Nature’s “harshest but truest colors”: Romantic and Un-Romantic Nature in The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Peter Ramos (Buffalo State University)

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. 84-88).

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

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

In Mark Twain’s famous critique of James Fenimore Cooper lies the implicit charge that the creator of the Leatherstocking Tales sees the world through a romantically distorted lens. Cooper lacks realism, Twain contends: “Cooper’s proudest creations in the way of ‘situations’ suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer’s protecting gift. Cooper’s eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly” (Cooper’s Literary Offences 5). But as critic Kenneth Dauber reminds us, Twain himself, despite his famously noted journalistic background, his hard-nosed, sober, and satirical approach to the world, was not completely immune to viewing nature (through his protagonist Huck Finn) with an eye as glassy, if not dark, with romance. Examining a passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which Twain (through Huck) observes pre-dawn as it turns to day and thus rejuvenates and revitalizes the protagonist and, implicitly, the reader, Dauber points out the extent to which Twain here, despite and alongside his journalistic realism, employs a kind of literary Romance, the strain of it one finds in the sentimental novel’s romantic use of Adam Smith’s ideas of sympathy. I turn first to the passage from Huckleberry Finn that Dauber examines.

Two or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. Here is the way we put in the time ... . Not a sound anywheres — perfectly still — just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull-frogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line — that was the woods on t’other side — you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away — trading scows and such things, and long black streaks — rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep creaking or jumbled up voices, it was so still and sounds come so far away ... [and then, after more journalistic description, we get the following] and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it! (Huckleberry Finn 88-89, Ch. XIX.)

As Dauber argues,

[A]ll realist American literature begins with Huck Finn. For here journalism, the new beginning for a literary career that Twain establishes for several generations of writers to come, reaches its highest fictional articulation ... . And yet, if fiction is thus marked, its difference from [actual] fact is hard to formalize. For as journalism becomes fiction, nothing changes except everything that might matter. As Huck and Jim ... give themselves over to observation, careful and meticulous, a new day dawns. The sun comes out ... . The world, almost literally, is born in Huck’s words, in the fictional vernacular Twain has so brilliantly constructed, so that the world Huck seems to observe is a world to which his observation rather gives birth. Here is the romance of realism: that reading should become writing, that passivity should become active, that mimesis should become creative. That is why the nothing that occurs on the raft is yet so significant. (379)

In a strange literary moment, Twain renders through Huck an account of the sunrise, in the most precise and journalistic terms. And yet, it’s not exactly the journalistic facts in this account that matter; or rather, the so called facts matter but not merely to inform — as in journalism; these facts matter as the very means of making life come back to life, for Huck as well as the reader. Twain, though Huck, would bring the reader’s sense of life’s beauty back to life, sympathetically as it were, through the very description Huck so accurately gives. Another kind of romanticism, therefore, is also at work in Twain’s passage: the transcendental view that nature — in all her beauty and variety — is but the reflection (and in this case, the hope-filled reminder) of the same beauty and variety we possess as well in our inner-selves, our souls.

Dauber continues: “[N]ature is idealized. Turning nature back on itself, repeating it in a novel, the novelist achieves for it, precisely in fictionalizing it, the value of fiction, which is different from fact, then, as fact’s transfiguration, as the construction not of fact itself, but of fact’s significance” (380). Implied here, in this odd interdependent dialectic of fact and fiction of the realist author, is the very problem inherent in such a literary movement: a suspicion that “reality,” while it must certainly inform the movement’s fiction, is yet not quite real enough until transformed into fiction. Dauber explains, “[A]t the root of this problem [for realist writers] is not the enforcement of a view or reality that the realist author knows is only constructed. Rather, it is the author’s inability to construct any view compelling enough to enough to take seriously. This is the problem: that the world, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, seemed ‘material without being real’” (380).

