The Importance of Reading in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans
and Emerson’s “The American Scholar”
by Robert Russell
The role of reading books is a frequent point of contention in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans. There is a popular assumption that books are of great value, that they enable readers to learn about the world, and in particular, enable frontiersmen to gain knowledge of exploration, highly important skills necessary for traversing the brutal conditions of nature. What Cooper, in his novel, purports is a rebuttal against this assumption. Embodied in the protagonist of the novel, Natty Bumppo, aka Hawkeye, is a strict condemnation on the perceived value derived from books. For Hawkeye, not only are books overrated and over-relied upon, but books are misleading and can in many ways harm a person. Instead, Hawkeye stresses the importance of experience, that the best way to gain knowledge is not through books, but in exposure to the elements, in experience and action itself.
Similarly, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his 1837 essay “The American Scholar” emphasizes the same ideas. At the crux of his essay, Emerson strives to define which influential tenets constitute the great American scholar, or as he also puts it, “The Man Thinking.” He puts forth three contenders: nature, the Past (books), and action. The ranking order of these tenets is of importance: that his second tenet–learning from the past through the reading of books–comes after nature being the first influence, illustrates the priority Emerson places in the experience of nature over the act of learning about the Past through the reading of books. Like Hawkeye, Emerson understands the importance of experience, that there is knowledge that cannot simply be learned from books alone. However, where their respective criticisms diverge is in the content of such readings. While their attitudes that books are overrated and overvalued are in agreeable alignment, the reasons for their attitudes differ.
Hawkeye’s first criticism of books comes in chapter three of the novel. In conversation with Chingachgook on the hunting and scouting traditions of their ancestors, the Mohican says, “You have the story told by your fathers,” (Cooper 30) which prompts Hawkeye to reflect on his history. He replies: “I am willing to own that my people [white people] have many ways, of which, as an honest man, I can’t approve. It is one of their customs to write in books what they have done and seen, instead of telling them in their villages, where the lie can be given to the face of a cowardly boaster, and the brave soldier can call on his comrades to witness for the truth of his words” (Cooper 31). In Hawkeye’s disapproving perspective, a book is nothing but a receptacle for falsities, a place where a person can detail to their heart’s content the inflated glory of their accomplishments. Furthermore, what truly drives Hawkeye’s disdain is that books are a scapegoat, objects behind which “the cowardly boaster” is able to hide and profit from his deception. The implication of Hawkeye’s criticism is that a reader should be dubious about the content of a book, never completely willing to take everything he or she reads for fact.
Emerson, like Hawkeye, also believes that a reader should always question the content of a book. However, unlike Hawkeye, this assertion does not stem from the plausible deceit contain in the pages of a book, but rather a contextual bias that inherently arises in the chronological gap between writer and reader. He writes, “As no air-pump can by any means make a perfect vacuum, so neither can any artist entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book, or write a book of pure thought, that shall be as efficient, in all respects, to a remote posterity, as to contemporaries, or rather to the second age” (Emerson 46). For Emerson, a book cannot be timeless or contain any universal truth; a book is a stamp of the time in which it was produced. He writes, “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, and Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young then in libraries, when they wrote these books” (Emerson 47). A reader must be weary of what he reads because putting too much trust into a text, accepting too easily what he or she reads for fact, can inhibit creativity and spurn originality. The aim of a college education, Emerson writes, “is not to drill but to create” (Emerson 49). As Hawkeye believes that one should question all that he reads, so Emerson agrees.
However, Hawkeye, dubious about the knowledge books have to offer, appears to have severer attitudes in regards to certain pieces of literature. In chapter twelve of Cooper’s novel, Hawkeye and David Gamut, the bumbling religious psalmist, enter into an argument over the veracity of a certain religious text. While Hawkeye credits his fighting instinct to explain a recent victory against the Huron, Gamut credits the workings of God, then he accuses Hawkeye of blasphemy and demands him to “name chapter and verse; in which of the holy books do you find language to support you?” To which, Hawkeye exclaims:
“Book! What have such as I, who am a warrior of the wilderness, though a man without a cross, to do with books!… I have heard it said, that there are men who read in books, to convince themselves there is a God! I know not but man may so deform his works in the settlements, as to leave that which is so clear in the wilderness, a matter of doubt among traders and priests. If any such there be, and he will follow me from sun to sun, through the windings of the forest, he shall see enough to teach him that he is a fool, and that the greatest of his folly lies in striving to rise to the love of one he can never equal, be it in goodness, or be it in power” (Cooper 117).
