Shooting as Performative Speech in The Last of the Mohicans

David Mazel (Louisiana State University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1996 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Diego.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 7, August 1996.

Copyright © 1996, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Book! ... [D]o you take me for a whimpering boy, at the apron string of one of your old gals; and this good rifle on my knee for the feather of a goose’s wing, my ox’s horn for a bottle of ink ... ! Book! What have such as I, who am a warrior of the wilderness, though a man without a cross, to do with books — I never read but in one, and the words that are written there are too simple and too plain to need much schooling.

—  Natty Bumppo (Cooper 117)


There remains to be written a history of this metaphor ... that systematically contrasts divine or natural writing and the human and laborious, finite and artificial inscription. It remains to ... follow the theme of God’s book (nature or law, indeed natural law) through all its modifications.  

— Jacques Derrida (602)

Propounded as they are by an illiterate eccentric with no formal education, the words of Natty Bumppo might strike readers as at least a little suspect. How, I want to ask today, does The Last of the Mohicanswork to establish Natty’s authority as a wilderness interpreter, as a reliable reader of the book of nature — In the first of the epigraphs above, figuring the New World wilderness as a divine inscription, as “God’s book,” Natty valorizes and masculinizes the old notion of a preexisting, “natural” writing and marginalizes and feminizes that of a secondary and “artificial” human inscription. He claims to read only in the book of nature, which in its divine transparency can speak immediately and truthfully to all. But this contemptuous and sweeping avowal is at once qualified by Natty’s offhanded boast that he has spent “forty long and hard working years” (117) studying the wilderness-text. If the book of nature is in fact so “simple” and “plain,” just what has he been working so hard at — Evidently, reading even a natural inscription can be laborious. This casual admission wrecks the otherwise neat binarisms that would at first seem to structure Natty’s textual wilderness. 1

Aligned with Natty’s privileging of a natural over an artificial in scription is his privileging of speech over writing, and this avowal also runs immediately aground. In Chapter 3, where Natty expounds upon the “ways, of which ... I can’t approve,” he ranks the literacy of his own culture among them:

It is one of their customs to write in books what they have done and seen, instead of telling them in their villages, where the lie can be given to the face of a cowardly boaster, and the brave soldier can call on his comrades to witness for the truth of his words. In consequence of this bad fashion, a man who is too conscientious to misspend his days among the women, in learning the names of black marks, may never hear of the deeds of his fathers. (31)

Here Natty succinctly outlines the phonocentric pose, positing writing as absence and deferral as feminine, mediated, distanced from its referent, unreliable, given to mere rhetoric and speech as presence and identity as masculine, direct, close to its referent, an authoritative source of Truth. This seemingly simple formulation is riven with contradictions, however, not the least of which is the way it identifies a putatively superior reliance upon speech with a putatively inferior race. For it is “the pale faces,” as Magua puts it in a formulation similar to Natty’s own, who do not have true speech; whites “have two words for each thing, while a red skin will make the sound of his voice speak for him” (91). Even more disruptive is Natty’s admission that writing sustains the very privileges to which he opposes it, that his illiteracy denies him access to the “civilized” cultural heritage referenced here as “the deeds of his fathers.”

I want now, in Derrida’s words, to “follow the theme of God’s book” in The Last of the Mohicans,to trace one of the ways in which the novel thematizes its own nature-writing and nature-reading activities. I wish in particular to examine its troping of a natural language that is putatively grounded in a fully present speech, a speech that is in turn figured by what Natty terms the “speech” of his rifle, Kill-deer. As we have already begun to see, Natty’s claims about speech and writing tend to be self-contradictory, and the speech of his rifle, I will argue, turns out to be just as unreliable.

