Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Glimmerglass Lake. Imaginary lake closely modeled on the real Lake Otsego, near Cooperstown in upstate New York. Glimmerglass plays a complex role in The Deerslayer. On a basic level, it displays rare and unspoiled beauty. Its shimmering waters, dazzling sunlit and starry skies, and lush overhanging trees provide solace, solitude, and beauty for humans weary of the world or hoping to escape detection. The lake offers a wilderness unspoiled by humans, an environmental paradise.
As the name “Glimmerglass” suggests, the lake is a mirror of the universe. It reflects not only the Milky Way, but also the spiritual and moral aspects of God. For Deerslayer, the frontiersman who is a man of “white blood and white gifts,” the air is God’s “breath, and the light of the sun is little more than a glance of His eye.” God is not only the creator, but is an immanent presence. Similarly for his Native American friend Chingachgook, with his red gifts, the Great Spirit is everywhere: in the lake, in the forest, in the clouds. The lake is a temple of God’s creation but also an embodiment of God himself.
As an embodiment of God, the lake provides instruction, especially in a moral sense. If this book of nature is read correctly, it nurtures religion, morality, love, and education. Deerslayer and Chingachgook both believe this, as does Chingachgook’s love, the Indian maiden Wah-ta-Wah. In an eloquent...
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French and Indian Wars
The historical background of The Deerslayer is the periodic conflict between English and French forces for control of the North American colonies. The War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748), was fought mostly in Europe, but for England the chief interest lay in its overseas conflict with France and Spain over trading and colonial ambitions. In North America this period is known as King George’s War (1744–1748), the most notable feature of which was the capture by the English colonists of the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. However, Louisbourg was handed back to the French in the peace settlement of 1748. King George’s War was the third of what became known as the French and Indian wars; the Indians became involved by forming alliances either with the French or the English. Such conflicts with France continued until the decisive Seven Years War (1756–1763) in which England overthrew French power in Canada and established itself as the controlling colonial power in North America.
Indians and Cooper
For information about Indians in colonial America a hundred years earlier, Cooper turned to the work of a historian, John Heckewelder, whose book, Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations, Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States, was published in 1819. Heckewelder was a Moravian missionary to the Delawares...
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The most prominent aspect of the setting is the lake, which has a symbolic as well as literal function in the novel. Together with the surrounding woods, Glimmerglass (Lake Otsego) represents the purity of nature, before the hand of man has touched it:
On a level with the point lay a broad sheet of water, so placid and limpid, that it resembled a bed of the pure mountain atmosphere, compressed into a setting of hills and woods. . . . the most striking peculiarities of this scene, were its solemn solitude, and sweet repose. On all sides, wherever the eye turned, nothing met it, but the mirror-like setting of the lake, the placid void of heaven, and the dense setting of wood. . . . The hand of man had never yet defaced, or deformed any part of this native scene, which lay bathed in the sun-light, a glorious picture of affluent forest grandeur, softened by the balminess of June, and relieved by the beautiful variety afforded by the presence of so broad an expanse of water.
The above is the description given when Deerslayer sees Glimmerglass for the first time. He is transfixed with wonder by the scene, which is as fresh and untouched as the day it was first created by God. It therefore represents origins, the primal reality, the pure wilderness that was present before the arrival of human civilization. As a backdrop to the action and adventure described in the novel, it represents a...
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The Deerslayer is an adventure novel, and action and suspense dominate the plot. There are a number of climaxes, each with a cliff hanger. Excitement builds up as first Tom Hutter and Hurry, and later Deerslayer, become prisoners of the enemy Indian tribe. Their individual rescue attempts form mini climaxes in a series of suspenseful events. There is a canoe to be recovered, prisoners to be freed, Indians to be evaded, while the enemy Iroquois are equally cunning in trying to achieve their goal of capturing the whites and gaining their floating home. Cooper is a master of slowly building up to a climax — "as Deerslayer drew nearer and nearer to the land, the stroke of his paddle grew slower and slower, his eyes became more watchful, and his ears and nostrils almost dilated with the effort to detect any lurking danger." The series of events leads to an important turning point when Deerslayer kills his first enemy. Until then, he has been unproven and has only achieved fame as a hunter, as his name indicates. Now he has been "blooded," and his fallen enemy himself gives him a new name — the name of Hawkeye.
