What’s at Stake? Forms of American Masculinity in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer

Gary MacDonald (Virginia 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. 45-49).

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

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

Reading William Gilmore Simms’ 1845 review titled, “The Writings of James Fenimore Cooper,” one wonders how Simms could be so wrong. ” [M]anhood,” he writes, “true manhood, is a sight, always, of wondrous beauty and magnificence” (221). He’s talking of Natty Bumppo!

As beautiful.

In light of The Deerslayer, published four years before, in 1841, Simms seems not just wrong but downright impertinent.

The novel explicitly develops Cooper’s disdain for manly beauty. By the beginning of Chapter Three, Hurry Harry March tells Natty,

“No, no, Deerslayer, you’re no beauty, as you will own yourself, if you’ll look over the side of the canoe. ...

“You are not a beauty, as you must know, and why shouldn’t fr’inds tell each other these little trifles? If you was handsome, or ever like to be, I’d be one of the first to tell you of it; and that ought to content you. ... ” (53)

And, by the middle of the novel, Hetty, Judith Hutter’s feeble-minded sister, declares, “I think, if I were a man, I should pine more for good looks than I do as a girl. A handsome man is a more pleasing sight than a handsome woman,” but Judith corrects her: “Poor child! you scarce know what you say or what you mean! Beauty in our sex is something, but in man, it passes for little. ... ” (378). So much for Simms.

And if that’s not clear enough, in the 1850 preface to The Deerslayer, Cooper states plainly,

In this book the hero is represented as just arriving at manhood, ... with the power to please that properly characterizes youth. As a consequence, he is loved ... principally for his sincerity, his modesty, and his unerring truth and probity. The preference he gives to the high qualities named, over beauty, delirious passion, and sin, it is hoped will offer a lesson that can injure none. (11)

Sin, delirious passion, and beauty: the three items comprising Cooper’s short list of reprehensible masculine attributes.

So, what was Simms thinking?

As a southern senator, an editor of The Southern Literary Messenger, the Cooper of the South, and an advocate of developing a literature of the South, Simms was, perhaps, writing from a political position, trying to see Natty as “his kind of” hero.

Simms may imagine Natty as beautiful because, echoing the rhetoric of the Democratic party, Simms linked manly beauty to laissez faire economic policies. How should one become a real man? Simms asks, and responds, “How should one be useful to his neighbor unless by the exhibition of peculiar resources? How should the offices of usefulness be reciprocal, unless the endowments were several and unlike? Here then, with this single and simple conviction present, we begin the training of the child for manhood (Self Development: an Oration, 24). Thus, for Simms, true manhood requires, first, recognizing a division of labor and second, engaging in reciprocal trade.

More broadly, Simms’ idea of manhood requires training toward beauty: “The task before the race,” he writes, “is the restoration of its standards to the beautiful ideal of its original. The task before the individual, is to make his contribution, in his place, towards the common action” (Self Development: an Oration, 13). Thus, Simms blends Adam Smith’s laissez faire philosophy with a defense of southern socioeconomic priorities by imagining beautiful men — read upper-class Anglo-Saxon white men — as social ideals. “[T]he perfection of physical manhood,” Simms asserts, “is embodied in the Apollo Belvidere. Man has not often — perhaps never — attained, in his own development, the perfection of that model; but who shall say that, with proper training, it shall not be attainable” (Poetry and the Practical, 54).

Thus, against all evidence to the contrary, Simms ascribes beauty to Natty Bumppo. He sees what he wants to see.

But another question remains unanswered. Why would Cooper so sternly refute manly beauty? Sin, delirious passion, and beauty. Which one of these three seems not to belong on the list?

Because Simms was called the “South’s Cooper,” we can fairly refer to Cooper as the “North’s Simms.” So we might imagine that Cooper’s insistently plain hero may be as political a statement as Simms’s desire to see Natty as beautiful.

If so, it would be good to understand the conflicting economic policies of the Democrats and Whigs. Perhaps the best summary of the positions is offered by Representative Shepard, speaking during the long tariff debates of 1833: He begins his speech by observing, “Man has been denominated by some enthusiastic admirers of political economy an animal that makes exchanges; he has here been called a plundering animal. ... I should say he is an animal that makes tariff speeches” (Shepard, 1435, January 29, 1833).

Simms and the Democrats argued that man was “an animal that makes exchanges”; thus, they required free trade policies; Whigs, largely northeasterners, argued that man was “a plundering animal”; thus, they required prohibitive tariffs to protect their nascent industries against unfair competition from the Old World.

Hence, what’s at stake in these congressional debates is not only economic policy but also ... the very nature of American manhood and, thus, the type of masculine hero the nation can believe in and advocate. Is he a trader or a pirate? Selfless or selfish? Beautiful or ... well, what’s the opposite of beautiful?

