Miscegenation in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Catharine Maria Sedgwick.
Racial issues occupy the principal place in American Literature due to the prolonged racial relations between Native Americans and European colonizers. The aim of this essay is to compare and contrast the issue of miscegenation through the principal characters of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie. The word ‘miscegenation’, which consists of two parts ‘miscere’ and ‘genus’ and means a sexual racial mixture, appeared only at the end of the nineteenth century; however, this word is usually utilised in the analysis of earlier literary works. Applying to a profound and realistic portrayal of gender and racial relations between Native Americans and white people in the period of Indian and French Wars, Cooper and Sedgwick introduce their own vision of Indians, implicitly maintaining the idea that miscegenation should be prohibited. In this regard, these writers reflect the existing political and social issues that shaped the attitude of white people towards Native Americans. In particular, at the end of the seventeenth century some American states passed specific laws that were aimed at forbidding miscegenation and depriving people of different races, except white population, of their political rights, violating the principles of equality. On the one hand, miscegenation might decrease the differences between two races, but, on the other hand, it was thought to aggravate these dissimilarities by removing people from their usual background and by preventing them to integrate into the new environment. According to Robert Clark (1984), America’s “vision of itself was in large measure the projection of an ideal and about-to-be-realized condition, rather than an appropriation of the past in the name of reason” (p.46). As a result, America became involved in complex racial tensions and conflicts that were especially negative for Native Americans. This was the main reason for Cooper’s and Sedgwick’s rejection of miscegenation. But in the process of colonization Europeans continued to interact with Native Americans, and these interactions usually resulted in race mixtures that were further reflected in American literature. Some people made attempts to support miscegenation by pointing at the fact that such interracial relations could provide both races with necessary freedom and would allow white females to reveal their sexual desires towards males of different races. However, the existing racial prejudices and social stereotypes against miscegenation not only prevented the spread of such vision among the majority of American population, but also greatly influenced the representation of Native Americans in the nineteenth-century fiction. Being closely connected with political and social ideologies, this fiction was divided into two parts: some novels tried to maintain the status quo, as is just the case with the narrations of Sedgwick and Cooper, while other literary works pointed at the necessity of social changes.
Gender relations and miscegenation in the novels
America is the country that has united people of different races since the period of colonization. However, in the process of interaction colonizers made constant attempts to destroy cultural and religious beliefs of Native Americans. According to Arthur M. Schlesinger (1992), “when people of different ethnic origins, speaking different languages and professing different religions, settle in the same geographic locality. tribal hostilities will drive them apart” (p.10). The indigenous population of the country wanted to preserve their cultural identity and opposed to the ideals of white people. Such refusal resulted in many racial conflicts and had a great impact on the attitude of White Americans towards the issue of miscegenation. In patriarchal America any relations between a white woman and a Native American were strongly prohibited, and, as Martin Barker (1993) states, “it is this running concern about ‘miscegenation’ with its connected fears about interracial sexual attraction that leads to death” (p.27). In those times it was thought that if a person was engaged in sexual relations with a person of a different race, then both people should be killed in order to prevent the spread of miscegenation. Such complex racial relations and rejection of miscegenation are especially reflected in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper The Last of the Mohicans and Catharine Maria Sedgwick Hope Leslie. As Stephanie Wardrop (1997) puts it, Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans “presents a world in which the mixing of races is morally repugnant and anathema to the American project of nation building” (p.61).
Throughout the narration Fenimore Cooper contrasts people with mixed and unmixed blood, as if wishing to reveal the differences between the characters of various races. Despite the fact that Hawkeye is culturally connected with both white people and Indians, he is presented as a person “without a cross” (Cooper, 1984 p.4). The same regards Alice Munro who is “surprisingly fair” (Cooper, 1984 p.378) and Chingachgook who is an unmixed Mohican. Contrary to these characters, Cora, the elder sister of Alice, is of mixed race, and it is she who protects her sister at the cost of her life. Belonging to the race of West Indians, Cora comes from “that unfortunate class who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people” (Cooper, 1984 p.310), and thus, she is prohibited to marry a person from the South. In this regard, miscegenation was treated as blameworthy in those times, and when Magua proposes Cora to marry him, she claims that “the thought itself is worse than a thousand deaths” (Cooper, 1984 p.124). These words prove that only Uncas and Chingachgook are presented as noble people, while all other Native Americans are regarded as cruel savages. That’s why miscegenation between a white person and an Indian was widely restricted. Although Catharine Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie also reveals this restriction, she points at the possibility of miscegenation between some secondary characters. Contrary to Cooper, the writer provides a rather humane vision of Native Americans. Faith, the sister of Leslie Hope, manages to marry Oneco, the brother of a Pequoud princess Magawisca. According to Leland Person (1985), Sedgwick belongs to those American female authors who in their novels reflect how an “Indian male, reverential and loving rather than possessive and authoritarian, offers a romantic contrast to the arbitrary authority of Puritan society” (p.683). This can be also true in regard to Cooper’s narration, where the writer introduces such Indian character as Uncas with noble features and attractiveness. However, similar to Magawisca who is not able to become a wife of Everell and instead she has to regard him “as her brother” (Sedgwick, 1987 p.30), Uncas is also prohibited to marry Cora. Due to serious racial prejudices, Magawisca is an inappropriate match to Everell, while Hope Leslie suits for the position of Everell’s wife. By the end of the narration the writer shows that any marriage should be based on love, as Magawisca claims, “Ye need not the lesson, ye will each be to the other a full stream of happiness. May it be fed from the fountain of love, and grow broader and deeper through all the passage of life” (Sedgwick, 1987 p.333).
Thus, the writer proves that some Native Americans possess wisdom and nobility; however, they are not able to unite with European Americans. Magawisca is rejected by both societies, as Wardrop (1997) claims, “from the white for her association by blood with ‘savages’ and from the Pequod for her association with the whites that leads her to rescue Everell” (p.64). Magawisca saves the person she loves at the cost of her own rejection and isolation, but she is not able to marry him. Similar to Sedgwick’s women, female characters of Cooper are divided into “those who can be married and those who cannot” (Baym, 1992 p.20). In this regard, racial and cultural differences are aggravated by gender stereotypes that put women in subordinate positions and make them act in accordance with the existing social and moral norms. On the example of their female characters Sedgwick and Cooper reveal that women are prohibited any freedom and equality, especially concerning their choice of marital partners. Those women, who prefer to ignore racial prejudices and assigned roles, are either rejected by society or die. This is especially true in regard to Magawisca and Cora who try to act, according to their moral values, but their attempts result in negative consequences for both women. But, above all, these women are appreciated for their racial characteristics. Alice’s racial purity is explained by her pure unmixed blood, while Cora, being a daughter of a Creole woman and a British soldier, is regarded as sinful. Implicitly opposing to miscegenation, Cooper prefers to kill Uncas, Cora and Magua in order to prevent an unsuitable marriage.