Constructing the Frontier: Natty’s Cabin as Lyrical Trope [Abstract]

Marissa Grunes (Harvard University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on “The Frontier in American Literary Imagination” at the 2018 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

[Paper not available for publication by the Cooper Society. This abstract was published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 30.2 (Summer 2019), p. 4].

Copyright © 2019, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

Natty Bumppo is often viewed as a nomadic figure, and indeed he is pushed westward throughout the Leather-Stocking novels. Yet, the structure that most pointedly symbolizes Natty’s relation to the constantly-shifting frontier is his stationary hut, whose destruction in The Pioneers marks the moment in which Anglo-American organization overtakes Natty’s world. 

Beyond evoking nostalgia for the self-sufficiency of frontier life, the image of the hut introduces an often-overlooked lyrical element into Cooper’s novels. Natty’s hut is linked with spatial metaphors merging indoor and outdoor space, which give expression to Natty’s religion of the woods and open sky, while also creating spatial ambiguities at odds with the almost geometric precision that drives Cooper’s plots. In keeping with Ralph Freedman’s characterization of lyricism in the novel, these patterns of spatial imagery establish a cross-current of meaning that interrupts the linear logic of narrative.

Both nostalgic and lyrical aspects of the hut or cabin have since become associated with frontier experience in the American literary imagination, from Thoreau’s Walden experiment through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods to recent novels such as Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. As a humble structure that carves habitable space from wilderness, the cabin calls attention to the act of creating an indoors. At the same time, the cabin stands in harmony with its surroundings, by contrast with the grander architectural forms of town or city — forms that for Cooper represent creeping alienation from the land and the self.

Like the fleeting frontier, Natty’s cabin cannot survive the inroads of dense Anglo-American society; yet that same cabin promoted a cultural trope — and a lyrical image of the frontiersman — that has defined the imaginative legacy of the frontier into our own century.