The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 17. The Last of the Mohicans
Cooper had now become a national figure, although critical judgement in New England condescended to him. He founded the Bread and Cheese Club in New York, a literary society of which he was the moving spirit; he took a prominent part in the reception of Lafayette in 1824; in the same year Columbia College gave him the honorary degree of Master of Arts. He planned a series of Legends of the Thirteen Republics, aimed to celebrate each of the original states, which he gave up after the first, Lionel Lincoln (1825), for all his careful research failed to please as his earlier novels had done. During the next two years Cooper reached probably the highest point of his career in The Last of the Mohicans (February, 1826) and The Prairie (May, 1827). His own interest and the persuasion of his friends led him to continue the adventures of Natty Bumppo, and very naturally he undertook to show both the days of Natty’s prime and his final fortunes. In each case Cooper projects the old hunter out of the world of remembered Otsego, into the dark forest which was giving up its secrets in 1793, or into the mighty prairies which Cooper had not seen but which stretched, in his mind’s eye, for endless miles beyond the forest, another mystery and another refuge. Natty, called Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, no longer has the hardness which marred his age in The Pioneers. With all his virtues of hand and head he combines a nobility of spirit which the woods have fostered in a mind never spoiled by men. He grows nobler as he grows more remote, more the poet and hero as the world in which he moves becomes more wholly his own. Chingachgook has undergone even a greater change, has got back all the cunning and pride which had been deadened in Indian John. But Hawkeye and Chingachgook are both limited by their former appearance; one must still be the canny reasoner, the other a little saddened with passing years. The purest romance of the tale lies in Uncas, the forest’s youngest son, gallant, swift, courteous, a lover for whom there is no hope, the last of the Mohicans. That Uncas was idealized Cooper was ready to admit; Homer, he suggested, had his heroes. And it is clear that upon Uncas were bestowed some of the virtues which the philosophers of the age had taught the world to find in a state of nature. Still, after a century, many smile upon the state of nature who are yet able to find in Uncas the perennial appeal of youth cut off in the flower. The action and setting of the novel are on the same high plane as the characters. The forest, in which all the events take place, surrounds them with a changeless majesty that sharpens, by contrast, the restless sense of danger. Pursuit makes almost the whole plot. The pursued party moving from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry has two girls to handicap its flight and to increase the tragedy of capture. Later the girls have been captured, and sympathy passes, a thing unusual in Cooper, to the pursuing rescuers. In these tasks Hawkeye and the Mohicans are opposed by the fierce capacity of Magua, who plays villain to Uncas’s hero, in moral qualities Uncas’s opposite. There is never any relaxation of suspense, and the scene in which Uncas reveals himself to the Delawares is one of the most thrilling moments in fiction.