The Pathfinder is the next to last entry written by James Fenimore Cooper in his celebrated series of novels about Natty “Hawkeye” Bumppo. Written out of chronological order, The Pathfinder finds the dashing young hero of The Last of Mohicans seriously considering settling into domesticity with the latest young lady of fine bearing to attract his well-trained eye, Mabel Dunham. Published in 1840, the The Pathfinder is set in 1756, making the third entry in the series if read chronologically.
By 1756, Hawkeye has reached middle age, but remains as much the spirited outdoor adventurous frontiersman as ever. The adventure serving as the narrative for the purposes of plot is inextricably tied to the novel’s subtitle: The Inland Sea. That sea is actually Lake Ontario and at times it seems after Cooper brought Hawkeye back from the dead which ended the previous entry in the Leatherstocking Tales just so he could write a water adventure based on his own experiences as sailor serving the protection of that essential waterway.
The real focus of the novel is not the plot, however, which merely serves to provide an exciting background to the romance developing between his hero and heroine as well as provide a most convenient way to explain Mabel was never mentioned as Hawkeye’s wife (dead or living) in that that previous novel, The Prairie, published thirteen years earlier. The entire crux of the novel revolves not around the skirmishes and intrigue requiring yet another rescue of a young damsel in distress by the Hawkeye, but around the thematic manifestation of Natty Bumppo as the embodiment of the frontier spirit of American, carving civilization out of the wild and taming the hidden dangers there so polite could evolve. As such, the climax is not the rescue of Mabel, but the rejection of her by a man mature to realize she would only be a mistress keeping him from the real love of his wife: the unfettered freedom of the wild.
The Leatherstocking Tales would finally come to and just one year later with the publication of what many consider to be the most richly written book of the series if not quite as technically well executed as The Last of the Mohicans. While The Deerslayer may have been the last of the novels about Hawkeye, it brings the narrative full circle by telling the backstory of Natty Bumppo before he became the heroic seasoned pathfinder recognizing with a keen understanding his place in the universe.