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Typee by Herman Melville

Typee (original 1846; edition 1846)

by Herman Melville

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1,686306,487 (3.64)84
Authors:Herman Melville
Info:QPB, 1996
Collections:Your library
Tags:polynesia, friendship, nineteenth century, sailor, idyll, cannibalism, marquesas

Work details

Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life by Herman Melville (1846)

  1. 00
    Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature by Thor Heyerdahl (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Another look at the Marquesas, a century younger and entirely non-fictional, well-written by an experienced traveller. Heyerdahl begins with Melvellian enthusiasm about "going back to nature" but ends up rather more disillusioned than his famous American colleague.… (more)

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I bought this book at a friend's garage sale almost nine years ago, and put off reading it because I expected it would be pretty blatantly racist. And, you know, it is. It's also Melville's first novel (published in 1846) and the one that sold the best in his lifetime -- allowing him to marry and to dig into the writing of Moby Dick.

This is the story of Tom and his friend Toby, two men (whose adventures are loosely based on Melville and his friend) who abandon the whaler they've been working on and hide out on the island Nuku Hiva in Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. They quickly get lost, lose all their food, and are at the mercy of the elements before coming into the valley of the Typee. A first the two sailors are afraid because they heard from other sailors and islanders that the Typee were vicious cannibals, but they are treated well and soon settle in to island life. The conflict comes when they try to leave -- the islanders will not let them go back the way them came or approach the sea, and when Toby finally does convince them to let him greet a ship that has pulled into the bay, he disappears and no one will tell Tom where he went.

This book is at its best when it skews to the adventure genre -- the first third of the book with Tom and Toby planning their escape, hiking through the wilderness, and searching for food and shelter is great. It's not so good when it gets anthropological. Melville consistently either infantilizes the native people on the island or puts them up on a pedestal of purity because they are untouched by "civilization." Melville has nothing nice to say about missionaries either (which scandalized his publishers almost as much as the nudity!). These racial attitudes are true to Melville's time, but still pretty frustrating to read.

Luckily, Melville is also frequently hilarious, which helps balance out the text. I wouldn't recommend this book to everyone, but I would recommend paragraphs like this one where we see Melville really play around with the English language:

"When I remembered that these islanders derived no advantage from dress, but appeared in all the naked simplicity of nature, I could not avoid comparing them with the fine gentlemen and dandies who promenade such unexceptionable figures in our frequented thoroughfares. Stripped of the cunning artifices of the tailor, and standing forth in the garb of Eden -- what a sorry set of round-shouldered, spindle-shanked, crane-necked varlets would civilized men appear! Stuffed calves, padded breasts, and scientifically cut pantaloons would then avail them nothing, and the effect would be truly deplorable." - p. 164 ( )
  kristykay22 | Feb 6, 2019 |
Really quite good. A nice look at the life of the "savages" of the Marquesas. Aside from a little cannibalism of enemies, I wouldn't characterize this group as savage and would love to have spent a little time in their midst. I would rate the book higher, but Melville gets a little too bogged down in the minutae of things from time to time. When the focus of the book is the actual story of his adventure, it is really very compelling. ( )
  AliceAnna | Feb 1, 2019 |
Herman Melville

A Real Romance of the South Seas

L. C. Page & Company, 1950

xxxvi+389 pp. Preface by the author, 1846 [xi-xiii]. With Biographical and Critical Introduction by Arthur Stedman [xv-xxxvi]. PDF copy from Internet Archive.

First published, 1846.
This edition, 1892.
12th impression, May 1950.


This is the first book of a 27-year-old writer. That would have been hard to believe if the same man had not published only five years later Moby-Dick...

Typee doesn’t have the epic grandeur and the metaphysical dimension of its famous younger brother, but it’s recognisably the product of the same mind. The plot is thin almost to the point of non-existence, the characters are sketchy, at best, and the pace is extremely slow (the plot begins in Chapter V, actually). But you don’t read Melville for story or characters. You’d be a fool to do that.

