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The Myth of the Noble Savage

The Myth of the Noble Savage

Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: 1
Pages: 467
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    The Myth of the Noble Savage
    Book Description:

    In this important and original study, the myth of the Noble Savage is an altogether different myth from the one defended or debunked by others over the years. That the concept of the Noble Savage was first invented by Rousseau in the mid-eighteenth century in order to glorify the "natural" life is easily refuted. The myth that persists is that there was ever, at any time, widespread belief in the nobility of savages. The fact is, as Ter Ellingson shows, the humanist eighteenth century actually avoided the term because of its association with the feudalist-colonialist mentality that had spawned it 150 years earlier. The Noble Savage reappeared in the mid-nineteenth century, however, when the "myth" was deliberately used to fuel anthropology's oldest and most successful hoax. Ellingson's narrative follows the career of anthropologist John Crawfurd, whose political ambition and racist agenda were well served by his construction of what was manifestly a myth of savage nobility. Generations of anthropologists have accepted the existence of the myth as fact, and Ellingson makes clear the extent to which the misdirection implicit in this circumstance can enter into struggles over human rights and racial equality. His examination of the myth's influence in the late twentieth century, ranging from the World Wide Web to anthropological debates and political confrontations, rounds out this fascinating study.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92592-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xxii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    More than two centuries after his death, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is still widely cited as the inventor of the “Noble Savage”—a mythic personification of natural goodness by a romantic glorification of savage life—projected in the very essay (Rousseau 1755a) in which he became the first to call for the development of an anthropological Science of Man. Criticism of the Noble Savage myth is an enduring tradition in anthropology, beginning with its emergence as a formalized discipline. George Stocking (1987:153) has cited a reference as early as 1865 by John Lubbock, vice president of the Ethnological Society of London, the...


    • 1 Colonialism, Savages and Terrorism
      (pp. 11-20)

      European ideas of the “savage” grew out of an imaginative fusion of classical mythology with the new descriptions that were beginning to be conceived by scientifically minded writers as “observations” of foreign peoples by Renaissance travel-ethnographic writers. In the century and a half after Columbus, such “observations,” often quite descriptively accurate and perceptive, gained power through their polarization within a field of potentialities defined by the negatively and positively highly charged classicist identifications, respectively, of native Americans with the “Anthropophages,” or man-eaters—now relabeled “cannibals” by identification with the newly discovered Caribs of the West Indies and with the inhabitants...

    • 2 Lescarbot’s Noble Savage and Anthropological Science
      (pp. 21-34)

      Lescarbot’sHistoire de la Novvelle France,a compendium of French New World voyages, including his own, together with his ethnographic treatise on the Indians, was published in Paris in 1609 after his return to France. An excerpted English translation of Lescarbot’s own voyage and ethnography,Nova Francia,was published in London the same year. With its appearance, the Noble Savage also made his entrance into English literature.

      Now leaving there thoseAnthropophagesBrazilians, let us return to our New France, where the Men there are more humane, and live but with that which God hath given to Man, not devouring...

    • 3 Poetic Nobility: Dryden, Heroism, and Savages
      (pp. 35-42)

      Tracing the fate of the Noble Savage after Lescarbot leads in complex and ambiguous directions. Since I have already mentioned Dryden’s reference to the Noble Savage, apparently derived from Lescarbot’s work, I might begin by examining it more closely. It appears in the first act and scene of Dryden’s play,The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards,when Almanzor, the hero, defies the king’s command by coming to the aid of unarmed victims and kills their attacker in self-defense. The king threatens him with death for his disobedience, and Almanzor responds:

      No man has more contempt than I, of breath;...


    • 4 The Noble Savage Myth and Travel-Ethnographic Literature
      (pp. 45-63)

      In the interval between Lescarbot’s invention of the Noble Savage concept at the beginning of the seventeenth century and its reemergence as a fullblown myth in the 1850s, the Noble Savage appears to have receded into a state of virtual nonexistence. Although no one could say with certainty how many instances of discursive linkage of the terms “noble” and “savage” occur in the thousands of travel-ethnographies produced during this period, anyone who takes the trouble to carefully read more than a few of them can verify that such linkages do not occur in the vast majority of works. Most writers,...

