Melville in Hawaiʻi

When E.L. Doctrow said on the Charlie Rose show that Moby Dick was the greatest American novel and that Melville had accomplished something truly monumental (which, of course, was not recognized in his time), I resolved to finally read the book. Along the way I developed something of an obsession with this introverted and under appreciated writer. I visited his home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts – the town next to the one my wife is from, and the one she was born in. I stood in the room where he had written the Great Book, and on the piazza where he had written The Piazza Tales. I stood in the house at Tanglewood – summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Lenox and Stockbridge – which was rented by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a friend and supporter of Melville’s literary career, whom Melville would have visited around 1850.

Herman Melville, ca. 1860

Melville’s brief brush with fame, which allowed him to write Moby Dick, obviously stemmed from his experiences in the Pacific, but one of his lesser-known visits was to Hawaiʻi in 1843. It was an auspicious year, and Melville was privy to the Paulet Affair (which Iʻve written about in these “pages” more than once). On February 14th, 1843, Lord George Paulet seized the sovereignty of Hawaiʻi in response to complaints of the British Consul that the Kingdom had rescinded a grant of land (the 1840 Constitution held that the king controlled all land). His experiences were recounted in an appendix to Typee. Melville was present for the end of the affair, when Hawaiians in their joy reveled in what Melville described as a kind of “Polynesian saturnalia.” He tells of ten days of “universal broad-day debauchery” (see Stephen Sumida’s  And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawaiʻi).

What Melville (who has been lauded as a beacon of racial tolerance in part because of his autobiographical friendship with Queequeg – probably a Maori – in Moby Dick) failed to comprehend was Hawaiians’ periodic episodes of free and open sexual contact. Kaimipono Kaiwi has written, in bold defiance of received wisdom that Melville was a racist. Certainly his account of the first Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea (Restoration Day) throws his tolerant image into question.


Filed under literature, Mooolelo, sovereignty, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Melville in Hawaiʻi

  1. I started Moby Dick on five separate occasions. My final attempt was so rewarding that I shake my head at the roadblocks of my earlier attempts. I’ve grown in my tastes. If I hadn’t, I would be worried.

    Although I am white identified, I realized that my grandfather who in many ways was my primary father-figure was not only Native American but African American. This fact gives a depth of understanding to my own early experiences. My views and sensitivity toward race has changed over the decades as I experience life and our evolving culture. I’ve grown. And continue to grow…just as our cultural sensitivities grow.

    I for one would give Melville..and Conrad who even Chinua Achebe admitted to admiring…some slack as individuals. I’m not advocating for relativism. But I am advocating for the labeling of acts and positions which are static rather than pronouncements of people who are fluid, teachable, and redeemable.


  2. umi

    I would tend to agree – one has to look at these individuals in the context of their time – was he more like a present-day liberal, or more like his contemporaries. His account of the friendship with Queequeg shows that he was quite unlike his contemporaries. Itʻs interesting you bring up Conrad – I think both were getting at the dark heart inside every person – it was the same project, and thatʻs whatʻs so great about them. At least thatʻs my (fluid) view of it at this point.


  3. I didn’t realize how well traveled Melville was. I was aware that he traveled to the Ottoman Empire and traveled throughout the holy land – hence Clarel. Apparently, he was extremely let down by his experience there, and a year later his friends in the American Colony there were attacked and murdered. They were relatives of John Steinbeck. Small world.


  4. Reblogged this on History Source and commented:
    Until reading Umi’s post below, I wasn’t aware of how well traveled author Herman Melville was. He tells how Melville traveled to Hawaii, and wrote of his exotic – and erotic – experiences there. Melville also traveled to the Ottoman Empire and throughout the holy land – hence Clarel. He was extremely let down by his experience there, and a year later his friends in the American Colony there were attacked and murdered. They were relatives of John Steinbeck. Small world.


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