- Leather-Stocking Redux; Or, Old Tales, New Essays
Despite the fact that undergraduates’ knowledge of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Tales often begins and ends with Daniel Day Lewis’s romantic tagline “I will find you,” the series of five novels (The Pioneers , The Last of the Mohicans , The Prairie , The Pathfinder , and The Deerslayer ) remains an important part of American literary and cultural history. Much like Georg Lukács’s observation in The Historical Novel that the characters and struggles within Walter Scott’s historical novels exemplify “historical social types” and “social trends and historical forces” (34–35), the famed Natty Bumppo and his relationships with various historical and fictionalized characters in Cooper’s novels provides a rich flashpoint for considering social antagonisms and contradictions of the age. Moreover, Cooper, himself, makes an interesting case study for any number of historical and political inquiries. Of course, not everyone would agree with this perspective. Cooper has been under attack since at least the 1830s, when Whig reviewers leveled their pens against his early work. After Cooper’s death, Mark Twain sarcastically reduced The Deerslayer to a “literary delirium tremens” and D. H. Lawrence dismissed Cooper’s portrayal of Native Americans as simple “wish-fulfillment.” Perhaps more importantly, Cooper’s texts have been largely either ignored or censured by contemporary scholars working in critical paradigms of race and empire. For these reasons, Leather-Stocking Redux is a welcome collection, offering a variety of perspectives on why, in Jeffrey Walker’s terms, “Cooper’s best-known works are...not only important guides to issues and attitudes in the early Republic, but also address concerns still very troubling in our collective experience as Americans” (“Introduction” 2). That is to say, the collection sets itself up as a series of arguments for Cooper’s tales’ relevance in today’s classroom and critical landscape. As I will [End Page 122] discuss below, in this reviewer’s opinion, the collection succeeds on many fronts, but it also includes significant critical shortcomings.
Among the ten essays included in the collection, three stand out as particularly rich offerings. Wayne Franklin’s “‘One More Scene’: The Marketing Context of Cooper’s ‘Sixth’ Leather-Stocking Tale” provides perhaps the most nuanced historical consideration of Cooper’s work. Examining the shifting literary-market forces and demands that shaped the coalescence of the Leather-Stocking series, Franklin presents a provocative materialist argument as to why Cooper may have abandoned the idea of writing a sixth Leather-Stocking Tale set during the American Revolution. Franklin traces painstakingly the complex relationships Cooper had with the presses Lea and Blanchard, Stringer and Townsend (formerly Burgess, Stringer, and Co.), and Putnam in the 1840s and early 1850s, allowing him to reframe previous speculation that Cooper’s political views halted composition of the last novel (which, presumably, would have necessitated presenting Natty as a Loyalist).
Two other essays that are particularly useful in furthering the collection’s aim are Lance Schachterle’s “On The Prairie” and William Decker’s “The Africanist Presence in The Pioneers.” Schachterle teases out the socio-political conflicts that appear in The Prairie, which is set in 1805 and, according to Schachterle, represents “Cooper’s deepest conflicts concerning the successful achievement of...stability in the early Republic” (124). Although his discussions of space (the desolate prairie) and specific characters yield valuable insight, his consideration of the troubled and anxious place of law in the novel is perhaps most interesting. Decker’s essay also addresses topics that are relevant to contemporary students and scholars, examining the presence of two “Africanist” figures in The Pioneers: the slave Agamemnon and the freeman Abraham Freeborn. The essay does include elements that scholars might question—such as the exclusive use of Morrison’s rather dated critical paradigm and a distinct strain of pro-Cooper overstatements. Yet, Decker’s analysis of these two characters is lucid and productive, particularly his consideration of Cooper’s footnote in the 1832 edition of the novel that includes a “willful distortion” (20) of...