The Last of the Mohicans
The Last of the MohicansIntroduction
James Fenimore Cooper
For Further Study
When The Last of the Mohicans was published in 1826, James Fenimore Cooper was riding a growing wave of fame and critical acceptance. Following on the success of his last two books, The Last of the Mohicans was praised at the time for its nonstop adventure, realism, and intricate plotting. Using historical sources ranging from actual characters, such as Colonel Munro and Major Heyward, to John Heckewelder's An Account of the History, Manners, and Customs, of the Indian Nations, Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States, and adding to them his own knowledge of the history of the area in which the novel was set, Cooper laid the foundation of his novel with fact and real events.
The Last of the Mohicans introduces Cooper's most well-known character, Natty Bumppo. It is an abduction narrative, and follows the adventures of Bumppo and his two Mohican Indian companions—father and son, Chingachgook and Uncas. They set out to free Munro's two daughters, Cora and Alice, from repeated kidnapping by a group of Huron Indians, led by their chief, Magua.
While well received and praised in its day, The Last of the Mohicans has since gone through a cycle of neglect and insult, and back into critical favor. Later critics found it very unrealistic, and considered its characters stereotyped. Cooper was taken to task for his portrayal of the Indians in the book. Uncas and Chingachgook were thought to be too idealized, and Magua far too villainous. The women in The Last of the Mohicans and Cooper's other books were considered to be mere damsels in distress, and completely undeveloped as characters. By the 1950s, Cooper had regained supporters, and was placed once again in the position as the father of the American novel. His lapses in style, sometimes poorly developed characterizations, and other literary offenses have been largely forgiven due to his role as pioneer of the American novel.
By the time The Last of the Mohicans was published in 1826, Cooper was the leading literary figure in America—a financial, critical, and public success. Cooper, born in New Jersey in 1789, had been a novelist for just six years, finding his calling at age thirty after a five-year stint in the navy.
His early years were largely marked by the influence of his father. He was sent to Yale, from which he was expelled after allegedly blowing up another student's door with gunpowder. His father then enlisted him in the navy. After his father's death in 1810, Cooper resigned his post and married. For the next ten years he settled into the life of a Federalist gentleman, serving in the state militia and as secretary to both the Bible and Agricultural Societies. It was not until 1820, his fortunes flagging and his inheritance running out, that Cooper began his literary career. While reading a popular English novel of the day to his wife, Cooper remarked that he could do better. His wife took him up on the challenge.
Published anonymously, his first work, Precaution, a drawing-room-style English comedy, was received poorly. He followed it with The Spy, a historical romance set in the Revolutionary War, which sold well and established the American novel as a genre. It was to set the tone of his literary output. For the next seventeen years Cooper worked only within the genre of historical fiction.
In 1823, Cooper published The Pioneers, the first of the five books of the Leatherstocking tales, which introduced Natty Bumppo, the archetypal frontiersman. The book sold 3,500 copies on its first day. Next came The Pilot (1823), a work of historical nautical fiction, another genre that Cooper was to develop, laying the groundwork for Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
The Last of the Mohicans was published in 1826. Still the most widely read of Cooper's works, it finds Natty Bumppo in the prime of his life. In the same year, Cooper and his family moved abroad, spending the next seven years in Europe. During that time, he published The Prairie (1827), a Leatherstocking tale about Bumppo at the end of his life, and The Red Rover, a work of nautical fiction. While abroad, Cooper became increasingly involved in politics, and began writing nonfiction as well as his novels, his first being Notions of the Americans (1828).
Upon returning home in 1833, he produced seven books (none fiction) in four years, four of them about European travel. In 1834, he and his family moved back to the family home in Cooperstown, New York, where he would spend the rest of his life. Cooper continued to produce both nonfiction and novels until his death in 1851, including the last two books of the five Leatherstocking tales, The Path-Finder (1840) and the Deer-Slayer (1841).
The Journey Begins
Set in 1757 during the third year of the French and Indian War, the novel opens as Cora and Al-ice Munro are being escorted to Fort William Henry where they will meet up with the commander of the fort—their father, Colonel Munro. The two women are accompanied by Major Duncan Heyward, a gallant young officer who soon falls in love with Alice, and David Gamut, a ridiculous travelling psalm singer and music teacher. The small group is led by Magua, a mysterious and terrifying Huron, who suggests a "short-cut" that will lead them into an ambush he has prepared. The group are rescued from this fate when they run into Hawk-eye, a skilled woodsman also known as Natty Bumppo (his birth name) and Le Longue Carabine (which means "Long Rifle"). With him are his two Mohican friends, Chingachgook and his son, Uncas. Major Heyward tells Hawkeye and his friends about his growing distrust of Magua, and the newcomers agree. Hawkeye and his companions then attempt to seize the "treacherous savage," but the guide escapes into the forest.
Hawkeye predicts that Magua will be back, and—fearing an attack by unfriendly Indians—leads the group to Glenn's Falls. The group takes shelter in a warren of caves behind the waterfall and spends an uneasy night. The sound of horses screaming early in the morning alerts them to danger, and they find themselves under attack by a band of Iroquois. Gamut is injured, and he, Cora, and Alice hide in the caves while the others plan a defense. Out in the forest Hawkeye, Heyward, Chingachgook, and Uncas engage in a bloody struggle with the Iroquois. They begin to run out of ammunition and prepare to die honorably. Cora begs them to go for help instead, so Hawkeye and the two Indians slip out down the river. Heyward stays to defend the girls, and they are all captured when a group of Hurons led by Magua enter the caves and uncover their hiding place.
Major Heyward attempts to trick Magua into releasing them, suggesting that Colonel Munro will pay good money to have his daughters returned. It seems to be working, until Magua asks to speak to Cora alone and reveals his true motives. Driven by a mix of lust for her and hatred of her father, Magua wants to take Cora as his wife. This will be his revenge upon Colonel Munro, who has whipped him in public for being drunk. He promises Cora that if she consents he will free her beloved sister, but she refuses to comply. Enraged, Magua stirs up the Hurons into a fury of vengeful feelings, and the whole group attacks the prisoners and lashes them to trees. As they stand waiting to be burnt alive, Heyward breaks free and struggles with one of their captors. Just as he is about to be killed, Hawkeye and the two Mohicans arrive at the scene. The Hurons, terrified of Le Longue Carabine, flee, and Alice, Cora, Gamut, and Heyward are freed. Again, Magua manages to elude them.
The group continues toward Fort William Henry only to find it besieged by 10,000 French troops led by the Marquis de Montcalm. In thick fog, they make a mad dash for the fort and are rescued at the last minute. The girls are joyously reunited with their father, Colonel Munro. Heyward asks the Colonel for Alice's hand in marriage. In response, Munro reveals some of his past in order to ensure Heyward's commitment to his daughter.
The Fort William Henry Massacre
The British await reinforcements from General Webb. De Montcalm intercepts a letter from Webb, and reveals to Munro and Heyward that no reinforcements are coming—Munro is to surrender the fort. The Marquis allows them to retain their military honor, and promises that they can leave the fort "unmolested." However, he neglects to arrange a troop escort for the defeated British, and as they leave the fort they are suddenly attacked by a group of 2,000 Indians. The British are massacred in the bloody attack, during which Magua recaptures Alice and Cora and takes them into the forest. Gamut follows.
Munro, Heyward, Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas, who is now in love with Cora, follow their trail north through the forest. They find Gamut who tells them that Alice is still held captive by the Hurons and Cora is with the more peaceful Delaware. Uncas is captured, but using a cunning plan of swapped identities, Heyward and Hawkeye rescue both Uncas and Alice. They flee to safety with the Delaware, who free Cora when Uncas reveals that he is a chief and a Delaware descendant. The next day, Magua and his men come to the Delaware camp to demand the return of their captives. Tamenund, the Delaware chief, judges that Magua's desire to marry Cora makes his claim on her legitimate. Uncas vows that he and his friends will pursue them.
