Relics and Repetitions in The Deerslayer

Gail K. Smith (Marquette University)

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. 28-36).

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

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

“[W]e find Cooper to be essentially a man of fragments,” declares Yvor Winters, referring to those spots of good writing he finds lurking in James Fenimore Cooper’s often “extremely bad” prose. The fragments, though, suggest to Winters the value of the whole. “[T]he entire work should be exhumed. It is a mass of fragments, no doubt; but the fragments are those of a civilization” (198-9). Winters’ references to fragments are much more significant for Cooper’s work than perhaps he realized. Fragments or relics of civilization are often the topic of Cooper’s novels, particularly The Deerslayer. Moreover, fitting fragments into a whole, coherent narrative describes both the process by which the characters of that novel interpret each other, and the process by which the reader reads the novel: positing an explanatory past for the characters from the fragmentary evidence of the narrative present. As the characters “read” each other, interpreting bits of gossip, the evidence of blushes, half-heard conversations, mutilated letters, and disconnected objects in an old trunk, the reader too reads these characters, coming to conclusions by combining fragments into an ostensibly complete picture. But the method by which the reader and the characters read suggests the questionable nature of thus “filling in the blanks.”

That method, as I will elaborate, relies on suppositions that history repeats itself: that Judith follows her mother Judith’s sexual failings, for instance, or that Hutter re-enacts the story of Job. Both the characters and the reader automatically formulate patterns of repetition in order to interpret the fragments Cooper provides in his tale. I will illustrate how Cooper forces us to form patterns of repetition to interpret the fragments he provides us, and then I will speculate on Cooper’s larger design in constructing this novel as such a “twice-told tale.”

In The Deerslayer, even the very first scene is a recapitulation. When Hurry Harry March and Natty Bumppo emerge from the trackless forest, they immediately come upon the remains of a camp where land-hunters stayed the previous summer (17-20). The reader — like Natty — immediately realizes that Hurry and others have been here before. The marks of human presence continue as the two men approach the lake. Natty finds a sapling fastened among the branches of a bass-wood and concludes that “[t]he hand of man did that act of kindness for it.” “That hand was {29} mine!” Hurry exclaims (33). When, at the lakeside, Natty sees no marks or signs of the “hand of man,” however, he assumes the lake has been forever untouched. Even Cooper says that “the hand of man had never yet defaced, or deformed any part of this native scene,” and Natty declares, “Not a tree disturbed, even by red skin hand, as I can discover, but every thing left in the ordering of the Lord, to live and die according to his own designs and laws!” (36) But subsequent descriptions reveal that the “hand of man” has deformed the lake as well. What Cooper repeatedly describes as a “sheet” of water (suggesting a parallel with a sheet of paper) is not a blank slate. On the contrary, it is a palimpsest. The hand of man has left its marks on both the “margins” of the “sheet” and the “sheet” itself — and it is about to do so again. Rounding a bend, Natty and Hurry come upon Thomas Hutter’s “rude” castle, which Cooper describes later as “one solitary object ... that had received its form or uses from human taste, or human desires which as often deform as beautify a landscape. This was the castle, all the rest being native, and fresh from the hand of God” (324). Though the lake is unchristened and unclaimed, and (Cooper emphasizes again) filled with “the solitudes that spoke of scenes and forests untouched by the hands of man” (46), it has held the rude hut of a squatter family for the last fifteen years. As Hurry describes the “hunters, and trappers, and scouts” who visit the lake, Natty complains, “I thought this water an onknown and little frequented sheet.” Hurry replies, significantly, “It’s all that, lad, the eyes of twenty white men never having been laid on it; still, twenty true bred frontiermen ... can do a deal of mischief if they try” (28). Even before the men join the Hutters, then, human “mischief” is already visible in the marks left on and around the Glimmerglass.

