Behind the Adventure Curtain: The Last of the Mohicans as a Novel of Ideas
Presented at the 15ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2005.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2005 Cooper Seminar (No. 15), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 69-77).
Copyright © 2007, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
In the summer of 1824 a young British aristocrat named Edward Stanley, together with three aristocratic friends, was engaged in a relatively new activity: tourism. Like other rich young Englishmen of the time, they were touring the strange new America across the seas that had broken away from Britain just fifty years before. And like other early tourists, they included on their itinerary the well-known sites of the upper Hudson Valley: Albany and the Great Falls of Cohoes, the Mineral Water springs of Saratoga, Lake George and its relics of the French and Indian Wars, Ticonderoga and Lake Champlain. On their return trip, on August 13, 1824, they paused for half a day at Glens Falls on the Hudson, where the river is split by a small island in which the waters of the river had carved out a large cavern.
Joining the group for the latter part of their tour was a rising young American novelist, James Fenimore Cooper-fresh from the unexpected and enormous success of his first important stories: The Spy, The Pioneers, and The Pilot.
Little did Edward Stanley know that he would go on to become three times Prime Minister of Great Britain, and author of the great Reform Bill of 1867, or that he would translate Homer’s epic poem The Iliad into English. Nor did he know that he was about to inspire the novel that would make the Cave at Glens Falls, famous — James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans.
Born in New Jersey, Cooper had been brought as an infant to Cooperstown, the settlement his father had built at the southern tip of Lake Otsego, the source of the mighty Susquehanna River. After a childhood spent among the woods and hills of Otsego, he had gone on to school in Albany and college at Yale. In 1806 he ran away to sea, and after a year as a merchant seaman became a Midshipman in the infant United States Navy — where he helped supervise the construction of the first American warship on the Great Lakes. In 1811 he left the Navy to marry Susan De Lancey, daughter of one of the oldest families in Westchester County, and to settle down to the life of a gentleman farmer; the only appropriate career for an heir of the wealthy William Cooper of Cooperstown.
It was not until 1820 that James Fenimore Cooper turned to writing. He was by this time in serious financial difficulties, because of the collapse in real estate values after the War of 1812. Nevertheless, he almost certainly turned to writing more to keep his mind off his troubles than with any hope of making money. His first novel, Precaution, was written — according to family legend — in response to a dare from his wife. Cooper had tossed aside an English novel he was reading aloud to the family and exclaimed that he could write a better book himself. Susan Cooper, his wife, responded “then why don’t you, dear.” Precaution — an imitation of popular English high society novels — was hardly a masterpiece, but it got fair reviews and was duly pirated by a publisher in England.
Fortunately for American literature, Cooper then turned to subjects he knew about. His second novel, The Spy, published in 1821, was set in Revolutionary Westchester County. Cooper’s third novel, The Pioneers, published in 1823, takes place in the slightly disguised frontier village of Cooperstown in which young Cooper had grown up. To the surprise of everybody, and Cooper in particular, they proved to be the first American best sellers. His career was launched. The book that followed, published early in 1824, was The Pilot, based on the career of the American naval hero John Paul Jones. This novel started a whole new kind of writing — the novel of the sea.
By the summer of 1824, Cooper was casting around for a new subject. Already, one American reviewer of The Spy had suggested that Cooper consider writing about the American Indian — an exotic subject that no English writer could touch. And in The Pioneers, in addition to the immortal Natty Bumppo — later to be known as Hawkeye — Cooper had introduced the character of John Mohegan or Chingachgook — the old Indian living on the fringes of the frontier village, his life destroyed by the incursions of White settlers and the liquor they brought with them.
