Like a Mirror Reflecting Itself: Natty Bumppo, The Virginian, and the Fate of the American Frontier

Colin A. Clarke (George Washington University)

Presented at the 11ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1997.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 11), Papers from the 1997 Cooper Seminar (No. 11), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 26-31).

Copyright © 1999, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

“The Western novel as it has come to be recognized sprang full-grown from the imagination of Owen Wister in 1902.” (Estleman 25)

In this statement, Loren Estleman rightfully attributes to Owen Wister the responsibility for producing the first instance of what we have come to know in form and style as the Western novel. Many critics have noted that the distinct qualities of the Western, including the gunfight, the larger-than-life hero, and the lynching, became integral parts of the Western after Wister combined them in his 1902 novel The Virginian. Estleman, however, goes too far in contending that the form “sprang full-grown” from Wister’s imagination. Other critics have pointed out that Wister’s novel owes a great deal to previous novelists of the frontier, with James Fenimore Cooper being most frequently mentioned as the initial practitioner of the form. ¹ As John Cawelti notes,

The western formula probably came into existence when James Fenimore Cooper made a particularly felicitous combination of fictional materials dealing with the settlement of the American wilderness and the archetypal pattern of the adventure story. (Cawelti, 192)

While Wister may have been responsible for a unique re-combination of certain events and characters in his novel, Cooper provided much of the groundwork for these developments in his Leatherstocking novels of the 1820s-1840s.

Cooper’s contributions to this form have been discussed by others, but I think they deserve some brief mention here. A basic inspection of his 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans reveals many of the components that would appear almost eighty years later in Wister’s novel. In terms of the later form of the Western, The Last of the Mohicans contains two elements that would become staples of the form: the chase (which in Cooper’s case is prolonged and occupies in its various stages a great portion of the novel) and the duel or shooting competition as a means to prove skill and prowess. Most significant, however, is the figure who most often wins these tests of skill. In The Last of the Mohicans and the other Leatherstocking novels, Cooper produced one of the most enduring characters in American literature, Natty Bumppo. Natty is one of the first, and perhaps still one of the most prominent, examples of the frontier hero, and as such is one of the predecessors of Wister’s Virginian. Bumppo possesses many of the characteristics that later surface in the Virginian; he is skilled in the wilderness and in a variety of “manly” acts, he attempts to act according to a strict set of values, and his word and loyalty, once given, are law.

That is all well and good. I do not mean to dispute the importance Cooper’s novels have had on the Western as a form, nor do I mean to refute the general conception that The Virginian is the first example of the true Western as we have come to know it. I would like to consider, however, exactly how Cooper seemed to view the future of the frontier, the frontier which the Virginian was to occupy and dominate. For, despite the connections that exist between Cooper’s and Wister’s western constructions, there are clearly discrepancies between the two. Wister’s frontier lacked voice; in his novel, the Virginian has the only true voice, dominating the others, and eventually eliminating voices that do not correspond to his own. Such is not the case in Cooper’s novel, which has a polyglossic richness difficult to ignore. However, I believe that after looking closely at Cooper’s writing, we can see that Cooper may very well have envisioned the fate of the frontier as illustrated later by Wister.

Robert Daly points out that one of the characteristics of Cooper’s fiction was the importance placed on the area between cultures, the liminal area where different cultures meet; he contends that Cooper’s fiction requires “attention to an America that was culturally various and vocally polyphonic.” (Daly, 121) I believe this polyphony and cultural diversity, what Bakhtin would refer to heteroglossia, is a key part of Cooper’s text, and that it is also the point of variance between Bumppo and the Virginian as American frontier figures. The presence of heteroglossia in The Virginian and The Last of the Mohicans reflects not only the historical differences between the state of the frontier during the era in which these two authors were active, but it also exposes a difference in their conceptions of that frontier and the role of the United States in its development and extension.

