Ordering Leather-Stocking

Geoffrey Rans (University of Western Ontario)

Presented at the 9ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1993.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1993 Cooper Seminar (No. 9), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. James D. Wallace, editor. (pp. 81-91).

Copyright © 1993, State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

Author’s Note: I had originally intended to offer the participants in the 1993 Cooper Conference a somewhat more abstract, theoretical discussion of questions of sequence, memory and time than what I actually presented. Issues surrounding questions of sequence and the order in which we read have, in general — as in what follows — been much oversimplified. I would suggest that they must be simplified if we are to discuss works of literature at all, since the variables of response are so great and so numerous that, to reach any point close to a resolution at which critical practice can ensue compels extensive theoretical considerations of a mainly epistemological nature. It seemed to me more useful to concede the essentially provisional nature of literary criticism, and go on without the pretence of offering a permanently valid reading, good for all the variables involved, fully covered by a theoretical insurance policy. While a theoretical discussion of the issue of sequence that inevitably emerges from any reading of the Leather-Stocking novels would have engaged the interest of any group of advanced specialists, the group assembled at Oneonta included students encountering the novels for the first time, whose wants and needs were different, and to whom such a discussion would appear at best dilatory and marginal and at worst an obfuscation of the abundant difficulties immediately before them in the books they were reading and about to read. And so I began with the first question I was asked in my first seminar by an undergraduate student and, four days later, delivered what follows.

On the first day of the conference an undergraduate member of our audience asked me, “Should I read The Pioneers first?” My answer was “Yes”, and the reasons I gave were a brief version of what you are about to hear. Fortunately Allan Axelrad was in the room too and so the student was not left at the mercy of a single view. 1 Another group member who knows the novels well said that it was probably the best one to begin with because it was easiest, in part because it carried less generic baggage with it: you can, so to speak, get into Cooper’s fictional world most readily in the first place through the descriptive, episodic, and anecdotal loose framework of The Pioneers.

{82} On the same day, we had Alan Taylor’s 2 lucid discussion of how complex the historical, legal and civil implications of this tale of two dead deer really are: how difficult it is for Judge Temple — property owner and judge — to measure up to certain aristocratic and democratic notions he, with Cooper, cherished. And Cooper seems very deliberately determined to inscribe these difficulties, and to complicate them still further by having Temple operate in a context, first, of conflict of interest (he is both judge and aggrieved party), and, second, of officers of the law, appointed by him, a magistrate, Doolittle, and a sheriff, Jones, who in fact provoke the offence that Natty commits and are themselves contemptuous of the law.

We can begin to take the measure of the issue’s complexity and Cooper’s scepticism about the law in theory and practice with Sheriff Jones’s emphatic observation:

“Well, ‘duke, you are your own master but I would have tried law for the saddle, before I would have given it to the fellow. Do you not own the mountains, as well as the valleys? are not the woods your own? what right has this chap, or the Leather-stocking, to shoot in your woods, without your permission? Now, I have known a farmer, in Pennsylvania, order a sportsman off his farm, with as little ceremony as I would order Benjamin to put a log in the stove. By-the-by, Benjamin, see how the thermometer stands. Now, if a man has the right to do this, on a farm of a hundred acres, what power must a landlord have, who owns sixty thousand — ay! for the matter of that, including the late purchases, a hundred thousand?“(93) 3

Not merely does Jones explicitly see rights as increasing with the holding of property, but he sees nothing wrong with the Judge’s enjoying a personal advantage from his office. Not merely does this view draw no reproof from Temple but, somewhat later, the Judge curiously confirms it:

“Armed with the dignity of the law, Mr. Bumppo, ... a vigilant magistrate can prevent much of the evil that has hitherto prevailed, and which is already rendering the game scarce. I hope to live to see the day, when a man’s rights in his game shall be as much respected as his title to his farm.“(160) There, by the way, is Alan Taylor’s game-park for Temple: underlying game laws are property rights, not merely conservationist altruism. 4 But Lippet, just before this, in The Bold Dragoon, has said:

“The law, gentlemen, is no respecter of persons in a free country. It is one of the great blessings that has been handed down to us from our ancestors, that all men are equal in the eye of the law, as they are by nater. Though some may get {83} property, no one knows how, yet they are not privileged to transgress the laws, any more than the poorest citizen in the state.“(152)

Yet Temple has property and is so privileged. Neither Cooper nor Temple conceals the contempt he feels for Lippet, but Cooper the novelist gives him a sounder grasp of the issue than Temple shows. The issues of property, power, privilege and the law are central and surface again and again throughout the novel.

