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"Plunder," "Fixens," and Bee Hunting:
Cooper's Manuscript Notes for The Prairie

Steven Harthorn
(Williams Baptist College)

Placed on line July 2015

Presented at the 19th Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, 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, editor. (pp. 12-16)

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Susan Fenimore Cooper once wrote of the novel-writing habits of her father, James Fenimore Cooper, that "He never prepared a sketch, or notes of any kind, while writing a work of fiction."1 As far as we can tell, this claim is essentially true: Cooper certainly never developed the kinds of detailed multi-page plot outlines that Charles Dickens did for his later fiction. Here and there, though, we can encounter bits of manuscript evidence among his papers to suggest that occasionally Cooper did jot down ideas he wanted to remember, particularly in the early stages of planning a new work. These notes, where they can be found, have the potential to provide significant insight into Cooper's creative processes, giving us rare glimpses into the raw stages of his compositions.

In 2005, I spoke here at the Cooper Conference about one such set of notes, six brief lines that Cooper labeled "Hints for the New Book," which, I argued, started out as ideas for a sixth Leather-Stocking tale but evolved into his 1843 frontier novel Wyandotté.2 Today I would like to discuss another set of manuscript notes that Cooper left, a longer (though still brief) set of jottings about frontier lore in the far west that would inform his third Leather-Stocking novel, The Prairie, published in 1827—and perhaps also his last frontier novel published some two decades later in 1848, The Oak Openings.

This undated manuscript is preserved among the Cooper papers held in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society.3 Cooper's notes take up just over half of one sheet of paper, and they are written with a sense of informality, suggesting an intention for private use. Complete sentences intermingle with fragmentary phrases; punctuation and capitalization are casual; entries seem to appear in no particular order. Cooper's jottings tend to follow three main threads: noting details about the geography and wildlife of the region, recording bits of custom and dialect Cooper apparently wished to connect either to the region or to his characters, and sketching out particular attributes of at least one major character.

The geography Cooper highlights in his notes will seem partly recognizable to readers familiar with The Prairie, but some distinctive differences emerge. Early on, he writes of "Rolling Prairies," perhaps the most distinguishing element of the landscape of the novel in its finished form, although Cooper here does not elaborate on this quality as he does in the novel, where he metaphorically likens the prairies, which he had never seen, to the rolling quality of the sea, complete with its overtones of vastness and isolation. Rolling prairies are not the only features Cooper emphasizes in his notes: a river—perhaps the Missouri—is featured prominently. Cooper writes of "Missouri water, most excellent—purified by instantaneously by a small quantity of alum. When not full there is a beach on one side—alternate from one side to the other, as do the bluffs." Along with this description, Cooper notes some local particulars of river navigation that suggest an early intention to focus more strongly on the culture of the river and its banks: "The cordelle—cordelling—towing—the steersman is called the Patroon of the boat or the captain. —The boat is often called a 'keel' a 'flat' or scow[.]" Some but not all of this information—the cordelle, the beach and the bluffs, for instance—was likely inspired by Cooper's reading of Edwin James's 1823 Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, which critics have already shown to be a major source for his knowledge of the west and its inhabitants.

The Prairie does retain some flavor of these riparian elements, particularly in the midstream duel between Hard-Heart and Mahtoree in Chapter 30 and the departure of Middleton's party downsteam toward civilization in Chapter 33 (in that latter chapter, Natty addresses Captain Middleton as "friend steersman" as he asks to be put ashore to stay with the Pawnees).4 But overall, the role of rivers is muted, and the riverboat culture that is called to mind in these notes—which seems more evocative of scenes from the paintings of George Caleb Bingham or the writings of Mark Twain—plays no significant part in the finished novel. Nor do we find any mention in the novel of "Mast-acorns" or "Salt-petre caves, where the people manufacture their own powder," possibilities that must have been dead-ends in Cooper's more developed plans.

