Image of the Noble Savage in Literature
An idealized concept of native cultures as being uncorrupted by the influences of civilization.
The idea of the Noble Savage, according to critic Hoxie N. Fairchild, resulted from “the fusion of three elements: the observation of explorers; various classical and medieval conventions; the deductions of philosophers and men of letters.” While scholars debate as to whether Jean-Jacques Rousseau was truly the creator of the literary tradition of the Noble Savage, the concept dates all the way back to the classical period. The overriding literary image of the Noble Savage throughout history is one of a figure who is uncorrupted by civilization and possesses a kind of innocence that has been lost by civilized cultures.
From the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, the concept of the Noble Savage became a popular element in literature. Columbus wrote of a people who were generous, gentle, had physical beauty, and had minds open to being trained. Voyagers and travel writers for over two centuries proclaimed the “natural goodness of the savages of America and the islands of the south seas.” Many of these travel writers commented on the natural virtues possessed by these Noble Savages, and based on what they observed, raised doubts as to the value of civilization. Many scholars credit Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the primary figure in the history of the Noble Savage concept. According to Rousseau, “the noble savage is an individual living in a ‘pure state of nature’—gentle, wise, uncorrupted by the vices of civilization.” Although the idea of the Noble Savage existed long before Rousseau, he is generally credited with formalizing the concept.
Commentary on the idea of the Noble Savage in literature has covered a wide range of topics and perspectives. As to the origin of the concept, Ter Ellingson claims that there are still unanswered questions, and concluded, “that Rousseau's invention of the Noble Savage myth is itself a myth.” Stelio Cro argues that Rosseau loved the idea of the Noble Savage because he saw him as a figure of freedom: “physical freedom as opposed to slavery and tyranny, moral freedom as opposed to religious discrimination or superstition.” According to critic Hoxie N. Fairchild, the Noble Savage is really a creation of philosophers who read into explorers' narratives a concept that would support their disillusionment with civilized society. In examining travel writers, Lewis Saum argues that fur-trade literature shows a concern on the part of the fur traders that the Noble Savage was being corrupted by the encroaching civilization. Terry Jay Ellingson disagrees, claiming that many travel writings depict natives in a very negative light and that these works should be “taken into account if only for the sake of balance, to counteract the tendency built up over a century and a half of unquestioning acceptance of the myth of the Noble Savage.” Roy Pearce argues that the Noble Savage was a literary invention used for the purpose of creating a history and a culture in America, but one “in which the idea of savagism … compromised the idea of the noble savage and then absorbed and reconstituted it.” Hence, he argues, in the ideology and belief reflected in the literature of the time, natives transformed and became what Americans needed as the country grew. Ironically, the depiction in literature of the Amerindians as Noble Savages was indeed a myth, according to critic Olive Patricia Dickason, who claims that they were “far from being uninformed savages in the ‘infancy of nature,’ [but] were the products of cultures that had evolved over many centuries.”