James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
Placed on line July 2013
©2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the 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 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. 102-113)
Return to SUNY Seminars Articles & Papers
It seems attractive, yet risky, to read nationalism in historical fiction as a transparent commentary on political events. The attraction involves reading literature as an engaged interpretation of history. The risk involves the distortions caused by looking through a twenty-first-century lens at stories told about slavery, frontier violence, and the ambiguous boundaries that accompanied struggles over land ownership in the early American republic. Literature often functions as a commentary through which the passions of history might be discerned as through a veil, a veil that at once hides the face that does the looking and changes what may be seen. In History as Romantic Art, David Levin argued that the practice of writing history in the early nineteenth century was so completely affected by the forms of narrative born during the Enlightenment that to read history written after that period was, in effect, to read romantic fiction, and, further, that these fictions concerned the production of the enlightenment subject.1 That subject, a subject at once described and invoked in the production of historical knowledge about the United States, became the telos of such writing. This chapter examines how a range of writers understood nationalism, focusing at the beginning on the relations between nationalism and historical narration before turning to depictions of slavery and the frontier in Harriet Beecher Stowe and James Fenimore Cooper.
To allude to this argument about continuity between reading nationalism as a generic romance of history and deciphering the historical romance of America does not mean that I propose to find no distinction between how authors approached historical fiction and the writing of history in the nineteenth century United States. To state the simplest difference first, much historical fiction imagined its readership to be female. Romantic historians, in contrast, definitely pictured a political world in which both the players and the readers were male. In addition, to suggest that the history of the United States becomes a progress narrative with the grand achievement of nationhood at its summit might work for the interpretation of histories written before the presidential election of 1860, but it necessarily takes a different tack, if not coming to a halt, with the great challenge of the Civil War.
Before the Civil War, the overwhelming details about inhabiting and even just looking at the North American landscape often dominated the texture of historical fiction. Fiction written by historical novelists such as Robert Montgomery Bird (1806-1854), Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880), James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), George Lippard (1822-1854), John Neal (1793-1876), James Kirke Paulding (1788-1860), Catharine Sedgwick (1789-1867), and William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870) found characters venturing into the wilderness on missions of founding new marriages, homes, and families. Yet the particular domestic details of how to form such households and what to do if the marriages proved inadequate rarely intrude.
History's relation to nationalism in the early nineteenth-century novel sometimes result in fictional patterns such as the deaths of mothers—reiterating the desire to shake off the influence of the mother country—that can make us uneasy. As with epic poetry and drama, many fictional projects of the early republic present an allegory of the new nation. Often the allegorical project contains historical figures. Whether done in steadfast homage to the deification of George Washington (as in Cooper's The Spy ) or in near-parodic attention to the possible overturning of this deification (as in Lippard's Blanche of Brandywine ), the positing of a father who lurks in the shadows emerges at the edges of romance plots.
In historical romances like The Last of the Mohicans (1826; Cooper), Hope Leslie (1827; Sedgwick), Logan (1822; Neal) and Hobomok (1824; Child), authors attempted to provide a heretofore colonized country with its own history. While these authors propose historical romances patterned on classical or Shakespearean themes, they also produce dramas whose crises reach the most difficult edges of the American landscape. These dramas include controversial topics: Indian-white marriage or progeny, incursions or excursions west or south, and the sexual vulnerability of women. Delineating the boundaries of such topics provided the United States novel with its hardest challenge.
The articulation of nationalism in fictional narratives tends to appear as a dynamic set of relations between families and their interactions with forms of government. Government sometimes appears as local, from the disciplining of children in school to the discipline of marriages, and sometimes as national, from the conscription of soldiers to the imposition of taxes and elections. Nonetheless the understanding of these somewhat abstract concepts appears in a range of specific crises, often romantic, that affect the plots of novels. Novels that propose a particular understanding of national attachments rely on the need for courtship to convey their affective force.
That readers of this fiction were aware of the forms of propaganda proposed for their education and pleasure alike, that is, that they understood that novels had a polemical function involving an attachment to national values to be acquired through reading may be at last partially available through the forms of authorial address to readers found in various prefaces. Some of these prefaces have been read extensively in terms of the redefinitions of the methods and theories of fiction that they propose and analyze. Among the most famous examples are Nathaniel Hawthorne's account of the "neutral territory" where the "Actual and the Imaginary" may meet and each "imbue" itself with the other's properties. This sensual exchange, proposed to take place by moonlight, imagines a mingling and yet a separation between the generic constructions of romance and realism.
Even Hawthorne's account of the "neutral" ground of the romance might be read in terms of propaganda and nationalist imaginations. The perhaps overly-developed sense of subtlety with which the concept of merging can appear (or vanish) might also indicate how it stands (or stands in for) the explanations that have preoccupied literary scholars for decades. In 1985, for example, Jane Tompkins asked "But is it any good?" as she approached the analysis of writers such as Susan B. Warner (1819-1885) who, in the bestselling novel The Wide, Wide World (1850), produced a religious conversion narrative in the form of a rural Bildungsroman about a young orphan girl's education. Attempting to work out standards of literary value that still relied on Nathaniel Hawthorne as a touchstone of "approved" literary and aesthetic sensibilities, Tompkins explained Hawthorne as a figure whose fame was buttressed by the friends and critics who formed part of the literary establishment of his day. Warner, in contrast, lost critical attention because religious awakening dominated her fiction.
This tension between bestselling conversion narratives and literary values also involves nationalism in historical fiction, often implicated in the stubbornly opposed categories of propaganda and literary pleasure. That readers might take pleasure, even pleasure understood as aesthetically based, from literature that overtly presented itself as polemical, if not as propaganda, depends, in the case of Susan B. Warner, on the presumption that reading about religious conversion provides a form of aesthetic delight (a presumption with a history in literature that goes back to the Bible as well as to celebrants such as Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and John Donne). In the case of writers from Cooper and Hawthorne to Walt Whitman it depends in part on the presumption that the celebration of the nation provides pleasure.
