Comic Cooper: Thackeray’s Burlesque of Last of the Mohicans and The Pilot

David Lampe (Buffalo State College)

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. 19-22).

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

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

Although my title is “Comic Cooper,” I do not find The Last of the Mohicans or The Pilot bursting with laughter. Nor do I subscribe to the nit-picking and forged analysis of that quisling Confederate cum Yankee, Mark Twain (aka Samuel Langhorn Clemens). After writing about Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (a novel I re-read with more a sense of duty than pleasure), I think it would be quite easy to list Clemens’ literary offenses, the soft sentimental underside of his frontier realism — those hand grenades filled with apple sauce — but that is for another time and place.

My title “Comic Cooper” does not mean the treatment of David Gamut in The Last of the Mohicans, which is more complex than comic. I also do not mean his treatment of Captain Manual, the American Marine officer, and his English counterpart, Major Borroughcliffe in The Pilot. Nor do I mean the un-intentional humor of the dialog of Cooper’s women (Did women ever really talk that way?). Instead this paper examines the ways in which another major novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, burlesqued Cooper. Thackeray did that in two ways — with pen and pencil, in prose and two drawings. Thackeray, after all, was both a novelist and an illustrator who did essential illustrations for his early works and especially for Vanity Fair and Pendennis.


Yet in re-reading these two Cooper novels, I did notice some parody that I had not noticed when I first read Cooper forty years ago. And I mean parody in the classical sense of the word, as a purposeful exercise in imitation for invention or correction. For instance, Chapter 17 of The Pilot. You may remember it as the whaling chapter that introduces Long Tom Coffin, that skilled whaler and his deadly harpoon. The chapter has an epigraph “Very like a whale” from Hamlet (III.iii.373), which is appropriate in several ways. Master Coffin “the cockswain” has his own “philosophy” (a phrase used three times in this chapter and twice in the next). The use of this term is ironic, since Coffin is a practical man who knows a great deal about whales and whaling and who acts on that knowledge:

“Give strong way, my hearties! There seems nothing better to be done; let us have a stroke of the harpoon at that impudent rascal. ... ” (p. 184).

The cockswain poised his harpoon with much precision, and then darted it from him with a violence that buried the iron in the blubber of their foe (p. 185).

When the whale-boat pursues, Long Tom recognizes there is no need “to finish him” since “he’s going into his flurry ... the creature’s in his flurry” (p. 187) that is, in “its dying agonies.” Yet all the whalers have time to do is to retrieve Tom’s “harpoon and line” as they are chased by the pursuing English ship Alacrity. When they make it to their frigate Ariel, the chase is reversed and a final sea battle is fought. Before they board the English cutter, Long Tom assesses the Alacrity as he had the whale.

“The fellow’s in his flurry ... and it wouldn’t be wise to go within reach of his flukes; but I’ll just step ahead and give him a set with my harpoon.” (p. 199)

When the Ariel crew boards, they shout “Revenge! — “long Tom and victory!” honoring that “priveleged individual.” Cooper the narrator then steps back from the scene and tells us

The battle would probably have terminated very differently from what previous circumstances had indicated, had not a wild-looking figure appeared in the cutter’s channels at that moment, issuing from the sea, and gaining the deck at the same instant. It was long Tom, with his iron visage rendered fierce by his previous discomfiture, and his grizzled locks drenched with the briny element, from which he had risen, looking like Neptune with his trident. Without speaking, he poised his harpoon, and with a powerful effort, pinned the unfortunate Englishman to the mast of his own vessel (p. 200).

This vivid scene was picked up by the illustrator of the French translation of the novel (who strangely gives Tom a trident). This is notably inaccurate since, as with the whale, Long Tom’s harpoon must make his point.

In his 1849 “Preface,” Cooper explains that his novel is a response to Scott’s The Pirate (1821) and especially to the claims made by a friend regarding Scott’s “universal knowledge”:

The result of this conversation was a sudden determination to produce a work which, if it had no other merit, might present truer pictures of the ocean and ships than any that are to be found in The Pirate (p. 5).