Property is so fundamental to the novel that it might not raise too many eyebrows to suggest that it might appeal to some Naturalist gremlin to re-title it: Property, or, The Sources of Power in America. At any event, what Cooper represents is not merely descriptive or definitive but is deliberately made problematic and open to critique. Gail Smith 5 on the same day intensified our sense of the problematic by asking us to read The Deerslayer as a series of fragments the full significance and veracity of which are never explicitly yielded as the characters attempt to make sense of them — and as the readers are challenged to make sense in their turn. I largely agree with that approach and would add only that I find more to be certain about than she does.

The Australian novelist C. K. Stead reviewing in The London Review of Books a new novel by his compatriot David Malouf writes somewhat grudgingly:

Settler societies breed two phases of myth. In the first the settlers romanticise themselves and their heroic fight against the untamed and the uncivilized. In the second, their somewhat-educated descendants, enjoying all the benefits of settlement, represent their forebears as ignorant destroyers, and romanticise the unique character and spiritual identity of the culture which colonisation damaged or destroyed.

Noting the strength of this tendency in modern Australian fiction (and the same might of course be noted of Canadian and American fiction), and conceding its “part-share of truth”, Stead says it need not be damaging, “[b]ut to manage them the fiction-writer needs to hang on to a sense of probability and of irony.”

While Cooper’s sense of irony has not often been celebrated and Twain for one found probability not Cooper’s strongest suit, I believe that Cooper not only offers us versions of both types of myth at once, but also insists that we subject everything to critique, the most common effect of irony, without always using obviously ironical means. His general procedure, however {84} intrusive and opinionated he often is, is never monologic in these novels: every voice is answered, every piety is questioned. I believe that whatever the order in which we address the novels — that of publication or that of Natty’s biography — the dialogic principle is sustained. If we begin with the most nearly monologic of the novels — The Deerslayer (it is often called “timeless”) — the highly idealized Natty from the outset faces already settlement, Hutter and Harry March and their officially sanctioned and rewarded scalping, and the brutality of Warley and his Redcoats; as the series proceeds to Natty’s death, one is driven to question what this embodiment of human virtue, firmly established in The Deerslayer, is there for, since in each novel his marginalization intensifies. If Allan Axelrad, in History and Utopia, is right about the allegory of decline present in this chronological sequence, then Natty’s Oedipus at Colonos role in The Prairie must be taken in two ways: first, at face value, he is the “father” of the nation to come, but, second, we add something further: if his voice was unheard in the settlements when he was present what reason is there to suppose that his voice will be better heard from the grave hundreds of miles away from the capital? 6 May not Middleton’s paean of praise for Natty be seen in part as self-serving sentimentality? What can one believe in The Prairie, given what we have been witness to in The Pioneers? The series relentlessly raises such questions as these — but with increased point and intensity when we read in the order of publication.

Cooper recognized the problem I address here and, at greater length in my book. 7 He refers in the 1850 Preface to the “very desultory and inartificial manner” of the series’ composition. He explains the relative popular neglect of The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer: there was, he writes, “no longer novelty to attract attention, and the interest was materially impaired by the manner in which events were necessarily anticipated”. Obviously he is thinking of chronological and biographical defects that he thought the rearrangement would “partially remove”.

