The Double Chronology of Leatherstocking

Richard Morton (McMaster 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. 78-93).

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

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

At the end of his life, in the final chapter of The Prairie, Leatherstocking is seated with his famous long rifle on his lap and with the body of his recently dead hound, Hector, at his feet. His final thoughts are in accord with those he had expressed through his whole career he meditates on the differences between Indian ways and Christian ways, noting how they are nonetheless quite compatible. Their relationship with each other is at least innocuous:

These Indians are not the sort of men to lay the head of a white man in his grave. I have been thinking too, of this dog at my feet: it will not do to set forth the opinion that a christian can expect to meet his hound, again, still there can be little harm in placing what is left of so faithful a servant nigh the bones of his master (Tales, 1, 1313).

He is not an Indian, although throughout the saga new acquaintances have needed a moment to convince themselves of this, for example, Mabel’s first glimpse of him in The Pathfinder:

She was about to be addressed by one of her own color, though his dress was so strange a mixture of the habits of the two races, that it required a near look to be certain of the fact (Tales 2, 19-20).

In spite of his Moravian education, he is not very obviously a Christian either; he has none of Hetty’s piety, in The Deerslayer, and even avoids the tenuous pledge made by Chingachgook, now Indian John, in The Pioneers. At the end, in his death-seat, he characterizes himself more sharply: “A hunter need never be ashamed to be found in company with his dog.”

It is as a hunter that he finally grasps the long rifle, remembering its glorious, destructive past. Like King Arthur to Sir Bedivere, he charges the last of his “knights,” young Duncan Middleton, to return it where it belongs:

Take this rifle, and pouch, and horn, and send them to the person whose name is graven on the plates of the stock. ... [Leatherstocking is thinking of young Effingham of Templeton from The Pioneers] I know it will give the boy pleasure to hang the piece in his hall, for many is the deer and the bird that he has seen it destroy (Tales 1, 1313, 1315).

The long rifle is the identifying icon of Leatherstocking — only Huckleberry Finn and his raft or Captain Ahab and his quarterdeck are equally recognizable pairings of American fictional heroes and inanimate objects. The first action, indeed, that nineteenth-century readers had seen Leatherstocking take, at the beginning of the first volume, The Pioneers, was what he recollects at the end:

{79} Cocking his rifle, [he] threw one leg far behind him, and stretching his left arm to its utmost extent along the barrel of his piece, he began slowly to raise its muzzle in a line with the straight trunk of the tree ... at the distance of seventy feet ... sat a bird, that in the vulgar language of the country, was indiscriminately called a pheasant or a partridge. ... As soon as the rifle bore on the victim, Natty drew his trigger, and the partridge fell from its height with a force that buried it in the snow! (Tales 1, 26).

In The Last of the Mohicans, the rifle is not only an efficient machine: it has an emotional potency recognised by both Leatherstocking and his enemies. In the early incident when Leatherstocking and Chingachgook leave the women under their protection to certain capture by the Indian band, Leatherstocking quits them with amiable but businesslike briskness, while he abandons his rifle with more emotion:

He gave Cora an affectionate shake of the hand, lifted his rifle, and after regarding it a moment with melancholy solicitude, laid it carefully aside (Tales 1, 560).

Soon Magua’s men discover the weapon, which now becomes a great prize, fraught with significance — a sign, in the technical sense, which at one and the same time is interpreted (or to be more accurate, misinterpreted) by the Indians and provides a moment of recognition to Heyward:

He heard the voices collect near the spot where the white man had so reluctantly abandoned his rifle. ... A burst of voices had shouted, simultaneously, “La Longue Carabine!” causing the opposite woods to re-echo with a name which, Heyward well remembered, had been given by his enemies to a celebrated hunter and scout of the English camp, and who he now learned, for the first time, had been his late companion. “La Longe Carabine! La Longue Carabine!” passed from mouth to mouth, until the whole band appeared to be collected around a trophy, which would seem to announce the death of its formidable owner (Tales 1, 567-68).

They assume, and reasonably enough, that Leatherstocking would never willingly relinquish his rifle. Foolishly relying on their error, they leave the captured gun lying outside the camp, so that Leatherstocking can regain it and lead a rescue:

“I have got back my old companion ‘killdeer,’” he added, striking his hand on the breech of his rifle, “and that in itself is a victory.” Moments later, he “was seated, examining into the state of his rifle with a species of parental assiduity “(Tales 1, 603). The rifle is, successively, a tender object, a trophy, a companion, a child. Moreover, its very name seems to incorporate it with its owner, at least in the novel of Leatherstocking’s {80} youth; it is “Killdeer,” he is “Deerslayer.”

