Abstract

James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales have achieved canonical literary status in the US academy and provide a representative example of the frontier tradition in American writing. Through a close reading of Cooper's first romance, I argue that America's longstanding frontier narrative is predicated on the cultural projection of the able-bodied hero. In The Pioneers, Cooper relies on dueling constructions of disability and able-bodiedness to distinguish his white hero from his friend and Native American counterpart, Chingachgook. While Chingachgook's disability provides the logic for his eventual suicide and removal from the narrative, Natty Bumppo's strength of character becomes registered through the physical perfection of his body. In celebrating Natty Bumppo's passage from old age in The Pioneers to new youth in The Deerslayer, the critical tradition surrounding the Leatherstocking series has tacitly endorsed Cooper's corporeal hierarchy, suggesting that the myth of the American frontier relies upon a much deeper myth of American ability.

In this article, I argue that America's longstanding frontier narrative is predicated on the cultural projection of the able-bodied hero. In following Natty Bumppo from old age in The Pioneers to new youth in The Deerslayer, the Leatherstocking tales provide a paradigmatic example of this broader cultural phenomenon. James Fenimore Cooper turned to the wilderness of the frontier in order to draw a unique portrait of American national identity, and his lasting contribution to the American cultural mythos has been his frontier hero, Natty Bumppo. Bumppo reflects the core qualities of the burgeoning American character—rugged individualism, self-reliance, moral certitude in the face of difficult ethical dilemmas, and freedom from the potentially stifling strictures of society. These characteristics gain their force through his physical acts of valor—the rescue of captive women, the winning of numerous shooting competitions, and the reluctant killing of countless Native Americans in the unique warfare of the frontier. As "a man without a cross," Natty Bumppo became a symbol of the nation's white, Anglo-Saxon destiny, and his racial purity became legible at least in part through the physical perfection of his body. 1

Even as early as The Pioneers, Cooper deploys a binary opposition between the disabled and the able-bodied in order to mark a point of separation between Natty Bumppo and his Native American friend and counterpart, Chingachgook. Here, Chingachgook occupies a disabled identity in order to facilitate his ultimate removal from the novel. Chingachgook's physical frailty is a narrative device that foreshadows his eventual suicide and symbolically positions the end of the Native American race as the result of a process of natural selection rather than violent British and US imperialism. In the midst of the narrative action of The Pioneers, Cooper realizes that Natty Bumppo cannot share the fate of Chingachgook, and it is in this novel that he first begins to realize the mythic potential of what will become his most beloved character. At the conclusion of the novel, Chingachgook dies and Bumppo lives, and their alternate fates come to reveal the strange relationship between disability and able-bodiedness—both symbiotic and parasitic—that continues to captivate America's cultural imagination.

Cooper's problematic reliance on dueling constructions of disability and able-bodiedness has become even more troubling as a history of Americanist literary critics have tacitly endorsed his distinction. While nominating Cooper's Leatherstocking series into the American canon, the myth-symbol school of American literary critics relied upon Cooper's reversal of the natural aging process to metaphorize the promise of the American nation. Bumppo's transition from old age in The Pioneers (published in 1823) to new youth in The Deerslayer (published in 1841) offered a convenient metaphor for the unique character of America, one that contrasted to the assumed decadence of the Old World. But by privileging youth over old age, these critics defined the meaning of America around a corporeal hierarchy that privileged some bodies over others, revealing a much deeper mythos underwriting the American national identity: the myth of American ability. It is to this myth—along with its firm belief that America attracted a race of man that could achieve all that the rest of a darkened world could not—that so many of America's defining literary motifs owe their genesis, including Emerson's self-reliance, Franklin's belief in the perfectibility of man, and in the case of this article, the frontiersman's rugged individualism.

The Pioneers: A Brief Overview

The Pioneers was never really intended to be Natty Bumppo's story, and he remains largely incidental to the central narrative until the novel's conclusion. Cooper refers to The Pioneers as a descriptive tale and his portrait of the burgeoning town of Templeton is based upon his own home in Cooperstown, New York. Above all else, Cooper depicts the growth of a small town at the borders of the frontier in order to tell a uniquely American story of national origins. The plot turns on a romance between Oliver Effingham and Elizabeth Temple and the novel mirrors literary conventions established in Europe, modeled most closely after the romances of Walter Scott.

