James Fenimore Cooper

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James Fenimore Cooper American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4022

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 as he gives water to his dying foe, the Indian nicknames him Hawkeye. It is this eye of the hawk that allows Natty to pierce the false philosophies of both civilization and savagery to see God’s law applicable in the wilderness. The ultimate test of Natty’s superior ethical code comes when Rivenoak, the Huron chieftain, grants Natty, after having captured him, a day’s furlough to act as a go-between for the Indians and the white settlers. Though it means certain death, at the end of the twenty-four hours Deerslayer returns, as promised, to his captors.

Cooper’s success in The Deerslayer, then, comes from his successful blending of several popular English novel types and setting the action in America. He borrowed some of the techniques of Sir Walter Scott and adapted the historical romance; Cooper also used elements of the gothic novel. In the middle of Glimmerglass lies the Hutter castle as well as a damsel in distress. Hutter himself has a dark secret, a hidden crime (he was once a pirate). Realists, including Twain, have criticized the book’s language and the implausibility of some action (especially the Indian attack on the ark), but it is the very simplicity of the tale, from its characters and plot to its moral stance, that has provided its lasting appeal.

The Last of the Mohicans

First published: 1826

Type of work: Novel

In this adventure story, Cooper emphasizes that people of all races must work together and try to understand one another.

The Last of the Mohicans, the second of the Leatherstocking Tales published and also the second in the hero’s chronology, picks up the story of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in 1757, some fourteen years later. In this, the most popular of the quintet, the scene has moved northward in New York State to Glen Falls and Lake George. The plot centers on a true historical event, the British surrender of Fort William Henry to the French and their massacre by Indians immediately following. Cooper explores the themes of miscegenation, the expansion of America, and the decline of the Indians’ power and domain. Although the story is based on fact, Cooper fictionally realigns the Indians’ true historical alliances to the French and English in order to suit his storytelling needs.

The Last of the Mohicans is first and foremost an adventure story in the tradition of the historical romance. The Delaware are the good Indians; the Huron/Mingoes, treacherous. While Natty, now known as Hawkeye, and Chingachgook remain the moral center of the book, Cooper offers two new creations in his good-evil dichotomy. Uncas, the son of Chingachgook and Hist (who has died), is a living example of physical and moral perfection. Ironically (and appropriately) Uncas’s death occurs because he violates his noble instincts and rushes ahead of the rescue party to save Cora, the woman he loves.

Like The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans is a pursuit, capture, and escape story. Hawkeye spends most of the novel either trying to free Alice and Cora Munro from their Indian captors or trying to escape the evil Huron, Magua. Magua, probably Cooper’s best-drawn villain, is portrayed as a once-noble savage whose life has been corrupted by civilization, especially its particular form of poison, alcohol. Magua is actually motivated in his pursuit of Cora Munro by his desire for revenge—he was whipped for showing up for work drunk, and he lost his natural honor. Cooper also borrows from the sentimental romance with the many disguises donned, the comic relief in the form of the crazy Yankee psalmodist (David Gamut), the courtship of Major Heyward and Alice Munro, and the pathos-filled ending, wherein the Indians suggest that the spirits of Cora and Uncas will be united in the afterlife.

Perhaps the main thrust of the novel is the usually overlooked national theme that is often hidden by the critics’ overconcern for the more controversial miscegenation theme. Leslie Fiedler and D. H. Lawrence, in particular, have suggested that the secret theme of The Last of the Mohicans is interracial marriage. Uncas, an Indian, and Cora, of black and white heritage, are undeniably attracted to each other, and even Hawkeye considers this match in the context of its naturalness. In a larger sense, though, the novel has a sociological purpose. Having represented the three main races in America at the time, Cooper seems to be asking whether the country as melting pot is a viable concept. By killing off both Uncas and Cora, Cooper perhaps indicates that the creation of a new race may be a utopian dream.

Just as important, however, he states that the whites and Indians can live in harmony—shown by the prototypal relationship of Hawkeye and Chingachgook. Their friendship endures, foreshadowing future literary endeavors such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

Ultimately, The Last of the Mohicans should be read as more than simply a boy’s book or an adventure story. The novel is Cooper’s prediction of the United States’ future success and, just as important, the passing of the Indian. As Tamenund, the old chief, remarks at the conclusion, “The pale-faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the redmen has not yet come again.”