[27] Bakhtin’s notions of heteroglossia and dialogic and monologic speech will be central to this discussion. Heteroglossia is essentially the presence of more than one language or means of representation within one given text or situation, and it may operate on several levels. To begin with, Bakhtin sees heteroglossia as a basic state of the novel, an essential product of the difference between the voice of the author, the voice of the narrator, and the voices of the characters within the story. (Bakhtin, 314-5) Heteroglossia also operates in the basic sense of the interaction of languages and culture both inside and outside of the novel:

Languages of heteroglossia, like mirrors that face each other, each reflecting in its own way a piece, a tiny corner of the world, force us to guess at and grasp for a world behind their mutually reflecting aspects that is broader, more multi-leveled, containing more and varied horizons than would be available to a single language or a single mirror. (Bakhtin, 415)

In Wister’s novel, the Virginian stands as the dominant mirror, and the rest of the characters seek to reflect him. As the ultimate cowboy, the other cowboys may embody some of his many good qualities, yet he shows none of their bad ones. He dominates both the physical and intellectual worlds with which he is engaged. Women are primarily silent and defer to him, and the Native Americans in the text have neither voices nor forms, but are merely the shadowy suggestion of danger. As such, there is little heteroglossia; the Virginian is a monologic authority, and most everything on the frontier exists on his terms. The Last of the Mohicans, however, opens with a description of heteroglossic exchange as a necessary feature of the frontier.

A wide, and, apparently, an impervious boundary of forests, severed the possessions of the hostile provinces of France and England. ... But, emulating the patience and self-denial of the practised native warriors, they learned to overcome every difficulty. ... (Cooper, 11)

Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism, the interaction between two languages or systems of meaning, is described as “the characteristic epistemological mode of a world dominated by heteroglossia.” (Bakhtin, 426) In this first paragraph of the text, Cooper establishes a system of dialogic interchange, between the colonists and the Native Americans, that is necessary to survival (at least for the colonists) on the frontier. This exchange provides access to the frontier, thus bringing two more groups, the French and English, further into the heteroglossic mix.

Cooper’s introduction of Natty Bumppo in this novel immediately reveals his history as part of this dialogic exchange.

He wore a hunting-shirt of forest green ... 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. ... His moccasins were ornamented after the gay fashion of the natives. ... (Cooper, 31)

Bumppo’s dress reveals the impact of his European background with his time spent on the frontier and among the Native Americans, combining aspects of each culture. The exchange has not been one-sided, either; his companion Chingachgook carries both “a tomahawk and a scalping-knife, of English manufacture,” and during the course of their conversation, we learn that each is fluent in the other’s language. (Cooper, 31) In this way, Cooper establishes both Bumppo and Chingachgook as thoroughly dialogic characters, and through the course of the novel we find that this dialogism is necessary to their survival on the frontier. David Leverenz notes this dialogism as being a key to the model Bumppo provided for the frontier hero:

Here is the new myth of American manhood in the making: to be civilized and savage in one composite, self-divided transformation, (Leverenz, 760)

Of course, this transformation takes place over the course of the five Leatherstocking novels in which Cooper wrote about Bumppo, and there is no sense in The Last of the Mohicans that the heteroglossic impact of cultures produces an immediate and lasting exchange of language and culture. While Bakhtin maintains that any interaction of culture produces changes to each, the exchange that takes place is gradual. Bumppo is the result of prolonged life on the frontier, and his abilities reflect this.

Heteroglossia is not only one of the defining characteristics of the frontier, but an understanding of that heteroglossia, and an ability to negotiate it through the employment of dialogism, is necessary to survival in the liminal space between cultures. The fact that Heyward, Alice, Cora, and David Gamut find themselves betrayed and lost in the wilderness from almost the beginning of the novel can be attributed to the fact that they have no experience with the heteroglossia of the American forest. The beginning of chapter two has the party readying for their journey to join Munro at Fort William Henry. As Heyward points out the Indian that will guide them to the fort, Alice questions whether he can be trusted, to which Heyward responds:

[28] Say, rather, Alice, that I would not trust you. I do know him, or he would not have my confidence. ... He is said to be a Canadian, too; and yet he served with our friends the Mohawks, who, as you know, are one of the six allied nations. He was brought amongst us, as I have heard, by some strange accident, in which your father was interested, and in which the savage was rigidly dealt by — but I forget the idle tale; it is enough, that he is now our friend. (Cooper, 20-21)

