Emily Dickinson and James Fenimore Cooper: Dickinson’s Captive Consciousness

Margaret Gilbert (James Fenimore Cooper Society)

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. 39-44).

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

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


Susan Howe’s long essay My Emily Dickinson raises the intriguing question without offering solid evidence of the influence an important American writer like James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) may have had on Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and her poetry. There is no direct evidence, however, that Dickinson was ever persuaded by Cooper’s novels in her poems or even read them, although she certainly would have been exposed to Cooper whether she actually read him or not because he was a major and popular writer of her day, and because it is known now that the Dickinson family was extremely well-informed and read widely. 1

While there is no way to determine with certainty if Cooper’s novels ever existed among the nearly 3,000 books in her father’s library; there is evidence, however, that Dickinson may have read Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s (1789-1867) novel Hope Leslie (1827), a popular captivity romance. The two volume set bound in half-red Morocco leather is listed among the library holdings of Dickinson’s father’s library at Harvard. Sedgwick seems to have been in part inspired by Cooper as evident in the plot of her novel Hope Leslie (1827) taken partly from The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Edward Dickinson’s library also contained a copy of Lydia Maria Child’s (1802-1880) The Frugal Housewife with “Emily” inscribed on the cover, together with Isaac T. Hopper, so it is quite possible that Dickinson also had read Hobomok (1824), a captivity romance by Child about the Indians of colonial Massachusetts, in which a white woman, Mary, captured and later released falls in love with her Indian captor, Hobomok, and has a child by him. When Mary’s husband reappears, she returns to him with her son by Hobomok, and the child is adopted into white society. “The chief characters in many of the most popular captivity narratives — Eunice Williams, Mary Jemison, Frances Slocum, and Cynthia Ann Parker, for example — were Indianized white women who declined to be redeemed and who established enduring relationships with Indian males” (Heard qouted in Haberly, 436). “Other captive white females struggled desperately to flee their rescuers and return to their Indian husbands and children” (Smith qtd. in Haberly, 436).

Both Sedgwick and Child were swayed by Cooper in his use of the Indian narratives in his books. Child’s and Sedgwick’s narratives, however, are different in that they challenge rigid hierarchies and envision consequences of social change for women. Caroline Woidat emphasizes that while these writers portray the freedom and simplicity of a romanticized life in the forest, Cooper’s novels tend to preserve distinct boundaries of race, class, and gender. Since it is likely that Dickinson may have read these popular women novelists, she would, therefore, have been indirectly affected by Cooper in her own reading.

My paper attempts to connect Cooper and Dickinson through this relationship and identify an important motif in Dickinson’s poetry; and to relate this theme to the New England genre that Dickinson and Cooper held in common, that of the captivity narrative, because there are several books that link both writers separately to the captivity narratives in their work.

For example, the plot of The Deerslayer (1841) by Cooper is said to have been taken in its details and circumstances — of the ark, the frontiersman and the two girls, the Indian attack from overhanging trees, and the marriage proposition — from Charles Johnston’s Indian captivity narrative, A Narrative of the Incidents Attending the Capture, Detention and Ransom of Charles Johnston published in 1827 (Vanderbeets 544). Moreover, both The Pathfinder (1840) and The Prairie (1827) contain captivity narratives in their search and rescue plots of white women, together with Indian raids and captures. The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish (1829), Cooper’s lesser-known frontier novel set in New England among Puritans, deals explicitly with the capture of a white woman who falls in love with her Indian captor and has a child with him. David T. Haberly has also more recently established Cooper’s use of two captivity narratives in his composition of The Last of the Mohicans. He writes, ” The Last of the Mohicans despite the shift in narration away from the traditional first person is above all a captivity narrative” (433). Susan Howe has also written two books, My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-mark, that touch on Dickinson’s connection to the Puritan captivity narratives in her poetry (MED, 34-57; TB, 167); making it possible, therefore, to suggest that despite their stylistic differences, the works of both Cooper and Dickinson share common elements of these narratives and are therefore related. 2

