During the first half of the nineteenth century, many of the first American novels were written by women, and these novels shared several similar characteristics. The paradigm of the “cautionary tale” or “fallen women” was a theme in many of the novels, warning readers of the consequences of disobedience and ignoring parental and social authority. A second emphasis in these novels was the importance of sociality and community. Family was of high importance, and the novels typically ended with fulfillment of obligations to family, community, and the nation, bringing about personal happiness. James Fenimore Cooper worked against many of these paradigms in his novel “The Last of the Mohicans”, creating his own sense of what an American novel should be.
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The most common paradigm of the early nineteenth century was that of the cautionary tale to women. Choosing different actions than the accepted conventions of society, would usually result in unfortunate consequences, such as being abandoned by family, friends and God. While Cooper’s main female characters, Cora and Alice, did tend to follow the conventions applied to women of the era, they did have some actions that were unconventional. Cora would speak her mind after a point, and would stand up for others. While she did end up tragically dying, this was not accompanied by a loss of family, friends, or her god. Her father, sister, and Heyward grieved her loss, while still respecting her actions. Even the Delaware tribe laid her to rest and respected her at the end of the story.
On a larger scale, Coopers Hawkeye disregards many of the social conventions of the time. While many of the novels emphasized family, and community, Cooper’s main character has neither of these connections, and thrives in the wilderness and isolation. He is courageous, moral, accepting of other cultures, and has a strong spiritual inclination. All of these are qualities to be admired, and were not learned from his family and the white, American community, but were acquired in the forests and frontier, and learned from his Native friends Chingachgook and Uncas. Hawkeye’s spiritually is not directly derived from the organized religion of the time, but is acquired from his time in the wilderness and connection with his Native American friends. At the closing of “The Last of the Mohicans” Hawkeye is not drawn back to family and society for personal happiness, but chooses his Native friend and the frontier, continuing his isolation.
The third area where Cooper worked against early American novel paradigms was his choice of characters, settings and history to make “The Last of the Mohicans” a truly American novel. Rather than falling back on the European American cultures and characters, Cooper chose uniquely American themes. Hawkeye, a self-reliant woodsman, and his two Native American counterparts represent positive and new American role models. The forest, dangerous hideout near the waterfall, Indian villages, frontier, and decrepit block house in the wilderness are all examples of the new, unsettled, and awe inspiring areas of the new nation. Included in the story are events based on the actual events of the siege and surrender of William Henry. Reference to earlier history, such as the slaughter of the Indians, and dumping of the bodies in the pond near the decaying block house, imply an identity of an American background and history. One final element in this American tendency in the story is the notion of a noble savage. Cooper’s depiction of Uncas and Chingachgook contains many positive elements. He references their wisdom, spirituality, strength, and wilderness knowledge. When debating the plan of action for many events, Hawkeye and the Natives confer, debate, negotiate and respect each other’s point of view. All of these items merge to make Cooper’s novel uniquely American, a new idea for the era.
When considering Cooper’s distinctions in “The Last of the Mohicans,” one can infer what the author’s sense of an American novel should be. First, the novel should be uniquely American. Our nation’s new characters, setting and history are all combined to present an interesting and exciting novel. Second, Cooper sensed that a novel could present a protagonist that is self-reliant, spiritual, accepting of other cultures and an isolated individual, and still be relevant. And finally, Cooper’s novels did not use the idea of a “cautionary tale” as a central theme. All three of these differences created a novel that was unique to James Fenimore Cooper.
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