This chapter is an example of Cooper providing a “truer picture.” Chapter 18 of Scott’s The Pirate describes the comic attempt by Magnus Troll of “stout old Norse kindred” and his pedantic farm-manager Yellowby Triptolemus to deal with a pair of almost beached whales. The setting is the Orkneys and Zeland Islands in the late 17ᵗʰ century. Triptolemus is interrupted in his “lecture upon the agriculture and the capabilities of the country” and alerted to possible pay-off from two whales, rushes to the shore brandishing his “rural implement (a stable fork)” (p. 174). What follows is mock-heroic in the literary tradition of Edmund Waller’s “Battle of the Summer Islands,” which Scott quotes in his epigraph. Scott’s diction makes this clear; “The valiant Triptolemus ... hurled his graip with all his force against the unfortunte monster” (pp. 177-178). When the whale blows “with a noise resembling the explosion of a steam-engine” Triptolemus is “so much astonished and terrified by the consequence of his own valorous deed that he tumbled backward amongst the feet of the people” (p. 178). Mordaunt Mertoun and Captain Clement Cleveland continue the assault and when the whale escapes, Cleveland rescues Mertoun. Cooper’s epigraph, “Very like a whale” from Hamlet is, I submit, his attempt to correct the trifling literary tropes of Waller and Scott.

Chapters 24, 29, and 32 of The Last of the Mohicans draw their epigraphs from Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad. The first two of these scenes contain “council scenes” in which deliberations go on, or more accurately in which orations are made to determine tribal action. In Chapter 24 we are again shown Magua as orator (the first instance of this is in Chapter 11, in which Magua explains his hatred of Munro — the epigraph from that chapter is from Shylock’s “Cursed be my tribe, / if I forgive him” (I.iii.51-52). Magua is, we are told, the “master of dangerous and artful eloquence.” He “recounted the events of the attack on the island of Glenn’s” [Chapter 8] and then “touched upon the merits of the dead” (p. 759). His “harrangue,” when we are finally given it, poses and answers a series of rhetorical questions:

“Are the bones of my young men ... in the burial place of the Hurons! You know they are not. ... Shall this be? Are their souls to enter the land of the just, like hungry Iroquois, or unmanly Delawares; or shall they meet their friends with arms in their hands, and robes on their backs? What will our fathers think the tribes of the Wyandot have become? They will look on their children with a dark eye, and say go” (p. 760).

All of this requires action: “Brothers, we must not forget the dead.” Revenge is the only answer: “We will load the back of this Mohican [Uncas] until he staggers under our bounty, and despatch him after my young men.” Only this revenge will bring happiness to the dead and remove the “stain on the name of a Huron.” Magua, Cooper tells us, “artfully blended the natural sympathies with the religious superstition of his audience.” His appeals are to pathos, the emotions of his audience, and ethos, his own standing with his audience, and never to logos, to the logic of his argument.

This speech uses the techniques of scurrilous Thersistes in Book II of the Iliad, where we also have a series of rhetorical questions:

What moves the great Atrides to complain?. ... What grieves the Monarch? Is it Thirst of Gold? Say shall we march. ... Say would’st thous sieze. ... (II.276, 281-282, 288)

And then (like Magua) an attack on the virility of his audience: “Oh Women of Achaia! Men no more!/Hence let us fly” (II.293-294). Again appeals to pathos and ethos and an avoidance of logos. The “sage” referred to in the epigraph, is ironically enough, Nestor, who leads the troops to Agamemnon, to whom Thersites complains.

The epigraph for Chapter 29 is more problematic. The identification of the Albany Cooper (and hence the Library of American Authors) is incorrect. It should read Pope, The Iliad, Book 1, II.77-78, rather than Book 2. What Magua does here is to survey races (pp. 819-820), and despite the pleadings of Cora before Tamenund, he triumphs and leads her away.

The context for the epigraph of Chapter 32 is certainly relevant. Calchas explains that Apollo takes “Vengeance for his injur’d Priest” and will not call of the “plague” till the “black-ey’d maid” is returned to her father. And, of course, this is the chapter that reports Cora’s death: “choose; the wigwam or the knife of le Subtil.”


What I have suggested in the first part of my paper is the ways in which Cooper signals and uses his sources for either correction or as a model. Now I will turn my attention to what Thackeray did with Cooper.

