In Defense of Judith: A Re-Reading of Cooper’s The Deerslayer as Social History

Anne Jennings (San Jose State University)

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. 35-40).

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

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

A quick survey of the criticism centering on James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer reveals that most scholars want to answer the question “Why doesn’t Natty love Judith?” or put another way, “Why is Judith unworthy of Natty?” The prevailing point of departure: Natty is Cooper’s new Adam and, therefore, the standard against which the actions of other characters in the novel must be measured. This makes for a very flat reading in which the rich and diverse characters on Glimmerglass Lake can never be anything more than caricatures existing only to reflect the nobility of Deerslayer.

Of the relationship between Natty and Judith, Susan Shillinglaw writes:

In no other Leatherstocking tale is Cooper so conscious of his [Natty’s] effect on others; in no other does he create a white character so fully able to comprehend the inner man. The intelligent, insightful, and erring Judith fully appreciates the complexity of Deerslayer’s heroic resolution [.] Perhaps she is a model of erring humanity, who, in looking into Cooper’s text, may be similarly improved by contact with this literary paragon. (64)

In this essay, I want to suggest a new way or reading the relationship between Judith and Natty and look, not only at the depth of Cooper’s other characters — especially Judith — but also at how the relationship between Judith and the Deerslayer points to a larger problem: the problem of creating community in the context of the novel.

Return for a moment to Shillinglaw’s argument that Judith improves through contact with Natty. Improves how exactly? She refuses marriage to Hurry Harry — but she probably would have denied him with or without the Deerslayer. She casts aside certain juvenile notions of her worth as being tied to her looks. Her attraction to finery decreases and she resolves to adhere to more stern ideals, promising that, “the very first fire that we kindle, after our return, shall be lighted with the brocade dress, and fed by every article I have that you may think unfit for the woman you wish to live with” (Cooper 543). But these changes — which seem simply to be a natural maturing from girl to woman — offer little evidence that Judith has in any way been redeemed in the eyes of the Deerslayer.

From the beginning of our story, Judith may as well be wearing Hester Prynne’s “A,” for she is marked from the moment we learn from Hurry Harry’s and Natty’s conversation that “the gal has her vagaries” and that she has spent time in the settlements where she “has caught more than is for her good, from the settlers, and especially from the gallantifying officers” (36). Interestingly, Hurry Harry lumps the settlers in with the officers as a negative influence on Judith. For both Hurry Harry and Natty, the settlement is a place not to be trusted, a place full of “vagaries.” Natty answers that the wilderness of the Glimmerglass is “a school to set her mind right, ag’in” (36). But even when Judith sets her mind aright, Natty will not allow himself to love her. For him, she has been defiled permanently.

So, how can Judith’s contact with Natty be a parable for the reader’s contact with him? If Judith cannot be redeemed, how can the reader? I believe that The Deerslayer is less a comment on the reader’s — or humanity’s erring — and more on the impossibility of community in the face of inflexible principles. Society, or settlement, is constructed on the ability to compromise and effect a community. Though Judith has a plan to begin community, she finds no partners willing or worthy to initiate one on the shores of the Glimmerglass. She ultimately forsakes the new world altogether and returns to England, where her fate is uncertain. As for Deerslayer, his rigid individual code is not conducive to settlement, and thus, he must continually move before the wave.

Marius Bewley argues that Deerslayer embodies a tolerance that could have formed the American ideal, writing, “If there is a poetry of tolerance, Deerslayer is its expression. It is what radically distinguishes him from the more characteristically American Hurry Harry” (126). I cannot agree. What of Deerslayer’s rejection of Judith? Does he not exhibit intolerance for her past behavior? Deerslayer seems intolerant of what he perceives as any human failing — and incapable of allowing for change. Hurry Harry, on the other hand, is willing to marry Judith, in spite of her perceived failings. (I write “perceived” here, because never does Judith confirm that she has erred). Bewley finds that, “As a positive norm, Deerslayer is both a moral and an artistic triumph” (127). I will grant Natty is an artistic triumph; his voice resounds into the twenty-first century. But morally, I cannot see Natty as a benchmark or signpost. Natty has a value system that is completely individualistic, and he will not act to prevent behavior in others that he believes is wrong. Rather than try to prevent Tom Hutter and Hurry Harry from scalping members of the Mingo, or Huron, tribe, he waits passively in the canoe — the getaway car if you will. Today, we would imprison him for aiding and abetting. But by not acting, Natty believes he is upholding a moral code.

