Cooper’s “Course of Empire”: Mountains and the Rise and Fall of American Civilization in The Last of the Mohicans, The Spy, and The Pioneers

Ian Marshall (Pennsylvania State University, Altoona)

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. 55-66).

Copyright © 1989 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

Savage State

Savage State.


The Arcadian or Pastoral State

Arcadian or Pastoral State.


The Consummation of Empire

Consummation of Empire.







In his allegorical series of paintings entitled The Course of Empire (1836), Thomas Cole depicted the rise and fall of a civilization from wilderness (The Savage State) to Pastoral State to thriving civilization (Consummation) to apocalyptic fall (Destruction) to reclamation of the land by the wilderness (Desolation). Throughout the changes represented on the five canvases, a mountain looms in the background, wild, indomitable, grand, and unchanging, seeming to represent the force of nature, as that force in turn, perhaps, represents the higher force of God. James Fenimore Cooper, an acquaintance of Cole’s whose fiction inspired several of Cole’s paintings, 1 likewise concerned himself in his art with the rise and fall of civilization from frontier to full flower to decline. The Crater (1847), for instance, begins with two shipwrecked men discovering a Pacific Isle and, Crusoe-like, establishing a pastoral state. After they are rescued, other colonists emigrate to their civilization, bringing it to consummation. But when the people of that civilization treat the founder with disrespect and a disregard for his rights as landowner, the civilization declines, in moral terms first, then, quite dramatically, in the physical world. A volcano erupts and destroys the island civilization, leaving only the tip of a smoking volcano, which Cooper explicitly compares to the mountain in Cole’s Course of Empire. 2 Cooper’s esteem for Cole’s work is most avidly expressed in an 1849 letter to Cole’s biographer Louis Noble. The Course of Empire series, says Cooper, constitutes “a great epic poem” (397), “the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced” and “one of the noblest works of art that has ever been wrought” (398).

Even before Cole’s Course of Empire paintings, Cooper’s early fiction, especially that set on American ground, shows the same concern with the rise and fall of empire. And in much of that work, mountains are there in the background, representing the power of nature, sometimes serving as touchstones of the national character. Unlike the mountain in Cole’s Course of Empire, however, the mountains of Cooper’s early novels, symbolizing America rather than God, themselves change with the progress of civilization’s seasons. The mountains in Cooper’s version of progress do not remain stolid and indomitable in the face of civilization’s rise and fall; 3 at first viewed with fear and loathing and associated with the native inhabitants, then characterized ambiguously before becoming associated with the whites who would establish American civilization, and finally appreciated wholeheartedly even as they are destroyed by that civilization, the mountains in Cooper’s vision of progress are very much affected by civilization’s changes. Taken in chronological order (chronological, that is, in terms of historical setting as opposed to publication dates) three novels of the 1820s, The Last of the Mohicans, The {56} Spy, and The Pioneers, provide an outline of Cooper’s version of America’s “Course of Empire.”

In The Last of the Mohicans (1826), set in 1757, the mountainous landscape around Lake George (called Horican in the novel) represents America in the wilderness phase of development — the savage state. For staging purposes, to literally evoke a sense of high drama, Cooper places many of the key events atop elevations of various sorts. Natty Bumppo, Uncas, and Chingachgook first encounter Cora and Alice Munro, Duncan Heyward, and David Gamut atop a hill. They rescue the girls atop another hill after the fight at Glens Falls, then observe the siege of Fort William Henry from the top of Prospect Mountain. Cora, after being recaptured by the crafty Huron Magua, watches the slaughter of the British from the same summit. Natty’s party finally catches up to Cora at the Delaware camp high in the mountains, and eventually they help the Delawares fight the Hurons on yet another mountain. Magua and Uncas, of course, engage in their death struggle at the edge of a high precipice.

