Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

Deserving of its status as an American classic
The Last of the Mohicans takes place in New York state in 1757, during the French and Indian Wars. A troop of British colonials, led by the young Major Duncan Hayward, travels through the wilderness on their way to Fort William Henry. Accompanying the soldiers are Cora and Alice Munro, the daughters of the general who presides at the fort. By happenstance they encounter the frontiersman known as Hawkeye, his Indian companion Chingachgook, and the latter’s son Uncas. Hawkeye informs the party that their Indian guide, Magua, has been leading them astray, and that he is a member of the Huron tribe who is friendly with the French. Magua escapes, but later returns with a band of Indians who take the two women captive, along with Hayward and David Gamut, a teacher of religious singing who seems to exist in the book only to serve as the Christian antithesis of the stoic Hawkeye. The only hope these four prisoners have for salvation is that Hawkeye and his Indian companions will rescue them from the clutches of their hostile captors.

The settlement and founding of America is such a fascinating period in history, and James Fenimore Cooper brings it vividly to life. Like his idol Sir Walter Scott, Cooper combined his own experiences of the region and its inhabitants with extensive historical research to create a romanticized version of his country’s past. I have read other works by Cooper (The Spy, The Deerslayer), and found his plotting to be too meandering and haphazard in its construction. The Last of the Mohicans, on the contrary, is expertly paced, with frequent moments of intense action and suspense punctuated by interludes of more quiet contemplation. The story is captivating from beginning to end, with the exception of a couple incongruous scenes in which characters don disguises that challenge the reader’s belief. Despite these low points, Cooper’s writing is beautiful throughout. He describes the Adirondack wilderness with the keen observation and lyrical expression of a Thoreau. His depiction of the Native Americans in the book may not be entirely accurate, but he is always very respectful toward them. He has a tendency to portray the Indians as being too cold in their demeanor and too reliant on superstition, though never so much as to the point where his characterizations become insulting. He exhibits great reverence for the land and the traditions of its native inhabitants.

If there’s an obstacle preventing today’s readers from tackling The Last of the Mohicans, it’s the language. While the text does not contain a great deal of archaic words, the sentences are constructed with the complex, convoluted syntax of a bygone era. Everyone in the book, from the highest general to the lowliest fur trapper, speaks with the poetic voice of a Lord Byron. A dictionary is not required, but every sentence does require some thought. After a while Cooper’s narrative voice grows on you, and you’ll come to enjoy the antiquated cadence of his prose. There is a dignity and a gravitas to the language that no longer exists in contemporary literature. Reading The Last of the Mohicans takes you back to a now forgotten time when those who wrote books were smarter than you, and they intended every work to be a masterpiece. To that end Cooper was largely successful. Almost two centuries after its publication this novel still provides a vital and invigorating reading experience.

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