Heirs to the Wild and Distant Past: Landscape and Historiography in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers

Nancy C. Shour (Independent Scholar)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1998 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Diego.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No.10, August 1998.

Copyright © 1998, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

I would like to look today, in as much detail as 20 minutes permits, at a group of scenes from the first published volume of Cooper’s five volume serial American history in which he constructs for us what I believe is Cooper’s fundamental polemic in this series: the process of cultural memory, and particularly how Cooper’s landscapes invoke not the optimistic, limitless possibilities of the American future, but serve as a record of the past, a record whose “meaning” whose history must be passed from generation to generation, as illustrated by the development of Elizabeth Temple into the type of citizen-historian who becomes the custodian of cultural memory. And while it is a separate paper altogether., I would like to embroider briefly on this model of the daughter as the “heir” to historical memory and the poignant mirroring of this inheritance in Cooper’s own daughter and heir, Susan Fenimore Cooper.

Four months after James Fenimore Cooper’s death, in January of 1852, historian Francis Parkman published the first extensive evaluation of Cooper’s cultural and historical significance in an article for the nationalist periodical, the North American Review. He claimed that “Of all American writers, Cooper is the most original, the most thoroughly national.” 1 Parkman’s evaluation focuses on Cooper’s use of American scenery, specifically Cooper’s use of landscape descriptions, as a reflection of an American national identity: “The sea and the forest have been the scenes of his countrymen’s most conspicuous achievements; and it is on the sea and in the forest that Cooper is most at home” (147) ‘To Parkman, the land is the source of all that is American, because “the vigorous life of the nation springs from the deep rich soil at the bottom of society” (160). And yet, even by 1852 Parkman sees in The Leatherstocking Tales an historical record of the irreversible changes western expansion has inflicted on the American landscape. He recalls the landscape of The Pioneers as “a vivid reflection of scenes and characters which will soon pass away” (157). To Parkman, The Leatherstocking Tales are a history of this change.

Within the conventions of` romantic history, Cooper’s task as an historian was to recreate the experience of change as expansionist settlement moved westward. By picturing the landscape, Cooper is, then, picturing territory that will inevitably he settled. Cooper’s pictorial use of landscape not only employs evocative romantic literary convention, but it is also a developmentally essential element of the historical and polemic thematics of his works.

From the opening narrative commentary in The Pioneers, Cooper was seemingly at pains to direct his audience to the story of American history in The Leatherstocking Tales. The Pioneers begins with an historical overview, a pattern that Cooper maintains in all of the following novels. 2 The historical sketch at the beginning of The Pioneers explicitly places the first novel, and thus the series which evolves from it, in the context of territorial expansion. Our first view of the regions surrounding Templeton is of a mobile territory that almost seeps westward out of our view. The physical setting of the novel is a small region in “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. 3 The region extends in a potentially infinite succession of forest after forest. stream after lake, and Cooper corrects himself to identify it in proper topographical terms, layering the “picture” his words paint over the perspective of looking at a living map. Cooper then continues:

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 in their streams, they form one of the proudest rivers of the United Slates (PIO: 5).

The opening landscape is unbounded, demarcated and ordered only by the visible paths of the waterways, which themselves are unrestrained as they flow and meander out of’ the scene. Indeed. the only order in the scene is created by the mind of the writer/artist. Cooper’s description also emphasizes the infinite profusion in the scene. Every feature of the scene multiplies into innumerable plurals, and the only singular and definite objects, the Delaware and the Susquehanna. disperse into other rivers. Like the lakes, streams, mountains, and valleys, these rivers are but one of ‘many teeming throughout the almost tangibly mobile territory.

