Landscape as Referential Paradox in The Last of the Mohicans
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.
Copyright © 2007, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
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. 51-54).
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
My paper offers at first a brief analysis of the architecture of the plot in The Last of the Mohicans, structured by a double journey through two opposite worlds of the American past. Then, it will consider the use of the landscape as a literary device to build an imaginary past.
In spite of a definite historical background, the early days of the French and Indian War, the novel, in W. P. Kelly’s words, establishes:
... a narrative continuity (with The Pioneers) ... we are drawn away from a reading of Mohicans as an exploration of a discrete historical period. ... Natty and Chingachgook are transitional figures who explicitly bond the colonial America with the independent nation. ¹
American history is set here in such a way as to challenge its origins, its growing process, its looming identity.
In spite of the preface referring to Indian history, actually both Indian and White-American civilizations are drawn here in a puzzling confrontation which is epitomized by the structure of the plot. A conventional intrigue of flight and pursuit is built on a double seven-day span during which opposite values are similarly denied through a symmetrical organization of events. One can refer to their synthetic summary by Michael D. Butler in American Literature: ²
Cooper seems to have made a special attempt to balance his halves. He manipulated actual chronology, for one thing, to place Fort William’s fall exactly in the middle of his tale. The first volume covers the seven days before the surrender, the second the seven after. Imprisonment in a cave centers each volume. Each climaxes with a massacre: the first, the slaughter of whites at Fort William; the second, the defeat of the Hurons — a destruction of a whole community.
In the first period, the European values embodied by the white characters failed. With his “misguided chivalry”, the Virginian Duncan, an officer of the British army proves to be an unfit protector through the wilderness for the females he has to deliver to their father at the British Fort William Henry. Moreover, despite all his skills, the scout Hawk-eye who helps the party is captured. The British officer Munro, the females’ father, and Montcalm, the French leader of the besiegers of the fort, prove unable to guarantee the honorable surrender upon which they have agreed. All the characters who cling to their European modes of thinking fail to manage with the difficulties of the wilderness and its inhabitants, especially with the warfare traditions of the Indians. Such misconduct causes the massacre of the whites and the re-capture of the heroines. Such a failure is to be seen as an omen regarding the future of the European nations on this continent, which conforms to the actual historical process.
The second period is an immersion in the Indian world where the protagonists try to adopt Indian ways: the pursuit of the white family Munro turns out to be secondary as soon as their Indian defender, Uncas, emerges as the hero of a nation, the Delawares. Donald Darnell has presented this matter as a thematic variation on the return-of-the-heir motif. Then, the historical reality vanishes since one enters the mythical time of Indian conceptions. A dreamlike version of the Indian future is conveyed through the prophetic words of Tamemund, the old sage of the Delawares: “The hour of Tamenund is nigh ... ; I thank the Manitoo, that one is here to fill my place at the council-fire. Uncas, the child of Uncas, is found! Let the eyes of a dying eagle gaze on the rising sun.” ³ (310) Uncas emphasizes this idea: “when the Manitoo is ready, and shall say, ‘come’, we will follow the river to the sea, and take our own again. Such, Delawares, is the belief of the children of the Turtle! Our eyes are on the rising, and not towards the setting sun” (311) In Donald Darnell’s words here: “Uncas, the Messiah, tells myth”, and when he leads the war, it is “the war of a nation” (Darnell, p. 265) ⁴ which colors the end of the novel with epic and mythical qualities. Here, I quote Darnell, “in the final encounter,[when] Uncas, the Mohican and the rising sun, confronts Magua, the Prince of Darkness ... myth and epic fuse”. Nevertheless, the fight between the Hurons and the Delawares is a disaster in which most of the protagonists are killed, especially Uncas the Last of the Mohicans. Therefore, Indian values and future come to be denied and the historical situation is re-asserted. The continent seems to be left to the responsibility of the Virginian officer Duncan and his beloved, the fair Alice Munro, in a pure White American prospect. Yet, in the continuous process of history, after the disappearance of the Indian rule and that of the European one, I would say in Michael D. Butler’s words: “implicit in that historical vision, lies the disquieting message, that his rule too (the white American one) is no more than a temporary phase. ... The Last of the Mohicans, therefore, inheres a promise of The Last of the Americans.” ⁵