Two conflicts animate the narrative action—one between Oliver Effingham and Judge Temple and the other between Judge Temple and Natty Bumppo. The conflict between Effingham and Temple emerges out of the historical context of the American Revolution. At one time business partners, Temple, the American, and Colonel Edward Effingham, Oliver's British father, part ways amicably at the time of the revolution, when Temple retains the assets of their shared business with Edward's consent. While Oliver believes that Temple seized the American victory as an opportunity to take full control over the Effingham estate and cheat him out of his inheritance, he learns at the novel's conclusion that the Judge has been holding his estate in trust this whole time, a fact that is clearly outlined in Temple's will. With the marriage of Oliver and Elizabeth at the novel's conclusion, the conflict is resolved, erasing any leftover enmity between Old World and New while attesting to the legal status of America's independence.

John P. McWilliams explains the other central conflict of the novel by charting the differences in the disputants' characters:

Leatherstocking exemplifies the just man in a Lockean State of Nature, [while] Judge Temple must bring institutional justice to the State of Civilization. [Temple represents] gentleman who relied upon property contracts, man-made law, and votes to build a good society at demonstrable expense to natural liberty, [while Bumppo represents] the individualist who, relying upon himself and the wilderness around him, pursued without qualification the laws of Nature's God. (57)

While Bumppo represents a profoundly ethical relationship to the natural landscape and personal freedom from the strictures of institutional law, Cooper ultimately positions Judge Temple as the ideal for the future of the American republic. As Henry Nash Smith accurately concludes, "The profundity of the symbol of Leatherstocking springs from the fact that Cooper displays a genuine ambivalence toward all these issues, although in every case his strongest commitment is to the forces of order" (62).

Each of these conflicts serve to mask the underlying dispossession of America's Native American populations, represented in The Pioneers by Bumppo's aging friend and chief of the Delaware tribe, Chingachgook. Eric Cheyfitz has pointed out that for the majority of the novel, Oliver Effingham appears to occupy a Native American identity, and even challenges Judge Temple's right to the lands surrounding Templeton on the grounds of indigenous land rights. Oliver emerges suddenly and mysteriously in the novel and spends most of his time with Bumppo and Chingachgook, causing the other townspeople to assume that he is a "half-breed," with one character remarking that he "can never be weaned from the savage ways" (122). As Cheyfitz explains, "[A]t the end of The Pioneers the opposition between 'Young Eagle' and the Judge, between Indian and white, that has sustained the debate over land rights collapses, when it is revealed that Oliver Edwards is the son and heir of Judge Temple's former silent business partner" (123). Here, the uncertainty of Oliver's ancestry is revealed as a narrative ploy and the novel affirms that property rights can only be legally disputed by white men.

The critical tradition on The Pioneers has accurately read the novel as a text about law and property in nineteenth-century America, what Cheyfitz refers to as a "fiction about the law" (119). But as a cultural text, the novel cannot simply rely on the letter of the law to affirm its central ideological positions; rather, Cooper's characters and the narrative sequence of his novel are carefully drawn to justify specific legal positions in cultural and affective terms. Cooper sets his novel in 1793-1794, shortly after the Revolution, in order to produce a fiction about the law that has its origin in the birth of the nation and justifies the national spread West that was occurring more and more rapidly at the time he was writing.

Anna Johnston and Alan Lawson's essay titled "Settler Colonies" helps to explain what is at stake in Cooper's nationalist project. For Johnston and Lawson:

historical definitions of "settler colonies" have relied on the presence of long-term, majority white racial communities, where indigenous peoples have been outnumbered and removed by colonial policies and practices. Thus countries like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have traditionally been described as "settler colonies," although it is also possible to make more complex arguments about the inclusion of nations such as the US or South Africa, for example. (361)