Followed by Hawkeye, the Mohicans, and a group of warriors, Magua and Cora set off for the Huron village. The two groups come into bloody conflict, and Uncas, Hawkeye, Heyward, and Gamut chase Magua and two warriors into a cave. Cora is as brave and strong-willed now as she has shown herself to be in earlier situations, and she refuses to move when her captors demand that she must. Attempting to force her, Magua threatens to kill her. His companions take him all too seriously, and another Huron advances to stab her to death. Desperately attempting to avert the tragedy, Uncas leaps into the fray from an overhanging ledge. He is too late to save Cora, and in the battle that follows he is killed by Magua, who is then shot by Hawkeye. The final chapter is one of sorrow for both the whites and the Indians. The bereft Munro returns to his territory with Heyward and Alice, who are now engaged. Hawkeye returns to the forest with Chingachgook. As the English leave, Hawkeye pledges eternal friendship with Chingachgook, the "Last of the Mohicans."
Natty Bumppo is the hero of The Last of the Mohicans. Also known as Leatherstocking, the Deerslayer, and the Pathfinder in the other four books of the Leatherstocking tales, Natty Bumppo is known throughout this novel as Hawkeye. Hawkeye acts as guide and protector, rescuing half-sisters Cora and Alice Munro from Magua and his band of Huron Indians twice, and leading Major Heyward and Colonel Munro on several occasions. In the end, he shoots and kills Magua, who had killed Uncas, son of Chingachgook. This cements the bond of Hawkeye and Chingachgook's friendship, and at the end they wander off together.
Hawkeye is the archetype of the American frontier hero. Scout, tracker, marksman, he embodies the spirit of the West—the capable man. Hawkeye is in his thirties, at the peak of his physical powers. Civilized, mannered, and garrulous, he can at times be humorous and long-winded, or give over to boasts and superstition. He is a man of dual natures, however, and can be as stoic and silent as his Indian companion, Chingachgook. Although a somewhat idealized character, Hawkeye is not without his flaws. He is always quick to point out his "blood without a cross," making sure that none mistake him for an Indian or even someone of mixed heritage. He is also prejudiced—quick to pass judgment on the Indians of the tribes other than the one with which he is allied.
Le Cerf Agile
A middle-aged Mohican Indian and father of Uncas, Chingachgook is the longtime companion of Hawkeye. Last chief of his near vanished tribe, he is by the end of the book the title character, after Uncas perishes at the hand of Magua. Chingachgook speaks only when necessary, and then mostly to Uncas or Hawkeye, and almost always in his native tongue. He has not adapted at all to white ways, despite his long association with Hawkeye. In fact, he kills and scalps a French sentry after the party has been allowed to pass, merely because he is a representative of the enemy. Chingachgook is, however, always forthright and consistent in his dealings with the whites with whom Hawkeye throws in his lot.
David Gamut is a religious singing teacher, or psalmist, of New England. Odd-looking and rather clumsy, he serves no purpose in the world of Hawkeye, since as he cannot shoot, or make maps, or travel great distances. His singing does, however, make Hawkeye cry. It later serves to save his own life when in the midst of an Indian massacre he begins singing, and the marauding Hurons think him insane.
A thoroughly ineffective man, Gamut takes no part in battles, and when the Munro sisters are abducted by Magua, he merely follows them, doing nothing to hinder the kidnapping. He acts as a reinforcement of the idea that the world of civilization is powerless in the wilderness. Like the cowardice of General Webb, Gamut cannot or will not do anything to stop the actions of his own enemies. He also serves to symbolize the civilized side of spirituality in contrast to Hawkeye's more pagan view. The conflict between Gamut and Hawkeye represents the Lord, the church, and holy books versus the raw fact of nature.
Le Gros Serpent
An English soldier, Major Heyward is initially the protector of the Munro sisters. Courageous, handsome, and gallant, he appears at first to be the hero, but rapidly loses the role to Hawkeye, the only white man competent in the ways of the uncivilized world in which he finds himself. A symbol of the overly confident outsider, Heyward trusts Magua to lead him and the two women to safety, thus causing the abduction and subsequent problems. Although armed and nominally a soldier, Heyward finds himself largely useless. He falls in love with Alice, the younger, more civilized and, importantly, most pure-blooded and white of the two Munro sisters. Eventually, he breaks from his role of conventionality, disguising himself as Hawkeye to get into the Huron camp and attempt to effect the release of the captive women. In the end, he returns to the civilized world in which he has a place.
Le Longue Carabine
Magua, the antagonist of the novel, first appears as a simple guide, but is soon revealed to be the chief of the Huron Indians. A former soldier in Munro's army, his taste for whisky causes him to be punished by a brutal horsewhipping. This loss of dignity sets him on the path of vengeance, and he tries several times to kill the daughters of Colonel Munro.
Magua has been tainted by his service to the whites, and he has lost some of his Indian character. Besides the scars he bears on his back, like a common soldier or slave, his consumption of alcohol has caused him to walk spread-legged, unlike other Indians, and this makes him easy to track. This fact is pointed out by both the "true" Indians, Uncas and Chingachgook, and even Hawkeye.
Although initially making clear his desire to kill the Munro sisters, at several points he makes an offer of marriage to Cora. For whatever reason, Magua cannot go through with the murders of the two, and eventually tries to use his abduction of Alice to convince Cora to enter into a willing union with him. Later, he even looks to Tamenund to grant him express permission to take her away. This betrays his deeper feelings for the girl, as he could simply have spirited her away again. Rather than killing her, Magua wants Cora to desire him, and seeks either her approval, however coerced, or the approval of an authority figure.
Magua is the most complex of the Indian characters in the book. Not motivated by greed, military duty, or simply doing what is right, he seeks vengeance for himself. Allying himself first with the English, and later with the French, Magua has no true loyalty to either. Instead, he serves his own need for vengeance. He regains his place in the Huron tribe, which had previously shunned him, by leading them into battle to collect scalps and booty. This is incidental to him, and like all of his actions, is simply the means to an end. Magua appears to be the savage reflection of the noble Indian portrayed by Uncas. Similarly graceful, strong, and handsome, he is treacherous rather than noble, and driven by vengeance rather than love or fellowship.
The Marquis of Montcalm
Montcalm is the leader of the French army that besieges Fort Henry. He is a cunning, selfish man. He insists on speaking French with Major Heyward during their surrender negotiations, yet understands every word of their English conversation. Montcalm is devious; he grants generous terms of surrender to Munro and his men, only to allow the Huron Indians to sweep down and slaughter them once they are out of the safety of the fort. Montcalm illustrates the less noble side of white behavior, acting as an opposite to the actions of Colonel Munro.
Alice is the archetypal damsel-in-distress of adventure fiction. The younger half-sister of Cora, she is by far the more conventionally feminine of the two. She faints under stress, speaks only when spoken to, and only follows the actions of others, especially her sister. Major Heyward, the civilized suitor to Uncas's primitive, falls in love with her. Despite her inability to act for herself or offer any attempt at self-preservation, she is the one who lives in the end, while her more forthright sister is killed.
- The Last of the Mohicans was most recently adapted to film in 1992. This version, directed by Michael Mann, starred Daniel Day Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, and Russell Means. A Morgan Creek production, this film is available on home video and DVD.
- In 1977, the book was adapted for a made-for-TV movie, directed by James Conway, and featuring Steve Forrest, Michele Marsh, and Ned Romero.
- In 1957, there was a TV series based on the characters from the book, and bearing its title. It starred Lon Chaney Jr. as Chingachgook.
