Time of the Red-Man

Mark Ford

  • James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years by Wayne Franklin
    Yale, 708 pp, £25.00, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 10805 7

It was a curious set of circumstances that in 1820 drove James Cooper (the ‘middle surname’ Fenimore would not be added for another six years), the son of one of post-independence America’s wealthiest land speculators, to embark on a career in the dubious and unpredictable world of novel-writing. Almost nothing in Cooper’s life up until that year, in which he turned 31, indicates an interest in fiction, or in the arts. Resolutely unliterary, Cooper ‘disliked writing even a letter’, or so family legend has it. He’d spent his twenties as a midshipman in the navy, though to his chagrin he never saw action, and as a gentleman farmer, first on land bequeathed him by his father on the shores of Lake Otsego in upstate New York; and then on a 42-acre property in Scarsdale that belonged to his wife’s family, who owned much of Westchester County. He had enjoyed dabbling in politics, and had been a leading figure in a movement intended to improve American agricultural practices. In the wake of the crash in land prices of 1819, however, and the consequent unravelling of Judge Cooper’s complex, heavily mortgaged estate, he found himself at the mercy of a slew of ruthless creditors – rather as his heroines in novel after novel find themselves at the mercy of some ruthless tribe of Iroquois or Sioux. Noting the success of Sir Walter Scott, from whose life and writing he learned so much, Cooper found in fiction a means of restoring his family’s fortunes.

His most famous creation was the frontiersman Natty Bumppo, also known as Leatherstocking (on account of his leggings), Hawk-eye (on account of his astonishingly good eyesight), La Longue Carabine (on account of his expertise with his long-barrelled rifle), as well as Pathfinder and Deerslayer. Natty first appears in Cooper’s third novel, The Pioneers, published in 1823. His debut, Precaution (1820), is a tepid comedy of manners set among the English gentry, and his second, The Spy (1821), a stirring tale of daring and intrigue drawn from the annals of the Revolution. When Cooper turned his hand to storytelling, supposedly motivated by disgust with a novel he was dutifully reading aloud to his wife, the American fiction industry was very much in its infancy. ‘In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?’ the British critic Sydney Smith had asked in the Edinburgh Review in January 1820. By this point, only around eighty American novels had been published, and the best known was Charles Brockden Brown’s macabre Edgar Huntley (1799), although Washington Irving’s collection of short stories and vignettes, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., would prove immensely popular the year Smith made his jibe. (Like Cooper after him, Irving had taken up his pen partly in response to financial difficulties.)

We don’t know which novel Cooper put aside in exasperation in the middle of May 1820, exclaiming ‘I could write you a better book than that myself!’, but by November that year the first of his 32 novels was in print, and he was halfway through his second. By the time he died in 1851, Smith’s taunt had been answered not just by Cooper and Irving, but by Poe, Melville, Hawthorne and Emerson, and the following year Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin would outsell everyone, even Dickens in his prime.

Cooper features little in F.O. Matthiessen’s canon-forming account of this golden era in American letters, American Renaissance (1941), despite the crucial role he played in creating the conditions that made possible the startling efflorescence of mid-century American prose, and the prestige he conferred on a country desperate for a national literature commensurate with its wealth and political ideals. ‘I was in no country of Europe,’ Longfellow observed in one of the many letters read out at a memorial for the novelist in 1852, ‘where the name of Cooper was not familiarly known. In some of them he stands as almost the sole representative of our literature.’ Contemporary admirers included Balzac, Goethe and George Sand.

But Cooper also had the misfortune to inspire one of the funniest hatchet-jobs ever written, Mark Twain’s ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences’ (1895), which detects 114 out of a possible 115 offences committed in two-thirds of a page of The Deerslayer (1841), and proves with a wealth of examples – and, it must be said, they’re not hard to find – that Cooper was no realist. Indeed some of his details and plot twists are so implausible that they verge on the surreal: in The Last of the Mohicans (1826), for instance, Natty rescues one of the twice-captured maidens from the grip of an especially savage, cunning and evil Indian by dressing up in a conjurer’s bear costume and imitating the animal’s loping waddle so skilfully that he goes undetected, while Chingachgook fools the warriors of an enemy tribe by donning a furry mask and pretending to be a beaver. ‘Cooper’s eye was splendidly inaccurate,’ Twain wrote. ‘He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly.’ Twain particularly relished Natty’s impossibly accurate marksmanship, which allowed him to shoot, from a distance of a hundred yards, a bullet exactly into the hole made in a tree by a previous bullet ‘without fraying the edges’. The aim of Cooper’s evil Indians is, fortunately, rarely as deadly: when one of his heroes, Duncan Heyward, comes under attack from a band of whooping Hurons, who pour fire at him until his clothes have been ‘repeatedly cut’ by their bullets, he escapes with only a slight wound in his arm.

