Character Development in Natty Bumppo

Nicholas Alicino (State University of New York College at Oneonta [SUNY-Oneonta])

Placed online with the kind permission of Mrs. Nicholas Alicino.

Originally written for George A. Test’s Cooper Course at SUNY-Oneonta, January 13, 1979.

[Note: Nicholas J. Alicino (1949-2004) was a long-time resident of Cooperstown, New York, and for 19 years a beloved English teacher at Cooperstown High School. He was an active mentor to dozens of Cooperstown students, both in his classes, as a sports coach, as a leader of trips abroad, and through his own poetry. This paper, written while a student of Cooper Society co-founder George Test, was discovered by chance after his death. We are happy to include it on our Cooper Society website. The sources of quotations from Cooper’s works and others were duly identified in the original, but the endnotes were not discovered with the paper, and we have not sought to reconstitute them.

— Hugh C. McDougall, Secretary, James Fenimore Cooper Society, July 2004].

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

James Fenimore Cooper has been accused of many literary atrocities. Among the amusing accounts of his faults is Mark Twain’s essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” and Bret Harte’s “Muck-a-Muck.” D.H. Lawrence in Studies in Classical American Literature is very harsh with Cooper. So is James Russell Lowell in his “A Fable for Critics.” These four studies criticize him for many reasons. For example, Cooper often stretched his story to unnecessarily great length and included too much detail. He was careless of his English grammar and digressed with annoying frequency. When treating ideas, he allowed them to trespass on the movement of the story itself. Cooper’s novels have also been accused of following a formula, that of capture and escape. He has also been accused of creating one character, Natty Bumppo, putting him in five different novels and never having him change or develop. In “A Fable for Critics,” Lowell states:

He has drawn you one character, though that is new, ...

He has naught but copy it ill ever since;

His Indians, with proper respect be it said,

Are just Natty Bumppo daubed over with red. ...

Although there is some truth in most of these descriptions of Cooper’s writing, it is my belief that the character of Natty Bumppo is not a static, unchanging character. In fact, it is to Cooper’s credit as a writer, that he has created a very realistic, complicated, and changing character in Natty Bumppo. It’s as if Cooper had a master plan for this memorable literary character. If Cooper’s biography didn’t prove otherwise, one would think that the Leatherstocking Tales were written chronologically with a conscious intent of evolving Natty from youth to old age. Cooper himself once observed that the Leather-stocking Tales are “something like a drama in five acts.” Therefore this study of Natty Bumppo will not be made according to the order in which they were written, but in the order in which this “drama” unfolds.

First in The Deerslayer, he is shown as a hero who is tried and proved in his youth. Then, in The Last of the Mohicans, we see the hero at the apex of his power and strength; in The Pathfinder, he is completely immersed in love and the loss of it. In The Pioneers, at conflict with the forces of civilization, he is defeated by it and leaves the forest. In the last tale, The Prairie, he is an outcast, alone and dying on the plains with dignity.

Even as his name changes from Deerslayer to Hawkeye, to Pathfinder, to Leatherstocking, and finally just the trapper, so too does Natty change. He learns by his experience (as all human nature realistically does). Cooper changes his hero by the experiences of one book, and then transplants him into the next novel a bit wiser, more skeptical and more analytical of a situation. In The Deerslayer, Nathaniel Bumppo is so naive about the opposite sex and the world itself, it’s almost implausible. But by the end of the tales he has learned about the value and loss of companionship, love, the hypocrisy of the legal system, the greed of man, and hate that cause him logically to end up a solitary old man.

So then, let’s begin at the beginning, with Nathaniel Bumppo on the Glimmerglass Lake in June, around 1740. We see him as a youth of twenty. Cooper describes his protagonist as:

“just arriving at manhood, with the freshness of feeling that belongs to that interesting period of life, and with the power to please that properly characterizes youth. As a consequence, he is loved; and, what denotes the real waywardness of humanity, more than it corresponds with theories and moral propositions, perhaps, he is loved by one full of art, vanity and weakness; and loved principally for his sincerity, his modesty, and his unerring truth and probity.”

Now specifically, what experiences happen to the Deerslayer to change or expand his philosophic temperament? It has already been stated that he is grossly naive. His innocence is reflected in the virgin, pure surroundings of Otsego Lake. (It is in this setting that Natty first begins to discover himself as an adult.) Natty is in harmony with this pure state of things. The reader must admire the beauty and grandeur of the setting. So too, the reader must admire the character of Natty. He is never so admirable again.

And of course the most obvious experience that changes him is the famous scene, the killing of his first Indian. He accepts it stoically, but now he is more confident and sure of his capabilities.

