D. H. Lawrence on Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels
Chapter 5 of Studies in Classic American Literature
In his Leatherstocking books, Fenimore is off on another track. He is no longer concerned with social white Americans that buzz with pins through them, buzz loudly against every mortal thing except the pin itself. The pin of the Great Ideal.
One gets irritated with Cooper because he never for once snarls at the Great Ideal Pin which transfixes him. No, indeed. Rather he tries to push it through the very heart of the Continent.
But I have loved the Leatherstocking books so dearly. Wish-fulfilment!
Anyhow, one is not supposed to take LOVE seriously, in these books. Eve Effingham, impaled on the social pin, conscious all the time of her own ego and of nothing else, suddenly fluttering in throes of love: no, it makes me sick. LOVE is never LOVE until it has a pin pushed through it and becomes an IDEAL. The ego, turning on a pin, is wildly IN LOVE, always. Because that’s the thing to be.
Cooper was a GENTLEMAN, in the worst sense of the word. In the Nineteenth Century sense of the word. A correct, clock-work man.
Not altogether, of course.
The great national Grouch was grinding inside him. Probably he called it COSMIC URGE. Americans usually do: in capital letters.
Best stick to National Grouch. The great American grouch.
Cooper had it, gentleman that he was. That is why he flitted round Europe so uneasily. Of course, in Europe he could be, and was, a gentleman to his heart’s content.
‘In short,’ he says in one of his letters, ‘we were at table two counts, one monsignore, an English Lord, an Ambassador, and my humble self.’
Were we really!
How nice it must have been to know that one self, at least, was humble.
And he felt the democratic American tomahawk wheeling over his uncomfortable scalp all the time.
The great American grouch.
Two monsters loomed on Cooper’s horizon.
MRS COOPER MY WORK
MY WORK MY WIFE
MY WIFE MY WORK
THE DEAR CHILDREN
MY WORK !!!
There you have the essential keyboard of Cooper’s soul.
If there is one thing that annoys me more than a business man and his BUSINESS, it is an artist, a writer, painter, musician, and MY WORK. When an artist says MY WORK, the flesh goes tired on my bones. When he says MY WIFE, I want to hit him.
Cooper grizzled about his work. Oh, heaven, he cared so much whether it was good or bad, and what the French thought, and what Mr Snippy Knowall said, and how Mrs Cooper took it. The pin, the pin!
But he was truly an artist: then an American: then a gentleman.
And the grouch grouched inside him, through all.
They seem to have been specially fertile in imagining themselves ‘under the wigwam’, do these Americans, just when their knees were comfortably under the mahogany, in Paris, along with the knees of
1 Humble self
You bet, though, that when the cocottes were being raffled off, Fenimore went home to his WIFE.
Wish Fulfilment Actuality
THE WIGWAM vs MY HOTEL
CHINGACHGOOK vs MY WIFE
NATTY BUMPPO vs MY HUMBLE SELF
Fenimore, lying in his Louis Quatorze hotel in Paris, passionately musing about Natty Bumppo and the pathless forest, and mixing his imagination with the Cupids and Butterflies on the painted ceiling, while Mrs Cooper was struggling with her latest gown in the next room, and the déjeuner was with the Countess at eleven . .
Men live by lies.
In actuality, Fenimore loved the genteel continent of Europe, and waited gasping for the newspapers to praise his WORK.
In another actuality he loved the tomahawking continent of America, and imagined himself Natty Bumppo.
His actual desire was to be: Monsieur Fenimore Cooper, le grand écrivain américain.
His innermost wish was to be: Natty Bumppo.
Now Natty and Fenimore, arm-in-arm, are an odd couple.
You can see Fenimore: blue coat, silver buttons, silver-and- diamond buckle shoes, ruffles.
You see Natty Bumppo: a grizzled, uncouth old renegade, with gaps in his old teeth and a drop on the end of his nose.
But Natty was Fenimore’s great wish: his wish-fulfilment.
‘It was a matter of course,’ says Mrs Cooper, ‘that he should dwell on the better traits of the picture rather than on the coarser and more revolting, though more common points. Like West, he could see Apollo in the young Mohawk.’
