Places: The Pathfinder

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1840

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of work: 1756

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Lake Ontario

*Lake Pathfinder, TheOntario. Great lake that separates the northwestern part of what is now New York State from Canada–the region in which The Pathfinder is set. As a Navy midshipman in the early nineteenth century, Cooper was stationed at Oswego and traveled through the region. When he later wrote the novel, he called his description of the region “as nearly accurate as is required by the laws which govern fiction.” He seems to have first proposed setting a novel in the Great Lakes area in 1831; at various times he even referred to the novel’s title as “Lake Ontario” and “Inland Sea,” thus suggesting the importance place would play.

From the very first page of The Pathfinder, the eighteenth century New York wilderness is established as a powerful, awe-inspiring, mythic force, wherein forest training, and neither book learning nor map reading, keeps one alive. Natty Bumppo, here called Pathfinder, appears in these first few pages, establishing his reputation for finding his way “where there is no path” and sharing his vision of the wilderness as God’s temple. He is Cooper’s archetypal frontiersman, guide, hunter, and trapper, a model of rugged American individualism, democracy, and transcendental spirituality. As he does in the early pages, Cooper uses place in the remainder of the novel to articulate and test the values and skills that frontier life has given Pathfinder.

*Oswego River

*Oswego River. Tributary of Lake Ontario that rises near Syracuse, New York. Cooper’s preface and footnotes make it clear that his depiction of his characters’ encounter with the Oswego River is based in reality. There, as in the thick of the forests, wilderness training and the frontier’s power to shape are spotlighted. Chingachgook, the Iroquois warriors, Pathfinder, and Jasper represent the “cunning of the woods”; Cap is disrespectful yet also afraid of the wilderness; meanwhile, Mabel’s experience of the frontier begins to teach her bravery. As in other novels, Cooper is careful to distinguish for his nineteenth century audience the difference between those educated in the wilderness (Pathfinder and Jasper) and those of the wilderness (Chingachgook and the Iroquois). Pathfinder’s kill-only-when-unavoidable attitude depicts the justice that is learned by “living much alone with God in the wilderness” when one has white gifts.

*Fort Oswego

*Fort Oswego. Frontier outpost near the mouth of the Oswego River on Lake Ontario. Once the characters reach the fort, the fast-paced action of the river scenes slows to a standstill as Cooper uses place to showcase the romance portion of what he once called his “nautico-lake-savage romance.” His descriptions here evoke a kind of democratic Eden: perfect climate; boundless game, so much so that every one, not just the wealthy, can feast; Pathfinder as Adam, indifferent to class distinctions and judging only on personal merit. In the midst of Eden, Cooper introduces the historically valid sharpshooting contest, which further spotlights both the great frontier skills of Pathfinder and his generous heart.

BibliographyBlakemore, Steven. “Language and World in The Pathfinder.” Modern Language Studies 16, no. 3 (Summer, 1986): 237-246. Examines Cooper’s treatment of his major characters through an examination of the differentiated language he uses and creates for them.Darnell, Donald. “Manners on a Frontier: The Pioneers, The Pathfinder, and The Deerslayer.” In James Fenimore Cooper: Novelist of Manners. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993. Explores the role of social class on the frontier. The main characters, Darnell claims, are fully aware and respectful of their own lower rank.Kolodny, Annette. “Love and Sexuality in The Pathfinder.” In James Fenimore Cooper: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Wayne Fields. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979. Discusses Cooper’s need to show the possibility of love for Natty Bumppo in order to make him a whole human being. Natty faces a choice between love of the forest and love of a woman.Rans, Geoffrey. Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Good introductory overview. The chapter “A Matter of Choice” shows how The Pathfinder focuses more on the mythical character of Natty Bumppo and less on the Indians and the wilderness than do the other Leatherstocking novels.Walker, Warren S. “The Tragic Wilderness.” In James Fenimore Cooper: An Introduction and Interpretation, by Warren S. Walker. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962. Places the work in the context of the Leatherstocking series and explores common themes and images. The Pathfinder carries Natty Bumppo through early middle age and through his last attempt at love.
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