Anyone who has taken an English class at the high school level probably can respond with "Moby Dick!" when hearing Herman Melville's name. Fans or English Lit major types during college can go farther and tell you about Benito Cereno, Billy Budd, and Bartleby. Melville fans will also tell you that Moby Dick received no attention during the author's lifetime save for a few viciously negative reviews and it was not until 1920 that the literary world re-discovered it and decided it is great. But if you find someone who can name the books Melville wrote that actually were successful and popular, that's rare.

Today nobody in their right mind would read Omoo or Typee, and in fact you'd have a hard time finding someone who has heard of either. They were Melville's Hits, both in the once terribly popular "high seas adventure" genre. As the titles imply, both tales were set in the South Pacific (and were based on Melville's own experiences traveling there). These books are not good. "Dated" doesn't begin to explain how irrelevant this kind of writing feels today. In its time, though, these stories about adventures in foreign and exotic lands were popular given that most readers in the 1840s were unlikely to see much if any of the world during their lives. Today there's nothing mysterious or exotic about the South Pacific, for example, because at a moment's notice you can watch videos, see pictures, or get on a surprisingly affordable (although certainly not cheap) flight to see it for yourself. Traveling around the world doesn't impress us anymore. And it takes a lot more to titillate the imaginations of modern Americans than some "natives" speaking pidgin English in an island setting. We have movies about robots punching monsters, for christ's sake.

As a kid I was (OK, I still am) fascinated by maps and globes. I'd stare at them for hours sometimes, looking at different places with strange names and wondering if I would ever be there at some point in my life. And I'm not going to lie, well into adulthood I maintained the illusion of the Pacific islands as idyllic paradises. On more than a handful of bad days I imagined myself running away to a tiny island and living on the tropical beaches. The reality is not hard to uncover, and it isn't pleasant. Most of the Pacific islands are floating slums. They're tiny, packed with people, and largely devoid of economic activity. Oh, and the planet is going to swallow most of them soon due to rising sea levels. The Times ran a piece in December that I've read probably a dozen times about the Marshall Islands, a former US possession and now not-really but-kinda-still a US possession. Look at the videos and photos with that story. That place sucks. I don't want to dwell right now on the myriad reasons the Pacific is full of slums (hint: It's basically our fault) but it's difficult to think of a better term to describe what has become of these places. Suffice it to say that the fantasy is better than reality.

The more of the world you see, the less magical any of it seems. We can't expect that other parts of the world will be frozen in time for our enjoyment and appreciation as rich Westerners, but it strikes me as particularly sad that we've exported only the absolute worst parts of America to places that were doing fine on their own before Europeans arrived. Staggering obesity, even more staggering environmental degradation (remember the guano post?), Spam, Coke, McDonald's, shitty beer, and about 75 nuclear detonations by the US and France that leave several areas uninhabitable even 50-plus years later.

It's sad that reality and the shrinking of the world in general have burst our fantasy bubble of island paradises. It's even sadder to think of what it must be like to live there now, and the changes that a 70 year old person living there today must have seen during his lifetime.

50 thoughts on “NPF: DELUSIONS”

  • I'll see you Typee and raise you The Confidence Man: His Masquerade. Highly recommended, especially for an americanist.

  • It reminded me of this BBC story about why the island of Tonga has the worst rate of obesity in the world (yes, even worse than the USA):

    Mutton flaps are a low-quality, fatty cut of meat from a sheep. People in rich, sheep-raising countries like Australia and New Zealand don't eat them. Instead, they are sold off cheaply in places like Tonga. The islanders abandoned their traditional diet of fish and vegetables in favour of the fattest and least nutritious meat available, with exactly the results you would expect.

  • Well, no islands but I'm still here in China. Always have a second bedroom if your wanderlust extends this far. Most of China is big cities with tall dirty buildings, but there are pockets that are still ancient (and also dirty. But one can imagine some of that dirt coming from Marco Polo or Genghis himself!)

