- Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori by Geoffrey Sanborn
Geoffrey Sanborn’s provocative book provides a new context for two of the antebellum period’s most important novels, The Last of the Mohicans and Moby-Dick. Arguing that both Cooper and Melville had likely encountered the life stories of Maori chiefs either before or during the writing of their books, Sanborn maintains that the characters of Magua and Queequeg drew on “the atmosphere of violent but nonetheless idealized masculinity that accompanied the early nineteenth-century image of the Maori” (12). Sanborn’s careful analysis of the veiled presence of Maori figures in these two texts provides not only a re-reading of Cooper’s and Melville’s works but a reconsideration of antebellum literature within expanded, global contexts.
A compact read, Whipscars and Tattoos consists of four chapters, two biographical and two literary-critical. In the first, Sanborn details the life of Maori rangatira (chief) Te Ara, who in 1809 took bloody vengeance on the English captain who had flogged him. As Sanborn documents in his second chapter, Cooper would almost certainly have been familiar with Te Ara’s tale, which was sympathetically reported in periodicals including the Boston Atheneum, to which Cooper subscribed (29). From this evidence, Sanborn concludes that Cooper’s Magua should be read as Te Ara’s progeny: not (as most critics deem him) a stereotypical “ignoble savage” but a “smoldering man of honor” (13) who reacts with justifiable violence to his public humiliation. The novel in which Magua appears, correspondingly, becomes less “an elegy for the vanishing American Indian” than “a paean to the embattled but still-independent spirit of chiefs and gentlemen” (14). Central to this reading is the (to me) unconvincing claim that the politics of Indian removal have little to do with Cooper’s novel (61); to buttress such a claim, Sanborn must assume that the discourse of Indian evanescence magically sprang into national consciousness with the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, whereas in fact a lengthy history of such discourse in national politics, dating at least to the Jefferson presidency, paved the way for the Act. Nevertheless, Sanborn’s excavation of the novel’s possible Maori context does offer a new and striking means of understanding Cooper’s racial and class politics not only in Mohicans but throughout the body of his work.
In his final two chapters, Sanborn performs a similar revisionist operation on the figure of Queequeg in Moby-Dick. Building on the biography of Maori chief Te Pehi Kupe, whose heroic qualities and remarkable facial tattoos were memorialized in George Lillie Craik’s 1830 The New Zealanders (82-84), Sanborn hypothesizes that “after reading, sometime in 1850, the Te Pehi Kupe section” of Craik’s book, Melville reenvisioned his fantasized Pacific Islander with specifically “Maori attributes” (104). Critical to this revision, Sanborn contends, was Melville’s new understanding of tattooing as “a vital element of the Maori rivalry for mana,” or personal spiritual power (106). In this light, Sanborn argues that Queequeg should be seen not in the terms most common to contemporary criticism—as a loving soul who redeems Ishmael’s racially torn nation through a symbolic union of white and nonwhite—but as the incarnation of a potent spirit of radical individualism Melville “hopes to inspire” in his readers (112). Thus to Sanborn, Melville’s Queequeg is akin to Melville’s Ahab: both characters “are meant to animate, and thereby bring nearer to an antagonistic encounter with reality, our inherent sense of our own fundamental greatness” (115). It may be difficult for readers accustomed to viewing Ahab’s defiant brand of manly heroism as the principal object of Melville’s critique to accept Sanborn’s claim that it is precisely the heedless pursuit [End Page 272] of power over that “formidable champion,” Moby Dick (127), that Melville celebrates. Yet viewed through the example of the Maori, such a reading becomes, if not totally convincing, at least...