The Last of the Mohicans and the Holocaust 1

Allan M. Axelrad (California State University, Fullerton).

Presented at the 13ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Artat the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2001.

Copyright © 2001, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta. .

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2001 Cooper Seminar (No. 13), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 7-16).

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

{7} The Last of the Mohicans may be one of the most widely recognized classic American titles, but it is also one of the least read and least appreciated classic American novels. Unlike other American classics, its academic literary reputation was established by novelists — Mark Twain and D. H. Lawrence — rather than by academic literary scholars. Today Europeans are more likely to have read the novel, and they treat it with more respect than generations of Americans whose exposure to Cooper came from reading Twain’s 1895 lampoon, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” in undergraduate literary anthologies. 2 In American popular culture the phrase “the last of the Mohicans” has taken on a life of its own. It has become a vernacular expression for the last of almost anything, from a piece of merchandise or memorabilia to a Mafia don. 3 It is good for laughs. For example, in a 1992 Gary Larson cartoon, “Second to last of the Mohicans,” there are six Indians standing in a line, with the second to last turned toward the reader, wearing a silly grin, and waving. 4 To the extent that The Last of the Mohicansis recognized today as a work of creative significance, it may be more beholden to celluloid than to print: “Look! They made a book out of that ‘Last of the Mohicans’ movie,” Billy exclaims to his mommy, Thel, while pointing to a book he found on a library shelf, in a 1993 “Family Circus” cartoon. 5

In a 1993 survey by the Organization of American Historians titled “What Do American Historians Think,” The Last of the Mohicanstied for 32ⁿᵈ on their list of favorite movies about the United States, but it was not included on the list of their favorite 46 novels about the United States. 6 The credits to Michael Mann’s highly popular 1992 movie state that it was based both on Cooper’s novel and Philip Dunne’s sceenplay for the 1936 movie. But in truth, it was a film based on a film. It was not based on Cooper’s novel. As an English major in college, Mann did not read Cooper; but he did read Twain on Cooper: “I regard Cooper as Mark Twain did,” Mann stated, “which is to say not very charitably.” 7

Thus it is no surprise that the film does not follow Cooper’s novel. In Mann’s movie there is as much tension between American colonials and British officers as there is between the British and French, and the protagonist, Nathaniel Poe (a.k.a. Hawkeye), does not support the British cause. In the end, two undeveloped characters, Alice Munro and Uncas, die. They were attracted to each other, but are of minor interest to the viewer. With his son’s death, Chingachgook sadly says that he is “the last of the Mohicans,” but his pronouncement is peripheral to the primary story line of the movie. Far more importantly, the movie ends with the romantic protagonists, Cora Munro and Nathaniel Poe, who are passionately in love, gazing off into the lovely landscape that their descendants will populate; and they will be American citizens, not British colonials. Despite obvious and significant differences between the movie and the novel, some scholar’s argue that Cooper’s conclusion is not unlike the movie’s; though he may have regretted the passing of a valiant people, they believe that for him the triumph of the new civilization unquestionably justified what had to happen.

In American popular culture and among many academics, we end up with a famous title and an unimportant book; or if it is important, it is often for the wrong reasons. The end result is the trivialization of an American classic. The novel is not at all trivial. It provides a complex and powerful commentary on the historical background of the young republic. In the discussion that follows, I will examine popular as well as scholarly interpretations of The Last of the Mohicans, and I hope to show that at least some popular interpretations demonstrate significant insight into and understanding of the story that Cooper sought to tell.

While my focus will mostly be on what happened at the tale’s conclusion, I want to take a quick look at Cooper’s account in the middle of the book of the historic massacre that followed the surrender of Fort William Henry. It is situated at the center of the novel, and, some critics argue, it is at the heart of its meaning as well. In this view, for Cooper, the savagery perpetrated by the Indians justifies their replacement by white European-Americans with their superior values. In effect, the inglorious defeat and massacre at Fort William Henry, like Custer’s last stand and the Alamo, calls for retribution; justice is obtained by conquering the enemy that perpetrated the outrage and, in the case of the French, Indians, and Mexicans, annexing their lands. But Cooper’s interpretation of the massacre is more subtle and complex than this. Indeed, he actually makes a case for how cautious we need to be in our historical analysis and moral judgments.

In the novel the carnage at Fort William Henry begins when an Indian “dashed the head” of a white “infant against a rock, and cast its quivering remains to” the feet of the mother, and then “drove his tomahawk into her own brain” as well. 8 In what follows, Cooper writes, the “flow of blood might be likened to the outbreaking of a torrent; and as the natives became heated and maddened by the sight, many among them even kneeled to the earth, and drank freely, exultingly, hellishly, of the crimson tide” (176). Cooper excoriates Montcalm for not controlling his Indian allies.