After this brief summary of the architecture of the plot, my second point will focus on Cooper’s great skill and interest in landscape description. This tale especially displays the latter as a constituent part of the “literariness” in Jakobson’s term: they introduce the reader into a world where reality is constantly threatened by imagination and myth. This implies recurrent appeals to all the faculties of perception, which Cooper tries to upset by what we would call today in Shklovsky’s term “defamiliarization.” Subtle shifts convey a Gothic atmosphere in the background, the primeval wilderness and its inhabitants. For the first time, with the exception of C.B. Brown’s Edgar Huntly, American settings and characters are used as vectors of a disquieting past. In the first part, one cannot count the numberless interwoven lines devoted to the description of this setting. In the second part, some fifteen sequences depict the Indian world in such a strange manner that they “defamiliarize” the reader and draw a dreamlike context where situations and identities remain fixed but unsteadily so; for example, Gamut, Heyward or Magua who “constantly slide in and out of disguise” as Butler puts it. (Butler, 118)
At first, the historical and geographical settings are sketched from the wide scope of present Northern New York State to the narrow vision of the little travelling party through the wild and threatening forests: “The alarmed colonists believed that [the yells of the savages mingled with every fitful gust of wind] that issued from the interminable forests of the west.” (Mohicans, 13)
So, this natural area implies the alarming Indian presence mainly perceived through frightening noises, ... since woods or caves such as Glenn Falls are realms of darkness and that, moreover, the party is often riding in the night. More than once, the wilderness is described in a metaphorical way, which suggests a living monster:
“ ... the forest at length appeared to swallow up the living mass [of the soldiers] which had slowly entered its bosom.” (Mohicans, 15); this monster seems to digest the actual visions into uncertain flashes, or a simple web of lines:
The young man smiled to himself, for he believed he had mistaken some shining berry of the woods, for the glistening eye-balls of a prowling savage. ... A human visage ... peered out on the retiring footsteps of the travellers. A gleam of exultation shot across the darkly painted lineaments of the inhabitant of the forest, as he traced the route of his intended victims ... until finally, the shapeless person of the singing master was concealed behind the numberless trunks of trees, that rose in dark lines in the intermediate space.
In their blurred landscape, both the characters and reader expect some invisible danger. Here one recognizes the criteria of the sublime as Burke has established them, with sources in “falling precipices, in the gloomy forest, and in the howling wilderness.” ⁶
Moreover, this powerful wilderness already carries the blots of the bloody rivalries which took place there, such as: “a green hillock ... raised by the bones of mortal men, ... the grave of the dead Mohawks.”. The travellers are impressed: “they could not ... entirely suppress an emotion of natural horror,” which nature itself, in a romantic way, seems to share: “The gray light, the gloomy little area of dark grass, ... and the death-like stillness of the vast forest, were all in unison to deepen such a sensation”. (Mohicans, 126)
In the same manner, the descriptions of the sight of Fort William Henry, twice apprehended through the eyes of the travellers, offer the meaningful comparison of the two visions. At first (pp. 140-141), the party discovers the sight from “a commanding station”:
Immediately at the feet of the party the southern shore of the Horican swept in a broad semi-circle, from mountain to mountain, marking a wide strand. ... To the North, stretched the limpid ... the narrow sheet of the “holy lake,” indented with numberless bays, embellished by fantastic head-lands, and dotted with countless islands. At the distance ... , the bed of the waters became lost among mountains. ... To the south ... for several miles, the mountains appeared reluctant to yield their dominion, but within reach of the eye they diverged, and finally melted into the level and sandy lands. ... Clouds of light vapour were rising in spiral wreaths from the inhabited woods. ... A single, solitary, snow-white cloud, floated above the valley. ...
In the pure tradition of the 17ᵗʰ and 18ᵗʰ-century landscape painters, the view stretches over a wide panorama of watery surfaces mingled with steep hills covered with forests; the landscape conveys a feeling of grandeur due to the prevailing natural beauty which minimizes the human presence. That is the touch of the picturesque, which allows the spirit to entertain peaceful dreams in front of a quiet and boundless view. Yet, in this place too, nature is soiled, since, near by, at the feet of the observers, the little basin of water Bloody Pond (p. 135) is “the sepulchre of the brave men who fell there” in a previous contest and since, at the same moment a whole army is rumbling about.