- Two film adaptations of the book were made in the 1930s. Ford Beebe's 1932 version, starring Harry Carey, Edwina Booth, and Hobart Bosworth; and George B. Seitz's 1936 version, starring Randolph Scott, the aptly named Alice Munro, and Robert Barrat.
- There were also two silent films based on the novel. In 1911, director Theodore Marston's production starred Frank Hall Crane, and, in 1920, Clarence Brown directed Harry Lorraine, Barbara Bedford, and Theodore Lurch in the film.
- Several foreign film versions of the book have been made. The BBC produced a TV version in 1971. Directed by David Maloney, it starred Kenneth Ives, Patricia Maynard, and John Al-bineri. There were two European attempts at adapting the book to film in 1965. From Spain, there was Mateo Cano's version, starring Jose Marco David, Luis Induni, and Sara Lezana. A joint Italian, German, and Spanish production of The Last of the Mohicans was directed by Harold Reinl, starring Oberst Munroe, Karin Dor, and Ricardo Rodriguez.
Colonel Munro is the father of Cora and Alice Munro, and the commander of Fort Henry. A Scotsman, Munro is no stranger to serving his military posts in strange lands, having met and married Cora's mother in the West Indies. Betrayed by his superior, General Webb, and bereft of his murdered daughter Cora, Colonel Munro finds himself defeated by the forces of both Old World and New in the end.
Cora is the older of the two daughters of Munro. Dark-haired and bolder than her sister, Cora is of mixed racial heritage. Her mother is descended from slaves of the West Indies, her father is Scottish. With her mixed blood, Cooper allows her a more forthright, less feminine nature and greater freedom of action. When her sister, Alice, is abducted by Magua after fainting, she goes along, pursued by the hapless and useless David Gamut, to see that she does not meet her fate alone. Later, Uncas falls in love with her. After he dies at the hand of Magua, Cora is herself killed.
Le Renard Subtil
Tamenund, chief of the Delaware, grants Magua the right to have Cora Munro as a wife. Based on a real man, Tamenund is the only Indian introduced within the context of his own people. He speaks prophetically of the eventual downfall of his people and the other Indians at the hand of the white men in their inevitable push West.
At the outset of the book, Uncas, the son of Chingachgook, is the title character, the last of the Mohicans. He falls in love with Cora, the older and far less "civilized" of the Munro girls. In attempting her rescue from Magua, chief of the Hurons, who intends to marry her, Uncas is killed, thus leaving his father as the last of the Mohicans. At his death, the tribe dies with him; he is the only son of the last chief.
Uncas is an idealized portrait of the Indian: strong, graceful, beautiful. Although initially he seems to be merely along with the party because of his father, his actions eventually become his own, rather than simply following the lead of both his father and Hawkeye. Uncas is also set up as the foil for two of the other characters in the book. He provides the wild, untamed suitor to the Munro sisters in contrast to Major Heyward's civilized being. He is also the noble, handsome, and perfect Indian to Magua's treacherous, scarred, and evil savage.
General Webb is the cowardly commanding officer of Colonel Munro, and makes the decision of surrender that sends the inhabitants of Fort George to their deaths. He is characterized by his absence. He does not appear in the text, but rather is spoken of and makes decisions outside of the narrative. Unsure of how to use his command, or what the dangers and strengths of it are, he prefers instead to not act. His inaction causes the fatal events of the last part of the book. He gives up Fort Henry to the French without a skirmish, causing the deaths of the people who had lived within it. This in turn results in the recapture of the Munro sisters, and ultimately in the deaths of both Cora Munro and Uncas.
A recurring theme of The Last of the Mohicans is that of personal lineage and its inescapable effects. The idea of lineage is illustrated in several ways, most obviously in the hereditary title of chief that is passed from father to son. This is most direct in the case of Chingachgook, a chief and a Mohican, who passes that lineage to Uncas, the titular last Mohican who will become the last chief, or sagamore, upon his father's death. "When Uncas follows in my footsteps, there will no longer be any of the blood of the sagamores, for my boy is the last of the Mohicans." It is also clear in Hawkeye's repeated insistence that he is "a man without a cross." He obsessively points out that his "white" blood makes him purebred and civilized, despite his time among the Indians. Magua, too, is inheritor of the title of chief from his own people. Cora's forthright and passionate nature is due to her "uncivilized" lineage, as her mother was descended from native peoples of the West Indies. Her sister, of white stock, is retiring and calm.
Though The Last of the Mohicans is clearly an abduction narrative or historical novel, it can also be read as a long essay about the destruction of cultures. Most obviously, the death of the Mohican tribe, embodied by the murder of Uncas, last son of the last chief, acts as a microcosm of the programmatic destruction of Native American culture. It is also shown through the degradation of Magua's character. He too is a chief, and his heritage has been tainted not by murder but by his interaction with whites—both English and French—and the evils of their culture, especially whisky. It is this sin, drinking the "firewater" of the white man, that leads to his savagery, treachery, and ultimate death. Subtler still is the symbolism of Cora's mother, a woman of West Indian slave origin. In her story, and in the genetic legacy she passes to her daughter, the novel recalls the earlier destruction of native culture in the first conquests of the whites. At the same time, the destruction of culture is effected through "miscegenation"—both metaphorically and literally. Just as West Indian culture has been destroyed, so intermarriage has destroyed the individuality of Cora's racial heritage.
The metaphoric role of interracial relationships is reinforced in Uncas's story. His love for a woman of white extraction leads to his death, just as his involvement with white politics leads to his moral decay. In much the same way, each character in The Last of the Mohicans experiences the dangers of mixing and losing one's place in one's culture. The Hurons have destroyed themselves by allying with the French, and becoming actively involved in the white man's destruction of both their way of life and their culture. Even Chingachgook has partnered himself with a white, both because there are no others of his tribe and because no other tribes are trustworthy. The "purity" of Indian Nation loyalties are no longer clear because they have begun to choose sides and align themselves with one white nation or the other, precipitating their own destruction. Chingachgook's fate is sealed as soon as he chooses Hawkeye as a companion. Though Hawkeye is a solitary white man, not "white culture," and although he appears more or less uninterested in the conflicts and conquests of the invaders, Chingachgook has nonetheless left his own world and culture. In the end, Tamenund is the only chief who still remains with his own tribe, and he foresees the death of Native American ways of life. As he says, "The pale faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the redmen has not come again. My day has been too long…. I have lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans."
Topics for Further Study
- One of Hawkeye's most insistent assertions is that he is "a man without a cross." Why is being "pure-blooded" so important to him? Research the history of racial anxiety in early America: why was "miscegenation" considered such a threat?
- Uncas and Major Heyward are both solitary men who fall in love with the Munro daughters. What do they have in common? How are they different? Consider the characters of both men as they are revealed by the different sisters with whom they fall in love.
- Consider the character of the itinerant singing master, David Gamut. What archetype of early American culture does he symbolize? Look at his character in light of Washington Irving's hero, Ichabod Crane. How is Cooper's Gamut a reworking of Crane? What does this reworking achieve?
- The Last of the Mohicans is often seen as a tribute to the doomed cultures of Native Americans. Research the history of Indian clearances in the eighteenth century. How historically accurate is Cooper's depiction?
- Cooper is considered the first American author, and The Last of the Mohicans is often read as the first truly American novel. What is American about it?