Natty’s phonocentric posturing in my epigraph can be seen as clumsily enacting the paradoxical way that books, in Barbara Johnson’s words, “rebel against their own stated intention to say that speech is better than writing” (43), as just another “modification” of the general “theme of God’s book.” But his pose falters in much more politically charged ways within the colonial context of The Last of the Mohicansitself. Natty laments his ignorance of the deeds of his fathers during an overtly political argument with Chingachgook over the just ice of England’s taking of Delaware land, an argument in which Natty has been defending the ethics of white conquest, maintaining in particular that his own people’s activities have been no worse than those of the natives. Chingachgook, suspecting that the white people’s own histories would undermine that claim, challenges Natty to back up his assertions by citing his own tradition. “You have the story told by your fathers,” the Delaware chief points out. “What say your old men — ” (30). This appears to be a decisive move, for the story recorded by his fathers is precisely what Natty must now admit he does not know; thus pressed, he can only plead his illiteracy. Put to the test by a member of a genuinely speech-centered culture, Natty’s own phonocentricity is exposed as a wholly figurative stance without any real argumentative force. As a mere inability to read and write, illiteracy can at best be only a figure for the positivities of orality and phonocentricity which Natty pretends to admire. The immediate result is that he finds his entire position negated, and he is forced into a series of embarrassing admissions that “there is reason in an Indian” (30), that “every story has its two sides,” and finally that Chingachgook’s “traditions” are “true” (31).

Chingachgook, by contrast, is able to access the deeds of his fathers, and it is precisely on that account that he takes charge of the conversation, narrating “what my fathers have said, and what the Mohicans have done” (31): a history of his own people that justifies their claim to the territory taken by the whites. This counternarrative cannot be refuted in any obvious way, for its pathos depends upon its being true. Instead of being refuted, it is merely interrupted and contained, first by having the conversation bleed off into a discussion of the cause of the tides (31-32) and then, when Chingachgook resumes his narrative, by the timely arrival of Uncas (33).

There is, however, a crucial sense in which Natty does manage to access and deploy his own heritage, and in the genuine imperial context which this chapter only dramatizes, this deployment proves decisive after all. Illiterate though he is, Natty does know at least one thing about his fathers, for he knows, as he puts it, that he is “genuine white.” And he knows at least one thing more, “that all the Bumppos could shoot; for I have a natural turn with a rifle, which must have been handed down from generation to generation” (31). In contrast to Chingachgook’s rich oral heritage, Natty’s illiteracy leaves him with only a bare genetic legacy the “fact” of his race and an inherited skill in shooting upon which to base his own claim to the land. The novel (ignoring the genuine importance of literacy in colonialist ideo logy) boils the ethics of conquest down to the myth of a superior race and the fact of a superior firepower.

Pressed by Chingachgook to relate the story told by his fathers, Natty suggests that the rifle can somehow speak for him. But this is hardly the only time the novel invokes shooting as a figure for speech. Elsewhere, for example, Natty refers to a gun battle as a “conversa tion,” in which he offers to “let ‘kill-deer’ take a part” (208); during another battle he requests of his comrades that until he signals other wise, “nothing speaks but the rifle” (328). Thus when Tamenund asks “Which of my prisoners is la Longue Carabine — ” and Heyward answers, “Give us arms. ... Our deeds shall speak for us!” (295), we are invited to read the ensuing shooting contest as a sort of debate, and Natty’s super ior shooting as a sort of eloquence, a great oration comparable to those delivered in the same scene by Tamenund, Magua, and Cora.

But what sort of words are spoken by a firearm — However one might choose to translate such speech “I hereby declare you a corpse,” perhaps, or in the more specific context of the novel, “I hereby pronounce you a subject of my king” it obviously does more than merely convey information. The pronouncements of the rifle are not mere constantives, that is, but performatives in the classic sense: speech acts that by means of their very utterance instantiate a genuine change in the status of their interlocutors.

Deconstructed by Chingachgook, Natty’s phonocentrism does not simply vanish; rather it is driven underground, as it were, to lodge in this figure of the speaking gun. Resurrecting itself there as a per formative speech, it can revive the old dream of a full presence in which word, intention, and result locution, illocution, and perlocution are one. The novel seems fascinated by such speech and allegorizes it repeatedly, perhaps most notably in the suspenseful shooting contest of Chapter 29 and at the moment of Magua’s demise in Chapter 32.

