Re-Drawing Cooper’s Color Line: Interracial Marriage in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish
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. 69-73).
Copyright © 2009, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish was the third book in what I like to think of as Cooper’s racial trilogy; it is, in effect, his final word on the possibility of amalgamation between the two races: white and Indian. Cooper first confronted the possibility of intermarriage in The Pioneers (1823); and then three years later raised the specter in The Last of the Mohicans (1826); and then, finally, tackled the issue head on in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829). In all three novels, the possibility of a lasting interracial union ended in either tragedy or in the revelation that the Indian lover was really not an Indian but a white man.
The fact that Cooper does not allow for the viability of interracial marriage has, of course, opened him up to criticism, particularly from those scholars who would characterize him as some type of racial purist; that he could not allow, in the words of D. H. Lawrence, “blood-mixing of the two races, white and red.” ¹ For Leslie Fiedler, Cooper’s “color line is eternal and God-given” and cannot be crossed without the penalty of death. ² And for Leland S. Person “a miscegenation phobia” seems to accompany Cooper’s white heroes and heroines into the wilderness. ³ Was Cooper, then, simply a racial purist, who, while shedding an insincere tear for the vanishing natives, could not allow the mingling of “white and red” blood in any lasting union? Or was he suggesting in these failed interracial unions something about America’s inability to live up to its pluralistic ideals?
We might look for clues in two sources to help frame our discussion. The first source is Cooper’s Notions of the Americans (1828), which was a quasi-fictional account of a Belgian traveler’s journey across the United States, wherein Cooper has his Belgian bachelor boldly proclaim:
As there is little reluctance to mingle the white and red blood, (for the physical difference is far less than in the case of the blacks, and the Indians have never been menial slaves,) I think an amalgamation of the two races would in time occur. Those families of America who are thought to have any of the Indian blood, are rather proud of their descent, and it is a matter of boast among many of the most considerable persons of Virginia, that they are descended from the renowned Pocahontas. ⁴
The Belgian bachelor’s bold proclamation of interracial union begs the question: Are his views also the views of Cooper? James Grossman, for instance, found it impossible to reconcile Cooper’s vanishing Indians with the Belgian traveler’s sentiments of reconciliation and amalgamation, and, thus, concluded that the intrepid Belgian was “accurate as the portrait of a patriot, but inadequate as the mouthpiece of Cooper’s serious views.” ⁵ Grossman believed that Cooper “select[ed] the facts one-sidedly” and this, presumably, negated all of his “serious” opinions. ⁶ But to say that Cooper and his traveling bachelor shared none of the same views is as irresponsible as saying that they spoke as one voice.
One must not lose sight of why Cooper wrote Notions in the first place; namely, to answer all of the European writers, mainly English, who had written unfavorably about the United States, and to correct the misunderstandings that these works had engendered in the European imagination. ⁷“Notions,” writes Grossman, “had a double purpose: to explain America to Europe, and to show what a sane, balanced book about America by an intelligent, open minded foreigner would be like.” ⁸ Cooper certainly embellished some of his Belgian bachelor’s observations and, as Grossman points out, glossed over some of the more unpleasant aspects of the American character, such as the brutal treatment of Native Americans. ⁹ But if Cooper was writing a book to prove to Europeans that Americans were just as civilized, if not more so than their European brethren, and that America’s democratic experiment was as liberal-minded as it claimed, it stands to reason that he would have chosen to highlight only those characteristics that he, as the author, deemed most worthy. When Cooper has his bachelor say that “an amalgamation of the two races would in time occur” one might justifiably conclude that Cooper himself was not vehemently opposed to such an amalgamation. After all, such harmonious, interracial unions would offer proof to skeptical Europeans that America was indeed a “broad-minded” country.
The second source to help us debunk, or at the very least complexify, the notion that Cooper was some sort of racial purist would be Cooper’s dedication of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish to his friend “The Rev. J. R. C.,” who was descended from Native Americans and whose familial history furnished Cooper with much of the materials for the novel. Cooper wrote of his friend:
You have every reason to exult in your descent, for, surely, if any man may claim to be a citizen and a proprietor in the Union, it is one, that, like yourself, can point to a line of ancestors whose origin is lost in the obscurity of time. You are truly an American. ¹⁰
Cooper’s claim that his friend was “truly an American” spoke not only to his friend’s claim of authenticity, or legitimacy as a proprietor of the Union — we know how fond Cooper was of establishing title from a line of descent — but it also spoke to the pluralistic composition of Americans. In fact, the dedication does something that this novel — in fact, all of the novels in this racial trilogy fail to do — and that is establish the legitimacy of amalgamation as a vital force in American democracy. Cooper could not legitimize amalgamation as a vital force for the simple reason that he could not reconcile the historical realities with the ideals of America’s founding; particularly, the existence of prejudice and intolerance, which, he felt, were tearing at the very fibers of our democratic traditions.
