The Perils of Parenting: Paternal Manipulation in The Leatherstocking Tales

Signe Wegener (University of Georgia)

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. 108-111).

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

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

{108} Through journals and letters, James Fenimore Cooper emerges as a devoted family man, concerned with his parental responsibilities. He was, for instance, preoccupied with the education of his children both while in the United States and abroad, and the family’s European sojourn was, at least in part, due to this concern. His pleasure in the intellectual pursuits of his daughters spread even farther: he proudly supported his daughter Susan in her writing career.

His preoccupation with family dynamics should come as no surprise. He wrote during a period that saw the crystallizing of the concept of the modern, nuclear family and popular literature constantly explored family dynamics. Furthermore, as Donald Ringe has observed, he took from the popular literature of his day, “whatever plot devices seemed useful to him” (5). Consequently, his novels bear a direct relationship to the family ideology of his day, the so-called “Cult of Domesticity,” which from 1820 to 1860 sought to cement the idea of the home’s and family’s centrality to the nation. This cult, ostensibly matriarchal, elevated and ensconced the middle-class woman as the center of the home, responsible for nurture and education, especially of daughters. This was, however, in part camouflage: the cult also sought to enforce the father’s importance within the private sphere, both as breadwinner and family leader: he was, as Henry Humphrey’s Domestic Education admonished his female readers, “the constituted head of his household” and “the supreme earthly legislator over his children” (quoted in Epstein 80). More importantly, the cult invested the father/daughter relationship with tremendous importance. It was a relationship that focused on the father’s rights and the daughter’s obligations-he was her protector, she his dependent child, pious, pure, and obedient, expected to be useful, i.e., to support and succor him regardless of physical and emotional cost to herself, and regardless of her closeness to her father.

Ironically, Cooper the paterfamilias became one of the first American writers to simultaneously assert and undermine the father’s central role, a fact which clearly ties him to the period’s writers of domestic fiction. His novels, including the Leatherstocking Tales, all their adventure and excitement notwithstanding, follow the trajectory of the domestic courtship novels: the main point is to get the hero and heroine together and to present examples of proper male and female deportment. Yet while he consistently moves his heroines and heroes toward matrimony and domesticity, he just as consistently challenges, even subverts, the prescribed norms for family life. Repeatedly, he reveals domesticity’s dark side, in particular the paternal neglect, manipulation, and exploitation that apparently characterize contemporary representations of family life. His families are amputated; his is a world of weak, ineffectual, and self-centered fathers who consistently manipulate their offspring for their own material benefit. His fictional fathers also seem peculiarly unconcerned with the safety of their precious daughters — despite the narrator’s emphasis on the great paternal devotion to and love for his child or children. In addition, a father’s devotion to his children may seriously impact his professional life. Such domestic issues emerge not only in Cooper’s most popular novel, The Last of the Mohicans; they also infuse The Pioneers, The Prairie, The Pathfinder, and The Deerslayer as well. In these texts, Cooper in a sense unwrites his society’s patriarchal script.

Cooper was familiar with the domestic novel not only from his family’s reading: he had explored family dynamics — and the father/daughter relationship — in his earlier novels Precaution and The Spy. The latter in particular presents an exceptionally unflattering picture of a father. The narrator bluntly states that Mr. Wharton, the heroine’s father, has “a natural imbecility of character,” a character flaw that in his youth made him unfit for a military career (22). This flaw does not make him less of a manipulator; the text presents a father who carefully uses his daughters not only as surrogate wives but as means to safeguard his estate during the Revolutionary Wars. One might argue that the safety of the estate ultimately will benefit the daughters, but Cooper denies Mr. Wharton even this expression of paternal feeling: his main objective is “to insure the safety of his large estate, whichever party succeeded” (24); fear of financial loss dictates his behavior. Thus he encourages the elder daughter’s marriage to Colonel Wellmere, and the younger daughter’s to her cousin Peyton Dunwoodie, a major in the Revolutionary forces. Daughters, his behavior demonstrates, exist primarily to be used in paternal schemes, as housekeepers and/or links between families and nations so that the father’s estate remains intact.

{109} The manipulative father emerges also in The Pioneers, a novel that cleverly infuses the domestic novel with wilderness adventures, although it never removes the characters far from settlements and civilization. The parvenu Judge Temple — he has obtained his status through commerce, his alliance with the more aristocratic Effinghams, and the outcome of the Revolution — is a far cry from Mr. Wharton. Still, a certain insensitivity, paired with a somewhat exploitative nature, informs his relationship to his daughter Elizabeth, whom he treats as if she exists solely to complement his own existence. Significantly, the novel opens with her return from school in New York to cater to her widowed father’s needs. Acting as a surrogate wife, she is to provide the sanctuary to which he will return after his ordeals in the outside world. Temple makes this purpose clear when he welcomes her home with the words, “See, Bess, there is thy resting place for life” (30), a rather ominous statement. And entering the dining room, the Judge reiterates the sentiment: “My daughter has now grown to a woman’s estate, and is from this moment mistress of my house” (101). Yet the Judge has no scruples about leaving her on the very evening of her arrival, Christmas Eve, never conceiving that Elizabeth, missing her mother, might find the solitude painful. He quickly deserts her for the village pub without a thought for her well-being.

Damning with faint praise also characterizes Cooper’s treatment of The Prairie’s Don Augustin, whose very courtesy depends on “the forms of that station, on which he so much valued himself”; he lives up to his duties as a gentleman (79-80). Supposedly, he also has “all the feelings of a father”; however, Cooper undermines his rather vague praise by admitting that these feelings “were smothered in the lassitude of a Creole” (186). Don Augustin’s “lassitude” — his weariness or even debility — overrules his feelings toward his daughter Inez. Furthermore, he has no scruples about using his daughter for his own purposes: he sees Inez as a means to expand the Catholic faith. When he allows Duncan Middleton to marry her, it is due to his own “desire for proselytizing,” not a concern for her happiness: he sees the marriage as a chance to triumph over infidelity.

The Last of the Mohicans presents a slightly different approach to domestic issues: Cooper removes the domestic novel from the drawing-room to the frontier. Yet even without the more visible trappings of domesticity Cooper’s ideas of family organization remain — the father/daughter relationship lies at the novel’s core. The readers also receives an object lesson in how fatherhood and paternal affection impair the father’s professional obligations when his fears takes precedence over his professional life. The daughters know the dilemma, yet do little to alleviate it; for, as Cora says, “can daughters forget the anxiety a father must endure, whose children lodge, he knows not where or how, in such wilderness, and in the middle of perils?” (61). Still, this parental pain appears self-inflicted: Colonel Munro selfishly allows the girls to put themselves in danger to reach him. When Heyward claims Munro is “a soldier and knows how to estimate this,” Cora sets down a father’s priorities, reiterating his central position within the family, “He is a father, and cannot deny his nature” (61). And a father’s nature demands that he be with his daughters even if this demand conflicts with his professional life. Cooper takes pains to present a loving and emotional father-figure. However, all this sentiment clearly weakens the parent: in the end Munro, a seasoned and experienced officer of “gigantic frame” and hair “bleached with years of service” (145), ends up a broken man weeping “scalding” tears over his daughters’ footprints. The novel exposes the difficulty, even impossibility, of trying to reconcile familial and professional duties. However, unlike another military father, Sergeant Dunham of The Pathfinder, Munro feels so secure in his military role that he can allow himself the luxury of showing love and emotions, welcoming his daughters with open arms and tears. Tears seem to come easily to the officer, sometimes rolling, “unheeded” to the floor. But this welcome takes place only after he almost has Cora and Alice killed, believing them to be part of a French attack. The scene, appropriately set in mist as if to emphasize the ambiguity of the parental role, would have made an effective cliffhanger, but Cooper has to see his heroines reach the arms of the parent after abductions, escape, and bombardment. When Munro hears Alice’s voice and realizes the girls are approaching the fort, he apparently throws safety to the wind, storms out of the fort, gathers them in his arms, “while large scalding tears rolled down his wrinkled cheeks, and he exclaimed, in the peculiar accent of Scotland — ‘For this I thank thee, Lord! Let danger come as it will, thy servant is now prepared!’” (145). His sentiments, fatherly as they may be, carry an almost ironic message: his overwhelming affection for his daughters and the uncertainty about their fate have seemingly impaired his effectiveness as an officer. However, when his daughters have been restored to him — at least temporarily — he can again function professionally. More importantly, he has his daughters to protect: the duty to his family eclipses the duty to his country. Although never openly manipulative, Munro nevertheless controls the daughters’ future: Heyward approaches and gets the father’s permission before he declares his intentions to Alice. His two daughters appear to exemplify the cult’s prescription: that they be pure, pious, and, one assumes, domestic. Inflamed by filial devotion they traverse the wilderness to be at his side, and they do their best to comfort him while at the fort. They also {110} identify with him and his values: they are daughters of Munro (no mothers are mentioned) and can boast of a “stock of hereditary courage” (20). Alice also knows that professions of daughterly love can be deployed to other ends: she uses her filial affections to gain Heyward’s attention-and succeeds. Combined with physical attraction, filial duty is a powerful seductive force. Cooper sets up both Alice and Cora’s physical appeal in the beginning of the novel, and has to spend the rest of the novel insisting on their purity and innocence. He dwells on Cora’s “exquisite proportions, of which none of the graces were lost by the travelling dress she wore” (19), and Alice’s “dazzling complexion, fair golden hair, and bright blue eyes” as well as her artlessness, flirtatiousness and vivacity (18). It is worth noting that the scene which precipitates Heyward’s declaration of his love for Alice is one of domestic bliss: he finds Alice on her father’s knee, “Parting the gray hairs on the forehead of the old man with her delicate fingers ... pressing her ruby lips fondly on his wrinkled brow” (156). She has, Heyward claims, captured him with her “sweetness,” “beauty,” and “witchery” — i.e., with her dependence and her sexuality (159).

