James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
Placed on line July 2013
©2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2013 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 19), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn and Hugh MacDougall, editors. (Not received in time to print in 2011 Conference papers)
Return to SUNY Seminars Articles & Papers
While The Deerslayer is often read as myth, as Cooper's nostalgic return to a pure and pre-settled Lake Otsego, it also examines social challenges closer to his own time. One of these challenges was a perceived breakdown in morals and sexual mores. The 1830s and 1840s saw the continued movement of work and workers out of home and field and into factories and cities, creating not only uneven economic opportunity but also class tensions. Conditions were especially problematic for women. Marriage, the main economic option, was becoming less of a community affair and more of a private choice. Sexual attractiveness was playing a larger role in finding a husband. Financial panic and prolonged recession (Hietala 108) caused more men to postpone marriage. During the long wait men might stray without social repercussion but not women, and as more mismanaged their prospects, they became "fallen women," often sliding into prostitution for survival (Hobson 61). As the numbers of these women grew, so did the clamor for moral reform.
Along with temperance, slavery, and the suffrage, female moral reform was another movement spawned by the religious revivalism of the Second Great Awakening. In 1832, a theological graduate from Princeton, John McDowall opened his mission in the Five Point district of New York City to rescue the fallen. From sermons to pamphlets he sensationalized accounts of women from all walks of life that had been seduced and abandoned. His work attracted an auxiliary of middle class matrons who established a supporting network of "moral societies." In the first published report of his Magdalen Society, McDowall claimed that the City was home to about 10,000 "harlots." He accused the well-heeled of frequenting brothels and of profiting from their rents (Smith-Rosenberg 565). These assertions angered the all-male city council, and it responded with a counter report and a lawsuit that shuttered McDowall's mission.
However, late in 1834, the woman's auxiliary regrouped as The Female Moral Reform Society of New York. The all-female Board bought his journal and began publishing a new monthly, The Advocate of Moral Reform. Assuring women that the defense of the seventh commandment was the "proper duty of ladies everywhere…" (Smith-Rosenberg 556), the editress vowed to "strip[…] vice of its gaudy attire," and to expose "the licentious man [who] is no less guilty than his victim…" By 1839, with 445 auxiliaries (Smith-Rosenberg 4) and over 16,000 subscribers across the northeast (Smith-Rosenberg 105), making The Advocate the most widely read evangelical paper in the U.S., the organization went national.
Like Cooper's feminine yet forward Judith Hutter, these women unwittingly challenged what critic Judith Butler has called the "compelling illusion" of the gender roles (901) of the time. By building and running a national network based on shared values, they thrust themselves into the public sphere. By publishing scenes of seduction, they transgressed the boundaries of acceptable female discourse. By joining in prayers and hymns in front of brothels on Sunday mornings, sometimes entering buildings to rescue entrapped women (Hobson 75), they rebelled against the commercialization of sx. By reporting male transgressors, they attacked the comfortable hegemony of the sexual double-standard and its underlying premise that "women's sexuality is property of men" (Smith-Rosenberg 2). By lobbying Albany to criminalize seduction, a bill that passed in 1848 (Smith-Rosenberg 120) and foreshadowed modern statutory rpe laws, they stepped, as critic Butler has said, from "the personal […] into the political" (904).
Like Cooper, the female moral reformers did not, however, advocate a change of women's economic status or of their political rights (Hobson 50). They subscribed to the Cult of Womanhood (Smith-Rosenberg 13) and were anxious that women retain a high valuation of their roles as wives and mothers. Rather, they focused intently on the prevention of female entrapment through male seduction. These reformers assumed that women were inherently pure and that men were heartless "destroyers." They encoded these sentiments in metaphors like the innocent lamb and hungry wolf (Hobson 61). A woman could be a lily or a rose, or a "rescued lamb" (McDowall 19). Through such figurative language The Advocate tried to educate its audience. Finery, novels, beauty and dancing were gateways to corruption. Vanity and social striving invited class abuse. Theatre, wax work and circus entertainments could become settings for seduction. These messages coalesced into an overarching narrative of male economic greed and female economic oppression. Prostitution stood for crass commercialism, and the prostitute for the exploited and the powerless (Hobson 49). Like Richardson's Clarissa, the fallen woman was a tragic figure (Hobson 70) for the female reformers. By contrast, male moral reformers focused on the evils of the "female profligate" (Stern 681), on disease, and on the dangers of women's autonomy, made more visible by the vocal female leadership (Smith-Rosenberg 144).
