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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2011 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 18), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn and Hugh MacDougall, editors. (pp. 33-38)
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In Cooper's literary career, eleven novels deal with Indians, stretching over twenty-five years.
I would identify four stages in these representations and conceptions of the Indian, even if continuities are to be found such as references to constitutive periods of American history in referential places of the white pioneer settlement:
1) 1823: The Pioneers. Cooper sets his first realistic confrontation between an Indian representative of a traditional life and pioneers in familiar surroundings. That conflict raises problems such as the legitimacy of the law and possession of the land, miscegenation, conversion of the Indian.
2) 1826-1829, 1841: The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Wept-of-Wish-Ton-Wish (1829), The Deerslayer (1841). Four novels in which various places and historical events are visited by a feverish and powerful imagination: Cooper shows his fascination for ambivalent Indians with heroic traits, often through a gothic "defamiliarization." Again miscegenation and conversion of the Indian are questioned while triangular fights sustain the dramatic impulse.
3) 1840-1846: The Pathfinder (1840), Wyandotté (1843), and The Littlepage Trilogy (1845-46)—Satanstoe (1845), The Chainbearer (1846), The Redskins (1846). Five novels: The Indian is instrumental. Cooper, back home from Europe, sets his fictions in New York state again; they are infused with his own landowner's troubles. The Indians embody the historical continuity and the spirit of the place. No longer does miscegenation appear; triangular fights are stuck on the puzzling question of loyalty and moral tradition; the conversion of the Indian becomes secondary as well as the gothic appeal which is still grounded on the perception of strange unfamiliar sounds and dissimulation (Pathfinder Ch. 4-5; 20-23, Satanstoe: Ch. 24-26).
4) 1848: The Oak Openings. Last Indian novel: a new Eden; brotherhood in faith for the vanishing Indian.
I wish now to give examples of this typology, illustrating the evolution of Cooper's techniques of representation, conception, and role of the Indians through a close examination of one novel belonging to each stage: 1) The Pioneers 2) The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish 3) Wyandotté, 4) The Oak Openings.
1) The Pioneers: Realism; A Traditional Indian in a Threatened Nature. Significantly, the novel is structured by the natural rhythm of the four seasons. In it, only one Indian, first indirectly presented through the words of his old mate: the trapper Leatherstocking. The native's presence occurs only in the seventh chapter, after a few records about the main eastern tribes of the U.S. which seem to be now limited to this unique sample: "when the last, lingering remnant of his nation extinguished their fires, among the hills of the Delawares, he alone had remained" (7, 85).1 "In his conversation with Natty, held in the language of the Delawares, he was heard uniformly to call himself Chingachgook, "the Great Snake" [ ] This name he had acquired in youth, by his skill...in war[...] but the few Delawares [living] gave him the mournful appellation of Mohegan...a name that recalls his nation in ruins" (7, 85). In spite of his decay caused by age and alcoholism, he is also depicted with noble and dignified traits. Only present in fourteen chapters out of forty, he never directly modifies the plot, since the later is sustained by his substitutes Oliver Edwards, the Young Eagle and his friend Natty-Leatherstocking. All the techniques of characterization are used to depict him: statements by several protagonists, various physical and psychological portraits, direct presence and speech (in a chosen register, like those of other speakers, yet). A counterpart to the new settlers, he stands for the last representative of the ways and thoughts of a vanishing culture. His ways are surprising: "the habits of Mohegan were a mixture of the civilized and savage states" (7, 85). On one hand, he testifies to the power of the traditional medicine, on the other, he attends Mass, significantly sitting by the contested landowner; he drinks with the others, but stays in a trivial mess, misunderstood excepted by Natty, fallen on a glorious past: "While Richard was singing and talking, Mohegan was uttering dull, monotonous tones [ ] while his countenance was assuming an expression very much like brutal ferocity" (14, 165). Yet, he now only fights with words, in order to help Oliver and let the latter's claims to the judge's estate be recognized. In contrast to the noisy and wasteful practices of the pioneers on the lake, he demonstrates his ability to harmoniously melt into nature, during the night fishing party done in the Indian way with his friends on their silent canoe, or shows his skill to move the canoe swiftly in chase of a fleeing deer: "the dark eye of the old warrior was dancing in his