Leatherstocking and the Problem of Social Order

Although Boone was not exactly the prototype of Cooper's Leatherstocking, there is a haunting similarity between the two figures. Cooper based a part of chapters X and XII of The Last of the Mohicans on a well-known exploit of Boone in conducting the rescue of Betsey and Fanny Callaway and Jemima Boone, his daughter, from the Cherokees.1 Betsey Callaway, like Cora Munro in Cooper's novel, tried to aid her rescuers by breaking twigs to mark the trail, and was detected by her Indian guards.2 The rescue also furnished Cooper with several other details for his story.3

Near the opening of The Prairie Cooper sets his stage by describing the migration of Americans from Ohio and Kentucky across the Mississippi immediately after the Louisiana Purchase. Although Boone actually settled in Missouri in 1799, Cooper names him among the emigrants of 1804:

This adventurous and venerable patriarch was now seen making his last remove, placing the "endless river" between him and the multitude, his own success had drawn around him, and seeking for the renewal of enjoyments which were rendered worthless in his eyes, when trammeled by the forms of human institutions.4

In a footnote added to the revised edition, Cooper elaborates this passage with the remark that Boone emigrated beyond the Mississippi "because he found a population) of ten to the square mile, inconvenient."5 The aged Leatherstocking has likewise "been driven by the increasing and unparalleled advance of population,


to seek a final refuge against society in the broad and tenantless plains of the west ...." 6

The similarities between Boone and Leatherstocking were analyzed at length by a perceptive writer in Niles' Register in 1825, when Leatherstocking had appeared in only one novel, The Pioneers. The critic points out that both these heroes love the freedom of the forest, both take a passionate delight in hunting, and both dislike the ordinary pursuits of civilized men. As testimony to the fidelity of Cooper's characterization, the writer quotes a letter from a traveler through the Pennsylvania mountains who came upon herdsmen and hunters reminiscent both of Boone and of Leatherstocking. One of their number, celebrated throughout the West as having once been a companion of Boone, had set out for Arkansas when he was almost a hundred years old, and was reported to be still alive, a solitary hunter in the forest. A nephew of the emigrant who remained in Pennsylvania, himself athletic and vigorous at the age of seventy, shared Leatherstocking's love of hunting and his antipathy for "clearings" to such a marked degree that the traveler felt he must have sat as a model for Cooper.7 A similar point was made by the poet Albert Pike, who after graduating from Harvard went out the Santa Fe Trail and later settled in a very primitive Arkansas. "I cannot wonder that many men have chosen to pass their life in the woods," wrote Pike in 1834, "and I see nothing overdrawn or exaggerated in the character of Hawkeye and Bushfield." He listed as the prime attractions of the lonely hunter's life its independence, its freedom from law and restraint, its lack of ceremony .8

For at least one section of the reading public, then, Leatherstocking, like Boone, was a symbol of anarchic freedom, an enemy of law and order. Did this interpretation conform to Cooper's intention in drawing the character?

The original hunter of The Pioneers (1823) clearly expresses subversive impulses. The character was conceived in terms of the antithesis between nature and civilization, between freedom and law, that has governed most American interpretations of the westward movement. Cooper was able to speak for his people on this theme because the forces at work within him closely reproduced the patterns of thought and feeling that prevailed in the society at


large. But he felt the problem more deeply than his contemporaries: he was at once more strongly devoted to the principle of social order and more vividly responsive to the ideas of nature and freedom in the Western forest than they were. His conflict of allegiances was truly irony, and if he had been able--as he was not--to explore to the end the contradiction in his ideas and emotions, the Leatherstocking series might have become a major work of art. Despite Cooper's failures, the character of Leatherstocking is by far the most important symbol of the national experience of adventure across the continent. 9 The similarities that link Leatherstocking to both the actual Boone and the various Bones of popular legend are not merely fortuitous.

