Saturday, August 22, 2009

Books: The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper

One can’t help wondering what, in 1826, Cooper intended in writing The Last of the Mohicans. Its heroes and villains are clearly enough demarcated that he may simply have sat down to write a good adventure, and the twelve-year-old boy looking for tomahawks and rifles and canoes and caves and battles to the death, complete with scalping, won’t be disappointed. But this is also a highly romantic novel—not in its attentiveness to the negligible love story, but in its depiction of the American Indian, a sort of super-human sub-human, who is elevated above the white man by a pre-societal skill set. To a degree, Cooper aggrandizes the abilities of the natives of all the tribes—including the enemy Iroquois—but the clear epitome of heroism here is the adolescent Uncas, the second-to-the-last-Mohican, who wanders the woods not with his tribe, which has been demolished, but with his father (the Last, after Uncas’ death in the novel’s last pages) and the white-turned-native Hawkeye, who serves as interlocutor for the pair of Mohicans and the English sisters whom they spend the duration of the novel rescuing.

There are moments when Cooper seems to be advocating for equality; the wise (but less beautiful) older sister, though she refuses to marry the villain Magua when he offers her “death or my wigwam,” seems to have a respectful admiration, bordering on affection, for the heroic Uncas, despite their differences, one which he reciprocates. At the novel’s end, when they both lose their lives, it is understood by all that she will join him in the Native afterlife, rather than proceeding to the heaven of her own people (the concept of multiple, segregated afterlives being one worth a masters’ thesis in and of itself). And yet, they could hardly be allowed to couple in waking life, and so the living couple that does marry is, of course, the younger sister, trembling and blonde, and the young General, valiant and dull-witted. Does Cooper mean to say that we’ve killed everything self-sufficient, wise, just, and organic, and built our current society on empty beauty, empty valor, shallow good intentions, unconscious self-indulgence?

No comments: