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Remarkable Particulars: David Gamut and the Alchemy of Race in The Last of the Mohicans
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David Gamut. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth, from The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757, by James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919), facing 120.

. . . introducing some uncouth, ungainly, and unnatural being, bearing no likeness to anything on the earth . . .

North American Review, July 1826

David Gamut, the hapless psalmodist traveling with Major Heyward and his charges in The Last of the Mohicans, could not appear less suited to life in the wilderness of upstate New York, a war zone fiercely contested by the French, the English, and the Indians. With a temperament “given to mercy and love,” the pious and pacific Gamut brandishes a pitch pipe instead of a rifle or a sword; according to the wily Hawk-eye, in a frontier fight, “this singer is as good as nothing.”1 Hawk-eye’s dismissal of Gamut mirrors critical neglect: as David Seed notes, “to judge by Cooper criticism David Gamut seems to be the most forgettable character” in the 1826 novel.2 Within wider considerations of Cooper’s text, Gamut appears only fleetingly as a figure of fun, a stock character “representing the absurdity and pathos in the wilderness of men who will not touch a gun but take quite literally the Christian injunction to return good for evil.”3 Such assessments stem from the ostensible “incongruity of his presence in the wilderness,” for “as a psalmodist, he can scarcely have any conceivable connection with the novel’s central themes of nostalgia for the disappearing Indian and anxiety over the question of miscegenation.”4

However, I find the psalmodist more than “conceivably connected” to these themes. Complicating traditional readings that focus exclusively on the novel’s rhetorical reinforcement of nineteenth-century race thinking, I argue that this quirky character enables The Last of the Mohicans to introduce important exceptions to the racial rules. I read the body of David Gamut as a hybridized construction around which signs not only of the Puritan but also of the Indian and the Jew gather. This body increasingly emerges as a site of racial ambiguity, a screen upon which a drama of cultural flux unfolds—a drama that points to the pull of the disappearing Indian and push of the arriving immigrant in Cooper’s own time. Such representation suggests an active engagement, substantiated by retrospective reflections in Cooper’s travel writing and late novels on the increasing prominence of Jews in the early republic, with the contemporary discourse of probationary whiteness. Described by Matthew Jacobson as a kind of “racial alchemy,” this discourse “whitened” suspect Europeans such as Jews and Catholics through imaginary contrast with the Indian in the West and the slave in the South, facilitating a national consolidation of whiteness essential to the rhetoric of nonwhite removal and containment.5 With the astonishing survival of the hybridized, pseudo-Jewish Gamut, Cooper’s text seems to anticipate the masses of immigrants that would flood ports in the North only a few years after the publication of The Last of the Mohicans, but ultimately, this early work stands as uneasy witness to the discursive whitening of American Jews and questionable immigrants: when Cooper revisits the question of probationary whiteness in his last novel, The Oak Openings (1848), that narrative’s analogue to David Gamut quickly meets a violent end—a clear corrective to the racial redefinitions suggested by The Last of the Mohicans.

Jews in America: David Gamut and the Confluence of Race Thinking

The grotesquely attenuated figure of David Gamut appears in the opening moments of the narrative as a “marked exception” to the bystanders watching the departure of a British detachment from the frontier stronghold of Fort Edward. As this mysterious stranger falls in with the Duncan Heyward party, the narrator withholds the newcomer’s name and history, instead offering readers a prolonged inspection of the freakish body. I refer to this figure as a “hybridized construction”—even though we recognize the singing master as Anglo-American—because the text itself evinces tremendous suspicion toward this exceptional body, identifying it as a “false superstructure of blended human orders” (LM, 16). Thus David Gamut stands as an imaginative, rather than a...

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