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LITERARY / HISTORICAL INFORMATION
Cooper wrote two Prefaces to The Deerslayer, one in 1841 and another in 1850. In the first, Cooper makes an author's usual explanation of events--in this case, he states the structure of the five books, or "acts" of Natty's life--and makes the usual disclaimers about historical fact (he tried to present the frontier life as well as he could) and characters (they are all, definitely, fictional). In the second Preface, he does the same in more detail, focusing on the construction of Natty as a character of his imagination, but with referents to men he had known as a boy. He also takes exception, in this second Preface, to those who would argue with his assessment of "Indian character" in the Leather-Stocking Tales.
Cooper's underlying complaint is that critics who think he has given the natives a too-human side are themselves rather blind to the awful circumstances the natives have been thrust into by the U.S. government.
To a reader in the twentieth century, Cooper's portrayal of "Indian character" presents another problem the sentimental stereotype. His native characters say "ugh," are portrayed as rather simple-minded, and are best when both "naturalized" and Christian. Today, we recognize Cooper's rather limited vision, as well as his well-meaning defense of the natives at a time when many were not so generous.
It is worth remembering that Cooper's Leather-Stocking Tales, including The Deerslayer, are "romances," not really "novels." In the nineteenth century, particularly the early part of the century when Cooper was writing, "romances" were the preferred form, and had nothing to do with love and marriage. A nineteenth century American romance was a moral tale, a story of an individual's struggle to place themselves correctly in a chaotic world, to pit themselves against adversity and win. Characters in these romances were often "types" rather than realistic people. There is high drama in these romances, as we will see with The Deerslayer, where Natty will test himself in the wilderness, and against enemies, for the first time. The action is emotionally charged, and the point is for the reader to go away with an idea of what a worthy American individual is made of.
The action of the tale takes place prior to 1760, in a setting similar to that of Lake Otsego, Cooper's boyhood home. The American Revolution has not taken place, and the nearby garrison referred to in the story is a British garrison. Cooper reminds us again and again of the character of the frontier landscape in this story, its wild and unexplored nature, both attractive and forbidding. This is one of the reasons Cooper is considered one of the first truly "American" writers; although the romance form was already established by English writers, Cooper places his tale in a distinctly American setting, with American characters who have American concerns.
The Deerslayer, along with The Last of the Mohicans (1826) are probably the most popular of the Leather-Stocking Tales in this century. The books (all the books) share some characters, settings, and concerns. Certainly Cooper wrote some of the first environmentally aware fiction in the U.S.--he deplores the wasteful ways of most European settlers. He is also in no way a feminist--his female and male characters are constantly posed in terms of strong "manliness" against weak "femininity." Strict gender roles are enforced, as they were at the time of his writing.
Strictly speaking, Natty Bumppo has become an American legend--and that is precisely what writers of Cooper's time were trying to come up with. The concern for a truly "American" literature was at fever pitch fifty years after the revolution. The call for truly American figures and ideals pushed many writers like Cooper to construct ideal characters, like Natty, who represented nineteenth century concerns in the fictional colonial years. Natty is an early American individual, who lives by his own counsel, faces danger bravely, is always fair--and is slowly pushed westward into oblivion. In the later tales, Natty is indeed a tragic hero civilization works counter to his ideal and he dies a rather sad death. But in his younger years, in The Deerslayer, we see him in his formative, hopeful years.