Who Owns the Land and Who Cares For It? A Brief Look at Relationships in The Prairie

Christina Starobin (Independent Scholar, Saugerties, N.Y.)

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. 96-99).

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

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

{96} It is wonderful to be here today and to see all the people gathered from all over the world to discuss James Fenimore Cooper. Being at this conference immerses you in Cooper so that soon it seems the whole world revolves around Cooper. Even this building. Coming into the library, I saw the sign printed on the door, “This is a non-smoking area; your Cooper-ation is appreciated.”

The Prairie, maybe more than any other of the Leatherstocking tales, is Cooper’s blueprint for what will happen to America in the years ahead. With the death of his prodigious creation, Natty Bumppo, in the final pages, Cooper may have felt that this book was an ideal opportunity to sum up his vision. He did not, however, foresee that he would be called upon to bring Natty back, by popular demand, much as Conan Doyle would be forced to resurrect Sherlock Holmes, after Cooper’s return from Europe and his subsequent lack of popularity.

Cooper’s central hero, or heroine, in much of his work was ever the American land; perhaps more than somewhat two-dimensional red and white men and women, the landscape comes alive in Cooper’s work so much so that it is possible to feel literally transported to his locales when the reader has two or more hours to spend. With his highly structured mind, Cooper depicted his universe as he felt was just; perhaps his legal background helped to reinforce the idea of justice and accountability. It is therefore no accident that The Prairie contains not only vivid and inspiring visions of the American West, which are treasured by readers in Europe perhaps even more than by those in our country, but a parcelling out of custodianship of this land in a way that Cooper felt was equitable.

One of the main themes of the book is, after all, the changing face of America, the displacement of the wilderness by the Snopses of the West, the Bush family. This is echoed and reinforced by Cooper’s use of animals, both as characters and in metaphor.

All through The Prairie, as through the other of the Leatherstocking series, Cooper uses animal metaphors to enrich his depictions of character. The Bush family, Cooper’s personal rendition of the Snopses, is compared to a pack of hounds. The settlers who will civilize the West are not the people that we admire, and land itself will give up something in order to be made into towns. Cooper’s vision was far from cut and dried, but incorporated the idea of change, giving up something in order to gain something else.

Esther Bush, the termagant wife of Ishmael Bush, is frequently described in animal terms, as are the other members of the family. Ishmael is most frequently compared to a lion. The uncle Abiram is compared to a hound twice. The favored son, Asa, is compared by Esther to a bear. She compares her own tongue to a hummingbird’s wing.

It is ironic that Esther’s brother at first says that Asa has been the hunter rather than the hunted because he himself has murdered Asa. Esther calls her brother Abiram a hound in connection with the search for Asa. In retrospect, knowing that Abiram is a murderer makes his upbringing very suspect indeed.

Cooper skillfully leads up to the scene of Asa’s murder not only by having the chapter laced with animal references, but by having Abiram start the search by saying, “This was the spot where I struck the tracks of the buck; it was after I took the deer, that I fell upon the Teton trail.” (132) 1 The search part will be rewarded by the appearance of an animal, but unfortunately not the animal they anticipate. Notice how Cooper skillfully has Bush lead the reader to the horrible realization that it is a man that has been killed: the father admits to cutting the throats of animals and the sons are said to have behaved as if “butchering was your regular calling.” Cooper leads us further along, expecting perhaps a buffalo, an animal that Natty has previously killed and eaten in the earlier chapters, and an animal whose skin Cooper frequently uses to disguise his characters. When Esther begins to suspect the truth [“And who has slain him!” continued Esther; “man! where — are the offals? — wolves! — they devour not the hide. Tell me, ye men and hunters, is this the blood of a beast?” (135)], Cooper pulls back just short of having the reader identify the slain animal as Asa. He announces the end of the quest with one of his favorite animal devices, an appropriate type of bird, a vulture or buzzard.

{97} The scene builds in intensity. Cooper has added an additional suspenseful element two pages earlier by having two hounds intently tracking a deer which they abandon when they get on the trail of the murdered carcass, paralleling the stalking sons, so strong is the scent. The dogs return in focus as they near the corpse and Esther cries for her sons to call them in. The birds come nearer. Finding the body is compelling and dramatic.

It can be seen here how ironically the metaphors (Esther calling her sons and her brother hounds) interact with the action involving animals. First Esther calls her sons hounds, then the murderous uncle tells how he hunted in the same spot for deer, then she calls them hounds again. The deer then pass, chased by the hounds who break off their chase, Esther and Abner speculate on what type of animal it is, the buzzards appear, the hounds are stayed, the body found, and the hounds and vultures conclude the scene.

