“Their Waste Has Done it All”: The Prairie as a Post-Apocalyptic Novel

Hugh C. MacDougall (James Fenimore Cooper Society )

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. 66-71).

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

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

{66} In Chapter 22 of The Prairie, Natty Bumppo converses with Dr. Obed Bat, a learned but impractical naturalist, about the rise and fall of civilizations. The talk turns to the Near East and Egypt, where barren deserts are filled with crumbling ruins. Observing that these are proof of ancient civilizations, Dr. Bat adds that “we look in vain for similar evidences that man has ever reached the summit of civilization on this Continent.” (238) 1

To Natty, however, the lack of visible human remains on the prairies is not convincing, and he sees little difference between deserts in a once-flourishing Near East and those he has found beyond the Missouri in America. Natty asserts that the deserts of the New World, like those of the Old, are caused by mankind:

“How do you account for these changes on the face of the ‘arth itself, and for this downfall of nations ... ? It is [men’s] morals! their wickedness and their pride, and chiefly their waste that has done it all!. ... Now if man is so blinded in his folly, as to go on, ages on ages, doing harm chiefly to himself, there is the same reason to think that he has wrought his evil here, as in the Countries you call so old. Look about you, man; where are the multitudes that once peopled these Prairies; the Kings and the Palaces; the riches and the riotousnesses, of this desert?” (239-240)

When Dr. Bat protests the lack of “columns, catacombs, and Pyramids” in the American desert, Natty retorts, in a remarkable statement:

“They are gone. Time has lasted too long for them. ... This very spot of reeds and grass on which you now sit, may, once have been the garden of some mighty king. ... ” And he goes on to relate a sort of parable, about how a great tree may live a thousand years, and yet fall and gradually decay until the cunningest Indian scout cannot find the spot where it once grew. (240-241)

Reading this, I suddenly realized that James Fenimore Cooper, writing in 1827, has here foreshadowed a genre of literature associated with the nuclear age of the 20ᵗʰ centurythe Post-Apocalyptic novel describing a world after some natural disaster or human folly has largely destroyed it. Why? and what made it conceptually possible for him to do so?

Post-apocalyptic literature depends, of course, on the idea of an apocalyptic event, in which the world as we know it has in some fashion ended. It is an idea as old as human history — the very term apocalypse derives from the Biblical Book of Revelation. In 1826, a year before the publication of The Prairie, Mary Shelley’s novel, The Last Man, had described an apocalyptic plague in the year 2100, which gradually and inexorably wipes out the human race. 2

That Cooper seems fascinated with Apocalyptic visions — images of destruction — has long been noted by critics. True, scenes of destruction are more or less inherent in stories of adventure, and some have argued that Americans have a special predeliction for violence. For Cooper, however, the theme seems to be carried beyond the practical needs of a writer of popular fiction. In every Cooper tale of the sea, ships are sunk by gunfire, are forced onto the rocks, or capsize in storms, and survivors find themselves clinging to life on lifeboats, rafts, or a desolate shore. On land, homes and communities are burned, garrisons and communities are massacred, and deaths described with an intensity that seems to go beyond the strict requirements of the story line.

One thinks immediately of Cooper’s grim, surreal, description of the desolation that follows the massacre at Fort William Henry in The Last of the Mohicans; of the burning and apparent extermination of the Puritan village in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish; of Captain Warley and his British troops bayoneting Indian men, women, and children at the end of The Deerslayer; and of the attacks on Captain Willoughby’s fortress community in Wyandotté, on the blockhouse at Station Island in The Pathfinder, and on Mr. Wharton’s home, “The Locusts,” in The Spy. Cooper also leads his readers to scenes of recent disaster: the scalped and dying Tom Hutter in The Deerslayer; the burned ruins of Natty’s cabin in The Pioneers; a shipload of frozen mariners in The Sea Lions; the burned corpses in The Ways of the Hour; the dead Priscilla Lechmere in Lionel Lincoln.

{67} In The Crater Cooper describes, in extended detail, the creation of a thriving American colony on a Pacific Island, only to destroy it in an instant with a volcanic eruption. In his fantasy-satire, The Monikins, Cooper describes a purely social cataclysm in the “moral eclipse,” when a moon of self-interest comes to block out the rays from the sun of moral principle. The whole thrust of his long series of novels about the American Indian is that an entire people is being or has been destroyed by the European colonization of the New World.

That kingdoms and civilizations rise and fall was not a new idea in the America of the 1820s. It is at least as old as Aristotle, 3 and the fall of ancient Greece and Rome provided obvious examples of the apparently cyclic nature of human history. America, however, had from its earliest days believed — or at least hoped — that it was in some way exempted by Providence from the common fate of societies in the Old World. Had not our forefathers built a “City on the Hill” in the wastes of New England, under Covenant to God and as an example to the world? Was not the new American Republic a model for an entirely new page in human history?

