Convention and the Limits of Biography for Literary Criticism: Fathers, Daughters, and Sentiment in Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans

Michael Davey (John Carroll University)

Presented at the 12ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1999.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1999 Cooper Seminar (No. 12), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 18-25).

Copyright © 2000, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

{18} In his excellent book on William Cooper, 1 Alan Taylor at several points makes a maneuver extremely common in biographical literary criticism. 2 Writing about James’ life-long grief over the death of his beloved sister Hannah, Taylor treats several scenes in The Pioneers which center on Elizabeth Temple as thinly disguised reworkings of James’ sister’s untimely death. According to Taylor, the main difference between his life and his art was that in the latter James was able to manufacture a timely rescue for Elizabeth — the precise thing he could not do (and for which he could not forgive himself) — for Hannah. In Taylor’s words:

Obsessed with Hannah’s fatal accident, James Fenimore Cooper imagined Elizabeth exposed to three deadly dangers, all set in the Otsego hills: a falling tree, a panther’s attack, and a forest fire. In all three episodes the novelist credited Elizabeth with the passive resignation to death that Hannah had constructed in her common place book. ... Of course, the real savior was the novelist who created and employed the characters who spare Elizabeth. By thrice rescuing Elizabeth at the last possible moment, James Fenimore Cooper exercised in fiction a power that he devoutly wished he had enjoyed in life (Taylor 314-315).

As a means for initiating a discussion of The Last of the Mohicans given the present context, I want to suggest that the move Taylor makes is as problematic as it is commonplace. Treating a fictional character as a thinly disguised substitution for a real person from an author’s life is often tempting, but it has always struck me as too easy. In more precise terms, I would argue that in making this move, critics ignore the inherently multichromatic or multidimensional structure of literary character, distorting in the process the function of many characters in the progressions of the narratives they inhabit. Following the work of James Phelan, “progression” refers here to narrative as a “dynamic event, one that must move, in both its telling and its reception, through time. Such movement is given shape and direction by the way in which an author introduces, complicates and resolves ... certain instabilities which are the developing focus of the [implied reader’s] interest in the narrative” (Phelan 15). As Phelan goes on to point out, character is comprised of three components, which he refers to as “dimensions.” These are the mimetic, the thematic and the synthetic. Mimetic dimensions are those aspects of a character which make it like a plausible person. Thematic dimensions are those which make it ideational, sometimes representing a group, sometimes an idea. Finally, a character’s synthetic dimensions are those which make it an artificial construct, designed by some author to function in the narrative’s progression for some purpose. Further, Phelan distinguishes between a character’s dimensions when considered in the abstract and that character’s specific function in a particular narrative. Whereas a dimension is any attribute a character may be said to possess when considered in isolation from the work itself, a function is the use of that attribute in the narrative’s developing structure. “in other words, dimensions are converted into functions by the progression of the work” (9).

Using Phelan’s terms we could thus say that Taylor’s emphasis on the significance of Elizabeth’s Temple’s mimetic dimensions, the ways in which she is most like Hannah Cooper, problematically de-emphasizes her thematic and synthetic dimensions. As a result, her precise function in Cooper’s narrative is distorted in the critic’s effort to read into the author’s life (or text depending on your view) in what is ultimately a rather roundabout and thus specious manner. As Susan Fenimore Cooper discussing the Book of Ruth puts it in Rural Hours, once a reader accepts an author’s invitation to read a text as a work of fiction and not as a work of fact:

he is bound, by common sense, to receive the narrative precisely as it is written, since it is a broad absurdity to judge fictitious characters otherwise than as they are represented. If he suppose one act or one view beyond what the writer presents or implies, he may as well sit down and compose an entire fabric of his own, and then the world will have one Book of Ruth in the Holy Bible, and another among the works of Mr. A., B., or C. (164).

Or as Peter Rabinowitz has described it, reading fiction entails “the joining of a particular social/interpretive community [it is] the acceptance of the author’s invitation to read in a particular socially constituted way that is shared by the author and his or her expected readers [my emphases]” (Rabinowitz 22).