Whether or not they base the attempt on a view of sequence, Cooper has not lacked critics who sought to make sense of the entire series. I will mention only two more — briefly — that have had great influence: Leslie Fiedler and D. H. Lawrence. Fiedler in effect separated Natty and Chingachgook from the novels and placed them for generations of students as mythic constructions, context discounted: “they have entered the free domain of our dreams”. 8 While I feel little sympathy with this view, it does take account of and partially explain something we all feel in the reading and that must have determined Cooper as he contemplated what he had done in The Pioneers, a work whose centre is so difficult to decide (if you insist it have only one centre): the overall and intended tale that is told — the major plot — is clearly not primarily Natty’s tale, and yet that is what we remember and what inspired Cooper’s most intense writing and framing of incident. Natty dominates our interest, and yet he has narrative dominance only in The Deerslayer.

Lawrence’s notion that the series in order of publication constitutes “a decrescendo of {85} reality, and a crescendo of beauty”, that we read The Deerslayer “as a lovely myth” 9, has had great appeal and authority; Axelrad’s lethal demolition of Lawrence in 1987 says all that needs to be said to dismiss it. While Lawrence expresses almost exuberantly his sense of the psychic complexity of America’s fascination, embodied in Natty, with innocence and moral purity, which is underlaid with a ruthless and bloody violence, I would maintain that this truth is nowhere submerged, hidden or suppressed in Cooper. We know it not by psychoanalytic exhumation but because Cooper lays it explicitly before us. For me Lawrence misses out too much, endorses forgetting too much, and cancels too much of what Cooper wrote. How, in Lawrence’s preferred order after all, can we choose to forget, as Harry March fails to shoot a deer, a hapless and dangerous act, the consequence that successful acts of deer-slaying had for Natty in The Pioneers? And in the other order, the biographical one, what can Natty’s comment about the shooting of deer out of season, as Richard Morton observes, 10 mean “in the unsettled Glimmerglass of the hero’s youth” (it wasn’t unsettled as we discover)? It takes on its fullest meaning only in the actively remembered context of The Pioneers, Again, the mythic idealized view of Natty misses out too much, but still, I repeat, that image of Natty as a dream of beauty does have immense appeal. Even in conceding that, we must add that we can feel so not only because of Natty’s mythic role as Nature’s bridegroom, but also because of his moral action in a recognizable wide-awake world, for example, in his exemplary conduct with Mabel in The Pathfinder.

While I share the common desire to make total sense out of the series, I have concluded that only the most detailed reading will serve Cooper — reading as nuanced and subtle as we routinely bestow on Hawthorne, Melville and James. When we do that, we find that the voice of Cooper, which shares so much with his agrarian, propertied gentlemen-heroes, and the other elegiac and critical voice of Cooper heard through Tamenund, Chingachgook, Natty, Magua and Hard-Heart, as well as in propria voce, are only two of the audible competing voices that constitute and complicate the world of his novels. The appearance is often of ideological conflict, of inconsistency, even of confusion. Close reading persuades me that the confusion is not Cooper’s — nor does it matter to me that Cooper may be conflicted (as I am); his commentary is so shrewd, the episodes he creates so sharply crafted, that it seems to me far more likely that he knew exactly what he was doing. If we proceed, say, to the crucial exchange between Temple and Elizabeth, bearing in mind the conversation in The Bold Dragoon we have already looked at, we see the same issue arise; the allowance that Mrs. Hollister makes for the Judge as a man is precisely, as he echoes Lippet, for whom he has contempt, a consideration he refuses to make for Natty when Elizabeth asks him to. The sanctified, equal and impartial Law must prevail. Elizabeth speaks from the heart while the Judge speaks from the head — the conventional view of this passage, which a presumably authorial voice seems to endorse. But does that voice prevent us from siding with Elizabeth and, later, with Ben Pump against the Judge? But what force does civilization’s law have when the Judge has not yet tamed the wilderness? But, most important of all, what are we to make of the {86} Judge’s final claim on his daughter’s attention, “but try to remember, Elizabeth, that the laws alone remove us from the condition of the savages; that [Natty] has been criminal, and that his judge was thy father”? His plea to her on his own behalf is identical in essence to her plea to him on Natty’s behalf. Surely we are meant to see how insecure his argument is. It is an ad feminam, ad filiam argument. The conflict, I am insisting, is fully represented in an entirely typical fictional act. Cooper is less dedicated to conceptual coherence and closure than we have usually conceded.

