“Blood Purer and Richer”: The Disruptive Presence of Cora in The Last of the Mohicans
Presented at the Cooper Panel on “James Fenimore Cooper and the Winds of Change” at the 2018 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.
Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 30.2 (Summer 2019), pp. 18-27.
Copyright © 2019, James Fenimore Cooper Society.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
“That place called home was never an unmediated experience,” suggests geographer Doreen Massey in her book Space, Place, and Gender, as she explores the way in which the presence of the Other challenges dominant notions of homeplaces as stable and secure locations. She explains that most prevailing views of home originate from “the point of view of a (relative) elite,” one who sees home as a place of “stability and an apparently reassuring boundedness,” and who establishes this view on a “negative counterposition with the Other beyond [home’s] boundaries.” Massey marks these notions of home as “untenable,” indicating the difficulty, even in past centuries, of “distinguish[ing] the inside of a place from the outside.” She concludes that “it is precisely in part the presence of the outside within which helps to construct the specificity of the local place,” leading to an unsettling of the negative counterposition upon which the elite bases identity. 1 Cooper’s Cora embodies just this kind of disruptive “presence of the outside within” throughout The Last of the Mohicans, for the Otherness of her African lineage and what this lineage means in the context of early nineteenth-century slavery, produces an unsettling of sorts. The way in which Cooper presents Cora’s character, as well as the characters associated with her, introduces a disruption to contemporary notions of the Otherness of African-Americans and so challenges some of the pro-slavery theories and rhetoric of the 1820s. 2
While tensions surrounding the future of Native American populations mounted during the time in which Cooper wrote, tensions regarding the issue of slavery likewise began to crescendo, glimpsed in events such as the Missouri Crisis of 1819–1820 and the Denmark Vesey conspiracy of 1822. 3 The competition of new racial theories around this time, such as the rule of recognition (which cited potential freedom for only those who could pass for white) and the “one-drop” rule (the rule of descent), contributed to these rising tensions. 4 And in the midst of all of this, Cooper interestingly creates the captivating Cora, making his choice to use a mixed-blood character of African descent as his novel’s central heroine appear quite intentional. In such an atmosphere charged with controversy over the slavery issue, a character with Cora’s lineage would undoubtedly capture readers’ attention, making it suspect that her presence in the novel would come minus some kind of statement on antebellum race relations. Yet a novelist during this era could not approach a hot-button topic like slavery in any direct or overt way, a fact to which both Ezra Tawil and Barbara Mann testify. Tawil explains that “direct discourse about slavery in this period was, de facto, incendiary speech,” and Mann agrees: “Antebellum America was a violently repressed place. Direct discussion of any touchy subject — race or sex, especially — was worse than a crime; it was a social blunder.” 5 In The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper does not commit this particular “blunder,” instead approaching the topic of slavery by way of various allusions and characterizations. Yet Forest Robinson notes, “At no time since its publication in 1826 has the novel’s subtitle — A Narrative of 1757 — served to diminish any informed reader’s awareness of its direct relevance to contemporary affairs.” 6 Amid a novel often cited as merely an entertaining historical romance, Cooper packs in telling references to one of his culture’s most volatile social problems, and his readers most likely caught his drift.
