Empire of Tears

Robert Fanuzzi (St. Johns University)

Presented at the 9ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1993.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1993 Cooper Seminar (No. 9), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. James D. Wallace, editor. (pp. 37-51).

Copyright © 1993, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

How could a small Atlantic republic so intent on preserving liberty and self-government for its own citizenry become an almost trans-continental empire in such a short time? For the partisan of the young republic, this was a moral as well as a logistical question. True, the answer had been provided by Jefferson, who envisioned an “empire for liberty” and set about subdividing the continent. Indeed, it can be argued that American economic policy was tied to westward expansion since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (Wiebe 131-52). But the question of what this expansion meant for the republican experiment still awaited its elucidation as a narrative whose beginning revealed founding principles and whose conclusion adumbrated a national destiny. In other words, the problem awaited the historian.

The national histories written by Belknap, Bancroft, Barlow, Dana, Dwight, Parkman, and even Toqueville indeed roll across the page like the progress of liberty across the continent. Their service to the republic was to discover the rationale for the nation’s territorial expansion in the original impetus for colonization. The Puritans’ success at land acquisition and corporate enterprise could then become expressive of a pre-existent, constant imperative to journey toward unpeopled westward horizons.

But perhaps the historians’ greatest service to the republic was to create an historical actor to match their grand historical perspective. Jefferson had imagined this actor as “a cloud of light, increasing our knowledge and improving our condition” (583). The historians of the early republic were not so fond of oxymoron as Jefferson, but they likewise nominated an incorporeal, irresistible sovereign as the agent of conquest. Whether they called it the spirit of enterprise, the spread of liberty, or the victory of civilization, the intent was always the same: to make empire-building seem to follow from transcendental necessity. In his History of the United States, Bancroft considered human actors only the passive witnesses to “a favoring Providence, [which,] calling our institutions into being, has conducted the country to its present happiness and glory” (4).

Cooper also yearned to perform a historian’s service to the republic. As such, his task was {38} to account for what he called in The Pioneers “the magical change”: the transformation of Indian lands into the dominion of the United States. His early novels do follow historiographical convention in painting the most flattering portraits of industrious colonists and yeomen improving “empty wastes”. And in Notions of the Americans, he goes so far as to anoint an invisible agent of national progress: what he called the “practical reason of the American” (quoted in McWilliams, Political Justice 136). But Cooper was too immediate an observer, too exacting a historian, and perhaps too anxious a custodian of republican values to assume the theories of inevitable, unforced national conquest that his fellow historians propounded. Cooper’s engagement with the marketplace of popular fiction allowed him to explore the causes and effects of empire-building in ways that his fellow historians could not.

The result of this often felicitous engagement with the literary marketplace was something far different from history as was written: a narrative account of territorial conquest constructed with the conventions, arguments, and ends of woman’s fiction. It was thus with a feminine genre and its concept of the feminine that Cooper created his national epic. This is not just to say that Cooper merely tried on the vestments of women’s fiction in order to soften his manly histories. His role was more creative. As I hope to show, Cooper’s commitment to the historian’s task actually helped him to usher the sentimental novel into the literary marketplace and to elevate its womanly ideals. Subsequent decades might feature a marketplace divided between masculine and feminine literary genres, but in the 1820s, Cooper would have found it impossible to fulfill his most epic aspirations without deliberately and earnestly employing the arguments of women’s fiction.

The historical purpose to which Cooper would put those arguments is especially evident in the major novels of the 1820s. Together, they comprise what might be called a sentimental national epic. Central to Cooper’s apologia for American dominion over the continent in The Spy, Lionel Lincoln, in the three Leatherstocking Tales, and in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish is a portrait of a family-centered affective society constrained in space and time only by the limits of human sympathy. Indeed, each novel ends with the suggestion that the expansion of the nation would be neither complete nor sanctified until Indian land and/or British colony were peopled with the loving families that this sympathy engendered. It would follow that the historical epic of this nation could not justify its claim to empire with tales of religious missions or of martial exploits or of inexorable economic advancement. It had to inscribe a force more powerful. It had to be filled with tears. And in Cooper’s early novels, no one could stop tears. 1

In claiming the feminine origins of a national epic, I hope I am merely following the lead of the many literary historians who acknowledge Cooper’s canny and conscious use of existing popular genres. 2 I will make two related arguments that follow from this fact. The first is that the {39} women’s courtship novel and the historical romance were inseparable genres; the second is that the wilderness adventure story provided both form and content for the sentimental novel.

The enduring account of Cooper’s literary origins is his determination to copy the novel of manners — or courtship novel — as practiced by Mrs. Opie, the British moralist. This determination resulted in Precaution, a rather anti-romantic tale of disastrous dalliance and level-headed courtship. Cooper is said to have cast aside influences both foreign and female for the patriotic adventure of The Spy, his historical romance of the American Revolution (Wallace 84-7).

Before I get to close readings of the early novels, it’s important to amend the foregoing Cooper history to reflect the confusing and often heterogeneous nature of the literary marketplace in the early part of the century. Although literary critics often counterpoise women’s popular fiction to the “serious” (read: masculine) genres of essays, histories, poems, and sermons, the distinction between them cannot be so firmly maintained and is certainly not one of object. 3 It is true that British courtship novels dominated the literary marketplace in both Britain and America in the early part of the nineteenth century, but they consistently preached against romantic folly, passionate attachments, and luxurious tastes — in short, all the dangerous things that novels were said to cultivate. As practiced by the British novelists Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Mrs. Opie, Jane Austen, and their American imitators, the most popular women’s novel always showed the triumph of a dispassionate, sensible heroine over either a reformed rake, an abusive guardian, or a captivating rival — and sometimes all three. This level-headed heroine and her hard-won triumphs would be the staples of women’s fiction in America until the Civil War (Baym, Women’s Fiction 21-35; Spencer 143).

Upon reading the short fiction of Mrs. Opie, one finds endless variations of a classical republican theme: virtue is the only alternative to ruin. This would have made her novels perfectly intelligible to the patriotic readers of early America. For instance, in “The Death-Bed,” a fallen woman’s final office is her death, which convinces her daughter not to run away with her seducer. in “The Mother and Son,” another fallen woman leaves her long-lost son after only a short reunion so that her reputation will not soil the marriage of the son and a sweet heiress. And in Adeline Mowbray, the fallen woman is modeled after none other than Mary Wollstonecraft, who finds redemption upon her death-bed in the arms of her mother. 4

It is because the writer of these novels did not fail to describe the violent outpouring of tears that they are distinguished or sometimes denigrated as women’s fiction. But their defense of virtue and their edifying purpose also means that they shared the same political agenda as the male writers of early America. Literary historians tell us that the early literature of the republic — including sermons, essays, poetry, oratory, and translations — was written by teachers, ministers, {40} merchants, and lawyers in explicit service to the young republic. Their self-appointed task was to educate the populace for the purpose of self-government. Satire was especially important branch of republican literature because it could expose the notorious excesses of democracy. 5 But perhaps no literary genre was so critical to the success of the republican experiment as history. For the man of letters in service to the republic, historical writing corresponded to a horizon of truth from which the self-evident principles of the nation were derived. Its claim to truth allowed historical narrative to serve as an article of patriotism and to command the American citizen’s regard.

It should come as no surprise that historiography as practiced by such patriots as Choate, Barlow, Belknap, and Ingersoll could not fail to reveal the republic’s most cherished political principles. Although historians today could not countenance such chauvinism, it is this transparent moral purpose of post-Revolutionary historiography that made the historical narratives of the early nineteenth century so readily transferable into a literary commodity. Histories would have been easily absorbed by a marketplace of novel readers because the principles they invariably revealed were the selfsame as propounded by the women’s novel. (I should add here that this affinity of history with a popular genre is what provided for the marketplace success of a second generation of historians: Irving, Cooper, Parkman, Dana, and Hawthorne (Dekker, American Historical Romance 24-58)). Common to the narratives of both genres was a simple republican allegory: the triumph of reason and the superiority of virtue. This common moral allowed Lydia Maria Child to recommend the novels of Mrs. Opie along with histories and biographies as proper reading for young citizens (quoted in Baym, Women’s Fiction 52).

I think that Cooper’s aspiration to what he called “the office of the historian” need not be established here (Prairie, 1-3). But his determination, as stated in the preface of The Pioneers, to reveal the “principles” of events suggests the feminine origins of his historical temperament. One can indeed argue from surveying his novels of the 1820s that the historical elements Cooper included in his narratives were those that allowed him to articulate the correct relations between males and females that courtship novels advised. He might be forgiven so soon after Precaution for repeating the courtship drama in The Spy, but almost all of the action of the American Revolution is recalled only as it effects the relations between rival women, between women and their suitors, and between women and their parents, or parent substitutes, in the case of George Washington. If as Nina Baym tells us, these three relations would become the dramatic conventions of antebellum women’s fiction (Woman’s Fiction 22-50), then is The Spy an early example of an American historical romance or a late example of a courtship novel? The answer to the question is, of course, yes. At the risk of sounding trendy, we can conclude that the historical romance which Cooper developed in the 1820s was an androgynous genre. So small a distinction prevailed between the male and female voice in the 1820s that the European editions of Catharine Sedgwick’s Redwood were published with Cooper’s name on the title page. 6 Although the literary {41} genres would by the 1850s be clearly divided between genders, the prominence of the historical romance in the early part of the nineteenth century suggests that the creation of separate natures for men and women was in no small part related to the development of the literary marketplace.

The intimacy between masculine and feminine literary modes in the historical romance can be traced to its British origin. It is a little noticed thesis of Dekker’s theory of the historical romance that Maria Edgeworth, an Irish writer who is included in the courtship school of Mrs. Opie, is credited with inventing the genre. Cooper might have copied Scott, but Scott copied Edgeworth novels like The Absentee and Castle Rackrent. Both works portrayed the transition from an older courtly order to a crass new one in painfully personal (read: domestic) terms (James Fenimore Cooper, 21-43). To square this circle, it’s worth noting that Sedgwick, whose historical romances competed with Cooper’s on the best-seller lists during the 1820s and was likewise compared to Scott, dedicated her first novel to Edgeworth, even though that novel, A New England Tale, was a courtship novel of domestic intrigue. 7 That both male and female authors could travel so easily between genres suggests that there is simply no way to disentangle the historical material of epic from the domestic concerns of the woman’s novel. Edgeworth, Scott, Sedgwick, and Cooper found the story of a young person’s family relations and marital deliberations not to be an obstacle to the task of historical narration but to be its expedient.

The social history of the 1820s runs parallel to its literary history. Indeed, the Victorian ideal of separate spheres for separate genders was still in its infancy when Cooper was writing his early novels. To be sure, there was never been any doubt of masculine supremacy in the pre-Victorian home, but the domestic life to which Cooper was witness in gentrified New York State would have joined men and women in economic, social, political, and religious duty. In her history of the family, Stephanie Coontz describes homes in the colonial and post-Revolutionary period as working households — centers of manufacturing, agriculture, education, worship, and socializing for a class-differentiated community. We can see this ideal recreated in The Spy, The Pioneers, The Wept, and even in a perverted form in The Prairie. The division of genders into separate and incompatible natures, Coonz says, accompanied the separation of work and family brought about by competitive individualism and the factory system (161-209). That Cooper was led to resurrect the gentry ideal of New York State later in his career suggests that his opposition to these developments provided him with a conception of domesticity that united rather than divided the genders. One sees in the portraits of antebellum gentry families young boys in dresses and young men with lace (Greven, 243-309).

Cooper would fix himself within the domestic world of family relations throughout the novels of the 1820s. With such an emphasis, he could narrate historical change in microcosm, but Cooper’s choice of domestic themes more importantly served the moral purpose he had inherited {42} from woman’s fiction. His commentary on marriage — that is a “contract for life” akin to the “indissoluble” relation between government and citizens (quoted in Sundquist, 7) — suggests a political theory and republican idealism inspired by the teleology of the courtship narrative. His sometimes awkward courtship of women readers should for this reason not be dismissed as a commercial expedient but be seen as an extension of the moral project that was enjoined upon him in his service to the republic. That service could be discharged through the novel because he was writing in a genre and for a marketplace that was yet to be divided by gender.

