The Last of the Mohicans

From Academic Kids

The Last of the Mohicans is an epic novel by James Fenimore Cooper, first published in January 1826.

It was one of the most popular English-language novels of its time, and helped establish Cooper as one of the first world-famous American writers. Although stylistic and narrative flaws left it open to criticism since its publication, and its length and distinctive prose style have reduced its appeal to later readers, The Last of the Mohicans remains embedded in American literature courses. It is the most famous of the Leatherstocking Tales.

The Mahicans (what Cooper refers to as "Mohicans") exist to this day, in fact, so the title of the book is misleading.

Mohicans was the second book by Cooper, following Pioneers in 1823, to feature the pioneer Natty Bumppo, who is usually called Hawkeye. Bumppo was a personification of rugged individualism and pioneer spirit that remains central to the American identity to this day. Purportedly, this was supposed to be a novel of the American Indians, and not a tale of romantic relationships that Cooper had found dissatisfactory and prompted him to begin his writing career.

The story is set in the British colony of New York State during the French and Indian War, and concerns a massacre of a colonial garrison and a fictional kidnapping of two sisters, who were the daughters of the commander of Fort William Henry.

Two Native American tribes (Mohican and Huron), typified in the characters of the noble Chingachgook and Uncas and the gothic evil of Magua, are stylized and deeply inaccurate, but were also influential on the public imagination -- at the time, and also later, debating the means and morality of Indian removals.

The plot involves Uncas and Hawkeye escorting the Munro sisters, the dark-haired Cora and the blond Alice, through the woods of New York to Fort William Henry. Also in the party are British army major Duncan Heyward and a psalmist named David Gamut. They engage in deadly fights along the way against Hurons led by Magua. An encounter with another American Indian tribe called the Delaware in the second half of the novel will prove crucial towards the end.

Cooper developed his account based on existing writings and his imagination, rather than actual contact with any individuals. However, the history of the bitter, vengeful Magua, who was once beaten and humiliated by Colonel Munro, shows deep understanding of the treatment of captives by the Indian tribes. His treatment of the Native Americans shows a deep sympathy for their culture.

A number of films have been based on the book. The elongated nature of the novel has meant that considerable re-working is necessary to create a movie of endurable length and audience interest. There were attempts in 1911, 1920, 1932, 1936 and 1992. The 1920 version directed by Clarence Brown and Maurice Tourneur is well regarded, as is George Brackett Seitz's 1936 film. The 1920 film has been deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. The 1992 film by Michael Mann was, according to Mann, based more on the 1936 film version than on Cooper's book. A number of television movies and serials have also been made.

The usual deletions from cinematic versions of The Last of the Mohicans are the extensive sections about the Indians themselves, thus confounding Cooper's purpose. Further, romantic relationships, non-existent or minimal in the novel, are generated between the principal characters, and roles of some characters are reversed or altered, as are the events.

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