Cooper’s Creole: Literature and Ethics in America

Robert Daly (SUNY Buffalo)

Presented at the 15ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2005.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2005 Cooper Seminar (No. 15), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. This was the Keynote Address. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 31-40).

Copyright © 2007, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

Non scholae sed vitae discimus.

— Seneca, Epistles cvi.12.


“Qui vive?” demanded a stern, quick voice, which sounded like a challenge from another world, issuing out of that solitary and solemn place.      

“What says it?” whispered the scout; “it speaks neither Indian nor English!”

“Qui vive?” repeated the same voice, which was quickly followed by the rattling of arms, and a menacing attitude.     

“France,” cried Heyward. ...

And a little later:

“Etes-vous officier du roi?”

“Sans doute, mon camarade; me prends-tu pour un provincial! Je suis capitaine de chasseurs.” (136-37)

Pretty strange talk in the land of freedom-fries, this passage is even stranger in the narrative line of the book so far. Repeated readings have tended to domesticate this passage, to render it less surprising, bizarre, even outré than it really is.

Prior to this moment, with one exception, Major Duncan Heyward has been decidedly minor, the Woody Allen of the wilderness, and “the scout” has been well nigh omnicompetent and self-sufficient. Indeed, many readers have taken Hawkeye to be Cooper, or Cooper’s persona, or Cooper’s voice, or surrogate, or stand-in. In this passage, however, he is not a self-sufficient titan. He is at a loss, stymied, almost speechless and when he does speak, presumably speaking in English, not the wisest choice in this context, as he states on another occasion. In short, in this context, with apologies to fans of Cooper, Hawkeye, and Daniel Day Lewis (a group in which I include myself), we have to read Hawk-eye as brave and honest but unable to take independent action. He uses the neuter pronoun “it,” and he uses it twice. For him a voice speaking a language other than English or Indian is not a man or a woman but a thing, as Cooper puts it, “from another world.” In narrative conventions Hawkeye occupies at this moment the position of many other Cooper characters, a temporary position of dependence on others.

Heyward, Heyward of all people, a Mighty Mouse or Underdog avant la lettre, comes through to save the day. This is the very character who had earlier “turned his head quickly towards a thicket,” then “smiled to himself, for he believed he had mistaken some shining berry of the woods, for the glistening eyeballs of a prowling savage.” Smiling Duncan rides on and leaves us to learn that he had been looking at “a human visage, as fiercely wild as savage art and unbridled passions could make it” (27). With such dazzling inattention to detail and such limited interpretive skills, young Heyward has not seemed, up until this time, to be a young man from whom much could be expected. Even Donald Ringe, in his sophisticated and balanced reading, tends to ignore Heyward’s contribution. He argues that “[o]nly Hawkeye, of all the whites, is competent to survive,” and when he acknowledges limits to that competence, he concludes: “Without Chingachgook and Uncas, the capable Hawkeye could have done little” (26).

Yet early on Hawkeye had a similar reaction to something outside his ken. “’Can any here give a name to such a cry?’ demanded Hawk-eye, when the last echo was lost in the woods; ‘if so; for myself, I judge it not to belong to the ‘arth!’” Like many of us, he tends to assume that the world he knows is coterminous with the world at large. Though the stakes are much lower in this encounter with alterity, there is a homology, a parallelism of form, and it is Duncan who answers: “’Here, then, is one who can undeceive you. ... ‘Tis the horrid shriek that a horse will give in his agony’” (63). All this is not to denigrate Hawkeye or to exalt Heyward. Each has genuine virtues. Both are sufficiently heroic, neither heroically self-sufficient. In most situations, Hawkeye is usually by far the abler of the two, but the difference between them is one of degree, not of kind.

The point is that even Duncan Heyward is sometimes useful and that even he benefits from the cultural mixing that we now associate with creolization. And with the serious challenge from the French sentinel, it is Heyward, no one else, who comes to the rescue. He does so, moreover, in a way that illuminates some larger concerns of Cooper’s art.

Cooper subtitles his book A Narrative of 1757. That is, he sets the tale during the last of the French and Indian Wars, at the conclusion of which, in the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France ceded to Britain her settlements along the St. Lawrence Valley and all her land claims west to the Mississippi. This was a turning point in American history. Afterward, the language and coinage of America became more uniform, first English and then American, but ever more uniform, ever more narrow. Noah Webster, like Jason Newcome in Satanstoe but with more success, strove to make America one large Connecticut. Culture is always multifactorial, and for many reasons, in Cooper’s time Americans were becoming increasingly monolingual and monocultural.

