James Fenimore Cooper: The Prairie

William H. Goetzmann * (University of Texas)

Copyright © 1969; placed online with the kind permission of the author. .

Originally published in Hennig Cohen, ed., Landmarks of American Writing (New York: Basic Books, 1969) [Essays based on Voice of America Forum Lectures], pp. 75-87.

[Our thanks to Cooper Society member Ron Ziesing for calling this article to our attention. Nov. 2000].

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

Whether the genteel critics and the newspaper reviewers knew it or not, the most important literary event of 1823 was the publication of Dr. Edwin James’s Account of an Expedition From Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains in the Years 1819, 20. ... 1 Dr. James was a New York botanist who accompanied United States Army Major Stephen H. Long on a sweeping reconnaissance of the vast frontiers of The American Trans-Mississippi West just as it was being opened to the horde of settlers who would, in succeeding decades, complete the march across the continent. Major Long’s mission, coming at this strategic time, was only partially military. His main purpose, not unlike that of the moon-bound astronauts of today, was to report back to the nation all of the advantages, disadvantages, and dangers of the new country. Dr. James’s task was to cast Major Long’s rough field notes and those of his scientific and military assistants into a sober narrative of scientific exploration. Few writers have had more dramatic material. Dr. James’s account took the Major and his men out across the rolling prairies along the dramatically broken banks of the Platte River to the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, then south paralleling the mountain wall, past Pikes Peak, to the Royal Gorge of the upper Arkansas River on the very edge of Spanish territory in New Mexico. At this point the party split. One detachment went down the Arkansas directly through hostile Pawnee country. The other swung south to the Canadian River, and thinking it the Red River (which now separates Texas and Oklahoma), headed {76} back down its course to the Arkansas and eventually the Mississippi.

On the march, the explorers passed through Indian lands, including the dangerous village of the “Bad Hearts,” through buffalo herds strung out for miles, climbed towering Pikes Peak for the first time, and gazed with scientific detachment on the weirdly contrasting topography of the High Plains — where rising out of nowhere, like a ship on the sea, stand Scott’s Bluff, Courthouse Rock, and other strange eminences. They saw rivers that cut suddenly into the rolling plains, raging fires on the sea of grass, thickets of willows and dwarf trees in the river bottoms that afforded oases for Indian nomads, and the Cross Timbers — a forest standing for no apparent reason out on the bald prairie. Most of all, they were struck with the fact that this fantastic country resembled nothing so much as a “Great American Desert.” To them it was a moonscape. The “lost pathfinder,” Zebulon Pike, had been right when, ten years earlier in his own published account, he had described it in this exotic fashion. Any would-be settler who ventured out of the familiar forests of the Mississippi Valley, across the infinite and terrible spaces of the High Plains, clearly left most of the possibilities for civilization behind. In their view, he was entering upon what could only be a somber and disheartening enterprise.

James Fenimore Cooper followed Major Long’s adventures by means of Dr. James’s narrative which he read while taking his ease in Paris. A dreamer and aristocratic armchair adventurer, who was never to see the West himself, Cooper was clearly fascinated by the possibilities which Dr. James’s story afforded for the writer of fiction, especially the romantic fiction then so much the fashion in France. Cooper had already read with some care Nicholas Biddle’s recasting of the notebooks of Lewis and Clark, and very possibly he had read Zebulon Pike’s account as well. In short, he kept up with the basic literature of the westward movement and had even known an Indian or two — surviving relics of a lost world of pristine freedom who dwelt on his father’s baronial Otsego estate in northern New York. In his father’s day, at the end of the eighteenth century, Otsego Hall had been carved out of the forest where the fierce Mohawks once lived.

{77} Now the wilderness was tamed, just as it had been over a century earlier to the eastward as the Puritans drove out the Pequots, Mohicans, and other tribes. Though he seemed remote from it — certainly in Paris — the frontier experience touched Cooper deeply and personally. It was the great theme of his life, standing always in the forefront of his imagination. Though the frontier theme can be seen in some fashion in virtually all of his books: the sea novels, the Revolutionary War works, the Chainbearer series, the Littlepage trilogy, the Utopian fantasies, even offstage in his European books and works of social criticism, it rose to major prominence in his Leatherstocking Tales for which he is chiefly remembered.

