The Temptations of Pathfinder: Cooper’s Radical Critique of Ownership

George F. Bagby (Hampden-Sydney College)

Presented at the 8ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1991.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 8), Papers from the 1991 Conference, State University of New York College — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 85-92).

Copyright © 1999, State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

I want to look at The Pathfinder, not chiefly as a romance of the American frontier or as a legend of the American Adam, but as a striking parable of ownership or property. In doing so, I want to focus on that important scene at the end of Chapter XXVII in which Natty Bumppo recounts to Cap the three “temptations” or “trials” he has experienced earlier in his career as a woodsman. You may recall the specific details of these three frontier temptations: first, to take twenty-six beaver hides (“as handsome beavers as ever gladdened human eyes!”) which Natty comes on in the woods, and which belong to “a Frencher” illegally trapping in English territory; second, to take or hide an exceptional rifle (“the only one in this part of the world that can be calculated on as surely as Killdeer”) which belongs to a rival sharpshooter, and possession of which would guarantee a still-young Natty Bumppo pre-eminence in marksmanship; and, third — “the hardest [temptation] of them all” — to capture or kill six unarmed, sleeping “Mingos,” whose scalps Chingachgook would have been happy to get (435-36).

Read closely, this brief passage offers insight into a number of issues central to both The Pathfinder and the Leatherstocking tales as a group — and indeed to American nature writing as a field. The very matter of “temptations,” of course, raises an issue that recurs throughout The Pathfinder, that of fidelity or treacherousness: Jasper is suspected of, while Arrowhead and Davy Muir are actually guilty of, treachery — of yielding to the temptations which they face. The ultimate form which the question of faithfulness takes is the central question of the novel’s plot: will Pathfinder marry Mabel Dunham, and thus betray his true marriage, to the wilderness? At one point the novel, or at least its protagonist, almost explicitly sees women as temptresses: “’natur’ seems to have made them on purpose, to sing in our ears’” — exactly like sirens — “’when the music of the woods is silent!’” (453-54). Mabel’s erotic attractiveness makes her a temptress for Pathfinder, first, toward the middle of the novel, by making him a less conscientious scout. At the same time that Mabel, as she tells Pathfinder, is “fast getting to be a frontier girl, and ... coming to love all this grand silence of the woods” (266), he, ironically, is losing interest not only in his scout’s duties but in the wilderness itself. While Chingachgook is faithfully out on the trail of “Mingos,” we see Pathfinder shirking his duty to remain at the garrison with Mabel. By the middle of the novel (in Chapter XVIII), he finds that hunting, scouting, and all his other characteristic frontier activities “have lost their charms since I’ve made acquaintance with you” (275). And, the dream which Pathfinder recounts to Mabel in that chapter, of a “flirtatious fawn bounding away from [his] rifle,” as Kay House puts it, “clearly equates domestication with failure as a hunter” {86} (xxi). The three earlier temptations which he narrates to Cap in Chapter XXVII are only preludes to the great romantic temptation which lies at the center of the novel’s plot.

Looking at the details of those three earlier temptations, we can see that the first temptation, with its national boundaries and authorities, involves the recurrent debate in the Leatherstocking tales between man-made and natural or divine law. Natty tells Cap that the Frenchman who killed the beavers “’was hunting on our [i.e., the British] side of the lines, where he had no business to be’”; and he thought that, if he took those illegally gotten beaver skins, “’the law would have been almost with me, although it was in peace times. But, then I remembered that such laws wasn’t made for us hunters’”; legal restrictions are made by men of the settlements and are not really meant for hunters, the purest humans in these tales, who are subject to higher laws. Those laws, as so often in Cooper and other American nature writers, turn out to echo the New Testament: Natty “’bethought me that the poor man might have built great expectations for the next winter, on the sale of his skins,’” and therefore “’left them where they lay. Most of our people said I did wrong,’” since most people are ruled by society’s legalities or conventions; “’but the manner in which I slept that night, convinced me that I had done right.’” The tug-of-war between man-made and natural law is dramatized most memorably in the second half of The Pioneers, when an elderly Leatherstocking is arrested for the “crime” of killing a deer out of season, though by the higher law of the hunter — “Use, but don’t waste” (248) — in this incident as throughout the novel the old man almost alone is not guilty of various transgressions. The same opposition reappears a year after The Pathfinder, in several of Natty Bumppo’s conversations with Harry March near the beginning of The Deerslayer, as for instance in the third chapter: Deerslayer distinguishes between laws which come “’from the colony’” or “’from the King and parliament’” and those which “’God has given us,’” and concludes: “’When the colony’s laws, or even the king’s laws, run ag’in the laws of God, they get to be onlawful, and ought not to be obeyed’” (51). If the tone of that last sentence sounds surprisingly Thoreauvian, there is good reason, Such a distinction between man-made laws and God’s laws may be symptomatic of a radical and even unworldly idealism — one which ignores human laws or rules or conventions (such as that a man should marry and own property, preferably as much as possible) in favor of what Thoreau calls “Higher Laws.”

