Perception and Reality: the Novelist, the Deerslayer and the Reader

Richard Morton (McMaster University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1990 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Diego.

Reproduced with the consent of the author.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

A new name may provide a new kind of truth — a new way to define the reality of a person or an object. At the beginning of The Deerslayer, Hurry Harry and Natty engage in a long philosophical discussion about Lake Otsego: ”Have the governor’s, or the king’s people given this lake a name?” asks Deerslayer, partly answering his own question by noting that, as the area has not been explored or mapped thoroughly, “it’s likely they’ve not bethought them to disturb natur’ with a name.” The implication is clear: a name, implying knowledge, understanding and hence control, is a disturbing sign of human power. 1 Harry’s response, with a wilderness dweller’s laughter at the ignorance of map-makers, is to recount how he once deliberately confused a surveyor who asked him about the region:

“I’m glad it has no name, resumed Deerslayer, “or, at least, no pale face name, for their christenings always foretell waste and destruction.” (II, 524) 2

For Deerslayer, the name given by the hunters, Glimmerglass, is peculiarly appropriate, as the lake seems to him an “unusual opening into the mysteries and forms of the woods.” (II, 525) The Glimmerglass is a speculum mundi — the mirror within which his world will be reflected, and from which he will begin to gain his mystical insights into reality.

In this passage, as in others concerning names throughout the novel, a name given by a particular group may not be the same as the one given by another group. The same object, the same event, the same action or the same person may be named differently, and consequently may mean differently, depending on the circumstances and the observer. The reader is prepared for the exposition of Deerslayer’s relative morality — the concept of “gifts.” For, as Deerslayer never tires of pointing out, the “gifts” of white men and of Indians differ — Indians by their very nature are ethically committed to forms of warfare which uninstructed white men call “treachery” and “cruelty.” But Lynx, Chingachgook or Rivenoak would betray their natures were they to behave like European enlightenment gentlemen. However, when Harry and Hutter go hunting after scalps they are going contrary to their proper “gifts” — and indeed the government, by setting a bounty on scalps, is destroying the ethical system of what Natty calls variously “white man’s” or “Christian” rule.

Natty’s theory of “gifts” is partly theological — to know and to fulfill one’s proper “gift” is to find a kind of grace — and partly existential — an individual is the composite of his “gifts.” In either case, the definition of “gifts” demands a clear perception of identity and difference, for white settlers and Indians, men and women, old people and young people, have, or ... should have, their own defining “gifts.” The process of personal growth is the process of recognizing and fulfilling one’s own “gift.”


As early as the 1820s, editors and critics were beginning to rearrange the published order of the Leatherstocking novels into the chronological order of Hawkeye’s biography, the order that Cooper finally authorised. 3 Recent critics, when they treat the five novels as a unit, examine them in the order of publication. However, the novels in the biographical order may, I suggest, be read as a single text. The justification for this proposal — reading backwards — is the intention of my forthcoming monograph. 4 Briefly, it depends on the definition of Natty’s identity as “invariant” through the books. Theoretically, the argument requires a concept of identity such as that proposed by Heinz Lichtenstein — an “infinite sequence of bodily and behavioural transformations during the whole life of an individual.” 5 More pragmatically, one might observe that the reading (or performance) of works in the sequence of their narrative chronology rather than the order of publication is not unknown. Rabelais Book II was written and published before his Book I. Shakespeare’s must recent editors remind us that Henry VI parts 1. 2 and 3 were so ordered and titled by editorial. decision after Shakespeare’s death. 6

Read in the biographical order, the Leatherstocking tales are seen to fall into the broad, quintessential American genre of the pilgrimage — the life-long quest, in effect the Puritan “conversion narrative.” The five novels tell the story of Deerslayer’s conversion from a callow youth into the wise, pious old hunter of The Prairie — from the traumatic excitement of the Glimmerglass, through the reverses of The Pathfinder and the self-hatred of The Pioneers, to the apotheosis, the mythical transfiguration in the West. Various stages of this pilgrimage are marked by each of: the books. The Deerslayer presents a first stage in the movement towards salvation — the process of ordering, or rather reordering one’s experiences so they manifest a deeper than surface meaning; the process of understanding marked by Calvin’s favourite passage from Hebrews 11 — “that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear,” or the passage from 1 Thessalonians 5:21 which Puritan theologians proposed as the opening stage of the pilgrimage of grace: “Prove all, things, hold fast that which is good.” Not only does Cooper show Deerslayer beginning this sort of response (in the process being “rebaptised” with a new and truer name, “Hawkeye”); he forces the readers to reassess their experience of reading, and thus to share in Deerslayer’s education.