{19} I invoke Susan’s comments in particular not to reduce an extremely complex issue to a highly simplified construction but with tongue in cheek, hoping thus to provide a rhetorical bridge between Pioneers and Mohicans. And my choice of an excerpt from Rural Hours is, of course, no accident. As the latest “rediscovered” work by an ante-bellum woman writer, Susan’s book offers new challenges as well as new opportunities for critics of both herself and James, as well as for any reader interested in the period. The bridge, however, between Pioneers and Mohicans is precisely that temptation which the dual-focus on James and Susan presents to all of us interested in the life and work of what we now can see are two very important literary figures from the ante-bellum period. Specifically, the temptation to re-examine the work of either author in terms of the life that produced it. In James’ case, the temptation is to examine what Mohicans with its focus on the two daughters of Colonel Munro reveals about the complex relationship between James and the daughter who, in Taylor’s words, remained a “hostage to a tragedy of 1800” (313), a substitution for the lost Hannah. In Taylor’s words, “Terrified of losing Hannah a second time, James Fenimore Cooper discouraged Susan’s suitors and dissuaded her from marriage; she remained in his household for life ... “(313).

I want to suggest, however, that we resist just these sorts of temptations — at least to the extent I will outline shortly. As someone who’s interested in both rhetorical theories of narrative and the historical circumstances of literary production, I will always argue that it is crucial that our discussions of both a text and its context allow for the relative independence of each half of our focus. Too often critics ignore this and the result is a reading that distorts either form or history in the process. Which is not to say that treading the thin line between text and context is ever easy. Indeed, one reason it is so difficult is that there is as yet no universally accepted set of critical principles for integrating an understanding of a text with an understanding of its context. As a result, there are as many approaches to historical literary study as there are historicist critics. I would suggest further, however, that the main question is not “where to begin?” such study. We begin of course with the primary texts themselves. Rather, if we are interested in linking a text to its context, especially to the immediate context of the family sphere out of which it has emerged, the issue really is: where do we stop? How might we determine the limits the form of the text — the modes it uses and how it uses them-places around our attempts to link it to its context. In short, what are the conventional limits to the use of biography for the historicist literary critic and scholar?

It is not possible to answer such questions in their entirety in the time allowed. But in the time that remains I will try to sketch out the implications of one critical approach for these complex issues. Drawing on recent rhetorical theories of narrative as well as traditional literary history, I will trace Cooper’s use of convention in delineating Alice Munro, showing precisely how she was meant to function in his narrative. My goal is two-fold. First, I hope to show where Cooper’s specific use of Alice locates Mohicans amidst current debates about sentimentality in ante-bellum fiction. Second, drawing on this discussion I will try to show how our understanding of convention in general can function in shaping the determinations we make about the relation between a text and its context, arriving thereby at a tentative checklist for determining the theoretical limits of biographical criticism. My goal is not to solve the complex problems associated with biographical criticism once and for all, but merely to make a compelling case for the principles associated with one critical mode.

As Phelan points out, once we accept his conceptualization of literary character, “the logical next questions are whether the synthetic, by virtue of its ineradicable presence, ought to be privileged in our theoretical account of character and whether we can determine under what general conditions the mimetic and thematic components get more or less developed” (Phelan 3). Phelan’s answer is complex but (schematically) he argues that it is ultimately a factor of how a character’s mimetic, synthetic, and thematic dimensions function in the narrative taken as a whole. In short, different authors will place varying degrees of emphasis on each aspect of character depending on his or her purposes and poetics, and thus on the function of a character at any given moment in the progression. At one moment a character’s mimetic dimension may be converted to a function while at another its synthetic component (although certainly always present) may be more or less foregrounded. Thus, the inference-building process of reading involves making judgments about which aspect of character is most important at any given moment in the progression, as well as retrospectively once overstanding (borrowing Wayne Booth’s term) has begun. Taylor, for example, believes Elizabeth Temple’s mimetic attributes, specifically those attributes which make her not just like a real, plausible, eighteenth century woman, but a real, historical person in particular (Hannah Cooper), are most important for understanding her function in the book’s progression. Like Susan Cooper, however, I would argue that Taylor has violated the tacit contract between Cooper and his audience by placing too much emphasis on the mimetic at the expense of the synthetic and the thematic. But how can we know for sure? What additional evidence should we as competent 3 readers bring to our discussions of such texts?

