Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Pioneers: The Sources of the Susquehanna; a Descriptive Tale

Yes, that's the entire title, and I chose to use it to distinguish this novel from O Pioneers!, which might have come to your mind if I had only written The Pioneers.  This book is the first published (fourth chronologically) of the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper, and it sold 3,500 copies before noon on the day it was published (1823).  Most famous of the Leatherstocking Tales is the second chronologically, The Last of the Mohicans, which is sometimes called >adopt reverent tone< THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL.  (Incidentally, this should remove a weight from the minds of all you aspiring American writers, in that, since Cooper has already written the great American novel, you don't have to!) I have chosen to read all five of them this year, and I was undecided whether to read them in order of chronology or of publication, until someone suggested doing the latter in order to more easily follow Cooper's development as a writer.  That appealed to me, so down I sat with The Pioneers.

Egads. After about 300 pages, I was considering greasing my eyeballs to allow them to slide over the text more quickly. It was, how you say, le boring.  And then, somewhere around page 325 (I'm guessing), the clouds parted, the sun beamed down, the birds sang and somebody smacked Cooper upside the head and said, "Get going!!"   Well. After that the plot took off galloping and didn't stop until a finish that crammed in everything.  Instead of spreading out the literary goodness over the entire novel, Cooper was rather stingy at the beginning, and then piled it on at the end.  Seriously, in approximately the last 100 pages, you will find  SPOILERS AHEAD>>>  entrapment, poaching, a weaponized stand off, a trial, a jailbreak, a wildfire, rescue of damsel in distress (twice), the death of a noble chief, appearance of a long lost friend/relative, revelation of a character's true identity, confession of true love, proposal and marriage, burial and romantic epitaphs, poetic speeches about death, the afterlife, wilderness, civilization, law and justice, and finally the hero walks off into the sunset.

Now, before you think Cooper a tired cliche for having his hero walk off into the sunset, let me point out that The Pioneers was the first novel to contain such an exit. Far from cliche, this was original and very romantic (in the original sense of the word).  Also romantic is the continuous tension between wilderness and settlement.  Cooper addresses issues of environmental stewardship, conservation and use, and is possibly the first novelist to do so.  He also pointedly demonstrates the difference between justice and law, and the fact that the law exists to serve itself (or possibly power).  He devises a surprisingly universalist hero for an American in 1823, as can be seen in Hawkeye's statement that, although whites want to be buried facing east and Indians want to be buried facing west, after death they will meet in the land of the just.

Despite being far ahead of his time in many ways, there are other areas in which Cooper has not shed the conventional prejudices of his day.  The portrayal of black slaves and freedmen as childlike is similar to or slightly worse than that of Mark Twain's Huck Finn (written a generation later than the Leatherstocking Tales). Expect to see the "N" word in the first few chapters, used by black people as often as by whites.  That said, Cooper was the first American novelist to include African American characters at all, so even his stereotypical portrayal was a milestone. As for women, they are virtuous but mentally vacuous, occasionally fainting and getting into dangerous predicaments from which they require rescuing.  Their main functions are as daughters, servants and wives, but not mothers, interestingly. (Both mothers are dead).  A contemporary critic wrote of Cooper: "the women he draws from one model don't vary / All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie."  Despite these shortcomings, Cooper's portrayal of Native Americans is varied and complicated. He succeeds, through the course of the Leatherstocking Tales, in creating contrasts between some Native characters that are noble and heroic and others with few redeeming qualities.  In this, he demonstrates his view of Native Americans as a large group with certain tendencies, but comprised of individuals with different characters. In other words, they have the dignity and depth of any other human culture group.

As a short aside, I must question whether Cooper was a genius. You see, he was enrolled at Yale at age 13, but was expelled after a dangerous prank that involved him blowing up another student's door. Another less dangerous prank consisted of training a donkey to sit in a professor's chair. That certainly looks like the work of a genius to me. ;)

ponderously annoying semi-main character: Judge Marmaduke
maple and prairie female: Elizabeth
ethnic stereotypes: the German guy, the French guy, the black guy, the English guy 
hero: Hawkeye, aka Leatherstocking, aka Nathaniel Bumpo, aka Natty Bumpo
comrade of aforementioned hero: Chingachgook  (also of The Last of the Mohicans fame)
there was a lot of : trees, wildlife, use and misuse of said trees and wildlife
there should have been more of: women with brains...or at least personalities...
this book makes you want to: preserve some unspoiled wilderness, treat people right, get away from stupid people
this book makes you glad you don't have to: be a woman or ethnic minority in 1823

Edit: I read and reviewed The Last of the Mohicans in May.

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