Reading Cooper’s Modernity

Peter Zogas (University of Rochester)

Presented at the 19ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2013.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2013 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 19), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn, editor. (pp. 68-71).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

In using the term “modernity” in the title of this talk, I recognize that I’m invoking an almost impossibly large term, not to mention one that is subject to considerable disagreement. So I’d like to narrow things down at least a bit by focusing on a particular aspect of modernity: its reorganization of the experience of time. A temporal perspective has become increasingly important to American literary studies over the past decade or so, and today I’d like to explore how temporality studies helps us to approach anew a much older problem in Cooper studies, that is, his employment of images of antiquity as they bear on the construction of national historical consciousness — or, I should say, the possibility of such a construction. Two different intellectual trajectories are important to me here. This first is a loosely associated tradition of history and philosophy dedicated to understanding modernity according to changing experiences of time (particularly work by Anthony Giddens, Reinhart Koselleck, and Peter Osborne); the second is a group of critics engaged in what Holly Jackson termed in 2010 “the New American Temporality Studies.”

First I’ll sketch out how we can understand western modernity in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century according to ideas of temporal reorganization; then I’ll turn to Cooper’s construction of antiquity in The Last of the Mohicans to suggest how he utilizes competing temporal horizons of colonial and pre-colonial time. While some critics have recently begun to explore competing forms of temporal consciousness in Cooper’s fiction, there has been a general trend of understanding how he mediates between those modes or resolves their differences. Here, however, I suggest that it is instead a form of temporal overdetermination — the extent to which Cooper cultivates tensions between varying conceptions of time — that constitutes his participation in the project of writing the modern nation.

Generally speaking modernity refers to a post-traditional, post-feudal organization of societies beginning in the sixteenth century. What is more immediate to us as readers of Cooper is the long nineteenth century, including changes in the eighteenth century that were later solidified in cultural practices of the nineteenth. For Anthony Giddens, one of the foremost theorists of modernity, what best defines this era is an emphasis on ruptures with traditional modes of knowledge and belief. Giddens’ stance on modernity — one that has become fairly canonical — stresses how the increasing mechanization of the world, along with capitalism’s ability to bind together distant locales, made it possible for individuals to conceive of their lives and experiences according to more abstract, rather than merely local, structures of space and time.

From a temporal perspective, this entails an orientation toward the future that had not previously existed under the eschatological focus of Christianity. As Reinhart Koselleck has pointed out, the process that Giddens describes creates a framework of historical totalization that grants primacy to the category of newness. For Koselleck, modernity toward the end of the eighteenth century is thus best characterized by newness’ bearing on the idea of history itself. He notes that with this shift “modernity itself gains a historical quality. Consequently, history no longer takes place in time, but rather through time. Time is metaphorically dynamicized into a force of history itself” (165). Linear constructions of time become the texture of history in the material world, and modernity itself becomes marked by what Koselleck calls an “open future“ defined by “the two accompanying concepts of progress and development” which hold “anticipations (Vorgriffe) of a changeable future” (165, emphasis in original) To put that a bit more simply, we could say that with modernity time in the material world is not simply something we get through in order to arrive at salvation or eternal time; rather, it signals a continuity between what is known about the past and what is anticipated about the future. Time conceived in this way makes it possible for one to hope for change in the material world and to conceive of one’s life according to that change.

Building on Koselleck’s claims, Peter Osborne has defined modernity as a “qualitative” rather than a “chronological” category, one that is not “a project, but merely its form. It is a form of historical consciousness, an abstract temporal structure which, in totalizing history from the standpoint of an ever-vanishing, ever-present present, embraces a conflicting plurality of projects, of possible futures, provided they conform to its basic logical structure” (“Modernity” 65; Politics 23). For Osborne the structures of culture and politics in modernity all basically conform to an idea of linear temporality that privileges what comes next — that anticipates the future as more developed, more advanced, more complex. And theorists of modernity generally agree that this new understanding of temporality was being lived by the end of the eighteenth century and helped to define our sense of the modern nation state as it {69} emerged in the nineteenth century. It is, after all, a sense of time as singular and unilinearly focused that allows for us to conceive of ideas such as ‘progress’ and ‘reform,’ or to justify a nation’s expansion on a world-historical scale (for familiar cultural examples of this, we can think, for instance, of John L. O’Sullivan’s call in The Democratic Review for America as “the great nation of futurity” or, later in the century, the Hegelian teleological perspective of Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas).

