Cooper, James Fenimore 1789-1851

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James Fenimore Cooper


(Has also written under the pseudonym Jane Morgan) American novelist, essayist, biographer, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Cooper's career through 2002.


Cooper is best remembered for his enormously popular novels of the American West, collectively referred to as the Leather-Stocking Tales. The five novels in the series, relating the adventures of the fictional pioneer hero "Hawkeye" Natty Bumppo and his Native American friend Chingachgook, have become literary prototypes for the enduring myth of the American Western frontier. Cooper's combination of adventure and romance with colorful characters set amidst vivid descriptions of rugged frontier life, the pioneer experience, and the wars between Europeans and Native Americans has captured the imagination of generations of readers throughout the world, inspiring numerous western novels, paintings, films, and television shows. The novels of the Leather-Stocking Tales include The Pioneers; or, The Sources of the Susquehanna (1823), The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826), The Prairie: A Tale (1827), The Pathfinder; or, The Inland Sea (1840), and The Deerslayer; or, The First War-Path (1841).


Cooper was born into a prosperous landowning family in New Jersey on September 15, 1789, the twelfth of thirteen children. He eventually took his mother's maiden name, Fenimore, as his middle name. Cooper's ancestors had been English Quakers who settled in America in the late 1600s. His father, William Cooper, amassed large quantities of land in upper New York State, where the family moved when James was one year old. Having sold off numerous parcels of his land to settlers, from which he earned a large fortune, Cooper's father founded Cooperstown, in Otsego County, New York. In addition to being a town father, William Cooper served as a judge and a

member of Congress. Cooper later detailed the history of his father's namesake in The Chronicles of Cooperstown (1838). A privileged child, Cooper attended a private school in Albany, New York, and went on to attend Yale College at the age of thirteen—a common age to begin college in those days. In his junior year at Yale, Cooper was dismissed for his many adolescent pranks, such as bringing a donkey into a classroom. To discipline him, Cooper's father enlisted him as a merchant sailor. With this experience, Cooper went on to join the Navy, serving from 1808 to 1811, and was assigned to the post of midshipman on a brig stationed in Lake Ontario. When his father died, he inherited a wealth of land and money, which allowed him to leave the Navy. That same year, he married Susan Augusta De Lancey, the granddaughter of James De Lancey, who had been a chief justice and governor of New York, as well as a prominent Loyalist during the American Revolution. The couple moved to Scarsdale, New York, near Susan's family, where Cooper began life as a gentleman farmer. His writing career was launched unexpectedly at the age of thirty, with a now-legendary dare from his wife. He had been reading aloud to her one evening from a sentimental English novel, when he suddenly threw the book down in annoyance, saying, "I could write a better book than that!" When Susan challenged him to do so, he began writing a novel, but soon abandoned it. Refusing to give up the challenge, however, he began writing Precaution (1820), a story modeled after Persuasion (1818), Jane Austin's popular novel of manners. Written on a whim, Precaution, the story of an English family's efforts to marry off their daughters, was published anonymously in 1820. Though a poorly written work by literary standards, Precaution achieved a measure of popularity with English and American readers, and Cooper was inspired to write another. His second novel, The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821), is an adventure tale following Harvey Birch, a double agent who served George Washington and the American cause in the Revolution. With the considerable success of this second novel, Cooper soon embraced writing as his lifelong career, leading eventually to his legacy as one of the most popular American novelists of the nineteenth century. His third novel, The Pioneers, was to become the first of what were later known as the Leather-Stocking Tales. Because he himself had never been a frontiersman or explored the American wilderness, Cooper read extensively in researching the subject matter for his novels of the American frontier. He drew much of his information about Native American culture from Accounts of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations (1819), written by Reverend Joseph Heckewelder. Cooper died at the age of sixty-one on September 14, 1851.


The Leather-Stocking Tales comprise five novels, written over a period of twenty years. The hero of these adventure stories is Natty Bumppo, a frontiersman who over the course of his life acquires several nicknames, such as Hawkeye, Pathfinder, Leather-Stocking, and Trapper. In all but one of the novels, Natty is accompanied in his adventures by his friend, a Mohican Indian chief named Chingachgook. Cooper's duo of the white frontier hero and his devoted Native American "sidekick" became the prototype for such twentieth-century Western character duos as The Lone Ranger and Tonto. Cooper's thematic focus throughout the Leather-Stocking Tales revolves around the conflicting values of the rugged individualism of nature placed at odds with the forces of "civilized" social order. Cooper's representation of Native Americans pitted "good" Indians against "bad" Indians, thus expanding the boundaries of common stereotypes of the era that viewed Native Americans collectively as ruthless savages. The Leather-Stocking novels, which are set on the American frontier during the mid-to-late eighteenth century, were not originally published in the chronological order in which the stories take place, but rather the novels skip around to various periods of Natty's life. In 1851 all five novels were collectively reissued, with the narratives now in chronological order, under the title The Leather-Stocking Tales. The first novel of the series, The Pioneers, is set in Templeton, New York, in 1793. Natty Bumppo, a seventy-year-old woodsman living on the outskirts of the town, is sentenced to jail by Judge Marmaduke Templeton for violating the local game hunting laws by killing a deer out of season. After being released from jail, Natty heads further westward, hoping to be free of the constricting laws of settled society. Though Natty is able to escape from Templeton, his Native American friend John Mohegan dies in a fire. Critics have often suggested that the character of Judge Templeton and the fictional town of Templeton were modeled after Cooper's father, Judge Cooper, and his hometown of Cooperstown, though Cooper himself denied any similarities between them. The Last of the Mohicans, the second Leather-Stocking novel and considered by many to be the best, is set in the Adirondack foothills during the French and Indian Wars, at a time when Natty Bumppo is in the prime of middle age. Natty "Hawkeye" and his Mohican Indian friends Chingachgook and Uncas (Chingachgook's son) set out to accompany two young women, Clara and Alice Munro, who hope to join their father, a British colonel, at Fort Henry, which has been besieged by French and Iroquois forces. Over the course of their journey, Uncas falls in love with Clara, who is half-white and half-West-Indian. When Clara and Alice are twice captured by hostile "Mingo" (Huron) Indians, Natty and his friends must rescue them. In a violent struggle, Clara is killed by a Huron Indian. The Huron Indian Magua, the arch-villain of the story, kills Uncas, making him "the last of the Mohicans." Natty then avenges his death by killing Magua. The third novel in the Leather-Stocking series, The Prairie, jumps ahead in time to find Natty Bumppo, now known as the Trapper, an old man in his eighties. The story is set in 1804, when Natty, working as a trapper, heads across the Mississippi River, pushing further west across the Great Plains, hoping to remain free from the encroaching forces of civilization. When a girl is kidnapped, Natty fights against a band of lawless squatters in his efforts to rescue her. As in the other stories, Natty is accompanied by a "good" Indian, a Pawnee called Hard-heart, whose arch foe is a "bad" Sioux Indian by the name of Mahtoree. At the end of The Prairie, Natty, having lived out his natural life, dies and is buried in the wilderness. The Pathfinder, the fourth novel, takes place in the 1750s, when Natty, here called Pathfinder, is in his thirties. This novel combines elements of the sea adventure story with the frontier narrative, recounting events that take place on the waters and shores of Lake Ontario. In the central storyline, Natty comes to the rescue of Mabel Dunham, a young woman traveling to Fort Oswego to see her father, who is stationed there. During the adventure, Natty's friend and companion Chingachgook is pitted against an Iroquois Indian by the name of Arrowhead. By the end of the tale, Natty has fallen in love with Mabel, though he knows in his heart that he could never really settle down to a married life. The final novel in the Leather-Stocking series, The Deerslayer, takes place in 1740, when Natty is a young man in his early twenties. Known for his skills as a hunter, Natty is now called Deerslayer. When a Huron Indian war party attacks the home of a settler and his two daughters, whose cabin is located on Lake Glimmerglass, Natty helps to protect the young women from capture. In the process, he kills an Indian for the first time in his life, and the dying man gives his slayer the nickname Hawkeye, demonstrating his respect for Natty's skills as a warrior. Natty then helps Chingachgook, a young Mohican Indian, to rescue his fiance, who has been captured by the Hurons. When Natty himself is captured in the process, Chingachgook rescues him, and they escape together.


Cooper has been recognized as one of the most important and influential writers in the history of American letters. He has been lauded by many as being the first American novelist to successfully draw on uniquely American settings, conflicts, and themes for his fictional narratives. W. H. Gardiner, in an 1822 review of Cooper's The Spy, made an assertion that was to be reinforced with Cooper's subsequent novels and echoed by generations of critics: "In a word, [Cooper] has laid the foundations of American romance, and is really the first who has deserved the appellation of a distinguished American novel writer." However, the literary quality of Cooper's fiction has generally considered to be less than outstanding. Thus, though his Leather-Stocking novels have been hugely popular with readers, they have also been widely criticized by scholars and critics who regard them as poorly written, commenting that Cooper's prose tends to be wordy and awkward, his dialogue stilted, and his plots overly contrived as well as implausibly melodramatic. Mark Twain argued against Cooper's many stylistic flaws and plot inconsistencies in a scathing and widely circulated essay, first published in 1895, entitled "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." To his credit, critics have expressed admiration for Cooper's unique creation in the character of Natty Bumppo as an embodiment of the spirit of the (Euro-)American experience and an archetype for the American national hero. However, Cooper has been faulted for his depictions of female characters, who are generally considered to be lacking in depth and complexity. Significant criticism of Cooper in the late twentieth century focused on his representations of Native Americans and their conflicts with white settlers in the broader cultural and historical context of American race relations. It has been argued, for instance, that Cooper's delineation of various Native American tribal identities and their histories are largely inaccurate. On the other hand, many have found a degree of depth and complexity in Cooper's characterization of Chingachgook and other Native American figures that render them worthy of serious consideration. Arvid Shulenberger has noted, "Cooper everywhere treated the Indian … as a human being who was just as complex as a white man was likely to be, as 'one who had the soul, reason, and characteristics of a fellow being.'" Moreso than the content of the novels or style in which they were written, Cooper's Leather-Stocking Tales have become perhaps most significant for their enduring influence as an archetype of the American myth of the Western frontier and the defining legend of American nationhood.


The Leather-Stocking Tales

The Pioneers; or, The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale. 2 vols. (novel) 1823

The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. 2 vols. (novel) 1826

The Prairie: A Tale. 3 vols. (novel) 1827

The Pathfinder; or, The Inland Sea. 3 vols. (novel) 1840

The Deerslayer; or, The First War-Path. 2 vols. (novel) 1841

*The Leather-Stocking Tales I [edited by Blake Nevius] (novels) 1985

The Leather-Stocking Tales II [edited by Blake Nevius] (novels) 1985

Other Novels

Precaution [as anonymous] 2 vols. (novel) 1820

The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground [as anonymous] 2 vols. (novel) 1821

The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea. 2 vols. (novel) 1823

Tales of Fifteen; or, Imagination and Heart [as Jane Morgan] (novel) 1823

Lionel Lincoln; or, The Leaguer of Boston. 2 vols. (novel) 1825

The Red Rover. 3 vols. (novel) 1827

The Borderers. 3 vols. (novel) 1829; also published as The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, 2 vols., 1829

The Water Witch; or, The Skimmer of the Seas. 3 vols. (novel) 1830

The Bravo: A Ventian Story. 3 vols. (novel) 1831

The Heidenmauer; or, The Benedictines. 3 vols. (novel) 1832; also published as The Heidenmauer; or, The Benedictines: A Legend of the Rhine, 2 vols., 1832

The Headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. 3 vols. (novel) 1833

The Monikins. 3 vols. (novel) 1835

Home as Found. 2 vols. (novel) 1838; also published as Eve Effinggham; or, Home as Found, 3 vols., 1838

Homeward Bound; or, The Chase: A Tale of the Sea. 3 vols. (novel) 1838

Mercedes of Castille; or, The Voyage to Cathay. 2 vols. (novel) 1840

The Jack O'Lantern (Le Feu Follet): or, The Privateer. 3 vols. (novel) 1842; also published as The Wing-and-Wing, or, Le Feu-Follet, 2 vols., 1842

The Two Admirals. 3 vols. (novel) 1842

Le Mouchoir: An Autobiographical Romance. (novel) 1843; also published as The French Governess; or, The Embroidered Handkerchief, 1843

Wyandotté: or, The Hutted Knoll. 3 vols. (novel) 1843

Afloat and Ashore: or, The Adventures of Miles Wallingford. 3 vols. (novel) 1844

The Chainbearer; or, The Littlepage Manuscripts. 3 vols. (novel) 1845

Satanstoe; or, The Family of Little Page: A Tale of the Colony. 3 vols. (novel) 1845; also published as Satanstoe; or, The Littlepage Manuscripts: A Tale of the Colony, 2 vols., 1845

Ravensnest; or, The Redskins. 3 vols. (novel) 1846; also published as The Redskins; or, Indian and Injin: Being the Conclusion of the Littlepage Manuscripts, 2 vols., 1846

Mark's Reef; or, The Crater. A Tale of the Pacific. 3 vols. (novel) 1847; also published as The Crater; or Vulcan's Peak. A Tale of the Pacific, 2 vols., 1847

Jack Tier; or, The Florida Reef. 2 vols. (novel) 1848; also published as Captain Spike; or, The Islets of the Gulf, 3 vols., 1848

The Sea Lions; or, The Lost Sealers. 3 vols. (novel) 1849

The Ways of the Hour. 3 vols. (novel) 1850


Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Traveling Bachelor. 2 vols. (criticism) 1828

Letter of J. Fenimore Cooper to Gen. Lafayette, on the Expenditure of the United States of America (correspondence and criticism) 1831

A Letter to His Countrymen (essays and criticism) 1834

Ned Myers; or, A Life before the Mast. 2 vols. (biography) 1843

Early Critical Essays, 1820-1822 [edited by James F. Beard, Jr.] (essays and criticism) 1955


Cooper's Novels. 32 vols. (novels) 1859-1861

The Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper. 2 vols. (correspondence) 1922

The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. 6 vols. [edited by James F. Beard, Jr.] (correspondence and journals) 1960-1968

The Writings of James Fenimore Cooper. 16 vols. [edited by James F. Beard, Jr. and others] (novels and nonfiction) 1980-1991

*Collects The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Prairie.

†Collects The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer.

The Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper was edited by James Fenimore Cooper, Cooper's grandson.


Arvid Shulenberger (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Shulenberger, Arvid. "The Leather-Stocking Tales." In Cooper's Theory of Fiction: His Prefaces and Their Relation to His Novels, pp. 75-92. Lawrence, Kans.: University of Kansas Publications, 1955.

[In the following essay, Shulenberger discusses Cooper's prefaces to various editions of "The Leather-Stocking Tales," examining Cooper's statements about his theories of literature in relation to the narrative texts of the novels themselves.]

"You knew the Leather-Stocking, commodore?"

"No, young lady, I am sorry to say I never had the pleasure of looking on him even. He was a great man! They may talk of their Jeffersons and Jacksons, but I set down Washington and Natty Bumppo as the two only really great men of my time."

—from a conversation in Home as Found , chap. XIV

The five novels which make up Cooper's greatest work were written over a period of twenty years (1822 to 1841), and were not published together in their narrative order until 1850-51, when Cooper prepared new prefaces for each of the novels and for the Tales as a single work. Their publication as a unit was almost the final achievement of his career as a novelist. The novels show his late and his early manner at their best, and strikingly exemplify his major theories; he wrote none of them during his middle career. The series can be read as a single romance, or the parts as independent novels; together they show to some degree every important aspect of Cooper's genius. All but one of them would have to be included in any list of Cooper's best fiction; though The Prairie is defective in its design, it, too, is in other respects one of his better novels.

It is because the [Leather-Stocking Tales ,] which Cooper viewed as his major work, exhibit in text and in the prefaces written for them the chief concerns of Cooper's theory and practice, that they are here considered together. The prefaces show the major aspects of his critical thinking in summary. A consideration of the novels in connection with them will also show certain lacunae in his theory. In particular, he does not consider at length in the prefaces the "minor plots" or narratives of the individual Tales ; I have supplied brief summaries of the narratives to show his theoretical views in some relief against aspects of his practice, and to show the exemplification in "minor plot" of his explicitly stated "major plot" of theme and ideal conflict.

The major unifying element in the Leather-Stocking Tales is the life of a single character, Nathaniel Bumppo, who is the hero of all five under a succession of names—Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Pathfinder, Leather Stocking, and the Trapper. A secondary figure in all but one of the novels (he dies in the fourth) is the Mohican chief Chingachgook, close friend of Leather-Stocking and almost his shadow in most of the narratives of action.

The novels are highly dissimilar in narrative structure, ranging from The Pioneers , which is primarily a frontier novel of manners (a "descriptive tale") based on Cooper's memories of boyhood, to The Last of the Mohicans , the purest romance of chase and war of the series. The Pathfinder is even in large part a Cooper sea story, and perhaps the most complex novelistically of the lot; it is the one Cooper himself rated highest in his late years.

The author's fourteen prefaces to the five novels include one of his very earliest, written for The Pioneers in 1823, and some of his best late criticism as well. The major arguments of his early criticism, not only of The Pioneers but of the other early novels as well, are, first, that fictional representation should be realistic, and, second, that the real American scene is not sufficiently rich or varied. Ghosts, murders, and castles, he said, could hardly be found in America, and therefore had no place in American fiction. His theory of realism apparently rose rather from his opposition, in practice, to the Gothic and sentimental, than from any more purely theoretical concerns. Though troubled by the poverty of the native scene and the monotony of American character, Cooper regarded himself as fairly committed to their portrayal.

Cooper's light-hearted preface to the first edition of The Last of the Mohicans reveals chiefly a lack of any great moral concern. With The Prairie his critical interest centers on his major character, the Leather-Stocking, who was being presented for the third time, but he also deals again with the difficulties of describing a setting that has no "poetical associations."

Cooper's first and last prefaces to The Pioneers show most clearly by contrast the change that occurred in his theory of fiction. In his late criticism generally, Cooper opposes realism, and asserts the author's right to "a poetical view of the subject." He is much less concerned with detail than in the early novels (or prefaces) and emphasizes the importance of the design, the conception of a work of fiction, as more important than the execution. He is more concerned with principle, less with manners, more aware of the general than the particular. Perhaps as a result of this shift in emphasis and opinion, he is not much concerned in his late prefaces with the poverty of the American scene as a setting for fiction. The change in his theory is reflected and illustrated in the novels.

On points of less importance, Cooper's early views differ little from the late. His early prefaces are the lighter and more humorous in tone; in the latest he no longer felt any need to attack Gothic or the older sentimental fiction. On such matters as critics and audience, the treatment of historical data, morality and patriotism generally, his views were consistent throughout his career, though his expression of them, again, indicates some shift in emphasis. The shift is all toward a greater concern with general moral questions.

Cooper's incidental remarks on particular novels are hardly reducible to a summary treatment, nor is it likely that such a treatment would be in accord with his intentions in writing the prefaces. This is not to say that his views are inconsistent or haphazard, but that they were offered as incidental opinions, arising out of his practice as a novelist, and were probably not intended to have too formal a construction placed upon them as a unit. It is a question, for instance, how rigidly he would apply the classification of novels which emerges from a reading of all his prefaces. He speaks at various times of the descriptive tale, the narrative, the historical novel, the roman de société, the chronicle of manners, the moral tale, the sea story and love story, and above all of the romance. The terms are suggestive, and relevant to a discussion of his fiction, but classification with Cooper was an ad hoc procedure, not a system of cataloguing. The terms do suggest the many sorts of novels he wrote, and suggest moreover that he intended to write many kinds of novels. His last Leather-Stocking novels are of the kind most widely associated with Cooper's name; they "aspire to the elevation of romances."1 The first-written of the tales, The Pioneers , is another successful kind of his fiction, the "descriptive tale" or novel of manners. Almost all of Cooper's novels might be placed somewhere on a scale extending from the novel of manners, at one end, to the pure romance of adventure, at the other. Both sorts are found in the Leather-Stocking Tales.

The best introduction to the Leather-Stocking Tales as a unit is still that written for it by Cooper, who treats of their order of publication, the narrative order, the defects of the author's method, the hero, the treatment of the Indian, the moral intention of the series, and the characteristics of "romance" or the kind of fiction Cooper intended the series as a whole to represent. As Cooper's last important statement on fiction, it merits further discussion, and quotation in its entirety. In the first two paragraphs, he deals at greatest length with the chronology of writing and publishing the Tales , but with a few other matters as well:

This series of stories, which has obtained the name of "The Leather-Stocking Tales," has been written in a very desultory and in-artificial manner. The order in which the several books appeared was essentially different from that in which they would have been presented to the world, had the regular course of their incidents been consulted. In The Pioneers , the first of the series written, the Leather-Stocking is represented as already old, and driven from his early haunts in the forest, by the sound of the axe, and the smoke of the settler. The Last of the Mohicans , the next book in the order of publication, carried the readers back to a much earlier period in the history of our hero, representing him as middle-aged, and in the fullest vigor of manhood. In The Prairie , his career terminates, and he is laid in his grave. There, it was originally the intention to leave him, in the expectation that, as in the case of the human mass, he would soon be forgotten. But a latent regard for this character induced the author to resuscitate him in The Pathfinder , a book that was not long after succeeded by The Deerslayer , thus completing the series as it now exists.

While the five books that have been written were originally published in the order just mentioned, that of the incidents, insomuch as they are connected with the career of their principal character, is, as has been stated, very different. Taking the life of the Leather-Stocking as a guide, The Deerslayer should have been the opening book, for in that work he is seen just emerging into manhood; to be succeeded by The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers , and The Prairie. This arrangement embraces the order of events, though far from being that in which the books at first appeared. The Pioneers was published in 1822;2The Deerslayer in 1841, making the interval between them nineteen years. Whether these progressive years have had a tendency to lessen the value of the last-named book by lessening the native fire of its author, or of adding somewhat in the way of improved taste and a more matured judgment, is for others to decide.3

Cooper's changes of intention with regard to the narrative content and length of the series are made clear enough in the passage above. The three Tales written in the 1820's were considered, on the completion of The Prairie , to comprise the whole series. Of more interest is the fact that it was not a consideration of the narrative at all, or of a general theme, that led Cooper to continue and round out the story, but "a latent regard" for the character Leather-Stocking.

The other matter of critical importance in the paragraphs is the reference to the "improved taste and a more matured judgment," as distinct from the "native fire" which might be superior in the novels written earlier. The fact that such diverse critics as William Cullen Bryant and D. H. Lawrence have praised the first-written book of the series very highly may indicate that Cooper was right in suspecting that the intensity of The Pioneers may give it as much real value as the later novels which he himself rated higher.

Cooper continues, in the preface, with a brief prediction concerning the permanence of the Tales ' reputation:

"If anything from the pen of the writer of these romances is at all to outlive himself, it is, unquestionably, the series of 'The Leather-Stocking Tales.' To say this, is not to predict a very lasting reputation for the series itself, but simply to express the belief it will outlast any, or all, of the works from the same hand."

The two novels of the series which appeared in the 1840's had a much narrower circulation, in Cooper's lifetime, than the earlier ones. This was natural in a period of magazines, gift-books, and competing novelists, but Cooper sees other causes for the novels' lack of success:

It is undeniable that the desultory manner in which "The Leather-Stocking Tales" were written, has, in a measure, impaired their harmony, and otherwise lessened their interest. This is proved by the fate of the two books last published, though probably the two most worthy an enlightened and cultivated reader's notice. If the facts could be ascertained, it is probable that the result would show that of all those (in America, in particular) who have read the three first books of the series, not one in ten has a knowledge of the existence even of the two last. Several causes have tended to produce this result. The long interval of time between the appearance of The Prairie and that of The Pathfinder , was itself a reason why the later books of the series should be overlooked. There was no longer novelty to attract attention, and the interest was materially impaired by the manner in which events were necessarily anticipated, in laying the last of the series first before the world. With the generation that is now coming on the stage this fault will be partially removed by the edition contained in the present work, in which the several tales will be arranged solely in reference to their connexion with each other.

The foregoing comment on the impairment of readers' interests is one of his few references to the value of the narrative itself, a value which he observes was lost through the original order of publication. It is an odd fact that the Leather-Stocking Tales , as a single work published in narrative sequence, were very nearly a posthumous work as well.

As is appropriate in the consideration of a work in which the central character is the chief point of concern, the major part of the preface, the three paragraphs following, are given over to a discussion of the Leather-Stocking himself.

The author has often been asked if he had any original in his mind, for the character of Leather-Stocking. In a physical sense, different individuals known to the writer in early life, certainly presented themselves as models, through his recollections; but in a moral sense this man of the forest is purely a creation. The idea of delineating a character that possessed little of civilization but its highest principles as they are exhibited in the uneducated, and all of savage life that is not incompatible with these great rules of conduct, is perhaps natural to the situation in which Natty was placed. He is too proud of his origin to sink into the condition of the wild Indian, and too much a man of the woods not to imbibe as much as was at all desirable, from his friends and companions. In a moral point of view it was the intention to illustrate the effect of seed scattered by the wayside. To use his own language, his "gifts" were "white gifts," and he was not disposed to bring on them discredit. On the other hand, removed from nearly all the temptations of civilized life, placed in the best associations of that which is deemed savage, and favorably disposed by nature to improve such advantages, it appeared to the writer that his hero was a fit subject to represent the better qualities of both conditions, without pushing either to extremes.

In this passage Cooper is concerned to prove that his hero is a believable creation, and, simultaneously, to make clear that he is not intended as a typical woodsman. The typical woodsman, as he remarks, is a common figure enough; the originality and significance of the Leather-Stocking rests in his moral character. The moral intention, "to illustrate the effect of seed scattered by the way side," may be taken as the leading intention of Cooper in writing at least two of the novels. This is much more obvious in the novels written last than in a novel like The Pioneers , in which there is more concern for such a nonmoral theme as the clash of the wilderness and civilization.

The character of Natty Bumppo is further accounted for in another paragraph:

There was no violent stretch of the imagination, perhaps, in supposing one of civilized associations in childhood, retaining many of his earliest lessons amid the scenes of the forest. Had these early impressions, however, not been sustained by continued, though casual connexion with men of his own color, if not of his own caste, all our information goes to show he would soon have lost every trace of his origin. It is believed that sufficient attention was paid to the particular circumstances in which this individual was placed to justify the picture of his qualities that has been drawn. The Delawares early attracted the attention of the missionaries, and were a tribe unusually influenced by their precepts and example. In many instances they became Christians, and cases occurred in which their subsequent lives gave proof of the efficacy of the great moral changes that had taken place within them.

Having thus argued from fact that moral influences in the American wilderness were adequate to affect strongly the character of Natty Bumppo, Cooper considers next the idealization in which he intentionally indulged in depicting Bumppo:

A leading character in a work of fiction has a fair right to the aid which can be obtained from a poetical view of the subject. It is in this view, rather than in one more strictly circumstantial, that Leather-Stocking has been drawn. The imagination has no great task in portraying to itself a being removed from the every-day inducements to err, which abound in civilized life, while he retains the best and simplest of his early impressions; who sees God in the forest; hears him in the winds; bows to him in the firmament that o'ercanopies all; submits to his sway in an humble belief of his justice and mercy; in a word, a being who finds the impress of the Deity in all the works of Nature, without any of the blots produced by the expedients, and passions, and mistakes of man. This is the most that has been attempted in the character of Leather-Stocking. Had this been done without any of the drawbacks of humanity, the picture would have been, in all probability, more pleasing than just. In order to preserve the vraisemblable, therefore, traits derived from the prejudices, tastes, and even the weaknesses of his youth, have been mixed up with these higher qualities and longings, in a way, it is hoped, to represent a reasonable picture of human nature, without offering to the spectator a "monster of goodness."

This characterization of his hero is more clearly appropriate to the Leather-Stocking of The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder than to the same figure in the novels written during Cooper's early period. The "drawbacks of humanity" are more evident in the old hunter of The Pioneers and in Hawkeye of The Last of the Mohicans. Cooper's opposition of the poetical to the circumstantial is characteristic of his late theory; the poetical is the idealized and generalized. A minor point is that Cooper was of course a believer in the vraisemblable in fiction, if such an appearance of truth did not conceal a lack of principle. But the principle was of greater concern to him than the appearance.

The Indians in his novels are defended in the last two paragraphs:

It has been objected to these books that they give a more favorable picture of the red man than he deserves. The writer apprehends that much of this objection arises from the habits of those who have made it. One of his critics, on the appearance of the first work in which Indian character was portrayed, objected that its "characters were Indians of the school of Heckewelder, rather than of the school of Nature."4 These words quite probably contain the substance of the true answer to the objection. Heckewelder was an ardent, benevolent missionary, bent on the good of the red man, and seeing in him one who had the soul, reason, and characteristics of a fellow-being. The critic is understood to have been a very distinguished agent of the government, one very familiar with Indians, as they are seen at the councils to treat for the sale of their lands, where little or none of their domestic qualities come into play, and where, indeed, their evil passions are known to have the fullest scope. As just would it be to draw conclusions of the general state of American society from the scenes of the capital, as to suppose that the negotiating of one of these treaties is a fair picture of Indian life.

It is the privilege of all writers of fiction, more particularly when their works aspire to the elevation of romances, to present the beau-idéal of their characters to the reader. This it is which constitutes poetry, and to suppose that the red man is to be represented only in the squalid misery or in the degraded moral state that certainly more or less belongs to his condition, is, we apprehend, taking a very narrow view of an author's privileges. Such criticism would have deprived the world of even Homer.

This defense follows the order of argument he had used with respect to Natty Bumppo; first the Indians are defended on the grounds of realism and by an appeal to authority, then as idealized figures. The greater part of this preface, given over to the problem of character in fiction, consistently defends his late practice.

The Leather-Stocking Tales , Cooper once observed, are "something like a drama in five acts";5 in the first the hero is tried and proved in his youth, in the second he is shown in action at the height of his powers; in the third he is involved in love and ambition, and defeated by them; in the fourth he is opposed by the forces of civilization, is defeated again and driven from his forests; in the last he dies on the Great Plains, in exile and honor.

The Deerslayer, or, The First Warpath is the story of eight days in the life of Nathaniel Bumppo, a youth of twenty, in June, circa 1740. The setting is Cooper's home lake, the Otsego, called the Glimmerglass in this story. There are two major actions in the novel, which occur simultaneously and are much interwoven; the first is Deerslayer's and his Mohican friend's rescue of the Indian girl Hist; the second is the career and downfall of a white family living on the Glimmerglass, a group with which Deerslayer is involved in several ways.

In his prefatory comment, however, Cooper was concerned with his characters rather than his "minor plot." Morally and intellectually the characters are distributed over a scale ranging from high to low. The most extreme character of this type undoubtedly is Hetty Hutter; she is depicted as a half-witted girl of the finest moral nature. Her sister Judith is a beauty of questionable morals. Cooper discussed the two:

The intention has been to put the sisters in strong contrast; one an admirable person, clever, filled with the pride of beauty, erring and fallen; the other, barely provided with sufficient capacity to know good from evil, instinct, notwithstanding, with the virtues of woman, reverencing and loving God, and yielding only to the weakness of her sex in admiring personal attractions in one too coarse and unobservant to distinguish or to understand her quiet, gentle feeling in his favor. [Hetty is depicted in the novel as being fond of a handsome but evil man.]6

Cooper wrote also of his protagonist:

In this book the hero is represented as just arriving at manhood, with the freshness of feeling that belongs to that interesting period of life, and with the power to please that properly characterizes youth. As a consequence, he is loved; and, what denotes the real waywardness of humanity, more than it corresponds with theories and moral propositions, perhaps, he is loved by one full of art, vanity and weakness; and loved principally for his sincerity, his modesty, and his unerring truth and probity. The preference he gives to the high qualities named over beauty, delirious passion and sin, it is hoped, will offer a lesson that can injure none. This portion of the book is intentionally kept down, though it is thought to be sufficiently distinct to convey its moral.7

In all but the most moralistic of his late novels, the didactic element is "intentionally kept down" and left to be inferred from the events.

Cooper also defended his conception of Indian character. He did this in what is in fact a rather severe manner, by identifying his critics' views (which are the views expressed in such "realistic" Indian novels as Bird's Nick of the Woods [1837]) with the views of the worst white men in the novel. Of one of these he observes, for instance, "Like most vulgar-minded men, he had only regarded the Indians through the medium of their coarser and fiercer characteristics. It had never struck him that the affections are human."8 Cooper everywhere treated the Indian, in fact, as a human being who was just as complex as a white man was likely to be, as "one who had the soul, reason, and characteristics of a fellow-being."9

In narrative order the second of the Tales is The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. Unlike The Deerslayer , it is a novel of flight and pursuit; and, also unlike it, has a narrative made up of two actions run successively rather than simultaneously. The first of the two actions is a minor foreshadowing of the second, and both are reducible to a scheme of capture, pursuit, and recapture. In tone it is wholly different from The Deerslayer ; it is the least moralistic of the five novels, and the fastest-paced. On its publication, the author termed it too shocking for ladies, too realistic for timid males, and insufficiently moral for clergymen. Aside from such strictures, his jocular early preface raises few serious points of criticism. Considered in the light of Cooper's expressed views on fiction, The Last of the Mohicans is one of the least significant of his novels. In the final preface (in large part a rewrite of the earlier London preface) he had little to say about anything but the background of the story. In the early preface Cooper had termed the book a "narrative," and on the problems of narrative he never had much to say. This novel more than any other of the Tales makes clear how incomplete his explicit theorizing was in certain respects, for the book is one of Cooper's best only as a story of adventure. It is neither very closely organized nor much concerned with important issues; its virtues rest in the rapidity of its action. By comparison, The Deerslayer is a static novel, in a calm lake setting that accords with its themes of purity and constancy.