It was precisely Cooper’s enthusiasm for a central convention of the courtship novel that led him toward his most distinctive historical insight. As I suggested above, that convention was marriage — the outcome of reason and the triumph of virtue, according to the courtship novel. Much the same thing could be and was said about the empire America was building. Cooper’s accomplishment in the historical romance was to align the claims for marriage and empire in order to validate them both, He did this most explicitly in The Prairie, in a passage in which he attempted to explain the growth of the nation:

“In such a novel intermixture, however, of men born and nurtured in freedom and the compliant minions of absolute power, some little time was necessary to blend the discrepant elements of society. In attaining so desirable an end, woman was made to perform her accustomed and grateful office. The barriers of prejudice and religion were broken through by the irresistible power of the master passion, and family unions erelong began to cement the political tie which had made a forced conjunction between people so opposite in their habits, their educations, and their opinions” (1-3).

Cooper was habitually drawn to the convention of a climactic happy marriage as a symbol of political, social, (never racial) reconciliation. But the phrase from The Prairie is worth repeating because it invests both government and marriage with more dynamic action: “the irresistible power of the master passion.” Here Cooper assigns a name to the agent in history responsible for the “magical change” that transformed the landscape: none other than the consummated love between man and woman. This love did not just populate the landscape with propagating pioneer families but imperiously swept aside the moral obstacles to conquest.

A comic moment in The Pioneers is evidence of Cooper’s full awareness of this proposition. Elizabeth is looking out the window of her father’s estate and is breathless with admiration for the winter landscape. With intended redundancy, Cooper has her remark to her sisterly rival, “See Louisa, hasten to the window and observe the miraculous change!” Louisa agrees, but what her loving eyes settle on is the newly outfitted Oliver Edwards, also miraculously {43} transformed from a rustic hunter into a regular gentleman. This is Cooper showing us his slip — using the same trope with which he earlier described the most sweeping historical change in a petty romantic setting from a courtship novel. We shouldn’t say petty — Edward’s miraculous transformation into a husband is precisely the lever that changes the landscape. Cooper has Elizabeth complete the point and the joke by saying, “Everything in this magical country seems to border on the marvelous. ... The actors are as unique as the scenery” (204).

One convention of Cooper’s historical romance that seems distant from the domestic realm circumscribed by the courtship novel is the wilderness adventure. But here again, Cooper can be seen to have been writing in a feminine mode. Some speculative literary history is required here, but the unexpected lineage of the wilderness adventure can help us refine our thesis about Cooper’s early novels. The combination of courtship and adventure in the historical romances of the 1820s was actually formative of the plots of the sentimental novels that dominated the marketplace of the 1840s and 50s. It’s probably accurate to say that Cooper, along with Sedgwick, was a mother of the sentimental novel in America.

To substantiate this wild claim, it is necessary to return to the beginning, to perhaps the first truly native genre of American literature — the Puritan captivity narrative. 8 That the first and most famous was written by a mother unlucky enough to witness the death of her child is of great significance, for I will argue here that the sentimental novel and the wilderness adventure tale had a shared origin in the captivity narrative. Of course, Rowlandson meant her narrative to demonstrate the omnipotence of Providence and the demonism of the Indians. Her religious allegory could also serve as an apologia for the recently concluded King Philip’s War, which inspired so much of the Puritan literature that nineteenth century historians and romancers would later reconstruct.

Yet the Puritans did not exhaust the utility of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. Succeeding generations of readers saw in her ordeal an allegory of colonial independence, an example of a woman’s fortitude, or just an entertaining adventure story. So pliant was the captivity narrative to the changing tastes and purposes of American society that Rowlandson’s narrative, first published in 1682, continued to be published throughout the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century. This intended addendum to her husband’s sermon was thus the first country’s genre of popular fiction. Indeed, literary historians state a positive connection between Rowlandson’s spiritual allegory and the frontier adventure story that developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. As Richard Slotkin notes, her demonizing treatment of Indians would have endeared her narrative to succeeding generations of Americans seeking moral justification for Indian Removal and/or salacious details of savagery (441-6). In the wilderness adventure story of the nineteenth century, there seemed to be no limit to the appetite for details of this kind. The tales of cannibalism and blood ritual in the novels of John Neal, William Gilmore Simms, and Robert {44} Montgomery Bird make Cooper’s version of Indian atrocities in The Leatherstocking Tales seem demure.

