Friday, February 1, 2008

Cooper - we live in a world of transgressions and selfishness

Poking around on the internet, I found a really good article by Hugh MacDougall, actually an address to the James Fenimore Cooper Society (membership is only $10 per year!),* that makes the case for The Deerslayer better than I ever could. Just a few points:

1. Rousseau's ideas about the Noble Savage are ridiculous, we can all agree about that. Cooper puts them to the test. Not with actual savages (although his characters use the word often enough). The Huron are the enemy in the novel, but they're not dehumanized (at least not by Cooper, or Deerslayer). The Iroquois have their own culture, their own ideas about honor and religion and warfare. They're savage in some ways, but so are the white settlers. Some people blend the worst aspect of both cultures and become real savages (scalping for money is the novel's example). The Deerslayer tries to blend the best of both cultures, which strangely makes him the real Rousseauvian ideal. All of that business about natural religion fits in here.

2. Even though The Deerslayer is the novel about the beginning of Hawkeye's career, it is suffused with loss. The whole series must feel this way. Settlers destroy the forests and the passenger pigeons, warfare and disease and resettlement destroy the Native Americans. Although Hawkeye himself is a tough survivor (he dies in The Prairie at age 80), everything he really cares for is lost. The genuinely tragic aspect is that he is complicit in the destruction - as a woodsman, he prepares the frontier for settlement, and he fights in the Indian wars. At the end of The Deerslayer, Hawkeye is rescued from torture and death at the hands of the Huron by a genocidal massacre. The horror of this event is not emphasized in the way we would expect from a modern writer. But it's not dismissed, either. As a happy-go-lucky adventure novel, The Deerslayer has some defects.

3. All of the Leatherstocking Tales are in print, published as Signet Classics. This usually means that the novels are used in high schools. Those poor kids! The overstuffed prose, the draggy (mostly) pace, the absurd incidents - I'm going to guess there are 20 young'uns who swear off old books forever to every one who falls in love. I myself am not in an enormous hurry to read more Cooper. But I did not expect to write about him all week. He's pretty interesting. I'm a lot more curious than I was before.

* You can email your Cooper questions to "Ask Fenimore".

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