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.

Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

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)

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

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

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

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

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

From this point onwards several plotlines develop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot – part two

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

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

The Pawnee and the Palefaces, illustration

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

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

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

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

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

The plot – part three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Native Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooper’s environmentalism

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

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

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

Cooper’s style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

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

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

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

Related links

The five Leatherstocking novels

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

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

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

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

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

In this review I will give:

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

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

Historical background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Native Americans 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glens Falls

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

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

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

Fighting Indians by N.C. Wyeth

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

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

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

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

The massacre at Fort William Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melodrama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rescuing the maidens

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

Hawkeye takes a shot by N.C.Wyeth

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

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

Comedy in the Indian village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Delaware village

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final battle

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

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

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

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

Aftermath and funerals

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

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

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

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

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


N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations

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

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

Hawkeye and his Indians by N.C. Wyeth

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

Credit

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

Related links

The five Leatherstocking novels

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

The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper (1823)

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

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

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

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

The plot

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

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

Comedy, at first…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Turkey Shoot by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1857)

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

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

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

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

Stereotypes

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

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

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

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

Scenic descriptions

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

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

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

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

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

Cooper as early environmentalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The story

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

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

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

Leatherstocking Kills the Panther by George Loring Brown (1834)

Leatherstocking Kills the Panther by George Loring Brown (1834)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other points of interest

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

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

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

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


Related links

The Leatherstocking novels

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

Little Caesar by WR Burnett (1929)

Rico was a simple man. He loved but three things: himself, his hair and his gun. He took excellent care of all three. (p.22)

Apparently one of the pioneering gangster novels, which was then turned into the ‘first’ gangster movie.

William Riley Burnet was a civil servant in Ohio where he wrote over 100 short stories and five novels, all unpublished, before moving to Chicago at the age of 28, getting a job in a seedy hotel where he came into close contact with hoodlums, nightclub performers, boxers, all the colourful underworld, and drew from it to write this, his breakthrough novel.

Little Caesar propelled him to fame and to a successful career as a novelist and screenwriter: he wrote some 38 novels, the best known of which are probably High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle, and worked on some 50 movie scripts, from the noir adaptation of Graham Greene’s This Gun For Hire in 1942 through to adventure classics of my generation like The Great Escape and Ice Station Zebra (1968).

Little Caesar

The plot is simple. Chicago, New Year’s Eve, a small gang of hoodlums led by sleek fat Sam Vettori, who has picked up the short violent Rico to be lieutenant, plan the armed robbery of a night club, the Casa Alvarado. Vettori found Rico, ‘an unknown Yougstown wop’, brought him to the big city and into his gang but, as a result of the robbery, Rico triumphs in the battle of wills and makes himself leader of the gang. He has a devoted follower in Otero, the Greek, and his ally, the Valentino-handsome ‘Gentleman’ Joe Massara, who acts as the inside man on their jobs. All of them are doubtful about cowardly Tony Passa the driver who, after crashing the getaway car, holes up with his mother and threatens to talk to understanding Father McConagha. Which is why Rico gets Bat Corelli to drive down and shoots him dead on the steps of the cathedral…

Supporting cast

The dynamics of these core characters, the basic plot (the rise and fall of a gangster) are fairly interesting but what’s more striking is the portrayal of the wider network of people they’re involved in: a net, a web, presumably based on the characters Burnett observed in his Chicago hotel. It’s their range, the fullness of this vision of gangster society, which gives the book its persuasiveness.

