Natty and the Judge: The Pictorial Development of an Ambivalent Theme in The Pioneers

John Kandl (New York University)

Presented at the 7ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1989.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the Bicentennial Conference, July 1989, State University College of New York — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 103-113).

Copyright © 1991 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers concludes with a scene which is surely the prototype of what has since become a cliche in American films: the solitary hero vanishing into the sunset. Here the hero is an aging Natty Bumppo — pausing at the edge of the forest to wave a fond and final goodbye to Edward and Elizabeth Effingham. “As he caught their glances,” Cooper writes, “he drew his hard hand hastily across his eyes again, waved it on high for an adieu, and, uttering a forced cry to his dogs, who were crouching at his feet, he entered the forest” (435-36). Notice the attention to the hand, how Cooper subtly admits a hint of tears but alliteratively pulls the “hard hand hastily” over this hint, sweeping all the moment’s emotion into one strong visual gesture, that “high” wave. Heightened to such an extent, the wave hovers over the “forced cry to his dogs” and even seems to linger in the air after Natty disappears. The passage is a testament to Cooper’s powers of pictorial expression. That wave, signaling Natty’s final departure from Templeton (civilized society), would have made a fitting end for The Pioneers. But Cooper is not content to end just yet. He follows the vision with a grand speculative leap into the future. The last sentence of the novel reads: He [Natty] had gone far towards the setting sun — the foremost in that band of Pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent” (436). The irony here is astounding. The very last thing Natty Bumppo aspires to be is the “foremost in that band of Pioneers.” In the allegorical scheme of the novel, Natty represent the solitary man living in harmony with nature: the villagers of Templeton, for the most part, represent the very opposite of that ideal. In scene after scene Natty deplores the senseless wastefulness of the settlers, their squandering of resources, the ravaging of the wilderness. By the end of the novel he has burned his own hut rather than allow the village (in the person of Richard Jones) to trespass that far. No friendly leader of frontier society, Natty is, in fact, its enemy. When he leaves Templeton, he does so out of protest. As Wayne Franklin has put it: “Leatherstocking leaves the valley as a last and firm protest, less a surrender than an act of defiance” (116).

Why then does Cooper close the novel with such a dramatic characterization of Natty as a forerunner of society — such a blatant betrayal of Natty’s essential nature and intentions? One answer is obvious, Cooper simply needs a strong resounding keynote to end on. As Franklin has suggested, The Pioneers “has a musical form rather than an argumentative one” (117). And of course for a piece on early American life, what better tonic exists than the majestic chord of Manifest Destiny? We know that at heart, despite his often biting criticisms of American society, Cooper ardently embraced the doctrine. As Donald Ringe has put it, “A nineteenth-century American, Cooper clung to the belief that his country would escape the fate of past civilizations. Thus, in a number of his works, he pictures ... American society as developing toward a divinely ordered end” (180). But this “divinely ordered end,” the optimism in the novel’s last sentence, addresses only half the issue. There remains the problem of a defiant Natty Bumppo, {104} fleeing from a society which will inevitably destroy both the wilderness he loves, and the way of life he represents. What is Cooper doing here? Is he even aware of what he is doing? Why is he doing it? The ambivalence with which the novel ends is no isolated instance: it reflects a dual perspective that resonates throughout The Pioneers: in fact, the ambivalence itself can be seen as one of the major themes of the novel — a theme that is suggested more than developed — and suggested largely through visual (pictorial) contrasts.

