An Examination of the Development of the Frontier Novel From Cooper to Card

The similarities and connections between James Fennimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, especially as exemplified in The Last of the Mohicans, and Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker Series, especially as exemplified in Red Prophet, offer ample ground for exploration and reveal a surprising bond between the two novels.  The ties between the two are so tight that we might almost say that Card has written the series that Cooper would have written had he not been held back by the prejudices of his society:  From his depiction of the Indians to his archetypal hero to his symbolic names and plot devices, Card completes Cooper’s vision of a frontier where a) the character and value of the Indian native is acknowledged, b) whites are only heroic in proportion to their ability to live in harmony with nature and with the Indian, and c) history is remembered with an eye unblinded by racial prejudice.

James Fennimore Cooper—the name alone conjures up images of virgin forests, canoes sliding across crystal waters, savage massacres, fainting maidens, and of course, blustering buckskin-clad heroes.  Natty Bumpo, Cooper’s most enduring character, has been called the first “fully realized frontier hero” (Peck 2), a “mythic hero” (Reuben Sec. 7), and the “quintessential frontier hero” (“Wisdom”).  Daniel H. Peck notes that Cooper’s Leatherstocking has been “the model for countless imitations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (2).  The frontier tale has indeed retained its loyal audience to this day, and the numbers of authors flattering Cooper with imitation grows every year.

One of the most recent of those imitators is noted science fiction and fantasy author Orson Scott Card.  Card’s Alvin Maker series falls into the sci-fi/fantasy sub-genre of re-history or alternate history, a newly popular field that Ray Olson categorizes as containing novels where “the outcomes of an era [. . .] are altered greatly, subtly, or maybe not at all” (1388).  In the case of Alvin Maker, as Michael Collings says, “These novels consciously impose elements of 19th-century history onto the fantasy framework of a magical alternate-world America” (125-26).  It may be that it is that element of fantasy that allows Card’s vision to strike deeper and further than Cooper was able to do.

Cooper was very progressive in his views about the American Indians[1], compared to the average white settler of his time.  He was concerned about their gradual disappearance from areas where whites settled and endorsed a plan of preservation in which Indians would be granted an entire U.S. Territory west of the Mississippi river, a plan which he hoped would stem the steadily decreasing Indian population in America (Cooper “The Indians”).  While modern civil libertarians look back with scorn on what seems a paltry and even hegemonic effort, they forget that many (possibly even the majority of) people “considered the active extermination of Indians to be a good thing, and blessed by God” (Reuben Sec. 7).  Cooper’s fictionalized Indians have been criticized throughout the ages for very different reasons.  Early critics such as W. H. Gardiner, General Lewis Cass, and William Bird (and later, Mark Twain), criticized his Indians because they believed that he idealized the Indian personality and nature, and that no such noble warriors ever existed, while modern critics claim that Cooper’s Indians “belong to the larger racial stereotypes that pervaded American thought in the nineteenth century” and that Cooper is engaged in a “sentimental response covertly justifying that very dispossession” (Peck 8).  However much he might have liked to see the perpetuation of Indian civilization west of the Mississippi, such a vision was destined to remain unfulfilled, as tribe after tribe faded or was integrated into white society.  But Cooper’s fictional world is not limited to the proud and noble savage, he also gives us the Hurons (i.e., Irrakwa or Mingo) who are reviled by both white: “A Huron! [. . .] they are a thievish race, nor do I care by whome they are adopted; you can never make anything of them but skulks and vagabonds” (30), and red: “The Hurons are dogs.  The sight of a coward’s blood can never make a warrior tremble” (257), and there is no hope for their redemption: “A Mingo is a Mingo, and God having made him so, neither the Mohawks nor any other tribe can alter him” (33).  Cooper must provide the Indian enemy that his readers expect and demand, but, in doing so, he chooses to embody all of his society’s prejudices about the Indians into this one tribe, freeing him to heroize his other Indian characters.

In Card’s alternate history, however, Cooper’s vision is fulfilled.  The great Indian prophet Tenskwa-Tawa, also has a vision of a land in which red and white can co-exist, divided by the “Mizzipy,” but rather than confining the Indians to a single western territory, it is the whites who are cut off from the land by the boundary: “Red man will go west of the Mizzipy. White man will stay east. Red part of land will live.  White part of land will be very dead, cut off” (Card 169).  I do not say that this scenario is what Cooper desired, but merely that it is something that he might have desired, had his upbringing not forced upon him certain prejudices that he could not fully shake off.  Donald Ringe notes that in Cooper, the Indians are closely associated with the land and with nature, which are tied to “their own red ‘gifts’” but that these gifts are “far below the Christian ideal that Cooper holds up for his readers” (85).  While Hawkeye listens in sympathy to Chingachook’s story: “Then, Hawkeye, we were one people, and we were happy,” he is nevertheless careful to make it clear that he is a man who “has no cross in his blood, although he may have lived with the redskins long enough to be suspected” (Cooper Mohicans 25-28).  In contrast, Card’s Tenskwa-Tawa says, “The Red man belongs wherever he is in this land. [. . .] To him a knack [white-person magic] is like a fly, buzz buzz buzz.  Far above this fly, the power of the living land is a hundred hawks, watching, circling” (36).  In Card too, the Indians are closely tied to the land, but in Card’s case, it is the Indian nature that is held to be the higher.  Tying himself further to Cooper’s original, Card makes his “bad” Indians the Irrakwa as well: “The Irrakwa are the urine of sick dogs” says his Indian hero Te-Kumsaw.  Turning the stereotype on its head, Card’s Irrakwa are not made unredeemable by God, but rather, are evil because they have become white: “Odd, The English seemed to find them to be kindred spirits.  And LaFayette adores them” (205), replies the fictional Napoleon.  Ta-Kumsaw makes the final pronouncement: “‘The Irrakwa have all turned White in their hearts.’ Said Ta-Kumsaw. ‘Eight-Face Mound [an Indian holy site] would never let them in now’” (226).  However, again providing the completion to Cooper’s beginning, Card holds out a hope of redemption even for the lost Irrakwa: “When the white man is gone, and the land is strong again, not sick [. . .] the Irrakwa will become true Red men again or they will die.”  In other words, they can find redemption by returning to the land, and becoming red again.

Cooper’s Indian character, Uncas, is probably the first occurrence of a heroic Indian in American literature.  But even as he makes Uncas a hero, Cooper must disparage the rest of the Indians to do so: “But Uncas, denying his habits, we had almost said his nature, flew with instinctive delicacy, accompanied by Heyward, to the assistance of the females” (Cooper Mohicans 115).  Wayne Franklin sees this disparagement of other Indians as “a sure sign of Cooper’s fundamental belief in the superiority of his own culture” (62), and that he had such a belief is certainly undeniable, but the important thing to get out of the passage is his attempt to lift even one Indian up as an heroic role model, something none of his contemporaries (or, indeed, for the longest time, his followers) was willing to do.  He was a model of civil activism compared to his contemporaries.  However, because of this constraint, much of Cooper’s most telling commentary comes from the mouth of the “Bad” Indian, Magua (a.k.a. Le Renard Subtil), a drunkard and traitor, and it is crucial to an understanding of the real import of Magua’s oratory to realize that Cooper never in the entire course of the novel contradicts Magua’s claims (Peck 9).  If Cooper did not intend Magua’s words to be taken as truth, even if on a subliminal level, he would surely have provided a “white” counterargument that would make short-shrift of Magua’s argument when he says things like “Was it the fault of Le Renard that his head was not made of rock?  Who gave him fire-water? Who made him a villain?  ‘Twas the pale-faces, the people of your own color” (Cooper Mohicans 102).  In almost every case, however, the white character, so confronted, cannot but admit the truth of the Indians’ claims, while still denying any personal culpability, as did, no doubt, Cooper himself.  Peck argues that Magua “is the most fully and successfully delineated character in The Last of the Mohicans, rising above stereotypes of the bad Indian” (10).  This level of character development is necessary because Magua is more than a bad Indian; he is a mouthpiece for the dispossessed and disenfranchised.

The Indian hero in Card’s work is represented by Ta-Kumsaw[2].  Unlike Uncas who is a chief of no people, Ta-Kumsaw is the completed chief: “Not a chief of the Shaw-Nee, or even a chief of the Red men of this north country, but rather the chief of all Red tribes in the war against white man” (Card 39).  There is also a second difference:  While Uncas had to become white, or white-like, to be made heroic, the re-visioned Indian becomes heroic by making war upon the white man.

The Indian drunkard is also represented by Card’s red prophet, Tenskwa-Tawa, who turns the stereotype on its head by drinking only to silence the “black noise” of white man’s disruption of the land, and once freed of the black noise, becoming a powerful shaman who gains a vision for the immediate future: the land divided by the Mizzipy, but for the perfect future: a crystal city where red and white build a community together in peace.  The attainment of this city is the heroic quest towards which Card’s ultimate, archetypal hero, Alvin Maker, will journey.