In an opposite way, after the massacre, what the five survivors discover is a landscape of ruins, silence and death.(pp. 180-181) Nature itself seems to be horror-stricken:
A frightful change had also occurred in the season. The sun had hid its warmth behind an impenetrable mass of vapour, and hundreds of human forms, which had blackened beneath the fierce heats of August, were stiffening in their deformity, before the blasts of a premature November. The curling and spotless mists ... were now returning in an interminable dusky sheet ... urged along by the fury of a tempest. ... That humid and congenial atmosphere which commonly adorned the view ... had disappeared. ... Nothing was left to be conjectured by the eye, or fashioned by the fancy. ...
The wind blew unequally ... seeming to whisper its moanings in the cold ears of the dead, then rising in a shrill and mournful whistling, it entered the forest with a rush. ...
This time, the touch of the sublime is expressed in the chaotic, morbid and foggy aspects of the landscape, in which the on-lookers cannot afford either a dreamlike mood or even a release from anguish and horror. Thus, the literary device of two contrasting views clearly tends to attribute to history the responsibility for the disorder of the world. While the use of this setting is an addition to historical truth since the events actually happened there, it also offers several symbolic readings: at first, the remembrance that out of the forts, there was no security for the whites on the tribal lands, then that wilderness, in accordance with the traditional Puritan mind, cannot be other than the world of evil, as Magua embodies it when he rises out of the lake in the black shape of an unknown figure (p. 169); beside the lake, the would-be mythic place of the tribes’ birth, the massacre of the whites appears as a deed of revengeful justice in an apocalyptic event suggested on p. 176 by the allusion to “the blasts of the final summons.” The fact that the murderers were seen drinking the blood of their victims could be associated with the traditional belief which gives to this action a power of regeneration, as R. Slotkin demonstrated in his book Regeneration Through Violence. Besides, one Indian legend tells that a mythic warrior, after he had killed a deer, brought back the beast to his people and shared with them its blood and its flesh which gave them a new strength and allowed them to issue from the lake where they were confined. Such a shared subsistence echoes the Christian communion in which the faithful share the blood and body of Jesus-Christ. This sacrifice, something of a ritual and regenerating cross of blood between two “races,” in a metaphorical way, allows one to imagine that it could give birth to a new type of man “the American Adam” as R.W. B. Lewis named him; ⁷ but history actually denied such an Adam.
As a conclusion, I partially agree with Steven Blakemore ⁸ when he writes: “Cooper was rewriting the history of Indian and Anglo-American races in the terms of Burke’s aesthetic treatise.” On the one hand, emphasized by a Gothic stress, the Sublime of the terror, namely wilderness and dangerous masculinity, embodied by Magua, and the Sublime of the aesthetics incarnated in Uncas’ perfection. On the other hand, the Beautiful linked to sweetness, quietness and female fragility. In Burke’s terms, Sublime and Beautiful are incompatible values, and history has proved it; therefore Cooper’s tale could be read as the dream of an impossible historical mediation between the Indian “primitive” masculinity and the European “civilized” female identity, a mediation in the shape of an aesthetic construction.
1. W.P.Kelly. Plotting America’s Past. Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983, p. 48.
2. Michael D. Butler. “Narrative Structure and Historical Process in The Last of the Mohicans,” in American Literature, 1976, vol. 48, p. 124.
3. James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans . New York: Penguin Books, 1986, p. 310.
4. Donald Darnell, “Uncas as Hero: The Ubi Sunt Formula in The Last of the Mohicans,” in American Literature, 1965, vol. 17, pp. 259-266.
5. Michael D. Butler. “Narrative Structure and Historical Process in The Last of the Mohicans,” in American Literature, 1976, vol. 48, p. 139.
6. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958, p. 66.
7. R.W.B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1965.
8. Steven Blakemore, “’Without a Cross’: the Cultural Significance of the Sublime and Beautiful in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans,” in Nineteenth-Century Literature, 1997, University of California Press, vol.52, fasc.1, p.31.