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Depiction of two different cultures in J. F. Cooper's novel "The last of the mohicans.'
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The Last of the Mohicans is the second book of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. It was written in 1826 and the story is set into the period of The Seven Years War between Great Britain and France. The story itself can be seen from different points of view. It can be seen as a description of adventures of people colonizing America, as a story of love between the main protagonists, Heyward and Alice, or it can be seen from the point of view of the description of two different cultures. Firstly, the culture of white people, in other words people trying to colonize a new continent, and, secondly, the culture of Native people who only want to protect their human rights and live their own lives in a way they are used to. And the aim of this essay is to discuss the last mentioned point of view and to present some relevant arguments supporting this idea.When we take into account the sole depiction of two different cultures we will discover that James Fenimore Cooper did not depict the two cultures only. He described a variety of cultures; however, they are seen only through two representatives. In general, he speaks about the Indians and the white people. But when we venture to analyze the story more deeply, we will find that Cooper’s novel includes a variety of Indian tribes, the colonists and French and British imperialists, too. One of the common readings says that Cooper intended to classify: “an original racial hierarchy that positioned the three primary races intermixing on the colonial frontier: White, Native American, and Black” (Marubbio 141). We may find an example of this hierarchy scheme in the text1 as well where Cooper uses the words of Indian people in order to present his own vision of racial hierarchy. In this short passage Cooper said everything. We may learn his own ideas about the cultures. Although this extract is not different from the others by the usage of some specific language devices, it is, above all, different in the ideas presented. This passage serves us as some summary of the most important characteristics of all cultures and Cooper here explains his own attitude towards the issue of these differences. He presents the reader his own vision of the Indian culture. It can be clearly seen that Cooper plays a role of a just judge who tries to reach a verdict and punish villains on one side and praise the fair on the other. Nearing the end of the novel we are faced with the explanation of the roots of all these features. He illustrates an Indian as a man consisting of a mixture of different predecessors in which he sees possible reasons of their wild nature. At this time we may even have a feeling that Cooper attempts to pardon the Indians for their cruel behaviour and sympathizes with them for everything thy have done.A girl, selected for the task by her rank and qualifications, commenced by modest allusions to the qualities of the deceased warrior, embellishing her expressions with those oriental images that the Indians have probably brought with them from the extremes of the other continent, and which form of themselves a link to connect the ancient histories of he two worlds (Cooper 321).The main idea that Cooper deals with in his novel is based on the clash and disorder among these cultures. Main reasons for unquiet lives of these people are land disputes and primarily relations of dominance and subordination. When we return to a common understanding of Cooper’s depiction of the two different cultures we will ascertain that these cultures are totally different. In the text we may find several examples where the two cultures differ. As Sheardy affirms: “To west, the Indian represented a timeless ideal of the natural man, a combination of innocence, intelligence, thoughtfulness and masculinity” (Sheardy 93). But Cooper’s vision of an Indian is a little bit different. He shows us the Indians as people full of revenge who will punish everything that happened to them unfairly:“I have been on many a shocking field, and have followed a trail of blood for weary miles,” he said, “but never have I found the land of the devil so plain as it is here to be seen! Revenge is an Indian feeling, and all who know me know that …” (Cooper 167).The Indians are portrayed as the savages fighting for land and honour. When he spoke of courage, their looks were firm and responsive; when he alluded to their injuries, their eyes kindled with fury; when he mentioned the taunts of the women, they dropped their heads in shame; but when he pointed out their means of vengeance, he struck a chord which never failed to thrill in the breast of an Indian (Cooper 94).In this context, we may refer to some specific features of the Indians. It has already been mentioned that the Indians are seen as wild and cruel people. However, Cooper does not directly write about their wilderness, it can be seen through several aspects. One not primarily referring to their nature may be found in the style of Indian eating habits: Notwithstanding the swiftness of their flight, one of the Indians had found an opportunity to strike a straggling fawn with an arrow, and had borne the more preferable fragments of the victim patiently on his shoulders to the stopping-place. Without any aid from the science of cookery, he was immediately employed, in common with his fellows, in gorging himself with this digestible sustenance (Cooper 87).Look at this! The varlets know the better pieces of the deer, and one would think they might carve and roast a saddle equal to the best cook in land! But everything is raw, for the Iroquois are thorough savages (Cooper 106).Based on this description we can get a real image of their severity and cruelty, which is incorporated in all aspects of Indian lives. Cooper deliberately used words and phrases which denote rough images in readers’ minds in order to convey the intention of portraying typical features of the Indians through figurative meaning and non-literal understanding of particular words. The last sentence of a given example2 cannot be understood literally, because Cooper here suggests understanding of the Indian nature as such and it is not limited only to their eating habits.When we compare some characteristics of the Indians with the