On Herman Melville’s “Omoo”

Melville, Herman (1982), Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Library of America
ISBN 0-940450-00-3

Herman Melville is among my very favorite writers. Everything about his work is subtle, fresh and interesting, whether we talk about the Great American Novel, Moby Dick, or the very early works: Typee or Omoo. I have spend quite some time thinking about Typee early in February, but as this blog shows, it didn’t amount to anything. After having had a few thoughts rumbling through my skull again after finishing my reread of Omoo today, and since I have nothing better to do, I’ll just bother you with them. As I said, Omoo was the second book Melville published. It was printed in 1947, a year after Typee. Within ten years he would go on to publish all of his other novels, among them marvels such as the aforementioned Moby Dick, The Confidence Man or the scintillating Pierre. One masterpiece per year. Since most of them are concerned with life at sea and since Moby Dick is the most famous novel about the sea and especially whaling, the preceding novels are seen as studies for the grand masterpiece.

It is, as many people have pointed out, a great injustice to read Typee and Omoo only as imperfect tryouts. They are both completely and utterly astonishing, and bear almost no direct resemblance to each other, since they treat different modes of travel. Omoo is the direct sequel to Typee, picking up the plot where Typee leaves off: the protagonist who has finally escaped Nukuhavi, which is one of the Marquesas Islands, has entered service on the ship that saved him, not that he had much of a choice there. That ship, the lovely Julia, is a breeding ground for unrest, which is a good indicator of many of the concerns in Omoo. Guy, the captain, is not a sailor, he is

in no wise competent. He was essentially a landsman, and though a man of education, no more meant for the sea than a hair-dresser.

He shows, time and again, that he does not understand the necessities of a sailor’s life. The captain is little more than a meek and weak figurehead, since he isn’t able to handle even the smallest technical decisions and the one he does handle leads to mutiny and him losing a large part of his crew.

The actual work of a captain is done by the chief mate, John Jermin. Jermin is a strong, smart and pugnacious man, able to make the crew obey his commands. As a member of the ruling caste, especially since he is the one who has to make tough decisions and has to ensure that the captain’s unpopular commands are carried out, he is constantly at odds with the crew. He looks and acts like one of the crew yet the mere fact of his being in power sets him apart. We encounter quite a different situation with the resident doctor, who only goes by the name of Doctor Long Ghost. He, who could be the third member of the ruling caste, is actually a jester of sorts. Although he is educated and could possibly wield power, he is too unruly, too much of a “wag”, for the captain to put up with him. In due course he has to set up camp amongst the sailors. As we all know, rulers and workers are clearly separated on a ship, so forcing Doctor Long John to literally change sides is highly significant. The physician, however, quickly accommodates himself to the new situation, becoming, in effect, one of the crew. As we see, the main difference here is not education: it’s both power and the line of work you’re in. This may seem uninteresting at this point, yet the novel dwells extensively upon the dynamics on board and rightly so, as we will see.

Upon coming to Tahiti, the captain gets off the ship, being friends with Consul Wilson, who is the British representative on the island. In the meantime, he expects the crew of the ship to stay on board. This, apparently, is viewed almost as an offense by the sailors, who subsequently contrive to get ashore despite the captain’s strict orders. The captain’s behavior is shown to be due to his not being a sailor, to his being a land man. A different captain, later on, is described as “a sailor, not a tyrant.” The contrast between sailors and people who live and work on land, is marked, and it’s not a simple difference either. The sailors show clear contempt for so-called “landlubbers”, as the character called “Rope Yarn” shows, who is not nearly as unlikeable as the captain, who is part of the crew, yet who is not suited to work on a ship; the crew is constantly making fun of him and harassing him at every turn. Among the crew, on the working-class end of the ship, there is a hierarchy as well, equally strict as the one I previously mentioned. The main difference, however, is that it is solely based upon merit.

In a way, although I referred to the sailors as “workers”, this word, with its modern connotations, is not quite fitting. The sailors are more like nomads, with a division of work as in a nomadic hunter-gatherer (and are whalers not, to an extent, hunter-gatherers?) society, which is usually based on merit and not entitlement or race or even gender. This strong focus upon the society aboard ship is a stark difference to Typee, which was largely concerned with a reflection upon a single village in a vale on Nukuhavi. I would argue that one of Omoo‘s main concerns is work, and, at that, work in different environments, and by people of different cultures. Our protagonist is going off board with the others, and due to a mishap, finds himself apprehended by the consul as one of the ring leaders.

This appellation is thoroughly undeserved, if we can trust the protagonist’s assurances, but he and we quickly see that it is due to his being an intellectual of sorts, who can write and reads books, that he is thought and assumed to be a ring leader. The captain expresses a deep dislike ans suspicion towards the readers/writers among the crew. Since the captain’s logic is not ship- but land logic, he thinks in terms of class. In his understanding of the world, a worker doesn’t read, he works. The dangers of being able to read and write are all too obvious: they lead to, or at least aid, mutiny, revolt, and similar distasteful incidents. In a way, it is hard to argue this point with the captain, since, after all, a mutiny has taken place and the two readers are involved. As readers we must never make the mistake of believing the protagonist’s testimony. He is the one whose voice has carried far enough for us to hear it, but must we not think of the sailors, too, as a silenced class, and of the protagonist’s narration as a colonization of sorts?

