Hawkeye was created by James Fenimore Cooper and appeared in Cooper’s five Leatherstocking novels, including The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Cooper (1789-1851) was one of the major early American writers, although he is known today primarily for Last of the Mohicans.
Set in 1757, The Last of the Mohicans is about Natty Bumppo, a.k.a. “Hawkeye,” and his adventures alongside his friends Chingachgook, a Delaware Mohican, and Uncas, Chingachgook’s son. Against a backdrop of the events of the French and Indian War (1756-1763), Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook battle Mingo Indians and the wily, evil Magua, and help Major Duncan Heyward, an officer in the British Army, and Cora and Alice Munro, the daughters of Colonel Munro, the commandant of Fort William Henry. At the end of the novel Magua, Cora, and Uncas are all dead, Heyward and Alice are engaged to be married, and Chingachgook and Hawkeye are mourning the coming demise of “the wise race of the Mohicans.”
“Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.”
“It seems to me far from right for…Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper’s literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper. Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in “Deerslayer,” and in the restricted space of two thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.”
Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”
Brilliantly funny as it is, Twain’s savaging of Cooper has become a cliché in discussions of Cooper or The Last of the Mohicans. And Twain’s deservedly celebrated essay, as much abuse as it is argument, is hardly the final world on Mohicans, and in fact is not, really, a fair evaluation of the novel. But those readers who manage to finish the novel will nonetheless likely agree with Twain. “Stupefying” is in fact not too strong a word to describe Last of the Mohicans.
Cooper is prolix. He has the penny-a-word-writer’s inability to get to the point. His descriptions are circumlocutious. His declamatory, speechifying dialogue style lacks all verisimilitude. The story is plot-heavy and obsessed with violence. The characters have no internal life, and the only characterization comes through heavy-handed, obtrusive dialogue. The pace of the novel, which was once thought to be almost too fast (!), is severely hampered by the endless flood of atrocious dialogue. Many of the conventions of the novel, including the Noble Savage and the pure, innocent heroines in need of rescuing, are dated, and while earlier generations found Last of the Mohicans to be exciting, current readers, with generations of better writers behind them, are more discerning.
Even more damning is the primitive view of race presented in Mohicans. Biology is destiny, for Cooper: any Mingo (Iroquois) is automatically bad and untrustworthy. Miscegenation is evil: Cora (Alice’s step-sister and the descendant of a slave) admires (and fears) Magua’s “swarthy lineaments,” and Uncas is attracted to Cora, but they cannot marry outside their own “race,” so they are killed, leaving Alice to marry Duncan and Hawkeye to flee from civilization. The Mingos are vile and deserve eradication, while the Mohicans are noble but doomed by destiny, so their mutual destruction at the end of the novel, and by extension the destruction of the American First Nations by the whites, is shown by Cooper to be ultimately a good thing.
As a reading experience Last of the Mohicans is wretched, but it does have some notable elements. Although Cooper’s biological essentialism is simplistic, he does not descend to the sort of racism which later writers like Robert Montgomery Bird propagated. Cooper’s treatment of race has a certain ambiguity: he approves of the triumph of the white colonists but also mourns the passing of the noble Mohicans. This message appears intermittently not just throughout Last of the Mohicans but also in several of Cooper’s other novels, especially the five Leatherstocking novels. Several concepts which would later become traditions and clichés in frontier fiction appeared for the first time in Cooper’s work, particularly that of the frontier hero, who has the skills of both the civilized and the savage and who can help tame the wilderness but who is out of place among civilized people. Another concept is the clash between the worldly-wise frontiersman and the hapless, incompetent city dude, in this case Hawkeye and Duncan Heyward, respectively. Cooper was primarily responsible for the spread of these concepts. His work was internationally popular, and readers as far away as Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa and Russia devoured his work and believed that Cooper was accurately portraying the American frontier, and wrote imitations.
Hawkeye is a combination of the Noble Savage–chaste, of noble and kind impulses–and the savage hunter–brutal and lethal in war, the consummate hunter and woodman. He is proud, conscious of the aspects of race (both white and red), and respectful of Chingachgook. Another of Twain’s statements is an accurate summary of The Last of the Mohicans: “In truth, it seems to me that ‘Deerslayer’ is just simply a literary delirium tremens.”