Interracial Friendships in The Deerslayer

John Stauffer (Harvard 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. 83-86).

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

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

In the past thirty years, most critics of Cooper emphasize his participation in Indian removal. Phil Fisher argues that “Cooper’s novel,” The Deerslayer, “has a simple, blunt subject: the reluctant but inevitable extermination of the American Indian.” Richard Slotkin treats Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales as a crucial component in articulating a central trope of the American experience: regeneration through violence. Natty embodies the white man who immerses himself in the savage wilderness, learns the ways of savages in order to conquer them and his own savage impulse, and reemerges from savage warfare purified, and his essential whiteness and “virtuous” character clarified. Donald Pease argues that throughout the Leatherstocking Tales, Hawkeye “has no attachments to anyone except the adventuring spirit itself. Pease’s Hawkeye is a loner, identifying with no one, disassociating himself from his past, and choosing the last of a dying Indian tribe for his companion. For Carolyn Karcher, Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales presuppose that the encounter between savage and civilized races could take but one form — war — and could lead to but one outcome — the total defeat and extinction of the savage race. The Leatherstocking Tales mourned the vanishing of the Indian as tragic but inevitable. These are but a few examples; much of the recent scholarship linking Cooper to larger currents in American literature and history elaborates on a theme initiated by Roy Harvey Pearce, who noted that during the removal era, Native Americans “were forced out of American life and into American history.”

While this theme in American literature of white supremacy, male dominance, and a perpetual state of war is extremely persuasive, what these critics downplay or ignore is the most enduring and constant aspect of the Leatherstocking Tales: Natty Bumppo’s close friendship with Indians — especially Chingachgook and Uncas. The Leatherstocking series ends, both in the chronology of Cooper’s writing, and in the settings of the tales, with Natty in friendship with Indians. The end of The Deerslayer, which is set fifteen years after the events of the rest of the novel, describes Natty and Chingachgook as “constant” friends. With them is Uncas, Chingachgook’s son and another close friend of Natty. While Natty and Chingachgook survive and prosper, none of the other characters has survived. Some human bones, bleached by the summer rains, are the only traces that remain. The Hutters and Harry March are dead and forgotten, and their castle, their ark, and their canoes are now in states of decay and ruin. What endures at the end of this last Leatherstocking Tale is not white civilization, but the friendship between white man and Indian, living in a state of nature.

The Prairie, which represents the chronological end of the Leatherstocking Tales in terms of plot, ends in similar fashion. Natty, now an old “miserable trapper,” chooses to die on the prairie rather than amid the “waste and wickedness of the settlements and the village” (370). He dies facing west, toward the land of Indians. He is living with the Pawnees, has been adopted by them as a venerable chief, and has adopted a son, Hard-heart, who in his bravery and virtue reminds Natty of his old friend Uncas. In death he remains with Indians.

And he hopes these friendships will continue after death. “You believe in the blessed Prairies, and I have faith in the sayings of my fathers,” Natty tells Braveheart as he prepares to die. “If both are true, our parting will be final; but if it should prove that the same meaning is hid under different words,” which Natty argues for throughout the novel, then “we shall yet stand together, Pawnee, before the face of your Wahcondah, who will then be no other than my God.” Throughout the five Leatherstocking Tales, the doctrine that disturbs Natty most “is the one that teaches us to think a pale-face goes to one heaven, and a red-skin to another; it may separate in death them which lived much together, and loved each other well in life.”

Natty’s life and afterlife centers around his friendship with Indians. But why? Given the nature of race relations in antebellum America, how and why was Natty able to achieve such close friendships with Indians? What are the governing characteristics of these friendships? I want to focus on The Deerslayer, while also incorporating the Leatherstocking Tales as a whole, to address these questions.

Natty is often described as the archetypal American male. His very name suggests it: For Natty (and Cooper) a name should signify a person’s character. And so perhaps it is no coincidence that the new “nation” (n-a-t-i-o-n) is virtually contained in Nathaniel, his Christian name, much as Uncas in Last of the Mohicans is virtually contained in D(unca)n. In that novel, the last of the Mohicans gives way to the first of the Americans. But Natty never embodies the new nation; he prefers to remain on the frontier with his Indians, and so abandons Nathaniel for names that more aptly fit his character. In The Deerslayer, he has evolved from Nathaniel Bumppo to Natty, Straight-Tongue, The Pigeon, Lap-ear, Deerslayer, and Hawkeye, to signify his growth and maturity. And as he grows older his is pathfinder, scout, and finally a trapper.