This performativity of the speaking gun parallels that of another colonialist speech act, the Spanish Requerimiento, or “requirement.” Drafted in its “classic form” in 1512 by Palacios Rubios, this formal document was intended to address two of the many problems that had been posed by the discovery of the Indies first the question able ethics of conquest and colonization, and second the possibility that “civilized” men might revert to “savagery” during lengthy sojourns among utterly foreign peoples. As a precaution, the Spanish imperial bureaucracy required its agents to read the Requerimientoaloud to native populations upon first contact, reasoning that such a performance would, at that crucial moment, both affirm the conquer ors in their own European identity and legitimate the conquest itself. More precisely, the reading was itself considered the act of conquest: by performatively declaringnatives to be subjects of the Crown, it was held to make them subjects of the Crown. 2

Like the conquistador, Natty Bumppo circulated at the vanguard of an expanding European empire, braving a frontier that was not merely geographical but also cultural, racial, and psychological. As the “Leatherstocking,” he was an ambiguous and liminal figure, a “civilized” “white” man in “savage” “Indian” clothing. He was the mirror image of a native figure that had been described nearly two centuries earlier by John Underhill, in a passage that clearly shows the Englishman’s speaking gun performing the cultural work of the Spaniard’s Requerimiento:

wee had an Indian with us that was an interpreter, being in Eng lish cloathes, and a Gunne in his hands, was spied by the Ilanders [members of the Block Island tribe], which called out to him, what are you an Indian or an English-man: come hither, saith he, and I will tell you, he pulls up his cocke and let fly at one of them, and without question was the death of him. (7)

In the midst of a great fluidity of identities signaled by an Indian speaking a white man’s language, dressed in a white man’s clothing, and carrying a white man’s weapon Underhill assigns to the gun a power of stabilization, the ability to accurately name the speaker’s race, to answer the question, “What are you — ” even as it subjugates its native interlocutor. Notably, the speaker’s name is never actually mentioned in this passage, for Underhill’s concern is not so much the name itself but the act of naming.

This image of a man in a cross-racial drag, irrefutably identifying himself in a virtuoso performance (and thereby suggesting the performativity rather than the “natural” fixity of identity) reappears much later as the Leatherstocking, Cooper’s white man in Indian clothing.

In contrast to the sweeping formality of the Requerimiento — which is ritualistic, highly mediated, and embedded in a universalizing hierarchy — the performative speech of the rifle seems decidedly informal, personal, direct, and ad hoc. 3 But the two practices clearly function in much the same way, and I want now to read the shooting match in Chapter 29 of The Last of the Mohicansas a fictional equivalent of a reading of the Requerimiento. Natty’s shooting in this chapter is performed as part of a first-contact scenario, before an assemblage of native people at the brink of subjugation; it is also, as in the episode from Newes from America, prompted by a crisis of identity by Duncan Heyward’s impersonation of Natty. And it is again a violent and patently sexual exchange, in this case between the rifle and the two (notably) domestic utensils that are its targets an earthen vessel (297) and a hollow gourd (299).

In The Last of the Mohicans, Natty seems to see his own identity as most securely fixed in his race, in his sense of himself as “genuine white,” “a man without a cross” (though he repeats these phrases frequently enough to betray some anxiety about the matter). But in this crucial scene, that identity hinges literally on his inherited skill with the rifle. It is not as a white man that he is most renowned, but as la longue carabine, as a great shot, and when Duncan challenges his identity, it seems perfectly logical that a shooting match should be proposed as a foolproof way to settle the issue. And Natty’s final shot does indeed appear to secure his claim once and for all: with this shot his “word” is made “good,” so that the scene seems rather straightforwardly to emblematize stability in naming and authority in speech. The narrator figures Natty’s impressive performance as a grounding of language, an end to deferral: “It decided the question, and effectually established Hawk-eye in the possession of his dangerous reputation” (300). The episode, that is, appears to undo the metaphysical damage sustained in Natty’s ill-fated argument with Chingachgook back in Chapter 3, suc cessfully substituting his inherited shooting ability for his in accessible written heritage.

But more is at stake here than just Natty’s identity. Also at issue is the fixity of identity itself, and it is certainly suggestive that the rifle so frequently failsto speak unambiguously. Even in this seemingly straightforward shooting contest, Natty does not reestablish his identity until the univocality of the rifle has been first brought into some doubt. For reasons not made very clear — perhaps to express his contempt for Heyward’s challenge — Natty lets off his first shot with out appearing so much as to aim. He does this apparently casually but actually, as the narrator makes clear, quite calculatedly: Natty intends his shot to be not only more accurate than Heyward’s, but also more expressive, and to the extent that it thus signifies on two levels at once it is no longer a transparent speech but one requiring interpretation. Natty’s audience cannot agree on whether to attribute the rifle shot to skill or chance:

The first impression of so strange a scene was engrossing admiration. Then a low, but increasing murmur, ran through the multitude, and finally swelled into sounds, that denoted lively opposition in the sentiments of the spectators. While some openly testified their satisfaction at so unexampled dexterity, by far the larger portion of the tribe were inclined to believe the suc cess of the shot was the result of accident. (298)

Rather than pinning down identity and meaning, the rifle’s speech provokes a critical controversy within an interpretive community.

