The Deerslayer: Appearance, Reality and Expectation
A chapter from an incomplete book.
Placed online with the permission of the author, May 2003.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
When Cooper begins The Deerslayer, the fictional history of his major characters lies complete before him; he is free to manipulate the adventures of minor figures, but Leatherstocking, Chingachgook and, to a lesser degree, Hist, are already endowed with a written, inflexible future. Their known history, not unlike the factual history of America used as background through the whole saga, binds the writer primarily to explain rather than to plot, to shade a portrait rather than to draw its outlines. Cooper’s reference to his “legend” — to a narrative outside his control to alter — provides the new reader of the series with a sense of engaging into an epic account — into a history somewhat greater than a conventional fiction, with a traditional story-teller in whose hands we can place our reading-experience.
At the moment Deerslayer is given the long rifle “Killdeer” by Judith, the narrator interrupts the story to comment that in later years, Killdeer and its owner became woodland legends. With the remainder of Natty Bumppo’s life mapped out before him, Cooper can here and on several other occasions allude to the already-known future. When, for example, Deerslayer falls into the hands of the Indians in Chapter XVII, he is at once recognized as the man who had killed Lynx. He is greeted with admiration by his captors:
The scene may be said to have been the commencement of the great and terrible reputation that Deerslayer, or Hawkeye, as he was afterwards called, enjoyed among all the tribes of New York and Canada. (James Fenimore Cooper, The Leatherstocking Tales, New York, The Library of America, Vol. II, p. 771 — subsequent page citations are to this Volume)
A similar paragraph details Chingachgook’s first realization of Natty’s victory:
When he had got the whole truth, he did not fail to communicate it to the tribe, from which time they young man was universally known [as Hawkeye] among the Delawares, by an appellation so honorably earned. (721)
Cooper connects each of these passages with direct address to the reader, commenting on the story and how he is telling it:
As this, however, was a period posterior to all the incidents of this tale, we shall continue to call the young hunter by the name under which he has been first introduced to the reader. (721)
With a generosity that would have rendered a Roman illustrious throughout all time, but which, in the career of one so simple and humble, would have been forever lost to the world but for this unpretending legend. ... (770)
In this way, the continuity — the extent to which this book looks forward to the others in the series — is associated with the acts of writing and reading, which in turn are influenced by the chronology of the series.
The reader’s part in the story has been stressed from the very opening pages. The second paragraph begins with direct address:
This glance into the perspective of the past, will prepare the reader to look at the pictures we are about to sketch, with less surprise than he might other wise feel, and a few additional explanations may carry him back in imagination, to the precise conditions of society that we desire to delineate. (II, 495)
Not only is the reader invited to look back in a perspective glass, much as Deerslayer and the other investigate the shoreline with their telescope; the reader shares with the author in a reconstruction which is recognized to be tentative. The historian of a known legend, unlike the novelist creating his own sequence of events, can only interpret pre-existing facts, which are outside his control, or perhaps outside his sphere of possible knowledge. Cooper, in The Deerslayer, acts this role of historian:
The district of country we design to paint, sinks into insignificance, though we feel encouraged to proceed by the conviction that, with slight and immaterial distinctions, he who succeeds in giving an accurate picture of any portion of this wild region, must necessarily convey a tolerably correct notion of the whole.
The early pages of the novel are similarly insecure in description (“most then have offered ... ,” “evidently proceeding from. ... ” “an opening that appeared to have been formed ... “) and seem designed to set out a relationship between narrator and reader in which they are collaborating as rather uncertain observers of “real” characters and actions:
The author/narrator and the reader work through “our” story, which is a “legend,” even if it lacks the classical stature of an event in Roman history. The author/narrator also must share with the reader the historical imagination that is needed to look back to long-gone times and the beginnings of the Leatherstocking saga — The Deerslayer is subtitled The First Warpath. The author/narrator and the reader are, then, engaged in exploration; the beginnings of Leatherstocking’s career cannot be simply created as a conventional tale of youth. In its genre, then, The Deerslayer is sophisticated. For example, Cooper’s first novel, Precaution, had provided few surprises for the contemporary novel reader: while the precise circumstances which produce the many coincidences are mysterious until they are laboriously explained at the end, the developing relationship between the characters are conventional enough from the beginning. The same might be said of Cooper’s other early novels, certainly up to The Pioneers: the patterns of the developing love-relationships, for instance, are visible enough in the structure of each piece. So, in Lionel Lincoln, it is apparent from the first few pages that Lionel and Cecil will hold the romantic focus. But the surprising feature of The Deerslayer is that from the beginning the reader’s conventional expectations are frustrated.
