Disturbing the Sleep of Bachelors

Natty Bumppo’s Brushes with Desire
  • David Greven


In D. H. Lawrence’s famous description, the now-mythic character of Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales incarnates “the true myth of America”: to “go backwards, from old age to golden youth.”1 (In order of publication, the novels are The Pioneers [1823], The Last of the Mohicans [1826], The Prairie [1827], The Pathfinder [1840], and The Deerslayer [1841]; in order of plot, The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, The Prairie.) Cooper kills off an ancient Natty in 1827s The Prairie, the year before the first presidential election of Andrew Jackson. But toward the end of Van Buren’s presidency and during his unsuccessful bid for a second term, Cooper not only revives Natty but restores him to youthful vigor: by the last novel, Natty is in his early twenties. Rather than viewing the tales as a narrative told (clunkily, given the temporal instabilities) in reverse order, this chapter treats them as two related yet distinct sagas connected by the myth figure of Natty Bumppo: a Jacksonian saga (the first three novels) and a Van Buren one (the latter two; I will henceforth refer to the works as “Jackson” or “Van Buren” novels). A particularly huge change occurs in Natty Bumppo’s character in the Van Buren novels—he transforms from a man who resolutely eschews heterosexual romantic love to one who is deeply implicated in it, both as the anxious agent of desire (The Pathfinder) and its object (The Deerslayer).


