Wednesday, February 26, 2014

James Fenimore Cooper and the Vanishing Frontier

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) is a controversial figure in American literature, who is perhaps most famous for his novel The Last of the Mohicans.  I wrote a poem about him.  I call it "The Last of the Mohicans":

In a lot of American 
literature by white people
like The Last of the Mohicans
by James Fenimore Cooper,

Native Americans are presented
as a race whose time has ended.
despite the fact that there were, and are,
thousands of living Native Americans.

Their persistant, longsuffering patience,
their continued reality,
has no place
in our imaginations.


James Fenimore Cooper

Despite his inaccurate, and sometimes offensive, portrayal of Native Americans, Cooper did have some good things to say.  Writing on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, he dramatized, quite movingly, the conflict between nature (the wilderness/frontier) and the encroachment of "civilization" and industry.  A good example of this exists in his novel The Pioneers, in a section entitled "The Slaughter of the Pigeons."

The scene is set in central New York, in the fictional town of Templeton.  Many local inhabitants have gathered for a mass execution of pigeons who are migrating over their town.  This pigeon slaughter is considered a great sport, as thousands of the poor creatures are blasted from the sky.  One prominent citizen even brings out a small cannon, which he loads with duck-shot, and fires into the migrating flock.  The ground is littered with dead and dying pigeons.

Aside from pure sport, the supposed reason for this pigeon genocide is that the birds eat the wheat from the farmers' fields.  But the planting of wheat necessitated another genocide--a mass clearing of trees.  Many thousands of acres of trees had to be cut down to make way for people, agriculture, and industry.  In this area, many trees were also burned to make potash, which is still used to make fertilizer and other industrial products.  The overall vibe of the story is one of horror--the horror of desolation that the American settlers have inflicted on the natural landscape.  This devastation would continue unabated, and continues today.

Rather than lamenting the destruction of nature, however, the townspeople make a great sport of it.  They are almost giddy.  Young boys join in the sport of death.




Into this scene of death and carnage walks the hero of Cooper's novel, Natty Bumppo (aka Leatherstocking, aka Daniel Day Lewis from The Last of the Mohicans).  Natty Bumppo was the hero of Cooper's five-novel epic known as The Leatherstocking Tales (which included The Last of the Mohicans).  In this novel, he is in his 70s, but is still an able hunter and tracker.  Leatherstocking is a man of the wilderness, and he is appalled by the callous and wasteful behavior of the people of Templeton.  Natty gives a speech on the proper use of nature, which he learned from his native American friends:

"This comes of settling a country," he says, "Here I have long known the pigeons to fly for forty long years, and till you made your clearings, there was nobody to scare or to hurt them.  I loved to see them come into the woods, for they were company to a body; hurting nothing; being, as it was, as harmless as a garter snake.  But now it gives me sore thoughts when I hear the frighty things whizzing through the air, for I know it's only a motion to bring out all the brats in the village at them.  Well, the Lord won't see the waste of his creatures for nothing, and right will be done to the pigeons, as well as others, by and by."

Natty explains how it is wasteful to kill for sport, and that people should only kill what they need to live.  To prove his point, he raises his long rifle and shoots a single pigeon, which his dog fetches, and then he walks away, leaving the townspeople to their orgy of death and waste.

After the mass killing, an old Judge reflects mournfully on the slaughter of the pigeons: "Judge Temple retired towards his dwelling with that kind of feeling that many a man has experienced before him, who discovers, after the excitement of the moment has passed, that he has purchased pleasure at the price of misery to others."

This last sentiment is particularly profound, and could be applied to Native Americans as well as the whole of the natural world.  Much was lost when this land was settled and "civilized."  The advance of the white man came at great cost and misery to others.  This violation is one of America's great national sins.


Natty Bumppo

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