The Meaning of the Indians and Their Land in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans

Frank Bergmann (Utica College of Syracuse University)

From Frank Bergmann, ed., Upstate Literature: Essays in Memory of Thomas F. O’Donnell Syracuse University Press, 1985, pp. 117-127.

Placed online with the kind permission of the author.

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

{117} Summarizing the achievement of Upstate’s greatest writers of the nineteenth century, Thomas F. O’Donnell served up an epigram: “After Cooper, upstate New York could be seen; after Frederic, it could be understood” (57 c.4). Tom meant this in a strictly regional sense; he knew, of course, that Cooper not only painted surfaces but also probed depths. Frederic’s Upstate was a region developed enough to be capable of being understood. The Upstate of Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales was, by contrast, a wilderness pockmarked by a few white settlements, military outposts more often than not; there was not much there to be understood in Frederic’s way. Generally, Frederic’s Upstate is therefore actual; Cooper, however, consistently invests his Upstate with symbolic meaning, and nowhere more so than in The Last of the Mohicans (1826). In his “Historical Introduction” to the novel in the Cooper Edition, James Franklin Beard analyzes the Glens Falls as the book’s major, far-reaching metaphor. 1 The movement of the falls’ waters is, however, opposite to that which the narrative — after wending its way convolutedly from Fort Edward through and past the falls to Fort William Henry in the book’s first half — takes in the second half. The narrative leads into the wilderness beyond the Horican; this wilderness constitutes a second major metaphor whose symbolic force equals that of Glens Falls.

Beard’s introduction does Cooper’s readers another major service; gently but firmly it refocuses their eyes from the mythic readings scholars of the past several decades have favored to the Indian matter at the heart of the novel. From the first, Cooper has come under attack for holding a brief for the Indians, with the strictures generally masking themselves as challenge to his historicity; Lewis Cass’s terse “’the last of the Mohi{118}gans’ is an Indian of the school of Mr. Heckewelder, and not of the school of nature” may stand for them all. 2 Harsh criticism of Cooper’s art surfaces just as early, though the most infamous example is Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” of 1895. Today, Cooper’s plots are still widely considered to be “tiresome” or “makeshift,” although very recently some energetic efforts have been made to show that Cooper’s presumed artistic weaknesses may in fact be his greatest strengths. 3 I believe that in The Last of the Mohicans Cooper says more about the race problem than most critics have conceded, and that he does so with greater art than has generally been acknowledged. Central to my view is the consideration of how Cooper ties together the three concerns given separately in condensed form on the novel’s title page: “The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. ‘Mislike me not, for my complexion, The shadowed livery of the burnished sun.’” The book’s major message is the historical lesson inherent in the disastrous race conflict, a lesson for both Cooper’s time and ours; the “narrative” is a more effective and carefully constructed vehicle for Cooper’s message than the scoffers would have us believe; and the motto from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is more than a pious sentiment engraved upon a stately burial monument.

Most of the charges against Cooper as artist seem to me based on a discernibly Aristotelian definition of plot, which is tacitly assumed by critics as a given and which Cooper is then shown as violating. Handbook definitions, however cautious and intelligent, tend to encompass too much, such as this one when it speaks of plot as “a planned series of interrelated actions progressing, because of the interplay of one force upon another, through a struggle of opposing forces to a climax and a dénouement“ and of its function as translating “character into action.” 4 The outlines of Attic tragedy are too clearly visible here, and little is made of the scarcity of novels in Aristotle’s time and of the absence of a universally accepted theory of the novel in ours. Since Cooper has appealed to generations of readers at home and abroad as storyteller, we profit more by considering E. M. Forster’s discussion of “story” and “plot” as two of the several aspects of the novel.