But in earlier times, as in our own, many cultures mixed and mingled in America. Though the Portuguese world “crioulo“ referred to a home-born slave, and though to creolize meant to make the language of the hegemonic group, in modified form, into the sole language of the dominated group, this tidy colonialism tended to get complicated in the Indies and the Americas, where a creole’s ancestry could be mixed or entirely Spanish or French. The only fixed requirement for the classification was that one be born locally to parents born somewhere else. In The Prairie, the creole, Inez Middleton, is born locally to Spanish parents and ranks, as Signe Wegener points out, “at the top of the novel’s social structure” (157). And creolization, in the sense of cultural mixing, was a positive advantage. In Satanstoe, one could still hope to find “a woman of English blood, that has a Dutch heart” (Satanstoe 262). The country was still liminal, no longer wild, not yet settled. As Cooper put it in Satanstoe, the country was still in its adolescence: “This period in the history of a country, may be likened to that hobbledehoy condition in ourselves, when we have lost the graces of childhood, without having attained the finished forms of men” (383). As we all remember, adolescence is characterized by anxiety and freedom, ignorance and promise, frustration and ambition. In this period of liminality, both individuals and cultures seek out acculturation, contact with other cultures, in order to develop their own. As Michael Pikus puts it, Cooper “comes to admit ... to both the positive and negative aspects of the Old World’s influence on the New World and to accept the tensions generated in the continuing search for New World identity within the context of the colonial past” (10).

So why does Cooper, who tends to explain at length and then to tell parallel stories in footnotes, never translate the French? Indeed, in his preface to the first edition, he is quite explicit that “it becomes the interest of the author to explain a few of the obscurities of the historical allusions” and that “nothing which can well be explained, should be left a mystery” (1). Yet in several extended and important conversations in the book, he puts his readers in the cultural position of the French sentinel, a civil and decent young man doomed to and by his monolingualism. The sentinel is so eased by Heyward’s French that he relaxes as he would in France. Even when Cora, an acknowledged member of the English enemy, also speaks French to him, he does not catch on that one may speak French without being French. He is the classic example of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s observation: “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.” “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” [italics his] (114-115). He walks off carelessly, singing in his own language of wine and love, his mind filled “perhaps, by recollections of his own distant and beautiful France” (137), only to be killed and scalped by Chingachgook, yet another incentive, young Americans, for learning languages other than your own. One answer to the choice of untranslated French is that it acknowledges our separation from the American culture of that time, makes it clear that they knew things we no longer know, and brings about what Clark Davis calls “a fundamental paradox of interpretive respect,” which “maintains distance (or disengagement) as fundamental to ethics” (26) and to interpretation. We need to read Cooper on these earlier Americans not because he and they are just like us, but precisely because they are similar enough for us to understand them but different enough for us to learn from them. We need less the old hermeneutics of suspicion than what Davis describes as a new hermeneutics of respect.

As this conversation makes clear, to know a language is to know something about the culture and social system with which that language is implicated. Heyward, for example, knows more than a few phrases in French. He does not speak French like a parrot, like Grace Van Cortland in Home as Found, or like me. He knows the language, the culture, and the French class system. So when the sentinel asks, “Etes-vous officier du roi?” [Are you an officer of the king?] Heyward can indulge in a little intentional misprision and one-upping, focusing not on loyalty to the king but on his status as an officer. He immediately replies, “Undoubtedly, my friend. Do you take me for a provincial! I am a captain in the cavalry.” Cooper immediately adds in English “Heyward well knew that the other was of a regiment in the line” (137). Heyward has done far more than merely demonstrate that he can speak French. Both he and the sentinel know that, in the endless games of status, Paris outranks the provinces; captain outranks sentinel; and cavalry outranks infantry. Heyward has one-upped the poor young man three times. No wonder the sentinel responds, “Ma foi!” (literally “my faith,” idiomatically my goodness, mercy me, gee willikins, jiminy willikers). He is verbally overwhelmed, ready to defer rather than insist, shortly before being physically overwhelmed.

So what is the alternative to his short, sad story? In our own time, we might be tempted to say multiculturalism, a respect for all cultures, a respect American colleges have frequently instituted not only in their curricula, but also in their dormitories. Yet in our own time, multiculturalism seems to have come upon hard times. There are so many cultures that it is difficult to give them all equal institutional representation. Recently Tom Wolfe, fingers firmly on the pulse of our culture, satirized the practical consequences of multiculturalism and institutionalized diversity. In I am Charlotte Simmons (2004), he has the sympathetic character Laurie explain what diversity means at the state college she attends: “At State, everybody calls diversity dispersity. What happens is, everybody has their own clubs, their own signs, their own sections where they all sit in the dining hall. ... Everybody’s dispersed into their own little groups — and everybody’s told to distrust everybody else? Everybody’s told that everybody else is trying to screw them over. ... Anyway, the idea is, every other group is like prejudiced against your group, and no matter what they say, they’re only out to take advantage of you, and you should have nothing to do with them. ... Everybody ends up dispersed into their own like turtle shells, suspicious of everybody else and being careful not to fraternize with them” (550). Mind you, multiculturalism and diversity are far better than internecine warfare and genocidal slaughter, two of their predecessors and current alternatives. But Wolfe’s satire suggests that they may be, in our time, not final destinations for society but way stations on the road to something else, to creolization, a cultural mixing and hybridization that brings cultures together and fuses aspects of them, albeit selectively.

This trend is recent and has been resisted by our own profession, which tended toward anglophilia, British accents, and three-piece tweed suits worn only because we could not find four-piece tweed suits. My first year as a brand-new, bright and shiny Ph. D., a witty friend sent me a letter and an advertisement that turned out to be prophetic. His letter suggested that only I could approve of this ad, that, from his point of view, the advertisement was still more evidence, as if it were needed, of the final collapse of civilization and the end of days. The ad announced that on Thursday nights, in his western town, the Diamond Horseshoe Smorgasbord was having Chinese Night. Little did we know that creolization was already at hand and would soon be theorized.

In Poetics of Relation, Édouard Glissant argues for dynamic processes over static contents: “Creolization, one of the ways of forming a complex mix — and not merely a linguistic result — is only exemplified by its processes and certainly not by the ‘contents’ on which these operate.” For him interaction and change are central: “We are not prompted solely by the defining of our identities but by their relation to everything possible as well — the mutual mutations generated by this interplay of relations” (89). These processes “do not add up to anything clearcut or easily perceptible with any certainty” (173) on the surface. “Their mixing in nonappearance (or depth) shows nothing revealing on the surface” (173-174). Since cultural mixing expands and can go on indefinitely, the “Creole storyteller ... is surprising in his talent ... for relentlessly bringing together the most heterogeneous elements of reality” (200).

Merely bringing them together is, however, not quite enough. In “Cooper’s Caribbean: Red Skin, White Masks in The Last of the Mohicans,” John Morsellino argues that even if Uncas had rescued Cora at the Delaware camp, “their union” would not “have assured assimilation into American culture” (113) and that “[b]y linking American history with Caribbean history, Cooper illustrated why the multicultural promise of the New World was doomed to fail in the United States” (114-115). The question remaining is whether what had failed in fact could be preserved in fiction as a kind of literary government in exile and given another chance, not to determine directly the character of American history but to influence the characters of individual Americans.

That residual promise is examined by Carine Mardorossian in Reclaiming Difference: Caribbean Women Rewrite Postcolonialism, forthcoming this August from the University of Virginia Press. She shares Morsellino’s skepticism about the direct social power of creolization. She reads “postcolonial fiction as an ideologically motivated configuration rather than as a representation of the ‘real’” (220). But she goes on to add a complex ground for hope: “In its stead, their migrant aesthetic offers a transnational, cosmopolitan, multilingual, and hybrid map of the world” that may help in the work of “building bridges” (220).

But as Glissant, Morsellino, and Mardorossian all agree, nothing is certain or guaranteed. The most cosmopolitan and multilingual character in this book is his grand satanic majesty, Magua, a villainous counterpart to Hawkeye’s own cultural hybridity. At the beginning of the book, Hawkeye and Magua have a lot in common. Both are liminal, culturally hybrid, and quite impressive. Indeed, my students take much of the book to get over their early identification with Magua. He has just cause for complaint: whites provided both the alcohol and the punishment for drinking it. Munro had him whipped, put scars on his back, the mark of a coward, with the result that now, to cover them, he must wear a white man’s shirt.

