The Last of the Mohicans as a Gothic Novel
Presented at the 6ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1986.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1986 Conference at State University College of New York — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 41-53).
Copyright © 1987 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
The Last of the Mohicans a Gothic novel? On the face of it the suggestion seems absurd. The book contains none of the elements that we have been taught to associate with Gothic fiction. There is no castle, no old manor house, no crumbling abbey; no closed off wine: or subterranean labyrinth where mystery lurks; no venal nobleman or sinister monk to persecute the innocent heroine; no ghosts or specters, real or imagined, to threaten from the darkness. Instead, we find the familiar elements of the American border romance; the vast expanse of an untouched forest wilderness and those who inhabit it, the frontiersman, warring tribes of Indians, and foreign soldiers struggling to seize control of a continental empire. The mode seems to be more closely akin to the epic than to the Gothic, for the book clearly presents an early stage of the great westward movement that has become imbedded in American mythology and that still resonates in our imaginations even so late as the closing years of the twentieth century. But appearances are deceiving, and The Last of the Mohicans stands in closer relation to the Gothic than at first meets the eye. 1
In the first place, the external elements we have listed are not essential to the Gothic mode. They are familiar to us from the works of such eighteenth-century British writers as Horace Walpole, Clara Reeve, Charlotte Smith, Matthew Gregory Lewis, and Ann Radcliffe. But these first writers of Gothic fiction flourished a whole generation or two before Cooper began to write, and while it is true that many of their imitators continued to use the external elements that first appeared in their works, others began to transform the mode through the use of different materials. It is not the castle or the abbey that is important to the Gothic, but a sense of enclosed space that can be represented as well through other devices. In a similar fashion, the fear of ghosts and specters, of strange sights and sounds, is after all only the fear of the unknown and the unexpected. It too can be as easily expressed through other means. The sense of insecurity and danger, of a threat to the self, is what is important, not the external elements used to express it.
In the second place, a forest setting is not incompatible with the Gothic if the landscape described is appropriately wild and terrifying. A strong interest in this kind of landscape had developed in England during the eighteenth century as the paintings of Salvator Rosa, the seventeenth-century Italian artist, became known. His wild and savage landscapes so appealed to the developing taste for the sublime that by the end of the eighteenth century, similar views began to be drawn by the literary landscape, filled with towering cliffs, barren crags, and here and there a blasted tree, that is the verbal equivalent of Rosa’s paintings, and twenty years later, in Waverley (1814), Sir Walter Scott, himself influenced by his Gothic predecessors, used much the same kind of setting. The massive rocks, beetling precipice, and scathed tree included in his description of the Scottish Highlands ultimately derive from the same source (Manwaring 212-17, 225-26). By the time Cooper began to write, therefore, there was ample precedent in British fiction for the type of landscape that he was to develop in The Last of the Mohicans.
There was precedent too in the works of American writers and painters, but in the United States the Gothic landscape was soon adapted to American realities. It was made to fit the native environment. The work of Charles Brockden Brown provides an obvious example. Though Brown may resemble his European contemporaries in some of the devices he uses in Wieland (1798), his enclosures are set on a pleasant rural estate in an American countryside that is the antithesis of the settings found in The Mysteries of Udolpho. And when he did turn to a more rugged and sublime setting in Edgar Huntly (1799), he made the Norwalk region a part of the American wilderness, complete with panther and hostile Indians. James Fenimore Cooper knew both of these books. In Notions of the Americans (1828), he comments upon the memorable qualities of Wieland, a book he apparently read as a boy (Cooper, Notions II, 111), and in his first preface to The Spy (1821), he mentions, albeit unfavorably, Brown’s handling of wilderness materials in the cave scene of Edgar Huntly. 2 But whatever opinion he may have formed of these works, he certainly read them. He must have been aware or what Brown was about in his fiction.