Now, in August of 1824, Cooper and his English friends were exploring the Cave in the island at Glens Falls. Cooper’s daughter Susan later described the scene:
The hand of man had already been busy here, turning the power of the stream to account for industrial purposes, but ... the singular character of the dark and silent caverns in the heart of the troubled stream was then very impressive. The travellers were struck with those stern, sombre rocks, and the flood falling in fantastic wreaths of white foam about them. While in the caverns, one of the gentlemen of the party [Mr. Stanley] observed to Mr. Cooper that here was the very scene for a romance. Some pleasantry passed between them ... and the writer promised his companion that a book should actually be written, in which these caves should have a place; the idea of a romance essentially Indian in character then first suggesting itself to his mind. ... Before leaving the Falls, the ground was examined closely, with a view to accurate description at a later hour. The existing natural features of the spot were combined in imagination with those which had been partially defaced by man; the ancient forests were restored, the first rude and unfinished steps of early civilization disappeared, and the waters fell once more, as they had fallen for thousands of forgotten years, in full natural torrents, unchecked by any barrier raised by human hands.
Edward Stanley noted in his diary, “[Cooper] was much struck with the scenery which he had not seen before; and exclaimed ‘I must place one of my old Indians here’ — The Last of the Mohicans was the result.”
The expedition over, Cooper returned home — by this time he was living in New York City. He only began writing in the summer of 1825, when he had taken his family to a farm in Astoria, in what is now Queens, overlooking the East River. There, over a period of three or four months, he completed The Last of the Mohicans — the novel that, of all others, was to make Cooper world famous for two centuries, and the novel that has been most frequently retold to the world in film, and even in grand opera!
In The Pioneers, set in the Cooperstown of 1793, Cooper had introduced the characters of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook as aged men by-passed by progress as Americans settled the New York frontier. Now Cooper looked back to a time when they were young-when Natty Bumppo, as Hawkeye, and his Indian friend Chingachgook were serving as British Army scouts during the last great colonial war between England and France.
Cooper’s visit to Glens Falls and its Cave, and to Lake George, were still very much in his mind. For a central focus he chose the capture by the French of Fort William Henry in 1757, and the massacre of the surrendering British troops that followed. To provide an exotic flavor, as Edward Stanley had suggested, he turned to the American Indians, as he imagined them living in the primeval forests of the Adirondacks. Putting these ideas together, he constructed The Last of the Mohicans, a romantic novel of love and adventure that has proved enormously popular for nearly two centuries. It has been transformed into nearly a dozen movies; and converted into both juvenile editions and comic books. It can be read today in over thirty different languages, in countries all over the world. Educated readers in Germany, in Russia, and throughout Scandinavia, know it better than do Americans. Indeed, for many, it is — and for almost two centuries has been — the quintessentially American book.
But, as we shall see, The Last of the Mohicans is not just an adventure story for boys, but a complex and serious novel raising many topics of vital importance to America-both the America of the 1820s when it was published, and the America of today.
I want now to turn to the novel itself; but I will not assume that you have recently read the book. If you saw the 1992 Michael Mann movie version, filmed in North Carolina, you should know that he — like other movie adapters of Cooper novels — so changed the plot as to conceal much of what Cooper wanted to say. After briefly summarizing the plot and characters, I want to look at The Last of the Mohicans in terms of three separate themes — messages, if you like — that seem to me to run through the novel. And finally, we will look in some detail at the famous passage set in the Cave at Glens Falls — and ask why it has made such an impression upon readers.
The Last of the Mohicans is — like Homer’s Odyssey — a story about a journey — a journey in both space and in time. In space, the reader is carried from Fort Edward on the Hudson through the forests around Glens Falls, and then north to Lake George and to the British fort at its southern shore, and finally beyond the Schroon River into the unexplored depths of the Adirondacks. In time, however, The Last of the Mohicans is a journey in two directions. On the one hand, it is a story of how the British colonial settlers of the 1750s were to become the Americans of the 1820s when Cooper was writing. But in another sense it is a journey backward, from colonial New York to the days when Native Americans and their cultures were supreme. And always the novel asks two questions: What is an American? What did it cost to become an American?