So what differentiates Magua from Hawkeye? It is true that Hawkeye is humble, Magua proud, Hawkeye honest, Magua deceitful, and so on, but somehow just stacking adjectives will not suffice to explore the differences in their characters. For that we need to turn both to Cooper’s allusions and to recent scholarship.

Like Milton’s Lucifer, brightest of the archangels, son of the morning, Magua starts out as an impressive and formidable character. Yet he is not the hero of the book, and Cooper is not of Magua’s party, secretly or otherwise. Magua practices what Ewa Ziarek calls “wounded narcissism” (224), as if his grievance, genuine though it is, trumped all other ethical concerns. As with Belcour in Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, “Self, darling self, was the idol he worshipped, and to that he would have sacrificed the interest and happiness of all mankind” (37). Nothing takes his attention outside himself. He is what Nietzsche called the “man of ressentiment“: “his mind loves dark corners, secret paths, and back-doors, everything secretive appeals to him as being his world, his security, his comfort ... ” (23). What Nietzsche calls the “worms” (24) of resentment burrow into Magua. As an “orator, or ... politician,” he is “popular with his contemporaries” (283), who make him “their newly elected chief” (284), but he does not return their trust: “But while he was making this ostensible sacrifice to general considerations, Magua never lost sight of his individual motives” (282). One Delaware can speak “in the language of the Maquas” (287), and another “in very intelligible English” (295), and Magua will understand both but sympathize with neither.

He claims honesty: “’A Huron never lies,’ returned Magua, coldly” (291), but like most hypocrites, he can talk a great game precisely because he has no intention of playing it. He does lie, both to his enemies and to his friends, and they know it. When Magua claims a continuing alliance between Canada and the Hurons, “[t]he Delaware gravely bowed his acquiescence to what he knew to be false ... ” (288).

By the end of the book, Cooper makes the link between Magua and Lucifer quite explicit. Left alone with no audience to manipulate, he becomes “the sullen recluse. At such moments, it would not have been difficult to have fancied the dusky savage the Prince of Darkness, brooding on his own fancied wrongs, and plotting evil” (284). And when Hawkeye’s shot changes him at last from a human being to a thing, an “it,” he falls, like Milton’s Lucifer, headlong downward and is last “seen cutting the air with its head downwards, for a fleeting instant, until it glided past the fringe of the shrubbery which clung to the mountain, in its rapid flight to destruction” (338).

What makes Hawkeye different from that? We could say and have said that he’s just better, but if excellence or virtue is only innate or genetic, unaffected by experience and reflection, then we are all and always begging our questions and wasting our time. It may be more useful to raise this question, first in aesthetic and then in ethical terms.

The contribution that creolization makes to our aesthetics is made clear in Susan Cooper’s Rural Hours in her discussion of autumn in America and England. Without arguing about who saw autumn first, we can trace an interesting process from world to word and back again. She argues that autumn in America is far more noticeable than in England, therefore more noticed and written about. English and other European writers read American writing, learn from it to notice autumn, and begin to write about its subtler manifestations in their land: “One is led to believe that the American autumn has helped to set the fashion for the sister season of the Old World; that the attention which the season commands in this country, has opened the eyes of Europeans to any similar graces of the same months in their own climates. ... In the same way, we now see frequent allusions to the ‘Indian summer’ by Englishmen, in their own island, where this last sweet smile of the declining year was entirely unheeded until its very marked character in this country had attracted admiration” (228). We learn from others to pay attention to the world outside ourselves. As Donald Davidson argues, “We could not have a language, or the thoughts that depend on language (which comprise all beliefs, desires, hopes, expectations, intentions, and other attitudes that have propositional content), if there were not others who understood us and whom we understood both causally and conceptually” (176). This triangulation of self, other human beings, and the shared world occasions our language and learning. We learn to sense and to notice. And the more we know, the more we notice.

I wish to suggest here that what works in aesthetics also works in ethics, indeed that aesthetics and ethics are linked in some of our own current theories and in Cooper’s work. We are just getting started. In the winter 2005 issue of New Literary History, Brian Stock published an essay entitled “Ethics and Humanities: Some Lessons of Historical Experience,” in which he argued, “We live in a time when it is no longer fashionable to believe that ethical behavior can be taught effectively by means of the humanities” (1). He argued, however, that we may wish to consider times when people thought otherwise, and he argued that in those times, our predecessors believed that ethics was taught not merely by cumulative reading, but by reflection, memory, criticism, recitation, study, conversation, what he calls “the postreading experience” (8), in short by what we’re doing right now. So today we shall be either centuries behind the times or a little ahead of them.

