A Puritan in the Wilderness: Natty Bumppo’s Language & America’s Nature Today

Paul K. Johnston (SUNY Plattsburgh)

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. 60-63).

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

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

In a 1995 essay that continues to be controversial among environmentalists, environmental historian William Cronon argued that “wilderness” is not a natural given but a human construct whose present meaning has a particular history. Furthermore, he asserted that tracing that history can help illuminate current environmental debate. The controversy arises from his suggestion that the concept of “wilderness” has tended to privilege certain natural environments over others, and to privilege certain experiences of nature over others, leaving American environmentalism at the end of the twentieth century committed philosophically to environments that have no place for human lives, except for a small minority of Americans who can afford to sojourn in large areas emptied of human inhabitants.

The source of this wilderness idea, Cronon suggests, is two-fold: the romantic sublime, imported largely from Europe, coupled with a more homegrown celebration of the American Frontier as a domain of individualism. Cronon’s essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” traces the wilderness idea in American culture back as far as Thoreau, particularly to Thoreau’s account of his ascent of Mt. Katahdin in The Maine Woods. Attendees of this conference, however, are more likely to recognize an earlier origin of the American wilderness idea: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers. Yet many here today might argue that while Cooper’s The Pioneers might play a role in the valorization of wilderness into American literature, it cannot be said to be the source of the American wilderness idea. Rather, the actual American wilderness which provides the setting for The Pioneers should be recognized as the origin of the American wilderness idea. Professor Taylor, however, has suggested to us that the land James’s father, William Cooper, came into possession of was not precisely the wilderness that either he or his son later represented it to be. I would like to take that observation further, and suggest that the wilderness of Natty Bumppo has its origins not in the actual land of pre-colonial America, but in the mind of the colonists, and not even in the colonial mind in general, but in the mind of a particular set of colonists, the Puritans of New England. Cooper’s The Pioneers is a crucial text in American cultural history in that it served to transform the Puritans’ Biblical notion of wilderness into the secularized yet nevertheless still sacred notion of wilderness that became increasingly important in American culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I hope to further suggest that some of the difficulties associated with the wilderness idea in environmental thinking today — including the difficulties pointed to by Cronon’s phrase “getting back to the wrong nature” — can be better understood if Cooper’s transformation of an essentially Puritan idea is recognized.

One recent study of the centrality of the Puritan heritage in American thinking about nature — David Williams’ Wilderness Lost: The Religious Origins of the American Mind — declares that “the howling wilderness into which the New England saints were called was a wilderness of fact, of type, of the world, and of the mind. It was a dense and dangerous forest.” This claim by a late twentieth century cultural historian is a direct restatement of William Bradford’s assertion that the Plymouth colony of which he was the Governor had been settled in “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.” It is a claim accepted by other cultural historians as well, even those with quite different agendas, from Roderick Nash to Annette Kolodny, whose pioneering work of ecofeminism The Lay of the Land asks rhetorically how the more benign view of the natural world presented by other European colonists was to be reconciled with “the historical evidence of starvation, poor harvests, and inclement weather.” Yet historians not of American culture but of the American forest have for quite some time been arriving at the opposite conclusion, that it is the more benign view of Thomas Morton, the irritating neighbor of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, that is historically accurate and that it is the wilderness “forest primeval” of the American imagination that is a fiction. Rather than a “howling wilderness,” Morton described a land of intermixed fields and woods (we know this to be true even from the account of Bradford, who tells without apparent sense of contradiction that the Pilgrims chose for their settlement in the wilderness the cleared fields of the native inhabitants) where the forest floor, the subject of controlled burns by the Indians, was so clear of undergrowth that a carriage could easily be driven through it even in the absence of roads “rather as in an English park.” Similar observations by other colonial writers suggest such practices were prevalent in pre-colonial American wherever significant Indian populations existed.

[61] Neither the word “wilderness” nor any analogous idea appears in Morton’s New English Canaan, though it dominates his neighbor Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. Nor does it appear in any significant way in any non-Puritan account of the nature that the English colonists found in New England, though it occurs repeatedly in Puritan writings, from histories such as Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation or Edward Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence to sermons such as Samuel Danforth’s “A Brief Recognition of New England’s Errand into the Wilderness” to the poetry of Michael Wigglesworth and the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson. Turning back to the culture from which these colonists and explorers came reveals a similar divergence in the cultural history of England. While the word “wilderness” is insignificant in the poetry of the English Renaissance — it occurs only seven times in all of Shakespeare (and never with the meaning considered here), contrasted with the over four hundred appearances of the word “nature,” for instance — it appears in both the opening sentence of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and the opening stanza of Milton’s Paradise Regained, with the same meaning (and with the same significance) that we find in Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. Indeed, it might be said that the appearance of the Puritan spiritual notion of the world as a wilderness in which the individual finds his salvation marks the end of one period of British literature and the beginning of another.

And of course the word “wilderness” is central to The Pioneers. Yet some caution is probably in order in linking its importance here with the Puritans. The word is, after all, a part of the English language and not the sole property of the Puritans, however much they might have used it in their expression of their own sense of themselves and the world. Before suggesting that Cooper gets the word from the New England Puritans, who after all play virtually no part in The Pioneers, we might consider simply that Cooper gets the word, if not from common usage, then from his father, who titled his own account of the settling of the frontier A Guide in the Wilderness. William Cooper’s use of the term shows little connection to the Puritans; rather, he uses it simply to signify the large tracts of forested land that have not yet been cleared for agricultural purposes. Nothing more than this is suggested by the word’s first appearance in The Pioneers, when the reader is informed rather straightforwardly that “only forty years have passed since this territory was a wilderness.” When the term is used by Judge Temple, as it is later in this opening chapter, it carries with no more meaning than this.

Yet when the word “wilderness” is used by Natty Bumppo, something more is suggested, and the link to the language of the Puritans is quite overt. When he first uses it, the link is as clear as it is surprising, considering what we come to learn of Natty Bumppo’s attitudes. In encouraging Oliver to go with the Judge to have his wound looked to, Natty reminisces about his younger days, recalling that he once “travelled seventy miles alone in the howling wilderness with a rifle bullet in my thigh and then cut it out with my own jackknife.” We are told later that Natty has no Bible in his hut, that indeed he can’t read anyway, yet nevertheless his phrase here — “the howling wilderness” — is taken from the King James Bible, where in Deuteronomy 32:10, Jacob is found by God “in the waste howling wilderness.” It is from this and similar passages that the Puritan immigrants to America conceived of their coming here as a journey into a wilderness. Just as Jacob becomes in the howling wilderness the apple of God’s eye, so too will they find their salvation by turning from a corrupt and fallen society to the purifying experience of the wilderness.

And so too has Natty, for whom the wilderness is a spiritual place. “None know how often,” he declares, “the hand of God is seen in the wilderness, but them that rove it for a man’s life.” At the novel’s conclusion he sets out once again to find a place beyond the corruption of man. When he informs Oliver and Elizabeth of his craving to return to the woods once more, Elizabeth asks “Do you not call these endless forests woods?” “Ah! Child,” Natty explains, “these be nothing to a man that’s used to the wilderness. I have took but little comfort sin’ your father came on with his settlers.” “Your ways aren’t my ways,” he continues. “I love the woods and ye relish the face of man; I eat when hungry, and drink when adry; and ye keep stated hours and rules; nay, nay, you even overfeed the dogs, lad, from pure kindness; and hounds should be gaunty to run well. The meanest of God’s creaters be made for some use, and I’m formed for the wilderness; if ye love me, let me go where my soul craves to be ag’in.”

So current did the Puritans make the phrase “howling wilderness” that it no doubt comes to be used by many who are unaware of its origins. James Fenimore Cooper cannot be counted among these, however, as he elsewhere not only shows that he knows its origin but also knows its cultural significance. The New England Puritans draw scant mention in The Pioneers, but they are the central actors in a novel he wrote later in the decade, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish. In this novel, Cooper places the words “howling wilderness” in the mouth of the novel’s central figure, Mark Heathcote, expressly to identify him as a Puritan. In explaining, in his first speech in the novel, his determination to go once more into the wilderness of Connecticut after his original settlement has become corrupt, Heathcote declares “Much have I endured ... in quitting the earthly mansion of my fathers, and in encountering the dangers of sea and land for my faith; and rather than let go its hold, will I once more cheerfully devote to the howling wilderness, ease, offspring, and, should it be the will of Providence, life itself!”

[62] The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish shows that Cooper had read a great deal in the early Puritan chronicles, and that he has absorbed their language. And while it also shows his apparent rejection of their theology, the language of Natty Bumppo in The Pioneers suggests that Cooper, like many other Americans, had nevertheless absorbed a secularized version of their vision. For Natty as for the Puritans, pre-colonial America was a world full of wild beasts and wild men, the Indians practicing neither agriculture nor forest management, though in fact they engaged in both. Like the Puritans, Natty both looks back to a time of greater purity (as does the wilderness movement today) and looks forward to his return to it. Only the present, in all its sinfulness, is to be rejected, though it is the world of actual human existence. (In The Pioneers, not even Judge Temple or Oliver can resist the destructive lust of the pigeon shoot or the netting of the Otsego bass, so powerful is the human propensity to corruption.)

Natty Bumppo, in his condemnation of man’s “wasty ways” and his rejection of anthrocentrism, possesses what Lawrence Buell has recently called “environmental imagination.” It is the imagination of Thoreau in the Maine woods and of John Muir in the mountains of California. It is the imagination behind the “forever wild” clause of the New York state constitution restricting development in the six million acre Adirondack Park. It is the imagination William Cronon summarizes when he writes that “wilderness is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost its soul. It is a place of freedom in which we can recover the true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives.” For just such a place did the Puritans leave Holland to sail to America.

But this is not the only environmental imagination available to us. The Otsego depicted by William Cooper’s granddaughter, Susan Cooper, in her book Rural Hours, is not the product of Natty Bumppo’s vision, but of Judge Temple’s, a world where the human is a part of nature. James Fenimore Cooper’s environmental imagination is itself more complex than Natty Bumppo’s, not a single pure vision but a dialogue, not only between the judge and the woodsman but also between royalist and democrat, between clear cutter and conservationist, between game manager and subsistence hunter, a dialogue that is best understood as the dialogue within the mind of a single thoughtful individual. In “The Trouble With Wilderness,” Cronon observes that if we take wilderness ideology as our starting point, “it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the only way that human beings can hope to live naturally on earth is to follow the hunter- gatherers back into the wilderness Eden and abandon virtually everything that civilization has given us.” The Puritanism of such an attitude is not hard to see when we realize its essentially Puritan origins in American cultural history, transformed and passed down to us in and through the character of Natty Bumppo. Part of the value of returning to The Pioneers is seeing this process revealed. But perhaps more valuable is recognizing that in The Pioneers Natty Bumppo’s vision is only one element of a richer dialogue on the environment and humanity’s place in it.

Works Cited

  • Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation. 1620-1647
  • Buell, Lawrence, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Bunyan, John, The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World To That Which Is To Come. 1678/1684.
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  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore, Rural Hours. 1850.
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