Cooper’s Heroic David Gamut

Matthew Knip (Hunter College, New York City)

Presented at the 16ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2007.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2007 Cooper Seminar (No. 16), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 44-47).

Copyright © 2009, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

Critics have accused Cooper of sensationalism and cliché, of creating stock characters, of reducing complexity and ambiguity to simple and satisfying formulae. If one looks at the varieties of masculinity in The Last of the Mohicans, however, quite the opposite seems true: ambiguity, contradiction, and complexity are richly on display. I aim to trouble the notion that Cooper’s characters, specifically Hawk-eye and David Gamut, can be read as simple stereotypes, or in an allegorical mode in which the characters represent the archetypes of an ideal and a compromised masculinity. I agree with Jane Tompkins that the novel is about conflicts that are themselves the result of “fundamental and irreconcilable dissimilarities of outlook which are culturally based[,]” and that “these dissimilarities and what they may or may not mean for the future of American society” form the true subject of The Last of the Mohicans“ (104). As Tompkins notes, an “obsessive preoccupation with systems of classification — the insignia by which race is distinguished from race, nation from nation, tribe from tribe, human from animal, male from female — dominates every aspect of the novel” (105). What intrigues me is how, amidst all this classification, the category of the masculine remains unstable. David Gamut, the poster boy for a non-normative masculinity, the novel’s unnecessary queer supplement, is also heroic. The lionized Hawk-eye, David Leverenz’s “first Last Real Man in America,” prefers his homosocial woodsman existence over what he considers the abnormal heterosexual conventions of the settlements (a typical early nineteenth-century woodsman trope). Any real interest in the protection of women, of Cora and Alice in particular, has to be publicly shamed into him. Read through a lens attentive to the novel’s competing/contesting claims about masculinity, the weak, feminine, useless, and impotent David may be read as Hawk-eye’s foil. Lurking beneath that surface reading, however, is the novel’s more interesting cultural work: while Hawk-eye would have us believe that there is only one proper, efficacious and “manly” way to be a man — a seductive perspective to some twenty-first-century readers — Mohicans nevertheless deconstructs the woodsman’s orthodoxy. Magua’s words — “The Spirit that made men, coloured them differently” (339) — reflect the true spirit of this novel.

The first time the word “man” appears in Mohicans it is tinged with irony: “There was one man,” Cooper writes, “who, by his countenance and actions, formed a marked exception” (21). David Gamut appears to be a man only negatively, in a compensatory and parodic relation to other men. He is apparently so disposable a character that Michael Mann’s heterosexist 1991 film version of the novel eliminates him altogether. The “singing master” is ungainly, having the bones and joints of other men, but “without any of their proportions.” A “contrariety in his members” seemed to exist throughout the whole man.” He is large, with narrow shoulders, delicate hands, and a “false superstructure of blended human orders.” Cooper attributes to Gamut’s appearance everything unmanly: he is awkward and injudiciously attired; he has a long thin neck and “longer and thinner legs.” His clothing is described as a costume that conceals “no curve or angle” and marks him as vain or simple. We are told that the cocked hat of a clergyman is David’s only source of dignity, and that dignity is artificially supplied. While “good natured,” he has a “vacant countenance” (22). These characteristics subject David to, in Cooper’s words, “the worst animadversions of the evil disposed” (21). In other words, David is criticized because his appearance and the shape of his body incline him toward an unspecified evil of some kind. The exact nature of the evil is not immediately specified.

David’s first action is to “stalk” into “the centre of the domestics, freely expressing his censures or commendations on the merits of the horses[,]” while other men “of the common herd stood aloof, in deference to the quarters of [General] Webb” (22). His voice is “remarkable for the softness and sweetness of its tones.” Having addressed himself to everyone and to no one in particular in his bumbling entrance, David finds “a new and more powerful subject of admiration” for his gaze. His eyes fall on the “still, upright, and rigid form” of the “Indian runner,” in a state of “perfect repose.” David’s inexperienced eyes scan the “swarthy lineaments” of his object in “unconcealed amazement.” The eye his eyes meet “glistened like a fiery star amid lowering clouds” in its state of native wildness” (23). For an instant, the Indian’s searching, yet wary glance, “met the wondering look of the other, and then changing its direction, partly in cunning, and partly in disdain, it remained fixed, as if penetrating the distant air.” Perhaps penetration (the kind which follows desire’s penetrating gaze) is the “evil” to which David is in some way “disposed.” The very next words of the text are: “It is impossible to say what unlooked for remark this short and silent communication, between two such singular men, might have elicited” — “impossible to say” figures the crimen nefandum — the “love that dare not speak its name.”

