[13 March 2011]
Although Natty ‘Hawk-eye’ Bumppo is the hero of The Last of the Mohicans—as much as anyone can be—he is not the title character. That honour belongs to the son of his Indian companion, Hawkeye, and as the paleface ‘Yangees’ battle for control of the ancient hunting grounds in upper New York state, it becomes clear that it’s not actually all that much of an honour. The title refers much more to the novel’s point, than any character.
(Also, yes, this is where ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce of M*A*S*H got the nickname. Fans of the sitcom may find familiarly congenial company in Cooper’s resourceful, wisecracking, principled yet unpretentious Indian scout, who proved so popular with contemporary audiences that he eventually starred in four books besides this one.)
Nearly 200 years on, the tale of The Last of the Mohicans is still a part of the American consciousness—much more than any simple adventure story has the right to be. It was written mostly as a source of income, and based around not much more than the author’s fascination with both his native scenery and the (not inconsiderable) history that had taken place in and around it. History that had, as it happened, heavily involved the Native tribes of the area.
While back then it was not considered good form to approve of Indians, there was nothing standing in the way of fascination with them—that great, if frequently patronising, interest that ‘civilised’ society has always taken in the Unknown, and Cooper took great interest in the Natives. Modern readers quickly recognize unexpected pleasures of 19th-century Western literature; there may be racial prejudices, but there are few racial clichés. Cooper’s grasp of Native sociology may fall short of the political correctness required today—and his formal, ornate writing style certainly doesn’t help—but he was trying to get it right.
This, as Wayne Frankin notes in his excellent (if rather brief) introduction, was the tipping-point that created an American classic out of a dime novel plot: somewhere along the line authorial interest in accuracy became real sympathy, a desire to educate those currently engaged on the ‘Indian question’ as well as entertain with tales of the past.
From there Cooper took the extraordinary step of assigning the ‘heathen savages’ a ‘cultural logic’, a credibility unique among the literature of the time. The white characters may believe that the superiority of their presumed moral and spiritual positions are a given, but Cooper at least allows some debate to take place. This running discussion becomes the heart of The Last of the Mohicans, and it blurs and twists as circumstances reveal different facets of human nature, both Native and Pilgrim. The conflict is embodied within Hawk-eye, the ‘man without a cross’, a sort of synthesis of both sides’ points of view. Thus, the further Cooper’s characters penetrate into the wilderness under his guidance, away from the societal absolutes they have come to rely on, the wider grows the scope of their story.
Modern readers will be amazed and amused to discover that all this sensitivity springs from very modern action clichés: the larger-than-life hero, his ‘exotic’ sidekick(s), the straitlaced authority figure who must learn to work with the exuberant life force that is Our Hero, the klutzy comic relief who insists on conventionality in the middle of the most ridiculous situations… and of course, the beautiful females whose safety propels the entire plot, even in the midst of literally world-shattering crises. (Another 19th-century constant: Indians may get a crack at nobility, but the inherent fragility of females is holy ground.)
From a sheer readability standpoint, this is not an easy book by any means. The tight, fast-moving plot is repeatedly undercut by the formal language; e.g., people don’t have faces, they have ‘lineaments’, but it’s worth the effort, both for one’s pleasure and education.