Fishy Assumptions and False Claims in David Samuels’s “A Fish Tale”

By Rebecca Cheong

David Samuels’s recent essay “A Fish Tale,” published in the Spring 2015 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly on Swindle & Fraud, has drawn wide attention to the fraudulent nature of Herman Melville’s first novel Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. Shortly after the issue was released and the essay was posted on the internet, The Paris Review, one of the most highly acclaimed literary publications of the present day, linked its readers to Samuels’s essay in a post ironically titled “Fraud, Fraud, and More Fraud.” It didn’t take long for other aggregators of articles and essays such as Longform and Arts & Letters Daily (from The Chronicle of Higher Education) to tweet, share on Facebook, and repost on their websites the link to David Samuels’s essay. The Herman Melville Facebook account, too, shared the link with its followers.

The problem, however, is that Samuels presents a fallacious argument built on a series of false claims. In reading his essay I could not (and, to some extent, still cannot) help but wonder if it was intended as a kind of practical joke to drive home the point about “Swindle and Fraud.” The foremost thing to mention is the following claim — an erroneous assertion that cannot simply be attributed to, or passed off as, a fact-checking error — more than halfway through his essay:

Typee was a fraudulent pastiche, because the first-person ‘I’ who tells the tale is named Herman Melville, a decision that traps the narrative in the straitjacket of an authorial lie that the author was not yet aware enough to escape from.

The first-person “I” who tells the tale in Typee is named Tommo. In the novel itself Melville tells us the narrator’s name. Melville — being Melville, perhaps — doesn’t tell us everything right away, so one has to read a bit (but not that much) further into the narrative in order to find out the narrator’s name. I don’t know that I buy the Melville/narrator angle that Samuels proposes in general, but, in any case, his argument is contingent on the identity of the “first-person ‘I’” in the narrative. That the angle he takes is built upon a blatantly false claim is something that turns his whole argument on its head. Furthermore, he emphasizes in the lines quoted above that Typee was a fraudulent pastiche because the first-person ‘I’ is named Herman Melville.

Someone writing an essay about the text ought to know that the narrator is given a name, or — at the very least — that the preface of the novel distinguishes the author from the narrator. Even if Melville does not give us the narrator’s name in the opening sentence of Typee — as he does in Moby-Dick — , he makes sure he tells us some things right away. In the preface of Typee, he distinguishes the “author at the time” from the narrator of the tale:

There are some things related in the narrative which will be sure to appear strange, or perhaps entirely incomprehensible, to the reader; but they cannot appear more so to him than they did to the author at the time.

One need only read the short preface to Typee (which the reader is arguably more likely to read than he is going to read the “extracts” of Moby-Dick) to know that Melville clearly forges a narrative distance between himself and the narrator. In so doing, he creates a dialectic within the novel. In addition to making a fallacious statement that the first-person narrator who “tells the tale is named Herman Melville,” and referring to the narrator’s identity as a “decision that traps the narrative in the straitjacket of an authorial lie that the author [Herman Melville] was not yet aware enough to escape from,” Samuels fails to account for the novel’s preface, which Melville made sure he included during the publication of the novel.

Quite ironically, Samuels traps his essay in an authorial lie from which he himself was not yet aware enough to escape. Both the contents of the preface to Typee and Melville’s decision to prepend it to the narrative is an authorial move that liberates — rather than traps — the narrative. That is not to say that in doing so Melville is freed of all responsibility or accountability of the story he tells. His cautious application of form and content, however, is indicative of his dialogism and self-awareness. His intentional detachment of himself from Tommo foregrounds his own authorial anxiety in the attempt to represent the Pacific Islands, its inhabitants, and the events he witnessed there. After all, he was an outsider attempting to represent a different/ostensibly alien culture; at the same time, he had actually been to these places and was writing down his experiences — yes, he was performing a kind of regionalism, but at least he had direct contact with these places and their inhabitants. Melville had a keen authorial sense of what his readers wanted to read, and therefore embellished his experiences in his telling of the story. All of these factors were ingredients for an unbelievable narrative. Finally, there were the ugly actions of European missionaries on these islands that Melville wanted to, and did, expose in his narrative. One could imagine how the various scenes and events put forth in the story would invite backlash and criticism from nineteenth-century American and English readers. Instead of restricting the story and hiding the truths embedded within it so as to avoid any backlash, Melville’s decision to include the preface, and the contents thereof, gave him a kind of narrative freedom to provide an unconstrained tale. Samuels perpetuates the falsity of his own argument by failing to take the preface of Typee into consideration.

