The Frontier Dilemma of “Girls Gone Wild”: Mabel Dunham’s Nineteenth-Century Wilderness Education and Sadistic Interpellation

Cynthia Hall (University of California, Riverside)

Presented at the 14ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2003.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2003 Cooper Seminar (No. 14), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 25-28).

Copyright © 2005, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

In Fatal Environment, Richard Slotkin states that by “enlisting us, morally or physically, in the ideological program,” the frontier myth aims at “affecting not only our perceptions” (19) of others’ behavior but at affecting our own as well. And, being dependent upon the delimitation of character through gender, race, nationality, and vocation, America’s frontier literature participated in what Dana Nelson calls “narratorial filtering,” a linguistic action privileging one group or ideology by allowing all people’s behavior to be filtered through that one group’s lens, thus subsequently “cast[ing] any deviation from the dominant culture into an “inferior light” (Word in Black and White 46). Therefore, it is no surprise that within a nascent nation experiencing divisive racial instabilities, broad economic dissimilarities, and an ever-growing demand for juridical gender equality, James Fenimore Cooper’s proscription for a cohesive national mythology contingent upon “narratorial filtering” indeed became the perfect formula for literary success. However, in 1840 Cooper so ardently succeeds in creating a female character worthy of his hugely successful yet sexually lonely hero Natty Bumppo that his stock frontier formula collapses when the inaccurate interpellation of Mabel Dunham as weak and ineffectual creates a disjunction within the text that inadvertently highlights the “narratorial filtering” process itself.

What is striking then in the first few scenes of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Pathfinder is the inordinate gap between Mabel Dunham’s narrative interpellation as a timid, passive, and emotionally fragile female and the evidentiary plot manifestations that confirm her unbounded vigor, her determination and strength, and her superior intellectual capabilities. Initially, Cooper writes that “Four persons in all — two of each sex ... managed to ascend a pile of trees that had been uptorn by a tempest,” the goal of which was “catch[ing] a view of the objects that surrounded them” (9), the sublime scenery of America’s vast wooded frontier. At the outset, the narrator does mark a gender bifurcation within this group of wilderness “wayfarers” (10) — “four persons in all — two of each sex” (9), yet as the scene expands, the females are assigned specifically traditional behavior characteristics, feminine qualities in direct opposition to lauded frontier traits of male courage and strength. As a result, Cooper participates in what Dana Nelson claims is the production of white national manhood where the recognition, diagnosis, and management of “differences” (National Manhood 11) during the 19ᵗʰ century perpetuated the illusion of fraternity that “promised white men a unifying standpoint” (17). Ironically, even though Cooper marks Natty Bumppo’s white distinction from his Indian counterparts on almost every page of the Leather-stocking series, in the opening scenes of The Pathfinder Cooper ignores the racial difference inherent within this group of wilderness travelers and instead establishes gender differentiation as the text’s foremost thematic articulation. “Four persons in all — two of each sex” delineates gender but still allows for a democratically horizontal subjectivity; however, Cooper’s subsequent description of these unknown women as “more timid” persons needing “a little care and encouragement” (10) in ascending the acclivity immediately establishes a hierarchy of male superiority and hails the females into the infantilized role of needing protection and care. Absurdly, even the squaw Dew-of-June, an Indian who later comments that she would “tomahawk” (328) her way out of captivity, is one of the females in this group whose constitution is identified as “timid” (10). According to Nelson, the passive and demure qualities fostered by white bourgeois femininity in the early nineteenth-century accommodated the white male’s need to “gaze at otherness” in order to “stabilize” his sense of self through masculine “fraternity” (3). Thereby, the need to proscribe female “otherness” suggests that national manhood, or male fraternity, ” differentiate[d] men” not by “invok[ing] relations of male-male sameness” but by hyperbolically diagnosing, highlighting, and then projecting “male-female differences” (19). As a result, it is only after establishing the two men’s fortitude by contrasting it with female apprehension that the narrator articulates the racial difference within this foursome, thus signifying national manhood as an epistemology dependent upon the construction of a singular female constituency, a constituency compounded of weakness and passivity in direct opposition to male strength and energy.

