James Fenimore Cooper’s Pastoral Landscapes: Et in Arcadia Ego in the Wilderness

Pauline Pilote (Université Bretagne Sud)

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): 50-56.

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

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

Even though Cooper starts the Leatherstocking series with The Pioneers (1823) and the picture of the busy atmosphere of settlement life, he soon follows Natty Bumppo as he steps across the Frontier at the end of the novel, thereby moving away from the village of Templeton into more uncharted wilderness in the following tales. Except in The Prairie (1827), the same landscape seems to recur from novel to novel — even though the hero keeps moving along — all the stories revolving around a lake that recalls Otsego Lake and the surrounding of Cooperstown as he knew it. Yet, as Cooper goes further and further up in time, the landscape is de-historicized, Cooper removing the human artifacts to go back to a world of nature, yet unspoiled by men. And indeed, as he goes further and further back in time, the landscape gets more and more idealized. The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), as the historical novel that goes the furthest into time to the early days of the Puritan settlement, although it stands outside the Leatherstocking series, is a case in point: it portrays the settlement of Wish-ton-Wish as a pastoral haven where men harmoniously blend with nature. The first lines of the novel introduce the place as having been “transformed [...] into smiling fields and cheerful villages” (1:11). From the very beginning, the settlement looks like an ideal place, a pastoral utopia, secluded from the rest of the world: “tumults and wars in the sister colonies came to their knowledge only at distant and tardy intervals” (1:20). Enshrined in a world of nature that cuts them off from the turmoil of the world, the Heathcotes seem to have realized the agrarian dream of a farmer tilling the wilderness and turning it into a pastoral: “[a] distant hamlet, with its little fort; the buildings in the near grounds; the soft and verdant fields; the fragrant orchard...” (1:251). And yet, in between those two sentences, the novel has featured some violent episodes, and in particular the Indian onset onto the settlement that shattered the pastoral to pieces. Reading these two passages, the event seems to have left the pastoral landscape undisturbed and untouched. Still, the settlement is not razed to the ground and the violent attack leaves traces in the landscape — the sentence ends thus: “the fragrant orchard, beneath whose leafy shades she stood, and the blackened tower, that rose in its centre [was] like some gloomy memorial.” Therefore, men have left traces of their ephemeral presence in this world of Nature. More importantly, on top of crumbling buildings, the [51] place at the end of the novel also contains tombs, as if the pastoral landscape that was pictured at the beginning had been replaced by a textual version of Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego (1638-1640).

Perhaps most obviously here, but elsewhere in Cooper’s historical fictions, the motif of the tomb keeps coming back from novel to novel, inscribing graves and other vestiges at the heart of the wilderness and in the idealized landscape he describes. In this process, the supposedly timeless pastoral is therefore re-historicized, the “Et in Arcadia Ego” motif acting as some kind of memento mori that hints both at man’s transience but also at the traces that History has left within this supposedly pristine wilderness.

I. Inscribing Tombs within the New World Garden

Except in The Prairie, where Cooper shifts the scene westward to the Great Plains, all the Leatherstocking Tales revolve around the same area, the long-settled North-Eastern coast, be they the forests towards the border with Canada, or, outside the series, the Connecticut setting of a Puritan settlement in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish. He even comes back again to the Susquehanna region in Wyandotté (1843). The plot of the latter is quite close to that of the The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, albeit situated one century afterwards, about the time of the Revolution. And yet, despite the time difference, the story features another pastoral utopia in which the family house is set afar from any interference from History, the Revolution remaining unheard of in the settlement: “no one in the valley knew of the great event which had taken place in July. A rumour of a design to declare the provinces independent had reached the Hut in May, but the Major’s letter was silent on this important event, and positive information had arrived by no other channel” (143). Secluded from the rest of the world, the house rests in pastoral happiness and is described in such terms as “a miracle of rustic beauty” (44); “[a] sylvan spot” (46); “lovely rural scene” (144) etc., recalling the smiling fields and cheerful villages of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish. And yet, as in the latter, where the more general historical context of King Philip’s War (1675-1676) intrudes upon the settlers’ world, the inhabitants of the Hutted Knoll eventually get involved in the Revolution, Beekman enrolling on the American side, while Willoughby fights with the Loyalists — history in both cases finally breaking into the utopia. More importantly, the novel also closes on tombs, with Maud and Willoughby coming back years after upon the stage of the novel, and spotting the tombs of their parents within a landscape where Nature has taken back the upper hand and overruns the remains of the settlement. [52]

This motif of the tomb recurs in Cooper’s other historical fictions, and in particular throughout The Leatherstocking Tales: obviously in The Prairie where Natty Bumppo finds his death, but also in The Pioneers where Elizabeth and Oliver Effingham pay a visit to the graves of Chingachgook and Major Effingham, or in The Last of the Mohicans (1826) with the tomb of Uncas and Cora. 1 Even in The Deerslayer (1841) where Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo are at their youngest, the latter is already imagining the setting of his future grave and both Hetty and Tom Hutter lay buried in the scene at the end of the novel.

