South Africa: The art of a nation @ the British Museum

This is an interesting and enlightening exhibition with plenty of good things in it, but which in parts is a little puzzling and frustrating.

Deep prehistory

The curators (John Giblin, Chris Spring and Laura Snowling) say they’re setting out to give an overview of the art of South Africa and this they certainly do with visual representations of every period of South Africa, beginning in the inconceivably distant past with a stone from a site inhabited by pre-humans some 3 million years ago. The experts think it was brought from some distance away because of its presumable similarity to a human face, and so indicates self-awareness in our remotest ancestors.

There’s a hand axe made by Homo ergaster, a predecessor of Homo sapiens, and dated to 1 million years ago – apparently, in fact, not that practical as an axe, but here to demonstrate that an aesthetic sense seems to have existed in our remotest ancestors.

There’s the Blombos Cave beads, created some 75,000 years ago, painted and pierced in order to be strung together as a necklace. There’s the Coldstream Stone from 9,000 years ago.

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7,000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

And the beautiful Zaamenkomst Panel, cave paintings made between one and three thousand years ago.

Taken together, these wonderful objects give a powerful sense of South Africa as one of the origins not only of early humans but of the earliest art works.

Contemporary art

What’s a little confusing is that right from the start this very museum-y ancient history is mixed in with works by contemporary South African artists – a lot of works. It may be creative curating, but it means it’s quite a lot to take on board – the origins of our species, the ancient prehistory of the area, done rather quickly – while, at the same time, we’re trying to understand post-apartheid art which, by its nature, mixes African traditions with the confusing panoply of postmodern artistic techniques and assumptions.

Thus I can see that it’s clever to place Potent fields by Karel Nel (2002) next to the ancient cave paintings, since both use ochre as a colour and material. And the curators have put a tapestry, ‘The Creation of the Sun‘, made by artists at the Bethesda Art Centre, opposite the cave paintings to show the continuity of style and creativity from South Africa’s first peoples, the San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, to their contemporary descendants. In these first rooms we also see:

Clever but… it demands quite a lot of the visitor to juggle all these different frames of reference.

Tone

Another slightly disorienting element is the rather patronising or simplistic tone of the commentary. Right at the start there’s a wall panel titled ‘Cradle of Humanity’, which points out that the prehistoric finds gathered here prove that humanity evolved in Africa and so that – contrary to Eurocentric narratives – we are all in a deep sense Africans. What puzzled me is that I’ve never thought otherwise, I’ve never read anywhere anywhere any alternative theory of human origins: all my adult life I’ve known that humans evolved from apelike ancestors in Africa, my children know that, everyone knows it. A quick search reveals that Darwin suggested it as long ago as 1871 in The Descent of Man. Who are they arguing with? If apartheid taught that humans evolved in some other place – like Holland – it would have been informative and funny to have read more about it.

Scattered throughout the exhibition are wall panels talking about the need to fight and counter apartheid ‘narratives’ about the ‘savagery’ of the blacks or their ‘lack of culture’ – all cast in the present tense, as if this is an ongoing struggle.

a) I was there in the 1980s when we all wore anti-apartheid badges, sang along to ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ and ‘Biko‘, and boycotted South African products. I never met anybody who in any way defended apartheid. Looking around the visitors to the show, I don’t think there was much risk that any of them would defend ‘apartheid narratives’ about ‘savage’ blacks or the ‘lack of black culture’.
b) It was all such a long time ago. The apartheid regime collapsed in the early 1990s and free elections brought the ANC government to power in 1994, 22 years ago. Many of the wall panels give the impression the curators are still bravely fighting a battle which, in fact, ended a generation ago. My companion joked that maybe their next exhibition should be devoted to bringing down the Soviet Union.

Because of the interleaving of big and very varied works by contemporary artists I found the timeline of pre-colonial South African art a bit hard to follow. I got that the Bantu people spread across the region (which in fact I knew from Chris Stringer’s book The Origin of Our Species). There was a case of exquisite gold statuettes of African animals, including a golden rhino which, we were told, are from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290). Maybe I blinked and missed the follow-up information, but I would really have liked to learn much more about the rise of kingdoms and territories and language groups and cultures and traditions across this huge area.

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria. The golden rhino is now the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour that was first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela.

Maybe the history just isn’t there, I mean the written history that would allow that kind of detailed narrative to be constructed. There were a few display cases showing weapons – a big shield made of hide alongside spears – and another one containing traditional carved wood figures, including a really beautiful ‘stylised wooden figure’, examples of traditional beadwork and some striking traditional dresses.

But I felt slightly afraid of liking anything because the wall labels made quite a point, repeatedly, of emphasising how the European colonists from the first Dutch arrivals in the 1650s through to the end of apartheid in the 1990s, had in a whole host of ways denied the validity of pre-colonial art and culture, denying in fact that the land was inhabited at all or, if conceding that it was, then only by ‘savages’ who didn’t plough or reap, by non-Christians who needed to be converted, by violent tribesmen who needed to be pacified.

And that one of the ways the European colonists/imperialists/racists limited and controlled the native people was by defining their art and traditions as ‘exotic’, pigeonholing them as ‘primitive’, demeaning and debasing their traditions and achievements. Thus told off, I felt a little scared about ‘liking’ any of the pre-colonial art in case I was displaying an ‘ethnocentric’ and patronising taste for ‘the exotic’.

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (Late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This unnerved me because some of my favourite objects in the whole British Museum are the wonderful bronzes of Benin, among the most complete and finished works of art I know of from anywhere – as well as the whole range of weird and wonderful and powerful fetishes, images and carvings in the Museum’s Africa galleries.

Contemporary art 2

Anyway, the main thing about this exhibition is that interwoven among the pre-colonial artefacts which you would normally associate with the British Museum, are the works of a large number of modern and contemporary South African artists, black and white, men and women. Hopefully we are freer to express an opinion about these without running the risk of being considered ethnocentric or Eurocentric.

Apparently, the Museum has been collecting contemporary South African art for some 20 years, since – in other words – the collapse of apartheid, the first free elections and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. This explains why so many contemporary artworks are threaded through the show right from the first room and why the later rooms are entirely full of what you’d call modern art.

Artists and works

  • The Watchers by Francki Burger (2014) a photo montage of the site of the Battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War.
  • Oxford Man by Owen Ndou
  • Pantomime Act and Trilogy by Johannes Phokela
  • The Battle of Rorke’s Drift by John Muafangejo
  • Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander (1986) not actually physically in the show, there is a vivid photo of it here.
  • It left him cold – the death of Steve Biko (1990) by Sam Nhlengethwa
  • The Black Photo Album/Look at Me by Santu Mofokeng, who has spent years researching and retouching hundreds of b&w photographs commissioned by urban black working and middle-class families in South Africa between 1890 and 1950.
  • Christ playing football by Jackson Hlungwani (1983)
  • Candice Breitz’s extended video ‘Extras’, filmed on the set of a popular black soap opera, in which all the actors play out straight soap opera scenes except with the artist herself, blonde Candice, placed in bizarre stationary positions around the set. I laughed out loud when I read that it explores ‘an absent presence or a present absence’ – it’s good to know that Artbollocks is a truly international language.

Willie Bester’s Transition (1994) commemorates seven children killed when security forces stormed a house supposedly occupied by terrorists. (See a video of the artist talking about it)

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

South African Timeline

It was difficult to grasp the ancientness of the earliest exhibits here, which wasn’t helped by their interspersion with bang up-to-date contemporary art. Apart from the gold animal statues from Mapungubwe (which I’d like to have learned more about), you got little sense of the region’s pre-colonial history. Many artefacts (carvings, weapons, figurines), yes; but a clear chronology with maps? Less so.

Purely from the point of view of being able to orient oneself in time and space, it was in many ways a relief to enter recorded, written history with the arrival of the Europeans and the (all-too-familiar) story of colonisation. The Portuguese made the first contacts in the 1490s, but it was the Dutch who built a settlement at Table Bay in the 1650s, as a stopover on the long sea voyages to their trading colonies in the East Indies. The British seized Cape Town from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). It was this dual colonisation which explains why the country is English-speaking but with a large Dutch or Afrikaans minority, a minority the British went to war with twice, in the First Boer War (1880-81) and the more famous second Boer War (1899-1902).

It was informative to learn how in the 19th century the British Empire imported labour from elsewhere in Africa and Asians from Indonesia and India, to work in South Africa. The exhibition includes one of the distinctive pointed hats worn by Chinese immigrants, as well as a pair of sandals the most famous Indian immigrant – Mahatma Gandhi – made for the country’s leader, General Jan Smuts, while he was in prison in 1913. Gandhi was to formulate many of the ideas in racist South Africa which he then took back to India to use in his campaign for independence.

As a language student I learned:

  • That ‘Hottentot’ was a Dutch nonsense word meaning ‘one who stutters’, insultingly applied to the native blacks because of the use of click sounds in the San language. Hence it is a derogatory word which is not now used.
  • That ‘Kaffir’, another derogatory term for blacks widely used in colonial times, derives from the Arabic for ‘unbeliever’.
  • That ‘Boer’ derives from the Dutch word for ‘farmer’.

What I’ve never really understood and didn’t get any enlightenment about here, is the period between the First World War – when South Africa sent troops to fight alongside the British – and the end of the Second World War, when the foundations were laid by Nationalist governments for the system which would become apartheid. There were several rooms about the evils of apartheid and one about the end of apartheid, but I was left as ignorant as before about the origins of apartheid – about the economic, social and cultural forces which led to its creation, with the main milestones clearly marked out and explained.

Modern South Africa

The room full of images of the horror, violence and oppression of 1960s and 70s and 80s apartheid, with records of the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), the murder of Steve Biko (1977), a display case full of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ badges and so on, felt very familiar to me from my school days in the 1970s and student days in the 1980s, when we all protested against apartheid, signed petitions, boycotted South African goods and so on.

As I viewed photos and artworks depicting the humiliations, poverty, incredibly long hours forced to work in menial jobs and the debasement and restrictions imposed on blacks by the apartheid state, I wondered whether the exhibition was going to dwell on the exploitation, the anger and the resistance of people during that era, and move on to cover the 25 years since Nelson Mandela was released, when things have got a lot less black and white.

For according to the newspapers, TV, documentaries and films which I consume, since liberation South Africa has developed into one of the most crime-ridden societies in the world, with just over 50 murders a day, and so many rapes that it has been called ‘the rape capital of the world, with one in four men admitting to having raped someone’.

At the same time South Africa is thought to have more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world – 5.7 million, 12% of the population of 48 million. There was a small display case showing some dollies made in a traditional style which were a response to the AIDS epidemic by an artistic collective – but nothing about the era of ‘denialism’ under Thabo Mbeki (president from 1999 to 2008), who refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS, and whose ban on antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals is estimated to be responsible for the premature deaths of between 330,000 and 365,000 people.

BMW Art Car 12 (1991( by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

BMW Art Car 12 (1991) by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

Contemporary South Africa today faces immense social, political, economic and medical challenges.

In the videos supporting the exhibition, the Museum curators make the point that this is quite a ‘political’ exhibition. That would have been the case if this was 1986 and voices could be found – in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party, say, or the CIA – which defended the South African apartheid regime as a vital bulwark against Soviet-backed communism – but that was an era ago and it feels like they are fighting yesterday’s war.

Throughout the exhibition the curators criticise the Eurocentrism and racism of the colonists and the Imperialists and the founders of apartheid, who denied or denigrated black cultural achievements – as if this was still a battle being fought now; as if apartheid is still a flourishing regime which urgently needs challenging; as if unregenerate imperialist views about pre-colonial South African history are still widely held by lots of people.

In the exhibition, gold treasures of Mapungubwe will be displayed alongside a modern artwork by Penny Siopis and a sculpture by Owen Ndou that encourage the viewer to challenge the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras. (Press release)

Really? Does anyone even know what ‘the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras’ are, that are being challenged? In this respect it feels incredibly old-fashioned: the Us-versus-Them mindset made me nostalgic for my student days when international politics were so much clearer cut.

Meanwhile, back in 2017, the modern ‘struggle’ in South Africa is to formulate economic and social policies which will boost the economy and try to spread wealth and well-being out to the great bulk of the (black) population who have never seen the benefits of the end of apartheid and who are still mired in poverty and illness. A much harder ‘struggle’ because it is no longer so easy to identify the goodies and the baddies and, in fact, there may be no easy solutions.

Credit

Hats off to Betsy and Jack Ryan who sponsored the exhibition and to IAG Cargo who transported many of these objects from museums and galleries across South Africa. It’s a brilliant opportunity to see all kinds of works from South Africa, from the rarest prehistoric artefacts to bang up-to-date contemporary art. Maybe it’s my fault if I found so many complex histories and paradigms difficult to process in one visit.


The trailer

Museums and galleries are producing more and more videos to explain their exhibitions. The British Museum has set up a channel containing eight videos about this show.

I strongly recommend watching the videos before going to see the exhibition, as they explain the rationale for the layout, and prepare you for the emphasis on modern artworks, ahead of your arrival.

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Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans @ the Royal Academy

Ensor (1860-1949) is an oddity. He was born in Ostend, a windswept seaside ‘resort’ on the coast of Belgium in 1860 and chose to spend his whole life there. His parents kept a modest curiosity shop which made its money during the short summer tourist season, and the guide tells us that, once a year, Ostend had a colourful Mardi Gras carnival, where everyone wore masks. It is easy enough to make the connection between Ensor growing up among bizarre artefacts, experiencing this annual jamboree, and what was to become his trademark depiction of grotesquely distorted people wearing carnival masks…

The Intrigue by James Ensor (1890) Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

The Intrigue by James Ensor (1890) Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Photo KMSKA © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

The guide goes on to explain that Ostend had been the site of a lengthy siege and battle way back in the 17th century, and that all building works in the area tended to dig up piles of bones and skulls. Apparently there are photos of Ensor and friends holding mock duels on the beach using human bones (though not included in the show). All of which explains his other favourite subject of skulls and skeletons.

The exhibition could have stuck to an exploration of these themes but it is curated not by scholars but by fellow Belgian artist, Luc Tuymans (b.1958) who has always been attracted to his countryman’s work and sets out to show us that there is more to Ensor than just his best-known grotesque paintings. The show deliberately sets out to show us Ensor’s range and diversity, and so we are introduced to other major strands in his output, such as:

Early realist works

These include Bathing Hut (1876), painted when he was just 16 and showing a typical sight on the windswept beach, and Afternoon In Ostende (1881) showing his mother and sister in a grim muddy interior, indicative of the stiflingly conventional bourgeois the artist grew up in. This early naturalist style could hardly be more at odds with the style that made him famous. A good example here is the Self-portrait with a flowered hat (1883). OK he’s a bit of a dandy, but a very conventional one.

Self-portrait with Flowered Hat by James Ensor (1883) Mu.ZEE, Oostende Photo MuZee © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Self-portrait with Flowered Hat by James Ensor (1883) Mu.ZEE, Oostende
Photo MuZee © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Satirical cartoons

One of the three rooms in the show features a long case showing maybe forty examples of the satirical cartoons he produced by the score, as stand-alones or in sets, satirising Ostend bourgeois society. No wonder he became so unpopular in the town of his birth.

Plague here, Plague there, Plague Everywhere by James Ensor (1888) Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photograph: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Plague here, Plague there, Plague Everywhere by James Ensor (1888) Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. Photo KMSKA © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photograph: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Two large examples are hung separately:

  • The Bad Doctors (1892)
  • The Dangerous Cooks (1896) Ensor’s withering opinion of critics who are serving up his and a fellow artist’s heads on plates to be scoffed by porcine critics waiting at the table.

Ensor carried out a lifelong war against critics who didn’t like or value his work. This was the era when variations on Impressionism were still being produced and new movements from France, like Symbolism, were smooth and high-toned. Ensor was deliberately crude, clumsy, garish and, above all, satirical. It’s not a particularly good work, but the approach of the man seems to be summed up in The Pisser.

Religious art

Disappointingly for a man who considered himself a rebel and non-conformist, there’s a strong Christian thread through his work, represented here by a huge horrible painting of Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden of Eden. It is enormous and dominates one whole wall.

Apparently, his most famous work is Christ’s entry into Brussels, which is not on show here, combining his interests in the grotesque, social satire and religion into a ragbag which I’m afraid I don’t like at all.

The fantastic

Ensor produced hundreds of engravings, etchings and lithographs of very variable quality, many of them depicting scenes of fantasy and the grotesque. There is a series devoted to the seven deadly sins, which anticipate the deliberate ugliness of post-Great War satirists like George Grosz.

Both my children are at secondary school. In order to choose which secondary schools to send them to we went to open days of maybe a dozen schools in all. In every one, among other areas, you tour round the art rooms. Deliberately cack-handed, garish and obvious depictions of the seamy side of life – of ugly people, skeletons, skulls, alongside satire on religion or political leaders – depicted with the earnestness of 5th and 6th form teenagers is what these rooms are packed with. After looking at the 20th etching of a deadly sin or crowds mocking Christ or the troops at Waterloo it’s hard not to think of Ensor as a kind of patron saint of tens of thousands of clumsy, over-earnest adolescent imaginations.

Drawings

The show includes a lot of prints and drawings. What struck me is how powerfully naturalistic some of the early ones are before he discovered his talent for the macabre and grotesque. I much preferred these which have a depth and maturity which, paradoxically, his later deliberately sketchy satires wholly lack.

Still life 

In the room of grotesques one painting stood apart – a dazzling still life. This photographic reproduction completely fails to bring out the unnervingly oiliness and spookiness of the painting in the flesh. It is a far more intense and disturbing image than some of the overtly grotesque paintings. More subtly unnerving.

The Skate by James Ensor (1892) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo: J. Geleyns - Ro scan © DACS 2016

The Skate by James Ensor (1892) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels/photo: J. Geleyns – Ro scan © DACS 2016

Over by 40

Although Ensor lived to an advanced age, not dying until 1949, the excellent handout for the exhibition crisply points out that by the age of 40 (1900) his best work was done. He spent the next 40 years repeating the same motifs and, in his last years, developing a much lighter more gaseous style. The expert on the audio-commentary tries to claim these later works match the earlier ones, but they don’t.

Luc Tuymans

Because this is not a ‘scholarly’ exhibition but a personal selection of one artist’s works by another (Luc Tuymans) Tuymans mixes it up a little, adding other elements. Most notable are a couple of works by Tuymans himself, chiefly an enormous white carnival hat with billowing feathers, as worn at the Carnival de Binche in 2001, as well as five – to be honest, rather bland – carnival masks.

A bit more relevant is the self-portrait by Ensor’s Ostend contemporary, Léon Spilliart. Apparently it was seeing Ensor’s work that persuaded Spilliart to pack in being a lawyer and become a painter instead. Interesting story and I very much liked the intensity of this image, with the subject’s eyes in deep black shadow, and his reflection repeated in parallel mirrors to infinity. In fact googling this image shows that Spilliart did multiple self-portraits and comes over as an intense spin-off of the Edvard Munch school of northern depression.

But this one image, by itself, doesn’t really tell me much about Ensor or shed much light on the contemporary Belgian ‘scene’.

Conclusion

I knew next to nothing about Ensor before visiting, and so this exhibition is a useful overview of his life and achievement but, having got a grasp of his career, I would have liked to see more of his trademark weird mask and skull paintings, and/or more of the striking naturalistic paintings he did right at the start of his career.

There are only three rooms in this small exhibition and the majority of the space is devoted to drawings, prints and cartoons most of which just aren’t of the same quality as the grotesques/realist works. Imagine if the space had been full to overflowing with his paintings of garish masks and leering skeletons and green-faced women and men with pig noses – what a powerful experience it would have been!

While searching Ensor images on the internet I came across The Dejected Woman, was very impressed by it, and couldn’t help wondering whether a lot of the satirical drawings, sketches and cartoons which Ensor devoted so much effort to (e.g. Christ tormented by demons) and which are given so much wall space here, were, in fact, a waste of a breath-taking talent.


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Real to Reel @ The Imperial War Museum

‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ (Dr Johnson)

This is a small but densely-packed, moving and very thought-provoking exhibition. It would only take a about a minute to walk straight through the half dozen or so small rooms, created using an interesting setting of metal warehouse shelving and wooden packing crates – maybe only 15 minutes or so to stroll past the display cases and the dozen or so screens giving the looped movie clips a cursory glance – but stopping to watch every clip and read all the display case labels took me an absorbing hour and 40 minutes, longer than I’ve spent at many art exhibitions, time enough to form all kinds of thoughts and impressions – about individual films, about war, about films as a medium for history.

The exhibition

The show opens with a welter of classic war movie posters – Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca – and then about thirty display cases contain costumes and props, screenplays and set designs and storyboards, publicity stills, movie magazine articles and scale models of machines used in classic movies (a model of the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, and of the U-boat used in the German movie Das Boot).

