The Ideology of Manhood in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

25 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)



I. Introduction

II. The Connotations of manhood, manliness and masculinity
II.1 Manhood and Manliness
II.2 Masculinity

III. Race, Gender and Civilization
III.1 Powerful Manhood and White Supremacy
III.2 Civilization in Terms of Gender Differences
III.3 Natty “Hawk-eye” Bumppo – a New Kind of Man in the Making
III.4 Heyward as the Anxious, “passive hero”

IV. Defining the American Frontier Hero
IV.1 Heteroglossia in The Last of the Mohicans
IV.2 The Love between Chingachgook and Hawkeye
IV.3 Civilization and the Birth of a New Man

V. Conclusion


I. Introduction

My research paper is designed to clarify the aspects central to the issue of manhood negotiated in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

In the Victorian era, manhood had been positively attributed to the white race exclusively. In novels and illustrations, the ideal man fit the “Victorian ideals of manhood” (Rotundo 37-40) with fixed traits and attributes, such as courage, sexual self-restraint, a powerful will, and a strong character. As we will see, no male in the novel fits such a formula completely. I will then postulate what drives Cooper to bestow such an image on his male heroes.

The “Victorian ideals” did not apply to all male people. “Savage” men, as Uncas and his father in the novel, were not considered to possess the distinct traits attributed chiefly to non-savage men, i.e. the white-male. Manliness was clearly linked to white-male supremacy and civilization; a long-held belief in American culture for centuries. The encounter between the “uncivilized brutish” and the whites is a dominant theme in the novel. We will see that the combining issue of race, gender, culture and civilization is inextricable and fundamental for the study of the subject and therefore will be elaborated on in detail.

Many historians have falsely assumed that manhood has a strict, self-evident set of traits, unchanging over time. Other historians have emphasized the fact that the set of traits attributed to manhood varies from period to period, from class to class. This lead to a continual need for redefining male character traits at any historical moment, which often problematically presented itself in coexisting but contradictory views on manhood at a special period.

Cooper, of course, was deeply familiar with the period’s masculine ideal of manhood, and understood that Victorian readers expected to find these qualities of manliness assigned to his male characters. Indeed, these attributes are present in the white male figures in the novel, but more importantly, Cooper does not hesitate to display an image of white men that portrays male deficiency in various aspects and situations. In chapter III. and IV., this issue is discussed in detail.

Cooper’s text reveals a thorough look on the characters. The travelling companions spend most of their time in the woods facing all the dangers inherent to life on the frontier of the early nineteenth century. In this beautiful but dangerous scenery, we learn a lot about the characters. The author paints a broad portrait of his figures through the many conflicts they encounter, and interaction with each other. In this setting, the psyches of Cooper’s characters – white men, women and Indians – unfold.

In the line of argumentation, it seems sensible to me to begin with a brief overview of the notion of manhood as defined by historians and nineteenth-century Americans. By examining the terms masculinity, manliness and manhood, and their common usage over the period, we are provided with a clearer understanding of the topic.

Of course, I will not dispense with the scholarly assertions put forth by others. Fine efforts have been made over the years in the field of history, gender studies, and literary theory. One such effort worthy of examination is Gail Bederman’s excellent work, Manliness and civilization (1995), which focuses on the “historical, ideological”. The book primarily covers the period between 1880 and 1917, but often refers to the beginning of the century TLM was composed. Additionally, it includes many bibliographical references and so became very useful for me as a starting point and was a valuable resource for further research on the topic. Bederman widely discusses race, civilization, and gender, and due to the fact that the focus is on a period after Cooper, her work shows the impact Cooper had on re-defining the American white male (ch. IV.3). The papers of the New Historicists Zhang and Clarke presented at the 11th and 12th Cooper Seminar at the State University of New York College at Oneonta both deal with issues directly related to my topic. Their essays have very much inspired me, and led my thinking into new directions. The notion of heteroglossia is touched upon – and applied to Cooper’s novel - in the book The Dialogic Imagination by the literary theorist Bakhtin. Clarke later refers to this in an exemplary way that provides access to the frontier, and the important issue of advancing white civilization. Furthermore, I have to acknowledge Lawrence for his pioneering work on the subject. Even though some of his ideas have become somewhat out of date, he still provides much groundwork for recent studies, and is still often cited by others.

In my paper, I draw on the field of male gender-studies, and find it appropriate to use it in combination with New Historicism. I have taken this approach, because my topic is related to discourse, power-relationships among races, gender, and the emergence of a new man.

II. The Connotations of manhood, manliness and masculinity

It is important to carefully differentiate between the terms manhood, manliness and masculinity. The terms manhood and manliness (and the adjective “manly”) have been in frequent use since the early nineteenth century, however, the noun masculinity was labeled “rare” in the Merriam and Webster’s dictionary in 1890, and was even omitted from earlier versions. Apart from their frequency of use, they have been defined differently, depending upon the time, place, and context. This has inevitably led to misunderstandings and confusion; thus, there is the need to straighten out the varying connotations each word carried throughout the nineteenth century.

