Pioneer Parable

In 1823 James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Pioneers, the first of what came to be called his “Leatherstocking Tales.” The story features the aging Natty Bumpo, a white man more at home in the forest with his Mohican friend Chingachgook than in what was loosely called “civilization.” Cooper tends toward the Romantic and glorifies the native people somewhat, but his tales are one of the first serious attempts by an American intellectual to deal with the problems of an expanding white population and its effects on the wilderness and the native people.

James Fenimore Cooper (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

James Fenimore Cooper (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In a fairly lengthy episode in The Pioneers Cooper describes an annual fishing assault by the people of the fictional village Templeton, New York located on the very edge of the wilderness. I call it an assault because it is described that way by Cooper who draws a fascinating contrast between the way the white inhabitants of Templeton net the fish by the thousands and the way Bumpo, accompanied by his native friend, catch their fish. After the eager citizens of Templeton have pulled their straining net to land and unloaded an estimated two thousand fish which they plan to pass around to the villagers, Marmaduke Temple, the founder of Templeton and one of the main characters in the novel, confronts his daughter Elizabeth holding “a bass that might have weighed two pounds, and, after viewing it a moment, in a melancholy musing, [says] ‘This is a fearful expenditure of the choicest gifts of Providence. These fish, Bess, which thou seest lying in such piles before thee . . . by tomorrow evening, will be rejected food on the meanest table in Templeton.'”

Elizabeth worries about the waste, since she knows it is not possible for the villagers to eat all of the fish. Most will rot or be eaten by the wild animals. Marmaduke sympathizes with his daughter briefly and then joins the other villagers in their attempt to make a second haul!  As the scene is drawn before us we see in the dwindling light Natty Bumpo appear in a canoe with his friend Chingachgook as they cruise the lake quietly and Natty calmly spears several fish which he plans to take back with him. Marmaduke and the others upon seeing him offer him some of their fish: “Approach, Mohican. . . approach leatherstocking, and load your canoe with the bass. It would be a shame to assail the animals with the spear when such multitudes of victims lie here that will be lost as food for the want of mouths to consume them.” Natty turns him down, “I eat of no man’s wasty ways. I strike my spear into the eels or the trout when I crave the creatures, but I wouldn’t be helping myself to such a sinful kind of fishing for the best rifle that was ever brought out from the old countries…”

As is so often the case with Cooper’s tales — which were widely read in England and Europe and had a powerful effect on people like Thackeray and even George Eliot — the author has crafted a parable for our times. We can work past the romantically exaggerated picture of the “noble savage” and we will find in the end a tale that tells us a great deal about ourselves, things we may not want to recognize or admit are true. Cooper was one of the first to see clearly the damage we could do to the environment and the wilderness in our voracious attempt to get as much from the earth as possible in the shortest amount of time.

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6 thoughts on “Pioneer Parable

  1. Hugh, this is great. One of my favorite movies of all time is “Last of the Mohicans” which was filmed at one of our favorite hiking and viewing places, Chimney Rock. It has a noble nature to it, as you mention. My son is reading “1491” which also has a documentary on television. While not noble in nature, there was some elegance as it shows before Columbus came this way in 1492, the environment was not totally wildlike. There is strong evidence of how the Native Americans cultivated the land and forests. So, these perceived savages, knew a great deal about ecology and making the land work for them. It also notes what killed them off in great numbers was not the white man’s weapons, but his diseases. Thanks for sharing, BTG

  2. I love this! I read some Fenimore Cooper years ago, and then I came across Mark Twain’s essay titled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” I loved it. So while I don’t think that Fenimore Cooper was a great writer, he does represent, like you say, the first attempts to deal with complex issues of civilization, progress, and expansion.

  3. Hugh, that is a great take on Cooper. Like Emily, above, I read Twain’s evisceration of Cooper’s literary skills a long time ago, and dismissed him as a literary quality. But as a student of nature, and someone living, as he did at much of the time, on the edge of the frontier, he had some important insights on the coming clashes of progress and the Industrial revolution with the nature and natural resources and American Indians. He spent a good deal of time in Paris, along with many other gifted Americans, at different phases of the 19th century. When he went there, he was perhaps 10 years or so older than many of the other Americans who would go on to become very prominent (Samual Morse, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, August St. Gaudens — a great book on this by David McCullough, “The Greater Journey,”) and so Cooper was already a prominent author. He was very popular in Paris, deeply respected for what he was saying about things like those that you write about, but even as I read “The Greater Journey’s” passages about Cooper I had Twain the back of my mind.

    As you know, I bleed baseball and have been to Cooperstown, N.Y., three times to the Hall of Fame. The last time I went, Luke went with and I took a photo of him standing next to a big statue of Cooper. We kept the photo framed in our kitchen for years. Now it is in my reading room. I will have to look at that differently now, look at Cooper with more respect for what he saying, trying to warn us about, when it came to the environment and waste of resources in general. A man way ahead of his time in that regard.

  4. You make an excellent observation about Cooper’s conservationist message in The Pioneers. If you would like to read more in this vein, you might take a look at an article I wrote a few years back on a similar topic (see especially pages 26-29). Here is the link:

    http://ojs.unbc.ca/index.php/joe/article/download/131/268

    Also, for those of you who judge Cooper’s works by Mark Twain’s jealous hatchet job, you might like to read this essay explaining that Twain (whose work is much indebted to his own reading of Cooper’s novels) quite literally made up the quotations he ascribes to Cooper. In short, Twain made it up to try to ruin Cooper’s reputation. It was an easy thing to do since Cooper was long dead and could not defend himself. Plus, it is easy to defame someone if you make up their quotations for them. Here’s that link:

    http://external.oneonta.edu/cooper/articles/other/1988other-schachterle.html

    If you want know who Cooper really was, the best sources is Wayne Franklin’s biography, James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years. See here:

    http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300108057

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