Friday, April 10, 2015

*The Pioneers, by James Fenimore Cooper

Penguin, 1998
460 pp
[originally published 1823]


I'm of two minds about this novel and my ambiguity has to do with Cooper's writing style.  First, let me say that I'm no stranger to older works with long, drawn-out phrasing or archaic writing styles -- I figure it's a given that these are books from the past and they certainly weren't designed with our more modern, streamlined reading styles in mind.  That's not the issue here. Instead, it's more like the main threads of the narratives in this book are sort of buried under a barrage of description that tends to go on and on and on before you get back to the storylines that you're reading the book for in the first place. There is an asterisked author's footnote on p. 233 that made me think that even he seems to understand that he has a tendency to go overboard:
"The author has no better apology for interrupting the interest of a work of fiction by these desultory dialogues, than that they have reference to facts. In reviewing his work, after so many years, he is compelled to confess it is injured by too many allusions to incidents that are not at all suited to satisfy the just expectations of the general reader." 
 On the other hand, The Pioneers is very much worth reading as a novel strongly concerned with (among other things) environmental stewardship;  it is also a book that Cooper wrote, in my opinion, to offer his readers a look at the American wilderness as people began to settle there, much as in his own life, his father had played a major role in the settlement of Cooperstown. As Cooper himself notes in a preface:
"In 1785, the author's father, who had an interest in extensive tracts of land in this wilderness, arrived with a party of Surveyors.  The manner in which the scene met his eye is described by Judge Temple. At the commencement of the following year, the settlement began, and from that time to this, the country has continued to flourish. It is a singular feature in American life, that, at the beginning of this century, when the proprietor of the estate, had occasion for settlers, on a new settlement and in a remote county, he was enabled to draw them from among the increase of the former colony...the author was brought an infant into this valley and all his first impressions were here obtained. He has inhabited it, ever since, at intervals, and he thinks he can answer for the faithfulness of the picture he has drawn." (8)
 Of course, now Cooperstown is linked to baseball; few people probably know or care about how this town got started, so The Pioneers'  Templeton affords a glimpse into exactly what life may have been like in settlements such as the one Cooper grew up in.

Another thing I was struck by was Cooper's description of the law as civilization encroaches into the wilderness -- Natty Bumppo, "the Leatherstocking" has lived in the forests and in nature for most of his life before civilization had even arrived there, and he has his own ideas about the value of laws.  And for those readers who are entertained by plot and aren't really into the messages/history  woven into novels, there's also a storyline complete with  love interest that centers around a mysterious young man who is accidentally shot by Judge Marmaduke Temple in his efforts to shoot a deer.

I won't go into plot here because this book is very well known and is very well covered by scholars all over the internet and in books and other publications.  The bottom line for me is that it was a tough novel to read because in our 21st-century parlance the writing itself tends to be all over the map with long interludes of description that seem to take forever before the author returns to the narrative, but when all is said and done, the environmental issues that are brought up in this book are more than relevant to modern concerns. So back to being of two minds -- if you can make it through the laborious writing style, there's a really good story or two or three hidden in this novel.  I'm happy I read it, although now I'm thinking that maybe I'll pass on the others for the moment.

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