Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1) by James M. McPherson (1987)

‘Our political conflicts must be in future between slavery and freedom.’ Whig Congressman Joshua Giddings at the Free Soil convention in 1848 (quoted page 61)

This massive volume (900 pages) is just part of the Penguin History of America.

The civil war is far the most written-about event in American history, not least because more Americans died in it than in all other wars America has fought put together.

The civil war tore the young Republic apart, and the schism between north and southern states is in some ways still evident to this day. Certainly the bitterly divisive issue of race in America shows no signs of going away, ever.

Social background

McPherson gives a good run-up to the war with a fascinating profile of economic and social progress in America in the half century from 1800.

I was particularly struck by his interpretation of the movement of women from being cottage industry producers, to heads of nuclear households in which the male went out to earn a wage, as a big step up in power and autonomy for women. (Not what they’re teaching my daughter in her Sociology A-Level.) Also the importance of women in creating a market for consumer goods, which made America a pioneer in all sorts of household conveniences for the next century.

And in creating an enormous market for an explosion of magazines and papers dedicated to women and women’s issues (homes and beauty etc). The bestselling novel of the entire 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was written by a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Women also established their dominance in the teaching profession, which has never gone away (in 2017 77% of teachers in the USA were female; the figure is 80% in the UK).

In 1848 a convention in New York state launched the modern women’s rights movement (pp. 33-36).

Inevitability

What comes over strongest is the inevitability of the war. Conflict – bitter and angry conflict – between slave and free states exists from the very start of his account. (McPherson doesn’t mention it, but reading Alan Taylor’s account of the drafting of the American Constitution, it’s clear that slavery caused problems even then, with the northern participants having to find loose and ambiguous forms of words to take into account problems raised by slavery – for example, what was the population of a slave state, should you include slaves as ‘people’ or not?).

It takes McPherson about 300 pages to cover the period from about 1820 to the outbreak of war. Almost every page features rancour and disagreement among the states caused by slavery.

The curse of slavery

In fact slavery comes over as a curse of Biblical proportions on America. There is no way round it, no way out of it, no way of escaping the fact that the wealth of half the country depended on whip and chains. It fatally undermines all the vaunting rhetoric about freedom and independence spouted by northerners and the rebels of 1775, and they knew it.

Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty had become mostly an empire for slavery. Territorial acquisitions since the Revolution had added the slave states of Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida and Texas to the republic, while only Iowa, admitted in 1846, increased the rank of free states. (p.51)

Slavery had been absolutely vital for the economic success of the southern states when the mainstay crops were rice and tobacco. As the nineteenth century progressed, cotton rose in importance, not least to be exported to feed the mechanised cotton looms of Manchester. Economically, slavery increased its importance in the southern economy and culture as the century progressed.

Whipping a slave

Whipping a slave while his family watch

As America expanded, should the new states be slave or free?

The most fundamental fact of American history in the 19th century was its relentless progress westwards, settling, staking out, defining and creating new states as it went. Every time this happened, there was virulent debate about whether the new state would be slave or free.

Northern states, roughly represented by the Whig party, campaigned for all new states admitted to the union to be slave free. Politicians, journalists, businessmen and activists all across the south saw this as:

  • a threat to their livelihood
  • a block to them expanding their economic model
  • in effect reserving each  new state for the northern economic model of free farming or industrialisation
  • and so an insult to the much-vaunted ‘honour’ of the South

Politicians and journalists were talking about a clash between the slave-owning southern states and the free northern states from the turn of the century. As early as 1820 a compromise had to be hammered out about just how much of the new territory of the Louisiana Purchase should be slave and free (free above latitude 36′ 30) and the accession of each new territory caused a repeat of the same arguments, except louder and more bitter each time.

Map of America in 1854 showing free and slave states

Map of America in 1854 showing free and slave states and the enormous contested area of Kansas-Nebraska

The Mexican-American War

The book gets going with the arguments in the wake of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. After American forces beat the Mexican army at a series of battles and then occupied Mexico City, the Mexican government was forced to cede California and New Mexico to America, and to give up hope of retrieving Texas which, for a while had been an independent state, before being absorbed in the USA. Mexico accepted the course of the Rio Grande river as its new border with America, losing a third of its territory to America.

But even as the war was being fought, politicians, lobbyists and so on were bitterly arguing whether the new states were to be slave or free. The crisis lasted from 1846 to 1851, with a series of political expedients and compromises in Congress under successive presidents. McPherson goes into very great detail about the centrality of the argument in the campaigns for party nominations, in the presidential campaigns and in various congressional and senate contests.

The American party system comes over as confusingly fragmented (with Conscience Whigs, Cotton Whigs, the Liberty Party, Barnburners, southern ‘fire-eaters’, the Free Soil convention and many more floridly-named splinter groups), but roughly there were:

  • northern Whigs, representing industrialisation and civil liberties
  • and southern Democrats representing slavery, the rights of property and the slave economy

Although a central thread of the book is how this rough grouping was torn apart and refashioned by the war.

Arguments for and against slavery

One of the most interesting aspects of history is the study of reasons or arguments which lost. Historians often skip over these, assuming that nowadays we all agree, that the values of the present are self-evident and eternal. But for me that’s precisely a major value of the study of history: to enter fully into the economic, social and political mindset of people in completely different times and circumstances, to fully understand what drove them to believe and fight for their cause.

McPherson usefully summarises the arguments for and against slavery, conceived in the broadest sense:

AGAINST SLAVERY

  • free labour was more efficient than slave labour because it was motivated by the inducement of wages and ambition for upward social mobility rather than coercion
  • slavery undermined free white labour wherever the two existed side by side
  • slavery inhibited education and social improvement, keeping not only blacks but poor whites in a state of low education
  • because it was best suited to a small number of labour-intensive crops, slave labour prevented the development of a diverse economy with innovation motivated by social improvement

Northerners thought these economic arguments explained why the northern free states were ahead of the South on almost all metrics, such as capital investment, literacy, industrialisation, innovation, and so on. And explained what was at stake in deciding whether new states should be slave or free: allowing slavery in them condemned them to being second class economies.

FOR SLAVERY

Intellectual southerners invoked the ideas of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson thought that freedom amounted to economic independence based on the possession of property. He envisioned a nation made up of independent farmers and artisans who defined their own work rate, hours and products. Followers of Jefferson strongly opposed the spread of industrialisation in the north. Industrialisation converted free farmers into ‘hands’ who worked regimented hours in large factories, losing all their skills except the handful necessary to fit into mass production. Hence the expression ‘wage slaves’. By the 1840s everyone knew that industrialised society was prey to periodic depressions when trade collapsed and factories laid off workers in droves, to beg in the streets.

Therefore, intellectual southerners could position themselves as principled opponents of capitalism, maintaining what they saw as older ideas of ‘liberty’ (for white people).

  • slavery was a blessing to the slave and to the master
  • slavery had civilised African savages
  • slavery introduced heathen savages to Christianity
  • slavery provided slaves with a paternalistic cradle-to-grave care not available to northern ‘wage slaves’
  • it raised up white labourers by freeing them from the most menial tasks
  • slavery eliminated the spectre of class conflict among whites by eliminating class and caste differences between them, bringing whites closer together, unlike the widening gap between rich and poor in the industrialised north
  • slavery generated the wealth to create a leisured class of gentleman who create civilisation, culture and fine living – unlike the hustling hucksterism of northern capitalism
  • all previous great civilisations had been based on slavery – the Greeks, the Romans etc

These proslavery arguments are fascinating because you can see there is a grain of truth in some of them (in the virtues of an agricultural over an industrialised economy, for example). They were certainly enough to mobilise opinion right across the south, enough to produce a torrent of speeches and articles fulminating against northern arrogance and soulless industrial capitalism, enough to prompt endless threats that the south would secede or take up arms to protect her special interests – enough to drown out the simple, undeniable fact that slavery was an outrage against human decency, dignity and any ideas ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’.

To see how so many educated southerners – politicians, lawyers and journalists – managed to suppress this basic truth amid a flood of secondary arguments and justifications, is quite mind-boggling, and an education in human beings’ limitless ability to delude themselves when self-interest is at stake.

But it’s only if you make an imaginative attempt to understand, to internalise these arguments as much as their proponents, that you can hope to understand what came next. Thus McPherson quotes Senator John C. Calhoun as saying that slavery was:

the most safe and profitable basis for free institutions in the world (p.56)

Incomprehensible to us. But unless we make the effort to understand the almost unbelievable things people in the past have devotedly adhered to, we condemn ourselves to live in a world we don’t fully understand.


Related links

Other posts about American history

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling (2007)

‘We are now launching into a wide and boundless field, puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties.’
George Washington, autumn 1779

At 680 larger-than-usual pages, this is a very long, very thorough and very heavy book.

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy conducted by both sides in the war, and of the actual battles fought during the war.

In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

Put simply, the result of the Seven Years War was that the British Army and its colonial and Indian allies won Canada from the French, seizing its key city, Quebec, and expelling the French from their would-be North American empire. Thus ensuring that America would be an English-speaking nation.

Britain won because:

  1. the British government threw many more men and resources at the war than the French
  2. the British colonists far outnumbered the French, 1.2 million Brits compared to 55,000 French

But the British government, led by William Pitt, had to borrow a lot of money to pay for these military campaigns and, as soon as the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, lost no time in trying to recoup their money from the colonists. A range of new taxes were introduced – via the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act and the Townshend Revenue Act – and existing taxes were collected more stringently.

The colonists didn’t like new taxes

The colonists didn’t like it. There was a long, steady rumble of complaint from the moment the new taxes were introduced in 1763 to the outbreak of war in 1775. A spectrum of dissenting opinion emerged among the colonists, from:

  • radicals like John Adams, who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

  • 1768 – the arrival of British troops in Boston, the most important port (and largest city) in the colonies, to support the collection of taxes
  • 5 March 1770 – ‘the Boston Massacre’, when an angry mob surrounded the British customs building, someone let off a shot, the soldiers panicked and killed five colonials
  • the 1773 Tea Act which aimed to promote tea from India in America and led to ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 16 December, when American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped £9,000 of East India Company tea into the Boston harbour
  • the four ‘Intolerable Acts’ passed by the British Parliament in May and June 1774, which stripped Massachusetts of self-government and judicial independence following the Boston Tea Party
  • the first Continental Congress in September 1774 when delegates were sent from all 13 colonies to the town hall in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the Intolerable Acts

Although critics of Lord North’s administration in the British Houses of Parliament fiercely criticised many of the British measures, although many British politicians spoke and wrote pamphlets in favour of greater moderation and understanding of the Americans, and although most of the American politicians were themselves conservative and favoured reconciliation with Britain – nonetheless, reading any timeline of the build-up to war gives an overwhelming sense of inevitability – of the Titanic steaming unstoppably towards the iceberg.

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

  • The British king and his ministry thought they had spent a fortune, and lost a lot of men, defending colonists who paid only a fraction of the taxes which their cousins in Britain paid: it was time they coughed up.
  • The Americans thought victory in what they called ‘the French and Indian War’ had owed a lot to their own men and blood; they didn’t owe anyone anything. Plus, they had all grown up paying minimal taxes and so were outraged when the London government started imposing all kinds of new taxes and tolls on them and their imports.

American resentment crystallised into the expression ‘no taxes without representation’, meaning they refused to pay taxes imposed on them by a legislature 3,000 miles away, in which they had no say.

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went on to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise.

I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

Studying them carefully – putting yourself in their place and trying out their arguments – gives you insights into the fate of moderates in so many revolutions – the French or Russian ones, to name the big two; and by extension, helps you to understand the fate of moderates in modern political situations (America, Turkey, Britain, Iran).

The American War of Independence

This book, by its sheer length and the staggering accumulation of detail, really brings home that the American War of Independence was much longer than you tend to imagine – from first skirmishes to final peace treaty it lasted a surprising eight and a half years, from 19 April 1775 to 3 September 1783.

What should the Americans do?

I think the single most striking learning is that both sides didn’t know what to do or how to fight the war, an uncertainty which persisted right to the end.

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was sent in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts.

Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were reinforced and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

On June 14 1775 the Continental Congress voted to create the Continental Army and voted George Washington its commander-in-chief. When news of all this arrived back to London, the government sent a British Army force across the Atlantic under the command of General Howe. It was war.

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front in the Great War, with the Allies crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland in the East.

