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.