Peeling the Onion: Looking for Layers of Meaning in The Deerslayer

Hugh C. McDougall (James Fenimore Cooper Society)

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. 51-59).

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

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

One summer evening in 1840, as he and his daughter Susan were returning to Cooperstown from Chalet Farm on the east side of Lake Otsego, James Fenimore Cooper was struck with an idea. As Susan Fenimore Cooper later described the scene:

Mr. Cooper was singing to himself, as he often did on that quiet woodland road. ... Suddenly we came out of the wood, and a view of the lake opened before us, a familiar view, but more lovely than usual in the soft lights and shadows of that summer evening. ... The author’s face was turned towards the lake, and the far-seeing look of inventive genius came into the clear gray eye. He was lost in thought for a moment, — figures and scenes foreign to the day and hour seemed to rise before him. Soon the vision passed away. Turning to his daughter with a smile he exclaimed, “I must write one more book, dearie, about our little lake!” Then the song was resumed, the whip cracked, the pony trotted on, and we went our way toward the village. 1

Just a year later, The Deerslayer — subtitled “The First Warpath” — was published in Philadelphia, the last to be written of Cooper’s five Leatherstocking Tales, but the first in the story of its hero Natty Bumppo. Press reviews were mixed, but generally favorable. 2 Editors and readers were delighted to see Cooper returning to his old hero, and to a theme of settlers and Indians on the American frontier.

Far more than The Pioneers, it was The Deerslayer that put Cooperstown and Otsego County on the world literary map. If The Last of the Mohicans most firmly established Cooper as a writer about action and Indians, it was The Deerslayer and its Glimmerglass that gave his image a place, a spot to which generations of pilgrims who flocked to Cooperstown to see the scenes they had heard described, and to seek a spiritual communion with what became known as the “haunts of Leatherstocking.” For many people all over the world, and even today, the Glimmerglass is a region of magic and enchantment, more important even than Walden Pond. And it is The Deerslayer that is responsible.

On its surface, The Deerslayer seems a simple book. In 1745, just as the first of the French and Indian wars between England and France is beginning, the young and untested Natty Bumppo comes to a beautiful lake hidden among the hills of the as yet unsettled interior of New York. He undergoes a series of adventures, proves his manhood and his integrity, and at the end returns into the forests from which he has come. What will happen to him thereafter was perfectly familiar to Cooper’s audience: in a series of four other Leatherstocking Tales, Natty will fight villains, rescue the innocent, and avoid matrimony as a British frontier scout in the colonial wars; retire to a cabin on the edge of the post-Revolutionary settlement of Templeton (based on Cooperstown) in the mid-1790s, and end his life a decade later on the barren prairies acquired by America in the Louisiana Purchase. For Cooper’s readers, the question — if they asked such a thing — was not what would happen to Natty Bumppo, but how he would become the frontier figure they had grown to admire.

James Franklin Beard, perhaps the greatest Cooper scholar of the 20 th Century, said of The Deerslayer that, “Though the book has frequently been denigrated as a ‘simple’ adventure story, it becomes astonishingly complex if read as a work of serious fiction.” 3 It is also, as readers quickly notice, a very long book, even though it involves only a handful of characters, in a single setting, for a period of only one week. The setting is the as-yet unsurveyed Lake Otsego, called the “Glimmerglass” by the few who know it, at the beginning of one of the French and Indian Wars.

The Lake is dominated by the mysterious and sinister Tom Hutter, who lives in a protected cabin set on stilts in a shallow part of the lake and called Muskrat Castle, and navigates in a crude river craft called the Ark. With him are his two daughters: the vain, beautiful, ambitious and articulate Judith, and the simple-minded and naïve Hetty. On this scene arrives Natty Bumppo, aged perhaps 18, who has been brought up among Indians by Moravian missionaries; he is called Deerslayer both because of his prowess as a hunter and because he has not yet killed a human being. Natty plans a rendezvous with his Mohican Indian friend Chingachgook; together they will seek to recover Chingachgook’s betrothed, Hist-oh-Hist, who has been kidnapped by Huron Indians allied with the French. Along the way Natty has joined forces with Hurry Harry, a frontier adventurer in pursuit of the beautiful Judith.

The week that follows their arrival at the Glimmerglass is filled with attacks and ambushes, captures and rescues, and both bravery and cowardice, leading to a climactic and violent conclusion.

