Civilization and Its Discontents: Freud Meets Cooper on The Prairie

Lance Schachterle (Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

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.

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

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. 82-95).

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


{82} Let me say at the outset for those of you who are curious about how Sigmund Freud got to be on the same prairie with James Fenimore Cooper, that I see at least three ways to effect this rhetorical conjunction.

1. Approach Freud as a serious scientist whose work (especially Civilization and Its Discontents: CD hereafter) provides significant insights into the structure, motifs, and conscious and unconscious implications of Cooper’s seventh novel.

2. Treat Freud as a failed scientist who merits comparison with Obed Bat as an example of a rationalist-gone-mad, obsessed with classifying observed phenomena according to artificial schemes out of touch with reality.

3. Regard Freud’s work in CD as a suggestive reformulation of earlier thinkers like Locke and Rousseau who ponder the gains and losses of surrendering absolute personal freedom when entering into a social compact.

All three approaches yield interesting results. I think the third is the most promising, since Freud’s psychoanalytic reformulation of the profits and losses of the social compact provides interesting perspectives on the characters and plot of The Prairie. More helpful to me, though, has been considering how Freud’s sense of the unease or malaise inescapable within the constraints of civilization is one way to explain our uneasy perception that Cooper’s editorial and political summaries do not align with what his narrative actually says.

But before pursuing this third approach in detail, let me consider the first two.

In “Cooper, Freud and the Origins of Culture,” William Wasserstrom takes the concepts Freud advances in CD and elsewhere quite seriously. His thematic summary captures what I will eventually develop as my own theme:

[B]oth men were saddened by the very high price men are forced to pay for all the comforts and solace of culture. Freud is after all the apogee of all the natural philosophers who flourished during the Enlightenment. And Cooper, who came to maturity under its guidance, would have had no difficulty in understanding either Freud’s vocabulary or his explanation of the way union developed among primitive men as a “sort of social contract” which established an organization based on a “renunciation of instinctual gratification.” Both men participated in a tradition of thought which claims that the discontents of civilization occur because culture defiles or distorts human nature.” (425) 1

Wasserstrom’s explication of the costs of renouncing instinctual gratification, in my view, works reasonably well until — like so many critics deriving from Freud — he embarks on a psychoanalysis of the most commanding character in the book, Ishmael Bush. (Anyone like me having problems accepting Freud’s psychoanalysis of real patients will have considerably more trouble investing heavily in the psychoanalysis of a fictional character.) The main point Wasserstrom wants to make is that Ishmael is really responsible for Asa’s death: “Murdering Asa, he [Abiram] accomplishes Ishmael’s design: it is Abiram’s gun that shoots but it is Ishmael’s bullet that kills the son.” (432) In my opinion, this is the kind of rhetoric that gives Freud-based literary criticism a bad name. I see no conclusive evidence in the text to support this view.

But Wasserstrom does adduce some interesting evidence about Ishmael’s state of mind. He points to Ishmael’s unease after Abiram’s execution, arguing that Ishmael feels guilt for executing the tool who carried out his own suppressed desire to rid himself of his senior and thus most threatening son and rival. (432-34) I will argue in my conclusion that indeed Cooper has a purpose in registering Ishmael’s malaise (note I am using throughout the key terms from CD) but not quite in the way Wasserstrom does. Nor can I join with Wasserstrom and some other critics who see Ishmael’s return to civilization in the east as a rebirth, enacted in Freudian terms:

Having offered in sacrifice that part of himself [the reference is to Ishmael], as we may say, which is guilty, Ishmael renounces his own guilt, participates in Abiram’s agony, achieves expiation, and is reborn. (435)

I will argue below that Cooper’s closure with Ishmael is fully satisfactory within the themes Cooper establishes in the novel (which I agree with Wasserstrom are congruent with those of CD), but without subjecting Ishmael to renunciation, expiation and rebirth.

{83} The second approach is diametrically opposed, and begins by denying Doctor Freud’s claims to scientific credibility because — among other reasons — like Doctor Obed Bat he classifies phenomena within schemes or frameworks that appear to be chosen arbitrarily in the service of pre-existing assumptions. In chapter VI of the novel, we encounter one of many facetious accounts of Obed’s attempts to render order in the chaos of the Prairie’s wilderness. Following the principles of scientific classification but burning with the desire to describe an animal hitherto-unknown to Enlightenment natural science, in the dim light of the Prairie Obed sees a monstrous creature he names (in a parody of Adam’s naming in the Garden) after his bat-like self: Vespertilio; Horribilis, Americanus. There ... is an animal, which will be likely to dispute with the Lion, his title to be called King of the Beasts.” (71) The ever-sensible Ellen Wade quickly discovers that the strange animal, and his scientific discoverer as well, are nothing more than an ass.

Obed’s continuing inability to classify rationally continues with his misidentification of one of the novel’s epic heroes, Hard-Heart, whom he takes for a basilisk. (182) Obed himself is appropriately transformed by the Sioux into an indescribable “Prodigy! a lusus naturae!” (his terms for Hard-Heart, 182) when they decorate him with the specimens of vermin he has collected on his travels: “As if in mockery of his pursuit, sundry toads, frogs, lizards, butterflies, etc. all duly prepared to take their places, at some future day, in his own private cabinet were attached to the solitary lock on his head, to his ears, and to various other conspicuous parts of his person.” (304)

Similar problems appear to me in Freud’s series of categorizations in the following passage from CD, from one of his full and often suggestive footnotes. In making the point that man’s learning to control fire was the first step in the creation of civilization, Freud conjectures that:

It is as though primal man had the habit, when he came in contact with fire, of satisfying an infantile desire connected with it, by putting it out with a stream of his urine. The legends we possess leave no doubt about the originally phallic view taken of tongues of flame as they shoot upwards. Putting out fire by micturating — a theme to which modern giants, Gulliver in Lilliput and Rabelais’ Gargantua, still hark back — was therefore a kind of sexual act with a male, an enjoyment of sexual potency in a homosexual competition. The first person to renounce this desire and spare the fire was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire. This great cultural conquest was thus the reward for his renunciation of instinct. (CD, 37)

Admittedly Freud begins by declaring this passage a conjecture. But as he forges link upon link — tongues of flame with the phallus, urinating with homoerotic competition — on his way to his conclusion, the reader easily forgets the tentative introduction. The extraordinary classifications and conjunctions rush with increasing certainty to Freud’s conclusion that sublimating the innate desire to douse the fire with the new-found desire to control it is the crucial step to man’s building civilization. To me the classifications here are as misplaced as Obed’s attempts at science: a series of observations cumulating to support of beliefs perhaps deeply held personally but lacking the prerequisites of independent confirmation, much less predictability. Where is Mark Twain when we could really use him?