Natty vacillates continually between red gifts and white gifts: he takes the qualities he wants and leaves the rest. Yet Natty often assumes his values are representative of his race. When he brings the offers of the Huron tribe to the group on the ark, he advises Harry:

If I was you, I should say — ‘Deerslayer, tell them scamps, they don’t know Harry March! He is human; and having a white skin, he has also a white natur’, which natur’ won’t let him desart females of his own race and gifts, in their greatest need.’ (Cooper 394-95)

In fact we know that the values of Deerslayer are not those of the other white men in the book. Hurry Harry never sounds wiser than in rebuking Natty’s somewhat pious statement:

[...] you may tell your emply’ers that they do know Harry March, which is proof of their sense, as well as his. He’s human enough to follow human natur’, and that tells him to see the folly of one man’s fighting a whole tribe. If females desart him, they must expect to be desarted by him [...] Should Judith see fit to change her mind, she’s welcome to my company to the river, and Hetty with her [... ]. (395)

This kind of straight talk makes us wonder at the “sense” of Deerslayer’s own moral right — to agree to return on his honor to be subjected to torture. This decision, along with Hetty’s sense of right, ultimately leads to the slaughter of the Huron tribe.

If it is a mistake to read Natty as the moral compass of the novel, what about Judith, the beautiful “Queen of the Glimmerglass” as Leland Person calls her? For suitor Hurry Harry, “Jude’s” defining characteristics are her beauty and her caustic wit. But through the narrator, and through Natty’s interactions with Judith, we learn of her intelligence, her bravery, and her capacity for love. She is a woman who, first and foremost, acts where others only talk. She thrusts the Huron off the Ark; she investigates the trunk, which allows for the release of Tom Hutter and Hurry Harry; she plots and carries out Deerslayer’s attempted rescue; and she proposes marriage to Deerslayer after he has been rescued. Judith’s history is one of action in line with her convictions.

When Judith and Deerslayer are examining the contents of the trunk, they encounter a large, mysterious flag. Judith speculates that the flag must have something to do with Tom Hutter’s “buccaneer” past. “Lord, Judith,” says Deerslayer, “it can’t surely give you any satisfaction to make out that ag’in your mother’s own husband, though he isn’t your father.” Judith replies, “Any thing will give me satisfaction that tells me who I am, and helps to explain the dreams of childhood” (410). This exchange shows a clear difference between Judith and Deerslayer. Deerslayer is concerned primarily with maintaining the man’s reputation — of preserving an illusion that Tom Hutter was, if not respectable, at least not a criminal. Judith is concerned primarily with uncovering the truth. She turns with unflinching resolve toward the skeletons in her closet.

Because of his personal code, Natty stands in continual judgment of others and seems incapable of forgiveness. When we encounter the narrator’s comment at the novel’s end that “Truth was the Deerslayer’s polar star” (545), we must read it as ironic; truth is Judith’s polar star. Only Judith looks unflinchingly into the depths of the trunk. Only Judith forces the resolution between her and Natty, asking him at last, “Tell me then, Deerslayer, if any thing light of me, that Henry March has said may not have influenced your feelings?” (545). Deerslayer, on the other hand, does not seek the truth where Judith is concerned. He never asks her whether she has “sinned” or “fallen” in the company of the officers at the garrison. He lets rumor prevail in his mind.

Has Judith fallen? The narrator often implies that Judith suffers the pangs of conscience (“this goading of the worm that never dies” [373]) and therefore by reason has something about which to feel guilty. Still, Deerslayer never attempts to confirm or deny the rumor. And though we can make assumptions, we, the readers, cannot know for sure. Like Natty’s background, Judith’s past is shrouded in mystery. Cooper further obscures her past by throwing her parentage into question. Along with Judith, we can guess that her mother was the dupe of a British officer who then fell in with pirate-turned-frontier-settler Tom Hutter. But the more the truth is revealed, the less we know about Judith’s origins, her true nature. Judith un-becomes. Through her subsequent act of un-naming, wherein she becomes simply “Judith” with no last name, she detaches herself from the claims of any man. Like Natty, Judith is in the position to define her own character, outside of questions of heritage. If Judith had married Hurry Harry, she might indeed have retraced the steps of her mother. But which is the worse offense of Judith’s mother: that she succumbed to love, or that she denied her own worth by marrying an uneducated, unprincipled buccaneer-turned-mountain-man who could not read or even comprehend the value of reading? By not choosing Hurry Harry for a husband, and by choosing to return to Captain Warley, Judith may be making the best match possible and moving beyond the mistakes of her mother. While, at the novel’s end, we believe she has decamped to England to live with Warley, we are not certain. Judith becomes a frontier myth. Her fate is unknown. But we do know one thing: if the mysterious woman across the sea is Judith, she has not renamed herself for the man with whom she lives.