Cooper closely intertwines the men with the animals so that only at the very end does one know that it is a man whom the search party will find and not a wolf or a buffalo. The sons and uncle are like hounds and the mother, who leads the pack, is the one keenest of scent. It matters little whether it is was man or beast that was killed; both are equally bloody and both get the attention of the hounds and, eventually, the vultures. Notice how the “calls of the young men” are equated with the “plaintive whining” of the dogs so that one can be said to answer the other. This scene occurs only a third through the book. It is significant because it sets up the Bushes=dogs equation in the reader’s mind. Cooper, in fact, seems to want the reader to see Bush and his relations as something less than human, a form of animal that breeds and fills the prairie with more of his brood. Esther later brings in this idea that she and her brood are animals when she speaks to Ishmael as Mahtoree encourages Ishmael to “put her [Esther] out of his lodge” and take a younger Indian woman to be his bride:

“Hoity-toity! who sets an Indian up for a maker and breaker of the rights of wedded wives! Does he think a woman is a beast of the Prairie, that she is to be chased from a village, by dog and gun. And you, Ishmael Bush, the father of seven sons and so many comely daughters, to open your sinful mouth, except to curse him! Would ye disgrace colour, and family, and nation, by mixing white blood with red, and would ye be the parent of a race of mules. The Devil has often tempted you, my man, but never before has he set so cunning a snare as this. Go, back among your children, friend, go, and remember that you are not a prowling bear but a Christian man, and thank God, that you ar’ a lawful husband.” (298)

Just the sheer number of his sons and daughter is enough to make Ishmael seem like a breeding animal. Although Esther claims that if Ishmael mixed white and red blood he would breed mules, her remarks have the effect of saying that, by breeding along with white folks, he will produce a certain kind of horse.

Cooper concludes his animal references to the Bushes at the end of the very powerful scene in which Abiram White, strung up to die by Ishmael, cries, “The name of God ... awfully and blasphemously blended with sounds that may not be repeated” (363), cries like a dying animal, and the prairie is hushed into silence. Cooper is reinforcing the association of Ishmael with an animal, a dog, whose carrion, her brother, lies upon the ground. Cooper also harkens back to the killing of Asa, whose remains lay upon the ground like carrion. Esther married a dog and has given birth to dogs. Cooper thus makes a tidy circle in these two unforgettable scenes by having one image echo the other. Esther however, shows herself to be merciful because she is affording the killer better treatment than he gave her son.

Just as Cooper has a chain of being hierarchy in his world of animals, black men, red men, white men and then God at the top, in The Prairie the occupations of various human subdivisions are involved with animals and their treatment of animals. Dr. Battius, the naturalist, and Paul Hover, the bee-hunter, both have different relationships to animals and their fates echo these occupations. Dr. Battius represents “book” knowledge which is comic compared to reality. He is pompous and more often than not a wrong headed, blundering fool. Cooper’s own expulsion from Yale doubtless helped to formulate near contempt for inept scholarship. Next to Dr. Battius is the bee-hunter who has practical knowledge of animals and puts it into practice for the good of society. Then we have Natty, the trapper, a loner.

Natty Bumppo is early on identified as a trapper, and somewhat above the laws of men and beasts. Natty enters like a mighty colossus, and when Mahtoree asks: “My white Fathers who live on the Great Lakes have declaredthat their brothers towards the rising sun are not men; and, now, I know they did not lie! Go. What is a nation, whose chief is a squaw! Are you the dog and not the husband of this woman [Ellen]?” (46). Natty answers, “I am neither”, thereby saying that he is neither man nor beast. Knowing Cooper, we might say Natty is our universal demi-god. His death at the end of the book is set in sharp contrast to the deaths of the Bush family discussed above.

{98} Natty characterizes himself, speaking to Ishmael early in the book in a passage where he praises the past times in terms of the abundance of the land:

“A gull, would have to fan a thousand miles of air, to find the Eastern Sea. And yet it is no mighty reach to hunt across, when shade and game are plenty! The time has been, when I followed the deer in the mountains of the Delaware and Hudson, and took the beaver on the streams of the Upper Lakes in the same season; but my eye was quick and certain at that day, and my limbs were like the legs of a moose. The dam of Hector,” dropping his look kindly to the aged hound that crouch’d at his feet, “was then a pup, and apt to open on the game, the moment she struck the scent. She gave me a deal of trouble, that slut; she did!” (75)

So Natty compared part of himself to a moose, making a surreal Indian totem, part man, part beast. Ishmael answers:

“Your hound is old, stranger, and a rap on the head would prove a mercy to the beast.”

