Place into Space: From The Pioneers to The Deerslayer

H. Daniel Peck (University of California at Santa Barbara)

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. 40-45).

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

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

Listen to the following lovely verses by the distinguished poet, Ann Stanford, who, not incidentally, is a great admirer of James Fenimore Cooper. Titled simply “Glimmerglass,” this is the lead poem in her recently published volume, In Mediterranean Air (1977) 1:

This lake is the center of the story.

All that happens the lake makes possible.

This lake has deeps for graves and shoals for building.

On a shoal in the lake there is a fortress

A house that resembles a ship, round which the tides

Drift in predictable fashion, like a cradle rocking.

All is at hand, lake trout rise to the hook

Deer come down to drink, easy for taking,

Ducks and geese by the bagful.

Berries grow on the shore.

What a monotony of noble days and nights!

The cliffs softened by trees, the water birds calling

The lake glimmering as sun and stars take turns above it.

Outside the ring — the house, the lake, the shore —

The unbroken forest.

There the enemy waits

Circling and stalking the house in the center.

Round within round to the very eye

That watches from the knothole, the heart that hides

In the house in the lake in the circle of the forest.

Almost everything is right here. I am struck particularly by the final two stanzas, which communicate better than any critical commentary I know the extraordinary quality of centrality, of centralized solitude, which characterizes Cooper’s Deerslayer.

With so much that is right, it will seem small-minded to take issue with any of it. And indeed, as a poem, there is nothing to fault. But as an accurate representation of the narrative world of The Deerslayer, there is one stanza that doesn’t quite belong. It is stanza three, with its images of hunting and fishing and berry-gathering. For a careful examination of the novel will reveal no trout rising to the hook and no ducks and geese being taken. And though berries may grow on the shore, in this book they are not for the picking.

Those images of plenitude belong not to The Deerslayer but to The Pioneers, where fish and fowl are taken not only by the bagful but by the thousands. It is interesting that these images from The Pioneers found their way into a poem about The Deerslayer because Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales do (in our memories) form an imaginative totality from which narrative elements are easily mixed. Indeed, it is part of Cooper’s power that his Leatherstocking series creates a composite for the imagination from which a poet (or any reader) may quite properly appropriate freely those images to which he most deeply responds.

Perhaps Ann Stanford would not object, then, to my using this interesting juxtaposition in her poem to suggest what are for me the radical differences between the worlds of The Pioneers and The Deerslayer. The deeper differences between these first- and last-written of the Leatherstocking novels are all the more striking, it seems to me, because on the surface there is so much that is the same. These are the two tales that have exactly the same setting — Lake Otsego — and each of them is characterized by geographical stasis. Meaning is created in both works not by motion (journeying), as it is to some extent in all the other Leatherstocking tales, especially Mohicans, but by containment of the action within a tightly circumscribed setting. However, anyone who has read these two novels in order (as I have again recently in preparation for this meeting) must be struck by the remarkable differences that make themselves felt in spite of the similarity of setting.

The Pioneers is a novel about a place, a real place. Cooper tells us in his preface that while “the incidents of this tale are purely a fiction,” the “natural and artificial objects and customs of the inhabitants” are “literal facts.” Templeton is the vividly remembered Cooperstown of the writer’s childhood, rendered in rich and compelling detail. The Pioneers is thus foremost a social novel, in which the life of the community secures our attention from the first moment and sustains it to the end. Indeed, where this book succeeds — and it may be the finest fictional account of a frontier community in ours or any other literature — it succeeds precisely because it realistically renders a sense of place.

Because The Pioneers devotes itself to describing the manners and habits of a frontier community, it is not surprising that many of its significant developments occur in domestic settings, but it is surprising to me upon rereading the novel just how much an indoor book this is. (The winter season of the early sections nicely enforces this quality.) Most of the novel’s memorable occasions occur in architectural interiors: the dinner at the Judge’s house, the Christmas service at the church, the tavern and trial scenes, to cite only a few. The novel is organized by such scenes, which is to say that in many of them crucial information is released (often through confrontation) which gives the plot its momentum. But they have more than functional importance; taken together they are a highly engaging series of set pieces which entertain us as they lay out the social structure and values of Templeton. In them, dialogue (not often considered to be one of Cooper’s strengths) necessarily plays an important part and the dialogue is surprisingly good, better than I remembered it from previous readings. This emphasizes the overwhelmingly social aspect of The Pioneers.

