The Prairie, Space, and Aesthetic Pleasure
Presented at the Cooper Panel on “Reading for Enchantment: Reading James Fenimore Cooper and his Contemporaries” at the 30ᵗʰ Annual American Literature Association Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, May 23-26, 2019.
Originally published in The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 31.1 (Whole No. 8, Spring 2020): 40-46.
Copyright © 2019, James Fenimore Cooper Society.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
We know that James Fenimore Cooper had never seen the midwestern prairie landscape prior to the appearance of his seventh novel, The Prairie, in 1827. Nor, to be more accurate, had he seen the Great Plains landscape, west of the prairie proper, where the book’s incidents are actually sited. That a New York novelist could locate a story in the middle of the future state of Nebraska but call it The Prairie is a revealing detail about how much he (and most other easterners) did not know about the heart of the continent in 1826-27.
Cooper in his first decade had proved to be generally quite attentive to and interested in setting as a geographic fact as well as a literary illusion. This point holds, for instance, for The Spy and The Pioneers, published in quick succession between December 1821 and February 1823, both of which make complex and creative use of two New York State landscapes with which Cooper was intimately familiar. Engagement with place mattered a good deal to him, and it is instructive to trace out how, when he came to set a book in a landscape utterly unknown to him personally, he sought to make up for his deficit so as to help organize the book’s action and give his readers a coherent sense of his setting and its potential significance.
When Cooper left for Paris, some eleven chapters of The Prairie had been written. In them, Cooper had introduced the plains or prairie landscape and set his characters acting in it. His sense of that landscape was obviously bookish. Much as his personal experience of various settings had been enriched by written sources he relied on for The Spy, Lionel Lincoln, and The Last of the Mohicans, so for The Prairie Cooper relied — and with even more reason — on books that helped him imagine the new book’s setting, make sense of it geographically and historically, and decide what role it might play in the novel. The most important of these books was the Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains that, under the command of a topographical engineer in the U.S. Army, Maj. Stephen H. Long, had explored the Great Plains between 1818 and 1820. The Account, published in two volumes in Philadelphia at the end of 1822 and the start of 1823, was compiled from the records kept by various members of the Long expedition by Dr. Edwin James, a physician who was employed during the expedition’s second year to pay particular attention to botany and geology.
We know that the Account was crucial for Cooper because he took it with him to Paris and, once he had finished using it there, he gave it to an acquaintance, Albertine de Staël, duchesse de Broglie, telling her  that his knowledge of the Plains Indians derived in part from what was recorded and depicted in James’s illustrated volumes. ¹ Since it was published just at the time that Cooper’s third novel, The Pioneers, was moving through production toward its February 1, 1823 publication date, ² the James Account could have come to his attention at any time between then and early 1826, when he began work on The Prairie and hence needed to have at least a preliminary grasp of the new book’s setting.
Other books also contributed to his understanding, most importantly the Biddle-Allen History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark (1814). But here, too, as in his previous works, Cooper unquestionably relied on oral sources as well. I think, in fact, that in one particularly rich encounter as early as the end of 1821, when he was just beginning to write The Pioneers as he finished work on The Spy, Cooper first sensed the literary possibilities of the far west. Because Natty Bumppo was just then being imagined for the first time, the impact of western images, motifs, and figures on his creator’s mind this early, a point not made heretofore that I know of, is well worth our reflection. In the first volume of my biography of Cooper, I showed that the novelist was lodging and dining at the City Hotel in Manhattan during much of December 1821, precisely when a delegation of upper Missouri Indian chiefs also stayed and ate there. I mentioned there that the leader of the delegation, on a brief visit from Washington to Philadelphia and then New York, was Maj. Benjamin O’Fallon, who for some time had served as a U.S. agent for the tribes on the Mississippi and then the Missouri. ³ When Cooper told his Paris friend, the duchesse de Broglie, that he could vouch for the heroic character of two Missouri leaders because he knew both men personally, I think he was referring to the fact that those men, part of the group then visiting Washington, had accompanied O’Fallon to Manhattan in December 1821. I also believe that Cooper may have followed O’Fallon back to Washington sometime in the first weeks of 1822, when he came and went with some frequency at the City Hotel.