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) was born in India and returned to England as a child, where he was educated (and brutalized) at Charterhouse (which he later referred to as Slaughter House) and Trinity College, Cambridge. Leaving without a degree, he read law and then traveled to Paris, where he studied art. After losing his inheritance, he supported himself by selling his comic sketches and burlesques to Fraser’s, Punch, The Times, and Morning Chronicle. He even applied as an illustrator for Dickens. His first book, Flore et Zephr (1836), was a collection of comic lithographs of ballet dancers. Punch’s Prize Novelists first appeared in 1846 (April to October). It was prefaced by this note:

PUNCH’S PRIZE NOVELISTS ’so called because a TWENTY THOUSAND GUINEA PRIZE is to be awarded to the successful candidate’will embrace works by some of the most celebrated authors this country boasts of.

Their tales will appear in succession, and pretty continuously, in the pages of this Miscellany.

The publication will probably occupy about five-and-thirty years, or more or less, according to the reception with which the novels meet from our enlightened patrons — the generous British people.

All novels cannot be given entire, as a century would scarcely suffice, so numerous are our authors, so prolific and so eager has been the rush with stories, when our (confidential) announcement was sent into the literary world. But fair specimens of the authors” talents will be laid before the public, illustrated in our usual style of gorgeous splendour.

The first prize will be 20,000 guineas, viz., a lottery ticket to that amount, entitling the holder to the above sum or a palace at Vienna. The second prize will be the volume of Punch for the current half year. The third a subscription to the British and Foreign Institute, etc. etc. (Burlesques, 145).

Seven burlesques appeared: George de Barnwell by Sir E.L.B.L., BB. LL. BBB. LLL., Bart. (Bulwer Lytton); Codlingsby by D. Shrewsberry (Benjamin Disraeli), Lords and Liveries (Catherine Grace Frances Gore); Barbazure by G.P.R. Jeames (G.P.R. James); Phil Fogarty by Harry Rollicker (Charles Jarnes Lever); Crinoline by Je — mes Pl — ush (Thackeray himself); The Stars and Stripes, by the author of “The Last of the Mulligans.” There was also to have been a parody of Dickens which was never written. All of these were reprinted in Novels by Eminent Hands in 1847. The 1856 American reprint by Appleton reprinted five, leaving out, by editorial choice, Crinoline and Stars and Stripes.

Writing to his friend Albany Fonblanque (27 January, 1847), Thackeray explained “I am going to do a series of novels by the most popular authors for Punch and Bulwer’s is actually done ... numbers of others are to follow Cooper, James Dickens, Lever, &c. but they will all be good natured“ (my italics). Not all those treated took it as such. Lytton was deeply offended; Disraeli never spoke to him again and in 1880 presented him in Endymion as St. Barbe, “the vainest, the most envious, the most amusing of men.” G.P.R. James merely noted that “Thackeray rhymes with quackery.” Yet all three writers did endeavor to avoid the stylistic excesses that Thackeray had burlesqued.

Each prose piece is accompanied by cartoons; three for Barnswell, four for Codlingsby, four for Lords and Liveries, five for Barbazure, five for Fogarty, six for Crinoline, and two for Stars and Stripes.

In the first of these “Cooper” chapters, “the King of France” is walking on the “terrace of Versailles” with Marie Antoinette waiting for the arrival of “the Minister of America,” none other than “his Excellency Doctor Franklin” who spends his time “whittling his cane” and is accompanied by Tatua, “a gigantic warrior in the garb of his native woods.”

The redoubted chief of the Nose-ring Indians was decorated in his war paint, and in his top knot was a peacock’s feather, which had been given him out of the head-dress of the beautiful Princess of Lamballe. His nose, from which hung the ornament from which his ferocious tribe took its designation, was painted a light-blue, a circle of green and orange was drawn round each eye, while serpentine stripes of black, white, and vermillion alternately were smeared on his forehead, and descended over his cheek-bones to his chin. His manly chest was similarly tatooed and painted, and round his brawny neck and arms hung innumerable bracelets and necklaces of human teeth, extracted (only one from each skull) from the jaws of those who had fallen by the terrible tomahawk at his girdle. His moccasins, and his blanket, which was draped on his arm and fell in picturesque folds to his feet were fringed with tufts of hair. ... The warrior leaned on his enormous rifle and faced the king. (224)

Was it with this “carbine that you shot Wolfe in ‘57”? Louis asks. “Tatua shot the raging Wolfe of the English; but the other wolves caused the foxes to go to earth” is Tatua’s playful reply to the “first watchmaker of his empire” and “A smile played round Dr. Franklin’s lips, as he whittled his cane with more vigour than ever.” (224)

