History’s Inconsistent Characters

My students expect authors who make it onto the syllabus to be “good” people.  If these writers don’t have sound morals, why would we care about what they have to say?

Some of my students want the same thing from authors and historical figures as they want from fictional characters: consistency. Because of this, I see students lump both fictional characters and actual people into the overly general groups of “good” or “bad.”

Of course, this overgeneralizing is a problem that I try to tackle from the get-go each semester.

In nearly all of my literature courses, I introduce students to a chapter titled “Worth the Consideration of Those to Whom It May Prove Worth Considering” from Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1856).  In this chapter, the narrator directly addresses readers and their mounting concerns about the novel’s “inconsistent” characters.  The narrator first acknowledges that in fiction “there is nothing a sensible reader will more carefully look for, than that, in the depiction of any character, its consistency should be preserved” (75).  Next, despite this seemingly reasonable criterion for judging a character’s effectiveness, the narrator refutes:

while to all fiction is allowed some play of invention, yet, fiction based on fact should never be contradictory to it; and is it not a fact, that, in real life, a consistent character is a rara avis? Which being so, the distaste of readers to the contrary sort in books, can hardly arise from any sense of their untrueness. It may rather be from perplexity to understanding them. (75)

I find the narrator’s rationale here persuasive and so do my students.  People are, by nature, inconsistent and complex.  I frequently change my mind about things without any reasonable explanation, I listen sometimes to opera and sometimes to death metal, I donate to animal rights organizations even though I eat meat, but all of this is ok.  According to Melville’s narrator, my behavior is natural—it’s simply human—and I’m reminded of several lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (224)

While my students readily and enthusiastically agree that humans are inconsistent, they still struggle to apply it at times, especially with figures they’ve long-term internalized or romanticized as “good” or “bad”. They can’t conceive how I would allow a morally “bad” author to have a voice in the classroom. Such is the case when I teach James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

Last of the MohicansAlthough The Last of the Mohicans is set during the French and Indian War, Cooper writes, and subsequent editions appear, throughout the peak era of Indian Removal. I like to use the Broadview edition that includes relevant historical documents that provide context for the narrative, such as excerpts from the “Indian Removal Act” (1830) and excerpts from Andrew Jackson’s “Second State of the Union Address” (1830).

I initially ask my students, “So what do you think Cooper tries to accomplish in The Last of the Mohicans?”

Students generally respond that the text is explicitly sympathetic to indigenous plight not only because of how Uncas and his father Chingachgook, the heroic Mohicans, are depicted as wise and brave but also because even the villainous Magua only seems to be villainous because of white influence. The English manipulate Magua to act against his own nation and turn him into a drunk, resulting in his exile and fueling his desire for revenge.

However, based on everything scholarship knows about Cooper’s life and political ideologies, The Last of the Mohicans actually functions as a justification for Indian Removal, and Cooper himself was, in fact, pro-removal and pro-Jackson. By setting the novel in the context of the past and focusing on the extinction of a particular tribe, Cooper essentially argues, “It’s a shame about those Indians and their suffering, but it’s too late to do anything about it now. It’s ok though because as long as we remember them fondly, we don’t have to feel guilty about anything. Progress must continue.”

This typically comes as a surprise to students and forces them to reevaluate the connection between the novel and the section of the supplemental document, Jackson’s second “State of the Union Address,” in which he explains:

Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth.  To follow to the tomb the last of his race and to tread on the graves of extinct nations excite melancholy reflections.  But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another. (451-2)

Students realize that just as Jackson discusses indigenous groups in terms of “extinction” and suggests that philanthropy can “reconcile the mind” of white Americans struggling with guilt and “melancholy reflections”, Cooper like-mindedly believes that literature can further help to “reconcile the mind,” so Americans can move forward with progress. Rightly so, my students see this as a “bad” and brain-washy thing.

This is the point in discussion where my students outwardly mourn. I hear students say: “What Americans did to Native Americans was horrible,” “Native Americans were here first, and the land was rightfully theirs,” “Native Americans were treated so unjustly, so unfairly,” “Jackson and Cooper—they were both terrible people who made everything worse.” My students ask me why I would assign a novel that is basically, in their opinions, propaganda for the historically “bad” team.

I don’t see the novel’s value in the classroom as determined or affected by whether or not Cooper was a “good” or “bad” person.  I’m okay with understanding Cooper, as I understand many other early American authors, as inconsistent.  I teach Cooper’s novel because it reveals so much about American culture in the Jacksonian era. I also teach the novel because it reveals so much about my students in the contemporary era.  I say to my legitimately concerned group: “Well, this campus stands on what was once Iroquois territory. Why don’t you take action, right the wrongs of the past, and give it back? The Iroquois nation still exists—give it all back.”

As expected, I hear no enthusiastic “yes!” from the group. Instead, the following type of dialogue ensues:

Students: “Well, we can’t do that. That doesn’t make sense”

Me: “Why not? You clearly feel indigenous people have been wronged. You feel sorry for them.”

Students: “But we can’t just give land back. We’ve done so much and accomplished so much with this space over all these years.”

Me: “Ah, you’ve ‘cultivated’ the land—it’s now too late to make a change?”

Students: “If we just give everything back, where would the university go? Where would our cities go?”

Me: “That kind of large-scale displacement would cause a lot of chaos…”

Students: “And what would Native American groups with populations way smaller than ours even do with all of the space?”

Me: “So, the land would be ‘wasted’?”

In a nutshell, the student rationale for why we can’t give the land back today sounds a lot like the rationales provided by those “terrible people” Andrew Jackson and James Fenimore Cooper.  In his address, Jackson, like my students, explains how Americans have “accomplished so much” with the land:

What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion? (452)

The most common arguments for removal in the 18th and 19th centuries centered on the idea that indigenous peoples failed to cultivate land and use it to its full potential. As a result, what mattered was not who was there first but who was using the land most productively and efficiently.

I ask my students, “Does that mean you’re all ‘bad’ people?”, but this question only yielded silence.

To get students talking again, I ask, “Was Thomas Jefferson a ‘good’ person?” They respond with a definite “yes.” I ask them to explain why, and they, as expected, cite the “Declaration of Independence” and his role in the American Revolution. I then tell them that as president, Jefferson devised manipulative plans to trick Native Americans into debts that they would only be able to pay off by giving up lands. Jefferson was unquestionably pro-removal. I can point to specific letters Jefferson wrote which prove so.

Is Jefferson still a “good” person? Is the “Declaration of Independence” enough of a reason to forgive his problematic ideologies about other races? Even if my students aren’t familiar with Jefferson’s plans for indigenous peoples, they are aware that Jefferson was a slaveholder.

But why do people feel compelled to categorize Jefferson, anyone else for that matter, as “good” or “bad”? Why this drive to figure out in which group to place history’s characters? Why do we need to see Jefferson as a hero and Jackson as a villain instead of as what they are: flawed, contradictory humans?

I tell my students an overly simplistic story: Once upon a time, there was a boy who was orphaned because his family died helping others during a war.  Despite being an orphan, the boy worked hard and became a lawyer.  Now a man, he eventually fell in love, got married, and tried to have children, but his wife couldn’t conceive, so they adopted. One of the adoptees was a Creek Indian, orphaned when his parents were killed during a battle. The man claimed that he saw himself in that orphaned little boy and felt compassion for him.  About 40 years later, the man got a really important job, but before he could start, his beloved wife died on Christmas Eve. In her memory, and because he loved children and was once an orphan himself, every Christmas he would go to the city orphanage and bring all the children presents.

Can my students guess who this story is about? No. How could they possibly believe that Andrew Jackson, a “bad” man who readily exterminated indigenous populations could ever do something as inconsistent and “good” as identify with, adopt, and raise an indigenous child? Jon Meacham’s 2008 biography describes Jackson in the following way:

He was the most contradictory of men….A sentimental man who rescued an Indian orphan on a battlefield to raise in his home, Jackson was responsible for the removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral lands….Like us and our America, Jackson and his America achieved great things while committing grievous sins. (xix)

Does a story about bringing orphans Christmas presents justify or forgive Jackson of his policies or actions regarding Indian Removal? Absolutely not—those are things that can never be forgiven or forgotten, especially by those whose ancestral lines were directly impacted.

But the anecdote about Jackson does at least reveal that he, like Cooper, like all other humans, is inherently contradictory. My own students, certain of their own “goodness” shared sentiments quite reminiscent of Jackson’s and Cooper’s during our discussion of The Last of the Mohicans. Does that mean they’re secretly “bad”? I don’t know. Regardless, I think they will consider their own inherently contradictory natures before hastily applying labels like “good” or “bad” in the future.

Works Cited

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. Edited by Paul C. Gutjahr, Broadview,

Jackson, Andrew. “Second State of the Union Address.” Gutjahr, pp. 451-3.