It is my contention that in this apparently simple adventure story can be found a series of increasingly serious meanings, and that by digging down, by peeling off the layers of the story, one by one, we can find them. The meanings I see are not, of course, definitive; every great work of fiction speaks differently to different readers. What is important is that The Deerslayer is a very serious novel, which challenges much of what its readers know, or think they know, about America.

Layer One — An Adventure Story for Boys

On its surface The Deerslayer is an adventure tale of Indians, tomahawks, canoes, fighting, torture, and scalping — in the tradition of what would become the old-fashioned Western. The Classics Comics version of the novel began thus: “In upper New York State, along the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, the warlike Iroquois Indians were rampaging ... scalping, pillaging, massacring the white man who was trying to make a home in the wilderness that was part of America. ... ” 4 But if for generations of boys this layer was sufficient, Cooper never for a moment considered himself a writer for children.

Layer Two — The Romance

Virtually all of Cooper’s novels fall into the format of the Romance — not to be confused with the Romantic novels of our own days. Following traditions largely set by Sir Walter Scott, the “Romance” follows a series of conventions. A young hero, generally drawn from the middle classes with whom most early 19 th century novel readers could identify, is kept apart from his lady love by events or misunderstandings. He undergoes a series of adventures in exotic places and among exotic people, that prove his manhood and, in the last chapter, he marries the girl and lives happily ever after. The Romance is often based around actual historical events, and often features unlikely coincidences and mysterious characters with hidden pasts. Despite its often rather routine “love story,” the Romance offers readers the opportunity of visiting places, meeting people, and having adventures quite outside their daily experience.

All these conventions are honored in The Deerslayer. For many years I assumed that Cooper had finally departed from the Romantic formula; that for once Natty Bumppo, as Deerslayer, has been made the formal hero of his own novel, even if he does not end up with the girl in the last chapter. After all, in The Pathfinder — published one year before The Deerslayer — Cooper has toyed with Natty Bumppo in love. But then I suddenly realized that The Deerslayer does have its Romantic hero and heroine after all. It is just that, violating the sensibilities of most Americans of the 1840s, they are Native Americans. It is Chingachgook, son of an Indian Chief, who with Deerslayer’s help rescues his beloved Hist-oh-Hist, and marries her at the end of the book. Cooper has not violated the traditions of the Romance, but demonstrating both his originality and his modernity, he has turned them on end. Indeed, he hinted at this himself in a promotional notice he sent to a Boston paper, stating that “This book will represent the youth of Leatherstocking, with certain incidents connected with the love of Chingachgook the father of Uncas.” 5

In arranging the romantic relationships among his White characters in The Deerslayer, Cooper has also been original — he has innovated in Romantic geometry by creating what may be fiction’s first love quadrangle. Hurry Harry wants to seduce Judith, but she sees through his character and wants nothing to do with him; Judith, in turn, is fascinated by Deerslayer’s honesty and moral purity, something she has never encountered before, and aims a heavy pitch at him; Deerslayer is an innocent in matters of love, and finds Judith’s sophisticated advances incomprehensible and disturbing; he is drawn, rather, to the transparent honesty and simplicity of Hetty; and finally, the simple-minded Hetty, who cannot understand or recognize evil, is dazzled by the form and physical attractiveness of Hurry Harry. In the end, of course, not one of the White characters marries anybody, and it is only Chingachgook and Hist-oh-Hist who are joined in marital bliss.

Cooper’s readers knew, of course, from the earlier Leatherstocking Tales that Natty Bumppo would never marry, and that he would die as a very old man on the prairies of the west. So he’s not going to marry Judith Hutter, and he’s not going to get killed.

But let us look a little deeper — this time at the Lake itself.

Layer Three — Lake Otsego

Scenery always exerted a powerful effect on Cooper, 6 and Lake Otsego, because of his life-long association with it, was especially important to him. So another aspect of The Deerslayer is its descriptions of that Lake — conveyed in words to an audience that had never seen a photograph. The emotional and artistic similarity between Cooper’s writing, and the landscape paintings of the so-called Hudson River School has long been noted, and no less an author than Honoré de Balzac once said of Cooper that: “Never did typographed language approach so closely to painting. This is the school that literary landscape-painters ought to study; all the secrets of the art are there.” 7 Cooper’s special feeling for the lake — and his desire to transfer its reality into The Deerslayer, was spelled out in his new Preface to an 1850 edition of the novel:

The scene of this tale ... is intended for ... a close description of the Otsego, prior to the year 1760. ... The recollections of the writer carry him back distinctly to a time when nine tenths of the shores of this lake were in the virgin forest. ... The woods and the mountains have ever formed a principal source of beauty with this charming sheet of water. ... In most respects the descriptions of scenery in the tale are reasonably accurate. The rock appointed for the rendezvous between the Deerslayer and his friend ... still remains. ... The shoal on which Hutter is represented as having built his ‘castle’ is a little misplaced [but] in all but precise position, even this feature of the book is accurate. The same is true of the several points introduced, of the bays, the river, of the mountains, and all the other accessories of the place. 8

Perhaps the best example of this love of the lake, as described in The Deerslayer, can be found in Chapter II, when Natty Bumppo first sets eyes on “The Glimmerglass”:

On a level with the point lay a broad sheet of water, so placid and limpid, that it resembled a bed of the pure mountain atmosphere, compressed into a setting of hills and woods. ... Its margin was irregular, being indented by bays, and broken by many projecting, low, points. ... But the most striking peculiarities of this scene, were its solemn solitude, and sweet repose. On all sides, wherever the eye turned, nothing met it, but the mirror-like setting of the lake, the placid void of heaven, and the dense setting of wood. So rich and fleecy were the outlines of the forest, that scarce an opening could be seen. ... The trees overhung the lake, itself, shooting out towards the light, and there were miles along the eastern shore, where a boat might have pulled beneath the branches of dark, Rembrandt-looking hem-locks, ‘quivering aspens,’ and melancholy pines. In a word, the hand of man had never yet defaced, or deformed any part of this native scene, which lay bathed in the sun-light, a glorious picture of affluent forest grandeur, softened by the balminess of June, and relieved by the beautiful variety afforded by the presence of so broad an expanse of water. 9

Many other significant quotations from the novel could be found, but this is perhaps sufficient to illustrate the point that The Deerslayer is, among many other things, a landscape painting in words. But if Cooper is deeply concerned with Lake Otsego and its scenery, Deerslayer himself — though he admires it — has other things on his mind.

Level Four — Initiation

From time immemorial, in societies all over the world, adolescent youths approaching manhood have undergone a physical and spiritual initiation, a quest proving their fitness for adulthood. While Cooper was familiar with European traditions, he had also read of such initiation journeys as practiced by the Delaware Indians in the works of the Moravian Missionary John Heckewelder, whose intimate knowledge of and sympathy for the Delaware and Mohican Indians informs everything Cooper writes about them. 10 James Franklin Beard has written that:

[The] dramatic frame [of The Deerslayer] derived almost certainly from ... Heckewelder’s descriptions of the ‘vision quest,’ an initiation ritual in which Indian males, at puberty, were sent into the woods or mountains to seek their ‘guardian spirits,’ supposedly resident in Nature. ... ” Cooper’s knowledge of this rite de passage ... , his early reading and experimentation in allegorical forms, his concern about the quality of public and private morality in the Republic, his fascination with landscape ... coalesced in The Deerslayer to produce, arguably, the first successful ‘initiation’ fiction in American letters. 11

Thus Deerslayer explains to Judith Hutter that, with a new colonial war breaking out, “This was thought a good occasion for Chingachgook, a young chief who had never struck a foe, and myself, to go on our first warpath in company.” 12

But Cooper’s concept of peril as a necessary initiation to manhood did not spring solely from his knowledge of the Delaware Indians. In childhood, he had been brought up on and loved “old fashioned heroic romances.” 13 He had himself undergone an initiation into manhood when, in 1806 and just turned 17, he ran away to sea as a common sailor aboard an American merchant ship plying the Atlantic Ocean. 14 And he would have been familiar with a custom among the Dutch-speaking residents of Albany before the Revolution, of sending their adolescent sons off alone into the forests, with only a canoe, a rifle, and some trading goods, to prove their manhood in a solitary test of survival. 15 All these came together as Cooper described, in The Deerslayer, how the Natty Bumppo of the later novels first demonstrated the courage, the woodcraft skills, the desire to serve others, and above all the integrity that mark his later character.

But the Lake on which Deerslayer achieves his manhood is in some respects a magical one.

Layer Five — The Fairy Tale

We all know about fairy tales — though they are rarely set in America — including the generic story of the handsome young prince who comes to an enchanted kingdom, outside the realm of the everyday world, and rescues a fair maiden imprisoned in a castle by an evil monarch. To rescue the maiden, the prince must prove he deserves her, by triumphing in a series of ordeals. This could, of course, aptly describe the basic plot of The Deerslayer, with Tom Hutter as the king and Judith as the maiden. The setting is carefully isolated from the “real world” — all the action takes place on the surface of the Lake or on its immediate banks.

