The "Leatherstocking Tales," although they are only a small part of Cooper's literary output, are his main claim to recognition as a major American writer. The five books, however, were not written and published according to the chronological age of the hero, Natty Bumppo. In terms of the hero's age, the romances are as follows: The Deerslayer (1841), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Pathfinder (1840), The Pioneers (1823), and The Prairie (1827). Arranged in that manner, the "Leatherstocking Tales" are also easier to remember because they are in alphabetical order. The nicknames of Natty Bumppo are respectively: Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, and simply "The Trapper" or "The Old Man." The period covered ranges from about 1740 to 1804, and Natty Bumppo is seen in stages from his 20s to his 80s. The settings change from Otsego Lake, Lake George, Lake Ontario, and Cooperstown to the territories of Iowa and Missouri. If the "Leatherstocking Tales" are read in the light of Natty Bumppo's chronology, the five stories present a unified and logical progression of the hero's development.
However, the reader who is interested in Cooper's conception of his hero should read the five titles in the order of publication because almost 20 years intervene between the writing of the first and last books. For example, The Deerslayer, chronologically the first introduction of Natty Bumppo, is actually the last "Leatherstocking Tale" published by Cooper. The student sees therefore in The Deerslayer the ideas of the author developed at a late period of his life. Cooper realized this problem about The Deerslayer when he wrote in a "Preface to the Leatherstocking Tales": "Whether these progressive years have had a tendency to lessen the value of the last-named book, by lessening the native fire of its author, or of adding somewhat in the way of improved taste and a more matured judgment, is for others to decide."
Others have decided favorably that Cooper, in a "Preface" for The Deerslayer as well as in the "Preface to the Leatherstocking Tales," succeeded in his aims. Cooper expressed his intentions principally as the creation of the "beau ideal'' or highest possible embodiment of his characters, especially Natty Bumppo. Cooper's desire to present this 11 poetical view of the subject" is, however, tempered by his hope "to preserve the vrai-semblable." In short, he idealizes Natty Bumppo, but he balances this idealization with "traits derived from the prejudices, tastes, and even the weaknesses of his youth." If, as Cooper implies, the depiction of Natty Bumppo only emphasized the good side of his character, the reader would have perhaps rejected the hero as unrealistic, false, and unbelievable. Cooper's portrayal of characters has always been a point of controversy in any analysis of his art. For example, Honore de Balzac, the French novelist of La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy) and one of Cooper's friends in Paris, commented: "If Cooper had succeeded in the painting of character to the same extent that he did in the painting of the phenomena of nature, he would have uttered the last word of our art."
Cooper is not, however, classified as a realistic author (such as Balzac), but as a romantic writer. The realistic novelist tries to reproduce life exactly, and the romantic author lends forcefully his own interpretations and impressions to characters. Cooper did not base his creation of Natty Bumppo on a single person known to him; he apparently drew upon various individuals recalled from his youth. Cooper then contributed his theory of "a moral sense" or "a moral point of view" to delineate his hero of the New World. Cooper's insistence upon morality is of course a reflection of the Puritan tradition — and his own forceful ideas. However, his originality lies in the creation of Natty Bumppo as an American epic hero.
The epic hero is familiar in early European literature, and Cooper was undoubtedly aware of the English Beowulf, the French Roland, and the Spanish Cid. Romanticism called attention to the medieval heritage, largely scorned and ignored by the eighteenth century. Cooper, then, merged his romantic interests and contemporary readings with his American background. He could not copy and imitate the European models fully, but he could — and consequently did — merge the foreign and the native influences. Therefore, Natty Bumppo resembles medieval knights and is dubbed by his creator "a knight of the woods." Natty Bumppo's code, explained repeatedly and in detail throughout The Deerslayer, shows many points in common with the chivalric ideals. This transposition of the European epic hero to American soil is one of the accepted explanations for Cooper's popularity, impact, and influence in Europe during the nineteenth century.
