‘He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly.’ Twain particularly relished Natty’s impossibly accurate marksmanship, which allowed him to shoot, from a distance of a hundred yards, a bullet exactly into the hole made in a tree by a previous bullet ‘’.
The aim of Cooper’s evil Indians is, fortunately, rarely as deadly: when one of his heroes, Duncan Heyward, comes under attack from a band of whooping Hurons, who pour fire at him until his clothes have been ‘repeatedly cut’ by their bullets, he escapes with only a slight wound in his arm.
He had enjoyed dabbling in politics, and had been a leading figure in a movement intended to improve American agricultural practices.
In the wake of the crash in land prices of 1819, however, and the consequent unravelling of Judge Cooper’s complex, heavily mortgaged estate, he found himself at the mercy of a slew of ruthless creditors – rather as his heroines in novel after novel find themselves at the mercy of some ruthless tribe of Iroquois or Sioux.
Noting the success of Sir Walter Scott, from whose life and writing he learned so much, Cooper found in fiction a means of restoring his family’s fortunes.
His most famous creation was the frontiersman Natty Bumppo, also known as Leatherstocking (on account of his leggings), Hawk-eye (on account of his astonishingly good eyesight), La Longue Carabine (on account of his expertise with his long-barrelled rifle), as well as Pathfinder and Deerslayer.One evening, however, hundreds of miles into their journey, the fragile, fluttering captive emerges from hiding. Lawrence, who in a passionate essay of 1923 insisted that the Leatherstocking series (the five novels that feature Natty Bumppo) were the first vital embodiment of the new consciousness underpinning American culture.A row ensues between the men who did the kidnapping, Ishmael Bush and his brother-in-law, and the patriarchal Bush’s many sons; what no one gets around to asking about, let alone resolving, is the conflict between the journey west and the kidnappers’ plans to collect a ransom from the heiress’s family back in Louisiana, whom they haven’t even contacted. In Natty, Lawrence writes, one finds ‘the myth of the essential white America.It has never yet melted.’ Lawrence thrilled particularly to the bond between Natty and the Mohican Chingachgook, which he described as ‘deeper than the deeps of sex’: ‘The stark, loveless, wordless unison of two men who have come to the bottom of themselves.This is the new nucleus of a new society, the clue to a new world-epoch.’When we first meet the two men, however, in , they symbolise not the birth of a ‘new world-epoch’, but the death of an old one: Natty is in his seventies, and Indian John, as Chingachgook is called by the residents of Templeton, a frontier settlement based on the Cooperstown of the novelist’s childhood, is a sad shadow of the Mohican warrior he once was, especially in the Christmas tavern scene in which he partakes a little too freely of the white man’s firewater.Like Judge Cooper, Judge Marmaduke Temple has made himself owner by somewhat questionable means of vast tracts of the land around Lake Otsego, land where Natty and Chingachgook had once hunted.‘I’m form’d for the wilderness’ is Natty’s insistent cry, and he observes the pioneers’ ‘wasty ways’, their destruction of the woods, their slaughter of migrating passenger pigeons, their over-fishing of the lake, with an ever increasing sense of displacement and dispossession.All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play.The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.It was a curious set of circumstances that in 1820 drove James Cooper (the ‘middle surname’ Fenimore would not be added for another six years), the son of one of post-independence America’s wealthiest land speculators, to embark on a career in the dubious and unpredictable world of novel-writing.Almost nothing in Cooper’s life up until that year, in which he turned 31, indicates an interest in fiction, or in the arts.