The coarser and more revolting, though more common points.
You see now why he depended so absolutely on MY WIFE. She had to look things in the face for him. The coarser and more revolting, and certainly more common points, she had to see.
He himself did so love seeing pretty-pretty, with the thrill of a red scalp now and then.
Fenimore, in his imagination, wanted to be Natty Bumppo, who, I am sure, belched after he had eaten his dinner. At the same time Mr Cooper was nothing if not a gentleman. So he decided to stay in France and have it all his own way.
In France, Natty would not belch after eating, and Chingachgook could be all the Apollo he liked.
As if ever any Indian was like Apollo. The Indians, with their curious female quality, their archaic figures, with high shoulders and deep, archaic waists, like a sort of woman! And their natural devilishness, their natural insidiousness.
But men see what they want to see: especially if they look from a long distance, across the ocean, for example.
Yet the Leatherstocking books are lovely. Lovely half-lies.
They form a sort of American Odyssey, with Natty Bumppo for Odysseus.
Only, in the original Odyssey, there is plenty of devil, Circes and swine and all. And Ithacus is devil enough to outwit the devils. But Natty is a saint with a gun, and the Indians are gentlemen through and through, though they may take an occasional scalp.
There are five Leatherstocking novels: a decrescendo of reality, and a crescendo of beauty.
I. Pioneers: A raw frontier-village on Lake Champlain, at the end of the eighteenth century. Must be a picture of Cooper’s home, as he knew it when a boy. A very lovely book. Natty Bumppo an old man, an old hunter half civilized.
2. The Last of the Mohicans: A historical fight between the British and the French, with Indians on both sides, at a Fort by Lake Champlain. Romantic flight of the British general’s two daughters, conducted by the scout, Natty, who is in the prime of life; romantic death of the last of the Delawares.
3. The Prairie: A wagon of some huge, sinister Kentuckians trekking west into the unbroken prairie. Prairie Indians, and Natty, an old, old man; he dies seated on a chair on the Rocky Mountains, looking east.
4. The Pathfinder: The Great Lakes. Natty, a man of about thirty-five, makes an abortive proposal to a bouncing damsel, daughter of the Sergeant at the Fort.
5. Deerslayer: Natty and Hurry Harry, both quite young, are hunting in the virgin wild. They meet two white women. Lake Champlain again.
These are the five Leatherstocking books: Natty Bumppo being Leatherstocking, Pathfinder, Deerslayer, according to his ages.
Now let me put aside my impatience at the unreality of this vision, and accept it as a wish-fulfilment vision, a kind of yearning myth. Because it seems to me that the things in Cooper that make one so savage, when one compares them with actuality, are perhaps, when one considers them as presentations of a deep subjective desire, real in their way, and almost prophetic.
The passionate love for America, for the soil of America, for example. As I say, it is perhaps easier to love America passionately, when you look at it through the wrong end of the telescope, across all the Atlantic water, as Cooper did so often, than when you are right there. When you are actually in America, America hurts, because it has a powerful disintegrative influence upon the white psyche. It is full of grinning, unappeased aboriginal demons, too, ghosts, and it persecutes the white men, like some Eumenides, until the white men give up their absolute whiteness. America is tense with latent violence and resistance. The very common sense of white Americans has a tinge of helplessness in it, and deep fear of what might be if they were not commonsensical.
Yet one day the demons of America must be placated, the ghosts must be appeased, the Spirit of Place atoned for. Then the true passionate love for American Soil will appear. As yet, there is too much menace in the landscape.
But probably, one day America will be as beautiful in actuality as it is in Cooper. Not yet, however. When the factories have fallen down again.
And again, this perpetual blood-brother theme of the Leatherstocking novels, Natty and Chingachgook, the Great Serpent. At present it is a sheer myth. The Red Man and the White Man are not blood-brothers: even when they are most friendly. When they are most friendly, it is as a rule the one betraying his race-spirit to the other. In the white man — rather high-brow — who ‘loves’ the Indian, one feels the white man betraying his own race. There is something unproud, underhand in it. Renegade. The same with the Americanized Indian who believes absolutely in the white mode. It is a betrayal. Renegade again.
