Table of Contents
James Fenimore Cooper
(1789-1851) attended Yale College but was expelled. Sailing before the mast, he saw Europe for the first time on a merchant vessel. In 1808, he became a midshipman in the U.S. Navy but resigned in 1811 and married. From 1826 to 1833, he traveled extensively in Europe. With his story
(1823), Cooper set the style for a new genre of sea fiction. The Leatherstocking Tales were published from 1823 to 1841. Arranged according to the chronology of their hero, Natty Bumppo, who appears in all five romances under various names, the sequence is
The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans
. A caustic critic of his young country, he wrote
The American Democrat
(1838) as a critique of his society at the time.
is the author of
American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman
and of a variety of articles on American literature and art. He is a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also serves on the Advisory Council of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.
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First Signet Classics Printing (Cavitch Introduction), March 2007
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James Fenimore Cooper claimed that he wrote his first novel on a dare, his second to please a fickle reading public, and his third,
, exclusively to please himself. In writing
, Cooper drew extensively on memories of his childhood in upstate New York, where his father William had bought a large parcel of landâland that had previously been seized from Indian tribesâand, in 1786, founded a settlement there, which he named after himself. Cooperstown was a frontier town, part of the vast network of settlements that was everywhere pushing inland from older coastal and riverine settlements up and down the Atlantic Seaboard. Land speculation and development made William Cooper rich, and he later became a county judge. The character of Judge Marmaduke Temple in
is based on him. Other characters in the novel, including the French refugee Monsieur Le Quoi and the town doctor Elnathan Todd resemble people Cooper's family actually knew. Though none of the characters or events in
is strictly factual, they are all suffused with the author's childhood memories. This element of auto-biographical reminiscence is what made the novel such a deep pleasure for Cooper to write.
did more than just please its author; it helped make him an international success. It was an instant hit, selling thousands of copies on the first day of publication alone.
has been pleasing readers ever since, both on its own and as the first in a series of five novelsâthe so-called Leatherstocking Talesâconcerning the life and adventures of Natty Bumppo, nicknamed Leatherstocking because of the deerskin leggings he wears. Cooper didn't write the novels according to the chronological sequence of Natty Bumppo's life. In
(1823), Leatherstocking is a gray-haired man, still robust but well advanced in years. The next novel Cooper wrote featuring Bumppo,
The Last of the Mohicans
(1826), takes place almost forty years earlier. Then Cooper wrote
(1827), in which the very aged Leatherstocking comes to the end of his life. But in
(1840) Natty is a young man again. And in
(1841) he is younger still.
Leatherstocking makes a relatively modest first appearance inThe Pioneers
, but his character is clearly established there along the lines Cooper would follow in the four ensuing novels. Wallace Stegner has described him to a T:
Far from handsome (looks went with the effete and civilized), he is nevertheless fearless, self-reliant, omnicompetent, a keen tracker and a dead shot, a mortal enemy and the most loyal of friends. He is also the soul of chivalry, protecting and saving Cooper's females when they go implausibly astray in the wild woods. An orphan, untutored, Natty has kept the innocence of the natural man. From his brief contact with the Moravians, or from the woods themselves, he has imbibed a noble magnanimity, a sensitivity to beauty and a deep if unorthodox piety. Homeless in the civilized sense, he has made the wilderness his home, and no witches, devils or fears assail him there: he feels the presence of God in every leaf.
Stegner is describing no mere literary character, but rather a mythic hero, a “demigod in buckskin.” The fact that a contemporary author could paint such a vivid and idealizing portrait of Leatherstocking nearly two centuries after Cooper invented him is just one sign of the hold he still has on the modern imagination. He is one of those made-up people, like Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe, who live far beyond the pages of the books in which they are born. They become national icons.
is a book about a young nation undergoing swift and comprehensive changes. The story begins in 1793, just ten years after the end of the American Revolution and a mere two years after the ratification of the Constitution. The citizens and subjects of the new nation were engagedâsome of them freely and some, like Judge Temple's slave Agamemnon, under compulsionâin the wholesale transformation of the North American landscape and its peoples. The novel's setting, the environs of New York's Otsego Lake, about sixty miles west of Albany, is a scene of change so rapid that one of the characters imagines she can see it mutating under her very eyes. Here, as in so many other states and territories of the new nation, the influx of settlers, the development of natural resources, the clearing of land, the proliferation of farms, the erection of schools, churches, and municipal buildings, and the refinement of civil society seemed to many to be signs of inevitable progress and limitless potential.
Yet even amidst the bounty of Judge Temple's “Patent” (the vast land holdings he had cheaply acquired after their confiscation from Loyalists during the Revolution), there are already signs of ultimate limits and costs. Leatherstocking, a longtime resident hunter in the region, complains to Temple that game is getting harder and harder to find as a result of the Judge's “clearings and betterments.” And even Temple is alarmed at the number of trees falling to the ax and being consumed in roaring hearth fires like his own. But whereas the principled Leatherstocking always refuses to participate in the settlers' wanton destruction of flora and fauna (he kills what he needs, nothing more), Temple periodically gets caught up in the excitement, despite his proto-conservationist views. He laments the spectacular waste generated by the overkill of pigeon shoots and net fishing, yet, in the midst of such depredations, he is as excited as any other settler by the easy pickings. It is this ambivalence, as much as the novel's gorgeous descriptions of pristine landscapes and its moralistic warnings against their impending destruction, that makes
one of the first important American literary works of ecological consciousness.
Judge Temple believes that, ultimately, the law will succeed in controlling rampant deforestation and promiscuous hunting. He consoles himself with this belief, even as he watches the land, water, and air being plundered without check all around him. For example, with the approach of spring, sugar maples are carelessly gouged with deadly wounds to collect the running sap when small incisions would have done just as well, and would have minimized the risk to the irreplaceable “growth of centuries.” Later in the spring, the settlers shoot down vast flocks of migrating passenger pigeons (a species of pigeon now extinct; the last one died in a zoo in 1914) in their flight over Templeton, and the ground is strewn with thousands of dead and half-dead birds. Characteristically, Temple gets caught up in the bloodlust and later regrets his actions as he contemplates the sea of wounded birds: “I see nothing but eyes, in every direction, as the innocent sufferers turn their heads in terror. . . . I think it is time to end the sport; if sport it be.” Yet in the very next chapter, Temple participates eagerly in the netting of thousands of fish from the lake. Then, contemplating a haul that vastly exceeds the needs of the settlers, he once again succumbs to remorse, calling it “a fearful expenditure of the choicest gifts of Providence.” He offers Leatherstocking a portion of the catch, but the hunter refuses: “I eat of no man's wasty ways.” Whereas Temple believes that regulation, in the form of laws, will ultimately curb these “wasty ways,” Leatherstocking holds to a morality that precedes and, in his view, transcends legal restraint.