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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers
No. 26, pp. 25-28
Steven Harthorn and Shalicia Wilson, Editors
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In 1852, the year following the death of James Fenimore Cooper, Francis Parkman wrote a retrospective of, primarily, the Leatherstocking Tales. It was largely glowing, except when Parkman touched on a "characteristic" fault of Cooper's "graphic pen," the tendency to "depict scenes which would disgrace the shambles or the dissecting table."1 Parkman's "dissecting table" still communicates Cooper's fascination with molten gore, but his "shambles" quip is lost on most people today. Shambles were originally tables and stalls for the display of meat on sale, so that "the shambles" became easy slang for down-and-dirty sex. Parkman was drubbing Cooper for writing smutty novels.
I have noticed that, while modern instructors key in on Cooper's bloodlust, they completely miss his booty calls. Since CSI fans do account for a percentage of our students, Cooper's gore has student appeal on that level, but I have yet to encounter any college student not in helpless thrall to human sexuality. I say, therefore, that as instructors, we are stupid not to explore the racy sexuality of the Tales. The problem here seems to be that most instructors are the deer-in-headlights along with their students when it comes to sensing Cooper's lusty vibes through the verbal circumlocutions of his day.
There was a reason that Cooper was on the hit-list of the Antebellum right-wing, and it did not just revolve around his insistence on creating breathing, feeling Indians who loved, and were loved by, others.2 It also involved his frontal assault on the Iron Maiden, who was biologically ignorant yet filthy-minded. No one could even mention sweat in her rarified presence; no matter how innocently it had been produced, sweat was still titillating.
When Cooper's career began, the Iron Maiden had but recently begun her reign of terror, as the anything-goes milieu of Regency England gave way to the personality disorders of purse-mouthed Victorians. Cooper's novels spanned the transition, but, as Parkman noted, Cooper did not. His women were neither ignorant of human physiology nor obscenely silent about sex, thus engendering the original objection to Cooper's women-not that they were bor-r-ring, but that they were unnatural, Victorian code for prurient.
For instance, scenes in The Last of the Mohicans set the critics atwitter. An 1826 reviewer for the North American Review, W. H. Gardiner tongue-whipped not only Cora but also Alice Munro for the girls' "lack of "true delicacy," a marked inability "to exhibit the true notion of a well bred lady."3 Good heavens, what had they done to merit this? Cora had had the bad taste to have been born black, of course, but what of the lily-white Alice? She had transgressed worse than Cora, by having asked Major Duncan Heyward to spend the night with her and her sister in the cavern at Glenn's Falls.4
Today, such a lapse would raise nary an eyebrow. Readers would simply lay the plea to Alice's abject terror of the impending attack, as she hid in the dark isolation of a wet cave. However, at the time, unchaperoned young women's simply having been in the company of unrelated young men while traveling through the forest was X-rated enough to label them as whores. For Heyward to have been the chaperone only upped the ante, as it gave him unfettered access to both sisters, day and night. In Gardiner's fevered imagination, Heyward's having had not one, but "two distressed damsels under his wing" hinted that Alice was proposing a threesome.5 Thereafter, honor required Heyward to marry one of the girls. Being black, Cora was out of the question, so that Alice was perforce his pick. The whole first third of the novel was, consequently, as frothy as it could have been yet escape censorship, while the last third of the novel was required to make an honest woman of Alice by THE END.
Poor Mabel Dunham faced a similar conundrum in The Pathfinder, once the legitimating presence of her father was removed with his death during a siege. Left alone in the blockhouse in the company of Natty Bumppo and Jasper Western, Mabel was as compromised in fact as Davy Muir had her in gossip. Her father had pressured her to marry Natty, even giving her into Natty's protection, before dying on them.6 At that point, the only honorable thing for Mabel to have done, given the sweaty implications of her being alone all night with two strange men, was to have gone through with the wedding with Natty forthwith, lest her reputation be forever sullied. The reader was to have understood her delicate position and recognized the breathless impropriety of her throwing over Natty for Jasper. At the time, it implied that she was loose.
