The Last of the Mohicans (thing)
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James Fenimore Cooper versus Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain's Rules of Writing, Natty Bumppo>
The Last of the Mohicans, the novel that is the basis for the 1992 film of the same name, is often billed as a "classic." I've heard this designation, not only from a now-defunct writeup in this node, but from random people I know (who have not read the book).
This is not the place for a rant on canon formation, but let me just mention that while "classic" is usually taken to mean "good," in this case it means "old and famous." The Last of the Mohicans is an interesting cultural artifact of its period (1826). Apart from that, I'll give you the quick-and-dirty lowdown on The Last of the Mohicans, and you can decide whether you want to read it in order to judge for yourself whether you think it is actually a work of "literary genius," as some have dubbed it. Personally, I think it is both bad and worth the read.
The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 is probably the most famous of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, which all feature a rough, woodsy loner variously known as Natty Bumppo, Leatherstocking, Hawk-eye, "the scout," or La Longue Carabine. In this novel, Natty Bumppo is well into mature adulthood, perhaps in his fifties.
Many different names for the various Native American tribes are used in this novel, often interchangeably and inaccurately. This novel's portrayal of Native Americans is neither specific nor sensitive. More on race in this novel further on. A quick guide to Cooper's Native Americans:
Good guys:The Delawares, the Lenape, the Lenni Lenape, the Mohicans (Mohegans). These names are all used more or less interchangeably. They are neutral in the French and Indian War, and are Chingachgook and Uncas's ancestral tribes.
Bad guys:The Iroquois, including the Mohawks, the Huron, and others. Sometimes called Maquas, or (derogatorily) Mingoes. They are allied with the French, though not for any particular ideological reason.
(WARNING! This plot summary is not only hideously long (hey, so is the novel), but also extremely spoiler-rich. However, if you're planning on seeing the movie, don't worry -- the two plots are radically different.)
During the French and Indian War, English Major Duncan Heyward sets off by a secret shortcut to meet the rest of his army accompanied by two sisters, Alice and Cora Munro, guided by Magua, a Huron Indian later adopted by the Mohawks. They are joined by ungainly and open-hearted singing-master David Gamut. Magua misleads them and, when they run into Hawk-eye, Hawk-eye's royal Delaware (Lenape) Indian friendChingachgook, and Chingachgook's son Uncas in the woods, Magua runs off. Hawk-eye, Chingachgook, and Uncas guide them down a river, Hawk-eye taking the lead role.
They stop overnight in an island cave, where they are attacked by the enemy Iroquois. Hawk-eye repulses the Iroquois momentarily, and Cora and Alice are put back in the cave with David, who is wounded, while the others dig in for the fight that ensues. They are attacked, but they successfully hold off the attack until they run out of powder. An enemy takes their canoe with the remaining powder. They repair to the cave, and Hawk-eye, Chingachgook, and Uncas prepare to die.
Cora, the smart, sensible older one, suggests that the men escape by swimming downstream, in hopes that she and Alice will merely be taken hostage, to be rescued later. Hawk-eye, Chingachgook, and Uncas do so; fearing their rape, Duncan stays with them, as does wounded bumbler David Gamut. Eventually they are discovered by Magua, who is apparently evil, and captured by the Iroquois.
A subset of the Iroquois party, led by Magua, takes the captives while the chief and others go in the opposite direction. Duncan tries to bribe Magua with promised rewards if he returns them to General Munro, but Magua is set on revenge. Magua offers to free Alice, Duncan, and David if Cora will become his wife. She recoils. He has the captives tied to trees and one Iroquois moves to kill them, when he is suddenly shot dead by Hawk-eye. Hawk-eye, Chingachgook, and Uncas, joined by Heyward, kill all the Iroquois except for Magua, who escapes injured and unarmed.
Our party sets off again, resting in an old shelter Hawk-eye built years ago at a battle-site that happens to be on their way. As they are about to leave at moonrise, Chingachgook hears approaching Hurons. They hide in the shelter, bracing themselves for a fight, but the approaching Hurons realize that a nearby mound of earth shelters the bodies of dead Mohawks from the old battle, and they leave in respect without investigating the travelers' hiding place. The travelers escape.
At length they are stopped by a French sentinel. Heyward speaks French, and fools the sentinel into thinking that Cora and Alice are his prisoners. To avoid further sentinels, the party takes a wayward mountain path, where, from a peak, they can see French General Montcalm's forces below. Descending the mountain again, they move through thick fog, reaching Munro's forces just in time to escape French troops.
Fort William Henry, where our party is now safe, is besieged by Montcalm's forces, and the English/Americans await reinforcements from General Webb in vain. Under a truce, Heyward meets General Montcalm, where he sees malevolent Magua, but he is unable to learn anything from the wily general, and they part.
