James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) is the second book of the Leatherstocking Tales and is set in 1757, during the French and Indian War. Cooper wrote it at a time when Americans believed that the American Indian population was steadily declining and would disappear soon. This concern factors into the novel’s story.
Like Cooper’s other novels, Mohicans was popular but received dismissive reviews from his contemporary critics. Most notably, Mark Twain reviewed the novel and Cooper in his 1895 essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” for the North American Review. Twain complains that Cooper used “extra and unnecessary words” throughout Mohicans. Today, Mohicans is considered to be the first Great American Novel.
The story is set in the year 1757 in the wilderness of upper New York. Cora and Alice Munro, the daughters of Lieutenant Colonel Munro, are escorted by Major Duncan Hayward from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry (where Munro commands) and are guided by Magua, an American Indian who leads them through a short cut without the British militia. Almost immediately, the team is joined by David Gamut, a singing teacher, Natty Bumppo (aka Hawkeye), a British scout and frontiersman, and Hawkeye’s two Mohican friends, Chingachgook and his son Uncas. Magua is discovered to be allied with the French and manages to escape right when the team learns of his secret alliance. From this moment on, the escort team, and eventually Munro himself, face numerous obstacles and battles. Magua repeatedly returns to challenge the team, hungry to revenge himself against Colonel Munro for whipping him at a post and for turning him into an alcoholic, which caused Magua to be cast out of Huron society and to loose his wife. He believes that by forcing Cora to marry him, he will have executed his revenge. Numerous disguises are used throughout the novel, including Heyward donning the costume of a French medicine man, Hawkeye wearing the skins of a bear, and Chingachgook dressing as a beaver. The novel concludes with a major battle held between the Delawares (who were historically aligned with the Mohicans) and the escort team against Magua and the Hurons. Magua demands that the Delawares hand over Uncas, Hawkeye, Alice, Cora, and Heyward, all of who he believes are his rightful prisoners. Tamenund, the Delaware sage, disagrees with him except with Cora, who is viewed as Magua’s rightful prisoner. After Cora is handed over, Tamenund gives Magua a three-hour head start before he is pursued. Magma gathers his forces in the forest and the Delawares, Mohicans, Hawkeye, Heyward, and Gamut march into the forest to fight Magua and his men. In a final scene, Magua is chased up to a mountain, where he has taken Cora. Cora threatens to jump off the mountain rather than marry Magua, and one of his men stab Cora for her insolence. Magua and Uncas also die in an ensuing fight after Cora’s death. A long funeral scene follows this battle, in which Uncas and Cora are buried and mourned in a Delaware ceremony (although Gamut also sings Christian hymns at Cora’s graveside. There is some talk among the Delaware women that Cora and Uncas may be married in the afterlife.
Notes & Quotes
I was repeatedly reminded of William Bradford’s description of the initial encounter between the early Puritan settlers and the American Indians in his Of Plymouth Plantation. In this text, he describes the first sign of the American Indians’ presence as “a hideous and great cry” coming from the woods (I.10). Throughout Mohicans, American Indians are announced through screams, cries, and shouts emanating from the forest. Sometimes, it is difficult for the main characters to differentiate between animal and Indian cries, such as when Heyward and the escort team believe that a shriek they repeatedly hear must be a horse crying out (Chapter 6). This is similar to Bradford’s description of the cries as sounding like something belonging to “a company of wolves or such like wild beasts.”
…a cry, that seemed neither human nor earthly, rose in the outward air, penetrating not only the recesses of the cavern, but to the inmost hearts of all who heard it. (74)
…the air continued full of horrible cries and screams, such as man alone can utter, and only when in a state of the fiercest barbarity. (114)
…paused until the forest beneath them had sent up the last echo of a loud and long yell…His voice was no longer audible in the burst of rage which now broke into the air, as if the wood, instead of containing so small a band, was filled with the nation. (146-7)
While his lips were yet in the act of parting, a low but fearful sound arose from the forest, and was immediately succeeded by a high, shrill yell, that was drawn out, until it equalled the longest and most plaintive howl of the wolf… At the same moment,the warriors glided in a body from the lodge, and the outer air was filled with loud shouts, that nearly drowned those awful sounds, which were still ringing beneath the arches of the woods. (342-3).