According to Caleb Crain, sodomy was the sin known in Cooper’s time for its lack of a name. “Unspeakable,” for instance, is a codeword in Charles Brockden Brown’s fragmentary Stephen Calvert for the act Clelia Neville finds her husband doing with other men. Preterition — passing over or omitting — was “the conventional way to represent sodomy” (131).

The idea of penetration is at play in the text and Cooper exploits its various significations in the next paragraphs. The penetration of a horse (with spur) is what drives the beast forward. Penetration can also mean the ability to discern deeply and accurately. David can do neither well. Cooper mocks his riding abilities: “If he possessed the power to arrest any wandering eye, when exhibiting the glories of his altitude on foot, his equestrian graces were still more likely to attract attention” (27). The most “confirmed gait that he could establish, was a Canterbury gallop with the hind legs” (28). Riding with only one spur (the sexual innuendo here is delicious), David appears perfectly ridiculous, as “one side of the mare appeared to journey faster than the other.” His appearance makes a frown gather around the “handsome, open, and manly brow of Heyward.” Simpering upon arrival, David laughs at his own dumb joke, “a witticism” that was perfectly unintelligible to his hearers” (29). David’s odd appearance and his eccentric behavior make him appear — to our understanding at least — unmanly, as one who does not mix easily and comfortably with others.

His chosen profession undermines his masculinity even further. David is an instructor in the practice of psalmody, not in the manly crafts like science, mathematics, defense and offense that Heyward values. Even though he can “carry a full tenor to the highest letter[,]” the master lacks penetration. Trying to recruit Heyward, Cora, and Alice to sing a psalm, he claims that “’four parts are altogether necessary to the perfection of melody’” (30). As any musician knows, David is wrong—four parts are necessary for the completion of the harmonic structure of a chorale, for the standard soprano, alto, tenor, bass arrangement of a hymn or motet or a psalm from David’s Bay Psalm Book. Four parts complete standard harmony, not melody. Moreover, Alice is unimpressed by his musical performance: “never did I hear a more unworthy conjunction of execution and language — an unfitness between sound and sense” (32). Cooper invokes the hapless male musician myth, the musician as contrasting foil to various “real” men since Hercules, who as a boy knocked his music teacher dead with his lyre. In the “shapeless person of the singing master” (33), Cooper sketches the caricature of a consummate buffoon and effete homosexual. This is how the novel begins.

David Gamut’s religious enthusiasm, his musical profession (both female gendered by today’s norms), and his eccentric behavior seem to compromise his masculinity. His disinterest in today’s markers of the masculine “competitive (rather than cooperative) impulses such as assertive individualism, physical strength, drive for wealth and power, sexual conquest” further diminish him in our eyes. As Anthony Rotundo and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick have demonstrated, however, a contemporary reader may have thought otherwise. The early nineteenth century was a time when men had greater freedom to be different from each other and a time before manliness became so narrowly and exclusively defined. The danger in writing about Gamut in an age that rigidly bifurcates the masculine and the feminine is the abandonment of criticism for judgment. When we condemn him for being different based on our norms, we are no longer studying Mohicans, we are studying ourselves. 1 What might seem strange or exotic in David was not so unusual at the time, and his eccentricities would not have automatically and necessarily feminized and diminished him the way they do for today’s reader. In the world of 1757, when the novel is set, or even 1826, when it was first published, Hawk-Eye’s individualism would have represented the more problematic and eccentric, not Gamut’s devotion or even his profession.