The Last of the Mohicans is a romantic novel. That is, like the tales of Sir Walter Scott, it revolves about a young couple — the kind of people with whom Cooper’s middle-class readers could identify — who experience exciting adventures in exotic places, and in the last chapter marry and live happily ever after. And The Last of the Mohicans is told in what is called the Gothic mode — named for the horror stories of haunted castles, mad monks, and ghastly corpses that chilled and thrilled the hearts of early nineteenth century readers. It becomes Gothic, not with the paraphernalia of medieval Europe, but by describing the American wilderness as a place of mystery, violence, and terror. Its constantly looming sense of disaster is made gut-wrenching by sudden shifts in both events and in tone; disconcerting jumps from tranquil beauty to sudden terror; twists of plots in which hunter and hunted repeatedly exchange roles; constant alternation between the values of civilization and those of crude survival. One of the most astute writers about The Last of the Mohicans, John McWilliams of Middlebury College, subtitled his book: Civil Savagery and Savage Civility. It is an apt choice. And, as we shall see, Cooper chose this Gothic form not just to keep his readers in suspense, but to convey some of his most important meanings.
The Last of the Mohicans is thus a journey — a journey broken into three quite separate segments, and lasting just under two weeks. In the first section, Major Duncan Heyward — an American from Virginia serving in the British Army — escorts two half-sisters, Cora and Alice Munro — from Fort Edward on the upper Hudson river to Fort William Henry on Lake George, where Colonel George Munro, their father, is the commander. Heyward is the product of a traditional European education, and once in the forests he is easily led astray by his guide — the vengeful Huron Indian Magua. He and the young women are rescued, however, by the British Army scout Hawkeye (the Natty Bumppo, or Leatherstocking, whom Cooper’s readers already knew from The Pioneers). Hawkeye is aided by his Indian companions Chingachgook — the last chieftain of the Mohican branch of the Delaware Indians — and his son the gallant young warrior Uncas. This first part of the story takes place in the forests around Glens Falls — where French and English troops had been fighting for generations for control of North America. And after an exciting episode in the Cave at Glens Falls, Hawkeye safely delivers Major Heyward and the two young women to Fort William Henry on Lake George.
The second part of Cooper’s novel takes place at the Fort. Hawkeye and his Indian friends vanish from the story for a while, and the scene is now that of a besieged European garrison. General Montcalm, at the head of a large French army, is pounding Fort William Henry to pieces with his artillery. Nevertheless, Major Heyward — who has fallen in love with Alice Munro, Colonel Munro’s blonde younger daughter — finds time to ask her father for permission to propose marriage. But the military situation becomes hopeless when Colonel Munro learns that General Webb, the British Commander at Fort Edward, has refused to send him reinforcements. Reluctantly, Colonel Munro surrenders to General Montcalm — obtaining unusually liberal surrender terms. He and his troops — and the hundreds of civilians with them at the garrison — may return in honor to Fort Edward, taking with them their flags and their personal property.
The surrender leads, on August 10, 1757, to the so-called Massacre of Fort William Henry. General Montcalm has with him some 1500 Indian allies, recruited from Indian nations around the Great Lakes by repeated promises of plunder, scalps, and prisoners to hold for ransom. These Indians — with whom the French cannot even communicate effectively — consider the surrender arrangements between the two white armies as a betrayal. They attack the defenseless column of British soldiers and civilians, killing some and carrying many more off as captives to Canada, while General Montcalm and his French army do little to prevent them.
Today, the restored Fort William Henry is a tourist attraction. To readers in the 1820s, less than 70 years after the event, it was a symbol of bitter betrayal and defeat. In 1826, when Cooper’s novel was published, “Remember Fort William Henry” was still a potent symbol — as potent as “Remember the Alamo” and “Remember Pearl Harbor” would later become. Even Cooper’s subtitle to the novel — A Narrative of 1757 — told his readers that The Last of the Mohicans was about the Massacre at Fort William Henry as clearly as an American book today subtitled A Narrative of 1941 would warn readers that it dealt with Pearl Harbor. But, as we shall see, Cooper’s interpretation of this frontier warfare was not the usual picture of patriotism and gallantry.