Sexual Desire American Life American Literature Horror Movie National Myth 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 2.
    Stephen Railton, Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1978), 51.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Richard Chase, The American Novel and its Tradition (1957; reprint, Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins UP, 1986), 55.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    See Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (1995; reprint ed., New York: Vintage, 1996), 116–17.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Fiedler has not been alone in his understanding of the male–male relations in the Leatherstocking Saga. R. W. B. Lewis, in his classic study The American Adam, restates Fiedler’s view, when, in discussing the ways young Natty and Chingachgook interact with Hurry Harry and Thomas Hutter in The Deerslayer, he writes: “Moving in and out their circle, with them but never of them … and always keeping at some ethical and psychical distance from them are young Natty Bumppo and his Indian ally Chingachgook.” Lewis, like Fiedler, does not consider the possibility that there may be an ethical and psychical distance between Natty and Chingachgook strategically designed by Cooper. See AA Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (1955; reprint, Chicago, IL: Chicago UP, 1959), 103–04.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860 (New York: Oxford UP, 1985), 103.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    As James Grossman puts it, Natty’s “one permanent friend, Chingachgook, is a member of another race, and, strong though their mutual feeling for each other is, a correctness of tone pervades their relation and saves it from intimacy. Natty turns the wildnerness into a salon … [he has] a passion for endless talk that is characteristic of so many lovers of solitude.” See AA Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949), 149.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Lucy Maddox, Removals: Nineteenth Century American Literature and the Politics of Indian Affairs (New York: Oxford UP, 1991), 11.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    As Mervyn Nicholson writes: “The male bond of Hawkeye/Chingachgook is vertical; not a horizontal one of equals. Nor is this relation (homo)sexual in nature. Especially in Mohicans, Hawkeye is asexual (‘Probably he dies a virgin,’ says D. H. Lawrence). … He is self-made, independent, and isolated, so that he owes nothing to anybody; he is constituted as a solitary, alone in an antagonistic universe. And he likes it that way.” See AA Nicholson, Male Envy: The Logic of Malice in Literature and Culture (New York: Lexington Books, 1999), 35.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    Scopophobia, the fear of being looked at, is the flip-side of the Freudian concept of scopophilia, the drive to look and derive pleasure from looking. For a psychoanalytic account of it, see D. W. Allen’s The Fear of Looking (Charlottesville, VA: Virginia UP, 1974).Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    Philip Fisher finds a different use of irony at work in Chingachgook’s marriage to Hist (which can only take place once the kidnapped Hist is rescued by Natty and Chingachgook): “the deepest irony of Cooper’s plot is that its motivating center is the recovery of Hist that will make possible an ideally suited Indian marriage and the continuity that such a marriage represents. The price of this is a sequence of events that includes an Indian massacre. The price of this one token marriage is the deeper elimination of the very social frame within which this marriage might be more than an individual event.” Certainly, this ironic use of Chingachgook’s marriage to Hist exceeds the irony of having lavishly erotic rites occur between Indians, who flaunt a sexuality that mocks the white hero’s impoverished one, in juxtaposition to the irresolvable and fruitless relationship between Natty and Judith. See AA Fisher, Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel (New York: Oxford UP, 1985), 59.Google Scholar
  11. 17.
    Quoted in Dorothy Waples’s The Whig Myth of James Fenimore Cooper (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1938), 252.Google Scholar
  12. 20.
    Susan Fenimore Cooper, Pages and Pictures (1865; reprint, Secaucus: Castle Books, 1980), 364.Google Scholar
  13. 21.
    Writing about slasher films generally and Jonathan Demme’s film The Silence of the Lambs (1991) specifically, Carol J. Clover finds that “in the long and rich tradition in which he [Silence’s villain, Jame Gumb] is a member, the issue would appear to be not homosexuality and heterosexuality but the failure to achieve a functional sexuality of any kind.” See AA Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992), 233.Google Scholar
  14. 25.
    The film critic Terence Rafferty, in discussing the adolescent angst treated in Brian De Palma’s great horror movies Carrie and The Fury, provides a wonderful description that can be of use to us, as well, in terms of thinking about the condition of Natty’s troubled manhood in The Pathfinder. Despite the horror of Natty’s age, he is also described as a pubescent male overwhelmed by newfound bodily sensations. Cooper places Natty in the same position as Brian De Palma’s work, as Rafferty describes it, places spectacularly troubled teens: “Both films generate horror from nightmarish exaggerations of the experience of adolescence: … the powerful sense of isolation, of exclusion from the secrets of the great, organized, social world.” See AA Rafferty, The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing about the Movies (New York: Grove Press, 1993), 56.Google Scholar
  15. 26.
    Quoted in Bruce Fink’s The Lacanian Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1995), 104.Google Scholar
  16. 27.
    Henry Nash Smith addresses the challenges Cooper faced in finding a woman who might plausibly become an object of desire for Natty: “In The Pathfinder, Cooper accordingly sets to work with great goodwill to exhibit Leatherstocking in love. The problem was to construct a female character, sufficiently refined and genteel to pass muster as a heroine, but sufficiently low in social status to receive the addresses of the hunter and scout without a shocking and indecent violation of the proprieties.” AA Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950; reprint, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978), 64. But class is a minor obstacle compared to the looming one of desire itself.Google Scholar
  17. 30.
    Marina Warner, Six Myths of Our Time (New York: Vintage, 1995), 33.Google Scholar
  18. 31.
    William P. Kelly, Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales (Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1983), 144–46.Google Scholar
  19. 32.
    We can also read Natty’s ghostly vigil as cooperation with the very social order he opposes. As Andrew Burstein writes, “American romantics took to reconciling Cooper’s portrait of a nature gradually receiving civilization with earlier expressions of American sublimity. This was how Americans would find the means to preserve their integrity as the people of the land. Civilization could herald prosperity just so long as it did not give up its direct appreciation for the incomparable mountains, lakes, and forests that had inspired the people’s association of the precious land with the love of liberty.” See AA Burstein, Sentimental Democracy: The Evolution of America’s Romantic Self-Image (New York: Hill and Wang, 1999), 277–78.Google Scholar
  20. 33.
    Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition, ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: Penguin, 1986), 110–11.Google Scholar
  21. 35.
    James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer (1841; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1987).Google Scholar
  22. 36.
    Lee Clark Mitchell, Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film (Chicago, IL: Chicago UP, 1996), 52.Google Scholar
  23. 37.
    Wai Chee Dimock, Residues of Justice: Literature, Law, Philosophy (Berkeley, CA: California UP, 1996.), 51.Google Scholar
  24. 38.
    See AA Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1973), 503.Google Scholar
  25. 39.
    Douglas Brinkley, The American Heritage History of the United States (New York: Viking, 1998), 144.Google Scholar
  26. 40.
    Donald B. Cole, Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1984), 294.Google Scholar
  27. 43.
    Robert Gray Gunderson, The Log-Cabin Campaign (Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 1957), 114–15. See 101–07 for a striking compendium of Van Buren’s dandyish traits. Van Buren was described as a decadent, pansy king who lived in a “PALACE as splendid as that of the Caesars, and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion.” Interestingly, the effeminacy of the East easily coalesced into that of Europe in terms of the phobic construction of “Van Ruin.”Google Scholar
  28. 49.
    Martin Barker and Roger Sabin, The Lasting of the Mohicans: History of an American Myth (Jackson, MS: Mississippi UP, 1995), 32.Google Scholar
  29. 50.
    Arthur Schlesinger, The Age of Jackson (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1945), 374–80. Schlesinger’s section on Cooper is an invaluably succinct account of the evolution of Cooper’s politics.Google Scholar
  30. 51.
    Given the rancorous incivilities of the Whig attacks that heralded Cooper’s return to the United States, Cooper’s sense of his own gentlemanliness became a kind of defensive shield. Self-protectively and -romanticizingly, “Cooper thought of himself, not as a writer of adventure romances, nor as a political analyst, but as a man of letters, a gentleman whose pen was in his nation’s service.” See John P. McWilliams, Jr., Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America (Berkeley, MA: University of California Press, 1972), 1.Google Scholar
  31. 52.
    George Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967), 154. Dekker is, in my opinion, Cooper’s sharpest critic.Google Scholar
  32. 54.
    For an overview of Cooper’s myriad lawsuits against his highly vocal and adamant Whig enemies, see Ethel R. Outland, The “Effingham” Libels on Cooper, University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, no. 28 (Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1929). Outland also examines Cooper’s 1838 novel Home as Found as an explicit fictional version of these Cooper–Whig battles.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© David Greven 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Greven

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations