Lecture Notes on James Fenimore Cooper

Prof. John Stauffer

(Harvard University, English 175h (American History/American Literature), Autumn 2001, Lectures 2 and 3).

Copyright © 2001 The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Placed online with the kind permission of Professor Stauffer.

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

Course Description

Why have so many canonical American writers turned to American history as sources for their fiction? Why did they reinvent history through fiction? How did they define their narratives?

How should we? This course explores American historical fiction from its foundations to the present.

We focus on historical novels written by Americans with an American setting, examine the uses of history within them, and compare them to contemporaneous history, literature, historiography, and criticism. The emphasis is on fiction and history as rival (and complementary) narrative forms, and on constructions of national identities and ideologies.


  • James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (Penguin)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (Vintage)
  • William L. Andrews, ed., Three African-American Novels (Signet)
  • Herman Melville, Bartleby and Benito Cereno (Dover)
  • Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Norton)
  • Henry James, Washington Square (Penguin)
  • Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (Norton)
  • Willa Cather, My Antonia (Vintage)
  • William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (Vintage)
  • John Dos Passos, The Big Money (Signet)
  • E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime (Bantam)
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved (Penguin)

Cooper and the Origins of the American Historical Novel

English 175h; Lecture 2; September 18, 2001


A) Origins of the Novel

  • Rise of middle class (reading public)
  • New attitudes toward history; involve lives of everyday people
  • Capitalist marketplace
  • New focus on individual experience
  • New appreciation for nation and nationhood
  • Loss of public and state power by the church.
  • Novels responded to these social conditions.
  • Distinguishing feature of the novel is “formal realism”: the emphasis on the everyday, on the colloquial, rather than on traditional forms of narration.
  • Contrast novel with epic, tragedy, romance.
  • First novels in English generally seen as:
    • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719); Moll Flanders (1722)
    • Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749)
    • Samuel Richardson, Pamela (1740); Clarissa (1748)
  • Novels preeminently concerned with change over time and history.

B) Rise of Historical Novel

  • Sir Walter Scott, Waverly (1814) and Waverly novels.
  • Rise of historical novel coincided with historical upheavals and with a strong sense of national identity embraced by everyday people.
  • Age of Revolution — French Revolution and Napoleonic wars; American Revolution and War of 1812 — brought about a newfound awareness in history and nationhood and national identity.

C) Cooper and the Origins of American Historical Novel

  • In American the rise of historical consciousness and nationalism found its first literary outlet in historical narratives.
  • In the postrevolutionary generation history lorded over all other genres.
  • Early novel mimicked history’s methods of truth-telling and formal realism.
  • Cooper along with Washington Irving helped to undermine the power of history narratives. They wrote novels that passed as history.
  • Cooper is the first American writer to draw extensively on the materials of American history for his setting and characterization.
  • Cooper’s influence is profound; still with us.
  • Cooper uses the French and Indian war to trace out the essential nature of America as he understood it in 1826. He describes the downfall of genteel, English society and of dark-skinned Americans, that paves the way for the emergence of a middle-class white America.

Lecture 2, September 18, 2001 Cooper and the Origins of the American Historical Novel

  • Read Slotkin’s introduction after you finish the novel.

A) Origins of the Novel

  • Origins of the historical novel are closely tied with the origins of novel.
  • One reason I dwell on formal conventions such as genre is because by understandig conventions within that genre such as characterization, plot, setting, and style, it enhances your ability to interpret the work.
  • Novels often appear as transcriptive: as though this is a record of facts; what you read is what you get. But this is deceptive, and to pay attention to form helps you unmask the apparently transcriptive nature of novels.

Number of things coincided with rise of novel:


  • rise of middle class (reading public)
  • new attitudes toward history; history seen as colloquial, social, involving the lives of everyday people. These new attitudes encompassed a newfound appreciation for the difference between past and present.
  • A capitalist marketplace, and transportation networks that facilitated the exchange of goods, which allowed novels to be distributed and sold. New focus on individual experience. You read novels privately, unlike the theatre, which you experience publicly
  • New appreciation for sense of nation and the role of nation-state to the individual A loss of public and state power by the church, which facilitated the rise and development of secular narratives.

The novel in many respects reflected these social conditions. The distinguishing feature of the novel, according to Ian Watt, is its “formal realism”: that is, the emphasis on the everyday, on the colloquial, rather than on traditional forms such as the epic or tragedy.

