A Cuisine of Contre Te(r)ms*: Consumption, Community and Intralinguistic Struggle in The Prairie

Jillian Sayre (Wayne State University)

Presented at the No. 1 Cooper Panel of the 2011 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 28, May, 2011.

Copyright © 2011, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

*A fruitful typo, freudian slip of the keyboard. In the original the term is “contre tems,” meaning cross purposes or misunderstandings (famously by Moliére in L’Etourdi). Here the conjunction of French and English not only troubles the single language system but also demonstrates the leading and yet resistant translation that remains the focus of this investigation.

BUFF’ALO, n. [L. bubalus.] The Bubalus, a species of the bovine genus, originally from India, but now found in most of the warmer countries of the Eastern Continent. It is larger and less docile than the common ox, and is fond of marshy places and rivers. The name is also applied to wild oxen in general, and particularly to the Bison of North America. [See Bison.]

BIS’ON, n. [L. A quadruped of the bovine genus, usually but improperly called the buffalo. The proper buffalo is a distinct species, peculiar to the warmer climates of the Eastern Continent. The bison is a wild animal, with short, black, rounded horns, with a great interval between their bases. On the shoulders is a large hunch, consisting of a fleshy substance. The head and hunch are covered with a long undulated fleece, of a rust-color, divided into locks. In winter, the whole body is covered in this manner; but in summer, the hind part of the body is naked, and wrinkled. The tail is about a foot long, naked, except a tuft of hairs at the end. The fore parts of the body are very thick and strong; the hind parts are slender and weak. These animals inhabit the interior parts of North America, and some of the mountainous parts of Europe and Asia. Pennant alleges that the bison of America is the same species of animal as the bison and aurochs of Europe, the bonasus of Aristotle, the urus of Caesar, the bos ferus or wild ox of Strabo,the bison of Pliny, and the biston of Oppian. Cuvier has not separated the bison of America from that of Europe; He considers their identity as doubtful. The former has the legs and tail shorter, and the hairs of its head and neck longer than in the latter.

Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language , 1828

In “What is a Nation?” Ernest Renan denies the viability of a linguistic foundation for community, arguing that language is an insufficient cause for national consolidation. This explains, Renan argues, historical changes in the languages of communities as well as the disjuncture between philological divisions and political realities. But against Renan’s subsuming of language to a will or consent to community is the argument made famous by Benedict Anderson that language — and in particular print languages — did indeed play a vital role in the formation of the modern political community. 1 While Anderson’s study focuses on the regional newspapers of the revolutionary era, the proliferation of popular fictional texts in the early republic, such as the romances by James the consolidation of an imagined political space with its own character, history and even language. 2

When Cooper’s hero Natty Bumppo seeks refuge in the “seemingly interminable waste” of The Prairie (1827) (74), he does so in the hope of escaping the noise of civilization. “I came west,” Natty tells the squatter Ishmael, “in search of quiet” (75). But instead of silence, the trapper finds new linguistic challenges, making language itself and intralinguistic translation an important scene for debate in the novel. French critic François Brunet argues that “There is, within the Leatherstocking cycle in general, and especially in The Prairie, an attitude of the narrative, specifically through which reflection on signs, and even more so language itself, is central, to the point that, in the most visible manner, it appears everywhere (ici et là) as the object of discourse on the part of the characters and the narrator” (Brunet 239). 3 This struggle over language has perhaps more to do with the introduction of new English language variants than the issue, present throughout the series, of translating between Indian languages and English. The American frontier in 1803 is a much more expansive space than the one Natty describes in 1757. Natty tells those in his company “America has grown ... since the days of my youth, to be a country larger than I once had thought the world itself to be” (75). Leatherstocking, then, must confront the variety of American life and language in a manner quite different from his New York provincialism of Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Pioneers (1823). On the vast prairie Natty is joined, for example, by a bee-hunting Kentucky youngster, whose speech is formed around the jargon of his profession, and the lower class squatter clan of Ishmael Bush whose speech is short, bare and undecorated. Between Paul Hover’s references to queens and “lining” and Ishmael’s repeated requests that Leatherstocking drop his wilderness metaphors and “speak plainly” (77), throughout the novel Natty continues to find himself frustrated in communicating with his fellow Americans. Even Cooper finds the idea of intralinguistic translation pressing. Keeping non-American English speaking audiences in mind, the author is careful to add (in 1832) a footnote to the narrator’s description of “the brown and party coloured livery of the Fall,” saying, “The Americans call the autumn the ‘fall,’ from the fall of the leaf” (85). The introduction of these new characters onto the scene, all of whom carry their own linguistic burden makes the language of The Prairie “an analogy of the American linguistic and cultural reality,” as Brunet argues, a reality that is “confused and motley (bigarrée)” (248). 4