The Pioneers illustrates these aspects of Cooper's work with almost naive directness. After a negligible first novel, Precaution, he had turned to the matter of the American Revolution in The Spy, which had had a sensational success. The Preface to The Pioneers, his next book, has a jaunty air bespeaking the apprentice novelist's growing confidence. Cooper announces that he is now writing to please himself alone.10 We may well believe him, for the scene is the Cooperstown of his childhood, and the character of Judge Marmaduke Temple, patron of the infant community, landed proprietor, justice of the peace, and virtual lord of the manor, has much in common with that of the novelist's father William Cooper. Not only did both William Cooper and Judge Temple buy land on the New York frontier and oversee the planting of a town on the shores of Lake Otsego; they resemble one another even in the minor detail of springing from Quaker forebears but having given up formal membership in the sect. 11 When an author turns to autobiographical material of this sort and introduces a central character resembling his father, one does not have to be very much of a Freudian to conclude that the imagination is working on a deeper level than usual. This is certainly the ease in The Pioneers.

Still very much an amateur in the externals of his craft, Cooper contrived for his story of Cooperstown a flimsy plot that hinges upon a childish misunderstanding about Judge Temple's administration of the property of his old friend Major Effingham, but the plot is merely a framework to hold together a narrative focussed


about an entirely different problem. The emotional and literary center of the story is a conflict between Judge Temple and the old hunter Leatherstocking which symbolizes the issues raised by the advance of agricultural settlement into the wilderness. In the management of this theme Cooper is at his best. From the opening scene, when Judge Temple claims as his own a deer that Leather- stocking's young companion has shot, until the moment when the Judge sentences the old hunter to a fine and imprisonment because of his resistance to legal procedures he cannot understand the narrative turns about the issue of the old forest freedom versus the new needs of a community that must establish the power of law over the individual.12 One aspect of the conflict is of course the question of a primitive free access to the bounty of nature--whether in the form of game or of land- versus individual appropriation and the whole notion of inviolable property rights. Not far in the background are the further issues of the rough equality of all men in a state of nature as against social stratification based on unequal distribution of property; and of formal institutional religion versus the natural, intuitive theology of Leatherstocking, who has little regard for theological niceties or the minutiae of ritual.

The profundity of the symbol of Leatherstocking springs from the fact that Cooper displays a genuine ambivalence toward all these issues, although in every case his strongest commitment is to the forces of order. The social compact, with all its consequences is vividly and freshly realized, as it had to be realized with every new community planted in the wilderness. And all the aspects of authority--institutional stability, organized religion class stratification, property--are exhibited as radiating from the symbol of the father. But if the father rules, and rules justly, it is still true that in this remembered world of his childhood Cooper figures as the son. Thus he is able to impart real energy to the statement of the case for defiance and revolt.

But we are not concerned with Cooper's personal relation to his materials so much as with his treatment of the themes arising from the advance of the agricultural frontier. The broader setting for the story is indicated in an exclamation of Elizabeth Temple:


"The enterprise of Judge Temple is taming the very forests How rapidly is civilization treading on the footsteps of nature!" 13 When Elizabeth, with a burst of womanly sympathy for the imprisoned Leatherstocking, declares he must be innocent because of his inherent goodness, her father makes a crucial distinction: "Thou hast reason Bess, and much of it too, but thy heart lies too near thy head." The Judge himself means to pay Leatherstocking's fine but he cannot brush aside the sentence of imprisonment which he imposed as the spokesman of necessary justice. He sends Elizabeth with a purse to visit the hunter and comfort him: . say what thou wilt to the poor old man; give scope to the feelings of thy warm heart; but try to remember, Elizabeth, that the laws alone remove us from the condition of the savages; that he has been criminal, and that his judge was thy father." 14

Another interesting scene occurs when the sonless Judge Temple invites Oliver Effingham to enter his household as a secretary. Oliver hesitates. Richard, the Judge's pompous factotum, says in an aside to Elizabeth, "This, you see cousin Bess, is the natural reluctance of a half-breed to leave the savage state. Their attachment to a wandering life is, I verily believe unconquerable." The Judge remarks that the unsettled life of a hunter "is of vast disadvantage for temporal purposes, and it totally removes one from within the influences of more sacred things." But this rouses Leatherstocking, who bursts out:

No, no, Judge... take him into your shanty in welcome, but tell him the real thing. I have lived in the woods for forty long years, and have spent five years at a time without seeing the light of a clearing, bigger than a wind- row in the trees; and I should like to know where you'll find a man, in his sixty-eighth year, who can get an easier living, for all your betterments, and your deer-laws; and, as for honesty, or doing what's right between man and man, I'll not turn my back to the longest winded deacon or your Patent.

This states the issue as succinctly as possible. Cooper is unable to solve it, and resorts to a compromise statement that represents exactly his unwillingness or inability to accept the full implications of the conflict he has stated. The Judge answers, "nodding good-naturedly at the hunter": "Thou art an exception, Leather-


stocking; for thou hast a temperance unusual in thy class, and a hardihood exceeding thy years. But this youth is made of materials too precious to be wasted in the forest." 15

The Judge's reply expresses the unfailing regard for status which qualified Cooper's attitude toward the idea of nature as a norm. Leatherstocking, noble child of the forest, is nevertheless of inferior social status; whereas even ill disguise, Oliver's gentle birth is palpable to the Judge's Falstaffian instinct. Leatherstocking began life as a servant of Major Effingham, and he is wholly illiterate. The fact that he speaks in dialect is a constant reminder of his lowly origin. It is true that the social status of the old hunter was not to prove significant during the long passages of adventure in The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie, which deal with Indian warfare and the rescue of Cooper's distressed heroines from their captors. Here Leatherstocking's prowess with the rifle, his talents as a strategist, and his skill in following trails could be exploited with little regard for gradations in rank. But the problem of the hunter's status could not be permanently ignored. The response of readers to this symbol of forest freedom and virtue created a predicament for the novelist by revealing to him that his most vital character occupied a technically inferior position both in the social system and in the form of the sentimental novel as he was using it. The store of emotion associated with the vast wilderness in the minds of both Cooper and his audience was strikingly inharmonious with the literary framework he had adopted.

A more self-conscious or experimentally inclined writer might have found in this situation a challenge to devise a new form proceeding functionally from the materials. But Cooper was not the man to undertake a revolution, either in life or in literature. He chose a different course of action; he set about modifying the traditional form of the novel as far as he could without actually shattering it, and at the same time altering his materials as much as possible to make them fit.

Cooper's efforts to solve his problem can be traced in the last two novels of the Leatherstocking series, The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, which appeared in 1840 and 1841. In The Prairie, published thirteen years before, he had described the death of


Leatherstocking, and had at that time meant to abandon the character forever. This decision seems to have been due in part to the technical difficulty mentioned above, for in later years Cooper told his daughter he wished he had left out of The Prairie the genteel hero and heroine, Inez de Certavallos and Captain Middleton, retaining only those characters who properly belonged to the locale.l6 But if the upper-class hero and heroine were to be omitted, and Leatherstocking was to be promoted to the post of official hero, how was the plot to be managed? It is at this point that Cooper's reluctance to break with the conventions of the sentimental novel becomes most glaringly apparent. A novel, according to canons which he considered binding, was a love story. The hero of the novel was the man who played the male lead in the courtship. If Leatherstocking was to be promoted to this rank, he must be made to fall in love with a heroine. In The Pathfinder, Cooper accordingly sets to work with great good will to exhibit Leatherstocking in love. The problem was to construct a female character, sufficiently refined and genteel to pass muster as a heroine but sufficiently low in social status to receive the addresses of the hunter and scout without a shocking and indecent violation of the proprieties.

The object of Leatherstocking's affection, Mabel Dunham, is the daughter of a sergeant--not an officer--in the British army. When she is first introduced in the company of Cap, her seafaring uncle, who occupies "a station little, if any, above that of a common mariner," Cooper is careful to point out that Mabel is "a maiden of a class in no great degree superior to his own." 17 She is, therefore, technically accessible to the lower-class Leatherstocking. But before she can qualify as a heroine Mabel has to be given some of the attributes of gentility. Cooper explains elaborately that upon the death of her mother Mabel had been taken in charge by the widow of a field-officer of her father's regiment. Under the care of this lady Mabel had acquired "some tastes, and many ideas, which otherwise might always have remained strangers to her." The results of this association

were quite apparent in her attire, her language, her sentiments, and even in her feelings, though neither, perhaps, rose to the level of those which would properly characterize a lady. She had lost the coarser


and less refined habits and manners of one in her original position without having quite reached a point that disqualified her for the situation in life that the accidents of birth and fortune would probably compel her to fill.18

In particular, Mabel had acquired a degree of sensibility that caused her to respond in approved fashion to the beauty of landscape--an index in Cooper almost as infallible as that of language for distinguishing the upper classes from the lower.