The Deerslayer tells how Leatherstocking first received the weapon, and identifies its legendary qualities. After the death of Hutter, Leatherstocking and his friend Hurry Harry examine the man’s rifle:

The piece was a little longer than usual, and had evidently been turned out from the work shops of some manufacturer of a superior order. It had a few silver ornaments, though, on the whole, it would have been deemed a plain piece by most frontier men, its great merit consisting in the accuracy of its bore, the perfection of the details, and the excellence of the metal (Tales 2, 870).

Hurry Harry obviously hopes that Hutter’s daughter Judith will give it to him, while Leatherstocking suggests that Harry is not a good enough shot to merit it: “This is a lordly piece, and would make a steady hand and quick eye the King of the Woods!” To his vast surprise, Judith interrupts at once: “Then keep it, Deerslayer, and become King of the Woods. ... It call never be in better hands than it is, at this moment, and there I hope it will remain these fifty years” (Tales 2, 871). This, Cooper reminds us, was Killdeer, “which subsequently became so celebrated, in the hands of the individual who was now making a survey of its merits” (Tales 2, 870).

By the end of The Deerslayer, the relationship between Judith and Leatherstocking has become anxious, disturbingly complex and emotionally tangled. Years after the events there related, though neither he nor the reader finds out what really happens to her, Leatherstocking discovers a bit of her ribbon and ties it to the stock of Killdeer. Loaded thus with romantic significance, it is a mythic gun — the sceptre of the King of the Woods, granted for half a century by Judith the prophetess. A reader surveying Leatherstocking’s life might have expected that even stronger emotions might finally have clustered around the rifle, and that, at the moment of his death, his thoughts might have gone back, not some dozen years to his experiences with the Temples and young Oliver Effingham, but to his long-gone youth with the Hutters on Lake Glimmerglass. But such a reader is forgetting the chronologies. If Leatherstocking’s death occurs some sixty years after the acquisition of Killdeer, The Deerslayer is written some twenty years after The Pioneers, and some fourteen years after the eloquently described death of the hero. The dying Leatherstocking, and the readers who wept for him, had never heard of Hurry Harry or Judith Hutter.


James Fenimore Cooper is clearly the master of that curious literary genre now known as the “prequel”: creating Nathaniel Bumppo as a late-middle-aged misfit in the society of The Pioneers (1323), he then moves him backwards in time to full adult power and maturity in The Last of the Mohicans (1826). He then goes forward to old age and death in The Prairie (1827), and finally, after a long break, he shows Bumppo in early middle-age in The Pathfinder (1840), and takes him back to youth and the first adventure in The Deerslayer (1841). This publication sequence has been acutely described by Donald Pease in his introduction to The Deerslayer as honouring “Bumppo’s character by {81} inventing a tradition for it.” In his 1850 preface to The Deerslayer, Cooper himself notes, ” The Deerslayer is properly the first in the order of reading, though the last in that of publication” (Tales 2, 493).

The two collected texts of the Leatherstocking Saga currently in print assume differing “orders of reading.” The scrupulous Library of America edition prints the books in the order of publication, fitting the five novels into two fat volumes. Allan Nevin’s admirable one-volume abridgement (granted, it explicitly focusses on the life story of Natty Bumppo) moves the hero from youth to death in the fiction’s chronological order. Other texts in print — the authoritative edition from the State University of New York, the widely-used Signet volumes, and the recent, elegant Penguin texts — are in single hooks, for the reader to read or put on the shelf in whatever order he or she wishes. But the question, what is the proper order of reading? is critically valid.

There are three ways in which commentators have assessed the odd contrasting chronologies of the novels, with implicit or explicit reference to an assumed order of ideal reading. First, there are Cooper’s own comments in his 1850 Preface to the collected Leatherstocking Tales, following the chronology of Natty Bumppo’s biography. Cooper outlines what might be called the “Reichenbach Falls Thesis,” which suggests that Leatherstocking was brought back to life by demand, much as Sherlock Holmes was. A closer parallel of revival by demand might be with Falstaff, who was presented alive and relatively young again in The Merry Wives of Windsor to satisfy what the popular legend says was Elizabeth I’s desire to see him in love; in both the late novels, The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, Leatherstocking becomes romantically entangled with the women he is kept busy rescuing. What Cooper describes as the “very desultory and inartificial manner” of the composition suggests that the novelist had no overall aesthetic scheme. He tells us that he had planned to leave Natty in his grave after publishing The Prairie in 1827, but that a “latent regard for this character induced the author to resuscitate him in The Pathfinder“ (Tales 2, 489) and The Deerslayer. One might think that more than a dozen years in a writer’s career is a long time for “latent regard” to remain unresuscitated. Nor is it clear from Cooper’s phrasing whether the “regard” is his or his readers (some external evidence suggests that he was responding to requests from the publishers (Ringe 70). However, in the 1850 preface, he contends that these novels were neglected by the original public, there being “no longer novelty to attract attention, and the interest was materially impaired by the manner in which events were necessarily anticipation” (Tales 2, 490). Not only is the forest and lake-water adventure a familiar form, but readers know that, for example, Deerslayer will survive, that he will not marry, that Chingachgook will live on to a melancholy, rather squalid old age, that the Delawares are the good guys, and so on. It is Cooper’s expressed hope that “this fault will be partially removed” by the 1850 ordering, following the career of Leatherstocking from youth to age, and giving the excitement of novelty to The Deerslayer, now to be read first by a new generation of readers.