Cooper often seemed to share the hope of American exceptionalism, but only with grave doubts. He realized, as did few Americans, that the new civilization of America was transforming forever an older world — of wilderness, of natural beauty, inhabited by Native Americans incapable of adapting to the new ways and hence themselves apparently doomed to destruction along with their environment. He understood, as did few Americans, that even the moral foundations of the Revolution which had created the new America, had been painfully clouded.

In 1842 the American painter Thomas Cole, friend of Cooper and the pioneer of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, created a five-part allegory entitled The Course of Empire, which can be seen today at the New-York Historical Society in New York City. It depicts, in five huge canvasses, the progression of a single scenic spot over many centuries; first upward from arcadian wilderness to a great classical city; and then, following war and destruction, its return to a new and empty wilderness, filled with the ruins where men had once lived. Cooper later wrote to Thomas Cole’s biographer that he considered this series to be Cole’s “best work,” and added that “the thought of the [Course] of Empire came from within, and [Cole] might have searched all the galleries of Europe for its conception, in vain. ... I know of no painter, whose work manifests so much high poetical feeling. ... ” 4 And, as has frequently been noticed, The Crater — Cooper’s 1847 novel of the apocalyptic destruction of a miniature American civilization, explicitly acknowledges its conceptual relationship to Cole’s Course of Empire. 5

In short, as Allan Axelrad demonstrated at length in History and Utopia, 6 his book-length study of Cooper’s world view, Cooper seems obsessed with the idea that human success inevitably brings about its own destruction.

In The Pioneers, in 1823, Cooper had stumbled on the character of Natty Bumppo, an unlettered voice of morality that, like a Greek Chorus, condemns the “wasty ways” of the settlers of Templeton even as he rescues them from physical peril. These settlers of Templeton, in all their ethnic variety, are the architypes of America’s expansion across the New World, destroying with their symbolic axes its God-given forests, wildlife, natural beauty, and even its indigenous inhabitants. Natty Bumppo plays a contradictory role in this process; he criticizes but also facilitates. In The Last of the Mohicans he teaches survival skills to those whose children will become the destructive settlers of Templeton, and in The Pioneers he views the results. In the final scene of that novel, Natty flees westward in disgust, but only — in Cooper’s words — to lead those who “are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent.”

It remained, then, for Cooper to tell what happens to Natty Bumppo in his flight — and what may happen to America. For the setting of The Prairie, Cooper chose the strange new lands beyond the Missouri that Thomas Jefferson had bought from France in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase, as Cooper notes in his opening paragraph, had gained control of the Mississippi, “the great thoroughfare of the interior,” and of the “belt of fertile country” that lay along its banks. But it had also inherited “a barrier of desert” extending from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains, named les prairies by early French explorers because of its flatness and virtual lack of trees. (9) Exploration of this hostile region began slowly, by men such as Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike. In the early 1820s, United States Army Major Stephen Long — whose expedition 7 provided many details for Cooper’s imagined prairie — named this area the “great American desert” — an apt catch-phrase that plagued westerners for generations.

As critics were quick to note, Cooper’s prairie is a fictional one, often bleaker than anything described by Long. It is an “interminable waste,” inhabitable only by wandering tribes of savages, and by the equally nomadic herds of that strange, prehistoric-looking beast — the American buffalo. Cooper’s prairie is a place that God seems to have forgotten, and one — as Cooper constantly reminds his readers — not unlike the equally hostile and frightening expanses of the open ocean. But, Natty suggests, this desolate landscape is the apocalyptic result of the “wasty ways” of men, essentially the very ways that Natty had condemned in the pioneer settlers of Templeton. Without knowing it, Cooper has created the Post-Apocalyptic novel.

{68} James Berger points out in his recent book, After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse, that “nearly every apocalpytic text presents the same paradox. The end is never the end. ... Something remains after the end. ... In modern science fiction ... a world as urban dystopia or desert wasteland survives. ... The narrative logic of apocalyptic writing insists that the post-apocalypse precede the apocalypse. ... The events envisioned have already occurred. ... ” 8 Natty Bumppo fears the destructive action of America’s axemen; here in the prairie he sees that action already accomplished.

