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Politicized History and James Fenimore Cooper

I just finished reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (LotM) as part of my study for my qualifying exam.  The Oxford edition of the novel includes an introduction and historical essay by John McWilliams. McWilliams writes,

The opposing degrees of truth connoted by the very words ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ mislead us when those words refer to genres of writing. Neither the facts nor the patterns set forth by professional historians are always accurate and true. Nor is a novelist’s imagined recreation of an historical event necessarily inaccurate or fictional. At its best, the historical novelist reveals history to us, first by knowing the verifiable truth of the past thoroughly, and then by giving us an imagined recreation of that past. The imagined past can possess not only accuracy, vividness, and narrative power (many a historian has these merits), but can have a special sharpness of focus that derives from the novelist’s privilege of selectivity. The novelist’s liberty to choose, can also, however, encourage distortion in recreating the past–as in Cooper’s account of aspects of racial difference and racial politics… For nineteenth-century readers, The Last of the Mohicans not only recovered the not-so-distant past of the French and Indian Wars; Cooper’s rendering of red-white power relations shaped readers’ responses both toward the Indian Removal controversy of the 1830s and toward a future continental empire that was to be American, rather than French or British. (399)

McWilliams, here, is defending the legitimacy of the historical novel as a genre, against the critiques of modernist writers such as Henry James and E.M. Forster. His article explains where Cooper’s history was correct (inasmuch as a historical account can be “correct”) and also illustrates the places where Cooper was muddling the facts for his own political purposes. McWilliams details the errors Cooper made in terms of which tribes aligned themselves with the British and which aligned themselves with the French. This “errors” were not made due to Cooper’s ignorance, however, as he would have had access to accurate information. The reimagination of history, then, was purposeful and politically driven.

By portraying the Iroquois of 1757 as actively pro-French, Cooper projects a Revolutionary War enemy back on to an earlier war, thus obtaining, not a clear moral alignment of good versus evil, but a clear historical alignment of winners versus losers. By focusing the reader’s attention on the murderous hostility of the presumably pro-French Iroquois, the eventual fate of the Six Nations is tacitly justified. (405)

So, Cooper’s recreation of history offers a national myth that justifies mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, such as The Trail of Tears, mission schools, and brutal assimilationist tactics on the part of the US government.  So, while Cooper, in the preface to the 1850 edition of The Leatherstocking Tales, answers those who “objected” that he “give a more favorable picture of the red man than he deserves” (398).

The critic is understood to have been a very distinguished agent of the government, one very familiar with Indians, as they are seen at the councils to treat for the sale of their lans, where little or none of their domestic qualities come in play, and where, indeed, their evil passions are known to have the fullest scope. As just would it be to draw conclusions of the general state of American society from the scene of the capital, as to suppose that the negotiating of one of these treaties is a fair picture of Indian life. (398)

While Cooper defends his “favorable” representation of Indigenous peoples, and the novel clearly places blame on the French and the British for causing divides between the tribes, his representation is still problematic. He willfully and knowingly distorts the historical facts in order to justify the theft of land and the breaking of treaties. His novel also participates in and further entrenches the myth of the vanishing Indian, insidious in American ideology.

In my dissertation, I’m exploring the nature of fiction that uses the methods of the ethnographer and the historian. While I’ll be focused on the 1920s and the 1930s, fiction writers have been engaged in this kind of pseudo-historicism for quite some time before that. Along with my exploration of fiction, I’m also going to explore some histories and ethnographies and question the way that historians and ethnographers also construct fictions. Just as the novelist can be (and is) selective in what she or he includes in their recreations, so are historians selective in what they include, and ethnographers are influenced by their own unconscious subjective experiences.

So, LotM will not make an appearance in my dissertation (unless it’s a mention in the introduction or a footnote) but it does provide useful context for the larger project. I particularly can think of some similarities between what Cooper does, in terms of romanticizing the “noble savage” and what John Steinbeck does in The Grapes of Wrath while he romanticizes the Okie farmers and portrays a reverse-Trail of Tears. But, that’s for another post.

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