Settling Down: Staging Masculinity in Cooper’s Pioneers

Christopher Nesmith (University of South Carolina-Columbia)

James Fenimore Cooper Society Newsletter No. 56, Vol. XX, No. 1, Spring 2009.

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

American Progress, John Gast, 1872.

John Gast’s iconic 1872 painting, American Progress, is often referred to as a visual argument for the credo of “Manifest Destiny” in nineteenth-century America. 1 In the painting a floating angelic female figure is the bearer of light to the western wilderness, and in her wake pioneers fell trees and build cabins, opening the way for covered wagons and railroads which follow, while in the eastern distance large coastal cities with tall buildings and colossal bridges are flanked by a multitude of sailing ships. Here the geographical is temporal, with the cities in the distance representing the oldest settlements, while the closer, western landscape symbolizes the contemporary advance of American culture across the continent. In the eastern sky above these cities the sun is shining brightly while, tellingly, the western edge of the landscape is enshrouded in darkness. At the point of contact between the leading front of pioneers and the wilderness in the painting there is a space in transition, a shadowy region where native peoples and wild animals alike flee from the advancing light of “civilization.”

Although written almost fifty years earlier, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers is a novel that is concerned with the kind of transitional “borderland” the painting portrays. Set in Templeton, a frontier town poised between existing settlements to the east and the wilderness further west, the 1823 novel presents a society in flux — a community in a state of becoming, rather than of being. One of the central concerns of the novel, in fact, is the process of how a community evolves from one state into another. Opening in the present, some forty years after the events of the novel take place, The Pioneers begins with the end in sight — a vision of pristine settlements across the “narrow, rich, and cultivated” valley, consisting of “beautiful and thriving villages” along with “neat and comfortable farms, with every indication of wealth about them, [which] are scattered profusely through the vales, and even to the mountain tops.” 2 The current state of Templeton and the surrounding countryside demonstrates, according to Cooper,

how much can be done, even in a rugged country, and with a severe climate, under the dominion of mild laws ... and where the expedients of the pioneers who first broke ground in the settlement of this country, are succeeded by the permanent improvements of the yeoman, who intends to leave his remains to moulder under the sod which he tills, or perhaps, of the son, who, born in the land, piously wishes to linger around the grave of his father. -Only forty years have passed since this territory was a wilderness. (15-16)

Western View of Cooperstown. Engraving from Historical Collections of the State of New York, 1845.

This opening panoptic view of the valley presents to us a small scale model of what would take place — and was in fact already taking place — across the rest of the United States, as settlers moved further west. But in the novel itself Templeton is a kind of “borderland,” not simply lying on a clear demarcation between the “wilderness” and “civilization” but on a third space in between — a part of and yet separate from the two cultures it divides. 3 The space mimics what Cooper had elsewhere referred to as a “Neutral Ground.” 4 Unlike the “neutral ground” of The Spy, however, this territory is less about space than about time, although the two are somewhat fused, as portrayed in Gast’s painting, and, like there, suggestive of something that is more about a process than a place.

The novel concerns then, among other things, how to answer the question, in Natty Bumppo’s phrase, what “comes of settling a country”? Throughout the text the word “settle” in all its variations is repeatedly encountered, as the act of settling down is configured as the primary agent in transforming the “neutral ground” or the borderland of the novel into a more permanent state. Read in this manner, The Pioneers encodes a theory of “progress” that implies the evolution of American society proceeds in “stages” as natural and inevitable as the succession of generations. The male body in the novel, I argue, is itself the site of this staging, which suggests a Romanticized “natural” development theory of both manhood and civilization — implying that social “progress” is as natural and organic a process as boys maturing into men (though requiring several generations to unfold). Though clearly women are required in such a generational project, the novel focuses primarily on men as its catalyst, and in particular it conflates a particular version of American white masculinity with a view of progress that Cooper was both romanticizing as well as helping to construct. In implying the necessity of different male “types” to serve particular functions in the progress of “civilization,” The Pioneers doubles as both a lament of the passing Native American culture (and the white hunter culture whose very presence ushers in its demise), as well as a tacit endorsement of the federal government’s program of Indian Removal and the national cultural project of Manifest Destiny, in which the increasing settlement of the wild plays a central role.

