Without a Cross: Writing the Nation in The Last of the Mohicans

Richard Hancuff (George Washington University)

Presented at the 11ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1997.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 11), Papers from the 1997 Cooper Seminar (No. 11), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 56-59).

Copyright © 1999, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

When James Fenimore Cooper began writing “The Leatherstocking Tales” in the mid 1820s, he may not have been aware of the legacy his “series of stories ... written in a very desultory and inartificial manner” (“Preface” 351) were bound to leave on the reading public, even though he felt they would endure longer than any of his other works. Certainly, the character Hawkeye — or Natty Bumppo, Leatherstocking, and the other names given him over the course of five novels — along with Chingachgook were the young novelist’s most popular figures with his readers. By returning to the frontiersman and Chingachgook in The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper was creating a continuity between his novels, a thread that would eventually stretch through a significant span of early American history, from 1740 to 1804. During this time, the American settlements went from colonies to states of an independent nation, perched precariously on the edge of a vast and forebodingly unknown (to the Europeans) continent. That Cooper himself is often seen as a pioneer of the American literary frontier makes the setting of his novels all the more appropriate. Or perhaps we could look at the question differently: the settings, far from being chance moments, operate as the most fitting stages upon which Cooper’s themes can approach the question of nation building, and that his reputation follows from the solidifying effect his writing had on the American ideal.

In establishing the idea of the nation, I will refer to post colonial theory, for the work being done in this area addresses the complex process of national identity that I see at work in The Last of the Mohicans. In another context, Homi Bhabha writes that “at the insurmountable extremes of storytelling, we encounter the question of cultural difference as the perplexity of living and writing the nation” (161). Writing the nation must always confront this otherness, for the boundary always pushes against what is on “the other side.” The edge defines itself by its difference from what lies beyond it. Taken this way, Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans reveals an interface between known and unknown, across cultures, that transports its reader (a reader of the 1820s perhaps) to the site of cultural difference where a nation creates identity. The text takes place in that liminal space between cultures and signals a rejection of the plodding British approach to the New World — evidenced by the often dangerously naive Heyward — while at the same time it cannot comprehend the Native American culture, reducing it instead to “noble savages,” typified by Uncas, and downright evil savages, who were conveniently allied with the French. Out of this interface comes a fantastical figure, Hawkeye, who embodies the best of both worlds: he possesses both the leadership and technological savvy thought to be the domain of the white man and the ability to read nature and live practically thought to be the inherent qualities of the natives. This new man, this American, still holds, however, to the purity of the white race, constantly exclaiming that there is no cross in his blood, and the text does finally establish an America that includes no place for Native Americans, despite the lessons learned from them.

By this I am not saying that Cooper’s intention was to exclude the Native American, but I am signaling that, regardless of intention, the text tells a story beyond control of the author: as Barthes argues, “it is language which speaks, not the author” (Barthes, “Death” 143).

As William Kelly has pointed out, the readers of Cooper’s text in 1826 (as well as we) “understand that the tribes and the European armies of the novel will be displaced by American settlers” (48); the word “last” in the title correctly describes the fate not only of the Mohicans, but also of the other tribes whose land and lives give way before the force of westward expansion. Kelly reminds us that The Pioneers (published in 1823) informs the reader of The Last of the Mohicans, thereby creating an intertextual reference that will color the reading: the end has been pre-given. This fact leads to an interesting dilemma: if the reader before he or she even opens the text “knows the outcome,” that is the historical background, then what is the purpose of reading the novel? Hayden White asks a similar question when he writes, “What wish is enacted, what desire is gratified, by the fantasy that real events are properly represented when they can be shown to display the formal coherence of a story?” (4). Furthermore, one could ask whose wish is enacted: author, reader, text? And when dealing with The Last of the Mohicans, we must be aware that the historical backgrounds have been adapted to the narrative’s needs.

