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Hawkeye and Chingachgook in the Outback: James Fenimore Cooper in Australian Literature

Richard Pascal
(Australian National University)

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
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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. 67-77)

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When other factors are equal, similar organisms will behave in similar environments in similar ways. The history of America and Australia is a chronicle of frontier conquest, carried on largely by British migrants and their descendants across largely similar environments; and though there were permutations of numerous differences, these basic similarities produced similar histories. (18)

Thus John Greenway, in his 1972 comparative study of the cultural determinants of America and Australia, succinctly stated the view that by virtue of their analogous frontier heritages those two nations were cast from essentially the same mold. Though there are, as we'll see, some major problems with this thesis, the parallels that Greenway calls attention to make the trans-Pacific equation inevitable, if not indisputable. Indeed, apparent similarities between the two New World societies were noted early on by several nineteenth-century commentators. One thinks, for example, of Melville in Moby Dick, referring to Australia as "that great America on the other side of the sphere;" and of the Australian poet (and Whitman enthusiast) Francis Adams, who asserted, later in the century, that just as the American West was "the heart of the country, the genuine America," so too was the outback "the heart of the genuine Australia" (Quoted in Jones 99). And the fact that Australian settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries regarded the American experience as something of a model and analog of their own is reflected in the variant strain of English which they spoke: the term "frontier" was assimilated into Australian speech and applied to border settlements by 1840; settlers on land they did not own were termed "squatters;" and most intriguingly, the Australian aborigines were often called "Indians," and their axes "tomahawks" (Ransom 324-25; 623-24; 677). Some Australian poets even produced romantic treatments of aborigines which read like imitations of Longfellow or Freneau, and betray little or nothing of their ostensible antipodean inspiration. A piece by Australia's most accomplished poet of the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Harpur, may serve as an illustration:

Behold, it is the camp-fire of our Brother!--
But I see only the ring of its light
A weeping woman with a young child,
And look in vain for the gleam of the tomahawk
That but yesterday was merry in the tree-tops.
The fish-pools of the ancient river
Have lost the shadow of a skilful hand!
The well-known tracks of a fleet-footed hunter
Are fast fading from the grassy hills,
And a sure spear of the tribe is broken.
{68} There is a vacant place in the circle of the Seers:
From the consultations of the wise and brave
A bold voice has gone up forever!
And a whoop that late was loud on our border
Is terrible only in the deeds of the past. (Mitchell 72)

Only the title of the poem, "Aboriginal Death Song," hints at its setting and place of origin -- and the hint is far from definite, of course, as American Indians were also referred to as "aboriginals."

The numerous actual and imagined similarities between the United States and Australia in the nineteenth century suggest that Australia should have constituted an extremely receptive audience for the fiction of America's greatest frontier romancer, James Fenimore Cooper. And the facts that are retrievable about reading habits of the time support this conjecture. Cooper's works appeared in Australian libraries as early as the 1820s, and were mentioned with increasing frequency in booksellers' and auctioneers' advertisements in the 1830s. In the 1840s he was the fourth most widely advertised literary writer in the Australian colonies, trailing only Shakespeare, Byron, and that best-selling colossus of the nineteenth century, Sir Waiter Scott, and outselling (or at least outadvertising) Charles Dickens (Webby 4.10). The breadth of Cooper's popularity during this period is implied by a minor incident in an 1841 Australian novel, A Love Story, By a Bushman, in which the main character is asked "if he preferred Cooper's or Mr. Scott's novels?" (Quoted in Webby 3, 255). The author's obvious assumption is that his readers will at least have heard of Cooper if they are sufficiently literarily aware to have encountered the ubiquitous Scott. Even more telling are references to Cooper's fiction which appeared later in the century in books by two of Australia's most famous novelists, Marcus Clarke and "Rolf Boldrewood" (T. E. Browne). "The Australian black is as far removed from Uncas and Chingachgook, as Uncas and Chingachgook are from reality" (25), Clarke told his readers of 1871, apparently secure in the assumption that most had read The Last of the Mohicans; and Boldrewood, in his 1896 Old Melbourne Memories, playfully refers to the rifle of a superior marksman and slayer of treacherous aborigines as "la longue carabine" (52).

