James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
This page is: http://www.oneonta.edu/~cooper/articles/suny/1989suny-bevilacqua.html

Fictional Design and Historical Vision in The Last of the Mohicans

Winifred Farrant Bevilacqua
(Universita Degli Studi di Torino)

Presented at the 7th Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1989

©1991 by State University of New York College at Oneonta
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the Bicentennial Conference, July 1989, State University College of New York -- Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 114-125)

Return to SUNY Seminars | Articles & Papers

In the early 1820s, Cooper, seeking to promote America's cultural independence and to discover his strengths and weaknesses as a writer, articulated a compelling sense of the literary potential of native American materials and developed themes, structures, characters, and situations destined to have a profound influence on the shape and direction of American fiction. Although by 1825 he had completed Precaution, a clumsy imitation of fashionable English novels of manners, and The Pilot, in which he combined the techniques of romance with what he knew of the sea to invent the sea novel, it was with The Spy, The Pioneers, and Lionel Lincoln that he revealed his talent as a self-conscious historical novelist whose work, in the words of one of his contemporaries, "testified to what could be accomplished by a native writer of fiction who was willing to exploit the untapped riches of the American past" (Gardner 58). The Spy, written on the model of Sir Walter Scott's romances, projects in microcosm the collision of opposing historical forces during the Revolution and mirrors this struggle in a family conflict. Similarly focusing on the Revolution, Lionel Lincoln presents excellent descriptions of the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill but, due to the strange gothicism of the plot, must be considered an overall failure. The Pioneers, set in the 1790s in a community portrayed at the moment of its transition from the frontier stage to that of permanent settlement, focuses on the opposition between individual liberty, variously conceived, and submission to the legal authority necessary to foster and protect civilization. Interwoven into the dramatizations of these tensions is a chivalrous-romantic plot which, even as it furnishes the melodrama Cooper's audience desired, touches on such key historical issues as legitimate ownership of the land and the definition of political power in the Republic.

The birth and development of American society is also the central concern of The Last of the Mohicans where Cooper manipulates disparate genres and materials to create a literary form capable of encompassing his beliefs about American history and of critically engaging the content and tone of prevailing discussions about it. Besides depicting a moment in the past, this novel attempts to convey a sense of that moment and to give meaning to the historical process of which it is a part since it takes the reader back to a time when the future seemed very uncertain and develops explanations which justify and confer an aura of inevitability on the shape that the future would assume. The action, set in 1757 during the French and Indian War, an era of great crisis and transition when various forces struggling for control of the continent came into collision, is in fact designed to help the reader discover the "rightness" of white American control over the wilderness and of the concomitant disruption of European hegemony and displacement, perhaps extermination, of the Indians. The time of the narration, almost seventy years after the events, is also a period of transition, for in the 1820s, the future foreshadowed in the novel was still in the process of being consolidated. The decline of European hegemony did not need to be stressed {115} strongly because Cooper's audience had long accepted it as a natural step forward in their history, but the novel does concern itself with defining the nation's relationship to its colonial past by clarifying why it had been necessary to rebel against European authority and by suggesting reasons for the legitimacy of the sociopolitical system which had supplanted that old order. Major emphasis instead is given to the issue of Indian-white relations, because, although the reader already "knew" that the Indian was doomed to lose out in the struggle for hegemony on the American continent, that struggle was still going on in the 1820s, with each new contact between the races or with each new desire whites expressed for Indian lands.

These concerns are announced in the full title and epigraph of the novel. The name of the titular character, the Last of the Mohicans, identifies the Indians as vanishing, while the subtitle, a narrative of 1757, directs the reader back to the French and Indian War which, as Cooper says at the opening of his book, was waged by England and France for "possession of a country that neither was destined to retain" (12). The title thus links the Indians to the specific historical reality of that conflict and suggests the centrality of the frontier in determining the nature and direction of American history. The importance of the Indians, and more particularly of the relationship between Indians and whites, is reinforced by the epigraph, "Mislike me not, for my complexion/The shadowed livery of the burnished sun," which highlights a persisting contradiction in the United States, a nation built on the premise that: all men are created equal but with a political structure based on the assumption that same races are inferior.