Cooper, who wrote at great speed, seems to have been almost sublimely unbothered by inconsistencies in his plots. In The Prairie (1827) we are introduced to a family of squatters travelling west across the great plains towards the Rockies; unbeknown to most of them, a young and beautiful heiress kidnapped from a town in Louisiana has been secreted in their wagon-train, hidden in what Cooper calls a ‘pavilion’; the other members of the clan have been told the ‘pavilion’ houses some sort of beast they mustn’t go near, which appears to satisfy them. One evening, however, hundreds of miles into their journey, the fragile, fluttering captive emerges from hiding. A row ensues between the men who did the kidnapping, Ishmael Bush and his brother-in-law, and the patriarchal Bush’s many sons; what no one gets around to asking about, let alone resolving, is the conflict between the journey west and the kidnappers’ plans to collect a ransom from the heiress’s family back in Louisiana, whom they haven’t even contacted.

Such fictional niceties did not trouble D.H. Lawrence, who in a passionate essay of 1923 insisted that the Leatherstocking series (the five novels that feature Natty Bumppo) were the first vital embodiment of the new consciousness underpinning American culture. In Natty, Lawrence writes, one finds ‘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. It has never yet melted.’ Lawrence thrilled particularly to the bond between Natty and the Mohican Chingachgook, which he described as ‘deeper than the deeps of sex’: ‘The stark, loveless, wordless unison of two men who have come to the bottom of themselves. This is the new nucleus of a new society, the clue to a new world-epoch.’

When we first meet the two men, however, in The Pioneers, they symbolise not the birth of a ‘new world-epoch’, but the death of an old one: Natty is in his seventies, and Indian John, as Chingachgook is called by the residents of Templeton, a frontier settlement based on the Cooperstown of the novelist’s childhood, is a sad shadow of the Mohican warrior he once was, especially in the Christmas tavern scene in which he partakes a little too freely of the white man’s firewater. Like Judge Cooper, Judge Marmaduke Temple has made himself owner by somewhat questionable means of vast tracts of the land around Lake Otsego, land where Natty and Chingachgook had once hunted. ‘I’m form’d for the wilderness’ is Natty’s insistent cry, and he observes the pioneers’ ‘wasty ways’, their destruction of the woods, their slaughter of migrating passenger pigeons, their over-fishing of the lake, with an ever increasing sense of displacement and dispossession. He even suffers the indignity of standing trial for killing a buck out of season, and, after resisting a search warrant, is condemned by Judge Temple to the town stocks and 30 days in prison. And yet – here is the irony of his situation – Natty is himself a ‘pioneer’, an essential figure in the expansion westward which culminated in the 19th-century doctrine of Manifest Destiny: the God-given right of Americans to wrest as much land as they felt they needed from its original inhabitants. Despite his impeccable ecological credentials, which anticipate those of another wilderness-loving loner, Henry David Thoreau, Natty is also, as the book’s final words put it, ‘the foremost in that band of Pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent’.

More than three thousand copies of The Pioneers were purchased within hours of its publication on 1 February 1823, establishing Cooper as by far the most successful American novelist of his time. The following year the Atlantic published an imaginary dialogue between an American editor and an American publisher:

Ed. – ‘Pray what is all that pile of rubbish?’

Pub. – ‘Imitations of Mr Cooper’s novels, sent to us for publication; with a modest demand of a large price for the manuscript, and half the profits.’

