Chapter 6

Leatherstocking and the Problem of Social Order

There is a resounding similarity between Boone and James Fenimore Cooper's character Leatherstocking. Boone's real-life rescue of Betsey and Fanny Callaway and Jemima Boone (his daughter) from the Cherokees forms the basis of Chapters X and XII in Last of the Mohicans. Like Boone, Leatherstocking seeks refuge in the unsettled west from the vexations of civilization. Both heroes are hunters and serve as symbols of anarchic freedom. Leatherstocking first appears in The Pioneers, where he is conceived in terms of the antithetical forces which have governed the representation of the American West: nature and civilization, feedom and law. He is the most important symbol of the national experience of adventure across the continent.

In the conflict between patriachal Judge Temple and Leatherstocking, The Pioneers turns about the issues raised by the advance of agricultural settlement into the wilderness, and about the tension between the freedom of the frontier and the necessary order of society. Leatherstocking's young companion shoots a deer on Judge Temple's property, initiating the two hunters into the machinery of social stratification, individual property rights, and institutional religion. Furthermore, according to the sentimental canons within which Cooper located his work, the novel was to be a love story. Social class dictated whom one could marry, and the heroes of such novels were young and genteel. Leatherstocking is seventy years old, grizzled, uncouth, and speaks an untutored dialect. What could be done with Leatherstocking within this iron framework?

The problem was to construct a female character who mixed gentility with lower-class status like that of Leatherstocking himself. In The Pathfinder, Cooper sets to work on this problem. Leatherstocking has his eye on Mabel Dunham, a British sergeant's daughter in a class not superior to that of the grizzled hunter. As usual, Leatherstocking and Cooper's omnipresent genteel hero rescue Mabel from her captors. When Mabel's father offers his daughter to Leatherstocking in marriage, Leatherstocking replies that he is but a "poor ignorant woodsman" and declares Mabel to be "an officer's lady." It is Mabel's superior refinement that decides the issue, and she ultimately marries a young, handsome, and worthy suitor.

Cooper's narratives are noticeably ambivalent about Leatherstocking's position, but ultimately social status triumphs over the possibilities of Leatherstocking's 'natural' status. Paul Hover and Ben Boden, characters in later Cooper novels, are younger doubles of Leatherstocking with the more genteel occupation of bee-hunting. These men have less pronounced dialects and while they are not upper class, they are not servants, either. And having none of Leatherstocking's overt hostility toward civilization, they are able to be Western heroes of romance--even though they are not as interesting and complex as Leatherstocking himself. Ultimately, the considerable affection for nature in the minds of both Cooper and his audience was strangled by the literary framework of sentimental fiction.

Chapter 7