Cooper's novel is not, strictly speaking, concerned with the organizing category of the "settler" and its ambiguous status as both "colonized and colonizing"—by 1794, Judge Temple is the sovereign power of Templeton (Johnston 363). But in the settling act, "there is a strategic disavowal of the colonizing act. In this process, 'the national' is what replaces 'the indigenous' and in doing so conceals its participation in colonization by nominating a new 'colonized' subject—the colonizer or settler-invader" (365). As Johnston and Lawson explain:

The crucial theoretical move to be made is to see the "settler" as uneasily occupying a place caught between two First Worlds, two origins of authority and authenticity. One of these is the originating world of Europe, the Imperium—the source of its principal cultural authority. Its "other" First World is that of the First Nations whose authority they not only replaced and effaced but also desired. (370)

The two seemingly disparate conflicts that run throughout The Pioneers can be understood as alternative appeals to the different poles of authority and authenticity that Johnston and Lawson describe. Again, Cooper's novel appeals to literary authority through the form of the European romance, and his narrative nominates Judge Temple as the patriarch of the nation through the marriage of Oliver and Elizabeth, a marriage that symbolically unites the Old World and the New. As the novel progresses, Natty Bumppo emerges as the representative authority of the "First World" of indigenous inhabitants. While the character of the New World was in large part defined by the settlers' initial experiences with indigenous populations of Native Americans, Cooper reveals the parasitic nature of this history, positioning Bumppo as "the figure who is ready to step in when the native 'dies out'" (Johnston 364). Ultimately, Cooper resolves conflicts in The Pioneers through the effacement and replacement of "First World" forms of cultural authority with nationalist forms of cultural authority that affirm a uniquely American mythos. By reading the novel through the lens of disability studies, it becomes clear that Cooper is only able accomplish this process of effacement and replacement by appealing to the contrast between the disabled and able body. As a result, Cooper's form of nationalism is deeply entrenched in what Tobin Siebers has referred to as the "ideology of ability."

The Death of Chingachgook

While the final four Leatherstocking Tales are populated by a number of Native American characters, The Pioneers sole indigenous representative is Chingachgook, friend of Natty Bumppo and chief of the Delaware tribe. 2 Chingachgook exists at the margins of Cooper's text, remaining incidental to the central plot for much of the novel. Yet, his character still serves an important narrative purpose as Cooper charts the passage from the wild age of the frontier to the newly minted civilization represented by Judge Temple. Eric Cheyfitz argues in "Savage Law" that the Johnson and Graham's Lessee v. M'Intosh Supreme Court case of 1823 (the year of The Pioneers publication), produced a legal fiction that denied Native Americans property rights and allowed the government to claim legal title over their lands. The Johnson v. M'Intosh ruling became "the cornerstone of the establishment of federal Indian law," and in doing so, acted as a "preamble to the famous Cherokee cases of 1831 and 1832 that limited the sovereignty of Indian peoples to that of 'domestic dependent nations'" (Cheyfitz 110). Cooper's novel corroborates this legal decision in no uncertain terms, but he is simultaneously interested in mediating the cultural inheritance offered by the indigenous inhabitants of the New World.

Cooper accomplishes both the legal and cultural work of Native American dispossession through his depiction of Chingachgook in an effort to naturalize the American spread West across the continent. Early descriptions of Chingachgook reveal this fundamental goal:

As he walked slowly down the long hall, the dignified and deliberate tread of the Indian surprised the spectators. His shoulders, and body to his waist, were entirely bare, with the exception of a silver medallion of Washington that was suspended from his neck by a thong of buckskin, and rested on his high chest, amidst many scars. His shoulders were rather broad and full; but the arms, though straight and graceful, wanted the muscular appearance that labor gives to a race of men. (82, emphasis mine)

While the opening lines of this passage suggest the inherent nobility of Chingachgook and the Mohican blood line, the final line reveals a far different intention for Chingachgook's inclusion in the narrative. Here, Chingachgook's slack arms suggest his inability to labor effectively in the new world. The movement of the passage from the solitary and aging Chingachgook to "a race of men" signals the broader failure of the Native American race to properly settle and develop the land. This same logic is at the heart of the Lessee v. M'Intosh decision: "…the tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages, whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest. To leave them in possession of their country was to leave the country a wilderness" (Cheyfitz 117). The savage/civilized binary that structures the Supreme Court decision and Cooper's description of Chingachgook rests on the assertion that the "savage" inherently lacks the ability to improve the physical landscape for civilization.

