That’s enough Mohicans
Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans has sold millions of copies, has been filmed very many times and was enormously influential. In many ways it was the Ur-novel of the Western genre (or frontier genre anyway). Huge amounts have been written about it, scholarly tomes, study guides for schoolchildren and so on. I don’t intend to try to compete with those. But I think that any self-respecting Western blog (and this blog is at least self-respecting) should deal with this key text at some point, and so here’s a Jeff-type article for the general (Western-loving) reader which I hope you enjoy.
It’ll certainly be shorter than the durn book itself. That runs into 432 pages of (too) small print in my paperback edition. Google tells me that “The average reader will spend 7 hours and 44 minutes reading this book at 250 WPM (words per minute)” but it took me way longer than that, I can tell you. It seemed interminable. Reader of this blog Gumpy commented recently on our review of a film version of the novel that he (I am guessing a he) had never managed to finish the book. I totally get that.
By the way, if you really insist on reading it, it’s available free from various sources, such as Gutenberg, and there are also audio versions (though the bedtime-story aspect might act as a soporific).
Or you might prefer a first edition, but that’ll set you back 25,000 USD.
The plot develops slowly and becomes extremely intricate, the style is prolix, there are long paragraphs of wordy description, especially of nature, the characters have several different names, and the whole business of reading it becomes quite hard work. Much of the plot is improbable, to say the least, and the tone is often melodramatic. I have read many long nineteenth-century novels in my time, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, and I especially like Thackeray, but they seem like light afternoon reads by comparison with this one.
That’s my opinion anyway. Many love it, of course. In 1828 Franz Schubert asked for the book to be read to him on his deathbed. Perhaps he wanted to be finished off. Actually, flippancy aside, that’s quite interesting in that it shows the international appeal of the novel. It was already translated into German, by Heinrich Döring, in 1826, the same year as its publication in English, and it has appeared in a vast number of other languages.
Scholars and schoolteachers the world over will doubtless be scandalized by my philistinism. Still, you gotta tell it like it is, as the saying (rather ungrammatcally) goes. Mind, I am not the only one to have that sinking feeling when I pick up a Fenimore tome, and indeed I am in very distinguished company, for Mark Twain’s 1895 essay Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses suggested that “Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.”
Who were or are the Mohicans, anyway? With those haircuts they usually have in the films aren’t they Mohawks?
Nope. The Mohicans, also spelled Mahicans, the Muh-he-con-neok, are an Algonquian-speaking people from the upper Hudson River valley above the Catskill Mountains in New York state. Their name for themselves means “the people of the waters that are never still.” During the colonial period, they were known to the Dutch and the English as the River Indians and to the French as the Loups (Wolves). The Mohicans are not to be confused with the Mohawks, an Iroquoian-speaking people, the most easterly part of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy – or indeed with the Mohegans, who originally resided in what is now Connecticut and are related to the Pequot.
In fact when first contacted by the Dutch, the Mohicans were at war with the Mohawks, and in 1664 they were forced to move to what is now Stockbridge, Mass, and became known as the Stockbridge band; other groups scattered and merged with other tribes. The Stockbridge band later moved to Wisconsin and was joined by the Munsee band; the two groups were given a joint reservation in Wisconsin in the 19th century, which is still going. So I don’t think Chingachgook and Uncas were the last of the Mohicans after all.
Of course the narrative that many native peoples were approaching extinction or total assimilation was prevalent in novels like Cooper’s and indeed Zane Grey’s later The Vanishing American, and in many other writings.
Anyway, I’m glad we’ve got that cleared up.
James Fenimore Cooper (1789 – 1851) had written sea stories and become famous with his first novel, an American Revolution espionage yarn, The Spy, in 1821. But his best-known works by far are the five historical novels set in the mid-eighteenth century, usually known as the Leatherstocking Tales, starting in 1823 with The Pioneers, which introduced the hero Nathaniel ‘Natty’ Bumppo and his Mohican friends Chingachgook and his son Uncas (actually a Mohegan name, so Cooper was confusing there). That was followed in 1826 by the book many regard as his masterpiece, The Last of the Mohicans, in which the characters return. That year Cooper moved his family to Europe. In Paris he published The Prairie, the third Leatherstocking Tale, in which Natty Bumppo dies in the western land newly acquired by Jefferson as the Louisiana Purchase. Cooper returned to the US in 1833. In 1840 came The Pathfinder, set around Lake Ontario, in which Natty was miraculously resuscitated, and the last of the series, The Deerslayer, was a prequel to all the tales, set in the 1740s, which told of Natty’s earlier life.