The fact that Cooper features such a heroine as Cora, in fact, speaks significantly to the way in which her presence potentially opens up to the reader a dialogue dealing with this issue. Cassandra Jackson indicates that the “fluidity that distinguishes” mixed-blood characters such as Cora “suggests more than a figure designed to pander to white audiences. Instead, it suggests a complex vehicle for discussions of racial difference.” 7 So while Hawkeye and Chingachgook’s early conversation about the spread of white Europeans across indigenous lands introduces the topic of racial injustice with regard to Native Americans, the character of Cora further engages this topic regarding African Americans. In this way, Cora becomes, in Jane Tompkins’s terms, an “element of thought,” a “thing to think with,” as the narrative events featuring her encompass “stages in a thought process, phases in a meditation” on the story of American slavery. 8
This thought process largely progresses by way of Cora’s close association with the fierce Magua, as his sentiments and actions toward her provide the most vivid of the novel’s allusions to nineteenth-century slavery. Two of these allusions, in fact, occur in a conversation between them during Cora and Alice’s initial captivity after the skirmish at Glens Falls. As the first of these allusions, Magua describes in this interaction the humiliation and indignity he feels in bearing the scars from a whipping at the hands of Cora’s father, Munro, a humiliation that has occasioned his quest for vengeance. Yet this whipping imagery also signifies the kind of corporal punishment suffered by African-American slaves at the hands of their masters. Richard Brodhead, for instance, points out that, for the early decades of the nineteenth century, “whipping means slavery. It emblematizes both an actual practice and the whole structure of relations that identify Southern slavery as a system.” 9 And Cora, the sole African presence in the novel, significantly finds no defense for her father’s actions, no way in which “to palliate this imprudent severity on the part of her father.” 10 Her silence might indicate that she, too, senses the correspondence of Magua’s punishment with the slave system to which her lineage is linked.
This same conversation reveals an even starker allusion to slavery, though, and one that will figure significantly into Magua’s characterization throughout the rest of the novel. In his dialogue here with Cora, Magua reveals his intentions to take her as a replacement for his wife, yet the words he uses to describe this arrangement allude to more than simple concubinage. “The daughter of Munro would draw his water, hoe his corn, and cook his venison,” he informs Cora, in his characteristic third-person parlance. “The body of the gray-head would sleep among his cannon, but his heart would lie within reach of the knife of le Subtil” (105). While these words may reflect popular nineteenth-century assumptions about Native American men’s treatment of their women, they also evoke more than this: the duties Magua would have Cora perform entail providing his meals and working his fields at the point of his knife, images also connected to the system of American slavery. Magua’s proposed revenge on Munro for the slave-like punishment he received seems to be, ironically, to enslave Munro’s daughter. And this proposal additionally lays the foundation for a significant characterization of him as the novel progresses, for Magua, whose whipping by Munro briefly places him on the receiving end of slave oppression, also ironically evinces the marked characteristics of a contemporary slave master by the end of the narrative. For like a patroller on the trail of a runaway, he exhibits the almost inordinate passion of a slave master to repossess Cora, from the moment of her rescue during the first captivity to his dogged insistence the Delawares return her to him during the second. In fact, the demands he gives the Delawares for Cora’s release — several times claiming, “She is mine,” and calling her “his own” (302, 312–313) — ring with tones of entitlement and property ownership, concepts intimately tied to the slavery issue that now become tied to the book’s only character of African lineage. While his claims to her, as well as Tamenund’s judgment to uphold these claims, may align with “a Wyandot war chief’s right to take his captive home,” 11 it is telling that, by the end of the novel, Magua retains property rights over only Cora, the novel’s living emblem of both colonial and contemporary slavery. 12
