Natty Bumppo’s “natur”: The anxiety of bearing no cross

last-of-the-mohicansNatty Bumppo, most likely telling the young Mohican Indian Uncas how to be a better Indian. Image found here.

Note: Over at my other blog, I have two brief posts on Mohicans, here and here; this one comes out of that context, but it’s not crucial to have read them before you read this one.

The frustrating (and fascinating) thing about reading The Last of the Mohicans (1826) is that, for all its insufferable didaticism it can be difficult to know whether and to what extent certain of its more intriguing textual moments are intentional. This difficulty, I would assume, is owing to what Richard Poirier succinctly describes (77) as Cooper’s lack of stylistic defensiveness. One quick example is Cooper’s rendering of Natty Bumppo’s speaking the word nature as “natur”: Apart from seeking to signify how his character is pronouncing the word, might Cooper also intend something of a more metaphysical or existential quality as regards his protagonist’s nature? I don’t know, and there is likely no way to know for sure. I mention all this because some conclusions that follow will be more speculative than interpretive; to that end, I’ll also make reference to another book, ostensibly very different from Mohicans, to provide a little support for those speculations.

Mohicans is here because of its influence on 19th-century Latin American writers who saw themselves (and their people) in the years after independence with much the same task ahead of them that Cooper’s characters face: the establishing of a new nation, and the extent to which people will shape the land, or the land them. But Mohicans is interesting to me as well because of the presence of Cora Munro, the older of Colonel Munro’s two daughters. The colonel tells Major Duncan Heyward of Cora’s origins–significantly, after the colonel assumes Heyward is interested in marrying Cora and Heyward rather awkwardly says he is not, that his interests lie with Alice, Cora’s younger, fairer, half-sister:

[Munro says, “In the West Indies,] it was my lot to form a connexion 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,” said the old man, proudly, “to be descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class, who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people! Ay, sir, that is a curse entailed on Scotland, by her unnatural union with a foreign and trading people. But could I find a man among them, who would dare to reflect on my child, he should feel the weight of a father’s anger! Ha! Major Heyward, you are yourself born at the south, where the unfortunate beings are considered of a race inferior to your own. . . . [a]nd you cast it on my child as a reproach! You scorn to mingle the blood of the Heywards, with one so degraded–lovely and virtuous though she be?” fiercely demanded the jealous parent.

“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 engrafted in his nature. “The sweetness, the beauty, the witchery of your younger daughter, Colonel Munro, might explain my motives, without imputing to me this injustice.” (151)

Heyward thus smooths things over with his future father-in-law, though not without a twinge of conscience as he feels compelled to lie to him even as he confronts a truth about himself. To his credit, up to this point in the novel he had been partial to Alice before being told of Cora’s ancestry; but now, as we see above, he has information that legitimizes to himself his not choosing Cora, even as he denies that his thinking tends in the same direction as that of the South. Heyward also provides here in miniature one of the novel’s chief themes: the tension between Reason and Nature as the deciding factor in determining our attitudes regarding race. As Heyward makes explicit in the passage above, the then-PC thing to say is that racism is antithetical to reason; yet the impulse toward racist (and racialist) attitudes seems “engrafted in . . . nature.” (Just as an aside, Thomas Dixon, in his novel The Sins of the Father (1912), will have his hero Dan Norton argue just the opposite: that racialism is a completely rational notion, and his adulterous affair with the mulatto woman Cleo is the result of his succumbing to what he characterizes as a failure of reason to control his baser impulses.)

I’ve not yet finished reading Mohicans, but thus far Cora, whose racial background satisfies the most essential prerequisites of the Tragic Mulatto–that she be darker-haired and -complected owing to some infinitesimal trace of black blood in her; that that trace render her unfit as a marriage partner–she is no tragic figure. That is most likely because she already knows the details of her parentage and, as a result, is (with the possible exception of the Chingachgook and his son Uncas) the most comfortable in her racial skin. That comfort, moreover, seems to give her a strength that Alice utterly lacks. It may also be, in part, why the attention the men show Cora is of a sort for which the best descriptor is “sexual.” In the most explicit expression of that attention, when the duplicitous Huron Magua (to whom Cooper also gives the French name Le Renard Subtil, just in case the reader needs a further marker of his duplicitous nature–there’s that word again) leeringly proposes to Cora in chapter XI that she become his wife, Cora more than holds her own. The fair-skinned and blonde Alice is also beautiful, but she is much more childlike and naïve; the attention she tends to attract is more paternalistic. It’s thus very odd to see Heyward describe Alice in the passage quoted above as possessing “witchery.” If witchery it is, it is Glinda-Good-Witch-of-the-North witchery.

