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.

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