(Never) True Romance: History and the Imagination in The Last of the Mohicans
Presented at the 17ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2009.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2009 Cooper Seminar (No. 17), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 41-45).
Copyright © 2011, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
Despite Mark Twain’s insistence that James Fenimore Cooper committed literary offences — including a lack, or an insufficient use, of realism — I argue that The Last of the Mohicans intentionally uses the romance form, especially where that form breaks from empirical or historical reality, in order to present a imaginative vision of this nascent country, but that the novel’s use of such a form is marked as such. 1 The novel’s functional use of the romance undergoes an important change toward its end; initially taking up the idea that present day United States culture (circa 1825) would benefit from an inclusion of the virtues of other cultures and languages — including those of Native Americans and the French — Cooper’s novel eventually resigns itself to the historical fact that such cultural mixing cannot take place, and, in fact, never could. What is left then is neither an accurate account of this country’s early history, nor a hopeful view of a possible future, but instead a kind of mythical, fictitious performance that can only occur within Cooper’s novel — although the performance is anticipated in the Leather-Stocking Tale that precedes it and is repeated in the many that follow.
Metaphysically, there were two general approaches to colonization of the New World, each related to a specific version of Christianity belonging to its respective colonial power: English Protestantism, and Spanish and French Catholicism. In the latter’s worldview, the indigenous population was given a place in the universe — salvation in the afterlife at the price of its culture and beliefs. In the former, especially in its incarnation as Calvinism, there was no place for the alien non-Christian, the “other”; there was no room, in other words, for the devil. Eventually viewing all Native Americans as un-salvageable heathens, the original Calvinists began the process of what would eventually culminate in the Indian removal policies of the nineteenth century. As Lawrence Rosenfeld reminds us, although President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830, the issues surrounding the act were already popular and nationally debated by 1826, the year Cooper published his novel. Rosenfeld argues that although Cooper himself, unlike countless other European Americans, saw and represented Native Americans as noble savages, “almost all European Americans believed that civilization and extinction were the only two possible futures, and virtually no European Americans could let themselves see that Indians were civilized already, equally but differently” (10-11).
But this misses the point. Hawk-eye, to the extent that he can be seen as a mouthpiece for Cooper, does not wish to “civilize” the Indians in this way. 2 Nor, obviously, does he wish to exterminate them. But he does know what “civilizing” them would mean: the effective erasure of Indian culture. For Cooper, the removal of Native Americans to reservations will only be the more formal and official execution (no less terrible and unjust for that) of the gradual and in many ways total eradication of Indian culture, a process that had become, by the time of his Last of the Mohicans, a fait accompli. As Cooper himself says in his “Author’s Introduction” to the novel, “the seemingly inevitable fate of [the Mohicans and other east-coast tribes], who disappear before the advances, or it might be termed the inroads of civilization, as the verdure of their native forests falls before the nipping frost, is represented as having already befallen them” (vii).
In Catholicism, on the other hand — or Spanish and French Catholic colonialism — the devil does have his place: to tempt Jesus, or to temp us so that we can come to Jesus. For Calvinists, God himself punishes sinners; those not already saved are damned according to their version of Predestination, a belief system to which David Gamut subscribes (137), though Hawk-eye (and therefore probably Cooper) rails against such an ideology. As Octavio Paz reminds us, “This possibility of belonging to a living order, even if it was at the bottom of the social pyramid, was cruelly denied to the Indians by the Protestants of New England. It is often forgotten that to belong to the Catholic faith (as the Indigenous population of Mexico, Central and South America was more or less allowed to do) meant that one found a place in the cosmos” (102). As such, and as history attests, the final result in what would become the United States was based on the idea of getting rid of the indigenous population, either through genocide or displacement onto reservations. In Spanish Catholicism, however — and we see such results throughout South America — the indigenous population is “mixed in” with Colonial culture and must necessarily lose, or radically modify, its original cultures, beliefs, customs.
