The Leather-Stocking Tales and Epic Poetry

By Allan M. Axelrad (Emeritus, California State University, Fullerton)

Presented at the 21ˢᵗ International James Fenimore Cooper & Susan Fenimore Cooper Conference:  Watersheds at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, September, 2017.

Originally published in  The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 29.2 (Whole No. 82, Fall 2018): 35-40.

Copyright © 2017, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

The 1783 Treaty of Paris officially marked the end of British rule over the thirteen rebelling colonies. They had defeated the most powerful country on Earth and gained their independence. After struggling with the Articles of Confederation, they drafted a new Constitution, and in 1789, the year James Fenimore Cooper was born, made George Washington the first President of the new United States. With the vantage of hindsight, we can see that the enormous challenge of winning the Revolution and creating a viable political system paled by comparison with the herculean task of creating a full-fledged nation. The new citizens were more strongly connected to their local world and their ethnic and religious identities than to the country as a whole. They enjoyed freedom from Great Britain and freedom from each other. They relished their political independence. But they suffered because of their cultural dependence on Great Britain and other European countries. A culture of their own would generate national pride and serve as an adhesive, binding the former separate colonies and heterogeneous population together as a nation. The nation-to-be wanted traditions and an art and literature of its own; and it needed a heroic story, a uniquely American story, focusing on our distinctive qualities and exemplary experiences.

The literary genre most appropriate for this kind of monumental story would have to be the epic. The epic was considered the highest form of literature. 1 Epic, at this time, meant epic poem, in the great tradition of the widely recognized masters: Homer, Virgil, Milton. 2 Presumably it would celebrate the heroic undertaking that led to the establishment of the new republic. In some form, this epic poem would begin in our colonial past, take us into the post-Revolutionary Period, and offer some kind of prognostication about our later prospects, presumably our future greatness. Attempts by the Revolutionary generation — Timothy Dwight’s The Conquest of Canaan (1774) and Greenfield Hill (1794) or Joel Barlow’s The Vision of Columbus (1787) and The Columbiad (1807) — were not very satisfying. A couple of attempts at American epic poetry by the next generation — Daniel Bryan’s The Mountain Muse (1813) and James Kirke Paulding’s The Backwoodsman (1818) — pointed west, the direction that Cooper would soon take a different genre, but also fell well below the standard that the great American epic would have to meet. 3 Despite a loud and persistent chorus calling for its creation, the great American epic poem did not materialize. In the years that followed, Americans began to look to other narrative forms — to novels as well as histories and paintings — to do the cultural work that had been the singular domain of epic poetry. 4

In 1920, in The Theory of the Novel, George Lukács published his oft-cited thesis that the novel replaced the poem as the great epic genre of the modern age. 5 He offered rich and thoughtful commentary on the changing organization of society and aesthetic change that led to the ascendancy of the novel, but Lukács’ basic point about the novel supplanting the epic poem was already old hat on both sides of the Atlantic. Having previously distinguished himself as an epic poet, in 1824 Walter Scott proposed that the modern historical romance was fully capable of doing the cultural work of the great epic poems of yesteryear. In 1835, on this side of the Atlantic, William Gilmore Simms announced that the prose romance was the modern replacement for ancient epic verse. And even before that, in 1829 his countryman, Alexander Hill Everett, had argued for broadening the category, observing that histories and novels were the epic genres of the modern age. 6 James Fenimore Cooper, among others, included painting in this category. 7

