American or Postcolonial Studies? On the Frontiers of Colony and Empire with The Last of the Mohicans and Heart of Darkness
Any analysis of the classic American novel
The Last of the Mohicans in terms of
the international discourse of Postcolonial Studies must acknowledge that James
Fenimore Cooper’s most famous installment in The Leather-Stocking Tales usually
finds its interpretive home in American literature and American Studies. As
their names indicate, these “Americanist” disciplines concentrate less on
international than on national identities. The Leather-Stocking Tales—Last
of the Mohicans (1826) was the second in Cooper’s series of five novels—are
traditionally acclaimed as founding texts of
Postcolonial Studies, originating in the
Through dialogue and storytelling, literature offers a record
of such narratives and the challenges that face representative characters.
Literary studies build knowledge and exercise critical thinking on problematic
issues. If American Studies once cultivated an idealized self-image to the
exclusion of others, Postcolonial Studies listens to others’ voices to learn how
one culture’s self-image mirrors or alters another. The
James Fenimore Cooper, with his privileged youth, his career as the United States’ first successful professional novelist, and his reputation as a “Founding Father” of American literature, may appear as just the sort of towering presence that might repress the voices of others, but two factors—one literary, one historical—make The Last of the Mohicans a favorable ground for Postcolonial Studies. The literary factor is Cooper’s development of the prevalent genre of colonial and postcolonial literature: the novel, whose combination of narrative and dialogue and whose literary primacy since the Renaissance make it an essentially modern genre for representing and mediating the “open-ended” or “developing reality” readers find in a changing world like that of Postcolonial Studies (Bakhtin 39). The Leather-Stocking Tales’ historical backgrounds also sync with Postcolonial Studies, spanning the late 1700s, when the American colonies were a battleground of empires, to the early 1800s, when the new republic of the United States began acting like an empire all its own.
Colonies, empires, and their human agents meet, assert themselves, and more or less turn into each other—such is the subject matter of Postcolonial Studies, though the field has traditionally concentrated on settings beyond North America and periods since the USA’s founding. Recent American Studies and American literature work in terms compatible with Postcolonial Studies, but founding traditions in Americanist fields and nationalist elements in American culture might object to identifying the United States with “empire,” or reading the Leather-Stocking Tales as more than a nostalgic evocation of the nation’s destiny to rule the continent. As familiar starting points, such interpretive traditions continue in many classrooms, while Postcolonial Studies’ recent emergence makes the field new territory even for instructors.
Mediation of these two fields might begin by introducing
Postcolonial Studies’ types and terms through an extended dialogue between
Last of the Mohicans and a well-known
classic in Postcolonial Studies, Joseph Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness (1899). This novella, familiar to many students and
classrooms, describes a journey from
Texts associated with the
Later in the 20th century, though, literary and
political changes invested Conrad’s novella with new meanings. First, after
decades of intense formal analysis of individual texts, literary scholars began
reading texts in dialogue with each other—a practice known as
intertextuality, which would read
Heart of Darkness or
Last of the Mohicans less as
autonomous masterpieces and more as social texts. Historically, mid-20th-century
events inspired a cultural revaluation of colonial texts like
Heart of Darkness, particularly
independence from colonial rule by African nations (among them the
Achebe’s 1977 article, “An Image of
Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness,”
reshaped colonial-postcolonial dialogue by challenging Conrad’s “dehumanization
The Last of the Mohicans operates in a comparable network of history and writing. Relating events contemporary with Mohicans’ publication in 1826, John P. McWilliams, Jr. relates Cooper’s depictions of Indians threatened with extinction in the American colonies to political controversies in the early United States of the 1820s and 30s that led to the “Trail of Tears,” when Cherokee Indians were forcibly relocated from the Appalachian region to Oklahoma. The Cherokees, who had adopted literacy and instituted a bilingual press, opposed their removal by sending Congress petitions known as the Cherokee Memorials, while American Indian writers like William Apess (1798-1839) protested the legal and ideological basis of westward expansion.