Cooper’s novel describes the historical events at Fort William Henry quite closely. But he returns to fiction as, during the confusion of the massacre, the two half-sisters, Cora and Alice Munro, are kidnapped by the still vengeful Indian Magua, and carried off into the vast and as yet unknown wilderness of the Adirondacks. Major Heyward, rejoined by Hawkeye and his Indian friends, and accompanied by a broken and despondent Colonel Munro, set off on the trail of the two young women.
This begins the third and final segment of The Last of the Mohicans, set in a real wilderness — in Cooper’s words, “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. ... None but the hunter or the savage is known, even now, to penetrate its wild recesses.” If that seems extreme, consider that this is written in 1826, and it would be almost fifty years later before the source of the Hudson River on Mount Marcy would first be seen by a white man.
For Cooper’s novel, the land beyond the Schroon River is the real wilderness, where the cultures of the Native American — portrayed in the novel by groups called Hurons and Delawares — still hold full sway. After many further adventures, captures and recaptures, The Last of the Mohicans comes to its climax, following a great Indian council presided over by Tamenund — a legendary chief of the Delawares. In the denouement (forget about the movie versions), Cora Munro and the young warrior Uncas, the titular “Last of the Mohicans,” are both killed. Major Heyward and Alice Munro return to civilization to marry and found a family (their grandson, Duncan Uncas Middleton, will be the hero of Cooper’s next novel, The Prairie). Hawkeye and Chingachgook, devastated by the loss of Uncas, head off into the forests.
Running through the story of The Last of the Mohicans are three important themes, that transform Cooper’s novel from one of merely high adventure to one of serious philosophical, historical, and social significance. They concern the wilderness, the Native American, and that ever-present American problem, Race.
IV. The Wilderness
The first theme is Cooper’s portrayal of the frontier wilderness. For most frontier adventure novels, whether set during the French and Indian wars or later, the wilderness is a place for gallantry and derring-do, for heroism and worthy sacrifice, for patriotism and the growth of the American character.
For Cooper, Fort William Henry, and the war of which it is a part, is an exercise in stupid and tragic futility — a sort of colonial Viet-Nam — characterized by waste of life, willful ignorance of reality, and a hardening brutality that erodes moral values. Major Heyward, the hero of the novel, learns how to survive in America. But the lesson has entailed the loss of innocence. If the transformation of Major Heyward symbolizes the birth of America — as Cooper suggests-it is a troubled birth, whose promise is marred by violence.
It is always important, when beginning a novel by James Fenimore Cooper, to read with close attention the opening paragraphs. Nowhere is that more true than with The Last of the Mohicans. Listen:
It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered, before the adverse hosts could meet. A wide, and, apparently, an impervious boundary of forests, severed the possessions of the hostile provinces of France and England. The hardy colonist, and the trained European who fought at his side, frequently expended months in struggling against the rapids of the streams, or in effecting the rugged passes of the mountains, in quest of an opportunity to exhibit their courage in a more martial conflict. But, emulating the patience and self-denial of the practised native warriors, they learned to overcome every difficulty; and it would seem, that in time, there was no recess of the woods so dark, nor any secret place so lovely, that it might claim exemption from the inroads of those who had pledged their blood to satiate their vengeance, or to uphold the cold and selfish policy of the distant monarchs of Europe.
Perhaps no district ... can furnish a livelier picture of the cruelty and fierceness of the savage warfare of those periods, than the country which lies between the head waters of the Hudson and the adjacent lakes. ... It became, emphatically, the bloody arena, in which most of the battles for the mastery of the colonies were contested. ... [A]rmies larger than those that had often disposed of the scepters of the mother countries, were seen to bury themselves in these forests, whence they rarely returned but in skeleton bands, that were haggard with care, or dejected by defeat. ... [In] this fatal region, [the] forests were alive with men ... and the echoes of the mountains threw back the laugh ... of many a gallant and reckless youth, as he hurried by them, in the noontide of his spirits, [only] to slumber in a long night of forgetfulness.
It was in this scene of strife and bloodshed, that the incidents that we shall attempt to relate occurred, during the third year of the war which England and France last waged, for the possession of a country, that neither was destined to retain.