In Academic Instincts, Marjorie Garber writes about this turn from politics to values: “Almost everyone wants to talk about it: a concern with aesthetics and ethics, the reappearance of certain notions of ‘value’ and ‘values’ on the literary scene, has preempted the stage, moving critical attention away from a previous decade’s concerns with politics and cultural identity” (48). Elaine Scarry, in On Beauty and Being Just, makes a clear connection between aesthetics — the study of the beautiful and the methods of realizing it in art — and ethics, the study of the good and the methods of realizing it in character and conduct: “At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty, according to [Simone] Weil, requires us ‘to give up our imaginary position at the center’” (111). “The radical decentering we undergo in the presence of the beautiful is also described by Iris Murdoch. ... How we make choices, how we act, is deeply connected to states of consciousness, and so ‘anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.’ Murdoch then specifies the single best or most ‘obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for “unselfing” and that is what is popularly called beauty’” (112-113). So beauty takes us out of ourselves, decenters us, gets us to pay attention to a wider world, diminishes our self-absorption, and that is connected with virtue. But such unselfing can occur with any beauty, so what is so special about literature?

Paul Ricoeur is a little more specific. In Oneself as Another, he argues that “Literature is a vast laboratory in which we experiment with estimations, evaluations, and judgments of approval and condemnation through which narrativity serves as a propaedeutic to ethics” (115). A propaedeutic is a way of learning beforehand, and that’s the best way to learn. You don’t want to botch your life and then, lying on your deathbed, say “Wait a minute. I think I’ve figured it out,” only to die and not be able to pass on your wisdom as a propaedeutic to others.

And Frank B. Farrell, in Why Does Literature Matter? is much more specific, both about where we went wrong and about why we need literature to help us get back to where we once belonged: “The passage from modern thought to the present might be described in terms of three great reductions: first, modern thinkers dissolve the world into mind or subjectivity; second, the subjective or psychological, as expressed in a phenomenology of the conscious self and its self-to-world relations, is dissolved into language; and third, that level of the linguistic or grammatical may be dissolved into social practices, into patterns of social power” (5). So if world is reduced to subject, then subject to language, then language to relations of social power, how can literature give us back the world in which we live? Farrell does not hesitate. He argues that “literature can make visible significant patterns of how the world is arranged that cannot be had by other means” (11). The links between literature and life may be aesthetic, ethical, epistemological, but in all such relations we need to trust our instruments, to recognize that the mind is superior to all its methods and that evolution has singled us out, at least in part, because of our long success as skilled interpreters: “[I]n our fundamental orientation toward the world we are sophisticated pattern-recognizers, adept filterers of patterns from the world’s noise. We would not have made it this far if we were not generally truth-tropic in exercising this ability.” In short, the creatures skilled at figuring out truth from the usually insufficient evidence became our ancestors. Those that were not became lunch. “If this is our typical mode of operation, works of literature may stand out as letting us see patterns that are only faintly emergent, that cut across different semantic registers in unexpected ways, and that are not visible elsewhere or otherwise” (11). Literature is the only art that can critique our interpretations and help us make them and our lives better: “Literature matters because these various functions of the space of literature allow for experiences important to the living out of a sophisticated and satisfying human life; because other arenas of culture cannot provide them to the same degree; and because a relatively small number of texts carry out these functions in so exceptional a manner that we owe it to past and future members of the species to keep such texts alive in our cultural traditions” (24).

We need to keep these texts alive in our culture because what they teach us can never be reduced to either an algorithm or a theory of meaning that could replace them. Donald Davidson makes this point with respect to philosophy: “The kind of knowledge a theory of meaning describes is not irrelevant. But it can never instruct us when to apply it. The knowledge on which we rely, however intuitively, is just about everything we know” (327). That knowledge includes the interpretive skills that we build up by making sense of life and literature, skills which cannot be reduced to precise rules. The best we can hope for is a “passing theory,” an ad hoc theory “derived by wit, luck, and wisdom” (327) and applicable to the task at hand.