  • Bat Carillo, once a light heavyweight then leader of one of Vettori’s gangs of hooligans
  • Blackie Avezzano who manages Sam’s garage and is a sneak
  • The Big Boy, overall gang leader, higher than Vettori (James Michael O’Doul)
  • Blondy Belle ‘the swellest woman in Little Italy’, ‘big, healthy and lascivious’
  • Bugs Liska, Steve Gollancz’s lieutenant
  • Captain Courtney, the police captain Rico is foolish enough to shoot dead
  • Carillo who works at their nightclub and drives the ‘can’ from which Rico shoots down Tony on the steps of the cathedral
  • Chesty, doorman of Sam Vettori’s club
  • DeVoss, manager of the Bronze Peacock, the nightclub where ‘Gentleman’ Joe works as a dancer who dances with older rich women for money
  • Tony’s mother who disapproves of his hoodlum friends
  • Father McConagha who offers Tony sanctuary
  • Little Arnie (Arnold Worch) ‘ran the biggest gambling joint on the North Side’
  • Jew Mike, has his joint trashed by Rico’s men, tougher replica of his boss, Little Arnie
  • Jim Flaherty, amiable plain clothes policeman
  • ‘Gentleman’ Joe Massara, good-looking dancer, dragged into crime, ends up serving life
  • Joe Pavlovsky, drove the car which tried to hit Rico
  • Joe Peeper, ‘Arnie’s boy’, a stool pigeon or spy for Rico in Arnie’s gang
  • Joe Sansone, ‘a stickler for clothes’
  • Kid Bean ‘a Sicilian dark as a negro’
  • Kid Burg clears out after Little Arnie’s fall
  • Killer Pepi and his woman Blue Jay; Killer and Kid Bean rob 25 filling stations in 2 weeks
  • Kips Berger, sold his failing gambling den to Little Arnie
  • Limpy John, ‘they bumped him off’
  • Ma Magdalena the fence and her son Arrigo who keep a fruit store
  • Monk De Angelo, former gang leader
  • Olga Stassoff, a beautiful dancer, Joe’s girlfriend
  • Ottavio Vettori, 21 and already famous as a gunman
  • Pete Montana, gangster controls vast swathe of the North Side (Pietro Fontano)
  • Pippy Coke, one of the Detroit assassins who tried to shoot Rico
  • Rico (Cesare Bandello)
  • Ritz Colonna, Pete Montana’s lieutenant
  • Sam Vettori, fat gangster boss who takes in Rico and is overthrown by him (and eventually hanged)
  • Seal Skin, Otero’s old lady
  • Scabby
  • The Sheeny, unlicensed doctor
  • Spike Rieger, policeman, assistant to Flaherty
  • Squint Maschke, one of Little Arnie’s three lieutenants, scrams
  • Mr Jack Willoughby the millionaire, might back Joe in a show

Elements of the text

This is a short book (158 pages), largely because there’s relatively little description, and almost no psychology or characterisation. There are maybe six places in the text where Burnett stops to describe or analyse a character in more detail or to situate the action. For the most part this sort of thing is omitted, and certainly doesn’t appear until well into the text. For the first 30 pages or so it is nothing but action and dialogue, throwing you right into the mix.

Rico lived at a tension. His nervous system was geared up to such a pitch that he was never sleepy, never felt the desire to relax, was always keenly alive. He did not average over five hours sleep a night and as soon as he opened  his eyes he was awake. When he sat in a chair he never thrust out his feet and lolled, but sat rigi and alert. He walked, ate, took his pleasures in the same manner. What distinguished him from his associates was his inability to live in the present. He was like a man on a long train journey to a promised land. To him the present was but a dingy way-station; he had his eyes on the end of the journey. This is the mental attitude of a man destined for success. But the resultant tension had its drawbacks. He was subject to periodid slumps. His energy would suddenly disappear; he would lose interest in everything and for several days would sleep twelve to fifteen hours at a stretch. This was a dangerous weakness, and Rico was aware of it and feared it. (p.71)

As you can see, nothing special about the prose. Functional. Which might be why either Burnett or his editor decided to keep this kind of thing to a minimum. Instead, for the most part the story is told through dialogue, as in a movie. And the dialogue is crammed with gangster slang. On one page there’s more thieves’ patois than in a whole Dashiell Hammett novel. Hammett’s books are, on the whole, about people outside the criminal milieu, who enter it, who explore it, but who aren’t part of it, ditto Chandler. By contrast, this novel is deeply immersed in the mind-set, the psychology, the dialogue and the vocabulary of 1920s Chicago gangsters.

