Opened Frontiers, Closed Deserts: The Contradictions between Source and Text in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie

Anne Perrin (University of Houston)

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. 72-76).

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

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

I. Introduction

{72} In the 1827 review of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie published in Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine, an anonymous critic praises Cooper not only for his “minuteness” of detail but for his capture of the “national” spirit within his romance. 1 This focus on details is later reflected in the mid-twentieth century by critics such as John T. Frederick and E. Soteris Muszynska-Wallace who painstakingly catalogue Cooper’s efforts to remain faithful to the linguistic patterns of the native American Indians which Cooper found in the two main sources for the novel, Meriwether Lewis’ History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clarke (History) and Edwin James’ compilation of the Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains (Account), an expedition supervised by Major Stephen H. Long. 2 The publication of The Prairie in 1827 occurred at a time when the information contained in these explorers’ texts had created what I would term an anticipatory consciousness within the American mindset. By the early 1800s, the American consciousness was ever mindful of the frontier nature of American national expansion, and the American mindset anticipated in the vastness of the Louisiana Purchase and its gateway to the Pacific the possibilities for commercial and urban opportunities that heightened America’s sense of identity linked with Manifest Destiny.

While such historical borrowings do not obligate Cooper in any fashion to recreate the explorer genre, I contend that Cooper’s investment in individuality and repulsion of the civilizing process within the main authoritative voice of the novel, that of Natty Bumppo, presents a paradoxical position for Cooper in relation to the national character of his two main sources, Lewis’ Journal and James’s Account, and to his efforts at truthful representation. The dramatic forces which drive both Lewis’ and Long’s expedition reflect the ideologies of expansion, commercialization, and urbanization operating behind such a westward expansion. Notations regarding mineral deposits and their accompanying commercial opportunities, suitable sites for urban development, and a hierarchical privileging of civilization over primitivism in relation to the Indians share common ground with the explorers’ concerns for military and scientific endeavors. Such focuses are subsumed by Lewis and Clarke in their need to retain the distinction between the Indians and “white men” and in Long’s concerns for landmarks, what he terms “monuments” which the Indian cultures have failed to develop. 3 Ironically, Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours also favors this drive to distinguish white civilization through both cultural and geographical landmarks. 4 For The Prairie, such efforts at national expansion are negated by a sense of nostalgia and anxiety represented in Natty’s continuous reflections into the historic past and in the negativity he associates with civilization and land development. Thus, while Cooper creates a text which mimics the realistic details and cultural heritage of his sources, the dramatic tension of The Prairie counters the nationalistic tendencies motivating those sources with a form of individualism which can only cope with the realities of national expansion by positing nostalgia and melancholia in its place.

II. Into the Frontiers

Central to understanding how far Cooper departs from this anticipatory/excited view of the frontier, in this case, the prairie, is how the explorers themselves saw such wilderness. Such discussions are not meant to minimize analysis by critics such as Merrill Lewis who views the prairie as “essentially metaphorical” in terms of both “dramatic situation and a reflection of a moral condition” Henry Nash Smith who prefers to view the area as an aesthetically “’neutral space’” of performance. 5 Rather, what I wish to focus on are two specific areas considered by both Cooper and his main sources in relation to the physical qualities and potential offered by the prairie/frontier and its relation to the growing sense of national identity: first, the potential commercial opportunities and their relation to future urbanization, and second, the national ideology of expansion. Although Thomas Jefferson’s letter of instruction to Lewis, dated June 20, 1803, instructed the expedition to gather information regarding the indigenous tribes and their customs, the US Government’s major concern was the location and navigability of the major waterways. Jefferson’s letter specifically states that the “’object of [Lewis’] mission is to explore the Missouri river, and such principal streams of it’” and to try to determine the “’most direct and practicable water-communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce.’” 6 Such observations were “’to be taken with great pains and accuracy’” (xxxv), and to accomplish these directives, Lewis studied the “technical language of the natural sciences” in Philadelphia immediately prior to his expedition (xxxii).