While critics have focused much of their attention on the issue of interlinguistic translation, as Natty very prominently functions as translator, negotiating relationships between Indian and white communities, this troublesome communication within the English-speaking group gestures towards an interesting (and perhaps even ethical) unworking of that dominant community. The troubled intralinguistic communication in the novel hints at the possibility of misreading the text even within a single language community and thus the fragile position of the shared imagined communities buffered by the monoglot print languages put forward by Benedict Anderson. In particular, Brunet singles out the signifying conflicts between the elderly trapper, our frontiersman Natty, and another new character for the Leatherstocking novels: the naturalist Dr. Bat or, as he has named himself, Battius (Brunet 255). 5

When the reader first meets Dr. Battius, he is returning from an expedition of his own making, a search for something to name in the wilds of the frontier. But in the two days he has been missing from Ishmael and his family, in whose company he travels west, he has not seen “even a blade of grass that is not already enumerated and classed” (69). Obed Bat, who prefers his latinized “Battius,” the classification he gave himself, wants to produce a “Historia Naturalis, Americana,” a natural history of his native land that would rival Buffon, Cuvier and their imitators. But he struggles to find a blank page, an unnamed space in which to establish his authority; the dark unknown of the frontier has already been exposed and written upon by these same European naturalists. Dr. Battius is a new character for the Leatherstocking novels, a figure, like Natty, who strikes out in advance of civilization. He and Natty are both “lovers of the same pursuits” (98), men of the natural world, albeit distinct in that one imposes knowledge upon the wilderness while the other derives knowledge from it. He seems, nonetheless, a patriot and devotee of the American landscape in a manner quite similar to Natty, his rustic counterpart. He rails against the foreign scientists who dismiss the potential of the American scene to produce greatness and he actively celebrates the variety of animals (human and otherwise) that he encounters. But his greatest struggle, Cooper’s novel seems to indicate, is that nobody understands him.

Battius is an American who seems to speak a foreign language. Cooper places this figure in conversation with characters who, though they share a common English, insist that they cannot understand the naturalist nor can they be understood by the naturalist. Describing the “monster” he encountered on the prairie, Battius tells Ellen Wade “there was a moment I acknowledge when the fortiter in re faltered before so terrible an enemy.” The young country girl answers, “You speak a language so different than that we use in Tennessee ... that I hardly know whether I understand your meaning. If I am right, you wish to say you were chicken-hearted” (71). But while Ellen believes herself to be simplifying their discourse, exposing Battius’s cowardice to the harsh light of ‘plain English,’ her translation only further impedes their conversation as Battius now feels impelled to interrupt his narrative and explain that her statement is “An absurd simile, drawn from an ignorance of the formation of the biped. The heart of a chicken, bears a just proportion to its other organs, and the domestic fowl is, in a state of nature, a gallant bird” (71). The two, it seems, cannot agree on common terms and so their communication stalls. Battius thus acts as a site of difference within the English speaking community and so an indication of the variety of positions within English that are mutually incomprehensible.

While Ellen understands enough of the Doctor’s speech and intentions to share limited conversation with the naturalist, Natty is a different story. The scientist and the frontiersman cannot find a common tongue between them and nothing illustrates this failure better than their ongoing struggle over the most representative of prairie animals: the buffalo, or, as it is also named in the novel, the bison, or the bos ferus, or the bos sylvestris. When the trapper and the naturalist first exchange words, it is because of this disputed animal. Natty, employing his usual natural tropes, compares the disappearance of the Sioux to that of “the herd of Buffaloe ... chased by the Panther across this plain.” Battius feels compelled to intervene when he hears Natty name the animal thus. “Buffaloe,” Battius insists, is a “vulgar error,” and offers in its place two latin terms, finally concluding that “Bison is a better word” (Prairie 76-77). But Natty refuses to concede to these scientific terms, arguing for the practical impracticality of naming in the face of Battius insistence that all creatures should bear a title that immediately reveals its characteristics (“would the tail of a beaver make a worse dinner,” he asks, “for calling it a mink?”). Here I would argue that Natty’s dismissal of naming and the importance of names is entirely disingenuous. Not only is Natty himself a “namer,” as Cooper’s preface to Last of the Mohicans reveals, but he is also an aficionado of the practice in general. In Last of the Mohicans, upon meeting David Gamut and judging him to have a strong name, Natty confesses to the psalmodist that “I am an admirator of names” (Mohicans 67). This, along with his careful attention to the inscription of names and his privileging of descriptive Indian naming systems, all argue against this disregard he demonstrates in the face of competition. Naming is important to Natty, and perhaps particularly important to him because it is his legacy, his lingering trace through which, even after he has passed from the earth, he will continue to exercise influence over those to come. The language of the wilderness has, until this point in the series, been Natty’s own, and if the dead continue to inhabit language, as Robert Pogue Harrison argues, this linguistic struggle at the end of his life threatens Natty’s final resting place. 6