The first American art widely acknowledged as a great epic was Thomas Cole’s series of five paintings titled The Course of Empire (1834-1836). 8 The Course of Empire is “a great epic poem,” Cooper declared in an 1849 letter to Cole’s biographer, Louis Legrand Noble. 9 Contemporary critics agreed. The critical notice in the American Monthly Magazine called the series “a grand moral epic,” likening the perfection of each painting to “a finished poem.” 10 Similarly, the Journal of Commerce saw it as “a grand epic poem upon canvass.” 11 The Course of Empire was not only an important epic, it also was, in the words of the New-York Mirror, “truly poetick.” 12 What is striking about these comments about Cole’s paintings is the continuation of the traditional link between epic and poetry, suggesting the permeability of conventional boundaries for Romantic art and literature. “I know of no painter whose works manifest so much high poetical feeling, as those of Cole,” Cooper wrote. His letter to Noble stressed the singular importance of nature and the relationship of nature to poetry. “Nature should be the substratum of all that is poetical,” he wrote. The task for the “poet and the painter” is not to be a copyist, he continued; instead, it is to bring forth “the beau idéal” of “nature.” 13 He felt that the task was the same for the Romantic novelist. By beau idéal, Cooper meant the greatest “conceivable type of beauty or excellence”; in effect, “the perfect type or model.” 14 In its beau idéal, nature becomes art and art becomes poetry. What Cooper had to say about the transformation of nature into art and the convergence of art and poetry in Cole’s epic series of paintings was precisely what he had sought for in his epic series of Leather-Stocking novels.

Like a growing number of antebellum Americans, Cooper had come to believe that the epic was the preeminent form of expression for the novelist. In an 1838 review of J. G. Lockhart’s multivolume biography of Scott, Cooper praised British novelists like Jane Austin, Maria Edgeworth, and Amelia Opie for unsentimental truth “to every-day nature”; nonetheless, he declared Scott “vastly their superior, for he raised the novel, as near as might be, to the dignity of the epic.” 15 Epic novels, in his view, should be like epic poems in their dedication to the poetry of their subject. In 1831, having completed three parts of the Leather-Stocking “legend,” Cooper explained that in his hero’s adventures he sought “poetically to furnish a witness to the truth” of the nation’s unfolding development; for “the business of the writer of fiction,” he said, “is to approach, as near as his powers will allow, to poetry.” 16 Cooper’s insistence on the primacy of poetry is not surprising, for as John P. McWilliams wrote in his study of American epics at this time, poetry “was the sine qua non of romantic fiction.” 17 Like the genre’s classical forbearer, the epic poem — the greatest of all forms of creative expression — poetry was indispensable in epic fiction and epic paintings, according to the author of The Leather-Stocking Tales.

Major literary figures on both sides of the Atlantic showed considerable enthusiasm for the poetry in Cooper’s Leather-Stocking tales. In America, the poet William Cullen Bryant wrote “that Cooper, though not a manufacturer of verse, was in the highest sense of the word a poet.” 18 The Romantic historian Francis Parkman — who credited Cooper’s stories about warfare between France, Britain, and Native America with inspiring his own epic histories — “esteemed” Cooper’s pictures of the wilderness for their “somber poetry of solitude and danger.” 19 Another Romantic historian, William Prescott, whose epic narratives focused on Spanish America, praised the author of The Leather-Stocking Tales for imaginatively “flying from the social haunts of men” into the “regions of poetry,” naming America’s “backwoods settlements” and the “wilderness” beyond. The author’s word compositions of these landscapes, he wrote, showed that Cooper’s “soul,” like “Byron’s,” was “filled” with “poetic feeling.” 21 In her role as guardian of her father’s literary legacy, Susan Fenimore Cooper would later call attention to the poetic character of her father’s rough-hewn hero Leather-Stocking, her father’s noble Indians, his landscape descriptions, and recommend that the five tales be read as poetical romances. 21

Across the sea in a review of The Pathfinder, the great Russian literary critic, Vissarion Belinksy, spoke of Cooper’s four completed Leather-Stocking novels as “a vast splendid poem in four parts,” calling his new novel a “triumph” of “epic poetry.” 22 While he was well aware of the difference between the novel and traditional verse, he believed that the novel was the preeminent poetic form for the modern age. Belinsky divided poetry into three classes; the highest, “artistic” poetry, included the work of Byron, Goethe, Gogol, Pushkin, Schiller, Scott, Shakespeare, Homer, and Cooper. 23 The French author, George Sand, also fully aware of the difference between verse and prose, likewise thought that Cooper was a “great” poet, blessed with a “poetic soul,” and spoke of his creative “propensity” for “poetic reverie,” a characteristic of “all true artists.” 24 In her view, the American author captured both “the reality” and “the poetry of primitive” existence, bringing to life “its fearful nobility, its sublime barbarity,” and “its Homeric virtues.” 25

The preceding commentary by major literary figures on both sides of the Atlantic is important for several reasons: first, it establishes Cooper’s extraordinary importance in his own time; second, it blurs the modern distinction between poetry and prose; and third, I would suggest, it aligns the author of The Leather-Stocking Tales more closely with Homer than with Hemingway.

