Victor Nuovo: James Fenimore Cooper’s America
Ninth in a series.
James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) was an American writer who chronicled rural life from the Revolution through the first half of the 19th century. I am not a literary critic and would not pretend to evaluate the literary merit of his novels, but to be honest I didn’t enjoy reading them, yet I read them and learned very much from them, and I judge them to be an indispensable record of the life of the Mind in America. His characters may be flawed; they come across as types rather than as persons, and yet there is authenticity in their words and deeds, and with greater art they might have been rendered as whole memorable persons, vivacious and true and noble.
Moreover, as a writer, Cooper gives expression to important themes of American life: the nobility of Native American life and institutions, the rule of law, the sanctity of wild nature, its tranquil beauty, the ambivalence of American civilization. These and more find expression in his works, and make it worth the effort to read them and to ponder their meaning and be edified by them. Cooper was a thoughtful man, and his thoughtfulness pervades all his literary works and makes them worthy of study.
Of all his characters, the most memorable and best-known is Nathaniel or Natty Bumppo, the hero of the Leatherstocking novels: “The Deerslayer” (1841), “The Last of the Mohicans” (1826), “The Pathfinder” (1840), “Pioneers” (1823), “The Prairie” (1827). I list the novels in the order that Cooper intended they be read. In “The Deerslayer,” Natty is a youth of 21, already famed as a hunter. “The Prairie” concludes with his death, at age 82, at the foot of the Rockies, facing east. The novels in between present Natty in the prime of life (“Mohicans” and “Pathfinder”). In “Pioneers” Natty is close to 70, and is made a victim of civilization suffering public humiliation for hunting on private land, about which more will follow. The numbers in parentheses give the date of publication, and suggest another way of reading the novels: in the order of composition. For this enables us to understand that the life of Natty Bumppo was a puzzle to Cooper, which he spent 18 years working out or filling in. The early novels “Pioneers,” “Mohicans” and “Prairie” do not stand alone; “Deerslayer” and “Pathfinder” fulfill their wants. The true scholar must read Cooper’s novels in both ways and ponder their meaning. If I had time on my hands, I would consider doing it myself.
Natty was a frontiersman, not in the manner that the historian Frederick Jackson Turner imagined, for whom the frontier was a boundary beyond which there was more wild land for the taking; rather for Natty the frontier was significant because beyond it there was still wilderness; he moved West because there were still forests where he could find shelter, and forest pathways not highways, but animal tracks, of which he had a keen sense. He moved West to escape civilization. The only items of civilization which he prized, and used with consummate skill, were his long rifle and his powder horn which were finely made, and decorous: the handle of his rifle and his powder horn were engraved. He also carried a knife, and a tomahawk. He clothed himself in deerskin, hence the name Leatherstocking. He was also known as the Long-rifle.
It was from Cooper that the historian Perry Miller came upon the notion of the American Sublime; it was the vastness of American wilderness that Cooper imagined was Sublime, but there was also moral sublimity in Natty Bumppo’s Stoicism. These became the core of Cooper’s idea of America. Natty moved West in search of the sublime, when he could go no further, he faced East and died.
Natty had no use for books, and when questioned on this he responded that he read the book of nature, which was sufficient for all his needs. He was a natural philosopher, and in this respect, although unschooled, he exemplified the highest ideals of the Enlightenment. Not only did he respect the order and integrity of nature, which made him a friend of forests and of native peoples, but he perceived in them a nobility and value and lawfulness that was equal to the noblest principles of civilization. Notwithstanding their learning, the founders of this nation could not have had higher aspirations or a nobler one than he. This, of course, was Cooper’s doing; it is the character that he created.
“Pioneers” is the longest of the Leatherstocking novels; it may be the first work of American fiction to treat the environmental consequences of American expansion. It takes place in central New York state, Otsego County, named after Otsego Lake, not far from Cooperstown, which is represented in the novel as Templeton, named after its principle family, the Temples. In the novel, one of the leading characters, Judge Temple, son of Marmaduke Temple, the town’s founder, makes an environmentalist case for the use of fossil fuel, in particular coal. The prolific use of timber to build homes and heat them created an environmental crisis. The forests were disappearing. Coal was the chosen remedy. This is surely an irony of American history, one among many others, which adds to the ambiguity of this nation’s heritage. Cooper did not see this, but Natty Bumppo would have seen it clearly. Fiction can enlarge the scope of the mind. In any case, it is another reason to read Cooper’s novels.
Postscript: Two other novels by Cooper deserve attention. They deal with the American Revolution. “The Spy,” which is the first novel I ever read, also has a memorable protagonist, Harvey Birch, a peddler, who during the American Revolution was a spy for George Washington, who as a means of cover posed as a British loyalist. The other, “Lionel Lincoln” also centers on the conflicting loyalties of Revolutionaries and Loyalists and its tragic consequences.
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