The Leatherstocking Tradition in American Fiction: or, the Sources of Tom Sawyer: A Descriptive Essay

Leland S. Person, Jr. (Indiana University/Purdue University at Fort Wayne)

Presented at the 6ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1986.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1986 Conference at State University College of New York — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 67-77).

Copyright © 1987 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

THIS essay evolved out of a course I taught last fall called “Huck Finn and His Tradition.” That course began with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and then traced Huck through various reincarnations in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and such twentieth-century works as The Red Badge of Courage, The Nick Adams Stories, Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust and The Reivers, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I realized, of course, as I set up the reading list, that the main characteristics of what I was calling the Huck Finn Tradition could hardly be said to originate with Mark Twain, but it struck me more forcefully than it had before, particularly as I reread Tom Sawyer, that Cooper’s The Pioneers would perhaps have been a better starting point. Indeed, the more I thought of those two novels together, the more I was surprised by similarities between them.

That idea would hardly endear me to Twainians, because Mark Twain, of course, went to great lengths to disassociate himself from James Fenimore Cooper, most famously in his attack on his predecessor’s “Literary Offenses” (1895), where he accused Cooper, among other things, of scoring “114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115” — and all within “two-thirds of a page” in The Deerslayer. Terming that novel a “literary delirium tremens,” Twain concluded (perhaps borrowing a rhetorical model from Cooper) with a long catalog of negatives. The Deerslayer a work of art? he asked. “It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn ... its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language” (12).

Ten years before this attack, furthermore, Clemens had used Cooper as something of a scapegoat in “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians,” the fragmentary sequel to Huckleberry Finn that he had started in 1884. Based on his reading of Cooper’s novels, Tom tells Huck, he has concluded that Indians are the “noblest human beings that’s ever been in the world.” Tom goes on for two pages, explaining how Indians are “Just all generousness and unstingeableness,” and how they “just dote” on “friendly white men” (94, 95). But after the Indians belie Tom’s romantic picture by murdering several members of the Mills family and kidnapping others (along with Jim), he repudiates Cooper. At this point, though, instead of “correcting” the alleged faults of Cooper’s Indian characterization, Twain simply resorts to the opposite stereotype, as Tom’s attitude switches from one extreme to another. Getting it “through his noodle” that “book Injuns and real Injuns is different,” Tom becomes a veritable Indian hater, putting Indians “below the devils” (138). (If Huck had also read Cooper, he might have painted out that Tom ends up sounding suspiciously like Hurry Harry March or Tom Hutter in The Deerslayer.)

It is especially ironic that Mark Twain should make Tom Sawyer a Cooper aficionado, because several critics have suggested that Twain himself learned more from his predecessor than he was willing to admit, and one — Sacvan Bercovitch — has even argued that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer might well have been inspired by The Pioneers (4). In attacking Cooper’s literary offenses, Bercovitch says, Mark Twain protests too much. Ridicule obscures a “feeling of kinship” (1), which Bercovitch demonstrates by pointing out numerous parallels among the characters in the two novels. He compares Judge Temple and Judge Thatcher, Oliver Effingham and Tom Sawyer, Indian John and Injun Joe, Elizabeth Temple and Becky Thatcher, and Natty Bumppo and Huckleberry Finn, concluding that Mark Twain really should have changed the opening sentence of Huckleberry Finn to read: “’You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Pioneers’” (4). 1

My goal in this paper is to expand upon Bercovitch’s insights into parallels between The Pioneers and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by using the remarkable similarities among the casts of characters to examine what I would call each writer’s cultural vision and the strikingly similar ways that vision effects the process of composing each novel. First, though, we should recognize the importance of The Pioneers and Tom Sawyer in each writer’s career. Each is the author’s third major work, following a largely imitative, Europeanized first narrative (Precaution and Innocents Abroad) and a second work involving American materials (The Spy and Roughing It). In his third work, however, each writer returned to the boyhood home to which he had been brought as a young child (Cooper was barely a year old when his family moved to Cooperstown in 1790; Clemens was four when his family moved from Florida, Missouri, to Hannibal in 1839). Most important, through this process of imaginative repossession and the discovery of a character identified with that home as found (Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn), Cooper and Clemens found inner reservoirs they could tap for their greatest and most characteristic works: the Leatherstocking Tales and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. To understand the Leatherstocking Tales and what could certainly be called Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Tales, it is especially important to examine the first work in each series, because The Pioneers and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer both offer unusually clear views of the process through which an author’s vision is translated into character and plot, of the way thematic tensions become embodied in character conflicts and gradually form a story line. Although published more than fifty years apart, furthermore, the two novels effectively bracket the genre of frontier fiction; both are important documents in the imaginative history of the American frontier.


