Child and Cooper: Competing Perspectives on Race in Early American Fiction

April Dolata (Rutgers University)

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. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 41-46).

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

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

“For the first time, we get actual women” (61). Thus writes D.H. Lawrence in his chronicle of The Leatherstocking Tales in Studies in Classic American Literature when he arrives at The Last of the Mohicans, and indeed women are at the center of this novel. Here, the very premise of Cooper’s tale hinges on the fates of Cora and Alice Munro. The introduction of the two sisters takes place in the first chapter, and from the beginning Cooper marks for the reader their opposition to one another in spite of their close familial relationship:

A young man, in the dress of an officer, conducted to their steeds two females, who, it was apparent by their dresses, were prepared to encounter the fatigues of a journey in the woods. One, and she was the most juvenile in her appearance, though both were young, permitted glimpses of her dazzling complexion, fair golden hair, and bright blue eyes, to be caught, as she artlessly suffered the morning air to blow aside the green veil which descended low from her beaver. The flush which still lingered above the pines in the western sky, was not more bright nor delicate than the bloom on her cheek; nor was the opening day more cheering than the animated smile which she bestowed on the youth, as he assisted her into the saddle. The other, who appeared to share equally in the attentions of the young officer, concealed her charms from the gaze of the soldiery with a care that seemed better fitted to the experience of four or five additional years. It could be seen, however, that her person, though moulded with the same exquisite proportions, of which none of the graces were lost by the traveling dress she wore, was rather fuller and more mature than that of her companion. (Cooper 488)

The major characteristics of the two sisters’ personalities are laid out for the reader from the start. The younger, more carefree Alice is all fairness and light. She is created to live a cheerful life, and much of the novel will be spent attempting to rescue her from harm’s way so that she can fulfill this destiny. Cora is the older, more mature sister. It is pertinent that we do not see her features right away. While Alice’s appearance is shown at the start when the wind blows back her veil, Cora’s appearance is not immediately available to the reader. As we will learn, there is something hidden about Cora which will take some time to be revealed. Cooper represents Cora as unblemished in character, and her chastity and wisdom will be stressed throughout the romance. However, it is the rich blood in her veins that will distinguish her from Alice, from this first moment to the very last scene.

The young man with them is of course Major Duncan Heyward, who will later become Alice’s husband. Significantly, while Cora “appeared to share equally in the attentions of the young officer,” it is Alice whom he is assisting. D.H. Lawrence writes of Heyward that “He would probably love Cora, if he dared, but he finds it safer to adore the clinging White Lily of a younger sister” (61). Heyward is seemingly intimidated by Cora, which may be why he prefers Alice. Throughout the novel, Cora is swift thinking and courageous, not characteristics which Heyward finds attractive in a potential spouse. On the other hand, he feels nothing but tenderness for the lovely and needy Alice, who will ultimately become his wife.

The happy part of the ending in The Last of the Mohicans which is provided in Heyward and Alice’s marriage provides a conclusion pertinent to the American historical romance. Cora, Alice’s half-sister, is of mixed racial heritage. Thus, Cora cannot marry Heyward, and he is reserved for the racially pure Alice, who Nina Baym, in her article on Cooper’s female characters, famously calls “unquestionably the silliest of Cooper’s heroines” (“The Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales“). Yet, in order to forge the new American national identity Cooper is setting forth in The Leatherstocking Tales, Alice must be the bride of the conclusion.

Colonel Munro’s love and esteem for his elder daughter are not diminished by the history of her ancestry, and he defends her proudly. When Munro first realizes that Heyward is interested in Alice rather than Cora, he interprets this as a potential racial slight and is offended. It is at this point in the novel that Cora’s true racial identity is revealed. Yet, Heyward deftly defends himself in his response.

“Heaven protect me from a prejudice so unworthy of my reason!” returned Duncan, at the same time conscious of such a feeling, and that as deeply rooted as if it had been engrafted in his nature. “The sweetness, the beauty, the witchery of your younger daughter, Colonel Munro, might explain my motives without imputing to me this injustice.” (Cooper 654)

Heyward’s flattery of Alice soothes Munro’s ego, and he is eventually permitted to marry the surviving fair sister at the end of the novel. Heyward’s prejudice is portrayed by Cooper as innate and unyielding. He could never love Cora; his nature would not permit him to do so. Heyward’s rejection of Cora opens up the field for another potential partner for her, and the outcome of Cora’s marital destiny is one of Cooper’s primary concerns in the novel. Although James Kinney argues that in “The Last of the Mohicans ... miscegenation is rather incidental, providing some spicy addition to the primary adventurous plot” (45), miscegenation is in fact at the heart of the plot of the novel. Cora, the unacceptable offspring of an interracial union, cannot marry the white hero in spite of her worthiness because of her racial identity. Can she marry one of the Native American characters in the text? This is the question that Cooper’s romance explores.