Cooper's notes also catalog a variety of creatures, giving the impression of a habitat teeming with wildlife: "Deer—elk, black-bear—buffaloe—prairie-dog—prairie wolf /very numerous/ "acres of swans—wild turkeys—ducks—plicans [sic]—sand-hill cranes—'a pack of wolves.'" Many of these creatures are indeed mentioned at points {13} in the novel (although there are no references to pelicans or sand-hill cranes to be found). "Buffaloe" are the most prominent: Paul Hover extols the culinary virtues of roasted buffalo hump as he and Natty feast sumptuously in Chapter 9, and later, in Chapter 19, Natty and company find themselves in the midst of an earth-shaking stampede (which faraway wolves trail from a safe distance behind). Yet it is worth noting that most of the animals Cooper lists are merely mentioned rather than seen in The Prairie: they are often notable for their absence. In Chapter 3, for instance, Paul Hover expresses to Natty his wish that "there was an acre or two of your white swans or of black feathered ducks going south, over our heads," so that he might show off his wingshooting exploits with his rifle, but of course the birds in question are not there. Likewise, at the beginning of Chapter 11, we hear that as the season changes to autumn, "The vast herds which had been grazing among the wild pastures of the prairies, gradually disappeared, and the endless flocks of aquatic birds, that were pursuing their customary annual journey from the virgin lakes of the north towards the gulf of Mexico, ceased to fan that air." The overall effect that Cooper ultimately creates in The Prairie is of a landscape that clearly possesses life but simultaneously displays a lack of hospitality toward it; there is a harshness to nature in the novel that seems to be lacking in the notes. Hugh MacDougall has characterized The Prairie as a "post-apocalyptic novel" in both its setting and its themes, and it is Cooper's sense of "grim, surreal description" that trumps his softer visions of nature in his finished novel.5 Cooper's initial portrayal of the prairie as the Bush party heads west in Chapter 1 sets the mood for the novel:

The appearance of such a train, in that bleak and solitary place, was rendered the more remarkable by the fact, that the surrounding country offered so little, that was tempting to the cupidity of speculation, and, if possible, still less that was flattering to the hopes of an ordinary settler of new lands.
The meagre herbage of the prairie, promised nothing, in favour of a hard and unyielding soil, over which the wheels of the vehicles rattled as lightly as if they travelled on a beaten road; neither wagons nor beasts making any deeper impression, than to mark that bruised and withered grass, which the cattle plucked, from time to time, and as often rejected, as food too sour, for even hunger to render palatable.

It is a land unsuited to what might be considered "normal" life. Fittingly enough, one wild creature that Cooper features prominently in his novel is not mentioned at all in his notes—namely, the buzzards which circle so menacingly over the corpse of the recently murdered Asa Bush.

A number of other entries—perhaps the bulk of the manuscript—record bits of custom and dialect Cooper apparently wished to connect either to the region or to his characters, although he does not specify who might say what. Some of these observations are connected with Native American life:

The indian arrows have small grooves to let the blood run out. They use fusees.
Pawnees fight on horseback. "An Indian will eat the sugar, and the bread, and then the butter—willow bark is smok'd for tobacco, and sometimes with tobacco. Knick Kinickimik [Kinnikinnick]—

Although the details about fusees (firearms) and fighting on horseback—both probably gleaned from the same James's Expedition that Cooper used for some of his geography—make their way into the novel, those about the arrows, the Kinnikinnick, and the consumption of sugar, bread, and butter do not. Cooper also assembled a more extensive collection of traits and sayings that might be attributed to frontier white settlers:

"a smart chance of sickness on our bottom this year." "Stranger you are on a likely creatur." "I'll allow it's four miles." "That are a fact" "A Rowdie" a rough character.
"To filly the men" T give them a drink—"so many filly's a dayk— "Put it to him" meaning to kill him, act firm with himk—"he's not slow" meaning he is smart. "hog, homminy and honeyk— "A homminy mortar." Broken corn is hominyk—"strong foodk—" "I was raised in Scott County." "such a man has gone guarded for such a one two month."
"baggage is called Plunder[.] They call people they do not know, "Strangerk—" A man hunting, calls his gun, ammunition, food &.;c, "fixens"k—"elegant fixens"
"As valueless as a shot-gun, in contradistinction to a riflek—" "A knock down and drag out affairk—" "A main business"
{14}Speak of the Neighborhood, "A hornswoggle "To hornswoggle." "I am measurably well, again. "To dis[-]remember." "A corn-pone." "To take his death of eating honey."