When Hurry Harry and the Deerslayer burst out of the woods onto the shores of Lake Glimmerglass, the two men are immediately identified in language suggesting that one will be the romantic hero, the other his faithful, less glamorous henchman, like Lionel Lincoln and Polwarth. Harry, “a man of gigantic mould,” is a “liberated forester”:
It would not have been easy to find a more noble specimen of vigorous manhood, than was offered in the person of him who called himself Hurry Harry. (II 498)
He is “unusually well proportioned,” and his “face did no discredit to the rest of the man, for it was both good-humoured and handsome.” Harry’s beauty is consistently stressed throughout the novel, and his great strength stands him in good stead in hand-to-hand combat with the Indians. But as the novel progresses, the reader progressively realises that his handsome features and manly power are ill-matched with his characteristic thoughtlessness, selfishness and dim-wittedness. Only the feeble-minded Hetty continues to rely on his appearance; the other characters realise his flaws. Yet at the beginning of the text, he seems to be an ideal for a tale of adventure and romance. Deerslayer, following Harry out of the woods, is immediately less impressive, and the novelist takes pains to shade his opening portrait with features which, if not unattractive, are certainly unglamorous:
Deerslayer, as Hurry called his companion, was a very different person in appearance, as well as in character. ... His face would have had little to recommend it except youth, were it not for an expression that seldom failed to win upon those who had leisure to examine it. (498)
It is, again, only Hetty who never sees past Deerslayer’s plain features. She consistently compares him unfavourably with Harry, even after her sister Judith has fully recognised the young man’s worth and attractions. In these opening phrases, Cooper is, in little, presenting the unconventional pattern of the novel. Deerslayer, unremarkable at first glance, shows his quality to those who have time to consider him carefully; his appearance and his reality are at odds, in a way contrary to those of Harry. Cooper’s phrasing, and the progress of his novel, suggests the sort of ironic insights into character that mark Jane Austen’s novels, rather than the straightforward romantic conventionalism of Sir Walter Scott’s.
Much the same comment could be made of the first reference to Tom Hutter’s daughters. Judith is introduced by Harry as a paragon of beauty, wit and vitality. He esteems the elder Judith Hutter, “as it’s recommend enough to one woman be the mother of such a creatur’ as her darter.” But immediately, Deerslayer notes that the Delaware spoke of her less than flatteringly — “from their discourse I do not think the girl would much please my fancy.” (503) Judith, the beautiful, solitary girl of the woods, is both elevated by Harry’s praise of her charm and fire, and denigrated by the references to her frivolity and questionable morals. Hetty, the second daughter, similarly is introduced in a markedly ambivalent way:
“Hetty is only comely, while her sister, I tell thee, boy, is such another as is not to be found atween this and the sea; Judith is as full of wit, and talk, and cunning, as an old Indian orator, while poor Hetty, is at the best but ‘compass meant us.’” (505)
Two handsome and apt young men, one more physically striking than the other, and two comely daughters in distress, one more vital than the other, and all four young people isolate by the geography and the fortunes of war: conventional romance would see little question as to the outcome. But Cooper is not being conventional: the love relationships converge, cross, and at last collapse.
