Academic journal article Early American Studies

The Romance of America: Trauma, National Identity, and the Leather-Stocking Tales

Academic journal article Early American Studies

The Romance of America: Trauma, National Identity, and the Leather-Stocking Tales

Article excerpt

In his recent biography, Wayne Franklin argues that the Leather-stocking Tales are animated by a profound sense of loss brought about by the slow but inevitable dissolution of the Cooper family estate.1 According to Franklin, it was through this experience that James Fenimore Cooper was able to understand and empathize with others who faced similar dispossession. Few would argue with Franklin's claim. Critics have continuously disagreed, however, on how to interpret this presentation of loss in regard to Native Americans. Traditionally, scholars, following D. H. Lawrence's persuasive reading, have seen the series engaged in a retreat from history into an American mythology of freedom from the demands of society and the past.2 Others have stepped away from the concept of myth to suggest that Cooper's tales are firmly based in the historical and cultural debates of his own period.3 Yet alongside their argument for Cooper's historical accuracy, such ai tics most often see his novels as portraying "white occupation of the continent as inevitable and justified, even if it annihilated the Indians."4 According to this line of thought, the Leather-stocking Tales narrate and justify the progress of American civilization by constructing the Native American as the object of an untroubling nostalgia.5 Susan Sheckel describes this nostalgia as a national mourning that "eliminate^] both violence and responsibility from the process."6 Recently scholars have offered a more positive vision, arguing for a progressive Cooper "who . . . challenged the hegemony of racism by depicting people of color in sympathetic ways."7

I would like to suggest an alternative method for thinking through the conflicting positions that Cooper's texts produce. The confusion does not lie with Cooper, or with his critics, but rather with the historical reality of western expansion. Cooper understood the movement west as the central event of American history, but also as a source of traumatic suffering and loss that had the potential to shatter any account of national history. As part of the continuous dialogue surrounding Native and American history in the nineteenth century, we should read Cooper's novels not as a simple assertion of a progressive history, nor as a mythical retreat from the concerns and responsibilities of history, but rather as his searching after a literary form, in this case romance, that might be able to encompass a trauma that places all narratives of American progress in doubt.8 Ultimately, it is in the failure of the Leather-stocking series, its inability to explain this national trauma and its inability to simply consign it to a place of national forgetting, that we can locate its greatest success. Andrew Jackson's program of Native American removal across the Mississippi can be read as the reverse of this acknowledgment, as an attempt to erase the Native American from history completely. It is worth noting that the last two novels of the series, which move furthest into America's Native past, come after this governmental attempt at a national forgetting.9

In his discussion of the psychological affects of trauma on the individual, Michael Rothberg argues that events that cause widespread individual trauma can also contribute to a collective trauma as a society's symbolic systems are found to be inadequate: "In fact, trauma, like genocide, has a historical side as well, and the maladies of time and space ... are social maladies that extend beyond the lives of particular survivors."10 By definition, traumatic events are those that through both their repetition and ultimate evasion of meaning disrupt the continuity of memory. Expanded to a collective or societal level, traumatic events similarly disrupt the interpretative frames of history that grant meaning to the past. The difficulties of Cooper's narratives, their errors in plotting, characterization, pacing, and unity and their constant repetition, should be read as a struggle to locate a literary form that can account for such a disruptive national trauma. …

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