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Omoo by Herman Melville
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A failed mutiny lands the narrator in a Tahitian jail where he and his companion, Doctor Long Ghost, are treated with curiosity and kindness. After their eventual release, the two embark on a series of adventures as they work at odd jobs, view traditional rites and customs on the island, and contrive an audience with the Tahitian queen. Thought-provoking, humorous glimpses of a vanished 19th-century world in the South Seas by one of America's greatest writers.… (more)

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Herman Melville

Omoo:
A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

A. L. Burt Company [1892]

xiii+365 pp. Preface by the author, 28 January 1847 [v-vii]. PDF copy from Internet Archive.

First published, 1847.
This edition, 1892.

=========================================

This is Melville’s second novel. Naturally enough, it is a direct sequel of the first, Typee (1846). It is again written in the first person singular by the same unusually educated sailor roaming through the South Seas. Only now he is mostly at Tahiti, but that is not too far from the Marquesas as Pacific distances go. You needn’t have read the first novel, though. Omoo is an independent work, and the little you need to know about Typee is summarised in the beginning anyway. The author himself hastens to assure you of this in the Preface:

The present narrative necessarily begins where “Typee” concludes, but has no further connection with the latter work. All, therefore, necessary for the reader to understand, who has not read “Typee,” is given in a brief introduction.

I am rather surprised Omoo lags so far behind in number of copies and reviews. Granted, it’s a lesser work, less vivid if only by its nature of a sequel and less reflective on sundry topics; if plot and characters are vague and sketchy, respectively, in Typee, they are all but non-existent in Omoo. I guess this is more than usual a book for Melville fans. People who read Typee out of mere curiosity, as opposed to hunger for Melville’s prose, are right to skip the sequel, especially if they found the first novel hard to get through. I suppose this might explain why Omoo has, roughly, six times fewer copies and reviews on this site.

All the same, the books share a lot of common ground from the exotic locale to the uniquely personal writing. Almost everything I’ve said about the first novel fully applies to the second. I have no choice but to repeat myself.

The title is a little misleading. “Omoo”, as explained in the Preface, is a word taken from the dialect of the Marquesas which means a rover, or rather a person wandering around the islands. Our intrepid hero does that only for the first 17 (out of 82!) short and sprightly chapters which he spends on the whaler Julia (“Little Jule”), and there aren’t many landfalls anyway.

But the life aboard a short-handed and mismanaged whaling ship in the Age of Sail is described with all of Melville’s consummate skill and no doubt from his extensive experience. No other writer, so far as I’m concerned, gives such a visceral impression what it is to sail on a creaking ship that rots and disintegrates literally under your feet. If you’re a common sailor, you spend your nights in the notorious forecastle, a place dark, damp, cramped, full of indestructible cockroaches and rats who “seem to take actual possession, the sailors being mere tenants by sufferance [...] they did not live among you, but you among them.” Our narrator has a special story to tell about rats. Once he was given some molasses by the cabin steward, a great luxury he kept hidden in a tin can. He was in for a surprise when he reached the bottom:

One night our precious can ran low, and in canting it over in the dark, something besides the molasses slipped out. How long it had been there, kind Providence never revealed; nor were we over anxious to know; for we hushed up the bare thought as quickly as possible. The creature certainly died a luscious death, quite equal to Clarence’s in the butt of Malmsey.

Our ancient mariner reaches Tahiti in Chapter XVIII – but he steps ashore in Chapter XXX. That should give you a good idea of the Melvillean pace (it seems necessary to invent an adjective for it). He leaves Tahiti in Chapter LI for the nearby island “Imeeo” (i.e. Mo’orea), some 11 miles northwest of Tahiti. He remains there until the end of the book. No more omoo-ing for him. No adventures greater than a very civilised mutiny and some big game hunting, either. If you’re looking for a strongly plotted adventure tale full of daring exploits, this is not it.

And yet the narrative is beguiling; slow and digressive, to be sure, but I didn’t want it to end. It doesn’t matter what Melville cares to discuss, the Tahitian tattooing business or the many uses of the “cocoa-palm” (i.e. coconut palm), the food, dress and customs of the Tahitians, the cattle or the “musquitoes” on the islands, I’m willing to listen. Nothing of this, of course, should be taken at face value, partly because Melville was apt to dramatise everything, partly because for all of his research and experience he may not have known better. Even the most mundane details can be inaccurate. When our narrator tells us that the mountains of Tahiti “rise nine thousand feet above the level of the ocean”, he exaggerates by something like 1,600 feet.

The same applies even more strongly to Melville’s life. No doubt this is a highly fictionalised account of it. Does it matter? Of course not. The narrative is supremely convincing. It may not be true, but it does have the ring of truth, even when it contains “thousand occurrences appearing exaggerated in fiction; but, nevertheless, frequently realised in actual lives of adventure.”

I must remark again on Melville’s prodigious, versatile and endlessly delightful sense of humour. Much of it is lavished on other characters, most notably Long Ghost, a doctor of sorts, quite a practical joker, an accomplished violinist, clearly an educated man with courtly ambitions in the South Seas (“a sort of Rizzio to the Tahitian princess”) and our narrator’s boon companion. But there are plenty of witty gems scattered through the narrative, not least, again, on purely linguistic level. Only Melville could describe a nose as “crooked bugle” or invent a simile for snoring “like a cavalry trumpeter”. The sailors to go ashore are chosen by their “inferior order of rascality”. Desertion and its aftermath are treated with devastating sarcasm:

With this intention, we were now shaping our course for Hytyhoo, a village on the island of St. Christina – one of the Marquesas, and so named by Mendaña – for the purpose of obtaining eight seamen, who, some weeks before had stepped ashore there from the Julia. It was supposed that by this time they must have recreated themselves sufficiently, and would be glad to return to their duty.

Desertion was a massive problem on whaling ships, perhaps even bigger than it was in the navies. It was certainly one of the main reasons for the monstrous duration of whaling cruises (18 or even 20 months), never mind how wretched the crew or dilapidated the ship. Ports were anathema. At the open sea, or at least within eight to ten miles from land, even the most troublesome seamen could be kept on a leash (if the captain is tough enough), “but once get them within a cable’s length of the land, and it is hard restraining them.” Sometimes even shipwrecks were welcome. Consider this innocent reflection of our narrator having just avoided one:

What a disappointment for our crew! All their little plans for swimming ashore from the wreck, and having a fine time of it for the rest of their days, thus cruelly nipt in the bud.

Melville’s account of the Tahitians is very generous, even affectionate. Sharply ironic though it may be in some places (e.g. the history of Queen Pomaree and her husband in Chapter LXXX and the hilarious audience with the Queen in the next chapter), it is never unkind. Melville is anxious to warn us from the beginning that his intention is not to insult those people. “Should a little jocoseness be shown upon some curious traits of the Tahitians,” he writes in the Preface, “it proceeds from no intention to ridicule: things are merely described as, from their entire novelty, they first struck an unbiased observer.” This is quite obvious everywhere in the book. But there has never been a shortage of people keen on missing the obvious, has there?

I am tired of reading in review after review how racist Melville is, or at least how racist his South Sea novels are. Some people see words like “natives” or “savages” and automatically assume racism, and insist on shouting it. It’s a classic example of knee-jerk reaction. But words mean nothing without context. There is a great difference between a racist character or episode and a racist work or author. Melville includes plenty of racist characters and episodes, but he never condones them. On the contrary, he condemns them. This is clear early enough. After the captain of “Little Jule” has wounded one of the natives without provocation (Chapter VI), our narrator is appalled:

Wanton acts of cruelty like this are not unusual on the part of sea captains landing at islands comparatively unknown. Even at the Pomotu group, but a day’s sail from Tahiti, the islanders coming down to the shore have several times been fired at by trading schooners passing through their narrow channels; and this too as a mere amusement on the part of the ruffians.

Indeed, it is almost incredible, the light in which man sailors regard these naked heathens. They hardly consider them human. But it is a curious fact, that the more ignorant and degraded men are, the more contemptuously they look upon those whom they deem their inferiors.