{20} To Phelan’s description I want to add another important aspect of character and one especially important to my discussion of Mohicans and of Alice in particular. Specifically, a character’s dimensions, whether mimetic, synthetic, or thematic, are all heavily overdetermined by the conventions for delineating character extant in a given period. No character comes out of a vacuum, and every character must be recognizable to some degree by the reader-as representative of either a type of real, plausible person and/or a type of stock literary figure. Further, a character’s function in a narrative will be tied directly to its conventionality. Here literary conventions are seen as closely tied to audience expectation and thus to audience response. Thomas Kent, modifying Saussure, has developed two closely related notions to explain how a narrative employs convention to influence reader response: syntagmatic and paradigmatic foregrounding. Foregrounding is always understood as the process by which a textual element is made the object of the reader’s special attention. Thus, paradigmatic foregrounding is the process by which expectations are established in terms of the narrative forms and associated effects which typically follow the appearance of the foregrounded element. Syntagmatic foregrounding is the disappointment of generic expectations, usually “created by the repetition of a narrative element in an unexpected context, the omission of an important narrative element from the text” (50). Conventions thus exist both in the text as established modes of literary representation and figural expression, and outside the texts as socially prescribed rules for making what Wolfgang Iser calls the latent “virtual dimension” 4 of the text actual. As Rabinowitz notes, “Literary conventions are not in the text waiting to be uncovered, but in fact precede the text and make discovery possible in the first place” (Rabinowitz 27). Competent readers thus do not reconstruct an author’s individual psychology; rather, they respond to the literary work by applying the rules they have learned from their participation in the community of competent readers. Another way of saying this is that literary conventions associated with specific genres are the tools authors use to shape their audience’s expectations and thus to generate interest and so drive their progressions.

Turning now to Mohicans and to Alice in particular the issue becomes establishing both Alice’s genealogy as a specific literary type and her unique function in Cooper’s narrative. What I hope to show is that Alice may be a daughter of Munro, but she is always also a stock sentimental heroine deployed satirically by Cooper to critique the very cult of sentiment she embodies. As such her affectation and manners, because they are almost always portrayed as inappropriate given the immediate situation, reveal how out of place a sentimental heroine is in a book where violence and the frontier take the places of fine feeling, exquisite pathos and the domestic sphere, all three of which are hallmarks of the sentimental fiction of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Although often treated as a typical American Romance, such a classification of Mohicans overlooks the variety of narrative modes Cooper drew upon in constructing his fourth novel. Although the most important source in the book’s genealogy is certainly the historical romance in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, Cooper also included conventions associated with sentimental fiction, the Gothic novel, the captivity narrative, the paintings of Cole and other Hudson River School artists, as well as relying heavily on historical source material including writings on the actual battle at Fort William Henry and the native tribes. 5 In short, Mohicans is a book whose use of available narrative and aesthetic modes defies easy generic classification.

Jane Tompkins, in response to the apologetic tone of much of the post-WW II work on Cooper, argues that Mohicans, like much popular fiction from the ante-bellum period, was popular and thus important precisely because it employed conventions we now consider melodramatic, simplistic, or in her words, “sensational.” Specifically, Tompkins argues that “a novel’s impact on the culture at large depends not on its escape from the formulaic and derivative, but on its tapping into a storehouse of commonly held assumptions, reproducing what is already there in a typical and familiar form” (xvi); in short, in using conventions in ways that meet audience expectation. Tompkins’ point is well taken, but it is also true that few serious writers construct what Kent calls automatized texts — works which employ only paradigmatic use of conventions. Rather, every text will either conform to or violate the expectations audiences associate with the modes it employs, usually doing both to some degree or another. And as some formalists such as Iser and Hans Robert Jauss have argued, it is only texts which violate convention and thereby their audience’s expectations which communicate new knowledges. 6 The defense of Cooper’s use of convention which Tompkins offers is that scenes like the one I am about to discuss may be formulaic, but that this is what makes them powerful vehicles for the cultural work she see them as performing. According to this way of reading the book, Cooper’s use of convention is paradigmatic throughout. As I will show however, this reading of Mohicans, especially of its use of Alice, mis-characterizes both Alice’s function in the narrative and the status of sentimentality at the time of the book’s production.