You read Melville for the same reason you read poetry: gorgeously sensual language and unique insight into human nature. I know of no other writer (which isn’t saying much as my reading is very limited) who conveys with greater vividness the romance of the South Seas and the hardships of the sailor’s life, basic human needs like thirst and hunger, pathological conditions like fever and fear, or any other mental and physical state our mortal coil exults in or, more often, suffers from. We have all felt like that, haven’t we?

There is scarcely anything when a man is in difficulties that he is more disposed to look upon with abhorrence than a right-about retrograde movement – a systematic going-over of the already trodden ground; and especially if he has a love of adventure, such a course appears indescribably repulsive, so long as there remains the least hope to be derived from braving untried difficulties.

The writing, as you can see, is pure poetry in prose: propulsive, powerful, prolix, extravagant, humorous, rhetorical, archaic. It is supposed to be difficult to read. But there is really no such thing as “difficult style”. Writing styles for the reader, like piano pieces for the pianist, are either easy or impossible. If you have no special predilection for Melville, I can’t imagine why you should inflict on yourself the torture of reading him. But if you do, it’s a stirring adventure, not least on purely linguistic level.

Unique turns of phrase occur constantly. No other writer would call the Typees, not merely “arrant cannibals”, but also “unnatural gourmands”. There are tons of allusions to anything and everything, some of them quite cryptic. Remarking on the curious absence of snakes in Polynesia, our narrator adds that “though whether Saint Patrick ever visited them, is a question I shall not attempt to decide.” I had to Google this. Apparently Saint Patrick, a fifth-century Christian missionary, banished all snakes from Ireland because they interfered with his 40-day fast. Isn’t that a perfectly charming bit of mythological ophiology?

Melville’s humour, possibly his most underrated characteristic, is often mentioned but seldom given its proper credit. It is prodigious and versatile, often hilarious, sometimes poignant, occasionally bitter and sarcastic. I couldn’t help smiling at our narrator’s recommending that “all adventurous youths who abandon vessels in romantic islands during the rainy season to provide themselves with umbrellas.” I laughed a good deal at Melville’s unforgettable description of the ship’s larder, for though he is really romantic about the South Seas in general and the Marquesas in particular, he is definitely unromantic about the sailor’s life on a whaling ship. How can you resist deserting this giant storage of “beef and pork [...] affording a never-ending variety in their different degrees of toughness” and “sea-bread, previously reduced to a state of petrifaction, with a view to preserve it either from decay or consumption”? And I admit I laughed aloud at this fiery proposition:

This operation [making fire] appeared to me to be the most laborious species of work performed in Typee; and had I possessed a sufficient intimacy with the language to have conveyed my ideas upon the subject, I should certainly have suggested to the most influential of the natives the expediency of establishing a college of vestals to be centrally located in the valley, for the purpose of keeping alive the indispensable article of fire; so as to supersede the necessity of such a vast outlay of strength and good temper as were usually squandered on these occasions. There might, however, be special difficulties in carrying this plan into execution.

The bulk of the novel is a highly descriptive account of the author’s life among the Typees. All those lurid rumours he had heard about them – here is a major spoiler for you – prove to be complete balderdash. The most perilous adventure our narrator goes through is swimming in a lake with a bunch of Polynesian damsels (not in distress at all). He is rather taken with the natives. Their appearance, villages, customs, cuisine, history, religion, government and outlook are minutely described. Almost a whole chapter, though a short one, is dedicated to the breadfruit and the ways it is cooked. Most of the novel is, or pretends to be, non-fiction. A lesser writer, not to mention a lesser man, could never get away with this. But Melville does.

Because, make no mistake, Melville is no mere sensualist bent on fictionalising his biography. Nor was he writing An Encyclopaedia of the South Seas. He grappled with big issues. Indeed, he could no more help doing so than he could write a simpler prose. He had a clear and hardly hidden agenda.