{73} This attention to scientific accuracy resulted in an explorer text which could accurately pinpoint future commercial and urban locales. For example, Lewis makes such a detailed observation as that of 15 September 1803 wherein he notes that “[a]t the confluence of White river with the Missouri is an excellent position for a town.” 7 Later, on 27 April 1804, he pinpoints a location near the regions of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers that is “highly eligible for a trading establishment” (264-265). Lewis’ notations are replete with references to the quality of commercial wildlife, such as the beaver on the Missouri that are “larger and fatter, and their fur is more abundant and of a darker colour” than other varieties (257), and the abundance of “flint, limestone” (259-260), “coal” (269) and even a hint of silver in the Black mountains. As an inducement to agriculture, he makes note of such areas as that near the mouth of the Porcupine river which he describes as “level, fertile, open, and exceedingly beautiful” (273).

In The Prairie, the authoritative voices of the narrator and of Natty Bumppo present a view that is antithetical to both the spirit and the letter of such source material. The narrator describes the “march of civilization” as a regressive process from the “refined” urban to “near barbarity” in the liminal spaces of the frontier, a situation borne out in the novel through the presence of the Bush tribe and their criminal activities. 8 However, Long’s expedition notes that the frontiersmen he found were “hospitable to strangers” and that “[m]any of them are possessed of considerable wealth.” 9 What is most surprising about this difference in attitude is that the novel’s narrator originally regards the Louisiana Purchase as an opportunity, among others, to initiate “inland trade” and to extend the geographical bounds of cultural homogeneity in terms of “our language, our religion, [and] our institutions.” 10 By the publication of The Prairie, Cooper has already invested enormous literary capital in making Natty a stylized Daniel Boone figure, heavily funded in individuality and scornful of “human institutions” (10). Hence, for Natty, civilization is best described as “’waste and wickedness’” (370). But once Cooper designs Natty within these confines of rugged individuality, there is literally no escape from society’s advancement and, at best, only a temporary respite.

Faced with the realities offered by the commercial and agricultural opportunities of the Louisiana Purchase, Natty’s only recourse is to dwell in nostalgia and melancholia, a reflexive position which counters the impending progressive force offered by Lewis’ Journal and James’s Account. Natty’s describes himself as “’old and useless’” and questions “’of what use are former deeds, when time draws to an end,’” now having been reduced from a hunter to a trapper in his old age. 11 Rugged individualism thus becomes a negative force within the Leatherstocking series, culminating in what Cooper himself designates as the last of the series, The Prairie. 12 If, as Natty tells Dr. Battius, “’activity in deeds’” equates to personal “’worth,’” then the same argument Natty uses to relegate Battius’ scientific knowledge and language to a secondary and, at times, comic position also, paradoxically, relegates Natty, over time, to the same devaluating process because of his own gradual aging and inactivity. 13 Hence, Natty’s actions at times take on the quality of what Cooper describes in one scene as “melancholy resignation.” 14 What such resignation and nostalgia expose is the fact that the rugged individualism exemplified by Natty’s youth occupies a subject position that masks a form of appropriation by the individual of cultural land space. The cultural cost for such individualism is the need of the individual to appropriate vast areas, in this case the public lands of the prairie, in which to roam and, as the 1827 Preface to the novel indicates, to find a “final refuge from society” and from which to critique a process of which he is not a part. 15 In the novel the private cost for linking the individual so closely to such vast space is a self-reflexive posture which now becomes highlighted by melancholia and nostalgia; not only does Natty mourn his own aging, but he also mourns the inevitable loss of such a self-appropriated space to the public arena. The progression of population and development that acted as a force in securing the Louisiana Purchase and the subsequent expeditions is for Natty a death knell for wilderness, for he laments that “’the beauty of the wilderness [has] been deformed in two short lives!’” 16 This sadness can only escalate when civilization, in the form of the Bush tribe, for example, intrudes upon the prairie and cuts down “tree after tree”; this disturbance of appropriated space effects “a melancholy gaze” (19) similar to Natty’s own view of himself.