The “cultivated” features added to the landscape by man echo this same profuse pattern. “Beautiful and thriving villages are found interspersed” through the scene, and “neat and comfortable farms ... are scattered profusely through the vales; even to the mountaintops.” The roads, like the rivers. “diverge from every; direction, from the even and graceful bottoms of the valleys, to the most rugged and intricate passes of the hills,” passing through the area to further successions of the same scene, (PIO: 5). Cooper then introduces “the eye of a stranger” into the description. The stranger’s view passes through replications of the same essential setting and villages “at every few miles, as he winds his way through this uneven territory.” Cooper’s opening sketch identifies Templeton as a settlement representative of all others in “this uneven territory. All around Templeton and along the rivers and roads that push onward through the scene, Cooper alerts us, the circumstances of settlement in The Pioneers are being repeated acre after acre.

Even the process of settlement itself is, in Cooper’s view, a “succession,” as one generation follows and improves on the work of the preceding:

The expedients of the pioneers who first broke the ground in the settlement of this country are succeeded by the permanent improvements of the yeoman, who intends to leave his remains to moulder under the sod which he tills, or; perhaps, of the son, who, born in the land, piously wishes to linger around the grave of his father (PIO: 16)

In this passage, Cooper distinguishes three generations of settlement, stretching the work of settlement further and further into the past. Then, Cooper collapses this sense of an expansive, time-consuming succession into its actual historical duration. Addressing his audience’s perspective in 1823, he reminds them that “Only forty years have passed since this territory was a wilderness.” By emphasizing the succession of generations whose collective work establishes and maintains these frontier settlements, Cooper defines Templeton, as Wayne Franklin notes, “as a place of endurance as much as growth, a site clearly left behind by the now distant forces of American expansion” 4

And of course, this view is not beheld by “the eye of a stranger,” as Cooper ironically claims, but is in fact a vista of Cooper’s own personal history. For the public landscape of territorial expansion that has just opened the novel is also the landscape of Cooper’s own personal history, reminding us that Templeton is Cooperstown, and the landscape’s visual record of historical change is for Cooper immediate and personal. That this private, regional New York landscape is now a generically “American” scene — just as it became for the Hudson River School painters — is itself the result of the very process of national memory that the novel depicts. From Cooper’s vantage point in 1823, when the foremost settlements reached to Missouri and the Mississippi Valley, expansion had certainly moved on into the interior and even (as Washington Irving documented) to outposts in the Pacific northwest. 5 Thus, Cooper’s summary of government-encouraged settlement at the conclusion of this first historical sketch could not help but echo America’s more: recent pioneering efforts:

Very, soon after the establishment of the independence of the States, by the peace of 1783, the enterprise of their citizens was directed to the development of the natural advantages of their widely extended dominions. ... Within the short period we have mentioned, the population has spread itself over five degrees of latitude and seven of longitude. ... * * * Our tale begins in 1793, about seven years after the commencement of one of the earliest of: those settlements, which have conduced to effect that magical change in the power and the condition of the State, to which we have alluded, (PIO: 16; emphasis mine).

In Cooper’s time, the widely extended dominion now reached deep into the Louisiana territory, where the first “expedients of` the pioneers” were already yielding to the next successive generation The sketch of this first and central landscape in The Pioneers reasserts the layers of the past interwoven in these opening Passages. As Cooper prepares to begin his narrative, he recalls the past of the first settlement; the novel’s “present” setting in 1793. and the implicit perspective from which “that magical change” is now forty years past in 1823. As the historical context of Cooper’s audience merges with that of the novel, the post-Revolutionary settlement of the lands acquired by the Treaty of Paris becomes an earlier point on a continuum of expansion that extended into Cooper’s own era.