{8} Thus the French, as well as the Mingoes, bear responsibility for the Fort William Henry massacre. A prior scene in The Last of the Mohicans, however, showed that the English also were unable to enforce civilized morality on their own Indian allies. When Hawkeye, Duncan, and the Munro sisters approach the besieged fort, they are stopped by a French sentry. Cora and Duncan exchange pleasantries in French with the nice young sentry. As they proceed they hear “a long and heavy groan,” followed by a fainter “groan,” and then a splash as the body is tossed into the “bloody pond” (137, 135). Soon after, Chingachgook appears with “the reeking scalp of the unfortunate young Frenchman.” Hawkeye observes, “’Twould have been a cruel and an unhuman act for a white-skin; but ‘tis the gift and natur of an Indian.” Exhibiting his own racial bias, he adds that he wished “it had befallen an accursed Mingo, rather than that gay, young boy, from the old countries!” (138). Hawkeye is capable of savage behavior, too. The “bloody pond” received its name before this tale began from a former battle with the French and Indians, when the victorious English forces indiscriminately “cast” the “dying” along with the “dead” into the “little pond,” leaving its “waters coloured with blood” (136). In this, Hawkeye participated. Moreover, after an earlier skirmish in The Last of the Mohicans, even though Chingachgook “had already torn the emblems of victory from the unresisting heads of the slain,” the “implacable scout [Hawkeye], made the circuit of the dead, into whose senseless bosoms he thrust his long knife, with as much coolness, as though they had been so many brute carcasses” (114). Near the end of the novel, Hawkeye and the Mohicans, along with Heyward and Munro, unite with the Delaware band in “the destruction” of the “whole” Huron “community” (339), which included women, and children, as well as warriors. In The Last of the MohicansIndians on both sides, the French and British, as well as Hawkeye, all are culpable for savage behavior. Similarly, to take an example from a later tale, in the massacre at the end of Deerslayer (1841) “neither age nor sex” formed “an exemption to the lot of a savage warfare”; “shrieks” and “groans” were heard from victims of “the bayonet” who were “glutted in vengeance.” 9 Like the massacre of British colonials by Hurons at Fort William Henry in the middle and Hurons by the Delaware near the end of The Last of the Mohicans, men, women, and children are indiscriminately killed, but in Deerslayerthe chief perpetrators are British soldiers, not Hurons or Delawares. It is noteworthy that, once again, Leatherstocking is also a participant. In savage warfare in Cooper’s wilderness bloodbaths abound and no one is especially praiseworthy for insuring superior moral behavior.

Most commentators correctly, I believe, have sought the key to the meaning of the novel in the concluding bloodbath. The 1826 reviews in the New-York Review and Atheneum, the North American Review, and the United States Literary Gazetteall used the word “catastrophe” to characterize what happens at the end. 10 The meaning of the “catastrophe,” however, has remained elusive. The Huron community is wiped out, Magua dies, as do Cora and Uncas. Thus it is the father, Chingachgook, instead of the son, Uncas, who becomes the last of the Mohicans, signifying for many commentators both the sad but inevitable passing of the noble, but primitive Indian people before the advances and superior offerings of white, Christian civilization, and the inability of Cooper to bridge the racial chasm by uniting Cora and Uncas in marriage.

Beginning in the 1950s, D. H. Lawrence’s 1923 essay on “Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels” would compete with Twain’s construction of Cooper’s literary reputation, for some rescuing Cooper from ridicule and giving a modicum of respectability to Cooper literary scholarship. It is a mixed blessing. Taking their cue from Lawrence, numerous scholars have focused on the different coloring and ancestry of the half-sisters in Mohicans. Lawrence says this about Cooper’s heroines: “Thomas Hardy’s inevitable division of women into dark and fair, sinful and pure, is Cooper’s division too” (61). 11 The blonde half-sister, Alice, in Mohicans, is morally and racially pure, Lawrence emphasizes. By contrast, Cora’s impurity is racial and sensual: “Cora is the scarlet flower of womanhood, fierce, passionate offspring of some mysterious union between the British officer and a Creole woman in the West Indies. Cora loves Uncas, Uncas loves Cora. But Magua also desires Cora, violently desires her. A lurid little circle of sensual fire. So Fenimore kills them all off, Cora, Uncas, and Magua.” At the end we are left with Alice “to carry on the race. She will breed plenty of white children to Major Heyward,” says Lawrence, these “tiresome ‘lilies that fester’, of our day” (58). But no fair reading of The Last of the Mohicanssupports Lawrence’s intimation that Cora, the dark woman, is sinful; her character and behavior are beyond reproach. Moreover, in Prairie, published a year after The Last of the Mohicansin 1827, the hair color and personal traits of the leading ladies are reversed. The blonde is bold; the dark-haired woman is frail. In Mohicansthe frail blonde marries the gentleman officer, Major Duncan Heyward; in Prairie, their grandson, Captain Duncan Uncas Middleton, marries the frail dark woman. The other Leatherstocking Tales do not support his “dark and fair, sinful and innocent” thesis either. 12