Like many of the captivity narratives, Rowlandson’s was so overdetermined in meaning that it engendered a literary genre seemingly antithetical to the popular wilderness adventure: story. A provocative thesis that I find myself compelled to offer holds that Rowlandson’s tale of endangered femininity provided the basis for the English novel of manners perfected by Richardson and then later copied by Americans. It is not only the unflagging popularity of Rowlandson’s narrative in England that provides evidence for this claim but also a narrative isomorphism. In both the captivity narrative and the Richardsonian novel, the heroine finds herself beset by dangers to her person — to be more specific, to her virtue. The vice of her captors, whether they be animalistic savages or prurient aristocrats, provided a perfect foil for a tale of moral edification (Armstrong).

Although I offer the connection of the captivity narrative and the courtship novels as an entirely nascent thesis, it is important for establishing the feminine content of the genre. It is true that captivity narratives were written by men — including Defoe and many fugitive slaves — but the wilderness captivity tale continued to be the province of women authors from the time Rowlandson first wrote to the nineteenth century. A competitor of Cooper’s and Sedgwick’s on the best-seller list during the 1820s was A Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison, as told by Mrs. Jemison (with her lawyer present) to James Everett Seaver. Jemison’s story is notable for her unrepentant love of her Indian husbands and her unusual bravery. An earlier best-selling captivity narrative titled The Panther Captivity recalled how its heroine effected her escape by slaughtering her Indian captors.

The wilderness captivity narrative commonly featured these female heroics, but it also included another element that was not intended to detract from the heroine’s manifest bravery: tears. From Rowlandson’s onward, every captivity narrative attempted with various degrees of success to describe the violence of grief. To be sure, the cause of this grief was obvious: the captives endured deprivation, the loss of family and children, and unremitting tests of faith. But the suffering and the tears that accompanied these trials was explicitly presented in these narratives as a woman’s lot. 9 The captivity narrative thus told the story of an aggrieved woman’s unlikely triumph over abominable tribulation.

This should start to sound familiar. As Nina Baym tells us, that triumph and the ordeals that precede it is the narrative sui generis of the sentimental novel (35). To be sure, women in the sentimental novel of the 1840s and 50s often break down and cry, but their tears are usually the measure of the awful indignity that they suffer with and eventually transcend — whether the indignity be that of poverty, the death of parents, or the loss of children. Readers of The {45} Lamplighter, The Wide Wide World, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin will immediately recognize these themes, as well as the female heroics their young mothers are regularly called to perform. The sentimental novel thus took its dominant themes — the heroics of motherhood, the visitation of tribulation, and the expressiveness of grief — from the captivity narrative.

But novels didn’t take conventions from each other. The conversion from captivity narrative into sentimental novel awaited an author who was deeply committed to its themes and its original historical setting. I want to argue here that it was none other than Cooper — along with Sedgwick — that birthed the sentimental novel from the captivity narrative by writing historical romances. Far from muscling in on the historical romances’ feminine aspect, Cooper’s investment in the wilderness adventure and historical setting of the captivity narrative allowed him to cultivate the sentiment of women’s fiction.

The Leatherstocking Tales are evidence that Cooper did not need to confine himself to the Puritans to include captivity narratives in his historical romances. Indians of all eras carry off women of all ages. But both Cooper and Sedgwick found that the legacy of the Puritan captivity narrative allowed them to write exciting wilderness adventures that articulated the full range of emotions that family ties engendered. Even more importantly, these two authors also found that the captivity tales provided them with historical material — namely, the Puritans victory over the Indians — that could be used for the direct purpose of expressing grief. The historical romance that was inspired by a captivity tale allowed an author to describe both womanly sentiment and events of historical import without deciding between gender or genre. The sentimental novels of the 1840s and 50s would later take off from Cooper and Sedgwick to elicit grief as an end it itself, but it was Cooper’s singular innovation to turn around and use grief to explain the historical events of his early romances.

