Fashioning Archetype through Friction: Literatures of the Colonist and the Savage
In the writings of Mary Rowlandson and James Fenimore Cooper, the white colonial American comes to embody the stability, goodness, and vulnerability of civilization endangered—whether physically or psychologically—by the presence of the Savage. The dichotomy between insider and outsider figures, or rather, colonizing and colonized powers, is explicated at length by Homi K. Bhabha, who contends that colonial literature thrives on the “concept of ‘fixity’ in the ideological construction of otherness” (66). Fixity “connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition” when imposed upon the character of the Savage (66). According to Bhabha, the ethnographic paralysis engendered by fixity promotes the solidification of barriers separating cultures and thus aids in the creation of stereotypes. The fixity present in the writings of Cooper and Rowlandson creates a “space for ‘subject peoples’” which “construe[s] the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and construction” (70). Those characters not subject to the limitations of fixity are defined by their engagement with fixed figures; the colonist’s prosaic progress is twined with the degeneration of the Savage. The conflict between forces internal and external to the colony characterizes the colonist and the Savage while solidifying the already dense wall driven between their respective environments.
Rowlandson’s narratives offer harsh descriptions of the Native and nature alongside painful recollections of the end of innocence, life, and order for the author and her community. They also contain fascinating portrayals of what amounts to a corruption of the Western ideals of femininity and feminine purity in Rowlandson’s submersion within the wilderness. The author’s experience in captivity challenges her sense of self and endangers the barriers separating her from her antagonists.
If Rowlandson is a microcosm of the colonial body, Lancaster, her community, emerges as a macrocosm. The Natives—in this case and others described by Rowlandson as “Indians”—attack Lancaster “with great numbers,” invading without precedent and spreading chaos and destruction in their wake (Rowlandson 443). Their presence heralded by “the noise of some Guns,” the Indians leave “several Houses […] burning,” before murdering an entire family, from “Father” to “sucking Child” (443). The brutality wrought in this moment, like the attack on the town, is without cause, and completely merciless: neither man, nor woman, nor child, is spared in the assault. Lacking the discernment to preserve even the characteristically innocent, the cognitive processes of the Indians are underscored by a thirst for blood and ruin. The fears of the colonist are anthropomorphized in the Native, who indiscriminately kills even a man who “begged of them his life,” who “knockt him in head, and stript him naked, and split open his Bowels” (443). Violence serves as a medium for the fixed interpretation of the Native as essentially alien and malicious while supporting the helplessness of the colonist. With the “murtherous wretches” who set upon Lancaster rushing in like a wave, Rowlandson is left to watch in terror as “One of my elder Sisters Children […] had then his Leg broken, which the Indians perceiving, they knockt him on head” and the other people of the community are “butchered” (444). Incapable of feeling pity or appreciating the innocence of their victims, the Natives “laid hold of us, pulling me one way, and the Children another,” and thereupon force Rowlandson into their nightmarish otherworld (445). Having been confined to the fixity, they are established not only as canonical others, but also as villains. In agency and ethnicity, they challenge the welfare of the colony and its residents.
Taken beyond the walls of the community, Rowlandson beholds the alien behaviors of her captors: “Oh the roaring, and singing and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell” (445). In their own territory, the Natives take on demonic qualities amplified by apathy or outright contempt for the author. After a “wearisome and tedious day” made worse by her “wound” and her child’s “being so exceeding sick,” Rowlandson watches helplessly as “my sweet Babe like a Lambe departed this life” (447). Indirectly responsible for the child’s death, the Natives—already kidnappers, murderers, anarchists, and infernal monsters—engender the destruction of innocence closest to the author. The death is a sacrifice insofar as it facilitates her direct interaction with the wilderness, and it functions as a warning: the nascent colonial social order, no matter how pure its members may be, is in constant danger of eradication at the hands of Savages and their world. No longer a mother, at least, immediately, and no longer secure in her role as matriarch and family member, she is disconnected from the safety of her society and her position within it. Subsequently, she is made vulnerable to the transformative effects of her new environment.
