Artful Antithesis in Cooper’s Oak Openings, or The Bee Hunter

By David Lampe (SUNY Buffalo State)

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): 36-44.

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

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

“Let dem dat read your book understand”

— Scalping Peter

James Fenimore Cooper’s Oak Openings, or the Bee Hunter (1848), like the other ugly duckling novel that follows it, The Sea Lions (1849), has not been a favorite of critics. An early review in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review scornfully dismisses it as filled with “tedious didacticism” — a reference to Cooper’s caustic political commentary — and “trite religious enthusiasm.” Lounsbury terms it “a decided failure” since “the whole winding up is unnatural” (258). And a whole chorus of critics continue this dismissal. Yet few seem to have noticed that Cooper’s variation from his earlier pattern of forest romances uses skillful antithesis to establish characters, plot, and setting in the novel and to enliven the martyr trope that ends it.

Unlike earlier forest romances, Oak Openings moves west to Michigan — specifically to Kalamazoo, Michigan, which proudly claims Judge Brazil Harrison as the “original of Cooper’s Bee Hunter” (439-40). The novel also varies the pattern of the Leather-Stocking tales. Unlike Natty Bumppo, Benjamin Boden “the Bee Hunter” practices generous hospitality in his shanty in the idyllic woods of Michigan. He also proves to be a more mature hero than Natty Bumppo, for we witness both his successful courtship and finally his marriage.

Boden is not the first bee hunter Cooper described. Paul Hover in The Prairie (1827) is a country-wise and impetuous honey man. But his portrait is only as a passing figure based on Edwin James from Cooper’s source, Stephen Long’s Exploration of the Plains (1819). James was the insightful Army explorer who labeled the whole Great Plains (Nebraska to Oklahoma) as the “Great Desert ... unfit for cultivation and uninhabitable for people depending on agriculture.” A true visionary! There is also a “bee hunter” in Chapter 7 and 8 of Washington Irving’s A Tour of the Prairies (1834-5) wherein “a wild bandit, or Robin Hood scene” we come across “Old Ryan ... a tall lank fellow, in homespun garb that hung loosely about his limbs, and a straw hat shaped not unlike a bee hive; a comrade, equally uncouth in garb, and without a hat, straddled along at his heels” (40-41). “A piece of honey comb” serves as “the bait or lure for the wild bees” who are traced to their hive “in the hollow trunk of a blasted oak” which when felled displays “all the hoarded treasures of the commonwealth.” Irving goes so far as to term the wild bees “heralds of civilization”: [37]

The Indians consider them the harbinger of the white men, as the Buffalo is of the red man; and say that, in proportion as the bee advances, the Indian and the Buffalo retire (40)

Cooper’s treatment is less romantic and more exacting in a note to Chapter 9 of The Prairie:

The pursuit of a bee-hunter is not uncommon, on the skirts of American society, though it is a little embellished here. When the bees are seen sucking the flowers, their pursuer contrives to capture one or two. He then chooses a proper spot, and suffering one to escape, the insect invariably takes its flight towards the hive. Changing his ground to a greater or less distance, according to circumstances, the bee-hunter then permits another to escape. Having watched the courses of the bees, which is technically called “lining,”he is enabled to calculate the intersecting angle of the two lines, which is the hive. (991)

No “Robin Hood scene” of “wild banditry” here; instead, more exacting discussion of the whole process. Susan Fenimore Cooper recalls that her father had come in contact with a “Highborough farmer” after his return from Michigan. Boasts regarding his “bee shed” and his ability to understand “the critter’s talk” as well as his “lining of the bees” (that is, tracing their flight to their hive) “interested Mr. Cooper very much” so that “he determined that a ‘bee hunter’ be one of the principal characters” in the novel he was working on (456-7).