Before examining some scenes where Cooper’s ambivalence comes into play, we should look at the nature of that ambivalence itself. Throughout the novel Cooper operates in the throes of two irreconcilable forces, his love for the untamed wilderness — the ideal of the individual living in harmony with nature: and his love for frontier society — the ideal of society conquering and taming nature. As we know, Cooper wrote the book in homage to his childhood memories of Cooperstown. As the novel’s subtitle, “A Descriptive Tale,” emphasizes, one of Cooper’s main concerns is to offer detailed pictures of life in the early days of the settlement. In the introduction, Cooper even apologizes for a “rigid adhesion to truth,” which, he feels, “destroys the charm of fiction” (v). Thus the book, though indeed a work of fiction, is also something more than that to Cooper. It is a labor of love, an indulgence in fond memories. But Cooper is either too true an artist, or too true to his love of the wilderness to allow himself to lapse into a simple nostalgia. Along with the richly detailed, often charming pictures of routine village life (the Christmas dinner, the church service, the tavern), Cooper also (in such scenes as the pigeon-shoot, the lake-fishing party, and in continual references to the diminishing forests) reveals an anarchic, brutish side of the villagers, their shameless insensitivity to the resources of the wilderness, their chronic wastefulness. In the text of the novel, Cooper may fondly remember the growing village, but he just as fondly remembers the virgin wilderness which the settlers are slowly ravaging.

Thus we must regard the ambivalence with which the novel closes in the light of the opposing influences which sway Cooper’s hand throughout the novel. The closing scene (Natty unwittingly hauling the whole hated baggage of civilization after him into the sunset) can be seen as an emblem encompassing the ambivalent impulses which permeate the novel. Cooper’s dilemma is that he loves both Natty and the ideal of Manifest Destiny. On the surface, of course, the focus is always on the growing village, the settling of the frontier. As Donald Ringe rightly states, “The problems of settlement of a new country, the opening of the land and the establishment of law and order are the primary concerns of the book” (84). This statement, however, could be amended to read “the primary overt concerns of the book.” Covertly, the novel continually contrasts the rambunctious activities of the settlement to the quiet dignity, good sense, and courage of Leatherstocking. For Cooper, Natty seems to represent an ideal which, though doomed, must continually be emphasized as a way of gauging the schism between nature and society. Natty’s presence in the scenes of waste (the pigeon-shoot, the fishing party) amplifies the thoughtless insensitivity of the villagers. Throughout the novel Natty acts as a kind of ecological warning to society — a reminder of the virtues of moderation, conservation. The villagers, however, do not learn from Natty’s example. Instead they harass and (lawfully) persecute the woodsman until he is forced to leave. The villagers’ persecution of Natty is parallel to their ravaging of the wilderness. These actions severely compromise the dignity of the settlement. Cooper may relish recollections of {105} frontier society conquering the wilderness, but through the example of Leatherstocking he continually questions the essential nobility of this venture. Again he projects a dual view torn between the two ideals.

As mentioned above, the ambivalence in Cooper’s perspective is revealed largely through pictorial means. Cooper’s pictorial method of composition has been noted by critics since the early nineteenth century. Balzac, for example, said of The Pathfinder: “Never did typographed language approach so closely to painting (Quoted in Dekker and McWilliams 197). Francis Parkman wrote of Cooper’s “pictures”: “There is no glow upon his pictures, no warm and varied coloring, no studied contrast of light and shade. Their virtue consists in their fidelity, in the strength with which they impress themselves upon the mind, and the strange tenacity with which they cling to the memory” (250). In the early part of our own century, D. H. Lawrence said of The Pioneers: “Pictures! Some of the loveliest, most glamorous pictures in all literature” (52). But only in recent years has Cooper’s pictorial method commanded close critical scrutiny. James Beard, in his important essay “Cooper and His Artistic Contemporaries,” aptly compares Cooper’s method to motion picture techniques, “Cooper’s mode of composition is worthy of serious artistic consideration; indeed, it has some advantages over any other method of story-telling that has been devised. Like the modern motion picture camera, it frees the imagination of the narrative artist in time and space, while permitting him to retain much of the expressive value of painting. Some of the effects of focus and pace, which Cooper was able to obtain by regulating the clarity and nature of visual details do, in fact, anticipate Hollywood techniques” (491). Indeed, though Cooper is often compared to painters (Beard, himself, likens Cooper to the Hudson River School), it is important to bear in mind that Cooper’s “pictures” do, in effect, move, and in analyzing certain passages, Beard’s motion-picture analogy may prove to be quite helpful. Later in the same essay, Beard emphasizes the vital importance of setting in Cooper’s fiction, “The setting is not simply a backdrop to the action, and hence incidental to the meaning, it is an integral part of the action and the meaning” (492). This point is also important to remember. Throughout The Pioneers Cooper descriptively and dramatically heightens the contrast between his two settings, the village and the wilderness. The significance of this contrast has been noted by several of Cooper’s critics. Blake Nevius, for example, observes: “The Pioneers“ [introduces us] to a tranquil setting and an idyllic way of life only to chronicle their entire or partial destruction ... through the waste of natural resources” (25). Wayne Franklin states: “The contrasts of village and forest, waste and abundance, noise and silence, disproportion and ‘all creation,’ suggest a mind working out with a clear imagistic logic a drama whose struggle is expressed by the very exuberance of Cooper’s ‘descriptions’” (105). And Donald Ringe writes: “The Pioneers ... illustrates in the details of the landscape the contrasting values of wilderness and civilization, with the obvious conclusion that the values of the latter will eventually supplant those of the former” (158).