characteristics of white people, we will realise that they are totally different. A very good example can be observed in men’s attitude towards women. In Cooper’s novel, there are different kinds of treatment of women. One can be represented by Magua’s and the other by Heyward’s. Both characters are interested in a white woman. But their way of evoking her interest in them is absolutely unequal. Again and again Cooper uses figurative way for naming typical characteristics of a particular culture. Magua as a savage Huron who wants to get a woman by threatening her while Heyward as a civilised man, asks white woman’s father for his permission to love and later to marry his daughter. This inequality roots from historical background of both cultures. The Indians living in a patriarchal society3 considered human just as an instrument for keeping the tribe alive. But the culture of white people which is portrayed as a developed and civilised one, approached the issue of gaining women in an opposite way. It treated women as virtuous beings who deserved protection, admiration and respect. It is said that Cooper’s inspiration for this violence among various races and between the two genders was adopted from John Vanderlyn’s painting Death of Jane McCrea of 1804 because, as Sheardy explains: “The scene described by Barlow and illustrated by Vanderlyn will also serve as inspiration for Cooper. He was living in New York City between 1822 and 1826, a period of "sleeplessness, intermittent fever, and separation from his wife," according to John McWilliams (70). These were also the years in which he was writing The Last of the Mohicans. The painting was on display at the American Academy of Fine Art during this same period. Again and again in Cooper's novel, the two white heroines find themselves in the hands of red men in scenes reminding us of the painting of Jane McCrea's murder. Again and again, Cooper threatens the reader with impending murders, rapes or scalpings of Cora and Alice which, as in the arrested action of the painting, never actually occur, until the penultimate chapter” (Sheardy 94).Another aspect of the Indian characteristics lies in their connection to nature. The Indians as native inhabitants of the country were very closely connected to nature. This nature serves as their universal mother. It is their shelter, source of food and also a kind of a God. Throughout the whole novel we may meet several instances where there is a reference to this devotion to nature and its symbols. One of them can be perceived in the Indian’s worshiping the beaver where the Indian plays a role of an uncivilised hero. After we parted, I placed the commandant and the Sagamore in an old beaver lodge, where they are safer from the Hurons than they would be in the garrison of Edward; for your high north-west Indians, not having as yet got the traders among them, continue to venerate the beaver (Cooper 106).But, on the other hand, when we look the culture of white people, we will not find any such a devotion. The reason for this may that the culture of white people was more developed and therefore was able to deal with some extraordinary phenomena through some scientific approaches. But one fact that needs to be mentioned concerning these feature is that white people also possessed some kind of worshiping. They were the traces of Christianity which Cooper used in order to support his non-direct way of describing cultures. The Christianity serves here as an instrument referring to one of the aspects of the development of the culture of white people. The image of the Indian as an uncivilised hero is even strengthened by his lack of language. As Robert Sheardy Jr. writes: “In Cooper, native talk is eliminated altogether--but for an occasional word or phrase--as if even the Indian languages were "invisible" to the nineteenth-century reader. Opposed to this is Cora's loquaciousness. Her use of formal English both angers and attracts Magua and contributes to her eventual death in the novel” (Sheardy 97). This element of language presence in the novel is very important because through it we may acquaint with a character of Indian nature. The lack of language in Indian representatives in Cooper’s novel leads us to the discovery of their weak side, which deprive them of a chance to become developed characters in this novel. But Cooper did not forget to balance this weakness of Indian people with other features that help them to deal with their destiny. In this context Sheardy continues: “Uncas lacks the language that identifies one with civilization, whereas Hawkeye, on the other hand, is vociferous to the point of distraction. It is Uncas's physical beauty that makes him visible, not his command of the language” (Sheardy 97). We can see similar aspect of means of civilization on the side of white people too. But here it serves vice versa. Here the presence of language symbolises the development of the culture. When reading the book we are introduced to an uncounted number of dialogues and speeches among the representatives of white culture. Based on the ability to use language, Cooper presents us a non-direct reference to the characterization of two different cultures.The comparison so far has been based only on the differences between the two cultures. Although these cultures are so different, they possess some features that are typical of both too. The fact is that these features are not directly stated in Cooper’s novel but we can find them when we examine the text more deeply. One of the most relevant features that can be seen in both cultures is their attachment to a particular member of their own nation or tribe. Such an example is revealed in front of us in a scene where Cora in an attempt to save her sister Alice throws herself on the ground in order to protect her sister:She eluded the grasp of the savage, and, reckless of her own safety, threw herself on the bosom of Alice, striving, with convulsed and ill-directed fingers, to rear asunder the twigs which confined the person of her sister (Cooper 99).Something similar we can distinguish in Indian behaviour, too. Although here Cooper does not deal directly with the protection of a particular member of the community, we can still see the aspect of devotion and bravery on the Indian’s side. The following scene tells us about the Indian’s dedication and devotion again. But in this case, it is not about the protection but