Of course, the loosest of all Leather-Stocking women was Judith Hutter, the belle of the backwoods. She was indisputably round-heeled, a favorite among the British officers at the local fort.7 She hoped to inveigle Captain Thomas Warley, one of those officers, into marrying her by letting him sample her wares beforehand. However, all she wound up with in the end was the illicit "protection" of Sir Robert Warley, presumably a relative of the captain, who stashed Judith in his private pleasure palace in the English countryside.8
Even worse for the Iron Maiden's composure, Judith's mother was also a fallen woman of the first magnitude, having eloped with an officer who promptly deserted her once her second child was born with Down's Syndrome. Thereafter, Mom was passed downward to Thomas Hutter, a pirate so disreputable that Judith was actually relieved to discover that she was illegitimate instead of his daughter.9 As though these circumstances were not already enough to put the Iron Maiden into a permanent swoon, Cooper also portrayed Judith as coming on to Natty, and more explicitly each time she propositioned him. Male as well as female readers were fanning themselves briskly by this point in the Tales, with prudes like Parkman disdaining Cooper's pornographic imagination.
Cooper's women were not the only ones in, shall we say, delicate positions. The Pioneers openly discussed the panting sex behind Oliver Effingham. Given his backstory, he could only have been the third-generation product of ongoing interracial sex. The breadcrumb trail that Cooper left here was wide and obvious to readers in 1823, only lost in the present, as Jim Crow has slunk from view. Oliver's grandfather, Major Effingham, took a bride in the wilds of Niagara. This had to have implied that she was a Native American, since there were no settler women at Niagara of sufficient status to become officers' wives, while the British Empire encouraged its officers in foreign postings to take Native "wives," whom they were allowed to desert for proper, English wives upon reposting home.
The impression of hanky-panky was fixed by the news that Oliver's father cadged no more than a lowly post in the West Indies, from which he was unable to rise socially. Given the hotbed of interracial impropriety that was the West Indies, that Oliver's mother was not mentioned was vital. It spurred the reader to speculate on whether Dad had gone Native in the Indies, just as Granddad had at Niagara.10 These conjectures put a triple-whammy on Oliver. He might as well have been conceived in a "shambles."
Just in case the Iron Maiden was dense, other characters in The Pioneers regularly nailed Oliver as a "half-breed," or, more politely, "demi-savage."11 This was racy talk in 1823, because it alluded to the intergenerational sexual improprieties that had brought him into being. Worse, the novel's two ingenues, Elizabeth Temple and Louisa Grant, openly canvassed his off-color conception in two separate conversations that would have gotten the Iron Maiden's mouth washed out with soap. This is why both girls were blushing, laughing, smiling, and averting their eyes so profusely in these passages.12 In 1823, these conversations qualified them as Dirty Girls running their potty mouths.
If The Deerslayer was X-rated for illicit sex, The Prairie was XXX-rated for illicit everything. It miscegenated in all possible directions, with Cooper outraging just about every extant shibboleth of race, religion, and sex as they intersected in Antebellum America. The term "miscegenation" was coined by David Croly in 1863, in a pamphlet that was almost immediately reprinted in 1864, after it kicked up one helluva flap.13 A racist hoax, the pamphlet "recommended" interracial sex for all Americans. Them was fightin' words in 1863, and the affront was just as vigorous in 1803, when The Prairie was set and 1827, when it was published. The bigotry against Catholic grandees stemmed as much from the fact that tri-racial sex was openly countenanced by the Church as from the religious distemper of the Protestants.
