A Man With a Cross: Cooper’s Romantic Revision of Paradise Lost in The Last of the Mohicans
Presented at the 18ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2011.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2011 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 18), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn and Hugh C. McDougall, editors. (pp. 89-93).
Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
As a scholar who has studied James Fenimore Cooper primarily in the context of British Romanticism, I have found Cooper uses allusions to Milton in a more comprehensive and revisionary way than most Americanist discourse has maintained. In Atlantic Double-Cross, Robert Weisbuch argues that Cooper and other Americans are “friendly, even worshipful” toward British forebears such as Milton, but “with the English Romantics” the Americans engage in a “complex argument similar in its revisionary rites to the argument those very English Romantics take up in relation to Milton.” ¹ While I agree with Weisbuch’s latter point, that Cooper revises British Romantic ideas, I will argue that Cooper initially emulates the English Romantics in taking up the argument with Milton himself.
The only detailed analysis of Miltonic parallels in The Last of the Mohicans, a 1980 essay by Robert Milder, arrives at a conclusion held by many more recent interpreters of Cooper. In accord with such diverse figures as Ian Haywood, Kate Flint, and Jane Tompkins, Milder believes that Cooper “do[es] justice to the Indians’ legitimate grievances against the white man, while at the same time affirming his belief in the superiority of white civilization.” ² According to Milder, the “unifying pattern” of the novel is “the idea of a New World ‘fall,’” a pattern Cooper uses to create an uneasy apologetic for a future American republic grounded in the rule of law, agrarianism, and a Christian ethic. Magua, the “impelling force” of the plot, justifies his vengeance by telling his captive Cora a personal history which implies that European culture, epitomized by her father Colonel Munro, is “wholly responsible for despoiling a New World paradise.” Magua’s accusations are reinforced, with less acrimony, by “the ‘good Indian’” Chingachgook. ³ But by comparing Magua’s vengefulness with Satan’s, Cooper “presents the Indians’ revenge as compromising their claims to justice and even survival.” ⁴
However, Milder also argues that Cooper uses Paradise Lost to show that the Europeans’ claims to justice are equally compromised; they have brought upon themselves a moral fall that undermines the Christian righteousness of any future republic. Unlike many more recent critics, ⁵ Milder doesn’t think Hawk-eye is a viable ethical alternative. Hawk-eye’s boasting that he is “without a cross” is Cooper’s reminder that Hawk-eye is “not a Christian” and acts according to the vengeful, “irredeemably pre-Christian” ethic of the Indians. ⁶ Cora, who is a Christian, fails to influence Magua, because his wrongs have been committed by her supposedly Christian culture; Milder calls her death a symbol of “the [moral] price America must pay for its transgressions.” ⁷ There is, however, a problem with Milder’s otherwise persuasive construction of Cooper; if Cooper does use the Miltonic allusions in this way, Cooper is guilty of reinforcing the very ideologies he criticizes. If Magua is in the position of Satan, then the Europeans he rebels against are in the position of God. The allusions would implicitly deify the Europeans who caused the fall and deny free will, either for causing or overcoming that fall, to those who suffer from it. ⁸
But Cooper’s use of Milton is more ironic, and more consistent, than Milder suggests. Like the Satanic rebels of Coleridge, the Godwin-Shelley circle, and even Scott, Magua is more justified than Milton’s Satan in opposing his sense of justice to authority, especially when this authority is the imperfect will of other people rather than of Milton’s God. Instead of making Magua a Satanic primitive who opposes a more advanced culture identified with Milton’s God, Cooper casts him as a Satanic rebel who justly argues that the representatives of European culture have falsely played God and thereby violated the very ideals of law, governance, and morality by which their culture claims superiority.
Cooper also follows the British Romantics in showing that, though the Satanic rebel is partly justified, he ultimately commits Satan’s sin by deifying his own values and demonizing the other against which he rebels. In the conflicts of Prometheus with Jupiter, Caleb Williams with Falkland, and Frankenstein with his Creature, neither side is entirely wise or righteous, yet each assumes either the authority of an affronted God or the self-righteous victimization of Satan — often switching these roles back and forth. Though these writers are deistic or atheistic, they still imply that each of these mutually-destructive foes should instead take on the role of Christ, by recognizing their own limits, forgiving those of others, and finding what common ground exists in their values and experiences.