Thus, the tension between the settings of Templeton and the wilderness has been seen as an integral thematic concern of the novel. As Donald Ringe has pointed out, the outcome of this struggle is obvious. However, Cooper’s responses to this outcome are not so obvious. As we have seen, Cooper is equally enamored of both the growing village and the untamed wilderness. Throughout the novel, he seems loath to give up either. This ambivalence is one of the most interesting elements of the book. Cooper’s “Descriptive Tale” ostensibly seeks to illustrate the growing pains of frontier society. But the {106} excesses of this society appall Cooper, and he records these as accurately as he does the more charming, agreeable details. And lurking behind the entire enterprise is the bitter tone of loss, the recognition that the price we pay for civilization is the virgin beauty of the wilderness. That Cooper does not attempt to resolve this conflict is to his credit. There is no resolution: Cooper’s “Descriptive Tale” can do no more than imagistically embody the conflict.

Again, Cooper’s method of embodying this conflict is predominantly visual. In one of the most enlightening and thorough treatments of Cooper’s visual imagination, The Pictorial Mode, Donald Ringe provides an insight into Cooper’s method of composition: “In general, Cooper begins with a fairly broad view and narrows his angle of vision as he proceeds. The effect is to focus the attention not on the background — but on the multitude of small details with which the scene is filled” (83).

With this in mind, we can now turn to an examination of some scenes where Cooper’s ambivalent viewpoint is apparent. Since, as Thomas Philbrick has pointed out, the structure of the novel is based on a correlation between natural and societal cycles of change, we can simply follow the seasonal construction of the novel, focusing on an important scene from each season (68-69).

I. Winter

As Robert Spiller has suggested, the irreconcilable value systems contrasted in the novel are symbolized in the figures of Natty and Judge Temple, “The Judge symbolizes the value system of civilized society: Natty that of the single solitary natural man” (17). As early as the opening pages of the novel, Cooper begins to heighten the contrast between the two. With Beard’s motion-picture analogy in mind, we can follow Cooper’s description as though following the focus of a camera. Cooper offers a broad view of the landscape before focusing on the Judge’s sleigh — and, finally, the Judge himself. Interestingly, the landscape Cooper describes before focusing on the Judge is dominated by signs of man. Cooper focuses on the road itself, excavations, and the improvements of a new settlement, “The road wound along the brow of a precipice, and on one side was upheld by a foundation of logs ... while a narrow excavation in the mountain ... had made a passage of sufficient width for the ordinary travelling of that day. ... In the vale ... was what in the language of the country was called a clearing, and all the usual improvements of a new settlement” (16-17).