In the actual flesh, it seems to me the white man and the red man cause a feeling of oppression, the one to the other, no matter what the good will. The red life flows in a different direction from the white life. You can’t make two streams that flow in opposite directions meet and mingle soothingly.
Certainly, if Cooper had had to spend his whole life in the backwoods, side by side with a Noble Red Brother, he would have screamed with the oppression of suffocation. He had to have Mrs Cooper, a straight strong pillar of society, to hang on to. And he had to have the culture of France to turn back to, or he would just have been stifled. The Noble Red Brother would have smothered him and driven him mad.
So that the Natty and Chingachgook myth must remain a myth. It is wish-fulfilment, an evasion of actuality. As we have said before, the folds of the Great Serpent would have been heavy, very heavy, too heavy, on any white man. Unless the white man were a true renegade, hating himself and his own race-spirit, as sometimes happens.
It seems there can be no fusion in the flesh. But the spirit can change. The white man’s spirit can never become as the red man’s spirit. It doesn’t want to. But it can cease to be the opposite and the negative of the red man’s spirit. It can open out a new great area of consciousness, in which there is room for the red spirit too.
To open out a new wide area of consciousness means to slough the old consciousness. The old consciousness has become a tight-fitting prison to us, in which we are going rotten.
You can’t have a new, easy skin before you have sloughed the old, tight skin.
And you just can’t, so you may as well leave off pretending.
Now the essential history of the people of the United States seems to me just this: At the Renaissance the old consciousness was becoming a little tight. Europe sloughed her last skin, and started a new, final phase.
But some Europeans recoiled from the last final phase. They wouldn’t enter the cul de sac of post-Renaissance, ‘liberal’ Europe. They came to America.
They came to America for two reasons:
(1) To slough the old European consciousness completely.
(2) To grow a new skin underneath, a new form. This second is a hidden process.
The two processes go on, of course, simultaneously. The slow forming of the new skin underneath is the slow sloughing of the old skin. And sometimes this immortal serpent feels very happy, feeling a new golden glow of a strangely-patterned skin envelop him: and sometimes he feels very sick, as if his very entrails were being torn out of him, as he wrenches once more at his old skin, to get out of it.
Out! Out! he cries, in all kinds of euphemisms.
He’s got to have his new skin on him before ever he can get out.
And he’s got to get out before his new skin can ever be his own skin.
So there he is, a torn divided monster.
The true American, who writhes and writhes like a snake that is long in sloughing.
Sometimes snakes can’t slough. They can’t burst their old skin. Then they go sick and die inside the old skin, and nobody ever sees the new pattern.
It needs a real desperate recklessness to burst your old skin at last. You simply don’t care what happens to you, if you rip yourself in two, so long as you do get out.
It also needs a real belief in the new skin. Otherwise you are likely never to make the effort. Then you gradually sicken and go rotten and die in the old skin.
Now Fenimore stayed very safe inside the old skin: a gentleman, almost a European, as proper as proper can be. And, safe inside the odd skin, he imagined the gorgeous American pattern of a new skin.
He hated democracy. So he evaded it, and had a nice dream of something beyond democracy. But he belonged to democracy all the while.
Evasion! — Yet even that doesn’t make the dream worthless.
Democracy in America was never the same as Liberty in Europe. In Europe Liberty was a great life-throb. But in America Democracy was always something anti-life. The greatest democrats, like Abraham Lincoln, had always a sacrificial, self-murdering note in their voices. American Democracy was a form of self-murder, always. Or of murdering somebody else.
Necessarily. It was a pis aller. It was the pis aller to European Liberty. It was a cruel form of sloughing. Men murdered themselves into this democracy. Democracy is the utter hardening of the old skin, the old form, the old psyche. It hardens till it is tight and fixed and inorganic. Then it must burst, like a chrysalis shell. And out must come the soft grub, or the soft damp butterfly of the American-at-last.