In the Northeast, it was ugly, or deformed. Not unusual is this lament, from the The Harbinger, a weekly journal produced by the progressive Brook Farm Associationists, which squeaks, “We are a nation of flat chests and round backs, cramped gait and pale faces. ... [W]e are inferior to most nations of the world in manly beauty“ (“American People”). Emphasis original. They underlined it. Concern for the physical degradation of the northeastern population was rampant. Even the conservative, sober Whig organ, Fisher’s Industrial Review, registers worry over the quality of Northeastern working class physiques: from 1842-1845 it reviews for its readers as many medical as economic books.

So, if the beauty of southern aristocratic heroes marked their “fond loyalty to all the great hopes and interests of humanity,” a quality Simms imputes to Natty Bumppo, then perhaps Natty’s absolute plain-ness and Cooper’s insistent rejection of beauty marks Natty’s capacity to succeed in a Northeastern dog-eat-dog world.

It does, and it doesn’t.

In his plain-ness — “not ugly. ... Only plain” (314), as Judith reminds Hetty — Natty incarnates neither the idea that men are plundering animals nor the idea that men are animals that make exchanges. In fact, Natty seldom trades and never plunders: generally, he takes only what he needs, or, he accepts gifts. At first, Natty’s trading policy, and visage, seem Jeffersonian. A Neutrality Act. Even an Embargo Act. But Natty’s plain visage is really a Compromise. I’m talking about Henry Clay’s Compromise Act, of 1833.

Which it might be useful to review. Clay authored The Compromise Act to placate South Carolina, which nullified the tariff of 1832, which had set prohibitive tariffs to defend nascent Northeastern manufacturers from foreign competition because, Congress had assumed, “man [in this case, British manufacturers] is a plundering animal.” It is in that debate, in fact, that Clay coined the term “self-made man”: “almost every manufactory known to me,” Clay argues, “is in the hands of enterprising and self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor” (464). Clay’s compromise was meant to protect such men from British competition for nine years: it would reduce tariffs successively each year to 1842, when self-made men should be mature enough to risk free trade. Thus, the Compromise Act at first seems, Whig-like, to reject the idea of free trade, but finally, Democrat-like, it supports that position by accepting free trade between equals.

Likewise, as I will argue, Natty’s plain-ness seems at first to reject manly beauty, and all that Simms might associate with it, yet Natty’s plain-ness is a mere placeholder used to buy time for a beautiful hero to emerge.

In The Deerslayer, Cooper’s narrative strategy is typical of antebellum novels written specifically to instruct young men: two young men of originally equal prospects follow different paths. The one who makes good decisions becomes the hero; the one who makes bad decisions, well, what happens to him shows us why we should want to imitate the hero.

Natty’s foil is Hurry Harry March, the beautiful man: “It would not have been easy,” Cooper writes, “to find a more noble specimen of vigorous manhood than was offered in the person of him who called himself Hurry Harry. ... The stature of Hurry Harry exceeded six feet four, and being unusually well proportioned, his strength fully realized the idea created by his gigantic frame. The face did no discredit to the rest of the man, for it was both good-humored and handsome” (20).

The novel has hardly begun before Harry makes bad decisions, the first and worst of which is getting involved with Thomas Hutter. Hutter’s strange habits indicate a selfish, greedy economic philosophy. He is a packrat. His house is called Muskrat Castle, and Deerslayer and Harry discover Tom hidden in the claustrophobic Rat’s Cove, checking over his traps. He lives on the lake, with watery boundaries separating him and his from any who might steal his stuff.

And in addition, the mystery of Tom’s former identity is likewise hidden away, locked in a great chest he jealously guards, “firmly bound with steel, elaborately and richly wrought, while the locks, of which it had no less than three, and the hinges, were of a fashion and workmanship that would have attracted attention even in a warehouse of curious furniture” (133). Within the triple-bolted chest can be found evidence that Hutter had been a pirate. In short, though he is a self-made man, Hutter is a selfish man, who plunders others to enrich himself.

Under Hutter’s influence, Harry engages in a grisly business. Hutter convinces Harry that they should ambush the Hurons, specifically to take scalps, for “High prices are offered for scalps on both sides,” [Hutter] observed, with a grim smile, ... “It isn’t right, perhaps, to take gold for human blood; and yet, when mankind’s busy in killing one another, there can be no great harm in adding a little bit of skin to the plunder. What’s your sentiments, Hurry, touching these p’ints?”