But in this war, where was the American homeland? Where could a knock-out blow be delivered?

And what did the Americans aim to achieve? Was it best to meet the British Army in a head-on, traditional-style battle and defeat it? When you put it like that, you see how unlikely it was that an army made of volunteers who’d spent most of their lives working on farms, with officers and NCOs having been appointed just a few weeks earlier, would be able to defeat the well-armed, well-drilled professional Brits.

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory – or otherwise they just retreated.

Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was permanently rife with debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back.

And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were fierce and partisan arguments in Congress.

Not only were there divisions about how to fight but, more importantly, where. Were there ‘key colonies’ or areas which must not be ceded to enemy at any cost – and, if so, where? Was it vital to hold Boston, or to retire if the army was imperiled? Ditto New York: should Washington’s army defend New York come what may or, again, make a tactical withdrawal in the face of superior British forces, and live to fight another day?

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side.

In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were after all, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777.

At several key moments, for example when he had cornered the American Army in New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage – and so let the Americans escape.

Great Britain’s last best chance to destroy the Continental army and crush the American rebellion occurred in September 1776, but the opportunity slipped away through a series of monumental mistakes. (p.139)

Howe had been an MP in the Commons during the build-up to war, and had voted for conciliation and compromise with the rebels. While the hawks called for a slash and burn policy, Howe appears to have thought that the Americans were misled by a handful of fanatics and that, if only they could be dealt a bloody nose, the Congress and most of the population would suddenly realise the error of their ways, put down their weapons, and accede to His Majesty’s very reasonable demands.

So although Howe defeated Washington in a series of encounters designed to drive him out of New York, he deliberately let slip a couple of sitting duck opportunities to surround and annihilate his opponent. History remembers Washington as a great general but he was fighting an opponent who was reluctant to really comprehensively defeat him.

Indecisive battles

And so both the British and the Americans hesitated among a variety of choices before embarking on anything coherent enough to be termed a ‘campaign’. What is then notable is how many of these campaigns failed – it seems to the untutored reader to have been a war of failures rather than successes.

Thus the engagements at Lexington and Concord led the Americans to besiege Boston, which sounds like a big bold thing to do. But General Howe threatened to burn the city to the ground unless he was allowed to sail away unscathed, the Americans reluctantly gave in, and Howe sailed off with all his men. Hardly a victory.

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City.

The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve, before finally blundering into the settled territory in Canada, is the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the assault on the city, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America.

It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

Similarly, Howe launched a great campaign to take New York City from Washington’s army ,and this involved a whole series of engagements as Washington slowly withdrew back through Long Island, then up Manhattan, and over into new Jersey. But the real story is that Howe missed several glaring opportunities to surround and exterminate Washington’s army, letting it live on.

Similarly, much is made of the Battle of Saratoga, a supposedly great victory by the Americans in October 1777. But when you read about it in as much detail as Ferling supplies, you first of all realise that it wasn’t a battle at all. British General Burgoyne had led an army down from British Canada, hoping to link up with General Howe’s army from New York, and another one coming east from Lake Ontario. Neither turned up and Ferling’s account shows how Burgoyne’s force was steadily weakened and depleted by small engagements along the way, loss of food and supplies, the necessity of leaving detachments to guard all the little forts he captured on the way south and so on and so on. So that by the time Burgoyne’s weakened force approached the American stronghold of Albany, at the northernmost point of the River Hudson, his depleted forces were perilously short of ammunition and supplies. Eventually Burgoyne’s force was surrounded by outnumbering American forces and he surrendered. There was no battle.

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey.

Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side).

But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick left in them. Trenton stemmed the tide of defections and desertions from the Patriot army and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something. But it didn’t gain much ground or defeat a major British force.

There is much more like this. Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony to give really impactful accounts of the endless marching, of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south, of the endless arguments at British and American HQ – which make up the majority of the text.

The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact, the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

Skirmishing aside, really large full-scale battles didn’t happen that often, but when they do Ferling’s accounts are appropriately gory and bloodthirsty, over and again bringing out how war amounts to the frenzied butchering and dismembering, skewering, hacking and eviscerating of human bodies.

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, Washington was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York – despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces.

That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British – another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

Washington’s obsession with the north meant that he missed the region where the war was eventually won, which was in the southern states. About half way through the book Ferling switches focus from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, to the southern states of Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

This second half feels different from the first half for two reasons: the French had got involved, and there was a lot more guerrilla and partisan fighting.

France and world war

American representatives had been in Paris since before the start of the war, negotiating trade deals etc. Once conflict broke out, Ferling devotes sections to describing in detail the lengthy negotiations between American representatives and the French government, with the former trying to persuade the latter to join in and support the revolution.

Both sides had many considerations to weigh up: some Americans worried that any victory with the help of the French would mean handing over territory in North America to them – maybe they’d want Canada back, and so become a threat to the young country from the north; or maybe the French would demand the rights to Louisiana (at that point all the land along both sides of the Mississippi) and would thus block any further American expansion to the west. Risky.

Other Patriots worried that any even-handed military alliance with the French might mean that Americans would get dragged into France’s endless wars in Europe: having begun a war to get free of entanglements with Britain and her power politics on the Continent, the Americans might find themselves ending up worse off than they began.

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity.

I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’. The Americans couldn’t have won their ‘freedom’ if it hadn’t been for French support.

War in the South

As 1780 dawned the British were as puzzled as the Americans about what to do next. A series of events led the British to conceive of mounting a ‘Southern strategy’ and General Henry Clinton (who had succeeded the indecisive General Howe in 1778) despatched General Charles Cornwallis to raise Loyalist forces across the south.

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom.

But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, gambling on a Loyalist uprising but it never materialised. He was shadowed by the American general Nathanael Greene, who dominates the American side of the story for this whole southern campaign and emerges (from my amateur perspective) as a much more energetic, successful and important American general than Washington, who spent all these last few years holed up in the north, vainly fantasising about recapturing New York.

It was very typical of this prolonged and indecisive war that a key engagement was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, where Cornwallis’s army beat Greene, but suffered large casualties in the process. As in so many battles of the American War of Independence, Cornwallis held the field but the other side had won.

Because it wasn’t a war of decisive victories; it was a war of attrition where the winner was the one who could wear down the other side. This describes the American failure at Quebec and the British failure at Saratoga – and that is how the war finally ended.

British surrender

In 1781 the French arranged to send a significant fleet to the Americas. In fact it went first to the West Indies to secure French territories there, before asking its American allies where along the coastline it should be sent.

This prompted feverish debate among the Americans and their French allies about whether the French fleet should be sent to New York to revive Washington’s endless dreams of recapturing the city. But in the end it went to Virginia, partly under the influence of the French officer Lafayette, who had been fighting alongside the Americans almost from the start, and was now embedded in Greene’s southern army.

Before he left North Carolina for Virginia, Cornwallis had been receiving confused orders from his commander-in-chief, Clinton, holed up in New York. At some moments Clinton asked him to come all the way back north to help protect the city, but in other despatches ordered him to stay where he was. The one clear message that emerged from this confusion was that Cornwallis should hunker down in a coastal port and await the Royal Navy.

So Cornwallis marched to Yorktown on the Virginia coast, built outworks, prepared for a siege and awaited relief. But it never came. Instead the French fleet arrived and Nathanael Greene’s army was joined by a steady flow of Continental soldiers and militias from all across the south, who were able to block off all Cornwallis’s escape routes.

As so often during the narrative, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have escaped the siege and fled north, or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city.

But he had been ordered to await the Royal Navy and await them he did until it was too late, he was completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short – giving in to reality – Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender.

And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

When news of this disaster arrived back in London in late November 1781 the British government… gave up. The British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, could have recruited more, and the war could have been prosecuted for another six years, if anyone had wanted to.

But enough of the ruling classes were fed up with the loss of men and money to make it untenable.

Although the vote in Britain was limited to a tiny percentage of male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes.

The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout.

A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. So it goes.

Conclusions

I’d never read an account of the American War of Independence before. It was a real eye-opener. There was:

1. a lack of focus, as both sides racked their brains to decide what they were trying to do

2. a lack of fighting – especially in 1779 and 1780 long periods passed with no fighting at all – I think Washington didn’t see any action at all in the final two years of the war

I was really, really struck by the way that a handful of events from the first months of the war have become so mythical that even I have heard of them – Paul Revere’s Ride from Boston to warn the Patriots that the British were coming; the first shot fired at Concord which inspired Emerson’s poem:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

And the Battle of Bunker Hill outside Boston.

But all these happened within the first few months of the war. American mythology dwells on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then – the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear a lot less about them.

The exception is Washington’s night-time crossing of the Delaware river, ferrying his army across to launch his surprise dawn attack on Trenton, because it was a daring, dashing undertaking and it inspired a number of heroic paintings depicting the scene.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

But it’s as if the events of those first few months have become super-iconic, overflowing with revolutionary zeal and idealism and then…. as with all wars, when it wasn’t over by Christmas and in fact dragged on for six long, gruelling years more, during which thousands of men died, thousands of citizens lives were destroyed by marauding militias or Indians, and the entire economy of America was undermined by a lack of supplies which led to galloping inflation, well… you don’t hear much about that.

Ferling’s long, detailed account shows the gruelling reality which lay behind the handful of mythical highlights which we remember.

3. Above all, there was a lack of inevitability. 

Again, I am used to the kind of war where ‘the tide turns’ and the Germans start to be defeated on the Western front or the Japanese are fought back across the Pacific, so that the conclusions of World Wars One and Two possess a grinding sense of inevitability.

But there was no decisive ‘turning point’ in this war and the end, when it comes, is oddly anti-climactic, almost an accident. Oh well. We’re surrounded. Better surrender, chaps.

This sense of contingency is heightened by the way Ferling, at all points, investigates very thoroughly all the arguments and logics underpinning everyone’s strategies. There was no inevitability to Cornwallis deciding to invade Virginia or deciding to retreat to Yorktown – in fact, historians to this day struggle to account for it.

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between warring sides in European conflicts.

As 1781 dawned, all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

This wish to hold on to territory partly explains why commander-in-chief Clinton was reluctant to leave New York, which would be a jewel in the crown if Britain was allowed to retain it, and also explains Cornwallis’s energetic attempts to clear the southern states of rebels, and to raise Loyalist forces to keep them secure.

If peace suddenly broke out, they would have been retained by the British Empire.

Ferling brings out how this nightmare scenario kept men like Washington and John Adams awake at night – the notion that after six years of sacrifice, and watching the American economy go to hell, the Patriots might end up rewarded only with the New England states, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while New York state (which extends north to the border with Canada) and the entire south would be retained by Britain.

Worse, if the French insisted on reclaiming Louisiana, the new American republic would be surrounded on all sides by enemies and barriers.

It was not to be – but it might have been – and it is one of the many pleasures of Ferling’s long and exhaustingly thorough account, that the reader develops a real sense of just how contingent and arbitrary this shattering war and, by extension, all human affairs, really are.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)


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A Brief History of Superheroes by Brian J. Robb (2014)

Robb has previously written biographies of Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. This volume is one of a series titled ‘A brief guide to [or A history of] …’ which includes guides to Stephen King, ghost-hunting, the Roman Empire, Star Wars and any other topics they thought would sell. Written for a popular audience, then.

No illustrations

At 340 pages, including notes and index, it’s quite a long book, but its most obvious feature is that there are no illustrations, none, nada, zip – which is a big drawback seeing as comic books are a largely visual medium. When it gives descriptions of the early artwork for Superman, or how Batman’s look was refined over time, or the visual makeover of many comic book heroes in the 1960s, the reader is crying out for illustrations to show what he’s talking about. But you have to turn to the internet to do your own research…

So the book is solely prose, made up of thumbnail profiles of the writers, artists and publishers who created comic book superheroes, along with a dense account of how they developed and evolved over time.

Superman 1938

Comic Superhero history starts in May 1938 when Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1. In other words, Superman is 80 years old this year, in fact this month!

He was the creation of two schoolfriends from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist). Everything before this date is the pre-history of superhero comics; everything afterwards is the complex unfolding of superhero comic history.

Cultural forebears of superheroes

The prehistory is entertaining because Robb (like many others writing on the subject) feels compelled to give a brisk popular history of the wide-ranging role of ‘the hero’ in myth, legend, history and folklore (the word ‘hero’ is itself of Greek derivation).

