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.
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George Paulet seized the sovereignty of Hawaiʻi in response to complaints of the British Consul that the Kingdom had rescinded a grant of land (the 1840 Constitution held that the king controlled all land).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.