The Last of the Mohicans is the second title published in what was to become a series of five works known collectively as the Leatherstocking Tales. When James Fenimore Cooper published the first of these “romances,” as he called them (to distinguish them from the somewhat more realistic contemporary novels), he had no plan for a series with a hero whose life would be shown from youth to old age and death. In The Pioneers: Or, The Sources of the Susquehanna (1823), Natty Bumppo, or Leatherstocking, is in his early seventies. Responding to a suggestion from his wife, Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans went back to Natty’s early thirties, when he was called Hawkeye. The great popularity of The Last of the Mohicans led Cooper then to move chronologically beyond The Pioneers and to picture in The Prairie: A Tale (1827) the last of Natty’s life when he was in his eighties, living as a trapper and finally dying on the Great Plains far from his early home.
At the time, Cooper did not intend to revive Natty in further books. One minor romance of the forest, The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish: A Tale (1829), was followed by a stream of nautical novels, sociopolitical novels, and nonfictional works of social and political criticism. In 1840, Cooper finally responded to the pleas of literary critics and readers and revived the hero whose death he had so touchingly portrayed at the end of The Prairie. In The Pathfinder: Or, The Inland Sea (1840), Natty Bumppo is called Pathfinder, and the action shifts from land to the waters of Lake Ontario and back again. Pleased by the resounding praise he gained for having brought back his famed hero, Cooper then decided to write one final romance about him. In The Deerslayer: Or, The First War-Path, a Tale (1841), Natty is in his early twenties and goes by the nickname Deerslayer.
In 1850, Cooper published a new edition of all five Leatherstocking Tales arranged according to the order of events in Natty Bumppo’s life: The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, The Prairie. For this edition, he wrote a preface in which he remarked (prophetically, as it turned out): “If anything from the pen of the writer of these romances is at all to outlive himself, it is, unquestionably, the series of The Leatherstocking Tales.” Despite many complaints, particularly from Mark Twain and later critics, about Cooper’s style, plots, story structure, characterization, and dialogue, the Leatherstocking Tales continue to be read, both in the United States and in many other countries, and they seem assured of a long life to come.
In Cooper’s day, The Last of the Mohicans was the most popular of the five tales, and it has continued to be so. Structurally, the novel is superior to the other tales, with three major plot actions and a transitional though bloody interlude (the massacre after the surrender of Fort William Henry). Cooper depicts romantic love conventionally. His portrayal of Duncan Heyward and the Munro sisters, Cora and Alice—who carry most of the love interest in The Last of the Mohicans—shows little originality. They are all genteel characters, and they speak in a stiff, formalized manner. Duncan is gentlemanly, and the two “females” (as Cooper repeatedly refers to them) are ladylike. Cooper contrasts Cora and Alice as he does the members of other pairs of women who keep turning up in his books. Cora, the dark one, is passionate, independent, unafraid, even defiant; blond Alice is timid and easily frightened into faints—she resembles the sentimentalized helpless girls of popular early nineteenth century fiction.
Cooper does much better with his forest characters. Hawkeye is talkative, boastful, superstitious, scornful of the book learning he does not possess, and inclined to be sententious at times. He is also, however, brave, resourceful, and loyal to his two Indian friends. His French nickname, La Longue Carabine, attests to his shooting skill. He is religious but sometimes seems more pantheistic than Christian in any formal sense. Hawkeye’s arguments with David Gamut contrast his generalized beliefs and Gamut’s narrow Calvinism. With his dual background of white birth and early education by Moravian missionaries on one side and his long experience of living with the Indians on the other, he is, as French novelist Honoré de Balzac called him, “a moral hermaphrodite, a child of savagery and civilization.”
Chingachgook and Uncas are idealized representatives of their race. As “good” Indians, they are dignified, taciturn, even noble despite their savage ways, which Hawkeye excuses as being simply their native “gifts.” Uncas is lithe, strong, and handsome, and he reminds the Munro sisters of a Greek statue. Magua is the “bad” Indian, sullen, fierce, cunning, and treacherous. His desire to take Cora as his wife is motivated by his wish to avenge a whipping once inflicted on him at the order of Colonel Munro.
In addition to the love story that leads to the marriage of Heyward and Alice, the book depicts an interesting relationship between Cora and Uncas, who wants to marry her. Cooper has been accused of evading the theme of miscegenation by killing off both Cora, who is part black, and Uncas. Another important theme in the book is suggested by the title. Chingachgook is left mourning for his son, the last of the Mohican sagamores. He grieves also because he foresees the eventual vanishing of his race. Both he and Hawkeye despair as they envision the end of their way of life in the American wilderness. Implicit in much of the novel is the opposition of savagery and civilization, with Hawkeye realizing that civilization will triumph.
Although it is easy to complain of Cooper’s faulty style, his verbosity, his heavy-handed humor, his improbable actions, the insufficient motivation of his characters, and the inconsistency and inaccuracy of his dialogue, many readers willingly suspend their disbelief or modify their critical objections in order to enjoy the rush of action that makes up so much of The Last of the Mohicans. They sorrow over the deaths of Cora and Uncas, and their sympathies go out to Chingachgook and Hawkeye for the loss of what has meant so much in their lives. Moreover, readers continue to enjoy Cooper’s descriptions of the natural beauties of the northeastern wilderness as it was in the eighteenth century.