He was also aware of what American painters were doing. Both Washington Allston and Thomas Cole developed a Salvatorean style. Allston’s Elijah in the Desert (1818), a painting that Cooper admired and even at one time attempted to buy (L&J II, 397; Plate XII), was strongly influenced by the Italian master, and Cole fell under Rosa’s influence from the very beginning of his career at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1823. As a result, some of his early paintings, Lake with Dead Trees (1825) and Corroway Peak, N. H. — After Sunset (c. 1827), were recognized by his patron, Robert Gilmor, Jr., as Salvatorean in style (Merritt Appendix I: 43, 44; Wallace 105-109, 112-21). What is most important in these paintings, however, is that the style is adapted to the American landscape in much the same way that it is in Cooper’s novel. Indeed, by the time he painted the two versions of his Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827), a subject derived from The Last of the Mohicans (Cooper, Last Plates XIV, XV, XVI), the efforts of both painter and novelist had converged. What Cole had been doing in painting received confirmation and support from what he discovered in Cooper’s novel. By 1826, when The Last of the Mohicans was published, the Gothic landscape had been thoroughly domesticated to the American environment.
Cooper himself played a major role in that domestication. Of the five novels he published before The Last of the Mohicans, three contain significant Gothic elements. In The Spy, The Pilot (1824), and Lionel Lincoln (1825), characters are badly frightened by what appear to them to be supernatural occurrences. In The Spy, the Skinners, Black Caesar, and Katy Haynes are all convinced that they have seen a ghost and flee in terror at the appearance of Harvey Birch’s father, whom they believe to be dead. In The Pilot, British soldiers searching for the Americans along the shore retreat in haste when they misinterpret the cries of Christopher Dillon and Long Tom Coffin as the spectral voices of sailors drowned at sea. And in Lionel Lincoln, Cooper’s most conventionally Gothic novel, the protagonist, a major in the British army during the siege of Boston, hastens down Copps Hill when he hears strange sounds apparently emanating from the graveyard, and he is further unnerved when a threatening shadow appears in the church during his wedding. Though all of these scenes are reminiscent of the European Gothic, they illustrate Cooper’s early and continuing use of the mode in books that are thoroughly American in subject and theme.
More important, however, are certain elements in The Spy, which, as I have shown in my American Gothic, mark a real advance in Cooper’s domestication of the mode in the United States (106-08). Most significant is the setting, the neutral ground, a place of danger, of uncertain values, even of mystery and fear, which, because it is so firmly grounded in American geography and American history, provides a solid foundation for the Gothic suggestiveness that Cooper invests it with. The central figure here is Harvey Birch, an equivocal character at best to most of those who must deal with him. The sense of mystery that envelops him, his strange comings and goings, and his oracular statements, relate him to characters found in the European Gothic: the Wandering Jew, for example (Levi 348-68), or the seemingly preternatural beings who sometimes appear in those books. Yet Harvey Birch has the same realistic solidity as that to be found in his environment. He is a real man in a real time and place. The Gothic aura that surrounds him comes from no illegitimate manipulation of the romantic setting. It arises naturally from the geographical and historical conditions that form the very basis of the romance.
Because there is no law in the neutral around, no proper sense that things are indeed what they seem, a kind of uncertainty and insecurity pervaded the atmosphere and creates the Gothic tone: the fear of what is unknown or what appears to be inexplicable. A similar tone appears in The Last of the Mohicans and derives from the lack of control that the characters experience throughout the book. Like The Spy, The Last of the Mohicans is set in a particular time and place, upstate New York in 1757, and the setting, the untouched American wilderness, is convincingly drawn. These realities of time and place provide the solid foundation of fact necessary for Cooper’s purposes. Placed in this environment is a group of characters, most of whom are incapable of mastering their situation, and they face an enemy as mysterious and as terrifying as any supernatural beings in a conventional Gothic tale. The profound insecurity of these British and colonial characters is projected into the natural environment to create the Gothic terror that is so often apparent in the book. In this sense, The Last of the Mohicans can be read as a Gothic novel, though one firmly grounded in an American setting.
