The Negotiation of Manhood: James Fenimore Cooper’s Ideology of Manhood in The Last of the Mohicans

Aiping Zhang (California State University at Chico)

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. 112-115).

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

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

{112} Manhood functions to presume self-control and to transform fears of vulnerability or inadequacy into a desire for dominance, because the notion of manhood always equates to power and moral dignity. Traditional ideals of masculinity, such as independence, pride, and bravery, have been the backbone of American character from the beginning.

Does James Fenimore Cooper portray his male characters in The Last of the Mohicans with these qualities of manliness? A glance at his characterization of male figures reveals that no man in the novel fits such a formula completely. What is Cooper’s ideology of manhood, then? There is no simple answer to this question. We can not get a convincing answer simply by analyzing the text or Cooper’s concept of masculinity. Our search for the answer has to go beyond the textuality of the novel and the personal outlook of its author, because like any other literary text, the writing of this novel is inevitably shaped by what Michel Foucault called “a broad totalizing culture formation (the épistč), in which the workings of power and knowledge and their interrelations can be defined.” One attempt worth making is to juxtapose the textual and non-textual factors and re- examine the former in the light of the latter. There are three issues we need to explore: first, how cultural and racial dynamics become subsumed in Cooper’s ideology of manhood; second, why Cooper’s negotiation of masculinities could not evade the restraints of what Foucault called “the social structures as determined by dominant discursive practices”; third, how his daring but limited attempt at reconfiguring the ideal of manhood contributes toward the perpetual negotiation of the American character in literature.

For Cooper, masculinity was always one of the primary issues in his life and his writing as well. In other words, he took the issue very seriously. According to Alan Taylor, “In early 1820 ... Cooper enthusiastically and rapidly fabricated a novel of manners set in England and entitled Precaution, but he balked at publishing it for fear of embarrassment. Because women prevailed among both the writers and readers of novels, many gentlemen did not respect the genre. Leading Americans originally considered novels to be trivial, feminine, and vaguely dishonorable, because they appealed to the emotions and aroused the imagination — impulses profoundly distrusted by gentlemen dedicated to self-control. Because Cooper took his gentility and masculinity so very seriously, he feared that publishing a novel would be unbecoming to one of his dignity and station.” 1 To protect his name and reputation, Cooper published Precaution anonymously. If this can be seen as the first evidence of Cooper’s concern with the notion of masculinity, the selection and depiction of these male figures in The Last of the Mohicans must have a lot to do with his personal search for the ideal image of American man.

Up to Cooper’s time, traditional ideals of masculinity had never been positively associated with Native Americans, either in historical accounts or in literature. All their features and qualities were labeled as the attributes of the “agents of the dark forces” and the savages. By contrast, the whites in both forms of writings appear to be much more superior. However, an observant reader sees a clear departure from these stereotypes in Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, especially in The Last of the Mohicans.

The events of the novel are mainly centered around the escort and rescue missions of two white ladies, Alice and Cora. All the male characters are directly or indirectly involved in these arduous and dangerous missions. It is not hard for the reader to discover that the white men cannot stand up to the test. Throughout the rescue missions, Colonel Munro, the commander and the father of the two ladies, is mostly ineffectual. The fate of his daughters is always in the hands of others.

Among all the male characters in the novel, Heyward is the one who has the most opportunities, or is supposed, to be the heroic man, but he is virtually incapacitated because his “white man’s skills” are ill-suited to the conditions and the warfare of the wilderness. As he is keenly aware of his limits, but unaware of what kind of trap and danger he is facing, Heyward is constantly possessed by fear. Often, he is unable to carry out his duties when he must. For instance, when his guide, Magua, fled away, the suddenness and “the wild cries of the pursuers caused Heyward to remain fixed, for a few moments, in inactive surprise.” 2 By the time he regained his wits and dashed forward to join the chase, Hawkeye and others had turned around from their unsuccessful pursuit. Cooper’s narrative delves into the inner workings of Heyward’s mind:

{113} Glancing his eyes around, with a vain effort to pierce the gloom that was thickening beneath the leafy arches of the forest, he felt ... cut off from human aid. His awakened imagination, deluded by the deceptive light, converted each waving bush, or the fragment of some fallen tree, into human forms, and twenty times he fancied he could distinguish the horrid visages of his lurking foes, peering from their hiding places, in never-ceasing watchfulness of the movements of his party. (45)

At this point, he feels completely helpless, having no idea about what to do next. The only thing he does is to appeal to his companions to do “the act of men” in defending those he is supposed to escort.

