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Literature / The Leatherstocking Tales
aka: The Last Of The Mohicans

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The book series by James Fenimore Cooper.

One of the first Franchises of modern literature.

In chronological order, the books are:

  • The Deerslayer, or The First War-Path: A Tale
    — 5th published
  • The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757
    — 2nd published and most famous
  • The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea
    — 4th published
  • The Pioneers, or 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. Nonetheless, Cooper became the father of the American novel and wrote the first real American adventure stories. He followed the lead of Sir Walter Scott, adapting it to an American environment and democratizing it: where Scott (like Shakespeare) limited his lower-class characters to comic relief roles, Cooper made commoners like Natty Bumppo central characters of the work they appeared in. He also instituted an American archetype, that of the misfit or outsider hero at odds with society. The Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1841) are the ancestors of the Western. During his lifetime Cooper was the first American writer to achieve worldwide renown and commercial success, and also the first one to impress and influence European writers. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reread The Pioneers before describing a tiger hunt in his Novelle (1826).

The Leatherstocking Tales are 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. In many ways, his noble savages exemplify a way that European-descended North Americans made sense of the values dissonance between their society and that of the Native Americans, who from their point of view simultaneously and most irritatingly embodied both extremely repulsive (cruelty, vengefulness etc.) and attractive (hospitality, courage etc.) qualities. A constant theme in the novels is that Indians, while noble and eloquent note , are doomed to be eclipsed by the technologically superior white man and fade away. Though real life has disproved this belief, Cooper had some justification for it- he lived in New York, a state whose Native American population really did dwindle dramatically during his lifetime.

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.

In the 19th century a number of Cooper's novels were adapted for the stage. Later the Leatherstocking Tales were adapted several times into films and television series. These include

  • At least seven film versions of The Last of the Mohicans
  • The 1913 American silent film The Deerslayer, shot on the real location on Lake Otsego.
  • Lederstrumpf (Leatherstocking), a two-part German adaptation of The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans starring Bela Lugosi as Chingachgook (1920).
  • Chingachgook, die große Schlange (Chingachgook, the Great Serpent) (1967), an East German adaptation of the former novel.
  • Hawkeye, a 1994 series from Stephen J. Cannell.

The Leatherstocking series and Cooper's other works provide examples of:

  • Adaptational Context Change: As Colonel Munro from The Last of the Mohicans really existed, it was a Foregone Conclusion that he should die of heart failure before 1757, the year the novel is set in, is out. However, in the novel his death is attributed not to the exhaustions of the campaign, but to his grief over the death of his (fictional) daughter Cora.
  • All Myths Are True: Versions of this occur. In The Last of the Mohicans one is voiced by the Delaware women at Cora Munro's funeral. In The Prairie the dying Natty Bumppo is more doubtful, but in his discourse to Hard-Heart at least admits the possibility that the Christian God of the white men and the Great Spirit of the Pawnee will in the end be revealed as identical and that Natty and Hard-Heart will meet again in the afterlife.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: The Hurons are universally hostile to Natty and the rest of the heroes. 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.
  • Anachronic Order: The last book published is the first in chronological order, and none of them were published sequentially.
  • Animated Adaptation: Three of "The Last of the Mohicans" by Hanna-Barbera, Burbank Films Australia and Mondo TV respectively. The last of these three is the only one with a plot that resembles that of the book.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The Last of the Mohicans contains quite a bit of Gratuitous French.
  • The Captivity Narrative: Subverted in the case of Alice and Cora being captured in The Last of the Mohicans. In that novel it is actually played straighter with Magua's back story: He was captured by the Mohawks, adopted into their tribe, but eventually returned to the Hurons where he found that his wife had married someone else in the meantime.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: David Gamut, the Puritan psalmodist in The Last of the Mohicans. Mistaking him for insane, the Hurons spare his life and allow him to roam their camp freely.
  • Composite Character: Cooper's Mohicans confound the Mahicans of the Hudson Valley with the Mohegans of eastern Connecticut (both speakers of Algonquin languages), but that was something even the experts of the day did, including one of Cooper's prime sources, the Moravian missionary John Heckewelder, who assembled extensive first-hand knowledge of the Delaware (Lenni-Lenape) nations.
  • Cunning Linguist: Duncan Hayward is fluent in French, which enables him to fool a French sentry and also gets him the job of negotiating with the Marquis de Montcalm.
  • Dawn of the Wild West: Mostly set in the wilderness of northern and western New York during the middle to late 18th century. The Prairie is set in the Midwest, in the new territories acquired through the Louisiana Purchase.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Captain Duncan Uncas Middleton in The Prairie. He's the grandson of two characters from The Last of the Mohicans.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Occurs quite a bit in Cooper's frontier and other historical novels. This is most noticeable in the rather different set of values held by the white and Native American societies side by side and at the same time. In The Deerslayer Natty Bumppo tries to dissuade Tom Hutter and Harry March from raiding a Huron camp to cash in on the bounties offered by the governor for Huron scalps. For him taking the scalps of enemies is okay for Indians (like Chingachgook) because it is part of their culture (or, in his terminology, part of the gifts of their nature), but it is entirely wrong for white Christians to do the same thing because it violates their values or "gifts".
  • Dressing as the Enemy: A half-comical example occurs in The Last of the Mohicans, where it entails dressing up in the Huron medicine man's bear costume.
  • Egopolis: The Pioneers is set in Templeton on Lake Otsego, which is lorded over by its founder Marmaduke Temple. It is an expy of the real-world town of Cooperstown, NY, which was founded by the author's father William Cooper.
  • End of an Era: Cooper's frontier novels to a large extent reflect the devastating impact of the advance of white civilization on traditional Native American culture and the landscape and wildlife. As Lenape prophet Tamenund sadly notes in the final words of The Last of the Mohicans:
    "It is enough," he said. "Go, children of the Lenape, the anger of the Manitou is not done. Why should Tamenund stay? The pale faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red men has not yet come again. My day has been too long. In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis happy and strong; and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans."
  • Even Mooks Have Loved Ones: In The Last of the Mohicans, after a battle in which Hawkeye and his companions kill a number of nameless Hurons who for the most part are described without individual traits, the perspective switches to the Hurons and Magua eulogizes them in a speech to the other braves. The reader then learns that the dead have names and that they are and will be mourned by their friends and families, some of whom are also mentioned by name. Later on there is a scene which shows the deep emotional pain felt by the father of another Huron warrior. Because his only son was executed for cowardice and disowned by the tribe, the father is forced to deny he is his son and not to show sorrow over his death, but his pain is so palpable that the tribal elders show some consideration.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Subverted in The Last of the Mohicans. Although according to Anglo-American standards of the time a white woman living with a "Heathen Savage" is considered this, Cora seriously considers acquiescing to becoming Magua's wife if that is what it takes to rescue her father and sister's lives.
  • Drugs Are Bad: That the white men teaching Indians to drink alcohol was not a good thing is demonstrated with Magua's life story in The Last of the Mohicans. Even Chingachgook gets drunk along with the citizens of Templeton during the Christmas celebrations in The Pioneers. (By the way, Cooper most probably was the first one to use "firewater" — the translation of an Algonquian term for whisky — in a work of fiction).
  • Going Native: Natty clearly feels most at home living among the Mohicans and later the Pawnees than among whites. In the process he even absorbed the Mohicans' hereditary enmity towards the Iroquois-speaking nations including the Hurons.
  • 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 long rifle (then usually called a Pennsylvania Rifle, later a Kentucky Rifle).
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: Cora Munro, the daughter of a Scotch colonel and a Creole mother, in The Last of the Mohicans. One of the first interracial romance plots in American literature. Her case is a subversion, as such discrimination is mentioned as existing and referenced by her father, but in the course of the novel Cora inspires love and admiration in pretty much anyone who meets her. And at her funeral the Delaware women see her mixed blood as something that makes her superior to her bland sister Alice. Ironically, the only person to actually display a prejudice against mixed blood is Hawkeye, who gratingly often takes pride in his own pure white blood and the pure Mohican blood of his friends Chingachgook and Uncas.
  • I Have No Son!: A tragic posthumous variation ("I had no son") occurs in The Last of the Mohicans: Reed-that-bends, a young Huron warrior guilty of cowardice is condemned to be killed and forgotten by the tribe's elders. A short while after the execution, Magua arrives not knowing what occurred, and has the misfortune to mention his name, so suddenly everybody looks at Reed-that-bends' father, which obliges him to publicly disown his own son to uphold the warrior ethos. He manages to go through with this "bitter triumph", but it breaks him.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Natty/Hawkeye, who can send an eighteenth century bullet right onto two others without fraying the edges of the bullet hole.
