January 8, 2009 | I do several crossword puzzles each day, and almost every week there is a clue answered by OMOO, a novel by Herman Melville about adventures in the South Pacific. Now, as a child I devoured Moby Dick, but that was the extent of my acquaintance with Mr Melville's work. Thanks to my crossword puzzles, however, I had become aware of the titles Omoo and Typee, so the last time I was at the library I picked up a volume including Omoo, Typee, and a third novel Mardi to see what, if anything, I'd been missing.
According to the dust jacket, those three novels mark the beginning of Melville's career as a writer: "Like the hero-narrator of these works, Melville, too, shipped out on a whaler, jumped ship in exotic ports, was held captive by native tribes — though here he might exaggerate his own exploits a bit — and escaped to find passage home in the service of the United States Navy."
I just finished Typee, Melville's most popular work well into the 20th century. It chronicles life among the Typee, supposedly ferocious lovers of human flesh, after Tommo (Melville) and his hapless shipmate Toby, stumble into their valley by accident, while searching for the valley of the peaceful Happar after jumping ship in the Marquesas.
Somewhat to my surprise, I've enjoyed Typee immensely. To be sure, it was a slower read than most contemporary books, dumbed down to the reading level of a slow fifth grader as they seem to be. By contrast, Melville's sentences are long, complex, and filled with "25-cent words" (as Mr Simonitch, my 12th grade English teacher used to call them). Besides stopping to consult Webster's, I've had to stop as well for any number of genuine belly laughs. "Humorous" is probably the last word I would have associated with Melville, but Typee is genuinely funny.
Consider this wry description of the Typee's fondness for sleep:
Unless some particular festivity was going forward, the inmates of Marheyo's house retired to their mats rather early in the evening; but not for the night, since, after slumbering lightly for a while, they rose again, relit their tapers, partook of the third and last meal of the day, at which poee-poee alone was eaten, and then, after inhaling a narcotic whiff from a pipe of tobacco, disposed themselves for the great business of night, sleep. With the Marquesans it might almost be styled the great business of life, for they pass a large portion of their time in the arms of Somnus. The native strength of their constitutions is no way shown more emphatically than in the quantity of sleep they can endure. To many of them, indeed, life is little else than an often interrupted and luxurious nap.
In the end, the Typee let Tommo go, although there are hints aplenty that he may be in for some rude surprises. On to Omoo!
Last updated on Jul 14, 2016