Guide (Me) Dog: A New Frontier of Companionship in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie

Jericho Williams (Spartanburg Methodist College)

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.

Copyright © 2019, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 30.2 (Summer 2019), pp. 13-17.

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

In its extended focus on Natty Bumppo’s relationship with his hunting dog Hector, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie (1827) captures the power of human-companion animal relationships to a greater degree than any novel in the Leather-Stocking series. Cooper explores Hector’s role in assisting the elderly Bumppo during his final days on the western prairies, and he introduces a theme that would appear prominently throughout subsequent literary works about hunting dogs (such as Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller and Wilson Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows): the seemingly extrasensory ability of canines to help ensure human safety in perilous situations. Throughout The Prairie, Cooper characterizes Bumppo and Hector as equals, and in multiple instances, he asserts Hector as more intelligent and capable than the novel’s most formally educated character, the scholar and naturalist Dr. Obed Battius, within the vast, open, and unforgiving landscape. As a result, The Prairie suggests that the hierarchy between humans and animals collapses in situations where companion animals prove to be more knowledgeable and trustworthy than other people. In The Companion Species Manifesto, Donna Haraway argues that in order to appreciate the coevolution between humans and companion animals, we should reconsider our interactions with nonhuman others in terms of relationships rather than hierarchy. By destabilizing human assumptions of power, control, or ownership, Haraway claims that we can better understand the ways that companion animals “co-shape” the daily experiences that collectively amount to our lives. Through his contrasting portrayals of Hector and Dr. Obed Battius in relation to Bumppo, Cooper criticizes unchecked hierarchical assumptions of human superiority and stresses the necessity of relational understandings of human-animal relationships on the American frontier.

Scholars typically characterize Dr. Battius as a foil for Bumppo or else as comic relief akin to the role of David Gamut in The Last of the Mohicans. For example, Donald Ringe notes that Battius’s name suggests his “intellectual blindness” even though the subset of formally educated naturalists he represents espouse a modern “new attitude toward nature.” With their emphasis on the power of scientific reason and the mission to catalog, document, and chart the natural world, they abrasively cast aside the form of human-environment relationship that Bumppo espouses — one rooted in unmeasured combinations of hands-on, day-to-day experiences, personal observations, reverence, remembrance, and storytelling (28-29). More recently, Domhnall Mitchell identifies Battius as “a satirical target” who espouses a form of dogmatism that makes him fully irrelevant within the context of life and death on the prairie (xi). Mitchell aligns Battius with David Gamut as part of a larger pattern of Cooper’s comic figures who appear at risk in unfamiliar surroundings. Although these characters may serve similar purposes, Mitchell’s observations overlook Battius’s function within the context of The Prairie, where his foil is not simply Bumppo, but rather an aging Bumppo braced by his companion animal’s loyalty, intelligence, and awareness.

At the conclusion of The Pioneers (1823), the story that precedes The Prairie, Bumppo disappears into the forest and heads west, leaving behind friends concerned about his advanced age. Elizabeth Effingham’s parting plea to him is,

“For my sake, if not your own, stay. I shall see you, in those frightful dreams that still haunt my nights, dying in poverty and age, by the side of those terrific beasts you slew. There will be no evil that sickness, want, and solitude can inflict, that my fancy will not conjure as your fate. Stay with us, old man; if not for your own sake, at least for ours” (463).

Making it to the western prairies from the New York wilderness would have been no easy feat for Bumppo, and the The Prairie’s extensive meditations about his age reinforce Cooper’s idea that Bumppo’s final and greatest foe — now that he has triumphed over a host of life-threatening challenges — is the deterioration of his human body. Realistically, Bumppo’s companion Hector has aged as well, prompting the need for a stronger, mutually dependent partnership. From living and hunting with Hector, Bumppo hones his ideas of a long-term commitment to observing and conserving the natural world; as a byproduct of this realization, Bumppo expresses his appreciation of his companion to a greater extent in The Prairie than any of the other novels in the Leather-Stocking series.

Throughout the novel, Cooper probes at the responsibility that Bumppo feels towards Hector while sensing the late-life stages of their lives. Near the beginning, when bee hunter Paul Hover first comes into contact with Bumppo and Hector, he senses the dog creeping towards him. When he asks Bumppo to summon Hector, Bumppo replies, “come hither fool. His growl and his bark are all that is left him now; you may come on, friend; the hound is toothless” (910). Bumppo also communicates his devotion to Hector through his concern about what might happen if he passes before the aging dog. When he unexpectedly encounters Captain Duncan Uncas Middleton, the grandson of Duncan and Alice Heyward from The Last of the Mohicans, he is elated that the dog alongside Middleton is one of Hector’s descendants. After “struggling to conquer an emotion that nearly suffocated him, and speaking to his hound, in the sort of tones he would have used to a child,” Bumppo exclaims, “do you hear that, Pup? Your kin and blood, are on the Prairies!” (1007-08). Bumppo finds a small bit of relief at the prospect of Hector befriending Middleton’s dog and possibly having a fellow companion in the event of his death.

