The Art of The Pathfinder

Richard D. Rust (University of North Carolina)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1991 Conference of the American Literature Association in Washington, D.C.

A version of this paper was subsequently published in James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts, ed. W. M. Verhoeven (Rodopi: Amsterdam/Atlanta, 1993), pp. 177-184.

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

While the notion still persists that James Fenimore Cooper was more social-historian than artist, repeated readings of The Pathfinder reveal how carefully crafted that work is. The traditional view, accepted by Stephen Railton 1, is that Cooper wrote quickly, impulsively, and rather carelessly because he had a “nonchalant attitude toward the creative process” (Railton 6). John McWilliams in his review of Railton’s book is correct, though, in suggesting that a bit more attention to the findings of recent Cooper editors might have revealed that Cooper was more of a conscious craftsman than has been believed. This has certainly been my experience. I came to admire Cooper’s artistry in the process of editing The Pathfinder 2 for the SUNY Press edition of The Writings of James Fenimore Cooper. Reading the work over and over again helped me fully to anticipate the end from the beginning and to see how purposefully Cooper was shaping his materials. Further, I discovered in the manuscript of The Pathfinder many clues to Cooper’s intentions with the work.

I’d like to share with you today some of the ways in which I’ve found Cooper’s art to be shown in The Pathfinder — in his choice of names, in the multivaried and intricate relations of characters, in the elements of the plot, and in biblical allusions. All of these are carefully, even subtly and intricately, interwoven.

As an example of manuscript clues, Cooper first called his heroine Eve (as well as Agnes) rather than Mabel, and Jasper Western was first called Harry Harbor. (Incidentally, Arrowhead was also called Arrowflint, Killdeer was Doublesight, and Charles Cap was John Cap.) Although Cooper dropped the name “Eve,” it is suggestive of the symbolic weight he had in mind regarding Sergeant Dunham’s daughter. While too obvious, the name “Harry Harbor” also shows how Cooper envisioned this character as representing the man of the sea.

The name Pathfinder seems simple and appropriate at first in its reference to the Leatherstocking’s role as guide with the British forces during the French and Indian wars. He, however, is also a path maker, saying, “I rather pride myself in finding my way, where there is no path, than in finding it where there is” (18). The name takes on further meanings when Cooper has Pathfinder speak of taking “the fare that Providence bestows, while we follow the trail of life“ (19). After falling in love with Mabel Dunham, he acknowledges that this has been a false trail (272). He becomes a path finder for the dying Sergeant Dunham, helping him on his “longest journey” and contrasting it with that of the traitorous Arrowhead whose “path cannot be the path of the just” (439). Jasper is a pathfinder in locating Station Island among the Thousand Islands, and Mabel is a pathfinder to her father on his deathbed, helping put him in an eternal path.

Jasper Western is a subtler name than Harry Harbor, with the jasper being a precious stone most frequently green in color — suggesting Jasper’s association with the color of the waters of the Great Lakes, and Western is related to his Americanness.

While the dun in Dunham is a dull grayish-brown, the name Mabel is associated in the novel with the maple tree, known for its brilliant coloration. This connection is confirmed by Pathfinder’s dream that he “had a cabin in a grove of sugar maples, and at the root of every tree was a Mabel Dunham, while the birds that were among the branches, sung ballads, instead of the notes that natur’ gave” (275). Mabel shows her color often by flushing when her emotions are stirred. She and her father are also subtly associated with the trees described in the opening scene, starting with “the elm, with its graceful and weeping top,” followed by “the rich varieties of the maple” (9). Near the end of the novel, Sergeant Dunham is buried “beneath the shade of a huge elm” (449). And the last tree described in the opening section foretells the characterization of the Pathfinder: We are told “the tall, straight trunk of the pine, pierced the vast field, rising high above it, like some grand monument reared by art on the plain of leaves” (9). Pathfinder is subsequently described several times as tall and straight; he rises above others; and he is a monument: “When last in view,” we are told, “the sinewy frame of this extraordinary man was as motionless, as if it were a statue set up in that solitary place, to commemorate the scenes of which it had so lately been the site and the witness” (461).

Muir, as in “demure” (which means affectedly modest or shy), comes from a word meaning ripe or mature — which is certainly relevant to the older would-be lover. More directly applicable is association with rebelliousness in the reference in the novel to the defeat of the rebel Scotch at Colloden Muir (337).

As for crusty seaman Charles Cap, twice in the novel Cooper calls him “captious” — pointing to his quibbling and faultfinding. A typical example of his criticism is his disdaining “the bit of a pond, that you call the Great Lake” (12).

