July 3, 2010

Melville: the book's genuineness

In January 1841, Herman Melville sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts aboard the 359-ton Acushnet. His real-life experiences aboard the whaling vessel inspired his first book Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, first published in England 1846 as Narrative of a Four Months' Residence among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands. It had a fair share of critics, many of whom objected to scenes of cannibalism, savage violence, heathenish idols, and the like. He also portrayed the "savage" natives rather sympathetically and subtly criticized attempts to "civilize" them.

The worst criticism in the eyes of Melville, however, was the suggestion that the story was fiction. Among those who made the accusation was Evert Augustus Duyckinck. Though somewhat fictionalized, the author maintained it was mostly based on truth; when the actual friend who inspired the "Toby" character in the book came forward, however, Melville felt vindicated. In a letter dated July 3, 1846, he wrote:

There was a spice of civil scepticism in your manner, my dear Sir, when we were conversing together the other day about 'Typee" — what will the politely incredulous Mr. Duyckinck now say to the true Toby's having turned up in Buffalo[?] ...Seriously, my dear Sir, this resurrection of Toby from the dead — this strange bringing together of two such places as Typee and Buffalo, is really very curious. — It cannot but settle the question of the book's genuineness.

Melville had, in fact, assumed that Richard Tobias Greene (aka "Toby") had died on the island. Toby, in turn, assumed that Melville ("Tommo" in the novel) had not survived. Toby's sudden appearance (verified by the harpoon scar on his forehead) convinced American publishers to print an American edition of Typee (Harper & Brothers declined, saying it was too fantastic), though Melville made several changes. He added "The Story of Toby," based on the new information about his friends survival. Additionally, possibly under pressure from his American publisher, he removed several passages with sexual connotations. At one point, for example, Marquesan girls (described as "revealing their naked forms to the waist") make their way onto the ship, to the delight of the all-male crew. In the original, he wrote: "What a sigh for us bachelor sailors! how avoid so dire a temptation?"

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