Resisting Women: “Feminist” Students and Cooper’s The Pioneers, with a few Thoughts Concerning Pedagogical Approaches to The Prairie

Anne L. Bower (The Ohio State University — Marion)

Presented at the 13ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2001.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2001 Cooper Seminar (No. 13), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 17-20).

Copyright © 2001, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

{17} For my first effort at an upper division course in “Colonial and U.S. Literature to 1830,” I decided that we had to include a novel by Cooper, although my own academic training had totally neglected this author and my high school memory of reading one of his novels was pretty grim (surpassed only by the tortures of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King). So, the first part of my title — Resisting Women — doesn’t just refer to the students I’ll talk about; it refers to me too. Still, as difficult as I knew my students would find him, Cooper’s position as a major canonical figure, and as a novelist still widely read and loved around the world, recommended him for study. Additionally, because Cooper’s work shows him struggling deeply to define his own notions of what is or should be “American” — involved with issues that are socio/political, geographic, and environmental — working with one of his novels would encourage us to explore the formation of “American” literature, a topic at the heart of our course. I felt that the very qualities that would make any one of Cooper’s novels problematic — even annoying — were qualities my students needed to experience in order to have a full understanding of early nineteenth-century “American” literature. The Pioneers seemed an appropriate choice, being the first-penned volume of the Leatherstocking series. The resistance of my all-female class to The Pioneers far exceeded my expectations, and at first I was completely alarmed. That resistance was so strong it seemed we’d never be able to discuss the topics I’d researched and prepared — Cooper’s fear of immigration, the issue of “who owns the land” and what laws should rule it, conflicts with the Native Americans, his depiction of African Americans, the role of women in his work, and ideas about community — topics at the heart of much Cooper criticism. Fortunately, what I discovered was that by acknowledging my own and my students’ resistance, we could work our way into many areas of the novel. Thus, while part of my interest concerns Cooper’s work itself, much of what I will discuss focuses on the way that students can shape the experience of a novel. It’s become clearer than ever to me that allowing dialogical intellectual and pedagogical processes to occur brings vitality to one’s teaching practice and opens instructors up to ideas they might otherwise overlook. Our students teach US how to teach them!

I think the particular make-up of my class was a determinant of what occurred, for it was a small group composed solely of women. Not only that, but most of these women were “non-traditional” students; that is, they had been out of high school for several years. Two of the students were in their forties, one was thirty-something, another in her mid-twenties; the remaining students were the usual age for college juniors and seniors. The three “older” students all worked full-time, and the other students, typical for our commuter campus, held part-time jobs. 1 Almost half the students in the class had children. Most of them declared they were “feminist”: in the earlier part of the course they had admired women writers they saw as brave (like Mary Rowlandson and Anne Bradstreet) and struggled with authors or characters they saw as submissive (like the protagonist of The Power of Sympathy). My point here is that these busy, active women brought their experiences as women to their reading of The Pioneers, quickly focusing on the depictions of women and the relationships of women to home and to the environment as central to their interests.

However, before we could even get to discussions of those issues, we bumped into a major problem. As a result of the busy-ness of their own lives, their deep enculturation into an action-oriented society, and their lack of experience with the leisurely pace of nineteenth-century fiction, they abhorred the slow pace of the book. Recall that chapter one opens with five pages of closely-packed description before Judge Templeton hears Natty’s dogs and predicts some deer hunting. Likewise, chapter two is devoted solely to a long history of Marmaduke Temple’s family background and land acquisition, and chapter three is largely a description of the valley, Templeton village, and the Temple home. When the students said this kind of elaborate description and background material was “boring,” the traditional English teacher in me wanted to say “sure, it’s not a movie or a video; it’s a nineteenth-century book. Deal with it!” Anyone who teaches nineteenth-century fiction has encountered this problem. Even Cooper’s nemesis, Mark Twain, uses extensive descriptions in works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As beautiful as I find Twain’s descriptions of the Mississippi river, spread throughout the novel, for many of my students it’s obvious that those scenes are eye-glazers.

