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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2007 Cooper Seminar (No. 16), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 15-18)
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Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans begins with a distinction between complexion as skin color and complexion as character. Its main characters learn to survive and thrive in America through developing certain virtues that are not innate and must be learned. They develop these virtues not only through their own experiences, but also through conversations, dialogues, debates, and stories.
Recent work with mirror neurons and theory of mind suggests that literary theory may have been mistaken to privilege performance over representation, since at the cellular level, neurons that fire together wire together, and representation may be performance.
For that reason, it may be worthwhile to take a twenty-first century look at this nineteenth-century classic. Recent work on virtue ethics, mirror neurons, and the complex relations of literature and life affords us new and interesting lenses for reading this sturdy romance and the varied cultural work it has done, does now, and may yet do.
The subtitle emphasizes that this book will be a narrative, a term that includes both history and fiction, and the epigraph poses a central problematic of the romance, the relation between complexion, meaning skin color, and complexion, meaning character: “Mislike me not, for my complexion, / The shadowed livery of the burnished sun” (The Merchant of Venice, II.i.1-2). The Prince of Morocco, in a princely imperative, demands of Portia that she will not reject his suit simply because of his skin color. In an elegant reversal of connotations reminiscent of the papal title “servus servorum Dei,” “a servant of the servants of God,” he lets her know that darkness and his livery, the attire of a servant, link him not to any absence of light or earthly servitude, but to the brightest of lights, the sun itself.
Portia replies that she is not led solely by her eyes but by her father’s test of “caskets” and that he stands “as fair / As any comer I have look’d on yet / For my affection” (II.i.20-22). Only after he reveals the limitations of his character by choosing the golden casket does Portia conclude, “Let all of his complexion choose me so” (II.vii.79). In this line “complexion” refers to character and to the test of character that the prince has failed.
It is to their credit that neither the prince nor Portia conflate the two. Each reaches out at first to the other, to an alterity beyond their respective origins, as do most of the characters, most of the time, in Cooper’s narrative. On the rare occasions when they do not, the narrative makes clear that this reversion to origin is a prejudice, not a fact, and that it diminishes one’s chances of survival. When Magua plays possum and then escapes Hawk-eye’s attempt to smash in his head, Hawk-eye emits “a shrill and peculiar cry,” arguing that this action is characteristic of “a lying and deceitful varlet as he is! An honest Delaware now, being fairly vanquished, would have laid still, and been knocked on the head, but these knavish Maquas cling to life like so many cats-o’-the-mountain” (114). There is no evidence that his Delaware companions are eager to follow this ideal of suicidal passivity, and the book emphasizes the outburst as a cry and a prejudice: “‘Twas like himself!’ cried the inveterate forester, whose prejudices contributed so largely to veil his natural sense of justice in all matters which concerned the Mingoes” (114).
Magua returns prejudice for prejudice, asserts the superiority of his own origins, and even pauses in his last escape attempt to sum up his hatreds: “The pale-faces are dogs! the Delaware women! Magua leaves them on the rocks, for the crows!” (338). Though no doubt emotionally satisfying, this oration is not a good career move. Where before he had kept silence and escaped, this time he makes his speech but is shot by Hawk-eye and falls like Satan, “the Prince of Darkness” (284) to whom he is earlier compared, or even an inanimate thing, “cutting the air with its head downwards” (338).
This cult of origins is where the book begins, with the Socratic “dialogue” (28) or “debate” (28), an elenchus in which opinions will be aired, respected, and perhaps complicated. Hawk-eye asserts that “I am genuine white” (31) and Chingachgook that “I am an unmixed man” (33), and so each will remain in terms of skin color and racial identity. But character develops, and the attempt to confine it within the limits of a cult of origins begins, as Julia Kristeva argues, in hatred and ends in the destruction of both others and self: “The cult of origins is a hate reaction. Hatred of those others [italics in the original] who do not share my origins” leads people to “withdraw into a sullen, warm private world, unnameable and biological, the impregnable ‘aloofness’ of a weird primal paradise—family, ethnicity, nation, race”; this reduction can end with a “[h]atred of oneself,` [italics in the original] in which individuals despair of their own qualities” (2-3) and fall into a deleterious passivity.