The concept of civilization presented in the explorers’ texts presents a different view of the civilization process. For Meriwether Lewis, the areas he explored were considered a separate entity from the political organization and culture of the United States and functioned in a unique way. First, the areas offered an opportunity to compare the physical features of the United States with what I would term a pre-lapsarian territory devoid of commercial and urban alterations. For example, Lewis notes that flora such as the “serviceberry differs” in specific points “from that of the United States” whereas the “bat or goatsucker” is similar to “the same species in the United States.” 17 Second, such a territory, contiguous with the political boundaries of the United States, is devoid of the diplomatic rivalries presented by comparison with countries such as England. This comparison is not to suggest that diplomatic relations did not occur with Lewis’ or Long’s expeditions, for both explorers reference interactions between various Native American tribes and between the Indians and American agents as well. But for both explorer groups, a privileged ethnocentric policy clearly positions the Indians on the level of the inferior. For example, in his meeting with the Ottoe Indians, Lewis describes how he “announc[ed] to them the changes in the government, our promises of protection, and advice as to their future conduct” (78).

{74} What I wish to suggest is that in terms of national rivalries, the prairies afforded an opportunity for the United States to feel itself in a position superior to that of the Indians based on the visible signs or markers of progress it possessed or imposed as opposed to the inferior position the United States felt in relation to England. Consider the view expressed in Long’s expedition regarding the burial mound on “the prairies of Illinois” which he describes as “enormous” but also “overgrown with bushes and weeds.” 18 The comment following laments that such memorials “commemorating the existence of a people once numerous and powerful, but no longer known ... never fails ... to produce an impression of sadness” (38). Juxtaposed to such comments regarding the lack of permanent cultural markers are the political tokens of American culture such as the flags and medals which the Indian tribes are given to display and such major signs as the trading post at Fort Lisa (277) which the Long company delights in reaching. In America’s relation to Britain, the American position is reversed. Consider the reference in Blackwood’s Magazine (1819) wherein the British critique America for its lack of “’memorials commemorative of noble deeds ... traditions, legends, [or] fables.’” 19 James’s Account essentially counters this cultural critique by universalizing the process of historical progression and regression altogether, noting the “insignificance and the want of permanence in every thing human. ... ” and speculating that only nature survives over time. 21

For all of Cooper’s literary fun poked at the privileging of natural history and its scientific ideologies in nineteenth century exploration, his perception of the cultural influences from such scientific efforts on the national identity weighs heavily in The Prairie. Although Dr. Obed Battius is set up as Cooper’s scientific straw man claiming to discover a new genus, the ” Vespertilio; Horribilis, Americanus“ which turns out to be his own mule, Asinus, and for all of the scientist’s misunderstanding of nature, it is with Battius that Cooper constructs the most extended debate regarding the values of nature vs. those of civilization. 21 Cooper takes to task enlightened scientific thought, expressed through Dr. Battius’ statement that even “’the illustrious masters of Antiquity have by the aid of science and skill, even outdone the works of nature’”; for Natty, Cooper’s moral man, such privileging of material perfection over divinely controlled natural perfection is, in Natty’s words, “’profanation’” (237). So also is Battius’ veneration for the cultural superiority of the “’old world,’” a reverence which Natty translates as a “’worn ... abused ... and a sacrilegious world’” (237). Part of the melancholia Natty feels in the novel is the cultural force such scientific arguments have had on the American identity in the form of works such as Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1782) with its focus on natural history as a way to elevate American nationalism on par with the international community. It is no accident that Cooper, like Jefferson, deals with the specter of Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon and the political agency Buffon gives to natural history in securing the dominance of Europe over America based on the perceived superiority of European flora and fauna. In his Notes, Jefferson chooses to engage Buffon on an equal plane of scientific inquiry, and Jefferson’s text becomes a rhetorical lunge at Buffon’s notion of old world superiority based on “heats” and “waters.” 22