The Pathfinder

First published: 1840

Type of work: Novel

Cooper’s hero must choose between conventional courses of action and his true calling.

The Pathfinder, the fourth of the Leatherstocking Tales published (the third in Deerslayer’s chronology), is an often-overlooked part of the quintet; its protagonist seems to act more like a Sir Walter Scott hero than the famed frontiersman.

Deerslayer, now called Pathfinder, is two years older than in The Last of the Mohicans and, with Chingachgook, has moved westward to Lake Ontario. This novel also has a historical backdrop, taking place during the French and Indian War. The focus of the novel, however, is not on the usual pursuit, capture, and escape plot, the westward migration, or even the simplistic moral view (good Indian against bad Indian, Deerslayer against bad white men), but on Deerslayer himself as a vulnerable human being.

With his interest in the person of Deerslayer, Cooper is content to reuse many elements from The Last of the Mohicans. Once again the author disregards fact and has the Iroquois (Mingoes, to Deerslayer) historically allied with the British, as the villains. Mabel Dunham, like the Munro sisters, is a woman traveling through the wilderness to visit her British military father at a fort. The Indian guide—Arrowhead, in this case—is, like Magua, a treacherous Iroquois leading the group into an ambush. Also like Magua, he falls for a white woman. This party also runs into Deerslayer and Chingachgook, who again save them, Instead of Uncas, a red paragon of natural virtue and strength, Cooper offers a white version, frontiersman and seaman Jasper Western, who emerges as second best to Deerslayer. Instead of multiple land battles with the Indians being the major action, Cooper draws on his sea background to show Jasper as a master mariner. There is also an element of espionage, as Lieutenant Muir turns out to be a French spy.

Some critics have labeled the Leatherstocking Tales fictional hagiography and referred to Deerslayer as a secular saint. The real strength of The Pathfinder is that it deeply humanizes Deerslayer to such a degree that Cooper could never decide whether he thought this novel or The Pioneers was his finest.

The Pathfinder is constructed around the familiar love triangle of the sentimental romance. Deerslayer is attracted to Mabel Dunham, the daughter of an old friend (who wants Deerslayer to marry his daughter). Mabel is attracted to, respectful of, and honored by Deerslayer’s eventual proposal, but she truly loves Jasper. Jasper returns this love, but he is best friends with Deerslayer. Ultimately Deerslayer realizes all these relationships and, knowing that Jasper is younger and more educated (and that Mabel truly loves the young man), bows out. There is a saintliness about Deerslayer when Mabel kneels before him for his blessing, but more important, there is also a full-blooded human being, a man vulnerable from the fact that he has considered love, marriage, and all that such a relationship entails.

At the end of The Pathfinder, Deerslayer and Chingachgook set out westward once again. Though tempted by civilization and romantic love, Deerslayer remains true to his code, to his vocation. Jasper becomes a successful merchant, thus fulfilling the Horatio Alger aspect of the American Dream. Deerslayer, perhaps the last autonomous man, is less concerned with “things” and more with the original American Dream.

The Pioneers

First published: 1823

Type of work: Novel

In the clash between the communal agrarian economy and the individual freedom of the hunter, progress will be served.

The Pioneers, the first published of the Leatherstocking Tales (but the fourth in Deerslayer’s chronology), though containing some of the usual Scott influences, is essentially a mirror of American history. Deerslayer, now known as Leatherstocking, has advanced to his early seventies, and the action takes place in 1793 and 1794. The setting is Templeton, which Cooper identifies in his introduction to the novel as representing the customs and inhabitants of early Cooperstown. Although the plot concerns the Temple-Effingham feud (complete with Romeo and Juliet lovers, Oliver and Elizabeth), the novel’s strength is its re-creation of daily scenes from late eighteenth century American life (such as lake fishing and a turkey shoot) and its central theme of economic change and the law.

Cooper’s basic conflict is still between two differing ways of life, but this time they are not the Indians’ and whites’. Templeton is a farming community that survives by cutting trees, planting crops, and turning hunting grounds into pastures. As such, it represents the new American agrarian economy. In order to prosper, it has to create a new system of laws as, in a larger sense, the United States must.