The landscape which precedes the appearance of Natty, however, contains no sign of man: instead, Cooper celebrates the melancholy beauty of pines reaching up the mountain side, “The mountain on which they were journeying was covered with pines, that rose without a branch some seventy or eighty feet, and which frequently doubled that height, by the addition of the tops. ... The dark trunks of the trees, rose from the pure white of the snow in regularly formed shafts, until, at a great height, their branches shot forth horizontal limbs, that were covered with the meager foliage of an evergreen, affording a melancholy contrast to the torpor of nature below” (19).

Notice the contrast in tone here. In the first passage, practicality dominates. In phrases like “upheld by a foundation of logs,” “a passage of sufficient width,” and “all the usual improvements,” Cooper focuses on the {107} utilitarian aspects of the scene, rather than aesthetic interests. In the second passage, however, in phrases such as “The dark trunks of the trees,” “the pure white of the snow,” and “their branches shot forth horizontal limbs,” Cooper is clearly emphasizing the natural beauty of the scene: he even goes so far as to imbue the scene with “melancholy.”

Thus in the “broad view” preceding the description of each character, Cooper begins to develop same fundamental contrasts. These contrasts are further heightened, of course, in the descriptions of the characters themselves. Cooper describes Judge Temple as:

of a large stature: but the precautions he had taken to guard against the cold, left but little of his person exposed to view. A great-coat, that was abundantly ornamented by a profusion of furs, enveloped the whole of his figure, excepting the head, which was covered with a cap of marten skins, lined with morocco, the sides of which were made to fall, if necessary, and were now drawn close over the ears, and fastened beneath his chin with a black ribbon. ... From beneath this masque were to be seen part of a fine manly face, and particularly a pair of expressive large blue eyes, that promised extraordinary intellect, covert humor, and great benevolence (18).

Here, as Spiller has suggested, is a symbol of civilization. All is ornamented, opulent, extravagant: even the Judge’s eyes are large, and promise extraordinary intellect and great benevolence. The keynote here is abundance, and the goal is comfort.

Let’s look now at the description of Leatherstocking:

He was tall and so meager as to make him seem above even the six feet that he actually stood in his stockings. On his head, which was thinly covered with lank, sandy hair, he wore a cap of fox-skin, resembling in shape the one we have already described, although much inferior in finish and ornaments. His face was skinny, and thin almost to emaciation: but yet it bore no signs of disease; — on the contrary, it had every indication of the most robust and enduring health. The cold and the exposure had, together, given it a color of uniform red: his grey eyes were glancing under a pair of shaggy brews, that overhung them in long hairs of grey mingled with their natural hue; his scraggy neck was bare and burnt to the same tint with his face: though a small part of his shirt collar, made of the country check, was to be seen above the overdress he wore. A kind of coat, made of dressed deer-skin, with the hair on, was belted close to his lank body, by a girdle of coloured worsted. On his feet were deer-skin moccasins, ornamented with porcupines, quills, after the manner of the Indians, and his limbs were guarded with long leggings of the same material as the moccasins, which, gartering over {108} the knees of his tarnished buck-skin breeches, had obtained for him, among the settlers, the nick-name of Leather-stocking (23).

Notice the development of detail here. Cooper’s description of the Judge reveals a fondness and respect for that figure, but in the description of Natty, Cooper is inspired. He imagines the character from head to foot, leaving nothing undelineated. In contrast to the luxuriant, fur-laden benevolence of the Judge, Natty seems rather slight, even ragged. Look at Cooper’s diction here. Natty is described as “meager,” “lank,” “skinny,” “thin almost to emaciation,” “shaggy,” “scraggy,” his cap is “much inferior to the one we have already described,” and even his famous leggings are “tarnished.” Focusing on Natty’s greying hair and red complexion, Cooper stresses the character’s age, and his long exposure to the elements. This is a man at home in the wilderness. In contrast to the Judge, Natty seems relatively unconcerned about the cold. The desire for comfort, for protection from the elements — so apparent in the description of the Judge — is absent here.

