History of Literature

James Fenimore Cooper



James Fenimore Cooper


James Fenimore Cooper

American author

born September 15, 1789, Burlington, New Jersey, U.S.
died September 14, 1851, Cooperstown, New York

first major U.S. novelist, author of the novels of frontier adventure known as the Leatherstocking Tales, featuring the wilderness scout called Natty Bumppo, or Hawkeye. They include The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841).

Early years
Cooper’s mother, Elizabeth Fenimore, was a member of a respectable New Jersey Quaker family, and his father, William, founded a frontier settlement at the source of the Susquehanna River (now Cooperstown, New York) and served as a Federalist congressman during the administrations of George Washington and John Adams. It was a most appropriate family background for a writer who, by the time of his death, was generally considered America’s “national novelist.”

James was but a year old when William Cooper moved his family to the primitive settlement in upstate New York. He was doubtless fortunate to be the 11th of 12 children, for he was spared the worst hardships of frontier life while he was able to benefit educationally from both the rich oral traditions of his family and a material prosperity that afforded him a gentleman’s education. After private schooling in Albany, Cooper attended Yale from 1803 to 1805. Little is known of his college career other than that he was the best Latin scholar of his class and was expelled in his junior year because of a prank. Since high spirits seemed to fit him for an active life, his family allowed him to join the navy as a midshipman. But prolonged shore duty at several New York stations merely substituted naval for academic discipline. His father’s death in 1809 left him financially independent, and in 1811 he married Susan De Lancy and resigned from the navy.

For 10 years after his marriage Cooper led the active but unproductive life of a dilettante, dabbling in agriculture, politics, the American Bible Society, and the Westchester militia. It was in this amateur spirit that he wrote and published his first fiction, reputedly on a challenge from his wife. Precaution (1820) was a plodding imitation of Jane Austen’s novels of English gentry manners. It is mainly interesting today as a document in the history of American cultural colonialism and as an example of a clumsy attempt to imitate Jane Austen’s investigation of the ironic discrepancy between illusion and reality. His second novel, The Spy (1821), was based on another British model, Sir Walter Scott’s “Waverley” novels, stories of adventure and romance set in 17th- and 18th-century Scotland. But in The Spy Cooper broke new ground by using an American Revolutionary War setting (based partly on the experiences of his wife’s British loyalist family) and by introducing several distinctively American character types. Like Scott’s novels of Scotland, The Spy is a drama of conflicting loyalties and interests in which the action mirrors and expresses more subtle internal psychological tensions. The Spy soon brought him international fame and a certain amount of wealth. The latter was very welcome, indeed necessary, since his father’s estate had proved less ample than had been thought, and, with the death of his elder brothers, he had found himself responsible for the debts and widows of the entire Cooper family.

The first of the renowned “Leatherstocking” tales, The Pioneers (1823), followed and adhered to the successful formula of The Spy, reproducing its basic thematic conflicts and utilizing family traditions once again. In The Pioneers, however, the traditions were those of William Cooper of Cooperstown, who appears as Judge Temple of Templeton, along with many other lightly disguised inhabitants of James’s boyhood village. No known prototype exists, however, for the novel’s principal character—the former wilderness scout Natty Bumppo, alias Leatherstocking. The Leatherstocking of The Pioneers is an aged man, of rough but sterling character, who ineffectually opposes “the march of progress,” namely, the agricultural frontier and its chief spokesman, Judge Temple. Fundamentally, the conflict is between rival versions of the American Eden: the “God’s Wilderness” of Leatherstocking and the cultivated garden of Judge Temple. Since Cooper himself was deeply attracted to both ideals, he was able to create a powerful and moving story of frontier life. Indeed, The Pioneers is both the first and finest detailed portrait of frontier life in American literature; it is also the first truly original American novel.

Both Cooper and his public were fascinated by the Leatherstocking character. He was encouraged to write a series of sequels in which the entire life of the frontier scout was gradually unfolded. The Last of the Mohicans (1826) takes the reader back to the French and Indian wars of Natty’s middle age, when he is at the height of his powers. That work was succeeded by The Prairie (1827) in which, now very old and philosophical, Leatherstocking dies, facing the westering sun he has so long followed. (The five novels of the series were not written in their narrative order.) Identified from the start with the vanishing wilderness and its natives, Leatherstocking was an unalterably elegiac figure, wifeless and childless, hauntingly loyal to a lost cause. This conception of the character was not fully realized in The Pioneers, however, because Cooper’s main concern with depicting frontier life led him to endow Leatherstocking with some comic traits and make his laments, at times, little more than whines or grumbles. But in these sequels Cooper retreated stylistically from a realistic picture of the frontier in order to portray a more idyllic and romantic wilderness; by doing so he could exploit the parallels between the American Indians and the forlorn Celtic heroes of James Macpherson’s pseudo-epic Ossian, leaving Leatherstocking intact but slightly idealized and making extensive use of Macpherson’s imagery and rhetoric.

Cooper intended to bury Leatherstocking in The Prairie, but many years later he resuscitated the character and portrayed his early maturity in The Pathfinder (1840) and his youth in The Deerslayer (1841). These novels, in which Natty becomes the centre of romantic interest for the first time, carry the idealization process further. In The Pathfinder he is explicitly described as an American Adam, while in The Deerslayer he demonstrates his fitness as a warrior-saint by passing a series of moral trials and revealing a keen, though untutored, aesthetic sensibility.

