Prefatory Notes to The Last of the Mohicans

(W. K. Wickes, M.A. (Amherst) Principal of the High School, Syracuse, N.Y.)

[This text has been transcribed from the original by James Gentry (Williams Baptist College).]

Originally published in The Last of the Mohicans, edited, with brief biography and various notes, by W. K. Wickes. New York: MacMillan, 1899, pp. vi-xii.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Prefatory Notes

{vi} In the introduction to the later editions of The Last of the Mohicans the author says: “It is believed that the scene of this tale, and most of the information necessary to understand its allusions, are render sufficiently obvious to the reader in the text itself, or in the accompanying notes.” The present editor is of the same mind. He has therefore put together, in as compact a form as possible, a few illustrations under each of several general headings. He advises that the book be read through first, without any reference to his notes, — and then, not until then, that the notes be studied, compared with the reader’s own conceptions, strengthened and enlarged by his own note-takings and analyses of the story, outside of and beyond the editor’s intimations and suggestions: in short, he would have the reader make the book his own mental, just as truly as the publisher would have him make it his material, possession.

Biographical Note

“There are but two biographers who can tell the story of a man’s ... life. One is the person himself ... ; the other is the Recording Angel. The autobiographer cannot be trusted to tell the whole truth, though he may tell nothing but the truth, and the Recording Angel never lets his book go out of his own hands.”


“When Cooper lay on his death-bed he enjoined his family to permit no authorized account of his life to be prepared.”


The two extracts just given may suffice to explain any inaccuracies or incompleteness or incompleteness in this brief sketch of the life of James Fenimore Cooper. For he himself left no record to tell left the pure though partial truth; nor can a mortal hope to transcribe the account from the great book written on high!

Moreover, Cooper was sincerely desirous that no authoritative biography of his character and career should be prepared and published. This command was not uttered because his personal character was imperfect, for it was noble and pure; nor because his career was a failure - for it was adorned with many brilliant successes. It is far more probable that the many controversies, bitter and prolonged, in which Cooper had engaged, wrought within him an earnest wish that at the passing of his spirit from its mortal tenement, these controversies should cease. He could not hold with the old preacher who took for a text, “Without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness” — and expounded it thus: “Yes, brethren, that’s just it! without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness; but controversy clears the matter all up!” No, Cooper well knew that such comment betokened a reversed rather than a revised interpretation of human nature. It is true, also, that Cooper’s life was not of such an epoch-making or epoch-moulding kind, even in the realm of letters, that minute and extended biography is needful, nor the lack of it deplorable. For his life has had little, if any, effect upon the century just drawing to a close, nor did his character enter, in any large degree, into the books and writings which in great profusion he gave to the world. Indeed, in these respects, his annals may well be like those of the poor, “short and simple.” With brevity and reserve, then, for such information and profit as the student of literature may be able to derive from them, certain salient facts in his life are here recorded.

James Fenimore Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey, on Sept. 15, 1789. His father was an English Quaker, — his mother, of Swedish lineage. From both stocks he seems to {vii} have taken his love for and knowledge of the sea; but Quaker-like peace did not enter into his mental make-up. His education began at Cooperstown, New York, to which place his family moved when James was but one year of age. But quite early in his youth-time he was sent to Albany for private instruction. There he was “fitted” for Yale, but seems to have found himself, in some way, misfitted for Yale; for after a residence of three years, his collegiate career, like that of so many illustrious men of letters before and since his day, suddenly ended. Then followed for three years - from 1808 to 1811 - service and training in the navy, a most practical education for one whose early books, steeped in the brine of the sea, are filled with dramatic sea-pictures. He celebrated “New Year’s” in 1811 by marrying, and soon after resigned his position in the navy. Then followed a long period in which no book proceeded from his pen, heralding a coming author. It is quite certain, however, that this time was not wasted; that the young American was acquiring that knowledge of aboriginal and colonial life which gives such color and power to his books of adventure in the early haunts and retreats of red and white men.

