The Children of Natty Bumppo

Jay Elliott (Clark University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel No. 2 (Talking about Fenimore Cooper with Undergraduates) at the 2009 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 26, pp. 16-19 Steven Harthorn and Shalicia Wilson, Editors.

Copyright © 2009, The James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

I take my title from the benedictory remarks uttered by Chingachgook at the end of the 1992 film version of The Last of the Mohicans: gazing out over the uninhabited, forested ridges and valleys to the west from their mountain vantage point, the Mohican lectures the softly embraced Natty and Cora, “The frontier moves with the sun and pushes the Red Man of these wilderness forests in front of it until one day there will be nowhere left. ... The frontier place is for people like my white son and his woman and their children” (1992 Script). Wait a minute! Natty and his woman and his children? The closest Cooper came to putting Natty in a “relationship” was the failed conjunction of the youthful Bumppo and Judith Hutter in Deerslayer, a prequel, as it were, to the maturity and old age of the trapper in Pioneers, Mohicans, and Prairie, and written some fifteen years after. Such a reconstitution of the Leatherstocking as the filmic Chingachgook addresses seems a gross violation of Natty’s character and particularly his figurative significance as Cooper continued to recreate his protagonist throughout the Leatherstocking Tales. Natty is, after all, sui generis, a unique figure who haunts the liminal spaces between the American wilderness and encroaching civilization, the man who is always escaping the “wasty ways” of the settlements for the forests, but who is always the harbinger of the very civilization he deplores. Whatever his mythic status, it does not include the joys and trials of husband and father.

This was an issue that we took up in an undergraduate seminar of mine several years ago generically entitled “Studies in Nineteenth-Century American Literature.” Along with Mohicans, we discussed The Scarlet Letter, Longfellow’s poetry, Huck Finn and The Awakening, among others — all examined with the intent of historicizing the popular and critical contexts from publication to the present moment. For Mohicans, such an approach meant, in part, comparing initial reviews with contemporary twentieth-century opinion; and the basis of discussion became the students’ observations about the novel’s place in the culture of 1826 as juxtaposed to a modern “reading” of the novel in the form of Michael Mann’s 1992 film. What, I tasked my students, do you surmise Cooper wanted his public to respond to; what conditions couch and inform his public’s interpretative strategies? And what of the interpretative strategies of the filmmakers? How are they affected by their cultural milieu? Is there some constancy between the two historical moments in which they are respectively embedded? Or are the two strategies as different as one might expect, given a century and a half of national, economic, political and cultural development. The seminar’s ruminations centered on three areas: the treatment of the Native; the drastic shift in the role of Cora; and the sexualization of Natty Bumppo.

This seminar found the most agreement between the two readings in the elegiac treatment of Native Americans, specifically the Mohicans themselves and Chingachgook in particular. Most found it appropriate that he should proclaim the benedictory finale to the film in place of Tamenund, the novel’s Mohican elder; in fact, several pointed out some initial tonal similarities between the final words in the two texts: “The pale-faces are masters of the earth,” says Tamenund, “and the time of the red-men has not yet come again. My day has been too long ... ” (Mohicans 350). As I mentioned a moment ago, Chingachgook stands with Natty (and Cora — more on that later) on the brow of a mountain facing west, and intones, “The frontier moves with the sun and pushes the Red Man of these wilderness forests in front of it. Until one day there will be nowhere left. Then our race will be no more, or be not us” (1992 Script). These almost final words of the film, students avowed, elaborate and expand Tamenund’s assertion that the whites are “masters of the earth”; they are a late-twentieth-century summation of what the U.S. government in 1826 was only beginning: manifest destiny enabled by appropriating Indian lands as justified by the Indian Removal policy. Whereas Cooper uses the French and Indian War, as indicated by his subtitle “A Narrative of 1757,” to infer the decimation of much Indian culture in the years between then and 1826, Mann’s reading underscores an inevitability of Native subjugation Cooper’s readers could only conjecture. The filmic Chingachgook’s further comments expand this inevitability to include whites: “And one day there will be no more frontier. And then men like you will go too. Like the Mohicans. And new people will come. Work. Struggle to make their light” (1992 Script). As the frontiersman replaced the Native, so will civilization replace the frontier. It is a natural cycle, the words imply, and all we can hope for is some kind of monument, some kind of memory of the past — a nostalgia of the kind many contemporaneous commentators acknowledged pervades the ending of Cooper’s novel. This cycle, pointed out several students, is exactly what Cooper was intending Natty Bumppo to represent. The 1992 Chingachgook is reminding Natty that he is the locus of change: wherever he goes, civilization, no matter how much he despises it, will follow and prevail.

But other implications drew students’ ire. Too often, they said, Natty in the novel refers to himself as a “man without a cross,” suggesting inviolate barriers traversing racial and ethnic boundaries. In fact, he cannot even accept Munro’s mournful gratitude to the Native women who have prepared his daughter for burial. “Tell them,” says Munro, “that the Being we all worship, under different names, will be mindful of their charity; and that the time shall not be distant, when we may assemble around his throne, without distinction of sex, or rank, or colour!” The scout shakes his head and responds: “’To tell them this ... would be to tell them that the snows come not in the winter, or that the sun shines fiercest when the trees are stripped of their leaves” (Mohicans 347)! The plot machinery of the novel, these students said, further substantiates such inviolate barriers in the taboo against miscegenation; Cora and Uncas, though portrayed as deserving lovers, cannot survive; it would be too radical a move for an early nineteenth-century reading public. And what’s different in the film? Nothing, the students asserted. The boundaries between white and Native are as rigidly policed in the 1990’s as they were in Cooper’s day. The white man and the red man occupy two parallel worlds — both consisting of good guys and bad guys — but the Native world is destined for destruction, as both Tamemund and the filmic Chingachgook prophesy.

The other two issues — the shift in Cora’s role and the sexualization of Natty — proved too complexly connected to be considered by the seminar as wholly separate topics. In the Mann Mohicans, Cora ceases to be the love interest for Uncas and becomes the fit mate for Natty, who himself is reconstituted into a romantic leading man.

The students were fully experienced with the literary Romantic convention of the dark-haired heroine and the light-haired heroine; after all, they had just finished work on The Scarlet Letter. Cooper’s treatment of Cora and Alice, then, was not surprising; it was inevitable that Alice would survive, ostensibly to marry Haywood and provide the demographic continuity beyond the end of the novel. The implication, my students pointed out, is that the American nation, in the obvious curtailment of the lines of both Natty and Chingachgook, would be embodied in the rational nineteenth-century sensibilities of the English soldier and the pure maiden, suggesting the close cultural relationship between the nascent American republic after the Revolution and its immediate colonial master. The love between Cora and Uncas, however, is transgressive, given the Enlightenment ideas of order, providence and identity under which Cooper was working. For all Cooper’s sympathetic efforts to bring both races together in the burial ceremony, and for all the Delaware intimations that Cora has been called to serve Uncas in a Delaware heaven, Natty is careful to differentiate the red and white identities: “The spirit of a pale-face has no need of food or raiment — their gifts being according to the heaven of their colour” (Mohicans 346). In other words, being transgressive, such a union cannot be allowed: it would violate the God-given essentialist identities of both. Yet the detail that Cora is mixed-race in the novel further piqued my students’ interest; why assign her such a heritage when it is not necessarily demanded by the Romantic convention? Perhaps, they conjectured, this was a cultural emphasis to suggest Cooper’s attempt to push against the rigid boundaries of racial identity his culture demanded; being already a product of miscegenation, she would be more apt to find the racially othered Uncas attractive. In other words, they suggested, Cora’s mixed-race heritage becomes motive for the vitality, strength and energy of her portrayal; she does serve as a kind of mother-figure to her younger sister Alice, and is constantly protecting her from the onslaughts of man and nature. But such strength and vitality, according to nineteenth-century (and particularly antebellum American) definitions of race must be policed and contained — thus her death.

What to make, then, of her ascendency in the 1992 film? She and Natty (called Nathaniel in the film, apparently to dignify him properly) become the principle love interest; Alice is relegated to a minor role, and the development of her romantic connection with Uncas is confined to a few minor scenes. Cora is still Alice’s protector, since Alice is the classic passive female character; the only action she takes is, after Magua has dispatched Uncas, to refuse Magua’s entreaties to go with him to his wigwam (thus has the elder Huron decreed) by falling slowly off a cliff to her death. She does not even fling herself with any decisive action; she merely topples sideways. And compared to her older sister, she rarely speaks. The students suggested that this depiction was fully in keeping with the relationship between the two sisters in the novel, but that the contexts were drastically different. Alice refuses Magua not because of the impossibility of submitting to miscegenation, but because Magua has revealed himself as so treacherous and evil that her stunned sensitivities cannot fathom a union with him. Her action is personal, not ideological.

Which brings us back to Cora’s filmic reconfiguration. Not only is she clearly attracted to Nathaniel early in the film, but her feistiness leads her to defy her father, Colonel Munro, at one point — clearly a violation of any nineteenth-century familial codes. But what intrigued my students most was the erasure of her mixed-race heritage. Visually, she was still the dark-haired heroine and Alice the light-haired — that convention was transferred to the film intact — but her darkness is merely a variation of Caucasian complexion. This fact, more than any other, was significant to the late twentieth-century reading of the novel: Cora’s energy, vitality and individuality could be mainstreamed, as it were, and were no longer necessarily transgressive. Perhaps, they suggested, the impetus to shift Cora’s role to major romantic lead is a reflection of cultural incorporation of decades of feminist pressure; her resistance to convention (seen in her refusal of Duncan’s proposal as well as her defiance of her father) is more acceptable, however patriarchal the overall culture may remain. At Fort William Henry, for example, she tells both her father and Duncan that if they condemn as seditious the Colonial militiamen’s efforts to return to their families to protect them against marauding Indian raids, then she is “guilty of sedition, too.” This growing independence of thought allies her not only with Nathaniel, who is the embodiment of such frontier mentality, but with the American cause eventually to erupt in the Revolution.

A hint of mixed-race heritage, however, would imply a free-thinking African-American influence, and even the post-Civil-Rights siting of the film in 1992 apparently could not allow that cultural leap. Thus Cora, if she is to embody conversion to American ideals, cannot remain mixed-race; she must be wholly European.

What engaged the students most, however, was the reincarnation of Natty Bumppo as a leading man, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Gone are the novel’s physical, verbal and ideological awkwardnesses; Nathaniel is buff, attractive, a man of few words, and lacks the emphasis Cooper’s Natty puts on the distinct “gifts” attributable to racial identity. He is altogether more mythic and dominating than his novelistic prototype. His courting of Cora is audacious and single-minded. True, Mann based his characterization on the 1936 screenplay of Mohicans by Philip Dunne, in which Randolph Scott assumed similar heroic and romantic stature. But Dunne’s Natty was occasionally at the mercy of the Hurons; he had to be rescued, and his romantic attachment was to Alice, signifying that the “proper” mate was the younger sister (though she is more forthcoming and Cora more retiring; Dunne inverted the personalities of the novel’s portrayal of the sisters). However much he represented the pioneer spirit as calculated by a Depression-era American culture, he showed no interest in the possibly transgressive Cora. Mann’s 1992 Nathaniel is very much in control. Like Dunne’s Natty, Nathaniel is the spokesman for his culture’s colonial spirit of independence, but his articulation of this ideological discourse is stronger and more consistent. In response to Cora’s question, “And what were the consequentialities of European culture you didn’t bother with?” he responds, “The Bible. Monarchy. Many wrong ideas about the government of men. My father’s people already know each man is his own nation. And only he can have dominion over himself. Not kings. No man is better than any other man.” And further, in explanation of the settlers trying to carve a life from the wilderness: “’Cos frontier land’s the only land affordable to poor people. So after seven years indentured service in Virginia, they headed out here where they are beholden to none and not livin’ by another’s leave ... ” (1992 Script). In other words, he articulates an idealized political philosophy of fierce individualism ostensibly borrowed in part from his Mohican father and applies it to the nascent American colonial experience, prefiguring the impulse for revolution and independence. All Europeans, in the film and unlike the novel, are ignorant and vindictive — including Duncan Heyward, who does, however, partially redeem his pettiness by volunteering to substitute for Cora in a ritual execution by fire. His motive, though, like Alice’s, is not ideological but personal, as he commits the ultimate sacrifice to prove his thwarted love for Cora.