Rowlandson is forced to dine on the “filthy trash” that constitutes the Indians’ food and to rely later on “only a little Swill for the body,” before sleeping “like a Swine […] on the ground” (450, 456). Steadily, her submissive approach to her situation fades; to prevent starvation, she “took it [a piece of a horse’s foot] of the Child,” finding it “savoury […] to my taste” (457). When confronted by the mistress of the tribe by which she is held captive, she boldly asserts that “they [the Savages] had as good knock me on the head as starve me to death” (457). To survive, she scavenges for food and eagerly takes a stand against her kidnappers, undergoing a transformation from her status as a “victim” among the unstoppable Savages to that of a more proactive figure. A prior act of retaliation, resulting from the mistress’s request for “a piece of my Apron,” further emphasizes the sudden onset of agency for the stranded colonist: “I told her I would tear her Coat then” (454). In the “vast and desolate Wilderness,” Rowlandson abandons the submissive position she presumably held in her community and embraces the habits of the outsider. Infected, as it were, by the dynamic and uncontrollable forces at play in the wilderness, her removes constitute an exposure to what is quintessentially external, and the characteristics that establish her as innocent—whether as a mother, a prisoner, or the undefiled resident of an undefiled community—fade. So corrupted, she exemplifies the helplessness of the colonial character, and effectively mandates a sort of paranoia in the reader. With her innocence at stake, her community destroyed, and everything she holds dear seemingly decimated, she stands as proof of the contextual powers of the Savage. In the framework of the narrative, the colonist is vulnerable and, when isolated from the outside world, pure. The Native is that element which swoops in without justification to destroy the delicate order represented by that fragile figure. Effectively, the Native becomes an antagonist that cannot be reasoned with in a “civilized” way, emerging within the fixity as a constant and—again, contextually—unstoppable threat. The world of the Savage is antithetical to the world of the colonist, remaining inhumanly foreign even after Rowlandson’s release.
The colonist’s world is the world of the vagrant without agency. In The Imaginary Puritan, Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse argue that Rowlandson aids in the development of a new conception of the colonial identity, or lack thereof. Unlike her “fictional counterparts who were made, not born, men of property,” Rowlandson can “return and assume her rightful place within [the] community” (Armstrong, Tennenhouse 24). The American environment and the captive’s position within it are unique because “the new individual can nest within the old society and never disturb its political order because she nests within a purely domestic space rather than camping on someone else’s property. At the same time, she ‘adds on’ a space that had never existed before” (25). At stake, then, in Rowlandson’s account, is the sense of place and property belonging to the colonist. She can change, can acquire her own presence outside of the storied limits of Europe, and can become an individual—though the presence of the Savage and her interaction with it diminishes the value of her independence. She inhabits fresh territory outside of the limited field of Europe, certainly, but the wilderness and its inhabitants threaten her in a way that nothing in the old world ever could. Both a world “without a history,” and a place notable for the absence of the familiar, the American territory is unknowable and inhospitable (24). The presence of a mobile antagonist, the Savage, enhances the predatory quality of the new world, which is at all times terrifyingly dynamic.
The authors of The Imaginary Puritan argue that the colonial identity is determined in the context of Rowlandson’s imprisonment. By “representing the English in the New World as an abducted body” and marking that body as female, Rowlandson magnifies the sense of displacement felt by the colonial reader by questioning what it means to be “English in America” (204). Having been drawn away from the safety of her community, she is isolated—in a fashion comparable to the isolation suffered by colonists—and driven by “a single-minded desire to return home” (206). It is in the longing for a homeland, the experience of the untamed, uncivilized, and ever-changing American landscape, and Rowlandson’s final concessions among the Natives preceding her return, that the position of the colonial mind is clarified.