    • 5 Savages and the Philosophical Travelers
      (pp. 64-79)

      There is no clear and unambiguous dividing line between the ethnographic writings of the Renaissance and those of the Enlightenment. Our historical periods represent not so much discretely bounded blocks of time as temporal convergence zones, which seem to attract both concentrations of similar kinds of events and the concentration of our own attention, drawn by a mixed configuration of historical and contemporary attractors. At most, we can recognize that an author such as Lescarbot embodies such “typical” Renaissance tendencies as the dynamic tension between a strong interest in classical humanist writers and ideas and a critical stance toward traditional...

    • 6 Rousseau’s Critique of Anthropological Representations
      (pp. 80-96)

      We have seen that Marc Lescarbot fills two roles often ascribed to Rousseau—inventor of the Noble Savage concept and early proponent of anthropological science. We must ask, then, what is Rousseau’s relationship to concepts of the “savage” and the foundation of a science of anthropology? First, he leaves no doubt that his construction in theDiscourse on Inequalityof a primordial man that he calls alternately “natural” and “savage” is a deliberate work of fiction.

      Let my readers not imagine that I flatter myself as having seen what I believe to be so difficult to see. I have launched...


    • 7 The Ethnographic Savage from Rousseau to Morgan
      (pp. 99-125)

      So far, we have not succeeded in tracing any convincing appearances of the Noble Savage in the century and a half after Lescarbot—and least of all, it would appear, in the writings of Rousseau. This seems to be a strange contradiction of long-held scholarly beliefs concerning the pervasiveness of Noble Savage representations throughout the period; but in fact the scholarly picture may be beginning to shift toward a new balance more consistent with the results of our search. For example, Gordon Sayre (1997: 124), in his study of representations of American Indians in French and English colonial literature, observes,...

    • 8 Scientists, the Ultimate Savage, and the Beast Within
      (pp. 126-157)

      The ethnographic literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century shows a pattern of convergences: on the one hand, of the “savage” and his counterpart, the common man of Europe; on the other, of their representations with increasingly negative valorizations and rhetorical images of bestiality. We will see similar patterns in the scientific and philosophical writings of the period. While the “savages” may have represented an external threat, weakening and vanishing as they were pushed back beyond the expanding frontier, the lingering and more dangerous enemy turns out to be the beast lurking within civilized society itself. The nineteenth...

    • 9 Philosophers and Savages
      (pp. 158-168)

      In the philosophical literature of the eighteenth century we find that, just as in the ethnographic literature, Rousseau’s work does not form a watershed dividing more negative from more positive views of the “savage.” If anything, the opposite is true. But both before and after Rousseau, philosophical attitudes are often more or less simply marked by indifference, neutrality, or ambivalence to the “savage,” and by often strangely unreflective convictions of the superiority of European life and thought (fig.13). One example is provided by Giambattista Vico, whoseNew Science(1725) has been recognized by various historians of anthropology (e.g., Harris 1968:...

    • 10 Participant Observation and the Picturesque Savage
      (pp. 169-192)

      As ethnographic interest in North American Indians shifted from the Northeast to peoples farther to the West in the first half of the nineteenth century, the greatest excitement arose from the discovery of the nomadic hunting peoples of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase territories. Along with the new direction in ethnographic area focus came innovations in ethnographic method. One such innovation was the practice of what anthropologists would later call participant observation, that is, living for substantial periods with the people studied and taking part, as much as possible, in their way of life. To a limited extent, the approach...

    • 11 Popular Views of the Savage
      (pp. 193-218)

      Among the important sources of popularized images of the “savage” in the various “aftermarket” enterprises that drew on the productions of ethnographic writing, we cannot fail to take notice of the considerable influence of literary fiction. After all, much of the scholarship on the Noble Savage has focused on fictional genres, in which the presence of “savage” heroes in an aesthetic context of emerging “romantic” sensibilities would seem to provide prima facie evidence for the growing popularity of Noble Savage figures in the century after Rousseau. However, although it may conceivably be the case that novels, plays, and poetry contain...

