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From the frontispiece to Symzonia: Voyage of Discovery (New York: Printed by J. Seymour, 1820). Symzonia, Typee, and the Dream of U.S. Global Isolation GRETCHEN MURPHY Critical perceptions of Typee have shifted radically over the past century. Viewed for decades after Herman Melville's death as an adventure story for boys and a Rousseauvian celebration of the Noble Savage, the novel underwent intense réévaluation in the ±940s and !95θ8> when the second generation of critics devoted to claiming Melville's place in the canon found rich figurative resonance in his earliest and apparently simplest semi-autobiographical travelogues.1 And more recently, critics have reframed the "universal" symbols previously found in Typee as expressions specific to the Western colonial mind.2 This essay contributes to the current pursuit of meanings that emerge when Typee is read in the historical context of nineteenth -century United States expansion. In this context, the Typee appear as not only another version of the generically portrayed victims of Euro-American empire, a tribe of mysteriously other, idealized-but-feared, Vanishing Natives; they additionally signify a particular fantasy of American spatial isolation that was the subject of intense political debate at the time of Melville's writing. This claim is supported through examination of some of Typee's significant pre-texts—essays by Jeremiah Reynolds, a booster of Pacific expansion, and the anonymously authored novel Symzonia—as well as through reconsideration of the mid-twentieth-century symbolic interpretations of Typee that served rhetorically to situate the U.S. after World War 2. The purpose of locating Typee between its ESQ \V.49\ 4TH QUARTER \ 2003 249 GRETCHEN MURPHY pre-texts and its critical rise in the 1940s and 1950s is to open a space for new readings of this and other nineteenth-century texts in relation to that era's uncertain formulations of U.S. empire. Such readings must resist critical tendencies either to erase empire as a concern in the early-nineteenth-century United States or to assume, simplistically, that Manifest Destiny and global empire were part of the same powerful governing ideology of the era, free from division and dissent. Ill For William Ellery Sedgwick, writing in the early 1940s, the Typee valley where Melville's narrator Tommo resides in the Marquesas stands for "an inward and universal phase of human experience, obtaining in individuals and peoples alike;—the phase in which life lies along the easy slopes of spontaneous , instinctive being, in which human consciousness is a simple and happy undertaking of rudimentary sensations and simple sensuous impressions." This "phase," akin to the "previous " conditions of both childhood and savagery, is one that cannot ultimately contain "man" (understood but not named as the modern Western individual). Tommo flees because, however lovely, the Typee valley does not promote "intellectual and spiritual consciousness"; it nurtures natural impulses, but not "the ties through which the heart fulfills itself." Using the colonial trope that imagines a journey through space to be a journey backward through time, Sedgwick describes a trip that ultimately seems a cross between a Polynesian vacation and a Turnerian regeneration through westward movement: "we should sojourn in Typee" and "open to it with the pores of our sensuous being," but then pass on to other aspects of life, keeping Typee as "one element among others in [our] consciousness ."4 Newton Arvin, in 1950, echoes this reading, calling the novel's "primordial world" a "fortifying image" that Tommo takes along with him when he resumes "the full and anguished consciousness of modern man." According to Arvin, Melville suggests through his fiction that "the facts of movement through space, of change of site, of physical unrestingness and the forward push," are modern humanity's necessary burden.5 250 THf DREAM OF U.S. GLOBAL ISOLATION From our critical vantage point, the racist and colonialist implications of these readings are immediately obvious: the Typee figure not as culturally different but as temporally "previous " to a more ambitious Western culture. But just as interesting is these critics' use of space. In Sedgwick and Arvin, modern "man" is defined by progress through space as well as time, a tendency they attribute to Melville's expanding nineteenth -century...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-021X
Print ISSN
0093-8297
Pages
pp. 249-283
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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