Zinsser on Friday

Melville’s South Seas Myth

By William Zinsser | June 25, 2010


In 1956 my wife Caroline and I spent two months touring the South Seas. I was then with the New York Herald Tribune, and I used to barter with the managing editor for an extra month of vacation, in return for which I would write articles from parts of the world that his paper was too broke to cover.

Tourism hadn’t yet reached the South Pacific–passenger jets were still unborn. We got around mainly on the flying boats of a Tasmanian airline that made sporadic flights between the islands. We were the end product in a long tradition of individual travelers who got to Polynesia on their own. To us, the South Seas weren’t just some islands a the map. They existed even more powerfully as an idea–a tropical paradise, calling to every dreamer yearning to slip off the coils of civilization.

A remarkable number of writers would hear and answer that call: Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Somerset Maugham, Henry Adams, Jack London, Pierre Loti, Rupert Brooke, Robert Dean Frisbie, Charles Nordhoff, James Norman Hall.

Melville was the first to bring back the news. In 1842, six months out of New Bedford as a seaman on the whaler Acushnet, hating its Ahab-like captain, he jumped ship in the Marquesas and made a hazardous escape to a valley whose idyllic life and sexually obliging maidens he would describe for disbelieving Americans in his first novel, Typee. First submitted to Harper Brothers, New York’s leading publisher, the manuscript was promptly rejected because “it was impossible that it could be true.“ But the next publisher, G. P. Putnam, found the book so gripping that “it kept him from church.” In 1846 he published Typee with huge success among readers who presumably also stayed home from church to nibble at its forbidden fruits. So a myth was born.

The visuals would subsequently be provided by Paul Gauguin, whose sensuous paintings of black-haired beauties beside a lagoon forever stamped the idea of the South Seas on the world’s imagination. Hollywood and Dorothy Lamour completed the job.

[See “Melville: His World and Work,” by Andrew Delbanco.]

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