Chopping Away at the New World: The Metaphor of the Axe in The Prairie

Michael J. Pikus (Niagara County Community College)

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. 77-81).

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

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

{77} Natty Bumppo’s departure from Templeton and from civilization in The Pioneers brings him to both a new beginning and an inevitable end as Cooper removes Natty from the semi-idyllic world of the yeoman farmer and the benevolent aristocrat and places him in a savage environment that represents both the past and the future of America. Through the movement westward realized in The Prairie, Cooper brings the Leatherstocking saga to its chronological end and American history to another opportunity to begin anew; on Cooper’s prairie both Leatherstocking and the New World are given a blank slate, but each for different purposes, “devoid of ‘historical recollection’” (Kelly 88). This new beginning offers a void that allows the Leatherstocking to live his final years in a world of trapping, hunting, and adventure that tests an individual’s ability to think, react, and succeed. By the time the old trapper reaches the prairie, however, he has lost most of the vitality and exuberance that once allowed him to thrive in a savage state; his daily activities privilege mere survival over the quality and depth of life he once experienced in the woodlands. The America he inhabits in The Prairie is largely ahistorical and relatively unfettered by culture.

William Kelly argues that The Prairie is the most abstract of the Leatherstocking series (87-88). Relative to the historical perceptions Cooper generates in other novels, Kelly suggests that The Prairie’s history engages the absolute limits of a “black slate” (Kelly’s term) as a new beginning (88). Cooper’s glimpse at Leatherstocking’s final days abstracts history and avoids a preoccupation with history. Rather, this volume builds on images that represent historical concepts and inevitability rather than history itself. In The Prairie the local event requires a sense of linkage and continuity in order to bring the novel’s events into history as the United States brought the West into its sphere of domination. Cooper achieves historical legitimacy without historical indulgence by reaching back to the dominating imagery of the axe and the woodsman from The Pioneers. The irony of this imagery is that the great American desert, as this region was often called, is largely a treeless expanse dominated by tall grasses and prairie flowers. And the farther one is from the rivers that drain into the Missouri-Mississippi system, the more difficult it is for vegetation to flourish. The prairie or Great Plains as setting thus serves a double purpose, for as a physical world it must encounter a force that seeks to reduce it further (the axe), and as a site of historical opportunity, it evolves from a place faced with inevitability.

Cooper doesn’t delay bringing the axe and its destructive power into The Prairie. In the 1849 “Introduction” Cooper identifies both Natty and civilization as victims of the axe. Cooper states, referring to Natty and his flight to the plains, “The sound of the axe has driven him from his beloved forests to seek refuge, by a species of desperate resignation, on the denuded plains that stretch to the Rocky Mountains” (6). Natty now must trap instead of hunt, roam the plains instead of the forest, and ultimately live off land that provides little margin for error. He becomes, as Cooper suggests, part of the final gathering of the red men who have been driven west to escape or stall inevitable history. Natty fulfills the kinship he bears with the indigenous people of his past as he gathers with them, all pursued by the axe and its consequences (4).

The trapper escapes from his “beloved forests” in conflict with his desires and the expectations of his countrymen. He understands the forest as more than trees, vegetation, and animal life; it signifies a sacred place that transcends history and man. To Natty, “the Garden of the Lord, was the forest then [referring to Eden] and is the forest now, where the fruits do grow and the birds do sing according to his wise ordering ... “(197). He refers to his own life as an experience that has seen the destruction of the woodlands he once called home; it recalls a divine past destroyed by the implements of man:

Too wide! Too wide! [the clearings of the East] They scourge the very ‘arth with their axes. Such hills and hunting grounds as I have seen stripped of the gifts of the Lord; without remorse or shame! I tarried till the mouths of my hounds were deafened by the blows of the choppers, and then I came west, in search of quiet. It was a grievous journey, that I made; a grievous toil to pass through falling timber, and to breathe the thick air of smoky clearings week after week, as I did. (75)

The emotional and spiritual journey that causes loss in the opportunity to gain supersedes Natty’s physical journey. He travels away from progress, toward the new. His journey from the East reviews the destruction of the forests and the land in the name of progress and civilization, and reverses the movement of civilization — Natty figuratively attempts to reverse New World history by heading west.