Thus, Cooper, early in the novel, contrasts visually these two symbolic characters. In the dramatic context of the scene (the debate over the carcass of a deer), it is important to note that Cooper’s description favors neither character over the other. He respects them both; and both are presented as dignified examples of opposing ways of life. The debate over the slaughtered deer introduces the central conflict of the novel. As Stephen Railton has observed: “They make a strange pair — the sixty-year old, plainly dressed hunter and the middle-aged landlord wrapped in a wealth of furs — arguing over the dead animal at their feet” (85). The scene, of course, prefigures the later conflict between Natty and the Judge concerning Natty’s killing of a deer out of season, the conflict that results in Natty burning his hut and leaving Templeton forever.

II. Spring

Some of the most memorable scenes in The Pioneers are those depicting the villagers’ wild responses to the awakening of nature in the spring. When the sky goes dark with migrating pigeons, or the lake comes alive with spawning bass, even Marmaduke Temple can barely restrain himself. The tension between society and nature in the novel is amplified here. As Thomas Philbrick has noted, though the quickening of spring has an effect on the level of activity and passion in the human world of the novel, this change is “not simply a harmonious response to the swifter tempo of nature. The flow of the sap, the migration of the pigeons, ... the shoals of spawning bass are all manifestations of the creative vitality of nature, a vitality which man here intercepts and truncates with the needless ravages of his ax, gun and seine” (72). And always present, a figure standing against the villagers, wasteful chaos, is Leatherstocking, continually acting as a symbol of restraint and moderation, and continually ignored.

We can concentrate here on the chapter depicting the pigeon-shoot. Here, as well as in the bass-fishing scene, Cooper carefully develops a bold contrast between Natty and the villagers. It’s a lusty, memorable scene, the sky full of pigeons, and the villagers all scrambling for firearms: “If the heavens were alive with pigeons,” Cooper writes, “the whole village seemed equally in motion, with men, women, and children. Every species of firearms, {109} from the French ducking-gun, with a barrel near six feet in length, to the common horseman’s pistol, was to be seen in the hands of the men and boys: while bows and arrows, some made of the simple stick of a walnut sapling, and others in a rude imitation of the ancient cross-bows, were carried by many of the latter” (244). Note the attention to weapons here, and the fact that this is a family venture, men, women and children, all in motion, each armed with an appropriate instrument, and passionately determined to slaughter some birds.

Against this scene, in silent contrast, Cooper places Natty, “Amongst the sportsmen was the tall, gaunt form of Leatherstocking, walking over the field, with his rifle hanging on his arm, his dog at his heels; the latter now scenting the dead or wounded birds, that were beginning to tumble from the flocks, and then crouching under the legs of their master, as if they participated in his feelings, at this wasteful and unsportsmanlike execution” (245). In contrast to the previous scene, note Leatherstocking’s weapon, inert, “hanging on his arm.” Also notice how Cooper projects Natty’s feelings of shame and disgust into the dogs “crouching under the legs of their master.” With Beard’s analogy in mind, we can see Cooper’s description operating like the selective focus of a motion-picture camera, visually emphasizing the schism between Natty and the “sportsmen.”

The destruction, of course, continues, increasing to the point of frenzy. Natty shoots the one pigeon he has come for, and verbally chastises the villagers for “’these wasty ways that you are all practysing, as if the least thing was not made for use, and not to destroy’” (248). When the Judge agrees with Natty, Natty takes advantage of the moment to emphasize the bigger issue, the settlement’s encroachment on the wilderness. Natty tells Marmaduke, “Put an ind, Judge, to your clearings. An’t the woods his work as well as the pigeons? Use but don’t waste.’”