Though Hector has aged dramatically, Bumppo still depends upon him to detect danger, and Cooper asserts that Hector’s capabilities related to awareness and sensitivity to environmental cues exceed those of Dr. Battius. Bumppo is acutely aware of the decline of his own sense of smell and hearing loss. In one instance, he says, “There are both scents and sounds in the air, though my miserable senses are not good enough to hear the one or to catch the taint of the other” (1101). Far removed from central New York, his most familiar terrain, and amidst a sometimes unpredictable and perilous frontier, Bumppo relies on Hector to buttress his declining perceptive ability. Cooper accounts for his protagonist’s great faith in Hector in one situation where Bumppo pits Hector against Battius to help determine what creature is approaching them. Battius responds indignantly, “Do you pretend to oppose a dog to man! brutality to learning! instinct to reason! ... In what manner, pray, can a hound distinguish the habits, species, or even the genus of an animal, like reasoning, learned, scientific, triumphant man!” (996). Making little of Battius’s tirade, Bumppo refers to a crackling of twigs and asks Battius to name the approaching animal. He turns to Hector when Battius fails; his companion listens and then signals to Bumppo that it is a person. In another situation, Battius cannot recognize his own donkey, the closest living animal that assists him during the journey. Hector and Bumppo’s collective interpretations function as a far more reliable barometer than Battius’s scientific observations, especially when safety is a concern. In contrast, through his obsession with documentation and accumulating data, Battius represents a direct rejection of the possibility of a world co-created and shared among humans and animals, a perspective Cooper suggests as detrimental to relationships among humans, companion animals, and the natural world.

Cooper further clarifies this point of view by contrasting the ways that Bumppo and Battius conceive of their experiences with animals. Throughout the story, Battius remains far more interested in interacting with the remains of dead animals. He remains on the prowl for new specimens to catalog and is ignorant of safety concerns while satisfying his hunger for documentation — presumably for the prestige he might later accrue in scientific circles far away from the frontier. Conversely, Bumppo champions the use of game animals for food and criticizes any sort of scientific collections. In response to a conversation where Paul Hover recalls his first meeting with Battius, when the latter possessed a “crawling museum,” or a bag of specimens, Bumppo rails vehemently against taxidermy as the misuse of the animal world: “They slay the buck, and the moose, and the wild cat, and all the beasts that range the woods, and stuffing them with worthless rags, and placing eyes of glass into their heads, they set them up to be stared at!” (991-92). For Bumppo, the benefits of interacting with animals are preferable to what might be best described as a scientific gaze. To make a specimen of a deceased animal rather than using it for food equates to a great travesty. Cooper reinforces this notion by showing how the Sioux view Battius, when they capture and ridicule him by attaching “sundry toads, frogs, lizards, butterflies, etc.” to his hair (1224).

Bumppo’s belief in the living, breathing, and moving interactions with his companion are important when considering his final request and death. Before they part, Bumppo asks Middleton if he will let Hector’s companion pup remain with them throughout the winter, when he expects that Hector will pass. Bumppo observes the goodness of Hector’s play with the pup and senses his own mortality, and in a stark contrast to the conclusion of The Pioneers, he elects to stay behind as others prepare to leave him. In a later scene when he approaches death and cannot see anymore, Bumppo fails to realize that Hector has passed before him. As he sits in his final resting chair, the Pawnees place a now stuffed Hector at Bumppo’s feet, but he immediately realizes that it is merely an imitation of his lost companion. Sensing that Hector is gone, Bumppo expresses his final request that they be buried aside one another: “A hunter need never be ashamed to be found in the company of his dog!” (1314). In this final expression, Cooper captures the integral position that Hector occupies in his hero’s life. As Bumppo calmly approaches death, the memories and love for his companion comfort him. In poignantly sketching the conclusion of Bumppo’s life as “co-shaped” with a beloved companion animal, Cooper offers his clearest exhortation of the power of the human-companion animal bond in the Leather-Stocking series. Paving the way for subsequent odes to companion animals, Cooper implores readers to consider how animals inform who we are and shape our understandings of the natural world.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers. 1823. New York: Library of America, 1985.
  • ------ . The Prairie. 1827. New York: Library of America, 1985.
  • Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.
  • Mitchell, Domhnall Martin. “Introduction.” The Prairie. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014: ix-xix.
  • Ringe, Donald. James Fenimore Cooper. Boston: Twayne, 1988.