I decided to pick up this "classic" after I finished reading William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic
-- an excellent history of the Cooper family.
William Cooper (James Fenimore Cooper's father) was one of those rogues who, after many New York State Loyalists fled to Canada or England after the American Revolutionary War, took advantage of the ensuing chaos to make claims (often of dubious legal standing) on their "abandoned" property.
From his start as a barely-literate wheelwright, the elder Cooper became one of the era's prominent land speculators -- and, by the standards of the time, enormously rich. And Cooperstown, NY, was the eponymous capital of his primary holding through the Otsego Patent. There the elder Cooper built a mansion and ran for political office, and also tried to re-fashion himself as an aristocrat. After he died, his children continued to live the high life for another few years. Soon his entire estate was bankrupt and auctioned off to pay creditors. James Fenimore Cooper was protected from abject poverty because he had married Susan Augusta DeLancey, the daughter of a wealthy family in Westchester County, NY.
Then James Fenimore Cooper got the idea to write a novel set in Revolutionary-era New York State. The Pioneers
(1823) functioned as a retelling of his father's life story -- only with an ending more to James Fenimore's liking than what had happened in real life.
Three years later, James Fenimore Cooper published the second Leatherstocking Tale, The Last of the Mohicans
. In this historical romance, Natty Bumppo aligns himself with his loyal Mohican friends Chingachgook and Uncas and works as a scout in the British army during the French and Indian War.
Afterwards, the Cooper family moved to Europe and lived in France, Switzerland, Belgium, and England for the next 7 years from 1826 to 1833. Cooper announced his retirement from writing fiction after his return to the U.S. in 1833, but had to resume writing in 1838 due to financial strain.
Ian Watt, in his famous The Rise of the Novel
, correlates the 18th-century burgeoning of novelistic production with the growing demand for at-home entertainment by women who had been liberated from traditional household tasks and had too much time on their hands.
In a straightforward way, the novel rose in England in the 18th century from the ashes of boredom. Amid dramatic social changes caused by the Industrial Revolution arose a romanticism for earlier times, when lives were "as they should be", and an equal but opposite romanticism about the brave or lucky individuals who transcended their expected fates, such as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones
. This extended into the early 19th century, when social changes intensified and Romanticism reached its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1850. The Last of the Mohicans
was written during the peak Romantic period.
I feel Cooper wrote this novel for that particular audience and purpose -- to help the bored conquer boredom through a different yet continual form of boredom.
The plot of The Last of the Mohicans
looks compulsively straightforward. Like typical American novels in the 1820s, it was published in two volumes, and in each volume the heroines are kidnapped and later rescued. Most of the story occurs in the archetypal world of (Indian) villains who abduct (white) heroines and (white) heroes who rescue them, which is reminiscent of the "captivity narratives" written by 17th-century Puritans.
The novel associates the wilderness with humans' visceral desires. Except for Hawkeye, for whom life in the woods is a different and more impervious form of virginity than of Cora or Alice. Hawkeye is a killer, but equally important is the fact that he is not a lover. Michael Mann's 1992 movie adaptation
of the novel drastically revises this aspect of Hawkeye's character, but Cooper's original words leave no room for doubt.
The wilderness in this novel is a place of transformation. In the last section, especially, there is a dizzying number of metamorphoses. But the novel refuses to endorse the possibility of racial change through intermarriage, and the racial boundaries are enforced with a vengeance. Duncan reunites with Alice, and this untainted white couple is allowed to survive and marry and inherit the future through their racially unmixed offspring.
Sex and violence, according to the Hollywood cliché, is the most dependable recipe for feeding the appetite of the popular audience. The Last of the Mohicans
clearly follows this formula, and perhaps even helps the reader understand why the order of the terms is never reversed -- it's always "sex and violence," but never "violence and sex."
The true story of the Mohicans is one that the U.S. is still reluctant to tell, and repressed almost completely throughout the 19th century as the pioneers moved westward across the continent. On the other hand, Americans loved the story that Cooper tells in The Last of the Mohicans
. This novel was Cooper's most popular book and one of the most widely read American novels ever.
Like most of Cooper's novels, especially those he wrote in the first half of his career, The Last of the Mohicans
derives from the model of the historical romance that Sir Walter Scott had established in Waverley
. The subtitle of Cooper's novel -- A Narrative of 1757
-- echoes Waverley
's subtitle, 'Tis Sixty Years Since
. Cooper warned mere novel readers that by "narrative" he means historical fact, not imaginative fancy. But The Last of the Mohicans
turned out to be merely myth-making which served contemporary readers precisely by replacing history with a story about the inevitable fate of the Indians.
While some of Cooper's sentences sound patronizing, if not racist, to most modern readers, Cooper's books display more respect and admiration for Indian characters like Uncas than was the norm in his culture. In fact, Cooper's depiction of Uncas as such as noble savage opened the floodgates of criticism. Robert Montgomery Bird wrote Nick of the Woods
(1837) to expressly contest Cooper's "poetical illusions" and "beautiful unrealities" by describing Indians instead as "ignorant, violent, debased, brutal." Mark Twain made the same argument in Roughing It
In the final chapter of The Last of the Mohicans
, Cooper relieves white American readers from the burden of picturing a political and social future for the country that includes Indians by linking Uncas's death to the doom of his entire race. Neither of the two massacres in the book involves whites killing Indians.
Even as a fantasy, The Last of the Mohicans
arises from the brute facts of American history and projects a psychological and socio-historical fantasy onto its dark savages. It could even be considered a response to America's own empire-building.
Victor Hugo once pronounced Cooper "greater than the great master of modern romance." And this verdict was echoed by Balzac and Rudolf Drescher of Germany.
Perhaps those bored housewives (many were probably James Fenimore Cooper's avid fans) passed down this historical romance through the generations and that's how it became a classic.