  • Formal realism involved the repudiation of traditional plots and figurative eloquence that had long been seen in the epic, the romance, and the tragedy.
  • Plots of novels no longer derived from mythology, legend, or previous literature, but from the everyday world. Plots derived from “Nature.”
  • There was also in the novel a newfound emphasis on particular, specific characters and backgrounds. Names were everyday names you heard on the street. Characters were described liked characters on the streets.
  • With the novel, as opposed to prior genres, you no longer had heroic characters distended out of their specific time and place.
  • Novels inaugurated a specific temporality; you knew when and where people lived and for how long. You had a sense of the physical surroundings and environment. And you understood causal effects. You understood why people did things.
  • In the most general terms, the rise of the novel in both Europe and America, was a literary reflection of cultures which, over the previous few centuries, had set an unprecedented value on originality, on what was “novel.” The novel was thus well named.
  • Contrast novel with epic, tragedy, romance:
  • Epic: Traditionally a long narrative poem, that centers on heroic or quasi-divine figure whose actions determine the fate of the tribe, nation, or the human race (as in Milton’s Paradise Lost). In epic, the hero is a figure of great national or even cosmic importance. Think of Achilles in The Illiad; Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. In the epic the setting is vast, often encompassing the world or more, and action involves superhuman deeds in battle, such as Achilles’ feats in the Trojan war. And Gods and other supernatural beings take an active part in the plot.
  • The Tragedy is a dramatic representation of serious and important actions that eventuate in a disastrous conclusion for the protagonist, or chief character. The tragic hero is a flawed hero, and that is why he must suffer in the end. But traditionally he is still a hero, “better than we are,” higher in stature than ordinary moral worth and mortal humans. In tragedy, the environment and setting are basically irrelevant; his tragic flaw will destroy him in the end, and there’s nothing he or anyone can do about it.
  • Romance represents traditionally a courtly and chivalric age, often one of highly developed manners and civility. Its standard plot is that of a quest undertaken by a single knight in order to gain a lady’s favor; frequently its central interest is courtly love, together with tournaments fought and dragons slain. It delights in wonders and marvels. Supernatural events in the epic had their causes in the will and actions of the gods; romance shifts the supernatural to this world, and makes much of the mysterious effect of magic, spells, and enchantments.

While epic, tragedy, and romance can be aspects of the novel, in themselves they differ from the novel because they don’t conform to formal realism. Another way to put this is that there are not everyday characters interacting-shaping and being shaped by-their environment, which you have in the novel.

  • The novel rose at the very time in which philosophers used the term “realism” to distinguish particulars from the universal. By contrast, in the tragedy, epic, and romance, characters tend to have universal traits.
  • In English, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson are generally seen as the first novelists:
    • Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719); Moll Flanders (1722)
    • Fielding, Tom Jones (1749)
    • Samuel Richardson, Pamela (1740); Clarissa (1748)
    • Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605), often regarded as the first novel in any language.
  • The novel emerged later in America, largely because the preconditions that gave rise to the novel developed later: especially the rise of the middle class; capitalist marketplace and transportation networks for distribution; national identity. Wasn’t until after the revolution that the first American novel was published: William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy (1789), which coincided with the election of George Washington as the first President, and two years after the Constitution was ratified.
  • It was only then that Americans began to feel sense of American national identity, and so novels started to become an appropriate genre for American writers.
  • Early American novelists faced the task of creating literature against their residual colonial mentality. After the Revolution they began to define America and American fiction as distinct from the mother country.
  • Novelists are preeminently concerned with change over time; for them Nature changes; it is incomplete. It does not conform to universals. It is particular to time and place. And events are contingent upon the actions of everyday people acting in a specific setting. And so attitudes about history-about change over time and its implications for characters and nations, are a major feature of novels.
  • Thus, the idea of history — that is, interpretations of the past, and change over time — is a major component in the novel. But this does not mean that writers always chose specific historical settings that were fundamentally different from their own.
  • Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, generally regarded as the first novel in the English language, has a setting some 60 years prior to the date of publication, but since the setting is a desert island, it is distended in time and place, and lacks historical specificity. There is no sense that the setting is fundamentally different from 1719, when Defoe published it.

The Rise of the Historical Novel

  • Sir Walter Scott is widely regarded as the first historical novelist in the English language.
  • He inaugurated the historical novel in 1814 with Waverly, the first of his Waverly novels.
  • Narratives with historical themes are to be found much earlier. But prior to Scott, narratives were only historical in regard to the external choice of theme and subject matter. Before Scott, the psychology of the characters, their manners, often their costumes, were those of the writer’s own day. And the historical setting had little detail.
  • Think back to the two paintings by Benjamin West: Agrippina Landing at Brundiium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1768); and The Death of General Wolfe (1770).
  • Agrippina: universal characters and setting; allegory; no specific historical or character traits.
  • Wolfe: conforms to the idea of “formal realism.” Everyday characters in well detailed setting; accurate historical details. Characters are dressed consistent with the time period.

What is lacking in historical narratives before Scott are specifically historical themes: individual characters who fit well into the age in which they live.

  • Before Scott, historical characters were not socially and psychologically realistic or “accurate” representations of the era.
  • This was true of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), generally regarded as the first gothic novel in English.
  • True also of the satires of Swift, Voltaire, and Diderot, who set their narratives in “a never an nowhere” land. For them the specific historical setting did not matter. For Sir Walter Scott it did.

The rise of the historical novel coincided with the rise of a strong sense of national identity held by everyday common people. And the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the Revolutionary era in America, especially the War of 1812, produced a profoundly patriotic and nationalistic fervor.