The Last of the Mohicans is unusual for a Cooper novel in that the action ranges over such widespread terrain. Usually Cooper uses prominent landscape features such as mountains as focal points of the action and as landmarks to place the action geographically and to commemorate the history of America. 4 The novel is also unique for Cooper in that the mountains are regarded with little aesthetic appreciation. The mountains frequently present physical and psychological obstacles to the white protagonists. Much of the description emphasizes the difficulties of travel in the mountains, an attitude which is reminiscent of the early days of settlement in America, when mountainous wilderness was feared as a hideous unknown and resented as an obstacle to overcome. Aesthetic appreciation requires a distancing from nature in its “savage” state, a step which is commensurate with the rise of civilization and, implicitly, with progress towards a higher morality. The irony, of course, is that this same civilization which allows for aesthetic distance and appreciation can lead to the exploitation and destruction of the object of appreciation — the mountain wilderness.

Because Cooper writes in The Last of the Mohicans of a time when concern for survival took precedence over aesthetic matters, even when mountains are appreciated, the appreciation is based more on practicality than aesthetics. At the outlook over Fort William Henry, for example, Hawkeye welcomes the spot only as a place far the Munro girls to rest and for him to plan their route to the fort. He also uses the mountains on occasion as protection, winding his way through them to avoid Montcalm’s men and to throw them off the trail.

For the most part, though, even Hawkeye is an outsider in the mountains. He is less in harmony with the landscape in The Last of the Mohicans than in any other of the Leatherstocking tales. The landscape is forbidding here, which, as H. Daniel Peck notes, reflects both the bloody events of the novel and Natty’s character in it, which is harsher and crueler than usual (137). He reacts decisively and, at times, hard-heartedly to the necessities of the setting and the situation. For instance, he unhesitatingly kills a mule when it endangers his party’s safety, and he occasionally rebukes the greenhorns Gamut and Heyward for getting in the way when they are trying to help with {57} tracking and survival matters.

The mountains in The Last of the Mohicans, besides being regarded without aesthetic enthusiasm, also differ from those in other Cooper novels in that they do not serve as touchstones of moral virtue. The amorality of the mountains seems to put them outside the realm of Providence. In other Leatherstocking novels, mountains serve as valid tests of character; that is, one can determine the merit of a man or woman by his or her appreciation of the mountains. But in The Last of the Mohicans amoral and immoral people, especially native peoples, enjoy as close an association with the mountains as the virtuous Hawkeye or the “good” Indians Uncas and Chingachgook. In fact, the Hurons are more adept than Hawkeye at using the mountains to hide in. Were it not for Uncas’s wilderness skills, superior even to Hawkeye’s, Magua would succeed in escaping with Cora Munro.

The close relationship of the Indians with their land becomes apparent at Tamenund’s camp, set in the “bosom” of the mountains (292); there a Delaware chief asserts his people’s place in the mountains: “The Lenape are the rulers of their own hills” (288). And wise old Tamenund judges that Indian law is as permanent as his native country; a Delaware must not desert his people “while the rivers run and the mountains stand” (308).

Significantly, the only battle fought on the mountains is that between the Hurons and Delawares. The British and French avoid the difficult terrain of the mountains. Cooper even chides Montcalm for his military negligence in failing to secure the heights during the siege of Fort William Henry, out of “contempt for eminences, or rather dread of the labour of ascending them” (146). The armies of both French and British remain separated, distant from the mountains. In essence, they fight to see who will win the right to bring civilization to the “savage state” all around them, to see who will subdue it and convert it from wilderness to civilization.

In The Last of the Mohicans, then, mountains are associated not with the whites who would form a nation out of the wilderness, but with the Indians who would vanish with the advance of civilization. What is unknown, be it land or person, civilization terms “savage.” By mourning the passing of the Last of the Mohicans, Cooper acknowledges that the gains of civilization entail same losses. As civilization advances, good Indians as well as bad vanish, and the beauties as well as the hindrances of wilderness are subdued. If the mountains are presented in a predominantly negative light, that reflects mainly the fears of white settlers in America, unable to recognize humanity in skin of a different color or to perceive nature’s beauty amid what Peck calls a “landscape of difficulty” (90-145). If there is anything positive in this landscape, from civilization’s standpoint, it is that the power of the mountain wilderness makes us conscious of the history that the mountains have witnessed. And Cooper shows how the act of contesting against the wilderness, while it and its native inhabitants still held the upper hand over whites and their civilization, helped produce the strength and courage that enabled white men eventually to succeed in their quest for domination.