In The Prairie, Cooper attempts to move the moral argument regarding natural history from the diplomatic and scientific realm to a more secular ground; “’morality’” becomes for Natty and Battius “’the practices of men, as connected with their daily intercourse, their institutions, and their laws.’” 23 Their argument essentially evolves into a rhetorical duel between utilitarianism and aesthetics. Battius bases his argument on the same foundations as the Long expedition, that of physical landmarks; for Battius “’greatness’” equates to “’monuments’” and the utilitarian view that the immoral occurs when nature “’lie[s] so many ages an uninhabited waste’” (238-239). For Natty, such privileging of structures merely exhibit forms of “’wickedness ... pride, and chiefly ... waste’” (239); “’genuine monuments’” for Natty are the natural features (241). The dilemma Cooper creates for himself through such aesthetical privileging occurs at the end of the novel when Natty easily acquiesces to a monument being erected on the prairie in the form of an engraved headstone. Although modest in its inscription, Natty’s acceptance highlights the flaw in his moral argument regarding monuments; he wishes that his “’name will then not be altogether lost on ‘arth. ... ‘” (384). The fact that Middleton has a warning inscribed that no one “’disturb [Natty’s] remains’” (386) only weakens Natty’s argument further. 24 At the end, Natty essentially joins in the process of cultural transformation of the American prairie.

III. Conclusion: Moral Agency and Cultural Progression

In his 1827 Preface to The Prairie, Cooper notes that the novel contains only “an occasional departure from strict historical veracity.” 25 Cooper’s efforts to present an American viewpoint in regard to westward expansion based on the exploring efforts of Lewis’ and Long’s expeditions are born out in the novel not only through his faithfulness to certain geographical features and Indian tribal customs but also through the concern for the legality involved with frontier expansion. Such positioning of historical accuracy based on the well known explorer texts of Lewis’ and Long’s expeditions may lend credence to the novel’s scientific and cultural background, but they also carry cultural baggage reflected in earlier, scientific works such as Jefferson’s Notes and in the political ideologies of nationalism such texts had as their foundation. For Cooper, the dilemma in appropriating such texts is increased when his argument counters the very cultural progression driving America’s efforts at exploration in the nineteenth century and in works such as Jefferson’s Notes. Simply put, these prior texts create a national identity which can be assumed by the individual. What Cooper does {75} in The Prairie is to show a reversal of the process; he asks his reader to accept Natty’s personal identity and nostalgia as the cultural identity for the American pioneer in general, and that the loss of individual freedom is somehow reflected in a loss of cultural freedom and a lessening of cultural morality as well. In this respect, morality is not an ideology shaping and fostering culture, but a form of agency for individualism. Cooper’s rugged individual can subsist only in isolation in an untouched paradise, and any disturbance of such heavenly peace carries a moral penalty. The problem for The Prairie and for Natty is that there is always someone knocking at the gates of paradise.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, Letter to Sarah Heyward Cruger. Otsego Hall, 20 August 1849. In The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard, no. 1005. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard University Press, 1968.
  • ------. The Prairie [1827]. Edited by Donald A. Ringe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • ------. Preface [1827] to The Prairie. Edited by Donald A. Ringe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Frederick, John T., “Cooper’s Eloquent Indians.” PMLA 71 (Dec. 1956): 1004-1017.
  • James, Edwin, comp., Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, under the Command of Major Stephen H. Long, from the Notes of Major Long, Mr. T. Say, and Other Gentlemen of the Exploring Party [1823]. Barre, MA: Imprint Society, 1972.
  • Jefferson, Thomas, “Life of Captain Lewis.” History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clarke, to the Sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, performed during the Years 1804-5-6 by Order of the Government of the United States [1814]. Edited by Nicholas Biddle. 3 vols. New York: Heritage Press, 1962.
  • ------. Notes on the State of Virginia. Vol. 3 of The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Paul Leicester Ford. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984.
  • Lewis, Meriwether, History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clarke, to the Sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, performed during the Years 1804-5-6 by Order of the Government of the United States [1814]. Edited by Nicholas Biddle. 3 vols. New York: Heritage Press, 1962.
  • Lewis, Merrill, “Lost and Found — In The Wilderness: The Desert Metaphor in Cooper’s The Prairie.” Western American Literature 5 (Fall 1970): 195-204.
  • Muszynska-Wallace, E. Soteris, “The Sources of The Prairie.” American Literature 21 (Mar. 1949-Jan. 1950): 191-200.
  • Överland, Orm. The Making and Meaning of an American Classic: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie. New York: Humanities Press, 1973.
  • The Prairie, 1827: 14. Article, Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine.” Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage. Edited by George Dekker and John P. McWilliams. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.


1The Prairie, 1827: 14. Article, Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine,” in Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage, ed. George Dekker and John P. McWilliams (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), 120-123.

