The Women of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales *
by Nina Baym

"The Women he draws from one model don't vary," James Russell Lowell rhymed in A Fable for Critics, "All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie." Estimation of Cooper's seriousness and depth has risen sharply since 1848, but the view of his women has changed little. The fact that women are central characters in all the Leatherstocking books is therefore an embarrassment to his critics, who have contrived various strategies to overlook them. The leading school of Cooper criticism, focusing on his sociopolitical and historical ideas and his instincts for mythmaking, [1] plays down his treatment of women on the grounds that it represents a genteel, sentimental and trivial dimension which is not Cooper's fault but the fault of the genteel, sentimental and trivial women who made up most of the American reading audience and who had to be satisfied if an author was to sell. [2]

Freudian analysis, a second major trend in Cooper criticism, admits women into the core of his work, but only as projections of the male fears and desires which are taken to constitute the substance of Cooper's homoerotic myth of the wilderness. [3] The Freudian criticism, transmuting Cooper's universe into its own, has distorted the meaning of women in the works; the sociopolitical criticism has more simply and deliberately underestimated it. But to give the women their due importance in the Leatherstocking saga is not automatically to make light of Cooper's achievement. Nor need we claim a skill for Cooper in feminine portraiture that he obviously did not have, in order to investigate his heroines with seriousness and respect. Might not the neglect of women in his works have been due, at least in some small measure, to the critics' belief that the subject itself was of no importance? I do not in the least wish to deny that Cooper's depiction of women reflects the trivializing and patronizing denigration of the sex which is so marked a feature of 19th century American cultural attitudes. [4] I would argue, however, that the place of women in the Leatherstocking Tales relates directly to Cooper's main themes: contrasting modes of thought as they are brought into play in the establishment of an American civilization. It is not only that the place of women in society is an inseparable part of the social totality--though this is surely true; not only that the way an author places women is a fundamental element in his total vision--though this is true too; it is rather that Cooper himself believes that women are of central social significance. His theme is society, and he defines women as the nexus of social interaction. Therefore women have an important place in his works even when they themselves seem like insignificant beings, or are very crudely drawn by the author.

Cooper's view of society is at once strongly patriarchal in its ethics, and peculiarly anticipatory of some trends in modern anthropological thought in its systematizing. In a basic sense, women are not full members of the societies Cooper depicts; his cultures are composed entirely of males. Women are, however, the chief signs, the language of social communication between males; in the exchange of women among themselves men create ties and bonds, the social structures that are their civilizations. Without women there can be relationships like the friendship of Natty and Chingachgook, profoundly resonant with personal feeling and meaning, and yet entirely without social significance. With women, there are classes, societies, civilization. Though Cooper's women have no power over his men, they are vital for man's civilizations, and thus man has to take them along wherever he goes, and at whatever cost. The chief "statement" of the social language is, of course, marriage, which is shown in Cooper's Leatherstocking stories as a transaction between males, where the giving away of women creates a rhetoric of group membership and exclusion. The content of the marriage statement is deeply conservative: marriage takes place within the boundaries of the group. Neither extending or modifying the social structure, it confirms the group's previous membership, and tightens the group's solidarity and exclusiveness.

In Cooper's conservative view of society, no person is a "person" in the romantic or existential sense wherein he exists for his own ends, and wherein the group's ultimate purpose is to facilitate self-development and fulfillment. On the contrary, the chief "existent" is the group, and the idea of personhood is only rudimentarily developed. It is largely from a conflict between the social and romantic senses of "personhood" that a character like Natty Bumppo draws his continuing strength and interest. Women, as signs and objects in the society--as the mortar rather than the bricks of it--are even less persons than men are, and Cooper's depiction of them is controlled by the issue of their social use. Marriage rather than love is the matrix of his "romances," which are not truly romances because the sentimental interest in the heroine's feelings is largely absent. Absent, too, is the genteel romancer's guiding faith that marriage is both a personal epiphany and a social good. Cooper does not dispute this belief; the matter is simply not of interest to him.

