James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
©1999 by James Fenimore Cooper Society
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 11, August 1999
Return to ALA Cooper Panels
Return to Articles & Papers
The aim of this paper is to suggest two things about language in The Last of the Mohicans. First, I will assert that James Fenimore Cooper possessed a linguistic philosophy and that he embedded that philosophy in the novel. Second, I want to show that this philosophy is important to our assessment of his relationship to the ideology of savagism. While earlier interpretations of Cooper in relation to this same topic offer valuable insights, I will argue that they do not adequately describe The Last of the Mohicans because they place Cooper's thinking in antiquated time frames. Although theories of language often do have phosphorescent life spans which extend them beyond their initial era of popularity, I will argue that Cooper's linguistic philosophy is best understood in comparison to that of his own contemporaries, particularly the German linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt. Rather than understanding Cooper's linguistic forays as derivative and out-dated, we must see them as current and in keeping with his own times.
Both Steven Blakemore and Dennis Allen have written about Cooper's linguistic philosophies and both situate them in terms of relativity, hierarchy and superiority. Blakemore fits language in The Last of the Mohicans into the model set by biblical narratives. He argues that Cooper uses two linguistic paradigms: Eden and Babel (21). With respect to the first paradigm, Cooper is said to set Delaware up as the prelapsarian language of Eden: the "pure, unfallen language that would embody the new American reality" (21). English and French act as Cooper's fallen languages (21, 30). These ideas follow in the line of prior criticism of the novel, which had already adopted these same biblical motifs to explain its battles between good and evil, its metaphorics of Indian descent toward hell, and its Miltonic flavor.
However, while Cooper undoubtedly uses Paradise Lost as a model, we should remember that he would not necessarily have imitated Milton's linguistic paradigms. The divergence from Milton on this point would be due to the authors' respective linguistic universes -- Milton writing within a seventeenth century consciousness of language. Concerns with fallen and unfallen tongues would place Cooper in the midst of a debate that raged in the medieval and early modern periods in Europe, not in the early nineteenth century United States. There is no substantial evidence in the text for a narrative of the Fall that is related to language. Although the Biblical theme structures the story otherwise, Cooper does not in fact hint that Delaware functions as an Edenic language.
Cooper is also said by Blakemore to posit an original unity of Indian languages and a Babelian splintering of them because he depicts Indian words as fused with the places they name, and links Native American's loss of land to loss of language. He therefore argues a triple fragmentation of people and language from land, of languages and their speakers from one another, and of the unity of the word and object (word and world). This Babelian argument is somewhat more apt than the Edenic one, but most of the evidence for it lies in prefaces added after the first printing. There is no solid evidence in the original text that Cooper does assume an original unity of language or that he depicts Indian words as closer to nature or fused with their object. In fact, he assumes that there are at least two "original" languages in America -- Iroquoian and Algonquin -- well in keeping with his era's alignment of race with nation, and both with language.1 Cooper saw all living languages as did many of his contemporaries, including Humboldt: far removed from their origins and from any original language or languages. By the time he wrote, in any case, any original language was thought to have conformed only to the subject's idea of the world, not to the world itself.
A second critic, Dennis Allen, has submitted that Cooper's linguistic consciousness is derived from eighteenth century linguistic theories of origin and development. "Initially confined to a language of signs and physical objects having natural relations to the ideas expressed," they conjectured, "man developed a highly figurative speech which gradually gave way to conventional abstract language and writing" (173). Allen interprets Cooper's representation of Indian culture as valuing silence and the non-verbal sign highest while whites value precisely what Indians discourage: language. He finds the diverse semiotic modes apparent in the text ranged into a hierarchy (171). This hierarchy consists, in descending order, of: Nature/Visual Sign, Cries, Speech (first Indian, then White), Writing/Music (175). Since Indians in the novel communicate most often using the semiotics of the first developmental stage -- signs and gestures -- Cooper has made his Indian languages closer to nature and more pure than white language.
