Imperfect Fluidity: Mutable Citizenship and the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper

Schuyler Chapman (University of Pittsburgh)

Presented at the 18ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2011.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2011 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 18), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn and Hugh C. McDougall, editors. (pp. 20-23).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

The concept of mutable citizenship is a central concern of U.S. imaginative literature in the nineteenth century, and the literary treatments of this subject were at best ambivalent — early nineteenth-century U.S. novels demonstrate considerable hesitancy in accepting the mutable citizen as a viable component of the body politic. In this paper, I will argue that James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, in particular The Pioneers and The Pilot, explicitly examine the mutability of international citizenship — individuals shifting their civic categorization from one national body politic to another — while ultimately refusing to embrace or dismiss it. In other words, while mutable citizenship is at times ideal or at least expedient for Cooper, at others it is a dubious aspect of one’s character.

Although I will eventually turn to Cooper’s first, though by no means best or most interesting, sea novel, The Pilot (1824), I would like to begin my discussion with Cooper’s landmark and landed series of Leatherstocking novels. In The Pioneers (1823), we encounter Cooper’s first representation of mutable citizenship in the form of the motley band of hunters at its center. Natty, John, and Oliver each have the ability to straddle the lines of the U.S. and Native American political communities. Whether these men are true citizens of Templeton or “wild savages,” as another character puts it, is one of the questions that drives the plot. These are men, in other words, who can pass as typical members of the frontier community even if they have the literal or figurative “blood of a Delaware ... in [their] veins” (138). These are men that can move from one community to another. They are variously U.S. and Native American.

These mutable figures represent the most threatening ones in Templeton. Judge Temple may extol his townspeople’s trusting and uncritical relation to outliers, but the plot of the novel says otherwise (201). The townspeople exhibit suspicions not only of Oliver, but also of Natty and John because of their liminal positions in the town — suspicions that perhaps result in Judge Temple, Dick Jones, and the town’s various squires enforcing the letter of the game laws and imprisoning Natty for killing a deer out of season. In a sense, the excessive and illogical nature of the punishment suggest that the punishment is less about compensation for the poaching and more about keeping Natty under lock and key in order to confine his fluid, mutable citizenship.

Judge Temple’s attempt to lure Oliver into his home as an apprentice further supports this reading of the townspeople’s disapprobation of mutable citizenship. He notes the unstable civic life of hunters like Natty: “It is a precarious life — and one that brings more evils with it than present suffering. Trust me, young friend, my experience is greater than thine, when I tell thee, that the unsettled life of these hunters is of vast disadvantage for temporal purposes, and it totally removes one from the influence of more sacred things” (202). Though Marmaduke speaks of the lack of access to “sacred things” and temporal disadvantage as the prime reasons to avoid a hunter’s life, I think that another term in the Judge’s speech is equally if not more important — “unsettled.” The problem with the life of the hunter, this word suggests, derives from its relation to the idea of being settled, of being firmly ensconced within a civilized and civilizing civil society. It is better to be settled than unsettled Marmaduke suggests, meaning that it is better to be a stable citizen than a mutable one.

In spite of such beliefs, The Pioneers does not come so neatly down against civic mutability. To begin, though it certainly evinces suspicion about the mutable figures in the novel, it also situates mutability firmly with the characters whom we understand, at novel’s end, are the tale’s heroes. The other characters accept that, though mutable, Oliver, John, and Natty ultimately represent important members of both the Templeton and the larger U.S. community. The town’s reverend, Mr. Grant, for instance, briefly eulogizes over the body of the dead John in a “burst of devotion” after asking the Christian God to “avert such a death” as was about to befall John (Cooper 423, 422). Grant’s desire to maintain John’s integration both in the Christian faith and, by implicitly asking for John’s physical salvation, the U.S. community suggests a desire to accept rather than reject the mutable figure of the Native American whose civic and religious allegiances remain suspect throughout the novel. Similarly, Oliver explicitly integrates himself in the Templeton community at the novel’s end, marrying Marmaduke’s daughter, becoming not only a citizen of the town but, in fact, a leading one by virtue of his matrimonial ties to the local magistrate and filial ties to Judge Temple’s old friend.