An anonymous article entitled “Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: Holocaust as Metaphor” on the Internet, where much discussion of this often hi-tech subject takes place — asserts that “there is more going on in post-apocalyptic fiction than a desire to scare us into taking some kind of action, or a fashionable pessimism about the human prospect. ... These works ... are essentially expressions of our new mythology, whose message is that our wisdom will have to keep pace with our power if we are to use the new powers of technology correctly. ... ” 9 The only technology used by The Pioneers’ Billy Kirby or The Prairie’s Ishmael Bush is the axe — but that axe has long been a potent symbol, and an appropriate one, of the changes wrought on the land by America’s settlers.

Natty Bumppo is perfectly explicit about what his post-apocalyptic vision means. In the second chapter of The Prairie, he tells Ishmael Bush, the degenerate American nomad who wanders the desert like his biblical namesake, that “I often think the Lord has placed this barren belt of Prairie, behind the States, to warn men to what their folly may yet bring the land!” (24) The prairies are, then, a warning to a complacent America convinced of its own Providential role in history, and God’s instrument has been that unknown and unknowable people who, Natty tells Dr. Bat, had eons before changed a once green and fertile land into a barren desert. It was not a message Americans of the 1820s wanted to hear or to heed. Despite the warning represented by the post-apocalyptic landscape of the prairies, Natty fully expects the axe-wielding choppers to cut their way through to the Pacific Ocean, destroying whatever remains of pristine America. Then, but only then, he tells Ishmael Bush, “They will turn on their tracks, like a fox that doubles, and then the rank smell of their own footsteps, will show them the madness of their waste.” (76)

Whatever readers may have made of The Prairie, Cooper’s warning was not noticed by the critics. 10 The Prairie has been discussed at length as a novel about history, about law and justice, about morals, about American destiny, about Indians, about scenic aesthetics, as about almost everything except the environment. It is about all those things, of course, but nevertheless the environmental message seems perfectly clear.

For Cooper even to conceive of the American prairies as a man-made, post-apocalyptic, wasteland required two ideas that were — in 1827 — still quite new.

The first is that mankind has the ability to make the land around him virtually uninhabitable — that men wielding axes can create deserts. Through most of European history, such a notion would have seemed absurd. Apocalyptic events might occur, but only as the work of a vengeful God — as predicted in the Book of Revelation — not by a hand as weak as that of man. By 1827 this certainty was beginning to change.

Towards the end of the 18ᵗʰ Century European travellers began to visit Egypt and the Near East, where deserts filled with the remains of once-flourishing civilizations first suggested the possibility that mankind might destroy his physical surroundings. The leading proponent of this frightening idea was Count Volney, a French traveller and revolutionary whose provocative 1791 book, The Ruins; or Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires, 11 was for decades read and re-read in America. Many American boys had Volney’s name inflicted on them, and the Town of Volney in New York, near Oswego, was named in his honor in 1811. 12 From his travels in the Near East, and especially his visit to the long-lost ruined city of Palmyra, Volney grew convinced that environmental destruction was caused by man rather than by some deity. In words that Natty Bumppo seems to echo in The Prairie, Volney writes: “The cupidity of man and his ignorance — these are the evil genii that have wasted the earth! ... These ... have ... converted the splendor of a populous city into a solitude of mourning and ruins!” 13

American settlers had, indeed, quickly discovered that clearing land had environmental consequences. 14 Some seemed benign — microclimates grew warmer as forests no longer sheltered snowdrifts far into the spring. Others were less so. Because of more rapid runoff, streams dried up, leaving sawmills and gristmills built by early settlers without a source of power. Crop yields declined as the benefits of gradually deposited humus from the forest floor, and of the ashes from burned trees, were exhausted.

Nevertheless, Billy Kirby, the Vermont axeman in The Pioneers, summed up the views of most Americans when he said: “Now, I call no country much improved, that is pretty well covered with trees. Stumps are a different thing, for they don’t shade the land. ... ” 15 William Sampson, in his introduction to A Guide in the Wilderness, praised Cooper’s own father {69} for “having cut down two millions of trees.” 16 And a series of drawings, reprinted in a number of Central New York County Histories after the Civil War, portrayed with pride the progressive transformation of the landscape from one of dense forest to one of almost treeless fields and gardens. 17 It is easy to forget, as forests have reclaimed most of the farmland in New England and New York, that the rural landscape that Cooper knew was very different from today — by 1850 cleared fields mounted to the very hilltops, and it was a generation since deer had been seen anywhere in Otsego County. 18

Other views, however, were beginning to be heard. In the very year of Cooper’s birth, 1789, Nicholas Collin presented a paper on the relationship between nature and development to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, asserting that “Our stately forests are a national treasure, deserving the solicitous care of the patriotic philosopher and politician. Hitherto they have been too much abandoned to the axes of rude and thoughtless wood-choppers.” 19

Cooper’s friend, the poet William Cullen Bryant, was perhaps among the first to consider where it might all lead. His 1825 poem “An Indian at the Burial Place of His Fathers,” — after describing how white settlers degrade the environment — concludes with the prophetic lines: “The realms our tribes are crushed to get/May be a barren desert yet.” 21

Cooper was thus not wholly original in suggesting that man could turn America into a wasteland. But surely, no writer had ever presented the thought so seriously.