However, in the process of narrowing in on language philosophies that were in heaviest circulation during the century before Cooper's career, Allen elides Huron, Delaware and Iroquois into a single "Indian culture" and speaks of all Indian languages in the novel in one breath; this homogenization defies Cooper's own distinctions of semiotic difference among Indians. While Allen claims that silence is the highest semiotic value among Cooper's Indians, Cooper's narrator and characters never claim or even imply this, even though Indians are often silent or laconic in particular situations. On the contrary, the text on the whole marks Delaware appreciation for language. Allen's categories themselves do not hold up under close scrutiny, for he elides silence with the non-verbal sign and seems to cover with this latter term: gesture, footprint, broken limbs, beaver houses, tortoise tattoos, wound cleaning, flattened bullets and facial expressions. He also places music second lowest in Cooper's Indian cultures: a problematic claim. In the marking of Delaware appreciation for language and in other ways, Cooper's theory of language actually coincides with early nineteenth century linguistic theories.
In order to test Cooper's philosophy against the views I knew to be contemporary with it to discover whether they did indeed coincide, I decided to look at the intellectual and linguistic mobility of the various characters. Throughout this novel, encounters between characters are framed in terms of contests and displays of reason, in terms of intelligence, and in terms of local knowledge. Alliance and enmity both are framed along these lines. Cooper narrates a story of contact between cultures where multiple cultures intersect. The factual multilinguality of the several representatives of culture who are meeting on a plain of settlement, displacement and war becomes a metaphorical representation of the mental powers of the peoples and cultures involved. What results is a narrative of intellectual superiority through linguistic excellence. The Last of the Mohicans is a war of words.
There is a linguistic hierarchy in Cooper's book, as both Blakemore and Allen recognized, but it does not place Delaware or other Indian languages in the favored position. Instead, it gives primacy to English followed in order by French, Delaware, Huron, Oneida and Narragansett.2 We can find the evidence of this order by looking at who can understand which languages, who can speak which languages and who can master which languages. Cooper sets up linguistic rules of engagement, so to speak, in order to express mental and political power.
Every major character in the novel understands English. However, none of the non- native speakers of English (Montcalm, Chingachgook, Uncas, Magua) possess a native or near native fluency in it. Montcalm, for example, retains Heyward's translating services by apologizing: "There is a vast difference between understanding and speaking a foreign tongue; you will, therefore, please to assist me still." (16.164) The speakers of Native American languages are portrayed as even less skilled. Chingachgook, for instance, answers questions in English monosyllables (19.195) and Uncas speaks in broken English (13.129).
Those characters who understand French are divided. Heyward, Cora, Magua, the Huron interpreter and the "twenty eager" Delaware (29.301) are the non-native speakers. The two who are native speakers of English also possess flawless, quasi-native ability in French. When they are nearly found out by the French sentinel in chapter fourteen, both Heyward and Cora respond in perfect French that Cooper produces in the original. Despite his disclaimer to Montcalm that his interpretive skills have merely provided "so awkward a translation" (16.164), this comment is shown to be excessive modesty, by Heyward's evenly matched sally with Montcalm and his need to reduce his French to its simplest when talking to the Huron. If he fails to convince the second French patrol it is because he does not know "le mot de l'ordre" (17.168). Yet Magua, the speaker of Huron, converses with Montcalm "imperfectly in the French language" (17.169) In the Delaware's village, he speaks "the language of the Canadas," represented as a simpler French patois (29.300, cf. 23.234). Neither the Huron interpreter nor the Delaware who hear Magua's patois speech are themselves credited with perfect French skills; they instead listen and respond to the "corrupted" dialect or creole. The native English speakers have mastered "true" French, but the Indian speakers have not.
This diminishing progression continues with Delaware. There are even fewer major figures in the novel who understand this language. The non-natives who understand it are Heyward, Hawk-eye and Magua (see 24.249). Magua understands Delaware; yet he can barely pronounce Uncas's name (10.91). It is unclear whether this greater difficulty serves as a sign of his deep-seated hatred of Uncas or whether it is a mark of a more general infacility with the language. Yet he chooses to speak to the Delaware in French patois and he is spoken to in Huron, indicating both that he is no master of Delaware and that the patois is a corrupted mixture of high and low, and therefore inferior to Delaware.
