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Questioning Typee MARY K. BERCAW EDWARDS University of Connecticut Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature. Vladimir Nabokov1 S cholars have never questioned that Herman Melville spent at least four weeks living among the inhabitants of the Taipi valley on Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands. Although they have long acknowledged Melville’s elaborations and fictional extension of time, no biographer—not Leon Howard (1951), Hershel Parker (1996), Laurie Robertson-Lorant (1996), or Andrew Delbanco (2005)—has doubted the veracity of the mere fact. Melville presented his time in the valley of the Taipi as the factual basis for his first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846). This essay will consider the writing of Typee in light of the lack of any conclusive evidence as to Melville’s whereabouts during his sojourn on Nuku Hiva. While the fact that Melville borrowed much of his information from other writers has long been known, the evidence that he may have boldly claimed this material as his own experience in his first book sheds a new and vivid light on his development as a writer. Towards the end of Typee, Melville reflects on the “retired old South-Sea rovers, who have domesticated themselves among the barbarous tribes of the Pacific”: Jack, who has long been accustomed to . . . spin tough yarns on a ship’s forecastle, invariably officiates as showman of the island on which he has settled, and having mastered a few dozen words of the language, is supposed to know all about the people who speak it. A natural desire to make himself C  2009 The Authors Journal compilation C  2009 The Melville Society and Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 1 Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 5. 24 L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S Q U E S T I O N I N G T Y P E E of consequence in the eyes of strangers, prompts him to lay claim to a much greater knowledge of such matters than he actually possesses. “Jack” was the generic name given to all sailors. Like the anonymous Jack of whom he writes, Melville was prompted in Typee “to lay claim to a much greater knowledge” and experience than he possessed. Melville continues: In reply to incessant queries, he communicates not only all he knows but a good deal more, and if there be any information deficient still he is at no loss to supply it. The avidity with which his anecdotes are noted down tickles his vanity, and his powers of invention increase with the credulity of his auditors. He knows just the sort of information wanted, and furnishes it to any extent.2 So many of the episodes that drive the narrative tension of Typee derive from written sources or originate in the vast differences between Melville’s own cultural background and Marquesan culture that a close reading of the text leads one to question Typee not as a narrative—for as a narrative it is entrancing—but as an autobiographical narrative. One purpose of this essay is to sharpen our understanding of the balance between autobiography and fiction in our reading of Typee.3 Questions about Melville’s stay on Nuku Hiva have been present since the book’s publication; such questions came to the forefront again with paired essays by anthropologist Robert C. Suggs and Melville scholar John Bryant...


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