This biographical order is largely taken for granted by older critics, including Allan Nevins. So, for example, Paul A. W. Wallace, speaking in Cooperstown in 1954, explains that he is “taking the ‘tales’ in the order, not of their writing, but of the events described in them” (428), and Warren S. Walker, in a classic study published in 2962, notes that “The Tales form a {82} five-volume biography of their protagonist Natty Bumppo” (30).

Later in his 1850 preface, Cooper seems persuaded into assuming a kind of integrity or forethought in the sequence, which both his earlier comments and the facts of publication deny:

In order to preserve the vrai-semblable, therefore, traits derived from the prejudices, tastes, and even the weaknesses of his youth, have been mixed up with these higher qualities [that is, the transcendental awareness of God in the wilderness] and longings, in away, it is hoped, to represent a reasonable picture of human nature (Tales 2, 492).

This statement, with its past tense “derived,” suggests that Cooper, like Whitman or Henry James, bad been significantly revising his oeuvre — bringing earlier publication into line with later intentions. But as the detailed textual analysis of the State University of New York edition shows, he did not change his text in this way. So while the first published book, The Pioneers, has many elegiac recollections of the past, some being quite specific about early military campaigns of Leatherstocking, these are not expanded or recounted in the later volumes dealing with the recollected times. Nor are incidents from the early life of Leatherstocking and Chingachgook which occur in later published books alluded to in The Pioneers. While The Pioneers may not always be plausible in its narrative, it is internally plotted with some care. Edwards/Effingham’s grumpy behaviour and his presumed part Indian extraction, Natty’s secretiveness and frequent absences, the past life of Judge Temple, are carefully planned to pose separate mysteries, all solved by the single revelation of Major Effingham’s survival. But this painstaking narrative does not lead into or connect with the other books — the passing reference to Major Effingham at the beginning of The Last of the Mohicans and the legacy of the rifle to the unnamed Oliver (I suspect Cooper had forgotten his name and didn’t bother to look it up) in The Prairie are trivial enough. The Prairie, with its elaborate coincidence of the meeting with Heyward’s grandson, ties itself closely to The Last of the Mohicans. But this connection is between two books published in sequence. The reader following the publication order would insert The Pathfinder and The Pioneers between these texts, and would have to rekindle, without intervening prompting, recollections from a rather distant reading. What was observed of the treatment of the rifle, then, is characteristic — a broad consistency of tone, but few specific details of continuity. Perhaps the most convincing argument in favour of the (admittedly logical) biography-based order is that of Kay Seymour House in Cooper’s Americans (1965) — that each book extends the characterisation of Natty by giving him different opportunities to reject or to accept (Ch. 11), or the comment by Nevins in the introduction to the Signet edition of The Deerslayer (1963), that the books “differ widely in scene, spirit and incident” in a way consistent with the differing ages of Natty from book to book (535).


A second critical approach to the question of the order of reading focusses on specific episodes, suggesting that Cooper and his readers develop meanings and connexions over the course of the writing and publication of the {83} novels. Donald Pease provides a good example, when relating passages from The Deerslayer, earlier in Natty’s life but later in publication, and The Pathfinder, later in the life-sequence but published earlier:

Had Hawkeye rejected Judith [at the end of The Deerslayer] without his prior rejection by Mabel Dunham in The Pathfinder this scene might have proved a problem for Hawkeye’s popularity. But given Mabel’s rather brutal rejection of Hawkeye in that novel, Hawkeye was free to reject the ploys of a woman cut from Mabel’s mold in the sequel to The Pathfinder (xxiii).

The adjective “prior” and the noun “sequel” assume, of course, a reading of The Pathfinder first, and assume that this reading will educate the reader in the correct response to the later novel. For the reader following the publication order, Mabel’s action explains that continuing series of separations from various Judiths through the saga, and gives the potency of ironic revelation — an Aristotelian anagnorosis — to Judith’s own splendid speech:

And do you so delight in violence and bloodshed? — I had thought better of you, Deerslayer — believed you one, who could find his happiness in a quiet domestic home, with an attached and loving wife, ready to study your wishes, and healthy and dutiful children, anxious to follow in your footsteps, and to become as honest and just as yourself (Tales 1, 1021).