To understand Cooper’s views on racial amalgamation in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, we need to understand his views on democracy. Cooper expressed those views in his book The American Democrat (1838), which was written to correct some of the defects and dangers that he felt were inherent in American democracy. Cooper felt the greatest danger to American democracy was prejudice because it was, he said, “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, wrote 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 went on to make a humane plea for tolerance:
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. ¹³
For Cooper, then, America should be a neutral territory where different ethnic groups co-exist without, ideally, one group taking precedence over another. I say “ideally” because in practice, as Cooper artfully demonstrates in his novels, there were cultural forces at work that undermined America’s democratic ideals. In The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish we see first hand how prejudice undermined the marriage of Narra-mattah and Conanchet and disallowed the fulfillment of America’s pluralistic ideals. In the end, Cooper does not believe that interracial romance or friendship can overcome the cultural prejudices of the Euro-Americans, whose objectification of the Native Other relegated all interracial relations to the margin of society or to the hereafter.
In The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, the son of the Narragansett chief, Conanchet, married a white woman, Ruth (Narra-mattah), and they produced a bi-racial child. For James Wallace, such a union suggested the fulfillment of racial amalgamation in the Americas:
The possibility that is suggested here is that white and Indian might somehow merge, that similarity of forms of life in the American landscape might produce a blending of the two races. The symbol and culmination of this thematic idea is Narra-mattah, the white captive who has become the wife of Conanchet. ¹⁴
But it was not just an interracial marriage that produced a bi-racial child; it was a healthy, loving marriage. Cooper never let us forget that Conanchet and Narra-mattah were deeply in love and that Narra-mattah “had long lived in his kindness.” ¹⁵ Conanchet had not only been a friend to Narra-mattah but to her family, stressing the fact that, like the relationship of Hawkeye and Chingachgook, the two races could mix in friendship, and that a truly multicultural society could develop if ignorance could be abated. It helped, as George Dekker pointed out:
To confirm what in fact emerges as the main theme of the novel — that race, if not quite neutral (since Cooper leaves open the possibility that each race may have certain peculiar “gifts”), does not matter in the eye of God and would not matter in the eye of man either if racial lines were not identical with cultural lines. ¹⁶
The relationship of Conanchet and Narra-mattah cannot last not because of Fiedler’s “God-given color line” but because of the cultural and class lines, which were maintained through narrow epistemologies; and in order to keep those cultural lines pure, certain cultures had to be excluded rather than embraced. The Puritans in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish were the characters who most strongly objected to the union of the two lovers; particularly, a rather unforgiving group of Puritans lead by the Reverend Meek Wolfe, who, in his sermons, had called for Indian genocide and who was ultimately responsible for the death of Conanchet.
Puritans, as well as Yankees, or New Englanders, often do not come off well in Cooper. One reason is that they represent a type of arrogant posturing, a region that is trying to claim America for its own, both culturally and historically. It was that regional arrogance that rubbed Cooper — the New Yorker — the wrong way. But beyond the claims of cultural primacy, Cooper also saw New Englanders and their Puritan ancestors as a particularly intolerant breed of American. According to Robert Daly, for example, Cooper satirized Jason Newcome in the Littlepage trilogy precisely because this young New Englander viewed the customs practiced outside his Connecticut village as “barbarism and irrelevance.” ¹⁷ One only has to dust off his Hawthorne or Cotton Mather to understand where Cooper was coming from.
Despite the intolerant attitudes of many of the Puritans around them, both Narra-mattah and Conanchet were perfectly happy in their union. Even George Dekker reluctantly observed, “Narra-mattah is convinced that her marriage is right and natural.” ¹⁸ Like Uncas and Cora before them, both characters died in the bloom of youth but under different circumstances. Conanchet, who was trying to save his old Puritan friend, Submission, was captured by his enemies, the Mohicans, and turned over to the English. He requested and was granted leave to see his wife one last time before his execution. When they met, he implored her to return to her people, although by this time she had become completely Indianized. Conanchet’s sacrifice of his wife and his son to a culture that he may have deemed inferior was another example of his selflessness and humanity.
The irony is that Conanchet was captured and executed because he risked his own life to save his old Puritan friend, Submission, personifying the Christian maxim of “love thy neighbor”; whereas, the Puritan leader, Meek Wolfe, failed to exhibit similar merciful sentiments — he was a minister, no less — when he sent Conanchet to his death. Like Hawthorne, Cooper was exposing the hypocrisy of the leaders of the early Puritan communities, especially the ministers, who were supposed to be the moral pillars of the community but who became symbols of intolerance and oppression. Cooper, so underrated as a writer of social relevance, was laying bare in this novel what he began to expose in The Last of the Mohicans: the social and religious contradictions of the Anglo-Americans who settled North America.