    • 12 The Politics of Savagery
      (pp. 219-232)

      That all discourse of “savage” peoples is essentially political should be obvious enough to require little comment. The term itself is oppositional, demanding a counterbalancing term such as “domesticated” or “civilized” to charge it with polarized discursive energy; and, historically, all such oppositions were projected toward their definitive construction within the globalizing enterprise of colonial expansion and domination. Application of the label “savage” created a point of polarity that enabled manipulative control of any subject to which it was attached in the system of colonial politics; just as, for example, application of a label such as “convicted sex offender” in...


    • 13 Race, Mythmaking, and the Crisis in Ethnology
      (pp. 235-247)

      But now our mystery seems only to have deepened. The Noble Savage disappears after Lescarbot and Dryden and does not reemerge in Rousseau. We do find a tendency appearing among some late-eighteenth-century writers, particularly those such as Volney and Chateaubriand who suffered under the French Revolution, to single out Rousseau as an emblematic representative of those who had advocated and unleashed the forces of “savagery” on European civilization. But even in their strongest condemnations of him, we do not find any accusations of Rousseau’s promotion of a belief in the Noble Savage, suggesting that neither the concept of savage nobility...

    • 14 Hunt’s Racist Anthropology
      (pp. 248-262)

      James Hunt (1833–69) had developed an interest in ethnology by 1854, when, at the age of twenty-one, as he tells us, he “became a disciple” of Dr. Robert Knox, promoter of the doctrine that “race is everything in human affairs.” He may have become active in the Ethnological Society at the same time, as John Beddoe (1870: lxxx), who was a member then, remembered Hunt as having joined the society in 1854; but the official records show Hunt’s election as a member in 1856 (ESL Minutes,July 2, 1856, 216). He rose quickly in the society’s ranks to become...

    • 15 The Hunt-Crawfurd Alliance
      (pp. 263-270)

      Hunt’s ambition, as apparent in his words as in his actions, was to be the leader in creating a racist anthropological science that would serve as the ideological basis for an attack on ideas and political policies associated with human rights. Writers on the period have tended to focus on his most obviously successful accomplishment, the foundation of the separate Anthropological Society of London in 1863 and the opposition of its racist orientation to the traditionally antiracist orientation of the Ethnological Society. His equally successful accomplishment of engineering a revolutionary takeover of the Ethnological Society of London and turning it...

    • 16 The Coup of 1858–1860
      (pp. 271-289)

      We have already seen Hunt’s depiction of the pitiful decline of the Ethnological Society from 1854 onward. Now we must consider his description of the events of 1858 and the crisis that led to the transformation of the society:

      At the anniversary meeting of 1858, this utter indifference came to a culminating point—the meeting consisting of but six members, the President Sir James Clark, three officers, and two other members! Nor was even this extremely select gathering by any means unanimous in sentiment, a vote of thanks to the President and Council failing to find a seconder. (Hunt 1868a:...

    • 17 The Myth of the Noble Savage
      (pp. 290-302)

      The same issue ofAthenaeumthat announced Crawfurd’s first lecture to the Ethnological Society also advertised P. T. Barnum’s final series of lectures in London, “MONEY MAKING and HUMBUG” (Athenaeum,February 12, 1859, 225–26).¹ Barnum, reputed author of the aphorism “There’s a sucker born every minute” and self-styled “Prince of Humbugs,” had made his fortune in his 1840s “Tom Thumb” tour of England and Europe, exploiting connections with, among others, Charles Murray, George Catlin, and, above all, the press (Barnum 1855–89: 250–53, 399; Fitzsimmons 1970:83–89). Now, having been ruined by falling for others’ swindles, he had...