Where Cooper obtained this colorful lore is not easy to tell: Cooper read avidly and widely but was as likely to consult ephemeral sources as more established ones. I found a few possible connections in some articles from The Port-Folio—which Cooper often read—from 1822 and 1825. In one, "The Bachelor's Elysium" from December 1822, the narrator, a troubled bachelor, has a dream vision in which he receives insights about women by encountering various scenes and characters, including a recently deceased hunter "who had been chasing deer in the woods, when he ought to have been chasing dears of another description." This garrulous ex-woodsman, who wears moccasins, "rude vestments of buckskin," a powder-horn and pouch, and a "huge knife" in his girdle, states his preference for the woods despite being surrounded by women, much to the narrator's surprise. As the hunter points out, "'there's a wonderful smart chance of women here,--that are a fact,--and female society are elegant,--for them that likes it—but, for my part, I'd a heap rather camp out by the side of a cane-brake, where there was a good chance of bears and turkeys." The hunter goes on to add that he "don't like the fixens here, no how—I'm a 'bominable bad hand among women." In the second article, "The Missouri Trapper" from March 1825 (No. 14 in a series of "Letters from the West"), the narrator describes the exploits of an old trapper named Hugh Glass, who at one point makes a long march to Fort Kiawa after being left for dead and robbed of his rifle and most of his other possessions. Glass recounts, "'Although...I had lost my rifle and all my plunder, I felt quite rich when I found my knife, flint, and steel, in my shot-pouch. These little fixens...make a man feel righ [sic] peart, when he is three or four hundred miles from any body or any place." The narrator goes on to recount how the old trapper later has his rifle restored to him and is "furnished with such other appliances, or fixens, as he would term them, as put him in plight again to take the field." Whether or not Cooper used these particular sources probably cannot be known. Still, it seems clear enough that the lingo of the west—real or imagined—might reach him through many avenues to catch his ear and his fancy.

Many of these bits of slang that Cooper records in his notes never appear in The Prairie (it would be entertaining to have people familiar with the book guess which ones). Nobody speaks of being raised in Scott County, or any other county for that matter (though Ishmael Bush does have an aversion to county clerks); nobody talks of "a smart chance of sickness" or says "I am measurably well, again"; nobody "dis-remembers," gives "so many filly's a day," brags of how he "Put it to him," or tells of how someone has "gone guarded." Most surprising to me is that Cooper never uses the word "hornswoggle," despite its obviously fascinating ring.

But others of these items appear nearly intact. Most are associated with the Kentucky dialect that Ishmael Bush's family and Paul Hover speak and the frontier habits they bring with them. Perhaps not surprisingly, Cooper leans most heavily on these details early on in the story, allowing some to drop away as his plots and characters develop. In Chapter 2, as Natty walks into Ishmael Bush's encampment, we find several of Ishmael's sons "plying the heavy pestle of a moveable homminy-mortar" (in 1832, when Cooper revised his novel for his British publisher Richard Bentley, he would add a footnote to explain that "Hommany, is a dish composed chiefly of cracked corn, or maize"). Not long after, Ishmael inquires if Natty is a hunter, pointing out to him that "your fixen seem none of the best, for such a calling." He further observes, bluntly, "You seem to have but little plunder, stranger, for one who is far abroad" (Cooper would also add a note in 1832 to explain that this use of the term "might easily mislead one as to the character of the people, who, notwithstanding their pleasant use of so expressive a word, are, like the inhabitants of all new settlements hospitable and honest"). Paul Hover, too, uses "stranger" as a form of address, particularly when he first meets Natty and somewhat condescendingly calls him "old stranger," and at one point he speaks of how he would have had "a real knock-down and drag-out" with the Souix had not Natty intervened. Both Paul and members of Ishmael's family make clear distinctions between rifles and shotguns, always with the implication that the rifle is the superior weapon of two. And a number of characters, including Natty himself, use the term "neighborhood" when speaking of the area around them. Finally, although nobody in the novel uses the exact phrase "That are a fact," both the Bushes and (to a lesser extent) Paul are prone to using similar language such as "It ar' a fact," and "It ar' true."

