The Background to Cooper’s Literary Works
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. 87-91).
Copyright © 2005, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
As we all know, James Fenimore Cooper wrote five novels in the Natty Bumppo series, arranged in order of publication as follows: The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). If, however, we arrange them in the chronological order of Natty Bumppo’s life, we have The Deerslayer, followed by The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, and finally The Prairie. The well-known English novelist, D.H. Lawrence, distinguished between this series, the Leatherstocking novels, and Cooper’s stories of contemporary American life which Lawrence termed the “White novels.”
To tell the truth, I began to read James Fenimore Cooper by chance. One day when I was a university student, I was reading D.H. Lawrence, whose works I liked very much. I had read almost all his novels including Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Women in Love, The White Peacock, and so forth. After reading all his novels, I decided to read his non-fiction works and essays. The Phoenix Edition of D. H. Lawrence gave me much aesthetic satisfaction because of its exquisite printing and beautiful binding. Thus, I kept on reading Lawrence.
After reading his novels, it was only natural for me to decide to write my graduation thesis on D.H. Lawrence.
As I recall, I continued to read Lawrence for some years after that, and it wasn’t until I graduated from college and became a senior high school English teacher that I came across Lawrence’s impressive book: Studies in Classic American Literature (London, 1923). Many of you, I am sure, have heard of this book and know of its quality. I am sure many of you may even have come across it, and read it, by chance as I did. At any rate, it was, for me, very impressive and unforgettable.
I feel that three important factors sparked my interest in this book. Firstly, it was written in an entirely nonchalant manner. Secondly, it was crafted in a beautiful and forceful style. Finally, Lawrence succeeded in conveying his enthusiasm about James Fenimore Cooper.
Lawrence made an outstanding analysis of James Fenimore Cooper’s literary works, and after reading him I felt that his remarkable critical essays deserved much wider recognition. What impressed me most about this book, was his method of classification, with his analysis of Cooper.
According to D.H. Lawrence, there are two types of Cooper novels. That is, there are his “White Novels,” such as Homeward Bound, The Spy, and The Pilot, and there is the Leatherstocking series mentioned above. Lawrence gave a detailed account of the leading character in the “White novels,” and described these heroes as always being so tightly pinned down by social restrictions as to be deprived of liberty. On the other hand, the hero of the Leatherstocking series was always free.
At this time, I frankly admit, I had read only three of Cooper’s books: The Spy, The Last of the Mohicans, and The American Democrat. But reading Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature changed my outlook, and I felt a desperate urge to read all those Cooper’s works unknown to me as quickly as possible.
In those days I was a senior high school English teacher. After finishing my classes, I would spend my free time reading Cooper. I tried to bear in mind Lawrence’s words. First I read the Leatherstocking series, and then I read through the “White novels.” It took me about five years, and along the way I made detailed notes.
By then I was beginning to feel the need to read Cooper’s novels and essays under the guidance of an established scholar of American literature, and I made up my mind to enter graduate school. Seven years had passed before I once again became a student — this time a graduate student. My studies widened my outlook on American literary history, and on American social development in the 19 ᵗʰ century.
I tried to read Cooper’s literary works from the point of view of Natty Bumppo; in other words, I was still impressed with D.H. Lawrence’s clear-cut division of Cooper’s works into two groups.
Ironically, I eventually came to the following conclusion about D.H. Lawrence. After completing my reading of all of Cooper’s works, I began to doubt Lawrence’s analysis. His words seemed not so profound and correct as they had first seemed to me. I became clear that Lawrence had argued from a limited viewpoint, which did not spring from the broad scope of Cooper’s literary life and ideas.
It is true that Lawrence had made a great impression on my mind, because of his very intelligent words and his unprecedented analysis of Cooper’s novels. But James Fenimore Cooper’s writings were not limited to the Leatherstocking series and the “White novels,” but also included The American Democrat and Notions of the Americans and many other essays. In other words, D.H. Lawrence had examined only a part of Cooper’s writings. I therefore decided to go ahead with the challenge of exploring Cooper’s literary secrets at greater depth. Alexander Pope stated that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” and that is perhaps just what I did.
After reading many more of Cooper’s literary works, I began to think that I needed to formulate a hypothesis about this great American writer. A detailed reading of the Leatherstocking series guided me to an inner world of James Fenimore Cooper, and it became clear that one important element was recurrent in all five of them.