The Deerslayer has the most unified plot of all the Leatherstocking Tales. Most of Cooper's other novels have multiple plots and subplots, but here, every part of the action and every character is tightly woven into the single story line — the fight between the Iroquois and the inhabitants of the "swimming fortress." This gives...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
While Cooper had great initial success with his frontier romances, his polemic and political novels quickly changed critical reaction from positive to negative attacks. Cooper himself commented that his books would be attractive mainly to young boys, and for a long time, this was the case. Today, with a revival of interest in the West as a cultural heritage as well as a fantasy that promises dreams of freedom and excitement, Cooper's works have received renewed sympathetic critical attention. A discussion of the features and the reasons for the attractiveness of his frontier novels for the modern audiences will quickly lead to numerous discussion topics. For instance, why are modern readers so fascinated with the Western myth? The real West was much more harsh and less romantic. A comparison between historic reality and the fantasy of a West that never was reveals much about our modern attitudes.
1. When the reader first meets Deerslayer, he finds him in the company of Hurry March, another frontiersman. Yet the two form an obvious contrast. What qualities does Deerslayer possess that are missing in Hurry? How does their juxtaposition reveal some of Cooper's attitudes about people? About civilization?
2. Cooper's later Whig critics accused him of being a sympathizer of the aristocracy. Is this apparent in The Deerslayer, and if so, what constitutes nobility in his characters? Who are the "noble characters" and why? How does Cooper's...
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All of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking novels center on the contrast between the primitive but usually noble world of the Indian and the frontiersman and that of civilized society. In The Deerslayer, it is young Natty Bumppo, raised by Indians in a life close to nature, who comes in conflict with the world of greed and corruption represented by Hurry March and Tom Hutter, an old trapper who lives in a "swimming fortress" in the middle of a wilderness lake. The lake has also been chosen as a meeting place for Natty, known among the Indians as the Deerslayer, and his Delaware Indian friend Chingachgook, the Serpent.
Although Deerslayer is used to the often harsh practices of the Indians, he does not condone them; he does understand their reasons for their desire to take scalps and kill their enemies. What he does not understand is the greed which drives white men like Tom Hutter and Hurry to do the same, merely for the sake of the money the government has offered for Indian scalps. During his stopover at Tom's "water castle," a stockade and house built on a platform in the middle of the lake, Deerslayer is drawn into a feud with marauding Canadian Indian tribes, the Miwok. He agrees to defend his white fellowmen until his friend arrives, but he refuses their plan to make a night raid on the Indians to capture scalps. Instead, he stays behind to protect Tom's two daughters, the beautiful Judith and the mentally retarded Hetty. When Tom...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1740s: Lake Otsego and its environs are visited only by a few hunters. Indians also visit the area, but no one Indian tribe lays claim to it. The first white pioneers of what will become Otsego County, New York, establish a settlement at Cherry Valley in 1739.
1840s: Due to its many natural attractions of hills, valleys, streams, and lakes, the Otsego area gradually becomes established as a summer retreat. Great estates and houses are built there, and Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales make the area famous.
Today: The town of Cooperstown, founded by James Fenimore Cooper’s father in the 1780s and situated at the southern end of Lake Otsego, is a popular tourist destination. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown attracts thirty thousand visitors each year.
- 1740s: War between England and France includes skirmishes in the North American colonies. In 1745, the French attack and burn Saratoga, New York. Indian tribes maneuver for advantage by allying themselves to England or to France.
1840s: Westward expansion of the United States results in battles between U.S. forces and various Indian tribes, as the government attempts to clear the way for further white expansion. These Indian wars continue into the 1880s.