The second major convention that is set into play by the opening chapters is that associated with the Deerslayer’s inexperience and his hunger for maturity. He is “several years” Harry’s junior, and Harry calls him, patronisingly, “lad”! He has had a “Delaware edication,” but no military service, and his skill at killing deer does not impress his older companion — “there’s little manhood in killing a doe.” Before the end of the first chapter, Harry has posed the extraordinary question of Deerslayer’s graduation into full manhood:
“Harkee, Master Deerslayer, since we are on the subject, we may as well as open our minds to each other in a man to man way; answer me one question; you have had so much luck among the game as to have gotten a title, it would seem, but did you ever hit any thing human, or intelligible: did you ever pull trigger on an inimy that was capable of pulling one upon you?” (500)
Deerslayer is put out by the question, not so much because of the wilderness morality that it assumes, but because of a conflict between his natural truthfulness and his temptation to boast of warlike skills. He seems implicitly to agree with Harry’s comment about his youth — “the sooner you wipe that disgrace off your character, the sounder will be your sleep.” The sensibility is that of mediaeval chivalry rather than of eighteenth-century enlightenment — Deerslayer is far from being Emile’s contemporary. But if the text valorises this unexpectedly bloodthirsty code, it does not follow the conventional lines of the novel of education, in which the hero would move, through doubts, discouragements and failures, into self-fulfilment. Deerslayer already has, relative to Harry, a present maturity that is immediately endorsed. Not only is the younger man able, by his sensible argument and his refusal to lose his temper, able to quell Harry’s rash violence when talking of Judith: Deerslayer, as Harry himself acknowledges, seems already to be the better pathfinder and woodsman. Harry, for example, is unable to find the canoe which he himself had hidden on the shore of the lake. Deerslayer, however, can spot the clues in the landscape and discovers the hiding place:
“Look this-a-way, Hurry — here in a line with the black oak — don’t you see the crooked sapling that is hooked up in the branches of the bass-wood, near it? — now, that sapling was once snow-ridden and got the bend by its weight, but it never straightened itself, and fastened itself among the bass-wood branches, in the way you see. The hand of man did that act of kindess for it.”
“That hand was mine!” exclaimed Hurry. ... After all, Deerslayer, I must allow you’re getting to have an oncommon good eye for the woods!” (511)
The opening chapters of the novel suggest to the reader that conventional literary expectations will not be met. If, as far as the characters and their futures are concerned, things may not be quite what they at first seem, the story of the novel itself focuses constantly on the contrasts between expectation, appearance and reality. The deceptive appearance of the visible world around is a central theme: darkness — the state in which, most obviously, things have no seeming at all — is regularly the environment within which the action, confusedly, is worked out. Names, and their relationship to the character of the bearer or the named thing, are a frequent topic of comment and conversation.
The book opens by discussing history and the sense of time, suggesting the contrasts between an objective reality and the subjective awareness of an observer:
On the human imagination, events produce the effects of time. Thus, he who has travelled far and seen much is apt to fancy that he has lived long; and the history that most abounds in important incidents, soonest assumes the aspect of antiquity. In no other way can we account for the venerable air that is already gathering around American annals. (495)
If there is a contrast between the reality of American history — in fact very short in relation to European history — and its busy, crowded and, therefore presumably long-enduring experience, there is a similar contrast between the facts of what is happening around Lake Glimmerglass, and the responses that are awakened in the characters by what they believe or assume these facts to be. The beauty and tranquility of the lake might be interpreted as a sign of peace, of similar moral tranquility, and of a benevolent humanity dwelling throughout the area. In fact, as the characters come to realise, the lake is a haunt of savagery; the admired Judith, brought up here, is far from morally ideal, in spite of the spiritual tuition that might seem to be active in the peaceful surroundings. Deerslayer comments, after a close look at the scene before him:
“This is grand! — ‘Tis solemn! — ‘Tis an edication of itself, to look upon. ... Hurry, your Judith ought to be a moral and well disposed young woman, if she has passed half the time you mention, in the centre of a spot so favored.” (514)
That she is not, at least in Harry’s eyes, is a demonstration of the gulf between expectation and appearance, matching at a moral level the deceptively undisturbed appearance of the lake shore at the place where Harry had hidden the canoe.