This presumption about nationalism providing pleasure that resembles the pleasure provided by religious incantations can be supported by an account of the innumerable Fourth of July orations, sermons, and celebrations that lit up the landscape of the United States throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. Such quantitative data cannot be the basis for a simple assertion of qualitative pleasure. In economic terms, however, such audiences guaranteed that publishers would continue to seek out patriotic literature. What makes it a novel and not history may simply consist in the novel's project to tell a story about an event in history that cannot be conveyed except through the practices of fiction. These forays into national events as fraught fictions include now-forgotten works that re-tell the conflicts of the American Revolution and its border skirmishes, works such as Herman Melville's Israel Potter (1855) and James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy (1821), or George Lippard's Blanche of Brandywine (1846) and Lydia Maria Child's The Rebels (1825), or Catharine Sedgwick's The Linwoods (1835).
What form of the nation we refer to when we refer to the United States seems less uncertain now 200 years after the fragility of the national capitol was exposed by the simple act of the British solders marching onto American soil in 1812 and burning it down. As the certainty that adheres to the national capitol went up in flames, so the anxieties and displacements in this early fiction often display unease about the location of the early American empire. The stories these writers tell keep looking for locations as they place bodies in positions of geographical as well as political uncertainty.2
Scholars ask questions about intersectionality as a way to consider what happens when overlaps between disciplinary practices seem to blur the object and purpose of inquiry. And yet the positing of intersectionality as a deliberate strategy sometimes seems to defer as much as to solve crises about priority and methods. There are inevitable presumptions that betray the perfect symmetry of an intersection. These include that there must be a direction—that there is a past as well as a future to this present moment of "arrival" at such an intersection.
The formulations that determined earlier concepts of the historical novel have tended to draw on Georg Lukacs (especially his work on the historical novel as a Marxist inquiry about historical materialism and class struggle) and to develop through the need to understand the formulations of nationalism.3 That nationalism serves as a contested term must be taken for granted. The inter-relation between fiction and the nation's project often relies on citing the work of the anthropologist Benedict Anderson who presented struggles about nationalism in Indonesia.4 Such determinations have been varied and helpful. Specific recent instantiations include Samuel Otter, Philadelphia Stories: America's Literature of Race and Freedom and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity.5 Each of these books has works by Charles Brockden Brown as a central part of their project of formulations of nationalism, though to rather different ends. For Otter, the novel is Arthur Mervyn; for Smith-Rosenberg, the work is performed by Edgar Huntly. The first is a city novel and the second an archetypal account of the lost white man in the wilderness. Otter focuses, as his title suggests, on Philadelphia, the original national capitol; Smith-Rosenberg presents a stunningly useful overview of national projects. Otter's book might be usefully compared to the deep history of Edwin Burrows and Michael Wallace in telling the nineteenth-century history of New York City in Gotham.6 Smith-Rosenberg's work harks back to the germinal work of Cathy Davidson. Each work presents formulations about fiction as a carrier zone for the nation.
Critics who discuss the historical romance in the nineteenth century United States tend to have been thoughtful, but uneasy, about its relation to nationalism. In The American Historical Romance, George Dekker treats the major works of Hawthorne and Melville and devotes a chapter to the southern project of history; he also suggests that it is not only difficult to take on the range of historical fiction, but "impossible to draw an absolute line between high and low, clean and unclean, in the historical romance."7 The sense of contamination that results from how the writer of historical fiction at once glorifies sensationally problematic violence and presents human motivations within such violence also lies at the background of the psychological treatment in works such as Michael Davitt Bell, Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England (1971).8
In The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel: Reading the Atlantic World System, Stephen Shapiro comments on what he calls the "paradigm problem of the early American novel" as he presents a detailed analysis of Charles Brockden Brown's project as a writer and critic to initiate a conversation between the global culture and the culture of the newly emergent United States.9 Another and more anomalous way of reading the global circulations of historical fiction might be to consider how abolitionist works such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin work to re-orient the world even as they imagine it through Christian redemption.
What it takes to constitute a home on the frontier propels the action of Caroline Kirkland's (1801-1864) A New Home, Who'll Follow? (1839). Literally describing a path into the wilderness with the assumption at once that readers could follow and that they might not, assuming that the reader in an eastern city might remain in an armchair relation to the narrative that led to a trackless wilderness, the narrator of A New Home, Who'll Follow? at once provides instructions for and distances herself from the labor of making a home in the woods. Above all, she must cope with the middle-class task that preoccupied many advice books. She must hire a housekeeper, which means that every article she possesses becomes subject to the scornful assessment of its lack of utility in the wilderness.
To call this historical fiction is to assert that Kirkland self-consciously produces a popular history of the present moment. Kirkland gives an account, for example, of the practices that women engage in when visiting each other's homes, whereby blank albums in the parlor were displayed for visitors to fill with memorized verses that exhibited both friendship and culture. Such a practice of inscribing citational culture migrated from the middle-class parlors of homes in the city to the crowded multi-purpose one room cabins in the woods. At once vestigial and inappropriate, such a cultural practice also operated as a proleptic assumption that these homes would become middle class, that is, they function as a writing of history both backward and forward, a repetition that seeks to erase their current setting on the frontier.
That is to say, the achievement often celebrated in nineteenth-century historical fiction is the achievement of a possible future, one that might be predicted through the novel's conclusion in marriage. Even A New Home, which commences with an already achieved marriage, and which contains bitter accounts of faulty and deceitful husbands, builds into one of its late chapters a romantic account of a successful elopement. What A New Home features prominently in the difficulty of being "shifty in a new country" (to quote the satirical Simon Suggs, pseudonym for Johnson J. Hooper [1815-1861]) is the unreliable map, a staging of a country that does not yet exist, or that exists in the uncertain relation to land of a swamp whose bottom has yet to be measured. The relation of speculation and illicit land claims to the description of a fantasy country is the economic underpinning to the frontier romance. Such fantasies and illegitimate proclamations also form the uneasy backbone of Cooper's first novel about his hero Natty Bumppo, The Pioneers (1823). In that novel, the profligacy and waste of theft and killing overshadow an incipient romance plot. Similarly the Irish anti-hero of Hugh Henry Brackenridge's (1748-1816) Modern Chivalry (1815), Teague O'Regan, achieves his notable successes through deceptions about identity and purpose. These works implicitly perform satiric commentaries on the project of the historical novel.
