Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori

Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori

Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori

Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori

Synopsis

In Whipscars and Tattoos, Geoffrey Sanborn dramatically transforms the standard interpretations of two of the most important novels in American literary history. On the basis of original scholarship showing that Magua, the supposed villain of The Last of the Mohicans, and Queequeg, the supposed emblem of love in Moby-Dick, are based on Maori chiefs, Sanborn argues that each character is, above all else, an embodiment of the fiercely majestic qualities that were conventionally associated with high-ranking Maori men.

In this striking transnational context,The Last of the Mohicansreappears before us as a simultaneously elitist and anti-racist novel, influenced not only by the contemporary conception of the Maori as the tribal people most likely to establish an independent, modernizing nation, but by the surge of political idealism that accompanied the global revolutions of the early 1820s.Moby-Dickundergoes a similarly profound metamorphosis. By enabling us to see Queequeg as an incarnation of the quintessentially Maori virtues of mana and tapu-power and untouchability-Sanborn makes it possible for us to see the White Whale as the epitome of those virtues, opening us to a vision of the world in which every being is moved and shaped by a furious, doomed insistence on its value.

Formally as well as argumentatively,Whipscars and Tattoosbreaks new ground. Rather than restrict his account of the Maori to an overview of Western representations of New Zealand, Sanborn devotes entire chapters to the life stories of Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe, the chiefs on whom Magua and Queequeg were modeled. The result is a book in which life bleeds into literature and back again, in which Maori biographies cross-fertilize with readings of American novels, and in which defiant self-assertion is provocatively reimagined as the basis of our relationship to the world.
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