Though Cooper had dozens of imitators in the fiction of the sea, and as many in that of the wilderness, The Pathfinder could have been outlined by no one but himself. The novel combines wilderness chases, sea chases and storms (on Lake Ontario), Indians, sailors, soldiers, and frontiersmen, all in one complex narrative. It is the story of Leather-Stocking in love, and of the rivalries and adventures incidental to such a crisis in his career. Of the hero Cooper wrote, "In The Last of the Mohicans he appears as Hawkeye, and is present at the death of young Uncas; while in this tale, he re-appears in the same war of '56, in company with his Mohican friend, still in the vigor of manhood, and young enough to feel that master passion to which all conditions of men, all tempers, and we might say, all ages, submit, under circumstances that are incited to call it into existence."10

The time setting is a little uncertain; it can be no more than a year or two after 1757, while Leather-Stocking is still under forty. "There are a few discrepancies in the facts of this work," Cooper observed, "as connected with the facts of the different books of the series. They are not material, and it was thought fairer to let them stand as proof of the manner in which the books were originally written, than to make any changes in the text."11 The story takes place in seventeen or eighteen days of autumn, on Lake Ontario and its shores—from Fort Oswego to Niagara and the Thousand Islands. The narrative is based on a variety of contests and oppositions; Pathfinder and a young lake sailor compete for the hand of a sergeant's daughter; the lake sailor is at odds with an ocean mariner; a Scotch lieutenant is another suitor and one of the two villains. Leather-Stocking's love affair is a defection from his main career, an involvement with civilization, and a defeat for him—the first defeat in the series of tales. He had not, as Cooper observed, "ever known an ambitious thought, as ambition usually betrays itself, until he became acquainted with Mabel."12

The Pathfinder is the richest and most various in plot of all the Leather-Stocking Tales. Cooper wrote, "By the best judges, this book has been placed at the top of the series to which it belongs; and perhaps justly. It is certainly a better book than Prairie , which had hitherto headed the list."13The Deerslayer (published a year later) was in the author's final view its only serious rival; he said of the latter, "In some respects it is a better book; though I think not as a whole."14

Leather-Stocking's habits of speech are described and accounted for briefly in this novel. The richness of his metaphors Cooper credited to "a poetry that he had unconsciously imbibed by his long association with the Delawares."15 Cooper was at some pains to account for his hero's vocabulary: "'I waited till their nap was over,' [Pathfinder observes] 'and they well on the warpath again; and by ambushing them here, and flanking them there, I peppered the blackguards intrinsically like.'" Apropos of this remark the author observed, "Pathfinder occasionally caught a fine word from his associates and used it a little vaguely—…"16 Nevertheless, despite such occasional references to figures of speech and diction, it is true that Cooper's lack of expressed concern for stylistic elements in the novels constitutes another gap in his theory. For evidence of his concern with style one must go to such revisions of the novels themselves as that accomplished in The Spy.

Though by Cooper's late standards The Pathfinder is undoubtedly the best novel of the series, and one which attains most successfully "the elevation of romance," it has seemed to several critics to be no better than the next story in the series, The Pioneers.

The Pioneers; or, The Sources of the Susquehanna is a novel of manners set in the locale and time of Cooper's own childhood. The village of Templeton in the novel is clearly Cooperstown, and many of the fictional characters had their originals in real life. In his late preface to the novel, Cooper wrote in some detail of his setting and characters:

In order to prevent mistake, it may be well to say that the incidents of this tale are purely a fiction. The literal facts are chiefly connected with the natural and artificial objects, and the customs of the inhabitants. Thus the academy, and courthouse, and jail, and inn and most similar things, are tolerably exact. They have all, long since, given place to other buildings of a more pretending character. There is also some liberty taken with the truth in the description of the principal dwelling: the real building had no "firstly" and "lastly." It was of bricks, and not of stone; and its roof exhibited none of the peculiar beauties of the "composite order." It was erected in an age too primitive for that ambitious school of architecture. But the Author indulged his recollections freely when he had fairly entered the door. Here all is literal, even to the severed arm of Wolfe, and the urn which held the ashes of Queen Dido.

The Author has elsewhere said that the character of Leather-Stocking is a creation, rendered probable by such auxiliaries as were necessary to produce that effect. Had he drawn still more upon fancy, the lovers of fiction would not have so much cause for their objections to his work. Still the picture would not have been in the least true, without some substitutes for most of the other personages. The great proprietor resident on his lands, and giving his name to, instead of receiving it from his estates, as in Europe, is common over the whole of New York. The physician, with his theory, rather obtained than corrected by experiments on the human constitution; the pious, self denying, laborious, and ill-paid missionary; the half-educated, litigious, envious, and disreputable lawyer, with his counterpoise, a brother of the profession, of better origin and better character; the shiftless, bargaining, discontented seller of his "betterments;" the plausible carpenter, and most of the others, are more familiar to all who have ever dwelt in a new country.17

The above passage has interest as an example of Cooper's late criticism, in its mention of the difficulties which he admits he might have had in finding substitutes for the literal detail which abounds in the book. The "picture," as he observed, "would not have been in the least true" with respect to the minor characters if the hero were more idealized. And as Cooper plainly realized, a great charm of the book rested in the variety and particularity of the minor characters. Hiram Doolittle, Major Hartmann, M'sieu Le Quoi, Remarkable Pettibone, Richard Jones, and Benjamin Pump are as distinct, authentic, and interesting a gallery of minor figures as appear in any fiction of the period. The memorable features of The Pioneers are almost incidental to the story; as a depiction of the minutiae of American frontier manners it is probably without an equal. Kennedy's Swallow Barn is perhaps its only competitor of the period; but the latter book shows an Irvingesque softness, and lacks Cooper's intensity. Cooper suggested the significance of the book in the verses of Paulding which he used as an epigraph to the novel:

Extremes of habits, manners, time and space,
Brought close together, here stood face to face,
And gave at once a contrast to the view,
That other lands and ages never knew.18

The "minor plot" of the novel involves Leather-Stocking in a conflict with the resident proprietor of the frontier village of Templeton. In the dénouement the Leather-Stocking proves to be a representative of his old military leader, Major Effingham, who has a pre-Revolution claim to the very lands the proprietor holds. The proprietor proves a just man and admits the claim, but the Leather-Stocking himself sets out for the wilds, defeated by civilization.

The Pioneers did not really fit Cooper's developed theory of fiction very well, and he apologized for it more than once in some such terms as the following, from his last preface to the story:

As this work professes, in its title-page, to be a descriptive tale, they who will take the trouble to read it may be glad to know how much of its contents is literal fact, and how much is intended to represent a general picture. The Author is very sensible that, had he confined himself to the latter, always the most effective, as it is the most valuable, mode of conveying knowledge of this nature, he would have made a far better book. But in commencing to describe scenes, and perhaps he may add characters, that were so familiar to his own youth, there was constant temptation to delineate that which he had known, rather than that which he might have imagined. This rigid adhesion to truth, an indispensable requisite in history and travels, destroys the charm of fiction; for all that is necessary to be conveyed to the mind by the latter had better be done by delineations of principles, and of characters in their classes, than by a too fastidious attention to originals.19

Yet Cooper's real opinion of The Pioneers may not have been adequately suggested by the foregoing passage. He wrote the book, as he had said in his first preface, "to please himself," not his public, and it seems always to have represented to him a personal value and pleasure which he thought the world at large could never share with him. The closing paragraph of his final preface distinguishes between what may have been his private as opposed to his public opinion: "From circumstances which, after this introduction, will be obvious to all, the Author has had more pleasure in writing The Pioneers than the book will, probably, ever give any of his readers. He is aware of its numerous faults, some of which he has endeavored to repair in this edition; but as he has—in intention, at least—done his full share in amusing the world, he trusts its good nature for overlooking this attempt to please himself."20

The crux of the matter is just that The Pioneers exemplifies perfectly Cooper's early "realist" theory, that an American novel must truthfully represent its subject without exaggeration or idealization. The Pioneers can perhaps be most profitably contrasted with The Deerslayer , Cooper's other Leather-Stocking novel set in the same locale. Briefly, the chief virtues of The Pioneers are those of detail, as one would suspect from the prefaces, and the chief virtues of the other novel are those of the conception as a whole. The books are quite unlike in method, structure, and feeling; The Deerslayer exemplifies

Cooper's late theory of fiction exactly, and The Pioneers does not exemplify it at all; or at best, in the terms of his late criticism, it may be taken to exhibit more strongly what he called the "native fire" of the author.

The Pioneers is also the most important biographically of Cooper's novels. It is a portrait of the artist's background and milieu, with the artist himself omitted. It stands at the opposite extreme from such a novel as the narcissistic masterpiece of Joyce, a book in which no one but the artist has a continuous existence. The Pioneers reveals much about Cooper; it is a crucial novel for the study of him or his fiction, and has both a genuine historicity and an extraordinary depth of feeling that make it one of his most important works for modern readers. From it and the long novel Afloat and Ashore one can probably gain a better understanding of Cooper than from any biography of the man.

Leather-Stocking appears on the scene alone in the final story of the series; he is the aged trapper of The Prairie , more than eighty years old in the autumn of 1804. In his preface to the late edition Cooper again commented on the novel in terms of its major character:

This book closes the career of Leather-Stocking. Pressed upon by time, he has ceased to be the hunter and the warrior, and has become a trapper of the great West. The sound of the axe has driven him from his beloved forests to seek a refuge, by a species of desperate resignation, on the denuded plains that stretch to the Rocky Mountains. Here he passes the few closing years of his life, dying as he had lived, a philosopher of the wilderness, with few of the failings, none of the vices, and all the nature and truth of his position.21

The Prairie is in narrative structure the weakest of the Leather-Stocking Tales. In his extreme old age, the Trapper is the guide and leader of various white newcomers to the Great Plains. A caravan of squatters, Ishmael Bush's family and retainers, is depicted at the opening of the book pushing its way toward the Rocky Mountains. The travellers are assisted by the old trapper, and set upon by the Sioux. A girl, a ward of Bush, is being secretly followed by her lover. The weakest part of the story involves another action and set of characters: Bush's brother-in-law Abiram White is a kidnapper, carrying off a young aristocratic Creole beauty, the bride of one Duncan Middleton. Why the Creole bride is being carried off toward the Rockies is never explained. The story ends with the two pairs of lovers reunited, and the moral character of the Trapper (on which some doubts have been cast) vindicated. The time of the whole action is something under three weeks.

Cooper's daughter later reported her father's criticism of this novel, which is another of his few statements concerning "minor plot": "At a later day, when revising his works for a final edition, the writer expressed much regret that he had not confined the characters to those naturally connected with the ground, the rude backwoodsman and his family group, with the Pawnees and Dacotahs, all moving about Natty as a common centre. The introduction of Inez and Middleton, he declared a great blemish."22 This comment on the narrative was made at the time when Cooper was preparing the final edition of the Tales , but it notably does not appear in the preface he wrote then. Other matters than character, moral theme, and moral or ideal conflict were undoubtedly present in Cooper's thought concerning the novels; such other matters were of lesser importance to him and he thought them, so far as the reader can judge, of lesser importance in the fiction itself.

Cooper's late views on the Leather-Stocking Tales , the work which he considered his chief contribution to literature, exhibit in brief the literary-moral opinions at which he arrived in the course of thirty years as a writer. These views contrast strongly with his earliest expressed opinions of the three Tales written in the 1820's, and show plainly the single major shift in Cooper's theory of fiction. Neither early nor late, in writing about the Leather-Stocking Tales , did he put forth the kind of argument against vraisemblance which was characteristic of his fiction and prefaces of the middle period; that argument, for truth over mere "seemliness," did not contradict his other major views but was a side-issue stemming from his general concern for truth.

Cooper's first theory on fictional method developed directly out of his practice, in which he deliberately avoided the excesses of the sentimental and Gothic schools, and followed the example of realistic depiction set by such writers as Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth. In his later years, his increased interest in moral questions, his stricter opinions, and his belief that the most important elements in fiction were the moral principles it illustrated, led him to another theory on method. This late method required the generalized or idealistic representation of character and situation; its aim was the delineation of principle.


  1. Preface to the Leather-Stocking Tales. See p. 83.
  2. Actually in February, 1823. It was written in 1822.
  3. Preface entitled "Preface to the Leather-Stocking Tales," The Deerslayer (New York, 1850).
  4. The critic was Lewis Cass, writing in The North American Review, XXVI (April, 1828), 373.
  5. First preface to The Deerslayer, above, p. 62.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. The Deerslayer, chap. XIX.
  9. Preface to the Leather-Stocking Tales, above, p. 83.
  10. Preface to The Pathfinder (New York, 1851).
  11. Ibid.
  12. The Pathfinder, chap. XXVI.
  13. Clavel, Fenimore Cooper and His Critics, p. 399.
  14. Ibid.
  15. The Pathfinder, chap. IV.
  16. Ibid., chap. XXVII.
  17. Preface to The Pioneers (New York, 1850).
  18. From The Backwoodsman (New York, 1818).
  19. Preface to The Pioneers (New York, 1850).
  20. Ibid.
  21. Preface to The Prairie (New York, 1851).
  22. Susan Fenimore Cooper, The Cooper Gallery; or, Pages and Pictures … (New York, 1865), p. 157.

H. Daniel Peck (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Peck, H. Daniel. "The Forest Enclosure: Treasures and Secrets." In A World by Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper's Fiction, pp. 67-88. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, Peck explores Cooper's representations of "huts" (wilderness dwellings) in his novels, asserting that these huts "contain the secrets of the novels themselves, the answers to the ideological and moral questions they ask."]

Our house, apprehended in its dream potentiality, becomes a nest in the world, and we shall live there in complete confidence if, in our dreams, we really participate in the sense of security of our first home.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Ben Boden takes possession of his glade in the oak openings by building a shanty which he affectionately calls "Castle Meal." The name is actually "a corruption of 'Château au Miel'" (30), but in either the pure or corrupt form it suggests sustenance and amenity. The shanty's utter simplicity and its organic relationship to the environment link it to all the other legendary huts in Cooper's fiction. In The Pioneers , Natty Bumppo inhabits "a rough cabin of logs, built against the foot of a rock" (259), and Harvey Birch's secret hut in The Spy is also built into the earth: "Three sides of this singular edifice … were composed of logs laid alternately on each other, to a little more than the height of a man; and the fourth was formed by the rock against which it leaned" (404).

Bachelard has written of the image of the hut, that its "truth must derive from the intensity of its essence, which is the essence of the verb 'to inhabit.' The hut immediately becomes centralized solitude, for in the land of legend, there exists no adjoining hut." Castle Meal is possessed of this legendary quality. It exists in a "remote … part of the world" (32), and Cooper leaves no doubt that "Ben loved the solitude of his situation" (34). His situation is analogous to the "deep forest seclusion" (224) of Andries Coejemans in The Chainbearer. The Chainbearer's hut, like Ben's, partakes of what Bachelard calls "the felicity of intense poverty," poverty which "gives us access to absolute refuge."1 Cooper explains that it is "buried in the woods…, removed from the comfort, succor and outward communications of civilized life" (224).

Even larger and more elaborate structures in Cooper's fiction become imbued with the hut dream when they exist in a state of "deep forest seclusion." The subtitle of Wyandotté is The Hutted Knoll, a phrase which communicates well the integral relation between Cooper's huts and the earth. Although Captain Willoughby's building soon grows to a size and multiplicity of function that distinguish it from the simpler dwellings of Natty Bumppo and Ben Boden, its location deep in the wilderness preserves for it the name, "the hut," which it carries throughout the novel. Similarly, Thomas Hutter's castle in The Deerslayer maintains the amenity of primitivism because it is the "solitary [manmade] object" in the vast forest. While Hutter himself is a potential despoiler of nature, his castle (which is also referred to repeatedly as "the hut") is "in singular harmony with all the rest of the scene" (135).

Cooper's huts answer the needs of solitude, but they also provide protection against adverse forces. Ben's shanty "had been constructed with some attention to security" to protect him and his stores of honey from the two traditional enemies of a bee-hunter, "men and bears" (28). To "protect the honey," he takes the "unusual precaution" of barring his door with "three bars of oak," an act which "rendered all secure" (30). The fact that Cooper's fictional huts contain "treasures" like Ben's stores of honey gives further value to the space of their interiors, but it also makes them vulnerable to attack. This doubleness generates the basic tension of The Deerslayer , for Hutter's castle is identified both as a place of refuge and also as an enclosure which others desire to violate. The action of the entire novel is organized by a series of expeditions from and returns to this structure. Its white characters repeatedly flee toward "the centre of the lake" and the protection of enclosed space. But as the center, the castle also becomes the target, and the Hurons ultimately break into its interior. Anticipation of the moment of violation creates the novel's suspense, and in many of Cooper's works, this moment climaxes the action. This is true of The Oak Openings , in which the narrative tension builds toward the Indians' destruction of Ben's shanty.

As important as the treasures that huts protect are the secrets they contain. Natty Bumppo wages a continuing battle (in The Pioneers ) to prevent the prying eyes of Templeton from discovering the presence of Major Effingham in his cabin, and Harvey Birch's hut holds the secret of Harper's real identity (George Washington). In The Deerslayer , a mysterious chest found in the castle is unlocked to expose not only such treasures as the chess pieces used in bargaining with the Hurons but also letters which bare the secret of Thomas Hutter's real identity and past transgressions. In each case, the reader's discovery of the nature of the secret resolves a conflict between appearance and reality and reveals past events which have an important relationship to the present. Cooper's huts, therefore, can be said to contain the secrets of the novels themselves, the answers to the ideological and moral questions they ask. The discovery of Major Effingham's presence, for example, clarifies the issue of the true ownership of the land.

But the chest in The Deerslayer contains other treasures which seem to have little functional importance: a dress, gloves, lace, a pair of pistols, and a navigational instrument. If we penetrate the surface of Cooper's official language, the scene in which Judith, Natty, and Chingachgook examine these items resembles nothing so much as children at play (they play in the absence of the novel's "adults," Thomas Hutter and Harry March). Yet this part of the narrative is far from unimportant. Judith's discovery of "a beautiful dress of brocade" brings this reaction: "Her rapture was almost childish; nor would she allow the inquiry to proceed until she had attired her person in a robe so unsuited to her habits and her abode" (227-28). The scene thus begins not with the probing of moral questions but with a game of "dress-up," a game of make-believe.

Although the chess pieces fashioned in the shape of animals are used later in bargaining with the Hurons, they are initially perceived as wondrous playthings: "Even Judith expressed wonder as these novel objects were placed before her eyes." It is Chingachgook, however, who is most lost in "admiration and delight," particularly as he inspects "the elephants [which] gave him the greatest pleasure" (239). Similarly, the "admiration and surprise" expressed by Deerslayer and Chingachgook "at the appearance of the unknown [navigational] instrument, which was bright and glittering" (238), has about it the quality of childhood delight.

These "treasures" are not functional to the plot in the same way as the letters, but they are obviously more than mere decoration. For they are charged with the mystery that children impart to "magic" objects, and Cooper's treatment of them (and the characters) in this scene suggests one of the deep sources of his power. The discovery of treasure, the concealment and probing of secrets, the motions of hiding and emerging from cover—all of these are paradigms of children's games and products of a profound childhood imagination.

Especially paradigmatic is the response of Leatherstocking to the "pair of pistols, curiously inlaid with silver" (234). Chingachgook regards one of these ancient weapons as a "'Child gun'" and handles it "as if it had been a toy." Deerslayer corrects his friend, saying, "'Not it, Sarpent; not it'" (235), but then proves him right. Unable to resist the impulse to fire one of these pistols, he playfully engages his Indian friend in a competition and, as sometimes happens to curious children, the unfamiliar object explodes in his hand. The scene suggests the modern notion of children's play as experimentation toward mastery, the activity Erik Erikson calls the ego's "attempt to synchronize the bodily and the social processes with the self" and to practice these functions "in an intermediate reality between phantasy and actuality."2 When we consider the extraordinary degree to which Leatherstocking's identity is defined by his ability to "do" (marksmanship, pathfinding, instructed seeing), then we can begin to understand how he functions for Cooper as a representative of childhood—a stage of life in which psychic energy is focused upon skill acquisition and, as we shall see, upon a special (forest) environment ideal for "play."


As sensitive a reader of Cooper as D. H. Lawrence was, his division of the writer's personality into two opposing states of mind—"Wish Fulfillment" and "Actuality"—is misleading. Lawrence saw Cooper as a writer of split sensibilities, one side yearning for freedom and the woods and the other begging for recognition from the civilized (European) world. In architectural terms, he put "The Wigwam" against "My Hotel" as the polar structures of the author's imagination, suggesting that Cooper secretly dreamed of inhabiting a primitive forest dwelling while actually living a life of domesticated refinement.3

Lawrence's formulation sounds very much like Van Wyck Brooks's characterization, in The Ordeal of Mark Twain, of Twain as a writer whose talent was compromised by his needs for success and respectability. But Brooks on Twain is more convincing than Lawrence on Cooper in this respect, and nothing so clearly distinguishes the pastoralism of these two writers as their depictions of the space of human architectural structures. In Twain's classic work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there are two prominent hutlike buildings, Pap's cabin on the Illinois shore and the shed on the Phelps farm where Jim is held captive. The first is the scene of Huck's confinement and near murder at the hands of his alcoholic father, and the second becomes a torture chamber for Jim. If huts in Twain's fiction are places of terror and imprisonment, houses are not much more habitable. Typically they are dominated by totalitarian women who subject boys to all the confining horrors of "sivilization." By contrast, nature is the place to which one escapes, the area of freedom and beauty, exemplified by life on a raft.

The pastoral of a book like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might be called a pastoral of flight. It is defined almost exclusively by continual movements "away from," away from the corruption and violence encountered at every point along the Mississippi shore. If the necessity for flight disappears and the characters cease to be in motion, as occurs in the last section of the novel, the pastoral collapses. The "Territory" to which Huck says he will flee has no convincing status in the imaginative life of the book, and the novel's conclusion suggests that the writer has been unable to locate his pastoral.

Cooper's pastoral, on the other hand, is defined by stasis. His work exhibits not the impulse toward flight but the desire to arrive at a still point of the imagination, a place from which he will never have to leave. It is the difference between escape and retreat, a difference perfectly symbolized by the two representative structures of primitivism in the works of Twain and Cooper: the raft (motion) and the hut (stasis). As we have seen, Cooper's huts are centers of refuge and solitude, spaces to be defended rather than escaped. And they are never in conflict with nature but are in many ways continuous with it.4 Civilization and nature are separate worlds for Cooper, but his imagery works to form an aesthetic union of the two. At its best, civilization possesses the perfection of nature's design, and nature at its loveliest has the appearance of high civilization.

Although Cooper's huts are located in remote parts of the wilderness, and their hermitlike inhabitants such as Ben Boden display a "passion for dwelling alone" (34), these primitive structures sometimes become houses and, ultimately, centers of civilization. When the narrator of The Oak Openings returns to western Michigan many years after the events of the novel, he finds the wilderness transformed into a scene of agrarian beauty. The earlier images of husbandry can now be understood as anticipatory; they represent the possibility, or potential, of rural plentitude, which has now become a reality.5 Similarly, Captain Willoughby's primitive hut in Wyandotté grows into a large fortified structure at the center of a beautiful agrarian settlement. In Satanstoe , both the Mooseridge hut and the crude dwellings at Ravensnest are drawn as potential sites for fully developed centers of civilization. The hut, then, is continuous with both nature and civilization, and as an image it links the two worlds. (In Home as Found , the Effinghams call their family mansion "the Wigwam.") Cooper is one of those writers who, as Bachelard says of a French poet, "is more fortunate than dreamers of distant escape, in that he finds the root of the hut dream in the house itself."6

But Cooper's vision of nature hardly requires such a linkage, because his woods are themselves consistently imaged as a house. In his forest novels, architectural metaphors often dominate the descriptive passages.7 Cooper saw the forest variously as a temple, a church, a mansion—but whatever the specific metaphor, the pervasive effect is that of a spacious, highly structured interior. Here again is an image which informs both ways; the forest is beautiful because it resembles a gothic cathedral, but as the narrator tells us in The Deerslayer , "It was probably from a similar [natural] scene that the mind of man first got its idea of the effects of Gothic tracery and churchly hues" (508).

As I indicated earlier, the classic underforest of Cooper's fiction is not a confusing maze of growth but is instead "free from underbrush" and constructed of large, roomlike "vaults" of space. The trees resemble "tall, straight, rustic columns" and support a "dome" or "canopy" of leaves overhead. "Arches of verdure" and "leafy entrances" provide the doors and hallways that lead from one "room" to another. And within these vaults, nature contains many lovely "furnishings": a "drapery of forest," a "fringe of pines," a "broad carpet," a "bed" or "lounge" of leaves. In Satanstoe , the narrator-hero describes a "hall":

The ground fell away, in a sort of swell, for some distance in our front; and the trees being all of the largest size, and totally without underbrush, the place had somewhat of the appearance of a vast forest edifice, to which the canopy of leaves above formed the roof, and the stems of oaks, lindens, beeches and maples, might be supposed to be the columns that upheld it. Within this wide, gloomy, yet not unpleasant hall, a sombre light prevailed, like that which is cast through the casements of an edifice of the ancient style of architecture, rendering every thing mellow and grave.


Natty Bumppo moves through the forest like a man walking through a very large, old, and familiar house, and he knows it as well. In The Pathfinder , he explains to Mabel Dunham how he "'once made an appointment with the Big Sarpent, to meet at twelve o'clock at noon near the foot of a certain pine, at the end of six months, when neither of us was within three hundred miles of the spot.'" That they both found the tree at the appointed hour confirms the truth of Natty's declaration: "'These are our streets and houses; our churches and palaces'" (290). In light of this, Leatherstocking's often cited remark from the same novel should be taken in a more literal (architectural) sense than it has previously: "'I'm in church now; I eat in church, drink in church, sleep in church. The 'arth is the temple of the Lord'" (477).

Interiority is, of course, a feminine quality, and Cooper's houses and forest both radiate an intense feminine presence. The labyrinthine St. Ruth's Abbey of The Pilot is an environment "hermetically sealed against the world and its chilling cares" (105). And this setting of "peculiar comfort" (117) is closely associated with the novel's three female characters, who inhabit the ancient structure that once served as "the dormitories of the sisterhood" (116). Similarly, the gorgeous interior of the villa, Lust-in-Rust, in The Water Witch , is identified with its beautiful inhabitant, Alida de Barbérie.9

But even a relatively primitive dwelling can carry feminine value in Cooper's work. In Satanstoe , after Corny Littlepage and his party fight through the Indian enemy's lines to reach the safety of Ravensnest, the hero describes the sheltering, protective quality of this crude settlement-dwelling:

It would not be easy for a pen as unskilful as mine, to portray the change from the gloom of the ravine, the short, but bloody assault, the shouts, the rush, and the retreat of the outer world, to the scene of domestic security we found within the Nest, embellished, as was the last, by woman's loveliness and graces, and in many respects by woman's elegance.


The presence of a woman, Anneke Mordaunt, charges this interior with special value for Corny, and the motion he describes—from an "outer world" into a "Nest"10—indicates the basic "direction" of Cooper's pastoralism.

When the hero of Lionel Lincoln returns to America many years after his early childhood in Boston, he begins to remember the scenes of his youth. One of his most valued memories is of an old house he had inhabited as a child, and he recalls fondly "the days of my boyhood, and of my former freedom within its walls" (40).11 The phrase, "freedom within its walls," perfectly characterizes the interiority of house and forest for Cooper. The house was not an entrapment or a prison but was instead a spacious and amenable enclosure whose counterpart was the "room outdoors."

We do not find in Cooper the intense ambiguity about home characteristic of many American writers. When he returned from Europe in 1833, he settled in the family mansion in Cooperstown, and his letters reveal the excitement of this return to "the scenes of my youth" (L&J , [The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper ] 3: 12). One of his first acts upon resuming residence in Cooperstown was to refurbish and partly reconstruct the badly deteriorated Otsego Hall,12 an act which may have been symbolic of a desire to "reconstruct" and repossess the world of his childhood. That world was not one bifurcated into civilization and nature but a harmonious blend of what William Cullen Bryant identified as two of the primary elements in Cooper's childhood landscape: "the first house in Cooperstown" and "the vast forest around him."13 These were complementary, not antagonistic, realms, and both were in need of defense.

Cooper's life and work reveal a high degree of anxiety over the violation of his personal space, and that space contained the woods as well as the house. Like the human structures in his fiction, his imagined forest also contains "treasures" and "secrets"; the Glimmerglass in The Deerslayer is "a gem of the forest" (595) which could be stolen by men like Thomas Hutter. The world of nature, "with its hidden, glassy lakes, [and] its dark, rolling streams" (114), that Cooper celebrates in The Pathfinder is a world in danger of attack and pillage. And like all those threatened and assailed dwellings in his fiction, the woods too could be destroyed by those who went about "laying bare the secrets of nature" (97) with the axe, as he warns in The Chainbearer. Although the plot of The Pioneers does not directly relate the burning of Natty Bumppo's cabin to the forest fire that ravages the woods around Templeton, these events are intimately related by the image of destruction by fire. In each case, uncontrollable greed is responsible. For Cooper, woodchoppers posed as clear a personal threat as the townspeople who tried to "steal" Three-Mile Point from his family.14 Therefore, it is not contradictory, as some have judged it to be, for him to have defended the sanctity of the woods as vigorously as he defended the claims of personal property. This was not a case of conflicting democratic and aristocratic impulses but an expression of the fact that the perimeter of Cooper's personal space contained both the house and the woods as continuous elements in a valued landscape.


The setting of the marriage of Ben Boden and Margery Waring in The Oak Openings fuses the architectural metaphor with other key images to produce the most idyllic scene in the novel:

A better altar could not have been selected in all that vast region. It was one of nature's own erecting; and le Bourdon and his pretty bride placed themselves before it, with feelings suited to the solemnity of the occasion. The good missionary stood within the shade of a burr oak, in the centre of those park-like Openings, every object looking fresh, and smiling, and beautiful. The sward was green, and short as that of a well-tended lawn; the flowers were, like the bride herself, soft, modest, and sweet; while charming rural vistas stretched through the trees, much as if art had been summoned in aid of the great mistress who had designed the landscape. When the parties knelt in prayer—which all present did, not excepting the worthy corporal—it was on the verdant ground, with first the branches of the trees, and then the deep, fathomless vault of heaven for a canopy. In this manner was the marriage benediction pronounced on the bee-hunter and Margery Waring, in the venerable Oak Openings. No gothic structure, with its fretted aisles and clustered columns, could have been one half as appropriate for the union of such a couple.


The marriage is important, because it suggests a conversion of the dream of "forest seclusion" into the dream of Eden. Early in the novel, Ben can be seen to cherish his solitude: "Woman, as yet, had never exercised her witchery over him, and every day was his passion for dwelling alone, and for enjoying the strange, but certainly most alluring, pleasures of the woods, increasing and gaining strength in his bosom" (34). That was before he had met Margery, whose charms, in the emotional logic of Cooper's novels, must replace the "pleasures of the woods." As Ben explains it, before Margery arrived he had not known "'how much a woman can do in a chienté,'" but now, "'Woman has taken possession of my cabin.'" At first, it appears that Cooper will for once allow the idyll of solitude to be converted directly into Eden. Ben expresses his fondest wish in the following passage: "'I will come with you, Margery, into these Openings, and we can live together here, surely, as well, or far better than I can live here alone'" (344). But in Cooper's novels, Eden is never to be,15 for woman and the woods exist in what might be called a substitutional or sublimational relationship. Ben and Margery are forced out of their paradise by hostile Indians who have been aroused by the incendiary influences of the War of 1812. When the couple eventually returns to the oak openings, they do so not as Adam and Eve but as landowners. Ben sees action in the war and, tested by experience, he becomes a prosperous gentleman farmer, a figure of public importance. Cooper describes the change approvingly, for it represents the necessary end of innocence and the becoming of a man.

Ben's unrealized vision of a happy man and woman living together in a cabin in the woods is, finally, an impossible dream. Nowhere in Cooper's fiction is this impossibility stated more firmly than in The Pathfinder. More than a century of commentary and Cooper himself have identified this book as the Leatherstocking tale in which the hero falls in love (L&J , 4: 112). This is the central meaning of the novel, but its full significance is better understood within the context of the edenic dream than it is in terms of the romantic conventions of Cooper's time.

The final result is different, but Natty experiences the same transformation in The Pathfinder as Ben Boden does in The Oak Openings. The wilderness idyll is replaced in his consciousness by the love idyll, and he tells Mabel Dunham how former sources of reverie no longer satisfy him: "'Before we met I had a sort of pleasure in following up the hounds, in fancy, as it might be.'" "'Now,'" he confesses, "'I think no longer of anything rude in my dreams, but the very last night we stayed in the garrison, I imagined I had a cabin in a grove of sugar maples, and at the root of every tree was a Mabel Dunham, while the birds that were among the branches sang ballads, instead of the notes that natur' gave, and even the deer stopped to listen'" (302).

When Natty recognizes that forest pleasures have "'lost their charms'" (302) for him, he makes the fatal mistake of attempting to actualize his fantasy. In a conversation with Jasper Western, he announces that "'Mabel and I intend to dwell in a cabin of our own,… [in] a beautiful spot about fifty miles west of the garrison that I had chosen in my mind, for my own place of abode'" (489-90). But in Cooper's world, sites chosen for forest seclusion and solitude do not convert into Edens. Woman and the woods answer the same needs, as Natty appears to recognize when he says, "'natur' seems to have made them on purpose to sing in our ears when the music of the woods is silent!'" (499). But they exist in a mutually exclusive relationship, and when Jasper Western finally wins Mabel, he must take her away to civilization, her proper domain.