This applicability is at issue in doctrinaire postmodernism, which insists that knowledge is local and not transferable from one text or situation to another. Yet contemporary scholars have argued that, however varied our interpretations, we share text, language, and world. Reed Way Dasenbrook makes this sharing explicit: “What Davidson would tell us seems right: there is at most one text just as there is at most one world, and we share that text just as we share the world. That does not mean that we see the text in the same way, any more than we all speak the same language, but neither does it mean that we are seeing something utterly different” (25). Scholars need not despair: there will always be plenty of room for argument about different interpretations. Yet Dasenbrook’s conclusion seems ineliminable: “It is not our different interpretive communities that keep us apart: it is simply our different interpretations” (25). In short, skepticism about this or that interpretation makes good sense, but a panoptic skepticism about interpretation itself does not. However various our interpretations and indefatigable our defenses of them, literary texts enable us to practice and develop the “wit, luck, and wisdom” to interpret well rather than badly, because we share these texts, our language, and our world.

The number of indispensable texts may be larger than Farrell supposes, but Cooper’s are clearly among them. In Satanstoe, he alluded to Robinson Crusoe, who had to choose what to save from his wrecked ship, and Cooper argued that “something surely is worthy to be saved from the wreck of the past” (436). He compared his own art to that of the “stage” and the “simulated pictures” (7) of a painter. Though such things may be “thought too homely ... to have sufficient interest for the public eye,” Cooper argued that “he who makes a faithful picture of only a single important scene in the events of a single life, is doing something towards painting the greatest historical piece of his day” (8). Cooper claimed only faithfulness, but the extraordinary beauty of what he called in Mohicans his “pictured allegory of life” (181) has been noted by many readers, including no less fierce a critic than D. H. Lawrence in his bristling and wonderful Studies in Classic American Literature. Despite earlier essays in which he praised Cooper, Lawrence has decided, by the time of his Studies, that he hates Cooper, and Americans, and America. He considers Cooper “a GENTLEMAN, in the worst sense of the word” (47) and argues that the “essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer” (62). Yet he recognizes that Cooper writes not history but epic, “a sort of American Odyssey with Natty Bumppo for Odysseus” (50). Stanley Cavell considers an epic “a renewed instruction of the nation in its ideals, and a standing proof of its resources for poetry” (6). An epic need not be factual, but it must be beautiful, and even Lawrence responds to Cooper’s pictures: “[T]hese scenes in Pioneers seem to me marvelously beautiful.” After an extended catalog of particular scenes, he writes, “Pictures! Some of the loveliest, most glamorous pictures in all literature” (55). Despite his splendidly articulated contempt and dismissal, Lawrence responds to beauty.

So does Hawkeye. It takes him out of himself. If Elaine Scarry, Simone Weil, and Iris Murdoch are right about this ethical benefit of beauty, that it radically decenters us and may save us from out habitual egotism, we can see one source of Hawkeye’s difference from Magua. Nothing distracts Magua from himself and his grievance. He never learns empathy, the ability to project one’s mind into another point of view or into another time or place or into another culture, to realize that conventions are frequently local and various and that even one’s self is not a fixed entity but a palimpsest or synthetic abstraction cobbled together over time. Yet the beauty of Glens Falls takes Hawkeye’s attention out of self and situation, sets him off on what Cooper calls this “untutored description of Glenn’s”: “Ay! there are the falls on two sides of us, and the river above and below. If you had daylight, it would be worth the trouble to step up on the height of this rock, and look at the perversity of the water! It falls by no rule at all; sometimes it leaps, sometimes it tumbles; there, it skips; here, it shoots; in one place ‘tis white as snow, and in another ‘tis green as grass; hereabouts, it pitches into deep hollows, that rumble and quake the ‘arth; and thereaway, it ripples and sings like a brook, fashioning whirlpools and gullies in the old stone, as if ‘twas no harder than trodden clay. The whole design of the river seems disconcerted. First, it runs smoothly, as if meaning to go down the descent as things were ordered; then it angles about and faces the shores; nor are there places wanting, where it looks backward, as if unwilling to leave the wilderness, to mingle with the salt! Ay, lady, the fine cobweb-looking cloth you wear at your throat, is coarse, and like a fishnet, to little spots I can show you, where the river fabricates all sorts of images, as if, having broke loose from order, it would try its hand at everything” (55). Hawkeye goes on, showing that the freedom of the river creates music and beauty but that “foreordained” order will put a stop to all that. He traces out the central dialectic of the book, between the freedom and beauty he loves and the order he knows he must finally affirm. It is worth noting that this Keatsian extempore effusion is occasioned by Heyward’s simple question, “We are, then, on an island?” Cooper follows the description by noting that “his auditors received a cheering assurance of the security of their place of concealment” (55), but Hawkeye could have accomplished that by answering Heyward with “Ay” or “Yes, and we’re safe.” As in the later conversation with Heyward on the afterlife, in which he affirms heaven but would prefer the happy hunting ground, Hawkeye is frequently taken out of self and situation by natural beauty philosophical reflection on the nature of his own character.