To develop these themes, Cooper drew on a variety of literary sources, allowing them to facilitate expression of certain meanings while altering them to fit his personal vision and his socio-historical context. In the process, he forged a hybrid genre capable of rendering in dramatic form the unprecedented character of the American experience. Chief among his sources were the captivity narrative and the tales of the hunter, the historical romance as devised by Sir Walter Scott, and the epic tradition.

Both the captivity narrative and the tales of the hunter tell a story about contact between Indians and whites and about what this experience signified for the whites: individually, as an initiation into the American wilderness; socially, in terms of the survival of white culture on the frontier; and nationally, raising the question of whether violence was inevitable in dealing with the land and its inhabitants (Slotkin). The captivity narrative, prior to 1800 the main American genre in which the Indians figured, dates back to the Indian outbreak in New England known as King Philip's War (1675-1676). Fought with great cruelty on both sides, this war led most colonists to the conviction that the Indians would always be bloodthirsty savages. Puritan captivity narratives like the very popular prototype written by Mary Rowlandson (1682), interpreted captivity, suffering, and delivery as part of a divine plan; subsequently, the religious metaphor gave way to a stress on violence.

Along with drawing on this genre for the capture, pursuit, and rescue motif of his novel and repeatedly exploiting its essential dramatic and structural element of the situation of vulnerable whites being without warning {116} encircled by hostile Indians, Cooper relies on it for his characterizations of Alice and Cora. As Haberly has pointed out, in captivities centering on women, the frontier and its native inhabitants posed three important peril: defeminization, the risk that a white woman's separation from civilization might result in her adoption of "male" traits such as bravery and violence; sexual violation through rape or forced marriage with the Indians; and Indianization, through the formation of emotional bonds with the natives and the adoption of Indian ways. Cooper's female protagonists delineate contrasting responses to these perils. Alice, although resembling the stereotypical middle-class heroine of the sentimental romance in that she is passive, languishing, and prone to tears, and recalling the meek, frightened, and suffering woman of some captivity narratives, functions mainly to represent the white lady in the wilderness who will be able to survive in that world only after it has been made safe for refined civilization. What has to be overcome to assure her survival, in fact, is not only danger to her physical safety but also the threat of her being given over to the inherent brutality of the untamed land. Her mystique as fragile vessel of great social value is reinforced by Heyward's attraction to her as his ideal mate who can guarantee the transmission of genteel civilization to a future generation and ensure the continuity of white culture in America. Cora, as genteel and chaste as Alice, and certainly more admirable far her superior courage, intelligence, and self reliance, is nonetheless hopelessly doomed by her mixed blood to be excluded from the group which will constitute America's future. Her willingness to reach across racial boundaries, her ability to survive on her own in the wilderness, and her sensitivity to the Indian way of life which allows her to speak to Tamenund, all have to be sacrificed in favor of a social order which rests on white racial and cultural purity preserved by cancellation of all elements of otherness, whether positive or negative. She can marry neither Uncas nor Heyward, nor can she even be allowed to live so that she can be shown going off to participate, somehow, in the founding of the new nation.

Cooper exploits the possibility offered by the captivity narrative to help reshape the viewpoint of the white majority on Indian culture when, during the second half of his novel, he transports his characters into the heart of Indian territory. As his narrator observes:

The party had landed on the border of a region that is, even to this day, less known to the inhabitants of the states, than the deserts of Arabia, or the steppes of Tartary. It was the sterile and rugged district, which separates the tributaries of Champlain from those of the Hudson, the Mohawk, and of the St. Lawrence. Since the period of our tale, the active spirit of the country has surrounded it with a belt of rich and thriving settlements, though none but the hunter or the savage is ever known, even now, to penetrate its wild recesses (212).

In terms of plot, this journey is undertaken to rescue Alice and Cora, but symbolically, it is a means of entering that unknown world for a close look at Indian life. Here, through presentation of aspects of their religion, politics, system of justice, family and social relations, rules of hospitality, and treatment of the enemy, Cooper suggests that they are complex {117} human beings, diverse among themselves and radically different in thought and behavior from the whites. Similarly, he implies that to comprehend the Indians, whites need to understand that their character is the outcome of their social environment which has in turn been conditioned by their relationship to their physical environment, by the history of their relationships to other tribes, and by their contact with the whites. Insights such as these would seem to propose that the whites should learn to see Indian civilization on its own terms and realize that the Indians could not suddenly transform their way of life or adjust rapidly to new conditions.

