“A Life in the Woods”: Failure of Leadership in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, The Pioneers, and The Crater
Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1993 Conference of the American Literature Association in Baltimore.
Copyright © 1993, James Fenimore Cooper Society.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 4, September 1993.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
At the end of The Deerslayer, James Fenimore Cooper writes, “We live in a world of transgression and selfishness, and no pictures that represent us otherwise can be true.” This statement reflects Cooper’s view of human nature, a view which led him to a very pessimistic idea of historical process. Because his Anglican leanings predisposed him to see human nature as fallen, he was deeply pessimistic about the future of America, and indeed many of his works can be read as cautionary tales designed to guide the moral and political development of the new nation. Not mere adventure stories, as they were once thought to be, many of his novels (including the Leatherstocking Tales) represent a search for leaders able to impose control on this world of “transgression and selfishness.” This is particularly true of his frontier novels, for it is on the frontier (in the woods) that leader ship is truly tested. Each of the novels I have chosen to discuss, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, The Pioneers, and The Crater, deals specifically with the settling and governance of newly-formed communities, and in each Cooper portrays an apparently fit leader who is ultimately shown to fail.
Let me explain my concept of the linkage of Cooper’s religious thought and his concept of historical process. Although Cooper was not confirmed in the Episcopalian Church until the end of his life, he had attended an Episcopal academy in Albany as a young man and as an adult had long attended services at Christ Church in Cooperstown, even representing the church at diocesan con ferences. His notion of a social order based upon “station,” his inherent conservatism and upper-class leanings, and his elitist distrust of the majority all reveal similarities with Episcopalian teachings, but the linkage is most telling in Cooper’s dark view of human nature. Like the New England Puritans, Episcopalians subscribed to the doctrine of innate depravity; unlike the Puritans, Episcopalians believed that grace could be accumulated through the sacraments of the church and that human reason could distinguish good from evil and incline toward choosing good. Unfortunate ly, the world seemed all too full of those who chose corruption over Christian principle. Painfully aware of the limitations imposed on human beings by the Fall, Cooper saw all about him signs of the imperfectibility of human nature; instead of an orderly progression toward a society governed by a “natural” aristocracy, he saw the chaos brought about by the rule of the “mob”; instead of a peaceful transition from wilderness to settlement, he saw forests ravaged by human greed; instead of the Puritans’ “city on a hill” in America’s future, he envisioned the destruction described in The Crater.
Several critics have identified Cooper’s view of history as cyclical. There may be “progress” in the sense of a transition from hunting to agrarian to industrial society and one may question whether Cooper would call this last stage “progress” but such progress is aimless unless accompanied by moral growth. Limited by their imperfect natures, humans cannot create perfect socie ties; rather, they may establish a series of civilizations, each of which will repeat the cycle of rise, decay, and fall most vividly depicted in Thomas Cole’s landscape series, “The Course of Empire,” alluded to at the close of The Crater.
In each of the novels that form the focus of this paper, Cooper seems to be asking whether there might be a way to break this cycle. If a capable enough leader were to guide the course of a developing settlement, could the decline be avoided? In The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, Cooper seeks answers in the colonial past; in The Pioneers, he traces the history of a contemporary settlement; in The Crater, he portrays a civilization’s entire life cycle (brief though it is), and he precisely identifies those elements that destroy it.
Many different readings of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish are possible, signified by the fact that when it first appeared in 1829 it was given a different title in each of the five languages in which it was published. The French title, which translates as “The Puritans of America,” reflects a reading that I would like to explore in this paper: surely the novel can be read as a captivity narrative, or as a tragic romance resulting from the attempts of young lovers to transcend cultural and racial boundaries, or as a political commentary, but it is in addition to these things Cooper’s only full- length examination of America’s Puritan heritage and of Puritan leaders. His doubt about Puritan leadership is a significant component in his own dark worldview.