  • It was an era of revolutionary patriotism that in many respects gave rise to the historical novel.
  • In the Revolutinary era (from roughly 1770 to to 1816), the nations of Europe and America underwent more upheavals than they had previously experienced in centuries. And the quick succession of these upheavals gives them a distinct character. It makes their historical character far more visible than would be the case in isolated instances of war.
  • The masses of people were involved in these wars. The very nature of warfare changed in the Revolutionary Era: the wars of absolute states in the pre-Revolutionary period were waged by small professional armies, and were conducted so as to isolate the army from the civilian population. Frederick II of Prussia had declared that war should be waged in such a manner that the civilian population would not notice it.
  • “To keep the peace is the first duty of the citizen” was the motto of the wars of absolutism.
  • This changes in the Age of Revolution. The French Republic and American patriots were compelled to create mass armies rather than a professional army. As a result, the content and purpose of the war needed to be made clear to the masses by means of propaganda.
  • As a result, people begin to think of themselves and define themselves in relation to the propaganda, ideals, messages of the nation.
  • And with such upheavals in everyday life caused by the Revolutionary era, which affected all people, from the poor and peasant to the heads of state, people everywhere became more aware than ever before that there was such a thing as history, that history was a process of uninterrupted changes, and that it had a direct effect on their lives.
  • The idea of progress now came to be seen in thoroughly historical concerns — with material rather than spiritual change over time.
  • In a sense, in the wake of the Revolutionary Era, people could not escape the idea of history as important to them in a very personal way.
  • No coincidence that autobiography as a genre also emerged with the Age of Revolution. (Memoir (generals, heads of state); confession)
  • No coincidence that the historical novels of Scott and of Cooper took as their setting war, and war that profoundly affected the concept of nation and nation-building.
  • In the wake of the Revolutionary Era, the feeling of nationhood became the experience and property of the masses-from the lower classes to the middle and upper classes.
  • And the appeal to national independence and national character is necessarily connected with a re-awakening of national history, with memories of the past, of past greatness, and of moments of national disgrace.
  • And so in an important way the historical crises during the age of revolution (1770-1814) produced a demand and need for the historical novel: a narrative that conformed to formal realism that was concerned with changes over time as it affected everyday people; a narrative that was concerned with the idea of national identity in relation to everyday people.
  • What matters in historical novels is not the retelling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in those events. What matters is that we re-experiences the social and human motives that led men to think, feel, and act just as they did in historical reality.

Historical novel, in seeking to understand national character, tends to highlight a historical awareness either of class struggle (esp. in Europe), or of race struggle (esp. in America). Cooper highlights the essential whiteness and middle-class status of Natty Bumppo.

  • That Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe was painted in 1770 puts him way ahead of his time, anticipating the clamor for historical narratives in the wake of the age of Revolution.
  • In general, new cultural and artistic trends are first seen in the visual arts, then give way to literature: writers see things, internalize them, incorporate what they’ve seen and experienced through formal shifts.

C) Cooper and the Origins of the American Historical Novel.

  • In America the rise of historical consciousness and nationalism found its first literary outlet in historical narratives.
  • From the Revolution to about 1820 history lorded over fiction, plays, and even poetry in the American literary and cultural pantheon.
  • History was considered “philosophy teaching by examples”; it supposedly inculcated virtue in its readers, or was intended to, by holding up illustrious lives and actions for imitation.
  • Early American historical narratives were also believed to be objectively true, a record of factual occurrences and not an imaginary, false, or misleading account of experience.
  • Between 1783 and 1815 historical narratives recounting the struggle and triumph over Britain poured from American presses. They were celebratory works, and told of an American success story.
  • And the novel spread history’s methods of truth-telling and formal realism.
  • Early history writing emphasized public information and minimized the subjective and individualistic aspects of literature. It disdained the idea of fancy and emotion, which among America’s cultural gatekeeper, threatened to create chaos in the new republic. In the early national people, statesmen and other cultural gatekeepers urged people not to indulge in their fancy, emotion, ambition. They were supposed to be disinterested and emphasize the “common good.”
  • Novels were seen as dangerous.
  • Cooper especially, and Washington Irving as well, helped to undermine the power of history narratives. They wrote novels that passed as history. They mimicked history’s methods of truth-telling and formal realism.
  • But unlike historical writing during this period, Cooper’s novels offered space for detailing the lives of everyday Americans: the losers as well as the victors, whereas historical writing concentrated on the victors.
  • Irving and Cooper turned history into fiction, by jumbling events and sources and inventing new ones in a way that was almost impossible to disentangle fact from fiction.
  • Cooper stands apart from all preceding American novelists in that no American writer before Cooper drew so extensively on the materials of American history. He created within the genre of the novel the western frontier hero, drew extensively on the frontier wilderness as his setting, and thus distinguished American literature from English literature.
  • Before Cooper, novelists struggled to identify themselves against England and the cultural superiority of Europe. By taking as his setting a uniquely American environment (the frontier), he achieves within his novels’ setting cultural independence from Europe. England and Europe lacked the vast open wilderness of America
  • Cooper’s characters are also uniquely American, particularly in their racial make-up: the interpenetration of racial types is everywhere in Last of the Mohicans: Cora is white with a taint of black blood. Magua is a mixed blood Indian. Natty Bumppo is a white who has been raised by Indians.
  • And he subverts the domain of historical narratives: In Last of the Mohicans, he places the novel in the year 1757: “A Narrative of 1757,“ which suggests that you are about to read a history. It is about the Fall of Fort William Henry, which historically led to American’s disgust with the English.
  • Cooper even included footnotes in the 1831 edition to give added legitimacy to his work as a viable alternative to historical writing.
  • Read Preface