With that, the case that Typee was “obviously a fraud” and the comparison Samuels makes between Typee and Moby-Dick fall right through, along with the rest of his essay. He writes:

The single move that unlocked the genius of Melville’s storytelling and characterization and love of language and magpie habits in Moby Dick [sic] is his decision to create a dialogue with his readers through the character of Ishmael, who is not Herman Melville, but who serves as substitute for the character of “I,” . . .

If the decision to create a dialogue with his readers through the character of Ishmael is indeed the “single move” that unlocked Melville’s genius in Moby-Dick, it’s not a new one. This authorial move is not unlike that which Melville had already made in Typee, through the character of Tommo, who is not Herman Melville, and who, like Ishmael, serves as substitute for the character “I.”

One could take a hypothetical scenario in which the reader is not actually told in the novel that the first-person narrator was named Tommo. Even if that had been the case, it would be insufficient to absolve Samuels of the unfounded statement he puts forth in “A Fish Tale.” Nowhere in the narrative does Melville give any indication that the author and the narrator of Typee were the same person, and by no stretch of the imagination does he at any moment in the book inform the reader, point-blank, that the narrator is named Herman Melville. Instead, Melville enacts a fictionalization of viewpoint and shifts from the third-person to first-person in the story’s narration. He separates author from narrator, and even distinguished the “author at the time” of the events from his present self — the author writing many years after the events.

The fantastical nature of the story is suspect in itself, of course, and Melville was well aware of this. Not unlike many authors of travel narratives at the time, he also includes in the preface a claim to truth:

He has stated such matters just as they occurred, and leaves every one to form his own opinion concerning them; trusting that his anxious desire to speak the unvarnished truth will gain for him the confidence of his readers. 1846.

Melville is conscious of the unbelievability of his story and how absurd it would sound to his contemporary audience. Aphra Behn included a similar “claim to truth” before delivering the tale in Oroonoko, and so did Wes Anderson in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Both Behn and Anderson prepended their narratives with versions of this “claim to truth,” a rhetorical strategy commonly found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel narratives.

Samuels says that the editors of the Harpers publishing house scented fraud and rejected the manuscript of Typee, as if this point is meant to serve as supporting evidence of the novel being a fraud. But of course Harpers scented fraud! That they did should not surprise us, given that it was shown to them during a period in time when many people wrote travel narratives that weren’t necessarily true in order to titillate their audiences and to cash in:

Like most literary memoirs, at the time and since, Typee was obviously a fraud, in that very few of the incidents and quotations related could possibly be true.

Furthermore, what Samuels implies in his essay is that Typee was a kind of reportage rather than the romance that it is. In his essay he refers to the novel as a “literary memoir” and a “pastiche” — suggesting that the author and the publishers of Typee were trying to pass off the novel as a work of nonfiction, as a kind of factual report of the author’s experiences in the Marquesas. Samuels cites the “huge scandal in 1844” that was caused by Edgar Allan Poe as one form of “evidence to suggest that Melville might have become a great writer even if success and controversy had not interceded and Typee had been thoroughly exposed as a work of fiction”:

The leading luminary of the New York literary scene of the 1840s was Edgar Allan Poe, an ex-newspaper reporter who caused a huge scandal in 1844 by publishing an entirely fictitious report of the voyage of an ostensibly famous European balloonist, Monck Mason, who was reported to have traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in only three days in the gas balloon Victoria, and to have landed at Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, South Carolina. (Monck Mason was a fictitious character. An unpowered balloon called Double Eagle II did finally fly across the Atlantic, in August 1978.)

What’s key in this passage is that Poe was an “ex-newspaper reporter”; Melville, however, was a novelist. There was no “work of fiction” that needed to be exposed in the case of Typee, since, as Melville points out in the preface, the author at the time is not the same as the narrator.

Just in case one misses the point, Melville addresses in the earlier part of the preface the potential shortcomings or temporal discrepancies in the narrative. Unlike the authors of “very many published narratives” in which “no little degree of attention is bestowed upon dates,” he makes the following appeal to his readers:

but as the author lost all knowledge of the days of the week, during the occurrence of the scenes herein related, he hopes that the reader will charitably pass over his shortcomings in this particular.