Furthermore, the genre of Indian fiction inspired by James Fenimore Cooper additionally recognized the freedom that white women can experience in captivity while at the same time being imprisoned. For example, in The Deerslayer, Hetty Hutter (referred to as “feeble-minded” because she is different) embarks in a canoe alone over a vast river, for the Indian camp where her father has been taken prisoner, showing great bravery in attempts to secure his freedom. To cover her trail, she leaves her canoe on an embankment and sets off through the forest escorted by bears to find the Indian camp. Once there, Hetty is captured herself but allowed to plead her cause to the chief, move about freely, and her person and character are invested with a sacredness and respect that Hetty does not have in white society, and that she knows will prove her protection (Cooper 188). Returned unharmed to her home on the Ark by the Indians, Hetty tells Deerslayer: “Sometimes I think I’m not half as feeble minded as they say I am ... ” (234). Likewise, Cora in The Last of the Mohicans displays a strength of will, determination, and agency in the wilderness that sets her apart from more conventional novelistic characterizations of women. There is also Judith Hutter, Hetty’s wilful sister, who proposes to Deerslayer and is rejected, and who chooses to live outside civilized white society in the wilderness, like Natty Bumppo, disappearing into the forests after her father’s death and Deerslayer’s departure, and crossing boundaries impossible in more traditional fiction.


The captivity romances ” ... repeatedly transgressed boundaries between cultures and identities allowing white women authors to cross literary boundaries, combining conventional genres and challenging distinctions between fact and fiction” (Castiglia 106). Woidat writes that Elizabeth Oakes Smith, a contemporary of Emily Dickinson, “recognizes the captivity tale’s power to place readers in what Gary L. Ebersole describes as ‘an ultimate boundary situation where human existence, identity, and ultimate meaning are called into question as the captive’s world is turned topsy-turvy’” (2).

An example of the way “boundary” situations and their “wildness” are used to test the place of white women in society is found in Cooper’s The Deerslayer when the motherless heroine Judith Hutter and her sister Hetty, return to their home, a floating log fort on the lake, to find their father has been scalped while alive by the Indians and is slowly dying:

A groan from the inner room, however, changed this resolution, and the girls ventured near a parent, whom it was not an unusual thing to find in a condition that lowers a man to the level of brutes. He was seated, reclining in a corner of the narrow room, with his shoulders supported by the angle, and his head fallen heavily upon his chest. Judith moved forward with a sudden impulse, and removed a canvass cap that was forced too low on his head as to conceal his face, and indeed all but his shoulders. The instant this obstacle was taken away, the quivering and raw flesh, the bared veins and muscles, and all the other disgusting signs of mortality, as they are revealed by tearing away the skin, showed he had been scalped, though still living. (354)

This powerful scene is very reminiscent in tone and narrative structure to Hawthorne’s own episode describing Judge Pyncheon’s death in The House of the Seven Gables (268-83), published the year Cooper died, suggesting that, if not Dickinson, Cooper had the power to affect other writers like Hawthorne, Melville, and later Faulkner.

Cooper’s fiction like Dickinson’s poetry carries a political message as well for women, such as the alienation which Natty Bumppo feels within the strictures of white society and his need to escape its confines in the wilderness of the forest in otherness among the Indians. Natty describes himself best in The Prairie: “I live alone, and never do I mingle with men whose skins are white ... ” (213). Similarly, Woidat writes about Oakes Smith:

Her heroines are often motivated by the same ambivalence toward marriage and “civilization” that Cooper’s Natty Bumppo exhibits, preferring the forest realm to the white settlement. In reconstructing traditional Indian captivity narratives, Oakes Smith and other women writers such as Lydia Maria Child (Hobomok, 1824) and Catharine Maria Sedgwick (Hope Leslie, 1827) create female characters who, like Leather-stocking, feel trapped by domesticity, becoming ‘captives’ of their own culture. (3)

Oakes Smith considers captivity to be a state of forced assimilation and writes that as a child she began to associate captivity with the demands of a Christian home when she was still very young (Woidat 4).

This idea is illustrated in her novel The Western Captive (1842) by her character Swaying Reed, an abducted white woman raised by her Shawnee captors, who not only refuses to be rescued but manages to restore her sister Alice, who had also been taken captive, to the white settlement. More significantly, by denying what is considered her “natural” place among white society, Alice resists the prejudices of it, insisting on her identity as a white woman steeped in Native American culture.


On the basis of published criticism of Dickinson’s poetry, it may look as if Cooper and Dickinson are complete opposites. Her typical stanza is four lines long, and most poems consist of only two stanzas with the frequent use of dashes, slant rhyme, startling metaphors, and convoluted and ungrammatical phrasing. Cooper wrote elaborate, descriptive rhetorical prose with highly intricate plots in a mixture of complex, compound and simple sentences. Cooper’s Leatherstocking fiction portrays the great beauty of forest wilderness as having been abused and despoiled by English imperialists, its animals killed and slaughtered; and the captivity and torture of whites as a retaliation by the Indians. Dickinson’s poetry, on the other hand, has an interior landscape and is often concerned with personal isolation.