head, with a wild animation, and his sluggish repose in the canoe, was now changed to all rapid inflections and agility. The canoe whirled, with each cunning evolution of the chase, like a bubble floating in a whirlpool" (27, 290). Only ten chapters later, Mohegan reappears in a paroxysmal scene when the Indian, Oliver, the young lady Elizabeth and Natty are isolated near a cavern, surrounded by a forest-fire. The last statements of the old Indian disclose the secret of Oliver's Indian heritage although of white blood; thus, Mohegan allows the love-story as well as the question of property to work out a socially acceptable solution. Moreover, in spite of the demands of the pastor who joined the group, he claims his faith in his traditional beliefs and his fortitude in front of the looming death: "[...] surrounded by the fire, he was still unmoved [ ] His voice could be heard" (37, 410). "My fathers call me to the happy hunting grounds [ ] Farewell, Hawkeye, [ ] you shall go to the white man's heaven; but I go after my fathers. Let the bow, tomahawk and pipe, and the wampum of Mohegan, be laid in his grave [ ]" (38, 421). These words sound right; according to Y. Goddart, in the seventeenth century, the dead were buried sitting, surrounded by familiar items.2 Moreover, Mohegan's beliefs, and the described circumstances do refer to Wood-Indians' spirituality, "with sometimes surprising accuracy" according to Barbara Alice Mann's writings; she states that these Indians believe in a bipolar cosmos, divided into sky and earth.3 Through death, the spirit goes up to the Milky Way while the body, under the burial grounds, goes back to mother earth. Therefore, when Mohegan gets drunk to unconsciousness, he would search out a vision; the fire surrounding him in his death, a voluntary one, as frequently chosen by his people, will allow his spirit to join the sky while the cavern where he dies will enable his return to mother-earth. Symbolically, his death seems to have brought a fulfillment for it is followed by a fruitful rain which brings an end to the fire; this fictional death seems very like a native's achievement.
So, through those various traits, Cooper's Mohegan embodies the cultural roots of his world threatened by newcomers disrespectful towards nature: in this realistic approach, the Indian, surrounded by energetic invaders, is led to vanishing.
2) The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, 1829: Idealistic Imagination; The Heroic Indian. In this novel, Cooper displays the techniques he had created in the famous The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie: the depiction of fights between settlers and Indians or between Indians often developed against fantastical backgrounds. Yet, these means are here only sparingly used: two Indian attacks occur in a unique setting, the lonely property in the Inner Connecticut of the puritan family Heathcote, in 1660 and 1676. The fights cover only six chapters out of thirty-two (11-13, 22, 23, 24)4; nevertheless, the neighboring wilderness remains the uncanny realm of the Indians, a place which excites the superstitious imagination of the settlers. For instance, before the first attack, the increasing atmosphere of anguish (Ch. 9-10) is linked to their perception, as often in Cooper's novels, of unexplainable sound: here that of a conch blown by an unseen presence. Challenging the critics about inaccuracies concerning the Indian tribes in The Last of the Mohicans, the historical references to Indians are here well documented. Robert D. Madison showed how Cooper, here, based incidents on Trumble's History of Connecticut.5 Yet the famous characters of King Philip's War appear only in the second part of the novel and only stand for secondary ones: allied with the English, Pequots and Mohegans led by Uncas are fighting the Wampanoags led by Metacom, said King Philip, allied with the Narrragansetts, and their chief: Canonchet. The latter famous for his pride and his stoical death is the one who inspires Cooper's imagination. Cooper, as he frequently does, first introduced the tribes through the depreciative settlers' statements. The young Conanchet, the hero who will be sacrificed by the pressures of History, appears in the fourth chapter. When roaming around Heathcote's settlement, he was caught: "an Indian lad, of some fifteen years, rose deliberately to his feet, and stood before them, in the sullen dignity of a captured warrior" (1, 4, 69). In contrast to the Indian tribes that are described in traditional aggressive attitudes through thirteen chapters, the young man, present in more than twenty, is gradually individualized through various means of characterization: first, he stays, mute and proud, for several months by the Heathcotes who kindly regard him; later, he loses his opponent status when he is allowed to go hunting with the men of the household, and soon becomes a helper: he is sent to parley with the attackers, saves Ruth, the mother and her young daughter on the first attack when he displays his authority as a chief; later, in the second attack, he prevents the Heathcotes becoming prisoners by demanding the retreat of his men; then, he risks his