The “Leatherstocking” tales are Cooper’s great imperfect masterpiece, but he continued to write many other volumes of fiction and nonfiction. His fourth novel, The Pilot (1823), inaugurated a series of sea novels, which were at once as popular and influential as the “Leatherstocking” tales. And they were more authentic: such Westerners as General Lewis Cass, governor of Michigan Territory, and Mark Twain might ridicule Cooper’s woodcraft, but old salts like Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad rightly admired and learned from his sea stories, in particular The Red Rover (1827) and The Sea Lions (1849). Never before in prose fiction had the sea become not merely a theatre for, but the principal actor in, moral drama that celebrated man’s courage and skill at the same time that it revealed him humbled by the forces of God’s nature. As developed by Cooper, and later by Melville, the sea novel became a powerful vehicle for spiritual as well as moral exploration. Not satisfied with mere fictional treatment of life at sea, Cooper also wrote a meticulously researched, highly readable History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839).

Cultural and political involvement
Though most renowned as a prolific novelist, he did not simply retire to his study after the success of The Spy. Between 1822 and 1826 he lived in New York City and participated in its intellectual life, founding the Bread and Cheese Club, which included such members as the poets Fitz-Greene Halleck and William Cullen Bryant, the painter and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, and the great Federalist judge James Kent. Like Cooper himself, these were men active in both cultural and political affairs.

Cooper’s own increasing liberalism was confirmed by a lengthy stay (1826–33) in Europe, where he moved for the education of his son and four daughters. Those years coincided with a period of revolutionary ferment in Europe, and, because of a close friendship that he developed with the old American Revolutionary War hero Lafayette, he was kept well-informed about Europe’s political developments. Through his novels, most notably The Bravo (1831), and other more openly polemical writings, he attacked the corruption and tyranny of oligarchical regimes in Europe. His active championship of the principles of political democracy (though never of social egalitarianism) coincided with a steep decline in his literary popularity in America, which he attributed to a decline in democratic feeling among the reading—i.e. the propertied—classes to which he himself belonged.

Return to America
When he returned to America, he settled first in New York City and then for the remainder of his life in Cooperstown. In the gentlemanly tradition of Jefferson and Lafayette he attacked the oligarchical party of his day, in this case the Whig Party, which opposed President Andrew Jackson, the exponent of a more egalitarian form of democracy. The Whigs, however, were soon able to turn the tables on Cooper and other leading Jacksonians by employing Jackson’s egalitarian rhetoric against them. Squire Cooper had made himself especially vulnerable to popular feeling when, in 1837, he refused to let local citizens picnic on a family property known as Three Mile Point. This incident led to a whole series of charges of libel, and suits and countersuits by both the Whigs and Cooper. At this time, too, agrarian riots on the estates of his old New York friends shattered his simple Jeffersonian faith in the virtue of the American farmer. All of this conflict and unrest was hard to bear, and harder still because he was writing more and earning less as the years went by. The public, which had reveled in his early forest and sea romances, was not interested in his acute political treatise, The American Democrat (1838), or even in such political satires as The Monikins (1835) or Home As Found (1838). And though he wrote some of his best romances—particularly the later “Leatherstocking” tales and Satanstoe (1845)—during the last decade of his life, profits from publishing so diminished that he gained little benefit from improved popularity. Though his circumstances were never straitened, he had to go on writing; and some of the later novels, such as Mercedes of Castile (1840) or Jack Tier (1846–48), were mere hackwork. His buoyant political optimism had largely given way to calm Christian faith, though he never lost his troubled concern for the well-being of his country.

George G. Dekker



THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS: A Narrative of 1757

Type of work: Novel
Author: James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of plot: 1757
Locale: Northern New York State
First published: 1826


This novel remains the most popular of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, a classic story of the French and Indian War. The battles and exciting pursuits which constitute the book's plot are rounded out by interesting Indian lore and descriptions of the wilderness.