If The Last of the Mohicans provides the reader with an extreme case of paternal sentimentality, The Pathfinder’s Sergeant Dunham gives the most graphic demonstration of paternal self-interest and manipulation; he has arranged for his daughter to be brought to his post of duty with the express purpose of seeing her married. Although there are mitigating circumstances — the sergeant has no way of providing for his daughter financially if she were not to marry — Cooper undercuts Dunham’s consideration for Mabel’s welfare by exposing that he expects to benefit from the marriage as well. Her marriage to his friend Natty Bumppo — a man nearly twice her age — will provide himself with a retirement home. Furthermore, he never quite sees Natty as a permanent part of the arrangement; instead he offers the latter a residence between assignments. And he sees it as perfectly natural that a daughter he hardly knows yield to his wishes. He has provided for her education and upkeep; now it is her turn to reciprocate. The sergeant may be “accustomed to judge men’s character” but he has no appreciation of his daughter’s sentiments, although he claims “a father’s knowledge of womankind” (133). Set in his ways, he can conceive of no domestic opposition to his detailed plan: “the hussy would never dream of refusing to marry a man who was her father’s best friend before she was born” (135). To him, she is an asset he can “manage” (293), a pliable dependent whose whole existence revolves around the parent. He has seen to her education; now he expects his investments to bear domestic fruit. The sergeant may indeed be his child’s supreme earthly legislator; however, the novelist cannot condone this expression of conventional paternal power: he resolves the plot by marrying her to Jasper Western, her equal in years and social rank. It is worth noticing that the attractive, “ardent,” and “generous-minded” Mabel, a girl who is proud of being “a soldier’s daughter,” has great problems executing proper filial piety, and only yields to her father’s wishes on his deathbed. She is not, as Joyce Warren claims, completely one of Cooper’s “dependent, emotional, and totally selfless” women (93). Or rather, she definitely chafes at the parental bit before she finally succumbs to the demands. Yet by showing Mabel’s quandary, Cooper seems to suggest how unreasonable paternal demands can be, thereby undermining the cult’s dictum of paternal control.

The manipulative father emerges also in The Deerslayer, where Cooper again focuses on the single-parent patriarch, the trapper Tom Hutter, father of the beautiful Judith and the supposedly simple-minded Hetty. Hutter, another of Cooper’s working-class fathers, is hard and bony and skilled in woodcraft — he can read tracks and footprints almost as well as Deerslayer — introduces himself as a concerned father, worried about the security of his daughters. Although not the girls’ biological father, he shows them great tenderness. Yet parenting has its price: Hutter almost at once expresses the problems inherent in the process. His strength is vitiated because “Children sometimes make a stout heart feeble” (53). He also admits to not always being able to control his family, stating that “these daughters of mine give me more concern than all my traps, and skins, and rights in the country” (53). Coming at the heels, so to speak, of The Pathfinder, the novel presents a father who, like Sergeant Dunham, intends to use his daughter to secure his own future and livelihood, not hers, by marrying her off. Even if the “business” in question is scalping Indians, the father’s bargaining chip is the same: an attractive, marriageable daughter that he can dispose of at will. Hurry Harry, he tells Hetty, “has as much as promised that he will enter into this job with me, on condition that I’ll consent” (69). Neither man, apparently, considers it important to have Judith’s opinion as to the proposed match, or conceives that she might not be willing to be part of their scheme. All the Leatherstocking Tales, then, present father/daughter relationships that both affirm and undermine the Cult of Domesticity’s concept of fatherhood. Although Cooper continually asserts the father’s pivotal role in the family insofar that he deploys the father as the sole parent, he also consistently reveals the father’s egotism and manipulation. In doing so, he implicitly critiques nineteenth-century fatherhood.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Spy [1821]. New York: Penguin Classics, 1997
  • ------. The Pioneers [1823]. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980
  • ------. The Last of the Mohicans [1826]. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983
  • ------. The Prairie [1827], Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985
  • ------. The Pathfinder [1840], Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981
  • ------. The Deerslayer [1841], Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987
  • Epstein, Barbara Leslie, The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism, and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1981
  • Ringe, Donald A., James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Twayne, 1962. Updated edition, 1988
  • Warren, Joyce W., The American Narcissus: Individualism and Women in Nineteenth Century Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1984