James Fennimore Cooper the Last of the Mohicans Essay

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Fenimore Cooper, Last of the Mohicans

The theme of James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans would seem to be containted not only in the title of the novel, but also in its subtitle: A Narrative of 1757. The two halves of the book's title both point to a historical past, and the indication of tremendous changes that had occurred on the North American continent between the Colonial era of the French and Indian War depicted in the novel, and in the prosperous bourgeois United States of America in 1826, when the novel was first published. I would like to explore how certain aspects of Fenimore Cooper's narrative illuminate this theme in different ways, and attempt to point to a vanished past -- not necessarily a Paradise Lost, but a version of history that is constructed mythically, to justify the United States by offering a myth of its early beginnings. First I will examine the novel's protagonist, Natty Bumppo, to see what Fenimore Cooper is saying about America through his depiction. Then I will examine the specific comedy or satire which Fenimore Cooper has placed in the novel with the character of Gamut, who exists as a kind of joke within the novel to better define Bumppo. And finally I will examine the question of Bumppo's relationship with the Indians depicted in the book, and how it relates to the book's central theme of a vanished historical American past. In my conclusion, I will show how The Last of the Mohicans and its theme can be best understood by comparison with a later work which provides a comic reflection of the myth which Fenimore Cooper established. But overall, Fenimore Cooper's central theme -- to present a mythic "narrative" of events that were a half a century in the past when he was writing, and which predated the existence of anything called "The United States of America" as a way of establishing a fictive foundation for the nation -- will be seen as the unifying purpose of the novel.

We must first observe that Fenimore Cooper's protagonist, Natty Bumppo, is actually somewhat unexpected. In the era of European colonization of North America, Bumppo is, in fact, not quite European. This is most noteworthy in Fenimore Cooper's use of names for his protagonist: the character is only referred to as Natty Bumppo at the very outset. Fenimore Cooper's "Introduction" tells us that "every word uttered by Natty Bumppo was not to be received as rigid truth" and in Chapter 3, Hawkeye (to give Natty his Indian name) speaking with Chigachgook refers to his ancestors:

"…For myself, I conclude the Bumppos could shoot, for I have a natural turn with a rifle, which must have been handed down from generation to generation, as, our holy commandments tell us, all good and evil gifts are bestowed; though I should be loath to answer for other people in such a matter. But every story has its two sides; so I ask you, Chingachgook, what passed, according to the traditions of the red men, when our fathers first met?" (Ch. 3)

It is important to note that the answer to Bumppo's question here could be answered in a very different way than Bumppo himself would choose to answer it. As Haberly notes about the popularity of Fenimore Cooper's novel, "for roughly a hundred years, from 1750 to 1850, the Indian captivity was one of the chief staples of popular literary culture" (431). The so-called "Captivity Narrative" -- a genre of writing which can be taken to encompass actual autobiographies written by white colonials in Cotton Mather's Massachussetts to describe the experience of being kidnapped by Native Americans, and could also be extended to various types of "Western" story, such as the famous John Ford film The Searchers -- usually emphasizes the utter enmity between the "Aborigines," as Fenimore Cooper calls them in his "Introduction," and the white settlers. Here, Bumppo -- whose story was begun by Fenimore Cooper in a previous novel, and would be continued for several more of the "Leatherstocking Tales" -- has been raised by Indians. There is a sound writerly reason for Fenimore Cooper to do this: it allows him to have a character who can translate effortlessly between the homely domestic world of Alice Munro and the "primitive" life of Chingachgook and the Mohicans. But to make such a character central to the American self-image in 1826 has an added meaning. What does not exist in Fenimore Cooper's novel -- although it had existed in America for almost a century and a half at the time when the novel was set, and for two centuries at the time of its writing -- is slavery. The "race question" in the United States is therefore effortlessly solved by Fenimore Cooper's strategy of changing it from black and white to red and white: as he says in the "Introduction," "the color of the Indian, the writer believes, is peculiar to himself." In fact, what defines Bumppo to the Indians as well as to the French is his weaponry -- he has all the fighting skill of an Indian, but has the additional skill of being able to use the one weapon the Indians lacked, which was responsible for the wholesale murder of so much of their population, namely his rifle:

A burst of voices had shouted simultaneously, "La Longue Carabine!" causing the opposite woods to re-echo with a name which, Heyward well remembered, had been given by his enemies to a celebrated hunter and scout of the English camp, and who, he now learned for the first time, had been his late companion. (Chapter 9).

Here the French only recognize Bumppo by his gun, perhaps because it is the clearest sign that he is not, in fact, actually an Indian himself.

We may understand Bumppo's complicated set of identifying characteristics, both racially and in terms of weaponry, better if we compare him with the character whom Fenimore Cooper presents for comic relief, the music master David Gamut. As Leslie Fielder puts it, Gamut is "a weaponless man in a world of weapon-bearers, utterly ignorant of the conditions of life in the world he enters or of the elementary skills required for survival in it" (Fiedler 198). He is thus not merely the butt of jokes, but specifically a foil for Hawkeye. But it is necessary to note that Gamut's musicianship is not just a sign of refined polite society, but of Christianity: he is constantly referred to by Fenimore Cooper as a "Psalmodist." This seems to be shorthand for the Puritan / Pilgrim presence in the founding of America, but in a novel deliberately set in New York State, we are outside the realm of this religious purpose. Here, the Christian religion is no more useful than the ability to sing.

Gamut, who had stood prepared to pour forth his spirit in song when the visitors entered, after delaying a moment, drew a strain from his pipe, and commenced a hymn that might have worked a miracle, had faith in its efficacy been of much avail. He was allowed to proceed to the close, the Indians respecting his imaginary infirmity, and Duncan too glad of the delay to hazard the slightest interruption. As the dying cadence of his strains was falling on the ears of the latter, he started aside at hearing them repeated behind him, in a voice half human and half sepulchral. Looking around, he beheld the shaggy monster seated on end in a shadow of the cavern, where, while his restless body swung in the uneasy manner of the animal, it repeated, in a sort of low growl, sounds, if not words, which bore some slight resemblance to the melody of the singer. (Chapter 24)

Here the legendary ability of music to charm animals, as in the myth of Orpheus, is replayed for comic effect -- Gamut's role in this wilderness, like that of Christianity, is not likely to have a greater effect than teaching a grizzly bear to sing a Christian hymn.

However, ultimately it is by understanding Bumppo within the context of Indian culture that we can see why Fenimore Cooper should choose to define the American character with this sort of mythic character who can cross racial boundaries. It is because any reader in 1826 would have an awareness that racial difference in North America had shifted, between Indian and colonist, to white citizen and black slave. But here is where the elegiac nature of Fenimore Cooper's theme really becomes important. The Last of the Mohicans is not only, arguably, a version of Indian "captivity novel" in which all conflict is erased, it is also part of a genre which Fiona Stafford has termed "last of the race" fiction, and which includes other noteworthy fictions from the same basic time period, such as Macpherson's Ossian (a little earlier) and Mary Shelley's The Last Man, published in the same year as The Last of the Mohicans, 1826. Stafford…

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