Currently, critical discussions of sentimentality are heavily influenced by what Laura Wexler calls the “Douglas-Tompkins debate.” The main issue is as follows: “do the popular novels published by women in the mid-nineteenth century represent, as argued by Ann Douglas, a fall from tough-minded, community- oriented, Calvinism {21} into ... individual emotionalism? ... Or do they constitute, as argued by Jane Tompkins ... a complex and effective affirmation of women’s power ... ?” (Howard 62-63). Recently, however, June Howard has shown that this binary (“sentimentalism good/sentimentalism bad”) is highly problematic in that it relies on “unexamined and untenable assumptions about the nature of emotion” (Howard 63). Given that distinctions between “real” and “fake” emotion no longer hold up in light of the social constructionism currently prevailing in the humanities, Howard argues that rather than argue whether sentiment is good or bad, we need to recognize that calling a text or gesture sentimental means merely that we recognize it is using “some established convention to evoke emotion” (Howard 62). We are thus marking a moment “when the discursive processes that construct emotion become visible” (Howard 62).

This reformulation of sentimentalism is extremely useful because as historians of sentimental fiction have pointed out, the emotional component of sentimental fiction, the fact that such books were meant to invoke a deep emotional response in the reader (including actual tears) is the hallmark of this mode. Sentimental novels were meant to inspire sympathetic identification in their readers. In addition, the “ennobling effects of distress,” the “benevolent remedying of misfortune,” and the occasion for experiencing “fine feeling” — all of these were expected by the genre’s readership. In the 1700s, emotional sensitivity had been elevated to the status of a moral touchstone. The notion that “sentiment,” or the ability to experience empathy and especially that “refined and elevated feelings,” were what allowed individuals to form social bonds were “pursued with considerable intellectual rigor in the period” (Mullan 249). Sentimental novels both reflected and played an active role in these dynamics.

Yet by 1800, the word “sentimental” had become strongly pejorative. As John Mullan notes, from “exhibiting refined and elevated feelings” sentimental had came to mean “addicted to indulgence in superficial emotion” (Mullan 236). The cult of sentimentality, at least in England, had run its course. And gradually throughout the nineteenth century both in England and in the US, the literary would increasingly come to be defined in direct opposition to sentimentality and domesticity. “Prestigious writing gradually and unevenly became less openly emotional and more ambitiously intellectual, less directly didactic and more conspicuously masculine” (Howard 73).

The tendency among Cooper’s readers (including Tompkins) is to treat moments in Mohicans where Cooper invokes the sentimental as being paradigmatic deployments of the sentimental mode. According to such a reading, Cooper is at such times guilty of the sort of maudlin and manipulative use of emotion critics of sentimentality have always leveled against the genre. Tompkins move is merely to recast the normative value or historical relevance of that predictability, not to challenge its formulaic nature itself. But given the fact that by 1826 the reaction against sentimentality would have been in full swing, and given Cooper’s own now well-known disdain for sentimental and didactic fiction, 7 it seems unlikely he would have so readily adopted a mode that was in increasing disfavor among serious writers and readers. And as my reading of Cooper’s use of Alice will hopefully show, his use of the sentimental was anything but conventional.

Given the limited time available in this setting, I will be looking at only one section of Mohicans in particular: the scenes in the caves at Glenn’s Falls [today Glens Falls] in chapters VI and VII. To begin, in the opening scene of chapter six, the characters find themselves in what at first glance appears a typically romantic setting:

A spectral looking figure stalked forth out the darkness behind the scout, and seizing a blazing brand, held it towards the further extremity of their place of retreat. Alice uttered a faint shriek and even Cora rose to her feet, as this appalling object moved into the light; but a single word from Heyward calmed them, with the assurance it was only their attendant, Chingachgook, who, lifting another blanket, discovered that the cavern had two outlets (54).