Cora will not survive the end of Mohicans. As Doris Sommer argues in Foundational Fiction‘s discussion of the novel’s influence on Argentinian writer Domingo Sarmiento’s Facundo,

[Cora’s tragedy] is announced by the fact that she is the product of a leaky grid of blood. Her blood was so rich that it “seemed ready to burst its bounds” [11 in the Modern Library edition]. It stains her; makes her literally uncategorizable, that is, an epistemological error. . . . Cooper introduces these anomalous figures [Bumppo as well as Cora] as if to pledge that America can be original by providing the space for differences, variations, and crossings. But then he recoils from them, as if they were misfits, monsters. If Hawk-eye seems redeemable inside the grid of a classical reading because, unlike the gauchos, he is a man without a cross, he is finally as doomed as they are by Cooper’s obsessive social neatness. Hawk-eye disturbs the ideal hierarchies that Sarmiento and his Cooper have in mind, because neither birth nor language can measure his worth. (58-59)

Sommer’s reading here is another way of stating the terms of that tension between Reason and Nature that I mentioned earlier regarding a society’s attitudes about race. Whatever the truth of Sommer’s claim of Cooper’s “obsessive social neatness,” though, I’d argue that within the text–or more precisely, within Cooper’s characters–that debate is far from resolved, much less resolved neatly. The extent to which Cooper is actually aware of all this messiness–for which, after all, he as the author bears some responsibility–is a question Sommer, given how she characterizes Cooper seems not even to see as a question. This question of whether writers who create racially- and culturally-miscegenated characters are fully aware of how they destabilize narrative is an important one for this project.

Despite her passion, Cora exhibits a calmness: she clearly knows herself. Nowhere, thus far in the novel, does she wrestle with questions of her identity. As readers know, though, Natty Bumppo obsessively makes claims as to his “natur,” the most familiar assertion being that he is a man whose blood bears no cross. His mantra-like iteration, once we get over the impulse to mock it, becomes curious. No one in the novel questions that he is white; it is no secret that he was born of white parents but raised by Indians. Yet, if we may indulge in a bit of psychoanalysis, that constant iteration would seem to indicate that Bumppo feels a barely-subconscious anxiety about his background. Even as he expresses what can only be termed pride in his knowledge of the woods and the ways of Indians, it is as though he worries reflexively that in the eyes of other whites the very fact that he has this knowledge (or, alternately, a lack of knowledge that other whites “should” have) marks him as different in some essential way from other whites. To take only one example of this, when he initially does not properly read the tracks left by the Narraganset Bay horses that Cora and Alice are riding–a breed of horse that Cooper had earlier provided information on via a footnote for his readers’ benefit–Bumppo feels compelled to explain why he had failed: “[T]hough I am a man who has the full blood of the whites, my judgment in deer and beaver is greater than in beasts of burthen. Major Effington has many noble chargers, but I have never seen one travel after such a sideling gait!” (113) Bumppo apparently fears that someone might interpret his ignorance of one breed of horse, fairly uncommon though it is, as a sign that he is somehow less than white–hence his felt need to say that he has “the full blood of the whites.”

At the beginning of this post, I wondered whether, by rendering Bumppo’s pronunciation of the word as “natur,” Cooper might want to suggest something more existential about his protagonist: that he at some level feels some lack in his nature that puts him at risk of being alienated from the people with whom he claims a racial kinship. It’s here that I would like to engage in a bit more speculation: that the key to Bumppo’s anxiety is suggested by a pun, which may or may not be intentional on Cooper’s part, in Bumppo’s saying that his “blood bears no cross”: that is, that while Bumppo believes in God and “Providence,” it would be a mistake to identify him as a Christian–at least, as that term is understood by the other whites in the novel. At a time when religious affiliation, a community’s being held together and affirming its members via a shared faith in God–and, more precisely, a shared expression of that faith via theology and doctrine–was an accepted part of communal life and was fully embraced by almost everyone, it is not too excessive to suggest the possibility that Bumppo’s spiritual estrangement from his fellows compels him to affirm his kinship via his consanguinity–his “natur”–all the while fearing that even consanguinity might not be sufficient.