To take another instance, Mohegan’s response to Elizabeth on Mount Vision and her injunction to him that he not forget his Christian instruction “to fear God and to live at peace”:

“John was young, when his tribe gave away the country, in council, from where the blue mountain stands above the water, to where the Susquehannah is hid by the trees ... to the Fire-eater — for they loved him. ... He has seen the land pass away from the Fire-eater, and his children, and the child of his child, and a new chief set over the country. Did they live in peace who did this! did they fear God!“(401)

When Elizabeth responds in defence that the Delawares sell their land for powder and blankets, John fixes her with a gaze “that alarmed her a little”, and replies with animation:

“Where are the blankets and merchandise that bought the right of the Fireeater? ... are they with him in his wigwam? Did they say to him, brother, sell us your land, and take this gold, this silver, these blankets, these rifles or even this rum? No, they tore it from him, as a scalp is torn from an enemy; and they that did it looked not behind them, to see whether he lived or died. Do such men live in peace and fear the Great Spirit?”

Major Effingham’s right to the land affords a crucial and exquisitely complex example:

  1. Major Effingham owned it as a gift from its aboriginal owners.
  2. He was adopted into the tribe and named the Fire-eater; that questions how complete the transfer of property was.
  3. He was a Loyalist, and so was stripped of his property by law.
  4. Temple acquires the land (but, as we later learn, for Effingham).
  5. John assumes a kind of theft, as if Effingham were an aboriginal victim of expropriation: no blankets; it was like a scalping. John is translating here as surely as he translates God into the Great Spirit.

A large and eventful tract of history is covered here: from the 1750’s to the 1790’s, different kinds of historical event — war and settlement — and legal transactions. John sees the dispossession of Effingham as if Effingham were an Indian — he is the Fire-eater; BUT it does not translate. Why? Because Effingham is white and Temple’s bond to him is unbreakable.

This bond, which after all resolves the plot, renders the difference between Red and White with a more profound irony than John’s impassioned complaints can. Effingham’s right is never seriously imperiled. Natty’s “Might is right” must be re- inscribed as “White is/has right”. The sanctity of property survives the Revolution, links Colony to Republic, and resolves the narrative — but only for the forgetful, those who can allow themselves to forget or disregard what Mohegan cannot. If then — to come at last to the point — we concede that such conflicts and complexities lie at the centre of Cooper’s art, in what order should we read the Leather-Stocking novels so that they yield up their fullest significance to us? The chronological order of Natty’s life, as Cooper finally decided, or the order of the novels’ publication?

In the chronological order we satisfy the desire for a completed narrative sequence based on that vital and universally recognized progression of an individual life from youth, through maturity, to old age and death. Such a narrative may also be akin to Allan Axelrad’s insistence on the implicit allegory/analogue of the decline of a nation, or, with the inevitable focus on Natty himself, his rite of passage in The Deerslayer, his demonstration of virtue in action in The Mohicans and The Pathfinder, his tragedy in The Pioneers, and his final transfiguration, in the Colonos of The Prairie, into the father of the nation, a figure, like Tamenund, whose significance, history and eloquence do not inspire confidence in his hopes. The Natty that Temple’s pursuit and Elizabeth and Oliver’s tender charity could not win for inclusion in the new Republic is finally included in a still — and, I suggest, deliberately — not completely univocal literary act of great power.

Such a sequence is appealing and might lead the reader to share the hope that Jasper and Mabel, Elizabeth and Oliver carry into the new Republic the force of Natty’s example, and the final ritual elevation of Natty in all his glorious virtue might make the reader overlook his society’s incapacity to deal with him except in this abstracting way (and The Deerslayer, to break sequence for a moment, is by far the most abstract of the five compositions — not much in the way of blood-knowledge, one might think, to attract Lawrence’s admiration). This focus, however, on the individual Natty misses what for me at least is the source of our awe and Natty’s authority: that is, the momentous history {88} with which he alone of all those present is fully intimate — as participant in, victim of and, to use Cooper’s term of 1831, “witness” of the events that brought America to birth. This particular effect is felt, whether The Prairie is read as the third or the fifth novel in sequence.

