The Last of the Mohicans
James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans in 1826. The quotes I will use from the book are from the Penguin Popular Classics 1994 edition, N.Y. Cooper was born in 1789, not long after America became a democracy and also not long after the events of the book took place. The setting of his book is the French and Indian siege of Fort William Henry in 1757.
Although the book is now more than 175 years old, it is interesting how “modern” are many of the basic concepts of the book. The civilized Mohicans are more impressive than any of the whites in the book. Yes, the greatest villain of the book is Magua the vicious and vengeful Indian. But keep in mind that the reason he is this way is due the foul treatment he has received at the hands of the white men. The bravest, wisest, most impressive two characters in the novel are the two Mohicans. “The Mohicans were the possessors of the country first occupied by the Europeans in this portion of the continent. They were, consequently, the first dispossessed” (p. vii).
Cooper “…helped shape American literature. His stories, which are often set in isolated places with solitary men as their heroes, helped to instill a sense of history to the foundling nation…Cooper grew up on a 40,000-acre tract of land in upper New York State. His father, a congressman, judge, and close acquaintance to George Washington, was an important and influential man. Judge Cooper had, in the 1780s, led a group of settlers to the area later to be known as Cooperstown and was well-liked and respected for his help and financial fairness. His services to the nation did not, however, prevent him from being struck on the back of the head after leaving a political meeting in Albany, and he died shortly after. James Fenimore Copper, the twelfth child in this family of thirteen, was educated for a time at Yale until a series of pranks got him expelled when he was sixteen. In 1805 he joined a merchant ship bound for Europe and after obtaining his midshipman’s warrant served with the US Navy until 1810. His resignation following his father’s death and his decision to marry Susan De Lancey led to his return to help run the family estate. The depression following the war of 1812 made land unsaleable, and for over a decade Cooper struggled to keep his inheritance, support his fast-growing family and look after the wives and families of his five debt-laden brothers, all of whom died before 1821. During this time he became involved in a number of projects: farming, investing in a frontier store, buying a whaleship, founding agricultural societies, serving in the state militia and drawing New York literati together to form a lively social club. While this made him a very prominent figure, it did not make him prosperous. In 1820 he plunged into a literary career when his wife challenged his claim that he could write a better book than the English novel he was reading to her” (pp. i-ii). The book we are going to look at was the fifth in a series of books that Cooper wrote.
The three principal heroes of this novel are Hawk-eye (a 40 year-old white man), and his two friends and companions, Uncas and Chingachgook, two chiefs of the Mohicans. They are the last two members of their tribe.
Major Heywood is escorting Alice and Cora Munro to their father, General Munro, at Fort William Henry. They are joined by David a singing teacher. Heywood is led astray by the Huron Magua and rescued by Hawk-eye and the two Mohicans. They hide in a cave surrounded by waterfalls and engage the Hurons in a long battle. All of this part of the book takes up the first 100 pages of this 400 page book. When they run out of ammunition and know they cannot continue to drive off the Hurons, Hawk-eye and the two Mohicans jump into the water and escape---but only after Cora pleads with them to do so. The Hurons take their prisoners but Hawk-eye and the two Mohicans follow them and rescue them all killing all the Hurons except for Magua who escapes. Eventually they get to Fort William Henry but it is under siege by the French and their Indian allies including Magua. The English General that occupies a nearbye fort refuses to come to their rescue so they surrender under honorable terms and are allowed to march out of the fort to go home. However, the Indians attack the men, women and children that have left the fort killing hundreds and once again taking Alice, Cora, and the singing teacher as prisoners.
This time General Munro joins the search for his daughters along with Hawk-eye, Uncas, Chingachgook and Major Duncan Heywood. (Earlier in the Fort the Major has told the father that he loves and wants to marry Alice, the younger of the two daughters. At no time in the novel does it appear that Hawk-eye has any love interest in either of the daughters.
Cora has been placed in the camp of the Delawares and Alice in the camp of the Hurons. In disguise, the Major enters the camp of the Huron’s only to be captured. Uncas is also captured. Then Hawk-eye, disguised in the skin of a bear, rescues Alice and the Major.
