History, Language, and the Leatherstocking Tales

William P. Kelly (Queens College, City University of New York)

Presented at the 2ⁿᵈ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1979.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1979 Conference at State University College of New York, Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 46-62).

Copyright © 1979, State University College of New York, Oneonta.

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

Assuming as a point of departure D.H. Lawrence’s contention that the Leatherstocking Tales chart “a decrescendo of reality and a crescendo of beauty,” critical response to the five volume series has stressed Cooper’s flight from the historical process. 1 The Tales’ progression from the social engagement of The Pioneers (1823) to the edenic fantasy of The Deerslayer (1841) has been placed within the context of that current of American life which defines history as an enemy and which, through an act of the imagination, dismisses time and invokes a new beginning. While the centrality of that motif in the Leatherstocking series and in American culture in general is undeniable, this critical orientation has had the unfortunate effect of obscuring the fact that the Tales are historical novels actively engaged in the imposition of form on the flux of American experience. By emphasizing Cooper’s urge to construct a world free from the incursions of history, the critical canon has plotted one of the Tales’ axes at the expense of its overarching structure of vision.

This tendency to center on Cooper’s dismissal of history rather than on his attempts to craft an historiographic paradigm is doubly regrettable. Most importantly, this strategy excludes a consideration of Cooper’s formulation of a language capable of conceptualizing the American past. Like any historian, Cooper confronted the twin tasks of choosing from the past a lexicon of incident and character and of deriving a syntax capable of governing its interplay. As Hayden White has argued, the writing of history is perforce a philosophic, a poetic, and ultimately a linguistic enterprise. 2 From a range of possible interpretive strategies the historian forges a narrative discourse that purports to represent and explain the past. His account mediates among the historical field itself, other interpretations of that past, the demands of his consciousness, and his perception of the needs of his audience. The character of that mediation originates not in an overt ideological intentionality nor in any imagined objectivity but in an aesthetic conception of human destiny which prefigures the historical field. Cooper’s formulation of this historiographic language — his choice of a conceptual mode — is of particular interest because of his location in American time. Lacking a range of native models, and yet impelled to define the particularity of American experience, Cooper’s structuring of the past in the Leatherstocking Tales illuminates the emergence of a national pattern of vision.

A second area of concern which the critical emphasis on Cooper’s anti-historical bias has obscured involves the transformation of European intellectual structures in response to American circumstance. The first three volumes of the Leatherstocking Tales are predicated upon strategies of emplotment that originate in the Scottish Enlightenment. Dialectical in character, they employ a syntax of conflict and mediation and posit a view of history as process rather than structure. That these works reflect that influence is in itself of little interest. Cooper’s debt to Scott is unquestionable; the impact of the Scottish Common Sense School on American intellectual life is well documented. 3 What is crucial, however, is that while a Scottish influence is manifest in these volumes of Leatherstocking Tales, the prefiguring vision of these novels is in conflict with their pattern of reconciliation and reasoned progress. These Tales are, as a result, schizophrenic works in which content and context, lexicon and syntax, collide. They are flawed renderings of the American past not because they lack historical objectivity but because they lack aesthetic coherence. In the final two volumes of the series, The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer, Cooper resolves this schism between American historical circumstance and Scottish historiographic grammar, and derives a narrative paradigm which successfully represents his poetic apprehension of American time.

This transformation of an alien historiographic form has far-reaching implications for the development of American culture in the nineteenth century. Cooper’s struggle for primacy against the influence of Scott encapsulates, of course, the central dilemma of his culture. His achievement of an historiographic language which encodes the informing assumptions of that culture not only successfully resolves his conflict with Scott but articulates as well a syntax capable not merely of announcing but of identifying American particularity. Because the series’ lexicon remains constant throughout its five volumes, this syntactic transformation can be mapped in a highly focused manner. Not only do similar characters and incidents recur within different grammatical arrangements, but more importantly, each volume is augmented by the content of all of the other Tales. Their resolutions and tensions are recalled both implicitly and explicitly in a complex matrix of referentiality that embraces not only each of the five volumes, but the informing model of the Waverley Novels as well.

The historiographic mode that gives shape to The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans, the first two volumes of the Leatherstocking Tales, originates in Cooper’s reading of Scott and in the more general influence of the Scottish Common Sense School in American life. That structure of vision, most familiar in the Waverley Novels, but more fully articulated in the work of Adam Ferguson and the other speculative historians, conceptualizes the course of history as a staged process in which progressively more refined epochs emerge from the collision of opposing value systems. Its tone is both congratulatory and cautionary. It affirms the advance of reason in the world, but argues that progress must remain a dialectical process in which traditional values and loyalties are assimilated by a developing society. The ideological character of this mode is resolutely conservative. It defends the status quo of an emerging middle class and an industrializing Scotland against both reactionary and revolutionary upheaval. Its synthetic vision legitimizes social change by placing it within a determined historical framework and at the same time assuages Jacobin anxieties by defusing unmediated progress. These surface characteristics of this historiographic mode proceed from a prefiguring of experience as integrative and conciliatory. Scott’s poetic apprehension of time in the Waverley Novels, like Ferguson’s sensibility in An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), is essentially comic. Eschewing both the scepticism of the philosophes and the spiritualism of Herder and the Proto-Romantics, Scott emplots historical changes as measured, if not mechanistic, and as secure, if not constant.