Hawkeye, evidently outraged, refutes Gamut’s demand of proof by directing his attention to all the proof one needs: nature. More specifically, Hawkeye, doubtless fueled by his disdain for books in general, criticizes the very notion that the contents of a single book could be more important or have as much influence on the world as the world itself. Nature is more proof, clearer and more plenteous, than the words upon a page in a book, especially words that confuse and increasingly spur the need to decipher, debate, and interpret meaning. For Hawkeye, it is unthinkable that a man take for fact a book that strives to explain the natural wonders of the world; that man is so vain to believe that he has the answers because he has little book in his pocket, and not because he himself has traversed the land and experienced firsthand the wonders of the world through nature. For Hawkeye, the “doctrine of truth” cannot be found in any book, but only in nature. In this sense, Hawkeye embodies the most important influential tenet that defines Emerson’s “Man Thinking.”
Like Hawkeye, Emerson also remarks upon the role of books in relation to understanding the world. Detailing a theory of books, Emerson writes, “The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again…It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing” (Emerson 46). His description calls to mind a mimetic perspective on literature; however, in the aspiration of “transmuting life into truth,” Emerson finds that there are faults in the process. He writes, “In proportion to the completeness of the distillation, so will the purity and imperishableness of the product be. But none is quite perfect” (Emerson 46). If a person stands out in nature and proceeds to write down all that he sees, anything and everything that he writes will never completely reach the absolute veracity, accuracy, and detail of what he endeavors to describe. This is the fault that Emerson finds in the content of books; that books cannot fully encompass the subject of which one strives to understand. Furthermore, there is inherent a bias in the endeavor itself. The writer that is the filter between the world and words has an entirely unique schema and personal history different from any other person, which influence his perception of the world, and in turn reflect the world through his eyes. To read his work and subsequently learn without the recognition that his words are tainted with his own bias is to learn and subsequently believe something that may not intrinsically be true.
Where Hawkeye and Emerson agree is in the method to combat falling susceptible to such biases: experience. As Hawkeye frequently reports throughout the novel, experience cannot be understated. After the siege of Fort William Henry, the traveling men set off to rescue the kidnapped Cora and Alice and spend considerable time searching for a trail. When Uncas finds a tracking lead, the men praise him for his sharp eye: Heyward says, “‘Tis extraordinary, that he should have withheld his knowledge so long,” to which Hawkeye readily replies, “It would have been more wonderful had he spoken, without a bidding! No, no; your young white, who gathers his learning from books, and can measure what he knows by the page, may conceit that his knowledge, like his legs, outruns that of his father; but where experience is the master, the scholar is made to know the value of years, and respects them accordingly” (Cooper 213). In this moment, Hawkeye wittily emphasizes the importance of experience, how experience over the years, in turn, creates wisdom, and that the brightest, keenest, and most “scholarly” of men recognize such a process.
Emerson also emphasizes the importance of experience in his essay. Action, listed third behind books and nature, is a core tenet to the attributes that comprise the American scholar. “Action,” Emerson writes, “is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it he is not yet man” (Emerson 49). Like Hawkeye’s assertion that wisdom is the product of experience over the long course of time, for Emerson, it is action that is the equivalent. Being out in the world, participating, experiencing, these are crucial necessities in gaining wisdom. He writes, “Of course, he who has put forth his total strength in fit actions has the richest return of wisdom” (Emerson 50). Because action is “the transition through which [thought] passes from the unconscious to the conscious,” the reverse of the process, action into thought, is perception; and the cycle through which these processes churn is not only the act of living life but the act of understanding life, the act of learning. Emerson writes, “Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of today…Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the work-yard made” (Emerson 51). It is a metaphor for the mind and the understanding, the knowledge that is gained from action, from the physical experience of receiving the world, which is an education that books cannot provide.
Both Hawkeye and Emerson agree that wisdom cannot be found in reading books alone, that experience cannot be found in reading books alone, that living life to its fullest extent, basking the brilliance of earthly delights such as nature, cannot be found in books alone. Books can simulate, capture, and educate a person about the world; however, as close to the truth as books can bring a reader, as close to experience books can provide, so too can books push a reader away, either by deception and confusion as Hawkeye purports, or by inaccuracy and bias as Emerson asserts. However, in both their attitudes toward reading is the consensus that what a scholar needs most is the undying pursuit of experience and the willingness to question.
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. Penguin Books, 1988.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar,” The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Brooks Atkinson, Modern Library Books, 2000, pp. 43-59.