This sense of time is what Walter Benjamin famously described as “empty, homogeneous time,” an idea broadly influential to literary studies through Benedict Anderson’s use of it to describe the concept of imagined communities (qtd. Anderson 24). Emphasizing the expansion of print culture as well as the role of the novel in developing a logic of the ‘meanwhile,’ Anderson has done much to cement the idea of a totalizing singular temporality to the practice of literary studies. But such a sense of time is in no way natural or given; it had to be built and sustained in the basic structures of political and social beliefs as well as nurtured through forms of cultural expression. The New American Temporality Studies have demonstrated the extent to which literary texts often resist Anderson’s central premise. Wai-Chee Dimock, Dana Luciano, and Lloyd Pratt have all shown that texts from the nineteenth century can be read according to more malleable senses of temporal experience, ones that are not necessarily subsumed under the concept of national time. This includes Dimock’s focus in Through Other Continents on the long durée and nonlinear cyclical connections provided by her theorization of “deep time,” as well as Pratt’s interrogation of genre as the site of historical stability in his Archives of American Time. In Arranging Grief, Luciano stresses the importance of the sacred time associated with grief and mourning that defends “the value of human existence ... against the increasingly rapid pace of progress” (2). As a whole, this body of work resists aspects of Anderson’s thesis and destabilizes the idea of the modern nation from a temporal perspective (and I understand this turn as analogous to the spatial destabalization provided by hemispheric or transnational studies, which has been a more dominant trend in American literary studies over the past twenty-five years).

While I find myself deeply convinced by much of the work of the critics grouped under the New American Temporality Studies, I remain uneasy with its tendency to create a firm dichotomy between unilinear national time and the more complex expressions of temporality that mark subjective experience. Rather than focus on where temporal consciousness conflict, I want to pay attention to where they coexist, and that is where Cooper can help us. In turning to Cooper I want to stress how his fiction makes visible the inherently overdetermined nature of any attempt to narrate the past. Put differently, Cooper signals to us the extent to which varying temporal experiences had to be continuously worked through and negotiated in becoming part of the history of the nation.

Such temporal overdetermination is, of course, what linear narratives of national development are meant to avoid. The time of the modern nation, or Anderson’s concept of the imagined community, depends on a sense of the shared experience of historical knowledge — it assumes that we all occupy the same time with a past we have in common and a future we anticipate together. And it is this work that the historical romance has been understood to accomplish. Both George Dekker and Georg Lukács emphasize the genre’s focus on common individuals as they express the shared sentiment of an age and a nation, what Lukács has called “the poetic awakening of the people” (42). The people here are singular inhabitants of a shared national identity made possible by the homogenization of time. But as theorists of modernity have pointed out, this homogenization carries with it a form of violence toward human experience. As Osborne suggests, the movement toward historical totalization “represses, reduces or forgets, certain forms of difference” (Politics 29). The particular and contingent, elements of human experience that cannot be easily squared with linear conceptions of progress, must be redirected or, in a more insidious fashion, ignored entirely.

While we probably expect a historical romancer of the early national period to be participating in precisely such repression or redirection, what is striking to me in Cooper’s fiction is that he does not always work to repress forms of competing temporal consciousness. Rather, he inhabits them — he dwells on their tensions and allows their conflicts to play out as vital aspects of his own plotting and character development. While there are numerous examples of this in Cooper’s early Leatherstocking Tales, I’m going to turn to what I think of as a particularly complex instance, one that is underrepresented in criticism: the invocation of colonial ruins in Chapter 13 of The Last of the Mohicans.