The theme of miscegenation in The Last of the Mohicans which I have touched on here comes to the fore if one reads the novel as part of an ongoing dialogue amongst novelists. I would argue that Cooper’s most famous book is not only a vehicle to continue his successful Leatherstocking series, but is in fact a direct reaction to Hobomok, the first novel by Lydia Maria Child. Other critics have also suggested this possibility. Susanne Opfermann traces the historical likelihood of an ongoing dialogue about interracial relationships within the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper, Lydia Maria Child, and another contemporary novelist, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and makes a compelling argument that they were in fact reading and responding to one another. She establishes that “The intertextual connection ... seems obvious; the question that needs to be addressed is, What is the significance of their common topic?” (29). This paper takes up very briefly a few of the possible answers to Opfermann’s question. By first tracing the treatment of interracial relationships in Child’s novel and then returning to Cooper’s reaction in The Last of the Mohicans to consider the corresponding fate of Cora Munro’s budding romance with her Native American companion, I will be able to draw conclusions about Child’s and Cooper’s fictional visions of the potentiality of interracial relationships in American literature and culture.

Lydia Maria Child’s novel, Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times, has been noted as the first American fictional text treating the topic of miscegenation (Yellin 71). Published in 1824, when the United States of America had not yet reached the fiftieth anniversary of its independence, using the bold theme of interracial marriage and set against the backdrop of the early Puritan settlements, the novel addresses important questions of national identity. Briefly, Child writes the story of Mary Conant, whose father is a staunch Puritan who forbids her marriage to her love Charles Brown because the young man is an Episcopalian, eventually even helping to have Charles expelled from the colonies and returned to England. Mary remains in America only to tend her ailing mother, but after her mother’s death when Mary hears that Charles has died in a shipwreck, she elopes with the valiant Indian Hobomok. They marry and have a child during Charles’ three-year absence. Upon Charles’ return he meets Hobomok in the forest and finding out the situation resolves to go away again without seeing Mary, but Hobomok, having made the same resolution, flees, divorcing Mary and leaving her and their child in the hands of her first love Charles, whom she then marries. The tale Child recounts clearly includes issues of gender and race, as Mary transgresses the patriarchal authority of her father to marry an Indian man, and it has received innumerable readings, which present widely varying interpretations of its message. Here, I will show how Child sets out purposefully to use the novel as a means to depict a specific vision of the fledgling American nation which I feel that Cooper then takes up in his response.

Mary Conant’s defiance of her father’s authority in choosing her husbands can clearly be read as an upsetting of the patriarchal order. After watching her mother and a good friend recently arrived from England both die as a result of their sacrifices for their husbands, Mary refuses to allow her father to continue to dictate her choices and elopes. Renêe Bergland argues that through this Child is creating a “woman-centered vision of American nationhood,” and that precisely, “because Child’s female protagonist makes choices, she is very different from her predecessors in American literature” (74). Mary’s choice to marry Hobomok is shown to be a choice of desperation after the apparent death of her true love, Charles, yet it is a choice nonetheless. Her marriage is not dictated by her father, nor is she carried off by Indians against her will, as in the popular captivity narratives of the time. Child provides Mary with an unusual fate. As Susanne Opfermann explains, Mary’s happy ending does not fulfill the traditional outcome for the transgressive woman:

Child’s text is daring, since it clearly violates genre conventions. According to sentimental tradition, Mary should have died because she is a “fallen” woman. Her “marriage” to Hobomok is neither sanctioned by English law n the church; her child is therefore illegitimate. ... Child’s heroine not only lives, but remarries and lives happily afterwards. (33)

Mary ought to die at the end, like so many transgressive or overly empowered female characters, but Child denies her this fate, instead providing her with a happy existence with her original love.

However, as already noted, Hobomok cannot continue as Mary’s husband once Charles Brown returns. From the beginning the marriage has been shadowed by Mary’s grief over Brown’s death, and in spite of her current contentment, Hobomok recognizes that Brown’s claim to Mary’s love pre-dates and goes deeper than his own. So, Child allows for readers to interpret Mary’s initial decision to marry Hobomok to be a result of her intense grief. As Gould points out, “Mary’s oscillations signal Child’s fundamental ambivalence. Would a reasonable woman run off with an Indian?” (129). This ambivalence was necessary to a certain point, however, in order to be able to present an interracial marriage in the text at all, not to mention that the marriage becomes a relatively happy one. As Deborah Gussman points out, Child cannot risk portraying Mary and Hobomok as overly happy: “Mary’s life with Hobomok is reasonably happy. In her first attempt at writing about interracial marriage for a decidedly squeamish and frequently hostile nineteenth-century audience, Child is careful not to sound too enthusiastic.” Child’s ambivalence in her writing of Mary’s marriage, at first, an act of desperation, but later a scene of muted domestic happiness, and her erasure of Hobomok at the close of the text leave many open questions regarding her ultimate vision of the American nation.

