Thursday, 30 July 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 28 - "The Pioneers," by James Fenimore Cooper

In July 1776, the American Continental Congress formally declared independence from the British Crown. In the years that followed, France and Spain joined the war on the side of the colonists, Britain finally accepting defeat in 1783. The Iroquois Confederacy of Chief Joseph Brant Thayendanegea was shattered, his surviving fighters drifting north into Canada. He had lost his "double bet."

Part of the stated rationale for the American Revolution was that it made no sense for "an island to rule a continent." With the United States of America now established as a nation, with a constitution, an army and, perhaps most importantly, a dream, the former colonists turned their backs on the Atlantic, and looked to the continent that lay ahead of them. In the distance they saw mountains, the Appalachians but some among them had already climbed those peaks, and looked upon the vast expanse of land beyond them.

Among the first to blaze a trail through the mountains was the frontiersman, Daniel Boone. He established the "Wilderness Road" through Cumberland Gap, passing from Virginia into what is now Kentucky.

Daniel Boone, by Chester Harding, 1820. Massachusetts Historical Society (image is in the Public Domain).

Boone's "Wilderness Road," Library of Congress (image is in the Public Domain).

With Boone's assistance, Judge Richard Henderson made a treaty with the Cherokee Nation, purchasing more than 20 million acres of land between the Cumberland and Kentucky Rivers. With 30 pioneers, Henderson established a township, which he named Boonesborough, in honour of the man who had made it possible.

Boonsborough in 1778, by George Washington Ranek, 1901 (image is in the Public Domain).

The novelist, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), was himself part of this story of westward expansion. His own father, William Cooper, had purchased several thousand acres of land confiscated from Thayendanegea's Iroquois, in upstate New York, along the banks of the Susquehanna River, establishing the settlement of Cooperstown.

Otsego Hall, the home of William Cooper and James Fenimore Cooper, from Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1900 (image is in the Public Domain).

James Fenimore Cooper stands alongside Herman Melville, as one of the founding fathers of the American novel, and alongside Sir Walter Scott, as a founding father of the historical novel. His novel, The Pioneers (published in 1823, but set in 1793), is set in "Templeton," on the Susquehanna, a township founded by Judge Marmaduke Temple.

The judge is an educated and sophisticated man, a natural leader with a fascination and respect for the wilderness that he knows he does not fully understand. Between him and his family, and that wilderness, stands the figure of "the Leather-Stocking," Natty Bumpo, thought to be based, at least in part, on Daniel Boone. If Marmaduke relies on Natty, then he, in turn, relies on his friend, the ageing Mohican chief, Chingachgook, for his understanding of the landscape.

The tension between the "civilisation" of Judge Temple, and the sustainability of the wilderness that he and Natty love in their very different ways, is a key theme in the book, but Cooper clearly wanted to believe that the two can be reconciled, if only the judge will be guided by the frontiersman.

"The Pioneers," by Joshua Shaw (1776-1860 - image is in the Public Domain).

Behind this optimism, however, is a note of realism. Chingachgook is a lonely figure, the last of his people, as he sees it, a people already ravaged by diseases brought by the Europeans. The trick for us, as modern readers, is to immerse ourselves in Cooper's lyrical prose, and read the book as though we didn't know what happened next.

"Near the centre of the State of New York lies an extensive district of country whose surface is a succession of hills and dales ... of mountains and valleys. It is among these hills that the Delaware takes its rise; and flowing from the limpid lakes and thousand springs of this region the numerous sources of the Susquehanna meander through the valleys until, uniting their streams, they form one of the proudest rivers of the United States."

The Susquehanna River. Photo: Nicholas (licensed under CCA).

"'The enterprise of Judge Temple is taming the very forests!' exclaimed Elizabeth, throwing off the covering, and partly rising in the bed. 'How rapidly is civilisation treading on the foot of nature!' she continued, as her eye glanced over not only the comforts, but the luxuries of her apartment, and her ear again listened to the distant, but often repeated howls from the lake.'"

"'Awake! awake! my fair lady! The gulls are hovering over the lake already, and the heavens are alive with pigeons ... Benjamin is overhauling the ammunition, and we only wait for our breakfasts, and away for pigeon-shooting ... ' Among the sportsmen was the tall, gaunt form of the Leather-Stocking, walking over the field, with his rifle hanging on his arm ... None pretended to collect the game, which lay scattered over the fields in such profusion as to cover the very ground with fluttering victims ... 'This comes of settling a country!' [Leather-Stocking] said ... 'Well, the Lord won't see the waste of his creatures for nothing, and right will be done to the pigeons, as well as by others, by and by.'"

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

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