The recurrence of the surface features of this mode of vision in The Pioneers and Mohicans is apparent in their conception of the historical process, in the dialectical character of their resolutions and in their dominant ideological assumptions. In both of these novels Cooper locates his narratives with an historical continuum. He looks back in time to a period in which “nothing but mountains rising behind mountains” marked the settings of the tales and forward to describe the contemporary condition of New York State. 4 The initial advances of frontier settlement, which Cooper recounts in The Pioneers, have given way to “beautiful and thriving villages ... interspersed along the margins of small lakes. Neat and comfortable farms with every indication of wealth about them are scattered profusely through the vales. ... Academies and minor edifices for the encouragement of learning meet the eye of the stranger as he winds his way through this uneven territory.” “In short,” Cooper concludes, “the whole district is hourly exhibiting how much can be done in even a rugged country. ... Only forty years have passed since this whole territory was a wilderness” (10).

The frontier setting of Mohicans has undergone a similar transformation. No longer the scene of European and Indian conflict, the wilderness has been domesticated. The contemporary traveller in the area is a “tourist,” “a valetudinarian,” “an amateur of the beauties of nature” whose “four in hand now rolls through the scenes we have attempted to describe in pursuit of health or pleasure.” 5 Time on the New York frontier has been greatly accelerated. “Five years,” as Cooper argues in The Pioneers, “had here wrought greater changes than a century would produce in older countries” (51).

In extending the temporal frame of these novels Cooper has equated America’s brief history with centuries of European progress. Through the agency of what he terms “a magical change” the wilderness has given way to thriving villages and valetudinarian retreats (11). While this vision of a progressive continuum clearly links these novels with Scott’s fiction, and with the work of the speculative historians, the syntax of that process — the manner in which Cooper emplots this conception of history — secures that connection in a more significant fashion. Like the Waverley Novels, The Pioneers and Mohicans define historical change as a dialectical process in which extremes of every sort give way to compromise, moderation, and reasoned progress.

In The Pioneers Judge Temple mediates between the settlers of Templeton and Natty Bumppo, an aged hunter who deplores the incursions of civilization into the forests. Committed to progress, Judge Temple nevertheless shares Natty’s love for the wilderness and his contempt for “the wasty ways” of the settlers. Through the imposition of civil law he attempts to curb the most extravagant excesses of the community, thereby insuring continued growth while preserving the natural resources upon which that progress depends.

Temple’s role as a moderating force is both doubled and extended in the character of Oliver Effingham. The figurative son of Natty Bumppo and the literal son-in-law of Judge Temple, Effingham effects a more refined mediation between the conflicting parties of the novel. The son of Temple’s former partner - - a loyalist officer — Effingham links Tory and patriot, Indian and white; settler and frontiersman. His respect for tradition and his commitment to progress insure the community’s future.

A series of minor dialectical resolutions mirrors this major pattern and further establishes the syntactic preconceptions of the novel. Natty himself mediates between the white and Indian cultures. A man “born without a cross,” he embodies and transmits, through Oliver Effingham, the traditions of the dispossessed tribes. The codes of civil law which Judge Temple introduces balance Natty’s internal discipline with the anarchic impulses of the settlers. A religious conflict in the village between adherents of Anglican orthodoxy and those of evangelical Methodism is mediated by the rational Christianity of the Reverend Grant. The multi-national residents of Templeton abandon their hereditary European conflicts to become Americans. The winter and summer settings of the novel’s major events yield in the final chapter of the novel, to “the delightful month of October” in which the weather is “neither too warm, nor too cold, but of that happy temperature which stirs the blood without bringing the lassitude of spring” (597). The overarching implication of all of these mediations invokes a meliorist vision of American history. The collision of the old world of Europe and the new world of the wilderness results in Templeton, a place free from the corruptions and the restraints of the past, but one capable of advancing the course of Western civilization.

A similar syntactical pattern characterizes Cooper’s view of historical development in The Last of the Mohicans. Set during the French and Indian War, Mohicans centers on the struggle between Europeans and Indians for possession of the American continent. This collision between diametrically opposed world views results in a stalemate. The Indian tribes refuse to abandon their ancient customs, and as a result are incapable either of adapting to the westward expansion of civilization or of resisting European settlement as a unified force. Divided by prejudice and tradition, the Indian tribes oppose each other as the allies of the British and the French and become the agents of their own destruction.