Today: According to the 2000 Census, 4.3 million...
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Topics for Further Study
Research and make a class presentation on the history of the Lenape tribe (referred to in the novel as the Delawares). What happened to the Lenape during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? What were their relationships with the United States’ government? Where do they live today?
Working with a partner, investigate the issue of Native American-themed mascots in high school and college sports teams. Why do Native Americans object to these? Make a class presentation in which you explain both sides of the issue.
As you read the novel, who did you find more sympathetic, Hetty or Judith? Why? Which character would make a better role model for young women today? Is Judith badly treated by Deerslayer? Is she superficial and vain, or is she a bold woman who knows her own mind? Write an essay in which you explore these topics.
Write an essay in which you explore the following question: Is Deerslayer too good to be true? Cooper wrote that he had wanted to show some of Deerslayer’s weaknesses so as to present “a reasonable picture of human nature, without offering a ‘monster of goodness.’” Did he succeed? What weaknesses does Deerslayer exhibit, and how does he overcome them?
Research on the Internet the history and beliefs of the Moravians. Who were the Moravians? Since Deerslayer was raised by Moravians, what would he have learned from them? Write an essay on the topic.
Who is Leonard Peltier? What...
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Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales have often been called the first examples of the Western, although their historic and geographic settings are different from more modern stories. Nevertheless, they are Westerns because they combine the most attractive qualities of this genre — a fast moving story line, an exciting plot, and a natural, romantic locale. And in the novels of more recent writers such as Louis L'Amour, Larry McMurtry, and Zane Grey, the conflict is still between the frontiersmen — or their equivalent, the cowboys — and the wide open spaces of a wild country, free of the restrictions of civilization, law, and order.
Many modern Westerns replay Cooper's conflicts between natives and settlers, with the Indians the inevitable losers. In Cooper's day, the term "manifest destiny" had not yet been coined, but like his hero Deerslayer, he has few doubts about the moral right of Christian civilization, even while admitting that it did not always live up to its teachings. Just as Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is the superior intellect and is fittingly served by the faithful Friday, Cooper's white men are the rightful inheritors of the wilderness. Of course, unlike later Western writers, he could not know the impact of civilization on such a huge and seemingly endless country. The noble savage is a literary concept which Cooper inherited from the writers of the Enlightenment, such as Rousseau and Montaigne. They were expressing the belief...
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All five Leatherstocking novels, The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841), share the character of Natty Bumppo. Although not written in the chronological order of the narrative, they present the scout from his early adventures as Deerslayer to his old age as Leatherstocking, while civilization marches inexorably onward.
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The Deerslayer was adapted as a made-for-television motion picture that aired in 1978. It was directed by Dick Friedenberg. Its cast includes Steve Forrest as Hawkeye and Ned Romero as Chingachgook in a tale of revenge. They are supported by John Anderson and Joan Prather. Although not a bad motion picture, The Deerslayer plainly shows its television origin as a shallow rendition of Cooper's complex, richly detailed tale.
There have been many motion picture adaptations of Cooper's novels about Hawkeye. The outstanding example of these is the 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans. Michael Moran's direction is brilliant, capturing the frantic action scenes of the novel as well as the pacing of the story's events. The cinematography is lush, full of the rich colors of forest and river. Its cast features a deadly serious Daniel Day-Lewis, as well as Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Eric Schweig, Jodhi May, Steven Waddington, Maurice Roeves, and Patrice Chereau. Audiences and critics received this rendition of tragedy and romantic love warmly. Its main characters are almost supermen, as they are in the novel, and they fight with all the artistry depicted in Cooper's book. The Last of the Mohicans is also one of the rare adaptations of Cooper's work to accurately capture his interest in and sympathy for Native American cultures. If one sees only one adaptation of Cooper's work, this is the adaptation to see.
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There have been several movie versions of The Deerslayer.
