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One Hundred And Sevenly-five Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

Cooper’s Coup

In February, James Fenimore Cooper published The Pioneers , the first of his five Leatherstocking novels. Cooper’s previous book, The Spy (1821), a romance set in Revolutionary days, had sold well, and with the aid of a lurid excerpt published in advance, initial demand for The Pioneers was overwhelming. Some thirtyfive hundred copies were purchased the first day it went on sale.

The Pioneers takes place during 1793-94 in Templeton, New York, a newly built town at the foot of Lake Otsego. (The town and its founder, Marmaduke Temple, were plainly modeled after Cooperstown and William Cooper, the author’s father.) In a narrative spanning most of a year, Cooper vividly describes a wide assortment of frontier types and scenes. Yet neither these slices of rustic life nor the melodramatic plot, filled with hairsbreadth escapes and startling revelations, can account for the novel’s enduring popularity. The Pioneers remains in print to this day because it introduced the world to America’s first great fictional character, Natty Bumppo.

Bumppo, also known as Leather-stocking for his deerskin breeches, is an aging frontiersman who has spent decades living in a rough hut by the lake. Besides being a crack rifle shot, he is a skillful tracker and scout who prides himself on being almost as good as an Indian at reading the subtle signs of the woodlands. Although most of his daily subsistence comes from the forest, Bumppo does not entirely shun civilization, freely using money and never leaving his hut without his beloved precision-tooled rifle. By leading a simple life, as opposed to a primitive one, he exemplifies the ideal of a white man existing in harmony with nature, taking no more than he needs to feed and clothe himself.

Living off the wilderness, of course, requires maintaining a very low population density, which even two centuries ago was not practical in a burgeoning nation. When Bumppo complains about losing his shooting and fishing playground to the settlers’ farms, he sounds much like the twentieth-century home buyer who discovers an ideal unknown neighborhood, then complains when others discover it too. Still, by shunning the settlers’ “wasty ways”—taking fish by the thousand in huge nets, wantonly burning valuable sugar maple trees, massacring enormous swarms of pigeons for sport—Bumppo sounds an early warning against the persistent American tendency to confuse abundance with inexhaustibility.

In The Pioneers Bumppo is just one of many expertly drawn characters. But like the zany neighbor on a sitcom who gets a show of his own, Bumppo was the star of the later novels he appeared in, which came to be known collectively (along with
The Pioneers ) as The Leather stocking Tales . Cooper would go on to write many undistinguished potboilers, and the oft-parodied embellishments of his literary style could grow tiresome in his lesser books. In this uneven body of work, often reactionary or didactic, The Leatherstoeking Tales stand out as truly inspired.

With Natty Bumppo, Cooper created an archetype that bred scores of imitators, just as Owen Wister would do for cowboys, Dashiell Hammett for hard-boiled detectives, and (less happily) Jack Kerouac for beatniks and J. D. Salinger for adolescent nebbishes. Back in 1820 the prominent English essayist Sydney Smith had sneered, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” Cooper answered his question with a novel that not only was widely read, discussed, and translated around the world but remains so today, when Smith is long since forgotten even in his home country.

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