Though I have just criticized D.H. Lawrence, stating that he viewed Cooper’s novels from a narrow point of view, we can never forget his keen insight into the Leatherstocking series’ main character. Lawrence had written that Natty Bumppo, a white man, stood face to face with Chingachgook, a chief of the friendly Delaware Indians. According to him, the two men seemed to be firmly united by “a stark, stripped human relationship of two men, deeper than the deeps of sex. Deeper than property, deeper than fatherhood, deeper than marriage, deeper than love. ... ” 1
D.H Lawrence was straightforward in his grasp of the main characters in the Leatherstocking series. Many devoted Cooper readers and researchers all over the world may have been led into reading them by their delight at Lawrence’s precise analysis.
The Deerslayer was published in 1841. The scene of the story is “intended for, and believed to be a close description of the Otsego prior to the year 1760, when the first rude settlement was commenced on its banks. ... ” 2
In Chapter 24, Judith Hutter, the daughter of Thomas Hutter, fancies herself deeply in love with Deerslayer. She makes a full disclosure to him, only to be met with a polite but clear refusal: “Judith, you come from people altogether above mine, in the world, and onequal matches, like onequal fr’indships can’t often tarminate kindly. ... ” 3
Deeslayer cannot be happy living away from the woods. He is an outsider to the civilized world. He is always looking for and feeling something sacred in the border area he shares with his constant friend Chingachgook. At the end of the novel, Cooper presents us with a short sequel, in which a young lady, showing a slight touch of dreariness, lives a happy life with Sir Robert Warley, though whether or not this is Judith is never made clear. 4
Thus we are left wanting to reread The Deerslayer. The incidents in the story take place between the years 1740 and 1745. There were settled portions of the colony of New York on each side of the Hudson, which gradually extended from its mouth to the falls near its head. On the other hand, broad belts of the virgin wilderness line the shores of this first river, stretching away into the distance. In the depths of the forest, two men who have lost their way are searching for their trail in different directions. One of them is the hero called Deerslayer, and in the first chapter a brief description of him is offered.
Deerslayer, as Hurry called his companion, was a very different person in appearance, as well as in character. In stature, he stood about six feet in his moccasins, but his frame was comparatively light and slender, showing muscles, however, that promised unusual agility, if not unusual strength. His face would have had little to recommend it except youth, were it not for an expression that seldom failed to win upon those who had leisure to examine it, and to yield to the feeling of confidence it created. This expression was simply that of guileless truth, sustained by an earnestness of expression, and a sincerity of feeling, that rendered it remarkable. At times this air of integrity seemed to be so si8mple as to awaken the suspicion of a want of the usual means to discriminate between artifice and truth, but few came in serious contact with the man, without losing this distrust in respect for his opinions and motives. 5
The two heroes in the story are both young, still in their twenties. Natty Bumppo seems to be a triumphant young man — and at the same time, he is a man wrapped in a sullen pessimism, having met with his first misfortune in a fight with an Indian. Beside the dead Indian, Deerslayer gives utterance to his thoughts and feelings:
I did’n’t wish your life, red-skin,” he said, “but you left me no choice atween killing or being killed. Each party acted according to his gifts, I suppose, and blame can light on neither. You were treacherous, according to your natur’ in war, and was little oversightful, as I’m apt to be in trusting others. Well, this is my first battle with a human mortal, though it’s not likely to be the last. I have fou’t most of the creatur’s of the forest, such as bears, wolves, painters and catamounts, but this is the beginning with red-skins. ... ” 6
Deerslayer, the hero of the story, is a youth who has never killed another human being before. Unfortunately, he becomes entangled in a situation where he is forced to kill. The hero’s perspective is quite different from that of his companion, Hurry.
D.H. Lawrence asserts that the most fascinating Leatherstocking book is the last, The Deerslayer. Lawrence considers the story a myth, and not a realistic tale. He describes it as a lovely myth. For him, the young heroes, Deerslayer and Hurry Harry, are people of fantasy. 7 In the story a fugitive-like family, old Hutter and his two daughters, makes its appearance. Then a war begins on Lake Glimmerglass.
In this story, Hurry Harry likes Judith, the older sister, who is dark, fearless, and passionate. But Judith feels nothing but scorn for him, and rather desires the quiet, reserved, and free Deerslayer. On the other hand, Hetty, the younger, blonde, frail and innoncent girl, is hopelessly infatuated with Hurry Harry. Of course, as the story, goes, he doesn’t like her.