The Spy; or, A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821), Cooper’s second novel and his first placed on American soil, deals with the Revolutionary War, circa {58} 1780. Here the mountains are, for the most part, characterized ambiguously. At times they threaten, at times they protect; at times they appear dreary and forlorn, and at times they are beautiful. But by novel’s end, the mountains seem part of a pastoral America rather than a daunting wilderness. The initial ambiguity reflects the setting upon “neutral ground”; since foreign and domestic forces contend for possession of the American landscape, the land can be feared for harboring enemies or esteemed as safe or hard-won soil. 5 Several critics have noted that this ambiguity about the mountain landscape also reflects character, for we cannot be sure about the allegiances of the hero, Harvey Birch. Officially neutral but suspected of being a British spy, the peddler protagonist actually is loyal to his country, and he becomes more closely associated with his country in the form of its mountains as the novel progresses. During our progress to realization about Birch’s true character, the mountains become less threatening and more protective, and they are increasingly viewed with some aesthetic appreciation.

Not until the book’s final third does the action move into the mountainous country of the Hudson Highlands. Before then, the mountains are seen as uncongenial sources of bad weather. The rocky outcrops of Westchester County are also viewed negatively; they are termed “useless rocks” (233) and “cursed hills” (255), presenting obstacles to military maneuvers and suggesting danger from the enemy. But the recesses of Westchester’s cliffs and hills eventually bring succor as well as danger. An unseen ally hidden in the rocks — Harvey Birch, of course — tosses a message wrapped around a stone to warn the Americans of an ambush up ahead. And in other skirmishes, the cliffs offer the Americans shelter.

The same rise in appreciation for the “landscape of difficulty” is repeated when the action moves to the Highlands. And this time the growth in appreciation is based more on aesthetic than practical concerns, and the appreciation goes well beyond ambiguity to a positive depiction. Frances Wharton, alone among the American party, seems initially sensitive to the beauty of the mountains. Not coincidentally, only she detects Harvey’s presence in the mountains and, subsequently, recognizes him as an ally; to see the true nature of things, Cooper implies, is to see beauty in the wild. As the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers contended, aesthetic taste and morality are related. While admiring a view of a mountain en route to the American camp, Frances watches a “solitary gleam” of sunlight working its way up the mountains (242). A reflection off a window-pane reveals the location of Harvey’s mountain hut. The description of the mountain, as Frances scans its slopes, first stresses her disappointed hopes of the clouds dispersing to permit a view, then shows the sunlight bursting through. The shift parallels the narrator’s change in attitude towards mountains in the book, our growing understanding of Harvey’s true character, and the brightening fortunes of the Americans in the war. Basically, we move from darkness to light, obscurity to illumination, confusion to understanding and approval.

In a later scene, Frances is again disturbed by the mountain’s forbidding aspect, “startled at the gloom, and appalled with the dreariness of the prospect” (287). But eventually the pattern of her first view of the shack repeats itself; literal gloom gives way to bursting moonlight, metaphoric gloom gives way to hope. Light from heaven, as in many of Cole’s {59} paintings, represents God’s approbation and His involvement in human affairs. The heavenly light implies God’s support for Frances’ moral cause (to save her brother, an English officer) and for the American moral cause (to gain independence).