Cooper's achievement as the creator of a distinctively New World form of literature, the frontier romance, along with his great popularity in Australia, suggest further that his work might have served as an inspiration and even a model for Australian writers struggling to develop a national literature. His potential usefulness in this regard was in fact noted by an anonymous commentator who, in an article entitled "Colonial Literature" which appeared in a Sydney literary journal in 1845, pointed to the suggestive precedent of American literature, and especially Cooper's resourcefulness, in arguing against the view that Australia would never produce a literature of its own because as a land it is lacking in appropriate subjects:

But whence the material of American literature? In the woods, and prairies, on the rivers, and lakes. Among the red Indians and snowy mountains, ay, and in the city too, in the drawing room, in the counting house, in the cottage, and in the hall!...if {69} Australians as a nation, would cherish and be proud of literature as of national and not of European character and interest -- a Fenimore Cooper, a Washington Irving, a Channing, a Franklin, and a Willis, would soon spring up in our midst to spread a halo over Australia, by seizing each in his own manner on the materials presented in the town, in the bush, among sheep stations, homesteads, squatters, blackfellows, kangaroos or parrots. (Quoted in Webby 3, 5-6)

The argument made sense. And broadly speaking, the developments it foreshadowed did eventuate in ensuing decades, as writers such as Clarke, Boldrewood, Harpur, Joseph Furphy, Henry Lawson, and Barbara Baynton assimilated into their poetry and fiction something approximating the brew of social and environmental features mentioned here. But can the formative period of Australian literature be ascribed in any significant sense to the influence and example of Cooper? How broad was the antipodean trail left by the great pioneer of pioneer literature?

There are frequent traces, but they are, on the whole, faint or teasingly indefinite. Elizabeth Webby cites, for example, an anonymous poem of 1848 entitled "Ngalooka, the Bride of the Brave. A Tale of Mindy's Lake" as containing "a quaint intermixture of Red Indian lore, probably derived from Fenimore Cooper" (3, 248); but, as I've pointed out earlier, the convention of fashioning literary aborigines after literary Indians was virtually enforced by the language itself, and there is, in any case, no reason to suppose that Cooper was the dominant inspiration for this or any other "Indian Aboriginal" poem. (Longfellow is the more likely source.) Webby has a solider case with Charles Rowcroft's The Bushranger of Van Diemen's Land (1846), an adventure tale which was, as she says, "heavily influenced by Fenimore Cooper, with aborigines substituted for Red Indians, especially in its ending, which is virtually straight from The Last of the Mohicans" (3, 308-09). But the work was largely ignored in its own time (and has been ever since), and Rowcroft could hardly be considered an "Australian" writer, having lived in Australia for only four years. Ross Gibson detects something of a Natty Bumppo correlative in the figure of the Australian "bushman" as presented in Alexander Harris's The Emigrant Family (1849). E. W. Landor's The Bushman (1847), and H. W. Haygarth's Recollections of Bush Life (1848); but the parallels seem, as I'11 argue shortly, inexact at best, and Gibson wisely refrains from claiming a direct Cooper influence (179-81).

Perhaps the only nineteenth century Australian text which was significantly indebted to Cooper is the 1867 novel Fifty Years Ago, by Charles De Boos. It is a tale of white versus savage, of tracking and counter-tracking, in the wild and the border areas of European settlement. And whereas aborigines in most other novels of the century resemble Defoe savages or comic stereotypes of American blacks, De Boos's Australian natives are unquestionably modelled on Cooper's Indians. Not only do they wear feathers in their hair and go on the "warpath" wielding tomahawks, but they also speak in an often ludicrous subdialect of the pseudo-poetic patois of Cooper's Mingoes and Mohicans:

'One smoke,' replied Macomo, 'is better than the {70} greatest feed of wombat. When another sun goes down, we will have tobacco enough to last us many moons; and sugar and tea for warm drink, and perhaps a bottle of strong water' (4).

