Cooper and Creole Democracy

John Morsellino (State University of New York at 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. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 79-83).

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

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

At first glance, it might seem odd to apply a twentieth century postcolonial term, like “creolization,” to the art of James Fenimore Cooper, a nineteenth century American author. Generally, we use the term “creole” to refer to “new world” societies like the Caribbean and South America, as well as those postcolonial societies that have been made racially diverse through the convulsions of European colonization. “According to Edward Brathwaite, creolization ‘is a cultural process’ — ‘material, psychological and spiritual — based upon the stimulus/ response of individuals within the society to their [new] environment and to each other’ — it is a ‘reciprocal activity, a process of intermixture and enrichment, each to each.’” 1 The forests of central New York seem a far cry from the sunny shores of the Caribbean or the jungles of South America but, then, we remember that the United States in the nineteenth century was itself a postcolonial nation; that Colonel Munro served the British Empire in both the West Indies and in central New York; and that his daughter Cora Munro was the product of a union between the Colonel and a woman of “those isles” who was “descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people.” 2

In The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper dovetails the imperial history of the Caribbean with America’s colonial origins, citing intolerance and cultural genocide as the neglected lessons of New World history. Although The Last of the Mohicans is set in 1757, Cooper is very much concerned with the America of 1826, a society that is narrowing down both culturally and racially. As America constructed its national identity in the nineteenth century, it began to discard the multicultural fragments of its past and replaced them with the notion of a monoculture, where differences were valued through a single, Anglo-centric code. As a result, it was a century that saw the implementation of shameful social policies: The Indian Removal Act, the Back to Africa movement, the No-Nothing Party, the Dred Scott decision, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Cooper understood that such intolerance threatened the very foundation of American democracy and, thus, in The Last of the Mohicans, the New World atrocities visited upon the Africans of the Caribbean became visited upon the Indians of North America; and the age old New World question of the co-existence of diverse races and cultures became problematized by the democratic ideal of the melting pot — of creole democracy.

Reimagining James Fenimore Cooper as an author sensitive to multiculturalism may seem ambitious, at best, and ingenuous, at worst. Cooper, after all, seems to be the nineteenth century champion of racial purity. Two of the most influential literary scholars of the twentieth century, D. H. Lawrence and Leslie Fiedler, whose opinions have shaped the debate surrounding race relations in Cooper’s novels, viewed Cooper in just such a light, that is, they suggested that Cooper’s myth was the myth of a white, Anglo-Saxon America fueled by racism and a providential sense of entitlement. The Leather-stocking himself embodies “the myth of the essential white America,” says Lawrence. “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” 3 And even though this killer has forsaken white society, says Lawrence, he has, nevertheless, managed to remain “pure white.” 4

When the specter of racial amalgamation is raised as a gesture towards racial harmony-what Lawrence considers one of Cooper’s “lovely half-lies” 5-Cooper’s racist impulses, say the critics, leave him little choice but to end the union. A cursory reading of the texts where racial amalgamation is significant to the novel’s story line would seem to bear this out. In The Pioneers, young Oliver turns out to be Major Effingham’s grandson rather than a Delaware warrior and, thus, is free to marry Elizabeth Temple. In The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, both the Indian warrior, Conanchet, and his Puritan wife, Ruth, die shortly after their only child is born. And in Cooper’s most celebrated novel, The Last of the Mohicans, both the Indian warrior, Uncas, and the West Indian mulatto, Cora, are killed before their love can grow to fruition. “Evidently Cooper — or the artist in him — has decided that there can be no blood-mixing of the two races, white and red,” says Lawrence. 6 Therefore, in order to avoid the messiness of an interracial love triangle between Cora, Uncas, and Magua, Cooper simply kills off all involved, “and leaves the White Lily [Alice Munro] to carry on the race.” 7 Fiedler reaches a similar conclusion when, in Love and Death in The American Novel, he states that “[Cooper’s] horror of miscegenation led him to forbid even the not-quite white offspring of one unnatural marriage to enter into another alliance that crossed race lines,” and then goes on to suggest that Cooper viewed Uncas’ attempt to cross racial lines as justification for vanquishing the Mohican peoples, since Fiedler believes Cooper’s “color line is eternal and God-given.” 8 Even the interracial friendship between the Leather-stocking and Chingachgook — a bond that makes “[a]ll the other loves seem frivolous,” says Lawrence can only exist in the wilderness or on the margins of society. 9