Still, I would argue that Hobomok’s disappearance is exactly what the novel is about. We know from their first meeting that Mary and Charles will eventually marry despite her father’s protests and the other obstacles, such as Charles’ shipwreck and three-year enslavement, and Mary’s marriage to Hobomok, which will enter their path. The traditional marriage plot has not been derailed, only disturbed. This is revealed to us in this first chapter. So, from that point we can read the novel for its other story, which is the story of Hobomok, the title character. Significantly, Hobomok’s supposedly voluntary departure is similar to United States government policy toward Native Americans: he is relocated. It is not insignificant that this novel was published just six years before the Indian Removal Act, when relocation to the West was already seen by many white Americans as a solution for the remaining Native American population. Hobomok proclaims to Brown that he will cede his claims to Mary and move to the West: “Hobomok will go far off among some of the red men in the west. They will dig him a grave, and Mary may sing the marriage song in the wigwam of the Englishman” (139). Brown, also a gentleman, protests this decision, but Hobomok has made up his mind. He will go to the West, where the United States government sent Native Americans in order to keep more fertile lands for white settlers, and he will die among strangers: “The purpose of an Indian is seldom changed. ... My tracks will soon be seen far beyond the back-bone of the Great Spirit. For Mary’s sake I have born the hatred of the Yengees [Yankees], the scorn of my tribe, and the insults of my enemy. And now, I will be buried among strangers, and none shall black their faces for the unknown chief” (Child 140). Hobomok follows the fate that has been determined for Native Americans by white appropriation of their lands. Yet, Child’s ending is descriptive rather than prescriptive in tone. Hobomok’s plight evokes sympathy at the end of the text, even from Mary. Although she is delighted to see Charles, she is crushed at Hobomok’s fate. This may be a white fantasy fulfilled, but, based on the suggestions Child gives us in the novel, this is not her fantasy. In this text, the sympathetic nature of the title character and his sad plight do not serve to assert the superiority of the white settlers, but rather reveal their very weakness. Child’s representation of the obliteration of the Native Americans makes it clear that their destiny is inevitable only because of the white settlers’ behavior. Her fictionalization of early American history includes an implicit critique of American definitions of national identity and community.

Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans is a response to this critique. The vision of American society put forth in Cooper’s novel allows no place for interracial romance or miscegenation. This can be clearly seen by contrasting the fate of Cora Munro with that of Mary Conant. As the novel progresses, the famous characters of Natty, Chingachgook, and Uncas, the last of the Mohicans are soon introduced. Cooper seemingly writes Uncas’ and Cora’s introduction as a tale of love at first sight. They meet in the direst circumstances and are instantly drawn to one another. He continually titillates the reader with the possibility that these two estimable characters will end up with one another. By contrast, Alice and Heyward’s destiny is pre-ordained. For them is the traditional marriage plot reserved — exciting in the middle of the novel, but ultimately predictable. It is between Uncas and Cora that Cooper creates the real romance.

What happens between Uncas and Cora in the text is more powerful because it remains unspoken by the two potential lovers, and thus the tension is palpable within the narrative. In the scene where the little traveling party is surrounded by enemies and Cora compels the men to escape and bring assistance from her father, Uncas does not want to leave her. Natty and Chingachgook appear to be convinced by her reasoning and depart (although it will be revealed later that they had a more strategic plan of their own all along), but after they are gone, Uncas declares his desire to remain with Alice, Heyward, and Cora. In Cora’s efforts to convince him to leave with his friends, she uses all of her womanly powers:

“Uncas will stay,” the young Mohican calmly answered, in English.

“To increase the horror of our capture, and to diminish the chances of our release! Go, generous young man,” Cora continued, lowering her eyes under the gaze of the Mohican, and, perhaps, with an intuitive consciousness of her power; “go to my father, as I have said, and be the most confidential of my messengers. Tell him to trust you with the means to buy the freedom of his daughters. Go; ‘tis my wish, ‘tis my prayer, that you will go!” (Cooper 561)

Uncas cannot hesitate in the face of Cora’s wishes; however unwillingly, he must now obey her command, and he goes to join his father and Natty. Cora’s eyes linger on him until he is completely out of sight. Cora’s influence over Uncas and its meaning here cannot be denied. He obeys her because he cares for her, and the narrator suggests that Cora understands the fullness of Uncas’ feelings for her, even on this early occasion in their relationship.

Everything Cooper writes from the moment that Uncas and Cora first meet encourages the reader to expect the possibility of their union, but it is a possibility that he ultimately denies. Baym argues that Cooper is showing us how history turned out. Uncas marrying Cora and uniting the races peacefully, “that, Cooper says sternly, is fantasy. We know what really happened, we know how history turned out” (Baym, “Men and Women,” 75-6). Yet, there is more at stake in the novel than a realistic presentation of history. While the historical romance needs to be based in history, it need not follow history to its logical conclusions because it is after all still a romance. Cooper’s choice to eliminate Cora and Uncas at the end of the novel is purposeful. As Baym explains “Cooper was no admirer of the New England patriarchy, but he seems to have taken Hobomok as a challenge to his own views. The Last of the Mohicans may be seen as an attempt to disparage Child’s novel as a juvenile and potentially harmful fantasy” (72). Reading Cooper’s ending as an answer to the marriage plot in Child’s novel sheds additional light on his narrative choices.

Works Cited

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