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Posted January 3, 2008
American rugged individualism makes its case.
If you haven't already opened a book by James Fenimore Cooper '1789 - 1851', is his second novel THE PIONEERS '1823' a good place to begin? I think it is. *** The leisurely yarn is about a very precise frontier area of New York State from December 1793 to October 1794. The dominant whites who people the region of the eleven Finger Lakes are thinking of themselves as Americans, or at least North Americans, and no longer as transplanted Europeans. The 50 buildings of the 7-year old village of Templeton self-consciously and with total consciousness of righteousness transplant features of British life hundreds of years old: reformed Christianity, lawyers, a court, a rich landed squire, a preacher, a shopkeeper, a woodcutter, an estate manager and on and on. When such towns are created, they strike a blow at the libertarian, almost anarchic natural philosophy of 67 year old, six foot tall Nathaniel 'Natty' Bumppo, a backwoodsman hanging on as long as he can stand encroaching 'civilization' of Templeton just across Lake Otsego. *** The lone remaining representative of the tribal Delawares/Mohicans who had sold this land to the King of England is Indian John aka Chingachgook aka the Big Serpent. It is no surprise that the whites drive out the Redskins. But why do they so repel a Moravian educated but illiterate white Christian such as Natty Bumppo? Civilized daughters cause many an independent hunter and trapper ultimately to settle down in towns. Why and how does Natty, the Leatherstocking, resist their charm? *** Other tales are told of Templeton and its wealthy landowner/developer Judge Marmaduke Temple. He was raised Quaker and seems an honest, loyal man. But did he acquire his vast holdings only by cheating his school chum and monetary backer, the Tory Colonel Edward Effingham, to do so? If so, then he faces the vengeance of the Colonel's recently appeared son -- veiled by the pseudonym Oliver Edwards. This angry young Achilles has moved in with Natty and Indian John, followers of his grandfather, the old Major, in the French and Indian War. Young Edwards/Effingham saves the Judge and his beautiful teenage daughter from a potentially deadly sleighing accident on Christmas eve 1793 and is taken into the Temple household as the Judge's secretary. *** A series of American eccentrics move in and out of the main plot, most well intentioned, but a couple having more than a little scoundrel about them. All are credible and worth our getting to know. *** The white settlers of Templeton destroy the abundant Glimmerglass timberlands with barely a thought. The judge renders 'impartial' but stupid justice to the Leatherstocking over a deer taking incident. Judge Temple spares Natty the lash because of his advanced age but humiliates him by time in the stocks and in jail. Natty burns down his decades old cabin rather than let officers of the law enter it against his will. At story's end, the judge has acquired a hotheaded son-in-law. The old injustices of land claims are resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Indian John has died as a pagan, not a Christian, and Natty Bumppo has had it with civilization. He will die in his late 80s fighting Sioux 500 miles west of the Mississippi in the novel THE PRAIRIE. *** Over and over in the five Leatherstocking tales, Nathaniel Bumppo is presented as a new purely American kind of professional: a danger manager. Whenever perils of the wilderness or Indians threaten his civilized neighbors, Natty's pre-eminence is readily conceded, even by experienced British and American military officers. *** Read THE PIONEERS and get a sense of the often mysterious cultural and historical currents which have made Americans Americans. -OOO-
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