To help demonstrate the connection between these two novels, their casts of characters, and the frontier myth, it will be useful to look at Jane Tompkins’ recent contribution to the debate about Cooper’s literary merits. Her chapter on The Last of the Mohicans will be especially interesting to this group because it really is the record of a conversion experience. Tompkins begins with little knowledge of Cooper and considerable bias against him, but she warms to Cooper the more she reads him and then looks for the aesthetic values that will justify her enthusiasm. She defends Cooper as an artist by insisting that it is wrong to judge him by the realistic standards of the nineteenth-century English novel. According to Tompkins, Cooper is best viewed as a social critic writing in “an allegorical mode” (103). Considering him this way, she says, explains the stereotypical qualities of his characters and the often arbitrary twists of his plots. “Just as the human figures in Cooper’s frontier fiction have the static quality of integers in a mathematical equation because they stand for fixed values in a system of value, so the plot has an air of artificiality and contrivance because it, too, answers the requirements of an abstract design.” By juxtaposing characters “whose function is to typify the degrees and divisions of social life,” she goes on, Cooper is able to accomplish his true purpose: working out the “rules of coexistence that make human society possible in the first place” (113, 119).

For the most part, Tompkins limits her discussion to The Last of the Mohicans, but her view of that novel can certainly be applied to The Pioneers — and Mark Twain’s likely protests to the contrary, to Tom Sawyer. Though his cast is smaller than Cooper’s, Clemens is similarly concerned with characters, in Tompkins’ words, who “typify the degrees and divisions of social life” and with examining the values requisite for social order. Although neither The Pioneers nor Tom Sawyer exactly fits the pattern of the frontier adventure novel, each work is rooted in the American frontier experience — or, more accurately, in the imaginative recreation and allegorization of that experience as it evolved in fiction written during the first half of the nineteenth century. That is to say, each novel deals symbolically with a transitional moment in American cultural history — and with cultural rites of passage. Like The Pioneers and many other novels in the frontier or western tradition, Tom Sawyer derives much of its energy from a series of challenges to both the legal and social orders of a town perched on the boundary line of East and West. Waiter Blair has noted that the Hannibal of Clemens’ childhood was “located on the rough frontier” and was “more violent than most small towns,” and it is worth remembering that 1876, the year of Tom Sawyer’s publication, also marked the Battle of Little Big Horn — according to many historians, the culminating event in the so-called Indian Wars that determined the fate of the West in the years after the Civil War (Blair 55). Tom Sawyer is not directly concerned with such momentous events, but it does share one important characteristic with many historical novels, including The Pioneers. At stake in Tom Sawyer, as in The Pioneers, I would argue, is the right to control a community’s future. Both novels end (although admittedly with some ambiguity) with social order not only restored but established on a more secure footing, and both accomplish that end through a remarkably similar disposition of characters. In effect, each work offers a virtual diorama illustrating successive stages of development for a frontier community.

When The Pioneers opens, Templeton has reached a watershed moment in its evolution from wilderness to civilization — signalled in Judge Temple’s vision of “towns, manufactories, bridges, canals, mines, and all the other resources of an old country” (321). But Cooper has assembled a remarkable cast of other characters, who represent other visions of the land and its future. In John Mohegan he obviously pays tribute to the original proprietors of the land, but that Indian claim has been passed on to Major Effingham and in spirit to Natty Bumppo, who begins the novel in the unofficial capacity of caretaker. Officially, Judge Temple controls the land, but the novel makes clear that the Judge is hardly an ideal steward. In fact, for all practical purposes the Judge has given control of the land to Richard Jones. Although genuinely distressed at his cousin Richard Jones’s exploitation or natural resources, he seems powerless to prevent it. For that reason, Cooper imports a new generation — Elizabeth Temple and Oliver Effingham — who will combine, at least as Cooper tries to work it out in the novel, the best characteristics of their conservative and progressive ancestors. Cooper goes to considerable lengths to identify Oliver and Elizabeth with each of the other claimants. Oliver is the grandson of Major Effingham and, as Young Eagle, the “descendent of a Delaware chief” (206); he is also at one point identified as the “son of Leather-stocking” (150). Elizabeth, who is Judge Temple’s actual daughter, is repeatedly called “daughter” by Chingachgook (400, 401, 402). Linked in these ways to all of those who lay claim to the landscape, Oliver and Elizabeth are seemingly in a perfect position, as heir and heiress, to synthesize the opposed values that compete for the right to determine the fate of the land.

