Sunday, June 28, 2015

"The boy has left us for a time": Fatherhood and Fertility in The Last of the Mohicans

James Fenimore Cooper's  masterpiece is a wild romance, like a river with tributaries and rapids shooting from all directions. Semi-comedic episodes intermingle with the terror of the inferno, history vies with love story, the plot lurches, drags, and sprints until one peak among many, like one of the Adirondacks in which so much of the book is set, looms in stillness above the rest. Just when it seems as though all strands of symbolism in The Last of the Mohicans can't possibly be tied together, a silence falls over the book as Cora Munro, the book’s heroine, pleads desperately to the Lenape chief, Tamenund, in a final attempt to spare herself and her sister from being handed over to the Hurons. The moment is a study in character and symbolic depth:

Cora bowed her head…and, for a bitter moment struggled with her chagrin. Then, elevating her rich features and beaming eye, she continued in tones scarcely less penetrating than the unearthly voice of the patriarch himself: ‘Tell me, is Tamenund a father?’[1]

Adding power and symbolism to the question is Tamenund’s answer, framed in majestic prose:

            The old man looked down upon her from his elevated stand, with a benignant smile on his wasted countenance, and then casting his eyes slowly over the whole assemblage he answered: ‘Of a nation.’  

            The beauty of this moment conjures up sensations that range from Abraham, who was told by God that he would be “a father of many nations” (Gen. 17:4), to George Washington, already revered in Cooper’s day as the father of the young American Republic. Yet it is also haunting, as we know that Tamenund’s nation is disappearing: the time for the destruction of his people is at hand.  Symbolically there is a tension between these visions of fatherhood: will Washington’s fatherhood be permanent, like Abraham’s, or is it destined to fall, as did Tamenund’s? In Tamenund’s answer is posed a further question to a young nation building upon the ruins of an older one.
            The implication of ruins is significant. Two of Cooper’s contemporaries, Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, pointed out that America had no physical ruins, such as were to be found in Europe. Irving used this as an occasion for his untiring wit when addressing the English readers of Bracebridge Hall, slyly lamenting that, unlike theirs, his native land could not “boast of a single ruin.”[2]  Hawthorne took a more condescending tone (towards all) when suggesting that America’s lack of ruins made the writing of romance impossible. America, he suggested, possessed “no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong,” and therefore could have no true romantic literature. “Romance and poetry, like ivy, lichens, and wall-flowers,” wrote Hawthorne, “need ruin to make them grow.” [3]

            What Hawthorne failed to realize, Cooper knew intuitively; that the external ruins of a society, be they the abbeys of the English countryside or the great Roman Aqueduct, are not the real ruins, but merely the architectural echoes of a deeper tragedy—the extinction of a way of life, the destruction of a society. The Last of the Mohicans, which predates Hawthorne’s comments on the subject by nearly four decades, remains a preeminent example of  American Romanticism precisely because Cooper identifies a deeper source of shadows, in the extinction of a noble race of people, whose society contained some real virtues worthy of our admiration and sympathy. These ruins are made more haunting by the fact that there are few physical remains: An entire people, once brave, noble and free, is simply gone. Thus there are few moments in literature to match the tragic proportions of the Mohicans finale. Perhaps the best parallel is the lamentation of the Geatish woman in Beowulf, for her song bewails not only the death of their great hero, but is a harbinger of the inevitable extinction of her race. These are not merely fading monuments or crumbling walls, however poignant they may be, but human ruins, and the anguish is written not on the landscape but upon the human heart.

            The important issues of race and, specifically, racism have dominated criticism of the novel for a very long time. This is appropriate: race is central to the book. Cooper's use of race, however, was blurred symbolically, sometimes to good effect, and other times at the expense of indigenous peoples. His ‘Hurons’ aren’t an accurate picture of actual Hurons nor of the Iroquois. He conflated both peoples politically in the book, and piled on negative stereotypes along the way. Likewise his Delawares, Lenapes, and Mohicans (used interchangeably, apparently without discretion) tell us nothing of interest about the indigenous inhabitants of New England and lower New York. I make no excuse for this, and suggest here that Native Americans have, in my opinion, every right to criticize Cooper's writing for extremes of callousness, on the one hand, and flights of idealization on the other. I'm not entirely sure how much of the text would survive in a serious dissection of that kind. This caveat decidedly in view, Cooper in his day was criticized not for stereotyping Native Americans, but for promoting them as human beings with the full dignity of human beings. Because of this, I think it's acceptable to approach the novel, flawed though it is, as not an historical text but a symbolic one, as it was undoubtedly intended. In this way, ‘Mohican’ and ‘Huron’ are not to be read as historical entities, but as symbols—symbols of our inner nature as human beings and also of our society as Americans. In doing so, Cooper was proposing a native symbolic language--just as Europeans appropriated the symbols of Ancient Greece and Rome as materials for understanding their psychology (the very word “psyche” owing to that tradition), so Cooper used native symbolism to probe our societal and psychological depths. 

