“The man I speak of was of great simplicity of mind, but of sterling worth. Unlike most of those who live a border life, he united the better, instead of the worst, qualities of the two people. He was a man endowed with the choicest and perhaps rarest gift of nature; that of distinguishing good from evil. His virtues were those of simplicity, because such were the fruits of his habits, as were indeed his very prejudices. In courage he was the equal of his red associates; in warlike skill, being better instructed, their superior. ‘In short, he was a noble shoot from the stock of human nature, which never could attain its proper elevation and importance, for no other reason, than because it grew in the forest:’” (Duncan Uncas Heyward speaking of Leatherstocking in Chapter X)
The Prairie is the third of Cooper’s five ‘Leatherstocking’ novels, written at speed after The Last of the Mohicans (1826) established Cooper’s reputation, and published just a year later.
It is set at the very end of Leatherstocking’s life, in the year following the Louisiana Purchase i.e the sale by the French to the young American government of the vast expanse of land extending west of the Mississippi. (The character Dr Battius makes an entry in his journal dated specifically to 6 October 1805 in the middle of the novel).
Leatherstocking is now over 80 years old (in chapter XXVIII he says he has lived ‘fourscore and seven winters’), living alone (apart from his loyal but elderly dog, Hector) in the wide, dry, barren prairie lands west of the Mississippi. 87 and still hunting? Cooper addresses this improbability by mentioning on the first page (expanded in a footnote added to the 1832 edition) the legendary American frontiersman Daniel Boone, who died at the advanced age of 85, factual support for the longevity of his fictional character.
A lot of Cooper’s contrivances – for example, his heavy use of long-winded comedy characters – haven’t stood the test of time. More successful is the trick of giving his hero a different name in each book. Thus he is Leatherstocking in The Pioneers, Hawkeye in Last of The Mohicans but in this book is referred to only as ‘the trapper’, as if 80 years of living in the wilderness have not only carved lines in his face and wasted his gaunt body, but also worn away his name itself and almost all signs of individuality, so that he has become a living symbol, an embodiment of a dignified, free way of life.
The plot – part one
The trapper is minding his own business in the middle of the wide prairie when a wagon train lumbers into view, carrying some twenty men, women and children, led by the boorish, low, cunning Ishmael Bush, his careworn wife Esther, their no fewer than fourteen children, and no-good brother Abiram White. It’s impossible to paint Cooper as a racist or white supremacist as the book is drenched in Leatherstocking’s contempt for white farmers destroying the forest (‘their wantonness and folly’ Ch XIX; the ‘wasteful temper of my people’ Ch XX), the arbitrariness of white law, the uselessness of white learning – and the Bushes, representatives of white settlers, are depicted as violent, stupid, criminal lowlifes. As the Pawnee chief Hard-Heart says:
‘Your warriors think the Master of Life has made the whole earth white. They are mistaken.’ (Chapter XVIII)
By contrast with their own narrow brutal worldview, the Bushes’ first sight of the trapper is as a larger-than-life figure, supernaturally enlarged in silhouette against the effulgence of the setting sun, the first of many tall, dark, mythic American heroes…
The sun had fallen below the crest of the nearest wave of the prairie, leaving the usual rich and glowing train on its track. In the centre of this flood of fiery light, a human form appeared, drawn against the gilded background, as distinctly, and seemingly as palpable, as though it would come within the grasp of any extended hand. The figure was colossal; the attitude musing and melancholy, and the situation directly in the route of the travellers. But imbedded, as it was, in its setting of garish light, it was impossible to distinguish its just proportions or true character.
The effect of such a spectacle was instantaneous and powerful. (Chapter I)
Along with the Bushes is a spirited young woman, Ellen Wade, ‘a sprightly, active, girl, of eighteen, who in figure, dress, and mien, seemed to belong to a station in society several gradations above that of any one of her visible associates’. Ellen is reluctantly travelling with the Bush clan because both her parents are dead and Ishmael, as her ‘father’s brother’s widow’s husband’, has been lumbered with her care – but Ellen is secretly in love with a young and impulsive frontiersman named Paul Hover.
The trapper learns all this because he is present when she walks a distance from the Bush camp to meet the impetuous young man. They have barely started bickering like true young lovers before they hear a thundering of hooves, and lo! a band of Sioux Indians comes galloping up and seizes all three. (In the same way that his account of the Indians in Last of the Mohicans is confusing, once again Cooper refers to the Sioux, the Dahcotas and the Tetons interchangeably, which has you reaching for Wikipedia to discover that the Dakotas – here spelt Dahcotas – were one of the three main divisions of the Sioux nation. It seems that Cooper incorrectly uses the term ‘Teton’ when that should refer to one of the other divisions, the Lakota.)