1920s gangster slang

  • beat it = depart
  • beefing = complaining, beef = complaint 87
  • berries = dollars 107
  • bird = man 116 – not, as in English slang, a young woman
  • bracelets = handcuffs 117
  • do it up brown = do it properly
  • to get brushed = hit by bullets, shot
  • bull = policeman
  • bump off = kill
  • bunk = rubbish, short for bunkum 101
  • burg = the city in this case Chicago108
  • can = car
  • can it = shut up
  • chin = to chat 140
  • a cinch = an easy or obvious thing 137
  • crack/wisecrack = joke, often insulting 144
  • cush = money
  • cut = percentage of the take on a job
  • dick = policeman
  • dope = information, story, situation
  • double-cross = betray
  • dump = home 106
  • gat = gun 133
  • graft = illegal business
  • (give the) go-by = get rid of, kick out 144
  • the goods = the right stuff, the real McCoy 104
  • gyp = deceive or cheat 87
  • harness = smart clothes 108
  • hit the hay = go to bed 87
  • hit the pipe = smoke drugs (opium? marijuana?) 112
  • hook = to steal 135
  • hop = drugs, morphine
  • jack = the money, specially the loot 12
  • Jane = woman
  • joint = gambling or rinking establishment 104
  • lead = bullets as in ‘ a hunk of lead’ 100
  • lit up = smartly dressed 108
  • monkey suit = evening dress 108
  • mosey = go away, flee 109
  • mug = face as in ‘mug-shot’ = portrait photograph
  • nut = head, as in ‘you’re off your nut’ 96
  • pinch = arrest 117
  • piker = vagrant, loser 110
  • give somewhere or someone the once-over = visit in order to examine, check out 104
  • pop, as in ‘pop him’ – kill someone 128
  • go press the bricks = take a walk 89
  • plugging = shooting
  • roll = wad of cash 135
  • the grand rush = big confrontation, shootout 92
  • spring = release someone from prison 122
  • on the square = straight, honest 109
  • stogie = cheap cigar 125
  • the racket = life of crime
  • red = (red) cent, as in ‘didn’t have a red’ 110
  • rig you up = give you clothes to wear 106
  • the ropes = how things are done
  • rod = gun 95
  • a rush = shootout, violent event 108
  • sap = idiot 97
  • to say a mouthful = tell the truth, put it in a nutshell 104
  • put the skids under = betray 97
  • skirt = woman
  • spill the beans, spill the works = tell secrets, talk about what should be kept secret 126
  • spill it = talk
  • split = arrangement, agreement
  • squawk = spill the beans, confess, to the police 126
  • stand = hold-up
  • stir = prison 106
  • the wrong steer = to be misinformed 103
  • stringing = lying to, ‘someone been stringing you’ 96
  • swells = rich people
  • talk turkey = serious conversation 102
  • that’s the talk = you said a good thing
  • tickler = moustache 139
  • on the up and up = on the right side of, OK 103
  • wised up = in the know, aware of the news 127
  • yaps = crooks, killers 95
  • yegg = small-time crook 109

Dapper

Burnett notes people’s clothes very thoroughly. Rico himself is very proud of his appearance and careful what he wears.

Rico was wearing a big ulster like Joe’s and a derby also like Joe’s. He had on fawn-coloured spats drawn over pointed patent-leather shoes; and a diamond horseshoe pin sparkled in a red, green and white striped necktie. (1974 Kaye & Ward hardback edition, p.60)

Rico unbuttoned his ulster to display his finery. He had on one of his striped suits. It was dead black with a narrow pink stripe. The colour scheme was further complicated by a pale blue shirt and an orange and white striped tie adorned with the ruby pin. (p.79)

Jazz

There’s a jazz band playing almost permanently in the bar under the room where the gang make their plans. It counterpoints their dialogue and double-crossing. It’s amazing the speed with which jazz – generally credited as coming into existence around 1917 – spread completely throughout urban America to become the soundtrack to the 1920s. Even tone-deaf Rico likes it.

Rico had no ear for music; he couldn’t even whistle, or distinguish one tune from another. But he liked rhythm. There was somthing straightforward and primitive about jazz rhythms that impressed him. (p.72)

Movie

The book was an overnight sensation, a million-seller. It was snapped up by Warner Brothers film studio and made into a film starring Douglas Fairbanks Junior as handsome Joe Massara, and giving Edward G Robinson his breakthrough role as the vicious little gangster. ‘The picturization of one of America’s greatest novels.’

Related links

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (1936)

Cain wasn’t pleased at being lumped in with other ‘hard-boiled’ writers of the 20s and 30s.

I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort. (Preface to Double Indemnity)

And that he certainly does. Double Indemnity was his second book after the blisteringly intense The Postman Always Rings Twice, appearing as a magazine serialisation in 1936, then in a collection of novellas, only published as a stand-alone book in 1943.

As in Postman you are immediately gripped by the urgency and immediacy of the first-person voice, here of a fast-talking insurance salesman called Huff. On the first page he calls on a prospective client whose servant asks the nature of the call.

