Cooper, Heidegger and the Language of Death: Or, Why Is Natty Bumppo Speaking Ebonics?

Joe Lockard (University of California, Berkeley)

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. 69-74).

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

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

This paper examines two fascinations. The first concerns one of the most unpleasant philosophical figures of this century, Martin Heidegger, and his discursive location of human consciousness within its relationship to death, an endeavour that both secularly recapitulated and intensively modernized a much older theologically based awareness of death as a fundamental governing economy within human societies. The Heideggerian world of Being and Time (1927) is one where a hierarchy between enlightenment and unenlightenment is described through an educated capacity to realize existential limitations on knowledge or purpose, and where impending non-existence conditions both the mind and social relations. And how might this intersect with the world of James Fenimore Cooper, which seems so profoundly different in its philosophic constitution? What I propose to argue here is that the hierarchies found in certain scenes within Cooper, scenes involving either the possibility or advent of death, speak towards the deployment of death-language for racialized descriptions of civilizational knowledge and capacity. Cooper and Heidegger, who seem such a strange pair at the outset, share a common capacity to use death, and the potential of near-death, to specify cultural ideals and instruct living readers in them.

My second fascination lies with the ‘Shooting Match’ chapter of The Pioneers, a chapter that has caused me to return again and again to re-think previous readings of Cooper and try out new ones. This is one of the most nakedly demonstrative chapters of the novel, yet simultaneously a very disturbing one that witnesses a confluence of unpalatable narratives relating to public masculinity, racial subordination, and the means of power. In our analytic visitation of chapter 17’s manifest civitas and its emergent organization in a small New York frontier town, we confront the role of weapons firing, the social control of violence, and an embedded potentiality of death. So in discussing this most Heideggerian of chapters, I shall try to point out interconnected features of racial alterity and social death that create its fertile but antagonised imagery.

For all of the immediate public life exhibited at the Templeton shooting match, there is an equal but subtextual exhibition of savage racial dominance through death’s possibilities. For this reason, Heidegger’s ontology of ‘being-for-death’ — or existential meaning bravely carved out of a foreknowledge of death’s constant and creative presence — lends itself towards rendering the primordial qualities of Cooper’s intricately conceived social scenario. This ontological expansion suggests itself because while the cultural, historiographic and intertextual tropes of the scene are critical, they nonetheless remain at the level of immediate referential demonstrability. Beneath that narrative surface we encounter another structure of existential problematization: specifically, what dynamics of cultural self-assertion manifest themselves as Leatherstocking draws a bead on Brom’s turkey and — indirectly — on Brom’s blackness? Or to rephrase the question, how do racialized differences of ‘being-for-death’ appear, enunciate and reinforce the structures of whiteness and blackness (and indirectly, Indian-ness) that characterize this scene?

Cooper deploys an intertwined language of race and gun violence that can instantiate a response to this question. At first sight, The Pioneers appears to contain clear color lines with a primary racial dynamic between whites and Indians and only a few appearances by minor black characters. Analyzed in terms of the appearance of weapons, however, these black characters materialize at telling points. White and black subject-positions regarding firearms differ dramatically. In the midst of rewriting Scott’s romanticism onto an American natural and social landscape, Cooper employs blacks as a narrative convenience even while treating them as a thematic inconvenience. Blacks both enable and impede the story, a position that keeps them at a narratological threshold and makes them candidates for elimination. Note, for instance, how in the novel’s opening scene Aggy stands passively in Cooper’s tableau as a silent, unempowered witness while three armed white men dispute rights to a deer carcass. Who killed the aboriginal and Adamic America, as embodied in the fallen deer? The imagery and argument revolve around possession of the heritage and proprietorship of a new national space. 1 As a black slave, Aggy cannot presume to add his voice to this substitute national debate parading as an hunting argument. Cooper attributes that wealth to the American land itself, waiting to be claimed with a rifle shot, rather than through subordinated labor. Aggy serves only to hand the Judge his weapon upon demand: he is the rifle bearer of colonial narratives. 2 To arm Aggy here would be a complicating redundance of possessions that establishes black individualism; an unarmed, silent and peripheral Aggy allows Cooper to direct the narrative elsewhere.

