[(essay date 1951) In the following essay, Spiller suggests that Cooper secured literary respectability with The Last of the Mohicans, which he claims demonstrates the author’s “mastery of the art of story telling.” Spiller also assesses the novel’s primary characters, calling Natty the ideal “American democrat” and praising Cooper’s source-based depictions of Chingachgook and Uncas.]
There are few romances of adventure that have received as much criticism and good-natured scoffing as James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans; and there are few that have so persistently revealed the comeback properties of the rubber ball. According to Mark Twain, Cooper and his fictional friend Natty Bumppo committed all the sins in the literary decalogue, yet here we are—after a century and a quarter—opening the old novel once more and preparing ourselves for a brief escape from the murky air of the city to the fresh tang of the deep North woods; from the hum-drum life of the office-bound commuter to the thrilling chase, capture, and rescue; from the confused standards of our complex society to the simple integrity of the wilderness scout. Something will have gone wrong with the American character when we can no longer enjoy The Last of the Mohicans; for here is mastery of the art of story telling.
The Last of the Mohicans, is the second novel in the “Leather-Stocking Series,” both in the order of its writing and in the order of events in the life of the hunter Natty Bumppo who gave one of his many names to the series. (He was also called Hawk-eye, La Longue Carabine, and the Deerslayer.) It was published in 1826, three years before The Prairie; the other two were written many years later. Although the modern reader might find it more logical to arrange the five novels as a biography of Natty—The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, and The Prairie—for those who will probably not read them all, this story of adventure in the still primitive American wilderness is the best choice. It was the most popular of all Cooper’s novels in his own day and it is perhaps the most famous Indian story of all time.
The scene is laid in the head-water region of the Hudson river valley, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, at the time when the French under Montcalm, with the help of their Iroquois Indian allies, were making a final stand against the British penetration, only to be driven back, after 1760, behind the wall of the Alleghenies and up into...