The concepts of speaking for someone else, of displacing a former way of reading and understanding the world with a new, alien form, is also a central concern of the novel, which dwells quite extensively upon the work of the missionaries. In Typee, which is a novelization of an ethnographer’s wet dreams, we found an almost untouched society, which dealt with the British and French intruders only at its borders. Tahiti and its surrounding islands, has been subjugated by the French and British and is accordingly much changed. Although the events take place at roughly the same time, a few weeks after Typee, the reader is under the impression of seeing the aftermath of aggression and proselytizing upon the society he came to know in Typee. And it has been a disaster which has led to a destruction of a culture and to the death of numerous individuals. Officially, the Tahitians are Christians now, although the narrator never tires of explaining why the Christian creed is ill fitted to the Polynesians:

An air of softness in their manners, great apparent ingenuousness and docility, at first misled; but these were the mere accompaniments of an indolence, bodily and mental; a constitutional voluptuousness; and an aversion to the least restraint; which, however fitted for the luxurious state of nature, in the tropics, are the greatest possible hindrances to the strict moralities of Christianity.

I will not go into details on the proselytizing of Tahiti, it’s an interesting topic in itself, but not the focus of these remarks.

However, the quote on the hindrances is interesting in other ways as well. Omoo expounds on the links between Christian religion and the Western economic system as evidenced by their interaction with the Tahitians. Both of these elements are not suited to the native culture in Tahiti, they are both built on an idea of discipline and sensual renunciation, whereas the Tahitians have parameters such as need, interest and passion. The re-invention of leisure time in the course of industrialization may be the Western countries’ valve to let off some of the steam generated by the need created by being so strict on the passions, but this has come from a state of oppression. The Tahitians are expected to give up their freedoms all at once and that they’re not prepared to do. They do not, however, resort to classical western ways of expressing their reluctance: when their interest abates, they just stop working, creating, to the uncomprehending Colonialists an impression of “sluggishness” or even plain laziness.

Several years ago, the cultivation of cotton was introduced; and, with their usual love of novelty, they went to work with great alacrity; but the interest excited quickly subsided, and now, not a pound of the article is raised.

I found this attitude to work and duty reminiscent of Melville’s slightly later short piece of greatness, “Bartleby the Scrivener”, and that story’s protagonist’s mantra “I’d prefer not to”. As Bartleby dies at the end, so the Tahitian civilization suffers from the fact that those who subjugated them failed to understand the culture of those they meant to rule. It is the old confusion of the man-made, culturally conditioned with the natural, that obfuscates issues to this day. This makes the progression from Typee to Omoo particularly salient: Typee focuses on seeing and reading a culture that is so very different from one’s own, while Omoo shows what happens when we actively rule a country without investing into our understanding what makes it what it is. We just assume, so often, that the basic reading of things is alright for everyone. The conditio humana is so often invoked in so idiotic contexts that it makes you, at times, despair. That’s just how we are? Please.

And Omoo, as most of Melville’s stupendous work, concentrates upon these issues. We find variations of people who live their lives according not to their individual creed (and isn’t, for example, the hypocritical celebration of the individual in American popular culture/criticism among the most depressingly inane ideologies?), but according as to how their culture understands life and work (take care: again, no false identifications: cultures do not equal nations, so don’t come complaining). The strongest characterization besides the British and the Tahitians are Zeke and his associate, the Yankees who believe in working hard and partying hard. After having been imprisoned and let free again, the protagonist and Doctor Long Ghost roam the island. The further they progress inland, the healthier and happier the natives become, at the same time, paradoxically, they are working more:

The next day we rambled about, and found a happy little community, comparatively free from many deplorable evils to which the rest of their countrymen are subject. Their time, too, was more occupied. To my surprise, the manufacture of tappa was going on in several buildings. European calicoes were seldom seen, and not many articles of foreign origin of any description.

Melville is all but shouting at his countrymen to stop calling the Tahitians lazy or deficient.

The most fascinating passage in Omoo, however, can be found in the last fifth, where he tells us about white travelers (“roving whites”) to the islands who are “generally domesticated in the family of the head chief or king” and become personal attendants, violinists, cupbearers or what Melville winking refers to as “commissioner of the arts and sciences”. These people are travelers, or rovers in more ways than one, the cultural contexts, the power relationships are shifting slightly, for these few individuals. I hope that the previous paragraphs have made it clear how magnificently Omoo shifts to and fro in terms of cultural preconceptions as related to work etc. and now we see how well Melville chose to pick the sailors as a ‘control group’. The sailors’ friction with the landlubber captain demonstrates their difference to the dominant culture on the islands; there are other, more obvious reasons why they don’t mesh with some of the other, the Polynesian cultures. On land, they have turned even more into hunterer-gatherers, hunting with Zeke and gathering food, shelter and goodwill from the Polynesians.

In the end, the protagonist returns to his own culture, signing on on a whaler once again. It is a completely different whaler from the two he’s been on before. In a way, experiencing that travel has changed something in both of the rovers. As I indicated earlier,these insipid remarks touch but upon one aspect, which is hard to separate from others, possibly more important ones, such as religion or race. Omoo, as any novel by Melville, is stacked with subtle and not so subtle ideas and criticism. Melville is always in need of being read. A grand, grand writer.