Sunday, April 24, 2011

Gather the Bones, 7: Rethinking Natty Bumppo, Because Mitt Romney is in the News.

I mean, why not? He's only the archetypical American hero:

You can put his epigones in the ultimate unspoiled wilderness of the Earth's core

(I inserted an image here, borrowed from, which legitimately objected to my borrowing it without attribution. I'm embarrassed, and I apologise. Check the bog out, and I'll fix this later.)

or rip him out of context like this, but the permanently tanned, self-reliant noble savage is a permanent fixture of American literature. Oh, there are ways and ways to unpack this. What's this about natives? Why is he White? Is he, in fact, White?  What about the girls, with this uneasy conjunction of proximity and distance?  A reflection of the nerdboy's agonised sense that life has left him unready for a steady? Or is it --rejection? Is something more homoerotic going on here?

This last thought got me to picking up the Leatherstocking novels in the first place. Blah blah "miscegenation" blah authorising taboo relationships blah blah homoerotic fantasy.  I wouldn't discard the notion. Something as blatant as "Cooper and Howard were teh gay!" might even work. It's just that when I started struggling with Deerslayer, what I was struck by was the way that the novel clearly, cleverly, blatantly, takes the story of Earth Diver as its plot. What the heck? Cooper was underreviewed, especially in America, in his lifetime, but the main takeaway from what the North American Review had to say about him was that he knew nothing about Indians that he didn't read in Schoolcraft. Well, Schoolcraft did not collect the Earth Diver legends, and those legends are far too systematically deployed in Deerslayer for it to be a coincidence. I mean, c'mon! One of the main characters is called "Muskrat," lives in a lodge (castle) on an artificial island, and, when he dies, is described as "taking his last dive" by one of his Mohawk killers. Although I will admit that I was first clued into the Earth Diver metaplot not by slogging through Deerslayer but by Twain's blatantly uncomprehending account of another use of the diving metaplot:

If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper's proudest creations in the way of "situations" suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer's protecting gift. Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little every-day matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a "situation." In the "Deerslayer" tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason, and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the brook's outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become "the narrowest part of the stream." This shrinkage is not accounted for. The stream has bends in it, a sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were often nine hundred feet long than short of it.
Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a "sapling" to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are "laying" for a settler's scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions "it was little more than a modern canal boat." Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of "greater breadth than common." Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies "two-thirds of the ark's length" -- a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say -- a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms -- each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa's bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream's exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians -- say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper's Indian's never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.
The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judge, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.
There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did -- you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat -- for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper's inadequacy as observer.

(It is perhaps telling that Cooper's reviewers, and Twain himself, came from a hostile political tradition.)

The stream in question is, of course, the head of the Susquehanna, and it would have been wide enough to take Hutter's/Muskrat's Ark (hey, it's another clue-by-four!) during the spring floods, when the outlet to Otsego was frequently blocked temporarily by flotsam dams, producing particularly heavy flooding and a wave that could carry bateaux far downstream and up various tributaries when they broke. Groff even turns this into a variation of the "bateau volant" myth, with General Clinton's forces riding the crest of the wave across a flash-frozen, drowned countryside. It's a gruesome scene that leaves me wondering why Groff is so reluctant to believe that Otsego County would be willing to vote for Clinton later on. Oh, yes. All of the Indians were miraculously replaced with "settlers" between 1779 and 1794.

 (Spoiler alert: once again, I am going to freely spoil several Cooper novels, and, more seriously, Groff's Monsters of Templeton after the break, as appropriate to make my point. And yes, skeptics, I do have one.)

Oops. That spoiler alert might have gone a little earlier. You now know some fairly significant plot elements from the last Leatherstocking Tale, specifically, that Tom Hutter dies, and that Judith Hutter is Fallen Woman, or, rather, a fallen woman at the end of the story. But that's not the spoiler that I want to do; or rather, I don't want to begin there.

Just to put things in context, while Monsters of Templeton climaxes (historically) in 1794, the year of the disputed Jay-Clinton gubernatorial election in New York, Pioneers climaxes in the summer of 1792 --the season of the Whiskey Rebellion. As President George Washington leads an American army into the hills of Pennsylvania seeking rebels, so Judge Marmaduke Temple leads the Templeton Militia into the hills above Cooperstown, seeking Natty Bumppo. Both men are misguided. Washington's evil advisor is the facile Alexander Hamilton, who has provoked the rebellion with his excise tax and hopes to find in frontier whiskey a source of cash money to fund his national project. Judge Temple, as always, places overmuch faith in his cousin, Richard Jones, Sherrif of Templeton, but it is not intelligence about the location of the fugitive Natty that moves Temple to act, but information from a peepstone scryer who has seen a vision of a silver treasure in Natty's cave. Indeed, it is hard to believe in Richard achieving much of anything, given that the character is a fairly-well realised portrait of narcissistic dysfunction.

