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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

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Activities: Author Activities

James Fenimore Cooper - Author Questions

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  1. Comprehension: Settings in works of fiction are often invented to symbolize or encapsulate the conflicts that will be developed in the story. How does Cooper describe the frontier community of Templeton in The Pioneers? How does the town function as a contact point between "civilization" and the wilderness? What kinds of hardships do the townspeople face? What is their vision of "progress"?

  2. Comprehension: In 1863, German critic Gustav Freytag argued that the typical plot of a five-act play had a pyramidal shape. This pyramid consists of five stages: an introduction to the conflict, rising action (complication), climax, falling action, and a dénouement (unraveling). Although this pattern, known today as Freytag's pyramid, originally referred to drama, critics have applied the concept to fiction as well. How might we use Freytag's pyramid to analyze the plot development of The Pioneers? In what stage of the pyramid would the chapters "The Judge's History of the Settlement" and "The Slaughter of the Pigeons" fall? What is the nature of the conflict between Judge Temple and Natty Bumppo? How are their values opposed?

  3. Freytag's Pyramid
  4. Context: Catharine Maria Sedgwick drew upon Cooper's development of the American historical novel when she wrote Hope Leslie in 1827. How does Hope Leslie compare to The Pioneers? Why do you think Sedgwick chose to write about the Puritans rather than the French and Indian War and post-Revolutionary period that Cooper chronicled? How does each book narrate the settlement of new territory by European-Americans? How are the novels' portraits of Native American characters similar? How are they different?

  5. Context: Cooper was an enthusiastic admirer of the paintings of the Hudson River School artists. In a review of one of Thomas Cole's paintings, Cooper asserted that the picture was "the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced" and "one of the noblest works of art that has ever been wrought." Cole, in return, was an admirer of Cooper's prose and painted several scenes based on Cooper's descriptions of the landscape in The Last of the Mohicans. Why do you think Cooper and Cole were so interested in and enthusiastic about one another's work? How are their interests and subject matters similar? What do their attitudes toward land and landscape have in common?

  6. Exploration: In both "The Judge's History of the Settlement" and "The Slaughter of the Pigeons," Cooper describes the way "settlement" and "civilization" exploit and disrupt the natural abundance of the wilderness. While the Judge tends to view this process as "improvement," Natty condemns it as destructive and wasteful. What is Cooper's position, on the environmental impact of European-American settlement? In what respects does he seem to side with the Judge's position, and in what respects does he seem to side with Natty? How does The Pioneers raise environmental issues that still concern us today? How do contemporary debates about issues such as logging old-growth forests, salmon fishing, and drilling for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge grow out of some of the same controversies raised in The Pioneers?

  7. Exploration: In 1895 Mark Twain published "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences," a hilarious indictment of Cooper's unrealistic dialogue and heavy-handed plots. What, in Twain's view, are Cooper's biggest "offences" against "literary art"? Why do you think Twain singled out Cooper? How did the development of both realism and regionalism (styles with which Twain is associated) represent a break with Cooper's style?

  8. Exploration: Natty Bumppo has been described as the "first American hero" in U.S. national literature. What qualities make Natty heroic? How does he deal with the tensions between "wilderness" and "civilization" that structure life in and around Templeton? How does he deal with his existence on the border between Native American and Euro-American culture? How did Cooper's creation of Natty influence American literature? What subsequent literary heroes share some of Natty's qualities?

  9. Exploration: In her article "I Have Been, and Ever Shall Be, Your Friend': Star Trek, The Deerslayer and the American Romance," critic April Selley argues that the male-male bonding between Natty and his Native American sidekick Chingachgook laid the groundwork for later American heroes and their ethnic sidekicks (Journal of Popular Culture 20.1 [Summer 1986]: 89-104). These ethnic sidekicks, Selley argues, tend to be more effeminate, and thus enhance the masculinity of the European-American hero. Two famous examples of European-American heroes and ethnic sidekicks are the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and Captain Kirk and Spock. Do you agree with Selley's reading of Cooper's characters? Can you think of other examples that fit this model?

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