Significantly, when Natty is still young, (and before the action in the Leatherstocking Tales), his parents die and he is raised by Delawares. Chingachgook is his childhood friend, and his notion of friendship is both Christian and Delaware: it is based on equality, affection, and respect — what Aristotle called “perfect friendship” in Nicomachean Ethics. Perfect friendship stemmed from the basic goodness of each individual; and it consisted “more in loving than in being loved,” and “more in giving than in receiving affection.” For Aristotle and Cooper, good friends needed to live “in each other’s company.” Distance did not make the heart grow fonder. But for Aristotle, friends needed to be similar, whereas Natty’s relationship with Chingachgook, Uncas, and Braveheart is a relationship of differences. We are continually told that Natty is a Christian — a man without a cross. He has been raised in the wilderness rather than in a Christian home, and has no cross of blood, despite his Indian ways. Although his God is the God of Nature, there are inviolable differences — defined by race — between him and Chingachgook. His friendship with Chingachgook is a friendship with an outsider, a cultural Other.

Natty’s friendship with his Indians also conforms to the Christian ideal of spiritual friendship, which opened the way in western culture for friendship with outsiders. Spiritual friendship was first articulated by Aelred of Rievaulx, the twelfth-century abbot of the Rievaulx monastery in Yorkshire, England. In his book titled Spiritual Friendship, Aelred applied classical ideals of friendship to Christian piety, and he took Christ as his model friend. By defining Christ as a model friend, he made friendship an ideal — a standard for anyone who wants to be a friend. Like Christ, a true friend should love unconditionally and be willing to die for his friend. Spiritual friends shared their possessions as well as their love. Cooper’s interracial friendships in Leatherstocking Tales are similarly an ideal form of friendship. Natty and Chingachgook share their possessions and their love. And they act on the Christian ideal of friendship expressed by Christ to his disciples in John 15: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Hetty and Wah-ta-Wah, both spiritual beings, also struggle to become friends. “I should like to have a friend! I’ll be your friend, with all my heart, for I like your voice and your smile, and your way of thinking in every thing, except about the scalps,” Hetty tells Wah-ta-Wah when they meet. But unlike Natty and Chingachgook, they are drawn more to their lovers than to each other.

There is an intimate, almost homoerotic aspect to Chingachgook and Natty’s friendship. Women threaten their friendship, much as men threaten the friendship of Hetty and Wah-ta-Wah. But while the women are drawn to their lovers, and want to be with them, Natty and Chingachgook prefer to be with each other. Natty warns Chingachgook not to treat Wah-ta-Wah like other Indian men treat their women; he doesn’t want him to totally ignore his wife, and leave her with all the domestic work while he hunts with the men. But it is clear that Chingachgook will spend most of his time with Natty or thinking about Natty, as he does in The Deerslayer. Natty is wholly averse to Judith’s advances; in fact he is so ignorant of them that she pointedly asks him to marry her. Doing so would cost Natty his friendship with Chingachgook. “I find my time is too much taken up with Chingachgook’s affair [to recover Wah-ta-Wah], to wish to have one of my own, on my hand, afore that is settled,” he tells Judith after she asks about his longings for women.

Leslie Fiedler famously characterizes Natty and Chingachgook’s friendship as “innocent homosexuality.” But sex is not the driving force that brings them together. Spiritual beliefs, a sense of virtue — of right and wrong — fighting a common foe, and sharing work are more important factors. As Geoffrey Harpham has noted, homoerotic undertones often serve as an explanatory model in the material world of desire for faith, one that illuminates faith without defiling it, because homosexuality is never admitted, realized, or achieved. Homosexuality often reveals the burden of love in an ascetic context: by seeking Christ or someone else as a model friend, the ascetic male believer imitates the kind of desire we would today call homoerotic. They are imaginary, unstated desires; and there is a world of worldly ethical difference between a conscious bodily act and an inarticulate, unconscious imaginative sensation. This desire for affectionate, tacitly homoerotic friendship between Natty and Chingachgook runs through The Deerslayer. When they meet they are delighted to see each other — happier than when Chingachgook reunites with Wah-ta-Wah. And this desire both accommodates and cuts against Cooper’s larger racial views.

Cooper’s racial views are closely linked to his belief in providential history. He structures his Leatherstocking Tales around the assumption that history moves in cycles: a savage society gives way to white civilization, which gets corrupted through greed and blood-mixing, resulting in dissolution and a return to savagery. Plot, characterization, and setting all adhere to this divine plan. Characters have little control over their destinies, and their identities are comparatively fixed. In Deerslayer, Natty will never boast like an Indian, will never sell scalps like Tom and Harry. Judith will always remain something of a coquette. Natty and Chingachgook are always friends and will always remain on a frontier. He is “my earliest and latest friend.” There is no initiation from enemy to friendship, no shift from evil to virtuous character. Since everything is in God’s hands, no one is to blame for what happens. This providential belief system has endured. Many Americans still believe, or would like to believe, that God determines the course of their lives and the nation’s destiny, and that sacrificing one’s life for a friend or country is the noblest form of love. These beliefs, highlighted by Cooper, underlie some of America’s most popular interracial friendship stories, from Moby-Dick to the movies The Green Mile and Forrest Gump.