“As he learns from experience about himself, he finds that he will not shoot an unarmed man even when threatened, that he can kill fairly when he must, that he can refrain from boasting. that he can withstand psychological torture, and that he remains firm when the Indians ‘hold up avarice afore me on one side, and fear on t’other, and think honesty will give way atween ‘em both.’”

It is also in this novel that he decides once and for all that he is not interested in material possessions, or the things of the settlements, including Judith herself. The only material possession he values (and will value till his death) is Killdeer. It is his experience with Thomas Hutter and Harry March that have shown him the folly of these things.

And lastly, all of these experiences in The Deerslayer help Natty reaffirm his religious roots. As he himself states “I strive to do right, here, as the surest means of keeping all right, hereafter.”

“Deerslayer’s trials on the lake — trials which constitute his initiation into full manhood-are something more than a mere analogue of the trials by which the Christian soul is tested for admission into Heaven: they are in most instances trials of Deerslayer not merely as a warrior, but as a Christian. What happens on Lake Glimmerglass is a series of concrete moral tests so exacting and so impeccably passed that the successful outcome of Deerslayer’s life-long probation as a Christian soul is scarcely left in doubt.”

In varying degrees, these religious beliefs remain with Deerslayer throughout all the tales, but never as persistently as in the first tale.

The second novel in the evaluation of Natty is The Last of the Mohicans. It is basically an action packed story. But if one looks deeper into the character of Natty, one will notice distinct changes in the hero, resulting from experiences in The Deerslayer. First of all, we see Natty in his least moralizing stage. He is no longer wet behind the ears. His “baptism of blood” episode from The Deerslayer has altered him to an extreme. In The Deerslayer, Natty Bumppo kills with great reluctance and with evident turmoil. Before he had killed his first Huron, he had been horrified by Hurry’s advice, “Do as you’re done by, Deerslayer.” But,

“The scout of The Last of the Mohicans kills with ruthless efficiency, exultation, and minimal regard for principle. Twice Natty itches to shoot Magua in cold blood but is restrained (48, 144). He is proud that he has left a body to rot unburied over every square mile between Lake George and the Hudson (171-172). Nor does Natty mourn over Mingo corpses: “the honest, but implacable scout, made the circuit of the dead, into whose senseless bosoms he thrust his long knife, with as much coolness as though they had been so many brute carcasses” (145).”

Also by now Natty has become totally alienated from the white man’s world and lives exclusively with the Delawares, specifically Chingachgook and Uncas. This was probably a result, in part, of the naturally repulsive scenes concerning Tom Hutter and Hurry Harry, the scalping in one situation, and the shooting of a young Indian girl in another. This book:

“expands Natty’s character and shows how far he has moved from the rationale of civilization, as represented by Major Duncan Heyward and psalm-singer David Gamut. Finally, it portrays Natty as an independent thinker in the process of shaping his own life.”

In this book, Natty is now at peace with himself and feels comfortable with his life style — so much so that in the middle of the sight of a bloody massacre, he, Chingachgook, and Uncas converse casually and playfully before retiring for the night. Cooper

“ ... creates a character who can sit in the ruins of Fort William Henry, surrounded by corpses and alert to the noises made by human and bestial scavengers prowling the battlefield the first night after the massacre ... “

Here also we see Natty and Chingachgook become cemented together as life long friends. Natty’s affections for him become justified through experiencing the death of Uncas. No matter how much Chingachgook degenerates after this, Natty will always be his companion. As Chingachgook ends his funeral song, saying “I am alone — ,” Natty interrupts, no, Sagamore, not alone.”

As stated before, Natty is now alienated and basically alone, but this alliance will keep him from the solitude of his own heart. And lastly, we see that Natty has evolved into a gentleman concerning the opposite sex. In The Deerslayer he appeared rather awkward and out of place in the presence of Judith and Hetty, but in The Last of the Mohicans, Natty carries on gallantly. He always acts gentlemanly, with first considerations for Alice and Cora Munro. Not that he didn’t act as protector for Judith and Hetty. It’s just that this time around, he does it more naturally and with more self-confidence; probably because by this stage in his life, Natty knows himself.

The third book in the series, The Pathfinder, finds our hero a little older, but still under forty. It is in this book that Natty acts most out of character. Before this, all of his confrontations concerned the things of the woods: the battles with Indians, the hunt, marksmanship. But in this novel he has a much different confrontation in the form of Mabel Dunham. Also, Natty has never been defeated in any of his conflicts until now.

“Here for the first and only time we see him waver between the life he has always led, and the life of a border family man with all that that implies in terms of a wife who must be kept content with her lot, children who must be properly educated. property which must be acquired and protected.”

Just when it seems as if he knows himself in The Last of the Mohicans, the opposite seems true now; and it’s not until the end of the novel that he finds himself again. For during the whole novel he is obsessed with Mabel, which makes him act out of character.