Principal Characters

Natty Bumppo, called Hawkeye, the hardy, noble frontier scout in his prime during the French and Indian Wars. Traveling with his Indian companions, Chingach-gook and his son Uncas, in Upper New York, he befriends an English soldier, a Connecticut singing master, and their two female charges. When the travelers are ambushed by hostile Huron warriors, he leaves the party to get help, in turn ambushes their captors with the aid of Chingach-gook and Uncas, and leads the group to Fort William Henry, besieged by the French. In the massacre of English that takes place after the garrison is forced to surrender, the girls are captured again by Indians. Hawkeye assists once more in the escape of one of the girls; however, a renegade Huron chief, Magua, claims the other as his reluctant wife. In the ensuing fighting the girl and Hawk-eye's friend, the noble young Uncas, are killed. Hawkeye shoots Magua in return. In the end he and Chingachgook return sorrowfully to the wilderness.
Chingachgook (chin-gach'gook), a courageous, loyal Mohican Chief, Hawkeye's inseparable friend. An im-placable enemy of the Hurons, he is decorated as Death. Left to protect the English Colonel after the massacre, he joins the final battle with intense ferocity, only to see his son die. His grief is relieved somewhat by Hawkeye's companionship.
Uncas (un'kas), Chingachgook's stalwart son, the last of the Mohicans. A young and handsome chieftain, he falls in love with Cora Munro while protecting her and proves invaluable in tracking her after she has been captured. When a Delaware chief awards her to Uncas' rival, Magua, he follows them and is killed avenging her murder.
Major Duncan Heyward, the young English officer in charge of escorting the Munro girls from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry. Brave, good-looking and clever, he falls in love with Alice Munro and eventually succeeds in rescuing her from the Hurons. He finally marries her with Colonel Munro's blessing.
Magua (ma'gu-э), "Le Renard Subtil," the handsome, renegade Huron chief. Both cunning and malicious, he seeks to avenge himself on Colonel Munro by turning his spirited daughter Cora into a servile squaw Twice thwarted by Hawkeye and his companions, he wins Cora by putting his case before Tamenund, a Delaware chieftain. This victory, however, is short lived. Cora is killed by another Huron and Magua, after killing Uncas, is shot by Hawkeye.
Cora Munro, the Colonel's beautiful older daughter. She is independent, equal to every situation, and bears up well under the strain of a capture, a massacre, and the threat of marrying Magua. Her love for Uncas, however, remains unrequited when she is carried off by Magua and then stabbed.
Alice Munro, the Colonel's younger daughter, a pale, immature, but lovely half sister of Cora. Frail and clinging, she excites Heyward's protective feelings during their adventures, and he marries her.
Colonel Munro, the able but unsuccessful defender of Fort William Henry and the affectionate father of Cora and Alice. After surrendering to the French he is forced to watch helplessly the slaughter of the men, women, and children from the fort. His sorrow is doubled when Cora is killed.
David Gamut, a mild, ungainly singing master who accompanies Heyward and the Munro girls. His school-book piety contrasts with Hawkeye's natural pantheism. A rather ineffective person, he is nevertheless useful to Hawkeye, for the Hurons believe him insane and let him pass without trouble.
The Marquis de Montcalm, the skilled, enterprising general who captures Fort William Henry and then allows the defeated English to be massacred by savage Hurons.
Tamenund (ta-тэ-пшкГ), the old Delaware chief who foolishly decides to give Cora to Magua.
Hard Heart, the Delaware chief whom Magua flatters to gain Cora.
General Webb, the incompetent commander of Fort Edward. He refused to aid Colonel Munro.
A Huron Chief. He calls on Heyward, who is impersonating a witch doctor, to cure a relative, and he is duped when his captives are released.