If Melville makes some less than complimentary remarks about the “natives”, he is no less harsh about his fellow white people. He elegantly slaughters mariners of all nations. He praises the French as “the best of shipwrights” (are they?), but he denounces them as indifferent seamen whom even flogging can’t improve. Now, look at the American and British navies. Even boys are flogged judiciously and the proper results are obtained: “a thoroughbred tar, equally ready to strip and take a dozen on board his own ship, or, cutlass in hand, dash pell-mell on board the enemy’s.” Melville doesn’t condone flogging, he tells us in a footnote, but he considers it indispensable for a navy, and “war being the greatest of evils, all its accessories necessarily partake of the same character”. As for the Australians, especially those from Sydney, well:

Be it known here, that American sea-captains, in the Pacific, are mortally afraid of these Sydney gentry; who, to tell the truth, wherever known, are in excessively bad odour. Is there a mutiny on board a ship in the South Seas, ten to one a Sydney man is the ringleader. Ashore, these fellows are equally riotous.

As in Typee, though more sporadically and more subtly, Melville doesn’t mince words about civilisation and its discontents. Again, however, it must be stressed that he is no “back to nature” freak. For all of his lush descriptions of the South Sea islands, Melville never recommends relocating there and living a life of sensual and barefooted idleness. And yet, when a white man (“a renegado from Christendom and humanity”) settles for good among the natives, adopts their customs all the way including tattooing his face and by all accounts is a happy man, this is worth a thought.

Melville met one such fellow, a former Englishman, on an obscure island before he reached Tahiti (Chapter VII). Typically in his style, he includes the man’s personal history in the narrative embellished with all sorts of humorous digs. Lem Hardy, so the chap called himself, landed with a musket and a bag of ammunition and soon became “war-god of the entire island”. He formed an alliance with one of the many kings at war with each other and “his campaigns beat Napoleon’s”. He married a princess with a huge dowry and had his person declared “inviolable forever”. A foundling, his origin “as much a mystery to him as the genealogy of Odin”, he had no intention to become again “a dog before the mast”, much less a workhouse rat. Even more typically, Melville concludes with a sobering and thought-provoking reflection:

And for the most part, it is just this sort of men – so many of whom are found among sailors – uncared for by a single soul, without ties, reckless, and impatient of the restraints of civilisation, who are occasionally found quite at home upon the savage islands of the Pacific. And, glancing at their hard lot in their own country, what marvel at their choice?

The jibes at our “civilised” society are often disguised as a subtle counterpoint to the Tahitian way of life. This leads to some magnificent examples of Melvillean sarcasm. At one place (Chapter LXVII), he remarks that marriage into the best part of society is highly regarded in Polynesia, and then he adds disarmingly in brackets, as if by the way, “Heaven knows it is otherwise with us”. The attempt to establish an English court of law in Polynesia is a fair target as well:

After taking part in the first trial, the other delinquents present were put upon their own; in which, also, the convicted culprits seemed to have quite as much to say as the rest. A rather strange proceeding; but strictly in accordance with the glorious English principle, that every man should be tried by his peers.

They were all found guilty.


Compared to Typee, Melville seems to have mellowed toward missionaries. He tries really hard to find something praiseworthy in their work. He even describes a whole missionary sermon (Chapter XLV) without making (too much) fun of it. But his very next chapter is rather a grim one. It is about the so-called “kannakippers”, a sort of “religious police” (almost Orwellian that). These fellows worked on Sunday mornings as “whippers-in of the congregation”, lest the church remained almost empty for the sermon. The result was a bogus conversion and widespread hypocrisy among the Polynesians. Many of them, not only ladies, were “A sad good Christian at heart – / A very heathen in the carnal part.” Melville misquoted this from what, in a footnote, he sourced more or less rightly as Pope’s “Epistle to a Lady” (1743).

Melville’s missionary conclusion is unambiguous. Having noted the suppression of many national sports and customs (Chapter XLVII), anything from dancing and singing to tattoos and costumes, he concludes that the missionary position has had a most pernicious influence:

Doubtless, in thus denationalising the Tahitians, as it were, the missionaries were prompted by a sincere desire for good; but the effect has been lamentable. Supplied with no amusements, in place of those forbidden, the Tahitians, who require more recreation than other people, have sunk into a listlessness, or indulge in sensualities, a hundred times more pernicious than all the games ever celebrated in the Temple of Tanee.

