Critical Essays The Frontier Myth


One of the most devastating and humorous criticisms of the world of The Deerslayer and the other "Leatherstocking Tales" was written by Mark Twain. His satirical attack upon the "literary offenses" of Cooper was based upon the unreal world of the American frontier depicted in the "Leatherstocking Tales." Mark Twain, for example, was annoyed by all the dry twigs being snapped as the characters in Cooper's romances stalk their Mingo foes or are stalked by their equally stealthy opponents; and he suggested that the "Leatherstocking Tales" should be renamed "The Broken Twig Series." It is true that Cooper uses this descriptive effort very often in The Deerslayer, but Mark Twain, in selecting this single mannerism, was endeavoring to criticize Cooper's whole concept of the American experience at this time.

Although Twain listed eighteen "offenses" of Cooper, the American humorist was most critical of the character of Natty Bumppo as being unrealistic and contradictory. For example, Mark Twain could not reconcile the usually incorrect grammar and vocabulary of Natty Bumppo with the hero's poetic outpourings at the sights of Glimmerglass and the natural surroundings of the lake. Two schools of literary interpretation and expression are involved in this controversy: Mark Twain belongs to the realist era toward the end of the 19th century, and Cooper is a romantic at the beginning of the same century. Two writers, approaching the same setting, will portray that environment according to their respective philosophies of art and life.

Cooper intends to idealize, to mythologize, and to elevate the subject of his romance. The fact that The Deerslayer is a romance indicates this intention of the author, and Cooper defends this position in the prefaces. In short, Cooper does not aim to reproduce exactly nor completely realistically the events he has selected. It is enough that the lake and its environs are accurate. Even here, however, the writer is justified in choosing the better parts of the physical environment and giving these elements the benefit of his romantic vision. If Cooper had only depicted the routine and daily actions of the settlers and pioneers in their battle against the Indians and nature, he would not have won such fame abroad. Cooper interpreted the American experience and raised it to the level of an epic. He thereby created a myth which used only the raw material of actual happenings as the foundation for his philosophical quest for the meaning of the frontier.

Therefore, the rather prosaic and normal lives of men and women on the frontier are transformed into the idea that two worlds are in sharp collision. Two very different traditions are locked in conflict over the possession of the land, one primitive and the other civilized. Few of the actual participants pondered or even realized this argument because they were too busy and uninformed. In fact, Cooper has been criticized for raising the level of the characters too high in the romance. Critics have suggested that the poetic and philosophical speech and arguments (especially of Natty Bumppo) do not reflect the real atmosphere and true problems. Likewise, the characters on the frontier were usually strong, rough types who had no interest in any issue not bordering directly on the practical side of life.

Hurry Harry and Tom Hutter, who represent this brutal aspect of the frontier, engage in philosophical debate with Natty. Even these two characters, then, who suggest on Cooper's part the intention to portray the unfavorable, dangerous, and destructive forces on the frontier are idealized by their ability to sustain complex arguments. Cooper, for the sake of emphasizing contrasts, has skillfully juxtaposed his characters symbolizing the best and worst aspects of the white man's contribution to the New World. If he has not painted realistically but romantically, Cooper has contributed a philosophical and ideological rendition to the history of the American continent.

Cooper caught, in the words of the historian Allan Nevins, "the grandeur of the frontier." Cooper saw in the changes occurring, especially around the known area of Glimmerglass, profound meanings and serious problems. He is American in his defense and confrontation with the issues of his day: one can recall his constant explanations about his nationalism and patriotism to his countrymen after the return from Europe in 1833. A great transformation of the world was taking place, and Cooper sought to fathom the ramifications of these events. If possible, he also endeavored to enlighten those at home and abroad who were not aware of the spirit of the frontier. And, if possible, he wanted to improve the tone of the development of the frontier and alter some of the characteristics of the pioneer era to which he attributed a decline of the true American image.

It is accurate to conclude that Cooper, not only in The Deerslayer but in all the five "Leatherstocking Tales," has created the frontier myth, but he has sacrificed realism, and perhaps naturalism, for the sake of his interpretation of American history. Indeed, Cooper's constant quarrels with his neighbors, the press, and critics in 1833 were due in some part to his frank criticism of the evil aspects of the American dream. At the same time, Cooper always tried to write in an interesting manner so that the readers would find pleasure and entertainment in the romances. His influence and continued popularity may have perhaps changed the attitude of Americans somewhat as they, like the aged Natty Bumppo in the last of the series, The Prairie, pushed westward to the Pacific Ocean. This desire to explain the frontier is also a partial reason for Cooper's writing of The Deerslayer (18 years after The Pioneers, the first volume of the tales), in which he goes back to the middle of the eighteenth century and to the beginning of Natty Bumppo's career, for another and earlier search of the frontier myth.