Deerslayer by James Fennimore Cooper

James Fennimore Cooper has not enjoyed a lot of popularity over the last few decades, but his works contain many qualities that recommend him for a rise. His novels cover a range of early American settings from the sea, to everyday life, to the American frontier. His Leather-stocking novels remain his most revisited works. In them, Cooper develops Natty Bumpo, a hero of mythic proportions grounded in the romantic traditions of Europe and pointing to the tall-tale romps of America. The Deerslayer is Cooper’s last installment in the Leather-stocking series, yet it is the first, chronologically.

Natty is a young man, untried in war, but already mature in wisdom. He and a fellow trapper called Hurry Harry are traveling to a small lake on the far outreaches of the American colonies. Hurry intends to meet an old friend, Thomas Hutter, and woo his eldest daughter, Judith. Natty will rendezvous his Delaware friend, Chingachgook, to rescue the Delaware’s betrothed from the Hurons. The Hutters live in a cabin built in the middle of the lake. When the young men find the Hutters, they discover that the family is in danger of attack by a traveling Huron tribe. Both men pledge their defensive assistance Natty out of true concern for the Hutters, and Hurry for his interest in joining himself to the family.

Cooper constantly plays Hurry’s impetuosity, inhumanness and lack of chivalry against Natty’s self-control and sensibleness. Hurry sees nothing wrong with scalping Hurons for bounty and is captured for his attempt at taking scalps. Natty refuses to scalp a Huron he justly kills in self-defense, even though it would earn him great respect from the Delaware tribe in which he was raised. Hurry speaks disrespectfully about Judith behind her back. Natty shows unceasing respect for Judith and her sister. When Judith refuses Hurry’s suit for marriage, he responds by leaving her and the others at the near-mercy of the Hurons. If there was any prior doubt, it becomes completely apparent at this point that Hurry is concerned only with himself. Natty protects the Hutter women and assists his friends despite lack of personal advantage.

Natty undergoes initiation in this story. Here he kills his first enemy in single combat. He earns his legendary rifle, Killdeer. He undergoes a cruel trial by ordeal in the Huron camp. Natty is even presented with a romantic possibility that he knows is not right for him.

The work is unquestionably didactict: Natty never misses a chance to soliloquize about his moral views and Cooper not-so-infrequently explains to us what our view should be lest we be confused by the thoughtless actions of his morally-challenged characters. Yet Cooper inserts a refreshing sort of instruction. The lessons are taught by an inexperienced youth who is approachable to us. The racial and social/class issues are presented in a compelling and agreeable manner. Regarding race and culture, Cooper had attained a level far above his contemporaries. The idea of different racial “gifts” he builds into Natty suggests Cooper’s belief in the value of cultural variety.

Natty is both Cooper’s protagonist and the normative character of The Deerslayer. This combination is not the most common one. Cooper perhaps pays his greatest tribute to the Native American peoples in his creation of Natty, a creation that joins the best characteristics of the Native American and the Christian into one ideal person.

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