Cooper was profoundly influenced by the example of Sir Walter Scott’s enormously popular historical fiction (as were most English and European writers), but he applied Scott’s form to an American setting.

  • Cooper has unfortunately gone into decline but his influence on American writers is astonishing:
  • The image of the American hero as a western hero, as a man armed and solitary, plebeian but worthy of nobility because of his experience and skill as a hunter/fighter, who feels at home in the wilderness and nature, and seeks in action his heart’s desire, is one of the most enduring of the mythic male American heroes.
  • You can see traces of Leatherstocking in Ishmael and Huck Finn; in the Virginian; in Hemingway’s Robert Jordan; in Nick Carroway; in Faulkner’s Sutpen; in Crane’s Henry Fleming; and as late as 1969 in Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, who tells a woman in The Zebra-Striped Hearse: “My name is Natty Bumppo ... He’s a character in a book. He was a great man and a great tracker ... I can shoot a rifle, but as for tracking, I do my best work in the cities.” (20ᵗʰ century, frontier is metaphor)

Cooper wrote five Leatherstocking novels in all:

  • The Pioneers (1823): Natty an old man; a hunter half-civilized. In Pioneers Cooper found a hero he exploited for the rest of his career.
  • The Last of the Mohicans (1826) The best of the Leatherstocking tales. Here Natty is in the prime of his life.
  • The Prairie (1827): Natty is an old man; he dies seated on a chair on the Rocky Mountains, looking east.
  • The Pathfinder (1840): Natty resurrected thirteen years later. Now he is 35 years old, makes an abortive marriage proposal, but of course the proposal doesn’t work out.
  • Natty never marries, cannot marry. For to marry is to be shackled by domesticity and women. The American frontier hero can never marry a real woman: the frontier, the wilderness; the ocean, the sea is his hero:
  • Three choices of marriage for male American hero: Domestic wife; seduction; frontier.
  • The Deerslayer (1841): Natty is now young again, at height of his hunting powers. He hunts in the virgin land, which is his mistress.
  • And so Leatherstocking gets younger with time. He goes backward, from old age to golden youth, with death and resurrection as part of his evolution.
  • Cooper makes two specific contributions to the mythologization of American history: he puts the Indian and the matter of racial character at the center of his consideration of moral questions; and he represents the historical process as a violent one.
  • Racial character of Indian shows what man is like in his natural, precivilized state; and while some of his propensities are shared with whites, his “gifts” are peculiarly and permanently his own.
  • For Cooper racial traits and gifts are unique; thus different people respond differently to the same natural environments and ethical questions according to their race.
  • In Cooper, a black or an Indian can never become fully white; and a white can never become fully Indian or black
  • Natty Bumppo: is a white man, a man without a cross, who has been raised among Indians.
  • He is a man without a cross in a double sense: He has been nurtured by non- Christians; but he also has a purity of white blood. Thus he can never “cross” over into an Indian completely. He is a white man with no “cross” of blood. On Thursday I will show why this is crucial to an understanding of the novel.
  • This is also the case with Magua: He is an Indian who affiliates with whites, but can never become black. He lacks the essential nature of white men; he cannot make the same ethical and moral decisions as whites.
  • Cooper goes back to the French and Indian war to trace out the essential nature of America as he understood it in 1826. He describes the downfall of genteel, English society, and of dark-skinned America, that paves the way for the emergence of a middle- class, white America. (Jacksonian democracy: describe; fluidity among white men; circles)
  • For Cooper the last of the Mohicans gives way to the first of the Americans. On Thursday I will describe in detail how this happens.

