The Postcolonial Paradox of a Re-imagined History in Cooper’s The Pioneers

Nicole de Fee (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Presented at the Cooper Panel No. 1 (General Topics) of the 2008 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 25, May 2008, pp. 1-5.

Copyright © 2008, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

True myth concerns itself centrally with the onward adventure of the integral soul. And this, for America, is Deerslayer. A man who turn his back on white society. ... An isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring man, who lives by death, by killing, but who is pure white.

[Y]ou have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.

— D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

In his work on the decolonization of Algeria, The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon writes, “The claim to a national culture in the past does not only rehabilitate that nation and serve as a justification for the hope of a future national culture. ... By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it” (210). For Fanon, when a nation reaches the point where it looks to its own past, and not the colonizer’s past, for that “hope of a future national culture,” that nation enters into what Fanon refers to as the second phase of decolonization. More than a century prior to Fanon’s study, and on the other side of the Atlantic, antebellum Americans were engaged in a similar struggle. They, too, were attempting to forge a unique American culture that drew distinctly on American non-colonial history by turning “to the past of the oppressed people” and distorting, destroying, and disfiguring it. Few in antebellum American literature re-imagined America’s history better than James Fenimore Cooper.

James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales illustrates Fanon’s “second phase,” where “past happenings of the bygone days of his childhood will be brought up out of the depths of his memory; old legends will be reinterpreted” (222). In The Leatherstocking Tales, Cooper attempts to develop a “national culture,” one that is unique to America and does not rely on the former colonizer to supplement its culture. Cooper “reexamin[es] his own past and heritage, his own perceptions of and role in the creation of the new American world” (Slotkin 485). By setting three of the five novels in pre-Revolutionary War history, Cooper can portray both the colonists and the Native-Americans, most especially the Mohicans, as victims of colonial rule. He can unite them in a way that excludes the colonizer from the national American identity. However, to do so often blurs the line between the Subject and the Other and creates complex issues of identity that are not resolved in this second phase of the development of national identity and which are reflected in Cooper’s novels.

The Pioneers, more so than any of the other five novels of The Leatherstocking Tales, not only clearly illustrates how the collection mirrors the second phase of the decolonization process, but it also embodies issues central to postcolonial theory — the complexities of location and privilege that have become paradoxical to discussions of postcolonial theory and literature today. Issues of race and citizenship are particularly prominent in and relevant to the postcolonial aspect of the novel as well as location and privilege. Whiteness in this novel guarantees neither citizenship nor an imagined citizenship in the community of The Pioneers. However, what is present in the novel are complex negotiations of identity that are challenged throughout the text. These are not just challenges the characters encounter, but challenges confronting the newly independent nation as a whole. In the novel, the development of the national culture and the development of the national identity, must confront three Others: first, the most clearly identifiable Other, the African American; second, the Native American; and the third, the European (primarily British) Other. This Other represents tyranny and colonialism. It represents what the country has recently fought against and won. However, it is the least clearly identifiable of the Other because this Other is European, racially and culturally. It is also an Other with which the Self can clearly identify, which is what makes this Other hard to resist. While the development of the national identity’s opposition of the first two Others is crucial and central to an overall argument for considering The Pioneers and The Leatherstocking Tales as part of the conversation of postcolonial literature, my focus for this argument is on the third Other, the European Other. It is the least clearly identifiable Other the antebellum Americans face, and the similarities between this Other and the Self is central to the issue of the postcolonial anxiety in The Pioneers as well as to the development of the national identity.

Cooper attempts to create in Natty Bumppo an identity that is neither imperial nor colonial, nor Native American, that appears to offer a clearly identifiable Self. The Leatherstocking Tales “establish the racial identity of Americans ... by positing the Indians as ‘not us’ in a general sense, and at the same time use Indians to represent specific alternatives to American society as it was presently constituted” (Tompkins 111). However, Natty’s liminal position is neither fully accepted by whites n Native-Americans. Complicating his position is that on the one hand, Natty is clearly marked by whiteness, both in his looks and in his treatment of African-Americans: on the other hand, “from a cultural standpoint he is both white and Indian” (Tompkins 115). The irreconcilable nature of these two identities, both as developed in the character of Natty and in the nation itself, figures most prominently in The Pioneers as a postcolonial text.

The kind of nation that Natty believes in is not the nation of which he finds himself a part of. He believes in a nation that reveres the land and allows people to live in harmony with man and nature, a land where government and laws are not forced upon himself, or others, unnecessarily, laws and government represented by Judge Temple. Natty interprets these laws as “might makes right” because the Judge has the money and the power to infringe upon the life Natty had been living before the Judge “settled” the land of Templeton.

