Plotting America's past: Fenimore Cooper and The leatherstocking tales
This is the first book-length study to show how Cooper uses the Leatherstocking series as a touchstone to explore pre-Civil War America’s perception of its past.
Kelly’s historiographic approach to the Tales marks a significant departure from previous critical commentary on the stories: Other critics have centered either on the Tales’ mythological status, on their relevance for an understanding of Jacksonian America, or on their aesthetic preconceptions. Kelly begins his innovative study by challenging the assumption that American writers of the eighteenth century lacked native models for their fiction.
He argues that rather than a void, Americans confronted two competing patterns of historical vision. In documents as diverse as John Winthrop’s Journal, the Declaration of Independence, Emerson’s Essays, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, America is imagined as simultaneously free and bound, as a nation at once independent from history and organically linked to centuries of human development. Kelly shows that Cooper’s fiction illustrates this characteristic perception of the past with an unparalleled clarity. Neither a defense of tradition nor an assault on entailment, his novels plot American history as a progressive development in the continuum of human events and as a departure from that process.