Thursday, April 21, 2011

Gather the Bones, 6: "Ethnogenesis," James Fenimore Cooper, and Inequality

So we're in a Canadian federal election campaign right now, the forty-first consecutive one in which national identity has become an issue. Now, that's a hilarious Canadian political joke right there, but I forgive you if you don't get it. Or don't care.  The point here is that, just maybe, Canadians have a step on the rest of the world in taking essentialist claims about identity as opportunity rather than pseudoscience. That is, like everyone else around the world, Canadians are prone to flattering themselves about their endearing essential characteristics. (We're polite! We're not Americans!) And, really, if you're not a narcissist, if you've allowed yourself to hear criticism and entertain self-doubt, you can take occasional comfort in this kind of thing without risking your mental health. (If you do, someone will be mean to you on the Interwebs.)

The Canadian connection here is that we have an absolute smorgasbord of identities to claim. We can be Quebecois! And Canadian! And multicultural! And possibly Albertan, too. That's a lot of identities. What's to stop us? It's easy to say that identity-switching stops at the hard boundary of race, but it's also nonsense.

I am not, of course, unaware that the idea of "racial passing" makes people deeply uneasy. It may seem like an inescapable argument from the "boy's side," in that we can't make the logistics of early colonisation work without it. It's the human side that's a problem. Once you allow people to choose their identities according to need, it seems deeply troubling to go back and open the can of worms again. If it happens, it can't be analysed. Lauren Groff's protagonist turns up one family secret after another as she climbs her family tree back to old Marmaduke Temple, but they are secrets for knowing, not for sharing. There are troubling issues hiding here that simply do not belong in public discourse.

Is there a way around this? I keep wanting to present the context of discovery; but it's hard.

As a twelve-year-old listening to this music* I was listening for lyrics. And it doesn't get stranger, at least to a twelve-year-old, than "Younger than the mountains/older than the trees." Trees last a long time. Probably, actually, not as long as "Whites" have been in "America," but to twelve-year-old-me, the timing seemed suspicious. Not because I was thinking the kind of thoughts I think today, but because as a twelve-year-old, I had access to an alternative historical narrative. The advantage of being twelve is that you don't throw out a piece of historiography just because it mentions Kull and Conan. To the contrary! Granted that the Picts were both the ancestors of American Indians and a Scottish ethnicity, the distance had to be bridged somehow.

So that's a twelve year-old romantic's view. The 46 year-old cynic suspects that he's being sold a line. He's not as rich as some people, and he's not happy about the notion that the roots of that sate of affairs are hidden away, and not to be shared.
So why did we start with the Picts? The takeaway is that it's from Bede, and specifically his claim that the Picts had a matrilineal inheritance law. We know who else had matrilineal property rights! More to the point, we know that when it comes to obscuring the working of inherited privilege, hiding it in the maternal  line is close to the oldest trick in the book. We're talking about real estate. There will be scammers.

 (Spoilers, particularly for Pioneers, The Deerslayer, Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, Home As Found, and Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton possible after the break.)  

*Okay, not the German club scene electronica remix, but the John Denver version doesn't come with hilariously self-conscious line dancing.
**There was a sale on scare quotes down at Postmodernism (Sein/Dasein) Us.

Pioneers is a female point-of-view character and begins on the darkest night of the year. So if Cooper wants to write a book in which the heroine isn't married by mid-summer, he's going to have to start working against the grain pretty early. It's 1:18 b1850 Google Books edition by the time that Judge Marmaduke Temple has driven his daughter, Elizabeth, all the way from her finishing school in New York to the doorstep of his little wilderness creation of Templeton, and he hasn't started, so when tall, dark, handsome, gentlemanly young Oliver appears out of the woods, we've pretty much got our plot in hand. Elizabeth has a man that she wills be her lover. The only problem is making society accept it.