In a prolonged sequence the leader of the Indians, Mahtoree, menaces the threesome, before setting off with his men to scout out the sleeping Bush campment. Here, in several edge-of-your-seat moments, he hovers with a drawn knife over a sleeping guard as if to stab him – before cutting the bonds of the pioneers’ horses, cows and pigs and shooing them back to the group of Indians (and the trapper) on a hill overlooking. The trapper seizes a moment of inattention to grab a knife off the Indian guarding him and strike through the cords binding the Indians’ horses, whooping loudly. Off run the Indian horses and off run the Indians after them.
The trapper strolls down to the Bush camp to find them all awake and angry that Indians have stolen all their cattle. They accuse him of being in league with the Indians. In his resigned, 80-year-old way, the trapper ignores all their shouting and, pointing out that they now need a place of refuge, guides them to a tall rocky bluff by a stream on top of which, over the next week, the Bushes set up a fortified camp.
From this point onwards several plotlines develop.
1. Dr Battius For a start, we are introduced to the pompous naturalist, Dr Obad Battius, who is also travelling with the Bushes, much given to quoting Latin tags and placing every animal encountered, including other humans, into their correct Family, Genus and Species.
“Woman, I forbid you on pain of the law to project any of your infernal missiles. I am a citizen, and a freeholder, and a graduate of two universities; and I stand upon my rights! Beware of malice prepense, of chance-medley, and of manslaughter. It is I — your amicus; a friend and inmate. I — Dr. Obed Battius.” (Chapter XI)
Battius feels a very stage-comic character, the joke scholar, like something out of Sheridan, with the added pedantry of Shakespeare’s Polonius.
“Perfection is always found in maturity, whether it be in the animal or in the intellectual world. Reflection is the mother of wisdom, and wisdom the parent of success.” (Chapter XIV)
But he isn’t as funny as the comic characters in The Pioneers which is, essentially, a comic novel – here, in the rougher environment of The Prairie and surrounded by the brutish Ishmael and his oafish sons, the humour seems more contrived.
“Am I man enough! Venerable trapper, our communications have a recent origin, or thy interrogatory might have a tendency to embroil us in angry disputation. Am I man enough! I claim to be of the class, mammalia; order, primates; genus, homo! Such are my physical attributes; of my moral properties, let posterity speak; it becomes me to be mute.” (Chapter XVII)
Instead, as the text progresses, we find Battius and the trapper engaged in evermore lengthy debates about the nature of knowledge, of science, of culture and readiness for death. Although tinged with comedy, Cooper has clearly put a lot of effort into creating these careful dialogues which I suspect the modern reader mostly skips to get on to the next bit of action, rather as we are inclined to skip the subtleties of the different non-conformist Protestant sects which are carefully delineated in The Pioneers. We see what we want to see and the modern mind, obsessed with sexism and racism and, maybe, environmentalism, sees that everywhere. Living in a post-Christian society means we are mostly blind to the subtlety of the Battius-trapper debates, which – in another era – could easily have formed the core of a review of the book.
2. Paul Hover is the young lover/hero, but he also is often played for laughs. In this vast man’s world, Paul is a bee-keeper, which immediately makes him an odd figure; but Cooper then gives him the comic attribute that more or less every time he opens his mouth, in any situation, whether making love to Ellen or being chased by Indians, he speaks in bee-keeping terminology, about hives and queens and honey and comb and so on. In this he is a carbon copy of Benjamin from The Pioneers, an ex-sailor who referred to absolutely everything in naval terms. But it doesn’t work here: The Pioneers is a comic novel where you expect to read slowly to savour the comic situations and repartee; Mohicans and Prairie are action-adventure stories and the reader wants everything to be streamlined to emphasise the excitement: both Hover’s apiarism and Battius’s pedantry get in the way.
3. Asa dies Ishmael’s eldest son, Asa, doesn’t return from an expedition to kill game. Ishmael, his wife and sons all go scouting for him and eventually find his body, shot in the back and then horribly disfigured, hidden in a brake of grass. They extract the bullet which has the mark of the trapper on it. They bury Asa and vow vengeance.
