All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
26 June, 2013
Outlines of English and American Literature|
James Fenimore Cooper
by Long, William J.
|In point of time Cooper is the first notable American novelist. Judging by
the booksellers, no other has yet approached him in the sustained interest
of his work or the number of his readers.
On first analysis we shall find little in Cooper to account for his abiding
popularity. The man himself was not exactly lovable; indeed, he had almost
a genius for stirring up antagonism. As a writer he began without study or
literary training, and was stilted or slovenly in most of his work. He was
prone to moralize in the midst of an exciting narrative; he filled
countless pages with "wooden" dialogue; he could not portray a child or a
woman or a gentleman, though he was confident that he had often done so to
perfection. He did not even know Indians or woodcraft, though Indians and
woodcraft account for a large part of our interest in his forest romances.
One may enjoy a good story, however, without knowing or caring for its
author's peculiarities, and the vast majority of readers are happily not
critical but receptive. Hence if we separate the man from the author, and
if we read The Red Rover or The Last of the Mohicans "just
for the story," we shall discover the source of Cooper's power as a writer.
First of all, he has a tale to tell, an epic tale of heroism and manly
virtue. Then he appeals strongly to the pioneer spirit, which survives in
all great nations, and he is a master at portraying wild nature as the
background of human life. The vigor of elemental manhood, the call of
adventure, the lure of primeval forests, the surge and mystery of the
sea,--these are written large in Cooper's best books. They make us forget
his faults of temper or of style, and they account in large measure for his
popularity with young readers of all nations; for he is one of the few
American writers who belong not to any country but to humanity. At present
he is read chiefly by boys; but half a century or more ago he had more
readers of all classes and climes than any other writer in the world.
The youthful experiences of Cooper furnished him with the
material for his best romances. He was born (1789) in New Jersey;
but while he was yet a child the family removed to central New
York, where his father had acquired an immense tract of wild land,
on which he founded the village that is still called Cooperstown.
There on the frontier of civilization, where stood the primeval
forest that had witnessed many a wild Indian raid, the novelist
passed his boyhood amid the picturesque scenes which he was to
immortalize in The Pioneers and The Deerslayer.
Cooper picked up a little "book learning" in a backwoods school and
a little more in a minister's study at Albany. At thirteen he
entered Yale; but he was a self-willed lad and was presently
dismissed from college. A little later, after receiving some scant
nautical training on a merchantman, he entered the navy as
midshipman; but after a brief experience in the service he married
and resigned his commission. That was in 1811, and the date is
significant. It was just before the second war with Great Britain.
The author who wrote so much and so vividly of battles, Indian
raids and naval engagements never was within sight of such affairs,
though the opportunity was present. In his romances we have the
product of a vigorous imagination rather than of observation or
His literary work seems now like the result of whim or accident.
One day he flung down a novel that he was reading, declaring to his
wife that he could write a better story himself. "Try it,"
challenged his wife. "I will," said Cooper; and the result was
Precaution, a romance of English society. He was then a
farmer in the Hudson valley, and his knowledge of foreign society
was picked up, one must think, from silly novels on the subject.
Strange to say, the story was so well received that the gratified
author wrote another. This was The Spy (1821), dealing with
a Revolutionary hero who had once followed his dangerous calling in
the very region in which Cooper was now living. The immense success
of this book fairly drove its author into a career. He moved to New
York City, and there quickly produced two more successful romances.
Thus in four years an unknown man without literary training had
become a famous writer, and had moreover produced four different
types of fiction: the novel of society in Precaution, the
historical romance in The Spy, and the adventurous romance
of forest and of ocean in The Pioneers and The Pilot.
Years of Strife
Cooper now went abroad, as most famous authors do. His books,
already translated into several European languages, had made him
known, and he was welcomed in literary circles; but almost
immediately he was drawn into squabbles, being naturally inclined
that way. He began to write political tirades; and even his
romances of the period (The Bravo, The Heidenmauer,
The Headsman) were devoted to proclaiming the glories of
democracy. Then he returned home and proceeded to set his
countrymen by the ears (in such books as Home as Found) by
writing too frankly of their crudity in contrast with the culture
of Europe. Then followed long years of controversy and lawsuits,
during which our newspapers used Cooper scandalously, and Cooper
prosecuted and fined the newspapers. It is a sorry spectacle, of no
interest except to those who would understand the bulk of Cooper's
neglected works. He was an honest man, vigorous, straightforward,
absolutely sincere; but he was prone to waste his strength and
embitter his temper by trying to force his opinion on those who
were well satisfied with their own. He had no humor, and had never
pondered the wisdom of "Who drives fat oxen should himself be fat."
The last years of his life were spent mostly at the old home at
Cooperstown, no longer a frontier settlement but a thriving
village, from which Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook had long since
departed. Before his death (1851) the fires of controversy had sunk
to ashes; but Cooper never got over his resentment at the public,
and with the idea of keeping forever aloof he commanded that none
of his private papers be given to biographers. It is for lack of
such personal letters and documents that no adequate life of Cooper
has yet been written.