[70] If enslaved Aggy stands in forced passive proximity to this shooting scene, then the free black nicknamed Brom (Abraham Freeborn) who arranges the Christmas turkey shoot of chapter 17 occupies a considerably more threatened position. The terms of the contest “were proclaimed loudly by the negro, who was seated in the snow, in a somewhat hazardous vicinity to his favourite bird. ... ” (192) But which is the real target, Brom’s turkey or Brom himself? This suggestive ambiguity in a contest for white shooters implies a half-articulated longing to fire at the human target. 3 Hazard and risk to Brom’s life are not guarded against, but Cooper instead invites his readers both to enjoy the sight and a vicarious, hidden pleasure at Brom’s endangerment. Unlike with the inarticulate Aggy, Cooper gifts Brom with a voice, or rather a caricature of vocality. “[G]ib a nigger fair play — ” says Brom to the stalwart Billy Kirby, then tells the turkey ” — poss up, gobbler; shake a head, fool; don’t a see ‘em taking aim?” Brom’s broken enunciation, labored accent and turkey talk mark him as a near-animalized target, as a slightly elevated species of imported game giving fraternal advice to his kin.

An anticipatory tension hanging over this scene fractures when the masculine Billy Kirby misses his shot. “The silence was then broken, by the noise of the negro, who laughed, and shook his body, with all kinds of antics, rolling in the snow in the excess of delight.” (ibid.) Ridicule across a color line requires a certain temerity if a gun rests in another pair of exasperated hands. Insolence contains the germ of resistance, and Brom’s performance demonstrates the indirect resistance of mockery. When a South Carolina appeals court judge argued in 1847 that black insolence should not be construed as a common law offence, he wrote confidently, “[I]nsolence is but another term for sauciness, and who has ever dreamed of an openmouthed, saucy negro, in the deep intrigues calculated to raise, or attempt to raise, an insurrection?” (Ex parte Boylston, 2 Strobhart 41; cited at Flanigan 29) In an act of inadvertent imagination, Cooper gifts Brom with mockery as a form of resistance. Cooper, however, does not invest Brom with fear, which would constitute a more common reaction to bullets flying in such close proximity. That is, the absence of care (sorge) and self-preservation in Cooper’s construction of Brom’s character delineates him as a racial subaltern who does not evidence true ontic consciousness, the authentic ‘being there’ of Da-sein. If Brom cannot fear for the future, he has no present. In Heidegger’s summary equation, “Care is being-toward death,” (303) or a recognition of continued existence in temporality in order to establish the authenticity of a future. Yet Cooper’s Brom has no future, for with the coming death of his parallel icon he too disappears from both the chapter and novel, a narrative inconvenience who has been disposed of through death-by-proxy. This difference between narrative disappearance and the possibility of being-toward-death marks the difference, in Cooper’s world, between nullity and an authentic claim on temporality, or between the lesser and the greater races. In these terms, Cooper’s construction of Brom emerges as highly contradicted, at once characterized by a comic need for ridicule and simultaneously for racial nullification of the jester.

As the scene continues, after an unsuccessful second shot by Kirby, Brom breaks out into a celebratory dance that Cooper writes in highly associational language that merges Indian and African aboriginality:

Then, indeed, the shouts of the negro rung through the bushes, and sounded among the trees of the neighbouring forest, like the outcries of a tribe of Indians. He laughed, rolling his head, first on one side, then on the other, until nature seemed exhausted with mirth. He danced, until his legs were wearied with motion, in the snow; and, in short, he exhibited all that violence of joy that characterizes the mirth of a thoughtless negro. (197)

If Indians are the pre-Adamic ghosts of this new American Eden, then Brom and his black kin remain unsentimentalized and quintessentially foreign to this upstate New York settlement. Cooper writes Brom as an anti-civilizational figure, a “thoughtless negro” who exhibits “violence of joy.” As Indians disappear and attain a mythic and near-honorable apotheosis in the face of advancing European settlement, another dark shade filters into the forest, one whose “outcries sound like a tribe of Indians.” Leatherstocking can defend against this new darkness, and so turns an ambiguous threat against Brom into a direct warning. When Bumppo’s rifle misfires, Brom cries “Natty Bumppo gun he snap — Natty Bumppo miss a turkey.” Adopting Brom’s black English syntax, Bumppo replies “Natty Bumppo hit a nigger ... if you don’t get out of the way.” (195) Shooter and quasi-target, white honor and black degradation, civilization and posited anti- civilization all collide in this passage.