Chiefly, Cooper divides women into those who can be married and those who cannot. One can also distinguish in his handling of women, as well as in the psychologies of the women themselves, some vaguely sensed stress between woman-as-person and woman-as-object. This stress is particularly evident in the contrast between Cora and Alice Munro (The Last of the Mohicans) and between Inez Middleton and Ellen Wade (The Prairie). There is no simple equation between these two aspects of woman's situation in the Leatherstocking Tales, however. It is not the case, for example, that "persons" are unmarriageable while "objects" are eligible. This is true in the case of the Munro sisters, but an object-woman like Hetty Hutter (The Deerslayer) is not marriageable while such persons as Ellen Wade and Mabel Dunham (The Pathfinder) are marriageable. Marriageability in fact has little or nothing to do with personhood, since, as suggested, personhood is not a factor recognized in social structure. For this reason attempts to organize Cooper's women according to types, or stereotypes, are more confusing than clarifying.

The Leatherstocking Tales show no particular growth or change in Cooper's views of women, and for efficiency's sake I will take them up in order of the increasing complexity of the depiction of the female situation. The Pioneers (1825), possibly because its action is circumscribed by its static setting, possibly because it is the first and least self-conscious of the series, presents its ideas in a particularly elementary form. The heroine, Elizabeth Temple, daughter of Templeton's chief citizen, is a "lady." Unlike many historical members of this class, who achieved a high degree of individuality because of their leisured and cultivated existence, Elizabeth has been designed to embody the type. She has a high degree of moral and aesthetic sensibility and her refinement is exemplified, conventionally enough, in her sensitivity to "sublime" landscape. Her natural generosity and gregariousness have been tempered by an awareness of social distinctions into a generally agreeable and charitable frame of mind. It should not be overlooked, in a historical society where poor health was regularly exhibited, like stigmata, by the bourgeois lady, how insistent Cooper is on the good health and amiability of his heroines regardless of their class status. Though Elizabeth is high-spirited and articulate, the limits of decorum result in a combination of vivacity and shallowness that is, ultimately, profoundly uninteresting. But marriageable girls are not bred to be interesting--that is a quality appropriate for women who must live by their wits; it is precisely the fact about a lady that she does not have to depend on her own qualities.

The class hierarchy in Templeton makes Judge Temple and his daughter Elizabeth the only members of the group whose values they are trying to establish in America. Though they have links to an aristocracy on the coast, where Elizabeth has been sent to receive an education suitable to her station, at the fringes of the forest they are the aristocracy. Our popular mythology of the rough-hewn pioneer building his crude dwelling with simple tools and bare hands, is likely to obscure the fact that to Cooper, Judge Temple with his mansion, his architect and his imported trees, is the true pioneer engaged in the most difficult and yet most vital of all pioneering tasks. He is establishing true civilization in the wilderness--that is, himself, his way of life and his values.

Inappropriate as Elizabeth's schooling would appear to be for the difficulties of settlement life, it is part of this pioneering. The survival of a type like her is one test of the ability of high civilization to survive in the wilderness. She is brought up as though she were going to live in a cultivated atmosphere, and her cultivation in a sense imposes such an atmosphere on the frontier. She is brought back from her schooling to grace her father's dwelling as its chief ornament, and to serve him. Far from feeling demeaned by this role of ornamental servant, Elizabeth like all Cooper's daughters takes great pleasure in it. The perfection of the female type at any class level is always one who does willingly what society requires from her. But Elizabeth's purposes are more profound than this: it is her existence that guarantees the formation of an artificial group, a linking of men which is other than the natural family and which, simply because is is not natural, is the base of civilization. The linking of men in a common culture is accomplished by women.