In this landscape passage we have just studied, Cooper uses the device of “prospect” in a way that undermines its traditional associations with order and harmony. The conventional “prospect,” as we can see in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and in several of Crèvecoeur’s Letters of an American Farmer, was an Enlightenment aesthetic by which the disharmony and profusion of an immediate scene were: drawn into order by a more distant, usually elevated, view. 6 The spatial element of prospect allowed a broader “view” to reconcile the extremes of topography, as well as the Juxtaposition of settlement and wilderness. This convention diffuses the contradiction and tension of an immediate point of view by placing it in a large space in which these apparent disharmonies could co-exist. These expansive descriptions are a recurring formal element in The Leatherstocking Tales, which both Donald Ringe and Blake Nevius have studied in detail. 7 As both scholars observe, Cooper’s landscape descriptions clearly recreate the visual (and psychological) perception of space and distance so inseparable from the frontier experience. But as the opening scene of The Pioneers has revealed, the viewer is also disarmed by the lack of restraint or order in this growth. Seen from an infinite prospect the potential for this growth seems truly limitless and haphazard, a perception that erodes the pastoral values of order and simplicity.

Cooper’s use of “prospect”, a term with connotations of the potential, the possible forecast for the future, is often subversive. In the immediate, the plot of the novel is propelled by the conflicts of competing versions of the American pasts — the Indian past, the past of wilderness, the settlement past, the colonial past, the Revolutionary past — and the claims of the American present, as represented by the conflict of law and inethical exploitation of nature. Cooper seems deeply uncertain whether these disharmonies can be resolved in the broader view of time and the generations, a concern still relevant to the conflicts of multicultural identities and competing versions of “American” history evident in present-day America and in canon debates in today’s classrooms. The “prospect” for the American future, as symbolized by the “heirs” in the plot, Elizabeth Temple and Oliver Effingham, depends on the urgency of instilling historical memory in future generations, that the rightful heirs, as the plot of the novel resolves with the passing of the Indian past, and the marriage of Elizabeth and Oliver, both become custodians of historical pasts of their own.

Cooper’s own life was itself a remarkable example of this task of legacy. Born the year the Constitution of the United States was ratified, James Fenimore Cooper was a fourteen-year-old student at Yale when Thomas Jefferson acquired the Louisiana territory for the young American nation. Cooper’s father. Judge William Cooper, “settled more acres than any man in America” beginning with a 40,000 acre tract surrounding his namesake, Cooperstown, on territory opened to America after The Treaty of Paris (1783). By the time of his death in 1809, Judge Cooper’s personal land-holdings had expanded to nearly 750,000 acres with “forty thousand souls now holding directly or indirectly under me.” 8 Cooper’s father was one of the first enterprising: landowners to attain his fortune and influence directly from the territorial acquisitions of the American Revolution. As the son and heir to this pioneer landowner, district judge, and congressman, Cooper grew up in a household where the names of history were family acquaintances.

From Cooper’s biography, we learn of yet another layer of historical meaning for the landscapes of The Pioneers, for in addition to Cooper’s experience of these scenes, his understanding and knowledge of the Cooperstown area assimilated his own father’s memories of the early sights of the region. Judge Cooper was the first explorer and pioneering settler of his Otsego tract, and he experienced firsthand the “greatest discouragement” of wilderness settlement on land that “was besides the roughest land in all the state, and the most difficult of cultivation of all that has been settled.” In his pamphlet, A Guide in the Wilderness, Judge Cooper tells of his first visit to the future site of Cooperstown:

In 1785, 1 visited the rough and hilly country of Otsego, where there existed not an inhabitant, nor any trace of a road; I was alone; three hundred miles from home, without bread, meal, or food of any kind; fire and fishing-tackle were my only means of subsistence. I caught trout in the brook and roasted them on the ashes. ... l laid me down to sleep in my watch-coat, nothing but melancholy wilderness about me. In this way I explored the country, formed my plans of future settlements, and meditated upon the spot where a place of trade, or a future village should afterwards be established. (S. Cooper: xxiii)

