James Fenimore Cooper Critical Essays

James Fenimore Cooper American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

To appreciate Cooper’s accomplishments, one must understand the literary and historical climate of the early nineteenth century United States. In the 1820’s, American fiction was much scorned by the European literati. One British critic went so far as to ask, “Who reads an American book?” Before Cooper’s work, few people outside the United States had; after his widespread acceptance, many did.

A related and much-debated question often troubled early nineteenth century American writers: Was there sufficient material in the United States for a truly American book in terms of form and themes? Until Cooper, most American writers borrowed their subject matter and literary styles from Europe, especially the great English writers. Cooper proved that such imitation was not necessary. By utilizing American history—specifically the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the westward migration—he became a role model for the so-called Columbian Ideal. It might be said that in his thirty-two novels, he (along with Washington Irving) truly wrote the American literary declaration of independence. Moreover, by gaining international fame, Cooper proved that an American could make a living being a full-time writer.

In 1850, for a new edition of the combined Natty Bumppo quintet, Cooper penned a preface to the Leatherstocking Tales that is absolutely indispensable in understanding his style and purpose. He labeled his five novels “romances,” not realistic fiction. Since Mark Twain’s stinging criticism in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences,” critics have pointed out that Natty Bumppo is as pure as a saint, his diction is often too poetic for a man not formally educated, and his adventures are marred by improbabilities and coincidences. Cooper, however, was self-admittedly writing romances, and in that form everything is subordinate to the book’s didactic purpose.

As the author claims: “It is the privilege of all writers of fiction, more particularly when their works aspire to the elevation of romances, to present the beau-ideal of their characters to the reader.” In other words, Natty Bumppo is not meant to be read as a mirror of any real person or persons but instead as a moral paragon, a character who “possessed little of civilization but its highest principles.”

In Natty Bumppo, Cooper also created a character whose life parallels the growth of the United States, a national hero in every sense of the term. The young Natty is a resourceful hunter living in the woods. Just as the United States matured and cut its umbilical cord with its mother country, Natty must deal with the eighteenth century switchover to an agrarian economy, the westward expansion, and the creation of a civilized legal system. The five Leatherstocking Tales, then, constitute an elaborate initiation story, the favorite pattern in American literature.

Natty begins in The Deerslayer as a callow youth who must determine whether it is right under any circumstances to take another’s life, and he dies in The Prairie having learned that justice and the march of civilization are inevitable. Along the way, he comes to an understanding of women and love in The Pathfinder and the necessity of the law in The Pioneers.

Of course, as a romancer, Cooper was primarily interested in Natty’s code, his ethical system for living. Essentially, his hero embodies the spirit that formed America, a trait that would later be called rugged individualism. Natty’s code, though triangulated by the Christianity of the Moravian missionaries who raised him, the laws of civilization (as shown with their flaws and attributes in the characters of Judge Marmaduke Temple and Ishmael Bush), and Indian customs, is Natty’s own creation. Natty is finally a rebel whose life is his own.

This is not to say that Cooper was wholly original. Although he did use the matter of America as his subject, his manner was often that of the English novelists, especially Sir Walter Scott. Admittedly, some of Cooper’s novels justify his epithet “the American Scott” (in one novel, Cooper has the mounted Indians jousting like characters out of Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe). As Natty Bumppo journeys across the ever-expanding countryside, encountering America’s heroic past with his faithful companion Chingachgook, Cooper’s hero is not unlike Don Quixote and his squire. Cooper obviously read a great many historical, gothic, and sentimental romances.

Why were the Leatherstocking Tales so popular? As noted earlier, Cooper was able to adapt the popular English styles of the moment while tapping into America’s archetypal character. He gave the American public what it desperately wanted—a national hero whose history was theirs. In his aforementioned preface, Cooper predicted that if anything of his would endure, it was “the series of the Leatherstocking Tales.” Another reason Natty Bumppo came alive was that he kept popping up; he was America’s first popular recurring character in fiction. Even Cooper’s desultory writing for the series worked to his hero’s popularity, for after his death in 1827 (in The Prairie), two more Natty Bumppo novels were published, suggesting a certain immortality to Leatherstocking.