3. The secret in the tent The first dozen or so chapters are threaded with a ponderous mystery – Ishmael keeps a tent in his camp separate from the people and goods, a tent which obviously contains some portentous secret – Ellen and the trapper and the Doctor are angrily pushed away by Ishmael whenever they get near it. Gold? Some rare animal? A person? The reader is kept guessing…
4. Duncan Middleton Out of the wilderness arrives an officer, Duncan Uncas Middleton, strolling in on Battius, Hover and the trapper as they are feasting on a bison they have shot and cooked.
a) The trapper is galvanised when the soldier mentions his middle name – Uncas – which is, of course, the name of the younger, more heroic of the two Mohicans in Last of The Mohicans. Duncan is none other than the grandson of the Major Heyward who featured in that novel and ended up marrying one of its two female leads, Alice Munro. As tribute to the young warrior Uncas who died rescuing Alice and her sister, Heyward gave his son the middle name of Uncas and it became a family tradition. The trapper is in tears as he hears all this and as, I imagine, the reader is meant to be.
b) Chapter 15 is devoted to Middleton’s backstory, namely he is an officer in the US Army which recently moved in to hold Louisiana once it was relinquished by its French owners, and he fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a Spanish grandee (the French themselves seized much of this territory from its original Spanish conquerors) – Inez de Certavallos. Although she, her priest, and the father all try to convert Middleton to the Catholic faith, he holds true to his simple Protestant roots, and on this basis they are married. But on the very day of the wedding Inez disappears, to everyone’s horror and consternation. Some time later, Middleton learns from a drunk that she was kidnapped by one Abiram White, a notorious slave trafficker.
Aha. The same Abiram White who is accompanying the Bushes, Ishmael’s wife’s brother! Now we know who is hidden in the tent which Ishmael is at such pains to keep everyone away from – Middleton’s long-lost wife, Inez! And now, while Ishmael and all his sons are away looking for the son who never came back from the hunt (in the scene described above), Dr Battius, Paul Hover, the trapper and Captain Middleton ride up to the rock-top fastness. Here they are confronted by Ellen who promised Ishmael to keep it secure, along with Ishmael’s trigger-happy daughters, but in a comic storming of the rock they make it to the top and liberate Inez from her trap. Middleton and his long-lost wife are reunited.
The plot – part two
From this point onwards, i.e. for the second half of the novel, it becomes a prolonged Chase, reminiscent of the prolonged chases through the New York forest in Mohicans, but this time over the small hills and gullies of the endless, open, exposed prairie.
- Knowing the Bushes will return and not be happy to find their camp taken, their girls tied up and Inez liberated, our Team (Middleton & Inez, Hover and Ellen, Dr Battius and the trapper) circle away from the rocky camp and head back towards the very clump of reeds where the Bushes found Asa’s body, because that’s the last place they’ll look.
- Here they uncover an Indian hiding in the reeds who emerges in dignified silence and mounts the horse he summons. He will turn out to be Hard-Heart, legendary chief of the Pawnee tribe, enemy of the Sioux – a man of ‘faultless form, unchanging eye, and lofty mien’ (Ch 28). He converses with the trapper, before setting off back towards his village.
- Soon afterwards the trapper realises from the sound of thunder and the wave of birds flying towards them that a vast stampede of wild bison is heading directly towards them. The trapper saves them by stepping out in front of the brake of reeds and scaring the leaders either side of it, helped by Middleton and Hover, but it is a close thing, with some strays rampaging through the reeds close to the (as ever) defenceless maidens.
- Our Team realise the stampede was started by Sioux who have picked off stragglers, as part of their hunting. They watch the Indians approach the brake then the trapper decides to creep round and approach them, exposing himself and trying to distract them from the rest of the Party. The Sioux – or Dahcotas as they call themselves – whoop with pleasure but allow the trapper to have an extended conversation with their leader, Mahtoree.
- The trapper thinks he is getting somewhere with his distraction when he is disconcerted to see the rest of the Gang – Hover, Middleton, the maidens and Battius – emerging from the reeds behind him. They have seen Ishmael and his posse approaching from the other side and decided the Indians present a better chance of survival.
- After their initial surprise, the Indians see the settlers approaching looking none too friendly. When the trapper says that the Bushes’ settlement is completely unguarded and ripe for looting and he can show them where it is, Mahtoree has our Team mounted up on spare horses and they all gallop back towards the Tall Rock, Ishmael and his boys firing their rifles at them from just out of range and, of course, having no horses of their own to follow on.
- In a wordy sequence the trapper manages to persuade the Indians that Battius is a special Medicine Man so that they allow him to straggle a little behind the main posse. At which the trapper instructs the naturalist to make off in a different direction to a secret rendezvous. By this time the Sioux have arrived at the bottom of the Tall Rock, cross that the Medicine Man has disappeared, but about to enjoy some looting. As the Indians dismount and consider how to tackle the rock, not least because Ishmael’s infuriated wife Esther is taking pot shots from above – the trapper signals to the rest of his gang and they spur their horses (one for the trapper, one carrying Middleton and Inez, one carrying Hover and Ellen) and whoosh, they are gone over a ridge into a gully, up the other side, and have a good lead on the Indians, who on balance, prefer the loot to pursuing the escapees.
