Courageous Young Women in Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: Heroines and Victims
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. 22-40).
Copyright © 1987 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
The women he draws from one model don’t vary,
All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.
This humorous but unfair jingle by James Russell Lowell has become part of the history of criticism of Cooper’s women. Even more emphatic is William Dean Howells’ pronouncement on Cora and Alice in The Last of the Mohicans: “Since I am guiltless of their death I am glad they ARE dead.” In our own time, Mark Twain’s observations of Cooper’s “females” have been elaborated on by Leslie Fiedler, who calls Cooper’s women “wooden ingenues” who were the author’s “revenge upon the sex.”
Fortunately, more recent criticism has largely laid to rest these negative views of Cooper’s women. In fact, an examination of the Leatherstocking Tales in order of publication suggests that the women become progressively more complex, more active, and more realistic. Despite their potential of actual positions as victims, a number of young women are spirited, independent, and both morally and physically courageous.
For example, Bess, in the first book, The Pioneers, lugs a canister of gunpowder up a mountainside to help Natty Bumppo, is consequently caught in a fire, and behaves with courage and dignity. Cora, in The Last of The Mohicans, is consistently praised by Natty, by Duncan, and by her father, for her wisdom and bravery: indeed, several times Duncan states that he would entrust to her the whole of Fort William Henry. Ellen, in The Prairie, is left as “captain of the fort” in the absence of the family, and Mabel, in The Pathfinder, spurred on by her Indian friend Dew-of-June, holds an entire blockhouse against a tribe of scalp- hungry Mingos. Finally Judith, in The Deerslayer, heedless of her own life, actually walks into a hostile Huron encampment in an effort to save Natty Bumppo from torture by fire. In drawing these admirable, spirited and intrepid women, Cooper not only depicts the courageous character of American women, but also symbolizes the potential of the new American settler. (See “Works Cited” for Cooper editions used.)
The Pioneers: Elizabeth Temple
Elizabeth Temple in The Pioneers is a spirited, intelligent, well educated young woman whose task when she returns to Templeton from New York City, where she has been at school, seems to be to consolidate her education so that, as Judge Temple’s daughter, she can eventually take his place as the chief figure in Templeton. Cooper stresses that Bess is very much her father’s daughter: she has his pride, his intellect, and his courage. Her homecoming is the beginning of Bess’s traveling and trials. She physically travels to the top of Mount Vision and down into Templeton, learning to see with her own eyes the worlds into which she is initiated. All of this traveling — by sleigh, on horseback, by canoe, and finally, on foot — involves certain trials which she meets with great bravery. Even more than the Judge, Elizabeth has an almost mystical vision of Templeton: she sees both the beauty — which appears at times magical or supernatural — and the potential of this newly settled land. By learning to understand the wilderness which her father has been so successful in settling, she tries to unite, in effect, the civilized world of her father and the wilderness world of Natty Bumppo — helped a great deal by the romantic interest she shares with young Oliver Edwards, or Effingham. These males dominate the civilized and natural worlds, respectively, but Bess Templeton plays a pivotal role in determining the future of this part of the frontier.
As she and her father crest the hill overlooking Templeton, Bess, despite the freezing cold, throws back her coat and hood and stands “with her fine features exposed” (24). In those first few moments we see her beauty, her spirit, her strong will, her sympathy and her sensitivity. Arriving at her home in Templeton, Bess is “illuminated by the lights that flared around her.” Her eyes flashing the pride and intelligence of her father, she removes the outer trappings of civilization to reveal a riding habit; it should not go unnoticed that she is an accomplished and fearless equestrienne (62). Her self-confidence and the dominant role she is to play are thus suggested, but these clothes are not the ones that will help her in the wilderness: to the contrary, they could be the “instruments of her destruction” (387).
Initially Bess is untried, but she is also fearless. The very day after her arrival, her sense of adventure prompts her to attend the Christmas turkey shoot. Bess overrides Oliver’s protest that the sport is not fitting for a lady, and her cousin Richard’s that her action is “a perversity.” Her response to the latter is, “My father’s daughter fears nothing, sir” (180). Her father, too, tells her, “I would have you above the idle fears of a silly girl” (255). When, during the night fishing scene, Louisa fearfully declines to ride in the canoe with Natty, Chingachgook and Oliver, Elizabeth declares she has no apprehensions and steps into the boat. She wishes to learn.
Her fortitude is severely tried as, throughout the year, Bess is the potential victim of nature in various forms. During the springttime ride through the woods, Bess narrowly escapes death. As a falling timber bears upon the party, Oliver cries out a warning; “her bridle was seized by her father, who cried, ‘God protect my child!’” (228). The summertime attack of a panther she faces with admirable intrepidity. She not only encourages her dog, Old Brave, to fight the panther, but she refuses to leave the spot where Louisa lies unconscious from shock. “Our heroine” rises “to meet the pressure of instant danger“(293). Natty and Killdeer save her from the panther, but Cooper tells us that, “had she been left to herself ... she would probably have used her faculties to the utmost” (295) She resolutely faces death when surrounded by the autumn forest fire. Convinced that she will die “happy and collected,” Bess urges Oliver to save himself: “you may yet escape. ... Fly! leave me” (392). That she is saved by Oliver from becoming victim to the first horror, and by Natty from the last two, is her good fortune; the courage with which she faces these ordeals contrasts sharply with the faint-heartedness of the other potential victims, especially that of the other young woman, Louisa.
Like Natty, Bess has a heart: this, says Oliver, “would atone for a thousand faults; he knows his friends, and never deserts them, even if it be his dog” (329). Bess, like her father, is lacking in prejudice: she rebukes the snobbery of Richard in regard to Oliver, who is assumed to be part-Indian, and is called The Young Eagle. She retorts that “every man is a gentleman that knows how to treat a woman with respect and consideration,” (105) meaning that one is judged on one’s behavior, not by the cut of one’s clothing or the color of one’s skin. To her credit, Bess has the moral honesty to articulate her perception of the tragic status of the red man: “I grieve,” she says to Oliver, “when I see old Mohegan walking about these lands, like the ghost of one of their ancient possessors, and feel how small is my own right to possess them.” She is realistic, though, and realizes that she cannot “convert these clearings and farms again into hunting grounds, as the Leatherstocking would wish to see them” (268).
Of the utmost importance to Bess is human life. When the men are arguing over whether or not people are wasting the fish and the pigeons during those two magnificent descriptions of nature’s bounteousness, Bess pierces through the bluster to the heart of the matter. She asks if such game does, in fact, provide food for people who need it? When in the canoe with Natty, Chingachgook and Oliver, she is able to see beneath the surface of the water. What she ultimately sees is Natty saving a life — and thereafter she is able to help save Natty from the jail sentence which would seem like death to him. She values his humanity over the law.
It is her outspoken sense of justice that is probably the most admirable of all her traits. In the argument over Natty’s killing of the deer, Bess unites her courage and compassion, and, despite her love for her father, she defies him. She actively implicates herself in Natty’s escape. Just after the jailbreak is made (with her full knowledge), her quick-wittedness tells Oliver how to solve the logistical problems of the inebriated Benjamin Pump; she offers her father’s canoe, and takes the responsibility for their trespass on her father’s property. Clearly, Bess values the natural rather than the legal interpretation of justice. She is prepared to make a home for Natty for the rest of his life, and will ensure that he lives in “ease and plenty” until he dies (369). Not surprisingly, he declines the offer; but nonetheless she has made it, thereby affirming her responsibility to people like Natty who have been displaced by progress.
Bess’s active involvement in the community is based on the love and fascination, verging on awe, with which she responds to the land. “Everything in this magical country seems to border on the marvelous,” she observes (204). The night of the fishing expedition appears to be lighted by “magic”: to Elizabeth and Louisa the graceful gliding of the fire on the water appears to be “supernatural” and “beautiful” (252). At the same time, though, Bess is stimulated by the thrilling potential of progress, of power. Finding even the night cries of the wolves (at first she had identified them as Natty’s dogs) “plaintive” yet “beautiful,” she remarks, “The enterprise of Judge Temple is taming the very forests!” (202). The Judge is able to look to the “futurity” of “posterity”: where others see nothing but a wilderness, his eye — and, by extension, that of Elizabeth — envisions “towns, manufactories, bridges, canals, mines, and all the other resources of an old country ... constantly presenting themselves” (306). That Elizabeth, a woman, shares this vision with her father demonstrates clearly that Cooper admired her strengths and abilities.
At the end of the novel she is able to travel alone, on foot, up the mountainside, without anyone’s aid. Cooper points out that “every difficulty vanished before her resolution” and her “self-possession” (380-81). She keeps her promise to bring gunpowder to Natty and, when the unforeseen forest fire traps her, she faces death every bit as calmly and bravely as the doomed old Mohican. Saved from the forest fire when Natty wraps her in the protective folds of the deerskin, Bess is delivered from the more terrifying aspects of nature which loom over the novel. With a strong natural covering over the inappropriate and combustible garments of the town, Bess has now been saved by both Oliver and Natty, and has been initiated into their view of nature (Scheckter 42).
Surely it is not accidental that her last words to her husband Effingham involve her very real knowledge of her power — to which she says it is his duty — at least temporarily — to submit! Bess asserts that she intends to enact her will, and she has full confidence in her abilities. Having survived with great courage a number of trials, Bess emerges as a woman who knows her own mind, and she enters a union with a man who shares her empathy with both the wilderness and the town, with both the red man and the white man. That the union is only symbolic is implied in Chingachgook’s death and in Natty’s displacement: Bess cannot resolve the literal tensions between the red man and the white, or between Natty and her father. The Judge and the Leatherstocking remain separate and unreconciled. Nonetheless, there is hope in Bess’ ability to do what none of the men have been able to accomplish: she bridges the gap between both the civilized and the natural worlds. In Bess is symbolized the courage and compassion of the unprejudiced American, the ideal one who behaves with moral as well as physical courage, despite the pressures of class or race.
The Last of The Mohicans: Cora Munro
Cora Munro, like Bess Temple, is a dark-eyed, raven-haired beauty; her very name signifies that “heart” so essential to decent human beings, red or black or white. And, like Bess, Cora is constantly moving through the land: through its woods, on its waters, up its cliffs. Cora, too, has a close companion — this time a sister — who faints repeatedly: Alice, the “trembling weeper,” inspires much of Cora’s own bravery. Like Bess, Cora takes pride in her image as her father’s daughter — in this case not a judge’s daughter but a soldier’s daughter — and she takes her responsibilities seriously. However, Cora is an actual rather than a potential victim of the acts of men.
As with Bess, Cooper pointedly introduces Cora through the imagery of clothing. That Cora consistently veils herself suggests her modesty, to be sure, but also her self-possession. Her thoughtfulness and her introspection are signified as, on numerous occasions, she withdraws behind her veil. The mystery of Cora’s background is suggested, too: whereas Bess was the acceptable product of two Protestant religions, Quaker and Episcopalian, Cora is the product of two antithetical races: through her veins runs a mixture of black and white blood.
A central aspect of Cora’s character is her lack of prejudice. Bess, too, demonstrated this quality — she was actually willing to marry Oliver before she was positive that he had no Indian blood. Cora, however, iterates her lack of racial prejudice in her very first words. At Magua’s initial appearance, she says we should not judge him by the color of his skin (24); and shortly afterwards she utters her first words about Uncas: “Who that looks at this creature of nature remembers the color of his skin!” (62). In this sense Cora is a foil to Natty who says at least fifteen times that he is proud of his white blood, that he is “without a cross.” The information that Cora’s mother was a West Indian descendant of slaves additionally elicits Duncan’s awareness of his own racial prejudice.
Cooper includes numerous examples of Cora’s reason, wisdom and fortitude. Unlike General Webb, the craven commander of Fort Edwards, Cora suggests that she and Alice travel to Fort William Henry to support their father in his embattled position. Thus it is she who initiates the action of the novel. We begin to understand why her father relies on “the spirit of his noble-minded Cora.” He says to Duncan, “Would to God that [General Webb] would show but half her firmness!” (71). Cora continues to demonstrate her courage throughout the novel. While in the Glens Falls cave, she reacts calmly and rationally to the first eerie sound, despite the fact that no one, especially Natty, can identify the noise. “’Was it not, then, the shout the warriors make when they wish to intimidate their enemies?’ asked Cora, who stood drawing her veil about her person, with a calmness to which her agitated sister was a stranger” (69). When, at the second shriek, Natty speaks irrationally of an unearthly sort of warfare betokened by “shrieks atween heaven and ‘arth,” the “undisturbed Cora” says, “If all our reasons for fear, my friend, are confined to such as proceed from supernatural causes, we have but little occasion to be alarmed” (72). She then asks if the Indians could have made the sound. After the first battle, when the men are powerless, their powder gone, she absolves them of their sense of duty to her: “Go, brave men, we owe you too much already!” (91).
She and Alice, as captives, provide the literal reason for much the action. She is nearly scalped several times, she is tomahawked, tied to the stake: time after time she stands up to Magua, the evil Indian chief who is likened to the Prince of Darkness. As the Mingos prepare to burn their captives, Magua derives “malignant enjoyment” from taunting Cora, who has just refused to become his “wife,” his “slave.” In the midst of this horror, “Cora beckoned him away, with an emotion of disgust she could not control. ‘Leave me,’ she said, with a solemnity that for a moment checked the barbarity of the Indian. You mingle bitterness in my prayers; you stand between me and my God!” (127). All of these trials she withstands not merely with bravery but with great dignity. Even in the midst of the Fort William Henry massacre she defies Magua and correctly accuses him of instigating it. As he lays his blood- soaked hand on her dress, taunting her with the fact that the blood is red, but comes from white veins, she responds: “Monster! There is blood, oceans of blood, upon thy soul: thy spirit has moved this scene” (210).
Cora’s sense of compassion for others is evident throughout the novel. In the humiliating exit from Fort William Henry under General Montcalm, commander of the French forces, she is basically on her own, even though as the colonel’s daughter she would have the right to a horse, or at least a ride in a wagon. But Cora sees that these are needed by the wounded and the sick, so she travels on foot — and subsequently of course endures that bloody massacre. Even at its shocking height, she refuses to accompany Magua, saying instead, “Never! Strike, if thou wilt, and complete thy revenge.” Alone, she would die rather than accompany him. However, Magua has discovered that if he takes her sister Alice, Cora will follow — as indeed she does. It is Cora, near the end, in the Delaware encampment, who admits to her guilt as a “Yengee” and, despairing of her own, pleads for Alice’s life — and it is, significantly, Cora who wishes to summon the one absent prisoner, Uncas, who is subsequently recognized as the leader of his people.
Cora functions as the morally courageous, racially unbiased center of the novel. Not surprisingly, then, the courageous and intelligent Cora, daughter of a colonel, is drawn to the courageous and intelligent Uncas, son of a chief. She is aware of his attraction to her. A union between the two could have been ideal: Cora is a mixture of black and white blood, Uncas, symbolically, of red and white. Literally, of course, Uncas has pure red blood — but spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, that red blood has been crossed with white. Cooper tells us that Uncas is notably ahead of his own people in his refinement, his civilized attitude, his intelligence and his courage — all of which qualities he shares with Cora. As Cora, whom he has just saved from certain death, bends lovingly over the drooping form of Alice, Uncas’ eyes “had already lost their fierceness, and were beaming with a sympathy that elevated him far above the intelligence, and advanced him probably centuries before the practices of his nation” (135). Their union might have been the ideal American one, but, as was the case in the settlements, the time for such a union had not yet come.
As Tamenund decrees that Cora must go with Magua, even Uncas must abide by the laws of his nation. Uncas, the Rising Sun, and Cora, his courageous female counterpart, are imagistically associated with the sun. Shaking off the hand of Magua, “her dark-eye kindled, while the rich blood shot, like the passing brightness of the sun, into her very temples at the indignity” (373-74). Uncas tells Magua that when the sun has risen above the trees, the “Prince of Darkness” will be embattled with the Delawares. Uncas does not take his eyes off Cora — but the sun sets eventually for both of them.
Curiously, whereas Uncas demonstrates his intention to rescue Cora as soon as the sun rises to the top of the trees, Natty does not seem to be nearly so concerned with this intrepid female survivor. After what seems a half-hearted offer to exchange places with Cora, Natty is unnecessarily loquacious and slow as the battle and chase get underway: unlike Uncas and Duncan, Natty is not even thinking about Cora. Is this delay merely an irritating weakness? Or does it stem from his prejudice? The fact is that he does not use Killdeer to aid Uncas and Cora, and that he does intentionally drop behind; the fact is that Uncas and Duncan “unencumber” themselves of their rifles as they gain on Magua and Cora, while Natty is slow because he is “encumbered” by his rifle “and perhaps, not sustained by so deep an interest in the captive as his companions, the scout suffered the latter to precede him a little, Uncas ... taking the lead“(398). Uncas’ last words as he races up the cliff are, “Cora!” Cora!” (397). Her long black hair streaming over her fluttering white dress, her person pulled apart by two warring red factions, Cora speaks her last words to her God: “I am thine! Do with me as thou seest best!” (399). Seconds later, Magua’s companion plunges his knife into the heart of Cora, and Uncas meets the same fate. The fact that Natty does kill Magua at the end is classic anti-climax. The act may constitute symbolic revenge, but for those two noble and courageous beings, Uncas and Cora, Natty’s shot comes precious minutes too late. Perhaps Magua is right: Natty is neither red nor white. Certainly he has not been able to prevent the slaying of the nimble deer — the bounding elk — and the dark-eyed woman of such courage and compassion.
The funeral, despite the sadness, is curiously like a marriage ceremony in several respects. The Indian maidens sing songs implying that Cora and Uncas will be joined together in the Happy Hunting Grounds; they sing of the young chief’s attraction to Cora, and avow “that she was of a blood purer and richer than the rest of her nation ... that she was equal to the dangers and daring of a life in the woods, her conduct bad proved” (406). Natty shakes his head. Shortly afterwards Colonel Munro asks Natty to tell the maidens that “the time shall not be distant when we may assemble around his throne without distinction of sex, or rank, or color” (411). Again, Natty shakes his head. Although both the Indian maidens and Colonel Munro make statements about future lack of racial prejudice, Natty shakes his head as if in sorrow at their ignorance.
Ultimately, Cora has shown that she is brave; her efforts on behalf of Alice and her father are noble and heroic. Symbolically, though, her efforts are doomed to failure. She represents the tensions inherent in an irreconcilable conflict: she, along with Uncas, is the victim of hatred, vengefulness and prejudice; the passionate fight waged over her has parallels with that war “waged for possession of a country that neither was destined to retain” (13).
The mysterious veil behind which Cora continually retreats is significant to her meaning in the novel. She is irrationally loved and hated. Although all the major male characters comment on her courage and reason, and Magua is fiercely attracted to her, only Uncas — besides her father — recognizes her innate value; in fact it is a fragment of this veil that Uncas excitedly recognizes as hers: it furnishes the first clue to her trail after her second kidnapping by Magua. At the very end, when Cora is dead, she is wrapped in an Indian cloth. Veiled for the very last time, “her face was shut forever from the gaze of men” (402). If Bess Templeton symbolizes the potential goodness of America, Cora Munro symbolizes what America mistakenly rejects: its heart, its people of mixed blood who could form the very core of the New World.
The Prairie: Ellen Wade
In this third novel there are four women who, like Cora, are vulnerable to lawless men who view them as possessions. Inez de Certovalles, a sixteen-year- old Spanish aristocrat who has been kidnapped by Abiram White, a slave trader, spends much of the novel hidden in a tented wagon which is carted across the prairie (Baym 707). Her plight is underscored by that of the young Sioux mother Tatchechana, who is cast off by her capricious, condescending husband Mahtoree. Even Esther Bush, the “shrill-toned termagent” (20) who is step- mother to Ellen Wade, is considered a possession who can be discarded according to the whims of men. Of the three young women in the novel, Esther’s step-daughter Ellen Wade, despite the watchfulness of the men who “own” her, is more active than the passive Tatchechana and the devoutly Catholic Inez.
Ellen is the first of the orphaned women of the Leatherstocking Tales. Motherless and fatherless, she has no choice but to remain with her only relatives, the vulgar and lawless Bush family, who migrate westward. Ellen is introduced as a blonde, animated, sprightly, fearless young woman whose physical qualities and manner suggest that she is of a higher social class than that of the family with whom she resides. Ellen is generous, keen eyed, agile, and intelligent. She also possesses “kindness, courage and brave looks” (94). Her beauty is less ethereal and aesthetic, but more mature and “perhaps more animated” than that of Inez (170). According to the two men who know her best, Paul Hover and Dr. Bat, Ellen is a “quick-witted” “girl of spirit, and one too that knows her own mind” (64, 94).
Despite her unenviable existence, Ellen is perceptive and intelligent, and manages to display a good sense of humor, as seen in her repartee with Dr. Obed Bat. As the “beast” he has ridiculously named “vespertiuo horribius americanus” shows itself, Ellen doubles over with laughter. “It is your own ass!” she cries, as soon as she recovers enough to speak, “your own patient, hard- working hack!” (65). She is quick and kind, as shown by her understanding of the “weakness” of the man, and her habit of pleasing him by using his title. She understands Paul’s weakness, too: Cooper tells us that “Ellen admired Paul for any thing but his learning. There was enough in his frank, fearless, and manly character, backed as it was by great personal attraction, to awaken her sympathies, without the necessity of prying into his mental attainments.” Indeed, she changes the subject when his ignorance is too apparent, “as if anxious to direct the attentions of other listeners” from his ignorance (229).
Of Ellen’s courageous qualities there can be no doubt after the first few pages of the novel. Natty first encounters Ellen alone on the dark prairie where she has stolen away from the Bush camp to meet her lover, Paul Hover. Shortly after Paul joins them, the three duck down in the tall prairie grass, hoping that in eluding the notice of the fast-approaching Sioux Indians, they will not be trampled by their thundering horses. Ellen does not flinch in any way; in fact, at one point Natty has to put his hand on her lips to stop her from yelling out a warning to the Bush family. Naturally, the character of the courageous and honest girl will not permit her to be uncharitable, despite the fact that she dislikes the family. Even the Bush family appreciate her heroic qualities, as seen later when they leave her in charge of the fort: “I have been left captain of the rock,” she tells Natty and the others who come to rescue Inez and Ellen (137). Slightly unsure of herself, she nonetheless “endeavored to recall to her confused faculties some one of the many tales of female heroism, with which the history of the western frontier abounded” (132). That she allows the intruders into the fort merely demonstrates her fundamentally good nature: her decision makes possible the liberation of the captive Inez.
Ellen is humiliated by her association with the Bush family, and hastens to tell Natty that Ishmael is not actually related to her by blood — he is her “father’s brother’s widow’s husband,” she protests: “Indeed, indeed, it is cruel to reproach me with a tie that chance has formed, and which I would rejoice so much to break forever” (114). However, when she has the chance to leave the Bush family and marry Paul, the good-hearted Ellen has trouble discarding her conception of family loyalty: “He has been kind to me, an orphan, after his rough customs, and I cannot steal from him at such a moment. ... There are none to care for a girl who is fatherless and motherless, and whose nearest kin are the off casts of all honest people. ... I am better here, in this desert, where there are none to know my shame” (156). Unlike Bess and Cora, Ellen lacks a father and is thus prey to her unscrupulous relatives. Ishmael is suspected of murder, and his brother-in-law Abiram is the slave trader responsible for kidnapping Inez.
Cooper uses animal imagery to emphasize the way the women in the novel are treated. Ellen symbolizes female attractiveness as she stands atop the fort: clearly visible to the Bush men standing below are the “laughing blue eyes, flaxen hair, and glowing cheeks of Ellen” (80). However, her independence and spirit are of no avail here. Because she will not answer their shouts, Ishmael actually shoots his rifle at her, terrifying her and sending her running into the tent of Inez. The only Bush who seems capable of feeling is Asa, who demands of his father, “What has Ellen done ... that she should be shot at like a straggling deer or a hungry wolf!” (81). Later Esther Bush is humiliated when Mahtoree, telling Ishmael that Esther is too old, offers him instead his Indian wife. Esther indignantly asks her husband if he thinks a woman is a “beast of the prairie” that should be chased about by dog and gun (266). Inez, before she is actually viewed, is thought to be a rare “beast” in its tented cage.
Whereas in the beginning of the novel Inez was held prisoner, now both young women are held captive in the tent of Mahtoree. Ellen’s air of “spirit and resentment” is obvious. Inez is oblivious to the Sioux chief’s evil intentions, but Ellen exhibits “far more of the woman, and consequently of the passions of the world” (256). Unlike the innocent Inez, Ellen’s “quick and sharpened wits” suspect Mahtoree’s intentions as he humiliates Tatchechana with her mirror. “Spare your breath,” she says to Natty, “all that a savage says is not to be repeated before a Christian lady” (261).
Ellen’s greatest act of moral courage comes when she must tell Bush that she wishes to marry none of his sons, but rather Paul. “The glance of her eye was at first timid and furtive. But as the colour flushed her features, and her breathing became quick and excited, it was apparent that the native spirit of the girl was gaining the ascendancy over the bashfulness of sex” (313). Leave then she does, thanks to her own uprightness of spirit, and the support she receives from her future husband.
Once she makes the difficult and courageous decision not to allow herself to be treated like an animal, victimized, Ellen’s victory is not just for herself, but also for the other women in the novel. Ellen contributes to Inez’ rescue, and she continues to try to protect the girl from the cruder aspects of the action around her. Indeed, Ellen’s own spirit reinforces that of the other women. Inez, after her rescue, resolves to behave as the soldier’s wife she now sees herself to be. Esther Bush, the “female Cerberus” (111), is renowned for her physical courage. Even after her husband’s shattering rejection of her, Tatchechana survives, becoming the wife of a better man, the Pawnee Hard Heart.
Ultimately, the fortitude of Ellen and Paul is rewarded: they return to the settlements and, with the help of Middleton and Inez, Paul rises to a seat in the state legislature. They seem to be the people Cooper had in mind when he described the Anglo- American: “Whatever might have been the weaknesses of the original colonists, their virtues have rarely been disputed. They are pious ... honest ... have a standard which brings the individual himself to the ordeal of the public estimation ... forbearance, self-denial” (58). Ellen herself seems to represent the New Woman: through her energy, bravery and intelligence, she escapes her rough environment to marry the man she loves and work with him so that they and theirs will progress and prosper.
The Pathfinder: Mabel Dunham
Mabel Dunham, similar to Ellen in her modest social background and in her references to herself as a “poor motherless girl,” still bears similarities to the Leatherstocking heroines who precede her. She seems a scaled-down version of Cora Munro when, as a “soldier’s daughter,” she travels to join her father. Like Bess Templeton, Mabel travels from Manhattan into the wilderness — but Mabel goes to its outer limits, to the remote Thousand Islands and, in so doing, is tested not only in life-threatening situations, but also in male-female relationships. Like Cora, the “heart” of the story, Mabel is known as “Magnet” — and so she is, like Ellen and Inez, the woman in the wilderness to whom both red and white men are attracted. Mabel is isolated not in a cave, not in a tent, but in a blockhouse on a remote island. Cooper has used the imprisonment theme before, of course, but here, as he briefly did with Ellen, he depicts two women (one red and one white) responsible for their own defense. Mabel learns the error of the belief she brought with her from New York City: “Among Christian men, a woman’s best guard is her claim to their protection. I know nothing of arms and wish to live in ignorance of them” (18).
That both war and the frequently ugly aspects of love are the themes is indicated in the descriptive allusions: Mabel is compared to Joan of Arc (280) — and indeed, she does have to defend the fort, but without the men — and to one of Bluebeard’s wives (339) — and indeed, the men in this novel are very threatening. Mabel is in a particularly difficult position, not only because she is the only white woman, once the party leaves the fort, but also because she is the focus of the tensions inherent in concepts of class, age, rank, sex, race, country, politics and philosophies. Mabel’s bravery under fire and her moral courage in coping with these men is carefully detailed. Cooper assures us that “our heroine was no coward.” Early in the novel, as she is paddled down the stream through the dangerous forest, Cooper describes Mabel: “Spirited, accustomed to self-reliance, and sustained by the pride of considering herself a soldier’s daughter, she could hardly be said to be under the influence of fear; yet her heart often beat quicker than common, her fine blue eye lighted with an exhibition of a resolution” (85).
As mentioned, Mabel takes pride in being a soldier’s daughter. Significantly, her initial act of assertiveness occurs in an interchange with a woman whose husband outranks Mabel’s father. At the shooting contest, Mabel refuses to give up her newly won calash to the captain’s wife. This minor act prefigures the more important one of convincing her rather to reinstate Jasper as master of the ship, and the crucial one of her defense of the blockhouse. When Jasper asks her if she trusts herself to Cap, Pathfinder and himself, she replies, “I am not so feeble and weak-minded as you may think, for though only a girl from the towns and, like moat of that class, a little disposed to see danger where there is none, I promise you, Jasper, no foolish fears of mine shall stand in the way of your doing your duty” (85). Later, on the island, as she loses her male companions, Mabel recalls stories of heroic women on the frontiers which were supposed to “bring out the moral qualities of the women ... it at once struck her that now was the moment for her to show that she was truly Sergeant Dunham’s child” (290-91).
Without consulting her, Dunham has selected his best friend Natty Bumppo, twenty years Mabel’s senior, to be her husband. The institutions of both marriage and the military are presented ironically as the novel progresses: Sergeant Dunham persists in referring to his daughter with military metaphors, particularly when speaking with Natty: she is a recruit who should obey orders — she “will pass inspection, sir!” (130); in his mind she is “as good as billeted for life” (133), and her opinions, like a “recruit’s judgement,” are not worthwhile (131). The use of animal imagery noted in The Prairie, increases in intensity in The Pathfinder and pointedly undercuts Mabel’s independence. It denotes the extent to which she is limited by the images in which the men have shaped her. A “dove” to Sgt. Muir and even, perhaps, a pigeon to June, Mabel is like one of the little forest animals so frequently referred to in the novel. She is similar to the gulls Natty shoots in his childish desire to impress her, or like the fawn in his dream who in reality weeps rather than laughs at the root of the tree, or like the bird her father says he has just shot after her discovery that Natty and her father had arranged her marriage between them. Before they reach the island, Natty, encouraged by Sergeant Dunham, proposes to Mabel. In Natty’s well-known description of his dream, he tells Mabel, “at the root of every tree was a Mabel Dunham. ... I tried to shoot a fawn, but Killdeer missed fire, and the creatur’ laughed in my face. ... and then it bounded away.” A moment later, unrecovered from her shock at Natty’s proposal, Mabel listens speechlessly to her father’s ploy to have her leave the two men together: “Mabel, child, you are young and light of foot — look for a bird I’ve just shot that fell just beyond the thicket” (254). Like the fawn in Natty’s dream, Mabel “bounds” down the hill and throws herself on “the root of the tree”; but she does not laugh: she weeps “as if her heart would break” (256). Although Natty loves Mabel and ultimately proves in generous fashion that he wants happiness for her, he is like the Sergeant in that each forms her in his own erroneous image, little realizing the debilitating effect on her.
The lack of happiness in marriage because of the thoughtlessness, brutality or infidelity of men is illustrated in Sergeant Dunham, whose opinion is that, to be “esteemed by a woman, it is necessary to condescend a little, on occasions” (121); in Arrowhead, whose treatment of June is arrogant and “stern”: Cooper says that she typifies the “degraded condition of savage’s wife” (53); and in Lieutenant Muir, to whom wives are not nearly as nice as mistresses: he says to Dunham, “I have always found it easier to forget a wife than to forget a sweetheart! When a couple are fairly married, all is settled but the death” (139). As if in horrible ironic underscoring, when Sergeant Dunham’s party reaches the island, they are confronted with the grisly masquerade with which the Indians hope to trick them: the Mingos have propped up the dead soldiers’ bodies to surround the corpse of Jennie McNab, who in turn is propped up grotesquely in a domestic, wifely position, holding a broom. A ruffled, feminine cap hides the cruel fact that Jennie’s reeking scalp is even now at Arrowhead’s belt: “Mabel fancied that the jaw had been depressed, as if to distort the mouth into a horrible laugh” (333). Mabel sees this scene with its suggestion of military and marital ineffectiveness (Howard 29; Rosenzweig 346), and it underscores her negative reactions to the attentions of Muir, Arrowhead — and possibly even Natty. Certainly it may be seen as an incentive for Mabel to shore up her own defenses.
Her most overtly heroic actions, of course, occur in the blockhouse: repeatedly warned by June, a truly courageous woman, in what amounts to the choric commentary: “blockhouse good, got no scalp,” Mabel learns what June can teach her about prudence and self-defense and survival. And survive she must, for outside the blockhouse are men, bath red and white, who have evil intentions toward her. Her courage under fire is the more admirable when one considers her situation: night has fallen, the situation becomes “fearfully appalling,” and drunken Iroquois batter the door, then set fire to the blockhouse. Together with June, however, Mabel is able to trick the Iroquois and smother the fire.
Compared to earlier heroines such as Bess or Cora, there is a submissive quality and a lack of native courage in Mabel. One has the distinct impression that Dew-of-June, not Mabel, is the real heroine of the story. When Mabel wishes to escape, she compares herself to June: “I am like you, June, if a wish to serve my countrymen can make a resemblance with one as courageous as yourself” (328). June, however, sees that Mabel does not have the necessary physical courage:
“No — no — no,” muttered June, in a low voice; “no got heart, and June no let you, if had. June’s modder prisoner once, and warriors got drunk; modder tomahawk’d ‘em all. Such the way redskin women do, when people in danger and want scalp.”
“You say what is true,” returned Mabel, shuddering and unconsciously dropping June’s hand. “I cannot do that.” (329)
When Mabel suggests she will escape in a canoe, June points out that Mabel does not have the strength to paddle it, and Mabel demurs. We admire June’s strength, resourcefulness and courage. However, Mabel does learn to disobey irrelevant or harmful orders, as seen when she refuses to allow Muir to surrender the blockhouse, and again when she finally adapts June’s lessons in subterfuge, deceiving her by mounting the roof to summon Chingachgook. Although she does not seem to have the truly memorable valor of Cora (Mabel comes close to hysteria a few times), she learns the art of survival and independent action.
Unfortunately, the other part of Mabel’s courage demands self-sacrifice, something she is willing to perform in order to “behave like a soldier’s daughter”: because she believes Cod blesses the dutiful daughter, she promises her father she will marry Pathfinder even though she loves Jasper. That she is willing to do so indicates tremendous self-discipline, but that she feels she would prefer death indicates that the sacrifice would be nearly more than she could bear. Fortunately for Mabel, Natty is as generous as she. Once he knows of her love for Jasper, he responds in the honorable way of the Leatherstocking. Because “the father left me in care of his child,” he says, he will take the responsibility for relinquishing her to Jasper.
Mabel has two victories: she does indeed learn to use her resources to hold off the Indians and the traitor Muir from the blockhouse, and she does indeed choose, as did Ellen Wade, to marry the man she loves. Mabel is a courageous woman who, despite her father’s orders, is able to make for herself a life that is presumably better than her mother’s. Like Ellen, she marries a non-aristocratic man whom she loves deeply and who works hard so that they may enjoy the prosperous life of the city. However, that she still feels sorrow years later when, married and with grown sons, she glimpses Natty across the river, suggests that Mabel never fully recovers from the painful realities of struggle, conflict and love, into which she is so dramatically initiated. Yet there is room in Cooper’s vision for such as Mabel: she is a good, kind, morally pure woman who, despite her spirit, shrinks at the violence of the battlefield.
The Deerslayer: Judith Hutter
The pressures of war and love are again central in this novel which depicts Judith Hutter, another intrepid young white woman with a weak sister for a foil; and Wah-ta!-Wah, or Hist, another strong and spirited young Indian woman. Judith, in actual fact both motherless and fatherless — she defines herself, as do Ellen and Mabel, as “a poor motherless girl” — has to contend with two essentially false fathers: the natural, nameless one who abandoned both her and her mother, and the stepfather, whom she dislikes, and of whom she is ashamed. She certainly cannot say, as have a number of previous Cooper women, that she will proudly be her father’s daughter — and though she develops moral insights, she suffers disappointment in this natural setting which Natty says should “set her right again” (28). However, Judith has also developed pride, courage, keen intelligence and physical strength which seem to emanate from her mother, who is frequently alluded to in her grave beneath the waters of Glimmerglass.
Unlike the women in previous tales, Judith, unprotected in the wilderness, can fend for herself and, more importantly, she has the quick intelligence and courage to aid those in trouble. Her spirit and multitudinous skills are evident from the beginning of the book, while her development as a less self-concerned woman takes place throughout. She tells Hurry Harry, “Judith Hutter has the experience that will make her depend more on herself than on good-looking rovers like you. Should there be need to face the savages, do you land with my father, instead of burrowing in the huts, under show of defending us females” (62). She saves Natty’s life at least twice: As a Mingo chief lands on the deck of the boat, “Judith rushed from the cabin, her beauty heightened by the excitement that produced the bold act, which flushed her cheek to crimson; throwing all her strength into the effort, she pushed the intruder over the edge of the scow” (p. 70). Later, as Deerslayer speaks to a young scout, “the keen eyes of Judith were as vigilant as ever: “Be on your guard, Deerslayer,” she cries; “I see rifles, with the glass, beneath the hemlock brush, and the Iroquois is loosening them with his feet!” (235). She gives sound, wise advice: she understood “all her father’s schemes of defense, and ... had the spirit to take no unimportant share in the execution of them ... and explained all these details to [Deerslayer], who was thus saved much time and labor” (130-31). She manages a canoe “with a skill little short of that of a man” (299), and we learn that she had “often sportively gained races in trials of speed with the youths that occasionally visited the lake” (336). When Judith and Hetty are chased in their canoe by the Hurons, the latter are forced to paddle furiously lest they “suffer the disgrace of being baffled by women” (339).
Although Judith has the courage and skills of a man, she does not admire the male sex. Early in the novel she tells Natty, her eyes flashing fire, “Men will be men, and some even that flaunt in their gold and silver, and carry the King’s commission in their pockets, are not guiltless of equal cruelty. ... I get warm when I think of all the wrong that men do” (127). After meeting Natty she confides to him, “you are the first man I ever met who did not seem to wish to flatter — to wish my ruin — to be an enemy in disguise” (87).
Judith’s beauty and rich blood, of which Captain Warley has taken advantage, have their momentary effect on the young Deerslayer. She is the “quick-witted and wonderful Judith Hutter,” he tells her as they examine the contents of the trunk (262). When she dons the brocade dress, it is his admiration for her regal look that, unbeknownst to him, suggests her later plan to save him from Mingo torture. Judith is attracted to Natty chiefly because he is so different from those red-coated men she distrusts. However, when she asks him if he has ever been in love, he responds that he has not spent enough time with whites to have “dropped into them sort of feelings ... unless ... it be the open mouth of a sartain hound when I’m on the track of a fat buck. ... ” At this response “Judith walked slowly and pensively away, nor was there any of her ordinary calculating coquetry in the light, tremulous sigh that, unconsciously to herself, arose to her lips” (148).
Judith is undaunted by Natty’s lack of response; indeed, her strong love for the Deerslayer brings forth her strong qualities. She vows, “tortured he SHALL not be, while Judith Hutter lives and can find means to prevent it” (302). Her courageous act in entering the Huron camp seems inspired by her identification with her namesake, the widow Judith of the Apocrypha who saves the Israelites from the Assyrian general. The apocryphal Judith succeeds through deception, wisdom and verbal wit, and Judith Hutter attempts a similar role: disguised as a noblewoman, she is courageous and, “sufficiently familiar with Indian phraseology, she endeavored to express her ideas in the sententious manner common to those people, and she succeeded even beyond her own expectations ... the girl carefully abstained from uttering any direct untruth, a homage she paid to [Natty’s] known aversion to falsehood” (498).
But her home is also “castle court,” and though she might have hoped that she and Natty could live royally in love at the castle, it becomes a legal court, where she is judged by Natty and condemned. The courtroom motif is established in the opening pages as Hurry says to Natty, “when we live beyond the law, we must be our own judges and executioners.” Through frequent employment of legal language (e.g., Judith asks Natty to “try” her, and he responds that she understands “justice”; Judith insists on having “witnesses” when she opens the trunk). Cooper demonstrates to us Judith’s guilt. The complexity of the brave young woman makes her compellingly sympathetic: she is guilty, as we see by the use of the recently deciphered manuscript phrase “undue erring” (rather than “undeserving,” as the phrase had previously been interpreted), but she is also a “victim” of Captain Warley (534). To underscore her status as victim, Cooper employs animal imagery even more emphatically than he did in the earlier novels.