At this point in the novel, Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas have rescued Alice and Cora and are trying to get them back to Fort William Henry, but they are being closely followed by a group of Hurons. They decide to spend the night in a ruined block-house. Cooper describes it like this:

This rude and neglected building was one of those deserted works, which, having been thrown up on an emergency, had been abandoned with the disappearance of danger, and was now quietly {70} crumbling in the solitude of the forest, neglected, and nearly forgotten, like the circumstances which had caused it to be reared. Such memorials of the passage and struggles of man are yet frequent throughout the broad barrier of wilderness which once separated the hostile provinces, and form a species of ruins that are intimately associated with the recollections of colonial history. (126)

Ruins are the site of the picturesque that allows us to trace a distant past while still registering our difference from that past. And Cooper constructs antiquity here by giving this ruined building a description that is meant to capture some texture of colonial history. As Terence Martin points out, “the ruins of history are the matrix of legend and romance. Traditionally, too, they appeal to the imagination through a mist of years replete with wonder and nostalgia” (225). I would add that they register temporal experience, a trace of the past that is precariously close to exceeding the linear narrative of the nation. And it is precisely this divide between a sense of time that is included or excluded in constructions of nationhood that Cooper skirts throughout the chapter. In a footnote he added to the 1831 edition of the novel, for instance, he tells us that he encountered a similar ruin near Lake Ontario, where he found the scaling ladders used by the British to storm Fort Oswego in 1776, thus tying the scene to a firm sense of a shared national past.

However, we come to find that in the novel the ruins have little to do with colonial history. We learn that the block-house was erected by Natty and a group of Mohawk warriors during a much earlier conflict and that the ruins are in fact beyond the scope of written accounts. Natty tells the party that “’tis not often that books are made, and narratives written, of such scrimmage as was here fout atween the Mohicans and the Mohawks, in a war of their own waging” (126). We learn that Natty was the only white person involved, and he goes on to tell of his own participation in the engagement between the two tribes and, importantly, his involvement in the burial of the dead. Natty justifies turning from Indian custom to bury the dead Mohawk warriors because he “was then young, and new to the sight of blood, and not relishing the thought that creatures who had spirits like myself, should lay on the naked ground, to be torn asunder by beasts, or to bleach in the rains, I buried the dead with my own hands, under that very little hillcock, where you have placed yourselves; and no bad seat does it make neither, though it be raised by the bones of mortal men” (127).

This is no throwaway moment for Cooper. It is a vital shift in Natty’s character. On our first introduction to him in The Last of the Mohicans, during his conversation with Chingachgook, he explains that when he dies, “I expect to leave my own bones unburied, to bleach in the woods, or to be torn asunder by the wolves” (25) — the same language he uses to describe his decision to bury the dead warriors near the ruins, though here his beliefs are inverted. This shift in Natty’s character — from his adherence to a Christian burial to his more Indian-aligned view later in life — comes to bear on Cooper’s plotting in chapter thirteen. It is, after all, Natty’s earlier more ‘civilized’ action that saves the party in the novel’s present. At the end of the scene, with the Hurons fast approaching, we learn that it is the burial ground that deters their search:

in discovering the character of the mound, the attention of the Hurons appeared directed to a different object. They spoke together, and the sounds of their voices were low and solemn, as if influenced by a reverence that was deeply blended with awe. Then they drew warily back, keeping their eyes riveted on the ruin, as if they expected to see the apparitions of the dead issue from its silent walls, until having reached the boundary of the area, they moved slowly into the thicket, and disappeared. (132)

The Huron’s retreat signals the end of a complicated moment in the novel, one that layers different temporal horizons and then conflates them through Natty’s character. The compressed action of the novel’s plotting relies upon our sense of a difference between colonial and pre-colonial spans of time as well a more culturally attuned concept of eternal time.

In light of this complexity, I’ve come to think of this moment in the novel as a historical palimpsest, one that registers the multiple layers of history, myth, and temporal experience that goes into constructing a form of antiquity that can serve the present. Cooper quite skillfully builds the action of the novel around a subtle shift in Natty’s character that registers his own emergence as the prototypical hardy colonist, one standing on the crest of the continent’s epochal shift from Indian to white dominance. He overcomes the problem of a lack of deep American antiquity by showing Natty’s participation in a non-colonial conflict that is nevertheless instrumental in saving the novel’s emergent American couple — Alice and Duncan. In other words, the continent’s deep pre-colonial span of time is paradoxically tied to a form of American newness predicated on the lack of a past. And it is this temporal overdetermination that allows the novel’s plotting and character development to proceed logically.

