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ClassicsOnline Home » COOPER, J.F.: Last of the Mohicans (The) (Abridged)
This famous novel deals with the early frontier period of American history and is set in 1757 during the Seven Years War between the French and the British. Hawkeye and his friends, Ghingachgook and Uncas, are the last remaining Mohican chieftains. When the evil Magua threatens the life of an innocent English woman, Hawkeye finds himself at the centre of a battle for honour and vengeance.
James Fenimore Cooper
The Last of The Mohicans
James Fenimore Cooper, considered to be the first important
American novelist, was born
in Burlington, New Jersey on September 15, 1789. His father, Judge William
Cooper, founded the frontier village of Cooperstown in the lake region of New
York State, to which the family moved when James was a year old. He attended
school at Albany, and at thirteen was sent to Yale, where he was the youngest
member of his class. He was expelled in 1805 for his part in some prank, and
joined the navy, in which he served as a midshipman. After the assassination of
his father in 1809 by a political opponent, he resigned from the navy. In 1811
he married Susan Delancy, a descendant of one of the early governors of New
York colony, and settled down in Scarsdale, where for a time he led the life of
a country gentleman. An apocryphal story has it that Cooper, after throwing
aside a novel his wife had been reading, said to her, “I could write you a
better book than that myself.” She challenged him to make good his boast, thus
setting him on his career as an author.
Cooper’s first novel was Precaution (1820), which had little
success, but his next book, The Spy, published the following year, established
his reputation. He went on to produce a total of fifty works during his
lifetime. But it was with The Leatherstocking Tales that he consolidated his
popularity, and it is chiefly for these stories that he is remembered today.
They consist of The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The
Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841).
In 1826 Cooper and his family traveled to Europe, where he
spent the next seven years. Despite his duties as US Consul in Lyons, he
continued to write, and in addition to novels, produced political works and
books on travel. In 1833 he returned to America, and settled back in
Cooperstown where he spent the remainder of his life.
The Last of the Mohicans was written during the author’s
European stay, but the order in which the books appeared differs from the
sequence of events related in the story. It starts with The Deerslayer (the
last to be written), is taken up in The Last of the Mohicans, continues in The
Pathfinder and The Pioneer, and reaches its conclusion in The Prairie. The
narrative concerns the French, British and Indian battles for territorial supremacy
in the early days of the new nation, and is filled with exciting adventures —
skirmishes, attacks, ambushes, flights, pursuits and rescues.
In The Leatherstocking Tales, Cooper created characters that
have achieved the status of mythic heroes in the popular imagination. First
among these is the intrepid frontiersman and scout, Natty Bumppo, known as
Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans. Although a European, Hawkeye has learned
from the Indians all the woodsman’s skills. Cooper’s respect for the Indian way
of life and for the dignity and wisdom of the native tribes set him apart from
many of his European and Colonial contemporaries who had nothing but contempt
for the American ‘savages’.
Hawkeye’s closest companion is the Mohican chief
Chingachgook, and it is Chingachgook’s son Uncas who is the subject of the
book’s title, the last surviving member of the Mohican tribe. Cooper sees them
as children of nature skilled in the ways of the forest, and invests them with
such noble characteristics as bravery, honor and loyalty. But not all Cooper’s
Indians are heroes. In Magua he has created a cunning and sinister villain, a
worthy opponent for Hawkeye, and the narrative contains incidents of Indian
treachery and cowardice. Neither is betrayal confined to the Indian tribes —
Montcalm, the commander of the French forces, fails to keep his word, as does
the English General Webb, leaving Munro and his troops to take the
The European characters are helpless in the face of the wild
terrain and native enemies. In the unfamiliar new world their European
sophistication and learning is useless to them. The eccentric music master
David’s psalm-singing is no protection from Indian arrows, although his
innocence helps to save him in the end. Without the woodcraft skills of Hawkeye
and his Indian companions, Duncan and his two charges, Cora and Alice, would
have perished almost before their journey had begun.
In The Last of the Mohicans we sense Cooper’s closeness to
the time, the place and the people about which he writes. His is the authentic
voice of the early struggles of the American nation. His tales of the hardship
and danger of frontier life were the first of their kind, and paved the way for
the vast numbers of such stories, which have appeared since. Our appetite for
tales of adventure has not diminished in the over one hundred and seventy-odd
years since these stories were written, and they continue to give as much
pleasure today as they did when first published.
Notes by Neville Jason
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