- The Myth of the Noble Savage
This challenging and wide-ranging work of intellectual history begins with an assertion: “most of us accept as fact” (xiii) the idea that scholars (most prominently Jean-Jacques Rousseau) once believed—erroneously—that Native Americans were noble creatures. Ter Ellingson’s book argues that “most of us” are wrong. Ellingson’s argument has four parts:
○. Rousseau was framed. He never argued that Indians were noble savages. Other eighteenth century ethnographers and social theorists were also unconvinced that Indians were noble beings.
○. Marc Lescarbot, a seventeenth century French traveler originated the idea that Indians were “noble” as a way of diminishing the Native Americans’ legal claims to sovereignty and recognition. Lescarbot argued that as ancient innocents, comparable to the people described in the Greek myth of the golden age, America’s Natives had no legal standing.
○. The “Noble Savage Myth” was revived—and debunked—by John Crawfurd and James Hunt, two scientific racists, in London in the 1850s. They established the “myth” to further their racist theories.
○. Asserting and debunking the idea that Indians are, or were, “noble savages” has continued as an intellectual practice in the U.S. and Britain. This is a bad thing because the “myth” hampers popular understanding of Native American people and their communities.
Ellingson begins his discussion with Lescarbot. He then traces Lescarbot’s ideas through the work of John Dryden’s seventeenth century “Indian plays” before going on to argue that the noble savage idea “receded into a state of virtual nonexistence” for 150 years. Ellingson makes this negative argument—the myth did not exist—by referring to what he calls a “random selection” (63) of proto-ethnographers such as Lahontan, Lafitau, Hennepin, and Cartier.
Ellingson next discusses Rousseau in some detail—clearing the French philosopher from the charge of myth-maker—and reviews contemporary and nineteenth century writings by travelers (Charlevoix, Volney, Acerbi), scientists (Morgan, Linnaeus, Darwin, William Lawrence, Arnold Guyot) and popular writers (Charles Murray, George Catlin, Louise Barnett, Chateaubriand, James Greenwood). Ellingson then describes the rise of the noble savage idea in London in the context of the history of the Ethnological Society and the subsequent “hiving off” of what became the Anthropological Society of London in 1863. A final three-chapter section on the persistence of the noble savage myth in our own time rounds out the volume.
Written in the same vein as George Stocking’s masterful volumes on the history of anthropology, Ellingson’s study falls short on many fronts. First, unlike Stocking whose focus is typically quite narrow and who meticulously sets his writers and thinkers in their social and political context, Ellingson gallops across a four hundred-year stage, plucking examples from France, England, and the United States to buttress his argument. It is an impressive and intriguing performance, but one finds oneself frequently stopping in mid-chapter to ask an “Emperor’s New Clothes” kind of question.
For example, Ellingson writes that Lescarbot’s view was “not in any way the same” as what came to be criticized as the noble savage myth. (32) How do we know that other than through the author’s rhetorical claims? There is no discussion of the reception of Lescarbot in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nothing on modern scholarship on the French traveler. Granting that Lescarbot was a lawyer with a lawyer’s agenda, one still wonders: Who read him? Where? What did they think?
Further on we are told that “In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century we do not find the innovation, experimentation and exploration of new representational approaches that had so variously characterized the works of…Lescarbot, Lahontan or Lafitau.” Well, perhaps. But one wonders about the obvious problems here: Lewis and Clark were both self-consciously scientific and the scientific community in the United States at least believed them to be innovative when they made their expedition to the Pacific in 1804–1806. Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia contained a number of novel assertions about Indianness. And then there is Hector St...