Jasper, like Ben, has emerged from the childhood world of the woods he and Natty had inhabited together, and this emergence necessitates a giving up of forest pleasures. Woman, in this respect, means the intrusion of the adult (of sexuality and responsibility). For Mabel to remain in the woods would be to convert them into an adult realm, thus depriving them of their magic (this is precisely what settlement building does). Natty cannot be allowed to marry because he is Cooper's one permanent link to the world of childhood, a figure whose mind "was almost infantine in its simplicity and nature." Pathfinder, Cooper tells us, is "a mere child: unpractised in the ways of the world, he had no idea of concealing a thought of any kind, and his mind received and reflected each emotion with the pliability and readiness of that period of life" (304). It is in this sense more than any other that Natty is an emanation of the landscape; for he is a personification of the spirit of childhood and inhabits the forest-world of childhood imagination.

It is true that in The Deerslayer Natty is initiated in a convincing manner (the scene in which he first takes a human life). Yet, while we accept this initiation as real, its truth is formal rather than psychological. Deerslayer is the same figure of "childish simplicity" (416) after this event as he was before. He remains essentially premature16 and thereby becomes an embodiment, or abstraction, of childhood—a character whose development has been arrested so that he may always provide Cooper (and the reader) with a way back to the world of the Glimmerglass. And just as he denies himself marriage in The Deerslayer , Cooper must deny it to him in The Pathfinder.

But while in psychological terms woman and the woods are mutually exclusive objects of desire, aesthetically they are mutually enhancing. When looked at in this way, the image of woman can be seen to function in the same fashion as every other significant metaphor in Cooper's descriptions. The forest idyll cannot incorporate the presence of a real woman any more than pristine nature can absorb a real temple or settlement. But as a way of seeing nature and investing it with human meaning, all of these images are felicitous.

Much has been written on the "wooden" quality of Cooper's females and on the degree to which they seem out of place in wilderness settings. But if we begin with the premise that the writer's talents and intentions were descriptive and pictorial, then character becomes subordinate to, even an aspect of, scene. Leatherstocking and certain other mythic heroes in Cooper's fiction have received the benefit of this explanation, but his women have not been granted the same apology, and with some justification. Yet, despite the familiar objections of modern readers, Cooper himself did not feel that his female characters were obtrusive elements in a natural landscape. To the contrary, he regarded them as essential aspects of the setting, a complement to the beauty of nature. In dozens of entries in his European travel journals, we can find passages such as this one: "The flats are covered with Maize, hemp, meadows and orchards, and the mountains, with vineyards—Very little grain—Women tambouring under the trees. Fine faces, delicate for their situation in life, and the forms slighter than in the Oberland" (L&J , 1: 302). For Cooper, women were as much a part of scenery as ruined castles and picturesque sunsets.

Female characters decorate the landscape in all of the forest tales, but the best example of the aesthetic relationship between woman and nature is The Deerslayer , a book which plays continually upon the mutual loveliness of the woods and of Judith Hutter. Throughout the novel, Judith's striking beauty is evoked by means of nature imagery: "Her rich hair shaded her spirited and yet soft countenance, even at that hour rendering it the more beautiful—as the rose is loveliest when reposing amid the shadows and contrasts of its native foliage" (97). Our first glimpse of her comes as she emerges from "an opening in the leaves" (62), suggesting the complementary aesthetic role she is to play.

One of Cooper's techniques is to heighten the beauty of nature by contrast. Judith is the loveliest of women imaginable, but she cannot compare to the loveliness of nature. An important motif of the novel is the continuing contrast of her "articles of dress" (165) with the natural "finery" of the woods, and although the former are inferior because they are artificial, the same is true of all the forms Cooper uses to articulate his vision of nature. Thus it is not so significant that Judith is tainted, for Natty would have chosen the woods as his "sweetheart" (146), as he tells Judith, regardless of the identity of the woman. In his eyes, nature is the fairer, purer bride, and he chooses her for the same reasons that he chooses the natural temple of the forest over the church in the settlement.

Of course, the female identification of nature goes deeper than Cooper's use of selected metaphors. His woods are pervasively feminine because of the enclosure, protection, and sustenance they provide. We have seen how both house and forest in Cooper's work reverberate the interiority of a feminine presence, and his novels illustrate Paul Shepard's point that, psychologically, "architecture and land forms are a continuum, an interlocked series entangled with the body image."17 Cooper's woods contain many of the land forms Freud identified with the dream symbolism of the female body,18 and it is important to maintain in the background of our thinking an awareness of the erotic properties of landscape. At this point, however, we are more interested in the image or "essence" of femininity than we are in psychoanalytic explanations.


In the final chapter of The Oak Openings , we make what seems to be a minor geographical discovery. As the narrator visits western Michigan thirty-six years after the events of the novel, he strolls through the "'island' of forest" that lies in the middle of Prairie Round. "In the center of this wood," he comes upon "a little lake, circular in shape, and exceeding a quarter of a mile in diameter" (494). Cooper's placement of this body of water at the exact center of the novel's geography is apparently gratuitous, a mere decoration—until we recognize that there was a lake at the center of his imagination.

That lake was of course Otsego, the Glimmerglass of The Deerslayer. This most vibrant image of centralized and concentrated solitude in all of Cooper's fiction is the ultimate forest enclosure. Encircled by a "belt of forest which inclosed it" (83), it exists as "a world by itself" (157). With its surrounding hills "clothed in the richest forest verdure" and its surface "glittering like a gem," the Glimmerglass appears to be "lighted up with a sort of radiant smile" (156). "The whole scene," Cooper writes, "was radiant with beauty" (135). This is "the pristine world of Glimmerglass" that Lawrence said was perhaps "lovelier than any place created in language."19

The setting of The Deerslayer illustrates Cooper's tendency to gravitate imaginatively toward a valued center-point bounded by a series of concentric circles. The mountains and forest enclose the Glimmerglass, and the lake surrounds the castle, which in turn contains its treasure. But the lake itself is the greatest treasure, a "gem of the forest" (595) which in every important way is the center of Cooper's imaginative geography.

In the narrowest sense the Glimmerglass is the center because, like a clearing, it organizes all the space around it by providing perspective. As the narrator tells us, "this was the first lake Deerslayer had ever seen. Hitherto, his experience had been limited to the courses of rivers and smaller streams, and never before had he seen so much of that wilderness which he so well loved, spread before his gaze" (110-11). Viewing the scene from the perspective of a canoe on the Glimmerglass, Deerslayer observes, "'the lake seems made to let us get an insight [in-sight] into the noble forests'" (35). The lake, then, is nature's "eye," opening a view to all that surrounds it.

But the Glimmerglass is an eye in another sense too, for on its mirrorlike surface it represents, "contemplates," the world by reflection.20 The trees and sky above are "'cast upward from its face; as if it would throw back the hills that hang over it'" (44). This last observation is made by Harry March, who perceives the loveliness of the lake but thinks "more of the beauties of Judith Hutter than of those of the Glimmerglass" (46). This is not true of Deerslayer who is entranced, almost transfixed, by this wonder of nature that is "as smooth as glass and as limpid as pure air" (45). For Leatherstocking, the Glimmerglass radiates an absolute purity. As he gazes, he becomes Bachelard's "dreamer of still water"; he experiences "a communication of purity." "How one would wish," Bachelard writes, "to begin his life all over, a life which would be the life of original dreams! Every reverie has a past, a distant past and, for certain souls, the water reverie is privileged with simplicity."21

As Bachelard says, the image of still water returns certain souls to their origins, and if the forest is Deerslayer's "sweetheart," there is reason to believe that the lake is his "mother." A "beautiful basin" (171) of protective and enveloping substance, it has strong associations with the womb. Throughout the narrative, the lake, and particularly "the centre of the lake," is represented as the only "place of safety" (343) in the novel's geography. When Cooper places a "house" in the middle of this body of water, he is merging two of the great, closely related, oneiric images in his fiction, for both the castle and the Glimmerglass are enclosures which radiate an intense feminine presence. Deerslayer's entering of the room of the sisters brings to his mind "a rush of childish recollections…. He bethought him of his mother" (42).22 The former mistress of the castle, Judith's and Hetty's mother, now lies dead at the bottom of the lake, and her mysterious, lingering presence pervades both realms. Cooper achieves this effect partly through Hetty's repeated, yearning questions about her dead parent, and it is the dull-witted but sentient Hetty who alone knows the location of the grave: "she often paddled a canoe, about sunset, or by the light of the moon, to the place, and gazed down into the limpid water, in the hope of being able to catch a glimpse of a form that she had so tenderly loved from infancy to the sad hour of their parting" (153).

The moonlight by which Hetty sometimes seeks her mother's burial place is only one of the nocturnal images of the novel. Even more evocative is the reflected light of stars, marking out a lustrous and beautiful "stripe of water" which plays across the exact center of the lake and points directly to the safety of the castle. This strange, reflected light resembles "a sort of inverted milky-way" (171). Bachelard observes that "a great number of poets, inspired by a serene vision, tell us of the milky beauty of a peaceful moonlit lake," and his analysis of the image helps to explain the magic of the Glimmerglass: "It is the image of a warm and happy night, the image of a clear and enveloping matter. An image which includes air and water, sky and earth, and unites them"; "it recalls the most ancient well-being, the sweetest of foods."23

How different the serene Glimmerglass is from Cooper's great ocean, or even from his great lake, Ontario. Where the Glimmerglass is surrounded by pine-covered hills, a world absolutely self-contained, the ocean is boundless, virtually infinite. While Cooper's description of the lake suggests a condensation of space—"it resembled a bed of the pure mountain atmosphere, compressed into a setting of hills and woods" (32-33)—his ocean throws us outward into horizontal immensity. The lake at its most strikingly beautiful is perfectly still and silent, the image of utter serenity and "deep repose" (45). The ocean, at its grandest, is thunderous, violent, awesome. And while the lake offers itself as a protection against adverse forces, the ocean is man's most dangerous combatant. For Natty Bumppo, Ontario, with its seemingly boundless extent, is the equivalent of an ocean. In The Pathfinder , he compares it to "'a quick-tempered man, sudden to be angered, and as soon appeased'" (310). As I indicated earlier, the world of the sea (and prairie) has a strong masculine identification in Cooper's work. He seems to have associated the sudden "wrath" and force of the ocean with masculine energy (animus), whereas he felt the deep repose (anima) of the forest as a feminine presence.

Cooper's biography is helpful here, because it tells us that his experience with the ocean came in adolescence and young manhood, a time of great ferment and rebellion (which in his case resulted in expulsion from college—an event which led to his going to sea).24 It may be that literary taste and convention do not entirely explain the fact that the heroes of Cooper's nautical romances are sexually charged, Byronic figures, who require the broadest possible field of action (the sea) to test their own limits and the limits of law and authority. (Compare the "penetrating" vision of the Pilot and the Red Rover to Leatherstocking's innocent eye.) We sometimes forget that Natty Bumppo is not an explorer or an adventurer, at least not in the same way as Cooper's nautical heroes are.25 He leads the westward movement only by default, for he is forced out of his beloved woods, the "garden" in which he would have remained forever if that had been possible. Natty, like Ben Boden, is a child of the forest, and the settings these two characters inhabit answer to the deepest needs of childhood.

To discover the imaginative roots of a book like The Deerslayer , we must follow Bachelard's advice and "go beyond the time of fevers [adolescence] to find the tranquil time, the time of the happy childhood."26 Edith Cobb has identified a period of development she calls "the little-understood, prepubertal, halcyon, middle age of childhood [defined by Freud as the stage of sexual latency], approximately from five or six to eleven or twelve—between the strivings of animal infancy and the storms of adolescence—when the natural world is experienced in some highly evocative way, producing … a sense of some profound continuity with natural processes." The age span of this privileged time of life, during which we develop our spirit of place, corresponds to the period of the writer's childhood in Cooperstown. And although we have little specific knowledge of that childhood,27 the novels tell us all we need to know. Natty Bumppo is surely the child within Cooper, and his adventures in the woods objectify the primal impressions and experiences of being in nature. The forest romances contain all those patterns of chase and escape and the seeking of refuge that express the child's need "to make a world in which to find a place to discover a self."28 The places thus found and inhabited—the secret hiding places and other valued enclosures of our childhoods—become charged with meaning and remain intact in our memories as valued images to be reexperienced when we are adults.

To engage in such remembering can project us into a state of reverie, an experience not only pleasurable but necessary, for as Bachelard reminds us, reverie "helps us inhabit the world." To read Cooper makes us into daydreamers of the forest and "returns us to the beauty of the first images."29 His fiction lends itself to this salutary experience for several reasons. To dream our own magic woods, we require a text which does not describe the space of nature in too much detail. We do not want to know the names of the flora and fauna (there is little to interest the naturalist in Cooper's fiction) but only to be presented with a beautiful outline, a matrix which touches deep places within our memories and then allows us to dream our own dreams. Cooper's works answer this need perfectly, for his descriptions are diffuse, inexact, generalized.30 They present a high degree of "indeterminacy," a porous quality requiring the reader to fill in gaps in the prose "by a free play of meaning-projection."31 This helps to explain why illustrations of Cooper's fiction, whether drawn in his time or ours, often take us so completely by surprise. Although language is generally a more porous medium than paint or engraving, it is especially true of this novelist that we find in his descriptions our own remembered landscapes, landscapes necessarily different from those depicted by the illustrator.

In The Poetics of Reverie, Bachelard makes a distinction between daydream and nightdream. The latter, he says, "does not belong to us. It is not of our possession" (145). In the night-dream, we sometimes feel that someone else is forcing us into regions where we do not want to go. Daydreams (reverie), on the other hand, are our absolute possession. In the active and conscious experience of daydreaming, we move into areas of our own choosing, ultimately creating a whole cosmos that belongs to us. One could argue that the visions of nature rendered by Brockden Brown, Poe, and Hawthorne are examples of nightdream. These writers often create worlds which seem out of control, worlds constantly changing shape for the characters and the reader. Often with Poe, and sometimes with Hawthorne, as in "Young Goodman Brown," the nightdream becomes a nightmare.

But Cooper's forest "holds still" for us. It makes reverie possible as it enables us to explore a world that is permanent and out of time. His vision of the wilderness is classic, classic in exactly the same way that childhood is a "permanent, durable immobile world." Cooper's timeless woods hold human action in the stasis of the classical drama and possess the formal beauty of the park and garden. And his most radiant image, that of the lake, awakens "our cosmic imagination through the beauty of a reflected world."32


  1. The Poetics of Space, p. 32.
  2. Childhood and Society, pp. 211, 212. Cf. Cooper's description of a "pair of curiously and richly mounted horseman's pistols" (405) in The Spy.
  3. Studies in Classic American Literature, p. 48.
  4. Perhaps this explains why Leo Marx found a prominent place for Twain in The Machine in the Garden, but almost none for Cooper, since the tensions exhibited in Cooper's work are different from those Marx emphasizes in his study of American pastoralism.
  5. As John P. McWilliams, Jr., points out, the "fertility, beauty, and growth of the oak openings have confirmed the [agrarian] dream" of America that Cooper had posited in Notions of the Americans. As McWilliams implies, Notions is Cooper's political version of pastoral, and is to be contrasted with the "fault-finding" of the The American Democrat (Political Justice in a Republic, pp. 295-96, 197).
  6. The Poetics of Space, p. 31.
  7. Use of the architectural metaphor in natural description is common in Cooper's time. The most often cited example is Bryant's poem, "A Forest Hymn."
  8. As Corny Littlepage discovers, this majestic "hall" contains the corpses of several of his companions. For the juxtaposition of natural beauty and danger in Cooper's fiction, see chap. 11.
  9. Ships, too, are feminine in Cooper's novels. See Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction, pp. 75-77. Also see Cooper's response to the splendor of Versailles in Gleanings in Europe: France, pp. 176-89.
  10. See Bachelard on the phenomenology of nests, in The Poetics of Space, pp. 90-104.
  11. The house of Cooper's own boyhood, and undoubtedly the model for many of his fictional houses, was Otsego Hall, a luxurious mansion which existed in harmony with the wilderness surrounding Cooperstown. For Cooper's description of the hall (constructed between 1797 and 1799), see The Legends and Traditions of a Northern Country, pp. 223-31.
  12. In a letter to Micah Sterling, dated October 27, 1834, Cooper described his plans for "repairing the Hall" and included a hand-drawn sketch of the building (L&J, 3:56).
  13. In a eulogy delivered at Metropolitan Hall, New York City, on February 25, 1852. It has been reprinted widely, including its use as an introduction to the 1861 (Darley-Townscend) edition of Precaution; see pp. vi-vii.
  14. This famous dispute, in which the residents of Cooperstown claimed their right to use picnic grounds belonging to the Cooper family, is recorded in Cooper's letters; see L&J, 3:271-353. The events are dramatized in undisguised form in Home as Found.
  15. The Crater is an apparent exception. But although Cooper uses edenic imagery to describe the life of Mark and Brigette Woolston, the setting is not edenic in the sense described here. For by the time Brigette joins Mark on Crater Island, the process of civilization building has already begun. See my discussion of The Crater in chap. 9.
  16. There is a strain of criticism which finds Natty's childlike qualities objectionable. For example, see Robert H. Zoellner's discussion of Leatherstocking's "infantile regressiveness" ("Conceptual Ambivalence in Cooper's Leatherstocking," pp. 403, 418). But such infantilism, as Leslie Fiedler suggests in a different context, is related to "the very essence of Cooper's appeal" (Love and Death, p. 181).
  17. Man in the Landscape, p. 100. Also see Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land, for a treatment of the female identification of landscape in the works of several early American writers, including Cooper.
  18. Sigmund Freud, "Symbolism in Dreams," in A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, pp. 133-50.
  19. In the original version of "Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Novels," written for the English Review and contained in The Symbolic Meaning; see p. 106.
  20. In L'eau et les rêves, Bachelard writes, "A lake is a great tranquil eye. A lake absorbs all the light and makes a world of it. The world is already contemplated, already represented by the lake" (On Poetic Imagination and Reverie, p. 77). Cf. Thoreau on the lake as "earth's eye" (Walden, p. 186), and Thomas Cole's comparison of the "unrippled lake" to an "eye in the human countenance" ("Essay on American Scenery," p. 6).
  21. The Poetics of Reverie, pp. 198-99.
  22. In this room, Deerslayer also thinks "of a sister" (42). In the early Cooperstown years, a beloved sister, Hannah, cared for the young Cooper children, including James.
  23. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie, p. 60.
  24. After expulsion from Yale at the age of seventeen, Cooper took service for a year aboard an American merchantman, the Stirling. Later he served aboard two naval vessels, the Vesuvius and the Wasp.
  25. Except in The Last of the Mohicans, where he is characterized as possessing "that secret love of desperate adventure, which had increased with his experience, until hazard and danger had become, in some measure, necessary to the enjoyment of his existence" (289). For this, and other exceptional qualities of The Last of the Mohicans, see part 3.
  26. The Poetics of Reverie, p. 110.
  27. For the most detailed account we have, see Marcel Clavel, Fenimore Cooper, esp. chap. 2, "L'Enfance d'un fils de pionnier."
  28. Edith Cobb, "The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood," pp. 538, 540. In the early Cooperstown years, Hannah Cooper wrote affectionately of her younger brothers, including James, "They are very wild and show plainly they have been bred in the woods" (The Legends and Traditions of a Northern Country, p. 171).
  29. The Poetics of Reverie, pp. 22, 103.
  30. See William C. Brownell, American Prose Masters, p. 11.
  31. Wolfgang Iser, "Indeterminacy and the Reader's Response in Prose Fiction," in Aspects of Narrative, p. 12.
  32. The Poetics of Reverie, pp. 20, 198.

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie: Selections from the Works of Gaston Bachelard. Edited and translated by Colette Gaudin. New York, 1971.

——. The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. Translated by Daniel Russell. Boston, 1969.

——. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas. Boston, 1964.

Brooks, Van Wyck. The Ordeal of Mark Twain. New York, 1920.

Brownell, William C. American Prose Masters: Cooper, Hawthorne, Emerson, Poe, Lowell, Henry James. Edited by Howard Mumford Jones. Cambridge, Mass., 1963.

Clavel, Marcel. Fenimore Cooper: Sa vie et son œuvre: La Jeunesse (1789-1826). Aix-en-Provence, 1938.

Cobb, Edith. "The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood." Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 88 (Summer 1959): 537-48.

Cole, Thomas. "Essay on American Scenery." The American Monthly Magazine 1 (January 1836): 1-12.

Cooper, James Fenimore. "American and European Scenery Compared." In The Home Book of the Picturesque; or, American Scenery, Art, and Literature. New York, 1851.

——. The American Democrat. Edited by George Dekker and Larry Johnson. Baltimore, 1969.

——. Cooper's Novels. 32 vols. Illustrated from drawings by F. O. C. Darley. New York, 1859-61.

——. Early Critical Essays: 1820-1822. Edited by James F. Beard. Gainesville, Fla., 1955.

——. Excursions in Italy. Paris, 1838.

——. Gleanings in Europe: England. 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1837.

——. Gleanings in Europe: France. Edited by Robert E. Spiller. New York, 1928.

——. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. Philadelphia, 1826.

——. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Edited by James F. Beard. 6 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1960, 1964, 1968.

——. Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Traveling Bachelor. Edited by Robert E. Spiller. 2 vols. New York, 1963.

——. Sketches of Switzerland. Part 1. 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1836.

——. Sketches of Switzerland. Part 2. 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1836.

Cooper, James Fenimore [the novelist's grandson]. The Legends and Traditions of a Northern Country. New York, 1921.

Erikson, Erik H. Childhood and Society. 2nd Edition. New York, 1963.

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York, 1966.

Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis: A Course of Twenty-Eight Lectures Delivered at the University of Vienna. Translated by Joan Riviere. New York, 1935.

Iser, Wolfgang. "Indeterminacy and the Reader's Response in Prose Fiction." In Aspects of Narrative: Selected Papers from the English Institute, edited by J. Hillis Miller, pp. 1-45. New York, 1971.

Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975.

Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York, 1961.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York, 1964.

McWilliams, John P., Jr. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper's America. Berkeley, 1972.

Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge, Mass., 1961.

Shepard, Paul. Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Esthetics of Nature. New York, 1967.

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden. Edited by J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton, 1971.

Zoellner, Robert H. "Conceptual Ambivalence in Cooper's Leatherstocking." American Literature 31 (January 1960): 397-420.

Sura P. Rath (essay date winter 1989)

SOURCE: Rath, Sura P. "Romanticizing the Tribe: Stereotypes in Literary Portraits of Tribal Cultures." Diogenes, no. 148 (winter 1989): 61-77.

[In the following essay, Rath discusses Cooper's portrayal of Native Americans in the "Leather-Stocking Tales," arguing that representations of a country's native tribal cultures is central to the establishment of a sense of national identity for the conquering culture.]

Every civilized society treasures through its folk tales and folk myths the elements of its native tribal life as points of cultural reference. The tribe not only acts as a foil to our culture, but also sustains its very being and gauges the degree of progress and change in the civilization that we uphold. This interdependence has a vital force: insofar as civilized societies define themselves by the distance they have built up between themselves and their respective primitive societies, a civilized culture without its indigenous tribal past risks the authenticity of its process of change to challenge and doubt. Hence, our adulation of distance in both time and space between ourselves and our tribal forefathers, and our eagerness to recognize, maintain, and even glorify our tribes—a necessary syllogism in our postulation of a self-preserving argument. In a peculiarly chiastic way, we thrive on our existential reliance on the very primitiveness that we seek to repudiate as characteristic of a world past. We celebrate our present by eulogizing our past, and to fit the tribes in the large scheme of our self-definition we iconize them. These idealized images hide a creative mask through which we embrace the romantic myths of our respective origins and progress; the parades we arrange for our tribal history—through performance on our streets, or through semantics in our literature—subtly embody this dependence.

Rhetorical perspectives from which tribes and their cultures are portrayed in representative American and British fiction align themselves with the three elements of classical persuasive discourse, which generate three stereotyped images of the tribesmen in the reader's mind:

Ethos: Nostalgic reminiscence of tribal life, often memorializing the glamor of life "in nature"; such portraits emphasize the simplicity and the innocence of the tribesmen and the sacrifice they make in their daily struggle for survival. Here the tribesman is a natural good man who finally abdicates his rights in favor of the expansion of the civilized world. James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales exemplify this perspective.

Pathos: Jubilant celebration of tribal rituals, glorifying the indomitable spirit of the tribesman; the author condescendingly admits the wrongs civilized societies have done to the tribes, and acquiescently suggests that the tribes have been all the stronger because of having gone through the devastations of encroachment. The tribe is vindicated here. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness captures the essence of the tribe's vindication of its power to exist.

Logos: Wishful projection for present continuity and future prosperity of the tribe; social programs, political agenda, and economic platforms in party rhetoric embody this hope for a protected future for the tribes. The government appears here as a benefactor working for the welfare of the tribe.

Like old myths, which undergo transformation and revision in course of time, the modern concept of the tribe has evolved through a complex chain of images. Some of the connotations of tribalism, originating in the early Middle Ages, such as, wildness, wilderness, savagery, barbarism, and paganism on the one hand, and nature, naturalness, innocence, amorality, and honesty on the other, have radically changed. In "The Form of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea," Hayden White notes that "the gradual demythologization of concepts like 'wilderness,' 'savagery,' and 'barbarism' has been due to the extension of knowledge into those parts of the world which, though known about (but not actually known), had originally served as the physical stages on to which the 'civilized' imagination could project its fantasies and 'anxieties'" (6-7). He suggests that with the domestication of these frontiers the idea of the Wild Man was "progressively despatialized and conceptualized as the repressed content of both civilized and primitive humanity." We have moved still further in our zeal to iconize the tribe, trying to redefine it in global political-economic terms and calling it the Fourth World.1 But through our shifting attitudes we have steadfastly clung to a nostalgic notion of the tribe as a strange, fearsome, and distant thing. White calls our renewed efforts to "understand" the tribe "a compensatory process of psychic interiorization," "a remythification" (7). Since in the demythologizing process we exploded the myth behind every fiction we had created about the tribe, remythologizing requires that we codify the fiction behind every myth.

In the 1831 Introduction to The Last of the Mohicans , Cooper elaborates the cultural complexity of the Mohicans in the following words of glowing praise:

Few men exhibit greater diversity, or if we may so express it, greater antithesis of character than the native warrior of North America. In war, he is daring, boastful, cunning, ruthless, self-denying and self-devoted; in peace, just, generous, hospitable, revengeful, superstitious, modest, and commonly chaste.


In Cooper's view, the Indian is not the innocent Noble Savage, the two-dimensional, fabricated "flat" figure on the wall; rather, he is a multi-faceted, "round" person embodying all the polarities of sociopolitical behavior. His literature, says Cooper, testifies to the richness of the Mohican life: "the imagery of the Indian, both in his poetry and in his oratory, is oriental; chastened, and perhaps improved, by the limited range of his practical knowledge. He draws his metaphors from the clouds, the seasons, the birds, the beasts, and the vegetable world" (473). In sum, the Mohican maintains a balance between the flights of abstract imagination (metaphor) and the bounds of practical experience (metonymy). In Cooper's words, he sets "bounds to fancy by experience."

Cooper's eloquent praise for the Indian reveals a larger design of self-definition—indeed the one is undercut by the other—for to distinguish us from the rest of the world Cooper must distinguish our tribe from tribes elsewhere, and track the progress through time and history. If "setting bounds to fancy by experience" characterizes any other energetic and imaginative race, then the modern America has the same point of cultural reference and source of national identity as any other nation. So Cooper hastens to make some necessary distinctions: unlike the tribesman elsewhere, the North American Indian clothes his ideas in a dress which is different, for his language has the richness and sententiousness—"He'll express a phrase in a word, and he will qualify the meaning of an entire sentence by a syllable; he'll even convey different significations by the simplest inflections of his voice" (473). Cooper is sympathetic, even apologetic, to the plight of the Indians, who were "the possessors of the country first occupied by the Europeans", and the first to be dispossessed, and to the inevitable fate of these people who disappear "before the advances, or it might be termed the inroads of civilization as the verdure of their native forests falls before the nipping frosts" (475). The rest of the novel reveals the unfolding of this divine ordination of history. In spite of Cooper's invocation of "sufficient historical truth" to justify the ways of the colonial Dutch to the Mohicans, the subordination of one race by another, couched in terms of dialectical historicism, remains more a rhetorical coup than a military or economic one.

Even more important than this morbid truth is history's nemesis that Cooper's resonant chronicle of Natty Bumppo, indeed the Leatherstocking Tales , is now claimed as a "point of cultural reference and a source of national identity" (Kelly vii). In Plotting America's Past (1983) William Kelly places these tales alongside the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry Finn, and claims that they have attained an extratextual status—independent of the life support system of the academy—and have become part of the American legacy. Natty Bumppo, tall, lean, hard, a supreme woodsman and a natural moralist, symbolizes the archetypal native American. Proud and loyal, he is both the primitive tribesman and the ancient philosopher. Chingachgook is the noble savage—a fierce enemy and a devoted friend, the soul of Indian honor and a master of the woodsman's lore. Uncas, his son, is an Indian Adonais—without fear and deceit. The antithesis to these three bold Americans is Magua, the wicked Huron Indian, handsome, eloquent, but treacherous. He has inherited the fierce nature of his tribe, but he has also developed the most reprehensible characteristic of the whites. They move in a territory where day-to-day living is a trial by nature, but strengthened by the very forces that threaten to sink their spirit, these tribesmen fight the external elements as valiantly as they confront the ones within. Synecdochically, their fight against Magua is a self-purging, cleansing in the process not only the Munros and the Heywards but also, by extension, us the civilized moderns. By celebrating their tale, then, we celebrate ourselves, participating in and drawing on the elevated nobility that they so painlessly exemplify for us. Added to this ruggedness and natural goodness, the Indian possesses a wild beauty that both attracts and terrifies. The Indian Runner who brings unwelcome news to the British camp has "a sullen fierceness mingled with the quiet of the savage, that was likely to arrest the attention of much more experienced eyes than those which now scanned him"; there is "an air of neglect about his person, like that which might have proceeded from great and recent exertion, which he had not yet found leisure to repair." Cooper is painfully aware of the effect his art attempts here to produce, and carefully withholds his authorial mediation, saying that "The colors of the war paint had blended in dark confusion about his fierce countenance, and rendered his swarthy lineaments still more savage and repulsive than if art had attempted an effect which had been thus produced by chance". The Runner's eye glistens like "a fiery star amid lowering clouds," appearing "much tamer than in its state of native wildness" (487).

Together in its spontaneity, wild beauty, native simplicity, and innocence, the Indian culture enjoys a massive presence, a spacious physicality. Natty Bumppo and the Indian Runner serve less as individual tribesmen than as parts of this dominant cultural ethos. The quintessential quality of this ethical landscape is its nearly providential plenitude. Chingachgook's portrait, a part of this overall scene, is even more flattering. We first see him seated on the end of a mossy log, "in a posture that permitted him to heighten the effect of his earnest language, by the calm but expressive gestures, of an Indian engaged in debate" (500). He has attained this stature by virtue of his natural penchant for doing good to others and because of his innate ability to take life on its own terms. His cultural evolution is an elective strain in the natural selection of man. In The Pioneers , Chingachgook completes his natural cycle of life and dies; Natty Bumpoo enters a mythic life and becomes part of the wilderness; and the Effinghams become assimilated into society. Cooper's final statement about Natty's self-abdication from the society certifies his approval: "He had gone far towards the setting sun,—the foremost of that band of pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of our nation across the continent" (465). In retrospect, the design of the dynamics of the American culture emerges from the seeming chaos of individuals engaged in cross-purposes. In The Pathfinder Cooper repeats the same pattern. Here, we are told, Natty's feelings appear "to possess the freshness and nature of the forest in which he passed so much of his time; and no casuist could have made clearer decisions in matters relating to right and wrong"; and "the most striking feature about the moral organization of Pathfinder was his beautiful and unerring sense of justice".

Why the Indian chose an ideal—which has made America what it is today—rather than a practical life—which would have altered the course of America's past—may be explained easily by doctrinaire proto-historicism, but underlying that naive dogma remains the brutal necessity for us to justify our own ways to ourselves, saying in effect that we are better than our forefathers because we have come after them. Our fall, in other words, has been fortunate. Natty Bumppo remains on a pedestal because he made the right moral judgment; he made the right moral judgment because he was tutored by nature; and by the laws of historical progress we have evolved on this native talent for natural selection. Cooper's imaginary landscape, along with its ethos of natural nobility at a time in American history when just to be was to share in a vast panorama of righteousness, steadily builds its own momentum and envelops us.2

In Heart of Darkness, the landscape of tribal life changes: external space—presented through description of the land and the people—is interiorized. From Cooper's natural wilderness we enter Marlow's mind; the Thames and the Congo, two flowing rivers replace the sprawling nature of The Last of the Mohicans. From the localized ethos of early America we move to the pathos of the timeless history of man's inhumanity to man. The old wildness is still here, but its massive weight is gone; a journey replaces the land as the center of the fictional plot. Conrad describes Heart of Darkness as "a wild story about a journalist who became a chief of station in the interior and made himself adored by a tribe of savages." But the African locale barely holds the unfolding theme. For instance, Albert J. Guerard notes the abstraction and fluidity of the melting landscape of the Congo, and says that the land verges on evaporating from the conscious level: whether he knew it or not, Conrad was writing of a "night journey" or a discovery below the level of consciousness of the evil innate in man. Conrad knew. "The Congo venture", he writes, as if he anticipated the critics' concern, "was the vilest scramble for the loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration." The pathos lies not in the collapse of Kurtz's or Europe's conscience, but in the unnecessary waste it brings to the natives of the Congo; in the process of destruction, not in the final outcome. As Franklin Walker notes, Kurtz's collapse exemplifies a theme popular with Conrad and other writers of the period—the "perils of going native, whether it be on an island in the Indies, a South Seas atoll, or a wild territory of Africa" (Walker XI).