Frontier conditions involve, of course, a great scarcity of eligible suitors, and Cooper invents a most implausible plot to provide one for her. At the same time, the appearance in disguise of the heir to the ousted Tory owner of the estates which are now Temple's makes a certain point. It is Cooper's idea that class lines override political and even religious differences, and the ultimate survival of a class system as such depends on the awareness among aristocrats of this priority. It is proof of Elizabeth's proper breeding that she senses the aristocrat beneath Oliver Edward's pretense of lower-class identity; however, Cooper is at such pains to assure us that Elizabeth, bred as she is, would be incapable of loving a socially unworthy suitor, that he virtually undercuts whatever suspense the disguise plot was intended to create. Because she is a dutiful daughter, however, there is no question of Elizabeth's expressing her love until its consummation in marriage is sanctioned by her father. Filial obedience is the chief requisite quality in a woman whose function is to be given away; in a more general sphere, woman is expected to be dependent on the male sex for direction and decision in her life. In brief, woman is taught to rely on authority, which is embodied in every particular case by the male parent. Insofar as there is any complexity in Elizabeth's situation, it rises from her need to reconcile the incompatible elements of her class-and-caste situation, where she is a member of an inferior sex but a superior class to those males--the disguised Edward Effingham (Oliver Edwards) and the social clown Natty Bumppo--who are perpetually coming to her rescue.

Feminine dependency is acted out in all the Leatherstocking Tales by the rescue of the female from external dangers. Since The Pioneers is focused on the threat to civilization posed by the wilderness itself, Elizabeth is saved from such natural hazards as panthers and forest fires. In the Last of the Mohicans, second book in the series, Cooper deals at length with the far greater threat posed to a society by competing civilizations, and in this work the women must be saved from the aggressions of members of alien groups. Woman's need for protection does not simply result from her actual physical weakness, though this is the rationalization subscribed to by members of both sexes in this culture. The plain fact is that she is not permitted to protect herself. In return for relinquishing all attempts at independence even to the point of forgoing self-defense, woman has the right to expect the continual protection of men and to demand unremitting vigilance from them on her behalf. Thus there are definitions of both womanhood and manhood implicated in the chivalric code. The hypothesis of woman's feebleness on which the code is based is not tested in the Leatherstocking series. Indian women fend for themselves and do quite well at it; white women appear in the forest so weighted down with the appurtenances of their cultural role--heavy veils, cumbersome and constricting clothing, satin slippers--that self-defense is out of the question. White women are men's burdens, but these burdens are cherished by men whose manhood is predicated on the successful defense of them. Natty Bumppo is as much bound up in this cultural network as the other white males, his celibacy notwithstanding, for he is chiefly valued by civilization for his skill at transporting the feeble ones safely through dangerous or unfamiliar terrain, and this skill is an important source of his pride and self-respect.

In The Pathfinder (1840) Cooper adds to a conventional and civilized definition of Natty's manhood by giving him a passionate, though unrequited, love. Because of this romance, the book fits very poorly into the logic of the series as it has been developed in the criticism, and it is generally omitted in critical discussions. [6] It is more responsible, I believe, to take the saga as we find it. In The Pathfinder Cooper uses Natty's capacity to experience romantic love as an indication of his civilized sensibility. His love is in part a recognition of superior qualities in the female which his rough and elemental existence might have been supposed to unfit him to perceive--her refinement, delicacy, gentleness, spirituality--all products of civilization. Cooper stresses this point by giving Mabel Dunham other suitors whose feelings for her are expedient or crude. Romantic love is, moreover, a fiction whereby a weaker and inferior creature is invested with exalted qualities by the transforming imagination of the lover. Romantic love, like the chivalry with which it is associated, is sign of a noble spirit, for it is a courteous pretense by which the stronger being submits his will to the weaker rather than enforcing his will on her. The clear opposite to this is found in the behavior of Indian men to their wives; these strong men simply compel their women to labor for them; they treat them indifferently and discard them if another woman catches their fancy. Such behavior is evidence to Cooper of the over-all lower quality of Indian to western civilization, however admirable certain Indians or certain Indian traits may be. One might sum this all up by saying that the very peculiar position of woman in western society as the impedestaled feeble one, a position which clearly requires leisure and luxury to support it and is therefore available to very few even in European culture--that position is for Cooper one of the chief claims to superiority that Europe has over the rest of the world. However inefficient or absurd these fragile burdens may appear in the wilderness, to alter the position of women would be to modify the civilization to a point where it would no longer be as worthy of preservation or establishment.