The Story

Major Duncan Heyward had been ordered to escort Cora and Alice Munro from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry, where Colonel Munro, father of the girls, was commandant. In the party was also David Gamut, a Con-necticut singing master. On their way to Fort William Henry they did not follow the military road through the wilderness. Instead, they placed themselves in the hands of a renegade Huron known as Magua, who claimed that he could lead them to their destination by a shorter trail.
It was afternoon when the little party met the woods-man, Hawkeye, and his Delaware Mohican friends, Chingachgook and his son Uncas. To their dismay, they learned they were but an hour's distance from their starting point. Hawkeye quickly decided Magua had been planning to lead the party into a trap. His Mohican comrades tried to capture the renegade, but Magua took alarm and fled into the woods.
At Heyward's urging the hunter agreed to guide the travelers to their destination. The horses were tied and hidden among some rocks along a river. Hawkeye pro-duced a hidden canoe from among some bushes and pad-dled the party to a rock at the foot of Glenn's Falls. There they prepared to spend the night in a cave.
That night a band of Iroquois led by Magua surprised the party. The fight might have been a victory for Hawk-eye if their supply of powder and ball had held out. Unfortunately, their ammunition had been left in the canoe which, unnoticed until it was too late, was stolen by one of the enemy who had ventured to swim the swirling river. The only hope then lay in the possibility of future rescue, for the capture of the rock and the little group was a certainty. Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas escaped by floating downstream, leaving the girls and Major Heyward to meet the savages.
Captured, Cora and Alice were allowed to ride their horses, but Heyward and David were forced by their captors to walk. Although they took a road paralleling that to Fort William Henry, Heyward could not determine the destination the Indians had in mind. Drawing close to Magua, he tried to persuade him to betray his companions and deliver the party safely to Colonel Munro. The Huron agreed, if Cora would come to live with him among his tribe as his wife. When she refused, the enraged Magua had everyone bound. He was threatening Alice with his tomahawk when Hawkeye and his friends crept silently upon the band and attacked them. The Iroquois fled, leaving several of their dead behind them. The party, under David's guidance, sang a hymn of thanksgiving and then pushed onward.
Toward evening they stopped at a deserted blockhouse to rest. Many years before, it had been the scene of a fight between the Mohicans and the Mohawks, and a mound still showed where bodies lay buried. While Chingachgook watched, the others slept.
At moonrise they continued on their way. It was dawn when Hawkeye and his charges drew near Fort William Henry. They were intercepted and challenged by a sen-tinel of the French under Montcalm, who was about to lay siege to the fort. Heyward was able to answer him in French and they were allowed to proceed. Chingachgook killed and scalped the French sentinel. Through the fog which had risen from Lake George and through the enemy forces which thronged the plain before the fort, Hawkeye led the way to the gates of the fort.
On the fifth day of the siege, Hawkeye who had been sent to Fort Edward to seek help was intercepted on his way back and a letter he carried was captured. Webb, the commander of Fort Edward, refused to come to the aid of Munro.
Under a flag of truce, Montcalm and Munro held a parley. Montcalm showed Webb's letter to Munro and offered honorable terms of surrender. Colonel Munro and his men would be allowed to keep their colors, their arms, and their baggage, if they would vacate the fort the next morning. Helpless to do otherwise, Munro accepted these terms. During one of the parleys Heyward was surprised to see Magua in the camp of the French. He had not been killed during the earlier skirmish.
The following day the vanquished English started their trip back to Fort Edward. Under the eyes of the French and their Indian allies, they passed across the plain and entered the forest. Suddenly an Indian grabbed at a brightly colored shawl worn by one of the women. Terrified, she wrapped her child in it. The Indian darted toward her, grabbed the child from her arms, and dashed out its brains on the ground. Then under the eyes of Montcalm, who did nothing to discourage or hold back his savage allies, a monstrous slaughter began.
Cora and Alice, entrusted to David Gamut's protection, were in the midst of the killing when Magua swooped down upon them and carried Alice away in his arms. Cora ran after her sister, and faithful David dogged her footsteps. They were soon atop a hill, from which they watched the slaughter of the garrison.
Three days later, Hawkeye. leading Heyward, Munro, and his Indian comrades, tracked the girls and David, following a path where they had found Cora's veil caught on a tree. Heyward was particularly concerned for the safety of Alice. The day before the massacre he had been given her father's permission to court her.
Hawkeye, knowing that hostile Indians were on their trail, decided to save time by traveling across the lake in a canoe which he discovered in its hiding place nearby. He was certain Magua had taken the girls north, where he planned to rejoin his own people. Heading their canoe in that direction, the five men paddled all day. at one point having a close escape from some of their intercepting enemies. They spent that night in the woods and the next day turned west in an effort to find Magua's trail.
After much searching Uncas found the trail of the captives. That evening, as the party drew near the Huron camp, they met David Gamut wandering about. He told his friends that the Indians thought him crazy because of his habit of breaking into song, and they allowed him to roam the woods unguarded. Alice, he said, was being held at the Huron camp. Cora had been entrusted to the care of a tribe of peaceful Delawares a short distance away.
Hey ward, disguising his face with paint, went to the Huron camp in an attempt to rescue Alice, while the others set about helping Cora. Hey ward was in the camp but a short time, posing as a French doctor, when Uncas was brought in as a captive. Called to treat an ill Indian woman, Heyward found Alice in the cave with his patient. He was able to rescue the girl by wrapping her in a blanket and declaring to the Hurons that she was his patient, whom he was carrying off to the woods for treatment. Hawkeye, attempting to rescue Uncas, entered the camp disguised in a medicine man's bearskin he had stolen. Uncas was cut loose and given the disguise, while the woodsman borrowed David Gamut's clothes. The singer was left to take Uncas' place while the others escaped, for Hawkeye was certain the Indians would not harm David because of his supposed mental condition. Uncas and Hawkeye fled to the Delaware camp.
The following day Magua and a group of his warriors visited the Delawares in search of their prisoners. The chief of that tribe decided the Hurons had a just claim to Cora because Magua wished to make her his wife.
Under inviolable Indian custom, the Huron was permitted to leave the camp unmolested, but Uncas warned him that in a few hours he and the Delawares would follow his trail.
During a bloody battle Magua fled with Cora to the top of a cliff. There, pursued by Uncas, he stabbed and killed the young Mohican and was in his turn sent to his death by a bullet from Hawkeye's long rifle. Cora too was killed by a Huron. Amid deep mourning by the Delawares, she and Uncas were laid in their graves in the forest. Colonel Munro and Heyward conducted Alice to English territory and safety. Hawkeye returned to the forest. He had promised to remain with his sorrowing friend Chingachgook forever.