“The dog is like his master,” returned the trapper without appearing to heed the brutal advice the other gave, “and will number his days when his work amongst the game is over, and not before. To my eye, things seem ordered to meet each other, in this creation. Tis not the swiftest running deer that always throws off the hounds, nor the biggest arm that holds the truest rifle. Look around you, men; what will the Yankee choppers say, when they have cut their path from the eastern to the western waters, and find that a hand, which can lay the ‘arth bare at a blow, has been here, and swept the country, in very mockery of their wickedness. They will turn on the tracks, like a fox that doubles, and then the rank smell of their own footsteps, will show them the madness of their waste. Howsom’ever, these are thoughts that are more likely to rise in him who has seen the folly of Eighty seasons, than to teach wisdom to men, still bent on the pleasures of their kind! You have need yet of a stirring time, if you think to escape the craft and hatred of the burnt-wood Indians. They claim to be the lawful owners of this Country, and seldom leave a white, more than the skin he boasts of, when once they get the power, as they always have the will, to do him harm.” (75-76)

Thus very early in the book Cooper sets out his hierarchy of the land and its owners in the reader’s mind. He also skillfully puts in the back of our minds the idea that Hector will someday die (as he predeceases Natty but briefly at the end). Hector is unceremoniously killed and stuffed and Natty does not recognize the deception, any more than Natty heeds the premature advice here of Ishmael to hit Hector on the head and kill him.

This passage is an example of one of Natty’s conservation speeches. He compares himself to a hound by saying how much the dog is like its master. The hound is a sagacious animal. He compares the Yankee choppers to foxes (usually a negative image, wily, sly) that could be chased by hounds “and then the rank smell of their own footsteps will show them the madness of their waste”, hardly a complimentary image. The Indians, however, do not come out any better because, although they are not specifically named as an animal in this passage, they are definitely described as scavengers: “They ... seldom leave a white man more than the skin he boasts of when once they get the power, as they always have the will, to do him harm.” Also, characterizing them as “burnt-wood Indians” is hardly flattering and betrays a chauvinistic condescension.

Natty implies in this passage that he and his kind (represented by the dog and the hand holding the rifle) will conquer the Yankee choppers, the foxes. Of at least he is setting up a metaphoric construct in which they should be the victors. Hounds, after all, are traditionally used in fox hunting, a sport in which the fox is usually caught and killed. But it is only Natty who is saying this and he may not be the spokesman for Cooper, especially when one remembers that Natty dies at the end of this book.

At the end of the work Cooper lets us know what happens the various characters. The bee-hunter went on to become “a landowner, then a prosperous cultivator of the soil, and shortly after a town officer, ... actually at this moment a member of the lower branch of the legislature of the state where he has long resided, and he is even notorious for making speeches that have a tendency to put that deliberative body in good humor and which, as they are based on great practical knowledge suited to the condition of the country, possess a merit that is much wanted in many more subtle and fine-spun theories that are daily heard in similar assemblies to issue from the lips of certain instinctive politicians.” (376)

{99} So he has passed from being a hunter of bees to a keeper of men, men in a large body where they need organizing. This is Cooper’s vision of the enlightened despot, flavored with a hint of Cooperstown and his own heritage.

As for Dr. Battius, we have the following friendly interchange with Natty in the second to last chapter, where Cooper spins his genial chain of command, putting everything, and everyone, in their place:

“Venerable venator,” said Dr. Battius, “there are obligations which every man owes to society and to human nature. It is time that you should return to your countrymen to deliver up some of those stores of experimental knowledge, that you have doubtless obtained by so long a sojourn in the wilds, which, however, they may be corrupted by preconceived opinions, will prove acceptable bequests to those whom as you say, you must shortly leave forever.”

“Friend, Physicianer,” returned the trapper, looking the other steadily in the face, “as it would be no easy matter to judge of the temper of the rattler by considering the fashions of the moose, so it would be hard to speak of the usefulness of one man by thinking too much of the deeds of another. You have your gifts, like others I suppose, and little do I wish to disturb them. But as to me, the Lord has made me for a doer and not a talker, and, therefore, do I consider it no harm to shut my ears to your invitation.” (371)

The irony here is that although Cooper was in his own way a “doer” and not a talker, in that he created plentifully those things which his audiences enjoyed, he also left behind him much in the way of “stores of experimental knowledge” including a vision of how animal populations are changed not so much by the hunters as by the farmers. His understanding of ecology, including his distress over the clubbing of seals in his next-to-last work, The Sea Lions, is something that we are just growing into in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. His characters may speak in slightly antiquated accents, but his vision of the American land and the way it has changed and the forces that shaped this are fresh and vibrant and a guide to us still.


1 Page citations are from James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie [1827], Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.