JAMES FENIMORE COOPER

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1 AMERICAN LITERATURE Chapter 10 JAMES FENIMORE COOPER James Fenimore Cooper created the first real American literary hero with the crafting of his character Natty Bumppo. Natty Bumppo (also referred to as Leatherstocking) is the main character of five of Cooper s novels. Cooper told Bumppo s story in a similar fashion to how the Star Wars movies told the story of Luke Skywalker. That is, the first three stories about Bumppo cast him as an old man. In the third installment, The Prairie, Bumppo, in fact, dies. The latter two installments then go on tell the story of Natty Bumppo as a young man. Some might say that Bumppo even understood and mastered The Force. Well, maybe no one has actually ever said that... but arguments for a comparison probably could be made. The Romantic themes that Cooper explores through the character Natty Bumppo do remind one of things that might be associated with The Force : natural moral law, intuition, the inner perception of the truth, individualism. This is what Ralph Waldo Emerson said about truth: to discover truth a man must learn to detect that inner gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within. Now if that doesn t sound like Luke s quest for The Force, well then, I don t know what does. Cooper was an early Romantic writer, just like Washington Irving. Cooper s literature is reflective of the three key Romantic themes, just like Irving s stories are. To review, the three primary subjects for a romantic writer are the past, 1

2 nature, and inner human nature. The Romantic idea of intuition is most accurately defined as the inner perception of truth that is independent of reason. The Romantic definition of art is perhaps best summarized as the imaginative expression of the inner essence of the individual. Imagination was the most important faculty for the Romantics. According to Cooper, the wilderness offered America the opportunity to return to the natural moral law. Many people during this time, Cooper being one of them, saw cities and the contemporary, industrializing society as contributing to a decline in moral character. This belief led to the idealization of the American frontier. Critics have found that Cooper s themes reached deep into the emerging American character. The subject of The Leatherstocking Tales is the effect of the frontier experience upon the American character. During this nationalist period, the young country of the United States of America was trying to develop not only a sense of nationhood, but also a specific identity particular to their new nation. This identity was fashioned with the great unexplored frontier of the American West as the backdrop. The ideal American (who, of course, was a man) was seen during this period as a true individual who makes his own path, someone who is selfreliant, humble, brave and honorable, guided by natural moral law. Natty Bumppo possessed all of these traits. Bumppo had a deep reverence for God. He killed only for food or for selfpreservation. He was the original wilderness hero in American literature. To a certain extent, this portrait of the ideal American still persists today. 2

3 And now, James Fenimore Cooper, himself who was he?? Was he an adventurer like his character Natty Bumppo?? Was he also an admired hero?? Well, not really. The son of a prominent judge and wealthy landowner, Cooper attended Yale University, but got kicked out for bad grades and being a prankster. He did, however, get a little adventuring under his belt. After Yale, Cooper worked as a sailor on a merchant vessel. Cooper was, above all, a writer. During his lifetime he published thirty-three novels and many works of non-fiction. His first novel, Precaution, was a bad imitation of British society novels. Cooper s second novel, The Spy, was a better novel because it illustrated his talent for action-packed adventure stories in a natural setting. The Spy was the first novel to make serious use of American history. THE DEATH OF LEATHERSTOCKING from THE PRAIRIE A BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Natty Bumppo had saved the lives of Mr. Middleton and his friends a year before the story begins. As a result, Mr. Middleton feels indebted to Natty because Natty had saved his life. It was also during this adventure that Natty adopted the Pawnee Indian, Hard-Heart, as his son. Middleton and his companions have traveled to the Indian village where Natty Bumppo is lying on his deathbed. Middleton and his followers feel slightly anxious and uncomfortable when they arrive at the Indian village. 3

4 On the morning Middleton arrived, Natty revives somewhat. However, it is observed that Natty is not the picture of beauty on his death bed: the man looked weak and near death. The cause of Natty s death was a gradual and mild decay of the physical powers. Natty did not suffer long before it was realized that he would soon die: his ill health appeared suddenly and his health deteriorated rapidly, though without pain. The Indians had stuffed Hector, Natty s dog, because they wanted Natty to think that his dog was still alive. When Natty finds out that Hector is dead, he is severely shocked. Natty wants Hector to be buried with him. Natty goes on to discuss the details of the logistics of his death with Middleton and his adopted son. Hard-Heart suggests that Natty receive an Indian burial and be buried with his hunting tools for use in the afterlife. Natty rejects this idea of an Indian burial in favor of a Christian one. Natty gives Middleton strict orders to have his rifle, pouch, and horn delivered to a friend. Natty bequeaths his traps to Hard- Heart and he also refuses to boast of his exploits. While Natty identifies and understands the Indian religion, he does not accept it as his own. He does not regard the Indian religion as vile and pagan, nor does he view it as superior to Christianity. Though Natty is portrayed as a true friend of the Indians, he sometimes seems to take a condescending attitude toward them and their culture. He also insists many times that there are specific ways that people of his own color, palefaces, are supposed to live and specific ways that Indians are supposed to live and that these lines should not be crossed. However, with the following statement he does appear 4

5 to exhibit a quality that today would be described as cultural relativism. [Cultural relativism is an attitude that tries not to judge one culture as being better than another.] Natty Bumppo says, There is much to be said in favor of both religions, for each seems suited to its own people, and no doubt it was so intended. Natty says that even though his father is buried near the sea, he would like to be buried in the plains. Middleton tells Natty that he will arrange and pay for the gravestone to be set at Natty s grave. Middleton and Hard-Heart hold on to Natty before he dies, thereby emphasizing the fact that Natty spanned the cultures of white man and Indian. Natty dies without leaving behind any offspring to carry on his family name. The two words that most accurately characterize Natty s life are activity and temperance. 5

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