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 Sergeant Dunham. Indeed, the class/gifts theme in The Pathfinder is complex, with Cooper recognizing that “gentlemen” can be scoundrels, like the traitor Muir—who sells himself for wealth—and recognizing that commoners, like Pathfinder, can be honest, just, and heroic. Still, Pathfinder cannot win Mabel, at least partly because, although a commoner, she is unusually...
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well-educated, while he is unlearned in a traditional academic sense, although a master of frontier and forest knowledge. Thus, the equalitarian scout and hero, who honors no distinctions of class or rank but only personal ability, loses Mabel to the better educated Jasper, who retreats to the city with Mabel and becomes a successful merchant.
Cooper’s fundamental conservatism leads to the thematic implication that, although frontier life, circumstances, and strife may sometimes create completely heroic persons like Pathfinder, those persons will not carry the weight of American progress; instead they will ultimately be sterile and disappear, like Pathfinder and Chingachgook, the latter being the last of the Mohican tribe. Cooper suggests that real progress resides in people like Jasper and Mabel, who return to civilization, become successful in business, and build the future. In Cooper’s ultimately conservative view, despite his interest in the ideals of the romantic tradition and of Romanticism, the unlearned and the natural do not inherit the earth.
In some sense, The Pathfinder is Cooper’s last, or next to last, look at the American Dream of an equalitarian world of all races living together harmoniously in a beautiful natural world that, in turn, brings everyone closer to God. The story is a sentimental look back to when and where the dream was lost, to the time when American Indians and Europeans might have made a better, more harmonious world together but failed. What came instead was war, motivated by human greed, bigotry, ignorance, paranoia, envy, and other excesses.
Finally, though, Cooper can no longer believe in this dream; thus, merchant Jasper is the future of America, whereas Pathfinder retreats to his rapidly fading wilderness and watches from afar, unable or unwilling to continue contact with Jasper or Mabel. Pathfinder can only helplessly bemoan that “things they call improvements and betterments are undermining and defacing the land”; that “the glorious works of God” are “daily cut down and destroyed.” Thus, as with frontiersman Daniel Boone, the most likely model for Pathfinder, the ideal of harmony with the Indians, of peaceful coexistence with a preserved and balanced natural world, is finally just a dream.
The American Civil War virtually eliminated American idealism and Romanticism, as the war’s vast destruction put an end to any belief in depicting, or envisioning, humans behaving as they ideally and morally should. Instead, realism became prevalent among writers of fiction. Mark Twain, for example, lampoons Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales in his “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895). However, Twain failed to understand, or chose to ignore, that Cooper was writing romances, not novels. Thus, he unfairly criticizes Cooper’s coincidences and exaggerations. Indeed, coincidences in romances, like Pathfinder’s arrival at the blockhouse at just the moment when Mabel expects Chingachgook (then sending Dew of June upstairs so she cannot interfere with admitting him), reflect the moral emphasis of the genre, in the now seemingly antiquated belief that coincidences are God’s providence, that God produces unlikely results to protect especially deserving people. Thus, Cooper’s best novels, like The Pathfinder, endure despite the unjustifiably harsh attacks from realists such as Twain.
In addition to being aware of his true talents and calling and of his proper relationship to society, Natty Bumppo in The Pathfinder also has reached a high level of religious consciousness, another crucial Cooper theme. Through this self-sufficient hero, the author conveys his conviction, which grew stronger with age, that divine Providence is involved in human destiny. Natty’s piety is natural, a faith taught to him by nature, which he calls “the temple of the Lord”; as he explains simply, “It is not easy to dwell always in the presence of God, and not feel the power of his goodness.”
Related to this theme of religion are the elaborate biblical echoes in The Pathfinder. Early on, Cooper describes Pathfinder as “a sort of type of what Adam might have been supposed to be before the fall.” Symbolically, Pathfinder’s natural world is America as the new Eden or new Caanan, with endless possibilities for the new Adam and the new Eden/Caanan. By the end, Pathfinder/Adam has inappropriately fallen for Mabel/Eve, who is half his age; he then becomes a symbolic Jesus figure, because unlike Adam he sacrifices his own happiness, the sensual joy of life with Mabel, who has promised to marry him despite not loving him, to bring happiness to her and Jasper.
Much of the great emotional power of the story derives from these mythical, religious overtones, of the heroic leader who gives up his own happiness for the happiness of those he loves—Mabel and Jasper, the latter his true friend. Thus, in its religious themes, The Pathfinder reaches to the very essence of Christianity, to forgiveness of others and to self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. Therefore, despite some troublesome trappings of an admittedly antiquated genre—the romance—Cooper’s novel profoundly and skillfully embodies themes that are fundamental to American life. Thus, it deserves its enduring place in American literature.