Although Mark Twain’s range of characters is smaller than Cooper’s, he too clearly uses characters of different generations and backgrounds to represent different social and cultural values. While Judge Thatcher is nowhere near as important to Tom Sawyer as Marmaduke Temple is to The Pioneers he is a similar kind of patriarch, a leader who will ultimately confirm the rights of the new generation (Tom and Becky) to inherit the future. And although Injun Joe has nowhere near the ancestral interest in the land as Indian John, he offers a much greater, because more violent, threat to the social order that must be suppressed before civilization (or “sivilization”) can proceed.

In both works, in fact, the passage from one stage of civilization to another is symbolized by the death of the last remaining Indian (a motif they share with other well-known frontier novels, such as The Yemassee and Nick of the Woods). Injun Joe’s death and burial behind the padlocked door of McDougal’s Cave, like Chingachgook’s death on Mount Vision and his burial, with Major Effingham, in the graveyard in Templeton, recapitulates on a small scale the process of white American history: the displacement of native American Indian tribes by white settlers. Furthermore, both Indian characters grow in stature over the course of the novels. Little more than a drunken stereotype in the early scenes of the novel, Chingachgook is reinvigorated at the end. Renouncing Christianity for his native paganism, he bears a “look of wildness” that resembles the “inspiration of a prophet” (1103). Injun Joe, in a structurally similar if thematically dissimilar way, evolves into the avatar of the evil that lurks in the depths of caves and in the hearts, or minds, of men and boys. Encountering Joe in the mysterious depths of McDougal’s Cave, Tom Sawyer confronts his own savage self. (Like Chingachgook, with his “two balls of fire” for eyes (86), Injun Joe’s eyes flame with passion as he acts out in the present the revenge that Chingachgook only threatens.) Despite their being two very different Types (Good and Bad Indians, respectively, according to prevailing nineteenth-century stereotypes), John Mohegan and Injun Joe finally perform very similar functions: representing the wilderness and the wildness that must be suppressed or sublimated in order to establish a new social order.

Embodied in a younger generation (Oliver and Elizabeth, Tom and Becky), the emergence of that new order is signalled in remarkably similar ways. Natty’s rescue of Oliver and Elizabeth from the forest fire on Mount Vision clearly anticipates Tom and Becky’s rescue from McDougal’s Cave. In each case, for example, the townspeople are galvanized to action en masse, emphasizing the significance of the two events for the community as a whole. Hearing of Elizabeth’s peril, the “public mind was in [a] feverish state,” Cooper notes (426), while in Tom Sawyer, within five minutes of the discovery of the missing children, “the bells were wildly clanging and the whole town was up!” (218). As hero and heroine reappear from the heights or depths of nature, they reenter their communities with new power and stature, and both novels depend upon the discovery of a hidden “treasure” to confirm cultural transition and transfer of power. The $12,000 that Tom and Huck find in the cave has the potential to make Tom at least a leading citizen of St. Petersburg. Put out at six percent interest, the money certainly raises Tom’s stature in Judge Thatcher’s eyes; hoping to see him a lawyer or soldier, the Judge even compares him with George Washington and envisions the two of them, latter-day and modern-day patriarchs, so to speak, marching “down through history breast to breast” (255). Similarly, in The Pioneers, Major Effingham’s emergence from the cave and the revelation of Oliver’s true identity confirm his right to the Effingham-Templeton land. Not only does he inherit half of the land immediately, but, as Judge Temple himself admits, his impending marriage to Elizabeth will cause the other half to “follow speedily” (444).

