The Call of the Frontier

James Fenimore Cooper

“The sublimity connected with vastness is familiar to every eye.” – From “The Pathfinder,” by James Fenimore Cooper, prolific and popular American author, who was born on 15 September 1789.

After reading Mark Twain’s shrewdly insightful essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” I lack the temerity to praise Cooper for his prose style, but his novels – especially the five Leatherstocking Tales – helped shape part of our national mythology, with their stirring tales of heroic adventure on the American frontier. D. H. Lawrence detected darker implications at the heart of these stories, such that in his book “Studies in Classical American Literature” (1923) he wrote, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” That claim should be considered seriously, since it seems an apt description of the character of many American “heroes” in popular literature and film.

Cooper also had many admirers, including Franz Schubert, Honore de Balzac, and Henry David Thoreau, and his works have been translated and loved throughout the world. And while I recognize both their literary and cultural shortcomings, I, too, am a fan of Cooper’s novels, and my adolescent years would have been considerably diminished had I not read and reread the Leatherstocking Tales – especially “The Last of the Mohicans” (1826) – and happily imagined myself in the company of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, traversing the primeval and as-yet unbounded landscapes of the New World, both a pathfinder and a constant witness to “the sublimity connected with vastness.”

Below – “View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains” (1827), by Thomas Cole

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