On the other hand, both Heyward and Hawk-eye "understand" Delaware, indicating once again the fluency and agility of the English "race" in learning other languages. Obviously, Heyward cannot speak Delaware, fluently or brokenly. I would argue, however, that his near immediate ability to decipher the language through signs and tones supersedes this circumstantial illiteracy. The instances in which he does so are not just about the universality of certain gestures and emotions or the unity of body language and verbal language in Indian cultures. They indicate Heyward's potential, as marked out by Cooper, to master language, and this language, given more than a week in New York Colony.
Supporting evidence to this potential in Heyward and a remarkable example of Cooper's rule of linguistic mobility is given by the lower class Hawk-eye's native fluency in Delaware. When Hawk-eye first is introduced conversing with Chingachgook, no indication is given that he speaks in broken Delaware. Throughout the book, he engages with the father and son with ease. Blakemore reads his famous oratorical scene as an indication of the ideal superiority of Delaware, saying that Hawk-eye persuades only "by speaking the language as it should be spoken," opening himself to its spirit and therefore opening the Mohicans up to "the truth [he] expresses" (29-30). However, Cooper has elsewhere focused upon the command exercised by an eloquent speaker in Native American cultures and he seems to understand that certain Native Americans possess this mastery more than others, whether by native skill or cultivation (24.249). Therefore, the fact that he presents the non-native speaker Hawk-eye as not only fluent but ultimately masterful in Delaware oratory suggests that it is Hawk-eye's superiority in the language that is being indicated, not superiority of the language itself. The scene concludes as follows:
The latter was...fast losing ground, and the point was about to be decided against him, when he arose to his feet, and shaking off his apathy, he suddenly assumed the manner of an Indian, and adopted all the arts of native eloquence. Elevating an arm, he pointed out the track of the sun, repeating the gesture for every day that was necessary to accomplish their object. Then he delineated a long and painful path, amid rocks and water courses. The age and weakness of the slumbering and unconscious Munro, were indicated by signs too palpable to be mistaken. Duncan perceived that even his own powers were spoken lightly of.... Then came the representation of the light and graceful movements of a canoe, set in forcible contrast to the tottering steps of one enfeebled and tired. He concluded by pointing to the scalp of the Oneida, and apparently urging the necessity of their departing speedily, and in a manner that should leave no trail.
The Mohicans listened gravely, and with countenances that reflected the sentiments of the speaker. Conviction gradually wrought its influence, and towards the close of Hawk-eye's speech, his sentences were accompanied by the customary exclamation of com mendation. In short, Uncas and his father became converts to his way of thinking, abandoning their own previously expressed opinions, with a liberality and candour, that, had they been the representatives of some great and civilized people, would have infallibly worked their political ruin, by destroying, for ever, their reputation for consistency. (19.199)
Hawk-eye "converts" the Mohicans to his way of thinking and he does so, moreover, by displaying a superiority in logical reasoning.
The Hurons' language is spoken fluently by a Delaware orator and again it is Heyward who understands it, through the gestures of oratory and the countenances of the audiences. Once again, Heyward's inability to speak it is indicated as a matter of circumstance, not of possibility. A word about Oneida, another Iroquoian language, is also fitting, for though Hawk-eye frequently confuses the Iroquois language with the Huron, neither Heyward nor the narrator seem to. It is therefore important that no word of the "unintelligible" Oneida is ever "spoken" in the book. The two Oneida warriors die, and die into silence, before any utterance is possible. Hawk-eye also comments that "though the Delaware tongue is the same as a book to the Iroquois, the cunning varlets are quick enough at understanding the reason of a wolf's howl" (5.51). The comment indicates simultaneously the superiority of the Delaware and of literate languages, and the association of the Iroquois with animals. The Iroquois are placed in the middle of this miniature hierarchy of tongues. Its figuring as a hierarchy preempts the faint suggestion that there may in fact be some reasoning in a wolf's howl.
Finally there is the Narragansett language. This nation is represented in the book by the horses belonging to Cora and Alice. Like the Oneida, the Narragansett are associated with animals. Logically, this Algonquin language should take its place next to its sister language Delaware in the hierarchy I define above; but Cooper figures the nation as extinct. He all but silences their intelligent human tongue by placing it in the mouths of these horses. Their horrific cry resounds hauntingly through the wilderness and temporarily confounds the protagonists. Their loss of political power is thereby associated with a lack of mental power. Both of these insults are reflected in Cooper's evaluation of their language. The nation is reduced to beasts. Yet once again their "language" is intelligible to Heyward, who emerges from this linguistic hierarchy as the symbol of universal English superiority.