At the beginning of Chapter III, Harry examines the shores of the lake intently with Hutter’s telescope, and, after his scrutiny, is able to assure Deerslayer that no one is “up this-a-way.” This is the first of several such examinations of the shore-line and the habitations in the course of the novel. Regularly, in these examinations nothing is observed, and the characters proceed to act on the assumption that no enemy is present. Usually, the assumption is mistaken. The clearest example is the episode in which Hutter, Harry, Chingachgook and Hist approach the castle in Chapter XIX. Hist had observed a moccasin floating nearby, which she and Chingachgook interpret as a possible sign of hostile visitation. Hutter and Harry disagree, supposing that the moccasin could well have floated there by chance. The closest observation of the castle shows nothing visible wrong, and after some doubts, it is cautiously approached. In the ensuing ambush, Hutter receives his fatal injury, and His and Chingachgook are, in this tragic manner, vindicated. But the passage stresses that Hutter and Harry have not been careless: it is the deserted appearance of the castle which has been deceptive. Even the Indians have not really trusted their proposed interpretation of the moccasin, and all four have, in different ways, been tricked by the apparent tranquility of the scene. As early as Chapter IV, when Hutter’s scow clears the Susquehannah and moves into the lake, there is no sign of the impending attack before it actually takes place. When Deerslayer paddles into shore to rescue and errant canoe, moments before his battle with Lynx in Chapter VII, he has carefully scrutinised the land and seen no sign of an enemy before a rifle shot whizzes past his ears. And when Deerslayer and the girls go to Council Rock to meet with Chingachgook, the lakeshore appears deserted until the moment when Chingachgook leaps aboard the ark, to be pursued at once by a crowd of warriors. While the Indians, and Deerslayer, are better judges than Hutter or Harry of impending danger, even they are not always certain, and misinterpretations lead again and again to misunderstandings, danger and even disaster.
There are other elements of the natural setting which can cause uncertainty and confusion. In the first foray ashore, Harry and Hutter promise to signal Deerslayer by imitating the cry of a loon. This choice of signal turns out to be less than ideal:
It might have been an hour and a half after his companions and he had parted, when Deerslayer was aroused by a sound that filled him equally with concern and surprise. The quavering call of a loon arose from the opposite side of the lake; evidently at no great distance from its outlet. (585)
Deerslayer is understandably puzzled by the call and by its repetition a moment later, and spends some time persuading himself that this sound is indeed the cry of a real bird, fortuitously duplicating the human’s planned signal. He decides to disregard the call, and it turns out that he was right to do so. Later, when Deerslayer and Chingachgook are rescuing Hist from the Huron tribe, the signal to Hist is the note of a squirrel — expertly imitated by Chingachgook. She recognizes her lover’s signal, while the Indians assume that the noise is indeed that of a squirrel, even though Hist’s aged chaperone is doubtful:
She expressed her surprise that a squirrel should be in motion at so late and hour, and said it boded evil. Hist answered that she had heard the same squirrel three times, within the last twenty minutes, and that she supposed it was waiting to obtain some of the crumbs left from the late supper. (757)
Deerslayer later has some grim jokes about the Indians’ inability to interpret the sounds of nature:
“Your squirrels are great gadabouts, Mingo. ... When other folk’s squirrels are at home and asleep, yourn keep in motion among the trees, and chirrup and sing, in a way that even a Delaware gal can understand their musick! Well, there’s four legged squirrels and there’s two legged squirrels. ... ” (778)
Confusion and error in the interpretation of natural phenomena are basic to any tale of adventure — from them come the inevitable surprises of ambush and accident. However, The Deerslayer focusses the reader’s attention on such errors more particularly than many adventure novels; the importance of night scenes is a mark of Cooper’s concern, at key points, to find a metaphor for uncertainty and ignorance. The first capture of Hutter and Harry by the Indians takes place in the darkness, and the waiting Deerslayer has only noises and dim outlines to use for interpretation of the event. On this occasion, the darkness confuses all the participants in the action. Later, when Deerslayer and Chingachgook rescue Hist, the shadows of night in which they move, outside the light from the Indians’ fire, protect them by obscuring their enemies’ views:
The strong light in which she herself was placed, and the comparative darkness in which the adventurers stood, prevented her from seeing their heads, the only portions of their forms that appeared above the ridge at all. (766)
On this occasion the confusion is relative, while the reader has a special insight into the darkness, for the word “appeared” cannot be literally valid. A fuller description of the effects of night, with the reader again specially privileged, evokes the characters’ experiences when Hetty moves off, by canoe, on her own errand to the Indian camp. While they, in the deepening night, cannot see anything, the all-knowing narrator informs the reader of what is happening, and of the motivations and thoughts of the characters:
Judith called out to her companions to cease rowing, for she had completely lost sight of the canoe.
