LITR 5535, American Romanticism, UHCL
Assignments for Last of the Mohicans (1826)
Note on reading: The Last of the Mohicans is not only a "classic" but also was the United States's first international bestseller of a novel, which means that it has always been a very popular book that average educated people can read. Don’t disgrace your intelligence by resorting to Cliff's Notes or other such consumer-trash. They "dumb down" everything. Many students have trouble getting started, but when they get the hang of Cooper’s prose they find they’ve stretched their reading abilities, and he writes great action even as he deals with major intellectual and social problems that we are still working out.
Problem of Names. Cooper writes in his preface
to Mohicans, "The greatest
difficulty with which the student of Indian history has to contend, is the
utter confusion that pervades the names."
Correspondingly, the greatest difficulty for a first-time reader of
this text is how many ways Cooper can
refer to a single character. Here
are some different names that can apply to a single character--but don't be
surprised if some are left out.
Leatherstocking, Long Rifle, La Longue Carabine, Natty Bumppo, the scout
the Great Snake, Le Gros Serpent
The Bounding Elk, Le Cerf Agile
Munro, the dark one
Munro, the fair one
the Cunning Fox, Le Renard Subtil
Gamut, the psalmist, identified by his pitch-pipe;
associated with the Biblical David, esp. when he trades his musical instrument
for weapons like rocks. Compare to Ichabod Crane.
Tamenund, a historical Indian leader (a Delaware?), after whom "Tammany Hall" in New York politics was named.
Genre of The Last of the Mohicans
"historical novel"--the novel is set in the location and time of a famous, decisive, or dramatic event or movement in history. For instance, Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities and Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask are set primarily in Paris during the French Revolution.
"historical romance"--usually the same, but "romance" often means that the plot is more highly adventurous and amorous, and that the historical reality fades in importance relative to the romance.
Characterization: usually the leading characters are fictional, while fringe or background characters are recognizable from history. For instance, in Last of the Mohicans:
completely fictional characters: Cora Munro, Alice Munro, Duncan Heyward, Magua, Hawkeye, Chingachgook,
Time written: 1826 (early Romantic period, a generation after American Independence)
Time set: 1750s, during the French and Indian War, the major American conflict before the War for Independence in the 1770s.
of setting: mostly Northern New York State, near the Great Lakes
home of the Baseball Hall of Fame
(Cooperstown is named for the author Cooper's father, William Cooper, a Revolutionary War soldier who received the land as a grant for service.)
Last of the Mohicans
of New York, including Lakes George & Champlain
of colonies in early America
River School of Painting
(Major school of American Romantic Painting, originally set around Hudson River in upstate New York, setting for Irving's and Cooper's tales)
Cole’s paintings from Last of the Mohicans
Last of the Mohicans
Leatherstocking Tales, vol. 1
Tales, vol. 2
Sleepy Hollow in contemporary oil series
Indian groups, French & English alliances, and historical setting
Two main Indian language / culture groups in the eastern Woodlands of North America: the Algonquians and the Iroquois.
Chingachgook's and Uncas's tribe is the Lenni Lenape, a.k.a. the Delawares (from modern-day Delaware and Pennsylvania), but ultimately they derive from the Mohegans or Mohicans who earlier lived near (and cooperated with) the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. In Cooper’s view, these are “good Indians” who get along with the British without giving up their Indian ways. All of these Indians are Algonquians, the large language group along the Atlantic coast.
(Pocahontas was an Algonquian, for instance. Plus there really was a historic Indian leader named “Uncas” who formed alliances with the Pilgrims in the 1600s but refused to convert to Christianity or to allow missionaries to visit his tribe. See pp. 332-33 in The Heath Anthology. Near the end of Last of the Mohicans, which is set in the 1760s, when the very old Indian leader named Tamenund hears our Uncas’s voice, he thinks that the earlier Uncas has returned and that the old Indians live again.)
Magua is a Huron, but he has been expelled from his tribe and now runs with the Mohawks, Mingos, or Macuas, who are all associated with the Iroquois language group that live around the Great Lakes of North America. In Cooper’s view, these are “bad Indians” because they’re helping the French, though by the end of the book some of the “good” English-loving Algonquians are allied with the “bad” French-loving Iroquois—Cooper comments several times how the white conquerors have confused the Indians’ relationships.
The historical setting of all this conflict over whether the Indians join up with the French or the English is, of course, the “French and Indian War,” which took place in North America about 20 years before the American Revolution. So Cooper’s novel is set about two generations before his own time, but it’s dealing with issues that are still with the United States after the American Revolution.
of The Last of the Mohicans
The movie titled The Last of the Mohicans that appeared in 1992 had good-looking actors, the Indian activist Russell Banks as Chingachgook, some well-realized historical settings, and some stirring music.
