A Comparison of James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans" and Robert Montgomery Bird's "Nick of the Woods"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3




0 Introduction

1 Similarities and Differences of both Novels
1.1 Themes
1.1.1 The Theme of Flight
1.1.2 Aristocratic Romance
1.2 Equivalent Characters
1.3 Interracial Relationships

2 Native American Stereotypes - Racism in both Novels
2.1 Native Americans in Bird's “Nick of the Woods”
2.2 Native Americans in Cooper's “the Last of the Mohicans”
2.2.1 Cooper's “bad Indians” - the Hurons
2.2.2 Cooper's Prototype of the “bad Indian” - Magua
2.3 Cooper's “good Indians”
2.3.1 Chingachcook
2.3.2 Uncas
2.3.3 What makes an Indian “good?”

3 Conclusion

4 Bibliography

0 Introduction

Native Americans have played an important role in early American literature. After all, the Pilgrim Fathers and their descendants have had to deal with Native Americans from the very beginning, since the land on which the United States of America would be proclaimed in 1776 was already inhabited by tribes which were generally referred to as “Indians.” Over the decades and centuries, the image of Native Americans as depicted in novels and reports underwent quite a lot of dramatic changes.

In this paper, the main focus will be laid on the image of Native Americans as it was drawn by two major novels of American literature: James Fenimore Cooper's “the Last of the Mohicans,” which was first published in 1826, and Robert Montgomery Bird's “Nick of the Woods,” which was published, eleven years after Cooper's work, in 1837.

A reader familiar with both novels might notice that they represent two different approaches and attitudes towards Native Americans. On the one hand, there is Cooper who coined the term and image of the “Noble Savage,” depicting Native Americans as dignified, noble, honorable and beautiful “sons of the forest.” His work shows a comprehending attitude towards Native Americans, an attitude that is indicated in the introduction of his novel, where he claims that the native tribes were robbed of their territories by white settlers (Cooper 2). His image of Native Americans could be referred to as the “Eastern point of view.”

On the other hand, there is Bird and what we could call the “Western point of view.” Bird directly attacks the image of Native Americans as Cooper drew it when he says in his introduction that Cooper [...] had thrown a poetical illusion over the Indian character, [...] [creating] a new style of the beau ideal - brave, gentle, loving, refined, honorable romantic personages - nature's nobles (Bird 7).

He claims that this picture is by no means an appropriate description of Native Americans and “that such conceptions as Uncas [...] are beautiful unrealities and fictions” (Bird 7). Another more subtle attack on Cooper's depiction of natives is found on page 43, where Bird mentions the tribes of the Delawares, Hurons and Shawnee. It is quite interesting that Bird chose two of the tribes explicitly mentioned and depicted in Cooper's work, putting them in the same category to indicate that the differences distinguished by Cooper are not valuable at all. Furthermore, he claims that “the Indian is doubtless a gentleman; but he is a gentleman who wears a very dirty shirt” (Bird 7). Bird does not deny the possibility that Native Americans are capable of creating civilizations, as for example the Aztecs and Maya did in Mexico, but he concludes that “in [their] natural barbaric state, [they are] barbarian[s] and [...] could [not] be any thing else” (Bird 7). Therefore, Bird's intention could be summed up as the attempt to set the record straight by providing an image of Native Americans that is, at least from his point of view, more realistic than the one created by Cooper. In fact, Bird himself explicitly states this intention when he says:

We look into the woods for the mighty warrior, “the feather-cinctured chief,” rushing in to meet his foe, and behold him retiring, laden with the scalps of miserable squaws and their babes. (Bird 5)

It seems quite clear, then, that in these two novels we face two fundamentally different approaches towards the nature of Native Americans, namely Bird's racist attitude on the one hand, which features a black-and-white picture of the good white settlers fighting the bad “Injuns” - as Bird frequently calls them - while on the other hand, there is Cooper's supposedly more balanced approach, which seems to provide a more complex picture of Native Americans.

Unfortunately, this is a premature conclusion that breaks down as soon as we look deeper beyond the surface of both novels and conduct a more detailed analysis of the themes and characters featured therein. In fact, as will be proved in the course of this paper, the two novels are very much alike when it comes to their literary themes and the image which both draw of the native inhabitants of America.

1 Similarities and Differences of both Novels

1.1 Themes

1.1.1 The Theme of Flight

Both novels feature flight as the main topic of the described action, and in both novels the agents which the main characters have got to flee from are malevolent natives. In Cooper's “the Last of the Mohicans” we have the party of Duncan Heyward, Alice Munro and Cora Munro fleeing from the Huron chief Magua, who intends to capture and re-capture the two women in order to take revenge on their father, Colonel Munro, who humiliated Magua when ordering to have him whipped as a penalty for Magua's drinking an inappropriate behavior. In their attempts to flee, they are supported by Hawkeye, Uncas and Chingachcook.

In Bird's “Nick of the Woods,” the ones in flight from Indians are Edith and Roland Forrester, two cousins who are in love with each other and are captured and re-captured by Shawnee tribes due to the intrigues and schemes conducted by John Doe and Richard Braxley, either one having his own reasons for tricking Edith and Roland. Roland and Edith are rescued and supported by Nathan Slaughter as well as the United States Army and Cavalry.

1.1.2 Aristocratic Romance

Both novels share yet another thematic similarity, which is the theme of aristocratic romance. In “the Last of the Mohicans,” we encounter the romantic relationship between Duncan Heyward and Alice Munro, both being of aristocratic origin. The development of the romance between these two makes up a substantial part of the novel.