So Cooper sets up a situation in which persons born into "higher" languages are able to move through and master lower languages; those in the lower rungs can maneuver below their own level but not above.3 This theory coincides perfectly with the linguistic theory that Wilhelm von Humboldt, relying on Cooper's own sources, was at the same moment producing. Both men constructed theories of linguistic hierarchy from raw material and first- order linguistic processing provided by Heckewelder and his correspondent Peter Du Ponceau, then President of the American Philosophical Society. According to Humboldt, those nations (or races) whose individuals possessed the greatest mental powers when they formed their language created the most superior languages with the greatest potential. Better formed languages then acted upon the mental powers of the nation's members to produce individuals within those nations having even greater mental powers. Thus Humboldt explains how inferior languages can keep succeeding generations of particular races in states of mental inferiority. Ironically, however, the hierarchies constructed by both Cooper and Humboldt are an inverse reflection of the languages that they themselves had mastered or failed to master rather than a reflection of any existing reality.
Blakemore argues that Cooper establishes Delaware as the original language.4 But Cooper, and Humboldt, argue, in fact, something quite a bit more emotionally compelling to their contemporaries: that English and Indo-European languages are the languages closest to nature. Rather than valuing the diversity of languages that gives a composite interpretation of the world or the newly rediscovered language of Eden that alone presents the true world, they conclude that English and the others are our best avenue to truth and a knowledge of reality. All other languages know the world imperfectly. That is, people know the world only imperfectly through nonEuropean languages. European languages are the truest living languages. And though the idea of perfect knowledge as attainable through language is never restored, uncertainty and skepticism of any truth is largely defeated. Ambiguity is resolved.
Cooper's rhetoric of intelligence serves as an important gauge of his position with respect to cultural relativism. It throws the concept that he espouses a cultural relativism into doubt. In fact, he constructs a cultural hierarchy that is in alignment with his linguistic hierarchy. This cultural hierarchy can be seen in four types of encounters that he plots: the verbal jousting between Heyward and Magua in which Heyward is always the declarative victor; the three encounters of various characters with beaver dwellings; the three reversals enacted around Hawkeye's masquerade as a bear; and the scenes of non-western justice. These several scenes give the two conflicting, culturally- determined perspectives apparently equal interpretive space, while actually favoring one of the two.5
One instance of this questioning of intelligence occurs at the end of chapter four when Cooper works a subtle joke into a tense moment. Heyward has been told by Hawk-eye to divert Magua while he, Uncas, and Chingachgook stalk him. Heyward tries to coax Magua by saying that Cora and Alice need to rest.
"The pale faces make themselves dogs to their women," muttered the Indian, in his native language, "and when they want to eat, their warriors must lay aside the tomahawk to feed their laziness."
"What say you, Renard?"
"Le Subtil says it is good." (4.42)
Cooper may have been remembering here a sentence in Heckewelder's "Signs and Hieroglyphics" chapter in which he says "one single word with them will not seldom serve a purpose for which we would have to employ several" (130). Hearing one word in Indian, Heyward naively takes Magua's translation of himself as accurate. Magua gets the last laugh here but Cooper gets a chance to show off his own superiority by pulling off the joke whether his reader realizes or not. Also, Magua is established as a deceiver and not as the gentleman that Uncas turns out to be.
Heyward gets a rematch in chapter ten when Magua calls Uncas by his French name Le Cerf Agile:
"I know not whom you call the 'nimble deer,'" said Duncan, gladly profiting by any excuse to create delay.
"Uncas," returned Magua, pronouncing the Delaware name with even greater difficulty than he spoke his English words. "'Bounding elk' is what the white man says when he calls to the young Mohican."
"Here is some confusion in names between us, le Renard," said Duncan, hoping to provoke a discussion. "Daim is the French for deer, and cerf for stag; élan is the true term, when one would speak of an elk."