More telling still is the eventual fate of the oddly named Macomo: he becomes ultimately "the last of his tribe" (282), or, as he puts it in a phrase which comes near to adding the crime of plagiarism to his various other misdeeds, "the last of the Maroo" (329). Equally revealing is the portrayal of Macomo's white adversary, named George Maxwell but known among the aborigines as "Greybeard." At the start of the story Maxwell is a grazier who is married with two children. He quickly loses most of his family to marauding aborigines, however, and takes to the bush both literally and figuratively, becoming as adept at the arts of tracking and survival as the natives. He thus comes to represent, as J. J. Healy has suggested, something of a Leatherstocking figure, incorporating outstanding features of both the white and the aboriginal cultures (248).

Healy also wonders why other Australian novelists who wrote about the aborigines "were not readier to use the novelist of the American Indian, James Fenimore Cooper" (245). The question may be usefully extended: why, aside from the one exception noted, was there no Australian near equivalent of the Leatherstocking persona? And why, more widely still, was Cooper's Romantic vision of the natural environment, and his fretful awareness of the ravages inflicted upon the land by European civilization, uninfluential and unparalleled in early Australian fiction?

It is tempting to dismiss these questions simply on the grounds that literary influence is an intrinsically erratic phenomenon, and the mere fact that a writer is widely read in a particular society doesn't necessarily mean that his or her textual example will be mechanically incorporated into its cultural products. The case of Sir Walter Scott, the one novelist who was hugely more popular than Cooper in Australia in the 1840s, is instructive in this regard, for the Waverley novels left, if anything, even less of an imprint than the Leatherstocking series. But Scott wrote of worlds far removed from that of colonial Australia, whereas Cooper's frontier settings and scenarios seemed to draw upon a very similar historical milieu. And we know that the examples of at least two other nineteenth-century American writers, Whitman and Bret Harte, did later stir Australian literary imaginations because their works seemed the creations of a kindred society and culture (Jones 67-100; Clarke 236-40). So, the vagabond quirks of the operations of literary influence notwithstanding, the question remains a puzzling one: why did Cooper ignite so few (and such inconsequential) sparks in Australia?

Attempts at explanation must necessarily be tentative and speculative; it is easier, after all, to say why influence did occur than to guess why it didn't. My thesis is simple, and potentially illuminating with regard to the notion that nineteenth-century America and Australia developed along fundamentally similar lines by virtue of their analogous frontier determinants. While parallels and affinities abounded, it seems to me that the two "frontier" nations differed in some important respects -- precisely those respects, in fact, which are significant in understanding the composition of Cooper's Leatherstocking myth. For although Cooper's frontier {71} is notoriously an idealized, fabricated abstraction of American social reality, it is a fabrication which does reflect aspects of the reality even in its liberties and departures. I shall briefly consider, then, the three components of that myth which have been stressed thus far -- the treatment of Indian characters, the vision of and attitude towards the natural environment, and the Leatherstocking persona -- and attempt to suggest reasons why, in each instance, most Australian writers were almost inevitably unimpressed even if intrigued.

I have mentioned the curious fact that colonial Australians sometimes referred to the indigenous people of their continent as "Indians," and that this imported model affected some literary portrayals of the aborigines. One reason why that is remarkable, of course, is that Australian aborigines are not redskinned, but dark. As might be imagined, therefore, the predominant white notions about the natives were derived from English and American ideas about black people, and the terms "nigger" and "piccaninny" were frequently applied to them (Ransom 434, 474). In most nineteenth-century novels, stories, and memoirs, aborigines were portrayed as distinctly inferior to whites -- as mean and treacherous, or lazy and slovenly, or at best as lovably subservient. It is only a moderate oversimplification to say that, by contrast, Cooper's Indians are accorded a "separate but equal" status in relation to whites, his well known nervousness about miscegenation notwithstanding. To Indian hater Hurry Harry's taunting question as to whether he considers red men and white men to be "both Injuns," the Deerslayer replies, "'No, but I do say they are both men. Men of different races and colors, and having different gifts and traditions, but, in the main, with the same natur'" (59). No Australian memoir or novel of the last century offers any similar authorially sanctioned declaration of racial egalitarianism. Quite a few, however, might almost have been written under the influence of Hurry Harry. As we've seen, Cooper's Indians were explicitly adjudged to be unrealistic by Marcus Clarke, and while that is hardly an uncommon or unjust criticism, Clarke's supporting assertion that Australian blacks are "repulsive, filthy savage" (25) leaves little doubt that it is less the fine points of anthropology that are at issue than the democratic implication of Cooper's idealized portraits. An even more vehement attack on Chingachgook and Uncas was mounted in A. J. Boyd's 1882 memoir, Old Colonials:

Immortalized in song, idolized by the fair readers of Fenimore Cooper's spirit-stirring, but fanciful and poetic, stories of Indian life, the ideal savage has been handed down to us as a being full of noble aspirations, patriotism, and chivalry. The poet's lofty mind clothes the savage in all the imaginative beauty and simplicity of a child of nature. The 'Last of the Mohicans' is a type unfortunately never met with. I am willing to grant that the North American Indians, or, to be moderate, a select few of the tribes of those nomads were of a far higher order of intellect than the Australian native; but a close acquaintance with the ideas and habits of savage tribes inclines me, not unnaturally, to the belief that the grand old chief, as depicted by novelists, only exists because it pays to thus depict him.... As for the Australian blackfellow, he has also been {72} 'heard of in story,' but his virtues and heroism must have been 'dreamed of in dream,' for a personal acquaintance with the noble savage in his native wilds has made me more than ever decided in my opinion concerning him, that he is, when stripped of poetical imagery, nothing but a sneaking, filthy, thievish murdering vagabond -- a very Cain, whose hand is against every man, and every man's hand against him. (218-19)

If the virtues and heroism and the Australian blackfellow were celebrated in any stories by Boyd's Caucasian countrymen, however, these have remained obscure, and his views were far more typical than he implies.

Also conspicuous by its absence from Australian prose of the nineteenth century is anything analogous to Cooper's Romantic and ecologically sensitive vision of the natural world. The Australian land is sometimes described as being beautiful, though in unusual ways -- but perhaps more often as sterile and harsh. Boldrewood, in Old Melbourne Memories, finds it necessary to insist, as though anticipating a reader's raised eyebrows, that the land on his first selection was attractive:

There was nothing which some people would consider to be romantic or picturesque in the scenery on which I gazed. But the 'light which never was on sea or shore' was there, to shed a celestial glory over the untilled, unfenced, half-unknown waste. Westward stretched the great marshes, through which the Eumeralla flowed, if indeed, that partially subterranean stream could be said to run or flow anywhere. Northward lay the lava-bestrewn country known as the Mount Eeeles rocks, a mass of cooled.and cracked lava now matted with a high thick sward of kangaroo grass, but so rough and sharp were the piles and plateaux of scoria that it was dangerous to ride a horse over it. For years after we preferred to work it on foot with the aid of dogs. (42)

Very quickly the narrator's insistence upon the scene's "celestial glory" is undermined by his casual use of the term "waste," and his ensuing emphasis upon the land's resistance to human exploitation. Yet this is as close as most Australian prose writings of the time came to a Wordsworthian vision of the natural environment, and it seems half-hearted when set alongside Cooper's account of the Deerslayer's rapture upon first beholding Lake Glimmerglass. Here there is no careless equation of the "romantic" with the merely "picturesque:"

The reader is not to suppose...that it was the picturesque alone which so strongly attracted his attention.... It was the air of deep repose -- the solitudes that spoke of scenes and forests untouched by the hands of man -- the reign of nature, in a word, that gave so much pure delight to one of his habits and turn of mind. Still, he felt, though it was unconsciously, like a poet also. If he found a {73} pleasure in studying this large and, to him, unusual opening into the mysteries and forms of the woods, as one is gratified in getting the broader views of any subject that has long occupied his thoughts, he was not insensible to the innate loveliness of such a landscape either, but felt a portion of that soothing of the spirit which is a common attendant of a scene so thoroughly pervaded by the holy calm of nature. (38)

One probable reason why there was in Australia no analogous literary response to the natural scenery1 is that the Australian land tends to be arid and relatively flat, and much of its indigenous flora and fauna is astonishingly unlike anything in the Northern Hemisphere; whereas North America (or at least those areas in which most of the Leatherstocking series is set) offered Cooper a "reign of nature" comparatively similar to that celebrated in English literature. It must be remembered too that nineteenth century white Australians were relatively recent arrivals in the strange continent. European settlement began there only in 1788, whereas white Americans of the time had had, in many areas, at least two centuries of occupation in which to learn to love their land.

Another factor which must be taken into account, however, is the appropriative attitude towards land which was rampant in Australia throughout the nineteenth century. People other than convicts came there, by and large, for one purpose: to make money. "The whole population," commented Charles Darwin in 1839, "poor and rich, are bent on acquiring wealth: amongst the higher orders, wool and sheep- grazing form the constant subject of conversation" (Quoted in Turner 13). Though it is impossible to assess with certitude the fairness or accuracy of the remark, considerable corroboration of it is available in many texts by Australian writers -- Boldrewood's account of financial wheeling and dealing in Melbourne in the 1840s (18), for example, or the similar impression conveyed of Sydney society in Haygarth's Recollections of Bush Life (158). Not infrequently in such literature, too, appreciative descriptions of the natural beauty of the land incorporate not very subtle considerations of its economic potential. In Alexander Harris' The Emigrant Family, the narrator's glowing depiction of the scenery around Broken Bay climaxes with what amounts to a real estate prospectus; from sunlight lying "rich upon whole provinces of lofty woodland" and a shoreline which is "one mass of magnificent crag" we progress to an aerial view which is somehow unelevating:

There are no less than seven...minor openings from the sides of the main bay into the mountain district around. Of these, three take an inland direction back towards Sydney, the remaining four stretch on toward the north. Betwixt them, or in at the very head of the main bay, flows the Hawkesbury River; one of the most considerable for population and produce, and one of the best for navigation and tracts of good alluvial soil, in the colony. Brisbane Water, on the other hand, is the first, and by far the most considerable, of the arms on the side most distant from Sydney, and consequently pierces the land in the opposite {74} direction. Broken into the most irregular outlines, bordered by tracts of excellent soil, it bids fair in future ages to be at once the most sequestered, romantic, and flourishing of settlements; affording a rural retreat from the toil and glare and dust of the capital during the mid-heat of summer. Already, numerous farms enliven its ever-varying shores. (72-73)

It is not difficult to imagine what Natty Bumppo would have felt about that estimation of natural resources. As Roderick Nash has observed, "Cooper put his condemnation of the exploiter into Leatherstocking's mouth: 'they scourge the very earth with their axes. Such hills and hunting grounds as I have seen stripped of the gifts of the Lord, without remorse or shame'" (77) And while, as Nash also points out, Cooper's own attitude was more complex, the eloquence and strategic textual positioning of Natty's condemnations of civilization's "wasty ways" make it clear that the complexity is fraught with tension and misgivings. It is undoubtedly true that most of Cooper's countrymen were not thus torn. Nineteenth-century America was, in all likelihood, as frenetically preoccupied with the pursuit of wealth at whatever cost to the environment as any society in history. But by midcentury there were at least a few American voices being raised on behalf of the wilderness, and Cooper's (or at least Natty's) was among the loudest. Reflecting the incipient national debate, he conducts an open-ended dialogue with himself in the Leatherstocking tales, and Natty's views, far from being rejected or painlessly assimilated, reverberate discordantly, signifying a toughminded perplexity in the mind of his creator. In Australian fiction of the time, there is no such dialogue, no such perplexity: settlement "enlivens" Nature, and that is that.

