Tuesday, December 7, 2010

'Mohican' genealogy

On the varied versions of an American classic

In the almost two centuries since its publication in 1826, James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans has become a kind of pop culture jazz chart: a loose set of characters and plot points in a pop standard that have been rearranged and embellished countless times. Like a lot of jazz classics, Cooper’s source material lay in the public domain: collective memory of the French and Indian War, which ended a quarter-century before he was born.  Cooper subtitled his novel “a narrative of 1757,” since the events of the book take place at that moment when the Franco-Indian alliance against Britain and her colonists would crest with the capture of Fort William Henry, a key checkpoint in the chain of forts that secured British control of the Hudson River. Cooper, who was raised in upstate New York – his father was a large, and controversial, landowner in the baseball Mecca we know as Cooperstown[1] -- captured a time when the region was a frontier, and in so doing wrote what could plausibly be considered the first western.
Actually, Mohicans was part of a larger frontier saga, sometimes referred to as “the Leatherstocking Tales,” five novels that can plausibly be considered the Harry Potter books (or, perhaps more accurately, the Star Wars) of the nineteenth century. The Leatherstocking in question was a protagonist who went by a series of other names, including “Natty Bumppo,” “Hawkeye,”  “the Pathfinder,” and “La Longue Carabine” and and “the trapper.” (Poor Annakin Skywaker only had Darth Vader.) Over the course of this multi-part story, Cooper’s ever-restless protagonist, in good Turnerian fashion, keeps pushing to find open horizons, beginning in the northeast and ending, with as an old man in The Prairie, on the Great Plains at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition (ca. 1806). Cooper wrote and published the five novels out of order; in narrative sequence, they are: The Deerslayer (1841, i.e. the first book was published last), Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Pathfinder (1840), The Pioneers (1823) and The Prairie (1827). As devotees of the saga know, the Star Wars saga was also produced out of sequence, and like producer-director George Lucas, Cooper was a hugely successful pop culture figure known for other work as well, though nothing as much as his multi-part masterwork. Unlike Lucas or Harry Potter J.K. Rowling, however, Cooper became ever more elitist in his political outlook, and in his work one sees what sometimes appears to be an inverse relationship between the expansiveness one’s racial politics (in this case, a relatively nuanced and appreciative view of Native Americans) and the narrowness, often unconscious, of class outlook (Cooper’s patriotism was increasingly coupled with growing disgust over the populist tenor of Jacksonian democracy).
From a contemporary standpoint, Cooper’s work is almost unreadably bad. Actually, “contemporary” is a fairly flexible term; Mark Twain’s hilarious 1895 essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” makes pretty short work of him.  Offering a mock-academic list of rules for successful fiction, Twain notes that Cooper’s chosen genre of romance “require[s] that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as The Deerslayer tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.”[2] And it pretty much does downhill from there. Only a sense of professional obligation led me to try, for a second time, to get through Mohicans to research this chapter. (I found The Prairie easier going in graduate school, but that may be because I was in better literary shape.)  “Is life grievous to you?” Cooper’s protagonist asks when another character foolishly tries to chase an Indian. “Yonder red devil would draw you within swing of the tomahawks of his comrades before you were heated in the chase.” Kinda makes you want to plunge a tomahawk into Hawkeye yourself, particularly when he sneers at another character for asking him for a biblical reference by saying “Book! . . . Do you take me for a whimpering boy at the apronstring of one of your old gals?”[3]  So much for flattering your audience.
