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Family Entanglements: Cooper in Nineteenth-Century South America

Thomas Genova
(University of Minnesota, Morris)

Presented at the James Fenimore Cooper's International Dimensions Panel of the 2014 Conference of the American Literature Association in Washington, D.C.

©2015 by James Fenimore Cooper Society
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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 31, May, 2015, pp. 17-19

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In the prologue to his 1877 novel Cumandá: un drama entre salvajes [Cumandá: A Drama among Savages], Ecuadorian author Juan León Mera writes:

Bien sé que insignes escritores, como Chateaubriand y Cooper, han desenvuelto las escenas de sus novelas entre salvajes hordas y a la sombra de las selvas de América […] mas, con todo, juzgo que hay bastante diferencia entre las regiones del Norte bañadas por el Mississipí y las del Sur, que se enorgullecen con sus Amazonas, así como entre las constumbres de los indios que respectivamente en ellas moran. (40)
(I know well that celebrated writers such as Chateaubriand and Cooper have, in their novels, unveiled scenes of savage hordes beneath the shadows of the New-World forest […] yet I judge there to be much difference between the Northern regions washed by the Mississippi and those of the South, proud of their Amazon, and likewise between the customs of the Indians dwelling in those respective places.1)

This comparison has become part of the canonical reading of the Ecuadorian novel. In 1886, for example, the Spanish writer Pedro Antonio de Alarcón would categorizes Mera as a "Fenimore Cooper del Sur" (in Vallejo).2 Yet, what does it mean to be a Fenimore Cooper "of the South?" What are those differences between the Mississippi and the Amazon that, Mera insists, lend originality to his work?

This paper will look at how Juan León Mera's Cumandá reconfigures the interracial love triangle of North American James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 foundational novel The Last of the Mohicans in order to serve the South American author's own nation-building purposes at a moment in which Ecuador was divided between modernizing liberal and traditionalist conservative camps. Represented by the export bourgeoisie of the coastal city of Guayaquil and the traditional landed elite of the Andean capital of Quito, respectively (Vidal 38-39), the two groups clashed over the place of the indigenous population in Ecuadorian society. While the Andean elite patriarchally sought to maintain the Amerindian population in a state of peonage, the coastal bourgeoisie hoped to emancipate the indigenous so as to use them as a capitalist workforce (Ayala 4), expelling the group—in Mera's mind—from the paternalistic safety of the landed estates and leaving them orphaned in the harsh export economy of the coast. In rewriting Cooper's novel, Mera intervenes in this debate, rejecting the racially exclusive philosophy that the U.S. work espouses, suggesting that Ecuador's unique racial history makes it difficult for the country to consolidate in the same way that the United States has.

What do Cooper and the United States have to do with this conflict between the coastal and Andean regions of Ecuador?

As Martin Green notes, complicated though the novelist's personal feelings may have been, Cooper was read abroad as the literary embodiment of the ideals of the newly established North American republic. John DeLancey Ferguson, for his part, argues that the North American author was regarded as a hero by nineteenth-century Hispanic liberals attempting to throw off the cloak of what they regarded as Spanish obscurantist traditionalism. Most famously, in his 1845 foundational text Civilization and Barbarism, Argentine writer and statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento urges the authors of Latin America to follow Cooper's example of using literature as a space to work out the New-World conflict between European modernity and native tradition (21-23). As a corollary, the liberal Sarmiento advocated that Latin American countries abolish the remaining vestiges of Hispanic feudalism and follow the United States down the path of American Indian genocide—ideas that did not sit well with Mera, as I will explain.

For Doris Sommer, Cooper's appeal for Sarmiento and the Latin American liberal writers who heeded him lies in the U.S. author's status as the originator of the foundational romance genre in the Americas. Building on classic studies by D.H. Lawrence and Leslie Fielder, Sommer reads The Last of the Mohicans as a foundational text in which romance serves as an allegory for national consolidation. According to this logic, the union of the white Alice and Duncan at the story's conclusion gives birth to the North American republic, while the deaths of Afro-Jamaican Cora and the indigenous Uncas emblematize the expulsion of nonwhites from that republic. This ending, in which nonwhites fall away so that creoles may found the nation, would have struck a chord in nineteenth-century Latin America, in which liberals and conservatives alike agreed that U.S.-style modernization was complicated in the region by the former colonial power Spain's reluctance to keep the races separate, as the British supposedly had done in North America (liberals and conservatives disagreed on what was to be done about the matter, however). With the question of race mixture in mind, Latin American authors of the nineteenth century would seize upon the figure of Cooper's Cora in an almost endless series of novels questioning whether an ethnically or culturally hybrid woman can marry into the national family—novels such as Argentine Eduarda Mansilla de García's 1860 Lucía Miranda; the anonymous 1826 Cuban Jicoténcal; the 1882 Cecilia Valdés and the 1891 Sofía by the Cubans Cirilo Villaverde and Martín Morúa Delgado, respectively; and the 1889 Aves sin nido [Birds without a Nest], by the Peruvian Clorinda Matto de Turner, as well as León Mera's 1877 Cumandá, to name just a few examples.3

In Mera's novel, the Spanish colonial landowner Domingo Orozco loses all of his family, save his son Carlos, in an indigenous uprising and, moved by the tragedy, retires from society and joins the Jesuits. Years later, Orozco's son Carlos falls in love with Cumandá, an indigenous woman with unusually light skin and Christian religious persuasions. Despite the couple's protestations, Cumandá is betrothed to the Amerindian chief Yahuarmaqui, who dies on their wedding night. Afraid that she will be ritually buried with her husband, Cumandá flees in search of Carlos, only to discover that he has been taken captive and ransomed in exchange for her return to the tribe. She nobly sacrifices herself and returns to a sure death among the natives in order to save Carlos, who lives to learn that Cumandá' was in fact his sister, who did not die in the raid on Orozco's lands as thought, but was taken captive and then raised by an indigenous couple. Carlos dies of a broken heart and, saddened, Orozco continues his priestly life alone.