Leland S. Person describes Judith’s un-naming as an “identity crisis” in which she

[...] tries to find or make a place for herself in the new American Eden in precisely the same way that Natty does, by grounding her character in the land. In anthropologist Sherry Ortner’s terms, she tries to disassociate herself from a negative identification with ‘culture’ and identify herself positively with ‘nature’ — finally by marrying nature in the form of a man who can turn the land into a Garden of Eden. (“Cooper’s Queen” 254)

In this argument, Judith has tried and failed because Natty has rebuffed her. I prefer to read the un-naming as act of self-definition — not aligned with nature per se, but with Judith’s own nature. By un-naming herself, Judith disassociates herself from the definitions that Hurry Harry, Tom Hutter, the soldiers, and even Deerslayer have placed upon her. Judith discovers her own sense of self, refusing to be defined by the men around her — the men who have rejected her or who have acted in ways she cannot admire.

In the course of the novel, Judith also receives a new name, Wild Rose, given by Chingachgook and later echoed by the Huron tribe. Cooper uses Indian names to ferret out the true nature of his characters. Just as Natty has gone from Pigeon, to Deerslayer, to Hawkeye, reflecting his nature as caretaker, hunter, and warrior respectively, Judith’s true nature is determined as a flower of incomparable beauty, one that is not tamed or cultivated, but rather grows free and outside settlement, that is, outside white convention. Just as Natty has been schooled by his time in the wilderness to know God through nature, Judith has been schooled by her time in the wilderness to determine her own course.

Rather than serving as a stand-in for “erring humanity,” Judith proves herself quite capable of determining right and moral action. Even Hetty cannot see the right action when it comes to effecting the peaceful rescue of Natty and therefore brings about the slaughter of the Indians, not to mention herself. Among the principal white characters of the novel, Judith alone seems able to modify her choices according to the good of others in the community. When Natty returns on furlough to “negotiate” a solution between the Huron and the people on the ark, only Judith withholds her answer, saying, “tell us, first, Deerslayer, [...] what effect will our answers have on your fate? If you are to be the sacrifice of our spirit, it would have been better had we all been more wary as to the language we use” (Cooper 400). Only Judith seems to allow for the possibility that her decision should depend on how it will impact others, especially those she cares about.

Only one other character in the novel seems, like Judith, capable of community-minded compromise: Rivenoak, chief of the Huron tribe. When he attempts to bring Natty into the fold of the tribe, Rivenoak states, “Scalp for scalp, life for life, blood for blood, is one law; to feed her young, another” (471). This allowance for two ways of approaching the situation — for allowing “good sense” to determine a course of action — is a type of acceptance or forgiveness of which Deerslayer is incapable. Natty’s code may be moral, but it is also so rigid that it forbids the possibility of a life lived in community with others; his code requires he lead a life of solitude.

Like many a critic, Geoffrey Rans cites Judith’s attempt to save Natty by donning the gown belonging to her mother as another illustration of her unsuitability as a mate for Natty:

Her unfitness to be Natty’s mate is made even clearer in her most impressive act, her imposture at the Huron camp [...] She fails at the allegorical level and disqualifies herself for Natty’s hand [.] [T]he scene brilliantly reveals her affiliation [to the young men of the fort] and tells us why Natty and she are an unsuitable match. (239)

Rans is certainly not the only critic to parse the scene thusly. I find such a reading problematic. Judith, in donning the gown, is donning what we know to be her birthright — her nobility. She does so in an attempt to out-negotiate the Hurons, who are holding Natty prisoner intending to torture and kill him. In her attempts to negotiate Natty’s release, Judith fails, primarily because she underestimates Rivenoak, who cleverly asks Hetty for the truth. Still, Judith has delayed the action long enough for the soldiers to arrive. She set out to save Natty and her intervention succeeds in that she buys time for the rescue. Once again, Judith proves herself worthy through her actions, using the resources at her disposal to try to rescue Natty. It is absurd to believe this scene “disqualifies” her for Natty’s hand. Rather the opposite, this scene shows Judith capable of the bravery and quick wittedness that a man in Natty’s profession might look for in a mate. The failing is not Judith’s. But neither is it Natty’s. Cooper positions Natty and Judith as two extremes of moral living. Natty stands as the rugged individual who can live only in the wilderness alone if he is to follow his code. Judith, on the other hand, lives according to what is right — for herself, but also for her community.

