Typee, Herman Melville’s slightly fictionalized memoir of his stay among the cannibal islanders of the Marquesas in 1842, was a first, youthful work. Melville went on to write three more books about his seagoing adventures, always improving his skills as a writer. And yet none of these works—not Omoo nor Redburn nor White-Jacket—comes close to recapturing the literary power and philosophical suggestiveness of Typee. Not only did Typee establish Melville’s fame, first in England and then in the United States, but it continued to be read when Moby-Dick was forgotten, and still occasions new interpretations, most of them having to do with the question of Melville’s allegiance to civilization.

The tale begins when an ill-managed, foul, depressing whaler sails into the bay of a paradisal island. Two...


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