Natty’s situation at the end of the novel, though, presents a slightly different scenario. When Oliver and Bess find Natty at the grave of John/Chingachgook, they learn that Natty plans on leaving the community of Templeton behind and, as the young man and woman look about themselves in the small cemetery, they fail to notice Natty’s abrupt departure (“He is gone!” shouts Oliver when he finally notices) and only catch a glimpse of him, as the final sentence of the novel notes, “far towards the setting sun” (Cooper 456). Natty, then, unlike John and Oliver is not enfolded back into the community. Yet the novel does not dismiss Natty from Templeton. Most notably, he chooses his fate. He does not find himself rejected from Templeton but rather decides to remove himself. More importantly, however, the narrator describes Natty’s movement west as an integral activity in establishing the United States. After all, he represents, in the novel’s final moment, “the foremost in that band of Pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent” (Cooper 456). Natty may not find himself reintegrated with the body politic of Templeton but his importance to the body politic of the United States is underscored. He is not simply an outlier, this moment suggests — he is also the vanguard, and this vanguard status derives from and in spite of his having “imbibed ... many of the Indian qualities” (Cooper 453). As such, we encounter within the character of Natty, as we do with John and Oliver, a balance between anxiety about and respect for mutability.

Importantly, the ending of The Pioneers not only underscores Cooper’s ambivalence about mutable citizenship — it also points towards a source of this hesitancy that is much more fully explored in the subsequent sea narrative The Pilot. In a sense, we might further note that this ending hints at the usefulness of mutability in certain areas and not in others. From this perspective, the finale of The Pioneers chronicles a frontier ideology, in which the frontier space presents an unsettled land that produces wealth and provides resources for the settled lands back east. Natty’s mutability and malleability is useful in such a space because it is unsettled and unincorporated and, moreover, the site of blurred and contested boundaries between the U.S. and other nations. The uncertainty of his citizenship would allow him to move more easily among the various communities along the frontier than someone of a more stable and identifiable citizenship would. However, as that frontier moves towards a more settled environment, his presence is no longer needed, so he shuffles west, preferring his liminal position to the stable one offered by marriage both to a single community and single space. The ending suggests, therefore, that mutable citizenship operates best in unsettled rather than settled regions. It is ideal in one environment and anathema in the other.

Cooper’s subsequent novel, The Pilot, upholds this perspective and, importantly, does so in a manner that much more explicitly invokes the idea of the mutable citizen. In that work, from the very first chapter, the reader is privy to a scene that establishes the uncertainty of national citizenship as a central concern: The Ariel spotted by a group of people on land “raise[s] to her peak . . . [a white ensign embellished with a] red cross, that distinguishe[s] the flag of England,” in spite of holding a ship full revolutionaries (13). Rather than an “emblem of tyranny” symbolizing the ship’s support of the British monarchy, the flag both masks and makes possible the depredations within enemy territory. We thus enter immediately into a world where allegiances are suspect, and the claims of characters or parties of characters as to their national citizenship are suspect. It is, in other words, a world of subterfuge, wherein even sex is unstable, if we recall Katherine Plowden’s initial appearance in masculine disguise (21).

This instability and uncertainty around the characters’ national citizenships is treated for much of the time as a useful tool for the colonial rebels. John Paul Jones’s willingness to serve their cause, rather than the cause of the king to whom he “should” show allegiance, underscores this belief. Without his help, the men wind up, at best, imprisoned in Britain or, at worst, at the bottom of the North Sea. Without his help, Barnstable would be unlikely to join “that band of gallant seamen who served their country so faithfully in times of trial and high daring” (416), Manual would be unlikely to “share in all the splendid successes which terminated the war” (416), and Griffith would be unlikely to find himself returned home, ” a good citizen” (420). It is John Paul Jones’s willingness to alter his political commitments and embrace the mutability of citizenship that allows for the success of the various revolutionaries in matters both public and private. Thus, a reader is likely to accept Jones’s early claim that “it is but little moment where a man is born, or how he speaks ... so that he does his duty in good faith” as gospel (30). What else does the successful exploitation of Jones’s mutable citizenship imply if not that doing one’s duty, taking part in the obligations one owes to a country, marks a person’s true civic allegiance? For much of the novel, therefore, it seems that birth does not matter as much as consent, a concept underscored by both Colonel Hastings and Kit Dillon, whose siding with the British crown rather than the Continental Congress goes largely unimpeached in the novel. In a sense, although they might castigate Griffith et al. as disloyal and mutinous subjects, the revolutionaries understand and accept Hastings’s and Dillon’s choice to support England in the war.