Cooper’s tales offer an alternative to this reductive view, occasionally embraced by some of the characters but not borne out by the narrative action. Instead of a reductive simplicity, an assertion that purity is somehow better than multiplicity or creolization, the books offer a natural aristocracy based on talent and merit, an aristocracy based not on purity but on mixture and connection, a classism that may balance and even cure racism. In The Prairie, for example, the person of the highest social class is Doña Inez de Certavallos, who will marry Duncan Uncas Middleton and thereby weave together biologically the multiple ancestries that Cooper’s books weave together culturally. In The Last of the Mohicans, moreover, Duncan Uncas Middleton’s ancestor, Major Duncan Heyward, explicitly rejects the prejudice that Hawk-eye and Chingachgook explore in their dialogue. Colonel Munro suggests that Duncan prefers Alice Munro to her older sister, Cora, because Cora is racially mixed and Duncan is “born at the south, where these unfortunate beings are considered of a race inferior to your own!” Duncan immediately replies, “Heaven protect me from a prejudice so unworthy of my reason!” (159). In “The Last of the Shechemites and The Last of the Mohicans: Race-Killing in Canaan and New Canaan,” Allan Axelrad argues cogently that Heyward inwardly shares the prejudice he outwardly decries. Cooper makes clear that, even as he speaks, Heyward is “at the same time conscious of such a feeling, at that as deeply rooted as if it had been engrafted in his nature” (159). Cooper’s “as if” makes it clear that such prejudices may be conventional and widely shared, but they are not natural, universal, and unchangeable. The same may be said of the conventions regarding light ladies and dark ladies, blondes and brunettes. Within the conventions of the romance, Duncan prefers Alice because, as a blonde, she is the more conventionally attractive, and Cora dies because she is a dark lady, and in much romantic fiction, dying is what dark ladies do, a fate suggested by the connotations of words used in Cooper’s first description of her: “The tresses of this lady were shining and black, like the plumage of the raven. Her complexion was not brown, but it rather appeared charged with the colour of the rich blood, that seemed ready to burst its bounds” (19). The connotations of ravens and extravasated blood need hardly be delineated in detail. This binary opposition between light and dark ladies in just another convention, not a law of life, and in “The Last of the Shechemites,” Allan Axelrad notes that Cooper sometimes follows the simple binary and other times does not.
Duncan Uncas Middleton’s other namesake, Uncas, rejects the simple view by trying to save the racially mixed Cora. So Hawk-eye may shout, “Extarminate the varlets! no quarter to an accursed Mingo!” (112), but dark-eyed Cora sees the larger implications of the book more clearly: “Should we distrust the man, because his manners are not our manners, and that his skin is dark!” (21). The implied answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, no, but another answer may be that there are other and better reasons to distrust Magua and that careful judgments of character need to be made.
One alternative to making such judgments on the basis of a cult of origins and its resultant prejudice is made clear in recent work in literary and cultural theory, which suggests a growing interest in such judgments and the practical value of literature in making them. Marjorie Garber notes the shift: “Almost everyone wants to talk about it: a concern with aesthetics and ethics, the reappearance of certain notions of ‘value’ and ‘values’ on the literary scene, has preempted the stage, moving critical attention away from a previous decade’s concerns with politics and cultural identity” (48). Amanda Anderson argues that we “must keep in mind that the question, How should I live? is the most basic one; the response, As a knower, is simply one modification thereof.” We “must acknowledge the priority of normative questions and the fundamentally practical structure of human action and understanding” (112).
As Garber and Anderson suggest, times are changing. Jonathan Culler, who had earlier praised structuralism because it “avoids the unseemly rush from word to world” and “stays within the literary system for as long as possible” (Structuralist 130), now argues that literature “has a bearing on the act of making judgments” and “offers, as others have often said, a kind of mental calisthenics, a practice that instructs in the exercise of agency” (The Literary 31).
Though these writers are not all writing the same thing and do not form a school, they do, when taken together, signal a shift from a view of literature as autotelic, a view common to many otherwise different literary theories from the New Criticism to deconstruction, to a view of literature as inextricably interwoven with such other human activities as judgments of value and as useful in their pursuit.
The exact contribution of literature to these activities varies a good deal from critic to critic, but there are family resemblances among their arguments. Lisa Zunshine explores the ways in which literature is illuminated by and contributes to our forays into “Theory of Mind” (4), which consists of “mind reading,” an empathetic way of imagining the thoughts of others that “is the default way by which we construct and navigate our social environment, incorrect though our attributions frequently are” (6). She reads this “mind-reading as an evolved cognitive capacity enabling both our interaction with each other and our ability to make sense of fiction” (13), since “our evolved cognitive architecture indeed does not fully distinguish between real and fictional people” (19). Even as we acknowledge the ontological differences between characters in literature and people in life, we interpret them and make sense of them in epistemologically similar ways. Literature affects our extra-literary experiences: “Fiction helps us to pattern in newly nuanced ways our emotions and perceptions; it bestows ‘new knowledge or increased understanding’ and gives ‘the chance for a sharpened ethical sense’; and it creates new forms of meaning for our everyday existence” (164).
