Resurrecting Leather-Stocking
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James Fenimore Cooper's Leather-Stocking tales—The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie, The Pathfinder, and The Deerslayer (1823–1841)—romantically portray frontier America during the colonial and early republican eras. Bill Christophersen's Resurrecting Leather-Stocking: Pathfinding in Jacksonian America suggests they also highlight problems plaguing nineteenth-century America during the contentious decades following the Missouri Compromise, when Congress admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state.

During the 1820s and 1830s, the nation was riven by sectional animosity, slavery, prejudice, populist politics, and finally economic collapse. Christophersen argues that Cooper used his fictions to imagine a path forward for the Republic. Cooper, he further suggests, brought back Leather-Stocking to test whether the common man, as empowered by Jackson's presidency, was capable of republican virtue—something the author considered key to renewing the nation.



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Date de parution 05 avril 2019
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EAN13 9781611179613
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 2 Mo

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Resurrecting Leather-Stocking
Pathfinding in Jacksonian America
Bill Christophersen
© 2019 University of South Carolina
Published by the University of South Carolina Press
Columbia, South Carolina 29208
28 27 26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
can be found at .
ISBN 978-1-61117-960-6 (cloth)
ISBN 978-1-61117-961-3 (ebook)
Front cover illustration:
Francis Parkman, by N. C. Wyeth,
courtesy of
In memory of my parents, George and Isabel Christophersen, who taught me to love books; Prof. Joseph V. Ridgely and Prof. Robert A. Bone, my mentors in American literature; and Madeleine Edmondson, friend and colleague—and a writer’s writer
Mabel: Pathfinder!
Pathfinder: So they call me, young woman, and many a great lord has got a title that he did not half so well merit, though, if truth be said, I rather pride myself in finding my way, where there is no path, than in finding it where there is.

James Fenimore Cooper, The Pathfinder, or, The Inland Sea
We live in a world of transgressions and selfishness, and no pictures that represent us otherwise can be true, though, happily for human nature, gleamings of that pure spirit in whose likeness man has been fashioned, are to be seen relieving its deformities, and mitigating if not excusing its crimes.

James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer, or, The First War-Path
The Ghost of Leather-Stocking
The Pioneers: Leather-Stocking in the Rough
The Last of the Mohicans: History’s Bloody Pond
The Prairie: A Reckoning in the Desert
The Home Novels: Abroad and at Home, 1826–1838
The Pathfinder: Trailblazing in a Democracy
The Deerslayer: A Trial by Fire
E Pluribus Unum: The Leather-Stocking Tales
Appendix: Bibliographical Overview of The Last of the Mohicans Scholarship
When readers encountered James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pathfinder (1840), in which Leather-Stocking and Chingachgook shepherd a sergeant’s daughter and her entourage through woods made dangerous by the French and Indian War, most were doubly delighted: first to see the wily scout of The Last of the Mohicans (1826) back from the dead and in his prime; and second, to see what looked to be a pure adventure tale, instead of another of the social critiques Cooper had been writing since he had laid Natty Bumppo to rest in The Prairie (1827). The novelist, said reviewers—and critics still echo the line—had set aside crankiness and gone back to his strong suit, frontier melodrama.
Yes and no. In Resurrecting Leather-Stocking: Pathfinding in Jacksonian America , I argue that Cooper resurrected Natty Bumppo not out of frustration with social criticism but rather to write smarter social critiques. The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer (1841), written in the wake of Andrew Jackson’s presidency and the economic panics of 1837 and 1839, are indeed romances of the woods and lakes. But they are also novels of ideas, experimental fictions that ask, in effect, whether the common man might not redeem a country that had, Cooper believed, lost its republican backbone, its moral compass. A genteel hero had been de rigueur in his previous fiction; in The Pathfinder he jettisons that model, making Leather-Stocking the protagonist, then lets the character struggle to find the moral and political path in a modern world of violence, betrayal, and flux. Pathfinder stumbles, then, learning from his mistakes, goes on to exemplify the values Cooper believed were needful if the Republic was to withstand the vices—materialism, prejudice, demagoguery, a sheepish conformity—that he saw threatening its soul. The tale, in effect, fictionalizes precepts Cooper had set forth in his political treatise The American Democrat (1838). But the cautious optimism The Pathfinder displays was short-lived: The Deerslayer dramatizes the near impossibility of cleaving to virtuous ideals, even when fortified by Christian precept. The young Leather-Stocking’s increasingly ironic attempts to tread a moral path, moreover, are linked with and amplified by America’s lofty myths and violent history. The result is a broad cultural critique.
The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer are not exceptional among the Leather-Stocking tales in the social concerns they exhibit. Although set mainly in the eighteenth century, all five novels engage themes vital to Jacksonian America. Chief among these is a concern with racial prejudice and its consequences. Investigating this concern led Cooper to revamp the captivity narrative. Though opposed to abolitionism, he understood that slavery and prejudice were time bombs. In The Last of the Mohicans , he projects the fear of a racial Armageddon onto the massacre of whites by reds outside Fort William Henry. In The Prairie —a Southern tale in the guise of a Western—he images slaveholding and manumission in a fiction that scrutinizes assumptions of racial purity and hierarchy that were gaining currency in the 1820s. The Pathfinder abstracts the vice of prejudice, presenting it in a context removed from the racial and sectional hatreds that rendered the subject contentious. The Deerslayer substitutes forthrightness for indirection: two characters debate racial prejudice openly. These fictions seek for a middle ground between Northern and Southern extremes but do so in ways calculated to avoid the automatic disapproval that, at the time, attended literature featuring social themes.
Sociohistorical motifs aside, the tales’ literary merits remain underappreciated. Cooper worked more extensively than is commonly understood with allegory, symbol, and synecdoche, with ironic parallel plots and dramatic contrasts. His tales are often palimpsests on which prior literary and artistic influences can be seen. Employing such symbols as the path, fire, the ship of state, the eagle, and the “inland sea” (as Pathfinder is subtitled), as well as such subtexts as Dante’s Commedia , Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn and Edgar Huntly , the Bible, Shakespeare’s The Tempest , and Thomas Cole’s five-canvas The Course of Empire , Cooper broadened the relevance or qualified the implications of his melodramas. The Leather-Stocking tales show surprising continuities, cumulative arguments, and revisions of ideas, in addition to their republican concerns. Read without the bias toward romanticism that mid-nineteenth-century critics shared, the bias toward realism that Mark Twain’s critique was premised on, or the bias toward myth that mid-twentieth-century critics exhibited—read, that is to say, closely and historically—the series speaks astutely to its times and, alarmingly, to our own.
A portion of chapter 3 was published by Early American Literature as “ The Last of the Mohicans and the Missouri Crisis” and is reprinted with permission from EAL 46, no. 2 (2011).
A portion of chapter 4 , titled “Cooper’s The Prairie as a Southern Tale,” appeared in Literature in the Early American Republic 7 (2015): 1–30. It is reprinted here with LEAR ’s permission.
Portions of Jared Gardner’s Master Plots: Race and the Founding of an American Literature, 1787–1845 (pp. 85, 108–10, 112, 114; ©1998 The Johns Hopkins University Press) have been reprinted with the permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.
In preparing the manuscript of this book, I received—and wish to acknowledge gratefully—critical feedback on select portions from professors Wayne Franklin, Jason Berger, and Sandra M. Gustafson.
The Ghost of Leather-Stocking
John Effingham: If you will ply the oars, gentlemen, we will now hold a little communion with the spirit of the Leather-Stocking.

James Fenimore Cooper, Home as Found
Halfway through Home as Found (1838), James Fenimore Cooper’s staid novel of manners slips abruptly into a twilight zone. As its protagonists, the Effinghams—descendants of the characters whose estate is the setting of Cooper’s first Leather-Stocking novel, The Pioneers (1823)—show friends around the same Otsego countryside, Leather-Stocking’s ghost is heard grumbling. His voice seems to boom from on high as their boat descends a tributary to Lake Otsego. The episode occurs moments after they have been eulogizing the frontier scout and hunter who united “the simplicity of a woodsman, the heroism of a savage, the faith of a Christian, and the feeling of a poet” and after Squire John Effingham has remarked: “Alas! The days of the ‘Leather-Stockings’ have passed.… I see few remains of his character in a region where speculation is more rife than moralizing, and emigrants are plentier than hunters.” 1
The voice is illusory—an echo of the Effinghams’ own voices reverberating from the stream’s rocky banks. But the incident is more than a nostalgic cameo and a nod to Cooper’s longtime readers; more, even, than a focusing device for the novel’s theme of America’s wilting social values. The echo from the past adumbrates a key moment in Cooper’s writing career: his resurrection of Natty Bumppo, the Leather-Stocking. Natty, after his debut as a gap-toothed, badgered squatter in The Pioneers , had had a stunning encore in The Last of the Mohicans (1826) as a scout employed by the British during the French and Indian War, whose closest ties were to two Delawares, remnants of an expiring race. Translated into eighty languages, the romance made the character an international legend. Legend became myth in The Prairie (1827), which limned Natty’s last days as a self-exiled trapper on the Great Plains. His bones were laid to rest at the novel’s end. Yet Cooper, as if haunted by his own creation, revived the woodsman after a thirteen-year hiatus to make him the protagonist of The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841). Cooper’s explanation for the strategy—his “latent regard for the character,” an explanation so perfunctory, reticent, and obvious as to clarify nothing—belies his estimation of the results. They were, he said shortly before his death, “the two [novels] most worthy of an enlightened and cultivated reader’s notice.” 2 What that revival signified is the subject of this study.
Those familiar with Cooper’s career may see little mystery in the matter. His reputation had soared during the 1820s. Readers on several continents, but especially those in his own land, where the call for a native literature had resounded since the early years of the Republic, were thrilled by his romances dramatizing American history and mores and featuring American character types and speech. His country’s applause turned to catcalls, however, during the 1830s. The turnabout stemmed from his seven-year sojourn in Europe (1826–33). He went there to broaden his family’s horizons and secure the European editions of his books against the piracy that was siphoning off profits. His reasons for, and the official capacity of, his visit notwithstanding—he went as United States consul to Lyon—his prolonged absence and preoccupation with Europe irked domestic readers and undermined his popularity. While in France he became embroiled in a political flap (the Finance Controversy) that led to a quarrel with the American press. 3 And he wrote three novels ( The Bravo [1831], The Heidenmauer [1832], and The Headsman [1833]) set in Europe, featuring European characters and history. These books alienated native readers, never mind that their Old World settings spoke to New World concerns, dramatizing, among other things, the weaknesses of republics. Many Americans concluded that, in dallying on the Continent, Cooper had forgotten his homeland.
Cooper might have mended fences had he returned in a more gracious frame of mind. Instead—smarting, perhaps, from the disaffection he sensed in some quarters—he declined a homecoming dinner, reaping social snubs and increasingly testy press notices. 4 Then, touting the Constitution and the wary republicanism it embodied, he scolded his fellow citizens for weak-mindedness in A Letter to His Countrymen (1834). As if to put an exclamation point to his lecture, he foreswore fiction writing. He soon broke his resolve, but not to good effect. The Monikins (1835), a lengthy satire on English and American political attitudes that envisioned opposing troupes of monkeys ruthlessly vying for political power, somehow failed to rekindle readers’ enthusiasm. His next publications, several volumes of travel writings based on his family’s excursions in England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, seemed to confirm suspicions that he had become disengaged from his country, intent on provoking rather than pleasing his countrymen. 5 None of these works generated anything like the sales figures the first three Leather-Stocking novels had. Blake Nevius states that by 1840, Cooper had become “the most unpopular man in America.” 6 Perhaps bringing back the canny scout, then, was—as H. Daniel Peck, among others, suggests—simply a ploy to regain the reputation and market value Cooper had lost. 7
Or perhaps the explanation goes deeper. After his return to America, Cooper’s life became even more contentious than his impasse with readers indicates. It was the Age of Jackson, and many Americans no longer cared for the gentrified cut of Cooper’s jib. Although he had supported Jackson against the Whigs, whose commercial and materialistic ways he scorned, Cooper resented the egalitarianism afoot. He saw what he considered to be an ignorant citizenry, whipped up by populist newspaper editors and demagogues, challenging and in some cases usurping the prerogatives of educated gentlefolk. An episode close to home, known as the Three Mile Point controversy (1837), served as a flashpoint for Cooper’s neighbors’ resentments, as well as his own indignation. Some townspeople who had become accustomed to using land that was under Cooper’s trusteeship damaged a tree and an outbuilding while picnicking there. Cooper reminded them that the land was private property and, when the reminder was ill received, placed the land off limits to the public. A war of words ensued, the townspeople accusing him of encroaching on the public domain. Cooper responded by publishing a letter in a local newspaper detailing the history of the land and his responsibilities as its administrator. The matter might have ended there. But local resentment festered as newspaper editors used the occasion to chide him, sometimes misstating the facts of the episode and leveling personal insults. Cooper sued several of them for libel and made the Three Mile Point incident the subject of Home as Found (1838)—a tactic that infuriated local readers and brought his most vitriolic reviews yet. He won most of his suits, but the proceedings tied him up for years and perpetuated the feud. Given such pressures, his return to the Leather-Stocking saga, critics have suggested, may have been his way of escaping vicariously from the political hornets’ nests he seemed to keep stepping in, if not from an America to whose surliness these incivilities seemed to attest. Alexander Cowie’s and Robert E. Spiller’s views are early examples of the perception that Cooper’s last two Leather-Stocking tales represent a “divest[ing] … of his critical toga,” a nostalgic retreat from the social problem novel. 8
Neither the pragmatic nor the psychological explanation persuades entirely. No doubt waning sales receipts made Cooper yearn for another bestseller. But he was a versatile writer who had achieved success with a range of fictional genres—Revolutionary War adventures ( The Spy [1821], Lionel Lincoln [1825]), for instance, and romances of the sea ( The Pilot [1824], The Red Rover [1828], The Water-Witch [1830]). Might not another novel along one of these lines have delivered a marketplace success? He had, to be sure, an outstanding agreement with his publisher to write a romance combining lake and forest adventure, an obligation he had deferred for eight years but would now fulfill. 9 That obligation stipulated nothing, though, about reviving the character Leather-Stocking. No doubt that as his countrymen’s attitudes toward him soured, populist brushfires threatened his family seat, and personal invective greeted him from the daily papers—reviews of Home as Found accused Cooper of traducing his country—he found it pleasant to indulge fantasies of earlier times and places, such as the shores of Lake Ontario ( The Pathfinder ), where he had been stationed during his merchant marine service, and those of Lake Otsego ( The Deerslayer ) half a century before his father had founded Cooperstown, whose citizens were now so eager to dispute land titles. Cooper, however, was not an escapist. He took on rather than retreated from controversy, making his case with humor ( Homeward Bound [1838]) or without ( The Redskins [1846]); indirectly ( The Two Admirals [1842]) or plainly ( The American Democrat [1838]). He was a socially engaged writer; even when his fictions retreat to the woods, lakes, or poles, they rarely leave social concerns behind.