The other important American genre that inspired Cooper, the narrative of the hunter, first took coherent shape in Benjamin Church's Entertaining Passages Relating to King Philip's War (1716) and, after a series of variations to suit the changing attitudes of succeeding generations, achieved the status of legend in John Filson's stories about Daniel Boone in Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke (1784). Whereas the captivity narrative generally embodied the dark side of the colonists' attitude toward the frontier, the tales of the hunter -- the tough and self-reliant white man who, having been initiated into frontier life, stands halfway between civilization and savagery -- expressed a more positive image of the wilderness and the Indians. Cooper's archetypal hunter-hero, Natty Bumppo, has entered the wilderness and become a forester by allying himself with the most noble native Americans in a friendship based on respect for their traditions. He can understand the Indians because he too is a hunter, participating in the mode of production characteristic of their culture and because, like them, he is spiritually attuned to nature. However, he has not become thoroughly Indianized but has maintained his racial and cultural integrity as a white, remaining loyal to the best ethical and moral principles of his race and willing to serve the most worthy members of white society. By allowing Natty to speak for primitivism while acting for progress, Cooper made him into a mythic figure onto which the American imagination could project its ambiguity about white conquest of the wilderness and its guilt about the violence of Indian warfare.

The main features aligning Cooper's novel with the classical historical romance are its simultaneous appeal both to history and to fiction, its use of characters to suggest society in transformation, and the way its plot dramatizes the dialectics of historical change, especially the process by which one stage in historical evolution gives way to another. Cooper emphasizes his role as historian in the opening of his 1826 Preface to the novel: "The reader who takes up these volumes, in expectation of finding an imaginary and romantic picture of things which never had an existence, will probably lay them aside, disappointed. The work is exactly what it professes to be in its title page -- a narrative." Nevertheless, he wished to enjoy the freedom of "romance" and in his 1831 Preface observed that "the business of a writer of fiction is to approach, as near as his powers will allow, to poetry" (7). In keeping with his aim of achieving a proper balance between history and fiction, in preparation for the writing of his book Cooper read such significant historical sources as Jonathan Carxier's Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America (1778) and David Humphrey's Life of Israel Putnam (1788); but he does not seem to have done extensive and painstaking research of the kind that went into Lionel Lincoln, because for this new novel {118} he was less interested in accuracy of historical particulars than in imaginative reconstruction that conveyed insightful historical generalizations (Philbrick).

That the lives of the individual characters and the destinies of their communities are fitted into a larger pattern of time which is an interpretation of the past that simultaneously projects a shape for the future is clear in Cooper's delineations of Montcalm and Munro. It is through the figure of Montcalm that he most forcefully points toward the problem of moral responsibility when civilization meets savagery on the frontier in a moment of historical crisis. The epitome of refined European gentility, a courageous and expert soldier, yet "deficient in that moral courage without which no man can be truly great" (180), Montcalm offers Munro the possibility of an honorable surrender according to European military practices. At the same time, he has entered into alliance with Magua and the Hurons, whose wilder war tactics are the externalization of the kind of violence "civilly" repressed by European codes. On the night before the surrender, after preventing Magua from murdering Munro, Montcalm realizes that by allying himself with the Indians he may have set "in motion an engine, which it exceeds human power to control" (171). Despite this, he does nothing to avert the disaster he senses and the next day he is the apathetic spectator to the Hurons' massacre of the British. Munro possesses courage, honor, and military grandeur but his lack of judgment appropriate to conflict on the frontier makes him incapable of protecting those under his command or care. Without considering that Indians do not act according to European protocol, that methods of white warfare will not work in a primitive environment, he accepts Montcalm's terms of surrender. Then, during the massacre, he watches helplessly as hundreds of soldiers and civilians are slain, his daughters are again abducted by Magua, and Fort William Henry is reduced to smouldering ruins. Such dishonor and the devastation of his world lead to his decline, and throughout the rest of the novel he is a physically and mentally shattered reminder of Britain's decayed power.