That Cooper must have seen his book in these terms is made clear in many descriptive passages. Like Radcliffe, Scott, and the painters, he creates a number of landscapes that are unmistakably Salvatorean in tone. These appear, however, only when his major characters are under severe stress in seriously threatening situations. Thus, in the opening pages of the book the American wilderness is depicted as vast, dense, and inhospitable, but it is not specifically Gothic. It is seen in an historical context, as the place through which the French and British armies force their way in an attempt to engage and defeat each other. Indeed, when Duncan Heyward, David Gamut, and the Munro sisters are making their way through the woods under the guidance of Magua in the belief that they are approaching Fort William Henry, the forest remains essentially the historical American wilderness, dangerous perhaps, but without the Gothic aura which begins to appear as the characters become aware of their perilous situation and start to develop the feeling of terror that their vulnerability before implacable enemies thrusts upon them. At this point, the wilderness begins to take on the sinister aspect that we associate with the Gothic.
When the little party of whites and Delawares seeks shelter in the caves at Glens Falls, Cooper paints the first of several Salvatorean landscapes, emphasizing the wild and savage aspects that Rosa was famous for:
The river was confined between high and cragged rocks, one of which impended above the spot where the canoe rested. As these, again, were surmounted by tall trees, which appeared to totter on the brows of the precipice, it gave the stream the appearance of running through a deep and narrow dell. All beneath the fantastic limbs and ragged tree-tops, which were, here and there, dimly painted against the starry zenith, lay alike in shadowed obscurity. Behind them, the curvature of the banks soon bounded the view, by the same dark and wooded outline; but in front, and apparently at no great distance, the water seemed piled against the heavens, whence it tumbled into caverns, out of which issued those sullen sounds, that had loaded the evening atmosphere.
In true Salvatorean style, the setting is one, as Cooper suggests, of “romantic, though not unappalling beauties” (48-49).
Once the characters are within the caves, Cooper adds another element to the description, the flashing chiaroscuro that is another characteristic of Rosa’s style. In the bright, dancing light of a blazing pine knot casting its gleams into the darkness, common objects are transformed in strange and, at times, frightening ways. By this point in the novel, Hawk-eye and Chingachgook are familiar figures to Heyward and his party, but the light of the fire markedly changes their appearance. As Hawk-eye sits in the darkness holding a brand, “the strong glare” falling upon “his sturdy, weather-beaten countenance and forest attire” lends him “an air of romantic wildness” (52), and Chingachgook becomes an “appalling object” when he steps unexpectedly out of “the darkness behind the scout, and seizing a blazing brand, [holds] it towards the further extremity of their place of retreat.” He is perceived as “a spectral looking figure,” and Cora is startled and Alice frightened.at his appearance (54). By using light in this way, Cooper creates a Gothic atmosphere through which to project the fears and uncertainties of the little party, safe for the moment in the cave, but surrounded and threatened by savage enemies.
Cooper gives the episode full scale Gothic treatment by developing at length the problem of perception illustrated briefly in the reaction of Alice and Cora to the sudden appearance of Chingachgook. In most Gothic tales the characters have difficulty interpreting what they see and hear, especially when the phenomenon is mysterious, puzzling, or in some way out of the ordinary, as, for example, the voices heard in Brockden Brown’s Wieland. The characters in the cave at Glens Falls face such a problem when, just as they have finished singing a very moving hymn, “a cry, that seemed neither human, nor earthly, rose in the outward air, penetrating not only the recesses of the cavern, but to the inmost hearts of all who heard it. It was followed by a stillness apparently as deep as if the waters had been checked in their furious progress at such a horrid and unusual interruption” (59). All the characters are puzzled by what they have heard, and when “the same strong, horrid cry” again fills the air, even Hawk-eye’s firmness begins “to give way, before a mystery that [seems] to threaten some danger, against which all his cunning and experience might prove of no avail” (61).
Because it resembles nothing they have experienced, Hawk-eye and the Delawares believe that the sound is supernatural and they consider it a warning given for their benefit. To profit from that warning, they decide to leave the cave and survey the surrounding woods to see if they can discover what it portends, but “their anxious and eager looks [are] baffled by the deceptive light,” and their eyes rest “only on naked rocks, and straight and immovable trees” (63). At this point the sound is heard a third time, and though Hawk-eye still believes that it comes from no earthy source, Heyward is able to explain the phenomenon. Though the sound deceived him when he was in the cavern, in the open air, he cannot be mistaken. It is the cry of a horse in an agony of pain and terror, and it comes from Heyward’s charger that they have had to leave in the woods. Fear of wolves has drawn it from him. Thus, explained, the sound can no longer terrify, and Hawk-eye’s “momentary weakness,” brought on by his confrontation with what seemed to be inexplicable, vanishes “with the explanation of [the] mystery, which his own experience had not served to fathom” (64).
