Natty as Indian

Albert Kaiser, author of The Indian in American Literature, writes that "the writer who more than anyone else impressed his conception of the Indian upon American and the world at large is James Fenimore Cooper..." (101). The story of Natty Bumppo the renegade frontiersman is inextricably linked to Natty Bumppo the Indian, as Natty's dual identity provides Cooper an opportunity to write about a subject he loved, yet knew little about.

Though Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales comprise America's introduction to the savages of the unsettled plains, Cooper admittedly had very little first-hand experience with Indians. For this reason, critics charge that Cooper's portrayal of the Indian barely resemble any that could be found in life. In Savagism and Civilization, Roy Pearce asserts that "Cooper was interested in the Indian not for his own sake but for the sake of his relationship to the civilized men who were destroying him. So far as we can tell, Cooper had little personal contact with Indians" (200). More interesting than Cooper's ignorance of his cardinal subject are the views that he holds of Indians, despite having never met one. Following are excerpts from Cooper's Notions of the Americans, published in 1852:

Faced with the task of spinning a tale around a people that he disdains, Cooper makes a conscientiuos choice in constructing Natty Bumppo. Orphaned as a child after Mingo Indians killed his family, Natty seems an unlikely source of a Native American archtype. With his deer-skin moccasins and long, wild hair, however, Natty represents the Indian foil; the rustic savage who kills in cold blood while celebrating nature. In The Leatherstocking Tales, Natty meets and befriends the Delaware Chief Chingachgook. As Natty's alter ego, Chingachgook is the quintessential Romanced Indian, and as the two men age together, Natty takes on the characteristics of his Indian friend. At the conclusion of The Pioneers, Chingachgook's death is closely followed by Natty's flight from civilization as both men escape the encroachment of society.

(For more on Cooper's treatment of the American Indian, see Romancing the Indian.)

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