Ironically enough, the novelist's care in refining Mabel creates a fresh problem for him. The modifications of her character that qualify her for the role of heroine raise her somewhat above the actual range of Leatherstocking's manners and tastes. When Mabel's father proposes the marriage Leatherstocking is timid about it. He fears that a "poor ignorant woodsman" cannot hope to win the girl's affection. The sergeant compels the scout to admit that he is a man of experience in the wilderness, well able to provide for a wife; a veteran of proved courage in the wars; a loyal subject of the King. But Leatherstocking still demurs: "I'm afeard I'm too rude, and too old, and too wild like, to suit the fancy of such a young and delicate girl, as Mabel, who has been unused to our wilderness ways, and may think the settlements better suited to her gifts and inclinations." Pressed still further, Leatherstocking makes an avowal that throws a flood of light on Cooper's conception of the social relationships prevailing within his standard tableau of a captured heroine in the process of being rescued by Leatherstocking and a genteel hero:

I have traveled with some as fair, and have guided them through the forest, and seen them in their perils and in their gladness, but they were always too much above me, to make me think of them as more than so many feeble ones I was bound to protect and defend. The case is now different Mabel and I are so nearly alike, that I feel weighed down with a load that is hard to bear, at finding us so unlike. I do wish, sergeant, that I was ten years younger [the scout was then presumably in his early thirties], more comely to look at, and better suited to please a handsome young woman's fancy!

In short, "I am but a poor hunter, and Mabel, I see, is fit to be an officer's lady." 19 She is indeed, as appears in the course of the story when the regimental quartermaster wants to marry her: or is she?


Cooper subsequently causes this officer to prove a traitor, perhaps because of an unconscious impulse to punish him for his subversive disregard of class lines. In any event, when the actual moment of Leatherstocking's proposal arrives, Mabel's superior refinement is so unmistakable that it decides the issue. One of Cooper's very few valid comic inventions causes her, in her confusion, to use a more and more involved rhetoric that Leatherstocking cannot follow at all. He has to resort to his characteristic query, "Anan?" 20 The match is quite unsuitable and in the end Leatherstocking has the exquisite masochistic pleasure of giving his blessing to her union with Jasper Western, the young, handsome, and worthy Great Lakes sailor.21

If Leatherstocking could hardly be imagined as married, however, a feeling for symmetry would suggest that he at least might be shown as himself hopelessly beloved. This is the formula of the last novel of the series, The Deerslayer, which removes the obstacle of the hero's age by going back to the period of his early youth and thus represents the utmost possible development of Leatherstocking into a hero of romance. In this story he is loved by Judith Hutter, beautiful daughter of a somewhat coarse backwoodsman. But Judith's reputation is stained by past coquetries: she is obviously not an appropriate mate for the chaste Leatherstocking, and at the end of the novel is reported to be living in England as the mistress of a British officer.

Despite these late experiments in depicting Leatherstocking in his youth, the persistent image of the hunter was that of his first appearance, as a man of venerable age. This trait of Leatherstocking was strengthened by whatever parallels were felt to exist between him and Daniel Boone. When John Filson's biography of Boone appeared in 1784, the Kentuckian, at fifty, already seemed a patriarchal figure, his active days of fighting in the past. The folk cult of Boone that developed after 1815 emphasized the picturesque conception of an octogenarian huntsman. Cooper himself gives testimony to the popular tendency to exaggerate Boone's age when he remarks in a note to the revised edition of The Prairie that the famous hunter emigrated to Missouri "in his ninety-second year." 22 Boone was actually sixty-five when that event occurred. The many Western hunters created in the image of Leatherstock-


ing who people Western fiction through most of the nineteenth century are characteristically of advanced age.