Cooper underscores Natty’s speech with a view of him carefully treading over the field: “Leather-stocking threw his rifle over his arm, and followed by his dogs, stepped across the clearing with great caution, taking care not to tread on one of the wounded birds in his path. He soon entered the bushes on the margin of the lake and was hid from view.” With the disappearance of Natty, here, sanity seems to leave as well. Natty’s impotence as a force for change is dramatized when a new wave of pigeons soars over. Natty, by example or admonition, is as powerless to check the villagers’ frenzy as are the pigeons themselves. The slaughter escalates. Cooper writes, “Nothing like the flock that was now approaching had been seen before. It extended from mountain to mountain in one solid blue mass, and the eye looked in vain over the southern hills to find its termination. The front of this living column was distinctly marked by a line, but very slightly indented, so regular and even was the flight. Even Marmaduke forgot the morality of Leather-stocking as it approached, and, in common with the rest, brought his musket to a poise” (249). Here we have a powerful irony, faced with the astounding beauty of this “solid blue mass” of birds (Cooper at his descriptive best), the villagers’ only reaction is to blast them out of the sky. Richard Jones (Marmaduke’s sheriff) has even produced a cannon. In the description of Marmaduke joining the others in this bloody ritual, contrasted to the vision of Leather-stocking treading over the wounded birds, disappearing into the woods (his admonitions still, in effect, freshly ringing over the field), Cooper again focuses on the central conflict: the values represented by the Judge and Natty are irreconcilable. Throughout the scene, Natty (representing {110} the values of conservation, restraint, moderation) is the voice of wisdom, yet he is powerless to effect any change. At the same time, Judge Temple and Richard Jones (representatives of societal law, the values of the settlement) both lustily partake in the slaughter. At the close of the scene Richard shouts, “’victory! we have driven the enemy from the field.’” In Marmaduke’s reply, Cooper descriptively dramatizes the carnage and the waste, “’Not so Dickon,’ said Marmaduke; ‘the field is covered with them; and like the Leather-stocking, I see nothing but eyes in every direction, as the innocent sufferers turn their heads in terror’” (250). That Marmaduke achieves some compassion after his participation in the slaughter only heightens the irony here. Nevertheless, Cooper’s dual perspective is apparent: in Natty and the Judge, he grants each perspective a body and a voice, and though it’s clear his deeper sympathies lie with Natty, Cooper concludes this chapter with a sympathetic treatment of Marmaduke Temple — in an obvious attempt to diminish the Judge’s guilt. Cooper writes: “Judge Temple retired towards his dwelling with that kind of feeling ... that he has purchased pleasure at the price of misery to others.” Cooper, of course, has forgiven Marmaduke — and by making him penitent is asking us to do the same. Thus Cooper retains his delicate ambivalent balance. Consciously or otherwise, he holds his affections in equipoise between the two characters — and all they represent.

III. Summer

The last few chapters of The Pioneers develop several expressive and memorable scenes (Natty’s trial, his imprisonment and escape, the forest fire, the death of Chingachgook), but the very boldness of these scenes may tend to obscure another powerful, though subtler, scene, a scene which develops one of the important thematic climaxes of the novel. This is the scene where Richard Jones, leading a gaggle of villagers to Natty’s hut, arrests Natty for killing a deer out of season.