Typee is nothing if not “a glorification of the noble savage, uncorrupted by the vices of civilization”, in the apt words of Somerset Maugham (“glorification” is not putting it too strongly). Granted that the quaint concept of the noble savage was already dated in Melville’s time, and his savages are too noble to be true anyway, his main points about European atrocities in Polynesia and the discontents of the white man’s so-called civilisation remain relevant and thought-provoking almost 200 years later. The novel is peppered with a good many variations on these themes. Here is a selection of my favourites:

[On the French “buccaneering expedition” to the Marquesas:]

A valiant warrior, doubtless, but a prudent one too, was this same Rear Admiral Du Petit Thouars. Four heavy, double-banked frigates and three corvettes to frighten a parcel of naked heathen into subjection! Sixty-eight pounders to demolish huts of cocoa-nut boughs, and Congreve rockets to set on fire a few canoe sheds!

And yet, notwithstanding their iniquitous conduct in this and in other matters, the French have ever plumed themselves upon being the most humane and polished of nations. A high degree of refinement, however, does not seem to subdue our wicked propensities so much after all; and were civilisation itself to be estimated by some of its results, it would seem perhaps better for what we call the barbarous part of the world to remain unchanged.

The enormities perpetrated in the South Seas upon some of the inoffensive islanders well nigh pass belief. These things are seldom proclaimed at home; they happen at the very ends of the earth; they are done in a corner, and there are none to reveal them. But there is, nevertheless, many a petty trader that has navigated the Pacific, whose course from island to island might be traced by a series of cold-blooded robberies, kidnap pings, and murders, the iniquity of which might be considered almost sufficient to sink her guilty timbers to the bottom of the sea.

How often is the term “savages” incorrectly applied! None really deserving of it were ever yet discovered by voyagers or by travellers. They have discovered heathens and barbarians, whom by horrible cruelties they have exasperated into savages. It may be asserted, without fear of contradiction, that in all the cases of outrages committed by Polynesians, Europeans have at some time or other been the aggressors, and that the cruel and bloodthirsty disposition of some of the islanders is mainly to be ascribed to the influence of such examples.

The naked wretch who shivers beneath the bleak skies, and starves among the inhospitable wilds of Terra-del-Fuego, might indeed be made happier by civilization, for it would alleviate his physical wants. But the voluptuous Indian, with every desire supplied, whom Providence has bountifully provided with all the sources of pure and natural enjoyment, and from whom are re moved so many of the ills and pains of life what has he to desire at the hands of Civilisation? She may “cultivate his mind,” may “elevate his thoughts,” these I believe are the established phrases but will he be the happier? Let the once smiling and populous Hawaiian islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer the question. The missionaries may seek to disguise the matter as they will, but the facts are incontrovertible; and the devoutest Christian who visits that group with an unbiased mind, must go away mournfully asking “Are these, alas! the fruits of twenty-five years of enlightenment?

In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are unalloyed; but Civilisation, for every advantage she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve; the heart-burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make up in units the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated people.

I don’t know how accurate Melville’s descriptions are. I suppose he took a good many liberties with what was known of Polynesian culture at the time. In the amusing chapter about religion (XXIV), he makes ruthless fun of the “unintentional humbuggery in some of the accounts we have from scientific men” because these “learned tourists generally obtain the greater part of their information from the retired old South Sea rovers [...] accustomed to the long-bow, and to spin tough yarns on a ship’s forecastle”. Melville was a South Sea rover himself, though one of unusually wide reading, and I doubt he could resist the temptation to mix fact and fantasy. The passage in question, as impossible to paraphrase as it is impossible to recompose Chopin, may serve as a fine description of those inspired liars, the writers of fiction, and their peculiar craft:

A natural desire to make himself of consequence in the eyes of the strangers, prompts him to lay claim to a much greater knowledge of such matters than he actually possesses. In reply to incessant queries, he communicates not only all he knows but a good deal more, and if there be any information deficient still he is at no loss to supply it. The avidity with which his anecdotes are noted down tickles his vanity, and his powers of invention increase with the credulity of his auditors. He knows just the sort of information wanted, and furnishes it to any extent.

