Reading and Hearing Natty Bumppo’s Last Word in The Prairie

John Engell (San Jose State University)

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.46-49).

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

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

{46} Natty Bumppo’s last word in The Prairie, his final monosyllabic utterance before dying, is printed in the novel as the adverb “here.” This adverb is an evocation of place, of a particular event occurring at a specific location and time. Linguists refer to it as a deictic marker, from the Greek deiknunai, “to show.” Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Mary Louise Pratt define deixis as an illocutionary act that establishes a common sense geography through the “use of spatial and temporal terms” (275), which include the adverb “here” as distinct from “there”; or “now” as distinct from “before” and “after.” Traugott and Pratt note that deixis creates a shared domain within space and time, evoking “things within the speaker’s [immediate, present] world either shared or to be shared with the audience” (280). More specifically, the adverb “here” an instance of local deictics, an orientational referent. Because it is local and orientational, the adverb “here” creates a fully shared spatial and temporal framework for conversation. But this sharedness is limited in space and static in time. As a written textual signifier, the deictic adverb freezes speaker and listeners in an eye-centered, painterly frame, the sort of frame represented by the illustrations adorning numerous editions of The Prairie, a visual reaction to and interpretation of the text.

Yet Natty’s apparently simple, direct final monosyllable is among the most ambiguous, disorienting speeches in the novel. This is true for three closely related reasons. First, the aural as distinct from the written signification of the monosyllable is unclear, and therefore unstable. Second, when heard, the old trapper’s final utterance seems incomplete, and therefore open-ended. Third, the identity of Natty’s and thus of Cooper’s intended audience, or audiences, is uncertain, and therefore interpretable. When considered as speech rather than as writing, the local, orientational, painterly, shared, yet frozen nature of the adverb printed in the text proves chimerical. When heard, Natty’s final utterance becomes, to borrow a word from Mark Twain, notorious defiler of the Leatherstocking novels, a “puzzler.” Given this disorienting ambiguity of Natty’s last word, what follows is an initial, incomplete exploration of its specific meanings and general significations for the reading — and especially for the hearing — of The Prairie.

The crowd of fictional characters gathered around Natty to await, commemorate, and lament his death includes the Pawnee chief Hard-Heart, who is Natty’s adopted son, all members of Hard-Heart’s tribal group, and the ancient Sioux chief Le Balafré, who has earlier tried to adopt Hard-Heart but who is now a captive yet revered member of the Pawnee tribe; also present are Duncan Uncas Middleton, grandson of Duncan Heyward, Paul Hover the Kentucky bee-hunter, and a contingent of American soldiers led by Middleton, an impressively large gathering on the nearly unpopulated prairie. Natty lies in the central meeting place of the Pawnee village, the sort of spot used for tribal councils during which leaders declaim public orations and hold public discussions, all intended for the edification of the tribe, all part of the process of aural discourse that imparts cultural knowledge and directs communal action. Because the trapper occupies this honored position, words he speaks will be heard by a multitude and weighed with care. Natty has been living among the Pawnee for a year since the departure of the Anglophone characters in the novel. Readers can therefore infer that, with the arrival of Middleton, Natty, who is proficient in the Pawnee language as well as the Sioux, speaks English to another human being for the first time in twelve months. Since his final word is spoken in his native language, not Pawnee, readers must also infer that many among the trapper’s audience fail to understand what he says. For them, this final monosyllable must be translated. But translated how? When experienced as aural event rather than as written sign, Natty’s monosyllable can and must be given a dual interpretation, for it signifies two different English spellings, grammatical forms, and meanings: the deictic adverb “here” or the transitive verb “hear” uttered in the imperative.

Cooper’s narrator explains that Natty has lain surrounded by his friends for hours without moving or speaking when Middleton suddenly finds his hand grasped by the old trapper with “incredible power” and watches Natty rise “upright to his feet” and look “about him as if to invite all in presence to listen [,]” an implied invitation that the narrator refers to parenthetically and oddly as “the remnant of human frailty” (385). Natty’s head is inclined with a “fine, military elevation” and he speaks “with a voice that might be heard in every part of that numerous assembly” (385). After the monosyllable is represented on the page as the deictic adverb “here,” the narrator describes Natty as having assumed an “air of grandeur and humility” which fittingly accompanies “the clear and uncommon force of his utterance” (385). But the narrator also calls the trapper’s action and words “entirely unexpected” by his gathered friends and describes his final {47} word as producing “a short period of confusion in the faculties of all present” (385). Though this confusion may arise from the sudden and unexpected nature of Natty’s action and speech, it must arise as well from the unclear and therefore unstable meaning of his utterance. Has the dying man evoked place or sound, the eye or the ear? Though the text signifies only the adverb, the audience of English speaking fictional characters has no way to choose between the two possible meanings conveyed. Indeed, by suggesting that Natty’s demeanor “invite[s] all in presence to listen” while he speaks in “a voice that might be heard in every part of that numerous assembly,” the narrator implies that the trapper’s auditors might interpret the monosyllable as a verb, not an adverb. The reader alive to the auditory as well as the visual cannot doubt that the assembled multitude would be forced to entertain both possible meanings, or words.

