The Myth of American Ability: Cooper’s Leatherstocking, the Frontier Tradition, and the Making of the American Canon


  • Thomas Jordan Binghamton University



Disability, Able-bodiedness, Frontier, Myth


Key Words: Disability; Able-bodiedness; Frontier; Myth

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.