Oak Openings makes a number of structural modifications that make it unlike Cooper’s earlier woodland romances. Thomas Philbrick posits “two great tendencies” in Cooper’s Sea Lions (1849), “the progress from romance to realism and the shift from the conception of the universe as an arena in which individual man wins fulfillment to a conception of the universe as an expression of God’s purpose” (209). Both of these tendencies can also be found in Oak Openings, for Cooper is writing about settings he has seen and about times closer to own. The action of Oak Openings takes place in 1812. Cooper first visited Michigan in 1835. His first eleven novels were set, as Susan Fenimore Cooper puts it, “among scenes of adventurous life in the Otsego hills, on the shores of the Horican, roaming over the far western prairies, on the waters of Lake Ontario, [and] among the forests of new York” while this late novel is set “among the oak groves of Michigan” (456).

An essential part of what Cooper calls “the machinery of our tale” is the rhetorical scheme antithesis which used to establish characters, setting and plot in the novel. After an initial glance at Niagara Falls, we [38] meet four assorted individuals clustered around the reliable and resourceful Benjamin Boden, also known as Ben Buzz or Le Bourdon. Boden bears these titles not because of “his idleness or inactivity, but from the circumstance that he was notorious for laying his hand on honey.” But Ben Boden is quite unlike Cooper’s earlier Paul Hover in Prairie (1827) and can talk about something beyond bees. Indeed, the paragraph description of “bee hunting” in The Prairie will be the expanded substance of four chapters in Oak Openings. The other white man in this group, Greyson Waring, also known as “Whiskey Center,” is an alcoholic who cheats Indians and is more often than not drunk — the unreliable in contrast to the reliable Boden. The two Indians are also unlike. The Pottawattamie Elkhorn follows the Canadians/British while the Chippewa Pigeonswing (Waub-ke-news) stands with the Yankees. They are together in the Bee Hunter’s shanty because of his generous hospitality:

The duties of hospitality are rarely forgotten among border men. The inhabitant of a town may lose his natural disposition to receive all who offer at his board, under the pressure of society; but it is only in most extraordinary exceptions that the frontier man is ever known to be inhospitable. He has little to offer, but that little is seldom withheld, either through prudence or niggardliness. (26)

Again Cooper sets up a contrast — town versus country — and expectations are inverted. All of this takes place in the “Oak Opening” of the title, a clearing in the burr-oak woods of western Michigan near the Kalamazoo river in “‘Castle Meal’ as Le Bourdon laughingly called his cabin”:

Although dwelling in a wilderness, the “openings” had not the character of ordinary forests. The air circulates freely beneath their oaks, the sun penetrates in a thousand places, and grass grows, wild but verdant. There was little of the dampness of the virgin woods; and the morning air, though cool, as is ever the case, even in midsummer, in regions still covered with trees, was balmy; and, at that particular spot, it came to the senses of Le Bourdon loaded with sweets of many a wide glade of his favorite white clover. (34)

Here again antithesis operates, the oak opening in contrast to New York forest, cool in contrast to balmy and filled with sensual delights which make it an edenic place which soon will include two beautiful women, Gershom Waring’s wife and sister, the most important of whom is Margery Waring or “Blossom”: [39]

In spite of exposure, and the reflection of the sun’s rays from the water of the lake, however, her skin was of a clear, transparent white, such as one might look for in a drawing room, but hardly expect to find in a wilderness ... [she] had that happy admixture of delicacy and physical energy (66-67, my emphasis)

Again, an unexpected combination in an idealized Cooper heroine.

This doubleness continues in the next group of three: two contrasting prophets — “tribeless” Onoah, known as Scalping Peter, and the initially comic Methodist missionary Parson Amen, whose name is bestowed on him because it signals the end of his too-frequent sermons. Peter is two-faced and able to pass himself off to whites as a friend while his real aim is to wipe them out. Amen, although his idea fixe that Indians are the “lost tribes” of Israel makes him seem ridiculous, is a real missionary, for as Cooper reminds us, “A man may be mistaken in interpreting prophecy, and still be a devout Christian” (330). Corporal Flint is fond of the Parson and, like him, has a hobby horse: his military experience with Mad Anthony Wayne at Maumee, Ohio, on August 20, 1794 (see 167, 170, 281, 393-4). As the Bee Hunter tells him, “‘corporal, you’re almost as much set in the notions of your trade as Parson Amen is set in his idees about the lost tribes’” (239). Shades of Sterne’s Uncle Toby.