The anthropological question of the paradoxical bond between civilization and tribalism—and I use the two terms here, one as antithesis of the other, merely for convenience—informs Harold R. Collins's "The Detribalization of Kurtz and the Second-Rate Helmsman". Collins argues that a main element in the story is the detribalization of the Helmsman and Kurtz: both succumb because they have abandoned their tribal views and customs. I will come to the point where Collins's thesis falters, but first I will summarize his main premises. "Civilizing savages is not such a simple affair as the early imperialists believed," says Collins.

Africans "reclaimed" from the supports and restraints of their old social orders and unable to live by white standards may become less satisfactory human beings than raw, uncivilized savages. Since Joseph Conrad's time the process of detribalization has gained momentum in Africa; the impact of white civilization has produced a multitude of "unstable fools" and worse—disorganized, derelict personalities wandering between the lost primitive culture and white civilization.


Collins quotes Marlow's isolated remarks to buttress his claim. For instance, he notes that "the athletic black belonging to some coast tribe" is an "unstable kind of fool," not dignified and dependable like the cannibals, the "raw bush natives." He argues that Conrad is representing "detribalized" natives in the characters of the prisoners' guard, the ill-conditioned manager's boy, and the second-rate helmsman; and that these characters also represent Africans who have been deprived of their traditional beliefs and standards of conduct without having assumed, or ever being able to assume, those of the white men.

Collins's argument holds if we subscribe to his theonomic perspective, which postulates the divine origin of an achieved humanity, the rulers, against the pliability of an imperfect, brute existence, the ruled. By this divine sanction, any sort of mixing up of the two species—in blood, or social status, or economic hierarchy, or political relationship—is tantamount to miscegenation which, because it goes against the dicta of scriptures, could lead to vicious consequences. The sanction has wide support in many colonies; indeed, it characterizes the colonized attitude. Reformed African natives, Collins says, exhibit the symptoms of these consequences. Africans from the coast, he says, would be much more likely to be partially civilized, be "mission boys," in the white settlers' contemptuous phrase, than would those living up river, for on the coast white men have long had "factories." Marlow's comment on these partially civilized Africans is ironical: "one of the reclaimed" (the guard), "an important specimen" (the fireman), "thought the world of himself" (the helmsman), and "an overfed young Negro" (the manager's boy). In "weaning these ignorant millions from their horrid ways," the Belgian emissaries have produced, "not dark skinned gentlemen, but vain creatures whose ways are seldom perfectly agreeable" (229).

Quite the contrary. For at the heart of Africa's darkness Conrad sees a pin point of light, which shows him the limits of civilization and the consequences of crossing those limits. To accept the premise that Marlow believes in the divine ordination of the separation of the races is to miss the importance of the scenes before his departure, where he warns us that cultural ascendance is an accident of history, where he reacts calmly against the condescending comments of his aunt, and where he sees a parallel between the predatory practice among the civilized peoples and the cannibalism of the tribes. Conrad polarizes his characters between the tribal and the colonial blocks, and later connects the African with the white man to examine how naturally the civilized man can return to the tribal world, as though Kurtz represents all of us haunted by the subliminal seduction our origins—the primitive and the savage life—have for us. The process of suturing nature with the mood of the "culture hero" Marlow, to use Leo Gurko's phrase, continues through the story. So Marlow's irony is itself ironical. He condescendingly admits that the Congo is all the stronger for having confronted and conquered a Kurtz, and paradoxically establishes that if the primitive tribalism of Africa is what we have left then we inherit its strength and vitality. In Kurtz's death, Conrad offers us two victories: the Africans', for having survived the onslaught of the Europeans; and Marlow's, for having journeyed down the same river and returning unscathed.

Both win, of course, because they have stayed with nature.

Conrad, like Marlow, tempts us to believe that the African natives can reach their potential only within the bounds of their own surroundings, just as the tenets of civilization that Europe holds dear hold value up to the point where Africa begins. Fifty years later, in Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), Arthur Jarvis expresses the consequences of one's encroaching upon the other's territory in a more prosaic way:

The old tribal system was, for all its superstition and witchcraft, a moral system. Our natives today produce criminals and prostitutes and drunkards, not because it is their nature to do so, but because the simple system of order and tradition has been destroyed. It was destroyed by the impact of our civilization.

(quoted by Collins, 230)

Whether we subscribe to Jarvis's—and Paton's—inscription of guilt on ourselves, we are made to see the reality of two worlds, and one might claim that Heart of Darkness is a fictional test case of what happens when our stylized conception of a society clashes with the actual society. Conrad reconfirms the tribe's victory through nature's triumph over culture, the most poignant image of which is the tall grass growing through and above the skeleton of the company representative. Cultural evolution thus comes full circle: rescued from the real wilderness, the one we see in Cooper's novel, the tribe is now back in a new one, a chaos lying at the heart of darkness, a void into which the souls sent in its degradation, a barren place from where few, if any, return.

This, on the level of the larger exterior landscape. On the level of characters, Conrad privileges the tribals too; indeed, the natives are so stylized that they acquire mythic proportions and invoke our pity and admiration. Readers often note these characters as foils to the realistic characters, the ones that keep books in the company quarters or hold jobs back in London. In "The Light and the Dark: Imagery and Thematic Development in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," Wilfred Dowden notes Conrad's juxtaposition between the white and brilliant perfection of the accountant's dress and the devastation of the station and the misery of the black men who creep about in the gloom of the trees. Stewart Wilcox suggests that as a foil to Kurtz's Intended, the native girl signifies his "passionate involvement with Time and the flesh. " As Conrad says, adorned with the ivory of "several elephant tusks",

She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent … And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at its own tenebrous and passionate soul.

(p. 62)

A passionate plea from the narrator-author who has journeyed into the inner reaches of his soul? Maybe. But what hidden agenda informs Conrad's plea? Is it the decadent Victorian's last moral stance—everyone must do his duty with the moral sincerity one professes? Is it an indictment of the falseness of a society deeply entrenched in a laissez-faire moral pit? I suggest that Conrad's message comes more from his love of man than from a desire to moralize or proselytize; it says through an allegory of death that our destroying the tribes cannot annihilate the Congo, because the place and its people are a part of us; that to kill the natives is metaphorically suicidal. The primitive, tribal element, the capacity for coexistence with nature, not only survives in us but also offers us the redeeming strength that might perpetuate our survival for years to come. The important need is that we recognize and maintain this tribal strength.

Logically, then, if we wish to project for our posterity a bright picture of our present continuity and future posterity, we must organize the vanishing tribes and showcase them as the points of our cultural genesis. We must define the tribe; identify the tribesman; formulate social programs, political agenda, and economic platforms that will protect, indeed freeze, the status quo of the tribal societies as a referent. In the United States, there is no legislative or judicial definition to identify a person as an Indian. For census purposes, an Indian is identified on a self-declaration basis. If an individual does not declare his race, the enumerator counts him as an Indian if he appears to be a full-blooded American Indian or—if mixed Indian and white blood—he is enrolled in an Indian tribal or agency roll or is regarded as an Indian in the community in which he lives.3

The classification of tribes and the identification of their members depend on equally superficial criteria. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency of the Department of the Interior, counts 563+ Indian tribes, bands, villages, pueblos, and groups that are eligible for federal aid. The Bureau classifies Indians according to one of two archaic methods: either by the way the Indians found their food, or by the language they spoke. According to the manner in which they found their food, Indians have seven groups. In the East, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, were the "woodsmen of the eastern forests." This group traveled by foot or canoe, lived mostly by hunting, fishing, and berry-picking. These were the native inhabitants the first English settlers found in Virginia and Massachusetts. In the central United States were the "hunters of the plains," who lived west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies, extending from Montana and the Dakotas to Texas. In the rest of the country were several smaller groups whose names indicate how they lived: "the northern fishermen" of the forest and river valleys of Washington and Oregon; "the seed-gatherers" of California, Nevada, and Utah; "the Navajo shepherds" of Arizona; "the pueblo farmers" of New Mexico; and "the desert dwellers" of Southern Arizona. According to the languages they speak, Indians have eight major groups: Algonquian, Iroquian, Caddoean, Muskhogean, Siouan, Penutian, Athapascan, and the Uto-Aztecan. Within each of these linguistic families distinct social and cultural similarities are typical.

The basic aims of the Bureau of Indian Affairs are couched in equally condescending terms. They are: higher Indian standards of living, assumption by Indians and Indian tribes of the responsibility for managing their own funds and other resources, political and social sophistication of Indians with freedom on their part to preserve their culture and heritage. President Richard Nixon's "Message on Indian Affairs" to the U.S. Congress in July 1970, however, recognizes the discomfort and difficulty that characterize the white America's relationship with the Indian tribes. Described by some Indian leaders as "historic in tone and intent," the message was regarded as the most responsive and progressive statement of policy ever to issue from the Executive Branch. In this message Nixon says:

… The story of the Indian in America is something more than the record of the white man's frequent aggressions, broken agreements, intermittent remorse and prolonged failure. It is a record also of endurance, of survival, of adaptation and creativity in the face of overwhelming obstacles. It is a record of enormous contribution to this country—to its art and culture, to its strength and spirit, to its history and its sense of purpose.


The urgency of this Presidential rhetoric is matched by the change of image of the Indian tribal culture in America. As Robert Roland has observed, since the sixties the Indian "has suddenly become conspicuous on the American scene—no longer as the mythical noble savage or cruel fiend of film or fiction, but as a very contemporary presence." Borrowing from the strategy and style of the black militants, Indian activists have organized, demonstrated, occupied government buildings and federal land, demanding full equality and often special treatment to redress past grievances.

American cultural institutions have responded to this new militancy by abandoning stereotypes and trying to offer a truthful picture of the Indians' past and present. As examples of this changing attitude, Roland offers films such as A Man Called Horse, Billy Jack, When Legends Die, and Little Big Man, which treat Indians as complex individuals, and portray Indian life as having an organic wholeness often lacking in white society. Major museums across the United States have offered Indian art exhibits to the public—New York's Whitney Museum, for instance, presented "200 Years of North American Indian Art" (1972), and a diverse group of contemporary artists exhibited their work at the Brooklyn Museum. Indian characters figure prominently in important post-modern works such as One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Sot-Weed Factor. Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee tells the story of Indian-white conflict during 1860-90 from the perspective of the Indians. Among artists and scholars and writers, one remembers Frederick Dockstader (Director of New York's Museum of the American Indian), Marjorie Tallchief (performer with the New York and Paris Ballet Theater), and N. Scott Mommaday (author of House Made of Dawn and professor at Stanford University). Yet the typical American high school student concocts the image of a man with feathers on his head and a dagger in his hand fighting for justice in the wild plains. The myth of the Lone Ranger and his Indian companion, based on the fiction of the past, nourishes such romanticized notions and keeps the stereotypes alive in the popular imagination.

In other countries, such as India, similar romantic stereotypes abound. Indian epics have even integrated the idealized images of two aborigines, Ekalavya and Jara Savar, into the national myths of the Mahābhārat and the Krishna Purâna. Ekalavya represents the perfect disciple who, because of his tribal origin, is denied military training at the hermitage of Drona, teacher to the princes and the royal families. He sets up his own training center, sculpts an image of Drona whom he accepts as his guru, and conducts his practice. On errand with his disciples, Drona discovers Ekalavya's mastery excelling those of his own students, and, to save himself from embarrassment and to protect the superiority of his royal disciples, asks Ekalavya for his left thumb as his teacher's fees. Knowing that he would forever be barred from shooting with his bow, but undaunted, Ekalavya cuts off his thumb and places it at the master's feet. Indians use the story as an allegory of a student's devotion to his teacher, but underlying this epic digression is the author's message about the innate goodness and moral strength of the aboriginal young man. Ekalavya personifies the fear of the source of our failure beyond the finest acculturative training we receive; his willing abdication of strength allays our fear—and the whole allegory fabricates a web of wish-fulfillment.4 The second story concerns the death of the post-Mahābhārat, warmongering Krishna and his re-birth as the new, peace-time Lord Jagannāth. Both stories enjoy immense popularity, and their two tribal characters are projected as worthy of emulation. But the central government's efforts to uplift the economic life of the tribes through affirmative action plans, such as quota in academic institutions and employment, has generated widespread resentment. As soon as Ekalavya and Jara Savar become real in their daily lives, the Indians soon throw away their nostalgia.

Again, we have relative levels of tribalism and primitivism. Each civilized society considers itself an evolved form of another. The American northerner calls the southerner's life primitive; the southerner calls the Mexican's life primitive; the Mexican urbanite calls the churlish Aztec provincial's habits primitive—a long chain of claims of enlightenment fostered by surrogate science and religion. Manners, we claim, improve man's ethical nature; hence, Cooper's attempt to showcase Natty Bumppo, Chingachgook, and Uncas in the light of our behavioral ethos—an effort, in other words, to synchronize the cultural evolution of man with the religious evolution—essentially a neo-Christian doctrine of our passage from innocence to experience. From time to time, historians, philosophers, and social scientists challenge this doctrine of linear progress: Montaigne uses reports of primitive people in Brazil in much the same way that the Roman historian Tacitus used reports of the German tribes—to show the extent to which their superficial civilizations masked a deeper barbarism, and to prepare their readers for the release of their bodies and minds to nature. For Giambattista Vico, the tribal savage was a natural poet, the source of the imaginative faculties still present in the modern, civilized man, as possessor of an aesthetic or form-giving capacity in which civilization had its origins. For him, the primitive man is one who feels naturally and thinks poetically.

Similarly, Claude Levi-Strauss suggests that what civilized people conventionally call the savage mind is a repository of a particularly powerful imaginative faculty that has all but disappeared from its civilized counterpart under the impact of modernization. The savage mind, he says, is the product of a unique kind of relation to the cosmos that we exterminate at the peril of our own humanity. This relation, reduced our perception of our tribes and tribal cultures, I maintain, is paradoxical. On the one hand, we have to assert our separateness and difference from everything past; on the other, we have to identify the vitality of our bond to all that has gone before. We have to define how we are different from what we have been, and our perspectives toward our tribes are informed by this necessary definition of an ontological state in terms of a historical process. C. G. Jung has claimed that the process of ethical judgment is the same for the primitive and the modern man (centered in the self), which corroborates the fact that the harder we try to escape from the old, frightening world of tribal existence, the faster we enter a new, irrational cosmos of magic and science. And that is the old tribalism in a new garb.


  1. At the international seminar on "Tribal Culture in a Changing World" (Cuttack, India, 9-12 December 1988), where an earlier version of this paper was presented, a lively debate followed the theoretical paper, "Of Tribes and Other Ethnic Labels," in which Professor Anthony Walker of the University of Ohio proposed the "Fourth World" as a more appropriate—albeit less descriptive—term for "tribe." Walker's call for a value-neutral terminology yielded no consensus.
  2. Donald Pizer makes a strong case for the element of "ethical idealism" in the American realistic writing of the nineteenth century. As his reading of The Rise of Silas Lapham, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and What Maisie Knew shows, the streak of subjectivism and idealism has remained a legacy of American life and literature. See Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, esp. chapters 1-3.
  3. The data in this paragraph, as well as those in the paragraphs to follow, are taken from The American Indians, published by the United States Information Service, Wellington, New Zealand (no date).
  4. In Studies in Classic American Literature, D. H. Lawrence, for instance, describes the Tales as "a decrescendo of reality, and a crescendo of beauty," and argues that the series culminates in the "yearning myth" and "wish-fulfillment" of The Deerslayer. See Kelly, pp. 160-75.

Works Cited

The American Indians, Wellington, New Zealand, U.S. Information Service, (no date).

Collins, Harold R. "The Detribalization of Kurtz and the Second-Rate Helmsman" in The Western Humanities Review (Autumn 1954), p. 299-310. Reproduced in Heart of Darkness and the Secret Sharer, ed. Franklin Walker, p. 227-30.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York, Norton, 1971.

——. Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, ed. Franklin Walker. New York, Bantam, 1971.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Leatherstocking Tales, 2 vols., The Library of America, 1985.

Guerard, Albert J. "The Journey Within" in Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard Univ. Press, 1956. Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough, 167-75.

Gurko, Leo. "[Conrad's Ecological Art]" in Joseph Conrad: Giant in Exile. New York, Macmillan, 1962. The Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough, p. 196-200.

Jung, C. G. Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Trans. W. S. Dell and Cary F. Banes. New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1933.

Kelly, William P. Plotting America's Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales. Carbondale, Ill., Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1983.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American literature. Carbondale, Ill., Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1984.

White, Hayden. "The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea" in Edward Dudley Maximillian E. Novak, ed. The Wild Man Within: An Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism. Pittsburgh, Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1972. p. 3-38.

Mark Wolff (essay date June 2001)

SOURCE: Wolff, Mark. "Western Novels as Children's Literature in Nineteenth-Century France." Mosaic 34, no. 2 (June 2001): 87-102.

[In the following essay, Wolff evaluates the influence of Cooper's "Leather-Stocking Tales" on the publication of numerous French adventure stories for children set on the American frontier throughout the nineteenth century. Wolff examines the Western novel within the context of French children's literature in order to determine the ideological function of these novels within French social and cultural history.]

Considerable numbers of adventure novels set in the Americas were published in France during the latter half of the nineteenth century. James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales had become regular favourites among French readers, and the success of these books prompted writers and publishers in France to produce similar works. The western novel in France eventually became associated with children's literature, and, like other forms of children's literature, it fell out of favour with the cultural elite. We cannot know what French children really thought about the characters that roamed the frontiers of the New World, but we can infer why this literature was relegated to children and what was the ideological function of its increased production.

In this essay, I address the history of the western novel as children's literature in France in three parts. First, I present a brief publishing history of the western novel in France, noting the permanence of Cooper in the literary field and the increased production of westerns from 1850 to 1889. I use the terms position and position-taking developed in the work of Pierre Bourdieu to differentiate the competitive strategies of writers and publishers from the works they produced to realize those strategies. Next, I look at references to Cooper in other nineteenth-century French texts as a gauge of the western's changing literary value. What other authors say about Cooper and their reading of him suggests that the kind of writing he represented was eventually considered suitable only for children. In the final part of my argument, I discuss how this writing addressed children through a semiotic analysis of western novel titles. I show that the western novel can be understood as the instrument of a double colonization: a colonialist gaze that appropriates le Nouveau Monde and dominates the eye of the child. Though the study of historical children's literature does not address the needs and interests of children today (as Peter Hunt has objected), it is nevertheless worthwhile to explore how the production, classification, and (de)valuation of children's literature as such occur within a wider sphere of social and cultural relations.

Before 1850, the adventure novel set in the wilderness of the Americas, especially North America and the United States, belonged to James Fenimore Cooper, an American author. "Coopermania" struck Europe in 1823 with the publication of The Pioneers , and in France no less than six editions of Cooper's complete works had been published midway through the century. A whole new body of literature about the New World had formed with Les pionniers, Le dernier des Mohicans, La prairie, Le tueur de daims , and Le lac Ontario. The Leatherstocking Tales were so successful that, in a review of La prairie , one French critic dubbed Cooper "le Walter Scott des sauvages." Cooper occupied a unique position in the literary field in France, and his novels about the American West delineated a new space for literary production. As Ray Allen Billington has pointed out, European authors quickly seized the opportunity to exploit this new market (30-32).

In 1850, a French writer by the name of Gabriel Ferry published Le coureur des bois, a novel that recounts the adventures of a French-Canadian woodsman who roams through northern Mexico hunting buffalo, skirmishing with Indians, and bringing outlaws to justice. The success of Ferry's novel demonstrates that the genre introduced to France by Cooper was no longer something that could only be imported from the New World. The appearance of similar titles by other writers after Ferry's death indicates that the space of positions in the literary field had been transformed by Ferry's success. In 1850, Paul Duplessis (Ferry's nephew) published a play entitled Les chercheurs d'or du Sacramento. In 1853, Louis-Xavier Eyma produced Les deux Ameriques, histoires, moeurs et voyages. These two authors continued to write works based on life among the settlers and indigenous peoples of the Americas, and other European authors joined their ranks and helped expand the production of western novels in France. Beginning in 1854 with the publication of Les chasseurs de chevelures, the Irish-American writer Mayne Reid became one of the most important western writers in France. In 1855, German author Friedrich Gerstäcker's Aventures d'une colonie d'émigrants en Amérique appeared, and many more translations of his works followed. In the following year, Bénédict-Henry Révoil began his literary career with Chasses et péches de l'autre monde. Gustave Aimard, the most prolific author of westerns in France, made his début in 1858 with the publication of four titles. In 1862, Lucien Biart entered the literary field with the publication of La terre chaude, scènes de mœurs mexicaines.

The production of western novels in France expanded quickly after 1850. Using bibliographic information collected from the catalogue of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, I have accounted for the title, publisher, and date of every work published by the nine authors listed above from 1850 to 1889. The first date corresponds to Gabriel Ferry's publication of Le coureur des bois, which inaugurated the publication of post-Cooper western novels in France. The second date corresponds to two events that transformed book production in general and the western novel in particular. In 1889, French publishers were experiencing a crisis. The market for books, which had expanded steadily during the course of the nineteenth century, reached a plateau by 1890 and forced many publishers, who had anticipated continued growth in the book market, into bankruptcy. New modes of production that imitated the inexpensive newspapers already available to consumers overcame the difficulties of a saturated market and made the popular book an almost disposable commodity (Barbier 124-27). The year 1889 also marks the arrival of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. This show changed French perceptions of the American West with an aggressive advertising campaign that drew millions of French spectators to the event. Buffalo Bill's successful first tour "made [him] the sole representative of the frontier in the eyes of many in France" (Reddin 99). The effect of the visual in this new form of popular culture (wild west shows, posters, postcards, photographs, and eventually film) blurred to an even greater extent than in books the distinctions between the "reality" of the New World and its mythification (Pons 19-33). Scholars such as Margaret Gibb, Jean Trignon, Lise Queffélec, Roger Mathé, and Paul Bleton have studied the literary production of these nine authors within the context of the reception of Cooper, popular literature, the western novel in France, and children's literature. During the forty-year period between 1850 and 1889, the annual production of books in France exploded from about 10,000 titles in 1850 to nearly 25,000 titles in 1890 (Barbier 109). Western novels were therefore part of a period of considerable growth in publishing that encompassed all literature. By comparing the number of new titles and editions for this group of writers, we can note their position-takings and trace the positions they claimed in a specialized sub-field of literary production.

The eight authors who wrote western novels after Cooper produced works in a variety of genres. Some dabbled in theatre, poetry, and other sub-genres of the novel, while others wrote histories, biographies, and travel guides. In fact, a significant proportion of the works produced by these authors are maritime novels. This suggests that young authors seeking to claim a position in the space that had been opened by Cooper not only imitated the American's tales of life on the frontier, but they also tried their hands at writing novels that described adventures on the high seas. With ninety-seven distinct titles, Aimard was the most prolific author; many of them were initially published between 1858 and 1868. Révoil and Reid were also very active, with eighty-seven and seventy-nine titles respectively.

Even though these authors wrote works belonging to various genres, their western novels were by far the most commercially successful. I determined the bestsellers of these authors by noting which titles were reprinted most frequently over five-year intervals. Accounting for best-sellers in this way allows us to observe shifting trends in the market for western novels without giving too much importance to works that sold well for only a short time (Lyons 415-23). With the exception of Paul Duplessis's Les boucaniers, which went through three separate editions from 1850 to 1854, the only maritime novels that were reprinted more frequently than western novels were those by Cooper.

Gabriel Ferry claimed an important position in the space of literary production that Cooper had created. From 1850 to 1854, Ferry's novel Le coureur des bois was the most published work by any of the authors considered in this study, including Cooper. Ferry secured a permanent position in the production of western novels with the success of Le coureur des bois, not only because he had written the first western after Cooper but also because it was one of the most published westerns during the latter half of the nineteenth century. If we look at the overall bestsellers by the eight European writers who imitated Cooper, we observe that, from 1850 to 1889, Ferry is the only French writer who produced a novel that remained a milestone in the space of positions for the production of western novels in France. Even though Aimard and Révoil maintained constant activity in the literary field by producing ninety-seven and eighty-seven new titles respectively, none of their novels represented as solid a position-taking as Ferry's Le coureur des bois, which went through fifteen editions.

Despite the increasing number of new western novels produced in France, Cooper's novels remained the best sellers of the genre. Works by Ferry, Duplessis, Reid, and Aimard were published more often than those by Cooper in the 1850s, but after this decade Cooper's works regained their prominence in the literary market. The only other author to maintain an aggressive presence in the market from the late 1860s through the 1880s was Reid, whose Chasseurs de chevelures remained a perennial favourite among publishers. The most disseminated western novel in nineteenth-century France was without question Cooper'sLe dernier des Mohicans , which reached a total of at least forty-six separate reprintings.

The reasons for Cooper's overwhelming presence in the market for western novels stem in part from his status as a classic author. With the advances in printing technology of the 1840s that made books easier and cheaper to produce, the market for literature expanded. Workers, domestics, and members of la petite bourgeoisie could afford books, and publishers sought to capitalize on this market. Publishers were willing to take a risk in publishing one of Cooper's works because they were confident that new readers would want to buy works of enduring value. The publisher Gustave Barba, for instance, created his collection entitled Romans populaires illustrés for those who had previously been unable to purchase books. Why would newly enfranchised readers want their own copy of Le dernier des Mohicans ? Perhaps it was because Cooper belonged to that group of renowned and accessible writers whom the up-and-coming classes wanted to acquire for themselves as cultural capital. Literature had been a luxury reserved only for the leisured classes, and the ability to buy books prompted new book buyers to display their good taste. Publishers like Barba sought to exploit this market for literature: "To do very well and very inexpensively, such is the difficult problem I have solved in publishing my collection. […] As an editor of works whose value is universally appreciated, I offer them to the public at exceptional terms" (Witkowski 179). By building their personal libraries with established works like Cooper's, the new consumers expressed their recognition of established cultural values, what Pierre Bourdieu calls "la bonne volonté culturelle" (Distinction, 367).

To what extent was the western novel considered a children's genre during this period? According to Zohar Shavit, adult literature is adapted to the perceived needs of children by altering the text so that it adheres to norms of appropriateness (morality, etc.) and what adults think children are capable of understanding (112-13). This is certainly the case with western novels in France. Publishers such as Ardant, Barbou, and Mame prepared new translations of Cooper's works where the content was adjusted specifically for a young readership. Many of Cooper's titles from the 1860s onward refer to special translations for juveniles: for instance, in 1866 Mame published Le Lac Ontario de Fenimore Cooper, adaptation et réduction à l'usage de la jeunesse, par A.-J. Hubert. Publishers of juvenile literature often designated their translations of Cooper's novels with words such as "revue avec soin" to indicate that the work had been screened for any ideas deemed inappropriate for young readers. Western novels in general were often targeted at a juvenile market in France. In 1859, Hachette began featuring Reid in the Bibliothèque rose, a collection devoted to children's literature, with the publication of four novels: A la mer!, L'habitation du désert, Le chasseur de plantes, and Les exilés dans la forét. Hetzel did the same with works by Reid in the collection Aventures de terre et de mer beginning in 1869. Some authors, such as Biart and Révoil, wrote exclusively for children; others, like Reid, wrote for both adult and juvenile readers.

The opinions of French writers on Cooper's works give us an indication of the status of the western novel as a form of children's literature. With the initial success of the Leatherstocking Tales in France, Cooper received recognition from writers who continued to mention his name in memoirs, critical commentary, correspondence, and novels throughout the nineteenth century. As an object of intertextual reference, Cooper's name designates the ways in which readers occupying a dominant position within the cultural hierarchy of France put the western novel to use. The American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language contains thirty-three occurrences of "Cooper" in 484 works published between 1823 (the initial publication date of La prairie in France) and 1900. Up until the 1860s, authors mentioned Cooper's name in discussions of works they had read or were reading as adults. François Guizot, for instance, compares Cooper's Indians to August Thierry's Normand conquerors of England in order to study barbarianism (34). Balzac makes a similar comparison, replacing the Normands of the eleventh century with the Parisians of his own day (321). Other writers read Cooper for recreation, such as Alphonse Lamartine (108), Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly (58), and Jules Michelet (607).

Beginning in the late 1860s, writers mention Cooper's name as associated exclusively with childhood. Two significant examples of intertextual reference are Jules Verne's Les enfants du capitaine Grant and Alphonse Daudet's Aventures prodigeuses de Tartarin de Tarascon. Verne assumes that his adolescent readership is familiar with Cooper's works when Panagel, the scientist who joins Captain Grant's expedition through South America, explains how one can survive a prairie fire: "But we have read our Cooper [on a lu son Cooper], and Leatherstocking has taught us how to stop advancing flames by pulling up the grass around oneself in a radius of several yards. Nothing is simpler" (157). The possessive "son" indicates that Cooper's novels provide an encyclopaedia of useful knowledge for any aspiring young adventurer. Bas De Cuir is an educator from whom young readers would learn about the wilderness of the New World, and his lessons are elementary: "nothing is simpler." To read Verne properly, a child would already have had to read Cooper.

Daudet does not write for a child in Tartarin de Tarascon, but rather for an adult who laughs at childish behaviour and yet feels sympathetic to it. Tartarin is a middle-aged man who refuses to give up his fantasies of adventure in faraway lands. The narrator visits the home of Tartarin, whose garden is filled with exotic plants and whose cabinet boasts a large collection of weapons from all over the world. In looking around Tartarin's residence, the narrator fixes his gaze:

In the middle of the study there was a pedestal table. On the table, a flask of rum, a Turkish dagger, the voyages of Captain Cook, the novels of Cooper and Gustave Aimard, stories about hunting bears, falcons, elephants, etc. Finally, in front of the table a man was seated, forty to forty-five years of age, short, fat, squat, red-faced, in his shirt sleeves and flannel underpants with a strong stubbly beard and blazing eyes; in one hand he held a book, in the other he brandished an enormous pipe with an iron-bowl cap, and, while reading I know not what fantastic story about scalp-hunters [chasseurs de chevelures], he made by protruding his lower lip a terrible pout which lent to his gallant figure of an ordinary, leisured resident of Tarascon this same character of easy-going ferocity which prevailed throughout the house.

This man was Tartarin, Tartarin of Tarascon, the intrepid, the great, the incomparable Tartarin of Tarascon.


I cite this passage at length because it shows a certain tension between a fond remembrance of childhood and a harsh critique of romantic dreams of adventure. By listing Cooper and Aimard as two of Tartarin's favourite authors (and referring to Reid's best-seller), Daudet implies that their works are for immature readers. Tartarin is a male equivalent of Emma Bovary: he is a man who has read too many books during his childhood and who now lives in a fantasy world created out of fiction. Unlike Emma, whose life ends tragically in part because she cannot reconcile her adult reality with the fantasies of her youth, Tartarin survives despite himself and lives to tell his own tale of adventure. In Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert is able to transcend the kind of literature Emma liked to read by systematically negating it with the impassibilité of his free, indirect style. Daudet produces a comparable artistic effect by creating Tartarin as the don Quixote of the adventure novel and overcoming the juvenile status of the genre through self-critical satire. For Daudet, the adventure novel in general and its variations by Cooper, Aimard, and Reid in particular are things an adult leaves behind.

By 1890, adventure novels were clearly the stuff of childhood, but the reasons that adults believed adventure appropriate for children varied. On the one hand, adventure novels could serve as pedagogical tools. According to Roger Bellet, Hetzel's Magasin d'Education et de Récréation, an important children's magazine published from 1864 to 1870, used the topos of adventure to teach children about distant lands, history, geography, natural science, morality, and grammar. In generalizing the idea of adventure and applying it to didactic aims, however, Hetzel reduces its inherent danger and makes it safe for children. On the other hand, adventure novels could promote a more vigorous and aggressive attitude in la jeunesse, especially after the humiliating defeat that the French suffered at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. According to Philip Dine, adventure novels published between 1870 and 1914 aimed to inculcate a positive attitude toward colonial expansion among young French readers and encourage them to help build a French empire, even though popular support for French colonialism was lukewarm at best. Was adventure too dangerous for children without proper dilution, or was it supposed to provoke them to leave the safety of France and embrace the danger of the colonies? Theodore Zeldin observes that several conflicting ideas about childhood coexisted in France during the nineteenth century. Some paediatric authorities followed Jean-Jacques Rousseau and claimed that children were inherently innocent, others adopted the thinking of the Church and believed that children were sinful and needed discipline, while still others thought they were malleable and could be shaped into anything. Adventure novels could adapt to any of these ideas.

It is interesting to note that the ideology behind western novels for children in the United States at this time was not as didactic as it was for adventure novels in France. Before 1890, publishers in the United States produced magazines and books for children that emphasized the contrasts of frontier life (landscapes, conflicts between Indians and settlers, etc.) without a "mythic vision" of the American West, which would develop later (Erisman 117). Western novels in the United States at this time were published as "dime novels," a mass-produced, standardized format that made cheap books available to a readership of all ages. One of the most successful dime novels was Edward Ellis's Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier, a text that owes much to Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales and that set the standard for later western novels in the United States (Bold 23-24). Western novels in France and the United States alike start with Cooper's legacy as a classic, but they appeal to different readerships. Michael Denning has argued that western novels were part of a wider spectrum of popular fiction for working-class readers who could read this literature as representations of the social conflicts they encountered in their everyday lives. Adolescents most likely read these books in the late nineteenth century, but writers and publishers did not target dime novels specifically at a juvenile audience.

