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Cannibal Old Me

Spoken Sources in Melville's Early Works

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards

Publication Year: 2009

An examination of Melville’s “borrowing”

“Mary Bercaw Edwards has researched the sources very thoroughly, going well beyond the previously published source studies. The result is a sound historical account of the ‘talk’ Melville encountered in the 1840s, and in emphasizing the oral sources of Melville’s discourses, Edwards provides an original contribution to source studies of Melville. She presents her research interestingly as well, in clear, readable prose. Her scholarship will certainly be of interest to Melville scholars, but it will also engage the attention of anyone interested in American culture and popular culture of the period.”—John Samson, associate professor of English, Texas Tech University

At the age of twenty-one, Herman Melville signed on the whaleship Acushnet as a common seaman and sailed from Massachusetts to the South Pacific. Upon reaching Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, he deserted and spent a month ashore on this reputed “cannibal island.” He departed as crew of another whaleship but was put ashore in the heavily missionized Tahitian islands after participating in a bloodless mutiny. Eventually making his way to Hawaii, he joined the crew of the American frigate United States and finally reached Boston in October 1844 after four years at sea.

By the time he sat down to write his first book, Melville had been recounting tales of these experiences orally for four years. The spoken elements of the overlapping discourses involving sailors, cannibals, and missionaries are essential to his first six books. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards investigates the interplay between spoken sources and written narratives. She closely examines how Melville altered original stories, and she questions his truthfulness about his experiences. Bercaw Edwards also explores the synergistic blend of the oral and written worlds of seafaring and the South Pacific and provides an analysis of Melville’s development as a writer. It is a study of the aesthetic, ethical, linguistic, and cultural implications of Melville’s borrowing.

Cannibal Old Me is an excellent contribution to Melville scholarship, challenging long-held assumptions regarding his early works. Scholars as well as students will welcome it as an indispensable addition to the study of nineteenth-century literature and maritime history.

Published by: The Kent State University Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

SINCE Herman Melville was first a sailor and then a writer, I will begin by thanking the sailors who most influenced me. The near-legendary Irving Johnson, whose career was dedicated to preserving the traditions of square-rig sail, was a towering and definitive figure in my family’s life. My father, Jay Bercaw, who served as Johnson’s first mate during the fifth and sixth world voyages...

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pp. xi-xxii

IF sheer bulk is any measure, one could assert that scholars know all there is to know about Herman Melville’s use of sources.Melville now holds an iconic place in American literature, but his sixth book and masterpiece Moby-Dick failed to sell out its first printing in his lifetime, and his career and reputation languished in unexamined obscurity for decades after his death. Source...

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1. “Where the Wild Things Are”: Questioning Typee

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pp. 1-23

THAT Herman Melville spent at least four weeks living among the inhabitants of the Taipi valley on Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands has never been questioned. Although scholars have long dismissed Melville’s elaborations and fictional extension of time in the valley, no biographer—not even Andrew Delbanco, Hershel Parker, or Laurie Robertson-Lorant—has doubted the veracity...

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2. “Six Months at Sea! Yes, Reader, as I Live”: Sailor Talk

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pp. 24-57

MELVILLE based the above statement on his own experiences aboard the merchant vessel St. Lawrence in 1839. Following the untimely death of his father and the subsequent lapse of the family’s fortunes, Melville joined this vessel as a greenhand and embarked on his first direct experience of the maritime world. This was his initial immersion in sailor talk. The four years he spent at sea from 1841 through 1844 on three whaleships and a naval frigate deepened...

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3. “They Say They Don’t Like Sailor’s Flesh, It’s Too Salt”: Cannibal Talk

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pp. 58-98

WHEN Herman Melville deserted the whaleship Acushnet at Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands on July 9, 1842, he crossed the beach, both literally and metaphorically,with a set of preconceptions about the identification and nature of cannibals.His sojourn among the inhabitants of a reputed “cannibal isle,”...

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4. “Their Gestures Shame the Very Brutes”: Missionary Talk

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pp. 99-132

TALK had a unique, formative role in the creation of missionaries. Sailor talk is predicated on action, or what Margaret Cohen calls “know-how.”1 Cannibal talk is predicated on perception. But missionary talk is above all talk. It was this talk that inspired men and women to travel to unknown places on the other side of the world to evangelize for their religion, and talk that formed the main...

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5. “Cannibal Old Me”: The Development of Melville’s Narrative Voice

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pp. 133-201

MELVILLE’S first words of the first chapter of his first book appear not as a statement, not as a description, but rather as a direct conversational address to his audience. “Six months at sea! Yes, reader, as I live” (Typee 3). It’s as though you struck up a conversation with a stranger at a bar who begins forthwith to regale you with an account of his own remarkable doings. The ensuing paragraph...


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pp. 202-222

Works Cited

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pp. 223-233


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pp. 234-251

E-ISBN-13: 9781612775876
E-ISBN-10: 161277587X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780873389785

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 794700961
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Cannibal Old Me

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Rhetoric -- History -- 19th century.
  • Melville, Herman, 1819-1891 -- Knowledge -- Language and languages.
  • Melville, Herman, -- 1819-1891 -- Technique.
  • Melville, Herman, 1819-1891 -- Travel -- South Pacific Ocean.
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