In this original study, Geoffrey Sanborn presents a fresh interpretation of the villanous Magua in James Fenimore Coopers The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and of the dignified harpooner Queequeg in Herman Melvilles Moby-Dick (1851). Through careful historical research, Sanborn has determined that both authors relied heavily on contemporary accounts of the indigenous natives of New Zealand, the Maori, to develop their iconic characters. Cooper drew heavily on the account of Te Aara in John Liddiard Nicholass Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand (1817) while Melville studied the personal history of Te Pehi Kupe in George Lillie Craiks The New Zealanders (1830) to flesh out his characterization of Queequeg. A close reading of the historical evidence and the source material supports this compelling line of argumentation. At the same time, this isnt a simple source study nor an act of explanatory historical recovery. The conception of the Maori is sophisticated and paradoxical, a portrait of violent but nonetheless idealized masculinity in which dignity depends on the existence of fiercely defiant pride. This lens allows Sanborn to present a radically different view of these fictional characters as well as underscoring the imaginative projection that went into reporting on the Maori themselves. Magua is no longer a stereotypical bad Indian or ignoble savage, but rather a non-white gentleman, an argument that supports Sanborns contention that throughout his career Cooper prioritizes status equivalence over racial difference. Queequeg is similarly re-imagined, a move that allows Sanborn to explicate scenes in Moby-Dick that are often dodged by other critics because they do not fit with the standard interpretations of the character. The study as a whole provides a vivid example of the fascinating interplay between fiction and non-fiction in the nineteenth century.
- Publication Date:
- 12 / 01 / 2011