Cooper’s Frontier: From Mohicans to Americans

Lecture Outline, September 20, 2001 English 175h

A) Regeneration of America Through Violence

  • The novel is divided into two parts: The world of history and civilization in the first part; and after the fall of Fort William Henry, the world of myth and savagery.
    • First part conforms closely to the historical events.
    • Second part, Cooper borrows from the writings of Joseph Heckewelder, who wrote on the Delewares, to construct his own Indian myth in genealogy and action.
  • Cooper’s Indian history is a deliberate and elaborate fabrication for fictional purposes. It unites the fragmentary history of the Indians into a single myth of origin, rise, and fall. And this cycle echoes the cycle of history that was a major theme of historians at the time.
  • By structuring the novel as he does, and creating the characters he does, Cooper creates what would become a central trope of the American literary experience: the regenerative means of violence.
  • White men come to the new world seeking to regenerate themselves and their new identity. They do so by entering the wilderness and becoming like savages in order to vanquish the dark-skinned savages themselves (and their own savage instincts), and emerge from the warfare with their whiteness clarified and purified.
  • The white man on this new savage continent must learn the ways of the Indian-the fighter par excellence in the literary imagination-in order to survive and prosper.
  • There is a bifurcation of characters much like in the structure of the novel: characters are white, or Indian or mixed blood. And their blood determines their actions and fate.
  • Whites are in control in the first (historical) half of the novel; Indians are in control in the second (mythic) half.
  • Characters’ actions are ultimately determined by blood; but environment can shape one’s character according to the limits demarcated by blood.

B) Mirroring of characters

  • The mirroring of characters highlights the regenerative theme of violence and the permanence of race.
  • Hawkeye is the link between the savage and civilized states.
  • Hawkeye is a mirror image of Chingachgook.
  • Hawkeye is also juxtaposed with David Gamut.
  • Duncan Heyward is the racial opposite of Uncas; Uncas’s name is contained within Duncan’s.
  • Magua and Montcalm are red and white versions of each other.
  • Uncas and Magua are opposites within their Indianness.
  • The racial pairings are mirrored by narrative and formal strategies.

C) Last of the Mohicans gives way to the first of the Americans

D) Thomas Cole: visual analog to Cooper:

  • Scene From Last of the Mohicans: Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) (two versions)
  • Course of Empire
  • (1833-1836):
    • 1) Savage State
    • 2) Arcadian State
    • 3) Consummation of Empire
    • 4) Destruction of Empire
    • 5) Desolation of Empire

Last of the Mohicans: From Mohicans to Americans

Two long weeks of reading.

A) Regeneration of Americans through violence

B) Mirroring aspects of the novel: characterization; narrative; form.

C) Birth of a Nation.

D)Thomas Cole

Impact of the novel: phrases that are still in common usage derive from this book: Hawkeye; Football teams (Crimson tide) (p. 176).

A) Regeneration of Americans Through Violence:

  • To understand how this works, you need to understand the structure of the novel.
  • The novel itself is framed in two parts: Part one ends with the fall of Fort William Henry. It is the realm of civilization, and it is based on history.
  • Cooper himself was steeped in the history of the French and Indian war; he visited the scene and his novel is based on historical fact.
  • Colonel Monro (slight name change) actually did command Fort William Henry; Montcalm did successfully attack Fort Henry in August 1757. The bare outlines of the novel’s first half-the historical and civilized half — coincide with historical fact.
  • Montcalm did besiege the fort for several days before it surrendered. He did offer generous terms. His Indian allies did treacherously attack the helpless British and provincial soldiers as they marched back defenselessly to Fort Edward a few miles away.
  • And so Cooper reinterpreted fact as fiction.
  • In the second part of the novel we are in the world of savagery and of myth.
  • The historical framework of the second part of the novel is Indian history, not white history. He borrows from the writings of John Heckewelder, who wrote on the Delewares, to construct his own Indian myth in genealogy, and in action.
  • Cooper links his Mohicans with the ancient Uncas, who historically befriended the English and fought with them in the Pequot and King Phillips Wars.
  • Cooper attributes the warlike prowess of the Uncas to a moral superiority that enabled them to appreciate and stay faithful to the English. But war, white man’s disease, and treachery have diminished the Mohicans until only Uncas and Chingachgook remain — living, like Natty, as adopted Delawares.
  • Cooper’s Indian history is a deliberate and elaborate fabrication for fictional purposes.
  • Its effect is to unite the fragmentary history of the Indians into a single myth of origin, rise to grandeur, interrmarriage, and thus decline and fall. And this cycle echoes the cycle of civilizations’ rise and fall that was a major theme in contemporary historiography at the time Cooper was writing.
  • Historically the Mohicans never died out. But Cooper needed them to die out in order to make way for the white American nation, which he embraced in 1826: And this despite the diversity of people in America, which he reveals in his characters. [Discuss Cooper’s diverse upbringing in Otsego.]
  • By structuring the novel as he does, and creating the characters he does, Cooper creates what would become a central trope of the American literary experience: the regenerative means of violence.
  • White men coming to the new world seek to regenerate themselves and their new identity. They do so by entering the wilderness, become like savages in order to vanquish the dark-skinned savages (and their own savage impulses), and emerge from the warfare with their whiteness clarified and purified.
  • Indian is the hunter/warrior par excellence. White man in this new savage world needs to learn the ways of the Indian to survive and prosper. He needs to become like the savages to conquer them and their own savage impulses.
  • There is is a bifurcation of characters much like there is in the structure of the novel: Characters are white, or Indian, or mixed blood. And their blood determines their actions and fate.
  • In the second half-the savage half of the novel-the laws are the laws of the Indians, and that is where the “true” white American regenerate themselves and purify and clarify their essential white characters.
  • Magua is in control in second half. He wants to revenge his whipping at the hands of Munro for being drunk, and he partly responsible for the massacre of the whites when Fort William Henry falls.
  • It is in the wilderness that Magua’s power flourishes.
  • David Gamut and Duncan Heyward must become like Indians to survive in this savage wilderness. David Gamut, a pathetic person when we first meet him, gains strength in the wilderness; he wears moccasins, dresses like an Indian, even dresses in Hawkeye’s outfit when Hawkeye saves Uncas.
  • David abandons his “tooting instrument,” as Hawkeye calls it, in the forest.
  • And at the end of the novel (p. 327), David even abandons his pacifism and is willing to strike a blow on behalf of Cora: At the climactic last fight, he is willing to take up arms, not only dress and act like an Indian, but kill like one, in order to save Cora and preserve his white manhood.
  • p. 56. In contrast to the whites, who will stake their honor and lives on behalf of their women, Indians will not descend to their women:
  • Even Uncas, at the end, will not descend to Cora in the company of his Indian peers: When Magua says: “Cora is mine,” Uncas is silent; he does not deny it. He is silent because he accepts Indian morality and ways. And those are the ways of violence. Had he been white he would have come to Cora’s behalf. Because he is an Indian he can defend her in the only way he knows how: through violence.
  • In the second half, Duncan Heyward wears war paint and defers to the Indians, whereas in the first half, the historical half, he is the superior officer: he and Munro.
  • And in the second half, Munro, who is too old to learn the ways of the Indian, has virtually no role. In the savage wilderness of the second half, Munro becomes a cipher.
  • To transform yourself, become like an Indian, you must be young: David Gamut and Duncan, who experience the most change in the novel, are also the youngest.
  • One’s actions are determined ultimately by blood, though one’s character can also be shaped by environment.
  • Alice and Cora, the women, are captives throughout, the objects of the men’s desire.
  • The plot centers around their safety and their virtue, and the whites need to become like Indians in order to preserve their virtue.
  • In the first half, it is Cora who tells Hawkeye and the Mohicans to fly: David and Heyward, who have not yet been immersed in Indian ways, stay by their women as valiant chivalric white warriors. Hawkeye and the Mohicans realize that this is futile.
  • When they’re in the cave, and being surrounded by Indians, Uncas initially wants to stay only because he loves Cora, and his love for her proves his demise. She is his femme fatale. Without Cora, Uncas would presumably still be living.
  • But they leave the women and the white, femininized men in the cave because they realize they have a better chance of surviving and of recovering the women if they follow Cora’s advice and flee.
  • Cora’s black blood allows her to understand Indians in a way that Alice totally cannot. In fact, of all the characters, Alice if the greatest idiot, the most pathetic, and the least comfortable in the frontier.
  • p. 87: In fact it is because of her thanking God and clinging to the rock, while she’s in the cave in the first half, that the group is discovered by Magua and the Hurons.
  • Hawkeye has been raised by Indians, but makes it clear that he has the morality of the white man. He understands pity, tenderness in a way that Indians don’t. Morality is depended upon race for him and for the narrator:
  • He is secretly satisfied about his white skin, even though he hunts and kills like an Indian, or almost like one, and is proud of it. p. 31:
  • Hawkeye speaks English in a way that the king would not be ashamed to answer, but he also speaks the Delaware language; h prefers the Delaware language.
  • This is in contrast to Duncan Heyward, who speaks English and French but not Delaware.
  • p. 37: As for the Hurons, they are all skulks and vagabonds.
  • Born a Mingo one will die a Mingo.
  • p. 39: A Mingo is a Mingo. An Indian is an Indian and will behave like one.
  • p. 78: “What might appear proper in a red skin,” Hawkeye says, “may be sinful in a man who has not even a cross in blood to plead for his ignorance.” (Man without a cross): A MAN, not an Indian, without a cross. Indians are not real men, even though they are admirable.
  • p. 138: When his friend Chingachgook kills the French scout, Hawkeye can only smile and shake his head: “Twould have been a cruel and an unhuman act for a white-skin; but ‘tis the gift and nature of an Indian, and I suppose it should not be denied!
  • p. 267: Hawkeye doesn’t kill Magua after tying him up in the cave only because of his white skin. “Nothing but the color of his skin had saved the lives of Magua and the conjuror, who would have been the first victims sacrificed to his own security, had not the scout believed such an act, however congenial it might be to the nature of an Indian, utterly unworthy of one who boasted a descent from men that knew no cross of blood.” (no crossed blood; and not raised by Christians).