The Big Serpent, otherwise known as Chingachgook, is named so not because he is treacherous but because “he is wise” (21). For his part, when allied with the Big Serpent, Pathfinder is said to have “acted with the wisdom of the serpent” (398).

A close reading shows how Cooper pairs and contrasts his characters. Throughout the book he develops the implications of Pathfinder and Jasper having the domains of the woods and water; he works out contrasts between Muir and Pathfinder; and in intricate ways he sets up various characters as foils. These foils include Lundie and Muir, the laird’s son and the parson’s son, who grew up together and now are close in age but are far apart in honor and capability in leadership. Arrowhead and Muir both want Mabel as an additional wife and both are subtle traitors. Mabel with Dew-of-June parallels to a degree the White-Indian relationship between the Pathfinder and Chingachgook. Arrowhead and the Big Serpent are Indian guides, one secretly serving the French and the other openly, according to his “natur’,” helping the English; the first is deceitful, the second completely trustworthy. Jasper, the lakeman, is compared and contrasted with Cap, the seaman. Again, Cap regularly contrasts the seafarer with the soldier, such as his brother-in- law Sergeant Dunham. Pathfinder is like Sergeant Dunham in being a kind of father to Mabel, and he has respect for the French warrior Captain Sanglier, just as Sanglier has respect for the notable provincial hero.

While Pathfinder is honest and just, his putative rival Muir is described as being devious, resentful, and proud. Muir’s sophistry is contrasted with Pathfinder’s “upright, disinterested and ingenuous nature” (302). Cooper exposes Muir gradually, revealing his childhood-based rebellion against his father and against the laird, with the King being the premier authority figure whose name Muir invokes but whom he dishonors. In speaking about treachery, Pathfinder defines the difference between Muir and himself: “Now, when I find a man all fair words, I look close to his deeds; for when the heart is right and raaly intends to do good, it is generally satisfied to let the conduct speak, instead of the tongue” (378). The narrator subsequently affirms that Muir’s manner “denotes artifice” and his tongue “is out of measure smooth” (414). In pursuing his greed and envy, Muir is willing to deprive Pathfinder and sacrifice Jasper.

In the most dominant paired relationship of the novel, Pathfinder and Jasper are both friends and rivals. If Pathfinder is “a sort of type of what Adam might have been supposed to be before the fall” (134), and Mabel is an Eve, Jasper is a younger Adam, modeled after Pathfinder. (At one point, Cooper says Jasper and Mabel resembled “Milton’s picture of our first parents” [457]). Pathfinder and Jasper reflect the major physical dualities of the book, land and water, which are reconciled in the title The Pathfinder. or The Inland Sea and in the closing chapters of the book.

At first, the plot sets up a dichotomy of land or water. Mabel is given the choice of going into the woods with Pathfinder or staying on the water with Jasper. She chooses to stay in the canoe rather than striking out through the woods, anticipating her later choice of Jasper over Pathfinder as a marriage partner. She even changes canoes to be with Jasper Western. At the garrison, she looks first at the “dense, interminable forest” then turns to view the “field of rolling waters” (108). While viewing the scene, she is joined by Pathfinder who explicitly says, “’Here you have both our domains, ... Jasper’s and mine. The lake is for him, and the woods are for me’” (110). For the time, she is satisfied with both; later, she chooses a place reached readily from the water and finally goes to a settlement on the water’s edge.

The overall plot puts emphasis first on the land and then on the sea. The first half of The Pathfinder contains a rescue under Pathfinder’s direction, safe arrival at the garrison, and the rivalry of the shooting match, and ends with distress at sea in the Scud with Cap at the helm. The second half of the book, corresponding to volume two in the 1840 edition, begins with a rescue at sea under Jasper’s direction, then has a safe arrival at Station Island, rivalry over control of the blockhouse versus surrender, distress under attack (with lives lost), and rescue by both Pathfinder and Jasper.

Resolution of the land-sea dichotomy is anticipated by Cooper’s beginning description of the “ocean of leaves” and is reconciled in the end by the joined forces of Jasper and Pathfinder at an island — a small piece of land surrounded by water. While Cap makes sharp distinctions (he says, “ours is all water, yours [speaking to Pathfinder] is all land” [23]), Pathfinder is in between: “We border men,” he says, “handle the paddle and the spear, almost as much as the rifle and the hunting knife” (23). And to the young sailor he says, I “find nothing very contrary, in our gifts, though yourn belong to the lakes and mine to the woods” (33). Yet at the very end, Pathfinder returns wholly to the forest, leaving Jasper and Mabel in their cottage at the edge of the woods. The conclusion is poignant in showing the distressed Pathfinder at parting to be “lost in the depths of the forest” (468).

