The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 22. Typee; Omoo
The first two had a great vogue and aroused much wonder as to the proportion of fiction and fact which might have gone to their making. Murray published Typee in England in the belief that it was pure fact. There were others to rank it with Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years before the Mast (1841) as a transcript of real events. But though little is known of Melville’s actual doings in the South Seas, it is at least clear that Typee and Omoo are no more as truthful as Two Years before the Mast than they are as crisp and nautical as that incomparable classic of the sea. Melville must be ranked less with Dana than with George Borrow. If he knew the thin boundary between romance and reality, he was still careless of nice limits, and his work is a fusion which defies analysis. White-Jacket, of these four books, is probably nearst a plain record; Redburn has but few romantic elements. Omoo, as a sequel, has not the freshness of Typee, nor has it such unity. Typee, indeed, is Melville at all but his best, and must be classed with the most successful narrations of the exotic life; after seventy years, when the South Pacific seems no longer another world, the spell holds. The valley of Taipi becomes, in Melville’s handling, a region of dreams and languor which stir the senses with the fragrance and colour of the landscape and the gay beauty of the brown cannibal girls. And yet Melville, thoroughly sensitive to the felicities of that life, never loses himself in it but remains the shrewd and smiling Yankee.