The Prairie, which Cooper wrote in 1826-1827 in Paris, was the third book in the Leatherstocking saga which chronicled tile adventures of Natty Bumppo, a forest hunter and frontiersman who resembled Daniel Boone, immortalized by John Filson in a biography in 1784. It was apparently to be the third and last volume of a trilogy which was artfully structured. The first volume, entitled The Pioneers, Cooper had published in 1823. It introduced Natty Bumppo as “Leatherstocking,” a relatively old man who, in killing a deer on Judge Marmaduke Temple’s New York estate, violated civilized law and was punished. From the beginning, it was clear that Natty Bumppo had a past, and a rather noble one at that, consisting of adventures with the Indians in the forest wilderness, and going back beyond the Revolution to the French and Indian War. Cooper thus placed his major character just beyond the middle of life. In so doing, he began his epic classically in medias res. The next volume, The Last of the Mohicans (1826), is a flashback that pictures Natty in the prime of life, in the midst of his glorious past. The Prairie, written right on the heels of the previous book and suggesting that Cooper was rapidly spinning out the conclusion to his woodsman’s odyssey, is clearly a finale — the grand curtain scene of Leatherstocking, now an old man well past eighty, and waiting serenely for death out in nature beyond the reaches of civilization. From a point just past the center of his hero’s life, Cooper had thus flashed backward and forward. He had, through the medium of Leatherstocking, told the story of frontier America.

{78} Critics, preoccupied with apologizing for his stilted language, have generally missed the skill and subtlety with which the trilogy was structured. Over all three books hangs a cloud of mortality, of inevitable death and change with its inescapable sadness and elegiac tone. In the first book, the deer is killed, but even worse, possessed as property under law. The trees are cut down and the forest is rapidly disappearing. Mighty Leatherstocking himself is tried and convicted of the humiliating crime of poaching, and hence suffers spiritual death at the hands of Judge Temple, the agent of civilization. Leatherstocking’s day, like that of the wilderness he loves so much, is clearly past. One can only leave it to the Freudian critics to decide whether Judge Temple was meant to be Cooper’s own father, and if this is then a novel of emotional rebellion as well as a novel of social commentary.

The Last of the Mohicans, a story of Leatherstocking’s prime years, also tells a tale of dying and thus sustains the tone, if not the theme of the first book. This time, of course, the victim is the noble Uncas, last of his tribe which had been virtually wiped out by vicious New Englanders years before. Thus we have a sequence of doom: first the Indian, then the forests, then the hunter. The Prairie is the last in this somber sequence. It is entirely a novel of death, but appropriately enough, death and resurrection, for it ends on that ambiguous Easter note of sadness and hope. It chronicles the death of one way of life and the birth of another which is not altogether bad.

At this point, Cooper had created a subtle structural masterpiece; then, as D. H. Lawrence so astutely but only halfway perceived, Cooper began the “sloughing of the old skin.” 2 He went back in 1840 and 1841 and wrote two more books in the Leatherstocking series, The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, which took Natty Bumppo back by successive stages through young manhood to youth and the beginning of his career. The spell of death was broken. In a different sense, another resurrection had occurred, and Leatherstocking once again roamed the forests and the glimmerglass lakes. These books had a place, certainly, in proportion to Natty’s very long life, and they did make clear to the reader in the age of Manifest Destiny and march of empire just what the attractions of the unspoiled wilderness had been. They also recalled the pioneering exploits of an older heroic generation that {79} had given hard birth to the country and which was in danger of being forgotten except in the formalistic orations of Daniel Webster.

There was something so basic about Cooper’s five Leatherstocking tales that they received the supreme accolade. They were taken up by the generations and read as children’s books for nearly a hundred years. They sustained themselves on the magic level of story and character down through all the years when Americans lost their self-consciousness in a preoccupation with work, industrial development, and the growth of great cities where the forest and the longhouse once stood. They outlasted the dime novel and hundreds of imitations which blossomed into a whole new genre called “westerns.” They survive even today in the era of the cinema and the “horse opera,” holding their own against the best of John Ford.