life in order to let Submission live, the old English regicide, a longstanding friend, when going to Metacom wishing to end the war. He becomes a round character when the narrator allows the reader to understand his thoughts and feelings: "With a slow, noiseless step, the solitary loiterer moved about the scene of destruction [ ] with a thoughtful air. It was the boy called Miantonimo (actually Conanchet), seeking some melancholy memorial of those with whom he had so long dwelt in amity, if not in confidence [ ] gentler recollections came with the gaze, and kinder feelings evidently usurped the place of the hatred he has been taught to bear a race, who were so fast sweeping his people from the hearth" (1, 16, 228). This "psycho-récit" (in Doris Cohn's words6) shows a young man sensitive to the spirit of love surrounding the household and fearful of the God of the Whites: "Regret soon gave place to awe. To the imagination of the Indian, it seemed as if a still voice [ ], the smothered tones of Mark Heathcote were again audible, holding communion with his God" (1, 16, 229). Although the story does not conceal anything about the racist mind of some Puritans and the savage ways of the Indian fighters, by the narrator's comments I have just quoted as well as by several features of the plot, spaces are opened for conciliation: for example the refusals of violence by the older Puritans, by Submission, and especially by the young Conanchet, either during the attacks or later: after he had discovered the Heathcotes are still living, he introduces back the young Ruth previously captured by his tribe and then his wife to her family with their infant. Hence, Conanchet appears as a mediator, as K. S. House underlines it in Cooper's Americans.7 Cooper himself writes as a cultural mediator, when allowing the narrator to translate natives' languages, their frequent use of metaphors, the most of which J.T. Frederick demonstrated to be right in his article "Cooper's Eloquent Indians."8 Moreover, in line with the Common Sense School theory, Cooper allows the reader to see, to hear, "the other" through the perceptions of an external narrator; the former is led to understand how Indians apprehend the time, how they dress themselves, their demeanors: "The turbaned warrior [ ] occupied the centre of the group [ ]. He had thrown a light blanket, or it might be better termed a robe of scarlet cloth over his left shoulder, whence it gracefully fell in folds, leaving the whole of his right arm free, and most of his ample chest exposed to view" (2, 7, 106). More than once, the story describes the ways they lead attacks, their cunning, a.s.o. Furthermore, Cooper plays on a contamination of the language between both cultures; for example, the young Whittal, totally absorbed into the Indian culture expresses the Natives'claims against the Whites, although back into his white family, and conversely, Content Heathcote, arguing against Metacom, takes up (obviously an anachronistic and spurious borrowing) the popular speech held by the Cayuga Chief Logan in 1774: "In this valley hath wrong never been done to the red man? What Indian hath asked for food, and not got it? If he hath been a-thirst, the cider came at his wish, if he hath been a-cold, there was a seat by the heart. For many seasons, we lived on lands, which were bought of both red and white men, in peace. But though the sun shone clear so long, the clouds came at last There was a dark night fell upon this valley [ ]" (2, 7, 114). Besides, in an aesthetic construction, the plot implies an other future for History when a suspension is given to the impending fight between Conanchet and the young Mark Heathcote, (they have been living together when both younger and when Conanchet, although a prisoner was regarded as a child of the family); that moment is called "a short trance": "the momentary pause [ ] was full of meaning [ ]. An emotion foreign to the scene appeared to possess them both, each active frame unconsciously accommodating itself to the bloody businesss of the hour, while the inscrutable agency of the mind held them, for a brief interval, in check" (2, 6, 102). Yet, the ending denies that hope, since, Conanchet, committed to his enemies by the young Puritans, is put to death; his wish of mutual understanding on this earth has disappeared, but he expects it in the afterworld; moreover, at last, Narrah-mattah, his acculturated white wife cannot bear a double culture, and dies by his side. This ending allows Leslie Fiedler9 to state that Cooper here strongly affirms his disagreement with miscegenation; I would rather see there the painful acknowledgment of the historical failures. This staged intolerance of the young Puritans could be seen as a new shape of the puritan jeremiad, "the Wept" on a group, guilty of his inability to build a brotherly world; yet, The Wept also clearly refers to the young Ruth, Narrah-mattah, the white woman, who thanks to her marriage and child, embodied a mutual but indeed unsustainable understanding. Actually, in this imaginary travel back to the Founding Fathers, Conanchet is the only one heroic character who dared to risk his life on behalf of tolerance.