Yet The Pilot, like The Pioneers, does not exhibit a fully idealized portrayal of mutable citizenship. As much as Jones’s embrace of mutability saves and serves the men of the Ariel, it is also subject of great debate among those same men. Griffith and Barnstable may initially warm to Jones following his navigation of them through the Devil’s Grip, yet that does not stop Barnstable from referring to him as “that accursed Pilot” when he notices Jones “sneaking from the land, and leaving Griffith and Manual to die in English prisons” (240). Barnstable’s assessment is later proved wrong, but the moment nevertheless underscores the inability of the colonial revolutionaries to completely accept Jones into their fraternity. Jones’s mutability is also subject of a great, lengthy debate between him and his former gal, Alice Dunscombe. Although the argument ultimately results in what I consider a stalemate, and although Alice upholds the dastardly Kit Dillon as an ideal British subject, the novel does allow her to make some important points against Jones’s mutability. During this debate, for instance, Alice demands that Jones “boast not of [his] momentary success” (146). It is a small moment, but one that gets to the heart of Jones’s character — his desire for fame. Alice understands, throughout this scene, that Jones’s pontificating about liberty and tyranny, though in part sincere, masks a desire for notoriety and self-aggrandizement that is, in some ways, at odds with the ideals of the cause he fights for. Importantly, the end of the novel upholds this perspective, casting Jones not as a citizen of the world who casts aside his birthright status as citizen/subject of England to promote the causes of liberty espoused by the American colonists. Rather, he is a man “not without foibles” who may have begun his career on the side of supposed right but ends it “in the service of a despot” (422). He is a man whose “devotion ... proceeded from a desire for distinction” (420). He is emblematic not of the boons of mutable citizenship; he is emblematic of its problems, its ability, as Alice rightly notes, to devolve in to “disorganizing systems of rule, or rather misrule” (148).

Though I have outlined Cooper’s ambivalence towards mutable citizenship, I have yet to fully explore the origins of such hesitancy. A return to The Pilot for a moment will, perhaps, be instructive, as, from my perspective, Jones’s mutable citizenship works only in certain geographic environments. In a sense, his mutable national citizenship works particularly well on the sea, but it becomes much more vexing on land and in the context of a stable national environment. He could not act as a good, trustworthy citizen on terra firma. His mutability would render him suspect and thus he must travel the world in thrall to arenas of conflict, where his mutability and flexibility are assets. The novel actually makes this figuration relatively explicit at the end of the novel. Griffith represents an exemplary soldier and sailor and patriot throughout the course of the novel, yet, in the closing chapter, the narrator notes that he relinquished his post with the Navy at the end of the Revolutionary War and “devoted the remainder of his life to the conjoint duties of a husband and a good citizen” (Pilot 420). By tying Griffith’s status as a good citizen to being on land, the novel positions the sea as a site where good citizenship cannot exist. Mutable citizenship can and does thrive on the oceans — where international rather than national waters predominate — but that doesn’t allow for any usefulness on land.