{18} Rather than confront my early American literature class about this problem with Cooper’s style, I decided to go along with these strong-willed women and see where their reactions would take us. When asked to explain their “boredom,” they talked about what they liked in movies and books — action, revelations about deep feelings, dramatic and realistic characters. They also talked about their own culture as one of speed and quick changes. At this point, I asked them who they would have been and what they’d have been doing of an evening back in 1823 or ‘24, when the novel was still new. They spoke of lives they might have lived farming, or working in a mill, or running a middle-class household where home management included cooking, cleaning, sewing, preparation of medicines, and various religious practices. I asked them to describe a room they’d have been in, and they did: We imagined ourselves into a home lit by candles and firelight, with mother, father, or another family member reading out loud. This led to a brief discussion of literacy rates — interesting in and of itself, but helpful to their deeper realization of the novel’s context. Collaboratively, we described the furnishings of our fire-lit room, and what each occupant of that room would have been doing, their own female hands possibly wielding needle and thread or whittling or stringing beans or braiding a child’s hair. “Close your eyes,” I said. “Put yourself into that place.”

Then I read aloud from the opening of The Pioneers. The reading lasted about ten minutes — quite a long time — but no one seemed impatient. When I stopped and everyone came back to our fluorescent-lit 2001 classroom, there was no doubt something in the atmosphere of our class had changed. Now we could discuss Cooper as a visual artist and could better understand that 1820s readers had a different need for word pictures than do we in the twenty-first century. New perceptions concerning Cooper’s style were reached. Interestingly, the students linked what Cooper manages to something very modern — movies — realizing now that he does with words what the camera does for the viewer: the long slow panorama of countryside, the close-up that gives details of clothing’s texture and stitchery or of an individual’s facial expression. It’s not that all the boredom magically evaporated, but at least enough of an understanding was achieved that the students could read on with more patience and appreciation. As we proceeded more deeply into the novel, we still found ourselves discussing style a lot. As a “community of learners” we agreed that Cooper’s writing is full of flaws (they got the usual chuckles out of Mark Twain’s commentary), with many narrative digressions, dialogue that’s sometimes wooden, characters who seemed terribly unrealistic, and what to them seemed unlikely action scenes. At this point in our deliberations, I introduced them to Jane Tompkins’ notion that Cooper’s very use of “sensationalism and cliché” help us see how he thought his nineteenth-century readers comprehended their world, and also, to her idea that we can read his novels “as social criticism written in an allegorical mode” (102-103). In her own work with The Last of the Mohicans, Tompkins finds that “conflicting loyalties, divergent customs, disparate codes of honor, habits of deportment, styles of dress, modes of knowledge and of skill — these occupy the narrative commentary at every turn” (105-106). At this point, realizing that critics saw the same problems they saw, but found productive ways to work with and understand those “problems,” helped the students feel justified or valorized in their own reactions. It also assisted all of us to dig deeper into the novel.

Most particularly, the class homed in (pun intended) on the depiction of females in this novel: no matter what topic I might bring up, we seemed to return to the women! Elizabeth Templeton, the students decided, is set up as the “perfect” female — submissive to the strong men in her life and yet showing considerable spirit, initiative, physical bravery, and independence of ideas. In contrast, Louisa Grant is the complete stereotype of submission, a character my students found obnoxious and hoped Cooper created this way as a foil to the more human Elizabeth. And of course, Remarkable Pettibone, with her blunt tongue, prodigious cookery, and displeasure at sharing domestic power, provides the opposite contrast: the stereotype of a domineering woman, although her domination is limited to household matters. The last female character we considered was the tavern keeper, Betty Hollister, a business woman of sorts, who tempers her commercial sense with sympathy for her customers. (Kay Seymour House identifies Betty Hollister as a “virago” type [32] but doesn’t discuss Remarkable who seems even more problematic although, since she is a servant, she is socially less consequential than Betty within the world of Cooper.)

