Friday, February 28, 2014

The Pathfinder by James Fenimore Cooper

Hawkeye in love
James Fenimore Cooper may be one of the most popular and influential writers in the history of American literature, but today’s reader may find the quality of his writing woefully inconsistent. You never know what you’re going to get when you open a Cooper novel. It could be a snoozer like The Deerslayer or a masterpiece like The Last of the Mohicans. The Pathfinder lies somewhere in between. Originally published in 1840, The Pathfinder is the third chronological installment in the Leatherstocking Tales, the series of five books featuring the hero Natty Bumppo, a skilled hunter, tracker, and guide. Bumppo is rarely referred to by his birth name, but rather is known by a host of nicknames including Hawkeye, Deerslayer, and La Longue Carabine. In this novel, he is referred to as Pathfinder.

The novel opens with Charles Cap, a sailor, and his niece, Mabel Dunham, being escorted through the forests of western New York by two Indian guides. At a campfire in the wilderness they meet up with the Pathfinder, his Indian companion Chingachgook, and a soldier named Jasper Western. These three new acquaintances will guide Mabel and her uncle to the British fort at Oswego, on the shores of Lake Ontario, where her father serves as a sergeant in the regiment. To get there they must venture through territory occupied by the hostile Indians known as Mingos. While this sounds like an exciting beginning, the first several chapters of the novel are really quite dull. The first half of the book is overly talky, with the conversation often revolving around Bumppo’s favorite topic of “gifts.” The Pathfinder has been blessed with forest gifts, while Cap’s nature lies in sea gifts. Jasper Western, who pilots a cutter on the lake, is endowed with lake gifts. The primary purpose of the novel seems to be to contrast these three individuals, who embody Cooper’s three favorite environments. Cap is particularly proud of his seafaring skills, so much so that he constantly asserts that the ocean is superior to the lake in every way. To the reader’s annoyance, he belabors this point until his monotonous proclamations begin to border on idiocy.

What sets The Pathfinder apart from the other Leatherstocking novels is that Cooper provides Bumppo with a love interest in Mabel Dunham. While Cooper’s love stories sometimes serve as annoying distractions from otherwise entertaining adventure novels, in this case the romance is the most interesting part of the book. It allows us to see the Pathfinder as a genuine human being rather than merely a fount of frontier wisdom. The romantic elements of the story never stoop to the syrupy sweet. Cooper not only concerns himself with affairs of the heart, but delves into the politics of matchmaking as well, as Pathfinder is not the only suitor vying for Mabel’s hand. Meanwhile, the British troops are engaged in a conflict with the Indians that have allied themselves with the French. Matters are complicated by suspicions of treason among the regiment. This part of the story takes forever to get moving, but the final third of the book is actually quite good. Unfortunately one has to spend a lot of time drifting around Lake Ontario to get there.

The Pathfinder is neither the best nor the worst of the Leatherstocking Tales. It doesn’t approach the mythic heights of The Last of the Mohicans, but it’s certainly worth a read. The five Leatherstocking novels are an important achievement in American literature, and for the most part they’re also quite entertaining. For those who enjoy Cooper’s work, I would also highly recommend his 1843 novel Wyandotté. It covers much of the same subject matter as The Pathfinder—misunderstood love, duplicitous agents, a fortress under siege—but far more successfully.

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