In a free society in which standard morality cannot be rigidly enforced, social order and harmony depend on ethical character. Gilles Deleuze sets out the distinction quite clearly. As he says in one of his dialogues with Claire Parnet, we begin “always sunk in the hole of our subjectivity, the black hole of our Ego which is more dear to us than anything” (45). We move out of that into the space of ethics, which he distinguishes from morality. In Negotiations, he argues that “establishing ways of existing or styles of life isn’t just an aesthetic matter, it’s what Foucault called ethics, as opposed to morality. The difference is that morality presents us with a set of constraining rules of a special sort, ones that judge actions and intentions by considering them in relation to transcendent values (this is good, that’s bad ... ); ethics is a set of optional rules that assess what we do, what we say, in relation to the ways of existing involved” (100).

As George W. Harris puts it, “The egoist, on this view, has no substantial sense of self but only interests and an awareness of them, none of which expresses an intrinsic interest in the interests of others” (151). This lack has epistemological consequences: “Self-contempt and loss of self-respect ... tend to destabilize the status of other goods and lead to a loss of the will to live. They involve a serious disunity of the self and often lead to life of self-deception” (156). Paradoxically, the journey to self-respect is a journey out of the self in pursuit of of some excellence that is, at least at first, external. We journey out into a dangerous world whose only two attractions are that it’s the only real one we have and, luckily enough, that will do us any good. Consequently our pursuit necessitates risk, since “there is no fail-safe environment for humans” and “no categorical good without the possibility of categorical loss.” Since for Harris egotism is delusion and death, we must hit the trail. Since “[f]ailure to pursue excellence and to encourage it is a failure in courage,” his complex and useful analysis ends in some fairly simple and direct advice: “Take precautions and sin bravely, then, is the final and only option for the agent of integrity” (417). For him, virtue centers on the agent who must journey out of egotism to an informed engagement with the world in order to seek and develop an ethical integrity.

To understand the ethical aspect of Cooper’s writing, then, we need to consider briefly the three great traditions in ethics. The deontological ethics of Immanuel Kant and others is “based on a universal and impartial law, captured in Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative” (Crisp and Slote 1). This tradition focuses on laws, rules and obligations, on “deontic or obligation-centered concepts” (3). Hawkeye’s frequent reflections that what may be right for one sort of person may not be right for another places him outside the universal rules of Kantian ethics.

And as Joel Kupperman points out in his book on character, “Someone can be a weak and depressing oaf without ever behaving immorally” (8). For that reason he supports the second tradition of utilitarian or consequentialist ethics, deriving from the work of Jeremy Bentham and others: “My fundamental orientation is consequentialist, in that in my view the guiding ideal of an ethics should be that of maximizing the value in the universe (present and future): To put it more crudely, the point of ethics is to bring about good consequences” (156). Yet consequentialism never quite escapes the old joke that a good utilitiarian would kill eleven people to make twelve people happy, and many of the actions Cooper considers good lead to unfortunate consequences.

So we move to the third tradition, that of virtue ethics. Kantian or deontological ethics focuses on the action itself and attempts to prescribe universal rules for judging it. Utilitarian or consequentialist ethics focuses on the results of the action and attempts to judge these as good or bad. Virtue ethics focuses on the agent and on the habits of thought and action that lead to human flourishing. While acknowledging their connection, it distinguishes ethics from action, as Donald Davidson notes: “Although Aristotle was interested in the connection of action with ethics, he treated it independently” (278). Virtue ethics derives from the aretaic virtues or excellences championed by Aristotle, the Stoics, and such later writers as Elizabeth Anscombe, Rosalind Hursthouse, Alasdair MacIntyre, Phillippa Foot and others. According to MacIntyre, virtues are habits or characteristics of perception and action that lead to success or flourishing in common human activities — agriculture, commerce, politics, science, art; that enable the virtuous to lead more organized and less chaotic lives; and that enable, at the best, some contribution to the common good.

