I have enjoyed The Leatherstalking tales since I was in my pre-teens. Partially that is because the author is a relation on my dad’s side, a source of family pride.
Riding home from work today I listened to the first couple hours of the Audible audio book Last of the Mohicans,
This is one of those novels that drives literary professors and the critical elite absolutely bug-futz. This is a love-it-or-hate-it sort of novel, and the first in a whole genre of American historical fiction. A career military man in his youth, Cooper wrote in an educated style that was not at all in vogue with the literary (then or now). Criticism of him can be found as snotty as, “He always chooses the second best word for anything.” Well, *shrug* go and do better. People have been trying for years. Even if you hate a story, that is one of the greatest things about literature, that it inspires fans and foes alike to greater deeds.
If you have seen the 1992 film with Daniel-Day Lewis, which is beautifully shot and acted, you have only seen about two thirds of the story, cut out of sequence and heavily edited. Cooper’s popularity was largely because he captured the spirit of his times, and there are things in the spirit of those times, and in this story thoughts and attitudes modern America has largely forgot or learned to hate without considering abound.
The novel is not perfect. By modern standards it does not flow overly well. It is not that they are devoid of event or conflict, but it starts slowly, and the sense of pace in a pre-radio media is quite different than anything afterwards. When there was nothing moving faster than an oil painting, an audience was well-capable of holding an idea for a moment while the author took a tangent. I mean, he is not as bad as David Weber continues to be, but it is something to know going in.
But I love so many things about this story, conceptually, that make the plot all the more rewarding.
Genuinely held faith. These aren’t characters who go to church on Sunday and act like everyone else every other day of the week. These are characters who make decisions on mercy, courage, and their entire lives based on their faith while people are shooting at them. Genuine beliefs are not the solely held property of the good guys, either. It is easy to focus on the blatant dehumanizing racism of the Indian Wars and America’s own Hitler: Andrew Jackson, and forget that though the fate of American Indians is full of tragedy, they were also viewed with respect and admiration. Cooper’s Native population are strong, capable, dynamic, as intelligent as any white person in the story, and they pursue their own set of virtues, not so distantly removed to have been forgotten in Cooper’s time, as fervently as Cooper’s Christians pursue grace and truth.
The character of David. There is a delightful homage to Ichabod Crane in this story, a character who was completely removed from every film adaptation I have encountered. A goofball, naive Psalmist functions partly as comic relief and partly as an addition to the innocent victim pool. I think one reason he was firmly deleted is that the very idea of a person who makes their living leading and teaching Hymns would make most multiculturalists shit kittens. (Remember every culture but Christianity is to be honored in multiculturalism, which is a fancy way of saying my prejudicial hatred is more advanced than anyone before me.)
Unequivocal warriors. Manhood need not involve killing in this series. Providing useful work and labor are honored in speech and reverence by the most bad-ass of characters, but a man who is a warrior is one. As a military man, Cooper had the experience to know and write convincing warriors who do not wring their hands over the idea of violence in defense of their own lives or those less powerful, but would rather die than dishonor themselves.
The historical footnotes and asides, provided initially by Cooper himself, are a great delight to the historically-minded. This history nerd geeks out because often Cooper comments on details no longer commonly available at my level of education and resources (a mere undergraduate degree in the humanities). Neither is Cooper a fan of progress for its own sake or imminent domain, as it would later come to be known.
Nuance: Cooper is capable of writing in degrees of virtue and vice. He can describe great passion and integrity along a point to a villain without having him ever stop his villainy. His heroes have their own failures. Chingachgook is overly tacit and expresses himself freely only after his son’s death, when it is too late. Heroes and allies can be grasping, self-serving, or ignorant by turns and in varying novels, though this is more prominent in The Deerslayer than Last of the Mohicans. Cooper can point the faults of a protagonist out plainly, and still remain sympathetic. Even his Delaware-raised hero has his own prejudices and hatreds of the League of Five Nations that are unyielding and unthinking in their rigidity. Cooper is centuries removed from the concept that all members of a minority are either saints or victims, incapable of wrong and no matter what they do to themselves or others is some white person’s fault somehow. Let me tell you what a breath of fresh air it is to come out from under the haze of relentless political correctness. People can be good or bad, in turns, in any color, nation, or tribe in these stories (Though it is a good bet that the Delaware POV means that the Mohawks and Anishinabe are going to get the short end of the stick much the same way that English fiction is not overly fond of the French and vice-versa.)
These delightful additions make the sometimes ponderous prose worth a re-visit every few years. I have set some time aside this week and I enjoy them thoroughly.
I think, as much as anything, one reason that critics hate these novels as much as they do is because they have been judged unworthy by the elite for fifty-odd years now, and they have endured relentless popularity by us, the unwashed masses who do not know better than to enjoy something our intellectual lords and masters have condemned.
Neener Neener literati, I’m having a blast.