Debunking the Myth of the “Promised Land” in the Leather-Stocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper

Anna Varkan (Moscow City Teacher Training 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. 121-124).

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 first settlers of New England interpreted the open spaces of America as the land promised to them by God. Hence came the myth of the Promised Land and the perception of the colonies on the East Coast of America as “New Canaan,” and its people as the chosen nation. The emergence and spread of the myth in many ways contributed to the views of political and religious figures, philosophers and writers of that time. In 1630, a sermon by John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” appeared. It interpreted the Scriptures and described the lifestyle of Christians in accordance with it. The author calls the British people already marked by the Lord’s hand: “We have taken out a commission” (Heimert & Delbanco 90). Under “commission” Winthrop implies the American land given to the first colonists. The preacher draws a parallel with Ancient Israel, reminding people that their future will depend primarily on their actions on the new land. Everybody faces a choice: “life and death, good and evil” (91). The author urges people to follow the righteous path that leads to the ideal as ” ... a city upon the hill. The eyes of all the people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world” (91). Nevertheless, the preacher does not tire of reminding about the terrible end of the nation in case of disobedience the commandments of God: “but if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it” (91).

Later in The Ecclesiastical History of New England, Cotton Mather identifies New England as the New Jerusalem. But in contrast to Winthrop, the author mentions Native Americans. Mather, as well as his contemporaries, considers the Indians as a product of evil forces. This implies the “mission” that leaded the colonists to the new land: “to plant the Gospel in these dark regions of America” (45). Therefore Indian efforts to resist the invasion of white people from the East were interpreted as attempts of the devil to conquer the New Jerusalem. Consequently numerous troops were gathered to fight the redskins. Having more sophisticated weaponry and numerical superiority the white nation prevailed in the confrontation, thus, the borders of the first colonies were relentlessly moving farther and farther to the west. The events in this border area, called “frontier,” were of special interest for the contemporaries. Naturally, the majority of American writers of the Romantic era when analyzing the past were involved in the issue of the border conflict. The authors, subsequently recognized as classics, were deeply interested in myths which ruled the colonists’ minds. Romantic writers were trying to trace, how ideas of the first settlers, including religious ones, fulfilled.

James Fenimore Cooper got a special honor: to tell readers a tragic story of the colonization. The series of Leather-Stocking tales depicts a full-fledged development of the West by the whites, covering more than half a century (from 1740 to 1805). Describing the features of the frontier life, the author naturally had to face the dissonance between the dream of the settlers and their actions. Cooper was able to discover that the newcomers were walking over the Indians’ corpses while moving towards the grand goal — to build a paradise castle in the Promised Land.

Even the order of writing novels reflects this contradiction to some extent. The fact is that novels are not written chronologically. Russian literary critics G. Khrapovitskaya and A. Korovin connect it to the way of the image of American history which elects Cooper: “His romantic rejection of the world leads to an alignment of a kind of antithesis of the new bourgeois America and the eigtheenth century, when relations between people were simpler and cleaner” (379).

For example, the novel The Pioneers (1823), written first by the author, according to the course of events precedes the final one. It reflects Cooper’s background as he relies on the memories of his childhood, which took place in Cooperstown, New York state, near the places where in the eighteenth century the very border between the civilized and the wild lands of America lay. The time described in The Pioneers is the closest to the author’s life. The contemporary results of the colonization urged Cooper and he tried to go back in time aiming to understand their roots. As the novel depicts the development of the new society in the colony it can be opposed to the piece written next, which is The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Here the description of Indian way of life prevails. The part written third, The Prairie (1827), transfers us forward as it represents the picture of the early nineteenth century with its people. Subsequently Cooper takes a break and continues the story only after 13 years. Two final novels are written one by one and again we are back in time. In The Pathfinder, or the Inland Sea (1840) the protagonist of the series is in his prime. Next year The Deerslayer, or the First War-Path (1841), which completes the series is published. It’s curious enough that the hunter’s conscious life only begins here. Despite the young age of the man we can notice the author’s experience reflected in the hero’s worldview. Natty may be characterized as a shrewd and possessing perspective vision young man. Through the hero’s standpoint readers easily understand that Cooper himself didn’t at all approve of the way the contemporary society was forming.