The third way of reading CD to enlarge our understanding of The Prairie originates with Freud’s characteristically humanist gesture in the passage above of glossing Swift and Rabelais in support of his (to me) bizarre conclusion about male sublimation of the instinct to compete homoerotically with fire by preserving rather than extinguishing it. (Perhaps one should add that here Freud is not sufficiently humanistic to recall that both his cited authors are writing broad comedy not modern science.)

To appreciate how CD suffuses earlier thought about the sacrifices of liberty required of the social contract with Freud’s own psychoanalytic framework, we begin with the title itself. According to the Editor’s Introduction to the James Strachey English translation of 1961, Freud had difficulties with choosing an effective title for both the original German and the translated English edition, both of which appeared in 1930. Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, which Strachey suggests is best translated into English as “The Malaise in Civilization,” was Freud’s final choice, though Freud earlier had considered “Das Unglück in der Kultur” — “Unhappiness in Civilization.” Freud advocated as the English title “Man’s Discomfort in Civilization,” a reasonably close transliteration to the original German. The first translator, Joan Riviere, however, chose the title by which the book is usually known in English, “Civilization and its Discontents.” Unfortunately, this title tends to suggest an opposition between the two nouns — “Civilization versus the Discontents.” Freud’s intent was not to set one group, the Discontents, off against another, but to suggest that for everyone in a Kultur, malaise is an inescapable price of civilization. Finally, note here the important differences between the German and American substantives in the title, “Civilization” and “Kultur,” the first etymologically deriving from cities and the second from agriculture. To some degree this interplay works in both Freud and Cooper.

{84} Throughout this essay, I’ll keep to the title by which Freud’s late work is usually known in English, CD. But we must keep in mind that Freud’s point, as seen in his struggles with a title, is that all humans in a civilized society must repress their natural instincts. This repression, in Freud’s later thought developed in CD, leads to the aggression of the moralistic and civilization-making super-ego suppressing the ego, creating Unglück or unhappiness. For Freud, this unhappiness is ultimately guilt, which in turn feeds his late-developed concept of the death-wish.

My plan is to consider in order four characters or groups who Cooper carefully differentiates in The Prairie with respect to their attitudes towards civilization, and correspondingly, their innate sense of malaise:

1. the Trapper, the never-named Natty Bumppo from the two previous Leather-Stocking Tales The Pioneers (1823) and The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

2. the Bushes, led by Ishmael Bush, who extracts from the Sioux the admiring epithet, the “Great Buffaloe.” (297)

3. the Indians, led by Hard-Heart of the Pawnees and Mahtoree of the Sioux — deadly enemies on the Prairie but both conscious of the coming dispossession and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the encroaching whites.

4. the emblems of civilization — Duncan Uncas Middleton, his wife Inez, and Obed Bat.

1. The Trapper

The reader early recognizes that the 87-year-old white man, whose entrance shadowed by the setting sun is so emblematic (14-15) of his “attitude [of] musing and melancholy,” is the Natty Bumppo of the two earlier novels. But while Duncan Uncas Middleton recognizes him and his connections to his family as narrated in the earlier novels, Cooper never names the Leather-Stocking in the text: the closest he comes to identifying him is in Natty’s desire to mark his pelts with the letter “N.” (372) After a life east of the Mississippi as a guide, hunter and occasional Indian fighter (Natty and Ishmael discover they both briefly served in the brutal Indian wars under the leadership of General Anthony Wayne), Natty has moved west of the great river divide, perhaps even before the acquisition of these territories in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and certainly before the Lewis and Clark expedition (which is taking place simultaneous with the action of the novel in October 1805.) Like Col. Boon to whom Cooper refers (note, 10) and Huck Finn later, Natty cannot tolerate too much of civilization.

Natty reminisces intensely about those he loved in his past but loves no one now. Indeed, his initial response to being cast on the same Prairie with Ellen and Paul Hover, the Bushes, and later Duncan Uncas Middleton, is to try to avoid being involved with their fights and their problems. (80) Freud makes an interesting comment about the kind of nature Cooper here is describing:

Against the suffering which may come upon one from human relationships the readiest safeguard is voluntary isolation, keeping oneself aloof from other people. The happiness which can be achieved along this path is, as we see, the happiness of quietness. Against the dreaded external world one can defend oneself by some kind of turning away from it, if one intends to solve the task by oneself. (CD, 24)

Freud goes on to state that most people do not follow this route; they choose society. But clearly Cooper sees Natty as one of those exceptional people who wants to “solve the task by oneself.” Natty’s solution is rooted in his deeply-felt and richly-stated faith in a kind of primitive Christianity which retains its roots in a Garden of Eden free of the serpent of knowledge, power and civilization. The argument with Obed over naming and reading — and of the civilization they create — makes his case movingly:

“My reading — nay, if you suppose that I have wasted my time in schools you do such a wrong to my knowledge, as one mortal should never lay to the door of another without sufficient reason. If I have ever craved the art of reading, it has been that I might better know the sayings of the book you name [,] for it is a book, which speaks in every line according to human feelings and therein according to reason.”

“And do you then believe,” said the Doctor a little provoked by the dogmatism of his stubborn adversary, and perhaps secretly triumphing in his own more liberal, though scarcely as profitable, attainments. “Do you then believe that all these beasts were literally collected in a garden to be enrolled in the nomenclature of the first man?”

“Why not. I understand your meaning, for it is not needful to live in towns to hear all the devilish devices that the conceit of man can invent to upset his own happiness. What does it prove, except, indeed that it may be said to prove that the garden He made was not after the miserable fashions of our times, thereby directly giving the lie to what the world calls its civilizing.” (197)

{85} Clearly Natty wants himself to give the lie to “what the world calls civilizing,” but he does so at a price of isolation. Freud even calls it narcissism: “Happiness, in the reduced sense in which we recognize it as possible, is a problem of the economics of the individual’s libido.the narcissistic man, who inclines to be self-sufficient, will seek his main satisfactions in his internal mental processes” (CD, 30-31) — the last phrase is very apt for Natty.

But Natty does reach out to end his isolation, by declaring Hard-Heart as his foster son and heir.

