Sanborn, Geoffrey. Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori.
Geoffrey Sanborn's Whipscars and Tattoos speaks to critical reassessments of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville, renewed interest in sea narratives and maritime culture, and the continued currency of transnational American Studies. He traces the influence of nineteenth-century configurations of Maori rangatira (chiefs) on "two of the most important novels in American literary history"--Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans and Melville's Moby-Dick (11). Sanborn argues that Cooper's Magua and Melville's Queequeg were informed by popular depictions of Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe, Maori rangatira, and that overlooking the Maori connection has caused many to misinterpret Magua and Queequeg. Reading these fictional characters alongside Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe leads, for Sanborn, to the claim that Magua is not the embodiment of the "bad Indian" and Queequeg is not the embodiment of human love. His reassessment of these two characters informs his broader understanding of the novels themselves. The Last of the Mohicans, he argues, is "not an elegy for the vanishing American Indian but a paean to the embattled but still-independent spirit of chiefs and gentlemen" (14). Presenting Queequeg as an "embodiment of glory" (106) not love, Melville's novel celebrates the "great buoyancy" (Melville qtd. in Sanborn 130) of human beings as they strive for a glory that they can never fully achieve. To advance these arguments, Whipscars and Tattoos offers four chapters; chapters 1 and 3 offer "life histories" of Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe, which support the readings of The Last of the Mohicans and Moby-Dick that are advanced in chapters 2 and 4 respectively.
Chapters 1 and 3 present concise biographies of two eminent Maori rangatira, Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe, focusing on two opposing images: whipscars and tattoos. Chapter 1, "Te Ara's Scars," uses the Maori concepts of mana, a "simultaneously individual and collective spiritual potency," and tapu, "a sacredness that attaches to certain beings, territories, and conditions" (12), to contextualize what is arguably a key moment in Te Ara's life, and one from which Cooper would draw in his depiction of Magua. While working aboard the Boyd, an English ship bound for New Zealand, in 1809, Te Ara was wrongly accused of stealing a dozen pewter spoons and falsely claiming illness, and was tied up and whipped for these offenses. As a rangatira, Te Ara had devoted his life to the pursuit of mana, which in turn enriched the mana of his people. His back was his tapu, which "came from the afterworld" (19, 21), and thus to be tied up and whipped for an offense that he denied committing was a direct assault on his mana and a denial of his tapu. In retaliation for the violence committed against him, Te Ara led an attack on the Boyd, during which nearly everyone on the ship was killed and the ship was plundered then burned.
The third chapter, "Te Pehi Kupe's Moko," narrates the life of a young Maori chief, Te Pehi Kupe, who, like Te Ara, embodied the mana and tapu of his family and community. This chapter focuses particular attention on his moko (tattoos) and the ways in which they communicated his genealogy, status, and, in conjunction with other visible signs of his mana, spoke of his deeds and martial prowess. Sanborn contextualizes Te Pehi Kupe's travels to England within the context of "the Musket Wars, the tense relationship between inherited and acquired status, and the psychological implications of the description of that relationship in the form of facial moko" (12). Te Pehi Kupe's moko, as Sanborn documents, were the subject of numerous textual and visual works in the nineteenth century, most notably George Lillie Craik's 1830 work The New Zealanders (a text that Sanborn argues informed Melville's depiction of Queequeg).
Chapter 2, "Cooper's Death Song," uses the figure of Te Ara, as he appears in John Lilliard Nicholas's Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand (1817) and various articles published in American periodicals, as a lens through which to read the figure of Magua and his desire for revenge against Colonel Munro. Sanborn notes that the story of the Boyd circulated widely in the US in the early nineteenth century and claims that "Cooper was almost certainly one of the Americans who took note of the story" (40). The Last of the Mohicans and stories of the Boyd incident, argues Sanborn, are the only English language texts of their day that narrate the whipping of Native chiefs and the retaliation that ensued. This combined with Sanborn's assumption that white Americans would have found it "nonsensical to flog Indians" (45) leads to his conclusion that Cooper's Magua is based on the figure of Te Ara. Linking the two figures leads to two conclusions: (1) "Magua is not the villain of the novel,'" but rather is an example of a Native "gentleman," defined by his "chiefliness," whose status has been challenged, and (2) the context of The Last of the Mohicans is not merely that of lndian Removal in the US but the "global era of revolution" (45-46) in which the Maori played a role. Sanborn ultimately argues that Cooper's "sympathy with a radically self-respecting Maori chief is part of a more general sympathy with the spirit of patriotic liberation movements" (46) and a sense of Native political possibility that he would soon lose.
"Melville's Furious Life," the fourth and final chapter of Sanborn's study, reexamines the figure of Queequeg in l ight of Craik's presentation of Te Pehi Kupe in The New Zealanders and other narratives that feature the Maori. Basing his argument on side-by-side readings of Craik and Melville's prose and on variations in the Moby-Dick manuscripts, Sanborn concludes that "after reading, sometime in 1850, the Te Pehi Kupe section of The New Zealanders, Melville overlaid the ur-Queequeg with Maori attributes" (104). Revising Queequeg allowed Melville to communicate "a specific vision of the form and status of human beings" (108), namely his "spiritedness and loftiness, which might be loosely translated as mana and tapu" (109). Sanborn's reconfiguration of Queequeg asa representation of "glory" and "buoyancy" rather than "love" informs his reinterpretation of Moby Dick, the white whale. Seen through the eyes of Queequeg and his fellow harpooners, the white whale becomes a fellow warrior, whose battle-scarred skin constitutes his own form of moko communicating both his mana and tapu.
The strengths of Sanborn's work are many. His biographies of Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe, which document not only the men's lived experience, but also their circulation in a variety of Anglo-American texts, are rich and engaging. The discussions of Maori culture found in Whipscars and Tattoos are informed by Maori language and historiography. Among his primary sources, Sanborn lists personal communications that he exchanged with Te Ara's and Te Pehi Kupe's descendents, as well as a range of nineteenth-century printed materials. He distinguishes between Maori tribal groups and uses Maori terminology as part of his analysis. Of his close readings of the novels, the chapter on Melville's Moby-Dick is particularly compelling because of the textual evidence of Melville's borrowings and Sanborn's sophisticated reading of their significance. Ultimately, Sanborn's work offers fresh proof that thinking transnationally can help us both recover lesser-known stories and reconsider the ones we think we know.
ROCHELLE RAINERI ZUCK, University of Minnesota-Duluth
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|Author:||Zuck, Rochelle Raineri|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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