The tales of Nathaniel (Natty) Bumppo aka Hawkeye aka Leather-stocking aka Deerslayer are not as well known as they were. This is mostly because the 19th-century writing style isn’t as easy for a present-day audience to understand. Also, I think we are slightly afraid of looking at them because they present very uncomfortable topics about the United States and its origins.
The Leatherstocking tales are a series of five books that span from just before the French and Indian War (1754-1763) to just after the Louisiana Purchase (1803), give or take a couple of years here and there. There are two central characters in the Leatherstocking Tales: Natty Bumppo and John Mohegan. While the primary of these two is Natty, although his name changes in each book, John is a Mohican. Yes, as in The Last of the Mohicans.
Natty is both fraternal towards John and something of a spokesperson for him. As he is for the wilderness and the way of the Native Americans. And here is where we get into conflict.
Topics like the western expansion, the “civilizing” of the Native Americans, and the clash of cultures and traditions are all there. They aren’t necessarily presented in the blunt terms in which they are presented today, but for the day in which the Leatherstocking tales were written, there is a remarkable breadth of ideas and content that fall directly in line with our own concerns about the natural environment, the legacy of colonialism, and abuse of law to serve those in power.
Should you read the novels in order or as published?
So, if you are a pantser (i.e. someone who just does something with minimal planning), then you might appreciate the order in which James Fenimore Cooper (JFC) published the Leatherstocking Tales. You’d think that a series that detailed the life of a man would go in order, but Cooper skips around a bit. For our purposes today, this is actually rather hopefully symbolic.
His first was “The Pioneers,” in which Natty and John are already slightly past middle age. The Second, The Last of the Mohicans, takes place during the French and Indian War and Natty is already a man in his prime. The third skips again to his old age and death.
The last two books go back again to his early years with the last book of all, The Deerslayer is Natty Bumppo’s coming-of-age.
Now, if you’re someone who likes order over chaos, you may be tempted to read the novels in chronological order. This means you would start with the last book, The Deerslayer. You can do this, but I think there is value in reading the books in their published order.
If you consider the overarching themes throughout the books are the conquering of the wilderness and, by extension, the Native Americans, the fact that Cooper starts at old age and then goes backward expresses for us a latent hope that somehow the wrongs of the past can be healed. That perhaps we can save what remains of Native American culture and that the remainders can thrive again and that the natural world can be healed and abundant again.
Reading them chronologically, you’d end up with the same tired history as we’ve all known from our textbooks: the Native Americans were lied to, forced onto reservations, and have basically suffered various forms of abuse from within and without ever since. There needs to be some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, even if it is literary. And, considering the world being done today, it’s not all that unhistorical in a sense.
So, there are pros and cons to reading the books in chronological order or in publication order. If you do decide to undertake this reading project, then the choice is up to you.
How can a white man possibly depict a Native American without being offensive?
Ok, so I know already that some segments of the public are going to object to anything written by a white male about Native Americans out of principle. The point is taken, but that would be painting with a far too broad stroke than is just. JFC was not some bigot who thought all Natives were savage or that the white settlers were always in the right. In fact, he makes the point several times that the white settlers were often more savage than the Natives they claimed were so.
So, to dismiss him just because he himself was white, then you are no better than the people throughout history who have persecuted others based on their heritage. In fact, you are just continuing the cycle of grief and pain—a negative feedback loop no one needs.
Only the powerful and corrupt want us relive constantly the worst of those times because it keeps them in power. Keep all the little people busy fighting each other and maybe they won’t notice what is actually going on. So, give the man a chance, read his novels. You might be pleasantly surprised.
JFC knew much of the Native American world as it had been in upstate New York. He was most familiar with the Iroquois, and his respect for them shows in his novels, even if he has to show it through Bumppo’s lens. John Mohegan is one of the first literary depictions of a Native American after all, and this is in a society where they were considered outsiders at best, and a threat at worst.
Tokenism? Well, you’ll have to read for yourself and decide.
The fact that Natty Bumppo withdraws from white society entirely at the end of his life and lives with the Pawnee (think Kansas and Nebraska area) before he dies, should tell you everything you need to know, however. JFC knew the way things were, but it didn’t mean he couldn’t lament and even glorify the other side of the story. Which, to his credit, he did his best to do.
After all, it was part of the “American Experience” with which society was so obsessed with in the years following the War of 1812. Well, part of that experience is the wanton destruction of the wilderness and the people who used to call it home.
Did he affect anything which would have prevented historical events from going how they did? No. He utterly failed in that endeavor. He wasn’t even that popular by the time his final novels came out. Not, at least, in the States.
But does that mean he’s of no note as a writer? I think, personally, his books should be more relevant now than ever before, if only because they show that there were people who saw what was happening for what it was and while they couldn’t do anything about it—they could at least record it in a way which would hopefully survive.
Why read JFC this month? Why not read real Native literature?
November is Native American Heritage Month and JFC was one of the first to have a Native American character in his novels. Given that, and what we know of JFC’s own life and work, then this should be an ideal month to read at least one of the Leatherstocking Tales. Not in lieu of, but in addition to Native American literature.
No, the Leatherstocking tales aren’t by a Native American author, but not only to they show how far we have come, but they show that not all the whites were anti-Native. Oh, there are still clashes between tribes, between settlers, and between enemies, but race is only one component. The larger issue at stake is allowing bitterness, pettiness, and resentment to control your actions.
There is something in Bumppo’s way of the hunter we can all admire. You only take what you need from the world. You deal plainly and honestly with those you meet, and you hinder no one else’s natural rights.
And, I think you’ll find that JFC captures the essence, if a bit muted essence, of Native American lore in his novels that enhances any additional reading you may do. Later in the month, I’ll share a list of some of those Native sources—some from South America, some from North America. There’s more than you think, and a LOT that isn’t put in the history books still.
I sincerely hope you read all of it: JFC and the Native myths and legends.
Perhaps now, almost two hundred years after the first book was published, we’re finally in a place where we can appreciate the way of the Native American and make it part of our future. And we can appreciate the people who did their best to convey that to their contemporaries because they loved the land, the wilderness, and yes, the heritage both possessed before the settlers arrived.
If that doesn’t encompass all the positive reasons for celebrating our Native American forbears, then I don’t know what does.
That, and eating obscene amounts of pumpkin pie in gratitude for the Native Americans introducing it to the Europeans. Hey, tasty food is the greatest unifier in the world and if we know its origins, then it just makes it that much better. But that’s an entirely different topic.
So, break out your pumpkin pie, pull out a book (or three) and settle in for a good fall read.
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