This summer, about six weeks before school was going to start, I was asked to teach a literature class for a small group of teen girls. “Literature” is a dauntingly broad subject. Where to focus? Based on what some of the students had already read, I decided on American Literature. How to go about that? How about chronologically? I put together a list. Well . . . it turns out that I really haven’t read as much American literature as I thought I had. Most of my reading in the genre was a long time ago. So this school year, I’ll be endeavoring to stay one jump ahead of my students.
I wanted to start as near the beginning as possible. Nearly any claim of first, best, most, earliest, or any other -est in literature is open to challenge. However, the assertion that James Fenimore Cooper was the first popular American novelist would be difficult to argue. Not the first, just the first popular. The fact that Cooper eventually became popular around the world is significant in an era (Mohicans was published in 1826) when Europe still generally considered America provincial.
The Last of the Mohicans is the only one of the five books in Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales” that I have read, so I can only comment on my first reading of this one book. I can certainly understand why this tale was popular in Cooper’s time. The setting and characters would have been fascinating and exotic to most readers. Mohicans is set in the densely-forested American frontier during the French and Indian War. The conflict between British, French, and Indians must have captured imaginations in the same way as did later Cowboys and Indians stories of the American West. By the standard of the day, there is almost non-stop action.
I can also sympathize with modern readers who find the book difficult. Cooper writes beautifully descriptive passages. Many of us are prone to lose patience with this sort of delay in the action. But much of the substance of the story would be lost without a clear picture of the setting, the thickness of the forest, the distance to civilization. We need to know that there really could be an Indian behind every tree. We need to understand just how unlikely it is, in this great wilderness, that help might be on its way. At times, the dialogue seems unnecessarily ornate. Hawkeye, the American woodsman, can wax a bit preachy. We want the characters to get to the point and get on with it. It can be particularly perplexing when Hawkey has just cautioned another character that they must maintain absolute silence lest the Indians discover their whereabouts, then he proceeds to expound an opinion or takes time to tease someone. Hawkeye must be quite a skilled whisperer. Cooper wrote what he would have liked to read. If we judge him by 21st-century adventure novel standards, we will miss out on a heart-pounding, hair-raising adventure.
Along with the simple fact that the book is old-fashioned, there are other aspects of the story that jar our modern sensibilities. The question of bigotry is going to come up in any discussion of the book. Cooper obviously would not have been a supporter of feminism. The violence, inevitable in a story of war and the clash of civilizations, though never graphic, can still be shocking. Some readers will consider themselves too sophisticated for the woods-lore and the amazingly-developed senses of the natives.
Why, then, is this story worth reading?
Because we need to think as well as feel. We need to practice dispassionately evaluating our history in order to learn to accurately evaluate the present. Great literature gives us a window into the thinking of our forebears. We can learn from them even if we disagree with their beliefs and conclusions. We can practice discernment rather than judgement. We also ought to be familiar with characters who have becomes icons in our language. Even the phrase, “last of the Mohicans” has passed into the realm of idiom. What does it mean?
To begin with, I wanted my students to read this story without any prompting from me to be on the lookout for racist offenses. We have discussed whether or not it is clear that Cooper tries to show the inferiority of Indians. Well, Hawkeye considers the Mohicans, Chingachgook and Uncas, to be his family. Though he rarely misses an opportunity to remind everyone that he is a pure-blooded white man, he also acknowledges that there are some ways in which the Indians excel even his own sharply honed skills. Is it condescending that he keeps repeating that their senses are more acutely developed than a typical French or British soldier? Perhaps not when those senses stand between those in his charge and destruction. It is probably in the best interest of all concerned to remind the inept British soldier to let his betters lead. Some Indians are friends, some are enemies. Does Cooper, then, consider all Indians bad or inferior? We concluded that he does not.
What in the world are two helpless women doing out in this hostile-Indian-ridden forest during a war anyway? Have you heard this joke? What is grey, looks like a dog, sits on a hill howling at the moon, and is full of cement? The answer is, a coyote. What then, you might ask, is the cement for? Obviously, to make it harder! The women are here for the same reason. Having to drag two women through the action definitely makes things harder for all the male characters involved. It further complicates things when one of the women keeps fainting. More difficulties arise when some of the men inevitably fall in love with the women. It’s trickier still when two men are in love with the same woman. The situation is ticklish indeed if the woman is white (or is she?) and the two men are Indians.
Maybe the presence of the women also makes one aspect of the story simpler. Without the women, this would just be a “white man against the Indians” story. Whose side should we be on? Cooper leaves no doubt. The women must be rescued and reunited with the “right” men. This might sound as though Cooper’s female characters are a bit flat. They are. The story takes place about 20 years before the Revolutionary War. What are these white females doing out here? Certainly not acting as heroines. Not in 1757. Cooper is too chivalrous to want his female characters subjected to the rigors and dangers of the wilderness. Yet, here they are. What would that look like in the mid-1700s?
This is a story about a violent episode in history, the characters of which are mostly men at war. The massacre perpetrated by Indians against the British after the surrender of Ft. William Henry is at the very center of the book. Historians disagree about who was to blame for the massacre and about how many innocents were killed. Cooper chooses a side of that debate and uses a particularly grisly, though brief, incident to highlight the senseless murders of defenseless victims. In chapter 17, a woman and her baby are killed by an Indian. I will include the description at the bottom of this article for those who may be considering this book for young people.** Most of the violence, certainly the scalping, occurs off-scene. You may also need to know that not everyone lives happily ever after.
It can almost become ludicrous hearing Hawkeye constantly extolling the talents of his friends. We get it, we get it! Their ears and eyes are so much sharper than the most practiced white man in the area. They divert a stream in order to find the footprints of the Indians they are pursuing? Who knows, maybe Cooper actually knew of someone who had tried this. I viewed this aspect much less impatiently when I started seeing it as a part of the setting. In some ways, the woods-craft is almost a character. It is certainly the best developed part of the characters of Chingachgook and Uncas.
Cooper was better at writing action than at developing characters. But, let us not forget about Nathanael (Natty) Bumppo, also know as Le Longue Carabine, most often known as Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans. He is known by various nicknames in the other “Leatherstocking Tales.” His character has become a symbol in the English language.
One of the questions we revisited at each meeting was, “Who is the main character in this story?” Is it Hawkeye, the most verbal and obviously the leader? Is it the women, who are often out of the picture waiting to be rescued? Is it the title character, one of the Mohicans? Those two men almost never speak. This is the question I assigned my students to argue in an essay for our next meeting.
I admit that for about the first half of the book, I just wanted Cooper to get on with it. Then he did. And I couldn’t read fast enough. I was worried that reading this book would simply be required work for my girls. But they loved it! They became engrossed in the setting and in the conflict. Though we couldn’t agree on the main character, each had a favorite with good reasons to back up her opinion. The old-fashioned language was not beyond their reach. We had good discussions about the characters’ motivations and what Cooper’s may have been. This turned out to be an excellent first read for our American literature course.
**Page 197 in the 2005 Bantam Classic paperback:
“The savage spurned the worthless rags, and perceiving that the shawl had already become a prize of ferocity, he dashed the head of the infant against a rock, and cast its quivering remains at her [the mother’s] very feet . . . maddened at his disappointment and excited at the sight of blood, the Huron mercifully drove his tomahawk into her own brain. The mother sank under the blow, and fell, grasping at her child, in death, with the same engrossing love that had caused her to cherish it when living.”