Adverb or verb, when heard rather than read, Natty’s last word seems incomplete, an open-ended statement implying more to follow. If interpreted as the adverb “here,” it might imply an aurally absent thought, such as “Here is where I wish to die” or, more simply, and in the vein of a later western wanderer who, like Natty, indulged in the oracular, “Here is the place.” It could even suggest “Here I am.” Any effort to supply an aurally absent thought suggests that the adverb “here” expresses Natty’s will to die at this place and at this moment, a form of what might be called eschatological deixis, implying closure through its open-ended incompleteness. But since the trapper’s present audience also hears the monosyllable as a verb, its incompleteness becomes more radical. The unvoiced thought might be, “Hear me” or “Hear what I am about to say” or “Hear my voice” or even “Hear the sounds and voices of this world as it is now and has been and will be.” Whereas the deictic adverb, even in its apparent incompleteness, directs listeners to the present scene and is therefore eye-centered, the imperative verb is ear-centered and expands from the present into the past and the future, evoking what has been and what may be spoken. In the orations and ceremonies of oral cultures, the verb “hear” is a tag, or formula, an introduction repeated to engage the ear, to remind listeners that essential words, often evoking earlier words, are about to be spoken. Even in Christian liturgy, the imperative of the verb “hear” is a formulaic tag, as in “Hear the word of the Lord.” Thus all members of Natty’s audience have experienced the rhetorical power of this tag. But whatever interpretation listeners assign to his last word, they are disappointed in waiting for a speech never vocalized.

Though Natty’s monosyllable must sound to his listeners unstable in meaning and incomplete in thought, it appears to have a definite audience: those immediately present. But even here we find ambiguity and instability. After Middleton and Hard-Heart, who have been supporting Natty, discover that the old man is “removed forever beyond the necessity of their care [,]” (386) Cooper remarkably allows the ancient Sioux Le Balafrá, to pronounce the only aural interpretation of Natty’s speech. Announcing that “The voice of the old Indian, seemed a sort of echo from that invisible world to which the spirit of the honest trapper had just departed” the narrator reproduces his discourse: “’A valiant, a just, and a wise warrior has gone on the path which will lead him to the blessed grounds of his people. [ ... ] When the voice of the Wahcondah called him, he was ready to answer’” (386). For Le Balafrá, Natty has been speaking not to those assembled but has been responding to the call of the “Wahcondah,” the Maker of Life, God.

If listening readers have been hearing the voices represented in the text, they now recall other speeches made by both Natty and Hard-Heart which may seem to justify Le Balafrá’s interpretation of Natty’s audience. In this way, each reader, like those assembled at the trapper’s death, is drawn to a dual interpretation of his final monosyllable in relation to audience as well as meaning. Even if Natty is responding to an unheard call from his God, his statement also evokes what I will call the memorial ear, the sort of ear described earlier in the novel by Hard-Heart when he says to his adoptive father, “I have heard your words. They have gone in at my ears, and are now within me” (279). Spoken in Pawnee by a member of that non-literate culture, this statement, represented in English for the reader, illustrates aural interpretation at its deepest level. Spoken words enter the ear of the hearer and, absorbed into the self, become a constant memorial echo, a permanent yet adaptable part of the listener’s being. Natty’s final monosyllable therefore calls the reader to replicate the aural and memorial act of Hard-Heart, to remember and revivify speech. Once embarked on this path, the reader remembers these words, spoken by Natty to Hard-Heart not long before the old trapper’s death:

May the God of a white man look on your deeds with friendly eyes, and may you never commit an act that shall cause him to darken his face. I know not whether we shall ever meet again. There are many traditions concerning the place of good Spirits. It is not for one like me, old and experienced though I am, to set up my opinions against a nation’s. You believe in the blessed Prairies, and I have faith in the sayings of my fathers. If both are true, our parting will be final; but if it should prove that the same meaning is hid under different words, we shall yet stand together, Pawnee, before the face of your Wahcondah who will then be no other than my God. (382).

