The Myth of the Noble Savage (review)
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Journal of World History 15.1 (2004) 96-99



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The Myth of the Noble Savage. By Ter Ellingson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 467 pp. $60.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

The concept of the Noble Savage, generally attributed to Rousseau, serves in much recent scholarship as something between a starting place and a straw man: a point of departure which, in Ter Ellingson's study, at last becomes the subject of sustained critical scrutiny. While the title of this substantial volume suggests that what we will find here is a survey of the Noble Savage theory, Ellingson's project is a more layered and skeptical one: to expose the myth of the myth; to question whether Noble Savagery was ever in fact a working concept, or simply an obfuscation.

Persistent discursive fluctuations between idealization and repudiation in encounters between Europeans and "primitives" were encapsulated in the conjunction of concepts of nobility and savagery. Ellingson links the oxymoron "noble savage" to two other myths that have operated dialectically throughout the history of European accounts of cross-cultural encounter: those of the Golden Age and the cannibal. He traces the initial formulation of a concept of savage nobility to the proto-ethnographic writings of Renaissance traveler Marc Lescarbot, whose writings promoted French colonial initiatives in Canada. As Ellingson notes, "nobility is a construction not only of a moral quality but also of a social class and hierarchy" (p. 8). Much of the early part of his argument involves untangling the ways in which early formulations [End Page 96] of savage nobility were embedded in state and church politics. In a detailed examination of the writings of Lahontan, he focuses on the characterization of Native American liberty and independence as a "rhetorical counterfoil" to aid Lahontan's denunciation of his own, late seventeenth-century French society (p. 66). Ellingson's discussion of the work of the Jesuit scholar Joseph-François Lafitau draws attention to a continuing "equation of Indian practices with those of European feudalistic chivalry" (p. 77).

When Ellingson turns his attention to French enlightenment philosophers and their inheritors in the fields of eighteenth-century ethnography, philosophy, science, and politics in the central section of the book, his scholarly task becomes more complex. Like critics Gordon Sayre and Gaile McGregor before him, Ellingson notes that Rousseau never in fact employed the term "noble savage." However, his determination to make this point conclusively across a range of Enlightenment writings involves a methodologically incongruous exercise: to prove, through exhaustive reading and extensive citation, the nonexistence of his putative subject. He traces the word "nobility" through a variety of texts and discourses, finding it generally to be used to describe savages only in what he calls a "trait-ascriptive" mode (i.e., in relation to specific traits, rather than as an essential quality), or in a relativistic rather than absolutist sense. Ellingson's quest is sustained with some difficulty at this point, involving as it does the repeated foregrounding of an absence ("see, no noble savages here"). At the same time, however, his investigation builds up an important revisionist history of the foundations of ethnographic science. His recognition that a self-conscious, theoretically articulated practice of participant observation has operated since the time of Lery and Nicolay quietly dismisses another long-standing myth: that prior to the early twentieth-century introduction of fieldwork methodology, there existed a clear split between armchair anthropologists and the travelers from whose untheorized first-hand observations their hypotheses were derived.

Ellingson then traces the history of the Ethnological Society of London during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, drawing on research by George W. Stocking, but also revisiting manuscript correspondence and records of Society transactions. He convincingly argues that a particular racist agenda lead to the active remobilization of the nebulous "Noble Savage" myth in the late 1850s. In a paper titled "On the Conditions which Favour, or Retard, or Obstruct the Early Civilization of Man," presented to the Society in April 1859, ex-colonial diplomat and natural historian John Crawford juxtaposed Darwin's denigrating description...