Against this contention between American and Indian claims to the North American land, The Last of the Mohicans, subtitled A Narrative of 1757, takes place in another phase of imperial expansion and conflict that took place two generations earlier—about as far back from the 1820s and 30s as World War 2 is from the 2010s. The French and Indian War (1754-63), which involved the British Empire, its American colonies, and their Indian allies versus the French Empire, its Canadian colonies, and their Indian allies, was the North American theater of a global conflict called the Seven Years’ War, which involved European empires (England, France, Spain, the Netherlands) and their colonies in the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. The Treaty of Paris that ended the French and Indian War led immediately to the American Indian resistance known as Pontiac’s Rebellion, and the treaty’s bar on English colonists crossing the Appalachian Mountains to settle Indian lands contributed to the American Revolution in the next decade.
Such historical and textual dialogues do not undermine the prestige of literary classics but reinforce their significance. Were it not for fiction like Heart of Darkness, Last of the Mohicans, and other novels dramatizing Western Civilization’s interactions with the non-Western world, many conscientious and informed people might never know of historical entities like “the Belgian Congo,” “the French and Indian War,” or their influence on current events like American Indian rights or civil wars in the Congo region. What has changed is that a classic text of national literature is not elevated to a triumphant and autonomous status in isolation from the voices of others whose land or labor supports that status. Instead, Postcolonial Studies use well-known classics to initiate dialogues with writing or speech that might otherwise be neglected. Each of us may read one text at a time, but no text speaks separately from the global history in which it is written or read. These dialogues create a world map marked by crossroads where peoples of the Developed and Developing Worlds have met and made what they can of each other. Knowledge gained from these encounters gives a fresh if challenging sense of how the world we share works and may work better.
Yet students venturing from American to Postcolonial Studies
need not memorize every nation or empire in history, nor learn each available
constellation of classic texts. The dynamics of postcolonial dialogue may be
found in a single appropriate text, and fiction’s power of representation makes
literary and cultural history more accessible.
Heart of Darkness and
The Last of the Mohicans in and of
themselves embody the contending voices and mixed identities that follow
First-World imperialism’s penetration into local cultures like the 19th-century
Heart of Darkness’s
protagonist-narrator Marlow, whose wandering, practical, gabby ways make him,
like the Leather-Stocking, at once a skeptical observer and an enabler of
imperialism, begins his journey in Belgium at the headquarters of “the Company”
managing the Congo’s exploitation. An 1885 European conference in
In contrast to these figures of First-World military and
economic power, both novels also represent the peoples whose lands, resources,
and social structures are disrupted by imperialist power. The title characters
of Last of the Mohicans—Chingachgook
and his son Uncas—are descendents of the Mohegans, whom Cooper describes as “the
possessors of the country first occupied by the Europeans in this portion of the
continent” and “consequently, the first dispossessed” (6). (The fictional Uncas
is theoretically descended from a historical Uncas who in the 1620s allied his
breakaway tribe of Mohegans with the Pilgrims in
Marlow too witnesses, in addition to Belgium’s imperial masters, the innocent victims of Europe’s “fantastic invasion” of Africa (23). “Now and then a boat from the [African] shore gave one a momentary contact with reality,” Marlow reports, in the form of native people who “wanted [i.e., needed] no excuse for being there” (13-14). At a “scene of inhabited devastation” where captive labor is “building a railway” alongside the Congo River, Marlow sees “[a] lot of people, mostly black and naked, mov[ing] about like ants” (15). In the two works of fiction, both Africans and American Indians also face incomprehensible changes in the law. Near the railway construction site¸ Marlow sees “[s]ix black men advanc[ing] in a file . . . . [E]ach had an iron collar on his neck . . . . They were called criminals, and the outraged [European] law . . . had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea” (15-16). Comparably in Last of the Mohicans Magua’s back-story provides a motive for revenge against Colonel Munro: “’The pale-faces have driven the red-skins from their hunting grounds, and now, when they fight, a white man leads the way.’” Such changes in leadership are accompanied by new laws and punishments. Munro, Magua reports, “made a law, that if an Indian swallowed the fire-water” (i.e., liquor, unknown before European contact), he would be publicly flogged. “Justice!” Magua exclaims: “The Huron chief was tied up before all the pale-faced warriors, and whipped like a dog.” No Indian could be prepared for these new perils and punishments, which leave “marks on the back of the Huron chief, that he must hide . . . under this painted cloth of the whites” (103).