Natty faces problems similar to both the (former) settlers and the Native Americans. The settler’s position is one

that makes a distinction — particularly juridical — between conquerors and conquered, settlers and natives, and makes it the basis of other distinctions that tend to buttress the conquerors and isolate the conquered, politically. However fictitious these distinctions may appear historically, they become real political facts for they are embodied in real political institutions. (Mamdani qtd. in Ahluwalia 500)

Natty’s position in this novel resembles the position of the former subjects of the British crown who were in the New World to settle and not to colonize. Like them, Natty is subject to the laws and punishments of a sovereign; however, he is not afforded the privileges of that association. He must adhere to the rules and laws of Templeton without being considered one of its subjects or citizens.

Subjects, as Pal Ahluwalia defines them, are “individuals who have consented to a sovereign’s rule and who, by according to that consent, have certain rights and obligations” (504). A citizen, however, is one who enjoys “a kind of freedom which is rooted in ‘natural rights’” (Balibar qtd. in Ahluwalia 505). Because of his position in the novel, Natty finds himself an unwilling subject, someone who has not “consented to a sovereign’s rule,” but who has “certain obligations”; however, he is not granted any of the “certain rights” of a subject. Furthermore, Natty is not considered a citizen of Templeton either because his “natural rights” conflict with the “natural rights” of the townspeople. This position as an unwilling subject, non-citizen, and non-Other poses a major threat to the town of Templeton. Natty represents the kind of national culture that is emerging in antebellum America. It is one that does not conform to the “old ways,” the ways of the former colonizers, nor has it fully developed into a “new way,” a way that is perhaps post-colonial, post-British, and even neo-imperial. The lack of an established identity at this juncture poses a threat to the national identity of the United States. It also continues to underscore the postcolonial anxiety present in the novel and the country.

Further complicating Natty’s position is his status as a mythological hero, both for the characters in the novel and for Cooper’s antebellum audience. As Ahluwalia explains,

In the battle over post-colonialism, what is perhaps forgotten is that the very subjects of empire have endured different forms of colonialism and that it is these different forms of power which need to be recovered. For the post-colonial white settler subjects, there is a dual burden — not only to recover their own narratives but they must also recognize that they have blocked the narratives of the indigenous populations which they have rendered invisible. It is this double inscription of resistance and authority which constitutes the settler-subject. (508) 1

Though the complexities of the “settler-subject” emerge through other characters in the novel, Natty represents the most prominent position here because his narrative and his history are woven from the “recovered” white narratives and the “blocked” indigenous narratives Ahluwalia discusses. Furthermore, the

“settler-subject position is both postimperial and postcolonial; it has colonized and has been colonized: it must speak of and against both its own oppressiveness and its own oppression. ... [The settler-subject position] illustrates the manner in which these subjects are trapped between the originating world of Europe which they brought with them. ... It is through an engagement of these two modes-the colonising [sic] and the colonised [sic] — that we begin to understand the interstitial cultural space in which settler subjects are located.” (Lawson qtd. in Ahluwalia 508)

Walter Mignolo, speaking of roughly the same phenomenon, explains this complex arrangement of subject position as “colonial difference”: “The colonial difference ... works in two directions: rearticulating the interior borders linked to imperial conflicts and rearticulating the exterior borders by giving new meanings to the colonial difference” (Mignolo 50). The settler-subject is one who is trapped between two worlds. And the postcolonial anxiety emerges from the inability to resolve the conflicting identities and ideologies of those two different worlds. This is the position in which antebellum American finds itself, the place where interior borders are rearticulated as white American borders (thus internal imperialism and colonization), and the place where it wants to emerge as its own nation on the global stage. Natty’s character is the microcosm of this national conflict within the world of Templeton.

Though Ahluwalia’s concern is with the contemporary (but far reaching) struggles of postcolonial identity and politics in Australia, his discussion is relevant to the postcolonial cultural anxiety in The Pioneers. The exclusion of certain groups is what “[renders] a crisis of citizenship which remains entrapped with certain white settler notions of identity in which ‘others’ can only be constituted as hyphenated [by the dominant society] ... ” (501). Natty cannot be hyphenated by the townspeople (who represent Americans). There is simply nothing to hyphenate him with. He does not conform to the strict notions of the Self the townspeople of Templeton have constructed. Though Natty is a white, Christian male, his refusal to join ideological hands with the Judge leaves him in a space that cannot easily be defined. Neither the townspeople nor the Judge can impose an identity upon Natty. The inability to define a position for Natty in the Templeton community is a direct result of postcolonial anxiety.

