THE PIONEERS by James Fenimore Cooper, a book review by Stephen Brooke
***** 5 stars
One could make an argument that “The Pioneers” was the first great American novel. It is certainly the first important one. Before Hawthorne, before Melville, Cooper gives us the American voice and sensibility (though with the obvious stylistic influence of Scott).
Yes, it is wordy. Cooper is always wordy and early Cooper even more so. The novel is not quite historical fiction in the sense some of the other Leather-Stocking books are; it is set in the time of the author’s own youth and draws on his memories of Cooperstown. Nor is it an adventure in quite the same sense. Natty Bumppo, Leather-Stocking himself, has a less central role, though he does stand as symbol of the end of an age, helping hold the story together.
The closing of the frontier, the felling of forest, the peopling of what was wilderness, is a central theme—but not the plot. Cooper knew better than do that. The theme is attached to a fairly conventional sort of story. We can all figure out who young Edwards, the closest thing to a main male protagonist, truly is. But the plot is set against the panorama of civilization expanding into the wilderness, both the good and the bad of it. Cooper was certainly a conservationist before the word existed.
The story concerns itself not only with the trees felled but the human lives impacted, including those of the Native Americans. Yet it is most certainly not all gloom. There is plenty of humor and maybe just a little too much description of everyday frontier life. It is one of those novels that captures its time and place—a newly-born nation finding itself and perhaps blundering a bit in the process. A classic and worth the highest ranking (though maybe just barely).
This review has appeared in a slightly different form at GoodReads and at Stephen Brooke's blog (Stephen Brooke Author)