Yet Cooper adds a new, ideological dimension to this Romantic Satanism by dramatizing its operation on a more collective, cultural level than appears in the works of the British Romantics, for whom the conflict, whether psychological, political, or mythic, is represented literally as a clash of individual subjectivities. Cooper implies that the collective version of Satanic self-deification is ethnocentrism, which, like individual sin, is a universal condition, affecting all cultures, and which only appears more clearly in the state of nature that is the American wilderness. On a cultural level, the characters have less ability to recognize their prejudices and understand the effects of their individual actions; the best of them cannot overcome the ethnocentrism embedded in their uses of language, in their encounters with others’ codes of justice, and in their personal relationships. Cooper suggests that this collective fallen state could be at least partly redeemed, not by any revision of European values alone, but by a multicultural version of Milton’s Christian ethic. To be, unlike Hawkeye, “a man with a cross” — to bear the cross of self-sacrifice, love, and justice-one must be willing to be cross-cultural. Ironically, the character who comes closest to realizing such an ideal is Uncas. His impartially-dispensed justice as well as his personal self-sacrifice represents an example which is too late to save either his people or the possibility of a truly transatlantic culture, but which could motivate the American republic to mitigate further cultural catastrophe.
The British Romantics’ revisions of Milton depict Satanic human characters in ways that undermine the pious certainties of Milton. Philosophically, Blake and Shelley redefine the significance of Milton’s Satan by implying that his rebellion, rather than Adam’s fall, represents the true condition of humanity; the individual is given insufficient guidance, then is outcast and accused for simply acting on his nature, so whatever authority is responsible must deserve rebellion rather than obedience. In Godwin’s Caleb Williams, a model for Frankenstein and the poetry of Percy Shelley, both the protagonist and his nemesis Falkland are originally idealists who try to live by what each believes are the best principles of his society (Enlightenment truth-seeking and feudal chivalry, respectively). But the authority of these ideals fails them, blinding them to their own weaknesses and making them vulnerable, then driving them to become egomaniacal and criminal in self-defense. In other Romantic works, the Satanic character’s rebellion reflects the author’s own questioning of whether any religion sufficiently justifies the ways of God to man. Byron’s heroes and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, along with his Creature, blame the universe as well as society because they have acted on the best principles they could discover but have fallen into disaster and criminality. Frankenstein’s Creature sums up their conclusions by turning on his imperfect creator and accusing him of his own crimes: “I ought to be thy Adam; but rather I am the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.” ⁹ But though they challenge Milton’s theology, these works still reinforce Milton’s Christian ethic. In Caleb Williams, Frankenstein, and Prometheus Unbound, both protagonist and antagonist become, like Satan, not only rebels but also tyrannical megalomaniacs, idolizing their own values and casting themselves alternately as an abused Satan and as an affronted God. The conclusions of these works suggest that especially when there is no absolutely knowable, righteous authority, the imperfect antagonists should act like Christ rather than like either Jehovah or Satan; they should admit error, forgive others, love others’ good intentions, and appreciate whatever common principles can be found in their respective ideals.
In The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper depicts this Satanic fall as it is collectively manifested in the confrontation of cultures. The first paragraph of the novel implies that the exceptionality of America is only to be a more natural and therefore more clear-cut exhibition that all cultures, like all individuals, are morally fallen. In the preface to the 1831 edition, Cooper directly states that all “nations” as well as individuals manifest this fall through their “pretensions” of superiority to others:
Like nations of higher pretensions, the American Indian gives a very different account of his own tribe or race from that which is given by other people. He is addicted to over-estimating his own perfections, and to undervaluing those of his rival or his enemy; a trait which may possibly be thought corroborative of the Mosaic account of the creation. ¹⁰
Cooper opens his account of Genesis not in Eden but in Babel, the epitome of collective sin, and uses the various hegemonic names given the Horican to indicate how the ethnocentricity of all these cultures is embedded in their uses of language. This Babel of languages and customs is further displayed in the cultural insensitivities of the group traveling to Fort William Henry. David Gamut, the psalm-singer and the first to speak, babbles in a culturally tone-deaf manner to the contemptuous, silent Magua, who pretends to speak less English than he does and uses it only to deceive his enemies. In the courtly usages of drawing-room conversation, Alice and Duncan discuss Magua’s reliability in third person, as if he weren’t present and didn’t understand English. Only Cora addresses straightforwardly the issues of communicating with and trusting someone from another culture; she confronts Heyward and Alice about their judgments based on Magua’s skin color and “manners.” ¹¹