In his preface Cooper asks that his book be read as historical narrative and not as romance. He makes this request despite having fudged the accounts and the alliances. Perhaps in these events we find an important clue to the role of this text in mediating American culture, because as Hayden White argues, narrative histories can only arise out of a culture’s ranking of historical events (10). The narrative form reveals events that are important enough to generate tales for a culture, and this quality is culture specific: the effects of a devastating flood are much more important and troubling to [57] the residents of flood ravaged areas than they are to inhabitants of flood free locales. Of course, narrative supplies much more than an interesting story; it also provides interpretive power and herein we have the possibility of control of history. White argues that “narrativity ... is intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality, that is to identify it with the social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine” (14). Within the writing of the history we have bound up the perspective which records it, who controls it through a recasting of sequential events in an ideological framework. In Nietzsche’s view, these interpretive positions always exist under conditions of power: “values and their changes are related to increases in the power of those positing the values (14). Therefore any act of narrativizing places one already within the realm of value creation and power, which are themselves closely connected.

John McWilliams attests to the power of Cooper’s text in generating a picture of history when he states, “the world’s image of the American Indian owes more to the Leatherstocking Tales, in particular to The Last of the Mohicans, than to any other written text” (ix). The text provides a doubled image of both demonic and noble “savages” within a captivity narrative rife with miscegenation anxiety, producing a powerful site upon which the notion of the nation can be built. Hawkeye insists on his purity, barking out, whenever there may be a question about it, that he is “a man without a cross,” and Colonel Munro suspects Duncan of racist motives in his desire for Alice as opposed to Cora, who is descended distantly from an African slave brought to the West Indies. These racial concerns cannot be overlooked, especially in a novel about the tumultuous years preceding the American Revolution.

At this point it may be valuable to return to Bhabha’s idea of “writing the nation.” Cooper was indeed writing the nation in his novels; even the old story, related by his daughter, that he began writing because he felt he could outdo the English novelists of his time reflects a desire to move away from or transform the mother country’s tradition. In setting his novels so closely in the context of the American experience, and indeed by placing Natty Bumppo’s experiences within the decades leading up to and following the War for Independence, Cooper involves the reader in the creation of the new nation.

The narrative of the nation established in Cooper’s text nostalgically recalls the nation’s past without any threat of that past returning. The last Mohican implies a disappearance that we can mourn without having to attempt to recover what was lost. Robert Daly argues that for Cooper, “the past as a totality is an irrecoverable wreck, and [his] work evinces remarkably little nostalgia for the complete resurrection of any one past culture” (120). While it may be true that there is little nostalgia for the recovery of the lost culture, the loss of that culture is nostalgically mourned, perhaps in atonement, but with little need to make actual amends, since the mourned are already absent. The voice which narrates the Mohicans’ past, that which controls the discourse which defines them, is the voice of the colonizer.

In her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak claims that “the dearest available example of such epistemic violence is the remotely orchestrated, far-flung, and heterogeneous project to constitute the colonial subject as Other. This project is also the asymmetrical obliteration of the trace of that Other in its precarious Subject-ivity” (76). Once determined to be Other, the Native American belongs to a different world, a different time. Hawkeye, whose attitude toward the Native Americans seems much more enlightened than the typical colonial discourse, establishes their otherness in his discussion of the different “gifts” of the races, even unto a segregated heaven in which “men will be indulged in it according to their dispositions and gifts” (192). While one may interpret his statement as a religious belief that heaven conforms to the desires of its inhabitants, he repeats his thoughts at the burial of Uncas and Cora in a fashion which clarifies their meaning. After listening to the Native Americans chant their belief that Uncas and Cora will be united in heaven, Hawkeye silently denies their “simple creed” (344) and aloud he tells the young native girls who have been performing the ceremony, “the spirit of a pale-face has no need of food or raiment — their gifts being according to the heaven of their colour” (346). Heaven becomes not the fulfillment of “dispositions” but of race, establishing a distinction between white and non-white that will prevail even beyond the grave.