“That you’ve made a vast mistake, old man,” Harry replies, “in calling savage blood human blood, at all. I think no more of a redskin’s scalp than I do of a pair of wolf’s ears; and would just as lief finger money for the one as for the other.” (85)

Having accepted the premise that “mankind’s busy in killing one another,” the men can argue themselves into almost anything. Within a page, Hutter’s and Harry’s avarice has evolved into a plan to scalp whole families: “If there’s women, there’s children,” Hutter observes “and big and little have scalps; the Colony pays for all alike” (87)

Deftly, Cooper has illustrated the moral degradation of individuals within a society that assumes the worst of men. In addition, their reasoning invokes explicit physical consequences, for themselves and for their frontier society, for as Hutter observes, “A man shouldn’t take scalps if he isn’t ready to be scalped, himself, on fitting occasions” (87). In effect, the scalp that they intend to take is their own, for, even if they do not lose their scalps, they must accept the possibility that they will; thus, the transaction simultaneously scars the bodies, or at least the persona, of the victim and the victimizer. Rather than tending towards a gradual but insistent aesthetic improvement and refinement, this assumption initiates a society-wide process of moral and physical degradation.

And The Deerslayer seems absolutely to reject such a position. Natty, of course, is completely against the whole deal. He can’t stop Harry, and he can’t save the Hurons, and, as our beautiful man is about to suffer the fate that the preface promises, Natty’s nobility and homeliness seem to have given us good reason to recognize him as the hero of the text.

But then, the novel completely changes. Or rather, it does but it doesn’t.

Harry reforms!

When he and Hutter are ambushed by Hurons, Harry suddenly and inexplicably ascends. He emerges from the trap, “raging like a lion at bay” (335), and as Chingachgook and Hist helplessly watch him, Harry spectacularly saves himself:

One of [the Hurons], however, was not only the largest and strongest of the Hurons, but he was also the most experienced of the warriors present, and that one whose sinews were the best strung in fights, and by marches on the war-path. This man fully appreciated the gigantic strength of his opponent, and had carefully husbanded his own. He was also equipped in the best manner for such a conflict, standing in nothing but his breech-cloth, the model of a naked and beautiful statue of agility and strength. ... Still Hurry did not hesitate. ... So fierce did [the struggle] immediately become, and so quick and changeful were the evolutions of the athletæ, that the remaining savage had no chance for interfering, had he possessed the desire; but wonder and apprehension held him spell bound. (339)

What can you say but, “Look at that?!” This is a spectacle, staged as if it were an olympic wrestling match: Chingachgook, Hist, and the remaining Huron serve as a “spellbound” audience, a rubbernecking model for the reader, who also watches the suddenly Grecian display of strength, athleticism, and manly beauty of the “athletæ.” Minor clashes, Harry’s dispatch of the lesser Hurons, prefigure the main event. Then, the narrator dwells at length upon the next-to-last Huron’s extraordinary advantages: “the model of a naked and beautiful statue.” Harry seems well matched, but he defeats the Huron so thoroughly that “[s]ome fancied that neither his body nor his mind ever totally recovered. ... ” (341).

Well, c’mon now. That’s not right. I thought beauty was one of the top three things a guy shouldn’t have, and here not only does Harry’s beauty save him, but we watch it in uncritical admiration?! No such luck for Hutter, who actually is scalped. As Hutter dies, Harry tells him, “’Poor Tom! That scalp business hasn’t turned out at all profitable, and I’ve pretty much concluded to give it up, and to follow a less bloody calling’” (362). Well, if Harry’s not completely reformed, he’s come a long way — a very long way for a character who was expected to help us illustrate the injunction of the preface. He hasn’t even been scarred. In fact, if Simms had pointed to Hurry Harry March as an example of heroic manly beauty, at this point, none could gainsay him.

Unfortunately, Harry then speaks, and we learn that he remains a rogue, despite his beauty. He will not stay to defend Judith Hutter unless she will marry him. She refuses him, so Harry abandons Deerslayer and the women.

Despite his beauty, Harry’s churlishness remains. However, the beauty remains in conflict with his heroism, not because of it, and so he does demonstrate Simms’ thesis, that beauty and heroism can be consonant.

In fact, Harry’s display only continues what Chingachgook began earlier, less dramatically, when he shifts his disguise. Chingachgook had dressed himself as a white man — to fool the Huron, of course. Learning that the disguise is unnecessary, and that Hist (his intended) may be held captive on shore, Chingachgook quickly disrobes, and Cooper observes, “There was a mild satisfaction in believing that she he loved could see him, and as he walked out on the platform in his scanty, native attire, an Apollo of the wilderness, a hundred of the tender fancies that fleet through lovers’ brains beset his imagination and softened his heart” (237). An Apollo of the wilderness, Cooper calls Chingachgook, drawing upon Simms’ language. That Chingachgook’s native beauty is unveiled from beneath a white man’s clothes, suggests that white men, if they throw off the trappings of American culture, may also become Apollo-like.

The next line of the novel is, “All this was lost on Deerslayer.”