The Bee Hunter presents his “craft” or “art’ three times — with explanation given to his audience in the first two chapters with all his “tools” — bucket, tumbler and spy glass — then twice later (in chapter 9 and 19) with wand, incantations — what Cooper calls “necromancy” or “mummery with mystical action.” It is a skillful task the first time and a magical exercise in the later two events in which the bees speak and obey. Because of his cunning, the Bee Hunter can convince the Pottawattamie that the wreckage of Waring’s whiskey barrels is a “whiskey well” so that he can distract them and rescue Pigeonswing. Just as the woods are different, so too the crooked Kalamazoo is different than Glimmerglass, Glen Falls, or Lake Ontario. The “hide and seek” of the earlier forest novels is set up by Scalping Peter, whereby those fleeing can go upstream when their pursuers expect him to go down and then later slip by them. Thus the plot, like the characters and setting, depends on antithesis and contradiction.

The novel’s first chapter introduces Niagara Falls, which is picked up again in the last, the contemporary and most controversial chapter. The early adventures of the novel are well-plotted variations on Cooper’s earlier forest romances, but the religious conversion of Chapter 24 is problematic for several critics. Grossman calls Parson [40] Amen’s death “one of Cooper’s finest incidents” but insists it “throws the whole novel outs of balance” (230). And the “unsatisfactory epilogue” (Chapter 31) shows the Christian convert Scalping Peter “smug in his new religion” and, like Cooper, content “with the conquest and near-extermination of the Indian” (231). Kay Seymour House suggests that Peter is modeled on Pontiac but insists that “the scene in which Parson Amen is killed breaks the novel into pieces” (259-60). Wayne Franklin adds Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa as possible prototypes for Peter (Later Years 447). Earlier he had observed that the “modern tendency to disregard and even discredit Cooper’s final religious phase ... tells [us] more about the critic, of course, than it does about Cooper” (New World 188). So it is not surprising that no one seems to have paid attention to is the careful use Cooper makes of biblical materials.

Cooper had dealt with religious practices in earlier novels, especially in his European novels, The Bravo (1813) and The Heidenmauer (1832) in which Protestant Cooper examines Catholicism in Venice and Reformation Germany. Only in Oak Openings and Sea Lions (1849) do we see open advocacy and conversion as part of the plot.

Susan Fenimore Cooper says that her father had been reading John’s gospel when he began Oak Openings (496) and it shows. From his introduction Parson Amen had been a comic figure like the “single-minded disciple of the King of Israel” David Gamut, the “worthy Instructor in the art of psalmodic” and Presbyterian dandy in Last of the Mohicans. As noted, Amen’s hobby horse is his idea that the Indian tribes of America are one of the lost tribes of Israel. Though tolerated by Boden and his friends, he certainly does not immediately convince the tribes to whom he preaches.

Indeed, Scalping Peter tells the Bee Hunter that he cannot understand what he has heard: “‘It may be that some of the pale-faces are lost, but no Injin is lost — the medicine priest is mistaken. ... The Great Spirit has laws. He has told us these laws. They teach us to love our friends and hate our enemies.’” “‘This is not what our priests tell us,’” answers the Bee Hunter; “‘They tell us that the white man’s God commands us to love all alike — to do good to our enemies, to love them that wish to harm and treat all men as we would wish men to treat us’” (363). Peter, we are told “was a good deal surprised at this doctrine,” which draws on Matthew 5:43-4. When he recovers, he tells the Bee Hunter:

“I do not understand a religion that tells us to love our enemies, and to do good to them that do harm to us: it is a strange [41] religion. I am a poor Injin, and do not know what to think! I shall not believe that any do this till I see it.” (365)