The educated reader knows here that Judith has mistaken her man. Leatherstocking has noted, in an extraordinary passage in The Pathfinder, that romance disables him as a hunter — by getting into his dreams, effectively it abolishes his identity:

Now, instead of sleeping as sound as natur’ at midnight, as I used to could, I dream nightly of Mabel Dunham. The young does sport before me, and when I raise Killdeer, in order to take a little venison, the animals look back, and it seems as if they all had Mabel’s sweet countenance, laughing in my face, and looking as if they said, ‘shoot me if you dare!’ (Tales 2, 458).

The reader who reads The Deerslayer first will likely suppose that Natty turns away from Judith because of a rather unattractive disapproval of her flirtatious habits, or because, indeed, he is violent and bloodthirsty. The reader who comes to The Deerslayer last will recognize that Natty is turning away from Judith in order to preserve an identity and fulfill a destiny.

Any member of similar passages might be cited. The opening dialogues in The Deerslayer, with Hurry Harry general prejudice against all Indians, Natty’s recognition of a Delaware sandal and Mingo war-paint, and what they imply, or Judith’s amusement at the term, ” Our Indians,” would be obscure to an 1841 readership without the tutoring of The Last of the Mohicans and the {82} rest. Hurry Harry’s failed attempt to shoot a deer which swims away across the lake, is, to a reader starting with The Deerslayer, a stupid and trivial incident; to one who recalls the aging Natty’s similar impulsive act in The Pioneers, and how that was pursued by the white man’s law rather than the Indians’ arrows, the scene is powerfully ironic. Many incidents — fires, canoe accidents, ambushes along river banks, captivities, pot-shots at snipers in trees — and many relationships — impetuous youths and grave counsellors, differing Indian nations, inter-racial sexual tensions, pedants and pioneers — are detailed when they first occur (in the order of publication, that is), and subsequently sketched rapidly. For example, the nervous father-daughter relationship of the Hutters in The Deerslayer is lightly traced, but gets much of its latent power over the reader’s imagination from a variety of similar relationships in each of the four preceding novels.

If we assume that the Leatherstocking saga is a single text, and that the process of reading a long text is the process of gradual education into the sensibilities of the writer, then we may assume that reading in the order of publication will best teach us how to respond to the typical Cooper episode, character, or moral comment. This “process” may be illustrated by examining the physical descriptions of Leatherstocking which occur throughout the saga. The descriptions vary, naturally enough, because of the various ages, but more significant are the variations in what might be thought of as the reader’s assumptions and expectations. Early in The Pioneers, the first published novel, the Judge and his daughter come across Natty in the woods, and a very lengthy description follows:

He was tall, and so meagre 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 made of fox-skin. ... 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 colour of uniform red; his gray eyes were glancing under a pair of shaggy brews, that overhung them in long hairs of gray mingled with their natural hue; his scraggy neck was bare, and burnt to the same tint with his face; though a small part of a shirt collar, made of the country check, was to be seen above the over-dress 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 the knees of his tarnished buck-skin breeches, had obtained for him, among the settlers, the nick name of Leather-stocking. Over his left shoulder was slung a belt of deer-skin, from which depended an enormous ox horn, so thinly scraped, as to discover the powder it contained. The larger end was fitted ingeniously and securely with a wooden bottom, {85} and the other was stopped tight by a little plug. A leathern pouch hung before him, from which, as he concluded his last speech, he took a small measure, and, filling it accurately with powder, he commenced re-loading the rifle, which, as its butt rested on the snow before him, reached nearly to the top of his fox-skin cap (Tales 1, 20-21).

The passage is specific enough, using adjectives and adverbs to point the implications of the observable facts. Leatherstocking is sun-burnt — the mark of an outdoorsman. Austerity and a hard physical life are revealed by the gaunt, strong figure. His cultural near-identification with the Indians is shown in his dress. His accoutrements are workmanlike, efficient and well-kept. Above all, his advancing age is consistently suggested through the passage: “meagre,” “lank,” “emaciation,” “gray,” “shaggy,” “scraggy,” and so on. The passage tells the reader what the man looks like, interprets this appearance to give some idea of his habits and qualities, and focusses the whole on his age — a few lines earlier Natty has been identified as the “old hunter.”