For all that each of these forms of historical fiction might be presumed to desire a successful and procreative family, however, the general tendency that such fiction exposes is that children make families vulnerable. The dangers range from the stereotypical hazard of babies whose brains might be "dashed out" against rocks or thresholds, as Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (1735-1813) frets over in the concluding chapter of Letters from an American Farmer (1782) and as happens to the fictional babies in The Last of the Mohicans and Hope Leslie. Less vividly, though nonetheless graphically, the narrator of A New Home worries that her children will encounter rattlesnakes if they cross the threshold of the home into the yard. And the parents in Last of the Mohicans, Hope Leslie, and Nick of the Woods remain perpetually and often justifiably anxious that their children might be kidnapped.
This concern, attached in such fiction to white families confronting the woods, provides a relation to American Indian families, a relation that is often rendered ambiguously. Encounters between the families that had been at home in the woods and those newly venturing into the woods are rarely portrayed, although outliers and vagrants discover each other often, as in the tumultuous pages of Charles Brockden Brown's (1771-1810) Edgar Huntly (1799). The fiction also does not tend to comment on the kidnappings that occur in narratives about slavery, where the kidnapping or displacement of children who are legally claimed as property propels movements, as in the autobiographical narratives of Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) and Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), from country to city.
The life of a captive does not appear in a very detailed way in historical fiction that shows kidnappings in the wilderness, although some characters spend years in captivity and some become assimilated, incorporated into the major posited "otherness" of ethnic identities. "My sister married to an Indian!" moans Hope Leslie when she finds that Faith Leslie has joined her life with Magawisca's brother Oneco. The only time that a marriage across ethnic lines appears to take place within the confines of a white community is in Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok, and that marriage is disavowed by the renunciatory gesture of the groom Hobomok in favor of a re-appearing white groom. The sacrifice that Hobomok makes mimics the nostalgic idea that the "noble" savage will melt away into the forest in the face of white romance.10
More often, in historical romance as well as in historical narration, the assimilation of white women into native communities was a consensual act engaged in out of sight of white readers.11 Stories that showed resistance to kidnapping, however, were very popular. One of the first versions of that tale, A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, as it was titled on its first publication in 1682, was one of the best selling stories of the colonial period as well as of the early republic. Mary Rowlandson is bartered back to the white community, but the story of Hannah Dunstan, as Cotton Mather so notably retold it, provided a countering danger where the kidnapped white woman calmly dispatches the children of her kidnappers as well as their parents, performing a counter move to the other scalpings Mather depicts.
What does the fiction that addresses these historical moments achieve? In many of the historical novels still read today, such as James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, the characters faced with kidnapping encounter a balanced moment, often full of explanatory speeches, with violent imbalance before and after. In his speech of explanation to his community and the community leader, the kidnapping Magua asserts a history of the United States as at once racial and spiritual. He launches into a racialized American landscape by announcing, "The Spirit that made men colored them differently." As he at once naturalizes and spiritualizes racial difference, Magua asserts a hierarchy that will explain the violence that he has at once encountered and enacted. He produces his own historical romance about naturalizing the relation between nationalism and race. In order to resist univocality, I also want to note here how much even the historical fiction written by white men might provide multiple framings of history and the purpose of history in exposing ambivalent nationalism.
The very formatting of historical fiction—necessarily since these are written texts that rely on literacy—seems to omit orality, yet the assumption that voices might be heard that counter the writings of historians drives Sedgwick's work in Hope Leslie. Her narrator comments, after Everell has listened to Magawisca's account of her family's sufferings in the Pequot War, that this is "putting the chisel of history into the hands of truth." Within this fiction, characters often speak who can neither read nor write—they exist in a narrative to which they do not have access. Their relation to literacy forms a significant element in their attention to other forms of language, whether the language of "nature" spoken by animals and trees, or the language of oral persuasion.
The relation between the texture and data of the historical archive and the plots and characters of historical fiction certainly remains uneven. The presumptive referencing of historical events gives energy to the roman a clef sensibility that a reader might bring to the novels. In general, however, historical characters appear by name. George Washington, for example, appears in several novels, such as James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy (1821) and Lionel Lincoln (1825), both as himself and as a means of accounting for the moral force that his presence will be imagined to continue to have on the history and destiny of the United States. Yet such appearances can also function to cast doubts on the moral certainty that the physical manifestation of the president might be assumed to have on the historical characters in this fiction. In Cooper's The Spy, Washington fails to identify the nobility of Harvey Birch and leaves him to perish in obscurity. In George Lippard's Blanche of Brandywine (1846), Washington's head is horribly pictured in a fantastical imagining of an alternative dystopian future as severed, decomposing, and nailed to a post as punishment for treason against the British if America were to have lost the American Revolution.
The anxiety about "telling" on the secret life of the president also appears in works such as William Wells Brown's (1814-1884) Clotel (1853), a novel that purports to tell the story of Thomas Jefferson's daughter's life after she and her daughters are sold as slaves. Anti-slavery fictions such as these are not usually characterized as historical novels nor are they invoked to expose the problematic of nationalism, however telling such a work might be in relation to David Walker's (1785-1830) assault on Jefferson in his Appeal (1829). In addition to the domestic tragedies performed under the dictates of slavery, the tragedies of dislocation through other forms of immigration appear in the early fiction of William Hill Brown (1765-1793), Hannah Foster (1758-1840), and Susannah Rowson (1762-1824). In The Power of Sympathy (1789), Charlotte Temple (1790), and The Coquette (1797) whose plots overlap with and also diverge from the real life scandals they depict, the consequences of male desire that will not be harnessed to wedlock include the tragic abandonment of a mother with child.
