James Fenimore Cooper created an American heritage in his historical fiction novels of the American frontier. For that reason alone I would be glad to say I’ve finally read one of his works. The Last of the Mohicans (first published in 1826) is a romanticized story of the dying days of the Native American culture.
Taking place during the French and Indian Wars (also called the Seven Years’ War), The Last of the Mohicans places a few Americans in the midst of a forest full of blood-thirsty Indians. Only with the help of the all-American hero, Natty Bumpo, called Hawkeye, do the Americans have any chance of making it through the wilds of America alive.
Because of the era in which it was written and the era in which the story takes place, The Last of the Mohicans seems to me to be a complicated but racist work. It also is a dramatically unrealistic adventure between members of a dying race and the interlopers who would eventually eliminate the frontier as depicted in this novel. Further, a stereotype I have of romantic-era literature is the flowery language. James Fenimore Cooper well meets that stereotype, and his dramatic battle scenes full of philosophic discussions and fainting maidens require the reader to suspend disbelief frequently.
I can hardly fault Cooper, however, for writing from his limited perspective. His introductions suggest to the reader that he is writing a realistic novel, suggesting that such events really happened. Obviously, that is a slight exaggeration, but given the even more exaggerated romanticism coming from England in the early 1800s, his is nearer to the realistic mark.
As for his content, his approach is quite interesting from a modern perspective. As a near contemporary to the extermination of so many Native American cultures, Cooper both idealized the culture and celebrated its dying in this book, a strange combination given our modern sensitivity to political correctness.
From his introduction and his place in American literature, it is evident that Cooper was breaking new ground by writing a semi-realistic historical novel. I have not read many Romantic novels (obviously it’s not my style) but Cooper’s writing in this is certainly commendable for what it is. His descriptions of the frontier woods of Northern New York are beautifully written.
Although this book was not a favorite of mine, others in my book group found it to be quite a fun adventure story! Two young women, half-sisters Cora and Alice, are traveling with the naive young soldier Duncan Heyward to the fort where their father leads British troops. When they encounter an American scout, Hawkeye, they realize that their native American leader, Magua, has purposely lead them the wrong direction, and they will soon be ambushed. Magua has revenge on his mind, as the girls’ father has humiliated him in front of his tribe.
There are far more matters complicating the story, from Cora’s complicated heritage (her West Indies mother had African heritage), to an idealistic foolish hymn singer who joins their group, to Hawkeye’s two best friends, the last remaining living Mohican Indians on the American continent. The Mohican Uncas loves Cora; Heyward loves Alice. When Alice and Cora are later kidnapped by Magua and the other Huron Indians, Heyward, Hawkeye, and the Mohicans must come to the rescue.
Adventure is not my genre. Romantic-style literature is not my favorite. So this book, in general, was not a favorite. There is much to discover under the surface, however, and I’m glad I read it, and discussed it with my group.