Falsification of the Past: Cooper’s Legacy Reexamined and Reclaimed

Christina Starobin (Culinary Institute of America)

Presented at the 15ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2005.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2005 Cooper Seminar (No. 15), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 91-94).

Copyright © 2007, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

What happens when you die? In the nineteenth century it was believed that “the King”, as Emily Dickinson wrote, came into your room and took you to Heaven. Many deathbed scenes were composed of those waiting to see a glimpse of someone entering the Promised Land, as well as those hankering for inheritance.

When Cooper’s greatest character, Natty Bumppo, dies in The Prairie, he stands up and says, “Here!” in answer to the Celestial Judge at his Last Judgment, echoing Natty’s response when on trial in the first book, The Pioneers. Considering Cooper’s father was a judge, James Fenimore had perhaps a deeply rooted vision of the celestial seat of Justice, closely allied to a terrestrial one.

In the first book of the Leatherstocking series, The Pioneers, Cooper has Indian John Mohegan die at the end, occasioning a debate between the old hunter and the clergyman, Mr. Grant, who would have Chingachgook praise God on his deathbed. Natty respects the Indian’s decision to follow his own traditions and enumerate his own mighty deeds as he approaches the Happy Hunting Grounds. The old hunter is always clear that we must not misrepresent our ideals as those of the Indians, nor think that we will join them in a heaven to be reunited with our animals and friends.

Natty also eloquently laments the lost state of America, a theme of The Pioneers with its heavy underpinnings of then nascent ecology:

“Lord! man,” said Natty, “he [John Mohegan ] knows his end is at hand as well as you or I; but, so far from thinking it is a loss, he believes it to be a great gain. He is old and stiff, and you have made the game so scarce and shy that better shots than him find it hard to get a livelihood. Now he thinks he shall travel where it will always be good hunting; where no wicked or unjust Indians can go; and where he shall meet all his tribe together ag’in. There’s not much loss in that to a man whose hands are hardy fit for basketmaking. Loss! If there be any loss, ‘twill be to me. I’m sure, after he’s gone, there will be but little left for me but to follow.” (p. 400-401)

And Natty does follow, but two books later in The Prairie. Then he says to his adopted son, Hard Heart:

“Pawnee, I die, as I have lived, a Christian man! ... as I came into life, so will I leave it. Horses and arms are not needed to stand in the presence of the Great Spirit of my people. He knows my color, and according to my gifts will he judge my deeds.” (p. 396)

Note that both Chingachgook, in The Pioneers and Natty in The Prairie remain in seated positions, upright, at the end of their lives.

The Pioneers also contains a more traditional recognition scene expanded by the reading of Major Effingham’s will whereby identities are set straight and justice, in a modified form, can triumph. Let us note that the will showing the Major’s intentions is read before Effingham’s death, not after.

In The Pathfinder we have another spin on the deathbed scene where Sergeant Dunham mistakenly takes Jasper’s hand instead of Natty’s, to join it with his daughter Mabel, and blesses them both to continue after his death. This is another example of Cooper’s intense dramatic irony which thereby removes any taint of sentimentality from the scene. We can speculate whether he had unintentionally foreshadowed the misplaced trust and good intentions gone awry that would befall Cooper’s own literary and philosophic legacy.

In The Deerslayer we have graves under the lake and traces of the past, of individuals and of battles, removed by the forces of Time which Conquers All. In The Last of the Mohicans the reader is presented with unusual deaths and burials, intermingling of burial rites and traditions, the difficulty of language and translation, but the bittersweet feeling that everything possible has been done to observe customs in this unusual and tragic situation. The emphasis is on the physical body and its preparation for interment, the mental preparation sometimes done quickly on the deathbed itself. Again, in The Pathfinder Natty says to Cap:

“I’ve often thought, Saltwater, that he is happiest who has the least to leave behind him when the summons comes. ... I’ve stood by many a dying man’s side, and seen his last gasp, and heard his last breath; for when the hurry and tumult of the battle is over, it is good to bethink us of the misfortunate, and it is remarkable to witness how differently human natur’ feels at such solemn moments. Some go their way as stupid and ignorant as if God had never given them reason and an accountable state; while others quit us rejoicing, like men who leave heavy burdens behind them. I think that the mind sees clearly at such moments, my friend, and that past deeds stand thick before the recollection.” (p. 355)

By Whitman’s time, later in the 19ᵗʰ century, the idea of reincarnation in the sense of the atoms of your physical body being absorbed into the earth and reemerging through the roots of trees, leaves and other parts of the living world was meeting with popular acceptance.

In the 21ˢᵗ century we are building our own forensic pyramids with stem cells and cloning to make us even more eternal and recognizable.

But whereas we can debate the realities of our physical or Heavenly fates, some homilies of a person’s legacy still ring true.

Shakespeare, one of Cooper’s literary influences, wrote, “There’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year,” (Hamlet, II, ii, 141), and “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; often got without merit and list without deserving” (Othello, II, ii, 270). This last quote is put in the mouth of Iago, who might not be the best one to trust, but remember that old Polonius in Hamlet is given some pretty good lines for a straight man.

Let’s just note here, as an interesting sideline, that Shakespeare’s epitaph reads:

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forebear,

To dig the dust enclosed here:

Blest be the man that spares these stones

And curst be he that moves my bones.

Which might have served as a model for Natty’s epitaph as quoted in The Prairie:

“Put no boastful words on the same [stone], but just the name, the age, and the time of the death, with something from the holy book; no more, no more.” (p. 400), Natty asks and Middleton agrees. Middleton, being a man of education and propriety, later fittingly adds “May no wanton hand ever disturb his remains!” (p. 402)

Cooper’s memory and reputation has not suffered as much as one of his near contemporaries, “Hatchet Man” Poe. Poe suffered at the hands of his biographer, Griswold, who was glad to “even up the score” by savagely slandering the man who often bashed him with bad reviews. We might be reminded of Salieri’s feelings for Mozart as depicted in Amadeus. Cooper has escaped relatively unscathed.

Or has he? Cooper, like all or almost all literary authors who need to be read to be appreciated has certainly declined in popularity, surviving gallantly in the movies in our video and electronically fast times at Hollywood High.

When writing my dissertation, in search of the relatively obscure Cooper novel The Monikins, I had occasion to telephone the Strand bookstore in New York City, which has a service that finds rare and out of print books. I was overjoyed when within two hours the service telephoned me to say that not only did they have a copy of The Monikins, it was illustrated! Imagine my feelings rushing to claim my prize when I discovered that the literate staff had procured for me yet another edition of The Last of the Mohicans — apparently anything with an “MO” and James Fenimore Cooper was a match for them.

Cooper has fared little better in Hollywood with The Last of the Mohicans, whose screenplay for the latest version is based not directly on the novel but on an earlier Hollywood version of this tale. How disappointing, especially when the star, Daniel Day Lewis, himself the son of noted scholar Cecil Day Lewis, made such a great show of fidelity to Cooper’s intent, according to a New York Times Magazine article, carrying around a rifle to restaurants and eschewing articles fashioned with zippers in order to “get into” the part!

Storytelling has you create a whole picture from words, building a world that you can return to in your mind over and over. How many of us have wandered with Winnie the Pooh and Piglet into the Hundred Acre Wood, a woods of our own that we recognize and may be quite different from the Hundred Acre Wood portrayed by Disney’s studio. Our ability to imagine has been curtailed by the introduction of “ready made” worlds and universes, however spectacular and convincing.

Our attention span has also been shattered by the TV, computers, email, advertising, and videos which have not only interfered with students being able to write a complete sentence, but have not helped foster the concentration, patience, and continuity of mind needed to read. Just as we may have personal shoppers to assist us in the maze of stores, and personal trainers to assist us in physical exercise, we leave others to select our news bites and suggest our decisions. We are too important to actually do our own reading or thinking.

This, unfortunately, leaves us vulnerable to the errors of intention or inattention, from deliberate lies and misreading to sloppy or non-existent judgments. The 19ᵗʰ century thinkers, although based on those that went before, were fiercely independent-an old American characteristic that we must hope has not become obsolete.

Some of Cooper’s legacy to our times does not even bear his name. In The Sea Lions, his next-to-last work, Cooper was writing about clubbing seals in the Arctic, something that most people think Greenpeace “discovered” in the 20ᵗʰ century. Cooper’s detection of the harm farmers, not hunters, do to the balance of nature was likewise “discovered” independently in the 20ᵗʰ century, although, without the love and respect for American wilderness and ecology which Cooper fostered, these developments would doubtless have been longer in arriving.

His depiction of Indian totems in The Last of the Mohicans also was extremely accurate, and the fun he pokes at David Gamut, the singing master, teaching the beavers to sing, is echoed in The Deerslayer when Hetty reads the bible to the bears.

Let us not forget that the white and non-white male pair bond of Natty and Chingachgook again lives in John Travolta and Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction, making its way down from Huck and Jim, Robinson Crusoe and His Man Friday, Crockett and Tubbs, and the multiple teams in “Law and Order”, “Third Watch”, etc. And, of course, Dirty Harry!

In Pulp Fiction, Travolta’s character has also been to France (remember his emphasis on the discovery of a Quarter Pounder with cheese being called “Le Royale”, American cuisine reincarnated linguistically). However, it is Jackson’s character, our modern Chingachgook, who undergoes a crisis of conscience and reforms his “wicked ways,” having been miraculously saved from sudden death.

He and Travolta had been sent to collect money and kill some negligent business partners who opened fire on them with an assault rifle at close range and miraculously missed them. In Biblical terms Jackson debates the significance of their miraculous deliverance, although Travolta doesn’t think it qualifies as a miracle. In going forward and leaving his occupation as a hit man, Jackson escapes the grisly death that awaits Travolta, who continues as a gangster only meet a bloody death later that same day. The man of color, with his greater religiosity, is obedient to the Creator and thus he is saved.

Like much else in this film, Pulp Fiction, the world is turned upside down, topsy-turvy. The order of the narrative is likewise fragmented and reconstituted in a non-chronological order, much as the events in Natty’s life are fragmented in the five Leatherstocking tales.

Speaking of Huck and Jim, it is no accident that Mark Twain slandered Cooper in his oft quoted “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences,” perhaps because Twain for all his glittering wit, could not hit the solemn classical deep notes which resonated in Cooper. Twain sought to ridicule that which he did not possess, wearing his honorary robe from Harvard as a dressing gown. His fun at Cooper’s expense was another sign of his lack of respect for a literary and social aristocracy which had not been his birthright.

So where does that leave us? After lassoing my boyfriend to see The Last of the Mohicans, he complained, “You didn’t even tell me the plot correctly, and you a Cooper scholar!” Like many of us, he is accustomed to believing much of what he sees in movies, although he would never believe everything he reads in a newspaper.

Or am I being a nit picker? Have the movies been false in the particulars but truthful in intent? Certainly the American hero as Cooper conceived him in Natty Bumppo was a loner who never married, but was true to his “code”, which was not that of the system. He was skilled with a rifle, courteous, with a slight Robin Hood flavor, awkward but honest. Whether Daniel Day Lewis fits your image of Natty is hard to say. Like the Hundred Acre Wood, each of us has our own private picture of Hawkeye.

Certainly the time is right in America for the reemergence of a national hero with strong personal values. Superman, as valiantly portrayed by Christopher Reeve, met with an untimely and ironic death. Our economic system, built on fierce independence, has been trashed to within an inch of its life and certainly Hawkeye with his starkly segregated adherence to the “gifts” of both the red man and the white would not support forcing “our ways” upon other cultures in the name of freedom. His was more of a laissez faire universe, leaving the Creator or the Judge to mete out justice and deal with each culture according to its own rules.

Many of the newer TV serials with multiple heroes and heroines like “Third Watch”, which deals with the firemen and medical emergency personnel in New York City, detail the interweaving of the lives of many different backgrounds and religions which interact in order to save the inhabitants of the city.

On the other hand we have The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars movies to escape into the past or future when we want a created universe to take our minds off the current problems on Planet Earth.

The Director of Human Resources at the college where I now teach confessed to me he had just discovered Cooper. “And I love him!” he exclaimed. He was most anxious to tell me his story. He was looking for something “classical” to read in Barnes & Noble and spotted their dollar editions. He met with me for over an hour to talk about his impression of Last of the Mohicans; oh, that all administrations possessed such readers!

A young actor I performed with in one of my plays was excited to hear I was a Cooper scholar. “I’ve loved him since junior high,” he said.

So perhaps not all is lost. When people turn again to reading and to thinking, some will want a work of substance. And Cooper will be there waiting. And we, the Last of the Monumental Scholars, will be there to point the way.