With race tossed into the mix, Inez de Certavallos of The Prairie was in an even worse spot than either Mabel Dunham or Judith Hutter. At least, they were "white," which saved them from the a priori assumption that they were sexually available to anyone in the vicinity. As with the Effinghams, miscegenation, or interracial procreation (from the Latin miscere, "to mix," and genus, or "race") was a family habit. Inez's American-born father, Don Augustin, had lived in Florida and Louisiana since well before the Louisiana Purchase, a fact that screamed suspicion of his own interracial provenance in Cooper's day.14
Thus, Protestant Duncan Uncas Middleton, Inez's husband and grandson of Alice Munro and Duncan Heyward, was not only playing fast and loose with religion but also with race in marrying Inez. It was no wonder that Inez, termed "The Beast" through the first third of the book, was kidnapped for sale in Missouri as a "Fancy Girl," or sexual concubine.15 What is usually missed today is that Middleton actually had no legal claim on Inez, since it was against the law for a white man to marry a "mulatta," which Inez was, as surely as Cora Munro. Moreover, it was understandable to readers in 1827 that Ishmael Bush might forget himself around The Beast, i.e., rape Inez.16
Hot, juicy sex was not only the theme of Inez but also of Cora Munro. When The Last of the Mohicans first appeared in 1826, there was little reticence on the part of critics to finger its bawdiness, which did not simply revolve around the forbidden, interracial liaison that had brought Cora Munro into being. Her status as a black woman was openly bandied about, and even thought to assuage the outrage of Uncas having turned his eyes on her—i.e., she was not "white," so it did not matter if she made "rather free" with "the savages," that is, had interracial sex.17 The nineteenth-century criticism of Cooper as it regarded Cora was that he let Magua fall in love with her, whereas Uncas, also in love with Cora, failed to "resemble a genuine Indian" because he did not bestow slimily lecherous glances on her every other second, as did Magua.18
What is intriguing to me is not so much that Cooper portrayed a black woman as a heroine, but that Hollywood has gone so far out of its way to neutralize his portrait of Cora. It seems to me that, if Cooper had the courage to create a spunky black heroine in 1827, Hollywood ought to have the decency to let her be black today. Nevertheless, Cora is adamantly presented as white, white, WHITE! In the 1920 and 1992 versions of Mohicans, she was at least allowed to sport dark hair, but the 1936 version rather hysterically turned her platinum blonde. Just to cover its tracks, it also flipped the characters of Cora and Alice, making Alice, the unquestionably white girl, the lead sister with the dark hair.
Characterizations of Natty are equally problematic. Today, he is likely to be seen as the hero of the Tales, but between 1823 and 1841 (the years of the Tales' composition), he was too declassé to have been mistaken for a hero. In fact, as I have shown elsewhere, Natty could only have been intended as Lenape on his mother's side.19 Toss in his Moravian upbringing, and readers' eyes rolled back in their heads. The Moravian "wounds theology" was well known in 1827 for having its worshippers "suck" the "juicy" wounds on Jesus's body.20 Thus, the 1992 Mohicans movie got the sex scenes all wrong in depicting Natty and Cora as wrapped around one another in a night of pounding passion. This was not because Natty was gay, but because his pride made him refuse to marry any but a white woman, while the secret of his race made him ineligible to do so. I suppose I must content myself that, at least, the last Natty was not portrayed by an uber-European like Randolph Scott, but by Daniel Day Lewis, the son of an Irish father and Jewish mother, who finally allowed Natty to look Lenape.
I have found that decoding the antique high signs to the shambles in Cooper entices my students to read him with care and attention. I recommend the method to others.
1. "The Works of James Fenimore Cooper," North American Review 74 (January 1852): 147.
2. For my extended discussion of Cooper as a culture warrior, see Barbara Alice Mann, "Race Traitor: Cooper, His Critics, and Nineteenth-Century Literary Politics," Leland S. Person, ed., A Historical Guide to James Fenimore Cooper (Oxford University Press, 2007) 155-185.
3. W. H. Gardiner, "Article IX," North American Review 23 (July 1826): 164.
4. James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans, ed. James Franklin Beard (1826; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983) 60-61.
5. Italics in the original, Gardiner, "Article IX," 158.
6. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pathfinder, or the Inland Sea, ed. James Franklin Beard (1840; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981) 443.
7. James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer, ed. James Franklin Beard (1841; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987) 69, 93, 412-14.
8. Cooper, Deerslayer, 548.
9. Cooper, Deerslayer, 412-13.
10. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale, ed. James Franklin Beard (1823; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980) 31-33.
11. Cooper, The Pioneers, 186, 202, 204, 206, 217, 279-80, 320.
12. Cooper, The Pioneers, 214, 304.
13. David Goodman Croly, Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro (New York: H. Dexter, Hamilton, 1864).
14. See my discussion of the tri-racial Certavallos in Barbara Alice Mann, "Fancy Girls: The Creole and the Quadroon in Cooper's Leather-Stocking Tales," Reading Cooper, Teaching Cooper, ed. Jeffrey Walker (New York: AMS Press, 2007) 224-27.
15. Mann, "Fancy Girls," 231-37.
16. Cooper, The Prairie, 168.
17. Gardiner, "Article IX," 163.
18. Parkman, "Cooper," 155; Gardiner also criticized Magua's love, "Article IX," 155.
19. Mann, "Race Traitor," 157-69.
20. Craig Atwood, Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004) wounds theology, 233-36.