If the Native is characteristically foreign, antagonistic, and uncompromising, then the colonist has every reason to feel disenfranchised, to hunger for a return to the homeland, and to appraise that which is external as wholly antagonistic to that which is internal. One of the first colonists killed by the Natives is treated mercilessly, even after “promising them Money,” losing a primary form of agency in the Old World—transaction (Rowlandson 443). The absence of control is ever-present: “The Indians […] said, Come go along with us; I told them they would kill me: they answered, If I were willing to go along with them, they would not hurt me” (445). Rowlandson’s movement in captivity is entirely out of her hands. She is the constant victim of the desires of her captors. Forced to dine on food found in the wilderness or prepared by the Savages, to speculate whether her husband is still alive (“whatsoever the Indians told me respecting him was vanity and lies”), to abandon her role as mother following the death of her child, and to embrace the wildness of her captors, her very identity is at stake (454). That she can return to her community is irrelevant; by the end of her imprisonment, she has suffered the corrupting influence of the Natives and come to the realization that the people who imprisoned her have infiltrated the community: “Mine eyes have seen that fellow afterwards walking up and down Boston, under the appearance of a Friend-Indian, and several others of the like Cut” (453). The colonist, and to a certain extent, the American, is defined by the absence of definition in the presence of the fixed outsider and his world, the destructive elements that threaten the foundations of family and community. Unrelenting danger and entrapment within the ever-changing and uncontrollable environment characterize the experience of the colonist and vagrant.
The Savage threatens and eventually transforms the inner space and its inhabitants, forcing Rowlandson out of the security of home and homebound identity and drawing her into the menacing limits of unconquered country. On returning, the captive is troubled by the sight of the place where “I had lived many comfortable years among my Relations and Neighbours,” now without “one Christian to be seen, nor one house left standing” (465). Having experienced the world outside of the community and having been externalized, Rowlandson cannot easily return to her place of origin. She has taken the position of a colonial figure inextricably changed by exposure to the world lying just beyond the colony. Having been estranged from the inner world, Rowlandson’s return is distinguished by the realization that what homeland existed previously has been destroyed and that a new home must be found. In the pursuit of new territory, Rowlandson’s persona is qualified not by heroism, the presupposition of ethnic superiority, technological or social advancement, or the illusion of progress. Instead, as a colonist and a pre-American, she is determined to create new foundations in the wake of trauma. The Savage, who is all too capable of challenging the solidarity of the community through aggression while endangering the selfhood of its people, is relegated to a position within a wild and untamed environment in need of righteous conquest.
Where Rowlandson distinguishes the helpless colonist from the marauding Savage along objective lines, James Fenimore Cooper produces radical portrayals of insiders and outsiders alike in The Last of the Mohicans. As before, however, the interplay between Natives and colonists protected by the barriers of order or left to wander in the vacuum is integral to characterization. What isolates Cooper’s work from that of Rowlandson is the reinterpretation of characters on both sides of the colonial wall. Outsider figures, such as Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas, are completely unlike the deranged Natives of Rowlandson’s narrative; likewise, the world they inhabit is defined not by its foreignness, but its mysterious and often otherworldly beauty. Colonial characters—Duncan Heyward, David, Cora and Alice Munro, and Colonel Munro—are similarly distinct from the archetypes implicitly drawn by Rowlandson. Where Rowlandson’s innocence and sense of self are explicated as sacred elements in need of protection, Cooper’s colonists are exaggerated, tending to be portrayed as more naïve than pure. The satire of colonial characters and the idealization of Natives challenge Bhaba’s fixity as it is set in motion by Rowlandson while supporting the growth of new stereotypes.
The vulnerability of the colonists manifests in their inexperience and failure to address challenges maturely; where the Natives and Hawkeye stand guard as “vigilant protectors” who “neither tired or slumbered” in a time of danger, their colonial counterparts “lost every idea of consciousness, in uncontrollable drowsiness” (Cooper 65). Compared to the Delawares, even Heyward—a character aspiring to the adventurous, swashbuckling masculinity of the traditional colonial hero—comes across as helpless. “Collecting all his energies in one effort,” he cannot take a stand against Magua or his allies, and survives, like Alice and Cora, only through the efforts of the Natives and Hawkeye (110). The Munro sisters are entirely weaker than Duncan, and are described as characteristically and undeniably feminine, as with Cooper’s comparison of Alice to “some beautiful emblem of the wounded delicacy of her sex, devoid of animation, and yet keenly conscious” (110). Again, Cooper’s description of the colonial woman approaches a wry caricature of the sort of all-encompassing innocence prevalent throughout Rowlandson’s narratives. While the features of the colonist are exaggerated, if not hyperbolized, Cooper redefines the Native. Still anarchic—Hawkeye, after all, abandoned the supposed safety of the colonies for the disorder of the wilderness—and sometimes monstrous, as in the case of the “malignant, fierce, and savage” Magua, only Cooper’s outsiders are capable of enacting meaningful change (87). Lacking even the suggestion of agency, the colonial characters parody the storied archetypes hinted at by Rowlandson. Cooper meanwhile denounces the fixity brought against the Natives by emphasizing their nobility and rejoicing in the dynamism from which Rowlandson attempts to separate.