When this mortifying announcement was made, Hetty was actually so near as to understand every syllable her sister uttered. ... Hetty stopped paddling at the same moment, and waited the result with an impatience that was breathless. ... A dead silence immediately fell on the lake, during which the three in the Ark were using their senses differently, in order to detect the position of the canoe. Judith bend forward to listen ... while her two companions brought their eyes, as near as possible, to a level with the water, in order to detect any object that might be floating on its surface. ... All this time Hetty, who had not the cunning to sink into the canoe, stood erect ... resembling a statue of profound and timid attention. (642-643)
Darkness, Cooper implies, is relative. The author and the reader can “see” Hetty’s resemblance to a statue, although in the darkness she cannot “resemble” anything. Relative perceptions work, also, at a moral level. Hutter hides the key to his chest in a pocket of Hetty’s simple clothing — the very place which he knows will be invisible to his daughter Judith, although, like Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” it is virtually in open sight. Chingachgook is subtle enough to realize the hiding place:
“Your name’s well bestowed, Sarpent — yes, ‘tis will bestowed! Sure enough, where would a lover of finery be so little likely to s’arch, as among garments as coarse and onseemly as these of poor Hetty’s.” (686-687)
Relative, also, are the perceptions that come from social experience. Hutter’s chest contains a finely carved chess set — something which Natty has never seen before. He assumes, wrongly, that the elephant models which form the castles are votive: ” ‘Them things are idols!’ ” (702) It is only with difficulty that he is persuaded they are of no religious significance and that they can be used as counters to buy back the hostages. Judith does not know what the elephants are, but she is sure that they are not idols. Chingachgook is so lost in delight at the strangeness of the animals that he cannot participate in the assessment of their purpose. While the passage is essentially a comic interlude, the differing responses by Judith, Chingachgook and Deerslayer reinforce the novel’s wider concern with vision and judgment. Just as the reader can “see” Hetty in the the canoe, so the reader recognizes the carved elephants as chess-men, though the truth of their nature is withheld from the characters in the novel.
Deerslayer’s innate love of truth is stressed from the early chapters (“with an earnest simplicity that gave double assurance of its truth”) but as the novel develops, Cooper takes care to show the reader the nice relationships between truth, understanding and ideology. In Chapter XIV, Deerslayer debates with Rivenoak the desperate situation of his beleaguered friends. Rivenoak is much impressed with Harry’s stately appearance, and assesses his worth on this basis:
“One of my prisoners is a great warrior — tall as a pine — strong as a moose — active as a deer — fierce as the panther! Some day he’ll be a great chief, and lead the army of King George!”
While it is no doubt prudent to minimise the the value of a hostage in the hands of an enemy, Deerslayer objects to this mistaken idealisation of physical prowess, presenting rather his truthful assessment of Harry’s quality:
“Tut — tut — Mingo; Hurry Harry is Hurry Harry, and you’ll never make more than a corporal of him, if you do that. He’s tall enough, of a sartainty; but that’s of no use, as he only hits his head ag’in the branches as he goes through the forest. He’s strong too, but a strong body is’n’t a strong head.” (723)
They proceed to discuss the ransom of the elephants, and here again Deerslayer shows his ability to perceive the real value of things, as distinct from their appearance:
What an elephant was he knew little better than the savage, but he perfectly understood that the carved pieces of ivory must have some such value in the eyes of an Iroquois, a a bag of gold, or package of beaver skins would in those of a trader. (724)
So, with his “own cool directness of manner, and unmoved love of truth,” Deerslayer manages his diplomatic task successfully enough.