Beyond the issue of human as opposed to God-given laws, all three of Pathfinder’s earlier temptations obviously raise the central issue, in The Pathfinder and beyond, of material possession — of ownership and property, on the one hand, as opposed to freedom and what Richard Poirier calls “visionary possession” (50-84 passim.), on the other. In every case, Pathfinder is tempted to take some thing — whether beaver pelts or an unusual rifle or, in the case of the sleeping Iroquois, their rifles and powder horns, which he is tempted “’to get possession of.’” Throughout the Leatherstocking tales, there is a kind of spiritual struggle between the forces of ownership and development — or is it exploitation? — on the land, on the one hand, and the opposite impulse, to know the land, care for it, and learn from it, but not to own or exploit it. As Poirier puts it, visionary possession means taking “possession of America in the eye, as an Artist,” and thus “preserving {87} imaginatively those dreams about the continent that were systematically betrayed by the possession of it for economic and political aggrandizement” (51). This struggle resonates throughout the Leatherstocking tales. It is the forces of ownership and exploitation which drive the westward movement chronicled in these novels. But The Pioneers and The Prairie make it clear that Cooper has surprisingly mixed feelings about that movement. Though he considers it both inevitable and ultimately good that Europeans should possess the land all the way to the Pacific, Cooper is remarkably acute in his recognition of the negative consequences of such “progress,” of the cost of such material ownership. Be has Pathfinder, near the end of his life, foresee the ultimate triumph of manifest destiny, and a day when “’the land will be a peopled desert from the shores of the Maine sea to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, fill’d with all the abominations and craft of man and stript of the comfort and loveliness it received from the hand of the Lord!’” (188). And what will have accomplished that grim transformation? According to the old trapper, white people’s “’wickedness and their pride, and chiefly their waste’” (240).

Ownership in its acutest form is perhaps best represented by Tom Hutter in The Deerslayer — a man who not only thinks that he can own Lake Glimmerglass (37-38), but who turns out to be a pirate. In its acutest form, these novels suggest, ownership is piracy, since it almost inevitably comes at the cost of both other people and strict rectitude in procedures. In The Pioneers, ownership in its more normal forms is represented not only by Judge Temple — a basically good man, but one who has acquired his large patent by means which are certainly not wholly pure — but also by the unthinking townspeople who have no sense of stewardship of the material resources of the formerly Edenic valley, destroying its trees, slaughtering its pigeons, and wasting its fish. Moreover, as both The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder suggest, the impulse toward ownership is closely associated with the human tendency toward war. The Delawares and Iroquois may fight because of traditional tribal rivalries, but the British and French are battling over the irreducible issue of who is to own what in what is now New York state. All people can share the visionary possession of a lake or a valley, but material ownership is exclusive and inevitably leads to competition and strife.

In The Pathfinder, the issue of property or ownership lies just behind the central plot issue of marriage — because that institution necessarily involves an economic relationship to the land. Cooper tells us that Pathfinder had never “known an ambitious thought ... until he became acquainted with Mabel” (419); as the scout himself says, “’I have thought that God was sufficient for me in the forest, and ... I craved no more than his bounty and his care’” (266). Now, however, in love with Mabel, he believes that “’it is time I did begin to think of a house, and furniture, and a home’” (180); he first begins to feel “’a craving after property; and if I have consarn in marrying Mabel, it is that I may get to love such things too well, in order to make her comfortable’” (432-33). That is the deepest reason why the novel sees Mabel as a temptress: because marriage necessarily entails ownership.

