Indigenous Ritual, Girardian Sacrifice, and Sense of Place in The Last of the Mohicans and Hope Leslie

By Kay Yandell.

Published by The International Journal of Literary Humanities

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By applying Rene Girard’s theory of the scapegoat to two examples of nineteenth-century American literature, this paper argues that these literatures graft fictional American Indian ritual sacrifice onto real, recently colonized geographical sites to sacralize European settlers’ relationship to their new lands. The essay begins from two geographical sites of contested belonging–Glens Falls in New York and Laurel Hill in Massachusetts, respectively, as they appear in two scenes of thwarted Indian sacrifice of Europeans in James Fennimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” (1826), and Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s “Hope Leslie” (1827). “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Hope Leslie” both contain scenes of American Indian ritual human sacrifice, and both imagine these Indian rituals to take place on actual geographic locations which were familiar to the scenes’ authors. This essay provides a close reading of these scenes and employs Girard’s theory of the scapegoat to read this elision of imagined ritual onto actual geographic spaces as a solution to the dilemma of 19th-century European Americans’ sense of historical and spiritual disconnection from recently appropriated Indian land. The symptoms of this dilemma appear in the relationships these scenes create between American Native and American colonist, and between romantic sacralizing religion and colonialist material history on American lands. These scenes similarly attempt the resolution of this dilemma by fictionally eliding indigenous and colonizing cultures, to monumentalize the actual geographic space on which the authors imagine the scenes to take place. And this elision has apparently found some success: both fictional scenes are today commemorated by non-fictional historical markers on the sites in which these sacralizing rituals are imagined.

Keywords: Rene Girard, “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Hope Leslie”

The International Journal of Literary Humanities, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp.1-9. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 375.701KB).

Dr. Kay Yandell

Assistant Professor, Department of English, American Indian Studies Program, Department of Gender and Women's Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, USA

Kay Yandell is an assistant professor of American literature at the University of Wisconsin. She specializes in early and nineteenth-century American literature, and literature by women of color. She is currently completing her first book, Telegraphies: Technologies, Metaphysics, and Empire in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. This book explores the ways that disembodied telecommunication practices changed prose and plot structures in American literature.