What, then, did my students make of all this alteration and reconfiguration? Initially, they considered James F. Beard’s suggestion that Cooper is describing the “infinite caprice of human actions” set against an embedded “logos or principle of order.” “The characters,” says Beard in his Introduction to the SUNY edition of Mohicans, “stumble into an escalating spiral of violence created largely by their own blindness and by their failure to obey dictates of universal experience which Cooper and his contemporaries conceptualized as Nature or Reason” (Mohicans xxxii). This is the “logos” or principle which implicitly governs the doubled plot of initial captivity and escape, punctuated in the middle by the massacre of Fort William Henry, only to return to a second captivity and escape, though the second escape is into death for several of the characters. Discord and disharmony are the enemies here, and Cooper suggests that it seems to be our human impulse not to submit to universal laws, an impulse to subvert harmony, in other words — whether those laws be violated in Indian terms (Magua is the demonic force here) or in European terms (Montcalm’s oversight in not forbidding the Hurons from massacring the English evacuating Fort William Henry is a prime example). In other words, Cooper’s issue here is extra-national; he is appealing to laws of civilization that need to govern any nation, race or ethnicity. Natty is the one who, after growing in harmony with his Native companions Chingachgook and Uncas, partially submits to such “unseen forces” of experience by reaching for Chingachgook over Uncas’ grave at the conclusion. He is the true bridge between European civilization and Cooper’s nostalgic vision of a rational Native culture and civilization. There is little of the overtly nationalistic about Leatherstocking.

The 1992 film version, my students concluded, was all about nationalism. Appearing at the end of sixteen years of Reagan-Bush administrations, the film uses literary-historical sources to create a paean to American origins and identity. Elevated to superhuman status, the filmic Nathaniel is indestructible, and he embodies the fierce commitment to individualism that late twentieth-century America felt was at the core of the American experience. Throughout the film, given the vicissitudes of all the European characters, their insensitivity to the needs of their colonial allies, their woefully inefficient, lock-step fighting formations, and their mindless commitment to the British “way,” government is not the solution; government is the problem. The main character shift is Cora; she sees the right and purpose behind Nathaniel’s pursuit of freedom and becomes a convert — a fit mate for such a prototype, and representative of those who see the light. Though Chingachgook’s statement to Nathaniel and Cora in the final scene — “men like you will go, too. Like the Mohicans” — implies that successive waves of civilization will overtake the frontier settlements wresting homes from the wilderness, the film pushes us to honor in nostalgic commemoration those who went first. Cooper’s Enlightenment principles of Reason and Nature have been, in a sense, submitted to a kind of reverse Social Darwinism, in which the successive advance of American progress has further elevated untrammeled individual freedom as the core value of American identity. For Cooper, individual action motivated by self-will, ambition, lust and greed are violations that must be brought into harmony with higher law through punishment or death due to their being transgressions of fixed and natural boundaries. The highest law implied by the film is the right of the individual to pursue his own interest. Our culture and sense of identity, my students concluded, have come a long way and undergone radical changes, but is it all for the better? Have we become what Cooper feared: a collection of Hobbesian natural men, depending on a constructed myth of self-reliance to justify our figuratively short, brutal, self-interested lives? In that case, then, I responded to my students, are not you all children of both Natty Bumppos, wrestling with the shifting interpretations and strategies that constitute and describe American identity? Cooper and Mann have given you two radically different frontiersmen to match their respective cultures; whom will you choose to be the father of your sense of American self-hood?

Works Cited