The exhibition mostly features American and British movies. Of the 40 or so films referenced, there are none from France, Spain, Italy or Russia, all of which have or had pretty thriving film industries. The only non-Anglo country represented is Germany, with the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of The Will, the TV-epic-turned movie Das Boot, and Downfall, the harrowing account of Hitler’s last days in the Berlin bunker.

v

Film still of Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead (2005). A pair of the Santa hats worn in the movie are on display. © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Francois Duhamel

Limitations

The exhibition’s sub-title is ‘A Century of War Movies’, which makes sense on one level, since ‘moving pictures’ were invented only a little over a century ago. But it is also taken to mean that the subject matter of the films themselves is limited to the last hundred years. Thus there are no movie representations of the countless wars from earlier in history – none of the Hollywood epics about ancient Rome (Cleopatra), the Greeks (The 300 Spartans, Troy), medieval wars (Henry VBraveheart), the Spanish conquest of America (The Royal Hunt of The Sun), the English Civil Wars (Cromwell), the Seven Years War (The Last of The Mohicans), the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo, The Duellists), or the countless wars of the British Empire (The Four FeathersThe Charge of the Light BrigadeKhartoum, Zulu, Breaker Morant) let alone the Americans’ very own Civil War (Birth of a NationThe Red Badge of CourageGone With The Wind).

Even within its 20th century framework, there are surprising omissions – nothing about the Russian Revolution (Dr ZhivagoReds), the Spanish Civil War (For Whom The Bell Tolls, Land and Freedom), the Korean War (Hell In Korea, Pork Chop HillM*A*S*H), Algeria (Battle for Algiers), the many wars of independence in European colonies, or the bloody post-independence conflicts in places like Biafra, Bangladesh, Angola, Mozambique, and so on.

No, only Anglo wars feature – the Great War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and, in the last decade or so, Iraq-Afghanistan (the one possible exception, Yann Demange’s 2014 movie about Northern Ireland, ’71, is still firmly from the Anglosphere).

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now (1979) © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Clips

If you wait and watch every clip on every screen you will see excerpts from the following films (ones in bold are factual films):

  • Battle of the Somme (1916) Fascinating explanation of how the British government commission and distributed one of the first real depictions of warfare to bring home to the civilian population the reality of the trenches.
  • Triumph of the Will (1934) Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi masterpiece, which begs the fundamental question whether films always glamorise, no matter how evil their subject matter. (My answer is, Yes)
  • The Great Dictator (1940) Charlie Chaplin’s comic masterpiece, with production notes and stills, part of a larger section on the depiction of Hitler in films.
  • Dig for Victory (1941) Fascinating clip from an all-too-rare example of the British factual films produced during the war.
  • Hoch Der Lambeth Walk (1941) Short comedy setting Nazi goose-stepping troops to the popular Cockney tune.
  • Mrs Miniver (1942) Clip from the film’s moving patriotic climax.
  • Went The Day Well (1942) Scene where the vicar of a little English village stands up to the German invaders in Cavalcanti’s immensely moving British film, adapted from the Graham Greene short story.
  • Listen To Britain (1942) Fascinating depiction of Britain at war by the experimental documentary maker, Humphrey Jennings.
  • Donald Gets Drafted (1942) Comedy cartoon example of Disney supporting the war effort.
  • Victory Through Air Power (1943) An extended animated propaganda film from Disney – a display panel explains the surprising extent of the Disney studio’s involvement in war work.
  • The Cruel Sea (1953) A tearful Lieutenant Commander George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) remembers his decision to depth charge a German submarine, thus killing the British sailors in the sea above it.
  • The Colditz Story (1955) Pukka chaps plan escape, led by John Mills.
  • The Dam Busters (1955) Pukka chaps pull off a cunning stunt, led by Richard Todd.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) the finale where the dying Alec Guinness falls on the detonator which blows up the bridge.
  • Paths of Glory (1957) A display case gives plenty of background to this early work by Stanley Kubrick, a powerful anti-war film based on the true case of a mutiny in the French army during the Great War.
  • Ice Cold In Alex (1958) Pukka chaps escape through the desert, led by John Mills.
  • Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) A big display case gives a thorough background to the heroic feats of Violette Szabo, who volunteered to work for the SOE in occupied France, until caught, tortured and executed.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Fascinating display case on how the Lawrence cult was carefully created by an American journalist.
  • The Longest Day (1962) All-star cast depiction of D-Day.
  • Hell In The Pacific (1968) One of the new breed of unglamorous anti-war films, starring Lee Marvin.
  • Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) Poster and clips from the archetypal anti-war film, satirising the First World War through music hall songs.
  • Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) Alec Guinness stars in what now seems a very dated, made-for-TV style.
  • Overlord (1975) an experimental black and white British film, which failed to get released in the States.
  • Das Boot (1981) The epic German TV series, edited down into a movie – a rare showing for a non-Anglo production. The show features one of the scale models of the German U-boat used in filming.
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987) Kubrick’s shiny Vietnam film, complete with predictable ‘shocking’ scenes.
  • Memphis Belle (1990) Happy ending for an all-star cast. The exhibition features one of the scale models of the Flying Fortress used in filming.
  • Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg’s masterpiece. A display case shows the suit that Liam Neeson wears in the tear-jerking final scene.
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998) An extended sequence from the famous beach landing scene runs next to several display cases showing memorabilia from officers who landed that day, photos, maps, letters and uniforms, including from men who were killed in the landings.
  • Downfall (2005) Another rare non-Anglo production, with German actor Bruno Ganz giving a harrowing portrayal of the Fuhrer’s last days.
  • Atonement (2007) An extended display case includes production notes from the Dunkirk sequence of this love story gone wrong, and interview clips with the director and production designer which give insights into its creation.
  • The Hurt Locker (2008) The story of a US bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Clips and interview with the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow.
  • Kajaki (2014) Clip and interviews with the film’s director, Paul Katis, and writer, Tom Williams.
  • ’71 (2014) British troops in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Clip and interview with the director, Yann Demange.
  • Eye In the Sky (2016) Clip of a drone targeting ‘terrorists’ in Kenya, and an interview with the director, Gavin Hood.

The extensive interviews with writers and directors of the more recent films gives the last parts of the exhibition the feel of a bumper edition of ‘Film 2016’, and the suspicion that we are learning more and more about films we care less and less about.

Costumes

The show features a strong V&Aish, costume & design element. In various display cases we get to see:

  • the dress and shoes Marlene Dietrich used for her USO shows she gave to American troops during WW2
  • the RAF jacket worn by David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death
  • as mentioned, the tailored suit worn by Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List
  • the costume uniform worn by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
  • the very robe given to Lawrence of Arabia by Emir Faisal
  • the costume uniform worn by the lead character in Warhorse
  • the cap and jacket worn by Clint Eastwood as Lieutenant Schaffer in Where Eagles Dare
  • the costume uniform worn by McAvoy in Atonement
  • the very helmet worn by the hero of Black Hawk Down
James McAvoy starring in Atonement - this uniform is on display © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

James McAvoy starring in Atonement (2007). This uniform is on display in the exhibition © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

Props

As well as the scale models of the U-boat used in Das Boot and the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, there’s a cane chair from Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, the mandolin played by Nicholas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and a reconstructed version of the Triumph motorbike ridden by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape!

There is a host of other memorabilia, such as the clapperboard used in Full Metal Jacket, Alec Guinness’s diary when filming Hitler: The Last Ten Days, a storyboard for the classic dogfight sequence in Battle of Britain, design sketches for the set of Dr Strangelove, production notes and models for Hope and Glory, a script for The Third Man, as well as publicity stills and movie magazine articles for numerous other war films, and much more in the same vein.

There’s even a genuine Hollywood Oscar – in case anybody doesn’t know what they look like.

Movie buff stuff

There’s a section about the wartime career of British actor David Niven, who dropped acting to serve in the RAF (though he found time to appear in several training films). He’s here mainly because of his starring role in the wonderful Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The background information about Marlene Dietrich i.e. her flight from Germany just before the war and the wholehearted way she threw herself into Allied propaganda efforts is very enlightening. Similarly, there is no clip of him but there’s a display case devoted to the wartime career of Clark Gable, at the peak of his career when the war began, having just starred in Gone With The Wind (itself, of course, a war film and, apparently, much enjoyed by Chancellor Hitler).

The section devoted to Lawrence of Arabia explains how his legend was fostered by an American journalist and broadcaster, Lowell Thomas, who shot footage of Lawrence in the desert and then went on tour with a show which included dancing girls and exotic props before a showing of the main film itself, which Thomas narrated. The film made Lawrence a household name (and Thomas lots of money). The exhibition explains all this with stills and a programme from the show.

There’s a moving section about Violette Szabo, a young shop girl from Brixton who volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive, was trained and then dropped into occupied France, where she performed several missions before being captured by the Germans, tortured and executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp – a true-life story which inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE in occupied France inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training, mission, then arrest and execution by the Nazis © IWM

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training and mission, including photos of her war hero husband and small daughter © IWM

Themes

The exhibition labels point out that war films provide an excellent vehicle for drama, for depictions of bravery, cowardice, love and passion etc.

Another label remarks that music provides an important element of war films, many war songs and themes going on to become patriotic and iconic tunes, or to be sung by soldiers in subsequent conflicts.

Another display comments that some war films were subject to censorship, citing Churchill’s exasperation at Powell and Pressburger’s classic Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) which portrayed the British officer class as ageing buffoons and which he tried – but failed – to get suppressed.

The exhibition mentions questions and ideas like these, but it doesn’t really address or explore them, not in any depth. They tend to be overshadowed by the sheer brainless pleasure of movie-watching which, I’m the first to admit, I am also prone to. A discussion of wartime censorship? Look, here’s a chair from Rick’s Bar! Exploring the role of music in shaping emotional responses? Who cares, here’s Steve McQueen’s motorbike!!

It’s a little like putting a few sentences about cholesterol and heart disease into a massive exhibition about ice cream with forty free samples. And that, for me, is the problem with film. Although I enjoyed seeing so many clips from so many beloved old war movies, and finding out a wealth of movie trivia and behind-the-scenes stories about their making, I couldn’t suppress a growing feeling that – no matter how realistic, harrowing or moving – there is something inescapably shallow about film as a medium. In films, thought is always trumped by emotional manipulation.

The weakness of film

Films are shallow entertainment Films by their nature are intense but shallow. Customers pay to go into a darkened auditorium, where they stuff their faces with popcorn and Coca Cola, or to watch at home on a big Entertainment Centre while scoffing a Dominos pizza or takeaway curry. Films are crafted to be consumed in a deliberately infantilising and indulgent environment, designed to relax your rational mind and bring emotions to the surface. Who doesn’t cry when Humphrey Bogart makes his big speech at the end of Casablanca or when the survivors’ families get the letters that their loved ones have survived in In Which We Serve? But plenty of evil men have sent thousands to their deaths and then burst into tears at a Hollywood weepie. I always find it telling that both Hitler and Stalin were not just movie fans, they were massive movie fans, with their own private projection rooms in which they watched films again and again, and then shared their critical insights with their terrified associates. Being moved by a film doesn’t, ultimately, change anything.

Films are commercial products All Hollywood films are designed to make money. It may employ many craftsmen, and plenty of people who want to think of themselves as ‘artists’, but cinema is a commercial business. Many of the movies featured here are shameless blockbusters – from The Battle of Britain to Saving Private Ryan (which made a stunning $481.8 million worldwide in 1998, the highest-grossing US film of the year). They are products designed and honed, whatever the actual content, to make a profit.

Films use stereotyped plots, characters and gestures Film students are taught that their screenplays must have a structure in three acts. They have to have an inciting incident, a confrontation and resolution in a way that history, let alone real life, doesn’t.

As Virginia Woolf pointed out 100 years ago, movies don’t have much time to play with – generally between 1.5 and 3 hours – so they have to boil human behaviour, motivation and psychology down into stereotyped characters, plots and dialogue, all of which must be easy to grasp at one fleeting viewing. Each generation’s actors have used stylised gestures, attitudes and poses appropriate for their times. (Because I don’t like modern films, I particularly dislike the non-stop shouting which passes for acting with most modern American actors. One way to view the clips on show here is to note the way the amount of shouting and swearing steadily increases from the restrained 1940s through to the ‘fuck you asshole’ Noughties.)

Films are vehicles for films stars Then there is the simple fact that movies are vehicles for movie stars. Right from the start a star-struck audience has gone ga-ga for gossip about Errol and Clark and Bette and Jean – nowadays, about Leonardo and Brad and Angelina and Scarlett. The studio ‘system’ of the 1930s and 40s was a machine to find profitable vehicles for bankable stars. Though the situation is more complex nowadays, it’s still about money, the money which buys the stars which drive the promotion and publicity machine. ‘Tom Hanks as you’ve never seen him before’, ‘Leonardo gives the performance of his career’, etc etc in thousands of variations.

The exhibition brings out the fashion in the 1960s and 1970s to cram as many stars into a movie as possible – creating an ‘all-star cast’ – to try and ensure profitability: think of The Great Escape (1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977).

Cartoon characters War films up to about 1970 featured generally clean-cut heroes – classic movie stars from the 40s and 50s like Clark Gable (b.1901), Gary Cooper (b.1901), John Wayne (b.1907) David Niven (b.1910) and Gregory Peck (b.1916), John Mills (b.1908), Jack Hawkins (b.1910) and Kenneth More (b.1914). These were followed by the generation of movie stars I grew up watching in the 1960s – Richard Burton (b.1925), Clint Eastwood (b.1930), Steve McQueen (b.1930), Peter O’Toole (b.1932), Michael Caine (b.1933), David McCallum (b.1933). So many times, watching these clips, you realise it’s the star, the lines they’re given, the scenes they’re placed in, the way they’re made up, lit and filmed, which give the viewer deep pleasure.

The 1960s was a transition decade in so many ways but watching the war movies you realise they had a distinctive style of Swinging ’60s heroism – 633 Squadron (1964) or The Battle of Britain (1969), The Heroes of Telemark (1965) or Where Eagles Dare (1968). The ‘characters’ in films like this are really animated versions of schoolboy comics, like the ‘Commando Action Comics’ which I devoured as a kid, target audience – 10-year-old boys. The 1960s movies in particular are somehow not really serious. The Great Escape is more memorable for its comic than its ‘tragic’ moments – and although 50 Allied officers are murdered by the Nazis at the conclusion, the very end of the film features the imperishably supercool Steve McQueen returning to his solitary cell in undimmed triumph.

Cool, stylish, glamorous, ironic, smiling – unreal.

Since Private Ryan

A lot of war films from the 1970s and 80s are just too bad to be included (think Escape To Victory) so that this is the most under-represented period in the exhibition.

This is odd because the late ’70s saw a rash of major films about Vietnam which brought a new brutality and cynicism to the genre, led by The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). A later wave of Vietnam films try but, in my opinion, fail to capture the shocking freshness of those 70s Vietnam movies – Stanley Kubrick’s over-studied Full Metal Jacket (1987), Oliver Stone’s over-schematic Platoon (1987) and unwieldy Born on the Fourth of July (1989), let alone the eccentric Good Morning Vietnam (1987). By this stage we all knew that war is hell and that US Marine training sergeants can be really mean.

Jacket and Platoon are referenced in the exhibition, but the general under-representation of war films from the 70s and 80s makes something else all the more obvious – which is the decisive change in tone and style which came over war films after the epoch-making Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998.

That film’s extended sequence of American troops landing on Omaha Beach (shown here on the only really big screen in the exhibition, so that you can sit and watch it with the sound on headphones) was a game changer. It pioneered new computer-generated special effects to give the viewer a much more visceral sense of the devastating impact of bullets and ordinance on the human body. All war films since Ryan have had to match its hyper-realism, so that cinema goers now see soldiers being eviscerated, dismembered, punctured and disintegrated in unprecedented detail.

Think of the scene in the cave in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, not included here) which unflinchingly shows a group of Japanese soldiers committing harakiri with grenades, leaving them with half-removed faces and handless stumps of arms spouting arterial blood. Yuk.

This body-parts-in-your-face style is apparent in all the subsequent works in the genre. Similarly, the harrowing scene in Saving Private Ryan where the troop’s medic, Private Irwin Wade, takes a long time to bleed to death from a stomach wound which his comrades are unable to staunch, has also been replicated in the post-1998 depiction of war wounds, which are much more unflinchingly realistic.

Whether this anatomical hyper-realism which has been mandatory for all war films since Ryan has elevated any of them as ‘works of art’ is an open question, but it’s certainly the style of our time, the set of conventions – of gesture and sound and special effects – which we all take to be ‘true’ – at any rate, until the next stylistic revolution comes along…

Factual films

Seeing all these clips from classic movies is without doubt entertaining and the movie trivia in the display cases is often very interesting and informative. But it’s a shame that, in among all the Hollywood and Pinewood glamour, there isn’t more of an investigation of wartime factual films. There are some:

Nazi propaganda films On the Nazi side there is a clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s classic propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will, a stunningly directed Modernist masterpiece celebrating the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally of 1934. The Nazis’ masterful use of propaganda films like this, and the steady output of Nazi-controlled film studios during the war, are a huge and fascinating topic, something I’d love to know more about – with relevant clips demonstrating Goebbels’ personal intervention in scripts and direction to bring out their Aryan values – but it was only referenced with this one clip and few panels about Triumph.

British propaganda films Presumably the Imperial War Museum owns a significant archive of British newsreel and propaganda films from the war. In fact the show opens with several clips from the information film about the Battle of the Somme which was commissioned by the War Office in 1916, and shown widely in cinemas throughout Britain to publicise the reality of the trenches. I was hoping there’d be much more like this explaining how governments used the new medium to promote or justify their wars.

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

But, disappointingly, there were clips from only three other British factual war films in the exhibition. Obviously the tone, the subject matter and treatment, the look and duration of these films is completely different from the commercial products, and a world away from airbrushed Hollywood.

Maybe one comedy short was enough, but I’d like to have learned much more about the relationship between government-sponsored films and shorts and the output of commercial news organisations like Pathe. This is a vast subject only fleetingly touched on.

US propaganda films A nearby case was devoted to the wartime output of the Disney studios. I’m not surprised that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were dragooned into short comedy films about the silly side of becoming a soldier…

but it was fascinating to learn that the Disney studio also made some 170 factual information films during the war. And that it produced a feature-length animation, Victory Through Air Power, from which we see a powerful clip.

Either of these three – Nazi, British or American propaganda films – treated in depth, would make for a fascinating exhibition in their own right, and one well suited to the IMW’s archives and experts. Having them in the show gave us a sense of what we were missing, and tended to highlight the glossy shallowness of the commercial movies.

Conclusion

Shatteringly realistic, brutal and bloody though many are, commercial movies are not real and are of only limited use in understanding the past. The past wasn’t like this. All that films show us is what films from the past were like -subject to all the limitations of their era, to its visual styles and technical capacity, audience expectations and fashions. They offer insights into their times, not the times they depict and even then, severely hampered by commercial concerns.

Above all films are hamstrung by the fundamental requirement to give emotional closure: with a rousing comic ending (Kelly’s Heroes), an uplifting finale looking to a better future (like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), or as a hard-bitten meditation on the futility of war (any war movie of the past 20 years).

The narrative limitations, the psychological stereotyping, the simplification of the complex, the lack of time or space to explain anything in depth, all of these make movies the complete opposite of books. A history book, of course, also has a structure and an ending – but it will also be packed with references, notes and bibliography which encourage further exploration and further understanding, which move you forward and deeper, and will present you with conflicting points of view and opinions which you have to exercise judgement about. And books require mental alertness and mental effort – precisely the opposite of films.

Movies shut down the mind. Books open the mind.

This is a very enjoyable, stimulating, and thought-provoking exhibition. These are the thoughts it provoked in me, but I’m sure every visitor will take away something different.


Related links

  • Real to Reel continues at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January 2017

Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

Paul Nash @ Tate Britain

The nine rooms in this show comprise a major exhibition of the life’s work of the painter, illustrator, sculptor, photographer and art critic, Paul Nash. The show proceeds in simple chronological order and, as well as oil paintings and watercolours, includes display cases containing letters, photographs, magazine articles, book illustrations, collages and sculptures, as well as two rooms putting his work into the context of contemporaries and collaborators. It is a comprehensive overview of a much-loved English artist.

Mysterious landscapes

Nash was born in 1889. He spent his early life in Iver Heath in what was then rural Buckinghamshire and early on developed a special feel for the modest highlights of the Home Counties landscape. He felt trees so powerfully that he thought they had almost human personalities – he depicted a particular stand of three trees near his home again and again, in different lights – and he was much taken with nightscapes and the moon and mysterious winged figures. He wrote poems and illustrated them in the manner of William Blake or Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Room 1 is dedicated to these, many of which felt childish and immature to me.

The great exception is a watercolour of Wittenham Clumps, in Oxfordshire, one of the oldest planted stands of beech trees in England, set atop an Iron Age fort. It is, in fact, only a very gently sloping hill, but in these pictures you can see his interest in pattern and linear shapes emerging from his not particularly accurate landscape technique.

The Great War

Nash was 24 when the Great War broke out. He was called up but not actually sent to France until 1917, when he saw the devastated landscape left after the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele. For such a sensitive man, so in tune with the special meaning of natural landscape, the war was a terrible blasphemy. He wrote blistering attacks on the war leaders in letters to his wife (on display here).

‘I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back
word from men who are fighting to those who want the war to go forever. Feeble,
inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their
lousy souls.’

In terms of technique, the war inspired him to start using oil (as opposed to his previous light watercolours) and speeded his tendency to find simplified geometric shapes in landscape.

Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917 by Paul Nash (1917) Imperial War Museum, London © Tate

Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917 by Paul Nash (1917) Imperial War Museum, London © Tate

He was always poor at depicting the human figure. Not many appear in the early watercolours, and the few soldiers in the war paintings are weak compared to the soldiers of C.R.W. Nevinson or Wyndham Lewis or John Singer Sargent or William Orpen. His most famous war painting contains no humans – the shattered tree stumps represent the countless blighted lives – and highlights the new more abstract vision.