The simple creed adhered to by the Native Americans is not the only religion which Hawkeye disdains, however. He is equally disgusted by the mannered worship of David Gamut. When David evokes the doctrine of predestination following his rescue, Hawkeye sneeringly rejects anything which his own eyes don’t see (116). David’s response is to ask him to “name chapter and verse; in which of the holy books do you find language to support you?” (117). Hawkeye’s response is that he needs no books to support him, for he has the world. For him the distinction between pure nature and man’s “deformed” interpretations or improvements leaves things “which [are] so clear in the wilderness, a matter of doubt among traders and priests” (117). Nature writes the book that Hawkeye trusts, and the works of man he sees infringing on the beauty of this text, yet he, a scout, functions as that bond between the settlements and the wilderness, in essence “reading” the text of nature so that settlements may arise. Although inhabiting the wilderness himself, his efforts make possible the rise of the nation.

[58] As a representative of this new nation, Hawkeye understands better than any other white character the uselessness of behavior patterns designed in Europe for a European world. When he first meets Heyward’s party, they are lost, misguided and abandoned by Magua, and Hawkeye’s response is to laugh at anyone foolish enough to enter the woods without knowing “whether to take the right hand or the left” (36). Hawkeye is even more amazed at Heyward’s naiveté concerning the recapturing of Magua, whom Hawkeye sees standing a little distance from the party. He tells Heyward “whoever comes into the woods to deal with the natives, must use Indian fashions, if he would wish to prosper in his undertakings” (40).

Hawkeye’s attitude reflects a life spent in the woods, on the “thresholds between one culture and another” (Daly 120). His adaptation of Native American habits has its limits though, and earlier Hawkeye pointedly told Chingachgook that while he did not agree with many of the Europeans’ habits, he was “genuine white” (31). The purity of his blood is an issue which arises most often when Hawkeye is doing something or espousing a viewpoint that goes against “typical” European customs. A little while after asserting his whiteness to Chingachgook, he vehemently exclaims to David Gamut, “Book! what have such as I, who am a warrior of the wilderness, though a man without a cross, to do with books!” (117). He understands that in his belittling of “book learning” he repudiates an assumed quality of the European nature — a site of difference between the European and the other — and he recuperates his whiteness as if a denial of reading was a denial of his genetics.

Ideas which generate considerable interest in a culture often become topics of the arts, although this interface may result in either an endorsement or a condemnation of the subject. Toni Morrison argues that “Responding to culture — clarifying, explicating, valorizing, translating, transforming, criticizing — is what artists everywhere do, especially writers involved in the founding of a new nation” (49). Cooper’s position as writer in the formative years of the United States lends urgency to his texts’ interactions with cultural issues. Geoffrey Rans points out that The Last of the Mohicans serves notice immediately in its epigraph from The Merchant of Venice that it will deal with the question of blood and behavior (107). [The epigraph reads “Mislike me not for my complexion,/The shadowed livery of the burnished sun.”] The text doesn’t seem to know what to do with the racial element it faces, though. While the epigraph seems to point toward a rejection of “biology is destiny,” at several times the novel reverses itself, most notably when Hawkeye discusses the different “gifts” of the races.

After Chingachgook’s scalping of a French sentry, Hawkeye states, “’Twould have been a cruel and an unhuman act for a white-skin; but ‘tis the gift and natur of an Indian” (138). The opposition between white and nonwhite behavior takes on a different cast than the earlier discussion in which Hawkeye admonished Heyward for not following the ways of the woods. In that episode, the environment dictated behavior, but in this scene, Hawkeye appeals to “natur” to explain the killing of the Frenchman. The text’s undecidability on this matter complicates readings which seek to place it on one side or the other of the American race debate.

Further complicating the question of race, the issue of Cora’s mixed blood becomes entangled with her death at the end of the novel. The text introduces Cora’s complexion as “charged with the colour of the rich blood, that seemed ready to burst its bounds” (19), and her behavior stands in sharp contrast to her lily-white sister Alice, who moves about the text as mere baggage to be lost and retrieved by Heyward and the gang. The two daughters have separate stories which Munro narrates to Heyward in the brief lull between the errant party’s arrival at William Henry and the ensuing massacre. Munro tells first of his love for Alice Graham and her father’s rejection of him as suitor: he maintains that his reaction was that of an honest man: he “restored the maiden her troth, and departed the country, in service of my king” (159). Failing to win love, he turns his energy toward empire.

