Perhaps it isn't fashionable to review a book written 17 decades earlier. Admittedly, I'm the guy who read the New York Times to the day one year after the date of publication, and doesn't want to know what's happening when everyone else does, if at all.
Literature, however, isn't what's labeled as news, and is the closest we get to immortality that I know of.
The timeline of Herman Melville's life had its own oceanic sway, because he had the cursed fortune of notoriety for Typee early in life. Moby Dick, perhaps the most misassigned book of all time, came to be celebrated, like a message in a bottle, long after this rarely gifted author died being barely able to support his family. Of course, the story of the martyred posthumous life has been told before, the mixed tragedy that the estates of these artists get to enjoy.
And yet we still have the book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, quiet, almost buried on the shelf. The subtitle is enough for me, suggestive of the playful spirit behind the book. It is a grand shame Typee is neglected, all that reading pleasure given away to books that may not deserve your hours in quite the same way. Even with the best readers I know I get a dumbfounded expression when I bring up Typee. Like Shibumi and Ultramarine, your eyes might have passed it by, dismissed it out of confusion over the subtle title. Probably high school teachers wouldn't have alienated readers from literature and Melville forever had they dared to assign this book instead. But do they really want us to know the miserable realities of colonialism and Western aggression against the peaceful and natural?
This new, critical edition put together by Hershel Parker, the most prominent biographer and editor of Melville in recent memory, will help us to reexamine this misunderstood book. Jonathan Evison has written one of the finest, funniest forewords I can remember reading, doing justice to a book that must've seemed daunting to write about.
Between novel and travelogue, the pages sing an English that anyone who cares about craft will make pause over. For this is a misapprehended book. In England, despite the Victorian times, they left the manuscript as is, while the Puritans and missionaries of this continent forced him to publish it without many passages. It is Lolita before Lolita, and part of the long history of American censorship and religious fanaticism.
These are tricky times for thinkers. For everyone, actually. But today you, the author or publisher, must decide whether a book is fiction or non-fiction. Exaggerate your experience, contrive anything while claiming it is true, and lawyers will come after you. Herodotus and De Tocqueville may've ended up in debt to the IRS, imprisoned. The labels we give books (novella, literature, popular fiction, crime, young adult, etc.) help the corporations. But a book is a book regardless of which section it gets housed in. I've been known to move Kafka to the comedy section. Dostoevsky to suspense. De Sade, children's or horror, depending on my mood.
The Bible belongs in ancient history and mythology, respectively.
It doesn't matter whether something happened or not, unless you're writing as a historical archivist. Invention is as much a part of the game as dice are to backgammon. As individuals, we make up stories, versions of reality, and call some more real than others. That's our job. And the fireball Melville knew that when he returned from his long Marquesas shipping expedition, ignoring the increasingly reifying tendencies of individuals after a certain kind of non-artistic quest for objectivity.
My promise: You will go on his journey and see what Melville saw, but when he takes his memories from latent image to the visible page, a man is revealed who sees more than what is coming into vision. We don't want the actual journey every time. That's dull reportage. The choices a writer makes define what, from all that could have been said and recorded, is said and recorded, and in what fashion.
There is nothing to critique about Typee. Nothing to say about my assessments of certain passages. No quoting here and there, as is the tradition, as if those little morsels do any justice to the whole. These are the cliches even the culture of ideas have to abide by, they say. All I ask is that some of us, in this time of so much forgetting, remember and read this book.
Bernard Radfar is the author of Mecca Pimp: A Novel of Love and Human Trafficking.