- They ride 20 miles then make a camp as night falls. The trapper has a long argument with Dr Battius where the latter defends civilisation and law and culture and the trapper pours scorn on all of it and laments the wastefulness and folly of the white man who has laid waste the primeval forest, despoiling the work of God and is now invading the plains and bringing with him nothing but waste and folly – “What the world of America is coming to, and where the machinations and inventions of its people are to have an end, the Lord, he only knows…. How much has the beauty of the wilderness been deformed in two short lives!” (Chapter XXIII)
- As dawn wakes the Team they slowly realise the horizon is very red. It is because a prairie Fire is rampaging towards them. The guys panic, the women bewail their fate, but the trapper makes them pull up all the grass in an area 30 feet around them and then himself lights the grass at the edge of this clearing. The grass takes and burns towards the inferno, thus creating a brake of barren soil and ash around our Heroes. And so the raging fire passes close but not over them. The dazed survivors thank the trapper for saving their life and they head slowly through the ashes towards the nearest river.
- They come across an incinerated Bison but are astonished when the corpse starts moving and is then thrown off to reveal the same Pawnee brave they met at the brake the day before, hiding under it. They spared each other then and are friends again now, especially when the trapper tells Hard-Heart that they are pursued by the Pawnees’ enemy, the Sioux.
- They make quick time to the river where the Indian impressively creates a coracle out of a hide and a few sticks. One by one he ferries the Team across the wide fast river in the coracle tied to his horse. As Dr Battius, characteristically, dithers and discusses the seaworthiness of this little invention, the Sioux posse arrives on the river bank and starts shooting bows and arrows. That decides the naturalist who hops in and they are safely guided to the other shore by the valiant and faithful Pawnee, while our guys on the safe shore take a few shots at the Indians. One lucky shot kills Mahtoree’s horse from under him and this causes confusion and delay.
- Hard-Heart and the trapper agree to head down the river for a while, instead of going in a straight line to the Pawnee village. They make a camp, make beds for the maidens, and then fall asleep. In the morning they awaken to discover that a thick snow has fallen during the night and this, of course, will show the Indians there are no tracks towards the Pawnee village. Barely have they thought this than they spy the Sioux circling carefully towards their hiding place. No point fighting. The trapper stands up and hands himself and his followers over to the delighted Tetons and their mighty leader, Mahtoree. (Chapter XXIV)
The plot – part three
Chapter XXVI Fade out the last scene and fade up on a new setting, a week later. We are in Mahtoree’s Sioux village, a scattering of a hundred teepees near the river. Also camped there are the Bush family with their wagons, uneasy allies of the Sioux. Middleton and Hover have been tied and bound and thrown on the ground, not far from the stake where Hard-Heart has been tied up. The old trapper has been left free to roam (rather like David Gamut in the Huron village in Mohicans). Proud but fickle Mahtoree approaches and commandeers the trapper to accompany him to his teepee and translate his words to the strikingly beautiful Inez, who he wishes to become his wife. The maidens (dark Inez and blonde Ellen) accept Mahtoree’s pledges and he leaves, but not before his distraught (third) Sioux wife first pleads with him to stay loyal to her on account of the little baby boy she bore him only a year previously and, when he haughtily ignores her and sweeps out of the teepee, she takes off all her jewellery and decorations, places them in a pile before Inez, withdraws to a corner in mourning.