The language through which Cooper describes Brom’s ensuing dance arises from and manifests the pickaninny stereotype of an eye-rolling and grinning black slave. More importantly, what Cooper writes is a release from paralysis, an escape from a target’s fate, and continued life after the shot fails to hit its mark. In so doing, Cooper ensures an eventual transposition of fate between Brom and Brom’s turkey: the hilarity of ‘ha, ha, missed it (me?)’ after Kirby’s shot will devolve into the finality of a bullet-splattered head after Natty Bumppo’s successful shot. Careful allusions, furtive hints and wordplay construct this narrative transition and white racial alliance between the shooters. In response to Brom’s repeated cries to “gib a nigger fair play,” Kirby turns on the black fiercely: “Shut your oven, you crow. Where is [71] the man that can hit a turkey’s head at a hundred yards?” (197-8) Cooper’s coarse choice of bird metaphor suggests an half-open racial message: turkey heads and black crows are both appropriate rifle targets. The answer to Kirby’s rhetorical question follows immediately when Leatherstocking’s shot decapitates the turkey. 4

This racial imagery of association with turkey heads finds an astonishingly close parallel in a passage from another Western narrative, Francis Parkman’s travelogue The Oregon Trail. Watching an Indian encampment, Parkman recounts seeing an “old conjurer, who with his hard, emaciated face and gaunt ribs was perched aloft like a turkey-buzzard, among the dead branches of an old tree, constantly on the look-out for enemies. He would have made a capital shot. A rifle bullet, skillfully planted, would have brought him tumbling to the ground. Surely, I thought, there could be no more harm in shooting such a hideous old villain, to see how ugly he would look when he was dead, than in shooting the detestable vulture which he resembled.” Parkman’s barely repressed urges, voiced together with a Cooperesque avian racial characterization, enunciated a desire for authorized homicide. The half-articulated desire towards racial violence found in the Cooper scene under discussion has become fully elaborated in Parkman’s text a generation later. The model of calm violence and confident frontiersmanship Parkman brought to the Western plains was based — as he states freely — on Leatherstocking novels. A couple lines below the above-cited passage, Parkman sits with a frontier guide whom he idolizes: “After supper, Henry Chatillon and I lay by the fire, discussing the properties of that admirable weapon, the rifle, in the use of which he could fairly out-rival Leatherstocking himself.” (225) 5

As this reading proposes by identifying the cross-imagery projected between Brom and the turkey head, Leatherstocking’s demonstrative sharp- shooting provides a bridge to transit from Indian-killing to targeting blacks. 6 In the absence of warring Leatherstocking’s hunting rifle is no longer Indians in The Pioneers, an instrument of frontier protection or conquest. When Brom looks down the rifle’s barrel, it menaces and promises punishment for any transgression against power’s current status quo. Sambo can dance with delight at survival, but overt revolt will bring swift death. Decapitation by a bullet through the head invokes the colonial practice of punishing the petit treason of slaves by execution and beheading. In 1737 when a slave killed his master and attempted to escape on a stolen horse, the Virginia Gazette announced “The said Negro was executed ... and it is ordered by the Court that the Sheriff cut off his head and put it on a Pole near the Courthouse to deter others from doing the Like.” (June 3-10, 1737) This highly charged and symbolic act of decapitation was reserved for black slaves only, as when the heads of four slaves convicted of poisoning their overseers were hoisted up the Alexandria courthouse chimney in 1767. (Higginbotham and Jacobs 1038) Natty Bumppo’s decapitating rifle, now a potential executioner’s instrument, has been lifted in the service of a domestic, racial oppression. At the business end of the barrel, black being-for-death has a very different social interpretation.

How can we fail to see expressed here what Toni Morrison has called “the thunderous, theatrical presence of black surrogacy” (13) in classic American literature? Yet this reading would be unacceptably shallow if we failed to seek some further motivation. The most suggestive lies in the narrative value of firearms as symbolic shorthand for death. As Orlando Patterson (35-76) argues, throughout human history, slavery has relied upon the abasement of its subjects such that the experience resembles a psychological death. In slave-master relations, the attainment of power has been historically associated with a vastly enhanced sense of honor; conversely, a slave condition entails dishonoring and racial powerlessness. 7 The physical death that does not occur underlies the realities of daily existence beneath slavery. Slaves enter a “social death” where “their existence and presence in the community is wholly contingent on the will and power [emphasis added] of the master.” (Huggins xiv) A rifle aimed at a free black sitting near his target possession restates dominance, demeaned status, and memories of social death. The past is not yet past; a freeman is not yet free. A rifle serves as a potent reminder of how the past rules the present; it serves as an objectification of being-for-death that bears no possibilities other than the repetition of subordination into the future. Brom, although legally free and alive, experiences through Cooper’s narrative treatment an existential deauthentication; he is the black definition of what Heidegger deems “inauthentic Da-sein,” a consciousness that is doomed to remain incomplete.

