Sunday, May 22, 2011

Last of the Mohicans

This is the second (in order of publication) of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, following The Pioneers, which I read in March.  Once again, I embarked upon a mental portage for the first 300 pages, after which the plot sped up somewhat, but although I patiently awaited some of the thoughtful, even philosophical musings encountered near the end of The Pioneers, I was ultimately disappointed. Don't get me wrong, as a plot-based historical novel Mohicans can hold the reader's interest, but it lacked the depth of Cooper's earlier volume. There are three more novels in the Leatherstocking Tales, and I am interested to see which precedent they will follow.  I know I will be reading The Prairie at some point this year, as it is already in my possession, but The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder will likely wait until next year.

The plot of the novel differs noticeably from that of the 1992 film, so if you've seen the movie but haven't read the book, don't worry, I'm not mixing up the sisters....not that it would be difficult to do so when both characters are one-dimensional stereotypes of 19th century women.  Speaking of which, let's talk about Cora. One piece of information that is fairly important in the novel but omitted from the movie is the fact that Cora is one-quarter black (but technically not African-American, as her mother was from the Caribbean). Why would the screenwriter (or casting director? whoever) skip over this? Probably because it is implied as a reason for Magua's attraction for her as well as for her more strong-willed and intense temperament. This then begs the question of why it would be problematic for Magua to be attracted to her due to her racial origins. To the 21st century reader it seems obvious that individuals have varying levels of attraction to people of different ethnicities. Part of the difficulty lies in the stereotypical representation of Magua as a sly, sneaky, violent and deceptive Indian. To put it bluntly, in Cooper's world, the villain of inferior race, when presented with two women, chooses the one who is also of inferior race.  So you can see why Hollywood wasn't going to touch that with a ten-foot canoe paddle.

     Now, before you get the idea that I think Cooper is a racist pig, I must state that I stand by my previous opinion of him as quite advanced for his time in his ideas of race and culture. Let's look at Uncas, for example.  If Magua is the sly, sneaky Indian and Chingachgook is the stoic noble savage, Uncas is an admirable and courageous hero whose depiction rises above ethnic stereotype. Hawkeye and Cora point out at different times that Uncas' behavior is commendable. Hawkeye comments that Uncas is pretty awesome for an Indian (my paraphrase) *sigh*, while Cora states that anyone who observed Uncas' actions would forget the color of his skin. Cooper then portrays the other characters as being uncomfortable with Cora's statement, which would have indeed been a historically accurate response. Cora (and Cooper) were ahead of their time.

    Related but not identical to Cooper's exploration of interracial relationships is his portrayal of culture conflict. Heyward represents the soldier ideal in American culture, while David Gamut is the Calvinist Protestant and Hawkeye is the frontiersman. These three men clash with each other throughout the novel, so how can such an internally discordant culture, one which can't even agree with itself, be expected to instantly enter civil discourse with not just one completely foreign Native American tribe, but many? Thus, Cooper makes his point more clearly than would have been possible had he permitted less conflict among the male American characters.

     Cooper further sets out issues of cultural conflict through his use of several names to refer to one person, tribe or place. To name something or someone is to assert dominance over that person or thing, and the fact that each group had their own names for other groups/people is used as a device by Cooper to signify the struggle between them. Nathaniel Bumppo calls himself Natty but is also known as Hawkeye by the Mohicans and La Longue Carabine by the French and Huron. The Iroquois are alternately Maquas and Mingoes, the Delaware are the Leni-Lenape, Chingachgook is Le Gros Serpent and Magua is Sly Fox. Even Lake Horican is also Lake George and Le Lac du St. Sacrament. Uncas originally carries the title Last of the Mohicans because he was the last born of his tribe, but after his death, his father, Chingachgook becomes Last of the Mohicans. Symbolically, Chingachgook represents not only the last of his tribe, but the last of all Indian culture, ultimately destroyed by the coming of the Europeans and their settlement of the frontier.

Heroes: Uncas, Hawkeye
Villain: Magua
More sappy prairie women: Cora and Alice, but especially Alice
Over sensationalized: Indian massacre
Under explored: character of Hawkeye...but I do have 3 more volumes to go so I'll let it slide
There was a lot of: dialogue, tracking, descriptions of nature, hiking through the forest
There should have been more: comic relief. I think Cooper was trying with David Gamut, but I personally don't find much humor in strict Calvinists...
This book makes you want to: appreciate the alien beauty of the wilderness, appreciate the alien beauty of a person you don't understand (hmm...think Cooper chose his setting to correspond with his themes?)
This book makes you glad you don't have to: faint regularly as proof of your XX chromosomes, engage in hand-to-hand combat as proof of your XY chromosomes, rely on a guide who is trying to trick you, be the last living member of your tribe

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