Thus a man gifted with magic powers to protect his people can be made to include Moses and Aaron and the Biblical hero Samson. It can include the pantheon of Greek gods and mortal heroes like Heracles, Perseus and Theseus. Robb quotes Joseph Campbell on the importance of ‘the Journey’ in numerous ancient stories about heroes, and references the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey and the Mahabharata as cultural forebears of Batman and Robin. This is both fun and a little pompous.

Folklore forebears of superheroes

More persuasive is the notion of a lineage from more folklore elements of ‘the hero’ through to the popular fictions of the late 19th century. Robin Hood and Dick Turpin are two prime examples. Robin Hood is not only an epitome of schoolboy morality (stealing from the rich to give to the poor) but he wears an early version of the superhero costume: tights and a distinctive cap, all in bright primary colours (Lincoln green with some red thrown in). Dick Turpin concealed his face behind a neckerchief and a pulled-down hat, and wore a cloak or cape.

Pop culture forebears of superheroes

But in fact, historians have no idea what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin wore. The images I’ve described above derive from movies, and it is Hollywood which is probably the prime factor in the origin of the superhero look.

Superheroes didn’t derive from scholarly study of ancient mythology and folklore: they came out of the extraordinary rich, bubbling swamp of popular and pulp culture of the 1920s. If Jerry and Joe knew about Sherlock Holmes or the Scarlet Pimpernel it wasn’t from reading the books about them (Sherlock had debuted in 1887, the Pimpernel in 1905). It was from paying a few cents to sit in the cheap seats of the local movie house, chomping on popcorn and watching the adventure films of a movie star like Douglas Fairbanks, who starred in a movie about Zorro (created 1919, turned into a movie in 1920), Robin Hood (1922) or the Black Pirate (1926).

In a sense superheroes began in the movies before, in our time, returning to the movies.

Like other historians of the subject, Robb pays special attention to characters with dual identities, a standard feature of most comic book superheroes – the classic example being Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

(Although if you stop and think about it for a moment, a dual identity is a basic element of almost all detective, spy and crime fiction of the kind that was growing more and more popular at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. Many thousands of detective stories take their time working up to the grand ‘reveal’ of the ‘true identity’ of the criminal, of the dope dealer or jewel thief or murderer etc caught by Sherlock Holmes or any one of the hundreds of copycat detectives invented in the 1890s and 1900s. (See my review of The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes a collection of stories about fictional detectives inspired by Holmes.) Spy stories, are by their very nature, about people concealing their true task and intentions.

Anyway, Robb’s book becomes really interesting when it gets to the extraordinarily dense jungle of popular culture which flowered in the 1890s and then just got denser and denser in the decades that followed, proliferating in penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers, pulp magazines, newspaper supplements and then in the new format of moving pictures and related magazines and merchandising.

Robb dwells on two Edwardian doers of good deeds who hid their true identity:

  • the Scarlet Pimpernel (real name Sir Percy Blakeney) who rescues aristocrats from the guillotine, leaving a calling card with a picture of the pimpernel flower
  • Zorro, who wears a black face mask and cape, protects the poor of California, and leaves a distinctive ‘Z’ carved into various objects with his stylish swordplay

Just as important for a superhero is the fiendish villain, and these were prefigured by – among many – Holmes’s opponent, the ‘Napoleon of crime’, Professor Moriarty, or the diabolical criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (1913).

British hero fiction included John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay who debuted in 1915, followed by the more thuggish Bulldog Drummond, who appeared in 1920. Lesley Charteris’s crime-fighting hero, the Saint, first appeared in 1928. Biggles the heroic fighter pilot first appeared in 1932. All these heroes were morally unambiguous fighters against Crime and Fiendish Plots.

In America the spread of radio gave rise to a florid variety of heroic fighters against crime: the Shadow, a masked crime-fighting vigilante (1930), the Spider (1933) and Doc Savage (1933), a kind of ‘peak human’, reared to have perfect abilities, who had a base in mid-town Manhattan and a rich armoury of state-of-the-art gadgets, funded by money from a secret Mayan goldmine, to help him fight crime.

In 1936 the Green Hornet, another crime-fighting, masked vigilante was created specially for radio. Also in 1936 appeared The Phantom, who wore a skin-tight bodysuit and a ‘domino’ eye-mask to fight crime.

Off in another part of the rich jungle of popular and pulp culture which exploded around the time of the Great War, was the more unrestrained world of science fiction and fantasy. Important forebears were John Carter of Mars (1912) and Tarzan (1912), both created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Francis Nowlan’s hero Buck Rogers (1928) and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (1932), soon joined by Alex Raymond’s newspaper strip hero Flash Gordon (1934).

What these numerous figures have in common is that they are modern, pulp versions of ‘the hero’, who always outwit their fiendish opponents after a string of exciting adventures, and that they appear in series or serials: once invented they can appear in almost limitless numbers of adventures (as Conan Doyle, who came to hate his invention, Sherlock Holmes, knew all too well).

By now you might share the feeling I had that the first appearance of Superman in 1938 was maybe not quite the dazzling innovation I thought it was; in fact reading about this proliferation of heroes might make you wonder why it took quite so long to come up with what seems to be the logical conclusion of all these trends.

Robb tells the story of how two teenagers from Cleveland conceived the idea, developed it over many years, were repeatedly rejected by newspapers and comic publishers, and were forced to work on other characters and projects, until finally given their big break in 1938.

I found the two most interesting things about Superman were:

1. His descent not so much from all these detectives and crime fighters, but from the Victorian circus strongman. These popular performers generally wore tights and pants, a figure-hugging suit to highlight their musculature which was strapped in with an impressive belt, and often stylised boots.

Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the 'superhero look'

A Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the ‘superhero look’

2. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the exclusive rights to their then-new character, Superman to DC (short for Detective Comics) Publishing for just $130 (split between the two of them). Superman was an instant hit and not only went on to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the publisher and the film company that eventually bought it, but to inspire an entire genre of superhero fiction across all media.

As they watched this happen Siegel and Shuster continued to work as a comic book writer and illustrator, respectively, but made repeated attempts to sue for a share of the vast revenue generated by their invention. In fact their heirs are still locked in litigation with DC’s parent company, Time Warner, to this day.

The development of the comic strip

Robb gives a brief and fascinating recap of how the comic strip itself evolved. As far back as the record stretches, human beings have always told stories. Bas-relief carvings on Greek and Indian temples capture moments from religious or legendary narratives. (Robb doesn’t mention it but I’d have thought the 12 Stations of the Cross which appear in tens of thousands of Catholic churches are an early example of a story told through snapshots of key moments.) He does mention the use of ‘scroll speech’ in medieval and Renaissance art work, where a scroll unfolds from a figure’s mouth, containing their speech (something I’m familiar with from my readings of the British Civil Wars).

17th century cartoon with speech scroll

17th century Civil War cartoon with speech scroll

Robb says the next step forward was marked by the popular engravings of the 18th century artist William Hogarth, famous for the series of pictures which depict The Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress. These popular engravings showed the decline of the eponymous rake and harlot with plenty of humorous detail. They gave rise to similar pictorial sequences by Rodolphe Töpfler later in the century, and by the Victorian artist Gustave Doré, among others. Throughout the 19th century Punch in Britain and similar magazines across the Continent used cartoons, often with speech captions, to convey narratives with punch lines.

Capitalist competition creates comics

But all these sometimes dubious historical antecedents are there simply to pave the way for the real start of popular comic books which, as with most things American, came out of ferocious competition to make money.

Starting in 1887 a newspaper war was waged between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empires. One among many fronts in this war was the innovation of cartoon strips with catchy titles and populist characters. In 1892 The Little Bears was created by Jimmy Swinnerton for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, probably the first cartoon strip anywhere which featured regularly recurring characters.

In 1895 Pulitzer debuted a strip titled The Yellow Kid for his paper The New York World, drawn by Richard Felton Outcault, which pioneered the use of speech text to indicate dialogue. In 1897 the paper added a supplement featuring just Outcault’s strips and expanding it to describe an array of characters from the yellow kid’s neighbourhood – titled McFadden’s Row of Flats – and a new term, ‘comic book’, was invented to describe it.

As a direct response to all this, Hearst’s New York Journal commissioned their own strip, The Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolph Dirks. Dirks developed Outcault’s device of speech balloons and invented the ‘thought balloon’, indicated by a series of bubbles leading up to the text balloon itself. The same year saw the first use of colour printing (as the name, The Yellow Kid, indicates).

These kind of narrative cartoons featuring recurring characters proved tremendously popular (nicer, after all, than reading the depressing news) and spread like wildfire to every other newspaper which could find a decent illustrator. By 1912 Hearst was devoting an entire page of the New York Daily Journal to comic strips, a feature which became known as the ‘funny pages’, the ‘funny papers’, or simply ‘the funnies’.

It was quickly realised that the strips which appeared during the week could be repackaged into a bumper weekend supplement. Rather than broadsheet size, it made financial and practical sense to publish them in magazine format, which was easier for readers to handle and read. The comic book was born.

Superhero history

So much for the multi-stranded prehistory of the comic superhero.

The publication of Superman in 1938 transformed the landscape, inventing a whole new genre of superhero. From this point onwards Robb’s book becomes a dense and fascinating account of how numerous newspapers and publishers sought to cash in on the fad by creating their own superheroes. He describes the complicated evolution of the two publishing houses which would eventually become known as Marvel and DC, and reading his book gives you a good sense of the difference between them.

Basically, DC owned Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) who spawned hundreds of imitators but managed to remain ahead of the pack. Through the war years the superheroes performed their patriotic duty with a strong sideline in film noir-style violence against all manner of crime or fantasy baddies.

In the 1950s there was a moral backlash against comics, with a nationwide panic in America that they were one of many influences turning teenagers into ‘juvenile delinquents’. This resulted in 1954 in the establishment of The Comics Code Authority (CCA) which forced comic books to abandon much violence and all references to drugs and sex, tending to replace hard 1940s stories with softer, romance elements.

Marvel began existence in 1939 as ‘Timely Publications’, and by the early 1950s was generally known as Atlas Comics. The Marvel branding began 1961 with a rack of superhero titles created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others. Robb describes the period 1961-62 as a kind of annus mirabilis, during which Lee oversaw the creation of The Fantastic Four and their nemesis Dr Doom (November 1961), Ant-Man (January 1962), the Incredible Hulk (May 1962), Spider-Man (August 1962), the Mighty Thor (August 1962), Iron Man (March 1963), the Avengers (September 1963) and the X-men (1963).

Even if you think comic books are rubbish, this is by any measure still an incredible outpouring of creativity, the creation of characters which would go on to have multi-billion dollar futures in popular culture.

Although other artists and writers were involved, Stan Lee is commonly associated with this outburst of imagination and the key element of it seems to have been his conviction that superheroes must be flawed – realistic characters who often struggle with their own superpowers. Thus Spider-Man is deeply confused about how to use his skills, the X-Men bicker amongst themselves, the Fantastic Four are riven by rivalries, and the Hulk considers committing suicide he is so upset by the scientific accident which has turned him into a monster.

It was this troubled psychology which set them completely apart from DC’s untroubled hero Superman and made them feel more contemporary than their older cousins (although, admittedly, DC’s Batman is a much darker creation).

In a second nod to contemporary concerns, Lee’s Marvel creations were nearly all connected to contemporary paranoia about the atom bomb and atomic energy. It is radioactivity which messes up the DNA of almost all these superheroes, a paranoia about the potentially damaging impact of modern science which remains relevant right down to the present day.

It is this more ‘modern’ way of conceiving superhero psychology, as well as the more modern concerns about science, which possibly account for the relative success of the Marvel characters in the movies, and the rather staid, static quality of the DC movies.

The difference between the Superman era and the Fantastic Four era is recognised by comic book historians who have divided the past eighty years into a series of ‘ages’.

The golden age of comic books was from 1938 to about 1950, when waning interest in superheroes was capped by the baleful influence of the Comics Code Authority.

The silver age of comic books is dated from DC Comics’ new character Flash, introduced in Showcase #4 in October 1956. This led up to the Marvel outburst in the early 1960s which spawned a great sprawling cast not only of heroes but of baddies and enemies. This era also another important Marvel innovation, which was introducing one set of heroes into the adventures or ‘universe’ of another set. As the 1960s progressed, the interactions of heroes from different narratives became not only more complex in itself, but led to the notion of parallel worlds in which the various characters might have different superpowers, fight each other and even die.