And yet, within this pervading motif, we note from the start that the great missing tombs from this list are Indian mounds. They are described elsewhere in the literature of the time, by Jefferson, but also by Washington Irving in Astoria (1836), by Lewis and Clark in their journals, or in William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairies” (1832). Cooper’s contemporaries knew about them and it is very likely that Cooper did too, so that means that he chose deliberately to shun them and to inscribe European tombs onto the American wilderness, thereby recalling even more vividly Nicolas Poussin’s painting for his contemporaries. Indeed, even the graves of Native Americans are Europeanized: Chingachgook’s is made after a European fashion with an engraved headstone and his (misspelled) name on it, and Conanchet’s in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish looks just alike. The American landscape therefore bears European marks of death and not those mounds that were visible in the wilderness on the East coast at the time Cooper was writing.

In those texts, it therefore looks as though it was the arrival of Europeans that marked the intrusion of death and time into the New World garden and disrupted its timeless Edenic harmony. As an example of the change that Europeans brought, the same scene recurs at both ends of the Leatherstocking Tales: both The Pioneers and The Deerslayer feature a bird-shooting contest. Yet, the intensive killing of pigeons in The Pioneers leads Natty Bumppo to complain about the wasteful ways of the settlers. On the contrary, in The Deerslayer, the same contest in which he engages himself with Chingachgook involves a single bird and leads to a description of the peaceful scene that surrounds them: “[a]t that distant day, when so few men were present to derange the harmony of the wilderness, all the smaller lakes with which the interior of New York so abounds, were places of resort for the migratory aquatic birds” (LT 2:925) and the paragraph goes on to a more detailed picture of this Edenic Glimmerglass. 2 This notion of a “harmony of the wilderness” is a recurrent word in the Leatherstocking [53] Tales, and famously pops up even in The Last of the Mohicans and within the world of chaos that it conveys, to describe the strife between the Natives as the “harmony of warfare” (LT 1:698), to be contrasted with the violent encounter of European forces with Native Americans that leads to the bloodbath of Fort William Henry.

Where Indians live in harmony with nature, where Indian deaths and Indian wars seem to be leaving no traces, the European presence in the New World brings time into the equation, anchoring them onto the ground with memorials of times past: graves hint at the presence of settlements even when their inhabitants are gone, and ruins stay as tokens of the events that have involved them.

II. “Et in Arcadia ego”: Traces in the Wilderness

As a counterpart to tombs, Europeans also leave traces of their presence through ruins dotting the wilderness. Even when Nature reclaims a ground that has been previously settled, ruins remain to testify to the men that have lived there, recalling another painting, this time an American one, and the last of Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire series (1833-1836): Desolation (1836), where only a column remains of the thriving town that had been there before. 3 But we note that in Cooper’s texts, those ruins are always associated with graves: at the end of Wyandotté, when Maud and Willoughby come back, if the Hut has “resisted the ravages of time” (370), the chapel adjoining the graveyard is described as in ruins, just as the end of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish features “[a] blackened tower of stone [which] rose above the tallest of trees, and stood a sufficient memorial [...] in the brief history of the valley” (2:251). A tower, a chapel — as in the case of the graves, the traces that Euro-Americans leave in the wilderness are European elements of architecture that differentiates them from the Natives who do not leave any imprint on the ground. It is most obvious in The Deerslayer where Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook come back on the premises of the tale to find out that the Huron camp of Rivenoak has completely disappeared but that Tom Hutter’s cabin has become overrun by nature after they left. The description is telling in that respect: “the remains of the castle were still visible, a picturesque ruin” (LT 2:1028). While the word “picturesque” evinces the pictorial quality of the view and the painting-like description that Cooper gives to his landscapes, the ruin is that of a castle, that turns the American image of the Frontier cabin into a more European setting.

But the word “visible,” alongside “memorial” in the quotation from The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish reveals how much those ruins, just as the [54] graves before them, function as memento mori, reminding the on-lookers of the presence of former generations of men who settled the place. Indeed, they also work as a trigger for recollections: Natty Bumppo recalling Judith in The Deerslayer, Maud and Willoughby their family and childhood, and the distant relative in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish his forefathers.

III. Re-Historicizing the Pastoral

Those remains therefore bear witness to the passing of time and the transience of men in the wilderness, and in that name can work as memento mori, hinting at a more cyclical conception of time that Cooper shared with his contemporaries. It is that of Cole in the Course of Empire series: the use of the same landscape recurring from one painting to the other evincing a vision where Nature eventually outdates man.