America has gone the pis aller of her democracy. Now she must slough even that, chiefly that, indeed. What did Cooper dream beyond democracy? Why, in his immortal friendship of Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo he dreamed the nucleus of a new society. That is, he dreamed a new human relationship. A stark, stripped human relationship of two men, deeper than the deeps of sex. Deeper than property, deeper than fatherhood, deeper than marriage, deeper than love. So deep that it is loveless. The stark, loveless, wordless unison of two men who have come to the bottom of themselves This is the new nucleus of a new society, the clue to a new world-epoch. It asks for a great and cruel sloughing first of all. Then it finds a great release into a new world, a new moral, a new landscape.
Natty and the Great Serpent are neither equals nor un- equals. Each obeys the other when the moment arrives. And each is stark and dumb in the other’s presence, starkly himself without illusion created. Each is just the crude pillar of a man, the crude living column of his own manhood. And each knows the godhead of this crude column of manhood. A new relationship.
The Leatherstocking novels create the myth of this new relation. And they go backwards, from old age to golden youth. That is the true myth of America. She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin, towards a new youth. It is the myth of America.
You start with actuality. Pioneers is no doubt Cooperstown when Cooperstown was in the stage of inception: a village of one wild street of log cabins under the forest hills by Lake Champlain: a village of crude, wild frontiersmen, reacting against civilization.
Towards this frontier-village in the winter time, a negro slave drives a sledge through the mountains, over deep snow. In the sledge sits a fair damsel, Miss Temple, with her handsome pioneer father, Judge Temple. They hear a shot in the trees. It is the old hunter and backwoodsman, Natty Bumppo, long and lean and uncouth, with a long rifle and gaps in his teeth.
Judge Temple, is ‘squire’ of the village, and he has a ridiculous, commodious ‘hall’ for his residence. It is still the old English form. Miss Temple is a pattern young lady, like Eve Effingham: in fact, she gets a young and very genteel but impoverished Effingham for a husband. The old world holding its own on the edge of the wild. A bit tiresomely too, with rather more prunes and prisms than one can digest. Too romantic.
Against the ‘hall’ and the gentry, the real frontiers-folk, the rebels. The two groups meet at the village inn, and at the frozen church, and at the Christmas sports, and on the ice of the lake, and at the great pigeon shoot. It is a beautiful, resplendent picture of life. Fenimore puts in only the glamour.
Perhaps my taste is childish, but these scenes in Pioneers seem to me marvellously beautiful. The raw village street, with woodfires blinking through the unglazed window-chinks, on a winter’s night. The inn, with the rough woodsman and the drunken Indian John; the church, with the snowy congregation crowding to the fire. Then the lavish abundance of Christmas cheer, and turkey-shooting in the snow. Spring coming, forests all green, maple sugar taken from the trees: and clouds of pigeons flying from the south, myriads of pigeons shot in heaps; and night-fishing on the teeming, virgin lake; and deer-hunting.
Pictures! Some of the loveliest, most glamorous pictures in all literature.
Alas, without the cruel iron of reality. It is all real enough. Except that one realizes that Fenimore was writing from a safe distance, where he would idealize and have his wish-fulfilment.
Because, when one comes to America, one finds that there is always a certain slightly devilish resistance in the American landscape, and a certain slightly bitter resistance in the white man’s heart. Hawthorne gives this. But Cooper glosses it over.
The American landscape has never been at one with the white man. Never. And white men have probably never felt so bitter anywhere, as here in America, where the very landscape, in its very beauty, seems a bit devilish and grinning, opposed to us.
Cooper, however, glosses over this resistance, which in actuality can never quite be glossed over. He wants the landscape to be at one with him. So he goes away to Europe and sees it as such. It is a sort of vision.
And, nevertheless, the oneing will surely take place — some day. The myth is the story of Natty. The old, lean hunter and backwoodsman lives with his friend, the gray-haired Indian John, an old Delaware chief, in a hut within reach of the village. The Delaware is christianized and bears the Christian name of John. He is tribeless and lost. He humiliates his grey hairs in drunkenness, and dies, thankful to be dead, in a forest fire, passing back to the fire whence he derived.
And this is Chingachgook, the splendid Great Serpent of the later novels.
