Friday, February 14, 2014

Classic Lit: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

Publisher: Signet Classics
Date: 1841 (1980)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased at Fifth Street Books
Read: for Historical Novels course
Pages: 415
Reading time: about a week, but this fast pace isn't recommended

From GoodReads: The Last of the Mohicans contains the classic portrait of the man of moral courage who severs all connections with a society whose values he can no longer accept. Despite his chosen exile, Hawk-eye (Natty Bumppo0, the frontier scout, risks his life to escort two sisters through hostile Indian country. On the dangerous journey he enlists the aid of the Mohican Chingachgook. And in the challenging ordeal that follows, in their encounters with deception, brutality, and the death of loved ones, the friendship between the two men deepens--the scout and the Indian, each with a singular philosophy of independence that has been nurtured and shaped by the silent, virgin forest.

My review: The Last of the Mohicans is terrible. Ridiculous. Poorly written, inconsistent, melodramatic, horribly misogynist, not to mention the inevitable claim of racist. It's so bad, in fact, that it's laughable, making it almost fun to read. I think I actually would have enjoyed its terribleness if I hadn't been required to read the last 200+ days in two days (at that pace, it was just exhausting).

Mark Twain has already written a perfectly scathing essay on James Fenimore Cooper (really, check it out - it's quite fun to read), so I think the best method for me to review The Last of Mohicans is to point out how correct Twain is in identifying how Cooper violates 18 of the 19 rules "governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction":

Cooper does, indeed, tend to "accomplish nothing and arrive in air," mostly because of the faults Twain identifies with his language and style. He is overly verbose - he needs to "eschew surplusage," in Twain's words - and his word choices and phrases are simply ridiculous. I could read through a paragraph and not always grasp what was being said, when what was being described was actually a fairly straightforward, normal occurrence. The dialogue is stilted and not always true to character; Hawkeye speaks in formal English at points and in a more characteristic slang at others; long conversations using big words and full grammar occur in the middle of battle scenes to give directions or express surprise.

The characters don't all have obvious reasons for being there. The novel is called The Last of the Mohicans, but a more appropriate title would be Watch the White Frontiersman Save the Two White Girls. If you think about it, there's not even a clear reason for Chingachgook and Uncas risking their lives to save the silly things. And, honestly, I cared not one whit for the characters and who lived or died.

On a side note, sexism is not an issue brought up by Twain, but it is a major problem. Cora and Alice are the weakest females evvvvvvvvveeeer, Alice apparently unable to bear any trauma whatsoever and Cora being morally and verbally strong but failing to ever actually do something. Their primary purpose is to be appropriately devoted daughters/sisters, express appropriate outrage at the prospect of marriage to an Indian, and need rescuing. And after all this, Cora is seen as being 'perfectly adapted' to the woodland wilderness environment, EVEN THOUGH earlier the men were bemoaning how her and Alice's 'little, tender' feet couldn't possibly bear a trek through the forest.

Oh, and the only other female character I remember being mentioned was justly 'put out of her misery and sorrow' after her infant was snatched out of her arms and murdered before her very eyes. After all, what is a woman without her child?

And then there's just the whole logic of everything, which Twain discusses at length further along in his essay, but I'll leave it at that.