These extremes of characterization—the imperialist as unreflecting tyrant, the colonized as helpless victim—render any prospect of cross-cultural dialogue unlikely beyond a cycle of oppression and revenge. However, other characters in Heart of Darkness and Last of the Mohicans provide evidence of shared humanity and exchange. Captaining a steamboat full of European adventurers up the Congo River, Marlow glimpses communities of African peoples “They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces” at the alien intruders, yet despite such “ugly” appearances and behaviors, Marlow reflects, “they were not inhuman”: “there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise” (36). Even the frostiest imperialists provoke a detectable response from the colonized. The “Company's chief accountant” maintains a comically Euro look In Africa’s tropical climes: “high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots” (18). Yet this imperial “vision” triggers an embryonic note of protest. “'I've been teaching one of the native women about the station,’” the accountant explains. “’It was difficult. She had a distaste for the work.'”
The potential for resistance by the
colonized grows in Heart of Darkness
as other Africans learn the colonizer’s language or technology and enter a
dialogue with the
For his part, Kurtz—comparable to
Hawk-eye as a white living among Indians—crosses the spectrum of colonial
identities by going native. Kurtz replicates the career of Magua who, deposed
from his Huron chieftaincy by colonial justice, relocates his leadership to the
similarly unsettled Iroquois, and finds himself desiring Cora, the daughter of
his English oppressor. Kurtz, far from the power structures in which he
originally rose, becomes—like Colonel Munro leading Magua’s Huron tribe—a leader
of displaced Africans in militias that “[ruin]
the district” (57). Forgetting his fiancée in
Europe and giving up the empire’s prescriptive values such as purity of nation
or race, Kurtz develops a relationship with a local woman, whose “wild
and gorgeous apparition” Marlow associates with “the
colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life” of
Instead of completely switching out one style for another, however, characters like the “manager’s ‘boy’” and Marlow’s fireman in Heart of Darkness and Cora, Uncas, Hawk-eye, and others in Last of the Mohicans more typically combine codes and values associated with both colonizer and colonized. Postcolonial Studies calls such individually-centered dialogues hybrids or examples of hybridity. Hybrid automobiles combining petroleum power with electrical battery storage make this metaphor familiar, but the hybrid concept derives from biology and genetics, where different plant or animal species are bred to produce new organisms with features from distinct sources.
Postcolonial Studies applies the hybrid metaphor to persons, cultures, and languages that embody “new trans-cultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonization” (Ashcroft et al, Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts 118). Bhabha describes hybrid as “a dialectical power struggle between self and Other” that spawns “a mutation” in the “ambivalent space” of imperial-colonial interaction (“Signs” 34-5). As one American instance, the Cherokee Indian newspaper The Cherokee Phoenix (still in publication) cultivates a hybrid identity with bilingual texts in distinct alphabets, while the Cherokee Memorials—written in English around the same time as Mohicans and sent to Washington to petition against Cherokee relocation—used political tropes from the U.S. Declaration and Constitution along with native spoken traditions like repetition and rhetorical questions. Such hybrid signs or systems in or between characters often drive fictional narratives, with several hybrid characters propelling The Last of the Mohicans to “mutations” that threaten exclusive cultural norms.
For American popular culture, the titanic characters in Last of the Mohicans stand as prototypes of the cowboy or western genre: solitary white men with guns, noble savages at home in nature, and damsels spunky or distressed. The hybridity of these characters’ depictions and development raises Cooper’s fiction to classic status. The novel opens with the Munro sisters, Gamut, and Duncan Heyward, an American major in the British army, on a wilderness journey across the Empire’s boundaries to the “contact zone produced by colonization.” A subsequent chapter shifts to a nearby scene where “two men”—Hawk-eye and Chingachgook—are in “a dialogue” over their separate origins (28). Though they are discussing their differences, both men share signs of colonizer and colonized. Hawk-eye, “descen[ded] from a European parentage,” wears a costume of “nearly savage equipments,” while Chingachgook’s “red skin and wild accoutrements” include a “tomahawk and scalping knife of English manufacture” and “a short military rifle . . . with which . . . the whites armed their savage allies” (29).