  • @Talisker; a similar problem happened in Hawaii and Samoa, and also with the Native Americans. Give them cheap, processed or low-nutrient foods, and the health problems explode. There's one Native American tribe (think it's the Apache but I won't swear to it) that has members in both the American southwest (Arizona?) and Mexico. The Mexican group live off the traditional foods and live in their traditional manner and have reasonable health. The American side was pushed off their traditional land into a reservation, with the resulting poverty and access to crappy, saturated-fat and carb-rich foods. When I lived in Hawaii, the cheap, processed-pig-fat Spam was a very, very popular dish, as were ramen noodles (and it was common to see spam *in* ramen noodles). As rare treats they're fine, but as a basic part of the diet, they're disastrous to the health.

  • Note: This paraphrase is from the funniest golf book ever, "Dead Solid Perfect".

    Humans… What we can't fuck up we'll shit on.

    These days, even if you're part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

  • @Katydid: Yes, it's depressing. I live in the UK where Spam was a staple food during wartime rationing, and as a result occupies an interesting cultural/nostalgia niche. But almost nobody here actually eats it that often. (However the UK did popularise the Spam fritter, in which you make Spam even less healthy by deep-frying it in batter.)

  • Carl just beat me to it. Omoo and Typee are used all the time to get crossword puzzle designers out of jams, as is Yma Sumac's first name.

    And the obesity epidemic is a nice example of evolution in action. Those islands get inconstant rainfall and have a hard time trading food. If every so often the rains don't come or the currents shift the fish elsewhere, then you have to make an island's diminished supply of food stretch out to last a whole year. Repeat over several thousand generations and you have a people whose biology has evolved to store every single last calorie they can their hands on as fat. Then have the US Marine Corps show up with their Spam and McDonalds and everything else that makes up the garbage processed US diet and well there's your current crisis. Ah. colonialism, is there anything you won't make a hundred times worse?

  • You can also add Margaret Mead's tales of free-wheeling sexy times among South Pacific islanders to the list of reasons that part of the world is romanticized, too.

    Particularly since they were all made up. I mean, how could she have known that her two adolescent sources were just fucking with her the whole time?

  • Another liberal saying that all the ills in the world are caused by the US. What a crock.

    And as far as island nations being covered in water, Mr. global warming himself, Al Gore's ten year fear mongering has proved wrong, as is all global warming. Stop believing everything some left wing nut job says.

  • Hmmm, I have many cruising freinds who have visited many South Pacific islands on their sailboats. Almost all describe most islands as beautiful and none (!) have used the word "slum". (Well, perhaps American Samoa urban arwas have come close.) Have you been down there Ed? (Note: Hawaii and the Marshall Islands are in the NORTH Pacific.)

  • Ignore.

    75% of troll posts are bought and paid for with the express intent of derailing conversation, creating the appearance of controversy, and making it seem that ridiculous ideas enjoy wide consensus. Some are churned out by drones in big comment farm operations and some are robots.

    The other 25% are people who are so fucking stupid that they actually believe global warming isn't real, Trump is the savior of America, the world is 6000 years old, etc.

    Either way, there is nothing to be gained by engaging.

  • Yeah, it's kind funny that one of the defining works of modern anthropology was pretty much based on a few Samoan Mean Girls' Twitter feeds…

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    I knew about Omoo, but that's just because I used to do a lot of crossword puzzles, and Omoo is one of those weird words/titles that come in handy for puzzle makers.

  • @Katydid:

    That would be the Tohono O'odham tribe here in Pima County, AZ. Yes indeed, US tohono had horrible problems with diabetes and related (gangrene!?) illnesses, while their cousins across the line in Mexico where far healthier.

    These days the Tohono have casinos and therefore a little more financial clout, and they have made serious improvements in health care. The rez is still pretty depressed/depressing, but what rez isn't?

  • There's a great story about Trader Vic, one of the central figures behind the 1950s Tiki craze finally, years later when he was wealthy and had less to do, actually traveling (for the first time ever) to the Polynesian Islands. He was shocked to discover that rather than the exotic and romantic tropical land he'd been selling people for decades they were in fact kind of miserable swampy places full of dirty, poverty stricken people eating awful food.

