James Fenimore Cooper

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How does the portrayal of Native Americans differ in captivity narratives, Benjamin Franklin’s writing, and James Fenimore Cooper’s novels?

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The portrayal of Native Americans in captivity narratives, Benjamin Franklin’s writings, and James Fenimore Cooper’s novels differ in perspective and depth. Captivity narratives vary greatly in this regard because they are told from the point of view of individuals in diverse circumstances. Franklin’s writings connect Native American cultures with human nature in general. Cooper creates a “noble savage” image of Native Americans and portrays them in his novels as either very good or very bad individuals.

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The captivity narratives provide complex viewpoints. They relate the histories of white settlers or pioneers taken to live with Native Americans under a variety of circumstances. Those taken as babies or children and adopted into a tribe tended to integrate and identify more positively with their captors than those taken as adults or enslaved. Practices and customs varied a great deal among Native American tribes, as did the circumstances of the person who was captured, so these kinds of narratives can only be considered individually. Additionally, the editors of these accounts did not always stick to the facts as they were told but added their own religious and cultural biases.

In his essay “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America,” Benjamin Franklin (17061790) provides the following astute observation:

Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility; they think the same of theirs.

Franklin explains some of the Native American customs of hospitality and courtesy and then contrasts them with numerous examples of the rudeness of whites who consider themselves and their ways superior.

James Fenimore Cooper (17891851) understood that Native Americans were vehemently opposed to the invasion of their lands. Although his Leatherstocking Tales (a set of five historical novels about the American frontier) evidence sympathy for their plight, Cooper's Native American characters tend to be either endowed with great integrity or cunningly sinister.

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