is the section where he discusses the controversy surrounding Typee when it was first published. Up until July 1846, it was widely believed that his work was mostly fiction and a history peppered with romantic additions. Then his counterpart Richard Tobias Greene, also known as Toby, came forward to corroborate Melville’s story (xxvii). Another clue to support this claim is in the first sentence of the preface, he states “More than three years have elapsed since the occurrence of the events recorded in this volume.” (1) There would be no legitimate reason for this sentence to be included if this account was not historically accurate. In Moby Dick, The subject of the story's authenticity is not nearly as hotly debated, but there are still critics who believe this is a true account of the sinking of the whaleship Essex, which was attacked by a sperm whale. Another topic central to both books is the use of the term savage and white-man. Right off the bat in the introduction of Typee we are told that the term savage is used incorrectly in most contexts and offered an alternate connotation used by Melville. This is the idea of the noble savage. Instead of meaning wild or barbarous, this term, accredited to John Dryden, takes a positive meaning of a natural man; someone who lived by the laws of nature and did not bother with the burden of civilized society. The reason this term is particularly interesting is because it could be related to a peculiar theme of a kind of jealousy that the Europeans felt for the Polynesian way of life. One can find instances of Melville’s accounts of how truly happy the Polynesians are. “When I looked around the verdant recess in which I was buried, and gazed up to the summits of the lofty eminence that hemmed me in, I was well disposed to think I was in the “Happy Valley”, and that beyond those heights there was naught but a world of care and anxiety.” (124) In Moby Dick, the contrast between the white man and the uncivilized savage is a lot less apparent. The name of the boat they are in, the Pequod, even translates to an extinct Indian tribe. Much like the tribute to the Marquesan islanders in Typee, Melville gives a small nod to the "savages" of the Northeast in Moby Dick. This book also discusses class and the debate over the effectiveness of colonization. There are several themes that tie these two bookd together, but I think the origins of the stories are the most interesting to examine.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Penguin Books. 2003.

Melville, Herman. Typee. Penguin Books. 1996.


  1. Your introduction of the term "noble savage" is good, of course. I tend not to use the actual term myself - mostly because I don't want to go into a full escavation of its history, rightly or wrongly - but it's still a good approach. That's what I like here.

    What I like less is how rushed this obviously was - although a scholarly introduction isn't totally out of bounds for this assignment, it shows that you were cutting corners - as does everything else, including the lack of paragraphs. This reads, in other words, like the work of someone who knows the material and concepts, but could have benefited from rereading a little bit, and then writing more carefully.

  2. I did a very similar topic, so I like how in yours you talked about Typee, since I am not very familiar with it. I liked the "noble savage" part but I feel like it could have been focused on either much more or less. I think in your essay you gloss over a lot of things without going more in depth. Also, I would try to put in more quotes from Typee itself, instead of from the introduction. Also, instead of one giant section I think your essay would be much easier to read if it was broken up into smaller sections/paragraphs.