Cooper’s Nathaniel Bumpo, known as Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, is the “classic image of the noble frontiersman, an enduring character whom Walt Whitman described as existing ‘from everlasting to everlasting’” (Franklin 52).  Hawkeye, in fact, created and defined the noble frontiersman.  Hawkeye is a romantic hero, his experiences and feelings are timeless, and yet poignant, as mythopoeic critics in the 1950s and 1960s have commented (Peck 12-15).  As the novel progresses, he encounters increasingly difficult issues of moral confrontation, racial conflict, and the conflict of civilization with nature—issues that “have resonance for the American (and human) experience both in his time and in ours” (64).  What are the defining characteristics of this noble hero?  Ringe explains:

Only Hawkeye, of all the whites, is competent to survive, mainly because his experience in the woods has instilled in him the humility he needs to understand the Indian and to interpret the white and red man to each other. [. . .] He alone sees virtue and justice among the Indians as well as among those of his own color. (44)

Hawkeye is a mediator between the world of white and red, and though he has more sympathy with the red, he inevitably is forced to acknowledge the superiority and right of white society.  Nevertheless, there is an undercurrent that makes it feel as though this acknowledgement is as Cooper’s might have been, not intrinsic to his worldview and beliefs but a function of his upbringing and society that he would have overcome if he could.  Franklin says that the violence in The Last of the Mohicans constantly threatens to transfigure Hawkeye, to “transform him from scout to savage” (50). But I, for one, get the feeling that Hawkeye is at his greatest and most noble at just those moments when he wrestles on the brink of so-called savagery.

Card once again moves forward to territory that Cooper simply couldn’t reach within his time, providing us with a hero who does overcome his societal beliefs to become a true mediator, Alvin.  In fact, Alvin goes so far beyond Hawkeye’s romantic heroism, that he “approaches the level of mythic, archetypal heroism,” defining “what it is to be essentially [and perfectly] human” (Collings 114).  Examined in the light of David Leeming’s eight stages of the monomyth, in Seventh Son, he experiences stage one, a Miraculous Birth; in Red Prophet he experiences stage two, childhood, initiation, and divine signs, as well as stage three, withdrawal, preparation, and temptation (Collings 100-101).  Within each novel, he also follows a shortened form of the hero’s journey, including calling (his apprenticeship to the smith), rejection (his desire to stay at home), acceptance (occurs during his meeting with the red prophet), descent (into Eight-Face Mound), reward (the return to life of his brother Measure), and homecoming (in which he also reaps the reward of full citizenship within the Indian community).  While Cooper’s hero was positioned at the edge of white society, Card again requires his hero to go the extra step:  He must become red.  And indeed, during his seclusion and training with the Indians, he begins to connect with the land in ways no white man has done before.  When he dreams of a sacred Indian site, Ta-Kumsaw tells him they must go there: “No white man had ever seen that place—the land was strong enough to keep them from finding that.  Yet this boy had dreamed of it.  And a dream of Eight-Face Mound never came by chance.  It always meant the same thing” (Card 208-9).  When they arrive at the mound, it appears that Alvin will not be able to ascend.  After they circle the mound, a path appears “Right on the edge shared by Red Man’s Face and the unknown face beside it.  ‘You are half Red,’ said Ta-Kumsaw” (Card 227). Compare the following description of Alvin with the previously quoted description of Hawkeye by Ringe:

He alone of all the characters in the novels can see with the eyes of the Whites and of the Reds; he alone of all the Whites that have invaded his world can hear the sounds of the greensong, the sounds of the natural world itself as it responds to its nurturing by the Reds and its destruction by the Whites. (Collings 126)

Hawkeye may understand the Indians, but Alvin becomes Indian, once again completing and extending Cooper’s vision.  Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, though moving in the right direction, ends leaving us confused as to who or what we are supposed to believe or think about the world.  Card provides a clear picture, working from the base that Cooper provided and extending it to provide a mythic archetype which satisfies a deep need of the human soul for order and harmony and truth.

Another facet in which Card’s work fulfills and completes Cooper’s work is in the level of symbolism.  While there are occasionally symbolic moments within Cooper’s work, for the most part he avoids any overt symbolism, except in the matter of names, which have obvious and direct significance.  Hawkeye says: “I’m an admirator of names, though the Christian fashions fall far below savage customs in this particular.  The biggest coward I ever knew was called Lyon; and his wife Patience, would scold you out of hearing” (Cooper Mohicans 53).  In Card also, names have significance in describing the occupation or character traits of their owner.  Hooch Palmer sells alcoholic beverages in a dishonest fashion; Mike Fink is a backstabbing treacherous river rat.  Alvin Miller is, of course, a miller.  His son, Calm, keeps him from blowing his top; his son Measure is able to take a balanced view of events.  Armor of God Weaver is an ardent Christian, and though he is no longer a weaver by trade, he is still responsible for weaving the town of Vigor Church and its surrounding farms and villages into a unified community.  However, in Red Prophet, names do more than fulfill this didactic purpose; they also fulfill a symbolic purpose, especially in the case of Indian names.  Take, for example, the naming of the title character in the following passage:

In his vision they called him the prophet, but he insisted that he was not that at all.  He was only the door, the open door.  Step through, he said, and be strong, one people, one land.