This war, then, is for Cooper futile, violent, and destructive of morality for everyone and everything that touches it — from the young soldiers doomed to misery and death to the natural beauty that their warfare destroys. I am reminded of the famous lines by Matthew Arnold, in his poem “Dover Beach”:
And we are here as on a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Cooper reiterates his theme in many ways, often in closely observed small scenes of real horror. The throat of a colt is slit to prevent it from calling out for its mother; an inexperienced French recruit is first misled and then treacherously tomahawked; the air is filled with unearthly shrieks when tethered horses are attacked by wolves; a baby’s brains are dashed out against a rock; crows swoop over a battlefield, gorging on the blood of corpses scattered on the ground. Not surprisingly, movie versions of Cooper’s tale usually omit these scenes of real horror in favor of the generalized slaughter dear to movie-viewers.
V. Native Americans
The second theme is that of the American Indian. For most Americans in 1826, the Native American was still remembered as the enemy, perhaps especially in New York. Most Americans still probably held the view later attributed to General Philip Sheridan, that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Acting on the suggestion of Edward Stanley at the cave in Glens Falls, and seeking authentic information about the Native American, Cooper turned to the writings of John Heckewelder, a missionary of the Moravian Church who had spent most of his life among the Delaware Indians in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Cooper could not have picked a better source: Heckewelder — while not an anthropologist in modern terms — knew and understood the Indians among whom he lived better than any other educated man of his times. Moreover, Heckewelder respected Indian cultures as having inherent values of their own — Cooper often calls them “gifts.”
The Indians who figure so importantly in the last third of The Last of the Mohicans come from Heckewelder, as a careful comparison of the incidents in Cooper’s novel and the customs described by Heckewelder clearly demonstrates. For page upon page, Cooper describes the customs and lore of the Delaware Indians. He does not sweep under the table the ways in which — as in scalping and ritual torture — Indian customs offend white values, but he explains how these practices fit into the totality of Indian culture. At the same time, he describes and gives respect to other Native American traditions: their love of family, their commitment to truth and honor, their respect for personal integrity and bravery. Cooper even notes — despite the almost universally held white myth that European women captured by Indians would be raped — that Native Americans virtually never sexually assaulted their captives.
A quarter century after The Last of the Mohicans was published, Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh, otherwise known as George Copway, a Chief of the Ojibwa nation and himself an educated and traveled man, would write to the dying James Fenimore Cooper, his friend, that:
You have done more justice to our down trodden race than any other author. ... By your books the noble traits of the savage have been presented in their true light. Many times in my travels in ... European countries I have been asked the question “Does Mr. Cooper give a true picture of the American Indians.” I have universely [sic] had the pleasure of answering “yes”.
Towards the end of The Last of the Mohicans Cooper introduces the figure of the aged Delaware chief Tamenund. Heckewelder had said of this historical figure:
All we know of ... Tamenund is that he was an ancient Delaware Chief, who never had his equal. He was in the highest degree endowed with wisdom, virtue, prudence, charity, affability, meekness, hospitality. In short with every good and noble quality that a human being may possess. ... In the Revolutionary War, his enthusiastic admirers dubbed him a saint, and he was established under the name of St. Tammany, the patron Saint of America.
The real Tamenund was born in the early 1600’s, and disappears from history about 1690, but Cooper fictionally prolongs his life to 1757, in order to make him both an observer of and a spokesman for the whole history of Indian-American relations. As he presides over the great Indian council that is to determine the fate of the characters in the novel, Cooper has Tamenund say, in tones of prophesy:
“I know that the pale-faces are a proud and hungry race. I know that they claim, not only to have the earth, but that the meanest of their colour is better than the Sachems of the red man. The dogs and crows of their tribes ... would bark and caw, before they would take a woman to their wigwams, whose blood was not the colour of snow. But let them not boast before the face of the Manitto too loud. They entered the land at the rising, and may yet go off at the setting sun! I have often seen the locust strip the leaves from the trees, but the season of blossoms has always come again.”
