The Last of the Mohicans and The Woman Who Rode Away

Escorted by a gallant Southern major, two beautiful half-sisters set out through the wilds of New York province for their father’s fort, which is about to be besieged by Montcalm and his Huron allies. It is the summer of 1757. The party is guided by Magua, an outcast Huron working for the British, who secretly plans to revenge himself for the humiliating punishment once inflicted on him by the girls’ father. But just before Magua can abduct the party and force raven-haired Cora to be his squaw, Natty Bumpo—alias Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Leatherstocking, etc—comes to their rescue. With the help of Chingachgook, chief of a once great but now nearly extinct tribe, and his son Uncas, the last of the Mohicans, Natty leads the party to a secret cave which lies behind a waterfall; the next morning they are discovered and blood flows. After a series of adventures, captures and recaptures, the party reaches Fort William Henry: but not before it is clear that Major Heyward prefers blonde Alice, and Uncas is enamoured of Cora, who we soon learn has mulatto blood. Shortly afterwards the fort is surrendered, the girls abducted by Magua and taken north to Canada; Cora and Magua are slain and Uncas, who for a moment seemed destined not only to become his tribe’s rightful chief but Cora’s saviour and husband as well, is also killed. Chingachgook and Natty are left to mourn him; and as D. H. Lawrence has summed it up, Alice is left ‘to carry on the race. She will breed plenty of white children to Major Heyward. These tiresome “lilies that fester” of our own day.’footnote1

This, briefly, is the plot of what for a century after its publication in 1826 was the most popular and internationally famous of American novels. The Last of the Mohicans can still be found in a shortened version for children, but adults rarely read Fenimore Cooper today. Even those critics who express some admiration for this novel—James Grossman, Alexander Cowie, Yvor Winters, Van Wyck Brooks—do not claim that it is much more than an adventure story. Probably the best commentator on Cooper’s fiction, Donald Davie, agrees, but objects strongly to what he terms the ‘moral anarchy’ in Cooper himself.footnote2 This, it seems to me, is closer to the truth. But is the novel a mere adventure story?

For help I think we must turn to Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novelfootnote3—an odd blend of frequently irresponsible generalization and over-ingenious, but sometimes illuminating, interpretation of particular works. He argues that miscegenation is the novel’s secret theme, a theme with national, even hemispheric significance—‘the question of the relations between men of different races in the New World.’ Yet, Fiedler says, Cooper’s ‘horror of miscegenation’ refused him to allow Cora, the not-quite white offspring of an unnatural marriage, to defy race lines and marry Uncas, although Cooper’s contemporaries urged him to do so. The (ambiguously) sexless companionship of Leatherstocking and Chingachgook is Cooper’s only solution.

Even if we disagree with Fiedler’s interpretation, we have to recognize that in this novel for the first time in American literature, the close friendship between men of different races is a matter of central importance. The friendship between Natty and Chingachgook is not only one of the immortal friendships of world literature, but also of additional literary importance as the prototype of similar friendships in Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—novels which in other respects are certainly superior to The Last of the Mohicans. It remains to be seen whether this relationship exists in isolation, without reference to other problems created by a multi-racial society.

Miscegenation is certainly the theme of The Last of the Mohicans, or more exactly it is the theme on one level and the vehicle for a more general theme—racial relations in North America. But this is not to follow Fiedler in his interpretation that the theme is ‘inert and theoretical, discoverable by scrutiny of the text but not felt in the mere act of reading’. It is from D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature that Fiedler derives this notion. But Lawrence is misleading. Cooper’s characters are usually representative of a class—national, regional, racial or social—and therefore their relations with each other are both individual and representative. Satanstoe, a late novel in which a colonial belle of mixed Dutch and English extraction chooses to marry and make her home with an American of the same extraction rather than with a British officer from ‘Home’, is an example of Cooper’s explorations of the colonial schizophrenia which had to be healed before a national consciousness, and a nation, could come into being. He doubtless saw his own marriage to Susan DeLancey, whose family had been Loyalists while the Coopers favoured Independence, as representative of the fruitful reconciliation of parties in the new nation. When Cora and Uncas are attracted to each other Cooper is using the sort of subject in which he was characteristically interested. There is nothing secret about this. Further, Cooper’s method is equally characteristic. In one of the few great passages of a book in which he is often at his cliché-ridden, genteel worst, Natty describes at length the falls behind which the party is hiding and expresses a view of nature which condemns miscegenation:

‘After the water has been suffered to have its will for a time, like a headstrong man, it is gathered together by the hand that made it, and a few rods below, you may see it all, flowing on steadily towards the sea, as was fore-ordained from the first foundation of the “arth”.’