Walker, Jeffrey, ed.: Leather-Stocking Redux; Or, Old Tales, New Essays.
Despite the fact that undergraduates' knowledge of James Fenimore Cooper's Leather-Stocking Tales often begins and ends with Daniel Day Lewis's romantic tagline "I will find you," the series of five novels (The Pioneers , The Last of the Mohicans , The Prairie , The Pathfinder , and The Deerslayer ) remains an important part of American literary and cultural history. Much like Georg Lukacs's observation in The Historical Novel that the characters and struggles within Walter Scott's historical novels exemplify "historical social types'" and "social trends and historical forces" (34-35), the famed Natty Bumppo and his relationships with various historical and fictionalized characters in Cooper's novels provides a rich flashpoint for considering social antagonistas and contradictions of the age. Moreover, Cooper, himself, makes an interesting case study for any number of historical and political inquiries. Of course, not everyone would agree with this perspective. Cooper has been under attack since at least the 1830s, when Whig reviewers leveled their pens against his early work. After Cooper's death, Mark Twain sarcastically reduced The Deerslayer to a "literary delirium tremens'" and D. H. Lawrence dismissed Cooper's portrayal of Native Americans as simple "wish-fulfillment." Perhaps more importantly, Cooper's texts have been largely either ignored of censured by contemporary scholars working in critical paradigms of race and empire. For these reasons, Leather-Stocking Redux is a welcome collection, offering a variety of perspectives on why, in Jeffrey Walker's terms, "Cooper's best-known works are ... not only important guides to issues and attitudes in the early Republic, but also address concerns still very troubling in our collective experience as Americans" ("Introduction" 2). That is to say, the collection sets itself up as a series of arguments for Cooper's tales' relevance in today's classroom and critical landscape. As I will discuss below, in this reviewer's opinion, the collection succeeds on many fronts, but it also includes significant critical shortcomings.
Among the ten essays included in the collection, three stand out as particularly rich offerings. Wayne Franklin's "'One More Scene': The Marketing Context of Cooper's 'Sixth' Leather-Stocking Tale" provides perhaps the most nuanced historical consideration of Cooper's work. Examining the shifting literary-market forces and demands that shaped the coalescence of the Leather-Stocking series, Franklin presents a provocative materialist argument as to why Cooper may have abandoned the idea of writing a sixth Leather-Stocking Tale set during the American Revolution. Franklin traces painstakingly the complex relationships Cooper had with the presses Lea and Blanchard, Stringer and Townsend (formerly Burgess, Stringer, and Co.), and Putnam in the 1840s and early 1850s, allowing him to reframe previous speculation that Cooper's political views halted composition of the last novel (which, presumably, would have necessitated presenting Natty as a Loyalist).
Two other essays that are particularly useful in furthering the collection's aim are Lance Schachterle's "On The Prairie'" and William Decker's "The Africanist Presence in The Pioneers." Schachterle teases out the socio-political conflicts that appear in The Prairie, which is set in 1805 and, according to Schachterle, represents "Cooper's deepest conflicts concerning the successful achievement of ... stability in the early Republic" (124). Although his discussions of space (the desolate prairie) and specific characters yield valuable insight, his consideration of the troubled and anxious place of law in the novel is perhaps most interesting. Decker's essay also addresses topics that are relevant to contemporary students and scholars, examining the presence of two "Africanist" figures in The Pioneers: the slave Agamemnon and the freeman Abraham Freeborn. The essay does include elements that scholars might question--such as the exclusive use of Morrison's rather dated critical paradigm and a distinct strain of pro-Cooper overstatements. Yet, Decker's analysis of these two characters is lucid and productive, particularly his consideration of Cooper's footnote in the 1832 edition of the novel that includes a "willful distortion" (20) of the Quakers' relation to slavery.
There are a number of essays in the collection that include promising arguments and analysis, but that, for various reasons, may fall short of the collection's goals. For example, Matthew Wynn Sivils's "'It's a Ghastly Visage': Cooper's LeatherStocking Tales and the Grotesque" provides an interesting examination of what he dubs an "American environmental grotesque" (180), where the landscape "becomes a mass grave in which pleasant hills hide corpses" (179). Although offering wonderful analysis, the essay is framed in a way that some might deem too traditional--aiming to illuminate "a uniquely American grotesque" (170). Similarly, John McWilliams's "Inscribing the Prairie Sunset: Cooper, Cather, and Momaday" and Robert Daly's "'Mohicans, Virtue Ethics, Literature, and Life" provide rich essays with much import, but both may be limited by their respective critical frames. McWilliams contextualizes Cooper's descriptions of the prairie with nineteenth-century sunset paintings, portraying how analysis of sunset images and accounts can provide an interesting social hermeneutic for an era of crisis, but readers may wonder why he departs from a closer analysis of Cooper to consider Cather's and Momaday's work. Daly's essay, more than any in the collection, attempts to bring contemporary critical models to bear on Cooper's novels. Nonetheless, the choice to use "[r]ecent work on virtue ethics, mirror neutrons, and the complex relations of literature and life" as "lenses" (86) for reading Cooper yields a potentially questionable approach. After a general discussion of literature's relation to judgment, Daly goes on to make claims about Cooper's novels' "usefulness" to "extraliterary experiences" (91). In fact, he goes as far as praising The Last of the Mohicans because, in his words, though the "book has no single and simple moral ... characters in it develop virtues worth attending'" (94)--a point he reiterates a few pages later, suggesting that Cooper's "comic characters are worthy of attention and respect" (97). Although a discussion of Cooper and ethics is fertile ground for scholars of various fields, Daly's omission of historical ideological contexts is sure to trouble many scholars.
As opposed to Daly's approach, Allan M. Axelrad's "The Last of the Mohicans, Race Mixing, and America's Destiny" and Barbara Alice Mann's "Sex and the Single Mixed-Blood" use historical analysis to, in different ways, correct contemporary readings of Cooper--leveraging something of a defense of the novelist. Considering the aim of the collection, Mann's reading seems more promising, countering "Eurocultural" queer-theory based readings of Natty's possible homosexuality with a convincing historical analysis of native perspectives on social relationships and antebellum views on racial identity. Though providing an interesting historical reconsideration of Cooper's thought--focusing on the politics surrounding the massacre at Fort William Henry as well as interracial relations in The Last--Axelrad's essay may strike some as being overly defensive, stopping to note, in a number of places, how Cooper has received unfair treatment at the hands of various scholars. Moreover, his focus on a reading of Genesis and his goal of illuminating "what Cooper sought to say" in the novel have a potentially infelicitous relation to the collection's goal of providing "new" essays on Cooper's series.
This apparent complication to the collection's aim is in many ways present in the introduction, itself. On the one hand, Walker suggests that the book seeks to provide a new take on Cooper's novels, demonstrating how "critical and historical scholarship ... [shows] his works are far from irrelevant to our culture today" (2-3). Yet, on the other, he states unabashedly that the collected scholarship will do so by reading Cooper "sympathetically" (2). One cannot fault such an honest position, a perspective that Cooper scholars might wholeheartedly agree with, but, to a broader audience of scholars, the "right questions" (4) that the collection poses may not be all that new after all.
JASON BERGER, University of South Dakota
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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