But if we define “captivity” as that of one who is forcibly confined, restrained, or subjugated physically or emotionally or even psychologically as a prisoner, then much of Dickinson’s poetry would suit this definition in its images of confinement, imprisonment, and liberation and its visual display of containment within borders. She is also reported to have written in corners, and in cramped spaces on the bottoms of pages in margins. Her fasicles rather than being pages of individual poems within a book consist of poems on folded sheets of papers Japanese style stab bound within the manuscript like Puritan sermons. It has been suggested by Marta Werner, Martha Nell Smith and others, in addition, that by placing physical confinements on her writing, Dickinson also hurled it into smaller and smaller spaces in order to test its boundaries and make it suggest infinite meanings.

In a letter written in 1864 to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson writes “I work in my Prison,” and jokes that her dog does not accompany her because “he would die in Jail” (Johnson 184). “A prison gets to be a friend” (#456) she writes in a poem written during the Civil War period, indicating that incarceration is sweet and even anticipated with a slow exchange of hope. In this long poem in quatrains, there is an expressed kinship ‘between its Ponderous face/And Ours ... ” (L2). The poet comes to look with gratitude — even Hunger at the “appointed Beam” and the “Planks” — /That answer to our feet — , the sound miserable at first, now sweet, a lesser pleasure from “plashing in the Pools” — but a recurring joy. The key apparently which opens the door to this endeavor, this prison, does not admit liberty, but the use of a key connotes a locked door where freedom exists outside. The poem considers the experience to be without escape, and the last stanza of the poem suggests that the poet is imprisoned because “The Liberty we knew/” is “Avoided-like a Dream” (L29-39). In another poem, “No prisoner be” (late 1863), #742

No prisoner be —

Where Liberty —

Himself-abide with Thee —

the poet implies that captivity cannot exist where liberty dwells, and that captivity and liberation should be understood as emotional states, the means to reach a higher level of writing, a privileged experience.

“No rack can torture me,” the Emancipation poem, describes captivity as consciousness. Dickinson again suggests that captivity is the means perhaps to a higher level of writing, even a privileged state of being, because no pain or torture can destroy the poet behind whose bone there knits a “bolder One.” There is a doubling of the self as indivisible in this poem, which being one can gain the sky like the eagle unless it be held back by its own consciousness; and of the concept of captivity perceived as “Liberty,” the poem revolving on the binary of an idea. If captivity is consciousness, she writes, “So’s Liberty,” causing the reader to wonder just how Dickinson defined her prison. Was it being held captive to a process of writing, or as a prisoner of love, or even to a higher authority? Did she feel limitations imposed upon her by her family, or did she know a sense of social confinement and imprisonment of identity in her life? In this poem, the poet is meditating as a prisoner and writing from the view of one imprisoned else she could not imagine its opposite.

“Use of the word ‘captivity,’” Woidat writes, “implies a state from which some in this boundary situation would seek to be liberated, yet many authors, were intrigued by the potential freedoms that white women could discover by assuming the perspective of ‘wild’ Indians” (2). Hetty Hutter from The Deerslayer saves her own life by doing so, and by reading the Bible to the Indian chief when she is brought before him. She pleads for his forgiveness of her father and Harry March, and even though he and Hetty do not speak the same language, the Indians regard her as a divinity (Cooper 192-194).


Bound and Determined by Christopher Castiglia gives a symbolic definition to captivity in the culturally unnamable — confinement within the home, enforced economic dependence, rape, compulsory heterosexuality, and prescribed plots (4). In her earliest poems, Dickinson is already testing out the figure of the prisoner and identifying herself with one:

I never hear the word “Escape”

Without a quicker blood!

A sudden expectation

A flying attitude I never hear of prisons broad

By soldiers battered down

But I tug childish at my bars —

Only to fail again!

[Franklin #144; he dates early 1860.]