Heyward returns to General Munro, who is with his daughters. The women leave, and Heyward talks of his wish to marry Alice. Munro reveals that Cora's mother was a West Indian woman with remote black ancestry, who later died, while Alice's mother was a Scottish noblewoman, who died in childbirth. Heyward cannot help being influenced by a disgust for Cora's racial background, although he hides it.
Munro and Heyward meet again with Montcalm, who makes it clear that resistance would be futile, and who offers generous terms of surrender, which Munro accepts. That night, Magua attempts to assassinate Munro; Montcalm stops him, and fears that the bloodthirsty Hurons may be uncontrollable. As the English forces and the fort community leave the next day, Magua unleashes a bloody massacre on them. David Gamut tries, ludicrously, to protect Alice and Cora by singing; Magua reiterates his offer of marriage to Cora, but she spurns him. Magua snatches the unconscious Alice; Cora and David pursue him.
Heyward, Munro, Hawk-eye, Chingachgook, and Uncas set off in search of the women (they don't really give a rat's ass about David), constantly dogged by Iroquois enemies. They find David Gamut, who informs them that Cora has been taken by a branch of the Delawares, while Alice is among the Huron women. David has been accepted as a kind of pet by the Iroquois, because they think he's insane, with his constant psalm-singing. Heyward and David go after Alice while the other three seek to parley with the Delawares.
Duncan poses as a French healer and is asked to heal a sick woman among the Hurons. Uncas is captured by the Hurons. While faking a healing, Duncan is interrupted by the scout, who is dressed as a bear. The scout helps him find Alice, to whom he confesses his love. They are interrupted by Magua, but the scout and Duncan tie him up, incapacitating him. Duncan and Alice escape with Alice disguised as the sick woman, while Hawk-eye returns to rescue Uncas. Dressed as David and the bear respectively, Hawk-eye and Uncas escape, leaving David in Uncas's place. David is safe because the Hurons think him insane and harmless.
The Hurons, led by Magua, give chase once the deception is discovered, and they head for their tenuous allies the Delawares, where our party has sought shelter, and where Cora is being held for Magua. Magua tells the venerable Delaware chief that they have "La Longue Carabine" in their midst. Hoping to avoid harm coming to the scout, Duncan tries to convince the Indians that he is "La Longue Carabine," but the scout beats him in a shooting match. Magua claims Cora as his prisoner. Cora falls to her knees before incredibly ancient Delaware chief Tamenund to plead for Alice's safety. Cora calls on Uncas to speak on her behalf.
The Delawares think Uncas a traitor until they realize the purity of his bloodline (apparently, he is of the purest royal Lenape blood), at which time they recognize him as a leader. However, Uncas cannot argue that Cora is not Magua's prisoner; they all know she is, and by Indian law she belongs to him. Tamenund tries to persuade Magua to relinquish his claim. Heyward tries to bribe Magua with riches. Finally the scout offers successively to refrain from interfering with the Hurons for six months, then to give them his gun, then to teach them to use his gun, and finally his life in exchage for Cora's release. Magua rejects all offers. He takes Cora, who goes bravely. The Delawares, led by Uncas, wait until they can, by their law, pursue. Then they prepare for war on the Hurons.
The Delawares defeat the Hurons, who scatter in fear. Uncas pursues Magua, the white men in tow, and they realize that he has Cora. Cora refuses to continue with Magua, and he moves to kill her. Magua hesitates, and Uncas at that moment leaps upon them, but at the same time another Huron stabs Cora to death. Magua turns on the killer and semi-accidentally mortally wounds Uncas, who with his dying breath kills Cora's murderer. Hawk-eye shoots Magua dead.
The Lenape mourn Cora and Uncas, marrying them figuratively in death. An emissary from worthy adversary Montcalm looks on in dismay.
The tale of Cora and Uncas becomes a legend among the Delawares. Munro soon dies, weakened by grief; Heyward and Alice move "far into the settlements of the 'pale-faces'" and find happiness there. Hawk-eye swears his allegiance to the grieving Chingachgook, and they go off together like mourning parents. Tamenund declares that he has seen the last of the Mohicans.
Some themes and ideas
All page references are to Cooper, James Fenimore. The Leatherstocking Tales, vol. I: The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. The Prairie; A Tale. Blake Nevius, Ed. 1825-9; New York: Penguin-America's Library, 1985.
1. Race and Bloodlines:
This novel is obsessed with race. Natty Bumppo continually harps on his status as an unmixed white man ("a man without a cross") and the inherent differences between the races (for instance, he speculates as to whether whites and Indians go to the same heaven, p. 692). Yet it is clear that one of the reasons it is so important for Bumppo to assert his whiteness is the fact that, in practice, he is culturally a white-Native American hybrid. He is able to assume "the manner of an Indian" (p. 700), and Magua suggests Bumppo's skin is "neither red nor pale" (p. 808).