Equivalent to that, we have the romance between Edith and Roland, which despite the malevolent intervention of Braxley and Doe comes to happy ending. Again, the development and jeopardizing of the romance make up substantial parts of the narrative.

1.2 Equivalent Characters

Another similarity that comes to attention is the existence of equivalent characters in bot novels. Here, we have to mention the following:

- Duncan Heyward and Roland Forrester
- Hawkeye and Nathan Slaughter
- Alice Munro and Edith Forrester
- Cora Munro and Telie Doe

Duncan Heyward and Roland Forrester share many similarities. They are both enlisted in the respective armies of their times and both share the same rank, that of Captain. Moreover, they both derive from aristocratic origins and can be regarded as prototypes of the chivalrous gentleman, as they are depicted as proud, honorable, and so on. In fact, at one point Duncan even dreams about being a medieval “knight of ancient chivalry,” keeping guard over the princess he has rescued (Cooper 117). Additionally Roland does not drink, a trait of character that is not explicitly pointed out in Duncan, but can be assumed nonetheless, since it would perfectly fit into the rest of the galant picture drawn of his character. Both characters are said to be brave fighters and both have to rescue their lovers from the natives. Moreover, both of them are Easterners, with the slight difference that Duncan is depicted as a complete “greenhorn” who is quite naive and still has to learn a lot about frontier life. This is shown very clearly in his failed attempt to apprehend Magua (Cooper 33). While Roland shows traits of being a greenhorn, too, he is a little more accustomed to frontier life, since he is depicted as always being on the alert, as for example in the episode when his party encounters the almost dead native slaughtered by the Jibbenainosay and he instantly, almost without thinking, points his weapon at the alleged source of danger. Nonetheless, he gets the whole party lost in the woods.

The next pair of equivalent characters are Hawkeye and Nathan Slaughter. Both of them are experienced woodsmen who speak native languages. They both were raised with regard to Christian beliefs, which puts them into an awkward moral position, since they have to reconcile the Christian dogma of pacifism with their acts of violence. That both of them show signs of pacifism is very clearly indicated. For example does Hawkeye not kill Magua when he has the opportunity to do so in the cave in which Alice is held captive by the natives (Cooper 243f). Neither does he kill the medicine man form whom he steals the bear skin with which he disguises himself (Cooper 239). His pacifism is explicitly expressed on page 126, when, after Chingachcook killed the French sentinel, he says that “'Twould have been a cruel and unhuman act for a whiteskin” (Cooper 126). Thus, Hawkeyes's acts of violence derive from a necessity to do so in order not to be killed himself, because after all, life in the woods is full of dangers. In the character of Nathan, this dilemma is even more explicit. He is a Quaker and at the beginning of the novel it is stated that he is called “Bloody Nathan, [...] because he's the only man in all Kentucky that won't fight !” (Bird 54f). Although we later learn about the terribly brutal things he does as the Jibbenainosay, his acts of violence are merely retaliative measures for the horrible massacre his family fell victim to. Moreover, after that incident he went insane, so that he cannot be held accountable for the terrible things he does. Nevertheless he feels guilty about these acts of barbarity, which is clearly indicated toward the end of the novel. When Edith and Roland as well as the others are rescued by the army's attack on the Shawnee village, Nathan is on a killing spree. Only after the battle is over does he realize what he has done and is embarrassed by the compliments everybody heaves upon him for being such a brave fighter (Bird 400f). One more thing Hawkeye and Nathan have in common is their hatred of natives, although we have to point out that, while Nathan does not differentiate and simply hates all natives, Hawkeye “only” expresses a dislike for the Hurons and all tribes associated with them.

Next, there is Alice Munro and her counterpart Edith Forrester. Both females are of aristocratic origins and represent the Victorian image of women: they are weak, dependent and tender and are unable to help themselves, therefore depending on the help of galant chivalrous men to come to their rescue.

Finally, in either novel there is one person representing what is referred to as “mixed breeds:” in Cooper's narrative, this is Cora Munro, who has some negro blood in her, while in Bird's novel we have Telie Doe, who is the daughter of John Doe and a native woman. The main difference between these two characters is that Cora Munro is not stigmatized, which may be due to the fact that her father is rich and powerful. What both women have in common is that neither of the two gets married, which can be regarded as a clear indicator of racism in both novels, a topic onto which we will take a deeper look later on.

1.3 Interracial Relationships

Both novels take a rather tough stance on interracial relationships. Actually, when it comes to that, they almost do not differ at all. In either novel, the characters consider relationships between natives and people of European origins as “worse than a thousand deaths” (Cooper 98). Roland for example is not willing to marry Telie Doe even if he could save his own life by doing so (Bird 378f). Similar to that, Alice, Duncan and Cora would rather die than have Cora go with Magua in order to become his wife (Cooper 98).

In accordance to that, the romance between Cora and Uncas cannot be, so that Cooper is left with no other choice than killing off both characters at the end of the novel. Moreover, even the notion of Uncas and Cora being united in the afterlife, which is expressed by the native women, is frowned upon by Hawkeye, who is happy that Duncan and Colonel Munro are not able to comprehend the meaning of the women's words (Cooper 322).


Excerpt out of 21 pages


A Comparison of James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans" and Robert Montgomery Bird's "Nick of the Woods"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (FASK (Fachbereich für Angewandte Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft))
"White on Red" - Representation of Native Americans in US Film and Fiction
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ISBN (eBook)
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James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Montgomery Bird, Nick of the Woods, the Last of the Mohicans, racism, Native Americans, racism in novels, Noble Savage, Injuns, Cooper, Bird, Uncas, Chingachcook, Hawkeye
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2005, A Comparison of James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans" and Robert Montgomery Bird's "Nick of the Woods", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/58033


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