Cooper, the Pioneer
Lesson 1: Coooper, the Pioneer
By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:
Our class activities this week include the following:
Think Fast: In a paragraph (100 words), discuss how we might consider James Fenimore Coooper as a pioneer of the novel in America.
Presentation: “Cooper, the Pioneer” (Professor Canada)
Nature and Civilization: Who is winning the battle between nature and civilization? Judge Temple says that he has “tamed the wilderness” (348). Do you agree with him?
Self-control: The Pioneers takes place during the Enlightenment, a period when order and self-control were highly prized. Which of the characters seem to have the most self-control? Which have the least? What seems to make the difference?
Individual and Community: When the novel begins, Natty is already in conflict with the forces of civilization, but he has managed to stay out of trouble. What, finally, lands him in jail, and how is his arrest justified? What does this scene suggest about the real danger of a figure such as Natty Bumppo?
Law: What is the value of law? Natty seems to think that the law does not apply to some people. He asks: “. . . what has a man who lives in the wilderness to do with the ways of the law?” (314). Explain his position and take a stand on it.
Form: Discuss the genre, structure, and style of The Pioneers. How can a consideration of these features illuminate its meaning or significance?
Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, presentations, and cooperative learning.
Think Again: In a brief essay (300 words), evaluate Cooper’s role as a pioneer of the novel in America. Was his contribution largely negative or positive? Support your claim with specific evidence.
Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with two of you in one-on-one conferences. During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.
Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.
Names and Terms
Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:
Make sure you are familiar with the following key dates in the history of the novel:
1754-1763: Colonists fight in French and Indian War
1775-1783: Colonists fight American Revolution
1823: Cooper publishes The Pioneers
You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:
Home As Found features a biographical sketch and links to other Cooper sites.
“Abbildungen aus James Fenimore Coopers Pages and Pictures” features illustrations of Cooper, Otsego Hall, and more.
All American: James Fenimore Cooper features a biographical sketch, a commentary on his literary significance, and a detailed chronology of Cooper’s life, along with lists of his major works, family members, and occupations.
All American: The Pioneers features character sketches, a plot summary, a list of themes, and commentary on the novel as literature.
James Fenimore Cooper: The Leather-Stocking Tales, Volume I, edited by Blake Nevius, contains full texts of The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Prairie, along with a detailed chronology of Cooper’s life.
“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” a humorous treatment of Cooper’s writing by Mark Twain, criticizes the author’s dialogue, verisimilitude, and more.
In our first lesson, we surveyed the relatively short but productive history of the novel and discussed strategies for appreciating novels. We turn now to an examination of one of the first significant novels published in the United States, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, published in 1823. In addition to interpreting and appreciating this novel as a work of literature in its own right, we will examine the ways in which Cooper was himself a pioneer in the history of the American novel.
James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper has no claim to being America’s first novelist. The appearance of his first novel in 1820 came more than three decades after the publication of William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, regarded by some as the first American novel. The American Charles Brockden Brown, furthermore, already had had a notable career as a novelist, publishing a series of novels beginning in the late 1790s. In the 1820s, while Cooper was enjoying his first years of literary success in the 1820s, Catharine Maria Sedgwick came out with her novel Hope Leslie. If he was not America’s first novelist, however, he may be the nation’s first great novelist, notable for a prolific career that produced more than 30 novels—including the influential Leather-Stocking Tales, a series of five novels featuring the idealized hero Natty Bumppo.
