Today's reader, geared to a modern tempo and coming again or coming fresh upon Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, may wonder what all the acclaim was and is about. For Cooper was a popular and financial success here in America, while his acknowledged eminence abroad led, long before his death, to translations in all the languages of Western Europe, plus those of Persia, Egypt, and Turkey. Hence, like Dickens' later, Cooper's work was often as popular overseas as at home. In 1828, for instance, the composer Franz Schubert, lying near death in Vienna, asked a friend to rush him Cooper's latest book in print; and nearly a century later, when in 1917 the United States entered World War I on the side of France, a Frenchman toasted his surprised American listeners by calling out, "The spirit of Leather-Stocking is awake!" Thus among the nicknames for Natty Bumppo (Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Pathfinder, Leather-Stocking, the trapper), Leather-Stocking became the common one attached to the character and to the series of five novels.
To appreciate the novel properly, the reader needs to remember something of the method of publication in Cooper's day. Like his other novels, The Last of the Mohicans was published in two volumes, a predetermined circumstance that partly accounts for the major division of the novel into two long chase sequences with a short intermediate stay of relative safety for the main characters at Fort William Henry. Herein is the big pattern of the book, based upon the suspenseful technique that Cooper made famous in novel after novel: pursuit-capture-escape-and-pursuit. The demands of publication, then, as well as the nature of his subject matter and his own propensities as a writer, are operative in this classic of patterned adventure.
Similarly, publishers' deadlines, readers with the leisure and desire for long contact with fictional characters and situations, the rapid writing pace that Cooper set himself, and his honesty in doing what he did best — all were instrumental in evolving the amazing improvisation in this and other novels by Cooper. Here he stays within the confines of frontier adventure and within the form and structure of the novel. But in his professional field, Cooper is as inventive as twentieth-century jazz and modern ballet; and the present-day reader should need only to shift tolerance from one subject and form to another in order to appreciate — and probably enjoy — this early American classic that explores one of our greatest traditions and first bodies forth at its best what is doubtless the American myth.
In The Last of the Mohicans, the frontier is both a place and a condition made up of opposite, usually conflicting forces, for the very nature of a frontier is that it is the demarcating area where things come together with all their differences. In the pervading historical background of the novel is the conflict between civilization and so-called savagism: the wresting of a continent from nature and the Indians. More immediate is the clash between the French and the English for colonial control of the land (the time of the novel is the summer of 1757); and for mercenary help these two nationalities make impermanent, weathercock alliances with already hostile Indians whom Cooper presents as the bad Iroquois stock and the good Delawares and Mohicans of Algonquin stock. The historical confrontation of races is brought into fictional focus with the skirmishes and occasional understandings between individuals and groups of reds and whites, both of whom are in turn at odds with peoples of their own color. One symbolic result is the death of the last offspring of the admirable Mohicans. But what T. S. Eliot would call the "objective correlative" of this problem is also presented dramatically in terms of miscegenation: the tragic mutual love of the noble Indian Uncas and the sentimentalized yet nonetheless worthy Cora Munro, who is also desired by the villain Magua. In the novel, this thematic problem is slow in development — we are, in fact, hardly aware of it until mid-point — and even as it comes into the forefront of action toward the end, it is muted by Cooper at the very time that it becomes the most immediate motivation for the hair-raising events that bring the novel to its close. Without doubt, the novel throughout is one of the bloodiest in American literature, and that tragic bloodshed stems from the fact that, in general historic background and dramatic fictional foreground, human beings are involved in a concept of progress that irresistibly pushes the frontier westward.
Cooper can encompass this situation convincingly because it is history extending into his own lifetime: during the 1820s and 1830s, the United States policy of Removal was steadily shifting the Indians to areas west of the Mississippi River. But he can convince us also because of a natural paradox in himself. As a son of eighteenth-century rationalism (especially Scottish), he believed that everything had its "place," a belief that stratified society and even government. It was this conviction that led him through his spokesman Hawkeye to insist upon the rightness of Indian "gifts" and white "gifts" and upon the impropriety even after death of a union between Uncas and Cora. At the same time, Cooper was heir to the idea of progress which in America became a "manifest destiny" to press civilization all the way to the Pacific Ocean. When the force of progress confronted the condition of "place," the latter too often gave at its foundations, and the result was tragic turmoil that simply used and sometimes obliterated the tribes of "savage" Indians, that foreordained the fatality of love crossing the racial line, that called for the expendability of a Natty Bumppo who could be what he could only be, a frontiersman, as long as the frontier was stationary and consistent unto itself. It is this tragic meeting of differences comprising the idea of the frontier that gives power to Cooper's novel, even as he attempts to entertain his nineteenth-century reader with the elements of improvised adventure and of current sentimental love novels.
In the middle of these differing forces is Hawkeye, the first great fictional embodiment of the American myth. Based on real-life prototypes but with only a vague resemblance to Daniel Boone, Hawkeye is the frontiersman par excellence and the literary forefather of every fictional cowboy and his sort who since then has climbed from or onto his horse, prepared to defend the good with his deadly, unerring bullets and the strength of his endurance. Compared with him, the finest Indians like the last two Mohicans are a close second best, while a white like Major Heyward, though top-rate within the discipline of his own civilized milieu, is third-rate in coping with the uncertainties of frontier existence. The reason is that, while none of these were strictly born of the frontier, Hawkeye was. In growing up and living there, he has retained the morals of his civilized inheritance and acquired only the virtues and woodsmanship of the Indians. Thus he is not a full member of either side in the conflict. Instead, he is a quiet, unassuming, even background figure of the highest ideals who serves as mediator and who is made believably human because of minor frailties like his boasting pride in marksmanship. Although his is a life-long brotherly attachment to Chingachgook, he is essentially and sadly (but rightly if he is to remain true to his nature) alone, monolithic and ideally enduring at the same time that he must ultimately vanish with the geographical frontier.
Acquaintance with the entire Leather-Stocking series gives one the fullest awareness of the stature and meaning of Hawkeye, but both qualities are apparent in The Last of the Mohicans through Hawkeye's singular uprightness, his wide renown across the plains and forests, and his rather aloof involvement in the actions of the story. It is, in fact, his combination of ideals and aloofness that fits him to be Cooper's commentator on the beauties and perversities of nature and human life. He is too good to be an actuality, but he is as living as any just ideal can be, even after he and his frontier have vanished. Thus, to a great extent due to Cooper, the idea of a Natty Bumppo remains, carrying with it that hazy degree of reality, truth, and effectiveness that is the province of myth.
The novel, never meant to be realistic in any strict sense, is of course filled out with a profusion of other conventions and motifs. Cooper's appreciation for primeval nature is obvious in the choice of modulated phrasing and in the descriptive accuracy of his scenes. When he goes into detail about tracking fugitives through the forests, he is both recognizing and fulfilling the typical American interest in know-how. Features of the sentimental novel with its excessively emotional view of experience abound. And though it is sporadic and sometimes heavy-handed, humor too is not lacking, for the traditional comic Yankee character finds a role here in David Gamut. But all of these elements and others in the novel are subsumed by the dominant serious theme. For the story of The Last of the Mohicans, the episodic adventures are the appropriate fictional clothing, while the conventional sentimental love represents the alluring piping. The vibrant thematic life underneath all this, with an ultimately doomed Hawkeye at the center, is the condition of the frontier with its heroics, its bloodshed, and its tragedy.