Vying with it is Menin Road 1917, in which the soldier figures have successfully blended with the design, appearing as just another set of angled lines in a composition dominated by verticals and diagonals.

Nash began his career as an illustrator and a display case here shows the pen-and-ink illustrations he did for a book of poetry by war novelist Richard Aldington. These are cleaner and sparer than the big oil paintings. I’m a sucker for strong outlines and silhouettes, so I really like them.

The 1920s

Nash emerged unharmed from the war and came back to live in a succession of rural locations. His paintings reflect pastoral views at Whiteleaf in Buckinghamshire or Dymchurch in Kent, but now done in an unapologetically modernist style.

I’ve always liked the Dymchurch paintings. They have a peculiar understated ominousness about them. Now I learn from the audio-commentary that shortly after moving there in 1924 Nash had a nervous breakdown, probably a delayed reaction to the war.

He has converted the ungainliness which characterises all his work into Unease. They are English landscapes, southern English landscapes, with the flatness and homeyness and boredom that implies but with… edge, disquiet, pregnant with some unspoken meaning…

Discovering de Chirico

In 1928 Nash visited an exhibition of works by Giorgio de Chirico, an Italian artist more or less his contemporary. De Chirico’s empty piazzas and abstract architecture had, by  his own admission, a dramatic impact on him. Nash wrote a lot about his own practice and phrases like ‘the power of abandoned objects’, ‘dreamlike ominousness’ and ‘isolated architectural elements’ begin to enter his prose.

Some of these paintings look Mediterranean, as if Nash has swallowed de Chirico whole. Others are still set in the English landscape but now seen in a completely new way, where isolated objects somehow bring out meanings which were always latent but not expressed in ‘reality’.

Nash trained as an illustrator, was at one time art critic for the Listener and became an avid photographer, as well as designing fabrics and china, so he had many strings to his bow. He was also involved in set design for contemporary theatre and some of the post-de Chirico works take his existing interest in the geometric aspect of landscape and add a new element, imposing frames within the frame to create angles and perspectives and plonking down abstract features in landscape as if they’re stage sets incongruously abandoned in a field or wood.

Unit One

In 1933 he joined forces with a host of other modern British artists to create ‘Unit One’, a movement he helped publicise. They held an exhibition which went on tour round the country in 1934 and 35. The exhibition devotes a room to Unit One and it is very useful to see works by other artists alongside Nash, very illuminating, clarifying what visual elements he shared with his contemporaries and what made him different. Works on display include:

I realised what all his peers have in common is that their works are very finished, with sharp lines, smooth paint surfaces or – in sculpture – the smoothly modelled shapes of Moore and Hepworth. By contrast, most of the half dozen or so works in this room by Nash seemed rough and scrappy, on canvas where you can often see the fabric of the canvas showing through the oil, where colours deliberately don’t go up to the edge of others colours, leaving canvas showing through, and where the oil is applied with thick strokes which are visible from even a few yards away. This scrappiness and lack of finish is really obvious in a work like Pillar and moon (1932) but it’s present in all his work, something photographic reproductions smooth out but which seeing them in real life makes really apparent.

This patchiness extends to entire compositions, which are clearly not interested in either crispness of outline or really pure, mathematical geometry. Although they make an impact, I don’t really like them, they make me feel uneasy.

Although they’re obviously landscapes and presumably come out of Nash’s lifelong numinous sense of place and nature, they actually remind me of early Francis Bacon in the sense of lumpish unhappiness they convey.

Alongside these blotchy works, Nash had another style which was much more precise and seems to stem from his training in graphic illustration. From his flat in St Pancras he looked out onto an advertising hoarding kept in place by multiple struts. Combine this with the strong de Chirico influence and you get images which are interested in line and intersection (like the window frames used in ‘Month of March’):

The background is pure de Chirico, no?

Swanage

In 1934 Nash moved to Swanage in Dorset. His wife gave him a camera. And he met the artist Eileen Agar. The result was an explosion of activity recorded in a fascinating room containing scores of works by both artists. As surrealism took hold of his imagination he became fascinated by the juxtaposition of objects found along the seashore and then, by extension, anywhere.

As the audio-commentary points out, the sea, in itself, is a surrealist work – an improbable realisation of our weirdest dreams, and the evocative driftwood, stones, fossils and human detritus it washes up are ready-made objects which only need to be placed on pedestals to become works of art.

He and Agar photographed incongruous objects placed together, experimented with photo-collage, made reliefs and sculptures and assemblages – boxes containing mixed media, seashells, driftwood, stones, eggs, fabric. In fact, as with the Unit One room, I was more taken by the non-Nash – in this case Agar’s – work than by Nash’s. For me her stuff has a crispness and sharpness which contrasts with his vaguer, unfinished feel.

Eileen Agar in Swanage

It amused me that, like so many women artists, Agar was interested in depicting her own naked body. But – like so many woman artists – only when she was young and nubile.

Nash got some of Agar’s pieces into the landmark 1936 exhibition of Surrealist art in London, making her the only woman artist represented.

Nash in Swanage

One of the many display cases has a magazine open at an article by Nash entitled ‘Swanage or Seaside Surrealism’. This title somehow captures the slightly amateurish modernism of these suburban surrealists, a slightly shamefaced English provincialism which has more in common with Philip Larkin’s down-at-heel Hull than Louis Aragon’s glamorous Paris.

The surreal landscape

The Swanage experiments helped crystallise the Surrealist message that one or two carefully placed objects somehow bring out features of a landscape, which are otherwise left implicit and unobserved.

As usual I felt there was a big difference between the deliberately unfinished feel of most of these works and his other style, which is much more rectilinear and complete and – to me, as a fan of clean lines and sharp draughtsmanship – more immediately enjoyable. Such as:

Equivalents for the Megaliths by Paul Nash (1935) © Tate

Equivalents for the Megaliths by Paul Nash (1935) © Tate

The Surrealist exhibition 1936

Nash was one of the curators of the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London, which caused a sensation and aligned him in the public mind with the movement. All his influences came together in a series of works in which mysterious objects, sometimes with stage set framings, appear in otherwise placid landscapes. What do they mean? The most famous is Landscape from a dream.

Landscape from a Dream by Paul Nash (1936-8) © Tate

Landscape from a Dream by Paul Nash (1936-8) © Tate

The Second World War

And then – war again. Nash was invited to be a war artist. The Ministry wanted him to depict our heroic pilots in their gleaming Spitfires – but Nash found himself attracted to the wrecks of airplanes – German fighters and bombers, so cruelly yanked out of their element, their mangled metal wreckage looking like so many of the found objects he had been studying and creating over the previous decade.

The war was Surrealism come true. Many of the works here are watercolours again, showing the same lightness as the early Wittenham Clumps watercolour back in 1912.

Near his home in Oxford was a vast dump of wrecked German planes, the Cowley Dump. The exhibition features many b&w photos Nash took of the wrecked masters of the sky, and includes b&w film footage of our hero looking out over the vista of twisted metal. The result was what is often regarded as one of his masterpieces, Totes Meer (German for ‘dead sea’).

By this stage, after looking closely at 50 or 60 paintings by Nash I had developed a feel for what I liked and what I didn’t, and to my surprise I’d come to dislike paintings like this and prefer the more geometric works. Thus I find the arrangement of elements in the equally famous Battle of Britain (not included in the exhibition, for some reason) much more pleasing.

Last works

Nash only lived a year after the war, dying in 1946 at the early age of 56 from the complications of the asthma which had dogged him with ill health for much of his life. In these final years he returned to landscapes but now pregnant with obscure symbolism. The final room includes several of the series of works he painted which feature enormous sunflowers – a symbol of life when in its prime or, when dead and dessicated, of mortality.

Artists’ last works often reveal new knowledge; they have achieved everything and feel liberated to say what they want. According to the audio-commentary, the Queen Mother liked Landscape of the vernal equinox enough to buy it. She is quoted as saying you can almost imagine an animal or spirit emerging from the woods.

Thoughts:

1. Right to the end he keeps the scrappiness I noticed in room 2 or 3, in fact it is exaggerated, with white gaps between areas of paint forming holes in thickly covered paint through which something – what? – might emerge…

2. No people: early on he realised people weren’t his thing and so hardly any of his paintings, after a few war ones, feature them – the humans are implied by the objects, in the collocations of objects and landscapes from the 1930s, in increasingly subtle, complex and mystifying ways.

3. Pink-peach-apricot: a lot of these last works feature variations on apricot or peach colours, applied to skies, sometimes to other objects, even to shadows. As I strolled back through the show I realised this unreal peach-apricot crops up throughout the work from the beginning – for example, it’s there (improbably enough) in the wartime setting of Spring in the trenches, or in the 1930s surrealism of Landscape from a dream. 

In some way I can’t quite define I think that if you like Landscape of the vernal equinox, its patchy design, blotchy paintwork and apricot coloration – I think you will have penetrated Paul Nash’s mystery.

In these last works I can sort of see it, but I don’t quite get it. Why did he paint giant magnolias in the sky in his final paintings? I think it takes time to feel your way into Nash’s world, and this big thorough exhibition is an excellent place to begin…


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The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper (1827)

“The man I speak of was of great simplicity of mind, but of sterling worth. Unlike most of those who live a border life, he united the better, instead of the worst, qualities of the two people. He was a man endowed with the choicest and perhaps rarest gift of nature; that of distinguishing good from evil. His virtues were those of simplicity, because such were the fruits of his habits, as were indeed his very prejudices. In courage he was the equal of his red associates; in warlike skill, being better instructed, their superior. ‘In short, he was a noble shoot from the stock of human nature, which never could attain its proper elevation and importance, for no other reason, than because it grew in the forest:’” (Duncan Uncas Heyward speaking of Leatherstocking in Chapter X)

The Prairie is the third of Cooper’s five ‘Leatherstocking’ novels, written at speed after The Last of the Mohicans (1826) established Cooper’s reputation, and published just a year later.

It is set at the very end of Leatherstocking’s life, in the year following the Louisiana Purchase i.e the sale by the French to the young American government of the vast expanse of land extending west of the Mississippi. (The character Dr Battius makes an entry in his journal dated specifically to 6 October 1805 in the middle of the novel).

Leatherstocking is now over 80 years old (in chapter XXVIII he says he has lived ‘fourscore and seven winters’), living alone (apart from his loyal but elderly dog, Hector) in the wide, dry, barren prairie lands west of the Mississippi. 87 and still hunting? Cooper addresses this improbability by mentioning on the first page (expanded in a footnote added to the 1832 edition) the legendary American frontiersman Daniel Boone, who died at the advanced age of 85, factual support for the longevity of his fictional character.

A lot of Cooper’s contrivances – for example, his heavy use of long-winded comedy characters – haven’t stood the test of time. More successful is the trick of giving his hero a different name in each book. Thus he is Leatherstocking in The Pioneers, Hawkeye in Last of The Mohicans but in this book is referred to only as ‘the trapper’, as if 80 years of living in the wilderness have not only carved lines in his face and wasted his gaunt body, but also worn away his name itself and almost all signs of individuality, so that he has become a living symbol, an embodiment of a dignified, free way of life.

The plot – part one

The trapper is minding his own business in the middle of the wide prairie when a wagon train lumbers into view, carrying some twenty men, women and children, led by the boorish, low, cunning Ishmael Bush, his careworn wife Esther, their no fewer than fourteen children, and no-good brother Abiram White. It’s impossible to paint Cooper as a racist or white supremacist as the book is drenched in Leatherstocking’s contempt for white farmers destroying the forest (‘their wantonness and folly’ Ch XIX; the ‘wasteful temper of my people’ Ch XX), the arbitrariness of white law, the uselessness of white learning – and the Bushes, representatives of white settlers, are depicted as violent, stupid, criminal lowlifes. As the Pawnee chief Hard-Heart says:

‘Your warriors think the Master of Life has made the whole earth white. They are mistaken.’ (Chapter XVIII)

By contrast with their own narrow brutal worldview, the Bushes’ first sight of the trapper is as a larger-than-life figure, supernaturally enlarged in silhouette against the effulgence of the setting sun, the first of many tall, dark, mythic American heroes…

The sun had fallen below the crest of the nearest wave of the prairie, leaving the usual rich and glowing train on its track. In the centre of this flood of fiery light, a human form appeared, drawn against the gilded background, as distinctly, and seemingly as palpable, as though it would come within the grasp of any extended hand. The figure was colossal; the attitude musing and melancholy, and the situation directly in the route of the travellers. But imbedded, as it was, in its setting of garish light, it was impossible to distinguish its just proportions or true character.
The effect of such a spectacle was instantaneous and powerful. (Chapter I)

v

Opening scene of The Prairie as the Bush family see the silhouette of the solitary trapper against the setting sun

Along with the Bushes is a spirited young woman, Ellen Wade, ‘a sprightly, active, girl, of eighteen, who in figure, dress, and mien, seemed to belong to a station in society several gradations above that of any one of her visible associates’. Ellen is reluctantly travelling with the Bush clan because both her parents are dead and Ishmael, as her ‘father’s brother’s widow’s husband’, has been lumbered with her care – but Ellen is secretly in love with a young and impulsive frontiersman named Paul Hover.

The trapper learns all this because he is present when she walks a distance from the Bush camp to meet the impetuous young man. They have barely started bickering like true young lovers before they hear a thundering of hooves, and lo! a band of Sioux Indians comes galloping up and seizes all three. (In the same way that his account of the Indians in Last of the Mohicans is confusing, once again Cooper refers to the Sioux, the Dahcotas and the Tetons interchangeably, which has you reaching for Wikipedia to discover that the Dakotas – here spelt Dahcotas – were one of the three main divisions of the Sioux nation. It seems that Cooper incorrectly uses the term ‘Teton’ when that should refer to one of the other divisions, the Lakota.)

In a prolonged sequence the leader of the Indians, Mahtoree, menaces the threesome, before setting off with his men to scout out the sleeping Bush campment. Here, in several edge-of-your-seat moments, he hovers with a drawn knife over a sleeping guard as if to stab him – before cutting the bonds of the pioneers’ horses, cows and pigs and shooing them back to the group of Indians (and the trapper) on a hill overlooking. The trapper seizes a moment of inattention to grab a knife off the Indian guarding him and strike through the cords binding the Indians’ horses, whooping loudly. Off run the Indian horses and off run the Indians after them.

The trapper strolls down to the Bush camp to find them all awake and angry that Indians have stolen all their cattle. They accuse him of being in league with the Indians. In his resigned, 80-year-old way, the trapper ignores all their shouting and, pointing out that they now need a place of refuge, guides them to a tall rocky bluff by a stream on top of which, over the next week, the Bushes set up a fortified camp.

From this point onwards several plotlines develop.

1. Dr Battius For a start, we are introduced to the pompous naturalist, Dr Obad Battius, who is also travelling with the Bushes, much given to quoting Latin tags and placing every animal encountered, including other humans, into their correct Family, Genus and Species.

“Woman, I forbid you on pain of the law to project any of your infernal missiles. I am a citizen, and a freeholder, and a graduate of two universities; and I stand upon my rights! Beware of malice prepense, of chance-medley, and of manslaughter. It is I — your amicus; a friend and inmate. I — Dr. Obed Battius.” (Chapter XI)

Battius feels a very stage-comic character, the joke scholar, like something out of Sheridan, with the added pedantry of Shakespeare’s Polonius.

“Perfection is always found in maturity, whether it be in the animal or in the intellectual world. Reflection is the mother of wisdom, and wisdom the parent of success.” (Chapter XIV)

But he isn’t as funny as the comic characters in The Pioneers which is, essentially, a comic novel – here, in the rougher environment of The Prairie and surrounded by the brutish Ishmael and his oafish sons, the humour seems more contrived.

“Am I man enough! Venerable trapper, our communications have a recent origin, or thy interrogatory might have a tendency to embroil us in angry disputation. Am I man enough! I claim to be of the class, mammalia; order, primates; genus, homo! Such are my physical attributes; of my moral properties, let posterity speak; it becomes me to be mute.” (Chapter XVII)

Instead, as the text progresses, we find Battius and the trapper engaged in evermore lengthy debates about the nature of knowledge, of science, of culture and readiness for death. Although tinged with comedy, Cooper has clearly put a lot of effort into creating these careful dialogues which I suspect the modern reader mostly skips to get on to the next bit of action, rather as we are inclined to skip the subtleties of the different non-conformist Protestant sects which are carefully delineated in The Pioneers. We see what we want to see and the modern mind, obsessed with sexism and racism and, maybe, environmentalism, sees that everywhere. Living in a post-Christian society means we are mostly blind to the subtlety of the Battius-trapper debates, which – in another era – could easily have formed the core of a review of the book.

2. Paul Hover is the young lover/hero, but he also is often played for laughs. In this vast man’s world, Paul is a bee-keeper, which immediately makes him an odd figure; but Cooper then gives him the comic attribute that more or less every time he opens his mouth, in any situation, whether making love to Ellen or being chased by Indians, he speaks in bee-keeping terminology, about hives and queens and honey and comb and so on. In this he is a carbon copy of Benjamin from The Pioneers, an ex-sailor who referred  to absolutely everything in naval terms. But it doesn’t work here: The Pioneers is a comic novel where you expect to read slowly to savour the comic situations and repartee; Mohicans and Prairie are action-adventure stories and the reader wants everything to be streamlined to emphasise the excitement: both Hover’s apiarism and Battius’s pedantry get in the way.

3. Asa dies Ishmael’s eldest son, Asa, doesn’t return from an expedition to kill game. Ishmael, his wife and sons all go scouting for him and eventually find his body, shot in the back and then horribly disfigured, hidden in a brake of grass. They extract the bullet which has the mark of the trapper on it. They bury Asa and vow vengeance.

3. The secret in the tent The first dozen or so chapters are threaded with a ponderous mystery – Ishmael keeps a tent in his camp separate from the people and goods, a tent which obviously contains some portentous secret – Ellen and the trapper and the Doctor are angrily pushed away by Ishmael whenever they get near it. Gold? Some rare animal? A person? The reader is kept guessing…

4. Duncan Middleton Out of the wilderness arrives an officer, Duncan Uncas Middleton, strolling in on Battius, Hover and the trapper as they are feasting on a bison they have shot and cooked.

a) The trapper is galvanised when the soldier mentions his middle name – Uncas – which is, of course, the name of the younger, more heroic of the two Mohicans in Last of The Mohicans. Duncan is none other than the grandson of the Major Heyward who featured in that novel and ended up marrying one of its two female leads, Alice Munro. As tribute to the young warrior Uncas who died rescuing Alice and her sister, Heyward gave his son the middle name of Uncas and it became a family tradition. The trapper is in tears as he hears all this and as, I imagine, the reader is meant to be.

b) Chapter 15 is devoted to Middleton’s backstory, namely he is an officer in the US Army which recently moved in to hold Louisiana once it was relinquished by its French owners, and he fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a Spanish grandee (the French themselves seized much of this territory from its original Spanish conquerors) – Inez de Certavallos. Although she, her priest, and the father all try to convert Middleton to the Catholic faith, he holds true to his simple Protestant roots, and on this basis they are married. But on the very day of the wedding Inez disappears, to everyone’s horror and consternation. Some time later, Middleton learns from a drunk that she was kidnapped by one Abiram White, a notorious slave trafficker.

Aha. The same Abiram White who is accompanying the Bushes, Ishmael’s wife’s brother! Now we know who is hidden in the tent which Ishmael is at such pains to keep everyone away from – Middleton’s long-lost wife, Inez! And now, while Ishmael and all his sons are away looking for the son who never came back from the hunt (in the scene described above), Dr Battius, Paul Hover, the trapper and Captain Middleton ride up to the rock-top fastness. Here they are confronted by Ellen who promised Ishmael to keep it secure, along with Ishmael’s trigger-happy daughters, but in a comic storming of the rock they make it to the top and liberate Inez from her trap. Middleton and his long-lost wife are reunited.

The plot – part two

From this point onwards, i.e. for the second half of the novel, it becomes a prolonged Chase, reminiscent of the prolonged chases through the New York forest in Mohicans, but this time over the small hills and gullies of the endless, open, exposed prairie.

  • Knowing the Bushes will return and not be happy to find their camp taken, their girls tied up and Inez liberated, our Team (Middleton & Inez, Hover and Ellen, Dr Battius and the trapper) circle away from the rocky camp and head back towards the very clump of reeds where the Bushes found Asa’s body, because that’s the last place they’ll look.
  • Here they uncover an Indian hiding in the reeds who emerges in dignified silence and mounts the horse he summons. He will turn out to be Hard-Heart, legendary chief of the Pawnee tribe, enemy of the Sioux – a man of ‘faultless form, unchanging eye, and lofty mien’ (Ch 28). He converses with the trapper, before setting off back towards his village.