The real world always seems far far away, and when it finally appears in the last chapter, it is as a tragic and brutal intrusion. As to the enchantment, the “Glimmerglass” is of course a mirror, and — it seems to me — in this novel the Lake becomes a moral mirror, reflecting the true nature of those living out their lives upon its surface. And that brings us to the next layer — a consideration of personal morality.

Layer Six — Character and Morality

Cooper is always deeply concerned with morality, but he has no expectations of perfection among mortals. As he states in the very last sentence of The Deerslayer, “We live in a world of transgressions and selfishness, and no pictures that represent us as 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.” 16

In short, nobody is all good, but by the same token, nobody is all bad. Listen to Cooper’s presentation of the principal characters in The Deerslayer. Of Hurry Harry, Cooper remarks: “Directness of speech, and decision in conduct, were two the best qualities of this rude being, in whom the seeds of a better education seemed to be constantly struggling upward, to be choked by the fruits of a life, in which the hard struggles for subsistence and security, had steeled his feelings and indurated [hardened] his nature.” 17 Of the two Hutter sisters, Cooper tells his readers: “The intention has been to put the sisters in strong contrast; one admirable in person, clever, filled with the pride of beauty, erring, and fallen; the other, barely provided with sufficient capacity to know good from evil” but filled with the “virtues of woman, reverencing and loving God, and yielding only to the weakness of her sex, in admiring personal attractions. ... ” 18 Even the evil Tom Hutter has occasional good instincts; for as he is being dragged off to captivity and probable death, he cries out to Deerslayer, “The girls depend only on you, now. ... God prosper you, as you aid my children.” 19

As to Deerslayer himself, he is, Cooper says, “a character that possessed little of civilization but its highest principles as they are exhibited in the uneducated, and all of savage life that is not incompatible with these great rules of conduct.” At the same time he is a human being, in whom “traits derived from the prejudices, tastes, and even the weaknesses of his youth, have been mixed up with these higher qualities and longings, in a way, it is hoped, to present a reasonable picture of human nature. ... ” 21 Thus Deerslayer, to show off his skill with a rifle, shoots and brings down an eagle — though he is immediately stricken with remorse: “We’ve done an unthoughtful thing ... in taking life with an object no better than vanity!. ... We should know when to use fire-arms, as well as how to use ‘em. ... I’d give back all my vain feelings ... if that poor eagle was only on its nest ag’in, with its young. ... What a thing is power ... and what a thing it is, to have it, and not to know how to use it. It’s no wonder ... that the great so often fail of their duties, when even the little and the humble find it so hard to do what’s right, and not to do what’s wrong.” 21 But there is a further irony. The very shot that kills the eagle, saves the lives of Natty and Judith, by attracting the British troops who appear on the scene at the end of the book. “Little did Deerslayer know,” writes Cooper, ” ... that, in the course of ... inscrutable providence ... the very fault he was disposed so severely to censure, was to be made the means of determining his own earthly fate.”

Another issue that is always of importance to Cooper is that of race. Though he is best known for his sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans, he had — in The Last of the Mohicans — introduced his readers to Cora Munro, who may well be considered the first African-American heroine in American literature. Though there are no Blacks in The Deerslayer, Cooper nevertheless considers the full range of America’s racial conundrum.

Layer Seven — Race and Culture

As we have seen already, Cooper had violated convention in The Deerslayer by placing a Native American couple in the roles of formal hero and heroine. But early in the novel Deerslayer and Hurry Harry argue at some length about America’s three principal races. Hurry Harry’s views are those of his time:

“Here’s three colours on ‘arth; white, black and red. White is the highest colour, and therefore the best man; black comes next, and is put to live in the neighbourhood of the white man, as tolerable and fit to be made use of; and red comes last, which shows that those that made ‘em never expected an Indian to be accounted as more than half human.” 22

When Natty expresses moral doubts about killing Native Americans, Hurry Harry quickly asserts the all-too common American belief, later put into words by Civil War General Philip Sheridan, that ” the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

“Who’s talking of mortals, or of human beings at all. ... I dare say any man would have his feelin’s when it got to be life, or death, ag’in another human mortal, but there would be no such scruples in regard to an Injin. ... You may account yourself as a red skin’s brother, but I hold ‘em all to be animals, with nothing human about ‘em but cunning. ... ” 23