The European armies of Mohicans are as incapable as the Indian tribes of fostering the progressive course of American history. They too are bound by ancient rivalries which prevent them from realizing the potential of a virgin land. Importing the conflicts of Europe to the American frontier, they pollute the wilderness with blood. Throughout the first half of Mohicans Cooper pursues the frightening implications of this unmediated conflict between Indians and Europeans. The image patterns of the section establish chaos, loss and destruction as dominant motifs. The Indian tribes are in the final stages of decline. Their culture is disrupted; their homeland is lost; their dynastic succession is broken. The European characters fare no better. They are disoriented and helpless in the wilderness. Their children are kidnapped; their garrison destroyed. Rather than a locus of hope for mankind, the new world has become an arena in which the savagery of European warfare is intensified by the native barbarism of the American forests.

As he does in The Pioneers, Cooper resolves this potentially destructive conflict dialectically. Natty Bumppo, who appears in this novel as a scout for the British expeditionary forces, charts the direction of that synthesis. He explains to Colonel Munro, the British commander, that “he who wants to prosper in Indian warfare must not be too proud to learn from the art of a native” (261). Unlike the British and French officers of the novel who refuse to adapt the techniques of European warfare to the circumstances of the American continent, and pay copiously for their obstinacy with the blood of their men, Natty has mastered the arts of the wilderness. Natty, of course, is incapable of transmitting the synthesis between European and Indian cultures which he represents. A childless man of the forests, his sensibilities are far more closely attuned to the Indian tribes he helps to obliterate. Cooper, however, insures the succession of Natty’s synthetic power by duplicating the role Oliver Effingham enacted in The Pioneers. Duncan Heyward, a young Scottish lieutenant, learns from Natty to adapt his European manner to the ways of the wilderness. With Heyward’s marriage to Alice Munro, the deaths of the Indian chieftains Uncas and Magua and the abrogation of authority by the senile Colonel Munro, Cooper achieves a final resolution of the novel’s conflicts. The Indians have vanished; European culture has been tempered.

The ideological map which this dialectical structure generates also invokes the sensibility of the Waverley Novels. The synthetic vision of The Pioneers and Mohicans justifies America’s revolutionary heritage while defending the interests of property against the anarchic potential of that heritage and of America’s frontier geography. Cooper, like Scott, defends the prerogatives of his class against hereditary privilege and more importantly, against the levelling impulses of unbridled democracy. The mediating heroes of these Tales, like those of the Waverley Novels, are natural aristocrats who embody the values of an old order within a new world. Their claims to social primacy are predicated upon the unassailable basis of merit. Historical change in these novels is emplotted as less structural than superficial. The world view of a dominant middle class is defended; its anxieties are assuaged within a comforting historiographic paradigm.

Despite their surface continuity with the Waverley Novels, The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans suggest the operation of a radically different consciousness. The historiographic language they posit lacks the security and the sense of closure that characterizes that of Scott’s fiction. Their dialectical resolutions seem contrived; their progressive projections are unconvincing. Most significantly, their narrative strategies are ultimately discordant with the historical field they emplot. This is not to suggest that Scott’s historical vision is accurate while Cooper’s is not. Both writers offer fictive constructs to represent the past. Neither of their accounting strategies is in any way sanctioned by a preexisting objectivity. Scott’s synthetic structure, however, is aesthetically coherent and proceeds organically from the deep structure of a comic prefigurement. Cultural touchstones such as the Magna Carta, the War of the Roses, and the Glorious Revolution serve as props which support his fictional mode. More importantly, his location within a culture in which the evidence of mediated social change was everywhere present generated a world view and an imaginative range that were in themselves dialectical. The historiographic mode of the Waverley Novels, then, is legitimized not by the accuracy of its argument but by its fidelity to its prefiguring consciousness. Conversely, The Pioneers and Mohicans record the imposition of an alien and conflicting historiographic style on Cooper’s apprehension of American time. Lacking the array of re-enforcing incident that sustained Scott, and located within a newly emerging society in which the potential for chaos and disintegration was considerable, Cooper’s prefigurement of the historical field as a progressive continuum was far less secure. Indeed, that anxiety engenders in The Pioneers and Mohicans a sceptical countertext which violates their conceptual unity and undermines the adequacy of their historiographic language.

The most memorable images of The Pioneers, for example, involve waste and destruction. Judge Temple’s cousin, Richard Jones, fires a cannon at a dense flock of passenger pigeons while the village cheers and joins in the kill. In the spring, he leads the same residents on an expedition that nets 2,000 fish, most of which are left to decay on the lake’s shore. Despite Judge Temple’s imprecations, the settlers level the forests for fencing and firewood and harvest maple sugar in a fashion that needlessly destroys the trees that provide the sap.