Now, Cooper — or at least Hawk-eye — seems to acknowledge the horror of the Protestant model, eradication. And yet, Hawk-eye (and therefore probably Cooper) cannot accept the Catholic model either, hence his insistence on setting himself apart from Indian culture, on calling himself the man without a cross (of blood), not because he’s a white supremacist but because he seems implicitly to understand that the mixing of the peoples — White European with Indigenous — will only dilute and then destroy the cultures of the latter. 3 Critics have often misread the novel’s ambivalence about such blood-mixing. Stephanie Wardrop makes the following assumption:
Cooper’s narrative presents a world in which the mixing of races is morally repugnant and anathema to the American project of nation building. To justify colonial expansion, Cooper had to present the indigenous people as murderous savages, with the noble Mohicans Chingachgook and Uncas as exceptions to this rule. (62)
And yet, the novel repeatedly makes it clear that Hawk-eye “considered even the hostile tribes of the Delawares a superior race of beings” (359). His reluctance, and Cooper’s probably, to support blood mixing is due to his certainty that the children of such unions as that of Cora and Uncas, even if they were to be born, would not be raised as Mohicans but as colonial grandchildren of Colonel Munro.
Land and Languages: Nature, Human Natures
From the beginning, the novel emphasizes the sacrifices and costs that accompanied the creation of the United States: nature herself, as well as her indigenous inhabitants. Here are passages from the work’s first paragraphs:
It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet. A wide and, apparently, an impervious boundary of forests severed the possessions of the hostile provinces of France and England. ... But, emulating the patience and self-denial of the practiced native warriors, [the colonists] learned to overcome every difficulty; ... in time, there was no recess of the woods so dark, nor any secret place so lovely, that it might claim exception from the inroads of those who had pledged their blood to satiate their vengeance, or to uphold the cold and selfish policy of the distant monarchs of Europe”.The two [colonial powers] united to rob the untutored possessors of its wooded scenery of their native right to perpetuate [Lake Champlain’s] original appellation of “Horican.“ (11, my emphasis)
This sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Explicit here is the sense that both land and the indigenous population paid dearly for the creation of the United States. But note that language and, implicitly, culture are linked to this sacrifice. Hawk-eye, like Cooper, knows the crimes that have been committed against the land and the Indians, yet the novel implicitly asks “what is to be done in light of this?” For most of The Last of the Mohicans, the scout and the novel both imply that one should respect and preserve what cultures and nature are left and learn from both. As the scout tells Gamut, refuting the latter’s belief in pre-destination,
I have heard it said that there are men who read in books to convince themselves there is a God. I know not but man may so deform his works in the settlements, as to leave that which is so clear in the wilderness a matter of doubt among traders and priests. If any such there be, and he will follow me from sun to sun, he shall see enough to teach him that he is a fool, and that the greatest of his folly lies in striving to the level of One he can never equal. (138)
According to Hawk-eye, wondrous Nature would also include human behavioral traits. And it does seem at first as if the novel is advocating a respectful embrace of Indian culture (what Hawk-eye means by their “nature”) and of nature in general — to learn from, use, and respect the necessary or essential or wise aspects of other (especially indigenous) cultures in order to benefit one’s own culture without diluting either in the process. That is, one should know how to read “nature” — i.e. everything available, not only the land itself but the various people inhabiting it; one should know how to speak Delaware or French — in case one needs to — or know how to read nature in any given situation. Rosenfeld argues that “No American author, probably, has gotten more things wrong about language and languages; but none has dramatized more about how language and languages function in American experience” (27). This too is right, but the critic seems to miss the novel’s implicit point about language’s function: that by 1826, the languages in question — Delaware, French — will no longer be part of the contemporary American experience or the nation’s culture. Yet, the novel also implies (at least at this point in the story) that the country would still benefit from learning such languages.