At the beginning of his debate with Rivenoak, Deerslayer’s name is in question — “My young pale face warrior — he has got a name — how do the chiefs call him?” Rivenoak is, the reader supposes, simply asking for the convenience of a form of address. But Deerslayer chooses this moment to reveal for the first time the new name that was conferred upon him the day before by the defeated warrior Lynx. On that occasion, Lynx had been very conscious, the moment before his death, that “Deerslayer” was no suitable name for the new-blooded youth:
“That good name for boy — poor name for warrior. Get better quick. No fear there — ” the savage had strength sufficient, under the strong excitement he felt, to raise a hand and tap the young man on the breast — “eye, sartain — finger, lightening — aim, death. Great warrior, soon — No Deerslayer — Hawkeye — Hawkeye — Hawkeye — Shake hand.” (602)
The thrice-repeated name is the one Natty is most regularly known by through the sequence — the sharp eyes appropriate to the well-named Lynx have perceived well enough his true nature. And Deerslayer/Hawkeye is pardonably boastful before Rivenoak in explaining his new identification (and consequently identity):
“One of your warriors whose spirit started for the Happy Grounds of your people, as lately as yesterday morning, thought I deserved to be known by the name of Hawkeye, and this because my sight happened to be quicker than his own, when it got to be life or death, atween us. (721)
The passage recalls the lengthy conversation that Deerslayer and Hetty had in Chapter IV, when Hetty had promised to tell Deerslayer “your character” if he tells her is names. Deerslayer demurs somewhat, pointing out that the Mingo have names as noble as the Delaware, but that these are “names they by no means desarve.” But Hetty is not to be put off by such caveats:
“Tell me all your names,” repeated the girl, earnestly, for her mind was too simple to separate things from professions, and she did attach importance to a name; “I want to know what to think of you.” (545)
She approves of the name Natty, because of its euphonious resemblance to Hetty, but dislikes the coarse sound of Bumppo. She approves of Deerslayer’s youthful name of “The Pigeon,” but dislikes “Lap-ear,” which was applied to him because of his hound-like skills as a trapper. Later in the novel, the appropriateness of Chingachgook’s name (“Big Serpent”) is demonstrated, the names Wah-ta!-Wah and Hist-oh!-Hist are discussed, and the Indians’ onomastic gifts in calling Judith the “Wild Rose and Hetty the “Drooping Lily” are praised. Names, in other words, while sometimes deceptive, are frequently signs of character. Deerslayer’s determination to refer to the Iroquois as “Mingo,” and scenes such as that in which the old Indian woman attacks Natty with frenzied epithets, show too that names have potency. Even the great rifle has a meaningful name, as Natty jokes when he aims at an eagle — ” ‘we’ll see if Killdeer is n’t Killeagle, too!’ ” (927) In the wilderness, names are given in reflection of some perceived reality in the nature of the person or object named — Hawkeye, Hurry Harry, the Ark, the Castle, Killdeer. Even in civilisation and back in England, the giving and the withholding of names are significant acts. The letters belonging to Judith’s mother and preserved in Hutter’s chest have a curious feature:
What rendered it singular, was the fact that the signatures had been carefully cut from every one of these letters, and wherever a name occurred in the body of the epistles, it had been erased with so much diligence as to render it impossible to read it. (892)
At the very end of the novel we learn what might have happened to Judith, but again the name is not provided, and, in this case, then, neither is the respectability that a name provides:
Sir Robert Warley lived on his paternal estates, and ... there was a lady of rare beauty in the Lodge, who had great influence over him, though she did not bear his name. (1030)
A new name may provide a new kind of truth — a new way to assess the reality of the character or the object. As early as Chapter II, Harry and Deerslayer engage in a long discussion about the name of Lake Otsego, and raise a number of philosophical points. “Have the governor’s, or the King’s people given this lake a name?” asks Deerslayer, partly answering his own question by noting that as the area has not been explored or mapped thoroughly, “it’s likely they’ve not bethought them to disturb natur’ with a name.” The implication is clear: a name, implying knowledge, understanding and hence control, is a sign of human power. Harry’s response, stressing with the patronising laughter of a wilderness dweller the ignorance of map-makers, is to recount how he once deliberately confused a surveyor who asked him about the region. Deerslayer does not reply directly to this anecdote, but he does explain his earlier-stated position:
“I’m glad it has no name,” resumed Deerslayer, “or, at least, no pale face name, for their christenings always foretel waste and destruction.”
