It is easy to underestimate the significance of James Fenimore Cooper for American literature and American imagination more broadly. To the modern reader his prose appears tedious, his characters shallow, and his plots formulaic. Even when compared with contemporaries he at times appears as a clumsy curiosity: he lacked the wit of Washington Irving or the psychological penetration of Charles Brockden Brown. He did, however, demonstrate an uncanny ability to cater to the sensibilities of an American audience thirsty for cathartic formulas that could elevate the American settler-colonial project to the realm of the mythological—despite festering moral equivocations. Indeed, in many ways Cooper pioneered the themes later taken up not only by Emerson and Whitman, but also by more critical authors such as Melville, Twain, and Faulkner.
Born in 1789, James Fenimore Cooper’s peculiar personal background seemed to endow him with the intellectual and emotional confusion necessary to unearth and explore many of the challenges at the heart of a congealing American culture. Cooper grew up in a wealthy and genteel household surrounded by frontier common folk. Although his father, William Cooper, raised him in a firm Federalist environment, by the time he published his first important novels in the early 1820s Cooper joined the ranks of his father’s former political adversary, Governor De Witt Clinton. Expelled from Yale at the age of sixteen because of a prank, Cooper joined the merchant marine as a sailor and later the US Navy, viewing the world from a much different vantage point than most other young men of his social milieu. Although when his father died in 1809 he supposedly left him a great fortune, J. F. Cooper soon learned of the estate’s very tenuous financial standing as it came crashing down on his head. In fact, he started writing to help support his family as he sought to settle debilitating debts. In short, when at the age of thirty he started work on his second novel and the first of his novels set in America—The Spy, published in 1821—Cooper was uniquely attentive to a wide spectrum of the predicaments Americans of his generation wrestled with.
It was two of his next novels, however, The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans, published in 1823 and 1826, respectively, that delivered the most mesmerizing and long lasting impressions of America. Casting the American West in romantic and sublime terms, they no less importantly also furnished American audiences with an exemplary model of frontier nobility in the immortal figure of Natty Bumppo. In The Pioneers Cooper portrayed the setting of his childhood in Cooperstown on the New York frontier, though he garbed it in fictive names. It was a narrative of the oncoming of civilization at the expense of nature. In the The Last of the Mohicans he used the historical setting of the Seven Years’ War to weave a narrative of the borderlands, in which settlers and Indians sought to navigate the natural environment.
Cooper organized both narratives in a similar formula that related the passing of the noble and sublime and the ascendence of white Anglo-American civilization. In The Pioneers the wild environment receded and with it the august figure of Natty Bumppo, the old frontiersman who could not live in a civilized setting. In The Last of the Mohicans, Uncas, the noble Mohican warrior, last survivor to a noble stock of Indian chiefs, died and with him the person the reader might have hoped could be his spouse, the character Cora, whose partly African heritage made her much “better fit” to marry an Indian. In both cases, however, Cooper mixed sadness and grief with hope, as two white couples of upright character united in marriage to symbolize the virtuous future of the nation under a regenerated yeomen patriarchy. In The Pioneers Oliver Effingham, a man of genteel background yet virile character, and Elizabeth Temple, the genteel and kind daughter of Judge Marmaduke Temple, inherited a vast estate. In The Last of the Mohicans the kind-hearted Alice Munro, Cora’s fully white half sister, united with the gallant Major Duncan Heyward and hinted at a bright future for white folks in America.
Indeed in both cases Cooper deftly designs a catharsis that finds acceptance in tragic closure. The reader mourns the demise of the wilderness and its inhabitants yet accepts it as necessary. Cooper invokes a compelling mythic formula to resolve the challenges intrinsic to the advent of the settler-colonial republic—namely, the brushing away of the genocide of Natives and the destruction of the natural environment.
Critical to the success of this schema, Cooper pioneered a mythic structure that combined the historical nationalism of Walter Scott in his numerous novels of Scotland and England with the Daniel Boone narratives first tried out by John Filson in 1784 and later modified by several others. Furthermore, though Cooper crafted the character of Natty Bumppo in many ways along the lines of Daniel Boone in Filson’s narrative, perhaps his most clever move was to invoke through the noble frontiersman’s character the godly persona of Jesus Christ. Natty Bumppo—the somber, selfless, and tortured figure who lives with the Indians as a Christian. Bumppo, who has many names, Leatherstocking, La Longue Carabine, Hawkeye, and in later books more still, transforms the narrative of regeneration into a more attractive mythological formula—as far as Cooper’s evangelically-inclined American audience was concerned. Thus, in Cooper’s gripping mythology, Natty Bumppo, a person “without a cross” in his blood—as he reminds us time and again—carries the figurative burden of the Christian cross, disappearing along with the sins of white civilization and leaving white Christians to inherit the American environment.
Indeed, what Cooper—probably subconsciously—recognized was that an “American Adam,” was not quite as compelling without an ‘American Jesus’ to clear the way. For Americans to construct a “passing away” of Native American civilization they were best served by a godly character that could function as a “sponge” for their sins, who could then disappear into the sublime. In this manner the people of the United States, who not incidentally at this very moment were undergoing religious evangelical revivals, could become a Christian nation with Native Americans playing the role of the old people of Israel who, tragically, could not adhere to the teachings of Christian civilization. In mythological terms it proved far more useful for the Daniel Boone mold of the stoic frontiersman to disappear from the scene rather than function as the offspring of American civilization. In this vein, the white pioneers that would start American civilization were more of the Peter and Paul variety than in the mold of Adam or Abraham, as some literary scholars have had it. This was the synthesis of providential nationalism and romantic language that two decades later would become known as “Manifest Destiny.”
After completing The Last of the Mohicans, in 1827 Cooper published the last book in the Leatherstocking trilogy, The Prairie (at least for the time being, he would return to Natty Bumppo fifteen years later). Close to death at the age of eighty, Cooper brings frontier civilization in the shape of an extended family of white frontiersmen to bask in Natty Bumppo’s glory one last time. When they first set eyes on him alone in the wilderness, the Bush family recognize a figure, “as it were, between the heavens and the earth.” As we follow the ebbs and flows of a borderlands narrative set on the western side of the Mississippi, Bumppo reforms the morals of the Bush clan, bringing them to the Christian path of righteousness before taking leave of this world. In his wake, we are made to understand, will arrive a better sort of white people who will transform the wilderness into civilization, as it must.