No doubt Cooper, as a boy, knew both Natty and the Indian John. No doubt they fired his imagination even then. When he is a man, crystallized in society and sheltering behind the safe pillar of Mrs Cooper, these two old fellows become a myth to his soul. He traces himself to a new youth in them.
As for the story: Judge Temple has just been instrumental in passing the wise game laws. But Natty has lived by his gun all his life in the wild woods, and simply childishly cannot understand how he can be poaching on the Judge’s land among the pine trees. He shoots a deer in the close season. The Judge is all sympathy, but the law must be enforced. Bewildered Natty, an old man of seventy, is put in stocks and in prison. They release him as soon as possible. But the thing was done.
The letter killeth.
Natty’s last connection with his own race is broken. John, the Indian, is dead. The old hunter disappears, lonely and severed, into the forest, away, away from his race.
In the new epoch that is coming, there will be no letter of the law.
Chronologically, The Last of the Mohicans follows Pioneers. But in the myth, The Prairie comes next.
Cooper of course knew his own America. He travelled west and saw the prairies, and camped with the Indians of the prairie.
The Prairie, like Pioneers, bears a good deal the stamp of actuality. It is a strange, splendid book, full of sense of doom. The figures of the great Kentuckian men, with their wolf-women, loom colossal on the vast prairie, as they camp with their wagons. These are different pioneers from Judge Temple. Lurid, brutal, tinged with the sinisterness of crime; these are the gaunt white men who push west, push on and on against the natural opposition of the continent. On towards a doom. Great wings of vengeful doom seem spread over the west, grim against the intruder. You feel them again in Frank Norris’s novel, The Octopus. While in the West of Bret Harte there is a very devil in the air, and beneath him are sentimental self-conscious people being wicked and goody by evasion.
In The Prairie there is a shadow of violence and dark cruelty flickering in the air. It is the aboriginal demon hovering over the core of the continent. It hovers still, and the dread is still there.
Into such a prairie enters the huge figure of Ishmael, ponderous, pariah-like Ishmael and his huge sons and his were-wolf wife. With their wagons they roll on from the frontiers of Kentucky, like Cyclops into the savage wilderness. Day after day they seem to force their way into oblivion. But their force of penetration ebbs. They are brought to a stop. They recoil in the throes of murder and entrench themselves in isolation on a hillock in the midst of the prairie. There they hold out like demi-gods against the elements and the subtle Indian.
The pioneering brute invasion of the West, crime-tinged! And into this setting, as a sort of minister of peace, enters the old hunter Natty, and his suave, horse-riding Sioux Indians. But he seems like a shadow.
The hills rise softly west, to the Rockies. There seems a new peace: or is it only suspense, abstraction, waiting? Is it only a sort of beyond ?
Natty lives in these hills, in a village of the suave, horse-riding Sioux. They revere him as an old wise father.
In these hills he dies, sitting in his chair and looking far east, to the forest and great sweet waters, whence he came. He dies gently, in physical peace with the land and the Indians. He is an old, old man.
Cooper could see no further than the foothills where Natty died, beyond the prairie.
The other novels bring us back east.
The Last of the Mohicans is divided between real historical narrative and true ‘romance’. For myself, I prefer the romance. It has a myth meaning, whereas the narrative is chiefly record.
For the first time we get actual women: the dark, handsome Cora and her frail sister, the White Lily. The good old division, the dark sensual woman and the clinging, submissive little blonde, who is so ‘pure’.
These sisters are fugitives through the forest, under the protection of a Major Heyward, a young American officer and Englishman. He is just a ‘white’ man, very good and brave and generous, etc., but limited, most definitely borne. He would probably love Cora, if he dared, but he finds it safer to adore the clinging White Lily of a younger sister.
This trio is escorted by Natty, now Leatherstocking, a hunter and scout in the prime of life, accompanied by his inseparable friend Chingachgook, and the Delaware’s beautiful son — Adonis rather than Apollo — Uncas, The last of the Mohicans.
There is also a ‘wicked’ Indian, Magua, handsome and injured incarnation of evil.