For women love has different significance. It is not a sign of magnanimity in her, since she loves the man for traits he really has, and love is a necessity of her nature. As a natural emotion it is not so ennobling as the same emotion is in the man, for whom it is less natural. We might note here two kinds of confusion in Cooper's views about woman. For one thing, he really does not believe that woman's "superior" qualities are finally superior; or at least he believes it only intermittently. More significant is his uncertainty about whether the civilized woman is the natural woman, finally recognized for what she is and given her rightful place as an idol worthy of man's devotion and sacrifice, or whether in contrast she is an artifact, manufactured or cultivated by society as an expression of its high degree of civilization. In any event, when Cooper tries to show that Mabel is a truly noble woman, he avoids these confusions by giving her qualities which transcend her sex: stamina, boldness, resourcefulness, enterprise. In other words, he gives her the virtues of a man. The chief action of the book is her holding of a stockade which her father has unwisely abandoned, against a combined force of Indians, French and traitors, with the help only of Dew-of-June, an Indian woman. (It's a minor point, but worthy of note, that the women cross cultural divisions with bonds of sympathy and liking much more easily than the men do.)

Intrepid behavior of this sort would be unthinkable for a "lady"; it would be equally unthinkable that Natty with his strong sense of social place might permit himself to love a lady. Mabel, therefore, belongs to the lower classes, but she has a refinement above her class which has been created in her by association in childhood (as a "humble companion") with ladies. In her the delicacy of the upper class blends with a yeoman sturdiness, and she might be seen as representing Cooper's attempt to mediate not only between the advantages and disadvantages of "female" qualities, but also between his avowed dedication to aristocracy, and some lurking respect for the American freeman.

The circumstances of Mabel's upbringing have improved but not declassed her; it is a paradox of her refinement that she is above any vulgar aspiration to rise above her circumstances. She cannot marry Natty, however, because he is declassed. The circumstances of his life have put him entirely outside society, and the institution of marriage has therefore no use for him. The purpose of marriage is to perpetuate social groups; only those who are members of a group may marry within it, and since Natty belongs to no group it follows that he may not marry. At a number of points in The Pathfinder and again in The Deerslayer it is suggested that the appropriate wife for Natty would be an Indian girl. Since race lines are the only ones more firm than class lines, this suggestion functions mainly to emphasize the social irrelevance of Natty Bumppo. His own usually acute self-perceptions fail him when he aspires to Mabel's hand, but this is not so much his fault as the fault of Sgt. Dunham, who has forgotten his class responsibilities when he selected Natty as a son-in-law. The general incompetence of Dunham, who flounders throughout the book and finally bumbles into his own death, points up very sharply a motif which is latent in The Pioneers and which is found to some degree in all the Leatherstocking Tales: the motif of the inadequate father. Under the stress conditions, and particularly the isolation, of the frontier, those who are supposed to maintain civilization prove unequal to their obligations. The incompetence of fathers is sharply contrasted on the one hand with the sound social instincts of the young, and on the other with the harmonious functioning of the tribal structures of the Indians.

For Mabel, the dereliction of her father untwines and opposes two moral stands which every daughter must suppose inseparable--the obligation to love and marry appropriately, and the obligation to marry according to one's father's choice. The latter obligation takes precedence, and Mabel prepares therefore to make a match which she rightfully dreads. The death of her father liberates her, but not directly. No woman in the Leatherstocking Tales belongs to herself (Judith Hutter in The Deerslayer possibly excepted). Woman is always subject to man's disposition of her, and as Judith Hutter's case shows, the unowned woman is considered by man to be common property. Therefore, when Dunham is killed Mabel is effectively inherited by Natty Bumppo who, as her betrothed, takes over her guardianship. In this position of responsibility Natty's clear sight returns, and he hands Mabel over to Jasper Western, an eligible suitor who has been fretting impatiently in the wings of the story since its opening chapter. This peculiar transaction makes sense only if one recognizes how marriage is an interaction between men where women are simply the exchanged goods.