B) There is a mirroring among the characters that emphasize the theme of individual regeneration through violence and the permanence of race:

  • David and Duncan presumably emerge from their warfare with Indians as better whites; they are more capable of defending themselves, more able to live in this new wilderness world.
  • Hawkeye, by contrast, never embraces civilization:
  • He is the link between the savage and civilized states: While he can cry after hearing David first sing his song, he refuses civilization.
  • p. 192: Hawkeye has a natural longing for the the hunt and the chase. If paradise is ordained for happiness, he says, he would almost rather go to the glorious hunting grounds of the redskins than to the white heaven.
  • He realizes that the whites and Indians go to different places when they die: even God — Providence — refuses to intermingle the races.
  • But he has been Indianized to such a degree that he stands on the border between white and red, civilization and savagary.
  • He stands on the frontier; is a frontiersman.
  • p. 228: “Hazard and danger had become necessary to the enjoyment of Hawkeye’s existence.” And since he is a white man with Indian ways, and older, unable to revert back to civilization, his place is on the frontier, the space that unites civilization and savagery, red and white.
  • Hawkeye’s role in the development of the new nation is to pave the way from savagery to civilization, to teach effeminate whites how to survive in this new world.
  • Hawkeye is a mirror image of Chingachgook:
  • They are both older. Both single. Both love the hunt and the chase. The one, while white, knows the way of the Indian and comfortably lives among them. The other, while Indian, knows the way of whites, and can work with them, can be allied with them.
  • It is appropriate, providential, that neither love a woman. Their love is the wilderness. Both are frontiersman, the last of a breed, and for the frontier hero, to love a real woman is fatal.
  • There is also a wonderful juxtaposition between Hawkeye and David Gamut.
  • Both are white men, the one almost too Indian; the other, no matter how hard he tries, can never become anything like an Indian. The most David can do is to dress like an Indian or a savage bear, and vow to kill like an Indian.
  • David, despite his grotesque, gangling appearance, looks enough like Hawkeye that he can pass for him in the Huron camp. David, through training in the wilderness, seems to acquire some semblance of physical coordination.
  • Hawkeye hates books, prefers oral speech to writing things in books because in oral speech the lie can be given to the face of a cowardly boaster. Not in books.
  • David is born and bred on books: He is an effete intellectual, who initially is completely uncomfortable in the wilderness:
  • Gamut is a New England Puritan. His book of psalms is “especially” for New Englanders.
  • Even David Gamut’s name suggests his persona: David from the Bible — consistent with his Puritan New England heritage-and Gamut, which means the whole series of musical notes.
  • Hawkeye is the classic anti-intellectual fighter/hero; he is also anti-New Englander. He prefers the Indians of New York to the effete intellectuals of New England. But while Hawkeye has degenerated a bit too far into frontier life ever to live in civilization, David, after his frontier experience, seems to become smarter, stronger, more virile and manly.
  • Duncan Heyward also experiences this regneration of character. In fact Heyward is the racial opposite of Uncas.
  • Even their names: Uncas and Duncan.
  • Compared to Uncas, Hawkeye more limited in the ways of the Indian. And compared to Duncan, Hawkeye is more limited in the ways of whites.
  • This new civilization rests on the likes of Duncan as warrior, who dutifully protects the women, and marries the lily white one, and David, the intellectual, who learns a bit of the ways of the wilderness.
  • Much like the structural mirroring in the novel — the first part set in the world dominated by civilized historical consciousness, and the second half dominated by mythic savage consciousness — the characters are also mirror images of each other, paired racially:
  • Uncas and Duncan; Hawkeye and Chingachgook; and Magua and Montcalm.
  • Magua and Montcalm are white and red versions of one another. Both are chiefs; both are eloquent speakers. Both are cunning politicians. Both are courageous: Montcalm will eventually prove his bravery in his death on the plains of Abraham. Magua proves his bravery by rejecting Hawkeye’s offer to exchange himself for Cora. And both know how to negotiate and ally themselves with the opposite race.
  • But like the other pairings, they are also fundamental opposites owing to their racial makeup.
  • There is also the love triangle between Uncas, Magua, and Cora. All three are outcasts: Cora, owing to the taint of black blood; Magua has been cast out of his tribe; and Uncas is the last of the line, isolated by history.
  • Both Magua and Uncas are destroyed by their love for Cora.
  • But they are also opposites: Uncas loves chastely, Magua, lasciviously, and lustfully.
  • Magua represents the Indian in decline, corrupted by his mixed blood, his interaction with white civilization, and his booze.
  • Uncas is the purebred Indian, at the height of his race’s development, but also the last.
  • These racial pairings are also emphasized by narrative strategies:
  • Descriptions of characters precede their names, as if the racial typing, description is enough to provide the name. It makes for confusion in the book.
  • The mirror imagery is also revealed by grotesque features in the landscape:
  • Quote waterfall, p. 55:
  • Cooper’s literary style suggests universal laws of race, of nation, of concrete truths that cannot be understood — the water falls by no rule — but that nevertheless exist.
  • The action is also undercut: Cooper’s style deadens or de-emphasizes what would otherwise be the gothic element: there is not much terror and fear, because of the way he describes the violence: we know a death is coming before the description.
  • The potential effect of braining the child and tomahawking the parent, for example, is undercut by the anticlimatic movement of the paragraph and alliteration: repetition of initial consonant sounds.
  • Read p. 175:
  • The lack of terror and horror suggests that what happens in the novel is meant to be. If it evoked terror and horror, it would not be inevitable, providential:
  • This undercutting of suspense and terror highlighted by third person narrator. And it is an omniscient narrator, who knows all that will happen, and prepares the way. As a narrator, he is something like Hawkeye: a frontiersman.