Until he signed a contract with the prestigious Philadelphian firm of Carey & Lea for The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper had largely overseen the printing, production and distribution of his books himself, in the hope that this would maximise profits – another trick learned from Scott. Unfortunately, the more Cooper earned the more rapaciously he was hounded by such associates as the lawyer Robert Sedgwick, a one-time friend who extracted exorbitant amounts of interest on his loans, and the unsavoury duo of Thomas Bridgen and William Holt Averell, who ended up acquiring, by various devious stratagems, much of the land and property that had made up his father’s estate. Cooper was no naif in such matters, but his situation was formidably complicated: as the youngest of four sons, he had not been personally involved in the management of the Cooper family’s holdings in the decade following the judge’s death in 1809; by 1820, however, his brothers William, Isaac and Samuel had all died prematurely, leaving James liable to a seemingly endless series of claims, as well as partially responsible for numerous nephews and nieces, not to mention his own burgeoning family. It turned out that Ann, his only surviving sibling, and her husband had decided to collaborate with Bridgen and Averell in an attempt to safeguard their own inheritance, and this led to further difficulties and losses. At times Wayne Franklin’s extraordinarily full and well-researched biography of the first half of Cooper’s life reads like a series of court proceedings, as the embattled defendant settles this suit, stoutly fends off that, takes a case to Chancery, wins an injunction, tacks and delays, but ends up watching much of his inheritance slip slowly through his fingers. And much further litigation remains for the second volume.

Cooper’s grinding legal travails surely played a part in heightening the allure of a world beyond the law where the survivor instincts and rough-hewn morality embodied in Natty prove wholly sufficient. In The Pioneers, Natty is an elegiac figure who makes vivid the losses implicit in progress, but the book is not, at least until its finale, particularly on his side. Judge Temple is commended for his impartiality in sentencing the bewildered hunter, for the very day Natty killed the buck he also saved the judge’s daughter Elizabeth from an attack by an enraged cougar, and the grateful father is inclined to be lenient – but the law comes first. At this stage Cooper clearly did not foresee Natty developing into the hero of a string of books, much less emerging as the mythic American archetype celebrated by Lawrence. He seems to have grasped his significance only gradually and to have been surprised at the complex and delicate role that would be played in American cultural history by the uneducated and illiterate frontiersman, a man much given to prosy reflections on the evils of civilisation and the rewards of his simple hunter’s life.

The Last of the Mohicans is set during the French and Indian War of 1757, and follows Scott in combining history and romance as a means of developing a nationalist consciousness of origins and destiny. The historical framing allows Cooper to suggest the inevitability of America’s revolutionary triumph a few decades on; the British may lack the moral turpitude of such as the French General Montcalm, who stands aside during the Indian massacre of British troops retreating from Fort William Henry, but they are shown as ill-equipped to deal with the conditions of New World warfare, and as unfit to govern. The war is described in the book’s opening paragraph as driven by ‘the cold and selfish policy of the distant monarchs of Europe’.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that Cooper, though an ardent patriot and widely read in Europe as a spokesman for the young republic’s progress and ambitions, was far more ambivalent about America’s secession from Britain than, say, Emerson or Whitman. While he fully embraced the concept of democracy, he also believed that American cultural and political prosperity required that the country be run by a wise elite of landed gentry. Growing up in the stately, if remote, splendour of Otsego Hall – which went under the hammer in 1821 – on the edge of the idyllic lake he commemorated in the Leatherstocking books as Glimmerglass, Cooper was unusually susceptible to European ideals of the pastoral, and all the implications of hierarchy they encode. From his wife’s family, the DeLanceys, who had remained faithful to the Crown during the Revolution and suffered accordingly, he also imbibed a degree of scepticism. Their situation is obliquely modelled in The Pioneers, which culminates in the marriage of Marmaduke Temple’s daughter Elizabeth to Oliver Effingham, scion of a family that, like the DeLanceys, had stayed true to King George. Somewhat implausibly, Effingham is also the adopted son of the Indian tribe that once lived on the land that came into the possession first of Effingham’s father, and then, in the wake of the Patriots’ triumph, was snapped up at a bargain price by Judge Temple. In theory, then, the union between Elizabeth and Oliver satisfies the claims to ownership of all three sides, as well as healing the breach opened up between warring parties by the Revolution. Effingham, though, for all the speculations made about the darkness of his skin, hasn’t in fact a drop of Indian blood in him.

