Natty Bumppo: Original American Biker

James Fenimore Cooper is little read today, perhaps because of his daunting, elliptical prose, but his books, especially The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer, helped carve the mold of The American Novel.  Writing at a time when both the novel and the nation were just coming of age, Cooper created settings, plots, and above all characters that felt distinctly American and very different from existing European literature.

Cooper’s novels draw emotional impact from his readers’ love of country, by which I mean the physical country – the landscape, the woods, streams, and lakes of a vast continent.  They also gain narrative drive, interest, and sometimes humor by subverting inherited European notions of class and propriety.  The American landscape, anti-elitism, and adventurism are integral to Cooper’s writing in a way that was new and would endure in American writers through the twentieth century.

Natty Bumppo, better known by his Delaware name “Hawkeye,” is the central character in these books and the embodiment of all these sentiments.  He is not, strictly, the protagonist, but he is the most interesting, memorable, and ultimately significant character.  He is the biker character.

Born of white parents, raised among the Delaware Indians, he is forever a man apart.  He speaks both languages and is of both worlds, but does not fully belong in either one.  He is independent of the rules and expectations of society and almost supernaturally capable in the manly arts of the woods – hunting, tracking, shooting.  More mainstream characters like Major Heyward, who would be the unquestioned hero in a novel a generation earlier, are almost comically out of their element in Hawkeye’s wooded world.  There is a supremacy of wildness, which a natural man must master as he masters himself, rather than mastering the rules and mores of society.  By being more natural, Hawkeye is more free than his counterparts in either the Indian nations or the English society; he is closer to the Rousseau ideal.  In a sense, he is taking the American revolution against distant aristocracy to is Platonic ideal form.

Hawkeye is quick-witted, a jokester god who offers asides other characters cannot.  He can comment on everything, being the perennial outsider; he does not say too much, but when he speaks, he cuts away the grease.  He is cunning and morally ambiguous, or at least lives by his own moral code, which may not be congruent with society’s code.  He is fiercely loyal to his friends and has a sense of chivalry, but these values stem from his innate nature, not society’s expectations, and so his behavior often seems odd to the square characters that surround him.

All this may sound like a cliché Romantic hero today, but in 1826 this was certainly revolutionary.  This was a proto-American archetype.  Our ingrained images of the frontiersman, cowboy, rough rider, fighter pilot, private eye, and above all biker share these fundamental elements.

These characters are all outsiders, living on the in-between, masters of their own world and outcasts in ours.  They are people we look to with equal parts trepidation and admiration.  They do not respect and do not fear the things we wish we didn’t respect and fear.  From Huck Finn to Tyler Durden, they live what we yearn.

Of all these archetypes, the biker is the most unredeemed and the most on the outside, the most associated with danger and criminality.  Although most real bikers are firmly part of square society, part of what draws us to ride is the reminder of that elemental being.  When we open the throttle and the adrenaline pumps, there is a native recall, an atavistic displacement from ordinary life.  Woods long lost close in around us, and we are briefly marksmen and masters.  Hawkeye is our Adam.

This lineage has survived as a central part of the American psyche in literature and film for almost as long as the nation itself.  Now, however, it is in decline.  The real longing for adventure and drive to be uncaged have recently lost their cultural purchase.  In place of the Hawkeye/biker character is the superhero.

While superheroes are outsiders, have special skills, and often live by their own codes, there are important differences between them and the Hawkeye type.  Central to the idea of a superhero is a supernatural/fantasy element (or supernatural wealth) and sheer physical impossibility of their feats.  This can serve well for childhood imaginative role-play, but is not a trait that has enduring worth as the reader/viewer matures.  (Fortunately for studios, most males do not mature any more.)  Their cartoon exaggeration overwhelms any moral complexity in their stories.  The superhero’s victory is always a deus-ex-machina cop out.

A more significant difference is that the superheroes are heroes, which a Hawkeye is not.  There may be moments when society turns on the superhero in a story, but ultimately is it the superhero that saves the day, because they share square society’s values, even if the hero is at times misunderstood.  (This often makes the superhero boring, and it’s why the Joker is the only interesting character in all the Batman movies.)

Not so the Hawkeye/biker characters.  They value independence over acceptance.  That proposition has sadly since been inverted for today’s heroes.