The reverse of Hawk-eye’s model — to learn from nature and other natures — is to debase one’s own nature by taking on the corrupt traits of another culture and forgetting one’s own. Magua, for example, admits that by taking on the harmful traits of European culture, especially alcohol, he has not only corrupted his once-noble nature but has turned away from, and fought against, his own nation (120). Hawk-eye also points this out while demonstrating the virtue of being able to read nature in all her forms: “One moccasin is no more like another than one book is like another; though they who can read in one are seldom able to tell the marks of another. Which is all ordered for the best, giving to every man his natural advantages. Let me get down to it, Uncas; neither book nor moccasin is the worse for having two opinions, instead of one” (220). Though a bit tangled in logic, Hawkeye’s quote seems both to acknowledge cultural difference between whites and Indians — those who can read books, and those who can read moccasin prints — and to imply that to be able to read both, even if your culture affects your reading or opinion, enables you to better navigate the multi-cultured, complex life in the New World. But shortly after this Hawk-eye explains how Magua’s drinking has affected his natural “print”: “your drinking Indian always learns to walk with a wider toe than the natural savage, it being the gift of a drunkard to straddle, whether of white or red skin” (220). Here we get the idea that corrupted elements of one culture — drinking, from the whites — debase another, that of the Indians. Yet that corruption affects both groups negatively, in much the same ways.
One can also debase one’s cultural character by acting irresponsibly. Montcalm’s handling of an intended surrender leads directly to the “Massacre of William Henry” in which hundreds are slaughtered. Notice that the leader, though not malicious, is yet morally reckless with his power, the cost of which is mass-murder and destruction: “Montcalm lingered long and melancholy on the strand. ... As he mused he became keenly sensible of the deep responsibility they assume who disregard the means to attain their end, and of all the danger of setting in motion an engine which it exceeds human power to control” (200-201). Compare this to Hawk-eye’s pledge to Uncas, a kind of promise of commitment based on experience, intimacy, trust: “’and afore it shall be said that Uncas was taken to the torment, and I at hand — There is but a single ruler of us all, whatever may be the color of the skin; and him I call to witness — that before the Mohican boy shall perish for the want of a friend, good faith shall depart the ‘arth, and ‘Kill-deer’ become as harmless as the tooting we’pon of the singer!’” (315). These examples also suggest that one has some say over one’s nature — one can make choices that either corrupt or strengthen it. 4
Afterlife: Hope and Resignation
Hawk-eye acknowledges the different natures of the white man and Indian — different cultures, different beliefs — but wonders if the two might be joined, if not here, then in the afterlife:
“Speaking of spirits, Major, are you of opinion that the heaven of a redskin and of us whites will be one and the same?. ... For my part ... I believe that paradise is ordained for happiness; and that men will be indulged in it according to their disposition and gifts. I therefore judge that a redskin is not far from the truth when he believes he is to find them glorious hunting grounds, of which his traditions tell; nor, for that matter, do I think it would be any disparagement to a man without a cross to pass his time — .” (226-227)
Fittingly, Hawk-eye is distracted away from his thoughts here by reality — unavoidable danger and conflict between cultures. In some ways, this passage, as well as its interruption, comes closest to the novel’s overarching intention: a kind of wish for a place in some other world where this kind of relationship might happen, even as it clearly realizes that it will not actually happen here, nor could it have. If Hawk-eye (speaking for Cooper) has hope here, the novel will ultimately abandon this view. Perhaps Cooper himself in writing the novel arrived at the bleaker, though more realistic, view. At the funeral of Cora and Uncas, the mourners speak of the lovers meeting in the afterlife. At this prospect, however, Hawk-eye “shook his head, like one who knew the error of their simple creed” (407). Later, the grieving Munro asks the scout to
“Say to these kind and gentle females, that a heartbroken and failing man returns them his thanks. Tell them, that the Being we all worship, under different names, will be mindful of their charity; and that the time shall not be distant when we may assemble around his throne without distinction of sex, or rank, or color.” (411)
Hawk-eye, apparently no longer believing in such an integrated afterlife, “listened to the tremulous voice in which the veteran delivered these words, and shook his head slowly when they were ended, as one who doubted their efficacy” (411). He replies instead, “’To tell them this ... would be to tell them that the snows come not in the winter, or that the sun shines fiercest when the trees are stripped of their leaves!’” (411). If Hawk-eye is speaking for Cooper, it might be that the latter has come to believe that an afterlife where we can finally join one another is too little consolation for the historical facts and consequences of such cultural divisions in the first place. This is an important passage, though critics such as Rosenwald seem to miss its significance. Here we see, not Hawk-eye’s fear of, nor his anger toward, potential miscegenation, but his realization that 1) the mixing would only lead to the further erasure of Indian culture and 2) such blood-mixing is moot, since Indian culture, at least in the eastern part of this country, is already and for all practical purposes reduced to virtual non-existence.