{9} More significantly, scholars hold Cooper personally responsible, in Lawrence’s words, for killing “them all off,” especially Cora and Uncas, because they believe that Cooper was incapable of endorsing the racially mixed marriage that their union would have represented. 13 In a 1987 article on Lawrence and the Leatherstocking Tales, I showed that much of what Lawrence wrote was inaccurate, and that his overall interpretation was severely flawed. Like many others, however, I endorsed Lawrence’s view that “Cooper’s opposition to miscegenation” forced him to kill off Cora. 14 It is received wisdom today that Cora’s and Uncas’s color unfitted them for marriage and a role in America’s future, so Cooper killed them off. All three books on The Last of the Mohicanspublished in the 1990s contain support for such a view. In New Essays on “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992), edited by Daniel Peck, two of the contributors fault Cooper for the deaths of Cora and Uncas. In “From Atrocity to Requiem: History in The Last of the Mohicans,” Terence Martin explains that by “making” Cora “not only the conventional dark woman but also the partly Negro woman, Cooper at once puts Cora within the range of Uncas’s admiration and denies any future to the romance. He cannot conceive of a marriage between the daughter of Major Munro, no matter her background, and an Indian, no matter how noble.” The “racial barriers of” Cooper’s “imagination” work to “block such a union,” Martin concludes. 15 In another essay, “How Men and Women Wrote Indian Stories,” Nina Baym astutely observes that Cora’s “already mixed blood, mixed again with an Indian’s, would produce triracial children3the incarnate ‘e pluribus unum’ of the American national seal.” I will return to this idea in my conclusion. Unfortunately, says Baym, unlike women writers such as Maria Child in Hobomok (1824) and Catharine Maria Sedgwick in Hope Leslie (1827), who imagine a union of white women and Indian men, Cooper’s story “eliminates” Cora and Uncas, “and thus decrees that the future nation will be peopled by whites only.” 16 She blames him for his constricted male imagination and values. In The Last of the Mohicans: Civil Savagery and Savage Civility (1995), John McWilliams suggests that “Cora is one of those characters who show us both the limitations of society’s racial and gender boundaries and the dangers of stepping over them.” He believes that Cora’s “mixed blood” unsuits her for “’civilized’ society,” while sharing “Uncas’s life” in “a vanishing Delaware community” is equally unacceptable. Thus, in McWilliams’ words, “Cooper must kill her off, sacrifice her to the continuation of two kinds of societies.” 17 Martin Barker and Roger Sabin, in The Lasting of the Mohicans (1995), state that The Last of the Mohicans“is in many ways a racist book”; the tale “raises the possibility of interracial sexual relations between two of its heroic characters” intentionally “as an erotic device and to express a dread of miscegenation,” for Cooper “appears to have believed in the purity of the races.” 18 While there is a range of opinion expressed in these books on The Last of the Mohicans — from viewing Cooper as an outright racist to viewing him as restricted by his male imagination3these scholars all blame Cooper in one way or another for not marrying Cora and Uncas and thus endorsing what their union represented, and for killing them off.

It is tricky business trying to establish the author’s point of view from what his characters do and say. Some think that Leatherstocking speaks for Cooper. But that is often problematic. Our examination of the function and meaning of Cora and Uncas is made more difficult because, for the most part, there is no omniscient authorial voice to guide us, and no character clearly speaks for the author. We might start by recognizing the inherent nobility of Cora and Uncas. They are characters who were intended by the author to obtain our admiration. Uncas and his father, Chingachgook, are the last of the Mohican tribe. With the symbol of the tortoise emblazoned on his chest, moreover, Uncas is the heir apparent to lead the Delaware nation. Cooper praises his “intelligence,” and we can see that he is very dignified, self-possessed, and extremely brave. Moreover, his refined feelings for women are demonstrated in his “instinctive delicacy,” the “sympathy” he shows, and his chivalrous behavior (115). With great beauty, intelligence, wisdom, compassion, and courage, Cora is as admirable as any heroine that Cooper ever created. She is the elder daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Munro from his first marriage in the West Indies to a woman of mixed British and African background.

We first learn of Cora’s mixed ancestry nearly midnovel at Fort William Henry when Duncan asks Lieutenant Colonel Munro for the hand in marriage of his other daughter, Alice. Munro then tells him the story of his marriage in the West Indies to a woman “descended” from an “unfortunate class” that was “enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people!” He says to Duncan, “you are yourself born at the south, where these unfortunate beings are considered of a race inferior to your own!” When Munro accuses him of endorsing the prevailing view of black inferiority, Duncan protests: “’Heaven protect me from a prejudice so unworthy of my reason!’” At “the same time”, Cooper interjects, Duncan was “conscious of such a feeling, and that as deeply rooted as if it had been engrafted in his nature.” Munro continues, telling of the death of his first wife, his return to Scotland, and second marriage. Duncan then excitedly finishes the story himself, exclaiming: and she “became the mother of Alice!” (159). Cooper observes that Duncan’s “eagerness” well “might have proved dangerous, at a moment when the thoughts of Munro were less occupied than at present” (160). Duncan’s racism is deep-seated, according to Cooper; however Munro is preoccupied by the siege of the fort, and thus inattentive to the transparent disingenuousness of Duncan’s denial. The marriage is sanctioned because the father is deceived, violating basic family values, and casting a shadow over Duncan’s role as a future leader in the New World.

{10} Magua and Uncas are attracted to Cora, some critics allege, because of the inherent allure of her dark blood. However, aside from Duncan, no one outside of the Munro family is aware of Cora’s African ancestry. In fact, Magua is a racist and believes that African-Americans should be slaves. “The Spirit that made men, coloured them differently,” he states. “Some are blacker than the sluggish bear. These he said should be slaves; and he ordered them to work for ever” (300). Magua had been whipped and deeply humiliated when he was drunk under Lieutenant Colonel Munro’s command. Munro’s “imprudent severity” (103) is the catalyst for the “catastrophe” that follows. As a result, Magua is driven by vengeance. But Magua’s preference for Cora to Alice is unlikely to be based on bloodlines that he does not know of or respect. An alternative explanation might consider Cora’s obviously superior qualities. The “firm, commanding, and yet lovely form of Cora” is repeatedly contrasted with “the shrinking figure of Alice” (300). Unlike Cora, whenever confronted with danger, Alice exhibits “infantile dependency” and swoons away, at various times becoming “lifeless,” “senseless,” or “unconscious” (108, 177, 178, 316). She would be an inferior choice for an Indian’s wife, and, as the inferior sister, a poor choice for Magua’s vengeance.