This alignment of Magua with the contemporary “pro” side of the slavery issue culminates in his oratory before Tamenund and the Delaware camp, as he iterates discourse reflective of nineteenth-century pro-slavery reasoning. His speech here sounds loudly the note of antebellum racist sentiment when he begins, “The Spirit that made men, coloured them differently. ... Some are blacker than the sluggish bear. These he said should be slaves; and he ordered them to work for ever, like the beaver. You may hear them groan, when the south wind blows, louder than the lowing buffaloes, along the shores of the great salt lake, where the big canoes come and go with them in droves.” And then, in similar fashion to antebellum white supremacists, Magua boasts of his own people as godlike: “Some the Great Spirit made with skins brighter and redder than yonder sun ... and these did he fashion to his own mind” (300–301). This pro-slavery rhetoric reflects that of the early decades of the nineteenth century, during which, Tawil explains, “slavery was no longer a condition with temporal limits; like race, it became an essential attribute or property of a slave’s body.” Tawil indicates that “slavery, rather than the cause of a ‘degradation’ from an original state, was now the result of the innate inferiority or, at least, ‘peculiarity’ of the person enslaved.” Magua’s words regarding Africans, then, reflect the same belief of nineteenth-century advocates of slavery — namely, that “nature had ‘made a stamp on the American slave.’” 13 And with the “one-drop” rule gaining ascendency in the 1820s, one need not be “blacker than the sluggish bear” to carry this stamp. Even if Magua maintains an unawareness as to Cora’s lineage, that readers know of her African descent becomes enough to make Magua’s political speech a powerful allusion to the slave problem. 14
Yet even these allusions to contemporary slavery within the text do not necessarily challenge readers’ thinking on the subject. Not until we begin to consider these allusions in relation to the overall characterizations of those involved in them do we see the way in which Cora, as a “presence of the outside within,” functions as a disruptive influence to antebellum pro-slavery thought. For instance, not only does Cooper allude to “newly minted” nineteenth-century racist ideology regarding slavery, but he significantly places this ideology in the mouth of Magua. All throughout the narrative, Cooper, while not fashioning Magua as simply a two-dimensional “bad Indian” stock character, sets him up as a kind of villain in the story nonetheless, thereby discrediting much of what he espouses by the end of the novel. In addition to characterizing Magua as vindictively obsessed with Cora, Cooper depicts him as largely self-serving, writing that he “never lost sight of his individual motives” while rallying the Hurons to their doom simply to satisfy his hunger for Munro’s daughter (282). And Cooper continuously connects him to demonic forces as well, as Hawkeye refers to him as a “red devil;” his “fiery eyes” are likened to “the fabled organs of the basilisk,” evoking the evil serpent of Eden; his meditations are compared to the ruminations of “the Prince of Darkness”; and his political and oratory skills mirror that of Milton’s Satan (44, 113, 284). The text embeds Magua’s villainy so much into readers’ minds that, by the time he gives his racist speech to the Delawares, his bent for selfish vengeance and treachery already taint and discredit his words. 15 And his unrelenting pursuit to enslave Cora, a character set up to invoke the sympathy and pathos of the reader, does not win him any favors.
If Magua represents one side of the slavery issue, then Cora reflects the other, for while Cooper places the rhetoric of pro-slavery sentiment in the mouth of his most villainous character, he supplies his courageous and self-sacrificing heroine with words subtly evocative of contemporary anti-slavery thought. Twice in the novel, for instance, Cora espouses the notion that skin color, and therefore race, does not determine the character and worth of a person: First, when her party initially encounters Magua as their guide, she defends him against the others’ skepticism, saying, “Should we distrust the man, because his manners are not our manners, and that his skin is dark!” (21). Second, when Uncas helps save her party from an ambush at their first meeting, she likewise defends him, remarking “who, that looks at this creature of nature, remembers the shades of his skin” (53). 16 And the text assures us that these sentiments come from arguably the novel’s most noble character, for the narrative abounds with all manner of praise and admiration for the person of Cora. Time and again in the face of danger, she meets each trial with relative calm and fortitude; though a novice of the wilderness, she exhibits uncommon intelligence and sagacity (she, after all, comes up with the plan that largely enables their first rescue); and although realizing Heyward has passed her over and instead chooses Alice for his love, she clings to her sister as a mother to a child and offers to sacrifice her life for Alice on more than one occasion. Character such as this, then, lends powerful force to the anti-racist discourse she not only iterates but also embodies, for the praise ascribed to her by the narration and by the other characters prove the way in which her skin, by the racist standards of her own time as well as Cooper’s, does not determine her worth. 17 The way in which Cooper sets up the elder daughter of Munro buttresses the anti-slavery sentiment she reflects, as well as inspires sympathy for her plight as Magua’s enslaved, of the time Tamenund renders his judgment against her, Cooper has already demonstrated through her virtues the tragedy of her fate. He presents her as nobly human, so her enslavement feels unjust.
