In early February 1826, Carey & Lea, one of the nation’s most prominent and successful publishers, announced the publication of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. Cooper was already a best-selling author, widely hailed for presenting non-stop, exciting adventures set in the wilderness, wartime, or other bracing settings. Carey & Lea, hoping that his new book would do as well as his previous ones, had paid the author a $5,000 advance.
They were not to be disappointed. The Last of the Mohicans was an instant best-seller, reprinted many times, made into movies a number of times, and became one of the most important books in American literary history.
In fact, the book is arguably more famous than the historical event which it depicts, the French conquest of Fort William Henry in what is now Lake George, in August 1757, during the colonial wars between Britain and France.
Cooper’s novel blends historical figures with fictional ones, particularly the central character, Natty Bumppo, known as “Hawkeye” for his forest tracking and scouting skills. Bumppo was also the central character in The Pioneers (1823), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1840). In The Pioneers he had been called “Leatherstocking” and the five novels became known as the “Leatherstocking Tales.” Hawkeye/Leatherstocking became a model for future fictional American heroes – bold, brave, selfless, modest, loyal to good causes, impatient with artificial restraints, at home with freedom on the wilderness and the frontier. Leaving a friend in danger, or a job half-done, are never options. You don’t look for a fight, but you never walk away from one either.
The Last of the Mohicans was based on Cooper’s own incomplete and sketchy research into the events it describes. He took considerable liberties with history, including simplifying the colonial wars and presenting the stereotypes about Indians that were typical of his era. He exaggerated the aftermath of the conquest of the fort, which included killing and kidnapping some of the people who had surrendered. Here, though, he was consistent with historians of his own time, and several others to come, who described the event as a “massacre.” Ian Steele, in his 1990 book Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the “Massacre,” probably the most objective historical account, called the event “a forseeable collision of attitudes about prisoners of war rather than the drunken or ‘homocidial’ rage that has been depressingly popular as an explanation among historians.”
The Last of the Mohicans is influential and important for its popular presentation of history. But Cooper has been described as the literary counterpart to Thomas Cole, a friend and colleague, who popularized the “Hudson River School” of painting the American (particularly New York) wilderness and natural landscape. Cooper is a master of writing that lets the reader envision what is being described. For instance, he describes “Horican” (Lake George) before the battle:
The mountains looked green and fresh and lovely; tempered with the milder light, or softened in shadow, as thin vapours floated between them and the sun. The numerous islands rested on the bosom of the Horican, some low and sunken, as if imbedded in the waters, and others appearing to hover above the element, in little hillocks of green velvet…
The Last of the Mohicans continues to have a historic influence. A 1992 film adaption of the book was a box-office success. It presented some of the same valid history and some of the same misrepresentations as the original novel. A reviewer of the film in American Heritage called it “a thrilling, romantic adventure” set on the frontier, “a gorgeous, wild, romantic and horribly dangerous place where the seeds of democracy are sown.” That showed the continuing power of the book to call attention to an important New York writer and to New York as an important place where history unfolded. It also reveals the power of fiction to spark interest in history.
Illustrations, from above: the first edition in 1826; an illustration from 1896 edition, by J.T. Merrill; a Golden Age comic book retelling of the story; and a Russian version.
Robert E. Mulligan, Jr says
They say there is no such thing as coincidence. Yesterday at lunch, I was telling my table mates that I could never get my colleagues at the NY State Museum to buy into my idea for an exhibit on folklore/literature of New York State. “Have you ever heard of Rip Van Winkle?” Nods, of course. “Have you ever heard of The last of the Mohicans?” More nods.
“Both were written in New York State, both are of national importance, and the NYSM is supposed to tell the story of the state, but doesn’t say a word about either.” Farfetched? Where was “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” written? Where was Emma Lazarus living when she wrote her poem The Colossus? “Oh Captain, my Captain, our fearful trip is done, …”
Great write-up, Bruce. Thanks for the reminder of one of the best books ever written! It really makes an individual become a history lover!!
Wendy Oborne says
This is the book that galvanized me to research New York State’s past, which is simply saturated with history if one knows where to look. There is such multifaceted and deeply layered upstate history that lies far beyond the capital region, and I give thanks to Fenimore Cooper to introducing me to its complexity and beauty via all the Leatherstocking Tales. Your article, though, rightly underscores the need to read his fiction within the cultural context of his times, and equally important, reminds readers that his account of what happened at Fort William Henry was a story, based on fact, embellished for the sake of entertainment (as was the most recent movie adaption, which in my opinion, was simply dreadful!) thank you for this article – it is a wonderful post.
John Warren says
I simply can’t think of Cooper without thinking of Mark Twain’s hilarious take-down “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”
Here’s an excerpt:
Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in “Deerslayer,” and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.
There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:
1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.
3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.
4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.
5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.
6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.
7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the “Deerslayer” tale.
8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.
9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.
10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.
11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.
In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:
12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.
Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.
You can read the whole piece here: http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/projects/rissetto/offense.html
stephen kent comer says
I’m glad to see ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ configured as actual New York State history, but i would like to add the historical element of the real Mohican people. As an ethnohistorian and a member of the Tribe, i can say that the Mohican are not just ‘storybook Indians’ but a forgotten people of history, who were the first people, along with the downstream Munsee Delaware, to greet Hudson and the Half Moon crew on their 1609 voyage up the river later named for Hudson.
Robert Juet, whose journal is virtually the only record we have of that historic journey, called the Mohican a “very loving people”, and indeed they befriended the Dutch and English colonists in their midst, but ultimately it did them little good. Formerly a strong and geographically well-placed tribe, as the colonists thrived, the Original People were weakened until as a strategy for survival they founded the town of Stockbridge, MA, at the same time beginning the process of christianizing and europeanizing, i.e. acculturating.
After valiantly contributing soldier-warriors to the colonists’ cause in the Revolutionary War, they were alienated from their lands and forced to begin a diasporan journey which eventually led them to their current reservation in northeast Wisconsin, northwest of Green Bay. Their official name now is the Stockbridge- Munsee Band of Mohicans and they are the only descendant body of the original Mohican Tribe.
Members of the Tribe have made regular pilgrimages to their aboriginal homeland since the 1960s and took part in the 2009 observance (not celebration!) of Hudson’s 1609 voyage.
So we see that Chingachkook was not the last of the Mohicans after all. The Stockbridge-Mohicans are alive and well and as one of their elders says, still making history every day.
My website is no great shakes yet but this entry will motivate me to enlarge it soon.
Sheila Myers says
I just stumbled across this blog while looking for the story on the new book about Fanny Seward. But I am glad I read it! I am titling my upcoming historical novel: Imaginary Brightness, after afamous quote from the Last of the Mohicans.
I also include this book in my story as it was a regular read of one of my main characters: William West Durant. Indeed he named numerous buildings and camps he built in the Adirondacks after places and names from this story.
I have to admit though – I tried to read it and found it very difficult. The language is flowery and too exhaustive. I was talking about it with a friend who told me it was written in a serial format as Dickens used to do. Does that explain why Cooper takes two pages to describe one action? I am exaggerating I know and I am a 21st century reader reading a 19th century book. But still. Jane Austen is a breeze compared to Cooper.