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American or Postcolonial Studies? On the Frontiers of Colony and Empire with The Last of the Mohicans and Heart of Darkness

(article forthcoming in Cultural Encounters, ed. Nicholas Birns.
Ipswich MA: EBSCO, 2012)

Craig White
Professor of Literature
University of Houston-Clear Lake

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 United States literature and culture. Specifically, the characters whose presence unifies the Tales—the frontiersman Leather-Stocking (called Hawk-eye in Last of the Mohicans), and Chingachgook, a Mohegan chief uprooted from his homelands—are prototypes for many heroes in later American literature and popular culture, from cowboys and noble savages in westerns, to space rangers and sublime aliens in faraway worlds of science fiction.

Postcolonial Studies, originating in the British Commonwealth and former colonies of the French empire, differs from national studies like American, English, or French literature, which traditionally elevate a single cultural theme or character above others. In place of this hierarchical, self-affirming method, Postcolonial Studies develop dialogues between peoples or texts—even within a single individual. Students who have invested time and effort in American literary or historical studies that highlight themes and identities unique to the United States’ dominant culture may wonder if Postcolonial Studies represents more of a challenge than an opportunity. From before Columbus to the International Space Station, however, American and Western cultures—despite definite exclusionary qualities—have always crossed borders, coming to terms with others and changing to meet the future.

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 United States is an extraordinarily inclusive nation, but pressure to learn techniques for managing change only grows. People increasingly live in a world without boundaries where the future of each is connected to all—much like our past, whether we knew it or not. Human nature yearns for master narratives and stand-alone characters, but Postcolonial Studies finds ways to keep the world’s many voices talking and learning together instead of taking turns dominating and resisting.

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 Europe into an African colony in the late 1800s. Its depiction of a First-World empire’s intrusion in the Developing World exemplifies Colonial and Postcolonial characters and generates textual and inter-textual dialogues that re-appear in the American scenario of Last of the Mohicans.

Texts associated with the British Empire offer models of Postcolonial Studies to American readers otherwise unfamiliar with colonial issues. American students could easily locate Robinson Crusoe or Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the history of European imperialism, or observe that family fortunes in Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre often derive from colonial enterprises. For Postcolonial Studies, Heart of Darkness has been a defining text. Though Conrad is celebrated as an author of exquisite English prose, English was his third language. Born in Poland in 1857, Conrad left his native country for the life of a sailor partly because of the Russian Empire’s repression of his family and nation. Conrad based Heart of Darkness on his journey in 1890 to the Congo region of West Africa, then colonized by Belgium. Like Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, Conrad’s masterpiece takes place on a frontier where forces of European empires are advancing. For much of the 20th century, however, Heart of Darkness was studied less for its colonial subject matter than as a psychological “journey into self”—much as Last of the Mohicans with its very title speaks to an innate human sense that the age of heroes has passed (Guerard 326).

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 Congo) and the emergence of distinguished African fiction by authors like Chinua Achebe of Nigeria.

Achebe’s 1977 article, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness,” reshaped colonial-postcolonial dialogue by challenging Conrad’s “dehumanization of Africa and Africans” (344). For other critics, Conrad depicted colonialism as an equally dehumanizing experience for the colonizers, whose “corruption comes not from Africans but from Europe” (Hawkins 371). Postcolonial Studies’ continuing debate “whether to regard Heart of Darkness as a daring attack on imperialism or a reactionary purveyor of colonial stereotypes” continues to shape classroom reading (Armstrong 430) “Achebe’s own novel Things Fall Apart is also now frequently anthologized next to Heart of Darkness,” and intertextual comparisons of Conrad’s and Achebe’s novels are “a standard assignment”—even though Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in response to another colonial African novel, Mister Johnson (1939) by Irish novelist Joyce Cary, and the setting of Achebe’s novel in the Ibo region of Nigeria is “more than a thousand miles from the upper Congo depicted by Conrad” (Hawkins 366-67). In 1979 the American film Apocalypse Now! extended Heart of Darkness’s postcolonial dialogue by relocating its narrative from Belgian exploitation of the Congo in the 1890s to the U.S. war in Vietnam in the 1960s.

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 Congo or 18th-century America. The imperial mission described in Heart of Darkness—to extract elephant ivory from the African interior—is more explicitly economical than Mohicans’ military adventure, but in both Africa and America the action is determined by faraway powers in Europe, whose representatives in the colonized continents define the theater of operations in each.