Later in the novel, Cooper suggests the limits of Native American nobility through the voice of Natty Bumppo when Chingachgook has too much to drink: "This is the way with all the savages; give them liquor, and they make dogs of themselves" (158). For Cooper, the Native American psyche is fatally flawed in a way that dooms their population to extinction. What is unique and significant about his description of Chingachgook is that this inner deviance becomes legible through the physical degeneracy of his body. Chingachgook's slack arms reveal the fate of his people, a physical marker of that more deeply rooted inability to contribute to the growth of a civilization. Cooper refuses to narrate the violent extermination of the Native American population, choosing here to age them out in a seemingly more natural and humane way. It is for this reason that Chingachgook's old age is continually emphasized throughout the novel—his ultimate fate is consciously marked through descriptions of what can be referred to as his disabled body. This depiction allows Cooper to conceal the power dynamics that structure his relationship to Chingachgook beneath a discourse of paternalism—he sympathizes with Chingachgook's failings and impending death without being implicated in his fate. Cooper translates the failures he finds in the Native American race onto Chingachgook's physical body, thereby marking Chingachgook's passing out of his novel—symbolically the Native American population passing out of his nation—as a natural phenomenon, a product of his personal and private limitations rather than the result of the violent acts of dispossession propagated by European Americans.

Thinking about Cooper's representation of Chingachgook in relation to disability also provides critical insight into his death scene at the novel's conclusion. As a fire breaks out and consumes the forest surrounding Templeton, trapping Elizabeth, Oliver, and Chingachgook, Chingachgook is the only character who chooses to forfeit his life to the flames without resistance. As Elizabeth pleads with Chingachgook to move, Oliver explains, "He considers this as the happiest moment of his life. He is past seventy, and has been decaying rapidly for some time: he received some injury in chasing that unlucky deer, too, on the lake" (391). Oliver relies on Chingachgook's age and the rapid decay of his body to explain his seemingly irrational decision. While Cooper has set this rationale in place from the opening scenes of the narrative, Chingachgook is marked by physical injury one last time. 3 Here, Chingachgook's death represents an author-assisted suicide, where Cooper's decision to euthanize his aging Native American character has been manipulated from the novel's opening by his racial and imperial assumptions. 4 Further, the mysterious "injury" that Chingachgook receives hunting the deer also links his death symbolically to the transgression of the law. 5 While Judge Temple places Natty Bumppo on public display in the stocks for his transgression, the sovereign author punishes Chingachgook by removing him from the narrative altogether. That Cooper relies on a sudden narrative contrivance to punish Chingachgook rather than the legal apparatus outlined throughout the novel affirms that Chingachgook lacks the legal rights of a citizen, but it also suggests that the law is incapable of perfecting the Indian "nature" that Bumppo observes when Chingachgook drinks to excess. On the surface of the novel, Cooper's resolution is meant to appear benign. Chingachgook's willing death relieves Cooper of the burden of accounting for the Native American claim to the frontier that shadows so much of the novel, providing a "moment of Anglo-American wishful thinking about all Indians as it masks in suicide Anglo-American homicide of Native Americans" (Cheyfitz 121).

Chingachgook's suicide is contingent upon the depiction of his disabled body—his physical limitations are deployed as the key rationale for his decision to die. Cooper is only able to exonerate himself from the Anglo-American destruction of the Native American race by relying on the symbolic efficacy of disability to signal decay, assuming his readers will accept the fact that the type of life he affords Chingachgook is not really worth living. And this is not the only time in Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales that disability discovers its telos in death—the fate of Hetty Hutter in The Deerslayer exemplifies the logic at work in Chingachgook's suicide even more plainly. Hetty is described throughout The Deerslayer as "feeble-minded" and "mentally imbecile." Hetty's death scene is strikingly similar to Chingachgook's:

When the assault was over, and the dead and wounded were collected, poor Hetty had been found among the latter. A rifle bullet had passed through her body, inflicting an injury that was known at a glance, to be mortal. How this wound was received, no one knew; it was probably one of those casualties that ever accompany scenes like that related in the previous chapter. (526)

No blame is cast for Hetty's death; she dies from a stray bullet off of Cooper's pen. The mystery surrounding her bullet wound mirrors the mystery of the injury Chingachgook suffers on the lake. The uncertainty of these scenes signals the superficial means by which both romances are resolved, but mystery is also meant to implicate a higher, more natural power of selection in these characters' fates.

