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.

Hedda Gabler & Artist Figures

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credit: Briend

When I wrote about Fences and The Glass Menagerie last spring, one of the topics I discussed was the role of the artist in these plays. It is not something that I have ever explored formally in my own work, but I come back to it over and over again in the classroom. Identifying the artist figure can be fruitful ground for students. There are often artist figures in most works of literature, so it is a concept that they can return to in other classes and find in other works of literature. Also, thinking about what it means to be an artist and what philosophies of art the author espouses often leads students to a broader discussion of the goals of the author or what the overall purpose of the text is.

I often plan lessons or assignments around the idea of the artist, but it can also be a toolbox concept that can be used if the planned lesson isn’t going well or if it goes much faster than anticipated. I have identified some basic questions that I ask my students to get them started thinking about the artist figure. They can be explicitly asked to students or can be used to guide your questions about a specific text. The questions are as follows:

  1. Who are the artist figures in this text?
  2. What are their modes of creation, and what do they create throughout the text?
  3. What seem to be their main philosophies of art?
  4. Is there tension between the different ideas of art in the text?
  5. Does the author seem to have different ideas about art than the characters? If so, is there an overall philosophy of art in the text or are the competing interests left in conflict with each other?

Students also sometimes need help grasping the potential definitions of the artist. In some texts artists are really explicit in that there are characters who are painters, writers, or actors. However, I like to define the term as broadly as possible to include figures who are creative in whatever forms. For example, when my students and I read William Wells Brown’s The Escape; or, A Leap to Freedom, we discussed how many of the characters performed different identities over the course of the play. The slave Cato acts as an assistant to his master, who is a doctor. Then, later in the play he escapes slavery by putting on his master’s clothes and running away while he and his master are in the north. Cato isn’t an artist exactly, but he plays with identity to create different versions of himself, and this play helps him to see the avenue for fleeing slavery. I like this broad definition because it gives students a lens for interpreting. This expansiveness might not work for a particular text, so it is helpful to consider how you want to define the artist with your students and how that definition works in correspondence with the text that is being examined by the class.

One of the plays for which this broad definition of the artist works is Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen. There is a central figure, the titular Hedda Gabler, who is not an artist exactly but is hellbent on creation—even if she is mostly creating drama. Hedda has married her husband, who is a bit of a dope, out of boredom, but she finds that marriage has not alleviated this problem. Rather she is more stuck than ever and spends most of her time creating problems for other people.

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Cate Blanchett as Hedda Gabler

Students might not want to think of creating problems as an artistic expression. She is just a drama queen! However, framing her in this way solves a central issue with this text. When I first taught this text, I realized how much we rely on character motivation to understand texts and to understand the forward movement of the plot. But when your character is just making waves to make waves, how do you talk about her?  Hedda has very little motivation to do what she does in the text. She creates chaos, but it can be hard to understand why she creates such a mess. She is a little bit jealous and a little bit vengeful, but mostly she is just bored and uses other people’s lives as her own form of entertainment.

Thinking of her as an artist figure helps students figure her out. Hedda has pent up energy and aggression that she has no outlet for. Instead of drawing or painting, she is creating by making a drama in front of her eyes. She is mean to her aunt-in-law for no reason, she manipulates her husband, she shamelessly flirts with several men, she single-handedly ruins someone’s sobriety, and she even pushes another character into killing himself. Because of her lies and manipulation, serious consequences befall all the other characters, and she eventually succumbs to her own desire to create momentum, even if it is destructive momentum, when she kills herself at the end of the play. I’m not suggesting that Hedda destroying herself and everyone else’s lives is something to be celebrated as an artistic endeavor. But I am saying that it is her creative outlet, and if students think of her as someone who needs to create they can make better sense out of the confusion she causes.

4b3f2bdfe2398ee28d98b4cfeb4e235fAs is clear from my description of Hedda, her focus is destruction. One of her main tools for causing havoc is two pistols that belonged to her father. Students might be interested in tracing the moments that the guns are mentioned in the play. They are mentioned more than once in the beginning of the play and are used by both the writer, Lovborg, and Hedda to kill themselves at the end of the play. They are symbols of the power Hedda does not have but seeks. She is hemmed in by a patriarchal culture that provides her no room to assert herself. She cannot escape the structures of her society. Her lack of movement and mobility leads directly to her downfall. Yet, if she is going to go down, she will go down guns blazing, literally. The guns represent patriarchal society and also the ability to cause death. While Hedda does not “win” by killing herself, she does circumvent the roles that are being fostered upon her. In the beginning of the play, Hedda and her husband, George Tesman, have just returned from their honeymoon. Several times the other characters make reference to Hedda possibly being pregnant. They want her to represent life and birth, but they are fundamentally misreading Hedda. Her power is not the power of birth but the power of death.

Hedda’s destructive power is so potent that she even kills other people’s artistic creations. The plot in the latter half of the play revolves around a book that Lovborg, who is also Hedda’s former lover, and Mrs. Elvsted have written. Mrs. Elvsted helped Lovborg get sober and fell in love with him in the process. She seeks help from Hedda and Tesman when Lovborg comes to the city and Elvsted fears that he will fall into drinking again. Instead, Hedda pushes Lovborg to drink, and over the course of a long, drunken night he loses the only copy of the manuscript of the groundbreaking book. Hedda gets her hands on the manuscript and decides to destroy it by burning it in the fire. What is interesting here is not only that Hedda burns the book, but that she burns it in part because Elvsted has described it as her child. Mrs. Elvsted says to Lovborg (who she thinks has thrown away the book because he is too embarrassed to admit that he lost it), “For the rest of my life, it will be just like you’d killed a little child.” Hearing this is one of Hedda’s main reasons for destroying the manuscript. Hedda’s motto is destroy, destroy, destroy. And she seems determined to not only not birth her own children but to also destroy other people’s (metaphorical) ones. She creates destruction, and she destroys other people’s creations.

All of this might make Hedda sound terrible, but she is such a fascinating figure that I find students are more intrigued by her than turned off by her. They will often need a lens, though, to help them draw conclusions about her. She is resistant to interpretation because it is hard to define a central reason for her actions. The center does not hold, but thinking of her in terms of a creator, even if she is a creator of chaos, is a good first step to getting a grasp on the play.