When he relates the story of his first marriage, though, he removes the chivalric language he associates with Alice Graham, so that we understand that he “forms a connexion with one who in time became my wife, and the mother of Cora” (159). His marriage to this unnamed wife he laments as a curse upon Scotland, for her “unnatural union with a foreign and trading people [England]” (159), thus doubling back the discourse of miscegenation on national boundaries. Despite this pronouncement, we must realize that Munro is still laboring on in this “unnatural union” between Scotland and England as his presence at the fort shows, and while he appears sorrowful about the state of the “unfortunate class, who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people” (159), he considers Cora “degraded” by her heritage. Toni Morrison points out in another context that race became one of the most consistent methods by which one designated American and not-American in the New World. One of the areas in which race signified heavily was and is sexuality.

[59] Cora fascinates Magua to the point that he is willing to risk death to possess her body. In a similar way, the white women captivate Uncas, although his “essential” nobility makes his reaction completely different than Magua’s. After rescuing the women, Uncas looks upon them “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). Therefore, Uncas is the exception; by virtue of his sympathy and tenderness he stands in contrast to other Native Americans, most of whom can’t resist the sight of a scalp. The prevalent vision of the Native American in Cooper’s time was that of Magua, and the stereotype was a very useful image for rationalizing their wholesale removal and extermination by European settlers. Cora becomes for both noble and ignoble savages an object of desire which gives them the ability to display extremes of passion, while she functions in white society as “damaged goods.” Her racial make-up creates a taint which can never be removed, given the obsession in America over purity of blood. Writing the nation often meant writing the body.

Cora’s death is mourned by both British and Mohicans, but we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that they are mourning the same thing. The British, close friends and family, of course will mourn her passing. The Delaware see in her death, so close to Uncas’s death, a sign from the Great Spirit that those two shall be unified (342). The only white mourner who understands this belief is Hawkeye, and he, as previously discussed, refuses to grant any truth to “this simple creed.” As for the others, “happily for the self-control of both Heyward and Munro, they knew not the meaning of the wild sounds they heard” (344). While the British stand by and watch the proceedings, they have no idea of what they are witnessing; the multicultural moment is a moment of complete communication breakdown. Far from providing an occasion for interaction, the ceremony serves as a significant example of each culture’s isolation from the other’s sense of meaning.

The Last of the Mohicans’ gesture toward building the nation in literature revolves around the portrayal of the frontier as a site of difference, but a difference which must be overcome in order to assert the dominance of the new order. The polyglot wilderness cannot become “the nation” so long as it remains multivocal. Its status as liminal space relies upon this neither/nor quality: once under the jurisdiction of European forts, it is contained and homogenized. In the America of the early nineteenth century, the other, that is the not-American, was easily established by his or her non-white color, and the myth of the nation situated itself in part on this racial discourse. Cooper’s act of narrative recovery pulls from the colonial conflict the seeds of a nation’s obsession with its bloodlines.

Works Cited

  • Barthes, Roland, “The Death of the Author.” Image-Music-Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1988.
  • Bhabha, Homi, The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Last of the Mohicans [1826] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990
  • ------. “Preface to the Leatherstocking Tales.” The Last of the Mohicans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. 351-354.
  • Daly, Robert, “Cooper’s Allegories of Reading and ‘the Wreck of the Past.’” Readers in History. James L. Machor ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
  • Kelly, William, Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
  • McWilliams, John, Introduction. The Last of the Mohicans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Morrison, Toni, Playing in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1993.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will to Power. New York: Random House, 1968. [References to Nietzsche’s texts are by section, not page number.]
  • Parkman, Francis, “The Works of James Fenimore Cooper.” Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage. George Dekker and John McWilliams, eds. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.
  • Rans, Geoffrey, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse Postcolonial Theory. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
  • White, Hayden, The Content of the Form. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.