The Last of the Mohicans (The Leatherstocking Tales #2)

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The Last of the Mohicans (The Leatherstocking Tales #2)

Note: I’ve just edited this review slightly to correct a chronological typo. When I read this book the first time, I was nine, not seven years old –I knew, when I wrote the first draft of this review, that I was in 4th grade the first time, so I don’t know what I was thinking when I typed “seven!”

This novel, set in northern New York in 1757 and involving wilderness adventure and combat during the French and Indian War, was my first introduction to Cooper; the dates given here were for the second reading, but the first was back when I was nine years old. (Newly transferred to parochial school, I stumbled on it in what passed for a school library: two shelves of donated books.) I didn’t mind the style (I was a weird kid), and it actually had a lot to appeal to a boy reader: Indians, gunfights and knife fights on land and water, chases, captures, escapes, and the appeal of some actual history thrown in. It left me with a solid liking for Cooper, and interest in reading more by him (though I’ve only scratched the surface there).

Like most early 19th-century authors, Cooper’s popularity suffers with modern readers because of his diction; and the literary/critical set have been particularly hostile to him, starting with the Realist period with its root-and-branch condemnation of Romanticism and all its works. Mark Twain launched the attack with a hatchet job titled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (see below), and in the next generation, Charles Neider’s verdict was snide and disparaging. The probability that Twain was motivated by professional jealousy as much as anything else, and the fact that Neider was a Washington Irving partisan who saw Cooper as dangerous competition for the highest laurels, don’t seem to have discouraged today’s critics from taking their assessments as the last word in Cooper criticism; indeed, they pile on the added condemnation that he held incorrect political views, which, for today’s critical clerisy, is enough to damn a writer to eternal literary-critical hell. (As a high-school student, I recall watching Clifton Fadiman, the favorite 16mm talking head of English classes of that day, sneering at this book as a “dead classic” –which, having actually read it, confirmed my opinion of Fadiman’s critical incompetence. 🙂 ) Interestingly, that wasn’t the view of Cooper’s contemporaries; he was not only very popular with readers in the U.S., but was one of the few pre-1865 American writers to have a literary reputation abroad. Balzac was a fan, going so far as to say of him that “had his characterizations been sharper, he would have been the master novelist of us all.” He continued to earn high praise even from several serious literary pundits in Twain’s day (and that worthy’s flip assertion that none of these men had actually read Cooper is a fair sample of Twain’s substitution of ridicule and sarcasm for reasonable discussion).

My own assessment of Cooper, and of this work in particular, isn’t uncritical. There’s no denying that his prose style, even by the standards of his day, is particularly dense, wordy and florid. This is especially notable in much of his dialogue. Even granting that in 1757 upper and middle-class speech tended to be more formal than ours, it’s difficult to imagine anyone speaking in as orotund a manner as most of the characters here, especially in some of these contexts. (In fairness to Cooper, though, it’s not true that none of his characters have speaking patterns that are distinct and reasonably reflect who they are; and David Gamut, the character with, IMO, the most ridiculously fulsome speech, is to a degree intended as comic relief.) His plotting doesn’t hold up as well to a read by a 59-year-old as by a nine-year-old kid; some of the character’s decisions are foolhardy, and there are plot points that strike me as improbable (though not the ones that Twain cites). While I don’t necessarily mind authorial intrusion in the narrative, he uses it here a bit too much. And this edition could also have benefited from the inclusion of a map.

For all that, though, the positives for me outweighed the negatives. He delivers an adventure yarn that’s pretty well-paced, absorbing and suspenseful. The characters are clearly-drawn, distinct, realistic, round, and complex, and evoke real reader reactions. Actual history is incorporated into the narrative in a seamless way. The portrayal of Indians and Indian culture, while not the treatment of them as blandly homogenized, gentle New Agers that modern monolithic “multiculturalism” would prescribe, is basically a realistic one that derived partly from first-hand contacts, and more knowledgeable than most white literary treatments would have been. While he sometimes refers to them as “savages,” –and it’s fair to note that they are people who, in real life, at times DID torture captives and kill noncombatants– he doesn’t demonize them or make them out to be stupid, unfeeling brutes. Like whites, individuals can be villains, like Magua, but other individuals can be very good; title character Uncas is portrayed as an admirable embodiment of masculine virtues, and the author actually contrasts Indian culture with Anglo-European culture to the disadvantage of the latter in several places.