Meacham, Jon. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Random House, 2008.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Edited by Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer, Norton, 2006.

Spengemann, William C., and Jessica F. Roberts, editors. Nineteenth-Century American Poetry.  Penguin, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Spengemann and Roberts, pp. 165-225.

Addressing Despair in the Classroom: An Ecocritical Approach to Non-Canonical American Writers

PALS Note: This is the second post from Christina Katopodis about her novel approaches to the American literature survey. Read below for her ideas on combatting despair in face of the many injustices and tragedies in American literary history. And find her first post here

In my last post, I talked about building community in the classroom, something I value as a teacher because it means simultaneously establishing a safe and flexible learning environment. The community-building began with the nature walk and class blog, in shared experiential learning. The ecocritical framework to the course, from the walk to the readings, bolstered a sense of solidarity in the classroom that we discovered we needed later in the semester. One additional goal I had for “American Literature: Origins to the Civil War” was to center America’s origins around her founding mothers and people of color in addition to the “city on a hill” story. While I view this as a good strategy, I didn’t anticipate despair in the classroom when we encountered the never-ending violence of nation-building on multiple fronts. The underlying ecocritical framework to the course became a method to combat despair with activism.

Reading Dissonance in American History: Indian Removal & The Noble Savage
To construct a feminist American origin story from the outset, we devoted time to Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, and Hannah Dustan, women in and on the edge of the wilderness. From risking the dangers of childbirth to committing murder, these women demonstrated that life in the wilderness was all about survival, skill, and reason. Despite the Calvinist doctrine of passivity, they didn’t have time to be victims. In early American captivity narratives, the wilderness was a space in which transgressing gender boundaries was palatable even to Calvinist readers.

Bridging early American origin stories and nineteenth-century reimaginings, we read the introductions to Deloria’s Playing Indian and Mielke’s Moving Encounters. There’s little room for secondary reading in a survey course, but both were a fantastic investment of class time. Playing Indian provides context for the Boston Tea Party, from appropriations of Native American identity under the guise of radical freedom to shedding the costume after the war to adopt Indian Removal politics. Likewise, Moving Encounters provides several readings of sentimental moments between whites and Native Americans predicated on the death and departure of Native Americans.

We discussed the Indian Removal Act (1830) at length while reading Hope Leslie and Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Teaching the two together was extremely rewarding. Students loved Hope Leslie—it’s an exciting tale that reimagines the Pocahontas story very differently from John Smith’s telling. According to David Reynolds, Magawisca is portrayed as an angel of the forest, which counterbalances the nineteenth century “Angel of the House” stereotype. Students strongly sympathize with Magawisca, more so than any other character, yet this compulsion to empathize warrants addressing the problematic portrayal of the noble savage. The novel can easily lead into the trap of apology but Mielke’s book prepares students to problematize Magawisca’s sentimental departure. Then, and I highly recommend teaching them in this order, students view Cooper’s novel very differently: the disguises are all taken off at the end and racial boundaries are clearly restored. The love stories in Hope Leslie disguise this, whereas Cooper’s racism is obvious. The secondary readings bring this contradiction to the forefront: students understand that novels sympathetic to Native Americans may also be supportive of Indian Removal.

Race and Gender in the Wilderness: Intersectionality & Environment
The wilderness in both novels plays a large role in representations of race and gender. In Hope Leslie, the potential love between Magawisca and Everell is acceptable only when they are young and living on the edge of the wilderness, the borderline of “civil” and “savage” that gets wider with age. In the wilderness, Magawisca’s arm is severed in the act of saving Everell’s life. It’s clear she is a warrior who saves Everell instead of being saved. Likewise, at sea, Hope uses her education (more specifically, her Latin) to escape from a band of drunken sailors chasing her. Sedgwick’s refusal to write women as incapable victims recalls the early captivity narratives; she uses the wilderness as a place to test gender boundaries and break them.

While racial boundaries seem clear in Mohicans, Cooper’s view of masculinity is not. Heyward is a charming suitor for Alice Munro when he’s standing in Colonel Munro’s office, but in the wilderness he’s incompetent, always falling asleep on watch, and rather pathetic for a hero compared to the skilled Chingachgook and Uncas. Yet Heyward displays gentlemanliness, weary of violence, establishing himself as “civil” and not “savage” in comparison. Gender and race intersect in different ways depending on the ground a character stands on, or what his ambitions are. We read Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick through a similar framework but adding in disability studies, the white whale symbolizing whole masculinity, endlessly deferred.