Another book might ask whether society is really wrong, given that we are talking about an eighteen year-old girl. That's why it is interesting to look at Home As Found, where Elizabeth's grand-daughter finds her man. Eve is the heiress of the vast Effingham Patent (which is the Temple Patent which is the Cooper Patent which is the Croghan Patent), and there are multiple suitors. It would be hard to find a man her equal in landed property short of a European aristocrat,  Sir George Templemore is about. IThere are also few good American boys equal to Eve in character and education, and Paul is around. Given the choice between money on the one hand and looks and personality on the other, it is perhaps no wonder that Eve wants Paul. The problem is that Paul has no property at all, not even a last name. Or, rather, he has four, which would make us suspicious even if Cooper didn't see fit to include a pre-plastic credit scammer in the story. So either Eve elopes, or she has a problem.

Romance? Property? They're the same thing! Without getting into the old patriarchy thing, there is a valid point to make; how does a girl know that the boy loves her for herself, as opposed to her money? It's a plot point that comes up several times in Groff, and my copy of the book came from the local Chapters complete with a bookmark advertising this site. This post must be immune from patriarchal readings! Fortunately, as it turns out, Paul is Eve's cousin, with his own claim on the Patent that, by my reading, Cooper deepens in Deerslayer. Perhaps a better claim than Eve's! (So, oops on the "patriarchy" point.)

The broad out lines of the resolution of the conflict of property and love in Pioneers is resolved the same way, with a crucial difference. In Home As Found, we do genealogy. That's what we're told to do in Pioneers, but the investigation that Groff spins out for an entire book is neatly resolved in a vignette in Pioneers. Oh, here is the cave that is the veritable source of the Susquehanna, and who should be in it but old Major Effingham, who turns out to be Oliver's grandfather. The Effinghams are the original owners of the Patent, which would set up a conflict between  law and justice at this point were it not that Judge Marmaduke has been secretly holding the land in trust for the Effinghams all along! All done.

Or, well, no. What about the Indians? The Effingham patent originates in an Indian grant., but the overarching point is that Indian proprietal rights are matrilineal. As long as we thought that Chingachgook was Oliver's maternal grandfather, everything was fine from the Indian point of view up to the point where Oliver marries Elizabeth, because the land should go to the female heir on the Effingham/Chingachgook side. The conventional reading is that Cooper doesn't really care about the Indians, and that the point of this resolution is that it allows Oliver to deny any Indian blood. Race was the real sticking point, and now that we know that Oliver and Elizabeth are both clear WASP, everything is fine. Check out this denial. Is Oliver's claimed Indian blood derived from his grandfather's adoption into the Delaware Nation? "'I have no other.'"

Except that Cooper is always expressing sympathy for the Indians. Is he some kind of horrible hypocrite? He does back Jackson and Van Buren, the architects of Indian Removal, after all. But let's have a little more sympathy for Cooper, and read him as carefully as he clearly wants to be read. If we do that, it is hard to believe that he didn't notice that Oliver's denial is actually a non-denial. If his paternal grandfather is an adoptive Delaware, and his grandmother (and mother) are Indians, then, indeed, he has no other than Indian blood. Race is, obviously, another matter, but this proposed parentage is a pretty good explanation for Oliver's Indian looks, dwelt on repeatedly by various characters. Is this word salad? Or are we supposed to actually try to understand what is being said here?

Of course,  Elizabeth looks Indian, too. Let's go back to the moment when Cooper describes his heroine:

"[T] 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 colour of her eye, the arched brows, and the long silken lashes came from the same source..."

Barbara Mann is my sole guide to early Republican literary conventions of racial physiognomy than I have, but I do not need to be a crack scholar to see that Cooper is saying that Elizabeth's mother is Indian. The plot of Pioneers collapses into perfect justice for the line of Chingachgook and a perfect parallel to the plot of Home As Found if we can just find some evidence that Mrs. Temple and Mrs. Effingham were sisters and Indians. Someone's got a clue-by-four! Or two. 

Cooper, more in Home As Found even than in Pioneers insists on the hierarchical nature of actual American society. To do him justice here I would now have to talk about Hawkeye and his cave, but suffice it to say that we have a proposed process in which the American frontier moved westward not with an advancing wave of family farms, but by jumping over them and transforming them in the process. So how does an Indian family farm turn into an American family farm? Pioneers suggests an answer. Indian aristocrats become American aristocrats.

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