Critics of Romantic school action-adventure fiction tend to deny that it has any serious messages (partly because they don’t want to see messages they don’t like, or recognize serious thought in a despised source), but they’re present here nevertheless, and related to the above. Moral qualities such as courage, honor, loyalty, kindness and self-sacrifice, generosity, and love for family and friends are both praised and presented by favorable example, while the opposite qualities are disparaged. And there’s a serious call to the reader to discard prejudiced ways of looking at people of other races/cultures. It’s no accident that Uncas, an Indian depicted at a time when many people despised Indians, is the title character and real hero of the book, and that Cora, the strongest female character and Cooper’s clear favorite, is also the one with some Negro descent on her mother’s side. (In this respect, the racial attitudes here, IMO, show an advance in enlightenment on the part of the maturing Cooper that isn’t evident in earlier works like The Spy and The Pioneers, the two other Cooper novels I’ve read.) There’s even a hint that for Cooper, the idea of interracial romance isn’t a complete taboo, though the presentation is subtle. True, Hawkeye, who obviously carries some emotional baggage from being disparaged by other whites for his Indian associations, stresses his un-crossed bloodlines with no Indian “taint,” and won’t consider the idea of intermarriage (though his bond with his Indian friends is subversive of his culturally-conditioned racism). But to automatically assume, as some readers do, that Hawkeye must always speak for Cooper is, I think, a mistake. He is who he is, warts and all, and that includes being opinionated and fallible (it’s not likely, for instance, that his disdain for books and literacy was shared by an author who was a professional writer!). Cooper was a strong Christian, and this book has several naturally-integrated references to religious faith and prayer, as well as a couple of short discussions of religious belief. The type of Christian belief Cooper finds congenial comes across as one that’s not doctrinally dogmatic and narrow (as opposed to Gamut’s Calvinism), and not judgmental in consigning others to hellfire and damnation. (When Hawkeye refuses to translate Colonel Munro’s statement, “Tell them, 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, rank, or color,” this reader perceived Munro, not Hawkeye, as speaking for the author!)

A major factor in my rating was the ending. (view spoiler)[At the climax, the two most positive characters in the book are killed. This accords with the Romantic penchant for tragedy, which I don’t share as strongly; I much prefer happy endings. But the ending here, while I didn’t like it, does seem to have an inherently fated quality that grows naturally out of the arc of the story. (hide spoiler)] At the same time, the last chapter is one of the most emotionally rich, evocative passages in American letters; on re-reading it, I raised my rating by a star.

Since Twain based most of his attacks on Cooper on The Deerslayer (which I want to read eventually), it seems better to respond to his essay in detail whenever I review that book. But where he makes general or specific criticisms that apply to this book, it’s appropriate to mention those here. First, as to Cooper overusing the device of a twig breaking and alerting someone to movement, on this reading I looked particularly for that. It occurs once, in a 423-page book. Second, Twain does NOT establish that it’s impossible, in a fog, to backtrack the trail of a spent cannonball that, by his own admission, would skip and roll over damp ground, leaving marks; he establishes that it would be quite difficult –in other words, the sort of thing heroes or heroines in action fiction often do, where less capable characters wouldn’t be able to. And third, if it’s an iron-clad law of nature that every mark in the bottom of a running stream is more or less instantly totally erased by the current, we’re at a loss to account for fossilized impressions of such marks that endured until they turned to rock. In practice, it makes a great deal of difference how deep the mark is, how mallable the bottom is, how fast the current is moving, and how much time elapsed since the mark was made. Cooper isn’t the one being unobservant on that point.

Reading this book was a cool trip down memory lane; it was amazing how much detail, and often how much exact wording, I remembered! It’s definitely re-whetted my appetite to read more of his work (one of these years!). Of course, there are a lot of physical to-read piles in my office to be hacked through, or at least reduced, first….

The Last of the Mohicans (The Leatherstocking Tales #2)

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