The Path to a New Environmental Consciousness in The Deerslayer

Steven Wolfe (University of Houston)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2001 Conference of the American Literature Association in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 14, August 2001, pp. 7-10.

Copyright © 2002, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

The Deerslayer is James Fenimore Cooper’s genuinely radical critique of Americans’ relationship to their natural environment — a critique that is both deliberate and, more importantly, relevant. In The Deerslayer we are returned to “a time before American history is set in motion” (Peck 163), wherein Glimmerglass lake becomes the American landscape in its formative moments of settlement, a stage set on which we can observe how the relationship between people and land will develop. As the last book written in the Leatherstocking series, every action is shadowed by the reader’s knowledge of the consequences that will follow; and since the fates of both Natty and Glimmerglass lake are given, Cooper returns us to the beginning of his life so as to demonstrate where Natty — and by extension the nation whose soul he represents — went wrong. But Cooper’s demonstration is not merely an elegy for a road not taken; it is a call to the type of perceptual change Annette Kolodny intends when she writes, “The magic, and even salvation, of man may, after all, lie in his capacity to enter into and exit from the images by which, periodically, he seeks to explore and codify the meaning of his experience” (178). The path toward this change, as Cooper presents it, lies in a reconciliation of the disparity between ideal and action, discussed in detail by Geoffrey Rans among others, that runs throughout American history and is central to Natty’s failure in this earliest stage of his life.

While Natty is the moral center of the Leatherstocking novels, that morality is shown to be hollow. The two poles of Natty’s ideals are his reliance on his Christian principles and his unwavering determination to see things and people clearly and honestly rather than through the eyes of the settled society he disdains. On both counts he fails. In The Deerslayer Natty is not an exemplar, but an object lesson: despite his genuine love for the wilderness, he is of course the prime example of the reasons for the lake’s fall. Rans sees him as an embodiment of certain virtues that America chose not to follow in its development in his pungent phrase, “[W]hat civilization wills not to be” (204) — however, discussing Natty’s Christian principles, Frieda Bradsher notes that Cooper has his hero “pick[ing] a course of action that will prevent him from living up to his highest ideals” (19; italics added). The issue of agency is crucial: we will see unmistakably that the loss of the regenerative forest world of Natty’s early youth depended on a specific choice he made in his relationship to that world, as enacted through his relationship with Judith Hutter.

Judith will offer him the opportunity to become a householder, the seat of authority for Glimmerglass. The outcome of that relationship is the moral and emotional center upon which Cooper will base his environmental critique. Natty can accept Judith’s offer, through which he will enter into a creative and stable human role and gain the opportunity to exert some authority over the future development of Glimmerglass; or he can reject her, remain solitary and transient, and watch helplessly as others exert their will upon the lake. Cooper urges us to examine both the consequences of that choice and the motivations and contradictions behind it, and to see that while Natty’s choice is irrevocable for him, it is not so for us: at any point in our history we may, as Cooper is urging us to do, make a different choice, reassess our own history as embodied in our treatment of the natural environment, and through that reassessment develop a new way of thinking about and acting within the natural world.

Extensive critical work has treated Cooper’s attempts to imbue the supposedly ‘virgin’ American wilderness with historical associations, thereby destroying that myth of its virginity. His object in doing so is important here. While the American wilderness has been seen as regenerative, a problem with seeing it as a virgin landscape is that the regeneration will run in only one direction: once that virginity is lost through use, the landscape can only decline. The states in which Nature can exist are black and white, either virgin or spoiled; and once spoiled there is nothing left but to regret the ‘ruin’ and turn our backs, as if to a ‘ruined’ woman, whose only possible path is to descend deeper into the hands of her increasingly rapacious exploiters. (The parallels to Judith Hutter’s fate are clear.) This imposition of the Madonna/whore attitude toward women onto nature sterilizes the relationship between nature and society, eliminating the possibility for a mature, multileveled relationship in which change is continual and regeneration runs in both directions.

Cooper’s goal in re-envisioning the land this way was at least partly to bring about a view of the land not as a virgin that was ‘ruined’ upon the first act of desecration, but as a developed and continually evolving entity that existed by means of careful and respectful human use and could at any time be harmed or helped, destroyed or saved, depending on the choices made at any given time by those who dwelt on it. The ideal would be a sort of “wise-use” environmentalism, incorporating a mutuality that excludes not only heedless exploitation, but also the kind of artificial wilderness preservation that is equally invested in the myth of a virgin state of nature. If Cooper was successful, the destruction of wilderness — abuse, that is, not use — that had occurred might come to be seen not as an inevitable byproduct of the development of the nation, but as a choice that could be remade.

Natty embodies, in fact, the very path America did follow. Clearly Cooper assumes that we, as readers, will not see Hurry Harry and Old Hutter as positive versions of the solitary hunter and frontier settler, nor will we wish Natty to emulate the grasping town dwellers. So what is his alternative path? Cooper’s posing of the situation is both heartbreaking and hopeful, because it is a choice confronted over and over again in our history. Natty will end up, as we see in The Prairie, in exile from a natural world in which he felt at home and for which he still longs, lingering away on a treeless prairie. Here’s how he ended up that way, the book warns, and here’s how we may reach a different destiny by examining and acting more closely according to those principles in which we suppose ourselves to believe.