Critical Evaluation

The Last of the Mohicans is the second title published in what was to become a series of five entitled collectively the Leatherstocking Tales. When Cooper published the first of these "romances," as he called them to dis-tinguish them from the somewhat more realistic contemporary novels, he had no plan for a series with a hero whose life would be shown from youth to old age and death. In The Pioneers (1823) Natty Bumppo or Leatherstocking is in his early seventies. Responding to a suggestion from his wife, Cooper went back in The Last of the Mohicans to Natty's early thirties when he was called Hawkeye. The great popularity of The Last of the Mohicans led Cooper then to move chronologically beyond The Pioneers and to picture in The Prairie (1827) the last of Natty's life when he was in his eighties, living as a trapper and finally dying on the Great Plains far from his early home. At the time, Cooper did not intend to revive Natty in further romances. One minor romance of the forest, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), was followed by a stream of nautical novels, socio-political novels, and nonfictional works of social and political criticism extending until 1840, when Cooper finally answered the pleas of many literary critics and readers and revived the hero whose death he had so touchingly portrayed at the end of The Prairie. In The Pathfinder (1840), Natty is called Pathfinder and the action shifts from land to the waters of Lake Ontario and back again. Pleased by the resounding praise he gained for having brought back his famed hero, Cooper decided to write one final romance about him in which Natty would be younger than in any of the earlier books. In The Deer slayer (1841), Natty is in his early twenties and goes by the nickname Deer-slayer. In 1850, Cooper brought out a new edition of all five Leatherstocking Tales arranged according to the order of events in Natty Bumppo's life: The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, The Prairie. For this edition he wrote a preface in which he remarked (prophetically, as it turned out): "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 Г Despite many complaints from Mark Twain and later critics about Cooper's style, plots, structure, characterization, and dialogue, the Leatherstocking Tales continue to be read, both in the United States and in many foreign countries, and they seem assured of a long life to come.
In Cooper's day, The Last of the Mohicans was the most popular of the five tales, and it has continued to be so. It has been filmed by American and British companies, and the British version was serialized on American television. Structurally, the novel is superior to the other tales, with three major plot actions and a transitional though bloody interlude (the massacre after the surrender of Fort William Henry). Cooper's action-filled plot, with bad characters chasing good ones or good characters chasing bad ones, has since become standard in many action novels as well as motion pictures and television dramas.
Romantic love was conventional in the plots of novels in Cooper's day. His portrayal of Duncan Hey ward and the Munro sisters, Cora and Alice—who carry most of the love interest in The Last of the Mohicans—shows no originality. They are all genteel characters and they speak in a stiff, formalized manner that seems unreal to present-day readers. Duncan is gentlemanly and the two "females" (as Cooper repeatedly calls them) are ladylike. Cooper contrasts Cora and Alice as he does the pairs of women who keep turning up in his books. Cora, the dark one, is passionate, independent, and unafraid, even defiant; blonde Alice is timid and easily frightened into faints— she resembles the sentimentalized helpless girls of popular early nineteenth century fiction.
Cooper does much better with his forest characters. Hawkeye is talkative, boastful, superstitious, scornful of the book learning he does not possess, and inclined to be sententious at times. Yet he is brave, resourceful, and loyal to his two Indian friends. His French nickname. La Longue Carabine, attests to his shooting skill. He is religious but sometimes seems more pantheistic than Christian in any formal sense. Hawkeye's arguments with David Gamut oppose his generalized beliefs and Gamut's narrow Calvinism. With his dual background of white birth and early education by Moravian missionaries on the one side and his long experience of living with the Indians on the other, he is, as Balzac called him, "a moral hermaphrodite, a child of savagery and civilization."
Chingachgook and Uncas are idealized representatives of their race. As "good" Indians, they are dignified, taciturn, even noble despite their savage ways. Uncas is lithe, strong, and handsome; he reminds the Munro sisters of a Greek statue. Magua is the "bad" Indian, sullen, fierce, cunning, and treacherous. His desire for Cora as his squaw is motivated by his wish to avenge a whipping ordered by Colonel Munro.
In addition to the love theme, which provides for the marriage of Hey ward and Alice, Cooper includes others. Related to the love theme is miscegenation, which Cooper has been accused of evading by killing off both Cora, who is part black, and Uncas, who had wanted to marry her. Another theme is suggested by the title of the romance. Chingachgook is left mourning for his son, the last of the Mohican sagamores. He grieves also because he foresees the eventual vanishing of his race. Both he and Hawkeye despair as they envision the end of their way of life in the great American wilderness, which will gradually disappear.
It is easy to complain of Cooper's faulty style, his verbosity, his heavy-handed humor (with David Gamut), his improbable actions, the insufficient motivation of his characters, the inconsistency and inaccuracy of his dialogue, yet many readers willingly suspend their disbelief or modify their critical objections in order to enjoy the rush of action which makes up so much of The Last of the Mohicans. They sorrow over the deaths of Cora and Uncas, and their sympathies go out to Chingachgook and Hawkeye in the loss of what had meant so much in their lives. Also, especially in a time when ecologists are fighting to preserve some of the natural beauty of our country, they enjoy Cooper's respect for nature found in his descriptions of the northeastern wilderness as it was in the eighteenth century.




THE PIONEERS: Or, The Sources of the Susquehanna

Type of work: Novel
Author: James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of plot: 1793
Locale: New York State
First published: 1823


The Pioneers, the first of the Leatherstocking Tales, is a romantic story of life in Upstate New York ten years after the Revolutionary War. The novel is filled with scenes of hunting and trapping life, and the description ofTempleton is based upon the author's memories of his boyhood home of Cooperstown. The portrayals of Natty Bumppo and Indian John point to the tragedy of frontiersmen and Indians in a rapidly disappearing West.