The power of the Native is outweighed only by his refinement, as expressed in the description of Uncas as “an unblemished specimen of the noblest proportions of man” (53). As fascinating as the forest in its state of “golden glory,” the Delawares embody the mystery, rather than the fixed menace, of the outside world, either in “quiet, vacant composure” or “instinctive delicacy” at the end of battle (124, 57, 115). Even Magua, one of the more obvious antagonists in Cooper’s work, is not lacking in motives or depth of character. Having been exiled from his people, his hunger for vengeance against Colonel Munro is clearly explained, and his concern for the honor of his tribe—“There is a dark spot on the names of the Hurons, and it must be hid in blood!”—is plainly communicated despite his position as villain (107). Where Rowlandson’s Natives function as antagonists and remain within the space created by the fixity, Cooper produces outsiders whose motives cannot be simplified or dismissed. If there are characters limited by stereotype in the narrative, they are colonial.
Just as Heyward, David, and the Munro sisters are hindered by the innocence associated with the colonist, Colonel Munro is limited by his role as an archetypal authority figure. Always inadequate, he lacks even the initiative possessed by the Hurons, calling upon Heyward to “supply the place of the veteran [Munro]” in a meeting with Montcalm, the French general charged with claiming Fort William Henry (152). In his personal dialogues with Heyward, he seems as focused on the preservation of the integrity of his daughters as the welfare of Fort William Henry, and moves with a “disturbed air” and “gigantic strides” quite disparate from the “Grecian” affectations of Uncas (150, 53). Just as doubts are raised with respect to the credibility of leaders in Cooper’s setting, conflict is rarely imagined as glorious, as with the description of the massacre at William Henry as “bloody and inhuman” (180). The machines of war and imperialism and their respective directors are not flawless. Cooper dares to suggest that the pristine social order associated with the colony and its inhabitants is intrinsically corrupt, and that the wilderness—recognized by Rowlandson as the greatest threat to the progress of western civilization—is the only place, and state of being, where freedom and mobility still exist. As an inhabitant of Cooper’s wilderness, the outsider is never hampered by an overtly opportunistic or politicized representation.
While it would be fair to argue that Cooper, like Rowlandson, creates a somewhat canonical image of the outsider as either implacably good or evil, it would be unreasonable to argue that he fails to acknowledge the variability of characters who exist outside of the limits of society. Hawkeye and the Natives may exercise an almost superhuman influence over nature, as revealed by their infallible skill in the art of tracking (“The young Mohican bent over the track, and removing the scattered leaves from around the place, he examined it. […] At length, he arose from his knees, satisfied with the result of the examination”), but they display unprecedented virtue and commitment to the preservation of the common good that outweighs Cooper’s sometimes excessive presentation (186). Similarly, Magua’s sexual aggression toward Cora could be interpreted as consistent with archaic portrayals of the Savage if not for the early explanation of his motives. The behaviors of some Natives are often in keeping with the limited view maintained in Rowlandson’s narratives, as per the scene of violence between a Native and a woman with child in which “he [the Native] dashed the head of the infant against a rock, and cast its quivering remains to her very feet” (175). While powerful, these moments are always counterbalanced by the behaviors of the Mohicans and other Natives. The perspective change that draws the reader into the minds of the Hurons quells any doubts as to the complexity Cooper intended for his outsiders. There is a painful universality in the Huron chief’s realization that “His daughter was dead” (279). Cooper eagerly creates any number of personas for the outsider, and as a result, aids in deteriorating the prosaic barrier separating the chaos of the wilderness from the order of the colony. With constructions of innocence, western heroism, and leadership in doubt, and with the character and the habitat of the Native in a state of constant transformation, his work questions the substance of thematic fortifications separating cultural bodies and the fixity restraining the outsider.