In a heated exchange with David Gamut, a psalmodist who, along with Cora and Alice, has just been rescued from their Huron captors, Bumppo reveals that while he believes the death of the Hurons he had just killed was “fore-ordered,” Bumppo makes abundantly clear that he does not share Gamut’s belief in the Puritan doctrine of foreordination, that, as Gamut puts it, “He that is to be saved will be saved, and he that is predestined to be damned will be damned!” Bumppo rejects this on the grounds that one actually has to bear witness to what befalls a person before one can say what his/her fate is. But what would be most unsettling to the sort of Christian that Gamut apparently is Bumppo’s explicit rejection of the authority of any printed book as providing the grounds for making claims about one’s salvation or damnation:

“Book! what have such as I, who am a warrior of the wilderness, though a man without a cross, to do with books! I never read but in one, and the words that are written there are too simple and too plain to need much schooling[. . . . ] ‘Tis open before your eyes, [. . .] and he who owns it is not a niggard of its use. 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 settlements, 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 be equal, be it in goodness, or be it in power.” (109)

Yet, firm as he is in his direct rejection of the truth claims made by Christians on behalf of the Bible, it is not as though Bumppo lives without doubts. In a later scene that can only be described as poignant, Natty engages Col. Heyward in a conversation about the nature of heaven as they return to the ruins of the fort named William Henry. The exchange is so remarkable that it is worth quoting at length:

“Speaking of spirits, major, are you of opinion that the heaven of a red-skin, and of us whites, will be one and the same?”

“No doubt–no doubt. [. . . ]

“For my own part,” continued Hawk-eye, [. . .] “I believe that paradise is ordained for happiness and that men will be indulged in it according to their dispositions and gifts. I therefore judge, that a red-skin is not far from the truth, when he believes he is to find them glorious hunting grounds of which his traditions tell; nor, for that matter, do I think it would be any disparagement to a man without a cross, to pass his time–

“You hear [that noise] again!” interrupted Duncan.

“Ay, ay; when food is scarce, and when food is plenty, a wolf grows bold,” said the unmoved scout. [. . .] But, concerning the life that is to come, major. I have heard preachers say, in the settlements, that heaven was a place of rest. Now men’s minds differ as to their ideas of enjoyment. For myself, and I say it with reverence to the ordering of Providence, it would be no great indulgence to be kept shut up in those mansions of which they preach, having a natural longing for motion and the chase.

Duncan [. . .] answered, with more attention to the subject which the humor of the scout had chosen for discussion, by saying–

“It is difficult to account for the feelings that may attend the last great change.”

“It would be a change indeed, for a man who has passed his days in the open air,” returned the single-minded scout; “and who has so often broken his fast on the head waters of the Hudson, to sleep within the sound of the roaring Mohawk! But it is a comfort to know we serve a merciful Master, though we do it each after his fashion, and with great tracts of wilderness atween us[.]” (184-185, italics added)

Bumppo makes as clear as he can without actually saying it that if heaven is indeed as he has heard it described “in the settlements” (read: a white race’s heaven), it would go against his “natural longing for motion and the chase.” Nor, moreover, does Bumppo feel it would be any “disparagement” of his nature–it would not be beneath him as a white man–“to pass his time–” and he does not finish his thought, but we can fill in the blank easily enough.

It is here that we see the clearest sign of Natty’s divided self, his “natur.” He wants his fellows to be certain they see only his whiteness, but what if it happens that, upon his death, God sees only his whiteness as well and assigns him a mansion in opposition to Bumppo’s particular “disposition and gifts”–which, as he says, run counter to those of most of the fellow members of his race? To be sure, Bumppo’s anxiety also rises in part from his deference to empirical evidence as the final arbiter of what is and is not so and the lack of empirical evidence in this world regarding the exact nature of the next. The best he can do, given this circumstance, is all that any believer can do: affirm his faith in “a merciful Master” who will recognize that we serve Him “each after his fashion.” This affirmation, this hope, is doubly crucial for Bumppo in view of his earlier rejection of the authority of the Bible in shedding light on precisely this matter.

