Literature: The Leatherstocking Tales

The further comics of J.F. Cooper

The book series by James Fenimore Cooper.

One of the first Franchises of modern literature.

In chronological order, the books are:
  • The Deerslayer: The First Warpath
    — 5th published
  • The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757
    — 2nd published and most famous
  • The Pathfinder: The Inland Sea
    — 4th published
  • The Pioneers: The Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale
    — 1st published (hence the long subtitle)
  • The Prairie: A Tale — 3rd published

They're probably most famous these days for codifying the romantic concept of the Native American Frontier, and for their heroic, chivalrous prose being relentlessly mocked by Mark Twain. (Incidentally, the Defenses are here) Nonetheless, they represent the first real American adventure stories, are the ancestors of the Western, and one of the first literary appearances of the Noble Savage. (Montaigne was the first to apply this trope to the North American Indians, and the trope itself is Older Than Feudalism — Classical Greek writers spoke of the Gauls this way.) Anyway, back then it was a very progressive portrayal of Native Americans, and he was congratulated for presenting Chingachgook and his son Uncas as heroes (as opposed to thieving, cunning, drunken, heathen assholes). Of course, now we see it as just another stereotype — but Cooper was the first to use this in a novel.

The main concern Natives have vis-a-vis Cooper is not so much the romantic portrayal of Stoic, slender and superior warriors, nor the prose; Native warriors were renowned as orators throughout the Indian wars and are still quoted today in Military History and Political Science classes.note  But the enduring stereotype is that Indians, while noble, are doomed to be eclipsed by the technologically superior white man and fade away. Although it was a common belief in Cooper's day, even among Indian rights advocates, this has become a bit of an Undead Horse Trope (pun intended) and native tribesmen (including the Mohicans themselves) are quick to note that reports of their death are greatly exaggerated.

The thing which ties the five books into a series is the recurring archetypal character of Natty Bumppo, the Long Rifle, who also goes by the names of Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Pathfinder, Leatherstocking and The Trapper. In that order. (They're called The Leatherstocking Tales because he was known as Leatherstocking in The Pioneers, the first book.) In four of the five books, he is joined by Chingachgook ("Great Serpent"), and in Last of the Mohicans by Chingachgook's son Uncas, the eponymous Last of the Mohicans, who dies in battle at the end of the novel.

The Leatherstocking series provides examples of:

  • Always Chaotic Evil: The Hurons. Really. I swear.
    • One would expect the Iroquois in this role, but the Hurons were allies of the French, while the Iroquois, while hostile to the English, were mostly neutral in the Anglo-French question until they wiped out the Hurons in about the 1760s. The two cultures were very similar to each other, though; this is more a question of who's pointing a gun at the hero.
  • The Captivity Narrative: Alice and Cora being captured in The Last of the Mohicans.
  • Celibate Hero: Natty Bumppo/Hawkeye, surprisingly enough.
  • Come with Me If You Want to Live: The Mohican rescue in Last of the Mohicans.
  • Dawn of the Wild West: Mostly set in the wilderness of western colonial New York during the latter part of the 18th century.
  • Fail O'Suckyname: Natty Bumpo.
  • The Gunslinger: First ever! And hence rather lacking in some of the more fancy tricks. This might also have something to do with the fact that Natty uses a Kentucky Rifle.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: Cora, the daughter of a Scotch colonel and a Creole mother. One of the first interracial romance plots in American literature.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Natty and Chingachgook.
  • Hunter Trapper
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Natty/Hawkeye.
  • Injun Country: Played painfully straight.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Natty/Hawkeye.
  • Last of His Kind: Chingachgook after the death of Uncas.
  • The Last Title: The Last of the Mohicans.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Taken almost to parody with Alice (Light Feminine, all the way to golden hair and utter helplessness) and Cora (Dark Feminine, at least as far as her looks and refusal to be anyone's doormat) Munro in "The Last of the Mohicans".
  • Lost in Imitation: The book Last of the Mohicans has been adapted into film so many times that the 1992 film was explicitly based on an earlier 1936 screenplay in the credits, and praised for it — due to avoiding perceived narrative pitfalls of the book. Of course, by making Day-Lewis the romantic lead, the film also conveniently avoided the book's mid-19th century interracial romance subplot, although it added another.
  • Malaproper: Cooper himself. Mark Twain has a Long List of examples.
  • Mistaken Age: Chingachgook is frequently portrayed as being elderly or middle-aged. In "The Pioneers", which is set in 1793, Chingachgook is stated to be seventy telling us he was born in 1723 and thus since "The Last of the Mohicans" was set in 1757, he was thirty-four at the time.
  • Noble Savage: Chingachgook.
  • Pistol-Whipping: Natty has a habit of using his rifle as a club once he's fired. Truth in Television given that these things were pretty dang heavy and took a long time to reload.
  • Print Long-Runners: Since 1826. Multiple film adaptations.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy
  • Purple Prose
  • Scarily Competent Tracker: all of them.
  • So Much for Stealth: Origin of the trope quote. To quote Mark Twain:
    Cooper wore out barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was his broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one.
  • Spoony Bard: As a character type, not as a sub-optimized RPG class: David Gamut in Last of the Mohicans.
  • The Wise Prince: Uncas of the Mohican tribe.
  • You Are a Credit to Your Race: Sort of. Played horribly, horribly straight.
    • Or rather, "I Am a Credit to My Race" — Hawkeye constantly talks about how he, "a man without a cross" of American Indian blood, can nonetheless fight effectively among them. The American Indians mostly ignore the subject...
  • Your Days Are Numbered: The Mohicans.

Alternative Title(s):

Leatherstocking Tales, James Fenimore Cooper, The Last Of The Mohicans