Literary daybook, Jan. 3

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 3, 2002 10:13PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 3, 1825, Christabel LaMotte is born.
-- "Possession" (1990)
by A.S. Byatt

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1841, 22-year-old Herman Melville sailed aboard the Acushnet, a New England whaler heading for the South Seas. His experiences on this and several subsequent voyages would provide the basis for a half-dozen sea novels written in a five-year burst, 1846-51. In his lifetime, and much to his disgust, Melville's reputation was not made on the last of those, "Moby-Dick," but on the first, "Typee," and its sequel, "Omoo." In its first, British edition, "Typee" is titled "Narrative of a Four Months' Residence among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands." Melville and a fellow sailor had jumped ship and had eventually been captured by the Typees, an island tribe with a taste for, as they put it, "long pig." The cannibalism, naked women and religion-bashing in the book had caused it to be rejected by American publishers as too fantastic, but when the shipmate published an open letter in a Buffalo newspaper attesting to the truth of the events -- and when the British edition sold well -- Wiley & Putnam brought out an American edition. Having forced Melville to eliminate some of the sex and religion, the American edition was, as the new subtitle suggested, but "A Peep at Polynesian Life," but it included this eye-opener:

I at once concluded that [the cooking pot] must have some connection with the recent festival; and, prompted by a curiosity I could not repress, in passing it I raised one end of the cover; at the same moment the chiefs, perceiving my design, loudly ejaculated, "Taboo! Taboo!" But the slight glimpse sufficed; my eyes fell upon the disordered members of a human skeleton, the bones still fresh with moisture.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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