(Before I get to Cooper’s ode to grief, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, I wish to make a last mention of Sedgwick. That she is called both a pioneer of both the sentimental novel and the American historical romance indicates the bond between these genres. Indeed, Hope Leslie, Sedgwick’s history of the Indians’ defeat, seems to plunder its historical sources — including the captivity narrative and the histories of the two Puritan wars — for the purpose of dramatizing female heroism. The novel’s story of a Puritan heroine enduring the loss of family and reputation is obviously a case in which a historical romance could be said to contain an incipient sentimental novel, but the same is true of A New England Tale, Sedgwick’s first novel. That novel tells the story of the orphan Jane, who endures the depredations of a wicked aunt and the advances of a reformed rake to return to the home of her father. To be sure, the New England history to which the title alludes and the many adventures in the wilderness serve only as background to Jane’s tearful ordeal, but Sedgwick had not jettisoned her commitment to history. She was taking the {46} narrative of female heroism from its Puritan source and projecting it forward as a moral ideal for women of the nineteenth century. Ann Douglas upbraids Sedgwick’s departing from the challenges of manly history to write womanly fiction, but the careful attention to literary history of the period indicates that it might have been her very interest in her historical material that moved Sedgwick toward the sentimental novel.)

The Cooper novel that most obviously contains the antecedents of the sentimental novel is The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish. Cooper obviously meant this family chronicle of the Heathcotes to narrate the violent conflict between two generations of Puritans and the various Indian nations of New England. 10 I’ve already discussed Cooper’s commitment to a gentrified domestic ideal, which is lovingly recreated in the first half of the book. But I wish now to concentrate on the meaning of the title. “Wept” refers to one who is mourned with tears. Specifically, it refers to the daughter of Content and Ruth Heathcote, who spends most of the book as the captive wife of a Narragansett chief, Conanchet. But the “wept” also refers to all who are mourned, and that includes the exterminated Indians.

The climax of the novel is the tragedy that follows from Conanchet’s attempt to return his wife and their baby to the Puritan family which had once sheltered him. But the dramatic center of the novel had been established early on in the person of Ruth, the grieving mother. Before her daughter is taken, it alone is Ruth who is able to communicate to young Conanchet with a language of love and sympathy. And when her wept is returned to her late in the novel, it is Ruth who is almost able to “deprogram” her savage daughter by singing her the lullabies of motherhood. So strong is the love of motherhood that even Conanchet, whose savage nature, according to Cooper, would have made him insensible to womanly sentiment, weeps copious tears at the sight of the reunion between mother and daughter. The “manly softness” that he exhibits is explained as a mark of his past residence with the Puritan family (380).

The ending of the novel shows the most poignant contrasts between the vengeful, militant Puritans and the exquisite pain of parenthood, just as the first half of the novel had derived its pathos from the spectacle of Puritan parents selflessly defending their children from the heathen Indians. But the true significance of all this weeping is made clear only in the coda to the novel, when the author and historian of the tale we have been reading returns to the graves of Conanchet, his English wife, and the grieving mother. All three of these figures died in grief, and their office to the white community that has sprung up around their graves is to permanently aggrieve them so that they may conduct their lives in the full exercise of their sentiment. The perpetual shedding of tears connects the community of Wish-ton-Wish to its past. This connection imparts permanence to the present and, in turn, justifies its future. If his readers also wept those tears, then Cooper would have performed the historian’s service to the republic and justified the nation.

The Last of the Mohicans is perhaps Cooper’s most militant use of womanly sentiment. The conventions of the captivity narrative, the fear of miscegenation, and the heroism of female endurance are all on display there, but even more prescient of sentimental novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin are the tearful scenes that arise when parents are separated from their children. The desire of parents and children to reunite is the driving force of the narrative and every image of heroism. The climactic reunion between Munro and his daughters is worth quoting at length:

[Alice] threw herself on the bosom of [Cora], and sobbed aloud the name of their aged father, while her soft, dove-like eyes sparkled with the rays of hope.