There are over sixty volumes of Cooper, but to read them
all would savor of penance rather than of pleasure. Of his miscellaneous
writings only the History of the Navy and Lives of Distinguished
Naval Officers are worthy of remembrance. Of his thirty-two romances
the half, at least, may be ignored; though critics may differ as to whether
certain books (The Bravo and Lionel Lincoln, for example)
should be placed in one half or the other. There remain as the measure of
Cooper's genius some sixteen works of fiction, which fall naturally into
three groups: the historical novels, the tales of pioneer life, and the
romances of the sea.
The Spy was the first and probably the best of Cooper's historical
romances. Even his admirers must confess that it is crudely written, and
that our patriotic interest inclines us to overestimate a story which
throws the glamor of romance over the Revolution. Yet this faulty tale
attempts to do what very few histories have ever done fairly, namely, to
present both sides or parties of the fateful conflict; and its unusual
success in this difficult field may be explained by a bit of family
history. Cooper was by birth and training a stanch Whig, or Patriot; but
his wife, to whom he was devotedly attached, was the daughter of an
unbending Tory, or Loyalist; and his divided allegiance is plainly apparent
in his work. Ordinarily his personal antagonisms, his hatred of "Yankees,"
Puritans and all politicians of the other party, are dragged into his
stories and spoil some of them; but in The Spy he puts his
prejudices under restraint, tells his tale in an impersonal way, dealing
honestly with both Whigs and Tories, and so produces a work having the
double interest of a good adventure story and a fair picture of one of the
heroic ages of American history.
Aside from its peculiar American interest, The Spy has some original
and broadly human elements which have caused it, notwithstanding its
dreary, artificial style, to be highly appreciated in other countries, in
South American countries especially. The secret of its appeal lies largely
in this, that in Harvey Birch, a brave man who serves his country without
hope or possibility of reward, Cooper has strongly portrayed a type of the
highest, the most unselfish patriotism.
The other historical novels differ greatly in value. Prominent among them
are Mercedes of Castile, dealing with Columbus and the discovery of
America; Satanstoe and The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, depicting
Colonial life in New York and New England respectively; and Lionel
Lincoln, which is another story of the Revolution, more labored than
The Spy and of less sustained interest.
The Sea Stories
Cooper's first sea story, The Pilot (1823), was haphazard enough in
both motive and method, [Footnote: The Waverley novels by "the great
unknown" were appearing at this time. Scott was supposed to be the author
of them, but there was much debate on the subject. One day in New York a
member of Cooper's club argued that Scott could not possibly have written
The Pirate (which had just appeared), because the nautical skill
displayed in the book was such as only a sailor could possess. Cooper
maintained, on the contrary, that The Pirate was the work of a
landsman; and to prove it he declared that he would write a sea story as it
should be written; that is, with understanding as well as with imagination.
The Pilot was the result.] but it gave pleasure to a multitude of
readers, and it amazed critics by showing that the lonely sea could be a
place of romantic human interest. Cooper was thus the first modern novelist
of the ocean; and to his influence we are partly indebted for the stirring
tales of such writers as Herman Melville and Clark Russell. A part of the
action of The Pilot takes place on land (the style and the
characters of this part are wretchedly stilted), but the chief interest of
the story lies in the adventures of an American privateer commanded by a
disguised hero, who turns out to be John Paul Jones. Cooper could not
portray such a character, and his effort to make the dashing young captain
heroic by surrounding him with a fog of mystery is like his labored attempt
to portray the character of Washington in The Spy. On the other
hand, he was thoroughly at home on a ship or among common sailors; his sea
pictures of gallant craft driven before the gale are magnificent; and Long
Tom Coffin is perhaps the most realistic and interesting of all his
characters, not excepting even Leatherstocking.
Another and better romance of the sea is The Red Rover (1828). In
this story the action takes place almost wholly on the deep, and its vivid
word pictures of an ocean smiling under the sunrise or lashed to fury by
midnight gales are unrivaled in any literature. Other notable books of the
same group are The Water Witch, Afloat and Ashore and Wing
and Wing. Some readers will prize these for their stories; but to
others they may appear tame in comparison with the superb descriptive
passages of The Red Rover.
When Cooper published The Pioneers (1823) he probably had no
intention of writing a series of novels recounting the adventures of Natty
Bumppo, or Leatherstocking, and his Indian friend Chingachgook; otherwise
he would hardly have painted so shabby a picture of these two old heroes,
neglected and despised in a land through which they had once moved as
masters. Readers were quick to see, however, that these old men had an
adventurous past, and when they demanded the rest of the story Cooper wrote
four other romances, which are as so many acts in the stirring drama of
pioneer life. When these romances are read, therefore, they should be taken
in logical sequence, beginning with The Deerslayer, which portrays
the two heroes as young men on their first war trail, and following in
order with The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The
Pioneers and The Prairie. If one is to be omitted, let it be
The Pathfinder, which is comparatively weak and dull; and if only
one is to be read, The Last of the Mohicans is an excellent choice.
