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South-Sea Idyls: 06/12/09

South-Sea Idyls by Charles Warren Stoddard is a travelogue told in a series of letters to his friends back home in San Francisco. The book was first published in 1873 and revised in 1892. I have seen South-Sea Idyls classified as both fiction and non-fiction. From my own brief research, I'm calling it non-fiction.

The book has seventeen letters and they bounce around between and the Hawaiian islands and points in between. Stoddard starts off the book with letters from his kith and kin back home worried that he'll be miserable on the trip. He's just the opposite and he promptly "goes native." In and amongst his loving descriptions of the native traditions (including hula and luaus) and the gorgeous sunsets, Stoddard also describes the different men in his life. He sometimes dances around his relationships by blaming their native beauty or lamely saying he couldn't tell if his companion was male or female. The latter argument never works because he almost always goes on to say that he doesn't care that he can't tell.

None of his relationships last very long. One he loses to leprosy in a heart breaking scene that reminds me of Richard Rene Silvin describing the deaths of two different long time partners to AIDS related illnesses in Walking the Rainbow. Another lover follows him back to San Francisco but soon leaves him for a woman.

In "Stoddard's Little Tricks" (an excellent essay on the book), Roger Austen begins with the thesis that most contemporary readers of the book were oblivious to the homoeroticism that's threaded through the book. From looking at my own 1905 copy, I can see evidence to prove and disprove that theory. My book was given as a Christmas present from a Mrs. W. Griffin who strikes me as a very prim and proper matronly sort who would have been oblivious to the eroticism of the book. She gave it a Miss Harriet B. Foye.

Harriet B. Foye left her mark on the book in the forms of coffee stains (on the most erotic of pages) and pressed flowers between the pages of the bittersweet breakups. I fully believe she didn't miss anything in South Sea Idyls and re-read the book many times in her life.

South-Sea Idyls is still in print and it's available online. I am happy I found Harriet's old copy at my local Half Price Books. Harriet spent her whole life in the Bay Area and her book continued to stay in the East Bay, not that far from where she lived. Although I didn't know Harriet personally I do feel a connection to her through this book and I thought of her as I read it over my morning coffee (careful not to add any new spills).

Comments (2)

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Comment #1: Wednesday, June, 24, 2009 at 19:52:47


Very cool review!

I like your descriptions of the previous owners. Wonder what they thought of the book.

Comment #2: Friday, June 26, 2009 at 13:43:14


From the way the pages are stained and they they fall open to certain spots, I think Harriet B. Foye enjoyed it.

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