So this is the connection between Mormonism and Cooper that I've been promising. The story of Joseph Smith is that he sees a treasure hidden in a burial chamber in the Hill of Cumorrah. Since the Hill is private property, Smith visits it in a spirit journey and discovers the treasure, which is genealogical as much as bullion. Specifically, it is a book that traces the history of the American Indians back to the Lost Tribes of Israel. God, approving of Smith's investigations, sends the Angel Moroni to him with the Golden Bible of the West, along with the magic crystal spectacles with which to read and translate it. Smith goes on to found the Church of Latter Day Saints to promulgate the faith of the Book of Mormon, which is very active in "redeeming" the latter day descendants of the Lost Tribes. And, of course, in Anti-Masonic and later (of course) pro-Mormon, or, as it ultimately turns out, Whig/Republican politics.

By way of contrast, in Pioneers, the anonymous scryer sees a treasure at the source of the Susquehanna that similarly turns out to be genealogical. But that treasure in no way belongs to the party advised by the scryer. One of them dies in a fire he set with the intention of getting access to Bumppo's cabin. Another, Hiram Doolittle, finding that his various gifts in architecture and so on are underappreciated in the east, heads west. (He reappears by reputation in Home As Found as an architect with an expertise in putting Greco-Roman facades on more traditional structures. Somewhere on the Internet I've seen one of Doolittle's masterpieces,  with an incongruous Classical porch fused to an "Earth lodge" like the one I've already shown. I just can't find it, though perhaps later on edit.)  Finally, Jones is silenced and shamed by the revelation that his scheme for the development of Templeton rested on a scryer's second sight.

Obviously, Pioneers does not use a peepstone scryer as a way of commenting on the Book of Mormon, which hadn't been published yet. The usage comes out of a common social milieu, rather. I still find the contrast interesting because it focusses us directly on the idea of  secrets that reveal the true ownership of the country. Now, the milieu also played a vital role in the emergence of the Book of Mormon. I'm hardly the first to link its message to the pioneering anti-Democratic political movement of the Anti-Masonic Party. Cooper, as a Jackson Democrat, was at political war with the Anti-Masons from their 1828 creation to their ultimate disappearance into the emergent Republican Party.

But what has this to do with Natty Bumppo, free man of nature? Consider Killdeer, the longue carabine, the American Excalibur. In Deerslayer, Natty receives Killdeer from Judith Hutter. Towards the end of Pioneers, Elizabeth Temple, soon to be Elizabeth Effingham, comes to Natty in jail with money to pay his fine for hunting out of season. She implores him to take the money, with her gratitude. And then, for no obvious reason, Natty segues into a discussion of guns. There's a new rifle on sale at Cherry Valley that he covets, but he is old, and the one he has (Killdeer, not yet named at this point in Hawkeye's legend) will serve his time. Finally, at the end of The Prairie, the never-named Trapper, dying, asks that Killdeer be returned to Otsego, to hang on the mantleplace of an unnamed Oliver Effingham at what was once Temple Hall, and is now the Wigwam. 

I'm not nearly done with that mantlepiece yet, but consider the role of a legendary weapon given by a lady of a lake to a chosen champion in Nineteenth Century English fiction for a moment. Judith has made Natty  her champion, and her custodian of the lands of Otsego with this gift. It is a gift for life, and Judith even offers to make it hereditary. But she has no right to do that, and her sister Hetty's gift is, at least, more ambiguous. 

I say this because Elizabeth seems to believe that she has the right to reconfer her it with her gift of gold, and Natty doesn't disagree. While he keeps Killdeer, he leaves Otsego, the tragic westward movement of the hero fleeing civilisation? Or something more? Because I can't help think of the way that an Indian matron confers a sachemate on her champion. This is a property right that the male holder possesses fully in his time, but a reversionary one that returns to the matrilineal descent. So long as the sachem belongs to the family of the matrilineal descent, there is some sense in which the property is hereditary --it will go to his son, or perhaps his nephew. If the appointed sachem is not related to the matron, the only way that it can become hereditary is if he marries into the family. Natty, of course, is chaste. (Not counting Chingachgook.) Major Effingham is not. 

But are they actually different people? To put it another way: does Natty have the right to roam and hunt Otsego because he is a free man on a free land, beyond the frontier and the White Man's law of property? Or is it because he is the lord of the manor, and the two propositions are actually supposed to be identical? Because if that's what Joseph Smith is taking issue with, I see his point entirely.

No comments:

Post a Comment