Never has a hero had so many names, Nathaniel Bumppo, Leather-Stocking, Hawkeye, La Longue Carabine (the French call him that after his preferred weapon), Pathfinder, Deerslayer, and so it goes on. Other characters too have a variety of names. Magua is often referred to as (and calls himself) Le Renard Subtil or Le Subtil. Oh well.
The Last of the Mohicans is set in 1757, during the French and Indian War (the North American theater of the Seven Years War), when France and Great Britain battled for control of North America. During this war, both sides used American Indian allies, but the French were particularly dependent on them, as they were outnumbered in the Northeast frontier areas by the British. Specifically, the events of the novel are set immediately before, during, and after the Siege of Fort William Henry.
I shall now summarize the seemingly endless story for you in 300 words.
It concerns the escorting of British Colonel Munro’s two daughters, Alice and Cora, through dangerous country to the safety (as they hope) of the fort. Guarding the girls are Natty, British Major Duncan Heyward, a teacher of psalm-singing, David (appropriately-named) Gamut (usually excised from the movies), and the Mohicans Chingachgook and Uncas.
The bad guy is Magua, a Huron scout secretly allied with the French. He hates Colonel Munro because the colonel had him whipped for drunkenness. Natty leads his charges to a cave on an island, where Magua’s Hurons attack them. Magua captures Heyward, Gamut and the Munro girls (he lusts after Cora, quelle horreur) but Natty, Chingachgook and Uncas escape, later rescuing the party. Heyward falls for Alice. Natty leads the group to Fort Henry, evading a French siege. Munro then sends him to General Webb at Fort Edward for reinforcements, but he is captured by the French.
So Colonel Munro agrees to the French general Montcalm’s terms: the British will leave the fort and withdraw from the war for eighteen months. However, outside the fort, the column of British evacuees is ambushed by Huron warriors; in the ensuing massacre, Magua kidnaps Cora and Alice, and goes off to the Huron village, with Gamut in pursuit. The heroes follow, there’s a canoe chase (doubtless the model for the hectic pursuit in Bullitt and The French Connection). Disguised as a bear (suspension of credibility required), Natty beats Magua, ties him up and rescues Cora, and Heyward saves Alice. It all gets mighty convoluted now because Uncas dons the bear disguise, Natty wears Gamut’s clothes, and Gamut stays in a corner mimicking Uncas. But there’s a battle, then in a fight at the edge of a cliff, the Hurons kill Cora, Gamut kills one of the Hurons, Magua kills Uncas, and Hawkeye kills Magua. The end? No such luck. The novel concludes with a lengthy account of the funerals of Uncas and Cora.
Here’s a sample:
The river was confined between high and cragged rocks, one of which impended above the spot where the canoe rested. As these, again, were surmounted by tall trees, which appeared to totter on the brows of the precipice, it gave the stream the appearance of running through a deep and narrow dell. All beneath the fantastic limbs and ragged tree tops, which were, here and there, dimly painted against the starry zenith, lay alike in shadowed obscurity. Behind them, the curvature of the banks soon bounded the view by the same dark and wooded outline; but in front, and apparently at no great distance, the water seemed piled against the heavens, whence it tumbled into caverns, out of which issued those sullen sounds that had loaded the evening atmosphere. It seemed, in truth, to be a spot devoted to seclusion, and the sisters imbibed a soothing impression of security, as they gazed upon its romantic though not unappalling beauties. A general movement among their conductors, however, soon recalled them from a contemplation of the wild charms that night had assisted to lend the place to a painful sense of their real peril.
I thought I’d just give you a bit of the prose, to get the idea.
Anyway, this book was a huge hit, all over the world. It made Cooper’s name and fortune.
On the silver screen
From DW Griffith’s eleven-minute Leather Stocking in 1909 to Alan Alda in M*A*S*H and beyond, Cooper’s hero has appeared in popular culture, on the big screen and small, in comics, songs, all over the place.
The characters of The Last of the Mohicans (not so much the other tales) have been, like Zorro, Robin Hood or the Three Musketeers, ones who re-appear every generation or so. The basic captivity narrative – fair maidens rescued from a fate worse than death, or indeed death, by a bold and resourceful (and white) frontiersman – fed into the whole Western genre.
James Cruze, who would later direct The Covered Wagon, was Uncas in a now lost 1911 one-reeler, The Last of the Mohicans (we don’t know who played Hawkeye).
Maurice Tourneur (Jacques’s dad) made the first substantial film of the tale in 1920, a 73-minute six-reeler, also titled The Last of the Mohicans, which headlined Wallace Beery, as Magua (Harry Lorraine as ‘Hawkeye – a scout’ was only ninth-billed). This film has been deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. I’ll be reviewing it soon. Bet you can hardly wait.