The bronze age of comic books runs from about 1970 to 1985. The bright, Pop optimism of the 1960s turned into a nitty-gritty concern with social ‘issues’, such as the environment, feminism, racism and drugs, along with more realistic depictions of alcoholism, addiction, urban decay and so on.

Alongside the two giants of Marvel and DC there arose a new wave of independent comic book publishers who took a whole new approach to the superhero genre. This was crystallised in the epoch-making Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, which set out to deconstruct the entire mythos of superheroes.

Superheroes in movies

Although Robb doesn’t quite make this point, his book ends where it began, with the movies. Not with the distant antecedents of Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, but with the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster loved the movies and were influenced by what they saw, by the sight of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way across the screen and that now, we in our time, queue up to watch the Amazing Spiderman, Thor and Iron Man swing across our multiplex 3D screens.

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Radio Robb’s last few chapters give a bewilderingly dense account of the way superheroes were adapted to other media beyond comic books. Radio was the first, and it’s interesting to learn that radio developed catchphrases, plot lines and even new characters, which hadn’t existed in the original comics but which the comics then co-opted.

Television From the 1950s various television series portrayed superheroes, probably the most memorable being the camp classic Batman of the 1960s.

Animations Movies were slower to adapt superheroes because of the technical challenges of portraying superhero action. It was easier to do this in animations, so there have been scores of animated TV shows and movies about superheroes.

The Modern Age of Superhero Movies starts with Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman in the film of the same name, directed by Richard Donner in 1978. Although the special effects look creaky to the modern eye, they were a quantum step up from all previous attempts and made superhero film-making a real possibility. Three sequels were released, in 1980, 1983 and 1987.

The next benchmark was the pair of Batman movies directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton. Robb is great on the showbusiness gossip and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring which accompanied these films, for example the way that Keaton, previously known mainly for light comic roles, was widely opposed by comicbook fans, who mounted a campaign to prevent him taking the role. In the event, Burton’s two Batman movies (Batman, 1989 and Batman Returns 1992) were widely seen as a triumph, and made stacks of money ($411 million and $266 million, respectively).

Robb details the ongoing attempts to stage other superhero movies during the 1980s and 90s, which met with mixed success, and a fair share of dazzling flops. Along with most fans he considers the last two Reeve Superman movies (Superman III, 1983 and Superman IV, 1987) and the Val Kilmer and George Clooney Batmen (Batman Forever, 1995, and Batman and Robin, 1997) to be disasters.

The modern age of superhero movies

The Current Age of Superhero Movies was launched with the X-Men directed by Bryan Singer and released in 2000. With an intelligent script, the steadying presence of two top-class British actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) and state-of-the-art, computer-generated graphics, X-Men inaugurated the modern age.

It cost a lot to make, but it:

a) made a fortune ($296 million)
b) spawned a host of sequels (there are now no fewer than 10 films in the X-Men series)
c) and led to a number of successful television spin-off series

The X-Men movies played an important role in creating the superhero cultural, film and TV universe that we now inhabit.

This is a list of the main superhero movies of the last 18 years, excluding various flops and failures, with an indication of their costs and revenues.

2000 X-Men ($296 million gross on $75 million budget)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million on $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million on $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million on $125 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million on $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million on $200 million)
2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)
2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Ant-Man and the Wasp
2018 Avengers: Infinity War
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Deadpool 2

Quite a few, aren’t there?

The first superhero movie to gross over a billion dollars was Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight, and six other superhero movies have grossed over a billion since then.

The X-Men movies between them have generated $5 billion.

In 2010 Marvel produced the first in a carefully planned sequence of movies designed to maximise revenue from their stable of characters, and which has become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. This is divided into ‘phases’ of six movies each, the first five of each phase devoted to individual Marvel heroes, the sixth bringing the previous five altogether into a grand finale which ties together plotlines from the previous movies.

As I write we are approaching the end of Phase Three, which has just seen the phenomenal success of Black Panther (phase 3, movie 5) which grossed over $1.3 billion, and paved the way for the sixth in this phase, Avengers: Infinity War which has just opened in the States to the usual mass marketing and hype.

Summary

Despite having no illustrations at all, Robb’s book is an eminently readable and very enjoyable overview of the entire history of the superhero comic book phenomenon, which puts it in the context of expanding popular culture, twentieth century history, and the evolving media of radio, TV and film – all told in a light, accessible prose style with a sure sense of the interesting anecdote and fascinating fact.

Great fun, and a very useful introduction to a cultural phenomenon which is bigger than ever, and set to dominate our movie and TV screens for the foreseeable future.


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The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe (1975)

I bought this as a Bantam paperback back in 1976 when it cost 65p. Now it costs nearly £11.

Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism

Tom Wolfe was one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism, a style of reporting which became fashionable in the 1960s, in which the ‘reporter’ a) was increasingly central to the story itself b) reported in the loose, slangy street style of the day. I recently read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, whose phantasmagorical prose style tried to capture the deranged, trippy experience of the Vietnam War. In fact,  it was only a few years earlier, in 1973, that Wolfe had edited and published the collection, The New Journalism, which crystallised the movement’s reputation.

Wolfe’s version was always urban and urbane. He used literary devices – sarcasm, irony, outrageously subjective opinions, and a dandy style incorporating onomatopoeia, multiple ornate phrases piled up between ellipses or dashes – to cover his subjects. His breakthrough piece in 1963 was a magazine piece about Californian hot rod and custom car culture titled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He followed this with 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a highly experimental account of the counter-culture author Ken Kesey and his hippy Merry Pranksters.

In 1970 he published Radical Chic, a scathing description of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the radical Black Panther Party, in which classy, upper class New York intellectuals bathed in the glory of consorting with radical revolutionaries and – my dear! – such charming young black men!!

The Painted Word

The Painted Word continues the theme of skewering the pretentions of New York’s glitzy upper-class liberal elite. In this short book (actually just a long article printed in Harper’s Magazine in April 1975) Wolfe rips into the pretentiousness of the New York art scene, its struggling artists and its oh-so-precious upper-class devotees.

Wolfe identifies several trends in the art world.

The Boho Dance Since the end of the 19th century the myth had grown up about struggling artists making do with bread and candles in unheated attics while they grind their brains to portray the Truth. Above all the Bohemian (shortened to ‘boho’) artist knows that a key part of the character is scorning the despised bourgeois values, being anti-respectability, dressing scruffy, identifying with the people and so on.

The Consummation But in fact, without exception, all these struggling artists yearn for one thing and one thing only which is to be recognised and acknowledged. How does that happen? You are taken up by the rich elite, particularly the elite of gallery owners and their very rich sponsors.

Schizophrenia But having spent a lifetime cultivating the personality of the struggling artist, many find it difficult to cope with suddenly being showered with prizes, grants, exhibitions, books and magazine articles. Especially since a lot of the showering comes from the very people you’ve spent tour adult life despising and denigrating.

Picasso is the prime example of an artist who made the transition with style, buying suits at the finest London tailors, living in style with his numerous mistresses, and still managing to convey a raffish bohemian air. Jackson Pollock is a tragic example of the Boho artist who couldn’t cope with this sudden clash of identities. Wolfe describes the time Pollock arrived at the uptown apartment of his mega-rich sponsor Peggy Guggenheim to find a dinner party full of Top People. Pollock promptly stripped naked and pissed in the fireplace – but the Top People were delighted: this was precisely the outrageous artistic antics that, by the 1950s, the haute bourgeoisie expected from its pet artists. Spiralling into alcoholism, Pollock died by crashing a car which he was driving when drunk, in 1956.

No modern artist can escape his fate – which is to a) adopt the Bohemian pose until b) he or she is taken up by the art-loving elite, and finds their anti-bourgeois snarling is rewarded by dinner party invitations and cocktails. Neutered. Caged.

Cultureberg because the art world is run by a tiny clique of super-rich patrons and sponsors, who pay for the little galleries, commission grand works, fund little magazines, hold lavish opening night parties, and support the big museums. In a spirit of mockery Wolfe calculates that the entire global art elite – the culturati, the denizens of Cultureberg – number 750 in Rome, 500 in Milan, 1,750 in Paris, 1,250 in  London, 2,000 in Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf, 3,000 in New York and maybe 1,000 scattered round the rest of the world. Say, 10,000 in all. A large village-sized population of artistic elite which decide who and what is the New Thing.

Wolfe makes the telling point that their decisions are generally announced in the pages of various magazines, as profiles and features, and in galleries as major shows or retrospectives. The public – which votes with its wallet when it comes to music, theatre, books or movies – has no such choice when it comes to art. The decisions are all made by the tiny art elite and only then do we, the public, get presented with a fait accompli.

Big money and high art

Thus, as he puts it, Modern Art – which was largely begun before the Great War – only became widely known after the Great War, not because anyone understood it better – but because the global elite found a use for it. It was only in the 1920s that the word ‘modern’ became so tremendously fashionable (as, Wolfe points out, ‘now’ was a buzz word of the 1960s – the ‘Now Generation’, and possibly ‘digital’ is the word of our era).

New York’s Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 having been developed by three rich women,  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil), Lillie P. Bliss (daughter of a U.S. Secretary of the Interior) and Mary Quinn Sullivan (wife of a lawyer specialising in large wealth trusts). Its first president was Anson Conger Goodyear, Director and Vice-President of various railroad companies and he recruited Paul Sachs, son of the founder of Goldman Sachs, and Frank Crowninshield, editor from 1914 to 1935 of Vanity Fair.

Art has always gone hand in hand with money, back through Renaissance princes to medieval kings, through the monuments built to commemorate Caesars and pharaohs. What is distinctive about modern art – and especially in America – is the hilarious contradiction between the aggressively anti-bourgeois stance of so many Boho artists, and the staggering wealth of their patrons and sponsors.

A cartoon history of modern art

Barely had this trend got going, claims Wolfe, than it stalled with the regrettable interruption of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. During the 1930s a lot of artists were put on the spot about their actual anti-bourgeois sentiments and found themselves churning out scores of images of brawny workers and downtrodden blacks. Fortunately (says Wolfe, in his breezily ironic tone) the Second World War came to America’s rescue, destroying Europe and making God’s own country the world’s first superpower but also – from the modern artists point of view – sweeping away the social realism of the 1930s which was now – in the cold light of the Cold War – looked suspiciously like commie art.

And so it was, with a loud whooshing sound, that the forward march of Modern Art resumed its stomp with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, a dazzlingly new style which foxed the general public (as all good new art should) but drove Cultureburg wild with excitement. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman – in their significantly different ways – produced a complete revolution in thinking about art which was a) God’s gift to intellectual theorists b) a specifically American look which Peggy Guggenheim and indeed the Federal Government could back and support c) and whose repercussions are still with us.

The battle of the bergs

The central and longest section of the essay is a deliberately distorted lampoon on the work of the two fashionable critics who promoted Abstract Expressionism – Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. First Wolfe caricatures the way the two men supported different artists in the movement by writing analyses of every-more dizzying intellectual abstruseness. For Greenberg the Cubists et al had correctly rejected Victorian realism and the absurd notion that a painting is a doorway into life, into a scene; but they had not gone far enough – you can still make out sort-of realistic objects in Cubism and related movements.

The Abstract Expressionists had gone one decisive step further and acknowledged that the painting is just a flat surface on which shapes and colours are arranged. In fact the flatter, the better, and Wolfe satirises Greenberg’s writings as increasingly shrill demands for evermore flatness, while at the same time decrying the great American public for not understanding the heroic work being done by this handful of tortured geniuses in Downtown New York.

Rosenberg entered the scene early in the 1950s and is responsible for a crucial extra element – he reintroduced psychology into what was in danger of appearing a very stale formal pursuit by coining the term ‘action painting’ (p.51). The painting isn’t a thing (no matter how flat). It is the record of an event and that event is the heroic manly painter wrestling with the inchoate materials of the universe to express his own deep existential angst.

Wow. So puzzled millionaires could now feel liberated to buy these splats of paint across huge canvasses (Pollock), these shimmering blocks of colour (Rothko), these disturbing lightning flashes against washes of plain colour (Newman), these blown-up black gestures which defied the universe (Franz Kline) because a) this showed how clever and up to the minute they were b) this showed how much soul and feeling and emotion they had and c) it showed how goddam American they were, and proud of it!