But since 1950, at least, with the work of Henry Nash Smith in Virgin Land, The American West as Symbol and Myth, literary critics and students of culture have begun to see the larger meaning of Cooper’s work. Cooper now stands forth clearly as the great novelist of changing America, and at the heart of his work stands the ambivalence and paradox that are central to the American historical experience. Cooper, along with many other Americans, could never make up his mind whether he preferred nature or civilization. Nature was God’s pure handiwork. It was beauty, the vast, silent sublimity of forest and lake and prairie. It was innocent and noble and free. It was America’s one great spiritual and material resource, and it set us off during a crucial period of national self-identification from the feudal, class-ridden industrial society of “civilized” Europe. On the other hand, nature was crude, lawless, the home of violence, danger, and terror. Most of all it stood in the way of progress. Over and over again in his Leatherstocking tales, Cooper posits the contrast between nature — time stood still — and progress — the relentless, and in many ways inviting, wave of the future. The problem was to tame nature and bring it under control for good without degenerating into the callous over-civilization of Europe. This was the mission of America, to create a new society, efficient and orderly and civilized, but based closely upon the beneficent laws of nature and hence free. So Cooper, like most Americans, while {80} always aware of the nature versus progress dilemma, invariably had it both ways.

In his books he celebrated both nature and civilization; time and progress stood still. The Leatherstocking saga catches all of this so perfectly because it is a myth or story of heroic proportions that chronicles the enlarging historical identity of the American people. Cooper knew, as some social scientists of the present appear to have forgotten, that individual and collective identities can only be derived from history. His great achievement was to render the historical process of change during a period of cultural genesis somehow timeless and permanent while at the same time capturing all of the ambiguities, dislocations, and anomalies of a culture in the throes of a process of acceleration more rapid than any ever seen before. It was because he was so sensitive to the historical process bound up in the frontier movement that Cooper, of course, found Dr. Edwin James’s narrative of the cutting edge of civilization on the prairies so utterly fascinating.

The Prairie, as befitting the final act of a great drama, has most of Cooper’s symbolic characters onstage in a vastly greater panorama than any of his other books. The tone and many of the characters in the book are reminiscent of Shakespeare’s valedictory play, The Tempest. There is never any doubt but that this is to be the finale. The landscape, Mark Twain notwithstanding, 3 is a real landscape derived from James’s careful account, but it is bizarre and skillfully managed by Cooper. It is a “bleak and solitary place” with “bruised and withered grass,” offering little “that was flattering to the hopes of an ordinary settler of new lands.” It was colored by the “hues and tints of autumn,” suggesting age, and the great fortress rock which was to shelter the Bush family stood out upon the autumnal prairie like a tomb-stone.

Leatherstocking, wrinkled and old, makes his sudden appearance on the prairie silhouetted against the setting sun, an awe-inspiring nature god about to pass from the face of the earth:

The sun had fallen below the crest of the nearest wave of the prairie, leaving the usual rich and glowing train on its track. In the center of this flood of fiery light, a human form appeared, drawn against the {81} gilded background, as distinctly, and seemingly as palpable, as though it would come within the grasp of any extended hand. The figure was colossal, the attitude musing and melancholy, and the situation directly in the route of the travellers. But embedded, as it was, in its setting of garish light, it was impossible to distinguish its just proportions or true character.      

The effect of such a spectacle was instantaneous and powerful. The man in front of the emigrants came to a stand, and remained gazing at the mysterious object with a dull interest, that soon quickened into superstitious awe.

Throughout the book, this godlike quality of Leatherstocking is maintained. His wisdom, constantly thrust before the reader and the other characters in the story, is a function of his great age and long experience. His powers, now no longer physical (even his “hawkeye” has grown dim), derive from his great intuitive understanding of nature and men. But so great are these powers, especially those of intelligence and morality, that he largely influences the actions of all the others in the story.

