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literature

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Melville, Herman (1819-1891)  
 
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Is "bad" anything more than the name ascribed to those we disagree with? The accusation of cannibalism was one of the principal means of condemning the Marquesans, but was it (perhaps fatally) naive to believe that this accusation was purely the product of discourse, that there was no experience lying behind it?

Melville tries to use his book as a means of exploring these problems, even if they remain ultimately insoluble. He also seeks to explore social organization, in particular the operation of systems of sexuality and gender that radically differ from his own.

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Melville's particular site for the exploration of these social issues is the figure of Marnoo, arising out of a tradition of the Noble Savage. Unlike the other natives, Marnoo has no facial tattoos and so can plausibly be seen as a "Polynesian Apollo." He is able to move between the two cultures of Typee and the West, just as he is able to join male and female beauty in a perfect whole.

Although Marnoo becomes the means of Tom's escape, he is not the special friend of Polynesian custom: That role is played by Kory-Kory. Although he is an "attached follower" and "faithful valet," he is also "a hideous object."

When writing Typee, Melville was unable to join the two sides of his experience of the Polynesian male: one side that ethnocentrically saw the other as grotesque and disfigured, and another side that located in Polynesia a physical perfection of the body unknown since Greece.

In Moby-Dick, this distinction would break down. Although the erotic is still tentative in Typee (except for wonderfully comic scenes such as Kory-Kory's masturbatory striking of a light), the social is clearly depicted as part of a critique of Western culture.

Melville notices that the usual marital unit of the island is composed of two men and one woman, and speculates that this organization may contribute to the general peacefulness of the society. It also, of course, contributes to if not homosexual relations.

Redburn

Melville's next major work, Redburn, draws on autobiographical material, including Melville's journey to Liverpool ten years earlier. The first sections of the book depict Wellingborough Redburn's misadventures as the innocent of good family suddenly introduced into the crueler world of the ship. These scenes are then paralleled in the latter part of the book when the British dandy Harry Bolton is subject to scorn on the return journey.

The subject of the novel is America's (and Melville's) relationship to the past, whether represented by the distinguished family or by the mother country England. That relationship, apparently idyllic, is finally revealed to have been already corrupted.

Along with that political theme, there is the related subject of masculinity, for the revolutionary nation invents itself in part through its claim to masculinity. Melville here, as in other works, notably Pierre (1852), struggles with the heritage of a too-loving mother who may have rendered her son unfit for success in a new competitive world. Redburn wonders about the viability of those who are "other," about their ability to survive in the masculine world of the ship (or the new America).

The dominant figure of the first part of the book is the sailor Jackson, who serves as a partial sketch for Ahab as well as for Claggart in "Billy Budd" (published 1924). The name illustrates Melville's political theme; by alluding to General Jackson, he invokes the figure most clearly associated with the democratization and masculinization of America, as well as with the near-extermination of the native peoples.

Jackson's presence on board a ship sailing to the slave port of Liverpool emphasizes Melville's view, expressed in "Benito Cereno" (1856) as well, that racism lies at the heart of the American experience.

The novel's Jackson is devoured by hatred, including the hatred of those healthier, younger, and more attractive. His "malevolence" toward Redburn has its source in envy of the fact that he is "young and handsome." Melville sees such hatred as a response to the absence of love, and he increasingly posits love between men as a response to isolation.

Redburn worries that his own loneliness might turn him into a Jackson, and thus is ready for his encounter with Harry that can offer a saving friendship in a world run by an unfeeling and deceitful captain.

Harry Bolton represents a more traditional and civilized culture, but his feminine and aristocratic nature makes him not only doomed to failure but also an inadequate model for Melville, who seeks a balance between the sexes, neither too masculine nor too feminine, as he sought a balance between the cultures of imperialism and those of the colonized.

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