These images of unrestrained physical destruction are paralleled by similarly disturbing emblems of social chaos. Judge Temple’s servant Remarkable Pettibone to whom “the idea of being governed or of being compelled to pay the deference of servitude was intolerable” resists the lawful authority of Temple’s daughter (219). One of the town’s lawyers considers bringing suit against the judge to secure profit rather than justice. The greedy Squire Doolittle would forcibly invade Natty’s. cabin to appropriate treasure that he imagines Natty has hidden there. Threats of violence recur throughout the novel. Natty must twice draw his rifle to defend himself against the settlers. Cooper variously refers to the assembled citizens of Templeton as “a crowd,” “a mob” and a “throng.” More importantly, he places these individual incidents of civil disorder within the context of the French Revolution, an event still capable, in 1823, of arousing concern in America, particularly when it was invoked in conjunction with frontier settlement. Cooper establishes this disturbing connection by introducing a chapter detailing Temple’s efforts to enact game laws with a consideration of contemporary events in France: “Europe was at the period of our tale in the commencement of that mighty commotion which afterward shook her political institutions to the center. Louis the XVI had been beheaded, and a nation once esteemed the most refined among the civilized people of the world, was changing her character and substituting cruelty for mercy and subtlety and ferocity for magnanimity and courage” (120). Somewhat later in the novel, Judge Temple describes the Jacobites as “blood-thirsty bulldogs.” They reel, he tells a royalist refugee, “from one act of licentiousness to another. They continue those murders which are dignified by the name of execution” (206).

The Last of the Mohicans is also dominated by images of destruction and chaos. Born neither in Europe nor in the wilderness, American culture, as Cooper characterizes it in this volume of the Tales, is the product of a frontier collision between contending world views. Its tenure is a precarious one, hazarded by threatening emblems of disintegration. By extension, its future is similarly problematic. With every westward remove a reconciliation between the savagery of the wilderness and the more subtle barbarism of civilization must be forged. America’s progress, and indeed its security, depend upon the preeminence of men like Duncan Heyward. Should the line of Heyward’s succession fail, as the Mohican dynasty has, the American frontier must again become the scene of cultural chaos.

The narrative trajectory that these troubling intimations suggest would establish the triumphs of Effingham and Heyward as wishful and singular achievements set against an uncertain historical horizon. Cooper’s deployment of an alien historiographic superstructure, however, defines their success as a metaphor guaranteeing the future course of American development. The sceptical historical vision implicit in this prefiguring sensibility is, therefore, deflected and replaced by the optimistic paradigm of the Waverley Novels. As a result, neither novel coalesces. In their disjunction they testify to the impossibility of definition without language. Cooper, like his culture, lacks, in these novels, a native discourse capable of conceptualizing national experience. The European sources of his intellectual constructs frustrate his vision and thwart his efforts to articulate an American identity.

In the first two volumes of the Leatherstocking Tales, Cooper’s failure to construct this native grammar limits the range and disrupts the coherence of his fiction. In The Prairie (1827), the third volume of the Tales, a disjunction between Cooper’s prefiguring vision and his historiographic mode prevents him from resolving even the immediate narrative tensions of the novel. In The Pioneers and Mohicans, Cooper’s imposition of an alien historiographic syntax on the conflicts he details defuses his vision of American history as a precarious process. The hard-won victories of Oliver Effingham and Duncan Heyward over the forces of cultural disintegration are insufficient to guarantee the inevitability of progress. While the mediation of Effingham and Heyward is unpersuasive as a cultural paradigm, their triumphs are nonetheless credible within the particular circumstances of The Pioneers and Mohicans. In The Prairie, however, Cooper’s dialectical resolution of the novel’s conflicts and his emplotment of historical change as a determined and progressive process violates the internal logic of his narrative as well as the integrity of his historical perspective. The implicit conflict between lexicon and syntax that undermines the first two volumes of the Leatherstocking Tales, here becomes explicit, disrupting the narrative surface of the novel and illuminating the problems Cooper confronted in attempting to impose form on American experience.

A brief sketch of the novel’s plot would seem to suggest that Cooper has merely replicated the fictional structure and historical perspective of the first two volumes of the Tales. Again a pattern of conflict and dialectical resolution shapes his narrative. Natty appears as an aged patriarch who lives in splendid isolation on the great plains. As the novel opens his solitude is violated by Ishmael Bush and his family, the advance guard of the westward movement. Natty’s conflict with these representatives of settlement is again absolute. The Bush family are brutish wanderers hostile to civil authority and incapable of self-restraint. In the course of an extremely convoluted narrative, Natty’s conflict with the Bush family is mediated by Paul Hover and Duncan Middleton, two civilized young men capable of transmitting Natty’s values within a social context. This resolution accomplished, the Bush family vanish back into the settlements, and Natty dies in an Indian village. Cooper again disarms the tensions his narrative invokes by offering his readers a reassuring vision of the contemporary progress of civilization on the plains and by recounting the successful careers of Hover and Middleton. Middleton’s marriage to Inez de Certavallos, in particular, establishes the dialectical character of Cooper’s imagination in The Prairie. Their union secures the annexation of the Louisiana Territories and “blends the discrepant elements of [American] society.” 6 Middleton’s full name, Duncan Uncas Middleton, affirms this synthetic function quite explicitly. The grandson of The Last of the Mohicans Duncan Heyward and the namesake of Chingachgook’s son Uncas, he is a character who occupies the middle of Cooper’s spectrum and unifies its polarities.

