Fragments, Ruins and Artifacts of the Past: The Reconstruction of Reading in The Deerslayer

Lisa West Norwood (Drake University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2003 Conference of the American Literature Association in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 18, August 2003, pp. 3-7.

Copyright © 2003, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

The Deerslayer, as many critics have commented, occupies an odd place in the American literary imagination. It is “properly the first in the order of reading” of the Leather-Stocking Tales, as Cooper states in his 1850 Preface (11), although it was written eighteen years — the duration of a youth’s maturity — after The Pioneers. But for a prequel of sorts, it is strangely elegiac, showing perhaps how the path that Leatherstocking and the American nation took in their incessant journeys west (away from home and the forest) might not be the only choice available. (See Steven Wolfe’s recent article on environmental philosophy in the same novel.) But the elegiac note derives not only from the plot of the novel, nor from its environmental message, but also from the way in which it constructs the landscape itself as always in need of reading, or reconstruction from fragmented pieces - lake, rock, hut, ribbon, etc. This strategy of fragmenting the landscape and insisting on images of ruin and decay not only imbues the landscape with a sense of loss but also raises important questions about the intelligibility of reading — reading either nature or Cooper’s series that both draws on and dismantles the past.

This paper will proceed in three parts. First, I will show how the first scene constructs a sense of reading the landscape anew as an alternative to recalling the textual or physical landscape of The Pioneers. Then, I will look at the key “reading” scene in the novel, where Judith reads her mother’s letters, to see how this form of reading relates to reading the landscape. Lastly, I will try to draw some conclusions about what these modes of reading have in common.

My primary question in this paper is to ask what these fragments — like buried clues to a past that, in this text at least, is almost entirely imagined — have to do with reading practices in general. Clearly they make reading the landscape a difficult if not impossible task by breaking up vistas and replacing them with pieces of things that no longer function in a larger landscape: Judith’s ribbon, a rock, a ruin of the hut. The imagination must reconstruct or resituate them to have them make sense in a narrative. But these moments of reading are made even more salient by the realization that The Deerslayer is a prequel, not an elegy: this site of ruin and decay is the pre-site of The Pioneers, a place that Cooper and many of his readers knew very, very well. All of the fragments disrupt the reader’s ability to see the connection between the novels by making The Deerslayer site strange and incomplete. They make the act of reading Cooper’s other novels irrelevant at key moments, and they always work against the reader’s memory of Lake Otsego from the experience of reading The Pioneers. So the strategy of fragmentation questions the ability to read across texts as well as across space.

The first chapter in The Deerslayer introduces the ideas of reading the landscape and reading fragments. Deerslayer and his companion, Hurry Harry, are lost, trying to find their trail. Their emergence into the story itself is surprising, since their presence is inserted into a paragraph about seasons and the passing of time in general; they appear to be interlopers not only on the Otsego, but also on a description of nature. “Centuries of summer suns had warmed the tops of the same noble oaks and pines, sending their heats even to the tenacious roots, when voices were heard calling to each other, in the depths of a forest, of which the leafy surface lay bathed in the brilliant light of a cloudless day in June, while the trunks of the trees rose in gloomy grandeur in the shades beneath. The calls were in different tones, evidently proceeding from two men who had lost their way, and were searching in different directions for their path” (17).

The reader is fully disoriented from the sense of the Otsego in The Pioneers. Mount Vision is not present, nor is Templeton, nor are the landmarks of that novel — the hut, the cave, the various buildings, the mountain, etc. It is overgrown, and there is no possibility of a prospect or complete vision. Furthermore, Hurry’s first comment links the site not only to the past of the land-hunters (who could not be the same surveyors as in The Pioneers due to the date and location here rather than on the heights of Mount Vision) but also to signs of death or decay — the “dead bushes” rather than the growing town.

This sense of alienation from the vistas of the previous novel is complicated by some references to the novel itself. “Natty” is unfamiliarly introduced to us as Deerslayer, a young man with a guileless face rather than an older man with a silent, distinctive laugh that seems to imply an ironic attitude rather than one of “guileless truth” and “earnestness of purpose” (20-21). Not only does his dress remind us of his literary predecessor, but his name does as well. “Deerslayer” evokes one of the central dilemmas in The Pioneers, Natty’s killing of the deer on the lake out of season and his subsequent imprisonment. So the “Deerslayer” appearing at the edge of the lake recalls those textual moments. Even more specifically, as he and Hurry Harry sit down to eat a venison lunch, he makes a reference that could not fail but to strike readers of The Pioneers: ” ... there’s little manhood in killing a doe, and that, too, out of season; though there might be some, in bringing down a painter, or a catamount” (21). Cooper links the killing of a doe with a painter, or panther, verbally linking the two kinds of game that are weighed against each other in The Pioneers: the bounty for the painter and the fine for the deer. Plus “out of season” here refers to a sense of natural law, not the legal code of hunting imposed by Judge Temple.