Cooper makes wide and varied uses of opposites as a major theme. These range from the obvious—French versus English armies, and Indians against whites—to subtler, character-based oppositions. Of the characters, Hawkeye is a man of the woods, a native in his own environment, and he is revealed through his juxtaposition with a variety of "civilized" and "rude" men. Major Heyward is a soldier who cannot fight in the ways in which he needs in order to survive in Hawkeye's world. Uniformed and educated in the arts of war, Heyward can do nothing except follow Hawkeye's lead in all things once he is outside the confines of the fort. Removed from the world he knows, Heyward is useless. David Gamut, the psalmist, represents an ordered and civilized spirituality in contrast to Hawkeye's natural, pagan world. Chingachgook is the other side of Hawkeye's wilderness existence. Where Hawkeye is careful and reserved, his Mo-hican companion is rash, killing nominal enemies who offer no threat, and wishing to rush into conflict without consideration. Hawkeye is always quick to point out that though he has spent thirty years in the woods and living among the Indians, he has no Indian blood in his veins. For Chingachgook, it is just the opposite. He is to be perceived for what he is, an Indian.
Uncas, too, is used as a foil for multiple characters. Most obviously, he stands in contrast with Magua. Where Uncas is handsome, strong, and unmarked, Magua is savage-looking, devious, and bears the scars and marks of battles and his own foolishness. Uncas lives in the wilderness, with his father and Hawkeye. Magua has been cast out from his people, and serves first the English and then the French army, and later returns to his tribe. Though both are to be chiefs of their respective nations, Uncas does not have a nation to rule, and Magua's has cast him out. In the simplest terms, Cooper has set Uncas up as the ideal, noble Indian, and made Magua the crafty, vicious savage. Uncas and Major Heyward are used as opposites, both filling roles as potential suitors for the Munro sisters. Uncas is silent, classically beautiful, as the girls remark, and makes his love for Cora known through his actions, including his eventual death. He also acts as a contrast with Major Heyward, who loves Alice. Hey-ward, handsome as well but not classically so, is a talkative man of words and little action, who neither fights for nor gives his life for Alice. He becomes a part of her rescue by following the party, following the instructions of Hawkeye, and by simply being in the right place at the right time.
Point of View
The Last of the Mohicans is told from a third person limited point of view. The narration of the story explains the events and actions of the novel, but does not give insight into the characters' thoughts or motivations. The only way to gain this information is by interpreting what the dramatis personae do and say. This perspective is further limited by the centrality of Hawkeye to the narrative. With very few exceptions, Cooper limits the scope of the narration to events that directly involve Hawkeye.
At the beginning of the story, the narration and point of view follow first David Gamut, then the Munro sisters and Major Heyward. Cooper shifts the story to introduce Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas, only to lead them to the party consisting of Heyward, the Munro sisters, Gamut, and Magua. From that point, there is a minimum of interruptions of the point of view directly involving Hawkeye.
The point of view shifts to the Munro sisters and Heyward when they are captured by the Huron Indians, and follows them until they are to be killed by their captors. Once Hawkeye and the Mohicans effect their rescue, the narrative once again follows them, until the capitulation of Fort Henry to the French. At that point, during the ensuing battle between the Hurons and the English, Cooper once again focuses on the Munro sisters and Gamut as they are led away by Magua. The story then moves to Hawkeye, Colonel Munro, and Heyward as they follow the sisters and their abductor. There are only a few shifts of scene to keep the reader informed as to their fate, while Cooper mostly gives the story over to the events and actions of Hawkeye and his party.
The Historical Romance
Set in the third year of the French and Indian War, The Last of the Mohicans is a historical novel, but does not attempt to provide a straight telling of any recorded events of the time. Cooper, like one of the other popular authors of his day, Sir Walter Scott, lends more importance to the narrative than to the historical context in which it is set. The book is not entirely fictional, however. He makes reference to the massacre of Fort William Henry, and some of the characters of the novel are based at least in part on actual figures: Colonel Munro, of the English army, and the Marquis de Montcalm, of the French. The names of the Indian tribes, the Delaware, Huron, and Mohawk, are of course factual, and "Mohican" is a corruption of "Mohegan."
There are some deviations from the facts. Despite the title and events of the book, there were members of the Mohican tribe still extant in the area when Cooper wrote his novel. In fact, the Mohicans, or Mohegans, as they are now more commonly known, were not wiped out by the French and Indian War. Members of the tribe still exist today, and are still living in the upper New York State area. The novel is set within the area in which Cooper himself lived. By the time it was written, the rural areas of New York State were no longer the wild forests of Cooper's novel, and the frontier had long ago moved West. Basing his story in the area around him, Cooper was able to draw on the memories and histories local to himself.
The historical romance was one of the two largest selling and most popular genres of fiction of the day. After taking the English drawing-room comedy for the model of his first novel, Cooper turned to the other form, where he found success. Duplicating the work of Scott down to estimated word length, he adapted an already accepted form of writing to the American narrative, and set down for posterity the tales and legendary characters of his own nation. This allowed him use of archaic language, a major component of the historical romance, as well as a certain suspension of disbelief. Only in the world of historical romance could two maidens be abducted multiple times, affording the author many chances to describe the heroism of Hawkeye and his companions, and to describe, over and over again, the dangers and savagery of those they faced.
The 1760s: The French and Indian War
The French and Indian War, which is the setting of The Last of the Mohicans, lasted seven years. Originally, the conflict was between England and France, with various tribes supporting both sides. The failure of the English to use their allies in an effective manner, and their poor treatment of those who did assist them, led most to leave, either not taking part or going over to the side of the French. While the Cherokee originally sided with the English, they soon joined the Delaware, Miami, Potawatomi, Chippewa, Micmac, Abenaki, Ottawa, Shawnee, and Wyandots on the side of the French. The forces of France had much more in the way of Indian support from the outset, as the French were much less numerous than the English, and were perceived as less of a threat to themselves and their territories.
The Indians viewed the French in this way because the French had, for the most part, inserted themselves into existing standards of intertribal diplomacy. The English were rude by comparison. The French were also much more content to let their allies act as autonomous forces, arming them and letting them go and choose their own targets and battles. The English merely tried to conscript them into their armies. Many, like Magua in The Last of the Mohicans, did not adapt well, either to the strange and strict ways of their military leaders, or to the problems inherent in liquor.
At the outset of the war, the importance of the Native Americans as allies was minimal. That changed in 1759, when the Iroquois Confederacy joined the forces of England in the attack on Fort Niagara, an important French base. Their numbers swelled by the Iroquois, the English army eventually waited out the French, who had no means of getting supplies, reinforcements, or food. The Iroquois were widely believed to have been the decisive factor, and the battle was an important one in the fight to drive the French away.
By allying themselves with the English and driving the French away, the Iroquois Nation hoped to gain more in the way of considerations for their autonomy and lands. Also, by forming the Iroquois Nation of many differing tribes, they were attempting to marshal a force great enough to eventually drive all foreigners from their lands. Neither goal was achieved, since the English gave them nothing in the way of treaties or equality and the Iroquois Nation itself fell to infighting and separation of its constituent tribes.
The 1820s: National Indian Policy and the Birth of American Literature
The 1820s were an age of great transition for the United States. Just eight years before, the United States had defeated the British in the War of 1812. At the beginning of the decade, the American South became the world's largest producer of cotton. This in turn spurred the growth of the industrial economy in the northern states, as more and larger textile mills were built to use the raw material. In 1821, the United States wrested Florida from the Spanish and defeated the Native tribes of the state at the same time.
The success of the U.S. military in its territorial conquests and war victories was matched by the high rate of economic growth in the country as a whole. However, America had no reputation whatsoever for its artistic or cultural output among the older, more established nations of Europe. The folk-ways and people of America were unique, a greater mix than any before in the world. But there was nothing that was looked on as a lasting, permanent monument to the nation for the rest of the world to take part in—until The Last of the Mohicans.
Cooper produced The Last of the Mohicans as an apparent tribute to the vanishing cultures of the Native Americans. At the time of the publication of Cooper's book in 1826, the U.S. government had been pushing the Indians further West with greater speed and force than at any time before. In 1824, the Indian problem had come to a head in President James Monroe's State of the Union address. He declared that the only solution to the "Indian problem" was their removal to lands further west, far from the white settlers.
