Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Worthlessness of Duncan Heyward: A Waverley Hero in America

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Worthlessness of Duncan Heyward: A Waverley Hero in America

Article excerpt

"Your notions are those of a gentleman," allows the Scottish-born Colonel Munro of his young southern subordinate, Major Duncan Heyward, "and well enough in their place,"(1) but the American wilderness is clearly not the place for them, a point frequently and indeed bitterly reiterated throughout James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. The passage of European mores and rivalries across the Atlantic is a central theme in the work of the first major American novelist, and in his most famous fiction the alien influence that particularly exercises him is a complex of behavior, values, and narrative structure best exemplified for him--and no doubt for his readers--by the character and trajectory of the typical protagonist of a novel by Sir Walter Scott.

While the sway of the enormously popular Waverley Novels has always been acknowledged--few accounts of Cooper's career fail to mention that he was called "the American Scott," along with the fact (noted, but rarely enlarged upon) that he resented this designation--the degree to which Cooper engages in a conscious, critical, even at times resentful dialogue with his great model and rival has not been given the attention it warrants.(2) With all the other phenomena confidently detected in the psyche of the apparently oblivious creator of Leatherstocking, anxiety of influence--particularly at this early stage in his development--has been oddly neglected.(3)

Perhaps the best way to begin a re-examination of The Last of the Mohicans in this light is to assess the book's attitude towards precisely the character and values--these specifically Old-World "notions"--of Duncan Heyward, the man who, in most of the obvious ways, really must be considered its hero. The young Major and his behavior, I would contend, are fundamental, not peripheral aspects of Cooper's story. Character, as Peter C. Lapp and others have pointed out, "rivals and in some respects displaces plot as the main object of interest"(4) for both the author and his readership, making the text's insistence on the qualities and faults of such a central figure too important to pass off lightly as the designation of yet another of those "genteel upper-class characters who--whatever we may think of them--were in Cooper's eyes the flower and justification of usurping white civilization."(5) Heyward's character, furthermore, is too much his own, too distinct from others even of his own class, race, and background, for it to be adequate only to discuss his treatment as the explication of a "type," in the manner proposed by Jane Tompkins. While the characteristics of his social group and culture are certainly part of his significance, there is directed towards him an animosity too intense to be a plausible expression of Cooper's overall view of the white, male officer-caste of the day. In short, the text's venom towards this suspiciously Waverleyan protagonist remains largely undescribed and unaccounted for.

There has been, of late, a movement away from an acceptance of Heyward as a mere cipher, a blandly conventional projection of the contemporary readership's approval. Forrest G. Robinson speaks persuasively not just of his "erratic" judgement and bumbling, his being "a little `thick,'" but also of his larger "shortcomings," ultimately indicative of "the hollowness, even the hypocrisy, of white moral pretensions."(6) Donald Ringe goes further, detailing the way Heyward's "false heroics" are "consistently mocked."(7) For Ringe, however, this behavior is a function of Cooper's aesthetics, his deployment of a "mode" of mock heroism, just as fearful misapprehensions by all the book's personages spring from its dominant Gothicism. Heyward is eventually "cured" of both tendencies, and "assumes a modest role" in the closing sections of the narrative.(8) Robinson, for his part, dilutes the negative effects of the text's portrayal by making them merely one phase of the ever-familiar ambivalence of its author, who is, yet again, "divided against himself" and whose duplicitous treatment of the young man reflects the desire simultaneously to expatiate and deny the guilty truth of American history, to appease an "unconscious need to have it both ways. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.