{48} This providential benediction recalls in turn the earlier conversation of the two in captivity, when Natty tells his new son, “The Master of Life will not have to speak aloud twice when he calls my name. I am ready to answer to it, now, as I shall be to-morrow — or at any time, it may please his mighty will” (280). Natty may be responding, as Le Balafrá says, to the call of the Master of Life, declaring “Here I am.” But he is also speaking to his friends and to readers, telling them to “Hear what I say and have said.” Thus we discover an underlying similitude between the two words, deictic adverb and imperative verb; they not only sound alike, they may show, as Natty has said, that “the same meaning is hid under different words.”

This exploration of Natty’s last word has implications for a reader’s interpretation of both the trapper’s role in The Prairie and the complex cultural relations explored in the novel. Indeed, fictional characters and listening readers have heard Natty’s voice repeatedly. In The Prairie Natty seldom plays the active protagonist, a figure foregrounded by physical events and evoked through visual images. While in The Pioneers Natty is a skilled, if aging hunter and in The Last of the Mohicans a vigorous and seasoned warrior, he has in The Prairie sunk to the relatively passive life of a trapper, a fact he never ceases to lament. His narrative and rhetorical role has been distilled into a composite of his aural organs — mouth and ears. He is an aural interpreter of prairie sights and sounds, a translator of human languages, and an oracular commentator on the cultures he has experienced throughout his life. Natty’s tendency to speak often and at length, to expostulate about sensory experience and cultural values, has become the defining, indeed the sole characteristic of his final days. His voice, not his physical appearance or actions, links him to the world of the novel and its readers. Even a limited statistical analysis of speech acts in The Prairie confirms this contention. Of the not quite 1,500 instances of direct discourse in the novel, nearly 500, or one third, are spoken by Natty. If the seven chapters in which the trapper does not appear or talk are excepted, his speeches in the other twenty-seven chapters total forty-one percent of the speeches by all characters and include most of the longest. In fact, Natty speaks almost as many times in The Prairie as in The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans combined, by my count around 485 in The Prairie, 330 in The Last of the Mohicans, and 175 in The Pioneers.

Natty's First Appearance in The Prairie

The most famous visual, painterly image in The Prairie, occurring in the first chapter when Natty initially appears before the Bush clan, describes him silhouetted against the setting sun, “colossal ... musing and melancholy” (15). Unable to “distinguish [Natty’s] just proportions and true character” (15), Ishmael and his family are filled with “superstitious awe” (15), the sort of awe that Cooper often associates with ignorant frontier whites. But as the sun sets, “the proportions of the fanciful form became less exaggerated, and finally distinct” (16). The man who now appears is old, his figure marked by what the narrator calls “induration,” his form and dress exhibiting “the wear of long and hard service” (16). Thus, both the narrative images and the rhetorical intrusions of the narrator show that the initial visual image, the famous picture of Natty “colossal” against the setting sun, often interpreted as a heroic pictorial valorization, is ironic. Standing as he is before his audiences — the Bush clan and readers — Natty appears as one beyond the age of heroic action. At this moment of visual discovery, Natty’s true role in the novel commences, a role exemplified by a succession of aural voices, not visual images. The trapper speaks first in a voice of cultural commentary, a voice often bordering on the oracular, second in the voice of a practical interpreter and guide imparting essential knowledge of prairie signs. In his oracular voice of cultural commentary, Natty laments the “crowdy” conditions of the world he has left and, by implication, accuses the Bush clan of initiating “crowdy” conditions on the prairie. Continuing in this voice, the trapper sententiously announces “Advice is not a gift, but a debt that the old owe to the young” and inquires of Ishmael, “What would you wish to know?” (17). The patriarch, who shows no sign of even hearing Natty’s initial pronouncements, now asks where his clan can find a good camp in this inhospitable and, to them, unknown land. Switching to the voice of practical knowledge and assistance, Natty declares his willingness to help and leads them to what he calls “sweet water, and a good browse for the cattle” (17). Conversing in oracular cultural laments and moral homilies followed by practical advice and assistance, the “indurant” old man establishes his central roles in the novel. He will speak and speak, again and again, in a constant counterpoint of rhetorical modes and voices. Only by hearing these voices and by taking them into the self can a character or a reader know this man, this walking tongue, and the world interpreted by his words.

Throughout the novel Natty speaks repeatedly to interpret the visual and especially the aural signs of the prairie, usually to assist others. When Sioux warriors first approach the Bush camp at night, the trapper detects “unusual sounds” (36) which Paul Hover guesses are made by a panther. Natty responds, “Your ears are cheats” (37) and identifies the aural signs as horses ridden by men. Later, when a herd of buffalo stampede, Natty alone recognizes the sound and commands his companions to “Listen” and “hear the buffaloes” (196) long before they appear. Even in reading prairie signs with his eyes, rather than his ears, as when he is first to recognize the nature and danger of an advancing grassfire, Natty expresses his knowledge through aural explanations and commands, not actions. Because advanced age precludes the trapper from physical leadership, his voice becomes the means by which he assists and commands.