The fictional character of Eliza Wharton in The Coquette was appealing to contemporary readers in part because her story closely resembled that of the historical Elizabeth Whitman, similarly abandoned and dying in childbirth with her baby. The "real" tombstone of Elizabeth Whitman became conflated with the fictional tombstone of Eliza Wharton whose epitaph ends The Coquette. Telling the history of desire as the history of national belonging ambiguously includes the celebration of a tragic death that results from the seduction of a heroine identified as American even if, as in the case of Charlotte Temple, she begins her life on English soil.
In The Power of Sympathy, the horror and attraction of incest lurks beneath the epistolary account of romance attempted and refused, an epistolary form familiar in late eighteenth century fiction. In contrast, the understanding that drives the plots of Charles Brockden Brown's fiction, although initially presented as epistolary, quickly transposes itself into more hallucinatory forms of narrative, or, at the least, implodes the concept of fixed narrative points of view. The sober earnestness with which these narrators presume to continue tracking a series of events when the path seems hopelessly lost has often been commented on by critics who quote, for example, from Clara Wieland as she claims that she cannot hold a pen to hold her own story.
Given the overlap between these novels and historic events, and their richness as a source of ambivalent nationalism, how do they then evade the category of historical fiction? That is, what is left that they do not do — or what is added to these enterprises by the performances of what we call historical fiction? Granted, that is, that historical fiction is not simply a discreet genre that conveys its excitations and invitations free of the premises of gothic, sensation, sentimental, or domestic fiction, how does an interested critic convey its force? Perhaps conveniently, we might assume that its ability to draw on the thrills and unnerving coincidences of sensation or gothic fiction or the romantic yearnings of sentimental fiction or the prosaic details of domestic fiction combine to produce an early form of realist fiction, especially because of their anxious attention to national identifications.
Many early novelists exhibit the compulsion to produce a relation to national history. Catharine Sedgwick, for example, whose account in Hope Leslie of early days in Massachusetts used historic figures like John Winthrop, worked within the premises of domestic fiction in other novels such as Clarence (1830) and Redwood (1824), but returned to historical fiction with The Linwoods (1835). In the case of Cooper, often associated with frontier narratives, the group of novels now known as The Leatherstocking Tales (published out of chronological sequence between 1821 and 1841) perform a historical saga that anticipates the formulations of the Western. In that formulation, as has been noted, Cooper also imagines a western landscape born of the love of men for each other. That this love crosses boundaries of class and race is part of the utopian urge that drives historical fiction's attention to national imagining.
Perhaps the most significant formulation of nationalism in early historical fiction appears in the Leatherstocking Tales. Throughout this series of novels, Cooper repeatedly invokes a nationalist attachment that predates the American Revolution and displays ambivalence about land claims originating in either British or competing first nation claimants. As the recurring character of Natty Bumppo meets the challenge of the frontier, he persistently refuses the possibility of a domesticated future.
The relation between wilderness and the domestic details of a crowded room that appear in Kirkland's A New Home find no place in the pressing attention to the signs of a landscape that might threaten the survival of adventurers that emerges in a novel like The Deerslayer (1841). These details tend to be located along a gender axis that has sometimes been described through the concept of the separate spheres of men and women. That axis would presume to separate the domestic fiction of women from the historical ventures undertaken by men. This chapter at once challenges the separation and reinserts it by first calling attention to the wilderness ventures of Caroline Kirkland and then turning to the classic male hero, Natty Bumppo, especially in The Deerslayer in which he is a young man first encountering romance. The goal will not, or not simply, be an integration of the gendered separations. Rather, in carefully untangling some promises of historical fiction through reading these narratives for their tactics and assertions, the uncertain ground of nationalism emerges.
Responding to a polemic voiced earlier about romantic desires and the need to believe in a particular location as "owned" in the sense of national belonging, notice how extraordinarily difficult it is for these characters to hold fast to any loyalties. For example, in The Pathfinder (1840), the obviously stalwart Jasper Western, also known as the ineffably sweet "Eau Douce," but sometimes bowdlerized as "oh the deuce," becomes a suspect military and romantic figure simply because he speaks French. That he learned it as a child, that is, that he could not help but learn it since he was living among French-speaking people in Canada, means little in the face of the inexorable suspicion that infidelity and the French language must adhere to one another. Reading such signs, and presented with such evidence, Natty Bumppo protests that he can speak the Mingo tongue, even though they are his enemies. The ability to distrust him while discounting the translation abilities of Jasper Western may perhaps be based on the detail that speakers of English and French are both assumed to be white.
The tension in most of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales relies on a father's need to marry off his daughters without suspicion. The narrative momentum is often produced by a journey of pursuit or escape from pursuit triggered by ferrying daughters to a location in proximity to the father who will engage in matrimonial negotiations even as mothers have been previously removed from any negotiations through death. The only time Natty Bumppo breaks down and cries during the entire five volume series is when Magnet [Mabel Dunham] refuses his romantic attentions in The Pathfinder. That leaking of the barrier of the eye at once broaches a physical barrier and represents a rare weakening of his attention to the wilderness. No such leaking takes place in The Deerslayer. Here, as if to compensate for the romantic longings of Pathfinder, Cooper mocks the yearning of Judith Hutter for the man without flesh.
Cooper's last Leatherstocking tales, set in the 1750s and 1760s, tell origin stories about a colonial location, set in a country so new in its national identification that the white characters inhabiting the tales identify as British. Their conflicts with each other are about often class determinations rather than any preview of a nation or even some form of longing to belong to a nation. Class standing determines marital aspirations, as it does in The Pathfinder, the novel set just after Last of the Mohicans but written just before Deerslayer. In Pathfinder, there's a daughter named "Magnet," [Mabel Dunham] who draws out all the marriage proposals on the frontier as though they were so many metal filings, in between escaping toward and away from a fort on the border between what will be Canada and what will be the United States. This fortified position provides inevitable complications, but the central feature in Pathfinder is a much larger lake, Lake Ontario, serving as a precursor for the odd disputes on the smaller incarnation of Lake Otsego. Like Magnet, the daughters of Floating Tom Hutter might be attractive, but cannot expect to shift class positions through marriage.