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 Berlin granted the Congo region to Belgian King Leopold II as his personal possession. That imperial figure remains remote from the novel’s perspective, as do the emperors of England and France in Last of the Mohicans. Marlow does, however, meet the director or chief executive officer of “the Company,” the “great man himself” with “his grip on the handle-end of ever so many millions” (10). Another imperialist figure waits at the end of Marlow’s journey, down the Atlantic coast of Africa and up the Congo River. Much as European trade and militarization destabilized Indian communities, Kurtz—“All Europe contributed to [his] making” (49)—has disrupted local African politics and economics by using violence to extort ever larger amounts of ivory for Europe’s markets. (Ivory, like today’s plastics made from foreign oil, provided raw material for numerous consumer products.) Last of the Mohicans comparably opens with the historical British General Daniel Webb looking on as the fictional figures Cora and Alice Munro start a journey to meet their father Colonel Munro, himself an actual figure in the English army at Fort William Henry, a site in the French and Indian War that is under siege by forces of the French Empire and Indian allies led by the illustrious General Montcalm (19).

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 Massachusetts.) Chingachgook and Uncas partner with Hawk-eye and the English. Cooper shows less affinity for the Iroquois, who are depicted as allies of the French. But the upheaval of American Indian communities appears in the Indian camps, where traditional enemies mix, and in Magua, an Indian military leader in exile from his original northern tribe, the Hurons, following disgrace and punishment at the hands of Colonel Munro.

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 First World’s power structures. The station manager’s “'boy'—an overfed young negro from the coast—[was permitted] to treat the white men . . . with provoking insolence” (22). With a climactic utterance near the novella’s end, this youngster uses his new language to belittle the colonizers: “Suddenly the manager's boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt: 'Mistah Kurtz—he dead'” (69). Postcolonial Studies labels such a character a “subaltern”—a representative, in theorist Homi Bhabha’s characterization, of “oppressed, minority groups whose presence was crucial to the self-definition of the majority group: subaltern social groups were also in a position to subvert the authority of those who had hegemonic power” (“Unpacking” 210). That is, colonizers require the colonized to learn their language and technologies, but those powers make the colonized dangerous, as when Robinson Crusoe demonstrated to Friday the power of his gun but not how it worked. Another subaltern in Heart of Darkness is the “fireman” in Marlow’s steamboat, who learns as essential a Western technology as firearms by tending the fire whose steam drives the boat upriver. Mohicans glimpses this relation when Hawk-eye instructs Uncas in proper use of the rifle, which the Iroquois also use (70). The Mohicans and Magua can switch from Indian tongues to French or English; among the whites, only Hawk-eye shares this ability.

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 Africa itself (60). Kurtz’s transformation also resembles that of The Last of the Mohicans’ David Gamut, a character much like Ichabod Crane from Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1819). Exposed to the wilderness, this instructor of Christian music increasingly takes on a Native American identity. At the Massacre of Fort William Henry, Gamut sings psalms as protection from marauding Iroquois, who admire “the firmness with which the white warrior sung his death song,” thus equating his performance with that of an Indian captive singing during Iroquois torture rituals as a demonstration of courage (177). Later in the novel, Gamut adopts an Indian appearance by shaving his head and painting his face (219).

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 America. Cora and Uncas hereby enter the annals of such forbidden loves as Romeo and Juliet, but with greater implications for racial or national identity. Any development of Uncas’s role as “messenger” to Colonel Munro is precluded by plot developments, not the least of which is Cora’s repeated capture by Magua, who explicitly solicits “the daughter of the English chief [to] live in [my] wigwam for ever” (104).

What attracts the noble and ignoble savages in Last of the Mohicans toward Cora—but not, say, Alice? Cora is “surpassingly beautiful” (19), and either suitor might note her adaptability to frontier conditions and her leadership in crises while her younger sister faints. Only when the novel’s opening adventures slacken—after another fight with Magua’s forces and the deliverance of Colonel Munro’s daughters to Fort William Henry—does Cooper reveal that any courtship between Cora and Uncas would be more than a union between a dispossessed Indian prince and a lady of the British Empire. A meeting by another young marriage prospect with Colonel Munro concerning his daughters forces the revelation of Cora’s remarkable identity, which even then is disclosed only obliquely. Major Heyward calls on Colonel Munro to ask for Alice’s hand in marriage, but Munro mistakenly assumes that Heyward wishes to marry his elder daughter Cora, who is evidently in her early 20s while Alice is still a teen.