Pathfinder, of course, is saved from his amatory-economic impulses by Mabel’s lack of romantic feeling for him and the evident appropriateness of {88} her relationship with Jasper Western — who finally marries her and, tellingly, ends up not as Eau Douce, the maritime equivalent of a scout, but as “a successful and respected merchant” (468), buying and selling for a living. In the same Chapter XXVII in which he recounts his three earlier temptations (indeed, just a few pages before that passage), Pathfinder already foreshadows the choice he will make at novel’s end. He tells Cap:

“I’ve often thought ... that he is happiest who has the least to leave behind him, when the summons comes. Now here am I, a hunter, and a scout, and a guide, although I do not own a foot of land on ‘arth, yet do I enjoy and possess more than the great Albany Patroon. With the heavens over my head, to keep me in mind of the last great hunt, and the dried leaves beneath my feet, I tramp over the ground as freely as if I was its lord and owner, and what more need heart desire?” (431-32).

Appropriately, then, at novel’s end, while Mabel and Jasper prepare to return to “the settlements” and economic life, Pathfinder insists that “’I must be wild’” (453). He makes his final exit to become “lost in the depths of the forest” (468), where, by forgoing material ownership in favor of visionary possession, he will, as Thoreau can tell us, truly find himself.

But the critique of ownership implicit in Pathfinder’s narrative of his earlier temptations goes beyond even these acute insights into its destructive, piratical and warlike elements. His second and third temptations, you recall, involve getting possession of rifles, and thus make clear the issue which underlies ownership — namely, power. This issue, in its acutest form — the control of other human beings’ lives — is the explicit focus of Pathfinder’s third temptation, to disarm and perhaps help Chingachgook slay the sleeping Iroquois. The question in both of these latter temptations is whether he will “’master [his) rival’” sharpshooter or the Mingoes, on the one hand — gain control over others — or “’master that feeling,’” master the temptations themselves, gain control over himself and his own impulses. 1 The radical side of Cooper’s attitude (or attitudes) toward property thus understands that ownership is precisely a means to control other people; ownership is the opposite, not only of visionary possession, but also of freedom — that of others as well as one’s own. This is both a surprisingly acute and radical analysis for one of Cooper’s general economic and political tendencies and, interestingly enough, precisely the analysis made by later American nature writers — e.g., by Faulkner in The Bear, who shows the close link between property, or owning the land, and slavery, or owning other human beings.

At this point in my argument I ought to recognize a part of Pathfinder’s recounting of his temptations which, in the eyes of a skeptic, might well tarnish the significance I am claiming for these three episodes: namely, the outcomes of the second and third temptations. Having resisted the temptation to take or hide the extraordinary rifle which is comparable to Killdeer, Pathfinder nevertheless soon succeeds in defeatLng its owner in a shooting {89} match — “’he with his piece, and I with Killdeer, and before the General, in person, too!,’” as Pathfinder tells Cap with “triumph still glittering in his eyes.” Likewise, having resisted the temptation to disarm and kill the sleeping Iroquois, Pathfinder waits for them to wake up and pick up their rifles again, follows them, ambushes them, and kills five of them while wounding the sixth; and Chingachgook is able to get the scalps of the five dead “Mingos.” “’So you see,’” as Natty summarizes the situation to Cap, “’nothing was lost by doing right, either in the way of honor or in that of profit.’” Don’t these sequels undermine the apparent ethical point of Pathfinder’s restraint in both instances, and devalue his moral achievement by eliminating any cost it might have involved? I would respond: only minimally. The real function of those sequels, I think, is to serve as a contrast with or foil to the sequel of Pathfinder’s ultimate and central temptation.