Magua is driven by lust as well as vengeance, at one point gazing on Cora with “an expression that no chaste female might endure” (105). His initial marriage “proposal,” to her, is “revolting,” and she reacts with “powerful disgust” (104). “Monster!” she calls him, reacting with “a deep consciousness of the degradation of the proposal” (105, 109). When the proposal is reiterated late in the tale, “horror-struck,” she declares that she would rather die (313).

But she is not a racist and regards Uncas quite differently. Uncas possesses an “upright, flexible figure” that is “graceful and unrestrained,” with “a noble head” that is likened to a “relic” of a “Grecian chisel,” in all providing “an unblemished specimen of the noblest proportions of man.” After her first glimpse of Uncas, Cora exclaims “who, that looks at this creature of nature, remembers the shades of his skin!” (52, 53). There is no shame when Cora lowers “her eyes under” the admiring “gaze of the Mohican,” with, “perhaps,” an “intuitive consciousness of her power” over him (79). Somewhat later, with enemy warriors “hot and angry in pursuit,” Uncas offers his arm to Cora who “readily accepted the welcome assistance” (145). Uncas’s attraction to and deep feelings for Cora are obvious throughout the tale. He ultimately dies for love of her. Beyond certain facts — her admiration of Uncas’s masculine beauty, her modest but not unfavorable reaction to his display of affection, her willingness to take his arm, and her indifference to skin color — we have no information on which to judge how responsive Cora might have been to Uncas as a suitor, in other words, whether or not she might have considered marriage to the young Indian chief.

Nonetheless, Cooper makes sure that we consider the possibility. The Delaware women participating in the funeral take it for granted that Uncas and Cora loved each other on Earth and will be united forevermore as man and wife in “the ‘blessed hunting grounds of the Lenape’” (343). “They admonished” Uncas “to be kind to her, and to have consideration for her ignorance” of Indian ways. “That she was equal to the dangers and daring of a life in the woods, her conduct had proved,” they said. “They dwelt upon her matchless beauty” and “promised that her path should be pleasant, and her burthen light,” for she had been “transplanted” to “a place” where she “might be for ever happy” (342, 343).

We are told that the “Delawares themselves listened like charmed men” to the eulogies and music, and that “it was very apparent” that “their sympathy” was “deep and true” (344). Hawkeye, the only white present that understood their language, reacts differently. When the Delaware women “spoke of the future prospects of Cora and Uncas, he shook his head, like one who knew the error of their simple creed” (344). When they proceed with burial provisions, he stops them, saying, “the spirit of the paleface has no need of food or raiment — their gifts being according to the heaven of their colour” (346). Hawkeye is a mass of contradictions. As “a man without a cross,” he is adamantly opposed to racial mixing, he believes in innate racial differences or “gifts” (192), and he wished an Indian had been killed and scalped instead of a French sentry; yet he is more like an Indian than any white man in any Cooper story, and his most profound human relationship is with an Indian, Chingachgook. When it is Munro’s time to speak, he asks Hawkeye to translate his words for the Delaware women. “Tell them,” he says, “that the Being we all worship, under different names, will be mindful of their charity; and that the time shall not be distant, when we may assemble around his throne, without distinction of sex, or rank, or colour!” But Hawkeye “shook his head,” and replied: “To tell them this” would be to say “that the snows come not in the winter.” Instead he turned to the Delaware women and told them what “he deemed most suited to” their “capacities” (347). Unlike Munro, Hawkeye’s “own sympathies” support “no ideal bond of union” (348) that would bring the different races together as one people.

{11} “Years passed away,” we are told, “before the traditionary tale of the white maiden, and of the young warrior of the Mohicans, ceased to beguile the long nights” of the Delaware Indians (348). Munro, who had loved two racially mixed women — a wife and a daughter — and the lone white man in the novel who endorsed the Indians’ vision of uniting Cora and Uncas in the hereafter, soon dies of grief. Duncan, “a young gentleman of vast riches” from the “south” (38), a Virginian, I assume, who shares the racial views of his compatriots, will wed Alice. Their marriage points to the future of the New World. With the loss of his son, Chingachgook mournfully intones, “I am alone”; Hawkeye responds, “you are not alone,” and then “Chingachgook grasped” his hand (349), apparently affirming the essential and profound brotherhood of red man and white. But the old sagamore, Tamenund, gets in the last word. “The pale-faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red-men has not yet come again,” he says at the conclusion of the tale, for I have “lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans!” (350)

What are we to make of all of this? Why did Cooper go to all the trouble to create two magnificent characters of different races, Cora and Uncas, and endow them with great nobility and extraordinary virtue, and then kill them off? Is he blameworthy for preventing their mixed marriage? Does Hawkeye, with his confusion of values, but profound disavowal of racial mixing, speak for Cooper? Does the marriage of the prejudiced Virginian, Duncan Heyward, to Alice Munro represent Cooper’s hope for the future of the New World? What are we to make of the defeat and broken-hearted passing of Munro, with his vision of interracial unity? Why is the tale of Cora and Uncas so moving to the Delawares? How does Cooper regard the death of Uncas and impending extinction of the Mohicans? What are we to make of Tamenund’s somber prophecy of the future?