One set of patterns that we learn and teach through the stories is that relating to ethics, so much so that Paul Ricoeur sees it as central: “Literature is a vast laboratory in which we experiment with estimations, evaluations, and judgments of approval and condemnation through which narrativity serves as a propaedeutic to ethics” (115). Narrative offers us case studies in which we can learn about ethical choices beforehand, before they are codified in the handy but restrictive codes of morality.
Recent work on mirror neurons affords us a clearer sense of how we do so, of how we learn from what we see, hear, and read. We now know that these mirror neurons in our brains are activated, neural transmitters secreted, and connections made when we see others experiencing things pretty much as they are when we experience them ourselves. And since neurons that fire together wire together, we are all and always are rewiring our brains as we live and learn, experience, see, hear, read, and think. But we had the general idea long before we knew anything about mirror neurons. So long ago when I played football and put the shot in track, we watched films of good athletes doing these things quite well, then visualized ourselves doing them, then did them in practice, then did them in competition, and then went down to ignominious defeat slightly less often than we would have without the preparation. Alun Anderson suggests that this “special category of nerve cell” enables us to “feel what others feel, to read others’ intentions as though they were our own,” and to fulfill “the first requirement” of any language, that “the person being communicated with understands the message of the communicator” (129-130). Like Cooper’s characters, we are dab hands at case-based learning. We learn from our own experiences, the experiences of others, and from representations of experience in literature and art.
And as Cooper’s transformation of Otsego Lake into Glimmerglass makes clear, our doing so is completely natural. Cooper turns the lake, a part of nature, into a mirror that reflects, imitates, represents other parts of nature. Our mirroring of nature is not an artifice opposed to natural process but is itself a part of nature. Mimesis is as natural in Cooper and in our reading of him as it is in paintings by Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Moran, and others in which water reflects the surrounding countryside and shows that nature represents itself and that therefore our representation is not an artifice imposed on nature from without but is itself a part and a continuation of natural process. Glimmerglass, like mirror neurons, is a part of nature that represents other parts of nature.
As Paul Ricoeur and others have suggested, some of the things we learn from the process of representation deal with character and ethics. As those who have raised young children know all too well, this learning is not innate. Yet it is needful for a culture that hopes to endure. For that reason, Jonathan Culler suggests that literature not only trains individuals in judgments and agency, but also serves as “a force for imagining the communities that are nations” (47). Cooper was about that work. In his novels, characters learn from each other and from stories the virtues they need to survive and thrive in a new world. All three of the great ethical traditions apply in Cooper.
Kantian or deontological ethics focuses on the act itself and on universal laws, rules and obligations. Utilitarian or consequentialist ethics focuses on the consequences of the act and on producing as much good as possible, not simply on keeping from breaking any of the rules. As Joel Kupperman argues, one can avoid doing anything wrong and still not do much of anything right: “Someone can be a weak and depressing oaf without ever behaving immorally” (8). Virtue ethics focuses less on the act or its consequences than on the agent and on the virtues that lead to human flourishing. It considers not just good or bad, but good or bad at what? It tends to be predictive and probabilistic, to face uncertainty and play the odds. According to Alasdair MacIntyre, virtues are habits or characteristics of perception and action that lead to success in common human activities, that enable one to lead a more organized life, and that enable some contribution to the common good. André Comte-Sponville lists among them politeness, fidelity, prudence, temperance, courage, justice, generosity, compassion, mercy, gratitude, humility, simplicity, tolerance, purity, gentleness, good faith, humor, and love. There are, of course, no guarantees, but the virtue ethicists argue that persons and societies with these and other virtues are more likely to do good and do well than those without them.
Cooper’s flawed and interdependent characters perform this distinction and learn from it, developing not universal laws of correct behavior, but virtues useful in a complex and impure world. They learn from both their history and their affiliations with others in various networks, and they strive to develop both themselves and their country. Cooper does the same, and J. Gerald Kennedy is right to note that, in his analysis of “Swiss national culture and its political system,” Cooper was exploring “a condensed version of the challenge already facing the United States: how a multiethnic, multilinguistic population might overcome geographical and cultural barriers to create a fully representative republic” (97).
That challenge faces us still, which is not to argue the universalist claim that Cooper is somehow timeless, but only the humbler claim that he is timely here and now.