This is not to say, however, that the implications of these transfers of power are identical. In fact, Cooper and Clemens manifest very different attitudes toward the values that have been newly put in place. To illustrate that difference, we have only to look closely at Oliver Effingham and Tom Sawyer, the characters who seem to represent the new order of things. As Bercovitch notes, both characters shift back and forth between forest and town, and despite their genuine attraction for the outcast condition of the outsider heroes, both “basically belong to the town.” In each case, moreover, “the decision to conform manifests itself in the love theme of the novel, which centers on the judge’s daughter” (3). But even though Oliver and Tom perform similar functions as characters in the middle — moving between the natural and social worlds of the novel before settling down, their claims to position newly validated — temperamentally they are very different characters. Tom would have eagerly embraced Oliver’s secret plot and disguise and would certainly have revealed his true identity with even more style, but in actuality Tom more closely resembles Richard Jones. A bragart and master manipulator of others, Tom is also a schemer and projector — a “show-off.” Imagine Tom as High Sheriff. More important, in his quest for buried treasure, Tom recalls Jones’s fantasy of a silver mine that will make the Temple family rich. Both characters, in short, are essentially exploitive. While Tom exploits other people (as in the white-washing scene or in pretending to be dead), Jones exploits nature, killing pigeons wholesale or virtually draining the lake of fish. “’We must run our streets by the compass,’” he tells Elizabeth, “’and disregard trees, hills, ponds, stumps, or, in fact, any thing but posterity” (183).

Oliver’s rise to power in The Pioneers can be expected to negate Richard Jones’s influence at least to some degree, but Mark Twain makes it clear through Tom Sawyer that money as a kind of new religion will dominate St. Petersburg’s future. (Cooper, of course, saw this, too.) After tricking his friends into paying him for the pleasure of whitewashing the fence, after all, Tom uses that booty to buy Sunday school tickets, which he then cashes in for a Bible. Twain is obviously satirizing a society that cannot tell the reality or knowledge from the appearance, but Tom (more than any other citizen of the town) has learned how to manipulate this new value system. And it is a measure of just how thoroughly materialistic values will dominate the future that he should find Injun Joe’s treasure in McDougal’s Cave under the sign of the cross (245) and that the interest income he receives from the money makes him higher paid than the minister.

As the many sequels to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn demonstrate, Mark Twain never really solved the problem represented by Tom’s character. Although Huck is certainly a more interesting character, whenever Twain returned to his Hannibal cast (as the titles of Tom Sawyer Abroad or Tom Sawyer, Detective suggest), he made Tom the central figure. Even when he devoted an entire novel to Huck, he couldn’t resist turning the last third of it over to Tom. Clemens might have learned something from Cooper, who certainly learned the trick, discovered in The Pioneers, of developing the possibilities of Leatherstocking’s character. Of course, even Cooper was a little slow to recognize what he had created, as The Pioneers is nearly half over before his attention really focuses on Natty Bumppo. In fact, even at the end of the novel, he anticipates Mark Twain and toys with the idea of keeping Natty in Templeton — like Huck, as an adopted member of the new social order.

Elizabeth invites Natty to live with her and Oliver. “’I had thought you meant to live with us, and die with us, Natty,’” she tells him, when he announces to her surprise his craving to “’go into the woods ag’in’” (454). Similarly, when Huck worries that he will be “’more lonesomer than ever’n if Tom gets married, Tom reassures him. “’No you won’t,’” he says. “’You’ll come and live with me’” (179). In both cases, of course, the frontier hero recognizes the impossibility of such reconciliation. As Bercovitch puts it, both Natty and Huck are “skillful and noble” in their own worlds but “instinctively realize that their integrity depends an their freedom from civilization” (2-3). Much as Natty is, in his own words, “’form’d for the wilderness,’” Huck says, “I like the woods, and the river” (258). Natty objects to the “’stated hours and rules’” by which the Effinghams live (454); Huck can’t stand life at the Widow’s: “’The widder eats by a bell; she goes to bed by a bell; she sits up by a bell — everything’s so awful reglar a body can’t stand it’” (257). Despite the efforts of their creators to assimilate these regressive characters to civilization (and to its discontents), in other words, the characters themselves seem to resist. For the rest of the essay, I would like to focus on that resistance, because it goes to the heart of the tension between characters, genres, and cultural values that The Pioneers and Tom Sawyer have in common.


Many critics, of course, have noted similarities between Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn, although their attention usually focuses on the more youthful, Adamic Natty of later books in the series and on Huck as he appears in his own novel, or upon the similar relationships the two heroes enjoy with men of another race (Chingachgook and Jim). Rut even in The Pioneers and Tom Sawyer, the works in which these American heroes are born, Natty and Huck play rather similar parts. Indeed, a fascinating similarity between the two novels is their depiction of the process through which a writer discovers and develops the fictional possibilities latent in one of his characters — and thus paves the way for that character’s rejuvenation in subsequent works.

Superficially, the two characters obviously resemble one another. For example, both are readily distinguished by their clothes: Natty’s fox-skin cap and deer-skin coat, leggings, and moccasins; Huck’s cast-off “ruin” of a hat, over- sized coat, not to mention the “fringed legs” of his trousers (48). Natty boasts to Oliver that he “never read a book in his life” (293); Huck of course religiously avoids school. Natty complains of the Judge’s “lamed names” for things (23) and of the “clearings and betterments” he has introduced (22); Huck finds his speech becoming “insipid” from church and school and rankles at the “bars and shackles of civilization” (255).

But even though Natty and Huck resemble one another as two of our most asocial or even anti-social heroes, it is important to recognize that, in their initial conception, both Cooper and Clemens were more interested in testing their heroes’ potential for assimilation. That is, both authors explore the possibility of a social role for characters who are clearly alienated to some degree from the societies whose edges they lurk around. Although Natty’s role as Elizabeth’s buckskin knight, “Sir Leather-stocking” (187), at the Christmas turkey shoot would appeal much more to Tom Sawyer than to Huck, Natty’s rescue of Elizabeth from the panther and from the forest fire can be compared with Huck’s efforts to save the Widow Douglas from Injun Joe’s vengeance. In each case, the frontier hero serves the interests of the community which has ostracized him, paving the way for the invitation to reenter that community as a member of one of its leading families.

Each hero, moreover, plays something of a tutorial role, introducing more “civilized” characters to the natural world (Person 1-10). When Huck Finn comes for Tom Sawyer, howling like a cat to announce his presence, and then takes him to the graveyard where they witness Injun Joe’s murder of Doc Robinson, he more than a little resembles Natty Bumppo, who paddles across Lake Otsego to take Oliver and Elizabeth on a nighttime fishing expedition. In some respects, of course (not the least of which is Cooper’s inclusion of Elizabeth), the two scenes are very different, but considered structurally and symbolically they have similar functions. Both demonstrate the outcast heroes’ tutelary power, their roles as guides in dark worlds of mystery and spirits where the extraordinary is commonplace. Elizabeth awakens from a “trance,” Cooper says, when Leatherstocking spears the lake trout (270), while Huck appears outside Tom’s bedroom window as if “mingling with his half-formed dreams” (71).

Daniel Hoffman’s observation that Huck offers “the lure of an unknown and forbidden world of spirits, omens, and dark powers, a world which attracts Tom not only by its Gothicism and horror but because, unlike his romantic escapades, this imaginary realm succeeds in transcending reality by rendering life itself in mythic terms” could, with only a little toning down, be applied to the world Natty supervises on the outskirts of Templeton (329-30). Appearing from the “gloom of oblivion” that envelopes the lake, Natty’s torch seems “supernatural” and “lighted as it were by magic” (262, 264, 263). Peering into the depths of the water, he lays bare the “mysteries of the lake, as plainly as if the limpid sheet of the Otsego was but another atmosphere” (268). And to both Elizabeth and Oliver, he offers an essentially mythic vision of nature as what he calls a “second paradise” (290). To Oliver in particular, ironically on the fishing trip that leads to killing the buck out of season, he describes a wilderness shrine at which an immanent spirit of nature is revealed to a select few. From his favorite spot in the wilderness, an Olympian vantage point in the mountains that “not a dozen white men have ever laid eyes on,” he reports that he can see “all creation” and “the hand of God” at work (294, 292). Although Mark Twain considered Cooper’s English “a crime against the language” (“Offences” 12), it is not unreasonable at all to compare Natty’s elegiac soliloquy to Huck’s description of the short-lived river idyll he and Jim share on the raft in chapter 19 of Huckleberry Finn, because Huck, too, looks back upon an ideal landscape of which he felt intimately and imaginatively a part. Oliver’s judgment seems accurate; even in retrospect Natty is “eloquent” in describing the world he has roved “for a man’s life” (294). Although it apparently did not occur to Cooper to narrate one of the Leatherstocking tales from Natty’s point of view, he did certainly recognize the importance of allowing Natty to articulate his special relationship to nature in his own vernacular.