2 John T. Frederick, “Cooper’s Eloquent Indians,” PMLA 71 (Dec. 1956): 1004-1017; E. Soteris Muszynska-Wallace, “The Sources of The Prairie,” American Literature 21 (Mar. 1949-Jan. 1950): 191-200; Meriwether Lewis, History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clarke, to the Sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, performed during the Years 1804-5-6 by Order of the Government of the United States [1814], ed. Nicholas Biddle, 3 vols (New York: Heritage Press, 1962); and Edwin James, comp., Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, under the Command of Major Stephen H. Long, from the Notes of Major Long, Mr. T. Say, and Other Gentlemen of the Exploring Party [1823] (Barre, MA: Imprint Society, 1972). To avoid confusion, Lewis’ text will be referred to as History, and James’ compilation of Long’s expedition will be referred to as Account.

3 Lewis, History, 399; and Long, Account, 38.

4 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours [1850], ed. Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 113-115.

5 For both Merrill Lewis and Henry Nash Smith, see Merrill Lewis, “Lost and Found — In The Wilderness: The Desert Metaphor in Cooper’s The Prairie,” Western American Literature 5 (Fall 1970): 196.

6 Thomas Jefferson, “Life of Captain Lewis,” History, xxxiv-xxxv.

7 Lewis, History, 119.

8 James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie [1827], ed. Donald A. Ringe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 66.

9 Long, Account, 65.

10 Cooper, Prairie, 9.

11 Cooper, Prairie, 84, 23. Regarding the social status of the hunter/trapper in these explorer texts, Long cites as members of his group the commanding officer, journal writer, botanist, zoologist, geologist, assistant naturalist, painter, and assistant topographers. Long only comments in general that “[g]uides, interpreters, hunters, and others ... will perform such duties as may be assigned.” Lewis only mentions hunters in the capacity as food gatherers. See James, Account, 279; Lewis, History, 71.

12 For Cooper’s views regarding the sequence of texts within the Leatherstocking series, see the letter from Cooper to Sarah Heyward Cruger, Otsego Hall, 20 August 1849, vol. 6 of The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard (Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard University Press, 1968), 66-68.

13 Cooper, Prairie, 306. While critics note the name of Buffon as a possible source for Cooper’s choice of Obed Battius, one should not overlook Dr. Baldwin of Long’s expedition as a source. Dr. Baldwin acted as “botanist” and his scope of research concerned not only “vegetation,” but “the diseases prevailing among the inhabitants” and the “anatomy” of the Indians. He also served as “physician and surgeon.” During the expedition Dr. Baldwin contracted a fatal illness, and his duties were transferred to Dr. E. James on 1 June 1820. See James, Account, 8, 57-58, 278.

14 Cooper, Prairie, 83.

15 James Fenimore Cooper, preface [1827] to The Prairie, ed. Donald A. Ringe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 1-2.

16 Cooper, Prairie, 250.

17 Lewis, History, 391, 370.

18 James, Account, 38.

19 Orm Överland, The Making and Meaning of an American Classic: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie (New York: Humanities Press, 1973), 176f.

20 James, Account, 38.

21 Cooper, Prairie, 71.

22 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, vol. 3 of The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984), 135. Jefferson also addresses the issue of class in relation to natural history and takes to task the views of Abbé Raynal who applies Buffon’s ideas of American inferiority to the social realm as well. See Jefferson, Notes, 137f.

23 Cooper, Prairie, 238.

24 Perhaps the most striking difference between Cooper and his sources concerns graves. James’ Account describes the Long expedition desecrating graves, one of which proves to be that of a “white officer,” and the description of the body found resembles that of the character Asa in The Prairie. In James’ Account, the body is found “in a sitting posture ... with its back resting against some logs ... and a bamboo walking stick ... reclined against the arm. ... ” In The Prairie, Asa’s body is “seated nearly upright, the back supported by a mass of matted brush, and one hand still grasping a broken twig of the alders.” On the other hand, Cooper closes The Prairie with the instruction that “no wanton hand ever disturb [Natty’s] remains.” See James, Account 56; Cooper, Prairie 139, 386.

25 Cooper, preface to Prairie, 1.