C) These formal elements, the racial typing, mirroring, and regenerative theme of violence all point to the overarching theme in the book: That the last of the Mohicans gives way to the first of the Americans:

  • Cooper first needed to get British out of the way:
  • He needed to distinguish the American colonists from the British and the French and other Europeans. He does this in a number of ways:
  • First, the fall of Fort William Henry, which Cooper recounts historically in the first half, did historically figure prominently in the colonists’ disdain for the British.
  • The opening of the novel itself frames the setting for the emergence of America as distinct from England.
  • The French are advancing with an army as “numerous as leaves,” and the British, under General Webb, fear this advance. As leaders, the British are characterized as “imbeciles,” (top of p. 13) and they have already met with a series of defeats. The incompetence and arrogance of the British, as all readers in 1826 knew, would lead to American independence.
  • Additionally, the British are described as arrogant; the colonists in the first part walk humbly on the left, while the British soldiers walk arrogantly on the right.
  • The British are also stupid and cowardly.
  • Munro becomes a nobody in the American wilderness in the second half.
  • And he acknowledges, after his meeting with Montcalm, that an Englishman is afraid — afraid to support a friend.
  • The events of the novel embody a theory of pre-ordained human progress, a well-ordered process of historical change: the decline of both the Indian and the European on the continent, and the creation and rise of the American.
  • Duncan and Alice will marry at the end, and make American babies. And that is the way that Cooper suggests that the narrative must end. They are the future Americans.
  • Cora is one of the book’s grotesques: she is flawed by her mixed blood, too strong for her own good, too self-sufficient; to sexual to have a space in this new world. Had she lived she would destroy the American Cooper describes. And so she must die, much as Uncas must die.
  • Cooper makes it clear that Uncas and Cora were NEVER fated to be together.
  • Even at the end, Hawkeye realizes the futility of a union between Uncas and Cora, even in death:
  • p. 347: David, in his sermon, says 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.
  • Upon hearing this the scout shakes his head: “To tell them this,” he says, “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.”
  • Hawkeye, like Cooper, understands that God has reserved separate places for the separate races.
  • So the novel traces an inevitable historical process in which a physical, masculine, Indian culture, embodied in the bachelors — Uncas, Magua, Chingachgook, and Hawkeye — gives way to a more spiritual, feminine, white culture, reinvigorated by experience in the wilderness, represented by the union of Alice and Duncan.
  • And European powers get broken down. It is a novel of natural process and of natural progress. Like the woodland plants, the Indian rose, flourished, and died; the time of the white man in America has come, but the cycle remains.
  • Cooper wants us to see in the Indian the germ of our own character and fate. He wants us to see that intermarriage and mixed blooded characters are fatal to national growth.
  • Additionally, the idea that the white man’s racial career might, like the Mohicans, end in extinction was part of the cyclical theory of historians during Cooper’s day; and this prophecy of racial mongrelization and extinction would become more and more prominent as the century progressed.

D) Cooper explicitly embraced the cyclical view of history in his praise of Thomas Cole.

  • Thomas Cole and Cooper had enormous respect for each other: each were seen as the pre-eminent artist of his day.
  • Cooper saw Cole’s Course of Empire, and was so impressed he gave a talk on it at Cooperstown in 1849. He said:
  • 1) Scene from Last of the Mohicans: Cora Kneeling at the feet of Tamenund (1827)
  • 2) Another version of same image.
  • The Course of Empire: (1833-1836)
    • Savage State
    • Arcadian State
    • Consummation of Empire
    • Destruction of Empire
    • Desolation of Empire

Works Cited

  • Harry E. Shaw, The Forms of Historical Fiction: Sir Walter Scott and His Successors (Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 1983).
  • Harry B. Henderson, Versions of the Past: The Historical Imagination in American Fiction (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1974), ch. 3.
  • Philip Fisher, Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1987), ch. 1.
  • Robert Clark, History, Ideology and Myth in American Fiction, 1823-52 (London: MacMillan Press, 1984), ch. 4.
  • Daniel Peck, ed., New Essays on The Last of the Mohicans (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1992), esp. essays by Daniel Peck, Terence Martin, and Shirley Samuels.
  • David French, “James Fenimore Cooper and Fort William Henry,” American Literature, 32:1 (March 1960): 28-38.
  • William P. Kelly, Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales (Carbondale: Southern Illinois U. Press, 1983), ch. 2.
  • Michael D. Butler, “Narrative Structure and Historical Process in The Last of the Mohicans,” American Literature, 48:2 (May 1976): 117-139.