The last chapter of the book poignantly depicts the way in which “the ardent, high souled, and generous Cora” (340) elicits the exaltation, pity, and grief of those affiliated with her, as alongside Uncas, the noble prince of the Delawares, Cora commands a place of honor in the pair’s joint funeral. This scene also demonstrates the way in which Cora not only articulates anti-racist notions; she inspires them as well, for couched in the many praises the Delaware women use to extol Cora’s excellencies lies the novel’s most vivid anti-slavery sentiment. In recounting their recognition of Uncas’s inclination for Cora, the women expound the prudence of his choice, exclaiming, “Why should not such a predilection be encouraged! That she was of a blood purer and richer than the rest of her nation, any eye might have seen” (343). In this one statement, the women allude to both of the racial theories contending for prevalence in Cooper’s antebellum culture: the “one-drop” rule and the rule of recognition. With these rules vying for control of the nation’s social and cultural mind, it is difficult to imagine this statement being anything other than an allusion to the anti-racist notion Cora’s own words articulate: namely, that race does not determine worth. In their eulogy for her, by alluding to the purity of her blood, the Delaware women affirm that no matter the mixture in it, Cora’s excellent life attested to the purity and richness of her humanity and therefore her worth, a truth any person might have recognized, that “any eye might have seen.”
When considering what the novel’s allusions and characterizations point to regarding the contemporary issue of slavery, Cora’s death, then, appears inevitable. In the conversation between Hawkeye and Chingachgook at the beginning of the novel (referenced previously), Cooper establishes the way in which the novel will focus not only on notions of racial difference but on issues of racial injustice as well. Their discussion marks a beginning to the work the novel does in engaging and at times challenging prevailing contemporary thought regarding the issues of Native American removal and African American enslavement, but in order for this work to convey maximum import, both Cora and Uncas must die. For while many of the allusions and characterizations in the novel discreetly work to align readers with Cora’s anti-racist notions, in turn disrupting embedded ways of thinking about race, only their deaths can complete the picture of their tragic plights as oppressed peoples. 18 This proves particularly true for Cora as the novel’s emblem of the enslaved, for if someone ultimately saves her from Magua, the pity and outrage toward her enslavement by him would greatly lessen. In essence, a rescue would seem to “free” her and so would not adequately reflect the travesty of the nineteenth-century realities of slavery. But an excellent and beautiful Cora tragically murdered by the evil that enslaves her makes the injustice of her enslavement much more impactful and enhances the disruptive influence of the anti-slavery notions she espouses. In killing Cora and Uncas, Cooper provides an apt, albeit mournful, ending to a story that largely deals with the racial injustices still being carried out in his own time.
1 Doreen Massey, Space, Place, and Gender (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 164–65, 169–70. Massey establishes her understanding of homeplaces based on a larger theory of the social construction of place, describing “space” as “the simultaneous coexistence of social interrelations at all geographical scales” and thereby describing “place” as “formed out of the particular set of social relations which interact at a particular location” (168). This leads her to theorize that the “place called home” always reflects an interconnectedness of the outside with those on the inside, an interconnectedness seen in the interaction of ethnicities represented in The Last of the Mohicans.
2 In this paper, I am not positing The Last of the Mohicans as an overtly abolitionist text; I acknowledge Cooper’s ambiguous stance on slavery glimpsed in some of his non-fiction writings, what James Wallace terms the “middle course” he attempted to “steer.” James Wallace, “Cooper and Slavery” (presentation, American Literature Association Annual Conference, San Diego, CA, May, 1992): paragraph 3, jfcoopersociety.org/articles/ala/1992ala-wallace.htm. I do, however, argue that the characters Cooper presents and the discourses in which they engage that subtly reference contemporary issues regarding race and slavery offers, as they lean toward anti-racist notions, a challenge to the pro-slavery rhetoric of the 1820s.
