- The Ambivalent Pleasure of Teaching Early American Literature in a Prison
My favorite writer is Herman Melville. It would be difficult for me to articulate all of the reasons why, but I think part of it is that I identify with the flawed nature of his protagonists. I think of them as desperate to latch on to some form of tangible, fulfilling truth in this fleeting and chaotic life. At the same time, their quixotic quests and the postures they affect when puffed up with the profundity of their epic endeavors can render them ever so slightly clownish.
Perhaps my favorite example of this sort of Melvillian protagonist is Tommo from Typee. Fed up with the privation of the seemingly interminable voyage of the Dolly and the tyranny of Captain Vangs, Tommo heroically escapes from the whale ship into the depths of the Marquesan jungle with the mysterious Toby. During his brief stay with the Typee, Tommo is afforded a rare opportunity to immerse himself in what he describes as a well-nigh prelapsarian way of life. He waxes rhapsodic about late mornings, leisurely breakfasts, strolls to the local stream to bathe with his island love Fayaway and his "body-servant" Kory-Kory, and amicable rounds of fellowship over a relaxing pipe with his fellow tribesmen. Exotic food seems to drop from the trees, the men of the tribe lounge about "after the style of indolent Romans," honing their spears or carving designs on canoe paddles, while the young Typee women innocently adorn themselves or dance seductively before the fire. And if the spirit takes them, Tommo tells us, they simply curl up and sleep, for "to many of them . . . life is little else than an often interrupted and luxurious nap." "In truth," Tommo avers, "these innocent people seemed to be at no loss for something to occupy their time; and it would be no light [End Page 219] task to enumerate all their employments, or rather pleasures."1 Tommo thus finds himself living in an enviable state of seemingly absolute freedom, his days structured by the myriad joys of island life rather than the threatening stressors that he must overcome to survive on his erstwhile ship, or in the "real" world back home. At the same time, however, Tommo's fantasy of freedom is absurd, predicated on a form of epistemological blindness that makes his "escape" from the pressures of shipboard life yet another form of Western co-optation.
I chose Tommo's reflections on Polynesian freedom for my primary subject matter when I lectured for the first time last year about early American literature and culture at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison near Bessemer, Alabama, about thirty miles west of where I live and work in Birmingham. UAB professors can offer presentations there through a program administered by our Office of Service Learning.2 I thought the men at Donaldson would find Tommo's portrayal of his life with the Typee a welcome break from the grind of prison life, and I wanted to hear their insights about Tommo's inability to live comfortably over time with the Typee. Despite his portrayal of life in the Marquesas as a return to a lost Eden, Tommo nevertheless increasingly feels threatened there, and his "escape" to the whaleship Julia is in many ways a deflating return to the very confinement he endured on the Dolly. What would they think, I wondered, about this feeling of being threatened by too much freedom, a state of mind that can lead (or so I have heard) to recidivism in our prison populations?
The subject of Typee would also give me the chance to discuss Polynesian tattooing. I wanted to see what the men at Donaldson thought of Tommo's fear of being permanently "disfigured" by the tattoo artist Karky (219), and to perhaps connect that fear to early American theories about race and skin pigmentation.3 I made hard-copy handouts of passages from Typee for the men to read; a PowerPoint presentation consisting of slides showing early nineteenth-century depictions of tattooed Pacific islanders, Polynesian tattoo implements, early etchings of cannibalism, and paintings from...