First of all, he develops a very low opinion of himself. This happens as he imagines himself married to that “gentle and pure-hearted creature” Mabel. He calls himself “worthless” and “a poor ignorant woodsman”, “too rude, and too old and too wild-like to suit the fancy of such a young and delicate girl.”

Now he neglects his responsibilities as a scout, has doubts about his ability as a hunter and woodsman. In this book he never mentions the plight of the Indian and barely notices his best friend Chingachgook. But worst of all, he considers himself unhappy and lonely. All this happens because of his obsession for something he can never have — Mabel. And that is his defeat.

“The only conclusion one can draw from all this is that Mabel’s effect is disastrous. She undermines Natty’s self-respect, destroys his pleasures, ruins his professional ability, makes him dream of his own impotence, and leaves him crushed by his isolation.”

Fortunately at the end of the novel he truly realizes that he was on “a false trail,” and goes back to the old Natty, confident and content with himself, free, proud of his talents and still not tied down.

This is how we find him in the fourth book in the series, The Pioneers. At this point though, he has aged considerably (in the vicinity of seventy years) and is referred to as the Leatherstocking. He is now living proof that he has lived by his beliefs without compromise. He is the living embodiment of his ideals. We can also assume that he has lived these last thirty years or so in comparative solitude with his Indian companion who is now called Old John Mohegan. Certainly he never again attempted the conquest of another female after his experience with Mabel. In other words, he’s been spending his time doing what he does best, living the life of a woodsman.

It is from this viewpoint that he sees the threat of the encroaching settlement of Templeton. His life style, the one he has so painfully formed from his experiences of a lifetime, is in jeopardy. As he says to Elizabeth and Oliver, “I lose myself every day of my life in the clearings.”

Natty himself is an endangered species. He’s seen it all. He knows civilization primarily spells wickedness and waste. He tries to warn “the pioneers.” Natty becomes a symbol of conservation when he says, “Use, don’t waste.” Natty learned the right way to live with the environment from the Indians, but unlike the Indians, the settlers have no traditions for coping with the environment. Sure he kills too, by trade. The only difference is that he does it with temperance, unlike the rest of the community.

“Yet as a killer, Natty is both better than and different from everyone else. He kills only what he needs to kill in defense or for food. He kills selectively, choosing his pigeons, his fish, his prime buck. And he kills appropriately when he uses the primitive and silent spear and knife against the buck which has “taken to the water on its own natur’, which is the reason God has given to a deer.” The difference between the settlers’ killing and Natty’s is the difference between butchery and art.”

And yet it is these same townspeople who rail after him for killing a deer out of season. He sees the true hypocrisy of it all.

Loss and defeat are heavy for Natty Bumppo in this book. He loses his fight with the law and the townspeople, he loses his life long friend Chingachgook, and he loses his own security and dignity.

The final culminating act is his burning of his hut. When he did this, he severed his connection with part of his personal history, with settled society, and with fixed property with its government intervention. He has learned again from his experience. “Alone in the forest he is strong: alone in society he is weak.”

This sets the scene for the last act of the “drama.” In the novel The Prairie we see Natty make one more change, “from manhood to sainthood.” Here he appears alone, an aged trapper more than eighty years old in the year 1804. His solidarity stands out in this barren setting. The appropriate time of year for his age is autumn. Cooper states:

“This book closes the career of Leather-Stocking. Pressed upon by time, he has ceased to be the hunter and the warrior, and has become a trapper of the great West. The sound of the axe has driven him from his beloved forests to seek a refuge, by a species of desperate resignations, on the denuded plains that stretch to the Rocky Mountains. Here he passes the few closing years of his life, dying as he has lived, a philosopher of the wilderness, with a few of the failings, none of the vices, and all the nature and truth of his position.”

Natty now is melancholy in attitude and contemplates and reminiscences a great deal. Cooper has him acting realistically, showing the signs of his old age and loneliness. As he refers to his former happiness with the Mohicans, we understand that Natty is just living out his allotted time. In the interim he is willing to help anyone who asks for it. And the help he gives carries us through the last novel. He miraculously saves everyone from a prairie fire and a buffalo stampede. Throughout all these trials, he reiterates his philosophy about Indians, human nature, and God. Cooper is slowly building towards Natty’s death scene. So after all these changes, Natty now prepares for his death consistent with the beliefs these changes brought about. He asks to have Killdeer sent back to Oliver Effingham, his traps he gives to Hard-Heart. He refuses a funeral procession and requests to be buried beyond the settlements. And so as he pronounces his final “Here!”, Cooper extinguishes the life of Natty Bumppo, developed through five novels, one of the most remarkable literary characters ever invented.