It is important, however, to understand precisely which form of the romantic Cooper is employing here; namely, the Gothic. 8 Further, the Gothic is not used as a romantic reaction against the realism of the novel (as Scott used the supernatural in Waverley) nor is it used gratuitously to give the work a supernatural aspect for its own sake. Rather, it is used repeatedly to undercut the sentimental moments it follows and thus facilitates the book’s implicit critique of this mode. Following the death of the colt in chapter five, the characters have gone from a world of European manners and gentility to a nightmare-world where things are not what they seem and where compassion is subordinated to violent necessity. The death of the colt serves both a mimetic and a thematic function, signaling that the abrupt shift away from the everyday world has in fact occurred. Alice, Cora, Heyward, and Gamut are now entirely immersed in a hostile environment, and (as they are only slowly realizing) are ill-equipped to function effectively within it. Further, our awareness of just how out of place Alice and the others are in this wilderness war is given additional valences by our awareness of what kind of characters they are; that is, by our awareness of their thematic and synthetic dimensions. Alice {22} is a prototypical sentimental heroine — blond, virginal, flirtatious, and utterly vulnerable to corrupting influences. And even as we are made aware of how out of place she is in a mimetic sense — how inappropriate her manners as a plausible real person are for the fictional world she now inhabits — we are made aware of how out of place she is in a generic sense — how inappropriate she is for this type of fiction. Because Alice is a typical sentimental heroine, her reaction to Chingachgook and to what happens beneath Glenn’s Falls — although appropriate for a sentimental novel — are always also a bit too emotional given the immediate situation. Mullan notes that “underlying sentimentalism is the belief that a capacity for deep and even disabling feeling renders individuals fit for society. To possess heightened sensibility is to feel more readily the pleasures and pain of sympathy, to be able to escape self-interest and therefore to be virtuous” (248). But Cooper is able in these scenes to show that rather than rendering Alice fit for frontier life, a sentimental sensibility puts her life as well as the lives of the others in danger. Indeed, in each scene I am about to examine, at precisely the moment when sympathetic identification with Alice would normally take place, Cooper invokes the Gothic to prevent the sort of emotional and moral catharsis sentimental novels typically provided.

In the first scene in this sequence, Alice, Cora and Gamut sing a hymn to comfort themselves and Cooper shows he is capable of mimicking the banalities of the sentimental fiction of his era:

The air was solemn and slow. At times it rose to the fullest compass of the rich voices of the females, who hung over their little book in holy excitement, and again it sunk so low, that the rushing of the waters ran through their melody like a hollow accompaniment. ... The Indians riveted their eyes on the rocks, and listened with an attention that seemed to turn them into stone. But the scout, who had placed his chin in his hand, with an expression of cold indifference, gradually suffered his rigid features to relax, until, as verse succeeded verse, he felt his iron nature subdued, while his recollection was carried back to boyhood, when his ears had been accustomed to listen to similar sounds of praise, in the settlements of the colony (59).

As the singers continue, Natty is reduced to tears. The moment could not be more touching-nor more ridiculous — were it not for the sudden intrusion of the Gothic into this maudlin set piece:

The singers were dwelling on one of those low, dying chords, which the ear devours with such greedy nature, as if conscious that it is about to lose them, when a cry, that seemed neither human, nor earthly, rose in the outward air, penetrating not only the recesses of the cavern, but to the inmost hearts of all who heard it. It was followed by a stillness apparently as deep as if the waters had been checked in their furious progress at such a horrid and unusual interruption (59).

The next moment continues the pattern established in this scene above. Duncan attempts to comfort Alice and Cora who are admonishing themselves for putting themselves at risk and of thus bringing undeserved pain to their father. Duncan reassures Cora that her father has tremendous confidence in her when Alice interrupts, “’And did he not speak of me, Heyward?’ demanded Alice, with jealous affection. ‘Surely, he forgot not altogether his little Elsie!’” (61). In the midst of responding Duncan is interrupted by:

the same strong, horrid cry, as before. ... A long, breathless silence succeeded, during which, each looked at the others in fearful expectation of hearing the sound repeated. At length, the blanket was slowly raised, and the scout stood in the aperture with a countenance whose firmness evidently began to give way, before a mystery ... against which all his cunning and experience might prove of no avail (61).

The final moment in this series of reversals occurs once the long night has finally begun to wear off and the party is preparing to use the remaining darkness to help them escape to Fort William Henry undetected. Duncan turns to assist the two women and once more Cooper invokes the sentimental only to undermine it with the Gothic once again:

By this time Duncan was thoroughly awake, and he immediately lifted the shawl from the sleeping females. The motion caused Cora to raise her hand as if to repulse him, while Alice murmured, in her soft, gentle voice, “No, no, dear father, we were not deserted; Duncan was with us.”

“Yes, sweet innocence,” whispered the youth; “Duncan is here, and while life continue, or danger remain, he will never quit thee. Cora! Alice! awake! The hour has come to move!”

A loud shriek from the younger of the sisters, and the form of the other standing upright before him, in bewildered horror, was the unexpected answer he received. While the words were still on the lips of Heyward, there had arisen such a tumult of yells and cries, as served to drive the swift currents of his own blood. ... It seemed, for near a minute, as if the demons of hell had possessed themselves of the air about them, and came from no particular direction (65-66).