If we assume that the Leatherstocking sequence can be seen as a kind of secular hagiography — a saint’s life — then its impact on the reader should be the secular equivalent of a devotional text; it should provide a degree of ethical and aesthetic instruction. Both processes — the quasi-canonisation of Natty and the quasi-spiritual education of the reader — begin effectively enough in The Deerslayer. When Hurry Harry and the Deerslayer burst out of the woods onto the shores of Lake Glimmerglass, the two men are immediately identified in language suggesting that one will be the romantic hero, the other his faithful, less glamorous hench-man, like Lionel Lincoln and Polwarth. Harry, “a man of gigantic mould,” is a “liberated forester”:

It would not have been easy to find a more noble specimen of vigorous manhood, than was offered in the person of him who called himself Hurry Harry. (II, 498)

He is “unusually well proportioned,” and his “face did no discredit to the rest of the man, for it was both good-humoured and handsome.” Harry’s beauty is consistently stressed throughout the novel, and his great strength stands him in good stead in hand-to-hand combat with the Indians. But as the novel progresses, the reader progressively realises that features and manly power are ill-matched with his characteristic thoughtlessness, selfishness and dim- wittedness. Only the feeble-minded Hetty continues to rely on his appearance; the other characters recognise his flaws. Yet at the beginning of the text, he seems to be an ideal for a tale of adventure and romance. Deerslayer, following Harry out of the woods, is immediately less impressive, and the novelist takes pains to shade his portrait with features which, if not unattractive, are certainly unglamorous — “His face ... had little to recommend it except youth,” (II, 498) It is, again, only Hetty who never sees past Deerslayer’s plain features. She consistently compares him unfavourably with Harry, even after her sister Judith has fully understood the young man’s worth and attractions. In these opening phrases, Cooper is, in little, presenting the unconventional pattern of the novel. Deerslayer, unremarkable at first glance, shows his quality to those who consider him carefully; his appearance and his reality are at odds, in a way directly contrary to those of Harry.

Much the same sort of comment could be made of the early references to Tom Hutter’s daughters, Judith and Hetty. Two handsome and apt young men, one more physically striking than the other, and two comely daughters in distress, one more vital than the other, and all four young people isolated by the geography and the fortunes of war: conventional romance would see little question as to the outcome. But Cooper is not being conventional: the love relationships converge, cross, and at last collapse.

The second major convention that is set into play by the opening chapters is that associated with Deerslayer’s inexperience and his hunger for personal growth. He is “several years” Harry’s junior, and Harry patronisingly calls him “lad”! but Deerslayer already has a present maturity. If the readers have expected a typical bildungsroman — a novel of education — they are immediately reminded that the younger man is able, by his sensible argument and his refusal to lose his temper, to quell Harry’s rash violence when talking of Judith; his judgments are regularly sounder than those of the others, and validated by events; Deerslayer, as Harry himself acknowledges, seems already to be the better pathfinder and woodsman. When Harry is unable to find the canoe which he himself had hidden on the shore of the lake, Deerslayer can spot the clues in the landscape and discover the hiding place.

“After all, Deerslayer, I must allow you’re getting to have an oncommon good eye for the woods!” exclaims Harry. (II, 511)

The opening chapters of the novel suggest to the reader that conventional literary expectations will not be met. The pattern continues to the end, when the hoped-for rescue by the military turns the shores of the Glimmerglass into an indescribable killing- field, where even the innocent Hetty loses her life.


If, as far as the characters and their futures are concerned, things may not be quite what they at first seem, the story of the novel itself focusses constantly on the differences between expectation, appearance and reality.

The book opens by discussing history and the sense of time, suggesting the contrasts between an objective reality and the subjective awareness of an observer:

On the human imagination, events produce the effects of time. Thus, he who has travelled far and seen much is apt to fancy that he has lived long.

