Who hides in the work of James Fenimore Cooper?

David Callahan (Universidade de Aveiro, Portugal)

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. 21-25).

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

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

James Fenimore Cooper is taken to be of central importance in the establishment of European settler foundation narratives in the United States. In Henry Nash Smith’s classic summary, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950), “the character of Leatherstocking is by far the most important symbol of the national experience of adventure across the continent” (61). For Leslie Fiedler in Love & Death in the American Novel (1966): “it is Cooper who first dreams the American version of the theme [of escape from the social and domestic], converting a peripheral European archetype into the central myth of our culture” (182). Although Cooper has gone through lean times in the academy over the past 30 years, the perception of his work as being significant in these terms at least has remained a given.

Throughout the visions of European violence and the framing of American history in terms of the exercise of power on the part of the settler-invaders, the performative nature of this exercise is apparent. By enacting power in view, its efficacy was increased over those it was directed at and it served to legitimate it in the eyes of the community. Moreover, we should not forget that there was always more-or-less principled opposition to many of the violent actions of sections of the invading communities, so that visibility also served to establish power over those sections of the community as well as over the indigenous nations or recalcitrant groups of whatever type. Performing in public was crucial in the establishment of hegemony as well as eventually the illusion of right. Public performance guaranteed the history of what had been performed — and implicitly defied anyone to erect a different narrative.

Cooper’s works however are full of characters for whom concealment and secrecy are as or more important than any assertion of identity or public performance. In crucial novels the protagonists spend more time hidden, assuming other identities, or worrying about exposure than they do in modes of open self-presentation or the celebration of presence. It is no accident that his most mythic character has many names, so that for the neophyte reading about the Leatherstocking tales must be initially bewildering. Explanations have been given with respect to the motivations behind this secrecy, from anxiety about boundaries (Jane Tompkins) to the need for Natty Bumppo to conceal his mixed-blood origin (Barbara Mann). Major Duncan offers pragmatic reasons in The Pathfinder, where he admits that behavior “’is different, however, in war. Despatches are feigned, and artifice is generally allowed to be justifiable’” (195), and most of Cooper’s novels do take place within some sort of war or violent context. Nonetheless it still seems a theme that could profit from further exploration, for, from The Spy to The Ways of the Hour concealment in different ways is central to the operation of Cooper’s imagination.

When one considers the operation of clusters of related features in Cooper’s work however, we should bear in mind what Richard Slotkin confesses in Regeneration Through Violence: “Cooper’s Leatherstocking, particularly in the later novels, poses more problems than he answers [ ... ] The reader of the Leatherstocking tales can develop an almost unlimited number of interpretations of the frontier hero, of American values, and of civilization in general from Cooper’s problematic symbols” (509). W. M. Verhoeven synthesizes thus: Cooper’s work “is basically an elusive conglomerate of ambiguous meanings” (11) and not amenable to ordering into any coherent scheme.

For all of Cooper’s conglomerate of ambiguous meanings, however, is it possible to schematise Cooper’s use of concealment? Basically, there are two modes of concealment in Cooper’s fiction: 1) Concealment in the landscape; and 2) Concealment of identity. However, it is the first sort that interests me here, as the second has received a substantial amount of intelligent treatment.

Cooper’s settings within Nature are the aspect of his writing that has survived best the onslaught of criticism that has more or less always accompanied his work. Despite the approval of Cooper as a landscape artist, however, at times the intensity of Cooper’s topographical enthusiasm can defeat the reader, so closely does he crosshatch the detail. In The Spy he discovered that crucial features of the interaction of people in situations of extreme and life-threatening danger were determined by such factors as topography and plant cover, by lines of sight, by angles of slopes, by density or openness of forest, and above all by the need to make use of these features to conceal oneself from others. Harry Birch, the spy in question, possesses a knowledge of the landscape that is so precise it not only enables him to survive under intense pressure but it makes his appearances and disappearances preternaturally mysterious. We read, for example, that “he knew that by bringing himself in a line with his pursuers and the wood, his form would be lost to sight” (114). This occupation of the landscape is one of the ways he is legitimated as an American — not in public performance of his presence but in a secretive relationship with his land and his nation. George Washington himself in Cooper’s novel is an {22} analog of the spy, moving surreptitiously through the landscape under an assumed identity, almost always offstage and not asserting his presence. In this America, those who hide in the Nature that exists as a profound symbol differentiating America from Europe become equally profound representatives of the new nation. For Daniel Peck, the setting enables “a hero whose uncanny ability to successfully negotiate the landscape defines his heroism” (1992: 1), to which I am suggesting that “negotiate” is closely related to “hide.” In The Spy both the centrally positive figure (Birch) and the centrally negative figures (the Skinners) are hiders. However, those who might try to hide but who don’t do so successfully, like the Skinners (inasmuch as they fail to kill Lawton and their leader is executed), reveal their inferior right to the new nation. To belong in the new America is to be concealed within it successfully, to circumvent its uncanny threat by refusing to use it as a stage for performative acts of claiming.