Since the Leatherstocking tales have emerged as the formative myth-making series in Cooper's fiction, far overtaking his sea novels in influence and in popular memory, the tradition has become to understand his project as exposing a land-based steady encroachment on the territory that would become the United States. A surprising amount of the action even in the westward facing fiction that features Natty Bumppo takes place on the water, significantly not simply on the freshwater lakes bounded by land but also in the literally fluid location where the claims attached to land ownership cannot hold. Works such as The Deerslayer in which characters repeatedly cross a river between two countries remind us to look north as well as south and west in contemplating hemispheric American studies. To cross the river to the north is to change languages as well as nationalities, to speak French as well as to assert allegiance to Canada (and France) in a manner that makes for no shift in appearance.
Where you hunt, where you kill, emerges as problematic in many of Cooper's novels both because of location (the borders of a lake, for example) and because of disguises (in The Last of the Mohicans  there seems to be confusion among humans and various animals). Recall the action in his early novel The Pioneers (1821) that takes place on the lake in Cooperstown, but contains an odd environmental argument against indiscriminate killing while still celebrating Natty Bumppo's skill with a rifle, where to kill a deer becomes legitimate because unbounded by land. Location on land or sea often involves a license to hunt, or, indeed, a license to kill.
Like the Mississippi River for Twain, the St. Lawrence Seaway appears in Cooper by means of the very boundaries that change with floods and shifts in the current that require not only vigilance for the snags and spots of land that might not have been present on the last passage, but he also inserts into the narrative a form of memorizing contours—and boundaries—that might determine safety and survival. Pathfinder meanders among the 1000 islands of the St Lawrence Seaway as the inhabitants of various boats repeatedly seek cover. The phenomenal climactic scene in Pathfinder involves posing corpses as living inmates of an island whose survivors of a massacre watch through peepholes and listen for the sound of oars in water. The vigilance of sight and sound depends for its suspense on the ways that islands are locations that function at once as land and as a space removed from land.
The narrator of James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer (1841) repeatedly stops the action and asks the reader to look at the landscape around Otsego Lake. At various perilous moments for the characters in the novel, only one of whom ever seems to notice the landscape as anything other than a particular form of legibility for means of rescue or escape, the stillness provides a strange tension even as the reader is asked to engage in an aesthetic contemplation worthy of Ralph Waldo Emerson's meditations in Nature (1836). "On a level with the point lay a broad sheet of water, so placid and limpid that it resembled a bed of the pure mountain atmosphere compressed into a setting of hills and woods.… Of course, its margin was irregular, being indented by bays and broken by many projecting low points." The very broken and irregular nature of the lake makes it a staging place for bodies, alive and dead, to be concealed next to and beneath its surface.
Indeed, the staggering strangeness in the novel of pausing to admire "Glimmerglass" and the overhanging trees reflected in its smooth surface repeatedly changes places with the absurd process of repeatedly chasing up and down the same lake, unnerved by bodies that drop from trees or emerge on rafts and canoes from different points and coves. Almost for the sake of spending pages that address the space and landscape surrounding the lake, Cooper's characters never hold still. The characters make their way through the landscape surrounding Otsego Lake reading the signs of the trees as they search for a hidden canoe. The challenge to the young Natty Bumppo is his ability to read the signs of the landscape as he searches for a hidden canoe. The trees resemble each other but have been marked by human interference so that to read their appearance is also to read for the previous passage of humans. The challenge that precedes landscape legibility is the familiar challenge that aligns bloodshed with recognition of female beauty. That one might kill for food becomes juxtaposed with the need to kill for vengeance or for substitution, a killing that substitutes for the overly remote processes of the courts.
The earliest dramatic turns in the novel concern a particularly disturbing mission that the patriarch "Floating Tom" Hutter and his stalwart friend, the ambivalent suitor for his daughter's hand, Hurry Harry, engage in, a mission first debated in the presence of Tom's daughters Judith and Hetty, and the lurking figure of Deerslayer. As they propose to collect scalps for bounty, the men carelessly argue that the scalps of women and children will be easy to gather. Appealed to for support, Deerslayer refuses to join their raid, and waits instead in a canoe just at the edge of the forest. As he listens for the return of the raiders, he hears the cry of a woman's voice and soon afterwards views the men captured and bound, having been taken in their pursuit, and thwarted in the collection of a scalp from one of the novel's two strong women, Wah-ta!-Wah, also known for elliptical linguistic reasons as Hist-oh!-Hist, shortened to Hist for much of the novel's subsequent action.
The originating quest that brings Deerslayer to the lake has been to meet with his Delaware friend, Chingachgook, in order to rescue Hist from the "Mingoes" who have captured her, the same band that now captures Harry and Tom and will later capture Deerslayer. (Hist survives to become the mother of Uncas, the supposedly titular character in The Last of the Mohicans.) It almost goes without saying in Cooper that coincidences are fortuitous, yet the rage that the narrator expresses toward the violence of the men who view human blood as separate from the "animal blood" of their Indian adversaries seems stronger than usual.
The deferred punishment for the misconception that only whites might lay claim to "human blood" might be said first to fall on the reader, who must survive hundreds of pages traversing the same small lake. A long passage that hovers in the midst of these traverses concerns the meticulous unpacking of a pirate's chest. The first items unpacked are ornate and inappropriate garments, the next a pair of misfiring pistols, and the third an ivory chest set that first appalls Deerslayer, convinced that he has found signs of idol worship. Each item is out of place, although each enters into possible transactions for ransom. The chess pieces that become worthy units of ransom are the rooks, four elephants, with elaborate contraptions on their backs. These units of ransom currency perform their assigned tasks as the four ivory chess pieces trade places with the two bodies of murderous white men. The singularly misplaced elephants are also elements that call attention to a shared colonial past with India, from which location both the substance and the image of these transactions presumably derives.