Despite this similar narrative pattern, however, The Prairie differs markedly from the first two volumes of the Leatherstocking Tales. Most significantly, Cooper’s setting has shifted from New York State to the Trans- Mississippi plains. The westward movement there in 1827 was still in progress. Rather than valetudinarian retreats, Cooper confronted a new system of settlement. Homesteaders in the plains had abandoned the proprietary form of land development that had characterized the New York frontier to claim individual freeholds. The decentralized character of this expansion combined with the emerging and potentially disruptive political power of the New West to suggest troubling implications for the course of American development. The impact of this shift in setting is most apparent in the entirely unpersuasive character of The Prairie’s dialectical resolution.

Unlike Oliver Effingham and Duncan Heyward, Paul Hover and Duncan Middleton are overmatched by the conflict they ostensibly reconcile. The Bush family is far more barbaric and threatening than the settlers of Templeton. Kidnappers and murderers in flight from the law, their violence is neither latent nor restrained. In turn, they overcome an unyielding environment, hostile savages and the representatives of civil authority. In The Prairie’s climax, Ishmael presides as judge and jury, determining the respective destinies of the novel’s characters. The totality of his power is complete. Middleton, Hover, and even Natty are at the mercy of his self-constituted tribunal. Ultimately Ishmael’s court does restore order. The captive heiress is released; Natty, Hover, and Middleton are granted their freedom and Ishmael’s murderous brother-in-law is sentenced to death, a penalty Ishmael himself extracts. The question here, however, is not the justice of Ishmael’s decision, but rather the legitimacy of his authority. As judge, jury, and executioner, Ishmael is a frightening emblem of unfettered and capricious power. Far more harrowing than the settlers of Templeton, Ishmael and his family embody America’s long-standing suspicion of the frontier as a locus of anarchy.

The Bush family’s distance from the settlers of Templeton is paralleled by a corresponding extension of Natty’s character. From his first appearance in the novel when the setting sun encircles him with a “flood of fiery light” and distorts his figure to colossal size, Natty occupies a plane of experience remote from that of the novel’s other characters (16). No longer merely an aging hunter or frontier scout, Natty, in this volume of the Tales is the subject of legend. Tales of his adventures are recounted at firesides; his name is invoked by Indian and white counsels alike. As Natty’s fame has grown, his humanity has been purified. He dismisses accounts of his exploits as “vain boasting” and concludes that “it is not to me now as it used to be some forty years ago when warfare and bloodshed were my calling and my gifts” (21). His expertise as a frontiersman has been augmented by metaphysical insights heretofore alien to his consciousness. Although his impassioned attacks on the rising tide of settlement in The Pioneers and Mohicans were stirring, they never seriously undermined the progressive resolutions of the Tales. In The Prairie, however, Natty’s pronouncements against progress and human ambition are framed in more complex terms and go unchallenged by the novel’s civilized characters.

Faced with these amplified polarities, Cooper’s mediators are inadequate to their task. Neither Hover nor Middleton seems capable of either effectively restraining the barbarity of the Bush family or of internalizing and transmitting the moral vision of Natty Bumppo. Consistently ineffectual, they are sequentially imperiled by Ishmael and rescued by Natty. Their failure to persuasively mediate Natty’s conflict with the Bush family results less, however, from their own deficiencies than from the extent of the gulf they are called upon to bridge. Rather than as a gradual extension of reason, The Prairie conceptualizes the westward movement as a conflict between irreconcilable monoliths. An ideal projection of American possibility collides with an unregenerate reality. The Bush family is equally incapable of enlightenment or of self-discipline. Natty’s morality is unapproachable; the lessons he would teach are beyond men’s grasp.

The scepticism of The Pioneers and Mohicans yields here to a more tragic conception. The potential for human growth which Natty and the virgin plains suggest is violated by the bestial impulses which the Bush family embodies. While The Prairie’s narrative clearly identifies the tragic character of Cooper’s prefiguring conception, his reliance on the historiographic mode of the Scottish Enlightenment prevents him from realizing that apprehension. In an entirely unpersuasive conclusion, Cooper squanders the novel’s energy and proposes the same meliorist paradigm that blunted the power of The Pioneers and Mohicans. Here that disjunction is especially distressing because Cooper has crafted in this novel a conflict capable of encoding his conception of American experience. The Prairie’s setting in the unsettled western plains, its projection of settlement as the extension of growth and renewal, and most importantly, the circularity of its narrative support the tragic structure of Cooper’s historical imagination. The realization of that codifying form, however, is not the achievement of The Prairie, but that of the last two volumes of the Tales.