In novel after novel after this, Cooper’s intense use of the landscape serves as a complex zone of secrecy and threat, a place where his heroes move comfortably only by being able to be hidden within it from other human beings. Whether in the forests of North America, in the shifting patterns of weather and water on the sea in numerous books, the almost bare islets in the ocean of The Crater, to the landscape that is itself murderous, the Antarctic scenario of The Sea Lions, Cooper’s Nature is so excessive that it is clearly much more than simple backdrop, celebration of the unspoilt. Wherever these narratives are set, a dialectic between the performative and the hidden is being rehearsed, a dialectic that favors those who are more successful at hiding, and not simply at putting on masks, as has been examined by, for example, Charles Hansford Adams in “The Guardian of the Law”. For Adams, writing of the succession of disguises adopted in The Spy, “the masks that the law imposes on the world upset not merely personal identity, but the integrity of social bonds as well” (37). Masking and hiding in the landscape however may be different activities, in that masking one’s identity is to cover the signs of one’s self, while hiding is to immerse oneself in that Nature that is taken as one of the strongest marks of America, and a close relation with Nature, wherever it is, a mark of Americanness. Harvey Birch does disguise himself when necessary, and he is good at it, but more to the point he inhabits the landscape with such knowledge and comfort that it establishes his moral status as an American: “the pedler [sic] was familiar with every turn in their difficult route [ ... ] the ingenuity, or knowledge, of his guide, conquered every difficulty” (372). In related territory, Daniel Peck observes that “Cooper’s heroes are characterized by their ability to read carefully, sometimes painstakingly, what is open for all to see but can in fact be isolated only be the ‘practised eye.’ That is, they are distinguished by the power of observation rather than by the power of interpretation“ (21).

Within Cooper’s Nature, this observation is centrally put in the service of hiding. Nature does not exist as the site of openness, the instinctual, or, crucially, freedom. It is a site of learned survival, of vigilance and constrainment, giving us that sensation that many observers have felt of the significance of enclosures in Cooper’s fiction, not simply nature but all manner of isolated huts and buildings within Nature, Peck suggesting that “it may be that all the threatened structures in his novels are ultimately symbolic of the threatened self” (1977: 150). And those who hide in these varied spaces are the most significant characters in the novels. Those who don’t hide at all are generally secondary characters. The significant characters may be the heroes or those whom the heroes must evade or outwit.

I would like to concentrate however on two novels from different phases of Cooper’s career, novels which also represent different impulses in his imaginative world: The Spy (1821), and The Pathfinder (1840). Despite their differences however it will be seen that they share the impulse to have their central characters hide for good portions of the novel, and perhaps for its most crucial sections.

As has been observed of The Spy by Robert Lee, it “positively abounds in self-inventions, masquerades, actings-out [ ... ] a gamut of different kinds of metamorphosis and false shows of appearance” (37). Throughout his career, from beginning to end, Cooper insisted on the non-transparency of his central characters, resistant to any claim that character or identity should be apparent. This was partly in the service of a hierarchical view of identity in which the individual should not be available for scrutiny by all and sundry, implicit in the ideals and rhetoric of the Revolution, so that from first to last, as we read in The Ways of the Hour (1850): “persons who were innocent might have many reasons for concealing their names” (37). Identity is not something to be ascribed by a majority or to circulate for the assessment of everyone, but rather something to be held over against the ascriptions of the majority. This is not to say that it was tortured, confused or self-destructive in other Romantic models, but more that the need to perform identity was something with which Cooper had a troubled relationship.

{23} This leads us back to The Spy. Beginning the novel with a Gothic storm and a solitary, unidentified traveller, Cooper rapidly introduces a world in which “great numbers [ ... ] wore masks, which even to this day have not been thrown aside,” but what interests me is when a stranger approaches a farm-house the instinctive reaction is to prepare to head off to one’s “ordinary place of concealment in the adjacent woods” (10). This suspicious farmer is a representative of settling America, and his first response to the presence of someone unknown is to retreat from the supposed refuge of his dwelling to the real refuge of the forest (and in the process leaving his wife to deal with the threat, interestingly and symptomatically enough). That the passing stranger in this instance is no-one less than George Washington (in disguise) may indicate Cooper’s perception of the fragility of the community of Americans the Revolution is supposedly establishing, along with his privileging of the forest as the natural zone of safety for an American.