That Paul Hover and Ishmael Bush's family should share so many traits of language adds an interesting complication to Cooper's other notes in his manuscript, those that develop distinctive character traits that Cooper apparently wanted to keep in mind. Cooper's notes make it obvious that including a "bee hunter" among his characters was an item of chief importance. His first sentence is devoted to summing up how a bee hunter goes about his business of "hunting" honey: "A 'Bee hunter' holds a cup in his hand, for the bees to sip, and then he 'lines' them to their hives." And other details about bees and honey reinforce his emphasis: "hog, hominy, and honey"; "too much {15} range for the bees"; "To take his death of eating honey." We also find that "The 'Bee Hunter' must have a rifle." Clearly, Cooper was taken with the notion of such a character, and considering how central he is to Cooper's notes, it seems natural to assume that when we come upon Cooper's emphatic "dress of the man—" heading in the middle of the manuscript, he means to describe the garb of his bee-hunter in the line that follows: "a belt of buckskins, with a knife of a foot blade and a buck-horn haft." Yet if we look to the novel to find the counterpart of this line, we discover that it is Ishmael Bush, not Paul Hover, who most closely matches this description. In Chapter 1, Cooper describes Ishmael—the first character we encounter in the novel—as wearing the "leathern garments" that form the "coarsest vestments" of the frontiersman, but showing "a singular and wild display of prodigal and ill judged ornaments, blended with his motley attire." Cooper's list of these begins by stating, "In place of the usual deer-skin belt, he wore around his body a tarnished silken sash of the most gaudy colours; the buck-horn haft of his knife was profusely decorated with plates of silver...." Here, then, Cooper applies the description from his notes with an artistic flourish—but not to his bee-hunter. This shift, taken together with the other connections between Paul and Ishmael, could indicate several possibilities, but I am inclined to think that Cooper somehow "split" the character as the potential of the striking figure of the "squatter" Ishmael emerged and grew in Cooper's estimation as he set to work writing the novel. Indeed, Ishmael is one of Cooper's more complicated creations, a ruthless figure who disdains the "law" in its traditional form yet holds his own code of frontier justice, who revels in his sullen ignorance yet possesses a formidable ability to think on his feet. Paul, though invested with witty lines and a roundness of character the wooden gentleman Middleton could never hope to attain, simply becomes overshadowed in the story that Cooper actually wrote. We hear Paul speaking his bee-lingo constantly, yet his profession as a bee-hunter becomes an incidental one, one that Cooper must later explain in footnotes rather than portraying in action in the text itself.

It is worth noting here something that is not mentioned in Cooper's manuscript notes: any sign of Natty Bumppo. That absence may be insignificant: it is quite probable that Cooper saw Natty as a foregone conclusion in the novel and did not need to jot down anything to remember about him. Still, it is also possible that Cooper's initial vision of the story did not include Natty but perhaps placed Paul Hover at the center of the story as its protagonist. Cooper's later manuscript notes for the novel that would become Wyandotté show that it was entirely feasible for him to conceive of a story that would include Natty in its initial vision but later write him out; perhaps these notes for The Prairie suggest the possibility of the opposite, a story conceived without Natty in mind but later expanded to include him. Whether or not such speculation could be true, certainly the inclusion of Natty Bumppo in The Prairie squeezes the potential for developing Paul's character. He takes on the qualities of a suitable protégé and sometime foil of Natty but is often restrained (sometimes literally, even) by Natty's presence. Combining qualities of both Natty Bumppo and Ishmael Bush without the distinctiveness of their personalities, Paul remains a secondary character in the novel, never quite standing out in its own right despite Cooper's obvious interest in the concept of the "bee hunter."

