Date of Award


Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Joseph De Fulca

Second Advisor

Rhea B. Miller


Since the publication of James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans in 1826, the novel has puzzled critics as to its, place in the Leatherstocking tales. Because the novel seems not to belong to the development of the Leatherstocking saga, it has been neglected and underrated, existing as the problem novel of the series. For years the Leatherstocking tales have been considered in relation to the development of Cooper's Leatherstocking myth: the uncorrupted Leatherstocking hero moving through the Edenic forests of the American wilderness, existing as a link between the Indians and the whites, embodying the best values of the Indian and white worlds, yet remaining "outside" of both.

This will be clearer if we consider a standard reading of the Leatherstocking tales, not in the order they were published, but in the chronological order of the myth. For instance, The Deerslayer is seen as a rite of passage in which the novel's young hero is initiated into the mysteries of death, money, and love. In The Pathfinder his reluctant renunciation of civilization and marriage is stressed. In The Pioneers the tensions between public order and individual freedom, between civilization and the wilderness are explored in the context of the novel's aging hero. The scenes dealing with the slaughter of the passenger pigeons and the wanton wastefulness of the night fishing result, again, in Leatherstocking's renunciation of civilization, as he strikes out for the freedom of the West. In The Prairie the brutal lawlessness of the Bush family is contrasted with the inner order of the old trapper, as he moves harmoniously through the landscape, finally dying a natural death. Leatherstocking's death marks the elegiac end to the Leatherstocking myth, as he dies just beyond the confines of encroaching•civilization and the sound of axes which reverberates - through the novel's air.

The Last of the Mohicans (which should be read as the second novel of the series) poses a different problem. Critics have had difficulty locating a convincing theme in the novel. The Last of the Mohicans is generally considered in terms of the doubleness of man and nature, in their inimical and beneficent aspects. With few major exceptions, however, Cooper criticism has not significantly advanced beyond the conventional assessment that is presented by Cooper's eminent biographer, James Grossman:

The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Cooper's most famous and most widely read novel, is his first great adventure story of Indian fighting and perhaps his best. In contrast with the ambitious Lionel Lincoln, and indeed with all his previous books, it is relatively free of ·social complication. It is almost but not quite (for Cooper was incapable of holding his interest in human society in abeyance) the "pure" adventure story in which in an arbitrarily simplified world everything happens for the sake of the excitement of the action.

The novel, however, teems with a variety of intrinsic themes, a few of which deal with the "fall," chaos, the nature of time and history, and a contemplation of the meaning of America.

Perhaps the luminous concern of the novel is that of language; it is, indeed, the central issue of the novel. It is "central" because Cooper's concern with language is so palpable, so demonstrably "there," issuing from various pages, whether in the contrast between fallen and unfallen language, the distinction between oral and print culture, or the Miltonic concern of a narrator who must somehow translate prelapsarian language into the broken shell of fallen, Western language--making communication, itself, a special issue.

If language is the novel's luminous concern, it is the structure of The Last of the Mohicans which allows us to see the novel "whole." The novel's structure informs and intersects the critical themes of Mohicans, especially those dealing with the "fall," time, history, and language. In addition,. the structure of the novel reveals a series of transformations in which characters and objects become converted into their opposites. In turn, this leads the reader to consider the novel's thematic transformations.

In fact, the structure of the novel informs the structure the dissertation takes: chapter one analyzes the elaborate form of the novel; chapter two deals with time and history; chapter three concentrates on the problems of language, and chapter four considers the novel's transformations.

In this context, chapter one reveals how the novel's structure is elaborately developed, how it crystallizes the fundamental themes of the novel. It does this by intersecting the thematic "spaces" of time, language, and transformation. The first chapter provides the skeleton frame for the dissertation; not only will the thematic flesh of the other chapters "fill in" the implications of the novel's structure, but the dissertation's first chapter will simultaneously modify and inform the remaining chapters.

The second chapter analyzes how time and history are part of the thematic structure of the novel in union with a contemplation of nineteenth-century America. The third chapter demonstrates that language is the central theme of the novel and reveals how it relates to other major themes. The fourth chapter discusses various structures of transformation in the novel, and if suggests how the magic world of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream structures the second half of the novel in which we are confronted with a series of transformations, where apparent opposites, particularly Hawkeye and David, become each other. The dissertation will attempt to present a new interpretation of Mohicans. It will suggest how Mohicans can lead us to a new understanding of Cooper's fiction.


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