‘And what’s the business?’
‘Personal.’
Getting in is the tough part of my job, and you don’t tip what you came for till you get where it counts… It was one of those spots you get in. If I said some more about ‘personal’ I would be making a mystery of it and that’s bad. If I said what I really wanted, I would be laying myself open to what every insurance agent dreads, that she would come back and say, ‘Not in’. If I said I’d wait, I would be making myself look small, and that never helped a sale yet. To move this stuff, you’ve got to get in. Once you’re in, they’ve got to listen to you, and you can pretty near rate an agent by how quick he gets to the family sofa, with his hat on one side of him and his dope sheets on the other. (Chapter 1)

No slang, no shooting. The ‘hard-boiledness’ stems from the psychology of the character: his unrelenting calculatingness, scanning all the angles, perceiving and using others as tools to his end, assuming everyone else is doing the same. It is the war of all against all, as Marx described capitalism. No sentiment, just a predator scheming his next move. Later there’s a femme fatale and a murder then a load of complications. But the tone of heartlessness, amorality, anything for a buck, is there from the first lines. Strip away Mom and Apple Pie and this is, and was sidely seen at the time as being, the American Way. That unbridled capitalism turns people back into savages.

Femme fatale

Both the women in these books feature in the Wikipedia article defining a femme fatale as an attractive woman who seduces a man into committing a crime/murder. This is truer of Phyllis Nirdlinger in Indemnity, who persuades insurance salesman Walter Huff to put a life policy on her husband then murder him. Sure, she’s got a babelicious body etc which she uses to sway him, but it’s more that she presents an opening, a willing partner, to something he’s been incubating after 15 long years in the insurance business ie the perfect insurance scam.

Is she a femme fatale? She’s certainly given a rather melodramatic speech.

‘There’s something in me, I don’t know what. Maybe I’m crazy. But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness…’ (Ch 2)

(These books are odd. At one moment they’re heartless, cruel indictments of man’s inhumanity masquerading in an everyman tone, and the next they’re grand operas. Phyllis’s speech is like a tragic aria.)

Feminist criticism would suggest that Cora and Phyllis represent one of the crudest stereotypes of the female, an age-old cliché of the woman who represents the desired and the taboo, that once you give into her sexual wiles you are lured all unwary over the boundary of morality into a World of Crime. A honey trap. The desired deceiver.

It’s true in both novels the first-person narrator is the man, and the woman is seen as a siren, powerful through her sex appeal, who is the proximate cause of a murder. Both only exist through the male text. Neither have defining agency. But neither Cora nor Phyllis is a siren luring the unwitting. Both Chambers and Huff are hardly innocent, are already criminals or have been planning crime for a long time.

In fact, from one angle, the woman in these novels is surprisingly equal with the men, in the sense that they are equally amoral and greedy and murderous. They conspire on about the same level and they are both as physically involved in the murder, Cora getting badly battered in the fake car crash, Phyllis lumbering along with her husband’s corpse on her back as in a nightmare. The only real difference is that, being written from the man’s point of view, the novels convey a very powerful (in Postman overwhelmingly powerful) sense of the man’s sexual attraction to his partner. But there is no doubting the intensity of Cora’s sexual attraction to Frank, or of Phyllis’s cunning deployment of her sexuality to co-opt Huff into her schemes. The novels could theoretically be rewritten from the woman’s point of view giving her at least parity.

The unsung hero

The sex-driven duo may fuel the first part of these novels, but the second half strongly involves the Antagonist, the figure who threatens all their plans, who threatens, quite simply, to expose them as murderers. In Postman it’s Stickett the District Prosecutor (though his role is counterbalanced by the smart defence lawyer Katz); in Indemnity it’s Huff’s boss at the insurance company, Keyes, who makes Huff’s (and the reader’s) blood run cold by slowly piecing together what really happened while all the time Huff has to pretend to be helping to uncover his own crime.

This is where both novels make their impact – the blood-chilling descriptions of the murder itself are bad enough, but both novels then score with the tremendous tension of watching the Antagonist know the Protagonist is guilty, telling him he knows he’s guilty, and then trying to prove it. Their pursuit, their detective work, their thoroughness makes the Protagonist’s heart miss a beat, and the immediate visceral first-person narrative means ours do, too.

The lights began to look funny in front of my eyes… He was all wrong on how it was done, but he was so near right it made my lips turn numb just to listen to him… My legs felt funny and my ears rang, but my eyes kept staring at the dark, and my mind kept pounding on it, what I was going to do. I didn’t know. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t even get drunk. (Ch 8)

Morality

Cain’s books really are directly and immediately about sex and murder in a way surprisingly few of, say, Dashiell Hammett’s are; Hammett’s are about fiendishly cunning investigations of often convoluted events or, as in The Glass Key, generate scores of pages of continually shifting theorising around a death which remains a mystery, at the core of the text.