The Last of the Mohicans (1826) introduces the duality of dark and fair heroines which occurs as well in The Deerslayer and The Prairie. The presence of contrasting heroines, of course, increases the possibilities of complexity in the treatment of women, and as a formal device is found in countless works of 19th and 20th century fiction. So basic is it that it seems almost to be a structural property of the genre quite anterior to any meaning which may be attached to it. It is a pity that this device has been subsumed by Freudian criticism, for its uses are far more various than that theory permits us to see and there are many different kinds of contrasts between heroines for which it is employed. Approaching The Last of the Mohicans along the route laid out by Leslie Fiedler, we may well fail to notice Cooper's special handling of the stereotype. Cora, the dark heroine, is not in any meaningful sense a bad woman. On the contrary she is very good; encomiums to her goodness recur throughout the text. She presents no threat, moreover, to any character in the novel; the pervasive anxiety that the presence of the dark lady is supposed to arouse is entirely absent. [8]

The main point seems to be that in spite of her superior qualities--her kindness, courage, modesty, maturity, thoughtfulness, steadfastness, self-reliance, nobility of soul, resourcefulness and very great beauty--Cora cannot be married. Because her mother was partly black, Cora is hopelessly spoiled. Her "blackness" is not the cause of her many virtues, but is the cause of all these virtues counting for nothing. Cora is well aware of her tragedy, and her sense of fatality gives her a seriousness entirely lacking in Cooper's more fortunate young girls. One such fortunate young girl is her sister Alice, unquestionably the silliest of Cooper's heroines. In Alice the training for uselessness has been carried to an extreme that even Cooper finds amusing. Helpless, dependent and infantile, she is certain to faint whenever any situation of stress arises, so that in her case the concept of woman as package becomes literally expressed. Yet, to Duncan Heyward this is woman as she should be; he is proud to haul his "precious burden" about, he manfully supports her "infantile dependency." It is clear that his sense of manliness is enhanced by her fragility. Yet one should not make the mistake of thinking that he shrinks from Cora because her strength threatens him. He shuns her simply for her impure blood. The girls both represent acceptable, if contrasting, developments of the "lady." Cora's tragedy is not that she is unladylike, but that her exclusion from the prerogatives of her class is gratuitous: blood, not character or breeding, is fate.

In a second significant way her blood affects her history. It determines the nature of her beauty, which is such as to make her attractive to men of other races. Although she herself is untouched by her kind of attractiveness, remaining decorous, pure and chastely in love with Duncan Heyward throughout, it is the source of powerful magnetism to others. Here, indeed, there is meaning to the idea of Cora as threat. She threatens no particular individual, but the whole system of proprieties between men on which civilization rests. A woman of such attraction is more highly charged than is convenient for those who must protect, control and dispose of her. The quotidian transaction of marriage requires a commoner coin. Alice, in this sense, is unquestionably a "better" woman than her sister just because she is so ordinary, so unimpressive'. Cora's blackness makes her on the one hand a counterfeit coin which Apasses" but is really fraudulent, and on the other a gem too rare and extraordinary for the purposes she is designed to fulfill. She is both below and above her function. Cooper is here reaching for a conclusion which is postulated in many theories of social origins: the idea that there can be no civilization without the repression and control of "female sexuality"; i.e., the capacity of the female to arouse the male. Cooper is very far, however, from acknowledging that women possess sexual drives themselves. Even Judith Hutter, his one bad woman, is motivated in her fall by a desire for finery and a better life rather than by a voluptuous nature. Her attraction to Natty, which goes far to redeem her, consists of an intellectual and spiritual appreciation of his noble qualities.