In removing Hetty from The Deerslayer, Cooper also reproduces the paternalist discourse that painted his depiction of Chingachgook:

Thus died Hetty Hutter, one of those mysterious links between the material and immaterial world, which, while they appear to be deprived of so much that is esteemed and necessary for this state of being, draw so near to, and offer so beautiful an illustration of the truth, purity, and simplicity of another. (535)

Cooper links Hetty's intellectual disability to the "truth, purity, and simplicity" of a more spiritual plane of existence, but this gesture is undercut by the more pressing assumption that she lacks what is "necessary for this state of being." As the critical tradition surrounding Cooper's work suggests, Cooper's novel is primarily invested in the affairs of men and women of this world rather than any world beyond—his treatment of the burgeoning nation is secular rather than religious. His final nod to the spiritual or even metaphysical implications of Hetty's intellectual disability carries no real weight in the world he has constructed in The Deerslayer. The real implications of her disability can be affirmed only through her sudden death, the most pointed being that disabled individuals lack the necessary abilities to own property. In the law written by the Leatherstocking Tales, disability marks an exclusion from property rights by designating types of people who are physically or intellectually incapable of managing that property. Hetty's case simply lays bare the essential logic at work in Cooper's depiction of Chingachgook in The Pioneers and the Lessee v. M'Intosh decision rendered by the Supreme Court.

The Making of a Hero

When Cooper first sat down to write The Pioneers, it seems that his initial intentions for Natty Bumppo were similar to those he held for Chingachgook. If Chingachgook's fate—and by extension, the larger fate of the Native American population in America—is naturalized through consistent descriptions of his physical frailty, Bumppo's introduction really isn't all that different. For much of the novel, he is depicted as an obstinate, elderly frontiersman whose long, rambling stories trail off into nostalgia for his youth and a former way of life. In such scenes, Bumppo is never meant to be our hero. But as the novel unfolds, Bumppo's character gradually exceeds the boundaries that Cooper's narrative initially imposes—he moves beyond the marginal role prescribed for him and poses questions serious enough to challenge the novel's resolution. His white identity also provides a stark contrast to Chingachgook's Native American identity, a point that will be emphasized repeatedly in the next of the Leatherstocking Tales, The Last of the Mohicans. While Bumppo's age may have been intended to mark him as a relic from a past way of life that was no longer tenable, it is his ability to hack out a life on the frontier that becomes so appealing to Cooper.

For the last third of The Pioneers, Natty Bumppo is absolutely central to the narrative, and figures most prominently in the final series of action sequences. Bumppo rescues Elizabeth and Louisa from a deadly panther in the midst of the forest, he wrestles the much younger Hiram Doolittle away from his home, and he saves Elizabeth and Oliver from a wild fire that would have otherwise taken their lives. In all of these sequences (as in earlier scenes where he demonstrates his proficiency with a rifle), Bumppo's age becomes inconsequential; in moments of particular danger and intensity, the reader is able to glimpse a side of the Leatherstocking that does not match his seventy-year-old frame. Nowhere is this more plainly demonstrated than at the conclusion of The Pioneers when Bumppo pulls Chingachgook from the flames: "Natty…seized the strips of the blanket, and with wonderful dexterity strapped the passive chieftain to his own back; when he turned, and with a strength that seemed to bid defiance not only to his years but to his load, he led the way to the point whence he had issued" (396). In one way, this scene dramatizes the conflict at work within Cooper's creative imagination—while Cooper leaves Chingachgook to burn in the fire, he has created a character who will not. At the same time, it is in this scene that Cooper finally realizes Bumppo's full potential. Through most of the novel, Bumppo is positioned at the borderline between two competing worldviews, one represented by Chingachgook and the age of the open frontier and the other by Judge Temple and the age of civilization. The critical resistance that Bumppo offers Temple rests on what Johnston and Lawson referred to as the "first world" of indigenous cultural authority, and in this way, Bumppo's critical insight is always dependent upon his relationship to Chingachgook. In this final scene, that relationship is inverted, where Chingachgook is flung to Bumppo's back and hangs like a child, dependent upon Bumppo for his life. Here, the Lessee v. M'Intosh decision and the later court decisions that would follow find their perfect cultural allotrope—as Bumppo discovers his proper place in the national imaginary, Chingachgook is removed to the position of "domestic dependent." It is by no accident that these roles are corroborated by the opposing physical states of the two characters' bodies—while Chingachgook suffers his final mysterious wound, the power of Bumppo's character becomes intelligible through the strength of his body.