Cooper could not have failed to notice the fervor of female moral reform that had taken hold in Albany, Philadelphia, Boston, New York City and other places from where he wrote letters during the 1830s and 40s. In many ways his interest seems more than passive. Similar sartorial and floral tropes animate The Deerslayer. A morally ambiguous woman is one of its heroes. In June of 1840, setting aside his usual "rebuke [of] a country that does nothing but eat, drink, and dream in dollars" (Beard 447), he wrote to his publisher, Richard Bentley about his work on a new novel, one which had a "good moral and some capital scenes." Titles under consideration gave unusual billing to women and included "Girls of the Glimmerglass," "Judith and Esther" and "Hist" (Beard 111). His Preface to the 1850 edition clearly states his aim to contrast two sisters, one "erring" and one virtuous (12). Moral dilemma is conspicuously embedded in the compressed image of woman in chapter 2, when the innocent Natty wanders through the Castle's womb-like enclosure and into a bedroom. On one side he confronts ribbons, dresses, "half open" fans, long gloves, and a "coquettishly" decorated cap; on the other a "homely," "uninviting," and "neat[…]" appearance. Memories of his mother and sister flicker brightly but only briefly. Instead, as critic Gayle Rubin has examined (780), "woman" emerges as a subject through objects; the gendered objects and implied body parts emphasize products and "things." The binary of the female sx as "demon" and "angel" is evoked yet defamiliarized, first because the owners as sisters are irrevocably intertwined, and then because their disparate belongings are well contained within a single feminine space.
Thus, where the reformers might see a pure, innocent lamb, Cooper sees woman as both pure and corrupt. This amalgam is reinforced when Natty observes that "Judith has her vartues, and Hetty […] her failin's" (207). The pious, feeble-minded Hetty seems to be the "angel," yet her desire for the morally bankrupt Harry, her erratic actions on his behalf, and her stubborn belief that Harry is good because he is handsome while Natty is not good because he is ugly (314), suggest moral corruption. Judith, the demon or fallen woman, a term in the 19th century that includes merely being a flirt, Judith shares with Harry a view of the body as a vehicle for financial gain - she in her yearning for finery and gallants and he is his desire for bounty and scalps. But as she aligns more with Natty, who in the course of their conversations guilelessly exposes the flaws in thinking only in physical terms, she gravitates away from social artifice and towards nature, a "school that can set her mind right, ag'in" (36), suggesting moral reform.
The tension between corruption and reform is amply illustrated by the contents of Hutter's sea chest. In the search for the key, for example, Judith is easily fooled by her assumption that a fine exterior always holds greater value. Chingachgook uses this weakness to intuit Hutter's ruse and find the key in Hetty's simple frock. Ironically, though, his strutting in the gentlemen's scarlet coat illustrates his own succumbing to appearances. Pretension feeds sexual fantasy as the young chief imagines Hist's admiration, and engenders narcissism as he cranes his neck to study his figure in Hutter's cracked shaving glass. His blindness undermines his assertions that creating a self with finery is not "wise" and that one should follow the example of Hist who is always "known by her own feathers." But in chapter 10 when the text introduces Hist, only her moccasins clearly express her Indian identity; the rest of her body is covered in elements of white culture: calico mantle, blue petticoat, and gold lace.
As Cooper's moral reformer (Kelly 176), Natty stands for the principle of not falsifying the self, of being what he is, no more and no less. Natty's attire, all moccasins and deerskin, is meticulous if "picturesque," and his outer manner, which plainly exudes "sincerity" and "integrity," matches his inner ability to "discriminate between artifice and truth" (21). In chapter 12, he sermonizes on the falseness of the untested Delaware who would use a chief's paint, and then refuses to don the scarlet coat, equating the act to the "exaltification" of the hated Mingo, or devil. By contrast, Judith's desire to wear the brocade dress is viewed as classic vanity and, as shown by critic Donald Darnell, a misguided striving for upward mobility (412). However, when Judith sets aside the brocade dress and returns to her less suggestive muslin, she experiences the satisfaction of modesty, which again suggests reform.
The pair of inlayed silver pistols is connected with another reformer concern, reputation. In the wilderness pistols are "child gun[s]," but in the stratified society of the old world, a variation of which the U.S. was becoming, they are used to defend image and reputation. When the unprimed pistol explodes in Natty's hand, his assurance to a shaken Judith that he has survived similar catastrophes suggests that such blows—to reputation, for example, are not always fatal. Yet missteps are damaging. His "manly" over eagerness to shoot foreshadows his wanton killing of a rarely cited eagle, an act that compromises his moral code and image. Reputation is seen as a kind of property that has value on the social exchange. Natty can make deals with Rivenoak while Hutter can not; Hetty is trusted with the key while Judith is not. Gender also influences reputation: Harry's misdeeds irreparably harm his reputation with Judith but not in the larger world, while Judith's forward conduct feeds Harry's negative press, which devalues her reputation and solidifies her fall. Certainly, in courts as well as in courts of opinion, Cooper shared with the reformers the concern for reputation and its defense.