The Pawnee and the Palefaces, illustration

  • Soon afterwards the trapper realises from the sound of thunder and the wave of birds flying towards them that a vast stampede of wild bison is heading directly towards them. The trapper saves them by stepping out in front of the brake of reeds and scaring the leaders either side of it, helped by Middleton and Hover, but it is a close thing, with some strays rampaging through the reeds close to the (as ever) defenceless maidens.
  • Our Team realise the stampede was started by Sioux who have picked off stragglers, as part of their hunting. They watch the Indians approach the brake then the trapper decides to creep round and approach them, exposing himself and trying to distract them from the rest of the Party. The Sioux – or Dahcotas as they call themselves – whoop with pleasure but allow the trapper to have an extended conversation with their leader, Mahtoree.
  • The trapper thinks he is getting somewhere with his distraction when he is disconcerted to see the rest of the Gang – Hover, Middleton, the maidens and Battius – emerging from the reeds behind him. They have seen Ishmael and his posse approaching from the other side and decided the Indians present a better chance of survival.
  • After their initial surprise, the Indians see the settlers approaching looking none too friendly. When the trapper says that the Bushes’ settlement is completely unguarded and ripe for looting and he can show them where it is, Mahtoree has our Team mounted up on spare horses and they all gallop back towards the Tall Rock, Ishmael and his boys firing their rifles at them from just out of range and, of course, having no horses of their own to follow on.
  • In a wordy sequence the trapper manages to persuade the Indians that Battius is a special Medicine Man so that they allow him to straggle a little behind the main posse. At which the trapper instructs the naturalist to make off in a different direction to a secret rendezvous. By this time the Sioux have arrived at the bottom of the Tall Rock, cross that the Medicine Man has disappeared, but about to enjoy some looting. As the Indians dismount and consider how to tackle the rock, not least because Ishmael’s infuriated wife Esther is taking pot shots from above – the trapper signals to the rest of  his gang and they spur their horses (one for the trapper, one carrying Middleton and Inez, one carrying Hover and Ellen) and whoosh, they are gone over a ridge into a gully, up the other side, and have a good lead on the Indians, who on balance, prefer the loot to pursuing the escapees.
  • They ride 20 miles then make a camp as night falls. The trapper has a long argument with Dr Battius where the latter defends civilisation and law and culture and the trapper pours scorn on all of it and laments the wastefulness and folly of the white man who has laid waste the primeval forest, despoiling the work of God and is now invading the plains and bringing with him nothing but waste and folly – “What the world of America is coming to, and where the machinations and inventions of its people are to have an end, the Lord, he only knows…. How much has the beauty of the wilderness been deformed in two short lives!” (Chapter XXIII)
  • As dawn wakes the Team they slowly realise the horizon is very red. It is because a prairie Fire is rampaging towards them. The guys panic, the women bewail their fate, but the trapper makes them pull up all the grass in an area 30 feet around them and then himself lights the grass at the edge of this clearing. The grass takes and burns towards the inferno, thus creating a brake of barren soil and ash around our Heroes. And so the raging fire passes close but not over them. The dazed survivors thank the trapper for saving their life and they head slowly through the ashes towards the nearest river.
The Prairie on Fire by Alvan Fisher (1827)

The Prairie on Fire by Alvan Fisher (1827) showing the trapper (and Hector his dog) Duncan Middleton in green, the beautiful and diminutive Inez with black hair, Ellen Wade and the bee-keeper Paul Hover, with the pedantic naturalist Dr Battius at right

  • They come across an incinerated Bison but are astonished when the corpse starts moving and is then thrown off to reveal the same Pawnee brave they met at the brake the day before, hiding under it. They spared each other then and are friends again now, especially when the trapper tells Hard-Heart that they are pursued by the Pawnees’ enemy, the Sioux.
  • They make quick time to the river where the Indian impressively creates a coracle out of a hide and a few sticks. One by one he ferries the Team across the wide fast river in the coracle tied to his horse. As Dr Battius, characteristically, dithers and discusses the seaworthiness of this little invention, the Sioux posse arrives on the river bank and starts shooting bows and arrows. That decides the naturalist who hops in and they are safely guided to the other shore by the valiant and faithful Pawnee, while our guys on the safe shore take a few shots at the Indians. One lucky shot kills Mahtoree’s horse from under him and this causes confusion and delay.
Hard-Heart steering the coracle containing Inez and Ellen across the river. Illustration by Charles Brock (1900)

Hard-Heart steering the coracle containing Inez and Ellen across the river. Illustration by Charles Brock (1900)

  • Hard-Heart and the trapper agree to head down the river for a while, instead of going in a straight line to the Pawnee village. They make a camp, make beds for the maidens, and then fall asleep. In the morning they awaken to discover that a thick snow has fallen during the night and this, of course, will show the Indians there are no tracks towards the Pawnee village. Barely have they thought this than they spy the Sioux circling carefully towards their hiding place. No point fighting. The trapper stands up and hands himself and his followers over to the delighted Tetons and their mighty leader, Mahtoree. (Chapter XXIV)

The plot – part three

Chapter XXVI Fade out the last scene and fade up on a new setting, a week later. We are in Mahtoree’s Sioux village, a scattering of a hundred teepees near the river. Also camped there are the Bush family with their wagons, uneasy allies of the Sioux. Middleton and Hover have been tied and bound and thrown on the ground, not far from the stake where Hard-Heart has been tied up. The old trapper has been left free to roam (rather like David Gamut in the Huron village in Mohicans). Proud but fickle Mahtoree approaches and commandeers the trapper to accompany him to his teepee and translate his words to the strikingly beautiful Inez, who he wishes to become his wife. The maidens (dark Inez and blonde Ellen) accept Mahtoree’s pledges and he leaves, but not before his distraught (third) Sioux wife first pleads with him to stay loyal to her on account of the little baby boy she bore him only a year previously and, when he haughtily ignores her and sweeps out of the teepee, she takes off all her jewellery and decorations, places them in a pile before Inez, withdraws to a corner in mourning.

Chapter XXVII Emerging from his teepee Mahtoree is confronted by angry Ishmael who demands the trapper translate that he wants his captive (Inez), his niece (Ellen) and the trapper himself to be handed over. Mahtoree smiles, says no way, but, seeing as Ishmael’s wife, Esther, is old and shrivelled, Mahtoree generously offers to give him his own cast-off Sioux wife. The trapper struggles to keep a straight face as he translates this and sure enough, Esther explodes into a rhodomontade of recriminations against savages, her husband, her good-for-nothing sons and men in general. Mahtoree proceeds to a council of Indian elders which is to decide what to do with Hover, Middleton, and especially their enemy, Hard-Heart. They have barely started the debate when Mahtoree asks the Paleface’s medicine man to be brought in, by which they mean Dr Battius, who has been stripped, shaved except for a mohican strip of hair and redressed in Indian warpaint and feathers, so that he looks quite comical

Chapter XXVIII A detailed description of the council of the Dahcota elders at which Mahtoree attempts to whip them up into enmity against their tied-up Pawnee prisoner, but to everyone’s surprise, an extremely old and venerable Indian, known by the name the French gave him back in the day, Le Balafre, laments that he has no son to be a support in his old age and continue his line – and then adopts Hard-Heart as his son – to Mahtoree’s inexpressible anger. But Hard-Heart refuses! The Pawnee cannot become a Sioux. In fact he has already pledged to become the trapper’s son (in an earlier scene, where the trapper pledged to carry word of his death back to his tribe and fetch his beloved colt to his graveside and there kill it so that Hard-Heart – in the manner of the Vikings or the ancient Egyptians – will have a steed to carry him to the Happy Hunting Grounds.) The scene ends in high drama as Mahtoree authorises his creature, a low-hearted Sioux named Weucha, to menace Hard-Heart with a tomahawk, swinging it round his head hoping to make him flinch or beg for mercy, but the noble youth stands undaunted until, with complete surprise, he grabs Weucha’s arm, seizes the tomahawk, embeds it in Weucha’s skull as deep as his eyes, and with a wild whoop, leaps over the aghast Sioux and skids down the slope to the river just as his fellow Pawnees arrive in force!

Chapter XXIX Mahtoree leaves a wicked old Sioux to arm the crones of the tribe and murder the remaining prisoners (Hover and Middleton) but the trapper sets them free, while all the time giving a running commentary on the skirmish of the two tribes down by the river. Meanwhile the Sioux women have packed their teepees and children onto horseback and exited. The old crones are dispersed by the braying of Dr Battius’s donkey (an animal they have never seen before and associate with his Dark Magic) but before the trapper and the boys can stop laughing, a heavy hand is clapped on his shoulder and he discovers Ishmael and his six brothers pointing rifles at them. The trapper, Hover and Middleton are tied and bound, packed up along with Inez and Ellen onto spare horses, and the Bush party heads off in the opposite direction from the Sioux tribe.

Chapter XXX A pitched battle between the Pawnees and the Tetons begins with the opposing chiefs, Hard-Heart and Mahtoree spurring their horses to a sandbank in the middle of the river and having a fierce duel. Hard-Heart’s horse is shot from under him and as he tries to extricate himself from  his fallen horse Mahtoree advances to deal the death blow when Hard-Heart throws a knife which buries itself deep in the other’s body. This is the signal for a massive melee in the river, with the Pawnees fighting the Sious back to their side but themselves being thrown back. But as the Sioux press their advantage and push the Pawnee into the river, shots ring out from the flank and a brace of Sioux braves fall. It is Ishmael and his sons attacking their former enemies. This breaks the Sioux who flee and are massacred mercilessly, Cooper dwelling on several particularly gruesome ends. Boys adventure heaven.

Chapter XXXI Ishmael Bush impresses by acting the judge before his family and his prisoners. (Hard-Heart, who he helped win the battle of the creek, has come in peace to observe proceedings.) He freely admits he was persuaded by his brother-in-law to kidnap Inez and now bitterly regrets it. He announces her set at liberty and also Captain Middleton (whose bounds are therefore cut by his sons). Similarly, he asks Ellen her wish and she tearfully expresses her gratitude to Ishmael for taking her in when no-one else would, but says her heart is set on Paul the bee-man. So Ishmael orders them both set free. Finally he charges the trapper with murdering his son, using the evidence of the bullet found in the body. The trapper calmly says he saw who did it, it was Abiram White. The cowardly murderer immediately overdoes his shouts of innocence and as Ishmael’s boys advance towards him, turns to run, trips and drops dead at their feet. The released prisoners ride off with Hard-Heart.

Chapter XXXII A grim and sombre, melodramatic and Gothic chapter in which the Bush family trundles across the plains in its wagons until it comes to a likely place to camp, and here Ishmael orders Abiram out of his wagon and declares his sentence is to die for the murder he committed and the wretched man pleads and grovels for his life, until Ishmael laments and sets him on a gallows made from a dead tree and a platform of rock, tying his hands so that he will eventually, from weakness, totter off the ledge and be hanged. The wagon train continues and camps further on. But Ishmael can’t rest and walks back, suddenly hearing terrible cries on the wind, blasphemies and crying and then a terrible scream of horror! It reads very much like one of Dickens’s most gruesome scenes of vengeance and the macabre. Ishmael and his wife cut down and bury the wretch, and next day their wagon trail lumbers out of the story.

Chapter XXXIII Hard-Heart and his Pawnees are noble hosts to Middleton, Inez, Hover and Ellen, the Doctor and the trapper. Middleton notes his ‘artillerists’ have arrived and are being treated hospitably. After a few days hospitality, our friends pack up and leave. Hard-Heart declaims a noble speech of friendship. They get into boats lined up along the river and the current bears them away. But they haven’t gone far before the trapper asks to be set ashore on a sandbank. Middleton, Hover, the Doctor all beg him to come with them to ‘the settlements’ where they will make him comfortable. But the old man ‘who has acted his part honestly near ninety winters and summers’ wants nothing to do with ‘the waste and wickedness of the settlements and the villages’. He wants to spend his last days in complete freedom. He asks one favour, that they take a few beaver pelts, sell them in the settlements and buy a new trap which they can send back to the Pawnee village. He gets out with old Hector and asks Captain Middleton if he may borrow his dog who (we learned in the middle of the book) is in fact a descendant of a pup of Hector himself, given to Heyward and Alice decades earlier; Middleton says, Yes of course, take anything. The friends he has guided to safety are all in floods of tears.

He was last seen standing on the low point, leaning on his rifle, with Hector crouched at his feet, and the younger dog frisking along the sands, in the playfulness of youth and vigour.

Chapter XXXIV In the last chapter we see the dignified intelligent Middleton and Inez, and the rougher more boisterously American Hover and Ellen, married and settled. The Autumn of the next year duty takes Middleton close to the Pawnee village and, accompanied by Hover, he makes the journey there to renew friendship. He finds the village attending the dying trapper. Propped in a chair, he is now very weak. His dog, Hector, is dead. He makes the last of his countless sententious and high-minded speeches – pointedly reminding Hard-Heart that he is a Christian white man at the end. Nonetheless, we are reminded that he adopted Hard-Heart as his son in the village of the Sioux, promising to take his last words to his tribe when we all thought the Sioux would execute Hard-Heart; and right to his last breaths his Indian son dutifully obeys and comforts him. Middleton promises to pay for a simple headstone. The old man looks into the glory of ‘an American sunset’ and passes from this world. Not a dry eye in the house. It is a majestic ending.


Native Americans

Cooper’s attitude towards the Indians which feature so prominently in this and the previous novel is multilayered. On the one hand he freely admits the Indians are a ‘wronged and humbled people’, and ‘the lawful owners’ of the land (Ch XXV), which is being stolen from them by the whites (or the ‘Big-Knives’ as they are generally referred to) and who Cooper describes as ‘hungry locusts’ (Ch XXVIII). Hence their understandable antipathy to whitey.

“Could the red nations work their will, trees would shortly be growing again on the ploughed fields of America, and woods would be whitened with Christian bones.” (Chapter XXV)

Yet his hero is also quick enough to criticise and fear the savagery of some tribes and nations – in Mohicans the Iroquois, in this novel, the Sioux. The trapper inhabits a world in which there are hundreds of tribes of Indians, with a wealth of different characteristics and behaviours, themselves locked in a bewildering complex of inter-tribal wars and alliances. Through this world he has learned to pick his way. To us, nearly 200 years later looking back, there is just ‘the tragedy of the Indians’, driven off their land in a succession of betrayals and massacres, hemmed into ‘reservations’, and condemned to alcoholism and extinction. But reading Cooper makes you aware that, at the time, the Indians were equal players over vast parts of the continent, their war bands as powerful or more than the settlers who encroached, perfectly capable of massacring even full army units (like General Braddock’s in 1755 or General Custer’s 111 years later) let alone isolated bands of white settlers.

In this semi-embattled context, what stands out is not Cooper’s criticisms of, but his repeated admiration for, the native traditions and culture of some of the Indian tribes. After all, the closest friend and confidante of Leatherstocking to the end of his life is Chingachgook, the ‘Mohican’. And here is Cooper’s sterling depiction of Hard-Heart, the Pawnee chief, who Leatherstocking ends up adopting as his son, and who tends to his last days:

The Indian in question was in every particular a warrior of fine stature and admirable proportions. As he cast aside his mask, composed of such party-coloured leaves, as he had hurriedly collected, his countenance appeared in all the gravity, the dignity, and, it may be added, in the terror of his profession. The outlines of his lineaments were strikingly noble, and nearly approaching to Roman, though the secondary features of his face were slightly marked with the well-known traces of his Asiatic origin. The peculiar tint of the skin, which in itself is so well designed to aid the effect of a martial expression, had received an additional aspect of wild ferocity from the colours of the war-paint. But, as if he disdained the usual artifices of his people, he bore none of those strange and horrid devices, with which the children of the forest are accustomed, like the more civilised heroes of the moustache, to back their reputation for courage, contenting himself with a broad and deep shadowing of black, that served as a sufficient and an admirable foil to the brighter gleamings of his native swarthiness. His head was as usual shaved to the crown, where a large and gallant scalp-lock seemed to challenge the grasp of his enemies. The ornaments that were ordinarily pendant from the cartilages of his ears had been removed, on account of his present pursuit. His body, notwithstanding the lateness of the season, was nearly naked, and the portion which was clad bore a vestment no warmer than a light robe of the finest dressed deer-skin, beautifully stained with the rude design of some daring exploit, and which was carelessly worn, as if more in pride than from any unmanly regard to comfort. His leggings were of bright scarlet cloth, the only evidence about his person that he had held communion with the traders of the Pale-faces. But as if to furnish some offset to this solitary submission to a womanish vanity, they were fearfully fringed, from the gartered knee to the bottom of the moccasin, with the hair of human scalps. He leaned lightly with one hand on a short hickory bow, while the other rather touched than sought support, from the long, delicate handle of an ashen lance. A quiver made of the cougar skin, from which the tail of the animal depended, as a characteristic ornament, was slung at his back, and a shield of hides, quaintly emblazoned with another of his warlike deeds, was suspended from his neck by a thong of sinews. (Chapter XVIII)

The noble and the distasteful are mingled, for the chief has the scalps of his enemies attached to his leggings – just as Uncas is an undoubted hero in Mohicans and yet unnecessarily murders the French sentry to get his scalp – because it is the way of his people. All this Hawkeye notes, regrets, but knows he cannot change. Their land, their customs. You can’t say, their land, their customs, except the ones I don’t like and which I’m going to change – that’s what the Christian missionaries said, and the government lawyers and the Sunday schoolmarms, to the Indians’ ruination.

Even in enemy Indians, Leatherstocking respects their unbending dignity and stoicism. He recalls to Middleton the silence of the Indian desperately clinging to a bush over a vast waterfall, who he shot and who plunged to his silence (during the siege of Glens Falls in Last of The Mohicans).

Cooper had met and talked to Indians in the country around his hometown in New York state and then further afield, so he had more experience of Native Americans than any of us. According to some historians, Cooper’s Indian novels are the single most influential source of later Western cultural ideas about Native Americans. This is a heavy burden to bear, and we know that he was inaccurate in many aspects of the names and histories of the tribes he describes. But overwhelmingly, Cooper’s image of the Indian is positive, endlessly repeating the idea that they were noble, dignified, stoic, restrained, physically beautiful specimens of humanity, awesomely in tune with their environment and the beasts in it.

During this rude interruption to the discourse, the young Pawnee manifested neither impatience nor displeasure; but when he thought his beast had been the subject of sufficient comment, he very coolly, and with the air of one accustomed to have his will respected, relieved Paul of the bridle, and throwing the reins on the neck of the animal, he sprang upon his back, with the activity of a professor of the equestrian art. Nothing could be finer or firmer than the seat of the savage. The highly wrought and cumbrous saddle was evidently more for show than use. Indeed it impeded rather than aided the action of limbs, which disdained to seek assistance, or admit of restraint from so womanish inventions as stirrups. The horse, which immediately began to prance, was, like its rider, wild and untutored in all his motions, but while there was so little of art, there was all the freedom and grace of nature in the movements of both. (Chapter XVIII)

‘All the freedom and grace of nature’, wow.

Cooper’s environmentalism

Whatever we modern and impeccably politically correct readers make of Cooper’s attitudes to the Indians, there is no doubting his contempt for the white settlers and farmers, who his hero sees as unambiguously bad thing. If Cooper is racist, it is directed at white people. Their despoliation of the beautiful natural American environment is not only wasteful and ruinous, though that is bad enough – in defacing the wonderful works of the Creator, the activity of most white people is actively blasphemous.

“… it will not be long before an accursed band of choppers and loggers will be following on their heels, to humble the wilderness which lies so broad and rich on the western banks of the Mississippi, and then the land will be a peopled desert, from the shores of the main sea to the foot of the Rocky Mountains; fill’d with all the abominations and craft of man, and stript of the comforts and loveliness it received from the hands of the Lord!” (Chapter XVIII)

The beauty of unspoilt America, the nobility and manliness of its finest natives, and the wicked, wasteful, ungodly ways of its white settlers – these are the bedrock themes of these novels, emphasised again and again and again.

Cooper’s style

‘Long-winded’ does not begin to convey the circumlocutory nature of Cooper’s periphrastic periods.

While the exterior of the naturalist was decidedly pacific, not to say abstracted, that of the new comer was distinguished by an air of vigour, and a front and step which it would not have been difficult to have at once pronounced to be military. (Chapter x)

As Dr Battius is sneaking towards the secret tent, he is terrified to feel a hand on his shoulder and a whispered enquiry, and…

So soon as the heart of the naturalist had returned from its hasty expedition into his throat, as one less skilled than Dr. Battius in the formation of the animal would have been apt to have accounted for the extraordinary sensation with which he received this unlooked-for interruption, he found resolution to reply… (Chapter XI)

Cooper is self-aware. He even calls his own hero ‘prolix’, as he sets off on another long rambling sententious exordium about the nature of ‘the savage’… But you take the rough with the smooth in a book as old as this, and at other moments his 200-year-old style is rhetorically effective; some of the natural descriptions remind us of the school of American landscape painters which his work inspired. Here are our boys looking up at the tent on top of the high rock, as a gust of wind sweeps past them.

… a rushing blast of wind swept by the spot where they stood, raising the dust in little eddies, in its progress; and then, as if guided by a master hand, it quitted the earth, and mounted to the precise spot on which all eyes were just then riveted. The loosened linen felt its influence and tottered; but regained its poise, and, for a moment, it became tranquil. The cloud of leaves next played in circling revolutions around the place, and then descended with the velocity of a swooping hawk, and sailed away into the prairie in long straight lines, like a flight of swallows resting on their expanded wings. (Chapter XIII)

The wind blowing a gust of leaves across the open plain like swallows on the wing – not bad! So the long-winded style works quite often (and just as well in such a very long book).

For earlier generations Leatherstocking was an archetypal figure, a legend of the frontier. But for readers in the 21st century, I think the books’ power comes from the sheer variety of scenes, settings and characters which they contain – the stampede of bison, the prairie fire, crossing the river under fire from the Indians, all these scenes join the deep forests, the high mountains, the thundering waterfalls and hidden caves of the earlier books, and through all of them stride the haunting figures of the noble Indians, true ‘owners’ of the land.

The Leatherstocking books give you a powerful sense of what life must have been like, 200 years ago, in a world we can’t really imagine – or wouldn’t be able to without the lengthy, sometimes verbose, but amazingly varied, often powerful and vivid descriptions of this classic novelist.


Credit

I read the 1987 American Penguin edition, which has a useful introduction by Blake Nevius but, alas, no notes. The central point he makes is that the novels’ fundamental structure is the ‘romance’, an idea stretching back 2,000 years to the New Comedy of the Romans, which places a boy meets girl romance at the centre of a narrative – more often pairing two pairs of boys and girls, to give variety and contrast. The tradition goes right through Shakespeare whose comedies generally feature a pair of couples (think of Demetrius & Hermia, Lysander & Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Orlando & Rosalind, Oliver & Celia in As You Like It) and on into the 18th century novel which is, classically, about wooing and wedding (whether taken seriously in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or played for laughs as in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones). Thus both Mohicans and The Prairie feature a couple of couples: in The Prairie the more working class, rumbustious pair of plain-speaking Paul Hover and bosomy Ellen Ward are set against the aristocratic dignity of the virtually unspeaking Inez – a sort of doll or icon of femininity – and the intelligent, dignified officer Middleton who is the right sort of stuffed-shirt character to receive the trapper’s final words and wishes right at the novel’s end. Mohicans has the upmarket Alice, eventually married to Major Heyward, contrasted with the more ample-figured i.e bosomy, Cora. Since she has to die so does Uncas, in a big slab of tearjerking 18th century sentimentality.

Dressing up and disguises feature prominently in this comic tradition and partly explain the silly bear and beaver costumes in Last of the Mohicans or the ludicrous makeover Dr Battius receives to turn him into an Indian medicine man.

But the novel adds to this love-interest-with-disguises basic recipe a wealth of new influences, most obviously The Chase – hunt, pursuit, capture, rescue – and Landscape. After the trapper has established the Bushes on their rocktop encampment, the rest of the novel is just a sequence of interlocking chases, pursuits, perils and escapes. And these are not only exciting in themselves but allow for variety of scenery – open plain, firestorm, bison stampede, river battle, snowfall, Indian camp.

Nevius asserts that readers of Cooper often struggle to remember the details of plot – but they always remember the vivid brilliant pictures that Cooper creates in our minds’ eyes.

Related links

The five Leatherstocking novels

1823 The Pioneers – The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale
1826 The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757
1827 The Prairie – A Tale
1840 The Pathfinder – The Inland Sea
1841 The Deerslayer – The First War Path

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (1826)

The Indian [Magua] laughed tauntingly, as he held up his reeking hand, and answered: “It is red, but it comes from white veins!”
“Monster! there is blood, oceans of blood, upon thy soul; thy spirit has moved this scene.” [said Cora]
“Magua is a great chief!” returned the exulting savage, “will the dark-hair go to his tribe?”
“Never! strike if thou wilt, and complete thy revenge.” He hesitated a moment, and then catching the light and senseless form of Alice in his arms, the subtle Indian moved swiftly across the plain toward the woods.
“Hold!” shrieked Cora, following wildly on his footsteps; “release the child! wretch! what is’t you do?” (Chapter 17)

The Last of The Mohicans is the second in James Fenimore Cooper’s series of ‘Leatherstocking’ novels, so called because they all feature the tall, honest frontiersman and friend of the Indians, Nathaniel ‘Natty’ Bumppo, also known as Leatherstocking, Hawkeye and the Deerslayer, among other nicknames.

The first in the series, The Pioneers, is an essentially comic novel set in a small settler village in upstate New York at Christmas 1793 and then through the year of 1794. In it we meet a cross-section of the settlement’s comic characters and Leatherstocking, the wizened 70-year-old who lives apart from society in a hut in the woods with his devoted Indian friend, Chingachgook, now known as ‘Indian John’, also 70 or so years old and feeling his age. At the end of The Pioneers Chingachgook dies and Leatherstocking ups sticks and heads west into the wilderness.

In this review I will give:

  • a detailed account of the historical background to the novel
  •  a summary of the plot, which also contains digressions about:
    • Cooper’s treatment of Native Americans
    • Cooper’s melodramatic style and use of comedy
The last of the Mohicans by N.C. Wyeth (1919)

The last of the Mohicans by N.C. Wyeth (1919)

Historical background

Last of the Mohicans takes us back forty years before The Pioneers, to the 1750s. It is a true ‘historical novel’ in the sense that it is set against actual historical events. As the 1750s opened the French possessed the territory they called ‘New France’, roughly all of present day Eastern Canada, centred on the long St Lawrence Waterway which penetrates the continent from the Atlantic at Newfoundland towards the Great Lakes. Along the St Lawrence they had built the towns of Quebec and Montreal.

The French lived mostly as hunters and traders and got on well with the Indians of the area. During the 1750s the French government of King Louis XV asked their military forces to penetrate into the area of the River Ohio with a view to connecting up to the Mississippi and the vast territories bordering the river as it flows south towards the Gulf of Mexico, the huge expanse the French called Louisiana.

The British owned the Thirteen Colonies which lined the Atlantic seaboard. These settlers were mostly farmers who had carved out great swathes of agricultural land, with the focal points of towns and even cities  – such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore – where goods were traded and the usual urban trades practised. The British regions were much more densely populated than the French, with a settled population of maybe 1 million compared to Canada’s 100,000. During the 1750s British settlers were pushing westwards and north from the seaboard and this brought them into regular contact with French forces – militias, settlers, allied Indians – in the woods of upstate New York.

The French claimed possession of Lake Champlain which runs north-south towards the Lawrence river; at its southern end, beyond narrow rapids, Champlain broadens out into a smaller lake the British named Lake George. At the north end of the lake the French built Fort Carillon, the southernmost limit of their official influence. At the southern tip of Lake George, the British built Fort William Henry. Fifteen or so miles south of the lake runs the River Hudson, the river which flows south to eventually form one side of Manhattan Island, New York, one of Britain’s main towns. At the nearest point of the river to the lake, the British built Fort Edward.

On 13 July 1755, a force of British regular soldiers, irregular colonial militia and friendly Indians, marching into the interior to attack a French fort called Fort Duquesne and led by General Braddock, was ambushed and massacred by French soldiers and Indians. From that moment on hostilities between the two countries intensified, with the French ordering their Indian allies to carry out savage attacks on isolated farmsteads, killing all the settlers unless they needed to carry off some of the women to become slaves.

Formal war between the two opposing forces’ national governments was only declared on 17 May 1756. This was to become known as the ‘Seven Years War’ and was fought not only in North America, but in the West Indies, India and in central Europe. In America it is known by historians as the ‘French and Indian Wars’, since these were the opponents of the British and the colonists.

It was a year before French forces decided to go on the offensive. In August 1757 the French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm led a massive force of 6,200 regulars and militia and 1,800 allied Indians south from his base at Fort Carillon to besiege Fort William Henry. The fort’s British (actually Scottish) commander, Lieutenant Colonel George Munro, had some 2,500 regulars and militia under his command. As the fort was surrounded, he sent a messenger to Fort Edward, a day’s march south, to ask Brigadier General Daniel Webb for reinforcements.

It is at this point that the narrative of Last of the Mohicans begins.

Major Heyward, David Gamut, Cora and Alice taken prisoner by the Indians after the fight at Glenn's Falls, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

Major Heyward (in redcoat), Cora and Alice and David Gamut (in the front of the canoe) after they’ve been taken prisoner by the Indians after the fight at Glenn’s Falls. Illustration by N.C. Wyeth (1919)

The plot

Though there is a lot of incident, the basic idea of this 400-page novel is Maidens in Peril. Bluff old Colonel Munro is made to have two nubile daughters, Alice and Cora, and through all the twists and turns of the plot, Cooper contrives to put them both in harm’s way again and again, in order to thrill, excite and scarify the reader.

Since the main danger to the maidens comes from ‘savage’ Indians, the threat combines the basic male one against any woman i.e. assault and rape – with the added ‘horror’ of miscegenation and unspeakable degradation by ‘primitives’. It is like a silent black-and-white movie, where the baddy ties the blonde heroine to the railroad tracks and the camera cuts away to the train steaming towards the helpless maiden. ‘Oh my God! Help help the poor woman!!’ More or less that scene occurs again and again, as Cooper milks the basic scenario for all he can.

The two sisters start the story at Fort Edward. Colonel Munro has requested (rather foolishly) that they be sent to him at Fort William Henry, so they set off north accompanied by dashing young Major Heyward of the British army. They are accompanied by a comic character, the gangling David Gamut, who is a caricature of a psalm-singing New England Puritan. (The first thing any adaptation of the book does, is lose this uncomfortable and not very effective comic figure.) They are guided by a fierce-looking Indian named Magua, known to the French as ‘le Renard Subtil’ i.e the Sly Fox. Magua recommends they travel by back paths through the woods and Heyward slowly begins to suspect he is taking them into danger…

The treacherous Magua leading Major Heyward, Cora and Alice through the forest. Illustration by Karl Mühlmeister (1920)

The treacherous Magua leading Major Heyward, Cora and Alice through the forest. Illustration by Karl Mühlmeister (1920)

Suddenly, by complete accident, the group comes to a stream where they encounter the hero of the novel, the tall rugged frontiersman, Nathaniel ‘Natty’ Bumppo, known throughout this book as Hawkeye, but who we know from The Pioneers as Leatherstocking. He is in the company of a Mohican Indian, Chingachgook, and his son, Uncas. After Hawkeye confronts him, Magua flees into the forest and Hawkeye takes over charge of the party.

Native Americans 

The nature of the Native Americans, their alliances and enmities, as well as many aspects of their culture(s), are dwelt on at length throughout the book, but remain quite confusing; in fact, a reading of any essay about the book quickly reveals that Cooper was wrong about many of his Indian facts. For a start, it is striking to learn that he even gets the name of the key tribe wrong: there were no ‘Mohicans’; there was a Mohawk tribe, but Cooper is presumably referring to the tribe usually called the ‘Mohegans’. (The Oxford University Press edition I read includes a 25-page essay about the novel’s historical context which seeks to unravel many of Cooper’s confusions.)

For the fictional purposes of the novel, Chingachgook and Uncas are ‘Mohicans’, which is a tribe of the larger Delaware ‘nation’. The Delaware nation is perceived as good, although, on closer examination, they seem to be divided among themselves. Broadly, though, the Delawares are allied to the British. The opponents of the Delaware are variously referred to as the Iroquois (a French term covering the nations which inhabited most of New York state), which Cooper (inaccurately) makes include tribes he calls the Mingos, the Mohawks or Maquas, as well as the quite separate Hurons. In the 1670s the Delaware had been defeated by the aggressive and well-organised Iroquois and degenerated to become a serving nation. This explains why Uncas and Chingachgooks are routinely insulted as ‘women’ by boastful Magua, one of the commonest insults the Indians use among themselves.

Whereas the Mohicans are portrayed as good savages i.e noble, dignified, courteous and considerate of women (the manly young Uncas developing quite a romantic attachment for the maidenly young Cora), their opponents, epitomised by the rapacious Magua, are bad savages, violent, careless of death, happy to slaughter children or drag women off to their camps to become slave squaws.

1. The notes to the OUP edition tell us that Cooper took a lot of his knowledge about Indians from a contemporary book by the Reverend John Heckewelder, An Account of the History, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations published in 1819, which was misleadingly favourable to the Delawares – a bias reflected throughout the novel and in later books in the series.

2. But Cooper added his own misunderstandings about names to Heckwelder’s distortions and it requires quite a lot of study to disentangle the confusions he added. 3. The OUP essay then adds another layer of complexity by pointing out that Cooper was projecting back into the 1750s the allegiances of Indian tribes during the American Revolutionary War, over twenty years later (1777-83). In that time the situation had changed a lot and the Indian alliances (i.e. who the British as friend and foe) were complex and different from those of the Seven Years War. 4. A fourth layer is added because Cooper is writing half a century or more after both those events and, in many ways, the novel uses Indian characters and situations to reflect the interest and issues of his own time, the 1820s, which was itself deeply mired in controversy about how the young American government should handle the surviving Indian tribes.

Cooper’s Indian novels have at least four levels of knowledge, nomenclature and interpretation laid over each other in the text, quite apart from basic errors of fact. So unravelling the ‘true’ historical situation of the Native Americans from Cooper’s often deliberately vague or plain wrong depictions is tricky and probably pointless. For the purposes of enjoying the book as an adventure story, we really only need to know that Uncas and Chingachgook are Mohicans and (along with most of the Delawares) are good, while Magua and his Huron tribe are bad.

Glens Falls

Realising the woods are full of Magua’s allies, Hawkeye leads the party to a complex of caves and islands in the middle of spectacular waterfalls on the Hudson river, Glen’s Falls (an actual place you can still visit). Here the party hide out but are discovered by Magua and his fellow Indians who besiege our heroes and the terrified maidens, who are cowering in the back of the cave. There’s an extended shootout but when our guys realise they are surrounded, Hawkeye is reluctantly persuaded to take his two Mohican friends, slip into the river and swim away to safety, leaving Heyward, Gamut and the maidens at the mercy of the Hurons.

Magua and his Indians find the foursome hiding in their cave, take them in a canoe downriver and then by horseback across country for miles towards a hilltop. Here Magua explains his plans, which is to torture them all to death. He explains the reason for his unflinching malevolence is that, although he once was once one of the Indians allied to Colonel Munro, he allowed himself to get drunk and as punishment the Colonel order him to be publicly flogged. Now he has Munro’s daughters in his power and he is going to kill them and thus let the world know that he is a real man!

Appalled, Major Heyward bursts free of his bonds and begins fighting with the nearest Indian when – bang! a shot rings out and the savage falls dead. Hawkeye and his two Mohicans burst into the clearing shooting and swinging tomahawks, quickly despatching most of the savages until the fight concentrates on the two figures of Chingachgook and Magua rolling on the ground.

Fighting Indians by N.C. Wyeth

Magua and Chingachgook fighting, after Leatherstocking (standing) and Uncas (next to him) have come to the rescue of Major Heyward (in the redcoat) and the two ladies (not pictured). Illustration by N.C. Wyeth (1919)

Magua manages to wriggle free and throws himself off the edge of the small plateau they’re on, and bounds off into the woodland before the others can lift a rifle. Hawkeye now takes charge of the team and leads them by secret forest paths to a spooky and deserted homestead in a clearing. Once again, they have barely hidden themselves when, in the dead of night, Heyward, the Indians and Hawkeye hear Magua and the baddies creeping closer. Luckily – in a spectral and effective scene – the Hurons come across burial mounds of Indians who had died in an earlier battle for the building and they, superstitiously, retreat back into the forest.

Next morning Hawkeye leads the party safely north to Fort William Henry. It is, by this stage, completely surrounded by the French forces of General Montcalm, but Cooper conjures up a convenient mist which allows our heroes to evade the French patrols and enter the fort (though not without some exciting shouting and shooting in the dense fog). There is a tearful reunion between the craggy old Colonel and his two lassies.

Next day Heyward parleys with General Montcalm, portrayed as civilised and urbane. Montcalm shows a letter his scouts have intercepted, sent by Webb back at Fort Edward, saying he daren’t risk sending reinforcements against such a superior French force – in other words, Webb has abandoned Munro. There is nothing to be done: Munro himself comes out under a white flag to tender the surrender of the fort to his French adversary.

The massacre at Fort William Henry

There follows the centrepiece of the novel and one of the most notorious incidents of the French and Indian Wars, a true event which reverberates down the ages to our time. Montcalm generously allowed the British soldiers, American militia and Indian allies to leave the fort, with their flags and unloaded weapons. Among the 2,300 who surrendered were some 300 women and children. But Montcalm’s many Indian allies were only fighting for scalps i.e. honour and for plunder, not for obscure French strategic and geographical advantage. They didn’t understand the idea of surrender, let alone allowing the enemy to walk away with his guns.

On the morning when the British were due to leave the fort, the Indians first attacked the hospital full of British wounded, which was outside the fort, killing and scalping all its inhabitants. Then as the long column of surrendering and unarmed soldiers departed from the fort, menacing Indians moved in on either side until they began to intimidate, then attack the column. There are several eye-witness accounts that the first victim was a baby, plucked from its mother’s arms and then smashed against a rock, so the Indian could secure its brightly coloured blanket. At that point all hell broke loose and the Indians began a general massacre of the refugees. Some of the French soldiers intervened but not very effectively. When the Indians desisted, sated with scalps and booty, maybe 200 of the column had been murdered and scalped, and nearly 300 were taken away as hostages, only to be ransomed much later by the colonial authorities.

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Montcalm trying to stop Native Americans from attacking British soldiers and civilians as they leave Fort William Henry. Wood engraving by Alfred Bobbett after a painting of Felix Octavius Carr Darley (late 19th century, and looking very much like an illustration of Dickens)

Cooper uses this atrocity as the focal point and axis of the novel. In the first half Hawkeye, Heyward, Gamut and the ladies are travelling (unwittingly) towards it and what they think is safety in numbers; in the second half they are fleeing the scene amid heightened dangers all around them, and are now very much on their own.

Conveniently, he has Hawkeye and the two Mohicans off scouting away from the fort when the surrender is signed and the defeated Brits exit to the fort to be massacred. This means the imaginative/emotional focus is on the defenceless maidens, Cora and Alice, cowering together amid the general mayhem. At which point Magua, like the devil himself, springs up before them, seizes young Cora and runs off with Alice in pursuit. As Hawkeye later points out:

“Ha! that rampaging devil again! there will never be an end of his loping till ‘killdeer’ has said a friendly word to him.” (Chapter 18)

‘Killdeer’ being Hawkeye’s name for his especially long rifle. Thus the most important result of the massacre at Fort William Henry, for the novel, is that Cora and Alice are abducted by the wicked Magua: they are a) spared from being murdered, but only b) to be threatened with a fate worse than death i.e. becoming slave squaws to a ‘savage beast’.

Melodrama

How many hundreds of thousand of narratives, in novels, plays, poems, magazines, short stories and movies, depend on the pretty, nubile young woman/women being held hostage by the baddy (and the more ‘primitive’, ‘savage’, base and cruel the baddy the better, whether they have black, red or yellow skins), preferably leering and leching over the pure, virginal body of the chaste, white woman, half of whose clothes have fallen off in the struggle!

Well, this is a classic early specimen of the genre. Almost as hard to take as the cheesy action, is the often very stagey, melodramatic, over-the-top tone & diction Cooper uses throughout the book and which rises to histrionic heights at the (frequent) moment of high emotion and jeopardy. As an example of the prose style, here are the maidens at a later point of the story, when they’ve been rescued from yet another fate-worse-than-death.

We shall not attempt to describe the gratitude to the Almighty Disposer of Events which glowed in the bosoms of the sisters, who were thus unexpectedly restored to life and to each other. Their thanksgivings were deep and silent; the offerings of their gentle spirits burning brightest and purest on the secret altars of their hearts; and their renovated and more earthly feelings exhibiting themselves in long and fervent though speechless caresses. As Alice rose from her knees, where she had sunk by the side of Cora, she threw herself on the bosom of the latter, and sobbed aloud the name of their aged father, while her soft, dove-like eyes, sparkled with the rays of hope.
“We are saved! we are saved!” she murmured; “to return to the arms of our dear, dear father, and his heart will not be broken with grief. And you, too, Cora, my sister, my more than sister, my mother; you, too, are spared. And Duncan,” she added, looking round upon the youth with a smile of ineffable innocence, “even our own brave and noble Duncan has escaped without a hurt.”
To these ardent and nearly innocent words Cora made no other answer than by straining the youthful speaker to her heart, as she bent over her in melting tenderness. The manhood of Heyward felt no shame in dropping tears over this spectacle of affectionate rapture; and Uncas stood, fresh and blood-stained from the combat, a calm, and, apparently, an unmoved looker-on, it is true, but with eyes that had already lost their fierceness, and were beaming with a sympathy that elevated him far above the intelligence, and advanced him probably centuries before, the practises of his nation. (Chapter 12)

In the introduction to the Oxford University Press edition, John McWilliams makes the point that Cooper’s subject matter and his style are often distinctly at odds. On the one hand, his style is sometimes so very high-falutin’ and sanctimonious, so crammed with expressions of piety and high-minded sentimentality, that it’s difficult to make out what’s actually happening. On other occasions he suddenly, out of nowhere, as it were, vividly describes the most brutal and bloody scenes. For example:

  • As our heroes sneak towards the fort they encounter an isolated French sentry: Heyward successfully speaks to him in French and the white men pass on but then they hear a groan and realise that Uncas has killed and scalped the sentry, unnecessarily – except by the ‘honour’ of his own Indian code.
  • After our heroes have massacred the Indians on the hillside as they were about to start torturing their captives, Hawkeye goes round each of the Indian bodies thrusting his knife deep into their chests, just to make sure.
  • Worst of all, is the sudden eruption in the generally gaseous prose of the all-too-vivid description of the baby being torn from its mother’s arms and having its head smashed to a pulp by the attacking Indian at the start of the massacre scene.

There is a permanent incongruity about this novel, between the would-be European civilised prose, and the backwoods brutality moments it depicts.

Something as effortful is going on with two other notable features of the text: 1. the extensive footnotes and 2. the epigraphs to each chapter.

Each chapter opens with a few lines quoted from Shakespeare or Pope or Byron or some other luminary of English Literature. It is hard to see what purpose these serve except to borrow their authority while at the same time flattering the reader, that they are keeping company with such high-toned classics.