And this is exactly what happens in Chapter 24. Peter lures Parson Amen and Corporal Flint to follow him and turns them over to the Pottawattamie: “‘There are your captives. Do with them as you will’” (370). And eventually that “will” leads to the death of both captives, deaths which are quite different. Whereas “Parson Amen was a model of submission, firmly believing all that happened was in furtherance of the great scheme of man’s regeneration and eventual salvation” (371), Corporal Flint’s response “was very different.” He is alarmed rather than accepting and on guard; “‘The best thing we can do,’” he tells the Parson, “‘will be to stand back to back ... we must stand solid as rooted trees to make anything of a stand.’” Parson Amen sees things quite differently; echoing St. Paul (Ephesians 6:16) he explains, “‘My means of defense come from on high; my armor is faith; and my only weapon is prayer’” (372). And he soon puts this to use again, echoing the insistence recorded in Matthew:

He asked for all the usual benedictions and blessings on his enemies, and made a very happy exposition of those sublime dogmas of Christianity, which teach us to “bless them that curse us” and to “pray for those who despitefully use us.” (373)

And the response is immediate; “Peter, for the first time in his life, was now struck with the moral beauty of such a sentiment.” Again, the different actions of the two captives is striking:

There stood the corporal, with his back pressed closely to that of his companion, his musket at “make ready,” and his whole mien that of a man with every nerve screwed to the sticking point; while the missionary, the other side of the picture, with outstretched arms was lifting his voice in prayer to the throne of the Most High.(373)

In answer to a scornful question posed by The Weasel, a treacherous Pottawattamie, Amen tells him, “‘The Son of the Great Spirit came among men; he did nothing but good; told those who heard him how to live and how to die. In return for all this, wicked and unbelieving men put him to death’” (377). Peter wishes to hear more: “‘Why did not the Son of the Great Spirit kill the Jews? Why did he let the Jews kill him?’” (379). And Amen explains,

“He came to earth to die for man, whose wickedness was so deep that the Great Spirit’s justice could not be satisfied with less. Why this is so, no one knows. It is enough that it should be so. Instead of thinking of doing harm to his tormentors and [42] murderers, he died for them, and died asking for benefits on them, and on their wives and children, for all time to come. It was he who commanded us to do good to them that do harm to us.” (379-80)

Unlike Peter, Weasel is unmoved and calls for the Parson’s death. This is agreed to with “one exception.” He is to be taken a short distance “and there put to death, without any attempt to torture, or aggravate his suffering.” Indeed “as a mark of singular respect, it was also decided not to scalp him” (381).

The Parson asks that they grant him “‘a few minutes to pray to my God’” and though “At first the tones were a little tremulous,” they “soon became as serene as usual,” and “When this duty was performed, he prayed for his enemies” (381-2). The effect on Peter is immediate:

Here was an exemplification in practice of that divine spirit of love and benevolence which had struck him already as so wonderful. ... He heard the single blow of the tomahawk which brained the victim, and he shuddered from head to foot. It was the first time such a weakness had ever come over him (382)

Robert Madison suggests that Corporal Flint is also a martyr since “martyrdom doesn’t depend on a star” but instead “works from the simple power of a credible example of one giving one’s life for what he believes in” (11). And what Flint believes in his “his military duty” — especially his service with Mad Antony Wayne. It seeks outlet in “back to back” military formation” and his aim is “vengeance”:

Watching his opportunity, he caught the tomahawk from the Weasel’s belt, and by a single blow felled him dead at his feet. Not content with this, the old soldier now bounded forward, striking right and left, inflicting six or eight wounds on the others before he could again be arrested, disarmed, and bound (387)

He is a witness to this code, and the Pottawattamie honor him as a warrior. Their council of principal chiefs decide to use “torture by saplings” to honor him. In response to this “honor,” the Corporal treats them to two long paragraphs of abuse, not the prayers of Amen. But before this ceremony can begin, “the crack of a rifle was heard” and “a small line of blood trickled down his forehead.” Pigeonswing has spared him with a more immediate death. Though Madison calls this a martyr’s death in the same sense as Parson Amen’s, he is certainly no Christian martyr. Instead, once again Amen and Flint are antithetical. Amen is a man of peace while Flint is a warrior. Flint, respected by warriors, dies a warrior’s death. There is respect, even ceremony, but his death is final. [43] It does not bring about any conversion, any transformation by the power of love, any enduring change in code of behavior.