Our interpretation of the meaning of the novel is shaped by which questions we ask and how we choose to answer them. For some, the questions asked and answers given suggest that Cooper should be blamed for killing off Cora and Uncas and not allowing racial mixing to occur; and he should also be blamed for the ending of the novel which speaks to the sad but inevitable disappearance of the aborigines and their proper replacement by a more advanced civilization. It follows that for Cooper, the end result, the triumph of the young republic, justifies racial oppression and the destruction of the original inhabitants. My questions and answers point in a decidedly different direction. For me, the death, instead of union, of Cora and Uncas, and the extinction of the Mohicans, emblematic of the larger displacement of the indigenous peoples, raise deeply troubling doubts about the moral foundation, integrity, and legitimacy of a republic founded on racist beliefs and racial oppression. This, I believe, is the reading Cooper intended.

In Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading (1991), Geoffrey Rans shows that by reading the novels in their order of publication we see how each successive novel enriches our understanding of characters, topics, and issues introduced in prior novels. 19 From this perspective, The Last of the Mohicans (1826) is a sequel to The Pioneers (1823). The Pioneersbegins in 1793, in upstate New York, a few years after the creation of the new republic. The opening paragraph promises a bright future, celebrating the natural bounty of the region and numerous accomplishments of the people. The countryside is “romantic and picturesque,” the soil is rich, the farms are “neat and comfortable,” education is supported, “churches abound” characteristic of “a moral and reflecting people”; moreover, the people have “unfettered liberty of conscience,” and the laws are “mild.” 21 This being said, the first character we meet, Agamemnon, is an African-American slave, mistreated by Richard Jones, his titular owner, while his real master, Judge Temple, conceals his ownership because of his Quaker heritage. The slave’s placement in the novel, mistreatment, and hypocritical ownership by the community’s leading citizens, raise serious questions about the opening vision of the republic. In Pioneers, Chingachgook, like Magua in Mohicans, has been debased by alcohol. He is a convert to Christianity and the last Mohican. As he is dying, Elizabeth Temple offers words of solace: “you have learned to fear God and to live in peace,” she says. But Chingachgook repudiates Christianity, regains his dignity, and, after listing the injustices perpetrated on the Indians by French and English alike, asks, “Do such men live in peace, and fear the Great Spirit?” (401) The Pioneersopens with an idyllic vision of a new republic where “every man feels a direct interest in the prosperity of a commonwealth, of which he knows himself to form a part” (15-16); but this vision, Cooper makes clear, stops at the color line, for it excludes African-American slaves and American Indians. After opening with the juxtaposition of freedom and slavery in the new republic, the novel closes with the death of the last Mohican. What happened in The Pioneersis linked to what happened in The Last of the Mohicans. On one hand, the deaths of the part white, part black heroine and the young American Indian hero in The Last of the Mohicanssignal the destruction of the dream of the races coming together as one people in the colonial past; on the other hand, their deaths foreshadow and shed light on racial separation, exclusion, and extinction in the early republic in The Pioneers. Moreover, the condemnation of European imperialism by the bad Indian, Magua, and the neutral Indian, Tamenund, in The Last of the Mohicans, is repeated by the good Indian, Chingachgook, in The Pioneers. 21 When we read Pioneersand Mohicanstogether, it becomes very difficult to think that Cooper was evading troublesome moral and racial issues in order to justify the ascendancy of white, European-Americans in the New World.

{12}Cooper actually had encountered wandering Mohican Indians in his youth, his daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper reported. 22 He knew of the former glory of the Connecticut Mohicans and their series of great leaders named Uncas. In after years, she wrote, “nothing in fiction could be imagined more truly melancholy than the actual recorded history of these Connecticut Mohicans in their struggles against the fire-arms, the cunning, the grasping cupidity, the cruelty, and the poison fire-water of their white neighbors, crushing out their very life and spirit” (xxi). Nonetheless, she pointed out, there were two Mohicans, “Occum and Hendrick,” who still possessed “the mental and moral qualities” of “Chingachgook and Uncas,” and “lived at the same period” as Cooper’s fictional “heroes” (xxiv). Occum, a Christian convert and well-known preacher, who “occasionally” fell “into intemperance,” died in 1792 (xxiii). His fictive counterpart, Chingachgook or Indian John, died near the end of Pioneersin 1794. In Cooper’s telling, Chingachgook’s son, Uncas, should have been the last Mohican; however, he died prematurely after the Battle of Fort William Henry in 1757. “When Hendrick, or Soi-enga-rah-ta, fell at the battle of Lake George in 1755,” according to Susan Fenimore Cooper, “the last warrior of general renown, who came of a Mohican parentage, passed away.” 23 Despite these historical links, she believed that her father’s book should be read as “a poetical romance,” not a factual history. The “title” he gave his story, “’The Last of the Mohicans,’” she felt, should be granted “the same poetical latitude,” since “he knew perfectly well that the entire tribe was not extinct” (xxiv). When the novel’s title is accorded a measure of “poetical latitude,” The Last of the Mohicansspeaks not to the actual extinction of a particular tribe, but instead becomes a metaphor for Cooper for the general fate of America’s Indians.