Forster’s discussion is unpretending. Story “is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence” (47); it asks, “and then?” (130) Plot springs from the story and is a higher aspect, since it is based on causality, requring memory and intelligence, and offers surprise and mystery; it asks, “why?” (130) Story is a low aspect of the novel because it is based on curiosity only. Nevertheless, Forster — as some recent theorists of the novel forget — is quite emphatic about the importance of story (if the story was unimportant, why would Forster have spent on it one of his lectures that comprise Aspects of the Novel): “the fundamental aspect of the novel {119} is its story-telling aspect” (44), and, no matter how barren aesthetically and morally that aspect may be, “we have much to learn from it” (48). 5 Without a story there can be no novel; Forster insists that Gertrude Stein, who attempted to do away with time and therefore with story, failed “because as soon as fiction is completely delivered from time it cannot express anything at all” (67). Worse: “The time-sequence cannot be destroyed without carrying in its ruin all that should have taken its place; the novel that would express values only becomes unintelligible and therefore valueless” (67). Worse: “The time-sequence cannot be destroyed without carrying in its ruin all that should have taken its place; the novel that would express values only becomes unintelligible and therefore valueless” (68). And, of course, remains unread.

Unread by whom? A further critical fallacy, the harder to guard against the more sophisticated theoretical discourse becomes, is the inevitable assumption that the novelist writes for the literary critic who makes his living writing books about books. Forster, however, identifies four audiences: the true scholar, who is rare and therefore not discussed in detail (22); the pseudo-scholar — ubiquitous in the civil service and in the academy — who sits before him at Cambridge and whith whom he not only jokingly identifies (23-28, 45); the modern equivalent of the caveman, who is interested in the story as entertainment only (44-45); and the ideal reader, who “is quite good-tempered and vague, and probably driving a motorbus at the same time and paying no more attention to literature than it merits” (44). This reader, and his attitude toward the novel, Forster respects and admires (45). The bus-man is in that “state in which,” Helen Vendler says, “the text works on us, not we on it” (344). To find the proper corrective to the resigned condescension toward the story which Forster says he shares — “Yes — oh, dear, yes — the novel tells a story” (45) — Cooper scholars too might remember the days before they became critics, might attempt to regain what Vendler calls “that early attitude of entire receptivity and plasticity and innocence before the text” (344). Cooper, I submit, wrote The Last of the Mohicans for the bus-man in all of us, and so “it kind of tells a story, so to speak” (Aspects 44).

Cooper designs his story to make the reader give him a hearing; above the story, the plot transmits the values. Outside is the sugar coating, inside the medicine. The apparent problems of the story of The Last of the Mohicans have often been ridiculed, 6 and indeed, where is the logic in the girls’ desire to join their father at such an inopportune time? They would be much safer in Albany or New York. But we are already asking “why?”, which means that we are picking up the plot even as we follow the story. After all, the girls’ father might die, and so we have no right to call them imprudent or stupid. If go then they must, at such a time, they would appear to be safest amidst the contingent that marches the high road from Edward to William Henry between sunup and sundown. Duncan Heyward, however, wants to make time and further errs in feeling that Magua is a {120} trustworthy guide. The girls are not properly outfitted: they wear riding veils instead of Allagash hats, slippers instead of Herman Survivors. We worry. Twice during the first half of the book does the story reach a climax, both times linking fear for life with fear for virtue. After Cora has persuaded Leatherstocking, Chingachgook, and Uncas not to await everyone’s death at Glens Falls but to run for help, she wants Duncan to join the three. He refuses, because of his military honor — how could he possibly show himself to Munro without the girls? — and because of the likelihood of having to save the girls from “evils worse than death” (80) by killing them before Magua can defile them. Magua’s proposal to Cora somewhat later makes death for the party imminent because of Cora’s refusal to become his squaw. The daring rescue by Leatherstocking and the two Mohicans, Magua’s escape, the tight moment at the old blockhouse, the scene with the French sentinel, and finally the dangerous confusion outside William Henry are further spine-tingling episodes along the simple story line of getting the two girls to their father. The experienced reader knows, of course, that nothing will go really wrong with the girls this early in the book; a glance at the many pages yet to come assures him. At William Henry, the story’s expected resolution is briefly unveiled; the girls have joined their father not just to be with him but so that he may promise one of them to Duncan. We may be disappointed that Alice is the one rather than Cora, but precisely because Cooper gives the story this turn do we stay with it. We sense that the deeper implications of Cora’s racial background will be addressed beyond Duncan’s sidestepping, but the story takes yet another turn: what will become of Cora and Alice must yield for the time being to the negotiations for the fort’s surrender and to the massacre, that is, to the largely historical “narrative of 1757.”