The Deerslayer and Chingachgook (1920), starring Emil Mamelok and Herta Heden and directed by Arthur Wellin Ratin, was as of 2006 available on DVD from Alpha Video.
The Deerslayer (1957), starring Lex Barker and Rita Moreno and directed by Kurt Neumann, was in 2006 unavailable.
The Deerslayer, the 1978 low-budget made-for-television version, starring Steve Forrest as Deerslayer and Ned Romero as Chingachgook, was as of 2006 available on VHS from Anchor Bay Entertain.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Last of the Mohicans, first published in 1826, is the most famous of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Set in 1757, it describes the adventures of Deerslayer, now called Hawkeye, during the French and Indian wars. Hawkeye roams again in upper New York state with Chingachgook and also with Uncas, Chingachgook’s son. The story contains the familiar mix of battle, pursuit, capture, and escape, and a dramatic massacre of an English garrison by Indians.
Sir Walter Scott’s historical romance, Ivanhoe (1819), is set in medieval England. Ivanhoe, the great chivalrous knight, returns from the Crusades in disguise and goes through many adventures that bring him into contact with the likes of Robin Hood and King Richard the Lion-Hearted before he ends up happily married to a noble lady.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s psychological romance, The Scarlet Letter (1850), which is considered the masterpiece of this great American novelist, is set in Boston in the early days of the Massachusetts colony. It tells the story of a woman’s adulterous relationship with a clergyman and explores issues of sin and spiritual redemption.
500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians (new edition, 2002), by Alvin M. Josephy Jr., tells the stories of the diverse Indian nations of North and Central America, going back to the ancient Maya and Olmec civilizations of Mexico. Of particular relevance to readers of The...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Barnett, Louise K. “Speech in the Wilderness: The Ideal Discourse of The Deerslayer.” In Desert, Garden, Margin, Range: Literature of the American Frontier, edited by Eric Heyne. New York: Twayne, 1992. A well-balanced essay that deals with the differing levels of diction in the characters’ voices in The Deerslayer and how such speech patterns work in the evolution of the frontier mythos.
Person, Leland S., Jr. “Cooper’s Queen of the Woods: Judith Hutter in The Deerslayer.” Studies in the Novel 21, no. 3 (Fall, 1989): 253-267. An intriguing study of Judith Hutter and her place in the wilderness frontier as a woman in a man’s world.
Ringe, Donald A. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Twayne, 1962. Excellent general overview of the works of Cooper, including The Deerslayer. Places the works in the construction of the myth of the American frontier.
Schachterle, Lance. “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses: Twain and the Text of The Deer-slayer.” Studies in the American Renaissance (1988): 401-417. Schachterle takes to task Mark Twain, who criticized Cooper’s prose style and The Deerslayer in his essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”
Selley, April. “‘I Have Been, and Ever Shall Be, Your...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th ed., Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981, p. 120.
Beard, James Franklin, “Historical Introduction,” in The Deerslayer or, The First War-Path, State University of New York Press, 1987, pp. xlvi, xlviii.
Cooper, James Fenimore, The Deerslayer or, The First War-Path, “Historical Introduction” and Explanatory Notes by James Franklin Beard, State University of New York Press, 1987.
Dekker, George, and John P. Williams, eds., Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973, pp. 205–06.
Wallace, Paul A. W., “Cooper’s Indians,” in James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal, edited by Mary Cunningham, New York State Historical Association, 1954, pp. 447–556.
Darnell, Donald, James Fenimore Cooper: Novelist of Manners, Associated University Presses, 1993, pp. 58–67. Darnell argues that in addition to its mythic and pastoral elements, The Deerslayer is about social hierarchy and class and the inability of a person to rise above his or her social position.
Long, Robert Emmet, James Fenimore Cooper, Continuum, 1990, pp. 120–31. Long analyzes The Deerslayer in terms of the failure of the characters to connect material and spiritual reality. He also shows how all the characters...
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