Extending the logic of The Prairie, Cooper structures both of these novels around diametric conflicts that admit no synthesis. The Aristotelian mode that characterizes the historiographic perspectives of the first three volumes of the Tales gives way to a more Platonic vision in The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer. Rather than as a dynamic process inclining toward telos, in these novels, Cooper defines America’s history as static. At each of the nation’s westward removes an identical conflict between potential and practice recurs. The frontier continues to extend the possibility of cultural renewal, an opportunity squandered by the pioneers who settle there. Progress in The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer is not a determined element of the historical process but an ungraspable phantom receding across the American continent.

Cooper’s conception of the historian’s craft has also altered in these final volumes of the Leatherstocking Tales. In The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, he no longer charts and celebrates the course of cultural development but offers instead a meditation on the nature of history itself. This abstracted exploration of first principles compounds the tragic view of The Prairie with a self-conscious and ironic conception of historical change. Rather than tracing the transmission of value through time, Cooper identifies an irredeemable gulf between American potential and American practice. Within this altered historiographic construct, Natty Bumppo ceases to be a pattern for cultural progress and becomes in these novels an emblem of an unrealizable mediation. In short, The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer articulate a coherent historiographic language in which Cooper’s ironic conception of human possibility is coherent with his emplotment of the American historical field. The dialectical formulation of the first three tales is invoked by a recurrence of character and incident only to be dismissed as a flawed and naive grammar. The particularity of vision that operated only as a countertext in The Pioneers, Mohicans, and The Prairie here becomes prime. A coherent and persuasive mode replaces the disjunctive patterns of Cooper’s earlier formulations of his saga.

In The Pathfinder, like Mohicans a novel about the French and Indian War, this newly evolved historiographic grammar is realized through a series of conflicts which juxtapose the blurred distinctions of civilization with the absolute clarity of the wilderness. The European warfare that has been exported to the American frontier is a monumentally confusing conflict. French and British regulars, colonial militia, and Indian tribes collide in the dense American forests and on the storm-tossed waters of Lake Ontario. Direction is uncertain; the lines of battle are non-existent. The complex alliances of Europeans, provincials, and Indians blur loyalties, provoke internecine conflict and foster ambivalent attachments. Within this uncertain context, the boundaries of moral order are obscured and judgments are distorted. European commandants implicate themselves in native savagery by offering bounties for scalps and by directing bands of Indian marauders. Officers betray their men and barter years of loyal service for bags of gold. Traitors remain undetected while honest men fall under suspicion. Throughout the novel, Cooper’s characters confuse ambition with ability and through overweening pride hazard the safety of their colleagues.

As a scout at the Ontario compound, Natty is threatened by this web of uncertainty. In the wilderness temptations have been few and judgments certain. He has, he explains to Charles Cap, been “sorely tried” only three times in his life: once when he found a French trapper’s skins unattended in the woods; again when he thought to steal the only rifle on the frontier that rivalled Killdeer and finally the hardest of them all, “when he came upon six Mingoes asleep in the woods completely vulnerable to his rifle.” 7 In each of these encounters Natty chooses the path of absolute morality. Among the civilized characters of the fort, however, Natty encounters a temptation far more complex than any of these wilderness trials. Despite the discrepancy between their ages and social ranks, he is attracted by the charms of Mabel Dunham, the daughter of a British sergeant. Acting upon the encouragement of her father, Natty’s long-time friend, he ignores his better judgment and seeks her hand. Natty’s courtship upsets the purity of his existence and clouds the moral absolutes of his world. He neglects his duty to be near Mabel and fears that he “may come to love material things too well in order to make Mabel comfortable” (280). When he leaves his post to rescue Mabel, he compromises the lives of his entire squad. Natty’s replacement is unable to recognize an Indian ambush and leads the men into a massacre. In short, Natty’s love for Mabel prompts him to forget his own limitations and to violate his nature.

When Natty finally does propose, Mabel wisely rejects him as an inappropriate suitor. Ultimately, however, her desire to honor her father’s last request and her gratitude to Natty for saving her life blur her judgment. In a spirit of resignation she agrees to marry Natty in the spring. In the earlier volumes of the Tales, this marriage may have served as an emblem of synthesis and cultural progress. Here, however, it demonstrates the impossibility of such a reconciliation. To marry Mabel he must violate the absolute morality upon which he has predicated his life. In subordinating principle to desire, he will embrace the moral uncertainty that has compromised him throughout his courtship. Marriage will not render his values socially useful but will annihilate them. Natty, of course, resists this temptation and yields Mabel’s hand to his young friend Jasper Western. In renunciation Natty preserves his distance from civilization and its ambiguities. Cooper affirms the polarities of the novel and denies Natty’s potential as a mediator.