It is worth adding that the issue raised by the two competing orders may make us miss a fairly simple point; if Cooper, at the inception of The Pioneers, had no sense of the power that Natty would generate, he certainly must have had as he began The Last of the Mohicans: a decision to fashion a sequel cannot be casual. Why, then, in order to continue the representation of Natty’s life does he go out of sequence to a period forty years before? Why not directly to The Prairie? Obviously, to allow a biographical sequence in which the final scene I have just referred to can take place, Natty must have performed actions of heroism and self-sacrifice, and be implicated in significant passages of American history. So, to move back in time, in 1826, for Cooper was merely necessary to chronological sequence, and not an innovative gesture meant to explore that artistic consequences of deliberate anachronism. But the achronological order certainly does have artistic and ideological consequences.

In the chronological sequence certain narrative advantages are obvious: the massacre at Fort William Henry makes more sense after the Redcoats’ bloody slaughter at the end of The Deerslayer; the deflation of military and romance notions of honour in The Last of the Mohicans and The Pathfinder is well founded in Warley’s cynical callousness in The Deerslayer; Natty’s bitter complaint in The Pioneers that his public service is forgotten is justified by the reader’s knowledge of The Last of the Mohicans; Middleton’s paean in The Prairie to Natty’s virtue (a premature funeral eulogy, more like) is fully substantiated at the point of its delivery. The reader’s memory at all points coincides with Natty’s. That has more than narrative consequence, I think, since memory is crucial for both characters and readers within these texts, and is ,in part, what the texts are for: to make us remember — and for many readers their own memory is of conclusive authority and confirms what the present text affirms: they know as well. That operates with particular force in The Prairie, but the coincidence of knowledge does not of course entail that the reader will necessarily share Middleton’s or Natty’s response to Middleton’s idealization. Even though the interplay of memory and critique is more dynamic in the achronological order, I do not suggest that the chronological order disarms critique. As the biographical narrative moves from the intense idealization of The Deerslayer to the disaffected tone of the opening of The Last of the Mohicans a tonic shock is administered as Natty is plucked from the timeless dimension (if it is that) into the history-soaked commentary of the latter novel’s opening; the honourable protestations of Montcalm, Munro and Heyward are deflated and we are left to recall the more blatant Warley. At the same time we see that the almost Spenserian projection of Natty’s virtues has become, admittedly by choice, mere function in the dominant social order — he is, in one sense of the word, alienated; Natty joins the world, enters history, and becomes complicitous with the {89} very forces that will erase him and Chingachgook. For the reader who has followed the order of publication those forces already have gone far to eliminate him.

Not until 1842, however, did it become possible to place the account of Natty’s youth first in order. One thing is at once clear when we address The Deerslayer as the final novel: Natty’s memory cannot align with the reader’s. Although as the composition of the series proceeds constant adjustments must be made, the fact that the reader can remember what Natty cannot at the depicted time is paramount. In a sense, Natty’s life is more the reader’s property than it is Natty’s. For example, when in The Deerslayer Warley massacres the Hurons, Natty has not experienced Fort William Henry, but the reader of The Last of the Mohicans has. The reader revises and reassesses the carnage at Fort William Henry and finds belated additional confirmation of the denunciation of the European colonizer that opens Mohicans. In neither order of reading is the capacity of men white and red for unsparing cruelty muted, masked or excused; Redcoats act with a barbarity usually ascribed to Redskins. In the chronological order of Natty’s life, to repeat, that critical opening of Mohicans follows “naturally” from and evaluates Warley’s massacre — a connection closed for the earlier reader of Mohicans; in the order of publication, the reader must make the connections, chronological and otherwise, and that is a critical function — and not only or primarily a literary-critical function. This confers upon the reader a freedom and responsibility to make the expanding text he/she is reading.

