I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian courtesy has proved but hollow courtesy.
The Wheelbarrow, Chapter 13
When Melville was 11 his family went bankrupt. The following year, Melville’s father died following a brief stint of insanity (please, your family is ruined and you’re dying–where does sanity really fit into the equation here?) I do love Charles Feildson’s note that Allan Melville’s delirious exhaustion unto death “left its mark on his son’s imagination.”
Melville was 12. Is there anything doesn’t leave a mark on a boy’s imagination at age 12? Young Mel left school to become a bank clerk. Then worked a family farm. Then he was a store clerk. Then a schoolteacher. . .By the time he was 20 he had been working for eight years straight. He signed up to sail on a merchant ship and for this
Feildson calls him
“a restless young man.”
which makes me wonder what Feildson would make of most college freshman. That said. . .
It was in January,1841, at the age of 21, that Melville sailed out as part of the crew of a whaling vessel called the Acushnet. The trip dragged on a bit and so it was that eighteen months later, in the Marquesas Islands, Melville abandoned ship.
The next three weeks of his life Melville spent with a native tribe and this was the basis of his hit travel adventure tale and one big commercial success: Typee.
But Melville, man after my own heart that he was (and ever will be), did not want to sit and document facts about the island tribes. You know, sometimes you just want to get a larger point across and so, okay, yeah I was on the island for three years, or maybe it was five months, or, well, come to think if it, might have been closer to three weeks–but what I want to tell you is. . .
I shudder when I think of the change a few years will produce in their paradisaical abode. .
Why? The kind reader may ask.
One word: missionaries
Or two: Damned Missionaries.
their disasters (will) originate in certain
under the influence of which benevolent–looking gentlemen in white cravats solicit
and old ladies in spectacles,
and young ladies in sober russet gowns contribute sixpences towards the creation of a fund, alms,
the object of which
ameliorate the spiritual condition
of the Polynesians,
. . . but whose end has almost invariably been to accomplish
their temporal destruction.
. . . no sooner are the images overturned,
the temples demolished,
and the idolators converted into nominal Christians, that
make their appearance.
The depopulated land is then recruited from the rapacious, hordes of enlightened individuals!
who settle themselves within its borders, and clamorously announce the progress of the Truth. . .
There is one thing I am badly distracted by and it is
–not truth, as I have decided truth is far less tangible than we like to think,
Perhaps its an excess of ego, but more likely I think it is a sentiment of the displaced.
It has not so much to do with ownership of land so much as the existence of a homeland. A place that you belong to more than it belongs to you. And when you belong to a place you can no more imagine living in banishment than you can imagine living without air to breathe.
I have lost a homeland, but that is for another post. Perhaps after I have learned to forgive, though it is the one violation I cannot see my way to forgiving, I who pride myself on being a Maestra of Forgiveness.
Being pushed out at least gives you something to push back against, but when the land is taken out from under your feet. . .you become, as Melville noted of the Polynesians:
in the country of his fathers,
and that too
on the very site
of the hut where he was born.
. . .
When the famished wretches are cut off in this manner from their natural supplies,they are told by their benefactors
their support, by the sweat of their brows!
all evils of foreign growth,
that is what Melville came home and wrote.
And the adventure story about this fantastical and exotic people became a best seller and the bible-orators, the descendants of puritanical pilgrims, read his words and they were,
not very Christian about it.
Or perhaps they were very much Christian about it.
At any rate, they were like to whirl themselves into clouds of smoke and in so doing they pulled out the worst insult they could think of:
They called him a liar.
They said it was fiction.
To which Melville said:
“Oh, you want fiction?
I’ll show you fiction.”
And then he wrote
So, for that, you 19th Century Christians, for that, I do forever thank you.