"Yes," muttered the Indian, in his native tongue; "the pale faces are prattling women! they have two words for each thing, while a red skin will make the sound of his voice speak for him." Then changing his language, he continued, adhering to the imperfect nomenclature of his provincial instructers, "The deer is swift, but weak; the elk is swift, but strong; and the son of 'le serpent' is 'le cerf agile.'" (10.91)
This passage is a contest not only for who has created the best language but for who has the best ability (and willingness) to learn other languages. Although Magua's comment would seem to create parity between the two perspectives, in context his insult cannot stand up against the series of mistranslations that reveal Heyward's superior gasp of French as well as his superior ability to pronounce Uncas' name even while Magua claims the English would normally translate his name into Bounding Elk. The scene also shows Heyward's greater politeness towards Magua which conceals the effort to ambush him and therefore reinforces the established hierarchy while appearing to celebrate a relativism of perspectives.
Contests like these involve language and cultural codes ranged in a limited relative circumference that permits a close range intellectual hierarchy. They increase in intensity and frequency in the latter half of the novel. The next series of episodes creates a hallucinatory instability that defies the supposed superficiality and simplicity of Cooper's stories, while it also reinforces the stereotyping and marginalizing of some of his characters.6 In chapter twenty-one, Heyward, Hawk-eye, Uncas, Chingachgook and Munro arrive near the outskirts of the Huron village. Duncan looks upon a clearing:
The water fell out of this wide basin, in a cataract so regular and gentle, that it appeared rather to be the work of human hands, than fashioned by nature. A hundred earthen dwellings stood on the margin of the lake, and even in its water, as though the latter had overflowed its usual banks. Their rounded roofs, admirably moulded for defence against the weather, denoted more of industry and foresight, than the natives were wont to bestow on their regular habitations, much less on those they occupied for the temporary purposes of hunting and war. In short, the whole village, or town, which ever it might be termed, possessed more of method and neatness of execution, than the white men had been accustomed to believe belonged, ordinarily, to the Indian habits. (21.218- 19)
The area looks deserted at first, but then Heyward spots "several human forms, advancing towards him on all fours" (21.219). He glimpses a "stranger Indian" standing very near, whose calico mantle seems to indicate Magua. When Hawk-eye approaches, the joke is revealed and it turns out that Heyward has been looking at a beaver village and at Gamut, dressed in captive clothing.
Cooper places in this paragraph hints of the reality, but for the most part, the reader would be carried through Heyward's perspective into believing he sees the actual Huron village. A double commentary on Heyward's intelligence is being established here along with a commentary on Huron intelligence. For one thing, Duncan credulously takes in the visual scene (or sign) as though the beavers and their dwellings are really human. Hawk-eye's laughter and comments spell out the "schooling" that Heyward needs in order to acquire a more acute vision and critical mind (21.220). Beyond the personal, Cooper also intrinsically comments on the prejudices of whites who assume that Indians are incapable of architecture, order, industry, and wisdom. Thus he appears to privilege Indian intelligence, raising it from its disrepute. But he pulls the rug out from under this notion at the same moment when he reveals that the scene is a beaver pond. This move shifts the credit back to Duncan, for though his senses need sharpening he had been willing to believe better of the Indians than most white men. The regularity turns out to be natural, mirroring the cataract, thus robbing even human order of its uniqueness.
But Gamut reverses this conclusion once again by commenting that "the Being that gave them power to improve his gifts so well, would not deny them voices to proclaim his praise" (21.221). The comment restores an idea of intelligence to its subjects: beavers and Huron. Yet his own reversal is reversed by the mockery of Hawk-eye who finds it ludicrous that one could think that language could develop in a "dumb" animal, even if some men he knows (Heyward?!) are greater fools than they. The second encounter with the beavers is followed closely by a first encounter with the Huron village. This second encounter buries any notion of respect for the Huron, as Heyward considers, on the one hand, that "even the brutes of these vast wilds were possessed of an instinct nearly commensurate with his own reason" (22.230) but, on the other hand, discovers rude, inferior and disorderly lodges, and burrowing Huron. So these scenes, far from giving the novel the status of a "reliable" visual object or sign, as Allen argues, throw the reliability of the visual sign and human beings' ability to interpret the stimuli of their own senses into question.
At the end of chapter twenty-seven, Cooper seems to resurrect the notion of commensurability with another relatived scene. Magua heads toward the Delaware camp with several Huron warriors, including a chief who is symbolically tied to the beaver.