This crisis of inheritance is perhaps why, despite this dismissal of the power of names, Natty continues to struggle with the naturalist over the right to determine titles for the animals, people, and objects on the frontier. At their second meeting, the frontiersman tries again to gain the upper hand on “his rival” (100), this time by challenging Battius to identify the game that he and Paul are eating. The meat is none other than that of “a savoury bison’s hump” that Natty had prepared according to its “particular merits” (96), cooked on its own with none of the “foreign relish” to obscure the palate (97). The buffalo hump is “all the culinary glory of the Prairies,” the narrator says. The men, it seems, are eating America and perhaps, through this “devouring affection,” incorporating this American scene into their own sense of self. 7 And so, when Battius comes upon their dining party, Natty challenges him to recognize this national feast, testing the scientist’s knowledge of the land he is so driven to classify, to consume on his own terms. “Sit ye down,” Natty says to the doctor, “and after eating of this morsel, tell me, if you can, the name of the creatur’ that has bestowed upon you its flesh for a meal” (98). Dr. Battius accepts Natty’s challenge, declaring faith in his classificatory powers, saying there are “many and infallible” signs by which he can determine the animal’s identity. For example, he says, “animals that are carnivorous are known by their incisores,” a term that Natty resists:

“Their what!” demanded the trapper. “The teeth with which nature has furnished them for defence, and in order to tear their food ... “Look you then for the teeth of this creatur’,” interrupted the trapper, who was bent on convicting a man who had presumed to enter into competition with himself, in matters pertaining to the wilds, of gross ignorance; “turn the piece round and find your inside-overs.” (99)

Battius’s signs are illegible to the trapper and even a translation of the signifier “incisors” into “teeth” does not make the original term available to him. Natty can only understand the sound “incisores” as “inside-overs,” and instead of pointing him in the direction of the mouth, Natty, following his own translation, tells the doctor to “turn the piece round.” Natty understands neither the doctor’s use of language nor the object the doctor seeks, and so it seems that the two cannot resolve their situation through language. Following Paul Hover’s admission that Natty advised him to cut closer to the “heart,” meaning the center of the meat, to get to the tenderest part, Dr. Bat asks to investigate this important organ to make his decision, repeating the performance of slippage and misunderstanding.

Finally, Natty declares Dr. Bat the loser and reveals that what they are eating is “as juicy a buffaloe-hump as a stomach need crave” (100). The doctor, though, is unable to concede defeat to the trapper. “Your system is erroneous,” Battius says, “from the premises to the conclusion, and your classification so faulty, as utterly to confound the distinctions of science. The buffaloe is not gifted with a hump at all. Nor is his flesh savoury and wholesome, as I must acknowledge it would seem the subject before us may well be characterized” (100). As their earlier dispute has established, Dr. Battius does not know the animal Natty names “buffaloe” as such; the two, it seems, would never agree on what they are eating because they continue to function solely on their own terms. Each refuses to concede to the system of naming belonging to the other person and so they arrive at the irresolvable differend. 8 In the struggle to gain ground on their own terms, the signifying conflict leaves as its casualty a referent whose name always remains in dispute. Cooper attempts to intervene at this point and impose on the disputants his final judgment in the accompanying footnote in which he offers a clarification: “It is scarcely necessary to tell the reader, that the animal so often alluded to in this book, and which is vulgarily called the buffaloe, is in truth the bison; hence so many contre tems between the man of the Prairies and the man of science” (100). Cooper here assumes the exterior voice of a common reason based on a common language; the clarification he offers “is scarcely necessary” and is located in an undisputed “truth.” The scene, and Cooper’s attempt to regulate it, belies the anxiety Brunet indicates around the desire for a single set of terms, a common language for the American people. “The issue [of language in the novel] is in effect,” Brunet says, “to find between all the characters a common language, founded in an authority acceptable to all” (248). 9 Cooper, the outermost translator in the text, the last line of defense between the excess it contains and the reader it attempts to educate, offers here to serve as that determining authority, an authority that appeals to a “truth” that need hardly be spoken.