Heyward not only proves himself too naive and trusting in this passage, but part of this naïveté is a lack of understanding of the conditions of the wilderness as they exist through the contact of European and Native American culture, The “idle tale” which Heyward so easily disregards ends up being revealed as the motivating force for Magua (the guide) throughout the novel, and thus one of the main forces that moves these characters in the text. Heyward and his entire party are led into the frontier, and find themselves at the disposal of Magua, who is a completely heteroglossic figure; he is able to participate in multiple discourses, including English and French. The motions of the novel are set in action by Heyward’s nearly complete monologic positioning. As Heyward enters the wilderness, and thus enters into the heteroglossic play of the inhabitants of the forest, he begins to learn to engage in the dialogism of his surroundings. The process is constant, and his mistakes are many. Yet it must also be noted that Cooper does not make any of his characters perfectly heteroglossic. Despite the familiarity Hawkeye and the Mohicans evidence in regard to the dialogic play on the frontier, they are also constantly engaged in the process of learning.

Immediately following the introduction of Bumppo and Chingachgook in the text, Uncas comes on the scene. Soon after, Hawkeye notes a pair of antlers extending just above the bushes, and declares that he could bring down the deer with a precise shot to the head, despite the fact that all of the animal with the exception of the very tip of the horns is hidden from sight.

“It cannot be” said the young Indian. ... “all but the tips of his horns are hid!”

“He’s a boy!” said the white man. ... “Does he think when a hunter sees a part of the creatur, he can’t tell where the rest of him should be!”

Adjusting his rifle, he was about to make an exhibition of that skill ... when the warrior struck up the piece with his hand, saying, Hawk-eye! will you fight the Maquas?”

“These Indians know the nature of these woods, as it might be by instinct!” returned the scout ... who was convinced of his error. (Cooper, 34)

Uncas shows that he still had much to learn of the skill of hunting, which in the case of Bumppo and his rifle, is a particularly non-Native American skill: “For myself, I conclude all the Bumppos could shoot; for I have a natural turn with the rifle, which must have been handed down from generation to generation. ... ” (Cooper, 31) On the other hand, Bumppo shows that he has not fully learned the ways of the Native American, not only in his intention to shoot the deer with enemies so close, but in his later deference to Uncas in hunting with arrow, bow, and knife. Although these three have been traveling together in the wilderness for years, the dialogic play between their cultures continues, and their ability to respect each others’ opinions reveals the openness to heteroglossia that has helped them survive.

In The Last of the Mohicans, there is more to the heteroglossia of the frontier than just the impact of English and Native American culture. The French are also present in the wilderness, and Bumppo is at a loss when this third language is introduced. When the party encounters a French-speaking sentry, Bumppo recognizes the human form, but is almost reduced to a state of terror at his inability to understand its speech: “’What says it?’ whispered the scout; ‘it speaks neither Indian nor English!’.” (Cooper, 137) In this case, Heyward’s experience with the dialogic exchange between English and French aids the party, as he talks his way past the sentry. The sentry is completely doomed by his monologic restrictions; not only does he let the enemy pass, but he is silently killed by Chingachgook, who, while he may not have understood the French, knew enough of the ways of the forest to eliminate the sentry.

Heteroglossia is not only the fact of the frontier in Cooper, but the dialogic exchange between languages and cultures on the frontier is ever-present and is never complete. And yet, in The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper hints that, while participation in the dialogic play of the frontier is essential to survival there, it can also ultimately be a source of dislocation. Richard Slotkin notes that while Cooper’s

... blending of Indian and Christian qualities makes him a hero and a kind of saint, it ultimately prevents him from playing his proper role in either the Indian or the Christian frame of reference. ... (Slotkin, 502)

[29] David Leverenz also points out that Natty does not feel the sexual or domestic needs of the home, but he, through his interaction with Uncas and Chingachgook, deeply feels the strength of the father-son bonds. (Leverenz, 757) As a result, Bumppo is doomed by his dialogism; he can not completely join either society, and neither can he hope to leave his legacy to a child of his own.