It has often been said that Cooper doubles his story, that the book’s center marks the shift from the two daughters in search of their father to “the father in quest of his children” (183). There are, nevertheless, major differences between the book’s two halves. The initial journey from Edward to William Henry is clearly delimited: twelve miles or so along the road, somewhat more by the forest paths. The journey into the wilderness beyond the Horican, however, is open-sided; whereas the father’s whereabouts are known at the outset of the first half, the daughters are we know not where at the beginning of the second half. Not only do we face an away match, so to speak, we do not even know where the opponent’s ballpark is. Leatherstocking remarks grimly that by now the girls may be in the wilds of Canada (189). It is this open-endedness which changes the entire character of the book: in the first half, the story leads us to a white man’s fort and the plot makes us think about a white man’s war; in the second half, {121} the story leads us into the land of the Indians and the plot makes us think about their lives.

In the first half of the book, cultural comparisons are rare and oblique. The most shocking incident before the massacre is not anything Magua does but instead Chingachgook’s murder of the French sentinel. Duncan’s presence of mind and Cora’s sympathy, as well as their French, get the party past the danger of detection and detention. Then the presumably good (because he helps the girls) Chingachgook kills the sentinel and takes his scalp. Even Leatherstocking is shocked; then he explains rather lamely that it is a worthy deed for an Indian, no matter how reprehensible it would have been for a white man. Yet just before, Leatherstocking relates with almost ghoulish relish an earlier massacre for which he was responsible and in which totally unsuspecting French troops were not made prisoners but instead butchered and dumped into the same Bloody Pond that received Chingachgook’s victim, with the only difference being that their scalps were still on their heads. Chingachgook’s deed and the terrible slaughter of William Henry’s British garrison by Montcalm’s Indian allies eclipse the earlier massacre in the reader’s mind. The conclusion that the whites are capable of being as savage as the Indians reaches the reader almost subconsciously; since it requires precisely that memory which the story in its onward rush seeks to disable, it is a — high — function of plot achieved virtually in opposition against the very story that generates it.

The novel’s second half presents this sort of comparison direcdtly in the story and reserves to the plot even more complex matters. The travel pattern in the second half makes the story into a mechanism of discovery: an object or circumstance encountered along the way becomes itself an insight, frequently explained by Leatherstocking as an answer to a question barely broached in the first half. For example, the fear that Cora and Alice might be raped at Glens Falls is lifted when they are not: whatever might have happened does not happen because Magua happens to have other plans. In the second half we are told that it was not Magua’s plans that made the difference but Indian custom of never violating captive women. Munro has been worrying himself sick; he wants his “babes” (209) returned to him “spotless” (223). He and Duncan worry because they know that white warfare — “shame be it to our colour” (215), says Leatherstocking — has at all times given plenty of evidence that whites consider captive women fair game, evidence that World War II and Vietnam have done nothing to weaken.