We need Hawkeye.  We need that other, the wolf that stares back at us from outside the light of the campfire.  We need to be more hungry and less satisfied.  Superman will not come in and punch evil for us.  If we lose the zero-fucks-given free thinkers, we will be just as hopeless, feckless, and moronic as the citizen of Metropolis.

America needs bikers.

Why the Next Confederate Bike Matters


Confederate Motorcycles, makers of high-priced, high-performance, hand-made road jewelry, have released a teaser for their next model, the C2 P-51 Fighter, which will be available “circa 2015.”  The bike’s web-page has the tagline, “What are you rebelling against?” an overt allusion to The Wild One, but it is not the Johnny Strablers of this world who will be riding the P-51.  Thirty-one very wealthy, very lucky individuals will have the singular opportunity to purchase this piece of rolling art.

Perhaps you imagine Confederate Motorcycles as a few mad artisans inveighing against normalcy, forging exquisite monstrosities out of unobtainium and phlogiston on Thor’s anvil, wreathed in toxic bayou vapors.  (They actually moved to Birmingham after Hurricane Katrina, but their brand still has a voodoo funk.)  Maybe you think of them as makers of status-bikes for the mythical “1%” (never to be confused with “1%ers”!) to show off at their clubs – not “real” bikes for “real” bikers.

Maybe you just don’t think of them at all.  After all, schmucks like you and I are never going to ride these Bugatti-bikes.  What really does it matter what kind of toys these people buy?  Especially at a time when we’re seeing smaller-displacement, less-expensive bikes hitting the market, and we’re trying to broaden the base of riders, who cares?  I recently made the case that OCC is absolutely irrelevant.  Isn’t the same true for Confederate?  No.

Confederate matters because this is the avant-garde.  It matters for the same reason that it mattered what Picasso was doing in 1910, or what Beethoven was doing in 1810.  This is not design for the mainstream.  It is design as exploration and experimentation.  Terra incognita.

Picasso mattered because other artists were looking at what he was doing.  They didn’t just follow his lead, they took inspiration from his work and expanded in new directions of abstraction.  (Of course, it wasn’t just Picasso, but he’s the most memorable example today.)  Similarly, some would argue that all of 19th-century music is a response to Beethoven.

The P-51 is particularly significant because it is Pierre Terblanche’s first design with Confederate.  If there is a Beethoven of modern motorcycle design, it is Terblanche.  His Ducati MH900e is a MoMA-worthy pinnacle of Postmodernism, and his 749/999 is one of the most elegant sportbike designs ever realized, both of them designs almost without precedent.  Now his exceptional talent has been turned from tailored refinement to guts-out brutalism.  You can be assured that designers in Munich, Bologna, and Tokyo (maybe even in Milwaukee) will be looking hard at the P-51.  That doesn’t mean you will see imitations of it, but that it will expand the visual language.

And just like the boundary-breaking composers, painters, sculptors, and designers of the past, avant-garde motorcycles need a few wealthy patrons to make it happen.  Michelangelo needed Pope Julius II, even if they didn’t always get along.  We Americans, especially bikers, have a deep native anti-elitism.  We bristle at the merest whiff of snobbery.  This is a great thing about our culture.  We don’t tolerate phonies and do not equate class with cool.  We should encourage this egalitarianism in our children and ourselves.  At the same time, we should acknowledge that design innovation is risky and costly.  It requires some people of means to make big, irrational purchasing decisions.  It doesn’t matter if they’re doing it for status, self-gratification, or just a thrill.  What matters is that they are making new ideas possible.

Avant-garde design will not appeal to everyone.  When Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring debuted in 1913 in Paris, it caused a riot.  Bucky Fuller’s 1933 Dymaxion Car is still a little out-there for most people’s taste.  Terblanche referred to Confederate’s designs as “outlandish industrial sculpture.”  They are paragons of xenomorphic excess.  You would never hang them over your sofa.  It is obsessive, manic design for design’s sake.

These bikes are indeed about rebellion, but not the greasy angst of a 50s teen.  The rebel here is not the angry young man – he is riding an old CB750.  The rebel in this case is not the client at all.  It is the designers and makers themselves, who create something from the flesh of metal and carbon fiber, then allow the patrons to come to them.  In every sense, these are the opposite of the built-for-advertisers OCC choppers.

Let us not be too keen to dismiss these oddities as “mere” sculpture or playthings for an elite few.  If we care about design, we should delight in this design experimentation, even design rebellion.  I hold with Jefferson that “A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.”