There has always been a place in the American imagination for Natty and his dark-skinned friends. His spiritual friendship with Chingachgook in The Deerslayer remains the most enduring feature of the novel; the book is structured around it and still read and remembered for it. In recent years, Natty and Chingachgook have been characterized as lonely and pathetic men, or misogynists, or frustrated gays, or characters only for adolescent boys because Natty especially shuns marriage, sex, and romantic love. But mostly they are American monks, ascetic in their way of life, embracing the law of nature and nature’s God. They live in the temple of nature, fending off sin with their rifles and tomahawks, and shun the trappings of wealth and domesticity. It is in The Deerslayer where Natty pledges, in a way, a priestly vow of celibacy. He has the opportunity to marry Judith Hutter, who desperately wants him. He rejects not only her but all women. When she asks him, “Where is your sweetheart, Deerslayer?” he responds: “She’s in the forest, Judith, hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain — in the dew on the open grass — the clouds that float about in the blue heavens — the birds that sing in the woods — the sweet springs where I slake my thirst — and in all the other glorious gifts that come from God’s Providence.” He loves, in other words, nature and nature’s God; and he refuses to consider an Indian woman, who necessarily must have a red-skin heart and feeling toward love. His heart is white, and while it can fuse in spiritual friendship with the heart of Chingachgook, it remains separate in love from an Indian woman. It would also violate Cooper’s emphasis on racial purity.

When Judith asks if Natty has ever been moved by the sound of a woman’s laughter, he answers: “Lord bless you, gal ... to me there is no music so sweet as the sighing of the wind in the treetops and the rippling of a stream from a full sparkling native fountain of pure forest water — unless, indeed ... it be the open mouth of a sartain hound, when I’m on the track of a fat buck.”

In the sanctity of their temple, Natty and Chingachgook’s actions become rituals, their conversations prayers. When they are first together in The Deerslayer, they “discourse” when left alone — about nature, hunting, fighting sin. When we first meet them in Last of the Mohicans, they linger on the banks of a small stream deep in the forest, reciting their liturgy. In low, pious tones, they describe how the red man came “from the place where the sun is hid at night, over great plains where the buffaloes live,” and how the white man came “from the red sky of the morning, over the salt lake.” Chingachgook, the more spiritual of the two, corrects Natty’s recitation. Both men understand that their origins and journeys are, like the flow of streams and the change of seasons, part of nature’s grand design. Their religion of nature is ideally suited for the American landscape — which Cooper frequently refers to as “sublime” in The Deerslayer. Their sublime religion of nature is seductive and comforting n the way it explains past, present, and future. It is also darkly romantic, very bloody, and not meant to last.

In one sense Natty Bumppo is an idealized sublime vision of America. He lives according to the “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” the very basis, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, for declaring independence from England and for holding that all men are created equal and endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The friendship of Natty and Chingachgook embody the ideals of the Declaration, much as Cooper, by aspiring to romance, presents to readers his “beau-ideal” of characters, as he states in the 1850 preface to the Leatherstocking Tales.

By drawing on American history and geography, and pairing a white hunter with Indian companions, Cooper created a national literature that sought to fulfill the ideals of the Declaration. Like the Declaration, his interracial friendships also masked horribly exploitive conditions. Despite his conservative politics, which encouraged Indian removal and defended slavery, he based his Leatherstocking Tales on a sublime aesthetics. With each new Leatherstocking Tale he furthered the white-Indian bond as the nation was killing off Indians, and defined an idealized America that was distinct from European conditions. In one sense, Natty’s wish that he and his Indian friends would remain together after death was fulfilled, for the influence of Cooper’s frontier figures on American literature is hard to exaggerate. Natty has been borrowed from, revised, imitated, parodied, and inverted more than any other American figure. Traces of Natty can be seen in characters ranging from Melville’s Ishmael, Frederick Douglass’s Madison Washington, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred, and Twain’s Huck Finn — all of whom read Cooper — on down to Fitzgerald’s Nick Carroway, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Ken Kesey’s Randle McMurphy, and the film characters of Mingo (Frank Lovejoy) in Home of the Brave, John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) in The Defiant Ones, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption, William Blake (Johnny Depp) in Dead Man, and Riggs (Mel Gibson) in the first Lethal Weapon. All are solitary men, self-made men whose heroism stems from their ability to distinguish right from wrong in a world gone bad. They shun romantic love for dreams and adventures; and they confront their deepest fears by living on some sort of frontier and bonding with an alien friend.

But a sublime ideal is also one that is not meant to last: In Cooper’s aesthetic, the very idea of Blacks and Whites coming together as equals and in friendship — much as the idea of actually fulfilling the ideals of the Declaration — creates in the American mind an existential crisis that all too often manifests itself in violence and the destruction of the friendship. In The Deerslayer, with Natty and Chingachgook young and at the prime of life, it endures; but it ends tragically in Last of the Mohicans, and again in The Pioneers, and The Prairie. All that is left is the sublime vision. The reality of interracial friendships is something Cooper may have viewed with horror. He heard the sublime callings of his heart, and rendered them aesthetically; but he followed, in plot and structure, the logic of his head — of his adherence to White laws and conventions.