Western novels were demoted to children's literature within the French cultural hierarchy, but the number of titles for these novels continued to increase during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Publishers were marketing these works specifically to children, many of the titles promising suitable material for young readers. Critics of children's literature have wrestled with the unsettling truth that adults construct notions of the child for whom children's literature was and is produced. According to Jacqueline Rose, children's literature presents an image of childhood that recovers lost worlds of innocence and transparency for adults. This recovery itself resembles an adventure tale: "The child is, if you like, something of a pioneer who restores these worlds to us, and gives them back to us with a facility or directness which ensures that our own relationship to them is, finally, safe" (9). What do western novels published in nineteenth-century France depict, and what kind of fictional child is their implied reader? Scholars such as Henry Nash Smith, John Cawelti, Billington, Roger Mathé, and Paul Bleton have already described the formulaic narratives, plots, themes, and characters of western novels. Instead of reiterating the ideas of these scholars, in this essay I concentrate on the semiotics of book titles and consider the ways in which titles reconstitute a varied but stable landscape for a constructed gaze.

Titles belong to that category of literary productions that Gérard Genette calls paratext. External to texts and yet intimately associated with them, titles make texts present in the world: they exist as "indecisive zone[s]" with no definite limits that separate them from texts or the world (7-8). There is no necessary link between titles and texts. One can write poetry, tell jokes, and jot down laundry lists without dubbing them with a title. One can also refer to titles without reading texts, as in the case of browsing in a bookshop. The relation between a title and a text becomes necessary when the text enters the world as a social object. The act of designating a text with a title brings the text into a social reality where it operates as an instrument and commodity imbued with value.

According to Genette, a title performs at least four functions: designation, description, connotation, and seduction. These four functions operate hierarchically, the lower functions serving to make the higher functions more explicit. A title must first designate a text, but that designation often involves description, which serves to rationalize what the text is called. For description to be meaningful, the terms used in the title may refer to a tradition or style of texts with related titles. And, if a title is meaningful, it will provoke readers to respond in some way by selecting, avoiding, or ignoring the book. Titles ultimately signify through a process of differentiation that aligns texts within certain categories and then contrasts them, representing discrete objects to be produced or consumed.

As western novels appeared on the market, their titles announced a set of recurring themes and images. The words occurring most frequently in the titles of works attributed to Cooper and his successors form a lexicon for the western novel. In compiling this lexicon, I eliminated reprints and new editions from the corpus of titles unless a publication was given a new or modified title. Titles reveal the complex relationships between texts and the position-takings that they represent in the literary field. On the one hand, a reprint or new edition with an unchanged title does not represent a new position-taking in the literary field; rather, it demonstrates that a position already taken has a certain degree of permanency and serves as a landmark in the space of possible positions yet to be taken. On the other hand, unique titles do not necessarily reflect unique works. Aimard, the most prolific French author of western novels, adopted the common strategy of using the same plot in his all his novels, changing only the names of characters and places but giving each text a unique title. Different titles designating variations of the same story still marked different position-takings in the literary field. Compiling a lexicon for the western novel allows us to identify the recurring people, places, and objects in this representation of le Nouveau Monde and to perceive connotations referring to broader ideological formations, as Claude Duchet, Leo Hoek, and Genette have suggested.

From the titles, the reader is able to enter a world outside European civilization that promises the thrill of a quest. Very often the quest takes the form of a hunt for an "exotic" object, animal, or people. In some cases, the emphasis is placed on the hunt itself, such as in La chasse aux insectes (Cooper), La chasse à l'esclave (Eyma), La chasse au cerf (Reid) and La chasse aux chevaux sauvages (Reid). In others, the focus is on the hunters who are identified by their prey or origin: there are Les chasseurs d'ours (Reid), Les chasseurs de bisons (Reid), Les chasseurs de chevelures (Reid), Les chasseurs d'abeilles (Aimard), Le chasseur de rats (Aimard), as well as Les chasseurs de la baie d'Hudson (Reid) and Les chasseurs mexicains (Aimard). These titles suggest that the quest remains constant throughout the novel: the intrigue depends on finding and pursuing a particular quarry by overcoming a series of obstacles. To suggest that the quest will be determined over the course of a novel, a title often uses the word aventure. Such a title is all the more seductive because it makes the discovery of the novel's quest a quest in itself: readers first must find out what the quest will be before they can vicariously pursue it. The corpus is filled with titles that promise adventures for things yet to be determined: Aventures mexicaines (Duplessis), Les aventures du capitaine Ruperto Castaños au Mexique (Ferry), Voyages et aventures au Mexique (Ferry), Les dernières aventures de Bois-Rosé (Ferry), Aventures d'une colonie d'emigrants en Amerique (Gerstäcker), Aventures d'un officier américain (Reid), L'habitation du desert, ou Aventures d'une famille perdue dans les solitudes de l'Amerique (Reid), Les jeunes esclaves, aventures de terre (Reid). Authors or publishers could nuance the degree of specificity in their descriptions of a novel's quests by promising a certain kind of adventure without giving details. For instance, the titles Aventures de chasse (Révoil) and Aventures de chasses et de voyages (Reid) play on the tension between narrowing the field of possibilities while at the same time leaving the quest undetermined.

There are many references to travelling and travellers in the corpus of novels considered here, and most of the destinations are located somewhere in the Americas: Mon dernier voyage, le Brésil nouveau (Aimard), Le colon d'Amérique, souvenirs de voyage (Cooper), La vie aux Etats-Unis, notes de voyage (Eyma), Les deux Amériques, histoires, mœurs et voyages (Eyma), Souvenirs du Mexique et de la Californie, voyages et voyageurs (Ferry), Voyage en Amérique (Reid), Les voyageurs à travers l'Amérique (Révoil). With a total of thirty occurrences of words referring to Mexico, the French took a greater interest in this country as a site for their adventures than in any other country across the Atlantic. France's imperial interests in Mexico during the mid-nineteenth century seem to have ensured a demand for novels providing documentary information concerning the land, peoples, and customs of a country that the French tried but failed to conquer during the Second Empire, as Nancy Nichols Barker has argued.

The titles in the corpus reveal what the reader could expect to see in his or her imaginary travels to the New World. The following list includes some of the more frequently occurring objects in the landscape: bois, chasseurs, déserts, indiens, or, peaux-rouges, prairies, peches, esclaves, chevaux, chiens, daims, faucons, lions. The recurrence of the same objects in the titles suggests that there was a fixed set of notions about the wilderness in the Americas, and this repertoire of ideas fed into a combinatoire that generated new vistas. Each unique title directed the gaze of the reader to a different part of the general landscape. With the plethora of westerns on the market, readers could direct their gaze from Le désert (Reid) to La prairie (Cooper) while glancing at Au milieu des bois (Révoil). Within the spectacle of the New World, no distinction is made between what can be seen. The people who live on a distant continent are presented as scenic figures who may occasion a closer look, but who ultimately appear as just part of the landscape. The reader can get a glimpse of Les peaux rouges, scènes de la vie des Indiens (Révoil) or look at Le cheval sauvage (Reid). Titles that propose descriptions of the customs of various peoples often qualify the inquiry as another gaze at scenery: La terre chaude, scènes de mœurs mexicaines (Biart), Scènes de mœurs et de voyage dans le Nouveau-Monde (Eyma), Le lion du désert, scènes de la vie indienne dans les prairies (Aimard), Le trouveur de sentiers, scènes de la vie sauvage (Aimard), Les bandits de l'Arizona, scènes de la vie sauvage (Aimard), Les chasseurs mexicaines, scènes de la vie mexicaine (Aimard), Les pirates de l'Arizona, scènes de la vie sauvage (Aimard), Les peaux noirs, scènes de la vie des esclaves (Eyma), Les harems du Nouveau-Monde, vie des femmes chez les Mormons (Révoil).

The lexicon for titles of western novels constitutes a descriptive system that promises readers what they can expect from a text. By descriptive system, I refer to Philippe Hamon's hermeneutics of categorizing and classification in description. Unlike a narrative, which unfolds over time according to a logic that the reader apprehends in the course of reading, a description requires specific, pre-existing competencies with systems of classification. Descriptions become meaningful through grid-like structures of hierarchies, where one term encompasses another term, and equivalencies, where a series of terms can permutate (47). Descriptions are therefore didactic, in that they demonstrate linguistic competence and knowledge of words and things within hierarchies (50). In the case of titles for western novels, the hierarchy consists of a primary signifier (le Nouveau Monde) that encompasses or integrates a set of minor signifiers (bois, déserts, indiens, prairies, etc.). These minor signifiers can do the work of the primary signifier through metonymy or synecdoche, and they permutate within the descriptive system with a more or less equivalent relationship to the primary signifier. By naming different things that ultimately describe the same object, western novel titles form a set of unique yet equivalent expressions. Permutations of the lexicon produced new views of the Americas.

This descriptive system promoted the stability and growth of the market for western novels by creating an ever-changing yet ever-constant landscape for the eye of the child to behold. As children's literature, the western novel effects a double colonization. The formation of a class of signifiers that repeatedly name elements of the New World made it possible to construct new titles for western novels by recycling and recombining an established lexicon. New titles promised to deliver more accounts of adventure in the Americas, announcing unique angles on the spectacle of the continent and presenting different ways of knowing an unchanging object. The different ways of describing the same scenery encouraged a roaming gaze over an unchanging landscape. But this gaze itself is constructed for young readers through the texts themselves. Perry Nodelman has argued that children's literature is a form of Orientalism: the stable image of childhood presented in children's literature determines how adults and children see themselves in the world (32). Children's literature posits that children are essentially different from adults, maintaining this difference through the objectification of the child. As Other, the child is supposed to see things differently: with innocence, imagination, simplicity, for example. The eye of the child becomes the "I" of the child (to use Karin Lesnik-Oberstein's useful expression) who conforms to the subjectivity created for him or her by adults (57). By focussing the child's eye/I to see the same permutating wilderness, western novels have colonized the child as well as the Americas. The child and le Nouveau Monde assume predetermined subject and object positions orchestrated by adults.

The example of nineteenth-century western novels in France suggests that the history of children's literature involves more than what children read in the past. Children's literature is produced within a complex system of relations among authors, publishers, critics, and readers for whom texts have different meanings and values. The initial critical and commercial success of Cooper in France introduced the new sub-genre of the western novel to the public and prompted French and other European writers to imitate him. Cooper remained a perennial favourite in France, but his continued success represented an established position within the field of literary production. Other writers at first admired his work but then defined themselves against his position with their own works that appropriated Cooper for didactic purposes or negated him to transcend what had become juvenile. After the 1860s, the western novel continued its success in France as a form of children's literature. No longer the object of critical attention, it followed a rigid formula with a regular stock of recognizable elements. An analysis of titles for these works reveals a well-defined lexicon of terms that were recombined in various ways to present ever-new but familiar landscapes. Not only did these landscapes represent the Americas as a promising destination for young colonialists, but it also instilled a way of seeing the world associated with childhood. Western novels objectified le Nouveau Monde and subjected European children to its image.


Translations of extracts from Witkowski, Daudet, and Verne are Wolff's.

Works Cited

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Laura L. Mielke (essay date March 2002)

SOURCE: Mielke, Laura L. "Domesticity and Dispossession: Removal as a Family Act in Cooper's The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish and The Pathfinder." American Transcendental Quarterly 16, no. 1 (March 2002): 9-30.

[In the following essay, Mielke analyzes how Cooper portrays the violence of white settlers as a domestic act in The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish and The Pathfinder.]

In Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor (1828), James Fenimore Cooper's Belgian Bachelor applauds the American federal government's new plan for "bring[ing] the Indians within the pale of civilization": removal of eastern tribes to territory west of the Mississippi (489). Once the native peoples of America's eastern states are relocated in western territory, the Bachelor suggests, "a nucleus will be created, around which all the savages of the west … can rally" (490). That is, the noble western savages and the degraded and decreasing eastern Indians will form a mutually beneficial organization—a family of sorts—that will civilize members and prepare them for what the Bachelor sees as inevitable "amalgamation" with white America (490). Cooper's foreign commentator depicts Indian removal as the creation of a separate and distinct American Indian organization en route to the coalescence of all Americans in a single entity. In this odd schema, the benevolent, paternalistic federal government removes native peoples in order to bring them into the national fold.

The treatment of removal in Notions is timely and representative. In the 1820s, first President Monroe and then president Adams proposed the removal of Georgia's Cherokees in the face of white encroachment on their lands, but Congress did not act (Prucha 67). With the inauguration of Jackson in 1828, removal of all tribes east of the Mississippi River became inevitable and the argument that removal ultimately benefited those removed entrenched. Like Cooper's narrator, the Jackson administration and its supporters argued that only through removal could the degradation of eastern Indians caused by contact with whites be halted and the federal project of "education, civilization, and Christianization" proceed (71-72). The rhetoric was intensely paternalistic: Thomas L. McKenny, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, compared removal to "tak[ing] my own children by the hand, firmly, but kindly and lead[ing] them from a district of Country in which the plague was raging" (qtd. in Prucha 72). The removal of eastern tribes to western territories depended on a metaphor that, as Michael Paul Rogin's Fathers and Children describes it, fashioned the federal government as parent, the American Indian as child, and the dispossession of American Indians as familial act.

This defense of removal contained within it a marked tension between ideology and act. Realistically, the forced separation of Indians from white Americans provided little hope for expedient racial and national amalgamation; conflict over removal would culminate in the violent Indian resistance of the post-bellum era. Further, what was supposedly a benevolent, paternalistic act required military force and led to the dissolution of existing American Indian communities and households and the death of Indian family members. By 1844, between one-fourth and one-third of southern Indians were dead as the result of "the extension of state laws through removal and resettlement" (Rogin 240). As Richard Berkhofer and other critics have pointed out, Cherokee removal stands as a particularly ironic example of this process of civilization considering it was prompted by the nation adopting a constitution modeled after that of the United States in 1827 (159-60). Ultimately, the defense of removal as paternalistic raised questions about the sincerity of America's commitment to the family and the sacredness of domestic space. If federal treatment of the Indian was to be figured as civilizing and paternalistic, white America was left to make sense of (or, perhaps more realistically, to forget) the barbaric destructiveness of actual removal.

One means of doing so was through imaginative literature; in poetry, melodrama, and fiction of this period, Americans created and consumed narratives reconciling or obscuring the tensions within the nation's treatment of American Indians.1 As critics then and now recognize, Cooper was a leading author of such narratives, and his Leatherstocking Tales and other historical romances reveal a multiplicity of strategies for making sense of the relationship between whites and Indians in the American past and present. At least two of Cooper's novels attempt to make sense of alternately benevolent and destructive removal through the context of domestic sentiment: The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish (1829) and The Pathfinder (1840) portray the white settlement of the American frontier, and all the violence it entailed, as a domestic act, focusing in particular on the role of mothers and homes in prompting and fashioning Anglo-Indian conflict. Such powerful figuring of frontier conflict in domestic terms not only forwarded the project of removal as an off-shoot of feminine discipline, as Lora Romero and Amy Kaplan have argued, but also revealed the inherent tensions of frontier imperialism. In doing so, these two novels, which frame the decade of eastern removal, animate the tension within the contemporary portrayal of removal policy as a paternalistic act on the part of the nation. They also consider how violence fashioned as domestic or paternal could be turned against whites as Indians retaliated with their own domestic act of capturing whites and incorporating them into their homes.

Reading these historical romances in the context of removal sheds light on the means by which the texts at once reflected or reinforced removal policy and emphasized its violent implications in the process, all the while participating, as Susan Scheckel puts it, in "attempts to articulate a coherent narrative of national identity" (3). This complicates the traditional understanding of The Pathfinder as presenting Leatherstocking in love. In this Leatherstocking Tale, the mythic Natty Bumppo is a victim of a strategic white domesticity that allures and excludes him. Indianized and displaced, he stands as a loaded symbol not only of a frontiersman superceded by the very settlers he guides, but also of a native member of the American family who is eager to be incorporated but nonetheless is rejected and dispelled. The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish and The Pathfinder share the origins of the national family and the fate of those expelled from it.

1. Strategic and Selective Domesticity inThe Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish

In the period surrounding the Removal Act of 1830, American readers were fascinated with the figure of the white woman who, once captured by Indian aggressors, is incorporated by the Indian society and departs from white ways. Interest in this figure could be traced back to the story of Eunice Williams, but this trend perhaps was initiated most directly by James E. Seaver's A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824) and included (among others) Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok (1824), Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1827), and Cooper's The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish (1829). In the latter, the young Ruth Heathcote is saved from seemingly inevitable destruction by the Indian brave Conanchet, then taken into the Indian village and ultimately into his home. Years later, Ruth, now Narra-mattah, Conanchet's wife, returns to her parents' home yet remains loyal to her husband. Cooper's depiction of the young white woman's transformation echoes Child's and Sedgwick's works as well as The Last of the Mohicans.

As critics have theorized the source of this period's fascination with the Jemison figure, readings of The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish have focused on interpreting young Ruth, the source of the novel's title. Some have suggested that Wept reveals a cultural fear of racial mixing. In a highly influential reading, Leslie Fiedler calls Wept "the first anti-miscegenation novel in our literature," and proceeds to describe the entirety of the Leatherstocking Tales as opposed to Anglo-Indian sexual relationships (205). Leland Person identifies Cooper as part of a masculine literary tradition that expressed "a miscegenation phobia" (672). Yet James D. Wallace has suggested instead that Cooper portrays Ruth and Conanchet's marriage as productive racial "amalgamation" (the word, Wallace emphasizes, that Cooper used in Notions ) that establishes an ideal the nation will, sadly, fail to foster. Finally, it would seem that either reading—Wept as anti-miscegenistic or pro-amalgamation—must be tempered by the source of the Anglo-Indian relationship in the novel: captivity. As Michelle Burnham points out, "captivity literature constructs and reinforces a binary division between captive and captor that is based on cultural, national, or racial difference" (2). Whether the novel smiles or frowns upon Ruth's captivity and subsequent marriage to Conanchet, it places their relationship within the context of violent racial tensions and ultimately condemns the young couple to sylvan graves.

The violent origin and end of Ruth and Conanchet's marriage do not stem from an anti-miscegenistic tendency in Cooper, nor do they clearly promote racial amalgamation. Rather, this particular literary depiction of interracial marriage reflects, with what is at times a disquieting neutrality, the deployment of domesticity as a strategy for obtaining power both on the past frontier of colonial New England and the present frontier of Jacksonian America.2 The Indians attack Wish-Ton-Wish because the white settlement poses a threat to Indian communities. Conanchet captures the girl, however, because she and the white domesticity she represents have strongly attracted him, proving, as Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola puts it, "captivity (incarceration) can nevertheless turn into captivation" (167). Young Ruth's incorporation into Indian society counters the attempt to incorporate Conanchet into the white community at Wish-Ton-Wish. In this sense, captivity illustrates the Indian and white shared strategic use of domesticity. But the Puritans' moral queasiness over Conanchet and young Ruth's marriage illustrates the limits of white domesticity, which and what kind of family members the white household will not accept. Whites' failure to provide the Indian with promised domestic membership on the frontier lies at the heart of removal, a policy through which white America claimed to be domesticating American Indians for inclusion in the national family, as they destroyed Indian homes and families.

The blockhouse at Wish-Ton-Wish functions as a striking symbol of militarized domestic space on the American frontier. Our first image of the community, as seen through patriarch Mark Heathcote's eyes, reveals a rambling dwelling "bearing marks of having been reared at different periods, as the wants of an increasing family had required additional accommodation" (28). This awkward family house, other buildings, and two log walls together form a strategic "hollow square," in the middle of which sits the conspicuous blockhouse of stone and wood (28, 29). "[H]exagonal in shape," with "long, narrow loopholes" and a "small canon," the blockhouse is quite different from the rambling family dwelling (29, 75). Yet, the narrative tells us, the glimpse of glass windows, "glittering on one or two small openings in the roof," reveals that this military shelter "was sometimes used for other purposes than those of defense" (29). Indeed, the family has equipped the apartments with "plain domestic furniture … should they be driven to the building for refuge," and the attic with a mattress and other "conveniences" to accommodate Mark Heathcote, who regularly uses the room for late night "secret spiritual exercises" (75, 76). The blockhouse serves as a dwelling and a fort, a place from which to worship God above and take aim at enemies below. Its prominence in the opening vision of Wish-Ton-Wish and the first fatal siege on the community emphasizes the aggressive nature of claiming living space on the frontier.

Through the action of mother Ruth Heathcote in the novel's tense opening scenes and the two sieges, the Wish-Ton-Wish compound as a whole—even the less-threatening, sprawling family home—comes to animate the juncture of military and domestic the blockhouse symbolizes so well. Anxious for Content to return from his mysterious night mission into the woods, Ruth wanders out from the compound, leaving the postern open. Her sudden realization of this error sends her hurrying back, and when she catches sight of an Indian lurking around the compound, this "mother of the sleeping and defenceless [sic] family" rushes toward the compound only more rapidly (57). When Content does return, Ruth uses her maternal fears to convince him of her experience, challenging, "'Thinkest thou, husband, that a mother's eye could be deceived?'" (63). Thus the most effective watch-person at Wish-Ton-Wish is the anxious mother. During the first siege, Ruth's maternal instincts send her running to her daughters' bedroom where, oddly enough, she entrusts her precious daughter, young Ruth, to Conanchet, the Indian whose captivity has in part prompted the siege. Immediately her daughter cries out that she is being attacked by an intruding Indian, and Ruth turns around to find a striking tableau: "A naked savage, dark, powerful of frame, and fierce in the frightful masquerade of his war-paint, stood winding the silken hair of the girl in one hand, while he already held the glittering axe above a head that seemed inevitably devoted to destruction" (197). While Conanchet intervenes and saves young Ruth, the nature of this conflict has been made very clear: the Indians seek to violate and destroy the sanctity of the white home and the white female (both the trusting mother and the helpless daughter).

The violence visited upon Wish-Ton-Wish is matched in the violence whites visited upon Indian homes. While the novel does not dramatize any of these attacks, we twice learn of their effects on Indian family members second-hand. The observant and sympathetic Ruth concludes from captive Conanchet's mournful pronunciation of "'Miantonimoh!'" that "'The child mourneth for its parent,'" specifically that Puritans have killed the boy's father (81, 82). In the second half of the novel, Conanchet aids Philip in an attack on Wish-Ton-Wish because after a Puritan attack, "'the women of the Narragansetts have no lodges. Their villages are in coals, and they follow the young men for food'" (372). The struggle over territory on which to build homes and villages ironically endangers the very women and children whom homes and villages are designed to protect.

If the establishment of domestic space for white immigrants is the motivation for settling the American frontier, then the frontier home is both the product and a motivating force of domestic imperialism. In Wept , Mark Heathcote's reason for taking his family from Hartford to western territory—the desire "that he and his household might worship God as to them seemed most right"—echoes the original impulses for Puritan claims on New England (17). Importantly, the novel figures his possession of the territory at Wish-Ton-Wish as a purely domestic act as Mark claims "an estate that should be valuable, rather from its quality and beauty, than from its extent" and then "contrive[s] to convert [it] into an abode" (21). Later, in describing the restored plantation, the narrative pauses to explain colonial America's difference from mother England in domestic terms: "it was England … [but] with a superfluity of space that gave to the meanest habitation in the view, an air of abundance and comfort" (249). A vision of domestic autonomy and comfort drives white claims on America and thus leads to war.

Domesticity is further linked to the war over territory in the novel through the act of domestication; in the struggle over home-space, whites and Indians find the incorporation of the enemy into the household a useful strategy. Mark Heathcote has "[a] desire to quicken the seeds of spiritual generation, which, however dormant they might be,… exist[ed] in the whole family of man," and so attempts to convert the captive Conanchet from a scarcely clad savage to a clothed Puritan (113). The men do not succeed. While the Puritans are able to detain him within the palisade and require him to attend prayer, "[i]n every instance in which the youthful captive had liberty of choice, he disdainfully rejected the customs of the whites" (115). Yet the women of the household, namely Ruth and her namesake daughter, do appeal to the stubborn boy and ultimately win some of his loyalty. With "a gentle expression," Conanchet accepts Ruth's injunction to protect her children, young Ruth and the adopted Mary, during the first attack on Wish-Ton-Wish (182). He fulfills his promise first by halting the axe of the young girl's Indian attacker (in a scene reminiscent of Pocahontas's intervention on behalf of John Smith), and then by taking her from the arms of the wounded, soon-to-be captured Whittal Ring (198, 212). Conanchet effectively saves the young girl from what seems to be the family's sealed fate, death by fire in the blockhouse, and his respect for his captors only intensifies once the blockhouse has been burned to the ground. All of the Indians are awestruck by the seeming passivity of the Puritans in death, yet Conanchet is singled out for his response: "he appeared to linger at the spot in the indulgence of feelings that were foreign to those passions that had so recently stirred the bosoms of his comrades" (227). The young chief could not be incorporated by the Heathcotes, but they did plant in him a feeling of "'the power of the God of the Yengeese!'" and an affection for their family and daughter (361). Indeed, we are told, "had Ruth been there to witness the melancholy and relenting shade that clouded his swarthy features, she might have found pleasure in certainty that all her kindness had not been wasted" (228).

Conanchet's attraction to the Heathcote family and their spiritual life does lead to the incorporation of young Ruth into his community—and here we return specifically to the girl's central position in the novel. As Renee Berglund points out, Conanchet's captivity foreshadows the girl's and portrays with historical accuracy "the Indian's refusal to be acculturated and the white child's acquiescence" (99). Our first glimpse of Ruth, now Narra-mattah or "'the driven snow'" (375), reveals that she has indeed adopted Indian ways, exhibiting "the modest and shrinking attitude of an Indian girl" and donning calico and skins (369). Still, she is larger and fairer than most Indian women, and her "more elastic" step, "more erect and graceful" gait, and movements as a whole contradict her membership in "a race [Indian women] doomed from infancy to subjection and labor" (370). Yet she shows deference to her sachem husband, Conanchet, approaching him timidly and swearing allegiance, and we later learn that she has borne him a son. The Indian enemy has, in effect, acquired the center of white domesticity, the female child whom the home protects and who matures to become the nurturing progenitor.

Still, Conanchet does not trust this success, perhaps in memory of his own resistance to conversion in captivity. Importantly, he encourages Narra-mattah to realize her racial/cultural identity by appealing to memories of her parents around the time of the attack:

'Does not Narra-mattah hear her father speaking to the God of the Yengeese? Listen—he is asking favor for his child?'

[Narra-mattah responds,] 'The Great Spirit of the Narragansett has ears for his people.'

'But I hear a softer voice! Tis a woman of the Palefaces among her children: cannot the daughter hear?'


Narra-mattah now admits that she dreams of a white woman whose words she loves to hear because they "'seem to her like the Wish-Ton-Wish, when he whistles in the woods'" (376). Though captured and integrated, Narra-mattah yet retains the memory of her mother and associates her with the place name of her childhood home. Conanchet concludes that their marriage has angered the white man's God and, for the remainder of the novel, promotes her return to the Puritan community (376). The persistence of Narra-mattah's memory confirms the power of one's original domestication.

Conanchet's certainty of the inability of the Narragansetts to incorporate young Ruth might also be linked to the recent destruction of the tribe's village and, in contrast, the miraculous persistence of the Wish-Ton-Wish plantation despite the destructive Indian attack years prior. As mentioned above, the adult Conanchet returns with Philip to attack the new settlement at Wish-Ton-Wish because the Puritans have recently destroyed his people's homes. Conanchet and Philip successfully assail and seize this prospering village only to realize that, like the set of domestic buildings that sprang up after the last Indian attack, the Heathcote family has persisted in defiance of Indian claims and violence. The reader knows that, by hiding in the well at the center of the blockhouse during the last siege, the family convinced the Indians that they had died; now, appearing to the adult Conanchet, they successfully convince him that their powerful God has resurrected them. (Significantly, the narrator attempts to convince the reader as well, describing their reemergence as providential: "Had nature been left to its own work, a few years would have covered the deserted clearing with its ancient vegetation…. But it was otherwise de creed" [228-29].) Whether the result of the white God's intervention or human military cunning, the persistence of the white family breaks Conanchet's will. He returns to them his wife Narra-mattah, their child, and Indianized Whittal Ring, and in doing so, Conanchet allows his reverence for the white family to eclipse this military victory and contribute to the final loss of the battle and the territory.

Conanchet's reverence for a former fellow prisoner and adopted white father also places his cross-cultural reverence for the familial in stark contrast with the Puritan's disregard for Indian families. Conanchet's capture and execution are the direct result of his actions to protect Submission, a Puritan accomplice in the execution of King Charles I and a fugitive from English justice. As Submission and Conanchet flee an aggressive band of Pequots in alliance with Mohegans and the Puritans, Conanchet refuses to save himself by abandoning the somewhat feeble Submission and then, having hidden the old man in a tree, draws the attention of the pursuing group away from Submission by "rendering his own trail as broad as possible" (438). Conanchet's sacrifice for the Puritan is particularly ironic because a Puritan minister, Meek Wolfe, has convinced the other Wish-Ton-Wish leaders to collaborate with the Pequots and Mohegans in capturing Conanchet. During the discussion, Content pleads with them to forgive the Sachem because of the mercy he has shown Narra-mattah, but the discovery of the mutilated body of one of their messengers negates his argument (417-19). From this moment on, revenge overwhelms family ties; after the capture, Wolfe argues with impunity that Christian duty requires the sacrifice of the heathen Conanchet, using deference to Providence as a disguise for violent action (444). As critics have pointed out, Wolfe represents a hypocritical Christian stance not only of the Puritan era but of later American periods as well, from that of the squatters as portrayed in Cooper's Littlepage novels (House 130) to the "[e]arthy national New Englanders" who used republican rhetoric to defend liberal America (could 145). The critique inherent in the contrast between Wolfe's and Conanchet's actions is clear: in a war over families and family space, the white conception of domesticity in its extreme is narrow and greedy, while the Indian conception at its noblest is inclusive and generous. The inevitability of white possession of the frontier is inextricably linked to the ascendancy of an exclusive vision of the national family.

A series of scenes at the end of Wept proclaims the victory of white domesticity. While Meek Wolfe sacrifices Conanchet, an Indian significantly compelled by Christian domesticity, to Christian doctrine, Content incorporates Conanchet's child into his household, determining, "'It is his will that one sprung of heathen lineage shall come beneath my roof, and let his will be done!'" (421). In doing so, he rejects Ensign Eben Dudley's more palatable suggestion that Content quietly add the baby to the triplets born to Reuben and Abundance Ring that morning. In the two options for the baby's future, we see yet another direct example of the relationship between domestic life and America's Indian policy: the orphan of the thinned race could be incorporated as an equal as long as its racial and cultural distinctions are obliterated, or it could be grudgingly taken in by the family patriarch as an accepted sign of God's disfavor. Either way, the white babies are born in remarkable numbers, and the future of the lone Indian orphan is eclipsed in the final pages of the novel by the story of its parents' deaths and the concluding account of a tourist's visit to the couple's graves.3

Narra-mattah arrives at the scene of Conanchet's execution in time to assert the legitimacy of their inter-racial marriage and child, asking the stoic Sachem, "'Will not the great Narragansett look at his boy?'" and "'Why is his face so dark on a woman of his tribe?'" (459). To this the Sachem responds that she and their son must return to the whites, a concession of their victory over his family as well as his tribe (460). Once Conanchet is dead, the white victory over this Indian couple is made even clearer, as the grieving Narra-mattah becomes young Ruth again, responding to a prayer by turning to the older Ruth and crying "'Mother!'" (469). Yet the return to the white perspective is clearly regressive, for Narramattah/Ruth takes on the voice of a young girl and recalls the scene of the first attack on Wish-Ton-Wish (469-70). Having prayed a child's prayer at her mother's request, Narra-mattah/Ruth looks around at the faces of those gathered. However, once she finds the figure of the dead Conanchet, she whispers in anguish, "'Mother! mother! … I will pray again—an evil spirit besets me'" (470). As during that first attack (174), Narra-mattah/Ruth expresses her needless fear of Conanchet. Her captivity and their marriage are erased as she dies in Ruth's arms, her face "perplexed, timid, but not without a character of hope" (471). While her mother is happy that her daughter has again recognized her community, the rest understand the tragedy of the scene. In burying the couple side-by-side in the woods and labeling the woman's grave not Ruth but "'The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish,'" the Puritans acknowledge that even in death, the child and not the woman returned to the white fold (474). The woman buried beside Conanchet remains an Indian wife and mother even though she recognized her Puritan childhood in dying.4

Throughout the second half of the novel, Cooper links white victory in the New England frontier to a vision of family strictly limited by racial/cultural and religious identity. Ultimately, the whites' triumphant domesticity is revealed to be inherently exclusive—Conanchet insists he has no viable place within a family that "'burnt the lodges of my people'" (458)—and hypocritical—the Puritans protect their homes and extend Christian civilization through the violent destruction of Indians. Philip recognizes this when he questions Content why the white men's hands are dark, and Content replies, "'They have been blackened by toil, beneath a burning sun … [so] that our women and children might eat'" (352). Philip retorts, "'No—the blood of the red man hath changed their color'" (352). The exclusiveness of Puritan families is further figured as unnatural as the older Ruth Heathcote can offer her interracial grandson only a "cold salute" upon seeing him (408). And, as mentioned above, the novel links the English Puritans' unnatural act of regicide (a figurative parricide) to the American Puritans' attack on Indian families through the figure of Submission. Conanchet's sacrifice for the old man contrasts sharply with Submission's rebellious past and Meek Wolfe's vengefulness. Cooper emphasizes that in Europe and America, the impulse to protect the small family of believers leads to extreme acts of violence against noble patriarchs of other families. The perpetuation of the Puritan family, we conclude, entails the exclusion and destruction of non-Puritans.