As these Europeans are inducted into the wilderness by Hawk-eye, the New World cultures initially seems to be a less fallen version of Babel. Hawk-eye implies that Europeans can learn much from Native Americans, whose character and languages are less corrupted than European tongues by Satanic deceit:
I’m an admirator of names, though the Christian fashions fall far below savage customs in this particular. The biggest coward I ever knew was called Lyon; and his wife, Patience, would scold you out of hearing in less time than a hunted deer would run a rod. With an Indian, ‘tis a matter of conscience; what he calls himself, he generally is — not that Chingachgook, which signifies big serpent, is really a snake, big or little; but that he understands the windings and turnings of human nature, and is silent, and strikes his enemies when they least expect him. ¹²
But it gradually appears that, except for Hawk-eye and the Mohicans, the more a person knows how to use any language, the more prone he is to deception rather than to communication. Montcalm, like Magua, pretends not to speak English in order to gain advantage over others. Heyward uses his French to fatally mislead the French sentry outside Fort William Henry. Magua, the most multilingual character, rhetorically manipulates his own warriors as well as everyone else in the novel, repeatedly stirring the Hurons to demonic violence like Satan in Pandemonium. Cooper suggests that just as Milton’s serpent uses his purportedly new acquisition of language to tempt Eve, all of fallen humanity uses both first and acquired languages to dominate and deceive others, rather than to comprehend the windings and turnings of others’ customs. As Montcalm says, with unintended irony, “There is a vast difference between understanding and speaking a foreign tongue.” ¹³ Montcalm means it is easier to comprehend than to speak a second language. Cooper implies that it is easier to speak it than to inhabit and appreciate the culture it represents.
There is only one real, amicable cross-cultural dialogue in the novel, but the only two characters who confront the mutual responsibility of their peoples for the American fall are unwilling to redeem this fall by sacrificing their sense of cultural superiority, particularly through intermarriage. Chingachgook prides himself on being “an unmixed man” of “the blood of the Sagamores,” which will die out when his son dies. Unable to conceive that his tradition could continue mingled with another peoples’, he pronounces the doom foreshadowed by the title of the book (“my boy is the last of the Mohicans”) before any action occurs to cause it. Hawk-eye, despite criticizing the settlements, views his own white skin with “secret satisfaction.” ¹⁴ The unintentional pun in Hawk-eye’s incessant descriptions of himself as a man “without a cross” implies that ethnocentricity is the primal sin, for the redemption of which neither man is willing to sacrifice himself.
Colonel Munro’s example implies that even such individual crossing of cultural barriers, though necessary, is insufficient to counter the consequences of European ethnocentricity. Munro has done what no other Christian in the novel is willing to do; he married a woman from a different ethnic background and has a mixed-race child. But transcending such cultural barriers with one person is easier than negotiating with the institutional practices of an entire culture. Cooper emphasizes this point by making the man who has an interracial family, and who openly criticizes the slave-trading nation whom he must serve, also the authority figure whose Old-Testament harshness enforcing British law motivates Magua’s revenge. Unlike the accused authorities in British works, Munro is never confronted by his Satan; he doesn’t even know what he has done, partly because he cannot see his actions in the name of Britain as part of a larger cultural process of which he can only be partly aware.
Magua exposes the enormity of such collective sin on the Europeans’ part, echoing the logic of other Satanic figures. It is crucial to Cooper’s purpose that Magua chooses Cora to hear his views; if he simply wanted to avenge himself, it would have been more effective to terrorize the delicate and helpless Alice. But Magua wants justice, not merely personal revenge. Magua plans to marry Cora both because he respects her and because only she will understand the justice of his arguments. Magua tells Cora that her father, assuming godlike authority, “made a law” against drunkenness, but he, or at least other Europeans whose policy he represents, created the temptation in the first place: “is it justice to make evil and then punish for it?” In the form of alcohol, Europeans have introduced a forbidden fruit in which no God can be found, only the bitter knowledge of the Europeans’ injustice. After hearing Magua’s argument Cora admits to herself, if not to Magua, that this punishment was “imprudent severity” which she does not know how to “palliate.” ¹⁵ Magua argues further that Munro didn’t just punish him; he flogged him on the back, not only imposing his own laws with excessive severity, but also disrespecting another culture’s code of justice.