Similarly, the text is studded with notes Cooper added to the 1831 edition of the book and all later editions include, footnotes which give distracting factual commentary on random aspects of the book. For example, in the middle of the gripping canoe chase across Lake George Cooper inserts a factual note describing the number and shape of lakes in New York State. Elsewhere he gives us paragraphs about the American mocking-bird, or explaining that the spot where our heroes rest to drink fresh springwater is now the location of the pleasant village of Ballston. And so on.

Cooper knows he is playing to a European readership, that for most of them his books are the only ones about America they will read, and so he is at pains both to raise the tone of his story – with literary references and the highest of high styles – as well as bolstering it, giving it extra kudos and a veneer of factual authority, with (generally irrelevant and distracting) footnotes.

Rescuing the maidens

Most of the second half of the novel consists of the attempts by the five men – Hawkeye, old Colonel Munro, Major Heyward, and the two Mohicans, Chingachgook and Uncas – to rescue the virginal white women from the clutches of the wicked Mingos or Hurons or whichever Magua is the leader of (the names change). A few days after the massacre, the five men return to the field of corpses and to the charred ruins of the fort (which had been torched then abandoned by the French, who set off back north to their base in Canada, mission accomplished). After Uncas kills a stray Huron Indian who was spying on them in the night, next morning the five set off by canoe up Lake George heading in the direction they think Magua will have taken. On the lake they are spotted by enemy Indians and an exciting canoe chase ensues.

Hawkeye takes a shot by N.C.Wyeth

Hawkeye shoots at pursuing Indians. Illustration by N.C.Wyeth (1919)

Our heroes get away, not least because Hawkeye shoots one of the pursuers. They beach the canoe and head for the main trail heading north to Canada. Here they pick up the trail of the Indians carrying Cora, Lucy and Gamut (displaying their ace Indian tracking skills) in scenes which allow Cooper to show off his understanding of the woodcraft of Native Americans.

Comedy in the Indian village

Heyward and Hawkeye come across what they think is an Indian in the woods, but then realise is only the innocent Gamut. He is looking out over a plain by a dammed lake, covered in habitations in and out of which objects are popping. Is it the Indian village? Nope; Hawkeye, Heyward and Gamut all realise at the same moment that it is a camp of beaver dens by a lake they’ve created. Comedy!

More seriously, Gamut brings Hawkeye and Heyward up to date: they are near Magua’s Indians’ camp; the Indians divided their captives, Cora being kept at the nearby Indian village, Alice being sent to a neighbouring tribe over the hills; Magua’s Indians have allowed Gamut to live, clothed him in Indian garb and let him roam free because they regard him as a sort of holy innocent because of his spirited singing of psalms.

Heyward decides on the spot to go and rescue Cora. He comes up with a cockamamie idea of getting himself painted up as an Indian medicine man, Hawkeye tries to talk him out of it, Heyward is adamant and so Chingachgook paints him with Indian paints. Then Heyward accompanies Gamut into the Indian village. This commences a long and intense description of an Indian village, complete with bawling children, intimidating elders, fiery warriors and wizened old squaws. Surprisingly, improbably, Heyward is accepted as a French doctor sent by their ‘father’, Montcalm, to treat the villagers.

Doubt about him is superseded, when Magua enters (as he regularly does whenever the novel needs a kick of adrenalin) with a captive, none other than Uncas, who has been lured into an ambush after a brief fight. Uncas is tried by the elders and condemned to be executed the next morning. In the general rowdiness surrounding his arrival, Heyward-as-medicine-man is shown up a hillside into a cave where a sick woman of the tribe is lying and told to cure her. The Indians leave. Gamut (who has accompanied him) now tells Heyward that Cora is lying in an adjacent cave. There is a tearful reunion. But he has barely clasped the panting maiden to his manly bosom before there is a tap on his shoulder and… It is Magua (again) laughing at catching him red-handed.

Except that (and this is a glaring example of Cooper’s odd use of comedy; in the overwhelmingly comic novel The Pioneers it was at home but here, in an adventure story, it often rings very strangely – no wonder the whole Gamut character and these kinds of scenes were dropped from the movie) Heyward and the Indian who took him there were both followed into the cave by a bear. A bear. Or, as it turns out, a man wearing a bear outfit. For Magua has no sooner confronted Heyward than the ‘bear’ taps him on the shoulder and then grapples him in an arm lock while the astonished Heyward leaps into action and ties Magua up with twenty types of cord and binding. The ‘bear’ takes its false head off to reveal… Hawkeye! He came across the Indians’ medicine man climbing into this bear outfit ready for some Indian ceremony, at a remote part of the village, and knocked him out and stole the costume. Handy!

Hawkeye, dressed as a bear, wrestles with Magua, while Heyward and Cora look on. 1896 illustration by F.T. Merrill

Hawkeye, dressed as a bear, wrestles with Magua, while Major Heyward and Cora look on. 1896 illustration by F.T. Merrill

Heyward picks up the swooning Cora and they and the bear-man make their way outside. Hawkeye gives them directions to a neutral Indian village over the hill, where they’ll be safe, and then returns to the village to rescue Uncas. He is still wearing his bear costume. He collects Gamut from his teepee, and together they approach the lodge where Uncas is being kept.

How do you help a captive of the bad guys to escape? This is a problem which has been presented & solved in thousands and thousands of thrillers, comics, movies and TV shows. Cooper’s solution is you get the Indian guards to wait outside by persuading them that the medicine man dressed as a bear is going to go in and cast a cowardice spell on the Mohican captive. The Hurons stand aside. Hawkeye and Gamut enter. They identify themselves to the relieved Uncas and persuade him to step into the bear outfit, while Hawkeye swaps clothes with Gamut. (Now the existence of Gamut as a character, and the fact that he’s so tall and gangly – just like Hawkeye – finally make sense! His existence in the novel and his appearance have all been to allow this rather cheesy escape plan!)

Hawkeye and Uncas-as-a-bear emerge and pass by the suspicious guards and past several other Indians who confront them in the darkness of the Indian village night; but (more comedy) Hawkeye does a (dreadful) impersonation of Gamut singing his holy psalms and the Indians – used to the mad white man – let them pass. Once beyond the village, Uncas wriggles out of the bear suit, they pick up the guns Hawkeye hid under a bush, and are free!

Doesn’t take long for the Indians to go back into the lodge and discover that Gamut has been left in place of Uncas who has escaped! The bear man is implicated. So the Indians go up to the cave where the bear man was meant to cure the sick squaw, only to discover a) she is dead b) Cora is gone c) Magua tied up and gagged.

They cut Magua free and he is not happy at all. Back in the council tent he harangues the tribe about vengeance and death and then goes to lower in his own tent, explicitly compared to Milton’s Satan, brooding on the wrongs done him. At dawn he leads a troop of warriors to kill or capture Hawkeye and Uncas. On the way they pass the beaver colony mentioned above. Since one of the Indians belongs to the ‘beaver clan’ he stops to say a prayer to them. The Indians notice one particularly intelligent-looking beaver observing them, then run on. This beaver emerges from its hide, stands and shakes off its beaver pelt to reveal – none other than Chingachgook in disguise!

This is like a Christmas panto! It is easy to criticise Cooper for his ‘racist’ stereotyping of Native Americans or his ‘sexist’ stereotyping of swooning women – but those were just the values of his day, and maybe we should accept that people living and writing 200 years ago had different values from us: in fact, that’s a good part of the reason to read old, ‘classic’ books – to understand the differences between past and present, and how we got where we are, and how human values change and evolve.

Such criticisms miss the real problem with this book, which is the use of farcical contrivances as central elements of the plot – the incongruous mixing of brutal historical tragedy (the massacre at Fort William Henry) with childish pantomime comedy (“he’s in the bear suit!”). Surely it is this clumsiness, the often cack-handed combination of high diction with low farce, which made later American novelists disown and distance themselves from Cooper, for all that he was a pioneering voice in their literature, a recorder of frontier and Indian customs and an early environmentalist – these achievements are weakened by his artistic gaucheness.

In the Delaware village

In the concluding scenes Magua (for it is him again) travels over the hill to the village of the Delaware tribe which a) had been guarding Alice all this time b) whither Heyward, Cora and Hawkeye have fled. Magua’s arrival leads to an assembly of the tribe’s elders (as we’ve become used to seeing) at which Magua tells the Delawares that none other than the feared ‘Carabine Longue’ or Long Rifle has come among them.

Never having seen ‘La Longue Carbine’/Hawkeye before, the Delawares institute a shooting contest to establish whether it really is him – which Hawkeye easily wins. Then a very old Indian, the venerable and legendary Tamenund, is wheeled out. Magua makes a persuasive speech that the Delawares must hand over the captives to him, including the Mohican, Uncas. The revelation that Uncas is a Mohican causes all the Delawares to hiss with hatred (though the reader may not necessarily have followed Cooper’s convoluted Indian anthropology to understand why) and the Delawares strip him to drag him to a stake – despite the maidenly pleas of Cora —- when they suddenly notice that Uncas has the tattoo of a tortoise on his chest. As a body the Indians step back and Tamenund is stunned. He is Uncas, son of many other Uncases (apparently, Uncas was a name which became synonymous with ‘leader for the Mohicans) and therefore a hereditary leader of their nation.

The young Indian has gone at a leap from being dragged around by the Delaware braves to overawing them as a natural leader. The reader is a little perplexed but goes along with this sudden reversal, since it’s what the adventure requires. But even the newly-mighty Uncas can’t prevent Magua leaving in peace and taking with ‘the squaw he brought’, namely Cora, along with him. Hawkeye, laying on the frontiersman nobility with a trowel, offers to give himself in exchange for the girl and Magua hesitates – having the Longue Carabine’s scalp would restore his reputation as a mighty warrior – but then plumps for the virginal girl. And since he came in peace, Indian rules dictate that Magua can leave (with Cora) in peace.

These pages float into a stratosphere of the hammiest Victorian melodrama, all fine sentiments, noble patriarchs, heroic warriors, honest frontiersman and the indomitable virtue of the fairer sex. Hundreds of sentences like this:

The maiden drew back in lofty womanly reserve, and her dark eye kindled, while the rich blood shot, like the passing brightness of the sun, into her very temples, at the indignity. (Chapter 30)

Although, by chapter 30, the reader is acclimatised to this heady prose and should be able to read through the fog of words to figure out what’s actually happening.

The final battle

In accordance with their customs, the Delaware do nothing until the sun has set because that is the limit of their customary ‘hospitality’ for Magua. But as soon as it does, they put together a large hunting party to be led by their new leader Uncas. Hawkeye takes one cohort and they go gingerly into the woods towards the Huron village, where they soon meet with resistance from Magua’s whole tribe, firing from positions in the trees. But then Magua’s men are attacked on the flank by Uncas’s main force of some 200 Delawares. From following the fortunes of our small band of heroes, suddenly the novel has developed into a full-blown pitched battle between hundreds of Indian fighters.

‘Our’ Indians push the bad guys back into their camp – not without casualties – and learn that Magua is heading for the caves where Cora was originally imprisoned. Uncas leads the way in a wild chase after the fugitive, till they can see Magua and Cora fleeing ahead of them into the dimly illuminated passageways. Run run run – shadows, candles, caves, cowering squaws… Then the running Indians emerge into the outside, onto rocky terraces on the side of the mountain and continue a hectic chase along its sides, the fleet Uncas far out in front, followed by Hawkeye, Heyward and friendly Delawares.

At the climax of the novel, and with abrupt and appalling suddennes, Cora refuses to go any further and sinks on her knees to pray to her Maker. Magua goes to stab her, hesitates, but one of his accomplices promptly stabs Cora to the heart (killing her), just as Uncas arrives, stabbing the fiend who did this, but himself being abruptly stabbed to death by Magua. After hundreds of pages of waffle two of the key characters are killed off in a few sentences.

Magua then turns and leaps over a gap in the rocky terrace, but doesn’t quite make it onto the other side, and while he’s hanging perilously from a bush growing on the edge of the precipice, Hawkeye kneels, draws a bead, and kills him with one shot, the Evil One’s body plunging without a sound into the abyss below. It’s all over.

Aftermath and funerals

The funerals. The Delawares (our Indians) appear to have massacred everyone in Magua’s camp. Now, back at their village, Cooper gives a lengthy description of the Indian funeral rites given to the dead leader, Uncas, and then to the cruelly murdered virgin, Cora. Indian maidens strew their graves with flowers. (We learn from an inserted postscript, that Colonel Munro never recovers from the loss of his daughter and dies soon afterwards, of a broken heart; but that Alice, after prolonged mourning, eventually marries and is happy.)

Chingachgook, after mourning his dead son, makes a stoical speech, saying Uncas is now happy, he has gone to the great Hunting Ground in the sky, although he has left his sad father alone… But Hawkeye interrupts him: No, not alone. The two of them will travel life’s road together. And so this establishes the unspoken bond between the pair, whose conclusion we see nearly 40 years later in the events chronicled in The Pioneers. Despite so many elements of cheesiness or confusion in the story, moments like this are genuinely moving.

The last word is given to the venerable patriarch of the Delawares, Tamenund. Maybe modern readers can find Cooper’s depiction of Native Americans patronising, simplistic, stereotyped and racist, but there’s no doubting that the book contains a lot about their customs, appearance, rituals, religious beliefs, social customs and practices, and dwells at length on their strength, courage, physical prowess, knowledge and skills.

And Cooper insists again and again on their respect for the elderly, for the acquired wisdom of the tribal elders, and indeed himself respects and admires their nobility and dignity of bearing. Giving the last speech to the venerable Tamenund feels right:

a) Because it fufils the requirements of ‘romance’ – it is like Prospero giving the last speech in The Tempest, it fits the conventions of the genre that the patriarchal father figure closes the text with his (mournful) benediction.
b) Because the forest, the wilderness and the Indians who live in it and – spiritually, imaginatively – ‘own’ it, have been at the heart of this very uneven and improbable story. It is fitting that they are given the last word.


N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations

The Last of the Mohicans was an instant bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and its profits allowed Cooper to fulfil a dream and travel to Europe, where he was lionised. He was the first American writer to describe the authentic scenery and recent history of his country in persuasive fiction. But he wasn’t the last American to rush out a sequel while the market was hot, and so Cooper knocked out the next in the series, The Prairie, in under a year.

Over the past two hundred years the Last of the Mohicans has been reprinted countless times and its wild scenery and exciting storyline have inspired countless illustrators. Maybe the most notable was Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945), the prolific American illustrator of magazines and classic books, who produced a full set of splendid illustrations for an edition of Last of the Mohicans published in 1919. They are masterpieces of strong clear lineation,and the capturing of fit, handsome masculinity.

Hawkeye and his Indians by N.C. Wyeth

Hawkeye and the last of the Mohicans by N.C. Wyeth

Credit

I read The Last of the Mohicans in the 1990 Oxford University Press edition with useful maps (there’s a map of Lake Champlain and of Fort William Henry, but these only really feature in a handful of chapters; it would have been useful to have a map describing the two Indian villages which form the setting of the novel’s finale). It has a very useful 25-page essay by John McWilliams which clarifies Cooper’s treatment of Native Americans, and sets the novel in the context of the Indian Removal Act which the American government was debating in the late 1820s and 1830s.

Related links

The five Leatherstocking novels

1823 The Pioneers – The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale
1826 The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757
1827 The Prairie – A Tale
1840 The Pathfinder – The Inland Sea
1841 The Deerslayer – The First War Path

The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper (1823)

“I never read a book in my life,” said Leatherstocking; “and how should a man who has lived in towns and schools know anything about the wonders of the woods?” (Chapter XXVI)

The Pioneers is the first of Cooper’s five ‘Leatherstocking’ novels, so-called because the hero, the tough tall, wizened frontiersman Nathaniel Bumppo, counts ‘Leatherstocking’ among his many nicknames (he’s also known as ‘Hawkeye’, ‘the Deerslayer’ and so on).

Cooper is generally reckoned to be the first notable American novelist. He’s credited with adapting the sprawling historical novel of Walter Scott (Scott’s first novel, Waverley, was published in 1814, so he was a big contemporary influence) to the American scene, both the distinctively social scene (like the small, brand-new settlement deep in upstate New York which is the setting of The Pioneers) and the actual physical scenery, in this case the huge untamed forest north-west of New York City. The sub-title of the book is ‘The Sources of the Susquehanna; a Descriptive Tale’: the first part tells us of the location, and the second part accurately summarises the text: it is highly descriptive of this specific landscape.

Cooper knew it well. His father, William Cooper, bought an extensive tract of land – which became known as the Cooper Patent – in 1785 from Colonel George Croghan, former Deputy to Sir William Johnson, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs (who I’ve been reading about in histories of the Seven Years War). Cooper founded a village on Otsego Lake which, with dazzling originality, he named Cooperstown. It was laid out by a local architect and is there to this day. William went on to become a judge and then Congressman for the district. He married and had twelve children, most of which died young, James Fenimore being the 11th.

The plot

The Pioneers opens with a judge – Marmaduke Temple – returning by sledge through the deep Christmas snow of the mountains, for he has collected his young, marriageable daughter Elizabeth from school in New York, and is returning to the town he has founded, Templeton, laid out by a local architect. In the opening scenes judge and daughter come across the ageing frontiersman, Leatherstocking, out hunting with a good-looking assistant. The judge takes a pot shot at a deer which runs nearby but accidentally wounds the young man who is with Leatherstocking. Appalled at his own clumsiness, he offers the young man a ride into the little settlement and medical attention from the local sawbones.

Thus is set in train an essentially light-hearted love story between the judge’s daughter and the shy but excitingly competent young woodsman, all set against a series of vivid scenes involving the broadly comic characters who inhabit the village. The focus on village life and village ‘types’ reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s early humorous novel, Under The Greenwood Tree.

Comedy, at first…

I was surprised how comic this novel is, how tongue in cheek, right from the start. The long description of Templeton dwells on the preposterous pretentiousness of the colonial architecture, which in fact becomes a recurring joke – the so-called church is modelled by its pretentious architect on St Paul’s cathedral in London but ends up looking like a vinegar pot.

The sledge that comes out from the village to meet the judge is driven by this preening architect, Richard Jones, who quickly shows himself to be a blustering nincompoop when he nearly tips the sledge over a cliff and then manages to overturn it, sending the distinguished men of the settlement he’d brought along – a stage Frenchman Monsiuer le Quoi and a stage German immigrant (‘Donner und blitzen, Richart!’) – flying head first into the snow. The physical comedy in the snow reminded me of the skating scenes in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (1836).

Similarly, the Christmas Eve sermon is an opportunity for satire on the mismatch between the forms of service used by the Episcopalian minister, Mr Grant, and his mostly non-conformist or Dissenting flock who refuse to kneel or stand at the relevant Anglican prompts, being used to more informal worship. (This is an element which modern readers probably could do with explanatory notes about.)

And the doctor called in to treat the wounded frontiersman, Elnathan Todd, is a masterpiece of fraudulent fakery. Cooper gives us his entire life story and ‘career’ to show just what a fraud he is as he pretends to know how to perform surgery or anything about the brightly coloured liquids he keeps in his impressive medicine chest. As we get to know them we realise most of the men are pious frauds:

  • Jones the pretentious architect continually boasting about his hunting and shooting skills
  • Dr Todd referring to non-existent medical routines or bragging about procedures he has never carried out
  • Mr Lippet, the village attorney, using inaccurate Latin tags to bamboozle the ordinary villagers with his ‘learning’
  • Judge Temple’s ‘major-domo’ or general assistant, Benjamin Penguillan, a squat Cornishmen who ran away to sea in his youth and absolutely every time he is called on to say anything lards his speech with incomprehensible naval metaphors, for example here he is explaining how he’s disabled a padlock:

“I have just drove a nail into a berth alongside of this here bolt, as a stopper, d’ye see, so that Master Doo-but-little can’t be running in and breezing up another fight atwixt us: for, to my account, there’ll be but a han-yan with me soon, seeing that they’ll mulct me of my Spaniards, all the same as if I’d over-flogged the lubber. Throw your ship into the wind, and lay by for a small matter, will ye? and I’ll soon clear a passage.” (Chapter XXXV)

It is Dad’s Army, Last of the Summer Wine, a whimsical portrait of the foibles of village life which just happens – disconcertingly – to include slaves and Red Indians.

The Turkey Shoot by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1857)

The Turkey Shoot by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1857) featuring from left to right: the old Mohican warrior Chingachgook, handsome young Oliver Edwards, the black slave Agamemnon kneeling, the heroine, raven-tressed Elizabeth Temple in a scarlet dress, her father Judge Marmaduke Temple in a black top hat, some village boys behind Hector the hunting dog, and Nathaniel Bumppo aka Leatherstocking, wearing his leather stockings and handling his powder pouch.

And so the gentle love affair between Oliver Edwards and young Elizabeth meanders on for 400 or so sweet-tempered and amusing pages (all Cooper’s novels are long) through a succession of scenes – the sermon on Christmas Eve, the turkey shoot, the pigeon shoot, the fishing net scene.

We learn that Edwards, despite his good education, is in fact half-Indian, which explains his preference for the company of Natty and Chingachgook. When he is offered the job of secretary to Judge Temple he reluctantly takes it – which brings him into daily contact with pretty young Elizabeth. She is, of course, intrigued and attracted by him, while he, used to the Great Outdoors, is ashamed to be placed in such a domestic situation.