More important than his powers, however, are his values for they denote what he represents in Cooper’s myth of America’s beginnings. The twin keys to Leatherstocking’s values are freedom and a reverence for nature. Having been arrested by Judge Temple for making free use of nature’s bounty when he killed a deer, Natty rejects “the law of the clearings” for the most part, favoring instead the freedom of nature’s laws — even as applied to the Indians who make “free” with the settlers’ horses because, being natural beings, they have little feeling for or need of private property. Leatherstocking does not, however, violate nature or nature’s laws, and, embodying Cooper’s basic ambivalence in this matter, he does not entirely scorn civilization’s laws. Speaking to Ellen Wade, he declares, “The Law — tis bad to have it, but I sometimes think it is worse to be entirely without it. Age and weakness have brought me to feel such weakness at times. Yes-yes, the law is needed when such as have not the gifts of strength and wisdom are to be taken care of.” Here Cooper gets at the heart of his theme, and for that matter the theme of most “westerns” down to the present day. This is the role of law and order which is synonymous with the best aspects of civilization in that it provides justice and protection for the weak against the vicious, {82} the violent, and the rapacious — in short the spoiler who is in Cooper’s terms the unnatural man. The good law is, by implication, Jeffersonian law which is in harmony with nature, indeed derives from it, but which nevertheless allows a man to be as free as possible without injury to his fellow creatures. It depends fundamentally upon tolerance and mutual respect.

These qualities are sadly lacking in Ishmael Bush who might be considered the main character in the story. Bush is a brute who has killed a man back in “civilization” in a fight over land. Gathering his numerous brood about him like some tribal leader, he has set out on his exodus across the forbidding prairie to get as far as possible beyond the restraints of law for which he has only contempt. As evidence of this, he has added kidnapping to his crimes. In partnership with his evil brother-in-law, Abiram White, he has abducted Inez de Certavallos, daughter of a decadent but rich Spanish colonial grandee. Improbable as it seems at first reading, Bush and White expect to collect a ransom for Inez out in the wilderness. On this point the reader might possibly be deceived by a geographical “ellipsis” in Cooper’s story, since if the emigrant band were heading across the prairie on or near the Spanish trail from Santa Fe to St. Louis, they might well have been, by Cooper’s (and James’s) logic, in a position to contact Spanish authorities in the matter of the ransom. Cooper simply neglected to mention the occasional Spanish outposts along the way such as those near the base of the southern Rockies, on the Red River between Oklahoma and Texas, and the trading camps along the Platte River as well as the temporary camps of the comancheros operating out of Santa Fe.

Bush’s important role, however, is not that of kidnapper. He is Ishmael the outcast and outlawed wanderer. He is a kind of gypsy Caliban of brutish and powerful strength doomed to suffer in his own private dungeon of ignorance, unless he learns. We first see him crashing across the prairie in one of Cooper’s best descriptive passages:

He was a tall, sunburnt man, past the middle age, of a dull countenance and listless manner. His frame appeared loose and flexible; but it was vast, and in reality of prodigious power. It was only at moments, however, as some slight impediment imposed itself to his {83} loitering progress, that his person, which in its ordinary gait seemed so lounging and nerveless, displayed any of those energies which lay latent in his system, like the slumbering and unwieldy, but terrible, strength of the elephant.

Resorting to then fashionable phrenological description, Cooper adds, “The inferior lineaments of his countenance were coarse, extended and vacant; while the superior, or those nobler parts which are thought to affect the intellectual being, were low, receding and mean.” He dresses like a gypsy, absurdly loaded with the plunder of a hundred brushes with hated civilization: a silken sash, a silver-hafted knife, a marten’s-fur cap, Mexican coins for buttons, three worthless watches slung around his neck, a rifle with a mahogany stock banded in precious metal; and he carries the prime symbol of evil — the spoiler’s axe. Like Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, he is ignorant, but possessed of terrible and menacing potential for destruction which he can barely control. He stands for the great barbarian melting pot of America, unleashed, in Cooper’s aristocratic view, upon the prostrate body of nature.

