The First “Great American Novel”

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I shall admit it: I have never read the “Harry Potter” series. I had years ago picked up my wife’s copy of the first book and I tried. But I gave up after a few pages.

Perhaps because they appeared in my adulthood, and were aimed at kids, I found them unappealing. However, other adults loved the books. I recall now years ago even seeing a man who’d been an army officer in Northern Ireland (a then work colleague of my wife’s) reading the first “Potter” not long after its release.

Yet I feel that even if they had been published when I was a kid or young teen, I might have reacted much the same way. My mother had once joked with me that I had “no imagination,” but I thought her observation was unfair. Yes, I had never had much interest in books about flying broomsticks and shouting “Gawangagmuchismaamit!” while wielding a magic wand… aiming to turn the baddie into, say, a hamster…

…I just preferred REAL people and REALISTIC happenings. Even as a teen that to me was far more compelling reading. Moreover I was also a history obsessive.

I was probably about age 14 when I first read the 1826 action and historical novel The Last of the Mohicans. And I read it on my own. It was not a school assignment.

Set in 1757 mostly in upstate New York during the huge war between England and France for control of the continent (France would lose by 1763), and long before an independent U.S. was even in the back of anyone’s minds, Fenimore Cooper’s characters are a mish-mash: frontier whites, British, French, Amer-Indians, and mixed heritage. The novel is in a way an amazing statement of what America will become as an independent country.

[Advertisement for the American drama film The Last of the Mohicans (1920) with Harry Lorraine, Lillian Hall, Barbara Bedford, and Wallace Beery, on page 4 of the December 4, 1920 Exhibitors Herald. Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

With its old-fashioned English, it is also a tough read – to say the least – at times nowadays, something not helped by the fact Cooper also has a tendency to be “wordy”. But much of the novel is, frankly, genius. And it is definitely not a children’s book. (NOTE: Be wary of citing film versions, as some radically alter the story, especially the ending.)

Its two marriageable-age young women, Alice and Cora, are central to the tale. They are half-sisters, daughters of British Colonel Munro. Alice is the younger of the two; and Cora’s late mother had been of mixed race from the West Indies.

By the literary standards of “1826” their roles were groundbreaking. Women were not then usually portrayed in such peril and facing such violence in widely-read English-language literature. (And Cooper’s wife read the pre-publication manuscript; at one point while he was ill he had even dictated a chapter outline to her that she wrote down.) Jane Austen had penned Pride And Prejudice only 13 years earlier; Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters never faced the likes of this:

A few, and they not the least powerful and terrific of the band, threw lowering looks, in which the fiercest passion was only tempered by habitual self-command, at those captives who still remained in their power, while one or two even gave vent to their malignant feelings by the most menacing gestures, against which neither the sex nor the beauty of the sisters was any protection. The young soldier made a desperate but fruitless effort to spring to the side of Alice, when he saw the dark hand of a savage twisted in the rich tresses which were flowing in volumes over her shoulders, while a knife was passed around the head from which they fell, as if to denote the horrid manner in which it was about to be robbed of its beautiful ornament.

Catskills artist Thomas Cole was so taken by the novel that a year after it was published (it was a huge seller from the start) he was inspired to paint this:

[Thomas Cole (1801–1848). Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans”: Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tanemund (sic) 1827 (real name is Tamenund). Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

If you are ever in the town of Catskill, New York, Cole’s house is a museum. The Catskill Mountains regularly feature in his paintings. He was the founder of what became known as the “Hudson River School” of art.

Here a then 26 year old Cole depicts not only mountains. Faintly visible surrounded by Delawares is Cora, who is kneeling before the chief, Tamenund (Cole had gotten the name wrong in the painting’s title). She is begging for mercy for herself and Alice, while Huron warrior Magua watches.

At the novel’s climax, we also read this:

…Cora regarded him not, but dropping on her knees, she raised her eyes and stretched her arms toward heaven, saying in a meek and yet confiding voice:

“I am thine; do with me as thou seest best!”

“Woman,” repeated Magua, hoarsely, and endeavoring in vain to catch a glance from her serene and beaming eye, “choose!”

But Cora neither heard nor heeded his demand. The form of the Huron trembled in every fibre, and he raised his arm on high, but dropped it again with a bewildered air, like one who doubted. Once more he struggled with himself and lifted the keen weapon again…

I break off that quote there in mid-sentence in case you don’t already know what happens next.

When as a teen I first read what followed, it actually upset me. And isn’t that the goal of every fiction writer? To make you care enough about what happens and to whom?

There is no magic wand available.

It may be worth recalling this too in its historical context. The Last Of The Mohicans is widely considered the first “Great American novel.” And it appeared the same year John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died – exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was written.

The novel also features two major women characters without whom the story would not have been possible. Neither is a mere “damsel in distress.” And one is part black (although Cooper wrote her as mostly white) and descended from slaves.

A bit of a “heavy” literary Saturday morning, perhaps. But possibly worth reflecting upon. Have a good day, wherever you are in the world.😊
_____

UPDATE: I just had a look. Amazing. I found the full – out of copyright, public domain – 1920 The Last of the Mohicans silent film on YouTube:

What a tech universe we inhabit today. 🙂

3 comments

  1. It’s a great profound story indeed, dear Robert! Thank you for reminding of it, while Harry Potter is just a satanic rubbish, aiming to pervert our children’ soul. Narnia is a great example, though British, of a wonderful Christian story for children. Have a nice week-end!

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