This experience of settlement history is portrayed in Judge Temple, a thinly veiled surrogate for Cooper’s own father. Judge Temple’s adversary, Natty Bumppo, emerges in the novel as a contentious witness to the changes settlement has inflicted on the region. The dispute over the slain buck between Judge Temple and Natty Bumppo is a direct result, Natty believes, of the impact of settlement, since only a few years before either man would have easily been able to shoot another deer. Natty reminds the Judge that “the time has been, when I have shot thirteen deer, without counting the fa’ans, standing in the door of my own hut!” (PIO: 22). Here, Natty injects his own memories of the region, and the following argument between the two men over Natty’s hunting rights exists precisely because Natty insists on asserting the claims of the past. He argues that “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 them ” (PIO: 25). Natty resists the Judge’s efforts to erase the claims of the past on the present, because Natty can remember them. Through Natty’s fidelity to his own recollections, Cooper asserts that the historical perspective of territorial expansion and change is the perspective of a single lifetime. Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook are both literal and figurative guardians and advocates of` the past, and it is their version of the past that Oliver Effingham has adopted, just as the two men have adopted him.

The centerpiece of the novel is a threefold prospect — the view from Mount Vision from the perspective of Judge Temple and Natty Bumppo as it is recounted directly to Elizabeth and Oliver. Cooper has continued the perspective of memory and expansionist history in Elizabeth Temple’s first impressions of the Templeton area. As she arrives by sleigh along one of the same roads Cooper mapped out in his opening paragraph; Elizabeth observes the astonishing changes which have taken place in the four years she has been absent from Templeton. As Elizabeth orients herself to the scene below her, she is reassured by enduring features from her past, by even tenuous continuity between the present and the remembered past. If young Elizabeth Temple can recognize so much alteration in the world around her, how much more of this process would Natty himself know within the span of his own memory?

Later, she goes riding with her father, followed by Oliver, and Judge Temple recalls his first glimpse of the village’s lands from Mount Vision, by which Cooper offers the reader a comparison to Elizabeth’s prospect in chapter three. and to Natty’s prospect in chapter twenty-six. ‘The past, as the Judge defines it in this scene, originates with his first memories of Templeton. Elizabeth is eager to ride quickly through the scene, but Judge Temple reprimands her, reminding her that this formidable terrain should impress her as a measure of the settlers’ tremendous accomplishment. He tells her that:

If thou hadst seen this district of country, as I did. when it lay in the sleep of nature, and had witnessed its rapid changes, as it awoke to supply the wants of man. thou wouldst curb thy impatience for a little time, (PIO: 232).

As Judge Temple rides through the forest, he sees what it was in terms of what it has become. Interestingly, the Judge speaks of those changes as though they are past. And though Elizabeth herself is profoundly aware of the recent changes in the scene, she realizes that they are but a small measure of the full range of her father’s memories. She asks to hear her father’s first impressions of the scene, commenting that “wild and unsettled as it may yet seem, it must have been a thousand times more dreary then.” Just as the Judge begins his version of history, Cooper notifies us that young Oliver Edwards/Effingham rides up to hear the Judge’s words.

But the Judge’s rendition of the past makes no mention of the past to which Oliver will ultimately lay claim. Instead, the Judge’s “history” of Otsego literally begins when he first laid eyes on his possession. In a pattern similar to Cooper’s opening sketch, the Judge describes a drastically changed scene that seems to originate in the distant past, and collapses it into the perspective of “a few short years.” As Judge Temple re-envisions his first impression of his land for Elizabeth, he fills in the absent past to justify his own perceptions of scene to her. He repeats her statement of their different apprehensions of the scene, agreeing that “unimproved and wild as this district now seems to your eyes, what was it when I first entered the hills!” PIO: 235). from his treetop lookout (a small- scale prospect) he affirms to Elizabeth that

not the vestige of a man could I trace during my progress, nor from my elevated observatory. No clearing, no hut, none of the winding roads that are now to be seen, were there: nothing but mountains rising behind mountains: and the valley, with its surface of branches, enlivened here and there with the faded foliage of some tree (PIO: 235)

Cooper next allows Natty’s memory to answer the Judge’s version of history. Oliver returns to Natty’s hut, and hears the history not of five or ten years past, but many generations. Together; Natty and Chingachgook tell Oliver their collective version of the past. Natty begins by revealing that he has “known the Otsego water for some forty-five years” (PIO: 291). It is Natty, not Judge Temple, who has “had the place to himself [and] there was none to meddle with the ground.” Natty then evokes the truly untouched scenes of the past, as he remembers being able to look from a ridge in the Catskills out over “all creation.”