By the time Cooper was born—on Sept. 15, 1789, in Burlington, New Jersey—the frontier was disappearing from the northeastern United States. Indeed, his father, William Cooper, would become a major figure in the civilization of the wilderness. In 1790, the elder Cooper brought his family to Lake Otsego in upstate New York and established a settlement that would bear his name, Cooperstown. Some three decades later, his son would recapture some scenes from his childhood in Cooperstown in his novel The Pioneers, even modeling Marmaduke Temple’s home on his own father’s Otsego Hall. While he was still a boy, Cooper left the settlement for New Haven, Connecticut, where he enrolled at Yale in 1803 at the age of 13. Not exactly a model student, Cooper was expelled from Yale when he was a junior. According to tradition, he played a number of pranks involving, among other things, a donkey in a professor’s chair and gunpowder in a student’s door. In 1806, he went to sea as a sailor-before-the-mast on the Stirling, a merchant vessel that traveled to the Isle of Wight, London, and Spain. After a brief stint in the U.S. Navy, he married Susan Augusta De Lancey in 1811. As their family grew—Susan gave birth to five daughters over the next eight years, eventually giving birth to two sons, as well—the Coopers moved around New York, trying farming at various locations. By 1819, Cooper was in debt, despite the $50,000 inheritance he received after his father’s death in 1809.
In 1820, according to legend, Cooper became exasperated with a novel he was reading and threw it down, saying he could do better. His wife challenged him to live up to his word, and he wrote a novel of manners called Precaution (1820). His next novel, a Revolutionary War novel called The Spy (1821), was highly successful, and Cooper was on his way. Over the next three decades, he published some 30 novels, the most noteworthy being those of The Leather-Stocking Tales, a series of five novels featuring the frontier hero Natty Bumppo. Not merely winning over readers, Cooper did something few writers of literature managed to do in America at that time: he made a tidy income from his books. According to Blake Nevius, Cooper expected to make $20,000 in 1831 (1325). Nevertheless, Cooper also managed to anger many Americans in the later decades of his life, when he expressed some controversial political opinions, criticized American culture, and sued several newspapers for libel. In Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination, Stephen Railton writes: “In his books, Cooper quarreled with his country; in life, with his neighbors and countrymen; and in reality, with himself” (8).
The latter part of Cooper’s life was marked by a combination of wanderings and a return to his roots. In 1826, he took his family to Europe, partly to benefit his health and the education of his children, and the family spent the next seven years traveling and living in such places as Paris, France; Berne, Switzerland; and Florence, Italy. After returning to the United States, Cooper bought Otsego Hall, the home where he had grown up in Cooperstown, and moved there. It was here that he died on September 14, 1851. He was buried, along with other members of his family, in Cooperstown.
In a preface he wrote for an 1850 edition of his most famous novels, Cooper wrote: “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” (844). Today, a century and a half after Cooper wrote those words, titles such as The Bravo and Satanstoe would probably elicit only blank stares from many English professors, while The Last of the Mohicans and the name of Natty Bumppo are likely familiar even to people who have never read a novel. Indeed, in his creation of the frontier hero Natty Bumppo—known variously as the Leather-Stocking, Hawk-Eye, Pathfinder, and Deerslayer—and the novels recounting his adventures, Cooper made a lasting and important contribution to American literature.
As Donald A. Ringe has noted, Cooper may have based the character of Bumppo on an old hunter named David Shipman who came to his house in Cooperstown when Cooper was a boy (viii). It has also been suggested, however, that the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone and General George Washington served as models for Cooper’s character. Boone had blazed the Wilderness Road into Kentucky back in 1775, and Washington had led the Continental Army in its defeat of the British in the American Revolution between 1775 and 1783. Like the legends that surround men such as these, Cooper’s portrayal of his hero is highly idealized. Natty Bumppo is a noble, wise figure who demonstrates extraordinary physical prowess—in short, the exemplar of a certain brand of man. In The Pioneers, for example, he staunchly stands by his principles of individual liberty, has intimate knowledge of the wilderness, and is a master of both the rifle and the fishing spear. What perhaps makes him most notable among all this is his intimacy with nature. Indeed, it is this intimacy that makes Bumppo so distinctively an American hero. From the early pioneering efforts by John Smith and the Puritans at least until the virtual disappearance of the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century, America was in part a mysterious, challenging, and promising wilderness—in the famous words of Pilgrim William Bradford, “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men” (29). Bumppo, like many literary creations who would follow him, not only occupied this wilderness, but also became a part of it.