Richard Slotkin assays a third explanation: Cooper brought Natty back because he had some unfinished business to transact with the character he had buried. He flags the question of whether Natty was finally an Indian or a Christian, a contradiction that clearly haunts Deerslayer. Reprising D. H. Lawrence, Slotkin sees Cooper as caught up “compulsively” in the character’s, and his own, contradictions. 10 That the novelist was caught, as Lawrence suggests, between “Fenimore” the gentleman, husband, father, civic scold, and founder of Bible societies and “Cooper” the frontier-bred adventurer, traveler, and seafarer, 11 and that this self-conflict caused him to tack back and forth as a writer are probabilities few will gainsay. And there is something compulsive about not being able to let go of a character one has re-created at length. But such self-contradictions and compulsions operate indifferently over decades and do not explain why Cooper in 1839 elected to revive Leather-Stocking.
A more persuasive reason for that gambit is to be found, I believe, in the times and in Cooper’s sense that it was a gentleman’s responsibility to lead in periods of crisis. 12 His first novel, Precaution (1820), makes it plain he considered fiction an “engine” for moving society. 13 This sense of responsibility is attested to most plainly by the Home novels ( Homeward Bound, Home as Found ) and The American Democrat , a terse civics lecture written as the dust of the Panic of 1837 was settling, that makes explicit many views implicit in the fictions. All three works call for a return to eighteenth-century republican principles: for society to recognize that, although all (white male) citizens are equal politically, they are not equal in other respects, and the educated, independent gentry ought to lead. But history, as the Jeffersonian Cooper must have sensed even as he blustered, had already rendered this bid for republican renewal out of date: populism had overtaken republicanism, two decades’ worth of his gentlemen heroes and civics lectures notwithstanding. His readers were not about to reinstate the gentry. The relevant question, then, was no longer whether the trespassers and transients in Cooperstown might be browbeaten into learning their republican catechism and with it the propriety of tipping their hats to the likes of Squire Cooper. The question was whether the newly empowered American, one without the benefit of a gentleman’s education and means, might hypothetically rise to the challenge of sustaining the Republic. To do so he would have to be able to act virtuously—that is, bravely, deliberately, and independently; to take risks and make sacrifices, not just in behalf of himself, as he was becoming adept at doing in the economic arena, but in behalf of the polis. Was such a prospect feasible? The need to envision and test such a democratic hero, let me suggest, is the reason Cooper had to resurrect Natty Bumppo.
He might, of course, have created the character he needed out of whole cloth—someone, say, like himself, 14 who had grown up in one of the new Republic’s frontier towns, improved himself, owned and managed property, traveled afield, and the like. Except that he had just done something of the sort with Home as Found . Ned and John Effingham, its Fenimore-ish spokespersons, had proved annoyingly didactic; more tellingly the astute, bold, independent Paul Powis, its young hero, had turned out at last to be a gentleman’s scion—an Effingham, no less! The book’s flirtation with a new kind of hero had been hobbled by the author’s stodginess. Leather-Stocking, on the other hand, was unrecognizable as a Cooper surrogate, had no closet pedigree, and enjoyed the good graces of the reading public. Of the author’s many characters, he was perhaps the only one common yet principled enough to serve as a test case for Cooper’s democratic times. He had, besides, a history of acting selflessly for the good of others, as he does throughout The Prairie ; of behaving resolutely in the crunch, as he does in The Last of the Mohicans; of saying what needs to be said, rather than what is politic, as his reproaches to Judge Temple prove in The Pioneers . Uncouth and quirky though he was, Natty, whose character combined aboriginal virtue with gospel spirit, was not far from that contemporary public relations figment, the coonskin democrat, who was being touted as the man of the hour. (It was a Jacksonian image, but the Whigs co-opted it. In 1840 their candidate for president, William Henry Harrison, who hailed from one of Virginia’s first families, was seen by his handlers as lacking the common touch; they addressed the problem by making a log cabin his campaign logo and associating him with cider-barrel conviviality.) Schooled by the woods and frontier, Leather-Stocking had been walking the Jacksonian walk well before Old Hero became president. Furthermore, as Slotkin observes, there were contradictions in the character that had not been plumbed—questions about the cultural hybrid, the moralizing killer, that begged asking, and not just as an abstract exercise. Similar contradictions beset the nation, whose high-minded rhetoric of mission was bumping up repeatedly against, even as it was helping to finesse, heavy-handed tactics of expansion (the Mexican War was on the horizon and the Trail of Tears was ongoing as Cooper was summoning the shade of Natty Bumppo).
Cooper’s felt need to address his times in a more daring, relevant fashion led, then, to the literary experiments that are The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer . The first is cautiously optimistic: it paints a frontier outpost threatened with dissolution from within and incursion from without and bids for the possibility of salvation through a return to the kind of selfless virtue Cooper associated with the Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington. Pathfinder, a scout serving the British against the French and their Indian allies, is publicly challenged to confront a corrupt commander—and personally challenged to relinquish the woman he loves, who loves another. Both challenges require that he learn a few things beyond woodcraft, such as when and when not to defer to authorities he has long rendered unquestioning allegiance to. Part of the book’s interest derives from its makeover of the death-dealing rifleman Hawk-eye (as Natty is known in The Last of the Mohicans ) into someone else—a pathfinder in a wood where (as the novel’s suggestive opening image indicates) age-old trees have lately been rooted up. But the experiment is qualified by its success: Leather-Stocking, who rises to the occasion and makes hard choices to do right, will not marry, procreate, or participate in the society his example presumably inspires.
In The Deerslayer Cooper—as if suspecting that a Cincinnatus-like virtue, although hypothetically possible, was too high a bar, after all, to set for the rambling, gambling, self-vaunting America he saw around him—examines how the behavioral equation changes when virtue is buttressed by Christian ethics. For a generation the country had been undergoing a broad-based Protestant revival. Cooper was an avid Bible student. In his final years, he wrote novels espousing an orthodox Protestant faith. Might not Christianity inspire the principled conduct needed to right the ship of state? In The Deerslayer Natty’s Christianity is tested against a colonial world gone so wrong that the British Crown is offering money for the scalps of Indians of any age or gender. But he is tasked as well with proving himself a viable warrior. How will he navigate those opposing imperatives? His personal conduct is placed, moreover, within a broader context summoned up by the eagle he shoots—a symbol whose associations run deep in American culture. A dark fiction, The Deerslayer scrutinizes at one remove the moral and civic ideals the nation laid claim to over and against the tendencies inherent in accruing power, land, and profit and sets forth the resulting dilemmas. In these tales Cooper tests his hero to see whether the traditional American guideposts of republican virtue and Christian precept still pertain, given the centrifugal forces operating on the individual and community.
It is hard to miss Cooper’s mounting sense, throughout the 1830s, that his country was at a crossroads. His oeuvre, to be sure, broods skeptically from the start over the nation’s prospects. The Pioneers paints a viable Republic threatened by fault lines. The Last of the Mohicans dramatizes the violence from which the Republic had emerged and—unless we accept the colonial setting and subject as purely historical, that is, innocent of contemporaneous concerns—toward which it might again be headed. Its centerpiece is a violent racial clash that, notwithstanding the gentlemanly compromises finessed by leaders who sought to manage it, leaves an outpost of civilization in ashes. The Prairie envisions an American desert, its landscape scourged by what the Trapper (Natty) sees as divine punishment for its settlers’ wasteful ways. It also examines the dilemmas posed to the community by prejudice, greed, and pigheadedness. The sense of national decline in Cooper’s tales picked up, however, throughout the 1830s. The European novels, in addressing the cynicism and corruption that had eroded past republics and initiated the modern age, gave indirect warnings to nineteenth-century America. The warnings became direct to the point of shrillness in the fictions of the mid-1830s, detailing the shame of a nation turned money-mad, coarse, and unprincipled. In 1840 Cooper wrote in a letter to his son Paul (November 30), “Depend on it, my son, we live in … times that threaten a thousand serious consequences, through the growing corruption of the nation. If public virtue be truly necessary to a republic, we cannot be one.… Governments often profess one thing and practice another, and we are not what we profess to be.” 15 Nor was this sense of crisis a figment of the author’s imagination.
America in the late 1830s was by several measures a country in crisis. The Jackson presidency (1828–36) saw threats of nullification and secession, violations of civil liberties, and a war between the president and the national bank. Party rivalry manifested itself in riots; religious diversity, in violent attacks against minority sects. The Panic of 1837, whose speculation-crazed run-up Cooper had witnessed on a trip to New York City a few months before the event and whose onset he evokes in Home as Found , shook the nation’s confidence as well as its economy. A second panic followed in 1839. The policy of Indian removal that Jackson had expedited was playing out as a brutal uprooting of nations, among them the Cherokee, a people who had adopted white laws and customs and even won a U.S. Supreme Court verdict ( Worcester v. Georgia ) affirming their sovereignty over their lands. The problem of slavery, elevated to center stage in 1820 by the Missouri Crisis and punctuated by the wide-scale though abortive Denmark Vesey slave rebellion of 1822, was dramatized anew in 1831 by Nat Turner’s rebellion, in which blacks killed fifty-seven whites and vigilantes retaliated, killing more than a hundred blacks. The Amistad affair (1839–41)—a court case stemming from a rebellion aboard a vessel smuggling kidnapped blacks, in which an aged John Quincy Adams successfully defended the blacks and, in effect, put the Van Buren administration on trial for obstructing justice—kept slavery squarely in view. Abolitionists faced murderous opposition, and antislavery literature occasioned censorship of the mails, a curtailment of civil rights that received its imprimatur not from radical Southern leaders but from President Jackson and national postmaster Amos Kendall. Mob violence reached new heights, as Cooper’s native upstate New York had reason to note when a renters’ rebellion broke out in 1838.
A close reading of The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer shows that Cooper was not beating a retreat from such contemporary concerns and his own sociopolitical preoccupations but engaging them in new, experimental ways. The public quarrels he became enmeshed in forced him to rearticulate his political principles; as he peered through the local and personal problems he was experiencing, he saw the greater ones afflicting the nation—and tried to sort them out in his fiction. And as he restated his principles he reexamined their bases. The American Democrat , for instance, revises some of the views expressed in Notions of the Americans (1828), an overview of America’s government and habits. The earlier work was largely celebratory; the later is premonitory. 16 It identifies the risks of republics and attempts, almost by fiat, to stay the degeneration of virtue that, as historian Marvin Meyers recognizes, had become Cooper’s foremost concern. 17 The last two Leather-Stocking novels grew out of these meditations, exhortations, and reexaminations.
Cooper’s greater ambitions in these novels of ideas go hand in hand with the formal changes the novels introduce. As many critics have observed, the Leather-Stocking of The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer is not the Leather-Stocking of the 1820s trilogy. 18 The middle-aged Pathfinder and youthful Deerslayer are protagonists. One consequence of this innovation is that they become more fallible and sympathetic than their earlier avatars. Pathfinder, formidable as Hawk-eye at wilderness skirmishing, proves all too human in other domains, falling in love and failing in his suit. Deerslayer exhibits a deacon’s qualms about shooting an enemy—qualms Hawk-eye is, for the most part, past agonizing over. More important, Pathfinder and Deerslayer, as Thomas Philbrick notes, differ from Hawk-eye and the Trapper in the extent to which their characters develop. 19 Nor are these novels’ premises fixed, as were those of the earlier Leather-Stocking tales. Lake romances in more than just their settings, they leave the terra firma of moral and social verities behind to explore a more fluid universe of right and wrong, authority and responsibility. Generally the Cooper of the 1820s was, as David Brion Davis remarks, “an expounder of a particular code of morality.” The Pioneers dramatizes rather than investigates moral issues. ( The Prairie , set on land that looks like sea, does both.) That strategy shifts in the later tales. In The Pathfinder Cooper tests tenets of behavior and their implications for the community. In The Deerslayer he is precisely what Davis faults him for not being, “a philosopher seeking moral truth in the ambiguities of human experience.” 20
The later Leather-Stocking tales harbor an uncharacteristic mood of anxiety and doubt. If, as Joel Porte has ventured, The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie derive from The Iliad and The Odyssey , 21 The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer derive (I will suggest) largely from Dante’s Commedia , some of whose literary strategies Cooper incorporated into the tales. Pathfinder is for a time undermined by his emotions; is not always sure how to proceed; must traverse a realm where he can see no path; and at times stands in need of guidance and insight. Deerslayer is, at the outset, lost in the woods; the tale infuses the path he seeks with a religious dimension. The initiation he undergoes involves a spiritual as well as physical trial and points up the stygian consequences of misconduct. These fictions, although set in a previous century and at one remove from society, anticipate a nineteenth-century America threatened by greed, malice, and deceit—an America that has, in Cooper’s view, lost the path.
By the mid-1840s Cooper had apparently set aside the doubts, questions, and experiments that animate The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer . He wrote a series of social novels—the Littlepage trilogy (1845–46), comprising Satanstoe, The Chainbearer , and The Redskins —that left uncertainty and inquiry behind to reiterate the principle that the gentry knows best. And in several of his later novels ( The Crater [1847], The Oak Openings [1848], and The Sea Lions [1849]), Cooper strapped on the shield and buckler of Christianity, armor that, apparently, no longer chafed as it had for Deerslayer. Some of these are powerful fictions. But they are less interesting in their self-assuredness. This study focuses on what was clearly a period of ferment for Cooper, when, judging from his output, he was less his resolute self than usual—and more of an artist.
