Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cooper and Deerslayer - all is concord in the woods

Cooper, in The Deerslayer, and presumably in the other Leatherstocking novels, is able to solve a problem that Walter Scott fought with his whole life. Cooper's hero, Hawkeye/ Natty Bumppo/ Deerslayer, is an interesting character. As good as Scott's novels can be, and as good as he is with creating supporting characters, his heroes are always pale, flavorless fellows.* Hawkeye is naive, idealized, and sometimes downright odd, but he has flavor.

I'm having trouble finding excerptable bits to prove my case. Deerslayer is, let's say, voluble. For a stoic man of the woods, he sure talks a lot.

Early on (Ch. VII), Deerslayer kills a man for the first time, a Huron chief. It's wartime, it's in self-defense, and Deerslayer does everything he can to avoid violence. So it's all right, then! Anyway, this is where he earns the name Hawkeye, bestowed on him by the dying Indian. As his victim dies, and after, and also before, Deerslayer talks, and then talks, and then talks some more. It sounds ridiculous, and Cooper even becomes embarrassed that his character talks to himself so much ("As was his practice, however, a habit gained by living so much alone in the forest, he then began again to give utterance to his thoughts and feelings aloud.") But in fact the entire encounter with his first enemy is written with a degree of tension rarely found in the novel, and Deerslayer's soliloquies and sermons lend the event substantial dignity.

Deerslayer is good-humored (although never funny) but intense. He's illiterate, but full of theories about religion and culture and the "gifts" of different races. Brought up among the Delaware, he's sort of a radical multiculturalist, accepting behavior by Indians that he condemns among whites, and vice versa. In between the two cultures, he of course combines the noblest aspects of both. He'll gleefully shoot an eagle to show off his new rifle, but then feel bad that he did it. ("The sight of a dyin' and distressed creatur', even though it be only a bird, brings wholesome thoughts to a man who don't know how soon his own time may come...") He's long-winded, but he says surprising things.

Deerslayer is given to speechifying, not a characteristic I find endearing, mostly, but which here gives him some charm. He's uneducated, maybe even foolish, but he's always thinking, generally out loud. Cut from a longer speech in Chapter XV:

"Then as to churches, they are good, I suppose, else wouldn't good men uphold 'em. But they are not altogether necessary. They call 'em the temples of the Lord; but, Judith, the whole 'arth is a temple of the Lord to such as have the right mind. Neither forts nor churches make people happier of themselves. Moreover, all is contradiction in the settlements, while all is concord in the woods. Forts and churches almost always go together, and yet they're downright contradictions; churches being for peace, and forts for war. No, no - give me the strong places of the wilderness, which is the trees, and the churches, too, which are arbors raised by the hand of natur'."

Hints of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau here.

Also, a terrible irony, that "concord in the woods", only seen in this novel after a genocidal massacre. That's for tomorrow.

* The one exception I know is The Heart of Midlothian, where the protagonist is not coincidentally female.

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