Thackeray’s Tatua is a burlesque of Cooper’s description of Chingachgook in The Last of the Mohicans:

His body, which was nearly naked, presented a terrific emblem of death, drawn in intermingled colours of white and black. His closely shaved head, on which no other hair than the well known and chivalrous scalping tuft was preserved, was without ornament of any kind, with the exception of a solitary eagle’s plume, that crossed his crown, and depended over the left shoulder. A tomahawk and scalping-knife, of English manufacture, were in his girdle; while a short military rifle, of that sort which the policy of the whites armed their savage allies, lay carelessly across his bare and sinewy knee. The expanded chest, full-formed limbs, and grave countenance of this warrior, would denote that the had reached the vigour of his days. (225)

Note the “peacock’s feather” for “eagle’s plume,” the technicolor war-paint, tomahawk and girdle, the addition of teeth and scalps, and the substitution of an “enormous rifle” for a “short military rifle.”

King Louis awards an honor to Tatua:

“Noble Tatua, I appoint you Knight Companion of my noble Order of the Bath. Wear this cross upon your breast in memory of Louis of France.”

Tatua accepts with “a glance of ineffable scorn.”

“I will give it to one of my squaws,” he said. “The papooses in my lodge will play with it. Come Médicine, Tatua will go drink fire-water.”

So much for ceremony. Following him, Franklin locates him when he hears “the crack of his well-known rifle.”

He was laughing in his quiet way. He had shot the Colonel of the Swiss Guards through his cockade. (226)

Thackeray’s drawing shows Tatua’s scorn, his peacock plume, nose-ring, tomahawk, and his enormous rifle when Louis is about to ennoble him.

The second chapter presents Leatherlegs and Tom Coxswain aboard Repudiator. “The stern and simple trapper” had elected to stay at sea since he “loved the sound of the waters better than the jargon of the French of the old country.”

“I can follow the talk of a Pawnee,” he said, “or wag my jaw, if so be necessity bids me speak, by a Sioux’s council-fire; and I can patter Canadian French with the hunters who come for peltries to Nachitoches or Thichinmuchinmachy; but from the tongue of a Frenchwoman, with white flour on her head, and war-paint on her face, the Lord deliver poor Natty Pumpo.” (227)

Unlike Natty who avoids women, Tom Coxswain recalls “a woman in our aft-scuppers when I went a-whalin” in the little “Grampus” who “set the whole crew in mutiny”:

“ ... her eye was sich a piercer that you could see to steer by it in a Newfoundland fog; her nose stood out like the Grampus’s gib-boom, and her woice, Lord love you, her woice sings in my ears even now.” (227)

Yet these memories are not altogether pleasant since she betrayed him:

It cost me three years” pay as I’d stowed away for the old mother, and might have cost me ever so much more, only bad luck to me, she went and married a little tailor out of Nantucket; and I’ve hated women and tailors ever since!” (227-228)

“Hardy tar” that he is, Tom “dashed a drop of brine from his tawny cheek and once more betook himself to splice the taffrail.” And here, once again mirroring Cooper, the narrator intervenes:

The novelist ever and anon finds himself forced to adopt the sterner tone of the historian, when describing deeds connected with his country’s triumphs. (228)

And we are told of a series of raids by the Repudiator, “the first of the mighty American war-ships that have taught the domineering Briton to respect the valour of the Republic.” The Dettingen was taken despite seven to one odds, and reminiscent of the capture of the Alacrity in Cooper’s The Pilot, “it was Tom Coxswain who tore down the British flag, after having slain the Englishman at the wheel.”

Knowing that the Portsmouth Harbour was badly defended, the Repudiator sails to the Isle of Wight where “To surprise the Martello Tower and take the feeble garrison thereunder, was the work of Tom Coxswain and a few blue-jackets.” (229) The Flag-ship is captured because they are all drunk; “At the next moment Tom Coxswain stood at the wheel of the “Royal George,” which was strangely destroyed so that “Only Tom Coxswain escaped of victors and vanquished.” Though Washington forbade publication of this story, we have it now on the authority of our narrator, Tom’s grandson, who was told this story by his grandfather “on his hundred-and-fifteenth birthday.”