“Young warrior,” he continued, in a voice that was growing tremulous, “I have never been father, or brother. The Wahcondah made me to live alone. He never tied my heart, to house or field, by the cords with which the men of my race are bound to their lodges; if he had I should not have journeyed so far and seen so much. But I have tarried long among a people, who liv’d in those woods you mention, and much reason did I find to imitate their courage and love their honesty. The Master of Life has made us all, Pawnee, with a feeling for our kind. I never was a father, but well do I know what is the love of one. You are like a lad, I valued, and I had even begun to fancy that some of his blood might be in your veins. But, what matters that! You are a true man, as I know by the way in which you keep your faith, and honesty is a gift too rare to be forgotten. My heart yearns to you, boy, and gladly would I do you good.” (278)

Yet though Hard-Heart triumphs over Mahtoree in the fight on the island, he and his people are doomed. Natty lives out his days with them, and dies with a “here” on his lips as he’s called up to the Last Muster. But he has nothing to pass on to Hard-Heart, nothing to stave off the doom of his people, white or red:

“I am without kith or kin in the wide world!” the trapper answered. “When I am gone there will be an end of my race. We have never been chiefs; but honest and useful in our way, I hope it cannot be denied we have always proved ourselves. My father lies buried near the sea, and the bones of his son will whiten on the Prairies.” (383)

In my view, Natty dies a tragic figure. His greatness emerges from his moral insight into the human condition:

“Now listen to what the experience of an old man teaches him. I have lived long, as these gray hairs and wrinkled hands will show, even though my tongue should fail in the wisdom of my years. And I have seen much of the folly of man; for his natur’ is the same, be he born in the wilderness or be he born in the towns. To my weak judgement it hath ever seem’d that his gifts are not equal to his wishes. That he would mount into the Heavens with all his deformities about him, if he only knew the road, no one will gainsay that witnesses his bitter strivings upon ‘arth. If his power is not equal to his will, it is because the wisdom of the Lord hath set bounds to his evil workings.” (240)

Yet the tragic irony is that Natty’s greatness can only set him apart, ultimately making him ineffectual as an agent within a civilization he cannot abide. His insight is purchased by a life outside a system he can not live in and thus ultimately cannot affect. Natty can pointedly characterize life in civilization but cannot live himself in it; he resolves the tensions of civilization by wholly rejecting it. It is his tragic grandeur that he seems to understand this ultimate frustration — thus his “musing and melancholy” from our first meeting him in the first chapter to his death in the last.

2. The Bush Horde

Not Natty, but Ishmael Bush, is the true patriarch of the novel. And Cooper, not Melville, deserves the fame of making the name “Ishmael” a borrowing from the Bible central to American literature. Ishmael, you’ll recall (more likely today from reading literary criticism than the Bible!) was the son of Abraham and Hagar, an Egyptian slave; Sarah’s eventual bearing of her first born, Isaac, resulted in Sarah’s compelling Abraham to banish his illegitimate family. Ishmael became the prototypical wanderer, but ultimately fathered the twelve tribes which became Arabs. (And of course in the mind of many as late as Cooper’s day, Ishmael the wanderer was progenitor to the tribes of American Indians.)

Melville’s commanding phrase “Call me Ishmael” opens his greatest book; Prairie lacks the verbal slap of Moby-Dick’s ringing opening line but the appearance of Cooper’s Ishmael is no less haunting. In introducing Ishmael and in many descriptions thereafter, Cooper curiously compounds a sense of animal lethargy with sheer brutal power and force inherent in the Bushes, who lumber on to the scene in the novel like some primitive horde out of a footnote in Freud. Their trek west of the Mississippi is motivated by that mix of unfocused adventurousness and restlessness with which Cooper had characterized the unrooted class of temporary denizens in The Pioneers, always looking to improve their holdings by moving their “plunder” (note, 22) westward. And of course the Bushes have additional reasons to keep on the move: Ishmael’s brush with a deputy sheriff “in old Kentuck” (58) and brother-in law Abiram’s trade in slaves, white and black, make their escape from civilization and its law necessary as well as desirable.

{86} From the point of view of CD, what fascinates about the Bushes in the tenuous, always threatening sense of the fragility of the social compact within the family. Ishmael must rule by brute force, sensing that his sons can at any moment declare their independence and rise up against him — as he himself recalls he did against his own father.

The foregoing occurrences [the discovery of the slain oldest son, Asa] had struck a spark from the stern tempers of a set of beings so singularly moulded in the habits of their uncultivated [don’t forget Freud’s Kultur here] lives, which served to keep alive among them the dying embers of family affection. United to their parents by ties no stronger than those which use had created, there had been great danger, as Ishmael had foreseen, that the overloaded hive would swarm, and leave him saddled with the difficulties of a young and helpless brood, unsupported by the exertions of those, whom he had, already, brought to a state of maturity. The spirit of insubordination, which emanated from the unfortunate Asa, had spread among his juniors, and the squatter had been made painfully to remember the time, when in the wantonness of his youth and vigor, he had, reversing the order of the brutes, cast off his own aged and failing parents, to enter into the world unshackled and free. But the danger had now abated, for a time at least, and if his authority was not restored with all its former influence, it was admitted to exist, and to maintain its ascendancy a little longer.

It is true, that his slow-minded sons, even while they submitted to the impressions of the recent event, had glimmerings of terrible distrusts, as to the manner in which their elder brother had met with his death. There were, faint and indistinct images, in the minds of two or three of the oldest, which portrayed the father, himself, as ready to imitate the example of Abraham, without the justification of the sacred authority, which commanded the holy man to attempt the revolting office. But, then, these images were so transient and so much obscured in intellectual mists as to leave no very strong impressions, and the tendency of the whole transaction, as we have already said, was rather to strengthen, than to weaken the authority of Ishmael. (143)

Asa’s inclination towards rebellion is marked in the most threatening manner — his expressions of concern for the welfare of Ellen Wade, whom he regards as his eventual wife. Thus Ishmael strives to keep Ellen firmly under his control, knowing that — to use the imagery above of the hive — should Asa take off with Ellen as his mate to start a new family, his own authority will collapse, perhaps even threatening his life. When Ellen shows her spirited independence by inspecting the forbidden tent at the pinnacle of the Bushes’ encampment, Ishmael sends her scurrying with a gun shot.

“What has Ellen done, Father,” said Asa, with a degree of spirit, which was the more striking from being unusual, “that she should be shot at, like a straggling deer or a hungry wolf!”

“Mischief,” deliberately returned the squatter, but with a cool expression of defiance in his eye, that show’d, how little he was mov’d by the ill concealed humour of his children. “Mischief, boy; mischief. Take you heed, that the disorder don’t spread.”

“It would need a different treatment in a man, than in yon screaming girl.”

“Asa, you ar’ a man, as you have often boasted; but, remember I am your Father, and your better.”

“I know it well — and what sort of a Father!”

“Harkee, boy: I more than half believe, that your drowsy head, let in the Siouxes. Be modest in speech, my watchful son, or you may have to answer yet for the mischief, your own bad conduct has brought upon us.”

“I’ll stay no longer to be hectored like a child in petticoats. You talk of law, as if you knew of none; and yet you keep me, down, as though I had not life and wants of my own. I’ll stay no longer to be treated like one of your meanest cattle!”