Despite setting this first novel of his “Leatherstocking Tales” in a unique and recognizably American landscape in his effort to produce a native literature, Cooper borrowed heavily from Walter Scott and the romance of the historical novel. But Cooper’s borrowing of European fictional or literary forms was not entirely at odds with the underlying designs of the text: The Pioneers itself is about such transatlantic adaptations and renegotiations of European cultural norms and forms on American soil. In particular, various European masculine ideals within the novel represent a range of ideologies and epistemologies at battle with one another. In the camp of the Romantic we have Rousseau’s “Noble Savage” in the form of Chingachgook. The ideology of the late Enlightenment gives us the neoclassical rationalist embodied in Judge Marmaduke Temple, who strives to maintain order and establish law in the town by appealing for its citizens at various times to listen to reason. A more modern type, the young bachelor, is represented by Oliver Edwards, who eventually matures into the sentimental “man of feelings,” the beau ideal, by the end of the novel when he marries Temple’s daughter, Elizabeth. Natty Bumppo, in his seventies, is perhaps the most “American” of these male figures, if by “American” we mean the “new man” that Crévecoeur describes in his Letters from an American Farmer. Certainly of all the characters in the novel Natty has most clearly “[left] behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, [and] receive[d] new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced.” 5

The men in the novel represent more than their own individual roles in this story; in the landscape of the novel they also serve as icons that make an argument about a kind of “natural” process affecting the social order. Natty’s role in the novel is one akin to the role of the pioneers in Gast’s painting: though he is indicative of a particular and unique kind of American white male masculinity, within this particular episode of the Leatherstocking Tales it is one that serves a specific and prescribed role. Thus, although he is described throughout the novel as in good health, and still in command of his abilities as a skilled outdoorsman, as a man in his seventies his time is limited. He represents an older order that is passing away but which facilitates an inevitable new phase. Natty is thus a transitional figure himself, caught in between two forces in the novel’s nebulous cultural borderland.

The other such figure in the shadows of this “neutral territory” is Oliver Edwards, and the plot of the novel revolves around his secret identity. Judge Temple, a former Quaker merchant, has acquired a large tract of land in upstate New York where he establishes a town. The manner in which he attains this land is questionable, as he had served as the caretaker of Edward Effingham, the previous owner of the estate, during the Revolutionary War. It is revealed at the novel’s end that Oliver Edwards is Effingham’s son and the legitimate heir to the estate, although for his own reasons he chooses to keep his true identity concealed. Thus much of the novel centers on the questions about Oliver’s origins and his ethnicity, and we find many members of the town are interested in “reading” Oliver Edwards to determine these issues.

It does not clarify things for the townspeople that the physical description of Oliver Edwards seems to fall somewhere in between the white settlers like the Temples and natives such as Chingachook — further fueling the mystery of his ethnic identity. When Edwards first removes his hat inside Judge Temple’s home, he “exposed a head, covered with hair that rivalled in colour and gloss the locks of Elizabeth” (67), whose hair had elsewhere been described as “dark ringlets, shining like the raven’s wing” (66). Thus, while Edwards’s hair is similar in color to Elizabeth’s, it is also the same color as Chingachgook’s. Likewise, Edwards’s dress is akin to Natty’s, but underneath the “coarse, and even wild attire, ... the single act of removing the rough fox-skin cap” reveals “something even noble in the rounded outlines of his head and brow” (67), which might anticipate Chingachgook’s “noble” forehead, or might refer to nobility of a European origin. Edwards, therefore, embodies the “borderland” between European and Native cultures, and his conflicted attitudes towards both evince the nature of his internal struggle.

The clash between the “law of civilization” (or the “white man’s way”) and the “law of the wilderness” (or the “Indian way”) has been a common theoretical framework from which to approach the novel. Edwards, the young friend of both men who appears on the scene from unknown origins, lies, like Templeton itself, in the balance between the two social orders, and much of the novel concerns which “way” he will follow. After Edwards is hired by Temple and is increasingly in proximity to the judge’s daughter, Elizabeth, the nature of this mystery grows in importance. His status as a bachelor makes Edwards the object of the whole town’s attention. As many educational tracts of the day warned, the most dangerous quality of the bachelor was his “passion,” which had no suitable outlet, and which the domestic state of marriage and “settling down” were supposed to cure. But for Edwards, not only his unmarried (or unsettled) state but also the possible influence of his “native” blood is thought to account for his strong emotions.

Vignette from the “Darley” edition of The Pioneers (W.A. Townsend, 1859).

The purpose and importance of “settling” is underscored when Edwards and Chingachgook, whose “Westernized” name is John Mohegan, visit the home of the Rev. Grant and his daughter. Edwards notices a specimen of needle-work hanging from the wall, one of which “represented a tomb, with a youthful female weeping over it, exhibiting a church with arched windows, in the back-ground.” He also notices “on the tomb were the names, with the dates of the births and deaths, of several individuals, all of whom bore the name of Grant” (141). This bit of domestic folk art serves as an iconography representing the importance of the continuity of the family name and line and of the feminine role in assuring that continuity. In this particularly feminine art form the importance of the family name is incorporated into the piece with the names inscribed in the work on a tomb which — along with them being “stitched” — lends permanence to them, while the “youthful” female weeping on the tomb itself suggests both loyalty to family and the continuity of the younger generation. The image implies a strong link between the ideals of family permanence, religion, and white domesticity, all of which are at odds with Edwards’s supposed “heathenish” inclinations. It is worth noting that after Edwards briefly grows angry at the mention of Temple’s ownership of the land to which John Mohegan claims he has a rightful claim, Rev. Grant explains to his frightened daughter, “It is the hereditary violence of a native’s passion, my child. ... He is mixed with the blood of the Indians, you have heard; and neither the refinements of education, nor the advantages of our excellent liturgy, have been able entirely to eradicate the evil” (143).