When Underhill’s native marksman fires at his enemy, the narrator assures us that he “without question was the death of him.” But in The Last of the Mohicanswe find no such overt assurances. Instead we find acts of marksmanship that repeatedly prove at the most critical moments to be ambiguous. This is most notably the case with the shooting of Natty’s great nemesis, the one target he cannot seem to pin down, the ultimate test of Kill-deer’s stabilizing power: Magua. It is Magua who seems to epitomize deferral itself, who repeat edly evades the significations allotted him. “[T]here never will be an end to his loping,” as Natty puts it, using a word that aptly suggests the per petual sliding of the signifier, “till ‘kill-deer’ has said a friendly word to him” (186), and Magua does indeed seem to escape every effort made to contain him.

Even in the novel’s climactic death scene there is no certain closure, for the cause of Magua’s death is left unclear even here. Circumstances certainly implythat the Huron is finished off by a “word from ‘kill-deer,’” but the question is rather pointedly left open. Just where we might expect certainty, the story foregrounds images of fluidity and indeterminacy, leaving the shooting of even such a great marksman as Natty to fail as the locus of a present speech. “A form stood at the brow of the mountain,” says the narrator in the novel’s penult imate scene, “on the very edge of the giddy height, with uplifted arms, in an awful attitude of menace.” Surely this menacing form must belong to Magua, and “[w]ithout stopping to consider his person, the rifle of Hawk-eye was raised” (338). But just before firing Natty realizes he is aiming not at Magua, the novel’s personification of evil, but at Magua’s utter opposite, the “glowing countenance” of David Gamut. A second later, the real Magua “lopes” into view and attempts, once again, to dodge the bullet that would name him:

[H]e made a desperate leap, and fell short of his mark; though his hands grasped a shrub on the verge of the height. The form of Hawk-eye had crouched like a beast about to take its spring, and his frame trembled so violently with eagerness, that the muzzle of the half raised rifle played like a leaf fluttering in the wind.

One might here repeat the words of Underhill’s interpreter and ask of Natty, “What are you, an Indian or an Englishman — ” It is again a moment of extreme instability, with the signifiers of racial and sexual identity sliding out of control, leaving the putatively civilized white man “crouched” like a “beast” bestial in his crouched posture and eagerness for the kill, impotent in his inability to make his half- erect gun “speak.”

When Natty finally does fire, the actual “utterance” is strangely muted, camouflaged in subordinate clauses:

Without exhausting himself with fruitless efforts, the cunning Magua suffered his body to drop to the length of his arms, and found a fragment for his feet to rest upon. Then summoning all his powers, he renewed the attempt, and so far succeeded, as to draw his knees on the edge of the mountain. It was now, when the body of his enemy was most collected together, that the agitated weapon of the scout was drawn to his shoulder. The surrounding rocks, themselves, were not steadier than the piece became for the single instant that it poured out its contents.

Thus does the rifle speak but to what effect —

The arms of the Huron relaxed, and his body fell back a little, while his knees still kept their position. Turning a relentless look on his enemy, he shook his hand in grim defiance. But his hold loosened, and his dark person was seen cutting the air with its head downwards, for a fleeting instant, until it glided past the shrubbery which clung to the mountain, in its rapid flight to destruction. (338)

Here the reader cannot say of Magua that Natty “without question was the death of him”; the narrator juxtaposes Natty’s rifle shot and Magua’s apparently fatal fall but notably does not link them in any explicit causal relationship. If Magua indeed had to summon “all his powers” just to “draw his knees on the edge of the mountain,” might he not have dropped off through sheer exhaustion — Were it not for the single word “destruction,” we would have little reason to think even that Magua has died. After all, we know that Magua has escaped every previousattempt to kill him, even when Natty himself had thought him dead; why not this one as well — A narratorial glimpse of Magua’s dead body might settle the question. But while the narrator does show us the corpses of Cora and Uncas, that of Magua is withheld from us. 4

Even if we accept that Magua has in fact died, we still cannot say how. By Natty’s bullet — By simple exhaustion — The text itself gives us no way to decide; just where we might expect closure, we are presented with indirectness and enigma, an imaging of the end of deferral as itself a deferral. During its most crucial performance when this figure of a fully present speech might most securely ground its claims the rifle speaks loudly yet seems strangely silent.