While the scholarship of Lawrence and Fiedler has been most persuasive in shaping the academy’s views on the Cooper canon it has also been one-sided, often failing to acknowledge that Cooper’s views on race relations are often contradictory and, therefore, obviate any definitive interpretation of his works. Such racial ambivalence, however, can be taken as a sign of artistic maturity or intellectual honesty rather than evidence of muddled thinking. As Geoffrey Rans has pointed out:

[Cooper’s textual] richness inheres not primarily in complexities of style, depth of psychological and philosophical insight, or the embroidered indeterminacy of Hawthorne, Melville, and James, but rather in the honest stresses of a frank republican mind contemplating the contradictory operation in history of basic intellectual positions that turn out in practice to be anything but simple. 10

We may criticize Cooper for a number of “literary offenses” — many of them famously, if not erroneously, catalogued by Mark Twain — but we would be hard-pressed to find a nineteenth century American author who better understood the strengths and weaknesses of American democracy than James Fenimore Cooper. And it is democracy and not myth, as Lawrence urges, or racial fear, as Fiedler surmises, that is the key to understanding racial amalgamation in Cooper’s novels.

In 1838, the same year 18,000 Cherokees were forced to walk the Trail of Tears, Cooper published The American Democrat with the hope of correcting some of the defects and dangers that he felt were inherent in American democracy. In what was at the time a controversial book, Cooper concluded that one of the greatest dangers to a democracy was prejudice because it was “the most active and the most pernicious of all the hostile agents of the human mind.” 11 He observed that “the mixed character of the population” in American society should have had the effect of “freeing the mind from prejudice” but instead, says Cooper, “we see neighborhoods, in which oppressive intolerance is manifested by the greater number, for the time being, to the habits of the less.” 12 He then made a humane plea for tolerance, which sounded more like the urgings of a ‘60’s liberal than Lawrence’s “great national Grouch” 13:

It ought never to be forgotten, therefore, that every citizen is entitled to indulge without comment, or persecution, in all his customs and practices that are lawful and moral. ... The justice, not to say the necessity of these liberal concessions, is rendered more apparent when we remember that the parties meet as emigrants on what may be termed as neutral territory. 14

Neutral territory for Cooper is, in actuality, an ambivalent space, because multiplicities are allowed to exist without one set of values or customs taking precedence over another, and, thus, tolerance and the acceptance of multiplicity become the means for successful negotiation.

What Cooper’s “frank republican mind” contemplated was the extension of this neutral territory to the neutral or liminal space of the frontier, where democratic ideals, which embraced diversity and the synergy of difference (what we might call creole democracy), and intolerance of the racial Other (what we might term as a will to monoculturalism), co-existed in fluctuating relations. This tension, thus, became central to Cooper’s art: there was simultaneously a will to power and a willingness to comprehend, an impulse towards exclusivity and a yearning for peaceful co-existence; and such contradictions lead, inevitably, to his ambivalent feelings about Indian-white relations, as he imaginatively ventured towards the Native Other in the spirit of engagement and, yet, disavowed him by marking him as extinct. Since the historical realities could not be reconciled with the secular ideals of liberty and equality, or the Christian ideals of mercy and compassion, characters, like the Leather-stocking, became Cooper’s mediators in this interstitial space of contradictory values and beliefs.

In order to show the young America that it had nothing to fear from diversity, Cooper celebrated America’s multicultural and multiracial past, as well as the Euro-Americans, like the Leather-stocking, Corny Littlepage, John Paul Jones, and Harvey Birch, whose interpretive practices embraced more than one cultural code. Such characters were, in effect, cultural creoles, and since they themselves were the bi-products of more than one culture, they were able to exhibit the requisite tolerance of multiplicity, which was necessary to mediate Cooper’s neutral ground. It has often been assumed that the characters who were best able to mediate this interstitial space were men like Duncan Heyward, Edward Griffith, or Peyton Dunwoodie, characters who ventured towards foreign cultures or territories without losing their “whiteness” or their “American-ness.” Seeing in multiplicities would presumably be a hindrance to their individual and cultural identity. Their reward for maintaining their racial or cultural purity was marriage and positions of stature in American society. When Duncan Heyward rides off to the “civilized” east with Alice Munro in The Last of the Mohicans, we, as readers, are meant to believe that these fair-haired lovers are America’s version of Adam and Eve, progenitors of a new, distinguished race of men. And, yet, when we examine the actions of a Duncan Heyward or an Edward Griffith, for example, they are ineffectual at critical moments in the novel, often lacking the proper skills to mediate or lead.