Though Magua, who had resumed his ancient garb, bore the outline of a fox, on the dressed skin which formed his robe, there was one chief of his party, who carried the beaver as his peculiar symbol, or "totem." There would have been a species of profanity in the omission, had this man passed so powerful a community of his fancied kindred, without bestowing some evidence of his regard. Accordingly, he paused, and spoke in words as kind and friendly, as if he were addressing more intelligent beings. He called the animals his cousins, and reminded them that his protecting influence was the reason they remained unharmed, while so many avaricious traders were prompting the Indians to take their lives. He promised a continuance of his favours, and admonished them to be grateful. After which, he spoke of the expedition in which he was himself engaged, and intimated, though with sufficient delicacy and circumlocution, the expediency of bestowing on their relative a portion of that wisdom for which they were so renowned. (27.284- 85)
Cooper respectfully contextualizes the remarks, indicating the religious compulsion of the practice and figuring the Native Americans as superior protectors of nature even while showing them asking for wisdom from the animals. Yet the comparison of this scene to the first one in which Heyward has been ridiculed for seeing intelligent beings and Gamut for wanting to teach them to sing, cannot fail to wreck havoc on the solemnity and meaningfulness that a Huron might derive from such an action and create in the mind of the reader a feeling of superiority. So too does Cooper's use of the words species and relative. The Huron chief credulously does something close to what Heyward and Gamut have just been lampooned for. And Chingachgook's appearance from within the lodge combined with the Huron's interpretation of it as "an extraordinary sign of confidence" and "a highly favorable omen" (27.285) only reinforces the dishonoring of the represented Huron belief and reminding us of the textual hierarchy of languages.7
The three bear scenes run quite parallel to this series. When Heyward first sees Hawk- eye disguised as a bear in chapter twenty-four, he repeats his initial reaction to the beaver colony but in reverse. This time he sees a man but believes it to be a bear. His companion undoubtedly recognizes the bear for a "doctor,"8 thus showing how cultural context determines understanding. But this same cultural context is what allows the believing Huron to give Heyward ("the masquerade of a buffoon" (22.229)) and Hawk-eye access to the cave and what allows them to escape from it after closing the evil spirit (literally Magua) inside. Magua's own cultural assumptions, even if he lacks his fictionalized tribe's superstitions, catch him in Hawk-eye's bear hug which masters his philosophy (25.262). So the ceremonies of the Huron are used as weapons against them. But when the Huron guarding Uncas lets the bear in to torment him, Uncas' cultural understanding serves him.
The young Mohican, who, at first, believed his enemies had sent in a real beast to torment him, and try his nerves, detected, in those performances that to Heyward had appeared so accurate, certain blemishes, that at once betrayed the counterfeit. Had Hawk-eye been aware of the low estimation in which the more skilful Uncas held his representations, he would, probably, have prolonged the entertainment a little in pique. But the scornful expression of the young man's eye, admitted of so many constructions, that the worthy scout was spared the mortification of such a discovery. (26.271)
Hawk-eye is unable to perform as realistically as a true conjurer might, so Uncas emerges as master of this series as Chingachgook had earlier. The whole is rounded out by Gamut's ability to pass as a feeble-minded person, protected by Huron customs, but really nothing more than a fool in the wilderness to American eyes. That Gamut can outwit the Huron without even trying does not make for a relativistic interpretation; it is a ridiculing of the Indian mores which lead them to fall for the trick because they interpret Gamut's eccentricity as sacred mental weakness. Cooper goes so far as to explain the world through (his representation of) the Huron's culture but only to persuade us that this way of seeing is inadequate. This approach is not cultural relativism but a masquerade of it.