  • ConcernedCitizen says:

    As far as the obesity thing goes, I have to ask: is anyone forcefully shoving that faux-food down their throats? Or is it their only option, like a poor, urban family that can't afford real groceries?

    My point is, obesity is not something that just afflicts people randomly (or am I being "size-ist" for pointing this out?).

  • Concerned –

    Food can be just as addicting as alcohol and nicotine. Sugar being the prime example. Fat and grease coming in second. Most of these places – from the Pacific to the Arctic – don't even have sufficient subsistence food sources, and never did.

    But of course, addicts are totally and 100% to blame for their health problems, it's a moral failure for which modern medicine and research can provide no insights and remedies. Rather like pregnancy, eh?

  • My brother lived in Australia for some years and one year a new Tahitian airlines was offering a hell of a deal on travel to Australia provided that you stopped over in Tahiti. Once I left the tourist bubble on the main island I remember being blown away both at the kindness of the average Tahitian and at the reality of their lives.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Think of the elderly cannibals on those islands.
    No more hunting, chasing, and cooking Christian missionaries.

    Ah, remember the old "man-eaters," those were the good old days!
    Good times, good times…

    But the taste!
    And the texture!
    Tough and stringy.

    "Hey honey, can you rustle-up SPAM and eggs for lunch!
    And later on, I'll take a walk down the road and pick us up some dinner "to go."
    What do you want? TGIF, Olive Garden, KFC, Mickey D's, or Pizza Hut?
    Wait, I just remembered, there a new BBQ Rib joint opened up!
    We can make believe the pork ribs came from some obnoxious Minister's rib-cage!
    Only now, they'll be tender and saucy!
    I'll get us some slaw and tater-tots, on the side.
    Sound good?
    Yeah, to me too!"

    Before, cannibals killed for food, hoping their prey wasn't fast enough to get away.

    Now, our American fast food is killing them, and they don't have a prayer, because if the fat don't kill them, diabetes will!

  • I've read both Typee AND Omoo. I think I'm reasonable sane, but I could be wrong about that. Who can be sure? I enjoyed the hell out of Typee; it was a corking good yarn, and made me think of Shackleton and his misadventures in the Antarctic. My attention fell off midway in Omoo. It seemed to be heading in the philosophical direction that killed Moby Dick off for 19th century audiences. Moby Dick, of course, is full of great bits, lots of poetry and philosophy, and one can certainly see how it might have disappointed those who thought Typee great. (That is, a good adventure story.) I've also read Bartleby, and would have to say that there is the 'bad' book in the opus.

    I realize that your point is that the South Sea islands, or even any islands, perhaps even the whole planet, is a mess we've made. Granted.

    But these visions of the past will be all that's left when we have to live elsewhere or in a bubble.

  • I'll see you and raise you. I've read them both, twice (I make no claims to sanity, however). And I agree, Typee's the better read, but Omoo's not far behind. I put them both in the same category of Melville as Moby Dick: lots of carefully chosen detail about unfamiliar societies, a modicum of adventure, some philosophy, and a strong undercurrent of righteous anger about contemporary American society.

    The thing is, Ed, everything you're saying about Western civilization destroying whatever might have been nice about Pacific islands? That's exactly what Melville's trying to say with Omoo. Typee is the romanticized depiction of an unspoiled Polynesian paradise; Omoo is what happens to it when the colonizers arrive, and it's not pretty. Melville would have agreed with you, Ed. In fact, he would have said you're stealing his schtick.

    BTW I've been reading G&T for many years, and this is what finally moves me to comment…

  • I read something by Jamaica Kincaid years ago, about tourists. To paraphrase from memory, a tourist means looking at mountains of death, poverty and exploitation and feeling more alive as a result.

    Jared Diamond's "Collapse" has some interesting chapters on the different types of Pacific islands and how the Polynesian groups developed different strategies for successfully settling them. Most of them are not suited for high population density.

    Regarding the Tongans, they sell the delicious fish they catch to other countries because they can't afford to eat it themselves, and use the money to buy the mutton flaps from the Strines and Kiwis. Also turkey tails from the USA, which may be even worse. It makes me think of the quinoa farmers in South America who can no longer afford to eat it themselves.