Leland Person sees Cooper as offering an alternative to the “rootless energy” of the American present in the form of “permanence, continuity with the past, and the ‘natural order of things’” (174), qualities which Natty supposedly embodies. But whatever his intentions, in action Natty rejects all three of these qualities: he builds no home, founds no settlement, creates no children to carry on his sovereignty and ideals. He offers no alternative at all to the transient rootlessness he criticizes in others. Judith asks him directly to rescue her from further exploitation, to look through the interpretations of her imposed by society and see clearly what she is and what she offers. Cooper’s conflation of Judith and Glimmerglass permits the lake to plead its case as both something worth saving and something possible to save. Unfortunately, Natty is stuck in his culture’s myth of the world’s fall as irretrievable. But the fundamental idea that Christianity adds to the sense of the fallen world is redemption through repentance, and it is this idea that Natty fails to understand, accept or enact despite his professed beliefs.

Bradsher sees in Natty a need to remain childlike through an unwillingness to face the realities of adult compromise. She writes, “[T]rue initiation into the responsibilities of adult life necessarily rests on acceptance of the emphasis on repentance, not on the heterodox hope of avoiding sin, which condemns anyone to permanent immaturity” (17). Hetty makes this dichotomy explicit in her deathbed scene immediately preceding the confrontation of Natty and Judith: she says, “God has forgotten — no, he forgets nothing — but he has forgiven it” (517; italics in original). Shortly after, in the novel’s emotional climax, Judith, as she prepares to offer herself in marriage, says:

We are not here dwelling among the arts and deceptions of the settlements, but young people who have no occasion to deceive each other, in any manner or form (527).

This clear preface, taken along with Hetty’s deathbed remarks, set two standards for honorable behaviour: forgiveness and honesty. In the subsequent pages, when the future of all three central players is to be determined, Natty will fail on both points.

The next paragraphs weld together in our minds Judith’s fate and the lake’s. To Natty she says, “I must deal ... plainly with you you love the woods and the life that we pass here.” She equates love for her with love for the place; nearly the entire scene will pass before she asks if he loves her, the individual. His answer is: “This very spot would be all creation to me, could this war be fairly over once, and the settlers kept at a distance” (527). Immediately Judith offers him this very possibility — her own claim to the land and lake, embodied in herself. For if settlers are to be “kept at a distance,” it can only be because of this prior claim.

Natty has just stated his greatest desire, and his immediate rejection of its only potential for fulfillment requires explanation. He makes one excuse after another, plays with the water “like a corrected schoolboy” (530), until Judith asks him directly whether the real reason he is refusing her is her soiled reputation. “Truth,” Cooper tells us, “was the Deerslayer’s polar star” (531), but Natty’s actions seem to oppose this statement so specifically that I can only see the narrator’s commentary as ironic. At first this paragon of honesty says nothing. His failure to speak could be “prudence,” as we are told, or perhaps shame at the shallowness of his own motives. This latter view is reinforced by the image we are offered of an embarrassed child avoiding the eyes of a woman whose behavior has been direct, sincere, and honest, and is asking whether her fate has been predetermined by her past deeds, which he only knows of through the jealous and unreliable Hurry Harry, and with no opportunity for salvation. Despite what we are told, Natty does not see “reality” or find principles “within himself”; he sees, judges and acts according to the commonplace values of the settled moralistic society from which he has supposedly separated himself.

Immediately upon his refusal Judith “burie[s] herself in the woods” (531); the image here is descriptive of her death — spiritually, her fate is sealed — but also subsumes her in the larger image of nature which has been condemned to further wanton violation. Natty has no basis for objecting to transients moving in when he himself has chosen to take no permanent stake in the land. He can see only two possibilities of action: solitary rejection, or submission to the degraded world of the settlements; he is blind to a third way, one of forgiveness, redemption and maturity that would allow the possibility of maintaining a sustainable relationship with the world he loves. Instead, stuck in the myth of absolute purity, he leaves the land to its fate.

Natty’s unwavering reliance on certain principles is emphasized repeatedly; his subsequent failure to act accordingly, or even to comprehend their true meaning, is thrown into prominence as he thereby loses what he would hope to save. Cooper presents this dilemma in such a way as to prod us toward action rather than sighs of regret. He speaks of what is possible in the present: to unify our ideals and actions, to see our current relationship with nature not as inevitable but as a choice that can be rethought and remade. In The Deerslayer Cooper is urging the imaginative transformation of which Annette Kolodny writes: to change not only our behaviour but our entire means of thinking about the natural environment around us, to pursue through action our better instincts rather than through habit and history to maintain those that harm us; ultimately, to understand that as we work to save our natural world, we also work toward our own salvation as individuals and as a nation.

Works Cited

  • Bradsher, Frieda K., “Christian Morality and The Deerslayer.” Renascence. Milwaukee, WI (1978): 15-24.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Deerslayer [1841]. New York: Signet Classic, 1980.
  • Kolodny, Annette, “Unearthing Herstory: An Introduction.” The Ecocriticism Reader. Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. 170-181.
  • Person, Leland S., Jr., ” Home as Found and the Leatherstocking Series.” ESQ 27:3 (1981): 170-80.
  • Peck, H. Daniel, A World by Itself. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
  • Rans, Geoffrey, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.