Leatherstocking becomes in the second half an interpeter not only of Indian languages but more importantly of Indian customs. Nor does Cooper make his case for Indian civilization by Uncas alone, whom the romantic requirements of the story cast as the epitome of the noble sav{122}age; Chingachgook and even the bad (because they do not help the girls) Indians are enlisted. Cooper has the reader observe the warm relationship between Chingachgook and Uncas, the son’s instant obedience when the father wishes to end their conversation and go to sleep, the musicality of the Indian language (no bloodcurdling yells or cavemen’s grunts here), and the high standards of Indian debate (which Cooper recommends as a model for whites — and who, considering the deplorable lack of decorum in many of today’s parliaments, including the British, would disagree?) The rape matter, the Indians’ not hurting a “non-composser” (224), Leatherstocking’s stern lecture to David Gamut on the Indians’ — even the Mingoes’ — worshiping not idols but “the true and living God” (226) are further lessons for Leatherstocking’s white companions and Cooper’s readers. The bad Indians, we observe, have rules as strict as those of baseball; Reed-That-Bends looks, so to speak, at three pitches and therefore strikes out: he has dishonored his tribe by cowardice thrice and is therefore summarily executed. Tamenund’s Delawares prize justice and go to some length to establish it; they also obey the Indian law of hospitality so scrupulously that the reader thinks immediately of the Christian notion of turning the other cheek.

Most significantly, Cooper makes the anxiety of the white travelers before the uncharted wilderness across the Horican express the anxiety of the white reader before the unfamiliar culture. Duncan and Munro must enter this wilderness to reclaim daughters and bride; the reader must learn about Indian culture to reclaim a vital part of his past. Neither party is qualified; Duncan and Munro must be guided by Leatherstocking and the two Mohicans, the reader by Cooper. The guilt of having lost the girls motivates the two officers; the guilt of having dispossessed and decimated the Indians should motivate the white American reader. Cooper’s job is the more difficult of the two: his reader does not wish to go. Hence, the wilderness beyond the Horican becomes the book’s second major metaphor, a symbol for the white man’s attitude toward Indian life and history in general:

The party had landed on the border of a region that is, even to this day, less known to the inhabitants of the states, than the deserts of Arabia, or the steppes of Tartary. It was the sterile and rugged district, which separates the tributaries of Champlain from those of the Hudson, the Mohawk, and of the St. Lawrence. Since the period of our tale, the active spirit of the country has surrounded it with a belt of rich and thriving settlements, though none but the hunter of the savage is ever known, even now, to penetrate its wild recesses (212).

{123} Here and in several of his footnotes of 1831, Cooper makes clear that the locales of the novel’s first half — Lake George, Glens Falls, Ballston Spa, all in the southeastern foothills of the Adirondacks — have by 1826 been appropriated by the white man, but the Adirondacks proper have not been. “Sterile” and “rugged,” they cannot be made over into a garden, but even travelers do not visit them. It is most revealing that Cooper does not set Rome or Paris against the Adirondacks but foreign wildernesses instead. The Adirondacks thus are the metaphor for the past one wishes to deny by ignoring it, even while one professes to have a open, exploring mind. They are the blot on the landscapes of the map as well as of the soul. Out of sight, out of mind; in our time, he who visits Auschwitz or Hiroshima is more likely to think about the holocaust than he who spends his vacation exploring Nullarbor Plain or Queen Maud Land, not to mention lounging on the Riviera.

“If it were not for death and marriage I do not know how the average novelist would conclude” (143), says Forster. Uncas and Magua must die, for in 1826 the Eastern Indians are, for all practical purposes, dead. Duncan and Alice must marry, or else most readers hostile to Cooper’s teaching will not finish the book. But there is more than death and marriage at the end; they are the winding up of the story, which for this purpose briefly reverts to its erstwhile level. It is the plot which, in taking up the title motto, inquires after the sense of the ending.