  • @Mo; also don't forget stability in addition to cost and palatability. A can of Crisco lasts virtually forever and doesn't need refrigeration (handy if you have no electricity) in addition to adding some tasty mouth-feel to beans or cheap cuts of meat. An unopened bag of potato chips will stay "fresh" for years sitting in the cupboard. Slim Jims will outlast the human race. If a family doesn't have reliable access to a supermarket and not a lot of money, they're going to go for the cheap, shelf-stable, tasty foods over the pint of strawberries for the same price. As an added bonus, the chips taste good and the kids won't whine about having to eat them.

  • @Talisker; I'll

    see you your spam and raise you the pub ham & cheese (or even just cheese) sandwich. What do you people put in those things to make them taste so good?

    I borrowed the 1946 book Ed told us about a few posts back, and I was stunned at just how poor England was for decades. I suspect a lot of the dodgy food I ate in the late 1980s/early 1990s comes from a tradition of poverty, because the English certainly do make some wonderful food.

  • Typee is beautifully written. Melville didn't suddenly become a great writer with Moby Dick. Even in his early works you can see the development of both his poetic sensibility (curiously absent in his actual poems) and his unusually forward looking take on ideas of race and the vain contemporary notions of the Christian West.

    It's difficult to read for me, because he can't overcome his native racism enough to live in the paradise the Typee offer. He throws Fawaway over like a rag to come back to the world of Calvinist assholes and the capitalist delirium of the American slave economy, because Melville is more of a desolate tribalist than his island captors.

    That could have been what Melville was aiming for. A sly critique of our own stupid cannibalism.

  • Robert: A bit of caution, though. It's a little bit mixed.

    Eduoard Rollet of Alter Eco Foods, a fair trade-certified company that sells quinoa, told NPR that when he visits the farmers he buys from he finds they usually set aside a portion of their crop for their family's consumption.

    "The farmers who have been eating quinoa traditionally are still eating quinoa," Rollet said.

    He added their higher incomes have also allowed the farmers to add greater variety to their diets.

    "They're able to now afford [foods like] tomatoes and salads and veggies, and foods that they weren't able to afford before," Rollet said.

    Anthropologist Pablo Laguna told NPR that generally the boom in quinoa popularity has been a good thing.

    "[It is] very good news for small, indigenous farmers," Laguna said, while acknowledging that "quinoa prices are definitely higher" for locals.

    But he added: "households have not diminished … their quinoa consumption."

    At the UN headquarters last year, Bolivian President Evo Morales also refuted the claim that local quinoa consumption was down, and said it had risen – despite previous official figures which showed consumption had fallen.

    In Bolivia and Peru the governments are incorporating quinoa into nutrition programs such as school breakfasts to keep the food in local diets.

    Read more:

  • Ha ha. I have some serious quinoa stories and anecdotes, one involving the CIA offing the first U.S. citizen who initiated North American cultivation back in the day because he knew too much about Chile and Allende and shit and had a voice and some influence. (No, not conspiracy got it from an agronomist colleague.) Not the format for such matters.

    Thanks Katydid, particularly for your first post. The Pima. Shit, everywhere Euro Americans import their shit people suffer big time. First hand witness to many tragic examples. Bring out the fat, the sugar, the refined flour products, the alcohol, it's party time.

    Melville? Heh.

  • There were so many things I wanted to respond to but the Margaret Mead stuff is annoying since so many accepted Freedman's work so uncritically. I originally was going to mention the book Cheap Meat, about the marketing and adoption of lamb flaps widely in the Pacific. Find out about it here:
    A shout out to Fiji which banned it!
    A critique of Freedman's critique is here
    Most people know Mead through her popular works, but the scholarly work she did (which Freedman didn't appear to be familiar with) is solid.

  • As a teenager, I too enjoyed Typee. I also read everything by Jules Verne I could get ahold of, including Off on a Comet and Michael Strogoff. It was all rather enjoyable and thought-provoking.