“The world is wide, my gallant boy, and there’s many a noble plantation, on it, without a tenant. Go, you have title deeds, sign’d and seal’d to your hand. Few Fathers portion their children better than Ishmael Bush, you will say that for me, at least when you get to be a wealthy land holder. (90-91)

Asa’s rebellion against his father prefigures Freud’s musing on the primal family: as the sons sense the age and growing impotence of the father, they test him, psychologically and physically, until one — presumably the eldest — can wrest power away even at the cost of patricide. To the younger male victor belong the spoils of sexual dominance of the always-for-Freud subservient females, but the younger male’s conquest comes at the cost now of needing to assume {87} leadership and setting himself up for assault by new rivals. He has lost the protection of the older male and now becomes vulnerable himself; indeed his act of rebellion sets him up inevitably for displacement at the hands of a male he’ll sire. Thus Ishmael’s invitation to Asa to depart, giving him as patrimony no real “title deeds, sign’d and seal’d” but instead the knowledge of self-sufficiency, makes good sense. Ishmael senior offers his eldest the chance to form a new tribe of Ishmaelites; or in the borrowed imagery of Paul Hover the bee-hunter, for a new colony to swarm (143). Had Asa lived to take this offer, the Ishmael Bush horde would have grown without the death of any of the males whose repression of their natural instincts for pleasure and aggression remain always uncertain. (For familial tensions in CD, see 78-80).

Said another way, Ishmael’s last words to his son echo ironically the terms of a law Ishmael has rejected: “The world is wide, my gallant boy, and there’s many a noble plantation, on it, without a tenant. Go, you have title deeds, sign’d and seal’d to your hand. Few Fathers portion their children better than Ishmael Bush, you will say that for me, at least when you get to be a wealthy land holder.” These images draw from the laws of civilization, the very laws of land ownership that Ishmael in his movements westward has repudiated. When Ellen Wade, in a moment of mental “vacancy” agrees with her garrulous aunt’s upbraiding of Ishmael, Esther Bush responds with a defense of the man she’s just been criticizing; the passage concludes with Cooper’s telling comment that Esther was raising her brood “to a life as shiftless and lawless as her own, but which notwithstanding its uncertainty was not without its secret charms.” (119) The life which “notwithstanding its uncertainty was not without its secret charms” is that life which civilization represses: a life of freedom, contingency and danger. Esther has summed up the secret charm of that life in her spirited defense of Ishmael:

“I should like to see a man on the whole frontier, who sets a more honest example to his children than this same Ishmael Bush! Show me if you can, Miss fault-finder, but not fault-mender, a set of boys who will, on occasion, sooner chop a piece of logging, and dress it up for a crop, than my own children, though I say it, myself, who, perhaps should be silent; or a cradler who knows better how to lead a gang of hands through a field of wheat leaving a cleaner stubble, in his track, than my own good man! Then as a father, he is as generous as a Lord; for his sons have only to name the spot where they would like to pitch, and he gives ‘em a deed of the Plantation, and no charge for papers, is ever made.” (118-19)

Interestingly, the imagery here is of cultivation (Kultur again); what Esther celebrates is the success of her man and her sons in cultivating nature to enhance its yield. The “secret charm” is the ability to move freely and without the constraint of any law, and, above all, in the confidence that Ishmael and her seven sons possess the might always to make right whenever contingency, civilized or otherwise, intrudes.

3. The Indians, “the Ishmaelites of the American deserts” (40)

If a principal “secret charm” of living outside civilization is the freedom to claim one’s Plantation anywhere, as Esther Bush has argued, then the Indians of the Plains must be fortunate indeed in that they have wholly escaped the claims of civilization that would repress their freedom to fly at will over the plains. The ownership of land is a concept foreign to them — as it is also to Natty Bumppo and to Ishmael Bush. “Is a nation to be sold like the skin of a beaver” asks Hard-Heart rhetorically when Natty first speaks to him. (188) As hunters not planters (or cultivators — ” Kultur“ again), the Indians value land as the ground where they roam to slay the wild animals who provide their subsidence; it is not, as it is even to some degree for the Bushes, a desert to be cultivated for Plantations to produce grain for comparatively fixed families and domestic flocks. Thus the Indians of the Prairie have escaped from the malaise of cultivation and civilization.

Or at least they had escaped before the whites arrived. Mahtoree, leader of the Sioux who capture Natty, Paul and Ellen early in the narrative, interrogates Natty regarding the intentions of the odd party of whites now in his power. Natty parries Mahtoree’s questions with skill and cunning, but the Chief’s rhetorical questions go unanswered and ultimately establish his recognition of the peril his people are exposed to:

“Have the pale faces eaten their own buffaloes, and taken the skins from all their own beavers, ... that they come to count how many are left among the Pawnees?”. ...

“Have not the Pale-faces stolen enough from the Red men, that you come so far to carry a lie! I have said that this is a hunting-ground of my tribe.”. ...

“The earth is very large,” the Chief commenced. ... “Why can the children of my Great White Father never find room on it?” (44-45)

Cooper distinguishes carefully between the two Indian protagonists, Mahtoree and Hard-Heart, in terms of their moral stature which in turn is directly related to their contact with civilization:

We have endeavored to show, that, while Mahtoree was in all essentials a warrior of the Prairies, he was much in advance of his people, in those acquirements which announce the dawnings of civilization. He held frequent communion with the traders and troops of the Canadas, and the intercourse had unsettled many of those wild opinions which were his birth-right, without perhaps substituting any others, of a nature sufficiently definite to be profitable. (288)

Cooper’s dropping into the “editorial we” mode of showing rather than telling is important here: he is consciously framing Mahtoree to serve his thematic contrast with Hard-Heart who is entirely free of any “acquirements which announce the dawnings of civilization.” In Freud’s terms, Mahtoree’s problem is that his communion and intercourse with Canadian civilization has shown him some of the assets of civilization but with the liability of unsettling his sense of primal freedom from constraint. These assets include the a recognition of social inter-dependence, “for notwithstanding the superior influence of Mahtoree, his power was to be maintained only by constant appeals to the opinions of his inferiors.” (301) Though Cooper labors to make Mahtoree the villain required for his plot, even more than with Magua in The Last of the Mohicans (with whom he’s often compared), Mahtoree commands the reader’s respect. Mahtoree’s craft and cunning ultimately are in the service of preserving his people against what he — not Hard-Heart — correctly recognizes is their coming extermination at the hands of the encroaching whites.

Hard-Heart, unlike Mahtoree never in contact with civilization, becomes in the novel the iconic noble savage. Part of his nobility is his innocence; beyond his rhetorical question to Natty about purchasing the land like a beaver’s skin, he never questions what these whites are ultimately up to on his hunting grounds. Of course Cooper’s theme and plot require Hard-Heart to reprise part of the role of Uncas in juxtaposition to Mahtoree/Magua. And in the final duel, Hard-Heart wins everything, including Mahtoree’s youngest wife, the beauteous Tatechana, thus increasing his harem and progeny — though Tatechana appropriately has to fill the place of the much-desired Inez who is denied to the partisan of both the Pawnee and the Teton.

