Monday, September 15, 2014

The Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper

A series overview
James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper was born on this day 225 years ago. In celebration of America’s first blockbuster author, let’s take a look back at his famous series The Leatherstocking Tales and a couple of other books that may be of interest to fans of the series.

The Leatherstocking Tales consist of five episodes in the life of Nathaniel Bumppo, an early American hunter, trapper, woodsman, and guide. Natty is a white man, but has lived much of his life among Indians, specifically the Delaware tribe of New York state. Despite his affinity for the Native American lifestyle and culture, Natty does have frequent dealings with white men. He trades in furs and meat, hires himself out as a guide, and even fights alongside the British Army in the French and Indian Wars. As a boy he received the basics of a Christian education from some Moravian missionaries, though he cannot read or write. His bicultural upbringing has led him to develop a unique personal philosophy and code of ethics. He often speaks of each person living according to his or her own “gifts.” Indians and white men were made with different gifts. For example, it is a white man’s gift to go to the Christian Heaven after death, while it is a red man’s gift to meet his ancestors in the happy hunting ground. It is an Indian’s gift to take the scalp of a vanquished foe, while such a practice goes against the gifts of a white man.

In general the novels of the series are romantic adventures, often meant to impart a moral lesson. One recurring theme throughout the books is a burgeoning environmentalism which is quite remarkable considering Cooper was writing before Emerson and Thoreau. Natty often scolds the pioneers for their wastefulness and laments the loss of timber and game that has resulted from the white man’s westward encroachment into the wilderness. His longing for the pristine forests of an untouched America parallels Cooper’s own nostalgia for the idyllic, sparsely settled landscape of western New York that he enjoyed in his youth. Natty’s preservationist attitude toward America’s forests and rivers is similar to his feelings toward the continent’s native population. With the dwindling of the wilderness comes the gradual decimation of the Indians and the loss of their more eco-friendly way of life. Cooper is no doctor of ethnography, and he often depicts the Native Americans as “noble savages,” but he always displays respect and reverence for the Indians and has certainly made an effort to do his research on the subject. Considering the age in which he was writing, he shows an exceptional amount of enlightened racial sensitivity towards his Indian characters. His black characters, on the other hand, don’t fare as well, and are often depicted as benevolent but unflattering stereotypes.

The five episodes of Natty Bumppo’s life that comprise the Leatherstocking Tales were not published in chronological order. To read the fictional narrative in its correct chronological sequence, the books should be read in alphabetical order, as listed below. Click on the titles below to read full reviews.

The Deerslayer, or The First Warpath (1841)
The first novel in the series takes place in the early 1740s, in and around Otsego Lake in central New York state. Natty Bumppo is a young man known for his hunting prowess, and is therefore referred to throughout the book by the nickname of Deerslayer. Though he is renowned as a crack shot, he’s never yet had to use his rifle in man-to-man combat. War has just been declared between Britain and France (the French and Indian Wars), however, and Deerslayer awaits a rendezvous with his Delaware Indian comrade Chingachgook. Together they plan to fight on the side of the British. Their plans are delayed, however, when a white family living on the lake is attacked by a hostile band of Huron Indians, and the Deerslayer must come to their rescue. This novel is essentially an action/adventure tale and not much else, yet it’s unfortunately also quite slow-moving and dull. The last of the books in  the series to be published, it is also the poorest in quality. (3 stars)

The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826)
This is the best-known of Cooper’s novels, and for good reason. Unlike its clumsily plotted prequel, this romantic adventure is suspenseful and riveting. The story takes place in 1757, during the French and Indian Wars. A troop of British soldiers are marching through the Adirondack Mountains, escorting two general’s daughters to their father’s fort. They run into Natty, now known by the name of Hawkeye, his companion Chingachgook, and the latter’s son Uncas. The British party has been deliberately led astray by their Indian guide, a Huron loyal to the French. Hawkeye sets them straight and volunteers the services of himself and his friends to guide the soldiers and their precious cargo through the hostile wilderness. The book has a few awkward and antiquated moments, but still it’s held up well over the past two centuries and deserves its place in the American literary canon. If you’re only going to read one book by Cooper, this should be it. The film adaptation with Daniel Day-Lewis is hardly faithful to the novel at all. (Remember, in that movie, the British were the bad guys.) (4.5 stars)