Judith Hutter is the dark heroine of The Deerslayer (1841), a book which at first glance looks like a simple exaggeration of the duality in The Last of the Mohicans. Cora's strong-mindedness has been intensified to the point of rebelliousness and bitterness in Judith while Alice's passivity has become feeblemindedness in Hetty. But Cora's leading quality is her purity, Alice's her predictability. In contrast, Judith is lax and Hetty is erratic, so comparisons are misleading. The crucial thing about both Hutter girls is their lack of social position. They are the daughters of an outcast, which is bad enough in terms of their marriage potentiality; but before the book is over we learn that they are in fact the illegitimate daughters of someone unknown, and that Thomas Hutter married their mother after the children were born. Of what society might these girls hope to be a part? Together these girls form a single entity, "the unmarriageable," and they are contrasted to Hist, the Indian maiden whom Chingachgook has come to wed. The capture, rescue and defense of Hist make up the romantic cable of this novel; to center a chivalric romance on either Hutter sister would simply be indecorous. The relationship of Hist and Chingachgook goes far to define the young Indian as a noble savage; chivalric love is particularly ennobling in an Indian.

Of course we cannot overlook the potential romance between Deerslayer and Judith. Much has been written about this episode, for by concentrating on Natty's rejection of Judith and ignoring his rejection by Mabel, it has been possible to construct a myth of the Leatherstocking which is much more congenial to the 20th century critics' obsession with homoerotic purity than are the actual materials of the saga as Cooper wrote it. But Cooper's own audience, reading the books as they appeared, would recall The Pathfinder (published just the year before) and contrast his passion in the one case with his reluctance in the other. Judith, as Natty several times observes, does not know her place, or refuses to accept it. Her love of finery is symptomatic of desires for things which she is not socially entitled to have and therefore ought not to want. Her sexual fall is related to her social dissatisfaction; she went with officers for economic reasons rather than sentimental ones. Moreover, she has given herself away, and for selfish purposes. The conservative Natty is attracted by her spirit and beauty but profoundly alienated by her radical willfulness. He is not, D. H. Lawrence notwithstanding, afraid of her. And a modern reader who is not afraid of her might well find her the most interesting of the woman characters: restless, intelligent, experienced, impatient, moody, and yet with keen sensibilities and a sharp appreciation of high moral qualities (this is evidenced by her attraction to Natty, and contrasted with her dull-witted sister's animal impulse toward Hurry Harry), she combines enough qualities to take on the semblance of a rich life. She must surely be the prototype for Hester Prynne and Zenobia. Her decision when Deerslayer turns her down to go off to Scotland and be an officer's mistress puts her in the tradition of Moll Flanders and Becky Sharp--women who manipulate their opportunities in a man's world.

Although Natty does not see it, Cooper certainly recognizes a certain kinship between Judith and his hero. The attraction between them, articulated on her side and denied on his, derives from the fact that after all they are members of the same class, those whom Crevecoeur called offcasts, "a kind of forlorn hope, preceding by ten or twelve years the most respectable army of veterans which come after them." Even in their departures from the sexual norm these two resemble one another; since their initial positions are not identical, sexual freedom in the woman really corresponds to chastity in the male. The union between them is symbolized in that extraordinary transaction wherein Judith gives Natty the rifle--Killdeer--which is to be his magic weapon and which retroactively enriches the whole Leatherstocking legend, for Natty is now seen to owe his potency not merely to his chastity, but also to a woman's gift.

The Prairie (1827) also gives us difficulty when approached by the avenue of the dark/fair stereotype. Two problems in particular confront us. Both Inez, the dark exotic, and Ellen, the homegrown plant, are "good" heroines, so that as in The Last of the Mohicans the fundamental dark/fair=bad/good contrast does not hold. Further, although Inez is conventionally foreign and sexual, she is also passive, dependent, artless, girlish and innocent, thereby amalgamating qualities which are stereotypically opposed. Ellen is too strong-willed and independent to be "fair" but also too innocent, honest and open to be "dark." The operational contrast--i.e., that which has results in the story--is between passivity and activity, dependence and independence. The core vision of the aristocratic woman as she who is carried about, she who is transferred among men, is clearly represented in the abducted Inez, who spends virtually the entire novel reclining on her couch within her wheeled tent. The vision is intensified by the concealing draperies and veils which remind us of all the strongly patriarchal cultures that keep their women veiled and secluded. The veils can also be interpreted as wrappings, which refer to the idea of woman as transportable package, as object. Hawthorne's Priscilla, another wrapped package, comes to mind here.

