The Last of the Mohicans was written in 1826 by James Fenimore Cooper, set within the background of a historical incident of 1757, a massacre of surrendered troops and civilians leaving Fort William Henry, during the French and Indian War. It is part of a trilogy and considered the best novel written by Cooper. Allegedly, his writing career began as a dare from his wife to write something better than the romance novels she was reading.!
The sumptuous natural setting, particularly the cave behind the waterfall, was inspired by Lake George and Glen Falls. Cooper himself grew up in a New York frontier town, founded by his father, Cooperstown. Interestingly, Mark Twain wrote an entire essay criticizing Cooper’s writing. Many find it awkward. But, in his time, Cooper’s novels were very popular. So if the writing is not brilliant, why is it important to read this novel?
For starters, Cooper created the first American adventure hero in Natty Bumpo, better known as Hawkeye. Think John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and even Bruce Willis’s movie roles. An article from Creative English Teacher even calls Hawkeye a precursor to Han Solo. The adventures are sometimes unbelievable, but not a problem for a generation raised on The Fast and the Furious or Transformers.
Hawkeye was raised by fatherly, but cunning warrior of the Delaware tribe, Chingachgook. This adoptive father, a man of integrity, compassion, and strength, also has a younger son, Uncas, a romantic hero. These three travel together and get involved with the daughters of Colonel Munro, commander of the ill fated fort. Cora, the elder and stronger of the two, is of mixed race, at least distantly. Alice is frail and fair, of a Scottish mother.
This novel stands out as bringing together diversity representative of the newly minted America. Though the tribes are a bit caricatured, this book also garners respect and sympathy for dwindling native tribes, forced off their land, but nobly carrying themselves with dignity. It was a needed voice in Cooper’s time. The Indian Removal Act would be passed in 1830, cruelly forcing eastern Indians west onto “reservations”, often land that nobody else wanted.
If you have seen the 1992 Daniel Day-Lewis movie already, you will be surprised how the romances play out. The romance is much more subtle, a refreshing element of the times (I have an imagination, thank you very much). I had to point out to my teens how the ladies felt about seeing the shirtless Uncas in front of the fire and how laden with meaning Cooper’s few words on the matter were.
Ask the students for which character is the book named? In other words, who is the last of the Mohicans? Arguments can be made for several different characters. Is this book a comedy or a tragedy, in the traditional sense? Where is truth, beauty, and goodness in this story? Does David remind you of any other American novel protagonist? My students made parallels between David and Ichabod Crane of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I found that remarkable considering the similar settings of time and place.
Why is Chingachgook called Le Gros Serpent? What drives Magua? And what are the different man versus man conflicts within the story? What prejudices are overcome and which are not? While examining the author’s worldview ask: What does Hawkeye mean when he says he is a “man without a cross”?
You can find more questions to ask in my free literature study guide download. Those questions are great for any novel you are studying!
When I first picked up this book, after watching the movie in my late teens, I was sorely disappointed. The writing is a little choppy and strange and the novel is dated. But re-reading it now, with many more old books under my belt, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was surprised to find that my high school students really enjoyed their first read of this American classic. After the discussion, I watched the 1992 movie with my 15 year old. We both laughed at the silliness of the romantic plot line, though my original assessment that it was a tough choice between Daniel Day-Lewis and Eric Schweig was still true. Definitely do not watch the movie before reading the book, if you decide to watch it at all.
This novel is a great history supplement, giving a colorful window into the times, particularly the difficult to understand French and Indian War. Students should note that this is where George Washington got his start. It is worth mentioning to them that the continued occupation by British soldiers, long after this conflict had ended, was one of the irritants galling the colonies and leading to the American Revolution.
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