One must remember that Richard’s motives, here, are entirely hypocritical. He is not as much concerned with enforcing the law as he is with entering Natty’s hut. (He thinks the hut conceals a mine — and thus is propelled by greed, not duty.) In this way, Cooper compromises the integrity of Templeton law, and increases a sense of injustice. When Richard and his party come upon the “smouldering ruins” of Natty’s hut, Cooper theatrically emphasizes the significance of the scene by concentrating on the light of the smouldering embers, playing in the darkness over the villagers’ faces. Cooper emphasizes the villagers’ astonishment and disappointment here, “a dim flame in the centre of the ruin ... threw its pale light, flickering with the passing currents of the air, around the circle, now showing a face with eyes fixed in astonishment, and then glancing to another countenance, leaving the former shaded in the obscurity of night” (356). Notice the group is standing in the darkness, in a circle — at the center of which glow the still lively embers of Natty’s hut. The scene is ritualistic, a symbolic moment of truth, the village silently encircling Natty’s visual statement. Cooper then allows Natty himself to enter the circle: “The whole group were yet in the fullness of their surprise, when a tall form stalked from the gloom into the circle, treading down the hot ashes and dying embers with callous feet, and, standing over the light, lifted his cap, and exposed the bare head and weather-beaten features of the Leather-stocking.” Centering Natty in the middle of the circle — floodlights of embers shining on his face — Cooper creates a striking visual context for one of the most powerful events in the novel: Natty’s speech to the arresting party. He begins by shaming the villagers; he calls {111} attention to his age: “’What would ye have with an old and helpless man?’” Then he chastises the villagers for driving “’God’s creaters from the wilderness,’” and for bringing in “’the troubles and divilties of the law, where no man was ever known to disturb another.’” Thus, in the beginning of the speech, Cooper focuses on Natty’s main complaint, that through its clearings and its laws, society imposes an artificial system of order upon the wilderness. Natty then, in this larger context, addresses the immediate injustice: “’You have driven me, that have lived forty long years of my appointed time in this very spot, from my home and the shelter of my head, lest you should put your wicked feet and wasty ways in my cabin.’” Here, Natty’s defiance is expounded. He’d rather destroy his home than admit these trespassers and their “wasty ways.” In the remainder of the speech Natty reemphasizes the shamefulness of the situation, that the villagers would unjustly harass a harmless old man. The speech here is remarkable for Cooper’s rhetorical use of visual imagery, “’You’ve rankled the heart of an old man that has never harmed you or yourn, with bitter feelings towards his kind, at a time when his thoughts should be on a better world; and you’ve driven him to wish that the beasts of the forest, who never feast on the blood of their own families, was his kindred and his race; and now when he has come to see the last brand of his hut, before it has melted into ashes, you follow him up, at midnight, like hungry hounds on the track of a worn-out and dying deer! What more would ye have? for I am here — one to many. I come to mourn, not to fight; and if it is God’s pleasure, work your will on me’” (356-57).

Notice how the initial, defiant tone relaxes at the end of the speech into a tone of sorrowful submission. Natty has given up on Templeton. Though he has yet to survive the trial, imprisonment, the forest fire and the death of Chingachgook, though he has yet to see the surface plot of the novel reconciled in the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth, for Natty, the story ends here. This scene leads directly to his leave-taking at the end of the novel. Notice the metaphor with which Cooper concludes the speech; Natty likens the villagers to hounds, and himself to a “worn-out and dying deer.” Here, Natty’s situation is emblemized with telling clarity, he images himself as part of the wilderness destroyed by the villagers.

It almost seems here that Cooper has tipped the scales — has broken through his ambivalent view and sided squarely with Natty. But this, of course, is not quite the case. Natty versus Richard Jones is one thing, but no matter how tainted Jones’ personal motives are, we need to remember he also represents Judge Temple and the laws of Templeton here — and the Judge, brutal as his decision to prosecute Natty may seem, is not (in his own view, nor in Cooper’s) willfully, needlessly harassing the old man. Rather, Cooper depicts him as (somewhat valiantly) subjugating his affection for Natty (remember, Natty has recently saved Elizabeth’s life) in an effort to maintain the impartiality of the law. In the scene when Marmaduke realizes he must order Natty’s arrest, Cooper descriptively develops the Judge’s consternation. He must not only conquer his feelings for Natty, here, but must also disappoint Elizabeth and Edward: “The appearance of Marmaduke, who entered the apartment, contradicted the flattering anticipations of his daughter. His brow was contracted, and his manner disturbed. Neither Elizabeth nor the youth spoke: but the Judge was allowed to pace once or twice across the room without interruption, when he cried —

’Our plans are defeated, girl; the obstinacy of the Leatherstocking has brought down the indignation of the law on his head, and it is now out of my {112} power to avert it’” (344).