The equivalent passage from the next published novel, The Last of the Mohicans, is significantly different in technique. After referring to his “sun-burnt and long faded complexion,” the description continues:

His person, though muscular, was rather attenuated than full; but every nerve and muscle appeared strong and indurated, by unremitted exposure and toil. He wore a hunting-shirt of forest-green, fringed with faded yellow, and a summer cap, of skins which had been shorn of their fur. He also bore a knife in a girdle of wampum, like that which confined the scanty garments of the Indian, but no tomahawk. His moccasins were ornamented after the gay fashion of the natives, while the only part of his under dress which appeared below the hunting-frock, was a pair of buckskin leggings that laced at the sides, and which were gartered above the knees, with the sinews of a deer. A pouch and horn completed his personal accoutrements, though a rifle of great length ... leaned against a neighboring sapling (Tales 1, 500-01).

The description is shorter, the adjectives fresher, brighter: a sort of high lighted summary of those features which the reader will recognize familiarly as Leatherstocking’s, changed only to show them in youth. The passage reminds, rather than introduces.

The equivalent passage in the third volume, The Prairie, is even shorter, with proportionally more stress on the difference — the hunter’s advanced age — and less on the well-known Leatherstocking icons:

Notwithstanding his years, and his look of emaciation, if not of suffering, there was that about this solitary being however, which said that time, and not disease, had laid his hand heavily upon him. ... His {86} dress was chiefly of skins, worn with the hair to the weather; a pouch and horn were suspended from his shoulders; and he leaned on a rifle of uncommon length, but which, like its owner exhibited the wear of long and hard service (Tales 1, 895).

The reader knows who Leatherstocking is, and what his equipment is; so the writer needs only to jog the memory, while focussing attention on the passage of time.

The Pathfinder has no parallel description of Natty, the details of dress, gun, thinness being distributed through the earlier part of the novel. Finally, The Deerslayer simply notes:

In stature, he stood about six feet in his moccasins, but his frame was comparatively light and slender, showing muscles, however, that promised unusual agility, if not unusual strength (Tales 2, 498).

While his neat attire and equipment are later referred to, there is nothing in these two last novels approaching the word-pictures of the earlier three.

In the publication order, the reader is carefully, even painstakingly introduced to Leatherstocking; in the biographical order, the reader gets the physical facts, as it were, in the middle of the story.

However, just as the biographical order, logical in itself, posed some critical problems in reading, so the publication order, seemingly justified by these intertextual connexions, can be argued against. The Leatherstocking saga spreads over a great part of Cooper’s writing career, and through this career his narrative methods, quite predictably, modified. Later novels tend to avoid the elaborate descriptions that mark earlier ones. Particularly the sort of “all-knowing author” descriptions — such as telling us how tall Leatherstocking was in his socks, something hardly apparent to the observer within the narrative frame — are replaced by exactly the sort of dispersed information that marks The Pathfinder. Is a critic mistaken to take the Leatherstocking Tales in isolation?

The interrelationship between texts, which shows the process of a writer’s creation over a sequence of books, can apply as it were globally, as well as to a select group of texts. For example, in Cooper’s first novel, the underrated Precaution, perhaps the most memorable scene is of an accident prone hunting party, which ends with the inadvertent wounding of the young hero. Not seriously injured, he is brought to the house of the young heroine’s family to recover, and — no great surprise — love blossoms during the convalescence. In Cooper’s second novel, the grimmer historical romance The Spy, a wounded soldier is similarly brought for nursing to the Wharton’s house, and similarly a love grows between him and his beautiful nurse. Later in this novel, there is also an accidental shooting — a stray bullet from the battlefield fatally wounds the love-sick Isabella. As is the case with the accidental wounding of Oliver at the beginning of Cooper’s third novel, The Pioneers, the by-standers do not at first realise what has happened — the victim subsequently moves a hand to show the blood. In The Spy as in The Pioneers, there is a pedantic doctor and an episode recounting the probing of {87} the wound and the extraction of the ball. In all three novels, the wounded man and his nurse become lovers — but in The Pioneers the actual wounding and the surgery are used less as episodes in their own right, and more as incidents to reveal, in unguarded moments, the intricacies of the novel’s society. Moreover, Oliver does not stay to be nursed by Elizabeth. It is as if Cooper has already demonstrated, and his readers learned, the sexual tensions that characteristically form in the process of nursing a young, romantically wounded man. In The Pioneers, he can rapidly sketch the situation, and hint at the implications; Oliver’s unwillingness to stay in the Temple household, and Elizabeth’s ambivalence towards this odd young man, gain special potency from the more plodding specifics of the earlier books.

In the same way, we could notice how the disguised-lover theme, rather awkwardly and elaborately handled in Precaution, is reiterated, simply, neatly and with plausibility in The Pioneers.

If intertextual connexions are thought of as justifying the publication order of reading the Leatherstocking Tales, could a critic not logically extend the argument to demand a consecutive reading of ail Cooper’s work, or indeed of, say, the works of Sir Walter Scott and all contemporary American novels?