All five Leather-Stocking tales are united by one character, Natty Bumppo. His name draws our attention to the Bible where Jesus himself called Nathaniel “a true Israelite, in whom is no guile” (Novyi Zavet Gospoda 403). Exactly through such a hero we obtain a picture of American life at that time. This man is white, already born in America, but destined to live among Indians for about ten years. Due to this, the personality of this hunter joined the traits of two cultures. He gained Indian attitude towards nature, which was quite unique for his palefaced contemporaries. He carries out a function of a mediator between two cultures being a guide to the colonists into the wilderness. In the course of his long life Natty paves numerous paths along the continent and hundreds of colonists follow him. Copper’s readers can monitor the way of the new civilization only via the titles of the parts of the series of Leather-Stocking Tales.

In the first one (Deerslayer, or the First War Path) hunter Natty first shed human blood, blood of an Indian. It’s symbolic as the author here put a cross-cutting issue throughout the work: the extermination of the Redskins.

The following novel, due to the course of events, The Pathfinder, or the Inland Sea continues the topic, telling us about the progress of the whites on the West in detail and the second way of dealing with the natives. White people used to pit the indigenous inhabitants at each other.

The third novel comprises the result of the colonists’ actions, described in the first two parts of the epic: in the tale dies “The Last of the Mohicans” who is the worthiest warrior. Against this background it is quite logical to assume that the same fate befall other Redskin tribes.

In the course of The Pioneers, the fourth part of the tales, we already aren’t able to find the natives. On the one hand, Natty can be called a pioneer, on the other; pioneers are the motley society that was forming in the early nineteenth century America. While observing the social establishment of nation, it becomes evident for the readers that having expelled the natives, white Americans are unable to create a city of their dreams, although the author repeatedly stresses that there were all the conditions for it. To Hunter’s ancestors, according to his words, reached “the marvels that have descended to our own times, in the way of tradition, concerning the qualities of beast, birds and fishes that were than to be met with, on the shores of the Great Lakes in particular, are known to be sustained by the experience of living men” (98).

In his chronologically final novel The Prairie, where the hero’s story comes to an end, we observe the consequences of careless use of the new land by the colonists. Prairies - is reflected in the title of the novel result, obtained by the conquerors of the Promised Land. Edge of paradise now lives only in hero’s memory: “I remember to have heard it, then and there, said, that the Blessed Land was once fertile as the bottoms of the Mississippi, and groaning with its stories of grain and fruits; but that the judgment has since fallen upon it, and that it is now more remarkable for its bareness than any qualities to boast of” (270).

Thus, following the titles only, one can trace the movement of the colonists to the West and even witness the results of their actions. From the first pages the reader is able to see how settlers break the harmony of the wilderness. According to Cooper’s standpoint, they are guided by the only goal - to achieve better living conditions. They cut down forests and set their own laws, believing themselves rightful owners of this land. A number of Cooper’s newcomers do not think that in these places for a long time other nation have lived, and having met them, tend to ascribe their existence to the next Lord’s trial given to the Christians, so they are to struggle with them as with evil spirits.

The author depicts the way of Indian life before the invasion of colonists: “the winter cooled them (natives) in summer; in winter skins kept them warm. If they fought among themselves it was to prove that they were men. They were brave; they were just; they were happy.” (Last of the Mohicans 174).

Regardless of the fact that tribes were numerous, they were able to coexist. Indians lived in harmony with nature, with their laws unwritten and their worldview intuitive. Of course, they thought the American land their own; nature was their home, and they were its children. In the course of the Leather-Stocking Tales Cooper repeatedly proves the unity of the Indian nation with nature, resulting in the numerous brightest descriptions of its original beauty. Indians blended in and looked at the world as if from inside. They considered themselves an integral part of nature which was in constant interaction with them. In other words, rivers, lakes, forests were brothers and sisters to the Redskins, and together they were the children of the Great Spirit. This was the natives’ belief.

Perception of land by the colonists, as noted above, was different. Having accepted it as a gift from the Lord, the newcomers were to keep all the Commandments of the Scripture. In the Leather-Stocking tales we notice that the lifestyle of the colonists does not actually correspond to the laws of God. The first proof may be the oblivion of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” as evidenced most ruthless extermination of the natives of the continent. Apparently, public figures have inspired the white people that the Indians are the forces of evil and needed to be overcome as they prevent the fulfillment of their “mission.”