Finding Individual Accountability: Transcendentalism & Self-Reliance
Both Cooper and Melville can be read using animal studies, but this can also lead to despair when discussing the pigeon shooting in Cooper’s The Pioneers or the whaling industry. When students expressed mounting anxiety about deforestation, climate change, and animal extinction, I told them to go back to Thoreau and to connect his love of nature to civil disobedience and activism. The “Economy” chapter of Walden is as much about Thoreau’s financial accounts as it is a philosophy of personal accountability.

As the irony of the Declaration of Independence infiltrated class discussion, and the revolutionary American spirit lost its romance, the Emersonian part of my pedagogy kicked in: I believe that students need to go out into their environments and decide for themselves what justice is and what they need to do to achieve what feels most true to them. I ask them to do some self-reflection, form their own ideas and back them up with evidence and analysis, and, in turn, form their identities and career paths. Emerson asks, “Where do we find ourselves?” That, to me, is what college should be about. At least, it’s a good time to start questioning.

A student spoke up in class one day to tell us about her younger brother who was studying 8th grade American History. He told her what he was learning and she said he had it all wrong, fact-checking his history book based on what she had learned in our class. This moment became an example of how students were already taking a first step to making change happen. I used the structure of the course to argue that we were already working toward justice by doing justice to people as well as the animals and lands that have been marginalized in history. I said it was up to them to do something with that knowledge. There are worse things to be accused of than being an optimist.

Despair in the Classroom: Teaching Slave Narratives

Image via PBS

Most students define “American” at the beginning of the semester using words like “freedom,” “acceptance,” and “equality,” probably based on their 8th grade history class. But the American origin story becomes an even more obvious myth when we talk about the Fugitive Slave Law (1850). The connections between America’s origins and today’s politics lead quickly to disillusionment and despair. Concurrent discourse in the media about shootings, the second amendment, Black Lives Matter, and police brutality had trickled into class discussion throughout the semester because they were so relevant. It quickly became apparent that not much has changed in the country’s violent history.

I think we reached a breaking point at Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I had framed Incidents as a narrative about survival instead of victimhood, but disillusionment with “the land of the free” made it hard to view her as anything but a victim. As I discussed Dr. Flint’s power over Linda Brent, a student in the back of the room repeatedly commented, “but that’s so sad.” I opened my mouth and then stopped the protective teacher impulse because empathy is not enough, and there are zero “take backsies” in history.

The best thing I think we can do for our students is to treat violence and injustice as content and not as metaphor. For example, rape isn’t a literary device, no matter how many times you teach Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” That’s why I teach consent in the college classroom, treating my students as actants and survivors, young Cora Munros and Magawiscas instead of victims.

Addressing Despair: Choosing Literature that leads to Social & Environmental Justice
Empathy and anger are only preliminary, limited responses to literature. Literature leads to activism, which is the best way to argue for its relevance today. Stowe’s sentimental novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although it has many, many problems, nevertheless served as evidence in Congress to argue for the abolition of slavery. This course ended in the spirit of social justice once we openly acknowledged our despair and talked about it together as a class.

Central Park - Harlem Meer copy
Central Park via the author

This fall I’m working environmental justice into the syllabus and tying it to social justice. I’m inspired by my colleagues Kaitlin Mondello and Becky Fullan and their work at John Jay on this blog: Sustainability & Environmental Justice. I will be asking students to pledge to do one thing that is environmentally sustainable for the duration of the semester and to write a reflection about the experience as one of their blog posts. If we reach a moment of despair about climate change, I can remind them that they are already taking part in a solution, similar to the work of questioning and reading critically. I hope the disillusionment will turn into an optimistic sense of social and environmental responsibility as well as a belief that they will effect change in their adult lives.

Contributor Bio:

IMG_4852088740534 copyChristina Katopodis is a 19th Century Americanist, Adjunct Lecturer at Hunter College, and an English PhD student at the Graduate Center CUNY. Christina’s dissertation brings together American Transcendentalism and Sound Studies, examining vibrational epistemology in the works of Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James. Her teaching philosophy balances backwards pedagogy with student-driven learning, aiming to empower individual students by providing flexible learning environments in the classroom and online. She draws from a variety of approaches to make texts accessible, allow individual students to progress at different paces, and encourages intellectual risk-taking in class discussions, collaborative group work, and using media platforms from blogs to Twitter. For further information, check out her website, where she also blogs about teaching.