For 1826, this is strong stuff. But Cooper knows, as we know, that the white men who have conquered the New World are not going away in any near future, and Tamunund’s final words, that close the novel, are:
“Go, children of the Lenape, the anger of the Manitto is not done. Why should Tamenund stay? The pale-faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red-men has not yet come again. My day has been too long. In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis [the Turtle] happy and strong; and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans!”
But there is yet a third, and often totally ignored, theme to The Last of the Mohicans, and that is the theme of Race. On the title-page of the novel — often a critical place in understanding a Cooper novel — Cooper placed the following epigraph, taken from the words of the African Prince of Morocco in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:
“Mislike me not, for my complexion, the shadowed livery of the burnished sun.”
Ignored by the film versions of Cooper’s novel is that the blood of Cora Munro, the real heroine of The Last of the Mohicans, is not, in Tamenund’s words, the “color of snow.” No, Cora Munro is the first African-American heroine in American literature. To see how Cooper presents this — for 1826 — completely revolutionary theme, we must listen carefully to his own words.
We first encounter Cora in the first chapter, when Cooper describes her thus:
The tresses of this lady were shining and black, like the plumage of the raven. Her complexion was not brown, but it rather appeared charged with the colour of the rich blood, that seemed ready to burst its bounds. And yet there was neither coarseness, nor want of shadowing, in a countenance that was exquisitely regular and dignified, and surpassingly beautiful.
Over the next few chapters, Cooper periodically reminds us how Cora differs from her blond half-sister Alice. Not just in character. Cora is brave and self-reliant, while Alice is both timid and dependent on others. But Cora is also keenly aware of her racial background and the burden it places on her. Thus, when Alice shrinks from an Indian, Cora responds coldly: “Should we distrust the man, because his manners are not our manners, and that his skin is dark!” And later Cora tells Major Heyward: “That I cannot see the sunny side of the picture of life, like [Alice], is the penalty of experience, and, perhaps, the misfortune of my nature.”
But the question of Cora Munro’s race comes to the fore in Chapter 16. Major Heyward has successfully brought Cora and Alice to the temporary safety of Fort William Henry. Now he approaches their father Colonel Munro — who is an old friend of his parents. Munro asks him what he wants. Let us follow the ensuing dialogue, as Cooper has written it:
Heyward: “My request ... , sir, went so far as to presume to the honour of being your son.”
Munro: “Have you been as intelligible to the girl?”
Heyward: “No ... , there would have been an abuse of a confided trust, had I taken advantage of my situation, for such a purpose.”
Munro: “Your notions are those of a gentleman, Major Heyward. ... But Cora Munro is a maiden too discreet, and of a mind too elevated and improved, to need the guardianship, even of a father.”
Munro: “Ay — Cora! we are talking of your pretensions to Miss Munro, are we not?”
Heyward: “I — I — I was not conscious of having mentioned her name.”
Munro: “And, to marry whom, then, did you wish my consent, Major Heyward.” Heyward: “You have another, and not less lively child.”
Heyward: “Such was the direction of my wishes, sir.”
Munro: “Duncan Heyward, I have loved you for the sake of him whose blood is in your veins; I have loved you for your own good qualities; and I have loved you, because I thought you would contribute to the happiness of my child. But all this love would turn to hatred, were I assured, that what I so much apprehend is true!”
Heyward: “God forbid that any act or thought of mine should lead to such a charge!”
Munro: “You would be my son, Duncan, and you’re ignorant of the history of the man you wish to call your father.”
What Colonel Munro fears, of course, is that Major Heyward, the Virginian, has preferred the blonde Alice to the mulatto Cora because of race. It should be mentioned that 18ᵗʰ century etiquette, as Cooper and his readers knew, made it improper to ask for the hand of a young woman until all her older sisters were either married or engaged. Thus it was perfectly normal for Colonel Munro to assume that, in asking for the hand of his daughter, Major Heyward must have meant Cora, the oldest of the two half-sisters.