There is a precept that a righteous Christian devotes one day of a week to his or her Creator, but in Leather Stocking Tales the majority of the colonists doesn’t even know the prayers. In The Pathfinder, the author presents three heroes who differ by age, level of education, profession and the social position occupied: Captain Cap, an old experienced mariner; Jasper Western, a fundamentally educated young man; and Natty Bumppo, the middle-aged hunter. Eventually there is a need to say a canonical prayer, but it occurs that no one of the heroes mentioned above is able of doing this. According to the author’s words: “Cap scarcely knew what prayer meant. Pathfinder prayed daily of not hourly, but it was mentally, in his own simple modes of thinking, and without the aid of words at all” (363) and the third man in the circumstances only “shrunk back with the shame” (363).

It’s not difficult to notice author’s irony of the naive perception of religious ideals by a number of characters of the story. In The Deerslayer, the writer puts a small volume of the Bible into the hands of feeble-minded girl, who constantly reading the book, is not able to understand the meaning of the Scriptures. In The Last of the Mohicans the author quite comically portrays the psalmist, who draws our attention to the Bible saying: “If the Jewish boy might tame the evil spirit of Saul by the sound of his harp, and the words of sacred song, it may not be amiss [?] to try the potency of music here” (137), thus David explains his singing commandments to the armed Indians instead of resisting them. Psalmist compared himself with a boy (whose name is David as well). Such a naive child in the body of an adult sincerely believes in the force of religious singing. Moreover his belief is justified: the Indian warriors don’t hurt him. The irony is that Indians think the psalmist weak-minded.

Cooper goes further by completing the hero’s image with an even more comic situation. David Gamut happened to stay on the Indian territory: Natty comes to him dressed as a bear. The psalmist doesn’t notice the deception even when Hunter begins singing. Having heard the voice he exclaims: “Dark and mysterious monster! I know not your nature, not intents; but if I aught you mediate against the person and rights of one of the humblest servants of the temple, listen to the inspired language of the youth of Israel, and repent” (91). One cannot help laughing at such words. As a number of Americans of the time depicted, Gamut called himself Israelite drawing a parallel with the nation of the Ancient Holy Land. This world outlook makes a reference to the religious heritage of New England. The characters without deep thinking consider their’ predecessors beliefs the only relevant. Such superficial attitude to religion is noted further by the author in The Pioneers: “There seems to be a tendency in human nature to endeavor to provide for the wants of this world, before our attention is turned to the business of the other. Religion was a quality but little cultivated amid the stumps of Temple’s Patent for the first few years of its settlement” (83). Religion firstly serving as a major motivator for the newcomers then was moved backwards by the reality of life.

In the course of time of his series the author’s censure of the external forms of religion gets stronger. Cooper convincingly demonstrates how they start to prevail the spiritual life of the colonists. Such wise in the penultimate tale “The Pioneers“ where the formation of bourgeois society is depicted, the author directly criticizes its religious way. Cooper emphasizes the separate existence of people and priests. The same part focuses on the beginning of secularization process. Rendezvous with God in the church becomes a part of the culture, instead of becoming a confession of the soul.

Thereby, according to Cooper’s description, we can conclude that the presentation of the first colonists of his New Castle did not correspond to actual developments on the continent, many of them were just “led by the phantoms of hope, and ambitions of sudden affluence, sought the mines of the virgin territory” (Prairie 3). The author debunks the myth of the “Promised Land,” showing how such a highly moral idea could actually transform to a great extent by the constantly growing material needs, which objectively led to the oblivion of the prior ideals.

Works Cited

  • Cooper James Fenimore. The Deerslayer, or the First War-Path. A Tale. 1841. New York: W.A. Townsend and Company, 1861.
  • ------. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. London: John Miller, 1826.
  • ------. The Pathfinder, or the Inland Sea. Paris, Baudry’s European Library, 1840.
  • ------. The Pioneers; Or, the Sources of Susquehanna, A Descriptive Tale. 1823. Paris: Baudry’s European Library, 1835.
  • ------. The Prairie: A Tale. 1827. London: Richard Bentley, 1836.
  • Heimert, Alan, and Andrew Delbanco, eds. The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • Khrapovitskaya, G., and A. Korovin. Istoriya Zarubejnoy Litaratury Zapadnoevropeiskiy I Amerikanskiy Romantizm, Uchebnik [The History of Foreign Literature Romantic Literature of America and Western Europe, Manual]. Moskva: Flinta/Nauka, 2003.
  • Mather, Cotton. Magnalia Christi Americana, the Ecclesiastical History New England, vol. 2. Hartford: Silas Andrus and Son, 1853.
  • Novyi Zavet Gospoda Nashego Iisusa Christa [New Testament of Our God Jesus Christ] Uspensko-Kazanskiy monastyr, Moskva: Molodaya Gvardiya, 2008.