A number of personal “revelations” mark my way in life. Among them is one that occurred in college during a combined history/literature class. Among the books we read were the Pioneers by James Fenimoore Cooper and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The books we read explored the line between wilderness and civilization, the tension between man’s indomitable quest to conquer nature and the longing to be free of modern complexities and problems.
Cooper wrote the Pioneers in 1823. It was fiction but likely described life at the “western frontier” of the time in the upstate New York Cooperstown area. The main character, the Leatherstocking, Natty Bumpo, was a grizzled old man who was more comfortable with the Indians on the other side of the lake than “his” people. His people were recklessly intent on taming the wilderness. He had more of a kinship with the Indians who respected nature and did not have an itching need to tame it.
Cooper was among the earliest environmentalists, concerned about preserving the wilderness, though he would not have been called an environmentalist at the time. In one of the most memorable segments of the book, he described the wanton abandon with which the pioneers heartily shot the flocks of slow Passenger Pigeons, leaving the entire flock dead on the ground at the end. The Passenger Pigeon has since gone extinct due to that kind of behavior.
Bumpo was not comfortable with his own crowd, and the book ends with him heading west to find less populated and untamed land.
Huckleberry Finn, of course, is a story of a young man cut out of a similar cloth, but set at a slightly later time, around 1845. We barely left Natty Bumpo heading west, and just twenty something years after the Leatherstocking left upstate New York to find less civilized country, Huckleberry Finn was struggling to conform with the “civilized” society of Hannibal, Missouri.
Huck had no more affection for the polite society of Hannibal than the Leatherstocking had for his kind. At the end of the book we find Huck lighting out for the west as he found the wilderness of the Mississippi becoming too civilized for his tastes. These books stirred a similar longing in me. Continue reading “Lighting Out for the Wild West”