A third critical approach to the question of the “order of reading” seeks out large, informing patterns to the two possible chronologies — particularly to the publication chronology, as the biographical order has an obvious enough shape. A brilliant expression of this approach is that of D. H. Lawrence — in spite of his alarmingly ecstatic style and very English point of view (and his confusion of Lakes Champlain and Otsego) he remains one of Cooper’s most acute readers:

In his immortal friendship of Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo he dreamed the nucleus of a new society. ... the Leatherstocking novels create the myth of this new relation. And they go backwards, from old age to golden youth. That is the true myth of America. She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin, towards a new youth (957).

Lawrence sees the nature of this backward movement in his analysis of each novel. “You start with actuality” in The Pioneers, and move eventually to The Deerslayer: “But it is a myth, not a realistic tale. Read it as a lovely myth. Lake Glimmerglass.” The Leatherstocking novels, he summarises, are a “decrescendo of reality, and a crescendo of beauty” (963). Stephen Railton, in his more recent Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination (198-221), develops a similar thesis with careful analysis of Natty Bumppo from a psychological standpoint. Natty is in some ways childlike, with each novel ending with a repudiation — the sequence becoming throughout less realistic and more mythic. William P. Kelly, in his fine book Plotting America’s Past, gives a powerful exposition of an historiographic pattern to the novels:

As Cooper recrafts The Pioneers’ narrative in the {88} subsequent volumes of the Leatherstocking Tales, he becomes increasingly more aware of the contradictions that impede his efforts to plot America’s past and ceases to repress them. By the conclusion of the Leatherstocking series, Cooper’s fiction offers both a coherent exposition of national history and an insightful meditation on the duality of American consciousness (43).

These patterns are persuasively set out, but they perhaps relate more to Cooper’s intellectual development than to the reader’s process of responding to the sequence. Finally, we might notice an approach to reading Cooper which makes the attempt to find an ideal order of reading seem irrelevant. Leslie A. Fiedler’s seminal work, Love and Death in the American Novel, suggested that Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook —

have detached themselves from the texts of Cooper’s books and have entered the free domain of our dreams (149).

It is as though these two potent, mythical characters exist in our imaginations, somehow independent of the books that contain them, and that consequently the sequence of the books is as irrelevant as the sequence of incidents that occur to our memories. In a sense, Fiedler suggests, they supersede the books, being recognised as familiar figures by people who have never read a word of Fenimore Cooper. (We may note that, like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, they have had a lively career in film and television.) The new study by Warren Motley, The American Abraham: James Fenimore Cooper and the Frontier Patriarch, similarly deflects attention from the question of reading order, by in effect marginalising Leatherstocking, and focussing attention on the different societies through which he passes. Motley especially directs attention to the presentation of Judge Temple and Ishmael Bush (65-125).


Cooper’s contemporary readers — either of the sequence from 1827 to 1841, or of the omnibus 1850 text — and their place in history, their preconceptions, assumptions and tastes, are beyond recall. Our critical question must be how the “ideal” reader of the late twentieth century should approach Leatherstocking. That the standard authorities are currently casual about the matter can be seen in a head note to the Library of America edition. It prints the five volumes in order of publication, but provides the rubric:

Readers who wish to follow the chronological order of Natty Bumppo’s career should read the Leatherstocking Tales in the following sequence: The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, and The Prairie (Tales i[ix]).

The choice of order for reading the Leatherstocking tales is not a hotly debated issue. It may be contrasted with the rather similar issue relating to William Faulkner’s saga of Yoknapatawpha County. His vast series of novels, covering a period from the early nineteenth century to the 1950s, was not {89} written and published in a consistent chronological order. Indeed, one of Faulkner’s characters comments implicitly on the shifting time sequence and the irrelevance of chronology: “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” Malcolm Cowley, in the preface to his one-volume anthology, The Portable Faulkner, describes the way he has ordered the selected episodes: according to historical progression, and he provides some annotations which clarify the linkages and relationships within the series. He notes that the individual “books in the Yoknapatawpha cycle are part of the same living pattern ... All the separate works are like blocks of marble from the same quarry: they show the veins and faults of the mother rock” (xv). The chronological ordering, as Robert Penn Warren pointed out, “demonstrate[s] one of the principles of integrity in the work.” (We may notice that he refers to all the various novels as the “[single] work.”) And Crowley’s widely-selling edition certainly provides the customary entry into Faulkner’s world for most readers: this is the way to get your bearings on the Mississippi of fiction. Next, you go on to read the individual novels. Faulkner’s world is certainly more complex than that of Cooper, but the same critical issue is raised by both authors.