Principal Characters

Judge Marmaduke Temple, the principal citizen and landholder of Templeton, a settlement in upstate New York. He is at once shrewd and honorable, benevolent and just. While trying to kill a deer he shoots an unfamiliar, educated young hunter named Oliver Edwards, has his wound dressed, and offers him a position as a secretary. When the young man's friend, the old woodsman and hunter called Leatherstocking, is arrested for threatening to shoot an officer, the judge sentences and fines the old man but pays the fine himself. Later he learns that Edwards is in reality Edward Oliver Effingham, the son of an old friend who had entrusted him with personal effects and family funds years before. The judge restores the property and the money to Edwards. Meanwhile Edwards and Elizabeth Temple have fallen in love, and the judge gives the young couple his blessing.
Elizabeth Temple, the judge's spirited, pretty daughter. Although she respects Oliver Edwards' abilities, she maintains a feminine independence. Grateful to Leatherstocking for saving her life when a savage panther attacks her, she assists in his escape from jail after the old man has been arrested for resisting an officer. Her romance with her father's secretary develops after the young man and Leatherstocking save her from a forest fire. When Edwards' true identity is revealed and he declares his love, she readily marries him.
Natty Bumppo, called Leatherstocking, a hardy, simple, upright woodsman in his seventy-first year. Although disgusted by wanton killing of game, he defends his right to kill game for food. He shoots a deer out of season and is arrested for resisting the magistrate who tries to search his cabin. Sentenced to jail for a month, he escapes with the help of Oliver Edwards and Elizabeth Temple. Twice he rescues Elizabeth, once from a panther and again from fire. After he is pardoned by the governor, the lonely hunter, his last two old friends dead, moves west into unsettled territory.
Oliver Edwards, later revealed as Edward Oliver Effingham, the impoverished young hunter who lives with Leatherstocking in a cabin near Templeton. Believing that Judge Temple has appropriated his inheritance, he is planning to recover it when he accepts the position of secretary to the judge. In the meantime he falls in love with Elizabeth Temple. Having quit his post when Leatherstocking is arrested and jailed, he helps the old man to escape, aids Elizabeth during the fire, and finally reveals his true identity. Judge Temple immediately restores his inheritance and the young man and Elizabeth are married.
Indian John Mohegan, an old Mohican chief whose real name is Chingachgook. Lonely, aged, and grieving for the old life of the wilderness and his vanished people, he dies attended by Leatherstocking, his blood brother and loyal companion, and by Elizabeth Temple, Oliver Edwards, and Mr. Grant, in a cave where they have taken refuge from a forest fire.
Hiram Doolittle, the cowardly, trouble-making, greedy magistrate who informs on Leatherstocking for breaking the hunting law, gets a search warrant, and is roughly handled by the old hunter when he tries to force his way into Leatherstocking's cabin.
Richard Jones, the meddlesome, pompous sheriff, a frontier fop who indulges in the irresponsible killing of game, spreads rumors that Leatherstocking is working a secret mine, and leads a raggle-taggle posse to recapture the old woodsman after his escape from jail.
Major Edward Effingham, a hero of the French and Indian War (see The Last of the Mohicans), the aged and senile grandfather of the young man who calls himself Oliver Edwards. The major was Leatherstocking's commander in the war and became the owner of the land around Templeton before the American Revolution, thanks in part to a gift from the Delaware tribe. He gave all his property to his son, who, in turn, made his friend, Marmaduke Temple, into his partner and manager. Leatherstocking cares for him when communication between Temple and the Effinghams breaks down after the revolution. His identity revealed after the fire, the old man is taken to Judge Temple's home and nursed tenderly until his death.
Mr. Grant, a sincere, eclectic minister adept at appealing to the heterogeneous frontier faiths.
Louisa Grant, his timid daughter, Elizabeth's companion. She is inept when faced with danger.
Benjamin Penguillan, called Ben Pump, an ex-sailor and Judge Temple's salty majordomo. Out of sympathy he shares Leatherstocking's humiliation in the stocks and thrashes Magistrate Doolittle.
Elnathan Todd, the gigantic village doctor who dresses Oliver Edwards' wound; he is an awkward quack.
Monsieur le Quoi (тэ-syce' 1э kwa'), the village storekeeper, a friend of Judge Temple.
Major Hartmann. a German farmer, also a friend of Judge Temple.
Billy Kirby, a good-natured woodcutter and strong man who sympathizes with Leatherstocking but takes the side of the law.
Jotham Riddel, Magistrate Doolittle's good-for-nothing deputy.
Remarkable Pettibone, Judge Temple's housekeeper.
Squire Lippet, Leatherstocking's lawyer at the time of the old hunter's trial.
Mr. Van de School, the thick-witted prosecutor.
Agamemnon, Judge Temple's Negro servant.