The door. Tenskwa-Tawa.

In his vision, his mother’s face appeared, and she said that word to him.  Tenskwa-Tawa.  It is your name now, for the dreamer is awake. (Card 97)

Tenskwa-Tawa is the door through which his people will travel to the west of the Mizzipy River, and into peace with the land and with the white people.  Alvin Maker’s name, too, has a deeper significance.  Alvin means wise or noble friend to all (Lansky 251), and Alvin is the Indian friend, but more than that, he is the only person who can bring friendship and cooperation to all of mankind, to fulfill the red prophet’s vision of a crystal city.

Both The Last of the Mohicans and Red Prophet have, as a central event in their plots, a massive slaughter of innocents.  In The Last of the Mohicans, this massacre takes place after the French have promised safe passage to the English after the English surrender of Fort William Henry.  As the English begin to leave the fort, Magua leads a band of renegade Hurons against the soldiers and unarmed civilians alike: “The flow of blood might be likened to the outbreaking of a torrent; and, as the natives became heated and maddened by the sight, many among them even kneeled to the earth, and drank freely, exulting, hellishly, of the crimson tide” (Cooper Mohicans 181-2).  In Card, the bloodshed is just as great, but it is perpetrated by the whites, and serves a higher purpose within the novel:

The grapeshot carved gaps in the crowd [. . .]. Miller noticed that the blood didn’t soak into the grass of the meadow.  As it poured out of the wounds of those most recently hit, it formed rivulets, streams, great sheets of blood flowing down the slope of the meadow. [. . .] No one could ever claim that Tippy-Canoe was a victory, or even a battle.  It was a massacre, and white men committed it, and not one Red raised a hand in violence or defense. (242-246)

The red prophet takes the blood of his murdered people and uses it to form a magical barrier preventing white men from ever crossing the Mizzipy River, as well as to curse the settlers who participated in the massacre. Once again Card uses but subverts and controls the cliché.

It seems clear that James Fennimore Cooper heavily influenced Orson Scott Card’s work.  Both present a fictionalized history, which allows them to make a social commentary and present a vision of racial harmony; both create heroes whose heroism is most pronounced and most obvious when they are engaged in communion, communication, and commitment to the Indians as brothers and friends; and both use names symbolically to provide a deeper insight into the character, purpose, and nature of the names’ owners.  Card is free to take this commentary to a level that would have brought scorn, ridicule, persecution, and, possibly, prosecution to Cooper, but that seems consistent with the direction in which Cooper was attempting to move.  As the frontier novel continues its work of entertaining the American masses, it is worthwhile to occasionally stop, reassess, and see where this harbinger of change is leading us and what ideals it is holding out; and, if they are worthy, to grasp them and seek them, and bring them into being.  Certainly Card’s vision of America has relevance for today’s society, and its very creation signals just how far we have come from the time when someone like Cooper’s social commentary was considered radical.


Works Cited

Card, Orson Scott. Red Prophet. New York: Tom Doherty Assoc., 1988.

Collings, Michael. In the Image of God: Theme, Characterization and Landscape in the Fiction of Orson Scott Card. Westport: Greenwood, 1990.

Cooper, James Fennimore. “The Indians.” Notions of the Americans: Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor.  New York: State University, 1991. American Studies at the University of Virginia. Ed. Adrianna Rissetto. Dec. 1996.  4 Apr. 2003. < http://xroads.virginia.edu/%7EHYPER/HNS/Indians /notions1.html>.

—. The Last of the Mohicans. New York: Bantam, 1981.

Franklin, Wayne. “The Wilderness of Words in The Last of the Mohicans.” New Essays on the Last of the Mohicans. Ed. Daniel H. Peck. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 25-45

Lansky, Bruce. 35,000+ Baby Names. New York: Meadowbrook, 1995.

Olson, Ray. “Tired of the Same Old History? Try These Alternatives.” Booklist 98 (2002): 1388.

Peck, Daniel H. Introduction. New Essays on the Last of the Mohicans. Ed. Daniel H. Peck. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 1-23.

Reuben, Paul P. “Chapter 3: Early Nineteenth Century – James Fenimore Cooper.” PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. 5 Jan. 2003. 4 Apr 2003. <http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap3/cooper.html>.

Ringe, Donald A. James Fennimore Cooper. Boston: Twayne, 1962.

“Wisdom of the Ages: James Fenimore Cooper.” Third Age Daily News Newsletter.  8 Aug. 1998. 3 Apr. 2003. <http://www.thirdage.com/news/archive/980808-04.html>.

 



[1] I have used the terms American Indian, Indian, and red only in keeping with the terminology of the novels in question. No disrespect for Native Americans is intended.

[2]   Ta-Kumsaw is a fictionalized version of the great Shawnee chief, Tecumseh.

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