Cooper's fascination with bee hunting must have stuck with him, for he would revisit his interest in bee hunting some twenty-one years later in his 1848 novel The Oak Openings. Here, he would make a bee hunter named Ben Boden his central character, devoting pages rather than footnotes to the description of Boden's craft. It seems unlikely that Cooper would have unearthed his old notes for The Prairie to consult during the writing of Oak Openings, yet there are some similarities that at least seem to suggest that some of Cooper's original ideas for The Prairie had not faded completely during the intervening years. As Cooper opens Oak Openings, set in the woodlands and clearings of Western Michigan where he had recently visited, he employs a descriptive term for the landscape he had once used in his notes for The Prairie, describing the terrain as "what is termed 'rolling,' from some fancied resemblance to the surface of the ocean." Although no "mast-acorns" are present, the region proliferates with "bur-oak." There is talk of "the neighborhood" when things are going on in the area, and, most notably, Gershom Waring makes a habit of calling people "STRANger" with a cloyingly heavy stress on the first syllable. If nothing else, these likenesses, whether coincidental or not, suggest good reason to view the intertextual relationship of The Oak Openings to The Prairie with much the same attention we might give Jack Tier as a later-day recasting of themes and motifs from The Red Rover or The Water-Witch, a kind of "reboot" to explore alternate possibilities of earlier story ideas.

Overall, Cooper's notes for The Prairie may raise more questions than they answer about the directions the novel ultimately did or did not take. But they show, at the rawest stages of his process of artistic creation, his ability to listen, borrow, adapt, and transform to make something his own.

{16} End Notes

1. Susan Fenimore Cooper, Introduction to the "Household Edition," The Crater (New York and Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin, & Co., 1884) xiii-xiv.

2. Steven P. Harthorn, "What Happened to Cooper's Sixth Leatherstocking Tale?" James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art No. 15 (2005): 55-61.

3. James Fenimore Cooper Manuscript Collection (Box 1, Folder 28), American Antiquarian Society.

4. Likewise, in Chapter 10, Paul Hover tries to divert an inquiry from Middleton by whistling "an air well known on the waters of the Mississippi"; in Chapter 2, we find mention of a "keel-boat" as Asa Bush responds to Natty's mention of the Hudson by observing, "it must be a considerable stream, and deep enough for a keel-boat, from top to bottom."

5. Hugh C. MacDougall, "'Their Waste Has Done It All': The Prairie as a Post-Apocalyptic Novel," James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art 13 (2001): 66-71.

Appendix:
James Fenimore Cooper's Manuscript Notes for The Prairie

James Fenimore Cooper Manuscript Collection (Box 1, Folder 28), American Antiquarian Society
Transcription by Steven Harthorn

A "Bee hunter" holds a cup in his hand, for the bees to sip, and then he "lines" them to their hives. "Rolling Prairies.["] "Gang of Elk." "a smart chance of sickness on our bottom this year." "Stranger you are on a likely creatur." "I'll allow it's four miles." "That are a fact" "A Rowdie" a rough character. The "Bee hunter" must have a rifle. Deer—elk, black-bear—buffaloe—prairie-dog—prairie wolf /very numerous/ "acres of swans—wild turkeys—ducks—plicans [sic]—sand-hill cranes—"a pack of wolves." "Its [sic] not overly good." "plague 'on 'edist[?]." Missouri water, most excellent—purified by instantaneously by a small quantity of alum. When not full there is a beach on one side—alternate from one side to the other, as do the bluffs. The cordelle—cordelling—towing—the steersman is called the Patroon of the boat or the captain. —The boat is often called a "keel" a "flat" or scow "To filly the men" T give them a drink—"so many filly's a day— "Put it to him" meaning to kill him, act firm with him—"he's not slow" meaning he is smart. "hog, homminy and honey-- "A homminy mortar." Broken corn is hominy—"strong food—" "I was raised in Scott County." "such a man has gone guarded for such a one two month."

dress of the man

a belt of buckskins, with a knife of a foot blade and a buck-horn haft.

"a great range for the beeffs[?]." too much range for the bees" "Mast-acorns—" "baggage is called Plunder[.] They call people they do not know, "Stranger—" A man hunting, calls his gun, ammunition, food &c, "fixens"—"elegant fixens" Salt-petre caves, where the people manufacture their own powder—"As valueless as a shot-gun, in contradistinction to a rifle—" "A knock down and drag out affair—" "A main business"

Speak of the Neighborhood, "A hornswoggle "To hornswoggle." "I am measurably well, again. "To dis[-]remember." The indian arrows have small grooves to let the blood run out. They use fusees. "A corn-pone." "To take his death of eating honey." Pawnees fight on horseback. "An Indian will eat the sugar, and the bread, and then the butter—willow bark is smok'd for tobacco, and sometimes with tobacco. Knick Kinickimik [Kinnikinnick]—

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