History and Mythology in The Prairie

Henning Goldbæk (University of Copenhagen)

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.54-56).

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

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

{54} The Prairie, by James Fenimore Cooper, was published in 1827. It discusses modern history, and deals with the consequences of enlightenment and rationality in Europe and America. There is not one solution to the question of future development; it is a very open book, which describes various tendencies, capitalism, democracy, natural state, religion. In fact these different tendencies and topics are part of a system in Cooper’s novel, a system beginning with nature and ending with spirituality. But Cooper does not stick to his system; he breaks it consequently, in the same way as Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, broke his similar system with its three phases: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.

One could say that one of the most interesting topics in Cooper’s novels is the border: between land and sea, for instance, in The Pilot; the old and the new world, for instance, in The Crater; and between New England and The Prairie. In The Prairie Cooper develops a whole theory of history, where he discusses the many simultaneous levels of development in America of his own time. In the big cities of the east you find civilization — in the west you find a state of nature. If you regard the prairie as a scene, as a theatre, what we see in this novel is a panorama of history from its mythic beginning to its present culmination.

The characters are all playing roles, which correspond with certain levels of history. First there is Hard-Heart, the good Indian, representing nature, being brave, strong, honest; then there is the intellectual Indian Mahtoree, evil in a sophisticated and complicated way, nature reflecting itself as nature in an almost Voltairean way. About him Cooper says: “his reasoning was rather subtle than true and his philosophy far more audacious than profound.” Then there is the Squatter, Ishmael Bush, who is brutal, stupid, representing the border between nature and civilization, or the first step of civilization. He seems to be the most interesting character in the book, because he represents almost all phases in the book. He has left civilization, he lives an almost mythic life on the prairie, but at the end of the novel he returns to civilization.

Then there are Inez and Middleton, representing Christian civilization, being aristocrats, and at the same time abstract beings, compared to the representatives of nature and to the other representatives of civilization, Ellen Wade and Paul Hover, the bee-hunter, and the old trapper. What they represent, could be called common men.

Why is it always, and especially in this novel, difficult for Cooper to describe the characters, who represent his ideals of civilization, the world of the Christian gentleman, and much easier to show us the mixed representatives of nature or civilization?

And why does he describe this drama of nature and civilization in a landscape far away from civilization, a landscape, he in fact did not know himself — the prairie of the West?

The answer to both questions seems to be the border. Several of his characters are in a period of transition, first of all Ishmael Bush, Mahtoree, and the trapper, but generally the prairie is a landscape of transition. Several characters have lost their homes, or are about to lose them, like the Indians; some of them are waiting to go back home, like Inez and Middleton, but others, like the trapper, seem to live on the prairie as their home, placed between civilization and nature.

In chapter VI Cooper reflects on American and European history. To him American history is of course young, but that is not his point; on the contrary, although this is the case, although American history is young, the American “is far from being exempt from the penalties of his fallen race.” (65) What does that mean? It means at the same time, that civilization must destroy the state of nature and that civilization is itself another state of nature on a sophisticated level; Ishmael Bush and Mahtoree being one example, Inez and Middleton being another.

In the beginning of chapter VI, we are told that civilization has a strong “analogy to that of all coming events, which are known ‘to cast their shadows before.’”(66) This means, that civilization is at the same time an attempt to break away from the state of nature and an attempt to create a new order, the order of civilization. But this does not happen. The shadow, which civilization casts before, is the shadow of the present and the past, and because of this shadow, Cooper seems to say, civilization is never pure, maybe even not possible.

{55} The Squatter is interesting, because he is the person, who casts a shadow before. He lives “on the skirts of society” (66), he is not religious, and the only learning he respects, is “that of the leech.” He has no respect for nature, he fells any tree he wants around him, because he is “above” the law.

But what is the law? Ishmael Bush is above the law, as the European is beyond it. That means the state of nature is broken by civilization, civilization is the law, the new law. But there is a very important difference between the state of nature and the state of civilization. The state of nature is before history, the state of civilization is history, it is created by man.

First it was created in Europe during many hundred years, where it became tradition and habitude, and this is why the European is beyond the law. Europe should be a place of civilization, but, as Cooper often shows, civilization in Europe does not mean democracy; on the contrary, it means the power of the few, and first of all it means that power is invisible and dangerous, which Cooper shows in The Bravo. But in America’s West civilization and nature are obviously living side by side, and this is the reason why civilization is only in its beginning and half finished. Ishmael Bush is above the law, not just because he is a patriarchal and authoritarian brute, but because civilization in him is new, and appalling.

In The Prairie Cooper has not forgotten the old world — the old world is appalling; because of its shadow, the Europeans are beyond the law, as in the state of nature, they do not create the law, they are the slaves of the law, as Cooper has shown in his European novels, especially in The Bravo, about intrigues and murders in Venice of the 18ᵗʰ century. The most impressive example is the so-called secret council in Venice. The secret council is three representatives of the Doge; they are judges, they wear masks, they can summon any citizen for any crime and condemn him without appeal.