Yet, given my discussion of The Pioneers, this description seems problematic. In other words, if mutable citizenship is acceptable on the sea but not on land, how can Natty Bumppo, as a mutable citizen, exist as the clear cut hero of a series that takes place by and large on land? The answer is quite simple: Cooper allows for a much more complicated sense of land and water than we might initially imagine. For Cooper, solid ground need not connote the sense of stability and predictability that we often associate with it. For Cooper, the land of the United States can become just as aquatic as the ocean. In the Leatherstocking Tales, for example, the frontier spaces of New York and the Midwest frequently appear as ocean-like environments. The narrator of The Prairie, for example, notes that the “earth was not unlike the ocean, when its restless waters are heaving heavily ... . Here and there a tall tree rose out of the bottoms, stretching its naked branches abroad, like some solitary vessel” (892). Here we encounter an acknowledgement of the landscape of the United States’ interior as similar to the aquascape of the oceans. Nearly as far as from the literal oceans surrounding the United States as they can be, the plains still constitute a sea.

In a sense, then, Cooper’s descriptions of the interior of the United States as if they were oceanic suggests that he understands the United States as geographically part of the burgeoning Atlantic world. As trade and travel by sea became more and more prominent between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the distinction between land and sea became less profound. As Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker explain, during this period, “the merchants, manufacturers, planters, and royal officials of northwestern Europe followed [the Atlantic] currents, building trade routes, colonies, and a new transatlantic economy” (Linebaugh and Rediker 2). The Atlantic world, however, was not separate from the continents bordering it. For example, Richard Braithwaite argued that seamen were “necessary instruments ... for the walls of the State could not subsist without them” (quoted in Linebaugh and Rediker 143). The sea reinforced and held up the concept of governance that existed on the land. Land and sea did not exist in binary opposition but rather represented mutually reinforcing concepts, or, as Linebaugh and Rediker have it, the Atlantic world was “essential to English expansion, commerce, and the mercantalist state” (Linebaugh and Rediker 144). By the late eighteenth century, the Atlantic Ocean had similar importance for the revolting colonies, since “sailors were prime movers in the cycle of rebellion” taking place in Britain’s North American colonies (Linebaugh and Rediker 214). They sparked riots in port towns (Linebaugh and Rediker 211), offered valuable models of resistance in their “collective struggles over food, pay, work, and discipline” at sea, and thereby offered a foundation for the formation of the United States (Linebaugh and Rediker 214). Moreover, as it became increasingly necessary to participate in the ever-shifting arena of the transatlantic world, mutability within and adaptability to a variety of cultural and political communities became increasingly important, as Cooper, who spent time traveling through and living in various European countries would know. He would understand that the United States was not and could not be a stable and immutable nation if it also existed as a central component in the matrix of the Atlantic world. As he notes in The American Democrat, the U.S. population has a “transitory nature” and exists in a “vacillating condition” (137). Being a part of the fluctuating Atlantic world would only exaggerate these qualities and render mutability — an ability to change — an essential characteristic. Otherwise, one might find himself or herself as Cooper does on his return to the United States after years abroad — “a foreigner in his own country” (American Democrat viii).

Yet mutability and adaptability would also represent threats. If one could alter and adapt both their social and civic status, what grounds existed for interpersonal communications? How could you trust the expressed or apparent civic and social status of individuals when “boys, and even men, wear their hats in the houses of all classes” (Cooper American Democrat 148)? In other words, if behaviors and actions cannot serve as a means of judging one’s place within the social body, where does that leave us, when it is also necessary to adapt behaviors and appearances and actions to suit different locations? Cooper’s answer to these questions seems to be an indecisive shrug of his shoulders, as becomes a man expressing ambivalence about civic mutability. As he notes in Notions of Americans, his “opinions have already undergone two or three revolutions on the subject” of “stranger[s] glid[ing] imperceptibly from one circle to another” (57).

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The American Democrat. New York: Knopf, 1931. Print.
  • ------. Notions of the Americans, The American Democrat and Other Political Writings. Ed. Bradley J. Birzer and John Willson. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2000.
  • ------. The Pilot in Sea Tales: The Pilot/The Red Rover. New York: Library of America, 1991.
  • ------. The Pioneers, or The Sources of the Susquehanna. 1823. New York: Penguin, 1988.
  • ------. The Prairie in The Leatherstocking Tales, Volume I. New York: Library of America, 1985.
  • Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic . Boston: Beacon, 2000.