The incident can thus be seen as an example of the “explained” Gothic, a device frequently used by Ann Radcliffe, who frightened her readers with apparently supernatural phenomena and then dispelled the fears with rational explanations. Such a conclusion in Cooper’s case, however, would misconstrue his purpose in placing such an episode in his novel. The real question is not the nature of the phenomenon, but the reason for its misinterpretation by the characters. Here the key word is “experience.” We interpret in terms of what we already know, and when one’s knowledge does not extend into an area, he is likely to misread what he perceives. Alice and Cora Munro are most at fault, for they find themselves in an environment that is totally new and strange, and Heyward is only somewhat more successful because he is more experienced than they. He is able to calm their fears, for example, when Chingachgook appears in the cave, for he recognizes him immediately as their Indian friend. Hawk-eye and the Delawares, proficient in wilderness lore, are most skillful in interpreting its reality, but even they are at a loss to explain a phenomenon that has not fallen within their range of experience.
The cave is an appropriate place for the misperception to occur. It is, of course, a specific geographical spot in the American wilderness and thus serves a perfectly realistic function as the place to which the beleaguered characters can withdraw to protect themselves from their enemies. But it is also the classic Gothic enclosure, corresponding to the castle, abbey, room, or subterranean labyrinth used in the popular romances, and as such, it represents the inner self — the mind or heart — of those who enter it. Here the weakness and credulity of all the characters are revealed, but only the least experienced are trapped within its precincts. When the struggle reaches its climax, the scout and his Indian friends escape into the river and elude their attackers. Heyward, Gamut, and the girls, however, are unable to follow them, and although they retreat into the inner recesses of the cavern and hide behind a brush-filled entry for a while, their foes quickly find them and take them captive. Though Hawk-eye and the Delawares soon rescue them from their captors, what happens in the cave reveals their vulnerability to foes who are far more experience than they.
In this respect, Heyward and the girls are much like the characters in a Gothic romance, who are equally ineffective in their attempts to ward off or escape the mysterious forces that harass them. And like those Gothic characters, they fall victim to the misperception of reality that, in the case of their European predecessors, is influenced by the mysterious environment — castle or abbey — in which they find themselves. For Heyward and the Munro sisters, the cave at Glens Falls is just such an environment, a place where ordinary things appear to be mysterious or terrifying. As such, however, the cave is really no different from the untamed forest world of which it is merely a part. For these characters, the whole American wilderness is such a place. This is the reason why Cooper returns to Salvatorean landscapes and Gothic devices throughout the novel. They are used to project the legitimate fears and uncertainties of a group of characters who find themselves in an environment which their experience does not permit them to understand and master. Their perception becomes distorted, they misinterpret what they see and hear, and they sometimes succumb to legitimate feelings of fear.
Similar episodes recur whenever the situation of the white characters is critical. The landscape becomes Salvatorean and a Gothic tone appears. Thus, when Hawk-eye and the Delawares rescue their friends from the Hurons after the battle at Glens Falls, they camp for the night in a spot which is yet another wilderness counterpart of the Gothic enclosure. Hawk-eye leads the little party to a ruined blockhouse where he once fought the Mohawks and buried their fallen warriors. It sits on a small hillock, in the center of a cleared area, which is in turn surrounded by a belt of entangled brush and briar. When the characters enter the place and learn what has happened there, the Munro sisters cannot “entirely suppress an emotion of natural horror” to find themselves on the grave of dead Mohawk warriors. At this point, the landscape takes on an appropriately Gothic tone. “The gray light, the gloomy little area of dark grass, surrounded by its border of brush, beyond which the pines rose, in breathing silence, apparently, into the very clouds, and the death-like stillness of the vast forest, were all in unison to deepen the sensation” that the girls naturally feel (126).