Brom does not have to die physically, though frequently enough his non- fictional peers did: rather, a master’s power must be acknowledged and a social death enacted before an audience. The act of a white man aiming a weapon at or near a black resonates with the voice of the American timocracy — whether originating from the early Northern frontier, Southern plantations or Western forests — violently demanding recognition of its claim to superior honor. Brom’s distinctly degraded behavior while seated alongside his target turkey constitutes Cooper’s rendition of black capitulation. However, Cooper’s racialized construction of this shooting match scene begs the question of where honor attaches: to the white shooter or the black target, to Leatherstocking or Brom? So far as a white rifleman’s honor derives from a rhetorically demeaned and dishonored Brom, the alignment of shooter and target is self-reflexive. Degradation speaks of its origin, and insofar as caste degradation ethically mirrors its social cause, Brom’s condition is no less than Leatherstocking’s own ethical deficiency.

[72] Yet Cooper would not have seen it so, to be sure, for he wrote this same racialism of impending death with a repetitious instinct. For comparison of these narrative instincts, we turn to the final chapter (34) of Leatherstocking’s life in The Prairie. As he lies dying as an old man in a Pawnee village, Leatherstocking tells his listeners, Indian and white, “As I came into life, so will I leave it. Horses and arms are not needed to stand in the Presence of the Great Spirit of my people! He knows my colour, and according to my gifts will he judge my deeds.” (381) [emphasis added] The Lord is not color-blind, according to Cooper, and death and redemption will arrive according to the proper dictates of race. In the final hours of his life, Leatherstocking appears to be less a dying man than one whose soul gradually, reluctantly shifts from a plane of public existence to a mythic plane: “the immortal occupant seemed unwilling to desert its tenement,” (380) the mortal coil of Leatherstocking having been so pure that abandonment almost seemed unnecessary.

It is in this scene that Leatherstocking finally gives up his hunting rifle, passing it on with the comment that by choosing it as his rule of life “I fear I have not altogether followed the gifts of my colour“ (382) [emphasis added] and has preferred the rifle to a sedentary agriculturalism. The inheritance of Leatherstocking’s rifle, though, is a profoundly American inheritance that cannot be renounced. Nor truly would Cooper have us forego that inheritance, for he writes the death of his hero as an apotheosis rendered with soaring adjectives. “When opened his gaze seemed fastened on the clouds which hung around the western horizon, reflecting the bright colours and giving form and loveliness to the glorious tints of an American sunset.” (385) As he gives a final call of “Here!”, history and the heavens welcome Leatherstocking and the redemption of white civilization. At his death, Leatherstocking inhabits that condition where “being- toward-death [becomes] being toward a possibility.” (Heidegger 241) Just as the American sunset is not a sunset, neither is Leatherstocking’s death a death.

Where Cooper gifted Natty Bumppo with a transcendent national significance through the act of death, he constructed a narrative of social death for a black man, imposing disappearance rather than death as a final fate. For Brom, Cooper wrote a demonstration of death, a death that was not a positive death, and a disappearance that is only a temporary evasion of fate. There is no potentiality-of-being available to Brom because he cannot be-towards-death, and under the terms of Cooper’s racialization he could not achieve a Heideggerian authenticity of realized consciousness that constitutes Da-sein. The significance of potential death lies in its use of target substitution and threatened death to prevent analysis of a social totality based on racializations. In the hierarchy of cultural meanings attributable between the distinct worlds of Brom and Leatherstocking, Cooper makes clear that it is white death that possesses the greatest and entirely indisputable significance. Therein lies a possible wholeness of being, a completeness of action, an entrance from mythic singularity into nation. The Cooperian Da-sein, the consciousness that has a potentiality-of-being for the future because it can understand the meaning of death and thereby overcome a human inevitability, reveals itself through Leatherstocking’s resolute embrace of death. Gifted by his author with a full consciousness, Cooper’s Leatherstocking represents an intense neo-nationalist faith that will achieve, through ‘authentic’ death, a new collectivity of civilizational life.

At this point Cooper joins with Heidegger, and two disparate intellectual expressions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries find common ground. The most troubling feature of the Cooper-Heidegger commonalty must inevitably lie in a recognition of their expressions within the historical contexts they inhabited, periods characterized by the wholesale, genocidal deaths of ‘inauthentic’ peoples and consciousnesses. The intellectual specification of less-meaningful and more- meaningful human ontologies and valuations of death provides, inevitably, a cultural basis for practical policies that will echo an originating narrative.