Donald Pease writes in Visionary Compacts that "Cooper invented a figure who was able to transform cultural dispossession—that of the Mohicans—into a form of self-possession" (21). Bumppo's heroic attempt to save Chingachgook's life is intended to render the Mohican dispossession benign; instead of the Euro-American destruction of Native Americans, Cooper tells the story of a white man risking all to save a doomed race. Bumppo becomes the American heir to the frontier landscape above all else because of his ability to survive at the borders of civilization. He demonstrates his self-possession at the conclusion of The Pioneers not only through his physical strength in rescuing Chingachgook but also his mental acuity in leading Elizabeth and Oliver through the fire. Scenes like this will be repeated throughout The Leatherstocking series, where Bumppo engages in long philosophical digressions in the midst of the most dire of situations, affording Cooper the chance to show his readers the difference between his hero's capacity to reason and the animal spirits of his Indian foes.

Yet, it is only in the final passage of The Pioneers that Natty Bumppo passes from an aging literary character to the mythic hero of the Leatherstocking tales: "This was the last they ever saw of the Leatherstocking, whose rapid movements preceded the pursuit which Judge Temple both order and conducted. He had gone far towards the setting sun—the foremost in that band of pioneers who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent" (436). In this passage, Cooper is finally able to resolve the conflict between Bumppo and Judge Temple that threatens the neat resolution of the narrative; the oppositions between Bumppo and Temple, nature and civilization, individualism and property, freedom and law, all dissipate. Instead, Bumppo and Temple are revealed as ideological partners in the nation's spread west; in fact, Bumppo is put in the service of Temple, blazing a trail west for civilization to follow. Bumppo passes into myth as he passes out of time, becoming the ideal of a type of American whose cultural value has not been exhausted with the passage of any one historical epoch: the lone, heroic frontiersman rejuvenating civilization through bloody conflict at its borders. In passing from the realistic character of The Pioneers opening pages to the mythic figure of the novel's conclusion, Bumppo's age is no longer of consequence, revealing the representative frontier hero's identity as necessarily able-bodied.

Natty Bumppo and the Critical Tradition

In Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence writes of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, "[T]hey go backwards, from old age to golden youth. That is the true myth of America. She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin, towards a new youth. It is the myth of America" (58). Richard Slotkin echoes these sentiments in Regeneration through Violence:

Leatherstocking, in the course of the cycle, passes from old age through death (in The Prairie, 1827) into a new youth. Thus the legend of Leatherstocking, as it unfolded for the American reader of 1820-45, was a myth of renewal and rebirth of the hero. Moreover, the movement backward in historical time to Leatherstocking's youth was accompanied by a movement toward a more mythopoeic conception of the wilderness… (485)

Both Lawrence and Slotkin intuit the close relationship between the Leatherstocking's mythological status as frontier hero and Cooper's narrative reversal of the natural aging process. Slotkin suggests that as Cooper became increasingly conscious of Leatherstocking's constitutive role in a uniquely American mythos, he felt compelled to return his hero to an age of youthful and manly vigor. And Lawrence demonstrates that Cooper's tales reach beyond his specific historical context to resonate with something much more deeply embedded in America's cultural unconscious.

