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Violence, Nature, and the Native Other on the 19th century North American Frontier; The Novels of John Richardson and James Fenimore Cooper

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Abstract:

The nineteenth century in North America was an age of expansion and settlement. The westward push of the pioneers struggling in the American wilderness took at times epic proportions, providing a violent illustration of the age-old clash of European civilization with the untamed environment. The writers of the time sensed the artistic potential of this struggle and set out to transform it into novels that would introduce their European audiences to the exoticism of the New World. Despite surface similarities, the literary expression of the early Canadian experience of the frontier differs dramatically from the American one. Contrasting two 19th century authors who lived and wrote in Upper Canada and the U.S., respectively, will provide an illustration of the distinct ways in which the two national literatures dealt with nature, violence, and the Native Other.
Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales offer a broad panorama of American wilderness painted with the poignant sense of loss in front of the Eden-like nature that settlement was chasing away. Cooper’s frontier is an idealized realm, a mythical realm of true equality, vanishing as civilization and its hierarchies are gaining ground in the new world. Nature is romanticized, while the natives are either dangerous opponents, stereotypical embodiments of savagery and quasi Gothic appendages of nature, or submissive, acculturated partners of the lonely white pioneer. The latter is more often than not a genuine Jeffersonian aristocrat of the wilds, chaste, virtuous and spiritual, a Christian knight of the American frontier.
In Canada, following in the footsteps of the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, and, indeed, inspired by Cooper’s success, John Richardson strove to draw on the frontier as “useable past” by exploiting the exoticism of the Canadian backwoods. Richardson’s wilderness is however not presented nostalgically. Nature is quite an indomitable force, threateningly encroaching upon the white settlements petrified in their “garrison mentality.” Civilization hardly represents a threat to the imperviousness of Canadian nature. On the contrary, Richardson’s multiple forms of organization – forts, towns, settlements – are necessary barriers and safeguards against the unleashed violence of the hostile environment, indeed offering the heroes their only chance of survival. And lastly, because of his own Métis background, for Richardson the Native Others are never the stereotypical, blood-thirsty creatures that haunt the frontier tales of Fenimore Cooper. The Natives are instead allies of the Crown, described in metaphors that use the European code of reference. Instead of demonizing his Indian warriors, or of creating picturesque romantic appendages of the Canadian wilds, Richardson constructs them as individuals belonging to a different and doomed culture, hopelessly trapped between the new powers that were carving up North America among themselves.
These variations can be interpreted as reflecting the underlying cultural assumptions shaping the worldview of the two young imagined communities. They mirror the differences in patterns of settlement in the two countries, in the history of their relationships with the Natives, and ultimately in the different conceptualizations of auhority, of progress and of the role of the individual in society.
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Godeanu, Oana. "Violence, Nature, and the Native Other on the 19th century North American Frontier; The Novels of John Richardson and James Fenimore Cooper" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186072_index.html>

APA Citation:

Godeanu, O. , 2007-10-11 "Violence, Nature, and the Native Other on the 19th century North American Frontier; The Novels of John Richardson and James Fenimore Cooper" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186072_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: The nineteenth century in North America was an age of expansion and settlement. The westward push of the pioneers struggling in the American wilderness took at times epic proportions, providing a violent illustration of the age-old clash of European civilization with the untamed environment. The writers of the time sensed the artistic potential of this struggle and set out to transform it into novels that would introduce their European audiences to the exoticism of the New World. Despite surface similarities, the literary expression of the early Canadian experience of the frontier differs dramatically from the American one. Contrasting two 19th century authors who lived and wrote in Upper Canada and the U.S., respectively, will provide an illustration of the distinct ways in which the two national literatures dealt with nature, violence, and the Native Other.
Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales offer a broad panorama of American wilderness painted with the poignant sense of loss in front of the Eden-like nature that settlement was chasing away. Cooper’s frontier is an idealized realm, a mythical realm of true equality, vanishing as civilization and its hierarchies are gaining ground in the new world. Nature is romanticized, while the natives are either dangerous opponents, stereotypical embodiments of savagery and quasi Gothic appendages of nature, or submissive, acculturated partners of the lonely white pioneer. The latter is more often than not a genuine Jeffersonian aristocrat of the wilds, chaste, virtuous and spiritual, a Christian knight of the American frontier.
In Canada, following in the footsteps of the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, and, indeed, inspired by Cooper’s success, John Richardson strove to draw on the frontier as “useable past” by exploiting the exoticism of the Canadian backwoods. Richardson’s wilderness is however not presented nostalgically. Nature is quite an indomitable force, threateningly encroaching upon the white settlements petrified in their “garrison mentality.” Civilization hardly represents a threat to the imperviousness of Canadian nature. On the contrary, Richardson’s multiple forms of organization – forts, towns, settlements – are necessary barriers and safeguards against the unleashed violence of the hostile environment, indeed offering the heroes their only chance of survival. And lastly, because of his own Métis background, for Richardson the Native Others are never the stereotypical, blood-thirsty creatures that haunt the frontier tales of Fenimore Cooper. The Natives are instead allies of the Crown, described in metaphors that use the European code of reference. Instead of demonizing his Indian warriors, or of creating picturesque romantic appendages of the Canadian wilds, Richardson constructs them as individuals belonging to a different and doomed culture, hopelessly trapped between the new powers that were carving up North America among themselves.
These variations can be interpreted as reflecting the underlying cultural assumptions shaping the worldview of the two young imagined communities. They mirror the differences in patterns of settlement in the two countries, in the history of their relationships with the Natives, and ultimately in the different conceptualizations of auhority, of progress and of the role of the individual in society.

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