Even in Melville’s time (1842), sixty years after the first missionaries, less than eighty after Captain Cook, Tahiti had changed a lot. He has to go deep inside the surrounding islands to find Tahitian culture unspoiled by civilisation, for instance to watch a “genuine pagan fandango” or to see native people free from civilised traits like drunkenness or disfiguring disease. It’s a sad, tragic picture of inevitable doom for Polynesia that Melville paints. And he is emphatic that the white man must take the full (dis)credit. Even the best intentions proved disastrous:

The fact is, that the mechanical and agricultural employments of civilised life require a kind of exertion altogether too steady and sustained to agree with an indolent people like the Polynesians. Calculated for a state of nature, in a climate providentially adapted to it, they are unfit for any other. Nay, as a race, they cannot otherwise long exist.

Even if Tahiti was a little past its prime in the 1840s, Melville caught the last ship just in time to describe two things that were to disappear soon: 1) the life on a sailing ship in the end of the Age of Sail: steam was rapidly taking over, but the Age of Steam was yet to begin; and 2) the sense of adventure when roaming a Pacific in which uncharted areas and undiscovered lands still existed. Indeed, even Tahiti, the most famous Pacific island even back then, had retained something of its exotic charisma almost untouched.

Today all this is gone, of course. There are no undiscovered islands in the Pacific, and Tahiti is just another crowded tourist destination. However hard you try, today you can never sail the Pacific as the Great Unknown; however deep you go on the most isolated Pacific islands, you can never find unspoiled Polynesian culture. But with Melville you can actually do both on paper – or even a screen. ( )
  Waldstein | Jan 1, 2020 |
Omoo, a sequel to Typee, continues the adventures of an American sailor in Polynesia. After leaving the Typee, he hitches a ride aboard the whaler Julia, but finds conditions that are far from ideal. The crew are a set of rascals, the food is poor even by the standards of ocean-going craft at the time, and rats and cockroaches abound inside the hull. The cockroaches swarm out regularly in a nightly ‘jubilee’, some flying, and others running over the sick if they couldn’t get up to flee with the rest of the sailors. They’re so numerous that “they did not live among you, but you among them.” Worse yet, however, the captain is inexperienced and withdrawn, and the first mate, left in power, is a drunk who is both impulsive and secretive as to where the ship is going. All of this leads to mutinous thoughts on the part of the sailors, most of whom want nothing more than to be let out of their obligations, and dropped off on an island.

Ultimately they do get their wish in Tahiti, and after spending some time in a stockade, the narrator and his buddy ‘Doctor Long Ghost’ are freed. They meander about the island, enjoying the considerable hospitality of the natives, and try to figure out what to do next. The book is at its best in the beginning, and loses a little steam in the second half, partly because the adventures are subdued, and partly because Melville had already done a good job describing Polynesian culture in Typee.

Melville has a sense for the big moments in life, for example when partings are final, and also for the bigger picture as it related to the Tahitians’ ultimate fate in the face of English and French missionaries, who vied for control. I love his writing style, which is honest, intelligent, and has wry bits of humor. He observes and does not judge either the natives, who are so open and kind, though indolent, or the Europeans, whose missionaries zealously proselytize. The latter sent out ‘religious police’ to force natives to attend church services, went around spying on amorous encounters to denounce them, and outlawed so many simple and beautiful things that they believed related to heathenism – the wearing of necklaces and garlands of flowers, the singing of ballads, and the playing of athletic games such as wrestling, foot-racing, throwing the javelin, and archery. It’s sad, and insane. Does it remind one of anything today, say, the Taliban?

Melville is balanced and doesn’t go on a diatribe against religion or the Europeans, he just sees the inevitable end – the doom and extinction of the natives, or at least, their way of life. In one chapter he cites several other books and reports on the natives, e.g. Captain Wilson, who first took missionaries to Tahiti, saying that in many ways the natives had in many things, “more refined ideas of decency than ourselves”, as well as Kotzebue, a Russian navigator, who has this to say: “A religion like this, which forbids every innocent pleasure, and cramps or annihilates every mental power, is a libel on the divine founder of Christianity. It is true that the religion of the missionaries has, with a great deal of evil, effected some good. It has restrained the vices of theft and incontinence; but it has given birth to ignorance, hypocrisy, and a hatred of all other modes of faith, which was once foreign to the open and benevolent character of the Tahitian.”