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 Africa itself. In the 1870s and 80s, the Welsh-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley led two expeditions to the Congo region intended to end the slave trade but in fact inflicting immeasurable violence on its peoples. The second journey was financed by King Leopold II of Belgium, who used routes pioneered by Stanley to begin the despoliation described in Heart of Darkness. Stanley’s best-selling accounts of these famous adventures, Through the Dark Continent (1878) and In Darkest Africa (1890), publicized “the Dark Continent” as an epithet for Africa. Marlow alludes to this status when he recalls Africa “becom[ing] a place of darkness” on maps indicating unexplored territories (8), but he also uses darkness as a figure for immorality, as when he styles Kurtz’s specious rhetoric as “the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness” or refers to “the barren darkness of [Kurtz’s] heart” (47, 68). The text’s references to Europeans and Africans align such figures of speech with racial identities corresponding to light and darkness. In contrast to the “fair hair,” “pale visage,” and “pure brow” that mark Kurtz’s “intended” in Europe, Marlow’s overloaded descriptions of Africans reveal what Achebe calls a “fixation on blackness”: “A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving long black arms . . . “ (345). To reduce white and black imagery to a secret code for racism is unproductive, but disregarding such factors in the color code’s signification can blind readers to evidence that hybridity complicates imperialism’s insistence on racial purity.

Expanding the color code to include distinct races or ethnicities is justified in Last of the Mohicans by a postcolonial and 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 Scotland, part of Great Britain since Shakespeare’s time but “curse[d] . . . by [its] unnatural union with a foreign and trading people”—i.e., the English. Like other colonized people before and since, Munro joins the imperial military and is assigned to another part of the Empire:

“[D]uty called me to the islands of the West Indies [i.e., the Caribbean]. There it was my lot to form a connection with one who in time became my wife, and the mother of Cora. She was the daughter of a gentleman of those isles, by a lady whose misfortune it was, if you will . . . to be descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class [i.e., Africans] who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people” (159)

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 inherit early America’s three major racial bloodlines: Indian, European, African. Cooper as a Founding Father of American fiction cannot write that future, but real life succeeds where fiction faltered. William Apess, the American Indian author who wrote against Indian removal while Cooper was writing The Last of the Mohicans, was the child of a European-Native American father and a mother who may have been a “Negro” (O’Connell xxvii, n. 17). Prior to the Trail of Tears the Cherokees had “at least 200 interracial (red and white) married couples” and owned more than a thousand black slaves (McWilliams 104). Uncas may have been “the last of the Mohicans” in one sense, but in Uncasville, Connecticut, the diverse Native American employees of the giant Mohegan Sun casino, home to the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun, have found their own mixed ways to survive in the American empire.

“’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 reason!" returned Duncan, at the same time conscious of such a feeling, and that as deeply rooted as if it had been ingrafted in his nature. (159)

“[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. Gilroy postulates the Black Atlantic as a frontier whose “history . . . yields a course of lessons as to the instability and mutability of identities which are always unfinished, always being remade” (xi). Colonizer and colonized from Old and New Worlds meet to rule or turn into each other. As a text of shifting frontiers and mixed identities, The Last of the Mohicans speaks in dialogue as a classic American text of Postcolonial literature.

Works Cited


Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.” 1977, 1988. In Armstrong, Heart of Darkness, 336-49.

Armstrong, Paul B., ed. Heart of Darkness. Norton Critical Edition. 4th Ed. NY: Norton, 2006.

---. [Reading, Race, and Representing Others.” From “Heart of Darkness and the Epistemology of Cultural Differences” in Under Postcolonial Eyes: Joseph Conrad After Empire. Eds. Gail Fineham and Myrtle Hooper. Rondebosch: U of Cape Town P, 1996. 21-35, 37-39. In Armstrong, Heart of Darkness, 429-444.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge, 2003.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Bhabha, Homi K. “Signs Taken for Wonders.” From “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985). In Ashcroft, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995: 29-35.

---. "Unpacking my library . . . again." The Post-colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons. Ed..Iain Chambers & Lidia Curti. London: Routledge, 1996: 199-211.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899, 1902, 1921. Norton Critical Edition. 4th edition. Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. NY: Norton, 2006.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. 1826. NY: Penguin, 1986.

Dictionary of Human Geography, ed. R.J. Johnston et al. 4th edition. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and the Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Guerard, Albert J. “The Journey Within.” From Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1958. In Armstrong, Heart of Darkness, 326-336.

Hawkins, Hunt. “Heart of Darkness and Racism.” From “The Issue of Racism in Heart of Darkness.” Conradiana 14.3 (1982): 163-71; in Armstrong, Heart of Darkness, 365-75.

Lawrence, D. H. "Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Novels." Studies in Classic American Literature. 1923. NY: Viking, 1961.

McWilliams, John P., Jr. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: U of California P, 1972.

O’Connell, Barry. Introduction. On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, A Pequot. Ed. O’Connell. Boston: U of Massachusetts P, 1992. Xiii-

Tompkins, Jane. “No Apologies for the Iroquois: A New Way to Read the Leatherstocking Novels.” Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. NY: Oxford UP, 1985. 94-121.


Statue of James Fenimore Cooper in Cooperstown, NY

(photo by Dr. W's sister Janet)

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