James Fenimore Cooper and the Quest for American Identity: Setting a Precursor for America’s National Parks

Alana J. Jajko (Bucknell University)

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 30.1 (Whole No. 83, Spring 2019): 27-34.

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

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


As one of the first great American novelists, James Fenimore Cooper memorialized a vision of America as a grand, Romantic wilderness. The untamed scenery that he depicts in his novels is free and sweeping and sublime — but it does not come without its complications. In his Leatherstocking Tales, Cooper establishes wilderness as an icon for America, but in doing so he also grapples with the difficulties of trying to define “wilderness,” especially as it changes under the influence of cultural circumstances. At the heart of my analysis is a study of Cooper’s works that seeks to reveal his thinking as precursory to the establishment of America’s national parks. Aesthetically, Cooper creates an ideal American wilderness, yet he falls prey to the Platonic problem of representation that evades real experience. While trying to contain wilderness within these Romanticized bounds, he also expresses real concerns for the destruction that occurs when wilderness comes into contact with civilization, when boundaries between the two are breached. Speaking to this year’s watershed theme as “a region where two rivers come together and define a landscape,” Cooper’s representations characterize wilderness and society as two entities which come together to define a developing identity for America. Conceptions of wilderness that separate humans and nature were predominant in Cooper’s time, as they often are today, and Cooper struggles with the consequences of this divide where none should naturally exist. As a result, his work becomes foundational for developing a vision of wilderness alongside society — something that could be attained in the national parks, which would be central and necessary to making America’s identity possible and preserving it for years to come.

To start, I am going to briefly trace the presence of wilderness in aesthetic theory, comparing these descriptions to those of Cooper’s, so that we can see how complications of the sublime occur where wilderness and society meet. Edmund Burke, a foundational figure in aesthetic theory, describes the sublime primarily as a twofold entity. In A Philosophical Enquiryinto the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, he clarifies this trait of the sublime by explaining how some languages use the same word to “signify indifferently the modes of astonishment or admiration and those of terror” (54). Often, Burke claims, this anomaly occurs due to the “kindred emotions which attend fear and [28] wonder” (54). Interestingly, the German word for wilderness has a definition which almost literally describes this twofold experience of Burke’s sublime. In his book Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash explains, “According to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and their advisors, Wildnis has a twofold emotional tone. On the one hand it is inhospitable, alien, mysterious, and threatening; but on the other, beautiful, friendly, and capable of elevating and delighting the beholder” (4). Nash derives this definition from the Grimm brothers’ Deutsches Wörterbuch, the largest and most comprehensive dictionary of the German language in existence. Though the dictionary was published in 1854, after Cooper wrote his novels, the twofold definition may have been influenced by the topic of wilderness as a central subject to discussions of the sublime which began with Burke and continued with German Romantics, like Immanuel Kant, and others involved in the aesthetic conversation. As Cooper was an intellectual and had visited Germany on a number of occasions, he would have been aware of these aesthetic discussions, and, as we will see, Cooper’s descriptions of wilderness, like the German definition, often coincide with qualities of the sublime.

One of the most pivotal scenes in Cooper’s The Pioneers occurs when the lead female character Elizabeth Temple finds herself at odds with a wild panther in the woods beyond the town of Templeton. Like Burke’s domesticated animal whose “strength is considerable, but not pernicious,” the old dog, Brave, courageously sacrifices his life to protect the girl — but his efforts fail to match the sublime power of the wild cat (Pioneers 308). Behind the dog’s protection, Elizabeth is able to experience both the awe and terror of the struggle, “her eyes fixed on the animals, with an interest so horrid, and yet so intense, that she almost forgot her own stake in the result” (308). As soon as she is at the mercy of the wild panther, however, Elizabeth is frozen with horror and the delicate twofold moment of sublimity succumbs to the real fear of danger. As Burke explains, “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience” (36-7). Without the aesthetic distance that Burke requires, the sublime experience cannot be sustained. Cooper’s detailed account of the panther in The Pioneers embodies all at once the likelihood of the sublime to appear in the wilderness, its twofold sensation of both terror and awe, the fleeting nature of that experience, and the necessity for distance in order to maintain that delicate aesthetic moment. [29]

Likewise, however, the aesthetic moment of sublimity has a tendency to wither in the face of civilization. In the opening scene of The Pioneers, Cooper describes a sweeping view of the Otsego valley. His portrayal of “innumerable vistas” coincides with Burke’s vastness, which “has the most striking effect” of the sublime (66) — and where Burke argues that a “quick transition from light to darkness, or from darkness to light, has yet a greater effect” (73), Cooper also describes a contrast where “The dark trunks of the trees, rose from the pure white of the snow” (19). This contrast, along with the “rest of the melancholy scene” (Pioneers 19), all harken back to Burke’s insistence upon a scene that is “dark and gloomy” (Enquiry 75). Cooper even records its effects upon the individual when Elizabeth Temple again experiences the twofold sensations when encountering the sublime. She looks with both “inquisitive, and, perhaps, timid glances, into the recesses of the forest” (19), drawn to its grandeur yet repelled by the unknown in its dark “recesses.” However, like the moment with the panther, this experience with the sublime is fleeting. Near the end of the chapter, the sleigh upon which our character rides comes within view of civilization. While the sublime experience of the panther shrinks to the total envelopment of fear, the sublimity of the landscape here similarly fades with the sense of comfort and delight that emerges with signs of civilization. Elizabeth beholds “the picture she had so often studied, with delight, in childhood,” the rugged landscape becomes “formed into terraces and hollows that [admit] of cultivation,” and the “habitations of man” interrupt the dense darkness of the forests (40). In a moment, the sublimity of the landscape succumbs to the presence of society.