Cora is the scarlet flower of womanhood, fierce, passionate offspring of some mysterious union between the British officer and a Creole woman in the West Indies. Cora loves Uncas, Uncas loves Cora. But Magua also desires Cora, violently desires her. A lurid little circle of sensual fire. So Fenimore kills them all off, Cora, Uncas, and Magua, and leaves the White Lily to carry on the race. She will breed plenty of white children to Major Heyward. These tiresome ‘lilies that fester’, of our day.
Evidently Cooper — or the artist in him — has decided that there can be no blood-mixing of the two races, white and red. He kills ‘em off.
Beyond all this heart-beating stand the figures of Natty and Chingachgook: two childless, womanless men, of opposite races. They are the abiding thing. Each of them is alone, and final in his race. And they stand side by side, stark, abstract, beyond emotion, yet eternally together. All the other loves seem frivolous. This is the new great thing, the clue, the inception of a new humanity.
And Natty, what sort of a white man is he? Why, he is a man with a gun. He is a killer, a slayer. Patient and gentle as he is, he is a slayer. Self-effacing, self-forgetting, still he is a killer.
Twice, in the book, he brings an enemy down hurtling in death through the air, downwards. Once it is the beautiful, wicked Magua — shot from a height, and hurtling down ghastly through space, into death.
This is Natty, the white forerunner. A killer. As in Deerslayer, he shoots the bird that flies in the high, high sky so that the bird falls out of the invisible into the visible, dead, he symbolizes himself. He will bring the bird of the spirit out of the high air. He is the stoic American killer of the old great life. But he kills, as he says, only to live.
Pathfinder takes us to the Great Lakes, and the glamour and beauty of sailing the great sweet waters. Natty is now called Pathfinder. He is about thirty-five years old, and he falls in love. The damsel is Mabel Dunham, daughter of Sergeant Dunham of the Fort garrison. She is blonde and in all things admirable. No doubt Mrs Cooper was very much like Mabel.
And Pathfinder doesn’t marry her. She won’t have him. She wisely prefers a more comfortable Jasper. So Natty goes off to grouch, and to end by thanking his stars. When he had got right dear, and sat by the campfire with Chingachgook, in the forest, didn’t he just thank his stars ! A lucky escape!
Men of an uncertain age are liable to these infatuations. They aren’t always lucky enough to be rejected.
Whatever would poor Mabel have done, had she been Mrs Bumppo?
Natty had no business marrying. His mission was elsewhere.
The most fascinating Leatherstocking book is the last, Deerslayer. Natty is now a fresh youth, called Deerslayer. But the kind of silent prim youth who is never quite young, but reserves himself for different things.
It is a gem of a book. Or a bit of perfect paste. And myself, I like a bit of perfect paste in a perfect setting, so long as I am not fooled by presence of reality. And the setting of Deerslayer could not be more exquisite. Lake Champlain again.
Of course it never rains: it is never cold and muddy and dreary: no one has wet feet or toothache: no one ever feels filthy, when they can’t wash for a week. God knows what the women would really have looked like, for they fled through the wilds without soap, comb, or towel. They breakfasted off a chunk of meat, or nothing, lunched the same and supped the same.
Yet at every moment they are elegant, perfect ladies, in correct toilet.
Which isn’t quite fair. You need only go camping for a week, and you’ll see.
But it is a myth, not a realistic tale. Read it as a lovely myth. Lake Glimmerglass.
Deerslayer, the youth with the long rifle, is found in the woods with a big, handsome, blonde-bearded backwoodsman called Hurry Harry. Deerslayer seems to have been born under a hemlock tree out of a pine-cone: a young man of the woods. He is silent, simple, philosophic, moralistic, and an unerring shot. His simplicity is the simplicity of age rather than of youth. He is race-old. All his reactions and impulses are fixed, static. Almost he is sexless, so race-old. Yet intelligent, hardy, dauntless.
Hurry Harry is a big blusterer, just the opposite of Deerslayer. Deerslayer keeps the centre of his own consciousness steady and unperturbed. Hurry Harry is one of those floundering people who bluster from one emotion to another, very self-conscious, without any centre to them.