The Story

On a cold December day in 1793, Judge Temple and his daughter Elizabeth were traveling by sleigh through a snow-covered tract of wilderness near the settlement of Templeton. Elizabeth, who had been away from her home attending a female seminary, was now returning to preside over her father's household in the community in which he had been a pioneer settler after the Revolutionary War. Hearing the baying of hounds, the judge decided that Leatherstocking, an old hunter, had started game in the hills, and he ordered his coachman to stop the sleigh so he could have a shot at the deer if it came in his direction. A few minutes later, as a great buck leaped into the road, the judge fired both barrels of his fowling piece at the animal, but apparently without effect. Then a third report and a fourth were heard, and the buck dropped dead in a snowbank.
At the same time Natty Bumppo, the old hunter, and a young companion appeared from the woodland. The judge insisted that he had shot the buck, but Leatherstocking, by accounting for all the shots fired, proved the judge could not have killed the animal. The argument ended when the young stranger revealed that he had been wounded by one of the shots fired by the judge. Elizabeth and her father then insisted that he accompany them into the village in their sleigh, so he could have his wound dressed as soon as possible.
The young man got into the sleigh with obvious reluctance and said little during the drive. In a short time the party arrived at the Temple mansion, where his wound was treated. In answer to the judge's questions, he gave his name as Oliver Edwards. His manner remained distant and reserved. After he had departed, a servant in the Temple home reported that Edwards had appeared three weeks before in the company of old Leatherstocking and that he lived in a nearby cabin with the hunter and an Indian known as Indian John.
Judge Temple, wishing to make amends for having accidentally wounded Edwards, offered him a position as his secretary. When Elizabeth added her own entreaties to those of her father, Edwards finally accepted the judge's offer, with the understanding that he would be free to terminate his employment at any time. For a while he attended faithfully and earnestly to his duties in Judge Temple's mansion during the day, but his nights he spent in Leatherstocking's cabin. So much secrecy surrounded his comings and goings, added to the reserve of Leatherstocking and his Indian friend, that Richard Jones, the sheriff and a kinsman of the judge, became suspicious. Among other things, he wondered why Natty always kept his cabin closed and never allowed anyone except the Indian and Edwards to enter it. Jones and some others decided that Natty had discovered a mine and was working it. Jones also suspected that Edwards was an Indian half-breed, his father a Delaware chief.
Hiram Doolittle, a meddlesome magistrate, believed Jones's tale of a secret silver mine somewhere on Temple's land. Hoping to provoke Leatherstocking into hunting out of season, Doolittle prowled around the cabin and set free the hunter's dogs. In the meantime Elizabeth and Louisa Grant, while walking in the woods, were attacked by a panther. Leatherstocking saved them by shooting the panther; however, he was unable to resist the temptation to shoot the deer his roving dogs had flushed out. Hoping to find evidence of silver, Doolittle charged Leatherstocking with breaking Judge Temple's newly instituted, strict game laws and persuaded the judge to sign a warrant to search the hunter's cabin.
But when Doolittle went to the cabin, Leatherstocking, rifle in hand, refused him entrance. Then the magistrate attempted to force his way over the threshold, but the old hunter seized him and threw him twenty feet down an embankment. As the result of his treatment of an officer, Leatherstocking was arrested. Found guilty, he was given a month's jail sentence, fined, and placed in the stocks for a few hours. When Elizabeth went to see what assistance she could give the humiliated old woodsman, she learned he was planning to escape. Edwards, who had given up his position with the judge, was planning to flee with his aged friend; he had provided a cart in which to carry the old hunter to safety. Elizabeth promised to meet Leatherstocking the following day on the top of a nearby mountain and to bring with her a can of gunpowder he needed.
The next day Elizabeth and her friend Louisa started out on their expedition to meet Leatherstocking. On the way Louisa changed her mind and turned back, declaring that she dared not walk unprotected through the woods where they had lately been menaced by a panther. Elizabeth went on alone until she came to a clearing in which she found old Indian John, now dressed in the war costume and feathers of a great Mohican chief. When she stopped to speak to the Indian, she suddenly became aware of dense clouds of smoke drifting across the clearing and discovered that the whole mountainside was ablaze. At that moment Edwards appeared, followed by Leatherstocking, who led them to a cave in the side of the mountain. There the old Indian died of exhaustion, and Elizabeth learned that he had been in earlier days Chin-gachgook, a great and noble warrior of the Mohican tribe.
When danger of the fire had passed, Edwards conducted Elizabeth down the mountainside until she was within hearing of a party of men who were looking for her. Before they parted, Edwards promised he would soon reveal his true identity.
The next day the sheriff led a posse up the mountain in search of Leatherstocking and those who had aided him in his escape from jail. Leatherstocking was again prepared to defend with his rifle the cave to which he had taken Elizabeth the day before, but Edwards declared that the time had now come to let the truth be known. He and Natty brought from the depths of the cave an old man seated in a chair. The stranger's face was grave and dignified, but his vacant eyes showed that his mind was gone. Edwards announced that the old man was really the owner of the property on which they stood. Judge Temple interrupted with a shout of surprise and greeted the old man as Major Effingham.
The young man told his story. His name, he said, was Edward Oliver Effingham, and he was the grandson of the old man who sat before them. His own father had been, before the Revolutionary War, a close friend of Judge Temple. Temple had managed the aristocratic Effingham's property before the revolution. When they took opposite sides in the war, control of the property-came to Temple, who held it in trust and developed it, always with the idea of returning their fair share to the Effinghams. Several years after the war, Temple lost contact with the Effingham family and came to believe they all had died in a shipwreck off Nova Scotia.
Because Temple had never met Edward Effingham's grandfather, he would not have recognized him, even had he seen the helpless old man who had been hidden in Leatherstocking's cabin on the outskirts of Templeton. During those years he was nursed faithfully by Leatherstocking and his Indian friend; by Leatherstocking because he had served with the major on the frontier years before, by Indian John because the major was an adopted member of the Mohican tribe.
Judge Temple ordered that the old man be carried to the Temple mansion at once, where he would receive the best of care. Old Major Effingham thought himself back home once more, and his eyes gleamed with joy. He died, happy and well cared for, soon afterward.
Edward Effingham also explained to the Judge that he believed Temple had stolen his father's property and the money left in trust years before. In his resentment he had come to Templeton to assist his grandfather and regain in some manner the property which he believed Judge Temple had unrightfully possessed.
Now the judge was glad to return to the heir of his friend the property he had developed for him. The reconciliation of the two men was followed in September by the marriage of Oliver and Elizabeth, which unified the two inheritances, and shortly thereafter by the death of the elder Effingham.
Elizabeth and Edward wanted to build a new cabin for Leatherstocking, to keep him near as a valued friend and teacher, but Leatherstocking was determined to move on westward into as yet unsettled wilderness where he would feel truly at home. He departed after a touching meeting at the monuments the Effinghams had erected to Major Effingham, the courageous old soldier, and Chingach-gook, the last great Mohican chief and the major's adoptive father. All three wept as they parted, and Judge Temple's later efforts to find the old hunter and bring him back bore no fruit.


