Domesticating Wilderness in The Last of the Mohicans

Patrick Walters (University of Delaware)

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. 99-102).

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

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

Thank you all for staying. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to present with such a very distinguished group of scholars this afternoon.

“Again the fire brightened, and its glare fell more distinctly on the object. Then even Duncan knew it, by its restless and sidling attitudes, which kept the upper part of its form in constant motion, while the animal itself appeared seated, to be a bear” (Cooper 319)

This passage serves not only to highlight Hawkeye’s brazen confidence in his performance of the bear, but also to introduce a sequence that highlights the complexity this paper sets out to address. Duncan Heyward follows his captor obediently toward a cavern not far outside the village. Hawkeye follows, “rolling along their path, and following their footsteps” (Cooper 320). Within the cavern, a series of pivotally comical events transpire. Referencing these events, Cooper writes, “There was a strange blending of the ridiculous with that which was solemn in this scene” (ibid 323). But Cooper provides an unbalanced blend, undermining the solemn and leaving the reader with a strong sense of the ridiculous.

The locus of this sense is Hawkeye’s performance of the bear. Presented as an object of performed deception and comedy, the bear appears not as a wild creature, but one that has been tamed by humanity. At the conclusion of the scene, the reader is likely to have been convinced of the validity of a thought noted by Heyward upon first encountering Hawkeye the bear. He observes that the bear is a creature “often domesticated“ (Cooper 320) [my italics]. Interestingly, this particular scene does not represent an isolated or singular event in the progression of the novel. Throughout The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper domesticates the wild animal through comic domination.

It is important to note that this domestication is, in a sense, an extension of a slightly more obvious maneuver in the text; Cooper’s near removal of the wild animal from the apparently wild landscape in which the action of the novel occurs. Most current theories of wilderness depend on the presence of such animals, most often using their frequency as a progressive indicator of just how wild a place is. Gary Snyder, poet/philosopher and a prolific contemporary theorist of nature, defines wilderness in some of the following terms: “a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and non-living beings flourishing according to their own sort of order” (Snyder 12).

Free living wild animals, however, rarely surface in the novel. The reader momentarily meets a deer and runs into a beaver village on occasion. To all but the most dedicated wildlife seekers, this portrayal of the forests of New York State may appear relatively accurate. The passage of a deer across the path often ranks as the highlight of a weekend trip into the woods. But, for the most part, the woods were a different place at the middle of the 18ᵗʰ century. Even near the middle of the 19ᵗʰ century, thousands of miles of unexplored and undisturbed forests lay to the west of Cooper’s home in New York. Wolves hunted in packs larger than any existing anywhere today; cougars, lynx, and bobcats prowled the branches of tall old-growth forests; and bears lumbered through thick fields of summer berries. The landscape teemed with wildlife, regardless of Cooper’s desire to say so.

But when Cooper published The Last of the Mohicans, the wildness of a place was not necessarily contingent upon the presence of wild animals. Instead, wildness was generally connected directly to cultivation, or better, an absence of cultivation, particularly for the son of a land speculator. The distinction we theorize today as wild and non-wild, existed then as uncultivated and cultivated, unusable or usable, or, to phrase it more appropriately for this argument, undomesticated and domesticated. The domesticated landscape was one that had succumbed to human dominance. It was a place at which humanity had devised an apparently consistent and reliable system of food production, a critical step toward the ultimate goal: that being a way of life free from death itself. Most emblematic of this landscape is the quiet, sun lit field flowing with wheat, corn, or barley, or perhaps even a ripe green pasture populated by a group of bored milk cows.

Opposite this image lies the landscape constructed by Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans. The thick, dark forest through which Hawkeye and his Indian companions pursue their enemies is a fiercely undomesticated place. The human is, at most, a small piece of a powerful and uncaring natural system. Humanity stands at the mercy of the landscape. Here it is crucial to point out a fascinating nuance in Cooper’s construction of this landscape. Traditionally, the risk of death which domestication strives so forcefully to minimize appears in the form of powerful natural forces. Death by lightning storm, cholera, or rattlesnake bite was not uncommon.

Out in the woods, it is often the stories of attack by wild animal that strike the greatest fear into hearts and minds. As a piece of the ecological system, the person in the wilderness of the mid-1700s had every logical reason to be afraid. Large, hungry predators abounded. Intelligence, our greatest evolutionary advantage, provides little advantage in the effort to defend oneself from a surprise attack by a cougar. So why then, with the wild animal essentially removed, do Hawkeye and his companions lack control over their environment?

They lack control due to the simple reason that Cooper replaces the role of the wild animal with another equally threatening force. Thirsty for blood (Cooper 222), the savage Indian, or Huron, replaces the position of the wild animal, presenting just as great a threat to the lives of those who enter the wilderness. Illustrating the similarities between the savage Indian and the wild animal, namely the wolf (ibid 83) and the vulture (ibid 220), Cooper sustains the wildness of the landscape. And in scene after scene the novel argues for the utter extermination of the savage Indian. Even the final scene, despite is melancholic tone, concludes with the destruction of the very last of the Mohican tribe.

