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Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (Penguin Classics)

Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (Penguin Classics) (Paperback) by Herman Melville (Author)

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Melville's continuing adventures in the South Seas-now for the first time in Penguin Classics

Following the commercial and critical success of Typee, Herman Melville continued his series of South Sea adventure-romances with Omoo. Named after the Polynesian term for a rover, or someone who roams from island to island, Omoo chronicles the tumultuous events aboard a South Sea whaling vessel and is based on Melville's personal experiences as a crew member on a ship sailing the Pacific. From recruiting among the natives for sailors to handling deserters and even mutiny, Melville gives a first-person account of life as a sailor during the nineteenth century filled with colorful characters and vivid descriptions of the far-flung locales of Polynesia.

Contemporary Reviews

A less than enthusiastic review from the July 1847 issue of The American Whig Review

Reviews

4 out of 5 stars Missionary mischief and French farce in the South Pacific, January 10, 2009

By Trevor Coote "Trevor Coote" (Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia) (REAL NAME)    

Cultural and religious artefacts are destroyed. Music and dancing is considered lascivious and is banned. A dress code is introduced and women must be chaste in both their clothing and demeanour. Names must be drawn from religious texts. Today we are familiar with the cultural barbarism of the Taliban but here I am talking about Christian missionaries in the South Pacific in the early nineteenth century. However, Melville's acerbic commentary on religious oppression was not popular in his home country and some of his observations were edited out. But it was not only the missionaries who were instrumental in the destruction of Polynesian traditions and culture as Europeans also brought measles, syphilis and new mosquito species. Then, to top it all the narrator of Omoo heard 'a salute, which afterward turned out to be a treaty; or rather - as far as the natives were concerned - a forced concession of Tahiti to the French', a deceit which the French state 170 years on seems curiously and stubbornly reluctant to rectify.

Polynesian woes notwithstanding, Omoo, which begins where Typee left off, lacks the pace and panache of Melville's better-known and more popular novel. Rescued from the Marquesas Islands by boat, Typee (the narrator, formerly Tommo in Typee) is involved in a mutiny and incarcerated on Tahiti before getting away to Moorea. The book, which mixes factual experiences with fanciful fiction consists largely of the narrators wanderings, observations and encounters with numerous characters on Tahiti and Imeeo (his spelling of Eimeo, now Moorea). Mercifully there are pages of explanatory notes in the Penguin classics version because once the 'flying jib-boom snapped off like a pipe stem', and the 'spanker-gaff came down by the run' I was getting a little seasick. It is better to stick to Typee.

3 out of 5 stars Melville is one of us (provided you are liberal and tolerant), May 22, 2009

By Stuart Mckibbin (Riverside, California United States) (REAL NAME)    

You may have heard of the author. This is one of his lesser-read works, although not the least read, that would be Clarel. Even though part of this novel takes place on a whaleship, and has preachers in high pulpits, a Maori, a negro cook, and uses the word gallied, it is quite different from Moby Dick.

This novel is a straightforward first-person account of adventure by a sensitive, well-read sailor called consecutively Typee and Paul. He escapes from his previous novel (where he was called Tammo) to a whaleship, becomes a mutineer, is clapped in a Tahitian calabooza, and then released to explore the nearby island of Eimeo. He finds the farther he is from Western influence the happier are the natives. That's it.

Two things stand out in this wisp of an adventure story. One is Melville's humor. "There was no absolute deformity about the man, he was symmetrically ugly." "About the eyes, there was no mistaking him; with a villainous cast in one, they seemed suspicious of each other." "The very men he flogged loved him as a brother, for he had such an irresistibly good-natured way of knocking them down, that no one could find it in his heart to bear malice against him."

The other is Melville's prophetic outlook. He seems more like us, more at home in our liberal, tolerant, 21st century Obama democracy, than he does in his own era. This comes across when he laments the decimation of the Tahitian people from 200,000 at the time of Cook to barely 9,000 people in 1842; deplores the introduction of western commerce which left the Polynesians with nothing to do; and regrets the effort to civilize and christianize the natives which brought about "ignorance, hypocrisy and hatred of other faiths."

I'll end with a digression. At times I felt insulted by the editor. Editors have to decide who is my audience? what should I assume they know? It would seem natural to believe that anyone bothering to read this book is culturally literate and is more likely to read literature than adventure tales. I would bet we're reading this book because we like Melville. However, this gal Edwards believes her audience knows NOTHING. As a result she wastes a good deal of ink correcting Melville's spelling, and needlessly explaining obvious things like what are casks, harpooners and pearl-oysters, where are Palermo and Cape Horn, who were Napoleon and Lord Nelson, and that Taurus is a constellation. It would have been better if she had followed the example of Beaver in Penguin's excellent 1972 edition of Moby Dick: maps of the Society Islands, a couple of diagrams of a whaleship indicating the technical names of its structure and sails, and notes that identify obscure technical terms, literary allusions and repeated themes.

2 out of 5 stars Herman Melville - Omoo (1847), May 23, 2009

By thepete8 (Naperville, IL)

One year after Melville struck gold with 'Typee', his first novel and a colorful account of life in the Polynesian islands, the new writer published 'Omoo'. Melville's success with 'Typee', while not stratospheric, was significant enough for his publisher to print 'Omoo' sight unseen. Unfortunately, 'Omoo' is a prime example of the dreaded sophmore slump so feared by artists. 'Omoo' is more of the same subject matter found in 'Typee', but as we all know lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place. 'Omoo' is a pale companion to 'Typee'.

The main issue is 'Omoo' lacks the unifying theme of Melville's captivity on a tropical island that gave 'Typee' a core. On top of that, the tales (or yarns, depending on how much truth you believe are in these pseudo-autobiographical novels) Melville relates this time out are not nearly as interesting as those found in 'Typee'. I was pretty bored with 'Omoo' for many of its pages.

Melville's writing is just as crisp and immediate as it was in 'Typee', but this book centers more around Melville's wanderings in Tahiti than it does on Polynesian life. Other sailors and colonial towns are really at the forefront of this book. There's more commentary on the missionary movement which is interesting from a cultural standpoint but it just doesn't come alive.

There are some interesting elements that surface from time to time, but the overall travelogue feel of this book - which 'Typee' largely managed to avoid - means Melville can't develop any of them. A Polynesian joins Melville on a ship as they leave the Marquesas, and his homesickness is touching. However, the character just vanishes at some point, and I don't even remember where or why. Another example is the author's meeting with Pomaree, the Queen of Tahiti. There's a big build up to this meeting, but the pay-off is a drab let-down.

'Omoo' was a moderate success for Melville due to it being enough like his first book to lure readers back for a retread. Most modern readers should probably read 'Typee' and skip 'Omoo'.


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