There is a similar contrast between the facts of what is happening around Lake Glimmerglass, and the responses that are awakened in the characters by what they believe or assume these facts to be. The beauty and tranquility of the lake might be interpreted as a sign of peace and of a benevolent humanity dwelling throughout the area. In fact, as the characters come to realise, the lake is a haunt of savagery; the admired Judith, brought up here, is far from morally ideal, in spite of the spiritual tuition that might seem to be active in the peaceful surroundings. As yet uninstructed by experience, Deerslayer describes the scene before him:

“This is grand! — ‘Tis solemn! — ‘Tis an edication of itself, to look upon. ... Hurry, your Judith ought to be a moral and well disposed young woman, if she has passed half the time you mention, in the centre of a spot so favored.” (II, 514)

That she is not, at least in Harry’s eyes, is a demonstration of the gulf between expectation and appearance, matching at a moral level the deceptively undisturbed appearance of the lake shore where Harry had hidden the canoe.

At the beginning of Chapter III, Harry examines the shores of the lake intently with Hutter’s telescope, and is able to assure Deerslayer that no one is “up this-a-way.” It is the first of several such examinations of the shore-line and the habitations in the course of the novel. Regularly, nothing is observed, and the characters proceed to act on the assumption that no enemy is present. Usually, the assumption is mistaken, as when Hutter, Harry, Chingachgook and Hist approach the castle in Chapter XIX. Hist had observed a moccasin floating nearby, which she and Chingachgook interpret as a possible sign of hostile visitation. Hutter and Harry disagree, supposing that the moccasin could well have floated there by chance. The closest observation of the castle shows nothing visible wrong, and after some debate, it is cautiously approached. In the ensuing ambush, Hutter receives his fatal injury, and Mist and Chingachgook are, in this tragic manner, vindicated. But the passage stresses that Hutter and Harry have not been careless: it is the deserted appearance of the castle which has been deceptive. Even the Indians have not really trusted their proposed interpretation of the moccasin, and all four have, in different ways, been tricked by appearance.

There are other elements of the natural setting which can cause uncertainty and confusion. In the first foray ashore, Harry and Hutter promise to signal Deerslayer by imitating the cry of a loon. This choice of signal turns out to be less than ideal:

Deerslayer was aroused by a sound that filled him equally with concern and surprise. The quavering call of a loon arose from the opposite side of the lake; evidently at no great distance from its outlet. (II, 585)

Deerslayer is understandably puzzled by the call and by its repetition a moment later, and spends some time persuading himself that this sound is indeed the cry of a real bird, fortuitously duplicating the men’s planned signal. He decides to disregard the call, and it turns out that he was right to do so. Later, when Deerslayer and Chingachgook are rescuing Hist from the Huron tribe, the signal to Hist is the note of a squirrel expertly imitated by Chingachgook, and this, too, causes confusion. “Well,” notes Deerslayer with grim humour, “there’s four legged squirrels and there’s two legged squirrels. ... “ (II, 778)


Confusion and error in the interpretation of natural phenomena are basic to any tale of adventure — from them come the inevitable surprises of ambush and accident. However, The Deerslayer focuses the reader’s attention on such errors more particularly than most adventure novels. The importance of night scenes is a mark of Cooper’s concern, at key points, to find a metaphor for uncertainty and ignorance. The first capture of Hutter and Harry by the Indians takes place in the darkness, and the waiting Deerslayer hears only noises and sees only dim outlines to interpret the event. On this occasion, the darkness of night confuses all the participants in the action. Later, when Deerslayer and Chingachgook rescue Hist, the shadows in which they move, outside the light from the Indians’ fire, protect them by obscuring their enemies’ view:

The strong light in which she herself was placed, and the comparative darkness in which the adventurers stood, prevented her from seeing their heads, the only portions of their forms that appeared above the ridge at all. (II, 766)

But in this passage, the confusion is relative, suggesting an underlying reality that the privileged may pierce through to. The “adventurers,” because of their situation, can distinguish what is going on. The reader has a special insight into the darkness, for the word “appeared” cannot be literally valid. A fuller description of the effects of night, with the reader again specially privileged, evokes the characters’ experiences when Hetty moves off by canoe on her own errand to the Indian camp. While they, in the deepening night, cannot see anything, the all-knowing narrator informs the reader of what is happening, and of the motivations and thoughts of the characters:

Judith bent forward to listen ... while her two companions brought their eyes, as near as possible, to a level with the water, in order to detect any object that might be floating on its surface. ... All this time Hetty, who had not the cunning to sink into the canoe, stood erect ... resembling a statue of profound and timid attention. (II, 642-643)

Darkness, Cooper implies, has different degrees. Natty and Chingachgook are experienced enough to peer into the gloom by a special technique. 7 The author and the reader, meanwhile, can see Hetty’s resemblance to a statue, although in the darkness obviously she cannot “resemble” anything.