Emergent in Cooper’s work is a completely unique character type reminiscent of the figure of Rowlandson-as-vagrant, who is glorified in his ability to engage inner and outer worlds alike: Hawkeye. Unlike Heyward, Alice, Cora, and David, who respectively function as satires of the frail colonial character described by Rowlandson, Hawkeye seems all too eager to embrace the wilderness. With “a frame […] like that of one who had known hardships and exertion from his earliest youth,” he embodies a pragmatism and a perfection of form that does not exist in other civilized characters, and moreover is capable of interacting with the Natives in their own language and cultural framework (29, 30). Always in motion, and gifted with an infallible sense of what course to take, Hawkeye’s position is external to the conflict between outsider and insider that the novel attempts to resolve, or at least, to challenge.
Hawkeye’s wisdom is evoked in his early assertion to Cora: “I have listened to the sounds of the woods for thirty years, as a man will listen, whose life and death depend on the quickness of his ears” (62). Against the “desperate, but fruitless, efforts” of lesser men, such as Heyward, Hawkeye validates his claim by joining the Mohicans in the attack on Magua, receiving as much recognition from the Mingo aggressors as either of his Native companions (92, 111). His later warning to David, that “we come to fight, and not to musickate,” further aids in distinguishing him from his colonial allies—while other characters attempt to address crises using impractical methods, Hawkeye takes swift and well-reasoned action (328).
Explicitly, Hawkeye is capable of motion and initiative while the colonists are immobilized, as per their period of captivity with Magua. On a less obvious level, he is a figure of profound agency and common sense—even in his longest monologues, he rarely says anything that could be labeled as weak-willed or uninformed. He holds sway over other colonists, and perhaps more importantly, is capable of facilitating their survival, if only by virtue of his adaptability. His gifts are subject to his movement away from the security of the community, upon his voluntary self-reliance. Unlike Rowlandson, who is crippled by the prospect of being driven away from her homeland, Hawkeye relishes the opportunity to engage the natural world as easily as Heyward might interact with the world of Fort William Henry. As a leader figure with an infallible gift for intuiting what must be done to preserve the lives of colonist and Native alike, he transcends the limited perspectives of Colonel Munro and Montcalm. His status as a hero is dependent upon his presentation as a somewhat anarchic, unconventional figure free to act beyond the confines of civilization, and as a result, he effects a transition from the space allocation of colonizer and colonized. Only by being an outsider can he be a hero, unlike the helpless and incompetent insiders whose safety is entrusted to him.
While Hawkeye does not destroy Bhabha’s stereotype-producing fixity, he certainly alters it by inhabiting the same ambiguous space that terrifies Rowlandson. Neither Native nor colonist, his position is that of a truly Western American character, who reinterprets the persona and setting of the outsider. He takes his position by thriving in the cultural vacuum of the displaced colonist. Rather than substantiating the value of the barriers wedged between inner and outer spaces, Hawkeye reveals the outside world to be the only place where freedom and opportunity still exist. Rather than suffering the degradation that befalls Rowlandson, he actively reinvents himself, assuming the roles of the self-made man, the individual, and the uniquely pragmatic American.
In the writings of Rowlandson and Cooper, engagements between forces within and without the colonial structure characterize the colonist and the Savage while altering the divisions separating the wilderness from the civilized world. If Rowlandson’s colonial mentality is to be interpreted as a precursor to the literary constructions supporting the social order, empire, and the greater “System,” then the willing and unwilling outsiders locked within Bhaba’s amorphous fixity are conspicuous ancestors of American literature’s outlaws, rebels, and oddities. As villains, heroes, leaders, and exemplars, they lend to the order of the old world a range of uncertainties which interchangeably menace and fortify the storied limits of civilization. Their movement between worlds challenges the very foundations of the social order, and supports the constant reinterpretation of forms and models in literature and in discourse. By engaging the vacuum between conflicting environments, these characters send ripples through the structures erected in literature as well as thought, eternally challenging the construction of intractable difference and division between societies.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Rutledge, 1994.
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. New York: Penguin, 1986.
Armstrong, Nancy, and Leonard Tennenhouse. The Imaginary Puritan. Chicago: U of
Chicago P, 1992.
Lauter, Paul, et al., eds. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Rowlandson, Mary. “from A Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” Lauter, Paul, et al. 440-468.