Today the novel is little read; when it is read, it is not always read carefully, since readers are often influenced by their own preconceptions. Yet The Last of the Mohicansremains one of the most widely recognizable titles in American letters. As a metaphor, the title has proved to be incredibly resilient and also quite malleable. In popular culture the title has taken on a life of its own, independent of the contents of the novel. Inside and outside of academe, its reputation as a work of literature has suffered enormously. In scholarship and popular culture alike, from Twain to the 1992 movie to recent scholarship that blames Cooper for not permitting Cora and Uncas to live together happily ever after, Americans have ridiculed or trivialized or merely diminished the importance of what Cooper had to say in The Last of the Mohicans. For American audiences The Last of the Mohicanshas become the Rodney Dangerfield of American literature; it lacks respect or at least the kind of respect I believe it deserves. It may be that Americans are too close and are burdened by too much historical baggage, most especially our unresolved guilt about race and racism.

The scholarly interpretation that I find the most compelling is Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novelsby Geoffrey Rans. Rans was from Great Britain, emigrating to Canada late in his life. His careful examination of what the characters say and do divulges the seriousness and complexity of Cooper’s fictive examination of America’s contested frontier and wilderness. In pointing toward my own interpretation, I would like to also examine three other foreign sources: a play, a movie, and a song.

The play, The Last of the Mohicans: A Tragedy, in Five Acts, was published in Sheffield, England in 1842. There is no battle of Fort William Henry. The play is about Magua’s desire for revenge through marriage to Cora, and Uncas’s love of Cora. Uncas falls in love at first sight with the “dark-eyed maid.” 24 Chingachgook counsels Uncas against “forbidden” desires, not because he disapproves, but because a “white chief’s child” could never be “an Indian’s bride” (33). Alice tells Cora, approvingly, that Uncas loves her. Cora answers that the “habits, likings, customs of his race” are too different “from our own” (36). In a further evasion, she adds, “if he feels aught towards us,” it is “scorn” that “we are white-skins” (37). She protests too much; if anything, she appears to be flattered by the possibility. By contrast, she would rather die than marry Magua. In the end, after Cora and Uncas die, unlike the novel, Hawkeye says: “Well, he loved her,it must out,” adding that “love, from such a noble heart,” could not bring “dishonour, tho’ their colour differ’d.” He proposes that they “rest in peace together,in one grave.” Munro agrees. “Let it be so,” he says, “an idle prejudice,” would “ill beseem me, in this sorrowing hour. Let one sod cover them” (51). The play concludes with a dirge sung by a chorus of Indian girls about Cora and Uncas taking care of each other in the hereafter. Like the novel, we never actually know if Cora could love and marry Uncas, but there are a variety of voices that invite us to consider the possibility. Unlike the American novel, the English play ends with no voices opposing interracial love. Moreover, the play, unlike most American interpretations of the novel, as it is subtitled, considers the death of Cora and Uncas to be a tragedy.

The movie, The Last of the Mohicans, was made in the United States by the Frenchman, Maurice Tourneur, along with Clarence Brown, in 1920. Barker and Sabin, who contend that Cooper’s novel is racist, nonetheless speculate that Tourneur’s movie may have been a self-conscious response to D. W. Griffith’s deeply racist 1915 classic, Birth of a Nation; in other words, Tourneur intended his movie to be an anti-racist statement. 25 It is an interesting thought. Unlike the novel or the play, the movie makes it clear that Cora loves Uncas as much as he loves her, and the brilliant cinematography is deeply affecting. At first sight Cora’s “fancy” invests “the young Chief with a halo of romance.” She calls him {13} “a prince” among his “people.” Plainly establishing that the movie is intended to be a statement against racism and ethnocentricism, the traitor and completely loathsome English Captain Randolph responds: “You! — The daughter of Colonel Munro! — Admiring a filthy savage!” The scenes in the cave at Glens Falls between Cora and Uncas are intensely romantic. The subtitle reads: “The bond of a common danger — drawing together these two, so widely separated by the mystery of birth.” Uncas is praised for his “depths of thought and imagination.” After the battle of Fort William Henry, Cora is taken prisoner by Magua. She reacts with revulsion to Magua’s proposal that she be his “squaw.” With Uncas now in pursuit, the subtitle reads: “Across the trackless waste — the cry of heart to heart.” But Uncas arrives too late. Cora falls from a cliff to her death. Uncas is stabbed by Magua, and with his last gasp clasps Cora’s hand, thus uniting them in death. The movie ends, I believe, as does the novel with a double tragedy: the death of two noble people embodying the possibility of love across racial barriers; and the extinction of a great people. In the movie Chingachgook recites Tamenund’s closing words in the novel: “Woe, for the race of red men! In the morning of life I saw the sons of my forefathers happy and strong — and before nightfall I have seen the passing of the last of the Mohicans.”

The final foreign interpretation I wish to examine is a song. Its lyrics cut to the heart of the meaning of Cooper’s novel. The song, “Yid du partizaner” (the Yiddish translates as “Jew, Partisan”), written by Shmerke Kaczerginski in the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania in the early 1940s, is a militant, insistently determined song. 26 The final stanza contains the lines:

Neyn! Mir veln keynmol zayn letste mohikaner

No! We will never be “Last of the Mohicans.” 27

The song, sung by Jewish Partisans fighting against the Holocaust, provides a compelling construction of the metaphor, “the last of the Mohicans.” They will fight fiercely against allowing what happened to the Mohicans in Cooper’s novel in America to happen to them in Hitler’s Europe. In The Holocaust in American Life (1999), Peter Novick shows that in the last two decades the Holocaust has become “the emblematic Jewish experience”; in its “uniqueness” for many it stands apart from all other peoples’ experiences. 28 In recent years, American Indians have increasingly claimed that what happened to them was a holocaust as well. 29 It is not my intent to adjudicate these claims. Suffice it to say that the Lithuanian Jews singing that they will not be “letste mohikaner” looked to what happened to American Indians in Cooper’s novel for an historical model of the experience they were opposing. The Jewish Holocaust was founded on notions of racial purity, with miscegenation, crossing bloodlines, a taboo. Hitler’s “final solution” would leave none but the “master race.”