After Edwards has lived with the Temples a while and his feelings have grown for Elizabeth, he visits Natty in his old hunting cabin. Edwards paddles across the lake to Natty’s cabin, noting the spring thaw around him, both cool and warm, and finds he himself “was quite cooled in mind, though somewhat heated in body” (288). In this state Edwards now seems equally possessed of both influences of his European and supposed Native American blood. Thus, when a deer breaks through the woods and jumps into the lake, the other hunters are eager to give chase, but Edwards — in his new role as an employee of Temple and as suitor to Elizabeth — resists this impulse, telling Natty and John, “Hold your hand, Natty ... remember it is out of season.” But soon he too is caught up in the excitement of the moment, “inflamed beyond prudence” (298) when Natty and John overtake the creature in their canoes.

This scene — and the ensuing consequences of the hunters slaying of the deer — is critical to the story and for Edwards’s later decisions regarding his loyalties. But that decision has less to do with the “influences” that Edwards’s (assumed) mixed racial lineage exerts upon him, than with the larger consequences of his decision on the community. It is here where the Rev. Grant’s and Judge Temple’s efforts to sway Edwards to adopt the white domestic model of the family man is at the heart of The Pioneers. When the judge warns Edwards that life with Natty and Chingachgook “is a precarious life ... and one that brings more evils with it than present suffering” it may be considered an argument he makes out of concern for Edwards’s own well-being. But the judge goes on to say, “Trust me, ... the unsettled life of these hunters is of vast disadvantage for temporal purposes, and it totally removes one from the influence of more sacred things” (202). This disadvantage in “temporal purposes” has much more importance beyond Edwards’s life. “Settling” in the novel is the very thing that delineates the white European model of civilization from the “Indian” ways. As Richard Jones states, in reference to the young Edwards and his social standing, “It takes three generations to make a gentleman” (205), and the novel seems to suggest that in the act of settling, a more mature civilization will necessarily and organically follow.

This organic metaphor is embodied in the figures of Natty, Chingachgook, and Edwards, whose fates are tied to the course of history for the town itself. Both Natty and John Mohegan are old, and both seem resigned to the fact that the world they knew before (and the world they represent in the novel’s fictional framework) is rapidly passing away. When Natty and Billy Kirby engage in a contest to see who can shoot a pigeon on the wing, the young and hale Kirby jokingly calls Natty an “old corn-stalk!” and a “sapless stub!” (247). Although Natty outperforms the younger Kirby in the contest, when Richard Jones draws a “swivel gun” to bear on the hordes of pigeons Natty is unable to fight against this tide, exclaiming “this comes from settling a country!” (246).

This “settling” has also led to the ultimate demise of John Mohegan. On his deathbed the “old Indian” says that “six times ten hot summers have passed, since John was young; tall like a pine; straight like the bullet of Hawk-eye; strong as a buffalo; spry as the cat of the mountain” (400), but now that he is old and none of his own people remain, he claims he is ready to die. When asked what became of his Delaware tribe, he states: “Where is the ice that covered the great spring? It is melted, and gone with the waters. John has lived till all his people have left him for the land of spirits; his time has come, and he is ready” (402). The increasing numbers of settlers that have led to the disappearance of the Delaware was of course much less benign, but here John’s metaphor casts the process as both passive and very natural — an inevitable process. This process is encoded in both Natty’s and John’s advancing age, as both disappear from the landscape at the end of the novel — John through death and Natty by moving further West

At the end of the novel Oliver Edwards, now revealed as Effingham, and his bride Elizabeth ceremoniously invoke the passing of the old order unto the newer generation they represent. Now “safely” married, Oliver finds his former youthful “passions” have been subdued, and he proceeds with Elizabeth to the former site of Natty’s cabin, feeling a “tender melancholy” (447). With Edwards now under the “influence of more sacred things,” the primary motif of the chapter is one of synthesis, as Oliver and Elizabeth marry, the legal questions over the land dispute have been resolved, and even the weather is “neither too warm, nor too cold, but of that happy temperature which stirs the blood, without bringing the lassitude of spring” (447). At the site of the cabin Oliver and Elizabeth have erected two monuments to the memories of Effingham and Chingachgook-Oliver’s father and father-figure. There they find Natty, who is able to read the signs of “the pipe, and the tomahawk, and the moccasins,” he says, although on the monument itself “there’s something that I suppose is reading; but I can’t make anything of it” (450). After Oliver reads the inscription, with Natty’s name on it, he says, “show me the name, boy. ... Let me see my own name placed in such honour. ‘Tis a gin’rous gift to a man who leaves none of his name and family behind him in a country, where he has tarried so long” (452).