  • Injun Country: Cooper's works can be seen at the Trope Codifier for Western literature, stressing how well the Native Americans are attuned to life in their environment through their "gifts".
  • Karmic Death: In The Deerslayer Tom Hutter tries to make money by raiding a Huron camp for scalps. He ends up dying after being scalped alive by the Hurons.
  • A Kind of One: Hawkeye moves between the societies of the whites and the Native Americans without properly belonging to either, and he lives an autonomous life that makes it impossible for him to have a family. In the final chapter of The Last of the Mohicans he thus identifies with Chingachgook:
    "The gifts of our colors may be different, but God has so placed us to journey in the same path. I have no kin, and I may also say, like you, no people."
  • Last of His Kind: Chingachgook after the death of Uncas. It should be noted that strictly speaking the kind in question is "Mohican warrior and chief", not "Mohican" per se, as Cooper in the foreword to The Last of the Mohicans pointed out remnants of the tribe were still living in New York, dispersed among other tribes, in 1826, i. e. after the death of Chingachgook in The Pioneers.
  • 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 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, though literary experts cannot find some of the ones Twain professed to see.
  • Martial Pacifist: As The Deerhunter relates, Natty Bumppo used to be one, having been received his religious education from the pacifist Moravian Brethren. This completely changed when he first killed a man (a Huron warrior) in self-defense.
  • 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.
    • Although this is more likely an example of Writers Cannot Do Math or Cooper changing his mind between "The Pioneers" and "The Last of the Mohicans", in which Chingachgook's son Uncas is already a feared and famed warrior in his own right. With the added complication of "The Deerslayer" — in which Chingachgook has to rescue his betrothed Wah-ta-Wah — being set in 1740-1745. This in turn means that Uncas would have been seventeen at the oldest or twelve at the youngest when he was killed.
  • Mistaken for Racist: In The Last of the Mohicans Colonel Munro flies into a rage when Major Heyward asks for his daughter's hand in marriage and it turns out that the one he wants is not Cora (whose mother was part-black), but her younger-half sister Alice (whose mother was white). Heyward has a hard time convincing convincing Munro that he just happens to be attracted to Alice more than to Cora (the novel at that point already has established that he in fact greatly admires Cora for her spirit and inner strength). It did not help that Heyward is English, as the crusty Scotsman Munro sees racism against blacks and people with black ancestry as a very English prejudice.
  • Named After Someone Famous: In The Last of the Mohicans, Uncas has the name of a number of historic Mohegan chiefs.
  • Named Weapon: Natty Bumppo's long rifle Killdeer.
  • Neologism:
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: It is the tragic paradox of Natty Bumppo and people like him that he helps to bring about the westward advance of a society he himself finds impossible to live in, which leads to the destruction of his hunting grounds and forces him to move further west, where he is once again followed by "civilized society".
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: As Cooper explained in a letter, Hard-heart (The Prairie) is based on the real-life Pawnee chief Petalasharo, an acquaintance of his.
  • Non-Indicative Name: At least to white Western tastes Chingachgook ("The Great Snake") and Hard-heart, the Pawnee chief from The Prairie, qualify.
  • 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.
  • Prequel: The Last of the Mohicans to The Pioneers, The Deerslayer to the other four Leatherstocking Tales.
  • Print Long-Runners: Continuously in print since 1823.
  • Prophetic Names: David Gamut is a Puritan psalmodist. His first name is that of the Biblical king to whom most Psalms are credited, his last name is a musical term (a complete scale).
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: The way different tribes and nations are portrayed to a large extent depends on whether they belong to the protagonists or antagonists of the novel in question. Cooper however does not paint the antagonists entirely without sympathetic qualities. And at one point in Last of the Mohicans the narration even chides Hawkeye for being unfair in his judgement regarding Hurons due to his prejudice against them when he denounces one for refusing to meekly let himself be killed.
  • Public Domain Character: Tamenund in The Last of the Mohicans is based on the historic Lenni-Lenape chief Tamenend (died ca. 1701), who became a mythical figure as Tammany, the "Patron Saint of America". By now, Natty Bumppo, Chingachgook and others have become part of the public domain themselves.
  • Race-Name Basis: In The Last of the Mohicans members of different tribes will often address each other by their tribal name even if they know each other's names, e. g. Uncas addresses Magua as "Huron".
  • So Much for Stealth: As famously noted by Mark Twain, almost any character trying to stay concealed will find a dry twig beneath their foot in short order.
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: In The Last of the Mohicans this occurs despite the overall Protagonist-Centered Morality. The passages which focus on Magua and the other Hurons make their motives more understandable and show that they have their own tragedies to bear, some of which have nothing to do with the novel's protagonists.
  • Take a Third Option: In the 1850 preface to The Last of the Mohicans Cooper admitted that he had made up the name Horican for the lake on which Fort William Henry is situated. Disliking the names given by the Europeans (French: Lac du Saint-Sacrement, British: Lake George) and finding the Indian one a bit of a mouthful (Iroquois: Andia-ta-roc-te), he renamed it after a tribe that once lived nearby.
  • Together in Death: Cora and Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans. The Delaware women at the funeral chant about how they will enjoy life together in the Happy Hunting Grounds.
  • Vague Age:
    • Uncas has got to be seventeen at the oldest or twelve at the youngest in "The Last of the Mohicans" since "The Deerslayer" is set between 1740-1745.
    • Magua states that he had not seen a white person until he was twenty so the extent of our knowledge is that he is past twenty.
  • Villain Has a Point: Magua is the main villain of The Last of the Mohicans, but he is on point in his oration to the Huron elders where he expounds on the sufferings of black slaves and the insatiable greed for land of the whites. However since he wishes to make Cora, who has black ancestry, his wife and treat her like a slave he comes across as hypocritical at that point.
  • The Western: The frontier novel genre launched by the Leatherstocking Tales developed into the Western genre or can be said to be Westerns avant la lettre. Trying to make a distinction between the two tends to result in an arbitrary decision.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: A common staple of many of Cooper's novels. Subverted in The Deerslayer, where Hawkeye proves unable to find out Judith's ultimate fate.
  • Will Not Tell a Lie: The Deerslayer.
    Truth was the Deerslayer's polar star. He ever kept it in view, and it was nearly impossible for him to avoid uttering it, even when prudence demanded silence.
  • You Are a Credit to Your Race: 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...

Alternative Title(s): Leatherstocking Tales, The Last Of The Mohicans, The Deerslayer