But the fact that they are only European kinds of vestiges indicates a more linear conception of time, in which generations of men supersede one another. Since Cooper features characters coming back onto the stage of former stories, as in the case of Natty Bumppo at the end of The Deerslayer, or even more obviously the relative paying a visit to the spot of the tragedy at the end of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, those ruins and those graves are a testimony to the layers of colonization and to the various generations that have already settled the wilderness. Anyone going past can remember the settlements that once were and the activities of men in the past. In that sense, they insert History into the New World Garden. Indeed, the ruins, in particular, are the traditional marks of History for Europeans, in particular along the craze for ruins in Romantic Europe at the time. So not only does this inscription of History turn the pastoral into a historicized place, it also puts the American territory on a level with its European counterpart: bearing ruins on its surface, the New World appears as not so “new” anymore, but as a soil ridden with a History of its own, that compares to that of the Europeans at the same time. If the epilogue of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish presents a memento mori, the preface itself places this idea of a territory marked by an already long History to the forefront: the first lines announce the theme of the narrative to come, and straightaway locates it in “the early days of our history” (1:v). The whole phrase is proof of this wish to showcase an American History — notably with the use of the pronoun “our” — and at the same time to show its depth with “early days.” Even earlier in the sentence, the expression “dark age” recalls, in the phrasing, the European Middle Ages, often described at the time as the “dark ages,” therefore bringing a whole new meaning to the period narrated here. Therefore with this, from the start, [55] the early settlements compare to the European distant past and, similarly, the ruins stand as witnesses of those past ages for future generations, all the more so since the towers and the castles here described bring this whole medieval frame to the minds of the readers.

In the context of post-Revolutionary patriotism, this inscription of an American History onto the American soil is heavy with meaning. But it bears yet another, more political, meaning in the context of writing. Only Europeans seem to leave traces on the ground: the ruins are of European appearance, and, as for the graves, that of Native Americans look European too, and are anonymous, or misspelt at best: Conanchet is only remembered as “the Narragansett” and Chingachgook, who had already been renamed “Indian John” in The Pioneers, bears the more European name of “John Mohegan” on his grave and, then “Chingagook” that literally sets in stone the truncation of his identity. 4 In the more general context of the Indian Removal Act, the fact that the wilderness only bears the marks of European History grounds the Anglo-American presence on the American territory and thereby legitimates their settling of the wilderness.

Therefore, as Cooper de-historicizes the landscape of the Susquehanna and of the Oswego region, and more generally of the early-settled North-Eastern coast, removing as he goes back into time the traces of urbanization and settlement that he could see around him, he recreates a landscape full of meaning for his contemporaries. The American setting that he fashions bears the testimonies of a long and eventful History of which the Europeans are the main actors. As the characters come across graves and ruins that stand as witnesses of times past, the reader becomes a tourist who goes from vestiges to vestiges and hence from site to site, as on an American Grand Tour. The journey reveals the American territory as a place that Anglo-Americans have long inhabited, but mostly as an aesthetic space that can contend with its European counterpart. Cooper thereby strives to reverse the view his contemporaries had of the national soil, that he mentions in Notions of the Americans (1828) where he takes up the persona of a British tourist: “As I looked upon this scene, I felt it only wanted the recollections and monuments of antiquity to give it the deepest interest” (213). Studded with graves and ruins, the wilderness is thereby re-historicized. Now bearing on its surface such “monuments of antiquity” that inscribe onto it the traditional marks of History, it is turned into a land of recollections that becomes interesting per se and is worth contemplating, worth visiting, and worth writing about. [56]

Works Cited

  • Barnett, Louise K. “Speech in the Wilderness: The Ideal Discourse of The Deerslayer.” Desert, Garden, Margin, Range: Literature on the American Frontier, Eric Heyne (ed.), New York: Twayne, 1992.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Notions of the Americans: Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor. 1828. Albany: SUNY Press, 1991.
  • ------. The Leatherstocking Tales, Vol. I. New York: Library of America, 1985.
  • ------. The Leatherstocking Tales, Vol. II. New York: Library of America, 1985.
  • ------. The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, A Tale, in Two Volumes. 1829. New York: Stringer & Townsend, 1849.
  • ------. Wyandotté, Or The Hutted Knoll. 1843. Albany: SUNY Press, 1981.
  • Darnell, Donald G. “Uncas as Hero: The Ubi Sunt Formula in The Last of the Mohicans.” American Literature 37.3 (1965): 259-66.
  • Klotz, Sarah. “The Red Man Has Left No Mark Here: Graves and Land Claim in the Cooperian Tradition.” ESQ 60.3 (2014): 331-69.
  • Marshall, Ian. “Cooper’s Course of Empire: Mountains and the Rise and Fall of American Civilization in The Last of the Mohicans, The Spy, and The Pioneers. James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the Bicentennial Conference (1989): 55-66.


1 On that subject, see Donald Darnell’s study on the “ubi sunt” motif in The Last of the Mohicans: “Uncas as Hero: The Ubi Sunt Formula in The Last of the Mohicans.

2 Louise K. Barnett describes as follows the landscape of The Deerslayer: “a model for the American pastoral [...] the wilderness is not the howling desert of Puritan imagination which is to be cultivated but a nurturing presence whose pristine existence is superior to any other environment” (Desert, 19).

3 For a thorough study of the links between The Leatherstocking Tales and Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire, see Ian Marshall, “Cooper’s Course of Empire: Mountains and the Rise and Fall of American Civilization in The Last of the Mohicans, The Spy, and The Pioneers.”

4 See also Sarah Klotz’s paper for her study of the same motif in The Last of the Mohicans, where Uncas’ name resurfaces two generations later safely encompassed and appropriated within a Euro-American name — Duncan Uncas Middleton (“The Red Man Has Left No Mark Here: Graves and Land Claim in the Cooperian Tradition”).