Definitely an Oldie – but still a Goodie?
by James Wilson
Though hard to believe today, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) was the most widely read American novel for over 100 years. Only Gone with the Wind, in 1936, knocked it from the top shelf (Gone with the Wind, incidentally, remains the second favourite book of American readers to this day, after the Bible!). Like his contemporary, Walter Scott, Cooper was well-known during his lifetime; his novels, particularly the five which comprise the Leatherstocking Tales, of which The Last of the Mohicans is the second instalment, brought him both fame and financial success. At the time of his death in 1851, Cooper was highly respected, and greatly admired by both Balzac and Hugo, the latter pronouncing him ‘the greatest novelist of the century’ (though he added ‘outside France’, naturellement). When the great Romantic composer Franz Schubert lay dying in Vienna in 1828, he asked for Cooper’s latest novel of the American frontier, and Berlioz named an overture after him. Thoreau, Melville and Conrad publicly recognised their literary debt to him. Though Cooper also had his detractors, most notably Mark Twain, who mocked him in his 1895 essay Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, mostly for being verbose and clichéd. But let’s face it, Twain mocked Jane Austen and George Eliot as well.
Today, however, Cooper is not very widely read. A cursory look at contemporary reader reviews of his novels reveals a distaste for his now antiquated writing style, and a very present-day rejection of Cooper’s representation of women and, more importantly, of First Nations characters, who are central to the Leatherstocking novels, and particularly The Last of the Mohicans.
Granted, it is very easy to find in this 200 year-old novel, subtitled, A Narrative of 1757 (it’s set two years before The Plains of Abraham, and includes the marquis de Montcalm as a central character) the kind of stereotyping of First Nations peoples that would later become the hallmark of the Hollywood western: the blood-thirsty, scalp-taking savage who whoops and yelps a great deal, but actually says very little. There certainly is blood and violence in this novel, and, yes, scalping and whooping too. The most notorious scenes graphically describe the alleged massacre of British forces and civilians retreating from Fort William Henry on New York’s Lake George by the First Nations tribes fighting with Montcalm – in Cooper’s version, the Hurons. And the Hurons in the novel, lead by the malevolent and vengeful Magua, are most definitely demonised. Equally, however, the novel celebrates and valourises the Lenape, belonging to the Delaware Nation, to whom the last of the Mohicans, Chingachgook and his son Uncas, are related. Most unlike their later Hollywood stereotypes, these two, and many other Lenape are represented repeatedly in the novel as the epitome of decent, honourable, generous, intelligent, articulate and noble heroes.
And it is not only the Hurons who are vilified. The main white protagonist, Natty Bumppo, aka Hawkeye, orphaned as a child and adopted by the Mohicans, is given many opportunities to voice Cooper’s own views on the European colonisation of the continent, e.g., “’Tis a long and melancholy tradition . . . for it is not to be denied that the evil has been mainly done by men with white skins.” Of the Great Spirit, who is repeatedly identified in the book as one with the Christian God, Hawkeye says, “He made with faces paler . . . . and appetites to devour the earth. . . . his cunning tells him how to get together the goods of the earth; and his arms inclose the land from the shores of the salt-water to the islands of the great lake. His gluttony makes him sick. God gave him enough, and yet he wants all. Such are the pale faces.”
Though Cooper’s writing style may be out-dated, the central principles and characterisations of the novel are remarkably evocative of 21st century attitudes to First Nations. As is his nostalgic lament for the disappearing landscape of the American frontier (in 1826!). It is not only the Mohicans whom we witness the last of, but the unfettered American wilderness; notes Hawkeye, “Natur’ is sadly abused by man, when he once gets the mastery.” The first of the Leatherstocking novels, The Pioneers (1823; set in 1793) includes a scene of a pigeon shoot, which might more accurately be termed a pigeon massacre. At that time, America was home to billions of passenger pigeons (the last died in captivity in 1914), and in this scene the sky is literally filled by their flocks. The local settlers proceed to mow them down by the thousands with all available firearms, including an old canon, but “None pretended to collect the game, which lay scattered over the fields in such profusion as to cover the very ground with fluttering victims.” An older Hawkeye is a disgusted witness to the slaughter, and expresses what may be regarded as an ‘environmentalist’ assessment, “If a body has a craving for pigeon’s flesh, why, it’s made the same as all other creatures, for man’s eating; but not to kill twenty and eat one. . . . It’s much better to kill only such as you want . . . Use, but don’t waste.”
The Last of the Mohicans offers what may admittedly be old-fashioned unrelenting adventure, romance and heroic endeavor, all played out against a majestically drawn landscape (not to mention a man disguised as a bear, and another as a beaver, plus what is perhaps the most comically inappropriate time and place for a marriage proposal in all of romantic literature). But it also has something rather relevant to say to contemporary readers about today’s foremost social and political issues. In these days of occasionally quite literal iconoclasm, and some attempt by the present to erase the past, this novel from the past can still make a significant contribution to the present.
The Last of the Mohicans is available through Lennoxville Library interlibrary loan.