3) Wyandotté or the Hutted Knoll, 1843: Disillusion; The Indian Instrumental. Once again, the story takes place in one main setting, the lonely property called the Hutted Knoll, a land in upper New York state, bought by the Captain Willoughby from the Indian Wyandotté, hence the double title of the novel. As Jeffrey Walker noticed it, the structure shows five moments, like Cole's painting The Course of Empire, from the savage state (before 1764), through the building, the fulfillment (1764-1775), to the downfall (1775-76) and the desolation of the place (1795).10 On this background, the Tuscarora Indian Wyandotté seems the historical memory of the human presence on the area. Depicted with a progressive increasing complexity from beginning to end, Wyandotté or Nick stands out, a round character, siding with the white owners, the captain Willoughby and his family, whose care for their property probably echoes Cooper's own, and sustains the main plot. Even if Wyandotté really acts in only eighteen chapters out of thirty, he is a singularized Indian, alternatively opponent and helper, very distinct from the Indian bands who attack the settlement, false and true Indians, hardly given generic names: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, appearing at first rather pacific despite the usual fear and contempt they arouse; they embody the threat created (through eighteen chapters) by the discontented Yankee foreman Joël Strides: the latter uses the ongoing revolution as a pretext to scrounge his master's property. Then, the Indians appear as usual with their skills for concealing, their swift onrush, their shrieks, and their fury in getting scalps (two chapters):"yells so infernal, and shrieks so wild and fearful, that it seems [ ] as if the last trump had sounded" (28, 455).11 The fight, interrupted by the support of a regular republican force, scares away the attackers but leaves several of the household dead. Yet, this is the moment when Wyandotté shows the greatest determination as a helper and risks his life to protect the Willoughby ladies. Like in The Wept or in the to-come Littlepage Trilogy a single Indian stands out, described in his ambivalent complexity. Indeed, the one who saved the ladies is the same who killed the captain who humiliated him: "[ ] with determination and steadiness he arranged his light dress, and prepared to present himself before the wife and daughters of the man, whom, three hours before, he had remorselessly murdered" (26, 415). According to the Philbricks, Wyandottι, a Huron name, could have been chosen by Cooper to associate that character with glorious past tribes.12 Yet, the man, also named Nick (a reference to "old nick" the devil), is perceived as an alcoholic, cunning, spiteful chap. His double features could have be inspired by Cooper's contemporary Indian, an Oneida, made famous by a parochial newspaper of the moment, Saucy Nick, a disregarded hero of the Revolution, alcoholic, who had several times attacked an unfair indicter. As with Conanchet, the characterization, beyond the many physical depictions, entails the observations of an omniscient narrator that allow the reader to understand the character's thoughts. Cooper also gives him a direct speech used to assert himself in front of the threatening captain in a play on his double name: "Nick always dry—Wyandotté knows no thirst. Nick beggar—ask for rum [ ] Wyandotté don't know rum when he see him. Wyandotté beg not'ing" (19, 321); besides, the Indian brings the polyvalent perception of events, especially when he reports the battle of Bunker Hill from the neutral Indian point of view. Through that speech, Cooper sets apart from the revolutionary events, irreverently used in the story only as a pretext to scourge a white settler; moreover it demonstrates that actually Indians are excluded from the history of their own land. The human traits of the character invite the reader to an acceptance, even assimilation with that complex "other." Already in his preface, the author asserts "the red man has his morality as much as his white brother" (6), which the last demeanors of the Indian exemplify. Nick, after he had been forgiven by his victim's son says, "God forgive," but on the very previous instant, he has just offered him to take his life in the revengeful way of the Indians. The relativism of the moral is questioned here: the ambivalent Indian is no longer the fascinating man of nature, he becomes the witness of a continuing history in which the adherence to moral traditional principles is threatened especially by the new Yankee whites; that will also be the function of Susquesus in The Littlepage Trilogy.