Works Cited

  • Adams, Charles Hansford, ’The Guardian of the Law’: Authority and Identity in James Fenimore Cooper. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.
  • Cobb, Thomas R.R., An Inquiry into the Laws of Negro Slavery in the United States of America [1858]. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968 [reprint].
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Pioneers [1823]. New York: Penguin, 1988.
  • ------. James Fenimore, The Prairie [1827]. New York: Penguin, 1987.
  • Dekker, George and John P. McWilliams, Eds., Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.
  • Douglass, Frederick, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave [1841]. Ed., Huston A. Baker. New York: Penguin, 1982.
  • Flanigan, Daniel J., “The Criminal Law of Slavery and Freedom, 1800- 1868.” Ph. D dissertation, Rice University, 1973. New York: Garland Publishing, 1987 [reprint].
  • Genovese, Eugene, “The Slave States of North America.” Neither Slave Nor Free: The Freedmen of African Descent in Slave Societies of the New World. David W. Cohen and Jack P. Greene, eds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1972.
  • Grossman, James, James Fenimore Cooper. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949.
  • Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit). Joan Stambaugh [trans.] Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
  • Higginbotham, A. Leon, In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • Higginbotham, A. Leon and Anne F. Jacobs, “’The Law Only as Enemy’; The Legitimization of Racial Powerlessness through Colonial and Antebellum Criminal Laws of Virginia.” 70 North Carolina Law Review (1992), 969-1070.
  • Huggins, Nathan Irvin, Black Odyssey: The African-American Ordeal in Slavery. New York: Vintage, 1977.
  • Morrison, Toni, Playing in the Dark: Literary Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.
  • Motley, Warren, The American Abraham: James Fenimore Cooper and the Frontier Patriarch. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Parkman, Francis, The Oregon Trail [1849]. David Levin, ed. New York: Penguin, 1982.
  • Patterson, Orlando, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.
  • Schwarz, Phillip J., Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia. 1705-1865. New Orleans: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
  • Swann, Charles, “Guns Mean Democracy: The Pioneers and the Game Laws.” In James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays. Robert Clark [ed.]. London: Vision, and Barnes and Noble, 1985, 96-120.


I wish to acknowledge the suggestions of Abdul Jan Mohammed and Ruth Klein.


1 Criticism of The Pioneers has repeated this oversight in focusing on issues of land ownership, primitive hunting rights, and trespass when addressing this scene. Charles Swann’s “Guns Mean Democracy: The Pioneers and the Game Laws” (in Clarke 96-120) provides the only detailed treatment of the legal structure of this hunting scene. Yet, by failing to consider race, Swann’s oversight of Aggy’s silent but active presence undermines the merits of his argument. Recent treatments of the scene do little better than their predecessors. Charles Hansford Adams (55-56), for example, completely accepts Cooper’s overt specification of law and property relations themes and fails to mention the scene’s racialized human property.

2 This Cooperian argument over hunting privilege finds an ironic parallel in recent Third World literature that uses hunting privilege as a means of national self-definition for colonial and newly ex-colonial subjects. For an Anglo-Indian example, see chapter 1 of Khushwant Singh’s I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale (New York: Grove Press, 1959).

3 The positional ambiguity appears in part due to the generally non-existent safety arrangements at frontier shooting matches. One observer describes the scene of such a contest as follows: ” ... the crowd flocked together, on either side, from the target to the marksman, forming a lane of living people about four feet wide, with their heads inclining inwards, to see the effect of the shot.” (Clarke 122)

4 This feat, like many others attributed to Leatherstocking, is virtually impossible. A turkey’s head bobs continually backwards and forwards, and cannot be hit squarely at 100 yards by veteran marksmen.

5 For another literary use of competitive shooting to elaborate social archetypes and a pre-Revolution generational inheritance, see Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s story “The Shooting Match” (Georgia Scenes. Characters, Incidents, &c. in the First Half of the Republic, State Rights’ Sentinel, Augusta, 1835).

6 One explanation for this case of narrative transference lies in Parkman’s professed youthful influence from Cooper and Leatherstocking. Parkman wrote: “I have always felt a special admiration for Cooper’s writings. They were my chosen favourites as a boy, and though at least nine or ten years has passed since I opened them, yet the scenes and characters of several of his novels have been so stamped upon my mind that I sometimes find it difficult to separate them distinctly from my own past experiences. I may say, without exaggeration, that Cooper has had an influence in determining the course of my life and pursuits.” (Memorial for Cooper, New York, Putnam, 1852, 34-5; cited at Dekker and McWilliams 248). In at least this case, and probably for many more readers, Cooper’s avian-racial comparison had a powerful suggestive effect.

7 For a comprehensive discussion on the legal enactment of racial powerlessness, see Higginbotham and Jacobs, especially pp. 1016-1067.