The Hawkeye Who Sleeps in All Americans

GEORGE F. WILL

October 08, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington.--If you crave relief from the tedium of 1992, spend a few hours in 1757. The new movie made of James Fenimore Cooper's ''The Last of the Mohicans'' is not restful, but it is a bracing immersion in some great American themes, and in the company of a mythic figure who flits soundlessly across the forest floor of our national dreams.

The movie made from Cooper's remarkably cinematic novel (it is all pursuit and rescue, with the rustle of gingham skirts in the wilderness) illuminates today's politics. It illustrates a tension -- think of it as the call of the forest against the claims of community -- that still conditions our politics.

The movie opens with a panorama of (supposedly) the New York wilderness beyond Albany 235 years ago. Actually, the setting is the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, in one of the few remaining old-growth forests.

But this Arcadia is not Eden. It is infested with British and French forces enlisting rival Indian tribes in their contest for control of the continent.

One brief scene in ''The Last of the Mohicans'' concisely explains the first of the Americans.

A dandified British officer is haranguing some buckskin-clad colonials, hectoring them to join the fight against the French. One man in particular is skeptical. The officer becomes furious: ''You call yourself a patriot and loyal subject to the crown?''

Hawkeye, laconic: ''Don't call myself subject to much at all.''

Hawkeye was a political problem. Still is.

A distinctively American consciousness was quickened during the struggle of the British with the French in North America. One young Virginian, name of Washington, acquired in that struggle military experience that soon would be put in the service of that consciousness. Ever since then, America's political problem has been that most Americans do not feel, or want to feel, subject to much at all. It is hard to govern a nation of Hawkeyes.

''The Last of the Mohicans'' was published in the magical year of 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the year when, on the Fourth of July, the second and third presidents died hours apart.

The passing of the Founders' generation plunged the young republic into anxiety about the malleability of its character and the perishable nature of its virtue. Everything precious seemed as liable to vanish as the wilderness was vanishing under the assault of ax and plow.

Cooper was born to wealth and raised in America's Bethlehem: Cooperstown, New York, mythic birthplace of baseball. He went to Yale and then to Europe, the expatriate's path taken by many other Americans worried that American society was too thin, too lacking in material for literature.

But it was on the frontier, where society was thinnest, that he gave America its first and most enduring romance. It is the romance of life lived on the edge, on the frontier where law and social convention barely constrain, and where the individual can step entirely away from both, into the fringe of the forest.

The movie is rated ''R'' because of the violence which, although graphic, is not gratuitous. It is part of the movie's meticulous realism, a convincing re-creation of pre-modern war comparable to the battle scenes of ''Henry V'' and ''Glory.''

This was a heroic age because beyond the mostly coastal settlements America could be a terrifying place. But transcending the hair-raising (literally: the scenes of scalpings are not for the squeamish) adventure story is the figure of Hawkeye, casting a shadow forward over our political history.

Hawkeye, America's first great popular hero of fiction, is the man between -- between forest and settlement, between tepee and drawing room, leading a life that is one long declaration of independence.

Based in part on Daniel Boone, Hawkeye foreshadowed some similar spirits, such as Huck Finn thinking it might be time to ''light out for the Territory.'' Huck going down the Mississippi and Thoreau going up the Merrimack recall restless Hawkeye, heading out, tending west, toward ''Can-tuck-ee.'' When Shane's solitary profile, tall in the saddle, follows the setting sun, Hawkeye is seen again.

The frontier, declared closed in 1890, was gone before that, but it lives in our national memory, as does an ambivalent stance toward civic life. Hawkeye and his many cultural echoes express a perennial American tension. It is between nature and culture, between the idea of a self-created individual acknowledging no social bonds or debts to society, and the individual as a citizen, obligated to the society that shapes him.

This is why politics is such a difficult business in America. Politicians must tread lightly lest they arouse the Hawkeye -- ''Don't call myself subject to much at all'' -- who sleeps lightly, when he sleeps at all, in all of us.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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