    • 18 Crawfurd and the Breakup of the Racist Alliance
      (pp. 303-315)

      Hunt had hijacked the rhetoric of political radicalism and scientific skepticism to promote adherence to the most reactionary views of his era, and, with the help of Crawfurd’s more powerful political and rhetorical strengths, had ultimately succeeded in hijacking the Ethnological Society itself. But Hunt, as Crawfurd’s creator, could not long endure remaining his subordinate; while Crawfurd, in turn, would not passively let himself be manipulated as Hunt’s puppet. Tensions between them grew and ultimately led to Hunt’s leading a breakaway faction to found the rival Anthropological Society in 1863. From then on, the two would become irreconcilable, if not...

    • 19 Crawfurd, Darwin, and the “Missing Link”
      (pp. 316-323)

      In arguing his program of racial superiority and dominance, Crawfurd mounted a critical attack on virtually every anthropological theory that might be imagined to support ideas of human unity or equality. His targets included, first of all, Prichard’s vision of ethnology as a science of human unity (e.g., Crawfurd 1861a: 362, among many others). There followed attacks on every theory of human migration and development, such as that of paleo-Indians from Asia to North America (Crawfurd 1864b); the theory of Indo-Aryan or Indo-European languages (Crawfurd 1860); the Stone-Bronze-Iron Age hypothesis (Crawfurd 1864c); and, with growing intensity until his death in...

    • Epilogue: The Miscegenation Hoax
      (pp. 324-328)

      In early 1864 a pamphlet calledMiscegenationwas published anonymously in the United States. P. T. Barnum gives this account of it inHumbugs of the World:

      Some persons say that “all is fair in politics.” Without agreeing with this doctrine, I nevertheless feel that the history of Ancient and Modern Humbugs would not be complete without a record of the last and one of the most successful of known literary hoaxes. This is the pamphlet entitled “Miscegenation,” which advocates the blending of the white and black races upon this continent, as a result not only inevitable from the freeing...


    • 20 The Noble Savage and the World Wide Web
      (pp. 331-341)

      Our story of the creation of the myth of the Noble Savage properly ends with its introduction into the anthropological disputes and political struggles over racial equality and human rights of the mid-nineteenth century. Yet we must naturally be curious about its effect on our own era, the beginning of the twenty-first century; and, in fact, we cannot adequately appreciate the significance of its introduction nearly a century and a half ago without understanding something of its continuing power and vitality in our own times. Like the ideals of equality and human rights, which it was created to undermine, the...

    • 21 The Ecologically Noble Savage
      (pp. 342-358)

      Looking at academic publications in more traditional media in recent years, we find the Noble Savage myth and its rhetoric enjoying widespread popularity in many disciplines. As we might expect, the long-established interest of literary critics in the Noble Savage continues to be manifested in works as diverse as Gaile McGregor’sThe Noble Savage in the New World Garden(1988) and S. Sacchi’s “The Noble Savage and His Civilized Counterpart in Literary Tradition” (1993), as well as in more specialized studies of individual authors and their works (e.g., Altherr 1985; Cook 1997). Likewise, the long-term presence of the Noble Savage...

    • 22 The Makah Whale Hunt of 1999
      (pp. 359-372)

      For a more specifically targeted example of the political uses of Ecologically Noble Savage rhetoric, we might turn to the case of Makah whaling. On May 17, 1999, the Makah of Neah Bay, on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington, killed a whale in a tribally sponsored hunt. It was the first whale hunt conducted by the tribe in more than seventy years. The Makah, whose primary subsistence had been based on whaling and fishing for many centuries, retained the right to continue these activities in their 1855 treaty with the U.S. government and, for the next...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 373-388)

    Sometimes, we must recognize, smoke leads us neither to a fire nor to a smoking gun but only draws us deeper into a smoke screen. The myth of the Noble Savage has succeeded in its intended purpose of obfuscation. It draws us in by its invitation to an act of disbelief in an apparent absurdity, surely an attractive prospect to any inquiring or critical mind. It invites us to consider the nature of savages, to see whether they in fact are or could ever be noble. In so doing, it diverts our attention toward particular peoples and their advocates and...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 389-396)
  13. References
    (pp. 397-424)
  14. Index
    (pp. 425-445)