- I was also interested in the focus devoted to American Indian eating habits, which seemed to take on a gothic tone. It also feels like this description of American Indian eating habits is meant to connect them to the practice of cannibalism. Of course, this sort of eating is only directly attached to Magua and the Hurons, and not Hawkeye and his Mohican comrades.
Without any aid from the science of cookery, he was immediately employed, in common with his fellows, in gorging himself with this digestible sustenance. Magua alone sat apart, without participation in the revolting meal, and apparently buried in the deepest thought. (137) When Magua reached the cluster of lolling savages who, gorged with their disgusting meal, lay stretched on the earth in brutal indulgence… (145)But everything is raw, for the Iroquois are thorough savages. (166)
- We can compare this to the “good” eating habits of the Hawkeye & co., described here:
A very summary process completed the simple cookery, when he and the Mohicans commenced their humble meal, with the silence and characteristic diligence of men who ate in order to enable themselves to endure great and unremitting toil. (171)
- Near the end of the novel, Magua describes the differences between the Anglo-American settlers and the American Indians in how they treat the natural environment. I am particularly interested in the Magua’s figuration of the white man as rabid consumer:
Some He made with faces paler than the ermine of the forests; and these He ordered to be traders; dogs to their women, and wolves to their slaves. He gave this people the nature of the pigeon: wings that never tire, young, more plentiful than the leaves on the trees, and appetites to devour the earth… his cunning tells him how to get together the goods of the earth; and his arms inclose the land from the shores of the salt-water to the islands of the great lake. His gluttony makes him sick. God gave him enough, and yet he wants all. Such are the pale faces. (442)
- Although I didn’t notice any presence of the belief in degeneration due to time spent in the forest, I did find that Hawkeye expresses the opinion that his time in the wild has led him to become more wise and experienced than his white counterparts.
“If advice from one who is not older than yourself, but who having lived most of his time in the wilderness, may be said to have experience beyond his years, will give no offense, you are welcome to my thoughts…” (160)
- He admits that he has not spent much time with books, but this loss is nothing to him because he instead reads the forest. This is also reminiscent of the Puritans, though in a much different way. The Puritans of coursed viewed the Bible as the most important text, however, they also viewed nature as a text written by God that could be potentially read by those who knew how. Hawkeye, however, completely throws away the Bible and instead only reads and studies nature:
“…I never read but in one, and the words that are written there are too simple and too plain to need much schooling; though I may boast that of forty long and hard-working years.” “What call you this volume?” said David, misconceiving the other’s meaning. “‘Tis open before your eyes,” returned the scout, “… I have heard it said that there are men who read in books to convince themselves there is a God. I know not but man may so deform his works in the settlement, as to leave that which is so clear in the wilderness a matter of doubt among traders and priests…” (163)
- During Cora’s and Uncas’s funeral, a group of female Delawares speak to Uncas to tell him to “have consideration for her ignorance of those arts which were so necessary to the comfort of a warrior like himself” (504) and letter tell Cora “to be attentive to the wants of her companion” and to not be afraid of the “blessed hunting-grounds of the Lenape,” which they promise to be just as good as the “heaven of the pale-faces” (505). There is a moment in the beginning of the novel when Uncas and Cora share a meaningful look, however, the rest of the novel refuses their pairing together until their deaths. It is only death that two people of two different races can marry, and even then, Hawkeye shares that he is thankful that Munro, Heyward, and Alice cannot understand what the Delaware women are saying. This reminded me a lot of Necro Citizenship in that it is only through their deaths that they can come together. This is especially the case if we accept that Cooper sought to create a microcosm of the American population through this assortment of characters. Heyward and Alice marry, however, I think that the true American couple is Cora and Uncas.