The book provides a window into a lost world and a tragedy of the 19th century, just as it provided readers in 1847 a window into this exotic land. Imagine their reaction when reading of a completely different way of life, and things like the moonlit ‘Lory-Lory’ dance of the native women:

“Again the two leaders wave their hands, when the rest pause; and now, far apart, stand in the still moonlight like a circle of fairies. Presently, raising a strange chant, they softly sway themselves, gradually quickening the movement, until, at length, for a few passionate moments, with throbbing bosoms and glowing cheeks, they abandon themselves to all the spirit of the dance, apparently lost to everything around. But soon subsiding again into the same languid measure as before, they become motionless; and then, reeling forward on all sides, their eyes swimming in their heads, join in one wild chorus, and sink into each other’s arms.”

It’s hard to imagine life at this time, or the adventure of wandering around on an island, shoeless and in clothes quickly becoming tattered, meeting natives and various castaway sailors, and living off of them. Melville lets us do that. I also loved this particular edition from 1924, with beautiful thick pages and eight color illustrations.

Quotes:
On beauty:
“The girl was certainly fair to look upon. Many heavens were in her sunny eyes; and the outline of that arm of hers, peeping forth from a capricious tappa robe, was the very curve of beauty.”

On the friendliness of the Tahitians:
“Filled with love and admiration for the first whites who came among them, the Polynesians could not testify the warmth of their emotions more strongly than by instantaneously making the abrupt proffer of friendship. Hence, in old voyages we read of chiefs coming off from the shore in their canoes, and going through with strange antics, expressive of the desire. In the same way, their inferiors accosted the seamen; and thus the practice had continued in some islands down to the present day.”

On racism:
“Wanton acts of cruelty like this are not unusual on the part of sea captains landing at islands comparatively unknown. Even at the Pomotu group, but a day’s sail from Tahiti, the islanders coming down to the shore have several times been fired at by trading schooners passing through their narrow channels; and this too as a mere amusement on the part of the ruffians.
Indeed, it is almost incredible, the light in which many sailors regard these naked heathens. They hardly consider them human. But it is a curious fact, that the more ignorant and degraded men are, the more contemptuously they look upon those whom they deem their inferiors.”

These illustrate Melville’s writing style:
On cleaning him up after having been with the Typee, a haircut:
“While this was going on, someone removing my tappa cloak slipped on a blue frock in its place; and another, actuated by the same desire to make a civilized mortal of me, flourished about my head a great pair of sheepshears, to the imminent jeopardy of both ears, and the certain destruction of hair and beard.”

On choosing members of the crew that were most trustworthy:
“After considerable deliberation on the part of the captain and mate, four of the seamen were pitched upon as the most trustworthy; or rather they were selected from a choice assortment of suspicious characters as being of an inferior order of rascality.”

On weeding:
“Now, though the pulling of weeds was considered by our employers an easy occupation (for which reason they had assigned it to us), and although as a garden recreation it may be pleasant enough, for those who like it – still, long persisted in, the business becomes excessively irksome.
Nevertheless, we toiled away for some time, until the doctor, who, from his height, was obliged to stoop at a very acute angle, suddenly sprang upright; and with one hand propping his spinal column, exclaimed, ‘Oh, that one’s joints were but provided with holes to drop a little oil through!’
Vain as the aspiration was for this proposed improvement upon our species, I cordially responded thereto; for every vertebra in my spine was articulating in sympathy.”

Lastly, this one from a Tahitian priest, who saw their doom. It reminds me of similar poetry from Native Americans later in the 19th century:
“A harree ta fow,
A toro ta farraro,
A now ta tarrarta.

The palm-tree shall grow,
The coral shall spread,
But man shall cease.” ( )
2 vote gbill | Jun 4, 2016 |
Herman Melville's “Omoo” is no “Moby Dick.” Instead, it is a boring and repetitive narrative about a malcontent and undisciplined crew on a whaling ship in the South Seas. My Kindle says I persevered for 32% of this plodding going-nowhere story before I quit. ( )
  DomingoSantos | Jul 6, 2011 |
Continues Melville's adventures in the Pacific, at first aboard a very miserable and poorly commanded whaler, then at Tahiti and a nearby island with his comic sidekick, Doctor Long Ghost. Very entertaining and thought provoking. ( )
  markbstephenson | May 26, 2010 |
"Then throw in one of Melville's Otaheite books now far too completely forgotten " Typee " or " Omoo,"... Then you will
have enough to turn your study into a cabin and bring the wash and surge to your ears, if written words can do it. " --Through the Magic Door, p. 241
  ACDoyleLibrary | Feb 3, 2010 |
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