There is another connection between the two novels as well. The Preface to The Pioneers mentions the origin of the word Otsego and ties it to the rock that plays a larger role in the later book. In The Pioneers, the sense of a meeting place perhaps is the rock or perhaps an appellation that comes post-contact, with the log dwelling of the Superintendent. In The Deerslayer, the rock as a fragment of the landscape plays a much more significant role, itself constituting the initial rendezvous or meeting place of Deerslayer and Chingachgook. The legend, as Cooper calls the second tale, does not give a prior meaning to the rock, as if perhaps it is this meeting (as a series of many others) that gives it its name. Deerslayer has heard of the rock through tradition, not through literature. He shares his information with Hurry, stating his destination is, ” ‘At a small round rock, near the foot of the lake, where they tell me the tribes are given to resorting to make their treaties and to bury their hatchets. This rock have I often heard the Delawares mention, though lake and rock are equally strangers to me’ ” (23). The rock as a mystery undermines the linguistic and social history of the first book and places more emphasis on reading fragments of nature than on narrating a known and complete history.

Cooper elaborates on the notion of reading a landscape in this extended beginning. He fixates on what constitutes proper reading as opposed to mere observation. Hurry jumps to conclusions that at first feel suitable in the literature of finding places and orienting travels: ” ‘ This must be the place, Deerslayer... . Here is a beech by the side of a hemlock, with three pines at hand, and yonder is a white birch with a broken top; and yet I see no rock, nor any of the branches bent down, as I told you would be the case’ ” (32). Deerslayer first counters the “sign” of the broken branch (much used, at least in my recollection, in earlier novels) as “onskilful land-marks” (32), his words simultaneously claiming the province of nature-reader and revealing his lack of conventional diction, a double position repeated often in this novel. He then comments on the values of artifact as opposed to general picture by commenting, “As for the beeches, and pines, and hemlocks, why, they are to be seen on all sides of us, not only by twos and threes, but by forties, and fifties and hundreds” (32). The reader as well as Hurry is reminded by this correction that observing nature and recognizing conventional signs is not the same as reading a particular landscape.

The Deerslayer engages reading in other places as well — especially potential challenges between reconciling reading the landscape with reading books. The books mentioned in the novel (Job, old letters and papers, etc.) are most often ancient books that no longer have a clear place to which they are tied. Deerslayer famously pronounces that the only book he reads is that of nature, and Cooper refers to “legends” numerous times directly and indirectly in his prefaces and in the novel itself. A legend is a story that is narrated and communicated but not read in books — another variation of reading the landscape and the community that arises from a particular place. We also learn that Hetty’s mother loved the Book of Job, which was “believed to be the oldest book in the world” (358). Lastly, Glimmerglass’s artifacts and secrets find their double in Judith’s mother’s chest in the Hut, which is filled with papers and “concealed knowledge” from which the signatures have been removed (410). This fantasy of reading a complete narrative of the past contrasts with the ways in which the “chest” of the region never fully reveals its contents. Both present artifacts of the past that need to be read, and a careful reader must question why (or if) one form of rereading the past proves more trustworthy than the other.

The introduction to the chest scene involves a gruesome variation of the opposition between the head and the heart, which does not directly relate to reading but does to the making of meaning. Tom Hutter sits in his castle, wounded, and the removal of his hat reveals that he has been scalped alive. While Hetty clearly sees a kind of divine retribution in this cruelty — the one who seeks scalps for bounty himself is scalped - there is another frame of reference to this scene as well. Hutter tells his daughters that he is not their father but refers them for more details to their dead mother’s chest. They can’t read his mind, even though it has been laid bare before them, but they can read their mother’s heart. The opened head and locked chest are grotesque doubles, not only indicating a link between the contents of Hutter’s mind and the women’s hearts but also the savage act of writing on bodies and the civilized act of writing letters. In both cases, the life-giving force is removed: flesh in the former, and the name of the father in the latter.

Let us look briefly at the letters that Judith reads, which is the novel’s brief foray into the world of eighteenth century fiction. These letters are placed in chronological order, and Judith can clearly detect the “characters” involved in their creation: the mother, the lover, etc. But unlike even an epistolary novel, these are seen as fragments rather than pieces of narrative. Cooper continually stresses their material presence in bundles, in a chest with other nontextual goods, and he stresses that while Judith can comprehend her mother’s fate, perusing the stack does not answer all her questions. Like Hurry, she is in a landscape of repetition and familiarity from previous exposure, not a singular one. She can find her way novelistically, but she can’t find what she is looking for in the specific landscape of the letters.

Here, then, are some samples from these letters: “It has been said, already, that Judith was much gratified with the letters that first met her eye. They contained the correspondence of an affectionate and intelligent mother, to an absent daughter, with such allusions to the answers, as served, in a great measure, to fill up the vacuum left by the replies ... . What rendered it singular, was the fact that the signatures had been carefully cut from every one of these letters, and wherever a name occurred in the body of the epistles, it had been erased with so much diligence as to render it impossible to read it” (411). The next bundle contained letters from the mother’s lover and carry a resemblance to what the reader knows of Judith’s life as well. Judith can figure out the general pattern of the story, both from her own reading and her own experience. But the singular details remain hidden. It is not only the cut out signatures that hide knowledge, though. The other physical impediment was the “sheer physical inability to see; her eyes being literally obscured with tears” (413).

This general story becomes apparent not only to Judith and the readers of The Deerslayer, who presumably are also familiar with novelistic tales of seduction and abandonment, but also to Deerslayer himself, who, while illiterate, can read her reactions like a book. She hands him the letters as she reads, and “he was not entirely at fault in discovering the passions that were contending in the bosom of the fair creature by his side, and, as occasional sentences escaped her in murmurs, he was nearer the truth, in his divinations, or conjectures, than the girl would have been pleased at discovering” (412).

Deerslayer’s presence as a witness to Judith’s reading — and his proclamation of his own form of literacy, is enough to suggest a larger concern in issues of making meaning from fragmented texts. But what can we do with this obsession with the materiality of reading in the novel? I am not sure yet if I want to say that reading books is like reading the landscape or not for Cooper, but I think I can pose a few conclusions from this comparison.

These issues of reading, particularly the aspect of reading over time and the difficulties in reading for the singular, reappear once more in the final scene as they pertain to reading the landscape. Deerslayer returns to the Glimmerglass with Chingachgook and the young Uncas. In contrast to the older characters, “Here all was unchanged. The river still rushed through its bower of trees; the little rock was washing away, by the slow action of the waves, in the course of centuries, the mountains stood in their native dress, dark, rich and mysterious, while the sheet glistened in its solitude, a beautiful gem of the forest” (546).

When they reach a canoe, decayed unlike the natural features of the scene, they enter it for a tour of the lake and a closer look at the human elements of the earlier story. “All the points were passed, and Chingachgook pointed out to this son, the spot where the Hurons had first encamped, and the point whence he had succeeded in stealing his bride. Here they even landed, but all traces of the former visit had disappeared. Next they proceeded to the scene of the battle, and there they found a few of the signs that linger around such localities” (546). These signs are things like disinterred bones. The “castle” of Hutter was in “picturesque ruin” (546). “All the fastenings were untouched, but the seasons rioted in the place, as if in mockery at the attempt to exclude them. The palisades were rotting, as were the piles, and it was evident that a few more recurrences of winter, a few more gales and tempests, would sweep all into the lake, and blot the building from the face of that magnificent solitude” (546). “Time and circumstances have drawn an impenetrable mystery around all else connected with the Hutters. They lived, erred, died, and are forgotten. None connected have felt sufficient interest in the disgraced and disgracing to withdraw the veil, and a century is about to erase even the recollection of their names” (547).

The final scene, like Judith’s letters, shows a general outline of the past that can be comprehended by one introduced to that discourse. Uncas, who is already a young warrior, can “read” the scene of battle and decay, just as Judith, the reader, can read the scene of seduction. But the general idea is balanced by a demand for the singular - and the reconstruction of the singular is difficult if not impossible. Judith’s family’s names were erased, and the Hutters’ presence on the Glimmerglass likewise erased from the region. While we as readers expect Chingachgook and Deerslayer to encounter signs from the past, those signs themselves point more to a sense of “the past” than to the events that marked them. The logs are rotting, pointing more to time than to the incidents in the novel. In fact, one could argue that the scene is just as alienating and foreign at the end for the reader as at the start. The story is not imprinted on the landscape as deeply as in the reader’s mind, leaving the reader once again to balance the desire to use memory to read a scene with the uneven materiality of what remains.

In the 1832 Introduction to The Pioneers, Cooper refers several times to personal recollection. He sets up a question of “literal fact” versus “general picture” (6). While he upholds the latter, he admits “there was a constant temptation to delineate that which he had known rather than that which he might have imagined” (6). In his 1841 Preface to The Deerslayer, rather than assert some kind of personal knowledge, he opens up the possibility that something forgotten drives the legend. “Should it appear on inquiry, that any professed historian, the public documents, or even the local traditions, contradict the statements of this book” (2), Cooper will confess ignorance. Here he privileges the erased over the remembered.

The final scene shows that reconstructing a landscape relies less on memory than on storytelling. While this may seem overly obvious, it serves the double purpose of making the readers of the series unable to rely on their memory of The Pioneers in navigating the Otsego of The Deerslayer and basing its authority on Cooper’s ability to tell stories, or “legends,” rather than recall details of the area. The Pioneers is not the inheritor of the same landscape as in The Deerslayer — and not because it was written prior to it but because the very landscape of The Deerslayer had been erased completely by then.

Reading the landscape can no longer be accomplished by a prospect from the “Vision.” The reader must be immersed, even disoriented, in the landscape itself and, like Hurry Harry and Deerslayer, actively involved in separating the singular from the general scene. The signatures have been erased, so to speak, but the effects and morals remain legible to the initiated. And the reader must rely not on personal memory to find the meeting place of fiction and history but on the imagination to reconstruct what has been forgotten by people whose names have been erased from history.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Deerslayer. Introduction by Donald Pease. New York: Penguin; 1987.
  • ------, The Pioneers. Introduction by Donald A. Ringe. New York: Penguin; 1988.