Bumppo’s difficult relationship with the civilization that was encroaching upon this wilderness is one of Cooper’s most important and influential themes. In The Pioneers, for example, Bumppo deplores the settlers’ wasteful destruction of nature, their attempts to regulate interactions with it, even what he perceives as their unmanly habit of shooting pigeons with a cannon instead of a rifle (249). In The American Novel and Its Tradition, Richard Chase writes:
In different terms the contradiction between the values of a traditional society and those of the lone individual in the marginal hinterland is as much a part of Faulkner’s view of things as it was of Cooper’s. With some modification the same contradiction lies behind the works of Melville and Mark Twain, among others. It is clear that crotchety as Cooper’s thinking sometimes was, he exemplified a dilemma, and explored some of the aesthetic uses to which it might be put, that was not peculiar to him but was at the heart of American culture. (52)
Cooper may have done more than set a precedent for later American heroes and treatments of civilization and the wilderness, however. Several writers, including D.H. Lawrence and Richard Slotkin, have suggested that he helped create an American myth. In Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence discussed the portrayal of Bumppo in Cooper’s The Deerslayer in this way: “You have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer” (quoted in Slotkin 466). Slotkin writes in Regeneration Through Violence that Cooper’s “vision of the mythic hero became a figure in the popular imagination, to which all subsequent versions of the hero had perforce to refer, whether in emulation or denigration” (468). Indeed, in “James Fenimore Cooper: Myth-Maker and Christian Romancer,” Charles A. Brady suggests that “Cooper’s genius was mythopoeic rather than comic; . . . dealing at its rare purest, in archetypes rather than types” (12).
Cooper’s achievement and influence, in short, was large. “The imaginative debt that such minor nineteenth century novelists as Simms and Stowe owed to Cooper is obvious,” Railton notes, “and in general popular fiction remained in the mode that Coper had shaped for it until after the Civil War. Yet it is equally true to say that Cooper first established many of the themes with which the major authors of the century would deal” (3). Railton further points out that contemporaries Sir Walter Scott and Honore de Balzac regarded Cooper as one of the finest novelists in the world (4). Neverthless, his reputation has suffered considerably so that scholars are inclined to place him beneath Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and others who followed him. Railton suggests a number of reasons for this position, noting that Cooper did not produce a masterpiece on the level of The Scarlet Letter or Moby-Dick and that his work suffers from “contradictions” (4-6). As Mark Twain pointed out in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Cooper’s novels also tend to strain some readers’ expectations of realism in areas such as dialogue. In The Pioneers, for instance, a character threatened by a forest fire proclaims: “Let us endeavor to retire” (411). Indeed, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Tales are best read as fancifiul romances and thus do not fit the strict definition of “novel” as a highly realistic form. As Chase argues in The American Novel and Its Tradition, however, many of America’s greatest “novels”—including The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick—are actually romances.
