James Fenimore Cooper (1789 –1851) was the first major novelist of the 19th century. A prolific author, he wrote the first espionage novel (The Spy), along with sea stories, and a series of novels about the early American frontier known collectively as the Leatherstocking Tales; the second in the series, The Last of the Mohicans, is considered Cooper’s masterpiece.
I had never read Cooper, put off I suppose by Mark Twain’s description of his “literary offenses” in a famous article. But I was intrigued by things I’ve read lately, particularly that the hero of the Tales, Natty Bumppo, was the prototypical America hero, the forerunner to Huck Finn, The Continental Op, Philip Marlowe, and so many others. Besides, I was looking for some pure escapist fare and Mohicans, I thought, would hit the spot.
It was perfect. I read The Last of the Mohicans quickly and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Written in 1826 and set in the 1750’s when England and France were at war on American soil, the plot is basically about Bumppo, a frontier scout, rescuing the two daughters of a British commander from renegade Indians.
One thing I have always had difficulty with in novels from this period is the discursiveness. Perhaps the most famous of these is Les Misérables where Hugo goes into long asides about politics, religion, The Battle of Waterloo, and the Paris sewer system. I understand why authors did that. Readers in that age knew very little about the world beyond their visual horizon. They did not have a modern education system, or cable with so many channels devoted to learning and discovery. Readers probably expected to learn as well as be entertained. Today, we have little patience for that. We want action, movement. Fenimore has his own excursions and in this book, they’re short and pertinent to the story, about interesting Indian lore, the political and military climate of the time, and descriptions of the land around upstate New York.
Natty Bumppo was born of white parents but he grew up among the Delaware Indians. In the Tales, he is often joined by his Mohican companion Chingachgook. In each book, Bumppo is known by an ‘alias”: “Pathfinder” in The Pathfinder, “Leatherstocking” in The Pioneers,”the trapper” in The Prairie, “Hawkeye” and “La Longue Carabine” (The Long Carbine) in The Last of the Mohicans. This latter nickname refers to his prowess with the long rifle.
In Studies in Classical American Literature D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley Lover) wrote,
“And Natty, what sort of a white man is he? Why, he is a man with a gun. He is a killer, a slayer. Patient and gentle as he is, he is a slayer. Self-effacing, self-forgetting, still he is a killer.
Twice, in the book, he brings an enemy down hurtling in death through the air, downwards. Once it is the beautiful, wicked Magua — shot from a height, and hurtling down ghastly through space, into death.
This is Natty, the white forerunner. A killer. As in Deerslayer, he shoots the bird that flies in the high, high sky so that the bird falls out of the invisible into the visible, dead, he symbolizes himself. He will bring the bird of the spirit out of the high air. He is the stoic American killer of the old great life. But he kills, as he says, only to live.”
Yes, he is a killer. He kills not out of evil, he kills because it is a job that must be done. Judging from this book and what I’ve read about the others, it seems that Natty spends a great deal of his time trying to help others. The iconic American hero, an adventurer, a man devoted to justice because for him it’s the only thing to do. To protect himself, he acts dispassionate, but inside he cares. From this we can see Philip Marlowe, James Bond, Jack Reacher, Shane, John Wayne’s character in The Searchers. So many others.
Lawrence notes that Bummpo is a moral man, but that his morality is from a practical point of view, not from philosophy. Bummpo’s motto is “Hurt nothing unless you’re forced to.”
There are some good reasons to read this American classic. It’s fun, perhaps the chief one. And never mind what Twain said. You will be so engrossed in this rousing adventure that you won’t notice any of Cooper’s alleged literary offenses.
The Last of the Mohicians – best book I’ve read in a while.