These two young men are making their way to a lovely, smallish lake, Lake Glimmerglass. On this water the Hutter family has established itself. Old Hutter, it is suggested, has a criminal, coarse, buccaneering past, and is a sort of fugitive from justice. But he is a good enough father to his two grown-up girls. The family lives in a log hut ‘castle’, built on piles in the water, and the old man has also constructed an ‘ark’, a sort of house-boat, in which he can take his daughters when he goes on his rounds to trap the beaver.
The two girls are the inevitable dark and light. Judith, dark, fearless, passionate, a little lurid with sin, is the scarlet-and-black blossom. Hetty, the younger, blonde, frail and innocent, is the white lily again. But alas, the lily has begun to fester. She is slightly imbecile.
The two hunters arrive at the lake among the woods just as war has been declared. The Hutters are unaware of the fact. And hostile Indians are on the lake already. So, the story of thrills and perils.
Thomas Hardy’s inevitable division of women into dark and fair, sinful and innocent, sensual and pure, is Cooper’s division too. It is indicative of the desire in the man. He wants sensuality and sin, and he wants purity end ‘innocence’. If the innocence goes a little rotten, slightly imbecile, bad luck!
Hurry Harry, of course, like a handsome impetuous meat fly, at once wants Judith, the lurid poppy-blossom. Judith rejects him with scorn.
Judith, the sensual woman, at once wants the quiet, reserved, unmastered Deerslayer. She wants to master him. And Deerslayer is half tempted, but never more than half. He is not going to be mastered. A philosophic old soul, he does not give much for the temptations of sex. Probably he dies virgin.
And he is right of it. Rather than be dragged into a false heat of deliberate sensuality, he will remain alone. His soul is alone, for ever alone. So he will preserve his integrity, and remain alone in the flesh. It is a stoicism which is honest and fearless, and from which Deerslayer never lapses, except when, approaching middle age, he proposes to the buxom Mabel.
He lets his consciousness penetrate in loneliness into the new continent. His contacts are not human. He wrestles with the spirits of the forest and the American wild, as a hermit wrestles with God and Satan. His one meeting is with Chingachgook, and this meeting is silent, reserved, across an unpassable distance.
Hetty, the White Lily, being imbecile, although full of vaporous religion and the dear, good God, ‘who governs all things by his providence’, is hopelessly infatuated with Hurry Harry. Being innocence gone imbecile, like Dostoevsky’s Idiot, she longs to give herself to the handsome meat-fly. Of course he doesn’t want her.
And so nothing happens: in that direction. Deerslayer goes off to meet Chingachgook, and help him woo an Indian maid. Vicarious.
It is the miserable story of the collapse of the white psyche. The white man’s mind and soul are divided between these two things: innocence and lust, the Spirit and Sensuality. Sensuality always carries a stigma, and is therefore more deeply desired, or lusted after. But spirituality alone gives the sense of uplift, exaltation, and ‘winged life’, with the inevitable reaction into sin and spite. So the white man is divided against himself. He plays off one side of himself against the other side, till it is really a tale told by an idiot, and nauseating.
Against this, one is forced to admire the stark, enduring figure of Deerslayer. He is neither spiritual nor sensual. He is a moralizer, but he always tries to moralize from actual experience, not from theory. He says: ‘Hurt nothing unless you’re forced to.’ Yet he gets his deepest thrill of gratification, perhaps, when he puts a bullet through the heart of a beautiful buck, as it stoops to drink at the lake. Or when he brings the invisible bird fluttering down in death, out of the high blue. ‘Hurt nothing unless you’re forced to.’ And yet he lives by death, by killing the wild things of the air and earth.
It’s not good enough.
But you have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.
Of course, the soul often breaks down into disintegration, and you have lurid sin and Judith, imbecile innocence lusting, in Hetty, and bluster, bragging, and self-conscious strength, in Harry. But there are the disintegration products.
What true myth concerns itself with is not the disintegration product. True myth concerns itself centrally with the onward adventure of the integral soul. And this, for America, is Deerslayer. A man who turns his back on white society. A man who keeps his moral integrity hard and intact. An isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring man, who lives by death, by killing, but who is pure white.
This is the very intrinsic — most American. He is at the core of all the other flux and fluff. And when this man breaks from his static isolation, and makes a new move, then look out, something will be happening.