The living embodiment of this emerging system is Judge Marmaduke Temple (modeled upon Cooper’s father), who, though fallible, tries to apply these laws equitably. Built into the system are its flaws, including political patronage and the sometime destruction of personal freedom for the greater good. Opposing this new system is that of Leatherstocking. As the hunter, he lives in a cabin on the outskirts of the community. He represents the old America whose day, at least in the East, is slowly fading. Cooper uses the time passage in the novel—from opening on Christmas Eve to closing in autumn—to suggest such change is both natural and inevitable.

The community conflicts with the hunter. Lacking the time to learn to kill game with a single ball, the farmers have resorted to mass slaughter and waste of the forest denizens, In April, the Templetonians shoot thousands of pigeons that are migrating in sky-darkening flocks, In counterpoint, Leatherstocking kills the one bird he needs and calls the townsfolk sinful for their waste. In chapters 23 and 24, the townspeople employ a huge seine to catch fish, also slaughtering more than they need.

Leatherstocking spears only one fish. Ultimately he kills a deer, but the townspeople have created a new law that claims he has done so out of season. When they come to arrest him, he forcibly opposes them. Leatherstocking is convicted of assault and battery as well as resisting a search warrant. For this crime he is imprisoned and fined, but not before burning his long-standing home so that it cannot be entered against his will.

Another theme-reinforcing subplot involves Leatherstocking’s oldest companion: Chingachgook has become Christianized by civilization and given the name John Mohegan. Civilization has also provided him with alcohol and turned him into a hopeless drunk. Finally, after donning his battle garb, the once-noble chief is killed by an exploding canister of gunpowder—another product of civilization. The Pioneers, then, concludes with the only possible resolution of the major conflict. Unable to triumph against inevitable progress, Leatherstocking heads westward to the new frontier; the future belongs to the Templetons and Judge Temple. The Pioneers has been called the first genuinely American novel.

The Prairie

First published: 1827

Type of work: Novel

As civilization and justice come to the frontier, the day of the hunter and pure individual freedom are over.

The Prairie, the third published novel of the Leatherstocking Tales but the last in Deerslayer’s chronology, depicts Leatherstocking, now known as the trapper or the old man, in his final days. The setting is the edge of the Great Plains, the time is 1805, and the hero is in his eighties—his maturation and movement have paralleled that of the United States. Although Cooper himself never traveled to this locale, he researched his subject well. Unfortunately, with the familiar good against bad Indians dichotomy (this time the Pawnee and Sioux, respectively), wise sayings that sound more like platitudes, and the stock romance pursuit, capture, and escape plot, Natty Bumppo’s exit is not as memorable as his entrance.

The Prairie offers Natty one last chance to return to his glory. Reduced in his last days to mere trapping, he has the opportunity to be a scout once again with the arrival of the Bush party of squatters. By way of continuity, Cooper also has Natty run into Captain Duncan Uncas Middleton, the grandson of Duncan Heyward and Alice Munro Heyward of The Last of the Mohicans; moreover, the captain’s middle name is that of Chingachgook’s son. Much of this novel, though, reads like a rehash. The evil Sioux chieftain, Mahtoree, is a lesser copy of Magua (from The Last of the Mohicans, which Cooper had written the year before). The narrative is laden with tricks, some improbable and some clichéd. Dr. Obed Bat (like David Gamut) exists only to provide comic relief; the scholarly naturalist uses Latin names for everything, but he knows less about the frontier than Natty (and probably Natty’s dog).

One of the true strengths of the novel is the character of Ishmael Bush. As patriarch of the Bush family, he is in charge of moving them West. Ironically, for a man in conflict with the law, Bush, when all the chase is over, must preside over a makeshift frontier court. He rules on white and Indian cases, doling out justice fairly even when it means sentencing his wife’s brother to die. As The Pioneers suggests, justice eventually comes to the frontier.

The final days of Natty Bumppo, then, are a return to his roots. In the new frontier of the West he goes to live among the Indians—with the Pawnee and Hard-Heart, his adopted son. Although he is offered quarters in civilization, he chooses the freedom of nature. The legend concludes as Natty, knowing his time has passed, dies among the tribe, facing the setting sun.

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James Fenimore Cooper Long Fiction Analysis