Relative perceptions work, also, at a moral level. Hutter hides the key to his chest in a pocket of Hetty’s simple clothing — the very place which he knows will be invisible to his modish daughter Judith, although like Poe’s “Purloined Letter” it is virtually in open sight. Only Chingachgook is subtle enough to realise the hiding place.

Relative, also, are the perceptions that come from social experience. In Hutter’s chest is a finely carved chess set — something which Natty, Judith and Chingachgook have never seen before. Natty assumes, wrongly, that the elephant models which form the castles are votive: “Them things are idols!” (II, 702) Judith does not know what the elephants are, hut she thinks they have to do with some game, and she is sure that they have no religious significance. Chingachgook is so lost in delight at the strangeness of the animals that he cannot participate in the assessment of their purpose. While the passage is essentially a comic interlude, the differing responses of the three characters reinforce the novel’s wider concern with vision and judgment. just as the reader can see Hetty in the canoe, so the reader will recognise the carved elephants as chess-men, though their real purpose is withheld from the characters in the novel.

The modulation of imperception and insight are suggested, as we have seen, by the issue of names. By calling the chess-men “idols,” Natty effectively categorises and limits them. At the beginning of his debate with Rivenoak, Deerslayer’s name is in question — “My young pale face warrior — he has got a name — how do the chiefs call him?” Rivenoak is, the reader supposes, simply asking for a convenient form of address. But Deerslayer — the name of a youngster who has shot only game — chooses this moment to reveal for the first time the new name — “Hawkeye” — that was conferred upon him the day before by the defeated warrior Lynx. The sharp eyes appropriate to the well-named Lynx have perceived Natty’s true nature.

The passage recalls the lengthy conversation that Deerslayer and Hetty had in Chapter IV, when Hetty had promised to tell Deerslayer “your character” if he tells her his names. Later in the novel, the appropriateness of Chingachgook’s name (“Big Serpent”) is demonstrated, the names Wah-ta!-Wah and Hist-oh!-Hist are discussed, and the Indians’ onomastic gifts in calling Judith the “Wild Rose” and Hetty the “Drooping Lily” are praised. Names are frequently signs of character. Even the great rifle has a meaningful name, as Natty jokes when he aims at an eagle — “’we’ll see if Killdeer is n’t Killeagle, too!’” (II, 927)


The Deerslayer is a novel of plane, level surfaces — essentially the surface of Lake Glimmerglass and the low-lying spits of land around it. Council. Rock rises only a foot or two above the water; the Indians who ambush the ark hide in the lower branches of the tree. Nothing in the novel. equals the dizzy heights and sensational falls of The Last of the Mohicans — a novel of cliffs and chasms. Indeed, what is far above or below the surface of the water seems inevitably doomed — the high-flying eagle Natty shoots; the sunken graves of Hetty and Hutter on the bed of the lake.

The whole book, I propose, deals with surfaces — surface appearances and the realities which might lie under the surface. The young Natty becomes more and more aware of the often confusing interplay between appearances and realities; his story, told in a text which is itself generically ambiguous and has, indeed, hidden depths, insists that his readers also work to refine their apprehensions.


1 Natty’s view of the political nature of names is confirmed by Henry R. Schoolcraft’s essay, “Names of the American Lakes,” in Oneóta, or Characteristics of the Red Race of America (New York: Wiley, 1845), pp. 13-14: “[Lake Superior] is a term which appears to have come into general use, at a comparatively early era, after the planting of the English colonies.” He notes that it supplanted two French names, and the Ojibway “Gitch- Igomee.”

2 Quotations from The Deerslayer are From James Fenimore Cooper, The Leatherstocking Tales, 2 vols (New York: The Library of America, 1985.)

3 See my paper “The Double Chronology of Leatherstocking,” forthcoming in Cooper, his Landscape and Art, New York State University, Oneonta, 1990 and, in modified form, in Canadian Review of American Studies, Spring, 1990.

4 Tentatively called Perception and Reality: Educating Leatherstocking and the Reader.

5 See Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association, ix, xi (1961, 1963) and International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, xlv, xlvi (1964, 1965.)

6 W. Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 55.

7 George Copway, in Recollections of a Forest Life: or, the Life and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-Bowh, Chief of the Ojibway Nation (London: C. Gilpin, 1850), pp. 20-21, tells a rather implausible anecdote about shooting a deer in the darkness by using this method of spotting movement in the dark.