Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Prairie. Set just after the Louisiana Purchase, the novel’s events occur in a vague area of the prairie, about five hundred miles west of the Mississippi River. Cooper had not traveled in these western regions and was dependent on published accounts of others for his descriptions of the prairie areas. Thus, the places in the plot’s development are mostly imagined and generally not tied to identifiable spots on the map. Rather, it is the qualities of the prairie that interest Cooper: its vastness, wildness, emptiness, and sameness. Against this desertlike landscape, even a hero like Natty Bumppo is made to seem less sure and in charge than in the novels which place him in the eastern forests. Here, human efforts appear almost swallowed up by the land itself.

*La Platte

*La Platte. Platte River, whose main branch originates in central Wyoming, flows east, through all of Nebraska, before emptying into the Misssouri River just south of Omaha. The novel’s references to this river, and its suggestion that the action occurs in this river’s vicinity some five hundred miles west of the Mississippi River, lead one to believe that western Nebraska is the likely real-life equivalent of the geographical area Cooper imagined for his narrative. Although Natty Bumppo and his threatened friends, the Bush clan, and the Sioux and Pawnees in the novel are aware of this river and its importance, Cooper never really makes clear that any of the action actually occurs along its banks, preferring instead to rely on unnamed rivers and streams.

First camping area

First camping area. The Bush clan and Natty meet in the desert waste with Natty pictured against the western sunset as a “colossal,” larger-than-life figure, dramatically underscoring his key role in opening up the frontier. The...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Brotherston, Gordon. “The Prairie and Cooper’s Invention of the West.” In James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays, edited by Robert Clark. London: Vision Press, 1985. Defines The Prairie as “the most distinctive if not the best written” of Cooper’s novels about Native Americans. Explores the lasting historical and cultural images Cooper helped create.

Dekker, George. James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1967. Argues persuasively that Cooper deserves more respect from scholars and students, although his weaknesses are real and serious. Devotes three chapters to The Prairie, concluding that many ideas in this work were handled better in the other Leatherstocking tales.

Fields, Wayne. “Beyond Definition: A Reading of The Prairie.” In James Fenimore Cooper: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Wayne Fields. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979. Compares the prairie and the forest as representational landscapes. Ishmael Bush’s experiences demonstrate that human beings need laws and limits to survive.

Överland, Orm. The Making and Meaning of an American Classic: James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Prairie.” New York: Humanities Press, 1973. Discusses biographical and historical contexts, sources and method of composition, and a reading with early critical reception. Accessible for students, and interesting for its Scandinavian approach to American history and culture.

Rans, Geoffrey. Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. The chapter “The Uses of Memory” uses The Prairie to show how a nation uses selective memory of its past, particularly of its past injustices, to move forward.