Nor does the Natty of The Last of the Mohicans, who declares over and over that he is ‘a man without a cross’ – that is, a pure white. Despite his friendship with Chingachgook and his son Uncas (also known as Le Gros Serpent and Le Cerf Agile respectively), and his adoption of certain items of Indian dress and his use of Indian fighting methods, the weather-beaten, tanned scout is inordinately proud of his racial identity. And unlike The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans sternly resists the urge to envision a happy solution to the country’s historical conflicts through a romantic miscegenation of bloodlines. It is, as Franklin notes, the most ‘intense’ of Cooper’s novels, and also the one in which the rootless, childless, Mohican-loving, Mingo-hating Natty decisively emerges as American literature’s first epic hero. Unlike traditional wandering epic heroes such as Odysseus or Aeneas, Natty has no family to return to or dynasty to found. ‘I am without kith or kin in the wide world!’ he declares towards the end of The Prairie. He resembles his classical forebears in being a proficient killer, but his allegiances are determined in a manner that verges on the Manichean. Cooper gleaned much of his knowledge about the various tribes that feature in his books from John Heckewelder, a Moravian missionary who in 1819 published a volume entitled An Account of the History, Manners, and Customs, of the Indian Nations, who once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States. But the bad Indians of The Last of the Mohicans derive at least as much from the fallen angels of Paradise Lost as they do from Heckewelder, while his portrayal of the good ones overlays a fantasy of the noble – if somewhat scalp-hungry – savage with a patina of Homeric grace and fortitude. Gazing in wonder at Uncas’s ‘free air and proud carriage’, the young fair Alice feels as if she’s looking ‘upon some precious relic of the Grecian chisel’.

Alas, a ‘precious relic’ of a passing era is what Uncas proves to be, a ‘vanishing American’, the last of the Mohicans of the book’s title. Cooper goes to some lengths to explain the pacts made by different tribes, both among and against one another, and with the French and English forces, but as it progresses the novel presents an increasingly allegorical vision of its Indians. Pitted against the idealised Uncas is the demonic Magua; both desire the same woman, Cora Munro, who, intriguingly, is not ‘without a cross’ herself, for she has inherited from her long-dead mother a trace of Creole blood. This distinguishes her from her insipid half-sister, Alice, who spends most of her time either trembling like a leaf or in a dead faint. In the opening chapter Cora responds strongly to the physical presence of the satanic Magua, whom the dopey Heyward – or should we blame Cooper? – has employed to guide the sisters through the Indian-infested woods to their father, Colonel Munro, though at that moment the colonel is under furious siege by the French at Fort William Henry. The ‘easy motions of the savage’ elicit from Cora ‘an indescribable look of pity, admiration and horror’, and her veil falls open to reveal a complexion that is ‘not brown’ yet ‘charged with the colour of the rich blood, that seemed ready to burst its bounds’. Magua wants her for his wigwam and twice captures her – no one could accuse Cooper of not availing himself of that most durable of American genres, the captivity narrative – but the motive given is that the subtle savage yearns for revenge on her father, who once whipped him for getting drunk. Uncas’s love, of course, is far nobler, and possibly returned. But, Cooper implies, it also somehow compromises his ‘Indianness’, his innocent savagery.

Certainly it leads to his death, indeed to the deaths of all three members of this fatal triangle. Fleeing up a craggy mountain with Cora in tow, and with Uncas and company in hot pursuit, Magua (also known as Le Renard Subtil) demands, flourishing his blade: ‘Woman, choose; the wigwam or the knife of Le Subtil!’ ‘I am thine!’ Cora replies. ‘Do with me as thou seest best!’ ‘“Woman,” repeated Magua, hoarsely, and endeavouring in vain to catch a glance from her serene and beaming eye, “choose!”’ She refuses to do so; Magua raises his keen weapon, but finds himself, like a doubting tragic hero, unable to make good on his threat. At this moment Uncas lets out a piercing cry on a ledge above them, Magua recoils, and one of his sidekicks, ‘profiting by the chance, sheathed his own blade in the bosom of Cora’. Uncas leaps and kills her assailant, but only after being stabbed in the back by Magua, who stabs him three more times, and celebrates the killing with ‘a cry, so fierce, so wild, and yet so joyous, that it conveyed the sounds of savage triumph to the ears of those who fought in the valley, a thousand feet below’. The bloodbath is completed by the cool-headed Natty, who, ignoring Magua’s taunt that the ‘pale-faces are dogs,’ takes deliberate aim and dispatches him as he dangles from a precipice. Defiant to the end, ‘turning a relentless look on his enemy’, Le Subtil plunges Lucifer-like into the abyss: ‘His dark person was seen cutting the air with its head downwards, for a fleeting instant, until it glided past the fringe of shrubbery which clung to the mountain, in its rapid flight to destruction.’