No reader of Cooper today encounters the Leatherstocking Tales outside the knowledge of their eminent status in the canon of American literature. Cooper's set of five novels achieved the class of "great works of American literature" through the consensus of the myth and symbol school of literary criticism that emerged after World War II. As Donald Pease explains, "each of the masterworks of the myth-symbol school…presuppose[s] a realm of pure possibility where a whole self internalized the norms of American history in a language and series of actions that corroborated American exceptionalism" ("New Perspectives" 24). For Pease, the masterworks of the myth-symbol school produced metanarratives about American history in an effort to define what was unique and original about American culture and society, but in the process, they went beyond simply describing these narrative myths and participated in shaping their trajectories.

R.W.B. Lewis's The American Adam provides a paradigmatic example of this tendency as he traces a genealogy of the Adamic figure of American innocence in order to draw a portrait of a uniquely American character out of the body of nineteenth-century literature. For Lewis, the American Adam represented "a radically new personality," "an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources" (5). It is of little surprise that Lewis positioned Cooper's Leatherstocking as the archetype of this figure:

Cultural and individual self-renewal was the aim of the day's most magnetic metaphors…Cooper completed that motion a number of years before either Walden or Leaves of Grass—the journey from Natty Bumppo's old age and death in The Pioneers and The Prairie to his birth and golden youth in The Deerslayer—and he completed it in terms of the character of his hero and the experience which shaped it… (103)

Natty Bumppo becomes Lewis's ideal Adam in part because he exists outside of time—he passes from old age into youth and is both renewed and immortalized in Cooper's final Leatherstocking Tale, The Deerslayer. He invites readers to follow the order of publication in reading Cooper's Leatherstocking series, and participates in the production of, rather than simply describing, a uniquely exceptionalist American mythos that gains its affective force through the figure of the lone hero hacking out a life at the boundaries of civilization.

Whatever Cooper's initial reasons for returning to the Leatherstocking mythos after the death of Natty Bumppo in The Prairie, critical responses like those of Lawrence and Lewis have not only recognized but celebrated the unusual timeline that animates Natty Bumppo's passage from old age in The Pioneers to death in The Prairie and finally rebirth in The Deerslayer. These critical responses function to remove the figure of the Leatherstocking from the specific texts he inhabits (we can recognize this through the fact that Natty Bumppo is really only the central protagonist of The Deerslayer), presenting a timeless hero (represented popularly by the image of the hero of The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans rather than The Pioneers or The Prairie) capable of occupying the American cultural consciousness on his own mythic terms.

My contention in this essay is that the myth of American youth that D.H. Lawrence located in the Leatherstocking Tales carries its own reality effects that are neither benign nor innocent. Cooper's imaginative reversal of the natural aging process reflects a corporeal hierarchy that has been occluded by the critics evaluating his work who have privileged the youth and manly vigor of the young Leatherstocking over his more elderly depictions. In the process of nominating the Leatherstocking Tales as a uniquely American story, critics like Lawrence and Lewis have simultaneously suggested that the mythos Cooper writes is actually contingent upon this reversal, that the mythic body is necessarily an able body. Far from disturbing America's myth of ability, the myth-symbol school of literary critics who established the American canon participated in its ideology, presupposing a "utopian space of pure possibility where a whole self internalized this epic myth in a language and a series of actions that corroborated the encompassing state fantasy of American exceptionalism" (Pease, "New" 163). The myth-symbol school and the Frontier Adam they authorized participated in the articulation of America as an exceptionalist nation of pure possibility, and imagined white, able-bodied men as the agents of that possibility.

Conclusion

In contrasting Chingachgook's disabled body to Bumppo's able body, Cooper marks disability as the exception that confirms able-bodiedness as the norm. Positioning disability outside of America's conditions of belonging, Cooper relies on the logic of disability to provide meaning to the category of race—Chingachgook's physical degeneracy inscribes the racial degeneracy of his people. But The Pioneers also foreshadows the temporal reversal of the Leatherstocking series, where Natty Bumppo travels back in time from old age to youth. The timeline of the Leatherstocking mythos rests on the inversion of the simple biological fact that, if we live long enough, we will all come to inhabit disabled bodies. Within Cooper's rendition, disability marks the point of departure for the passage out of time and into myth, and in this way, the myth of American ability relies on disability for both its enactment and its intelligibility.