It’s not, really. At this point in the novel, Deerslayer is threatened with being exposed as Chingachgook’s opposite: as an ugly white man disguised as a Delaware. During the last quarter of the novel, Natty’s body is essentially on display because Natty is on what he calls a furlough: the Huron have captured him, but trusting him to return, they have allowed him to deliver a message. When he returns to them (as his honor requires), he expects torture, so during the time of his furlough, images of Natty’s imminent torture are the undercurrent of all the action.

In particular, Natty worries that he lacks the “red man’s gift” of enduring torment, that he will act like a white man and betray his Delaware upbringing: “When it gets to burning holes in the flesh, with heated ramrods, and to hacking the body, and tearing the hair out by the roots, natur’ may yet get the upperhand, so far as groans and complaints are consarned. ... ” (306).

That’s pretty gross, an expectation of deformity, in fact, that is reminiscent of the image of Thomas Hutter’s head without its scalp — an image I will spare you, but a similarity that demonstrates that like Hutter and Harry, Natty’s achievement of white masculinity is threatened by ugliness and deformity and defined in opposition to it. Essentially, Natty has been painted with the same brush as the other white men in the text: paying for Harry and Hutter’s sins, Natty too has been made ugly, and like Harry must expiate the sin by physical display.

But, “I think I shall make out to stand it,” Natty opines.

Well, maybe he will. But without Harry’s physical beauty, how will he do it?

Like Harry’s, Deerslayer’s resistance to physical deformity is a spectacle. Even Hetty and Judith arrive in the Huron encampment, just in time for the show. The Hurons bind Natty to a stake in the middle of their camp, the entire camp comes out, and they toss tomahawks at him to test his courage, while Deerslayer, effectively on stage, stoically endures, and this is the result:

The unflinching firmness with which he faced his assailants, more especially in the sort of rally with which this trial terminated [the knife throwing], excited a profound respect in the spectators. ...

Rivenoak now told his people that the pale-face had proved himself to be a man. (500)

What’s spectacular about this spectacle is that there’s nothing to see. Natty’s inertness, his refusal to respond to the Hurons’ feints, his “unflinching [phallic] firmness” demonstrates his manhood, and excites the respect even of his enemies. Natty isn’t just plain, here: he’s invisible, even tied to a stake in front of his enemies. When they aim their rifles at him, he sees before they see that they’re going to miss. Neither beautiful nor ugly, his plain-ness offers no target.

By itself, Natty’s inert manhood is a dead end, or, at best, an impasse: it affords him only the unacceptable choices of remaining at the stake, or joining the Hurons. If he remains at the stake, he will be burned there, quite literally. If he joins the Hurons, and they respect him so much, that they offer to adopt him, he will have forfeited his Delaware upbringing.

At stake with Natty is the definition of American manhood, as described by Representative Shepard: will he join the savages? Will he become beautiful? For he cannot remain intransigent.

In The Deerslayer, by holding firm, Natty provides time for Hurry Harry to save the day. While Natty endures his tortures, Harry fetches the United States cavalry, and he returns with them. In doing so, Harry seems to have routed not just the Hurons who threatened Natty but also the greediness that prompted him to take up scalping in the first place. He has become — or at least moved towards becoming — a more strikingly beautiful version of Deerslayer, motivated by the desire to help others, not to plunder them.

Like Henry Clay’s Compromise, Natty’s plain-ness buys time. It seems at first strongly opposed to the idea of manly beauty, perhaps because in a dangerous world it cannot be defended. Yet it is more strongly opposed to the ugly idea that man is innately an animal that plunders. Natty’s plain-ness provides a defense against the assaults of savage enemies, buying time for a beautiful hero to save the day. Like the boy heroes of Horatio Alger’s work, Natty’s hard times, his life in “rags,” enable a success story, of a particular kind.

In conclusion, then. Natty, who has always seemed a paradox, both committed to the idea of American civilization and one of its strongest critics, is not Janus-faced; rather, he strongly opposes one definition of American civilization, which he associates with New England merchants, and he recognizes that another, the beautiful vision of independent producers freely trading within and without the country (which he may associate more with New York than the South) requires time to develop. Simms was right, in a way: behind Natty’s plain face, is a beautiful man, waiting to emerge.

Works Cited

  • “American People, The,” The Harbinger. (September 20, 1845): 239.
  • Clay, Henry, The Works of Henry Clay. Ed. Calvin Colton. New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1904.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Deerslayer [1841]. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
  • Shepard, William B., Rep., “Speech.” Register of Debates in Congress. Vol. 9. Part 2. Washington DC: Gales and Seaton, 1833. 1434-1478.
  • Simms, William Gilmore, Poetry and the Practical. Ed. James Everett Kibler, Jr. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press. 1996.
  • Simms, William Gilmore, Self-Development. Milledgeville: The Thalian Society, 1847.
  • Simms, William Gilmore, “The Writings of James Fenimore Cooper.” Views and Reviews in American Literature, History and Fiction. New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1845.