Herman Melville “Typee” Part Two

C. L. R. James wrote: “In Typee [Melville] holds up to admiration the civilization of the Typees and makes the most damaging comparisons with Western civilization.  Melville says that during the weeks he lived among the Typees, no one was ever put on trial for any public offense.  As far as he could see there were no courts of law or equity.  No police.  Yet everything went on in the valley with a perfect harmony and smoothness.  He denounces missionaries, white traders and government officials for degrading and corrupting this ideal civilization, cannibalistic as it was.”  (James, Mariners, Renegades & Castaways, 71).


Most of the second half of the novel Typee amounts to travelogue and ethnography, as Melville tells his readers about the society he lived with for around a month (four months in the time frame of the novel).  There is not much left to tell in respect to plot.  In addition to living among the Typee, Tommo considers leaving at times and attempts to convince the Typee to allow him to leave, but settles in.  When he catches his hosts with three severed heads, Tommo begins to fear for his life, living among cannibals.  Despite resistance and difficulty, Tommo is able to escape by signing onto a whaling vessel.  His adventures will continue in the novel Omoo, where he will take on the name “Typee.”  This novel does have two epilogues.  One examined a British occupation of Hawaii.   The second considered the adventures of Toby after his escape from the Typee.


I want to focus on the world Melville describes.  As I discussed in my last post, he was making a critique of “civilization” by praising the successes of the savages.  He saw the missionaries and whites as a corrupting force.  This theme is even more strongly argued in Omoo.  What is so special about the Typee community?  What can we learn from them?  Perhaps not much, but there remains much that is admirable.  The Typee have achieved a post-scarcity society.  The cultivation of breadfruit and “cocao-nuts” ensured a steady supply of food at the cost of little apparent drudgery.  Abundance of necessities is one half of eliminating scarcity.  The other half is in the elimination of desires.   “In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve; — the heart burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make up the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated people.” (149-150)By needed little, the Typee did not need to invest much of their energy into production.  The benefits of this post-scarcity situation overflow on almost every page of the second half of the novel.  Let me just mention two: time and governance.

Time: Industrialization created a world defined by the clock.  One sells their labor by the hour.  Tasks in the day are measured by seconds and minutes.  More and more of our conception of reality is defined by the standardized time-keeping.  Melville describes the opposite process.  The Typee would not have been aware of it, but Tommo, coming from 19th century America would have notice how time became less important.  “Gradually I lost all knowledge of the regular recurrence of the days of the week, and sunk insensibly into that kind of apathy which ensures after some violent outbreak of despair.  My limb suddenly healed, the swelling went down, the pain subsided.” (148)  A simple thought experiment would reveal that given liberation from work, whether through a more egalitarian distribution of necessary work, a reduction in living standards, or the mechanization of labor most people would choose to organize their days in accordance to their desires.  Nonnegotiable schedules would quickly vanish.  An afternoon spent on family, drink, or hobbies would no longer be seen as time wasted, better spent on productive labors.  Clocks might remain, but they would be servants of humanity not the masters.

Governance: The system of government among the Typee is described in chapters 25 and 26.   Melville was impressed with its simplicity and its lack of authority.  Deference was seemingly given willingly by the people and was not forced because the chief has no real say over the affairs of the community.  “During the festival I had not failed to remark the simplicity of manner, the freedom from all restraint, and, to a certain degree, the equality of condition manifested by the natives in general.” (219)  (I cannot help but notice the similar language used by Tocqueville in describing 1830 U.S.A.)  This simplicity was replicated in the marriage system.  Melville describe the use of polyandry and the lack of extended and tedious courtships.  Divorces are common and mostly amicable.  “As nothing stands in the way of a separation, the matrimonial yoke sits easily and lightly, and a Typee wife lives on very pleasant and sociable terms with her husbands.” (226)  I wonder how much of this can be explained by the lack of the interference of property in marriage.  With property comes greater concerns about fidelity, paternity certainty, and, of course, divorces become more complicated.  Often what makes divorce so traumatic for individuals and communities is a direct outgrowth of our atomized, unequal, capitalist society. Who will care for the children?  Who will get to keep the marital assets?  These are questions that did not plague the Typee.  The raising of children was as straightforward and simple as everything else in Typee life.  And with no property to divide up, divorce could not threaten any man or woman’s survival.  If we stopped looking at our relationships through windows of ownership and property, perhaps divorce would be less common.  Adultery is a threat only to those who think love, sex, emotion, happiness, and joy are scarce and marketable commodities.  (Only the one who “paid the price”, i.e. got married, should enjoy those things.)  Conflicts amongst the Typee were rare.  Tommo claimed to have seen none.

“Civilization does not engross all the virtues of humanity; she has not even her full share of them.  They flourish in greater abundance and attain greater strength amongst many barbarous people.  The hospitality of the wild Arab, the courage of the North American Indian, and the faithful friendships of some of the Polynesian nations, far surpass any thing of a similar kind among the polished communities of Europe.  If truth and justice, and the better principles of our nature cannot exist unless enforced by the statute-book, how are we to account for the social condition of the Typees?” (238)


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