If we drop our modern biases, there is perhaps another perspective on David Gamut that emerges, one that starts to come into focus at the abandonment of Fort William Henry, when Duncan places David, seemingly the least qualified character, in charge of the protection of Alice and Cora. “’It will be your duty,’” Duncan charges, “’to see that none dare to approach the ladies, with any rude intention, or to offer insult or taunt at the misfortune of their brave father’” (195). If any do so, David is to threaten a report to Montcalm — “’A word will suffice’” (196), Duncan believes. David, however, has his own linguistic weapon: “’Here are words,’” he expounds, “’which uttered, or rather thundered, with proper emphasis, and in measured time, shall quiet the most unruly temper’” (196). The reader has been carefully set up to regard the musician as a hapless fool, but note the confidence both men share in the power of language. Only David’s optimism is validated. When “more than two thousand raging savages” (199) attack the retreating English, and when resistance serves “only to inflame the murderers” (199), the duty-bound Munro heads for Montcalm, leaving his daughters, Alice and Cora, to fend for themselves. Abandoned by all the manly men of the novel — we don’t know where Hawk-eye and Duncan are during the attack — Alice and Cora are left to the protection and defense of the “helpless and useless” (200) David. Yet we are told that he “had not yet dreamed of deserting his trust” (200). Cora begs David to leave, to rescue himself. Instead, he rises to the occasion. He becomes, the text tells us, erect — he heaves and he swells. The semantics are sexual and erotic, mirroring a startling and new-found potency.

“Go,” said Cora, still gazing at her unconscious sister; “save thyself. To me thou canst not be of further use.”

David comprehended the unyielding character of her resolution, by the simple, but expressive, gesture, that accompanied her words. He gazed, for a moment, at the dusky forms that were acting their hellish rites on every side of him, and his tall person grew more erect, while his chest heaved, and every feature swelled, and seemed to speak with the power of the feelings by which he was governed.

“If the Jewish boy might tame the evil spirit of Saul, by the sound of his harp, and the words of sacred song, it may not be amiss,” he said, “to try the potency of music here.” (200)

The intertextual referent here is 1 Samuel 16:23 — “And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.” The linking of David Gamut to the Hebrew Scripture’s David is significant for the latter’s relationship to Jonathan, son of Saul. The evil spirit that David casts out with his harp may just be Saul’s jealousy of Jonathan and David’s homo-erotically charged relationship. Also significant is the biblical David’s triumph over Goliath, which is archetypically figured here. The scene ends with the abduction of Cora and Alice by Magua, but Mohicans is clear: it is David who accomplishes the astonishing feet of saving their lives in the melee.

Then raising his voice to its highest tones, he poured out a strain so powerful as to be heard, even amid the din of that bloody field. More than one savage rushed towards them, thinking to rifle the unprotected sisters of their attire, and bear away their scalps; but when they found this strange and unmoved figure, riveted to his post, they paused to listen. Astonishment soon changed to admiration, and they passed on to other, and less courageous victims, openly expressing their satisfaction at the firmness with which the white warrior sung his death song. (200-201)

Cooper doesn’t explain how Hawk-eye and Duncan survive the bloodbath at Fort William Henry. The narrative jumps instead to a rescue mission that places David as the guarantor and linchpin at every juncture. In chapter seventeen, David receives his commission from Duncan to protect Cora and Alice and subsequently saves them from the slaughter. When the rescue party, in the next chapter, returns to the scene of the carnage, it is David’s “tooting we’pon” (212) that points the way to the captives’ trail — a clue David must have deliberately left behind. Once across the treacherous Horicon, and afraid that they’ve lost the trail, Uncas discovers David’s footprint under the water of a “turbid little rill which ran from the spring” (245). Unable to discover any trail indicating the passage of the “tender ones,” the pursuers are entirely dependent upon the footprint trail left by David. The text is clear: the search party is kept on the right path by deliberate cues and inadvertent clues left behind by David.

