The hard-fought American Revolution against Britain (1775-1783) was the first modern war of liberation against a colonial power. The triumph of American independence seemed to many at the time a divine sign that America and her people were destined for greatness. Military victory fanned nationalistic hopes for a great new literature. Yet, with the exception of outstanding political writing, few works of note appeared during or soon after the Revolution.
Americans were painfully aware of their excessive dependence on English literary models. The search for a native literature became a national obsession. America’s literary independence was slowed by a lingering identification with England, an excessive imitation of English or classical literary models, and difficult economic and political conditions that hampered publishing.
James Fenimore Cooper 1789-1851
Courtesy Library of Congress
James Fenimore Cooper, like Irving, was one of the first great American writers. Like other Romantic writers of the era, he evoked a sense of the past (in his day, the American wilderness that had preceded and coincided with early European settlement). In Cooper, one finds the powerful myth of a “golden age” and the poignance of its loss.
While Washington Irving and other American writers before and after him scoured Europe in search of its legends, castles, and great themes, Cooper helped create the essential myth of America: European history in America was a re-enactment of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. The cyclical realm of nature was glimpsed only in the act of destroying it: The wilderness disappeared in front of American eyes, vanishing before the oncoming pioneers like a mirage. This is Cooper’s basic tragic vision of the ironic destruction of the wilderness—the “new Eden” that had attracted the colonists in the first place.
The son of a Quaker family, he grew up on his father’s remote estate at Otsego Lake (now Cooperstown) in central New York State. Although this area was relatively peaceful during Cooper’s boyhood, it had once been the scene of an Indian massacre. Young Fenimore Cooper saw frontiersmen and Indians at Otsego Lake as a boy; in later life, bold white settlers intruded on his land.
Natty Bumppo, Cooper’s renowned literary character, embodies his vision of the frontiersman as a gentleman, a Jeffersonian “natural aristocrat.” Early in 1823, in The Pioneers, Cooper had begun to imagine Bumppo. Natty is the first famous frontiersman in American literature, and the literary forerunner of countless fictional cowboy and backwoods heroes. He is the idealized, upright individualist who is better than the society he protects. Poor and isolated, yet pure, he is a touchstone for ethical values, and prefigures Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.
Based in part on the real life of American pioneer Daniel Boone—who was a Quaker like Cooper—Natty Bumppo, an outstanding woodsman like Boone, was a peaceful man adopted by an Indian tribe. Both Boone and the fictional Bumppo loved nature and freedom. They constantly kept moving west to escape the oncoming settlers they had guided into the wilderness, and they became legends in their own lifetimes.
The unifying thread of the five novels collectively known as the Leather-Stocking Tales is the life of Natty Bumppo. Cooper’s finest achievement, they constitute a vast prose epic with the North American continent as setting, Indian tribes as major actors, and great wars and westward migration as social background. The novels bring to life frontier America from 1740 to 1804. Cooper’s novels portray the successive waves of the frontier settlement: the original wilderness inhabited by Indians; the arrival of the first whites as scouts, soldiers, traders, and frontiersmen; the coming of the poor, rough settler families; and the final arrival of the middle class, bringing the first professionals—the judge, the physician, and the banker. Each incoming wave displaced the earlier: Whites displaced the Indians, who retreated westward; the “civilized” middle classes who erected schools, churches, and jails displaced the lower-class individualistic frontier folk, who moved further west, in turn displacing the Indians who had preceded them. Cooper evokes the endless, inevitable wave of settlers, seeing not only the gains but the losses.
Like Rudyard Kipling, E.M. Forster, Herman Melville, and other sensitive observers of widely varied cultures interacting with each other, Cooper was a cultural relativist. He understood that no culture had a monopoly on virtue or refinement.