Cooper sums up Hurry Harry’s morality as follows

Hurry was one of those theorists who believed in the inferiority of all of the human race, who were not white. His notions on the subject were not very clear, nor were his definitions at all well settled, but his opinions were none the less dogmatical, or fierce. His conscience accused him of sundry lawless acts against the Indians, and he had found it an exceedingly easy mode of quieting it, by putting the whole family of red men, incontinently, without the category of human rights. Nothing angered him sooner, than to deny his proposition. ... 24

Deerslayer’s views are quite the opposite of those expressed by Hurry Harry. Though equally unsophisticated in their expression, they seem to a century ahead to a concept of cultural relativism, of valuing behavior in terms of the culture in which it takes place, rather than measuring everything against our own personal or tribal standards:

“God made us all, white, black, and red, and no doubt had his own wise intentions in colouring us differently. Still he made us, in the main, much the same in feelin’s; though I’ll not deny that he gave each race its gifts. A white man’s gifts are christianized, while a red skin’s are more for the wilderness. Thus it would be a great offence for a white man to scalp the dead, whereas it’s a signal virtue in an Indian. ... Tradition, and use, and colour, and laws, make such a difference in races as to amount to gifts. ... I hold to a white man’s respecting white laws, so long as they do not cross the track of a law comin’ from a higher authority, and for a red man to obey his own red-skin usages, under the same privilege. ... I look upon the red men to be quite as human as we are ourselves. ... They have their gifts, and their religion, it’s true, but that makes no difference in the end, when each will be judged according to his deeds, and not according to his skin. ... ” 25

The ultimate form of racial prejudice is, of course, the kind of indiscriminate killing that we now call genocide. And symbolically at least, The Deerslayer is very much about genocide.

Layer Eight — A Darker Vision

There are, perhaps, two aspects to the dark vision of genocide. The first is that of individuals as willing participants in the act of killing innocent people of a different ethnic, religious, or linguistic group. The second is the expansion of this murderous impulse into government policy. Both are to be found in this novel.

Early on in the novel, Tom Hutter and Hurry Harry attack an Indian camp, whose warriors are away, in order to kill and scalp the women and children who remain. While some Native American societies scalped their dead enemies to provide evidence of their warrior’s valor, the colonial authorities on both sides — during the so-called French and Indian Wars of the 18 th century — paid cash for scalps, as proof of killing Indians defined as enemies. And, as Tom Hutter and Hurry Harry agree, “If there’s women, there’s children, and big and little have scalps; the Colony pays for all alike.” 26 Of this attitude, Cooper comments:

“The reader ... can have no difficulty in comprehending [their] morality. ... It was in truth that ... which rules most of the acts of men, and in which the controlling principle is that one wrong will justify another. Their enemies paid for scalps, and this was sufficient to justify the colony for retaliating. It is true, the French used the same argument. ... But, neither Hutter, nor Hurry was a man likely to stick at trifles, in matters connected with the rights of the aborigines, since it is one of the consequences of aggression that it hardens the conscience, as the only means of quieting it.” 27

Tom and Harry do indeed attack the Indian camp that “contained the women and children of the party,” Tom Hutter remarking that “That’s not a warrior’s encampment, and there’s a bounty enough sleeping around the fire to make a heavy division of head-money.” (105) And soon we hear “a shriek of agony, that came either from one of the female sex, or from a boy so young as not yet to have attained a manly voice. ... Heart rending terror — if not writhing agony — was in the sounds. ... ” 28

Two men scalping a few women and children is serious enough. But The Deerslayer includes a much more general massacre of the innocent. At the end of the novel, British troops arrive from Fort Hunter on the Schoharie — attracted by Deerslayer’s rifle shot at the eagle — just in time to rescue him. But Cooper does not describe it like the cavalry coming to the rescue. The Indians who are holding Deerslayer prisoner at this moment in the plot, with their families, find themselves suddenly trapped at Lake Otsego’s Six Mile Point (better known today as Hickory Grove), with water on three sides and a suddenly appearing enemy on the fourth. Listen to Cooper’s words.

“A sound unusual to the woods was heard. ... The sound was regular and heavy, as if the earth were struck with beetles [heavy mauls]. Objects became visible among the trees ... and a body of troops, was seen advancing with measured tread. They came upon the charge, the scarlet of the King’s livery shining among the green foliage of the forest. The scene that followed ... was one in which wild confusion, despair, and frenzied efforts, were ... blended. ... Still not a musket or a rifle was fired, though that steady measured tramp continued, and the bayonet was seen gleaming in advance of a line of sixty men. ... This drew a general fire from the Hurons. ... Still the trained men returned no answering volley, [nothing] being heard on their side ... except ... that heavy, measured and menacing tread. Presently, however, the shrieks, groans, and denunciations that usually accompany the use of the bayonet followed. That terrible and deadly weapon was glutted in vengeance. The scene that succeeded was one of those, of which so many have occurred in our own times, in which neither age nor sex forms an exemption to the lot of a savage warfare.” 29

How are we to interpret these scenes???