In addition to those already mentioned, Cooper subtly presents many situations which anticipate later events. Early on, Pathfinder tells Jasper Western to speak his feelings (54); this is echoed in a later chapter. Too, several times Jasper is reluctant to relate his own exploits. At the beginning of the novel in their cover by the riverside, Jasper and Mabel converse together for an hour, unaware of how “the time flew by swiftly” (55); then near the end when they confess their love to each other, the two spend an hour without realizing how much time has passed.

Jasper’s skill in going over Oswego Falls — despite Cap’s disbelief, is repeated in running the Scud up near the shore to catch the undertow. Cooper emphasizes this connection by having Cap say, “the lad has a handy way with him in a gale, it must be owned,” with Pathfinder responding, “And in coming over waterfalls!” (405).

In wanting to win the shooting match and thus be able to present the calash to Mabel, Jasper is, according to Pathfinder, “Never satisfied with his own gifts, but forever craving that which Providence denies!” (166). Yet later in desiring marriage with Mabel, Pathfinder realizes that he himself is “craving that which Providence denies.”

Besides treating in The Pathfinder the forest versus the sea and their reconciliation, Cooper interweaves the themes of age versus youth, station versus levelling, honesty and trust versus treachery, and the heart versus the head.

Experience is something Cap claims and urges Jasper to obtain; Mabel likewise is singled out for her youth. Yet the older Muir’s claim of experience in matrimony actually lessens his desirability, and the older Major Lundie, Sergeant Dunham, and Charles Cap are all deceived while the younger Mabel holds to the truth of Jasper’s innocence.

There are several stances regarding caste or station in the novel. The military personnel and their wives are highly conscious of rank and position. Lundie is concerned that Muir “should bring discredit on his caste by forming an unequal alliance” (164). Sergeant Dunham is sensitive to his position of being a non-commissioned officer in charge of an expedition. And the narrator tells us Mabel was educated “more than was usual for young women in her own station in life” (109). Muir’s treachery seems based on resentment regarding his station (301-02). Yet Pathfinder, Mabel, and Jasper are not bound the way the military personnel are to notions of caste and station. Indeed, by marrying Jasper, Mabel avoids station altogether and they become archetypal Americans. Lundie complains of the “irregularity of the provincials” (139) or Americans who are described as leveling in their tendencies; indeed, Cooper says, Americans “overlook, or undervalue advantages that place them certainly on a level with, if not above most of their fellow creatures” (152). Finally, death is presented as the great leveller.

Keeping one’s station and the love plot are woven together in Pathfinder’s wish to place Mabel “in a situation above that which he then filled” (419). The love plot is also connected with the question of honesty, trust, and loyalty or their contraries, deceitfulness and treachery, with which the novel is so much concerned. Jasper exclaims, “As for the Quarter Master, his feigning love for Mabel, is worse even than his treason to the king!” (427)

Just as Mabel and Jasper “become acquainted through their feelings rather than their expressed thoughts” (22), so Cooper’s initial epigraph resonates throughout the novel. This epigraph is from the poet Cowper, ” — Here the heart / May give a useful lesson to the head, / And Learning wiser grow without his books.” The villain Muir is all head, and he accuses Sergeant Dunham of taking “counsel of his heart, instead of his head” (320). Both Cap and Muir are limited by their philosophizing, while Pathfinder praises Jasper for his true tongue and heart (170), and Pathfinder in countering Muir’s perfidies affirms, “Talk to me of no ensigns, and signals, when I know the heart — ” (421).

Finally, Cooper’s art in The Pathfinder is evident as well in his use of biblical allusion. Pathfinder is a type of Adam, the narrator tells us; Pathfinder is also a type of the second Adam, or Christ. One particularly notable allusion will have to suffice here: Pathfinder narrates the three times he was sorely tempted: to take beaver skins that belonged to a Frenchman, to hide a rifle that was competitive with Killdeer, and to attack unarmed Mingos. These correspond to the three temptations of Jesus which pertain to possessions, glory, and assertion of power over life. (435)

Robert Spiller said that while Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant “had helped to create an art for America, Cooper took the first strong step toward an American art.” Certainly this is true in respect to The Pathfinder, which with its thoughtful attention to names, character relationships, and intricacies of plot is a carefully crafted, fully realized work of art.


[added by Hugh C. MacDougall, May 2000]

1 Stephen Railton, Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

2 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pathfinder; or, The Inland Sea. Ed. Richard Dilworth Rust. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981. All page citations are to this edition.