These foreign interpretations — a scholarly study, a play, a movie, and a song — point to my interpretation of The Last of the Mohicans: that the novel is a tragedy; that in sincerely and compassionately considering the possibility of love between attractive characters of different races, it makes a powerful statement against racism; and that it contains a profound indictment of the genocidal destruction of the original inhabitants of the land. When we read The Last of the Mohicansand The Pioneerstogether, we are confronted with the tragic failure to unite the races in colonial America, plus an idyllic picture of the new republic compromised by slavery and the annihilation of American Indians.

In that 1993 survey, “What Do American Historians Think,” by the Organization of American Historians, when asked to list the historical monographs they most admired, the leading vote-getter was American Slavery, American Freedom: the Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975) by Edmund S. Morgan. 31 Morgan’s book is about the paradoxical interconnection between the development of freedom and equality and slavery in America. For Morgan, “the key to the puzzle” lies in Virginia: Virginia was the largest state, with the largest slave population; Virginians drafted the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and its first ten amendments; a Virginian had led the Continental Army; and except for four years, from 1789 to 1825, Virginians served as president of the United States, and they were all slaveholders. 31 Looking back to the eve of colonization, Morgan points out, there was “hope” for the establishment “of an integrated biracial community” in Virginia of English settlers and Indians, and “slavery” was not considered an option (44, 24). Such hopes were quickly dashed with the brutal destruction of the Indians, and the ensuing rise of slavery. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, a series of laws appeared prohibiting miscegenation and disenfranchising people of color, providing the foundation for the institutionalization of slavery and the development of freedom and equality above the color line. “Racism made it possible for white Virginians to develop a devotion to equality,” Morgan explains, for “by lumping Indians, mulattoes, and Negroes in a single pariah class, Virginians had paved the way for a similar lumping of small and large planters in a single master class” (386). The master class or caste would also be a master race. Instead of a biracial, or even better, triracial New World, the future would be dominated by racial division and discord, with particularly tragic consequences for non-white Americans.

{14} In his 1826 novel, Cooper chose a Virginian, young Duncan Heyward, to represent America’s future. I think Cooper’s story is in many ways much like Morgan’s, and Cooper is no more blameworthy for the story that he told than Morgan is for his. In his first Leatherstocking novel, The Pioneers, the promise of the new republic excludes slaves and Indians. In his second Leatherstocking novel, The Last of the Mohicans, Duncan Heyward, a member of the Virginia elite, and Hawkeye, a trailblazer opening the wilderness for settlement, may represent the winners and the racial views that will shape the future of the republic. But we must also consider the healing and uniting vision of the losers, Lieutenant Colonel Munro, the Delaware Indians, Cora, and Uncas. Cooper clearly intended Cora and Uncas to be characters of great nobility. A variety of voices at the end of the novel force us to consider the possibility that their love was mutual. In the context of the story, their death is a tragedy; in the larger historical context, it is an American tragedy. Had they married and populated the land with their triracial descendants, Baym’s “’e pluribus unum’” might have obtained. But this was not to be. It was not Cooper’s intent to rewrite history, but like Morgan to understand it. 32 The country that would declare its independence on the “self-evident” notion that “all men are created equal,” would be guilty of obvious hypocrisy. This critique is as central to Cooper’s novel as it is to Morgan’s history. American history would be rife with racism and racial conflict. The original inhabitants came out worst of all. According to the ethnohistorian Anthony F. C. Wallace, today the “Indian population of the Americas has been reduced” perhaps “to 5 percent of what it was in pre-Columbian times.” 33 Was it a holocaust? It was, at least in the judgment of Lithuanian Jews defiantly singing that they would not be “letste mohikaner.”


1 My thanks to Leila Zenderland for her helpful comments.

2 For an example of a widely adopted anthology containing Twain’s essay on Cooper that remained in use for many years, see The Shock of Recognition: The Development of Literature in the United States Recorded by the Men Who Made It, Volume I, The Nineteenth Century , 2ⁿᵈ Edition, ed. Edmund Wilson (1943; New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1955), 582-594.

3 For example, in random sampling of the auction site between June and September 1999, I noted the use of the caption “The last of the Mohicans” for a variety of items being auctioned off, including a t-shirt; a 1949 first day post office envelope for a new highway between Columbus, Mississippi and Selma, Alabama; a 1961 Chevrolet pickup; and a 1997 Porsche. The Mafia don example appeared in Newsweek: “My father is the last of the Mohicans,” said “Victoria Gotti Agnello, daughter of Mafia don John Gotti, after her father’s conviction on 13 counts of murder and racketeering.” See Newsweek, April 13, 1992.

4 Gary Larson, Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1992.

5 Bil Keane, “Family Circus,” Orange County Register, April 6, 1993. For example, this year (2001) when I asked an American Studies survey class of 121 students how many had seen the film, about sixty percent raised their hands. Then I asked how many had read the novel, and no hands went up. A few years before I had asked a my survey class how many had read the novel, and the only hand that went up was from a foreign exchange student from Russia.