Inez is emotional and extremely attractive, yet physically tiny, mentally childlike and thoroughly dependent on men. Profoundly religious, her religion consists in doing what her priest tells her. She is a complete image of the superrefined, artificial woman bred to be man's object and plaything. In contrast to Cora, whose attractiveness to alien tribes lay in her hint of likeness to them, Inez attracts because she is so unlike anything that primitive men with their untutored, workaday women have ever seen. She is, completely, a work of art, a cultural artifact. The abduction plot in which she figures, preposterous from so many angles,--iterates the idea that she is a piece of portable, appraisable property. Yet, if she is perfected woman, she is also overbred: too exquisite, too desirable, to function properly. She requires too much surveillance, takes too great a toll from the culture she is supposed to enhance.

From this point of view she would seem to represent a kind of decadence, not within herself but within the society that has produced her. Some critics feel that in this story Cooper divides the French-Catholic from the English-Protestant strains in the European tradition, and suggests that the one is unsuitable for Americans, the other desirable. But since Cooper unites Inez with great fanfare to the scion of one of his favorite Anglo-American families, the Munroe Middletons, we cannot accept this interpretation. Whatever decadence Inez represents derives from the aristocratic tradition as a whole. And indeed in this novel Cooper sets the aristocracy alongside of other sorts of social organizations, and at least considers the possibility that another kind of polity might be better for Americans than a rigid class hierarchy. For while Inez is confined to her couch and tent, shut away from the eyes of men, a pearl of great price and yet an existential vacuum, Ellen Wade is very much in evidence, bounding about the prairie like a young antelope, strong, healthy, busy, noisy, sneaking away from the encampment at night to meet her lover, minding the battalion of little Bush children, talking back to men, and--unprecedented behavior for a Cooper heroine--actually brandishing a loaded weapon. Here, most unexpectedly in a Cooper cast of characters, is the "new woman," woman in a democracy, woman as a free spirit.

Ellen is not the only cultural contrast to Inez. Once again Cooper gives us an abused Indian wife, to remind us of the low caliber of Indian culture. Another "new" character is Hester Bush, the only mother in all the Leatherstocking Tales, an impressive, strong woman, full partner to Ishmael Bush. Participating in the group's labors and in the group's decisions, outspoken and strongly emotional, she earns full human status in the clan; the usual comparisons of the Bush group to an Old Testament patriarchy are for this reason in error. it is commonly theorized that the patriarchy emerges in history when questions of property and succession make it imperative that men fully possess the women who are to give them heirs. The unpropertied Bush clan represents a pre-patriarchal form where woman is wife, in contrast to the true patriarchy (Cooper's common social form) where woman is epitomized as the daughter--i.e., Inez. Ellen Wade, neither wife nor daughter, seems to me to represent a post-patriarchal social form, and thus stands not between but in advance of the other two cultural organizations. [9]

The striking fact about Ellen in this view is that she is fatherless and that it doesn't matter. In a democracy, it would seem, people are not subject to their fathers; they are not obliged to perpetuate groups; they define and express themselves, and only the "now" of their existence has import. In the absence of fathers and all that they imply, woman becomes a different sort of human being. Inez and Ellen indeed, seem like members of two different species. Ellen is an entirely new, unprecedented kind of social being. She is the first heiress of all the ages. Her romance with Paul Hover is the only true love story in the whole series, developed with reference to the feelings of the lovers themselves and with almost no concern for external pressures. Paul has followed Ellen onto the prairie to rescue her, but he is not going to deliver her to anybody or to "claim" her as his own. Since Ellen is only nominally under the protection of Ishmael Bush she is really free to go whenever she makes up her mind to do so. Leaving the Bush tribe thus becomes her moral decision--virtually the only moral decision that a woman in the Leatherstocking Tales is called upon to make.