In this novel, Natty Bumppo is young, and consequently, as Cooper announces in his preface, he is loved. The focus of the preface quickly turns to the sisters, "one admirable in person, clever, filled with the pride of beauty, erring and fallen." The other sister, through the many words it takes Cooper's preface to present this information, has an ambivalent mixture of clear standards and muddy wits, having perhaps traded possible identity traits with her sister in exchanging her virtue for a duller personality profile.
Through the declaration of historical setting, the banks of Otsego Lake in 1760, Cooper provides yet another character. The subtitle, "The First Warpath," directs a reader's attention to commencing a journey, a prequel Cooper's readers might have awaited, already knowing the afterlife of Natty Bumppo through the four previously published novels of his adventures. And yet, somehow working against the renegade adventures depicted here, the first white resident on Otsego Lake is described as the Deputy Superintendant of Indian Affairs.
Through the first line of the novel—"On the human imagination events produce the effects of time"—Cooper's narrator provides an enigmatic pronouncement that also engages the reader in an understanding of the relation between crowded events and temporal understandings. The large point the narrator makes is that the United States already thinks it has a very long history because there have been so many events in a short period of time. The peculiarly counter narrative of the novel is that very little really happens in what must be a very short period of time, but the emotions of the characters make it seem to take forever. In particular, what takes forever is for the characters to have a series of simple lessons made clear to them. The simplicity of these lessons might be stated as follows: virtue is good, greed is bad.
The greed that the characters display has variations in its profligacy and the novel holds out hope for some of them. The desire that the lovely Judith Hutter has for beautiful clothing is mocked and almost literally unpacked as she unfolds a brocade dress from the pirate's trunk to find that it fits her perfectly. When she later masquerades as a lady of nobility in a foolhardy attempt to rescue Deerslayer, her attachment to these garments as a costume becomes something she can cast off. The narrator makes different distinctions about her suitor. Hurry Harry's greed displays "the reckless avidity of a needy spendthrift" rather than "the ceaseless longings of a miser" (p. 252). Here Cooper resembles his contemporary, the novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870), in his investigation of the perils of the desire for profit. It remains shocking that "Floating Tom" Hutter, "he who had just left two daughters behind him—expected to find few besides women and children in the camp" when he heads out to look for scalps (252). Cooper comments on the "unceasing cupidity of prodigality," a multi-syllabic rendering of horror in exposing the relation of early American nationalism and capitalism to violence against women and children.
In the opening of Cooper's novel, we find only Deerslayer and "Hurry Harry." The missions of these two young men differ, but they both involve women. Harry has come to see Judith, however ambivalent he feels about her virtue, because, although trapping beaver provides his income, he cannot resist the chance to see her face: "Jude pulls one way while the beaver pulls another" (30). Deerslayer has come to help his friend Chingachgook claim his bride. In their hunt for Muskrat Castle, the strange flotation home of Tom Hutter and his two daughters, they first seek a hidden canoe. They find a beech and a hemlock joined "as loving as two brothers" (25) and Harry tries to explain the middling mental abilities of Hetty, Judith's sister. As he explains the matter, she is "compass meant us" (19). The location of virtue in her exists as a place that suggests moral compass must occlude wit. Not "compos mentis," but "compass meant us," such formulations encircle the readers of these malapropisms in the befuddling wit of Cooper's deliberate misreading.
Hetty is surrounded with an "atmosphere of pure morality," and through this atmosphere she often sees clearly where others do not. Her clarity of vision, and its attendant muddiness of purpose, put her repeatedly in conjunction with the stubborn morality of Natty Bumppo. When they first meet, she asks Deerslayer's name and he delays his answer. "I'm so young and yet have borne more names than some of the greatest chiefs in all America" (58). Prodded, he continues, "the one I bear now will be of no great lasting" because of his life among the Delaware and their practice of renaming. "Tell me all your names," insists Hetty. "I want to know what to think of you." Her sense that the name of a thing must line up with its value also aligns her with Delaware practice.
Named after his father, Natty Bumppo was first renamed "Straight-tongue" by the Delaware. Soon after, he became "Pigeon," and then "Lap-ear." His brief incarnation in animal form suggests a further symmetry throughout the novels of preferring those humans that accept their relation to animal identities. In this novel, as in Last of the Mohicans, the testing that repeatedly occurs obscures an asymmetry of human desires. Although their feelings are necessarily mixed, Hetty wants Hurry, Hurry wants Judith, Judith wants Natty, and Natty wants to leave the lake with no hard feelings. The attention to naming practices emerges alongside a division between these "earned" names and the access, or lack of access, that women have to names. When Judith nerves herself to propose marriage to Natty Bumppo, one motivation she discusses is her need to have a name after having discovered that her mother erased all traces both of her own family name and of the father she never married, a father the daughter never knew. As she puts it, "until the law gives me a right to another name," (403) she can only go by her first name. And that name dangles alone at the end of the novel, since her sister dies in the butchering melee that follows the torture of Natty Bumppo.
The skill that Chingachgook displays emerges from his ability to hear silence as a message. As the ark once again approaches the castle in the middle of the lake, he wants to hold back from its suspicious silence. The white men who have shown such cupidity rush in to find themselves ambushed. Desiring to collect scalps, Floating Tom Hutter finds himself scalped, his bared head emerging horribly from beneath a cap as his daughter uncovers his head. His body is lowered in to the lake to lie near that of his sunken wife and son. Beneath the ark, meanwhile, unremarked and unrecovered, a nameless Huron lies grasping at the underwater grass.