Cooper offered his own final thoughts about his epic in his “Preface to the Leather-Stocking Tales,” inserted in The Deerslayer in the Author’s Revised Edition published by Putnam in 1850. Now near the end of his career, Cooper was anxious about how his life’s work would be regarded. He addressed his concern focusing on two topics: the order of The Leather-Stocking Tales; and the credibility of his heroic characters.

Cooper began by suggesting that the “desultory” order of publication, as well as the eighteen-year gap between the appearance of The Pioneers in 1823 and The Deerslayer in 1841, might confuse readers about the chronological organization of the epic narrative. Although the tales were read individually in their nonlinear — or desultory — order when they first appeared, I have not encountered reviewers or other readers who misunderstood their correct sequence. Nevertheless, Cooper had a legitimate concern. The larger meaning of the Leather-Stocking epic is revealed in an allegory that unfolds serially beginning with Deerslayer’s initiation in the eastern wilderness and ending with the Old Trapper’s death in the western desert. Now that the Leather-Stocking novels were being republished as a set, Cooper took this opportunity to emphasize the importance of reading the tales in the order of their narrative development. “Taking the life of the Leather-Stocking as a guide,” he wrote, The Deerslayer “should have been the opening” tale, followed by The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, and The Prairie. “This arrangement embraces the order of events,” he explained, providing “harmony” or mythic cohesion to the epic cycle of his life. 26

After emphasizing the importance of following the epic cycle of his hero’s life from “emerging into manhood” in The Deerslayer until he is “laid in his grave” in The Prairie, 27 Cooper defended his portrayal of his white, backwoods hero and his great Indian chiefs. He acknowledged that Leather-Stocking was idealized, possessing the “highest principles” of “civilization” and “savage life.” He also argued his “right” to offer “a poetical view” of his larger-than-life protagonist, while providing just enough “vrai-semblable“ so that he was not just “a monster of goodness.” Cooper granted that his noble Indians were idealized, but insisted, nonetheless, on the privilege of writers of romance “to present the beau-idéal of their characters to the readers.” That is what “constitutes poetry,” he once again affirmed. In addition to his idealized Indians and backwoods hero, we might also consider the possibility that Cooper’s leading ladies — like Elizabeth Temple, Cora Munro, Mable Dunham, and even Judith Hutter — also embodied the beau-idéal of a character in an epic myth. By way of conclusion, Cooper answered critics who held “a very narrow view of an author’s privileges” by dropping the name of the most esteemed epicist Western Civilization had ever known. Their “criticism,” he wrote, “would have deprived the world of even Homer.” 28 Homer was the last word that Cooper would commit to print about the nature of his five-book series.

The Leather-Stocking Tales “form a sort of American Odyssey,” D. H. Lawrence, the British godfather of the mythopoetic school of Cooper studies, announced, “with Natty Bumppo for Odysseus.” 29 Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, covers his hero Odysseus’ ten-year quest to return to home and family in Ithaca after the destruction of Troy. In The Iliad, the epic’s prequel — which covers a few weeks late in the siege of Troy — Odysseus is a relatively minor character. In the over sixty-year epic of Cooper’s hero — from early manhood to middle age, old age, and death — Leather-Stocking is least important in the second novel, The Last of the Mohicans, which takes place in a short time span and centers on the siege of Fort William Henry. If the Leather-Stocking novels read together constitute “sort of“ an American Odyssey, as Lawrence believes, The Last of the Mohicans read separately, I would suggest, “sort of“ resembles an American Iliad. Like The Iliad, The Last of the Mohicans is about a disastrous obsession with a beautiful woman; and, like The Iliad, The Last of the Mohicans is about the death of a nation. The other tales chronicle Leather-Stocking’s lengthy odyssey in the wilderness and on the frontier in early America.