In The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, Cooper paints a mixed portrait of the Puritans. At one extreme is the Rev. Meek Wolfe, a dark figure whose religious fanaticism is lightened only here and there by kindness or virtue. As the reverend’s name suggests, his is a “lofty and pretending humility” combined with a thirst for blood. He is so narrow-minded and self-righteous that he can see only one set of opinions, his own (264). A demagogue, he uses his rhetorical skills and his position as minister to incite his parishioners to war (thus he conforms to a familiar characterization of the Puritan, a Bible in one hand, a sword in the other). In describing how the settlers “poured out of the temple in defence of person and fireside, and as they believed, of religion and of God” (273), Cooper under scores their bigotry and Wolfe’s demagoguery with the ironic aside, “as they believed.” And he adds, “The Army of Mohamet itself was scarcely less influenced by fanaticism than these blinded zealots ... most of them were fully prepared to become ministers of vengeance” (324). Furthermore, it is Wolfe who is responsible for the death of Conanchet [Cooper’s spelling of the historical Canonchet], for he hands the young chief over to his enemies knowing that they will kill him. Troubled by this ethical breach, the Puritan commissioners hurry away, “with consciences that re quired some aid from the stimulus of their subtle doctrines. ... They were, however, ingenious casuists, and as they hurried along their return path, most of the party were satisfied that they had rather manifested a merciful interposition, than exercised any act of positive cruelty” (376). The “ingenious casuistry” of the Puritans, their ability to manipulate their reasoning so as to rationalize their ethical failings, leads Cooper to question their moral leadership. One can almost hear the novel’s narrator breathe a sigh of relief when at the end of the story he introduces the present minister of the valley, one Meek Lamb, who though a descendant of his aptly named predecessor, has undergone not only a change in name but in “doctrinal interpretations of duty” (399).
Balanced against Wolfe is the depiction of the “venerable religionist,” Mark Heathcote. It is he who holds the family together, who imposes orderly settlement on the valley of the Wish-ton- Wish, who shelters the regicide, Submission, and who prays for forgiveness, not vengeance, for the Indians who have attacked the village. Yet even he is shown to have weaknesses related to his faith: once or twice the veneer of his humility cracks, as when we are told that he has been known to allude to a “Sir Mark” in his ancestry; excitement flares in the old soldier’s eyes when Indian attacks allow him to take up his sword once again; and, like most of his countrymen in the mid seventeenth century, he believes in witchcraft. More serious than these minor faults, however, is Heathcote’s refusal inability is perhaps a better word to comprehend the Indians’ resentment of the white settlers. Though Heathcote has created “in the seemingly endless maze of the wilderness ... a picture of prosperity and peace” (17), settlement is not without cost. The returned captive, Whittal Ring, speaks for the Narragansetts when he says:
Tall trees and shady woods, rivers and lakes filled with fish, and deer and beaver plentiful as the sand on the seashore. All this land and water the Great Spirit gave to men of red skins, for them he loved. ... [Then] big canoes came out of the rising sun, and brought a hungry and wicked people into the land. ... Oh, they are wicked knaves! A pale-face is a panther (241- 242).
Still, Heathcote and his band cling to the notion that they have a right to the valley: “What we enjoy, we enjoy rightfully” (149), Ruth explains to the young Conanchet. Nor are these Puritans content to take only the Indians’ lands; they want their souls as well. Hope of converting his young captive to Christianity burns in Heathcote’s breast like a “sort of ruling passion” (89). Heathcote does not understand the Indians and therefore cannot bring the two cultures together. Heathcote has many good qualities, but even he ultimately fails as a leader. Although he tames the wilder ness and guides the settlement towards prosperity, he cannot comprehend the cost, and in the end, his blindness contributes to the outbreak of King Philip’s War and to the specific tragedies that close the novel. Here, as in The Last of the Mohicans, the deaths of Conanchet, his beloved Narra-Mattah (young Ruth, the “wept” of the book’s title), and their half-white, half-red infant, represent the impossibility of bridging the gulf between these two so different cultures.