This is a surprising affirmation in view of the fact that out of the forest may appear (in this novel) the appalling perversion of the principles of the Revolution, the Skinners, and (in many other novels) the threat of Native Americans. Yet what this suggests to me is that the forest, the landscape in general, is the principal site of contention in which Euro-Americans forge themselves, but not simply through performative acts of claiming, assertion and presence but through success in hiding, withdrawing and concealment. Those who hide the best are the best. It is no accident that on more than one occasion in the novel the female character that the novel most privileges, Frances, has recourse to hiding outside, and each time she does it successfully; for example, “she shrank, timidly, into a little thicket of wood” (351) to avoid passing soldiers, who pass her by obliviously. Even in easily overlooked events in the novel hiding is often thus significant.

Many consequences in Cooper’s fiction flow on from following this supposition. It is one of the reasons, for example, that Native Americans in general feel so highly valorised in his work, despite other qualities that Mingos or other less favored nations possess, at least according to the sententious utterances of Natty Bumppo. It is also one of the reasons we feel so little sympathy for his society characters, who are often all performance with little skill at concealment. Typically Henry Wharton doesn’t trust to his knowledge of and ability to cloak himself in the landscape to reach his family but goes in for disguise instead, which leads to his dire straits in the novel (Washington doesn’t disguise himself but merely gives himself a different name). Wharton may belong to the favored family in the novel but he is also a representative of the British as well as being a society figure, so his insertion into the landscape cannot be as successful as that of supposedly more true Americans such as Birch (who when he is taken is taken at home, not in the forest).

The heart of America in The Spy then is a secret, a man who hides. For all the novel’s success, however, it is generally known today only by specialists and scarcely an obligatory reference in general syntheses of central American literary myths. What is, of course, are the Leatherstocking tales. Turning to The Pathfinder then, we can see that to be good at finding paths means to be good at not leaving signs of them. A pathfinder finds a way but does not leave a way. To leave a path behind one is to invite discovery and death, so that, once again, Nature is not a site of public performance but of private survival.

Strangely enough, however, in this novel Natty Bumppo spends very little time finding or concealing paths or directing operations. Apart from the memorable, long opening sequence in the forest, the rest of the novel he either abdicates his pathfinding functions in favor of romance or he is on a boat on Lake Ontario, watching and commenting but not directing. Indeed, in this latter scenario he is singularly unsuccessful when he does give opinions, the suspicions of others with respect to the loyalty of Jasper Western overriding Natty’s belief in Jasper’s honesty. Even in the penultimate sequences in the blockhouse, where his presence is crucial, we see him not in the forest but holed up in a military structure, keeping enemies at bay more than anything else. It is Jasper’s arrival, primed by the shadowy but crucial Chingachgook, that swings the balance.

In the beginning sequence of The Pathfinder, for example, when the Pathfinder and his charges are being pursued by the Iroquois, Natty ensures they are well-hidden, so that “their enemies began to think that the latter had taken to flight. The course was that which most white men would have followed, but Mabel was under the care of those who were much too well skilled in forest warfare” (71). Repeatedly, Natty and Chingachgook show themselves masters of using the landscape for their concealment, able to proceed and to preserve life by a series of such uses of the landscape for protection. Unlike Henry Wharton, Chingachgook is also able to disguise himself successfully, but significantly his disguise is as a piece of Nature, with bushes tied to his head, pushing a piece of a log across the river (75). To be able to occupy this landscape successfully one needs to be able to be in it, looking out. In this section they are almost perpetually represented as “completely concealed from the view of their enemies, while they kept a vigilant watch over the proceedings of the latter, in order to consult on their own future movements” (80). Performing belonging in public exposes one to the end of all belonging: death.

{24} Indeed, Chingachgook is so accomplished at hiding that in one episode he even joins the Iroquois, admittedly in the dark, thus finding out valuable information. Not only that, this type of bravery had a tradition in many Native American cultures, the bravery of going among your enemy and carrying something off, not necessarily harming anyone in the process. Demonstrating bravery but also intelligence and in this context a greater presence within the scene, in that Chingachgook can be in the place of his friends and the place of his enemies; his claim to belonging or occupation of the landscape is thereby increased.