A complication, like a secondary theme in a symphony, is that the new Anglican preacher, Mr Grant, also has a pretty young daughter, Louisa, who ends up staying at the Temple Mansion (and in fact sleeping in the same bed as Elizabeth, so that the two young ladies are permanently in each others’ company) walking arm in arm through Templeton and the woods, and witnessing the various colourful scenes which Cooper depicts – and also are gentle rivals for young Mr Edward’s attention.

Stereotypes

Of course many of the characters, including the womenfolk and the Native Americans, are stereotyped. For example, here is Judge Temple’s housekeeper (given the strikingly Puritan name of Remarkable Pettibone) watching fair young Elizabeth take off her thick winter clothes.

The housekeeper felt a little appalled, when, after cloaks, coats, shawls, and socks had been taken off in succession, the large black hood was removed, and the dark ringlets, shining like the raven’s wing, fell from her head, and left the sweet but commanding features of the young lady exposed to view. Nothing could be fairer and more spotless than the forehead of Elizabeth, and preserve the appearance of life and health. Her nose would have been called Grecian, but for a softly rounded swell, that gave in character to the feature what it lost in beauty. Her mouth, at first sight, seemed only made for love; but, the instant that its muscles moved, every expression that womanly dignity could utter played around it with the flexibility of female grace. It spoke not only to the ear, but to the eye. So much, added to a form of exquisite proportions, rather full and rounded for her years, and of the tallest medium height, she inherited from her mother. Even the color of her eye, the arched brows, and the long silken lashes, came from the same source; but its expression was her father’s. Inert and composed, it was soft, benevolent, and attractive; but it could be roused, and that without much difficulty. At such moments it was still beautiful, though it was a little severe. As the last shawl fell aside, and she stood dressed in a rich blue riding-habit, that fitted her form with the nicest exactness; her cheeks burning with roses, that bloomed the richer for the heat of the hall, and her eyes lightly suffused with moisture that rendered their ordinary beauty more dazzling, and with every feature of her speaking countenance illuminated by the lights that flared around her. (The Pioneers chapter 5)

This extremely stereotyped ideal of female beauty remind us that the book was written in the early 1820s, only a few years after the Battle of Waterloo, in Shelley’s last year, before Beethoven completed his Ninth Symphony or Schubert began his Unfinished Symphony. In other words, it is, in cultural terms, an enormously long time ago. The wonder is not, then, that it contains attitudes or comments which we, 200 years later, find questionable – it is that so much of it is still recognisably humorous and sweetly romantic.

The combination of broad comedy with a romanticised love affair reminds me more of opera than of a novel, maybe of the contemporary operas of the Italian Bel Canto school, Rossini and Bellini and Donizetti. Despite being Italian, these three turned several of Walter Scott’s Highland novels into operas. My favourite is the Elixir of Love, admittedly from ten years later (1832) but it gives a sense of the yearning romantic sentimentality which was widely current and considered the appropriate artistic sentiments for cultivated listeners and readers.

Scenic descriptions

This, like all the Leatherstocking novels, is studded with extended lyrical descriptions of the landscape of northern New York state, along the Hudson and Susquehanna rivers and up into the Catskill Mountains. The hero, Leatherstocking, gives a description of the most beautiful place he knows, a passage which has subsequently become famous.

“There’s a fall in the hills, where the water of two little ponds that lie near each other breaks out of their bounds, and runs over the rocks into the valley. The stream is, maybe, such a one as would turn a mill, if so useless a thing was wanted in the wilderness. But that hand that made that `Leap’ never made a mill! There the water comes crooking and winding among the rocks, first so slow that a trout could swim in it, and then starting and running like a creater that wanted to make a far spring, till it gets to where the mountain divides, like the cleft hoof of a deer, leaving a deep hollow for the brook to tumble into. The first pitch is nigh two hundred feet, and the water looks like flakes of driven snow, afore it touches the bottom; and there the stream gathers together again for a new start, and maybe flutters over fifty feet of flat-rock, before it falls for another hundred, when it jumps about from shelf to shelf, first turning this-away and then turning that-away, striving to get out of the hollow, till it finally comes to the plain…. There has that little stream of water been playing among them hills, since He made the world, and not a dozen white men have ever laid eyes on it…. To my judgment…it’s the best piece of work that I’ve met with in the woods; and none know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness, but them that rove it for a man’s life.” (Chapter XXVI)

The very lyrical descriptions of this vast and picturesque New York state landscape depicted in the Leatherstocking novels inspired New York city painters to venture up the rivers and paint the scenes they encountered. Within a few years of The Pioneers being published this had given rise to what became known as The Hudson River school of artists, who combined realistic detail with an overall romanticisation of the landscape, often infused with a Transcendentalist sense of the immanence of God in nature. The painter Thomas Cole is generally credited with being the first to paint this stunning scenery.

A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning by Thomas Cole (c. 1844)

A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning by Thomas Cole (c. 1844)

Cooper as early environmentalist

But this lyricism is endangered. Both Leatherstocking and Chingachgook, or Indian John as he’s known, are painted as being in the sere of life: Leatherstocking appears to be 68 (he says he’s in his 71st year in chapter XXXIV) and the Indian (‘past seventy’ chapter XXXVII) feels as weak ‘as a squaw’. They both remember their high times before the French and Indian War i.e. before 1756, some 40 years earlier.

And not only are they old, but they feel their way of life is coming to an end. Chingachgook routinely laments that all his tribe are gone to the Great Spirit in the sky:

“Why should Mohegan go?” returned the Indian, gloomily. “He has seen the days of an eagle, and his eye grows dim He looks on the valley; he looks on the water; he looks in the hunting-grounds—but he sees no Delawares. Every one has a white skin. My fathers say, from the far-off land, Come. My women, my young warriors, my tribe, say, Come. The Great Spirit says, Come. Let Mohegan die.” (Chapter XXXVIII)

And we rarely meet Leatherstocking – in the alehouse, at the turkey shoot, in his cabin – but he is lamenting the way the formerly wild countryside is being cleared and settled. A man used to be able to roam and hunt everywhere: now clearings and roads are breaking up the forest and fences block a man at every turn.

So Leatherstocking’s rather sad speeches are all-too-often laments for the spoliation of the spectacular American wilderness. Modern scholars pick on this as one of the central themes of the novel and it’s led critics to call it the first American environmentalist novel, and if you google JFC environment you’ll get a surprising number of essays and articles expanding this theme that Cooper was one of the first environmentalists.

“The wastefulness of the settlers with the noble trees of this country is shocking, Monsieur Le Quoi… like all the other treasures of the wilderness, they already begin to disappear before the wasteful extravagance of man.”

And it isn’t just Leatherstocking. Judge Temple, although a land speculator who is an apostle of settlement, having laid out Templetown in the logical grid structure so familiar from American towns and cities, is presented as being uneasily aware that the new arrivals must live with nature, not despoil her. In the middle of the novel there is a series of scenes whose main point seems to be to demonstrate the wastefulness of the settlers:

In chapter XXII we see them assemble for a mass shooting of the passenger pigeons which migrate over the town and nearby lake every spring: the settlers fire up into the sky thick with birds, massacring far more than they need.

The Judge and Elizabeth come across the rough woodsman Billy Kirby making sugar from maple tree sap but are horrified that instead of making discreet cuts in the bark he has slashed right across the base of all the trees, probably causing them to die. The judge says there’s a limited supply; Billy laughs, saying there’s an endless supply.

“Really, it behooves the owner of woods so extensive as mine, to be cautious what example he sets his people, who are already felling the forests, as if no end could be found to their treasures, nor any limits to their extent. If we go on in this way, twenty years hence, we shall want fuel.” (Chapter IX)

Then in chapter XXIII the judge and Elizabeth (and Louisa and Oliver) witness the spring trawl of the lake where the villagers combine to pull a vast net across the lake and net thousands of fish up onto the pebbly beach; again, many more than they can possibly eat; most will go to waste, as Leatherstocking observes when, in a haunting scene, he comes canoeing over the lake to observe the scene.

“No, no, Judge,” returned Natty, his tall figure stalking over the narrow beach, and ascending to the little grassy bottom where the fish were laid in piles; “I eat of no man’s wasty ways. I strike my spear into the eels or the trout, when I crave the creatur’; but I wouldn’t be helping to such a sinful kind of fishing for the best rifle that was ever brought out from the old countries. If they had fur, like the beaver, or you could tan their hides, like a buck, something might be said in favor of taking them by the thousand with your nets; but as God made them for man’s food, and for no other disarnable reason, I call it sinful and wasty to catch more than can be eat.”

In each of these scenes the judge both takes part but is simultaneously appalled. And not just him – Elizabeth, as a representative of tender ‘feminine’ sensibility, is also aware in her own way that her father’s projects and town planning are eliminating wildness.

“The enterprise of Judge Temple is taming the very forests!” exclaimed Elizabeth, throwing off the covering, and partly rising in the bed. “How rapidly is civilization treading on the foot of Nature!” (Chapter XIX)

Against these sensitive souls is set the preposterously confident Richard Jones, along with various hicks and rednecks like Billy Kirby. The sensitive party has all the best lines, and there are enough scenes where this nature concern is voiced to have given Cooper his reputation; but in fictional terms, then, maybe what is most notable is that the concern is fully dramatised i.e. the opposing argument is given its say and its representatives: the world is bounteous and we are given God’s permission to use it, to feed ourselves and our children, to grow our society. Billy and Richard get their say as much as the judge and daughter.

The story

After these picturesque-cum-ecological scenes, the second half of the novel develops a plot which escalates in speed and incident.

At first it appears to be a two-pronged attack on Leatherstocking. On the one hand, the preposterous Richard Jones becomes convinced that Leatherstocking and Chingachgook are hiding an illegal silver mine, digging into the back of a remote cave up on the mountain and bringing their finds to his woodland hut – which is why Leatherstocking’s so wary of letting anyone enter it. The second attack is led by the scheming lawyer, Hiram Doolittle, when he discovers that Leatherstocking, in his innocence, has killed a deer in the ‘out’ season, contrary to a law recently passed by Judge Temple.

This is all swiftly followed by a dramatic scene in which Leatherstocking comes across Elizabeth and Louisa, out for a quiet stroll in the woods with their dog, when they’re menaced by a wild panther/mountain lion, and her cub, which first kills their pet mastiff and is then turning its attention to the helpless maidens – when our hero emerges from the woods and shoots it dead. This scene in particular inspired a number of contemporary American painters.

Leatherstocking Kills the Panther by George Loring Brown (1834)

Leatherstocking Kills the Panther by George Loring Brown (1834)

Quite a flurry of incidents! As Richard (who’s been away for two days) comments, upon hearing all this from Benjamin Pump:

“What the devil has got into you all? More things have happened within the last thirty-six hours than in the preceding six months.” (Chapter XXXII)

When the judge hears all this information, he is placed in a quandary – Leatherstocking has clearly broken the law, is possibly involved in illegal mining – but has saved his daughter’s life! Also there is not a lot of love lost between the pair, as Leatherstocking has always been a critic harping on how the judge’s land management is destroying the wilderness.

The judge has to be seen to be above personal concerns and so signs a warrant for Hiram Doolittle to search Leatherstocking’s hut in the woods. Leatherstocking reacts badly to having his privacy invaded and picks the oily lawyer up and throws him down the hillside (not seriously hurting him), but unfortunately turning something the judge could have turned a blind eye to, into a case of assaulting an officer of the law.

Leatherstocking tried This all leads up to a court case in front of a jury of villagers, in which Leatherstocking epitomises the spirit of natural honesty and fair-dealing dragged into the mazes of man-made law. As with a lot of the rest of the novel, the courtroom scenes are broadly comic, with much satire of the prosecuting advocate, but Leatherstocking can’t evade the law and is sentenced to sit in the stocks for an hour and then do a month in prison. Earlier in the novel – in the net fishing scene – we had seen Leatherstocking save the life of Benjamin Penguillan, Richard’s major-domo. Now the ex-sailor Cornishman feels dutybound to come to his aid and volunteers to sit in the stocks along with Leatherstocking and then contrives to beat up Hiram Doolittle enough to himself be sent to the village’s little gaol.

Leatherstocking breaks out of gaol Hither come Louisa and Elizabeth, mournful maidens come to bring sustenance to the man who saved them from a horrible death, only to discover Leatherstocking has cut his way through the prison’s log walls and is about to break out with the now very drunk Benjamin. Although the guard discovers the breakout, Leatherstocking is helped by young Oliver Edwards to escape out of town and up into the hills. Before he leaves, Leatherstocking asks Eliza to do him a favour and buy two dollars worth of good gunpowder and meet him on the hill known as ‘the Vision’.

Fire on the mountainside Unfortunately, she has barely arrived at the rendezvous the next afternoon, and discovered Indian John but no Leatherstocking waiting for her, than the smoke which had been growingly obvious, becomes increasingly stifling and then young Mr Edwards bursts into the rocky ledge where Eliza and Indian are sitting to announce that the entire hillside is on fire (it is now the height of the dry summer) and the flames have almost surrounded them. a) Indian John, past seventy now, is completely resigned, indeed happy to go meet his fellow braves and family in the Happy Hunting Ground b) Oliver makes frantic efforts to save Eliza including rigging up a makeshift rope to lower her from the rocky ledge, but it isn’t long enough. When into the smoke-filled terrace bounds a frazzled Leatherstocking who quickly leads them out through the burning trees via a little known stream and marshy path, carrying the resigned-to-death Indian on his back.

Siege of the cave They arrive safe and unharmed at the cave which the suspicious villagers thought was an attempted silver mine, which now has a stockade built round the opening and a) are quickly joined by Louisa’s father, the reverend Grant who came looking for Eliza and b) by a big posse of villagers rounded up by the zealous Richard Jones and incited by the malicious Hiram Doolittle. There is an armed standoff, with Leatherstocking and Benjamin manning the barricade, and Jones, Doolittle and the enormous tree-feller Billy Kirby threatening to rush them.

Big revelation Things are teetering on the edge of becoming really violent, when the siege and all the tension which has been building up for a hundred pages is released by Oliver’s sudden action in producing the reason Leatherstocking wouldn’t let anyone enter either his hut or, now, his cave. It is because both were sanctuaries for a white-haired old man far gone in senile dementia. This old man is none other than old Major Oliver Effingham (who had been referred to by Indian John throughout the novel, rather obscurely, as ‘Fire-Eater’). Back in the day, the Delaware Indians had adopted him as one of their own and given him possession of all these lands.

His son, one Colonel Effingham, managed the land for him and took on a partner, Judge Temple, to help. When the Colonel decided to fight on the side of the British during the War of Independence he had, obviously, been defeated and the colonial government confiscated his land. The Judge then took over complete ownership and management of his defeated partner’s property. The Colonel had returned to England to claim reparation for the land lost to him, but, alas, perished in a shipwreck which, we now realise, the judge had learned about in an earlier scene, when he received a letter which made him sad (though he didn’t tell anyone the contents, which were also kept a mystery from the reader). What also made the judge sad was the thought that the Colonel’s young son must have perished with him, and so all claimants to the land.

But he didn’t. The Colonel had left his young son (Oliver) behind in Nova Scotia. When this young man set off to find his grandfather, he discovered that the latter’s loyal servant, Natty Bumppo (aka Leatherstocking) had been looking after the old man for all this time. All kinds of small mysteries are thus cleared up: this is why Chingachgook kept referring to Edwards as ‘Young Eagle’ – not because he had Indian blood, but because he was of the line of the old warrior, ‘Fire-Eater’, a purebred white man but honoured by his tribe. Oliver had joined Natty in his hut and both of them vowed to keep the Major’s presence a secret, in order to conceal his poverty and senility. This is why Leatherstocking wouldn’t let the slimy magistrate set foot in his hut, and then was prepared to defend the stockade with bloodshed, if necessary.

But now that Oliver brings his grandfather out for everyone to see the standoff ends. All conflict comes to an end, the judge orders Hiram, Richard and his men back to the village, whither they take the gaga old man in a carriage. Here the judge shows Oliver Effingham (as we now know to call him) the will he had made out which promised to leave half the Temple Patent to any surviving heir of Colonel Effingham – which means Oliver. In fact, on the spot the noble old gent hands over to Oliver half of the property. He is rich!

It’s at this point that Elizabeth feels emboldened to declare her true feelings for young Oliver (now that she knows he is a) not an Indian ‘half-breed’, b) is very rich). Seeing as the judge had made Elizabeth, his only child, heir to the other half of the Patent, everyone realises that in the fullness of time young Oliver will inherit all the land which has featured in the novel.

What a turnaround! Very similar to the orphan-who-turns-out-to-be-the-long-lost-son-of-a-millionaire plots which fuel many of Charles Dickens’ early fictions. The novel as fairy tale. Or, as I’ve suggested earlier, with the conveniently happy ending of an essentially comic opera.

Goodbye Leatherstocking The final scene takes place some months later. Oliver and Elizabeth, now married, stroll along to Leatherstocking’s hut to find him sentimentally tending the gravestones made for both the old man and Chingachgook, who both passed away soon after the traumatic events of the fire and the siege. They’ve come for a routine chat but are horrified when Leatherstocking announces he is heading west, lighting out for the territory, going where wilderness still exists and a man isn’t plagued with the sound of trees being chopped down and clearings cut and fences built and all the rest of civilisation. They barely have time to beg him to stay before he’s on the edge of the wood, everything packed, his dogs by his side and then… gone.

Elizabeth raised her face, and saw the old hunter standing looking back for a moment, on the verge of the wood. As he caught their glances, he drew his hard hand hastily across his eyes again, waved it on high for an adieu, and, uttering a forced cry to his dogs, who were crouching at his feet, he entered the forest. This was the last they ever saw of the Leather-Stocking, whose rapid movements preceded the pursuit which Judge Temple both ordered and conducted. He had gone far toward the setting sun—the foremost in that band of pioneers who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent. (Chapter XLI)

Other points of interest

Footnotes Cooper is anxious to tell us stuff. The text is festooned with explanations. My Oxford University Press edition includes the original dedication, the 1823 preface, the 1832 introduction, the 1851 additions to the 1832 introduction and his separate 1850 introduction to the Leatherstocking tales. Also, for the 1832 edition Cooper added lots of factual notes indicated by asterisks in the text, telling us about all kinds of trivia, for example, the exact population of New York in 1832, the difference between a sled and a sleigh, the derivation of the phrase ‘Santa Claus’ or ‘Yankee’, and so on. The excess of facts makes the novel feel like it is overflowing.

Slavery had never been practiced in Quaker Pennsylvania and was dying out in New York State (as Cooper tells us in a lengthy footnote. It’s still striking that the judge has an out-and-out slave, Agamemnon (nicknamed Aggy) and a number of domestic servants who are black. That doesn’t happen in Dickens or Hardy. It is of a piece with the reader’s surprise when Leatherstocking is found guilty of manhandling the magistrate, and for a moment there’s the possibility he’ll be sentenced to the whipping post! In the event, Judge Temple softens this to having to stand for an hour in the public stocks. Abrupt reminders that the story is set 223 years ago, in a different world.

Guns The sexist stereotyping of the women. The racist stereotyping of the native American and of the black servants and slaves. The Hudson School lyricism. The proto-environmentalism. All these themes are discussed in essays and articles about the book. But I haven’t seen any comment on one of the most obvious features. Everyone carries guns which creates a constant undercurrent of threat. Even at a supposedly festive occasion like the turkey shoot, the sheriff is aware that men carrying loaded weapons are getting angry and he has to defuse the situation. And the entire plot is started by the judge accidentally shooting an innocent bystander. Leatherstocking goes everywhere (even into church) with his gun. Freedom, the kind of primal, wilderness-wandering freedom Leatherstocking pines for, is intimately entwined with the right to bear arms.

Like the slaves and the Indians, the ubiquity of firearms is something taken for granted in the novel, but which strikes a European as disconcerting.


Related links

The Leatherstocking novels

1823 The Pioneers – The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale
1826 The Last of the Mohicans – A Narrative of 1757
1827 The Prairie – A Tale
1840 The Pathfinder – The Inland Sea
1841 The Deerslayer – The First War Path

Beyond Caravaggio @ the National Gallery

Biography

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in Lombardy in northern Italy in 1571 where he trained before moving to Rome at the age of about twenty. By the mid-1590s he was working regularly as a painter, pioneering a new realistic style depicting street life and interior scenes with people doing mundane things, eating, playing cards, sitting round a table – painted with a lavish attention to detail and with a spectacular use of light and shade to create drama and movement.

His breakthrough came in 1599, when he received a commission to paint the Calling of Saint Matthew and Martyrdom of St Matthew in the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. The public unveiling of these works a year later caused a sensation and led to Caravaggio’s instant fame. He quickly found wealthy patrons including the Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei (1542–1614) who commissioned both The Supper at Emmaus and The Taking of Christ (1602), brought together again in the exhibition.

The Supper at Emmaus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1601) © The National Gallery, London

The Supper at Emmaus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1601) © The National Gallery, London

All the records indicate he was an extremely difficult man, he argued with colleagues and patrons, was involved in several brawls and then, in 1606, murdered a man after an argument over a game of tennis. Caravaggio fled to Naples, where he soon exerted an influence  over artists in that city with his light effects and dramatic compositions. He died from unknown causes in 1610, aged just 38.