II.1 Manhood and Manliness

Some historians contend that manhood possesses a clear set of traits – is stable and unchangeable - and these people, “although they recognize that manhood might be expressed differently at different times, … nonetheless assume that its underlying meaning remains basically the same” (Bederman 6). Approaching the subject with their historical belief is invalid, and would lead to no valuable results because it has “the drawback of assuming what it ought to investigate” (Bederman 6). These people falsely view manhood as an aspect of human-nature - an unchanging essence – predetermined and static; containing both good and bad qualities. Even though objectifying their view that way, they were the ones who paved the way for legitimizing male gender studies which can be regarded as a great achievement in itself, and should therefore not go unnoticed. But how could this be possible?

These historians, in following their principle, observed things such as “masculinity crisis” (Bederman 11), when at the end of the nineteenth century, the traditional Victorian image of manhood was shattered. In certain organizations like the Boy Scouts, young men sought adventure, cowboy novels became increasingly popular, and there was a craze for hunting and fishing. They regarded this as evidence which proved their theory.

Manhood, as other historians have put it, is a unified set of traits, “culturally defined … attributes, or sex roles” (Bederman 6), inherent in all men, which change from period to period or class to class. These historians view manhood as mutable, which complicates this matter, because their attempt at redefining manhood at any historical period often ended in co-existing, but contrasting ideas that leaves us no chance to produce an agreement between them. For example, when trying to define middle-class Progressive manhood, some characterized it as “chest-thumping virility, vigorous outdoor athleticism, and fears of feminization,” (Bederman 7). Others assumed, as Ann Douglas has assessed, that men grew up in an environment that was undergoing feminization, and perceived it as “men’s growing interest in erstwhile ‘feminine’ occupations like parenthood and domesticity,” (qtd. in Carnes 67). This comes close to the definition of colonial American men that were “socialized to be strong patriarchal fathers” (Bederman 6).

Manhood, however, was almost always linked to male power and authority. “The Victorian ideals of manhood” were, for example, (sexual) self-restraint, a powerful will, a strong character, independence, pride and bravery and have been the backbone of the American character from the beginning (Bederman 18; Zhang 112). When referring to these Victorian ideals, historians correctly use the term manliness. The Century Dictionary defines “manly” as “the word into which have been gathered the highest conceptions of what is noble in man or worthy of his manhood”, and “as possessing the proper characteristics of a man; independent in spirit or bearing; strong, brave, large-minded, etc.”, and “manliness” as “character or conduct worthy of a man”. Thus, admirable men were called “manly” (Marsh 181).

II.2 Masculinity

The noun masculinity was, as mentioned in the beginning of the chapter, rarely used throughout the nineteenth century. During the early nineteenth century, the adjective “masculine” was used with special reference to things pertaining to men, such as “masculine clothing”, and to men in general, i.e. “all men are masculine”. Unlike “manly”, “masculine” denoted characteristics – both good and bad - that all men share (Bederman 18).

Due to the social changes at the end of the nineteenth century in the U.S., “masculinity”, an English noun adopted from the French in the middle of the century, came into common usage. The word was attractive to the white middle class because it was not yet commonly used, and its meaning not clearly defined. The middle class assigned new shades of meaning to the word which they believed accurately defined the proper characteristics of middle class men of their time; their views of men’s bodies, identities and access to power. By 1890, The Century Dictionary still defined “masculine” as “the quality or state of being masculine; masculine character or traits.” It took some generations for the noun to establish itself “for the new formulations … to overtake Victorian ‘manliness’ as the primary middle-class ideology of powerful manhood” (Bederman 19).

By 1930 “masculine” and “masculinity” had developed into words quite familiar to twentieth-century Americans.

III. Race, Gender and Civilization

In Cooper’s novel TLM, the negotiation of manhood is a central theme. Undoubtedly, the author had a lifelong and deep concern to negotiate the notion of man, which becomes obvious in his body of writings, most explicitly in the five-novel saga of the Leatherstocking Tales. We know that Cooper in his earlier works made long statements on this matter. The literary historian Alan Taylor writes about Cooper’s fears of being humiliated by his contemporaries for publishing a novel of manners - a genre mostly produced and read by women – and resorts to publishing it anonymously:

In early 1820, after one false start, Cooper enthusiastically and

rapidly fabricated a novel of manners set in England and entitled

Precaution, but he balked at publishing it for fear of embarrassment.

Because women prevailed among both the writers and readers

of novels, many gentlemen did not respect the genre. Leading

Americans originally considered novels to be trivial, feminine,

and vaguely dishonourable, because they appealed to the emotions

and aroused the imagination – impulses profoundly distrusted

by gentlemen dedicated to self-control. Because Cooper took

his gentility and masculinity so very seriously, he feared that publishing

a novel would be unbecoming to one of his dignity and station (22)


Excerpt out of 25 pages


The Ideology of Manhood in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans
University of Münster  (English Seminar)
Inventing American History: The Beginnings of the American Historical Novel
2,0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
530 KB
Ideology, Manhood, James, Fenimore, Cooper, Last, Mohicans, Inventing, American, History, Beginnings, American, Historical, Novel
Quote paper
Kai Mühlenhoff (Author), 2003, The Ideology of Manhood in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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