Critical Evaluation

The first of the Leatherstocking tales Cooper wrote, The Pioneers is the fourth, chronologically, in the life adventures of Cooper's most famous hero, Natty Bumppo, or Leatherstocking. The Deerslayer (1841) shows Bumppo's entry into manhood. The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Pathfinder (1840) recount two of his mature adventures. The Pioneers and The Prairie (1827) tell of the frontiersman's old age and death. Though Cooper had begun writing novels in response to a challenge from his wife, his second effort, The Spy, became an international best-seller in 1821. Having proved he could write successfully and having discovered that he could supplement a diminished family income by writing novels, Cooper conceived and composed The Pioneers with self-confidence and a new vision of his artistic purposes. He said it was the first novel he wrote primarily to satisfy himself.
The Pioneers is a great novel on several levels, with memorable characters, absorbing and humorous adventures, rich portraits of pioneer life, and a unified vision of Cooper's hopes for a high American destiny. In a later novel, Home As Found (1838), Cooper outlined a three-phase process by which he saw America being transformed from wilderness into civilization. In a first, pastoral stage of natural democracy, settlers of all kinds and classes work together equally to establish a community. In a second, anarchic stage, the settlement overcomes the tyranny of subsistence, and in the freedom of this comparative wealth, people divide into groups with like interests. In this phase, there is contention among families and other groups for political and economic power. In the final phase, society establishes a new order, based on written law rather than necessity. Cooper believed that in America, this last phase would be uniquely republican, with a natural order of fluid class divisions based on talent and inclination, as opposed to the rigid hereditary class systems of Europe. The Pioneers details the transition from the end of the pastoral phase through the anarchic phase to the first blossoming of a mature American community. In Home As Found, Cooper envisioned this process taking one hundred years, but in The Pioneers the central transitions occur in a single year.
Before settlers can begin communities, frontiersmen must tame the wilderness. In 1793, Leatherstocking is obsolete in Templeton, for this wilderness is virtually tamed. However, he still has an important mission in the community: to help pass on a legacy to the settlers. He does this in part by teaching the heirs of the land, Oliver Effingham and Elizabeth Temple, obligations to the land and nature that are crucial to their future roles as natural aristocrats in a democratic republic.
This teaching takes place in the context of their becoming uniquely legitimate heirs of the land. Oliver's title derives from his grandfather, who received the land from a high council of the Delaware Indians, when he was made the adoptive son of Chingachgook (John Mohe-gan). In this way, Cooper transfers the land from the "best" of the local Indian tribes to a white frontier aristocrat, and Oliver stands in this hereditary line. Elizabeth is the heir of Marmaduke Temple, who took the land in trust when the Effinghams lost their title by being Tories in the American Revolution. Temple develops and enlarges this estate, holding it for the Effingham heirs out of friendship and loyalty. For Oliver to deserve his inheritance, he must be Americanized. For Elizabeth to deserve hers, she must fully understand the obligations of ownership. Leatherstocking's teaching effects both of these transformations.
With the help of Chingachgook, Leatherstocking teaches these young people the morality he has learned from the book of nature. This morality has its foundation in Christianity and "natural" democracy, values Leatherstocking learned in his brief childhood education and from his friendship with the Delaware Indians. In his life as a scout and hunter, Leatherstocking has learned to see how God's Providence operates in nature. He believes that written law inevitably corrupts the fundamental divine law as revealed in nature, so it is crucial that gentlefolk and future rulers learn to renew continually their understanding of law by worship in God's original temple.
One lesson nature has to teach the natural aristocracy is humility, a sense of human limitations and dependence on the will and mercy of God. Twice the citizens of Templeton commit ecological hubris, killing more passenger pigeons and more fish than they can reasonably consume. Both times, Leatherstocking rails against them like an Old Testament prophet, saying that though nature is made for people's use, it is not made to waste. He impresses upon Oliver and Elizabeth that people are stewards of God's gifts.
Another lesson nature teaches is that all God's creatures are blessed with different gifts. No person is complete in himself or herself. This places upon a community an obligation to protect the weak, to treasure the God-given gifts of those who are not economically and politically strong. Leatherstocking and Chingachgook demonstrate this faithfulness to community by protecting Oliver, his grandfather, and several other characters from natural dangers and the sins of the community in its anarchic phase. They teach a democratic noblesse oblige in which the powerful are directly responsible not merely for the economic support of the weak but also for enabling the weak to use their gifts and live valuable lives.
That all have different gifts and all are mutually dependent also implies the most important lesson for Oliver: that legally inheriting land does not fully legitimate ownership. His right to the land depends more upon his being worthy than upon his legal status. He learns from Leatherstocking that gentility is an achievement rather than an inheritance and, thereby, learns to recognize the true nobility of Judge Temple and his daughter, both of whom are "commoners" and American democrats.
The Pioneers is based on the experiences of Cooper's father, William, founder of Cooperstown, New York, and author of A Guide in the Wilderness (1810), a manual for frontier settlement. William was the model for Marmaduke Temple. Reflecting James and William Cooper's idealism, The Pioneers expresses one of the great traditions of the American dream, the ideal of America as a rational, Christian, agrarian Utopia, ruled by statesmen chosen democratically from a natural aristocracy. This dream stands behind and informs a touching, amusing, exciting, and informative novel.



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