Notes on Masculinity in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans

james_fenimore_cooperCooper’s ingenuity in creating situations that involve displays of the woodsmen’s skill and “masculine” disposition is a large part of what makes The Last of the Mohicans (1826) entertaining. These “situations” – which Mark Twain always puts in quotes, in his famous 1895 critique of “Cooper’s Literary Offenses” – are apparently fanciful, perhaps depicting not so much a real landscape as one of the psyche. If readers can excuse Radcliffe, Brocken Brown, and other romance/gothic writers for sacrificing realism to the dark, dreamy chambers of the mind, then maybe Cooper should be granted the same courtesy. As Leslie Feilder says, partially following in Twain’s line of criticism, “Were one of the actors once to sweat or belch or retire to the bushes to relieve himself, the spell would be broken; we would know that all of them were merely flesh. But nothing gives the game away.” Nevertheless, as a reader, I think a better position is not to expose the magician as a fraud (for we know at the outset that nobody has been really sawn in half) – but rather to ask why the magician has chosen this particular bag of tricks, this performance. While Twain wants to look up Cooper’s sleeves, I think we can get more out of Cooper by not demanding him to be a realist.


While the display of the woodsmen’s’ skill and “masculinity” seems to provide the adventure to the story, this display is dependent upon a seemingly flimsy pretext: For the first half of the novel, two young women need to be protected and guided on their way to their father, and for the second half, they need to be rescued out of captivity. However, for Heyward, the safekeeping of the women is not flimsy, because he is motivated by loyalty to his commander and love for Alice. Neither is it flimsy for Uncas, who apparently desires Cora. Meanwhile, even Magua, the supposedly bad Indian, has understandable reasons behind his actions; he is simultaneously motivated by vengeance against Munro and desire for Cora. Because Chingachgook seems to tag mutely along, attached to his son and lending his abilities, he is easily dismissed as a grunting, stock character. His motivation for helping these two white women, while ultimately vague, doesn’t really seem relevant (at least to Cooper).


With Hawkeye, however, whose observations and voice are essential to the story, the reader expects a good reason why he risks his life for other people. Unlike those motivated by love, loyalty, or vengeance, he appears to be motivated by the outward performance of his character. In other words, he needs to display his skill and “masculinity” simply because he is “Hawkeye” – “la Longue Carabine.” I have the sense that even if the helpless women didn’t provide him the pretext to perform, he would still be off somewhere with his “kill-deer,” enacting the role of the scout.


Interestingly, when confronted with the motivation of Heyward, Hawkeye is “impatient” and baffled. He says, “I have heard … that there is a feeling in youth, which binds man to woman, closer than the father is tied to the son. It may be so…You have risked life, and all that is dear to you, and I suppose that some such disposition is at the bottom of it all” (265). Thus, Hawkeye, who guides the reader through a series of adventures, is only dimly aware of love and desire. Because he nonetheless acts on the behalf of characters that are motivated by love, perhaps Hawkeye partakes in the “feeling” vicariously. Yet this doesn’t feel completely correct. Instead, Hawkeye’s “masculinity” seems devoid of sexuality, despite his long carbine. His “masculinity” is violent, skillful, stoic, and attuned to nature – but yet, it is defined by its performance, requiring little or no pretext. Of course, it was Cooper himself who set the stage for Hawkeye to reveal his skills, so why idealize a masculinity that appears asexual?


Michael James Rizza has an MA in creative writing from Temple University in Philadelphia and a PhD in American Literature from the University of South Carolina. He has published academic articles on Don DeLillo, Milan Kundera, Harold Frederic, and Adrienne Rich. His award winning novel Cartilage and Skin was published by Starcherone Books in November 2013. His short fiction has appeared in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, Switchback, and Curbside Splendor. He has won various awards for his writing, including a fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts and the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. His scholarly monograph entitled The Topographical Imagination of Jameson, Baudrillard, Foucault, is forthcoming with Davies Group, Publishers. He is currently at work on a funny, fast paced, literary novel called Domestic Men’s Fiction. He teaches at Kean University. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Robin and their son Wilder, who was named after a character in DeLillo’s White Noise.

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