The marriage that does result between Jasper and Mabel is clearly an appropriate one. Unlike similar marriages in the Leatherstocking Tales, however, their union does not affirm a cultural synthesis and guarantee social progress. Rather than identifying Mabel and Jasper as intermediaries between Natty and civilization, Cooper places them in direct opposition to Natty by describing their decision to marry as a fall from grace:

Jasper and Mabel sat, resembling Milton’s picture of our first parents, when the consciousness of sin first laid its leaden weight on their souls. Neither spoke, neither even moved; though both at the moment fancied they could part with their new-found happiness, in order to restore their friend to his peace of mind (460).

Their guilt reflects the moral ambiguities that surround their marriage. Mabel has betrayed her word to her father and to Natty. She has rejected a man who loves her deeply, a suitor whom she characterizes as a better man than her husband (456). Jasper has betrayed his best friend and surrogate father. In marrying Mabel, he abandons his ship and his career and returns with her to New York. Such a decision, as Natty argues, violates his “gifts” and flies in the face of God’s will.

Cooper’s point is not that Mabel and Jasper have sinned by choosing to marry and return east, but rather than even in making a correct decision, they have involved themselves in an inextricably complex problem. Their options have been blurred; their moral boundaries confused. In contrast to the ambiguities that result from their decision, Natty’s resignation of his claims to Mabel frees him from a mounting moral tension.

Rather than moving toward synthesis, then, The Pathfinder preserves its polarities. The world of ideality which Natty inhabits can have no congress with that of advancing civilization. Cooper no longer conceptualizes American history in the meliorist language of the Waverley Novels. Scott’s vision of a recurring social dialectic is rejected as illusionary; the westward movement is forever constant; practice never realizes promise. The concluding episode of The Pathfinder confirms this syntactic change. The scene is set in the Lake Ontario forest many years after the events of the novel. Unlike the contemporary projections of the other tales, however, this passage does not confirm the certainty of social progress by describing thriving villages and the domestication of the wilderness. Mabel, now the mother of “several youths” has returned to Ontario for a visit. Standing on the banks of the Mohawk, she sees “a man in a singular guise, watching her in the distance, with an intentness that induced her to inquire into his pursuits and character.” She learns that he is “the most renowned hunter of that portion of that state ... , a being of great purity of character, and of as marked peculiarities; and that he was known in that region of the country by the name of Leatherstocking.” This vision, Cooper concludes, “gave her a sleepless night, and cast a shadow of melancholy over her still lovely face that lasted many a day” (470).

The respective worlds of Natty and Mabel are here physically as well as metaphorically divided. Natty free from the confusion of civilization stands on the far side of the Mohawk as an abstracted vision of innocence and ideality, a subject of legend, a character at one with the wilderness. Mabel has chosen wisely, and in accordance with her nature. Her marriage to Jasper and their relocation in the East are clearly appropriate decisions. Unlike the other characters in the novel, she has recognized her limitations and refused to violate them. Nevertheless, the very nature of civilization blurs the purity of her decisions and separates her from Natty’s unblemished world. Choosing Jasper instead of Natty has involved compromise, betrayal and pain — the sources of her melancholy. Here, then, both the tragic and the ironic components of Cooper’s imagination find objective correlatives in his historiographic structure. No longer limited by the inherently comic character of the operant mode of the first three volumes of the Tales, Cooper frees a world view generated by American experience from the subordinate role it enacted in those novels. In this liberation, Cooper achieves the native linguistic protocol that had so long eluded him.

Having crafted an historiographic grammar capable of particularizing American experience in The Pathfinder, Cooper abstracts and extends that design in The Deerslayer. Employing the final dichotomy of The Pathfinder as his donee in The Deerslayer, Cooper establishes an irreconcilable polarity between Natty and civilization in the novel’s opening scene. The silence of the wilderness is violated by two men calling to each other through the forest. These shouts were, Cooper writes, “in different tones, evidently proceeding from two men who had lost their way and were seeking in different directions for their path. 8 Cooper’s choice of language invites the reader, as Marius Bewley has observed, to impute a “maximum of meaning” to the scene. 9 The different paths on which the men seek their ways become metaphors for their responses to the virgin continent they are exploring. Hurry Harry March and Natty Bumppo, the two travellers, are, as Cooper clearly establishes in this opening scene, diametrically opposed characters. March is “dashing, reckless, and offhand,” he angers easily, meets reasoned criticism with physical violence and demonstrates no respect for civil or moral authority. His good looks belie his poor judgment and his disregard for principle. Recognizing no law but his own will, he tells Natty that “when we live beyond the law, we must be our own judges and executioners” (25). Natty responds to March’s arrogance by arguing that “though we live in the woods and are thought to be beyond human laws, there is a law and a lawmaker that rule across the whole continent. He that flies in the face of either need not call me friend” (26). Natty refuses to bend to March’s will and consistently opposes a commitment to principle to March’s expediency and moral bankruptcy.