As early as 1949 poor Pollock was being hailed as the greatest American painter ever, not only in the art press, but to the wider world in a four-page spread in Life magazine. His famous drip paintings were made in the relatively short period 1947-50 and his later experiments, first with totally black works, then a return to more figurative, were not welcomed by critics or the art coteries who expected him to keep delivering the good. In a way it’s surprising he soldiered on till 1956.

And he died just as the new kids arrived on the block. Apparently Pop Art is dated to Jasper Johns’ one man show at the Castelli Gallery in 1958. American flags, numbers, letters, targets. He was quickly taken up by another berg, this time Leo Steinberg who, in Wolfe’s jokey narrative, manages to trounce both Greenberg and Rosenberg by declaring Abstract Expressionism not flat enough! This was because, despite the fact that it was all about the action on the surface of the canvas, in fact the Abstract Expressionist paintings still – if looked at a certain way – still had a sort of depth. You can be drawn into a Pollock or a Rothko.

However, the new young guys – led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – painted things which were already flat – the flag, numbers, target, letters or the photographs which Rauschenberg liberally sprinkled in his works. It was flat on flat. Flat squared. Ha! Gotcha!

But while Steinberg developed an arcane theory around Pop – claiming that it didn’t depict household objects in a realistic way, no, no no, no no, that would be a retreat back to figurativism, no no, Pop caught the interplay of signs which were such a feature of American life – a nod to the semiotics and structuralism becoming fashionable over in France – while Steinberg laboured to give Pop a sophisticated intellectual rationale, Wolfe sniggers that in fact rich collectors liked Pop Art because it was about super-recognisable and, ultimately, very reassuring things. It was American, it was fun, it was cool and above all, it was great to look at. Marilyn Monroe’s face blown up big and coloured in. What’s not to love?

Wolfe satirises Steinberg’s own confession that he resisted at first; he clung, like a virgin, onto his old beliefs, his devotion to action painting as revelation of the agonising struggle of the Great Artist. The shallowness of the new work upset him, but then – bang! – he got it. This was the next thing. Abstract Expressionism died overnight and all the galleries filled up with earnest Pops. Who also sold like hot cakes, much to the disgruntlement of the AEs who a) had never in fact sold that much and b) suddenly found themselves in the embarrassing position of being the old fuddy-duddies.

The Turbulence Theorem

Wolfe lampoons Steinberg’s resistance-then-submission story, saying it embodies what could be called the Turbulence Theorem of modern art:

If a work of art or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great. (p.88)

The ever-increasing pace of art theory

Wolfe remembers attending the 1965 Museum of Modern Art show which launched Op Art, short for Optical Art, but which its practitioners preferred to call Perceptual Abstraction. The catalogue recapitulated the history of modernism – the cubists rejected the window-on-the-world idea, Abstract Expressionists had established the art work as an object as real as a table or chair – now Perceptual Abstraction reduced art to an experiment in the science of perception – to the response of cones and rods within the eye and to synapses of the retinal nerves as they processed the deliberately mesmerising geometric patterns of Perceptual Abstraction. Hence the name.

But Greenberg and Rosenberg fought back with their own post-Pop style, which they christened Post-Painterly Abstraction, also known as Colour Field Abstract or Hard Edge Abstract which was painting with the brushstrokes and everything expressive taken out. Not quick enough, though, because in the mid to late 60s another big school emerged which came to be called Minimalism. In his cartoon way of telling the story, Wolfe invokes the Turbulence Theory i.e. it can’t be any good unless you hate it. Thus the critic Robert Scull was walking down Madison Avenue and saw a wall of pictures which were apparently completely white. They were in fact white paper with a few super-faint words ghostly written in a corner, by someone called Walter de Maria. Scull disliked them so much he realised they must be genius, bought them all, phoned the artist and became his sponsor on the spot!

But even as Op Art got publicity Minimalism was stirring. Colour? Pattern? Canvases? How derriere-garde, how bourgeois! Paint direct on the gallery wall (Sol Lewitt). Put a pile of bricks on the floor (Carl Andre). A stack of metal shelves up the wall (Donald Judd). Neon tubes in a corner (Dan Flavin).

But these can still be bought and sold like any other commodity and displayed in art galleries, yuk, to be silently revered by the hypocritical bourgeoisie! Reject the art gallery, comrades! And so began Earth Art – a circle of rocks in the desert (Richard Long).  A spiral made of mud and salt into the Great Salt Lake (Robert Smithson). Photographs of the work would have to be enough for the smug uptown liberal elite.

But then, why have an actual object at all? How very bourgeois! Why not just have the idea for a work? Conceptual art.

And each successive wave prompted shrieks of outrage from the middle-brow press? Excellent! We must be doing something right. Classic conceptual art reduced the whole enterprise to words – documentation – describing and explaining what the art work would or could be. There was fierce competition to be the most conceptual of the conceptualists, which Wolfe thinks was won by Lawrence Weiner with his Declaration of Intent (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

No paint. No canvas. No gallery. Nothing but words. And with this – Wolfe jokes – Art disappeared up its own fundament and re-emerged as pure theory, as words shorn of anything representational at all.

Epilogue

Where do you go after you’ve completely abolished your form? Well, post-modernism turns out to be the answer. The best explanation I heard of this troubled idea is that the core idea of MODERNISM is that there is ONE NARRATIVE – from Cezanne through Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Dada, Suprematism, De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, you can argue the case that there has been a steady series of waves, all operating under broadly the same parameters, each one represented by an avant-garde of pioneers who critics, collectors and public perceived as a kind of unified set of experiments on a single journey forwards, towards…

And post-modernism just stepped away from this whole story. Turns out there are hundreds of stories, thousands of stories, why get hung up about this particular one? You can have all or any of them, like flavours in an ice cream parlour. The very idea of ONE avant-garde which everyone had to look out for, keep up with, and which represented the latest step in an exciting voyage of discovery… over. Finished. Kaput!

Maybe the most interesting aspect of Wolfe’s hilarious romp through (then) recent art history is that he shows you how quickly it happened and how long ago all this is – and that by the time he wrote it in 1975, something like post-Modernism had set in. Meaning, a return to guilt-free figurative realism. He singles out the Photo-realism of Richard Estes, who takes colour photos of banal street scenes (generally shop facades) blows them up very big, projects them on a screen and then carefully paints them.

In the recent exhibition of American prints at the British Museum, some prints of Estes’ Photo-realist works follow the black and white lines of the Minimalist room and are accompanied by artists who returned to the deeply unfashionable genre of portrait painting, namely Alex Katz and Chuck Close. Their work just seems very, well, relaxed, after the existential agonies of the Abstract Expressionists. You look back at the tortured artists of the 1950s and think – to use the American expression – ‘Oh, just get over yourselves.’

The return of the repressed Boho

So what happened next? In the British Museum exhibition post-modernism is represented by a return to Estes’ street scenes, a load of portraits and various realistic depictions of the human form. What interested me was that around 1980 the show stopped being chronological and became thematic, collapsing into three isshoos – gay art around AIDS, feminism and gender, and African American art.

The casual viewer can’t help feeling that these represent a return of the wish to épater le bourgeoisie – the rallying cry of the late-19th century French avant-garde – i.e. to shock the middle classes. Reading the captions here and at the numerous other art exhibitions I go to, you get the sense that artists, and especially critics and curators, wish they were back in the age of modernism, when art genuinely did shock and stun and amaze, when it genuinely ‘transgressed’ and ‘subverted’ something, when it counted for something, goddammit, when it did shock and change wider society a little – and weren’t living now, in the age of finance capitalism, the age of Trump and post-factual politics, the age of Instagram and Facebook and instant liking and friending, when nothing much has any meaning or depth.

I looked around at my fellow ageing, white middle-class visitors to the American prints exhibition at the British Museum: were any of them shocked and outraged by graphic depictions of AIDS or slave ships or a feminist from the 1970s subverting gender stereotypes? Nope. To coin a typically powerful American phrase, I think the curators are confusing us with someone who gives a shit.

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America after the Fall @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition brings together 45 big oil paintings (no prints or sculptures) to provide an overview of American painting from the 1930s (with a handful spilling into the early 1940s).

After the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties – the Jazz Decade – the 1930s were of course marked by the Great Depression, triggered by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Broadly speaking many (but not all) artists’ interests moved away from European-inspired Modernism or from images of the glamorous high life, to the use of figurative approaches to depict a more realistic, not to say downbeat, world.

Industrial America

In 1927 the Ford Motor Company opened the biggest factory in the world at River Rouge, Detroit. Artist Charles Sheeler spent weeks taking photos of the plant and the landscape around it before beginning work on a series of paintings. I’m a sucker for straight lines, diagrams and strong draughtsmanship and also the romanticism of industrialisation and big machines, so I think this painting is marvellous. No people. ‘Surreally silent’, to quote the catalogue.

American Landscape (1930) by Charles Sheeler. Photo (c) 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

American Landscape (1930) by Charles Sheeler. Photo (c) 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Next to it hangs Suspended power (1939). The commentary for the exhibition is relaxed and chatty, devoid of the usual curatorspeak, instead giving interesting background to the works. For example, after Sheeler’s visit, the Depression hit the plant hard and a wave of redundancies led to serious unemployment and a spike in suicides in Detroit. Unemployed workers marched on the plant in what became known as the Ford Hunger March, or the Ford Massacre, because four of the marchers were shot dead by the Dearborn Police Department and Ford security guards, and another 60 were injured. Shortly afterwards the famous Mexican mural artist Diego Rivera arrived, commissioned by Ford to produce some murals of the plant and its workers.

Many of the artists were committed to the new socially conscious political movements, the social idealism of the New Deal under President Roosevelt, or more left-wing Popular Front and even Communist ideas imported from abroad. This theme is epitomised by Alice Neel’s portrait of communist Trade Unionist and agitator Pat Whalen (1935). Joe Jones was a communist who painted scenes of everyday proletarian life, like Roustabouts (1934).

Street life

The 30s were the first great period of talking pictures, which some critics look back to as the Golden Age of Hollywood. As well as glamorous portrayals of high life in the musicals of Fred Astaire and so on, the decade also saw the emergence of violent crime movies about Prohibition gangsters and, as the 30s turned into the 40s, the development of what a French critic later called films noirs, gritty crime thrillers depicting a tough, dog-eat-dog world of crime and underworld in the big cities. This too is caught in contemporary art.

An oblique light was shed on this world (as on everything) by the famous artist Edward Hopper, a couple of whose works are here including New York Movie (1939). As in so many Hopper paintings the focus is on one person, looking down or detached, contemplative, detached from the realistically depicted scene around them. Up close it’s interesting to note the thick, rather ragged gestural use of paint: prints always smooth this out, flatten and simplify (and beautify) images which are, in the flesh, a little more roughly finished and, somehow, hesitant.

Gas (1940) by Edward Hopper. Photo (c) 2016 Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Gas (1940) by Edward Hopper. Photo (c) 2016 Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

African American artists and subjects

I recently visited the British Museum’s exhibition of American prints which features a whole room devoted to African American printmakers and artists, with the commentary emphasising that many feel their story has not been told and the black experience written out of American art and culture. So it was a surprise to see the number of works here about black Americans or by them. These later accounts seem to forget about the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when the Harlem neighbourhood of New York was home to the ‘New Negro Movement’ and a cultural centre for black writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars.

Far from being ignored by white authorities etc, black artists were supported. Aaron Douglas’s enormous mural , Attraction, was commissioned by the Federal Government to hang in the Hall of Negro Life at the Texan Centennial of 1936. It shows black Americans rising above the shackles of the past and aspiring to a bright new future. There is William H Johnson’s piece, Street Life, Harlem (1940), which does what it says on the tin, showing an African American couple on a street corner.

Far away from the buzz of city life was the harsh life of sharecroppers in the South, tied to land they didn’t own and forced to work punishing hours to grow cotton which was owned and sold by the rich landowner, who allowed his workers a pittance to survive on.

Cotton Pickers (1945) by Thomas Hart Benton (c) Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2016

Cotton Pickers (1945) by Thomas Hart Benton (c) Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2016

And, of course, there was the out-and-out racism of the Ku Klux Klan and the terrible lynchings and murders dealt out to blacks by murderous thugs.