Underlying these particular issues of postcolonial anxiety (the hyphenated American, community membership/citizenship) is “whiteness.” Dana D. Nelson’s definition of “national manhood,” an imagined fraternity of white men, helps to explain the construction of whiteness in Templeton, as well as explain the criteria by which Natty is judged as a subject and non-citizen of Templeton. National manhood, according to Nelson, allows white men to embrace an identity:

In national manhood, civic identification split men, requiring them to manage ‘their’ competing desires not through a paradigm of equality but rank-order: to ‘master’ themselves. Identification was not directed equilaterally, then, but vertically, toward the more powerful “interest” that overruled “individual” desire-nationally toward abstracted and idealized founding fathers, economically toward commanding men. (22)

Here, almost, is the essence of the postcolonial anxiety — a split Self. Natty defies identification of the “national manhood,” read whiteness, because he neither needs to master himself nor is he split in terms of civic duty — he has none. His individual and economic interests do not align with the “national” interests the town represents; this is not a nation he wants to see developed further. Natty does not look back to a past of “abstracted and idealized founding fathers”; he looks back to a past that existed outside of colonialism and imperialism. This is not to say that Natty’s past itself is not ideal; however, the crucial difference between the town’s idealized past and Natty’s is that Natty’s does not depend on men, specifically white men. Part of Natty’s past is a reinterpretation of American history from the pilgrims to the Revolutionary War, almost pre-lapsarian in the sense that it is a construction of a history that has created the conditions under which only Natty can exist — a white man outside of imperialism and outside of Indianness. The “old legends” and the reinterpreted past upon which Cooper draws to create the Leatherstocking myth are not grounded in any one historical or culturally specific model, and many of these models do not involve white men.

Natty does enjoy some privileges that others do not because of his whiteness. He is permitted to live on, hunt on, and fish on the Judge’s land without permission, whereas Chingachgook is not afforded these same privileges independent of Natty. Ideologically, the land upon which Templeton is built may rightfully belong to the Native-Americans, but for the Judge and the Templeton community, this same land can be owned legally only by whites.

The “white” society of Templeton embodies what Nelson describes as “professional manhood,” an order that is based equally on civic management and fear, specifically a fear of the Other. She explains, “American men were to internalize rational principles of (phobia-inducing) self-management as a precondition of authority for their (counterphobic) management of others. The occulted space of the managing ‘expert’ became a democratic as well as a career ideal: a professional manhood” (Nelson 14). The “counterphobic management of others” results in a hyper-management of Natty in an attempt to confine him to the social norms of the town, a clearly definable and acceptable whiteness. This phobia and counterphobia results from “The threat of political disintegration [which] is internalized as the threat of personal disintegration, and managed by its outward projection, the naming of racial and gender Otherness” (Nelson 74). The Self is illustrated in The Pioneers creates its identity in opposition to the Other. The colonial/imperial frontier in this stage of decolonization is the establishment of the national culture. Those who manage the colonial/imperial frontier (Nelson 74) must maintain and control the social order of whiteness because their identity is still invested in the “assimilated ... culture of the occupying power” (Fanon 222), that is, the whiteness of the colonizers. Natty’s ability to live outside the social and cultural order of Templeton and live outside of the Native-American community (though associated with it through his upbringing) threatens the “unqualified assimilation” (222) of the people of Templeton.

Those who have legal rights are citizens who abide by the rules of Templeton but do not live and hunt where they please. As someone who is considered a non-citizen within the social and cultural construction of the town’s community, by extension Natty is non-white in that he is a non-citizen, “[t]he abstracting whiteness that expanded suffrage rights to “all” white men” (Nelson 14) does not apply to Natty. So, that while Doolittle sees Natty’s living on the Judge’s land as an infringement on the Judge’s right to private property, he does not recognize Natty’s amnesty on that property nor Natty’s right to private property, a right that seems to be extended to all the other members of Templeton.