Clearly Hard-Heart’s victory over Mahtoree is driven more by the necessity of the narrative to save Natty, Duncan Uncas Middleton and Inez, than to serve the Indians threatened by the whites. Hart-Heart wins because he, not Mahtoree, is the card-carrying Noble Savage in The Prairie, a figure based on the widely-admired Petalesharoo who Cooper had himself met in Washington in 1825 and about whom he wrote at length in his next book after The Prairie, Notions of the Americans (1828). 2 In terms of CD, Hard-Heart must win because he, unlike Mahtoree, remains faithful entirely to his culture, Hard of heart as Cooper explains in his steadfastness to his culture and unlike Mahtoree unaffected by any of “acquirements which announce the dawnings of civilization.” (191)

But if being right is winning, Mahtoree is the victor even in death. It is he who realizes the ultimate perfidy of the whites, against Hard-Heart’s adherence to the noble savage’s uncivilized absolute laws of charity to strangers. Before the two fight, Mahtoree calls upon Hard-Heart to make common cause against the whites both have seen encroaching upon their Prairie. Hard-Heart boasts of the number of enemy Indians he has killed; Mahtoree tries, unsuccessfully, to shift his view to the larger threat of the whites:

“If a red-skin strikes a red-skin, forever, who will be the master of the Prairie, when no warriors are left to say they are mine. Hear the voices of the old men. They tell us, that, in their days, many Indians have come out of the woods, under the rising sun, and that they have filled the Prairies with their complaints of the robberies of the Long-knives. Where a pale-face comes, a red-man cannot stay. The land is too small. They are always hungry.” (334-35)

But Hard-Heart, bound and limited by his fidelity to his tribal law and uncontaminated by the conflicting pressures of civilization, cannot look beyond the tribal enmities. He cannot turn upon the white strangers and must seek the blood of Mahtoree. He refuses the offered alliance and slays Mahtoree. He gains Natty Bumppo’s love, and presumably Tatechana’s. But if Cooper did not know which of the two partisans made the correct call on the ultimate intentions of the whites on the Prairie, we of course know full well today. 3

4. The Bearers of Civilization on the Prairie

{89} The final group to examine in terms of CD are the remaining characters, an oddly-assorted lot who have in common a greater affinity with civilization than the groups examined above: Inez and her husband Duncan Uncas Middleton; Ellen Wade and her lover Paul Hover, and Obed Bat.

According to Susan Cooper, her father regretted putting Inez and Duncan into the book, a view many readers will share. (Kelly, 92) But as many critics have noted, though utterly lacking in vitality as characters, Inez and Duncan play significant roles in the themes of the novel, especially in terms of CD. Inez represents the highest form of civilization depicted in the novel: daughter of a Spanish aristocrat seeking a familial alliance with the new United States through permitting her marriage to Duncan, Inez literally embodies the luxuriant beauty and grace of a civilization become over-ripe and effete. Cooper stresses her subservience to her Jesuit spiritual advisor, and extracts some feeble comedy from Father Ignatius’s attempts to maintain control over his congregation given the threat of individual and cultural marriage to a presumably more virile Anglo-civilization represented by her husband. Inez’s response to the tensions between personal and social liberty is to embrace the rules of her society to the point of losing all sense of personal identity — to a degree extreme even for a Cooper woman. (Freud’s analysis of individuals who surrender their personal freedom and happiness to embrace civilized norms seems to apply well to Inez and to her spiritual monitor, Father Ignatius: “Every renunciation of instinct now becomes a dynamic source of conscience and every fresh renunciation increases the latter’s severity and intolerance.” CD, 75)

The most interesting thing about Duncan Uncas Middleton is his name, with its rich overtones of CD. His name patently figures other unions. His middle name, Uncas, recalls the strengths of the Indians loved by Natty Bumppo, while his first name, Duncan, recalls his grandfather, Duncan Heyward, Natty’s British soldier-companion in the previous novel, who married Alice Munro. But most tellingly, “Middleton” symbolizes a middle way between the extremes of the uncivilized Mohicans (or Pawnees) and his stiff British forebears, as well perhaps of the over-matured cultures like the Spanish into which Duncan marries.

This, it seems to me, is Cooper’s intent. His achievement falls far short. Duncan remains a cardboard figure, spending most of his time in the novel captured by either Indians or the Bushes and thus failing in his quest to join Inez and to unite with her as progenitor of the new race his last name prefigures. (Recall Inez was kidnapped between her marriage and her marriage bed.) Duncan is saved and reunited to Inez not so much by Natty but by Cooper ensuring that the plot preserves them both for their symbolic role as culture-bearers. If Inez represents the height of what civilization can offer — her actual contribution is at best insipid. Nor does Duncan mediate effectively between the white and Indian forebears figured in his name. As a representative of an advanced civilization, he joins the ranks of those curious Cooperian ciphers like his relatives Oliver Effingham (Pioneers, 1823) or John Effingham (Home as Found, 1838) who give being a culture-bearer a bad name.

Paul Hover, the bee catcher, plays an interesting role in Cooper’s panoply of civilized characters. He and Ellen enact more vigorously the role Cooper assigns unsuccessfully to Duncan: they mix the primitive energies of the settlers or even the Indians with the initial constraints of civilization to create the kind of forceful but self-restrained pioneers Cooper had exemplified in his novel of that title in 1823. But again their role on the Prairie seems adventitious: they supply love interest, presumably a commercial necessity in 1827; they help reinforce the mystery of the Bushes’ secret wagon containing Inez, and their union and return east parallels weakly the far more powerful return of Ishmael, to which I will turn in my conclusion. Cooper’s assigning Paul a role in the lower elected house of his state, and Duncan a role in the higher, marks their full assimilation back into civilization.

The final character deserving a brief comment is Doctor Obed Bat. Bat brings to The Prairie the formulas of Enlightenment science, seeking to add to its store of civilized knowledge more examples of fauna and flora. Cooper of course presents Obed as a hopeless misfit, a constant butt of satire and ridicule who is always at the losing end of an interchange with Natty on book versus observed knowledge. Obed is an extreme example of how civilization represses: he has forced himself never to see with his eyes but only through the lenses of the class/order/genus/species formula (101) he has learned at school but which serve him so poorly on the Prairie. Ultimately, in Cooper’s abstract hierarchy, Obed joins with Inez to illustrate the impotence of assimilating the order of civilization so thoroughly as to blind oneself from the loose contingencies of everyday reality.

Cooper’s Malaise

{90} Like many others, I find vexing the image of James Fenimore Cooper as we now know him (a definitive biography has yet to appear). The received image of Cooper, admittedly strongly constructed by his enemies during the Cooperstown boundary disputes of the 1830’s, is of someone always eager to claim the place of privilege as a gentleman and man of property. Yet we know that the only property to which he could lastingly lay claim is his literary property. His paternal estate, as Alan Taylor has recently demonstrated, was acquired through the ethically-challenged manipulations of his pseudo-Quaker father, and lost before he could profit from it. More troubling, one easily suspects that the plots of the two books dealing entirely with Cooperstown/Templeton, Pioneers (1823) and Home as Found (1838), were constructed to justify his family’s claims to dominance in the town at the sources of the Susquehanna.