With his didactic purpose, Cooper mined that religious vein that ran deep throughout early American history. The majority of the colonies were founded for religious reasons, especially in the Northeast, the country’s literary center during the early nineteenth century. Since its beginning, America had been described as the New Eden, an image pattern Cooper continued. As Natty Bumppo, for example, wrestled with the Christian ideal “Thou shalt not kill” in The Deerslayer, he was everyone in the United States trying to translate abstract Christianity into a practical moral system. Natty Bumppo became one of the first examples of the American Adam—the basically good man in American literature.

Even today, some of these reasons endure. If nothing else, Cooper knew how to tell an adventure story, with his clear-cut good guys fighting against obvious evil. Cooper provided a link in the popular writing chain that went from the Indian captivity narratives of writers such as John Smith through him to the dime novels and Western tales. In fact, Natty Bumppo—with his eye for detail, his ability to track friend or foe, his survival skills, and his refusal to follow the conventional mores of civilization blindly—is the prototype for that distinctly twentieth century American literary invention, the hard-boiled private investigator.

Despite critics such as Twain, then, Natty Bumppo remains one of the true originals of American fiction. Paradoxically, he is simultaneously the antihero and the mythic representation of American national character. For readers today and for Cooper’s contemporary audience, the Leatherstocking Tales present a simpler version of American history, a nostalgic journey to a more innocent time where gray had not begun to shade good and evil, and a place where individual action is not only possible but is also rewarded.

The Deerslayer

First published: 1841

Type of work: Novel

In his first warpath, a young man comes to terms with taking a life as well as with the corrupt values of civilization and the Indians.

The Deerslayer, a prequel (the last published but the first in the hero’s chronology of the Leatherstocking Tales), introduces Cooper’s youthful protagonist. Natty Bumppo, a young man in his twenties, has come to Glimmerglass (Otsego Lake) in upper New York State to help his blood brother, Chingachgook, rescue the Delaware chieftain’s betrothed, Hist. In this idealized natural world of the 1740’s, these two noble savages must formulate a practical morality somewhere between abstract Christianity, Indian savagery, and corrupt civilization’s values.

The Deerslayer is a good example of a romance, that nineteenth century version of the novel. In order to ensure its didactic intent, the romance presents a simpler view of reality. Characters are clearly good or bad. Natty, Chingachgook, and Hist are basically heroic representatives of civilization and the Indian world, while Hurry Harry, Tom Hutter, and Rivenoak are their evil counterparts. Similarly, the Delaware Indians are good; the Hurons, bad. Natty is the moral paragon, refusing, for example, to take scalps as Hurry Harry and Tom Hutter do. Appropriate for a man caught between ethical codes, Natty is part white and part Indian as well as part Christian and part savage.

The highly episodic plot follows the popular novel pattern of pursuit, capture, and escape. There are no surprising reversals, and the ending is pure deus ex machina, complete with the king’s troops arriving for a nick-of-time rescue. Good defeats evil, though the happy ending is partially diluted by Natty turning down the charms of the beautiful Judith Hutter. Cooper even foreshadows the familiar Western theme by suggesting that ultimate happiness is found in nature and that the male-male bond (Natty and Chingachgook) is often greater than that between a man and a woman. As with most romances, the setting is manipulated. Cooper conveniently narrows and deepens the river when it suits his needs, and the idyllic Glimmerglass, in reflecting the heavens, becomes the ultimate moral symbol in the book.

The human moral model is Natty himself, and the novel’s focus is implied in its subtitle, The First Warpath. Known at the beginning of the story as the Deerslayer, Natty is given a morally symbolic sobriquet by the enemy. Natty is forced to kill a Huron/Mingo when he spots a rifle leveled at him, and...

(The entire section is 4022 words.)