We should not overlook the role of Natty Bumppo in our consideration of The Pioneers as a social novel. Natty disdains “in-door work,” but it is clear that in his old age he has reluctantly become part of the community’s indoor culture (just as the once heroic Chingachgook has become the drunken and debased Indian John of the tavern scene). And although Leatherstocking stands in a subversive relation to the emerging dominant culture represented by Judge Temple, there is a way in which he utterly belongs to it. He is that most recognizable of figures, the frontier “character,” and as such his presence in the novel is as integral to the development of a fully developed social scene as that of Hiram Doolittle. Here Natty has little of the mythic stature which we assign to him as we consider his role in the Leatherstocking tales as a group, and which sets him apart from all of the other characters in Cooper’s fiction.

We can see, then, that Leatherstocking contributes to our sense of Templeton as a real place; he is rendered with the same faithful attention to detail that characterizes Cooper’s depiction of the novel’s setting. My point here is that because of its realism of setting and character, The Pioneers creates a world implacably set in time, in history. Its temporal aspect is convincing; time moves forward predictably, along a continuum of almost a full (and therefore representative) year of historical time.

Let us turn now to The Deerslayer. Like The Pioneers, this novel begins with the characters poised on a hill above Lake Otsego. But instead of descending then to a frontier community at the foot of the lake they descend onto the lake itself in a canoe. As Ann Stanford’s poem says so beautifully “This lake is the center of the story. All that happens the lake makes possible.” Needless to say, at this earlier time in American history there is no community of Templeton whatever. The only sign of civilization is Tom Hutter’s crude “castle,” which, significantly, is built upon a shoal in the lake; it is contained by the lake.

If The Pioneers is a novel created out of Cooper’s vivid memories of his childhood in Cooperstown, The Deerslayer is necessarily an imaginative construction — “a close description,” as he says in his preface, “of Otsego, prior to the year 1760, when the first rude settlement was commenced on its banks.” It is Cooper’s creation of a past which he could not have known, though, as he says in the preface, there was enough virgin wilderness around the Lake Otsego of his youth to supply him with the basic imagery of the novel.

One of the first things one notices upon rereading The Deerslayer immediately after having read The Pioneers is how very inferior is the dialogue of the former novel. When characters begin to speak in The Deerslayer too often we begin to groan. This is a commonplace observation which had its most influential utterance in Mark Twain’s famous essay, but I mention it here as an index of the fact that, as a social novel, The Deerslayer is a dismal failure. And indeed, in the terms of almost any conventional criterion of judgment one might apply, it is inferior to The Pioneers. The Pioneers is, in fact, a very good book; it is the Cooper novel which most of us would choose to teach in a survey of nineteenth- century American literature and the one which most of us would use to demonstrate that Cooper is a far more accomplished craftsman of fiction than is generally recognized. But how on earth would we teach The Deerslayer? How would we defend it? George Dekker puts the question nicely in his James Fenimore Cooper the Novelist (London, 1967): “how,” he asks, “can a work of art that is so often gauche, improbable, crowded, bigoted, puerile — how can such a work form, as I believe The Deerslayer does, an aesthetic whole which is intensely moving and convincing?” For Dekker The Deerslayer is “the most moving ... though not the best, of the Leatherstocking novels.” This is an interesting distinction though a problematical one, because if The Deerslayer does provide a deeply moving experience for readers, as it surely does, there must be formal, structural reasons to explain its power.

My own explanation in A World by Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction (New Haven, 1977) focuses upon the writer’s ordering of space, the pictorial design of the book’s landscape. But upon this reading something else has caught my attention and that is the novel’s pacing. A comparison of the two books under consideration in this paper reveals the following remarkable fact: The Deerslayer, which narrates only a few days of action, is a hundred pages longer than The Pioneers, which dramatizes almost a year of historical time.

What is it, then, that takes up so much of The Deerslayer’s narrative space? We can begin to answer this by noting that while The Pioneers places almost all of its principal characters before the reader immediately (in the memorable opening scene), so that we may follow their social interaction comprehensibly and continuously, The Deerslayer introduces its characters one or two at a time with very long intervals between. Those intervals are filled with lengthy descriptions of landscape; this has the effect of slowing the novel’s pace almost to a standstill, creating a sense of profound narrative stasis. In this way Cooper permits himself to develop the novel’s spatial design slowly, incrementally. Only in this way, perhaps, could he have rendered the extraordinary quality of compression, or condensation, of space which characterizes The Deerslayer.

The result of the novel’s slow pacing is to transform what was in The Pioneers a composite of scenes which advance the story evenly through historical time, rendering a realistic sense of temporality, to a single, overwhelming scene in The Deerslayer. From scenes to scene. Or, from place to space — pure space. What was in The Pioneers a year of changing seasons (and social change) becomes here an eternal summer day. The transformation is a dilation or refraction of place (various, concrete, historical, fragmented) into pure space (mythic, unitary).