The last two lines describe the impossibility of escape. Although the the poem was written during the Civil War, there is no doubt the prisoner is Emily Dickinson. In “They shut me up in Prose,” 4 (late 1862), the poet identifies with a prisoner and wonders what would be necessary to “Abolish his Captivity,” but the poem may also present the ways in which a boundary situation is used to test the place of a white woman in society, and in particular, the captive position of a white woman poet writing at that time. The speaker has been shut up quite young as in a dark closet or cave which she identifies as “Prose,” possibly safer than Poetry, out of kindness. Stanza Two, however, implies that if “themself” had seen the workings of the poet’s brain or thinking, they would rather have put a bird in jail; while release from captivity in this poem is subject to a higher authority.

“I took my Power in my hand” (#660) alludes to breaking free by aiming a pebble like David at Goliath in the desert and may also represent the marginalized position of a white woman poet testing herself against nineteenth-century society. It is possible that Dickinson may have felt trapped within a culture of marriage and prescribed behaviors and identities, and to use Oakes Smith’s own words “forced assimilation.” (The letters written after 1860, very near the end of her thirtieth year, reflect a time when Dickinson deliberately chose never to leave her home again.) Dickinson situates her own conflict in this poem between a prescribed gender role and a self-effacing sense of duty and passionate desire for individualism as a poet and woman within the framework of an uneasy Puritan heritage. Susan Howe writes that Dickinson “was born exactly two hundred years after the Great Migration led by John Winthrop brought her ancestors to America. Like Hawthorne, and unlike Emerson, her conscience still embraced the restless contradictions of this Puritan strain.” Paula Bennett suggests that Dickinson’s feelings in her letter-poems may also reflect the substance of her domestic condition (139).


While several of the poems of Emily Dickinson seem to have been written as narratives of rebellion against domestic captivity or confinement, and structured upon repeating cycles of captivity and liberation in order to question borders; “A Wounded Deer” and “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun — ” display features or elements of the captivity narrative of the frontier — abduction, captivity, rescue, and conversion — linking women’s struggles for individual identity to a larger conflict between a civilized American culture with its designated roles for women and a boundary frontier culture with its anarchy.

Dickinson’s poem “My life had stood — a Loaded Gun — ” connects the frontier setting to the poet’s ability to escape the confines of Victorian codes and imagine a new identity. Dickinson also offers her own version of the captivity narrative in “My life had stood — a Loaded Gun — ” in order to explore a boundary situation where a woman’s existence, identity, and ultimate meaning are called into question and examined as the captive’s world is turned upside down. Stepping out of the submissive role prescribed for women writing poetry in her day becomes a subversive act that allows her to challenge the cultural imaginary as thinking woman and poet and assume freedoms in the uncharted terrain of her poetry, among the forests, of a new identity, like Deerslayer.

In this poem, the poet sees herself as split, between herself and her Art, and Dickinson may have implicitly likened the clash of civilized so-called white society and frontier cultures to conflicts between women and patriarchal law. The poem begins with a loaded gun in a corner, emblems of the frontier setting, the poet’s life; and the poet is suddenly abducted, taken captive, “carried Me away” (line 4), ravished by the Owner, whom we can read as another figure of the poet passing unidentified. The poet is carried into the wilderness by her owner, and they roam the woods and “hunt the Doe together in “Sovreign Woods.” The quarry they hunt, “the Doe,” is appropriate to the image of the subdued female.

In stanza three, a sense of grandiloquence and vastness pervades her capture as the poet speaks for her owner and the mountains reply, implying they speak as one. But apparently the poet is happy because: “It is as if a Vesuvian face/Had let its Pleasure through — ” (ll. 11-12). In stanza four when at night their hunting ritual is completed, the poet guards her Master’s head, better than sharing the Eiderduck’s deep pillow because the artificial layers of femininity are stripped away, and the poet uncovers the true self within in all its masculine power. Paula Bennett’s quotation supports the idea that a masculine sexuality informs the persona of Dickinson’s poem. In this poem, Dickinson’s speaker has shed the self-protective layers of conventional femininity, symbolized the poem by the doe and the deep pillow of the ‘masochistic’ eiderduck. In the process of the poem the poet uncovers the true self within, in all its hardness and rage and desire for revenge and aggression, symbolized by the gun.

The poet finds liberation in stanzas five and six in the wilderness and captivity of her art perhaps, or freedom, as she guards her Master with an “emphatic Thumb” on the Trigger, the jealous anger of the flashing muzzle’s “Yellow Eye” being an extension of the image with which she began, the “Loaded Gun” in stanza one. The gun has been touched into life by the poet assuming her own identity as a writer. Though the poet may outlive her artistic production, her written poems will be immortal. Even though while on earth she has the power to kill and is mortal, within the confines of a Puritan tradition, she cannot die by her own power, and is like Deerslayer in Cooper’s novel (44) The poet achieves true identity when the lover (herself as poet) claims her as his (really her) own on the frontiers of art, but it is first necessary to rebel against the confinements of her social identity.