Like characterizations, plot directly dramatizes the meaning Cooper has found in the historical process. Indeed, the discourse of the novel is conducted almost entirely on the level of physical action with little overt commentary on the major historical interpretations that action conveys. Thematic emphasis is achieved through repetition while a stylization which pervades every aspect of the narrative creates a structured and allegorical vision of the evolution of American history. The episodes do not comprise a progressively developing action that slowly builds up a pattern that gradually reveals its meaning but rather serve to amplify and solidify what is taken for granted at the outset, to deepen perception and acceptance of the historical interpretation which the novel proposes. Owing to these qualities, it can be said that the novel exemplifies Roland Barthes' theories about how history becomes myth because each episode and character represents a transformation of the "reality" of the world into an "image" of that world and reiterations transmute what is a set of ideas about American history into an interpretation that seems natural (109-59).

That the plot evolves in episodes which re-enact aspects of the movement of the historical process and that Cooper tries to bring to bear on each {119} episode as much of his historical vision as he can is easily observed. For example, whenever Heyward behaves inappropriately or makes a blunder of judgment which leads to exposure to the treachery of the Indians or to the risk of getting annihilated in the wilderness, Cooper suggests that Heyward is behaving as a European, that he is still a Royal American loyal to England politically and culturally, and that because of this dependence he adopts codes of behavior and perspectives which are inadequate, even fatal, in the wilderness. Conversely, as Heyward learns to deal more competently with the forest and to assume leadership as Munro declines, his maturation prefigures the act of separation which would bring the new nation into being with the Revolutionary War and implies that the colonists were justified in rebelling against the legally constituted and traditionally sanctioned authority of the British. In like manner, whenever there is an episode of conflict between the Indians and the whites Cooper drives home the point that there cannot be any crossing of the borders between the races because such crossing always threatens to lead to confusion and chaos. This idea reaches its culmination in the episode of the massacre at Fort William Henry. Although it is Magua who raises "the fatal and appalling whoop" which leads to the eruption of "two thousand raging savages...from the forest" (176), the novel makes it clear that the Indians are not the sole originators of the carnage since Montcalm, in his alliance with the Indians, has set in motion a process he cannot control, while Munro has contributed to it by whipping an Indian chief, Magua, without imagining the consequences. Furthermore, in this episode of unrestrained Indian brutality Cooper provides in emblematic form the dominant image of the Indian in the mind of the Americans after the Revolutionary War when the Indians, as the last barrier to the conquest and exploitation of the frontier, would lose all positive connotations and become defiant devils whose opposition to the advance of white civilization justified their extermination.

The themes expressed through these characterizations and episodes -- the fate of the Indians, the conquest of the frontier, America's relationship to its colonial past in terms of its history and of its political and cultural identity -- are of the sort suitable for a national epos, in which the nation could see itself emerging, where aspects of the national ideology could be presented, and through which the new nation could be shown to be different from, and superior to, what it had replaced. The Last of the Mohicans, however, does not thoroughly conform to the "epic" concepts of ideological closure and of unquestioning endorsement of the direction taken by national history. The epic, in fact, is a story about imperial conquest of geopolitical space and of the imposition of a single order on different regions and peoples. Told by and for the winners, it presents the process of history as essentially linear and teleological and asserts that with the triumph of the nation being celebrated, a true end has been reached, that with such a victory "time" and "change" can cease to operate because a timeless perfection has been achieved. As Mikhail Bakhtin has observed:

The epic world is an utterly finished thing, not only as an authentic event of the distant past but also on its own terms and by its own standards; it is impossible to change, to re-think, to re-evaluate anything in it. It is completed, conclusive and immutable, as a fact, an idea and a value. This defines absolute epic distance. One can only accept the epic world with reverence; (120) it is impossible to really touch it, for it is beyond the realm of human activity, the realm in which everything humans touch is altered and rethought. This distance exists not only in the epic material, that is, in the events and heroes described, but also in the point of view and evaluation one assumes toward them; point of view and evaluation are fused with the subject into one inseparable whole (17).