Soon after the narrative assigns “timidity” to Mabel and Dew-of-June, Mabel is further designated “fainthearted” and “weak” (Cooper 43, 44), interpellations that foster the disjunction between her social “hail” and the plot’s literal confirmation of her mental power and physical strength. The narrative’s interpellation of Mabel as “fainthearted” is overtly thwarted when Mabel proclaims “no fear” (18) and heads off by herself straight into an unknown camp of men while the rest of her party hides behind trees. Even the diabolical warrior Arrowhead cannot “conceal his approbation of Mabel’s spirit” and responds to her show of mental strength with the exclamation, “Good” (18). However, Mabel’s old, seafaring, white, uncle Cap, grumpily suggests that Mabel’s assertion of strength gives the men “an unseamanlike look” (18); therefore, Cap’s response hints that any overt display of female strength threatens the clearly identifiable boundaries of power and authority that constitute white men’s sense of their own masculinity.

Besides her courage, Uncle Cap is also overwrought with or perhaps merely disoriented by Mabel’s clear intellectual gifts. When viewing the sublime forest scene from upon the accumulation of downed trees, Mabel sees a deep aesthetic parallel between the ocean’s expansive landscape and that of the forest. To her salty uncle, Mabel suggests that the extent of the forest is much “like a view of the ocean [he] so much love[s]!” (10). But, despite her insight and poetic sensibilities, Mabel’s uncle responds with a reprimand and says, “so much for ignorance, and a girl’s fancy” (11). In Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler states that the social act of interpellation, what Althusser terms society’s “verbal call or whistle” (174), the “hail” (174) of a person into subjectivity, is in fact a “reprimand” (Butler 122) that molds individuals into rigid behavioral perimeters which contain the subject in a “certain order of social existence” (122). It is of interest then to note the ways in which Mabel is continually pressed with verbal interpellation, gender classifications that delimit and pre-classify her behavior, her social role, and her sexual desire. As a result, in The Pathfinder, Mabel’s recruitment into a “certain order of social existence” (122) remains an important display of what Michel Foucault describes as the discipline and punishment used in the control of bodies, for in society “it is always the body that is at issue” — its “utility,” “docility,” “distribution,” and “submission” (25). Therefore, as a young woman traversing the wilderness in order to join her unknown father upon a military encampment, Mabel becomes an important study in nineteenth-century interpellation. Because her born social class differs greatly from her personally refined attributes, Mabel exists in a socially liminal space being “between categories” (Smith-Rosenberg 98). Although born of a father in the lower enlisted class of the military, Mabel was brought up learning refinement that was mostly characteristic of officer’s daughters. After her mother’s death, Mabel was taken in by an officer’s wife and raised as a lady’s companion; thus Mabel’s liminal status affords her more opportunity for class movement as she exudes both the rugged and strong characteristics of a soldier’s daughter as well as the elegance of manner and the learned mind definitive of an officer’s wife. As a result, The Pathfinder affords the reader an important account of upper-class gender expectations for nineteenth-century white women, a role solidified through what Lauren Berlant suggests is mutually constitutive to interpellation whereby citizens are “explicitly positioned and explicated within a collective/national domain, through [the] regulation of the body and the coincident conscription of subjectivity” (6).

