Though James Fenimore Cooper’s 1841 novel, Deerslayer, is the last published novel about Nathaniel (Natty) Bumpo, it functions as a sort of prequel to the other four books in the series, the most famous of which is Last of the Mohicans. Set in the mid-1700s, Deerslayer takes readers through the protagonist’s first “warpath” with his Mohican friend, Chingachgook. As the Deerslayer turns from providing food to protecting territory, he comes to kill his first man and this dying Iroquois renames the youth Hawkeye in recognition of the sharp eye that killed him.
It is Indian nature, Deerslayer relates, to give names according to one’s battle skills. A reader might then expect that a white man who befriends a Mohican and takes up this Indian naming practice (preferring Deerslayer to Natty Bumpo) would model tolerance and co-mingling with the peoples who occupied this land before the English and the French. No, no. The cross-racial friendship serves principally as a foil for underscoring the radically different “gifts” and “natures” of the White and Red races.
Consider this early lecture Deerslayer gives to his beautiful but uncultured friend, Hurry Harry March:
“God made us all, white, black, and red; and, no doubt, had his own wise intentions in coloring us differently. Still, he made us, in the main, much the same in feelin’s; though I’ll not deny that he gave each race its gifts. A white man’s gifts are Christianized, while a red-skin’s are more for the wilderness. Thus, it would be a great offence for a white man to scalp the dead; whereas it’s a signal vartue in an Indian. Then ag’in, a white man cannot amboosh women and children in war, while a red-skin may. ‘Tis cruel work, I’ll allow; but for them, it’s lawful work; while for us, it would be grievous work.”
Deerslayer’s constant comments along these lines and indeed his rather perpetual moralizing were difficult for me to stomach in the current U.S. context of rising hate crimes and an unmasked, violent white supremacy that is framed as Christian and given official sanction from the President’s office. Annoyingly, everything in this novel is churned through racial difference. True, the perspectives are phrased in balanced sentences, as if the races are ‘separate but equal’, but really the words provide a clear catechism of reasons why white Christian settlers are more virtuous in gifts and nature and (sotto voce) why the WhiteMen merit this land and its resources more than do the RedMen. Most of the novel was a slog for me. I found myself sarcastically sassing the audiobook, and I felt utter disdain for Deerslayer’s priggish decision to turn himself back over to the Iroquois to be tortured to death.
Then, out of the blue, I found myself caught up in the action of the story. I tried to guess how Deerslayer and his white and red friends would work to save the virtuous young warrior from his Indian enemies. Finally, good will was built up toward Fenimore Cooper and I began to realize why his name survives the erosions of time.
And then the end.
Say what you will about the novel’s celebration of white supremacy and ugly efforts to keep American Indians in their marginalized place, white women still come off the worse. Poor Judith Hutter. No torturous death by heathen Iroquois (to speak the language of the novel) could be worse than the fate handed Judith by WhiteMen when Deerslayer refuses to marry her. God forbid the gifts and nature of Whites be compromised by the sexual improprieties of a lovely young woman who, having no guide into society’s sexual mores, followed instinct and WhiteMen’s proddings, and fell. How far she fell is unclear, but her fate is not. Abandoned by our hero, she hands herself over to sexual slavery in the house of an officer at the garrison. These officers are not the marrying kind, he tells a fellow soldier, thus informing readers that Judith will never have the social rank and security that comes from marriage and a family (not that those thin reeds relieve all anxiety). The novel stresses that her fate is just punishment for the crimes of her family:
“Time and circumstances have drawn an impenetrable mystery around all else connected with the Hutters. They lived, erred, died, and are forgotten. None connected have felt sufficient interest in the disgraced and disgracing to withdraw the veil, and a century is about to erase even the recollection of their names. The history of crime is ever revolting, and it is fortunate that few love to dwell on its incidents. The sins of the family have long since been arraigned at the judgment seat of God, or are registered for the terrible settlement of the last great day.”
White supremacy and White genocide of American Indian are propped up, also, by sexual violence against (white) women.