The opening paragraph of The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish gives a typical account of colonial New England history, telling us that the Puritans "transformed many a broad waste of wilderness into smiling fields and cheerful villages" (13). Soon, however, the tone of this history has changed, and we learn that the valley of Wish-Ton-Wish "was one of these establishments of what may, not inaptly, be called the forlorn-hope in the march of civilization through the country" (13). In the story that follows, any hope the Heathcotes have for transforming the wilderness is tempered by their sadness over the captivity of Ruth and their isolation in a valley surrounded by hostile Indians. The distinctly mournful tone of this tale about a Puritan family's struggle to maintain a foothold in the New England frontier, "give[s] the romance of American expansion a perversely Gothic accent" (Franklin 123). The title and closing scene remind the reader that the focus of the novel is not on the success of the Puritans in settling the valley but on their loss of home and family.

Through a focus on domestic strategy and destruction in the frontier conflict, Wept also reminds the reader of the Indian's loss of home and family. The title of the novel emphasizes the dual nature of domestic loss on the frontier. The captured young Ruth symbolizes a family's sacrifice to the colonial project, the child whose disappearance haunts her mother unto sickness. Narra-mattah is the Indian mother who loses home and husband and whose child is finally taken from her and integrated into white society. In "the Wept" we find the nexus of both the Indian and white use of domesticity in the frontier conflict and the resultant suffering. Here the popular symbol of the white woman in captivity represents not the threat of miscegenation or the promise of amalgamation, but the tragic triumph of a narrow familialism. As America approaches a decade of Indian removal, Cooper writes a novel expressing disappointment over a nation's inability to imagine honestly an inclusive national family and a benevolent national patriarch.

II. Dark Domesticity: Returning to Natty Bumppo in the Context of Removal

Between 1829 and 1840, the pessimism of Wept with regards to the peaceful integration of the Indian into the American family played out on a national stage. In 1830, Congress passed the Removal Act. The Cherokee challenged Georgia's jurisdiction over their lands and asserted the context of their treaties with the United States in the Supreme Court case "Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia" in 1831. Chief Justice John Marshall expressed the court's concern for the Cherokee but concluded they were dependent on United States government, that their relationship to the United States "resembles that of a ward to his guardian" (qtd. in Prucha 76). While in 1832 with "Worcester vs. Georgia" the Supreme Court denied Georgia jurisdiction over Indian land (Prucha 76), Georgia ignored the ruling, and the federal guardian continued to push for removal. Cherokee leaders controversially signed a removal treaty in 1835, and in 1838 the nation witnessed the tragic Trail of Tears (87). Like other tribes, the Cherokee suffered deprivation and death under the supervision of a government program officially aimed at civilizing Indians for citizenship. Removal forcibly established distinct white and Indian territories and, in doing so, offered only a forlorn hope for a united American family.

In this same period, Cooper was plagued with legal problems and increasing unpopularity in America (Beard xvii-xxxiv, Spiller 252-69, and Grossman 105-41). Returning from Europe in 1833, Cooper was overwhelmed by what he saw as the moral degradation of Jacksonian America. He spent most of the remainder of the 1830s writing satiric and non-fiction works of social critique, and his outspoken position led to harsh reviews and slander in the press. Cooper fought back with numerous lawsuits, but his litigiousness only worsened his public image (Beard xxix). In 1839, needing to make money and please his publisher, and possibly to prove something to his detractors, Cooper decided to return to historical romance, combining the two types about which his early popular novels had been written: "seamen and savages" (Cooper, Preface 1). Removal had not killed the American public's taste for literary depictions of (doomed) Indians, and Cooper determined to tell another story "of the wonderful means by which Providence is clearing the way for the advancement of civilization across the whole American continent" (2). In doing so, he reopened the story of Natty Bumppo, promising to fill in a chapter of the frontier hero's early life.

The Pathfinder , like The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish , tells the story of a frontier struggle for power between whites and Indians that centers around a militarized domestic space (again, a blockhouse) and focuses on the marital destiny of a white woman. Domesticity is strategic in the fight for possession of the frontier in The Pathfinder , but it acquires a sinister connotation as Indians and their white allies manipulate rather than instigate domestic relationships to defeat white adversaries. Domesticity becomes further unsettling as Pathfinder determines "'it is time I begin to think of a house, and furniture, and a home'" but painfully discovers "'I have indeed, been on a false trail'" when a representative of white domesticity, heroine Mabel Dunham, rejects his offer of marriage (Pathfinder 180, 272). In doing so, she reinforces Bumppo's gift as the American frontiersman; thus the darkness of the novel's attitude toward domesticity stems in part from Bumppo's mythic role, which preordains his failure in love.

Pathfinder's inevitable rejection by Mabel Dunham and his exclusion from the realm of white domesticity are linked not only to his role as an asexual loner who forges a nation but also to his role as an "Indianized" white. Pathfinder's lost dream of domestic bliss resonates with the failure of an amalgamated America. The darkness with which Cooper infuses domesticity in the frontier conflict stems at least in part from the course which white-Indian relations had taken in the 1830s. The promise of a national family brought together through paternal benevolence had yet to be fulfilled, and the irony of the Indians' dispossession in the name of civilization was not lost on Cooper-the-historian. In the fourth volume of the Leatherstocking Tales, he dramatizes domesticity's role in making homeless the Native peoples of America by focusing on the manipulation of domestic sentiment in defending removal as benevolent. In doing so, the novel remarkably gives its white hero the most significant experience with dispossession and rejection by established domesticity. A reading of Pathfinder as experiencing the reality of removal significantly affects the reading of his inevitable, appropriate failure to marry by linking it to the inevitable, appropriate exclusion of Indians.5

Though set in the remote country of Lake Ontario during the French and Indian Wars, first at a fort on the Oswego River and then at a garrison on Station Island, one of the Thousand Islands, The Pathfinder has a remarkable focus on domestic space. Mabel's presence in particular domesticates the military structures in the novel. Shortly after her arrival at Oswego, Sergeant Dunham hosts a hearty dinner in the fort for his daughter, Pathfinder, Jasper, and various officers, and Mabel, or more accurately, her marital status, is the focus of this domestic gathering (12428). Speaking with Pathfinder just after this dinner, Sergeant Dunham proposes a shooting contest in which Pathfinder may demonstrate to Mabel his "'true character'" (133). That marksmanship bears relation to marriage is enforced by the nature of the shooting contest in which Pathfinder "fires at potatoes or drives nails into trees with his bullets to win a calabash [sic] for Mabel" (House 312). The association works the other way as well; when Jasper remarks, "'I would lose an arm, Pathfinder, to be able to make an offering of that calash to Mabel Dunham,'" the woman's scarf is associated with the violence of warfare (165). The presence of Mabel, officers' wives, and "some twenty females of humbler condition," or wives of soldiers stationed at the fort, make not only the contest but also the battles a family affair (154). The British garrison on Station Island, like Wish-Ton-Wish, has a blockhouse that serves domestic and militaristic functions, a stout building furnished for dwellers but equipped with a large canon in its roof. Towards the end of the novel, as Sergeant Dunham lies dying of his wounds, the blockhouse witnesses a domestic occurrence that was a staple in sentimental novels of the period: the deathbed scene. Here Mabel serves as the true angel of the house, a gentle leader for a roomful of men who do not know the appropriate social or spiritual response to Durham's imminent death:

When she kneeled at the bedside of her father, the very reverence of her attitude and manner, prepared the spectators for what was to come, and as her affectionate heart prompted her tongue, and memory came in aid of both, the petition and praises that she offered up, were of a character that might have worthily led the spirits of any.


Washington Irving would comment that the scene "is one of the most affecting things I have ever read" (94). In the American wilds, Mabel transforms military sites into domestic spaces in which the most precious of familial and literary rites are observed.

The domesticity of military space (and vice versa) in The Pathfinder takes on a particularly grotesque quality as the very process of courtship has military overtones. The Pathfinder has two plots, one involving Mabel's courtship by multiple male characters, the other involving the threat to British claims posed by treachery and Indian-French attacks. Mabel, known affectionately as "Magnet," is the object of at least four men's aggressive romantic assaults, and, as William Owen and Paul Rosenzweig have argued, the process of courtship for her becomes strangely akin to the detection of treachery and the defense of the blockhouse. Dunham is loyal to Pathfinder for rescuing him once in battle, and his promise of his daughter's hand, and Mabel's willingness to entertain the notion, stems from Pathfinder's loyal military service (91, 376). Jasper Western appeals to Mabel's heart not only through his looks and courteousness, but also through his expert marksmanship and seamanship. Davy Muir courts Mabel as part of his plot to trick Dunham and aid the French and Indians. His military treachery, then, is linked to his romantic treachery, though, Jasper concludes, "'his feigning love for Mabel, is worse even than his treason to the king!'" (427). Pathfinder and Jasper early on hear a hostile brave note Mabel's presence in the compound and declare, "'some of our braves want wives'" (63), and Arrowhead himself desires Mabel as an additional wife. Mabel's marital choices all have a martial significance.

Over the course of the novel, military action and domestic action are, increasingly, violently linked. Before the sneak attack on the island outpost, Dew-of-June warns Mabel to retreat to the blockhouse, emphasizing, "'Block-house very good—good for squaw. Block-house got no scalp'" (323). June and Mabel go on to prove that, in a battle, the "home" is indeed the best place for women—even in the absence of men. When enemies surround the blockhouse, June pushes the muzzle of a rifle through the roof, and Mabel convinces the enemy that Pathfinder is inside to defend her, adroitly militarizing the domestic haven (368). Once Pathfinder arrives, Mabel promises marriage if he saves her father, making the martial-marital relationship explicit (376). Ultimately, the domestic life over which the battle is fought curtails the violence: Mabel halts the fighting, emerging from the blockhouse to declare, "'My poor father is approaching his end, and it were better that he should draw his last breath, in peace with the world. Go—go—Frenchmen and Indians; we are no longer your enemies, and will harm none of you'" (410). If the battle is fought over the white woman and domestic space, then that woman determines when domestic duties require the end of conflict. The white woman is crucial to the military as well as the domestic plot in The Pathfinder.

The association of domesticity and violence in the novel takes its most sinister tone with the murder of a soldier named Sandy and his wife Jennie. Mabel cannot keep Jennie in the blockhouse after the women retreat there. The poor wife rushes out to see about Sandy and, upon finding the corpse, accuses him of playing a trick on her. Discovering that he is dead, she faints and is soon killed and scalped by the Indians (341). To disguise the Indian occupation of the base for the returning unsuspecting Sergeant Dunham and his men, the Indians pose the white corpses in a scene of pastoral and domestic bliss. The soldiers are posed as if socializing and fishing (362-63). Jennie's scalped corpse "stand[s] in the door of a hut, leaning forward, as if to look at the group of men, her cap fluttering in the wind, and her hand grasping a broom," and "the jaw had been depressed, as if to distort the mouth into a sort of horrible laugh" (363). The irony of Jennie's peaceful pose reminds us of the context and cost of settlement on the frontier. Possession of the disputed territory necessitates violence towards other occupants; thus, others' domestic relations are not sacred and stand exposed to destruction even as they destroy.

As in The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish , the Indians of The Pathfinder attempt to incorporate the white female into their multitude. The novel emphasizes that Mabel and the blockhouse, her "home," are endangered by Indian desire as well as aggression. Just after Jennie's death, Mabel realizes that she is alone in the structure and its door is ajar. To her horror, an intruder enters and "ris[es] slowly through the passage," appearing to be a fierce Indian warrior:

[After the hair] came the dark skin and wild features, until the whole of the swarthy face had risen above that floor…. Mabel imagined many additional horrors, as she first saw the black, roving eyes, and the expression of wildness, as the savage countenance was revealed, as it might be inch by inch.


"But," the narration continues, the countenance in its entirety turns out to be "the gentle, anxious and even handsome, face of June" (344). Come to check on Mabel, June has defied the image of the hostile Indian and proven a protector for the white heroine and her domestic space. Like Arrowhead, June is attracted to Mabel, and instead of inspiring June's hatred of Mabel, Arrowhead's desire for Mabel causes June to declare, "'If June must have sister-wife—love to have you'" (349). Though June is a far cry from the hostile Indian warrior—and though she reassures Mabel, "'feel as gal—feel as squaw. Love pretty Lily [Mabel], and put it in my bosom'" (357)—she nonetheless poses the threat of incorporation. When Mabel seeks to warn Pathfinder, her father, and their company of the dangerous trap, June declares "with a warmth and earnestness Mabel had never witnessed in her before": "'One call from wife, wake a warrior up. June no let Lily help enemy—no let Injin hurt Lily'" (359). June will preserve Mabel to be incorporated into the Indian community, but she will not sacrifice her community to her desire for Mabel.

Yet this is exactly what she does unwittingly. Like Conanchet, June undermines Indian victory through a noble loyalty based on love of a white woman. Mabel's feeling "that she was urging a wife to be treacherous to her husband" is accurate; June's aid to Mabel results in Pathfinder's reaching the blockhouse and ultimately defeating the Indian aggressors (322). Arrowhead is killed, and June finds herself turned out from her village (463). Mabel's promise that she "'would never take the place that is yours, in a wigwam'" proves false in a sense (349), for while Mabel avoids becoming a second wife to Arrowhead, her appeal leads to June's disloyalty and resultant homelessness. June's desire to protect Mabel is foolish, for as a white woman, Mabel, like Jennie, is inherently linked to the white struggle for control of the frontier. It is only fitting that Pathfinder brings the dispossessed June to Mabel and Jasper, the couple representing the future of American society (467). Suffering "the double loss of husband and tribe"—her personal and national families—June soon dies in Mabel and Jasper's cabin (468). White domesticity, as embodied by Mabel, has overwhelmed Indian culture through its inherent attractiveness, and all that is left is for Indian culture to succumb to the ascendancy of white culture.

Pathfinder's experience on Lake Ontario is remarkably similar to June's: attracted to the white heroine and desirous of joining her in domestic bliss, he ends up betraying his natural attributes, or "gifts." Pathfinder tells Sergeant Dunham early on that if Mabel is willing to marry him, "'I would … try to humanize my mind down to a wife and children'" (129). Domesticity, in Pathfinder's mind, is the natural state for humans, and his abandonment of hunting and trailblazing would be proper in light of marital prospects. Pathfinder dreams of marriage to Mabel as the literal humanizing of nature (the realm of his present life) and the naturalizing of romantic love:

I imagined I had a cabin in a grove of sugar maples, and at the root of every tree was a Mabel Dunham, while the birds that were among the branches, sung ballads, instead of the notes that natur' gave, and even the deer stopped to listen. I tried to shoot a fan, but Killdeer missed fire, and the creatur' laughed in my face, as pleasantly as a young girl laughs in her merriment, and then it bounded away, looking back, as if expecting me to follow.


This oft-quoted transformation of Mabel into a nymph and of the woods into the realm of courtship, with ballad-singing birds, a coquettish fawn, and a phallic rifle, proves not a prophecy of Pathfinder's marriage to Mabel but a representation of the incoherence of a world in which Pathfinder "'compliment[s] a silly girl'" (110). As Muir betrays the British by aiding the Indians and French, and as June betrays her husband and her people by aiding Mabel, Pathfinder betrays his gifts, early declared to be "'with the rifle, and on a trail, and in the way of game and scoutin' …'" (26).

Mabel rejects Pathfinder midway through the novel (270), but later rescinds this statement by offering Pathfinder her hand if he would protect her father. Pathfinder rejects a marriage of loyalty, explaining, "'I fear me, Mabel, that man and wife needs be bound together by a stronger tie than such feelings, I do'" (451). Female domestic space, the driving force of settlement, will not include Pathfinder readily, and he concludes that despite the dream vision he will not force unnatural accommodation. As a result, Pathfinder, like June, loses his home—though his is an ideal and not a real one—and responds to his dispossession with a feeling "of deep humility and exquisite pain" (446). It is fitting, then, that Pathfinder empathetically watches over June, the dispossessed Indian, as she keeps a vigil at Arrowhead's grave (462-63). Never having had a spouse or permanent home to begin with, Pathfinder alternately sees his deprivation as less than and equal to June's. Watching June grieve, he realizes "how much deeper lay the sources of grief, in a young wife, who was suddenly and violently deprived of her husband, than in himself" (463). Yet upon visiting Jasper and Mabel's cabin and viewing more concretely the space and relationship denied him, he seems to conclude his an equal tragedy, commenting, "'Ah's me!—What have I to do, with other people's miseries, and marriages, as if I hadn't affliction enough of my own'" (467). Pathfinder determines that he and the Indian widow are both afflicted, yet the difference seems significant: June could not incorporate Mabel into her Indian home and community, but Mabel, before her marriage to Jasper, would not incorporate Pathfinder into her white home and civilization.

This parallel between Pathfinder and June recalls Warren Walker's suggestion that "Cooper infuses the whole Leatherstocking story with the deep tragedy of the dispossession and final destruction of the Indian, a tragedy that the fate of the solitary white scout both represents and parallels" (117). Pathfinder, in association and contrast with June, takes on an Indian role of being targeted for civilizing through domesticity yet ultimately losing a home as a result. He finds the domestic realm appealing and readily pursues marriage and its "humanizing" effects, but Mabel rejects him and cuts off his ability to enter white society. Importantly, this rejection makes of Pathfinder a wanderer in the unsettled territory of the state even as it allows Mabel and Jasper to settle in New York City. Mourning the loss of an ideal, the deprivation of opportunity, Pathfinder rededicates himself to the role of facilitating rather than participating in white domesticity. Years later when Mabel visits the Mohawk River with her sons, "she observed a man, in a singular guise, watching her, in the distance" (468). As Mrs. Mabel Western, the wife of a wealthy merchant and mother of three grown boys, looks west, she represents prosperous, expanding, urban America. Her "distant glimpse" of this old suitor, however, "cast[s] a shade of melancholy over her still lovely face, that lasted many a day" (468). American progress is tempered by its human sacrifices, those who cannot or should not be incorporated into the American family proper. Like the Cherokee, Pathfinder stands west of white civilization, dispossessed and detached despite his desire to grasp the dream of the ideal home.

Of course, Pathfinder is not Cherokee, Narragansett, or Tuscaroran. He is, rather, a self-identified white man who does not resist white settlement but regularly promotes westward expansion by guiding and protecting the bearers of "civilization": white women. If Cooper and others in this period presented American guilt over colonial and frontier violence "through the oblique structures of irony, conscious or otherwise, and dramatic presentation" (Dekker 91), the Indianized Natty Bumppo of The Pathfinder is Cooper's oblique representation of the undeniable relationship between whites and Indians: the former's possession of American land necessitates the latter's dispossession. In the cultural climate of federal "benevolence" and domestic sentimentalism, the distance between the ideal of racial (as well as cultural and political) amalgamation and the reality of exclusion is measured in the stolen land that the homeless Pathfinder traverses.

At either end of a decade of removal, Cooper wrote novels that brought to life a tension between a vision of western settlement as claiming ground for the increasing numbers of white homes and a reality of the violence against Indian families that settlement entailed. These novels do not necessarily condemn removal as much as examine what was considered its relationship to white American families and the national family. That Cooper simply laments dispossession signals a willed acceptance, but Cooper emphasizes that the acceptance comes at a psychological price. Wept concludes with a curious tourist's pilgrimage to Conanchet and Narra-mattah's graves, and Pathfinder closes with Mabel's disquiet over the image of the wandering Pathfinder. History and the nation, Cooper reminds us, cruelly, inexplicably, but inevitably exclude even the noble, and we can never forget this. What Honore de Balzac called the "profoundly melancholy personage" of Pathfinder (75) represents not only the triumph of white settlement—the establishment of white homes and the protection of their matriarchs—but also the narrowness of the white home and heart.


I am grateful to Richard D. Rust, Philip F. Gura, Michael J. Everton, Fiona Mills, and John M. Ware for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay.

  1. Critical treatments of the reflection of Indian policy in the work of Cooper and other antebellum writers are many. Important to this essay are: the treatments of the active construction of "the Indian" in the process of defining white America in Roy Harvey Pearce's Savagism and Civilization; Robert F. Berkhofer's White Man's Indians, and Richard Slotkin's Regeneration through Violence and Fatal Environment; the explorations of American nationalism's engagement of the Indian figure in Lucy Maddox's Removals and Susan Scheckel's Insistence on the Indian; and the descriptions of the relationship between imperialism and domesticity in Lora Romero's Home Fronts and Amy Kaplan's "Manifest Domesticity."
  2. This reading of strategic domesticity in Cooper draws on a rich critical conversation regarding the role of Cooper's women as the carriers of civilization and establishers, through marriage, of property rights. See especially Kay Seymour House Cooper's Americans, Nina Baym "The Women of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales," Annette Kolodny The Lay of the Land, Robert Lawson-Peebles "Property, Marriage, Women, and Fenimore Cooper's First Fictions," and Janet E. Dean "The Marriage Plot and National Myth in The Pioneers." This reading is also indebted to both Leslie Fiedler's description in Love and Death in the American Novel of a misogynistic Natty Bumppo who desires to escape a feminizing civilization and Lora Romero's updated reading in Home Fronts of The Last of the Mohicans's portrayal of a feminine civilization which "legitimates the technologies of punishment deployed against [Cooper's] red men" (49).
  3. And if, as the dedication suggests, "The Rev. J. R. C., of ****** Pennsylvania" is the anonymous descendent of that orphan, a white family did succeed in keeping the child's heritage from the public until this moment when Cooper, writing at once to J. R. C. and a Romantic readership, can safely declare, "You have every reason to exult in your descent" (unpaginated dedication). See Renee Berglund's The National Uncanny, 107.
  4. In Marble Queens and Captives, Joy S. Kasson also considers Cooper's "extremely ambivalent" attitude toward Narra-mattah, pointing out that her loyalty to Conanchet, reinforced by the biblical allusion of her English name Ruth, suggests approval of her adoption of Indian ways, while her regression to "a hysterical infancy" at the close of the novel suggests an unwillingness to allow the Puritan daughter to become fully Indian (96, 97). Such readings stand in contrast to Stephen Carl Arch's assertion that through Narra-mattah's child-like actions, "Cooper suggests that the interracial marriage has not really occurred" (114).
  5. This reading is particularly important since critics so often approach the fourth Leatherstocking Tale as one of Cooper's novels of social manners. For example, Donald A. Ringe argues that, "The Pathfinder has less to say about American expansionism than about American social democracy" (64). In doing so, Ringe overlooks the mutual relationship between American social democracy and expansionism in this period of Indian removal: Americans came to believe that the future of the nation necessitated ever-increasing territory and that newly acquired territory required democracy's civilizing forces of public enterprise and the private home.

Works Cited

Arch, Stephen Carl. "Romancing the Puritans: American Historical Fiction in the 1820s." ESQ 39 (1993): 107-32.

Balzac, Honoré de. Rev. of Pathfinder, by James Fenimore Cooper. Revue Parisienne. Excerpted in Knickerbockers Magazine. Jan. 1841: 74-77.

Baym, Nina. "The Women of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales." American Quarterly 23 (1971): 696-709.

Beard, James Franklin. Introduction. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1960.

Berglund, Renée. The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects. Reencounters with Colonialism 5. Hanover: Dartmouth College/UP of New England, 2000.

Berkhofer, Richard F., Jr. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Burnham, Michelle. Captivity and Sentiment: Cultural Exchange in American Literature, 1682-1861. Reencounters with Colonialism 2. Hanover: Dartmouth College/UP of New England, 1997.

Cooper, James Fenimore. Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor. 1828. Albany: State U of New York P, 1991.

——. The Pathfinder: or, The Inland Sea. 1840. Albany: State U of New York P, 1981.

——. Preface. The Pathfinder: or, The Inland Sea. 1840. By Cooper. Albany: State U of New York P, 1981.

——. The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish: A Tale. 1829. New York: W. A. Townsend, 1859.

Dean, Janet E. "The Marriage Plot and National Myth in The Pioneers." Arizona Quarterly 52 (1996): 1-29.

Dekker, George. The American Historical Romance. Cambridge Studies in Amer. Lit. and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle. "The Tendering of American Fiction: Susanna Rowson to Catharine Sedgwick." Making America/Making American Literature: Franklin to Cooper. Eds. A. Robert Lee and W. M. Verhoeven. Amsterdam, Neth.: Rodophi, 1996. 165-81.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. Rev. ed. New York: Stein & Day, 1966.

Franklin, Wayne. The New World of James Fenimore Cooper. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.

Gould, Philip. Covenant and Republic: Historical Romance and the Politics of Puritanism. Cambridge Studies in Amer. Lit. and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper. Amer. Men of Letters Ser. USA: William Sloane, 1949.

House, Kay Seymour. Cooper's Americans. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1965.

Irving, Washington. Letter to Knickerbockers Magazine. Knickerbockers Magazine. Jan. 1860: 94.

Kaplan, Amy. "Manifest Domesticity." American Literature 70 (1998): 581-606.

Kasson, Joy S. Marble Queens and Captives: Women in Nineteenth-Century American Sculpture. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1975.

Lawson-Peebles, Robert. "Property, Marriage, Women, and Fenimore Cooper's First Fictions." James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts. Ed. W. M. Verhoeven. Amsterdam, Neth.: Rodophi, 1993. 47-70.

Maddox, Lucy. Removals: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Politics of Indian Affairs. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Owen, William. "In War as in Love: The Significance of Analogous Plots in Cooper's The Pathfinder." English Studies in Canada 10 (1984): 289-98.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind. Rev. ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Person, Leland S., Jr. "The American Eve: Miscegenation and a Feminist Frontier Fiction." American Quarterly 37 (1985): 668-85.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Abr. ed. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984.

Ringe, Donald A. James Fenimore Cooper. Twayne's U.S. Authors Ser. 11. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Rogin, Michael Paul. Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Romero, Lora. Home Fronts: Domesticity and Its Critics in the Antebellum United States. New Americanists. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Rosenzweig, Paul. "The Pathfinder: The Wilderness Initiation of Mabel Dunham." Modern Language Quarterly 44 (1983): 339-58.

Scheckel, Susan. The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.

Slotkin, Richard. The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890. 1985. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

——. Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. 1973. New York: HarperPerennial, 1996.

Spiller, Robert E. Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times. New York: Minton, Balch & Co., 1931.

Walker, Warren S. James Fenimore Cooper: An Introduction and Interpretation. Amer. Authors and Critics Ser. New York: Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1962.

Wallace, James D. "Race and Captivity in Cooper's The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish." American Literary History 7 (1995): 189-209.



W. H. Gardiner (review date July 1822)

SOURCE: Gardiner, W. H. Review of The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground, by James Fenimore Cooper. In Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage, edited by George Dekker and John P. McWilliams, pp. 55-66. London, England: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

[In the following excerpted review of The Spy, originally published in North American Review in July 1822, Gardiner asserts that Cooper is the first author to have written a truly American novel. Gardiner, however, remarks that the writing style of The Spy is greatly flawed, and the novel seems to have been carelessly written.]

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David T. Haberly (essay date autumn 1976)

SOURCE: Haberly, David T. "Women and Indians: The Last of the Mohicans and the Captivity Tradition." American Quarterly 28, no. 4 (autumn 1976): 431-44.

[In the following essay, Haberly explores the influence of "captivity narratives"—tales of white settlers captured by Native Americans—on Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans.]

Despite considerable new interest in narratives of Indian captivity, this large genre remains somewhat isolated within American literary history—more interesting to bibliographers and ethnohistorians than to critics.1 Some recent studies of captivity narratives have ably elaborated basic ideas first presented by Roy Harvey Pearce a generation ago; new and highly imaginative approaches to the captivities have also been attempted, but the critics' eagerness to fit one or more narratives into universal mythic structures or into psychosexual theories of American culture has often distracted them from the fundamental question about the captivities—the specific influence of this vast and enormously popular genre upon the development of literature in the United States.2

Yet it is only logical that such influence must have existed. Bibliographers have catalogued more than a thousand separate captivity titles, published fairly steadily from the sixteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth; many of the best-known narratives were reprinted in dozens of editions.3 For roughly a hundred years, from 1750 to 1850, the Indian captivity was one of the chief staples of popular literary culture; as Phillips D. Carleton noted, such narratives "took the place of fiction, of what might be called escape literature now."4

The frontier between fact and fiction, moreover, was often very vague indeed, and it is sometimes difficult today to separate the authentic accounts of redeemed captives from the works of writers eager to make a quick buck by milking a well-established market—Ann Eliza Bleecker's History of Maria Kittle is a notable example—or dimly conscious of the fictional possibilities inherent in the totally violent and alien reality of Indian captivity—as in the cryptic narrative of "Abraham Panther"5 or Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly.

These fictional captivities, however, are at best of marginal interest. I would suggest, rather, that an important and neglected aspect of the captivity tradition is its influence upon major works of nineteenth-century American fiction.6 And my purpose here is to define and analyze the impact of that tradition upon James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans —for several generations one of the most popular of all American novels and a work which created an idea of America which put down deep and permanent roots in Europe, in Latin America, and in the recesses of our own minds.

I believe, further, that a number of the most controversial aspects of the structure and the thematics of Cooper's novel are only tangentially related, at best, to such generalities as the theory and practice of myth-making or the suggested homoeroticism of American literature. These aspects, rather, flow directly from the very concrete difficulties Cooper faced in adapting the traditional and clearly-defined captivity narrative to his new and very different purposes.

By 1825, Cooper had tried his hand at a range of novelistic genres, seeking to identify his own strengths and weaknesses and to find a way to use fiction to foster America's "mental independence," a goal he was to describe—in a letter of 1831—as his chief object.7 He had written a novel of manners (Persuasion , 1820); two patriotic historical novels (The Spy , 1821, and Lionel Lincoln , 1825); a sea story (The Pilot , 1824); and a semicomic, semi-autobiographical novel of the local gentry (The Pioneers , 1823). It was natural that, in shuffling through the available genres, he should attempt a fictionalized captivity. A concrete link between parallel incidents in Cooper's fiction and in one authentic captivity has only recently been established,8 but his passionate interest in the American past and the ready availability of such narratives—some dealing specifically with his own area of upstate New York—would inevitably have led him to the captivities.

And The Last of the Mohicans , despite the shift in narration away from the traditional first person, is above all a captivity narrative—more exactly, as we shall see, it is two separate captivity narratives. First, however, it is important to look back at the tradition those narratives had created, the tradition Cooper necessarily inherited when he sought to use the genre.

The purpose of many captivities, by 1825, was often frankly commercial. Rescued captives not infrequently found themselves without family or funds, and their accounts of life in Indian hands served both to bring in a little cash and to advise their neighbors—as well as generous readers throughout America—of their heroism, their suffering, and their

present need. There must also have been, for many returned captives, a kind of therapy in the recounting of their adventures, a way to exorcise their darkest memories—particularly by Cooper's time, when the changing stylistic conventions of the narrative had placed a barrier of verbal commonplaces between experience survived and experience described.9

In the early narratives of Puritans like Mary Rowlandson, captivity, suffering, and final redemption were all part of God's plan, and the publication of these events was a Christian duty.10 By the nineteenth century, that sort of easy metaphoric structure had disappeared; what remained, in its essence, was violence—the total and almost incomprehensible violence of captives scalped and beaten, women starved or tortured to death, babies drowned or bashed against blood-spattered rocks, children with faces burned into unrecognizable scars.

The physical environment of the captivity narratives linked all of this violence and suffering to the frontier; one wonders anew that Americans moved westward in the face of these tracts, the most readily obtainable and believable accounts of the fate that might await them there. And the captivity narratives were filled with raw and burning hatred of the Indian—a hatred so intense that the motives and even the reciprocal violence of the Indian-hater seem understandable and even, for a moment, wholly justified.

Cooper's own ideas, as he sat down to write his fictionalized captivity, were very different indeed. He was conditioned by his background and by his nationalism to idealize the frontier—the endless forests that appear in The Last of the Mohicans as the image of all of the American West. As George Dekker has noted, "… in Cooper's mind American nationhood and the Westward Movement … were intimately connected; each new clearing furnished a sign of the increasing temporal greatness of the nation…."11 Further, Cooper's ethnological readings and a patriotic fervor that transcends chronology and even race both determined him to idealize the American Indian.

Cooper's problem, then, was to reconcile his own ideals—the beauty of the American wilderness, the glory of the Westward Movement, and the native heroism and goodness of at least a part of Indian America—with the powerful captivity tradition of horrendous barbarities committed on the western frontier by Indians unspeakably vile. The key to the fictional resolution of these antitheses, I believe, lay for Cooper in a basic feature of the captivity narratives—the role of women.

A large proportion of the authentic narratives of captivity were written by women; deprived by Indian violence of the protection of husbands or family, female captives were often more pressingly in need of the financial support a successful narrative might provide. But women captives were also central figures in many of the captivities produced by males, and by Cooper's time had become preeminent in the increasingly popular anthologies of captivities and in the fictional offspring of the tradition.

In these works, women suffered the cruelest torments, and it was those torments which most sorrowed and enraged readers. Beyond this, however, female-centered captivity narratives had a special interest for readers—and for potential romancers—because they were inherently more suspenseful than the stories of males taken by Indians. For quite apart from the common perils of torture and death, three important additional dangers might await female captives.