Person states that “However refined his personal qualities, Natty will not assume a democratic, middle-class role as a husband and father. Socially considered, his character represents a dead end” (“Historical Paradoxes” par. 28). I would argue that this book is full of dead-ends, is in fact a story of failed community. Just as the failure of Judith and Natty to negotiate a marriage leads to their inevitable parting, so the failure of the two cultures — white and red — to negotiate leads to one inevitable conclusion: the final battle. Of this bloody scene, Rans writes:

The episode is merely continuous with the actions of Hutter and Harry. The legitimization by the colony of scalping is easy to accept if cynics like Captain Warley are in power. That Cooper is single-minded enough to bestow Judith on this man is almost shocking, even though, on the allegorical plane, it is not incongruous. This squalid conqueror, we note, is later knighted by a grateful sovereign. (240)

This is perhaps a politically correct reading, but not, I think, what Cooper intended. We have seen throughout the novel the failure of attempted negotiations between white and red. We have seen violence carried out by both parties, and we have seen both parties decline the proffered solutions of peaceful negotiation. What conclusion can the conflict have other than force? Cooper has made clear from the start that negotiation does not pay. Even Natty remarks, “But, ‘tis useless talking, as each man will think for himself, and have his say agreeable to his thoughts” (Cooper 51). At each point in the conflict between the Hutter party and the Hurons, there is an attempt to negotiate. At each point the negotiations stagnate. Force is the only alternative at Glimmerglass Lake. In some ways, this is less allegory than historical reality. Glimmerglass will be cleared of red so that white can move in.

When Yvor Winters states, “In the Leatherstocking Series, as in the other novels of American history and of frontier adventure, and as in the sea stories (excepting The Crater), we have nothing whatever to do with social criticism, or at least nothing of importance” (24), I disagree. The Deerslayer plays out as a failed social experiment of sorts. Can Cooper bring together white and red, woman and man, officer and settler, and create a community on the shore of the Glimmerglass? The answer is no. By the end of the novel, carnage lies by the water’s edge. The only marks of settlement, the castle and the ark, turn to ruin. The Glimmerglass becomes as it was, wilderness free from man, at least for another fifteen years.

When Natty, Chingachgook, and Uncas return to Lake Glimmerglass fifteen years after the final battle, they find “all was unchanged” (Cooper 546). The lake is still the “beautiful gem of the forest” (546) unspoiled by man, just as Natty hoped it would be at the opening of The Deerslayer. The small party of explorers concludes that the lake “had not been visited, since the occurrence of the final scene of our tale. Accident, or tradition, had rendered it again, a spot sacred to nature” (547). The implication here is that for Natty, the natural state — the state untouched by man — is the desired state. Early in the novel, Natty says of the lake, “I’m glad it has no name ... or at least, no pale face name, for their christenings always foretell waste and destruction” (45). Here Deerslayer identifies as red, speaking of ‘pale faces’ as the other. He is clearly conflicted about where he belongs. To which community? If he is Cooper’s noble experiment — an extraction of what is best in both cultures — the fact that Deerslayer can never settle within a community and cannot negotiate the settlement of such a community indicates that ultimately the two nations, white and red, cannot become community. Just as Natty himself cannot resolve the conflicts between red and white, neither can Cooper resolve the problems that would allow his characters to settle together amidst the wilderness.

I would like to examine carefully what Cooper’s narrator says about the Hutters, and about Judith particularly, in the closing paragraphs. “They lived, erred, died, and are forgotten. None connected have felt sufficient interest in the disgraced and disgracing to withdraw the veil, and a century is about to erase even the recollection of their names” (547). Surely, we can read “withdraw the veil” as a metaphor for revealing truth — for understanding the true nature of those involved.

In the final paragraph, the Deerslayer “enquired anxiously after that lovely but misguided creature” (548). I believe the narrator intends these adjectives as the Deerslayer’s own perceptions of Judith, for nowhere in his tale has the narrator given us evidence that Judith is misguided. Deerslayer learns that “Sir Robert Warley lived on his paternal estates, and that there was a lady of rare beauty in the Lodge, who had great influence over him, though she did not bear his name” (548). Notice how we learn that the lady is not married: by words regarding her name. We must determine that this is Judith, the lady who un-named herself in an act of self-definition.