Where Cooper does seem almost wholly original is in suggesting that the existing wasteland of “the great American desert” might be the result of human folly in some very remote age.

Dr. Bat points out that the civilizations of the Near East had left behind, in the deserts, hundreds of crumbling ruins testifying to their former greatness. The known history of these civilizations, Christians had long believed, covered almost all of terrestrial history. Theologians had computed, from their studies of the Bible, that the original creation was less than 6000 years old. Most specifically, the worthy James Ussher, Episcopal Bishop of Armagh, had in 1650 refined the general view by calculating that the creation took place in exactly 4004 B.C.

By the early 1800s, however, scientists were beginning to realize, on the basis of geological evidence, that the chronological age of the earth, and hence of God’s creation of living species, was considerably longer than Bishop Ussher had calculated. The first to do so was the great French naturalist Count Buffon; to whom Dr. Bat, Cooper’s fictional naturalist in The Prairie, twice refers as the scientist whose works he hopes to surpass. In 1778 Buffon calculated that the world was at least 75,000 years old — more than ten times older than the traditional view. 21 And in The Prairie Cooper implicitly accepts this concept of terrestrial antiquity, if only for fictional purposes, when he says that that the wastelands beyond the Missouri would appear to a poet as having once been a seabed from which the water had departed. (13) It was now possible, therefore, for Cooper to contemplate a land old enough for ruins and other relics of human habitation to have crumbled into dust.

In 1827, Cooper was able — as a few years before he could not have been — to conceive of the barren prairies as the devastating legacy of a long-gone human race, and thus to anticipate by a century and a quarter the post-apocalyptic novel.

Cooper’s imaginative anticipation expressed in The Prairie suggested an environmental apocalypse. As Post-Apocalyptic fiction has developed, largely since World War II and the atomic bomb, it has — surprisingly — rarely considered environmental degradation as a direct cause of the numerous catatrophes it describes. 22 Though the heroes of the Mad Max movies, 23 or the monks of A Canticle for Leibowitz, 24 may wander a man-made desert, it is usually one attiributed to the hi-tech atom, not to the lowly axe. Searching through the numerous annotated lists of post-apocalyptic novels and films, the only story I have found suggesting an environmental apocalypse is Kevin Costner’s epic film Waterworld, 25 in which man’s environmental folly has drowned the continents in an all-encompassing ocean. It is a story, perhaps, that Cooper could have told better than did the movie; the story of a world he could have imagined better than a Hollywood producer.

Instead, the threat to civilization from man-made environmental folly and waste has been argued mostly in non-fiction — from Rachel Carson to Al Gore. It has been the subject of popular political activism, whether seeking to save the Amazon rain forest, promote recycling, or — most recently — to combat global warming. The wasty ways bemoaned by Natty Bumppo are now the topic of discussion in learned societies and at international conferences.

As we gather here in Cooper Country to consider the literary achievements of James Fenimore Cooper, it seems to appropriate to recall how — as in so many other areas of concern to American life — he was himself a pioneer.


1 James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie: A Tale [1827] (The Cooper Edition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985). All citations to The Prairie are indicated by page numbers from this edition.

2 Mary Shelley, The Last Man [1826] (University of Nebraska Press, 1965, 1993). Both Cooper and Shelley faced a problem that plagued 19ᵗʰ century writers of fiction more than it does writers today: how to present a narrative structure that purports to be “real.” Dead men don’t talk, and in an Apocalyptic novel nobody is left to tell the story, or to read it. Mary Shelley “solved” the problem by presenting her tale as a manuscript written by humanity’s last survivor, the eponymous “Last Man,” edited by “the author” and a companion who visited the famous Cave of Sibyl (the Roman Prophetess) on the bay of Naples and deciphered some of the mysterious inscribed leaves they found scattered there — as Mary Shelley recounts in “an author’s introduction.” Cooper, of course, attributes his destroyed world of The Prairie to a conjecture by Natty Bumppo.

3 Aristotle, Politics. Book V.

4 James Fenimore Cooper to Louis Legrand Noble, January 6, 1849. In James F. Beard, Jr., Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Harvard University Press, 1960-68), Volume V, p. 396.