When Harvey helps Frances’s brother Henry escape, they succeed because Harvey knows the mountains, a result, on the literal level, of his perambulating professions as peddler and spy, and, on a metaphoric level, of his kinship with the American landscape. Even the dangers of the mountains, their rocks and precipices and gloom and “barren sterility” (306), work to the advantage of one who knows the country. Harvey’s efforts lead them at length to safety at a point overlooking the Hudson. And here Cooper indulges in his favorite use of mountains, the painterly prospect description, generally a way of ordering a landscape in some way — to provide a topographical or moral vantage point, a perspective on recent or past events, or a vision of the future. In this case, Cooper first emphasizes the apparent disorder of the countryside, typical of the mountain scenery through much of the novel; he describes “broken fragments” and “confused piles” of hills. But then the scene is brought into a pastoral harmony, the disparate elements connected by the river’s windings as viewed from the elevated perspective. Part of the harmony, too, results from a vision of what the scene will look like once the American civilization establishes itself on this landscape. Cooper includes in his extensive description of the scene a picture of “scores of white sails” on the Hudson as of the 1820s, lending the scene an “air of life which denotes the neighborhood to the metropolis of a great and flourishing empire” (307).

In this vision of America’s future, the prospect reveals the forward-looking, hope-filled landscapes that Cooper, through his spokesman Cadwallader, says in Notions of the Americans that one ought to look for in America. Appreciation for landscape here is based on hope rather than recollection (I:250). The bounty of America’s landscape of the future excuses its lack of the historical associations found in Europe’s landscapes. Cooper, of course, seeks to provide those same kinds of associations through the historical geography depicted in The Spy, but he also imposes on the historical scene a vision of the next step in America’s “course of empire.” The effect is to make the wilderness less forbidding, more welcoming, more tamed, because we know that present danger will be overcome. Through the course of the novel, the mountains become more closely associated with the American forces as well as with Harvey Birch. The Americans control the Highlands, and the depictions of the mountains become more positive when the action moves there. In part the positive description derives from the comfort and safety the Americans feel there; references to the “bosom of the hills” (239) and “the shelter of the hills” (278) abound. But there is also aesthetic appreciation, and in a footnote Cooper suggests that the Americans’ geographic position corresponds to their moral superiority: “The American party was called the party belonging ‘above,’” he says, “and the British that of ‘below’” (24). Cooper explains that “The terms had reference to the course of the Hudson,” but possibly he hints as well at heaven “above” and hell “below.”

The identification of American forces and fortunes with America’s {60} mountains becomes readily apparent in the final chapter. The scene shifts to the hills around Niagara Falls during the War of 1812, where Wharton Dunwoodie, son of Frances Wharton and the American officer Peyton Dunwoodie, participates in the taking of a “conical eminence ... crowned with the cannon of the British” (332). Symbolically, the hill represents all the United States, and its taking represents the final repulse of the British from American land. Harvey Birch dies on that hill, “a martyr to her liberties” (333). Dunwoodie finds on Birch’s body a note from George Washington explaining the spy’s duplicitous but necessary role in the Revolution and affirming his loyalty. Washington’s note confirms the allegiance to his country that Birch’s identification with its geography has suggested throughout the novel. That sort of sympathy between human and landscape is the essence of the pastoral state. Again, though, Cooper hints at the costs entailed by such victories in the advance of civilization. The association of white Americans with the mountains suggests that their military victory in asserting their claims to the land coincides with a victory for the pastoral state. A generation later, circa 1812, American civilization has reached its consummation. But in the death of Harvey Birch, whose surname itself suggests his association with the land, Cooper hints at the next stage in America’s “Course of Empire” — destruction.