Travel in foreign lands was a significant part of Cooper’s life. Amid the huzzas of a public dinner, in 1826, at which General Scott, DeWitt Clinton, and many others of note were present, he set sail for Europe, For seven years he was abroad, visiting England, Germany, Switzerland, but sojourning chiefly in France - being appointed consul at Lyons, through the help of the illustrious Henry Clay. (It is pleasant to recall that Cooper’s distinguished fellow-countryman - Nathaniel Hawthorne - once held like office at Liverpool.) But it is no part of this brief sketch to trace the life of Cooper while abroad. Let it be held enough to say, that his reputation as a writer was remarkable, and the sale of his books very large. His defence of America, also, at many times and many places, should be here mentioned with praise. Indeed, it was partly because of such patriotic defence {viii} that another dinner was tendered him upon his return home. Public dinners do not always agree with public men. But it would have been better in Cooper’s case to accept the invitation at the risk of possible disagreement, than to refuse it, as he did, with the certainty of popular misunderstanding. For from this time on, not because of the dinner incident largely, bur from a series of disagreements, the breach between Cooper and his fellow-countrymen grew wide. Over a local matter, he fell out with his neighbors, and with voice and pen attacked them with great vehemence. Soon his attacks took a wider range, involving him in pen controversies with critics and newspapers. Nor was this all. Believing himself ill-treated and maligned by certain papers, he began and prosecuted suits against them, in a majority of cases winning, and proving himself more powerful than the boasted “power of the press.” And the real root-cause of all these controversial and legal battles is to be found, without doubt in the fact that during Cooper’s sojourn abroad his naturally aristocratic instincts grew ever stronger and stronger, while even more rapidly the democratic feeling in his own country, and among his countrymen, widened and deepened. Even thus, there might have been peace and affectionate regard, if Cooper had remained quiet, or had given himself unreservedly to that kind of literary work which had won for him such favor and honor at home and abroad. But, no! never was there a more fiery, literary war-horse than he - ever snuffing the battle from afar. Yet the inevitable results must follow: he was triumphant indeed, but tried beyond endurance; his personal popularity declined, his professional power suffered, he was tantalized and tabooed.

From all this “confused noise” of strife, how pleasant to turn and pay the meed of praise which is so justly and in such large degree Cooper’s due, for his unwavering patriotism. He loved America sincerely - but not what he esteemed her faults. His eye would fain be the “friendly” not the “flatterer’s.” Even {ix} more did he love honor and abiding truth. In his moral ideals he was as stern as a Puritan and as strong. In his home-life he was most kind and sympathetic. And when he died, ten years before the outbreak of the Civil War, the fierce heat of dispute and discord slackened, and men, even his foes, began to feel that a kingly spirit had passed away. To-day, we care nothing for the strife he wage; we are devoutly thankful for the pen he wielded so powerfully for out mental entertainment and enrichment.

Critical Note

Quite a literary curiosity are the chapter-headings of the book; in themselves good, and chosen, largely, from great authors, they serve to show how inadequate quotations are to express the complete or even central thought of the various chapters. Let the student read them as intimations, not as interpretations.

Before comment is made upon Cooper as a writer, it will be well to give the names of the books upon which his fame is chiefly founded, — or, at least, those most widely read. In the “Miscellaneous” group, Precaution (1821), The Spy (1821); among “Sea Tales,” The Pilot (1823), and Red Rover (1827); all “The Leather-Stocking Tales,” Cooper’s “five-act drama,” namely, The Deerslayer (1841), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Pathfinder (1840), The Pioneers (1823), The Prairie (1827). This, as will be seen, is not the chronological order, but it is the order of the historical unfolding of the life of Leather-Stocking, Natty Bumppo, chief hero of the Tales. The entire list of Cooper’s works would include more than thirty titles.