The process of postcolonial hybridity, advanced by these middle-aged warriors, accelerates in younger characters whose off-and-on courtships determine the novel’s plot. Hawk-eye, Chingachgook, and Uncas rescue the Munro sisters and their escorts from an ambush staged by Magua. The mixed group flees to a secret cavern, where their interactions grow more intimate. Hawk-eye’s and Chingachgook’s earlier dialogue intimated the risk of such interactions. Hawk-eye refers to himself as “genuine white” with “no cross in his blood, although he may have lived with the red skins long enough to be suspected,” and he extends this intended compliment to his Mohican friends: "let us remember we are men without a cross” (31, 35, 76). Chingachgook in turn refers to himself as “an unmixed man” and calls his son Uncas “the last of the Mohicans” because there are none “of [his] race” with whom to marry and have children (33).
Postcolonial Studies questions any notions of ethnic and cultural purity. What nations posit as pure origins (as of a single racial founder) are often only the earliest ethnic memory that serves national purposes. Last of the Mohicans’ reference to the USA’s “father of our country,” George Washington, as “a Virginia boy” leading troops for the British Empire suggests that the borders and identities that divide empires, colonies, and nations are always contested (13). Such issues’ sensitivity is only heightened by the threat of distinct populations fast-forwarding in a single generation to become genetic hybrids.
Cooper’s attitudes toward race are complicated even for his time. Jane Tompkins finds in Mohicans “an obsessive preoccupation with systems of classification—the insignia by which race is distinguished from race, nation from nation, tribe from tribe . . . ” (105). Hawk-eye’s and Chingachgook’s concern with “unmixed” status forms a cultural puzzle—different races may work together but not have children together. As same-sex associates of different races—in the mold of Crusoe and Friday, Huck and Jim, or contemporary “buddy movies”—the men’s partnership does not threaten the racial status quo. However, members of the next generation experiment with a hybridity that, instead of remaining metaphorical or cultural, has the potential to get physical. Hiding in the secret cave with the Munro sisters, Uncas initially emerges as a cultural hybrid by giving up Indian customs, “which forbid their warriors to descend to any menial employment, especially in favour of their women,” and serving a meal to Cora and Alice—“an utter innovation on the Indian customs” (56). Later, after helping Chingachgook and Hawk-eye rescue the sisters a second time, Uncas “den[ies] his habits” by leaving his father busy scalping the Iroquois dead in order “to [assist] the females” (114-15). Uncas thus crosses from indigenous “habits” to those brought by empire—but such hybridity is so far only cultural. Given the novel’s many references to “knight[s] of ancient chivalry,” Uncas may mimic Hawk-eye’s courtesy to ladies—after all, the Munro sisters are daughters of an officer and a gentleman, while Uncas is a prince of the Mohican royal family (129).
Uncas’s class and behavior make him
bold to cross the boundaries of sexual and racial segregation. “Had
there been one there sufficiently disengaged to become a close observer,” the
author writes, “he might have fancied that the services of the young chief were
not entirely impartial.” Uncas’s “dark eye lingered on [Cora’s] rich, speaking
countenance,” and his “mild and musical” voice “causes both ladies to look up in
admiration” (56). Later, outside the cave when an
attack by the Iroquois makes captivity imminent, Cora urges Uncas to flee rather
than die. When he lingers at her side, Cora, “perhaps with an intuitive
consciousness of her power,” instructs him to “go to my father . . . and be the
most confidential of my messengers” (79)—whereupon Uncas politely departs.
