Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper, 1826
Last of the Mohicans is a strange beast. A classic that nobody reads. An original American adventure story that Americans love, but only in its movie version. Why do we love the film Last of the Mohicans, but disregard James Fenimoore Cooper’s novel? Both are epic, romantic adventure stories set during the French and Indian war. The trick is that in the 166 years between the book and the movie, our sensibilities changed. Our ideas of romance, heroism, racial relations, Colonists, the British and the French have all changed. At heart, both versions offer a fantasy of American origins and American identity.
Our concept of the ideal—white—man, has changed dramatically since 1826. The leading men transform almost past the point of recognition. Make of it what you will, but the movie versions of the female and Native American characters are not as altered. Here’s a breakdown of how the main characters change and what this tells us about the change in our fantasies or ideals.
Book Hawkeye/Scout/La Long Carrabine/Natty Bumppo
- Raised by Delaware Indians
- Has no time to love a woman
- Perpetually rants about religion
- Gets involved because rescuing women is the chivalrous thing to do
The Fantasy: Hawkeye is a worldly outsider. He exists outside society and is free of its restrictions. He doesn’t try to fit in, but he tries to do the right thing, based on his own concepts of morality.
For some reason he brays on and on about being a “Man without a Cross.” I don’t know what that means. It’s not made clear in the books. I haven’t found any one else who knows what this means. Maybe he’s not burdened by society? I have to mention that he never calls Cora or Alice by their names. He usually calls them “the Gentle Ones” or some other nauseatingly dismissive epithet.
- Raised specifically by Chingachgook
- Appreciates Cora’s strength and resilience
- Would die for Cora
- Gets involved to protect the interests of the Colonists against the heartless British Army
The Fantasy: Still a fiercely individualistic outsider. Still woodsy. Still has more respect for bonds between individuals than for society. But movie Hawkeye is capable of dedicated, passionate love for a woman. Movie Hawkeye cares about the little guy. He sticks up for the rustic Colonists against the stuffy Brits. Movie Hawkeye has long, dreamy hair.
- Mixed-race (gasp!)
- Dedicated to her family
The Fantasy: Like a good 19th Century woman, her main drive is to obey her father’s wishes and slavishly devote herself to her family. Also, she overcomes her suspicious origin to become a virtuous, wise woman who defies norms by never, ever fainting.
- The same, except that there’s no mention of her having a mulatto mother.
- In love with Hawkeye
- A shameless hussy by 1820s standards, but we don’t mind if unmarried couples passionately make out in a burning fort these days.
The Fantasy: Rich aristocrat chooses LOVE and an exhilarating life of adventure over money and society.
The Fantasy: Delicate, innocent young lass needs protection from smarter, stronger males.
- I hate to say it, but she doesn’t really change.
The Fantasy: Whoops, same fantasy. Some of us still want to see big strong men protect useless females. I’m looking at you, Twilight.
- Plucky, handsome young chap
- Loves Alice
- Brave Virginian, but loyal to the crown.
- Surprise! He’s the hero of the book.
The Fantasy: Loyal British Colonist disregards prejudice, teams up with noble savages to save women from evil savages.
- Plain looking.
- Uptight, entitled, stuffy.
- Loves Cora.
- Has his moment of heroism, in spite of being a patsy for most of the film.
The Fantasy: Americans are way manlier and attractive than Englishmen. Stupid imperialist Englishmen with your shiny pewter buttons and linen suits; in America men only wear buckskin. Keep sitting there with your fancy tea cups, drinking fancy tea. Meanwhile, Daniel Day Lewis is standing in front of some trees, leaning on a long rifle, looking like a man. A man with dreamy hair who runs around a lot with his dreamy hair streaming behind him.
- In love with Cora
The Fantasy: Smokin hot noble savage.
- The same, except he’s in love with Alice.
The Fantasy: Smokin hot Native American is smokin hot. Runs around with Daniel Day Lewis, both with dreamy long hair blowing behind them. So determined, so quiet. Watch Cora tend to the wound on his thick, strong leg.
So, the movie turned Hawkeye into a romantic lead and he ends up with Cora, the superior woman, which leaves Alice for Uncas. The book’s pairing of Cora with Uncas and Heyward with Alice makes more sense. Uncas lives in the wilderness, he respects Cora’s strength under pressure. Heyward’s ideal of femininity was passed down from English parlors, where women are meant to be fluffy confections of ribbon and lace. Alice is right up Heyward’s alley; it never made sense to me that Uncas would be drawn to her.
- Seeks revenge against the Munro girls’ father, because he once had Magua whipped for public drunkenness.
- Wants Cora to be his squaw
The Nightmare: Sneaky, evil Indian antagonist, pretends to be your friend while setting up a sabotage. Magua has legions of loyal Mohawk Indians and other allies that help him with his brutal revenge plans.
- More evil
- Wants to kill Munro’s daughters, because Munro’s troops killed his children.
The Nightmare: White guilt, plain and simple. The wrongs we inflict on Native Americans turn them into powerful enemies. The crimes of the white patriarchs are visited upon everybody, complicit or not.
I could watch Last of the Mohicans every month. The filmmakers did an excellent job of capturing the excitement and danger in Cooper’s novel. Cooper himself kind of bungled his material. He frequently mars the drama of a scene with comedy or excessive dialogue. To his credit, he does create great drama before he destroys it. For example, he establishes the urgent struggle of our desperate and capable heroes as they attempt to evade gunfire from a pursuing canoe. Very scary and tense. Meanwhile, our heroes discuss their situation and strategy in long paragraphs of dialogue. Please. If Copper had ever taken even a leisurely paddle in a canoe, he would have known that you have to keep your conversation brief, because hearing is difficult over the sound of the river and the splash of the oars. Also, you literally need to save your breath.
At one point in the book, Hawkeye infiltrates Magua’s camp by putting on a bear skin and waddling around on all fours. Really. Consider how many absurd premises are necessary here:
- Indians are so earthy and close to nature that they let bears wander around their villages.
- Indians are so earthy and close to nature that they let ANY bear wander around their village, even if they have never seen that particular bear before.
- Despite their extensive knowledge of the natural world and familiarity with bears, Indians can’t tell the difference between a bear and a man wearing a bear suit.
I can tell the difference between bear and a person draped in a bear skin, and I don’t spend a lot of time around bears. I’m all for bears in literature. This was kind of my favorite part of the book, but it does make the scene ludicrous instead of suspenseful.
Cooper also inserts humor into the middle of battle scenes, which is not how comic relief is done. It works better to cut from a battle to a lighthearted moment between different characters in a different setting. Jokes in the middle of a brutal massacre trivialize the violence and distract from the action.
That being said, I cried my eyes out at the end of this book. Cooper writes an elegy given by Native American women to two fallen characters and it’s so beautiful and poignant. That piece of writing is so great; it made me want to believe in an afterlife.
You might like Last of the Mohicans if:
- you’re very interested in early American literature and early American history.
- you can wade through irrelevant religious arguments to get to the action and comedy.
You might not like Last of the Mohicans if:
- you love the movie and you don’t want to see it altered.
- you are like most people.
Final thoughts: My boyfriend looks like Uncas. I’m basically living out my personal Last of the Mohicans fantasy all the time. Hooray.