The Course of American Democratic Thought

By Ralph Henry Gabriel; Robert H. Walker | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
MELVILLE, CRITIC OF MID-NINETEENTH-CENTURY BELIEFS

IN 1846, WHEN EMERSON'S STAR was high, a comet swept into the American literary firmament. In that year a romance by an unknown named Herman Melville went on sale in the book shops. The book was called Typee. It described with rich and frank detail the life of a cannibal tribe on one of the Marquesas Islands and told what purported to be the story of the author's captivity and his escape. The book sold well and Herman Melville, aged twenty- seven, became for the moment a celebrity. He had written much autobiography into the book but had supplemented his own knowledge by reading about the islands and had blended all into a semi- fictitious tale.

Melville had in fact shipped on a whaler, the Acushnet, in 1841. After eighteen months he had escaped to the Typees. He made off from the island on an Australian whaler which took him to Tahiti. There he worked for a time as a field laborer and observed the ways of the natives in a British dependency. Perhaps homesickness or perhaps fear of the law (the captain of the Acushnet had filed papers in Honolulu dealing with the deserter) led Melville, who by this time had turned up in the Hawaiian Islands, to enlist as able-bodied seaman on the frigate United States. The warship sailed into Boston harbor on October 3, 1844. With the rest of the crew Melville got his discharge.

The success of Typee was prelude to an outpouring of books from the pen of the young traveler. Omoo, a light-hearted tale about

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