Judith, of course, seems to have been marked by human mischief as well. Cooper sets up an obvious parallel between the Glimmerglass, which is not as inviolate as it seems, and Judith, who is perhaps less virginal than she “should be.” What shapes our views of Judith are the fragments Cooper gives us from her past. Both Natty and the reader assume Judith is tainted — a fallen woman — after hearing Hurry repeat the rumors of her past behavior. Gossip and oral tradition, themselves verbal “relics” which preserve the past in the present, shape Natty’s subsequent perceptions as much as they do the reader’s. Natty’s initial meeting with Judith, then, is already tainted by the rumors he has heard about her, both from Hurry and from the Delawares. The Delawares, Natty says, maintain that Judith is “fair to look on, and pleasant of speech; but over-given to admirers, and light-minded” (26). Hurry responds, “Now that’s Judith’s character to a riband!” and speculates freely about her relationships with the British officers. Though Hurry often calls her character “unsartain,” his reliance on echoes of the past has in fact irrevocably shaped his judgment and made him “sartain” about her. And however much Natty protests about the unreliability of reports, the Delawares’ assessment and Hurry’s gossip still lead Natty to “read” the signs he sees in the Hutter daughters’ bedroom so as to corroborate his already tainted view of Judith. Because he has already encountered verbal relics of the past, freshness of perception, like the freshness of an untouched lake, eludes him.

{30} The visible marks Judith leaves behind her seem to strengthen the view both Natty and the reader have received from the gossip they have heard. The articles left in Hetty and Judith’s bedroom dramatize the difference between the two sisters, and suggest further Judith’s supposed “light-mindedness.” Unlike Hetty’s side of the bedroom, Judith’s side is marked by fine clothes, shoes with silver buckles, and a linen pillowcase with a ruffle. Her “six fans of gay colours, were placed, half open, in a way to catch the eye by their conceits and hues,” suggesting both her lack of true modesty (“half open”) and her love of fine “conceits” (43). Her cap, Cooper tells us, is “coquettishly decorated with ribbons,” thus echoing and corroborating Hurry’s remark: “That’s Judith’s character to a riband!” (26). Though neither Natty nor the reader has met Judith yet, Cooper’s use of visual and verbal “relics” has already tainted her character.

Fragments of Thomas Hutter’s past dot the narrative as well. His shady past inhabits the present in the scraps of verbal tradition which Hurry repeats in the first pages of the novel. While they are still in the forest, Hurry tells Natty, “Some think he was a free liver on the salt water in his youth, and a companion of a sartain Kidd, who was hanged for piracy” (24). Hurry has already interpreted some verbal relics of Hutter’s past himself: he tells Natty that when Hutter and his wife argued, “the listeners got some such insights into their past lives, as one gets into the darker parts of the woods, when a stray gleam of sunshine finds its way down to the roots of the trees” (25). Natty, like the reader, internalizes this oral tradition, whether willingly or not; when he meets Judith he asks whether her father was a sailor, and he later recalls the rumors of piracy several times as Judith rummages in the mysterious chest (410, 418). The verbal traditions, then, serve as initial impressions on the memories of Hurry, Natty, and the reader. The characters are already “marked” before we meet them.

When Natty finally meets Thomas Hutter and Judith, he must interpret the marks of character he sees firsthand. Cooper aligns these new signs with the old, so that reading them along with the impressions we have already received is tantalizingly easy. The Judith we see, for instance, acts in ways which corroborate the idea that she has a damning past to bury. Cooper suggests her past through her facial signs — her frequent blushes — which continually suggest what it seems she is trying to hide. Over and over she blushes at significant moments. If Natty speaks of red-coated officers, Judith blushes. If anyone mentions false hearts or false tongues, Judith blushes. As her blushes rise to the surface, so does her apparently guilty sexual past. Having heard rumors about her “light-mindedness” and her familiarity with officers, we are ready to believe these blushes correspond to the initial impressions we have received. Mingling past and present in our reading, we find the present Judith to be a consistent repetition of the impressions our minds first received.

{31} Cooper’s narrative brings to its height this kind of reading-for-repetition when he allows us to peek into Thomas Hutter’s mysterious chest. Far from being simply an “object lesson” in the futility of civilization, as Joel Forte would have it (36-7), the chest is significantly a “tabooed relic” itself, Cooper says, which opens to reveal further relics of the family’s past (209). Though the old-fashioned jacket in the chest cannot have been Hutter’s, we see the brocade dress fit Judith perfectly, suggesting immediately that perhaps this relic is part of her mother’s more refined past. On Judith, the dress suggests a link between her mother’s rumored failings and her own — her taste for finery, perhaps even “light-mindedness.” The pistols, too, Cooper quietly links with Judith’s (and her mother’s) past by suggesting they could only have been used by “some officer from Europe, who visited the colonies” (218). Inevitably, the reader begins to weave the uncovered relics into patterns of repetition.