The students noted that neither Betty nor Remarkable have any real relationship to the land in and around Templeton (excepting of course their fierce attachments to their own “domestic” locations), whereas Elizabeth and Louisa are placed in a variety of outdoor settings, indicating they have some stake in the novel’s debate about land ownership and development. 2 In critical scenes, the two young women are in danger from the wilderness around Templeton — animals in one case, when both are threatened, fire in another, when only Elizabeth is in peril. Of course, it is the heroic males — Natty Bumppo and Oliver Effingham — who rescue the women, and my students were quick to see that no matter how brave and bold Elizabeth could be, Cooper and his belief system, his world in fact, would always put her at the mercy and/or protection of men. In these outdoor scenes, particularly the fire episode, the students found themselves grappling with the way that Cooper honors the strength he gives Elizabeth only to instantly undercut it. {19} How, the students asked, could Elizabeth, who is bold enough to carry gunpowder up the mountain to Natty, despite her father’s strictures against him, be so stupid as to not strip off her flammable garments and make a dash for it? As we contemplated Elizabeth’s resolution to accept death by fire we could see that Cooper himself was trapped by his novelist conventions.

Elizabeth’s “resignation” to death by fire assures the novel’s readers that she is full of religious virtue; her inability to think of removing her dress (or at least part of it) assures readers of her modesty. And yet, once again, as modern readers, we found ourselves unconvinced that Elizabeth had so little daring or life to bring to this emergency. The problem is not in the character, we saw; but in the author, one who is so famous for his conflicted depictions of main characters.

Having already read Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797) and William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789), my students had absorbed some understanding of the period’s “cult of true womanhood” (although we had not talked about it using that exact term nor discussed Barbara Welter’s famous article on the topic); they understood that “piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” were the four walls that could protect a nineteenth-century woman, but also could form her prison (Welter 152). Still, it was hard for them to imagine that Elizabeth, under threat of death, would have maintained both religious submissiveness and the modesty component of domesticity. At the novel’s end, my students were gratified to see that Cooper gave a conditional nod to his female protagonist’s ability to assert herself. They enjoyed seeing how well Elizabeth took charge of social problems, arranging, for example, for Reverend Grant to take on a new congregation where he and his daughter Louisa would be in a more settled community, and being manager of her own home as Mrs. Effingham. Her husband comments that “I did not think you had been such a manager” and she replies “Oh! I manage more deeply than you imagine, sir” (449). In fact, struggling with Cooper’s depiction of Elizabeth, the students came to a number of the insights offered by critical writers like Abby Werlock in “Courageous Young Women in Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales,” Nina Baym in “The Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales,” and Jay S. Paul in “The Education of Elizabeth Temple.”

Certain students decided that Cooper is a crypto-feminist, giving enough powers to his lead female character in The Pioneers to subvert the norms of “true womanhood.” Others found that he was complicit with the norms, allowing Elizabeth certain freedoms of class, but showing that only because she has the protection of strong males can she exercise her freedoms. Without the status conferred by her father, without the protection of Natty and Oliver Effingham, and finally, without marriage to Oliver, Elizabeth would be driven to some form of either the sappiness of Louisa or the harshness of Betty and Remarkable.

Eventually, when I again attempted to change our focus from the depiction of women to the novel’s portrayal of Native Americans, the two African American characters, the land itself, and then, the whole question of what laws should rule the land, the students used their insights into Cooper’s ambivalent way of handling his female characters to approach these questions. Like many a Cooper critic, they discovered that same ambivalence in other areas of the novel.