In the funeral scene that follows, a chorus of mourning Indian maidens reflects on the perfect couple Uncas and Cora would have made: he was ‘all that became a warrior’, and she ‘of a blood purer and richer than the rest of her nation’. Only in death, of course, can Cooper figure them as epic progenitors of a multiracial nation – and Natty will have none of it, shaking his head at ‘the error of their simple creed’. It is the children of Heyward and Alice who will populate America, but Cooper’s imaginative sympathies are so wholly invested in the dream of Uncas and Cora’s transgressive union that one almost forgets the ideological implications of his narrative, which presents as sad but inevitable the demise of good Indians in the face of white progress, and offers no comfort at all to the bad: ‘Exterminate the varlets! No quarter to an accursed Mingo!’ is Natty’s war cry, as ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ would be Kurtz’s (Conrad was a big Cooper fan). ‘The pale-faces are masters of the earth,’ the ancient chieftain Tamenund concedes in the book’s closing lines, ‘and the time of the red-man has not yet come again.’

Nevertheless, Cooper was generally perceived as a friend of the red man, and the Chippewa chief Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh wrote: ‘No living writer, nor historian, has done so much justice to the noble traits of our people.’ The Last of the Mohicans, the chief said, ‘throws a rainbow of light around our hearts and wins our heads’. The book was one of the most widely read American novels of the 19th century, and played a major role in the way the culture narrated to itself the justification and effects of its brutal Indian policies.

Pleased with his good Indian/bad Indian opposition, Cooper returned to it in the next of the series, The Prairie, when, in the middle of a river, the good Pawnee Hard-Heart engages in a duel to the death with the bad Sioux Mahtoree, watched from the banks by Natty (now in his eighties) and by the grandson of Duncan Heyward and Alice, Duncan Uncas Middleton, who turns out to be married to the kidnapped heiress hidden in the ‘pavilion’. Hard-Heart triumphs and scalps Mahtoree, and Natty dies a few years later in the Pawnee village, with Middleton and Hard-Heart either side of him and the whole tribe looking on; his death-gaze is ‘fastened on the clouds which hung around the western horizon, reflecting the bright colours and giving form and loveliness to the glorious tints of an American sunset’, an attempt at the sublime that prefigures the dazzling horizons at sunset of painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church. Had Natty been able to peer into the future, he would have seen not only his own revival in two prequels, The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, but a long line of American heroes made in his image, particularly cinematic ones, ranging from John Wayne’s Indian-hating Ethan Edwards in The Searchers to Robert De Niro’s Mohawk-coiffed Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Sylvester Stallone’s Vietnam renegade, Rambo.

For all Cooper’s centrality to American culture, Franklin’s is the first full-length biography, though a couple of introductory accounts of his life appeared in the 1930s and 1940s. The great Cooper expert James Beard was to have undertaken one, but found his scholarly life consumed by the enormous tasks of publishing Cooper’s correspondence and journals, and re-editing his notoriously error-strewn texts. As the estate’s literary executor, Beard had exclusive access to the family papers, and it was not until his death in 1989, with the discovery that only a few chapters of his projected magnum opus had been drafted, that the field was thrown open. Franklin has done a superbly scrupulous job – so far, for this volume brings us only to 1826, the eve of Cooper’s departure for what would turn into a seven-year stay in Europe. He took with him the manuscript of The Prairie, which he would complete in a Parisian hotel – a far cry from the empty undulating wastes in which Natty first appears to the Bush family in gigantic, mythical proportions, silhouetted against the setting sun, or from the Pawnee village in which the hunter finally departs what he likes to call ‘this ’arth’:

For a moment, he looked about him, as if to invite all in presence to listen, (the lingering remnant of human frailty) and then, with a fine military elevation of the head, and with a voice that might be heard in every part of that numerous assembly he pronounced the word –

‘Here!’