Tuesday, January 06, 2009

In which the Meridian reads Cooper so you don't have to (even though you should)

Natty Bumppo tells a sitting Uncas, "Look at me! I'm a white guy, and I still make a better Indian than you do!" Or something like that. Click to enlarge the image. Image found here.

Reading James Fenimore Cooper is one of the less-pleasurable lots of the specialist in American literature. It's not that we have to read lots and lots of Cooper (unless it's our fate to concentrate on the literature of the first half of the 19th century, or on any of various themes Cooper raises--a proto-environmentalism, Indian/settler relations (and race more generally), male/female relations, etc.); but, sooner or later, we must. The Leatherstocking Tales are indispensable reading for anyone who wants to get a sense of prevailing attitudes in this country regarding the themes I listed above, and Natty Bumppo, despite (or perhaps because of) his near-insufferable unctuousness, is our first truly American character.

I'm appreciative of all this. But while reading The Last of the Mohicans for book-project reasons, I feel Uncas' pain in the scene depicted above. Never mind where in the novel this scene occurs; it matters not. If Bumppo is in it, he will be disquisitioning on the subject he knows best: himself--or, more accurately, how his knowledge of the woods and the things in it is superior to that of everyone else (with the exception of Chingachgook, Uncas' father and the one person Bumppo consistently defers to in the novel).

The other thing Bumppo asserts with strange regularity is his racial purity. His blood "bears no cross," he says, almost like a mantra, often using that line either as a preface or as an epilogue to statements that, as often as not, have nothing to do with his or anyone else's race. Yet Bumppo, raised by the Lenai Lenappi from childhood, is culturally mixed even if his blood is not; thus, he is intriguing precisely when he is being most obnoxious. There's something very American, to me, in this tension between Bumppo's constant assertions of his racial purity and his simultaneous apparent blindness to the fact of his culturally-mixed heritage.

More later on this last bit. I just felt you should know that someone is looking out for you.


zunguzungu said...

I love Cooper (though nothing makes me happier than interestingly terrible writing, so there you go). Are you reading the other Natty Bumpo books? It's a slog -- and I've employed the judicious skim technique here and there -- but nothing makes more clear how experimental (and *weird*) a book like Last of the Mohicans is like reading the ones before and after it. The first three Natty Bumpo books are each like a different genre of the Western; the first is a kind of colonial-era frontier town romance, Mohicans is the "save the white woman from the savages!" number, and the third is a "passing of the west" narrative, in which the rifleman gets replaced by a beekeeper, with all the metaphors for different forms of production that implies. It's like Drums along the Mohawk, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, all in a row, and a century earlier, and he clearly had no idea where he was going until he got there.

The man with no cross bit, too, is the great Americanist non-sequitor, which I'm trying to bring back, as in: "Excuse me, can I borrow your ketchup? The waitress forgot to bring us some. I'm a man with no cross, by the way"

John B. said...

Heh. That made me smile.

I'm not going to read all the Tales; Cora popped up in Doris Sommer's Foundational Fictions (Cooper is a touchstone for many 19th-century Latin American writers), and I hadn't read Mohicans before, so . . . time to get educated. Cooper's treatment of Cora should serve me well as a sort of lodestone for how people of mixed race usually get shoved aside to the margins of American literature generally, their noisy protestations aside.

The way to read that constant iteration is precisely that Bumppo is, in effect, "closeted," though not in the sense of Leslie Fiedler's chastely-homoerotic reading of the novel: Bumppo does indeed bear some (figurative) cross--after all, for instance, he does at one point explicitly reject Christianity as a legitimate frame for understanding the world (another "cross" his blood does not bear; whether Cooper intends the pun would be something worth knowing).

The longer version of this post, which I wrote out in my head but will save parts of for later on, was my confession that I genuinely like The Prairie, which I read way back when as an undergrad. What's interesting--and likable--about The Prairie is, in effect, everyone around Bumppo basically keeps telling him, "You do too have a cross!" (read: both the settlers he is guiding and the Indians with whom he parleys keep suspecting him of treachery). Whereas in Mohicans he keeps declaring his purity apropos of nothing at all and at the same time is never called upon to defend himself, in The Prairie I don't recall the constant iterations, yet he is frequently forced to declare the purity of his intentions. This makes him more sympathetic. Well, that and the fact that it couldn't be telegraphed any clearer that Bumppo, an old, old man, will be dying somewhere close to the very end of the novel.

Lee said...

Purely as a sidenote: the prof who taught Mohicans when I was an undergrad in the mid 80s informed the class that we could feel free to say "Chicago" instead of trying to pronounce "Chigachgook." He was a curious little man in most respects.

The real delight of the time we spent on the novel was reading "Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" by Mark Twain, an author with his own complications regarding the cultural mix.

John B. said...

A belated thanks for dropping by and commenting, and a "Yes indeed" to your final remark. When I read it yesterday, I found myself musing half-seriously that Huck Finn is a little Natty Bumppoish in terms of the conflict he feels between the expedients of his culture and his personal feelings toward Jim--except that Huck doesn't deny feeling those conflicts.