Myth and History: Imagination and Fact
Hawk-eye’s response to Munro is not the final word, and Cooper manages to create a tension toward the novel’s end between myth, or the imagination, and the hard facts of history. This tragic story — of Uncas, Cora, Chingachgook, and Hawk-eye — will eventually turn into fiction; that is, it will become legend. It will be neither truth nor history but myth, something like Wallace Stevens’s “supreme fiction” or necessary angel — at least for warriors and romantics of a later day. The more pressing question is how we, or even readers in 1826, are expected to use this tale. Immediately after Cora and Uncas are buried, we get the following passage:
Years passed away before the traditionary tale of the white maiden, and of the young warrior of the Mohicans, ceased to beguile the long nights and tedious marches, or to animate their youthful and brave with a desire for vengeance. Neither were the secondary actors in these momentous incidents forgotten. ... But these were events of a time later than that which concerns our tale. (412-413)
And, of course, just after this, Hawk-eye and Chingachgook pledge to live and hunt together for the rest of their lives, as happily ever-after as possible. Yet, again, Cooper gives the last say to Tamenund, as if to remind us of what we already know: “’Why should Tamenund stay? The palefaces are masters of the earth, and the time of the Red Men has not yet come again. ... [I] have’lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans’” (415).
Such tensions between myth and history, imagination and fact repeat themselves throughout the novel. For one final point, I want to examine the scenes in which Hawk-eye dresses like a bear in order to rescue Heyward and Cora. When Duncan first notices Hawk-eye’s appearance, he doesn’t know the latter is in disguise. Furthermore, he assumes that the scout is actually an animal. His captor, however, is not deceived — at least not in the same way: “Though obliged to come nearly in contact with the monster [Hawk-eye as a bear], the Huron, who had at first so warily determined the character of his strange visitor, was now content with proceeding without wasting a moment in further examination” (299-300). Hawk-eye later admits where he got the costume: “’Then what should luck do in my favor, but lead me to the very spot where one of the most famous conjurers of the tribe was dressing himself, as I well knew, for some great battle with Satan. ... I made free with his finery, and took the part of the bear on myself’” (305). To this Duncan exclaims, “’And admirably did you enact the character; the animal itself might have been shamed by the representation.’ ‘Lord Major,’ returned the flattered woodsman, ‘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 natur’ of such a beast. ... Yes, yes; it is not every imitator that knows natur’ may be outdone easier than she is equaled’” (305).
This odd exchange both illuminates and conceals what or, more precisely, who Hawk-eye is actually imitating — the conjurer and not an actual bear. And hence, the Huron is not startled to see him in the disguise. Yet even though Hawk-eye admits to taking the costume from a well-known (to the tribe) conjurer, he continues with the seemingly still-deceived Duncan to uphold the idea that he was acting like a bear itself. 5 That is, the exchange here mirrors the novel’s claims: of course Hawk-eye and Chingachgook, or for that matter, Uncas and Cora, could never actually live together and share one another’s cultures like this — especially by 1826 — yet the novel “acts” the part as if they could, which is probably why Tamenund gets the last say, after Hawk-eye and Chingachgook promise to stay by each other’s side.
