If you were a bookworm in 1826, you would have seen one novel climb to the top of the early 19th Century equivalent of the NYTimes Bestseller list: The Last of the Mohicans. This book was like literary catnip… if the American reading public were cats. This book was like a cronut… if the America reading public were hungry New Yorkers circa 2013. It was crazy-popular.
But why? Why would a story about a bunch of (mostly) hapless white people traipsing around the wilderness of upstate New York with the help of some super-resourceful Native Americans be such a smash hit?
The Last of the Mohicans takes place in upstate New York in 1757 during the French and Indian War—a war that would, for all intents and purposes, prove more vital to shaping American identity than even ye olde Revolutionary War. It stars Hawkeye, a hyper-competent woodsman who combines attributes of European and Native American heritages and basically is the coolest guy ever.
James Fenimore Cooper dropped this novel at the beginning of the second quarter of the 19th Century, when Americans were involved in moving westward and snatching as much of the unclaimed wilderness as they could get their grubby little hands on. So The Last of the Mohicans, which showcased the same emotions that Americans were feeling in 1826—Whoa, this continent is huge! It's dangerous and wild! We need survival skills!— caught on like wildfire. Our main man Hawkeye was a cultural icon: a sort of James Bond/ John Wayne/ Don Draper.
We can compare the success of The Last of the Mohicans to something more recent. Remember in the late 2000s and early 2010s when literature and movies about the zombie apocalypse were everywhere? You couldn't swing a hatchet without chopping off an undead head. That's because zombies tapped into our zeitgeist. This was a rough time in American history, with foreclosed homes lying empty (apocalyptic!), the recession forcing people to work in mind-numbing jobs (and act like zombies!) and the world creeped out by the threat of avian and swine flu (crazy death-causing plagues!)
The Last of the Mohicans was as pertinent to readers in the 1820s as World War Z was to readers in the 2000s. 1820s America was focused on territorial expansion in the West, and The Last of the Mohicans addressed issues of the wild and untamed frontier. The USA was also a super-new country at that point, and Hawkeye was one of the first uber-American heroes, a guy who made European values look fusty (while at the same time making Native American values look "savage"—this novel is a pretty problematic read, TBH).
The Last of the Mohicans is part of James Fenimore Cooper's series "The Leatherstocking Tales," which chronicles the adventures of Hawkeye over the course of five novels. Yup: capitalizing on an iconic character by making sequels was big even in the 1820s.
You should care about The Last of the Mohicans if you care about stereotypes, Shmoopers.
Okay, we hear you. We hear you say, "No! We don't care about stereotypes! Stereotypes are evil. They cause misery." We're right there with you. Stereotypes are a nasty, nasty business. They should be eradicated. But that question isn't "Why Should I Like This Novel?" it's "Why Should I Care?"
And like 'em, hate 'em, or feel ambivalently about 'em, you kind of have to care about stereotypes. Chances are, you judge (and are judged) based on them. Stereotypes are everywhere, and they seep into your consciousness.
The Last of the Mohicans traffics in at least a few stereotypes that exist today. This novel has a damsel in distress (looking at you, majority of Disney princesses). It has an all-American rugged hero (looking at you, lumbersexuals and Man vs. Wild). And, most important, it has a few stereotypes about Native Americans.
The world of Native Americans is broken down, within The Last of the Mohicans, into two sub-genres: the Good Indian and the Bad Indian. Yeah, they're called Indians here; it's outdated and embarrassing.
On the one hand we have the Bad Indian: he's violent; he's drunk; he's out for revenge; and he's bloodthirsty. On the other hand, we have the Good Indian: he's noble; he's attuned to nature; he's the strong, silent type. These are stereotypes that are still kicking around today in the most ludicrous of ways. They're still destructive, whether Native Americans are being billed as good or as bad.
And The Last of the Mohicans wasn't just one novel to employ these stereotypes… it was one of the first. It was one of the most prominent and popular. This novel helped cram these stereotypes into the minds of white Americans.
Also, and possibly even more destructively, The Last of the Mohicans helped perpetuate another stereotype about Native Americans: that they were a thing of the past. Native American history in the American continents was over; white history had begun. Native Americans were a throwback and white settlers were the Hot New Thing. This novel helped brand Native Americans as Other, and as over.
This still continues, with people dressing up as Native Americans on Halloween in the same manner that they might dress up as zombies, or ghosts… or other characters that don't actually exist.
Don't get us wrong: this is still a book of serious historical and literary merit. Big time. It also signals Cooper's attempt to address white settlers' destruction of Native lands—points for effort, Coop. But the most interesting thing about this novel is how it helped create stereotypes that still exist today.
If you want more Hawkeye action…
These are chronological lists of The Leatherstocking Tales.
History of Fort William Henry
This is the overview of the real historical battle.
Fort William Henry Museum
In case you're ever in the area, you may want to check out the Fort William Henry museum. A replica of the fort was built on its old site.
This movie version is more committed to the original story than some later adaptations.
TV Series Filmed in 1957
Old school. Full title is Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans.
The Last of the Mohicans for kids!
Animated, kid-friendly version created in 1987. We can only hope they took out the bloody massacre, the scalping, the forced marriage proposals, the racial epithets…oh, wait. Seriously, how on earth did they manage to make this kid-friendly?
The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day Lewis as a Younger, Hotter Hawkeye
This 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans takes many, many liberties with the original text, but we (almost) don't care because Hawkeye got super dreamy and the romances got way more intense.
Eyewitness Account of the William Henry Attack
There's nothing like reading about it firsthand.
Daniel Day Lewis as Hawkeye
Promotional poster for The Last of the Mohicans movie with Daniel Day Lewis playing a hottie Hawkeye.
Cora and Alice Munro
This is a movie still of Cora and Alice Munro from the 1992 movie.
Plan of Fort William Henry
Plan of Fort William Henry at Lake George, sourced from the Library of Congress
View of Lake Champlain
This is the area where all of the action in The Last of the Mohicans takes place.