Literary daybook, Jan. 3

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 3, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 3: National Suicide Day.
-- "Sula" (1973)
By Toni Morrison

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 set sail 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."

As the title of the earlier, British edition makes clear, "Typee" is the Narrative of a Four Months' Residence among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands. Chapter 2 describes the traditional welcome given the Acushnet as it sailed into harbor: a "shoal" of "nymphs" swimming out to the boat with their simple clothes held above their heads, in order that the following foreplay might proceed:

"What a sight for us bachelor sailors! how avoid so dire a temptation? For who could think of tumbling these artless creatures overboard, when they had swam miles to welcome us?
In the evening after we had come to anchor the deck was illuminated with lanterns, and this picturesque band of sylphs, tricked out with flowers, and dressed up in robes of variegated tappa, got up a ball in a great style. These females are passionately fond of dancing, and in the wild grace and spirit of their style excel everything that I have seen."

Melville's narrator appears to be a man of dance-card etiquette, and a non-participant in "every species of riot and debauchery" that followed; Melville himself, along with fellow sailor Tobias Greene, soon jumped ship and headed for the native hospitality. The two were almost immediately 'captured' by the Typees, a generally friendly tribe but one with a taste for, as they put it, "long pig."

The cannibalism, naked women and religion-bashing in the book caused it to be rejected by American publishers as too fantastic, but when jumpmate Greene 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 subtitle suggested, only "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," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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