This essay probes the complex entanglements of vision and capture in James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie. It argues that the economic model and epistemic regime of “capture” that emerges at the turn of the nineteenth century hinges on a taxonomic power—broadly defined as a method (nomos) for ordering (taxis) the sensible—haunted by a constitutive blindness. Set in 1805, just two years after the Louisiana Purchase, Cooper's novel poses the question of territory at a time when it remained to be seen how the young nation would be changed by the acquisition of the vast expanse of land west of the Mississippi River. Fraught with the tensions of territorial expansion, the “empty empire” of the prairie is an exemplary site of land speculation at the heart of American frontierism. The Prairie wrestles with what it means to capture this new land by introducing a figure that will replace the frontiersman: the trapper, who appears as a harbinger of a more systematic approach to territory and its human and nonhuman occupants. I begin by examining how the novel dramatizes this shift from two distinct regimes of vision emblematized respectively by the aging hunter Natty Bumppo and his naturalist foil Dr. Obed Bat. I then outline the phenomenology of capture as a mode of vision, unfolding not only what capture makes visible but also what it obscures—and how animals appear and disappear in capture. Finally, I show how vision becomes supervision when the logic of capture extends from animals to the land itself.

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