chapter  3
56 Pages

“Typee or Happar?”: The Unsettling Narrative of Typee

On 18 March, 1846, in the New York Morning News, Evert A. Duyckinck wrote of a sensational first novel by the little-known Herman Melville, “Typee, in fact, is a happy hit whichever way you look at it, whether as travels, romance, poetry, or humour. It has a sufficiency of all of these to be one of the most agreeable, readable books of the day.”1 The contemporary success of Typee is indisputable. It followed Melville to the end of his life: when, in a lecture tour of the United States in 1858-1859, he described the islands of the Pacific as an “endless theme,”2 it is possible he alluded to not only the proliferation of islands and the depth and range of cultures in them, but also to the public’s incorrigible persistence in referring to Melville as The Man Who Lived Among Cannibals. But where Duyckinck praises Typee for its versatility, he also identifies an essential aspect of the text which operates in spite of the popular readership of the narrative. Although a “happy hit” for the publishers and its author, Typee is not a happy text, but one that is deeply uneasy with itself. The text occupies multiple genres but never settles in any; it is by turns loose and anecdotal; coy and eloquent; furious and suspenseful; dream-like and inquisitive; political, polemical and playful. The text plays with operations of difference, drawing parallels between apparently diverse cultures and offering unsettling conclusions as it wrestles with an ambiguous subject, the Marquesan host culture, while simultaneously preoccupied by the ambiguity inherent within itself.