Works Cited

  • Cheyfitz, Eric. “Literally White, Figuratively Red: The Frontier of Translation in The Pioneers.” Robert Clark, ed. James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1985. 55-95.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. Ed. James A. Sappenfield and E.N. Feltskog. Introd. James Franklin Beard. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.
  • Johnson, Barbara. “Writing.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 39-49.
  • Kibbey, Anne. The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism: A Study of Rhetoric, Prejudice, and Violence . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Lynen, John F. The Design of the Present: Essays on Time and Form in American Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969.
  • Underhill, John. Newes from America; or, a New and Experimentall Discoverie of New England. London: Peter Cole, 1638.


1 Parts of my argument in this paper draw upon Eric Chayfitz’s “Literally White, Figuratively Red,” especially in his comments on The Last of the Mohicans’figures of the book, writing, and orality (91-92 n.17).

2 According both Spaniard and native a precise place in a global teleology, the Requerimientofixes identites for both speaker and auditor, reaffirming the colonial in his familiar heritage and completely reconstructing the Indian into a “religious and legal fiction,” in Cheyfitz’s words, a “pure figure” whose own specificities are “formally denied” (74). The document’s narration of the deeds of the (Church) fathers subsumes native histories into an all-encompassing patrilineage, claiming thereby a preexisting and eternal dominion over both native peoples and their lands.

3 These differing stresses on ritual and iconoclasm might be seen as correspondinng to contemporary Catholic and Protestant theological styles. See Kibbey 42-64.

4 Mohicans features two extended episodes that foreshadow Magua’s demise, and in each the narrator is ambiguous as to the efficacy of the rifle and fails to “produce the body.” During the battle at Glens Falls, a Huron sniper is wounded and dislodged from his perch in an oak tree. Duncan Heyward calls for a shot that would end the native’s suffering, but Natty refuses to fire again, citing the need to preserve powder. Then, contravening his own advice, he makes as if to fire anyway. “Three several times the scout raised his piece in mercy, and as often prudence getting the better of his intention, it was again silently lowered.”

At length, one hand of the Huron lost its hold, and dropped exhausted to his side. A desperate and fruitless struggle to recover the branch succeeded, and then the savage was seen for a fleeting instant, grasping wildly at the empty air. The lightning is not quicker than was the flame from the rifle of Hawk-eye; the limbs of the victim trembled and contracted, the head fell to the bosom, and the body parted the foaming waters ... and every vestige of the unhappy Huron was lost forever. (75)

In another battle scene, Natty goes around making sure his Huron victims have in fact been dispatched, making a “circuit of the dead, into whose senseless bosoms he thrust his long knife, with as much coolness, as if they had been so many brute carcasses” (114). He has reason for this brutality. Just moments earlier, Magua had been engaged in a furious and seemingly fatal struggle with Chingachgook. Natty tried to pick off the Huron with Kill-Deer, but — in yet another image of an extreme fluidity of identities that occasions a figurative impotency — he found the two Indian bodies indistinguishable, too tightly intertwined to get a sure aim. Chingachgook finally gets the better hand and manages to stab his foe, apparently killing him. “Magua suddenly relinquished his grasp,” we read, “and fell backward, without motion, and, seemingly, without life.” Natty, “elevating the butt of the long and fatal rifle,” then wishes to settle the matter with a blow to Magua’s skull.

But, at the very moment when the dangerous weapon was in the act of descendinng, the subtle Huron rolled swiftly from beneath the danger, over the edge of the precipice, and falling on his feet, was seen leaping, with a single bound, into the center of a clump of low bushes, which clung along its sides. The Delawares, who had believed their enemy dead, uttered their exclamation of surprise, and were followed with speed and clamour ... when a shrill and peculiar cry of the scout, instantly changed their purpose, and recalled them to the summit of the hill. (114)

The precipice, the falling, the last-minute failure of the rifle — all these prefigure the circumstances of the novel’s climax and warn us that rumors of Magua’s death ought always to be considered premature.