This introduces the question of the fate of heteroglossia in Cooper’s novel. Despite the strong presence of heteroglossia throughout the novel, the text seems to be presenting a distinct reduction of the forces of heteroglossia. Natty, as Leverenz and Slotkin point out, is doomed to die without issue or legacy among either the English or the Native Americans. The deaths of Uncas and Magua, both highly dialogic figures, present a reduction of heteroglossia, while the implication of the eventual extinction of the Mohicans presents the most dire threat to heteroglossia: the complete removal of a language and method of representation. I think we must also consider Cora’s presence in this novel. Jane Tompkins contends that “Cora becomes the embodiment of civilization ... or the principle of the eternal feminine.” (Tompkins, 102) But Tompkins is too ready to overlook the fact that Cora is of mixed blood, the product of a union between her father and a mulatta. (Cooper, 159) This automatically makes her a figure enveloped in the forces of heteroglossia, and the fact that she is a strong and vocal character throughout the novel supports this. It seems to me that her sister Alice, who is not only white but is also primarily silent and feeble throughout the text, is not only the figure of the “eternal feminine” in this text, but is also a symbol of monologism. Alice’s position is one of isolation from conflict, and the text works out in such a way that many of the forces of heteroglossia cancel themselves out so that she may survive. I think Cora’s death, rather than standing in opposition to Magua, is another example of the reduction of heteroglossia in the text. Bakhtin would argue perhaps that no language that has been engaged in dialogic exchange can truly die out, but rather transforms into something else through interaction. By this logic, even if Chingachgook is the last of the Mohicans, his interaction with the English will preserve, albeit in an altered form, his language and culture.

While that may be the ultimate extension of Bakhtin’s dialogism, I do not believe that is what Cooper presents in this novel. Natty’s fate, as it is presented in the novels where the older Natty continues to follow the frontier, is sealed, and when he and Chingachgook die, it is an irreversible blow to heteroglossia. Hawkeye is a necessary character in the conquering of the frontier; he is the one who interacts with the Native Americans, and he is the one who begins to make the frontier safe for people like Heyward and Alice, but he has no place in the society they will create. Cooper has produced a colorfully heteroglossic frontier world, and I believe that in the deaths of Uncas and Cora, and in the fate of Bumppo and Chingachgook, all of whom are heteroglossic and positive figures in the text, he is lamenting the reductions that came with colonial expansion westward. It is admittedly a sentimental view, yet in its commentary on the reductions of the colonialist impulse, it is a critical view as well.

The Virginian, as I have already mentioned, presents a monological restriction of heteroglossia, one meant to strengthen the nation by eliminating its weakest members. In The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper prefigured this trend toward monologism by displaying a diminishing heteroglossia, symbolized by the death of his most heteroglossic characters. Yet in accentuating the importance of heteroglossia, I believe that Cooper was at least partially bemoaning the fact that it had diminished considerably even by the time of his writing. While it is a sentimental vision of a lost American frontier, it also criticizes the course of American imperialism. In The Virginian, Wister took Natty Bumppo, the character ultimately crippled by his dialogism, and with as many names as there were cultures on his frontier, and boiled him down to a man with only one language and no name. Wister created the “perfect” American, who might have been dull by Cooper’s standards, but who was the perfect expression of the great American man who would lead the nation to new frontiers. According to the Bakhtinian conception of heteroglossia, Wister’s monologism is ultimately harmful, as any language that strictly guards itself from contact with outside voices is doomed to atrophy and grow weak. Despite all of his romanticization, Cooper constructed in his novel an entirely believable frontier of heteroglossia, one in which no figure was immune from the influences of other voices, and in which the reduction of the number of voices in the heteroglossic mix have a definite impact on the characters. Even after certain voices have been removed, no character leaves the frontier without showing the imprint of contact. Contrasted to this, the Virginian’s authoritative discourse may very well be a mirror attempting to reflect itself. The Virginian is the ultimate extension of Bumppo, but deprived of the heteroglossic field in which Bumppo learned and thrived. The Virginian’s dominance in the text as a thoroughly monologic figure may support the myth of the larger-than-life hero, but ultimately he must be an isolated figure, whose authoritative discourse finds fewer and fewer listeners as time passes him by. He is thoroughly American, not because he has learned to operate within the heteroglossia of the frontier as Bumppo had, but because that heteroglossia had been eliminated.


1. Among others, the critics Christine Bold in her article “How the Western Ends: Fenimore Cooper to Frederic Remington,” Western American Literature, vol. 17, no. 2 (Summer 1982) and Gary Topping in his article “The Rise of the Western,” Journal of the West, vol. 19, no. 1 (Jan. 1980) discuss the importance of Cooper’s work to the work of Wister and other Western writers.

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