At the time that The Pioneers was written, authors in the United States were working on establishing a definitive American fiction, one that drew from the rich literary tradition of Europe but still reflected the newly emerging character of the young country. Hailed as the American Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimoore Cooper appeared to be the writer who would spearhead the development of a characteristically American literature. Cooper’s novels had the stirring adventure, moral concerns, elevated sentiment, and sense of historical significance that Scott’s works possessed. The Leatherstocking tales, as a series of Cooper’s novels came to be called, also portrayed a distinctively American scene, focusing on characters and issues unique to the American experience. Like the other Leatherstocking novels, The Pioneers deals with many issues important to the new America: the vanishing frontier, the making of law, property rights, the role of class in a new democracy, and the treatment of Native Americans.
Although skinny old Natty Bumppo hardly seems a nineteenth century romantic hero (his handsome young friend Oliver Edwards was intended to fulfill that type), his popularity led Cooper to write four more novels tracing the hunter’s adventures as a youth to his death as an old man: The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). Cooper’s series first established the frontier hero as an American legend who would continue to grace novels, film, and television. Leatherstocking is a mythic figure, possessing almost superhuman abilities even as an old man. He has the skill to shoot through a turkey’s head from one hundred yards away and the strength to save the character Benjamin from drowning by lifting him out of the water with a fishing spear. He seems to run through walls of fire when he saves Elizabeth, Judge Temple’s daughter, on the burning mountain. Natty represents the “natural man,” akin to French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage,” an uncompromising individualist living outside social and institutional boundaries.
The novel’s opening scene, in which Natty and Judge Temple both lay claim to the slain deer, embodies the novel’s central theme. In the conflict between Natty and Temple, the interest in preserving the wilderness encounters civilization’s desire to domesticate it. Natty witnesses the rapid encroachment of civilization on his beloved...
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