By way of underscoring the importance of this anxiety, I would like to bring into the discussion a very different text whose protagonist, like Bumppo, becomes culturally estranged from his fellows: The Naufragios (translated as Castaways (first author-approved edition published in 1555) of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Castaways is Núñez’s recounting of the failed Pánfilo de Narváez expedition to establish a colony and find riches in what is now the Florida panhandle and Núñez’s journey with four other men (all the other members of the 600-man expedition are killed or die from storms, disease, Indian attacks, and even cannibalism) from Galveston Island to the Pacific coast of Mexico: a journey of eight years’ duration. Though the book contains almost no moments of introspection on Núñez’s part, the reader can easily note his gradual transformation from a man of no little authority (he was the expedition’s treasurer) who thought nothing of, for example, engaging in the common Spanish practice of kidnapping indigenous people to serve as translators, to a man who, quite literally owing his and his few remaining companions’ lives to the mercy of the Indians they meet over the last few years, becomes the Indians’ advocate when the Spaniards who rescue the travellers want their help in capturing and enslaving the Indians. It is also almost the only source of information we have regarding many of the the now-lost indigenous peoples of the Gulf Coast of Texas and the northern Mexican interior.

Regarding the (possible) similarity I see between the Naufragios and Cooper’s novel: Núñez is of course writing his narrative after the fact, so some structuring of the book has occurred, and that is something to keep in mind regarding what follows. Towards the end of the narrative, Núñez describes his evangelizing of the Indians. Of his success, he writes, “[W]e found them in such a disposition to believe, that if there had been a language in which we could have understood each other perfectly we would have left them all Christians” (105). It is in the next chapter that the Spaniards first hear of the predations of other Spaniards on Indian villages. Núñez and his men tell the Indians that they want to meet these Spaniards in part to stop them from their raiding. What is interesting, though, is that in both the Spanish original and in the translation, Núñez refers to them not as Spaniards but as “Christians.” To be sure, this is a common practice in the chronicles of the time; surely, though, Núñez must have sensed–or hoped–that King Charles V, to whom the Naufragios is officially addressed, would grasp the sad irony of Núñez’s effective witnessing to the Indians and his demonstration of their amenability to conversion to Christianity, only to see reported, literally on the very next page, men labeled as “Christians” whose behavior runs completely counter to the examples of Christian charity set by Núñez.

The eventual meeting between these completely-naked, weatherbeaten castaways, their indigenous companions and the armed, armored and mounted “Christians” is probably the oddest moment in all the chronicles: Núñez argues, in Spanish, that the Indians not be enslaved and/but with the Indians, in the broken pidgen of indigenous words and gestures that he’s acquired, that he and his companions really are Spaniards, too–which the Indians don’t believe; meanwhile, the Spaniards, using an indigenous language, try to discredit the castaways and insist that the Indians should ignore them and listen to the “Christians” instead. Beneath the strangeness, though, I suspect that Núñez feels something like the same estrangement that Bumppo feels from the very people with whom he insists he belongs, their shared faith forming the basis for that insistence (though it may also be the case, given Spain’s particular historical moment, that self-identification by religion was, ipso facto, tantamount to self-identification by race). If he does not yet feel that estrangement but only confusion as his rescuers soon become his captors–he is imprisoned and eventually sent in chains to Mexico City, where he’ll begin to write this narrative–we can guess that he will eventually: After he is freed from jail, he is chosen to be the governor of a colony in Paraguay, but will be removed from his post two year afterward for being perceived to be more favorably disposed toward the indigenous people there than toward the colonists.

I am afraid I will have to sketch out this conclusion, at least for now. The essence of what I want to say here is that in each text what is assumed to finally, essentially–and ideally–define our relationship with our fellows but instead proves to be a source of irresolvable tension for these narratives’ respective protagonists is not race but religion. In Bumppo’s case, the combination of a different belief system and his almost-stated preference for the Indians’ conception of heaven over that preached about in the settlements are his sources of anxiety, which gets voiced in the punning statement that he is “a man without a cross.” Meanwhile, Núñez bears witness to and serves the Indians as a model of Christian charity, only to run afoul of his own countrymen who also claim to be Christians even as they enslave the Indians and pillage their villages. It’s due to this enormous contradiction that Núñez cannot persuade the Indians that he is one of these other men; nor can he persuade the “Christians” to cease their predations on the Indians–in fact, he will be imprisoned because of his perceived disloyalty to their authority. Each man becomes, or fears he is, culturally bifurcated: what I want to call New World men. More about what I mean by that in my next post.

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One Response

  1. Kinda makes me want to go read Last of the Mohicans….

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