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We need to understand just how unlikely it is, in this great wilderness, that help might be on its way. At times, the dialogue seems unnecessarily ornate.
Hawkeye, the American woodsman, can wax a bit preachy.
We want the characters to get to the point and get on with it. It can be particularly perplexing when Hawkey has just cautioned another character that they must maintain absolute silence lest the Indians discover their whereabouts, then he proceeds to expound an opinion or takes time to tease someone.
Hawkeye must be quite a skilled whisperer. Cooper wrote what he would have liked to read. If we judge him by 21st-century adventure novel standards, we will miss out on a heart-pounding, hair-raising adventure.
Along with the simple fact that the book is old-fashioned, there are other aspects of the story that jar our modern sensibilities. The question of bigotry is going to come up in any discussion of the book. Cooper obviously would not have been a supporter of feminism. The violence, inevitable in a story of war and the clash of civilizations, though never graphic, can still be shocking.
Some readers will consider themselves too sophisticated for the woods-lore and the amazingly-developed senses of the natives.
Why, then, is this story worth reading? Because we need to think as well as feel. We need to practice dispassionately evaluating our history in order to learn to accurately evaluate the present. Great literature gives us a window into the thinking of our forebears. We can learn from them even if we disagree with their beliefs and conclusions. We can practice discernment rather than judgement. We also ought to be familiar with characters who have becomes icons in our language.
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What does it mean? To begin with, I wanted my students to read this story without any prompting from me to be on the lookout for racist offenses. We have discussed whether or not it is clear that Cooper tries to show the inferiority of Indians. Well, Hawkeye considers the Mohicans, Chingachgook and Uncas, to be his family.
The Last of the Mohicans
Though he rarely misses an opportunity to remind everyone that he is a pure-blooded white man, he also acknowledges that there are some ways in which the Indians excel even his own sharply honed skills.
Is it condescending that he keeps repeating that their senses are more acutely developed than a typical French or British soldier?
Perhaps not when those senses stand between those in his charge and destruction. It is probably in the best interest of all concerned to remind the inept British soldier to let his betters lead. Some Indians are friends, some are enemies. Does Cooper, then, consider all Indians bad or inferior?
We concluded that he does not. What in the world are two helpless women doing out in this hostile-Indian-ridden forest during a war anyway? Have you heard this joke? What is grey, looks like a dog, sits on a hill howling at the moon, and is full of cement? The answer is, a coyote. What then, you might ask, is the cement for? Obviously, to make it harder!
The women are here for the same reason.
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Having to drag two women through the action definitely makes things harder for all the male characters involved. It further complicates things when one of the women keeps fainting.
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- Last of the Mohicans
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More difficulties arise when some of the men inevitably fall in love with the women. The situation is ticklish indeed if the woman is white or is she? Maybe the presence of the women also makes one aspect of the story simpler. Whose side should we be on? Cooper leaves no doubt. The story takes place about 20 years before the Revolutionary War. What are these white females doing out here? Certainly not acting as heroines.
Even the most confident and the stoutest hearts began to think the issue of the contest was becoming doubtful; and the abject class was hourly increasing in numbers, who thought they foresaw all the possessions of the English crown in America subdued by their Christian foes, or laid waste by the inroads of their relentless allies.
It has already been mentioned that the distance between these two posts was less than five leagues. The loyal servants of the British crown had given to one of these forest fastnesses the name of William Henry, and to the other that of Fort Edward; calling each after a favorite prince of the reigning family. The veteran Scotchman just named held the first, with a regiment of regulars and a few provincials; a force really by far too small to make head against the formidable power that Montcalm was leading to the foot of his earthen mounds.
At the latter, however, lay General Webb, who commanded the armies of the king in the northern provinces, with a body of more than five thousand men. By uniting the several detachments of his command, this officer might have arrayed nearly double that number of combatants against the enterprising Frenchman, who had ventured so far from his reinforcements, with an army but little superior in numbers.
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But under the influence of their degraded fortunes, both officers and men appeared better disposed to await the approach of their formidable antagonists, within their works, than to resist the progress of their march, by emulating the successful example of the French at Fort du Quesne, and striking a blow on their advance.
After the first surprise of the intelligence had a little abated, a rumor was spread through the entrenched camp, which stretched along the margin of the Hudson, forming a chain of outworks to the body of the fort itself, that a chosen detachment of fifteen hundred men was to depart, with the dawn, for William Henry, the post at the northern extremity of the portage.
That which at first was only rumor, soon became certainty, as orders passed from the quarters of the commander-in-chief to the several corps he had selected for this service, to prepare for their speedy departure. All doubt as to the intention of Webb now vanished, and an hour or two of hurried footsteps and anxious faces succeeded. The novice in the military art flew from point to point, retarding his own preparations by the excess of his violent and somewhat distempered zeal; while the more practised veteran made his arrangements with a deliberation that scorned every appearance of haste; though his sober lineaments and anxious eye sufficiently betrayed that he had no very strong professional relish for the as yet untried and dreaded warfare of the wilderness.