Almost as soon as the body has reached the lake's bottom, Hurry Harry tries to propose marriage to Judith. The story's preoccupation with the concepts of Hetty's simple virtue juxtaposed with Judith's desire for fine clothing and flirtation leaves Deerslayer as a kind of lodestone that attracts Judith to virtue. As a moral magnet, he squirms in front of Judith's desiring gaze. Mating and morality, the fitness of a partner might emerge in the wilderness through an increased capacity to survive. Such a need to survive forms the basis of the suggestion to Natty Bumppo that he needs to marry the widow of the Huron man he has killed in order that her children will not starve. By this logic of loyalty and betrayal, the death of the nameless Huron girl, meeting with her lover by the shore of the lake and cut down by Harry's thoughtless bullet as she distracts him from his duty as a sentry, has its place in an economy in which romance meets the pragmatic matter of starvation.
The dreamlike actions of the young Deerslayer contrast with the actions of the eponymous Edgar Huntly; he also takes pointless journeys through the wilderness, and engages in pointless scalping. The legacy of a wanderer in a dreamscape, more often associated with the uneven landscape around Philadelphia than with the city streets, strongly changed how literature written after Charles Brockden Brown conceived of a man in the new world. That the journeys of Arthur Mervyn (1800) tend to be rural, that the only family member left to tell the story in Wieland is a woman, that Jane Talbot (1801) and Clara Howard (1801) and Ormond (1799) feature women as central and titular characters, none of this changes the fundamental impression of the "hero in space" as a formative character in the American landscape. Instead of witnessing the relation of desire and domestic fiction, perhaps the historical novel witnesses desire and history as the primary goal of a nationalist enterprise.
A different form of desire—the desire for freedom—affects the movements of characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's most famous novel. To read the familiar pages of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) as a historical novel is to presume, again, that a history of the present, the present of Stowe's fictional composition as an act of passionate resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, sets out to look forward as well as backwards. In showing characters who flee from slavery both north and south, Stowe wanted to rewrite the history of the future.12 She set out to produce a history of the United States that would have become obsolete in the moment of its telling and in order to produce that effect she abandoned her plot and became apocalyptic by the novel's end. Without rehearsing the complexities of the journeys that the characters in this novel make by water—most famously Eliza's journey across the icy waters of the Ohio River—I still wish to call attention to the myriad ways that these journeys cross and yet make no reference to the landscapes of the native peoples in Cooper's fiction. Stowe announces herself as writing from the position of the "frontier-line" as she draws to the close of her novel, referring to the same Ohio River that separated her from Kentucky as she wrote the novel, but she does not reference this position as a frontier except insofar as she has been living on the boundary of slavery.
That the boundary of slavery and the boundary of the frontier might intersect becomes impossible to stage in the imaginary conjunction that I propose here between narratives of frontier violence and narratives of resistance to slavery.13 Within Uncle Tom's Cabin, the gestures of tracking fugitives mimic the movements of trackers in frontier fiction without ever referencing them. Even as the violence of a novel such as Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods (1837) became a staged play whose performances might have intersected with those of Uncle Tom's Cabin, there has been no study of the relation of empathy and identification to the flights and pursuits that each imagined in the territory of the South. Set in 1782, Bird's novel opens with what are depicted as emigrants entering the landscape of the south where the concept of plantation slavery so vividly in crisis in Stowe's fiction seems never to have been imagined; the horrors of Bird's novel emerge simply and repeatedly through the terrors of scalping.
After having depicted the slow journey toward the worst of slavery, a journey down the Mississippi River and through New Orleans, Stowe deposits Uncle Tom both in the misery of Legree's plantation and in the ecstasy of Christian martyrdom. His demise does not end the novel, however. Instead, pages of Christian prophecy occupy the narrator. "This is an age of the world," we are told, "when nations are trembling and convulsed." On the last page, readers are told to look out for "this mighty influence thus rousing in all nations and languages those groanings that cannot be uttered, for man's freedom and equality!" Although the narrative asserts a desire to save "this Union," the final words invoke the "wrath of Almighty God!" As nations shall suffer for their sins, so shall the reader.
To call for an end to the United States does not seem to suggest quite the kind of nationalism that I have been describing as the project of the historical novel. It places Stowe's vision more in line with that of David Walker's Appeal than that of the Christian state of forgiveness more often associated with Uncle Tom's Cabin. Yet, as we have seen, the project of historical fiction often involves the horrors of history as well as the guilty embrace of the nation.
It also matters that Stowe's vision of the United States exists in a global context. Sending characters off to Liberia can be seen, appropriately, as a concession to the compromised colonization movement that understood the problems of race simply as a numerical matter of subtracting darker populations. But it also functions to keep the United States as an international space, one strongly affected by the presence of Canada to the north, and by African migrations to the east.14 It has been clear throughout that the principle of claiming belonging to a national space exists in a parallel relation to the lives of Stowe's characters. Even when they are redeemed alive, as is the irrepressible Topsy, their destiny becomes ambiguously pictured as national relocation. Sent to Liberia as a missionary, Topsy is described as "teaching the children of her own country." Through what transmogrification Liberia has become "her own country" is never explained.
Still, as critics have noted, Stowe imagines that heaven itself is a different country, ascribing to it a form of nationalism that seems somehow both at odds with the strife over citizenship that took place in the nineteenth-century United States and completely in line with the idea that citizenship carries with it a form of belonging to Protestant Christianity. When George returns home to Kentucky to give Chloe the sad news that her husband has died, he announces, "he's gone to a better country." Chloe scornfully rejects such a redemption tale, one that Tom himself has encouraged, by retorting that he has been "sold, and murdered" instead.
Throughout these narratives of frontier violence and escapes across the landscapes, lakes, and rivers of the United States, the focus and purpose of nationalism with respect to the historical novel changes. The notorious gap inserted into understandings of U. S. literature, a gap produced by the Civil War, might also be understood as a gap during which it was impossible to write historical fiction. Yet the fluidity of the historical romance earlier in the nineteenth century often betrays uneasiness about its ability to convey a story. To tell stories in which the main characters are "sold, and murdered" is to bring together the most problematic aspects of the history of the United States, institutionalized slavery and legalized genocide. If history is what hurts, then it might have hurt too much to see such history, and certainly too much to make it into historical fiction, in the middle of a war.
