Introduction to Wyandotté (1843)

Susan Fenimore Cooper

Introductions to novels by her father, with significant biographic and literary information, were written by Susan Fenimore Cooper as prefaces to excerpts from 25 Cooper novels in Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, with Notes by Susan Fenimore Cooper (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1861). She also wrote introductions to 15 (not all the same) novels published between 1876-1884 as the Household Edition of the Works of J. Fenimore Cooper (New York and Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. [Hurd and Mifflin]).

These introductions are collected for the first time on the Cooper Society website. Lengthy quotations have been reproduced in indented form, but retaining the quotation marks of the original, and their sources have been indicated in [square brackets].

Topics Covered: Cooper’s love of land improvement at Chalet Farm; realistic portrait of the eponymous Indian in Wyandotté.

Pages and Pictures, pp. 347-348

Contents: Wyandotté. — Love of farming — Clearing — Indian character in a new form — Struggle between gratitude and revenge — Extract, Saucy Nick.

[347] THE author of “The Deerslayer” was most thoroughly a pioneer in spirit. He delighted in the peculiarly American process of “clearing;” not in its ruder forms, of course, where the chief object of the colonist often appears to consist in felling a noble wood, and leaving the unsightly wreck — a lifeless array of half-charred stumps — to moulder slowly away, under the storm and sunshine of half a life-time. It was the work of improvement, in all its different stages, in which he took pleasure, from the first opening of the soil to the sunlight, through all the long course of removing the wood, burning the brush, the first tilling and the first crop. About a mile and a half from the village, on the eastern bank of the lake, lay a small farm, belted on all sides by the forest, and which he had taken great pleasure in improving, from the first stages of clearing the ground by means of that ingenious Yankee contrivance, the stump-extractor, to the neat drain and finished stone wall. To this little farm, lying on the eastern mountainside, he drove daily, to overlook his laborers and direct the work. It was one of the most beautiful natural positions in the neighborhood, commanding charming views over lake and shore, field and wood. It was here, while looking down on the lake, that he planned the minute movements of Floating Tom, and the rude “ark,” so prominent in “The Deerslayer.” Almost every morning, writing [358] hours over, he drove to the clâlet, looking after the stock and the dairy, the pigs and the poultry. It was a frequent remark of the workmen, that the animals all soon learned to know, and to follow him, from his invariable kindness to dumb creatures. Farming, in all its forms, had given him pleasure through life; but he chiefly delighted in taking a fresh piece of land, and, commencing with the very first stages of cultivation, bringing it into shape and fruitfulness.

“Wyandotté; or, The Hutted Knoll,” is a tale of border life, planned and written wholly in this spirit, A family of the colonial period of our brief annals, is led into the wilderness to take possession of a new tract of land; and the reader is made to follow their steps through the work of the first generation. The narrative itself is original, and very pleasing; the book would, no doubt, have been considered a very agreeable addition to American literature, if the same pen had given us nothing more. The principal Indian character is admirably well drawn under a form different from any yet sketched by the same hand; throughout the book he is seen in a double light — two distinct characters, as it were, blended into one peculiar whole, which is, in itself, perfectly true to nature and American life. As “Sassy [sic] Nick,” he is the common idle vagrant, a mere hanger-on of the whites, in that degraded condition to which too many of his race have been reduced by the first contact with civilization; as “Wyandotté,” he is the warrior of his people, wily in plot, brave in fight, fierce in revenge, with outbreaks of savage wisdom, and eloquence, and dignity, peculiar to the council-fire and the war-post of his people. The long struggle in the heart and mind of this wild creature, between gratitude for the kindness of Mrs. Willoughby, and the spirit of hatred and revenge against her husband, Colonel Willoughby, are admirably kept up and worked out through the whole tale, until its fatal close. Wyandotté is one of those books to which an extract cannot do justice; to appreciate the merit of the work we must follow the history of the little colony, and trace the course of the Indian, alike the savage friend and foe, of the border household.

Excerpt: “Saucy Nick” [James Fenimore Cooper, Wyandotté [1843] (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), Chapter 1, pp. 8-12]