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Peeping Tommo: Typee as Satire DAVID WILLIAMS That Herman Melville's first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, contains elements of autobiography is indisputable, but what he made of his Marquesan excursion and captivity, if more than travelogue, is little explored. 1 "The fact that the work is strongly autobiographical bothers some critics," observes a commentator who takes the real "memoirs" of Typee to be aesthetic rather than historical. "Although all agree that Melville stretched matters of time, setting, character, and plot to suit his narrative intentions, some fail to consider that he could also have stretched his point of view to allow an ironic relationship of author to protagonist." 2 The one reading to date which takes cogent account of this possible distance between Melville and his narrator finds the latter to be unaware of the deadening non-complexity within his primitive "Eden."a Apparently recalling that John Murray accepted the manuscript for his "Colonial and Home Library" on the assurance that its narrative was "authentic," and enlarging upon D. H. Lawrence's suggestion that Melville, as much as he wanted to, could not go back to savagery,ยท 1 Richard Ruland says that "Tommo is Murray's narrator, speaking to the vast public for informative, uplifting, and escapist writing . There are, of course, long sections of Typee in which Melville and Tammo merge. Melville supports Tommo's criticism of commercialism and the fruits of missionary activity. But he understands the valley far better than Tammo does and he knows what Tammo does not: what is wrong with the life lived there and why Tammo must not stay" (p. 318). "I was amused," Tommo says nevertheless for himself, "at the appearance of four or five old women who, in a state of utter nudity, with their arms extended flatly down their sides, and holding themselves perfectly erect, were leaping stiffly into the air, like so many sticks bobbing to the surface, after being pressed perpendicularly into the water ... They did not appear to attract the observation of the crowd around them, but I must candidly confess that, for my own part, I stared at them most pertinaciously ."5 When the rite is explained to him by his primitive attendant, ., Tommo concludesf ult was evident that Kory-Kory considered this an all-sufficient reason for so indecorous a custom; but I must say that it THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. VI, NO, 1, SPRING 1975 didnot satisfy me as to its propriety" (p. 167). Tommo, then, is at least occasionallycritical of the life lived in Typee, although, as in the present instance, he is not at all self-critical, being willing to account as piety whatis his evident impropriety. Nor is Tommo seriously tempted to stay in the valley. His exaggerated fears of cannibalism (p. 95), his horror of tattooing (which art has been demonstrated to be of ideal significance throughout Melville's work 0 ), and his repeated attempt to escape his kindly captors suggest that something must be wrong with Tommo. The strange malady which afflicts his leg and drives him at last to flee the valley is, in fact, part of a complex of identity which he unwittingly assumesin the larger story told by Melville. If author and protagonist tend to merge in criticizing the abuses of civilization in tltis primitive world, such univocality has not survived the American revised edition of 1846. This study essays, then, to re-examine the finished consistency of Typee's art, to redefine in generic terms the distance between Melville and his narrator, and to identify the unrecognized objects and functions of satire inMelville's "autobiographical" work. Ruland argues that "Tommo, like Ishmael, is conscious of himself as a story-teller. He is fully aware that he is narrating an adventure tale with a social message. The literature of the eighteenth century has not been lost on him. He emulates Swift in setting up an exotic land to berate the shortcomings of life at home" (p. 313). Tommo, however, berates the homeland with invective which is exacerbatingly direct. When he says, "The enormities perpetrated in the South Seas upon some of the inoffensive islanders well nigh pass belief" (p. 26...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 36-49
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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