- Cannibal Old Me: Spoken Sources in Melville’s Early Works by Mary K. Bercaw Edwards
Apparently denying its subtitle, Cannibal Old Me announces itself in its introduction as focused on the aesthetic, linguistic, cultural, and political implications of Melville’s borrowing from spoken and written sources. The contradiction is only apparent, however. In her earlier, extensive work on Melville, the author found that previous source studies ignore oral cultures and, as she says here, “the spoken elements of broader discourses” (xii). She recognized that Melville’s introduction to subjects about which he would write for the rest of his life came not only from his permanently imprinted experience as a sailor, but also from other authors and the spoken language reported and recorded in their texts.
Her effort of recovery is imaginative and interesting, as are most of its results. Writing as an experienced sailor as well as a scholar, Bercaw Edwards brings to this book a language and perspective many students of Melville lack. Her graduate studies and earlier work had the benefit of collaboration with and advice from some honored authors and researchers, including Harrison Hayford, Wilson Heflin, and Thomas Farel Heffernan. Her most recent book before this one—the publication, after Heflin’s death, of his unfinished Herman Melville’s Whaling Years (2004), coedited with Heffernan—took her to many obscure sources, most of them maritime. Incorporating that material with the terminology learned in her years at sea, as well as her work at Mystic Seaport rowing and sailing traditional whaleboats, made her extraordinarily well-suited to take on the project of Cannibal Old Me. In addition, her use of both foundational and recent Melville scholarship seems to be thorough and conscientious.
As Bercaw Edwards states several times, Melville borrowed heavily from written sources to the extent of copying from other books, sometimes verbatim, events, definitions, characterizations, and other narrative elements. That he turned those usually mundane, literal sources into works of art is one of her claims (made by others as well), and that he did so with the growing skill of a storyteller is her recurrent theme, since identifying and interpreting the [End Page 98] oral storytelling qualities of prose are central to her endeavor. Bercaw Edwards probes three types of spoken source that Melville encountered in books or in first- or second-hand oral form. Her discussion divides itself into “Sailor Talk,” “Missionary Talk,” and “Cannibal Talk” and addresses Melville’s career from Typee to Moby-Dick, though the borders of each realm are porous. These three kinds of “talk” lead us to the long, summative chapter on “The Development of Melville’s Narrative Voice.”
The first chapter, “‘Where the Wild Things Are’: Questioning Typee,” would not seem to prepare one for that important last chapter but actually does. This chapter’s inquiry into the veracity of runaway Melville’s tale of his stay on Nuku Hiva is skillfully executed on a foundation of biographical, geographical, historical, and textual sources, both primary and secondary. Yet I had to read it twice to find its unity, internal and contextual. I wondered why the fragmentary evidence and differing opinions concerning whether the Taipi or the Tai’oa were Melville’s hosts (among other issues) should be rehearsed here in necessarily abbreviated form when it would take a book to do justice to the history of conflicting claims by various scholars, all working (ingeniously at times) with inadequate data to write speculative history. One might also question why much of it is here at all: Melville’s well-known copying is reiterated by every biographer and by other researchers as well.
Whether or not Tommo’s facti-fictional fears about cannibalism were well-founded, and whichever beach Melville may or may not have stayed on, he did foreground cannibalism in Typee and he did copy, with great fidelity, the language of other sailors and of his predecessors in print. Bercaw Edwards searches for this tale-telling sailor and boldly developing writer, about whom she writes: