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"Melville and Marquesan Eroticism"



This is an up-dated and revised version of the essay I originally published in the Massachusetts Review (Spring 1987): 43-65. I presented a condensed version during our expedition of Nuku Hiva and this is the full account, which has been revised in light of what I learned during the conference in Tahiti and Nuku Hiva.
“Authentic Edens in a Pagan Sea”: Melville and Marquesan Eroticism
The fact that, until recently, very few critics of Typee and Omoo have studied the
Polynesian cultures Melville wrote about is symptomatic of a flaw in our literary assumptions.
We need to check our critical assertions against the actualities of the world and not regard texts
as autonomous or we sever an essential connection between literature and life, words and the
world. If the people of Taipivai are only fictive creations, who can dispute Milton Stern’s
depiction of them as “magnificent animals,” who “neither see, talk, or hear,” and are “beautiful,
mindless and blind.”?1 Other critics have contended that the Taipi are “mindless and soulless,”
“less than human,” with no “intellectual longing,” and “nothing to live for,” since they “cannot
sing,” are “without a story,” and incapable of “private affections.”2 Certainly the Marquesans
were different, but they were, and are, not without a human face, which these critics have made
an insufficient effort to discover.3 Even the best studies of Melville in the South Seas have not
always understood or sometimes underestimated one of the most striking aspects of Marquesan
culture—the pervasive importance of eroticism—leaving crucial questions about Melville’s
general response to the sexuality of Tapivai and the particular nature of his relationship with
Fayaway unresolved.4
The things that interested Melville about the Marquesans were not necessarily what
interested them about themselves; what caught his eye and struck his imagination and disturbed
his soul were those aspects of Marquesan culture that contrasted most sharply with the deepest
tacit assumptions of his own society. No wonder a young man brought up in the Calvinistic
strictures of the Dutch Reformed Church, forced by the early death of his father to leave school
and go to work to support his family, living in an inhibited Victorian society,5 and unsure of his
identity, ability, or vocational prospects—no wonder such a young man would be impressed by
the polytheistic pragmatism of Marquesan religion, the ease of carnal enjoyments, the
availability of meaningful social roles, the status rewards for skilled artisans, and the apparent
freedom from monetary worries and long-term goals. Furthermore, the Marquesans were not
simply one more “primitive” people. Physically, they were perhaps the most attractive, at least
to European eyes, ever encountered, and their erotic practices were among the most elaborate in
the world. Add to this the remote and rugged terrain, the dark mystery of their sacred taboos, the
horror of their sacrificial rituals, yet the happiness of their daily lives, and the result is a society
capable of having a tremendous impact on a sensitive soul. Given the tension between sensual
indolence and moralistic rectitude in Melville’s personality, the island world he shared for a few
weeks seemed perfectly designed to speak both to his deepest fears and desires, as well as
influence his future writings and haunt him for life.
Before the Acushnet dropped anchor in at Taiohae bay in Nuku Hiva, Melville had no doubt
heard numerous sailor yarns about “the cannibal isles,” where human flesh was the favorite dish
and unwary strangers were dispatched to the cooking pot by a war club to the head, or even taller
tales of white men worshipped as gods from the skies and provided with all the pleasures the
heart could desire. Clearly, Melville’s preconceptions of the Marquesans were laden with
ambivalence, which was only heightened by his four-week stay among them. His imagination
was torn between threats and temptations, horrors and allures; he associated the natives with love
and death, hedonistic indulgence and pagan iniquities, with carnal appetites of various kinds.6
In truth the Marquesans evoked a remarkably polarized response from early visitors. To
Etienne Marchand they were “mild…loving…peaceable…hospitable,” while to the missionary
William Alexander they were “revengeful, sensual, gluttonous, licentious, ungrateful, selfish and
avaricious.”7 Ever since Tacitus celebrated the Germans to chastise the Romans, authors have
invented “primitive” utopias to highlight the shortcomings of existing societies, put their citizens
to shame, and give them second thoughts about the world they lived in. In the eighteenth century
Rousseau and Hobbes posited antithetical “noble” versus “nasty, brutish and short”
interpretations, which Melville and his contemporaries still relied on, undeterred by the fact that
neither philosopher knew anything about primitive peoples first-hand: their abstract and
inaccurate theories were based on the fragmentary and often fallacious reports of others. The
real Marquesans eluded such glib categorizations; to understand them on anything like their own
terms demanded a radical reappraisal of cultural assumptions that few were capable of making.
Without ever learning the language, and lacking any anthropological training to guide his
understanding, Melville made a vigilant effort to comprehend the happy people who held him
hostage. When he returned to America in 1844 and was urged by family and friends to write a
book about his adventures, he incorporated other reports to fill out his account, covering up his
borrowings by claiming to have spent four months among the Taipi. But Melville’s indebtedness
to his sources is far less important than the fact that Typee: A Peep a Polynesian Life (1846) was
the first work about the South Seas by a major writer, albeit one who was auditioning identities
and flexing his rhetoric as he learned his craft. The book, in spite of its mixed merits as
autobiography, anthropological study, travel literature, polemic against imperialism, realistic or
romantic fiction, influenced how Polynesia was perceived; much subsequent South Sea literature
is derived from it. What Melville saw and did not see, what appealed to him and what appalled
him, has, then, a multiple interest: it tells us about the formative experiences of a gifted writer
and the inner workings of an intriguing culture, as well as outlining the basic patterns of the
literary presentation of Polynesia for over a century.
Marquesan eroticism had a spectacular way of introducing itself to sea-weary sailors: swarms
of young women would swim out to a ship and offer themselves to the crew. Nicholas Dorr, on
board the American brigantine Hope that discovered the northern Marquesas in 1791, first
described the practice:
The girls were permitted on board without any hesitation. They were in
general small and young, quite naked and without exception the most beautiful
people I ever saw. Their shapes and features were exquisite beyond description.
They being naked there was no deception of dress…. Few could but admire
them and none resist the impulse of the moment. They do not appear to have
any ideas of shame or criminality.
Dorr’s captain, Joseph Ingraham, seconded his account: “Like the rest of the South Sea ladies
they seemed not to esteem chastity as a virtue.”8 As more ships took advantage of this situation,
and the promiscuous girls learned that sex could be bargained for, a species of semi-prostitution
was established, with iron nails, the longer the better, as the preferred payment, until more than
one provision stop had to be cut short for fear that the sex-starved sailors would dismantle the
ship. By Melville’s time, muskets and ammunition were the gifts of choice, and sailors were apt
to steal the powder from the ship’s cannons. American whalers periodically anchored at Taiohae
to stock up on fruits, vegetables, pork, fresh water and firewood, recruit new crewmen from the
beachcombers and natives, and allow for sexual indulgence. The naked girls who swam out to
his ship, donned skirts, and frolicked about the deck on seductive display, left Melville dazzled
and disturbed: “What a sight for us bachelor sailors! How avoid so dire a temptation!”9
That Marquesan eroticism aroused in Melville a contradictory tangle of impulses and
anxieties is apparent in the way he describes what followed. On the one hand he paints a
whimsical picture of the Dolly being “captured” by “a dashing and irresistible” band of
“mermaids,” who compelled the crew to “yield” themselves “prisoners…completely in the
hands” of their charming captors. On the other, Melville testifies that he was witness to a
shocking saturnalia for which the lustful sailors were completely to blame. (15) These
contrasting versions betray Melville’s ambivalent motives; he wishes both to enjoy and decry, to
censor and entice. As narrator Melville would like us to believe that during this orgy he was
somewhere up in the rigging taking notes, yet we must assume that he yielded to the siren
temptations of the mermaids with the rest, however seared his moral sensibility may have been.
Melville, as John Bryant would have it, is striving to convey his repose, but often that devoutly
to be wished for state is more of a pose that ill-conceals his inner torment. In a subsequent
chapter Melville lamented the spontaneous native welcome of foreign ships as a “fatal embrace,”
which quickly poisoned all joys and destroyed native culture. Without question sexual contact
with Europeans was devastating, perverting native customs and spreading venereal disease
through the islands, but obviously the Marquesans took to this particular kind of “licentiousness”
with a will, and the simplistic formulation of contaminated Europeans and prelapsarian natives
does not at all account for the complex eroticism of Polynesia.10
Despite Melville’s reticence, it is possible, thanks preeminently to the work of Robert C.
Suggs, to reconstruct the sexual life of the “savages” that surrounded him in Taipivai. In this
way we can explain Marquesan behavior—why, for instance, did the girls swim out to the ships
in the first place?—as well as speculate about things Melville might have seen or done that he
merely hints at or dares not mention. John Bryant’s insightful study of the Typee manuscript and
Hershel Parker’s description of the book’s publication suggest just how tortuous a process it was
for the young author to try to tell the truth about his disturbing experiences without offending his
diverse audiences.11
In discussing the institutions of Marquesan society, we cannot assume the kinds of alienation
and compartmentalization that prevail in Western culture. The distinctions we make between
sacred and profane, self and society, man and nature, and life and death simply do not pertain in
the same way. Ask a canoe-maker or a tattooist in Taipivai if he is working, playing or
worshipping, and he would be hard pressed to answer. Marquesan sexuality, for example, was
inextricably fused with religion. The Marquesans believed that the universe was divided
between male and female principles whose sexual interaction caused the creation of all things
and sustained both nature and the spirit world. Although a primal copulation by the highest gods
engendered the world, it was various tribal gods and deified ancestors that took an interest in
human affairs and were susceptible to influence. Following the magical notion that like
produces like, Marquesans assumed that orgiastic activity aroused these gods to procreate and
replenish the land; thus eroticism was central to their religious ritual and daily life; without it the
breadfruit trees would wither and the people would lose their vitality.12
Nothing was more honorific in Marquesan society than sexual skill. The culture placed
enormous importance on female genitalia; women were massaged from infancy and herbal
cosmetics were applied to achieve the desired vaginal qualities. After elaborate schooling,
especially by their grandmothers, on the proper techniques, girls began regular intercourse before
puberty. Commenting that “age was no test of innocence,” Urey Lisiansky estimated that some
of the girls fornicating with his crew were ten years old, and A. Johann von Krusenstern
observed “a child not more than eight years old, who shewed as little moderation in granting her
favors as her sisters of eighteen or twenty.” To celebrate their sexual initiation, Marquesan girls
were tattooed and danced on display before the tribe.13
During the period between puberty and marriage, adolescents were expected to acquire as
much sexual expertise as possible. Many were members of the male kaioi and female poko’ehu
groups, whose responsibilities included learning tribal lore, singing and dancing at the festivals,
orchestrating the orgies that followed, and entertaining visitors. It was their duty to spark and
sustain a dynamic level of erotic energy in the tribe. The girls competed to surpass each other in
beauty, dancing, sexual skill and the number of men they could satisfy. A mother’s pride was a
daughter with many lovers; girls were taught to be seductive and encouraged to make more
conquests. Given the erotic expectations of Marquesan culture, it is clear why the girls swam out
to the ships and why the debauchery that followed was inevitable. In fact, the poko’ehu group
probably welcomed the intrusions of the outsiders, whose all-male crews led some Marquesans
to conclude that the ships had come to the islands because the men lacked women at home. On
occasion, the girls even built replicas of ships in order to rehearse their seductions; afterwards
they did mimic dances mocking the sailors and sang songs celebrating the highlights of the
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Marquesan sexuality was the prevalence of a type of
polyandry termed pekio, a system of secondary mateship in which women, and occasionally
men, usually of the upper class, had two or more spouses. In general, the more beautiful and
sexually alluring a woman was, and the higher her class and status, the more secondary husbands
she attracted. “If she is handsome and good tempered she can have her choice of servant
husbands,” Edward Robarts stated, “but for one woman to have several men I think is a pill hard
to digest.” This was socially desirable for everyone because prestige was based, in part, on the
size of the stone platform, or paepae, on which a family lived, and the more men available the
larger the platform that could be built and the more other needed work could be accomplished.
One woman at Taiohae, known as “the goddess of the bay,” was reported to have had forty
pekio, a name whose root meaning probably was “a servant who copulates.”15 In spite of their
promiscuity (or, as the Marquesans believed, because of it)16 few unmarried girls became
pregnant; but that only enhanced their desirability, since they had proven their fertility.
Apparently a first husband, usually a man of high tapu status, was in charge of distributing
his wife’s favors, but it was in his interest to keep everyone satisfied, and jealousy, although not
uncommon, was frowned upon. Captain David Porter was astonished to see “with what
indifference fathers, husbands, and brothers would see their daughters, wives, and sisters fly
from the embrace of one lover to that of another,” while the French beachcomber Jean Cabri,
who spent time in Taipivai, thought the Marquesans showed “Beaucoup d’espirit” since they at
least refrained from sleeping with their sisters.17 Such profligate sharing swayed Melville to
assume that marriage was as rare as celibacy: “I should as soon as thought of a Platonic affection
being cultivated between the sexes, as of the solemn connection of man and wife” (189). He
assumed that Mehevi was the leader of a group of “jolly bachelors,” who “were carrying on love
intrigues with the maidens of the tribe” (190). Indeed, on several occasions he saw Mehevi
“romping—in a most undignified manner for a warrior king—with one of the prettiest little
witches of the valley,” and, in what is perhaps the most explicit passage in Typee, he admits to
seeing both Mehevi and a boy of fifteen “making love” to the girl “at the same time” (190).
Melville can get away with such frankness because back in America “making love” implied
demure courtship but it probably described unabashed copulation in Taipivai, where virility
preceded intimacy and all preliminaries were dispensed with: “I have more than one reason to
believe,” Melville admits, “that tedious courtships are unknown in the valley of Typee” (191).
Even though he had only a vague understanding of Marquesan marital relations—completely
missing, for example, the importance of class and tapu status—Melville was amazed at male
toleration of the pekio arrangement, since a woman who attempted anything similar in the United
States would soon find “her numerous lovers murdering one another before her eyes.” Melville
disingenuously asserts that in Taipivai marriages “infidelity on either side is rare,” and that
polyandry prevents “a baneful promiscuous intercourse of the sexes” (191-2). In truth, these
statements are only valid from the Marquesan point of view. Infidelity was “rare” because of the
variety of accepted heterosexual outlets (not to mention autoeroticism, homosexuality, and
bestiality); thus promiscuity was not harmful because Marquesan culture was so permissive of it.
Dancing was certainly one of the most remarkable features of Marquesan culture; as a
striking expression of Polynesian eroticism it fascinated Melville, just as it has continued, in
various hu-la-hu-la survivals, to titillate the Western imagination. The muscular vigor of
Marquesan male dancing was very distinctive, but Melville, it seems, only had eyes for the
women. When the girls first swam out the ship, the admiring Herman was too shy and hemmed
in by censors to depict their sensuous dances: “These females are passionately fond of dancing,
and in the wild grace and spirit of their style excel everything I have ever seen…but there is an
abandoned voluptuousness in their character which I dare not attempt to describe” (15). Dancing
was featured at seasonal feasts and festivals, where the young men and women of the ka’ioi and
poko’ehu played a prominent role; dances were also a part of the life-crisis rites that marked the
evolving status of the chief (haka’iki) and his family; even funerals included nude dancing. The
size and location of the tohua, or dancing ground, at sacred sites and near family paepae is proof
of the central importance of dance in Marquesan culture. Vivid descriptions of these dances are
hard to come by; both missionaries and mariners dismissed them as obscene; although many
primary sources suggest that singing and dancing were, as Frederick Bennett put it, the
Marquesans’ “only amusement.” John Coulter provides a rare glimpse of girls covered by “only
a small piece of cloth, either round the waist or over the shoulders; as the excitement of the
dance increases, even this disappears, or is flung wildly to the winds,” and Jean Cabri told of
women dancing naked in a way that caused many “violations of decorum.”18
Far more common were dances performed in the evening as a prelude to love-making,
where both men and women could demonstrate their agility and allure. Edward Robarts records
how women would dance for him in the evening: “If I had stayd,” he wryly confesses, “the
Ladies would have Kept me a dancing till morning.”19 Melville also describes the young girls
dancing by moonlight: “In good sooth, they so sway their floating forms, arch their necks, toss
aloft their naked arms, and glide, and swim, and whirl, that it is almost too much for a quiet,
sober-minded, modest young man like myself” (152). Probably, as Melville’s agitated response
indicates, these were seduction dances similar to those Gauguin saw: “The men sing, while the
women with rhythmical movements of their arms and legs imitate the love game to which they
are inciting the men, and which will begin as soon as it is night.”20
Melville’s most detailed description of a Marquesan dance was cut from Typee by his
editor, John Murray, but was included in Chapter 63 of Omoo as the “Lory-Lory,” a name
neither Maquesan nor Tahitian.21 Melville and his friend Long Ghost seek out a secluded village
called Tamai where they can witness a “jolly heathen dance,” but what he depicts was actually
one of the “great variety” of dances he had seen on Nuku Hiva:
Presently, raising a strange chant, they softly sway themselves, gradually
quickening the movement, until, at length, for a few passionate moments,
with throbbing bosoms and glowing cheeks, they abandon themselves to
the spirit of the dance, apparently lost to everything around. But soon subsiding
again to the same languid measure, as before, they become motionless; and then,
reeling forward on all sides, their eyes swimming in their heads, join in one
wild chorus, and sink into each other’s arms.
Melville probably came to realize that these arousing dances were not mere exercises in
licentiousness, but rather, as in the mystery cults of ancient Greece and Crete, a vital
dramatization of the power of a sacrosanct eroticism.
Erotic indulgence and sensual dancing are characteristic of many native cultures, but only
certain South Sea people became famous for these traits because the Polynesians were especially
attractive to the Western eye. The tall, muscular men and the light-skinned, shapely women of
the Marquesas were often termed the most beautiful in all the South Seas. Everywhere they
looked Western visitors thought they saw perfect models of the Venus de Medici or the Apollo
Belvedere. No wonder that Captain William Bligh, who had reason to know, proclaimed that the
combination of “the fascination of beauty and the seduction of appetite” produced in Polynesia
“allurements of dissipation…beyond anything that can be conceived.”22
Marquesan eroticism, which the beauty of the people made particularly appealing, was the
polar opposite of the sexual assumptions prevalent in genteel America. It must be emphasized
that Taipivai was no port city den of iniquity, but a coherent culture where profligate sexuality
received every sanction. Critics have been quick to cite Tommo’s persistent leg ailment as
psychosomatic evidence that Melville was “unmanned” by his encounter with Marquesan
eroticism and that Fayaway was merely a compensatory fantasy; it is more likely, however, that
his leg swelling was caused by the infectious bite of the nono fly, or a festering injury, and that
Fayaway was a real Marquesan girl.23
Many of Melville’s commentators have not taken the existence, let alone the importance, of
“the beauteous nymph Fayaway” very seriously, even though Tommo insists that she was his
“peculiar favorite” (85). Indeed, critics compete to see who can best belittle her. She has been
called “a whimsical and cryptically voluptuous abstraction,” “a fantasy of the flesh,” “a laughing
little Eve,” “a cream-puff out of sentimental novels,” “a wraith of youthful erotic fantasies, “a
cross between Atala and Undine, an idealized Belle Sauvage” who is “vaguely evoked in wishful
water colors.”24 Yet for many readers she remains the most memorable character in Typee,
becoming the archetype of innumerable successors from Pierre Loti’s Rarahu to Dorothy Lamour
and on to the present day.
Melville devotes two rhapsodic pages to Fayaway’s beauty (85-6), which many critics
have found suspect; but given the remarkable beauty of Marquesan women, this portrait is
probably less idealized than many might suppose. Certainly the author insists that his picture “is
no fancy sketch,” but rather “drawn from the most vivid recollections” (86). Even such
seemingly sentimental embellishments as blue eyes and vermilion blushes are corroborated by
other primary sources.25 Melville’s various descriptions of Fayaway indicate that she was at least
a pubescent girl. Her tattoos, for instance, signal her sexual initiation; her “light olive” skin and
long hair imply that she was from the upper class; and her mode of dress and companions
suggest that she might have been associated with a poko’ehu group. Melville admits that
Fayaway’s usual dress was merely the “summer garb of Eden,” which “showed her fine figure to
the best possible advantage” (87), and stresses how she wore necklaces of small carnations and
white buds in her ears. These floral decorations may signify more than Melville realizes. In
Tahiti at a later date, Rupert Brooke discovered, a white flower over the left ear meant, “I am
looking for a lover,” over the right, “I have found a lover,” and over both, “I have one lover and I
am looking for another.”26
Despite her lavish introduction, and although she is often praised in passing, Fayaway only
has a major role in one significant scene: the controversial taboo (tapu) excursion by canoe on
the lake, which playfully blends sailing and sexuality:
With a wild exclamation of delight, she disengaged from her person the ample
robe of tappa which was knotted over her shoulder (for the purpose of shielding
her from the sun), and spreading it out like a sail, stood erect with upraised arms
in the head of the canoe…. In a moment the tappa was distended in the breeze—
the long brown tresses of Fayaway streamed in the air—and the canoe glided
rapidly through the water, and shot towards the shore” (134).
Fayaway serving as a lovely, slim spar has always seemed too stylized to the skeptical eye, and
the fact that there is no lake in Taipivai renders the scene more suspect. On the other hand, there
were streams deep enough to swim in, and, because of flooding in rainy season, pools wide
enough to sail on; nor was it impossible to break taboo, although subsequent misfortunes might
be blamed on such a violation. Melville makes it clear that Tommo had to argue vigorously and
persistently to receive a priestly dispensation in this particular case. Still, the more probable
reading is that this scene is more metaphor than mimesis and, if any taboos were broken, they
may well have been Melville’s.27 The sailing scene is designed to intimate, Tommo states, that
he is “on the very best possible terms” (133) with Fayaway and, if the reader fails to see this, “I
certainly shall not trouble myself to enlighten him any farther” (134).
As unlikely as the canoe episode appears to be, a knowledge of the importance of sexual
expression in Marquesan culture, especially for a female of Fayaway’s age (probably between
twelve and eighteen), together with the lively interest Melville takes in feminine beauty and
provocative dances, indicates that she was a tangible, flesh-and-blood woman—if so, to offer
herself to Melville would have been expected, and a refusal on his part could have created
problems. The missionary John Harris, for example, made the mistake of rejecting the chief’s
wife, only to wake up in the night with his pants at half-mast and a bevy of curious women
inspecting him to see if he was complete. Another missionary, William Crook, although
confessing to “strange” and “violent” temptations, lived celibate among the Marquesans, but he
remained an enigma and was robbed, mocked and denied food.28
There are several reasons why the description of Tommo’s relationship with Fayaway is
not more detailed and convincing. First, like many American writers of his day, Melville had
difficulty freeing his prose from the sentimental conventions that stifled any frank discussion of
sexuality. Second, one day in Typee Valley was very much like another. Third, and most
importantly, Marquesan eroticism was too pervasive and shocking to be described, given his
genteel audience. The missionary Robert Armstrong, for example, declared, “The scenes of
licentiousness exhibited in our presence, and even in our houses, were too shocking ever to be
narrated by either pen or tongue,” and beachcomber John Coulter stated that “their actions are all
the most vile that can be either invented or thought of, no pen can or ought to describe it.”29 “In
travel narrative,” one critic has claimed, “nothing goes without saying,” but in Taipivai things
must have happened that defied description; Melville, by detailing some customs, disguises the
fact that others can’t be discussed; he tells how they made food and started fires but their
eroticism can only be hinted at. “A cold Yankee,” Melville confided to Hiram Fuller in 1846,
“finds it very hard to believe in the existence of a region…where the inhabitants sleep sixteen
hours…and feast and make love the other eight.”30 Shortly after Typee was published, Melville
expressed his anguish that “an author can never—under no conceivable circumstances—be at all
frank with his readers.”31
Furthermore, Fayaway’s portrait may be blurred because she was Melville’s model for
not one but several lovers. She probably had rivals for Tommo’s affection and she may have
been sleeping with other men. Melville alludes to being “ministered to by darkeyed nympths”
(123) wherever he went; at the bathing pool he enjoyed “peeping” at “the young girls springing
buoyantly into the air…revealing their naked forms to the waist” (90). Later, when his leg began
to heal, he plunged in among the “river-nympths”: “Bathing in company with troops of girls
formed one of my chief amusements…. The amphibious young creatures swarmed about me like
a shoal of dolphins, and seizing hold of my devoted limbs, tumbled me about and ducked me
under the surface” (131-2). If sailing can serve as a metaphor for sexuality, so can swimming
and bathing. In several places Melville favorably compares the “free” and “unconstrained”
Marquesan women with the whalebone-corseted “automatons” (127) and “coronation beauties”
(161) of Victorian America and England, noting that “the gentle sex in the valley of Typee,”
were “sensible of their power” and “the contributors to our highest enjoyments” (204).
Whether these girls were members of the poko’ehu group is not certain, but Tommo does
admit that he “flung” himself into the “wild enjoyments” of the valley, and shortly afterwards we
see him accompanied by “a rabble rout of merry young idlers” (151). Later he refers to the
“willful, care-killing damsels” of Taipivai, who spent their time bathing, dancing, flirting, and
playing “all manner of mischievous pranks” (204). The scene where Tommo expresses pleasure
in having his “whole body” massaged with fragrant oil is especially revealing: “most refreshing
and agreeable are the juices of the ‘aka,’ when applied to one’s limbs by the soft palms of sweet
nymphs, whose bright eyes are beaming upon you with kindness; and I used to hail with delight
the daily recurrence of this luxurious operation” (110). In a deleted passage Melville had added
that the girls would “rise with one another in the arder [sic] of their attentions.” Since massage
was often a preliminary to intercourse, and the yellow ’eka root was a favorite of the poko’ehu
girls, Melville may be telling more than he intended. Significantly, this erotic moment is
followed by the highly sexualized depiction of Kory-Kory making fire. Melville may be
winking at the reader here, but Kory-Kory is not, as some critics have supposed, winking at
Tommo; he is merely rubbing two sticks together in the traditional way to start a fire.32
In a later passage, as Henry Hughes has shown, Melville continues this playful mode with
an erotic description of Tommo eating fish. This scene, which blends allusions to oral sex and
cannibalism, suggests Melville’s conflicted feelings about various carnal appetites. Since the
Marquesans were notorious for their cannibalism, tattooing and eroticism, it is not surprising that
these aspects of their culture should become mixed in Tommo’s mind and cause him anguish.
Melville as a young man was known among friends and relatives for his large appetite, and
Tommo is preoccupied about food from the start of his adventures—in addition to his fear of
being converted into protein himself. The name “Typee” does not, as Tommo states and some
critics assume, literally mean “lovers of the flesh,” but the Marquesans were indeed cannibals
and the Taipi were not only vigorous lovers but also ferocious warriors. In truth, the sacrificial
victims they selected were almost always from other valleys, only rarely were sailors taken, and,
in spite of the fact that Tommo is “consumed by the most dismal forebodings” (118), his captors
never evince any intent to devour him. In an effort to make light of his situation, he offers a
lawyerly, tongue-in-cheek defense of cannibalism (yes, my client, on occasion, partakes of
human flesh, but otherwise he is a splendid fellow), but this only reveals his growing anxiety.33
Tommo, shall we say, prefers not to be tattooed. What is striking is the contrast between
Melville’s “normal” fear of cannibalism and his “abnormal” fear of tattooing—why? Critics
have been quick to explain Melville’s intense aversion: the writer written upon, the scribe
inscribed—O, the horror! The horror! Melville did see himself as a “marked man,” someone
with a special destiny, and so he did not want to “lose face,” because his identity was tied into
his determination to be the master of his own meanings; he wanted to create and define himself,
or rather define himself through his creations, on his own terms. That tattooing was performed
with a “shark’s tooth” (217) as well as anther implement resembling “the teeth of a saw” (218)
reinforces its association with cannibalism and other carnal appetites. In sum, chanting, dancing,
and eroticism, sacrificial victims and cannibal rites, tattoos and tapus, feasts and festivals, were
all woven together in Marquesan life; thus it is not surprising that cannibalism, tattooing, and
eroticism would become conflated in Melville’s mind and emotions, adding to his inner turmoil
and “the fearful apprehensions that consumed” him (232).34
Although Typee contains more evidence for than against Melville’s affair with Fayaway, the
emotional importance of the relationship to each is problematical. One of many polite forms of
requesting sex in Marquesan is “do you want to play,” as well as “climb,” “mount,” or “push.”
Courtship was considered a waste of time, foreplay was dispensed with, and any signs of
affection only developed after a lover had proved his virility. Ralph Linton reported that
beautiful women could be “exceedingly cruel and fickle in their dealings with their lovers,
leading them on only to rebuff them publicly.” Captain David Porter, who tried to court
Piteenee, the chief’s granddaughter, had his advances repelled “with a coldness and hauteur” that
astonished him, especially when the lady then “formed a connection” with one of his officers and
proved herself “a most notorious jilt,” leading Porter to conclude that Marquesan women
“possess much cunning, much coquetry, and no fidelity.” Edward Robarts, on the other hand,
was delighted with his Marquesan wife: “I pass away my time with my lovely consort in a state
of true happiness.” Even if Melville and Fayaway shared a genuine passion, he may have felt
daunted by Marquesan eroticism, which expected from both male and female a quick response to
sexual stimuli, multi-orgasmic vigor, oral stimulation, and scratching and biting to express
special excitement. John Bryant’s argument that the relationship with Fayaway signals
Melville’s sexual maturation is too pat an explanation for what probably was, at best, a complex
and conflicted situation.35
That Melville has Tommo look so hard for signs of empathy and sympathy in Fayaway may
indicate that he was puzzled about their relationship: was it love or lust, desire or duty, heartfelt
affection or mere habit—what were her true feelings? First-person accounts often express
astonishment at the ability of Marquesan women to feign emotions. Porter noted how laughing
girls daubed their eyes with salt water to simulate fake tears; Robarts added that “their tears are
always handy”; Crook wrote that “When a person dies, the Women make a great howling, but, at
intervals, converse, with apparent unconcern.” “That they had no love for others,” Dening
confirms, was a common complaint made against the Marquesans.36 In the islands meetings and
partings were times for very marked shows of emotion, where it was hard to separate genuine
from merely ceremonious feelings. Tommo insists that at his departure “poor dear Fayway”
clung to him “sobbing indignantly” (248) and “speechless with sorrow” (250), but how could
Melville be sure, in retrospect, what it all meant?
After Melville’s return to the United States, Fayaway became legendary. The New York
Daily Tribune announced his marriage to Elizabeth Shaw as follows: “MR HERMAN TYPEE
OMOO MELVILLE has recently been united in lawful wedlock with a young lady of Boston.
The fair Fayaway will doubtless console herself by suing him for breach of promise.”37 The first
proof that Fayway was a real woman came from Toby Greene himself, who appeared after Typee
was published and confirmed its accuracy; he referred to “the fair Fayway, your Typee
dulcinea…as you recollect we taught her a few words of English, such as ‘good bye’ and ‘how
do you do.’”38 A few subsequent travelers to Nuku Hiva found additional evidence to
authenticate Melville’s tale. Lt. Henry Wise in 1848 saw “a ‘nut-brown’ damsel, named
Fayaway, from the valley, who apparently was a maid of all work to a French commissary of the
garrison.” Twenty years later R. S. Valparaiso reported that “Fa-a-wa and a daughter of
Melville’s were still living, the former an old woman.” Nor should we ignore the intuitive
testimony of Sophia Hawthorne, author of an acutely sensitive sketch of Melville, who declared
after meeting him, “I can see Fayaway in his face.”39
There is an ironic coda to the story of Melville in the Marquesas. In 1962 Robert C.
Suggs, doing archaeological work in the part of Taipivai where Melville said he was held
captive, found that the owner of the land, Heiku’a, could relate a family legend whose details fit
the events narrated in Typee. “Struck by Melville’s fair skin, his eye color, and his reddish hair,”
the Taipi, it seems, had regarded him as “a minor supernatural being,” giving him “preferential
treatment” and the “utmost respect.” He was “constantly anointed with native cosmetics that
further whitened his skin, and carried often to bathe in a rockbound hole in the river bed.”
Furthermore, “he was given a wife, Pe’ue by name…who was supposedly the ancestress of
Heiku’a on her father’s side.” Melville was denied any chance to escape, because his presence
was considered “a good omen.” When he did get away, the natives “were furious at losing their
half god.”40
Clearly a story that purports to tell of something that happened over a hundred years
earlier must be viewed with suspicion, but the Marquesans prided themselves in reciting
genealogical lore, so it is not impossible that Melville’s visit was remembered. The suggestion
that he was seen as a fortunate omen and minor deity is particularly interesting. Melville
confessed that he was “utterly at a loss” (120) to account for “the most deferential kindness”
(123) of his own reception by the Taipi. After escaping, he admitted that “all their strange
conduct…is still a mystery” (267). Melville’s inability of explain the “sedulous attention” (120)
of the natives left him apprehensive, so poisoning his delight that he felt compelled to flee.
Melville’s hair was brown, not “reddish,” but his eyes were blue and his light complexion
probably accounts for his preferential reception; he tells how the Taipi “felt our skin, much in the
same way that a silk mercer would handle a remarkably fine piece of satin” (74). By exchanging
names with the chief, Tommo and Toby received tapu status and were woven into the
community with gifts of food, shelter, and sex, and were relatively safe. As Edward Robarts said
of name exchange, “This is your Protection.” Shortly afterwards began the process of feeding,
bathing, massaging, and carrying Tommo, which marked off his treatment from Toby’s. On
occasion Melville came close to perceiving his true situation; once he observed that “the natives
multiplied their acts of kindness and attention towards myself, treating me with a degree of
deference which could hardly have been surpassed by a celestial visitant” (109). He also noted
that “every article, however trivial, which belonged to me, the natives appeared to regard as
sacred” (146), including his pipe and his old shoes, the latter kept in a package hung from the
ridge-pole of the house.41 The natives’ constant presence near him and their strong aversion to
his leaving the valley is another indication of his special status.
In retrospect Melville may have realized the implications of his exceptional reception, for
the narrator of Mardi is greeted by the Mardians as a “white Taji, a sort of half-and-half deity,
now and then an Avatar among them, and ranking among their inferior ex-officio demi-gods”;
and in Clarel, Rolfe recounts an adventure, similar to Tommo’s in Taipivai, where “A truant
ship-boy overworn,/ Is hailed for a descended god.” The forty-line sequence on the experience is
cryptic, but it does seem clear that Rolfe, who surely speaks for Melville too, felt guilty about
abjuring “the simple joy” of so Edenic a place, fearing that, like Adam, he had renounced a
Renouncer! Is it Adam’s flight
Without compulsion or the sin?
And shall the vale avenge the slight
By haunting thee in hours thou yet shall win?42
In his daring escape from Taipivai, Tommo plays Odysseus to Fayaway’s Calypso and Mow-
Mow’s Polyphemus; the Marquesan war chief urges his men to pursue and kill Tommo, whose
use of a boat-hook in self-defense is aptly ironic, recalling both the tattooer’s sharply pointed
instruments and the sacrificial victims hung from the lips as “fish” during the cannibal rites.
Tommo’s sudden departure should not come as a surprise, since he never said that he intended to
stay permanently in Taipivai; at the end he leaves Mow-Mow writhing in the water, Fayaway
“sobbing indignantly” (250), and Kory-Kory wringing his hands. Whether the episode was true
or not, Melville must have felt that this was the “right” way to conclude the book. Despite the
fact that Typee is basically a celebration of “the primitive” and a critique of civilization, the final
stress is placed upon the horror latent in Marquesan life—although it is Tommo who actually
performs the last horrid act. By heightening the horror at the end, Melville is able to justify his
rejection of values a part of him wants very much to affirm; psychologically speaking, his
striking of Mow-Mow suggests his superego taking revenge on his id.
Melville’s behavior after his escape from Taipivai, as presented in Omoo, amply
demonstrates that his violent repudiation of Polynesia was not definitive. He does not return
posthaste to home and mother, but rather he tries his hand at beachcombing in Tahiti and Hawaii,
searching for some equivalent to Taipivai and Fayaway. Melville may have been a peeping Tom
in Taipivai, but when he finally did return home, it was as a doubting Thomas deeply pessimistic
about the human condition. From Typee to Billy Budd, Melville’s sensibility was drawn to moral
and metaphysical conundrums—the perplexing ultimate questions and elusive mysteries of
existence. After the success of Typee and Omoo, largely due to their hedonistic celebration of
life, Melville insistently denied the influence of the South Seas on his writings; he disdained to
be known as “Mr. Typee,” “the author of Piddle-dee,” “the man who had lived among
cannibals.”43 In his later works heterosexual relationships were usually superseded by power
struggles between man and God, man and Nature, and man and man; there is also a recurring
theme of frustrated desire, with both homo- and heterosexual implications. The manifold ways
the South Seas probably shaped Melville’s subsequent writings require a separate study. The
fact that Melville took his experiences in Taipivai so much to heart, I would suggest, accounts
for much of the depth and eloquence of his finest books, with the central Marquesan images
resurfacing, profoundly altered, to shape his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, and many of his other
novels, stories, and poems. The more he tried to put his Polynesian past behind him, the more it
became the subliminal driving force of his genius.
Eventually, Melville achieved a resigned serenity based on a lifetime of philosophical
speculation, but he also repressed beyond use his early adventures and, for thirty years, stopped
writing fiction. Visitors who tried to revive his memories of the Marquesas were evaded and left
disappointed; one complained that “the shade of Aristotle rose like a cold mist between myself
and Fayaway.”44 Yet thoughts of the primitive world he had abandoned periodically haunted
Melville to the last, as Billy Budd and a late poignantly nostalgic poem, “To Ned,” (Toby
Greene) testify:
Where is the world we roved, Ned Bunn?
Hollows thereof lay rich in shade
By voyagers old inviolate thrown
Ere Paul Pry cruised with Pelf and Trade.
To us old lads some thoughts come home
Who roamed a world young lads no more shall roam.
Nor the less satiate year impends
When, wearying of routine-resorts,
The pleasure-hunter shall break loose,
Ned, for our Pantheistic ports:—
Marquesas and glenned isles that be
Authentic Edens in a Pagan sea.45
1 Milton R. Stern, in Critical Essays on Herman Melville’s Typee, edited by Milton R. Stern
(Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1982), 128-131.
2 James E. Miller, A. N. Kaul, Thomas J. Scorza, and Richard Ruland, in Stern, 155, 165, 238, 189.
Mitchell Beitwieser, “False Sympathy in Melville’s Typee,” American Quarterly, 34 (Fall 1982)
411; Wai-chee Dimock, “Typee: Melville’s Critique of Community,” ESQ, 30 (1984) 34.
3 The best studies in English of Marquesan culture are: Robert C. Suggs, Marquesan Sexual
Behavior (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966); Greg Dening, Islands and Beaches (University
of Hawaii Press, 1980); Nicholas Thomas, Marquesan Societies (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1990); Edwin N. Ferdon, Early Observations of Marquesan Culture, 1595-1813 (University of
Arizona Press, 1993). Both Dening and Thomas have extensive bibliographies. The two most
important primary sources are: William Pascoe Crook, “An Account of the Marquesan Islands,”
MS c. 1800 (Sydney, Mitchell Library) hereinafter [Crook], and Edward Robarts, The
Marquesan Journal of Edward Robarts, 1797-1824, Greg Dening ed. (University Press of
Hawaii, 1974). E. S. Craighill Handy, The Native Culture in the Marquesas (Bernice P. Bishop
Museum, Bulletin, Bulletin 1. Honolulu, 1922) is an early study based on insufficient research
(he cites Melville 38 times!) and Ralph Linton, “Marquesan Culture,” in A. Kardiner, The
Individual and His Society (New York, 1938) is unreliable. My original interest in Marquesan
culture was stimulated by Stanley Diamond’s NEH summer seminar “The Concept of the
Primitive in Western Civilization,” (1976) and his In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of
Western Civilization (Transaction Books, 1974).
4 Charles R. Anderson, Melville in the South Seas (New York: Columbia University Press,
1939) overstates Melville’s reliance on his sources, asserting that Typee is “a tissue of
vicarious adventures” and doubts whether the author had any significant experiences in
Taipivai; Fayaway is mentioned only three times. James Baird Ishmael (New York: Harper
Torchbooks, 1960) identifies the Marquesan roots of symbolism in Moby-Dick, but has few
specific insights into Typee, saying little about Fayway and claiming that “the Polynesian
artisan” impressed Melville most in Taipivai. Gavan Daws, A Dream of Islands (New York:
W. W. Norton, 1980) gives Fayaway short shrift, but his chapter on Melville in the South Seas
is a fine introduction. T. Walter Herbert, Jr., Marquesan Encounters (Harvard University
Press, 1980) overrates Melville’s early artistry, asserting that Typee is “a triumph of utterance,”
but he aptly captures Melville’s distinctive sensibility, noting that in the book “the crisis of
meaning is located within Melville himself.” Herbert’s excellent study is the first in print to
make use of the work of Robert C. Suggs, and, by juxtaposing Melville’s encounter with those
of Captain David Porter and the missionary William Alexander, he gives a good account of
Marquesan eroticism, but says little about Fayaway or the lasting effect of that eroticism on
Melville. John Bryant, Melville and Repose (Oxford University Press, 1993) provides a close
study of Melville’s revisions of Typee, showing how Melville toned down sexual references in
several passages, which only served to enrich their suggestiveness. Bryant claims that
Tommo, as a result of his experiences in Taipivai, achieved sexual “maturation” and suggests
that Marquesan “amiable sexuality” may have become “too restrictive” of Tommo’s
“freedom.” If anything, Marquesan eroticism left Melville ill-prepared for his proper marriage
to Elizabeth Shaw and his subsequent life and work suggest profound sexual frustration.
Melville’s most recent biographer, Andrew Delbanco, does not situate Typee within the
context of Marquesan eroticism; he assumes that the author merely invents “a reverse image of
life at home.” Melville: His World and Work (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006) 82.
5 Peter Gay’s five-volume study The Bourgeoise Experience, among many others, has altered
our ideas about the Victorians and sex, but Melville’s austere mother Maria fit several of the
stereotypes, cautioning her son Allan not to be “a slave of base passion and unrestrained
desires,” quoted in Laurie Robertson-Lorant’s Melville: A Biography (New York: Clarkson
Potter, 1996) 131; in 1839 Allan purchased a copy of The Student’s Manual, whose author,
male purity reformer John Todd, warned against “heinous onanism.” See also Hershal Parker,
Herman Melville, I (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 136; Vincent J.
Bertolini, “Fireside Chastity: The Erotics of Sentimental Bachelorhood in the 1850s,”
American Literature, 68 (1996) 719. One reason Melville went whaling was to escape the
control of his mother. Melville’s upbringing, as T. Walter Herbert demonstrates in Moby-Dick
and Calvinism (Rutgers University Press, 1977), was a mix of liberal and orthodox doctrines,
which came into conflict following the death of his father when Herman was twelve.
6 Scurvy, Jonathan Lamb has argued, can cause an oscillation between joy and despair, pleasure and
disgust, such as “the curiously persistent blend of dismay and delight” in Typee. Thus, to “the
scorbutic observer,” it was easy to see terra incognita as utopia: “any land was paradise; all earth
showed fair.” Preserving the Self in the South Seas, 1680-1840 (University of Chicago Press,
2001) 9, 123-128. This is intriguing, but it doesn’t account for the tremendous impact Polynesia
can have on people nowadays who arrive by air.
7 Marchand and Alexander quoted in Dening, 19-20.
8 Dorr and Ingraham quoted in Joseph Ingraham, Voyage to the Northwest Coast of North America
(Imprint Society, 1971) 47.
9 Herman Melville, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (Chicago: Northwestern University
Press and The Newberry Library, 1968) 15. Subsequent quotations cited parenthetically in
the text. Because I am stressing the autobiographical aspects of Typee, I will refer to
Melville more often than Tommo, whom I take to be Melville’s persona in Taipivai, but
without the benefit of hindsight and thus at the mercy of his immediate feelings. While I
think Typee is based on Melville’s real experiences, like many authors he probably
embellished them. It is doubtful, for example, that he spent five days in the mountains
before arriving in Taipivai. On the swapping of muskets and power for sex, see Frederick
Debell Bennett, Narrative of a Whaling Voyage Round the Globe (London: Richard Bentley,
1840), 339-40. Many critics have assumed Melville’s description of his boat’s reception in
Taiohoe bay was pure fiction, but Mary Malloy found confirmation in the log of the
Potomac, which describes the girls crowding the deck, who then go “swimming off like
schools of porpoises.” Eight American whaling ships were in Taiohae bay at that time (3-4
July 1842), and three other sailors, besides Melville and Toby Greene, deserted the
Acushnet. “Bound to the Marquesas: Tommo Runs Away,” Melville Society Extracts, 82
(September 1990) 1-3.
10 Bryant, 131-45; probably “the venereals” were brought to Nuku Hiva by Porter’s men in 1813; if
Melville did not participate in the saturnalia on board the ship, it may well be because he was
afraid of the disease and therefore sought a safer area for sexual indulgence in Taipivai. He
assumed, incorrectly, that the women of Taipivai were “uncontaminated” (181). Approximately
30% of sailors at that time were infected, Dening, 126. At least one, and probably more, of
Melville’s original crew on the Acushnet died of a “disreputable disease,” Parker, II, 150-1.
11 In addition to Marqusan Sexual Behavior, readers should consult Suggs’s autobiographical
account, The Hidden Worlds of Polynesia (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962) and his essay
“Sex and Personality in the Marquesas: A Discussion of the Linton-Kardiner Report,” in Human
Sexual Behavior, edited by Donald S. Marshall and Robert C. Suggs (Basic Books, 1971) 164-
185; Bryant, 146-60; Parker, I, 355-447.
12 Suggs (1966) 153-4.
13 Suggs (1966) 39-68, 88-91; Lisiansky and Krusenstern quoted in Bengt Donielsson, Love in the
South Seas (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1956) 87-8.
14 Suggs (1966) 66-96; Suggs’s informants insist that the ka’ioi and poko’ehu were separated by
gender, all other scholars assume there was only the ka’ioi group; David Darling in January 1835
described how at Vaitahu the natives planned to build a boat designed for “preparing the young
girls for shipping season,” in Thomas (1990), 151-2.
15 Suggs (1966) 129-131; Robarts, 270; Thomas 79-82, 210; Dening, 81-82.
16 Apparently the Marquesans believed pregnancy resulted when a woman made love to the same
man numerous times; Captain David Porter, Journal of a Cruise made to the Pacific Ocean
(Upper Saddle River, N.J., The Gregg Press, 1970) II, 117; this is a reprint of the 1822 edition.
Suggs has told me that less sperm due to the multiple daily orgasms of young Marquesan males
might be a better reason.
17 Porter, 59-61; Cabri quoted in Dening, 112-3.
18 Bennett, 333; Coulter, in Danielsson, 98; Cabri in Ferdon, 68.
19 Robarts, 100-1.
20 Gauguin quoted in Danielsson, 12. Robert C. Suggs does not think Marquesan dancing was as
erotic as portrayed by Melville and Coulter: “Traditional Marquesan dances involved seated
singers chanting, clapping, and waving their arms in rhythm to the beat of drums while one or two
dancers danced…. The words of the chants were, and still are, quite erotic although couched in
rather subtle, indirect terms and a special dialect.” Suggs to Heath 12/23/03. I suspect that by
Melville’s time Marquesan dances reflected a Tahitian influence.
21 Parker, I, 389-90; Suggs to Heath, 8/18/78.
22 Daws, 24; David Howarth, Tahiti (New York: Viking, 1983) 151.
23 Melville refers to “…the occasional presence of a minute species of fly, which, without stinging,
is nevertheless productive of no little annoyance” (212); this may be the notorious nono fly, whose
insidious bite could cause painful swelling; Porter does mention the nono, 129; the reality of
Melville’s swollen leg is confirmed by a doctor in Tahiti and Toby Greene, Parker, I, 216; other
mention of similar leg ailments are in Porter, II, 183-4, Suggs (1962) 65, and Robertson-Lorant,
69-70. It is worth noting that Tommo’s leg ailment preceeds any contact with Taipivai eroticism;
once there, it prevents him from escaping, and thus, in a sense, facilitates his sexual indulgence.
24 The phrases are by J. C. Furnas, Gavan Daws, D. H. Lawrence, Edwin Miller, Richard Chase,
John Seelye, and Newton Arvin respectively.
25 Howarth, 112; Robarts, 87.
26 Brooke quoted in Philip Snow and Stefanie Waine, The People From the Horizon (Oxford:
Phaidon Press, 1979) 215.
27 Robert C. Suggs has a picture of the stream through Taipivai swollen by flood waters into a small
lake; Melville makes clear that it was the rainy season (p. 48). Canoes were tapu to women in the
Marquesas, but the issue of breaking tapu is very complex. In fact some women were permitted in
canoes, Dening, 239; one missionary, who was on Nuku Hiva a few years before Melville, noted
that “They have compromised the matter, and say that tabu is of no importance among foreigners,”
Reverend Robert Thomson, The Marquesas Islands (The Institute for Polynesian Studies, Brigham
Young University—Hawaii Campus, 1980), 38; Edward Robarts, for example, ate pork with his
wife and served as the midwife for his daughter’s birth, 28; on the other hand, some beachcombers
were killed for breaking tapu, Dening, 137, 218; the most subtle discussions of tapu are Thomas,
61-86 and Dening, 85-94; see also, Alex Calder, “’The Thrice Mysterious Taboo’: Melville’s
Typee and the Perception of Culture,” Representations 67 (Summer 1999) 27-43.
28 William Wilson, A Missionary Voyage to the Southern Pacific Ocean…in the Ship Duff (London,
1799) 141-142; Alex Calder, “The Temptations of William Pascoe Crook,” The Journal of Pacific
History, 31: 2 (1996) 144-61; Dening, 100.
29 Reverend Richard Armstrong, “A Sketch of Marquesan Character,” The Hawaii Spectator, I
(1838) 12; Coulter in Donalsson, 98. Jonathan Lamb offers a richly nuanced discussion of what
he calls the je ne said quoi in Polynesian narratives: Nothing you can imagine is equal to what I
saw.” Lamb, 24 and passim.
30 Janet Gitrow, “Speaking Out: Travel and Structure in Herman Melville’s Early Narratives,”
American Literature, 52: 1 (March 1980) 19; Melville in Parker, 418. In 1846, Melville told John
Murray that some men “go straight from cradle their graves & never dream of the queer things
going on at the antipodes.” Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman, eds., The Letters of Herman
Melville (Yale University Press, 1960) 46.
31 Letters, 96; see also Melville’s letter to Hawthorne, 1 June 1851, 126-131.
32 On ‘eka, see Suggs (1966), 158 and Dening, 48. John Bryant, ed., Typee (Penguin Books, 1996):
310. Of biographers, Edwin Havilland Miller has made the strongest case for Melville’s
homosexual leanings in Melville (New York: George Braziller, 1975); Robertson-Lorant sees the
fire-making passage as “teasingly homoerotic,” 139; Caleb Crain overstates the prevalence of
homosexual relations among adult men in the Marquesas, and makes no mention of Fayaway, but
his essay establishes the “unspeakable” context for homosexuality in the nineteenth century and
argues convincingly that Melville conflated cannibalism and homosexuality in his later fiction
and, most insightfully, in his relationship with Hawthorne: “Lovers of Human Flesh:
Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville’s Novels,” American Literature (March 1994) 25-53.
Melville may have been bisexual by temperament if not in practice, but once the nature of
Marquesan eroticism is understood the evidence for heterosexual activity predominates in Typee.
From various verbal hints in his works, however, I would speculate that as a sailor he engaged in
mutual masturbation, which was referred to as going “chaw for chaw,” Parker, I, 207. Melville
may allude to this when Tommo says that he and Toby “satisfied our engagement with an
affectionate wedding of palms” (33); this is echoed by Ishmael’s “marriage” to Queequeg and the
notorious “A Squeeze of the Hand” chapter in Moby-Dick. I would agree with Crain that Melville
saw sodomy as an unjust exercise in power and a threat to his identity; I think he probably resisted
sodomy as he resisted tattooing in Taipivai or whipping in the navy. In Typee Melville slyly
suggests that landing in Nuku Hiva has saved the sailors from “Buggerry Island, or the Devil’s
Tail Peak” (23). As John Bryant has shown, 146-60, the passages I have been citing that suggest
Tommo/Melville might have had multiple lovers in Taipivai were even more explicit in the
manuscript. I don’t agree, however, with Bryant’s assertion that Kory-Kory’s fire-making is
Tommo’s “masturbatory fantasy and a symbolic anticipation of sexual consummation with
Fayaway” (167), which assumes she wasn’t already available to him. See also Bryant’s excellent
edition of Typee, ix-xxxvi, 293-328. For Marquesan fire-making see George Foster, in Dening,
133; Wilson, 122, Hardy, 46, and Henry Wise, Los Gringos (New York: Baker and Scribner,
1849) 389.
33 On fish-eating and eroticism, Henry Hughes, “Cannibal Caterings: Cultural Conversions in
Melville’s Typee”; Edmund Fanning witnessed raw fish being eaten head-first, Ferdon, 59. On
Melville’s appetite, Letters, 45-6, Parker, I, 209. In Marquesan legend Taipi and Teii were two
brothers who first settled Nuku Hiva and whose quarrels set the pattern for inter-valley warfare;
see Thomas, 23-4; Dening, 14, 27-8, 76-83, 216-8. On Marquesan cannibalism, Suggs (1966)
165-8; Dening, 247-9; Robarts, 116, and Crook provide reliable first-person accounts of
cannibalism. Linton, 199, 206, 220, argues that Marquesan sexuality was deeply influenced by
“food anxiety,” but this has been refuted by Suggs (1966) 168; see also Suggs (1971) 164-85; still,
the existence of Marquesan legends about vehini-hai (women who seduce and devour men)
suggest that fears of eros and being eaten could become conflated for the Taipi. The most
extensive discussion of cannibalism and Melville is Geoffrey Sanborn’s The Sign of the Cannibal
(Duke University Press, 1998), which provides a rich contextual study of the various ways
cannibalism has been reported and interpreted; for Europeans, a horrified revulsion to cannibalism
proved that one was among the civilized and saved. Sanborn swallows whole Foucault’s notions,
however, and argues that Melville saw cannibalism as “the consummate expression of a purely
independent agency,” as if it were merely a liberated lifestyle! Sanford asserts that Melville used
cannibalism as a stage effect, 117-8, as does Christopher Sten, who sees it as a romantic plot
convention in The Weaver-God, He Weaves: Melville and the Poetics of the Novel (Kent State
University Press, 1996) 25-30. See also Paul Lyons insightful essay, “Lines of Fright: fear,
perception, and the ‘seen’ of cannibalism in…Herman Melville’s Typee,” in Body Trade, edited
by Barbara Creed and Jeanette Hoorn (Routledge, 2001) 126-148.
34 Like Bartleby, Melville was adamant in his refusals and admired men who could say “No, in
thunder” if necessary. Samuel Otter’s Melville’s Anatomies (University of California Press, 1999)
is a splendidly researched study that makes a complex case for why Melville does not want to
“lose face.” Otter doesn’t say enough, however, about what is distinctive in Melville’s rejection
of tattooing, which many other sailors sought to validate their adventures, and as a “badge of
distinction,” G. H. Von Langsdorff, Voyages and Travels to Various Parts of the World (London,
1813) 117, and Bennett, 342. Melville does not want to blend back into the crowd; he holds
himself apart and wants to stand out, but on his own terms. John Evelyn’s “’Made in the
Marquesas’: Typee, Tattooing and Melville’s Critique of the Literary Marketplace,” Arizona
Quarterly, 48: 4 (Winter 1992) 19-45, makes a cart-before-the-horse argument that Tommo’s fear
that tattooing would turn him into a text is rooted in Melville’s marketplace experiences, which
developed after he wrote Typee. On beachcombers and tattooing see Dening, 112, 139, 277,
Bennett, 342, and Beitwieser. On sexuality and tattooing, Suggs (1966) 92.
35 Suggs in conversation with the author; Linton, 174; Porter, 82, 96; Bryant, 165-182. Suggs noted
that Marquesan girls sometimes scratched lovers to leave a sign for their rivals to see.
36 Porter, 138; Robarts, 56; Crook, in Dening, 53, 247-8; Suggs (1966), 22.
37 Jay Leyda, ed., The Melville Log (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951), I, 256.
38 Even though the word “our” appeared in Toby Greene’s article in reference to Fayaway, Parker
has discovered that the original phrase in manuscript was “your,” I, 439.
39 Wise, 398-99; Valparaiso, in Leyda, II, 694. The spelling of Fayway as “Fa-a-wa” is especially
intriguing, since that is the way Melville spelled her name in manuscript, Parker, 361. Another
manuscript variant is “Faawai,” see Typee, 369. Sophia Hawthorne in Daws, 97.
40 Suggs (1962): 193-4.
41 Robarts, 255. One of the items found at the paepae Suggs excavated was a pipe bowl made from
a sperm whale’s tooth, 200. Robarts had received the same treatment forty years earlier; after
exchanging names with the chief, he was welcomed as a visitor “from the back of the sky” and
treated with “unrivalld hospitality,” being told that “if Beauty takes your fancy, have your choice.”
“They are remarkable fond of strangers,” Robarts says, describing how the ladies gathered around
him and sang and danced and “rubd my limbs.” When he returned to an island he had left seven
years before, he found a worm-eaten bundle of his clothing “hung up in the house in remembrance
of me,” and when he left the women wept and sang “songs in my praise,” 74, 64, 116, 53 (also
115), 151, 112; Crook confirmed Robarts, Ferdon, 109, Calder (1996) 159. The Marquesas had a
multitude of gods and did regard certain living persons as etua. Just because Tommo might enjoy
minor supernatural status does not mean that he is completely safe; it was precisely Captain
Cook’s “promotion” to god-like status that sealed his unhappy fate. For demi-god status among
the Marquesas, see Thomas, 35; Ferdon 37-9; Dening, 57-60. Thoreau, after reading Typee, wrote
with remarkable perspicacity, “the white man a mysterious demigod,” Robert Sattelmeyer,
“Thoreau and Melville’s Typee,” American Literature 52: 3 (November 1980) 463. For Captain
Cook as the god Lono, see Dening, Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language (Cambridge 1992) 163-171, 196,
and Marshall Sahlins, How Natives Think (The University of Chicago Press, 1995).
42 Herman Melville, Typee, Omoo, Mardi (The Library of America, 1982); Herman Melville, Clarel
(Hendricks House, 1960) 391.
43 Letters, 199, 130.
44 Titus Munson Coan, “Herman Melville,” Boston Literary World, XXII, (December 19, 1981) 492-
3. Metaphysics, however, can go only so far, as Melville acknowledged, probably with
autobiographical reference, in Pierre: “There is no faith, no stoicism, and no philosophy, that a
mortal man can possibly evoke, which will stand the final test of a real impassioned onset of Life
and Passion upon him.” (Hendricks House, 1949) 341.
45 Robert Penn Warren, ed., Selected Poems of Herman Melville (New York: Random House, 1970)
My knowledge of my mother is very scanty, but very distinct. Her personal appearance and bearing are ineffaceably stamped upon my memory. She was tall, and finely proportioned; of deep black, glossy complexion; had regular features, and, among the other slaves, was remarkably sedate in her manners. There is in Prichard’s Natural History of Man, the head of a figure—on page 157—the features of which so resemble those of my mother, that I often recur to it with something of the feeling which I suppose others experience when looking upon the pictures of dear departed ones. Frederick Douglass’s citation of James Cowles Prichard’s Natural History of Man (1843) is surely one of the best-known representations of reading in the social sciences in the history of American letters. Following Douglass’s reference, his own readers have found themselves looking at an etching of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, and have puzzled over what to make of this moment in Douglass’s second published autobiography. While one interpretation considers the gesture as the sign of Douglass’s deep ambivalence, perhaps unconscious, over his own genealogy of racial mixture, a more convincing approach reads the passage in light of his continuing engagement with the American School of Ethnology. 1 As “The Claims of the Negro, Ethnologically Considered”—an address that he delivered approximately a year before the 1855 publication of My Bondage and My Freedom—makes clear, Douglass claimed a historical relationship between ancient Egypt and contemporary descendants of the African diaspora as a way of defying race scientists such as Samuel Morton, George Gliddon, and Josiah Nott, whose theories of polygenesis played a significant role in the antebellum politics of slavery. Mia Bay has documented that Douglass was hardly alone among African American intellectuals of his time in contesting the racial science of ethnology, nor was his response—which both asserted the unity of humanity and yet made its own claims about distinct racial traits—unique.2 The similarity that Douglass finds between the remembered face of his mother and the outlines of an Egyptian king may have been a rhetorical gesture meant to evoke the depths of his emotional loss in being torn from his mother, but it was also a strategic maneuver that served as an ironic commentary on those who would use science to justify the enslavement of his kin. For the purposes of this article, I am not going to elaborate fully the context of antislavery politics in which Douglass wrote this passage, nor am I going to place this moment within a fuller interpretation of his autobiographical writing. Instead, what I am interested in is the way that the passage figures a particular type of reading, one that pushes Douglass’s autobiography from the domain of ethnology (the scientific account of race) to the domain of ethnography (the scientific description of culture). Douglass begins with the physical features of his mother—the “tall, finely proportioned” body, the “deep black, glossy complexion,” and the “regular features” of the face—all of which he presumably finds in the etching that appears in Prichard’s book. Yet the connection surpasses physical genealogy; the “sedate manners” are reminiscent to Douglass, one assumes, of royalty. The body of the mother, moreover, has been replaced by the physical object of the printed text. Racial genealogy has been supplanted by textual referentiality; we are out of a world in which bodies simply exist, and into one where they must be described, historicized, and documented. Small wonder that the chapter in which this passage appears, “The Author’s Parentage,” will be followed by another that enters fully into the mode of ethnographic description, “A General Survey of the Slave Plantation.” In leading readers from his slim memories of his mother to the pages of Prichard’s Natural History, Douglass is signaling a larger move from personal history to generalizable knowledge about a social system and the people it has ensnared. We might say that even though he describes himself as reading an ethnological text, he does so to produce an ethnographic effect. This scene of reading, most significantly, performs its disruption of...
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