In The Pilot, it is the English-born John Paul Jones, America’s first naval hero, who, being familiar with the treacherous Northumberland Coast in the north east of England, is the only man able to pilot the American frigate away from the rocky shoals. His knowledge of foreign waters — “I have the advantage of knowing the ground well, and must trust to my memory” 15 — and his ability to accommodate a non-standard solution to their dilemma — he raises sails even though the frigate is close to shore — saves the ship and its inhabitants from certain destruction and death. In The Spy, it is Harvey Birch, and not Peyton Dunwoodie, who is able to effect the release of Henry Wharton and conduct him safely to the Hudson River, where a British ship awaits. Harvey’s knowledge of the “neutral ground” of Westchester, his knack for disguises, and his familiarity with the customs of both the British and Continental armies enables him to save his own life and the life of his friends.

John Paul Jones and Harvey Birch were not simply common men with special “gifts” from nature; their success often lay in their ability to accommodate multiple viewpoints or customs, which inevitably led to an expanded epistemology rather than a reduced one. Captain Munson’s first mate, Edward Griffith, has little faith in the Pilot’s strategy of adding sails when the ship is trapped on the shoals, since the only course of action he is familiar with is to reduce sails. Instead of exhibiting the stoic character we might expect from one who is to inherit Cooper’s America, we are told that at this critical junction in the novel Griffith “relapsed into the listless apathy that so often came over him, even in the most critical moments of trial and danger.” 16

Similarly, Duncan Heyward attempts to buy Cora’s freedom by offering Magua gold and silver, stating, “Her ransom shall make thee richer than any of thy people were ever yet known to be.” 17 Magua’s response is telling: “Magua is a red-skin; he wants not the beads of the pale-faces.” 18 Gold and silver may have great value in Heyward’s culture but in Magua’s culture there are certain things, such as honor, which cannot be bartered. Duncan’s limited epistemology does not allow him to negotiate this space successfully. It is Hawkeye who silences Heyward’s futile attempts and offers to trade places with Cora, an offer which momentarily appeals to Magua’s own value system and deeply impresses the warriors of the Lenape nation. The characters who best understand the culture of the Other — the customs, beliefs, or geographical space — are the ones whose epistemology allows for alternate interpretations or beliefs; and navigation through dense forests as a “pathfinder” or navigation through rocky seas off the coast of England become powerful metaphors for the negotiation of difference in a multicultural society.

Much has been made of Hawkeye’s boast that he is “a man without a cross of blood,” a statement which suggests someone who is “racially pure” and dedicated to a single racial code. But, once again, we must be mindful of Cooper’s warning that every “word uttered by Natty Bumppo was not to be received as rigid truth.” Even though Hawkeye does not possess Indian blood, he is, at least, culturally, an amalgamation of the two races: he speaks English as well as several Indian languages; his “nearly savage equipments” 19 (emphasis mine) include the green jacket of the Rangers and the leather-stocking of the Indian; his “sunburnt and long-faded complexion” 21 has “Indianized” his features, making him only “one who might claim descent from a European parentage” 21 (emphasis mine; note Cooper’s use of equivocal language, which emphasizes the Leather-stocking’s liminal identity); his best friend, Chingachgook, whom he calls “brother,” is a Delaware and his “son,” Hard-Heart — “I have no son, but Hard-Heart,” he says 22 — is a Pawnee; his beliefs on the environment and its creatures are closer to the Indians then the prodigal whites; and when he dies at the end of The Prairie he is adopted by Hard-Heart and given both a white and Indian burial (his dog is laid at his feet in Indian fashion and a headstone is placed over his grave, as is the custom of the whites). “I fear I have not altogether followed the gifts of my colour,” laments Bumppo at the end of his life, and he is right to think so. 23 He is in many ways the perfect cultural representative for America: he is someone preoccupied with racial and cultural differences and, yet, blind to the fact that those cultural “differences” have been incorporated into his own manners, customs, and beliefs, and are, in fact, a source for his vitality. In other words, the Leather-stocking is blind to the fact that he has become — to whatever degree — the racial Other.