This is not the problem Cooper faced, as I will argue. In fact, his was quite the reverse. The corrupted human world, in Cooper’s fiction, as probably in his own life, was altogether too real — even if he is not quite the Romance writer that Hawthorne certainly is; and by this, I mean that Hawthorne seems always to admit up front that his novels are a created world, but that, as such, we ourselves have the same capacity to create our own world, to generate and then live by what I would call our own inhabitable fictions — as Hester Prynne, for example, certainly does — that is, our ability to live more or less within and through the social identities available to us, which are at base as fictitious yet as substantial as hope and faith themselves. Cooper, like the realists and the Romance writers, would create a culture, an America. But Cooper’s created America is a strange mixture of history and Romance: historically accurate enough to insist that fiction alone will not suffice — that the fictional world he creates must be secured by certain historical accuracies, yet Romantic enough, even to the point of being self-reflexive about this, to remind us that this world, even if it could have existed, is already gone by the time his novels were published. And yet such Romance seems to be the cure precisely for the more realistic, present, and altogether excessive amount of human brutality his novels consistently address. Furthermore, such corrosive human nature blights its otherwise sublime natural surroundings. Where Twain through Huck would offer us respite in the form of dawn breaking over and illuminating the natural world, Cooper acknowledges, even in his Leatherstocking Tales, that wherever man exists, nature herself will take on and reflect back his brutality.

I want to look first at a few passages from The Deerslayer, both for their remarkable fidelity to Twain’s passage above — and despite Twain’s insistence on Cooper’s flawed abilities as a writer — and then to show how radically less romantic Cooper’s vision ultimately is from Twain’s when each takes on nature’s more sublime, or at least aesthetically nurturing, aspects. Roughly halfway through the novel, and immediately before a climatic battle in which Deerslayer, Chingachgook, his bride to be Hist O Hist, Hurry, Hutter and his daughters will fight the Hurons who have secreted themselves in Hutter’s rude castle on the lake, we get several passages that, like Twain’s, describe the beauty of sunrise on a body of water in the quiet lull just before the conflict.

It was the season of the shortest nights, and it was not long before the deep obscurity which precedes the day began to yield to the returning light. If any earthly scene could be presented to the senses that might sooth his passions and temper his ferocity, it was that which grew upon the eyes of Hutter and Hurry as the hours advanced, changing night to morning. There were the usual soft tints of the sky in which neither the gloom of darkness nor brilliancy of sun prevails, and under which objects appear more unearthly and, we might add, holy than at any other portion of the twenty-four hours. The beautiful and soothing calm of eventide has been extolled by a thousand poets, and yet it does not bring with it the far-reaching and sublime thoughts of the half hour that precedes the rising of a summer’s sun. (Deerslayer 311, Ch. XIX)

It’s tempting here to assume that Cooper, like Twain, sees art and literature as failing to capture the real in its most convincing sense; Huck’s local, regional, un-tutored, journalistic sense of the real, of dawn as it actually happens, would return us though him to life’s renewing rejuvenating real. But Cooper has not quite lost faith in civilized art; for the narrator, art might possibly bring out the sublime beauty of nature, if it can do so here, on the American soil, so to speak. As Blake Nevius notes, and as others have also made clear, “One of Cooper’s motivations was to foster an appreciation of American scenery, as [Sir Walter] Scott almost singlehandedly had popularized the landscape of Scotland, and thus to strengthen the influence of local attachments as the surest ground of civic pride and responsibility” (2). But as Nevius then adds, this presented difficulties to the American writer who faced and wished to capture through the imagination such a “vast and unspoiled wilderness” without turning to the older European modes of art which were used on the far more developed and therefore recognizable European soil (7). Turning back to The Deerslayer, we note that Hutter and Hurry, by being so morally blunted, cannot see the beauty in this scenery. But as we will then see, Chingachgook, despite his moral nobility, is also prevented from truly appreciating this beauty precisely due to his want of culture. Cooper himself, however, in no regional or rude voice, will attempt to grasp and then re-present the natural sublime here. But let me also note that Cooper’s attempt contains within it the seeds of pessimism as well: this kind of nature, by 1840, is ultimately make-believe. Despite the aesthetic difficulties I just mentioned that an American writer faced in capturing the relatively wild and therefore new American landscape, he/she also could not ignore the fact that by the late 1830s pioneering, as well as its larger culture, had taken the Romantic idea of the individual in nature and turned it toward the more ruthless culture of land-grabbing, pillage, and Indian massacre. As Lewis Mumford reminds us:

With pioneering, America ceased to be an outpost of Europe. The western communities relapsed into an earlier and more primitive type of occupation; they reverted to the crude practices of the hunter, the woodsman, and the miner. Given the occasion and the environment, these were necessary occupations; the point to be noted, however, is that, uninfluenced by peasant habits or the ideas of an old culture, the work of the miner, woodman, and hunter led to unmitigated destruction and pillage ... . The movement into backwoods America turned the European into a barbarian (26).

It is, on one hand, this historical, cultural reality against which Cooper’s depictions of romantic and sublime natural scenery take on their most fictive wish-like qualities. As we’ll also see, however, even Cooper’s hero does not escape the taint of such corruption.

Turning again back to The Deerslayer, and with these points in mind, I pick up where the narrator continues:

In one case [dusk] the panorama is gradually hid from the site, while in the other its objects start out from the unfolding picture, first dim and misty, then marked in the solemn background; next seen in the witchery of an increasing, a thing as different as possible from the decreasing twilight, and finally mellow, distinct, and luminous as the rays of the great center of light diffuse themselves in the atmosphere ... . All this, however, Hutter and Hurry witnessed without experiencing any of that calm delight which the spectacle is wont to bring when the thoughts are just and the aspirations pure. They not only witnessed it, but witnessed it under circumstances that had a tendency to increase its power and charms ... . Nevertheless, the whole was lost on the observers, who knew no feeling of poetry, had lost their sense of natural devotion in lives of obdurate and narrow selfishness, and had little other sympathy with nature than that which originated with her lowest wants. (Deerslayer 311-312, Ch. XIX.)

In this case, the implication is that someone with more a sensitive, morally pure, even aesthetic temperament would be able not only to observe the sublime beauty of this scene but actively bring out that beauty. As with the anecdote of the tree that only falls in the woods when there is someone there to hear it, the narrator’s description here connects human-nature to nature herself in a kind of mutual reflection. And yet, we also know that this momentary beauty — which might otherwise bring life back to life for anyone who truly witnesses it — is also merely the brief calm before the more violent storm that is coming as surely as dusk. Far from rejuvenating these characters, the moment is either un-appreciated — by Hurry and Hutter — or dangerously deceptive in its alluring but false lull. Note the moral ambiguity in the narrator’s description of the scene — is this moment peaceful or portentous? — as he/she continues:

The same deathlike silence reigned, and it was difficult to fancy that anything possessing animal life could be around the place. Unlike the Serpent, whose imagination had acted through his traditions until he was ready to perceive an artificial in a natural stillness, the others saw nothing to apprehend in a tranquility that, in truth, merely denoted the repose of inanimate objects. The accessories of the scene, too, were soothing and calm, rather than exciting. (Deerslayer 319, Ch. XIX)

Nature is deceptively calm and beautiful here: dangerous human nature lurks in this artificial stillness that only Chingachgook, because of his more pragmatic approach to the wilderness, can read. Here the Delaware’s very lack of artistic, poetic, cultural background — his un-civilized character — is what allows him to perceive the very artificiality of this natural moment of serenity. And yet, in the same passage, the narrator’s tone and descriptions begin, however slightly, to change back:

[T]he heavens, the atmosphere, and the woods and lake were all seen under that softened light which immediately precedes [the day’s] appearance and which, perhaps, is the most witching period of the four and twenty hours ... . In a word, it is the moment when the senses seem to recover their powers in the simplest and most accurate forms, like the mind emerging from the obscurity of doubts into the tranquility and peace of demonstration. (Deerslayer 319)

Let’s pause here to appreciate the extent to which this passage, forty years or so before Huck’s account of sunrise, seems to perform nearly the exact same function. The narrator continues:

Most of the influence that such a scene is apt to produce on those who are properly constituted in a moral sense was lost on Hutter and Hurry, but both the Delawares, though too much accustomed to witness the loveliness of morningtide to stop to analyze their feelings, were equally sensible of the beauties of the hour, though it was probably in a way unknown to themselves. It disposed the young warrior to peace, and never had he felt less longings for the glory of the combat than when he joined Hist in the cabin the instant that the scow rubbed against the side of the platform. From the indulgence of such gentle emotions, however, he was aroused by a rude summons from Hurry ... . (Deerslayer 319)

What strange metaphysical gymnastics the narrator performs here: only Chingachgook and Hist are morally pure enough to appreciate the poetry of the hour, yet their uncivilized background makes them incapable of being self-aware that they appreciate this beauty; yet again, Chingachgook is also thereby distracted from his real duties as a warri the moment — that is, he is as duped as everyone but Hurry and Hutter by this deceptive and alluring lull before the impending battle. In fact it takes Hurry’s summons to bring Chingachgook back to the reality of the moment. While it’s not entirely clear where Cooper falls, exactly, on the ability of nature’s beauty to rejuvenate our sense of life itself, we see at least how much more complicated, guarded — how much less romantic — his novel’s view of such a moment is than Twain’s. As I mentioned, even Deerslayer himself does not escape the temptations and stain associated with human nature. Recall his wonton killing of a wild eagle, toward the end of this novel, merely to test his marksmanship. What, compared to this act, are Huck’s practical though ultimately forgivable jokes on Jim but mere child’s play?

Looking back to Cooper’s more famous novel, written almost two decades earlier, we note that halfway though The Last of the Mohicans, and right after a particularly ruthless and bloody battle in which innocents, women and children, are slaughtered, the narrator through parabasis assures us that such a battle did in fact — in historical fact — take place: “The bloody and inhuman scene rather incidentally mentioned than described in the preceding chapter, is conspicuous in the pages of colonial history by the merited title of ‘The Massacre of William Henry’ ... . It is now becoming obscured by time ... . Pages might be written to prove, from this illustrious example, the defects of human excellence; to show how easy it is for generous sentiments, high courtesy, and chivalrous courage to lose their influence beneath the chilling blight of selfishness.” (Mohicans 212). “[R]ather incidentally mentioned than described” — for Cooper the reality of history is too much for fiction to do justice to, even as this historical fact secures the truth of the fiction — as journalistic, sensual verisimilitude does for Twain’s passage. Yet the very truth vouchsafed in this case, far from making life come back to life for narrator and reader, as it does in Twain’s passage, points instead to the nightmare of the real. Nature herself is changed by the event and its carnage, as the narrator tells us: “A frightful change had also occurred in the season. The sun had hid its warmth behind an impenetrable mass of vapor, and hundreds of human forms, which had blackened beneath the fierce heats of August, were stiffening in their deformity before the blasts of a premature November” (Mohicans 213). Which is the real here — nature herself? Human nature? The one affected by the other? The one a metaphor for the other? Fact and fiction here attempt to capture the real, and yet again, that real is a unendurable. In the same paragraph, the narrator implies yet again the extent to which the sublime view of nature herself, against the background of the effects of real human nature, against history, that is, is but a human construction, a thing of fancy: “That humid and congenial atmosphere which commonly adorned the view, veiling its harshness and softening its asperities, had disappeared, and the northern air poured across the waste of water so harsh and unmingled, that nothing was left to be conjectured by the eye, or fashioned by the fancy” (Mohicans 213). Nature and human nature comingle here: “The fiercer element had cropped the verdure of the plain, which looked as though it were scathed by the consuming lightning. But, here and there, a dark green tuft rose in the midst of the desolation; the earliest fruits of a soil that had been fattened by human blood. The whole landscape, which, seen by a favoring light, and in a genial temperament, had been found so lovely, appeared now like some pictured allegory of life, in which objects were arrayed in their harshest but truest colors, and without the relief of any shadowing” (Mohicans 213-214). Were the tufts actually fed by human blood, as corpses fertilize the soil and what grows in it, or is this metaphor? And does why does the narrator tell us that this “appeared like some pictured allegory” Why can’t he tells us that this is, in deed, a pictured allegory? These questions haunt the passage — what is true here, which truth is the cause or the result of which? Whose nature — earth or human — is arrayed in its truest colors? If anything, Cooper, like Twain, gives us the detailed description of nature — in its passive state — but as a means, unlike Twain, of reminding us of just how real reality is, how abundant in its “hideous” arrangement.