Cooper’s story, however, is really the story of how Ishmael Bush learned to value the ways of civilization, how he redeemed himself and rose up out of his brutishness to wisdom and sanity and maturity, how out in nature he exchanged the role of Caliban for that of Prospero who in the end puts all things right. The Prairie is therefore very much Bush’s story, though it is again a measure of Cooper’s ambivalence that Bush is forced to compete throughout with Leatherstocking for the reader’s attention because Cooper cannot finally make up his mind about nature versus civilization. In a sense, Bush and the bee hunter, Paul Hover, of the next generation, are to be seen as Leatherstocking’s successors in a maturing America, with all the sad and sentimental connotations that that condition brings with it.

Despite twists and turns of plot, the course of Bush’s education is relatively simple. One of his stalwart but stupid sons is mysteriously murdered. Bush thrashes about in a thicket of accusations and misdirected Old Testament tribal wrath. First he believes the Indians did it, then poor, good Leatherstocking. Finally, however, he learns that it was Abiram White, his own {84} brother-in-law. Since there is no law out in the wilderness (some say, west of the Pecos) he is forced to create his own court of justice, conduct a trial, convict, condemn, and hang Abiram White. It is as a result of this experience that the tribal patriarch repents his own evil ways, learns the value of law, and civilization comes at last to the prairie. He is finally seen as the dispenser of justice, setting free Inez, giving his ward, Ellen, to Paul Hover, freeing Captain Middleton, coming to terms with the Indians, and in general making peace with civilization.

The Indians form a counter-story to that of Ishmael Bush. Both Pawnee and Sioux, though fierce, no-quarter fighters, have codes of honor and justice. This is symbolized by the dramatic passage of arms between Mahtoree and Hard-Heart on an island in the river between the two warring Indian armies that so much resembles the chivalric duel between Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saladin in Walter Scott’s The Talisman. Cooper also goes to great lengths, some say absurd lengths, to indicate how the Indian’s closeness to nature and his intuitive grasp of its ways makes him the supremely appropriate inhabitant of the great prairie no-man’s land. He repeats, on several occasions in the book, Dr. James’s conclusion that the Great American Desert should form a permanent and healthy barrier to American expansion. It should be left to nature’s noblemen, the wild, free, yet honorable redmen with whom Leatherstocking elects to spend his declining years. But alas, the reader realizes sadly that Leatherstocking and his Indian friends are destined, like Uncas the last Mohican, to vanish before the march of empire — however good that empire may be.

The two pairs of younger characters in the book deserve further mention. Inez de Certavallos and her sleepy Spanish father represent, of course, decadent Europe and its feeble colonial culture in America. Captain Middleton, full of youthful excitement bordering on hysteria, is nonetheless a brave representative of the upper-class military aristocracy, making him a fit companion in Cooper’s blue book for Inez who is of gentle birth. Ellen Wade and Paul Hover are the rising energetic middle-class generation. Little orphan Ellen is a girl scout, a combination Tess Trueheart and Doris Day, brave, bubbly-clean, and reverent who nevertheless works her “womanly wiles” on the naive bee hunter who has {84} followed her halfway across the continent with an only vaguely defined purpose in mind. Paul Hover, of course, finds happiness. He has his Ellen in the end, he has his bee business, and best of all, he is Leatherstocking’s designated successor. He receives the magic laying on of hands. On the latter point, however, Cooper somehow fails to convince. One is left to wonder if Paul Hover represents a truly apostolic successor, especially since Cooper did not continue his story (as a “son of Leatherstocking,” so to speak) in 1840, but rather went back to the young manhood of Natty Bumppo himself. And further, in The Pathfinder Cooper created a similar character, still unsatisfactory as a surrogate — the young sailor, Jasper Western. The aristocratic Cooper, it seems, never could really reconcile himself emotionally to the middle class.

With most of the characters accounted for, we are left with only the ridiculous Dr. Obed Bat. The good doctor is clearly Cooper’s attempt to write one of Shakespeare’s “low” or comic characters into his story. Dr. Bat is a distant kin to Justice Shallow, Ancient Pistol, perhaps even in some ways to Doll Tearsheet. In his great pretension and corresponding lack of wisdom or common sense, he slightly resembles Falstaff, though Cooper’s character falls far short of any such lofty literary attainment.

