I am on to the home stretch now with four books remaining, having stayed up late in bed to finish James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. I’m not really sure what I have to say about the novel beyond the fact that it is wildly inconsistent. Not just in the representation of indigenous peoples (which is uniformly awful and Cooper may have a legitimate claim to being the first writer to pen some of the most notorious “Indian” characters), but also in the sense that the plot wanders all over the place. While it is not quite as bad as John Richardson’s Wacousta (essentially the Canadian equivalent of The Last of the Mohicans), the ending is disappointing and overly convenient. Please note that throughout this review I will refer to the indigenous characters as Indians rather than indigenous peoples, following Daniel Francis’ distinction of Indians (a creation of European settler-invaders, often found in literary works) and indigenous people (the peoples that the Europeans actually encountered.
*Spoiler alert* In the end, Cora, the older of Munro’s two daughters dies at the hand of a mindless Indian, conveniently clearing the way for Duncan Heyward to marry her younger sister, Alice. This is a convenient plot device because not only does it turn Cora into a martyred figure, but it also does away with her problematic heritage. As her father confesses to Heyward, her mother was a mulatto from the West Indies, meaning that Cora has African blood in her. As readers, we are expected to be horrified at this and her death conveniently clears Munro’s stain and allows Heyward to marry the pure white daughter Alice (from a different mother). From a 21st century perspective, this is hugely problematic given the kind of racial politics Cooper espouses throughout (“Don’t you dare pollute your blood line with some inferior race, white readers!”). But it also has become somewhat ironic given that Cora, at least, is a more determined and fulsome character than Alice who seems to spend most of the novel faint or unconscious because she has a weak constitution and cannot possibly handle the violence and brutality of the frontier (unlike Cora, presumably because she has slave blood in her).
I suppose I had hoped that The Last of the Mohicans would be fun. And, in a sense, it is. There are plenty of fight scenes, surprising violence, lots of wandering in the woods, plenty of sublime landscapes, and the good guys win in the end. Of course, this last point is also the problem because the Indians are either blood-thirsty, mindless dogs like the Iroquois, or they are noble savages who are conveniently dying away as more Europeans arrive like Uncas, the title character. Apparently, this novel has been adapted into at least 7 different films, showing how much value is attached to this narrative. This is where it gets problematic because the novel very clearly helps to assuage white consciences about the atrocities committed by Europeans on the indigenous people they encountered. While there were clearly some atrocities perpetrated by the indigenous peoples on French and British populations, they pale in comparison to the systematic violence that has been directed at indigenous people since then. Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian is a wonderful counterpoint to this book, because he searches for evidence of “Indian massacres” and finds very little to justify the genocide of indigenous peoples by Americans, Canadians, British, French, Dutch, and Spanish invaders. I am not quite sure what to do with The Last of the Mohicans. Do you teach it in a critical mode, pointing out the flaws of the novel to students? Or do you pass it by and allow it to disappear into the mists of history with its harmful legacy, hopefully, dissipating over time?
I would not recommend this book to any but the most serious students of American literature. It is important culturally speaking, but I don’t think it merits this importance.
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. 1826. London: Arcturus Publishing, 2012. Print.