Last of Mohicans–America’s Great Epic?

Means, Day-Lewis in "Last of the Mohicans"

Means, Day-Lewis in “Last of the Mohicans”

A fascinating talk with a colleague has led to new respect for James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Donna Richardson, our Romantics specialist, believes that this long overlooked and often derided novel has the best claim to be “the great American epic” that 19th century Americans authors were striving to write.

For an extended period in literary history, the ability to produce an epic was seen as the mark of a great nation. Milton, England’s premier poet in the mid-17th century, felt driven to write one, even as he worried that there were external reasons why Great Britain would not be able to follow in the footsteps of those great civilizations that had produced The Iliad, The Aeneid, and The Divine Comedy. He worries in Book IX of Paradise Lost that “an age too late, or Cold Climate, or years” would “damp” his “intended wing.” (“Cold climate” is a reference to the theory that only warm and warm-blooded civilizations could produce epics.) Of course Paradise Lost proved his fears wrong, and it would go on to become a model for 19th century American writers trying to prove to the world that their new country had the requisite greatness to produce a great national poem—or, since the novel had become the successor of the poetic epic, a great national novel.

Donna believes, however, that none of the other great 19th century American novels really fit the bill. An epic must somehow invoke the entirety of the nation, she says, and Hawthorne is too focused on Puritan New England while Melville’s whaling voyage, although it has an epic sweep, isn’t set up to explore the clash of cultures that was marking the emerging American nation. (On the other hand, it does a great job capturing the drama of an emerging capitalist nation.)  Huckleberry Finn doesn’t do enough justice to an African American perspective, and Leaves of Grass, although its “I sing America” inclusiveness has an epic sweep, is more epic lyric than epic.

Last of the Mohicans, on the other hand, shows America forging a new identity as it engages in the complex dance of various colonial powers and Indian tribes. It also touches on issues of slavery with a mixed-race heroine (Cora) and a deceptive slaveholder.

In a forthcoming article on Cooper’s novel, Donna demonstrates the author’s sensitivity to multicultural issues. If Cooper hasn’t been given credit for this, Donna says, it’s because scholars have too often simply assumed that the novel was ethnocentric without scrutinizing it. In her own close reading, she shows that Europeans encounter trouble when they ignore Indian customs and they often show themselves blind to their own cultural prejudices. The different Indian tribes, meanwhile, are engaged in their own complicated cultural negotiations with encroaching European civilization.

Donna also points out the ways that Last of the Mohicans is a complex conversation with Paradise Lost. The villainous Indian Magua, for instance, at times seems modeled on Satan although, at other times, we see the cultural misunderstandings that have led him to become who he is. Meanwhile, the white colonialists are not allowed to occupy the role of Milton’s God as Cooper exposes their own arrogance.

I’ll wait until Donna’s article is published before going into her ideas in more detail. In the meantime, I’ll echo her advice to reread, or read for the first time, Cooper’s novel.  She cautions, however, not to be put off by the novel’s cumbersome first paragraph. It picks up after that.

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  • Barbara

    My 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Bowen would agree! We read it two chapters at a time and then discussed it and it seems to go on for months. We read As You Like It the same way. It’s all I remember except for some of her personal quirks (she would warm up a container of milk on the radiator for lunch) but I guess that’s not a bad curriculum. It probably wouldn’t fly today! (And we also learned to conjugate ALL tenses, I’m not sure I can do that now!)

  • Ashley

    Though I think you make a good point, I do worry about Cooper’s extreme discomfort with miscegenation and even the idea of different cultures mixing (as discussed in the scholarship of Jane Tompkins). The cliché is that America is a melting pot or at least a mixed salad, but Cooper seems to prefer his ingredients in separate dishes so to speak. This in turn leads to the marginalizing of Native Peoples to the point of imagining his “last of the Mohicans” when in truth there are more than a few left. His vision of the future is symbolized by the union of Alice and Duncan–that is, white and privileged–and the mixed-race Cora and Native Uncas have to die to make room for them. At the same time, though, I guess that is a big part of American history; I just like to think that we can identify culturally with the desire to do better. For my part, at least, I don’t want to define my culture and heritage by those prejudiced values.