{78} The axe follows Natty to his new home through Ishmael Bush, patriarch of a migrating family and among the first of legions of settlers that seek to possess and transform the prairie. Bush is introduced as a coarse character, his roughness reflected in his motley attire, tarnished silk sash, and soiled coat (12). In contrast to his clothing, Bush carries two items necessary for any settler of the plains: a rifle and an axe. The rifle appears subordinate to “a keen and bright wood-axe across his [Bush’s] shoulder” (12). This implement is “carelessly cast” in a manner that is both aesthetic and symbolic. As a piece of practical art vital to frontier culture, the axe underscores the pioneer’s intent as creation and destruction ride together on the shoulders of a settler (12). Bush, although a Kentuckian, mirrors Billy Kirby of The Pioneers in his task of clearing the land.

Cooper’s biography of Bush relates both the age and lifestyle of this new pioneer in a concise yet incisive manner: “Ishmael Bush had passed the whole of his life of more than fifty years on the skirts of society. He boasted that he never dwelt where he might not safely fell every tree he could view from his own threshold; that the law had rarely been known to enter his clearing, and that his ears had never willingly admitted the sound of a church bell” (66). Bush is the classic border character, and he constantly carves his own border with his axe. His ability to destroy and control through destruction designates an ideological and actual embodiment of Manifest Destiny and thus, early and mid-nineteenth century American history.

In fact, Cooper links the entire Bush family to the wood-axe and its implications. Typically Ishmael finds a suitable location for spending the night, a place with “[a] clear and gurgling spring,” that upon joining with other small waters, gives life and sustenance to what little foliage thrives in the vicinity (18). This site also has all the other natural attributes necessary for sustaining a settler’s life, including a grove of cottonwood trees. Cooper describes the immediate and dominant activity of the Bush boys upon arrival at the campsite as the “falling of an axe or two from the shoulder to the ground. ... ” (18). it is symbolic motion that brings the tool they have carried from the East into contact with the Western prairie they attempt to possess and bring into history. After the axes have been removed from the shoulders of the Bush boys, their next activity is the actual felling of the cottonwood trees. Considering the relative lack of vegetation, especially sizable trees, this chopping not only intensifies the Bush family’s settlement, but also extends the mere motion of an axe falling to the ground to include the actual alteration of the prairie with the intent to possess it and bring it into history:

At length the eldest of the sons stepped heavily forward, and, without any apparent effort, he buried his axe in the soft body of a cotton-wood tree. He stood, a moment, regarding the effect of the blow, with the sort of contempt with which a giant might be supposed to contemplate the puny resistance of a dwarf, and then flourishing the implement above his head, with the grace and dexterity with which a master of the art of offense would wield his nobler though less useful weapon, he quickly severed the trunk of the tree, bringing its tall top crashing to the earth, in submission to his prowess. (18-19)

Cooper’s description brings the art of the use of the axe into play between the creative aesthetics of motion, power, and skill and the destruction of the tree and its symbolic and actual status on the prairie.

Cooper stresses that many of the cottonwoods are similarly felled as the entire Bush clan sets to work altering the landscape for their habitation. They plan to use the felled trees to build pens for their cattle and other stock animals and to use the remaining wood for cooking fires and other domestic needs. After they complete their labor, all that is left are “the vacancies ... in the heavens” (19), vacancies that the trapper (Natty Bumppo) looks to with a melancholy gaze and finally a bitter smile, for he has seen the handiwork of axemen before and he knows the ultimate result of their efforts.

Progress comes fast upon the heels of Natty; he remains helpless despite his knowledge of the effects of transformation. These activities and their results create an ahistorical moment where the past is seized, transformed, and ultimately denied; the expedience of possession reflective of Manifest Destiny and its Jacksonian rationalization dominate. From this moment, history on the prairie becomes Old World, following the designs of the cultures and the institutions that sought domination in the New World, just as those “distant monarchs” of The Last of the Mohicans sought an alteration of power on the continent.

The routine felling of trees creates a clearing, a man-made microcosm of what the Leatherstocking understands as fate. When asked when the “clearing” or prairie ends, the old trapper says resignedly to Ishmael Bush: “You may travel weeks, and you will see the same. I often think the Lord has placed this barren belt of Prairie, behind the states, to warn men to what their folly may bring the land. ... And yet the wind seldom blows from the east, but I conceit the sounds of axes, and the crash of falling trees are in my ears” (24). This discourse suggests desolation and despair. He knows how little time he has left, senses the destructive power of progress, and realizes that the land cannot escape inevitability — all {79} elements of history. The trapper links both his fate and the fate of the land and the nation to the sound of falling trees and the destruction it heralds. To the trapper, the emigrants who seek their future on the massive clearing of the prairie do not understand or care to comprehend the warnings of the land; they merely seek to clear, claim, and possess with their needs and fortunes in mind. Within this context, to further strip the prairie of its few trees and other vegetation to serve the selfish needs of encroaching civilization is an absurd notion.