The chief problem in Cooper’s literature may be simply its lack of polish and originality. All other considerations aside, novels such as Moby-Dick and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shine because of their lyrical, highly crafted prose. Despite notable digressions, these novels also have a quality of tightness about them. Melville used a lot of words, and Twain a lot of scenes, but one rarely has the sense that they have wasted them. Cooper, on the other hand, appears to have written without the deliberation that one might expect of a great novelist. His daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, who had worked for him, provides this glimpse into her father’s creative process: “On this occasion, as on all others when writing a book, he first adopted some general leading idea, sketched vaguely in his mind a few of the more prominent characters, and then immediately began his work in its final shape, leaving the details to suggest and develop themselves during the progress of the volume. Excepting when writing history, he is not known to have ever drawn up a written plan, and in one or two instances only were a few brief notes thrown on paper, regarding some particular chapter. In all the details he depended in a great measure on the thought and feeling of the moment” (qtd. in Railton 25-26; see “Pages and Pictures,” from Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, 29-30). Furthermore, Railton explains that “he regularly sent manuscript to the publisher without waiting until he had finished the tale” (23). Cooper also paid little attention to revision. In a letter quoted by Railton, Cooper admits: “I ought in justice to myself to say, that in opposition to a thousand good resolutions, the Pioneers, has been more hastily and carelessly written than any of my books—Not a line has been copied, and it has gone from my desk to the printers—I have not to this moment been able even to read it—“ (23). Finally, as Railton notes, Cooper was not one to provide readers with highly original conceptions. “No writer was more committed than Cooper to contemporary literary conventions,” Railton writes. “He was, for example, simply unable to conceive a tale without a love story, without a comic character, without a narrow escape . . . . In the nineteenth century literary conventions fulfilled the terms of an unwritten, tacit contract that a popular novelist had agreed upon with his audience: readers demanded novelty and suspense, but they also expected to be entertained in a familiar way, and the writer was pledged to satisfy those expectations (27).
Cooper may have fulfilled those expectations and thus enjoyed great popular success, but he may have done so at the expense of artistry. In an essay entitled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Mark Twain writes of Cooper’s novel The Deerslayer:
A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are—oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that. (1250)
Art or no art, James Fenimore Cooper created an influential character in Natty Bumppo and helped launch a literary discussion of the relationship between humanity and nature in America. It is for these contributions he is perhaps best remembered.
In his preface to The Pioneers, James Fenimore Cooper explained that he wrote the novel, his third, for his own pleasure, “so it would be no wonder if it displeased every body else; for what two thought alike, on a subject of the imagination!” (3). Far from displeasing readers, The Pioneers was the beginning of one of the most famous series of novels in American literature, The Leather-Stocking Tales. It was here that Cooper introduced his memorable frontier hero, Natty Bumppo.
Cooper’s career as a novelist was only three years old when he published The Pioneers in 1823. Of writing the novel, Cooper later recalled in a letter: “I ought in justice to myself to say, that in opposition to a thousand good resolutions, the Pioneers, has been more hastily and carelessly written than any of my books—Not a line has been copied, and it has gone from my desk to the printers—I have not to this moment been able even to read it—“ (23). Nevertheless, as Donald A. Ringe explains in his introduction to The Pioneers, the book “was an immediate success and established him in a career as a professional novelist” (vii). Over the next two decades, he would follow it with four other novels featuring Bumppo—in a series called The Leather-Stocking Tales—as well as numerous other books of fiction and nonfiction.
In writing the novel, Cooper drew on a time, a place, and even personages he knew. The time is the late eighteenth century—specifically Christmas Eve, 1793, to mid-October of 1794—the period when he was coming of age. The setting of Templeton resembles Cooperstown, a community in upstate New York named after the novelist’s father, and Judge Temple’s residence in the novel recalls Otsego Hall, where the Coopers resided. The character of Judge Temple bears a surface likeness to Cooper’s father, wealthy landowner and politician William Cooper, and, as Ringe notes, Cooper may have based Natty Bumppo on a man named David Shipman, an old hunter who came to Otsego Hall when Cooper was a boy. Cooper’s familiarity with his subject matter helped him create an authentic picture, as he himself attests in his introduction to the novel: “The literal facts are chiefly concerned with the natural and artificial objects, and the customs of the inhabitants. Thus the Academy, and Court house, and gaol, and inn, and most similar things are tolerably exact” (10).
