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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What I’m Reading – The Last of the Mohicans

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper is a difficult novel to assess. It has been both hailed as a great American classic, and derided as overwrought and verbose. It is set within the confines of history–particularly in the Seven Year War (French and Indian War) and the events surrounding the Ft. William Henry Massacre, but it veers off from history into the realm of the imaginative romance (in the classical sense – a tale of love and adventure) that becomes increasingly ridiculous, before returning to something like reality in its final chapters.

Of particular interest to me as I read the novel was Cooper’s treatment of racial relations. And here, too, the novel is difficult to judge. On the one hand Cooper uses what may be described as clichés and stereotypes to define his characters. Uncas and Chingachgook are the “noble savage,” brave and stoic, wise and proud; Magua, the villain, is cruel, without loyalty and is one of those drunken Indians addicted to the white man’s “fire water.” But are these two dimensional characters intended to slur all Native Americans or is this the result of a genre where everything is heightened and exaggerated – where the heroes are pure and virtuous and the villains are barbaric and despicable? Are Uncas and Chingachgook at one end, and Magua at the other end of a spectrum of human characteristics–encompassing all rather than reducing all?

The character Natty Bumppo, known as Hawkeye, also presents an interesting dilemma. He is a white man who lives at the fringes of society, more at home with the native tribes than whites, but freely moving between both. He sometimes lauds his whiteness as a measure of his superiority, and sometimes praises his native brothers as the better men. 

It should probably be remembered, also, that The Last of the Mohicans was first published in 1826-at a time when American attitudes toward the Native Americans were generally less than favorable (to put it kindly.) Native American tribes were regarded by white leaders as mere savages, uncivilized. White leaders said that the Indians prized “theft, arson, rape and murder” and raised their children “to regard killing as the highest virtue.” Indian men, according to these powerful American leaders, were indolent and lazy, leaving all the hard work for their women. They were barbarous, and savage, and superstitious heathen” (Nichols 175 - 6). Not many years after Cooper’s book was published the Native American Removal Act of 1830 was passed by Congress, which paved the way for the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of Native Americans along the “Trail of Tears.”

But in the Cooper’s novel, Native Americans are heroic and brave, noble and praiseworthy. And in one of the frequent footnotes Cooper included, the Quaker William Penn and his descendants are praised for having done no wrong “to the original owners of the soil” (356).  It is difficult to read the story as ‘racist’ against this background. 

We might also consider the character of Cora Munro – who is of mixed race, a “mulatto.”  She is never disparaged in the book because of her mixed ancestry, though she acknowledges the second class status she and her black ancestors are given in society. 

And speaking of Cora, the issue of sexism is sometimes raised in criticism of the novel. The female characters Cora and Alice Munro (half-sisters with different mothers) are repeatedly referred to as the “gentle ones.” They are delicate and need male protection and rescue. That said, however, the novel does pass the Bechdal Test–if only just. The treatment of Cora and Alice may be considered sexist and chauvinist by today’s standards, but it represents the norm of that time–and it should be noted that Cora and Alice are just as brave and courageous as any of the male characters. 

The Last of the Mohicans is a divisive book; many love it, many loathe it. It has inspired multiple adaptions for film, television and radio. It has even been adapted for the stage as an opera.  But I’m not particularly fond of Cooper’s overwrought style.  His endless descriptions are tiring.  His dialogue is stilted.  And the prose is pretentious. 

He swung for the fences, writing as if for an epic in the style of Homer and Virgil, but Cooper let his novel drift into the realm ridiculous and could not sustain the epic majesty he wanted to achieve with his prose.  The novel begins in the grounded events of history at Ft. William Henry but towards the end it is reduced to a series of costumed hijinks:  Hawkeye disguises himself as a bear and prowls through an enemy camp; Chingachgook disguises himself as a beaver to fool their pursuers. It’s silly. I can accept Patroclus disguising himself in the armor of Achilles to lead the Greeks into battle; I can only laugh at Cooper’s characters parading around in animal costumes.

Cooper, James Fenimore.  The Last of the Mohicans, USA. Readers Digest, 1984.

Nichols, David A. Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics, St. Paul, MN. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012.

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