4) The Oak Openings, 1848: Last Indian Novel; A New Eden for the Vanishing Indian. The occurring break is at first in the setting: the pristine spaces of the Michigan called Oak Openings, where, in marshes along rivers and lakes, still do their living, from wild rice, hunting and fishing, various Ojibwe tribes, divided during the Anglo-American conflict depicted by the novel in the early summer of 1812. Again, this clash is a pretext to a plot structured by triangular fights; here the hostile primitive Pottawattomies are opposed to a few American Whites and their Chippewa ally Pigeonswing. K.S. House underlines that the narrator introduces the place as a new Eden,13 and Helen Phinit-Akson notes that this choice releases the author of old Anglo-Saxon religious quarrels;14 this work would have been an opportunity to translate into an artistic construction the religious conceptions brought back from Europe: Cooper would have adopted that Christianity, previous to Reformation, where the love of Jesus-Christ, an universal redeemer, overlays the vengeful God of the Ancient Testament, heard of in The Wept; Cooper would have chosen the emblems of the catholic aesthetic. Besides, Susan Cooper testifies that, while writing this novel, Cooper was fascinated by the Bible he used to read every day, and in the preface, Cooper states: "For ourselves, we firmly believe that the finger of Providence is pointing the way to all races and colors and nations, [ ] to the great goal of human wants" (iii). Actually, the main impulse of the work is no longer about the possession of the land—the earth is given to all, if the whites got it, it is God's will—but about the conversion of the Indian. The plot is dominated here by the unexpected opposition between traditional Indians, aggressive to the Whites and one of them, Onoah portrayed in an emblematic mode, introduced as the cruelest of all, who will be progressively upturned by the Christian faith spoken for by the Methodist missionary Parson Amen, both characters who only appear in the tenth chapter.
Previously, the first third of the novel has depicted Indians fitted with their natural environment in their careful, cunning, brave, bearing as well as in their violent war ways; the plot is over most critical of their superstitious mind; instead of the gothic trend the author here plays on the dramatic irony for the reader is accessory of the bee-hunter Boden who pretends to be a magician: at first the Indians are led to think he can control the flight of bees, then they are made to believe he can spring a rivulet of whiskey from the rock, which saves his life for a while. Yet the suspense is sustained till the end: the whites and their Chippewa ally are all the time threatened by the Pottawatomies even when the chief Onoah has become a helper, through a "hide-and-seek" plot upheld by two conflicting impulses: hatred and love. Hatred seems the essential feature of the Indian Onoah also meaningfully called Scalping Peter. "Hatred, inextinguishable and active, hatred appeared to be the law of this man's being" (13, 102). The character stands out since an external omniscient narrator offers the reader different perceptions of him: respect by the Pottawattomies, fear by Boden, fancy by Parson Amen who believes him to be a descendant of one of the lost tribes of Israel. His contradictory speeches or behaviors show his duplicity. His thoughts are explained: "Peter was bent [ ] on a scheme worthy of the loftiest spirit living: the regeneration and union of the people of his race, with a view to recover the possessions [ ] yielded to the pale-faces: but it was a project blended with the ferocity and revenge of a savage—noble while ferocious" (12, 180). Bent on an alliance of various tribes, he conceives a unique god for them: "We are alike. One Great Spirit made all, governs all, rewards all, punishes all" (16, 251), in a step toward the Christian concept of God, even if he dared to confront him in grasping the Holy Bible from Parson Amen. The latter, on the contrary, stands for the love figure in spite of his theory about Indians as lost tribes of Israel, which they firmly and ironically deny; his message of love impresses them, and if they put him to death it is without tortures, in sign of respect; he dies in a Christ attitude, as the demeanor and words the author gives him aptly demonstrate: "the missionary [ ] outstretching his arms was lifting his voice in prayer" (24, 376) while his words are: "the son of the Great Spirit came on earth [ ] he said that next to the duty of loving the Manitou is the duty of loving our neighbors. [ ] This son did nothing but good [ ] In return, unbelieving men put him to