Despite his inability to carry out his own mission and his constant fear of death, Heyward still regards himself as a would-be hero of romance and takes great pride in his chivalric beliefs. He dreams of being “a knight of ancient chivalry, holding his midnight vigils before the tent of a re-captured princess, whose favor he did not despair of gaining, by such a proof of devotion and watchfulness” (129). The irony is that when he is expected to act heroically like a man, he often feels himself “bound to the spot” (69) and unable to make a move. On more than one occasions, he either blames his failure on his “treacherous eyes” or confesses, “twice I proved myself unfit for the trust I bear” (130). His ideas never work; he trusts the wrong people; he uses wrong tactics and weapons; and he is rescued on four occasions: once by Uncas, and three times by Natty Bumppo.

The best glimpse of Heyward’s real character is offered in Chapters 22 through 27, when Cooper focuses on undercutting Heyward’s stubborn arrogance and excessive pride in his status and his culture. Reading through the detailed descriptions of the events that involve Heyward in these chapters, one can easily discover that Cooper is deliberately making a big deal about Heyward’s ignorance of the Native American culture and his unwillingness to learn it. It is evident that Heyward is nothing but a “puffed-up hero” (to borrow E.W. Pitcher’s term), alternating between “a presumptuous fool” and “a fake juggler.”

The only white man who is able to do something heroic is Natty Bumppo, but he is, as D. H. Lawrence said, “an old hunter half civilized.” The skills that make him “a hawk without guile” are obtained from his Indian friends, and he talks, acts, and lives more like an Indian than a white man, even though he claims, “there is no cross in my veins.” Cooper’s introduction of Bumppo is tinged with a sense of light-hearted irony, calling him “the brighter” person, who “might claim descent from a European parentage” despite “the mask of his rude and nearly savage equipments” and his “sun- burnt and long-faded complexion” (28).

Unlike Heyward, Bumppo disagrees with the white prejudice against the Indians and never hesitates to reveal what he believes. “I am no scholar, and I care not who knows it,” Bumppo insists, “there is reason in an Indian, though nature has made him with a red skin!” (30). He declares, “I am not a prejudiced man, nor one who vaunts himself on his natural privileges,” “and I am willing to own that my people have many ways, of which, as an honest man, I can’t approve” (31). There is no denial about Bumppo’s open-mindedness, but he is not entirely free from prejudice. A case in point is his remark to Chingachgook, “[But] you are a just man, for an Indian!” (33). On the contrary, when introducing Bumppo to the Indian patriarch, Uncas expresses his fondness of Bumppo without reservation:

“Father,” he said, “look at this pale-face; a just man, and the friend of the Delawares.” “Is he a son of Miquon?” “Not so; a warrior known to the Yengeese, and feared by the Maquas.” ... “We call him Hawk-eye, ... for his sight never fails.” (311)

In many ways, Bumppo reminds us of the author, Cooper, who was constantly perplexed by the different ways of life of the whites and the Indians. They seem to share a lot of qualities, including their vision of and frustration with the frontier experience and the mutual assimilation between cultures. No matter how hard Cooper tries to idealize the character of Bumppo, his acculturation is never complete. Even though he has the courage and knowledge he needs to play a vital role in the mission, Bumppo still cannot be defined as the perfect American hero in the story, because the skills and acts that make him look heroic and manly are Indian, not white.

The Indians, especially Chingachgook and his son, Uncas, are rendered as more tenacious, resourceful, and noble than their white masters. Chingachgook is “far too dignified” and speaks in a “solemn manner.” He takes great pride in his heroic history. “The land we had taken like warriors, we kept like men” (32). In his depiction of Uncas, Cooper is {114} never stingy with positive images and noble qualities:

At a little distance in advance stood Uncas, his whole person thrown powerfully into view. The travellers anxiously regarded the upright, flexible figure of the young Mohican, graceful and unrestrained in the attitudes and movements of nature. (52)

His mere presence gives the party a relief from “a burden of doubt”; Alice “gazed at his free air and proud carriage”; Heyward “openly expressed his admiration at such an unblemished specimen of the noblest proportions of man” (53).