Incorporating the vernacular in what remain fairly conventional narratives, however, is only one of several ways that the discovery and development of the potential latent in a frontier hero’s character marks each work. Cooper admitted that The Pioneers had been “more hastily and carelessly written than any of [his] books,” but that very carelessness, manifest most obviously in the shift in emphasis from comedy of manners to frontier novel, affords a unique glimpse of a writer in the act of finding the narrative path that would best serve his vision (L&J 1:86). Similarly, as Walter Blair has pointed out, several passages in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer clearly look forward to Huckleberry Finn (50-76).

Initially, over the first half of The Pioneers, Natty Bumppo is simply one of many local characters in the comedy of manners Cooper set out to write — a member of what he called “so motley a dramatis personae” (96). Natty is as typical as Dr. Todd, Richard Jones, Ben Pump, or Remarkable Pettibone. Whether he is demonstrating his almost surgical skill with the long rifle or commenting despairingly upon the “wasty ways” of the new settlers, he is present largely for thematic contrast. His function is essentially negative, or reactionary; an irascible old-timer, “muttering” about Judge Temple’s “clearings and betterments” (22), he talks nostalgically of the good old days.

Through the first twenty-one (of the forty-one chapters), Natty appears in only eight and, except for the first deer shooting scene and the turkey shoot, he is hardly the center of attention. He is little more than an onlooker at the Bold Dragoon and at the Christmas Eve church service, for example. In chapter 22, however, although he is a “silent, but uneasy spectator” (246) for much of the pigeon shooting scene, he is finally moved to express and to demonstrate his own alternative ethics of hunting by shooting a single bird out of the air. “’It’s much better to kill only such as you want,’” he tells Oliver, “’without wasting your powder and lead, than to be firing into God’s creaters in this wicked manner.’” “’Use, but don’t waste’” (248). With this incident, it is fair to say, Cooper truly discovered the active potential latent in Natty’s character, his power not merely to recall the past but to influence the present and the future.

Natty’s newfound importance moves the novel itself in a new direction. He appears in fifteen of twenty chapters in the second half of the book (chapters 22- 41), and instead of simplv commenting upon or reacting to the actions of others, his actions determine the plot and force others to respond to him. As antagonist of the newly enacted game laws, he is chief protagonist in the demonstration of an alternative way of life: exponent of the higher laws that govern an individual’s relationship to the land.

Mark Twain’s discovery of Huckleberry Finn is remarkably similar. Although Huck’s ignominious entrance, swinging a dead cat, hardly compares with Natty’s resounding announcement of his presence (shooting the buck Judge Temple has just missed), when Huck first appears, in chapter 6 of Tom Sawyer, he is a similar, largely static antagonist, a “romantic outcast” (49), who is “cordially hated and dreaded” by the town mothers (47). Like Natty, Huck is initially identified by the set of values he stands for; “idle, and lawless, and vulgar and bad” (47), he is simply the opposite of what is considered respectable, a negative image. Like Natty’s, of course, Huck’s pariah status does make him all the more attractive to more conventionally civilized characters. The boys of St. Petersburg delight in his “forbidden society” (47) and consider him to possess “everything that goes to make life precious” (48), much as Elizabeth Temple feels “an awakening curiosity to visit [Natty’s] hut, where men of such different habits and temperament were drawn together, as by common impulse” (274). As originally conceived, then, both outcast characters represent antagonistic values in a kind of cultural or social allegory.

