Critical Essays The American Experience


In The Deerslayer, Cooper sought to give final expression in the "Leatherstocking Tales" to his reactions and fears about America, especially after his long stay in Europe. Cooper is also preoccupied with the role of Christianity and Christian teachings in the American experience. Although he is a moralist and a defender of the Christian ideas, Cooper is not necessarily optimistic about the acceptance of the religious message by his compatriots. He particularly expresses the dilemma between the lofty ideals of ethical and moral teachings and the present practices on the frontier. The treatment of the Indians is his first fear about the lack of a humane policy, and the realization that the natural surroundings are being changed quickly and extensively by settlements is his second nightmare. Cooper does not argue against progress and change, but he wants morality and beauty preserved as men advance into the territories.

The return of Natty Bumppo 15 years after the events of the romance takes only a few pages; but the melancholy nostalgia at the ruins of time is Cooper's source of anguish and concern. Hetty symbolizes the role of religion and morality, but Cooper does not depict Hetty's ideas as victorious against the Mingos and against her own race. She inspires those who know her, and her death will be a constant reminder of the presence of a nobler set of values. But Hetty has not put a halt to the violence and atrocities of the frontier by her example.

Instead of answers to his questions, Cooper tries to define the problems, to examine possible courses of conduct, and to persuade the other characters, through Natty Bumppo in particular, to accept idealism and nobility of action. However, the advance of white civilization is inexorable and the Indian nations are in decline. Never a racist, Cooper strives to call attention to the terrible conflict between the white man and the Indian. He wants a brotherhood based on the recognition and acceptance of distinct gifts to each race, but once again Cooper is not optimistic about the implementation of such hopes. He knows that the white men, superior in modern techniques, will triumph; he also knows that the baggage they bring with them contains conflict, vulgarity, and destruction of the natives and of nature.

This tension between the love for his homeland and the disenchantment with the present development of the nation is tempered only by the hope that Natty Bumppo may be a model for the pioneers and settlers. The "Leatherstocking Tales," then, are Cooper's contribution to an interpretation of the American dream and experience. The books are, in the words of the English novelist, D. H. Lawrence, "a sort of American Odyssey, with Natty Bumppo for Odysseus." The tales are, accepting this definition, the epic and the myth of America.