However, under Cooper’s pen, Chingachgook and Uncas are still no better than “ingenuous brutish” and “civilized savages,” who have been acculturated into “white ways.” It is not so difficult to detect that Cooper’s praise of them is often carefully measured, and that his tone is never far from being condescending. The narrator’s description of Uncas, who has just rescued Alice and returned her to the arms of Cora, offers us a telling example. While others drop tears over the happy reunion of the sisters,

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 hidden message here is that the skills and qualities Uncas has displayed could hardly be attributed to his Indianness. They make him look more like a white hero than an Indian warrior. It is almost impossible for an Indian man to possess qualities like these. To accentuate that point, Cooper creates a genuinely brutish savage in Magua. That is how he is called throughout the novel. Cooper’s portrayal of Magua is characterized by his “gloomy reserve” (98), silence, weird pattern of movements, and the “dark form” (99) of his body. He looks and moves like a ghostly figure, mysterious and unpredictable. But Cooper doesn’t turn him into a monster-like villain. Instead, he offers a detailed account about Magua’s past:

Magua was born a chief and a warrior among the red Hurons of the lakes. ... Then his Canada fathers came into the woods, and taught him to drink the Fire-water, and he became a rascal. (102)

And he blames Magua’s evil transformation on the whites, and his point is fully supported by Magua’s questions to Cora:

“Who gave him the fire-water? who made him a villain? ‘Twas the pale-faces, the people of your own colour.” (102)

Magua’s final question, “is it justice to make evil, and then punish for it?” (103), seems to offer a poignant revelation of Cooper’s overall thesis in the novel, because that’s the same question Cooper and the reader want to raise. After all, Magua’s barbarity does not go far beyond seeking the hand of a white woman, fighting the whites to preserve his tribal culture, and allying with a wrong group of whites, the French. His sin is to pursue his vengeance as “a deeper and a more malignant enjoyment” (108) and extend “his mercy shorter than their [the whites’] justice!” (108).

Even though Cooper made a painstaking attempt at a sensible, less stereotypical, but relatively acceptable portrayal of white and Indian men, what he accomplished in the novel is nothing more than a tentative negotiation of masculinities asserted by discrepant Western and non-Western cultural values. For that, he has been constantly under attack either for idealizing the Indians overzealously, or perpetuating the colonial mentality toward them. Interestingly, though, the discrepant reaction to Cooper’s attempt seems to underscore his unsettling and often contradictory assessment of American frontier experience. On the one hand, he wishes to consolidate the American frontier by convincing his readers that it was “inevitable and just,” and that it was a necessary step “to secure the republic’s future stability.” 3 On the other hand, he does not hesitate to point out that the European settlement had forced unacceptable changes upon the Native Americans and threatened their tradition and survival. In his view, had the white settlers been less “ignorant” of the Indian way of life, the frontier experience might have been less bloody and less painful. But that was only his wishful thinking. As we see in the first paragraph of the novel, he puts the whites more at fault than the Indians. The fact that Cooper did not portray his white and Indian characters from a typical “white” perspective of his time shows his insight into this complicated issue and his courage to speak out on the issue he really cared about.

The most daring move he made in the novel is to contrast the inefficacy of the white man in the wilderness with the expertise of the Native American. The second half of the novel is filled with detailed descriptions of Indian traditions and customs, from their skills in the wilderness and their arts of war, to their spiritual beliefs and oral history. As E.W. Pitcher observes, “Cooper cannot undo what past ignorance effected, but he can partially undo ignorance itself and show its dangers.” 4 The reader is encouraged to confront conventional stereotypes and draw the line between truth and {115} falsehood as well as justice and injustice for him/herself.

Cooper’s characterization in The Last of the Mohicans creates a gallery of portraits for these unique and credible characters, both the whites and the natives. Despite the absence of a truly qualified manly hero in the novel, the “tentativeness” in his characterization embodies his strong determination not only to test and compare the social mentality and ideals of the new republic with those of his own, but also to help define the American notion of masculinity and American identity. As early as in 1820, he suggested, “Books are, in a great measure, the instruments of controlling the opinions of a nation like ours. They are an engine alike powerful to save or destroy.” 5 In his belief, he could do that by writing a fiction of America’s frontier experience, through which readers could make sense of their past and seek their future based upon a collective American identity. In my view, that is what Cooper did and did well in The Last of the Mohicans.


1 Alan Taylor, “Fenimore Cooper’s America,” in History Today 46:2 (February 1996), 22.

2 James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans [1826] (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), 44. Quotations from the novel are hereafter cited parenthetically.

3 Taylor, op. cit., 26.

4 E.W. Pitcher, “Cooper’s Cunning and Heyward as Cunning-Man in The Last of the Mohicans,” in ANQ 9:1 (Winter 1996), 14.

5 Quoted in Taylor, op. cit., 26.