Wyeth's Noble Savage

Humanities, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview

Wyeth's Noble Savage


The Last of the Mohicans, an American adventure tale by James Fenimore Cooper, became an instant best seller when it was published in 1826. Its popularity continued, and by 1919, when N. C Wyeth illustrated a new deluxe edition of the book, Cooper's story had become a fixture in American boyhood. It has since fallen out of fashion, but its importance to American literature is firmly established; the protagonist, Natty Bumppo (called Hawkeye), a white scout raised by American Indians, is the first of many enterprising pioneer heroes to overcome the perils of the frontier. Even though The Last of the Mohicans had been illustrated before, Wyeth's pictures, like George Catlin's paintings in the previous century, helped create an enduring image of the American Indian as a "noble savage."

Wyeth 's teacher Howard PyLe had taught him to work only from experience. To prepare for The Last of the Mohicans, Wyeth made two trips to the Lake George region of New York, where the novel is set. He tramped through the woods and cooked over an open fire to gain an understanding of the wilderness and to allow the features of the landscape to impress themselves on his mind. Inspired by the crystal-clear summer of the Adirondacks, Wyeth bathed his pictures in sky-blue tones that lend an air of tranquility to a violent and tragic story.

It was not possible for Wyeth to make the same careful study of the American Indians who figured in the novel. Cooper himself confessed that when he wrote The Last of the Mohicans, he had never spent time among American Indians, and that most of what he knew of their lives and customs had been gleaned from books or from stories passed down from his father, The novel takes place in 1 757, during the French and Indian War, when the British and French fought over land that had long been home to Eastern Woodlands tribes. Wyeth was yet another generation removed from those historical events, and, like most Americans of his time, he possessed only the vaguest understanding of the original American peoples.

Although rooted in history, The Last of the Mohicans was Cooper's invention. To criticism that the characters were unrealistic, Cooper replied that the novel was intended only to evoke the past. …

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