Considering these two scenes in The Pioneers — the encounter with the panther and our first glimpse of the Otsego valley — it seems that, when humans and nature meet, one inevitably yields to the other and the aesthetic experience cannot be sustained. Thus, one problem that Cooper faces in the representation of America’s wilderness is that inability to capture the sublimity of wilderness where it coincides with society. Part of the problem could have been the popular notion of humans and nature as separate beings, in a reality where they exist as integrated parts of a shared environment — another part could have been the problems of representation dating back to Plato’s Ion. The only way to truly understand America’s wilderness would be to experience it for oneself. In order to reconcile these problems with the sublime and reveal the truth of the human-nature relationship, America would require a physical form of representation closest to the real experience of wilderness. The national parks could be this very thing. Thus, [30] Cooper’s works not only stimulated a need for the parks as a material justification for understanding the relationship between humans and nature, but, as I will explain, also introduced the tools required for their success.

Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect and first commissioner of Yosemite National Park, once reflected on Yosemite’s aesthetic effect upon its visitors. According to Olmsted, “neither words nor pictures could describe the sublimity of Yosemite” (28), reinforcing the idea that America’s wilderness had to be experienced first-hand. The planning of a national park, however, under the hand of a landscape architect turns that park — with its borders, pathways, roads, and scenic pull-offs — into a kind of representation in itself. Thus, as Richard Grusin proposes in his book Culture, Technology, and the Creation of America’sNational Parks, the parks “function as technologies of representation not unlike painting, photography, cartography, or landscape architecture” (10). Like Cooper’s novels, the national park becomes a representation, the American wilderness shaped by the hand of humankind. Whereas Cooper’s wilderness is framed by his narrative, the park is then contained inside topographic borders within the bounds of representation. Though the national park still exists as a representation, it is, however, closer to attaining the truth of the human-nature relationship as it demonstrates the inevitability of human-nature interactions.

While Cooper’s novels constantly encounter a clash between wilderness and society, they also offer a kind of middle ground between the two by depicting a pastoral vision for America, in effect a narrative suggestion of Arcadian synthesis to be developed further by his daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper. Historian Aaron Sachs summarizes the vision for Arcadia that the Coopers sought after, explaining how it entailed a “society of solid rural values ... where nature and culture seemed at peace with each other” (5). If successful in reality beyond literature, this vision could provide a relief to the tensions of society and wilderness by enacting a symbiotic relationship between the two within a garden community. Leo Marx in his book The Machine in the Garden explains the origins of a pastoral America residing with Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia from 1785 (88). According to Marx, Jefferson advocates “the small, family-sized farm ... He is devoted to agriculture largely as a means of preserving rural manners, that is, ‘rural virtue’” (126). Thus, a pastoral community would be key to preserving a virtuous society. This Jeffersonian ideal for a democratic small-town America is reflected not only in Cooper’s novels, but in his own [31] allegiances to “old Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans” which led him to become a supporter of Andrew Jackson (Franklin, The Later Years 15-16). A middle society like this one could alleviate the mutually destructive interactions between humans and nature; however, for the pastoral community to be successful, something like the national park would be needed to preserve wilderness from too much cultivation, not only for its resources, but for its sublime beauty which first inspired the Jeffersonian vision for a pastoral America. The national park, thus, additionally stands as a kind of artwork which sustains that original stimulus for the first vision for America — the sweeping landscapes and vistas significant of the vast possibility for a virtuous nation.

The wilderness that Cooper memorializes in his Leatherstocking Tales would also need the protection of legal boundaries to keep the cultivation of civilization in check. His political philosophies, some of which are expressed in The Pioneers, introduce certain tools that would be used later by the national parks to achieve this very goal. Though Cooper’s pastoral vision can be traced back to the political writings of Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution, his opinions of property ownership and laws take influence from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract in an unlikely melding of two ideologies which traditionally have been in conflict.