As a historical romance, however, The Pioneers is much less familiar to its readers—especially modern ones separated from its events by more than 200 years—than it was to its author. For these readers, some background may prove useful. In the 1790s, the period covered in the novel, Americans had only recently achieved their political independence, having defeated the British army in the American Revolution (1775-1783) and ratified their Constitution between 1787 and 1791. As Cooper shows in The Pioneers, these people were still working out the details of their political system, such as whether their new government would be a democracy or a republic. The Appalachian Mountains, which stretch from Maine to Georgia, had helped block migration west, and the vast majority of the approximately 3,929,000 Americans counted in the 1790 Census lived in the states stretching along the Eastern Seaboard. At this time, then, even areas such as western New York, where The Pioneers is set, were part of the frontier. The process of pioneering this frontier, however, had begun. Disputes over land west of the Appalachians had helped to precipitate the French and Indian War (1754-1763), fought between French and Indians on one side and American colonists on the other. Natty Bumppo, Cooper tells us, served as a guide during this war. A decade or so after the end of this conflict, Daniel Boone led an expedition into modern-day Kentucky by blazing a trail through the Cumberland Gap, leading to an influx of settlers. Like those who lived in the East, the western pioneers could trace their ancestries to a variety of areas, including England, France, Germany, and Africa. The Americans of the 1790s were diverse in their religion, as well, and included Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Huguenots, and Jews. One group of particular relevance to The Pioneers is the Quakers, a group of Christians who began settling heavily in Pennsylvania in the 1600s. Noted especially for their strict principle of nonviolence and their nontraditional worship services—which feature no sermon or indeed any prepared ritual—the Quakers are also known for using the archaic form “thee” in place of “you.” Judge Temple in The Pioneers demonstrates this idiosyncracy when he says to Mohegan: “For shame! for shame, old John! thy religion should have taught thee better” (86).
Out on the frontier these “new” Americans would have encountered various tribes of Native Americans, whose ancestors had occupied the American continents for thousands of years. In The Pioneers, Cooper makes explicit mention of two large American Indian nations present in the northeastern United States: the Six Nations and the Lenni Lenape. As its name implies, the group called the Six Nations actually comprised six smaller groups: the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, the Senecas, and the Tuscaroras. As Cooper explains, this nation was known by various names, including “Iroquois,” “Mingoes,” “Mengwe,” and “Maqua.” The other large nation was the Lenni Lenape, which also consisted of numerous smaller groups, including the Mahicanni, the Mohicans—sometimes called Mohegans—and the Nanticokes—sometimes called Nentigoes. Cooper often refers to this nation by its other name, the Delawares. As he explains, two of these tribes—the Nantichokes and the Mohicans—lost their lands early to the European settlers. Natty Bumppo’s Native American companion—known variously as Indian John, Chingachgook, Big Serpent, and simply Mohegan—belongs to the Delaware nation. People of European descent commonly referred to a Native American as a “savage.”
Themes and Techniques
Like Cooper’s other Leather-Stocking Tales, The Pioneers belongs to the genre of historical romance. It is “historical” in the sense that it is set in a previous time period, in this case one that precedes the publication date by some 30 years. It is a “romance” because, rather than try to present a detailed and realistic picture of people and places, it borrows from the realm of fancy. Natty Bumppo is an idealized man, one whose nobility of character and physical prowess make him larger than life, much like King Arthur and other literary figures who may have helped inspire Cooper’s creation of him. Cooper’s dialogue, furthermore, is at times unrealistic; for example, Elizabeth seems to demonstrate remarkable aplomb and dignity when, threatened by a forest fire, she says: “Let us endeavor to retire” (411).
