Tuesday, May 03, 2011

James Fenimore Cooper, Cormac McCarthy and American Exceptionalism

There is little point in writing a full review of The Last of the Mohicans because it is so well known and has been so much written about that, frankly, I would have nothing new to say. In any case, I wasn’t reading it for the sake of the novel itself, but rather in order to understand its place in the development of the American novel. Having finally read The Last of the Mohicans I can now understand why Blood Meridian, a book of which I have been and will continue to be critical, had to be written.

Cooper’s novel demonstrates a strong ambivalence about native American Indians. There is admiration of some American Indian traditions, as exemplified by the “silent Warrior” and “cunning hunter” motifs which are prevalent throughout the novel, while Chingachgook and Uncas, the last two Mohicans, are clearly defined in heroic mode. But even the Huron enemies, for all their cartoonish depiction as savages and godless heathens, are at times given similarly positive characteristics. Their skill in hunting and tracking is celebrated. Their mastery of their landscape is praised.

Of course, they cannot be allowed to succeed, because they are savages, and Cooper’s novel is an early exemplar of a strain of American exceptionalism. Therefore, his description of the Indian foes veers between this immense natural intelligence and utter stupidity. In terms of writing craft this is incompetent: Cooper’s characters are puppets who react one way in a certain situation and in an entirely different way in another, according to the requirements of the plot. Thus, Magua, the great leader of the Huron, allows himself to be tricked and captured in a way that even a gauche ingenue of twelve years of age would be embarrassed to admit to.

But this is not what primarily interests me. The Last of the Mohicans is a badly written novel (although not as bad as it may appear - some of its apparent deficiencies are nothing more than the ephemeralities of changing tastes and sensibilities) and there would be little to be gained by exploring its weaknesses in detail. In any case, (and thanks again to Court for pointing me towards it), Mark Twain has already done a much better job than I could of Cooper criticism. What interests me most is the way the novel grapples with this question of American exceptionalism and its consequences.

American exceptionalism is not as straightforward as is often implied, at least on this side of the Atlantic, where we tend to view it as the American presumption of American superiority. The Puritan settlers were the first exceptionalists, whose exceptionalism was based on the premise that they and God and New England had been brought together in furtherance of the creation of a new Eden. This initial strand of religiously based exceptionalism was the first and possibly strongest. Later, a more naturalistic exceptionalism, based on the independent spirit of frontiersmen and of the wilderness itself, came to prominence. In this way, American exceptionalism developed through the secularisation of America’s core mythologies. But, again, this is not a straightforward or neat or linear narrative, because manifest destiny, that close cousin of American exceptionalism which came to prominence in the 1840s and 1850s, is deeply rooted in notions of divine providence. Its basis is as much religious as it is secular.

In various ways, then, American exceptionalism has shaped American consciousness for the past three hundred years but, in attempting to understand it, I think we need to appreciate that it is not as simple as the usual definition of white men being charged by God to exercise his will by taming and populating the heathen wildernesses of the west. If that were the case there would be a simple supplanting of one tradition with another, and all vestiges of native American consciousness would be removed. I suspect some will argue that this is exactly what did happen and will go further and describe the events of the 1840s and 1850s as virtually genocidal. I don’t wish to debate that in historical terms because I do not know enough about it, but what interests me is the extent to which, whether consciously or not, a strong strain of native American thought and belief has been replicated in the modern American psyche.

This is what we see in The Last of the Mohicans with its celebration of Indian forest craft. The silent warrior, working alone, demonstrating remarkable skill, entirely self-reliant, as depicted in the Indian characters, both “good” (Uncas, Chingachgook) and “bad” (Magua), has become a staple of American popular culture. Think John Wayne. Think Dirty Harry, Bruce Willis in Die Hard, Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli. You can certainly trace their lineage back to the American forefathers who arrived in Boston and started building their new Eden on hard work, perseverance, skill and religious observance, but you can also clearly see it in the American Indians they so bitterly opposed. Thus, there seems to be this ambivalence at the heart of American culture. Cooper’s cartoon Indian savages are depicted as manifestations of evil, and yet they are also invested with those very attributes that Americans hold dear. It’s a curious contradiction. It is generally supposed that the myth of American exceptionalism began to overshadow, and finally suffocate the Native American traditions. However, I’m not sure there is such an easy division; rather, there seems to have been a kind of parasitic symbiosis at play.

Perhaps, then, this notion of American exceptionalism is less rooted in Christianity than is supposed, and more connected with a spirituality which is still transcendent but more natural. Hawk-eye, in an argument with David, makes the following statement:

“I have heard it said that there are men who read in books to convince themselves there is a God. I know not but man may so deform his works in the settlement, as to leave that which is so clear in the wilderness a matter of doubt among traders and priests. If any such there be, and he will follow me from sun to sun, through the windings of the forest, he shall see enough to teach him that he is a fool, and that the greatest of his folly lies in striving to rise to the level of One he can never equal, be it in goodness, or be it in power".


David is appalled by this. He clings to his Christian faith and, in particular, the ‘beautiful simplity of revelation’ which can only be approached by penetrating ‘the awful mystery of the divine nature.’ Hawk-eye, a self-proclaimed ‘warrior of the wilderness’, is scornful of David’s academic approach. He has no need of books because the truth is “open before your eyes” – that is, it is revealed in the wilderness surrounding them. This begins to chime with some of Cormac McCarthy’s thought in Blood Meridian, the ‘optical democracy’ of the natural environment, its ‘neuter austerity’, ‘mountains like the dark warp of the very firmament'.

Where The Last of the Mohicans and Blood Meridian differ, however, is in their approach to modernity and human (that is, technological) progress. McCarthy is broadly hostile, while Cooper remains imbued with the early pioneers’ faith in the future. An important symbol of this is Hawk-eye’s gun, so vital it even has a name, ‘Killdeer’. Hawk-eye’s brilliance with this implement (horribly exaggerated, of course, another fatal weakness in Cooper’s writing) is clearly counterpointed with the superb tracking and natural skills of the Indians: each is a master of their craft, each is presented as someone to be admired, their skill something to aspire to. And what better symbol is there of human technological progress, in all its brilliance and potential for evil, than the gun? And what more American? In his shooting duel with Magua, Hawk-eye claims that whichever proves to be the best marksman will be, by default, the “better man”. Note, that is not better shot, but better man, full stop. Therefore, through the symbol of Killdeer, Cooper is making a natural god of rationalism, reason, the progress of technology, while at the same time that symbolism is explicitly linked with tradition and nature. This is something McCarthy does not do: on the contrary, his novels offer increasingly insistent critiques of modernity and its consequences. Cooper's approach points to an ambiguity at the heart of America relating to modernity and tradition, progress and conservatism, technology and agrarianism. Indeed, there is something of the Janus in the American’s ability to look in both directions at once. In The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper’s philosophy is an uncomfortable melding of the most positive forces of both native American Indian beliefs and westernised modernity. The result is this peculiar notion of American exceptionalism. McCarthy, blind to tradition and refusing to conform to established mythologies, will have none of it.

Therefore, there are no noble savages or stout defenders of Christian righteousness in Blood Meridian. There is no good and bad, no battle between cultures or for beliefs. The future is unordained and it is unlikely to be wholesome. In Blood Meridian there is simply death and destruction. In that brief period in history, McCarthy is telling us, and in that location, while searching for its new Eden humanity lost its humanity. And that is the inherent danger of American exceptionalism.

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