            With this in mind, when Cora asks Tamenund whether he has ever been a father, she is touching the central nervous system of the epic’s symbolism. And his answer rolls like distant thunder through the reader’s mind. Paradoxically, the question itself might be of more importance than the reply. For on Cora’s lips Cooper has placed the essential problem of his romance: Who is a father? What is a father? What does fatherhood have to do with this massive, violent epic that has been swirling for hundreds of pages before this? Who are the real fathers of this nation? Whether those fathers are deemed legitimate, and which of the men and women are portrayed as fertile yields insight into the depth of Cooper’s vision of what might be termed the American soul, or better yet, the challenge to that soul.

            On the political level, there are two distant figures claiming paternity: the “Great White Father” of the French, so designated by the Hurons, and the British sovereign. As readers, we know that both are illegitimate. Unlike the Hurons, we know that the French king’s rule over the territory and peoples in dispute will not last beyond the timetable outlined in the book, which is set during the French and Indian War. Moreover, we know that the age of Monarchy in continental Europe will also end; that the French Revolution lies just a bit more than a generation away. Likewise, we know that the English monarchy is destined to be ousted from these disputed territories. That Cooper piles all of this on top of the ancient disputes between Delawares and Hurons adds a sense of transience to all political power: we exist here for but a time. Cultures, societies, and nations rise and fall, though the mountains may remain. That the mountains still bear the name ‘Adirondacks’ is an additional layer of symbolism for those who know their history: they are named for the ancient foe who had once oppressed the Iroquois.

            On a more immediate level, we are shown two very contrasting images of fatherhood. The first is Colonel Munro, father to the two heroines of the plot, Cora and Alice. Of great importance is that fact that the daughters have different mothers: Alice, the younger, is the daughter of his Scottish wife, an early love that he had initially been forbidden to marry for reasons of social caste. Cora’s mother, by contrast, was a West Indian, with some portion of African blood. The obvious racial and societal tensions are thus set. Munro himself is a good man, in the facile sense of the word: we are given no reason to doubt that he sincerely loved is daughters’ mothers before being twice widowed, and he loves his daughters in the manner in which he is capable. But he is also dominated by his own sense of pride and the tidal wave of his own emotions. Perceived bigotry against Cora, for example, inspires fury stemming mostly from the insult it carries to his late wife and, one poignantly senses, to himself. Though this reaction in itself can be noble, we sense a pattern of exaggerated self-pity and self-indulgence in Munro.

            First, Munro allows his daughters to make a journey through dangerous wilds in a war zone, either because he abdicates his parental role in denying permission or because he desires his daughters’ presence enough to endanger them. This fateful decision kicks off the entire plot, in that without it the young women would never have been captured, Cora and Uncas would never have met, and the tragedy that ensued would therefore never have happened. Munro’s passions likewise cloud his command decisions, as he fails to anticipate both the siege of Fort William Henry and the massacre that follows upon his surrender. When Cora and Alice are abducted he is often reduced to an emotional wreck, relying almost entirely upon Hawkeye and the Mohicans, his ability to make decisions having been maimed by the strength of his emotions. All this is not to imply that Munro’s loves aren’t true loves—they are. But they are weak. We get the sense that he has generally been incapable of thinking beyond his own emotions far enough to determine how his innocent desires might impact the lives of others. Because of this he is more needy than giving.

            Cooper offers us a striking contrast in the novel’s other major father figure: Chingachgook, father of Uncas. Here we see a father inseparable from his son. The two are never without each other, Chingachgook having shared everything he has to offer of himself, wisdom and otherwise, to Uncas. When the novel begins, Uncas is on the verge of manhood, just as Cora and Alice are entering womanhood. Over the book’s pages, we trace how he develops from a silent student, obedient and malleable to his good father’s wishes and instructions, to a heroic portrait of masculine strength and beauty (magnificently sketched in a scene where he successfully ‘runs the gamut’ without being beaten or killed by his Huron captors). By the end, Uncas has become a warrior chief capable of inspiring and leading his tribe into battle and, most nobly, a chivalrous hero willing to sacrifice his life in defense of Cora. And while we are witnessing the stunning growth from youth to full manhood, there remains the quiet witness of Chingachgook, who neither holds Uncas back out of selfishness, nor pushes him forward out of pride. Upon the death of his only remaining son, Chingachgook, now old and childless, gives his son all he has left: praise.
Why do my brothers mourn? Why do my daughters weep? That a young man has gone to he happy hunting grounds; that a chief has filled his time with honor? He was good; he was dutiful; he was brave. Who can deny it? The Manitou had need of such a warrior, and he has called him away. As for me, the son and the father of Uncas, I am a blazed pine, in a clearing of the palefaces. My race has gone […] I am alone…”