Compare & Contrast
- 1760s: During the French and Indian War, the Indian presence in land that colonists desire is a secondary concern of the British. They are more interested in defeating France.
1820s: Public outcry for the removal of Indians from the path of westward expansion reaches critical mass. The solution is a series of broken treaties, military actions, and forced migrations that aim to remove the Indians to the West.
Today: Legal challenges to the Bureau of Indian Affairs reach record numbers. There is more public sympathy for the plight of the Native Americans than ever before. Amnesty International joins the fight to free Leonard Peltier, an Oglala Sioux many believe to be wrongly convicted of two murders. Native rights movements demand that old treaties be honored.
- 1760s: Both America and Canada are ruled by European powers and are neither autonomous entities, nor heavily colonized past their eastern edges. The major cities lie along the East Coast, and Native Americans still hold most of the rest of the country, living in their traditional cultures and groups. The Indians are regarded as a nuisance and a menace.
1820s: Now a sovereign nation, the United States begins its westward expansion. Pioneers have pushed as far west as Minnesota. Native cultures in the Mississippi Valley are being decimated, and public opinion, exacerbated by newspaper accounts of the day, perceives the Indian as a constant danger. Having no legal protections, their treaties are ignored and the Indians are forced west and slaughtered in vast numbers at any sign of resistance.
Today: Native Americans are a legally protected minority, falling under the set of laws known as Affirmative Action. Confined mostly to westward reservations, Native Americans have the highest rate of suicide, unemployment, and drug and alcohol addiction of any ethnic group in the United States. On a more positive note, financial gains are being made by the use of casinos on sovereign native lands, and Canada has granted a new and sovereign province to its natives.
Immediately after the publication of the address in national newspapers, Cooper began work on The Last of the Mohicans. This work, conceived both in tribute to and as apology to the American Indian, was the first American fiction to be accepted in Europe as a significant and serious novel. While the policy of the U.S. government and the actions of its army worked to move the Indians west, destroying their way of life and cultural identities, the readers of the world came to know them "as they were." Cooper produced a novel that set the public's perception of the American Indian for years to come, but the irony was that he wrote it even as their way of life was being destroyed forever. The greater irony is that rather than approach the culture and problems of the Indians of his day, Cooper chose instead to concentrate on a past that was already gone.
The critical response to Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans was overwhelmingly positive. An American work of fiction was at last praised on both sides of the Atlantic for its realism, adventure, and characters. The editor of Escritor called Cooper "a genuine talent who has successfully bound realism in the guise of romance." The Literary Gazette praised his "ability to maintain interest and paint vivid characters and scenery," while Literary World referred to his "real life scenery created with faithfully presented narrative." New York Review and Atheneum Magazine described Cooper as "an imaginative writer," exhibiting "extraordinary power." The Liverpool Repository stated that Cooper was superior to Sir Walter Scott as an imparter of information.
Cooper's characters excited reviewers, but there was no consensus as to which were the best. His portraits of Indian life were praised by the Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review and Monthly Review. Panaromic Miscellany went so far as to call it "the most vivid and truthful portrait of Indians that has yet been written." New York Review and Atheneum Magazine claimed that Cora and Alice Munro were "delightful creations." Some critics and reviewers tempered their praise with criticism. The Monthly Review stated that while "Cooper has woven a tale of incredible suspense," it "need not have culminated in the tragedy that it did." The United States Literary Gazette said, "while The Last of the Mohicans is superior of those of a similar type that have preceded it" the book is "capable of improvement." The writer went on to criticize the plot as "simple" with "little variety." The New York Review and Atheneum Magazine said that "if the author fails at all, it is in his ability to keep his characters' motive consistent with their actions."
Some condemned the novel entirely. W. H. Gardiner, writing in The North American Review, said that "Cooper goes out of way to put his characters into impossible situations that do nothing for the plot except clutter it with far too much action." One reviewer, in United States Review and Literary Gazette, attacked the author's research. Instead of faulting Cooper's acknowledged sources, however, he blamed Cooper for using the "absurdities and improbabilities" of Heckewelder's An Account of the History, Manners, and Customs, of the Indian Nations, Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States. John Neal, writing for the London Magazine, referred to The Last of the Mohicans as "the Last American Novel," condemning it as "the worst of Cooper's novels—tedious, improbable, unimaginative and redundant." In fact, Cooper's novel was so well known that two of his contemporaries published parodies of him: William Makepeace Thackeray's "The Stars and Stripes" in Punch (October 9, 1847), and Bret Hart's Muck-a-Muck: A Modern Indian Novel after Cooper.
A Reputation in Decline
Cooper's literary reputation seemed untouchable, but had declined even before his death in 1851. Thomas Lounsbury savaged both the man and his work, and Cooper's critical demise was assured and hastened by Mark Twain's "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," published in the July 1895 American Review. By the turn of the century, The Last of the Mohicans had become nothing more than a boy's adventure story. The criticism continued in the twentieth century. James Holden chronicled a list of Cooper's historical inaccuracies in his 1917 book, 'The Last of the Mohicans': Cooper's Historical Inventions, and His Cave. John A. Inglis, of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, took Cooper to task for his use of Colonel Munro, noting that with the exception of his nationality, Cooper got nothing about the historical figure correct, even misspelling his name as "Munro" instead of the correct "Monro."
Detractors were going to extraordinary lengths to attack Cooper, and he had few defenders—most notably William Brownell, Brander Matthews, and William Phelps. However, their work was far more biographical in nature than scholarly, and did little to repair the damage of their colleagues. There were also a few tongue-in-cheek critiques of the novel, most notably John V. A. Weaver's "Fenimore Cooper—Comic," published in Bookman. Weaver argued that "Cooper could not have written such an incredibly bad book and been serious about it." He suggested that Cooper was in fact trying to create the "great comic novel of the nineteenth century."
A New Appreciation
After World War I, there was a sudden rebirth in the popularity and critical estimation of Cooper's work. In Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times, Robert E. Spiller sought to prove that Cooper was a profound social critic and serious author, refuting the perception of Cooper as an author of adventure stories. Suddenly, a vast cross section of authors and critics were reexamining The Last of the Mohicans. No longer taken at face value, it was reinterpreted in a variety of ways and used to illustrate the social ideals inherent in the work. In Studies in American Fiction, Dennis W. Allen pointed out the semiotic differences in the viewpoints of the white and Indian characters. Frank Bergmann explored the racial tolerance of the book, but also touched on Cooper's apparent reluctance to make solid statements about race. In New Left Review, George Dekker claimed that "miscegenation … provided the vehicle by which Cooper was able to investigate the more general problem of race relations." Terence Martin suggested in The Frontier in History and Literature: Essays and Interpretations that Cooper had trouble fitting a civilized man into the wilderness, or a wild man into civilization, and turned to the racial themes to inquire into the nature of the frontier.
There were also those who sought to defend Cooper's facts, style, and characters. Explaining away Cooper's tendency to play fast and loose with facts, Daniel J. Sundahl said in Rackham Journal of the Arts and Humanities that the book "is flawed in historical detail, for Cooper sacrificed fact for literary effect." He went on to suggest that the development of Hawkeye as a well-rounded character actually harms the book. "To assume that Cooper indulged in prolonged study is fallacious," stated American Literature contributor Thomas Philbrick, in an attempt to diffuse the belief that Cooper mixed up facts and chronology. Philbrick claimed that while the author did use reference works for his writing, he was by no means devoted to them.
T. A. Birrell's 1980 preface to Cooper's Last of the Mohicans claimed that the author had created a new literary form: "dramatic poetry as fiction." James Fenimore Cooper has once again been raised to his place as first man of American letters. His lapses in style, broad and underdeveloped characters, and convoluted, unrealistic plots are forgiven in the new view of Cooper as the father of the American novel.
