Academic journal article MELUS

Last of the Red Hot Mohicans: Miscegenation in the Popular American Romance

Academic journal article MELUS

Last of the Red Hot Mohicans: Miscegenation in the Popular American Romance

Article excerpt

In his 1824 "Essay on Romance," Sir Walter Scott states that "romance turns upon marvelous or uncommon events," while the novel "accommodated to the ordinary train of human events and the modern state of society" (554). Scott's definition served as a model for James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other American writers, who presented their works as novels because they professed to present realistic portraits.(1) Yet Cooper's fledgling United States had a much more difficult time portraying its history than Scott's Great Britain, and as the U.S. and Great Britain developed different national agendas, they developed different literatures.(2) As the United States found it increasingly difficult to present the verity of colonialist expansion across the West without calling the ethics of that project into question, writers like Cooper and Hawthorne eventually dispensed with claims to the presentation of objective history through literature and turned instead to the business of myth-making. Thus in his original preface to The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper warned the reader who "takes up this volume in expectation of an imaginary and romantic picture of things which never had an existence" that he or she "will probably lay it aside, disappointed" (v).

Today, of course, the generic term romance has come to indicate a love story based more exclusively in the realm of fantasy, and popular romances published by Harlequin, Silhouette, and other houses comprise nearly 50% of all paperback book sales in the United States.(3) Like Cooper and other popular writers before them, many romance writers have turned to the figure of the Native American in the widely popular "Indian romance," as the industry has named these novels that depict a love affair culminating in marriage between a European American character (usually the heroine) and a full- or half-blood Native American. Like Cooper and previous writers, the Native American in these texts represents more of the American cultural imaginary; these novels do not reflect reality so much as fantasy and include a mythical depiction of the tribal community as an integral part of that fantasy.

In The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper looks back nearly one hundred years to the French and Indian Wars, and, unlike the contemporary Indian romance in which miscegenation proves not just an option but the ideal, Cooper's narrative presents a world in which the mixing of races is morally repugnant and anathema to the American project of nation building. To justify colonialist expansion, Cooper had to present the indigenous people as murderous savages, with the noble Mohicans Chingachgook and Uncas as exceptions to this rule. Nonetheless, Cooper received sharp criticism from critic Lewis Cass, who also worked as an Indian agent involved in treaties and land sales. Cass mounted a campaign against Cooper for portraying the Mohicans as unrealistically honorable; this provided Cooper with more impetus to suspend all claims to historical accuracy and embrace the generic classification of romance for protection. In such a climate, a tale of interracial love and miscegenation was far from possible.

Although Cooper presented his hero as a cultural hybrid--a white man living with Mohican companions and able to speak several native dialects--he simultaneously depicted Hawkeye (Natty Bumpo), as purely white in the repeated description of him as "without a cross."(4) Chingachgook, too, represents a pure Mohican, "an unmixed man" (28). Alice Munro, "surpassingly fair" (378), weeps and faints throughout the novel as "some beautiful emblem of the wounded delicacy of her sex" (124), while her older, wiser, and darker sister Cora stands up to the Huron and protects Alice as steadfastly as Hawkeye or their soldier companion, Duncan Heyward. Yet because Cora represents another form of mixed blood, she dies while Alice prevails.

According to Nina Baym, The Last of the Mohicans testifies that "outspoken bravery, firmness, intelligence, self-possession, and eloquence in a woman" prove useless in nineteenth century male-authored fiction, but these qualities will later be valorized in the Indian romance of the twentieth century (14) (in fact, such valorization can be seen just two years after publication of The Last of the Mohicans in Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie, to which I will turn in a moment). …

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