Whatever Cooper’s attitudes, his text here glimpses a potential union between a
Native American chieftain and a lady of the British Empire in
What attracts the noble and ignoble savages in
Last of the Mohicans toward Cora—but
The personal and cultural secret revealed at that meeting implies a deeper, more conflicted history of empire whose significance to the novel, its characters, and its nation can be appreciated only by tracing how Cooper has both insinuated and concealed that secret. From its opening chapter, The Last of the Mohicans has differentiated the Munro sisters through a color code familiar since Shakespeare: Alice, with “her dazzling complexion, fair golden hair, and bright blue eyes,” is the fair lady associated with hope and sunshine, while Cora, marked physically by a “dark eye,” “tresses . . . shining and black” and a “complexion . . . charged with the color of the rich blood” fits the profile of a dark lady who knows the complications of age and the mysteries of night (18-19). Such familiar characterizations— a white or black hat for upstanding or low-down cowboys, for instance—provide audiences with a visual code for virtue and vice or innocence and experience.
This color code may appear altogether natural—doesn’t the
clear light of day illuminate reason and the sunny side of life? Doesn’t
darkness or night dim the light of reason and confuse order? The title of our
Postcolonial model, Heart of Darkness,
suggests cultural factors in the color code
that relate Last of the Mohicans not
only to colonialism but to
Expanding the color code to include
distinct races or ethnicities
is justified in
Last of the Mohicans by a
personal narrative that complicates Major Heyward’s
and Colonel Munro’s discussion about which daughter to marry. Fair Alice and
dark Cora, it turns out, are half-sisters,
whose distinct appearances result from their father’s colonial and postcolonial
wanderings. Colonel Munro’s story begins in
“[D]uty called me to the islands of the West Indies [i.e.,
Colonel Munro speaks with indirection worthy of Conrad, but the “luxurious people” to whom he refers are the colonizers of the Indies, and Cora, instead of being “unmixed,” is “descended” from African as well as European ancestry—from the “enslaved” as well as the “luxurious.” Alice is the daughter of Munro’s second wife, herself a fair lady from Scotland, fulfilling the standard of ethnic purity to which Major Heyward subscribes.
The violation of empire’s racial and sexual boundaries by Cora’s ancestors has mixed results. Cora’s mother may be part-African but she is “the daughter of a gentleman,” possibly on one of the Caribbean islands where a majority-black population made such unions more commonplace—the Black Atlantic, in postcolonial theorist Paul Gilroy’s phrase. For American literary and cultural studies, Cora fits the racial profile of a “tragic mulatto”—a mixed-race person tragically caught between two worlds while belonging to neither, and so disabled from finding a proper partner. Uncas and Magua as Indian men whose normal partners may be extinct or in exile face this problem from another cultural perspective. These powerful cultural narratives drive these characters to each other and, under the fictional rules of empire, to their deaths. In contrast, Heyward and Alice survive and retreat from the frontier to “the settlements of the pale faces” (348). As D. H. Lawrence wrote in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923),
Cora loves Uncas, Uncas loves Cora. But Magua also desires Cora . . . . So Fenimore kills them all off, Cora, Uncas, and Magua, and leaves [Alice] to carry on the race. She will breed plenty of white children to Major Heyward. (58)
Any hypothetical offspring of Cora and Uncas (or Magua) would
“’Ha!’” Colonel Munro chides as though addressing a resistant reader from the USA’s dominant culture, “’Major Heyward, you are yourself born at the south, where these unfortunate beings are considered of a race inferior to your own” (159). As an affluent young man from South Carolina—for later American history, the state that starts the Civil War in defense of slavery—Heyward certainly knows African American women, but not as marriage prospects. “’And you cast it on my child as a reproach!’” Munro thunders. “’You scorn to mingle the blood of the Heywards with one so degraded—lovely and virtuous though she be?"
"Heaven protect me from a prejudice so unworthy of my
“[U]nworthy of [his] reason” yet true to his culture, Heyward
finds his purity “ingrafted” in his American “nature” as surely as other American
characters graft a hybrid identity rooted in three continents. Haltingly,
incompletely, yet briefly glimpsing a “lovely and virtuous” possibility,
The Last of the Mohicans draws the
empires of Europe and the colonies of America into dialogue with the same
continent whose exploitation Conrad witnessed in
Heart of Darkness.
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Statue of James Fenimore Cooper in Cooperstown, NY
(photo by Dr. W's sister Janet)