Michael P. Ackley has worked more than three decades as a journalist, the majority of that time at the Sacramento Union. His experience includes reporting, editing and writing commentary. He retired from teaching journalism for California State University at Hayward.More ↓Less ↑
Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns may include satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell the difference.
Professor Howard Bashford called me last week, highly excited, and exclaimed without preface, “We’ve found it!”
“Professor, please!” I responded. “Calm yourself. Tell me what you have found.”
“Cooper’s lost manuscript!” he said, still gasping for breath. “Cooper’s lost, last story in the ‘Leatherstocking’ series!”
“You mean, James Fenimore Cooper?” I asked. “‘The Last of the Mohicans’? ‘The Deerslayer’? ‘The Pathfinder’?”
“Yes, yes!” said Bashford, calming a little, “and ‘The Pioneers’ and ‘The Prairie.’ We’ve found the long lost manuscript of the novel that was to have fallen between these last two – ‘The Organizer’! It’s the link between Natty Bumppo’s mature frontiersman in ‘The Pathfinder’ and his decline and death in ‘The Prairie.’
“It prefigures so much of what our nation faces today, the way some cities – even states – can take control of their finances, despite employee resistance. You must come and have a look.”
I trekked over to the Department of English at Headwaters State College in upstate New York, where Bashford holds the prestigious Ikea Chair in Early American Literature. There he sat, behind a desk the size of an aircraft carrier, but instead of its usual burden of books, monographs, thesis proposals and papers to be graded, it bore a single box, just the right size to hold a ream of writing paper.
His hands were in soft, white-cotton gloves, and he was raptly studying a single sheet.
“Look at this he said,” gesturing toward the box. “It’s the real thing, undeniably in Cooper’s own hand. We’ve analyzed the ink, the paper, even the container. They’re all from the mid-1820s. Put on those gloves and read this page.”
He indicated another pair of cotton gloves, which I pulled on and gently took the page he proffered. I read:
”You heard me alright,” said the hunter with the characteristic directness of his kind, grasping his long rifle with casual familiarity. “And I expect if you give my companion leave to speak his mind, as he is apt to do when he chooses to abandon the reticence typical of his tribe, which is seldom, and thus all the more worthy of attention, he will say the same. From the trees behind Bumppo emerged the savage, the lineaments of whose face, though unembellished by the war paint it so sadly and frequently bore, was nevertheless stern and forbidding. … “Listen, and your ear shall hear no lie,” said the savage. “That which we do for you we shall do no more, unless you agree.”
“That’s Cooper, all right,” I said. “What a terrific find! What’s the gist of the story?”
“Bumppo and ‘the savage’ form what amounts to a union,” said the scholar. “The book alternately refers to the ‘Congress of Indian Organizations’ (CIO) and the American Frontier Laborers (AFL). They try to gain more pay for meat hunting, scouting, guiding, et cetera. When the little town can’t pay, the people agree to do things themselves – share the burdens of feeding and protecting the community.”
“Like Vallejo, in California,” I said. “When it couldn’t pay for all of its city services, people pitched in to care for parks, formed neighborhood watches and the like.”
The professor smiled, “Or the State of Wisconsin. My theory is that Cooper decided to hold back ‘The Organizer’ because the idea of extorting a civil community was too radical for the times, and too cynical for a popular character like Natty. Here, look at Bumppo’s closing thoughts:” Again I read:
Hawkeye then addressed his savage comrade, “My forebears tell the tale of a goose that laid golden eggs, though let me say that you who treat that yellow metal as mere dross might better understand if I said wampum eggs, though that image is nonsensical (and here the savage expelled a sound that might have been assent) and to hurry his acquisition of riches he slew this fowl, which availed him nothing and left him without fortune. Do you see you what I mean in relating this?” And again the Indian made that sound, which the frontiersman understood as well as the disquisition of any white man, and the pair proceeded into the depths and dark of the wilderness.
“Wow!” was all I could say.
Bashford, carefully returned the sheets to their container, closing the lid and laying his gloved hands reverently upon it.
“The classics still have much to teach,” said the professor.