In Cain there is no mystery and no pages of theorising. It is an adrenaline-fuelled, straightahead, no-nonsense narrative of a murder inspired by the illicit sexual attraction between the murderers and the dreadful consequences, the fear, the guilt and the reprisals. It is hard-boiled. It is noir.

It is, in fact, not really so immoral as contemporaries worried. In both the bad guy loses and is punished. The murderer Frank Chambers loses the sexpot who inspired him, Cora, in a car crash and then is convicted and hanged for murder. Huff discovers Phyllis had killed before and was simply using him to bump off her  husband, he is nearly shot dead by her, confesses to Keyes, is packed off for everyone’s convenience on a foreign cruise under a different name, where he meets her again like the avenging angel, they make a bizarre suicide pact and leap from the ship to their deaths.

Ie Justice is done, if not by man’s feeble justice system, then by the gods.

Movie versions

Made into a famois film noir,  directed by Billy Wilder with a screenplay part-written by Raymond Chandler, and starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. The rather florid ending is notably rewritten to become a simpler, more tense encounter in her house where the lovers-turned-haters pull guns on each other and both shoot.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)

Very short, only 116 pages in this modern Orion edition. A first person narrative, told by 24 year-old drifter Frank Chambers, this is a dazzling, blistering, feverishly compelling novella, that rare thing, a book which I literally couldn’t put down but read from end to end in an intense two-hour sitting.

Now this feels like hard-boiled writing. Chandler is a dandy, with his romantic lead, Marlowe, and his wonderfully inventive style. Hammett’s milieu includes surprisingly educated, middle class people – the rich sect followers in Dain, all the cast of Falcon are educated types and his writing is often surprisingly mannered.

Postman is hard-core lowlife, written from the point of view of a hustler, a drifter, a small-time crook with a long record of stealing and violence. We are thrust immediately into his limited worldview where he is always looking for the next con and we never escape this airless, hopelessly constricted world. By contrast Hammett or Chandler’s protagonists fly like eagles in a world of order, rationality and bourgeois manners. Ned Beaumont is continually making small bows or being kind to old Mrs Madvig. No-one is kind in Postman. It is a hustler’s-eye view of the world.

I caught a ride to San Bernadino. It’s a railroad town, and I was going to hop a freight east. But I didn’t do it. I ran into a guy in a poolroom, and began playing him one ball in the side. He was the greatest job in the way of a sucker that God ever turned out, because he had a friend that could really play. The only trouble with him was, he couldn’t play good enough. I hung around with the pair of them a couple of weeks, and took $250 off them, all they had, and then I had to beat it out of town quick. (Chapter 6)

Plot

Chambers hitches down the road to a diner-cum-garage and immediately starts conning the owner, Nick Papadakis. Papadakis offers him the job of mechanic and the second he sees Nick’s wife, Cora, he is hit by lust. Not love. Hard, physical lust, so hard it makes him throw up his dinner. By quick stages he seduces Cora who is sick of her husband. She won a beauty pageant in Iowa and came out to California to make her rep, but like so many others failed in movies and quickly ended up working in a hash bar, and when the Greek proposed to her, was grateful to escape.

Two small town losers with pitifully tragic yearnings to escape their cages. They have sex in his bedroom, in the car on the way back from shopping trips, hard physical sex. No wonder the book ran into trouble with the censors and was banned in some states. From their wish to be together quickly evolves the idea of killing the Greek.

They try it one night by her sapping him in the bath, then pushing him under to make him drown, while Frank stands guard outside the closed diner. It is a nailbitingly tense scene and at exactly the wrong moment a motorbike cop comes along and pulls in. They do the coshing but then chicken out of the drowning, make it look like an accident. While Nick is in hospital they have sex every night in the big marriage bed. Then the Greek comes home and Cora is overcome with disgust and Frank abruptly leaves, hitching down the line, pulling cons in towns, hustling punters at pool.

But Fate, a Greek tragic Destiny, intervenes to make Nick spot Frank in the street and beg him to come back, insisting – unwittingly – on his own death, for now Frank and Cora, reunited, their lust rekindled, make a more elaborate plan to kill Nick, and go through with it, with a whole string of unforeseen consequences…

The Law

While keeping Chambers’ low-life perspective, a big chunk of the second half of the book consists of the court case against the couple. Anyone with any childish view that the Law is about finding Justice would be quickly disabused: here the Law is a playground for two sharp lawyers to exploit the full complexities of the case simply to win. To emphasise the game element, Cain has the guilty couple’s lawyers making a $100 bet with the prosecution attorney, a bet he triumphantly wins and which means more to him than his fee.

