A New American Literature - Thoughts on The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper

April 2023

“The calls were in different tones, evidently proceeding from two men who had lost their way, and were searching in different directions for their path” (Cooper 1). James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer is a novel of searching. It is a searching for brotherhood, kinship, and belonging while also searching for identity, otherness, and a new world. The story Cooper illustrates in The Deerslayer embodies the emerging American themes of the new world, the struggle between man and this new world, and the battle between man and savage, with the two often blurred.

Nathaniel, Natty Bumppo, Deerslayer, Hawkeye: The protagonist of The Deerslayer is a man without a past but at the same time with a past eternal. His name means nothing to him in the way that he allows it to shift among groups of people over various periods of time, while also meaning everything as it holds his dignity, principles, and self. Deerslayer represents, in a microcosm, the new America, developing from separate colonies into a unified whole of still-separate states. What is this place to be called; what is its identity? Set around the year 1740, The Deerslayer is a novel of America pre-Revolutionary War, meaning it is before America, as a country, could truly be called America on its own. It was the “British-America,” with an emphasis on the British. However, with a protagonist named “Deerslayer” and “Hawkeye” as a white man, James Fenimore Cooper illustrates the new American desire to separate from its British anchorage. Deerslayer embraces his otherness from then-modern western society by embracing these Native names. However, he is at the same time a man with a past eternal, a past that he seemingly seeks to bury. But this is not truly possible. We discover throughout the novel his true name of Nathaniel. Near the end of the novel, when leaving each other on the shore, his comrade Hurry Harry addresses Deerslayer not with one of his native sobriquets but rather as “Nathaniel,” making clear an understanding of the one’s past. Deerslayer is about to return to the Huron camp after his furlough when Hurry questions why he, a white man, would ever turn himself back over to the “savages.” Deerslayer refuses to be associated strictly with the ways of the “white man” for reasons of his own.

This idea of holding one’s word in the face of almost certain death is completely foreign to Hurry Harry, but it is key in Cooper's emphasis on the new American struggle between manhood and savagery, between the refined and the wild. On the shore of the Huron camp when he is about to return as prisoner from his furlough, Deerslayer proclaims to Harry, “‘There’s them that thinks it madness to keep their words, and there’s them that don’t, Hurry Harry’” (Cooper 398). With this sentence, Cooper demonstrates the manhood of Deerslayer against the savagery of Hurry Harry: two white men taking on the different roles in this eternal clash. Word, honor, and dignity mean something to Deerslayer, unlike Harry.

While Cooper heavily underscores the savage nature of the Native American, he also suggests that the struggle of man against savage is not truly the struggle of the new white man against the Native. Hurry Harry causes a great rift in the already-strained relationship between his camp and the Hurons when he shoots and kills an innocent Huron woman without purpose. He is an animal, killing to kill, with no reason or aim. At the same time, Cooper illustrates the Native savagery when Thomas Hutter is stabbed, scalped, and left to die a slow and painful death. Cooper makes clear that the battle for this new world is not one-sided, and it is far from a battle of good against evil in a time when most readers of this novel would have assumed the white man to take on the role of the protagonist and the Natives to be the antagonists. The Delaware Chingachgook is a supreme protagonist and embodiment of the good man while Hutter and Hurry are almost animalistic, stalking the woods for prey. Cooper’s juxtaposition is not so much “redskin” and “pale-skin” as the two groups frequently demarcate themselves throughout the novel, but rather human and beast, which both sides play at various points in the story.

In The Deerslayer, James Fenimore Cooper creates the story of the new America. At the time of its publishing, it was unlike anything the British had ever read and, truly, unlike anything many American colonists living in eastern cities had read either. The novel is wild, raw, and completely American. The Deerslayer abandons the focus on the prim and proper society of a Jane Austen, for example, in exchange for a story and a literature in the wild of man forging a new path in a new world.