James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) wrote The Last of the Mohicans at a time when Europeans snubbed the literary value of American novels, and few American authors achieved success in Europe. Cooper’s work became an exception largely due to the fact that little was known about the wild American wilderness, its...
James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) wrote The Last of the Mohicans at a time when Europeans snubbed the literary value of American novels, and few American authors achieved success in Europe. Cooper’s work became an exception largely due to the fact that little was known about the wild American wilderness, its inhabitants, and its adventures. For centuries, this novel has been recognized as a work of historical fiction, and indeed it should be so classified. However, in modern times, Cooper’s book is often referred to as an epic novel because of its link to the early American wilderness and the fact that some of the heroic qualities and adventures explored in the work are akin to the elements of a traditional epic. It is, however, a misnomer.
Strictly speaking, an epic is a historic poem that requires specific criteria:
- The work must be a long narrative verse on a serious topic written in a formal style. An example would be Milton’s Paradise Lost.
- The action must center on a heroic figure with almost divine qualities, somewhat like a demi-god. The hero must be a figure of great significance to a nation or the world. An example would be Achilles, the son of the sea nymph Thetis, in Homer’s Iliad.
- The hero’s actions on the battlefield must be extraordinary and determine the fate of a nation, race, or other group on a large scale, much like Achilles’s feats during the Trojan War.
- Gods and other supernatural beings must take an active part in the action. The involvement of the gods on Mount Olympus in Homer’s Odyssey would be an appropriate example.
The Last of the Mohicans is not verse but instead informs readers of the idyllic and romantic American wilderness during the French and Indian War. The topic of the international conflict is serious, but the romantic adventure told by Cooper is not serious enough to be considered epic. The work is definitely not written in a formal style, reflecting grand diction and elaborate stylized syntax modeled after Latin poetry, as usually found in traditional epics. It is clearly written in the vernacular.
The character at the center of the novel is Hawkeye. He certainly qualifies as a hero in the sense of a protagonist on a heroic quest, but he is not a larger-than-life, well-known national figure with the characteristics of a semi-divine epic hero. He is a fierce warrior, but the success or failure of his quest does not determine the fate of a nation. Heroic in nature as it is, his participation in the adventure is not part of a grandiose battle.
Finally, while Cooper does touch on themes like the relevance of religion in the wilderness, no supernatural beings or gods take an active role in the quest itself. Despite the modern tendency in literature circles to re-assess traditional approaches to literary analyses, The Last of the Mohicans remains a work of historical fiction.