{49}Natty’s role as a listener to and translator of speech is equally central. When the Sioux war party first appears, the narrator explains that Natty “knew enough of the language he heard, to comprehend perfectly the subject of the discussion” (41). No other white character in the novel understands either Sioux or Pawnee. Once captured, Natty tells Hover and Ellen Wade that when the Sioux first question the trio, the trapper should answer since he is “most skill’d in the natur’ of the Indian” and alone knows “something of their language” (43); clearly, Natty owes his skill in the former to his knowledge of the latter. He scoffs at Hover when the young man admits he is ignorant of Sioux, wondering how the bee-hunter can hope to know these people and their world if he cannot converse with them. Natty also acts as translator between the Sioux and Pawnee and makes verbal communication between and among speakers of English, Sioux, and Pawnee possible. In turn, he allows readers to comprehend tribal tongues and therefore the motives and values ascribed to these people. As depicted, Natty is more linguist than trapper.

Examples of Natty’s third voice, that of oracular cultural commentary, are also common. When speaking to other characters, including Ishmael, Esther, Obed, Ellen, Paul, Duncan, Hard-Heart, and Mahtoree, the trapper voices his pronouncements regarding history and cultures, mixing tragic and providential interpretations freely and without apparent irony. Only through Natty’s various voices, internalized and memorialized, can readers interpret the actions and values of the culturally disparate groups thrown together on the prairie. Only Natty’s voices bridge the gulf of linguistic and cultural difference, the gulfs of place and time separating each reader from the world represented incompletely and inadequately by printed words. In its rhetoric and epistemology The Prairie demands that, for readers, the ear — the organ that “hears” — the interpreter of the “here” — be the natural and cultural fabric of the novel. Because this rhetorical epistemology is ear-centered, it approximates in writing the values of oral rather than literate cultures, reminding readers that the primary speaker of the novel is a non-literate who does not know that the adverb “here” and the verb “hear” are spelled in different ways. In fact, the non-literate Natty and those among his listeners who are members of oral cultures cannot objectify either adverb or verb since for them words have no detached, physical existence outside sound; such words cannot be interpreted by the eye and cannot be owned.

The cultural world of The Prairie is virtually without written texts. No Pawnee or Sioux character has read what the Cherokee called “talking leaves.” Natty is a non-literate, as is Ishmael Bush. His clan travels with only one written text, some torn leaves of the Bible carried into the wilderness by his wife Esther and consulted by her before her husband pronounces the sentence of death on his brother-in-law Abiram. Within this ear-centered world, literates such as Duncan Middleton are outsiders, since all law, tradition, communal decision making, and natural cultural understanding centers on speech and hearing. In such a world, words have a different ontological status than in a literate society. Speech, listening, and what I have called “the memorial ear,” are paramount. Had I world enough and time, I would explore this aspect of the novel here, so you could hear. But for now I note that Cooper understood the orality of his cultural subjects and therefore stresses the twin acts of speaking and hearing and their creation of knowledge and values. One way to read the first three, perhaps even the last two of the Leatherstocking novels is that they move away from a world of texts to a world of spoken words.

In concluding this initial, incomplete, open-ended, ambiguous exploration of Natty’s last word, I turn to the epigraph introducing the final chapter of The Prairie. Like all but one of the epigraphs in the novel, it is from a Shakespearean play, in this case five words from Macbeth: ” — Methought, I heard a voice — ” (375). In the play Macbeth speaks these words to Lady Macbeth after he has murdered Duncan; they introduce Macbeth’s recollection of the mysterious voice that seems repeatedly to tell him, “Sleep no more/Macbeth does murther sleep” (II.ii.32-33). Since the context of the quotation is inapplicable to the chapter it precedes, Cooper must have chosen these words to emphasize the act of listening. They can be interpreted as a reference to Natty’s unintended pun on “here” and “hear,” and they are an unmistakable injunction to listen to a voice the origin and existence of which is uncertain. The voice referred to in this epigraph might be interpreted by the listening reader as Natty’s, or as the call of God to the trapper. It might also be interpreted as an injunction to readers. If they listen with care, readers will hear through the eye-centered words on the page to the voices of Natty and the many characters and cultures, both oral and literate, represented in the novel. Only then can readers enter the text in the way intended by its author, experiencing written words as sounding, or talking leaves.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Prairie, A Tale [1827]. Edited, with an Historical Introduction by James P. Elliott. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.
  • Traugott, Elizabeth Closs and Mary Louise Pratt, Linguistics for Students of Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1980.