His exposure to these prairie/plains figures was, I think, crucial for his emerging conception of Natty Bumppo’s character and, perhaps, his not-yet-reified future career as a literary hero. He seems to have remembered O’Fallon for many years, basing an episode in The Redskins on the 1821 Manhattan visit by him and his native associates. In that 1846 novel, a delegation of Western Indians, having heard of the now legendary and ancient Susquesus, detours from the federal capital to the wilds of the Littlepage-Mordaunt estate, Ravensnest, in upstate New  York in order to pay homage to the Onondaga survivor. Accompanying this delegation is a white interpreter named Manytongues, loosely based on O’Fallon and probably, in a composite fashion, on the interpreter or interpreters who had accompanied him in 1821.
O’Fallon, a Kentucky native who had relocated to the Louisiana Territory while in his teens, knew much about the Pawnee and Omaha and other native peoples. But he also, as it happens, could provide a doubly significant living link to the exploration parties sent out by the federal government to examine the prairie/plains landscapes of the Louisiana Purchase, ward off British influence and penetration there, and seek to establish good relations with the native peoples. O’Fallon was the nephew, and effectually stepson, of William Clark, co-leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and from 1813 to 1820 the territorial governor of Missouri and as such the party responsible for O’Fallon’s own involvement in the government’s Indian agency. It was to live with and be coached by Clark that the fatherless, teenaged O’Fallon moved to St. Louis in 1809 or so. O’Fallon thus provided Cooper, when they met in New York, a connection to the greatest single western endeavor of the Early Republic. Moreover, O’Fallon had served on the Long Expedition in various capacities during its first year, joining Long and his men at St. Charles, Missouri in June 1819 and undertaking a two-week tour of Native villages with various expedition members, including naturalist Thomas Say, in April and early May of the following year. In his Account of the Long Expedition, Edwin James was to include a long appendix documenting O’Fallon’s exchanges with the Pawnee in October 1819 as well as a long footnote on those with the Ietan (Utes) and Konzas (Kansas) during an early 1821 council in St. Louis. In the account of the early 1820 tour of native villages, James, relying on Thomas Say’s journal, included an account of the famous tale about how the Skidi or Skiri Pawnee leader Petalesharoo, one of the natives with whom Cooper specifically claimed acquaintance, convinced his tribe to abandon an old human sacrifice ritual. ⁴ Cooper, who probably had encountered a slightly earlier published version of the tale included in Jedidiah Morse’s 1822 Report to the Secretary of War, was to insert his own version in Notions of the Americans, on which he began work even as he was finishing The Prairie. ⁵
These face-to-face encounters early in the 1820s gave Cooper’s tenuous grasp of the prairie landscape and its human inhabitants some measure of specificity. Every resource he could draw on as he verbally created and explored the new region was of real help to Cooper in a purely literary sense. At this point, acknowledging the generative  importance of Rita Felski’s ideas in The Uses of Literature, I want to turn to what he did with the prairie in his seventh novel and how and why he did it. I think it is useful to distinguish the aesthetic uses to which he put the prairie landscape from the moral meanings Cooper ascribed to it. At a time when the territorial reconfiguration of the United States was rapidly occurring, helping to build eastern conceptions of the Midwest and West was a matter of some cultural, political, and practical concern. Cooper’s novel was the first work of imaginative literature to open the prairie to eastern audiences as a bio-cultural zone of distinct character where forms of life, both biotic and human, were at the same time continuous and discontinuous with those in the more evenly watered and more topographically diversified East. In this sense, Cooper sought to introduce his readers to the prairie (and/or plains) in terms of the region’s sensible characteristics and distinctive features. In the last chapter of his late novel The Oak Openings (1848), inspired by Cooper’s initial encounter with real midwestern landforms, he included the following useful points:
The first prairie we have ever seen was on the road between Detroit and Kalamazoo; distant from the latter place only some eight or nine miles. The axe had laid the country open in its neighborhood; but the spot was easily to be recognized by the air of cultivation and age that pervaded it. There was not a stump on it, and the fields were as smooth as any on the plains of Lombardy, and far more fertile, rich as the last are known to be. In a word, the beautiful perfection of that little natural meadow became apparent at once, though seated amid a landscape that was by no means wanting in interest of its own.