The tragedy of Chingachgook, however, is secondary to the tragedy of Uncas and Cora, the two most noble characters in the novel, whose love is cut violently short and denied fruition. The symbolism is stark: must America’s struggles with race end in violence? Will America be denied nobility through infertility? Cora and Uncas are caught in the crosshairs of history and the selfishness of others, and ultimately, they are blocked by the book’s supreme malevolent force, an Huron chief named Magua.

            Magua is a twisted man with an insatiable lust for power, combined with great oratorical skills and unquenchable envy. He is infertile, and this adds to, or is perhaps the secret source of his rage (though it also seems that Cooper is making a statement that power and rage combined, though capable of causing catastrophe, are ultimately infertile). His hatred of Munro, which has some initial justification in the Colonel’s mistreatment of him, leads Magua to sadistically torment the man through the abduction of his daughters. It must be remembered that this ‘Huron’ is neither a real Huron nor an Iroquois, but a symbol of a type of power hungry man, just as Uncas is not a real Mohican, but more of an ideal of youthful manhood, akin to Michaelangelo’s David. The contrast of the two seems deliberate. For example, Uncas inspires the Delawares to battle by his character, bravery, and nobility, while Magua lobbies the other Huron chiefs by subtle, if powerful, oratory. Though war is not in the best interests of his own people (indeed it will prove self-destructive), Magua must satisfy his hatred and his lusts, and he uses his political genius to do so.

[Magua] commenced by flattering the self-love of his auditors: a never failing method of commanding attention. […] Then he spoke of their necessities; of the gifts they had a right to expect of their past services […] of the necessity of consulting prudence more, and inclination less, in so critical circumstances. When he perceived that, while the old men applauded his moderation, many of the fiercest and most distinguished of the warriors listened to these politic plans with lowering looks, he cunningly led them back to the subject which they most loved. He spoke openly of the fruits of their wisdom, which he boldly pronounced would be a complete and final triumph over their enemies. […] In short, he so blended the warlike with the artful, the obvious with the obscure, as to flatter the propensities of both parties, and to leave to each subject of hope, while neither could say they clearly comprehended his intentions.

Here Cooper no longer writes about fictionally conflated tribes, or good guys and bad guys preparing for a shoot out in the forest. He is speaking, symbolically, about potential dangers to the American Republic of his own day and age. To drive this home, he concludes with the following commentary:

The orator, or the politician, who can produce such a state of things is commonly popular with his contemporaries, however he may be treated by posterity. All perceived that more was meant than was uttered, and each one believed that the hidden meaning was precisely such as his own faculties enabled him to understand, or his own wishes lead him to anticipate.   

            The novel ends with the deaths of Cora and Uncas, their burial, and the knowledge that Cora’s sister Alice will wed a young Major, Duncan Heyward. It is to them and their children that this nation will ultimately belong. But how will they govern it? Like Magua, selfish and power driven? Like Colonel Munro, well meaning but narcissistic? Or like those two noble souls they saw depart young; the self-sacrificing love of Uncas and Cora? Cooper gives us no answer, instead he ends with the older men, Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo (who at times exhibits almost a simplistic variant of monasticism in his approach to life) grasping hands and vowing to journey into this new land together.

            The concepts of fatherhood and fertility; chivalry and obedience; bravery, honor, and love that is purified by self-sacrifice no longer have much of a place in the education of our children or our public discourse. A book is a living part of culture so long as someone is still reading it, though, and I would venture to guess that just about every public library in the country still has a copy of The Last of the Mohicans. Perhaps we ought to take it down once more and introduce it to our children, or ourselves.

            James Fenimore Cooper’s epic has outlasted its own day and age, surviving bigoted attacks by no less than Mark Twain (who hated it largely because he hated Native Americans). In spite of these, the public still yearns for its message of bravery, fidelity, fertility, and true love. Cooper’s vision might very well prove to be an antidote to some of the popular and shallow fallacies of our own--that love, fertility, and sacrifice can be severed without societal consequences, and that fatherhood is unimportant.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in The New Oxford Review)

[1] p. 451 Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. Barnes & Noble Books, NY. 2004
[2] p. 15 Irving, Washington. Bracebridge Hall. Knickerbocker Edition. Putnum 1880.
[3] Preface to The Marble Faun. (cited in Kennedy, X.J. Literature: an Introduction, p.399) 

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