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The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Last of the Mohicans, The

< The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)

LAST OF THE MOHICANS, The. ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ was the second of the Leather-Stocking series which Fenimore Cooper wrote, and it stands second in the order in which these novels present the deeds and emotions of the greatest character American fiction has furnished to the world of the imagination. Perhaps less realistic than ‘The Pioneers,’ and less poetical than ‘The Prairie,’ ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ is still the most representative not only of the series, but of Cooper's romances in general. In this tale Leather-Stocking first reaches his true proportions. ‘The Pioneers,’ in which he had first appeared, had shown him somewhat hardened by age; only at the end of that book, when Natty, in search of simplicity and perfect freedom, withdraws from the settlements and plunges into the deeper woods, does he make his full appeal. In ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’ which presents Hawkeye, as he is now called, in the prime of his strength and valor, he has grown nobler as he has grown more remote, more the poet and hero as the world in which he moves has become more wholly his own. Chingachgook has undergone an even greater change. He had been known in ‘The Pioneers’ as Indian John, a drunken old vagabond who was dignified only by his death. ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ restores to him his cunning and pride. The purest romance of the story lies in Uncas, the son of Chingachgook, gallant, swift, courteous, a lover for whom there is no hope, the last of his mighty line. Cooper was perfectly willing to admit that Uncas was idealized, like other epic and romantic heroes. It is clear also that Uncas possesses many of the virtues which Rousseau had said are to be found in the state of nature. Romantic idealization, however, and romantic sentiment cannot deprive Uncas of the perennial appeal which youth makes when cut off in the flower. Nor is a book which has added three such personages to fiction to be too lightly dismissed as without power of characterization.

The action and setting of ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ are on the same high plane as the characters. The forest, in which all the events take place, surrounds them with a changeless majesty which deepens, by contrast, the restless sense of danger. Flight and pursuit, Cooper's favorite plot-device, fill almost the entire book; two white girls, being escorted from Fort Edward, on the Hudson, to Fort William Henry, on Lake George, are pursued by the hostile savages who infested that region during the French and Indian War; they are captured and, after another desperate pursuit, rescued. The thrilling contest is carried on with every subtle trick known to Magua, the villain, and to Hawkeye and the Mohicans, who are the real heroes of the piece, though there is a conventional lover for one of the conventional girls. Among the most moving moments in fiction is that in which Uncas reveals himself to the Delawares; of all Cooper's climaxes it is the one built up with the greatest skill. The coincidences are occasionally strained and the style is careless, but the narrative force of the book, no matter what its defects, is too compelling for it to be called less than a masterpiece.