The Last of the Mohicans
Cooper's most enduringly popular novel combines heroism and romance with powerful criticism of the destruction of nature and tradition.
Set against the French and Indian siege of Fort William Henry in 1757, The Last of the Mohicans recounts the story of two sisters, Cora and Alice Munro, daughters of the English commander, who are struggling to be reunited with their father. They are aided in their perilous journey by Hawk-eye, a frontier scout and his companions Chingachgook and Uncas, the only two survivors of the Mohican tribe. But their lives are endangered by the Mangua, the savage Indian traitor who captures the sisters, wanting Cora to be his squaw.
In setting Indian against Indian and the brutal society of the white man against the civilization of the Mohican, Cooper, more than any author before or since, shaped the American sense of itself as a nation.
Read a student review byRuth Mattock, 3rd year English student at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge
The Last of the Mohicans, A narrative of 1757 by James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper’s American classic gathers about a small group of great and honest men in their efforts to protect the daughters of Lieutenant Colonel Munro during the Seven Years War (1756-63). Based around the historical events of 1757, the novel tracks Cora and Alice Munro with their companions Major Heyward and David the psalmodist, as they follow British reinforcements joining Fort William Henry to fight against the French. Led astray by the villainous Huron, Magua, the party joins forces with a scout, Hawkeye, the wise Mohican Chingachgook, and his son, proud Uncas. An ambush separates them, but a bond has been created that devotes the scout and the Mohicans to the daughters.
First published in 1826, the story presents archetypes in the making. Cooper’s characters would contribute hugely to popular American images of man in the wild. Hawkeye’s knowledge of the forest and its movements is a language for the most part long forgotten, and the earth-wisdom of the Mohicans is an almost magical perception. Light-footed Uncas is a native-American Hermes, whose silent tread barely rustles the grass. But the narrative is constantly aware of that titular word ‘Last,’ and the admiration Fenimoore Cooper inspires for the ways of the natives cannot avoid a touch of sadness, a man of the future’s knowledge that the world would change.
Although an international war is the background for the novel, the native battles of the forest remain in the foreground and the two planes throw each other into perspective. One is a warfare of rigidity, of armies, truce-flags, advances and retreats, an institution that moves between the square safeties of its forts. The other, equally rigid in its way, slips in and out of the trees, blows a scent on the wind, and fires single shots with devastating accuracy. Taking the world as a battlefield, the threat is invisible and ever-present. The brutality of war is not cloaked, nor is it aggrandized, but it is served with relevance suitable to the theme.
Last of the Mohicans is a book of its time, and the dated hierarchies one would expect from that time are not absent. But any assertion of such systems struggles to be anything but superfluous among the greatness of the characters Cooper has created. The quiet honour and wisdom of the red men booms through the book (the treacherous Magua is a great orator) and their moments of silence have an effect greater than words.
There is one other element of Cooper’s piece that merits attention. Hovering quietly over the substance of the text is a love story, brashly re-envisaged by many a film adaptation, but here glowing in beautiful subtlety. Never uttered, never shared, never allowed even the significance of a gesture, it is one of the most powerful threads of the novel. Unspoken to the end, it will join the chorus of silence that Cooper sings so perfectly in this story.