6 “What Do American Historians Think: A Survey,” The Journal of American History, 81 (Dec. 1994), 1210, 1209. Titles listed received at least four votes from members of the Organization of American Historians.

7 Elaine Dutka, “One Mann, Two Worlds,” Los Angeles Times, Sunday, September 20, 1992, Calendar, 3.

8 James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757 [1826], historical introduction by James Franklin Beard, text established, with explanatory notes by James A. Sappenfield and E. N. Feltskog (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983), 175. Subsequent quotes from Mohicansare noted in parentheses in the text.

9 James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer or, The First War-Path [1841], historical introduction and explanatory notes by James Franklin Beard, text established by Lance Schachterle, Kent Ljungquist and James Kilby (Albany: SUNY Press, 1987), 522.

10 New-York Review and Atheneum (March 1826), United States Literary Gazette (May 1826), W. H. Gardiner, North American Review (July 1826), in Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage, eds. George Dekker and John P. McWilliams (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), 90, 100, 107.

11 D. H. Lawrence, “Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels,” in Studies in Classic American Literature [1923] (New York Viking Press, 1964), 61. Subsequent quotes from “Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels” are noted in parentheses in the text.

12 Allan M. Axelrad, “Wish Fulfillment in the Wilderness: D. H. Lawrence and the Leatherstocking Tales,” American Quarterly, 39 (Winter 1987), 565-568.

13 Leslie A. Fiedler became the most influential popularizer of Lawrence’s interpretation of race and gender in The Last of the Mohicans. See Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion Books, 1960), 197-206.

14 Axelrad, “Wish Fulfillment in the Wilderness,” 567.

15 Terence Martin, “From Atrocity to Requiem: History in The Last of the Mohicans,” in New Essays on The Last of the Mohicans, ed. H. Daniel Peck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 63.

16 Nina Baym, “How Men and Women Wrote Indian Stories,” in New Essays on The Last of the Mohicans, ed. H. Daniel Peck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 75, 73.

17 John McWilliams, The Last of the Mohicans: Civil Savagery and Savage Civility (New York: Twayne, 1995), 74.

18 Martin Barker and Rober Sabin, The Lasting of the Mohicans: History of an American Myth (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995), 29, 30, 22, 21.

19 Geoffrey Rans, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

20 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale [1823], historical introduction and explanatory notes by James Franklin Beard, text established by Lance Schachterle and Kenneth M. Andersen, Jr. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1980), 15. Subsequent quotes from Pioneersare noted in parentheses in the text.

21 As Rans points out in Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels, all the Indian spokesmen, “Magua, Chingachgook, and Tamenund” are united “into a single voice” expressing outrage on the resulting “genocide,” 128.

22 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Introduction, The Last of the Mohicans or A Narrative of 1757 (1826; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1876), xxiv. Subsequent quotations from her introduction are noted in parentheses in the text.

23 Instead of Soi-enga-rah-ta, Ian Steele gives the Indian name of Chief Hendrick or Hendrick Peters as Theyanoguin. While he was a great leader and warrior, he also was considerably older than Uncas and a Protestant, thus the resemblance of Uncas to Hendrick was more imaginative than precise. The same could be said of the resemblance of Chingachgook to Occum. On Hendrick, see Ian K. Steele, Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the “Massacre” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 19, 20, 49.

24 The Last of the Mohicans: A Tragedy, in Five Acts, Founded on the Novel of that Name, by J. F. Cooper (Sheffield: Printed by John Blurton, 1842), 28. Subsequent quotes from the play Mohicansare noted in parentheses in the text.

25 Barker and Sabin, The Lasting of the Mohicans, 73.

26 “Yid du partizaner” has been recorded on a compact disk, Ghetto Tango: Wartime Yiddish Theater (New York: Traditional Crossroads, 2000).

27 Shmerke Kaczerginski, Destruction of Jewish Vilna (Khurbn Vilne) (New York: The United Vilner Relief Committee, 1947), vii. I am indebted to Leila Zenderland for bringing this song to my attention, for transliterating the Yiddish, and for translating the Yiddish into English.

28 Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 9, 8.

29 This view has found support in recent books such as: Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997); David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987).

30 “What Do Historians Think,” 1206.

31 Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), 5, 6. Subsequent quotes from American Slavery, American Freedomare noted in parentheses in the text.

32 While living in Paris, in the years immediately following the publication of The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper addressed the possibility of racial “amalgamation” as a future solution to racial divisiveness in the United States. He concluded that it might be possible “to mingle white and red blood” out west, but saw little hope for the “amalgamation” of white and black blood. See Cooper, “Slavery in the United States” (1827), republished under the title “Fenimore Cooper’s Defense of Slave-Owning America,” ed. and introduction by Charles E. Spiller, American Historical Review, 35 (April 1930), 581-82; Cooper, Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor, text established with historical introduction and textual notes by Gary Williams (1828; Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), 490. Cooper wrote “Slavery in the United States” and Notions of the Americansin response to European criticism of America. In both he stretched as far as possible to present race relations in a positive light. When his targeted audience was European he tended to show America in a more favorable light than when his targeted audience was American, following his principle that it was his patriotic duty to be honestly self-critical when writing for his fellow countrymen but to vigorously defend America against foreign criticism.

33 Anthony F. C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 337.