Again, what has lasted in Mohicans – what indeed has proven to be amazingly supple – is a set of characters and a loose plot. (That and the title; when Twentieth Century Fox did a marketing survey as part of their plan to launch the 1992 film version of Mohicans, they found most moviegoers knew of the book, even though they hadn’t read it.)[4] The names sometimes get changed, and minor characters get added or subtracted, but at heart, the story involves the intersection of two sets of people with a villain who brings them together. At the center of the first is (the real-life) Lieutenant Colonel George Monro, who commands Fort William Henry, which sits on Lake George. Monro has two (apparently fictive) daughters, Cora and Alice, who are being brought to part of a group of reinforcements from nearby Fort Edward under the leadership of Major Duncan Heywood, who is in love with (the younger) Alice. This party is being directed through dangerous terrain by a Huron Indian guide named Magua. The Huron, like the Ottawa, are British enemies, but Magua is believed to be an outcast, and thus a reliable ally. In fact, he is not only working for the French army under the command of the Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, but is also hell-bent on revenge against Monro for giving him “firewater” and thus precipitating his alcoholic disgrace. As the villain of the story, Magua intends to lead the party into an ambush with his allies in the woods, and then dispose of the girls as he sees fit. But before he can do so, three other characters arrive on the scene as a skirmish breaks out. They are our protagonist, here called “the scout” or “La Longue Carabine,” as well as his companions, Uncas, and Uncas’s father, Chingachcook, the surviving remnants of the Mohican tribe (Cooper’s ethnography is murky here; he seems to conflate them with the Mohegans, who we all know are alive, well, and running casinos in Connecticut). They prevent Magua from realizing his dastardly scheme, but they fail to prevent his escape. A series of chases and captures follow, of which two are important. The first involves Cora and Alice’s reconciliation with their father at Fort William Henry. This proves brief, however, because the fort is on the verge of surrender, and because Montcalm cannot control his Indian allies, who pounce on the evacuated British contingent and cut it to pieces – events that are part of the historical record. The other involves a negotiation between Magua and his adversaries at the encampment of the Delaware sachem Tamanend (as in Tammany Hall, which long featured a sculpture of him). In Solomon-like fashion, Tamanend splits the difference between the antagonists giving Cora to Magua and Alice to the scout and his allies.  The climax of the story takes place high ledge from which Cora threatens to jump. Cora and Uncas die at the hand of Magua, and Magua in turn is dispatched by the scout. At the joint funerals of Uncas and Cora, whose low-key, but potentially problematic interracial attraction has been fortunately prevented by their deaths, Chicachgook sadly muses that he is the last of the Mohicans.
In the last hundred years, the principal medium through which this story has been re-told has been film – hardly surprising, given the proto-cinematic quality of the story. The first movie version of the novel, short and silent, came out in 1911. A 1920 version, also silent and selected for the National Film Registry, is an impressively executed piece of work with lots of exterior shoots. It scrambles the plot a bit by having a spurned suitor for Cora inside Fort Willliam Henry who turns out to be a turncoat for the French, but generally follows the outline of the novel. (The future horror star Boris Karloff has a cameo in the movie as a maurading Indian; another future horror star, Bela Lugosi, starred as Chicachgook in German version of Mohicans the same year.) A 1932 twelve-part serial version of the story – cheap, unintentionally comical, but surely thrilling to people like my father, who would have gone to see them as a kid part of a full slate of Saturday matinee movie-going -- ends with Chinachgook dead and Uncas as the last Mohican.  Probably the best-known version of the movie prior to 1992 would be the 1936 version starring Randolph Scott, who went on to be a fixture of westerns through the fifties. This Mohicans plays with some of the switched identity plot twists in the original novel, but departs from it – seriously, given the loner status so central to Cooper’s protagonist – both by having Hawkeye join the British army and fall in love with Alice. (Duty calls, but she’ll wait for him.)
Mohicans was also made into a series of television productions. A syndicated 1957-58 U.S.-Canadian production was made in Hollywood and starred Lon Chaney, Jr. as Chicachgook (amusingly faithful to its age of domesticity, it opens with Hawkeye coming home to his mother). An eight-part 1971 BBC series was long on acting talent but somewhat short in its production budget. Last of the Mohicans was also the name of a 1982 EP record by the British New Wave band Bow Wow Wow (it contained their biggest hit, “I Want Candy”; the weirdly incongruous cover depicted Mohicans-like characters inserted into a photograph modeled on the 1862 Edward Manet painting “The Luncheon on the Grass”).
So by the time director Michael Mann, and his co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe, decided to tackle Mohicans in the early 1990s, they had a treasure trove of material to work with, and ample precedent for artistic license. They took it – in a big way.  

Next: the 1992 version of Last of the Mohicans and Daniel Day-Lewis's take on the character of Hawkeye.