I return to you in the midst of a nasty heatwave to hep you all to the fact that I have gone into the squared circle (the metaphorical, literary one) grappled with a classic and come away victorious.
Well, ‘victorious’ isn’t really an appropriate word, but more on that in a moment.
I try, once or twice a year, when I think I am possessed of the intellectual power (and free time) to do so, I like to get a hold of an acknowledged literary classic, one that I might have avoided out of fear of boredom (or that I might discover myself ill suited to the task), and give it the old college try. Nine times out of ten this has proven to be rewarding, as in the past few years when I worked my way through ‘Ulysses’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, and ‘Moby Dick’.
This summer, I decided that I was finally going after James Fenimore Cooper’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans’.
I grabbed an old copy off the shelf – which I believe was a relic of my wife’s high school English class – and started to read. I was actually enjoying it, until the pages started to fall out of the binding. This wasn’t so bad when it was a random leaf, but when every single page began to drop out of the binding, I decided to temporarily move on o something else until I could get to the book store and get a fresh copy.
Fortunately, having long since passed into the public domain – it was published initially in 1826 – ‘Last of the Mohicans’ was available in a number of paperback editions. One of these was a very inexpensive ($5.95) one published directly by Barnes and Noble (one of a large series of such classics they print in budget editions). As “budget” printings go it was pretty nice, with an excellent, scholarly introduction and explanatory notes.
So, I dug in yet again, and guess what? I loved it!
I was fully expecting to struggle with all manner of archaic language, but what I got instead was a fast paced adventure novel.
‘Last of the Mohicans’ was one of the first popular American novels, and it’s not hard to understand why. In his lead characters of Hawkeye, Uncas and Chingachgook, Cooper has created memorable heroes. The setting of upstate New York during the French and Indian Wars (using some actual incidents as source material) is interesting in and of itself, and Cooper managed (even in the context of the 1820s) to endow his Indian characters with much more than the stereotypical idea of the “noble savage”.
I was surprised to see that the two Mohicans are more prominent characters than Hawkeye, who almost operates in the background. Though there are certain important details in his personal history that are stated early and often, Hawkeye (or Natty Bumppo, or La Longue Carabine, or Leatherstocking all names applied to the same character through a series of novels) is a man of few words. I’ll be very interested to see how the character is presented in the other Leatherstocking books, which I plan to read as soon as possible.
So, I guess the lesson here is not to assume anything about a novel because of its age (unless, like both ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Moby Dick’ they are rightly rumored to be difficult and occasionally impenetrable), which, although rewarding, they were).
Also, if you’ve seen the 1992 movie, but haven’t read the book you’ll be in for a shock as the writers of the film (presumptuous, arrogant Hollywood douchebags one and all) apparently had little regard for Cooper’s novel, which makes you wonder why they wanted to adapt it at all.
Now reading – Mainspring by Jay Lake