Far from suggesting that the action he narrates represents a glorious episode in the process of establishing white civilization in America, Cooper describes the French and Indian War as ignominious and futile and delineates the siege, capitulation, and massacre at Fort William Henry in such a way as to undermine white claims of moral superiority over the Indians. In addition, while the ending of the novel adumbrates the birth of America -- with the French and British declining, the Indians disappearing, and the new nation coming into being with the maturation of Heyward and his betrothal to Anglo-Saxon Alice -- that ending is tenuous in a dramatic sense. Heyward has not shown himself to be a true victor but only on the road to that status, and not all of the Indians have been defeated. In truth, the novel presents the nation as still caught up in the flux of history, the full pattern of which has not yet been completely discerned.

More important, Cooper departs from the epic paradigm when, by offering contesting claims that come from the margins of society, he provides versions of and perspectives on American history which contrast the dominant collective vision of the white American majority and thereby help his novel escape from the confines of the prevailing ideologies. Because these marginal storytellers are each animated by a distinctive world-view or ideological position divergent from that of the main narrator, their presence makes the novel alternate between two forms of narration, one a rather stable or "monological" form in which the narrator unanxiously reconstructs what happened and the other providing "dialogically" participatory and self-questioning movements that contrast totalization and question the existence of any authoritative version of the course of past, present, and future time. This technique assures that, despite an emphatic textualization of the dominant ideology, the work emits multiple significations.

Tamenund, for instance, undermines the idea that white American society represents a breakthrough to endless betterment while the Indians are destined to vanish. This ancient Delaware sage whose memory stretches back to the time when "the children of the Lenape were masters of the world" (305), is a symbol of decayed power, a living reminder of the fate that has befallen his people. He draws an analogy between the decline of the Mohicans and the changing face of nature and in this way evokes the cyclical theory of history still current in the early nineteenth century. Although willing to attribute the fate of the Indians to the process of cyclical decline, and in so doing to justify their displacement in favor of white expansion, Americans were reluctant to accept the implications of the theory for themselves, preferring to believe they had created something new and that in their uniqueness they could bring the cyclical process to a standstill and rise indefinitely. But Tamenund, drawing the logical conclusion, predicts that the time will come when the whites, too, will disappear, and that the Indians may yet return:

{121} ...let them [the whites] not boast before the face of the Manitto too loud. They entered the land at the rising, and may yet go off at the setting sun! I have often seen the locust strip the leaves from the trees, but the season of blossoms has always come again (305).

By having Tamenund repeat this warning at the end of the novel, Cooper suggests it is to be taken as something more than a loser's self-consolation that in the long run all empires are bound to perish.

Through other stories, Cooper betrays anxiety not only about the fact that in the early nineteenth century, while some thinkers continued to consider the Indians innately equal beings, the widespread intellectual and popular view was that the replacement of an inferior race by a superior race was the fulfillment of the laws of science and nature, but also about the fact that even before the approval of the Indian Removal Act in 1830 the United States had begun to shape policies which reflected beliefs in the racial inferiority and expendability of the Indian and to look forward to a world dominated by the American Anglo-Saxon race. The first of these stories is provided by Chingachgook. Though he evokes the isolated figure of the vanishing Indian popular in the art and literature of the period, that allowed Americans to mourn the death of the natives undisturbed about their part in that destruction, he raises the moral issue that the Indians have legitimate claims to the wilderness and poses the moral problem of whether a just civilization can be built on exploitation and greed. After recalling how his fathers came from the west, the land of the setting sun, and fought with the Alligewi along the Mississippi and with the Maquas in the Northeast, he stresses the simplicity and naturalness of the aboriginal life by saying:

Then, Hawkeye, we were one people, and we were happy. The salt lake gave us its fish, the wood its deer, and the air its birds. We took wives who bore us children; we worshipped the Great Spirit; and we kept the Maquas beyond the sound of our songs of triumph! (33)

Then he remembers what happened when his fathers encountered the whites:

The Dutch landed, and gave my people the fire-water; they drank until the heavens and the earth seemed to meet, and they foolishly thought they had found the Great Spirit. Then they parted with their land. Foot by foot, they were driven back from the shores, until I, that am a chief and a Sagamore, have never seen the sun shine but through the trees, and have never visited the graves of my fathers (33).