5 James Fenimore Cooper, The Crater; or, Vulcan’s Peak [1847] (Harvard University Press, 1962), Chapter 30, p. 456. As elsewhere, Cooper refers to Cole’s The Course of Empire as The March of Empire.

6 Allan M. Axelrad, History and Utopia: A Study of the World View of James Fenimore Cooper (Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1978). See also Lakshmi Mani, “ James Fenimore Cooper and the Apocalypse ,” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (Papers from the 1980 Conference) (Oneonta: State University College of New York at Oneonta, 1981), pp. 81-92.

7 Dr. Edwin James, An Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains; Undertaken in the years 1819 and ‘20 ... Under the Command of Major Stephen H. Long (Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1823). There has been much discussion of the sources used by Cooper for his description of the prairies — sometimes pitting Long against Lewis and Clark, the best known discussions being in Orm Överland, The Making and Meaning of an American Classic: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1973), and E. Soteris Muszynska-Wallace, “The Sources of The Prairie,” American Literature XXI (May 1949), pp. 191-200.

8 James Berger, After the End: Representations of the Post-Apocalypse (University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 6-7.

9 “Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: Holocaust as Metaphor” in Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and Science Fiction, on Ken Sanes’ Transparency website [http://www.transparencynow.com/apoctable.htm].

10 As Hans Huth notes in his classic Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes [1957] (New edition, University of Nebraska Press, 1990), p. 35: “This theme [of man’s waste of natural resources] of which Cooper makes so much has hardly been touched upon in the reviews of The Pioneers from the earliest to the one by D. H. Lawrence [in 1923].” Interest in Cooper’s views on the environment dates only from after World War II — not coincidentally, perhaps, the same period that saw the rise of the post-apocalyptic novel. Even now, Cooper’s concerns in The Prairie are most commonly presumed to be a socio-political, rather than ecological. Thus, William P. Kelly, in Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales (Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), pp. 117-119, quotes extensively from Natty Bumppo’s conversation with Dr. Bat, but analyzes it only in terms of a warning about human corruption — not of “wasty ways.” Kaarle-Juhani (Nalle) Valtiala, in his very recent James Fenimore Cooper’s Landscapes in the Leather-Stocking Series and other Forest Tales (Helsinki: The Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, 1998), p. 140, seems closer to the mark in suggesting that Natty’s concern “seems to point at an endemic flaw in American civilization, whether due to its hectic pace or some inherent tendency to destruction. ... ” [emphasis added].

11 C. F. Volney, The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires: and The Law of Nature [Paris, 1791; several early English translations] (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1991).

12 Though Volney probably never set foot there. An 1860 New York Gazetteer asserts that Volney visited the place in 1808 — but his only sojourn in America was from 1795-1798, and his only visit anywhere near Oswego was to Niagara Falls in October 1796 — from which he returned to Albany via the Genesee and Mohawk. See Jean Gaulmier, Un Grand Témoin de la Révolution et de l’Empire: Volney (Paris: Hachette, 1959), pp. 195, 217.

13 Volney, op. cit., Chapter 8, p. 26.

14 For a survey of the extent to which Americans, by the early 19ᵗʰ century, understood the relationship between land clearing and climate, see, e.g., William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), pp. 122-126; Ralph H. Brown, Mirror for Americans: Likeness of the Eastern Seaboard, 1810 (New York: American Geographic Society, 1943), pp. 19-24.

15 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, or The Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale [1823] (Cooper Edition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), Chapter 20, p. 229.

16 William Cooper, A Guide in the Wilderness. ... (Dublin: Gilbert and Hodges, 1810 — facsimile reprint, 1986), p. 3.

17 See, e.g., History of Delaware County, N.Y.. ... (New York: W.W. Munsell & Co., 1880), pp. 52-55.

18 [Susan Fenimore Cooper], Rural Hours (New York: George P. Putnam, 1850), pp. 240-241 (entry for August 9).

19 Quoted in Hans Huth, op. cit. supra, p. 16.

20 See, e.g., Steven Jay Gould, “Inventing Natural History in Style,” in The Living Stones of Marrakech (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), esp. pp. 86-88.

21 Bryant, William Cullen, “An Indian at the Burial-Place of his Fathers” in Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant (New York: D. Appleton, 1885), pp. 58-62.

22 A website called It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad Max World [Link no longer extant. – Ed.] includes a list of 79 works of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, but attributes “ecological apocalypse,” even as a factor, in only five of them — none of them, it would seem, the kind of bio-degradation that Cooper envisioned.

23 Mad Max (1979); Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981); Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) (Warner Studios).

24 Walter M. Miller, Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz (New York: Lippincott, 1959).

25 Universal Pictures (1995).