He adds, apropos of the site that was locally termed “le prairie ronde,” “Indeed, the word ‘Prairie’ may now be said to be adopted into the English; meaning merely a natural, instead of an artificial meadow, though one of peculiar and local characteristics.” ⁶ The word had been adopted in part through the popularity of his third Leather-Stocking novel. In his 1832 preface to that book, Cooper more specifically added a bit of linguistic history:
When the [French] adventurers, who first penetrated these wilds, met, in the centre of the forests, immense plains, covered with rich verdure or rank grasses, they naturally gave then the appellation of meadows [i.e., prairies]. As the English succeeded the French, and found a peculiarity of nature, differing from all they had yet seen on the continent, already distinguished by a  word that did not express any thing in their own language, they left these natural meadows in possession of their title of convention. In this manner has the word ‘Prairie’ been adopted into the English tongue. ⁷
Cooper’s effort to help his readers imagine the prairie as a three-dimensional landscape is notable, especially given his own lack of direct experience with it in 1827. Here are the most important aspects of the effort. First, he emphasizes the deceptive openness of the landscape. Natty Bumppo well summarizes this trope when he tells Middleton that there is “deception in natur’ in these naked plains,” something that accounts for the young man’s doubts about his vision and hearing:
“Your eyes are good! And you are not deaf! ... no, lad, no; they may be good to see across a church, or to hear a town-bell, but before you had passed a year in these prairies you would find yourself taking a turkey for a buffaloe [sic], or conceiting, full fifty times, that the roar of a buffaloe bull was the thunder of the Lord!” ⁸
Here Cooper, drawing on an episode in the Long Expedition Account when what seems at first to be a herd of buffalo far off turns out to be a turkey and her “brood of young” in the middle distance, ⁹ is attempting to adjust the perceptual tools and assumptions his Eastern readers might bring, as Long’s party did, to the prairie or plains. In a related passage, Cooper has Natty point out that the very same openness of the prairie makes concealment — a key virtue of the eastern forest in Cooper’s early novels — very hard to achieve.
Other elements in this aesthetic elaboration of the prairie as a special domain included Cooper’s sensitive relaying of the wet/dry cycle of prairie weather that Long and his fellow explorers experienced with particular force in the quite droughty period of their expedition. Watercourses in the novel support green lines of foliage that cross the novel’s setting; moreover, Cooper rightly emphasizes that prairie streams may dry up completely during parts of the year, ¹⁰ something no one living along the Hudson or the Charles would have experienced in their own landscapes. This feature of Cooper’s description connects naturally enough to the most celebrated aspect of the book’s imagined landscape — that is, the suitability of the term “desert” to it. Here I would urge both caution and ingenuity as proper responses. It has often been pointed out that the Long Expedition was responsible for introducing that term as an especially enduring descriptor for the plains — here the distinction I made at the outset especially matters. Partly the very dry conditions they encountered in 1819-20, which made  it hard at times to find water for their horses and themselves, gave that term a fitting quality. But, and here comes my caution, we need to be careful not to overread the meaning of the word in its early nineteenth-century uses. It often meant empty more than or at least as much as desiccated. If, for instance, we consult Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, we find this definition: “An uninhabited tract of land; a region in its natural state; a wilderness; a solitude; particularly, a vast sandy plain, as the deserts of Arabia and Africa. But the word may be applied to an uninhabited country covered with wood.” Cooper shows some trace of this broader meaning of the term, which was to narrow somewhat by the time Webster published his 1848 Dictionary. It is true that Cooper borrowed outright the Long Expedition’s nomenclature in calling the book’s setting, on the first page of his original preface, “a comparative desert.” ¹¹ But we need to note that on the next page he refines the description by speaking of “the broad and tenantless plains of the west.” It wasn’t the Sahara, but it also wasn’t Broadway. It was different and needed to be appreciated for what it was in its own right.