What was at once an exploratory forum and a platform for the production of national consciousness appeared early enough in experimental fictions such as Tabitha Tenney's Female Quixotism (1801), where soldiers become targets of marital designs. The anomaly in Tenney's fiction is to have a woman, however satirically handled, as a major character through which to view historical events. More often, historical fiction operates through the adventures associated with a male venture into a landscape. That landscape has inhabitants who present hazards for the male protagonist, though to consider Uncle Tom in such a light is to see that the hazards are not usually associated with white slave catchers. The presence of women in historical fiction seems most often to trigger the actions of pursuit and recapture (as in Cooper's fiction) or to enable a satisfactory resolution of historical crises through a resolution in marriage (also in Cooper's fiction).15
The most interesting aspect of bringing together the frontier romance with the possibility of escaping slavery might appear through investigating the venture that Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly makes into the wilderness. Edgar Huntly's journey leaves an indelible mark even as he prepares the path for not only Natty Bumppo but also the strange adventures of Uncle Tom. Having famously found himself in a cave prepared to eat a panther, the young somnambulist enacts the slaughter that he fears. His sleepwalking and his uneasy waking might re-enact the difficult bringing together of slavery practices and Indian genocide. Each of these wanderers in the wilderness seeks to read the mark of the landscape as commingled with the mark of the heart and the mark of history. Historical fiction reveals all three marks through national narratives that merge longings and landscapes.
1. David Levin, History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman (Stanford Univ. Press, 1959).
2. See, for example, Martin Brueckner, The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (University of North Carolina, 2006), and Trish Loughran, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U. S. Nation Building, 1770-1870 (Columbia University Press, 2007).
3. Georg Lukacs, The Historical Novel trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963).
4. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1983). See especially Anderson's influential account of the origin of national consciousness, partly an act of the imagination, as his title suggests, and his reading of Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History," a useful analogy for the process of always looking backwards into the past while moving forward. His introduction attempts to account for the difficulty of defining nationalism.
5. Samuel Otter, Philadelphia Stories: America's Literature of Race and Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2010); Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity (University of North Carolina, 2010).
6. Burrows, Edwin and Michael Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City (Oxford University Press, 1998).
7. George Dekker, The American Historical Romance (Cambridge University Press, 1987), 4.
8. A work like Jerome de Groot's The Historical Novel (Routledge, 2010) places the matter of historical fiction in a European perspective and does not acknowledge that there was historical fiction written in the United States. In contrast, Harry Shaw's The Forms of Historical Fiction: Sir Walter Scott and His Successors (Cornell University Press, 1983), credits Sir Walter Scott as the originating force, but also credits George Lukacs with the inspiration for how to consider the novel in history as an expression of at once a Marxist understanding of the relation of human beings to their culture and as a way to produce a historically situated Enlightenment subject.
9. Stephen Shapiro, The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel: Reading the Atlantic World System (University of North Carolina, 2009).
10. See Mielke, 17-22.
11. For a helpful overview see June Namias, White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier (University of North Carolina, 1993). See also Michele Burnham, Captivity and Sentiment: Cultural Exchange in American Literature, 1682-1861 (University Press of New England, 1997).
12. In writing about the after life of this novel, scholars have had to contend with the virulent anger it has aroused over the past century and a half. Initially the anger directed toward the book came from defenders of slavery, some of whom wrote counter narratives to celebrate the warmth of the ties that slavery enabled. In the twentieth century, the novel was condemned by writers such as James Baldwin for its false racial sympathy. Later in the twentieth century, the novel received a great deal of critical attention for its place as a feminist text. Critics such as Jane Tompkins and Gillian Brown explored its relation to women's writing. Still later, in thinking over the relation between politics and sympathy in the protest writing of abolition, Karen Sanchez Eppler announced that her "desire to articulate connections between social action and literary expression" initially drove her attention to such work, however elusive such connections turned out to be. See Karen Sanchez Eppler, Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body (University of California, 1993), 14. For a recapitulation of these movements, see Cindy Weinstein, Cambridge Companion to Harriet Beecher Stowe (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
13. See, for instance, the chapter on "Laying Claim to the Land and the Space of the Nation" in Barbara Welke, Law and the Borders of Belonging in the Long Nineteenth Century United States (Cambridge University Press, 2010). See also Ezra Tawil, The Making of Racial Sentiment: Slavery and the Birth of The Frontier Romance (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006).
14. See Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U. S. Culture (Harvard University Press, 2005). Kaplan announces that "domestic metaphors of national identity are intimately intertwined with renderings of the foreign and the alien" (4). Her chapter on "Manifest Domesticity" operates powerfully to question "how the ideology of separate spheres contributed to making an American empire" (26). See also Inderpal Grewal, who announces that she understands "America" in a complicated way, as "a nationalist discourse that promotes many kinds of agency" in Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, NeoLiberalisms (Duke University Press, 2005), 2. Another method of enforcing a racially segregated nation came later in the nineteenth century through measures such as the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882, restricting entry of Chinese immigrants and encouraging violence against already established communities. See Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans (University of California, 2008).
15. The difficulty of resolving historical crises that involve race comes about not only through the typical endings of such novels in the marriages of white characters but also in the way that they emphatically refuse to consider marriages across racial boundaries (with the exceptions discussed in chapter three). That such marriages were often illegal in the nineteenth century United States compounds the difficulty. See, for example, Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (Oxford University Press, 2010), who discusses such laws not only in the white communities, but also in American Indian nation legislation (p. 21). Pascoe explains, "By using marriage to delineate race, lawmakers wrapped race in and around the gender differences that stood at the heart of nineteenth-century marriage, which, in turn, stood at the heart of the American state" (22).
Return to Top of Page