American Renaissance & American Romanticism

Guide to The Last of the Mohicans (1826) by James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)

James Fenimore Cooper, 1789-1851, author of "The Leatherstocking Tales"

Cooper was the first American writer to make a career as a professional novelist, and his "Leatherstocking Tales" were the first American books to become international bestsellers.

Cooper is a definitive American "Romantic" writer. His novels resemble those of the British Romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott (e. g., Ivanhoe), and Cooper spent a good deal of his life in Europe, where his novels were well-received.

Cooper grew up and lived much of his life in Cooperstown, New York, named for his father who founded the city and now famous as home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"The Leatherstocking Tales" are a series of five novels that are connected by two fictional characters: 

"The Leatherstocking"

a. k. a. Hawkeye, Natty Bumppo, The Scout, La Longue Carabine, The Deerslayer, The Pathfinder


a. k. a. "The Great Serpent," Le Gros Serpent, Indian John--a hereditary chief of the Mohegan or Mohican Indians who is also identified with the related Delaware Tribe



Prototype of heroic cowboy or scout in western novels and movies. Resourcefulness and gimmicks prefigure Batman, etc.
Lawrence: "a saint with a gun"--cf. Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Kevin Costner
--archetypal American hero combining: violence & innocence or honor
(cowboys as American knights)
Prototype of the American Indian as "Noble Savage": silent, inscrutable, honest, deadly, poetic in speech

Later examples: Indians in Dances with Wolves; "Go in peace, my son!"


"The Leatherstocking Tales" in order of composition

The Pioneers (1823) 
(set in the 1770-80s: Natty & Chingachgook are aging squatters near the new fictional town of Templeton, modeled after Cooperstown)

The Last of the Mohicans (1826) 
(set during the French and Indian War of 1757-. Natty and Chingachgook are in the prime of middle age. The title character--"the last of the Mohicans"--is Chingachgook's son Uncas.)

The Prairie (1827) 
(Setting is the western prairies of the early 1800s at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Chingachgook is dead, and Natty is a very old man who dies at the novel's end.)

The Pathfinder (1840) 
(Setting 1740s; Natty Bumppo as "pathfinder" in his 20s; military action and courtship in years prior to Last of the Mohicans)

The Deerslayer (1841) 
(Set near Cooperstown / Lake Otsego ["Glimmerglass"] in the 1730s. Natty and Chingachgook are young men at age of first courtship and first battles. A teenage Uncas makes a brief appearance in an epilogue to the novel.)


Guide to Last of the Mohicans

Reading Last of the Mohicans relates first to Objective 1 (LITR 4232). It appears early in the American Renaissance, and it features aspects of "classic literature," of "popular literature," and to a surprising degree of "representative literature." However, our discussions will mostly center on objectives 2 and 3.

·        Objective 2. To study the contemporaneous movement of "Romanticism," the narrative genre of "romance," and the related styles of the "gothic" and "the sublime."

·        Objective 3. To use literature as a basis for discussing representative problems and subjects of American culture (new historicism), such as equality; race, gender, class; . . . emergence of the individual; . . . nature or land . . . .

Note on reading: The Last of the Mohicans is not only a "classic" but the United States's first international bestseller of a novel--a popular book that average educated people can read.  Don’t disgrace your mind by resorting to Cliff's Notes or other consumer-trash that "dumb down" everything.  Many students have trouble getting started, but when they get the hang of Cooper’s prose they stretch their reading abilities. Cooper writes great action while dealing with major intellectual and social issues we're still working out.

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.

Hawkeye, Leatherstocking, Long Rifle, La Longue Carabine, Natty Bumppo, the scout

Chingachgook, the Great Snake, Le Gros Serpent

Uncas, The Bounding Elk, Le Cerf Agile

Cora Munro, the dark one

Alice Munro, the fair one

Magua, the Cunning Fox, Le Renard Subtil

David 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.

Mohicans = Mohegans, New England Indians who broke away from the Pequot people in the 1600s and partly befriended the English Pilgrims. Later they dispersed and made alliances with other tribes or nations such as the Delaware.

Historically, there was a real "Uncas" who led the Mohegans in their break with the Pequots in the 1600s. The fictional Uncas would have been his great-grandson (or thereabouts), since he lives at the time of the French and Indian War in 1757.

The novel's Uncas is "the last of the Mohicans," according to Chingachgook. Uncas will be the last pure-blooded Mohican because there are no pure-blooded Mohican women for him to marry.

In fact there are many Mohegans still living in New England (running, for instance, the Mohegan Sun Casino), but as with most American Indians today, most if not all are of mixed blood from a number of races or nationalities.


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--in this case, the French and Indian War that led to the American Revolution about 20 years later. Other examples of historical novels would include Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask (1847-50), both set in Paris during the French Revolution.


"historical romance"--usually the same, but "romance" often means that the plot is more adventurous and amorous, and that the historical reality fades in importance relative to the fictional adventure.

Characterization: the leading characters of a historical novel or romance are usually fictional, while fringe or background characters may be recognizable from history.

For instance, in Last of the Mohicans:

completely fictional characters: Cora Munro, Alice Munro, Duncan Heyward, Magua, Hawkeye, Chingachgook

historical characters: Montcalm, General Webb, Colonel Munro


Historical Settings:

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.

Place of setting: mostly Northern New York State, near the Great Lakes

The Last of the Mohicans and history

US Map

map of New York, including Lakes George & Champlain

map of colonies in early America


Thomas Cole’s paintings from Last of the Mohicans



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.


Movies of The Last of the Mohicans

            The movie 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 loosely 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.


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.

The Last of the Mohicans and the Leather-Stocking Tales

*Full titles for the Leather-Stocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper

The Pioneers: or The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale (1823)

The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826)

The Prairie: A Tale (1827)

The Pathfinder: or The Inland Sea (1840)

The Deerslayer: or The First War-Path (1841)


Basic Information about the Leather-Stocking Tales


Brief Title*

Year Published

Name of Leather-stocking






Time of action



The Pioneers







Natty Bumppo





“Templeton,” fictional counterpart to Cooperstown, New York State

1793, USA’s early national period



Last of the Mohicans










New York-Canadian border near Lakes Champlain & George


1757, during French and Indian War



The Prairie






the trapper




Western plains of Louisiana Purchase  near Missouri River

Early 1800s, time of Lewis & Clark Expedition

The Pathfinder




Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario; “Station Island” in “Thousand Island” area

French & Indian War, subsequent to action in Mohicans

The Deerslayer


Deerslayer > Hawkeye


Lake Otsego or “Glimmerglass” near future Cooperstown

1740-1745; pre-historic: North America as pioneers found it