The Pioneers (1823) also traces American civilization’s rise from savage state to destruction, but while The Last of the Mohicans focused mainly on the first stage and The Spy mainly on the shift from savage state to pastoral, The Pioneers, set in 1793, a half generation later than The Spy, introduces those stages as past history and concentrates mostly on the approaching shift from pastoral state to consummation and then destruction. 6

Mt. Vision, rising above the town of Templeton and Lake Otsego, dominates the novel’s setting and action. Most of the key events take place on the mountain, including the opening scene, which establishes the novel’s main conflict. While drawing a verbal map of upstate New York, Cooper explains that the scene blends wilderness and civilization. It is the essence of the pastoral state brought to fruition, with mountains “arable to the tops” but yet “romantic and picturesque.” The valleys are “rich and cultivated,” with “thriving villages ... and neat and comfortable farms, with every indication of wealth about them ... scattered profusely through the vales” (15).

Here the forces of wilderness and civilization harmonize, evidence of human industry coexisting comfortably with the rugged aspect of the mountainous countryside. In Notions of the Americans, Cooper claims that this sort of harmony, this “admixture of civilization, and of the forest, of the works of man, and of the reign of nature” is uniquely American (I:248). But this pastoral state is the fragile result of the tension between wilderness and civilization; any further progress — and further progress is inevitable — brings civilization to the “consummation” stage — and wilderness to its destruction.

The conflict between these forces is established in the novel’s opening scene, when Judge Marmaduke Temple and Oliver Edwards argue about whose shot brought down a deer. Temple is associated with the forces of civilization, since he is the one responsible for bringing civilization to the area in the form of the town named for him. Oliver Edwards, who lives in a mountain hut with Natty Bumppo and Indian John (a.k.a. Chingachgook), represents the wilderness {61} spirit. Significantly, the Judge shoots at the deer for sport, while Edwards needs the meat. The injury inadvertently done Edwards by one of the Judge’s wayward shots foreshadows the various assaults upon nature by the forces of civilization throughout the novel. Most of these, too, take place on the mountain — the slaughter of the pigeons by the townspeople, the forest fire that endangers Elizabeth Temple’s life and in which Chingachgook perishes, and the siege of Natty’s cave by the townspeople. Again, Cooper hies us to the mountains whenever he wants to heighten interest rhetorically, but the mountain is the subject as well as the setting for these assaults on nature.

Most of the novel’s action, though, consists of less dramatic incidents. The Pioneers is subtitled A Descriptive Tale with good reason. Much of the “action” involves nothing more than characters simply responding to the setting. After the opening description introduces the situation and the essential conflict between the forces of civilization and wilderness, subsequent description from the same vantage point furthers the unfolding of that central conflict. Our awareness of the rapidity with which Templeton has developed, for instance, results from contrasting views from Mt. Vision. Judge Temple’s description of his first view from that prospect point stresses the area’s savage state. He sees “boundless forest,” “myriads of ... wild-fowl,” “a bear,” and “many deer.” He also presents a negative catalogue, familiar in American landscape description, to stress the deprivations of the savage state; “not the vestige of a man could I trace,” he says. “No clearing, no hut, none of the winding roads that are now to be seen were there; nothing but mountains rising upon mountains. ... ” (235).

Temple’s description of his first view works by contrasting the scene with the pastoral state that he has helped build. And from the start he has envisioned this development of civilization, as the name he gives Mt. Vision suggests. His daughter, similarly employing contrast as a means of description, gives the fullest idea of what Templeton and its environs have become. Her description of the vista afforded by Mt. Vision stresses the settlements and farms that at present dot the landscape but are growing so fast that they seem to be “enlarging under her eye” as she gazes in “mute wonder, at the alterations that a few short years had made in the aspect of the country” (40). What she envisions is the next step beyond pastoral in the progress of civilization, the consummation stage. And early in the novel that step seems to be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Elizabeth’s judgement of the rapid development remains unclear, but her aesthetic appreciation for mountain scenery allies her in part with the wilderness forces in the book, comprising Leatherstocking, Indian John, and Oliver Edwards. She feels a loss of sorts in moving from mountain to valley when she enters Templeton. The only other character to express delight in prospects is Leatherstocking, who goes into an extended, seemingly digressive rapture over a prospect in the Catskills, at the site of what had become the Catskill Mountain House when Cooper wrote The Pioneers. Leatherstocking’s landscape aesthetic, more clearly than Elizabeth’s, favors the savage state over the commercialized version of pastoral that signals Templeton’s approach to consummation of civilization. He says of a stream and waterfall that they would be perfect for turning a mill “if so useless a thing was wanted in the wilderness” (293).