If Uncas and Chingachgook come out on top in these two series, that position is only relative. We can see the ultimate restoration of this temporarily reversed hierarchy by comparing the two scenes of justice in the Huron and Delaware villages. Clearly Cooper sets up the first one as more primitive than the second. It is a classic trial by fire with Uncas subjected to a physical test and a mental trial and nevertheless committed to death, while the coward is symbolically expelled and dies on the chief's knife without a hearing or defense. Duncan's intervention helps Uncas to survive yet his outside influence is not considered as tainting the outcome. Meanwhile, Tamenund is established in the Huron village as judge over Magua's claim to Cora and the other prisoners. He is represented as wise, old and venerable, though prone to wander in his thoughts (29.304- 5). "His robe was of the finest skins, which had been deprived of their fur, in order to admit of a hieroglyphical representation of various deeds in arms, done in former ages" (28.293). The existence of hieroglyphics among the Delaware can only be taken as Cooper's sign of their advanced civilization. Though they are Indians, they care for and improve their God-given gifts, while it has been established that the Huron (and Mohawks) are "disremembering hounds" who like brute beasts trod upon and deform the clean watering hole that the Lord has bestowed (12.119). Yet the outcome of Delaware justice, while consistent with represented Delaware law, must ultimately be felt by a white nineteenth century reader to be unjust, both because Magua has stolen the women across an imagined border that defines a territory larger than Delaware jurisdiction and because an innocent victim suffers. The failure of this more orderly, civilized court to provide "real" justice sets off the excursion that leads to the death of Uncas, Cora and Magua. However educational Cooper intends his sketches of Native American arts and ways to be, however removing of prejudices the shifts in perspective that new material, cultural and linguistic information contribute, this new information is ranged into an existing paradigm, remolding that paradigm to accommodate the new research.
Cooper's Indians and Humboldt's speakers do become more human than the developmental paradigms of eighteenth century language theory had allowed them,9 but they also become less mobile. Cooper's Huron remain closer to animals than humans precisely because as humans, they fail to recognize their own a priori difference from animals and, unlike the Delaware, have faded to develop their gifts. Little or no serious consideration of the formidable intellectual challenge posed by Native American complexes of thought around the status of animals or other epistemological, ontological and political issues occurs in The Last of the Mohicans. Cooper rejects arguments in favor of cultural relativism that were circulating in the States in opposition to Indian removal,10 insisting upon the position that some cultures are better than others.
Recognizing Cooper's linguistic theories helps us to place his work into a larger global context that works in two directions while at the same time it clarifies his position in the nationalist canon that has now been placed under scrutiny by New Americanists. First, because Humboldt has been characterized elsewhere as an orientalist, Cooper's affinity with him opens up promising inquiry into the trans-Atlantic relationship between orientalism and savagism. How did economic and political relationships between various nations and the accompanying status of intellectuals on the two continents influence the production of these ideological terrains and changes in them? How do ideologies of orientalism and savagism come together in particular projects? If recent argument has characterized orientalism not as a master narrative but as heterogeneous terrain of sometimes contradictory orientalist ideologies, then perhaps the ideology of savagism as described by Roy Harvey Pearce in 1953 should itself be recognized and explored as a heterogeneous and contradictory terrain. Studies of authors such as Cooper support the idea that there are multiple sites, multiple discourses and multiple referents of savagism -- that it is not an impervious or unified master narrative. Cooper's differentiation of Delaware from Huron, for example, might be contrasted to a tendency in the later century to refer generically to Indians without respect to their national identity.
Second, the global international context within which Cooper wrote was not constituted by European nations alone but by Indian nations, confederacies and alliances. If we look at Native American speech as mediated through contemporary and descendant sources, we are able to discern indigenous linguistic philosophies, despite the control over the source exercised by the mediator. We also witness the dialogic agency exercised by particular speakers in their defense of indigenous forms of writing and the inscriptive aspects of the oral. These defenses appear early in U.S. diplomatic relationships with Indian nations rather than arising initially out of late twentieth century scholarship. This insight indicates that the domination of comparative literature as a field by European studies and American literature as a field by the single-nation paradigm neglects a major site of scholarship: the literature of the multiple nations of North America.
The ideological terrain upon which Cooper stands is also occupied by anti-savagist thought -- the critique of and opposition to the logical or ethical foundations of the ideology of savagism -- and ante-savagist thought -- the Indian word that preceded and survived the ideology of savagism. These latter discourses remained emergent and proved highly unstable outside of Indian nations, that is, inside the U.S. and Europe. Still, intellectuals like Cooper and Humboldt created their savagist ideologies from ante-savagist material and sometimes participated marginally in anti-savagist discourses. This complex intellectual heritage is important in unraveling the racial hierarchy that they eventually established, which relied for its intellectual legitimation on raw material extracted in the study of language.
