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.