Cora bears the full weight of that motto: “Mislike me not, for my complexion, The shadowed livery of the burnished sun.” From the beginning, she is the dark lady, no matter how white she may appear, though she seems much better off than Mark Twain’s Roxy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, for her speech matches her beauty, and she is no slave. She likes Duncan but is too noble to cut in on her half-sister Alice. Uncas and Magua find her attractive, although they see her as white, since Cora’s background is revealed only to Duncan, at William Henry, in the privacy of Munro’s quarters. From the first, she judges persons by anything but their complexions. She defends Magua agains Alice: “’Should we distrust the man, because his manners are not our manners, and that his skin is dark!’ coldly asked Cora” (21); she says “dark,” not “red”! Magua should of course have been distrusted for the likelihood of wanting revenge for the whipping Munro subjected him to. Later, she commends Duncan for his assessment of noble-looking Uncas: “’Now Major Heyward speaks, as Major Heyward should,’ said Cora; ‘who, that looks at this creature of nature, remembers the shade of his skin!’” (53) When she rejects Magua’s deal — to free the others by becoming his squaw — she conceals “her powerful disgust” (104), which arises primarily from his calculating vengeance. That {124} she has little to hope for becomes clear to the reader in Duncan’s interview with Munro when Duncan conceals his prejudice against her blackness by a lie and an encomium of Alice.

Cooper does not solve the complexities of Cora’s mixed blood. When she speaks to Tamenund of how “’the curse of my ancestors has fallen heavily on their child!’” (305) and Tamenund replies with a spirited condemnation of white racial prejudice, the matter is not pursued any further (“’but why — it is not permitted us to inquire!’” says Cora), and nobody is the wiser. To Magua, her blackness would scarcely have made a difference; what counts for him is that she is Munro’s daughter, and her duties as a squaw would have been no different than those of the blacks Magua describes in his speech to the Delawares, “’to work for ever’” (300). Uncas, Cora’s match in nobility of spirit, could not have cared either, though their “future prospects” (344) are denied by Leatherstocking anyway and would have greatly unsettled “the self-command of both Heyward and Munro” (344) who, unlike Uncas and Leatherstocking, know that Cora is not pure white.

In not explicity exploring the ramifications of the racial problem posed by Cora’s background, Cooper clearly considers the attitude of his reader. His immediate goal is a revision of his contemporaries’ view — kept alive by the memory of Jane McCrea — of the Indians as unmitigated savages; that goal can be achieved without the detailing of Cora’s mixed background (or, better yet, entirely without Cora, since her beauty and death call to mind Jane McCrea’s). 7 But Cora and her problem are in the book, which therefore has a goal beyond the immediate one. Cooper’s activating the Shakespeare motto is not a matter of story, but a subtle enriching of plot; it requires the reader’s memory and intelligence of which Forster speaks, although it may also well be comprehended intuitively by the bus-man’s unpretending good nature and decency of character. Except — and because of — Bassanio, Shakespeare’s Portia dislikes all suitors a priori. She then finds acceptable reasons for disliking them in their shortcomings: who would really wish her a drunkard for a husband? We do not know much about the Prince of Morocco. He is a bit blustering, but apparently he has the record to back it up. We do not know why he courts Portia, nor does it really matter, since he chooses the wrong casket anyway. What matters is Portia’s reaction. She mislikes him because of his complexion, not because of any character deficiencies. When he honors the stipulations and leaves quickly, like a gentleman, Portia comments: “A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go. / Let all of his complexion choose me so.” 8