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he “argued that the best life for a human being — eudaimonia — consists in the exercise of the virtues (or the ‘excellences’) [ ... ] (Crisp and Slote 2). Virtue ethics focuses on “aretaic or virtue-centered concepts,” on “moral agents and their lives, rather than on discrete actions” (Crisp and Slote 3), and on the belief “that aretaic notions like virtue, admirability, and excellence are more basic than-or even replace-deontic notions like moral obligation and rightness” (Crisp and Slote 4).

Nancy Sherman argues that, for Aristotle, virtue and character have to do with will and intelligence, that his “classification of virtue or excellence (arete) into that of character (ethikes) and intellect (dianoetikes)” (5) means that “character is expressed in what one sees as much as what one does“ (4), that since “decisions that are clearly right or correct may none the less lead to unforeseeable ill consequences,” what “the Aristotelian agent is praised for is the decision, not the external results” (51), and that “it would be a mistake to think of the child’s love and trust of his parents as primarily establishing the child’s compliance to rules and precepts. Rather, what Aristotle points to ... is a view of parents informing certain ideals of character, through reason and example (logoi kai ethe), that influence (enischuei) the child’s own sense of virtue. The nature of parental authority in the unequal filial relation thus has more to do with the power and force of character than with the demand for conformity to rules,” and hence, “not rote memory of rules, but the exercise of judgement and reason as a part of practice” (153).

Virtue ethics, then, teaches less the difference between right and wrong than the difference between admirable and contemptible. It is predictive and probabilistic. It enables us to judge and decide without awaiting the ruling of a lawgiver whom we love and respect (and whose will we can know immediately and clearly) or the eventual arrival of consequences we can never entirely and accurately predict. “Thus, for example, the real reason why I should not lie to you is not that it is against the moral law, nor that it is likely not to maximize well-being, but because it is dishonest“ (Crisp and Slote 3).

That is, I think, the sort of ethics that Cooper’s work enables us to learn, the ethics of character. For virtue ethics, literature is the most appropriate of the arts, as John Cary makes clear: “Literature is not just the only art that can criticize itself, it is the only art, I would argue, that can criticize anything” (177). Carey explores “literature’s persistent engagement with moral issues — and its refusal to agree about them. Diversity is its essence” (201). Though particular “ethical questions are by their nature insoluble, we cannot avoid making decisions about them” (172), and this refusal of closure “does not mean that they are unimportant” since these choices and decisions “shape out lives” (173). At best and over the long haul, the study of literature and ethics can lead to what Erich Auerbach calls “a perspectival formation of judgement” (573), an increase in knowledge and skill that cannot be reduced to algorithm and clichė but can better our chances in the always unknowable future. It can take us out of ourselves into other points of view, can enable us to develop the incomplete toolkit with which we address the world.

Unlike Magua, whose “wounded narcissism” overwhelms all other considerations, Hawkeye is, in the words of Ewa Ziarek, “motivated by both the desire for freedom and responsibility for others.” He is able to move beyond “the reduction of all forms of alterity to the friend/enemy opposition,” to see beyond himself, to “alter the optics” and “constitute the prism through which the claims of freedom and obligation are negotiated” (223-224). Cooper’s narratives become, in Paul Ricoeur’s terms, vast laboratories in which ideas and actions are tested out in the experiments of the narrative action, not as a fully formed ethical code, but as a propaedeutic to ethics, a way of learning beforehand, before we finish, as at best we never do, forming our own characters and making our own decisions and, collectively, our nation and our history. For this ethical process, creolization is, though not necessary or sufficient, at least beneficial. The process affords us, not a fully formed nation, but a toolkit for building one.

I do not claim that this insight is original with me. Among my predecessors is a writer frequently dismissed as evil or psychotic, but since no one ever claimed he was stupid, and since he made the connection between creolization and ethical virtue quite early, I shall end with him. In 1702, in his own American epic, the Magnalia Christi Americana, Cotton Mather wrote of the cultural hybrids born in America from parents born in Europe, that he would give “particular instances of Criolians, in our Biography, provoking the whole World, with virtuous Objects of Emulation” (320). Like Mather and Cooper, we neither begin this process nor end it. At best, we continue it, one American at a time. Pass it on.

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