The two attitudes toward the wilderness that this opening scene identifies — the two paths chosen by men who have lost their way — never vary in the course of the novel. They are repeated in all of the permutations of The Deerslayer’s conflicts with the recurring force of a chorus or a folktale. There is no middle ground in this novel. Only two paths penetrate its forests. The values Cooper assigns to Hurry Harry also characterize all of the other civilized figures in the novel. For the first time in the Leatherstocking Tales, there are no characters who are capable of serving as potential mediators between Natty and the settlers. The itinerant trappers, who like Hurry harvest furs in the wilderness to sell in Albany are a corrupt and lawless band. The British officers who man the frontier garrison lack any honor. They pursue seduction as an art and slaughter Indians without compassion or restraint. Tom Hutter, who with Hurry Harry becomes Natty’s major adversary in the novel, is an even more malign figure. A former pirate, Hutter has fled an eastern hangman for the anonymity of the wilderness. A series of robberies and Indian attacks persuade him to build his frontier cabin on a mooring in the middle of the Glimmerglass. There he lives with his two daughters, Judith the corrupt beauty of the garrison and Hetty her mentally defective sister. Far from repudiating his former life of crime, Hutter has merely relocated his corruption in the wilderness. He earns the opprobrium of Indian and white alike through his unscrupulous dealings in the fur trade and through his willingness to augment that income by taking and selling the scalps of Indian women and children.

Life among these civilized characters holds little attraction for Natty. The temptations of The Pathfinder no longer obscure his judgment. He immediately rejects the rationalizations that Hurry Harry and Tom Hutter employ in attempting to persuade him to join their scalping party. Rather than violate his word he abandons the safety of Hutter’s floating castle to return to Indian captivity and almost certain death. When Judith Hutter proposes marriage he firmly declines her offer to return with Chingachgook to the wilderness.

Unlike The Pathfinder, then, The Deerslayer does not attempt to establish a chasm between Natty and civilization. Rather, it assumes the absolute terms of that division as a given. None of its characters enact the roles of Mabel Dunham or Jasper Western; no marriages conclude its narrative. Its final scene, in which Natty, Chingachgook and his son Uncas return to the Glimmerglass fifteen years after the adventures the novel recounts, admits no ambivalence. Hutter’s castle has become “a picturesque ruin”; nature has reexerted its power over civilization.

The storms of winter had long since unroofed the house, and decay had eaten into the logs. All the fastenings were untouched, but the seasons rioted in the place, as if in mockery at the attempt to exclude them. The palisades were rotting, as were the piles; and it was evident that a few more recurrences of winter, a few more gales and tempests would sweep all into the lake, and blot the building from the face of that magnificent solitude (544).

Citing the rigid polarity, the apocalyptic character, and the abstracted tenor of this concluding scene, Cooper’s critics have, for the most part, stressed the mythic dimension of the novel and defined its narrative impulse as resolutely anti-historical. Within the context of this reading, the novel becomes another episode in what Irving Howe has termed America’s “wistful ballet of transcendence.” 10 Social engagement and an historical consciousness are subordinated to a yearning projection of innocence, eternal youth, and freedom from the restraints of time. This perspective neglects, however, the referential character of the Leatherstocking series. Cooper is indeed involved in a process of negation in this novel, but it is not history itself that is rejected in The Deerslayer, but rather the historiographic mode of the first three novels in the series and the Scottish perspective that informs them. In dismissing that grammar as inviable, Cooper establishes a counterpoint against which both the tragic character of his imagination and the ironic consciousness which that vision engenders are set in relief. The self-conscious quality of that formulation and the fictive coherence that it produces define the extent of Cooper’s achievement in the Leatherstocking Tales.


1 D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York, 1961), p. 50.

2 Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth- Century Europe (Baltimore, 1973).

3 See Terence Martin, The Instructed Vision: Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and the Origins of American Fiction (Bloomington,1961).

4 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers (New York, 1859), p. 309. Subsequent references will be to this edition and will be cited by page number in the text.

5 James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (New York, 1859), p. 186. Subsequent references will be to this edition and will be cited by page number in the text.

6 James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie (New York, 1859), p. 194. Subsequent references will be to this edition and will be cited by page number in the text.

7 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pathfinder (New York, 1859), p. 438. Subsequent references will be to this edition and will be cited by page number in the text.

8 James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer (New York, 1859), p. 15. Subsequent references will be to this edition and will be cited by page number in the text.

9 Marius Bewley, The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classic American Novel (New York, 1963), p. 88.

10 Irving Howe, The Decline of the New (New York, 1970), p. 97.