The Homeric poems had been passed on for centuries in oral performances by ancient singers before they were written down, perhaps around the eighth or seventh century, B.C. The “ancient Greeks,” according to classical scholars, “regarded Homer as the foundation of their culture.” 31 While there were many variations, the story of disenfranchised or discontented and adventuresome Europeans venturing into a wild and primitive land, conquering a vast wilderness and savage people, and creating a New World far better than the Old World they left behind, might be considered America’s origin myth. America’s frontier myth gradually took form aided by stories circulating in the popular culture, newspaper accounts, a variety of published narratives — exploration, military, captivity — and the desires and fantasies of European-Americans attempting to conquer a wild land that was fiercely defended by its savage inhabitants. The hero of this myth is the hunter, trailblazer, scout, Indian fighter — a rugged and resourceful individual, armed with a long rifle and fearless determination — embodying the distinctive characteristics and best qualities of the emerging nation. Cooper’s Leather-Stocking saga grew out of this tradition and became the first widely acclaimed epic in American fiction.

 Odysseus and Leather-Stocking are exemplary heroes in the mythology of their respective cultures. I will conclude with one example: Odysseus’ allegiance to his royal kinship group and Leather-Stocking’s radical individualism. Where the Greek Odysseus is driven by his desire to return to his Kingdom of Ithaca and his home and reconnect with his family — his father Laertes, his wife Penelope, and his son Telemachus — the past, present, and future of his royal line, 31 the American epic hero appears after his ties with the humble world he was born into are severed and he has become a completely emancipated individual. Cooper’s American epic thus begins with young Leather-Stocking detached from his natal family, his kinship group, and his race, poised to become a myth-hero for a New Nation in the process of creating itself.


1 John P. McWilliams, Jr., The American Epic: Transforming a Genre, 1770-1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 30.

2 McWilliams, The American Epic, 1, 27; Christopher N. Phillips, Epic in American Culture: Settlement to Reconstruction (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012), 6.

3 Paulding’s The Backwoodsman is oddly divided. The first three books follow the travails of Basil, a frontier farmer, in a series of moves from the East to the Ohio Valley in search of a better life for himself and his family. The final three books focus on the Shawnee prophet Tens-Qua-Ta-Wa. Neither section offered any promise for a national epic. With its focus on Daniel Boone, Bryan’s The Mountain Muse offered a national hero of great renown. But its overblown language and contorted development destroyed its promise as a national epic. Boone did not like it at all. “Outfitted with heavenly choirs and long-winded orations,” Faragher writes, “the poem was simply ‘too highly colored and exaggerated’ for the old man’s taste.” John Mack Faragher, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer (New York: Henry Holt, 1992), 320-21.

4 McWilliams uses Jane Tompkins’ concept of “cultural work” — from her book Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (1985) — to explain the task which other forms of epic would perform; see his The American Epic, 6. On prose forms, the novel and histories, see McWilliams, The American Epic, 1-6, 123-86; on epic painting, see Phillips, Epic in American Culture, 113-30.

5 George Lukács, The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature, trans. Anna Bostock (1920; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971), 56-83.

6 Simon Denith, Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 28-29; McWilliams, The American Epic, 126-27, 145, 144.

7 On epic painting, see Phillips, Epic in American Culture, 97-135.

8 Phillips, Epic in American Culture, 117, 120, 125. Alan Wallach also establishes that contemporary viewers thought of the series as an epic; see Wallach, “Thomas Cole: Landscape and the Course of American Empire,” in Thomas Cole: Landscape into History, ed. William H. Truettner and Alan Wallach (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 91.

9 Cooper to Louis Legrand Noble, 6 Jan. 1849, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard. 6 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-68), V, 397.

10 “Cole’s Pictures of the Course of Empire,” 513.

11 Quoted in Miller, Empire of the Eye, 23.

12 Quoted in Wallach, “Thomas Cole: Landscape and the Course of American Empire,” 95.

13 Cooper to Noble, 6 Jan. 1849, Letters and Journals, V, 397, 398.

14 Oxford English Dictionary, 2 nd ed. Prepared by J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner, 20 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), II, 36.

