But what makes LAST OF THE MOHICANS interesting is when you grasp what James Fenimore Cooper was actually trying to do. He wasn’t trying to capture what life on the 18th century frontier was really like. He was trying to write a novel that could compete with what everyone thought of as the great literature of the day — the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott. Judged on those terms, LAST OF THE MOHICANS isn’t really that bad.
Just like IVANHOE, LAST OF THE MOHICANS takes two beautiful, refined young ladies and puts them into every kind of jeopardy and terror against a backdrop of wars and massacres. Fair, gentle Alice and dark, brave, passionate Cora are obviously based on Rowena and Rebecca, respectively. Cooper heightens the drama by making them sisters, and threatening them both with equal danger.
Just like IVANHOE, LAST OF THE MOHICANS uses real historical conflicts as a background to drama. Instead of the conflict between Normans and Saxons — which is happily resolved by creation of a new English national identity — Cooper focuses on the conflict between the Native Americans and the encroaching settlers. This does not end happily. But what’s interesting is that Cooper (much more than more celebrated American icons like Mark Twain) actually feels the tragedy and the loss. The “villain” in this novel, Magua, is conceived as a tragic hero, like Shylock in Shakespeare’s THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. Using Shakespeare as an inspiration for his more menacing characters is a trick that Cooper learned from Sir Walter Scott. So is using personal tragedy as a symbol for larger historical trends.
When you read this book, it’s not hard to guess that the dark-eyed, racially mixed Cora is destined for a tragic fate, while bland, blue-eyed Alice is guaranteed a happy ever after.