Cooper’s “Deerslayer”: View of the Native AmericansCooper’s “Deerslayer”: View of the Native AmericansJames Fenimore Cooper was born on September 15, 1789 in Burlington, NewJersey. He was the son of William and Elizabeth (Fenimore) Cooper, the twelfthof thirteen children (Long, p. 9). Cooper is known as one of the first greatAmerican novelists, in many ways because he was the first American writer togain international followers of his writing. In addition, he was perhaps thefirst novelist to “demonstrate.
..that native materials could inspire significantimaginative writing” (p. 13). In addition his writing, specifically TheDeerslayer, present a unique view of the Native American’s experiences andsituation.
Many critics, for example, argue that The Deerslayer presents amoral opinion about what occurred in the lives of the American Indians.Marius Bewley has said that the book shows moral values throughout thecontext of it. He says that from the very beginning, this is symbolically madeclear. The plot is a platform for the development of moral themes. The firstcontact the reader has with people in the book is in the passage in which thetwo hunters find each other.
“The calls were in different tones, evidentlyproceeding from two men who had lost their way, and were searching in differentdirections for their path” (Cooper, p. 5). Bewley states that this meeting issymbolic of losing one’s way morally, and then attempting to find it againthrough different paths.
Says Bewley, “when the two men emerge from the forestinto the little clearing we are face to face with… two opposing moral visionsof life which are embodied in these two woodsmen” (cited in Long, p. 121).Critic Donald Davie, however, disagrees. His contention is that theplot is poorly developed. “It does not hang together; has no internal logic;one incident does not rise out of another” (cited in Long, p.
121). Butaccording to Robert Long, Bewley has a better grasp of the meaning andpresentation of ideas throughout the book. According to Long, although the plotdevelopment may not be “strictly linear,” it is still certainly coherent andmakes sense. In addition, Long feels that, as Bewley states, the novel is a wayin and through which Cooper presents moral ideas about the plight of the NativeAmericans (p. 121).The story of The Deerslayer is simple. It is novel which tells theevents which occur in the travels of a frontiersman. His name is Natty, and heis a young man at only twenty years old.
Coming from New York of the eighteenthcentury, he is unprepared in many ways for what he encounters in the frontier.But he survives, escapes, and learns many things over the course of hisadventures.The two characters of Natty and Hurry are contrasted in such as way thatCooper presents his view of the Native Americans through them. As earlierindicated, they symbolize two men with differing moral aptitudes. Throughoutthe novel, the differences between the two show Cooper’s feelings about moralityas it relates to the American Indians. As Long states, “The voices of the twomen calling to one another at the beginning introduces the idea of a world thathas lost its coherence, is already reduced to disjunction and fragmentation.
Natty and Hurry search for a point of contact yet move in different directions”(p. 122).Cooper’s descriptions of Natty and Hurry early in the novel make itobvious that they stand for opposite moral values. Hurry, for example, isdescribed by Cooper as having “a dashing, reckless, off-hand manner, andphysical restlessness” (Cooper, p. 6).
In fact, it is these characteristics ofhim that gave him his nickname by which he is called – Hurry Scurry, althoughhis real name is Henry March. He is described as tall and muscular, the”grandeur that pervaded such a noble physique” being the only thing that kepthim from looking “altogether vulgar” (p. 6).
The Deerslayer’s appearance, onthe other hand, contrasts with Hurry’s significantly. Cooper indicates that notonly were the two men different in appearance, but also “in character” (p. 6).
A little shorter than Hurry, he was also leaner. In addition, he was nothandsome like Hurry and, says Cooper, he would not have anything exceptionalabout his looks had it not been for “an expression that seldom failed to winupon those who had leisure to examine it, and to yield to the feelings ofconfidence it created. This expression was simply that of guileless truth,sustained by an earnestness of purpose, and a sincerity of feeling” (p. 6).Cooper contrasts these two characters early in the story so that it isevident that they will provide examples of contrasting behavior as well. It ismade clear early on that the later actions of both Hurry and the Deerslayer willcontrast in such a way that the moral issues with which Cooper was concernedwould come to light.
Glimmerglass as the setting of the novel allows the contrast between thetwo men to be seen even more strongly. As William P. Kelly (1983) states, thesetting created by Cooper allows the story to have a certain myth-like quality,a quality which makes the teaching of a lesson by Cooper all that much moreacceptable. “Cooper does not locate his narrative within the flux of history,but evokes a sense of timelessness consistent with the world of myth.
Forexample, the setting is of “the earliest days of colonial history,” a “remoteand obscure” period, lost in the “mists of time.”In setting the backdrop ofthe story in this way, the events become less important in regards to historicalvalue and accuracy – their importance is derived from their ability to teach onelessons about morality.Within this setting, then, the contrasts between Natty and Hurry arebrought across even clearer. But it is another character, Tom Hutter, who alsoplays an important role in Cooper’s presentation of the Indians. Hutter’ssignificance first involves where he lives. His house is located directly inthe center of Glimmerglass. This suggests, symbolically at least, that he isinvolved in the center of activities, whether moral or immoral, withinGlimmerglass.
In addition, more than living in the center of the land, Hutterhas also laid claim, however unofficial, to the land. Early on in the novel thereader learns that this is the case. Shortly after Natty and Hurry meet up,they are canoeing down the water. Natty comments that the land is so beautiful,and asks Hurry, “Do you say, Hurry, that there is no man who calls himselflawful owner of all these glories?’ (p. 22). To this Hurry responds, “None butthe King.