I do not have time in this brief paper to discuss Cooper’s careful introduction of the prairie’s proper tenants — the various native peoples. But the moral use he makes of the idea of the region’s relative emptiness, my concluding point, depends in a significant way on this doubleness in his idea of the “desert.” For here, in the place where Natty Bumppo will die, Cooper imagines not so much a natural wasteland as a future dystopian landscape. Unless the wasty easterners of the sort Natty excoriates in The Pioneers mend their ways as they move west, they threaten to use up and hence destroy both the land’s resources and the human chance it may still represent in 1827, by their voracious, error-prone, greedy behavior. In the second half of the novel’s original edition, when inveighing against the likely expansion of his hated “choppers and loggers” onto the area west of the Mississippi, Natty says, “then the land [meaning the U.S.] will be a peopled desert” — because, that is, the territory from the Atlantic to the Rockies will be “filled with the abominations and craft of man, and stript of the comforts and loveliness it received from the hands of the Lord!” ¹² (1852 2:7). Here is Cooper’s most poignant application of the mistaken notion of the prairie/plains as the “Great American Desert” hypothesized by the Long Expedition. He does not want his readers to imagine this new zone as the same as the East or as defective because it differs from the East — rather, to see its imagined state at some future point as the consequence of his present nation’s failed moral and ecological vision.  Cooper enchants us with glimpses of a very different world, one of fiction’s most important abilities; but then he instructs us, by this means, about how we ought to behave in the one we already inhabit.
- Beard, James Franklin., ed. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. 6 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-68.
- Cooper, James Fenimore. The Prairie: A Tale. Edited and Historical Introduction by James P. Elliott. Albany: SUNY Press, 1985.
- ------. Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor. Text established with Historical Introduction and Textual Notes by Gary Williams. Albany: SUNY Press, 1991.
- ------. The Oak Openings; or the Bee-Hunter. 2 vols. New York: Burgess, Stringer, and Co., 1848.
- ------. The Redskins; or, Indian and Injin. New York: Burgess and Stringer, 1846.
- Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
- Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
- James, Edwin, comp. Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains. Philadelphia: H. C. Carey and I. Lea, 1823.
- Webster, Noah. An American Dictionary of the English Language. New York: S. Converse, 1828.
- ------. An American Dictionary of the English Language. Revised edition. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1848.
- Woodman, Neal. “History and Dating of the Philadelphia (1822) and London (1823) Editions of Edwin James’s Account ofan Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains.” Archives of Natural History 37(2010): 28-38.
1. See Beard, ed., Letters and Journals, 1:199.
2. On the precise publication date (12/31/1822) of Edwin James’s narrative, see Neal Woodman, “History and dating of the Philadelphia (1822) and London (1823) editions of Edwin James’s Account ofan expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains.” For that of The Pioneers, see Franklin, Early Years, 359-60.
3. Franklin, Cooper: Early Years, 477-80.
4. James, Account of an Expedition, 1:70, 347-68.
5. Cooper, Notions of the Americans, 491.
6. Cooper, Oak Openings, 2:224.
7. Cooper, Prairie, 3-4.
8. Cooper, Prairie, 196.
9. James, Account of an Expedition, 1:419.
10. Cooper, Prairie, 262.
11. Cooper, Prairie, 1-2.
12. Cooper, Prairie, 187-88.