The Pathfinder is the fourth novel in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking series. In the chronology of hero Natty Bumppo’s life, it is, however, the third tale. The Pathfinder resurrects Natty from the death described in The Prairie, which was written thirteen years earlier. The Pathfinder is distinguished by being the first and only Leatherstocking story in which the celibate and thoroughly independent frontier scout falls in love with a woman.
Cooper was an essentially romantic writer, in the romance tradition extending from Greek tales through Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) and into the nineteenth century romances of American writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville and the twentieth century romances of Zane Grey. As a thorough and competent historian, Cooper could have backed up his fictional narrative with facts, but his primary purpose was to stir the reader’s imagination through idealized portraits of frontier life. Cooper’s most lasting appeal lies in his gift for storytelling. Working with even the simplest and least original plot, he was able to sustain the reader’s interest by employing ambushes and chases, hairbreadth escapes, and harrowing violence, as well as sentiment, chivalry, and love relationships.
Linked inextricably with such a colorful and adventure-filled story line is the familiar Cooper setting; the primal beauty of forest and sea and the grandeur and rich abundance of unspoiled nature provide an appropriate backdrop for courageous deeds. The author was intimately familiar with the area around the mouth of the Oswego River in upstate New York, having spent the winter of 1808 there as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy, and both his knowledge and love of the land are apparent in the descriptive passages of The Pathfinder. Such love of nature is also consistent with the romance tradition, in which the world of nature, as God’s greatest creation, is where God is most visible and accessible. Indeed, Pathfinder’s refrain of feeling close to God in the forest reinforces this theme of virtually all romances and particularly of the Romantic period of literature, in which Cooper wrote, along with well-known poets such as John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose works echo the same view of nature.
Cooper’s talents as a storyteller and descriptive writer, however, have obscured his merits as a serious artist whose works illustrate important social and religious concerns. One recurrent theme, for example, which is strongly apparent in The Pathfinder, is the idea that to achieve happiness and self-fulfillment, human beings must live according to their “gifts,” or talents, be they great or limited. Cooper believed strongly in democracy, but in a conservative way. He felt that the American continent was the perfect environment in which people could develop fresh and individualistic forms of society, but he feared that some frontierspeople were moving too close to anarchy. The key to success was that all individuals recognize and accept their separate places within the scheme of things, places determined not by heredity but by natural talent that located each person in a “class.”
Much of the interest in The Pathfinder stems from the question of Mabel Dunham’s marriage, because it involves discoveries about talent and appropriate courses of action on the part of not only Mabel but also Natty, Lieutenant Muir, Jasper Western, and...
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