But if the law of civilization is historical, why then is it not good that Ishmael Bush is above it? For two reasons. First he is above it, because civilization is new, young, not yet established as a system. Second he is breaking the law of civilization. He does not, until the last pages of the novel, accept a law above him, the law of Hobbes or Rousseau, the contrat social.

He exploits the law, using it in an egoistic way, and in the same way nature is treated by the “naturalist” Battius, who is a rationalist of the 18ᵗʰ century, who does not know how to combine intellect with experience of nature. To him as to the Squatter nature is just another dead object.

In fact this negative description goes for the Christian couple, Inez and Middleton, too. Their idealistic way of life, the abstract way in which Cooper describe them, means that they too are above the law, not in the egoistic sense of the Squatter, who exploits nature, but because they have left the state of nature; to them nature does not exist.

This is interesting, because it means that Cooper fears the law of civilisation as well as the law of nature. To him the two laws are the same. He fears the law of nature, because it is not historical, because it is mythical, eternal, because mankind is beyond it, as is the case in Europe in the early 19ᵗʰ century. But he also fears the law of civilization, because it seems to cast a shadow before that is the shadow of nature, of violence, of egoism.

The law of civilization is a law created by mankind; it is historical, because it is dynamic, because it involves reflection on nature and history. This reflection is only possible on the borderline between the two kinds of law, on the Prairie, and only possible for mixed characters, that is Ellen Wade, the bee-hunter, the Trapper, and in fact Ishmael Bush. The murder of his son Asa forces him to reflect on the meaning of the two laws, of nature and revenge and of civilization and morality. He does not kill Abiram White, who kills himself, because of guilt.

This scene at the end of the novel is one of the most important scenes, because it shows the beginning of a change in Ishmael Bush from being above the law to changing it into morality. The way he acts, proves that he is in fact accepting moral laws, which he did not respect so far. He creates the law, not by killing somebody, but by choosing morality, by not killing his brother-in-law. Because of this change in Ishmael Bush, his return to civilization is maybe not a return to the civilization he left, but to a new civilization, where morality and maybe religion plays a role, and not only nature domination and egoism.

If you compare the conflict between the two laws in The Prairie with the discussions on law and civilization in the early 19ᵗʰ century, it is evident that Cooper is in fact not only influenced by Hobbes or Rousseau, but by ideas — the ideas of Immanuel Kant as well as his theory of morality. If Cooper was influenced by Hobbes, the law would mean a universal contract between individuals to him, but what is astonishing is the fact that Cooper seems to doubt the law of civilization. It is not yet fullfilled, it is still nature. He knows that it is fragile, that it is influenced by nature, that it is mythic, that it does not exist in a state of purity, but always in a dynamic, open, forthcoming way. This is what The Prairie shows. Because the law of civilization is historical, it depends on historical subjects, individuals, who can change the law, being beyond it, above it, but creating it into something good or into something evil.

{56} Cooper uses the borderline of reflection to show us two solutions of this fact of the subjectivity of the law. First there are the two Christian aristocrats, Inez being a Spanish Catholic — then there is the trapper. Inez and Middleton are anachronistic figures, they do not represent the future, but the European past; but that is the reason why Cooper cannot use them. They do not belong to history, they are not nature, they are ideas, meaning. Cooper uses them to describe a state of civilization which does not exist, which has never existed, but which can help him show us what civilization is or could be. In fact these two persons do not have any function in The Prairie, except for being ideals of the old world.

The other alternative of course is the Trapper, who represents another idea, the reconciliation between nature and civilization; that is, a state of balance between the two laws, the law of nature and the law of civilization, which was also the dream of early bourgeois mentality in Europe, from Rousseau to Kant and the romantics.

This means, that the Trapper is more than just another character; if we follow the comparison with Kant and his tradition, the Trapper is the representative of the “Aesthetic education of mankind.” This is the title of Schiller’s famous book from 1795 on civilization and the French Revolution, which seemed to return to the law of nature, because of its brutal way of condemning its political enemies. Schiller talked about the Spieltrieb, the desire for playing as a way of combining the two laws, and in fact there are examples of this way of life in Cooper’s Trapper. He is a dreamer — dream is a very important part of his life, and nature is a very important part of his dream, which combines nature, reflection, and religion in several scenes.

In fact the Trapper is not reflecting on anything; he is dreaming, or better, contemplating with distance, and in that sense he is a contrast to all the other characters, who are one-dimensional and involved in the law, not trying to combine the two laws — the law of nature domination and the law of morality.


1. Page citations to The Prairie [1827] are from the 1985 edition published by the State University of New York Press in Albany, NY (ed. by James P. Elliott).