Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Colonialism and Melville's South Seas Journeys

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Colonialism and Melville's South Seas Journeys

Article excerpt

Despite the ideological bent of American literary scholarship in the last decade, Melville's narratives of the South Seas have scarcely been analyzed in terms of macropolitics, that is, in the context of major political realities such as colonialism and imperialism.(1) Typee, for instance, has been seen as a critique of the ills of civilization or a discovery about the morality of cannibals, but the colonial politics of its narration, the recording of the lives of disempowered "natives" by the privileged Westerner, have been largely unexplored, intimately connected though these narratives are with the colonial politics of the South Sea Islands. Typee, and to an extent Omoo and Mardi, are texts in which the Melvillean narrator, although highly critical of colonialism, nonetheless affirms his position as colonist in order to maintain the separation between himself and the natives, a separation on which his racial and cultural identity depends. At the same time that these narratives dramatize transgressive situations which challenge boundaries between civilized and savage, they attempt to contain the moments of transgression so that the boundaries remain intact. This essay will focus mainly on Typee, the most politicized of the three narratives.

Until recently, the fact of Euro-American empire building had played a negligible role in the academic interpretation of literary texts. The 1978 publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, however, has led to enormous productive activity in the deconstruction of symbolic, exotic texts and reinterpretation of them as forms of colonial discourse. It is now accepted, for example, that Heart of Darkness is as much a discourse about the British colonization of the Belgian Congo as a symbolic text about spiritual regeneration. American literary scholars are also increasingly beginning to recognize the importance of an imperialist context for understanding American literature and cultural mythology. Both Richard Drinnon and Richard Slotkin have brought attention to the pervasiveness of the idea of conquering racial Others in American popular culture, political rhetoric and serious literature.(2)

American writers had ample reason to be interested in the ideology, practice, and effects of colonialism, given the discourses of colonialism and imperialism in circulation in mid-nineteenth century America. David S. Shields has shown how, until the mid-eighteenth century, American poetry featured a discourse of empire. After 1750, this myth was simply shorn of its British imperial frame and applied to the "republican glory of the rising glory of America."(3) From the beginning, therefore, American literary nationalism included the idea of a colonial-imperial nationalism. By the mid-nineteenth century, as Wai-chee Dimock has shown, the idea of America as empire had gained wide and acceptable currency. Jefferson praised America as an "empire for liberty" while Jackson used the phrase "extending the area of freedom" to justify the annexation of Texas.(4) When Melville published Typee in 1844, American rhetoric on empire-making was well established. It is more than coincidence that neither in England nor America did abolitionism question the ethics of subjugating non-Western peoples.(5) Post-bellum America freed itself legally from slavery and entered into an aggressive phase of imperialism, justifying territoral conquest by an assumed Euro-American cultural primacy, America's divine mission, and the need to "civilize" the savages. In this context, references to Eastern and African cultures, narratives of journeys to "exotic" lands, and philosophical meditations on racial Otherness in American literature become much more than simply symbolic. The well-known interest of the American transcendentalists in Eastern philosophy, Melville's sociological travel narratives, Poe's poems about strange and marvelous lands, and other texts too numerous to be mentioned here form a continuous narrative that needs to be read through the discourse of empire-making. …

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