What We Might All Learn from James Fenimore Cooper

 

by Bob Ferris

“The books he wrote later tell how he never forgot the howl of the wolf across the icy field of Otsego on cold winter nights, the peculiar wail of the sharp-toothed panther in the quiet wood roads, nor the familiar springs where the deer lingered latest. In James Fenimore Cooper by Mary E. Phillips (1912) 

 
My parents recently moved from their home of 20 some years to an assisted care facility.  This involved some serious downsizing as they had both accumulated much during their nearly 10 decades on earth and were also the keepers of many family treasures held and passed down generation to generation.  One of the items that got passed on to my own personal accumulation was a complete set of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Series which includes The Last of the Mohicans among others.  
 
These are actually early editions passed down through seven generations of my family.  The writing is awkward and stilted viewed through today’s lens but all of us through those seven generations have read them: Father to son to grandson and beyond.  And I am amazed at how much this writer born the same year as the US Constitution was ratified has influenced those long-gone generations and me.  
 
“Listen, Hawkeye, and your ear shall drink no lie. ‘Tis what my fathers have said, and what the Mohicans have done.” He hesitated a single instant, and bending a cautious glance toward his companion, he continued, in a manner that was divided between interrogation and assertion. “Does not this stream at our feet run toward the summer, until its waters grow salt, and the current flows upward?” The Last of the Mohicans—James Fenimore Cooper
 
Cooper grew and flourished as the new country did in and around the Founding Fathers such as John Jay.  His writings—in part—tried to describe an existing and evolving national ethic as well as a hoped for condition as the infant country progressed.  The tales are moralistic emphasizing an overriding respect for nature, the need for bravery and a code of behavior, and an adherence to truth regardless of the cost.
 
“Graves bring solemn feelings over the mind,” returned the scout, a good deal touched at the calm suffering of his companion; “and they often aid a man in his good intentions; though, for myself, I expect to leave my own bones unburied, to bleach in the woods, or to be torn asunder by the wolves. But where are to be found those of your race who came to their kin in the Delaware country, so many summers since?” The Last of the Mohicans—James Fenimore Cooper
 
Cooper also had a realistic view towards wolves.  He fully recognized them as predators—even to the point of acknowledging that his main character’s corpse might one day be eaten by wolves.  He also described instances where they frightened horses, but at the same time indicated that they would quickly run when confronted.  His protagonists never characterized them as a threat to their safety.  It should also be noted here that the tribal name Mohican could be a variation of either Mohegan or Mahican which are geographically and linguistically separate tribes in spite of the fact that both tribal names mean wolf.
 
Interesting in the context of today’s wolf debates and myth-spreading, Cooper also used wolves as a literary device several times to differentiate between the true woodsmen like Hawkeye and the newly initiated tenderfoot.  Cooper’s woodsman had no fear of wolves and saw them as part and parcel of the landscape, and the tenderfoot invariably panicked in the presence of wolves.  One prime example occurred in The Last of the Mohicans when Duncan Heyward from Virginia shows serious distress when  hears noises and wolves come near, only to be calmed by Hawkeye who soon demonstrates that the real threat in the woods has two-legs rather than four.  
 
“I am not a prejudiced man, nor one who vaunts himself on his natural privileges, though the worst enemy I have on earth, and he is an Iroquois, daren’t deny that I am genuine white,” the scout replied, surveying, with secret satisfaction, the faded color of his bony and sinewy hand, “and I am willing to own that my people have many ways, of which, as an honest man, I can’t approve. It is one of their customs to write in books what they have done and seen, instead of telling them in their villages, where the lie can be given to the face of a cowardly boaster, and the brave soldier can call on his comrades to witness for the truth of his words. In consequence of this bad fashion, a man, who is too conscientious to misspend his days among the women, in learning the names of black marks, may never hear of the deeds of his fathers, nor feel a pride in striving to outdo them. For myself, I conclude the Bumppos could shoot, for I have a natural turn with a rifle, which must have been handed down from generation to generation, as, our holy commandments tell us, all good and evil gifts are bestowed; though I should be loath to answer for other people in such a matter. But every story has its two sides; so I ask you, Chingachgook, what passed, according to the traditions of the red men, when our fathers first met?” The Last of the Mohicans—James Fenimore Cooper
 
Cooper in his own way above also argues for open and face-to-face discourse and debate.  Based on the above, Natty Bumppos would likely have had little tolerance for anonymous posters on blogs or for blogs that censor opposing views.  Cooper’s protagonists were also painfully truthful and truth was certainly a constant theme in much of what he penned.  
I was thinking about this today as I read a thread from the infamous Skinny Moose blog that had been forwarded to me–another misleading and jumbled piece about Echinococcus.  Here was yet another factually challenged blog post written expressly to foster fear of wolves and other predators.  Here too, when you read Tom Remington’s intolerance of facts and other opinions, is a perfect example of what Cooper’s character thought unacceptable and less than honest.  I would expect that Cooper personally or through his characters would also object to the effort of this site and others to paint wolves as dangerous and damaging forces in the wilderness.  This he would have thought of as the actions of an unschooled tyro scrambling around awkwardly in a world they feared and did not understand.  
 
Bobalee's great sin that catalyzed Tom Remington's rant was posting a letter from Mark Johnson DVM, who was part of the volunteer team that went to Canada to capture the last set of wolves that were released into Yellowstone and Idaho.  I was there on scene with Mark and he is one of the best and most responsible veterinarians I have ever worked with.  
 
The irony here is that many of these spreaders of wolf-myths such as Tom Remington likely think they are true woodsmen or aspire to be seen as modern-day Hawkeyes or Deerslayers without any true concept of what that actually entails or represents.  They should also understand that Natty—molded in Cooper’s hope for future Americans—was also tolerant of other people, ideas and religions.  Perhaps their fathers should have taken the time to expose them to these readings and moral lessons as mine did and his before him back seven generations.  

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