Country life

The poster, book and exhibition itself are dominated by probably the most famous American painting, Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic (1930). It’s never left North American shores before. As a big fan of late medieval art I was delighted to learn that so was Wood and this double portrait contains subtle references to the late medieval/Northern Renaissance tradition: in the ugliness of the faces, the tremendous attention to detail of the clothes. It even refers to Jan van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini portrait a little in the way the man is looking at the viewer while the woman is looking away.

I hadn’t realised the word Gothic refers to the Gothic lancet window in the farmhouse behind the couple. The commentary draws attention to the bombardment of vertical lines, on the face of the building, the thin supports to the porch, the upright planks in the red barn, the upright lines in the man’s shirt and denim dungarees, and the shiny prongs of the fork, as well as the vertically elongated stretching of their faces. Even the spire peeking out over the trees to the left. All this is growing up, tall and strong, from the good solid American earth.

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood. The Art Institute of Chicago, friends of American Art Collection

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood. The Art Institute of Chicago, friends of American Art Collection

It was a haunting image even at the time, because so many nativists felt that the white settler pioneer and farmer spirit was being lost a) in the flood of urbanisation and city culture b) by the devastation inflicted by the great Dustbowl environmental disaster and the catastrophic collapse in prices for farm goods. But anyone expecting harsh realism of something like Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo, Migrant Mother (1936) is in for a surprise. Nothing here has anything like that intensity. In fact, although the audiocommentary includes an intense description of the destructiveness of a Dustbowl sandstorm, the actual paintings on display are lush and green.

And Grant Wood, with half a dozen works in the show, emerges as by far the most fun and entertaining artist, some of his works skidding good humouredly over the border between art and cartoon-style entertainment. Thus:

The last two could be illustrations for a children’s book. The Daughters hover somewhere between fine art and satire, but it’s an impressively conceived and beautifully painted work, just like American Gothic, it rewards close attention to the fine brushlines and strokes.

International politics

What Auden called the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s was intensely politicised, not only by the apparent failure of capitalism in many Western countries, and the rising power of communist parties, but by the fraughtness of the international scene, where the League of Nations proved powerless to stop the aggression of Germany, Italy and Japan. This is referenced in several internationalist works including this depiction of the Fascist bombing of Guernica, done in the style of a Renaissance roundel by, say, Titian or Raphael.

Bombardment (1937) by Philip Guston. Philadelphia Museum of Art (c) The Estate of Philip Guston

Bombardment (1937) by Philip Guston. Philadelphia Museum of Art (c) The Estate of Philip Guston

European modernists

There’s a section on American artists striving to be avant-garde who are in fact pretty obvious clones of their European originals.

There’s a section on American surrealists i.e. American artists adapting European visions of collapsed buildings, melting structures or faces, to the American scene. OK, but not convincing.

Davis versus Benton, Modernism versus Regionalism

The commentary explains that Stuart Davis and Thomas Hart Benton had a famous row about the future of American art, Benton declaring himself an ‘enemy of Modernism’ and asserting the future lay in manly depictions of real working lives (as per his Cotton pickers), Davis championing his variation on sophisticated European Modernism, which Benton found effeminate. Benton quit New York and moved to the mid-West, where he painted successful murals and was associated with the art movement known as Regionalism, which flourished in the 1930s and petered out during the war.

Looked at from 2017 the squabble seems funny and futile, symptomatic of so much political bickering which was to be swept away by the titanic upheaval of World War Two, and then the hardening of lines during the Cold War. In artistic terms, the bitter feud between American Modernists and American Nativists was eclipsed by the advent of Abstract Expressionism, heavily supported by both the New York intelligentsia and (surprisingly) the Federal government, which used it as a weapon against the deadening cult of Social Realism in the Soviet bloc. Then it was the 60s and Pop and then – whoosh – the floodgates to all kind of conceptual and post-modern art.

Georgia O’Keeffe

And then, as in every period, there are artists who stand apart from social and economic trends. Georgia O’Keefee, wife of New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz and heavily involved in the New York artistic scene, first visited New Mexico in 1929 and thereafter spent part of every year on ranches in the desert. Here she developed a unique style combining found objects with stylised depictions of the sun-baked landscape.

I found this work by O’Keeffe to be almost the only really grown-up, fully-formed, distinctive work in the exhibition. For my money, although lots of the others are good and interesting – in their different ways I really enjoyed the cartoon Grant Wood and the moody Edward Hopper – nonetheless, O’Keeffe struck me as the standout artist of the period.

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O’Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

The future

There’s a striking early work by Jackson Pollock, from the period when he was still pursuing his own demons in the not-very-well-disguised style of Picasso. But already present are the torment, the swirling composition and the very wide landscape format which will form the basis of the drip paintings he began to paint in about 1947.

Untitled (c. 1938-41) by Jackson Pollock. The Art Institute of Chicago (c) The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Untitled (c. 1938-41) by Jackson Pollock. The Art Institute of Chicago (c) The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

At a stroke (a drip and a splat) Pollock would invent the first authentic American art movement – Abstract Expressionism – the first artistic idea which owed nothing at all to European tradition and would itself open numerous doors to the explosion in American art in the 1960s and beyond.

This show acts as a kind of retrospective hors d’oeuvre to the massive exhibition of Abstract Expressionism the RA hosted last year. And the current exhibition of American Prints at the British Museum is a dazzling survey of new ways of seeing and making which opened up in the post-Pollock era. Together they form a kind of American trilogy.

From the vantage point of posterity – looking back past Minimalism and conceptualism and Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, this American art from the 1930s bespeaks a country of huge geographical and cultural contrasts but all wedded to an essentially realistic tradition, or which has borrowed its modern art lock, stock and barrel from Paris. It is immensely enjoyable but all of it is dated, music from a lost world – with the one exception of O’Keeffe whose work, in my opinion, still stands tall today.

The videos

Promotional videos describing American Gothic.

60-second commentary on Ed Hopper.


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The American Dream: pop to the present by Stephen Coppel and Catherine Daunt

The British Museum is currently hosting a huge exhibition of prints by American artists from the 1960s to the present. It showcases over 200 works by over 70 artists, including most of the important US artists of the period, and so manages to be a brilliant introduction to the art and artists of the period as well as shedding an oblique light on the history of America over the past 60 years.

This is the catalogue of the show, a large format, beautifully produced and lengthy book (332 pages) which includes every work from the show in lavish colour, each given a brief analysis and discussion alongside a thumbnail profile of each of the artists, all prefaced by a couple of introductory essays. It is not only a record of the show but also an introduction to the sweep of American art from the past 60 years, and well worth the exhibition price of just £15.

I have written a thorough review of The American Dream in another post. Over and above being able to review the images you’ve already seen in the show at your leisure, the book has several other features and benefits.

Introductory essays

The introductory essay by Stephen Coppel, the lead curator, reinforces the sense that the exhibition struggles to escape from the overbearing influence and success of the Pop Art of the 1960s. His essay is eight pages long and it’s only half way down page five that he finally wriggles free of Warhol and Rauschenberg and Hockney; the remaining topics of the exhibition and the book (protest, AIDS, feminism, African Americans) get relatively brief and dutiful paragraphs.

The standout contribution is the long essay by Susan Tallman – The rise of the American print workshop. This is a really interesting and detailed account of the rise of print as a technological medium across America and explains a) the huge variety of print-making techniques b) how they were explored by the post-war generation of artists c) how print-making is necessarily a collaborative enterprise with a lead role going to the actual printers and to the many technicians who have to come up with technical solutions to achieving the artists’ visions.

The essay introduces us to pioneers like Tatyana Grosman who single-handedly set up the innovatory firm Universal Limited Art Editions in 1957, more or less in her own back yard, which went on to work with some of the most important artists of the day. And describes numerous other collaborations between new or existing firms and between well-known printers and artists. It’s a big, complex story and Tallman tells it really well. And she has a handy way with words:

  • Pollock and the giants of Abstract Expressionism are engaged in a ‘visible struggle to wrest private truths from intransigent matter’.
  • An early convert to print-making was Jasper Johns, whose iterated images of flags, numbers and targets were already playing with ‘the conundrum of repetitive uniqueness which is at the heart of printmaking’.

Technical complexities

It’s only once you’ve had the technical processes explained that you can begin to understand the ways in which the different artists here tried to stretch, adapt and innovate what was possible – and this allows you to return to the images with a new and deeper appreciation of the vision, work and persistence which went into their making.

For example, it is fascinating to learn that for his lithographic series 0-9 (Black) Jasper Johns carved into a lithographic stone the numerals 0 to 9 in a grid at the top and then a big 0 below, and ran off prints; then carved a 1 over the 0, and ran off a set of prints; then carved a 2 over the 1 over the 0, and ran off a set… until he had completed a set of 0 to 9. Each consecutive number shows the scars and scraping made by the previous numbers, creating a palimpsest, a building site of numerology, or as Tallman puts it, a portfolio of prints which are:

visually intimate, epistemologically complex, and emotionally elusive.

And daunting and impressive to learn that the complete process took three years! It took Chuck Close two intensive months to carve by hand the plate for Keith, an intaglio print of one of his trademark photorealist paintings (1972). Or to learn that it took Claes Oldenburg an entire year to carve the relief mould for his innovative 3-D print in polyurethane, Profile airflow (1968) while the printer, Ken Tyler, experimented with a wide range of polyurethanes to find one which would be firm enough to stand be solid but appear fluid, be rigid but flexible enough to be fitted into a larger frame. The effort!

It makes you look anew at many of the images here once you realise quite how much work their creation involved, not just from the ‘artist’ but from a whole team of collaborators, technicians, master printers and publishers.

No tradition

Her account makes clear that the new start-up American printers benefited hugely from having no tradition, unlike the very hidebound and often masculine milieu of traditional printers in Europe, above all the home of modern art, Paris. By contrast a striking number of the pioneering founders of new printworks were women – Tatyana Grosman (Universal Limited Art Editions 1957), June Wayne (Tamarind Lithography Workshop 1960), Kathan Brown (Crown Point Press 1962) – ditto new young print publishers – Rosa Esman (Original editions, Tanglewood Press) or Marian Goodman (Multiples Inc 1965).

Escaping artistic control

She also makes a solid point when she says that the move to print-making represented an escape from the overbearing egocentrism of Abstract Expressionism. The praise of randomness in the writings of John Cage, the invention of ‘happenings’ which can involve any number of people, along with the collaborative vibe of the Black Mountain College, all these straws in the wind represented artists seeking to escape the prison house of total autonomy and total control – ‘strategies for relinquishing control’.

The collaborative aspect of printmaking, the technical limitations, the frequent accidents and mishaps, all introduced chance and randomness beyond the artist’s overt intentions. Warhol, as usual, is an easy example in the way that he a) stumbled over the impact of printed colours not lining up with the outlines, creating a whole new aesthetic and b) delegating a large amount of the work, even the selection of which colours to print his Marilyns and Maos in, to his assistants.

This is a beautifully produced book which greatly deepens your understanding and enjoyment of the vast array of images collected for this breath-taking exhibition.

Promotional video of The American Dream


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977)

‘… the madness, the bitterness, the horror and doom of it…’ (p.87)

Types of history

There’s a vast and ever-growing factual historiography of the Vietnam War, which for the past twenty years has been able to take advantage of the post-communist opening up of archives in Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi to present a fully-rounded history of the Indochina conflict, setting it in the long perspective stretching back to the Great War and forwards past the collapse of Russian communism in 1990.

These accounts are now able to analyse the course of events from the perspective of the Viet Cong, North Vietnamese and Chinese, and can bring the same detachment historians have been used to applying to the Great War or the Crimean War.

But then, and quite separately, there is the mythology of the American War in Vietnam – a whole cultural complex, a mood, a movement, like a fashion, whose most enduring features at this distance in time are the classic movies it produced – Apocalypse NowThe Deer Hunter and so on – and the powerful pop music of the late 1960s – from the Beach Boys to Jimi Hendrix – which provided a soundtrack to the conflict.

All of this has been mixed and mashed with contemporary TV news footage and documentary clips of jungle mayhem, urban bombings, the last helicopters leaving the U.S. embassy in Saigon, cut and edited into sequences readily available on the History Channel or YouTube. A ‘myth’ as instantly recognisable as montages of flappers and jazz recall the Roaring Twenties or bomb blasts illuminating the night-time sky over Baghdad recall the Iraq War.