Cooper corrected Scott in his whaling chapter in The Pilot and drew on Homer for his council scenes to create the malignant rhetoric of Magua. In his burlesque of Cooper, Thackeray expands on exotic details in the description of Tatua, who combines some of the physique of Chingachgook with the behavior of Magua. Thackeray plays the French off against the Americans. Marie Antoinette speaks with an “arch Austrian accent” while both she and Louis wait for Franklin, who lectures them on how to overcome the British as he whittles his cane.

While parody mimics style, burlesque suggests disproportion, grotesque exaggeration rather than imitation. Cooper is often recognized as a visually sensitive writer (e.g., his famous evocation of Glenn’s Falls and Glimmerglass) and Thackeray registers this in his exaggerated portrait of Tatua (“bracelets and necklaces of human teeth” as well as scalps). Thackeray also reverses cultural roles — Marie and Louis wait on Franklin and Tatua, who are bored by them.

Though Cooper describes Long Tom with “grizzled locks” and “looking like Neptune with his trident,” Thackeray makes him youthful and jovial. His harpoon becomes a flag pole for “the stars and stripes” (the title of the burlesque) and also serves as the initial letter of the second chapter (a Punch convention).

Thackeray burlesques both Cooper’s characters and their language. He introduces Franklin as proof of American smugness and busy work. His Leatherlegs is afraid of women and civilization and is quite prolix in his denial. Contrary to Cooper’s plot, Tom Coxswain does not go down with a ship but survives though all of his shipmates are lost in an explosion.

Since Cooper was a curiosity for Thackeray rather than competition (as he was for Clemens), Thackeray’s assessment elsewhere is quite affectionate. In “On a Peal of Bells” he recalls his early reading:

I have to own that I think the heroes of another writer, viz. LEATHER-STOCKING, UNCAS, HARDHEART, TOM COFFIN are quite the equals of Scott’s men; perhaps Leather-stocking is better than anyone of “Scott’s lot.” He ranks with your Uncle Toby, Sir Roger de Coverley, Falstaff — heroic figures, all — American or British, and the artist has deserved well of his country who devised them. (Roundabout, 290)

Thackeray in America records his table talk:

At an American dinner-table where the conversation was concerning Fenimore Cooper and his writings, Thackeray pronounced Leatherstocking the greatest character in fiction since the Don Quixote of Cervantes. (15-16)

Though “Leatherlegs” and “Tom Coxswain” are presented in his burlesques, they are not the real subjects of laughter. Instead Thackeray imports the iconic figure of Dr. Franklin who whittles his cane. He invents Tatua while also playing with an unreliable narrator. When Leatherlegs appears he is at sea, verbose, and not drawn. Anthony Trollope gives the parody high praise:

The scene between Dr. Franklin, Louis XVI; Marie Antoinette, and Tatua, the chief of the Nose-rings, as told in The Stars and Stripes, is perfect in its way, but it fails as being a caricature of Cooper.

Instead, he says, Thackeray is “carried away and above his model by his own sense of humor.” In other words, Thackeray’s laughter is both affectionate and in his own terms “good natured.” Indeed because of it, we may even be able to agree with his fond estimate of Cooper as superior to Scott and equal to Cervantes.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, Leatherstocking Tales: Volume I, ed. Blake Nevius. New York: Library of America, 1984. For The Last of the Mohicans [1826].
  • ------, The Sea Tales, ed. K.S. House & Thomas Philbrick. New York: Library of America, 1991. For The Pilot [1824].
  • Pope, Alexander, The Iliad [1715-20], ed. R.A. Brower & W.H.Bond. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
  • Scott, Walter, The Pirate [1821]. London: Hurd, Robinson & Co., 1822.
  • Thackeray, William Makepeace, The Burlesques from Cornhill to Grand Cairo and Juvenilia, London: MacMillan, 1911. For The Stars and Stripes [1846].
  • ------, Roundabout Papers (From the Cornhill Magazine). London: Smith & Elder, 1869.
  • ------, Letters and Private Papers, ed. Gordon N. Ray. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1945. II. 270.
  • Thackeray in the United States, ed. James Grant Wilson. New York: Dodd & Mead, 1904.
  • Trollope, Anthony, Thackeray. English Men of Letters. London: Dickens and Evans, 1879.