Cooper and the Forest Gentleman

Henning Goldbæk (University of Copenhagen, Denmark)

Presented at the 12ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1999.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1999 Cooper Seminar (No. 12), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 30-32).

Copyright © 2000, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

{30} Georg Lukács in his famous book on The Historical Novel compares Sir Walter Scott with “the American Cooper” and his Leatherstocking novels, for three reasons: Cooper is the successor of Scott’s Progressive Historical Novel, i.e., he describes the contrasts of modern capitalist history as a totality, he describes the tragedy of the American “redskins” and their decay and ruin, and finally his hero is the English “middle-hero” Nathaniel Bumppo, who is analphabetic, simple and decent. To Lukács realism is not just a way of description but of experience, and in fact to Lukács Sir Walter Scott and Cooper are more modern and progressive than Goethe, who after having read two novels by Scott once said, that he could not learn anything from him. To Lukács, Goethe’s way of writing is a modification of the ideas of enlightenment. Goethe is of course progressive, but not historical and concrete, in the same way as Scott and Cooper. Goethe is abstract, especially in his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship of 1796. In fact Lukács’ way of comparing Goethe and Scott/Cooper is interesting, because it not only emphasizes the word realism, but also the meaning of Bildung, education, which is normally seen as a central part of early bourgeois culture and especially Goethe.

Normally we consider that the Bildungsroman begins about 1770 with Christoph Martin Wieland’s novel Agathon, that its culmination is Wilhelm Meister and that it fades out 50 years later in Der grüne Heinrich by Gottfried Keller. The continuation is Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, which is a withdrawal of the whole tradition. But in fact this is only true if you define the word Bildung in a very narrow way. The classical definition is the definition of Morgenstern from 1819, who says:

Novel of apprenticeship it should be called, first and first of all, because of its subject-matter, because it describes the development of its hero from the beginning, through a certain progression until it reaches a degree of completion, secondly because it develops the apprenticeship of the reader to a higher degree than any other type of novel.

If you use this model, the center of the word Bildung is Goethe, but even Goethe’s novel is ambiguous, because it is not only interested in Vollendung, completion, but also in metamorphosis and transformation, not only in an ending, but in never-ending development of the character, of the experience of the reader. Read in this way the novel of apprenticeship is another word for the exemplary novel of modern experience, and in this definition it is not only essential to a certain German and Central European tradition, but to a general attitude towards modern society from the 18ᵗʰ century to the 20ᵗʰ century. And it is not only a question of the development of the character, but of the reader. Both use the novel of apprenticeship as a possibility to get used to dynamics, change, development; it is a question of learning from modernity through the novel of apprenticeship; it is a question of experience, which the 19ᵗʰ century tried to hide through an ideal of completion and harmony. One of Lukács’ pupils Franco Moretti has discussed the novel of apprenticeship in his book The Way of the World, where he defines the novel as:

an open-ended process. Meaning is the result not of a fulfilled teleology, but rather ... a total rejection of such a solution. The ending, the privileged narrative moment of taxonomic mentality, becomes the most meaningless one here.

In his book Moretti finds a difference between two forms of the novel of apprenticeship: the novel of classification and the novel of transformation, limit and dynamism, normality and individuality. If we compare this to Lukács, we can see that realism is another word for this historical dialectic of modernity, between the limits and transformation not only of the main character, but also of the reader, a development of socialization and of self-determination, which brings us to Cooper’s world and his main characters Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook. In what way are Cooper’s novels novels of apprenticeship? At least not in the way the novel is normally defined, that is not as a novel of ending, of classification, not in the way of the 19ᵗʰ century: Dickens’ David Copperfield, Balzac or Stendhal. Rather in the way of the 18ᵗʰ century or in the way of the 20ᵗʰ century: Voltaire and Fielding or Joseph Conrad and Hemingway. It seems that the novels of Cooper are more highly esteemed today than before. Usually people say that “Cooper is not much read”, but maybe there is a change there. That might be, because his novels are not historical in the optimistic, Hegelian way, nor nostalgic in the romantic way, but critical towards the past and the future. In his book The Last of the Mohicans — Civil Savagery and Savage Civility of 1995 John McWilliams writes:

{31} Just as the distinction between red and white cultures disappears in the characterization of Leatherstocking, so the lines separating red and white races, despite Cooper’s conscious desire to keep them drawn, are forever being blurred and erased.

Of course this refers to the important scene on the last pages of The Last of the Mohicans, where Hawkeye says, in response to Chingachgook’s words “I am alone”:

“No Sagamore, not alone. The gifts of our colours may be different, but God has placed us to journey in the same path. I have no kin, and I may also say, like you, no people.”