In each one of these scenes, the violent and sudden interruption of the sentimental by the fantastic and the uncanny — the intrusion of the Gothic into what would otherwise be a sentimental set piece — is Cooper’s method for drawing the reader’s attention to the absurdity of the literary conventions he has introduced to his latest neutral ground. The key here is that the Gothic is used to signal a failure of perception, a failure to see the reality that undergirds the character’s experience and that could provide an explanation for what only appears supernatural. 9 In a sentimental novel, the moments Cooper so skillfully mimics here would be meant to get the reader to sympathize and to identify with Alice. But Cooper doesn’t allow for such sympathetic identification. Nor does he allow any time for the sort of fine feeling readers went to such novels to find. His use of the sentimental mode is thus not paradigmatic but highly syntagmatic. Instead of fulfilling his reader’s expectations, he immediately and repeatedly cuts the sentimental moment off short, invoking the Gothic and the failure of perception it represents to strip the sentimental moments of its potential to evoke an empathetic emotional response in the reader. Mullan notes that “sentiment lives at the edges of speech. It is felt most when words stop” (241). If this is the case, it appears Cooper intuitively if not consciously recognized this fact, and chose to fill that space with the barbaric yawp of the Gothic. In so doing he initiated the break with sentimental fiction that would continue to grow for another half century.

The case I have made here is for treating the blond daughter of Munro first and foremost as an artificial construct created out of the literary conventions extant in the period whose function in Cooper’s narrative is to critique the very values she represents. As Cooper warns “all young ladies” in the 1826 preface to Mohicans, they will surely “pronounce it shocking.” If as a reader we accept Cooper’s invitation to read the book as current conventions dictated, we are lead to the conclusion that Alice’s thematic and synthetic dimensions are most important for understanding Cooper’s book.

Clearly some readers will be tempted to read otherwise, to overlook just how important Alice’s synthetic and thematic functions are to the progression of Mohicans. And certainly, it is always possible to exert our textual power as readers to read against the grain of the text. Might not Cooper be expressing his own complicated affection for Susan in the scenes I have just gone over? Might not we thus be justified in ignoring the importance of Alice’s thematic and synthetic dimensions if we want to read beyond the text? Indeed, one could argue that it is Cooper’s synthetic use of Alice that sheds the most light on his complicated relationship with Susan.

I want to propose the following tentative list of principles for answering these questions about how best to link text to biography — for in effect deciding when a biographical reading might be most justified. These principles take the form of questions we should ask ourselves as readers and as critics. First, does the text invite the reader to do so explicitly? I am thinking here of a roman à clef in particular but would also include any text which either throughout its progression or at certain moments explicitly invokes the reader’s knowledge of the author’s life. Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance is a case in point. Very few readers of Blithedale would have been unaware of Hawthorne’s experiences with Brook Farm and at certain points Hawthorne seemingly invites the audience to make connections between his fiction and the life that produced it. Second, can readers justify reading biographically in spite of the author’s attempts to get them to read otherwise, simply because the author has not provided sufficient disguise? Cooper’s third book, Pioneers, is one such text whose plot and setting so closely follow many facts of its author’s life that regardless of Cooper’s use of character, readers like Taylor are perhaps justified in reading beyond its use of convention. I would also include Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall here, a book ante-bellum readers and critics quickly treated as only thinly-disguised fictional autobiography. Finally, however, I would add this final stipulation, and one that is meant to take precedence over the others. Namely, is the reading we arrive at by reading beyond convention more compelling than the reading provided by the author? In the case of Mohicans I would argue that any attempt to read the book’s progression as somehow revealing something about Cooper’s complex relation with his own daughter is not nearly as compelling as Cooper’s own use of convention. In ignoring Alice’s synthetic and thematic dimensions in favor of her mimetic, we miss out on Cooper’s sophisticated use of character to critique one of the dominant modes of the ante-bellum period, and thus on an important moment in the early history of the American novel.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Last of the Mohicans [1826] (New York: Viking Penguin, 1987).
  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore, Rural Hours [1850]. Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson, eds. (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1998).
  • Howard, Jane, “What is Sentimentality?” American Literary History 11 (1999) 63-81.
  • Iser, Wolfgang, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).
  • Kent, Thomas, Interpretation and Genre: The Role of Generic Perception in the Study of Narrative Texts (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1986)
  • Mullan, John, “Sentimental Novels.” The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth Century Novel. Ed. John Richetti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 236-254.
  • Phelan, James, Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression, and the Interpretation of Narrative (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
  • Rabinowitz, Peter J., Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987).
  • Taylor, Alan, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1995).
  • Tompkins, Jane, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).