3 The Missouri Crisis (1819-1820) ensued when the Missouri legislature applied to enter the union as a slave state, a move that would create an imbalance in the ratio between slave and free states in the new nation. In his article “The Last of the Mohicans and the Missouri Crisis,” Bill Christophersen notes that some historians believe the “vitriolic rhetoric” surrounding the Missouri Crisis to have fueled the Vesey conspiracy (1822), an elaborate plot organized by former slave Denmark Vesey to kill whites and burn the town of Charleston, South Carolina. Christophersen, in fact, makes a compelling argument that The Last of the Mohicans as a whole presents one grand allusion to the issue of slavery, positing that the Fort William Henry conflict and the subsequent Huron-led massacre mirror the Missouri Crisis and Vesey conspiracy. Bill Christophersen, “The Last of the Mohicans and the Missouri Crisis,” Early American Literature 46, no. 2 (2011): 268, doi.org/10.1353/eal.2011.0020.
4 Barbara Mann offers explanations of these racial theories in her ALA Conference presentation “Man with a Cross: Hawkeye Was a Half-Breed”: “By 1825, racist theory was gaining ground in America, positing two new, conflicting ‘rules’ of race, those of recognition and descent. The rule of recognition was the eye-test identity: whoever could pass, might; while the rule of descent — the infamous ‘one-drop’ rule — forbade passing at all times, regardless of generation or appearance. After 1825, only the rules of recognition and descent remained to vie for social control and, from 1850 on, the one-drop rule alone applied.” Barbara Mann, “Man with a Cross: Hawkeye Was a Half-Breed” (presentation, American Literature Association Annual Conference, San Diego, CA, May, 1998): paragraph 2, jfcoopersociety.org/articles/ala/1998ala-mann.htm.
5 Ezra Tawil, The Making of Racial Sentiment: Slavery and the Birth of the Frontier Romance, Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 33; Barbara Mann, “Whipped Like a Dog: Crossed Blood in The Last of the Mohicans,” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 10), Papers from the 1995 Cooper Seminar (No. 10), ed. Hugh C. MacDougall (New York: State University of New York, Oneonta, 1999): 50, jfcoopersociety.org/articles/suny/1995suny-mann.htm.
6 Forest G. Robinson, “Uncertain Borders: Race, Sex, and Civilization in The Last of the Mohicans,” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 47, no. 1 (1991): 17, doi.org/10.1353/arq.1991.0008.
7 Cassandra Jackson, Barriers between Us: Interracial Sex in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Blacks in the Diaspora (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 3–4. While Jackson describes Cora as a mulatto, Chester Mills identifies her differently in the first endnote of his article “Ethnocentric Manifestations in Cooper’s Pioneers and the Last of the Mohicans,” arguing, “It would appear from the reading of the passage that not even her mother was ‘mulatto,’ and it can be argued that Cora belonged to that racial group in the Caribbean called octoroons.” Chester H. Mills, “Ethnocentric Manifestations in Cooper’s Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans,” Journal of Black Studies 16, no. 4 (1986): 448, doi.org/10.1177/002193478601600407.
8 Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 119.
9 Richard H. Brodhead, “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America,” Representations 21 (1988): 67–68, doi.org/10.2307/2928377. Christophersen alludes to this point as well; see Christophersen, “Missouri Crisis,” 277.
10 James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans, 1826, ed. Richard Slotkin (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 103. Subsequent references to this edition will appear parenthetically in the text.
11 Mann, “Whipped,” 56–57.
12 Some critics posit that sexual desire for Cora due to her African blood fuels Magua’s passion to retain control over her. Debra Rosenthal, for instance, argues that Cora’s lineage attracts Magua (and Uncas) due to their “racial affinity.” Robinson likewise states that “Cora’s blood ‘explains’ her sexuality; ... it makes her sexually attractive to Indians,” an articulation supported by Nina Baym as well. Mann, however, notes, “As Cooper correctly has Natty observe, Indians never raped female captives,” explaining in her endnotes that Native American warriors on the warpath worried the act of sex would rob them of their power. Debra J. Rosenthal, “Race Mixture and the Representation of Indians in the U.S. and the Andes: Cumandá, Aves sin nido, The Last of the Mohicans, and Ramona,” in Mixing Race, Mixing Culture: Inter-American Literary Dialogues, ed. Monika Kaup and Debra J. Rosenthal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 129; Robinson, “Uncertain Borders,” 21; Nina Baym, “The Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales,” American Quarterly 23, no. 5 (1971): 705, doi.org/10.2307/2712252; Mann, “Whipped,” 54.