He asks what the lake is called by the hunters and trappers, and Harry’s reply, given with implausible poetics, is that —
“Among ourselves we’ve got to calling the place the ‘Glimmerglass,’ seeing that its whole basin is so often fringed with pines cast upwards from its face, as if it would throw back the hills that hang over it.” (523-524) ¹
For Deerslayer, the name is peculiarly appropriate, as the lake seems to him an “unusual opening into the mysteries and forms of the woods.” (525) The Glimmerglass is a speculum mundi — the mirror within which his world will be reflected.
But in this passage, as in others concerning names, a name is given by a particular group, and may not be the same as the one given by another group. The reader is prepared for the exposition of Deerslayer’s relativist morality — the concept of “gifts.” In Chapter III, Harry vigorously defends his absolutist ethics; a “Mingo is more than half devil,” because his habits and beliefs are antipathetical to those of white men, Harry’s unquestioned norm. Deerslayer, who is praised for the “fairness of his views, and the simplicity of his distinctions,” holds rather that the differences in behaviour between the races are situational and do not disprove their common humanity:
A white man’s gifts are christianized, while a red skin’s are more for the wilderness. Thus it would be a great offence for a white man to scalp the dead, whereas it’s a signal vartue in an Indian. (527-528)
Harry demurs, holding that scalping an Indian is “pretty much the same as cutting off the ears of wolves for the bounty”; later in the novel, he and Hutter put this dehumanising thesis to work when they invade the Indian camp, specifically to collect scalps for the government reward. After they are captured, Hutter explains their purpose freely, “merely justifying it by the fact that the government of the province had bid high for scalps.” (675) This “frank avowal” is readily accepted by the Indians, because, as Cooper explains, it gives them a moral justification for a cruel revenge. In other words, the Indians recognize that the men’s motive is unconnected with heroism or glory — the Indian reason for scalping — and consequently that Hutter and Harry are outlaws.
The issue of scalping, together with other issues relating to differences in Indian and white ethics, is given centrality in the conflict between Deerslayer and Lynx. Deerslayer recognizes that Lynx was quite within his rights in setting up an ambush, and that he is also quite within his rights to trick a white man by a show of peace. But Deerslayer is unable to fire at Lynx from concealment, and is unwilling to signalise his victory by taking his victim’s scalp. Through the episode, Deerslayer assesses his own and Lynx’s action by their different “gifts”:
“No — no — that may be red-skin warfare, but it’s not a christian’s gifts. Let the miscreant charge, and then we’ll take it out like men. ... ” (594)
“No — no — red-skin,” he said. “You’ve nothing more to fear from me. I am of a christian stock, and scalping is not of my gifts. ... ” (599)
Nonetheless the “gifts” of an Indian and a Christian — of his upbringing and his birth — pull in different directions:
“If I was Injin born, now, I might tell of this, or carry in the scalp, and boast of the expl’its afore the whole tribe ... but I do’n’t well see how I’m to let even Chingachgook into this secret, so long as it can be done only by boasting with a white tongue.” (603)
Deerslayer’s “gift” as a white man is not simply a racially or socially determined habit. In the same soliloquy he expresses his scorn for the royal bounty on scalps, thus distancing himself from Hutter and Harry. As he was born and hopes to die “clinging to colour to the last,” he will not be swayed by the way the “King’s Majesty, his governors, and all his councils, both at home and in the colonies, forget from what they come.” The “gift” is not fulfilled simply by following what others in one’s own society do; it is fulfilled by an intellectual effort to define the ethical ideal within that society. Natty’s devotion to truth is no more than his certainty of and commitment to that ideal.