it is more about achieving one’s own goal. In this instance Cooper reveals another typical feature of Indian culture through their actions and behaviour:“Do I expect a hungry wolf will satisfy his craving with a mouthful?” They have lost a man, and ‘tis their fashion, when they meet a loss and fail in the surprise, to fall back; but we shall have them on again, with new expedients to circumvent us and master our scalps (Cooper 55).As a proof to this assumption can serve another example taken from Cooper’s original text. It is a scene where we learn about the Indian nature and how tireless they can be as the Indian dedication to their goal is even strengthened: “These devils will scale heaven to circumvent us to our ruin,” said Hawk-eye. “Keep him in play, boy, until I can bring “Kill-deer” to bear, when we will try his metal on each side of the tree at once” (Cooper 62).Before ending of the novel, Cooper presents us more and more similarities between both cultures. It seems as if he wanted to unite both cultures and create a new society. Therefore, his novel in many cases resembles a kind of recipe for creating a developed society where people are not treated according to their race or religion:But the tie which, through their common calamity, had united the feelings of these simple dwellers in the woods with the strangers, who had thus transiently visited them, was not so easily broken (Cooper 327).The gifts of our colours may be different, but God has so placed us to journey the same path. I have no kin, and I may also say, like you, no people. He was your son, and a red-skin by nature, and it may be that your blood was nearer; but if ever I forget the lad who has so often fou’t at my side in war, and slept at my side in peace, may He who made us all, whatever may be our colour, or our gifts, forget me (Cooper 328)!One of possible reasons why James Fenimore Cooper wrote his novel The Last of the Mohicans was that he was not satisfied with the treatment of the Indians people at the time he lived. He lived in the times of American colonialism and expansionism when native people were constantly being deprived of their rights and they were forced to abandon their homes and lands that as they said were given to them from their creator4. Therefore we may polemize about his intention for writing such a novel. For me it just simply seems that he wanted to unite two different nations so that “Native American culture would not be treated as internal Third World nations within the United States” as Marubbio claims, (Marubbio 148) because we know that many a time there was an unfair treatment of the Indians from the side of white people. It may appear that Cooper’s original intention for writing such a novel was to build a description of history of America where Native Indians were colonised people whose destiny was strongly dependent on white men’s dominant culture. But James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans offers us an eye through which we can look back to the history of America of those times truly including all aspects of colonialism which in some cases led even to racism. He tried to balance both sides, the negative and positive ones, so that his story would be worth reading and it would not be just a one-way reading of some old story where he would unfairly raise one nation and the other would be condemned. Notes:1 “The Spirit that made men coloured them differently,” commenced the subtle Huron. “Some are blacker than the sluggish bear. These He said should be slaves; and he ordered them to work for ever, like the beaver. You may hear them groan when the south wind blows, louder than the lowing buffaloes, along the shores of the great salt lake, where the big canoes come and go with them in droves. Some He made with faces paler than the ermine of the forests, and these He ordered to be traders – dogs to their women and wolves to their slaves. He gave these people the nature of the pigeon – wings that never tire; young, more plentiful than the leaves on the trees, and appetites to devour the earth. He gave them tongues to like the false call of the wild-cat, hearts like rabbits, the cunning of the hog (but none of the fox), and arms longer than the legs of the moose. With his tongue he stops the ears of the Indians, his heart teaches him to pay warriors to fight his battles, his cunning tells him how to get together the goods of he earth, and his arms enclose the land from the shores of the salt water to the islands of he great lake. His gluttony makes him sick. God gave him enough, and yet he wants all. Such are the pale faces.”“Some the Great Spirit made with skins brighter and redder than yonder sun,” continued Magua, pointing impressively upward to the luminary, which was struggling through the misty atmosphere of the horizon, “and these did he fashion to his own mind. He gave them this land as He had made it, covered with trees and filled with game. The wind made their clearings, the sun and the rains ripened their fruits, and the snows came to tell them to be thankful. What need had they of roads to journey by? They saw through the hills! When the beavers worked, they lay in the shade and looked on. The winds cooled them in summer; in winter, skins kept them warm. If they fought among themselves, it was to prove that they were men. They were brave; they were just; they were happy” (Cooper 1994: 281-282).2But everything is raw, for the Iroquois are thorough savages (Cooper 1994: 106).3The dress of his patriarch – for such, considering his vast age, in conjunction with his affinity and influence with his people, he might very properly be termed – was rich and imposing, though strictly after the simple fashions of the tribe (Cooper 1994: 274).4He gave them this land as He had made it, covered with trees and filled with game. Works CitedCooper, James F. The Last of the Mohicans. 3rd ed. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994. Sheardy, Robert, Jr. "The White Woman and the Native Male Body in Vanderlyn’s Death of Jane McCrea." Journal of American Culture Spring 1999: 22. :93-100. Academic Search Premier The Prešov University Library. 3 Nov 2004 . Marubbio, Elise. M. " Celebrating with The Last of the Mohicans: The Columbus Quincentenary and Neocolonialism in Hollywood Film." Journal of American & Comparative Cultures Spring 2002: 25. :139-154 . Academic Search Premier. The Prešov University Library. 3 Nov 2004 .