Yet this same James Cooper requested in 1826 (the year he began The Prairie) that his surname be changed permanently to James Cooper Fenimore, accepting the tripartite name by which he is now known when his original petition was denied. Far more important, he inscribed a series of characters, white and red, especially early in his career, who to a man unsettle the claims to identity founded only in land ownership that characterize the Effinghams. Harvey Birch, Natty Bumppo, and Ishmael Bush all would agree with Hard-Heart that a nation cannot be sold like a beaver skin.

My point is that in creating these characters, I think we can see Cooper’s own “musing and melancholy” (15) about the character identity of ownership, and even more largely, of the problems of civilization, culture and its inescapable discontent. Even in the heart of Home as Found, the book easiest to read as Cooper’s proclamation of the rights of privilege born of ownership defended against the vulgar masses, unsettling remembrances of the old Leather-Stocking and his ethic intrude. In Chapter 14 the old “commodore,” fishing for the Otsego sogdollager, recalls “Washington and Natty Bumppo as the two only really great men of my time,” (229) and further recalls “we all know that Natty did dislike to see a new settler arrive in the mountains.” (230) Significantly, it is this very chapter in which the dispute over public access versus Effingham ownership of “the Point” breaks out. It is as if that just when Cooper embarks on his fictional campaign to justify the fictional rights of the Effinghams and the real right of the Coopers, he cannot help but challenge, in recalling Natty, the whole question of rights of ownership itself.

Cooper’s unease with ownership seem to be at the heart of the surprising denouement of The Prairie, in Ishmael Bush’s decision to turn back from his westward trek and disappear within the civilization east of the Mississippi. One reason for Ishmael’s return is clear; the other is not. The clear reason rests in Cooper’s clearly stated editorial and political views, in the novel’s Preface and introductory chapter. In the Preface Cooper writes that “between the two [regions — the reference is the ‘luxuriant fertility’ from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and again from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific], lies the broad belt, of comparative desert, which is the scene of this tale, appearing to interpose a barrier to the progress of the American people westward.” (4). Like many Americans, Cooper saw this “comparative desert” of the Great Plains as uncultivated and uncultivatable. Cooper as a political thinker agreed with many other analysts that the “scene of this tale,” the Prairie, protected the civilized east against both the unlimited and thus threatening expansion ever westward of his own fellow citizens, as well as of a potential new national rival to the metropolitan east. Thus the curious language of the opening paragraph of a novel whose title leads many, wrongly, to expect a Cooperian declaration of Manifest Destiny:

Much was said and written, at the time, concerning the policy of adding the vast regions of Louisiana, to the already immense, and but half-tenanted territories of the United States. As the warmth of the controversy however subsided, and party considerations gave place to more liberal views, the wisdom of the measure began to be generally conceded. It soon became apparent, to the meanest capacity, that while nature had placed a barrier of desert to the extension of our population in the west, the measure had made us the masters of a belt of fertile country, which, in the revolutions of the day, might have become the property of a rival nation. It gave us the sole command of the great thoroughfare of the interior, and placed the countless tribes of savages, who lay along our borders, entirely within our control; it reconciled conflicting rights, and quieted national distrusts; it opened a thousand avenues to the inland trade, and to the waters of the Pacific; and, if ever time or necessity shall require a peaceful division of this vast empire; it assures us a neighbour that will possess our language, our religion, our institutions, and it is also to be hoped, our sense of political justice. (9)

Perhaps between 1823 and 1826 Cooper had thought more deeply about the role and threat of unlimited expansion, since in The Prairie Natty does not play the role Cooper assigned to him in the famous last lines of The Pioneers: “He had gone far towards the setting sun, — the foremost in that band of Pioneers, who are opening the way, for the march of the nation across the continent.” (Pioneers, 456) 4

{91} Cooper by 1826 saw yet another reason to alter Natty’s role as trailblazer for a Manifest Destiny that would spread the civilization of Templeton from sea to sea. Cooper — like many other political thinkers of his day — saw the desert of the Prairie as more than just a barrier to the undisciplined diffusion of civilization westward. Concentrating the white population east of the Mississippi, in “the great thoroughfare of the interior,” would guarantee that “the countless tribes of savages, who lay along our borders, [would continue] entirely within our controul.” (9) The desert Prairie would provide the perfect solution to the Indian problem, by providing the ultimate home for Indians displaced from the “great thoroughfare of the interior” East into wild lands appropriate to the uncultivated and uncivilized mode of living. Cooper, it would appear, would solve the problems of Mahtoree’s infection from the “dawning of civilization” by displacing the Indian population east of the Mississippi to the west — far from Anglo civilizations and its temptations. What The Prairie suggested in fiction, his next book, Notions of the Americans, makes explicit:

A great, humane and I think rational project is now in operation to bring the Indians within the pale of civilization. I furnish you with its outline, as it is detailed in a recent report of the head of the Indian Office.

Most, if not all, of the Indians who reside east of the Mississippi live within the jurisdiction of some State or of some territory. In most cases they are left to the quiet enjoyment of the scanty rights which they retain. But the people of their vicinity commonly wish to get rid of neighbors that retard civilization and who are so often troublesome. The policy of States is sometimes adverse to their continuance. Though there is no power, except that of the United States, which can effect their removal without their own consent, the State authorities can greatly embarrass the control of the General Government. A question of policy, and perhaps of jurisdiction lately arose, on this subject, between Georgia and the General Government. In the course of its disposal, the United States, in order to secure the rights of the Indians more effectually, and to prevent any future question of this sort, appear to have hit on the following plan.

West of the Mississippi, they still hold large regions, that belong to no State or territory. They propose to several tribes, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees &c, to sell their present possessions, improvements, houses, fences, stock &c, and to receive in return acre for acre, with the same amount of stock, fences and every other auxiliary of civilization they now possess. The inducements to make this exchange are as follows: Perpetuity to their establishments, since a pledge is given that no title shall ever be granted, that may raise a pretext for another removal; an organization of a republican, or as it is termed a Territorial Government for them, such as now exist in Florida, Arkansas and Michigan; protection by the presence of troops; and a right to send delegates to Congress, similar to that now enjoyed by the other Territories.

If the plan can be effected there is reason to think that the constant diminution in the numbers of the Indians will be checked, and that a race about whom there is so much that is poetic and fine in recollection will be preserved. Indeed some of the Southern tribes have already endured the collision with the white man, and are still slowly on the increase. As one of these tribes, at least, (the Chickasaws) is included in this plan, there is just ground to hope that the dangerous point of communication has been passed, and that they may continue to advance in civilization to maturity. The chief of the bureau for Indian affairs, gives it as his opinion that they (the Chickasaws) have increased about ten per cent within six years. Their whole number is computed at four thousand souls.