1. Nor does Cooper unambiguously depict the Indian name for Lake Horican as "original" in the sense of "from the dawn of time". If Cooper knew that the Alligewi resided in the region before the Delaware and if he knew of Asian migration theories for the entire hemisphere, one cannot suggest that he found the "unpronounceable" Indian name of the lake its natural name.
2. This order would roughly correspond with Humboldt's, although Humboldt does not appear to draw distinctions between Indian languages since they all appeared to share a common structure at that time. I find conflicting statements as to whether he would rank English before French or vice versa but he would rank both before any Indian languages. Some of his statements seem to correspond to Mme de Staël's description of the difference between northern and southern Europeans and the implicit superiority of the former implied in it.
3. Only two elements defy this restriction of mobility based on language and race: Cora's fluency in French, and the use of Delaware by the Huron woman who abuses Uncas. But if Cora's African, or possibly Native American, blood would seem to mitigate against the Humboldt-style stabilization of race through language, we should remember how Munro describes her mother: "'She was the daughter of a gentleman of those isles, by a lady, whose misfortune it was, if you wilt...to be descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class, who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people!'" (16.159). Cora is not herself "descended remotely" from this slave, nor was her mother, but her mother's mother! If Munro is speaking in 1757, it could be assumed that the first relationship between the European and the nonEuropean slave in her heritage took place as far back as 200 years before. Given Cooper's other comments on civilization, savagery and race, it would not be hard to imagine that he either saw such "thinned out" mixes as invigorating to the white race or as remote enough not to affect the most remote descendants' intelligence. Meanwhile the Huron woman "proficient in the art of abuse" uses "the language of the Lenape, as more intelligible to the subject of her gibes" (23.239). But this is not to say that she masters that language since she ends up working "herself into such a fury, as actually to foam at the mouth" while Uncas remains unmoved (23.239). Cooper does not give her the last word here; he must turn her word into yet another sign of her inferiority.
4. I have argued above that we should place Cooper's language philosophy in parallel with his nineteenth century contemporaries. It is possible to notice, however, a phosphorescence in the operative language theories at work in Cooper's narrative. I would argue that earlier theories still visible in his work actually begin with the start of American linguistics rather than earlier, and are represented by century in the text. Narragansett was the language known to the reading public through Roger Williams' A Key into the Language of America (1643). One finishes this book nearly as ignorant of how to speak Narragansett as when one began -- thus the unintelligibility of the horse's cry in chapter six. The eighteenth century study of Huron revealed to most Europeans (if not to the Jesuits whose interpretations were muted by history) a lack of order or regularity in it -- thus the representation of the Huron village in chapter twenty-one as lacking order and the suggestion that Cooper himself still believes this disorder of the language. The novel also exhibits an eighteenth century belief in the possibility of developing language and culture which is nevertheless overcome by the fixity of language, race and cultural attainment characteristic of the early nineteenth century.
5. Here Cooper groups all Indian nations and all whites together, though his linguistic hierarchy has treated them separately.
6. I refer here to Jane Tompkins' language in her reading of Cooper's Leatherstocking novels. I agree that Cooper has been short-changed by the narrow mold of excellence that some invoke to relegate him totally rather than critique him fairly and I greatly admire her reading of the disguise scenes that I also discuss. But I am disturbed by her casual use of the Iroquois in her title and the Eurocentrism of her definition of texts worthy of "the cultural work of American fiction" critique. Can Cooper's novels be read so positively as not to leave him owing an apology to the Iroquois. Is it really possible for us to value stereotypes, as she suggests (xvi), without discussing the reality of their harm to living persons that results in part from the intrinsic role that they play in the aesthetic that she wants to promote?
7. Edward Pitcher's article "The Beaver and His Cousin in Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans" was very helpful in orienting me to the cultural, political and intellectual meaning of its inclusion in the novel.
8. This word is Heckewelder's, not Cooper's.
9. Because they do not assume an evolution from animal silence but an a priori human difference.
10. Unlike the cultural relativism of the late twentieth century, such arguments emerged as apologist discourse from within a savagist ideology. They exculpated cultural others from inappropriate applications of external standards of judgment (as Dante reserves the first circle of Hell for those ignorant of Christianity) but do not assume a continuation of multiple cultures in perpetuity nor seriously value these cultures.
Return to Top of Page