When Hetty reads scripture to the Indians, expecting that they will be persuaded of its universal truth and immediately free her father, she is dashed by their very sensible references to unchristian behaviour by white men. Judith, disputing in Deerslayer’s own terms about the idol-elephants, says, “with more smartness than discrimination”:
“If idolatry is a gift, Deerslayer, and gifts are what you seem to think them, idolatry in such people can hardly be a sin.” (704)
But Hetty, through simple-mindedness, and Judith, through a too-clever wit, have missed the serious point — “God grants no such gifts to any of his creatur’s.” In the first discussion, in Chapter III, Deerslayer had noted that humanity was made “in the main, much the same in feelin’s.” (528) Harry’s brutal thoughtlessness, especially when he shoots the Indian girl, shows that, like Magua in The Last of the Mohicans, he lacks common humanity. Hist’s rage with him on this occasion, and his slow-witted half-apprehension of what she is talking about, show that even he can respond to her universal truths, although her moral world is that of an Indian and a woman — as Deerslayer rather tiresomely reiterates, a woman’s “gifts” are those of sensitive and delicate sympathies. But above the specific “gifts” that define the habits of a group are the “feelin’s” that should be shared by all humanity.
The reader of The Deerslayer is required to respond to a narrative characterised by physical uncertainties and shifting ethical judgments. The text in which these are realised is generically inconsistent. While the outlines of the story and the personalities of the characters are straightforward, the reader is confronted with a number of significant, and unanswered questions. Given the regular statements about the treachery and cruelty of the Huron tribes, and their placement in historical terms as enemies of the Americans, how is it that the Mingoes who appear in the text are governed by restraints that seem to be generally noble and thoughtful? How is it that the European men are, with the exception of Deerslayer, brutal and thoughtless in war — notice the heartless statements of Captain Warley after the massacre in Chapter XXXI — and careless, dissolute and immodest in love? How is it that Hetty, Judith and Hist undertake imaginative, insightful and often practical steps out of danger, while the men either thrust themselves into peril or blunder into capture? How is it that the climate — particularly as regards air currents — is so remarkably reliable and temperate (except for the occasion when clouds almost blot out the star being used to signal time to Hist? How is it that characters in safety in the Castle seem to chat, laugh and pass their time amiably enough while their companions (the cast list of captives and free people changes constantly) are in dreadful danger in the nearby camp? The temptation may well be for the reader either to condemn Cooper’s grasp of narrative plausibility, or to engage in interpretation: that Deerslayer — offered the kingdom of the lake by the seductive Judith — must flee this magic and topsy-turvy world, even though, like any hero in a fairy-tale, he will never totally free himself from it.
In Chapter I, he and Harry are “two men who had lost their way, and were searching in different directions for their path.” They “broke out of the tangled labyrinth of a small swamp, emerging into an opening” (497) that leads to the Glimmerglass. At the end, Deerslayer is equally lost:
for some time Deerslayer was irresolute as to his course; but, in the end, he retraced his steps, and joined the Delaware. (1027)
So in a sense, the experience leads in a circle, and Natty is back at the beginning, with no quest attained and his situation unchanged — an American Childe Roland who has passed into and out of a Waste Land. Robert Clark has recently warned very cogently against the critical tendency to propose such mythical readings:
Equally rejected in the assumption of the once-popular myth-and-symbol school that the critic is free to offer his or her interpretation of the text as an uncovering of actual and universally held attitudes towards gender, the land, the function of the individual within the nation’s history. ²
Rather, one might suggest that the reader of The Deerslayer, approaching it as the first in the sequence of the novels, is being introduced to a hero with both a firm ethical belief and an active sensitivity to difference; who has a sharp insight into the world of nature and the environment of danger and war, but is not incapable of error and misjudgment; who recognises the metaphorical power of names, but has an ironic awareness that names can deceive. In other words, the reader is being introduced to a character who is vitally aware of the often confusing interplay between appearances and realities, in a text which itself is generically ambiguous. Such an introduction is an admirable preparation for the reading of the next adventure, The Last of the Mohicans, and the rest of the saga.
1. Harry’s words are paraphrased a moment later in Cooper’s own exposition: “the surface of the lake being as smooth as glass, and limpid as pure air, throwing back the mountains, clothed in dark pines, along the whole of its eastern boundary.”
2. James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays, ed. Robert Clark (London: Vision Press and Barnes & Noble, 1985), “Introduction,” p. 8.