Significantly, as were Ellen and Mabel, the courageous and independent Judith is associated with deer and with birds. These images suggest an undermining of Judith, despite her bravery. A discussion of all of these images is outside the scope of this paper but, briefly, in both the text and the mottoes, a connection emerges between stricken deer and women. The killing of animals, both deer and birds, and the references to Indian women and children culminate in the awful killing of an Indian woman — and suggests that Judith, at the end, is shot down, brought low, humbled, though not literally killed. Thus when Judith regally passes Killdeer to Natty, “King of the Woods,” the ritualism of the entire scene becomes significant. Natty tells Chingachgook that Killdeer (he personifies it as a man) “has all the valie of a creatur’, without its failin’s. Hist may be, and should be precious to you, but Killdeer will have the love and veneration of your whole people.” Chingachgook, “a little hurt at his friend’s lowering his betrothed to the level of a gun,” replies, “One rifle like another, Deerslayer. ... All kill; all wood and iron. Wife dear to heart; rifle good to Wife dear to heart; rifle good to shoot.” Natty, however, is oblivious to these sorts of sentiments, and he excitedly proposes a shooting match. He aims at an eagle — the species that frequents the water — and scratches it: “I do think his feathers were ruffled, but no blood has yet been drawn. ... Judith, bring out Killdeer. ... Now, Judith, we’ll see if Killdeer isn’t Killeagle, too!”
A careful sight followed, and was repeated again and and again, the bird continuing to rise higher and higher. Then followed the flash and the report. The swift messenger sped upward, and at the next instant, the bird turned on its side and came swooping down, now struggling with one wing and then with the other, sometimes whirling in a circuit, next fanning desperately as if conscious of its injury, until, having described several complete circles around the spot, it fell heavily into the ark. On examining the body, it was found that the bullet had pierced it about halfway between one of its wings and the breastbone (431).
Judith has passed on to Natty her father’s weapon, which can be used to kill Indians, including women and children, and innocent birds. Judith, the proud, the “wonderful,” is like that eagle, mighty symbol of America. Natty says he’s done an “unthoughtful thing” and holds up the bird whose “dying eyes riveted on its enemies with the gaze that the helpless ever fasten on their destroyers” (432). Just so, Natty will wound Judith when on his return he refuses her offer of marriage. If the Mabel Dunhams and Ellen Wades represent the good solid common stock peopling the American earth, then Judith suggests the wounded colonist who came to the New World looking for a new start. Natty, as representative of all the potential of that paradisical new world, cannot respond to her because of his Moravian background, his mixed gifts, his solitary habits — and his newfound love of Killdeer.
Hetty has told Natty that the soldiers’ “business is to kill their fellow creatures. ... Judith likes soldiers.” And yet, Judith learns to love Natty: “He’s worth a million Hurrys!” she exclaims to Hetty, because “He is TRUE” (300). Ironically, the “good man” Judith wants to marry thinks more of “Killdeer” than he does of her — and it is worthy of note that, in the matter of marriage, at least, the DeerSLAYER (with KILLdeer) and WARley share a superficial similarity: Warley says that the men of his regiment “don’t marry. We are not a marrying corps, my dear boy” (511).
The realistic, detailed treatment of the characters in The Deerslayer shows Cooper’s interest in the psychology of both women and men. He demonstrates the gifts and weaknesses of both Judith and Natty. Judith, whom Cooper clearly admires, is more active, more courageous and more vital than any previous Leatherstocking heroine; however, justly judged guilty, she is doomed never to achieve the happiness she seeks. She is rejected by a Christian man who cannot forgive her because, for all her bright courage and intelligence, she agonizes over her sin but cannot bring herself to repent. Thus, although she acts with bravery and dignity, Judith suffers a humiliating defeat. Significantly, though, the last word Cooper applies to her is “victim.” Like her mother Judith before her, Judith cannot escape the old world, the world of the Tom Warleys. She has erred unduly, but we have seen in her admirable, spirited and sympathetic character some of the “gleamings of that pure spirit” relieving mankind’s “deformities, and mitigating if not excusing its crimes” (534).
Cooper’s interest in women, then, seems clear in the order of the writing: his female characters become increasingly complex, courageous and heroic. From the earliest novel to the last, we see increasingly less ideal, less favored situations for women. We also see the implicit admission that the ideal fathers of The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans are not necessarily the norm. We see an increasingly sensitive treatment of women’s thoughts and, especially in The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, increasingly realistic situations: i.e., unlike Cora, Judith does not die; she is merely lost, a living victim. For the first time in The Prairie and The Pathfinder there is the overt suggestion of evil white men as well as red, and outright condemnation of this sort of men in The Deerslayer. The women become involved in increasing1y perilous positions in terms of being without protectors but, with the exception of Judith, they are increasingly active and able to achieve their ends. They become less privileged in the last three novels, and are depicted as the girls raised solely “on American flour.”
Bess is the only woman who is adequately protected: her father’s stature, as well as Natty’s and Oliver’s interventions, prevent her from falling prey to all the potential disasters to which she is exposed. Cora’s protectors fail her in the end, and in her tragic death she is the complex victim of both red and white men. Ellen Wade has been victimized by her lawless step-father, but is saved by good men, both red and white. Mabel, potential victim of white traitors as well as evil Indians, protects herself with the aid of another woman, the Tuscarora Dew-of-June. Judith, the most resourceful of all is, in the end, the victim of men as well as of her own vanity and weakness. All these young women help liberate and minister to other human beings. Their marriages are symbolically significant: Elizabeth refuses a Frenchman and marries an Anglo-American sympathetic to the Indians; Cora loses her life as she is battled over by warring Indians and whites; Ellen and Mabel marry workingclass Americans who become property owners and men of the community; only Judith, defeated, must return to the Old World and live with her English seducer.
The conflicts and the tensions on personal, social and national levels, are shown in the women and their interactions with the male characters. As these women help to demonstrate, morality, courage and lack of prejudice in terms of either race or gender are necessary if the American experiment is to succeed. Until these essential gains are made, these characters, both male and female, are like Judith’s ribbon that Natty ties to Killdeer: they help us recall the panorama of Cooper’s pioneers “in all their beauty and, we may add, all their failings” (533).
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