In The Pioneers, Cooper presents another sort of leader, one of the “model gentry” identified by Donald Ringe, or more specifically, the “Anglican gentlemen” described by Kay Seymour House, men marked for leadership by the quality of their moral characters. (Formerly a Quaker, Judge Temple is at the time of the novel a congregant of the Rev. Mr. Grant’s Episcopal church.) This novel describes the apparently orderly transition from wilderness to civilization in the village of Templeton. The narrator offers three views of the valley in which the village is located. One depicts it as it appears in 1793, as Elizabeth Temple, returning to the village, looks down on the landscape from Mt. Vision, and sees it quilted with small farms and centered on a village of about fifty houses and streets carefully laid out by her father (40-42). This view is contrasted to the Judge’s reminiscence of the valley as he first saw it from the heights of Mt. Vision, an uninhabited “boundless forest ... nothing but mountains rising behind mountains” (235). The narrator has already shown us (in the first chapter) a view of the valley as it appears around 1821, when Cooper wrote the novel; now it is filled with “beautiful and thriving villages ... and neat and comfortable farms,” schools, and churches (15). Everywhere in this scene, the narrator finds signs that the yeoman has supplanted the pioneer and that the valley has been successfully settled by “a moral and reflecting people under a government based on “mild laws” and the “unfettered liberty of conscience” (15)
But despite appearances, the novel insinuates that the transition has not in fact been smooth and that the future of the settlement is not rosy. The transition has raised disturbing questions: Who owns the land? What sort of law is necessary to promote civilization? Can civil law control the destructive elements in the community? Although critics may argue that the novel resolves the first two questions, its failure to resolve the third reflects Cooper’s pessimistic view of fallen humanity and his doubts regarding leadership. Cooper believed that the Fall had loosed all of humanity’s worst qualities, among them greed, rapaciousness, and lack of self-control. Therefore he saw humanity as quick to destroy the New World paradise, cutting the forests, wasting the creatures, murdering the native inhabitants. Three scenes in The Pioneers illustrate this tendency especially clearly. The first, the fish-kill, prompts the Judge to turn to Elizabeth in disgust and proclaim “This is a fearful expenditure of the choicest gifts of Providence” (259). In contrast to the sheriff, who draws the fish in relentlessly, Natty Bumppo spears one and tells Indian John, “That will do ... I shall not strike another blow tonight” (270). The good examples of Natty and the Judge do nothing to ameliorate the wantonness of the townspeople, and one is reminded once again of Cooper’s almost paranoid distrust of the “mob.” In the case of the pigeon-shoot and in the maple sugaring scene, Natty and the Judge attempt to educate the people in the proper uses of nature “Use, but don’t waste” (248) but their in struction is ignored.
Symbolic of the destruction of nature is the burning of the mountain, the peak from which the Judge first saw the valley and to which he gave the prophetic name Mt. Vision. Thus Templeton and the mountain become a microcosm illustrating Cooper’s view of history: a settlement is established, control of the land passes from red to white hands, the government is wrested from the British (represented here by the Effingham loyalists) and entrusted to an Anglican gentleman. The settlement appears to flourish, but human nature has already undermined it. And what we are left with is not a visionary “city on a hill,” but a charred and lifeless ruin.
In 1847, The Crater was published, surely one of Cooper’s most interesting and significant works (read far too infrequently today). Wedding allegory to adventure story, Cooper created a vehicle for his most deeply felt moral and social theories (and at the same time found targets for nearly all his favorite petty grievances against everything from hypocritical Quakers to the free trade movement to the neighbors who usurped Three Mile Point). In this novel of ideas, Cooper chronicles the life cycle of a civilization, creating in the words of his editor, Thomas Philbrick
... less a Utopia that becomes an anti-Utopia than a representative society, a community whose history evinces the inability of imperfect man to create any lasting good. As Cooper traces the beginnings of agriculture, industry, and commerce, the repulse and pacification of the surrounding barbarian tribes, the attainment of power and ease, and the eventual moral disintegration and physical destruction of the Craterinos, he is compressing the entire cycle of civilization within the short span of the colony (xxiv).