In The Last of the Mohicans, the notion of creolization is embodied most strongly in the character of Cora Munro, who is a West Indian mulatto with the “rich blood” of Africa coursing through her veins. Beginning with D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, scholars have interpreted Cora’s romance with Uncas and her eventual death as consistent with Cooper’s fear of miscegenation. Her death, however, like the death of Cordelia in King Lear, appears to be senseless. If Cooper had meant to avoid Cora’s interracial coupling with either Uncas or Magua, he simply had to kill off both male suitors. The senselessness of her death — she is killed at the hands of an anonymous Indian — is meant to underscore the senselessness of that “most pernicious of all the hostile agents of the human mind”: prejudice. Cora, after all, has been, like the Leather-stocking, venturing towards the Other-towards Indian society. Her journey through the wilderness has been her Indianization, or, more specifically, her creolization with a third race. Like an Indian, she is the one entrusted to break the branches for Hawkeye in the forest; she is the one who makes Hawkeye exclaim: “I would I had a thousand men, of brawny limbs and quick eyes, that feared death as little as you!”; 24 and when Magua lays his hand on Cora’s shoulder it is her “savage” wrath that is incurred: ” ... her dark eye kindled, while the rich blood shot, like the passing brightness of the sun, into her very temples, at the indignity.” 25 At the end, she is given an Indian burial, an act that completes her creolization.

Cora’s death, then, is not a sad but necessary step in America’s “whitening” but evidence of an American culture narrowing down, an America which has failed to accommodate its own ideals. Because Cora is the offspring of two diverse races and cultures, she is able to accommodate and adapt to her new environment in a way that her sister, Alice, cannot. Alice, who exhibits little sense and much sensibility, suffers repeatedly from that infamous nineteenth century social malady, the fainting spell — evidence of, among other things, her inability to cope with an alien environment. The ability to interpret from more than one cultural code, however, is part of Cora’s epistemological make-up and her “Indianization” throughout the novel further allows her to empathize with yet another set of customs and values. When Duncan makes a disparaging remark about Magua and Indian veracity, Cora coldly replies: “Should we distrust the man, because his manners are not our manners, and that his skin is dark!” 26 And when Tamenund tells her he is the father of a once venerable people that has now been all but vanquished by the whites, Cora draws a parallel between her own suffering people — the African slaves of the West Indies — and the vanishing Lenape nation: “Like thee and thine, venerable chief ... the curse of my ancestors has fallen heavily on their child!” 27 Her diverse experiences allow her to make connections with others — she knows what it is like to be mistrusted because of dark skin, she knows what it is like to be associated with a “doomed” race — and this, in turn, allows her to empathize and to see the Other as fully human. To love an Indian is to acknowledge his humanity, and at this stage in American history, when the accumulation of land and gold took precedence over human relations, it was better to keep the “savage” Other at arms length, to keep him an object-to keep that incommensurable gap of alterity incommensurable.

And that is the great irony in Cora’s death: as a society, we lost the very type of individual who could bridge the gap of alterity, who could mediate this neutral territory rife with ambivalence, and fulfill the true ideals of American liberty. Instead, men, like Duncan Heyward, who are married to an inflexible military code, and women, like Alice Munro, who lack the sensibility to see beyond their own binaries, will become the ineffectual inheritors of an increasingly intolerant culture. Duncan and Alice will, ironically, ride off to their Virginia plantation, and rule over a slave society that is constructed around the inability to see the Other as fully human. So Cora dies and Hawkeye ventures further west, away from civilization. When Colonel Munro utters the hopeful (multicultural) sentiment, “that the time shall not be distant when we may assemble around the throne without distinction of sex, or rank, or color,” 28 and Hawkeye shakes his head, doubting the “efficacy” of the old man’s words, it is the specter of history that gives such weight and sadness to his gesture.


1 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies (New York: Routledge, 1998) 58-9.

2 James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (1826; New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1986) 159.

3 D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923; New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1977) 68.

4 Lawrence 69.

5 Lawrence 55.

6 Lawrence 64.

7 Lawrence 64.

8 Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960; Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997) 207.

9 Lawrence 65.

10 Geoffrey Rans, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991) xiii.

11 James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat (1838; Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc., 1959) 87.

12 American Democrat 90.

13 Lawrence 52.

14 American Democrat 91.

15 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea (1824; New York: The Library of America, 1991) 41.

16 The Pilot 44.

17 Mohicans 313.

18 Mohicans 313.

19 Mohicans 28.

20 Mohicans 28.

21 Mohicans 28.

22 James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie (1827; New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1987) 384.

23 The Prairie 382.

24 Mohicans 142.

25 Mohicans 315.

26 Mohicans 21.

27 Mohicans 305.

28 Mohicans 369.