Following the plot, as soon as the two white guides Natty Bumppo and Jasper Eau-douce meet up with Mabel’s party, she is publicly hailed as a prized and helpless white icon in need of strong male defense. Upon seeing Mabel for the first time, Natty proclaims that “the sight of one like you brings us back agin to our young feelin’s, and does us good for the remainder of our days ... to soften [our] heart[s] and remind [us] of love for [our] kind” (52). Here Mabel’s social interpellation hails her as emblematic of white humanity, assigning her a feminine symbolic with the subject position of one who “must be protected” by virile men willing to display “all [their] manhood” and who can be “count[ed]” upon “to the last drop of [their] blood” in protection of Mabel’s purity from the savage desires of the Iroquois warriors (67). I must clarify here, however, that as yet in the plot it is not Mabel’s witty intelligence nor her courage or multiple skills that provoke these two white men to claim her a “very precious treasure” (97), but instead it is her countenance alone that serves to represent altogether the heightened humanity and civilization of the white race: her “full blue eyes” — her “sweetness” of face (10) — “her light agile form and winning smiles” alone are what designate her worth as one so valuable that white men would lose their “own scalps” (63) before abandoning her preservation. Intrinsically, Mabel’s interpellation feeds off the nation’s strategy to prefigure the white female as the “flower of civilization in need of protection” (Wiegman 154), sexual protection from threatening and “monstrous black phallicity” (154). Interestingly, Cooper highlights Natty’s frenetic need to preserve Mabel’s white purity from the savagely dark Iroquois when he and Jasper conceal her within a river enclave hidden by cascading branches. However, when a young Indian spies the “neglected bush,” his “suspicions” (Cooper 60) are awakened, and he lifts the veiling foliage in order to enter the dark chamber, a chamber unbeknownst to him that contains civilizations representation of white feminine sexuality, the prized flower of the white men’s aggression. Unfortunately for him, when the warrior boldly enters Mabel’s hidden chamber, Natty’s lifelong partner Chingachgook raises his tomahawk and symbolically castrates the head of this excited warrior, sending him down river amidst “bloodstained waters” that carrying away his “struggling limbs” and “quivering burden” (60-61). It is Mabel’s perceived behaviors of white femininity then and her body’s over-determined need for sexual protection that spark Natty’s purpose as a white man and renew his role as the defender of European civilization. As a result, Mabel’s formatted “otherness” engenders a deeper fraternity between the two white guides, with both men swearing to “presarve the sergeant’s daughter before all thins” (62).

Judith Butler also claims that in order for the “indifferent, questionable or impossible being” (122) to be “hailed” from the “outer region” into the “discursive or social domain of [what we term] the subject” (122), that being receives social “recognition at an expense” (122), at the expense of succumbing to the social and juridical standards of behavior that work to subdue inordinately incongruous desire and/or behavior. And it is through Mabel’s wilderness education and her subsequent realization that although her mind and body desire the freedoms that are afforded men in a wilderness lifestyle, her social role and the impediments placed upon her by her father and her society disallow her that choice. On the group’s wilderness trek, we glimpse the expense of which Butler speaks when the men verbally define Mabel’s subjectivity for her and socially divest her of what the narrator states was her own sense of “self reliance” and her inherent strength and pride at knowing she was a “soldier’s daughter” (Cooper 85). On this venture, even though Mabel is “young, active, used to exercise, and could easily outwalk [her] dear uncle,” all with a “step as light and elastic as that of an Indian” (17) her companions nonetheless mark her as “too tender to walk through swamps and among roots of trees” (76). And although she is strong and determined, the men interpellate her as a weak and fragile female, one “not strong enough to tramp the woods” at night (96), preferring instead that she sit passively in their canoes as they, the men, take charge of her rescue. Moreover, although Mabel’s excitement increases with each new adventure, from watching an Iroquois tomahawked while she hides from his pursuit to riding the rapids in an escape under the cover of night’s darkness, she must however veil her “quickened feelings” of admiration and awe at the “sublime” (84-5) wilderness and hide an emerging titillation directed toward Jasper Eau-douce as he stands “firmly erect” and “steadi[ly]” maneuvers their canoe with his evident “skill and strength” (43). Therefore, Mabel clearly understands the social codes under which she must travail — she understands that “among Christian men, a woman’s best guard is her claim to their protection” (18), a protection won solely upon the woman’s upper-class countenance and the aura of sexual purity that that countenance denotes, a protection received, however, only in exchange for the “emptying” out of herself, for in the realm of national manhood the fraternal “brother[hood]” of white men gains its power through sameness, a sameness predicated upon the “emptying [of] another person” and the “mythologizing [of] her as (their) ‘Other’” (Nelson 17). Therefore, the men “hail” Mabel into a milieu of “heavily symbolized femininity” (36) where she continually endures the mental reprimands and infantilized disparagement of her psyche — thus limiting the breadth of her subjectivity by restricting her agency and ultimately emptying out her identity to replace it with a hyper-symbolic feminine subjectivity, one necessary for the development of a dominant national manhood.