Despite such departures, Cooper does make some attempts at an authentic recreation of reality. Indeed, in his preface he makes much of his attempt to remain in line with “keeping”—that is, remaining true to his subject matter, particularly “human nature”—and warns: “Therefore I would advise any one, who may take up this book, with the expectation of meeting gods and goddesses, spooks or witches, or of feeling that strong excitement that is produced by battles and murders, to throw it aside at once, for no such interest will be found in any of its pages” (4). Anticipating a number of later writers, notably Mark Twain, Cooper uses dialect throughout the book to give a realistic feel to the speech of various characters, including the Frenchman Monsieur Le Quoi and the German Major Frederick Hartmann. Even Natty reveals his lack of education when he uses such nonstandard pronunciations as “sartain” for “certain” and “fa’n” for “fawn,” as well as the nonstandard grammatical construction “his moccasins was getting old” (160). Cooper also provides some detailed physical descriptions. Indeed, in his introduction, he announces that the book contains “literal facts” concerning the academy and other buildings that he apparently sketched according to his memory of them in Cooperstown. His depiction of the interior of his boyhood home of Otsego Hall, fictionalized in The Pioneers as Judge Temple’s residence, is apparently especially realistic. “Here all is literal,” he promises, “even to the severed arm of Wolfe and the urn which held the ashes of Queen Dido” (10). In reading Cooper’s physical descriptions, however, one should keep in mind the Romantic notions of the sublime, the beautiful, and the picturesque.
Despite Cooper’s tendencies toward romance, some proximity was indeed necessary if he was to fulfill the conventions of the other genre to which The Pioneers belongs—that is, the novel of manners. Indeed, in his introduction to the book, Donald A. Ringe explains: “In writing a novel describing American manners, he was concerned with painting a true, but not necessarily a literal picture of American life. His reason was twofold. In 1823, Americans were deeply concerned with developing a distinctively American literature. It was generally thought that it should depict the realities of American experience, and novelists like Cooper and poets like William Cullen Bryant naturally sought their subjects in the world about them. But that world was, in their view, instinct with meaning. Hence, if the writer truly depicted the world as it was—not literally but in its fundamental nature—he could not fail to discern in it and communicate to his readers significant national themes” (ix).
One of those national themes—perhaps the one Cooper handled most effectively—is Americans’ relationship with nature. Since Christopher Columbus had introduced the vast North American and South American continents to the Europeans in 1492, the “New World” had been a source of fascination. Accustomed to the largely settled and “civilized” cultures of the “Old World,” Europeans had variously viewed the Americas as a dangerous place, a new Eden, and a land of plenty. In The Pioneers, Cooper joins the discussion of the American wilderness, exposing the conflict that naturally occurs when nature and civilization meet. Describing the settlement that Judge Temple and others have cut out of the forest in New York’s frontier, he writes: “In short, the whole district is hourly exhibiting how much can be done, in even a rugged country, and with a severe climate, under the dominion of mild laws, and where every man feels a direct interest in the prosperity of a commonwealth, of which he knows himself to form a part” (13-14). Temple represents a point of view that believes human can improve on nature, as when he speaks of cultivating maple trees for their sugar (222).
As Cooper shows, however, the cost of this progress may be large. Richard Jones, Temple’s comical cousin, shows how little regard some of the settlers have for nature when he tells him: “We must run our streets by the compass, coz, and disregard trees, hills, ponds, stumps, or, in fact, any thing but posterity” (183). Richard even sees nature as a foe to be conquered, bringing a cannon to a pigeon shoot and later boasting of having “driven the enemy from the field” (252). Temple, who has some sense that the natural resources here, while abundant, are not endless, tries to keep a lid on progress. When he learns that his house is burning maple wood for fuel, he says: “Really, it behooves the owner of woods so extensive as mine, to be cautious what example he sets his people, who are already felling the forests, as if no end could be found to their treasures, nor any limits to their extent. If we go on in this way, twenty years hence, we shall want fuel” (104). Even Temple, however, exhibits some hubris when it comes to humans’ dominion over nature. Richard, for example, accuses him of considering the construction of canals simply because the existing rivers and lakes are not moving in the direction he likes (262). Indeed, as Ringe points out, Temple resembles other characters in the novel in his lack of restraint.