New journalism

Michael Herr’s Dispatches is one of the classic accounts of the Vietnam war but from a very particular, unconventional, mythopoeic perspective. The late 1960s saw the birth of ‘the New Journalism’, epitomised by the wacky reportage of Tom Wolfe and later taken to the limit in the ‘Gonzo Journalism’ of Hunter S. Thompson.

In this new approach the ‘reporter’ identified powerfully with the counterculture of the day, especially its openness to drugs and pop music. Their ‘pieces’ abandoned traditional journalistic attempts at objectivity in order to present personal, subjective accounts and to freely deploy literary devices like stream-of-consciousness, different points of view, florid imagery and so on. And the ‘reporter’ more often than not became the hero, the dazed centre of the report, struggling to make sense of the crazy world around him.

Herr was in at the start of this movement and a 1965 piece by him about Vietnam is included in the 1973 book-length anthology, The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe, which gave the ‘movement’ its name.

Dispatches’ prose and attitude is very much of its time, it’s the kind of knackered paperback you found lying around your elder brother’s room along with Zen and the Art the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (1970) among the butts of old joints and Leonard Cohen LPs. It is the high-tide of the new journalism approach to reporting Vietnam, it is a landmark, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece.

Dispatches

So Dispatches isn’t a work of history but neither is it conventional journalism. It consists of six titled sections (themselves made up of shorter numbered section), some of which appeared in magazines like Esquire and Rolling Stone, which are copyrighted 1968, 1969, 1970, and which report on events the author witnessed from 1967 through 1968.

1. Breathing In (pp.11-61)

The first section opens in late 1967. The tone is hip, knowing, cool. Herr’s prose is always wearing shades and three days of stubble. His gift for phrase-making and capturing the mixed-up street slang-cum-war jargon of the Army in Vietnam to try to convey the mind-bending experiences offered in so many ways by the war, is frequently breath-taking.

In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in began to draw together until they’d formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other, fuel, heat, vitality and death, death itself, hardly an intruder. (p.16)

Long looping sentences clotted with nouns, he also turns and twists the language to give familiar phrases new meanings in new contexts. He has a fantastic gift for vivid phrase making.

It was the same with your ongoing attempts at getting used to the jungle or the blow-you-out climate or the saturated strangeness of the place which didn’t lessen with exposure so often as it fattened and darkened in accumulating alienation. (p.19)

1960s slang and Nam slang, street slang, American slang, drug slang, black slang, war slang all meet on top of a sustained attempt to define indefinable sensations, pin down evanescent ideas, track down fleeting emotions:

At least actual contact when it was happening would draw long raggedy strands of energy out of you, it was juicy, fast and refining, and travelling towards it was hollow, dry, cold and steady, it never let you alone. (p.20)

This first section is the most trippy and poetic, pushing you in the deep end of deranged military activities and manic thoughts, offering up a smorgasbord of anecdotes, insights and reflections punctuated by manic moments under gunfire, contributing to the overwrought, druggy vibe.

2. Hell Sucks (pp.62-73)

Just one of the blasphemous mottos all the Marines were allowed to paint on their helmets – Born to Kill, Far from Fearless, Mickey’s Monkey, Avenger V, Born to Raise Hell (p.65).

Once Herr has established his recklessly anecdotal, prose poetic, wigged-out style in the first section, this second one is a relatively short burst describing the intense days Herr spent in the city of Hue during the Battle which raged around the Viet Cong-held Citadel in January 1968 – many mangled bodies, death-eyed G.I.s (uniformly referred to as ‘grunts’) telling him their Zen stories, hiding behind the huge Citadel wall from NVA snipers and everywhere terrified and injured civilians.

(Compare and contrast Don McCullins’ account of his eleven days in the same place and time, in his gripping autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour.)

3. Khe Sanh (pp.74-133)

The longest section, this gives an impressionistic account of the time Herr spent inside the American camp at Khe Sanh up near the Demilitarised Zone, during part of the epic siege which took place between 21 January and 9 July 1968. There’s more factual information here than in any of the other sections, explaining where Khe Sanh was, the layout of the camp and surrounding hills, information about the U.S. military units and the suspected North Vietnamese Army units which were surrounding and bombarding it, reporting on the progress of the ‘battle’ i.e. the enormous tonnage of bombs the U.S. Air Force dropped on the Viet Cong, as well as sections giving the ‘official’ version of U.S. strategy and events, including an interview with a half-deaf and totally out-of-touch colonel back at HQ.

But much more than that, this section gives a sense of how it felt to be there, numb with terror or awed by the beauty of incoming rounds or outgoing tracer fire, laced with insights about the bitter rivalry between the Marine corps and the Air Cavalry, the anxiety every correspondent felt about the next chopper that can take you out of harm’s way.

It also has the most extended portrait of specific U.S. soldiers – an odd couple comprising skinny blonde Mayhew and huge black ‘Day Tripper’, describing their arguments and confusion and unspoken solidarity.

This section contains a great one-page account of a VC sniper secure in a bunker a few hundred yards from the camp, who survives so much shooting and bombing and even napalming of his position that the Marines end up cheering him and nicknaming him ‘Luke the Gook’.

It has the one-page story of mean Southern redneck Orrin who gets a letter from his girl back in Tennessee telling him she’s pregnant with another man’s baby and describing Orrin’s hard-core vow to survive the war and get home in order to kill her. And, so ubiquitous is superstition among combat troops, that from that moment on, Orrin’s vow made him ‘lucky’, so that other soldiers sought out his presence, as if his vendetta would preserve him.

There’s the story of the voodoo black grunt who uses an M-79 grenade-launcher to ‘take out’ a wounded VC who’s lying out in the perimeter barbed wire screaming, without even looking, from the sound alone, to everyone’s awe. A scene lifted entire and used in Apocalypse Now, presumably by Herr himself who worked on the script for that epic film. (He also co-wrote the screenplay of Stanley Kubrick’s Nam movie, Full Metal Jacket.)

Eventually, after the six month siege ended with the VC melting away from Khe Sanh, the U.S. Army secured its perimeters, cleared up and after a few months completely abandoned the entire camp, removing all assets then blowing up the bunkers. Herr doesn’t invent the air of crazed futility about the whole enterprise, it is there in the actual facts, in the historical record, in the universal sense of pointlessness and absurdity.

Postscript: China Beach (pp.134-136)

Short description of China Beach facing the Bay of Danang where lucky troops get to go for a few days rest and recuperation (R&R). Its main point is that a few weeks later Herr bumps into some soldiers from the division he was with at Khe Sanh, and asks after the skinny joker, Mayhew, who we’d got to know in the previous section – only to learn he’d been killed, a direct hit from a  VC rocket-propelled grenade.

4. Illumination Rounds

These are short snippets, satoris, epiphanies.

  • The time he was riding in a Chinook which was under VC fire and the trooper next to him was hit and bled to death.
  • The bad reputation of the overpaid civilian construction engineers drinking and whoring in Saigon.
  • After a massacre of VC the U.S. captain had twenty or so VC corpses loaded into helicopters and then dropped on the centre of nearby villages to make a not-so-subtle point.
  • A pen portrait of Davis, a grunt shacked up down a back alley in Saigon with a local hooker, getting stoned with the boys and his unhappiness at the trap he’s caught himself in.
  • Meetings with the officer who claimed to have invented the phrase ‘Dink’ for VC, shortened from Rinky-Dink, because he didn’t like the common nickname ‘Charlie’.
  • How he first heard Jimi Hendrix on a tape deck switched on by a black grunt while they were all pinned down by VC fire in a paddy field. Jimi Hendrix – Fire (May 1967)
  • The Army surgeon in the provincial hospital at Can Tho a few days into the January 1968 Tet Offensive, who had been operating on wounded men for twenty hours without a break and ‘could not have looked worse if he’d lain all night in a trough of blood’ (p.150).

And so on…

5. Colleagues (pp.152-199)

This, the most thought-provoking section, begins as an account of the community of photographers and correspondents in Vietnam, which he estimates topped 700. His closest buddies were the photographers Tim Page, Sean Flynn, Rick Merron and Dana Stone (the ‘lapsed logger from Vermont’). They each get pen portraits, descriptions of their looks and attitudes and abilities, but the star of the show is Flynn, son of Hollywood actor Errol Flynn, who worked hard to live down his parentage but earned his chops as a fearless photographer.

This could have got a bit pally about his heroic mates, but Herr takes it deeper, with a number of anecdotes examining the odd relationship between the correspondents and the grunts. For example, the soldiers can’t believe the journos are there by choice.

And Herr moves on to ponder just what it was that drove him and the others to volunteer, to be there at all, to chopper out to wherever the ‘action’ was. To test themselves? To see if they measure up as men? And for the rush, the unparalleled adrenaline rush which comes from being under fire, running, shit-scared – which at the same time is the most exciting thing in the world and the most gut-churningly, pant-wettingly terrifying thing in the world – but which they become addicted to. Thus they come to understand not only the sick-to-death despair of the grunts who just wanna go home, but also the inexplicable compulsion of the soldiers who extend their tours, sign on for more. And also the terrible alienation of those who finish their time, ‘rotate back to the World’ – but discover they just don’t fit in any more; nothing makes sense or is so intense or meaningful as what they’ve just been through; who miss their comrades; who have to come back.

And then this section goes deeper still to consider the strengths and failures of media reporting on the entire war and Herr emerges from the stoner prose to make some really strong, sober points.

  1. His generation, he says, were saturated with TV and films – they experienced the war even on the ground in terms of movie scenarios, expecting people to get up after the firefight, adopting poses they’d seen in the movies – all of which prevented them, for a while, from realising this was ‘real’.
  2. The official version of events given out by the Army at their daily press conferences (nicknamed by the press corps the ‘Five O’Clock Follies’) was ludicrously detached from events on the ground, which correspondents had often witnessed for themselves that same day (‘most of what the Mission wanted to say to the American public was a psychotic vaudeville’, p.173). But the correspondents still had to report it, the official view. And since they all reported the same Official Version then – compared to the scattered, disorganised, highly personal nature of each of their alternative views – the Official Version tended to dominate the media and create the strongest impression on the Great American Public, simply by nature of its repetition and its consistency.
  3. Also militating towards the Official Version was the fact that most photographers and journalists worked for daily newspapers or TV stations and so were always in a tearing hurry to file a ‘story’, some – any – pics and words to send back to their agency or paper or channel, and the Official Version was always the easiest, the readiest-to-hand. This was another factor in its predominance, even though almost all the correspondents in the country knew it was horse shit.
  4. And another element of its dominance was the sheer amount of information the officials gave out, using a bewildering and evergrowing set of metrics, data and statistics – ‘kill ratios’, ‘tonnage of bombs dropped’, ‘enemy casualties’, ‘territory seized’, ‘light losses’, ‘moderate losses’, ‘heavy losses’ – to lie, lie and lie again, to hide the bitter truth that they were losing and ‘the Mission’ was failing. These blizzards of stats were easily printed and broadcast, they filled space and sounded impressive – they reassured the public that everything was under control.

Only slowly did Herr realise what a privileged position he was in because he was not a correspondent – he was a writer sent with an open-ended brief from the monthly men’s magazine Esquire, which he interpreted as the freedom to skip around, catching choppers to wherever sounded ‘interesting’, wherever the ‘action’ was, which gave him the time to really get to know the grunts, to get under their skin, to see the war from their point of view.

All of this leads up to what I take to be the credo or manifesto or thinking which lies behind Herr’s deliberate adoption of the common soldier’s point of view, language, drugs and spaced-out attitude. Which is that –

The press got all the facts (more or less), it got too many of them. But it never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which is of course what it was all about. (p.173)

So on one level the entire book can be seen as an experiment in trying to create a prose style which can report meaningfully about death. Not facts or history, though some are required to give context. Instead a turbo-charged attempt to capture the incredibly intense emotions of bewildered, confused soldiers under fire in a chaotic, incomprehensible war.

In interviews Joseph Heller claimed that his World War Two classic, Catch-22 was actually more a satire about corporate America, about project management and management theory and management speak than about the  actual war. In Vietnam the ghastly wedding of management speak and grotesque carnage reached new heights – Herr contemptuously refers to the more senior officers who asked the press corps to

… get with the programme, jump on the team, get in for the Big Win. (p.184).