It is in this process of interpellation, the hailing of being into subjectivity, often times subjectivity that is far removed from a character’s evidentiary behaviors, as in Mabel’s case, where I find underlying elements that are fundamentally sadistic. In Coldness and Cruelty, Gilles Duleuze states that sadism is the “partial process of destruction endlessly reiterated” upon an individual and continually “aim[ed] at [that individual’s] domination” (43), a definition clearly analogous to Nelson’s concept of national manhood and its “emptying out” of the so-called “Other,” essentially the same process as sadism with its outcome of “endless destruction” and “domination” (43). Since nineteenth-century social control demanded mental, physical, and sexual domination of the white female, the national interepellation of nineteenth-century white women was fundamentally sadistic in as it offered the nation’s legitimate subjects, white men, a form of “pleasure” in women’s “humiliation or subjection” (Kraft-Ebbing qtd. in Coldness and Cruelty 23). Solely through the propagation of a constructed white womanhood, one dependent upon the identifiable manners of the bourgeois class, nineteenth-century discourse assigned subjectivity through verbal sadism, the hailing of female individuals into distinct and hierarchical behavioral categories that subordinated them to the larger national agenda of white male fraternity.

For Mabel Dunham, the “only marriageable white female on [the] frontier” (Cooper 140), her social hail forces her into the subject position of coveted white woman, a position that makes the female a “pure signifier” (Sedgwick 8) of male desire, even male/male desire. Subsequently, according to her father, a man she hardly knows, Mabel’s worth stems from her ability to unite him and Natty Bumppo in a familial fraternal bond, a bond sealed through the exchange of Mabel from the Sergeant to Natty, two “sworn and constant friend[s]“(Cooper 123), friends “well-tried” (123) even before “Mabel was born” (123). To Sergeant Dunham, Mabel becomes the sexual conduit through which he himself can fulfill a loving bond with Natty, and according to him, “the hussy would never dream of refusing to marry a man who was her father’s friend [from] before she was born” (124). It is quite clear then that Mabel’s social interpellation highlights “patriarchal heterosexuality[’s]” “traffic in women” (Sedgwick 25) — the “use of women as exchangeable, perhaps symbolic, property for the primary purpose of cementing the bonds of men with men” (26). And when Natty Bumppo, Jasper Eau-douce, Lt. Muir, and other soldiers compete in a shooting match for the reward of offering Mabel a silk calash, she becomes the means by which these men organize and display “ideologies of manhood,” ideologies which guarantee them the fruits of the prized feminine reward, a reward for the “aggressive behavior” that will supposedly guarantee the “health (and wealth), rather than the fragmentation of the nation” (Berlant 15). As for Mabel, her hail into white bourgeois femininity merely serves to broaden the disjunction between her evidentiary subject position as an assertive, strong, and extremely intelligent woman and the social position required of her — the iconic female as passive sexual object. In the end, it seems that Cooper’s understanding of gender and nation fell short of allowing women independent agency. With Mabel following the traditional path of marriage, of having sons, and of living amidst the luxuries of New York’s capitalist civilization, it seems that Cooper was unable to reconcile himself to the idea of a powerful, genteel, and beautiful white woman finding freedom from social restraint and freedom from compulsory marriage within the wilderness milieu. As a result, this “coming of age story” for the young and talented Mabel who is equal to if not superior to Natty Bumppo ends quite differently for her than it did for Natty some years before. In the end, Mabel’s ejection from the wilderness serves merely to once again re-inscribe Cooper’s mythic American ideal, a male fantasy of ascetic individuality far removed from the restraints of civilization and from domestic communal bonds, a fantasy continually acted out on the pages of Cooper’s Leather-stocking tales and longingly found within the unwieldy wilderness territories that lay beyond the grasp of even the strongest of women.

Works Cited

  • Berlant, Lauren, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
  • Butler, Judith, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Pathfinder [1840]. New York: New American Library, 1980.
  • Deleuze, Gilles, Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty. Trans. Jean McNeil. New York: Zone Books, 1991.
  • Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
  • Nelson, Dana, National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.
  • Nelson Dana, The Word in Black and White: Reading “Race” in American Literature 1687-1867. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Rosenberg, Carroll Smith, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
  • Slotkin, Richard, Fatal Environments: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890. New York: Atheneum, 1985.