Chapter XXVII Emerging from his teepee Mahtoree is confronted by angry Ishmael who demands the trapper translate that he wants his captive (Inez), his niece (Ellen) and the trapper himself to be handed over. Mahtoree smiles, says no way, but, seeing as Ishmael’s wife, Esther, is old and shrivelled, Mahtoree generously offers to give him his own cast-off Sioux wife. The trapper struggles to keep a straight face as he translates this and sure enough, Esther explodes into a rhodomontade of recriminations against savages, her husband, her good-for-nothing sons and men in general. Mahtoree proceeds to a council of Indian elders which is to decide what to do with Hover, Middleton, and especially their enemy, Hard-Heart. They have barely started the debate when Mahtoree asks the Paleface’s medicine man to be brought in, by which they mean Dr Battius, who has been stripped, shaved except for a mohican strip of hair and redressed in Indian warpaint and feathers, so that he looks quite comical
Chapter XXVIII A detailed description of the council of the Dahcota elders at which Mahtoree attempts to whip them up into enmity against their tied-up Pawnee prisoner, but to everyone’s surprise, an extremely old and venerable Indian, known by the name the French gave him back in the day, Le Balafre, laments that he has no son to be a support in his old age and continue his line – and then adopts Hard-Heart as his son – to Mahtoree’s inexpressible anger. But Hard-Heart refuses! The Pawnee cannot become a Sioux. In fact he has already pledged to become the trapper’s son (in an earlier scene, where the trapper pledged to carry word of his death back to his tribe and fetch his beloved colt to his graveside and there kill it so that Hard-Heart – in the manner of the Vikings or the ancient Egyptians – will have a steed to carry him to the Happy Hunting Grounds.) The scene ends in high drama as Mahtoree authorises his creature, a low-hearted Sioux named Weucha, to menace Hard-Heart with a tomahawk, swinging it round his head hoping to make him flinch or beg for mercy, but the noble youth stands undaunted until, with complete surprise, he grabs Weucha’s arm, seizes the tomahawk, embeds it in Weucha’s skull as deep as his eyes, and with a wild whoop, leaps over the aghast Sioux and skids down the slope to the river just as his fellow Pawnees arrive in force!
Chapter XXIX Mahtoree leaves a wicked old Sioux to arm the crones of the tribe and murder the remaining prisoners (Hover and Middleton) but the trapper sets them free, while all the time giving a running commentary on the skirmish of the two tribes down by the river. Meanwhile the Sioux women have packed their teepees and children onto horseback and exited. The old crones are dispersed by the braying of Dr Battius’s donkey (an animal they have never seen before and associate with his Dark Magic) but before the trapper and the boys can stop laughing, a heavy hand is clapped on his shoulder and he discovers Ishmael and his six brothers pointing rifles at them. The trapper, Hover and Middleton are tied and bound, packed up along with Inez and Ellen onto spare horses, and the Bush party heads off in the opposite direction from the Sioux tribe.
Chapter XXX A pitched battle between the Pawnees and the Tetons begins with the opposing chiefs, Hard-Heart and Mahtoree spurring their horses to a sandbank in the middle of the river and having a fierce duel. Hard-Heart’s horse is shot from under him and as he tries to extricate himself from his fallen horse Mahtoree advances to deal the death blow when Hard-Heart throws a knife which buries itself deep in the other’s body. This is the signal for a massive melee in the river, with the Pawnees fighting the Sious back to their side but themselves being thrown back. But as the Sioux press their advantage and push the Pawnee into the river, shots ring out from the flank and a brace of Sioux braves fall. It is Ishmael and his sons attacking their former enemies. This breaks the Sioux who flee and are massacred mercilessly, Cooper dwelling on several particularly gruesome ends. Boys adventure heaven.
Chapter XXXI Ishmael Bush impresses by acting the judge before his family and his prisoners. (Hard-Heart, who he helped win the battle of the creek, has come in peace to observe proceedings.) He freely admits he was persuaded by his brother-in-law to kidnap Inez and now bitterly regrets it. He announces her set at liberty and also Captain Middleton (whose bounds are therefore cut by his sons). Similarly, he asks Ellen her wish and she tearfully expresses her gratitude to Ishmael for taking her in when no-one else would, but says her heart is set on Paul the bee-man. So Ishmael orders them both set free. Finally he charges the trapper with murdering his son, using the evidence of the bullet found in the body. The trapper calmly says he saw who did it, it was Abiram White. The cowardly murderer immediately overdoes his shouts of innocence and as Ishmael’s boys advance towards him, turns to run, trips and drops dead at their feet. The released prisoners ride off with Hard-Heart.
Chapter XXXII A grim and sombre, melodramatic and Gothic chapter in which the Bush family trundles across the plains in its wagons until it comes to a likely place to camp, and here Ishmael orders Abiram out of his wagon and declares his sentence is to die for the murder he committed and the wretched man pleads and grovels for his life, until Ishmael laments and sets him on a gallows made from a dead tree and a platform of rock, tying his hands so that he will eventually, from weakness, totter off the ledge and be hanged. The wagon train continues and camps further on. But Ishmael can’t rest and walks back, suddenly hearing terrible cries on the wind, blasphemies and crying and then a terrible scream of horror! It reads very much like one of Dickens’s most gruesome scenes of vengeance and the macabre. Ishmael and his wife cut down and bury the wretch, and next day their wagon trail lumbers out of the story.
