Analysis of wilderness in The Pioneers

Wilderness is, in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, constructed in the interest of defining American independence for white males. This independence is based largely upon an ability to tame what Cooper deems wild, and is enacted through a system of land ownership conceived of by the colonizing force for whom Cooper advocates. He describes the “civilized” portion of what the pioneers have named New York as a scattered group of thriving villages with farms, churches, and schools, in a region which only forty years previous to the writing, the writer claims was a wilderness (Cooper 2). “In short,” he writes, “the whole district is hourly exhibiting how much can be done, in even a rugged country, and with a severe climate, under the dominion of mild laws, and where every man feels a direct interest in the prosperity of a commonwealth, of which he knows himself to form a part” (Cooper 2). Cooper thereby establishes the terrain and climate as obstacles to man and his independence, components of a wild environment that must be subdued and molded to fit the pioneers’ vision of civilization.

This vision appears to have been heavily influenced by ideas that arose during the European Scientific Revolution, wherein “[r]eason became the means to achieving total mastery over nature, now conceived as an enormous, soulless mechanism that worked according to knowable natural laws” (Garrard 62). As these ideas were enumerated by the white male predecessors of Cooper’s pioneers, enacted on a new continent, they no less continued to privilege the white male, even when the settlers met with native peoples with their own conception of the proper relationship of humans to their environment. This compulsion to tame their surroundings placed pioneers at odds with those people living immersed in the so-called wilderness. Cooper depicts the father-daughter relationship as a continuous process of shielding the female from wild and savage things, as if the character of the Judge were representative of the pioneers in their attempt to tame a feminized environment: “…he had enough of real regard for his child, not to bring her into the comparative wilderness in which he dwelt” (Cooper 5). In this way, Cooper implies it would be a case of neglect if the pioneers had attempted to integrate themselves into the environment instead of establishing power over it.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1958. 1-255. Print.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004. 59-84. Print.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by brightgirl04 on September 14, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    I agree with you that Cooper believes independence is gained through land ownership and taming what he believes to be wild. The villages that cropped up in New York now utilize the wilderness for their own personal gains. According to ecocritics in Garrad’s Wilderness chapter “It is no coincidence that this view of nature took hold most strongly with the rise of capitalism, which needed to turn nature into a market commodity and resource without significant moral or social constraint on availability” (62). Even though the colonists rely on the land for survival and independence Cooper highlights their lack of ecological awareness through Judge Temple.

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