The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea (1840)
This installment in the series is set in 1759 and takes place in the vicinity of Lake Ontario, including the British fort of Oswego, in northwestern New York. Once again Natty, now known as Pathfinder, and his Indian friend Chingachgook meet a party of travelers in the forest. A sailor is escorting his niece to her uncle, a sergeant at the fort. The Pathfinder agrees to guide them there, and not surprisingly they are attacked by hostile Indians. Though the plot synopsis may sound remarkably similar to The Last of the Mohicans, this novel is set apart from the others by two notable differences. The first is that in this novel the Pathfinder has a love interest. The second is that much of the action takes place aboard boats on Lake Ontario. Outside the Leatherstocking series, Cooper wrote a lot of Melvillian sailing stories, and his enthusiasm for nautical subject matter is evident here. He devotes a lot of ink to the contrasting of three main characters and their specialized skill sets: the Pathfinder, whose area of expertise is the forest; the sailor Charles Cap, who knows the sea; and the young soldier Jasper Western, an expert at sailing the Great Lakes. The plot is slow going at first, but it gets better in the book’s latter half. This is neither the best nor the worst of the series. (3.5 stars)

The Pioneers, or The Sources of the Susquehanna (1823)
This was Cooper’s second novel, and his first success. The story takes place from 1793 to 1794 in Templeton, New York, a fictionalized surrogate for the author’s hometown of Cooperstown. What sets this book apart from the others is that it mostly takes place in a civilized setting and is primarily concerned with depicting the life of early settlers in a frontier town. It features an ensemble cast of characters representing a cross section of American pioneers, including immigrants of various nations and workers of every class. Natty, referred to here as the Leatherstocking, is now in his seventies, but still lives in a cabin on the shores of Lake Otsego, making his living as a hunter. Indians do not figure largely in this tale, but environmentalism does, as Natty views the effects of white settlement on his beloved wilderness with sorrow and vexation. He wants no part in the problems of village society, but somehow he can’t avoid being implicated in the doings of the settlers. This book bears little similarity to The Last of the Mohicans, nor is it anywhere near as well-known, but in its own way it’s every bit as good. (4.5 stars)

The Prairie: A Tale (1827)
The final episode in the series takes place in 1805 on the Great Plains. A wagon train of settlers from Kentucky is heading westward across this sea of grass. About 500 miles west of the Mississippi River, possibly in Nebraska, they run into Natty, now in his eighties and referred to simply as the trapper. He makes the acquaintance of the settlers, and helps them find a suitable campsite. Soon, however, the party is attacked by a band of hostile Sioux, who steal their cattle and horses and leave them stranded on the prairie. The trapper provides the settlers with as much assistance as he can, but when he discovers they’re hiding dark secrets of their own, he ends up getting caught between a rock and a hard place. This is definitely not one of the better books in the series. It’s boring at times, and far-fetched at others. As a final send-off for a beloved character, it’s a bit of a disappointment. But for fans of Cooper it’s not without its charms, and if you’ve gotten this far, you might as well see the series through to the end. (3 stars)

Of related interest
America’s first literary hit, The Spy was Cooper’s second novel, immediately preceding The Pioneers. It takes place during the American Revolution in Westchester County, New York, a territory contested by both sides of the conflict, where tories and patriots often lived side by side. When a British officer dons a disguise in order to visit his family behind enemy lines, it is construed as an act of espionage. Stylistically, The Spy is quite similar to The Pioneers. Though both books are romantic adventures, their primary aim is to depict the life and society of their respective periods in American history, and both employ a diverse ensemble cast of characters to that end. Observant readers will notice that two characters from this book, Sergeant Hollister and Betty Flanagan, go on to make cameo appearances in the first of the Leatherstocking Tales. (3 stars)

My favorite Cooper novel, Wyandotté, covers some of the same themes as The Leatherstocking Tales and The Spy—the settlement of the frontier, relations between whites and Indians, the effect of civilization on the natural environment, and the romance and tragedy of war. A British veteran of the French and Indian Wars retires from military service and builds a fortified homestead in the secluded forests of western New York. When the American Revolution breaks out, he fears for his family’s safety. Will his large retinue of servants remain loyal to his family? Or will they rise up against their English master? And what side will the Indians take in the conflict? Written after the completion of the Leatherstocking Tales, Wyandotté is the virtuoso work of a veteran author at the top of his game. (5 stars)

Cooper’s signature series is a landmark work in American literature, but the latter two novels prove that  there’s more to this author than just the Leatherstocking Tales. I’m looking forward to sampling more selections from his large and diverse body of work, so expect more Cooper reviews here at Old Books by Dead Guys.

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