But while Cooper’s own translation is a signifying violence against the sovereignty of the trapper, an elision of Leatherstocking’s power to “vulgarily” name the animals of his environment, the author’s intervention does not overwrite the scene of dispute it attempts to address. It was Cooper, after all, who endowed Natty with the power to name, and in Natty’s resistance to the “sign” of truth, the reader has in her hands a character who asks her to read otherwise. The author’s position is revealed not as the author-ity but, as a mediatory position between the text and something greater, an outre-mer, a beyond in which lies the possibility of other meanings and other readings. 10 This supposedly author-itative figure can’t entirely cover up the possibility of difference, the possibility of seeing the scene otherwise; he cannot occult the division and difference in which the system of language operates. By providing multiple translations of events within a single language, the novel thus exposes the reader to an irrepressible polysemy. And so the struggle here insists on the “difficult politics of translation” (Cheyfitz xvi, emphasis added), one that reveals and resists the violence of a single consuming language. By focusing on this struggle, by engaging with this idea of the difficulties of translation, we can begin to think about the aggressive modes in which these linguistic communities are consolidated and standardized. By focusing on the translator and the act of translation, even within the same linguistic sign system, we are forced to confront, in Sandra Bermann’s terms, the ways in which these texts instead emphasize “the play of other and self, different and same, stranger and host as they ask us to rethink what we mean by ‘language’ ... the polysemous and dialogic quality of all languages” (84).

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. and extended ed. London and New York: Verso, 1991. Print.
  • Bermann, Sandra. “Teaching in-and About-Translation.” Profession (2010): 82-90. Print.
  • Brunet, François. “Linguisters on the Prairie.” Revue Française d’Etudes Américaines 37 July (1988): 238-66. Print.
  • Castro-Klarén, Sara, ed. Beyond Imagined Communities : Reading and Writing the Nation in Nineteenth-Century Latin America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Print.
  • Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Print.
  • Cheyfitz, Eric. The Poetics of Imperialism : Translation and Colonization from the Tempest to Tarzan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. New York: Signet Classics, 1962. Print.
  • ------. The Prairie. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin, 1987. Print.
  • Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Trans. Strachey, James. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. Strachey, James. New York: Norton, 1959. Print.
  • Harrison, Robert Pogue. The Dominion of the Dead. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Print.
  • Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Theory and History of Literature V. 46. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. Print.
  • Renan, Ernest. “What Is a Nation?” Trans. Martin Thom. Nation and Narration Ed. Homi K. Bhabha. New York: Routledge, 1990. 8-22. Print.


1 Anderson argues that because of the technological limitations, the linguistic effect of print culture was to consolidate language variants into a “print language” that was below latin and above the regional vernacular (42-45). Michel de Certeau makes a similar argument in his essay “The Scriptural Economy” (131-53).

2 The collection of essays in Beyond Imagined Communities (Castro-Klarén, ed.) argues persuasively for the place of popular fiction in the structure established by Anderson. While that collection focuses on Latin America (also a focus for Anderson), I believe the same could be argued for early national romances in the United States.

3 All translations of Brunet are my own. I will provide the original French in footnotes so as limit interruptions in the text proper. [Il ya a, dans le cycle de Bas-de-cuir en général, dans La Prairie en particulier, une ‘attitude de narration’ particulière pour laquelle la réflexion sur les signes, et plus particulièrment sur le langage, est centrale, au point que, de la manière la plus visible, elle fasse ici et là l’objet de discours de la part de personnages et du narrateur].

4 [La prairie se présente ... comme un analogue de la réalité linguistique et culturelle américaine, confuse et bigarrée]

5 “La traduction intralinguistique joue également un rôle important, notamment autour du docteur Battius” [Intralinguistic translation plays an equally important role, notably around Dr. Battius]

6 In Dominion of the Dead Harrison declares that language itself, “the origin of our basic words” presses upon the subject his very historicity and indebtedness to the past, and so to the dead of which that past is comprised. Through language we inherit the meaning of words, established by their previous practitioners; our “basic words,” he says, following Heidegger, “possess a plurality of meanings that derives from the plurality of prior worlds through which they have passed on their way down to us” (76). Language, in its barest sense, is our inheritance, the lex is our legacy that binds us to the past and, in its providential quality, to the unborn as well (81-82). If we combine Anderson’s theory of a capitalist print language and Harrison’s philosophical consideration of the legacy, we see in Natty’s philological wandering the struggle to lay claim to and thus institute a past, a legacy, for the nation whose beginnings he narrates.

7 In Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego Freud describes Identification, “the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person,” as deriving from the first oral phase of the development of the libido in which “the object that we long for and prize is assimilated by eating and is in that way annihilated as such” (46-51).

8 The “differend” described by Lyotard is a site of difference in which there is no determining power of an absolute code of knowledge. It is instead the “negative presentation of the indeterminate” (56).

9 [L’enjeu est en effet de trouver entre tous les personnages un langage commun, fondé sur une autorité acceptable par tous]

10 This excess is, of course, perfectly reflected in the alien landscape of the prairie itself, which both Natty and Ishmael marks as always foreign to man and hostile to his domination. (74-75).