Boas and Darth Vader
- Ralph Maud (Author)
Transmission Difficulties: Franz Boas and Tsimshan Mythology. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by David Brundage
In this short book, Ralph Maud expresses outrage over Franz Boas’s 1916 volume Tsimshian Mythology. Boas downplayed the fact that his information came entirely from one man, Henry Tate, a "full-blood" interpreter and assistant teacher at a Methodist mission school at Port Simpson, B.C. While Tate’s stories are "authentic" in their own right, they do not reveal the breadth or depth of traditional Tsimshian culture. Maud argues convincingly that Boas deprived Tate’s stories of their own vitality, mangled their meaning, then presumed to extract from them an overview of culture before European contact. The result, says Maud, is stodgy and misleading.
We can accept these criticisms of Mythology—far more readily than Maud imagines. We are, however, left with a sense that Transmission Difficulties has difficulties of its own, above all that arch error to which we all fall victim: deploring most vigorously the very faults we ourselves embody.
Two central defects that Maud attributes to Boas are high-mindedness and ethno-centrism. Maud’s extravagant belabouring of these perceived faults portrays Boas as a sort of Darth Vader. Seizing on this angle, the cover illustration depicts the patriarch of anthropology in front of his New Jersey house rendered dark and spooky, a den of evil. Like ghosts in the background are the sad figures of the Native people Boas (unlike today’s "good" anthropologists) has, presumably, exploited. The back cover assures us that Maud’s work "unfolds like a gripping, real-life mystery story." For some readers, at least, the story may seem closer to mock-heroic. Maud vows to "persist until [he fully reveals] that this monumental work has feet of clay." He does so, believing that the Boasians have "closed ranks with a vengeance." However, Maud himself allows that Boas is criticized in Canada. This is so much the case that defending him here is more iconoclastic than attacking him. If this critical attitude is truly absent in the United States, Maud needs to make the case more fully.
Convinced of Boas’s near-demonic influence, however, Maud pursues his high-minded censure with scarcely any mention of Boas’s achievements, such as founding the relativistic school of anthropology (to which Maud is clearly indebted), opposing those who favoured immigration restrictions based on biological theories of superiority, or—as Robert Bringhurst reports—editing the first book by a Native American author. To balance Maud’s charge of racism, we must consider that the German Nazis burned one of Boas’s books and rescinded his Ph.D., outraged by his seminal belief that races do not breed cultures, that cultures can be different yet equal. Maud simply forgets that Boas was a man of his times. And in attacking Boas’s dated prose, Maud overlooks that his own language has glaring problems, placing undue stress on authorial feeling in an odd concoction of slang, clichés, academic jargon, professorial rant and jarring transitions.
As for rescuing Tate’s tales, readers can evaluate Maud’s excerpt from one of his earlier books, The Porcupine Hunter. Contrasting this editorial work to that of Robert Bringhurst, for instance, may call Maud’s relative literary skills into some question, if not raise certain doubts as well about Tate’s merits compared to those of a Ghandl. From the political angle, First Nations critics in particular may feel that Maud gives insufficient reasons why he should serve as Tate’s twentieth-century transmitter. In any case, the issue of Tate as artist in his own right seems hard to deal with in a short book simultaneously critiquing his role as anthropological informant (he even plagiarized a number of the stories). Maud finds Mythology disunited, but again the same could be said of Transmission Difficulties.
Nevertheless Ralph Maud’s book provides a valid enough critique of inadequate methodology and demonstrates a sincere will to redeem work begun by Boas. Maud certainly presents his own editing work with modesty, and—most importantly—invites others to join in an overdue discovery of Henry Tate.
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MLA: Brundage, David. Boas and Darth Vader. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #175 (Winter 2002), francophone / anglophone. (pg. 167 - 168)
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