McIntosh-Byrd is a doctoral candidate and English literature instructor at the University of Pennsylvania. In the following essay, she critiques the role of mediation in the construction of romance, race, and national identity in The Last of the Mohicans.
The Last of the Mohicans is centered on Hawk-eye, the figure of the pioneer and pathfinder who provides the link through which wilderness and civilization can be mediated. Throughout Cooper's novel, both Hawkeye and the reader are presented with a series of oppositions based on culture, race, and geography that create seemingly irreconcilable tensions and paradoxes. Indeed, the text itself is driven by an overarching narrative and generic paradox—the uneasy reconciliation of fact with fiction, history with romance.
Cooper's blend of fact and fiction has been extensively analyzed. Set in the third year of the French and Indian War, The Last of the Mohicans elides the boundaries that separate history and literature in order to create a quasi-mythic narrative of American history within which the New Man can be understood. Hawkeye, the archetypal American, straddles the fiction/fact divide, linking the actual events and persons of the period to the demands of Cooper's genre. Colonel Munro, the Marquis de Montcalm, the Indian nations, and the Fort William Henry massacre all find their basis in fact, though all are significantly altered by their incarnations in a romance.
The traditional narrative model of the romance is a quest, and its traditional textual movement tracks the protagonist as she or he enters unknown territories and worlds that transcend normal existence. This model also serves as the basis of the historical romance, Cooper's chosen genre, which is normally structured by the movement between hostile civilizations, worlds, or stages of cultural development. In so doing, the form allows narrative articulation of cultural self-analysis and awareness. By allowing the "Self" culture to come into conflict with its "Other," the central features of the former are thrown into relief. In the American versions of the genre, this definitional clash of cultures gains intense significance. By endlessly enacting and reenacting the distinctions between New American and Native American cultures, historical romances act as a primary tool of self-definition for a young country that finds itself in need of a stable self-identity. In The Last of the Mohicans this series of clashes takes place between multiple "Selves" and "Others," and serves several purposes. Hawkeye, as the hero of the romance quest, travels between the Old and New Worlds and is in permanent contrast with both. Moving uneasily between his affiliations with the "natural" Delaware and the "pure-blooded" Europeans, Hawkeye creates a version of American identity that challenges the old order while retaining many of its key myths of lineage and purity.
What Do I Read Next?
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is Dee Brown's 1971 history of Indian massacres in nineteenth-century America. Brown's book forced America to reassess the cowboys-and-Indians myths of the Old West and its historical treatment of native people.
- The Prairie is Cooper's 1827 novel about an old Natty Bumppo in the newly independent United States. Iowa is called "The Hawkeye State" in honor of Cooper's hero.
- Persuasion is Jane Austen's 1818 novel about a young woman's search for happiness. This is the novel that Cooper is alleged to have been reading when he announced that he could write a better book.
- Waverley, Sir Walter Scott's 1814 novel about the Jacobite Rebellion, was a publishing phenomenon, and sold in massive numbers both in Britain and the United States. In it, Scott established the historical novel as a popular literary genre.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter, is a historical novel that reassesses myths about early American life. The story of Hester Prynne and her punishment questions the morality of Puritanism and investigates the interaction of colonial America with the wilderness and its inhabitants.
- A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration is Mary White Rowlandson's 1682 account of being captured by a band of rebelling Indians. One of the earliest "abduction narratives," Rowland-son's story reveals the religious, cultural, and political tensions between the colonizers and the indigenous people.
- Letters from an American Farmer is J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's 1782 "novel" about American life before and during the Revolution. Structured as a series of fictional letters from a self-made farmer, Crevecoeur's book was immensely popular in Europe, where it was largely responsible for creating the standard perception of U.S. character—self-reliance, hard-work, honesty, and sympathy with nature.
Cooper's novel is most easily understood through an analysis of these kinds of oppositions. The narrative gains its momentum from the juxtaposition of such opposed elements as French and English, Indian and white, and from more particularized juxtapositions of characters and types. The complexity of the novel's structure is suggested by the density of such contrasts, which not only provide comparisons between the Old and New Worlds, but also refract those worlds in upon themselves, removing the possibility of simplistic assessments. Uncas and Magua, both chiefs without a tribe, stand in contrast to each other and with the contrasted Europeans, provoking a more complex negotiation of cultures than is at first apparent. Where Uncas is handsome, strong, and unmarked, Magua is "a savage" in appearance, painted and scarred by custom, war, and punishment. The level of scarification serves a clear symbolic function. Just as Uncas is a "pure" Indian, untainted by corrupt contact with Europeans, so he is "untouched" in appearance, while Magua's increasing corruption is literally inscribed into his flesh. Uncas in turn mirrors Major Heyward, both of them in love with one of the Munro sisters, but only the former capable of adequately defending them. Moving outwards in the ripple of textual associations, the relationships of Webb/Munro, Munro/de Montcalm, and Heyward/Gamut provide interior commentary-through-comparison on the European worldview.
Following the generic conventions of the romance, Hawkeye's character is created through an assembled chiaroscuro of contrasts with all of these representatives of various cultures. A "woodsman" and "beaver expert," Hawkeye's dangerous wild-ness is made valorous and valid by what he is not: neither a "civilized" nor a "rude" man. Major Hey-ward, uniformed, chivalrous, and educated in all the arts of war, is literally and figuratively "lost" as soon as he leaves the fort. Where his environment is circumscribed and dangerously finite, Hawkeye's natural medium is the environment in its most general sense—the wilderness. David Gamut, the psalmist, epitomizes an ordered and civilized spirituality inflated to a ridiculously hyperbolic level. Physically jarring and unable to assimilate into any of the situations in which the characters find themselves, Gamut becomes representative of the Old World religion against which American culture is defining itself. When he is juxtaposed with Hawkeye, the latter thus takes on a quasi-Jeffersonian naturalism by contrast, one in which harmony with nature and the self is elevated above formal protestation of faith as a signifier of moral virtue.
However, the near paganism of Hawkeye's "natural religion" is carefully distanced from the spirituality of the "Natural men"—the Mohicans. Chingachgook and Uncas, the new American counterparts of Hawkeye's dual cultural alignments, are separated from the hero both by the narrative and the character himself. While Hawkeye's "natural" instincts are in contrast to the formalized useless-ness of both Heyward and Gamut, they are also configured as "rational" or "civilized," when juxtaposed with the behavior of his comrades. Where Hawkeye is careful, reserved, and feared as the dead-shot "Longue Carabine," Uncas is rash, killing nominal enemies who offer no threat and rushing headlong into conflict. Significantly, it is neither a European nor a native, but only Hawk-eye—the man who is of both and neither cultures at the same time—who is compassionate enough to waste his ammunition in putting a dangling enemy out of his misery. As a "man without a cross" who lives with natives but remains insistently white, Hawkeye is allowed to negotiate all possible worlds by remaining either genetically or geographically detached.
What happens if these series of opposed elements blend instead of finding or creating a removed mediation point, as Hawkeye does? Cooper's "romance" gains much of its thematic momentum from answering this question through the use of "romance"—the metaphoric role of sexual relationships between members of opposed cultures. Significantly, the protagonist is resolutely excluded from this literal "mediation" of cultures, providing a model of "untainted" communication instead. Thus while Hawkeye is, as he insists to a hyperbolic degree, a "man without a cross," many of the other characters are either symbolically or actually "crossbred," and the results are never shown to be positive. Cora's mother is a woman of West Indian slave origins, and though Colonel Munro takes great pride in his daughter's heritage, it is clear that he expects it to retard her progress through life. Cora's "bursting blood" recalls both the destruction of an earlier culture, as well as the cultural erasure signified by assimilation: just as West African culture has been destroyed, so intermarriage has destroyed the individuality of Cora's racial heritages. The result is not decay but vitality, the excessive life that is uneasily demarcated as both positive and negative within the text. Unlike her blonde and feeble sister, Cora is determined and heroic, but the only textual resolution available to her character is death or further "crossbreeding." Only "savages" fall in love with Cora.
The metaphor of interracial blending is reinforced in the story of Cora's lover. Uncas's love for a European woman leads to his death in the same way that his involvement with white affairs leads to his moral decay. On a broader symbolic level, this pattern can be applied to much of the novel's treatment of culture. Chingachgook identifies the "blending" of European and native cultures through the trade of "firewater" as the primary and devastating force of European colonialism. The Hurons are shown in the process of self-destruction through alliance with de Montcalm's forces, which threaten to destroy both their ways of life
and their culture. By Magua's own analysis his character is destroyed by his interaction with whites—both English and French—and the evils of their culture, especially whisky. His sexual obsession with Cora, who symbolizes both colonizer and colonized, compounded with his drinking—Chingachgook's Original Sin of colonialism—leads to his punishment, revenge, and the cycle of treachery that ends in his death. Even Chingachgook, despite his integrity, embraces the dispersal of his culture when he accepts Hawkeye as his "brother." Though Hawkeye is a solitary white man, and a new kind of white man at that, Chingachgook has nonetheless been forced by genocide and cultural self-destruction to leave his own world when he accepts Hawkeye as family. In this new, American idea of family, only Hawkeye has the ability to retransmit his culture to another generation, and their interracial relationship thus signifies death even as it appears to provide narrative hope. As Tamenund says, "I have lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans."
The core paradox of Cooper's historical romance lies in the uneasy ambiguity of its hero's mediation of these opposed cultures. Both Cooper and his protagonists work from the assumption that the modern stages of historical development are inherently better than the "savagery" of prior stages. At the same time, they also view the present as a dangerous challenge to the communal values and hierarchical relationships of the recent past. Both European and native cultures are shown to be violently disrupted throughout The Last of the Mohicans, with established systems of leadership and conduct broken down by alcohol, war, corruption and cultural contamination. Hawkeye, the only man to successfully negotiate these disruptions, is also significantly removed from the social hierarchy that has reformed itself by the novel's closing pages. The "man without a cross" may be the new American archetype, but he is also its Other—a man who dwells in the borderlands that separate Europe and the natives, with no familial or emotional ties to the people who comprise the power elite of either side.
The end of Cooper's historical romance thus intimates both stability and disruption—an uneasy celebration of both the return of hierarchical order and the heroism of the man who remains outside of that hierarchy. It allows identification with a socially mobile outsider and simultaneously promises that real social mobility will be denied him. In exactly the same way, it validates the possibility of a superior native culture even while it is careful to make that culture an irretrievably dying one. If, as many literary theorists have claimed, the historical romance genre acts as a stabilizing force for the demands of social hierarchy, then the main impulse of The Last of the Mohicans is not the articulation and celebration of "natural," or "wild," self-identity, but instead the exact opposite. Hawkeye is both hero and antihero of his own story in a culture that seeks to distance itself from the Old World, even as it tries to retain the social structure that makes that world possible. As a stalemate of conflicting Anglophobic and Anglophiliac impulses, it provides an extremely ambiguous fictional pathway to later American history.
Source: Tabitha McIntosh-Byrd, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
James A. Levernier
In the following essay, Levernier examines the changing critical status of The Last of the Mohicans.
For more than a century after its publication in 1826, The Last of the Mohicans was by far the most widely read of any of the novels of James Feni-more Cooper. Nonetheless, while praised for its strong narrative interest, The Last of the Mohicans was generally disparaged as the least substantive of the Leatherstocking Tales, with The Prairie, The Pioneers, The Pathfinder, and The Deerslayer receiving far greater critical acclaim. According to its 19th-century critics, The Last of the Mohicans satisfied the popular demands of audiences that craved adventure, but it did so at the expense of both content and realism. Particularly objectionable was Cooper's depiction of Indians, whom reviewers found hopelessly romanticized and not at all historical. As one commentator explained, Cooper's Indians "have no living prototype in our forests. They may wear leggins and moccasins, and be wrapped in a blanket or a buffalo skin, but they are civilized men, not Indians." Even Francis Park-man, who found worth in Cooper's mythic dimensions, felt that the Indians of the Leatherstocking Tales were "either superficially or falsely drawn." As a result, The Last of the Mohicans was for the most part dismissed as "almost pure adventure with slight social import."
Ironically, only in the 20th century, when the novel began to decline in popularity, did critical distinctions between novels of realism and novels of romance pave the way for scholars to discern in The Last of the Mohicans depths that had gone unnoticed for decades. To begin with, scholars attacked the notion that the novel lacked historical veracity. Research into Cooper's sources indicated that although he wrote the book in approximately four months he had researched his materials quite carefully. Among the many historical and anthropological sources attributed to the novel are Alexander Henry's Travels and Adventures (1809), Jonathan Carver's Travels Through the Interior Parts of North-America (1778), David Humphrey's Life of Israel Putnam (1788), Alexander Mackenzie's Voyages from Montreal (1802), and The History … of Captains Lewis and Clark (1814).
Additional research further determined that the Indian materials in the novel were derived from a careful reading of such works as John Heckewelder's History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations (1818) and Cadwallader Colden's History of the Five Indian Nations (1727). Literary sources include The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, as well as Paradise Lost and the novels of Scott and Austen. Leatherstocking himself is thought to be based on John Filson's "Adventures of Col. Daniel Boone" (1784), and mistakes in historical accuracy, including the eloquent language of Cooper's Indians, are in general attributable to Cooper's sources, who at the time when they wrote were considered the foremost experts on the subjects they addressed. Even Cooper's landscape portraits, once thought to be hopelessly romantic backdrops to his fiction, came to be seen as complex symbolic structures that provide insight into the metaphysical foundations for a pre-Conradian analysis of the relationship between the wilderness and civilization.
Cooper himself said, however, that in writing The Last of the Mohicans he created a novel "essentially Indian in character," and it is in exploring what one analyst described as "the question of the relations between men of different races in the New World" that critics have found in the book a theme of "national, even hemispheric significance." Within this context, Cooper's vision of historical progress is seen as profoundly pessimistic and astutely prophetic. Extended into the wilderness setting of the novel, the rivalries between the French and English for control of the North American continent continue to propagate racial and nationalistic prejudices that the events of the narrative violently display. At the same time, the brutality of the Indians undercuts the romantic myth that in the wilderness of the New World the civilizations of the past will undergo a pastoral revitalization. Of the three characters in the novel capable of offering the possibility for moral renewal through a blending of the virtues of the Old and New Worlds, Cora and Uncas die, and Leatherstocking, described as a "man without a cross"—in other words, someone without preconceived prejudices who is open to the possibility of a new kind of moral order—remains childless and eventually vanishes into the wilderness. According to one critic, "In the bloodshed of William Henry the determining power of history is affirmed." People are seen as "incapable of change," and history becomes nothing more than "an endlessly repeating decimal" in which America's future will "necessarily recapitulate the European and the tribal past."
Source: James A. Levernier, "The Last of the Mohicans: Overview," in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd ed., edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.
In the following excerpt from a review of The Last of the Mohicans, Miller praises Cooper's depiction of native American life and discusses the plot and characterizations of the novel, finding the characters Uncas, Chingachgook, and Bumppo (here called Hawk-eye) especially well presented.
