Teaching Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans in an American Literature Survey

Theresa Strouth Gaul (Texas Christian University)

Reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.

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

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

James Fenimore Cooper’s 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 Cooper’s 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 Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Philip Freneau’s “The Indian Burying Ground,” and William Cullen Bryant’s “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 Jackson’s “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 Apess’ sermon “The Indian’s 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 . Apess (1798-1839?), who was of Pequot, white, and possibly African-American ancestry, published seven items during the 1820s and ‘30s. In “The Indian’s 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. 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 talk about what the character might represent in the novel as a whole. The students write their findings on the board, and we use these lists as the basis for our analysis. Thoroughly discussing all eight characters usually takes several days, but doing so has the advantage of allowing the students to continue to read further in the novel.

I usually reserve for one of the later discussion days characters about whom more information is revealed later in the book, such as Hawkeye and Cora, so students can update their lists with new information. Although our discussion is very wide-ranging, I particularly focus on the ways that Cooper establishes racial categories: Magua and Chingachgook as representing “bad” and “good” Indians; David, Duncan, and Alice as representing the values of civilization, white manhood, and white womanhood, respectively; and Hawkeye, Cora, and Uncas as characters who seem to straddle categories or elude firm boundaries.

Hawkeye’s refrains — “I’m a genuine white” and “I’m a man without a cross” — come in for particular scrutiny. I ask the students what they think he means by these statements and why he needs to restate them throughout the novel. This can lead to useful conversations about his hybrid identity and, of course, intersects with my discussions of theories of racial identity during the period.

Ultimately, our discussions return to what I have earlier established as key questions when reading the novel: What can we infer about Cooper’s attitudes toward the controversy surrounding Indian removal? What does he see as the possibilities for coexistence between white and American Indians? In my experience, students tend to have differing conclusions about Cooper’s attitudes toward relationships across races or whether he supports contemporary American Indian policy and the thrust toward removal in his novel. Their disagreement on these issues can create the circumstances for a classroom debate.

The 1992 movie version of the novel also offers a chance to capture the attention of students. Although they often want to view it because it they think it will help them understand the novel, the radical changes in plot, character, and theme in the film serve to connect discussions of the novel to the present day. Working from one student’s comment, “Finally, a movie that is better than the book!”, we can discuss how or why an accurate dramatization of the novel might not meet the expectations or desires of a 1990s audience. Contrasting the novel and the film, and the politics implied therein, can help to solidify their understandings of the themes of the novel.

As we proceed through the rest of the nineteenth century in the course, The Last of the Mohicans provides a useful touchstone. We revisit questions of racial identity and inter-racial relationships in the texts we read later about slavery and reconstruction; we continue to interrogate the models of whiteness, both feminine and masculine, established by Cooper; and we examine more representations of the figure of the racially-ambiguous heroine.

Of course, the novel is also useful in elucidating more traditional concerns in a literature class, such as the development of romanticism and realism. Twain’s critique of Cooper, “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” for example, provides a transition into realism and a humorous outlet for students’ residual frustrations with Cooper. Despite the real difficulties of teaching this novel, I continue to include it in my syllabus.

Rather than re-enshrining a traditional text in a traditionally-conceived survey course, I use The Last of the Mohicans to open up discussions informed by recent scholarship and to heighten my students’ awareness that the “multi- culturalism” of the United States is not a new phenomenon but one that has a long legacy which is given articulation in Cooper’s novel.


1. This paper was first presented at the South Central Modern Language Association Conference 2000, The Gunther Hotel, San Antonio, 11 November 2000.

2. Lucy Maddox, Removals: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Politics of Indian Affairs (New York : Oxford University Press, 1991).

3. My understanding of these changes is informed by Robert Bieder, Science Encounters the Indian, 1820-1880: The Early Years of American Ethnology (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981) and William Stanton, The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes Toward Race in America, 1815-59 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).

4. Nina Baym and others, eds., Norton Anthology of American Literature, vol. 1, 5th ed., (New York: Norton, 1998) includes the Cherokee Memorials of 1828 and 1829 and Apess’ sermon. Paul Lauter, ed., Heath Anthology of American Literature, vol. 1, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998) also includes Apess’ sermon and includes a larger selection of Native American voices, including selections from John Quinney, Elias Boudinot, Chief Seattle, and John Rollin Ridge. Apess’ collected writings are found in a volume edited by Barry O’Connell entitled On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, A Pequot (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992). Black Hawk’s Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia- kiak or Black Hawk (New York: Dover, 1994) also works well in this context.

5. For an introduction to the scholarship occurring in this field, see Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control (New York: Verso, 1994); the essays in Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, eds., Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997) and in Mike Hill, ed., Whiteness: A Critical Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1997); David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1991); and Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Verso, 1990).

6. I have found Gary Edgerton’s article, “A Breed Apart: Hollywood, Racial Stereotyping, and the Promise of Revisionism in The Last of the Mohicans,” Journal of American Culture 17, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 1-17 to be useful in thinking about these questions.

7. For example, in a discussion of Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” my students initiated a fruitful line of inquiry which culminated in comparisons of Benito Cereno and Alice Munro as feminized representations of whiteness, Babo and Magua as “savage others,” Amasa Delano and Duncan Heywood as representions of white American manhood, and Atufal and Uncas as “noble savages.”

8. I have also included the novel in a freshman seminar entitled “Native Americans in American Literature and Culture” and a graduate course entitled “Race in American Literature, 1620-1860.”