My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life is more of what Herman Melville does best. He offers an intellectually arresting argument about the nature of civilization while going into great detail about the every day life of a group of Polynesian natives in the Marquesas Islands.
Typee was Herman Melville’s most popular work during his lifetime. It is a partially autobiographical account of a man’s time among a secluded tribe of Polynesian natives. “Tommo” escapes from a cruelly run whale ship and finds himself living among the Polynesian Typee tribe. The narrative is absolutely full of concrete detail about virtually every aspect of daily life among the Typees. Typee has everything from sensual descriptions of bare-chested exotic girls to treatises on island vegetation and edible fruit. The detail is stunning.
Surrounded by all of this plentiful detail is an argument about the nature of “European” (and presumably American) civilization vs the untainted existence of the “noble savages” living in the Typee valley. Melville discusses these differences particularly in chapters 17, 26 and 27. Melville’s discussion is earnest in its philosophical questioning and worth reading.
Also of interest is Melville’s criticism of Christian missionaries in the South Pacific. Although Melville writes in support of the aim of Christenizing Polynesia, he strongly criticizes the cruel methods of the missionaries.
The Good: Part Castaway-style adventure story, part philosophical questioning of the nature of civilization and part anthropological text on the life of Polynesians, Typee has a lot to offer.
The Bad: Many modern readers will dislike the amount of detail Melville goes into when describing things.
The Bottom Line: Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life is an easier book to get into than Moby Dick. It has a lot of concrete detail, but its themes are simpler. Though lesser known Typee is a must for any Melville fan.