In a Cooper novel, a short literary quotation, known as a epigraph, introduces each chapter — instead of a Chapter Title. A similar epigraph appears on the Title Page (if it has not been removed by a careless editor). While the degree of significance of the chapter heading epigraphs varies, that which appears on the Title Page of a Cooper novel is often an important clue to understanding Cooper’s meaning. And not just the words themselves, but the poem from which the quotation has been taken. So what is the epigraph on the Title Page of The Deerslayer? Has anyone noticed it?

It reads:

“What terrors round him wait! Amazement in his van, with Flight combin’d, And Sorrow’s faded form, and Solitude behind.”

Cooper did not, in the original edition, identify the source of this quotation, but it is from an English poem, The Bard, written by Thomas Gray in 1757.

Gray’s poem describes the fulfillment of a Welsh curse against King Edward I of England, who conquered Wales in 1284, and against his descendants who ruled for the next 200 years as the Plantagenet Dynasty. According to legend, Edward slaughtered all the Welsh traditional bards, symbols of Welsh ethnic identity. The specific lines used by Cooper refer to Edward III, who though he conquered France, died in misery, abandoned by his family, after enduring the killing of his favorite son. The poem goes on to tell how the Welsh were eventually revenged when they in turn conquered England under Henry Tudor, Henry VII, in 1485, destroying the last of Edward’s descendants.

With that in mind, why has Cooper chosen this quotation? Who is to be surrounded with terrors? Who is destined to be surrounded by bewilderment and frantic flight, by sorrow and solitude?

Is it one of the characters in the novel? Well, Tom Hutter and his daughter Hetty have ended up dead. Judith Hutter faces — as Cooper’s epilogue suggests — a problematic future as the mistress of Captain Warley, the perpetrator of the final massacre. Deerslayer certainly faces a future with a good deal of solitude, but it seems to suit him. Chingachgook will lose his wife — we never do learn how — and eventually his only son, but he does not seem a man to be terrorized. Presumably Cooper is referring to something more generalized. And the obvious target is America’s white settlers, who are destroying Native American culture, as Edward I sought to destroy Welsh culture, and in the person of Captain Warley and his troops have desecrated the magic and beautiful land of the Glimmerglass.

For Cooper, the extermination of the Indian is only a part of a larger destruction, that of nature itself. In The Prairie, Cooper foresees America’s future — as Deerslayer, now an aged trapper who has fled the destructive ways of his countrymen in the East, tells a Indian chief on the great prairies of the west:

“It will not be long afore an accursed band of choppers and loggers will ... humble the wilderness which lies so broad and rich on the western banks of the Mississippi, and then the land will be a peopled desert from the shores of the Maine sea to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, fill’d with all the abomination and craft of man and stript of the comfort and loveliness it received from the hand of the Lord.” 31


“What will the Yankee choppers say, when they have cut their path from the eastern to the western waters. ... They will turn in their tracks, like a fox that doubles, and then the rank smell of their own footsteps, will show them the madness of their waste.” 31

At the very end of The Last of the Mohicans, the wise old Indian chief Tamenund says: “The pale-faces are the masters of the earth, and the time of the red-men has not yet come again.” 32

Listening to the epigraph that rules The Deerslayer, taken from a poem about genocide, retribution, and eventual revenge, what are the operative words of Tamenund’s prophecy? “yet” and “again” suggest that one day the rule of the White man will come to an end, just as did the rule of the Plantagenet Dynasty in England.

But there is, I believe, one final layer — at the very heart of The Deerslayer and of Cooper’s vision of the universe. It might be described as eternity.