15 James Fenimore Cooper, “Review of Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott by J. G. Lockhart,” The Knickerbocker, XII (July 1838), 363-64.

16 James Fenimore Cooper, 1831 introduction to Bentley’s revised edition, The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757, historical introd. James Franklin Beard, text established, with explanatory notes by James A. Sappenfield and E. N. Feltskog (1826; Albany: SUNY Press, 1983), 7.

17 McWilliams, The American Epic, 137.

18William Cullen Bryant, “Discourse on the Life and Genius of Cooper,” in Memorial of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1852), 65.

19 Francis Parkman, “The Works of James Fenimore Cooper,” The North American Review, 74 (Jan. 1852), 156. On the influence of Cooper on Parkman, see McWilliams, The American Epic, 153.

20 William Hickling Prescott, “English Literature in the Nineteenth Century,” The North American Review, 35 (July 1832), 190.

21 See Susan Fenimore Cooper introductions to The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, The Prairie, in Susan Fenimore Cooper, Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, (New York: W. A. Townsend, 1861), 310, 52, 145; and her Household Edition introductions to James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer or The First War-Path (1841; Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1876), xxxi, and James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (1826; Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1876).

22 Vissarion Belinsky, Extract from “The Division of Poetry into Kinds and Genres,” in Notes of the Fatherland (Otyechestvennye zapiski), XV (1841), 13-64, trans. M. A. Nicholson using the texts in Belinsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow, 1953), in Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage, ed. George Dekker and John P. McWilliams (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), 195; Belinsky, Review of The Pathfinder, in Notes of the Fatherland (Otyechestvennye zapiski), XIV (1841), 8-9, trans. Nicholson using the texts in Belinsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, in Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage, 192.

23 Victor Terras, Belinsij and Russian Literary Criticism: The Heritage of Organic Aesthetics (Madison: Univ. of Wsconsin Press, 1974), 114, 171. In my text I have followed the Anglicized spelling of Belinsky.

24 George Sand on Cooper, Extract from “Fenimore Cooper,” Autour de la Table (Paris, 1856), trans. D. B. Wood, in Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage, ed. George Dekker and John P. McWilliams (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), 262, 264, 266.

25 Sand, Extract from “Fenimore Cooper,” 267.

26 James Fenimore Cooper, 1850 “Preface to the Leather-Stocking Tales,” in The Deerslayer or, The First War-Path, historical introd. and explanatory notes by James Franklin Beard, text established by Lance Schachterle, Kent Ljungquist, and James Kilby (Albany: SUNY Press, 1987), 6, 5. The order of the tales is pretty obvious. With the exception of The Last of the Mohicans and The Pathfinder, both set during the French and Indian War, all the tales are separated by more than a decade in Leather-Stocking’s life. The absence of Uncas makes it clear that The Pathfinder followed The Last of the Mohicans.

27 Cooper, 1850 “Preface to the Leather-Stocking Tales,” 5.

28 Cooper, 1850 “Preface to the Leather-Stocking Tales,” 7, 8, 9. On Cooper, epic novels, poetry, and Homer, see McWilliams, The American Epic, 136-37; McWilliams, “Red Satan: Cooper and the American Epic,” in James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays, ed. Robert Clark (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1985), 143-61; Phillips, Epic in American Culture, 160-67; Joel Porte, The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1969), 39-43.

29 D. H. Lawrence, “Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels,” in his Studies in Classic American Literature, ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey, John Worthen (1923; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 54. My italics. For a European to see Cooper as an American Homer was not unique to Lawrence. “The Frenchman, the German, the Italian, the inhabitant of the Peninsula, speaks of our republic as ‘the land of Cooper,’” Rufus W. Griswold long before observed, “just as he turns to Greece with recollection of Homer.” Griswold, “James Fenimore Cooper,” Graham’s Magazine, XXV (Aug. 1844), 13.

30 Thomas R. Walsh and Rodney Merrill, Introduction to The Odyssey, trans. Rodney Merrill (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 7.

31 During his odyssey, Odysseus visits the underworld, where he meets his mother Anticleia, who died of grief while he was away.