In creating a female counterpart to Leatherstocking in this poem, the self that’s a gun, Dickinson challenges the notion that women must be fulfilled within the domestic sphere. She may have used the form of the captivity narrative subversively in her poetry creating poems that explore the place of the white woman poet in a male literary culture, and as a vehicle of her own struggles to reconcile her ambitions with society’s gender codes, as well as to explore her own sexual identity within a society.

John McWilliams relates in his Introduction to The Last of the Mohicans that James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels were “the beginnings of a native fictional tradition of testing limits that would include not only Melville’s Moby-Dick, Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, and Faulkner’s ‘The Bear’, but [also] writers professedly contemptuous of Cooper’s subject-matter, such as Hawthorne, Twain, Dickinson, and Nabokov” (x). This profession of contempt for Cooper attributed to Dickinson by McWilliams would at the least give credence to the idea that Dickinson was familiar with Cooper’s novels. Dickinson, a voracious reader, must have read Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans, a popular novel of her day.

As a woman, Emily Dickinson could not wander through the forests or kill deer like Natty Bumppo, but she could move about freely in the frontiers of her mind. Albert Gelpi writes in his Jungian interpretation of the poem: “Emily Dickinson was the only major American poet of the nineteenth century — in fact, a poet of such great consequence that any account of women’s experience in America must see her as a boldly pioneering and prophetic figure” (122).

Dickinson’s poems in their subjects and details may be said to explore the feminization of captivity and, through her probable familiarity with popular women novelists of her day who were influenced by Cooper in their plots, subsequently show Cooper’s influence on Dickinson.

Works Cited

  • Bennett, Paula. Emily Dickinson. Woman Poet. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990.
  • Castiglia, Christopher. Bound and Determined. Captivity, Culture Crossing, and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Child, Lydia Maria. Hobomok. Ed. Carolyn Karcher. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
  • ------. The Last of the Mohicans. Ed. John McWilliams. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
  • ------. The Pathfinder. New York: Penguin Books.
  • ------. The Prairie. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
  • ------. The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish. Google e-books. July 2011.
  • Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Variorum Edition. Vols. I-III. Ed. R.W. Franklin. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • “Dickinson Family Library: Guide.” Houghton Library, Harvard University, 2006. 6 Apr 2010. Dickinson Family Library: Guide.”
  • Gelpi, Albert. “Emily Dickinson and The Deerslayer.” Shakespeare’s Sisters. Eds. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979.
  • Haberly, David T. “The Last of the Mohicans and the Captivity Tradition.” American Quarterly 28.4 (1976): 431-444.
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1986.
  • Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. New York: New Directions, 1985.
  • ------. The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
  • Johnson, Thomas H., ed. Selected Letters. By Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard, 1986.
  • McWilliams, John P. “Introduction.” The Last of the Mohicans. By James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. i-xvi.
  • Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. New York: Penguin Classics, 1998.
  • Vanderbeets, Richard. “Cooper and the “Semblance of Reality”: A Source for The Deerslayer.” American Literature 42.4 (1971): 544-46.
  • Woidat, Caroline. “Puritan Daughters and ‘Wild’ Indians.” Legacy 18.1(2001): 1-13.


1 The Library Guide provided by Harvard of the list of Edward Dickinson’s library does not contain any books by Cooper other than one edited by his daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, The Rhyme and Reason of Country Life, belonging to Emily Dickinson. The Guide also lists books not belonging to Houghton in the Amherst and Brown collections but Cooper is not among them.

2 The captivity narratives traditionally “combined features of “spiritual autobiography and cultural ethnography,” writes Christopher Castiglia: “a single individual, usually a woman, [who]stands passively under the strokes of evil, awaiting rescue by the grace of God ... In the Indian’s devilish clutches, the captive had to meet and reject the temptation of Indian marriage and/or the Indian’s “cannibal” eucharist. To partake of the Indian’s love or of his equivalent to bread and wine was to debase, to un-English the very soul. The captive’s ultimate redemption by the grace of Christ and the efforts of the Puritan magistrates is likened to the regeneration of the soul in conversion.” (Slotkin qtd. in Castiglia, 23)