David’s status grows as the novel progresses. He is the first person the party meets when they approach the Huron village. From him the rescue party learns the exact locations of Alice and Cora. David becomes Duncan’s chaperone and guide into the Huron tribe, where he facilitates the rescue of Uncas: David “found access to Uncas, under privilege of his imaginary infirmity, aided by the favour he had acquired with one of the guards” (304). Hawk-eye, dressed as a bear, is “compelled to trust the conversation entirely to David” (305) and his remedial knowledge of the Huron language. David, Cooper tells us, more than fulfills “the strongest hopes of his teacher” (305) and gains access for them. Nevertheless, once inside the captive’s chamber, the stubborn Hawk-eye refuses to acknowledge David’s resourcefulness: “’What shall we do with the Mingoes at the door! They count six, and this singer is as good as nothing’” (307). Before leaving David behind in Uncas’ place, Hawk-eye asks him: “’Are you much given to cowardice?’” (309). The answer reveals a truth the stiff-necked and foolish woodsman (it was Hawk-eye who claimed that David’s singing wouldn’t “’do any good with the Iroquois’” (77) willfully refuses to acknowledge — that David is brave and has his own special kind of competence. David responds: “’I will abide in the place of the Delaware, bravely and generously has he battled in my behalf, and this, and more, will I dare in his service’” (309). David’s offering of himself to save his friend forms a striking contrast to the scene in which Hawk-eye refuses (at least initially, and then acquiesces only begrudgingly), in front of Tamenund and the Delawares, to offer himself to Magua in exchange for Cora: “’It would be an unequal exchange,’” Hawk-eye protests, “’to give a warrior, in the prime of his age and usefulness, for the best woman on the frontiers’” (354). Here is the truth about Hawk-eye: any real interest in the protection of women has to be publicly shamed into him. David never shoots a gun, he can’t slay a buck for dinner, scout or navigate the ways of the woods, or “’cut the throat of a Huron’” (212), yet his devotion to the women surpasses, and his courage readily matches that of the lionized Hawk-eye. Furthermore, without David, the rescue mission would have repeatedly and disastrously failed. Hawk-eye, like subsequent critics who have lionized his masculinity and ridiculed the psalm singer’s, is dead wrong about David — the singer possesses extraordinary courage and potency, and a proficiency of his own.

While Hawk-eye never tires of lecturing David about the correct form of manliness, telling him repeatedly to part with his ‘tooting we’pon’ and to adopt the weapons and customs of the woodsmen, the novel rejects Hawk-eye’s myopic bias. When David does part with his pitch pipe, his action becomes a catalyst for rescue, not a validation of Hawk-eye’s bias. In a comic and ironic twist, Hawk-eye is forced to practice David’s art before the master of song adopts his: Escaping from the Huron village, “Hawk-eye found himself under the observation of the Hurons, he drew up his tall form in the rigid manner of David, threw out his arm in the act of keeping time, and commenced, what he intended for an imitation of his psalmody” (310). The narrator notes that “their statures were not dissimilar,” that Hawk-eye, whose every nerve and muscle was earlier described as “strung and indurated, by unremitted exposure and trial,” could easily pass for the ungainly, disproportional, narrow-shouldered, and pencil-necked musician. C’est la Vie! By the end of the novel, it would seem, Hawk-eye and Gamut share the same stature. Hawk-eye leads a psalm and David trades his pipe for a slingshot. They have each practiced the other’s art, the other’s way of being a man in the world. The novel, I conclude, validates both. In the world of Mohicans, alternative masculinities not only work together, their cooperation is necessary for cultural progress.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Last of the Mohicans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Crain, Caleb, American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Leverenz, David, “The Last Real Man in America: From Natty Bumppo to Batman.” American Literary History 3:4 (1991): 753-781.
  • Rotundo, E. Anthony, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
  • Sloan, Karen S, “The Nineteenth-Century Church Music Controversy: A Possible Referent for Cooper’s ‘Manifestly Impossible’ Singing-Master in The Last of the Mohicans.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 19:1 (2006): 33-42.
  • Tompkins, Jane, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.


1 See Sloan for a particularly harsh reading of David Gamut.