There was, first, the possibility that a white woman captured by Indians might be defeminized; that is, that her suffering and her separation from civilization might lead her into patterns of behavior suitable only for males. This danger had not greatly preoccupied the Puritans, who applauded Hannah Dustin's massacre of her captors, but it did worry nineteenth-century readers. Bravery, quickness of action, mental and physical independence—and even the shedding of blood—were totally at odds with the ideal of the sentimental heroine. Leslie Fiedler has documented the hostile reactions of Hawthorne and Thoreau to Hannah Dustin's heroics; Hawthorne's attitude was the more important and more typical. While Thoreau was concerned that Hannah had axed Indian children, Hawthorne was merely distressed that she had acted as a man, shoving her husband into the background.12

Similar reservations about unfeminine reactions to even the most horrifying situations were expressed by the editors of nineteenth-century captivity anthologies. John Frost, for example, in his Thrilling Adventures among the Indians, criticized and even ridiculed some acts of heroism by white women, since he found such tales "little pleasing or amiable. Woman, as an Amazon, does not appear to advantage. Something seems to be wanting in such a character; or, perhaps, it has something too much."13

Considerably more frightening for the readers of captivity narratives was the possibility that a white woman might be raped—or, more genteelly, forced into marriage with an Indian. The factual evidence on Indian sexual abuse of captive women in the East is contradictory. Mary Rowlandson declared that during her captivity, "… by night and by day, alone and in company: sleeping all sorts together, and yet not one of them [the Indians] ever offered me the least abuse of unchastity to me, in word or action."14 Elizabeth Hanson hedged a little, writing that "… the Indians are seldom guilty of any indecent carriage towards their captive women, unless much overtaken in liquor."15

Cooper clearly did not believe that Indians were as chaste as was claimed,16 and it is likely that his readers had serious doubts as well. It was hardly to be expected, after all, that redeemed female captives would openly confess the loss of their virtue. And the genteel disclaimers of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century captives are repeated, during a later western expansion, in the accounts of women captured by tribes for whom rape appears to have been an established practice.17 One Mrs. Horn, for example, wrote, "In conclusion, perhaps I ought to say, that with reference to a point, of all others of the most sacred importance to a captive female, (with gratitude to my Maker I record it.) my fears were in no part realized."18 But, as a modern scholar notes, "… most white women redeemed from captivity in the West charged that sexual abuse of their fellow captives was common but claimed that because of some unusual circumstance they, themselves, had been spared the ordeal."19

Female captives might not only lose their femininity and their virtue; they might also lose their very whiteness. The Indianization process has been of great interest to twentieth-century anthropologists and psychologists,20 but it also troubled thoughtful students of America, like Franklin, who feared that the rapid Indianization of large numbers of white captives—in sharp contrast to the pitifully few recorded cases of Indians civilized by white society—bore some worrisome lesson about the comparative value and permanence of two very different cultural systems.21

The Indianization of white females, however, posed a particular problem, since it suggested willing acceptance of Indian sexual mores and of an Indian spouse. The chief characters in many of the most popular captivity narratives—Eunice Williams, Mary Jemison, Frances Slocum, and Cynthia Ann Parker, for example—were Indianized white women who declined to be redeemed and who established enduring relationships with Indian males;22 other captive white females struggled desperately to flee their rescuers and return to their Indian husbands and children.23 The existence of such Indianized female captives did not merely raise doubts about the values of white civilization; it could also imply the far more disturbing possibility that white women might find Indian men sexually superior.

When Cooper began his fictional captivity, therefore, he quite naturally chose to focus the book on the perilous adventures of white women in the wilderness. In order to describe and discuss a full range of possible reactions to captivity, Cooper used the fictional technique that Henry Nash Smith—in his study of the Leatherstocking character—called "doubling."24 The two sisters, Alice and Cora Munro, represent two very different types of captivity heroine, and two divergent reactions to captivity.

The doubling process, however, is not confined to the Munro sisters; it also defines the structure of the novel, for The Last of the Mohicans is composed of two separate captivity narratives. The first captivity—the happy captivity, to borrow the title of a seventeenth-century Chilean example of the genre25—ends with the safe arrival of Alice and Cora at Fort William Henry, at the close of Chapter XIV; it derives from the simplest and most pleasant of the captivity narratives, those in which the captive or captives return safely to the bosom of family and friends. After two intercalary chapters, the second narrative begins with the Fort Henry Massacre in Chapter XVII; this captivity—the tragic captivity—represents another, grimmer tradition.

The first, happy captivity, as Donald Darnell has pointed out, takes place between forts, within the outer limits of the white world.26 The violence it contains is almost always potential rather than actual—shouted threats, a drop of blood on a leaf, the loss of a few of Alice's tresses. The purpose of this narrative is not to describe blood-baths—those follow later on in the novel; through this recreation of one type of captivity, Cooper sets out to define and differentiate the characters of Cora and Alice, before they enter the second captivity and the dark, alien world that belongs to the Indian alone.

Cooper begins this process when fair Alice and dark Cora first appear, using the established equation of complexion and character as a kind of novelistic shorthand, suggesting to his readers exactly where their fullest sympathies should lie.27 This cosmetic characterization is immediately reinforced as Cooper gets down to the business of defining the disparate "gifts" the sisters possess—"gifts" as different as those of Natty Bumppo and David Gamut. Alice is lighthearted, weak, and innocent; she is the ideal sentimental heroine of a captivity narrative, weeping and fainting as she confronts a series of purely physical dangers. Cora, however, is prey to the three important moral perils—defeminization, rape, and Indianization—and the "gifts" that expose her to these dangers are made clear in her first reactions to Magua. The sudden appearance of the Indian startles Alice, but she quickly recovers to banter coyly with Duncan. Cora, on the other hand, gazes at Magua with "an indescribable look of pity, admiration, and horror, as her dark eye followed the easy motions of the savage." (21) In Cora's pity lies her "gift" for unwomanly seriousness and strength of character; her horror foreshadows the rape motif; and her admiration for "the easy motions of the savage" reveals a sensuous miscibility that will lead to her relationship with Uncas and the gradual Indianization that relationship implies.

Cora's unfeminine "gifts" of courage, logic, and self-reliance are more fully developed as the first captivity progresses; even Duncan comes, rather grudgingly, to admire these traits: "… your own fortitude and undisturbed reason," he tells her, "will teach you all that may become your sex." (104) By the time the captives reach the security of the fort, Cora actually longs for adventure—like a seasoned trooper. "I sicken at the sight of danger that I cannot share," she proclaims; Natty welcomes her as an equal, "with a smile of honest and cordial approbation," and wishes for "a thousand men, of brawny limbs and quick eyes, that feared death as little as you!" (179)

Cora is also far more sensual than Alice, as her "rather fuller and more mature" figure suggests (21); Magua's threats to her virtue are the direct result of this "gift." She is threatened by rape—in Cooper's terms, forced marriage and sexual submission to Magua—in large part because she is conscious of its possibility. Thus, in the cave scene in the first captivity, the two sisters react in very different ways when suddenly awakened by Duncan. Alice murmurs in her sleep: "No, no, dear father, we were not deserted; Duncan was with us!" Cora's dreams, however, are not those of innocence: "… the motion caused Cora to raise her hand as if to repulse him,…" (81-82)

When the captivity begins, Alice and Cora appear "to share equally in the attentions of the young officer" (21), but it gradually becomes clear that Duncan belongs to Alice alone. While some critics have seen Cora as a case of unrequited love, pining after Heyward, this seems a misreading of the novel. Cora is disappointed that she is not Duncan's choice, but she is also increasingly attracted to Indian men, as her thoughtful contemplation of Magua first suggests. In the cave, when the captives first see Uncas in all his glory, Alice's reaction is that of an art student gazing upon a Greek statue; Duncan considers the young brave a remarkable anthropological specimen; but Cora sees Uncas as a man, without consideration for race and color—and that perception embarrasses her white companions (65-66).

And Cora must have a potential mate, as Alice has Duncan. Natty might seem a reasonable candidate, but Cooper clearly felt that the scout—while suited to Cora by character and by color—was too much her social inferior. Natty's dialect would have made this class distinction obvious to contemporary readers, and Cooper drives the point home, towards the end of the book, when he describes the scout's "deference to the superior rank of his companions, that no similarity in the state of their present fortune could induce him to forget." (373)

Social class, then, is more important than race, and Cooper provides Cora with two suitors of equal rank—a chief of the Mingoes, Magua; and the last prince of the Mohicans. If we ignore, for a moment, the fact that both Uncas and Magua are Indians, a perfectly commonplace sentimental triangle emerges. Cora is sought after by two suitors of her class—one a handsome and good nobleman of long and illustrious ancestry; one a violent and lecherous type, born a chief but more recently a drunken servant. In these terms, it is only natural that Cora should prefer Uncas.

Because Uncas is an Indian, however, the progress of the Cora-Uncas romance necessarily implies her Indianization. It is Cora who adopts the Indian techniques of leaving a trail, and the full development of the relationship with Uncas is symbolized in a passage at the very end of the first captivity; as the party approaches the fort, "Duncan willingly relinquished the support of Cora to the arm of Uncas, and Cora as readily accepted the welcome assistance." (183)

During the Fort William Henry interlude, Cooper takes pains to reassure readers worried and perplexed by Cora's "gifts." "Gifts," in Cooper, are not the result of conscious choices, but are preordained by genetics or by environment; even the satanic Magua's character is the result of his tribal ancestry and his sufferings among the whites. Cora, as we discover in Chapter XVI, is of African descent, the daughter of a West Indian mulattress with whom Colonel Munro formed a connection and whom he later married; the future mother of pure Alice, of course, was still in Scotland, "a suffering angel [who] had remained in the heartless state of celibacy twenty long years, …" (201-02) This background immediately explains Cora's "gifts," assures us that she is not really a bad person after all, and makes her relationship with Uncas seem both natural and permissible.

The established characters of Cora and Alice are not altered in any important way during the second captivity, deep in the Indian world. Alice is ever more dependent, a tear-stained and insensible bundle dragged from place to place by her male protectors. Cora is still self-reliant, fatally attractive, and increasingly Indianized—as her adoption of Indian oratory shows. In her plea to Tamenund, in fact, Cora strongly identifies the curse of her ancestors—African slavery—with the sufferings of the Indians, like her the victims of white racism (386).

Cooper finally gives Uncas a forced and tightly-structured opportunity to choose between two worlds—between his love for Cora and his respect for Indian traditions. Uncas cannot overcome the force of tradition and environment; he allows Magua to take Cora away once again, and by that choice all hope for a conventional happy ending is destroyed. Cora's Indianization is complete with her death; she receives an Indian burial, beside Uncas, while the native maidens sing prophecies of a marriage consummated in heaven—a standard resolution of the miscegenation issue in novels from other New World cultures.28

Through this juxtaposition of two kinds of captivity narrative and through the development of the different "gifts" of his two captivity heroines, Cooper explores the multiple fictional possibilities of the genre. The deaths of Uncas and Cora, moreover, allow the novelist to make several self-righteous but highly comforting statements about race. First, he can claim to be free from the racial prejudice he describes as a Southern trait, since he admits the possibility of interracial love. Miscegenation, however, is still an impossibility, precluded by unalterable barriers of culture and tradition. This reassured white Americans worried about the development of mixed races and cultures, like those found in other parts of the Americas, and about the possible miscibility of the two victimized races—the Indians and those of African descent.

Cooper's exposition of the disparate "gifts" of his characters explains what happens in the novel; but it does not explain why such things occur. And his fundamental problem remains: how to reconcile his idealized vision of the frontier with the violence implicit in the captivity tradition and explicit in this, the most violent of the Leatherstocking tales.

The gap between idealism and the reality of violence could be bridged only by an explanation based upon immutable "nature," not upon the deterministic "gifts" of individuals. And Cooper therefore took the central role of white females in the captivity tradition and in his own novel, and subtly changed the focus in order to provide such an explanation. It is not mere chance and coincidence that women appear as the chief objects of captivity violence; that violence does not flow from the realities of frontier life or from the evil lusts of Indian males. White women, rather, are the direct cause of all the violence that surrounds their passage through a world in which they do not belong; it is their "nature."

Cooper and his contemporaries believed that the power of white women was the result of their powerlessness; as he wrote in The Sea Lions , most of their "… real power and influence … arises from their seeming dependence…."29 And The Last of the Mohicans is above all a study of the enormous, ironic power of those consistently described as "tender blossoms" and "harmless things."

This power, while interesting and perhaps amusing in the drawing rooms of civilization, becomes immensely destructive when transferred to the frontier wilderness. White men and red, Cooper believed, could sublimate their different genetic and environmental "gifts" and exist in something approaching harmony in the haven of the American wilderness; the very presence of white women makes such harmony impossible. As Natty says, in one of the novel's most significant speeches, "… it would not be the act of men to leave such harmless things to their fate, even though it breaks up the harboring place for ever." (55)

White women have this effect because it is their "nature" to excite passion among men—all sorts and kinds of men. No matter how superficially civilized in dress and speech, no matter how sharply their different "gifts" are defined, Cora and Alice are both inherently and potentially sexual, designed above all else for procreation—a point Cooper makes obliquely through his description, in the lines just before our introduction to the sisters in all their finery, of the "low, gaunt, switch-tailed mare," whose foal is "quietly making its morning repast,…" (20) As soon as Cora and Alice appear, they artlessly exhibit their charms; such is their "nature," as it is the "nature" of males to react. And such brief moments of exhibitionism in fact become a kind of predictable motif in the novel, inevitably introducing violence.30

This inherent power of attraction upsets the balance between man and nature, between white and Indian. To preserve and to please white females, the harboring places are broken up; horses are trained to ungainly and unnatural paces (154-55); and the decorative creatures of the wilds are slaughtered (378). And men of both races willingly take enormous and totally irrational risks in order to possess or to defend the virtue of white women.

Thus, merely because these "flowers, which, though so sweet, were never made for the wilderness" (55) have presumed against all advice to travel where they do not belong, violence will replace harmony and death will come to Cora, to Magua, and to Uncas—the last of the Mohicans, the last hope in Tamenund's vision for a rebirth of Indian America. No less is the natural culpability of Alice and Cora.

In the first captivity, Alice and Cora are only intuitively conscious of their power. Of the male characters, only Magua fully understands the potential of white women—the power, as he expresses it, to make white men their dogs. He seeks to possess Cora because he is attracted to her, but he also comprehends her importance as a symbol and as a means to control the actions and reactions of other men.

Magua's expectations are realized. Duncan becomes so distraught at the thought of "evils worse than death" (100), of a fate "worse than a thousand deaths" (138), that he is almost incapable of rational thought and action. Uncas too becomes, in Magua's terms, a dog to the women, providing menial services for the two sisters and amazing and amusing the others (69). By the mere presence of white women, Uncas is led to deny "his habits, we had almost said his nature, …" (145); his contact with Cora and Alice has "elevated him far above the intelligence, and advanced him probably centuries before the practices of his nation." (146) In fact, Natty complains that Uncas' behavior, in his eagerness to rescue the girls, has been "more like that of a curious woman than of a warrior on his scent." (152)

Once the women are safe within Fort William Henry, Cooper suggests the deep cultural roots of their power. Alice coyly calls Duncan to task—in terms of the chivalric tradition: "… thou truant! thou recreant knight! he who abandons his damsels in the very lists!" (189) She is surprised when Heyward is deeply wounded by the accusation. References to chivalry continue to crop up in these intercalary chapters—and it is this tradition which forms the powerless power of Cora and Alice and all other white women.

Just as the first captivity began with the mare-foal image and with the sisters' artless display of their charms, the tragic captivity begins with women and children—the latter serving as symbols of the sexual nature and purpose of women. An Indian is attracted by a shawl one of the women wears and tries to grab it. "The woman, more in terror than through love of the ornament, wrapped her child in the coveted article, and folded both more closely to her bosom." The Huron then grabs the child, teases the woman with it, and dashes the head of the infant against a rock; he then kills the mother. At that point the massacre of the innocents and the second captivity commence; once again women appear as the cause of violence as well as its object (221-23).

Magua seizes Alice—"he knew his power, and was determined to maintain it" (225)—and the two girls disappear with him into the forest. Their power remains, however, affecting their rescuers. Uncas is uncharacteristically excited by the discovery of Cora's veil, and begins to act "as impatient as a man in the settlements;…" (235) Duncan embarks on the insane and dangerous adventure as a sham witch doctor: "I too can play the madman, the fool, the hero; in short, any or everything to rescue her that I love," he declares (288). Natty is amazed by Heyward's irrational daring, but such is the power of the women that the young officer for the first time takes command: "But Duncan, who, in deference to the other's skill and services, had hitherto submitted somewhat implicitly to his dictation, now assumed the superior, with a manner that was not easily resisted." (288)

Natty continues to ponder this power, and tries to define it. "I have heard," he muses, "that there is a feeling in youth which binds man to woman closer than the father is tied to the son. It may be so. I have seldom been where women of my color dwell; but such may be the gifts of nature in the settlements. You have risked life, and all that is dear to you, to bring off this gentle one, and I suppose that some such disposition is at the bottom of it all." (336)

The power of Cora and Alice increases in its scope as the second captivity progresses. Magua loses his cool, cunning appreciation of the symbolic and strategic value of his captives, and begins himself to be controlled. Natty too falls under the influence of the power he cannot explain, and offers Magua an increasingly illogical set of bargains in exchange for Cora. While the scout knows that "… it would be an unequal exchange, to give a warrior, in the prime of his age and usefulness, for the best woman on the frontier," he is nonetheless prepared to sacrifice himself when all else fails. Magua, with equal irrationality, refuses the trade (397-98). Even David Gamut, the pacifist hymnmaster, is overpowered, and prepares to go to war for Cora, reminded "of the children of Jacob going out to battle against the Shechemites, for wickedly aspiring to wedlock with a woman of a race that was favored of the Lord." (413)

When the last battle begins, Cora challenges Magua—confident that he too is now her "dog." He tries to kill her, but cannot: "The form of the Huron trembled in every fibre, and he raised his arm on high, but dropped it again with a bewildered air, like one who doubted. Once more he struggled with himself and lifted the keen weapon again…." (426) As he hesi tates, another Huron kills Cora—and Magua delays his escape and slays one of his own men to avenge her death. Magua and Uncas then struggle; Uncas allows himself to be killed—since Cora is dead. Magua makes a mad, suicidal attempt to escape, and Natty kills him.

The final victory of the Delawares over the Hurons is itself yet another example of Cooper's doubling. Magua consistently refers to the Delaware-Mohican tribes as "women"—a pejorative epithet that Cooper took from Heckewelder's writings, but which fully conforms to his own cultural prejudices. As Paul Wallace has demonstrated, Cooper's use of this epithet was conditioned by a misunderstanding of the complex intertribal relationships of Indian America. The Delawares were defined as "women" in their agreements with the Five Nations; that role, however, was one of honor and of power.31 For Cooper, however, women were necessarily dependent and inferior. But the concept of the natural powerless power of white women is transferred, in the novel, to the Delawares and Mohicans. Like Cora and Alice, they cannot escape violence, and cannot control their own destinies; but they do retain the power to destroy.

The ending Cooper chose for the novel is a direct result of his transmutation of the captivity tradition. White women and their intrusive, destructive power must be removed before the ideal harmony of the frontier can exist once again; Cora is buried, and Alice departs for civilization, sobbing in the seclusion of her litter. With her go her white "dogs," like her the creatures of the civilized world. Natty and Chingachgook must stay behind, since the harmony of their grief for Uncas represents all that is possible in the absence of white women. The crude woodsman and the drunken Indian of The Pioneers are no longer merely local color, quaintly useful in forcing philosophical discussions about the nature of government; they are the final proof of Cooper's reconciliation of his idealized frontier with the tradition of the captivity narratives. And from this artificial, novelistic pairing—from these "two childless womanless men of opposite races," in Lawrence's phrase32—issue Huck and Jim, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and all the other offspring, cultured or popular, of The Last of the Mohicans.

  1. Major bibliographical sources for the captivities include: the Newberry Library's list of books in the Edward E. Ayer Collection (Chicago: Newberry Library, 1912) and Clara A. Smith's supplement to that list, Narratives of Captivity among the Indians of North America (Chicago: Newberry Library, 1928); R. W. G. Vail, The Voice of the Old Frontier (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1949); and C. Marius Barbeau, "Indian Captivities," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 94 (1950), 522-48. Also see Dwight L. Smith, "Shawnee Captivity Ethnography," Ethnohistory, 2, No. 1 (Winter 1955), 29-41.
  2. To date, by far the most interesting response to this question is Richard Slotkin's massive and always stimulating study of the captivities, Regeneration through Violence (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1973).
  3. Four captivity narratives—those of Mary Rowlandson, John Williams, Jonathan Dickinson, and Mary Jemison—are listed among the great best-sellers of American publishing by Frank Luther Mott, Golden Multitudes (New York: Macmillan, 1947), pp. 20-22 and 303-05.
  4. Phillips D. Carleton, "The Indian Captivity," American Literature, 15 (1943-44), 170.
  5. R. W. G. Vail, "The Abraham Panther Indian Captivity," The American Book Collector, 2 (1932), 165-72.
  6. The importance of the captivity tradition in the formation and popularization of the figure of the Indian-hater—in Bird's Nick of the Woods, Melville's Confidence Man, and elsewhere—has not yet been fully studied. The captivity theme also crops up elsewhere within Cooper's Leatherstocking novels, notably in The Deerslayer, and is central to his Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish. However, its first and most forceful appearance, in Cooper's works, is in The Last of the Mohicans.
  7. Cited by Robert E. Spiller, James Fenimore Cooper (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1965), p. 8.
  8. Richard VanDerBeets, "Cooper and the 'Semblance of Reality': A Source for The Deerslayer," American Literature, 40 (1971), 544-46.
  9. See Roy Harvey Pearce, "The Significances of the Captivity Narrative," American Literature, 19 (1947-48), 4-5; and Richard VanDerBeets, "A Surfeit of Style: The Indian Captivity Narrative as Penny Dreadful," Research Studies, 39 (1971), 297-306.
  10. Pearce, "The Significances," pp. 2-3; and David L. Minter, "By Dens of Lions: Notes on Stylization in Early Puritan Captivity Narratives," American Literature, 45 (1973), 335-47.
  11. George Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967), p. 65.
  12. Leslie A. Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American (New York: Stein and Day, 1968), pp. 95-108.
  13. John Frost, Thrilling Adventures among the Indians (Philadelphia: J. W. Bradley, 1851), p. 84.
  14. Mary Rowlandson, from The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, in Held Captive by Indians, ed. Richard VanDerBeets (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1973), p. 84.
  15. Samuel Bownas, ed., An Account of the Captivity of Elizabeth Hanson, from the English edition of 1760, in Held Captive by Indians, p. 147.
  16. Natty claims, at one point, that not "even a Mingo would ill-treat a woman, unless it be to tomahawk her," but this statement is contradicted by Magua's insistence that Cora become his squaw and by the reactions of Heyward and of Natty himself. J. F. Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (New York: W. A. Townsend, 1859), p. 273. All page references in the text are to this, the Darley edition.
  17. See Dee Alexander Brown, The Gentle Tamers (New York: Putnam, 1958); Carl Coke Rister, Border Captives (Norman, Okla.: Univ of Oklahoma Press, 1940); and J. Norman Heard, White into Red (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973).
  18. From Mrs. Horn's narrative, in Carl Coke Rister, Comanche Bondage (Glendale, Calif.: A. H. Clark, 1955), p. 197. The punctuation is Mrs. Horn's.
  19. J. Norman Heard, White into Red, p. 101.
  20. A. Irving Hallowell, "American Indians, White and Black: The Phenomenon of Transculturalization," Current Anthropology, 4 (1963), 519-31.
  21. See Franklin's famous letter of May 9, 1753, to Peter Collinson, in Alfred Owen Aldridge, "Franklin's Letter on Indians and Germans," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 94 (1950), 392-93; and J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (New York: Fox, Duffield, 1904), Letter XII, pp. 304-08.
  22. John Williams, The Redeemed Captive (Boston: Printed by B. Green for S. Phillips, 1707); A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (Canandaigua, N.Y.: J. D. Bemis, 1824); John Todd, The Lost Sister of the Wyoming (Northampton, Mass.: J. H. Butler, 1842)—the first account of the Frances Slocum captivity, subsequently retold by a number of other authors; Narrative of the Perilous Adventures, Miraculous Escapes and Sufferings of Rev. James W. Parker (Louisville: Morning Courier, 1844), which includes Cynthia Ann Parker's story.
  23. Heard, White into Red, pp. 2-4.
  24. Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1950), p. 69.
  25. Francisco Nuñez de Pineda y Bascuñán, Cautiverio feliz (Santiago, Chile: Imp. de El Ferrocarril, 1863).
  26. Donald Darnell, "Uncas as Hero: The Ubi Sunt Formula in The Last of the Mohicans," American Literature, 37 (1965), 261-62.
  27. The best general discussion of Cooper's female characters and his use of cosmetic symbolism is Nina Baym's "The Women of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales," American Quarterly, 23, No. 5 (Dec. 1971), 696-709.
  28. For a very similar example from Brazil, see José de Alencar's O Guarani (Rio de Janeiro: Tip. do Diário do Rio de Janeiro, 1857).
  29. Cited by Kay Seymour House, Cooper's Americans (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1966), p. 27.
  30. See, for example, p. 110.
  31. Paul A. W. Wallace, "Cooper's Indians," in James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal (Cooperstown, N.Y.: New York State Historical Association, 1954), pp. 63-77.
  32. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: T. Seltzer, 1923), p. 86.

Martin Barker and Roger Sabin (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Barker, Martin, and Roger Sabin. "Cooper's Book." In The Lasting of the Mohicans: History of an American Myth, pp. 16-33. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

[In the following essay, Barker and Sabin provide a plot summary of The Last of the Mohicans as well as an overview of the novel's major themes and a brief history of its critical reception throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.]

The Last of the Mohicans first appeared in 1826. It is best described as an adventure-romance set around events in the war between Britain and France for control of North America in the mid-eighteenth century. As the title implies, the native American population plays a major role, since different tribes sided with each colonial power. In the book, Cooper offered a picture of a "heritage," of an ideal frontier American and of his opposites—the Indian "savages" and the colonial masters. In so doing, he created not only a "classic" of modern literature, but also a uniquely American mythology.

The first thing that strikes one about the book is its size and overall serious presentation. The best-known modern British edition, in the Penguin Classics series, measures 350 pages in length and comes with a cover depicting a rather somber landscape.1 Flipping through the text, one notices that every chapter is prefaced by snatches of poetry from Shakespeare, Gray, Bryant, and others. Everything about the book says that it has something weighty to impart and conforms to our modern notions of what a "classic" should look like. Indeed, so daunting does the book appear that it is really no surprise that most people know the story through adaptations, usually film adaptations. But this is to get ahead of ourselves.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was born into a wealthy family in upstate New York. After having been expelled from Yale and spending five years in the U.S. navy, he suddenly turned to writing at the age of thirty. (The story goes that he was dared to do so by his wife when he complained that he could write a better novel than the English one she was reading.) He quickly became famous—most notably for his tales of an already-past "frontier"—and by the time Mohicans (his sixth book) appeared, he was established as a major novelist.2

Mohicans itself was the second book in a series of five: The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). Though not conceived of as a series when they were written, they all starred the same central character, "the Leatherstocking," and so came to be known after him as "The Leatherstocking Tales."3 Leatherstocking's real name in the books is Nathaniel (Natty) Bumppo, who acquired the sobriquet on account of his chosen legwear. He is also known by another nickname, "Hawkeye," because he is an excellent shot with a gun. This name is more familiar to modern aficionados of the stories and is the one most commonly used in Mohicans. 4

Structurally, then, Mohicans is about a character—indeed characters—who were introduced in a previous book, though Cooper is careful to reintroduce them for new readers. The book was originally published in two halves, a publishing circumstance that partly accounts for the major division of the novel into two long chase sequences. (In our narrative outline below, the split comes after the massacre of the British at Fort William Henry.)

What kind of audience was Cooper aiming for? We can say with some certainty that it was intended to be middle class, educated, and monied—the same book-buying public that was interested in European authors like Walter Scott. (Publishing for the working classes did not take off in America until several years later, when Mohicans adaptations and cheap editions introduced Cooper to a wider audience for the first time.) Also, the readership was meant to be male: in the Preface, Cooper makes a point of warning off "the more imaginative sex" because the subject matter is too "shocking" for them.

But it is not enough to see this extraordinary book purely and simply as a macho adventure tale. To begin to understand its deeper levels, we need to look at Cooper's imaginative background, and in particular at the Romantic movement. Put briefly, Romanticism was the intellectual mainstream in Europe and America between roughly 1790 and 1870, and represented a reaction against neoclassicism (and in a broader sense against the Enlightenment). It was characterized by an emphasis on testing one's spirit; nature as an elemental force; the rise and fall of nations; the strict stratification of society (men superior to women, whites superior to Indians, Indians superior to blacks); the importance of heroes and heroic deeds; and an interest in folk culture and ethnic cultural origins.

Romanticism was more than just an influence on Cooper's work; it was a direct spur. Cooper was part of an identifiable group of writers, artists, and intellactuals, based in New York, who saw it as their mission to foster a broadly Romantic vision of America. They took poet Ralph Emerson's then-famous words, "[America has] arts to acquire, and tastes to form"5 as a challenge, and openly discussed the creation of an "indigenous culture" at various select clubs and gatherings. Cooper's own "Bread and Cheese Club" included painters like William Dunlap, Asher Durand, John Wesley Jarvis, Samuel Morse, Henry Inman, and Robert Weir, and writers like William Bryant.

In a quite calculated fashion, therefore, the artists took inspiration from the writers, and vice versa. This is why Cooper's books were so often the subject of paintings in this period. In Mohicans itself, it was the landscape and sense of wilderness that was the particular attraction: the great Thomas Cole painted several scenes, which are now considered masterpieces in the history of American art, while it was Asher Durand who provided the image that now fronts the aforementioned Penguin edition of the book.6

So, to the book itself. The basic narrative of The Last of the Mohicans is as follows:

The story opens with scene-setting about the English/French wars, then takes us to an English camp to the north of Fort William Henry, introducing us to the key characters: Cora and Alice, the two daughters of Colonel Munro, the commander of the fort; Major Heyward, who has been deputed to get them safely to their father; Magua, an Indian guide working for the English; and David Gamut, an itinerant music teacher.

Heyward and the two young women set out, guided by Magua and soon joined by Gamut. Magua proposes to lead them by a short but difficult forest route.

Now we meet three other key characters: Nathaniel Bumppo, alias Hawkeye, a lone woodsman; his friend Chingachgook, aging chief of the wiped-out Mohicans; and Chingachgook's son Uncas. They are discussing the state of the world when they hear the travelers approaching.

When Hawkeye and his companions meet up with Heyward's party, it is quickly revealed that Magua had been leading them into a Huron (or "Mingo") trap. Magua flees to join his waiting Indians, and Hawkeye agrees to try to save the travelers. They hurry to the river, get rid of their horses, and hide in an island cave.

Magua's Hurons track them, and skirmishes take place until all the defenders' powder is used up. Desperate, Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas agree to Cora's plea that they should leave to replenish their weapons, and then return to rescue the others.

Magua captures the four refugees and takes them toward his encampment. We now learn his motivation: he had been whipped for drunkenness by Colonel Munro and is now seeking revenge. Magua demands that Cora become his squaw, threatening death as the alternative. Cora rejects him, horrified, but as she and Alice face death, Hawkeye and companions arrive to rescue them. Magua escapes in the fight.

Hawkeye now leads the party toward Fort William Henry and eventually, after some dangers, they reach and enter it, although it is besieged.

During an interlude in the fort, we learn that Heyward is in love with Alice. Colonel Munro had thought he loved Cora, and accuses him of prejudice, because Cora is half-caste, being the child of a first marriage in the West Indies. Heyward successfully protests he simply loves Alice for herself.

Because help is refused by Fort Edward, Munro is forced to surrender Fort William Henry, but on good terms: they can leave with their arms and colors. But Magua has other plans, as we learn from an encounter between him and the French Marquis de Montcalm.

As the English leave, the Hurons massacre them, killing hundreds. At the height of the killing, Gamut seeks to protect the women by singing psalms, and is taken as mad by the Indians. Gamut, Alice, and Cora are spared until Magua reaches them. He again makes his demand of Cora. When she refuses, he seizes Alice, so that Cora is forced to follow him, and Gamut trails after.

Hawkeye, friends, and Colonel Munro survive the massacre and track Magua's company into Canada. On the way they have to do battle with roving bands of Hurons. Eventually they find the Indian's village, where they encounter Gamut, now dressed as an Indian. Because he is "mad," the Indians have not interfered with him.

Hawkeye, Uncas, and Gamut devise a series of tricks to rescue Alice, and then Uncas (who himself has been captured). These involve Hawkeye dressing in a bearskin, capturing, and eventually leaving Magua tied up as an "evil spirit," and leaving Gamut behind protected by his madness. Cora, meanwhile, is being held at a neighboring village of the Delawares, and they hurry there.

Magua is freed and, gathering his warriors, heads to the Delaware village, where a council takes place in front of the ancient king Tamenund. At first he is persuaded by Magua, then half-swayed by Cora, and finally swung by the revelation of who Uncas is: the last of the rightful chiefs of the Mohicans. Thus he frees Uncas, Hawkeye, and Alice. But under Delaware law Magua is allowed to go free and to take Cora as his prize.

