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Teaching Cooperís The Last of the Mohicans in an American Literature Survey

Theresa Strouth Gaul
(Texas Christian University)

Placed on line at Cooper Society Website, May 2001

Reproduced here with the kind permission of the author
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally presented at the Conference of the South Central Modern Language Association, San Antonio, Texas (November 2000).

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James Fenimore Cooperís The Last of the Mohicans (1826) is an important text to include in any American literature survey course.1 The novel intersects with a number of important trajectories that have been traditionally emphasized in the teaching of American literature, such as the development of literary nationalism and the romance. Nonetheless, the length of the novel and the inaccessibility of Cooperís prose style for undergraduate students can make the novel a difficult one to teach.

To combat these obstacles, I attempt to invigorate my teaching of this novel in my "American Literature to 1900" survey course through a number of techniques, all of which revolve around situating the novel within the racial controversies of its day. My general goals for the course are to provide coverage of the canon in a way that gives English majors a broad foundation as well as giving a more representative portrait of literary production during the period by including non-canonical authors, especially women and writers of color. By selecting The Last of the Mohicans, I am able to teach a major writer working with an influential genre but still angle the course toward my own concerns with historicizing and situating the literature within the social controversies of its period. Choosing The Last of the Mohicans as my example of the romance, then, orients my course in different directions than choosing The Scarlet Letter might, for example.

My techniques for incorporating this text into my syllabus are several.

First, I establish the contacts between various racial groups as an important theme in my course; indeed, encounters between Euro-Americans and Native Americans dominate the first third of my syllabus (with a shift to the contacts between Euro-Americans and African-Americans in the middle section). Through readings from the colonial and early national periods-including excerpts from William Bradfordís Of Plymouth Plantation, Mary Rowlandsonís captivity narrative, Philip Freneauís "The Indian Burying Ground," and William Cullen Bryantís "The Prairies" -- I demonstrate the various traditional roles of the native in American discourse, ranging from the "heathen" to the "noble savage" to the "vanishing Indian."

Second, I provide some background material on the debates surrounding the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the changes in thinking about race that were occurring during this period. Lucy Maddox has argued that the context of nineteenth-century Indian-white relations has been too often neglected in American literary history: I would argue that this is also true in the teaching of American literature.2 To remedy this lapse, I briefly summarize American policies toward American Indians after the Revolution, describe the impetus toward removal, and outline the contours of the Cherokee crisis. Andrew Jacksonís "Second Annual Address" crystallizes the political context for students as well as allowing for an analysis of the rhetoric undergirding the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Because students too often view what happened to American Indians as an inevitable event and have little understanding of the complexities of the issues involved, I stress that this was a political controversy during the time, not a foregone conclusion. I also explain the transition, documented by historians, from views of race shaped by older, environmental, Enlightenment-influenced theories of racial difference to newer, pseudo-scientific, biologically-based theories of innate difference.3 Although the latter set of theories did not reach full maturity until mid-century, the transition in thinking about race began much earlier, and it is my contention that Cooper in the 1820s was registering both ways of viewing race in his novel.

Most importantly, I also put Native American writers into dialogue with Cooper. Pairing such writings with The Last of the Mohicans not only re- invigorates the teaching of the novel by showing how Cooper was entering into a larger conversation, but also provides an opportunity to construct a more multi- cultural syllabus. I most frequently use William Apessí sermon "The Indianís Looking Glass for the White Man," his autobiography, A Son of the Forest, or its shorter version as recounted in The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe.4 Apess (1798-1839?), who was of Pequot, white, and possibly African-American ancestry, published seven items during the 1820s and í30s. In "The Indianís Looking-Glass for the White Man," his most frequently anthologized piece, Apess launches a rigorous attack on white racism, ranging from an interrogation of Christian justifications for white racism to a defense of miscegenation. His autobiography, fashioned after the models of the conversion narrative and the story of the self-made man, shows the effects of displacement, poverty, and discrimination on Native Americans living in New England in the early nineteenth century. Apess offers a particularly useful counterpoint to Cooper in the classroom because of his deft rebuttal of American Indian stereotypes promulgated by Cooper and other white writers.

My teaching of the novel is informed by recent studies of whiteness in American history, culture, and literature. This burgeoning field of interdisciplinary study has directed attention to the ways whiteness constitutes a racial identity, one that has for too long masked itself as the unmarked norm.5 Cooper was writing during a period which saw the increasing ascendancy of Anglo-Saxonism within American discourses, and his text played a constitutive part, I would argue, in creating notions of white American identity in the early national period. Accordingly, my emphasis in teaching the novel shifts away from simply analyzing the images of Native Americans presented by Cooper (although this is, of course, a component of my approach to the novel) to examining how he constructs whiteness as a racial identity, the values and characteristics he attaches to that identity, and his attitudes toward it.

So practically, how does this play out? I typically begin by having the class discuss each of the central characters as types carrying a larger symbolic importance. I break the class into eight groups, each of which discusses one central character. I ask the groups to be ready to describe their character (pinpointing especially important descriptive passages) and to ta