The attitudes toward aboriginal people and the land which dominated Australian fiction partly explain why there were no antipodean Leatherstockings (other than "Greybeard" in the De Boos novel). One cannot really imagine Natty without Chingachgook. And while the myth of male companionship is notoriously prominent in Australian cultural history (as "mateship"), it has been an entirely Caucasian love affair. Perhaps the most significant implication of this rejection of fellowship with blackfellows is that white Australians found literally unimaginable a cultural identity which might incorporate aboriginal elements as the Leatherstocking persona, Natty's own disclaimers notwithstanding, undeniably incorporates red. Similarly, the exploitative approach to the land uncritically presented in so much Australian literature seems to have precluded the close identification with the wilderness which is intrinsic to the characterization of Natty Bumppo. As "Deerslayer," "Leatherstocking," and "Hawkeye," he is not simply in command of the natural world -- he is of it. There is no precise equivalent to the conception of the frontiersman as "natural man" in Australian literature. The figure of the "bushman" is the nearest approximation. That term refers, according to the Australian National Dictionary, to "one skilled and experienced in travelling through bush country and able to do so without getting lost or into difficulty," but also (and without contradiction) merely to "one who lives in the country as opposed to the town" (Ransom 121). Literary examples of the bushman are most often squatters, stockmen, and drovers, individuals skilled in the arts of surviving in the wilderness, but also adept at clearing it for grazing, and remorselessly inclined to do so. To the bushman the land in its natural state is a challenge or an obstacle, {75} not a congenial or spiritually uplifting environment. "'I'm weary of living in clearings and where the hammer is sounding in my ears from sunrise to sundown,'" says Natty in The Pioneers, "'I crave to go into the woods ag'in'" (453-54). His Australian fictional counterparts felt no such craving; as often as not, they were the ones wielding the hammers.

James Fenimore Cooper in Australia, then: transported but didn't transplant, widely read but largely ignored or studiously rejected, and often mentioned but seldom taken seriously. Greenway's "similar organisms similar environments" thesis seems vulnerable on more than one front, but the fate of Cooper's frontier romances in the literary ecology of the outback should be especially cautionary. Some impressive commentaries upon the parallels between the American and Australian frontiers might be marshalled in support of Greenway, of course, and all those astute and knowledgeable observers are unlikely to be entirely misguided.2 But if the two nations' historical frontiers resembled one another in many respects, on the level of communal mythology the dissimilarities are glaring, as Australian literature's bemused indifference to Cooper reveals. And arguably at least, the familiar idea that it is primarily in its dreams and idealizations that a society reveals itself is still worthy of serious consideration, as is the collateral notion that one way in which a culture defines itself is by rejecting the myths of another. What were Australians to do with that potentially seditious foreign semblable, Mr. Cooper? In an 1899 Rolf Boldrewood novel, a young Englishman newly arrived in the Southern Hemisphere thinks to himself, "'I have got into the land of romance....A real war! It reminds one of the 'Last of the Mohicans,' and all the joys of youth. We shall have 'Hawkeye,' 'Uncas,' and 'Chingachgook' turning up before we know where we are'" (78). This may well have been the last allusion of the century to Cooper in Australian literature: did Hawkeye and his companions finally create a stir in the outback? Hardly. The speaker's equation of Cooperesque romance with antipodean reality is overtly fanciful, meant merely to characterize him. And in any case, the land which provokes these boyish effusions is that exotic limbo which Australians have never been inclined to take entirely seriously: the novel, entitled 'War to the Knife' or Tangata Maori, is set in New Zealand.

The Australian National University, Canberra


1. Although I have been at pains to emphasize throughout this discussion that my generalizations about Australian literature of the period apply primarily to prose writings, it should be noted that the poetry of Charles Harpur represents an interesting exception to the suggestion that Australian writers were not very Wordsworthian in their responses to their native land.

2. Nor, it should be added, do all agree entirely with Greenway. Some of the more interesting commentaries are Frederick Alexander, Moving Frontiers: An American Theme and Its Application to Australian History. Melbourne: Melmourne, 1947; H. C. Alien, Bush and Backwoods: A Comparison of the Frontier in Australia and the United States. East Lansing: Michigan State, 1959; and Roy W. Meyer, "The Outback and the West: Australian and American Frontier Fiction." Western American Literature VI (1971): 3-19.


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