Beyond Caravaggio

The key thing about this exhibition is that it is about Caravaggio’s influence on contemporaries and followers. Of the 50 paintings in the show, only six are by Caravaggio himself (and three of those belong to the National Gallery i.e you can see them free anytime). The six Caravaggios on display are:

  • Boy peeling fruit (1592)
  • Boy bitten by a Lizard (1595)
  • The Supper at Emmaus (1601)
  • The Taking of Christ (1602)
  • Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1604)
  • Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist (1609)

A handful of others are represented by tiny photographs on the wall labels (e.g. Victorious Love, The Seven Acts of Mercy, The Musicians). But the majority of the show consists of works by contemporaries and followers.

Boy bitten by a Lizard by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (About 1594-5) © The National Gallery, London

Boy bitten by a Lizard by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (About 1594-5) © The National Gallery, London

The immediate and lasting impression is that none of them are a patch on Caravaggio. None of the other paintings are in the same league. Caravaggio’s paintings have:

  • beauty of detail as in the finish on the fruits and flowers or the beads of water on the outside of the glass vase in Boy bitten by lizard
  • the dramatic intensity of composition of a work like The Taking of Christ, where the eye has so many interesting directions to follow – along the shiny black armour of the soldier’s outstretched left arm, down Christ’s arms to his strangely locked hands, across the trilogy of heads from right to left, of Judas kissing, Christ looking down and one of his disciples crying out – or following the curve of the red cloak above Christ’s head around and back to the cluster of three soldiers’ heads with the white-faced lamp-holder clustering in among them.
The Taking of Christ by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602) On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson. Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

The Taking of Christ by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602) (On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson. Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)

  • In The Supper at Emmaus a whole raft of tricks are deployed to heighten the drama: the lighting highlighting Jesus’ face and casting  his shadow on the wall; the outstretched arms of the disciple on the right indicating the depth of the picture plane and drawing us in; the spectacular figure of the disciple half-rising from his chair on the left – in front of this big picture in the flesh I was more and more impressed by this figure and the taut energy of his bent arms lifting his body from his chair. And the commentary made a neat point that even the basket of fruit on the right of the table is actually poised just over the edge of the table and, when you focus on it for a moment, makes you want to lean in and push it safely back onto the table.

Followers and inheritors

None of them are as powerful as Caravaggio; only a handful come close; some are very poor indeed. Particularly poor were:

Take Rutilio Manetti’s Victorious Earthly Love and compare it with Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (not in the exhibition but represented by a small colour photo). Manetti’s painting is horrible. What an ugly specimen his cupid is! The commentary does what scholarly commentary does on such embarrassing occasions and dwells at length on the objects symbolising the arts of music and painting and architecture or whatnot – evading the elephant in the room which is how astonishingly ugly and repellent the central figure is.

Victorious Earthly Love by Rutilio Manetti (about 1625) © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Victorious Earthly Love by Rutilio Manetti (about 1625) © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Compare and contrast with Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (1602), where the dramatic use of extreme light and shade, the stunning mastery of detail, for example the folds of flesh on the stomach, and the naughty impish face – every single element of the painting is by a master of his art, and barely thirty years old.

Amor Vincit Omnia by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602)

Amor Vincit Omnia by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602)

Catholicism

Obviously all these Italian painters are committed Roman Catholics, and living in the Italy of the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition, when the Catholic church really established itself as a worldwide force for reaction, repression, torture and execution.

Quite a few of the paintings here bear out the English poet William Empson’s disgust for a religion which places the torture to death of a human being as its central icon. In The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera the saint has been tied up and the figure on the left is sharpening the knife which he is going to use to cut the skin off the old man’s body. Nice. The commentary tells us that Ribera specialised in the flesh of old men and also attended lots of hangings, floggings and so on, to observe the effect of torture and evisceration on the human body.

Obviously the use of light and the way the saint is looking up into it, as if up to the light of heaven, is dramatic and striking. According to the curators this is due to Caravaggio’s example, though the raddled face of the flayer and even more so the figures behind him have more the weathered blurriness of Rembrandt, with which this painting is contemporaneous.

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1634) Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1634) Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

More contemporary with Caravagio himself is The Ecstasy of Saint Francis by Giovanni Baglione from 1601. Look at the wooliness of the saint’s cloak – poor. Look at all three faces – bad. Any Catholic painting of saints or monks or nuns showing the whites of their eyes as they look up to their glorious Redeemer in heaven is revolting and it’s made ten times worse if there are angels hovering around.

The Ecstasy of Saint Francis by Giovanni Baglione (1601) © The Art Institute of Chicago

The Ecstasy of Saint Francis by Giovanni Baglione (1601) © The Art Institute of Chicago

Many of the paintings here rely on the viewer sharing the artist’s lachrymose Catholic sentimentality and/or taste for holy torture, as the original patrons and viewers, of course, would have. If you are a modern post-religious liberal and don’t share this sympathetic opinion of holy torture, then many of the works in the show seem clotted with brutality and/or weeping melodrama.

A striking and typically unpleasant example is Christ displaying his wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino (about 1625-35). Very possibly the striking chiaroscuro i.e dramatic use of light and dark, was influenced by Caravaggio. But it seems a gross, tasteless, blatant image, at odds with the tastefulness which characterises all the master’s works.

Christ displaying his wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino (about 1625-35) © Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council

Christ displaying his wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino (about 1625-35) © Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council

A perverse combination of medieval torture with French sensuality comes in Nicolas Régnier’s Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant (about 1626). The musculature and depiction of the saint’s body is splendid, but the female figures look contorted and unreal, and the combination of their opulent contemporary dress and the figure on the left’s plump bosom give it an inappropriately soft porn feel, a wilting languorousness which is completely at odds with the dramatic intensity and strangely ascetic sensuality of Caravaggio’s best work.

Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant by Nicolas Régnier (about 1626-30) © Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant by Nicolas Régnier (about 1626-30) © Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

Some of the works seem difficult to justify. In his earlier works Caravaggio painted street scenes and settings inside inns – ordinary folk playing dice, cheating each other at cards and so on. This is used as an excuse to hang a series of paintings on the same subject by contemporary and later artists, some pretty removed in style and feel from the master. Probably the most extreme example is The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs by Georges de La Tour (about 1634). There’s light in it, for sure; and it is a game of cards alright. But the peculiar stylisation of the faces and postures seems a million miles away from the intense realism combined with high drama and intense light effects of Caravaggio.

The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs by Georges de La Tour (about 1630-34) © Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs by Georges de La Tour (about 1630-34) © Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Compare and contrast with Caravaggio’s John the Baptist (1604), a masterpiece of simple striking composition, brilliant chiaroscuro, mastery of tone and palette (almost everything a variation on yellow, brown, orange) and the brooding intensity of the central figure – and a wonderful celebration of the beauty of the human body, specifically the young, male naked body. Seeing it in the flesh is breath-taking and worth the admission price on its own!

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (about 1603-4) Photo Jamison Miller © The Nelson - Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (about 1603-4) Photo Jamison Miller © The Nelson – Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Conclusion

This is less an exhibition of Caravaggio than an opportunity to immerse yourself in the visual world of early 17th century painting in a show which highlights the strengths and weaknesses – mainly weaknesses – of his followers and copyists.

In every room where a Caravaggio original is hung it wipes the floor with the competition, many of which are interesting, some of which are pretty good – but none of them are masterpieces, none have the intensity, purity, drama and sheer skill with oil that Caravaggio was blessed with.

And after spending an hour and a half underground (the National’s main exhibition space is down a massive flight of stairs into a series of basements) in darkened rooms full of Roman Catholic images of humans being tortured, crucified, stabbed, speared, shot and hanged, it was quite a relief to emerge back into the open daylight of Protestant Trafalgar Square.

Related links

Other reviews

Other reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

The Global Seven Years War by Daniel A. Baugh (2011)

(This long book is part of the Routledge ‘Modern Wars in Perspective’ series. Since some of the wars date back to 1460 you have to query the definition of ‘modern’.)

Although an American, the author, Daniel A. Baugh, is a distinguished historian of the British Royal Navy from the Restoration to the mid-Victorian era. In many ways this book is the summit of his career.

Baugh was born in 1931 so was 80 years old when this book was published. This may partly explain why it is so very readable. Baugh was brought up in a more leisurely, less technocratic age and his prose is relaxed and amiable, devoid of modern academic jargon and in many places has a sweet, human touch. Though long, the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish.

Baugh’s naval background

Also, Baugh himself served in the American navy. This gives his accounts of the naval battles a special authority, but more particularly underpins his accounts of naval and military discipline. When Admiral Byng’s flotilla fails to prevent the French seizing Minorca (May 1756) or when General Braddock’s forces are massacred in woods beside the river Monongahela (9 July 1755) Baugh not only describes the events but gives thorough explanations of the mistakes the commanders made, what they should have done differently, and continues on to explain in detail why this or that action was rewarded or blamed, according to the military code of the day.

It’s one of the learnings of the book that praise and blame was so immediate and extreme; a general or admiral who won a battle might be knighted (as the admiral George Pocock was, for his aggressive engagements with the cowardly French fleet off the Indian coast) whereas losers might pay the ultimate price – Admiral Byng, court martialled and executed by the British for losing Minorca; Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally, tried and executed by the French for losing their main base in India, Pondicherry, or Charles François Emmanuel Nadeau du Treil, governor of Guadeloupe, forced to surrender it to superior British forces, for which he was sent to prison for twenty years.

There was obviously a lot at stake for each nation-state in major battles – it is a revelation to learn how much was at stake for the military leaders on the ground.

A big complex war

Including the index, this book weighs in at a hefty 736 pages. It claims to deal mainly with the global aspect of the Seven Years War i.e. the fighting between France and Britain in North America, India, the West Indies, with two campaigns late in the war against Spain, in Cuba and the Philippines – and the war in Europe is specifically addressed by a sister book in the same series, The Seven Years War In Europe by Franz A.J. Szabo, itself a weighty 530-page tome.

But in fact Baugh does devote substantial space to the European war. He has to, because his aim is to give a comprehensive overview of the strategy of the two protagonists of the global war – France and Britain – an aim which involves detailed consideration of the key personnel on both sides. These were, on the French side, King Louis XV, his mistress and adviser Madame de Pompadour and their Foreign Minister, the duc de Choiseul – and on the English side, King George II, the Duke of Newcastle and ‘the Great Commoner’ as he was nicknamed, William Pitt. And the global strategy of both sides was inextricably linked with their strategy on the continent; the one just doesn’t make sense without the other.

Therefore this book has much, much more about the war in Europe than the two other books I’d read on the subject to date, 1759 by Frank McLynn and Battle For Empire by Tom Pocock, and is vastly better for it. In fact, it’s the first account I’ve read that really makes sense of the whole war.

Understanding in depth

The Pocock and McLynn books emphasised that everyone suspected hostilities would break out again after the cessation of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748, but only Baugh’s book explains why that was.

The treaty which concluded that war – the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle – was drawn up in a hurry, as both sides were exhausted and running into unsustainable debt. It left many issues about who owned what unresolved, kicking them into the long grass by declaring they’d be sorted out by a ‘Boundary Commission’. But this commission never really got established with the result that conflict on the frontier between French and British North America festered on and, although the British were handed back Madras (in south-east India) in the Treaty, the lack of clarity about Indian affairs also made conflict there inevitable.

The Diplomatic Revolution

Thus (for example) Baugh’s account is the first one which fully explained to me the importance of the abrupt reversal of a century of tradition which took place when Louis XV surprised Europe by suddenly allying France with Austria in the so-called Diplomatic Revolution. They had been enemies for decades.

It happened because in the 1740-48 war Prussia had seized the Hapsburg territory of Silesia and Austria wanted it back. So Prussia was scared of an Austrian attack. Now France wanted to terrorise and/or seize Hanover, the north German principality which was still ruled by George II of England, in order to wrest maximum concessions from Britain when the war ended. If France attacked Hanover, Prussia would see that as a threat to its hegemony over northern Germany. So Britain could see that it would be in her interests to pay King Frederick of Prussia to defend Hanover for her.

And thus a constellation of interests crystallised into the alliances which dominated the war: France and Austria (and Russia, which threatened Prussia’s eastern front) allied against Prussia – who was herself supported by money, and then by troops, sentPhi from England.

Map of the territories involved in the Seven Years War

Map of the territories involved in the Seven Years War

Bargaining chips

The biggest single thing that comes over from reading this long enjoyable account is that warfare was just an aspect of Diplomacy. Nobody expected to fight a war to the complete unconditional surrender of the enemy (as in 20th century wars). Battles were fought to capture strategically important cities or islands or territory, with more than half an eye on the final and inevitable peace negotiations, where they would be used simply as bargaining chips.

Thus the French captured Minorca not because it had any economic or strategic usefulness, but solely to use as a chip in the endlessly complex game of diplomacy which gripped all the nations of Europe: first, they thought they could use it to bribe Spain into entering the war on the French side; when Spain refused, Minorca became just another bargaining chip to be played in the negotiations which led up to the Peace of Paris in 1763. Sure enough, it was handed back to Britain in exchange for the (far more valuable) West Indies islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. (It is striking to learn that little Guadeloupe produced more sugar than all the British islands combined, worth about £6 million a year.)

Similarly, thousands of British soldiers and sailors died in the twin campaigns to capture Havana in Cuba and Manila in the Philippines, so it is disconcerting to the modern reader to find out the British government never intended to keep either of them, but just wanted them as bargaining chips with Spain in the final settlement. And, sure enough, shamefully, both ports were simply handed back to Spain, a mockery of the immense suffering of the soldiers and sailors on both sides who perished.

At every point, from before the war even began, statesmen of all the European nations were engaged in playing this game at multiple levels not least because, as Baugh, again, amply shows, the government of each nation was itself made up of sharply conflicting visions, strategies and goals.

Thus, in Britain, King George II was understandably obsessed with his hereditary territory of Hanover in Germany, and so detested William Pitt who had built a parliamentary career on criticising the government’s attachment to a distant and unimportant bit of Europe while ignoring the colonies which were vital to its commerce and economy. Following Henry Pelham’s death, George’s other ministers had to work hard to persuade the king to take Pitt into the government – he was widely admitted to be the most capable parliamentarian of his time – and Pitt proved to be a strategist of genius, but they never got on. When the old king died in 1760 and was replaced by his grandson, George III, Pitt’s days were numbered, and so all the other countries of Europe knew a change of British policy was inevitable.

Much the same level of back-stabbing and politicking took place at the top of the French government, except it’s obvious from Baugh’s account how much more limited and limiting the French setup was: King Louis XV didn’t want to be bothered with details, he was in thrall to his former mistress-turned-confidente Madame de Pompadour, and all their ministers had to tread carefully not to cross her strong opinions.

And no-one in the French government was prepared to face up to the acute financial crisis the war created – Baugh shows the king and Pompadour repeatedly not wanting to be bothered with petty details of money – in their minds, France had a God-given right to be top dog in Europe. But this was to lead to financial ruin, specifically to a financial collapse prompted by the loss of Quebec to the British in 1759.

Both Pocock and McLynn give lively accounts of the battle for Quebec (both probably better, more vivid, than Baugh’s) – but only Baugh goes on to explain in detail how the military and strategic loss led to a cataclysmic financial crash in which virtually all the French government’s paper credit became worthless, scores of bankers and contractors to the army and navy went bankrupt and the king and nobility were reduced to sending their silver plate to the mint to be melted down to create coins to keep the economy going (pp.447-452).

So the actions of generals in Canada could have seismic impacts on their home governments of Europe, which in turn affected how all the other players in the game assessed their ally/enemy, and adjusted their diplomatic and military plans accordingly. It’s like reading about a true life and vastly complex combination of the board games ‘Risk’ and ‘Monopoly’.

Unpopular bargaining

Some of these bargaining chip exchanges were very unpopular. American colonial forces had been involved in a bitter 46-day siege of Louisbourg, the main French port on Cape Breton Island which protected the mouth of the long St Lawrence Waterway, in 1745. There was widespread resentment when statesmen in faraway England simply handed the port and island back to the French in exchange for Madras at the peace in 1748. (I was amused to learn that Aix-la-Chapelle was so unpopular in France that it gave rise to a popular expression, bête comme la paix = as stupid as the peace.) Apparently, being treated by pawns in this giant game was one (of the many) grievances which slowly bubbled under among the men who went on to spark the American Revolution.

So it was only reading Baugh’s book that made me realise quite why a renewed outbreak of war was inevitable and made sense of the way statesmen on both sides spent the intervening years calculating how their countries could best benefit from another war, and drawing up and debating various strategies.

The rise of William Pitt

I now understand much better that the cautious Duke of Newcastle owed his place as prime minister to the king because of his steady adherence to the cause of Hanover’s safety but how, when Newcastle’s man in the Commons, Leader of the House Henry Pelham died in 1754, he needed someone who could command authority in the Commons but also fall in with his policies. William Pitt fulfilled the first criterion but had publicly criticised the government for its adherence to Hanover-based policies (thus incurring the undying enmity of George II). So when Newcastle promoted him to secretary of state and took him into the small wartime cabinet he knew he was recruiting a man entirely devoted to pursuing Britain’s overseas interests in America and India (and the West Indies). But the gamble paid off.

It is one of the many merits of this book, and the reason why it’s so long, that Baugh takes you right into the heart of these continual political debates and discussions among the most senior statesmen, quoting letters, diaries and journals to show how strategic thinking about each theatre of war changed and evolved, but how the statesmen also had to keep an eye on how things would play out both among the public at large, and in the clamorous House of Commons, and how they’d be taken by the continental-minded king, and how they might be used against them as weapons by the uneasily jostling members of the cabinet itself.

Baugh’s account reveals the layer upon layer upon layer of power politics and Machiavellian manoeuvring which underpinned every event in the long war; it makes for a fascinating and gripping read.

Specific things

I learned some specific things from this book:

  • The Seven Years War actually lasted eight years, since Baugh shows that hostilities broke out in early summer 1755. Quite a lot of naval and land battles took place before war was formally declared the following year.
  • Privateering – It is astonishing how lawless the sea and land were. Before the war proper is declared, in 1755, the British started simply intercepting legitimate French merchant ships, sailing them to English ports, stealing them and their cargo and putting the crews in prison. Some 400 ships were sequestered like this and some 10,000 seamen imprisoned. Whenever any army appeared anywhere it thought it had the right at the very least to plunder the surrounding countryside (in Europe as much as India) and sometimes ravage it (burn crops, food, stores, towns and villages) in order to deprive its enemy forces of food or shelter. Baugh mentions these continual acts of piracy and devastation in passing, but the modern reader is appalled at the sheer scale of wanton destruction.
  • Silhouette – Étienne de Silhouette tried to sort out France’s pitiful finances and his name became synonymous with penny-pinching. Around that time a fashion for cutting out black outlines of people became fashionable as a stylish and cheap alternative to painted portraits. In derision these were given the insulting name of ‘silhouettes’ which has stuck to this day.
  • The Watershed principle – France claimed that if any of its explorers had named a river they automatically owned all the territory encompassed by all the tributaries right up to each tributary’s watershed. Hence the its territory of Louisiana looked like a balloon on the map since it covered every single tributary of the massive Mississippi.
  • Wilderness warfare – handy term for the style of fighting required in the vast virgin forests of Eastern America.

Maps

There are 17 maps in this long book, and all are better, clearer and more detailed than those in Pocock or McLynn – but it still isn’t nearly enough. A book like this needs 100 maps. When Baugh says that Frederick II launched his surprise attack on Saxony in August 1756, seizing Dresden before marching on to besiege Prague and fighting a big battle at Lobositz in Bohemia on 1 October … there is no map of this at all; no map showing the borders of Prussia, Saxony or Austria; no map showing the route of Frederick’s army or the location of Lobositz. Why not? I had to google them all. Why? You can never have too many maps.

The Treaty of Paris February 1763

The wars I’m familiar with (especially the first and second world wars) have generated vast mountains of analysis devoted to explicating their beginnings. Apparently, the great controversy about the Seven Years War was how it ended. The French had been thrashed to a standstill, unable to supply their army in Germany (which kept being defeated), defeated in India and Canada and driven out of the disputed Ohio territories, then losing the key islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique; the Austrians were fought to a standstill and had to accept they could never regain Silesia and, when the Empress Elizabeth died and was replaced by the pro-Frederick Peter III they realised they had to quit; while the Spanish failed in their attempt to invade Portugal and then lost Havana and Manila to the British, who destroyed a fifth of their fleet and kept the French fleet locked up impotently in its ports.

Tentative moves to peace began in 1760 but the conflict dragged on for two more years of almost unalloyed British victories and the extraordinarily complex machinations not only between the main nations’ ministers and ambassadors, but also disagreements within governments, especially within the British government, take Baugh over 100 pages of describe. This is a little difficult to follow and then a little hard to care about. The main points that come over are:

  1. Given the hopelessness of their position, credit must go to France’s duc de Choiseul who managed to wring significant concessions out of Britain.
  2. How? It is difficult not to feel contempt for the Earl of Bute – who replaced the meticulous and visionary Pitt as Prime Minister on the accession of George III – and was devoted to achieving peace as quickly as possible regardless of the cost, strategic, financial or reputational. Both Bute and the king lied to Parliament and their own cabinet colleagues, continually reassuring and coaxing the (heavily beaten) French and in the event handing over completely unnecessary concessions in India and Newfoundland.

Ten years later the French would be conspiring how to support the American Revolutionaries and subvert British interest yet again (1775-83), a dedicated enmity which would blossom after the French Revolution (1789) into the twenty year war against Republican and then Napoleonic France (1794-1815). With hindsight Bute’s craven appeasement of France looks unforgiveable.


Credit

The Global Seven Years War by Daniel Baugh was published by Pearson Education Ltd in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2014 Routledge paperback edition.

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