Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper

Natty don’t do civilization
This novel is part of James Fenimore Coopers’s Leatherstocking Tales, a series consisting of five novels united by the character of Nathaniel Bumppo, an American hunter and woodsman of the late 18th century. The Pioneers, which takes place in 1793, is the fourth installment of the series chronologically, following The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Pathfinder. However, it was the first of the series to be published, in 1823.

The story takes place in the village of Templeton, on the shores of Lake Otsego in western New York. Judge Marmaduke Temple owns most of the land in the area, and presides over all like a benevolent feudal lord. Natty Bumppo—referred to here mostly as the Leatherstocking—is now a septuagenarian. He lives in a hut on the edge of town, where he gazes regretfully on the changes that civilization has wrought upon his beloved wilderness. The book features an ensemble cast of characters that represents a cross section of American pioneers, including immigrants of different nations and workers of every class. Native Americans are largely absent from this book, with the exception of Chingachgook, the Leatherstocking’s lifelong friend.

Like many of Cooper’s novels, The Pioneers has an alternate title, The Sources of the Susquehenna. It also has a subtitle, A Descriptive Tale, which is quite apt. For much of the book, Cooper is more concerned with describing colonial society than he is in telling a story. Unlike the first three Leatherstocking Tales, which are action/adventure novels revolving around Indian combat, The Pioneers is mostly a tale of the social issues of frontier life. In the book’s early chapters, Cooper spends a lot of time describing the architecture, holiday customs, leisure activities, and religious services of the early settlers. This makes the first half of the book quite slow, but a dull historical study is preferable to a dull adventure novel like The Deerslayer. The book picks up considerably in its second half, by which time the reader is quite swept up in the lives of the assorted citizens of Templeton. A young hunter named Oliver Edwards arrives in town, inspiring much speculation into his mysterious past. After much foreshadowing by Cooper, the revelations at the end of the book will surprise only the most comatose of readers, but the circuitous route getting there is a pleasure to follow.

There is a great deal of environmental ethics expressed in The Pioneers, which is quite surprising considering this book came out before any of Emerson or Thoreau’s works. Natty and Judge Temple have differing visions of nature, which inspires conflict between the two. The latter sees the wilderness as a place to be developed for human use. Natty, who has lived on Lake Otsego for forty years, views the declining number of deer, fish, and trees with wariness and sorrow. When Temple tries to introduce law into this virgin land, Natty chafes under the yolk of authority. Cooper’s environmentalism is similar to his attitude toward the Indians. He often laments the progress of American civilization and its deleterious effects, but ultimately he sees such progress as necessary and inevitable. Nevertheless, he pleads that the civilizing of the frontier be undertaken in a thoughtful manner and not carried out with wastefulness and needless destruction.

Like all of Cooper’s novels, one has to make allowances for the slower pace and plodding plotting of the literature of two centuries ago, but despite its faults, this is a great book. The Pioneers is not nearly as famous as its prequel The Last of the Mohicans, but its arguable which of these classic novels is the best of the Leatherstocking Tales. If you are at all interested in the lives of early American settlers, The Pioneers is a must-read.

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