Yet, Dr. Bat adds an important dimension to Cooper’s story that is commonly overlooked. For one thing, the impractical naturalist very probably reflects Cooper’s personal reaction to Dr. James’s overly scientific account of Major Long’s adventure. The James narrative is studded with official and sober scientific descriptions that do not enhance the belletristic quality of the story and are real-life counterparts to Dr. Bat’s penchant for Linnean nomenclature on any and every occasion. Dr. James’s businesslike descriptions of bizarre, potentially colorful phenomena must be ranked with Dr. Bat’s obtuseness in mistaking his own donkey (Asinus domesticus) for a buffalo (Vespertilio horribilis). Consider for instance this absurd visual image so soberly presented by Dr. James as a typical scene in the “Bad Heart” village: “’I saw one mother,’ Dr. James carefully recorded, ‘apparently thirty years of age and of usual stature, suckling her infant who stood upon the ground. She found it necessary to stoop but little and stood observing us almost erect while the child of about two years {86} was nursing.’” But Dr. Bat was not intended solely as a figure of humor, nor simply as a vehicle for Cooper’s impatience. He also embodies Cooper’s comment on science and the validity of the abstract scientific view of nature as opposed to Leatherstocking’s common-sense intuitive outlook. Major Long’s staff, preoccupied with measuring Pikes Peak, overlooked its grandeur. Dr. Bat errs in the same direction: “’I made my own base, knew the length of the perpendicular by calculation, and to draw the hypotenuse had nothing to do but to work my angle,’ said the busy Dr. Bat describing how he was rescued after being lost from camp.’ I supposed the guns were fired for my benefit, and changed my course for the sounds — not that I think the senses more accurate or even as accurate as a mathematical calculation, but I feared some of the children might need my services.’”

Dr. Bat sees nature only in the abstract. He is a collector out of context, a systematizer, a classifier. He does not know true nature and he is consequently a virtually helpless tenderfoot. And he does not learn. He misses life itself. In Cooper’s view, he is the most ignorant of all, beyond even the redemption afforded Ishmael Bush. Clearly Cooper, the artist and romantic, detested the world of science and abstract reasoning. As early as 1827, out on the boundless prairies of Cooper’s imagination, the “two cultures” stood unalterably opposed.

One could not arrive at truth through science, but one could do so in the most profound sense through history, the literary imagination, romance, and myth. Though Leatherstocking faded away into the sunset, broken twig, toothless hound, and all, Cooper could never forget him. He was too much a part of Cooper’s own, and changing America’s, basic experience. He lives on today, out of time, out of space, far out of the course of ordinary “realistic” experience, perhaps in the realm of what J.R.R. Tolkien called “Faërie,” but in any case ever so much more historical than history itself. Whatever “literary offenses” Fenimore Cooper committed, lack of insight, broad vision, profundity, imagination, and genius were not among them.


1 The most accessible version of Dr. James’s narrative can be found in volumes XIV-XVII of Reuben Gold Thwaites, Early Western Travels Series (Cleveland, 1905). This is a reprint of the edition published in 1829 by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown in London, and by H. C. Carey and I. Lea in Philadelphia.

2 See D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classical American Literature (New York, 1966), p. 53.

3 This reference and the reference in the concluding sentence of the present article are to Mark Twain’s essay “The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper” which appears in How To Tell A Story and Other Essays (New York, 1897), pp. 18-96. In this essay Mark Twain attacks Cooper in considerable detail for not being a close observer either of nature or of human behavior and language.

* William H. Goetzmann is a professor of History of the University of Texas, where he also directs the American Studies program. A specialist in the cultural and intellectual history of America, he has been a member of the Texas faculty since 1964. He was on leave during 1967-68 to fill Fulbright-Hays lectureship at Cambridge University. In 1967, Dr. Goetzmann won the Pulitzer Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize for his monumental study: Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the West. The Texas Institute of Letters also honored the book. Dr. Goetzmann received his Ph. D from Yale in 1957. From 1955 to 1964, he taught in Yale’s history department advancing through academic ranks to the position of associate professor Dr. Goetzmann has been the recipient of several post-doctoral fellowships and grants.