Initially, Cooper’s extermination of the savage Indian appears to be a logical extension of his extermination of the wild animal. One could read each process as a progressive step in the attempt to clear the landscape of viscerally dangerous natural forces. A significant difference exists, however, between clearing the landscape and domesticating it. Clearing entails absolute removal or destruction, for instance, the clearcutting of a spruce forest in northern Maine. Domestication, on the other hand, depends on human dominance, or perceived dominance, over another creature, for instance, the training of a dog to chase a sheep into a pen. The goal is to control the animal, not to destroy it.

The evidence hinted at briefly earlier in this paper supports that Cooper is not simply clearing the land, but that he is, in fact, domesticating it. Although Cooper nearly eliminates the wild animal from the text, he occasionally allows its entrance. But when he does so, the animal appears bound by an ambience of human control. This domination is enhanced by the addition of a comic element, leading to a thorough domestication that leaves the wild animal controlled, tamed, and humiliated. Two moments in the text suggest this reading and a third, mentioned earlier, provides explicit evidence to support it.

The first revolves around the homes of beavers and the confusion of a man who encounters them. On a “mild summer’s evening” (Cooper 277), not long after the onset of the chase, Duncan Heyward finds himself alone in the forest, overlooking a place at which the stream has “expanded into a little lake” (ibid 277). Looking out across the miniature lake, he observes a number of dwellings. His colorful description of these homes follows:

“A hundred earthen dwellings stood on the margin of the lake, and even in its water, as though the later had overflowed its usual banks. Their rounded roofs, admirably molded for defense against the weather, denoted more of industry and foresight than the natives were wont to bestow on their regular habitations, much less on those they occupied for the temporary purposes of hunting or war” (Cooper 277).

Heyward assumes, quite erroneously, that the beaver village that lies before him belongs to the Hurons. His commentary assigns the quality of the beavers’ work directly to that he would expect of a human builder. Heyward, as a representative of the human race, thus gains control over the beaver, even if only in his mind. And although the beaver is left to roam free at the conclusion of this scene, Heyward’s very confusion of the creature adds a comic element to the domination that leaves the beaver fundamentally droll.

Interestingly, the second, and slightly more convincing suggestion of domestication also involves the beavers. Following Hawkeye’s daring rescue within the enemy encampment, Magua assembles a group of young warriors to spy on the Delaware encampment. Waking before first light, the men swiftly follow the winding path of the small creek upon which the beavers have built their lodges. As the scouting party passes the small village, one amongst them addresses the beavers as cousins and reminds them to be grateful for his protecting influence (Cooper 359). His address encourages a curious and unexpected response. Cooper writes, “Just as he had ended his address, the head of a large beaver was thrust from the door of a lodge. ... Such an extraordinary sign of confidence was received by the orator as a highly favorable omen” (ibid 360).

Unbeknownst to the gracious warrior, the beaver who pokes his head through the lodge is merely Chingachgook in disguise. Just moments after the passage of the enemy scouting party, Chingachgook steps confidently from the lodge and removes his “mask of fur” (Cooper 360). In this instance, human control over the wild animal proceeds from the realm of the conceptual into that of the physical. Heyward only domesticated the beaver in his mind. Chingachgook, on the other hand, actually cloaks himself in the very skin of the beaver.

Dominance over a wild creature can be achieved in a number of diverse ways. Whips, clubs, leashes, collars, chokers, fences, traps, and treats have all been used to bring animals under some degree of control. Dogs are restrained with leashes, horses with bridles, and cows with bells and fences. Chingachgook’s disguise, however, represents an absolute form of control, and thus domestication. By draping the skin of the beaver over his own shoulders, the wise Indian essentially becomes the beaver. Whereas a dog owner must tell his pet to come, sit, or roll over, Chingachgook acquires the power to both make commands and carry them out.

While Cooper does not reveal Chingachgook until the end of the scene, several passages indicate a curious degree of humanity among the beavers. Cooper writes that the beavers are “sagacious and industrious animals” (Cooper 359), a characterization applied elsewhere to Chingachgook. When the enemy warrior speaks to the beavers, he does so “as if he were addressing more intelligent beings” (ibid 359). And finally, Cooper notes that the beaver observes the departure of the scouting party “with an interest and sagacity that might easily have been mistaken for reason” (ibid 360). Once the identity of mysterious beaver is revealed, the reader finds that these passages suggest not just the humanity of the creature, but the pervasive domestication under which it has fallen.

The final piece of evidence this argument will bring to bear is essentially an extension of the one just put forth. As stated earlier in the paper, Hawkeye disguises himself as a bear in order to deceive the Hurons and free their captives. This act of disguise, not unlike that undertaken by Chingachgook, enables Hawkeye to establish complete control over a wild creature and, accordingly, domesticate it.