Natty wonders whether the woman living with Warley is “Judith relapsed into her early failing, or some other victim of the soldier’s” (548); but Natty will not face the “unpleasantness” of inquiry into the matter. Does this reluctance to pursue the matter indicate that Natty does not, nor ever did, care for Judith? Clearly, no. When she left him on the path to the settlement, he stood “irresolute as to his course.” And even after returning to the Delaware, he existed in a state of sorrow that “required months of activity to remove” (545). In other words, he was depressed. When Deerslayer returns to the Glimmerglass after fifteen years of absence, his heart “beat quick, as he found a ribband of Judith’s fluttering from a log. It recalled all her beauty, and we may add all her failings” (547). Surely if he still has a physical reaction to finding this talisman, and surely if he ties it to his rifle, Deerslayer cannot have been as unmoved as the narrator would have us believe in the very next line, which reads, “Although the girl had never touched his heart, the Hawkeye, for so we ought now to call him, still retained a kind and sincere interest in her welfare” (547). Is the narrator attempting to show that Deerslayer has deceived himself about the depth of his own feeling? That when it comes to his own heart, he cannot trust himself? I believe the answer is yes. Still, Natty cannot move beyond his individualistic code to forgive Judith’s “failings” and this moment of tenderness passes, as does any other trace of Judith, into history. Whereas Judith has shown her ability to move beyond the sins of the past to create a new conception of herself, Natty remains unchanged. He is unswerving, just as the world of nature that he takes as his guide is: “the forest: that will not deceive you, being ordered and ruled by a hand that never wavers” (27).

The failed negotiation between these two protagonists points finally to the larger failure exposed in the novel: the failure to negotiate a functioning community on the shores of the Glimmerglass. In refusing to resolve the two primary relationships of the novel — the relationship between Judith and Natty and the relationship between red and white — Cooper asks us to open ourselves to the multiplicity inherent in human community: multiplicity of meaning, multiplicity of outcome, and multiplicity of morality. Cooper refuses to stand in judgment of the actions of any of his characters. Consider the final words of The Deerslayer:

We live in a world of transgressions and selfishness, and no pictures that represent us otherwise can be true, though, happily, for human nature, gleamings of that pure spirit in whose likeness man has been fashioned, are to be seen relieving its deformities, and mitigating if not excusing its crimes. (548)

Whose crimes do we speak of here? And whose transgressions? If “no pictures that represent us otherwise can be true,” is not Cooper admitting, or revealing, Natty as a false icon, one who transgresses and one who is full of his own selfish concerns? The crimes that close the book can be read as the crimes of Judith, but just as easily as the crimes of the other characters in the novel, including Hurry Harry, Tom Hutter, the Hurons, the British soldiers, and yes, even Deerslayer. Natty has been guilty of transgression and failings in his inability to compromise or to see the true character that Judith exhibited. Natty’s crimes are crimes of judgment, of judging where God himself only may judge. In conclusion, Cooper writes, “The sins of the family have long since been arraigned at the judgment seat of God, or are registered for the terrible settlement of the last great day” (548). It is for God, not any human creation, to judge, says Cooper’s narrator.

And what relationships Cooper cannot resolve, perhaps God can. When Hetty dies she sees “Mother, now, and bright beings around her in the lake” (534). But she does not see Tom Hutter. Her words imply that a judgment has occurred: Tom Hutter has been found wanting, but others are there around the lake — others who have died there — bright beings not named as white or red, but who are perhaps human, in community.

Works Cited

  • Bewley, Marius, “Moral and Physical Action in The Deerslayer.” James Fenimore Cooper: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Wayne Fields. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1979. 117-28.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Deerslayer [1841]. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
  • Cowie, Alexander, The Rise of the American Novel. New York: American Book Company, 1948.
  • Dekker, George, and John P. McWilliams, eds., Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.
  • Lawrence, D.H., “Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels.” James Fenimore Cooper: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Wayne Fields. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1979. 37-52.
  • Person, Leland S. “Cooper’s Queen of the Woods: Judith Hutter in The Deerslayer.” Studies in the Novel 21.3 (1989): 253-67.
  • ------. “The Historical Paradoxes of Manhood in Cooper’s The Deerslayer.” Novel 32.1 (1998): 32 pars. Wilson Web Database, 4 March 2002. [Link no longer extant. – Ed.]
  • Rans, Geoffrey, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading. Chapel Hill: University Press of North Carolina, 1991.
  • Shillinglaw, Susan. “Pictorial Space as Identity in The Deerslayer.” James Fenimore Cooper His Country and His Art: Papers from the 1986 Conference at State University College of New York Oneonta and Cooperstown . Ed. George A. Test. Vol. 6. Oneonta, New York: n.p., 1987. 54-66.
  • Winters, Yvor. “Fenimore Cooper or The Ruins of Time.” James Fenimore Cooper: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Wayne Fields. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1979. 16-36.