In all of this, it is the voice of Natty Bumppo that is the most powerful. Bumppo, a white man who has come to be one with nature, not only deplores the wastefulness of the settlers, but complains that the rise of “civilization” here threatens individual liberty. Early in the novel, in a dispute with Temple over who shot a deer, he says: “. . . I don’t love to give up my lawful dues in a free country. –Though for the matter of that, might often makes right here, as well as in the old country, for what I can see” (20). Later in the same dispute, he says: “There’s them living who say, that Nathaniel Bumppo’s right to shoot on these hills, is of older date than Marmaduke Temple’s right to forbid him” (23). In short, Bumppo—who describes himself as “a plain, unlarned man” who has “never so much as looked into a book” (135)—comes across as a sort of idealized natural man who is in conflict with the forces of civilization. As such, he is a prototype for many characters who follow him in American literature, among them Huckleberry Finn and Billy Budd.
Akin to this theme of the interaction of nature and civilization is that of manhood, one that also will pervade later works, notably Moby-Dick, The Red Badge of Courage, and various works by Ernest Hemingway. In The Pioneers, Cooper provides a model of manhood in Bumppo, who not only values physical prowess, but exemplifies it. An expert marksman, Natty scorns the methods that the settlers use in killing pigeons, pointing out that “none do it, who know how to knock over a single bird” (249). Later, Natty demonstrates extraordinary strength and agility, as well as courage, when he straps Mohegan on his back and carries him, while guiding Elizabeth and Oliver, out of danger of a forest fire (422).
In treating these themes, along with others such as the relations between Native Americans and whites, Cooper uses some standard techniques—eliciting character traits through dialogue, for example, and juxtaposing Judge Temple and Natty as character foils. Ringe notes one more interesting technique when he points out that Cooper presents the settlement of Templeton not only in a natural seasonal cycle, but in a “linear pattern” that the settlers have brought into being: “The cycle continues, of course, but they introduce change into the landscape and initiate a process that alters the setting as the cycle turns” (x).
Cooper’s most serious liability may be his dense prose style. One particularly lugubriuos sentence from the novel reads:
To these flourishing resolutions, which briefly recounted the general untility of education, the political and geographical rights of the village of Templeton, to a participation in the favours of the regents of the university, the salubrity of the air, and wholesomeness of the water, together with the cheapness of food, and the superior state of morals in the neighborhood, were uniformly annexed, in large Roman capitals, the names of Marmaduke Temple, as chairman, and Richard Jones, as secretary. (98)
At least two reasons for this style can be found in Cooper’s creative process. In Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination, Stephen Railton explains:
At the time he started writing, a novel was published in several volumes (in America as two, in England as three), and among the writer’s most important obligations was supplying his publisher with enough words to fill up those volumes. Like epic poems, nineteenth century novels commonly take their time; this is one reason why Cooper’s modern reader tends to run out of patience before he has run out of pages, but Cooper’s imagation was perfectly suited to this scale. Having chosen to try this hand at telling a story, he quickly learned that it suffered with writer’s cramp only from restrictions, never from use. (21)
Cooper, furthermore, seemed to care little for revision. In a letter quoted by Railton, he admitted that he had not even read The Pioneers after sending it to the printers: “I ought in justice to myself to say, that in opposition to a thousand good resolutions, the Pioneers, has been more hastily and carelessly written than any of my books—Not a line has been copied, and it has gone from my desk to the printers—I have not to this moment been able even to read it—” (23).
In the nearly 200 years since its publication, of course, many have been able to read The Pioneers and have found perhaps a few shortcomings, but also an engaging historical romance, an insightful novel of manners, and an important treatment of both humans’ difficult relationship with nature and of the nature of manhood.
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Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence.
Twain, Mark. “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” The Unabridged Mark Twain. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1976.
Having examined one of America’s first great novels, we turn now to what may be its greatest novel, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. As we take on this next book, keep in mind what you have learned in these early lessons about the novel’s history, structure, and beginnings in America. In particular, consider the ways in which Melville borrowed, resisted, or expanded the precedents set by Cooper and others.