Chapter XXXIII Hard-Heart and his Pawnees are noble hosts to Middleton, Inez, Hover and Ellen, the Doctor and the trapper. Middleton notes his ‘artillerists’ have arrived and are being treated hospitably. After a few days hospitality, our friends pack up and leave. Hard-Heart declaims a noble speech of friendship. They get into boats lined up along the river and the current bears them away. But they haven’t gone far before the trapper asks to be set ashore on a sandbank. Middleton, Hover, the Doctor all beg him to come with them to ‘the settlements’ where they will make him comfortable. But the old man ‘who has acted his part honestly near ninety winters and summers’ wants nothing to do with ‘the waste and wickedness of the settlements and the villages’. He wants to spend his last days in complete freedom. He asks one favour, that they take a few beaver pelts, sell them in the settlements and buy a new trap which they can send back to the Pawnee village. He gets out with old Hector and asks Captain Middleton if he may borrow his dog who (we learned in the middle of the book) is in fact a descendant of a pup of Hector himself, given to Heyward and Alice decades earlier; Middleton says, Yes of course, take anything. The friends he has guided to safety are all in floods of tears.
He was last seen standing on the low point, leaning on his rifle, with Hector crouched at his feet, and the younger dog frisking along the sands, in the playfulness of youth and vigour.
Chapter XXXIV In the last chapter we see the dignified intelligent Middleton and Inez, and the rougher more boisterously American Hover and Ellen, married and settled. The Autumn of the next year duty takes Middleton close to the Pawnee village and, accompanied by Hover, he makes the journey there to renew friendship. He finds the village attending the dying trapper. Propped in a chair, he is now very weak. His dog, Hector, is dead. He makes the last of his countless sententious and high-minded speeches – pointedly reminding Hard-Heart that he is a Christian white man at the end. Nonetheless, we are reminded that he adopted Hard-Heart as his son in the village of the Sioux, promising to take his last words to his tribe when we all thought the Sioux would execute Hard-Heart; and right to his last breaths his Indian son dutifully obeys and comforts him. Middleton promises to pay for a simple headstone. The old man looks into the glory of ‘an American sunset’ and passes from this world. Not a dry eye in the house. It is a majestic ending.
Cooper’s attitude towards the Indians which feature so prominently in this and the previous novel is multilayered. On the one hand he freely admits the Indians are a ‘wronged and humbled people’, and ‘the lawful owners’ of the land (Ch XXV), which is being stolen from them by the whites (or the ‘Big-Knives’ as they are generally referred to) and who Cooper describes as ‘hungry locusts’ (Ch XXVIII). Hence their understandable antipathy to whitey.
“Could the red nations work their will, trees would shortly be growing again on the ploughed fields of America, and woods would be whitened with Christian bones.” (Chapter XXV)
Yet his hero is also quick enough to criticise and fear the savagery of some tribes and nations – in Mohicans the Iroquois, in this novel, the Sioux. The trapper inhabits a world in which there are hundreds of tribes of Indians, with a wealth of different characteristics and behaviours, themselves locked in a bewildering complex of inter-tribal wars and alliances. Through this world he has learned to pick his way. To us, nearly 200 years later looking back, there is just ‘the tragedy of the Indians’, driven off their land in a succession of betrayals and massacres, hemmed into ‘reservations’, and condemned to alcoholism and extinction. But reading Cooper makes you aware that, at the time, the Indians were equal players over vast parts of the continent, their war bands as powerful or more than the settlers who encroached, perfectly capable of massacring even full army units (like General Braddock’s in 1755 or General Custer’s 111 years later) let alone isolated bands of white settlers.