Magua indicts a justice so fallen that, although its wrongs do not excuse his Old Testament vengeance, no individual European can achieve the level of Christ-like self-sacrifice that would be necessary to redeem it. For Magua, getting “what a Huron loves — good for good — bad for bad” means that Cora will not simply be “within reach” to suffer physically when he is feeling the shame of his scars. Cora, whom Magua calls “the heart of Munro,” will realize Magua is doing the same thing to her that her father did to Magua — righteously acting on his culture’s version of justice while violating another’s. Cora exhorts Magua to show Munro “how an Indian can forgive an injury,” but she can’t turn the other cheek and accept the challenge of converting Magua by example, as his wife, and proving that her Christianity is less hypocritical than European law. ¹⁶ Cora understands what is at stake; she says to Magua, “you mingle bitterness with my prayers; you stand between me and my God!” and she cannot “bow down this rebellious, stubborn pride of [hers], and consent” — or even articulate to Alice — the condition on which she can save Alice’s and Duncan’s lives. ¹⁷
The massacre at Fort William Henry is, in consequence, a disaster described as a Last Judgment against the Europeans. Cooper may depict excessive violence as, in David Gamut’s words, an Indian “jubilee of the devils,” but Cooper places the primary blame on the Europeans, who hear Magua’s “war-whoop” with a “dread” similar to “that which may be expected to attend the blast of the final summons.” ¹⁸ Ideally, Cooper would have balanced Magua against a European Satanic opponent, to reflect the fact that the Europeans were guilty of at least as much self-righteous overkill and massacring of civilians. But Cooper is far ahead of his time in suggesting the degree to which the Europeans drive their creature to act like Satan by casting themselves as false gods. Montcalm completes the forging of the Satanic rebel, begun by Munro, by making a separate peace with Munro according to European standards, while disregarding Huron custom. Both English and French leaders act as though their cultural values are divine absolutes, but their behavior proves them rather less righteous and certainly less self-aware than Milton’s deity. Even men such as Munro and Montcalm, whom Cooper characterizes as the best exponents of European institutions, are often incapacitated and sometimes corrupted by their patriarchal roles.
The second part of the novel suggests that this fall could be partially rectified, but only by one who sacrifices his ethnocentricity on both a personal and institutional level. Like Scott’s “Jewess” Rebecca, Cora is a “dark lady” who symbolizes a multicultural ideal of European potential; as her name implies, Cora is the heart of the best principles her father represents, held hostage to the consequences of New World injustices committed in the name of these principles. The captivity-and-rescue story in the second half of the book questions whether the ideals Cora represents can be reclaimed from the sins in which all sides have become complicit. Ironically, the only rescuer who can bear such a cross is Uncas. The other males dress in disguises which reveal their true identities — Duncan as an apparently open helper who actually tries to buy off legitimate anger against the Europeans; Hawkeye as wearing the skin of a natural creature on the outside while remaining a white man on the inside. By contrast, Uncas openly confronts both Huron enemies and alienated Delaware kinsmen, and in the Delaware trial which assigns symbolic responsibility for the fall of the Native Americans, he renders the only judgment which takes both European and Native American justice sufficiently into account. As a result, he ultimately reconciles the feminine heart of his own people to a potential union of cultures (i.e. the Delaware women bury Uncas and Cora together as wedded in the afterlife). Cooper’s last and most important adaptation from his British models is to suggest that Milton’s Christian ethic applies beyond Milton’s Christian doctrine, to cultures as well as to individuals, and that, as in the case of Christ, individual sacrifices may not redeem historical falls but they may mitigate or prevent others.
1. Robert Weisbuch, Atlantic Double-Cross (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), xv.
2. Robert Milder, “The Last of the Mohicans and the New World Fall,” American Literature 52.3 (1980), 413. For related arguments that Cooper rationalizes white hegemony by dramatizing the greater violence of the native Americans, see Ian Haywood, Bloody Romanticism (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), 172-174; Kate Flint, The Transatlantic Indian (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 139; and Jane Tompkins, Sensational Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 118.
3. Milder 409-410.
4. Milder 413.
5. See, for example, Haywood 174 and the recent anthology Transatlantic Romanticism (New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2006) 649.
6. Milder 419-420.
7. Milder 427-428.
8. Milder does acknowledge that Cooper implicitly puts “the British in the oddly fitting role of benevolent deity,” but dismisses this problem by saying “In detail the analogy doesn’t hold, but it is not required to” (413-414).
9. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, ed. Joanna M. Smith (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1992) 90.
10. James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), 6.
11. Cooper 21.
12. Cooper 57.
13. Cooper 164.
14. Cooper 31-33.
15. Cooper 103.
16. Cooper 104.
17. Cooper 108-109.
18. Cooper 176-177.