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Melville, Herman (1819-1891)  
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The most important American novelist of the nineteenth century, Herman Melville reflects his homosexuality throughout his texts.

Melville was born in New York City to a prosperous and distinguished family. In 1830, his father's bankruptcy and subsequent madness brought a radical alteration in the young man's life. The sense of a patrician past, of a dark secret, and of a radical loss of social status remained with him forever. Although Maria Melville's family aided their now poor relations, further disasters followed quickly.

Herman Melville thus became the impoverished but genteel man who is sent off to sea, a career for which he had in no way been prepared. In 1839, after his brother's bankruptcy, Herman shipped to Liverpool as a cabin boy, an experience that is recorded in his novel Redburn (1849).

After his return, and a trip west, Melville sailed on a whaling ship in the South Seas, where he jumped ship in the Marquesas (an experience that inspired Typee [1846]) and returned via Tahiti and Hawaii. Melville was married in 1847 and lived in New York until 1850, when he moved to Pittsfield, where he wrote Moby-Dick (1851).

Although it is now above all Moby-Dick that establishes his reputation as the most important novelist of the American nineteenth century, Melville in his lifetime was known for his travel books, especially Typee and Omoo (1847). It is somewhat naive to think of these works, especially Typee, as simply travel books since they represent the trying out of many of the themes that are central to Melville's more mature work. Moreover, the travel narrative offers an opportunity for distance from one's own culture and the exploration of alternative mores.


One of Typee's principal concerns is the role of racism and its links to colonialism. The travel narrative provided opportunity for a dark satire although it always ran the risk of participating in the very colonial strategies that it sought to expose. This risk of replication amid opposition derives from the need to possess the "other" culture sufficiently to speak on its behalf. This situation is complicated when, as here, the affiliation with the "other" is heightened by a sense of desire.

Melville inherited a tradition of writing about the exotic South Pacific as a primitive utopia and an erotic paradise. He introduced a variation into that debate by focusing particularly on male beauty and same-sex male relationships, even as his work with its depiction of the "naked houris" drew on long-established patterns of representation that tried to come to terms with a society that apparently offered a free circulation of sexual bodies of both sexes.

Trying to render this scene, Melville fell back on both the French tradition of the Tahitian sexual paradise and the Greek idealization of the young male body. In many ways, the scene was unreadable by Western observers, especially since the acts of invasion, conversion, and colonization had already transformed that which was being observed.

Melville imagines himself as a first visitor to an unknown kingdom, when in fact he was following in the (intellectual) footsteps of a hundred years. The unreadability of the scene, the need to interpret and hence transform, was represented concretely by the tattooing that covers the Polynesian bodies--making them at first unattractive to European eyes--and that suggests their ultimate difference.

At the same time, the prevalence of tattooing challenges the assumption of the primitive or natural "other" since the tattooing itself suggests instead an opaque language of the body that is fully inscribed in and on every part of the body politic. Melville would return to the figure of tattooing in Moby-Dick, the first part of which in many ways rewrites Typee.

For the moment, however, the tattooed bodies of the Polynesians are part of a structure of fear of the unknown or unfamiliar that terrorizes Tom and Toby (while fascinating them). Leaving the ship means leaving all cultural assumptions behind, venturing perhaps into the land of the cannibals, the eaters of human flesh.

Melville's fascination with the Marquesans was increased by the fact that they repeatedly demanded interpretation. The two rival tribes were seen as good and bad, friendly and dangerous; but which was which? The dilemma was partly concrete: A misreading could be fatal.

But it also suggested the larger problem of cultural epistemology, as well as that of systems of value. How can the anthropologist record his or her experiences without making use of models and expectations that come from his or her own culture and training?

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Herman Melville.
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