But to go on with Cooper’s narrative: Munro tells Heyward how he had long ago fallen in love, at home in Scotland, with one Alice Graham; how her parents had forbidden the marriage because he was poor; and how he had joined the British army in order to forget her. Munro continues, speaking, in Cooper’s words, “proudly.”
Munro: “Duty called me to the West Indies. There it was my lot to form a connexion with one who in time became my wife, and the mother of Cora. She was the daughter of a gentleman of those isles, by a lady, whose misfortune it was ... to be descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class, who are so basely enslaved to administer to the want of a luxurious people! ... But could I find a man ... who would dare to reflect on my child, he should feel the weight of a father’s anger. Ha! Major Heyward, you are yourself born in the south, where these unfortunate beings are considered a race inferior to your own!”
Heyward: “’Tis most unfortunately true, sir” [and, Cooper notes, Heyward’s eyes “sink to the floor in embarrassment.”]
Munro: “And you cast it on my child as a reproach! You scorn to mingle the blood of the Heywards, with one so degraded-lovely and virtuous though she be?”
Heyward: “Heaven protect me from a prejudice so unworthy of my reason!” [but inwardly, Cooper says, even as he spoke these words Heyward was “at the same time conscious of such a feeling, and that as deeply rooted as if it had been engrafted in his nature.”]
But the storm is over. Heyward excuses himself, saying “The sweetness, the beauty, the witchery of your younger daughter, Colonel Munro, might explain my motives, without imputing to me this injustice.” And the Colonel accepts this explanation, and Heyward’s proposal, saying: “Ye are right, sir. ... “
Colonel Munro then goes on to explain to Heyward how his first wife had died, and how he had returned with Cora to Scotland to find that his first sweetheart, Alice Graham, was still waiting for him. He had married her, and she became the mother of his second daughter Alice, but died in childbirth. And so the matter ends, though Cora, at the end of the novel, identifies herself with the non-white Indians, as she states to Tamenund: “Like thee and thine, venerable chief ... the curse of my ancestors has fallen heavily on their child!”
Some early reviews of The Last of the Mohicans expressed open disgust at Cooper’s portrayal of Cora Munro. “We have,” wrote W.H. Gardiner in The North American Review, “a particular dislike to the richness of negro blood in a heroine. ... ” The then well-known American poet Robert Sands told readers of the New-York Review that “Cora ... is sometimes made to assume all her dignity, when a casual observation suggested the recollection of her descent; but the effect is unpleasant. ... [Nothing in the plot renders] a frequent, inartificial, and painful allusion to an hereditary taint, at all necessary. ... “
Today, I think we can credit Cooper with courage and integrity, in daring-in The Last of the Mohicans-to portray both Native Americans and African-Americans as human beings worthy of respect. It would be a long time before other American writers would display such courage.
I should like to close by looking at Cooper’s description of Glens Falls itself, both because it is a masterpiece of Cooper’s ability to describe dynamic scenery to an audience as yet unfamiliar with photography, and because it enables him to express some of his most profound religious views. Tourists can nowadays view the scene — or what is left of it — for themselves. The Village of South Glen Falls has constructed an access walkway to the island, and a viewing platform, with appropriate signage, from which visitors can look down into the cave.
In Chapter 5 of the novel, Hawkeye and his Indian friends take Major Heyward and his party by canoe through the rapids at Glens Falls — there was, of course, no dam in those days. Hawkeye lands them safely at the foot of the island in the midst of the Falls, and disappears. But he soon emerges, with a torch, to lead them into the “narrow, deep cavern in the rock,” that will be their troubled refuge for the next four chapters.
The cave is not a single hollow, but a series of interconnected caves, with several openings to the outside. Listen as Hawkeye describes it — and the geology that created it:
“Such old foxes as Chingachgook and myself, are not often caught in a burrow with one hole,” said Hawk-eye, laughing; “you can easily see the cunning of the place — the rock is black limestone, which every body knows is soft; it makes no uncomfortable pillow, where brush and pine wood is scarce; well, the fall was once a few yards below us, and I dare to say was, in its time, as regular and handsome a sheet of water as any along the Hudson. But ... the place is sadly changed! These rocks are full of cracks, and in some places, they are softer than at othersome, and the water has worked out deep hollows for itself, until it has fallen back, ay, some hundred feet, breaking here, and wearing there, until the fall has neither shape nor consistency.”