At dusk, when it is permitted, Hawkeye, Uncas (clearly in love with Cora), and Chingachgook lead a company to rescue her. Cora once again rejects Magua who, about to kill her, is attacked by Uncas. Another Indian stabs her fatally and is in turn killed by Uncas. Exposed by this act, he is stabbed from behind by a maddened Magua. As Magua turns to flee and jumps across a chasm, Hawkeye shoots him with his "longue carabine."

At the close of the book, the Indians bury Cora and Uncas. We learn that Heyward will now marry Alice. The grieving Chingachgook is joined by Hawkeye, while Tamenund mourns the passing of the Indians in the face of the whites, and especially Uncas, the "last of the Mohicans."

There are important episodes in the story that we have not included in this account of the basic narrative. These include, for instance, the killing of Alice's colt as they escape to the river and cave; and the execution of Reed-That-Bends and the shaming of his father at the Huron camp. Some of these other episodes are important, and we will pick them up separately. But with the intellectual background described above in mind, we can identify five main themes in Mohicans , all closely linked to Romanticism. They are: the image of the Indian; the image of the hero; the notion of historical truth; the image of the wilderness, and the notion of "America." For the sake of simplicity, it is appropriate to consider each of these in turn.

The Image of the Indian

Cooper makes it clear in the Preface that for him this was the most important aspect of the book. But he was not the first author to deal with the subject, contrary to popular belief; in fact there had been a boom in "Indian stories" in the early 1820s, and these were familiar to American audiences.7 What set Mohicans apart was the seriousness of its approach and the fact that it put Indians at center stage. Key characters are Indian, and significant scenes take place within an Indian tribal setting. Cooper takes much care to ensure that they are not one-dimensional figures, and there is a great deal of description of their culture and customs. To this day, Cooper is remembered as "the Indian story writer" and even as "the Indians' friend."8

But what did he really think of them? His attitudes were certainly complex, but a close reading of the book tells us enough for our purpose. Superficially, he is a relativist, and in common with Romantic notions of the "volk," he appears to have believed in the purity of the races. It is made explicit repeatedly in the text that the Indians have their "gifts," while the whites have theirs. Indeed, there is a great deal on the merits and "just nature" of various tribes, and how they possess coherent belief systems and "noble traditions." Even the Hurons are not inherently evil but are corrupted by Magua, who is a skillful persuader.9

Also, very importantly the book concedes that the whites have behaved badly with regard to the Indians. They have broken promises, spread disease, and brutally pushed back the frontier. As a result, the noble Mohican tribe has been reduced to two people. The most graphic condemnation of this and other atrocities comes toward the end of the book, when Tamenund tells Uncas: "I have lived to see the tribes … driven from their council fires, and scattered…. I have seen the hatchets of a strange people sweep woods from the valleys that the winds of Heaven had spared!" He goes on to fantasize that Uncas may be the man to reverse the trend: "The arrow of Tamenund would not frighten the fawn; his arm is withered like the branch of a dead oak … yet is Uncas before him, as they went to battle against the pale-faces!"

Cooper does not like to see the Indians become extinct; indeed, the book is in many ways a requiem for them. Yet he considers it the natural way of things. At various points, he suggests that no empire lasts forever, that different races are inevitably in conflict, and that now it is time for the Indians to hand over to the whites. In this sense, the Indians are a metaphor for the rise and fall of civilizations—as we have seen, a prominent theme in Romantic thinking. This notion of "progressive history" is underscored by the climactic speech by Tamenund, when he laments: "The pale-faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red men has not yet come again…."

But is Cooper really so liberal about the relative gifts of the two peoples? There is reason to suggest not, and that he was more in tune with his intellectual background in the belief that the races are not just distinct but also stratified. Our suspicions are first raised by the very structure of the narrative, by which Cooper sets up a "good Indian/bad Indian" opposition: the Hurons are bad, the Mohicans good. Literally, by the end of the story, it might be said that the only good Indian is a dead one.10

There are further hints as the action progresses. Cooper refers to Indians throughout as "savages," hardly a neutral term, and contrives situations where their lack of "civilization" is contrasted with the whites. Thus, when it is explained that Magua is obsessed with revenge for being whipped by the British, it is also implied that Indians do not understand the concept of discipline. At the massacre, Cooper describes the Hurons becoming so excited that they drink the blood of those whom they murder. When our heroes are trapped behind the waterfall, the Indians among them behave in a pragmatic, utilitarian way and swim off to fetch help, whereas Heyward will not leave the women because he is "honorable." But then, that does leave us with a problem regarding Hawkeye, who also abandons the women. Is he or is he not a model of virtues?

Perhaps the strongest argument is the way Cooper deals with the issue of interracial sex. This is another major thread in the story, and is used quite deliberately both as an erotic device and to express a dread of miscegenation. It is most sensationally exploited in the episodes where Magua tries to take Cora as his squaw. Take, for example, the scene in the Delaware camp in which she gives her reaction to the idea:

[Tamenund:] "A great warrior takes thee to wife. Go—thy race will not end."

"Better, a thousand times, it should," exclaimed the horror-struck Cora, "than meet with such a degradation!"

More subtly, yet more revealingly, Cora is also attracted to Uncas. Possibly this is because her "black blood" signifies her affinity with Indians. But although Uncas is a potential lover for much of the final half of the book, we are left in no doubt as to the immorality of such a union: on appropriately germane occasions, Hawkeye comments quite pointedly that the races should never mix. In the end, the twin deaths of Cora and Uncas save this from ever happening.11

But before we denounce Cooper as a racist and consign him to the Politically Incorrect sin-bin, it is necessary to say a few quick words to put his treatment of Indians in historical context. He may not have been "the Indians' friend," but at least he afforded them respect, which was more than his contemporaries in the creative world were prepared to do. The conquering of native American tribes was still very much an ongoing process in Cooper's day: the policy of "Removal" was in full force in the 1820s and '30s (and the great Indian wars were not to come until the 1860s). The cultural contribution to this policy was overwhelmingly to portray Indians as subhuman and easily slaughterable. Cooper never stooped to this level, and when his books appeared, he was attacked for romanticizing them. No doubt this is one criticism that he would have taken as a compliment.12

The Image of the Hero

Hawkeye (a.k.a. Nathaniel Bumppo, a.k.a. Leatherstocking) is the central character in the story, and arguably the most complex. He had a precedent in the real-life frontiersman Daniel Boone—or rather in the folklore that surrounded him. Yet Cooper's creation is more than a tough guy dressed in skins and embodies several disparate but complementary psychological qualities.

Hawkeye is an Englishman raised among Indians, a Puritan, and illiterate. But above all, despite his lack of schooling, he is honest: "his countenance was not only without guile, but at the moment at which he is introduced, it was charged with an expression of sturdy honesty." Thus he is representative of the white man reduced to his purest level, divorced from the trappings of civilization. He embodies natural moral law and believes in justice rather than any manmade decrees. For this reason, he is in the unique position of being both alienated from the British colonists (despite the fact he shares their nationality), and also being able to bond with the "pure" Indians.

But despite his affinity for the Indians, we are never left in any doubt as to which race he belongs to. It is stressed again and again that he is a "man without a cross," which is to say, without cross-breeding. This means that, if the story can be seen at least in part as an expression of the "rise and fall of nations," then he will automatically be on the side of the winners. By the same token, it can be said that he carries forward within himself (and thus symbolically within the white victors) all the good qualities of the Indians.

Inextricably linked with this quality, another facet of his character is his bravery and pioneering spirit, something that harkens back to the Boone mythology but builds upon it. He is at home in the wilderness and has become transformed by it to the point that he is both physically and mentally tough: "Every nerve and muscle appeared strung and indurated by unremitted exposure and toil." This also fits with Romantic notions of "the testing of the spirit" and "man versus nature." Yet, tough as he may be, Hawkeye could not deal so effectively with nature without his trusty gun—the final piece in the mythic jigsaw. We have seen how Hawkeye obtained that name because he is an excellent shot; but he has yet another nickname based on his gun: "La Longue Carabine." Even the gun itself has a name, "Kill-deer," and it is referred to in loving detail throughout the story. This fetishization of Hawkeye as "the loner who is good with a gun," can be seen as the model for countless imitators in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially western heroes like "Shane" and "The Man with No Name." It is also a significant symbol in the context of the American citizen's constitutional "right to bear arms": it is hard not to hear the spirit of Hawkeye in the lyrics to a hit country and western song: "God, guts, and guns is what made this country strong…."13

But if Hawkeye is an idealized figure, he is also human—and this is what makes the character work. Cooper once expressed regret that his creation was too perfect.14 But in fact, he exhibits plenty of foibles. He is very boastful of his shooting ability, and he babbles on none too knowledgeably about religion. In fact, he is over-talkative, in stark contrast to his "strong and silent" fictional descendants. Also, he has a dark side, and sometimes his bravery crosses over into blood-lust, even sadism: he runs into battle shouting "Extarminate the varlets!" (112) and thinks nothing of stabbing his foes' corpses ("… the scout made a circuit of the dead, into whose senseless bosoms he thrust his long knife …" [114]). Hawkeye is nothing if not complicated: a legendary WASP hero who is also a recognizable man.

The Notion of Historical Truth

In his preface, Cooper says, "The reader who takes up these volumes in the expectation of finding an imaginary and romantic picture of things which never had an existence, will probably lay them aside, disappointed." He is keen to stress right from the start that this is the way it was, warts and all. This could be interpreted as a scam, a bit of hype to sell the book. On the other hand, Mohicans is certainly more careful about its facts than most novels of its era. Indeed, the level of research is often remarkable, and the prose certainly benefits from a stress on detail and description. In short, it's very convincing.15

But, despite Cooper's claims, the book is not historically correct, and much of the time he would have known so. The events he is describing took place in 1757, many years before the book's publication (1826), and there are bound to be errors. For instance, the Franco-British wars did happen, but the facts are deliberately altered to suit Cooper's dramatic purpose. To give the most obvious example, the massacre at Fort William Henry was based in fact, but Cooper exaggerated the role of Montcalm and the extent of the violence.16

More importantly, there are mistakes regarding the portrayal of Indian culture. As Cooper admits in his Preface, he borrowed much of his information from Joseph Heckewelder's History, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations, itself a none-too-reliable source. The Mohicans did, and indeed do, exist; but the people Cooper describe have more in common with the Delaware tribe (or rather, Heckewelder's description of them).

We might ask why these details matter. After all, this is a work of fiction, and some measure of artistic license is to be expected. Quite so. But we have to remember that it was part of Cooper's mission to use the past to make points about "the American character" and to foster the idea of an indigenous (white) culture. The book was sold as "history," and was largely perceived as such. Inexorably, it was to be a perception that shaped America's future.

The Image of the Wilderness

The trees, the greenery, and nature generally play as much of a starring role in Mohicans as any of the main characters. The natural world is depicted as wild, magnificent, uncontrollable. From the first page we are faced with "A wide and impervious boundary of forests … the rapids of the streams … the rugged passes of the mountains…."

On one level there are obvious links with Romantic thinking here. As well as being a rejection of urbanization, industrialization, and commercialism, Cooper's depiction of the wilderness also reflects a deep respect for the power of nature. Within this context, the Indian communities who populate the land are seen as an integral part of nature, while for the white man the wilderness is a testing ground, a place "full of toils and dangers," where toughness and ingenuity are required to survive—a place, in other words, where "a man can be a man."

Yet this setting is also used to pose deeper philosophical questions. For instance, who owns the land? Is it possible to "own" such an elemental force? It is made clear that, for the Indians, the individual belongs to the land, not the land to the individual; and this is something that is contrasted again and again with white ideas about colonization and settlement. True, Hawkeye is the exception—a white man who is spiritually in tune with the Indians. But almost all the other white characters in the book are caught up, either directly or indirectly, in conflict for possession of the land.17

Also, how far does the wilderness act as a "frontier"? What is its role in demarcating a space where two distinct and hostile forces come together? Clearly, Cooper wants us to view it in these dramatic terms: as a place where opposites meet, and where much blood will be spilled before one side wins out over the other.18

The Notion of "America"

We have seen how Cooper and his clique were anxious to establish a notion of "America." We have also seen how, in Mohicans , Cooper went some way toward this end by defining the country in the abstract—in terms of the wilderness, in terms of the Indian population, in terms of Hawkeye's moral goodness. But it was also important to define America as a nation-state, in the same sense as other nation-states of the nineteenth century. To do this, Cooper used the expedient of contrasting the rising nation of the United States with the declining nation of Great Britain.

Here once again we are in the Romantic realm of the rise and fall of nations, and in order for the opposition to work, Cooper needed to be very particular about his portrayal of the British, and of the (white) proto-Americans. Of course, he had history on his side: because the book was published many years after the events it describes, audiences—especially American audiences—would have been fully aware that the British were going to get ousted in the Revolution of 1776-81. Fresher still in American memories when Mohicans was first published was the renewal of war between Britain and the U.S. around 1812, during which parts of New York were badly damaged.19

Still, Cooper drives the point home: "The imbecility of her military leaders abroad, and the fatal want of energy in her councils at home, had lowered the character of Great Britain from the proud elevation on which it had been placed by the talents and enterprise of her former warriors and statesmen" (13). In short, the British are portrayed as idiots; even Heyward, honorable chap that he may be, is characterized as pompous and often foolish.

As for the "Americans," these posed a particular problem for Cooper. For, of course, there can be no Americans as such in the story. But there are settlers, and although these do not play a major role, they are symbolized to a large degree in the person of Hawkeye. There is no need here to repeat our assessment of Hawkeye. Suffice to say that he plays a unique part in the book as the quintessential proto-American. He is alienated from his (English) national background, and at the same time is adapted to the land, and thus we can see him as being symbolic of the transfer of power from one nation to the other. If, as has been argued, Hawkeye's destiny in the story is to take over the good qualities of the Indians, it is also true that he takes over the good qualities of the British.


The Last of the Mohicans was an instantaneous bestseller and established its author as the first significant American literary figure. However, its critical reception was not quite so enthusiastic. The main complaints were that stylistically the book was badly written, repetitive, and lacked pace and characterization, even if its historical veracity was praiseworthy. These criticisms continued to be leveled at the book through successive reprintings until the end of the century, the most famous example being a savage review by Mark Twain in North American Review in 1895. But there are other reasons for the criticisms, as we discuss in our next section.

The behavior of Cooper himself did not help matters. He made a point of hitting back at his critics, thereby making himself doubly unpopular. There is no question that he was hurt by the bad press: even though he was a commercial sensation and something of a national hero, he craved critical acceptance above all else. Significantly, the year Mohicans was published, 1826, was also the year in which Cooper left with his wife for Europe, whence he was not to return for another seven years. For his detractors, this was all the excuse they needed to suggest that the creator of the "great American novel" was behaving churlishly and turning his back on the country he had eulogized.20

Paradoxically, elsewhere in the world reviews were more uniformly favorable. In Europe, the book fit into an existing tradition of adventure novels and was extravagantly praised. It was translated into all the main European languages, and luminaries who were known to be fans included Balzac, Schubert, and Goethe. Intriguingly, the country where Mohicans had its main impact was France, where the figure of Hawkeye was interpreted as an embodiment of Rousseau's "noble savage."

After this initial reception, the book went through a number of critical reappraisals. Though still widely read, Mohicans was eclipsed in the latter half of the nineteenth century by the rise of the dime novel Westerns and, of course, by the rise of the Wild West shows, which were the living exemplars of those heroic stories. It was a mark of the growing separation of high and mass culture versions of the Western and has important things to tell us later on. The period 1900 to the present witnessed a predictable seesawing of opinion in the light of prevailing literary fashion and ideology, a pattern we only need summarize here. To begin with, the first few decades of the new century were notable for essays that exactly reversed the nineteenth century critics' assessment, praising the book's style, pacing, and characterization while attacking its pretensions to "history." This trend culminated in the 1920s, when D. H. Lawrence effectively rehabilitated Cooper as a great writer: it also corresponded with the ascension of Mohicans to the status of a "classic," thereby placing it to some degree "above criticism."

From the 1930s onwards, the main thrust of critical reappraisal came from the universities, where contributors to learned journals argued over the book's merits in the light of prevailing thinking. In particular, the 1960s and '70s was the era of civil rights and the associated rise of "Red Power" (which is to say the Indian rights movement) and these movements inevitably provoked much debate about Cooper's attitudes. In the 1980s, a similar process led to the emergence of "Green" appraisals of the text (focusing on its treatment of the wilderness) and even feminist criticism (looking in particular at the behavior of the female characters).21

So much for the critics. There is a saying, as current in 1826 as it is today, that a book's best critic is its audience, and here there has never been much dissent. Certainly, in commercial terms, there have been periods of quick and slow sales, but always within a relatively healthy trading record.22 The period immediately after publication saw the most dramatic boom, as Mohicans became the trendy book to own. (Of course, we can never be sure how many people actually read it.) In America especially it hit a nerve. Not only was it a rollicking adventure, but it also had novelty value: it spoke directly to Americans and was set in their homeland.

As the book became widely known, so it began to take on the patina of cultural significance. This was most evident in the fact that it was increasingly perceived as a "first" (the first novel to deal with Indians, the first to have an American hero, and so on), a trend that reached the point that Mohicans even began to be seen as "the first American novel." None of this was true, but that did not stop successive publishers from exploiting the situation and hyping the book as something that it wasn't. It was a small step to start marketing it as a "classic."23

Mohicans was not without commercial competition. Far from it. In some ways, it was a victim of its own success, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the emergence over time of other fictional heroes in the Hawkeye mold. In the 1830s, it was the turn of Davy Crockett; in the 1840s, Kit Carson; in the 1880s Billy the Kid (the first to be called a "cowboy"); in the 1880s-90s Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, and Wyatt Earp; and so on. One entirely unforeseen result of this competition was that Mohicans became inextricably tangled up with the Western genre, an association that has not disappeared to this day.

Yet Mohicans remained special. It became symbolic of a much wider set of values; within a very short time after publication it was clear that Americans were reading the book in order to give themselves a sense of who they were. In other words, Mohicans succeeded in molding a slice of a (mythical) history in such a way as to give meaning to the present. In this way, the book developed a life outside of itself and thus perpetuated its sales potential.

This brings us to the present day. To a certain degree, Cooper achieved his aim of defining America—a Romantic vision encompassing a sense of identity. And yet for all his calculation, the one thing he could not control was how future generations would interpret the book and how they would come to their own conclusions about a definition. For one of the joys of Mohicans is that there are a great many loose ends. It constitutes a founding myth, certainly, but a myth with ambiguities. The book is in many ways a racist book, yet it incorporates a condemnation of racism. It raises the possibility of interracial sexual relations between two of its heroic characters, yet avoids consummation. It celebrates frontier qualities, yet it mourns the passing of the frontier (though more in the other Leatherstocking books than in Mohicans ). Hawkeye himself is a splendid and moral figure, yet he is also a loner, he is capable of real violence, he is capable of explaining and justifying scalping by the Mohicans. All in all, Mohicans is a truly ambivalent tale.

Perhaps we should take this ambivalence seriously. It derives, we would argue, from the specific time of its writing and from bifurcations in Cooper himself. First, remember that this was by no means the only novel of its kind. On the contrary, there was a great fascination in this period with what was being lost with the disappearance of native Americans: "Cultural historians have identified J. F. Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans as one of approximately 40 novels published in the United States between 1824-1834 that together suggest the existence of a virtual 'cult of the Vanishing American' in the antebellum period."24 Of course, if the "Americans" (that is, the native Americans, the "Indians") were disappearing, then what could replace them was the new Americans. A new national identity would have to emerge. And one of the ways to establish that identity was to develop an appropriate national literature. It is therefore of real importance to note that this is the period in which a number of reviewers and critics were actually proposing that if there was to be such a literature, the theme of the Indian must provide its imaginative resources. As early as 1807, Theodore Dehon proposed the theme of the Indian as "the chief hope for an original literature." One reviewer of one of Cooper's pre-Mohicans novels, The Spy , even proposed the same for Cooper's next novel.25 Meanwhile, those who disagreed with this notion tended to reject the very idea of an American literature. Granville Mellen directly dismissed Cooper's frontier romances with this comment: "The Indians as a people offer little or nothing that can reasonably be expected to excite the novelist, formed as his taste must be on a foreign standard."26

The Indians, if you like, were handing on their natures to the whites, as they vanished. What qualities were they seen to have? They had, of course, certain natural skills: they were fine trackers, they knew the ways of animals. But also they were famous for their powers of rhetoric. One of the things that had impressed the early white negotiators seeking land rights had been the qualities of Indians' speechmaking (a facet of their nature almost totally lost by the time the "Western" imaged Indians).27 By the time of Cooper, this perception was beginning to change.

A wider redefinition of the position of Indians in the scale of civilization was taking place, as John Cawelti has noted: "The various seventeenth- and eighteenth-century views of the Indian with their complex dialectic between the Indian as devil and as noble savage quickly gave way in the nineteenth century to a definition of the Indian way of life as an inferior and earlier stage in the development of civilization."28 The Puritan view of the Indian as a pestilence in paradise, the snake in Eden, managed to coexist with a Rousseau-like admiration of their naturalness. But by the beginning of the nineteenth century this was changing. Beginning in the cities, wilderness changes from being dangerous and needing to be tamed to being a source of values that the "new Americans" could inherit.29

A whole series of changes, then, arose together as Cooper began to write his Leatherstocking novels. Cooper wrote at the cusp of the changes. Hence Mohicans is inevitably ambivalent in a host of ways. On heredity, for instance, Cooper's views are perversely complicated. Late on in Mohicans , Uncas is captured by the Hurons. One of them, Reed-That-Bends, is arraigned before his tribe for cowardice: he had run from Uncas. The tribe condemns him to death, and he is instantly killed. His father departs the Hurons' council in shame—not for his son but for himself. Cooper's narration comments: "The Indians, who believe in the hereditary transmission of virtues and defects in the character, suffered him to depart in silence" (247). Hardly a comment suggesting agreement. Yet Hawkeye is frequently heard to confirm his own purity as being "without a taint, without a cross."

What makes the novel both curious and curiously effective is the interplay between two systems of narrative organization. In one, there is endless discussion of "essential qualities." This discussion is carried in particular by the narrator's comments on characters' motivation. On the other hand the resolutions in the book are founded on historically specific relations and cultural traditions. At the fort, for example, the French defy all Colonel Munro's expectations by allowing an honorable surrender, but then seem to lose that honor by not interfering (because they are scared of losing Indian support) with Magua's evident plans for the massacre. Or again, the Delawares—"savage" as they are—are not only scrupulously governed by laws and rules of justice, but clearly have a determining history. When Uncas is revealed to be the chief of the Mohicans, the Delawares override the claims of Magua because the Mohicans represent their ur-Tribe, from which they are all descended. The Six Nations have a historical tradition that governs their loyalties. This is not just a fact within the novel. Without this second principle, the story simply could not resolve in the way it does.

We might represent this clash of narrative principles as a conflict between racial theory and determinate (albeit mythologized) history. Because the two are not and could not be resolved, the novel is inevitably incomplete. By this we mean that it requires interpretation to produce a coherent, committed reading.30 Is it a racist book? Is it pro- or anti-Indian? Is Magua an evil character? What does the story suggest about interracial sexual relations? That depends on your interpretation, but now we mean something quite strong by "interpretation."

Cooper himself lived out just such a conflict of principles in his political adherence to Jacksonian democracy. Andrew Jackson became president in 1828 on a ticket that shifted the focus of attention from Europe to aggressive, buccaneering expansion to the West. Cooper supported him. Yet Cooper's own personal situation, and indeed general convictions, ought to have aligned him with the genteel and aristocratic Republicans, at their strongest in the Northeast. His association with old wealth, with a literary elite, and his fondness for all things European was not reflected in his political allegiance. He was an uneasy Jacksonian, and we will need to think how this was reflected in his romances.

In the rest of this book, we explore the fate of Cooper's Mohicans in many hands: some good, some awful, some faithful, some turning the story to purposes that Cooper would have hated. But for the story to survive at all, it had to have qualities working simultaneously in contradictory directions. It had to lend itself to being reworked in many opposed ways. But it had to have enough of a "presence," an inner strength, to make it worth repeatedly returning to. Yet, as we have suggested, it is not its literary qualities that have marked it out. Overall, of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, Mohicans is probably the one least favored by literary critics.

That is the puzzle of The Last of the Mohicans. It will be our argument that it is the book's very ambiguities that have made it so pliable to other people's uses. Produced on the cusp of all those changes, the story has become what we would call a "flexible template." It is incomplete, almost requiring interpretive completion, and thus lent itself to being rewritten, especially in that medium which became preeminently "American," the film. From the turn of the century, Mohicans became one of the resources through which each generation encountered the idea of "America," but each time in an image appropriate to its present purposes.

Is there a limit to those uses? What qualities does the template have that might restrict to what uses it can bend? In our final chapter, we will want to argue that there is such a limit. But we can only establish that after we have looked at how the novel has been used in the meantime. First, we need to explore the ways Mohicans established itself as a "classic," and just what that means.

  1. All page references to The Last of the Mohicans throughout this book will be to the Penguin edition, unless specifically noted otherwise.
  2. Recommended biographies of Cooper are: George Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967) and Stephen Railton, Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978).
  3. Cooper wrote thirty novels in all. Perhaps the best known outside the Leatherstocking Tales was The Spy (1821), a tale of the American Revolution.
  4. In the original books, the name is hyphenated ("Hawk-eye"), though modern audiences are much more familiar with the conflation "Hawkeye."
  5. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gleanings in Europe (Philadelphia, 1838), I, 35.
  6. For an in-depth discussion of this creative clique, see James Beard, "Cooper and his Artistic Contemporaries," in New York History 35 (1954): 480-95.
  7. Examples of "Indian stories" included Yamoyden (1820) and Hobomok (1824). Interestingly, many were written by women. For more on this subject, see Nina Baum, "How Men and Women Wrote Indian Stories," in Daniel Peck, ed., New Essays on The Last of the Mohicans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 67-86.
  8. There is evidence that Cooper had Indian companions and supported certain Indian land claims. See James Beard's introduction to the 1983 State University of New York Press edition of Mohicans, xv.
  9. This characterization of the Indian is a contrast to that of the African in Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan novels, where the Africans are "childlike" by nature.
  10. For an elucidation of this point about the "good Indian/bad Indian," see Richard Slotkin's introduction to the Penguin edition (1986) of Mohicans, esp. xxiv-xxv.
  11. One wonders why a mixed marriage would be so feared. Perhaps it is because the merging of the two images produces an even more dangerous monster. As Roderick Nash says, the half-breed is feared as a "superior Indian" and a troublemaker, a "leader of rebellions." See Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973), 279.
  12. The seeming contradiction that a "racist" writer can produce a sympathetic portrayal of a race has not gone away in American literature. Most recently, a controversy was generated when Forrest Carter, the author of The Outlaw Josey Wales, a Western highly praised for its characterization of Sioux characters, was exposed as a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer.
  13. See Virgil Bechman's 1982 song, "God, Guts and Guns."
  14. Introduction to 1831 edition, reprinted in the 1986 Penguin edition of Mohicans, 7.
  15. Occasionally, Cooper would not be so pedantic. Usually, he would insist that he wrote about "the truth," as in the Introduction to Mohicans. But sometimes he admitted to taking artistic license. It depended on which audience he was playing to.
  16. See Robert Lawson-Peebles, "The Lesson of the Massacre at Fort William Henry," in Daniel Peck, ed., New Essays, esp. 117-120.
  17. Significantly, Cooper's family was dispossessed of land before the writing of Mohicans. See Daniel Peck's Introduction to New Essays, 4.
  18. The word "frontier" has different connotations in America and in Britain. In the latter it is a border between two powers, to cross which means danger. In the former it has become an area which invites entrance and promises opportunity and riches. Slotkin also argues that it creates an inversion of normal social rank. Comparing the early and late parts of Mohicans, he points out: "In Part I, characters are subordinated according to rank and caste, irrespective of 'talent and virtue.' Munro commands Heyward; Heyward commands Hawkeye; Hawkeye in some sense commands the Mohicans. In Part II the structure is completely inverted. Even before their royal character is revealed, pragmatic considerations make the Mohicans leaders of the hunt, subject only to their deference to the skill of Hawkeye. Heyward follows Hawkeye, and is followed by Munro" (Introduction to the Penguin edition of Mohicans, xxi).
  19. It is also worth noting ahead that some adaptations of Mohicans, as the real events receded, made play of reminding their audiences who had won, and which side key people (such as George Washington) were on. See chapter 6 below for examples.
  20. Cooper's reputation never really recovered, and his decision to return to writing Leatherstocking stories in the 1840s was undoubtedly an attempt to revive it.
  21. For a full account of the history of this criticism, see Daniel Peck, Introduction to New Essays, 1-24.
  22. One source puts a figure of more than two million on sales of The Last of the Mohicans up to the 1940s, putting it among the all-time bestsellers historically. See Frank Luther Mott, Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best-Sellers in the United States (New York: R. R. Bowker, 1947), 74-76.
  23. For the record, the first American novel is generally agreed to have been The Power of Sympathy by William Hill Brown (1789). Obviously, Cooper himself had also written novels before Mohicans.
  24. Lora Romero, "Vanishing Americans: Gender, Empire and the New Historicism," American Literature 63.3 (1991): 385-404 (quoted at 386).
  25. The reviewer was William Howard Gardiner, in the prestigious North American Review. This information is drawn from Louisa K. Barnett, The Ignoble Savage: American Literary Racism, 1790-1890 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975), 23.
  26. Barnett, The Ignoble Savage, 26.
  27. On this aspect of white representations of Indians, see in particular Roy Harvey Pearce, The Savages of America: A Study of the Indian and the Idea of Civilization (New York: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965). Pearce argues that the period up to the time when Cooper wrote was dominated not simply by images of savagery, but by a rising need to know about the lives, habits, practices and natures of native American societies. The link between the two is there in the figure of Thomas Jefferson. It was Jefferson who dismissed the arguments of Buffon that the Indians were "primitive peoples." Among his counters to Buffon was his acknowledgment of their rhetorical powers, which he calls a distinguishing mark of civilization, for it enables matters to be settled by persuasion, not force. It was the same Jefferson who, in 1803, sent the explorers Lewis and Clark on a westward expedition with a precise "shopping list" of kinds of information that were needed about native American life.
  28. John Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique (Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1970), 145.
  29. "Appreciation of wilderness began in the cities," says Roderick Nash (Wilderness and the American Mind, 44). Interestingly, Nash shows that again and again those who celebrated wilderness as "sublime" and "rapture" ended their narratives by preferring tamed, farmed land—as though wilderness is good to think, but not to live in. What again distinguishes Cooper, and especially Mohicans, is that it does not end so.
  30. In using this terminology of "coherence" and "commitment," we are making deliberately eccentric use of ideas wonderfully developed in John Berger's Another Way of Telling (London: Writers & Readers, 1982). Berger is discussing the nature of "expressive photography," that is, photographs that "make long quotations from appearance." By this he seems to mean that quality which enables some photographs to hold within them the real social and personal relations that typify a historical moment. His prime example is a photograph from Andre Kertesz of a Red Army soldier leaving his family. His point seems to us potentially an enormously productive one about the ways meanings can be condensed and contained. Our argument here is that Cooper himself contains a clear excess and contradictory potential of meaning, which needs the detailed working of other times and other media to produce different forms of coherence.

Barnett, Louisa K. The Ignoble Savage: American Literary Racism, 1790-1890. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Beard, James. "Cooper and His Artistic Contemporaries." New York History 35 (1954): 480-95.

Berger, John. Another Way of Telling. London: Writers & Readers, 1982.

Cawelti, John. The Six-Gun Mystique. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1970.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The American Democrat. Edited and introduced by George Decker and Larry Johnston. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1969.

——. The Redskins, or, Indian and Injun. 1846. Reprint. New York: Cooperative Publication Society, n.d.

Decker, George. James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Gleanings in Europe. Philadelphia, 1838.

Mott, Frank Luther. Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best-Sellers in the United States. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1947.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Savages of America: A Study of the Indian and the Idea of Civilization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965.

Peck, Daniel, ed. New Essays on the Last of the Mohicans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Railton, Stephen. Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Romero, Lora. "Vanishing Americans: Gender, Empire and the New Historicism." American Literature 63.3 (1991): 385-404.



Dyer, Alan Frank. James Fenimore Cooper: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. New York, N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1991, 293 p.

An annotated bibliography of criticism on Cooper's works through 1991.


Long, Robert Emmet. James Fenimore Cooper. New York, N.Y.: Continuum, 1990, 213 p.

A biography of Cooper.

Railton, Stephen. Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978, 282 p.

A biography of Cooper.


Adams, Charles Hansford. "The Guardian of the Law": Authority and Identity in James Fenimore Cooper, University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990, 151 p.

Critical discussion of representations of the law in Cooper's novels.

Barker, Martin, and Roger Sabin. The Lasting of the Mohicans: History of an American Myth. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1995, 248 p.

Critical analysis of Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans and various adaptations of the original novel that have emerged since its original publication, including film adaptations.

Bewley, Marius. "James Fenimore Cooper: America's Mirror of Conscience." In Masks and Mirrors: Essays in Criticism, pp. 226-54. New York, N.Y.: Atheneum, 1970.

Examines the significance of Cooper's novels to the history of American literature and explores Cooper's ideas about American national identity, as expressed in his novels.

McWilliams, John. The Last of the Mohicans: Civil Savagery and Savage Civility. New York, N.Y.: Twayne, 1995, 131 p.

Critical discussion of the representation of Native Americans in The Last of the Mohicans.

Additional coverage of Cooper's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 22; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1640-1865; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 183, 250, 254; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 1, 27, 54; Novels for Students, Vol. 9; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Something about the Author, Vol. 19; Twayne's United States Authors; and Writers for Children.

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Cooper, James Fenimore 1789-1851

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