Other fragments of the past in the chest seem to corroborate our impressions of Thomas Hutter’s past in a similar way, Though the nautical instrument and the chessmen are perhaps too fine for Hutter to have used himself, Natty and his companions still conclude they reveal something of his shady character. Mistaking the sextant for the instrument of a surveyor, Natty nevertheless draws what would seem a fair conclusion, given Hutter’s supposed past: “I fear me, after all, that Thomas Hutter has journeyed into the wilderness with no fair intentions toward its happiness” (222). On discovering the chessmen, Natty again brings us up against our unsavory impressions of Hutter’s past, concluding that “the old fellow, by some onknown means, has fallen heir to another man’s goods! They say he has been a mariner, and no doubt this chist, and all it holds — ” (222). If Natty doesn’t complete this sentence, the reader naturally does. Hutter, we assume, may have taken the chest and its contents by violence. Reading the latest relics alongside our previous impressions makes such conclusions unavoidable. It is important to note, however, that the evidence linking the chest’s relics to the past life of Hutter and his wife is far from certain. Faced with this uncertainty, both the characters and the reader shape the mysterious exhumed relics into a neatly repetitive story linking past and present.

The chest closes, maddeningly, on a number of unopened packages, until much later in the novel when Cooper again opens the lid for our inspection. Before it is reopened, though, we receive further impressions of the repetition of the past in the characters of Thomas Hutter and Judith. Hutter, after seeking the scalps of Indian women and children on the shores of the lake, loses his own scalp to the avenging Hurons. Like the reader, Judith and Hetty immediately perceive “the decrees of a retributive Providence, in the manner of their father’s suffering, as a punishment for his own recent attempts on the Iroquois” (356). Even Hutter himself sees the connection. When he wakes to ask for water, he compares his situation to “something in the bible about cooling the tongue of a man who was burning in Hell fire” (359). Hutter’s present condition is easy to interpret as the eye-for-an-eye justice of God, repeating the crime on the original {32} perpetrator. Hetty’s bedside readings from the Bible suggest further repetitions of ancient formulas. From the book of Job, “now believed to be the oldest book in the world” (358), Hetty reads of the “appointed time” allotted to every one on earth. Cooper describes how “as Hetty proceeded, Hutter applied, or fancied he could apply many aphorisms and figures to his own worldly and mental condition” (359). In the same way, the reader applies, or fancies s/he applies, the decrees of the distant past to the present fate of Thomas Hutter. Reading both Hetty’s “religious relic” (191) and the other signs of Hutter’s past, we are ready to see his ghastly fate as a horribly satisfying repetition of his past.

Cooper’s narrative provides us with further signs of Judith’s character as well. Facial signs and words work together to suggest the significance of the British captain Warley in Judith’s past. “[P]ale as death” and “trembling,” Judith tells Hurry as he leaves for the fort, “You will find a captain of the name of Warley at the nearest post. ... I think it likely he will wish to head the [rescue] party, but I would greatly prefer it should be another. If Captain Warley can be kept back, ‘t would make me very happy!” (372) Judith’s pale face and trembling body, along with Hurry’s usual gossip, combine in the reader’s mind to corroborate the impressions Cooper has given us earlier about Judith’s past. But how much do we really know?

It seems to me that Cooper is playing with a reader’s natural impulses to perceive patterns of repetition. He constructs the novel around scene after scene in which we are teased into forming such patterns from signs we interpret as “relics” of the past. But if we become aware of our readings, we can see that the fragments remain stubbornly inconclusive. Even when the chest opens the second time, the significant relics it contains cannot absolutely explain the characters’ pasts. Cooper goes to great lengths to stress the mystery which remains around these exhumed objects, and to show how characters can only arrive at explanations by forming patterns as creative readers. Looking at these fragments of the past, remembering other fragments of tradition and gossip, and recalling other material relics, both the characters and the reader engage in a process of “filling in the blanks” to construct a whole reading. Cooper first dramatizes this syntactical detective process when Judith hears Thomas Hutter’s delirious utterances.