“In what part of them are we?” asked Heyward.
“Why, we are nigh by the spot that Providence first placed them at, but where, it seems, they were too rebellious to stay. The rock proved softer on either side of us, and so they left the centre of the river bare and dry, first working out these two little holes for us to hide in. ... “
Thus does Cooper explain the geology that has created the island, its caves, and the rapids and falls that surround it. Clearly he had in 1824, as his daughter later wrote, “examined ... the ground closely” so as to be able to describe it. Cooper then has Hawkeye go on to describe the Falls on either side of the island:
“Ay! there are the falls on two sides of us, and the river above and below. If you had daylight, it would be worth the trouble to step up on the height of this rock, and look at the perversity of the water! It falls by no rule at all; sometimes it leaps, sometimes it tumbles; there, it skips; here, it shoots; on one place ‘tis white as snow, and another ‘tis green as grass; hereabouts, it pitches into deep hollows that rumble and quake the ‘arth; and thereaway, it ripples and sings like a brook, fashioning whirlpools and gullies in the old stone, as if ‘twas no harder than trodden clay. The whole design of the river seems disconcerted. First it runs smoothly, as if meaning to go down the descent as things were ordered; then it angles about and faces the shores; nor are there places wanting, where it looks backward, as if unwilling to leave the wilderness, to mingle with the salt! Ay, lady, the fine cobweb-looking cloth you wear at your throat, is coarse, and like a fish net, to little spots I can show you, where the river fabricates all sorts of images, as if, having broke loose from order, it would try its hand at every thing. And yet what does it amount to! After the water has been suffered to have its will for a time, like a headstrong man, it is gathered together by the hand that made it, and a few rods below you may see it all, flowing on steadily towards the sea, as was foreordained from the first foundation of the ‘arth.”
This is not just a remarkable description of a waterfall and rapids, but a miniature treatise on theology. Cooper was a deeply religious man, and always concerned with symbols representing the relationship of man and God. Here he likens the river, and its “rebellious” falls, to the life of man, who may flirt with anarchy but must in the long run be brought back into the course set by his Maker. That a river is an apt symbol of the human condition was not original to Cooper — you may see it, for example, in the famous series of paintings by Cooper’s friend Thomas Cole called The Voyage of Life. But it is a potent one, and here Cooper turns a vivid physical description into a powerful parable.
In 1831, when revising The Last of the Mohicans for a new English edition, Cooper added a footnote to his description:
Glenn’s Falls are on the Hudson, some forty or fifty miles above the head of tide. ... The description of this picturesque and remarkable little cataract, as given by the scout, is sufficiently correct, though the application of the water to the uses of civilised life has materially injured its beauties. The rocky island and the two caverns are well known to every traveller, since the former sustains a pier of a bridge, which is now thrown across the river, immediately above the fall. ... In a new country, the woods and other objects, which in an old country would be maintained at great cost, are gotten rid of, simply with a view of “improving” as it is called.
Today, we may hope, we live in an older country, and are trying to preserve what remains of America’s natural beauty. It is a question to which Cooper often returned, as through the long series of his novels he laid forth the elements of the modern environmental movement: that scarce natural resources must be conserved; that forests and streams and lakes, and the wild animals that live in them, are of value to the human spirit; and even that mankind has the capacity, in his greed and waste, to turn his surroundings into a barren desert.
As you turn to The Last of the Mohicans, I hope you will find it, as I have found it, worthy of reading as more than an adventure for boys. Like all of Cooper’s novels, it was written with more serious motives than narrating exciting stories, or even describing beautiful scenery. Rather, James Fenimore Cooper used the form of an adventurous romance to lead his readers into thinking about some of the most important issues facing Americans of the 19ᵗʰ Century. And, as I have sought to demonstrate, many of those issues are still of importance to Americans in the 21ˢᵗ century.