The democracy, then, despite its lack of refinements that requires Ellen to be placed as Inez's attendant, would seem to be the answer to a dark heroine's dilemma. Its conditions take much of the onus away from her because her qualities imply no threat, and this is because no structure exists for her to threaten. Ellen need not conceal her attractiveness, because attractiveness is no longer so highly charged a quality; she is able to be openly affectionate to her suitors, because to be so takes no prerogative away from the male; her origins--the all-important question for establishing any heroine in her patriarchal place--are immaterial. The reduced importance of fathers implies the reduced importance of marriage, and this opens a whole new sort of life for woman, and creates an entirely new sort of woman.

How does Cooper feel about this free woman? Or about Cora, his condemned and yet guiltless dark lady? Or Judith, his brilliant, bitter social castaway? He feels about them, I suspect, much as he does about Natty Bumppo or Chingachgook: ambivalently. Committed to a conservative, stratified view of society; convinced that societies preserved themselves intact or not at all, he had to discard these characters. Yet his imagination peopled the asocial space with them, his more memorable creations. The conception of a flexible social structure evaded him; in every book his rigid hierarchical view of society eclipses the romantic sympathies which he embodied in loners and outcasts. Only in Ellen Wade and Paul Hover do we get a hint that a liberated human being might be the center of a viable social order; otherwise, in the Leatherstocking Tales, order is achieved only at the cost of a social submission that falls with particular completeness and severity on the women.


1 The best single work on Cooper in this vein is James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: William Sloane, 1949), still unsuperseded as a full-length study. Important interpretations of Cooper as mythologist and historical thinker in the Leatherstocking Tales are to be found in Roy Harvey Pearce, "The Leatherstocking Tales Re-examined" (1947), reprinted in Historicism Once More (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), and The Savages of America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1953); Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1950); R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1955); A. N. Kaul, American Vision: Actual and Ideal Society in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1963); Edwin Fussel, Frontier: American Literature and the American West (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965); John Lynen, The Design of the Present (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969).

2 The facile blaming of female writers and readers for everything wrong with the 19th century American literary situation would be amusing were it not so seriously and pervasively offered as scholarly explanation. From Hawthorne to Fiedler, the lady scribbler or the lady reader (box of chocolates by her side) has been a favorite scapegoat. Investigations of the 19th century literary situation free of sexual prejudice are badly needed.

3 The chief self-styled Freudian interpretations are those of D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1923); Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion Books, 1960); and Joel Porte, The Romance in America (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1969).

4 The recent proliferation of books about women has added enormously to our understanding of myth, culture, society and literature, and created a firm base for further work; the field of woman's history is mostly empty still. A new book by Page Smith, despite some fatuous chapters on woman's nature, makes a beginning. Smith asserts that the situation of the American woman deteriorated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a one-class, small-town society gave way to a stratified urban one, with a corresponding change in values from Puritan to commercial (Daughters of the Promised Land [Boston: Little, Brown, 1970], 57-76).

5 For examples of such thinking, see Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1963): Robin Fox, Kinship and Marriage (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1967); Jacques Ehrmann, ed., Structuralism (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1970), pp. 31-99.

6 An exception is Porte's The Romance in America, which interprets Natty's proposal to Mabel as a revenge or punishment inflicted on her for her sexual attractiveness by the Puritanical or celibate Natty. This is ingenious, but I think not supported by Cooper's rhetoric, which is conventionally romantic in the extreme.

7 Tomboy heroines always embody this truth: that the human virtues are masculine ones.

8 A class of graduate students of both sexes discussing this novel recently agreed unanimously that Cora was a "misfit," not a threat. The main emotion she aroused--insofar as she was felt as a real person at all--was pity.

9 Henry Nash Smith in his introduction to the Rinehart edition of The Prairie sets out a scheme wherein the American continent is seen as recapitulating in reverse the various cultural stages of man. The aristocracy is the highest and most recent, while both the Bush clan and the Indian tribes are versions, bad and good, of the ancient, nomadic tribal system. Paul and Ellen are identified as a transitional structure, but the structure is given no name which suggests that they do not fit the scheme. As I have suggested, the Indians and the Bush group are not strictly comparable; nor do I see any way by which Ellen and Paul are actually conveying or modifying traits of the Bush group so that they will evolve into traits of the Middleton group.

*Originally published in American Quarterly, (23) (1971): 698-709.