{62} In contrast, the townspeople of Templeton, antagonistic to Leatherstocking and to the wilderness, appreciate the wild only to the extent that they can exploit it for economic profit. In their schemes, the mountain is useful for providing timber or maple syrup, as a vantage point for slaughtering pigeons (though in that scene wanton cruelty rather than profit provides the motivation), and, for Sheriff Richard Jones (the Judge’s cousin), Hiram Doolittle, and Jotham Riddel, as a source of gold and silver. They so little understand Leatherstocking’s relationship with the land that they believe that he and his friends live on the mountain only to work a hidden mine. When the townspeople, inspired and deluded by greed, corner Natty’s party in a cave, the difficult terrain of the mountain prevents an assault on the cave. The protection offered by the mountain illustrates the mutually beneficial relationship that Leatherstocking enjoys with the land.

Cooper, of course, does not condemn the forces of civilization out of hand. The most obvious antagonist of Natty and Oliver would seem to be Judge Temple; he convicts and imprisons Natty for poaching and he unknowingly denies Oliver’s claims to land and position. He also seems to lack aesthetic appreciation for landscapes; he admires the view from Mt. Vision, but his pleasure is based more on economic and egoistic considerations than on aesthetic ones. He admires “the prospect of affluence and comfort, that was expanding around him;” and mentally boasts that the area’s development is “the result of his own enterprise, and, much of it, the fruits of his own industry” (46). But the Judge also plays a positive conservationist role by controlling the progress of civilization. By enforcing game laws and by encouraging reforestation, he seeks to conserve the environment for future generations. He would regulate the advancement of civilization in such a way as to keep it compatible with the wilderness; he would preserve’ an element of pastoral amid the growth of civilization. Unfortunately the civilized social code which he implements inevitably conflicts with the natural law by which Natty Bumppo lives.

Cooper’s sources give further evidence that his stance is not staunchly anti-progress. The character of Judge Temple is derived in large part from Cooper’s father, and the town of Templeton is modeled on the novelist’s native Cooperstown, founded by his father, and Cooper intends no disrespect towards either. And Cooper would certainly see the need for legal protection of the land, since not all people can be counted on to maintain a non-exploitative relationship with the land à la Natty Bumppo. In the novel, the conflict between the values of wilderness and civilization are resolved in the persons of Elizabeth Temple and Oliver Effingham. She is the daughter of Judge Temple, the leading force and representative of civilization, but she shares the values and aesthetics of the wilderness representatives and enjoys a kinship with nature. Effingham eventually re-assumes his “rightful” position in civilized society as land-owner and untitled aristocrat, but his sympathies with the forces of wilderness remain intact. The resolution between the conflicting forces is finalized, of course, by the marriage of Oliver and Elizabeth.