After telling them to find refuge with the Delawares, Hawk-eye returns to the camp of the Huron and frees Uncas.
So now Uncas, the Major, Hawk-eye, and the two daughters are all in the camp of the Delaware. (General Munro and Chingachgook are hiding out in the forest.) Magua comes to the Delaware camp and demands that they give him back his prisoners. It begins to look bad for them when it is revealed that Uncas, a Mohican which is a tribe within the general tribes of the Delawares, is a chief so that Magua is only allowed to take Cora with him.
After his departure a major battle between the Delaware and the Huron takes place and the Delaware under the leadership of Uncas win the battle---but once again Magua escapes with Cora. Hawk-eye, the Major, and Uncas go after him and in the struggle Magua kills Uncas, Hawk-eye kills Magua, and Cora is killed by one of Magua’s men.
The bodies are ceremoniously buried and the Major, General Munro, David the singing instructor and Alice return to “civilization” while Hawk-eye and Chingachgook return to their life in the forest. Thus the novel ends.
In the novel Cooper makes it fairly clear that the best humans were the two Indians, the two last Mohicans. Yes, other Indians like Magua, could be evil. However, that is not the primary message of the book. Cooper sets the book during a time of war. “It was in this scene of strife and bloodshed that the incidents we shall attempt to relate occurred, during the third year of the war which England and France last waged for the possession of a country that neither was destined to retain” (p. 13). In pointing out this obvious historic fact, Cooper is letting the reader know of the futility of war. The main theme is one of civilization versus nature---and Cooper clearly comes down in favor of nature.
Although some might like to see the book in terms of battles and love interests, neither of those are the driving force of the novel. They are but the implements Cooper uses to keep your attention while he tries to impart more momentous theories.
For Cooper, it is the corrupting influences of civilization that most concerns him. Cooper has Hawk-eye state that: “My people have many ways, of which, as an honest man, I can’t approve. It is one of their customs to write in books what they have done and seen, instead of telling them in their villages, where the lie can be given to the face of a cowardly boaster” (p. 35).
It is nature that is the great and honest teacher of life and of God. Hawk-eye once again becomes the voice of Cooper when he proclaims that: “Book! What have such as I, who am a warrior of the wilderness, though a man without a cross, to do with books? 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” (p. 138).
(By saying he is a “man without a cross, he is proclaiming that he is not a Christian. Since he admits to having read one book, David wants to know which book that is?)
“’Tis open before your eyes,” returned the scout; “and he who owns it is not a niggard of its use. I have heard it said that there are men who read in books to convince themselves there is a God” (p. 138). Cooper is proclaiming that the greatest evidence of God is nature, unspoiled by civilization.
Later in the novel he has Hawk-eye state that: “I have heard preachers say that Heaven was a place of rest. For myself…it would be no great indulgence to be kept shut up in those mansions of which they preach, having a natural longing for motion and the chase” (p. 227). In short, he is already living a life that is superior to Heaven, a life in the wilderness, unspoiled by civilization.
In the final pages of the novel, with Cora having just received a beautiful funeral from the Delaware Indians, her father states as a way of thanking the Indians that: “…the Being we all worship, under different names, will be mindful of their charity; and that the time shall not be distant when we may assemble around his throne without distinction of sex, or rank, or color” (p. 411).
The differences between the original novel and the movie and how might you use the lessons of the movie and the book:
After watching the movie and reading my notes from the novel, you should be asking yourself: Why did they change the novel when they wrote the screenplay? Did they make the movie better by their changes? Or did they lose some of the deeper meanings that Cooper put into his novel?
Which of the characters in the movie did you identify with?
Most importantly, what did you take away from the movie that you would want to use in your own personal life? Since the movie can be seen as a battle cry for ecologists, will you now be more sensitive about the destruction of nature that continues to rage on to this day? If your answer is yes, then how will you go about changing your personal behavior to be more consistent with such a belief?
What is it about today’s civilization that most degrades your ability to live a more natural life?
Do you agree with the General’s statement about religion and if you do what can you do to behave accordingly? If not, why not? Isn’t this a major source of the “civilization” that causes the destruction of nature and of millions of human beings?