The biographical order of reading Leatherstocking has advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage (apart from the common-sense logic of the life-story) is that The Deerslayer is the most accessible of the novels for a modern reader. It has the most straightforward plot-line, it is the cleanest in geography, and, in its concern with the maturation of the hero (the book even ends with a marriage proposal) is the most conventional in genre. Natty’s unpredictable companions, threatening environment and variety of female companions are not, in essence, that different from those of Tom Jones, or even of David Copperfield — just more physically perilous. That it is a bildungsroman — the education of Leatherstocking and Chingachgook into their destiny,is quite explicit:

The Delaware chief rose among his people, until his name was never mentioned without eulogiums, while another Uncas, the last of his race, was added to the long line of warriors who bore that distinguished appellation. As for the Deerslayer, under the sobriquet of Hawkeye, he made his fame spread far and near, until the crack of his rifle became as terrible to the ears of the Mingos, as the thunders of the Manitou (Tales 2, 1027-28).

Subsequently, the romp through The Last of the Mohicans — high adventure in the Indiana Jones manner — confirms the adventurous, boyish vitality of hero and untamed location, an Americanized Waverley. A story of kidnapping and pursuit, it is a romantic quest-tale, a form as ancient as literature itself. Mikhail Bakhtin describes the romance novel in the following terms, clearly applicable to The Last of the Mohicans:

There is a boy and a girl of marriageable age. ... They are remarkable for their exceptional beauty. They are also exceptionally chaste. ... They are confronted with obstacles that retard and delay their union. The lovers are parted, they seek one another, find one another; again they lose each other, again they find {90} each other. There are the usual obstacles ... their journey ... a miraculous rescue, an attack by pirates, captivity ... an attempt on the innocence of the hero and heroine, the offering up of the heroine as a purifying sacrifice, being sold into slavery, presumed deaths, disguising one’s identity, recognition and failure of recognition (87-88).

With these two books, then, the biographical reading gets off to a familiar and breathless start — recent publishing history makes clear that these two are by far the most popular of the Leatherstocking books.

But the next three novels, in the biographical order, may well frustrate expectations: The Pathfinder, with its dourly-shaded family relations, its repetitious plot-line and its relentless theme of betrayal and false witness, and The Pioneers, with an ill-tempered Natty, whose woodcraft is in doubt (his gun misfires at a crucial moment) and whose ability to get on with people has largely vanished. Finally, The Prairie, with its modernist lack of a centre, its parched, almost lunar landscape, and its accidental, episodic narrative, will seem, like Melville’s The Confidence-Man, resistant to easy reading. The characteristics which seemed to define the young Natty — optimism, Billy-Buddlike trust and candour, high craft, flawless aim and slim sexual attractiveness — are in long decline. The biographical reader, misled by the false generic assumption that this is a saga of a hero and his high adventures, similarly loses interest.

But these same features in the five novels can be realigned to show the sort of “integrity” that Robert Penn Warren found in Malcolm Cowley’s ordering of Faulkner. The Deerslayer is a novel of education, as is David Copperfield, but Cooper thwarts the expectations of the genre — Natty does not get married, is not integrated into society. Rather, the fulfilment of his education is his rejection of it. In The Last of the Mohicans both Natty and Chingachgook are thrust aside from the main story. What Bakhtin analyses as “romance” the “boy and girl of marriageable age” — relates to the others. Within the romance-genre, Natty and Chingachgook are marginalised. At the end of The Pathfinder, Natty’s rather late attempt to get back into love and society is directly rejected. He remains the rescuer and the observer and the outsider. When we meet him in The Pioneers, he has lost most of his teeth, his characteristic laugh is noiseless and ironic, he guards his secrets and his gestures are habituated by a life of loneliness and exclusion. In The Prairie he is even alienated from his earlier identity, insisting that he is only a trapper and not a hunter. The coincidences which remind him of his earlier life come then as some kind of final grace — restoring to him his history, his friends and his recognition as “hunter.”

On the other hand, reading the books in the order of publication reveals a different sort of integrity. The focus is obviously less on Natty’s life-story, and consequently more on the societies he happens to be involved with from novel to novel. The movement from the rather complex society of The Pioneers, which ranges from the pompous formality of the Judge’s household to the disorganised, disorientated and comically inefficient gang of locals, to the simple social structure of The Deerslayer is, as D. H. Lawrence noted, a movement from confusion to order — the proper movement of art. The ending of The Deerslayer is in the Edenic mode of tranquillity:

{91} From all these signs, it was probable the lake had not been visited, since the occurrence of the final scene of our tale. Accident, or tradition, had rendered it again, a spot sacred to nature, the frequent wars, and the feeble population of the colonies, still confining the settlements within narrow boundaries (Tales 2, 1029).