But Herr was blissfully free of the straitjacket of daily reporting which tied up most of his comrades, free to understand the crucial central fact, that:

Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it. (p.175)

And hence, quite simply, the rationale for his new journalism approach – for his stoner, tripped-out, grunt-level view of the madness. And that’s why his book is still a classic. 50 years after the event, 40 years after it was published, it still captures and describes in the gaudy poetry of American street slang the unbelievable intensity, horror and beauty of modern armed combat, as no straight journalism, military reports, or sober histories ever could.

This section winds down with very personal reminiscences of his gang of buddies as the legendary Tim Page returns to Nam, and Herr, Page and Flynn enjoy wacky, frat-house adventures, getting stoned, playing the Mothers of Invention real loud, winding up Army Press Officers – he makes it sound like a swell life, like one long mad party, driving down to China Beach to catch some rays, then travelling back to Hue, now completely pacified and cleaned up, incapable of believing all the pain and carnage he witnessed there.

From what I can make out, Herr was only in Nam for about nine months, from the end of 1967 through the Tet Offensive (Jan-Sep 1968), the Battle of Hue (Jan-Mar 1968), the siege of Khe Sanh (Jan-Jul 1968) and leaving in September 1968.

The end of the book is desperately sad, like coming down after a great party. Herr is back in the States when he hears that Tim Page has received his final, almost fatal, head injury, and flies back to see him. Page has definitely retired, has a girlfriend, slowly recovers the use of his legs and even his left arm. They get stoned with Flynn and other friends, laugh about the old times, cry about the old times. It’s all over. Time to go back to ‘the World’, where they will never quite fit in or feel at ease.

6. Breathing out (pp.200-207)

A few last pages struggling to make sense of 1968 and the way the war and the rock music fused in that year and then short-circuited the decade. Then came the awful 1970s and Herr watched on TV the choppers he had loved cadging lifts across war zones on, being pushed off U.S. aircraft carriers into the South China Sea after the final American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973.

And then, finally, in spring 1975 the North Vietnamese Army fought their way south to conquer and unite the country after thirty years of struggle. Herr poignantly reports seeing pictures of victorious Viet Cong soldiers sitting on the banks of the Danang River, exactly where the U.S. Press Centre had been and where Herr and his pals had sat smoking and joking and laughing. All gone now.


Analysis

The fantastically powerful and evocative trippy, stoner prose and the ‘attitude’ it describes can be analysed out into distinct strands:

Meaningless chaos – coming under fire in ‘random contacts’ – the GI who points his gun at Dana and, they all felt, could easily have pull the trigger. The whole war effort ‘out of control’ (p.45) all mirrored by the deliberate sense of getting-out-of-control created by the drugs of choice, pot and acid.

The risibility of the official version handed out at the daily 4.45 news conference, also known as ‘the Five O’Clock Follies’ – the man handing out press passes ‘thought it was all a fucking circus’ (p.177), and the actual troops on the ground often seemed lost souls in a demented fantasy.

Entire divisions would function in a bad dream state, acting out a weird set of moves without any connection to the source. (p.50)

To Herr and his stoned contemporaries the entire conduct of the war seemed like a very bad dream, irrational, insane.

Search and Destroy, more a gestalt than a tactic, brought up alive and steaming out of the Command psyche. (p.55)

That phraseology is not a rational analysis of a military strategy, but Herr has thought it through and the insanity didn’t call for a sane response. ‘(Who’s crazy? What’s insane?)’ (p.61), the only ‘answerable style’ for the madness is a mad style.

Drugs Dope is referred to openly throughout, the evening sessions with joints passed round, the household fuelled by booze and grass, the widespread smoking of joints among the troops. As to stronger drugs, Herr refers  once to the powerful hallucinogen psilocybin (the active ingredient of ‘magic mushrooms’) but surprisingly rarely to the other great 1960s drug, LSD or ‘acid’.

And yet the prose reeks of acid, of the way LSD strips your sense of their blinkers and protection and exposes your nervous system to massive sensory overload. Indeed that concept of too much information, of the brain, nervous system and mind being subjected to more than it can cope with, is mentioned throughout the text as a metaphor for the experience of combat when the adrenaline shock, and the rush of terrified awareness, is experienced as just ‘too much’ to process or handle.

Once your body was safe your problems weren’t exactly over. There was the terrible possibility that a search for information there could become so exhausting that the exhaustion itself became the information. Overload was such a real danger, not as obvious as shrapnel or blunt like a 2,000-foot drop, maybe it couldn’t kill or smash you, but it could bend your aerial for you and land you on your hip. (p.58)

Even when Herr quits the war and ‘rotates back to the World’, Page gives him a small ball of opium to float him through the flight home (p.200).

Pop culture is all around them, every unit has tape cassette players and either in bunkers or even out on patrol are liable to click Play and the room or trail or trench would echo to the sounds of Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix or the latest single by the Rolling Stones.

Prose poetry

The rangy, slang, street poetic prose owes a lot to the Beats, to Allen Ginsberg’s poetic rants and William Burroughs’ cut-up prose, but also to the eloquence of American slang, a can-do attitude to the English language which creates openings and expressions from a recalibration, a special angling, of even the most ordinary words. During the 1960s the drug-cum-Zen-cum-Beat poetry language of a small sub-section of 1950s Bohemian culture, along with Black street slang and the argot of the urban jazz world, all mixed and went feral, spreading across street culture and into the songs and films and eventually official channels of the media and even the Army itself.

The book is alive with slang terms from all these sources, mashed together:

  • ‘believer’ – a dead Viet Cong (p.41)
  • ‘dig’ meaning to ‘get’, to ‘understand and enjoy’ – ‘can you dig it?’
  • ‘dink’ meaning ‘Vietnamese’ (92)
  • ‘gook’ meaning ‘enemy Vietnamese fighter’
  • ‘greased’ meaning ‘killed’
  • ‘grunt’ meaning infantry soldier (15). According to the online etymological dictionary the term originates from the Vietnam war and is first recorded in print in 1969.
  • ‘hip to’ meaning ‘up to speed with’ (86) as in ‘hip to…the sound, the trip, the mission, the attitude’
  • ‘jag’ meaning ‘prolonged bout’ as in ‘a crying jag’
  • ‘jive’ – routine, schtick, can be negative or positive – ‘don’t jive me, man’
  • ‘luck out’ meaning ‘get lucky’ (69)
  • ‘Slope’ meaning ‘Vietnamese opponent’ (86)
  • ‘spade’ meaning ‘Afro-Caribbean’ (98)
  • ‘tightly wrapped’ meaning ‘uptight, tense’ (97)
  • ‘tough shit’ meaning ‘bad luck’ (86)
  • ‘totalled’ meaning ‘killed’
  • ‘wiggier’ from ‘wiggy’ meaning ‘weird, freaked out’ (p.52), ‘wigged-out crazies’ (p.189) ‘the wiggiest goof of them all’ (p.197)
  • ‘zip’ meaning ‘enemy Vietnamese’

Beyond individual words, Herr records slang phrases which capture the alternative realities opened up by drugs and war and the lethal combination of both:

  • ‘Well, I’ll be dipped in shit.’
  • someone looks like ‘ten thousand miles of bad road’
  • ‘get some’ can refer to sleep, or just ‘action’, hence a demented chopper machine gunner can fire randomly into the jungle yelling ‘get some, get some’ – in a cracking throwaway Herr refers to this phrase as ‘the American banzai’ (p.184)
  • ‘have a pair’ (p.53) or ‘grow a pair’, as in a pair of testicles, to prove you are a man
  • the ‘thousand yard stare’, a vivid description of the distant look in the eyes of soldiers fresh from action – ‘Hill 861 was the home of the thousand-yard stare…’ (p.101)
  • ‘it’s hotter than a bastard’ (p.164)

But it’s the way often fairly simple vocabulary is stacked together in spaced-out ways designed to capture the fleeting moment, the psych, the thereness of the impression, you had to have lived it, you had to know it, which transcends the context of Vietnam to become a series of experiments in time-encapsulating language, and helps give the book its enduring sense of life and weirdness.

Sitting by a road with some infantry when a deuce-and-a-half rattled past with four dead in the back. The tailgate was half lowered as a platform to hold their legs and the boots that seemed to weigh a hundred pounds apiece now. Everyone was completely quiet as the truck hit a bad bump and the legs jerked up high and landed hard on the gate. ‘How about that shit,’ someone said, and ‘Just like the motherfucker,’ and ‘There it is.’ Pure essence of Vietnam, not even stepped on once, you could spin it out into visions of laughing lucent skulls or call it just another body in a bag, say that it cut you in half for the harvest or came and took you under like a lover, nothing ever made the taste less strong. (p.203)

Tracks referenced in the text

‘Whenever one of us came back from an R&R we’d bring records, sounds were as precious as water.’ (p.187)

The text is littered with references to contemporary pop songs. One of the things which made the war seem so special was the way that pop music evolved incredibly quickly into more adult (pretentious) rock over precisely the same period (1965-70), and so seemed to be directly commenting on the escalation and spiralling insanity of the conflict. Thus Herr can comment on the Beatles track, Magical Mystery Tour – ‘That was a song about Khe Sanh; we knew it then, and it still seems so.’ (p.91).

I began making a list of tracks as I came across them mentioned in the text and listening to them off the internet. Taken together, they evoke a vivid revolutionary world, which is immensely evocative even though it is all at least 50 years old, having gone through nostalgia, into obsolescence, been revived, and now becoming history. I remember some of these songs from my boyhood – my kids have never heard of any of it.


Credit

Sections of Dispatches by Michael Herr were published as articles in American Review No. 7Esquire and Rolling Stone in 1968 through 1970. It was published in book form in 1977 by Alfred A. Knopf. All quotes and references are to the 1982 edition of the 1978 Pan Books paperback edition.

Related links

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 many others).

Cooper is generally reckoned to be the first notable American novelist. He’s credited with adapting the sprawling historical novel pioneered in Britain by 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 American social scene (like the small, brand-new settlement deep in upstate New York which is the setting of The Pioneers) and the American 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 Senior founded a village on Otsego Lake which, with dazzling originality, he named Cooperstown. It was laid out by a local architect and is still 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 whom died young. James Fenimore was the 11th.

The plot

The Pioneers opens with a judge – Marmaduke Temple – returning by sledge through the deep Christmas snow of the mountains. He has been to collect 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, the judge 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 thrillingly 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 same 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 Monsieur 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 formal approach to worship taken 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 style. (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 at all about the brightly coloured liquids he keeps in his impressive medicine chest. As we get to know them, we realise that most of the men of the town 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. 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 of 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 Leatherstocking and his old Indian friend, Chingachgook. When Edwards is offered the job of secretary to Judge Temple he takes it only reluctantly because it means being inside not out in the woods – but it does bring him into daily contact with pretty young Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is, of course, intrigued and attracted by Edwards, 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. She 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. They go walking arm in arm through Templeton and the woods, thus witnessing many of the colourful scenes which Cooper depicts – and so the two young ladies become gentle rivals for young Mr Edwards’s attentions.

Stereotypes

Of course many of the characters, including the womenfolk and the Native Americans, are stereotypes. 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 after The Pioneers (1832), but it gives a sense of the yearning, romantic sentimentality which was widely current at the time, and which was considered the appropriate artistic sentiment 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 the old Indian Chingachgook, or Indian John as he’s known in this book, are painted as being in the sere of life: Leatherstocking says he’s in his 71st year in chapter XXXIV and the Indian (‘past seventy’ in chapter XXXVII) feels as weak ‘as a squaw’.

They both remember their high times before the French and Indian War 1754-63, i.e. some 40 years earlier.

And not only are they old, but they feel that 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. If you google James+Fenimore+Cooper+environment you’ll get a surprising number of essays and articles expanding on 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, 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 voicing redneck, chop-it-down beliefs.

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 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 his sensitive 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 certainly doesn’t occur in Dickens or Hardy.

The reader is just as surprised 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! 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 fully discussed in essays and articles about the book.

But I haven’t seen any comment on one of the other really obvious features which is that – everyone carries a gun, carries a gun in such a way as to create 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.

I’ve read no end of American liberals pointing out the bleeding obvious fact that all the white characters’ claims for ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ are actually built on the labour of slaves and stealing the land from the native Americans.

But nowhere have I read what, for a European, is the equally prominent fact that Freedom, the kind of primal, wilderness-wandering freedom which 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 and, apparently, by its modern American critics – but which strikes a gunless 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

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