As a writer Cooper is perhaps most commonly compared to Sir Walter Scott. But the contrasts seem to be greater even than the comparisons. The two writers are alike in that their best books have a historical basis; in that their pages teem {x} with incidents, romantic. But they differ widely in respect to theme, style, portrayal of character; yes, even in description, though both artists paint in vivid and unfading colors. The real truth is, that Cooper is unique in many respects, Let us, then, glance at Cooper, the writer, as he himself is revealed in the book before us, believed be many good judges to be his best work. And first, it must be confessed that his humor is of a dreary sort. There are flashes, glimpses, here and there, of the real thing; but for the most part the laugh which he seeks to create dies away upon his pen, the mirth takes flight into the darkness; and when he attempts a full-length picture of a humorous character, the result is a David Gamut, for instance, whose features are limned with a curious mixing of patches and paucity of coloring. Nor is our author at his best in character-sketching. There are in his books too many “lay-figures,” as I lately heard a young student say. There is something elusive and evanescent, the shadow and dream of firm-moulded and well-rounded character, and not its substance and reality. But on the other hand, now and then, a character is wrought out with all the fidelity and force of a Flemish painting. Take Hawkeye, for example. We wonder that such, and so rare a man could have existed; yet we must and do believe that he did. And the strangest thing about it all is, that Cooper, with no “cross,” as Hawkeye would say, in his blood, gives a stronger and subtler portrayal of the red than of the white man or woman. Yet the reason is clear when we reflect with what minute and protracted care he studied the forestman, mixing his colors “with brains.” Travellers tell us of the imperishability of Pompeian-red; not less so, in literature, is Coopers Indian-red. But, again, not even a hop-skip-and-jump reader of the novelist could fail to notice his faulty style. A catalogue of all its defects, with accompanying “proof-texts,” would fill a volume: it was oftentimes careless, slip-shod, inaccurate, involved, circumlocutory. But as {xi} Webster’s test of true eloquence was persuasion, so may we regard Cooper’s style, though faulty, yet effective, when judged by the strong and sustained interest his works excited. No apology is needed, however, when we come to speak of that which was Cooper’s greatest power, — his power of description. Many are the passages which the editor has marked as proof unchallenged of that power. Only a few may here be cited. Turn, please, to that passage in the first chapter beginning, “According to the orders of the preceding night.” Mark the blending of the peace of Nature with the stir of preparation for war. Read the description carefully, then close your eyes and see it. Or note the scenic grandeur of the “meeting of the morning,” in chapter fourteen: “As they gradually rose from the level of the valley.” Still, again, was ever the desolation of Nature pictured with more somber grandeur than in the eighteenth chapter, elaborating the statement: “A frightful change had also occurred in the season.” The account of the beaver dam in chapter twenty-one, and of Heyward’s surprise, how finely pictured forth! With what breathless interest, eye and mind travel along those pages in the twenty-third chapter which record the rites of the dusky savages gloating over the sufferings of their unfortunate captives. But I must close this enumeration, — how better than by bringing to the reader’s attention that magnificent passage in chapter twenty-eight, when, after describing the aged Tamenund, the historian continues: “The eyes of the old man were closed.” It is the very apotheosis of all that was noble and venerable in one whose feet had almost reached the borders of the Spirit Land!

And now, let not the reader content himself with the brief hints of the editor with respect to Cooper’s sense of humor, characterization, style, and descriptive power, but seek for himself the sources of the mingled strength and weakness - more of the former than the latter - of this unique and yet typical American author.


{xii} It is with war that the story of The Last of the Mohicans has chiefly to do; and the old proverb suggest that all is fair in war. Yet in this case, not so. For surely nothing such can be said of the war which reddens every page of Cooper’s wonderful story. The beginning of chapter fifteen tells us what was the “besetting weakness of the warfare of the period” - a criminal carelessness with respect to the strategic value of high-raised eminences for purposes of defence. But this is a slight and venial matter in comparison with the wanton and dreadful cruelties of the famous, infamous French and Indian wars. He who would know the “very torrent and whirlwind” of the strife, let him read the vivid and sickening seventeenth chapter, wherein are recorded the horrors of “The Massacre of William Henry.” And the beginning of chapter eighteen follows it up with a portrayal of the moral weakness and cowardice of the brilliant Montcalm, which sadly eclipses the glory of his death, later, on the plains of Abraham. Perhaps also the cruelty which marks the strife in the forests of the north in the middle of the eighteenth century, comes nearer to us who read The Last of the Mohicans as we dwell on the pages in chapter thirty-two which record the “murder most foul” of Cora and Uncas. To be sure, it somewhat assuages out grief, possibly, to know that the treacherous and vindictive Magua also meets his fate. And yet, there is something so individual, so personal, almost, in the “taking off” of the two former, that we sorrow for them, confessing also the power of the author. It is a tragedy which stirs the emotional life within us, as Hamlet does the life intellectual. We join the lament of dear old Tamenund: “In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis happy and strong; and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans.”