Not only did contact with the whites destroy the Indians' union with their land but it also interrupted the contentment and life of contemplation that pastoral relationship had fostered. Indeed, the encounter touched the Indians in their deepest beliefs, especially in their concept of religion. As Elemire Zolla says, through contact with alcohol, the Indians "were easily seduced through a ruinous deception by what appeared to be a shortcut to {122} ecstasy" for their religion was nourished "more by Dionysian excitement than by Apollonian meditation" (90). Thus, according to Chingachgook, the historical process initiated by the first meeting between the Indians and the whites was not that of the yielding of an inherently inferior race to a superior race nor was it just a question of inferior versus superior but involved deliberate manipulation of the Indians by the whites so as to make them participate actively in the historical dynamic that led to their decline.

Similar ideas are taken up in Magua's personal history, which can be set alongside the events of Indian history from the idyllic pre-European past to the violent clash of Indian and white dramatized in the novel. From behind the mask of the stereotype of the Bad Indian epitomizing difference, duplicity, and treachery both in his appearance and in his character, Magua, in his speech to Cora, talks of reasons for his behavior that in his view justify it and introduces ideas that temper his depiction as a satanic being. Born a Huron chief, he lived happily for twenty years until, cast out of his tribe for drinking liquor provided by the French, he became an exile among the Mohawks. Fighting under Munro and the British, he again got drunk and was whipped, receiving scars on his back which are a perpetual reminder of his humiliation. If he is devilish and inhuman, it is because he has been devilishly and inhumanly treated and because he is made bitter by the fact that those who treated him unjustly disport themselves as if they had no guilt. Therefore, when reinstated as a chief, he works to regain his manhood by taking revenge on his enemies, Munro in particular and the whites in general.

The ideas that the Indians were evidently subhuman and that the conquest of the wilderness was justified without question as the expansion of a superior civilization over an inferior order of savagery are challenged by Magua in his speech to the Indians in the Delaware village when he asserts that the Spirit gave the white:

the nature of the pigeon; wings that never tire; young more plentiful than the leaves on the trees, and appetites to devour the earth. He gave them tongues like the false call of the wild-cat; hearts like rabbits; the cunning of the hog (but none of the fox) and arms longer than the legs of the moose. With his tongue, he stops the ears of the Indians; his heart teaches him to pay warriors to fight his battles; his cunning tells him how to get together the goods of the earth; and his arms enclose the land from the shores of the salt water, to the islands of the great lake. His gluttony makes him sick. God gave him enough, and yet he wants all. Such are the pale-faces (301).

Following these accusations is a poetic exaltation of the Indians, whose lifestyle is in all ways superior to that of the whites:

The Great Spirit...gave them this island as he had made it, covered with trees, and filled with game. The wind made their clearings; the sun and rains ripened their fruits; and the snows came to tell them to he thankful. What need had they of roads to journey by! They saw through the hills! When the beavers worked, {123} they lay in the shade, and looked on. The winds cooled them in summer; in winter, skins kept them warm. If they fought among themselves, it was to prove that they were men. They were brave; they were just; they were happy (301).

Despite its evident bias and exaggeration, this speech invites the reader to view the differences between white and Indian not simply as the opposition between civilization and savagery but as two modes of being in nature. The model of the white relationship is that of active transformation and capitalism in embryo, while that of the Indians is essentially passive and pastoral. The whites are committed to limitless growth, devouring the land from shore to shore, while the Indians give themselves over to nature's maternal caring and live in the natural world in primal harmony (Kolodny 98-101). Given such radical and irreducible diversities between the Indians and the whites, any attempt to mingle the races must lead to rupture of one of these systems, so Magua, not accepting the idea that the fate of his race is sealed, urges the Indians to engage in a harsh battle to the death in defense of their world view.

