Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Cross-Cultural Hybridity in James Fenimore Cooper's the Last of the Mohicans

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Cross-Cultural Hybridity in James Fenimore Cooper's the Last of the Mohicans

Article excerpt

Scholars of James Fenimore Cooper have generally interpreted The Last of the Mohicans and its American Indian characters as emblematic of the Vanishing American convention in American literature, whereby Natives must be subsumed in order for a young America to fulfill its destiny. In a popular sense, the novel has come to be viewed as an adventure story of our country's beginnings, an American counterpart to Sir Walter Scott's Waverley escapades set against the backdrop of a pristine yet unpredictable wilderness, the inhabitants of which eventually disappear. Typically, approaches to Cooper's novel draw on sources such as Rousseau and Columbus, (1) whose contemplations of a "new" American landscape and its inhabitants serve as much of the basis for the Noble Savage convention in literature.

Indians' roles in defining America and differentiating it from the "Old World" perhaps explain the extreme popularity of Cooper's Leatherstocking series among nineteenth-century readers who were eager to locate a unifying, recognizable history for their "new" country, which was enduring--violently--the growing pains of settlement and national expansion and was seeking to define its unique contribution to literature, art, and history amidst the shadow of Europe. Ironically, while Indians were chief referents for imagining Americanness, they were also chief roadblocks to the nation's achievement of dominion over the North American continent, and as a result the American experience came to be typified in literature by Native and European contact and confrontation--in other words, encounters (2) at both cultural and geographical borders.

The binary between the "old" and "new" individual and the moral complications of contact between these oppositions have thus permeated scholarship on Cooper's text from the time of its publication to the present. Recently, these approaches have emphasized Europeans' moral failings in their opposition to American Indians and have concentrated on the societal consequences of those failings. Leslie Fiedler has posited, "This Europe and this America are ... no more facts of geography than Cooper's Indians and whites are facts of ethnography; the place-names stand for corruption and innocence, sophistication and naivete, aesthetics and morality" (191). Gaile McGregor offers: "[T]he Indian offered Cooper a versatile reference point for exploring the psychic social and particularly the moral dimension of the American's existential dilemma" (125). And Robert Milder concludes: "[T]he ... dominant mood is one of loss, not celebration. Partly this loss is the Indians', but the more significant loss is that of the conquerors themselves, whose succession to the land is tainted by violence and guilt" (408-09, italics mine). These readings, while apt in the way in which they problematize conquest, or "settlement" of America, and point toward the influence of the Noble Savage convention on Cooper's novel nevertheless maintain a relatively exclusive focus on the psychological and ethical dispositions of Europeans and neglect the dynamic role that American Indians also espouse in the text. In several ways, The Last of the Mohicans offers a more complex--though often subtle-presentation of cross-cultural contact--and even reciprocity--than most critics have recognized.

Monica Kaup and Debra J. Rosenthal are among a small number of scholars who address the prominence of cultural and racial hybridity in Cooper's works. Contrasting the work of Fiedler and Terry Goldie, Kaup and Rosenthal offer the following analysis:

   [B]oth Fiedler's classic American Studies approach and Goldie's
   postcolonial critique ... remain caught within a binary mode
   (white v. Indian), which cannot adequately recognize a third
   dynamic, the process of hybrid crossing. To view the imaginary
   kinship of whites with Natives merely in terms of
   appropriation ... is to overlook that the process of
   imaginary projection as native American is more than semiotic
   kidnapping to empower Euro-Americans. … 
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