It was these same Anglo-Americans who Cooper chastised in his chapter on prejudice in The American Democrat. “America,” wrote Cooper, “owes most of its social prejudices to the exaggerated religious opinions of the different sects which were so instrumental in establishing the colonies.” ¹⁹ The early Puritan fathers condemned the Indians for being un-Christian savages and held up for them the white, Christian mask as the standard of New World conduct, and then proceeded to slaughter their tribes and steal their land. Using the white mask as a pretext for ensuring the “savages” obedience and fidelity, the Euro-Indian relations from Columbus’s day to our own may be classified by the maxim: “Do not as I do but as I say.” With the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, the Puritans may have preached the teachings of the lamb-like Christ but they themselves acted like wolves.
To read the ending of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, then, as Cooper’s warning against miscegenation is to miss Cooper’s empathy with these two noble lovers. If Cooper had intended to present intermarriage between Indians and whites as taboo, we would expect him to portray Conanchet’s marriage in a less positive light. One might expect that Cooper would have crafted Ruth’s tale similarly to Jane Eyre’s, wherein Conanchet would play Rochester to Ruth’s “madwoman of the wigwam.” Or, perhaps, he might have made a more subtle suggestion about the unsuitability of interracial marriage, as even the liberal-minded Catharine Maria Sedgwick does in Hope Leslie, when she has Hope’s younger sister marry an Indian, and regress into a sort of child-like state of innocence. But Cooper chooses neither of these options. Instead, there was a great sense of waste, of what might have been, if only cultural tolerance had been observed. In effect, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish is Cooper’s final word on White-Indian miscibility. It is a theme Cooper began tentatively in The Pioneers, but seemed to lose conviction for when he had the young “Indian” Oliver turn out to be the young white grandson of Major Effingham; a theme that grew bolder in The Last of the Mohicans; and, finally, in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish was confronted head on.
Intolerance and hypocrisy became, then, the underlying themes of Cooper’s art; and there was no better example of such artistry than in the moments leading up to the death of Narra-mattah. After Conanchet died, Meek Wolfe and then Narra-mattah’s mother, Ruth, began reciting Christian prayers to her; the prayers seemed to awaken in Narra-mattah a sense of her Puritan past, and she began to feel tender towards those around her:
Her dove-like eyes looked up into the face of Ruth, and the anguish of the mother was alleviated by a smile of intelligence and love. The full and sweet organs next rolled from face to face, recognition and pleasure accompanying each change. ²⁰
And then Narra-mattah gazed upon the face of her dead husband and she broke down: “There was a minute during which fear, doubt, wildness, and early recollections struggled for the mastery.” ²¹ As Narra-mattah gazed upon her dead husband, she was suspended in disbelief between white and Indian cultures, between the intolerance of the “civilized” and the compassion of the “savage;” and such historical and social contradictions could not be easily reconciled, nor should they have been.
The radical difference of the New World could not be understood through old epistemologies but required a different way of seeing, one that allowed for multiplicities rather than certainties, and one that, ultimately, provided a contestatory literary space where such ambiguities could be negotiated. Since Cooper could not reconcile the historical realities with the secular ideals of liberty and equality, or even the Christian ideals of mercy and compassion, he allowed his characters to wrestle with these contradictory values and beliefs in a middle-ground of fluctuating relations. By offering us very likeable and vital characters, like Conanchet, Narra-mattah, Submission, Hawkeye, and Cora Munro — characters who were vital because of their ability to see and accept multiplicity — Cooper offered us a different way of seeing; a more pluralistic way of seeing; in other words, a more democratic way of seeing.
Unfortunately, in Cooper’s day America’s cultural identity was becoming more narrowly defined. Characters, like Cora Munro, Narra-mattah, Conanchet, Chingachgook, and, eventually, even the Leather-stocking himself, would become victims of an increasingly intolerant American society, a society which felt threatened by diverse races, customs, and beliefs. Narra-mattah died from a broken heart shortly after she gazed upon the dead features of her lost love. Her death was, wrote Cooper, a “failing of the system.” ²² And in those final, ironic words lies Cooper’s most biting social commentary. The system that failed was as much social as it was anatomical.
1. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature  (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1977) 68.
2. Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel  (Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997) 207.
3. Leland S. Person, ed., A Historical Guide to James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2007).
4. James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans  (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991) 490.
5. James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper: A Biographical and Critical Study  (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967) 61.
6. Grossman 61.
7. Grossman 60-61.
8. Grossman 60-61.
9. Grossman 61.
10. James Fenimore Cooper, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish  (New York: Scholarly Press Inc., 1970).
11. James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat  (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc., 1959) 87.
12. American Democrat 90.
13. American Democrat 91.
14. James Wallace, “Race and Captivity in Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish,” American Literary History 7:2 (Summer 1995) 204.
15. James Fenimore Cooper, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish  (New York: Scholarly Press Inc., 1970).
16. George Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1967) 82.
17. Robert Daly, “Cooper’s Allegories of Reading and ‘the wreck of the Past,’” Readers in History: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Contexts of Response, ed. James L. Machor (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) 121.
18. Dekker 80.
19. American Democrat 88.
20. The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish 229.
21. The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish 229.
22. The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish 230.