Essays and Criticism
The Contrast Between Deerslayer and Hurry Harry
Visitors in the early 2000s to the crowded Lake Otsego area, one of New York’s popular tourist destinations, need an effort of the imagination to recreate for themselves Cooper’s vision of the Glimmerglass, the pristine lake at the heart of the virgin wilderness where he set his final (although first in chronology) Leatherstocking Tale. As Cooper noted in his 1850 preface to The Deerslayer, it was not until 1760 that the first settlements appeared on the banks of Lake Otsego, so setting the story twenty years earlier than that gave him a sound basis for what in effect is a story about the origins of a nation, the choices it faces, the direction it is to take.
Many commentators remark on the symbolism of the Glimmerglass itself, the descriptions of which suggest a setting that is in some sense beyond time or change; it represents the eternity from which all temporal life emerges. The following description, which occurs as Deerslayer steers the ark, under the watchful, hostile eyes of the Hurons, to the rock where he is to meet Chingachgook, is typical:
It was a glorious June afternoon, and never did that solitary sheet of water seem less like an arena of strife and bloodshed. The light air scarce descended as low as the bed of the lake, hovering over it, as if unwilling to disturb its deep tranquility, or to ruffle its mirror-like surface. Even the forests appeared to be slumbering in the sun, and a few piles of fleecy clouds had lain for hours along the northern horizon, like fixtures in the atmosphere.
Everything here, from the tranquil water to the slumbering forests and the stationary clouds, contributes to the feeling of time arrested or not yet born. Yet in the midst of this lake, which is serenity and beauty, is already the presence of something else, some intrusion on pristine nature: the Muskrat Castle of Thomas Hutter. Tom’s castle is a human dwelling rising up from the placid waters of the lake a full quarter of a mile from the nearest shore. So here are two aspects of life juxtaposed: nature untouched and nature already feeling the imprint of the human hand. Muskrat Castle is constructed as a fortress, much stronger and more formidable than the average log cabin of the era; it immediately suggests that now, the human world of opposing and competing values, of good and evil, with all its accompanying dangers, has arrived and taken up residence on the serene, undifferentiated surface of the lake. Indeed, the outer appearance of Muskrat Castle, because it is made up of logs of different sizes, is described as “rude and uneven”; it is as if the balance of nature has been upset.
When the reader gets to know Tom Hutter, it becomes clear how much disruption has been introduced into the natural order. Tom is an old rogue, a former buccaneer rumored to have associated with the notorious pirate Captain Kidd. He fled to the wilderness to escape the reach of the authorities and to cheat the hangman’s noose. Lake Glimmerglass’s first human guest is no Adam in a Garden of Eden. Although he treats his daughters well, Tom Hutter is a quarrelsome man whose previous dwellings were burned down on three occasions either by other hunters or Indians. Hutter reveals his character early in the story, with his bloodthirsty plan to scalp Indian women and children merely to collect the bounty offered by the colony. This is an example of humanity motivated by greed and material values to the exclusion of all decent feelings. As he puts it, “If there’s women, there’s children, and big and little have scalps; the Colony pays for all alike.”
In this base desire to kill the innocent for monetary reward, Hutter is joined by Harry March, known for good reason as Hurry Harry. If there are two types of men who now wander in the formerly pristine wilderness, they are ably represented by Hurry, on the one hand, and Deerslayer, on the other. It is in the struggle between what these two represent that the soul of the emerging nation lies. The contrast between them is clearly and very deliberately laid out in the first three chapters. A clue lies in the first passage alluding to the two men, as they call out to each other in the woods: “The calls were in different tones, evidently proceeding from two men who had lost their way, and were searching in different directions for their path.”
Different directions, indeed. As they talk with each other, Deerslayer declares it...
(The entire section is 1828 words.)