Cora is partially descended from black ancestry; as such Heyward cannot be interested in her romantically, even though he knows full well she is in every sense better than Alice (pp. 653, 772). Racial purity is always a trump card; race often determines Hawk-eye's ethics; it also commands respect for Uncas. Yet is is also a "superstition" (832). Tamenund declares that "The whites claim ... that the meanest of their colour is better than the Sachems of the red man." Indeed, this is exactly what Hawk-eye thinks. Tamenund continues that "The dogs and crows of their tribes . . . would bark and caw, before they would take a woman to their wigwams, whose blood was not of the colour of snow." Which is precisely Heyward's attitude toward Cora (p. 825).
This novel is fascinated by race, and wants to arrive at some sort of racial transcendence. Cora and Hawk-eye, the two cultural/racial hybrids, are the ideal American prototypes. Though Uncas is the romantic match for Cora, with his awkward gestures toward adopting a "white" ethos, he is still not culturally hybrid enough to be the ideal American. Heyward and Alice, though sympathetic characters, are white European weaklings who have ultimately to flee to the coastal towns to find happiness. Cora, though a doomed tragic mulatta, and the tough Hawk-eye, are the only ones who are both "civilized" and able to handle the difficult American wilderness.
The implied ideology, of course, is a version of nativism; Europeans can't interfere with the New World because they don't get it; they're too weak for it. Native Americans, on the other side, are a race sadly, but inevitably, doomed to fade away, to be superseded by the great American hybrid nation (culturally hybrid, but, if Hawk-eye is the prototype, insistently racially white). This "vanishing Indian" ideology was behind the Indian Removal Act of 1830, passed just four years after the publication of The Last of the Mohicans.
2. Books, reading, and speech:
Natty Bumppo often evinces scorn for books, preferring the book of nature. Bumppo and the Indians can read the forest and the landscape where it is illegible to the others. Yet David Gamut's singing (out of a psalm book), usually the butt of Bumppo's anti-book comments, in its extreme impracticality, actually serves to save David's life more than once.
David's singing is also contrasted with the "voice" of Hawk-eye's rifle, or "the speech of 'kill-deer'" (e.g. p. 846). To Bumppo, shooting is a form of communicating with the land, a mode of communication with an essential, natural world in competition with David's truth-language of psalmody.
3. Disguises and changes of identity
As in other early nineteenth century American novels, like Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1827) and Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland (1798), and as in the romance genre generally, impersonation and disguise play a significant role in The Last of the Mohicans. Duncan Heyward is able to impersonate a French soldier merely by speaking in French to a guard. Later, when escaping from the Iroquois camp, Heyward, Alice, Uncas, Hawk-eye, and David engage in a complicated scheme that involves changing races, nationalities, and even species. Duncan Heyward impersonates a French healer in order to penetrate the camp, and then removes Alice, who is disguised as a sick Iroquois woman who he needs to take out for some fresh air. Hawk-eye gets into the camp disguised as a bear, and he and Uncas escape together, with Uncas impersonating David. Since the Iroquois think David is bananas, they are in no way surprised to see "him" (Uncas) chatting with a bear, and they think nothing of letting him pass. All of these improbable strategies succeed. And yet characters are also in some way inescapably bounded by their identities; Hawk-eye, for instance, regularly announces that there are things that, as a white man, he could not possibly do.
David Gamut is the only person who does not have to dress up, engage in duplicity, or change his character in any way in order to mingle with all social groups with immunity. To both the whites and the Native Americans, as an "impractical" musician, he is a sort of harmless wise fool. Occupying a kind of universal character, he fits into all situations (gracelessly) without having to impersonate or assume new identities.
Q. So, should I like, read this novel?
A. That all depends. If it's been assigned to you, yes. If you're trying to get in a fairly comprehensive survey of the American novel, yes. If you're interested in cultural studies and the nineteenth century, yes. If you're looking for entertainment... well, you might be entertained by this. It's possible. It sold well in its time, after all. But in my view, the rampant purple prose, which jarringly intermingles with studiedly folksy dialogue, and the endless attacks by Indians made this a tiresome read. Don't get me wrong; I'm glad I did it, but if you need a Cooper and your time is limited, go for The Pioneers.
Q. What's the coolest scene in this novel?
A. For drama, the most coolness points definitely go to the part when Duncan, Hawk-eye, Chingachgook, and Uncas are outside the cave defending the fair ladies and David from the Huron attackers. One sharpshooter Huron in a tree poses a great danger to them, but they manage to shoot him, and for a few long moments he dangles from this high, high tree, just grabbing on with his hands. All eyes are suddenly on him. He's clearly doomed, so Hawk-eye tells Duncan not to waste the bullet that would mercy-kill the poor guy, but at the last moment Hawk-eye himself shoots the Huron. Then Hawk-eye mutters at himself for his own weakness, wasting his last bullet on a mercy killing.
Q. If I don't have time to read the book for my class tomorrow, will it do to just read this node?
A. No! ...Jesus.