Ultimately, The Last of the Mohicans seems to fall back on a sense that this could never have worked out, that the potential horror of race mixing in Cora and Uncas is cancelled by the fact that there was never a chance for such a couple to co-exist and maintain Indian culture in the first place. By 1826 the Indians are about to be sent west, eradicated or displaced. Cooper’s romance is not, therefore, truth, nor (quite) history, nor yet something to use in the present or future: since how could one use such a tale to actively change anything? Including certain aspects of historical reality — colonial powers at war, Native tribes of the east, specific battles — the novel nonetheless and ultimately takes on the form of an imaginative but mostly fictitious romance, a hero (Hawk-eye) on a quest (to save the daughters of Colonel Munro) amid a setting and characters, most of whose actions deviate from any of those in our known history. Yet this imagined world is also self-reflexively marked as such — like a myth or legend that has, sadly, no place outside of itself.
- Cooper, James Fenimore, The Last of the Mohicans . New York: Penguin, 1980.
- Lampe, David, “’A Knight of Ancient Chivalry’: The Last of the Mohicans as Medieval Romance.” 17ᵗʰ International James Fenimore Cooper Conference and Seminar, “Global Cooper.” SUNY Oneonta, Oneonta and Cooperstown, NY, July 2009.
- Mann, Barbara A. “Man with a Cross: Hawkeye Was a ‘Half-Breed.’” American Literature Association (ALA) Conference Papers. San Diego, CA, 1998.
- Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings. Trans. Lysander Kemp, Yara Milos, and Rachel Phillips Belash. 1961, 1972. New York: Grove Press, 1985.
- Rosenwald, Lawrence. “The Last of the Mohicans and the Languages of America.” College English. 60.1. (1998): 9-33.
- Wardrop, Stephanie. “Last of the Red Hot Mohicans: Miscegenation in the Popular American Romance.” MELUS. 22.2. (1997): 61-74.
1 As David Lampe reminds us in his paper, “’A Knight of Ancient Chivalry’: Last of the Mohicans as Medieval Romance,” quoting Paul Zumthor’s Toward a Medieval Poetics (1872, trans. 1992), “Romance narrative normally contains three actants: the ‘hero’, his companion, and antagonistic forces, which may be enemy knights, taboos, or marvelous and terrible adventures” (quoted in Lampe 2). As Lampe goes on to argue, Hawk-eye serves as the hero (who is usually known by other qualifiers, “the scout”); Chingachgook is his companion; his quest is to save the “damsels in distress,” Alice and Cora. But I emphasize the marvelous qualities of his adventure, and of the entire novel itself.
2 I concede that in his “Author’s Introduction” (1850 to The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper writes, ‘As every word uttered by Natty Bumppo was not to be received as rigid truth, we took the liberty of putting the “Horican” into his mouth, as the substitute for ‘Lake George’” (viii). Yet here the author seems more concerned with covering his own tracks concerning the novel’s accuracy about the region’s history and terminology than with Hawk-eye’s reliability as a character. If the scout is not the novel’s moral center, I don’t know which character comes closer to filling that role.
3 In her paper, “Man with a Cross: Hawkeye was a ‘Half-Breed,’” Barbara A. Mann makes the argument that Hawk-eye, despite his claims to the contrary, actually has Native American ancestry. But if Hawk-eye makes his claims out of self-hatred, as this author implies, the narrator nonetheless explicitly tells us that the scout thought of all Native Americans as “a superior race of beings” (359). Living in intimate contact with Mohicans, on their turf and according to many of their rules, as Hawk-eye does, seems like a strange way to “pass” as white.
4 I am indebted to critic and professor Robert Daly for this point, one he made during his graduate seminar on early American literature.
5 I am indebted to critic and professor Kenneth Dauber for this insightful reading, which he mentioned in conversation.