“We are saved! We are saved,” she murmured; “to return to the arms of our dear, dear father, and his heart will not be broken with grief.” ... To these ardent and nearly incoherent words Cora made no other answer than by straining the youthful speaker to her heart, as she bent over her, in melting tenderness. The manhood of Heyward felt no shame in dropping tears over this spectacle of affectionate rapture; and Uncas stood, fresh and blood-stained from the combat, a calm, and, apparently, an unmoved looker-on, it is true, but with eyes that had already lost their fierceness, and were beaming with a sympathy that elevated him far above the intelligence, and advanced him probably centuries before the practices of his nation (115).

The obvious argument of this passage is that the effusion of sentiment marks the progress of civilization, but equally important is the fact that Cooper allowed his male protagonists — and I mean here Uncas and Heyward, not the uncivilizable Natty and Chingachgook — the full exercise of sentiment. Cooper’s purpose in The Last of the Mohicans and in the rest of his sentimental epic was to clear out a vast middle ground for feeling persons of both genders to occupy. He saw this middle ground as the literal future of the nation and plotted his novels so as to disqualify the two extremes: the hyper-masculinized savages and the overly rational French. Cooper even gives the most ruthless Indian, Magua, a French nom de guerre and the devious calculation of an arch French diplomat to suggest that one extreme is as offensive to the genial Anglo-American norm as the other. The male and female readers of this epic could not but feel that it was their own affinity with this norm and with each other that had delivered the continent to them. Cooper thus helped to make the spectacle of conquest perfectly intelligible to an ethical, emotive, and expanding middle class society by representing the political triumph of Anglo-American culture as the triumph of liberal human nature. For Cooper, that was the only nature that would not change. And in the end, that is the nature that his wilderness novels apotheosize.

The last scene of The Last of the Mohicans is one of Cooper’s most strenuous attempts to account for Anglo-American dominion over the European colonies and Indian nations. Not surprisingly, it is also one of the most tearful. Cooper used the grief elicited by the funeral of Uncas and Cora to present womanly sentiment as a suitable indeed, the only acceptable mode of being. Heard throughout this scene is what Cooper calls “the sound ... of females ... thrillingly soft and wailing” (365). The sound is that of the mourning Indian women, who finally make a prominent appearance in the novel after being subordinated to white men, red men, and white women. They are the only Indians left after the male bloodline — in the person of Uncas — has been symbolically cut, but Cooper suggests that the inconsolable sorrow of the female Delawares marks the birth of the future — that is, the America of the 1820s. That sorrow will make the Indians fit to join a nation of fellow weepers in their feminized, pacified state. The Mohicans may be doomed to extinction, but the continent belongs to those, like Heyward and Alice, united by their capacity for sentiment. The future which Cooper foretold was in this sense his ideal version of the modern American republic: a nation composed of sensitive men, sympathetic women, and much to Cooper’s delight, sentimental novel readers.

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1 I am taking the premise that novels are instrumental to the development of nationalism from Anderson, who describes novel-reading as the process by which communities imagine themselves as a cultural totality (22-36).

2 See for example Wallace 67-80; Dekker and McWilliams 1-14; Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper 17-43. My difference from Dekker’s account is that I do not axiomatically consider the English novel of manners as “the worst possible model” for Cooper’s historical romance (17).

3 Douglas is one such scholar whose critique of women’s fiction laments its inattention to history and public discourse (185). Compare an account of eighteenth century women writing national history in Baym, “Women and the Republic.” McWilliams ultimately suggests a “definitional chaos” between genres during the early years of the American literary marketplace (“The Rationale for ‘The American Romance’” 71).

4 Dickering places the moral argument of women’s novels in the context of English ecclesiastical change (4-28).

5 This account of early American literature taken from Buell 30-40; Ziff 58-64; Ferguson 11-163; Davidson; Charvat 5-28.

6 The arch response of Sedgwick to this confusion is documented in Foster 68-70.

7 The full dedication reads, “To Maria Edgeworth, as a slight expression of the writer’s sense of her eminent services in the great cause of human virtue and improvement, this humble tale is respectfully dedicated” (A New England Tale).

8 The following account of Rowlandson, the captivity narrative, and the popular wilderness adventure tale is from Slotkin, 65-102 and Reynolds, 38 and 183-188.

9 On grief, gender and the allegorical imperatives of the captivity novel form, see Breitweiser.

10 Motley considers Wept as recording transformations of patriarchy (10-22).