…but he has gone so far away that his claim will never trouble oldTom Hutter , who has got possession, and is like to keep it as long as his lifelasts” (p. 22).
In having the characters of Natty and Hurry speak of Hutter like this,referring to him in an almost mythological sense as though he is a legend,Cooper is setting the stage for the development of Hutter’s character, also incontrast to Natty’s. It is in Tom Hutter’s home, when Natty and Hurry firstarrive in the beginning of the book, that they begin to talk about hunting andthe killing of both animals and men. Natty comments that he has the reputationas being the only man “who had shed so much blood of animals that had not shedthe blood of man” (p. 28). He says this with pride, obviously not looking withhigh regard upon the savage slaughter of other men.
But Hurry’s response showsthat he looks at this in a totally different perspective. He says that he isafraid that people will think that Natty is “chicken-hearted.” Then he goes onto comment that “For my part I account game, a redskin, and a Frenchman aspretty much the same thing..
.one has no need to be over-scrupulous when it’s theright time to show the flint” (p. 28).Cooper presents this dialogue between Natty and Hurry in order toobviously contrast their moral characters. First, he has Natty speak, withapparent pride, about the fact that in all the land, he has the reputation forkilling more deer than anyone else, while never having taken one single humanlife. But Hurry’s response to this is that Natty is a “chicken-hearted”individual. In Natty’s point of view, animals, Indians, and Frenchman are allthe same, and killing one is the same as killing another.
In this, Cooper is clearly presenting a view about the worth of Indianswithin the society of this time. Natty’s view that killing other men should beavoided is the correct and “right” view. He sets Natty up as a moral character,specifically in comparison to Hurry to which he compares Natty often. Hurry,then, blatantly states that he thinks that there is nothing which separates thekilling of a deer from the killing of a man. Cooper presents this view in orderto show what he feels is the correct way. It is obvious that Cooper wants Nattyto present Cooper’s view of the Native Americans. Natty’s inability to look atthem as mere animals shows that he believes that they are good people, just thesame as anyone else. In fact, Hurry is depicted more as the villain, whileNatty is presented as the hero.
As their conversation continues, Natty asks Hurry if the lake has a name.When Hurry tells him that it, in fact, does not, Natty thinks of this aspositive. “I’m glad it has no name, or, at least, no paleface name; for theirchristenings always foretell waste and destruction” (p. 30). Here, we can seeNatty’s thoughts on the significance of whether an Indian or a white man hasnamed the water.
He comments that he would mind if a white man had named it.He believes that white men traditionally bring with them environmental damage -they would have ruined the natural beauty of it. The Indians, on the other hand,treated land with much more respect. Cooper makes it apparent that this is theway he feels in having Natty comment on the land as such.
Hurry, however, responds in a different way. He tells Natty that theIndian name for it is “Glimmerglass.” Then he goes on to state that the whitemen decided to keep this name, at least unofficially. “I am glad they’ve beencompelled to keep the redmen’s name, for it would be too hard to rob them ofboth land and name!” (p. 30).In other words, Hurry is stating the obvious fact that everything willeventually be taken away from the Native Americans. Any land that they mightvalue and care for today will be confiscated and fought for by the white mentomorrow. But the exclamation point at the end of the sentence suggests that,rather than a sad comment accepting the inevitable, Hurry says this with gleeand excitement.
To him it is like a joke, that the Indians will be allowed tokeep the name for the land but lose the land itself.Cooper, in the above dialogue between Natty and Hurry, is presenting aview of the immorality involved in the interactions between the Native Americansand the white men. In Cooper’s mind, the Native Americans respected and caredfor the land much more than the white men did. This is apparent in his quotefrom Hurry, that white men always brought “waste and destruction” to land.Secondly, Cooper also thought that the constant fighting, oppression, andkilling of the American Indians was wrong. To Cooper, Natty represented thegood and moral point of view on this issue, while Hurry represented the immoraland cruel side, laughing about the horrible truths of the land.All throughout the book The Deerslayer, Cooper contrasts the charactersof Hurry and Natty in order to present his views of Native Americans.
WithHurry as the one who has a racist attitude, believing that the deaths of Indiansare deaths which do not matter, Natty is the moral one. The contrast betweenthese two characters allows Cooper to show the contrast between morality andimmorality. Hurry goes around killing Indians, believing that their deaths areinsignificant. Natty, killing his first Indian in a matter of self-defense,holds the man in his arms as he dies feeling a sense of bonding and brotherhoodwith the dying Indian. Throughout the book, Natty is shown learning manydifferent things, such as woodcraft, and increasing in moral stature.
Hurry, onthe other hand, is presented as becoming more and more selfish, until hiscomments by themselves reveal his ignorance and he loses credibility as acharacter.The book The Deerslayer is a story in which James Fenimore Cooperpresents a view of the Native Americans. His idea is that they were naturalowners to the land, being there first.
In addition, they loved, valued andrespected the land in a way that was not common to most white men. Finally, hebelieved that they were human beings, entitled to live their lives freely justas anyone else. In showing the two sides of opinion on this issue – Hurry andNatty – Cooper sets the book up as a story of good and evil, right and wrong.His ideas, through the thoughts and actions of Hurry and Natty, are clearlypresented.
Works CitedCooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer. New York: The Heritage Press, 1961.Kelly, William P.Plotting America’s Past.
Illinois: Southern IllinoisUniversity Press, 1983.Long, Robert Emmet. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Continuum PublishingCompany, 1990.