  • Barbara

    Thinking about it, The Last of the Mohicans was one of a series of novels about Nattie Bumpo. Does Donna view them all as the epic or just TLOTM? Just wondering, I’ve only read the one novel.

  • Carl Rosin

    Not convinced that “Song of Myself”‘s disqualification as more lyric than epic is based on a strong enough argument. In scope and subject and tone, it seems almost TOO ideally tailored to the Great American model; its effusiveness and literal inclination (my students have mapped out its geographical and anatomic references: it covers both the body politic and the body pretty thoroughly!) may hurt it with literary judges.

  • Donna Richardson

    My article is now in print, in Volume 6 of LEAR (Literature in the Early American Republic), though alas not yet free to view. In response to Ashley, above, I would ask readers to peruse the first several pages of the article, and the note to the second paragraph. I find many problems with Jane Tompkins’ unsupported interpretation of the novel (she does virtually no reading of the actual text), chief among which is the eternally-perpetuated misinformation about Cooper’s supposed horror at miscegenation (a fallacy which few, if any, recent specialists on Cooper perpetuate). This calumny was probably begun with D. H. Lawrence and reached full flower in Leslie Fiedler. All of them would have benefited by reading more of Cooper’s texts, not just Mohicans, especially The Wept of Wish-ton-Wisht, in which the most positively-portrayed characters are a married mixed couple–a European woman taken captive by Indians, and an Indian formerly taken captive by Europeans. In Mohicans itself, as I point out in the article, Colonel Munro is depicted positively as having married a woman “remotely descended” from black slaves, and his mixed-race daughter Cora is by far the most positively-portrayed colonist (Hawkeye is not only depicted, critically, as a racist; Cooper specifically calls him one in the introduction). There are too many books, mostly generalized Americanist theorizing rather than specialist analyses, that merely replicate ideological bashing by other theorists have and don’t do the time-consuming, opinion-modifying task of reading those originals.

  • Donna Richardson

    As to the Great American Epic, I don’t make claims about it in the article (just in oversimplified comments for sophomore-survey consumption). Yes, I do think Cooper sees all these novels as participating in some attempt to create some form of American epic. Of course, he wrote them out of chronological order over a 20-year period, and so did not, as Percy Shelley claims of Milton, conceive of the whole before executing the parts. Cooper modified his conceptions a great deal from book to book, quite a bit in response to popular reception. [For example, as I argue it, he intends Uncas as the mythic figure in the original Mohicans–the epigraph, from Othello, is “mislike not the color of my skin”–but due to public focus on Hawkeye, he makes an older Hawkeye into a far less ironic, more mythic figure in his next novel, The Prairie. It’s very clear in his 1832 Preface to Mohicans that he wants readers NOT to apply the mythic figure from The Prairie backward onto the heavily-ironized Hawkeye of Mohicans.] I do not claim enough expertise on larger Americanist matters (my speciality is British Romanticism) to represent sufficiently the complex issue of epic ambitions in early American writers. Suffice it to say that they all knew Milton, and they all knew even more than Milton did that the epic was a product of simpler times culturally, politically, and philosophically, and only the least imaginative thought they could actually write something like a traditional epic (one awful attempt is The Columbiad). They all consciously revised the concept of the epic–some adapting it to the style and theory of the novel or romance, those who used verse (like Whitman) recognizing that epic had to include the Romantic “I” of Wordsworth’s Prelude, most aware that they could only do something partial because there were so many diverse cultures and geographic locations involved. Personally, I think Cooper’s choice of period and scope is probably the most central and representative because it involves all the transatlantic cultures that participated in forming the later republic: several Native American nations, the Dutch, the French, the English, African-Americans, and colonists born in different sections of the country (Hawkeye is from New England, Duncan from Virginia, etc.).

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks for your clear thinking, Donna. You have totally changed my own thinking about Cooper and especially about his handling of Natty Bumpo. You make it clear that he is engaged in a far more interesting exploration of the new American identity than I ever gave him credit for. I appreciate how you deflate some of the too-easy post-colonialist dismissals of his work. It’s comparable to what some scholars are doing with Kipling, who also has a more complex vision than he is often given credit for.


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