The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 15. The Pioneers
With The Spy Cooper proved his power to invent situations, conduct a plot, vivify history and landscape, and create a certain type of heroic character. His public success was instant. The novel reached a third edition the following March; it was approved on the stage; European readers accepted it with enthusasm. Pleased, though perhaps surprised, at this reception of his work, Cooper threw himself into the new career thus offered him with characteristic energy. He removed to New York and hurried forward the composition of The Pioneers, which appeared in February, 1823, with Cooper’s first bumptious preface. Technically this book made no advance upon The Spy. Cooper had but one method, improvisation, and the absence of any very definite pursuit deprives The Pioneers, though it has exciting moments, of general suspense. But it is important as his first trial at the realistic presentation of manners in America. Dealing as he did with the Otsego settlement where his boyhood had been spent, and with a time (1793) witing his memory, he could write largely from the fact. Whatever romance there is the in the story lies less in its plot, which is relatively simple, or in its characters, which are, for the most part, studied under a dry light with a good deal of caustic judgment, than in the essential wonder of a pioneer life. The novel is not as heroic as The Spy had bee. Indian John, the last of his proud race, is old and broken, corrupted by the settlements; only his death dignifies him. Natty Bumppo, a composite from many Cooperstown memories, is nobler because he has not yielded but carries his virtues, which even in Cooper’s boyhood were becoming archaic along the froniter, into the deeper forest. Natty stands as a protest, on behalf of simplicity and perfect freedom, against encroaching law and order. In The Pioneers, however, he is not yet of the proportions which he later assumed, and only at the end, when he withdraws from the field of his defeat by civilization, does he make his full appeal. Cooper may have felt that there were still possibilities in the character, but for the present he did not try to realize them.