13 Tawil, The Making of Racial Sentiment, 55–56. Christophersen notes this racial sentiment in Cooper’s time “was then a newly minted defense of slavery.” See Christophersen, “Missouri Crisis,” 276.
14 Magua’s sentiments additionally align with the pro-slavery political rhetoric of Cooper’s day by way of his characterization as a kind of politician among his peers. Cooper compares Magua’s skill at aligning the Hurons with his own selfish intentions to that of “the orator, or the politician” and comments that his oratorical talents “would have entitled Magua to the reputation of a skillful diplomatist” (283, 290). His diplomatic and rhetorical skills, combined with his racist ideology, then, subtly reference those contemporary pro-slavery politicians whose rhetoric intensified into and following the Missouri Crisis.
15 Heyward displays milder yet nonetheless racist tendencies towards Africans as well. Although he never treats Cora badly, when Munro accuses him of racial prejudice, he vehemently denies the indictment though he is “at the same time conscious of such a feeling, and that as deeply rooted as if it had been engrafted in his nature.” He later exhibits this prejudice while speaking with Alice in the cave (159, 260). Yet while Cooper presents Heyward as a more upright and redeemable character than Magua, he also imbues Heyward with an inept and wavering character, especially when compared to Uncas or even Hawkeye, and this largely strips his prejudice of its influential power. In fact, Heyward might present another example of the kind of embedded racial prejudice challenged by the novel.
16 That Cora comments on the color of both Magua’s and Uncas’s skin proves significant. Magua’s betrayal of Cora and her party might appear to prove her defense of him wrong and to imply the others’ distrust of him and his race warranted if he remained the only Native American in the novel she defends. But because she also espouses the same sentiments regarding Uncas, who becomes to them an honest and loyal friend, her words regarding skin color retain their power, for it is the actions of both Magua and Uncas, and not their race, that ultimately determine their character.
17 David Haberly interestingly points out the way in which Cora’s noble qualities might have been seen negatively by a contemporary readership, writing, “Bravery, quickness of action, mental and physical independence — and even the shedding of blood — were totally at odds with the ideal of the sentimental heroine.” The admiration the other characters overtly exhibit for Cora, though, seems to offset the potential for seeing Cora in this negative light. David T. Haberly, “Women and Indians: The Last of the Mohicans and the Captivity Tradition,” American Quarterly 28, no. 4 (1976): 434, doi.org/10.2307/2712539.
18 Alternatively, several critics come to the conclusion that Cooper kills off Cora and Uncas either to avoid the miscegenation a romantic union between the pair would entail or to justify or even advocate the enslavement, removal, or extermination of non-white peoples for the health of the new Republic. For examples of these arguments, see Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, “Recalling Cora: Family Resemblances in The Last of the Mohicans,” American Literary History 28, no. 2 (2016): 224, doi.org/10.1093/alh/ajw007; Jackson, Barriers, 10; Katherine Magyarody, “‘Sacred Ties of Brotherhood’: The Social Mediation of Imperial Ideology in The Last of the Mohicans and Canadian Crusoes,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 71, no. 3 (2016): 317, 323, doi.org/10.1525/ncl.2016.71.3.315; Mills, “Ethnocentric Manifestations,” 438; Robinson, “Uncertain Borders,” 17; Rosenthal, “Race Mixture,” 130; Lindsey Claire Smith, Indians, Environment, and Identity on the Borders of American Literature: From Faulkner to Morrison to Walker to Silko , American Literature Readings in the 21 st Century (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 28.