A Final Layer — Eternity

This is not the place to discuss in detail Cooper’s deep religious beliefs, reflected throughout his fiction. But despite his fears for mankind and his sometimes dire predictions for the human future, he also has an alternative vision that, whatever horrors man can produce, the eternal world of God will continue. The climactic scene in The Deerslayer is a massacre of essentially defenseless Indians. But, Cooper writes:

When the sun rose the following morning, every sign of hostility and alarm had vanished from the basin of the Glimmerglass. The frightful event of the preceding evening had left no impression on the placid sheet, and the untiring hours pursued their course in ... placid order. ... The birds were again skimming the water, or were seen poised on the wing, high above the tops of the tallest pines of the mountains. ... In a word, nothing was changed. ... 33

And this takes us back to the very beginning of the novel, where Cooper wrote:

Whatever may be the changes produced by man, the eternal round of the seasons is unbroken. Summer and winter, seed time and harvest, return in their stated order, with a sublime precision, affording to man one of the noblest of all the occasions he enjoys of proving the high powers of his far reaching mind ... in calculating their never ending revolutions. 34

And then forward to a short epilogue, fifteen years after the action of the novel, in which Deerslayer and Chingachgook, accompanied by Chingachgook’s son Uncas, return to the Glimmerglass, to find no traces of recent human presence and few of its bloody past:

Here all was unchanged. The river still rushed through its bower of trees; the little rock [Council Rock] was washing away, by the slow action of the waves, in the course of centuries, the mountains stood in their native dress, dark, rich and mysterious, while the sheet glistened in its solitude, a beautiful gem of the forest. 35

The Glimmerglass, seen and loved in The Deerslayer, is a symbol of that eternity. But is this glimpse of eternity a part of reality, or is this only a fairy story, or only a dream? That, perhaps, Cooper leaves to the reader. The celebrated English writer and critic D.H. Lawrence once wrote:

Deerslayer is, indeed, one of the most perfect books in the world. ... From the first words we pass straight into the world of sheer creation, with so perfect a transit that we are unconscious of our translation. The world — the pristine world of Glimmerglass — is, perhaps, lovelier than any place created in language: lovelier than Hardy or Turgenev; lovelier than the lands in ancient poetry or in Irish verse. 36

The Deerslayer is not a children’s book; but a book for serious, thinking, adults. And I hope this brief analysis will stimulate you to think as you read this novel — and see where Cooper may take you.


1 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Introduction to The Deerslayer, or The First Warpath. Boston: Houghton & Mifflin Co., 1881, p. xxxiii.

2 Whig Newspapers, always hostile to Cooper, continued their diatribes: Park Benjamin, poet and editor of the New World, and long-time Cooper enemy, snarled on September 4 that “We have received Cooper’s new novel, and have ... been trying desperately hard to read it. After many severe struggles against drowsiness and the endurance of a tedium, that was really distressing, we have tugged through the first volume. We are now meditating an attack on the second, with but very faint hope of success. Should we survive the task, our readers shall be informed in due season. Meanwhile, we implore their sympathy.” However, Benjamin may have been influenced by the fact that he was being sued for libel by Cooper, and that a few days later a jury awarded Cooper damages of $375 in a trial that had already cost Benjamin — in Cooper’s estimation — some $700.      In general, the reception of The Deerslayer was more favorable, though in an economic depression, and a much more crowded book market, it did not have the best-seller position enjoyed by the Natty Bumppo tales of the 1820s. The New-York Mirror wrote: “The book before us is certainly the best which has issued from [Cooper’s] pen in many years. ... He is the most original thinker of any of our American novelists; the manliest, most vigourous and independent spirit of them all, unrivalled in descriptive powers, and unapproached in the heartiness of his patriotic feelings. ... The scene is laid on the borders of that beautiful lake near which the author himself resided. His descriptions of ... it are in his best style, that is, remarkably clear and minute, and exquisitely true to nature. We can almost fancy ourselves looking down on the unruffled surface of Otsego, and feel the night-breeze rising, damp and heavy with the odours of the forest. ... ” The Knickerbocker Magazine said that Deerslayer’s descriptions were “second to none of those vivid limnings by which he has won our admiration.” Graham’s Magazine commented that “no writer of the day, at least no American, can, at all, compare with Mr. Cooper.” The Saturday Evening Post, was positively ecstatic: “No tale of the season equals ‘The Deerslayer.’ Every American especially should read this last work — the copestone of a series — by the first living novelist of his country.” English reviewers were even more favorable: The Examiner said, somewhat confused about Cooper’s Indian names: “This tale is written in Mr. Cooper’s best style: the style which won him his repute, and by which he will live. When nothing but a tradition of the magnificent race of the Red Indian shall be left to civilized Americans ... the Leather Stockings and Red Jackets, thanks to Mr. Cooper, will have lost nothing of their fame; nothing of their native wit; nothing of their hardy truth and rude generosity. ... ” The Monthly Review said that “in none of the other tales of the series have we found such manly simplicity, such shrewd wisdom, such quaint originality in the portraiture of the hero, as in the volumes before us. The white hunter of the border is sterling throughout, but here we find the foundations of his freshness, vigour, truth, prowess, and generosity.” Finally, forecasting a very important and world-wide effect of Deerslayer, The Court Journal enthused that: “Never is the simplicity, the perfect freedom from guile, the noble heartedness of the primitive hunter, drawn out more forcibly. We cannot hesitate in saying that it is certainly one of the best characters ever introduced into a novel. ... We can only say that it is fully equal to [Cooper’s] best efforts, and every reader of taste, who is an admirer of primitive nature and or primitive man, will be delighted with the work. ... The most interesting [portions] ... are the pictures of nature, the lovely descriptions of lake and forest scenery, of wild and savage encampment, of morning and even bursting on a spot almost uninhabited. ... The wish which we are ever eager to gratify as we proceed, is to be transported to the spots which he describes, to revel in the luxuriant vegetation of a virgin American forest, and to look upon the face of Glimmerglass. ... “

