Islanders and missionaries

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Herman Melville’s writings on Islanders and missionaries reveal much about the tensions arising from America’s nineteenth-century civilizing endeavor. Typee, published in 1846, and Omoo, published the following year, were ostensibly travelogues that danced between fact and fiction. Much of the “fact” in the first editions of Typee (published in London and New York) was focused on the impact of missionaries in Polynesia, but Melville’s wide-ranging reflections on the relationship between Christianity, civilization and race touched on matters that were deeply divisive in mid-nineteenth-century America. Published soon after newspaper editor John L. O’Sullivan had coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny” to link the geographic expansion of the United States to the exceptionalist principles underpinning the nation, Melville’s writings were inherently controversial. Melville’s early writing career coincided with a politically volatile time that involved debates about rights and racial identity. The increasingly bitter sectional debate over slavery was one manifestation of the divisions arising from American expansion, but it was not the only one. The westward growth of the United States fomented renewed conflicts between Native and European Americans, and - as commercial, religious and strategic imperatives impelled Americans across the Pacific - it sparked divisions regarding the role of Christianity in American culture and politics. Informed by proto-cultural relativist ideas emerging from Enlightenment egalitarianism, which had also found voice in the writings of previous South Seas writers, Melville’s cosmopolitan representation of Islander life, and his contentious critique of the impact of missionaries, challenged both earlier notions of the “noble savage” and prevailing Christian understandings of the world. Resonating well beyond the immediate subject matter he raised in Typee, Omoo and later in his most famous work, Moby-Dick, Melville’s provocative portrayals of the missionary endeavor reflected as well as informed political and cultural debates regarding the role of religion in antebellum America’s apparently irrepressible westward expansion. Melville’s association with the South Pacific began in 1842. For the next three years he journeyed across the South Seas, observing first-hand the impact of Western colonialism upon the region’s indigenous communities.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHerman Melville in context
EditorsKevin J. Hayes
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press (CUP)
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781316755204
ISBN (Print)9781107169760
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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