On the contrary, the bustling new society of The Pioneers is presented in a text — irresolute and as yet unfocussed — that struggles between the poetry of the scene and the severe practicality of the society:

The mountains are generally arable to the tops, although instances are not wanting, where the sides are jutted with rocks, that aid greatly in giving to the country that romantic and picturesque character which it so eminently possesses. The vales are narrow, rich, and cultivated. ... Beautiful and thriving villages are found interspersed along the margins of the small lakes. ... Roads diverge in every direction, from the even and graceful bottoms of the valleys, to the most rugged and intricate passes of the hills (Tales 1, 13).

Society and its laws have only partly subjugated a wilderness — the book opens with a storm that delays but does not stop the travellers, a built road that is slippery but passable, an accident that is farcical rather than fatal. The opening episode, where the wealthy settler tries to buy with money a deer that the forester has killed with his native skills, again sets the contrasting themes of civilization and nature at odds. The power of nature is mostly exhibited in its plenitude, and the characteristic response of the settlers is destruction and waste — the crazed riot of the pigeon shoot, the haul of fish, the felling of trees. The girls, and even Natty are on occasion caught up in the passion of extravagance. At the beginning of The Last of the Mohicans, Chingachgook revives the theme, criticising the unnatural destruction of the divine pattern that followed the coming of the white men:

Then, Hawk-eye, we were one people, and we were happy. The salt lake gave us its fish, the wood its deer, and the air its birds. We took wives who bore us children; we worshipped the Great Spirit (Tales 1, 503).

Through the elegiac sequence, backwards in time, Natty becomes more and more obviously the indispensable man — less eccentric, more and more vital, until, in The Deerslayer he is the golden lad of a Golden Age.

But again, the material can be read differently. John P. McWilliams, Jr., recognizing the brutality inherent in the tale of adventure, and proposing that Cooper (unlike some romantic novelists) also recognized it, suggests a revised view of the sequence:

The Leatherstocking Tales conclude, not with the {92} founding of an advancing westward civilization, but with its extinction. After the settlers and their laws have come and gone, nature reclaims her own. The ark, the castle, the bleached bones of Hurons and Hutters, all decay in silence, while the cold still surface of Glimmerglass remains unchanged and the cycles of natural law indifferently repeat themselves. ... The Deerslayer is not so much “Cooper’s idyll” or “a forest myth” as it is a ghastly bloodbath lightened by glimpses of powerless virtue. By entering Eden, man corrupts it. The Deerslayer ends the series because it has in effect killed the hero whose life it is initiating. ... It is not accidental that one hundred fifty pages of The Deerslayer (chapters xxii-xxxi) are devoted almost exclusively to Natty Bumppo’s preparations for death (288-89).

Whether we regard Natty’s submission to the Indians as glamorous chivalry, like Sir Gawain’s debt to the Green Knight, or as grim self-sacrifice, like Regulus’s return to Carthage in Livy, The Deerslayer certainly ends the sequence of novels on a note of high emotion and a morality uncluttered by social complexity.


When, in preparation for this paper, I began to read the Leatherstocking novels, first in the order of publication down to The Deerslayer, and then back to The Prairie, I had expected to find little in favour of the biographical order of reading. I was surprised, then, to discover that the biographical order of the novels seemed to epitomize that sort of reassessment of narrative genre (of European narrative genre) which is the most obvious contribution of American fiction from Moby Dick to The Armies of the Night. Cooper appears plainly to the reader as an experimenter with the novel, finding new versions of the traditional modes of intrigue and social mores in The Pathfinder and The Prairie, manipulating the traditional genre in The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer, creating a modernist novel of shifting scenes, insecure, backwards-looking characters and constantly reforming social groups in The Prairie. From this perspective, Cooper emerges as a critically and historically significant artist, in a way often neglected.

The order of publication reading, however, provides for a different critical perspective, where Cooper appears not so much as an experimenter with form as an analyst of society shrewd, sometimes satirical, nostalgic, but always deeply aware of the epic of America.

Assuming, then, different but significant responses arising from the different orders of reading, can an “ideal order” be recommended? I fancy not! Just as the reader of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass must select, without convincing critical arguments, either the so-called “death-bed” text of 1891-92, the first printing of 1855, or any of the several intervening editions, or just as the reader of Henry James can choose either the first published texts of the novels, or the significantly changed texts of the late New York edition, so the reader of Leatherstocking has a choice of reading experiences — the generic deconstruction of the biographical order, or the socio-historical {93} insights of the publication order. Perhaps the best bicentennial tribute to Leatherstocking is, indeed, to read his saga twice!

McMaster University

Works Cited

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