Collectively, the class decided that Cooper hoped the “composite order” of Templeton could flourish in some way that would rule the land but do so harmoniously, even though he also seemed to satirize the composite order in both its architectural and social aspects. They felt he might be creating, in the union of Oliver and Elizabeth, a kind of aristocracy that could overcome the polyglot society that disrupted Cooper’s ideas of order. Perhaps Oliver and Elizabeth are envisioned as the ideal progenitors — Elizabeth the submissive female, but with a note of fire and mastery in her personality, and Oliver the well-educated, Anglo gentleman, with a note of Indian sympathy, but no real Indian blood, which would, of course, have made him ineligible, as far as Cooper was concerned. They noted that the Indian characters, no matter how lowly or how noble, are “disappeared” (critic Jared Gardner uses the word “vanished” for the way Cooper handles his Native American and African American characters). And they were able to remark the irony of Natty’s character — how he has opened up lands to settlement and to the very civilization that he then rejects.

Thinking about my own experience with The Pioneers and about the focus of this conference on The Prairie, I wonder if a similar open approach would work with that novel, one that seems to me even more confusing and likely to call up student resistance. As many an introduction to The Prairie has attested, there’s problem after problem for anyone who approaches this work as a realistic depiction of land ownership and conquest. In addition, the characters — strong and odd as they are — have but fleeting credibility and the plot is even more fragmentary than that of The Pioneers. Certainly there’s an interesting assortment of female characters, from Ellen Wade, characterized by Nina Baym as possibly the “’new woman,’ woman in a democracy, woman as a free spirit” (708), to the matriarch Esther Bush, from the kidnapped, fragile and aristocratic Inez to the abused Sioux wife Tatchechana. Like the earlier novel, The Prairie too provides a wonderful site of inquiry for undergraduates to tangle with Cooper’s own tangle of style, stereotypes, and ideologies.

{20} If I teach The Prairie it will be impossible for me to know exactly what our focus will be. That will depend on the students themselve — swho they are and what they bring to the novel. My guess is that a number of students in my next Colonial American Literature class, whether reading The Pioneers or The Prairie, may not “like” Cooper and will resist his work, but my guess is also that they’ll never forget the effort of finding their own place in his prose. As I reflect on what emerged from my first attempt to work with students on a Cooper novel, I am encouraged to undertake similar work in the future. I began my class with reservations about Cooper, and found the novel initially resisted by my students. But allowing them to follow their own interests brought us to some useful understanding of the novel as a product and a process — as an artifact of its time and an expression of one artist’s struggle to understand his changing world.

Works Cited

  • Baym, Nina, “The Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.” American Quarterly 23 (1971): 696-709.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Pioneers [1823]. Intro. James D. Wallace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • ------. The Prairie [1827]. Intro. Henry Nash Smith. New York: Rinehart, 1950.
  • Gardner, Jared, Master Plots: Race and the Founding of an American Literature, 1787-1845. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
  • House, Kay Seymour, Cooper’s Americans. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1965.
  • Paul, Jay S., “The Education of Elizabeth Temple.” Studies in the Novel 9 (Summer 1977): 187-194.
  • Tompkins, Jane, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Welter, Barbara, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly 18 (1966): 151-174.
  • Werlock, Abby H. P., “Courageous Young Women in Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales; Heroines and Victims.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 6). Ed. George A Test. Oneonta, N.Y.: State College of New York, Oneonta, 1987. 22-40.


1 On the regional campus of The Ohio State University where I teach, we have recently instituted an English major and therefore introduced upper division courses. About half the students in these classes are English majors with the other half majoring in Education and an occasional psychology, business, or history major in the mix. We’re a commuter campus, with most students working full or part-time, and the majority of our students come from families where no one has a college degree. Our student population is divided fairly evenly between men and women.

2 Louisa is always uncomfortable outdoors, the students perceived, with no capacity to function as a “public” person unless indoors, preferably under the protection of her father or some other respectable man. Elizabeth is at home outdoors, witnessing the archery contest, going out on the lake in a boat at night, etc. She is the person most observant about the country’s beauty, and, next to Natty, the one most concerned with how the development of Templeton will affect nature; as a single young woman she cannot own and manage land, yet we see her entering the public control of land when she marries Effingham and demonstrates her desire to participate in the management of their land and lives, as well as the fortunes of those around them.