What does this mean? What kind of journey is meant here? It is first of all a description of a friendship, between two men, who are themselves ambiguous towards their races, the Indians and the Whites. They share a way of living and of thinking, which one might call paradoxical. The paradox is evident in the description both of Chingachgook and of Hawkeye, who is introduced thus in the beginning of the novel as:

The frame of the white man ... was like that of one who had known hardships and exertion from his earliest youth. His person, though muscular, was rather attenuated than full; but every nerve and muscle appeared strong and indurated, by unremitted exposure and toil ...

Hawkeye is not deformed, but he represents a different way, an alternative way of being white. In his stature he is the representative of a different world; he is a living utopia, not so far from the ideas in Schiller’s book on The Aesthetical Education of Man. He is part of society, but also a non- conformist, and that his stature surpasses that of his fellows may mean that he is not, like them, tamed, totally socialized, but an independent, individualized modern man. And at the same time savage. The Indians, including Chingachgook, are not only savage, but civilized, in their manners, and in their weapons. This means that Cooper uses the main characters to discuss the past and the future; the novel is written in the 1820s, and takes place in the year of 1757. It is a criticism of the past, of the war, of the beginning of the extermination of the Indians; it is a criticism of the future, meaning the time between 1757 and 1826 and later. In this gap between history and utopia Cooper describes modern development and its paradox of progress and distortion, through his main characters and through history, i.e., through the possibilities that history offers the individuals to create themselves as human beings. Maybe the friendship between Hawkeye and Chingachgook is fragile, not to say an illusion, compared to what really happened in history, but Cooper does not describe a future of unity as if it were already there, he asks questions of history, he points out different problems of modernity, power policy, civilization, barbarism, friendship, and makes it possible for the reader to take part in a dialogue about modernity. And this dialogue is utopian and at the same time the essence of Bildung in Cooper’s novels. Bildung is a question of asking questions of history, knowing that you are a part of it yourself, knowing that it and you are changing.

This change, as an essential part of the word Bildung, is the reason why Cooper at the same time shows history as something which you cannot change, something which has happened, and something which is not finished, that is, which points into the future. It is possible to discuss history, because history is not only official history, but forgotten history, forgotten possibilities. An example is of course the future friendship of Hawkeye and Chingachgook, but also Hawkeye’s “secret love of desperate adventure,” that is, his roots in barbarism, revenge, nature, the Indian way of life. What Cooper wants to make clear, when he describes Hawkeye and Chingachgook as paradoxical characters, is in fact that history as finished and unfinished, on the individual and on the collective level, and this is exactly Bildung. The reader and the main character are taking part in a creation, the creation of a person and of the world. Bakhtin has defined the novel of apprenticeship as the novel of the creation of man. This means that the present is a space, pointing not only backwards, but forwards. The present is unfinished. In fact, this means that the descriptions of nature in Cooper’s novels are also part of historical change. The Bildung is not only a question of history, but also of nature. The untouched beauty of nature is often revealed as an illusion, for instance before and after the battle of Fort William Henry:

The whole landscape, which ... had been seen so lovely, appeared now like some pictured allegory of life, in which objects were arrayed in their harshest but truest colours, and without the relief of any shadowing.

Nature as the pictured allegory of life means more than a temporarily distortion of nature through history (war), it means nature as image of history. In the same way that nature can change and show many faces, history and life are unsteady, fragile and open. If we return to the beginning, to the development of the main character of the Bildungs novel, we remember that the classical structure (classification) was a way from home-homeless-home; the novel of transformation, which Cooper represents, is the novel of never really leaving home, nor arriving home, but learning from {32} openness, dynamics, metamorphosis. This is the life-condition of Cooper’s individuals, and their paradoxical way of life, of history itself, and of nature, which represents/allegorizes this dynamism from beauty to the sublime, from reality to illusion, from silence to danger. There does not seem to be any law in nature, but change and interpretation of the many faces of nature. The expression “pictured life” is interesting, because it means that life is to us, the readers, incomprehensible, unless we read it through a picture, which is the only way for us to understand nature, but which, at the same time, means that this picture is only temporary, and relies on the always changing interpretation of the main character or the reader, as part of his/her never- ending learning from life. Nature in Cooper’s novels has two functions, which are important to the concept of Bildung. It can mean that Bildung includes nature, that there is no Bildung if nature is neglected. Hawkeye’s ambiguous relationship to Chingachgook means that civilization has never broken with nature, on the contrary, the presence of nature as part of civilization is important for Bildung, without nature there is no Bildung. Bildung is never pure, there is always a residue of barbarism left in it as a shadow and as a reminiscence of the mythic past. On the other hand, nature means sentimentality, nature as the opposite of history and modernity. This way of understanding nature is especially important in The Deerslayer, but it is possible that one should not regard nature in the later Cooper novels as escapism, but as part of his Bildung; that is, as remembrance; that is, as attempts to describe the decline of nature from pre-history to history and modernity, which means that Cooper creates nature as a reconstruction in his mind, to show that nature is only thinkable as an image of the historical mind.