But all this is, of course, quite irrelevant. Whether or not he took liberties with the facts, Melville’s points about noble savagery and ignoble civilisation cannot be dismissed lightly. They may be exaggerated – sometimes ludicrously so indeed – but they are not untrue.

Melville’s rhetorical admiration for the “infinitely happier, though certainly a less intellectual existence” of the Polynesians is not entirely unalloyed (he is dismayed with their laziness, for instance), but his defence of it is certainly vigorous. He even defends their cannibalism: “Very true; and a rather bad trait in their character it must be allowed.” But is it really so much worse, he asks, than the gruesome public executions “practised in enlightened England” just a few years ago. Now that’s a pretty good question. Take war as another example. In one striking passage, Melville almost anticipates with more than half a century the Devil’s famous speech about man’s heart in his weapons from Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903):

The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death-dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on our wars, and the misery and desolation that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white civilised man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth.

This and other examples of “civilised barbarity” tend to make the so-called “savages” from the Pacific look rather tame. Melville even goes as far as to claim that, “so far as the relative wickedness of the parties is concerned,” four or five “Marquesan Islanders” sent to the United States as missionaries “might be quite as useful” as the same number of Americans “dispatched to the Islands in a similar capacity.” This is rather a generous estimation as far as the white man, whatever his nationality, is concerned.

As such remarks show, Melville was not against civilisation in general. I am pretty sure he enjoyed many of its manifestations. I doubt he would have preferred writing his books on papyrus and have them copied rather than printed. He simply thought – and damn right he was – that the “most ferocious animal on the face of the earth” should be more careful with the export of its “feverish civilisation”. That granted, Melville is all for cultural cross-fertilisation. We can teach the natives something (e.g. the nonsense of their taboos), but we can also learn a lot from them.

What can we learn from the Polynesians? Well, the art of leisure, fuller enjoyment of play, a healthy dose of irreverence, and smoking for women. Only the last of these points have come to pass. It was revolutionary in Melville’s time; only fallen women were supposed to smoke, never the ladies. Our smitten narrator would have none of this. “Strange as it may seem”, he reflects while observing one “gentle nymph” with a pipe, “there is nothing in which a young and beautiful female appears to more advantage than in the act of smoking.” Hollywood from the 1940s did recognise this fact. All those femmes fatales do look better with a cigarette.

The Marquesas, as Thor Heyerdahl and his wife could confirm less than a century after Melville, are no paradise on earth. Then again, neither are the finest civilisations the West and the East have been able to produce so far. Melville’s challenge remains valid. We still have to make the best of both worlds.

Reflections on the pros and cons of savagery and civilisation, the subtle dissection of the narrator’s mind under various conditions, and the sheer beauty of the poetry in prose make Typee an enthralling reading experience. But only, I repeat, if Melville’s style and personality are congenial to you. If not, you may well find it impossibly long-winded, jolly tedious and all but unreadable. For my part, I am already looking forward to re-reading it, hopefully on paper next time.

P.S. The book was filmed in 1958 as Enchanted Island with Dana Andrews (Joe Lilac in Ball of Fire, remember him?) as our intrepid narrator and the pretty but rather un-Polynesian looking Jane Powell as the “gentle nymph” he is rather partial about. It’s a cute picture shot in vivid Technicolor around Acapulco, the closest to the South Seas Hollywood could get in those days. But there is little of Melville left in it. The thought-provoking contrast between civilisation and savagery, the humour and charm of the narrative, the disturbing depth under the witty surface, all this is largely gone here. It is replaced with a tepid romance, as commonplace as they come, neither very well written nor very ably acted, feeling too long even at mere 94 minutes. Just about the only thing I like in this movie is Ted de Corsia (the villain in The Naked City, remember him?) as a regular Captain Bligh, sporting immortal lines like “The wind stinks of sin. All hands will proceed to the ship at once. We sail in an hour.” ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Sep 9, 2018 |
superbly illustrated by miguel covarrubias
bound in polynesian tappa cloth
printed at the harbor press
904/1500 ( )
  Drfreddy94 | Jul 17, 2018 |
While known today for vengeful captain chasing a white whale, Herman Melville’s writing career began with a travelogue of his adventure on the Nuku Hiva and was his most popular work during his life. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life is a semi-autobiographical book that Melville wrote about his approximately 4 week stay that he “expanded” to 4 months in the narrative.