The mysterious mathematical instrument, most likely the sxtant, holds another reference to moral reform, that of staying the right course. On the high seas, the sxtant helps to determine one's position on a nautical map by holding images of multiple celestial objects simultaneously in view, lessening the possibility of going astray, hence its value. Natty assumes the object is a surveyor's instrument, which he associates with greedy and wasteful settlers. Yet Natty's limited experience with bodies of water, unlike that of Hutter as well as the author, was acknowledged in chapter 2 (39). Cooper's reference is to the open seas, a fluid and amorphous environment and a ready metaphor of moral ambiguity. The Glimmerglass Lake is filled with moral ambiguity in its links to purity (35), compromise and expiation (25). Thus, the sxtant symbolizes the need for a tool or set of principles that helps one navigate problematic waters, a sentiment to which the female moral reformers certainly subscribed.
Through the four chess pieces of gold castles on elephants, the text explores with subtle humor how the addiction to novelty and to things is corruptive. As we see in Chingachgook's fixed gaze, idolization of an image makes one a slave. Natty urges perspective when he sermonizes that only the one true God is worthy of adoration, and Judith interjects logic when she opines that "some unknown game" (225) is behind the objects. Yet, the items' novelty is too seductive and their value is easily inflated beyond the rational price of "two scalps." Tension exists between the real and the false, as posed in chapter 1 with the linden tree, which has a life- like exterior that masks a dead, hollow interior. From this tension moral implications unfold. Idolization, of novelty and things, produces what Natty calls "false money" (225), which can enter and corrupt the social pipeline. As Chingachgook says, "Elephon buy whole tribe …" (224), that is, people, groups, and even nations can be seduced by novelty and things. Natty, who cannot shake the chief from his rapture, soliloquizes on the responsibility of the larger society to take care in promoting dreams that, for example, encourage the less savvy - Indians, women, and others - to be lured and trapped in not always benign situations. So distracting are the chess pieces that an enemy youth slips onto the Castle's deck (227) undetected. Deftly, Natty "stuff[s] his eyes and ears […] with strange beast" (234), setting in motion the exchange of the captives. Counting on "false money," though, is risky. Judith, encouraged by Natty's rapture on her appearance in the brocade dress and his suggestion to use her beauty to bargain for the captives, later takes up his speech act and appears with the chess pieces before Rivenoak, who by then knows they are baubles. Natty frees captives; Judith falls captive.
Like The Advocate, Cooper's text asks where culpability lies, in the individual or in society? While the female moral reformers see the commercial sx market as one of male demand and thus blame the "destroyers," Cooper weaves various threads that ultimately leave the matter undecided. On the one hand, the individual is responsible. Hetty describes moral depravity (437) as something one willingly "put[s]…on" like a garment. She admonishes Judith not to talk of their parents' sins but of their own (378). Judith, having read the letters in the sea chest, realizes her part in ignoring warnings and repeating past mistakes. Natty reinforces individual responsibility when he counsels that "if your parents have been faulty, let the darter be less so" (426), and dismisses the idea that Hetty's innocence can serve to save others (538) or that past repentance can erase or ease the sufferings of future sin. To Natty, individuals must strive to act rightly in the moment (39); if not, they are responsible and must repent (539).
However, Cooper also shows that society has had a hand in the fallen woman's plight. As critic Nina Baym points out, women had to rely on men for survival and a dearth of eligible men poses dilemmas (700). Natty, while chaste, honest and capable, is not a fully socialized man. Harry is a borderer (12), making marriage in any moral or conventional sense dubious. The true "destroyer" is the hard-edged gallant of the garrison, Captain Warley (525), a foreign influence of power and privilege. His attractions, like those of traveling urban businessmen of the time, posed the greatest danger to the rural women The Advocate tried to warn. The text is unsympathetic to such rakes and subtly implicates a society that allows them to flourish, calling women like Judith "victim[s]" (548).
Despite their different genres, The Deerslayer shares with The Advocate an underlying anxiety about the moral health of American society. Both warn of a systemic dishonesty and a growing inability to discern artifice from truth that negatively affects the social exchange, making life for the individual more difficult. For Cooper, only "candor" and plain dealing will bring happiness to American society; otherwise, there is only "fraud" (American Democrat 442). He ends his last of the Leatherstocking Tales acknowledging the reality of a fallen world and leaving ambiguous at best the prospect of America's reform.
Return to Top of Page