According to D.H. Lawrence, Deerslayer is a man who turns his back on white society. Lawrence says that Deerslayer’s detached, almost selfless and stoic character is representative of the pure American mind. Lawrence never forgets to say that Cooper’s innermost important assertion in his novels is that of Deerslayer’s being white.
Yet, we must sever our connections with D.H. Lawrence’s Cooper. We must view Cooper’s imaginative characters from another and different angle. In The Deerslayer, Harry March frequently uses discriminatory words and attacks the characters of Native Americans. When he does, the hero Deerslayer objects to his friend’s statements, asserting that God made all people alike, while giving each race its “gifts.” His words still ring true today.
“God made all three alike, Hurry. ... 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. ... ” 8
On a superficial level, many people may agree with Deerslayer’s words. We can say that in his time he can be considered as a trailblazer, in offering such an impartial and innovative notion. But we have one unresolved issue.
Deerslayer’s words seem reasonable when viewed from a racial point of view. From another viewpoint, however, there is something a bit strange lurking behind his words. Though there is a ring of conviction in Deerslayer’s declaration, something doesn’t quite fit. The man saying this is a European American.
Yes, Deerslayer is a white man who once lived in a “civilized” town. In The Pioneers, as “Leatherstocking,” evaded the pursuit of Judge Temple, tarnishing the authoritarian control the Judge had over the town. After escaping from the Judge’s prison, he rejoined his companion Chingachgook, chief of the Mohicans.
D.H. Lawrence remarks in this thesis that Deerslayer and Chingachgook seem firmly united by that “stark, stripped human relationship of two men,” cited above. Lawrences’ words sound interesting, for they describe a beautiful human relationship between the two men. Yet, considered closely, they leave one with a bit of skepticism.
Lawrence shows us the existence of the most unwavering relationship between the two people. Yet it is difficult to comprehend why these two people should be bound together. Why did Deerslayer escape from civilized society? Cooper offers us an explanation. Natty Bumppo could not tolerate the destruction of a virgin land; he despised the words and the system created by “civilized” American society.
Let us look a bit at the social background behind the development of the United States in the 18 th century. The governments of the States were not themselves very clear as to what sovereignty meant for them, besides freedom from Britain. Though united for mutual support, each state claimed sovereignty for itself; and Virginia maintained its claims to the West as part of its sovereignty. Virginia had offered Congress a conditional renunciation of its claims in 1781, but under conditions which prevented acceptance. After the peace with Great Britain in 1783, Congress failed to seek treaties with the Indian tribes, seemingly because of indecision as to whether Congress or Virginia held jurisdiction. While bargaining continued over Congressional acceptance of Virginia’s offer of cession, Pennsylvania forced the issue. Pennsylvania wanted no more trouble with Indians around Pittsburgh, and was equally intent on acquiring undisputed authority by following the lead of the Colony’s founder, William Penn — to recognize Indian property rights and negotiated a purchase on terms satisfactory to the Indians. Thus, with acquired Indian rights backing up Pennsylvania’s own Charter right, the State would enjoy an advantage over Virginia. But, unless Congress first formally made peace with the Indians, Pennsylvania would have to make its own peace with the tribes. Thus, they would then remain in conflict with the other States. What, then, would be left of Congress’s supposed monopoly over the conduct of Indian affairs?
This is an important topic raised by Francis Jennings in his essay “The Indian’s Revolution.” 9 It relates to the events described in Cooper’s Leatherstocking series.
Other books treating the subject include Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land, 10 and Perry Miller’s The American Puritans. 11 The former gives a clearer picture of how Cooper viewed the situation. The latter lets us realize the pathetic and tragic situation between the White American and the Native American peoples before the War of Independence.
James Fenimore Cooper attempted to depict the relationship between European Americans and Native Americans in 18ᵗʰ century America. He displays a sharp eye for the social situation in that day and age, and, in the Leatherstocking series, depicted the changing background of American society.
It is clear that Cooper was a great American writer. In his more that forty literary works, he reveals the American mind and the ideal of a nation. Yet, in the background of that American society, was an unsettling issue between the two peoples. Cooper expressed an ideal relationship between them: Natty Bumppo, the hero of the Leatherstocking series, and Chingachgook, the chief of the Mohicans.
In reading these novels, one cannot help but be moved by the strong and upright relationship between these two. In my opinion, however, Cooper does not get to the heart of the matter. After escaping from white society, why did Natty Bumppo flee into the forests? How could he unite himself with Native American people? Why did he deny his yearning for Judith Hutter? Is there some basic reason why Natty Bumppo felt comfortable with Native Americans? Did Cooper present us with any explanation for this? He did not. Perhaps it can only be inferred.
We, people of the modern age, can perhaps understand why Natty Bumppo felt threatened by the invasion of civilization. He had tried to escape from civilized society. But how could he be united with Native American peoples? Was it perhaps because of their closeness to the earth, and their authenticity in relation to themselves and others?
American people are well aware of the reality that took place between the European American and Native American peoples. Moving West in the 18 th century, European Americans collided with Native American culture. In a sense, we can say that American history is a series of conquests of disparate peoples.
Because of this, it would be very difficult for a deep friendship to develop between Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook. As Cooper became more aware of this, his novels turned towards historically based materials, and thus became very different from the Leatherstocking tales.
As his novels are of deep interest to us, we can have no objections to his literary work. However, I would like to say a few words to Mr. Cooper! But before stating them, I feel that I hear Cooper speaking to us today.
From his grave, Cooper must be content in saying that the American public was able to experience a great deal from his literary works. Yes, Mr. Cooper, I agree with you. But to give the next to the last word here, I should like to state the following:
Mr. Cooper, you must have accumulated many fans over the past few centuries. But why weren’t you able to air a legitimate anger? Didn’t you become despondent after seeing the disorder and outrageous injustices that occurred in those days? Why didn’t you more clearly depict the lawlessness in those times? If you had done that, your Natty Bumppo series would have captivated a much wider audience in the present age.
To this, Cooper would certainly get in the last word by replying:
I am very happy that every other year, between forty and fifty people, including yourself, come together to honor me and celebrate my writing. That’s more than enough for me.
Even if that is what James Fenimore Cooper would say, it is my hope and desire that the attraction and appeal of Cooper’s work will continue to work on the unresolved feelings of American minds. D.H. Lawrence’s view was limited to thinking only of Cooper’s mythological understanding between two peoples. However, in reality, I believe that there should be a new and a reawakened interest in Coopers’ works.
1 D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature , New York: Viking Press, 1964.
2 James Fenimore Cooper, 1850 Preface to The Deerslayer, The Deerslayer; or, The First Warpath . Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987, p. 11
3 Ibid., chapter 24, p. 425.
4 Ibid., chapter 32, p. 548.
5 Ibid., chapter 1, pp. 20-21.
6 Ibid, chapter 6, p. 126.
7 Studies ... , p. 60: Of course it never rains: it is never cold and muddy and dreary: no one has wet feet or toothache: no one ever feels filthy, when they can’t wash for a week. God knows what the women would really have looked like, for they fled through the wilds without soap, comb, or towel. They breakfasted off a chunk of meat, or nothing, lunched the same, and supped the same. Yet at every moment they are elegant, perfect ladies, in correct toilet. Which isn’t quite fair. You need only go camping for a week, and you’ll see.
8 The Deerslayer, chapter 3, p. 50.
9 Francis Jennings, “The Indians’ Revolution,” in Alfred F. Young, ed., The American Revolution. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University, 1976, pp. 341-342. In a forward the Editor states: “This is a volume of original essays exploring radical themes in the era of the American Revolution. These essays deal with three sorts of subjects: radical movements, groups and social classes at ‘the bottom’ or on the outside of colonial society, and the policies of those in power towards radicalism and towards those groups. ... “
10 Henry Nash Smith, “Leatherstocking and the Problem of Social Order,” in Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950, reissued 1970), pp. 59-70. The author of Virgin Land says in his 1970 preface that for the past twenty years, people have discussed the book. The author sees no reason to change its contents. In the contents we find: “Book Two: The Sons of Leatherstocking. ... V. Daniel Boone: Empire Builder or Philosopher of Primitivism; VI. Leatherstocking and the Problem of Social Order; VIII. The Mountain Man as Western Hero: Kit Carson; IX. The Western Hero in the Dime Novel: I - From Seth Jones to Deadwood Dick; II - Buffalo Bill and Buck Taylor, The Dime Novel Heroine.”
11 Perry Miller, ed., The American Puritans, their Prose and Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.