While Concha Meléndez and Trinidad Barreda have correctly identified Cooper's 1829 Wept of Wish-ton-Wish as the source of Mera's white-woman-raised-in-captivity plot, in this paper, I want to focus on Cumandá's relationship to The Last of the Mohicans, particularly in terms of the interracial love triangle between a not-quite-white woman and white and indigenous men. It is through this device that Mera's novel imitates—but, as I will show, resists inscribing itself in—the foundational romance genre. Thus, much as, in The Last of the Mohicans, the foundational Alice and Duncan marry in 1757, meaning that their children reach adulthood around the War for Independence, in Mera's novel, the baby Cumandá is taken captive in 1790, meaning that she would turn 18 just in time for Napoleon's invasion of Spain, the event that put South American independence into motion. Had Cumandá and Carlos lived to have children, they would have entered young adulthood around the time of Ecuador's 1822 independence.

Cumandá and Carlos, of course, do not live to have children, a fact that marks their difference from the Alice and Duncan of Cooper's foundational novel. While Cooper is content to kill the Afro-descended Cora and the indigenous Uncas after they have proven so valuable to their expedition, only to allow white characters who have hitherto been all but useless to usurp the place of foundational couple, Mera—who, as a congressman, for a time advocated for indigenous suffrage (Tobar Donoso 14) and, as a literary scholar, published a study of Quichua-language poetry—is unable to stomach such a possibility and sacrifices both Carlos and Cumandá rather than allow his readers to imagine a racially pure national community.

That said, even as Mera attempted to extend political and cultural rights to the indigenous peoples of Ecuador, he was hardly a progressive by today's standards (or even by those of his own day), never wavering in his devotion to the authoritarian dictator Gabriel García Moreno. The author's paternalistic attitudes towards his country's subaltern classes are reflected in the novel when Cumandá, who identifies as indigenous, exclaims ¡Oh blanco! tú seras mi marido o no viviré; ¿para qué quiero vivir sin ti?" (60) ["Oh white man! You will be my husband or I will not live. Why would I want to live without you?"]—a sort of wish fulfillment fantasy for a traditionalist Andean elite that wants to keep the indigenous under its control, far from the influence of the modernizing coastal bourgeoisie.

In this neocolonial context, the revelation of Cumandá's whiteness at the end of Mera's novel (a counterdiscursive inversion of the revelation of Cora's blackness halfway through Cooper's text) serves to preserve Ecuador's nonwhite population from exploitation by the country's liberal bourgeoisie, a group oriented economically towards Cooper's United States. Allying the white landholding class (represented by Orozco and his son) with the indigenous through the character of Cumandá, Mera nativizes the Andean elite and thus justifies its hegemony over the natives (Rosenthal 129), who, in this way, continue to be members of the national family, even as they assume a subordinate status. This self-interested concern for the place of the indigenous in society is emblematized by the incestuous desire between Carlos and Cumandá that is revealed at the novel's end, which, as Sybille Fischer theorizes, is really "a desire for sameness." This "pursuit of racial purity […] leads to the cultivation of desires for endogamy and, at the limit, incest" (xxiv). The dual mobilization of the trope of mistaken racial identity and that of incest, then, becomes a veiled metaphor for the racially hierarchical desires of the traditional creole elite.

Yet, incest has a still deeper resonance in traditional Andean culture. As the colonial Peruvian author Inca Garcilaso de la Vega explains in his 1609 Comentarios reales de los incas [Royal Commentaries of the Incas], according to myth, the Incan Empire was founded by an incestuous brother and sister that emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca on what is now the border between Peru and Bolivia. By using the incest trope from the Inca Garcilaso's pre-Columbian foundational myth to interrupt the marriage trope from Cooper's foundational romance, Mera—a student of Quichua poetry—, unseats the north-looking liberal project that Cooper's novel represents for nineteenth-century Latin Americans, suggesting that there is something about the racialized deep history of the Andes that renders Cooper's ending—and the U.S.-style development that it portends—impossible.

Unlike both the Incan myth and The Last of the Mohicans, however, in Cumandá, no nation is founded. Rather, the would-be foundational couple perishes, leaving Orozco to mourn alone—and, a Catholic priest, he cannot reproduce the nation legitimately. Perhaps this final infertility is a sign of the frustration of national consolidation in Ecuador—after all, two years before Cumandá was published, Gabriel García Moreno, the conservative dictator championed by Mera, was brutally macheted to death by a group of liberal conspirators on the steps of the presidential palace. In such a world, Cooper's plans for national foundation cannot be adopted, but only adapted to meet a very different set of circumstances.


1 The work by Chateaubriand in question is Atala (1801) which, along with The Last of the Mohicans, is frequently cited by scholars as a source for Cumandá. Though Cumandá recently has been translated into English by Noé O. Vaca, all of the translations included in this paper are my own.

2 Another central text in this critical tradition is Spaniard Juan Valera's 1889 "Poesía y la novela en el Ecuador," which appears in his Nuevas cartas americanas.

3 Jicoténcal, Cecilia Valdés, and Aves sin nido recently have been translated into English by Guillermo I. Castillo-Feliu, Helen Lane, and J.G.H. and Naomi Lindstrom, respectively, while, to the best of my knowledge, Lucía Miranda and Sofía remain untranslated. On the contested authorship of Jicoténcal, see Leal and Cortina, González Acosta, and Brickhouse.

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