However, protocols of the law are followed when a warrant is issued to search Natty’s premises for a carcass of a deer shot out of season. Like a member of the community, Natty is served with the warrant by an appointed officiator. Natty complies with the warrant and surrenders the deer carcass (which goes to the Judge because it is his property) and the fine. Therefore, there is no need for Doolittle or Kirby to search the premises for the deer. However, Doolittle orders Kirby to forcibly enter the hut regardless of the fact that the deer has been produced. The desire to enter the hut is Doolittle’s “precondition of authority” for his “counter-phobic management” of Natty (Nelson 14). Doolittle attempts to establish an acceptable and desirable code of whiteness through legal channels and through these channels force Natty to assimilate to the whiteness of Templeton.

Keeping in mind Natty’s linked history with the Native-Americans, whose lands and property, like Natty’s, are not recognized as legal and/or belonging to them, this scene reinforces the postcolonial anxiety in the novel. However, it is not property (either his or the perceived property of the Judge) Natty is protecting, but a person. Furthermore, it is not an attachment to the hut as a piece of property either that causes Natty to defend it so fiercely, but it is his home, the dwelling in which he has lived for years before the war, before Judge Temple could lay any claim to the land on which the hut stands. The “new laws” the Judge has established, the definition of citizenship that comes with living in Templeton, and the very question of land ownership itself, are what present problems for Natty. When Natty realizes for what purpose the Judge has come to the forest, his disgust with the Judge’s mission prompts him to close his door to strangers forever after this encounter. In his final act of defiance on the Judge’s land, Natty burns down his hut and everything in it rather than have it invaded by the Judge and his men.


As a postcolonial text, The Pioneers offers a complicated and intricate look at the myriad problems surrounding notions of identity. It illustrates the surrounding issues of cultural identity and the anxiety of location and privilege within cultural identity as it relates to issues of post-colonialism. What is perhaps one of the most frustrating of these issues that there is no resolution to any of the problems the novel presents. Cooper further complicates these issues in the way he creates an American identity through Natty. Natty’s distinct brand of American-ness is someone who does not identify with or promote colonialism or imperialism, and whose roots are connected to the indigenous people of the land, and who, in the end, is white. He is the one, theoretically, with whom Cooper’s audience should identify; he is the American. This is not as easy as it seems. Though Natty is white, he is not always offered a place in “whiteness,” but defining “whiteness” is the problem. In most cases in the novel, “whiteness” is non-Indian, non-black. “Whiteness” establishes citizenry for the men in Templeton. “Whiteness” equals freedom and suffrage for all white men. Yet regarding Natty, “whiteness” does not apply in all cases. He is white when he is allowed to remain on Temple’s land after it has been claimed; he is white when he is given permission to hunt and fish on Temple’s property without ever having to ask Temple’s permission. He is white when he has broken the law. And he is white next to Chingachgook. However, Natty is not a citizen of the town; he is not protected under the laws the other citizens are protected under. And, he is never allowed to enter the societal order as Oliver does once his “true whiteness” is fully established.

For a postcolonial identity, Natty’s intermittent inclusion in “whiteness” on the basis of the authority and privilege of other “whites” illustrates the unresolved struggle of the de-colonial identity in the emergence of a national culture. Natty’s idealized past, one that does not mark him as having been associated with imperialism or a colonial enterprise, a rewriting and reinterpretation of history that erases colonization in America still cannot completely erase the colonial mark on the country or the identity of the nation. Natty’s unwilling subjectivity to Templeton and to the Judge continually recites the colonial mantra-what’s mine is mine; what’s yours is mine. Though Natty is a free man in a free country, he is treated as a subject of the royal crown of Templeton. The Judge, however, does not see himself as an imperial agent, one who mirrors the colonizers of England. Rather his “unqualified” or rather unquestioned assimilation has left him adhering ideologically to everything that the free people of the free country sought to eradicate by fighting the Revolutionary War. However complicated and messy the novel is as a postcolonial text, the complications and messiness that mark its inability to establish a resolved sense of identity after obtaining freedom from the colonizer are what in short establish it as a postcolonial text.

Works Cited

  • Ahluwalia, Pal, “When Does a Settler Become a Native?: Citizenship and Identity in a Settler Society.” Postcolonialism: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism. Eds. Gaurav Desai and Supriya Nair. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005. 500-513.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Pioneers. 1823. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963.
  • Mignolo, Walter D., Local History/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • Nelson, Dana D., National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.
  • Slotkin, Richard, Regeneration Through Violence. 1973. New York: HarperPerennial, 1996.
  • Tompkins, Jane, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.


1 Ahluwalia’s argument is based on the problem of postcolonialism in Australia. Even though the historical and political contexts surrounding early America and contemporary Australia are incongruous, the “postcolonial problems” which have occurred in both countries are very similar.