What happens in this order? In place of the pathetic decline of Natty’s fortunes from The Deerslayer to The Pioneers, we read the exacting moral exercises of The Deerslayer and the encomiums of The Pathfinder, his betrothal to Nature, and the laborious discovery of moral responsibility in his treatment of Mabel, against our prior knowledge, from The Pioneers, in which the rape of his bride is already in progress and his virtues are by some openly traduced. We are forced by this awareness of the futility of his sacrifice to criticize the society which he serves and whose highest moral aspirations, as Middleton among others will insist, Natty above all others embodies. One more example will have to suffice here: when, early in The Last of the Mohicans, Natty uses the name of Major Effingham as a card of identity to Heyward, it must go for very little from the perspective of Natty’s fictional chronology; for the reader in the order of publication, however, the word Effingham summons the entire history of The Pioneers and Natty’s fate subsequent to Mohicans — prior fact to the reader, but not available to Natty. We see fully, as Natty cannot, his alignment with the forces that will destroy him (in the reader’s memory they have already destroyed him). I do not suggest that in no other sequence can this insight be derived but, rather, that such insights are more frequently drawn to the surface in the order of publication.

While we might not wish to argue for intention on Cooper’s part for the order of publication, what is beyond question is Cooper’s inclination to social critique in his fiction and {90} non-fiction — at great personal cost to him as we know. That the political and social critique enfolded in the Leather-Stocking texts was largely passed over at the time is surprising 11; Perhaps the pleasure of finding American life, history and aspirations so vibrantly represented lulled the awareness of Cooper the critic, whose strictures always serve the patriotic principles he desires to protect. The society Cooper represents in the novels erases in deeds the ideals it ennobles in words. Addressed in the order of composition, then, the vast idealization of Natty in The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer has always to contend with and live with the brutal realities of The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans.

I have argued here a preference for reading in the order of publication; Cooper’s contemporaries before 1842 had less choice in the matter than we enjoy. While my preference confuses linear historical time for the reader, it compensates by projecting a supralinear reality, in which succession in time is subsidiary to the overriding forces at work in history, shaping and forming its myths and meaning; Cooper’s readers, forced to consider what is transpiring on the page before them in the context not only of what has transpired but also the already known that will transpire, are placed in the privileged position of constantly making the fiction, and making sense of it. Each reader, within limits, may do it differently, but is not free not to do it. The very word “chronology” tends to identify the passage of time with logic; what has happened, what normally happens as moment follows moment, is called logical even inevitable. I suppose that what I am suggesting is that there are other kinds of logical than chronological. Also, that time has not merely an historical dimension, “out there”, so to speak; there is another sense of time, “in here”, in which, as events succeed one another into consciousness, in whatever order, the mind orders, re-orders, remembers, dismembers, thinks about, and draws conclusions from them. We call that understanding. It is Cooper’s great merit that his account is so frank, full and fair that, in whatever order, the willing reader is helped to understand, and is not subject to the exclusive monologue of myth or ideology.


1 Axelrad’s History and Utopia (Norwood,Pa., 1978) and “The Order of the Leatherstocking Tales”, American Literature 54 (1982), 189-211, offer the most cogent argument against a preference for reading these novels in the order of their composition.

2 Professor Taylor chose not to include his paper in these Proceedings.

3 The Beard/SUNY Press edition of The Pioneers is cited throughout this paper.

4 See Charles Swann, “Guns Mean Democracy: The Pioneers and the Game Laws,” in James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays, ed. Robert Clark (London: Vision Press, 1985), 96-120. See also the definitive work on such issues, the late E. P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975). The footnotes to both Swann’s and Richard Godden’s articles in Clark’s compilation are especially useful on this issue, as is Brook Thomas’s Cross-Examinations of Law and Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

5 See Gail Smith’s paper in these proceedings.

6 I should not let the opportunity pass to record the remarkable communication visited from beyond the grave upon our esteemed visitor from Japan, Mr. Suzuki, at the Cooper family burial grounds. Perhaps my scepticism should be sceptically received.

7 Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

8 Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion, 1960), 149.

9 D.H.Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Anchor, 1953), 50, 60.

10 Richard Morton, “The Double Chronology of Leatherstocking,” Canadian Review of American Studies, 20 (1989), 77-95.

11 O.W.B. Peabody for example found in Doolittle only an unrealistic aberration. See George Dekker and John P. McWilliams, eds., Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1973), 9.