‘South Sea Idyls’ is a collection of tales written by Charles Warren Stoddard, which recounts his journeys to Hawaii and French Polynesia. The book was first published in 1873. Its English edition is called ‘Summer Cruising in the South Seas’.
The Blue Continent is the place where Charles Warren Stoddard feels at home. In love with the islands and most of all in their inhabitants, he often returns to Oceania to appreciate the nature and simple life people lead there.
As he spends time with the native islanders, he discovers their beguiling cultures and takes delights in whatever is being offered to him. He quickly notices that in the Pacific, life is just sweeter, easier, and more beautiful than anywhere else.
When this book was first published, it stirred up some controversy. Even today some people may consider it… slightly off-putting, if you will. Because, contrary to what you may expect, this account is not just about travels to foreign and exotic lands.
Before we delve into Charles Warren Stoddard’s personal experiences in the South Seas, let’s focus on the region itself. It is remarkably well described. The author made sure readers could ‘see’ the places he went to. Every single page is full of word-pictures, which show the extraordinary beauty of Polynesia. No detail is spared. Everything is so vivid you feel as if you were standing right next to the writer. Smells, tastes, views, sounds, sensations are almost real. This book is like a watercolour painting – mesmerizing to such a degree you can’t take your eyes off of it.
Now, if the book is the painting, Charles Warren Stoddard is the painter. I am not sure if he had ever held a brush in his hand, but what he managed to achieve with this travelogue-cum-memoir suggests he might have. All the stories presented in this collection are limned with painterly skill. The author’s poetic and flowery language is in full blossom here and you can’t help but marvel at his tremendous talent. However, for some readers this distinctive writing style may be a little overwhelming. The account is not very ‘action-packed’; it thrives on detailed depictions of places, people, customs, traditions, and cultures. If this is not the type of literature you find enjoyable to read, this book will not be a good fit for you.
I know what you must be thinking right now: what exactly is controversial about this work? Well, apart from being a nice travelogue, it is also a homoerotic memoir. Now, let me be clear here, sexual references do not dominate the stories. In some tales (‘The Last of the Great Navigator’, for example), they do not appear at all. Nevertheless, a perceptive reader will easily notice a great number of young, handsome, and usually naked men who show up in most of the chapters. Interesting is the fact that even in these intimate descriptions, Charles Warren Stoddard is very subtle and completely devoid of vulgarity. But again, if this is something you don’t feel comfortable reading about, this book is not for you.
‘South Sea Idyls’ is a classic of travel literature. And as such it is without a doubt worthy of anyone’s time and attention. Yes, some of the author’s words may shock a little, but the islands… The islands are as stunning, as real as in no other book.