But Natty knows. He understands what happens to an abused and misinformed opportunity, for he has had prior experience, prior loss; he has been on this journey before. Just as in The Pioneers, Cooper brings together the themes of possession and lost opportunity through the image of the axe and the results of its use. He notes early and historically that the prairie is purchased territory, part of an Old World process of altering the New World (9). The new owners open the Louisiana Territory to “swarms of that restless people, which is ever found hovering on the skirts of American society, plunged ... [into the territory], with the same careless hardihood, as have already sustained so many of them in their toilsome progress from the Atlantic. ... ” (9). Using such terminology, Cooper likens this push west to an infestation or a plague of sorts. This new order of possession is personified by the Bush family on their wanton and errant journey from Kentucky to the prairie; they rely upon the axe to clear the land and establish power and dominance through destruction.

Cooper does not ignore the Native American in this power play; for the nation and its people to possess they must wrestle control and hegemony from the current inhabitants. Natty states, in speaking to Ellen Wade, “There are hundreds, nay, thousands of rightful owners of the country, roving about this plains; but few are of our own color” (27). He thus places the natives in the same predicament as he for both Natty and the natives find themselves in a failing, weakened condition, with no legal protection. And both see the erosion of their history and their culture, both soon to be replaced by the impending encroachment by the new possessors of the New World.

These new New World possessors establish an Old World mentality, for they seek possession of the interior of the New World just as the Old World possessors sought to establish hegemony in the New World. A conversation between Natty and Hard-Heart, the young Pawnee, highlights this intent. Referring to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Hard-Heart says that he has heard that “warriors are wading up the Long River, to see that they have not been cheated, in what they have bought” (187). Of course, this implies that no one consulted the natives of the land when the Old World powers staked their original claims, but now that the territory lies within the cultural, political, and economic parameters of the Old World, the exchange of land must be properly and legally enacted and verified, thus controlled. The original claimants of the land are never consulted or considered in this process.

And here the axe and the “chopper,” as Cooper has indicated in the past, remain significant elements in the exchange; the axe becomes the tool and harbinger of alteration and hegemony as Natty replies to Hard-Heart’s comments:

Ay, it is partly true, too, I fear; and it will not be long afore an accursed band of choppers and loggers will be following on their heels [Lewis and Clark] to humble the wilderness which lies so broad and rich on the western banks of the Mississippi, and then the land will be a peopled desert from the shores of the Maine sea to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, fill’d with all the abominations and craft of man and stript of the comfort and loveliness it received from the hand of the Lord! (187-188)

This statement links the ideas of the chopping and the clearing of the land to the creation of a “peopled desert.” Of course, Natty despises any settlement, but he understands the importance of people to the desert, the infertility, and the desolation that he sees in civilization. In Natty’s judgement, the desires of man, in the form of possession and power, represent the real tools that create the desert that is becoming the New World, and the changing of owners merely speaks to the inevitability of the Old World enveloping the New. The trapper summons experiential history to tell his story of the fate of the New World “and where the machinations and inventions of its people are to have an end. ... ” (250). Paul Hover, the bee keeper and the preserver of nature, understands that Natty, in his eighty-plus years, has “seen many a chopper skimming the cream from the face of the earth. ... ” (251). Natty, well past his prime, embodies the history of this transition in the New World, for the literal and figurative choppers have skimmed the cream of the trees and humanity from the earth.

Cooper brings the idea of the Old and New Worlds into further perspective within a conversation between Obed Bat and the old Leatherstocking. Bat makes a distinction between the Old and New Worlds based on scientific premises, relating the geologic age of each “world” as the same while emphasizing that the “moral existence” of each world is not equal “with its physical, or geological formation,” emphasizing the superiority of the Old World (238). Of course the old trapper will hear none of this scientific stuff, and replies:

{80} I am no great admirator of your old morals, as you call them, for I have ever found, and I have liv’d long, as it were, in the very heart of natur’, that your old morals are never the best. Mankind twist and turn the rules of the Lord, to suit their own wickedness when their devilish cunning has had too much time to trifle with his commands. (238)

The conversation continues, with Bat defining and defending morality as “the practices of men, as connected with their daily intercourse, their institutions, and their laws” (238).

The old trapper will have none of this, as well, and replies, “And such I call, barefaced and downright wantoness and waste” (238). Cooper here subtly links and separates the Old World and the New World. This connection is consistent with his argument of the axe and destruction, for the Bush family, as does Billy Kirby in The Pioneers, move about in a wasteful and wanton manner, showing little if any regard for the results of their actions. Thus the axe becomes symbolic of the encroachment of the Old World on the New.

The ending of The Prairie is perhaps the most recognizable of all of Cooper’s, if not one of the most notable in all of American literature. And it brings to closure the representation of the axe in the novel. In his dying hours Natty asks to be placed upon a stool facing west into the setting sun and asks that his belongings be sent east to Templeton (379). While lamenting his lack of progeny, the trapper gives Hard-Heart his blessing, wishing the Pawnee survival within the encroaching white man’s world — he has given his blessing to one who will probably not survive the intrusions of civilization. The trapper also voices his wish to be buried where he dies, on the prairie, “beyond the din of settlements” (383). As Hard-Heart and Uncas Middleton stand vigil, the dying trapper suddenly rises to his feet and “pronounce[s] the word — ‘Here!’” and expires in the grasp of his two youthful comrades (395).

But what does “Here!” mean relative to the axe? This emphatic shout’s significance remains as abstract as The Prairie itself. In The Deerslayer, the novel that portrays the earliest chronological setting of all the Leatherstocking series, Hurry Harry exclaims “Here is room to breathe in!” after he and Deerslayer “shout excitedly” upon first viewing the shores of Glimmerglass and its surrounding forests (17). “Here” suggests freedom and room to live in The Deerslayer, but in The Prairie, the historical ending of the Leatherstocking series, Natty dies “Here!”, opportunity dies “Here!”, and perhaps the New World takes its final stand “Here!”. But no single perception of Natty’s final utterance can deliver a wholly satisfactory meaning; all that can be noted is the inevitable end that Natty represents and the role of the shout in a wilderness already violated by a world that seeks possession through transformation.

The old pathfinder is appropriately buried, per his request, “beneath the shade of some noble oaks” (386), among those not yet felled by the axe and the chopper, and among those few that could survive in the desert that is the prairie. The legacy of the old Leatherstocking is thus forever linked to play between preservation and destruction decided by the axe and its many wielders.

Cooper attempts to bring Natty Bumppo and the New World out of Old World history through the failed idealism of both Templeton in The Pioneers and the encroachment of the “black” slate of the prairie in The Prairie. Natty is driven to the West after the years when the American Revolution created the opportunity for a New World, and he dies during the Jefferson presidency on soil that once again offers the opportunity for a new beginning. This trapper, this leatherstocking, cannot survive either historical situation; he ostensibly flees history as an emblem of the past who has an empirical understanding of what might have been. With The Pioneers and The Prairie there emerges a tension between immersion in history and escape from it. Ultimately history can not be avoided, thus the Old World encroachment becomes destiny. And the axe, which created and transformed through destruction, clears the figurative way for the deflowering of the New World.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Deerslayer [1841]. New York: Penguin, 1987.
  • ------. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757 [1826]. New York: Penguin, 1986.
  • ------. The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale [1823]. New York: Penguin, 1988.
  • ------. The Prairie [1827]. New York: Penguin, 1987.
  • Dekker, George, The American Historical Romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Henderson, Harry B., III, Versions of the Past: The Historical Imagination in American Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
  • Kelly, William P., Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
  • Lentricchia. Frank, Criticism and Social Change. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1983.
  • Lukacs, Georg, The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1978.
  • McWilliams, John P., Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
  • Motley, Warren, The American Abraham: James Fenimore Cooper and the Frontier Patriarch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Noble, David W., The Eternal Adam and the New World Garden: The Central Myth in the American Novel Since 1830. New York: George Braziller, 1968.
  • Peck, H. Daniel, A World By Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.
  • Slotkin, Richard, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
  • ------. The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization. New York: Atheneum, 1985.