From the arrival at the fort at Oswego however, after this first quarter of the book, Chingachgook largely disappears from the novel, melting into the forest while Natty is melting down over Mabel.

Cooper’s heroes hide then, but so do their enemies. They become implicated in each other’s relation to the land so that their encounter is not simply that of the dynamics of the adventure novel but has a moral dimension as well. Those who hide better belong better. To take another example, as if Cooper had not given us so many indications that Jasper Western could not possibly be a traitor to the British, he is also of superior skills when it comes to hiding his boat, in the weather or along coastlines, something he demonstrates repeatedly. Only through his prudence has the outpost remained secret for so long as he takes relieving parties in and out without allowing anyone to be on deck at the time, and, significantly, in alliance with Chingachgook, he is able to approach unseen until almost at the island and thereby provide the means by which the Iroquois are defeated. The Iroquois themselves, as all Indian peoples, are superior hiders, but in the measuring of moral forces in Cooper’s novels, their hiding skills will eventually prove inferior to those of the heroes, while yet being skillful enough to render them admirable. To make the matter more than circumstantial, Cooper at one point has a pompous Scottish corporal, in command of the forward garrison, expatiating upon the virtues of Scottish courage and grit: “’We Scots come from a naked region, and have no need, and less relish for covers’” (338), but he is not allowed to finish his sentence before the result of this avowal is made manifest in his being shot dead by a bullet through the forehead right before Mabel Dunham’s eyes. Driving home the point, the rest of the soldiers nearby are all “shot down almost simultaneously, by the invisible foe, whom the corporal had affected to despise” (340). In America, covers are essential and those who use them best survive.

Who hides then in the work of James Fenimore Cooper may tell us interesting things about the key issue of belonging in and moral occupation of the American landscape. As an explanatory tool it works in similar areas to existing Cooper scholarship, but isolating one aspect of that scholarship that has been subsumed within more general observations on disguise, enclosing spaces and anxiety about boundaries. It also aids us in understanding how it is that enemy figures, principally Native Americans, still feel valorised in Cooper’s work by readers despite their putative moral positioning as hostile, and why figures supported by the diegesis of the narratives, such as Cooper’s society figures, are unsupported by the narratives’ deeper moral codes. It also activates questions about the performative aspects of settling-invading and establishing the moral right to be an American, which is to say, to be a white American, and it activates them in ways that trouble simplistic assertions about Cooper’s relation to the supposed values of adventure narratives.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground [1821]. Introduction and Notes by Wayne Franklin. New York: Penguin, 1997.
  • ------. The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea [1840]. Historical Introduction and Edited by Richard Dilworth Rust. Albany: SUNY Press, 1981.
  • ------. The Deerslayer or, The First Warpath [1841]. Historical Introduction and Explanatory Notes by James Franklin Beard. Text Established by Lance Schachterle, Kent Ljungquist and James Kilby. Albany: SUNY Press, 1987.
  • ------. The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak [1847]. Ed. Thomas Philbrick. Cambridge, MA.: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1962.
  • ------. The Sea Lions, or The Lost Sealers [1849]. Introduction by Susan Fenimore Cooper. London: George Routledge, n.d.
  • ------. The Ways of the Hour [1850]. Phoenix Mill, Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1996.
  • Adams, Charles Hansford, “The Guardian of the Law”: Authority and Identity in James Fenimore Cooper. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1990.
  • Fiedler, Leslie, Love & Death in the American Novel [2ⁿᵈ ed. 1966]. New York: Anchor, 1992.
  • Lee, A. Robert, “Making History, Making Fiction: Cooper’s The Spy.” In James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts. Ed. W. M. Verhoeven. Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993: 31-45.
  • Mann, Barbara A., “Forbidden Ground: Racial Politics and Hidden Identity in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Tales.” Ph. D Dissertation, University of Toledo, December 1997.
  • Peck, H. Daniel, A World by Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
  • ------. “Introduction.” In New Essays on The Last of the Mohicans. Ed. H. Daniel Peck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992: 1-23.
  • Slotkin, Richard, Regeneration through Violence: Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
  • Tompkins, Jane, “No Apologies for the Iroquois: A New Way to Read the Leatherstocking Novels.” In Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985: 94-121.
  • Verhoeven, W. M., “Neutralizing the Land: The Myth of Authority, and the Authority of Myth in Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy.” In James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts. Ed. W. M. Verhoeven. Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993: 71-87.