It is no accident that Natty Bumppo's sudden burst of physical strength at the conclusion of The Pioneers is coupled with Chingachgook's physical wound and resignation to death—like so many other binary systems of thought, able-bodiedness rests on depictions of disability for its self-definition. But the telos of Cooper's Leatherstocking series also suggests that able-bodiedness names a temporal process, one that must invoke disability in order to discard it or overcome it. While this process can be evidenced through the strange inconsistencies that haunt Natty Bumppo's character throughout The Pioneers, its ultimate effect is transposed onto Bumppo's relationship to Chingachgook. Slotkin's larger study of the frontier myth in American culture confirms Johnston and Lawson's theoretical framework by arguing that Bumppo's mythic status relies on Chingachgook and the Native American race as a first world of cultural authority. But this relationship is parasitic; the first world of authority must be destroyed in order to be reconstituted in strictly nationalist terms, all the while confirming the latent assumption that "the best Indians are white men anyway" (Cheyfitz 126). This reading of the Leatherstocking series would be far less troubling if we could simply bracket these novels off historically and consider their relationship to the property laws that existed at the time of their publication. But in helping to constitute a national mythology, the Leatherstocking tales and the hero that unites them aim to define the transhistorical character of the American nation. Even though Chingachgook and Hetty are dead and buried, other characters, and other people, will continue to be called to fill their roles and live their fates.

Works Cited

  • Cheyfitz, Eric. "Savage Law: The Plot Against American Indians in Johnson and Graham Lessee v. M'Intosh and The Pioneers." Cultures of United States Imperialism. Ed. Donald Pease and Amy Kaplan. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer. New York: Penguin, 1987. 
  • —. The Pioneers. New York: New American Library, 1964.
  • Davis, Lennard J. Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
  • —. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. New York: Verso, 1995.
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  • Pease, Donald. "New Perspectives on U.S. Culture and Imperialism." Cultures of United States Imperialism. Ed. Donald Pease and Amy Kaplan. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. 22-40.
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Thomas Jordan is Instructor of English and Harpur Writing Associate at Binghamton University. He recently defended his dissertation, The Empire of Ability: American Exceptionalism and the Specter of Disability, and this essay represents a piece of that larger project.

Endnotes

  1. This phrase is repeated by Bumppo in reference to himself a number of times throughout the second of Cooper's Leatherstocking series, The Last of the Mohicans.
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  2. From the outset, I want to make it clear that Cooper's representation of Chingachgook does not extend to all of his later Native American characters. For example, characters like Uncas in Last of the Mohicans or Hard-Heart in The Prairie represent paragons of physical ability. Still, Cooper's novels consistently seek to point out key differences between his white hero and his Native American counterparts. If the discourse of primitivism that characterizes many of his Native American characters were to be linked to mental disability, a much larger case can be made for Cooper's use of disability to distinguish between Natty Bumppo and his Native American friends and enemies. While such an argument is beyond the scope of this article, I do gesture in that direction through my later discussion of The Deerslayer.
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  3. It is worth noting that Chingachgook's injury is never elaborated upon in the novel. It is mentioned only as an explanation for his decision to forfeit his life.
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  4. As a field, disability studies has called radically into question the right-to-die legislation favored by most contemporary liberals and progressives. As Lennard Davis explains, "To disability activists and scholars, people like Jack Kevorkian are executioners in the service of an ableist medical establishment" ("Bending" 43). In Enforcing Normalcy, Davis has also shown how a whole history of eugenics policies targeting disabled populations emerged out of the growth of statistical analysis. While this movement reached its culmination in the horrors of the Nazi final solution, the discourse of social Darwinism that would lead to the implementation of specific eugenics policy measures circulated widely in nineteenth century Europe and America. In light of this history, Chingachgook's suicide at the conclusion of The Pioneers offers an early predecessor to later forms of scientific racism that rested on physical hierarchies for their explanatory power.
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  5. Bumppo and Chingachgook violate Judge Temple's law when they hunt deer out of season.
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Copyright (c) 2012 Thomas Jordan



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