The case against revolves around the revelation that Nick had taken out $10,000 life insurance just days before his murder. For the prosecution this looks childishly simple; buy life insurance for husband; kill him; claim life insurance. Frank is thunderstruck, he knew nothing about it; he and Cora are in a cleft stick because they can’t say, We knew nothing about the insurance when we murdered him. But their lawyer, Katz, pulls a rabbit out the hat by showing that the life insurance was simply an extension of an existing policy which a fast-talking salesman persuaded Nick to take out without his wife’s knowledge; and then, more complicatedly, discovering that Nick had policies on the property and business with numerous insurance companies, manages to persuade them that it will be cheaper to settle their payouts among themselves and drop the law suit. At which Cora and Frank walk free, a striking example of the way the impenetrable machinations of white-collar people casually control the destinies of powerless blue-collar people.

Can you hear me knocking?

Aparently there’s debate about what the title actually means since there is no postman anywhere in the book. In an interview Cain said the postman knocks once for a letter, which requires no reply, but twice for a telegram, which requires and signature and generally brings bad news. Alternatively, it could simply be that Death, or Fate or Destiny, comes calling twice.

Frank manages to escape justice in the court case and there is a honeymoon period where he and Cora adapt to life after Nick’s murder. This is not without its own tribulations as a) when she goes to see her ailing mother, Frank immediately lights out for a week down south and has a wild affair with a woman who invites him to go away altogether, hunting big game cats in South America (!) b) the dick Katz employed to take a statement from Cora that, yes, they had planned Nick’s murder, which was then suppressed as part of Katz’s complicated legal scheme to save them – this dick pops up with the transcript and tries to blackmail them.

But despite this danger from without, and a hard series of scenes after Cora finds out Frank has been unfaithful to her, despite these setbacks, they both feel some Fate or Destiny has bound them together and, after Cora tells Frank she is pregnant with his child, the novel almost concludes with a joyous carefree scene of them taking a day at the ocean, bathing in the warm water under a clear sky, carefree and happy.

Until the postman rings for the second time.

Hot writing

Puts Hammett and Chandler in the shade. Chandler is a dandy. Hammett’s style, as I’ve pointed out in another post, is completely external and turns his characters into robots. This fierce, fast first-person narrative throws us straight into the mind of this small-time crim and rivets us there, in his quick exploitative worldview, in his animal sexuality.

‘Cora. You can call me that if you want to.’…
‘Cora. Sure. And how about calling me Frank?’
She came over and began helping me with the wind wing. She was so close I could smell her. I shot it right close to her ear, almost in a whisper. ‘How come you married this Greek, anyway?’
She jumped like I had cut her with a whip. ‘Is that any of your business?’
‘Yeah. Plenty.’
‘Here’s your wind wing.’
‘Thanks.’
I went out. I had what I wanted. I had socked one in under her guard, and socked it in deep, so it hurt. From now on, it would be business between her and me. She might not say yes, but she wouldn’t stall me. She knew what I meant, and she knew I had her number. (Chapter 2)

No fancy underworld slang, no thieves’ patois, no horseplay with guns, no shootouts. This novel makes all of Hammett and Chandler look stagey and contrived. In his famous essay on Murder Chandler says Hammett returned murder to the people who actually comitted it, a comment I found hard to understand when I read Hammett’s books; something like The Dain Curse reads like an extremely contrived TV miniseries, with its elaborate backstory about the man who took the rap for a murder he didn’t commit, escapes from Devil’s Island, gets involved in a weird religious sect in San Francisco, with everyone pretending to be someone else and contriving elaborate plans for murder, staged suicides, blackmail, faking robberies and so on and so on.

Here, a cunning lowlife falls for a hot babe and they murder her husband to get him out of the way but are caught out by the Law. The return of Fate at the end adds a spookily convincing Greek tragic air to the whole thing, but this – not Hammett or Chandler – feels like it’s staring American Crime in the face in all its simplicity and stupidity.

Movie versions

So intense and powerful is the narrative line it has been adapted seven times for the movies, two plays and an opera. The 1981 movie with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange had an electric affect on my generation, but buffs reckon the 1946 version starring Lana Turner and John Garfield is the best.

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