This somewhat conventional Gothic episode is, however, merely the prelude to a far more terrifying experience: the arrival of a group of Hurons who approach the enclosure in search of the white characters. Cooper maintains suspense as the footsteps and mingled voices of the Indians come within hearing and the Hurons separate to look for the lost trail. A single warrior makes his way through the brush and enters the cleared area. He summons another Indian, and the two gaze in surprise at the blockhouse. Torn between curiosity and apprehension, they cautiously approach the ruin, when one of them discovers the burial mound and stoops to examine it. The two speak solemnly for a moment, “as if influenced by a reverence that was deeply blended with awe. Then they [draw] warily back, keeping their eyes riveted on the ruin, as if they expected to see the apparitions of the dead issue from its silent walls.” Then, “having reached the boundary of the area, they [move] slowly into the thicket, and [disappear]” (132). Only the experience of Hawk-eye and the Delawares, who keep their party concealed and maintain strict silence, prevents the spell from being broken and a fatal struggle from taking place.
As soon as they are sure the Indians are gone, Hawk-eye leads the party out of the forest enclosure and continues the journey to Fort William Henry. Here the British garrison, led by Colonel Munro, dwells in false security, relying first on help that never comes and then on the word of Montcalm to insure their safety. Hawk- eye and the Delawares all but disappear from the book, and the Hurons are perceived only as distant figures peering from the edge of the forest. As a result, the Gothic tone is absent from these pages. In its place we find a stylized ritual, a reliance on form and a concern for titles and honor that blind the English to their imminent danger. They rely on a system of social value that is utterly irrelevant to their perilous situation, and when their fantasy is finally dispelled by the wilderness reality, many pay for the error with their lives. Though the massacre, terrible as it is, cannot perhaps be described as Gothic, what follows in the novel as Hawk-eye, the Delawares, and Heyward, now joined by Colonel Munro, go to the rescue of Alice and Cora, most certainly can.
When these five characters return to the fort three days after the massacre to begin their mission, the landscape takes on once again a Salvatorean quality. The fort is now a smoldering ruin, the bodies of the dead are stiffening in the chill of a premature autumn, and the waters of the Horican are lashed into waves. “The bold and rocky mountains” which delimit the scene are stark “in their barrenness,” and a “dusky sheet of ragged and driving vapour” lowers over the landscape. Everything contributes to the ominous tone.
The wind blew unequally; sometimes sweeping heavily alone the ground, seeming to whisper its meanings in the cold ears of the dead, then rising in a shrill and mournful whistling, it entered the forest with a rush that filled the air with the leaves and branches it scattered in its path. Amid the unnatural shower, a few hungry ravens struggled with the gale; but no sooner was the green ocean of woods, which stretched beneath them, passed, then they gladly stooped, at random, to their hideous banquet (181).
This wild and desolate landscape announces the return of the Gothic mode to the book.
Once again the characters enter an enclosure — the smoldering ruins of Fort William Henry — and the least experienced of them is disturbed by sounds which he is unable to interpret correctly. With the coming of night the wind falls, the clouds break asunder, and “an impenetrable darkness” falls “within the bosom of the encircling hills.” The plain lies “like a vast and deserted charnel-house, without omen or whisper, to disturb the slumbers of its numerous and hapless tenants” (190). The scouts build a “glimmering fire,” and as Heyward looks from its glare to the fainter light in the skies and then to “the embodied gloom, which [lies] like a dreary void on that side of him where the dead reposed,” he fancies he hears “inexplicable sounds” coming from the plain, “though so indistinct and stolen, as to render not only their nature, but even their existence, uncertain.” He tries to throw off his apprehension and seeks “to divert his attention,” but his ears give him no peace, and he seems to hear as well “a swift trampling” rush across the darkness. “Unable to quiet his uneasiness” at what he fears is “some lurking danger,” he summons Hawk-eye to listen (191).