Pathfinder’s recollection of his three earlier temptations, read carefully, suggests not only Cooper’s remarkably penetrating insights into the American “craving after property” but the significance of Natty Bumppo’s final turning away from his dreams of marriage to Mabel. Not only does this turning away from marriage, precisely like the end of Isaac McCaslin’s marriage in The Bear, mean that the protagonist will lead the rest of his life in a radical kind of spiritual purity, free of ownership and the abuses it inevitably entails. Not only will Leatherstocking be able to assert near the end of his life that not “’my worst enemy, not even a lying Mingo, would dare to say, that I ever laid bands on the goods of another, except such as were taken in manful warfare, or that I ever coveted more ground, than the Lord has intended each man to fill’” (The Prairie 314). More than that, here, in his central temptation, Leatherstocking does pay a price for not succumbing to it; the sequel is not cost-free. Rather than losing nothing by doing right, “either in the way of honor or in that of profit,” in deciding whether he will release Mabel from the pledge she has made to her father to become the scout’s wife, Pathfinder must choose between something like “honor” — perhaps we would call it integrity — and the deepest kind of “profit,” his own happiness. Only by avoiding the literal profit of the property inevitably associated with marriage and the metaphorical profit of his own happiness can Pathfinder maintain his integrity, be true to his own deepest nature. Again, as in all three earlier temptations, only by yielding power or mastery over others — chiefly Mabel — can he achieve self-mastery; and thus the novel becomes what one of Cooper’s contemporaries called “the apotheosis of self-abnegation” (Belinsky 193, 195). 2

If I am right in claiming for Cooper in this one short passage some impressively deep and radical insights into the nature of ownership and property — insights which are central to all of the Leatherstocking tales and to much of American nature writing since — those insights become all the more remarkable when we examine Cooper’s stated views of property in other works written about the time of The Pathfinder. In The American Democrat, for instance, a kind of political science text published only two years before The Pathfinder, Cooper makes some far reaching claims for the importance if not the sacredness of property and property rights. Even here, it is true, he recognizes the selfish and destructive effects which property may have; he {90} rejects the “greater stake” theory of political power, and opposes any property qualification for voting. Yet his emphasis, certainly, is on the necessity, the desirability, the propriety of property; “property,” he insists, “is the base of all civilization” (186); “all which society enjoys beyond the mere supply of its first necessities, is dependent on the rights of property” (187). Indeed, reasoning by analogy from the territorial impulse in animals, “we may infer that the rights of property, to a certain extent, are founded in nature” (187).

Cooper echoes these views in the Littlepage trilogy, published only a few years after The Pathfinder (1845-46). In these profoundly conservative novels — written explicitly to defend the rights of landlords against the charges of the anti-rent forces — the protagonists, five generations of the Littlepage family, are preeminently landowners. With very few exceptions, we see only the constructive effects of ownership, 3 quite by contrast with the Leatherstocking Tales; here the selfish and wasteful characters are all non-owners. Satanstoe, which describes the beginning of the Littlepages’ real estate empire, contains a kind of paean to property by Cornelius Littlepage when he first sees a map of his father’s new upstate holdings: “I will acknowledge that the sight of the large, coarse, parchment map of the Mooseridge Patent, as the new acquisition was called, ... excited certain feelings of avarice within my mind. ... If it were a good thing to be the heir of Satanstoe, it was far better to be the tenant in common ... of all these ample plains, rich bottoms, flowing streams and picturesque lakes” (137). The very title of The Chainbearer is indicative of the central role of property in this trilogy: the title character is a professional surveyor’s assistant, dedicated to marking out plots of land to be owned by certain people and not by others. Here Mordaunt Littlepage, closely echoing The American Democrat, tries to explain to the noble Susquesus, who, like so many Indians, doesn’t really understand, the white man’s concept of private property: “’Now, all the knowledge, and all the arts of life that the white man enjoys and turns to his profit, come from the rights of property. ... Without these rights of property, no people could be civilized; for no people would do their utmost, unless each man were permitted to be master of what he can acquire ... ‘” (123). The villains of this middle novel of the trilogy are squatters; against them, The Chainbearer insists that ownership of the land originates in legal titles, not in work put into the land or in physical possession of it. Finally, in The Redskins, fiction comes close to lapsing into mere repetitive attacks on the anti-rent party and repetitive defenses of all landlords; here even Susquesus and the other “real Indians” are pro-landlord (cf. 512, 524-25). In such a partisan atmosphere, we cannot be altogether surprised to find Hugh Littlepage convinced that he is not a rich landowner by accident: “a profound feeling of gratitude to God came over me, when I recollected that it was by his Providence I was born the heir to such a scene” (418).