Judith listened intently, and she heard the words — ‘husband’ — ‘ death — ‘pirate’ — ‘law’ — ‘scalps’ — and several others of similar import, though there was no sentence to tell the precise connection in which they were used. Still they were sufficiently expressive to be understood by one whose ears had not escaped all the rumours that had been circulated to her reputed father’s discredit, and whose comprehension was as quick, as her faculties were attentive. (360)

Like Judith, we create the connections between isolated signs in order to construct a followable {33} narrative of past and present. When we look with her into the chest once more, we simply acquire more relics to shape into a patterned tale.

When Judith opens the chest again, the first new object to come to light is a huge flag. Judith declares, “That flag must have some meaning to it,” and concludes it was carried by a ship connected to Thomas Hutter’s supposed buccaneering past (409). “Filling in the blanks” in a similar fashion, she proceeds to read the letters she finds as the story both of her mother’s life and of her own. Cooper stresses the fact that “the signatures had been carefully cut from every one of these letters, and wherever a name occurred in the body of the epistles, it had been erased with so much diligence as to render it impossible to read it” (411). Without proper nouns of any kind, Cooper describes the first packet of letters as “written by females ... with whom [Judith] had every reason to think she was closely connected by the ties of blood” (411). They contain “the correspondence of an affectionate and intelligent mother, to an absent daughter, with such allusions to the answers, as served, in a great measure, to fill up the vacuum left by the replies” (411). Filling up the vacuum, in fact, is what both Judith and the reader do in the scene. Judith’s entire process of reading the letters, like ours in reading Cooper’s account of them, consists of supplying names for the blanks in the story. The process is much like what Hutter (and the reader) performed while hearing Hetty’s reading from Job. Lacking proper nouns, that story seems to the reader a timelessly applicable narrative, with peculiar resonances for the dying Hutter’s present situation. As Job tells the ancient story of human mortality and suffering, the letters give the old story of “gratified passion, coldness, and finally of aversion” (412). Inconclusive and anonymous themselves, the letters nevertheless become, in the reader’s mind, a revelation of the ways Judith’s life has paralleled her mother’s (who, of course, is also named Judith). Though neither Judith nor Cooper explicitly expresses the connection, the reader naturally forms a pattern of repetition from the rapidly accumulating relics of the past.

Equally inconclusive are the novel’s last hints about Judith’s fate. Critics tend to accept unquestioningly that the last chapter’s reference to “Sir Robert Warley,” who now “lived on his paternal estates,” and to “a lady of rare beauty in the Lodge, who had great influence over him, though she did not bear his name” (548), indicate that Judith has become Captain Warley’s mistress (see, most recently, Person 264). But Cooper carefully leaves the question open: “Whether this was Judith relapsed into her early failing, or some other victim of the soldier’s, Hawkeye never knew, nor would it be pleasant or profitable to inquire” (548). Though Cooper’s vague language may seem just old-fashioned coyness, an odd discrepancy of names makes his inconclusive statement especially intriguing. Captain Warley calls himself “Tom Warley,” not “Robert Warley” (525). Though authorial carelessness is a possible explanation for the discrepancy, another possibility remains open as well: that Sir Robert Warley (perhaps simply one of “the Warleys and Craigs and Grahams” Cooper mentions here) is not Judith’s Warley, and that {34} the “lady” is not Judith. Readers, however, naturally read “Judith” for “a lady” in the same way they read “Captain Warley” for “Sir Robert Warley.” We fill in the vacuum — we link the signs — to form a satisfying repetition which closes Judith’s narrative. We should remember, however, that this is the same Cooper who fools both his characters and his readers in The Last of the Mohicans with his description of a beaver colony (Allen 177). Could Cooper here be drawing on the same powers of deception he uses there? At least it is apparent that readers of The Deerslayer must construct their own interpretations of Judith’s fate, and that those interpretations tend to see her as a recapitulation of her mother.