The same year, Der letzte der Mohikaner was the feature-length second part of the German silent movie Lederstrumpf (Leatherstocking), directed by Arthur Wellin and starring Bela Lugosi as Chingachgook. Ditto about review forthcoming and hardly waiting.
The first talkie version was a Mascot twelve-chapter serial in 1932, The Last of the Mohicans, directed by Ford Beebe and B Reeves Eason, which starred Harry Carey as Hawkeye (at the top of the billing and finally a proper hero). That’s available, but at 3 hours 48 minutes I’m not sure I can face it for review.
The best ever version (in my opinion) was The Last of the Mohicans (click for our review) a big Edward Small production in 1936 directed by George B Seitz, which made Randolph Scott a star. He was Hawkeye, of course, and Bruce Cabot was a memorable Magua. It was a well-made 91-minute black & white picture, with a screenplay by Philip Dunne.
Michael Mann, director of the 1992 film, also admired this version and in fact said that his picture was based more on the 1936 one than on the book or other films. Mann believes Cooper’s novel is “not a very good book”, taking issue with the author’s sympathy for the Euro-Americans and their seizure of American Indians’ lands.
In the 1940s Sam Katzman made a version at Columbia with the title Last of the Redmen (click for our review) which once more relegated Hawkeye to a character part, played in a semi-comic way by Michael O’Shea, and made Jon Hall as Major Heyward the real hero. Buster Crabbe was Magua. All the other versions had of course made necessary cuts and some plot changes but this version went to town on that.
The 1950s gave us The Iroquois Trail, once again click for our review, another Edward Small production (Eddie liked the story), this time for United Artists, again much adapted, with George Montgomery as ‘Nat Cutler/Hawkeye’, Glenn Langan as ‘Captain Jonathan West’, the Heyward figure, Monte Blue as Sagame, a kind of combined Chingachgook/Uncas, and Brenda Marshall as ‘Marion Thorne’ (there’s only one ‘Munro’ girl). Sheldon Leonard was ‘Ogane’, a sort of Magua. It was an energetic picture directed by Phil Carlson, and Richard Schayer got the ‘credit’ for the screenplay.
In 1965 there was Fall of the Mohicans, which I’ve never seen, shot in Almeria, starring Jack Taylor as Major Heyward and a fifth-billed Luis Induni as Hawkeye.
Probably the biggest, glossiest and most famous film version these days is Fox’s 1992 one, a nigh on two-hour Panavision color picture, The Last of the Mohicans (that’s right, click for review), directed by Mann and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye and an excellent Wes Studi as Magua (though I might have cast the Uncas, Eric Schweig, as Magua and given the Uncas part to Wes; I mean, have you seen The Missing? Now that’s an Indian bad guy). Many love this film.
As for TV, well there are loads. As a boy I was an avid follower of Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans (1957, I was nine), Sigmund Neufeld’s only TV production, his brother Sam Newfield often directing. It had John Hart as Nat Cutler/Hawkeye (he remains the Hawkeye in my memory) and dear old Lon Chaney Jr as the loyal Chingachgook. This, though, was a very free adaptation of the tale. It was more of a classic Western series in which the hero and his sidekick (Lon) go about the West (well, Northeast in this case) saving poor homesteaders from all manner of menace. It is utterly gripping. If you are nine.
Chingachgook, die grosse Schlange (Chingachgook the Great Serpent), starring Gojko Mitic as Chingachgook, appeared in the then East Germany in 1967, and became popular throughout the Eastern bloc.
There was a BBC TV mini-series The Last of the Mohicans in 1971, with Kenneth Ives as Hawkeye and Philip Madoc as Magua, and a TV movie aired on NBC in 1977, with Steve Forrest as Hawkeye and Robert Tessler as Magua. There was a one-season TV series in 1994 called Hawkeye, filmed in Canada, with Lee Horsley in the title role and Rodney A Grant as Chingachgook. There was an animated version made in Italy in 2004 and shown on RAI, though Hawkeye was oddly in only one episode of the 26.
And this list is not exhaustive. There were other attempts to bring the story to the big or small screen, as well as radio, comics and a 1976 opera.
We probably need Johnny Boggs, who has done such great work on Billy the Kid and Jesse James in the movies to have ago at Hawkeye.
To be brutally frank, though, I‘d prefer any of them to the book. Screen versions tended to discard all the waffle and concentrate on the action. OK, they made some mega changes to the original story but maybe it needed them.
So there you have it. Now you don’t have to read the damn book.