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FORREST G. ROBINSON Uncertain Borders: Race, Sex, and Civilization in The Last of the Mohicans I. ICHAEL ROGIN HAS RECENTLY REMINDED US of the Central .place of the Indian in the American consciousness during the Age of Jackson. This was above all else a period of headlong westward expansion involving wars and treaties that resulted in the dispossession of the original dwellers on the land. "Indians had not mattered so much," Rogin observes, "since the colonial settlements. They would never matter so much again." We need to be reminded of the preeminent national concern with Indians during this period because our historians "have failed," Rogin charges, "to place Indians at the center of Jackson's life. They have interpreted the Age of Jackson from every perspective but Indian destruction, the one from which it actually developed historically."1 The great popularity ofThe Last of the Mohicans argues quite emphatically in support of Rogin's position. Indian wars figured prominently in the national self-image of the time that Cooper first acted on the impulse to become a writer. By the mid- 1820s, when he conceived and wrote his best-seller, major developments in Federal Indian Removal Policy were regularly in the public eye. There can be little doubt that Cooper was keenly aware of these ominous signs. The title and dominant thematics ofThe Last ofthe Mohicans are the surest kind ofevidence that he was alert and responsive to the gathering swell of legislation Arizona Quarterly Volume 47 Number 1, Spring 1991 Copyright © 1991 by Arizona Board of Regents issn 0004- 1 6 10 Forrest G. Robinson and public opinion that would soon sweep the Indians from their homes.2 At no time since its publication in 1826 has the novel's subtitle —A Narrative of 1757—served to diminish any informed reader's awareness of its direct relevance to contemporary affairs. The popularity of the novel is also evidence that Cooper's representation of Indian-White relations won the approval of the American reading public. This was no mean feat. For his story of violent racial conflict, dispossession, and annihilation amounted to an indictment, at times direct, at others oblique, of the young republic that was rapidly spreading across the continent. As George Sand quite astutely observed , "Cooper was able, without too great an affront to the pride of his country, to plead the cause of the Indians. " He succeeded in this unlikely project, Sand suggests, because his novel was the occasion for a purgative expression of grief and guilt. In "the calm but resonant voice of the novelist," she argues, "the American let loose from his breast this conscience-stricken cry: 'In order to be what we are, we had to kill a great people and devastate a mighty land. ' "3 In the century and more since George Sand composed these views, there has been ample confirmation of her basic insights. Modern critics regularly observe that The Lost of the Mohicans addressed itself to what was, and what continues to be, an extremely sensitive question. How are we to square our sense of ourselves as a just and compassionate people with the cruelty and injustice that surface everywhere in the record of our dealings with the Indian? In Cooper's time, the leading justification for the seizure of Indian land was the alleged moral superiority of Christian civilization to the "barbarism" of the displaced natives. Contact with Europeans, it was argued, worked to the Indians' moral and spiritual advantage. Cooper himself adopts this position in Notions of the Americans (1828), observing of Indian Removal: ? great, humane, and, I think, rational project, is now in operation to bring the Indians within the pale of civilization."4 But Notions—"a book written ," as James Franklin Beard has observed, "primarily for European readers"5—is notorious for its defensive idealization of the state of the nation. It is also laced with observations that run directly counter to Cooper's optimism. He notes, for example, that Indians are prone to "become victims to the abuses of civilization, without ever attaining to any of its moral elevation." Even more ominously, he reflects on Indian Removal that "where there is much intercourse between the very...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-28
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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