1 William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Vintage Random House, 1996).

2 I would include also psychoanalytical approaches here.

3 According to Thomas Kent, “Unlike the naive reader, the sophisticated [or competent] reader would be someone who knows both the text and its context: one who has internalized both the synchronic and diachronic conventions of a large number of genres” (20).

4 According to Iser, “The fact that completely different readers can be differently affected by the ‘reality’ of a particular text is ample evidence of the degree to which literary texts transform reading into a creative process that is far above mere perception of what is written. The literary text activates our own faculties, enabling us to recreate the world it presents. The product of this creative activity is what we might call the virtual dimension of the text, which endows it with its reality. This virtual dimension is not the text itself, nor is it the imagination of the reader: it is the coming together of text and imagination [my emphases]” (279).

5 See Paul A.W. Wallace, “Cooper’s Indians,” James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal (Cooperstown: New York State Historical Association, 1954) 423-436; Will Alpern, “Indians, Sources, Critics,” Proceedings of the 1984 International James Fenimore Cooper Conference and Summer Seminar (Oneonta: SCNY-Oneonta English Dept., 1985) 25-35; Robert Clark, “The Last of the Iroquois: History and Myth in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans,” Poetics Today 3:4 (1983) 115-34; George Dekker, The American Historical Romance (Cambridge and New York City: Cambridge University Press, 1987); David French. “James Fenimore Cooper and Fort William Henry,” American Literature 32 (1960) 28- 38; Kay House, “Cooper’s Adaptations of Romance: Conventions and Structures,” Proceedings of the 1982 International James Fenimore Cooper Conference and Summer Seminar (Oneonta: SCNY-Oneonta English Dept., 1983) 1-16; Howard Mumford Jones, “Prose and Pictures: James Fenimore Cooper,” Tulane Studies in English 3 (1952) 133-54; Terrence Martin, “From the Ruins of History: The Last of the Mohicans,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 2 (1969) 221-29; Thomas Philbrick, “The Sources of Cooper’s Knowledge of Fort William Henry,” American Literature 36 (1964) 209-214; Donald Ringe, “Cooper’s Mode of Expression,” Proceedings of the 1978 International James Fenimore Cooper Conference and Summer Seminar (Oneonta: SCNY-Oneonta English Dept., 1979) 26-33; and “James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole: An Analogous Technique,” American Literature 30 (1958): 26-56, and “Mode and Meaning in The Last of the Mohicans.” in W. M. Verhoeven, ed., James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993) 109-24; William Starna, “Cooper’s Indians: A Critique,” Proceedings of the 1979 International James Fenimore Cooper Conference and Summer Seminar (Oneonta: SCNY-Oneonta English Dept., 1980) 63-74; Daniel J. Sundahl, “Details and Defects: Historical Peculiarities in The Last of the Mohicans,” Rackham Journal of the Arts and Humanities (1986) 33-46.

6 In Iser’s words: “For whenever his expectations are not fulfilled, the reader’s mental faculties are at once directed toward an attempt to comprehend the new situation with which he is confronted ... for the overlapping of different forms makes it possible to communicate the unknown through the known, which brings about the expansion of our experience” (in Kent 34).

7 I’m thinking here especially of the apocryphal moment Susan Cooper describes in Small Family Memories where Cooper first takes up the pen. See also, James D. Wallace, Early Cooper and His Audience (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

8 See Donald Ringe, “The Last of the Mohicans as a Gothic Novel,” Proceedings of the 1986 James Fenimore Cooper International Conference and Summer Seminar (Oneonta: SCNY-Oneonta English Department, 1987), 41-53; as well as “Mode and Meaning in The Last of the Mohicans” in Verhoeven 1993.

9 Ringe concluded that the Gothic mode dominates Mohicans and that the entire book can be read as a Gothic novel. But I think this goes too far as it: 1) ignores Cooper’s general disdain at the time for the purely Gothic or for the gratuitous presence of the supernatural; 2) elides the difference between the use of the Gothic mode within a larger project and writing a Gothic novel expressly; and 3) places too much emphasis on the Gothic mode’s presence in the second half of the book and not enough on the other modes which dominate the book’s progression following the massacre.