Natty Bumppo, however, shows his originality by possessing indigenous traits; and these characteristics, peculiar to the New World at this stage of its development, mark Cooper's contribution to American literature. Natty Bumppo is, in certain ways, the child of Rousseau, the French philosopher of the 18th century who preached that civilization is a corrupting element in the growth of man and that nature is good. According to Rousseau, the natural man develops efficaciously in a simple, natural environment. "The idea of delineating a character that possessed little of civilization but its highest principles as they are exhibited in the uneducated," writes Cooper about his characterization of the hero, "and all of savage life that is not incompatible with these great rules of conduct, is perhaps natural to the situation in which Natty was placed."
Although he has been raised in the situation of the Indians, Natty Bumppo has in his soul the highest qualities of civilization and Christianity. He has received these qualities intuitively and lives by these virtues because he knows instinctively that this conduct, or code, is right. Natty Bumppo also distinguishes between the positive and negative aspects of the Indians, whom he basically respects. For instance, Natty is firmly opposed to scalping as a horrible act for a white man, but he defends the Indians who use this technique as an honorable method of warfare. In his reliance upon feelings, intuition, and instinct, Cooper's hero is the romantic ideal who rejects the neo-classical guidelines of reason and rationalism.
Natty Bumppo is a compromise between the two worlds in conflict on the North American continent: the expanding dynamism of the white, European, civilized, Christian race and the primitive Indian races inhabiting vast tracts of land. Cooper constantly refers to the differences between the two races, and his anxiety to achieve some reconciliation between the two peoples is very evident. Natty Bumppo, living and accepting many Indian ways, represents the American hero who endeavors to express his native background to the white men with whom he also feels the bond of blood ties. Cooper defines his purpose in these words: "It appeared to the writer that his hero was a fit subject to represent the better qualities of both conditions, without pushing either to extremes."
The Deerslayer was Cooper's favorite of the five romances he shaped around the figure of Natty Bumppo, perhaps because the tale is the last of the "Leatherstocking Tales" and his final, attentive effort to create an American hero. Critics usually have been kind to The Deerslayer since its publication in 1841. It is true that The Last of the Mohicans always has been the most popular of the "Leatherstocking Tales" because it is at heart a boy's book. Although Cooper's ideas are already in evidence in The Last of the Mohicans and the tale is justifiably acclaimed as a dynamic, suspenseful story, The Deerslayer offers a structurally more sound and logical plot. There is a strong use of the three unities in The Deerslayer, as all the action, concentrated in a few days around Natty Bumppo's "first warpath," takes place in the vicinity of Otsego Lake.
Cooperstown and Otsego Lake are, of course, associated closely with James Fenimore Cooper; and he popularized the lake in The Deerslayer more than in any other of his novels. In fact, Otsego Lake not only plays a more important role in this tale than in any of the five "Leatherstocking Tales," but the lake received its nickname of "Glimmerglass" thanks to Cooper's extensive descriptions in The Deerslayer. Cooper's utilization of Glimmerglass is certainly a good example of Balzac's definition of the American novelist's achievement as "idealizing the magnificent scenery of America." In addition, Cooper made use of the Glimmerglass as a structural and thematic element in The Deerslayer, besides the beautiful descriptions of the lake he knew so well throughout his life.
Contemporary criticism, then, has accorded more weight to The Deerslayer because this tale belongs also to Cooper's last period when his social, political, and personal philosophies were most decided. Indeed, the novels written after his return to America in 1833 have been receiving more critical attention in recent years. Robert E. Spiller, for instance, has stated that Cooper at some future time may be best remembered "for his pioneering in the realistic novel of social purpose." Spiller, an important critic of Cooper, insists upon the noteworthy role of The Deerslayer: "For Natty as Deerslayer has now become a symbol of the human values toward which Cooper had been reaching, and his story the most 'poetic' of the Leather-Stocking Tales, in which romance and moral import combine to create what many critics hold to be Cooper at his best."
The Deerslayer, then, cannot be read as solely an adventure story but as a contribution toward the understanding of America by the first American novelist accorded recognition in Europe. It is of course the reader's responsibility — and pleasure — to observe how Cooper fashioned his storytelling powers and his philosophy into a unified novel.