death" (24, 382). That attitude answers the expectation expressed by Peter: "I do not understand a religion that tells you to love our enemies [ ] I shall not believe that any do this, till I see it" (23, 369). Therefore, comes the implied conversion of Peter described in a form, as Phinit-Akson underlines it, which recalls that of Saint Paul and the aesthetic of the paintings of the Counter- Reformation: "Peter heard his own people prayed for; he heard his own name mentioned, as the condemned man asked the mercy of the Manitou in his behalf [ ] the future possessed a light still obscured by clouds [ ] he was then powerless [ ] shuddered from head to foot" (24, 387). That heavenly light eventually transforms the cruel Onoah into a powerless human character who will henceforth accept the law of love. The converted Indian later hardly stands for an Indian since he denies all what had made his previous life, his admission into the Christian American society means a total acculturation. Actually Cooper, more used to the pessimistic depiction of a depraved human heart amid the powerful natural American landscapes, twisted here to "the Christian artistic figurative reality [ ] which demonstrates an aesthetically effective attention to the organic unity of theme and form" as Phinit-Akson puts it.15 Hence, the reader feels in this determination the end of any possible future for Indian culture.
As a conclusion, Cooper had demonstrated his longstanding interest in the bewildering question of the Indian presence and cultural ways of life, he tried to describe "with sometimes surprising accuracy" in typically historical and geographical American contexts; he achieved the staging of various types of Indians, carrying their portraits beyond the simplistic vision of noble or ignoble savages dreamed in fantastic natural settings; with miscellaneous physical and psychological portraits, various techniques of personalization and singularization he went from a decayed vanishing although faithful Indian to the ideal heroic chief sensible to mutual understanding that history denied, to complex personalities, instrumental to the theme of the legal continuity in land possession. In this way, he had to sketch isolated Indians since the relationship with a group as a whole seemed a too much puzzling question which he finally left afar off. Hence, as regards the possible place of an Indian culture in the American society, he could not find out even a fictional positive answer excepted in the solution that the Indian releases his Indianness to accept the Christian faith which transforms the humankind into brothers protected by a benevolent Providence. As a result, as James S. Hedges puts it, "What Cooper began with The Pioneers in 1823, he completes in 1848 with Oak Openings, as a literary requiem for the American Indian."16
1. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers (1823; New York: Penguin, 1988).
2. Y. Goddard: "The Delawares" in The Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15, 219.
3. Barbara Alice Mann, "Spirit of Sky, Spirit of Earth: The Spirituality of Chingachgook" in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 17(2002): 1-5.
4. James Fenimore Cooper, The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish (1829; New York: AMS Press, 1972).
5. Robert D. Madison, "Wish-Ton-Wish: Muck or Melancholy?" in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 4 (1993).
6. Doris Cohn, La Transparence Intérieure (in French; Paris: Seuil, 1978) 44-69.
7. Kay Seymour House, Cooper's Americans (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1965) 237.
8. John T. Frederick, "Cooper's Eloquent Indians" in PMLA 71(1956):1004-1017.
9. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (London: Jonathan Cape, 1960).
10. Jeffrey Walker, "Cooper's Wyandottι and the Cyclic Course of Empire" in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art No. 6 (1986).
11.James Fenimore Cooper, Wyandotté or The Hutted Knoll (1843; New York:Cooperative Publication Society, n.d.).
12. Thomas & Marianne Philbrick, preface the 1982 edition of Wyandotté by SUNY with a Historical Introduction.
13. House, Cooper's Americans 249.
14. Helen Phinit-Akson, Ritual and Aesthetic: The Influence of Europe on the Art of J.F. Cooper (Bangkok: Thammasat University Press, 1976) 87 [on-line on James Fenimore Cooper Society website].
15. Phinit-Akson, Ritual and Aesthetic: The Influence of Europe on the Art of J.F. Cooper 108.
16. James S. Hedges, "Oak Openings: Fenimore Cooper's Requiem for the American Indian" in The Old Northwest: a Journal of Regional Life and Letters 11.1-2 (1985): 25-34.
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