This sentence in the preface of Typee is a younger Melville saying more or less the thing that he expresses in the second sentence of Moby-Dick: “Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — . . .” If Moby-Dick was “an entirely self-aware lie of the author’s mind, which he used to deliberate literary effect,” the same must be said of Typee. Melville was writing about his experiences some years after the fact (never mind how long precisely). On one hand, he was employing a strategic reticence, one that exculpated him from prevailing standards of taste. His contemporary audience would have wished to read exotic, wild travel stories based off their authors’ real-life experiences, and it was important for these stories to appear as true to life as possible. There is nothing surprising in this; after all, these texts were one of the few ways for land-bound readers in the 19th century to obtain a glimpse of another part of the world. By suggesting that there is no determinate temporality to the events related in the novel, he circumvents the empirical accuracy that his readers craved and expected as assertions to a story’s veracity. Samuels notes that in Moby-Dick, Melville “created a space in which his readers could suspend their disbelief.” Evidently, this feature is present in Typee as well, only expressed differently.

With a characteristic flourish, Melville complicates matters for his readers — by employing rhetorical devices that circumvented the very need for the reader’s suspension of disbelief. His adventures in the Pacific had supplied him with rich poetic material for an exotic story. The claim to truth at the end of the preface, in addition to the map that ran on the frontispiece of early editions of Typee, were strategic assertions of the veracity of these experiences. Perhaps empirical accuracy isn’t of utmost importance to Melville, anyway, and not necessary for achieving verisimilitude in a story. For him, the issue is not so much about facts and events as it is about the discourse between facts and events — especially when representing another culture and people.

Moreover, the line between fact and fiction during Melville’s time was very blurry. Samuels says that “very few of the incidents and quotations related [in Typee] could possibly be true.” Aside from what he calls the “pleasing lies” to be found in it, the novel also contains, as Melville writes in the preface,

a few passages . . . which may be thought to bear rather hard upon a reverend order of men, the account of whose proceedings in different quarters of the globe — transmitted to us through their own hands — very generally, and often very deservedly, receives high commendation. Such passages will be found, however, to be based upon facts admitting of no contradiction, and which have come immediately under the writer’s cognizance.

Samuels’s argument that Typee was a “literary hoax” and a “fraudulent pastiche”[1] is anachronistic, inaccurate, and misleading, at the same time that it neglects consideration of the historical context within which Melville was writing. He cites Leon Howard on Melville being “forced to present ‘scenes and incidents . . . which he could describe in necessary detail only after research into the observations of others,’ which included . . . Charles S. Stewart’s two-volume A Visit to the South Seas in the United States Ship Vincennes, During the Years 1829 and 1830, William Ellis’ multi-volume Polynesian Researches, and Captain David Porter’s account of his voyage on the Essex.” Just because Melville presented scenes and incidents “which he could describe in necessary detail only after research into the observation of others” does not make them untrue, nor does it determine whether a text qualifies as fraud. Besides, it wasn’t hard in Melville’s day to find accounts that were similar to the scenes related in Typee. Even William Ellis’s report in Polynesian Researches was built on secondhand evidence[2]. The extent to which Typee is the product of Melville’s own savored memories of his experiences and how much of it is derived from books about the South Pacific is hard to know for certain.

What goes unsaid in “A Fish Tale” is that Toby Greene, Melville’s companion in his flight from the Acushnet and whom the narrator of Typee had supposed dead, had resurfaced and come to Melville’s defense. Like many critics and reviewers at the time, the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser had the general impression “that the incidents and mode of life [the novel] described were too extraordinary, and too much at variance with what is known of savage life, to be true, and that . . . it was the offspring of a lively inventive fancy, rather than a veritable narrative of facts.” Imagine the editor’s surprise, then, upon “hearing that here in Buffalo, is a credible witness of the truth of some of the most extraordinary incidents narrated in the book,” and whose “verbal statements corresponded in all essential particulars with those made by Mr. Melville respecting their joint adventures.”