One is tempted to equate Morocco with Uncas, Portia with Cora — but Morocco is black, not red. His lines are on Cooper’s title page because {125} in Cooper’s day as in ours, the blacks — unlike the Indians — are alive and numerous. The motto and Cora’s being part black in a world that sees the white man triumph over the redskins can have but one message: let us not do unto the blacks as we have done unto the Indians. Hence, the reaffirmation of Leatherstocking’s friendship for Chingachgook at the end of The Last of the Mohicans becomes the symbol of mutual racial acceptance, an acceptance which today’s “black is beautiful” echoes in calling for not a problematic merging but a rightful coexistence. Stripped of their dogmatic use, the lines from Psalm 133 which David Gamut sings at the book’s beginning might, more fitting than Tamenund’s cyclic epitaph, dismiss the congregation of Cooper’s readers at the book’s end: “How good it is, O see, / And how it pleaseth well, / Together, e’en in unity, / for brethren so to dwell” (26). That Tamenund’s lines do close the book tells us that Cooper is well aware of the realities of history indeed; nevertheless, that awareness does not fetter his imagination. In his Introduction of 1831, Cooper writes that “the business of a writer of fiction is to approach, as near as his powers will allow, to poetry” (7). E. M. Forster, we remember, locates the “spongy tract” that is the novel between “the opposing ranges of Poetry and of History” (17-18). In moving away from the historical “narrative of 1757” in the second half of The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper aspires to poetry and asks for a world more tolerant and more humane than he knew his was and suspected ours would be.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983 (the Cooper Edition).
  • Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927.
  • O’Donnell, Thomas F. “New York Literature: From Reconstruction to the Great Depression.” In Richards Atlas of New York State. Phoenix, N.Y.: Frank E. Richards, 1957-59.
  • {127} Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. In The Complete Works. Edited by G. B. Harrison. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1961, pp. 579-612.
  • Thrall, William Flint, and Hibbard, Addison. A Handbook to Literature. Revised and enlarged by C. Hugh Holman. New York: Odyssey, 1960.
  • Vendler, Helen. “Presidential Address 1960.” PMLA 96.3 (May 1981): 344-50.


1 Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983, p. xxii (all references to the novel in my text are to this edition). Many of Professor Beard’s insights first appeared in his Afterword to the Signet Classic edition of the novel (New York: New American Library, 1962); it is there that they first met me and changed my thinking about Cooper’s landscapes. In a less specific way I am equally indebted to the balance and general good sense of the late William Charvat’s Introduction to the Riverside edition (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1958)

2 H. Daniel Peck’s A World by Itself. The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), for example, includes a searching discussion of the landscape in The Last of the Mohicans, but I cannot follow him to the mythic “eternal feminine” (122). For Cass, see James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Sloane, 1949), p. 47.

3 For Mark Twain’s and other attacks see Warren S. Walker, Leatherstocking and the Critics (Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1965). Negative on Cooper’s plots are, among many others, R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam (Chicago: Univer{126}sity of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 100, and Blake Nevius, Cooper’s Landscapes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. vii. The most spirited defense of Cooper’s art is Jane F. Tompkins, “No Apologies for the Iroquois: A New Way to Read the Leatherstocking Novels,” Criticism 23 (1981): 24-41.

4 The quotations are from William Flint Thrall et al., A Handbook to Literature (New York: Odyssey, 1960), pp. 356, 358. C. Hugh Holman’s third edition (1972) gives a much more differentiated entry on “Plot” and adds a new one on “Story.”

5 My discussion summarizes and paraphrases parts of Chapters 1, 2, and 5 of Aspects of the Novel. Miriam Allott, Novelists on the Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959) neglects to heed Forster’s definition of audience (161) and therefore quite erroneously speaks of his “contempt for the ‘story’” (176). Robert L. Caserio, Plot, Story and the Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979) ignores Forster’s clarification by using the terms plot and story “interchangeably” (4) and charges Forster with being hostile to plot, not realizing that in the section in question, Forster summarizes not his own attitude but that of Andr&eacut; Gide (and playfully at that). Forster himself disliked finely spun definitions and is perhaps for that reason not too popular with critics. “For me,” he writes, “the ‘whole intricate question of method’ resolves itself not into formulæ but into the power of the writer to bounce the reader into accepting what he says” (119).

6 A fine example is Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, revised edition (New York: Dell, 1967), p. 205. Fiedler’s indispensable discussion of the novel explores the race problem and the title motto (197-209), but his interest in the theme of “the pure marriage of males” (211) leads him onward before he has done full justice to these.

7 For the murder of Jane McCrea, see the note on Vanderlyn’s painting (xi) and the reproduction of the painting (Plate 1, following xviii) in the Cooper Edition.

8 II.vii.78-79. The act opens with Morocco’s “Mislike me not” lines; II.i-1-2 — II.vii.41-42 (“The Hyrcanian deserts and the vasty wilds / Of wide Arabia ... “) may have prompted Cooper’s “deserts of Arabia” and “steppes of Tartary.”