Analysis of Wilderness in The Pioneers

In James Fenimore Coopers’s The Pioneers, wilderness is seen in a contrasting light as both an  awe-inspiring spectacle and as a simple, disposable tool to achieve personal gain. The author juxtaposes these two viewpoints throughout the text leaving the reader to wonder what the true purpose of wilderness was to the early settlers. Was it simply a means of getting what they wanted out of this unsettled land or was it more akin to the “romantic and picturesque” country we are introduced to at the beginning of the passage (Cooper 1)?

I was struck by the power and might of wilderness when Judge is explaining to Elizabeth how the pioneers struggled to gain footing in the “[rough] uninhabited mountains” while fraught with famine and failure (Cooper 236). He described the turning point in which “something like a miracle” occurred and “shoals of herring” flew through the territory enabling the settlers to survive (Cooper 238). This struck me as what Garrard would characterize as a sublime view of the wilderness because it seems that Judge is sincerely struck by the “overwhelming power” (Garrard 64) nature had and was in disbelief by the wonder of the “miracle” birds (Cooper 238). Taken alone, this solitary take on the passage would be well received. However, when paired with the careless slaughter of the pigeons we see later on in the text, the pioneers’ values about wilderness can be called into question. Although these birds were shown to be a nuisance to growing crops, forcing some settler to “sow [their] wheat twice, and three times” the spectacle of aimlessly shooting birds from the sky sharply opposes the respect for nature we see earlier in the text when Judge is describing the sheer miracle it was to have a few birds to eat (Cooper 251). Leather-Stocking put it best as a pure “waste of [God’s] creatures” (Cooper 251). The contrast of Judge’s description of the wondrous gift the wilderness provided when people were in need and the eventual manipulation and waste of such wilderness by killing these birds for game is hypocritical and puzzling.

Interestingly, Judge tells Elizabeth that “[those who hear about the settling of a country know] but little of the toil and suffering” that went into founding it (Cooper 238). Thinking back on the passage, it seems that all of the settlers should take Judges’s sentiment to heart regarding their views on the wilderness they inhabit. Perhaps they too have lost sight of the power and terror the wilderness once had over them and would be well off to keep this in mind before disposing of the wilderness around them for no purpose.

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

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.


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