  • Joseph Banks, who later became the head of the Royal Society and now has a men's clothing chain named after him, romanticized the South Pacific back in the 18th century, back when Cook and Perouse and the like were still discovering new stuff. As with Margaret Mead much later, a lot of it was about sex, sex, sex.

    On the other hand, a lot of the islands were pretty sad even before the first white explorers came in. Many of them lacked fresh water and cultivatable land, so everyone was poor and starving.

    The more prosperous islands were run by aristocracies, a small blood thirsty elite wielding absolute power over the typical islander. Look at Hawaii. It was colonized once by Polynesians, then invaded by a new group of ruthless invaders. Look at New Zealand in which a later band of Polynesians came and ate the earlier band, literally if their stories are to be believed.

    The Hawaiian elite had its pleasure palaces, but they were constantly killing each other. It was one bloody war after another. Those taboos which might seem colorful in retrospect were violently anti-woman and enforced a vicious code of thought and behavior. The Polynesian rulers were perfectly able to build a hell hole without western help.

  • All Pollynesians like it in the booty and that is their main advantages because their clitty is in they bumhole

    Didn't you know this?

    I read it on WookiePedias or whatever its called and that sort of thing

  • @el mago and others: it's not just the islands or impoverished reservations where people get addicted to unhealthy food. Back in 2010, the British chef who helped reformed the food in British schools, Jamie Oliver, did a series in America. The one I saw recently on a cable channel featured him travelling to a town in West Virginia with the unhealthiest people, and trying his best to introduce the people there to non-processed foods. Jamie Oliver is not extreme or bizarre; his school lunches included a ground-beef-and-pasta-with-sauce dish and a type of shepherd's pie (ground beef in a shell of pastry, with peas and carrots). One dish he made was a teriaki chicken stir-fry (chicken with sauce, seven types of veggies, over rice), which the school system rejected in favor of their meal of breaded-chicken-patty-in-a-bun-with-french-fries.

    The most heartbreaking part was when he went into the elementary school classes with things like tomatoes and potatoes and eggplant and onions…and none of the children could identify what it was he was holding. They could, however, identify chicken nuggets and french fries.

    Despite the easy, sensible menus he was proposing, the town was up in arms and derisive and downright childish and petty about how they would keep their frozen budget pizzas and deep-fried doughnuts. They fought him every step of the way and derided him. Despite the black-and-white evidence that their diet was killing them, they were sure as hell not going to change the way they ate!

    So, bad eating is not just confined to exotic or remote places.

  • ConcernedCitizen says:


    No doubt food can be addictive. Likewise, if McDonald's is your only sufficient source for calories, I can hardly blame you for eating there.

    But you're not doing anyone any favors when you deny them agency. You're patronizing them.

  • I just happened to watch "Atomic Cafe" again recently and the US propaganda film about Bikini Atoll was quite an adventure in creativity (aka "lies"). Grinning natives are told they have to leave and according to the narration, are just too happy to go traveling! Incredible.

  • Brian, thanks for that. A bit of not-bad news is always welcome.

    I've been making homemade bread for my family for a few weeks now. If you have more time than money, it works well and our sons like it. People with little time OR money have a narrow range of choices, from bad to awful.

  • Heresy. Typee's just fine. "Dated" ain't a bad word for it, because of the stark racism in it at the very least, but if you think HG Wells's Time Machine is any good—and you should—you have to credit the more realistic predecessor with basically the same plot structure (adventurer, stranded, encounters natives, discovers something… the same thing… horrible about them, escapes in a vessel the natives can't comprehend).

    Omoo overpowered me and left me on the mat halfway through. Someday….

  • schmitt trigger says:

    "They fought him every step of the way and derided him."

    How dare a British snob dare to tell red-white-and-blue 'muricans what they should do with their life?

    If one want to become sick, that is a God given right! There must also be an amendment in the Constitution that protects their choice. The third? the Fourth?

    Next thing you know, they'll be coming to take away them guns, and close those Christian Temples and replace them with Mosques, while making everyone learn Spanish.

  • My wife is a Melville scholar. Our signature wedding cocktails were named "Omoo" and "Typee". This is absolutely true.

    Also true is that not even she could make it through either of those books.

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