Thus informed with the complex histories of the lands to which they are heir, a knowledge enlivened by their sentimental attachments to father and friends, the couple are heirs not only to these lands, but to their history. And when Elizabeth reappears in Cooper’s later novel Home as Found, it is not in the role of heir to the future, but as the heir to the memories of Templeton’s past.

That the daughter becomes heir to her father’s historical legacy is not just a denouement of fiction. By the time of his death, Cooper’s daughter Susan, herself an extremely gifted writer much in the vein of Thoreau, became heir to her father’s legacy, both his literary works and his vision of the American past. She dedicated the remainder of her life to protecting and advocating her father’s work. But more significantly, his history became the work of her future, and her scholarly and insightful historical introductions to the 1876 Household Edition of her Father’s writings are themselves distinctly individual works of history and memory, assessing not only her father’s cultural role, but adding her own extensive understanding of the more contemporary issues of the suppression of the Indian past and the cost of continental expansion on American nature. From the prospect of time, she has created a legacy of` her own.


1 North American Review LXXIV (January 1852), p. 147

2 The seeming exception to this statement in the Leatherstocking series is the opening of The Pathfinder, in which Cooper transforms the omniscient opening sketch found in the previous novels to two points of view specifically identified as the perceptions of Hist and Charles Cap.

3 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, or The Sources of the Susquehanna; a Descriptive Tale. Ed. James Franklin Beard. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), p. 1. All references to this novel will be identified in the text as PIO, followed by the page number.

4 Wayne Franklin, The New World of James Fenimore Cooper (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 17.

5 Upon his return from Europe in 1832, Irving took a particular interest in the explorations and attempted settlements of the Pacific Northwest. See, most notably, Astoria: or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836), based on the fate of the 1808-1812 Astoria, Oregon enterprise, and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). But one must recall that the Oregon territory was considered for statehood as early as 1826, so that the conception of how far the vistas of the opening scene “expanded” in the experience of Cooper’s reading audience would already connote a potentially continental nation.

6 I take my conception of prospect from Mitchell Breitwieser’s “Jefferson’s Prospect,” Prospects: The Annual of American Cultural Studies 10 (1985), pp. 315-352. Jefferson’s prospect, according to Breitwieser, is a trope that “represents the use of vision as a figure for understanding” (317). See, for instance, the “prospect” in Jefferson’s fourth query from Notes (1783) and at the beginning of Letter Three, “What is an American?” in Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur’s Letters of an American Farmer (1783).

7 Nevius emphasizes the visual experience of “picturing” Nature that Cooper constructs in his descriptions, and their aesthetically evocative qualities. See Ringe’s The Pictorial Mode and Blake Nevius’ Cooper’s Landscapes: An Essay in Picturesque Vision (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976). Ringe defines the properties of space and time in Cooper’s expansive descriptions, particularly the capacity of pictorialism to provide order through representing precise detail and palpable immensity (see Ringe, pp. 16-17). More recently, Angela Miller has investigated the nationalization of the regional Hudson River landscape in The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993). William Truettner and Alan Wallach also consider the transformation of Cooper’s regional landscapes into landscapes of national history in Thomas Cole: Landscape and History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

8 Cooper’s daughter and literary executor, Susan Fenimore Cooper, included salient excerpts from William Cooper’s A Guide in the Wilderness (1810) in her introduction to the Household edition of The Pioneers (Cambridge: H.O. Houghton and Co., 1876), p. xxii. Because I have intentionally cited the passages that she selected from her grandfather’s separately published tract, I have chose to make further references to this introduction parenthetically in the text identified as S. Cooper, rather than W. Cooper. I choose to cite Susan Cooper given the significance of this biographical example of legacy and the generations which resonates in Cooper’s novel as well as his own life.