Hawk-eye is unperturbed by what he hears, for he can identify the sounds. They are made by the wolves moving among the dead. His role and that of Heyward have thus been reversed from what they were at Glens Falls. There, Hayward was able to explain the terrible cries that puzzled the scout; here, the scout can explain the sounds that made Heyward uneasy. Experience is the key to each man’s success, a fact further illustrated by what occurs after Heyward is disabused of his needless apprehensions. As he and Hawk-eye are talking, the scout becomes alert to a sound that Heyward apparently does not hear. A few signals pass between Hawk-eye and the Delawares, Uncas disappears into the darkness, and Chingachgook remains motionless by the fire. A shot rings out and the Sagamore vanishes. The wolves run off, a plunge is heard in the lake, and a second rifle fires. Heyward can hardly follow this chain of events, which Hawk-eye seems to interpret with little difficulty. What has occurred becomes clear when the Delawares reappear, and Uncas displays the reeking scalp of an Oneida who was lurking about the camp. While Heyward was frightened by harmless sounds, a real danger was impending of which he was unaware.
This incident sets the tone for much of the remainder of the book. As the little party penetrates the wilderness, Heyward confronts an environment that he does not understand, and Hawk-eye explicitly warns him: “If you judge of Indian cunning by the rules you find in books, white sagacity, they will lead you astray, if not to your death” (204). But Heyward has little else to judge by, and although he has Hawk-eye and the Delawares to guide him, there are occasions when he must confront the wilderness reality alone. It is only natural then that, inexperienced as he is, he will frequently be at fault in his perceptions. At least three times in the latter part of the book, Heyward misperceives reality. At one point he comes upon what he thinks is an Indian village, perceives the inhabitants crawling along and dragging some formidable apparatus, and is startled at the appearance of what he takes to be a Huron dressed in white man’s clothes. Hawk-eye is amused when he discovers Heyward’s mistake, for the “Indian village” is only a colony of beavers, and the “Huron” is David Gamut, who has accompanied the Munro sisters into captivity.
A short time later, Heyward is again mistaken. Entering the Huron camp disguised as a French juggler travelling among the Indians, he perceives a group of Hurons alternately rising from and disappearing into a cover of “tall, coarse grass, in front of the lodges.” They appear to him “like dark glancing spectres, or some other unearthly beings.” A naked form appears, “tossing its arms wildly in the air,” only to vanish and reappear “suddenly, in some other and distant place.” While he gazes at them in amazement, Gamut, who has been living among the Indians, informs him that “the objects of his wonder” are merely a group of Indian children playing about the village (230-31). In a similar fashion, when Heyward encounters a bear in the Indian camp, he takes it to be an animal domesticated by the Indians, and he is unnerved when the bear growls at his heels and lays its enormous paws on him. The Indian who accompanies him is unconcerned at the beast’s antics, for he understands it to be an Indian conjurer dressed in a bear skin. But Heyward continues in his error until Hawk-eye reveals that he has appropriated the costume to gain access to the Huron camp.
Because Heyward is so uncertain of what he is experiencing, Cooper projects his insecurity through extended Gothic descriptions, which, in the intensity of their lighting, are unmistakably Salvatorean.
Large piles of brush lay scattered about the clearing, and a wary and aged squaw was occupied in firing as many as might serve to light the coming exhibition. As the flame arose, its power exceeded that of the parting day, and assisted to render objects, at the same time, more distinct and more hideous. The whole scene formed a striking picture, whose frame was composed of the dark and tall border of pines. (236)
A dozen blazing piles now shed their lurid brightness on the place, which resembled some unhallowed and supernatural arena, in which malicious demons had assembled to act their bloody and lawless rites. The forms in the back ground, looked like unearthly beings, gliding before the eye, and cleaving the air with frantic and unmeaning gestures; while the savage passions of such as passed the flames, were rendered fearfully distinct, by the gleams that shot athwart their inflamed visages (237).
To Heyward’s perception, the Huron camp is a hell inhabited by demons.