For example, the Lake Otsego of The Pioneers is a body of water subject to all of nature’s seasonal variations, a lake undulating with the motions of historical change and clearly affected by the life of the community. It is so brimming with organic life that the townspeople are able to net thousands of fish on a single occasion. But in The Deerslayer Otsego has become a lake so jewel-like (Glimmerglass!), so unrippled, that we feel the presence of any kind of organic life would taint its classic beauty. This is not a real lake, it is a magic lake.

We could turn to any number of corresponding images in the two novels to reinforce the point. Let us look at just one: the domestic bird of the turkey shoot in The Pioneers is replaced in The Deerslayer by an eagle, one which circles high above with such pure aesthetic grandeur that it can have no relation whatever to the taking of game. In both cases there is a contest of skill involved, but in the first case the contest — its rules and tradition — is defined by civilization. In the second the shooting of the bird is a purely mythic act. It is totemic, as Jim Pickering pointed out a few moments ago, with Leatherstocking taking unto himself the soaring powers of flight symbolized by the eagle. The hero in place becomes (borrowing here from R.W.B. Lewis) the hero in space.

Our colleague Leslie Fiedler has written somewhere that it no longer matters whether we have read Cooper’s books or not, because his images have so deeply entered our collective consciousness. I would revise this suggestive remark to say that it doesn’t matter so much whether or not we have re-read Cooper’s books, and then qualify that statement by saying that it is more applicable to The Deerslayer than to The Pioneers. The Pioneers is a book which impresses us more upon rereading than it does in memory because of its richly detailed scenes — these very qualities which inspired genre paintings such as those by Matteson and Quidor. With The Deerslayer just the opposite is true; it is a book which annoys and perplexes in the immediate experience of reading but which, long after, reverberates in memory with extraordinary intensity. And what is it that reverberates? Certainly not the dialogue, and perhaps not even individual images or scenes. In memory we tend to forget that the dialogue is very bad and that, in conventional novelistic terms, the structure is unbalanced. What continues to make itself felt for us is the novel’s beautiful outline, an afterimage of such resonant power that it is difficult to think of anything comparable in all of American literature.

Another way to put this is to say that The Pioneers is a conventional social novel because its content is crucially determinative of its form. In The Deerslayer, by contrast, the content is almost trivial by comparison. What is important is not the detail but the larger configurations, the paradigms of space and motion impressed permanently upon our imagination.

Everything I am saying about setting can also be applied to character. If, in The Pioneers, Leatherstocking is an aspect of the novel’s social scene, in The Deerslayer he comes to the center of the narrative. No longer one of a group of frontier “characters,” a retrograde, he is returned to his mythic origins. No longer an occasional reminder of an earlier virgin wilderness, he is given back to the past. In The Pioneers he symbolically reenters that past at moments — when he kills the swimming deer, for example. But in The Deerslayer, he reenters it fully. Everyone moves aside for him now.

One indication of Cooper’s clearing of the novel’s stage for Leatherstocking is his treatment of the genteel here. We may recall that in the other four Leatherstocking tales Cooper seems to have felt compelled to balance the claims of wilderness and civilization with the mediating presence of such a figure (Edwards/Effingham in Pioneers, Heyward in Mohicans, Middleton in Prairie, Western in Pathfinder; Jay Elliott has given us some fascinating information about what the Prairie manuscript reveals about Cooper’s choice of Middle-ton’s name). But as Bill Kelley’s brilliant paper has shown, the genteel hero weakens considerably in The Pathfinder, written just before The Deerslayer, and here in the last-written of the tales, he drops out altogether. Leatherstocking is thus left alone at the center of the novel’s stage, in an environment uncontaminated by history; here his newly discovered powers are virtually unchallenged. In this position he becomes a part of the mythic past of America which D. H. Lawrence credited to Cooper’s invention.

For a long time it has seemed to me that the basic issue of all of Cooper’s work is possession. In The Pioneers, he repossesses in imagination the actual world of his childhood in Cooperstown, depicting not only the charm of that remembered setting but also its more troubling features (social change and ecological destruction). As I have suggested, this is an autobiographical novel, a personal narrative, and as such it has its obligations to historical truth. But The Deerslayer restores a world that existed prior to history and which is transpersonal in nature. This is a world not remembered but created. Wish- fulfillment, as Lawrence said. By removing Otsego to a point in the past where, in its spatial and temporal remoteness, it lies safely beyond the reach of anyone’s palpable possession, Cooper is able to take full imaginative possession of it for himself and for his readers. He thus takes back his cherished lake in the only way that, by 1840, was possible for him: by transforming it from Otsego to Glimmerglass, from place to space. The lake is not only the center of the story, it is the center of Cooper’s imaginative life.


1 The poem is quoted with the permission of the Viking Press.