Should such a Territory be formed, a nucleus will be created, around which all the savages of the west, who have any yearnings for a more meliorated state of existence, can rally. As there is little reluctance to mingle the white and red blood, (for the physical difference is far less than in the case of the blacks, and the Indians have never been menial slaves) I think an amalgamation of the two races would in time occur. Those families of America, who are thought to have any of the Indian blood, are rather proud of their descent, and it is a matter of boast among many of the most considerable persons of Virginia that they are descended from the renowned Pocahontas. (Notions of the Americans, 489-490)

As a political thinker, Cooper wanted the Prairie reserved for the “great, humane and rational project” herein described. Thus the Bushes cannot occupy the Prairie. They could, of course, do as some adventurers did in the earliest past of the 19ᵗʰ century — journey the whole way to the Pacific coast, Cooper’s other region destined for ultimate civilization. But they turn back to the east.

{92} On the following morning [after Abiram’s execution] the teams and herds of the squatter were seen pursuing their course towards the settlements. As they approached the confines of society, the train was blended among a thousand others. Though some of the numerous descendants of this peculiar pair, were reclaimed from their lawless and semi-barbarous lives, the principals of the family, themselves, were never heard of more. (364)

Explaining this decision within the narrative of the text is more difficult than explaining Cooper’s editorial stance. For an answer, I turn again to CD. The paragraph a page preceding the brief description of Ishmael’s return to civilization provides what little clue Cooper offers for this surprising turn of events:

For the first time, in a life of so much wild adventure, Ishmael felt a keen sense of solitude. The naked Prairies began to assume the forms of illimitable and dreary wastes, and the rushing of the wind sounded like the whisperings of the dead. It was not long before he thought a shriek was borne past him on a blast. It did not sound like a call from earth, but it swept frightfully through the upper air, mingled with the hoarse accompanyment of the wind. The teeth of the squatter were compressed and his huge hand grasped the rifle, as if it would crush the metal. Then came a lull, a fresher blast, and a cry of horror that seemed to have been uttered at the very portals of his ears. A sort of echo burst involuntarily from his own lips, as men will shout under unnatural excitement, and throwing his rifle across his shoulder he proceeded towards the rock with the strides of a giant. (362-363)

Wasserstrom, you will recall, argues that Ishmael’s sharply-etched mood here resulted from grappling with self-knowledge he wanted to repress: that he sought Asa’s death to maintain his patriarchal authority within the extended family. 5 Personally I do not think one has to subject Ishmael to such psychoanalysis; to me, within the context of CD, the first line of this passage explains Ishmael’s decision: “For the first time, in a life of so much wild adventure, Ishmael felt a keen sense of solitude.” He has lived a life of “much wild adventure” through trusting his strength, unaided, to force his way through any difficulties. Asa’s death — not Abiram’s — is the catalyst here, for he realizes that totally to reject civilization and society is to submit to solitude, with its “forms of illimitable and dreary waste.” In a Wordsworthian “spot of time,” the outer “hoarse accompanyment of the wind” echoes within his spirit, disclosing the other side of the bargain of the social compact — the ultimate isolation of those apart from civilization. The happiness of narcissism is purchased at the price of isolation, ultimately of impotence. Ishmael decides to take his family back, apparently having learned that a measure of malaise or unhappiness is worth a measure of law and order within a community. Or, as Freud puts the point, “Civilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security.” (CD, 62) Ishmael, in the end, rejects the heritage of his namesake. After all, he is a patriarch, not a narcissist tragic hero like Natty Bumppo.


I suggest in conclusion that Cooper intended to make Prairie — originally to be the last of the Leather-Stocking Tales — his summing up of his vision of America, past and future. His own uncertainties, his malaise if you will, about the nature of that future show forth in the novel in ways he could not fully control. With respect to CD, I think Cooper leaves us with three disparate views of the price paid for living in civilization. Cooper’s reasoned conclusion, the one that comes closest to the vexing image of him as a gentleman landowner licensed to dispense wisdom and justice — — places Duncan Uncas Middleton as husband to Inez and senator to his state at the apogee of power in the new nation. As the symbolic figure (multi-cultural, no less!), Duncan presumably brings together the strengths of Anglo, Indian and Spanish culture to make and discharge the law wisely. Yet if we are to trust the tale and not the teller, Duncan pays the ultimate price for so well embodying civilization of being dead, as a character, throughout the narrative. 6

Cutting across Cooper’s simple meliorist conclusion are, however, two other bearers of the law in The Prairie whose images are more powerful and resonant. The first is of a Natty Bumppo who admits the law is necessary to restrain the evil passions of man. As he tells Ellen in a passage that perfectly summarizes the Enlightenment doctrine of the social compact, “The law — ‘Tis bad to have it, but, I sometimes think, it is worse to be entirely without it. Age and weakness have brought me to feel such weaknesses at times. Yes — yes, the law is needed, when such as have not the gifts of strength and wisdom are to be taken care of.” (27) As observed before, the price in the social compact Natty pays for these insights is to recognize that a being constituted as he is cannot live within a civilization that requires such obedience to the law. In language closely reprising his similar lament in The Pioneers, Natty says of his imprisonment in Judge Temple’s stocks:

{93} “I was carried into one of the lawless holes [a court house] myself, once, and it was all about a thing of no more value than the skin of a deer. The Lord forgive them, the Lord forgive them; they knew no better, and they did according to their weak judgements, and therefore the more are they to be pitied. And yet it is a solemn sight to see an aged man, who had always lived in the air, laid neck and heels, by the law, and held up as a spectacle for the women and boys of a wasteful settlement to point their fingers at!” (323)

The third image of the law that regulates civilization probably troubled Cooper the most, yet it is the most powerful.

“I am called upon, this day, to fill the office, which in the settlements you give unto judges who are set apart to decide on matters that arise between man and man. I have but little knowledge of the ways of the courts, though there is a rule that is known unto all, and which teaches that an ‘eye must be returned for an eye’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth.’ I am no troubler of County houses, and least of all do I like living on a plantation that the sheriff has surveyed, yet there is a reason in such a law that makes it a safe rule to journey by, and therefore it ar’ a solemn fact, that this day shall I abide by it, and give unto all and each, that which is his due and no more.” (343)

With Paul Hover and Duncan Uncas Middleton safely ensconced in their respective legislatures, Cooper and other landowners can rest safe. But Cooper in his imagination sees a rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem, and that beast is named Bush.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, Home as Found [1838]. Darley Edition. New York: Townsend, 1860.
  • ------. Notions of the Americans: Picked Up by a Traveling Bachelor [1828]. Ed. by Gary Williams. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
  • ------. The Pioneers: or The Sources of the Susquehanna, A Descriptive Tale [1823]. Ed. by Lance Schachterle and Kenneth J. Andersen, Jr. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980.
  • ------. The Prairie: A Tale [1827]. Ed. by James P. Elliott. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.
  • Freud, Sigmund, Civilization and Its Discontents [1930]. Translated and edited by James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.
  • Kelly, William P., Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
  • Överland, Orm, The Making and Meaning of an American Classic: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie. New York: Humanities Press, 1973.
  • Rans, Geoffrey, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  • Taylor, Alan, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. New York: Vintage, 1995.
  • Wasserstrom, William, “Cooper, Freud and the Origins of Culture,” American Imago, 17 (1960), 423-437.