In this semi-embattled context, what stands out is not Cooper’s criticisms of, but his repeated admiration for, the native traditions and culture of some of the Indian tribes. After all, the closest friend and confidante of Leatherstocking to the end of his life is Chingachgook, the ‘Mohican’. And here is Cooper’s sterling depiction of Hard-Heart, the Pawnee chief, who Leatherstocking ends up adopting as his son, and who tends to his last days:
The Indian in question was in every particular a warrior of fine stature and admirable proportions. As he cast aside his mask, composed of such party-coloured leaves, as he had hurriedly collected, his countenance appeared in all the gravity, the dignity, and, it may be added, in the terror of his profession. The outlines of his lineaments were strikingly noble, and nearly approaching to Roman, though the secondary features of his face were slightly marked with the well-known traces of his Asiatic origin. The peculiar tint of the skin, which in itself is so well designed to aid the effect of a martial expression, had received an additional aspect of wild ferocity from the colours of the war-paint. But, as if he disdained the usual artifices of his people, he bore none of those strange and horrid devices, with which the children of the forest are accustomed, like the more civilised heroes of the moustache, to back their reputation for courage, contenting himself with a broad and deep shadowing of black, that served as a sufficient and an admirable foil to the brighter gleamings of his native swarthiness. His head was as usual shaved to the crown, where a large and gallant scalp-lock seemed to challenge the grasp of his enemies. The ornaments that were ordinarily pendant from the cartilages of his ears had been removed, on account of his present pursuit. His body, notwithstanding the lateness of the season, was nearly naked, and the portion which was clad bore a vestment no warmer than a light robe of the finest dressed deer-skin, beautifully stained with the rude design of some daring exploit, and which was carelessly worn, as if more in pride than from any unmanly regard to comfort. His leggings were of bright scarlet cloth, the only evidence about his person that he had held communion with the traders of the Pale-faces. But as if to furnish some offset to this solitary submission to a womanish vanity, they were fearfully fringed, from the gartered knee to the bottom of the moccasin, with the hair of human scalps. He leaned lightly with one hand on a short hickory bow, while the other rather touched than sought support, from the long, delicate handle of an ashen lance. A quiver made of the cougar skin, from which the tail of the animal depended, as a characteristic ornament, was slung at his back, and a shield of hides, quaintly emblazoned with another of his warlike deeds, was suspended from his neck by a thong of sinews. (Chapter XVIII)
The noble and the distasteful are mingled, for the chief has the scalps of his enemies attached to his leggings – just as Uncas is an undoubted hero in Mohicans and yet unnecessarily murders the French sentry to get his scalp – because it is the way of his people. All this Hawkeye notes, regrets, but knows he cannot change. Their land, their customs. You can’t say, their land, their customs, except the ones I don’t like and which I’m going to change – that’s what the Christian missionaries said, and the government lawyers and the Sunday schoolmarms, to the Indians’ ruination.
Even in enemy Indians, Leatherstocking respects their unbending dignity and stoicism. He recalls to Middleton the silence of the Indian desperately clinging to a bush over a vast waterfall, who he shot and who plunged to his silence (during the siege of Glens Falls in Last of The Mohicans).
Cooper had met and talked to Indians in the country around his hometown in New York state and then further afield, so he had more experience of Native Americans than any of us. According to some historians, Cooper’s Indian novels are the single most influential source of later Western cultural ideas about Native Americans. This is a heavy burden to bear, and we know that he was inaccurate in many aspects of the names and histories of the tribes he describes. But overwhelmingly, Cooper’s image of the Indian is positive, endlessly repeating the idea that they were noble, dignified, stoic, restrained, physically beautiful specimens of humanity, awesomely in tune with their environment and the beasts in it.
During this rude interruption to the discourse, the young Pawnee manifested neither impatience nor displeasure; but when he thought his beast had been the subject of sufficient comment, he very coolly, and with the air of one accustomed to have his will respected, relieved Paul of the bridle, and throwing the reins on the neck of the animal, he sprang upon his back, with the activity of a professor of the equestrian art. Nothing could be finer or firmer than the seat of the savage. The highly wrought and cumbrous saddle was evidently more for show than use. Indeed it impeded rather than aided the action of limbs, which disdained to seek assistance, or admit of restraint from so womanish inventions as stirrups. The horse, which immediately began to prance, was, like its rider, wild and untutored in all his motions, but while there was so little of art, there was all the freedom and grace of nature in the movements of both. (Chapter XVIII)
‘All the freedom and grace of nature’, wow.
Whatever we modern and impeccably politically correct readers make of Cooper’s attitudes to the Indians, there is no doubting his contempt for the white settlers and farmers, who his hero sees as unambiguously bad thing. If Cooper is racist, it is directed at white people. Their despoliation of the beautiful natural American environment is not only wasteful and ruinous, though that is bad enough – in defacing the wonderful works of the Creator, the activity of most white people is actively blasphemous.
“… it will not be long before an accursed band of choppers and loggers will be following on their heels, to humble the wilderness which lies so broad and rich on the western banks of the Mississippi, and then the land will be a peopled desert, from the shores of the main sea to the foot of the Rocky Mountains; fill’d with all the abominations and craft of man, and stript of the comforts and loveliness it received from the hands of the Lord!” (Chapter XVIII)
The beauty of unspoilt America, the nobility and manliness of its finest natives, and the wicked, wasteful, ungodly ways of its white settlers – these are the bedrock themes of these novels, emphasised again and again and again.
‘Long-winded’ does not begin to convey the circumlocutory nature of Cooper’s periphrastic periods.
