torsdag den 22. februar 2024

The Last of the Mohicans - James Fenimore Cooper (1826)


The Last of the Mohicans

One of the most famous early American novels, “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper, helped paint a picture of the frontier that has lasted through the centuries. Although a contemporary audience typically will associate the American frontier with the prairie or the sunbaked southwest, there was a time before where the frontier was in the woods of New England.

Fort William Henry on the southern edge of Lake George in what is today the state of New York, is the host of a British detachment under the command of Colonel Munro. It is the year 1757 and the British and the French are at war. Rumor has it that the French are approaching with what may be superior numbers. At this very moment Munro’s daughters, Cora and Alice decide to pay their father a visit. Cora and Alice are escorted by Major Heyward and a singing master David Gamut. Their guide is an Indian named Magua.

On their way to Fort William Henry, they encounter the band of Hawkeye, the scout and the Mohicans Chingachgook and Uncas, father and son. They see Magua is up to something and takes control of the party. True enough, before long they are besieged by Magua and a band of Huron Indians, aligned with the French. Cora, Alice, Heyward and Gamut fall into the hands of Magua, but are eventually freed by the Hawkeye’s band just as the ritual torture was about to start.

Although the band arrives safely at Fort William Henry, the peace is short lived. The fort is attacked by the French and their Huron allies. Badly outnumbered and outgunned Munro is forced to surrender. Although granted free passage, the Hurons fall onto the train and massacres the women and the infirm. Cora and Alice are again captured by Magua. He is leading them north to his own tribe with sinister plans for the girls. Tracking him a few days behind, Hawkeye, Chingachgook, Uncas, Heyward and Munro must catch up with Magua if they want to see the girls alive.

I read “The Last of the Mohicans” as a child and although I remember liking it, I quickly realized I had forgotten everything else. Poor memory is sometimes a blessing and it felt like a first read.

When “The Last of the Mohicans” is good, it is really good. This is especially the case in the chase scenes, whether the band is chasing Magua or being chased. There is a fast pace to these scenes and a level of detail just enough to keep me riveted and being able to visualize the chase. The chase across Lake George stands out in particular. Cooper was a good action writer.

Cooper is also good at writing on the wilderness itself. You get the feeling he has seen these places and has some experience with outback life, if not life on the Frontier itself. The skills of Hawkeye and the Mohicans are described in convincing detail, and I can imagine generations going out into the forest to emulate Chingachgook and Uncas with the book as their guide.

Cooper obviously have a lot of respect for the Native Americans, their skills and their culture and he deserves a lot of credit for that, yet he is also a product of his own time where racial differences were a very real and insurmountable barrier between people. The Indians are frequently called savages and not just the Hurons and you can hear the regret that these are just Indians and thus cut off from being something better. Hawkeye for all his praise and respect for his Indian friends must mention in every second sentence that he is a man without a cross, meaning pure white origin as if that somehow makes him a better person.

It is such a pity that Cooper does not dare to bridge the gulf. There may be some adherence here to the actual separation, also in the period of the narrative, but I sense that Cooper wants to bridge it. There is a budding romance between Uncas and Cora that would have been beautiful if it had been allowed to unfold, but Cooped seems afraid to go that far. Cooper also laments the fate and plight of the Indians, besieged and forced to make way for the whit people as they are. He places word in the mouth of some of the Indians that demonstrates his understanding, but he does not finish the step. Their fate is lamentable but it is just too bad, he seems to think.

The real problem with “The Last of the Mohicans” however is in the plot. As others before me have pointed out, Cora and Alice’ visit to their father is hopelessly unmotivated and ill-timed, but without it, there would be no story. The same with the singing master Gamut, his presence is unexplained, and he has not function but comic relief except he is not funny at all. While these may be the most glaring plot holes, there are numerous decisions and actions throughout the story that feel contrived or unmotivated but the only thing I can do as a reader is to just to accept and flow with it.

If you take into account that Cooper was not a modern writer, nor a contemporary writer of the times he writes about, he did do an amazing job with “The Last of the Mohicans” and the millions of readers worldwide are testament to that. Wikipedia lists 11 different movie or serial versions of the story in a addition to a number of German versions of the story! I am dying to see Bela Lugosi as Chingachgook in Der Letzte Mohikaner from 1920!


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