The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 – James Fenimore Cooper

Right. This is another book I dragged up from the gutter for a class I taught on classic American novels. Someone should really stop me before I do this again. It was really a move of last minute desperation, as my class was starting, I had decided to drop Mark Twain for his use of the N word, and I needed to pick something.

This was not a good idea.

Last of the Mohicans is a war novel set during the French and Indian war, just before the American revolution. It follows a group of characters attempting to go through the war torn American wilderness to Fort Henry, as some of the characters have family there. One of their native American guides turns out to be a plant allied with the French, and from there a series adventures ensue.

I’ve heard prose described as wooden before. This was a cement wall. I will say it before and I will say it again, art follows the same arms race trajectory as technology, and just as we find it jarring to to use really old technology, you really feel how old this prose is. It’s odd to what extent I found it jarring here, and not from narratives from the same era. This book was riddled with moments that made me say ‘yea, no one speaks like that’. And yes, i am aware that it was mostly a stylistic thing from the prose of that time. And I don’t really care.

But what is much worse is the characters, and how much I could not bring myself to care. One one of the characters professes his love for another, my first questions was ‘what?’, followed by ‘how?’ I get that things were different back then, but I just didn’t see how it could have happened.

About the most interesting things I got from this book was some thought about how prose standards change. The book fairly regularly refers to itself. Here and there it may tell us about an anecdote, and then follow it up with ‘but there isn’t time to get into that in the present narrative’ or ‘as is well known by the reader of this narrative’, or some such nonsense. It happened enough for me to notice it. This wasn’t a sort of modern fourth wall breaking, which I tend to enjoy. It was jarring, and really took me out of the story those few times it did happen. But it was the most interesting part about the book. That’s a pretty damning condemnation.

I think Mark Twain also had a share of problems with this book, so if nothing else I know I am in good company. For the sake of completion, I should mention that the description of native Americans in this work was… not the best. I didn’t find it to be intentionally villainous (product of their times and all that), but it is certainly something that aged rather poorly.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s