Shipwrecked on a barren reef, Mark Woolston (pronounced Wooster, as Cooper painstakingly points out) and the sailor, Bob Betts, scratch out a meagre existence until one day the undersea eruption of a volcano heaves up a new mountain peak, pristine, verdant, and uninhabited, a virtual Eden. Here Mark founds his civilization, and here he is soon joined (through a series of most im probable plot twists) by his young wife, Bridget, and her former slaves. After building a ship, Mark sails back to Bristol, Pennsylvania, to handpick a small group of settlers to colonize his paradise further: “much care [was] bestowed on the selection. ... Morals were the first interest attended to” (299). Mark’s criteria reflect Cooper’s own: “too sensible a man to fall into any of the modern absurdities on the subject of equality,” Mark chooses rugged individualists and rejects all lawyers who apply for passage. Although aware that “religion often [causes] more feuds than anything else,” he decides to invite an Episcopalian priest along. Returning to the island, Mark becomes governor (his rightful station, as Cooper tells us repeat edly), and he sets up a council whose members are elected for life. In Cooper’s version of paradise, then, there are no socialists, no lawyers, no sectarian disputes, no elections, and, of course, no press at all. All is in the hands of Mark Woolston, archetypal Anglican gentleman, and for several years, all is harmony and the colony thrives.
Did Cooper not believe so deeply in the imperfectibility of human nature, the story would end here. But, as he tells us, “everything human is abused” (444), and evil will have its day. First, Bridget reveals an undercurrent of religious dissention in the colony; those colonists not of Episcopalian persuasion resent the preachings of the Reverend Hornblower. Next, lulled by the comforts of their surroundings, the colonists fall prey to idleness and sensual indulgence, which in turn lead them to “place self before God” (430), a condition that Cooper states is common to all people. Finally, another shipload of colonists arrives, bearing the agents of destruction: a printer, a lawyer, and no fewer than four ministers (a Presbyterian, a Methodist, a Baptist, and a Quaker). Now religious sectarianism tears through the island paradise; of the ministers Cooper writes, “The devil, in the form of a ‘professor,’ once again had entered Eden” (431). Litigation breaks out, men sud denly realizing (now that they have lawyers to educate them) that they have been wronged by their neighbors and overtaxed by their government (though, as Cooper points out, no taxes had ever been levied). Most devastating of all, however, is the effect of the press, for the newspaper introduces gossip which quickly leads to that type of government Cooper hates most of all, rule by major ity opinion. Mark, Anglican gentleman and natural leader though he is, is no match for the situation, and the entire civilization is literally “brought down” when the volcano erupts again and the whole island disappears into the sea. “Of such,” Cooper concludes, “is the world and its much-coveted advantages. For a time our efforts seem to create, and to adorn, and to perfect, until we forget our origin and destination, substituting self for that divine hand. ... ” (458-9).
In each of these novels, then, Cooper depicts a settlement as it passes from infancy to a more highly developed stage; but the inevitable failure of these settlements (implicit in The Wept of Wish- ton-Wish and The Pioneers, unmistakable in The Crater) reveals Cooper’s pessimism about the future of civilization itself. In the “woods” that symbolize the early stages of civilization, no leader emerges who is truly strong enough to control the destructive characteristics of those he leads. We are left with this analogy from The Prairie, in which a civilization is compared to a once mighty oak: “It is the fate of all things to ripen,” Cooper writes, “and then to decay. ... what does it all amount to! There does the noble tree fill its place in the forest, loftier, and grander, and richer, and more difficult to imitate ... than any. ... Then come the winds ... and the waters ... and the rot ... to bring it to the ground. It lies another hundred years a mouldering log, and then a mound of moss and ‘arth. ... and after all the cunningest scout of the whole Dahcotah nation might pass his life in searching for the spot where it fell. ... (241).
- Cooper, James Fenimore, The Crater. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1962.
- ------. The Pioneers. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980
- ------. The Prairie. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985
- ------. The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1970.