At length the sun set in a flood of glory, behind the distant western hills, and as darkness drew its veil around the secluded spot the sounds of preparation diminished; the last light finally disappeared from the log cabin of some officer; the trees cast their deeper shadows over the mounds and the rippling stream, and a silence soon pervaded the camp, as deep as that which reigned in the vast forest by which it was environed.
According to the orders of the preceding night, the heavy sleep of the army was broken by the rolling of the warning drums, whose rattling echoes were heard issuing, on the damp morning air, out of every vista of the woods, just as day began to draw the shaggy outlines of some tall pines of the vicinity, on the opening brightness of a soft and cloudless eastern sky.
In an instant the whole camp was in motion; the meanest soldier arousing from his lair to witness the departure of his comrades, and to share in the excitement and incidents of the hour. The simple array of the chosen band was soon completed. While the regular and trained hirelings of the king marched with haughtiness to the right of the line, the less pretending colonists took their humbler position on its left, with a docility that long practice had rendered easy.
The scouts departed; strong guards preceded and followed the lumbering vehicles that bore the baggage; and before the gray light of the morning was mellowed by the rays of the sun, the main body of the combatants wheeled into column, and left the encampment with a show of high military bearing, that served to drown the slumbering apprehensions of many a novice, who was now about to make his first essay in arms.
While in view of their admiring comrades, the same proud front and ordered array was observed, until the notes of their fifes growing fainter in distance, the forest at length appeared to swallow up the living mass which had slowly entered its bosom. The deepest sounds of the retiring and invisible column had ceased to be borne on the breeze to the listeners, and the latest straggler had already disappeared in pursuit; but there still remained the signs of another departure, before a log cabin of unusual size and accommodations, in front of which those sentinels paced their rounds, who were known to guard the person of the English general.
At this spot were gathered some half dozen horses, caparisoned in a manner which showed that two, at least, were destined to bear the persons of females, of a rank that it was not usual to meet so far in the wilds of the country. A third wore the trappings and arms of an officer of the staff; while the rest, from the plainness of the housings, and the travelling mails with which they were encumbered, were evidently fitted for the reception of as many menials, who were, seemingly, already awaiting the pleasure of those they served.The Last of the Mohicans TURNS METAL
At a respectful distance from this unusual show were gathered divers groups of curious idlers; some admiring the blood and bone of the high-mettled military charger, and others gazing at the preparations, with dull wonder of vulgar curiosity. There was one man, however, who, by his countenance and actions, formed a marked exception to those who composed the latter class of spectators, being neither idle, nor seemingly very ignorant.
The person of this individual was to the last degree ungainly, without being in any particular manner deformed. He had all the bones and joints of other men, without any of their proportions. Erect, his stature surpassed that of his fellows; seated, he appeared reduced within the ordinary limits of the race. The same contrarity in his members seemed to exist throughout the whole man. His head was large; his shoulders narrow; his arms long and dangling; while his hands were small, if not delicate.
His legs and thighs were thin, nearly to emaciation, but of extraordinary length; and his knees would have been considered tremendous, had they not been outdone by the broader foundations on which this false superstructure of the blended human orders was so profanely reared. The ill-assorted and injudicious attire of the individual only served to render his awkwardness more conspicuous.
A sky-blue coat, with short and broad skirts and low cape, exposed a long thin neck, and longer and thinner legs, to the worst animadversions of the evil disposed. His nether garment was of yellow nankeen, 7 closely fitted to the shape, and tied at his bunches of knees by large knots of white ribbon, a good deal sullied by use. Clouded cotton stockings, and shoes, on one of the latter of which was a plated spur, completed the costume of the lower extremity of this figure, no curve or angle of which was concealed, but, on the other hand, studiously exhibited, through the vanity or simplicity of its owner.
From beneath the flap of an enormous pocket of a soiled vest of embossed silk, heavily ornamented with tarnished silver lace, projected an instrument, which, from being seen in such martial company, might have been easily mistaken for some mischievous and unknown implement of war.
Small as it was, this uncommon engine had excited the curiosity of most of the Europeans in the camp, though several of the provincials were seen to handle it, not only without fear, but with the utmost familiarity. A large, civil cocked hat, like those worn by clergymen within the last thirty years, surmounted the whole, furnishing dignity to a good-natured and somewhat vacant countenance, that apparently needed such artificial aid, to support the gravity of some high and extraordinary trust.
While the common herd stood aloof, in deference to the quarters of Webb, the figure we have described stalked into the centre of the domestics, freely expressing his censures or commendations on the merits of the horses, as by chance they displeased or satisfied his judgment.
He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Although in a state of perfect repose, and apparently disregarding, with characteristic stoicism, the excitement and bustle around him, there was a sullen fierceness mingled with the quiet of the savage, that was likely to arrest the attention of much more experienced eyes than those which now scanned him, in unconcealed amazement.
The native bore both the tomahawk and knife of his tribe; and yet his appearance was not altogether that of a warrior. On the contrary, there was an air of neglect about his person, like that which might have proceeded from great and recent exertion, which he had not yet found leisure to repair. The colors of the war-paint had blended in dark confusion about his fierce countenance, and rendered his swarthy lineaments still more savage and repulsive than if art had attempted an effect which had been thus produced by chance.
His eye, alone, which glistened like a fiery star amid lowering clouds, was to be seen in its state of native wildness.