Whereas Twain brings us back to the romantic beauty of sunrise on the Mississippi right after, and as relief from, the devastating feuds of the Grangerfords and Shephersons — including the brutal murder of Buck by grown men, an event Huck tells us is unmentionable in its awfulness — Cooper brings us to “Nature’s” reality as a means of showing what man is capable of; furthermore, this view of nature, Cooper tells us again and again, is the real one, real enough — as in these battles that actually took place — yet here displayed in its truest colors. The cure for such reality in Cooper is romance, but a variety that seems both to offer relief from and consciously return us to what we cannot escape: the romantic, however true, is not of this world. As the narrator says of the intellectually limited, childlike and goodhearted Hetty Hutter toward the end of The Deerslayer: “Thus died Hetty Hutter, one of those mysterious links between the material and immaterial world, which, while they appear to be deprived of so much that is esteemed and necessary for this state of being, draw so near to, and offer so beautiful and illustration of, the truth, purity, and simplicity of another” (Deerslayer 520-521). The world is real enough, too real, and it can only be these fleeting, innocent yet divinely wise creatures who remind us that the pain of this world will be (let us hope!) rewarded by the beauty and goodness of another.

I should point out that neither Cooper nor Twain seems to imply that their texts transparently portray the world as it really is: in the case of the latter, the world is as Huck sees it; for Cooper, even the narrator admits that nature’s beauty depends on man’s sensitivity and fancy. But to the extent that each author constructs a world we might believe in — not only as a possibility but as something to live with and even for — he offers a particular idea of nature, as sublime cure for the ills of civilization or else a mirror of man’s violence. An uneasiness over this question manifests itself in the Leatherstocking Tales: how much can beauty, natural beauty, however constructed, actually save us? And who precisely can it save? By the late 1820s, given the destruction of both the land and its original inhabitants, Cooper must have realized how little such beauty could actually achieve in any practical sense. By 1865, it was even less clear what could be salvaged. Part of Dabuer’s argument is that for Twain, as for other realists, and especially after the Civil War, consensus on the ideas concerning nature and beauty were far more difficult to arrive at, given the amount of conflict the country seemed to have over ideas in general: who could agree on what such things as nature and beauty were or should be? What was left for Twain was the life as it might actually be lived, displaced and from the perspective of a child, a life beyond any particular ideas. But this means that the uneasiness in Cooper becomes a kind of desperation in Twain: if nothing much seems to matter, then quiet observation of sunrise over the beautiful scenic Mississippi must do all the work of making life worth living at all. This is a kind of realist-fantasy, both fictive yet desperately insisting on itself. As Mumford suggests, in the aftermath of the Civil War, “Local life declined. The financial centers grew: through the mechanism of finance, New York and Chicago began to dominate the rest of the country. Presently the novel of ‘local color’ appeared — proof enough that the color had washed out” (78).

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer. 1841. New York: Signet Classic, 1963. Print.
  • ------. The Last of the Mohicans. 1826. New York: Signet Classic, 1980. Print.
  • Dauber, Kenneth. “Realistically Speaking: Authorship in the Late Nineteenth Century and Beyond.” American Literary History 11.2 (1999): 378-390. Print.
  • Mumford, Lewis. The Golden Day: A Study in American Literature and Culture. 1926. New York: Dover, 1953. Print.
  • Nevius, Blake. Cooper’s Landscapes: An Essay on the Picturesque Vision. Berkley: University of California Press, 1976. Print.
  • Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1885. Toronto: Dover, 1994. Print.
  • ------. “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences.” The North American Review 161.464 (1895): 1-12. JSTOR. Web.