Melville begins his narrative when he describes the captain of the “Dolly” deciding to head to the Marqueas Islands and then events surrounding the ship’s arrival at the island as well as the actions of the French who were “taking possession” of it. Then Melville and a shipmate named Toby decide to ‘runaway’ to the valley of the Happar tribe and execute their plan when they get shore leave. Climbing the rugged cliffs of the volcanic island, they hide in the thick foliage from any searchers but realize they didn’t have enough food and soon Melville’s leg swells up slowing them down. Believing they arrived in the valley of the Happar, they make contact only to find themselves with the Typee. However the tribe embraces the two men and attempt to keep them amongst their number, but first Toby is able to ‘escape’ though Melville can’t help but think he’s been abandoned. Melville then details his experiences along amongst the cannibalistic tribe before his own escape with assistance of two other natives of the island from other tribes.

The mixture of narrative of Melville’s adventures and the anthropological elements he gives of the Typee make for an interesting paced book that is both engaging and dull. Though Melville’s lively descriptions of the events taking place are engaging, one always wonders if the event actually took place or was embellish or just frankly made up to liven up the overall tale. The addition of a sequel as an epilogue that described the fate of Toby, which at the time added credibility to Melville’s book, is a nice touch so the reader doesn’t wonder what happened to him.

Overall Typee is a nice, relatively quick book to read by one of America’s best known authors. While not as famous as Melville’s own Moby Dick, it turned out to be a better reading experience as the semi-autobiographical nature and travelogue nature gave cover for Melville to break into the narrative to relative unique things within the Typee culture. ( )
  mattries37315 | Jun 9, 2018 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Melville, Hermanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Boullaire, JacquesIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bryant, JohnEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gibbings, RobertIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gibbings, RobertIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hayford, HarrisonAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hecht, IlseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hodges, WilliamCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schaeffer, MeadIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Woodcock, GeorgeEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Lemuel Shaw,

Chief Justice of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,
This Little Work is Affectionately Inscribed by the Author
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Six months at sea!!
Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819, of Scottish ancestry.

Introduction by Robert Gibbings (The Folio Society, 1950).
The morning my comrade left me, as related in the narrative, he was accompanied by a large party of natives, some of them carrying fruit and hogs for the purpose of traffic, as the report had spread that boats had touched at the bay.

Sequel : containing the story of Toby.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140434887, Paperback)

Webster's paperbacks take advantage of the fact that classics are frequently assigned readings in English courses. By using a running English-to-Hindi thesaurus at the bottom of each page, this edition of Typee by Herman Melville was edited for three audiences. The first includes Hindi-speaking students enrolled in an English Language Program (ELP), an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) program, an English as a Second Language Program (ESL), or in a TOEFL� or TOEIC� preparation program. The second audience includes English-speaking students enrolled in bilingual education programs or Hindi speakers enrolled in English-speaking schools. The third audience consists of students who are actively building their vocabularies in Hindi in order to take foreign service, translation certification, Advanced Placement� (AP�) or similar examinations. By using the Webster's Hindi Thesaurus Edition when assigned for an English course, the reader can enrich their vocabulary in anticipation of an examination in Hindi or English.
TOEFL�, TOEIC�, AP� and Advanced Placement� are trademarks of the Educational Testing Service which has neither reviewed nor endorsed this book. All rights reserved.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:18 -0400)

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Describes the adventures of a sailor who jumps ship at a south sea island inhabited by cannibals, takes a voyage around Polynesia, and embarks on a quest for an elusive beauty among the islands of a tropical archipelago.

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Urban Romantics

2 editions of this book were published by Urban Romantics.

Editions: 1909175730, 1909175471

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