Cooper notes that Chingachgook’s choice to dress in disguise and present himself so openly to the enemy is “an extraordinary sign of confidence” (Cooper 360). Yet the extent of his maneuver fails even to approach that of Hawkeye’s. And similarly, the degree to which the bear is domesticated reaches far beyond that of the beaver. Hawkeye the bear enters the progression of the novel in the passage quoted at the outset of this paper. He lumbers along an enemy trail, literally kneeling at the feet of a savagely violent enemy. Following David Gamut into a cavern, Hawkeye places himself in close proximity with Magua. The audacity of his actions indicates the completeness of his domestication of the bear. He possesses little fear, certain, as Chingachgook was, of his power to authentically direct the actions of the wild beast.

His boldness only increases. Within the cavern, as Gamut concludes his attempt at a healing song, Hawkeye the bear picks up where he leaves off. Cooper writes, “seated on end in a shadow of the cavern ... it [the bear] repeated, in a sort of low growl, sounds, if not words, which bore some slight resemblance to the melody of the singer” (Cooper 322). Not long after, Gamut is three times saved from having to perform an Indian incantation by the fortunate “fierce growl of the quadruped” (ibid 324). Hawkeye even goes so far as to approach and attack the most fearfully murderous of his enemies, capturing him in a “grasp that might have vied with the far-famed power of the ‘bears-hug’ itself” (ibid 332).

To a point, such boldness achieves a heroic effect. But when exaggerated and flaunted, as it is in this case, it becomes comic. Cooper steps across the border from the “solemn” into the “ridiculous.” Most demonstrative of this is the unchecked mirth enjoyed by Hawkeye throughout the scene. As he removes the head from his costume, Gamut notices, with great surprise, “the honest, sturdy countenance of the scout, who was indulging, from the bottom of his soul, his own peculiar expression of merriment” (Cooper 324). Furthermore, Hawkeye later explains the ease with which he so perfectly imitated the bear. Cooper writes, “I should be but a poor scholar for one who had studied so long in the wilderness, did I not know how to set forth the movements and the nat’r of such a beast ... it is no such marvelous feat to exhibit the feats of so dull a beast” (ibid 326).

By the time Hawkeye endeavors to rescue Uncas from the center of the enemy encampment, the comic atmosphere surrounding the disguise has been established. And as Hawkeye, Uncas, and Gamut exchange costumes, this atmosphere is only heightened. In the presence of the bear, the gravity of the chase is replaced with the comedy of deception, underscored by the epigraphs preceding chapters 25 and 26. Both are familiar passages from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first reads: “Snug: Have you the lions part written? Pray you, if it be, give it me, for I am slow of study. Quince: You may do it extempore for it is nothing more than roaring” (Cooper 323). The next reads: “Bottom: Let me play the lion too” (ibid 338). No less absurd than the lion Snug will struggle to perform, the bear is controlled by a man within its skin and tamed by a comic representation, arriving at the conclusion of the novel as a thoroughly domesticated creature.

Cooper’s manipulation of the bear commits the creature less to the role of “fierce and dangerous brute” (Cooper 324) and more to that of tame and comical dancing bear. The beaver too, though not known amongst most logical persons for its fierceness, loses its place within the wild ecological system and joins the bear in the circus ring. Let it be clear that this paper makes no claim to assert Cooper’s intentions in portraying these creatures in such a light, if such intentions existed at all.

This paper does, of course, leave a number of questions to be addressed. Did Cooper intend his treatment of the wild animal to result in a reading such as that proposed in this paper? Where did all the animals go and why did Cooper choose to omit them? Is it possible that Cooper simply never encountered an environment as wild as that into which he places his characters and so inadvertently achieved domestication? Can a more detailed understanding of Cooper’s exposure to Indian philosophy and spirituality, namely his readings of Heckewelder’s work, expose his motives for explicitly choosing the bear and the beaver? Can a more thorough understanding of the natural history of these creatures shed brighter light on Cooper’s portrayal of them? And finally, what impact has such a depiction of the wild animal, regardless of Cooper’s intentions, had on the development of our perception of both the wild animal and the wilderness as a whole?

I would like to conclude with a brief passage and a final question.

“The vast canopy of woods spread itself to the margin of the river, overhanging the water and shadowing its dark current with a deeper hue. The rays of the sun were beginning to grow less fierce and the intense heat of the day was lessened, as the cooler vapors of the springs and fountains rose above their leafy beds and rested in the atmosphere. Still that breathing silence, which marks the lazy sultriness of an American landscape in July, pervaded the secluded spot, interrupted only by the low voices of the men, the occasional and lazy tap of a woodpecker, the discordant cry of some gaudy jay, or a swelling on the ear, from the dull roar of a distant waterfall” (Cooper 33).

This passage, which appears near the beginning of the text, does not depict a wild landscape. The Hurons have not yet disturbed what appears to be a natural, steady state of peace, quiet, and laziness in the American landscape. Not surprisingly, the wild animal is essentially absent, represented only by the woodpecker and the jay, two particularly benign and common birds. The stark contrast between this tame description of the landscape and the far darker and chaotic ones that dominate the text leaves me wondering: To what extent does Cooper’s domestication of the wild animal extend across the rest of the landscape, across the supposed wilderness itself?

Works Cited

  • James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans [1826] (New York: W.A. Townsend and Company, 1860)
  • Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (New York: North Point Press, 1990)