Likewise undermining the premises on which the dominant interpretation of the historical process is based are the ideas expressed by Natty Bumppo. In contrast to those theories of social evolution which posited that the human species had evolved through various stages much in the same way an individual passes through infancy, youth, and adulthood, so that as Adam Ferguson wrote in 1767 in An Essay on the History of Civil Society, "It is in (the Indians') present condition that we are to behold, as in a mirror, the features of our own progenitors" (Quoted in Berkhofer 47). Natty maintains that the Indians are not the precursors of the whites nor are the whites the heirs of the Indians. From his dual perspective, balancing the best of the whites with the best of the Indians, a white and an Indian sensibility and knowledge, he speaks out against conceiving of the Indians in terms of their deficiencies according to white ideals rather than trying to understand them in the framework of their own culture and stresses that the Indians are not merely the counter-image of the whites but are complicated, purposeful human beings whose lives are spiritually motivated to a high degree and whose forms of representation and modes of thought are not inferior but only different. For example,when David Gamut describes the Hurons as "among the profanest of the idolatrous," Natty retorts:

Therein you belie the nature of an Indian. Even the Mingo adores but the true and living God! 'Tis a wicked fabrication of the whites, and I say it to the shame of my own colour, that would make the warrior bow down before the images of his own creation (226).

The whites' tendency to allow their moral judgment to guide their responses to the Indians is deplored by Natty when, taking up the difficult issue of scalping, a custom which to the whites marked the Indians as debased and inferior, he says "'twould have been a cruel and an inhuman act for a white-skin; but 'tis the gift and natur' of an Indian, and I suppose it should not he denied" (138). This insight is reinforced when Chingachgook, believing he is about to die in battle, prepares his scalp-lock "to perform its last and {124} revolting office" (77). The act, hideous as it may seem to the whites, is not an aberration but a part of Indian ways, an indication of fundamental cultural differences (Clark 102-03).

Finally, the prevailing ideology of the early nineteenth century, reflecting the certainty of ethical and historical rightness in light of which Americans oriented themselves in dealing and by which they validated their actions, is called into question by Uncas. In his depiction of Uncas, Cooper turns the stereotype of the vanishing Indian upside down to suggest the possibility of a fate for the Indians other than surrender to decline or extermination, defense in a desperate race war, or forced separation from white society. Uncas' story unfolds in the mythic world of the Indians where he is revealed to the Delawares as the last of the Mohican chiefs, a revelation which makes them identify him as an Indian Messiah and rouses their hopes of a re-ascendancy of their race. But through Uncas, Cooper suggests something even more daring, not the rebirth of a pure Indian line but the development of a new race and a new sociopolitical order in America. Union between Cora and Uncas would have been an emblem of human unity and cross-racial bonding and a demonstration that the barriers between the races are logically, psychologically, and sexually permeable. Together, they would have produced an American offspring to whom the idea of racism would have been irrelevant and for whom a multiracial and multicultural society would have seemed perfectly acceptable. Indeed, since Cora is of mixed blood, their marriage would have also implied not excluding blacks a priori from the group originating the new population of the country. As a combination of heterogeneous elements, the race founded by Uncas would break with the idea of defeated savagery and victorious civilization, contradict the concept of the irrevocable otherness of the Indians, and posit an alternative to the view that elimination of the natives was the logical and ineluctable outcome of the historical dynamic. In other words, through Uncas, Cooper hints that Indian differences might have been considered not just as a negative problem but as field of positive possibilities and that the whole issue of race relations could have been reformulated so as to open it to a differently constituted sphere of sociopolitical options.

Although used as a means of breaking up the unified projected world of the fiction into multiple worlds of discourse which stimulate readers to rethink and re- evaluate key aspects of the dominant ideologies regarding the Indians and the nature of American society past and present, these alternate stories are ultimately held in check by the monological perspective. Indeed, by the end of the novel all of the marginal storytellers have been killed or are preparing to flee into the untouched wilderness. For one brief moment, the surviving characters join to mourn the deaths of Uncas and Cora and with their deaths the inevitability of the decline of the Indians and the impossibility of the taboo of racial and cultural miscegenation ever being violated with impunity. Chingachgook and Natty will continue to live together but far from the confines of the developing nation, the foundation of which has been symbolically placed in the hands of Heyward and Alice, the only characters who look forward to the future. Yet, even if the alternate versions of history proposed by the marginal characters have not led to an equality of heterogeneous perspectives because they were voiced only to be suppressed by the evolution of history, they remain inscribed in the text {125} where their presence creates an overlay of polyphony which not only confers a somber tone on the major historical interpretation but also challenges its monolithic validity.

Universita Degli Studi di Torino


Return to Top of Page