My ancillary aim will be to reexamine the Leather-Stocking tales in general. Although they have been written about extensively for nearly two centuries, only two critics have made them the subject of a book-length study, and that was a generation ago. William P. Kelly, taking a historiographic approach, wrested the tales from the myth critics in Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Tales (1983), articulating the ways in which Cooper sought to achieve a sense of historical form. Geoffrey Rans in Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading (1991) amplified the approach, emphasizing the ways in which the first three romances “unfailingly yield political and historical messages.” My study is indebted to them for making the case in detail and with insight. Rans is especially astute in connecting the lack of conventional closure in the tales to the historical truths they convey—truths that resist closure. But both critics come up short in their discussions of The Pathfinder . Kelly’s is diffuse, focusing on the problems that result from “a failure of vision” and from an overreliance on convention or an unprincipled departure from tradition. Rans sees a declining interest in political and historical themes in the last two tales and rues “the diminished energy with which issues of history and political thought are addressed in The Pathfinder .” And while he appreciates Cooper’s “value as an expresser of political conflict,” he rejects the author’s usefulness as a “solver of political problems in fictional form.” 22 I hope to show the contrary is true. Neither critic, moreover, had the benefit of Wayne Franklin’s biography, James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years , or the scholarship of Jared Gardner and Ezra F. Tawil, whose investigations of nineteenth-century racial theory and the frontier romance have opened a window onto The Pioneers and The Prairie . 23 The Leather-Stocking tales, I suggest, explore racial prejudice as a social liability and squint repeatedly toward the dilemma posed by slavery in nineteenth-century America.
Like Rans I discuss the tales in the order in which they were composed. Opening chapters on The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans , and The Prairie will be followed by a chapter bridging the years between The Prairie and The Pathfinder and touching on Cooper’s stay in Europe, the novels he wrote there, his return to America, The Monikins, The American Democrat , and the character of Jacksonian politics and Jackson himself (for Cooper, however improbably, found in the president a model of republican virtue). The chapter’s focus, however, will be the two Home novels, in which Cooper details his critique of Jacksonian America and sets the stage for the return of Natty Bumppo. Next will follow chapters on The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer . I conclude with some observations about the Leather-Stocking tales as a series linked not only by character and setting but by theme and form and constituting a cycle whose continuities surprise. Throughout my assumption is Dana D. Nelson’s: that the five tales display “a consistent engagement with key contemporary questions about democratic identity and interrelation in the early United States.” 24
The Leather-Stocking novels may seem a strange place in which to search for sociopolitical themes. What, one might wonder, can these fictions, three of which are set in the colonial New York wilderness, have to say about nineteenth-century American social assumptions and civic values? Thanks to Kelly, Rans, Gardner, and other critics, the question no longer has the provocative edge it once had. Nevertheless it deserves an answer. First there is Cooper’s assertion, in the preface to Homeward Bound , that the novel’s aim—“to exhibit the present state of society in the United States”—was one that “lay at the bottom of all his projects.” 25 He accomplished this aim by using romantic as well as novelistic devices. As John McWilliams has observed, Cooper was adept at deploying synecdoche: “His tales would deal with local struggles or historic events of lesser importance, yet through them Cooper would discuss the most grandly national of issues.” 26 The earliest example is the way in which the quarrel, at the outset of The Pioneers , over who owns the shot buck becomes a window onto competing claims of land ownership.
The Leather-Stocking novels, as several critics have remarked, examine fundamental concerns about humankind’s relationship to nature, law, and the state. These abstract concerns are perhaps best investigated on a relatively uncluttered fictional canvas. Richard Chase suggests that “the inner facts of political life have been better grasped by romance melodramas than by strictly realistic fiction.” 27 A. N. Kaul in The American Vision addresses the same paradox. Acknowledging that many classic American fictions rich in social implications do not present Dickensian social panoramas, much less hew to the standard expectations of social realism, he ventures: “There is a way of regarding social reality which takes into account not only observable social facts but also various aspects of imaginative response to these facts; which considers such things as ideals, or mythic archetypes of thought, to be important if not readily visible components of that reality.” He speaks too of the moral assumptions underlying social values in America and of the “moral values necessary for the regeneration of human society.” 28 Kaul, writing in the early 1960s, was positioning his concern with social reality and forms within the prevailing mid-century critical framework emphasizing the moral and mythic aspects of American literature. Nevertheless the morals and myths underlying American history are part, surely, of its social forms. Precisely because the fictions are set in uncivilized, thinly populated tracts of colonial wilderness rather than the highways and townships of a thriving republic whose social and political organization, although still in flux, has already hardened into forms we recognize today, they address these concerns more penetratingly, perhaps, than do his overtly social novels. Tawil, who speculates about Cooper’s treatment of race in 1820s America, when the subject was almost taboo, notes as well that “frontier romances could do political work precisely because they claimed to be ‘private’ writing, entertainment, and diversion—hence something quite different than a political vehicle.” 29
The words myth and morals threaten, I suppose, to blur the sociohistorical focus I have promised. There is no way, however, to tease apart these elements of Cooper’s fiction. Nor, as Rans points out, is there any point in doing so. To focus on the tales’ topicality is not to deny moral and mythic dimensions but to engage them with one’s feet, as it were, on the ground. Cooper’s work has, of course, been approached from exclusive critical angles. The two seminal approaches—those taken by D. H. Lawrence and Robert E. Spiller—have often been at odds. Lawrence’s mythic reading of the Leather-Stocking tales in Classic Studies in American Literature (1923) treated the novels and Natty as timeless incarnations of American values and paradoxes. It fertilized criticism by Henry Nash Smith, R. W. B. Lewis, Richard Chase, John J. McAleer, Warren S. Walker, Leslie A. Fiedler, Richard Slotkin, H. Daniel Peck, Anna Krauthammer, and Anna Varkan, among others. 30 By contrast Spiller, in Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Time (1931), imposed a sociohistorical grid on the tales, preparing the way for discussions by Philip Fisher, Joel Porte, Donald Darnell, Kelly, Rans, Gardner, Tawil, Geoffrey Sanborn, and others. 31 A third set of critics, however, heralded by James Grossman ( James Fenimore Cooper: A Biographical and Critical Study , 1949) and including Roy Harvey Pearce, Marius Bewley, Donald A. Ringe, Richard H. Zoellner, Kay Seymour House, James K. Folsom, George Dekker, John McWilliams, Robert Emmet Long, Leland S. Person, and Dana D. Nelson, as well as Kaul, has sought to reconcile the two approaches by stressing their convergence in the realms of morals and ideas. 32 That convergence is not artificial; the two Coopers are one. So it is that Kaul can state, “The Leather-Stocking Tales derive their significance … from the constant interpenetration of history and myth”; that McWilliams can hold that “questions of national identity and political justice are treated within the seemingly apolitical settings of Cooper’s tales”; that Nelson can write, “Appreciating [the myth of Leather-Stocking] should not keep readers from understanding how Cooper also posed some immediate social and political questions about identity and social possibility in the new nation.” 33
Finally my study builds upon David Noble’s premise, in The Eternal Adam and the New World Garden , that Cooper’s fictions amounted to a counterargument to the optimistic national ideals formulated by historian George Bancroft. Bancroft, as Noble observes, articulated many of the Jacksonian era’s assumptions about the basic goodness of Americans. He presupposed, in a secularized update of the Puritans’ belief that the Massachusetts Calvinist settlers were a chosen people, that Americans were a breed apart from the old European order and consequently exempt from its fate. His history of the United States (volume 1 was published in 1834) popularized the idea that the American West was the great alembic, distilling an ever purer, less corrupt strain of humanity schooled by nature and nature’s god—an American strain whose history would be linear, not cyclical. Cooper’s view, as Allan M. Axelrad suggests, 34 was closer to Constantin Volney’s, a view given pictorial form by Cooper’s friend and illustrator, Thomas Cole: that there are no new historical paradigms under the sun; that every nation’s history is cyclical, growth yielding to demise, because man’s selfishness undermines the larger enterprise. Noble put it this way: Cooper “reveals the irony inherent in the Jacksonian’s faith that the birth of the American Adam can separate the New World from the Old.” 35
Subtexts and Contexts: A Word on Method
Early in The Pioneers , a novel that depicts a frontier town in the making, Cooper drily remarks the architectural style that prevails there—the “composite order.” That style was “an order composed of many others,” according to Hiram Doolittle, its practitioner. It “admitted into its construction such alterations as convenience or circumstance might require.” 36 In other words it was a practical if sometimes pretentious hodgepodge, a style cobbled together from available models to get the job done. The result, Judge Temple’s mansion, is comically grotesque: here classical, there baroque; here American, there European; here designed, there improvised, it features an outsized roof and Greek columns suspended from rather than supporting the portico. Form follows function—except when it follows fluke, miscalculation, hunch, or fancy.
Cooper’s literary style has about it something of the composite order. His method of writing often included using preexisting narratives as scaffolding or sounding boards, and he borrowed the plots, characterizations, and dramatic situations of classical and contemporary works as he found use for them. Many—some would say all—fiction writers rely to varying degrees, and with various degrees of self-awareness, on earlier texts to fashion their own. Hawthorne drew extensively on Edmund Spenser, Cotton Mather, and the Bible; Herman Melville, on Shakespeare, John Milton, and the Bible. Cooper’s borrowings perhaps ranged even farther. His level of involvement with the texts he was inspired by (or incensed at) varies, but at times it is profound and dialectic. The tendency to borrow can be seen in his first novel, Precaution , which derives from Jane Austen’s Persuasion . 37 Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels provided not only inspiration but also a dramatic strategy and an organizational framework—historical antagonists skirmishing across a borderland—for The Spy , Cooper’s tale of the conflict the Revolution generated between loyalists and rebels in New York State. Sometimes Cooper’s books were direct responses to the authors he read. The Pilot , for example, was his self-described attempt to write a novel about the sea that would exhibit the verisimilitude he thought lacking in Scott’s The Pirate . 38 In the Leather-Stocking series the traces of many works can be discerned, elements of one or another Shakespearean play abutting a captivity narrative or interlaced with the motifs of a neoclassical poem or contemporary fiction.
Not all such pilferings are significant. Sometimes they serve merely as guy wires holding a plot in place. He seems, for instance, to have used several elements of Scott’s The Lady of the Lake in framing The Deerslayer . Both narratives center on a lake around which indigenous warriors assemble for battle. Both feature a hunter who has lost his way in the woods and who, upon reaching the lake, encounters a beautiful maid and her father, an outlaw, living on an island fastness. In both works the maid, who is attracted to the hunter, has a jealous lover. Both tales have a time frame of six days. Both feature a disguise motif, deer and eagle imagery, romantic examples of female fortitude as well as male self-sacrifice, and a plot framed by a colonial struggle for the possession of the territory in which the protagonists range. The more general of these similarities might reasonably be ascribed to romance archetypes. But their extensiveness suggests that Cooper simply borrowed Scott’s outline. 39 Yet to compare the two works is to realize how superficial the borrowing is. Scott, primarily a romancer, aims at vivid description, fast-paced narration, exciting plots, and the resolution of stark social oppositions. Cooper places a greater premium on exploring moral and social issues. The similarities between The Deerslayer and The Lady of the Lake , though of incidental interest, are not central to the novel and need not, I think, be further attended to. Other borrowings, though, summon up contexts that bear on Cooper’s work and generate a conversation it is in readers’ benefit to overhear. In The Prairie and The Deerslayer , the conversation is more of a conference call in which several literary voices can be heard. I will identify some of them and speculate about their implications.
The more one sees how consistently Cooper draws on his voluminous reading not only for chapter mottoes, plots, and allusions but for characters and ideas, 40 the more one feels obliged to consider his relationship to these subtexts. I see no reason to call up the artillery of intertextuality criticism with its top-heavy vocabulary to conduct such a discussion. The literary dialogues I have in mind are of the sort Harold Bloom proposed and illustrated in The Anxiety of Influence , whereby an author arrives at his or her style or stance by reacting to extant literature. But they need not be simply homages or convenient struts. The subtexts I point to are more purposeful. In The Last of the Mohicans , for instance, epic subtexts magnify the drama, sometimes tolling an ironic note. For a writer whose real interest, as Kay Seymour House has said, lay in “the ideas that formed the thematic construction of the novel” rather than the action plot, 41 the layering of story upon story, new myth upon old, was a way to initiate comparisons, invoke literary and cultural contexts, and investigate philosophical or political problems.
My method, then, involves various types of comparative reading. The first is the kind I have been describing: viewing novels in relation to works they evoke. The second is viewing The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer in the context of Cooper’s oeuvre—particularly the works he wrote in the years immediately preceding that, along with the occasional letter, reveal his broad concerns. The third is the close reading of motifs and images from the novels. Finally I engage in the sort of reading that involves fixing one eye on the text and the other on the author’s times. 42 Those times were extraordinary, and their foibles and anxieties are among Cooper’s raw materials.
Concerning the close reading that is to figure in my approach, I situate my study with respect to a long-standing debate about Cooper that grew out of Charles Feidelson’s study Symbolism and American Literature . Feidelson suggested that what unified the best of mid-nineteenth-century American literature was a symbolist approach. He pointed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman as exemplars but not to Cooper. Marius Bewley faulted him for the omission; he thought it bespoke an extremism that disregarded symbols anchored, like William Wordsworth’s, in the objective world in favor of those that were largely self-referential, such as Melville’s whale. Bewley pointed to what he contended were symbolist elements in The Prairie and The Deerslayer , asserted that Natty himself was “not a ‘character’ in the nineteenth-century sense at all, but a symbol,” and ventured that although Cooper was not primarily a symbolist, to deny him a place in the tradition was to skew it and to underestimate him. 43 Other critics weighed in. James Franklin Beard seconded Bewley (“Too little [has been written] about [Cooper’s] incursions into the symbolic”). 44 H. Daniel Peck countered that there was a legitimate distinction to be made between Cooper’s “public and apparent” devices and the “ambiguous, multivalent, essentially mysterious” symbols Hawthorne and Melville developed. 45 Robert Emmet Long agreed. 46
Peck’s take is nuanced. There is a distinction to be drawn between Cooper’s symbolism and that of Hawthorne and Melville. Cooper rarely meditated aloud on his symbols, either in his authorial voice or through the device of a character, nor was he preoccupied with them as avenues to an alternate universe of meaning. That important distinction granted, however, even Peck’s reading, I believe, exaggerates the distinction. Cooper’s works are imbued with symbolist elements. They tend to grow organically out of the action and setting, though, and are rarely permitted to overshadow either. Now is not the time to overhaul the subject; yet because this study treats what I take to be symbolic elements in his fictions, I would like to clarify the point before proceeding. Satanstoe , a tale I do not otherwise discuss, offers a convenient illustration.
Set in the Hudson Valley during 1757 and 1758, it is the first novel of the Littlepage trilogy, whose subject, made explicit in the final volume, The Redskins , is the decline of the landed aristocracy in New York State and its dispossession by a newly empowered citizenry. Cooper wrote the trilogy largely as propaganda and said as much in the preface to Satanstoe: The Redskins dramatizes and decries the Antirent strife that was consuming the state. Satanstoe , however, displays none of this tendentiousness. A richly textured portrait of an era when colonial New York’s landed gentry was still thriving, it becomes the idyllic ground against which the democratic tendencies represented in The Chainbearer and The Redskins are to be ruefully imagined. One dramatic sequence, however, resonates beyond the adventure plot, symbolizing the trilogy’s long-range concerns. In this sequence Corny Littlepage and his bride-to-be are sledding home one evening late in winter on the frozen Hudson River. Before they arrive home, the ice begins breaking up. Cooper treats the scene as high adventure, a chance for his protagonist to demonstrate his courage and enterprise and to save his intended bride’s life. But the episode also prefigures the convulsive breakup of the colonial order, an event that lies just beyond the tale’s French and Indian War horizon and that is previewed by its one historical sequence, the British defeat at Fort Ticonderoga. It prefigures too the moment when the Dutch-cum-English estate system, whose apparently frictionless social order the characters sport on during the Albany sequence, must thaw, shudder, and disintegrate. That, of course, does not happen until the agitation of the 1840s. It is intimated, though. Cooper does not spell out any of this, but he does not have to: it is implicit in the narrative framework, depending on little more than the reader’s knowledge of history and the allusion to the Antirent controversy that Cooper makes in his preface. The season will turn; the ice will melt; the waters will carry away the remnants of the old order and threaten those who cling to it too long.
Cooper’s symbol, in other words, is more than a simple figure. Part of the truth it tells, furthermore, runs counter to the didactic tale the author has resolved to narrate, the tale that would chide the increasingly democratic Republic for deposing the landed gentry. The symbol suggests, by contrast, that this deposition is natural and inevitable. Which is to say that Cooper’s symbol—to return to Peck’s criteria— is multivalent and ambiguous, if not particularly mysterious. Whether Cooper created it consciously or unconsciously matters little. He repeated the trick often enough that it must be reckoned with in reading his novels, beginning with The Spy , whose Revolutionary War hero, the double agent Harvey Birch, is depicted at the close navigating a skiff between whirlpools—a fitting symbol of the newly launched Republic. (In The Red Rover, The Monikins , and The Sea Lions , vessels do symbolic duty as ships of state, but during the Revolution such a figure would have been premature; a skiff conveys the matter deftly.) Cooper’s formal devices are underappreciated. Few will claim that any of his novels is as carefully constructed or essentially symbolic as The Scarlet Letter . But neither are they as slapdash or naive as their circumstantial improbabilities sometimes make them seem or as their often-hasty composition implies they must be. 47 Cooper, whose memory was apparently as trustworthy as his constitution (as a young man he was known for disdaining to wear a coat in subzero temperatures), kept track of the incidental motifs he developed; they recur across novels written many years apart. He revised some novels— The Prairie , for instance—significantly. 48 And even a hasty reader soon becomes aware that he employed complementary plots, character antinomies, and dramatic ironies. 49 To scrutinize his tales from a formalist viewpoint is only to give them their due.
My approach to Cooper, then, will not be restricted to the vantage point of any one school of criticism. I will read the tales as “composite” novels of ideas, with an emphasis on those ideas that bear on the America whose founding principles and contemporary practices Cooper compulsively depicted and debated.
Cooper at Mid-Career
When Cooper announced at age forty-five that he intended to give up writing novels, he was responding emotionally to a fickle readership that, after lauding him as America’s literary lion, had damned him as its disaffected critic. The irony of the charge is that from the start his novels had criticized as well as romanticized America and its history. The Spy , set in a no-man’s-land over which ragtag opportunists from both sides of the political fence roam in search of personal advantage, is anything but a jingoistic account of the American Revolution. The Pioneers is powerful precisely because its conflicts between border man and settler, as well as its tensions between Indian and white, young men and old, gentry and roughs, are neither simple nor stacked. The book, despite the comic tone and the fond reminiscences of frontier life that endear it, bristles with warnings. The Last of the Mohicans eulogizes the disappearance of the Indians at a moment when the groundwork for their removal was being prepared. 50 The Prairie , sounding notes as angry as those of the Old Testament prophets, seems at times to deplore the national dream of settling the American West to which it gives nominal approval. These early novels investigate such social issues as the legitimacy of various claims to the land, the morality of killing in wartime, the respective merits of natural versus civil law, the communal abuse of nature’s resources, the dangers versus the advantages of a republican government, the viability of a Christian ethos on a frontier, the white man’s relationship to other ethnicities, and the paradoxes of America’s religious/political mythology. By the time readers finish the trilogy, however, they feel as if Cooper had had his say on his themes.
When Cooper resurrected Natty Bumppo, he seemed to open the record anew on several of these concerns. The good-Indian-bad-Indian dichotomies of The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie are emulsified in The Deerslayer , where even a would-be child murderer is, readers are told, “of that fearful mixture of good and evil, that so generally enters into the moral composition of man.” 51 The ties that bind Leather-Stocking to civil society so tenuously in the first three tales are scrutinized anew in The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer , novels in which Natty encounters prospective spouses. Racial dilemmas and attitudes indirectly broached in The Last of the Mohicans and subtly deconstructed in The Prairie are abstracted in The Pathfinder and debated openly in The Deerslayer . The issue of land ownership that is tied up with the romancer’s bow in The Pioneers , then reopened in The Last of the Mohicans and probed in The Prairie , is tacitly revisited in The Deerslayer . The Enlightenment theme of the supremacy of reason over emotion that is sounded repeatedly in The Prairie yields to the Romantic theme sounded in the epigraph to The Pathfinder: “Here the heart/May give a useful lesson to the head.” The qualms concerning killing a fellow creature that Hawk-eye alludes to only briefly in The Last of the Mohicans are dramatized and held up to the light of the Gospel and natural law in The Deerslayer . And natural law, whose subjectivity is dramatized in The Prairie , is reappraised ironically in The Deerslayer .
What is remarkable about the presence of such themes in The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer is their urgency and the depth of treatment they receive. This deeper engagement is made possible by Cooper’s decision to bring Leather-Stocking front and center in the later tales and by the greater complexity he imparts to the character. The resurrected Leather-Stocking is a more plastic conception in both fictions. The young Natty setting out on his first warpath in The Deerslayer is obviously a work in progress. But so is Pathfinder. Although he is two years older than Hawk-eye, he gives the impression of being younger because of his irresoluteness and fecklessness during the courtship and lake sequences. In these romances Leather-Stocking processes experience and changes under readers’ eyes. The resurrected Natty is more human and humane than Hawk-eye, less mythic than the Trapper. He stumbles and flounders, gives ground and grieves. Cooper turns his irony on his protagonist repeatedly in these later books, presenting Leather-Stocking in uneasy covalence with various alter egos, for instance, and playing his actions off against his words. The result is a more thorough and dialectical exploration of national paradoxes—for at this point in Cooper’s career there is little question that he identified Leather-Stocking’s character in basic ways with America’s. Cooper wastes no time summoning up “the origins of the nation” in The Deerslayer ’s opening paragraph, and not, I think, simply to inflate his tale. Rather the dilemmas that attend Deerslayer’s fraught attempts to cleave to principle in a world dominated by praxis are American dilemmas.
More specifically they are Jacksonian dilemmas. A full-blown social history of the period is beyond my scope, but a thumbnail sketch shows the period was rife with dilemmas—a result, largely, of the unprecedented change America was undergoing. Early-nineteenth-century American life was a lazy river turned in little more than a decade to whitewater, as the rural, agrarian socioeconomic model that had persisted for generations began to be displaced by a technology-driven, industrial, urban one. In 1800, 6 percent of the nation’s population lived in cities; in 1830, 10 percent; in 1860, 20 percent. 52 The number of people with nonagricultural jobs increased from 15 percent to 36 percent between the 1820s and 1840s. 53 The new economic model was facilitated by inventions—the steamboat, the railroad, the telegraph—and driven by land acquisitions. The country’s area doubled with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and, fifteen years later, the accession of the Floridas; Texas was low-hanging fruit by 1836, when Jackson left office, and James K. Polk and John Tyler grabbed it in 1845, using an end run from Jackson’s playbook. 54 Agriculture persisted, but within a framework in which cotton was king. The Old Dominion’s tobacco lands played out, Virginia planters headed west and south to Kentucky, Tennessee, the western Carolinas, Alabama, and Mississippi, where the invention of the cotton gin and its application to upland, or short-staple, cotton had given the plantation system (and slavery) a resurgent life. These changes, the work of a generation, were wrenching. “The old universe was thrown into the ash heap,” wrote Henry Adams, recalling key modernizations of the mid-1840s, “and a new one created.” 55 This “mechanized, fragmented world,” 56 as historian Douglas Miller sums it up, produced wealth, progress, and self-made men—but also alienation, anomie, and anxiety, as families such as Cooper’s saw their fortunes soar and fall, and the railroad, as Henry David Thoreau quipped, rode man.
The War of 1812, during which Britain embargoed ships bound for America, sounded reveille to the young Republic, mobilizing men and a military sector and forcing America to manufacture the things it needed (Francis Cabot Lowell’s textile factory system was begun in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1813); to develop a basic infrastructure of roads and canals that would allow men and materials to get places quickly and domestic trade to expand beyond local markets; and to make use of the technology—the steam engine, for instance—it had invented but neglected to incorporate, even as new inventions came along. The push the three-year war gave to national development worked, as the new navy and mill towns testified. And it prompted political change. As new people poured into the West and Southwest after the Peace of Ghent (1814), the franchise, which had belonged to the propertied classes, was increasingly extended to all adult white males. (Suffrage was one of the lures states, such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Missouri, that entered the Union after the war used to compete for settlers; in response, older states such as New York and Massachusetts, hoping to hold on to population, liberalized their franchise laws as well. By 1824 only Rhode Island, Virginia, and South Carolina restricted the vote to property holders. 57 ) But as the economy and society mobilized, family and social ties frayed; moral and legal codes were left behind; Native Americans were forcibly displaced; old political parties and alliances imploded. Protective tariffs and a Second Bank of the United States were summoned into being to consolidate and advance fledgling industry born of the war, as well as the Northeast’s reinvigorated postwar commerce. But these policies alienated Southern states, where prices of goods rose. Their rural folk, distrusting the Northeast’s ascendant monied interests, voted for Jackson and cheered his attacks on the bank. The Federalist Party, which had opposed the war with Britain, expired, for all practical purposes, shortly after war’s end; the Whig Party grew from its ashes to represent New York and New England’s ascendant industrial, commercial, and banking sectors, though it also found well-heeled adherents in the planter aristocracy of the Deep South—those who did not prefer the Democratic Party’s proslavery politics to the Whigs’ corporate clout. The gloves were off as these parties coalesced in the 1830s. If the term the Era of Good Feelings , as the time bracketed by the James Monroe presidency was called, had any truth value, it perhaps derives retrospectively from what it yielded to—a party politics marked by ad hominem newspaper attacks and street fights that sometimes turned into riots. 58
A developing economy, an expanding country, and a population on the move afforded fresh ways to make a fortune—or lose it. As new forms of transportation gave access to larger, more remote markets, the need for middlemen arose. The middleman siphoned off some of the artisan’s profits, breaking the back of the colonial apprenticeship system. Skilled journeymen, paid less, lost upward mobility and filled the ranks of the Jacksonian Democrats, even as modern manufacturing methods preempted some artisans’ trades. Western lands, meanwhile, could be bought from the government with little money down and sold for enormous profits. Sometimes the lands were resold fraudulently; 59 sometimes the sales were paid for in currencies issued by banks that were insufficiently funded to back up their specie. Speculation and irresponsible banking practices contributed to devastating panics in 1819, 1837, and 1839. A simultaneously burgeoning cotton industry in the Southwest called for an ever-greater supply of slaves. Because the government had ended the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, a lucrative domestic slave trade expanded to take its place, as owners of played-out lands on the Eastern Seaboard sold slaves to plantations in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. During the decade following 1818, the Chesapeake region alone exported 124,000 slaves across the Appalachians. 60 Smugglers and kidnappers claimed a piece of the traffic. An institution that had been viewed with increasing embarrassment as the eighteenth century closed and had been widely expected to atrophy over time instead became the linchpin of the South’s economy—and, at one remove, of the North’s.
Slavery and the slave economy came into sharper focus during the Missouri Crisis, a sectional showdown occasioned by Missouri’s bid for statehood that revealed America’s deepest social fissure. Congressmen from the mid-Atlantic states sought to ban slaveholding in the prospective state but were obliged in the face of Southern opposition to compromise, allowing Missouri and Maine into the Union as slave and free states, respectively. The rough balance of North-South congressional apportionment was at stake, as well as associated sectional and commercial interests, as federalists and states’ rights acolytes, idealists and pragmatists, squared off. Beneath the maneuvering were the North’s concerns that unregulated slavery would continue to buoy the South’s political dominance and the South’s concerns that if the government were allowed to regulate slavery, it might one day do away with it. And beneath those concerns was the South’s fear of slave insurrection, as well as a tendency to interpret antislavery sentiment as agitation. That fear was stoked by the abortive Vesey slave revolt in Charlestown, South Carolina (1822), and the Turner revolt near Southampton County, Virginia (1831). Compromise solutions envisioning manumission in return for compensation (paid for by sale of state lands) and proposing the relocation of manumitted slaves to Africa failed. As Southern fears edged toward hysteria, racial apologists stopped apologizing for the institution and launched a public relations offensive, citing precedents for slave societies in history and the Bible and touting the special character of the master-slave relationship. Racial theorists made blacks out to be inferior to whites and in need of the planter’s paternal supervision. 61 When Jackson won the presidency in 1828, the rift in the Republic was becoming a chasm. By the time he left office two terms later, Congress had passed a rule forbidding discussion of slavery in its chambers. This “gag rule” remained in effect for nearly a decade.
The Lowell factory system in Massachusetts, an experiment in socially conscientious capitalism and consolidated manufacturing that was constructed in the aftermath of the War of 1812 and opened in 1823, was a microcosm of the change that characterized the age. It aimed to join rural Jeffersonian and Yankee commercial values. Teenage girls and young women—but not children 62 —left home to work seventy-five-hour weeks in its idyllic venue, their lives superintended by paternalistic managers and shaped by education and religious services. Cotton production increased 500 percent over the decade. The machines were dangerous, however; steam engines exploded; workers lost limbs. By the mid-1830s conditions had become squalid; Lowell’s technocratic utopia on the Merrimack was turning into the “Tartarus of maids” Melville would pillory in the short story by that name. Southern firebrands accused the North of institutionalizing a wage slavery crueler than the plantation variety. Two thousand workers at Lowell struck in 1834. The strike was broken; wages were cut and workers blacklisted. The enterprise proved to be a magnet for Irish and French Canadian immigrants, six hundred thousand of whom arrived in that decade alone, making society more pluralistic—and xenophobic. 63 The immigrants competed for jobs, worked for low wages, were difficult to organize, and were resented as such, as well as for the Roman Catholic faith many espoused.
Another such microcosm was America’s dealings with the Creek and Cherokee during the period up to and including the Indian Removal—dealings in which Andrew Jackson played a major and provocative part. The duplicitous nature of those dealings was on display well before the Trail of Tears (1838–39). Washington and Thomas Jefferson had envisioned the native inhabitants’ becoming citizens and either maintaining tribal communities or assimilating. Many of the Cherokee and Creek, two of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, adopted white ways in their communities. But Georgians coveted their land. In 1802 the Jefferson administration struck a deal with the state (then three times its present size) whereby Georgia agreed to yield the land that would become Alabama and Mississippi in return for the federal government’s promise to encourage the Creek and Cherokee to relocate voluntarily beyond the Mississippi River. Jackson, who beat back an insurgency by a Creek faction during the War of 1812, forced the tribes to accept the Treaty of Fort Jackson (1814), which took away not only the land of the insurgent group but that belonging to many nonbelligerent Creek and Cherokee. Some lands, however, remained in the tribes’ possession. Toward the end of Monroe’s administration, as white settlers poured into the Southwest, Georgians became impatient for the Creeks’ departure. Federal and state governments colluded to bribe their chief to sign a treaty surrendering the lands. When word got out, the Creeks rejected the treaty and killed the corrupt chief. The state, egged on by Jackson, began implementing it anyway. Some whites opposed the land grab: President John Quincy Adams, indeed, nullified the tainted treaty. (It was replaced by another, which the Creeks, sensing the state’s mood, signed.) Georgians, irate at Adams, gave Jackson their long-term support. 64
The slavery dilemma; spiking fortunes and an economy prone to shocks; popular animosity toward the banking sector; a divide between North and South, labor and capital; frayed social ties as sons left the family homestead for the West or the city; ethnic and religious strife; the compromised ethics of expansionism and speculation; technological progress that frightened as much as it thrilled; the increasing pace at which change was taking place—all this friction and upheaval made for a troubled citizenry. “Insecurity and anxiety became hallmarks of the American character,” wrote Miller. 65 Chancellor James Kent, addressing New York’s 1821 constitutional convention, said, “We stand … at the very edge of a precipice.… We are no longer to remain plain and simple republics of farmers.… We are fast becoming a great nation, with great commerce, manufactures, population, wealth, luxuries, and with the vices and miseries that they engender.” 66 The unfamiliar, too, unnerved people, as the Mormons and other scapegoated sects learned. Even the independence of mind associated with America since the Revolution seemed to have reversed itself by the 1830s. Alexis de Tocqueville and Ralph Waldo Emerson joined Cooper in attesting to a self-doubtful citizenry whose members shrank from voicing an opinion without asking what the neighbors thought.
Insecurity and anxiety are otherwise testified to by the revivalism that swept rural America from upstate New York to the Carolinas to Mississippi. Beginning in the closing years of the 1790s, it crested in the 1830s and 1840s, as Charles Grandison Finney, Lyman Beecher, and other evangelists traversed the countryside, seeking converts to Protestantism by staging revivals—some lasting several days. An attempt by the Eastern churches to keep the westering folks in the fold, to address the problems caused by drinking and other frontier pastimes, and to fend off what some Protestant churches felt was the threat of papism, 67 the Second Great Awakening was essentially a rural marketing strategy. The revivals of the nineteenth century, like those of the eighteenth, sought to fire the emotions, then provide emotional rescue by giving access to a church with fewer barriers to admission than before. Some attendees went for the social opportunities such gatherings provided. But William McLoughlin, in words that recall Marvin Meyers’s assertion about the appeal of “the Jacksonian persuasion,” 68 suggests that people participated largely because they were anxious about their times. He numbers among their anxieties conspiracy fears (of Freemasons, Catholics), sectional cleavage, and “a rising egalitarianism in sharp conflict with the old, hierarchical structure of society.” 69 Sacvan Bercovitch, focusing on the effect of the revivals, remarks the way evangelists entwined religion and patriotism into a civil religion, millennial hopes fusing with the secular gospel of American enterprise and national destiny, even as New England’s Puritans had envisioned their City on a Hill as the forerunner of the New Jerusalem. 70
Cooper’s last two Leather-Stocking novels reflect his culture’s insecurities and conflicts. In them he gropes for a way back to a principled Republic but without endorsing the reactionary agenda that goal would seem to imply. He tries, in The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer , to envision a path forward, to acknowledge the changes—political, social, existential—afoot in his era and accept the challenges they pose. In his most radical fictional gambit, he posits an unsophisticated rather than a genteel hero whose uncorrupted moral compass and natural instincts he tests against a modern world of shifting alliances and contradictory codes. But the dilemmas and anxieties of that world, met at great cost in The Pathfinder and thrust aside in the interests of survival in The Deerslayer , challenge even Leather-Stocking’s hybrid virtue in ways worth examining.
The Pioneers
Leather-Stocking in the Rough
The Spirit of God breathes through the combined intelligence of the people.

George Bancroft, “The People in Art, Government and Religion” (1835)
Billy Kirby: Why, I don’t know, Judge. It seems to me, if there’s plenty of anything in this mountaynous country, it’s the trees.

James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers
The Pioneers, or, The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale (1823) is set on the New York frontier in the early days of the Republic and enriched by Cooper’s childhood memories of Cooperstown, the settlement his father founded on the shores of Lake Otsego in 1786. The most novelistic of the Leather-Stocking romances, it features a closely rendered setting, a dry humor, and a range of dramatically realized characters and social types. It is also something of a prose pastoral: the changing seasons form not only the backdrop to, but the impetus for, much of the action. That The Pioneers should reflect mixed impulses is not surprising. Cooper is close to home in this romance, and his treatment is fueled by a romancer’s nostalgia as well as a novelist’s desire to see the past afresh. Its subject matter is striking: as Leon Howard observes, pioneer life, at the time Cooper began writing, was considered a crude, if not vulgar, topic. 1 More surprising is the range of sources the tale draws upon—from the fiction and poetry of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to Shakespeare to the Bible—and particularly the extent to which it makes use of a Bible-based typology that derived from New England and that, when Cooper published the novel, was still in the process of becoming nationalized. More surprising yet is the acuity and nuance Cooper displays in examining social issues at the heart of the young Republic. Most surprising, though, is the way the garrulous old squatter Leather-Stocking steals the show, emerging, despite his marginality and eccentricities, as a compelling antagonist, a prophet of natural morality and law who whistles up his hound with the Homeric name in one breath and denounces the settlers’ “wasty ways” in the next.
The novel opens on Christmas Eve, 1793. Judge Marmaduke Temple, the founder and proprietor of a frontier settlement on Lake Otsego that bears his name, is bringing home his daughter, Elizabeth, who has been studying in New York City. As their sleigh crosses the mountain that overlooks the town, the Judge hears dogs baying, stops the sleigh, and grabs his rifle. When a buck darts from the woods, shots ring out almost simultaneously. A ballistics examination shows the Judge not only missed the buck but shot the youth whose bullet brought it down. The wounded Edwards, as he calls himself, is tended to at the Judge’s home, and a romantic attachment develops between him and Elizabeth. But the romance is hostage to the mystery of his identity, origin, and attitude, for though he speaks well, he lives with Leather-Stocking and remains hostile to the Judge even after entering his employment. Edwards is revealed at last to be Edward Oliver Effingham, the son of Col. Edward Effingham and grandson of Maj. Oliver Effingham. Twenty years earlier the major had made over his large estate—gifted to him by the Delaware tribe—to his son, who had invested it as a silent partner with Temple in a merchandising firm. The venture being interrupted by the Revolution, Effingham had removed from Philadelphia and entered the royalist ranks. Temple, in whose hands the business was left, had kept his partner’s effects and later, after Effingham’s lands had been confiscated by the colonial army, bought them back. Temple had tried, unsuccessfully, to reestablish contact after the war, but Effingham was reported to have drowned crossing the Atlantic. Young Edward Effingham, then—whom Temple assumed to have drowned with his father and who thinks Temple defrauded his father—is, by rights, heir to a wealthy estate. What is more, his grandfather, the major, for whom Leather-Stocking scouted during the French and Indian War, is still alive, although frail and senile. Leather-Stocking and Edwards have been quietly caring for him at their cabin. Once these mysteries of identity and intent are clarified, the Judge settles half his estate on the youth, who weds Elizabeth. When old Effingham dies, Leather-Stocking, his closest ties to the area broken, removes to the wilderness.
Such is the plot. But Cooper was in no hurry to unravel it. His priority was to depict society and analyze social issues on the New York frontier: to provide, as he wrote in an introduction, “delineations of principles, and of characters in their classes.” 2 The depiction involves a generous amount of portrait and genre painting, and the analysis involves melodramatic subplots. He portrays a range of characters, from the household help at Temple’s home to the townspeople to various Christmas visitors. He renders the townsfolk worshiping at the meetinghouse, vying in a Christmas turkey shoot, seine-fishing Lake Otsego, and so on. He shows Elizabeth and her friend Louisa Grant menaced by a panther, then saved by Leather-Stocking’s timely shot; Leather-Stocking jailed by the Judge for manhandling an intrusive magistrate and fined for killing a deer out of season; Leather-Stocking breaking jail and rescuing Elizabeth and Edwards when they become trapped by a forest fire.
Beyond the genre painting and melodrama, though, historical themes and social tensions are at play. Before depicting the Judge and Elizabeth sleighing toward Templeton, Cooper establishes his setting: “Near the centre of the State of New-York lies an extensive district of country, whose surface is a succession of hills and dales, or, to speak with greater deference to geographical definitions, of mountains and valleys. It is among these hills that the Delaware takes its rise; and flowing from the limpid lakes and thousand springs of this region, the numerous sources of the Susquehanna meander through the valleys until, uniting their streams, they form one of the proudest rivers of the United States” (15). The novel’s subtitle is “The Sources of the Susquehanna,” so the story, quite naturally, begins by alluding to the river. But Cooper, besides setting a scene, is setting up a figure. As the individual tributaries of a river system unite their streams in one river, so have the American colonies-cum-states merged in one United States, where, “under the dominion of mild laws, … every man feels a direct interest in the prosperity of a commonwealth of which he knows himself to form a part.” As the Delaware “flow[s]” from the waters of its springs, so in the settlements canonical government “flows” from many creeds exercising liberty of conscience (15). Cooper drills down further. “Half the nations in the north of Europe,” he notes in regard to Templeton’s Christmas Eve worshipers, “had their representatives in this assembly” (124). The motley settlement at the headwaters of the Susquehanna, then, is representative of the many others that, together, form the Republic. But converging waters tend to be turbulent. The novel’s drama derives from the frothy republicanism it portrays, as various classes, interests, sects, cultures, political persuasions, and peoples come together, jostle for position, and vie for power.
Some of these tensions are comical. Richard Jones, whom the town has appointed to design a meetinghouse, schemes to design it along Episcopalian lines. But Hiram Doolittle, who has been appointed its architect and who is not Episcopalian, maneuvers quietly to thwart him. Betty Hollister, a tavern keeper and a Methodist, opposes him outright. The project grows more contentious when the nationalistic Monsieur Le Quoi ventures that, beautiful as the building is, its model, Saint Paul’s of London, “is no vort so much as Notre Dame.” The major domo Ben Pump, a Brit, leaps into the fray, flourishing a brawny arm: “Ha! Mounsheer, what is that you say? St. Paul’s Church not worth so much as a damn!” (120). So one of the town’s first communal efforts issues in denominational and ethnic wrangling.
Other tensions are more serious. Chief among them is the disagreement over whether the Judge legitimately owns the confiscated land he bought and developed into Templeton. Natty, John Mohegan, and Edwards reject his claim, though they bide their time rather than confront him. Each has a substantive claim. 3 John is the sole remaining descendant of the Delawares, who for centuries had roamed the region as part of their hunting grounds. Natty had exercised squatter’s rights on Mount Vision for decades before Temple bought and developed the property. Edwards is the grandson of Major Effingham, to whom the Delaware gave the land as a gesture of gratitude for his saving Mohegan’s life. Major Effingham himself, meanwhile, though no longer in his right mind, is still alive. The land ownership question is not academic. Broadly considered, it goes to the root of America’s history as a colony-cum-republic.
Cooper treats the theme obliquely in the tale’s opening sequence. Three men—Temple, Natty, and Edwards—shoot at a buck. The Judge misses and knows he has missed: “I hardly think I struck him,” he says to Natty (21). Not above maneuvering to gain possession of the trophy, though, he brings his status as de jure landowner and his powers of persuasion to bear. Seeing two bullet holes in the buck, he argues that one of the holes might be his. Natty, whose shot hit the deer but did not kill it, places the dispute in a wider context: “Although I am a poor man,” he says, “I can live without the venison, but I don’t like to give up my lawful dues in a free country” (21). When the Judge, discovering that he has shot Edwards, tries to make up, in part, for the injury by giving the youth the right to hunt on his land—a right he has previously given to Natty alone—Natty again speaks to the larger issue: “There’s them living who say, that Nathaniel Bumppo’s right to shoot on these hills, is of older date than Marmaduke Temple’s right to forbid him” (25). The novel’s key conflict is prefigured in the exchange. As Richard Gravil notes, with an eye on the more consequential land dispute, “The question for the reader is not whether the Temples or Effinghams are the legitimate owners, but whether a world of title deeds can justly supplant a world of natural rights.” 4
Leather-Stocking frames the ownership question in terms not only of natural rights but also of Christian duty. At one point in their discussion, he waxes sentimental for the time when he and his dog scarcely needed to leave the cabin to shoot a buck. The apparent digression ends with a remark that indirectly rebukes the Judge for ingratitude: “That dog is more to be trusted,” says Natty, “than many a Christian man; for he never forgets a friend and loves the hand that gives him bread” (22). Natty had sheltered and fed Temple when Temple first came to survey the area. The question of land ownership, then, goes beyond the legal-philosophical issue of natural rights versus property rights to the moral issue of what is right—and to its historical disposition. Cooper does not rub readers’ noses in this dimension at the outset, but he summons it up before the tale is far advanced. Chapter 7 begins: “Before the Europeans, or, to use a more significant term, the Christians, dispossessed the original owners of the soil …” (83).
The sequence presents another tension brought about by the Judge’s settlement and fundamental to the novel: how nature’s bounty is to be used. The woodsmen hunt game for food and clothing. The Judge, by contrast, does not need the buck; his pantry is full, as the sumptuous Christmas dinner set out by his servants for him and his guests (it includes turkey, squirrel, fish, mutton, and bear) makes clear. Although he prefaces his shot by vowing to give his daughter a saddle of venison for her Christmas dinner, the remark is disingenuous: there is already venison steak on the board back at the house. He shoots rather for the sportsman’s honor of acquiring a buck’s tail for his cap and for boasting rights: “Think, Natty,” he says, “how I should triumph over that quizzing dog, Dick Jones, who has failed seven times already this season and has only brought in one wood-chuck and a few gray squirrels” (22). What is more, the Judge uses a smooth-bore rifle that scatters its shot indiscriminately—hence Edwards’s wound. Temple’s shot prefigures the moment later in the tale when the townsfolk train a cannon full of birdshot at a dense flock of pigeons. Natty reprimands him in these terms: “If there is a law at all, it should be to keep people from the use of smooth-bores. A body never knows where his lead will fly, when he pulls the trigger of one of them uncertain fire-arms” (25). But he also points to the big picture and supplies an ironic caption: “Ah! The game is becoming hard to find indeed, Judge, with your clearings and betterments” (22).
The Pioneers presents a sort of triptych. One side panel features Richard and the prodigal townspeople; the other, Natty and Mohegan. The middle panel features the Judge, who propounds a golden mean between ruthless progress and romantic primitivism. Intelligent, far-sighted, and moderate in his views—he applauds New York State’s newly declared seasonal limits on hunting and fishing, for instance, and hopes to see similar restrictions on timber harvesting put in place—he seems, at first blush, a circumspect leader. But almost immediately Temple’s wisdom and integrity become questionable. In fact the most compelling mystery in the novel, obscured by that of Edwards’s identity, is that involving the Judge’s character. Cooper, in his introductory portrait, refers to Temple’s cap of marten skins as a “masque” concealing part of his features (18). There is a sense in which the Judge wears his mask. On the one hand, he is a principled, humane man—“a good man, … and a kind one,” as the tavern keeper Betty Hollister affirms (153–54)—with a strong sense of social responsibility as well as enterprise. His determination and effort, readers learn, saved the nascent settlement during a harsh winter. On the other, the Judge—who later says, without a trace of irony, “I hope to live to see the day when a man’s rights in his game shall be as much respected as his title to his farm” (160)—tries to hornswoggle an old hunter out of a buck. Or consider the Judge’s conservationism. No doubt he is sincere in reprimanding Richard, who has ordered the hearth fire in the Judge’s home to be fueled with sugar maple wood: “‘How often have I forbidden the use of the sugar-maple, in my dwelling! The sight of that sap, as it exudes with the heat, is painful to me, Richard. Really, it behooves the owner of woods so extensive as mine to be cautious what example he sets his people, who are already felling the forests, as if no end could be found to their treasures, nor any limits to their extent. If we go on in this way, twenty years hence, we shall want fuel’” (105). But the following day he makes cousin Richard, who has shown himself a heedless steward (and a reckless fool, whose inept handling of the horses jeopardizes the lives of several passengers in his sleigh), sheriff of the township. 5 And when the town turns out to seine-fish the lake, dragging up thousands of fish to die on the beach, the Judge jumps to lend a hand: “‘Pull heartily, boys,’ cried Marmaduke, yielding to the excitement of the moment and laying his hands to the net.” Only after joining the fun does he stop to moralize: “This is a fearful expenditure of the choicest gifts of Providence” (259). Such lapses may simply mean he is human—that his impulses sometimes overcome his reason. Or they may suggest more serious flaws: that the Judge lacks judgment; that his principles are hollow.
What, for instance, were Temple’s motives in buying the lands confiscated from Effingham by the colonials? Did he seek to reclaim his partner’s lands as a favor, or did he see an opportunity to come by an estate cheaply under the cover of war? Cooper, in narrating this part of Marmaduke’s history, speaks of the stain on the Quaker’s character that the transaction occasioned among the Brethren, who denounced his purchase of lands seized by force. Cooper notes too that during the Revolution, Temple “discharged his functions with credit and fidelity” but at the same time “never seemed to lose sight of his own interests” (36). That almost seamless wedding of principle to principal is the crux of the Judge’s character. And the stain never quite bleaches out, not even when readers learn at the conclusion that he has taken pains to contact Colonel Effingham; has refrained from speaking up about the dispossession so as not to spoil his chances of receiving compensation from the Crown; and has held the wealth in trust for years.
Critics have largely vindicated the Judge. Donald Ringe, for example, terms him “the first of Cooper’s long series of Christian gentlemen on whom he placed his faith for the establishment and maintenance of the good life.” 6 Robert Spiller finds him “an idealized prototype” whom Cooper “admires.” 7 James Grossman says, “This is the one point in The Pioneers in which Cooper is a little dull; more like a good son than a good novelist, he has taken the Judge’s professions of honesty solemnly.” 8 But Cooper is every bit the good novelist here. The opening scene gives additional grounds to doubt the Judge’s honesty, grounds that are not expunged by his later magnanimity toward Edwards. In arguing over the buck, the Judge employs legalistic niceties to flummox Natty (“The shot to the heart was unnecessary, Leather-Stocking—what we call an act of supererogation” [23]). More disturbing, on seeing Natty approach the fallen buck, he greets him in these words: “Ha! Natty, had I known you were in ambush, I should not have fired” (21). Only a moment before, he has stopped his sleigh, saying, “There is old Hector; I should know his bay among ten thousand. The Leather-stocking has put his hounds into the hills this clear day, and they have started their game” (19). The Judge knows Natty is out hunting—that is, waiting in ambush somewhere nearby for his dogs to drive the game into the open, where he can shoot it—but he pretends otherwise.
Once the strands of plot are unraveled and the Judge’s character is buffed retrospectively, readers may feel almost mean for having doubted him. But to scrutinize Temple is to doubt him. Readers need not reject the generally good character Betty Hollister gives him but are obliged to see that he is also a calculating man who knows how to, and is willing to, exploit circumstances and skew the truth to gain an advantage. 9 Cooper refuses to resolve the ambiguity. A final example of the Judge’s opacity speaks to another underlying tension in the Republic. A Quaker, Temple nevertheless owns a slave. 10 But not quite. “Owing to the religious scruples of the Judge, Aggy was the servant of Richard, who had his services for a time ” (54). Temple, the slave’s real master, circumvents the Quaker proscription against slaveholding through this ploy. The Judge, readers have every reason to infer, is a generous master. Richard, on the other hand—his appointed surrogate—“did all the flogging” (56). Nor is this nicety a trifle. The presence of a black slave, Ezra Tawil notes, enlarges on the historical issues of race and ownership that the novel elsewhere treats via the Indians. 11 (Two other critics have addressed the incidental portrait the novel draws of black slavery in the new Republic, pointing to the characters Agamemnon and Remarkable Pettibone. 12 ) It is a theme the Tales explore repeatedly. Artfully drawn, Judge Temple—a literary cousin to Charles Brockden Brown’s eponymous moral palindrome, Arthur Mervyn—remains lenticular, his virtue changing shape and hue as readers cock their heads from side to side. 13
Temple’s ambiguities reflect those of the larger enterprise of settlement he was engaged in. He is, indeed, the face of republican America settling the frontier with a mix of scruple and subtlety, foresight and improvisation, selflessness and selfishness, law and license. One thinks of the sixth plaster bust in the Judge’s home. Occupying its pedestal beside Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, and Washington, it is “non-descript”: according to Richard Jones, “it was Julius Caesar or Dr. Faustus; there were good reasons for believing either” (64).
Judge Temple is not, of course, the only face of frontier America in the novel: the population of Templeton is part of the composite portrait. Cooper introduces first its newest member, Edwards, and then the community at large. The reader comes to know Edwards’s heart in the scene in which he and Mohegan walk home from church with the Grants. The well-spoken, well-mannered youth harbors anger toward Temple that flares suddenly when John, at an expansive moment, envisions Judge Temple dividing his estate with the youth. “Never!” shouts Edwards. “The wolf of the forest is not more rapacious for his prey, than that man is greedy of gold” (142). The outburst, besides dramatizing a part of his nature he often hides and affording a clue as to why he resents Temple, foreshadows other festering animosities that reveal themselves before the night is out. The character of Templeton, meanwhile, is dramatized in the scene set in the Bold Dragoon on Christmas Eve. One of the most convincing group portraits Cooper ever sketched, as congenial and earthy at moments as it is disturbingly surreal at others, it reveals a congeries of social tensions.
The episode, as Ringe observes, has about it the aura of an idyll: 14 here is a world before class and cultural differences have hardened; a world in which the high and the low, the educated and the illiterate, the professional and the laborer, the magistrate and the roustabout, the Episcopalian and the Presbyterian, the German and the Frenchman, having just attended an ecumenical worship service, sit cheek to jowl around a common hearth to share the punch bowl in Christmas fellowship. Cooper brings this idyll to life, then exposes it for the shaky truce it is.
Chapter 13, the first of two chapters that constitute the tavern scene, begins as a comic satire. The Captain, Betty Hollister’s husband, expatiates on the Bible. The military man’s take on the Old Testament passage describing the battle between the Israelites and the Amalekites is that Joshua’s troops must have been an elite, volunteer cavalry corps because they smote the enemy with the edge, as opposed to the point, of the sword—a demanding technique, says the Captain, that raw recruits could not have mastered—and because the Bible clearly describes the Israelites as “chosen.” His wife makes a Christian reply, but before the patrons arrive, instructs her husband to “tell Jude, the lazy, black baste, that if she’s no be claning up the kitchen, I’ll turn her out of the house” (147).
Parochialism, reflexive racism, and a myopic Christianity aside, the main satirical target of the tavern sequence is frontier democracy. As the patrons assemble to drink and fraternize in what is presumably the spirit of equality, the first person to speak, a young attorney named Squire Lippet, is at pains to demonstrate that he is better than his fellows. He frequently exhibits a large silver watch and seems “as much above the artisans around him, as he was himself inferior to the real gentlemen” (149). Addressing the doctor, his relative equal in the town’s professional hierarchy, Lippet promptly drops a Latinism. “Spake it out in king’s English,” says the landlady. “What for should ye be talking Indian, in a room full of Christian folks?” (150) The Judge, when he arrives, drinks from the common bowl but is deferred to like a lord of the manor by all but Natty. With a wave of his hand, Temple terminates Betty’s critique of Reverend Grant’s sermon and initiates a topic to his liking.
More-ominous tensions are at play in the tavern. 15 Lippet, having introduced the matter of the Judge’s accidental shooting of Edwards, says he ought to be sued: “This is a country of laws; and I should like to see it fairly tried, whether a man who owns, or says he owns, a hundred thousand acres of land, has any more right to shoot a body, than another” (151). He pursues the point demagogically until the Judge arrives, then skedaddles. Meanwhile Natty turns up and reminisces incongruously about an episode during the French and Indian War, when Mohegan, then in his prime and a dreaded warrior, accumulated thirteen scalps in a skirmish. Natty’s rambling speech eventually arrives at its destination: if the Moravians had not Christianized the Delawares, he ventures, “these hills mought have been kept as good hunting-ground, by their rightful owner [John], who is not too old to carry a rifle, and whose sight is as true as a fish-hawk, hovering—” (156). On cue John arrives and promptly gets drunk.
Social exclusivity, litigiousness, denominational cleavage, and the dispossession and degradation of the Indian, then, are among the fault lines underlying the community. Others soon reveal themselves. The topic shifts, as the Judge is asked if there is any news from France about the revolution that has taken place there, a subject of much concern to the United States, France’s sister republic—and ally, under the Treaty of Alliance of 1778. He answers: “The French, since they have beheaded their king, have done nothing but fight.… The character of the nation seems changed.… These Jacobins are as blood-thirsty as bull-dogs.… They continue those murders, which are dignified by the name of executions. You have heard, that they have added the death of their Queen to the long list of their crimes” (160–61). Betty Hollister counters this vision with the memory of the Frenchman Rochambeau, who fought with the colonials against the English (“bad luck to ’em”) at Yorktown, a sentiment her husband seconds when he notes that Washington “would[n’t] have been able to march against Cornwallis, without their [the French troops’] reinforcements” (160, 162). The interchange, amicable though it is, is a reminder of the division in Federalist America—deep almost to the point of civil war—that the French Revolution occasioned and that would shape political discourse and party platforms throughout the 1790s. 16 The Judge goes on with his report: “The province of La Vendée is laid waste by the troops of the republic, and hundreds of its inhabitants, who are royalists in their sentiments, are shot at a time” (161). The course of France’s republican revolution, Cooper need hardly add, dramatized not only the sort of pitfalls the United States had thus far negotiated but also the potential for violence and anarchy that still loomed, should its young institutions falter. 17 Cooper has broached this theme of the risk inherent in a republican community earlier in the novel, while tracing the history of the Delawares. “In a government so peculiarly republican as the Indian polity,” he there remarked, “it was not, at all times, an easy task, to restrain its members within the rules of the nation” (84). Interspersed with the Judge’s running newscast on France are Natty’s outbursts of scorn for the hunting and fishing laws just passed by the state legislature, which the Judge has also been summarizing. “‘You may make your laws, Judge,’” he says in words that might be an observation or a threat, “but who will you find to watch the mountains through the long summer days, or the lakes at night?” (160).
Cooper’s purpose in allowing the conversation to develop in this direction is partly to ratchet up an argument that has already been set forth: the state’s conservation laws will hamper Natty’s ability to make a living. But there is another dynamic at work. Shortly thereafter the conversation doubles back to France, and as it does the two scenarios take on the character of a split-screen presentation. Communal ideals, even when institutionalized in the form of laws and enforced by magistrates—liberty, equality and fraternity; the need to conserve natural resources—do not necessarily ensure just behavior, even in a self-governing republic. In France, as the Judge observes, murders are “dignified by the name executions” (161); the new government vies with the old in brutality. Natty’s alternative, however—reasoning individuals monitoring their own conduct (“None but a green-one would wish to kill a doe with a fa’n by its side, unless his moccasins was gettin old” [160])—is patently naive, as the citizens of Templeton make plain repeatedly by their unrestrained conduct and untrammeled greed.
At this point Major Hartmann tries to lighten the mood, calling on Natty for a song. But Natty is in no mood for singing. Growing angrier by the minute, he says, “If he, that has a right to be master and ruler here, is forced to squinch his thirst, when a-dry, with snow-water, it ill becomes them that have lived by his bounty to be making merry, as if there was nothing in the world but sunshine and summer” (164). The reprimand—charge, really—is veiled, but when he speaks to John, he is more explicit. The wronged one he is referring to is Edwards; the usurper, the Judge. “The worst enemy of all is near you,” he tells John, “and keeps the Young Eagle from his rights” (165). By now John, besotted and wearing an expression of “brutal ferocity,” has begun to rock and sing—not the ditty Hartmann has requested, but a war song in the Delaware tongue, a “wild, melancholy air” (165) boasting of former battles. When Natty reproaches him for boasting under the circumstances and reminds him that his people’s hunting grounds were given in solemn council to “the Fire-eater” (Major Effingham) and that the Major’s descendant, Edwards, ought to be speaking up for his rights, John, recalled from his reverie, glares at the Judge and reaches for his tomahawk, only to be distracted by the punch bowl.
The frontier pastoral, then, degenerates, becomes grotesque. Although the evening resolves amicably, with Merry Christmases all around and landlord Hollister helping John to a spot where he can sleep off his stupor, a sobering reality has been dramatized. The community, fraught with divisions, resentments, jealousies, and injustices, is no idyll but—to choose an image introduced later in the novel—a potential powder keg. The tensions will be put aside for a time. But they smolder as spring turns to summer, and eventually one of them—that between Natty’s allegiance to natural law and the Judge’s, to civil law—kindles. Before the novel’s finish, the Vision, as the Judge calls the mountain overlooking the town, will go up in smoke.

D. H. Lawrence in discussing The Pioneers famously exclaimed: “Pictures! Some of the loveliest, most glamorous pictures in all of literature. Alas, without the cruel iron of reality.” 18 He is as wrong in the second part of his dictum as he is right in the first. Cooper’s strategy throughout the book is of a piece with that in the tavern scene. He creates romantic canvases, genre paintings, then shades them with a realistic brush or an ironic knife until they darken. The middle portion of the book affords several examples, and a structural principle Cooper uses there makes it convenient to discuss them together.
As Thomas Philbrick has illustrated, Cooper’s work was frequently written as a response to other fictions, whose strategies he duplicated in what he considered to be more credible depictions. Philbrick notes, for instance, that
several rather striking parallels between [Washington] Irving’s books [ The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall ] and The Pioneers in general design and in specific detail suggest that Irving furnished just such a stimulus.… Thus the opening chapters of Cooper’s novel, like the three Christmas pieces in The Sketch Book , center on the celebration of Christmas: the reunion of the family, the feasting, and the church service. The last important episode in Bracebridge Hall , apart from the wedding in the final scene, deals with the arrest of the gypsy chieftain Starlight Tom for stealing sheep, his trial before Squire Bracebridge, and his escape in the night following his conviction. Similarly, late in The Pioneers , Natty Bumppo is charged with taking a deer out of season, is tried before Judge Temple, and makes his escape from jail that night.
He extends the comparison, noting that Irving likens his gypsies to Indians and that Squire Bracebridge, like Judge Temple, is reluctant to punish the offender he is obliged to judge. His point, however, is less that Cooper borrowed from Irving than that Cooper “was to assemble these materials in a coherent and meaningful structure, to impose upon them systems of relationship and patterns of development that Irving’s casual sketching did not permit.” 19 The tavern scene, clearly, exemplifies one of these assemblages.
Several such relatively minor, patently borrowed structural motifs buttress The Pioneers . Shakespeare’s King Lear lies behind the story line, 20 chiefly in the detail of the senile Major Effingham, whose estate various characters vie for, but also in the subplot of old Natty, homeless and hapless after being, in effect, driven from his cabin, and again in the scene in which the aged Mohegan elects suicide on the heights of Mount Vision. Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly (1799) left its mark on the tale as well. Cooper, in his preface to The Spy , had criticized as implausible Brown’s oneiric scene in which Edgar kills a panther with a tomahawk; Michael T. Gilmore suggests that Cooper sought to render the same exploit plausibly in the scene in which Natty shoots a panther that menaces the Judge’s daughter. 21 Brown’s Arthur Mervyn (1800), though, may be a more significant antecedent, and not only because the Judge’s character, like Arthur’s, is dubious. In that novel a country youth newly arrived in town becomes employed in the house of a wealthy man and undergoes a transformation, much as Edwards does, that makes one wonder if he has forgotten his principles. Counterfeiters, too, play a part in both romances. Robert Bage’s novel of ideas Hermsprong (1796) also seems to have impressed Cooper to the extent he gives Edwards genteel manners and Indian associates and has him exhibit heroic horsemanship, saving from mishap the riders in a sleigh whose horses are rearing and plunging by seizing the horses’ heads à la Bage’s eponymous hero. (Both young men are radically critical of society. Hermsprong, however, is defined by the control he exerts over his passions; Edwards, although remarkably self-controlled in the opening scene, later evinces “fierce and uncontrollable passions” [303].) These several imprints on the palimpsest of Cooper’s novel are testimony to the “composite order” he apparently employed in his writing. In the main, though, these are not texts the novel interacts with significantly.
A more pervasive structural model Cooper employed in The Pioneers is John Thomson’s poem “The Seasons.” Here too Philbrick is astute. Surmising that, by subtitling his novel “A Descriptive Tale,” Cooper sought to align his purposes and methods with those of the eighteenth-century descriptive poets who featured the interplay of human activity and seasonal cycles, and noting both Cooper’s lifelong admiration for Thomson and the two chapter epigraphs the novelist borrowed from “The Seasons,” Philbrick details the commonalities between the two works: “Many of the stock elements of the eighteenth-century descriptive poem can be found in The Pioneers: the landscape painting, the attention paid to weather portents, the didactic descriptions of agricultural techniques such as the manufacture of maple sugar, the vignettes of seasonal activities like sleighing in winter and bass fishing in spring, the genre sketches of village games like the Christmas turkey shoot—all are American counterparts of the standard materials of British descriptive verse. Judge Temple’s advocacy of conservation and Natty’s denouncements of the settlers’ ‘wasty ways’ appear to be in some degree an outgrowth of the pattern of protest against the slaughter of birds and animals that Thomson introduced to English rural poetry.” He compares three such descriptive scenes, highlighting the subtlety with which Cooper relates the seasonal to the human drama, then argues that the pastoral is finally ironic: “In such episodes as the slaughter of the pigeons and the massacre of the bass, the citizens, organized by Richard Jones in what is by this point clearly a parody of communal cooperation, give vent to the destructive impulses that the winter discipline has stifled. The frenzy is upon everyone.… The flow of the sap, the migration of the pigeons to their northern breeding grounds, the shoals of spawning bass are all manifestations of the creative vitality of nature, a vitality which man intercepts and truncates with the needless ravages of his ax, gun and seine. A heavy irony thus qualifies the parallel renewal of motion in the natural and human worlds.” 22 So unnatural and excessive are the townsfolk’s methods of exploiting nature—the cannon they use to shoot at the overflying flock of pigeons is the ultimate example—that the pastoral illusion is shredded. Consider as an additional example a scene whose ironies are quieter and in some respects more startling: that depicting Billy Kirby’s sugar-making operation.
In Cooper’s prose georgic on making maple sugar, Kirby sings as he stirs the sugar kettle in a mountain camp full of tapped trees. The Judge is concerned, however, about the younger man’s wasteful practice. He broaches the subject of the settlers’ extravagance in general, then says, courteously but frankly, “You are not exempt from the censure yourself, Kirby, for you make dreadful wounds in these trees where a small incision would effect the same object. I earnestly beg you will remember, that they are the growth of centuries, and when once gone, none living will see their loss remedied.” Kirby replies, “Why, I don’t know, Judge. It seems to me, if there’s a plenty of any thing in this mountaynous country, it’s the trees” (229). The Judge, after a few more remarks, takes solace in the laws he hopes will soon settle the point. Their exchange is amicable; its upshot is that they agree to disagree. The chapter concludes without another ripple to disturb what Cooper terms the “romantic character” (230) of the scene, as Elizabeth, taking a parting glance before her group descends the mountain, reflects “that the slow fires that were glimmering under [Kirby’s] enormous kettles, his little brush shelter, covered with pieces of hemlock bark, his gigantic size, as he wielded his ladle with a steady and knowing air, aided by the back-ground of stately trees, with their spouts and troughs, formed, altogether, no unreal picture of human life in its first stages of civilization” (230).
Slow fires indeed. Moments later, as the Judge’s party makes its way down the mountain, a dead tree falls, nearly hitting several members of the party. Cooper makes the episode an occasion for another display of Edwards’s heroism: his timely shout and, once again, courageous horsemanship save lives. More important, though, the episode dramatizes that dead and decaying trees are not merely a loss to future generations; they are a present danger, as is the careless industry that creates them. Dead and dying trees will soon fuel the forest fire that will consume the mountain. The falling tree amounts, then, to an ironic coda not only to Kirby’s careless strain but also to the Judge’s gentle rebuke. For although Temple sees the problems the community is creating, he is too content merely to verbalize them and look to the state legislature for future redress rather than to intervene decisively. (The Judge, characteristically, is calling his daughter’s attention to a tempest approaching from the distance when the tree that almost kills him topples.) There is little indication, though, that he takes the moral. “Happily, the winds usually force down most of these dangerous trees,” he says (241).
Here again Cooper’s strategy is to re-create the pastoral world he saw as a boy and to deflate it with the irony bred by mature perceptions. The sources he incorporates—Thomson’s poem, for one—often afford ironic prospects. The most important source, in this respect, is the Bible—specifically the (telescoped) Old Testament story of the settlement of Canaan by the Israelites, the giving of the law, the rule of the judges, the building of the temple by Solomon, the testing of Israel, Jehovah’s displeasure with his people, and the division of the kingdom. Daryl E. Jones has detailed this motif:
It seems that Cooper would have recognized in Judge William Cooper’s grand visions and efforts on behalf of his fledgling settlement a parallel to that golden age in Old Testament history when the children of Israel, under the wise and beneficent reign of King Solomon, sought to establish in the Promised Land a thriving city and the fundamental social, legal, and religious institutions of a great and lasting nation.… Though modeled after Judge Cooper, Marmaduke also possesses attributes that establish his kinship to King Solomon, whose chief accomplishment the Temple surname suggests. For Marmaduke too is a “king.” Like his biblical counterpart he is both a man of peace (a Quaker) and a wise judge. He is also, like Solomon, a wealthy and public-spirited entrepreneur whose sense of destiny prompts him to build a royal dwelling (a “castle”) and an ornately wrought “temple.”
Jones notes further that the architect of Solomon’s temple was named Hiram and that Hiram Doolittle, like the biblical Hiram, favors decorative and architectural features that recall Solomon’s temple—pillars, ornamental friezes, and the like. Jones notes the role the comparison plays in Cooper’s novel:
Templeton’s architectural oddities could be dismissed as harmless monuments to human vanity did not their ironic juxtaposition to Old Testament splendors raise graver implications. For the Bible informs us that the Israelites, forgetting their covenant with God, fell to worshiping false idols and violating His laws; even Solomon’s “heart was turned from the Lord God of Israel” (1 Kings 11:9). In consequence, God’s judgment was visited upon them: Solomon’s Kingdom was divided, a portion given to his “servant,” and the Temple destroyed by fire. The biblical parallel that Cooper establishes in the early chapters of The Pioneers thus foreshadows the novel’s central action and casts a pall over Templeton’s future. 23
Playing out this last element of the analogy, he notes that the townsfolk, including even Solomon’s counterpart, Judge Temple, fall victim to what Reverend Grant terms “the idolatry of our passions” (144), slaughtering wildlife and laying waste to the land. The burning of Mount Vision becomes akin to the burning of Solomon’s temple. Of the novel’s conclusion, he states, “The conventional romantic synthesis that ends the novel affords Cooper a means of completing the biblical parallel while tempering its darker implications: when Elizabeth Temple and Oliver Effingham marry, Judge Temple divides the Patent and gives half to Oliver, his former ‘servant.’ Notwithstanding this stock resolution, the plot of The Pioneers issues a clear admonition. America, Cooper suggests by extension, must take heed of the object lesson that Old Testament history offers: without wholesome restraints, without an abiding reverence for fundamental moral values, even the most favored of nations courts destruction.” 24 Cooper’s opening remark that “only forty years have passed since this territory [Otsego] was a wilderness” (16) and his arranging for Temple to pause, like Moses, on the mountaintop to show his descendant the splendor of the valley below suggest that from the outset he sought to summon biblical echoes. 25
What makes this motif important is that it foregrounds the new nation’s oldest cultural myth—one already summoned up, albeit briefly, by Captain Hollister, who explicated the military skill of the “chosen” Israelites. New England’s Puritan settlers had envisioned themselves as latter-day Israelites on an errand in the wilderness. Their ministers had elaborated the conceit in sermons that drew parallels between New England’s unfolding history and that of the Old Testament Jews. 26 These parallels and their felt implications had solemnized and consecrated the Puritan undertaking, sustaining its churches through tragic mishaps and times of doubt. That sense of mission, Sacvan Bercovitch has argued, was transmitted in a partially secularized form to the Republic. The medium of transmission, he suggests, was the Second Great Awakening, the wave of religious revivals that originated in New England at the turn of the nineteenth century and, over the course of three or four decades, spread to New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and the Carolinas, embracing an ever-widening Elect, reiterating the Puritan myth in national terms, and depicting the United States as God’s chosen nation, a land and a people with a sacred destiny. “Surely,” notes Bercovitch, “a major reason for the triumph of the republic was that the need for a social ideal was fulfilled by the typology of America’s mission.” 27
If, however, as the novel’s ironies suggest, the New Canaan is the domain of a stiff-necked people blinded by self-interest and recklessness; if, despite its “betterments,” prosperity, and resources, its leadership is flawed, its community strained, and its prophet harassed into exile; if its destiny is not the millennium but an apocalypse of its own making; then its mythic identity begins to look like megalomania. These are “ifs” that the Leather-Stocking tales will probe and investigate.

Given that Cooper’s Susquehanna Valley setting postfigures the promised land, perhaps the novel’s most caustic irony is Leather-Stocking’s decision, after dwelling there for forty years, to remove to the wilderness. His reverse exodus, coupled with Mohegan’s disconcerting death, counterweights the happy conclusion in which doubts are dispelled, estates restored, and estranged families reunited. One comes away with the sense that the novel’s tidy resolution does not offset the implication that the nation’s feverish enterprise of settlement and self-government is ill-conceived, rudderless, combustible.
That said, Cooper’s take on the Republic in The Pioneers is not altogether ironic. Despite its many shadows, the romance is not oppressively dark, nor is the treatment unbalanced. Cooper takes pains to present both sides of an issue. Consider the settlers’ despoiling of nature. The seine-fishing of the Otsego bass could eliminate them from the lake in a few years. The portrait of Leather-Stocking and John spearfishing from a canoe by torchlight for next morning’s breakfast while the townspeople, using a net and bonfire, haul in multitudes of fish, many of which, as the Judge says, “will be lost as food for the want of mouths to consume them” (265), eloquently condemns the settlers’ prodigality. Cooper has the Judge explain, however, that the bass can be had only a few days each year. In winter the ice protects them; in summer they retreat to the depths. So there may be reason to fish aggressively while the fishing is good. Natty’s Paleolithic approach to fishing, meanwhile, is as absurd as it is poetic. Cooper likewise famously deplores the townsfolk’s cannonading of the pigeons—“The Lord won’t see the waste of his creaters for nothing” (246), says Natty. But as Richard points out, thanks to the slaughter, “every old woman in the village may have a pot-pie for the asking” (250). Kirby, meanwhile, counters Natty’s jeremiad with a Vermonter’s dryness: “If you had to sow your wheat twice, and three times, as I have done, you wouldn’t be so massyfully feeling’d to’ards the divils” (246–47).
Cooper’s symbolism is equally nuanced. Consider Mount Vision, an emblem, by virtue of its name and Mosaic associations, of the Republic and its enlightened prospects—but also of how easily those prospects can be reduced to ash. It emblematizes too the importance of seeing things aright. Judge Temple stands on its heights when, beholding the hoary Major Effingham, he says to the major’s heir, “Oliver, I forgive all thy harshness—all thy suspicions. I now see it all” (438). Temple, though, is not the only character who fails at times to see things clearly. His antagonists, Edwards and the usually clear-sighted Natty (“You know that the Indians named me for my sight” [292], the hunter says), imperfectly discern his intentions respecting Effingham’s land. The novel, then, is dialectic. Sometimes, in addition to incorporating multiple perspectives in the same symbol, Cooper balances one symbol against another. While the motif of the Republic as a system of converging streams figures forth the nation’s social and political identity but also hints of roiling and turmoil, from the outset a fire motif counterpoints this water motif. When contained, as it is in the hearths at the Bold Dragoon and the dwellings of Judge Temple and Reverend Grant, fire connotes warmth, comfort, fellowship, enlightenment, and even, in Louisa Grant’s case, religious devotion. But it is also associated with greed and excess (the bonfire built to lure fish into the seine), as well as with incendiary emotions (Mohegan’s “dark, fiery eyes … [tell] a tale of passion unrestrained” [136]) and political passion: “The sparks of dissension soon kindled into a blaze” (36), Cooper states, sketching the tale’s Revolutionary War background.
The fire that scorches Mount Vision recaps and intensifies several of these associations. So sweeping is it that it seems tantamount to a divine punishment for the townspeople’s recklessness and wrong-headedness. The blaze is started by a posse of townsfolk, deputized, on the duped Judge’s orders, to force their way into Natty’s cabin at night: as they disperse, they toss their brands into the brush, despite Natty’s warning that it will kindle. Jotham Riddel, who, hoping to get rich quick, has begun prospecting on the mountainside, is the fire’s first victim. It advances as quickly as it does, moreover, because the townspeople, in cutting down the trees for fuel and timber, have wastefully lopped off and left behind the tops and branches, which have become tinder. But the fire also symbolizes the combustion of community and civility in Templeton. On hearing of Natty’s arrest, Edwards loses his temper, insults the Judge, his employer, and is, well, fired. The Judge, in convicting Natty of threatening magistrate Doolittle’s life and sentencing the hunter to pay a one-hundred-dollar fine and spend an hour in the stocks and a month in jail, stipulates unreasonably and unmercifully that he must remain in jail until the fine is paid—which, as Natty points out, precludes his making the money to pay it. Doolittle, not content with seeing Natty placed in the stocks, goads him—and is seized and battered by Ben Pump for his effrontery; Natty and Edwards, with the quiet complicity of the Judge’s daughter, plot and carry out a jailbreak. And an armed mob forms to hunt Natty down. Water finally prevails over fire: rain puts out the conflagration. But not before the Vision—the Judge’s vision of a regulated republicanism on the frontier—is scorched.
A more incidental but no less nuanced symbol is the eagle. It too embodies the nation’s identity. In a quiet narrative moment sandwiched between sequences featuring the settlers’ destruction of wildlife, Cooper depicts two eagles brooding in isolation on an ice floe in Lake Otsego as winter sheers toward spring. As the floe melts, they fly off, and numberless pigeons sweep through the valley. One more strut in the seasonal scaffolding of the tale, the scene depicts an unfolding natural process—and intimates a social one. As the likes of John Mohegan and Leather-Stocking—once-puissant warriors of the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary eras whom time has overtaken—depart the Otsego frontier, a more ordinary sort flocks in to take their place. (John’s connection with the eagles is more than circumstantial. The Delaware chief, who in his valediction says he has “seen the days of the eagle” [416], was distinguished in his younger days by the eagle feathers he wore in his scalp lock [155].) But the eagles’ Roman associations reverberate too in this tale of the early Republic, and they tell a competing story—one of unnatural declension and the usurpation of a republican heritage. In Julius Caesar (v.1.80), just before the forces of Octavius and Brutus clash for mastery of Rome, the republican Cassius remarks an omen—the departure of a pair of eagles that had perched for days on the Roman ensign, escorting the army from Sardis to Philippi. Smaller carrion birds succeed them. As the play’s symbolism suggests, the republican forces are routed. Cooper’s flying eagles, then, carry mixed overtones. A fertile symbol as well as a fine naturalistic touch, they convey ambivalence toward America’s social and political future.
A final example of the structural and thematic balance Cooper maintains in The Pioneers: the elaborate Old Testament motif that undergirds the novel has its counterpoint in a New Testament motif. Natty is at its center. An innocent framed by conspirators, he figuratively reenacts the Passion of Christ, submitting docilely to arrest after a torch-carrying mob of deputies hunts him down at night for a dubious infraction. His punishment, upon being tried by a reluctant judge mindful of political considerations, includes being humiliated—set in the stocks—then jailed alongside “malefactors” (347), as Cooper terms the counterfeiters apprehended the same night as Natty. Cooper does not carry the parallel much further. But by sketching its outlines, he leavens a tale that is centrally concerned with the giving of the law, suggesting that it must be tempered by mercy—as anger must be tempered by forgiveness.

Natty’s apotheosis may be the most remarkable aspect of The Pioneers —especially because it is achieved despite the dumbing-down and demeaning of his character during the trial scene. In court he is turned into an alternately comical and pathetic old codger, now going off on ludicrous tangents, now interrupting the proceedings to chat inconsequentially with Billy Kirby, now betraying an ignorance that jars with his usual savviness. At this stage the debate that had been under way earlier concerning the relative merits of civil and natural law on the frontier effectively collapses. The Judge delivers the only reasonable, if clichéd, speeches on the subject. “The laws alone remove us from the savages,” he says. “Society cannot exist without wholesome restraints. Those restraints cannot be inflicted without security and respect to the persons of those who administer them; and it would sound ill indeed to report that a judge had extended favour to a convicted criminal, because he had saved the life of his child” (382). 28 In earlier episodes Natty has made substantive rejoinders to the Judge’s plan to legislate behavior on the frontier. Here, on trial for threatening a magistrate, he might have argued (as Kay Seymour House does) that Hiram Doolittle’s invasion of his cabin exemplified the abuse of law and the failure of government. 29 Instead his disappointing retort is to plead his years, ask for special treatment, and appeal to the Judge’s sentiments: “How is an old man to find so much gold and silver in the woods? … Did the beast of the forest mind your laws when it was thirsty and hungering for the blood of your own child? … Have you forgot the time you come on to the lake shore, when there wasn’t even a jail to lodge in; and didn’t I give you my own bearskin to sleep on? And now will you shut me up in your dungeons to pay me for my kindness?” (370–71). Cooper perhaps conceived the speech as an appeal on Natty’s part to natural morality and fellow-feeling, but it reads as a querulous attempt to tug at the Judge’s heartstrings.
Yet Cooper succeeds, despite the courtroom scene, in investing Leather-Stocking with a near-religious gravitas. How he does so bears examination. From the outset he presents the hunter as a straight shooter in the literal and figurative sense: as someone capable not only of performing feats of marksmanship under pressure but also of speaking truth to those in power. His forthrightness springs both from a natural honesty and from his status as an outsider, albeit one whose seven decades of experience have obliged him to interact repeatedly with Anglo-American society. (He has participated in the colonial wars and the Revolutionary War and seen the birth of the nation as well as the coming of the settlers.) Raised by Delawares, he has always had one foot outside the colonial and, later, the revolutionary destiny he helped enact. As one who has elected to remain beyond the social frontier, he brings a radically different, occasionally transcendent, perspective to bear on Templeton’s values, assumptions, and mores. He reminds readers, at times, of a frontier version of a Greek chorus: “Use, but don’t waste,” Natty says to the Judge and young Edwards, both of whom have been slaughtering pigeons. “Wasn’t the woods made for the beasts and birds to harbour in?” (248) More frequently, though, his remonstrances are delivered in cadences that suggest an Old Testament prophet, as he emerges from the wilderness to condemn “the money of Marmaduke Temple, and the twisty ways of the law” (291) and declaim, “The Lord won’t see the waste of his creaters for nothing, and right will be done … by-and-by” (246).
Cooper further enriches Leather-Stocking’s character with romantic elements, exhibiting him as a natural philosopher and poet. After noting “how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness,” Natty describes a view of the Hudson River: “It is a spot to make a man solemnize. You can see right down into the valley that lies to the east of the High-Peak, where, in the fall of the year, thousands of acres of woods are afore your eyes, in the deep hollow, and along the side of the mountain, painted like ten thousand rainbows, by no hand of man” (294). No one else in the novel shows such sensibilities. To ballast this religious-romantic amalgam, Cooper adds a few earthy touches—for instance, the wiliness the old hunter displays when the obtrusive Hiram Doolittle crosses his path after Natty has all but concluded the magistrate cut his dogs loose. To trick Natty into confessing that he has shot a buck out of season, the magistrate supposes aloud that the dogs will not hunt anything but choice game. “They’ll hunt any thing I tell them to, Squire,” says Natty. “They’ll hunt you, if I say so. He-e-e-ere, he-e-e-e-re, Hector—he-e-e-e-re, slut—come this-a-way, pups” (312). Underpinning Natty’s supple characterization is the eccentric, unstudied voice Cooper creates for him. 30 “Heigh-ho!” says Natty in an obiter dictum, “I never know’d preaching come into a settlement, but it made game scearce, and raised the price of gun-powder” (135–36). So homespun and canny a voice cannot be doubted—not even when it rises to the level of rhapsody or jeremiad. Leather-Stocking, whose christened name, Nathaniel, recalls the apostle in whom, Jesus said, there is no deceit, 31 always sounds guileless, whether he is denouncing, declaiming, prating, or “solemnizing.” And when to that quirky rustic-Jacobean hodgepodge in which the squatter typically speaks Cooper adds a biblical inflection, the result is both disarming and compelling. It is but another step for Cooper to elevate his prophet, poet, and philosopher to a Christ in buckskins who prepares to break jail by uttering, of all things, the Passion-freighted words “The hour has come” (390). These several motley strains inform Natty’s most memorable speech, addressed to his persecutors as he stands among the embers of his torched cabin. His words transcend the melodrama of the occasion, turning a novel of frontier manners into a prose elegy:
“What would ye with an old and helpless man?” he said.

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