For many readers, though, that conflict remains unresolved. And judging by his preoccupation with the topic, Cooper himself was not satisfied with the novel’s specious resolution. These early novels introduce the essential concern of Cooper’s work, the problem of reconciling civilization and wilderness, social and natural law, progress and conservation. And early in his career, before his {63} trip to Europe from 1826 to 1833, Cooper seems to fear more for the fate of the wilderness than for the state of civilization. If the mountains in The Pioneers represents the vantage point from which a glorious future can be envisioned and planned — a vantage point, perhaps, upon which America stood in the 1820s — it also represents the land endangered by progress. Given an optimistic reading, The Pioneers suggests that such reconciliations can be accomplished. Like the mountain in Cole’s Course of Empire, Mt. Vision endures; it is there at the founding of Templeton, and still there at the demise of Chingachgook and the departure of Leatherstocking. Americans, it seems, can retain the spirit of their land and conserve the land itself while yet progressing as a nation. On the other hand, given a less optimistic reading, the novel demonstrates that consummation of empire inevitably destroys the land it is founded upon. 7 Chingachgook does die, and Leatherstocking does leave Templeton in disgust. And the mountain, to Cole a symbol of nature’s permanence, 8 is burned over, its animal life slaughtered (even if the town is saved by a timely thunderstorm). The pastoral state in the progress of civilization seems to be Cooper’s ideal, as it was Thomas Jefferson’s, but it is an ephemeral thing. And consummation of empire, according to Cooper, seems to be the point where the balance between civilization and nature is already disrupted — to nature’s disadvantage. Civilization, though changing form as it progresses from one phase to the next, seems to be the constant while wilderness is potentially transient. The tragedy of Cooper’s course of empire is not that civilization is doomed, but that wilderness is. 9 Together, Cole and Cooper reveal the fears that lay just below the surface of America’s optimism in the early nineteenth century — fears about what American civilization, in its process of becoming, was doing to itself and to the wild.

Pennsylvania State University, Altoona

Works Cited

  • Callow, James T. Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists, 1807-1855. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Crater or Vulcan’s Peak. 1847. Ed. Thomas Philbrick. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1962.
  • ------. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. 1826. Ed. James Franklin Beard et al. Albany: SUNY Press, 1983.
  • ------. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper: 1845-1849. Vol. 5. Ed. James Franklin Beard. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968. 6 vols.
  • ------. Notions of the Americans — Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor. 1828. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1963. 2 vols.
  • ------. The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale. 1823. Ed. James Franklin Beard et al. Albany: SUNY Press, 1980.
  • ------. The Spy; or, A Tale of the Neutral Ground. 1821. NY: Dodd Mead, 1946.
  • Jones, Howard Mumford. “Prose and Pictures: James Fenimore Cooper.” Tulane Studies in English 3 (1952): 133-54.
  • Lynen, John F. The Design of the Present: Essays in Time and Form in American Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969.
  • Nevius, Blake. Cooper’s Landscapes: An Essay on the Picturesque Vision. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
  • Peck, H. Daniel. A World by Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
  • Philbrick, Thomas. “Cooper’s The Pioneers: Origins and Structure.” James Fenimore Cooper: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Wayne Fields. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979. 58-79. Rpt. from PMLA 79 (1964) 583-93.
  • Ringe, Donald. “James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole: An Analogous Technique.” American Literature 30 (1958): 26-36.
  • ------. The Pictorial Mode: Space and Time in the Art of Bryant, Irving, and Cooper. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1971.


1 Cole twice painted a scene from Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, that of Cora kneeling at the foot of Tamenund at the Delaware camp high in the Adirondack Mountains. The allusive compliment worked the other way, too, as Cooper’s reference in The Crater to Cole’s Course of Empire series indicates. Indeed, in many respects The Crater constitutes a literary version of Cole’s series on the rise and fall of a civilization, reiterating the themes traced here through The Last of the Mohicans, The Spy, and The Pioneers. John Hales, however, elsewhere in this volume, [says Cooper’s use] of the Course of Empire in The Crater differs from Cole’s paintings. Essentially, says Hales, Cooper makes the natural world the agent of destruction (via geological disruptions like earthquakes and volcanoes), while Cole has civilization destroying itself (through war). Both here and in his novels of the 1820s, Cooper’s natural world is anything but static. Early in his career, though, his concern seemed to be more for what civilization does to the natural world than for what civilization does to itself by destroying the natural world. For further critical comment on the connections between the work of Cole and Cooper, see Donald Ringe’s “James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole: An Analogous Technique” and Howard Mumford Jones’s “Prose and Pictures: James Fenimore Cooper.” For thorough accounts of the personal friendships and artistic connections between nineteenth-century writers and painters, see Ringe’s The Pictorial Mode, James T. Callow’s Kindred Spirits, and Blake Nevius’s Cooper’s Landscapes.

