115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Gone Down With the Water": A Transoceanic Globalization of Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans

Megan Barnes, "Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles"

This paper boldly resituates James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel, The Last of the Mohicans, away from its deeply Americanized roots and into a larger conversation of Caribbean literature as Cooper utilizes the violent and economic involvement in the Caribbean sugar and slaves trades. Through his attention on waterspaces in the novel, one of Cooper's most frontier works in the American canon transforms into an extremely oceanic and transatlantic text. 

Proposal: 

To consider the maritime influence on terrestrially bound colonization, we must look at literary texts which both overtly and covertly employ water as a space for colonial and native people’s mobility. A text which adequately aligns with these parameters, yet has thus far been left out of oceanic discourse, is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel, The Last of the Mohicans. Although this text has been scrutinized for its frontierism, treatment of Native Americans, and Cooper’s ideologies surrounding the wilderness and civilization, setting our gaze on the water spaces of the novel allows for a renewed and contemporary reading of this work which has historically been “overcooked” in analysis and critique.

Although The Last of the Mohicans has never before been read as participating in generic oceanic literature, studying the “material conditions” of the novels setting on New York’s Hudson Riverallows for the “galvanization” of the water-spaces in one of Cooper’s most renowned frontier works. Concurrent with an examination of the Hudson is the necessary tracing of the river as it flows back into the Atlantic Ocean in order to understand the global transoceanic context in which Cooper demarcates this novel. With this consideration, this paper traces the mobility of the Hudson River setting of the novel back into the Atlantic Ocean, and southbound towards the West Indies, where we see that the British Naval involvement in the Caribbean sugar and slave trade sets in motion a series of events that culminated into one of the most national texts in the American nineteenth-century. In this piece, I argue that Cooper’s attention to the materiality and mobility of the upstate New York water-spaces demonstrates a progressive identification of water as an actively indifferent homogenizing agent in the violent contest for colonial territorial claim that so aggressively defined the Caribbean world. Such attention to the material conditions of the water in Cooper’s Mohicans adheres to critic Michelle Burnham’s call for a new transoceanic approach in critical theory as it globalizes this nineteenth-century “land-locked” text. 

With these considerations in mind, scholars must turn their attention to an examination of the more global influences on Cooper’s writing –that of the British involvement in the West Indies and the circumstances revolving quite specifically around the heroine, Cora’s, tainted and blackened family tree. With Burnham’s call for “water as a material which simultaneously to remap and renarrativize American literatures in global context,” we must look at the water that brought Colonel Munro to the West Indies, the water that brought his mixed-race daughter to the American colonies, and the water which brought Cooper’s tragic heroes and heroines to the shores of the Hudson River and to their ultimate deaths along the banks of that river (Burnham 171). Under this oceanic context, Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans receives not only contemporary consideration and significance, but it subsequently repositions an understanding of the oceanic ways in which we can interpret Cooper’s terrestrially bound works through a tidalectic understanding of Cora’s Caribbean roots.