{71} Given the prominence of burial rites in this scene, we can turn to Dana Luciano’s conception of a chronobiopolitics associated with grief and mourning, especially given her reading of the Indian voice in Cooper’s fiction as it registers a more affective temporality. For Luciano, the Indian voice presents us with ideas about cyclical time and a prelinguistic function, and in doing so helps to differentiate between human and national time: she holds that “the latter [national time] would be ordered, cumulative, and progressive, whereas the former [human time] would allow imaginative return to the timeless truth of affective attachment” (78). But as I suggested earlier, a firm juxtaposition of different spans of temporal experience may foreshorten our understanding of texts such as The Last of the Mohicans. What the scene of ruins in chapter thirteen demonstrates for me is that Cooper constructs images of national antiquity precisely by focusing on the paradox of temporality that such an image presents. We see the logic of the novel relying on a conflict between an experience of time as linear and future-oriented and as an awareness of its deeper structures outside of the time of the nation.

As I said earlier, there are other moments similar to this elsewhere in The Last of the Mohicans and in other of the Leatherstocking Tales. Unfortunately I can’t discuss them at length here, but I can at least give some indication of them. Natty and Chingachgook’s discussion of various tribes’ right to the land, as Natty points out, depends on scale — he memorably claims that “everything depends on what scale you look at things. Now, on the small scale, the ‘arth is level; but on the large scale it is round” (24). He uses this argument to suggest that whites are justified in expanding westward, just as the Mohicans had earlier taken their own land force. Historical interpretation, in other words, depends on the scale of our temporal perspective. The same problem of scale underlies the problem presented by Cora’s impassioned plea to Tamenund near the novel’s conclusion, when he mistakes her reference to her father, Colonel Munro, for a sense of fatherhood that encompasses the first whites to reach the shores of America. ‘Father’ here refers to very different spans of time — generational for Cora, epochal for Tamenuend. In The Prairie, Cooper’s subsequent Leatherstocking Tale, the periodic debates between Natty and Obed Battius center on the possible Asiatic origins of Indians, a conjectural prehistory that bears on debates Natty and Battius have on the value of old- and new-world morality.

These recurring moments in Cooper’s early Leatherstocking Tales signal the extent to which Cooper did not simply resolve competing forms of temporality; instead, he relied upon them time and again. And if we return to the idea of modernity’s reorganization of temporal experience with which I began, we can see how important this lack of a resolution becomes. What I think of as Cooper’s modernity is less his replacement of one temporal horizon with another, but rather his emphasis on temporal overdetermination as something to be continually worked through and confronted anew. What I mean to suggest in invoking Cooper’s modernity is that he allows us to engage with this basic problem involved in temporal reorganization: the conflict between modernity’s impulse toward homogenization that nevertheless registers forms of human experience that resist containment within that model.

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised Edition. London: Verso, 1991.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans (1826). New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
  • Dekker, George. The American Historical Romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Dimock, Wai Chee. Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.
  • Jackson, Holly. “The New American Temporality Studies: Narrative and National Times in the Nineteenth Century.” Criticism 53.2 (Spring 2011): 323-330.
  • Koselleck, Reinhart. “The Eighteenth Century as the Beginning of Modernity.” The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts. Trans. Todd Samuel Presner and Others. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. 154-169.
  • Luciano, Dana. Arranging Grief: Sacred Time and the Body in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: New York University Press, 2007.
  • Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
  • Martin, Terence. “From the Ruins of History: The Last of the Mohicans.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 2.3 (Spring 1969): 221-229.
  • Osborne, Peter. “Modernity is a Qualitative, Not a Chronological, Category.” New Left Review I.192 (March-April 1992): 65-84.
  • ------. The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde. London: Verso, 1995.
  • Pratt, Lloyd. Archives of American Time: Literature and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.