2 Though The Crater is set on a Pacific Isle, the progress of events is clearly meant to parallel America’s history and situation. The Crater itself seems to represent New England’s encounter with landscape, essentially, as its settlers saw it, a Canaan that is brought to fruition only with the aid of human ingenuity and industry as well as with the provisions of Providence. Vulcan’s Peak, to the south of the Crater, seems to represent the American South, where the land comes Edenic straight from the hand of God. The decline of the island civilization reveals Cooper’s fears about a tyranny of the masses fostered by democracy gone wrong. The allegory contains a personal level as well, since the protagonist’s loss of legal right to the island echoes Cooper’s fight to establish legal right to Three Mile Point on Lake Otsego. Peck points out that, symbolically, “the volcanic destruction of Crater Island ... punishes America for what it had done to the Cooper family” (157).

3 According to John Lynen in The Design of the Present, not the mountains but Leatherstocking himself is “Cooper’s most effective symbol of permanence. ... While the five Leatherstocking novels portray the hero in every phase of his life, from young manhood to old age, his personality remains unchanged throughout” (200).

4 Nevius notes that Cooper often picks some “strikingly visible” piece of landscape to “serve as a central magnet ... around which one phase of the action may cohere” (9). Usually, says Nevius, these locales are picked for their “pictorial rather than ... moral or symbolic values” (11). H. Daniel Peck calls the topographical focal point typical of a Cooper novel a “moral center of gravity [that] holds the action ... within a tightly bounded perimeter” (91). Peck also observes, as I do, that the harsh, austere landscape of The Last of the Mohicans “seems to violate the aesthetics of landscape that inform and control [Cooper’s] other forest novels” (91).

5 Peck contends that “The landscape of The Spy is rendered in images of terrible difficulty, a characteristic which objectifies the writer’s uneasiness with states of ambiguity” (98). To him, The Spy’s terrain seems a “model for the landscape of difficulty” (96). I believe, however, that the negative character of the landscape in The Spy is only a starting point, and that the shift to a positive depiction of the land reinforces our growing approval of Harvey Birch and our growing confidence in America’s fortunes.

6 Thomas Philbrick makes similar observations about the progress of civilization in The Pioneers, though without reference to the framework suggested by Cole’s Course of Empire paintings. “Seen in its widest development,” says Philbrick, “The Pioneers encompasses the whole sweep of the first two hundred years of social change in America, the progression from the hunting culture of the forest Indians, through the initial processes of white settlement, to the establishment of a stable, ordered civilization” (77).

7 As Ringe puts it, “The society of Templeton may seem to the modern reader to contain within itself the seeds of its own destruction” (Pictorial Mode 181). Ringe goes on, however, to temper this view by pointing out that the book ends by celebrating progress, with Leatherstocking leading the way to the western frontier — in Cooper’s words, “opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent” (477).

8 Ringe, expressing succinctly a widespread interpretation, says that the mountain in Cole’s Course of Empire “suggests the permanence of nature in contrast to the transience of even man’s mightiest empires” (Pictorial Mode 144). Cooper himself in his letter to Noble says that the peak in Cole’s paintings “seen in its different aspects, but always the same [is] a monument of its divine origin, amid all the changes of the scene” (397). And that seems to be the symbolic meaning of the mountain in Cooper’s The Crater as well. But in these early works, the mountains undergo numerous changes, ultimately to face destruction, while civilization thrives. Civilization is the constant, wilderness the endangered.

9 This concern for nature above culture makes Cooper seem (even) more of a conservationist than is generally acknowledged. Apparently, though, perhaps because he saw the consummation stage in Europe and found it good, his conservationist fears abated somewhat by the time he wrote Home as Found in 1838; there the town of Templeton, as seen through the eyes of the descendants of Elizabeth Temple and Oliver Effingham, has grown to consummation and prospered without destroying the area’s natural resources.