While the exterior of the naturalist was decidedly pacific, not to say abstracted, that of the new comer was distinguished by an air of vigour, and a front and step which it would not have been difficult to have at once pronounced to be military. (Chapter x)
As Dr Battius is sneaking towards the secret tent, he is terrified to feel a hand on his shoulder and a whispered enquiry, and…
So soon as the heart of the naturalist had returned from its hasty expedition into his throat, as one less skilled than Dr. Battius in the formation of the animal would have been apt to have accounted for the extraordinary sensation with which he received this unlooked-for interruption, he found resolution to reply… (Chapter XI)
Cooper is self-aware. He even calls his own hero ‘prolix’, as he sets off on another long rambling sententious exordium about the nature of ‘the savage’… But you take the rough with the smooth in a book as old as this, and at other moments his 200-year-old style is rhetorically effective; some of the natural descriptions remind us of the school of American landscape painters which his work inspired. Here are our boys looking up at the tent on top of the high rock, as a gust of wind sweeps past them.
… a rushing blast of wind swept by the spot where they stood, raising the dust in little eddies, in its progress; and then, as if guided by a master hand, it quitted the earth, and mounted to the precise spot on which all eyes were just then riveted. The loosened linen felt its influence and tottered; but regained its poise, and, for a moment, it became tranquil. The cloud of leaves next played in circling revolutions around the place, and then descended with the velocity of a swooping hawk, and sailed away into the prairie in long straight lines, like a flight of swallows resting on their expanded wings. (Chapter XIII)
The wind blowing a gust of leaves across the open plain like swallows on the wing – not bad! So the long-winded style works quite often (and just as well in such a very long book).
For earlier generations Leatherstocking was an archetypal figure, a legend of the frontier. But for readers in the 21st century, I think the books’ power comes from the sheer variety of scenes, settings and characters which they contain – the stampede of bison, the prairie fire, crossing the river under fire from the Indians, all these scenes join the deep forests, the high mountains, the thundering waterfalls and hidden caves of the earlier books, and through all of them stride the haunting figures of the noble Indians, true ‘owners’ of the land.
The Leatherstocking books give you a powerful sense of what life must have been like, 200 years ago, in a world we can’t really imagine – or wouldn’t be able to without the lengthy, sometimes verbose, but amazingly varied, often powerful and vivid descriptions of this classic novelist.
I read the 1987 American Penguin edition, which has a useful introduction by Blake Nevius but, alas, no notes. The central point he makes is that the novels’ fundamental structure is the ‘romance’, an idea stretching back 2,000 years to the New Comedy of the Romans, which places a boy meets girl romance at the centre of a narrative – more often pairing two pairs of boys and girls, to give variety and contrast. The tradition goes right through Shakespeare whose comedies generally feature a pair of couples (think of Demetrius & Hermia, Lysander & Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Orlando & Rosalind, Oliver & Celia in As You Like It) and on into the 18th century novel which is, classically, about wooing and wedding (whether taken seriously in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or played for laughs as in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones). Thus both Mohicans and The Prairie feature a couple of couples: in The Prairie the more working class, rumbustious pair of plain-speaking Paul Hover and bosomy Ellen Ward are set against the aristocratic dignity of the virtually unspeaking Inez – a sort of doll or icon of femininity – and the intelligent, dignified officer Middleton who is the right sort of stuffed-shirt character to receive the trapper’s final words and wishes right at the novel’s end. Mohicans has the upmarket Alice, eventually married to Major Heyward, contrasted with the more ample-figured i.e bosomy, Cora. Since she has to die so does Uncas, in a big slab of tearjerking 18th century sentimentality.
Dressing up and disguises feature prominently in this comic tradition and partly explain the silly bear and beaver costumes in Last of the Mohicans or the ludicrous makeover Dr Battius receives to turn him into an Indian medicine man.
But the novel adds to this love-interest-with-disguises basic recipe a wealth of new influences, most obviously The Chase – hunt, pursuit, capture, rescue – and Landscape. After the trapper has established the Bushes on their rocktop encampment, the rest of the novel is just a sequence of interlocking chases, pursuits, perils and escapes. And these are not only exciting in themselves but allow for variety of scenery – open plain, firestorm, bison stampede, river battle, snowfall, Indian camp.
Nevius asserts that readers of Cooper often struggle to remember the details of plot – but they always remember the vivid brilliant pictures that Cooper creates in our minds’ eyes.
- The Prairie on Amazon
- The Prairie online at Project Gutenberg
- The Prairie Wikipedia article
- The James Fenimore Cooper Society
The five Leatherstocking novels
1823 The Pioneers – The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale
1826 The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757
1827 The Prairie – A Tale
1840 The Pathfinder – The Inland Sea
1841 The Deerslayer – The First War Path