If Leatherstocking was, so to speak, intrinsically aged, this fact hindered his transformation into a hero of romance as seriously as did his low social status. Cooper was thus led to experiment with younger heroes who had Leatherstocking's vital relation to the forest, but were more easily converted into lovers. The character of Oliver Effingham in The Pioneers had early suggested the idea of a young hunter, wearing the garb and following the vocation of Leatherstocking. In The Prairie the impulse to double the role of the hunter in this fashion yields the character of Paul Hover, who, like Oliver, appears as an associate of Leatherstocking but is a real instead of merely a pretended child of the backwoods. Paul is a native of Kentucky and has a dialect that is the unmistakable badge of lowly status. It is true that he is merely a bee hunter rather than a hunter of deer and bear, but his sentiments concerning the rifle and his skill at marksmanship arouse Leatherstocking's enthusiastic approval. The most interesting thing about Paul is that, despite the presence in this novel of the official genteel hero and heroine, he is treated as an embryonic hero himself. He is young and handsome and virtuous, and in the end is allowed to marry Ellen Wade, who has carefully been given appearance, manners, speech, and sensibility superior to those of her crude companions-a distinct foreshadowing of Mabel Dunham's status and character in The Pathfinder. The Paul-Ellen love affair in The Prairie, in fact, seems to have furnished Cooper with the germ of his experiments in the two later novels.

Near the end of his life the novelist made a final effort to construct a story with a Western hero in The Oak Openings (1848). Like Paul Hover twenty years earlier, Ben Boden is a bee hunter of admirable character. In the absence of a genteel hero, however, he has to be refined somewhat beyond Paul Hover's level. This process is indicated in terms of the significant criterion of language We are told twice in the first chapter, that he used surprisingly pure English for one in his social class, and he has the further genteel trait of highly moral views concerning whiskey. 23 Margaret Warring, the heroine, like Ellen Blade, is related to a coarse frontiersman, but is made as refined as possible within the


iron limits of her status. Although The Oak Openings is one of Cooper's weakest novels, the fault lies in his uncontrollable tendency to reach on any current topic that happens to come into his mind The basic conception is very promising.

The novel begins as if Cooper were determined to see what might have been made of The Prairie if he had carried out his project of omitting the genteel hero and heroine. If this conjecture is valid, then Ben Boden represents Cooper's ultimate achievement in trying to use a man of the wilderness as a technical hero. After the dangers of Indian warfare in early Michigan have been endured by the young lovers, the novelist feels compelled to add an epilogue that exhibits Ben Boden in his old age as a substantial farmer, a man of influence in the community, and a state senator. This career "shows the power of man when left free to make his own exertions." 24 But if Boden's Jacksonian rise in the world gives retroactive sanction to Cooper's choice of him as a hero, it dissolves whatever imaginative connection he may have had with the mysterious and brooding wilderness.

Cooper's twenty-five years' struggle to devise a Wild Western hero capable of taking the leading role in a novel yielded the following results: (1) Since the basic image of Leatherstocking was too old for the purposes of romance, the novelist doubled the character to produce a young hunter sharing the old man's habits, tastes, skills, and, to some extent, his virtues. (2) The earliest of the young hunter companions of Leatherstocking, Oliver Effingham, could be a held because he was revealed as a gentleman temporarily disguised as a hunter. That is, the hero retained all his genteel prerogatives by hereditary right, and at the same time claimed the imaginative values clustering about Leatherstocking by wearing a mask, a persona fashioned in the image of the old hunter. But this was so flagrant a begging of the question that Cooper could not be satisfied with it He therefore undertook further development of the young hunter produced by doubling the character of Leatherstocking, and this process yielded (3) the Paul Hover-Ben Boden type of hero, a young and handsome denizen of the wilderness, following the gentler calling of a bee hunter and thus free from even the justifiable taint of bloodshed involved in Leatherstocking's vocation. This young Western hero


is given a dialect less pronounced than that of Leatherstocking except in Leatherstocking's most exalted moments. His actual origin is left vague. He is not a member of the upper class, but he is nowhere specifically described as having once been a servant. Finally, the young hero has none of the theoretical hostility to civilization that is so conspicuous in Leatherstocking. These changes make it technically possible for a Wild Westerner to be a hero of romance? but they destroy the subversive overtones that had given Leatherstocking so much of his emotional depth.

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