1 Wasserstrom draws upon Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (1939) and Totem and Taboo (1913) as well as CD for his analysis:      

Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals. The power of this community is then set up as ‘right’ in opposition to the power of the individual, which is condemned as ‘brute force’. This replacement of the power of the individual by the power of a community constitutes the decisive step of civilization. The essence of it lies in the fact that the members of the community restrict themselves in their possibilities of satisfaction, whereas the individual knew no such restrictions. The first requisite of civilization, therefore, is that of justice — that is, the assurance that a law once made will not be broken in favour of an individual. This implies nothing as to the ethical value of such a law. The further course of cultural development seems to tend towards making the law no longer an expression of the will of a small community — a caste or a stratum of the population or a racial group — which, in its turn, behaves like a violent individual towards other, and perhaps more numerous, collections of people. The final outcome should be a rule of law to which all — except those who are not capable of entering a community — have contributed by a sacrifice of their instincts, and which leaves no one — again with the same exception — at the mercy of brute force.      

The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization. It was greatest before there was any civilization. Though then, it is true, it had for the most part no value, since the individual was scarcely in a position to defend it. The development of civilization imposes restrictions on it, and justice demands that no one shall escape those restrictions. What makes itself felt in a human community as a desire for freedom may be their revolt against some existing injustice, and so may prove favourable to a further development of civilization; it may remain compatible with civilization. But it may also spring from the remains of their original personality, which is still untamed by civilization and may thus become the basis in them of hostility to civilization. The urge for freedom, therefore, is directed against particular forms and demands of civilization or against civilization altogether. It does not seem as though any influence could induce a man to change his nature into a termite’s. No doubt he will always defend his claim to individual liberty against the will of the group. A good part of the struggles of mankind center round the single task of finding an expedient accommodation — one, that is, that will bring happiness — between this claim of the individual and the cultural claims of the group; and one of the problems that touches the fate of humanity is whether such an accommodation can be reached by means of some particular form of civilization or whether this conflict is irreconcilable. (42-43)      

Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life. If one were to yield to a first impression, one would say that sublimation is a vicissitude which has been forced upon the instincts entirely by civilization. But it would be wiser to reflect upon this a little longer. In the third place, finally, and this seems the most important of all, it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression or some other means?) of powerful instincts. (44)

2 Cooper described Petalesharoo, a primary source for Hard-Heart, as follows in Notions of the Americans (1828):      The character of the American Indian has been too often faithfully described to need any repetition here. The majority of them, in or near the settlements, are a humbled and much degraded race. As you recede from the Mississippi, the finer traits of savage life become visible, and although most of the Natives of the Prairies, even there, are far from being the interesting and romantic heroes that poets love to paint, there are specimens of loftiness of spirit, of noble bearing and of savage heroism to be found among the chiefs, that it might embarrass the fertility of the richest invention to equal. I met one of those heroes of the desert, and a finer physical and moral man, allowing for peculiarity of condition, if has rarely been my good fortune to encounter.      Peterlasharro, or the Young Knife Chief of the Pawnees, when I saw him, was a man of some six or seven and twenty years. He had already gained renown as a warrior, and he had won the confidence of his tribe by repeated exhibitions of wisdom and moderation. He had been signally useful in destroying a baneful superstition, which would have made a sacrifice of a female prisoner, whose life he saved by admirable energy and a fearless exposure of his own. The reputation of even this remote and savage hero had spread beyond the narrow limits of his own country, and when we met I was prepared to yield him esteem and admiration. But the impression produced by his grave, and haughty, though still courteous mien, the restless, but often steady and bold glance of his dark, keen eye, and the quiet dignity of his air are still present to my recollection. With a view to propitiate so powerful a chief I had prepared a present of peacock’s feathers, which were so arranged as to produce as much effect as the fine plumage of that noble bird will allow. He received my offering with a quiet smile, and regarded the boon with a complacency that seemed to find more of its motive in a wish to be grateful, than in any selfish gratification. The gift was then laid aside, nor was it regarded, again, during the whole of a long and interesting interview. You may judge of my surprise, when I afterwards learnt that this simple child of the plains, considered my gift in some such light as a courtier would esteem a brilliant. The interpreter assured me that I had made him able to purchase thirty horses, a species of property that constitutes the chief wealth of his tribe. But notwithstanding my unintentional liberality, no sign of pleasure, beyond that which I have related, was suffered to escape him in the presence of a white man. (489-490)

3 Or we think we do. The New York Times reported recently (27 May 2001) that the decline in the economy of civilization on the Great Plains is leading some to anticipate the return of the Prairie to the Indians and the bison. See Timothy Egan, “As Others Abandon the Plains, Indians and Bison Come Back,” New York Times (27 May 2001), A, 1, 18.

4 By 1849, when he revised Prairie for the last time for the Putnam edition, Cooper’s revisions to the Introduction reinstated Natty as “opening the way, for the march of the nation across the continent,” by stating that “Since the original publication of this book, however, the boundaries of the republic have been carried to the Pacific, and ‘the settler,’ preceded by the ‘trapper,’ has already established himself on the shores of the vast sea.” Further, “it is a singular commentary on the times that places for railroads across these vast plains are in active discussion” (6) — civilization on a scale even Obed Bat could not imagine is about to change the Great Plains dramatically.

5 Wasserstrom misses a good chance to improve his thesis by missing Cooper’s informed use of the Old Testament name “Abiram,” which contrary to Wasserstrom’s argument (on pages 433-34) does not refer to the Patriarch Abraham (whose intended sacrifice of Isaac, Ishmael’s sons half recall, 143). Instead the reference is to an Israelite leader who rebelled against Moses in the desert, as Cooper’s Abiram rebelled against Ishmael in another desert by killing his first born. Ironically, “Abiram” means “Father is Exalted” — for Cooper is exalting not undercutting Ishmael as father and leader of his family.

6 Freud’s own comments on the future of American civilization curiously echo Cooper at his most conservative and elitist: “The [inescapable] danger is most threatening where the bonds of a society are chiefly constituted by the identification of its members with one another, while individuals of the leader type do not acquire the importance that should fall to them in the formation of a group. The present cultural state of America should give us a good opportunity for studying the damage to civilization which is thus to be feared.” (CD, 62-63)