Heyward’s experience seems to confirm his perception, for what he witnesses there strongly suggests the demonic. He watches in amazement as the Indians force the captive Uncas to run the gauntlet and pursue him relentlessly until he wins a brief respite by reaching a painted post. He hears the Huron women taunt the young Delaware, especially a “squalid and withered” hag who is malignant in her invective (239). And he witnesses the brutal execution of a Huron warrior, accused of cowardice, who is stabbed to the heart by a gray-haired chief. He observes the old woman enter the council chamber, moving “in a slow, sideling sort of dance, holding a [torch,] and muttering the indistinct words of what might have been a species of incantation” (242). Witch-like in her words and actions, she contributes to the sense of Gothic terror that pervades the scene, and she brings the episode to a dramatic close when, at the death of the cowardly Huron, she gives “a loud and plaintive yell, [dashes] the torch to the earth, and [buries] every thing in darkness. The whole shuddering groupe of spectators [glides] from the lodge, like troubled sprites” (243).
Throughout the book, of course, Indians have been described as devils and their actions as hellish. When a Huron seizes the canoe at Glens Falls and escapes with it, his cry of triumph is “answered by a yell, and a laugh from the woods, as tauntingly exulting as if fifty demons were uttering their blasphemies at the fall of some Christian soul” (76). And during the massacre at Fort William Henry — “the jubilee of the devils” (177), as David Gamut calls it — the Indians become “heated and maddened by the sight” of blood, and many of them kneel and drink “freely, exultinely, hellishly, of the crimson tide” (176). The Indians, to be sure, are not devils. They are simply unrestrained savages who, though brutal and cruel in some of their actions, are nonetheless human beings. But to the perception of those white characters who are threatened and persecuted by them, their actions seem devilish and their camp another hell. It is only to be expected, then, that as the book approaches its climax and the situation of the white characters becomes most desperate, the setting in which they struggle would appear increasingly infernal and its inhabitants thoroughly demonic.
Yet in another sense their perception is valid, for a driving force among the Hurons, the implacable Magua, is objectively evil. Though he perceives himself to be a wronged man — Colonel Munro had him flogged for drunkenness — the revenge he seeks — to punish the old man by enslaving his daughter Cora — is without question fiendish. It is right, therefore, that Magua be depicted in demonic terms, for he is the cause of the danger that the white characters face and of the insecurity they feel. His expression is malignant, his “guttural laugh” sounds to Heyward like “the hellish taunt of a demon” (260), and a fiery light burns in his eyes (113), the infallible sign in Gothic romances of a devilish character. Indeed, when he reaches the apex of his power among the Hurons and becomes their unquestioned leader, the identification of Magua with Satan is almost complete. He retires to his hut but seeks no repose, spending the night instead musing on his future plans in the dancing light of a fire. As the flames throw their wavering light upon him, “the dusky savage” looks like “the Prince of Darkness, brooding on his own fancied wrongs, and plotting evil” (284).
Magua’s actions throughout the novel justify these descriptions. He betrays the trust of Heyward and the Munro sisters, who, as the action begins, accept him as a guide to Fort William Henry, and he is directly responsible for the massacre at the fort. He goes among the Indians inflaming their passions as the English take their departure, and he gives “the fatal and appalling whoop” — the beginning of the carnage (176). He uses the confusion to take the girls prisoner, seizing Alice and carrying her away as the means for forcing Cora to follow, and he separates the sisters, keeping Alice with him, knowing full well that he can best control Cora in this way. He causes the destruction of his own tribe at the hands of the Canada Delawares by his single- minded insistence on his personal revenge in the face of Uncas, who soon thereafter leads the Delawares in the attack on the Huron camp. Even in defeat Magua remains implacable. His warriors scattered or dead, his village overrun, he still attempts to drag Cora off to the wilderness, and the final result of his many evil deeds is not only his own destruction, but the deaths of Cora and Uncas as well.
As befits the Gothic mood, Magua’s end takes place in a landscape as wild and savage as any in the book. After the death of Cora, he stabs Uncas in the back, hurls the knife at Heyward, and utters “a cry, so fierce, so wild, and yet so joyous, that it [conveys] the sounds of savage triumph to the ears of those who [are fighting far] below” (337). He mounts the craggy heights in an attempt to escape his enemies, but, in his hatred and pride, he pauses to taunt them. “Laughing hoarsely, he [makes] a desperate leap,” but falls short of the precipice he trying to reach. As he hangs by “a shrub on the verge of the height,” Hawk- eye takes aim, and just as it seems that Magus will succeed in pulling himself to safety, fires. Fiendish to the end, Magua turns “a relentless look on his enemy,” shakes “a hand in grim defiance,” and drops to his destruction (338). Magua’s death resonates, appropriately, with a Gothic tone. In his plunge from a height into the abyss, he recalls the fate of Ambrosio in Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk and of Melmoth in Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth, the Wanderer, both of whom are destroyed in a similar fall.