Here we find the organic metaphor of growth and development, and of aging and dying, and of the succession of generations, employed as the contest between the oral culture of the natives (as well as of the white hunters such as Natty who have adopted their way of life) and the written or print culture of the other European settlers (which becomes the basis of Judge Temple’s law and of his title to the lands) that has superseded it. One is ephemeral and transient, the other permanent. Though both Chingachgook and Natty have their names forever inscribed in stone, only Edward Effingham, now that his son has chosen to marry and to “settle,” has any legacy to pass on, if we can assume the marriage will produce children. And just as surely as old age and death is the eventual end for any person, as it has proven for Chingachgook and Effingham, only in the act of passing their culture on to the next generation is both memory and culture preserved. Chingachgook’s death signals the end of a culture with a finality that Effingham’s does not. For now that the issue of Oliver’s ethnic ancestry is no longer in question, it is clear that he will only be able to pass on Effingham’s culture to future generations. Even as Oliver reads Chingachgook’s inscription to Natty he is corrected on its pronunciation by the old hunter: “Mo-hee-can, lad; they call theirselves! ‘hee-can” and “’Gach, boy; — ‘gach-gook; Chingachgook; which, intarpreted, means Big-sarpent. The name should be set down right, for an Indian’s name has always some meaning in it” (452). But since Chingachgook “was the last of his people who continued to inhabit this country” (452), as the inscription goes on to read, it will be unlikely anyone afterwards will know what that meaning is.

The Departure of Leather-stocking. Engraving by Cephas G. Childs for The Port Folio, January 1824. Worcester Art Museum.

After this, Natty takes his farewell and heads west. “This was the last they ever saw of the Leather-stocking, whose rapid movements precede the pursuit which Judge Temple both ordered and conducted. He had gone far towards the setting sun, — the foremost in that band of Pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent” (456). In this final scene Oliver Effingham “concealed his face on his father’s tomb” at the sight of Natty disappearing into the woods, recalling the image of the needlepoint in the Rev. Grant’s home. Like the needlepoint, which visually encodes the “temporal advantages” of the settled state, in this image Effingham has not only supplanted his father’s place (whose name is forever preserved in the monument), but now that he is married he also assures that his own lineage and his name will in turn be regenerated, unlike Natty who disappears into the woods at the end of narrative in an act of self-erasure, or Chingachgook, who is survived by nothing but the inscription which will be read by a future generation unable to utter it.

All of these male types represent stages necessary to this progression, the novel suggests. The earliest white hunters, such as Natty, embody the transitional phase from Native to pioneer, who, like the borderland itself, incorporate elements of both cultures. Since the borderland itself is ever moving westward, as in Gast’s painting, once Natty’s role of “opening the way” is complete his departure signals a new phase. Oliver Edwards represents the final transition from pioneer to settler, as he eventually adopts a different model of masculinity — a domestic role suited for the age and for the stage of civilization he represents. The opening scene of the novel, some forty years later, shows us the change that has occurred in Templeton in the succeeding two generations — a change that, as the narrative order suggests, appears predetermined. With the chaos that had threatened the town replaced by tranquility, the “temporal advantages” of settling down take hold gradually, through “peaceful” means, transforming this borderland into a “civilization,” simply because Oliver Edwards “piously wishe[d] to linger around the grave of his father” (15).


1 Journalist John O’Sullivan is usually credited with coining the term in 1845 — though his arguments supporting it began some six years earlier.

2 Cooper, James Fenimore, The Pioneers [1823] (New York: Penguin, 1988) 15. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

3 3 See for example Gloria AndalzdÍa, Borderland: the new Mestiza//La Frontera. (1987). Other treatments of this concept, though perhaps given a different name, include Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (1994), or Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1999).

4 Cooper’s notion of the “neutral ground” was fashioned in part from Walter Scott’s fictional use of the Scottish border, a “region between opposing armies, controlled by neither but marked by their fluctuating power.” Dave McTiernan, “The Novel as ‘Neutral Ground’: Genre and Ideology in Cooper’s The Spy.” Studies in American Fiction 25.1 (Spring 1997): 1.

5 J. Hector St. John de Crévecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America (New York: Penguin, 1986) 70. Crévecoeur describes “the American” as a “mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and the Swedes” (68).

Editor’s note: this paper is based upon a presentation Christopher Nesmith gave at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) Convention, held in Louisville, Kentucky, in November 2008.