Classical rhetoric reminds us that antithesis is both “a figure of diction” and “a figure of thought.” That is, it works on the level of word choices and also as a means of establishing “opposing thoughts” (Rhetorica ad Herennium XV.22, XLV.59). Cooper makes all this clear in the final chapter when Scalping Peter is shown as a changed man because of Parson Amen and no one even mentions Corporal Flint — a good man, perhaps, but certainly no martyr of enduring memory. Indeed, Flint’s values are the absolute antithesis of those of Parson Amen.

According to several critics, it is this episode that purportedly “tears the novel to pieces,” but I hope I have shown it merely continues and develops patterns that have been dramatically established earlier in the novel. It is a culmination, a climax rather than an artistic lapse.

So, too, the final chapter, which returns to Niagara Falls, where the novel began, is hardly the blot or anticlimax that some critics have suggested. Instead, it brings all the major characters together thirty-six years later. Cooper is making a trip through Buffalo to “the surpassing glory of Niagara” where “everything appeared to us to be filled with attraction and love” (463). What we are shown is a family scene. The “general,” we learn, “was our old friend, Le Bourdon,” who “had taken the field” in the War of 1812 “and seen some sharp fighting on the banks of Niagara.” The “civilized red man” is Scalping Peter; “the predominant expression of this red man’s countenance was that of love.” The last words of the novel highlight the change in Peter that is unlike any of these prototypes:

“Stranger, love God. B’lieve his blessed Son, who pray for dem dat kill Him. Injin don’t do dat. Injin not strong enough to do such a t’ing. It want de Holy Spirit to strengthen de heart afore an can do so great t’ing. When he got de force of de Holy Spirit, de heart of stone is changed to de heart of woman, and we all be ready to bless our enemy and die. I have spoken. Lat dem dat read your book understand” (476).

Pigeonswing is also there, not to honor the “martyrdom” of Corporal Flint, but as a part of his annual visit to his old friend the Bee Hunter.

Following the negative lead of some Cooper critics, readers can either ignore the artistry of Cooper’s artful antithesis and condemn views they do not hold or recognize the intricate structure of the novel and suspend their own disbelief when reading this inventive novel. That is, they can appreciate how Cooper’s use of antithesis empathizes the martyrdom trope in this profoundly Christian novel. [44]

Works Cited

  • Bible. American Bible Society edition. 1816.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Oak Openings, or The Bee Hunter. 1848. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Fredonia Books, 2003.
  • ------. The Prairie. 1827. In The Leatherstocking Tales, Vol. 1. Ed. Blake Nevius. The Library of America, 1984.
  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore. James Fenimore Cooper: Pages and Pictures. 1861. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1980.
  • Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Later Years. New Haven: Yale, 2017.
  • ------. The New World of James Fenimore Cooper. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982.
  • Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Sloan, 1949.
  • House, Kay Seymour. Cooper’s Americans. Columbus: Ohio State University, 1965.
  • Irving, Washington. A Tour of the Prairies. 1835. In Three Western Narratives, ed. J. P. Ronda. Library of America, 2004.
  • Madison, Robert D. “Cooper’s Oak Openings: A Christian Novel,” James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 30 (2013): 7-9.
  • McWilliams, John P. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: University of California, 1972.
  • [Review of Oak Openings] , United States Magazine and Democratic Review 23 (November 1848): 372-4.
  • Rhetorica ad Herennium. Trans. Harry Caplan. Loeb Classical Library. Harvard, 1968.
  • Ringe, Donald A. “Cooper’s Last Novels, 1847-50,” PMLA 75 (1960): 583-90.
  • Stone, James. H. History of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Philadelphia, 1880.
  • Von Mehren, Ann. “A Rhetorical Analysis of the American Bible Society Founding Address of May 11, 1816,” James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 28.1 (Spring/Summer 2017): 45-55.