Give ear then, ye of little faith — especially he who authored “A Fish Tale.” Five years after the two men set sail on the Acushnet in 1841, Toby Greene resurfaced in a letter to the Editor of the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser. Here’s an excerpt; hear what Toby had to say for himself:

In the New York Evangelist I chanced to see a notice of a new publication in two parts called “Typee, a residence in the Marquesas” by Herman Melville. In the book he speaks of his comrade in misfortune “Toby” who left him so mysteriously and whom he supposed had been killed by the Happar natives. The Evangelist speaks rather disparagingly of the book as being too romantic to be true, and as being too severe on the missionaries. But to my object: I am the true and veritable “Toby” yet living, and I am happy to testify to the entire accuracy of the work so long as I was with Melville, who makes me figure so largely in it. I have not heard of Melville, or “Tommo,” since I left him on the Island, and likewise supposed him to be dead; . . . My true name is Richard Greene, and I have the scar on my head which I received from the Happar spear and which came near killing me. . . . I sailed to New Zealand and thence home; and I request Melville to send me his address if this should chance to meet his eye. “Mortarkee” was the word I used when I heard of his being alive.

Ultimately, Melville did actually go to Polynesia. He partied with the Polynesians when most Americans were barely even leaving their towns, let alone leaving the country. Samuels does not deny that Melville had sailed aboard the Acushnet or ventured to the Pacific, but he charges the author, nonetheless, with having made up the events related in Typee. So too did the first reviewers of the novel. If “documentary evidences” of Melville having been to the Marquesas is needed to testify that the work was not a fraud, maybe Melville himself could offer a response that would suffice. In a letter to English publisher John Murray, dated September 2nd, 1846, he writes:

Ultimately, Melville did actually go to Polynesia. He partied with the Polynesians when most Americans were barely even leaving their towns, let alone leaving the country. Samuels does not deny that Melville had sailed aboard the Acushnet or ventured to the Pacific, but he charges the author, nonetheless, with having made up the events related in Typee. So too did the first reviewers of the novel. If “documentary evidences” of Melville having been to the Marquesas is needed to testify that the work was not a fraud, maybe Melville himself could offer a response that would suffice. In a letter to English publisher John Murray, dated September 2nd, 1846, he writes:

“A Fish Tale” by David Samuels is troubling in its non-subtle reading and flattening of a complex text like Typee, especially as it does so with false information and insubstantial evidence. In so doing the essay undermines the historical and cultural importance of the novel. The narrative is a multi-layered and heteroglossic one, and difficult to pin down. Even today it continues to fire up debates about “fact” and “fiction,” while transcending the boundaries of those categories during Melville’s time. There are truths to be found in storytelling — in fiction. Melville, a nineteenth-century American, was attempting to represent in his first novel a foreign culture and place drawn from his experiences. He had limited knowledge of Taipi Valley and its inhabitants, and some savored memories of the experiences would have faded over time. The exactness of the incidents and scenes related in Typee may have been, as Melville said in a letter to John Murray, “a little touched up they say but true.” What he does demonstrate in his text, at least, is the educability of the protagonist, who is perceiving another culture through a colored lens. The narrator Tommo is a vehicle for the author Melville, who becomes aware of the fallibility of his own interpretation and understanding of people and places. Let’s not forget Typee’s subtitle, “a peep into Polynesian life.” A peep: that’s all it claims to offer us — and the “the author at the time.”

Of no little importance, too, are Melville’s caustic descriptions of Europeans and Christian missionaries in Polynesia. Through the narrative of Typee, he exposes the brutalities, mistreatment, and morally reprehensible actions of Christian missionaries on these islands. The text is a mirror of Western imperialism and a lens into the making of historical spaces, the enduring impact of which cannot be gainsaid. It provides posterity with a way of tracing the imperial conquests and projects that took place on faraway lands in the nineteenth century. As such, it affords the opportunity to disrupt the deceptive normality of institutionalized conceptions of time and place and peoples, while demonstrating that it’s possible for us to break through our ideological boundaries and Foucauldian regimes of truth. And to denounce the text as a “hoax” and a “fraud” is to strip it of its historical significance as a documentary record of real atrocities that had taken place in the Pacific.

I should probably also point out that Melville’s story has been embedded in Nuku Hivaian oral history till this day. Perhaps, even in the 21st-century, some of us can still go straight from our cradles to our graves and never dream of the queer things going on halfway around the world.

[1] Lapham’s Quarterly, Spring 2015, “Swindle & Fraud,” p. 220

[2] Andrew Delbanco, Melville: His World and Work, p. 84.