Ownership, in particular, becomes a front that Cooper grapples with in The Pioneers as well as in his personal life. Continually, throughout the novel Cooper portrays Native Americans as “ancient possessors” (280) or “native owners of the soil” (345), yet, by white civilized law, it is Judge Temple who claims ownership of the town of Templeton. With this ownership, however, the Judge complicates the desirability of it in recognizing at times the danger that his ownership poses to wilderness. For much of the novel he is caught between a desire for progress as well as a concern for the preservation of nature. Looking to the future “on the improvements that posterity were to make in his lands ... where others saw nothing but a wilderness, towns, manufactories, bridges, canals, mines, and all the other resources of an old country were constantly presenting themselves” (321). Yet, in moments when society oversteps certain bounds, Judge Temple also expresses concerns for the consequences that progress may have. One such instance becomes the excessive capture of fish where he reflects “like all the other treasures of the wilderness, they already begin to disappear before the wasteful extravagance of man” (260). Thus, while Judge Temple does have grand visions with his ownership, he also embodies hesitations when it comes to the impact that his society has on the natural sanctity of wilderness. [32]

On a more personal level, Cooper’s own experience with an encounter today known as the Three Mile Point dispute may have also driven sentiments surrounding ownership. The conflict revolved around a piece of property known as Myrtle Grove (or the Three Mile Point), which was privately owned by the Cooper family (Franklin, The Later Years 195). With the Coopers’ consent, the public had been able to use the land for recreation “as long as it did no damage and did not interfere with the family’s enjoyment of [the place]” (196). After a long absence during his travels through Europe, however, Cooper returned to Cooperstown in 1837 to find that his favorite childhood spot at Myrtle Grove had been vandalized — his father’s fishing houses “pulled to pieces” or “burned” as well as “great injury” done to a “Myrtle Grove tree closely associated with Judge Cooper’s memory” (196-7). Due to the family’s absence and their unrestricted use of the property for thirty-six years, the citizens of Cooperstown had developed the impression that Myrtle Grove was public property. Angered by the disrespectful use of the land and wanting to “protect the property,” Cooper issued a message to the public that read:

The public is warned against trespassing on the three mile point, it being the intention of the subscriber rigidly to enforce the title of the estate of which he is the representative, to the same. The public has not, nor has it ever had, any right to the same, beyond what has been conceded by the liberality of the owners. (197)

The point that I want to stress here is the intersection of private and public property and the boundaries necessary to protect and preserve the landscape. Like Cooper’s private ownership and protection of the Three Mile Point with the illusion of public ownership, the government’s ownership of the national parks serves as a means to protect America’s wilds while also establishing a kind of illusion of public ownership for all those who visit. Thus, in a way, the Three Mile Point dispute illustrates an early example of limiting society’s use of natural landscapes for the sake of their protection and moderated use for years to come — a mission upheld by the national parks today.

Richard Grusin also explores this “illusion” of ownership which can be induced in visitors of the national parks. While Cooper and Rousseau view ownership as a condition of civilization conducive to the greed and ambition of acquiring more property, the kind of ownership engendered in the national parks is one that exists only in the feeling it arouses. Grusin explains how Olmsted used the “promenade” as a tool for inducing this kind of sensation, where park visitors could gaze over the [33] landscape from a vista, from a high position that instilled a feeling of dominion over the scene (32):

Olmsted likens the promenade’s “position of relative importance” in a public park to that which “a mansion should occupy in a park prepared for private occupation”... the promenade allows “the visitor, who, in the best sense is the true owner” of the park, to “concentrate on features of natural, in preference to artificial beauty.” (32)

Adding to Grusin’s and Olmsted’s delineations, I suggest that this kind of experience in the national park also induces a kind of ownership related to national identity. While early writers like Cooper certainly set the stage for wilderness as an icon for America, the experience of the national park encapsulates that ownership of pride in one’s nation for the shared landscape. The national park, with its intricate boundaries that mediate wilderness and the presence of civilization, not only becomes the unifying symbol that Cooper envisioned but also a place where people can experience the sublimity of nature away from the tensions and concerns that Cooper expresses in his work.

Through his own representations of America’s wilderness as a sublime entity, Cooper sets the stage for the national park as a kind artwork which at once provides the most accurate experience of wilderness possible, mediates the bounds between society and wilderness to sustain that experience, and signifies a vision for a pastoral America that Cooper anticipated. Additionally, through his political philosophies and personal experience with property ownership, Cooper also introduces a desire for preservation as well as the tools that could be used to make the national parks a success. He advocates a kind of private-public combination of lawful and symbolic ownership that the national parks embody today — kept safe and preserved by the boundaries of law, but also enjoyed by the public as landscapes representative of that first vision for America as a grand wilderness of possibility. As a result, James Fenimore Cooper, his novels, and his ideologies represent foundational thinking that led to the establishment of the national parks — his Leatherstocking Tales influential to later figures like Thomas Cole, George Catlin, and even Theodore Roosevelt who also strove to represent a community of wilderness and society as something central to American identity. [34]

Works Cited

  • Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
  • ------. Reflections on the French Revolution & Other Essays. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1910. Print.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers, or, the Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980. Print.
  • Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Later Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. Print.
  • Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.
  • Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4ᵗʰ ed. ed., New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. Print.
  • Plato, and Reginald E Allen. The Dialogues of Plato. Vol. 3, Ion, Hippias Minor, Laches, Protagoras. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Print.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, et al. The Social Contract: And, the First and Second Discourses. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. Print.
  • Sachs, Aaron. Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. Print.