- Recalling Cora:Family Resemblances in The Last of the Mohicans
By the time he published The Last of the Mohicans in 1826, the critics had placed James Fenimore Cooper alongside Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant as one of the US’s foremost writers and its premier novelist. Although readers gobbled up Cooper’s Indian tales, critics were sharply divided as to whether The Last of the Mohicans displayed his mature artistry or pandered to popular taste.1 Their concern was misplaced, for Cooper had obviously figured out how to meet both standards in this work of fiction. The question is how. As he said of Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntley (1799), just because Brown included “an American, a savage, a wildcat, and a tomahawk” did not make it an American novel.2 Does Cooper use the racial struggle between European and Native American to stage what is a battle between white men to identify his Leatherstocking Tales as American? In making this very claim, Jared Gardner excepts The Last of the Mohicans.3 If so, why would a racial struggle earn him the title of the “American Sir Walter Scott”? Jonathan Arac agrees that there is indeed something quite different about this novel in that it goes back to the very beginning and redefines the preconditions for a national narrative (8–10). It does so, in Arac’s view, by pitting good Indians against bad ones to show that the passage of America from a state of nature to civilization was [End Page 223] accomplished, not by way of the European cultivation of wilderness, but by a distinctively American pathway.
Even as we concede Arac’s point, we want to shift our critical focus away from the question of which opposition dominates—European versus Native American, European versus European, British American versus British, or European American versus Native American. One cannot explain the literary success of The Last of the Mohicans by determining which position Cooper’s novel takes on one or more of the larger political debates of its historical moment any more than by specifying which groups he excludes from his national community. While it is entirely legitimate to define any political society by its constituent exclusions (Arac 8), criticism that resorts to the political logic of identity based on difference does so, in the case of this novel, at the expense of the literary potential for a more inclusive, pluralistic community based on resemblances. With this principle in mind, we focus on the formal means by which Cooper negotiated the various binaries, especially those straddling a racial divide, any one of which would constitute national identity on the basis of difference and exclusion. We are only too aware of the wealth and range of scholarship on the form of racism that prevails in settler colonies and how US novels in particular were complicit in erasing the Indian presence.4 Conventional as it is to say that Cooper’s novel is a racist fantasy (which it certainly is), we want to address two questions that build on that consensus: why a Euro-communist like Georg Lukács would put Cooper’s novel in the category of “great historical novels,” and why the literary tradition of the American novel generally begins with Cooper and sometimes even with The Last of the Mohicans. We are concerned, in other words, with the form Cooper’s content takes: how did he formulate a potentially comprehensive community in a field of political divisions that seems only genocide or civil war could reconcile?
It was perhaps because the French and Indian War (1754–1763) multiplied Britain’s national debt, prompting the victors to seek relief by taxing the famously resistant colonists, that Cooper chose that conflict as the historical starting point for his story of national origins.5 Or perhaps, as a literary man, he was especially sensitive to the paternalistic rhetoric through which supporters of the Stamp Act heralded its passage in 1765: “And now will these Americans,” Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, is reported to have said, “children planted by our care, nourished up by our indulgence, till they are grown to...