Natty has broken the game laws, and, more importantly, defied the representatives of Templeton law by refusing to allow Hiram Doolittle and Billy Kirby to search his hut. Like any other citizen, Natty must be held to account. That Natty is not merely another citizen, that he has lived on Otsego since the days her shores were entirely wilderness, can not (in Judge Temple’s view) exempt him from the law. Here we have the essential dilemma. As Robert Spiller has expressed it, “The thematic structure of the novel comes to a focus in the conflict between Judge Temple and Leatherstocking on the issue of killing a deer out of season. Their friendship breaks down because the Judge’s belief in the social control of individual “rights” has no common ground with Natty’s reliance on the laws of the forest and of God as moral absolutes. These two idealized prototypes of real characters, both of whom Cooper fully understands and admires, admire each other but are critically irreconcilable” (17). Here, Spiller focuses on the contrast we have seen Cooper develop descriptively throughout the novel. In Cooper’s treatments of Natty and Judge Temple, it’s clear the author is heartily sympathetic to each of these characters, as well as to the values each represents. That he is able to sustain his divided view to the end, without siding with either character, or imposing a false reconciliation, is quite remarkable — and reveals the extent to which Cooper, himself, lived in the grips of these “critically irreconcilable” values.

IV. Fall

And so, we come full-circle — to October, and Natty’s fond farewell. In contrast to the anarchic wastefulness of the villagers, and the somewhat precarious dignity of Judge Temple, Natty emerges as the more attractive character. His harassment by the villagers and Templeton law, leading to his exile, amplifies a sense of loss which pervades The Pioneers. This sense of loss, in keeping with the dual perspective Cooper maintains throughout the novel, is two-fold.

On the one hand, Cooper develops a longing for the virgin wilderness — the world in which Natty Bumppo is at home — the world which frontier society, almost by definition, must destroy. Natty, of course, is wedded to this wilderness, and as he leaves he seems to take its essence with him, leaving only a sense of loss, of longing. Neither Oliver nor Elizabeth want to see him go, nor do we, nor does Cooper.

On the other hand, Cooper’s “Descriptive Tale” develops a simple nostalgia for early settlement life — the young days of the nation — and Cooper’s own childhood. This is apparent in the more charming scenes: the Christmas dinner, the church service, the tavern, descriptions of the village architecture.

But longing is not quite the tone Cooper wants to conclude on. He wants to pull us out of our longing for the past and focus our attention, with great optimism, on the future. To this end, he concludes with a vision absurdly linking Natty Bumppo to the concept of Manifest Destiny. If Cooper is guilty here of attempting a false reconciliation, he is saved by the immense irony inherent in this final vision. It may be absurd, considering Natty’s intentions here, to wed him to the progress of frontier society, but, nevertheless, the connection is apt. Natty Bumppo (or his historical {113} counterparts) will, in fleeing society, create a pathway making it possible for frontier society to expand into the wilderness.

And so, in this final vision, Cooper’s ambivalence (maintained so carefully throughout the novel) is strengthened with a charge of irony. By allowing Natty (in his love for the wilderness — and hatred for society) to flee that society, Cooper remains true to the values of that character. At the same time, Cooper is able to celebrate frontier progress: the novel closes with Natty Bumppo, by the very act of fleeing society, unwittingly dragging that society after him, ever deeper into the woods.

New York University

Works Cited

  • Beard, James Franklin, Jr. “Cooper and his Artistic Contempories.” James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-appraisal. Ed. Mary E. Cunningham. Cooperstown: NY State Historical Association, 1954.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers. Albany: SUNY Press, 1980.
  • Dekker, George and John P. McWilliams. Eds. Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.
  • Franklin, Wayne. The New World of James Fenimore Cooper, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classical American Literature. London: Heinemann, 1971.
  • Nevius, Blake. Cooper’s Landscapes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
  • Philbrick, Thomas. “Cooper’s The Pioneers: Origins and Structure.” James Fenimore Cooper. Ed. Wayne Fields. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1979.
  • Railton, Stephen. Fenimore Cooper. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.
  • Ringe, Donald. The Pictorial Mode. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1971.
  • Spiller, Robert. James Fenimore Cooper. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965.