Literature of the American West and Frontier Analysis

The Frontier to 1890

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Though they came to the New World seeking the right to worship, the Puritans hardly believed in religious freedom as it would later be defined. Rather, they felt that God had destined them to convert America into a theocracy in which people would live according to Puritan doctrine. This plan caused so much strife with Native Americans, who often refused to abide by white beliefs, that many Europeans in America (including the prominent ministers, Increase Mather and Cotton Mather) soon came to see extermination of Indians as tantamount to religious duty. Thus the essential frontier contest of civilization versus savagery was born in the seventeenth century, with civilization loosely defined as anything white, European, and Christian, and savagery loosely defined as anything nonwhite, non-European, and pagan. Even later Americans who were sympathetic to certain Native American causes held a European American view of the nation’s future. Thomas Jefferson, for example, who wrote in 1803 that “our system is to live in perpetual peace with the Indians,” declared in the same essay that “we presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them.”

These confrontational attitudes carried over into early American literature about the frontier. Novels such as Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods (1837) and William Simms’s The Yemassee (1835), though somewhat different in tone and racial outlook, both ultimately endorsed hearty, sadistic white heroes who reveled in killing Indians. In fiction, however, the frontier was truly immortalized by James Fenimore Cooper—especially in the Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1841), a collection of five novels unified by their focus on Cooper’s archetypal frontiersman, Natty Bumppo. Unlike Bird and Simms, Cooper had mixed feelings about the contest between “civilization” and...

(The entire section is 790 words.)