The Gothic mode is not, of course, the only one that Cooper uses in The Last of the Mohicans. In the final chapter he turns to the elegiac as he describes the burial of Cora and Uncas and presents the lament of Tamenund over the fate of the Lenape. He includes the comic in his treatment of David Gamut, which, at the time the book was written, would have been understood as a satiric thrust at the New England character. And he certainly uses the epic in his handling of the great national subject, the struggle among the various groups for the possession of a continent. Hawk-eye, Chingachgook, and Uncas are certainly heroic figures and they belong to a heroic age. They engage in an epic encounter on which the fate of a nation will ultimately depend. They fight against overwhelming odds, meet a strong and wily enemy on his own terms, and through their prowess finally defeat him. The struggle goes on throughout the book, from the moment they discover Heyward and the Munro sisters being led astray by Magua until the final defeat of the Hurons and the death of their demonic chief.
These aspects aside, however, The Last of the Mohicans remains very much a Gothic novel. The Gothic tone is pervasive and dominates the book as the other modes do not. Even the epic plays, on the whole, a subordinate role to it. At crucial points in the action we see the world as it is experienced by Duncan Heyward and, to a lesser extent, by Alice and Cora Munro, and in one major action, the episode at Glens Falls, even Hawk-eye and the Delawares are caught up momentarily in Gothic mystery. The primary function of the Gothic elements, however, is to reveal the uncertainties that trouble those white characters who find themselves in a new and frightening environment. Insecure in a world that their inexperience does not permit them to understand or to master, they fall prey to the misunderstandings and misperceptions that can only result in the feelings of fear that beset them in those episodes in which they are most vulnerable. The setting may be the American wilderness instead of a haunted castle, the foe savage Indians instead of supernatural beings, but the novel is nonetheless Gothic and demonstrates unmistakably Cooper’s brilliance in domesticating the mode to a thoroughly American environment.
- Butler, Michael D. “Narrative Structure and Historical Process in The Last of the Mohicans.” American Literature 48 (1976): 118-20.
- Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. Ed. James A. Sappenfield and E. N. Feltskog. Albany: SUNY Press, 1983.
- ------. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Ed. James Franklin Beard. 6 vols. Cambridge: Belknap — Harvard University Press, 1960-68.
- ------. Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Carey, 1828.
- Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. rev. ed. New York: Dell, 1966.
- Howard, David. James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: ‘without a cross’,” Tradition and Tolerance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Ed. David Howard, John Lucas and John Goode. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967.
- Manwaring, Elizabeth W. Italian Landscape in Eighteenth Century England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1925.
- Merritt, Howard S. “A Wild Scene, Genesis of a Painting,” Baltimore Museum of Art Annual II, 1967.
- Philbrick, Thomas. “The Last of the Mohicans and the Sounds of Discord.” American Literature 113 (1971): 25.
- Ringe, Donald A. American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth Century Fiction. Lexington: University Press Kentucky, 1982.
- St. Armand, Barton Levi, “Harvey Birch as the Wandering Jew: Literary Calvinism in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy.” American Literature 50 (1978): 348-68.
- Wallace, Richard A. Salvator Rosa in America. Wellesley: Wellesley College Museum, 1979.
1 Although several scholars have commented briefly on the Gothic elements in The Last of the Mohicans, none of them gives the subject the extended treatment it deserves. See Fiedler 205; Howard 114-5; Philbrick 25; Butler 118-20.
2 The first edition of The Spy is not readily accessible, but the Preface will soon become available when the State University of New York Press edition of the novel, now in process, is published. [Transcriber’s note: Despite Professor Ringe’s optimism, the MLA approved edition of The Spy, edited by Lance Schachterle and presumably including the original preface, has yet (July 2000) to appear; though its publication (by a different publisher) is expected very shortly. — Hugh C. McDougall].