3 James Franklin Beard, Historical Introduction to James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer; or, The First Warpath. [1841] (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), p. xxxiii [hereafter cited as The Deerslayer].

4 James Fenimore Cooper, The Deer Slayer [sic] (New York: Classics Illustrated, No. 17, 1990), p. 1.

5 Letter to George Roberts, the Boston Nation, February 13, 1841, quoted in James Franklin Beard’s Historical Introduction to The Deerslayer, p. xli.

6 See, e.g., Donald A. Ringe, The Pictorial Mode: Space &Time in the Art of Bryant, Irving & Cooper (The University Press of Kentucky, 1971), and Blake Nevius, Cooper’s Landscapes: An Essay on The Picturesque Vision (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976). For the especial importance of lakes in Cooper’s vision of landscapes, see H. Daniel Peck, A World by Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

7 Honoré de Balzac, Review of The Pathfinder, Paris Review (July 25, 1840), quoted in George Dekker and John P. McWilliams, eds., Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 197.

8 The Deerslayer, pp. 11-12.

9 The Deerslayer, Chapter 2, pp. 35-36.

10 See John Heckewelder, An Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States (Philadelphia: Abraham Small, 1819; reprinted as Memoirs of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Vol. XII (Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1876), reprinted (Arno Press & The New York Times, 1971), Chapter XXXIII; pp: 245-248.

11 James Franklin Beard, Historical Introduction to The Deerslayer, pp. xxxii-xxxiii.

12 The Deerslayer, Chapter 3, p. 73.

13 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: W.A. Townsend, 1861), p. 18.

14 How this came about was first revealed by Alan Taylor in “James Fenimore Cooper Goes to Sea: Two Unpublished Letters by a Family Friend,” in Joel Myerson, ed., Studies in the American Renaissance 1993, pp. 45-56.

15 The theme informs James Kirke Paulding’s novel The Dutchman’s Fireside (New York: J. and J. Harper, 1831). Paulding was a friend and literary colleague of Cooper’s, and they admired each other’s works.

16 The Deerslayer, Chapter 32, p. 548.

17 The Deerslayer, Chapter 5, p. 94.

18 The Deerslayer, Preface to 1850 edition, p. 11.

19 The Deerslayer, Chapter 6, p. 110.

20 The Deerslayer, Preface to the 1850 Edition of the Leatherstocking Tales, pp. 6-8.

21 The Deerslayer, Chapter 26, p. 446.

22 The Deerslayer, Chapter 3, pp. 49-50.

23 The Deerslayer, Chapter 3, p. 59.

24 The Deerslayer, Chapter 3, pp. 59-60.

25 The Deerslayer, Chapter 3, pp. 50, 51, 59.

26 The Deerslayer, Chapter 5, p. 87.

27 The Deerslayer, Chapter 5, p. 88.

28 The Deerslayer, Chapter 6, pp. 108-109.

29 The Deerslayer, Chapter 30, pp. 521-522.

30 James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie [1827] (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985), Chapter 18, pp. 187-188 [hereafter cited as The Prairie].

31 The Prairie, Chapter 7, p. 76.

32 James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757 [1826] (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), Chapter 33, p. 350.

33 The Deerslayer, Chapter 31, p. 523.

34 The Deerslayer, Chapter 1, p. 17.

35 The Deerslayer, Chapter 32, p. 546.

36 D.H. Lawrence, The Symbolic Meaning: The Uncollected Versions of Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: The Viking Press, 1964), p. 98.