Cooper implicitly comments on the repetition in his tale by repeating the tale itself in the final chapter. Returning to the lake fifteen years later than the action of the novel, Natty finds the lake uninhabited, but marked with relics of the novel’s incidents. With Chingachgook and the young Uncas, he tours the lake, finding the decayed remains of the Hutters’ canoes and landing again on the points where Hist was retaken and where the massacre took place. Fragments of the preceding narrative dot the landscape. At the battle scene, “they found a few of the signs that linger around such localities. Wild beasts had disinterred many of the bodies, and human bones were bleaching in the rains of summer” (546). In the decaying Ark, Natty finds “a ribband of Judith’s fluttering from a log. It recalled all her beauty, and we may add all her failings” (547).

Cooper’s whole enterprise in The Deerslayer, in fact, is a recapitulation — a resurrection of the dead. After finishing The Prairie, in which Natty dies and is buried, Cooper writes in his 1850 Preface to the Leatherstocking Tales that his “latent regard for this character” induced him “to resuscitate him” in The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer (5). And though he laments in the Preface “the manner in which events were necessarily anticipated, in laying the last of the series first before the world” (6), Cooper’s last Leatherstocking tale in fact exploits this very phenomenon. Fragments of those earlier tales — the reader’s past memories of Natty, but Natty’s future — pop up throughout The Deerslayer. Like the characters in this last novel, we assemble the fragments Cooper exhumes into a whole, fitting it into patterns of what will come later — in Natty’s life — and what has already happened — in our memories as readers of the earlier tales. In an oddly circular fashion, the reader’s past becomes in The Deerslayer Natty’s future. The circularity continues in the last scenes of the novel, when Cooper swiftly turns the events of the novel we have just completed — the present day we have inhabited for 543 pages — into the past. The end of the novel thus turns the novel itself into a relic — a fifteen-year-old story — and repeats that narrative using physical relics from it. The very design of the novel, then, forces us to re-read the same kinds of fragments with which we were confronted when the story began. Most important of these relics are the indelible impressions on the memories of Natty and Chingachgook, which they in turn transfer to Uncas by telling him the story we have just read. And like Natty and Chingachgook, we re-read and re-tell the story of The Deerslayer.

{35} In an odd sense, The Deerslayer’s last scenes place us among the relics of the novel itself. We are back where we started from, re-reading the locations and objects of the narrative both as they appear now and as they live in our memories. By this curious turn, we are forced to see The Deerslayer as a palimpsest. The former narrative present is now the past, yet that past is still present in the relics which dot the Glimmerglass fifteen years later. Anticipating Faulkner, Cooper demonstrates that his tale is still being told and retold, and suggests that the interpretation of that story by readers is itself, in a sense, the story.

Finally, as the last novel of the Leatherstocking tales, The Deerslayer of course recapitulates more than its own narrative. For the reader of the previous Leatherstocking tales, The Deerslayer is particularly full of reminiscent fragments. Cooper encourages us to read the book this way, as he drops hints about events that will follow in the literary lives of Natty and Chingachgook, Cooper recalls The Pioneers when he tells us, “At a later day [Natty and Chingachgook] returned to the place, where the Indian found a grave” (547). Hurry’s early reference to the Indians’ desire to “discolour [the lake’s] waters with blood” (48) recalls for the reader the massacre at Fort William Henry in The Last of the Mohicans. And the reader recognizes the site of The Deerslayer’s massacre, with protruding bones bleached by the rains, as part of the later parkland around the lake in Home as Found. Cooper’s circular narrative reveals to us as readers our own propensity to repetition. Like his characters, we thereby perpetuate assumptions and interpretations which may or may not be provable or just. As at the beginning, so at the ending: as we read and reread, we experience not the freshness of original innocence, but the fallenness of human history, which can only seek and enact patterns of repetition.

Works Cited

  • Allen, Dennis W. “’By All the Truth of Signs’: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.” Studies in American Fiction 9 (1981): 159-179.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
  • Person, Leland S. “Cooper’s Queen of the Woods: Judith Hutter in The Deerslayer.” Studies in the Novel 21 (1989): 253-267.
  • Porte, Joel. The Romance in America. Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1969.
  • Winters, Yvor. “Fenimore Cooper, or The Ruins of Time.” In Defense of Reason. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1947.