Be aware, though, that the movie is only indirectly based on Cooper’s novel. In fact, if you look at the credits to the 1992 movie, they acknowledge that its screenplay is based on the screenplay for a 1936 movie, also titled The Last of the Mohicans, which was written by John Philip Dunne.
In both of these movies Hawkeye is changed from a middle-aged man with no romantic interest in the ladies, to a young heart-throb in love with Cora. In the process, the title character, Uncas, “the last of the Mohicans,” is moved off center-stage, and the interest of his relationship with Cora (see below) is lost. Instead, in the 1936 and 1992 movies Uncas is reduced to a teenage hunk and paired off with Alice, who in the book belongs with Duncan Heyward. The character of David Gamut disappears from these movies, though he’s no great loss compared to the lost opportunity—even in the 90s!--of pairing the Indian Uncas with the mixed-blood Cora.
The film version of Last of the Mohicans that is most faithful to the original novel is a silent film from the 1920s that retains the original Uncas-Cora pairing and keeps Hawkeye the same age as Chingachgook.
Cora, Gender, and the American Gothic Secret
Cora is the most interesting voice or figure in Last of the Mohicans, despite many readers' dismissal of Cooper as a sexist or macho author. Cora's sister Alice is a "damsel in distress," but Cora, by reasons of birth and Euro-American ideology, can't fit into that category. Pay close attention to chapter 16, where Cora's mixed background is indicated (however allusively and indirectly).
If the romance involves crossing borders, borders have already been crossed in Cora's past. As a romantic heroine, she continues to cross boundaries in terms of the expectations of her gender. Yet she also upholds some values traditionally associated with feminine gender.
Cooper's Alternative (Tragic) Narrative of American Race Relations
Given the antagonism, separatism, violence, and unequal power relations that the Captivity and Slave Narratives represent, it's important to observe that Cooper outlines, however vaguely, an alternative vision of American race relations. The relationship between Uncas and Cora is so subtle or understated that some readers deny that it's even there, but the possibility of an amorous relationship between an American Indian man and a European/African-American like Cora cannot be ignored. It suggests an alternative to the standard American ideology, in which the races are pure, permanent, and separate, despite the fact that a great deal of racial crossing or mixing has always occurred. (However, Cooper kills off the possibility.)
The Wilderness Gothic
In the traditional European gothic romance, an ancient house or castle is the dark site of certain wrongs or sins that have been committed in the past. A newcomer to the house often stirs up these ghosts, which often arise from past disputes about ownership or lineage.
When Cora and Alice enter the forest, they are like the heroine entering the haunted castle--spirits of lust and revenge are excited, most explicitly among the American Indians, particularly Magua.
As in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the natural landscape assumes the gothic functions of the castle, especially in terms of secret hiding places and places where blood has been spilled.
Also, the value-laden gothic symbols of light and dark as good and evil are
also complicated by Cooper's exploration of the light and dark of American race
Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas as Romantic Knights of the Forest
These guys are like the knights of the medieval romance, amusing themselves by hunting until an opportunity comes along to help ladies in distress. Pay attention, however, to the ways Cora both inspires and controls their knightly impulses and restores some common sense. Duncan Heyward also appears as a knight, at least in a dream. In any case, he’s “an officer and a gentleman,” to connect to a later-day romance.
+ "Captivity Narrative"
Last of the Mohicans (the novel and the movies) uses a romance narrative, which can be recognized through all the quests, captivities, pursuits, and rescues--much like a medieval romance of knights and adventurers, or like Star Wars now. Most interesting for American literary history, Cooper combines this old-fashioned European romance with a home-grown American genre: the “captivity narrative,” in which a white person (frequently a woman) is captured by—and must be rescued from—the Indians.
Captivity narratives are one of the first and most popular American genres of literature. Hundreds of factual and semi-fictional captivity narratives were written before Last of the Mohicans--note, in our anthology, the captivity narratives of Mary White Rowlandson (p. 340) and John Williams (449), and many of you already know (at least through the Disney movie) of the captivity of John Smith by Pocahontas's father Powhatan (pp. 184, 186). More recently, movies like The Searchers, Little Big Man, and Dances with Wolves fit this category.
Captivity narratives (and their allied form, the slave narrative) are considered one of America's unique contributions to world literary genres, but notice how easily it fits into the dynamics of romance, both material and spiritual: a human is restrained or imprisoned but yearns to break such barriers; or, from the outside, such a person must be "saved."
In fact, Last of the Mohicans contains two captivity narratives, one after the episode at Glenns Falls, the other after the fall of Fort William Henry.