Clearly, we seem to have two Coopers here. One, who writes The American Democrat and the Littlepage trilogy — the public Cooper of 1838 to 1846 — is a die-hard champion of property and property rights; the other, who writes The Pathfinder in the same period, offers in the temptations of his protagonist genuinely radical insights into the negative effects of ownership. It is precisely the tension between these two Coopers, I think — between Cooper the {91} discursive thinker and journalist, on the one hand, and Cooper the visionary artist on the other — which lends power to the treatment of property or ownership in The Pathfinder and elsewhere in the Leatherstocking Tales. Writing in The American Democrat solely as a political thinker, and essentially illustrating his ideas there in the increasingly journalistic volumes of the Littlepage novels, Cooper reflects the biases, however intelligently qualified, of a member of the landowning aristocracy. But, as an artist and a visionary, he is able, at the same time, to see beyond his own discursive thinking; it is this radical and visionary side of Cooper’s mind — his imagination — which finds expression largely in the character of Natty Bumppo and which sees, as few political thinkers in America have ever seen, the limits and dangers and dark sides of our “craving after property.” As he tells us in the 1850 Preface to the Leatherstocking Tales, whatever historical elements may have entered in to the making of his greatest hero, “in a moral sense this man of the forest is purely a creation” (6) — purely a product of the imagination; and thus he can be, in a way in which no mere historical thinker can ever be, “removed from nearly all the temptations of civilized life” (7), especially, once he has passed the trials in The Pathfinder, from those of marriage and ownership.

Works Cited

  • Belinsky, V. G. Review of The Pathfinder and excerpt from “The Division of Poetry into Kinds and Genres,” both from Notes of the Fatherland (1841); rpt. George Dekker and John P. McWilliams, eds., Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. 191-95.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The American Democrat. New York: Penguin, 1989.
  • ------. The Chainbearer: or, The Littlepage Manuscripts. New York: W. A. Townsend, 1860.
  • ------. The Deerslayer: or, The First War-Path, ed. James Franklin Beard et al. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.
  • ------. The Pathfinder: or the Inland Sea, ed. Richard Dilworth Rust. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981.
  • ------. The Pioneers: or the Source of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale, ed. James Franklin Beard et al. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980.
  • ------. The Prairie: A Tale, ed. James P. Elliott. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.
  • ------. “Preface to the Leather-Stocking Tales.” In The Deerslayer, ed. James Franklin Beard et al. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. 5-9.
  • ------. The Redskins: or, Indian and Injin. New York: W. A. Townsend, 1860.
  • ------. Satanstoe: or, The Littlepage Manuscripts; A Tale of the Colony, ed. Kay Seymour House and Constance Ayers Denne. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
  • House, Kay Seymour. Introduction to The Pathfinder. New York: Penguin, 1989. ix-xxvii.
  • Lewis, R. W. B. “William Faulkner: The Hero in the New World.” The Picaresque Saint. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1958. 180, 187-209; rpt. Robert Penn Warren, ed., Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. 204-18.
  • Poirier, Richard. A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press (Galaxy paperback), 1966.


1 In this respect as in several others, Pathfinder is a forerunner of Isaac McCaslin. As R. W. B. Lewis has noted, in the crucial scenes of The Bear, too, the frontier hero’s traditional emblem of power, his rifle, is not used to control others (specifically the bear) but is relinquished by young McCaslin, first to see the bear and then to save the fyce. As Lewis puts it, Ike’s act of laying down his rifle at these critical moments represents “the main symbolic movement of the narrative,” “the transmutation of power into charity” (217).

2 Thus Pathfinder’s central moral action, taken when he is a relatively young man, is very close in spirit to the central moral action of the noble Susquesus (taken when he is a young man) as it is revealed in The Redskins . Though the Littlepage novels certainly champion ownership rather than visionary possession, Susquesus’ decision to yield his beloved Ouithwith to the Waterfowl, because “’She is his, by our laws’” (517), represents another moment of sacrificing personal interest to principle, or of self-abnegation — and so Susquesus ends, like Leatherstocking or Isaac McCaslin, alone but noble, “the Upright of the Onandagoes.”

3 On the other hand, the Littlepage novels do occasionally question the legitimacy of property rights, as the Leatherstocking Tales do so often; even The Redskins, the most polemical of the three, at least marginally raises the question whether the Littlepages’ patent doesn’t in some sense belong to the Indians, to the people of the noble and selfless Susquesus.