Much as Cooper gradually discovered a way to center fictional attention on Leatherstocking, however, Mark Twain discovered the fictional possibilities in Huck’s character. Although Huck never becomes as important in Tom Sawyer as Natty becomes in The Pioneers, he does play a significantly greater role toward the end of the novel than he played at the beginning. Tom supervises nearly every important scene in which Huck participates (the faked drownings and triumphant return, the search for buried treasure and surveillance of Injun Joe), but toward the end of the book Mark Twain carefully separates the two characters, enabling Huck in particular to take more initiative and to act in his own character. It is Huck, after all, who saves the Widow Douglas from Injun Joe’s vengeance. In alerting the townspeople to her peril, moreover, he begins to employ that self-protective, pragmatic dishonesty that is a hallmark of his behavior in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He must find a way to tell the Welshman of the danger without getting himself in trouble for knowing more than he is supposed to. And in the final scene and chapter of the novel, obviously warming up for the sequel he would begin immediately, Clemens clearly shifts his point of view from Tom to Huck — and, most important, to the reasons why Huck’s character is incompatible with the New Order of Things.

Even though Huck allows Tom to coerce him into returning to the Widow’s, in order to be “respectable” and remain eligible for membership in Tom’s Gang, Huck’s words clearly belie his commitment. “It ain’t for me,” he tells Tom; “I ain’t used to it. ... I can’t stand them ways. She makes me git up just at the same time every morning; she makes me wash; they comb me all to thunder; she won’t let me sleep in the wood-shed; I got to wear them blamed clothes that just smothers me” (TS 256).

In discovering the power of Huck’s voice to articulate his discontent with “sivilization,” Mark Twain obviously found his true path as a writer. Among other things, he discovered, as Cooper had before him, that great literature depends upon conflict — American literature more than most others, it seems, upon largely unresolvable conflicts and upon the energy generated by persistent rebellion against established values. The evolution of Huck’s character in counterpoint to the consolidating impulse at work in the novel, like the development of Natty’s character in The Pioneers, thus to a great degree makes further writing possible. For in ending these novels as they do, both writers do not, of course, end their heroes’ stories. Rather, the end of each of these first novels makes possible the beginning of another novel — and another and another. The Pioneers would be followed by four more Leatherstocking Tales; Tom Sawyer would be followed by Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective — as well as the unfinished “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians” and “Tom Sawyer’s Conspiracy.”

In his famous claim that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain” (Huckleberry Finn), Ernest Hemingway ignored where Huck Finn came from (22). Most immediately, of course, it came from Tom Sawyer — but Tom Sawyer, as I have been suggesting, came at least indirectly from one book by James Fenimore Cooper. It would be going too far, of course, to suggest that all modern American literature comes from that one pioneering book by Cooper, but it certainly would not be remiss, the next time I teach a course like the one I taught last fall, to begin with The Pioneers and entitle the course “Leatherstocking and His Tradition.”

Works Cited

  • Bercovitch, Sacvan. “Huckleberry Bumppo: A Comparison of Tom Sawyer and The Pioneers.” Mark Twain Journal 14 (1968): 1-4.
  • Blair, Walter. Mark Twain and Huck Finn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.
  • Clemens, Samuel L. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Ed. James Franklin Beard. 6 vols. Belnap — Harvard University Press, 1960-68.
  • ------. The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehannaa: A Descriptive Tale. Ed. James Franklin Beard et al. Albany: SUNY Press, 1980.
  • Hemingway, Ernest. Green Hills of Africa. New York: Scribners, 1935.
  • Hoffman, Daniel. Form and Fable in American Fiction. New York: Norton, 1961.
  • Krause, Sidney J. “Cooper’s Literary Offense: Mark Twain in Wonderland.” New England Quarterly 38 (1965): 291-311.
  • Person, Leland S. Jr. “Cooper’s The Pioneers and Leatherstocking’s Historical Function.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 25 (1961): 1-10.
  • Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
  • Twain, Mark. “Fenlmore Cooper’s Literary Offences.” North American Review 161 (1895): 1-12.
  • ------. “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians.” Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Huck and Tom. Ed. Walter Blair. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.


1 Sidney J. Krause says that Cooper was the “realists’ whipping boy, the visible symbol of defunct romanticism,” and Twain attacked him at a time when the historical novel (and Cooper’s reputation) was experiencing a revival and this might have threatened his own achievements (298).