[In The Last of the Mohicans Cooper has] attempted to offer a picture of Indian character and life; and we may be justified, by a personal acquaintance with the aboriginal tribes of the North-American wilderness which falls to the lot of few Europeans, in pronouncing with confidence that it is a representation of admirable fidelity. That the author has availed himself of the narrative of John Hunter and of the notices of the missionary Heckewelder, is extremely probable; but we are convinced that the tale could never have been written, with the peculiar graphic truth which marks every page of his delineations of Indian manners, unless he had himself mingled with the red children of his country's forests. Elaborate relations of their general usages, and even imitations of their nervous and figurative language, might be copied from books: but here we have a thousand little peculiarities of habit, gesture, tone, and attitude, thrown as it were incidentally and unconsciously into the narrative, but which could not possibly have been noted except by familiar and watchful observance from the life. We are particular in remarking the easy and perpetual recurrence of these little characteristic touches, because they serve to determine the pretensions of the work to the highest praise which can be bestowed upon it. They certify that it is all that it claims to be, an authentic exhibition of the wildest and most fearfully romantic state of society, which the world has ever known.
The structure of the tale itself is sufficiently simple, but the narrative is frequently worked up to an intensity of horror and an agony of suspense which are really much more than interesting: the anxiety of the reader becomes engrossed, and his imagination excited, in many of the situations of the story, to a degree which is absolutely painful. Indeed it is a positive fault in the romance that the personages, for whom our sympathies are keenly awakened, encounter one unrelieved and perpetual crisis of terrific danger through three whole volumes of adventure. They are never for an instant secured from the appalling contingencies of a conflict with the Indian. Throughout the entire tale, the lair and ambush are around them and the war-whoop in their ears: the death-shot from the unerring rifle is the least of their dangers; and the tomahawk, the scalping knife, and the demoniac refinements of savage torture, appear as their hourly and impending lot. The first volume is filled with the thrilling details of an encounter with the Indians, which should seem to terminate, after a quick succession of imminent perils and as many sudden escapes, in the temporary safety of the rescued victims. These adventures are conceived with vivid invention, and the circumstances are told with amazing animation and force of description. Through this first volume we are led by the author in breathless rapid interest: our attention is never off the stretch; and yet we seek no relief, until we have seen the objects of our sympathy beyond their first series of dangers. But then it is that we encounter the prominent defect of the work. The second volume resembles the first, and the third is a repetition of the second. Without respite, without variety of interest, and almost without any change of scene, machinery, or action, we are led in an uniformity of horror through two volumes more of Indian ambushes, pursuits, battles, massacres, and scalpings. [The characters of Chingachgook, Uncas, and the white hunter] prove conspicuous actors … and are, beyond all comparison, the most remarkable and best drawn characters in the book. One of them, the white hunter, who is introduced to us only by his noms de guerre of Hawk-eye and La Longue Carabine, is a specimen (of the better sort, indeed,) of a class of men still to be found in the American forests. His qualities are adroitly elicited by a hundred little characteristic niceties of opinion and action, which, though perhaps they might not be quite understood by our home-bred readers, are all struck off from the original with most admirable tact. In the strange mixture of the habits of civilised and Indian life, the corresponding confusion of moral opinions and principles, an enthusiastic respect for the finer qualities of the red people, coupled always with the superior pride of pure European blood, and the perpetual boast of being 'a man without a cross;' in all these points, he who is familiar with the population of the American forests will at once recognise Hawk-eye for the true exemplar of a whole class. He is the genuine representative of the white hunter, who has naturalised himself among the red people, preserving some of the lingering traits and humaner features of civilised man, but acquiring the stern insensibility to danger and suffering, the patient endurance of privation, the suppleness and activity of limb, and even in part the wonderful sagacity of the senses, by which the native warrior supports and guards his life, and tracks out his path in the darkness, and solitude, and bewildering mazes of his gigantic forests.
The two Indian companions of Hawk-eye are father and son, 'the Last of the Mohicans,' a once celebrated tribe of the Delaware nations. Mr. Cooper will not be accused, by those at least who know any thing of the Indian character, of having, with any undue and foolish partiality for the virtues of savage life, depicted it too favourably for truth. But as in Magua he has displayed all the worst and most revolting features of the Indian mind, so may his portraits of the two Mohicans, Chingachgook and Uncas, be received as accurately representing in their persons all that is dignified and estimable, and the amount of this is far from small, in the simple children of the lake and forest.
Source: John Miller, in a review of The Last of the Mohicans, in The Monthly Review, London, Vol. II, No. VII, June, 1826, pp. 122-31.
Dennis W. Allen, "By All the Truth of Signs: James Fenimore Cooper's 'The Last of the Mohicans,'" Studies in American Fiction, Autumn, 1981, pp. 159-79.
T. A. Birrell, Preface to James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, 1980.
George Dekker, "Lillies That Fester: 'The Last of the Mohicans' and 'The Woman Who Rode Away,'" New Left Review, November-December, 1964, pp. 75-84.
Escritor, February, 1826, pp. 21-22.
W. H. Gardiner, "Cooper's Novels," North American Review, July, 1826, pp. 150-201.
John A. Inglis, "Colonel George Monro and the Defence of Fort William Henry, 1757," Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Proceedings, January, 1970, pp.72-73.
Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review, July 29, 1826, pp. 469-73.
Literary Gazette, April 1, 1826, pp. 198-200.
Literary World, October 19, 1826, p. 312.
Liverpool Repository, July-August, 1826, pp. 384, 448.
Terence Martin, "Leatherstocking and the Frontier: Cooper's 'The Last of the Mohicans,'" The Frontier in History and Literature: Essays and Interpretations, Verlag Moritz Diesterwag, 1962, pp. 49-64.
Monthly Review, June, 1826, pp. 122-31.
John Neal, "The Last American Novel," London Magazine, May, 1826, pp. 27-31.
New York Review and Atheneum Magazine, March, 1826, pp. 285-92.
"North American Indians," United States Review and Literary Gazette, April, 1827, pp. 40-53.
Panaromic Miscellany, April 30, 1826, pp. 533-34.
Thomas Philbrick, "The Sources of Cooper's Knowledge of Fort William Henry," American Literature, May, 1964, pp. 209-14.
Robert E. Spiller, Fenimore Cooper: Critic of his Times, Minton Balch, 1955.
Daniel J. Sundahl, "Details and Defects: Historical Peculiarities in 'The Last of the Mohicans,'" Rackham Journal of the Arts and Humanities, 1986, pp. 33-46.
Mark Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," North American Review, July, 1895, pp. 1-12.
United States Review Literary Gazette, March 15, 1826, pp. 87-94.
John V. A. Weaver, "Fenimore Cooper—Comic," Bookman, March, 1924, pp. 13-15.
John Gottlieb Ernestus Heckewelder, An Account of the History, Manners, and Customs, of the Indian Nations, Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States: Communicated to the Historical and Literary Committee of the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge, printed and published by Abraham Small, 1818.
Heckewelder's book has been identified as Cooper's main source of information in drawing his Indian characters.
Donald A. Ringe, James Fenimore Cooper, Twayne, 1988.
Biography and critical overview of Cooper's literary career.
Marilyn Gaddis Rose, "Time Discrepancy in 'The Last of the Mohicans,'" American Notes and Queries, January, 1970, pp. 72-3.
Rose considers Cooper's skills as a historian, and suggests that while he kept his facts straight, he had a tendency to deviate from chronology.
Seymour I. Schwartz, The French and Indian War, 1754–1763: The Imperial Struggle for North America, Simon & Schuster, 1994.
A history of the French and Indian War that forms the backdrop to The Last of the Mohicans.
William Thorp, "Cooper Beyond America," North York History, October, 1954, pp. 522-29.
Illustrates the literary influence that Cooper had on European literature of the nineteenth century.
W. M. Verhoeven, editor, James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts, Rodopi, 1993.
A collection of new essays that assess Cooper's novels from a historically materialist perspective.