After nearly a century of novel writing, these five books remain our most
popular romances of pioneer days, and Leatherstocking is still a wingéd
name, a name to conjure with, in most civilized countries. Meanwhile a
thousand similar works have come and gone and been forgotten. To examine
these later books, which attempt to satisfy the juvenile love of Indian
stories, is to discover that they are modeled more or less closely on the
original work of the first American novelist.
Cooper's Scenes and Characters
Even in his outdoor romances Cooper was
forever attempting to depict human society, especially polite society; but
that was the one subject he did not and could not understand. The sea in
its grandeur and loneliness; the wild lakes, stretching away to misty,
unknown shores or nestling like jewels in their evergreen setting; the
forest with its dim trails, its subdued light, its rustlings, whisperings,
hints of mystery or peril,--these are his proper scenes, and in them he
moves as if at ease in his environment.
In his characters we soon discover the same contrast. If he paints a hero
of history, he must put him on stilts to increase his stature. If he
portrays a woman, he calls her a "female," makes her a model of decorum,
and bores us by her sentimental gabbing. If he describes a social
gathering, he instantly betrays his unfamiliarity with real society by
talking like a book of etiquette. But with rough men or manly men on land
or sea, with half-mutinous crews of privateers or disciplined man-of-war's
men, with woodsmen, trappers, Indians, adventurous characters of the border
or the frontier,--with all these Cooper is at home, and in writing of them
he rises almost to the height of genius.
The Return to Nature
If we seek the secret of this contrast, we shall find it partly in the
author himself, partly in a popular, half-baked philosophy of the period.
That philosophy was summed up in the words "the return to nature," and it
alleged that all human virtues flow from solitude and all vices from
civilization. Such a philosophy appealed strongly to Cooper, who was
continually at odds with his fellows, who had been expelled from Yale, who
had engaged in many a bitter controversy, who had suffered abuse from
newspapers, and who in every case was inclined to consider his opponents as
blockheads. No matter in what society he found himself, in imagination he
was always back in the free but lawless atmosphere of the frontier village
in which his youth was spent. Hence he was well fitted to take the point of
view of Natty Bumppo (in The Pioneers), who looked with hostile eyes
upon the greed and waste of civilization; hence he portrayed his uneducated
backwoods hero as a brave and chivalrous gentleman, without guile or fear
or selfishness, who owed everything to nature and nothing to society.
Europe at that time was ready to welcome such a type with enthusiasm. The
world will always make way for him, whether he appears as a hero of fiction
or as a man among men.
The faults of Cooper--his stilted style and
slipshod English, his tedious moralizing, his artificial dialogue, his
stuffed gentlemen and inane "females," his blunders in woodcraft--all these
are so easily discovered by a casual reader that the historian need not
linger over them. His virtues are more interesting, and the first of these
is that he has a story to tell. Ever since Anglo-Saxon days the
"tale-bringer" has been a welcome guest, and that Cooper is a good
tale-bringer is evident from his continued popularity at home and abroad.
He may not know much about the art of literature, or about psychology, or
about the rule that motives must be commensurate with actions; but he knows
a good story, and that, after all, is the main thing in a novel.
Again, there is a love of manly action in Cooper and a robustness of
imagination which compel attention. He is rather slow in starting his tale;
but he always sees a long trail ahead, and knows that every turn of the
trail will bring its surprise or adventure. It is only when we analyze and
compare his plots that we discover what a prodigal creative power he had.
He wrote, let us say, seven or eight good stories; but he spoiled ten times
that number by hasty or careless workmanship. In the neglected Wept of
Wish-Ton-Wish, for example, there is enough wasted material to furnish
a modern romancer or dramatist for half a lifetime.
Another fine quality of Cooper is his descriptive power, his astonishing
vigor in depicting forest, sea, prairie,--all the grandeur of wild nature
as a background of human heroism. His descriptions are seldom accurate, for
he was a careless observer and habitually made blunders; but he painted
nature as on a vast canvas whereon details might be ignored, and he
reproduced the total impression of nature in a way that few novelists have
ever rivaled. It is this sustained power of creating a vast natural stage
and peopling it with elemental men, the pioneers of a strong nation, that
largely accounts for Cooper's secure place among the world's fiction
Finally, the moral quality of Cooper, his belief in manhood and womanhood,
his cleanness of heart and of tongue, are all reflected in his heroes and
heroines. Very often he depicts rough men in savage or brutal situations;
but, unlike some modern realists, there is nothing brutal in his morals,
and it is precisely where we might expect savagery or meanness that his
simple heroes appear as chivalrous gentlemen "without fear and without
reproach." That he was here splendidly true to nature and humanity is
evident to one who has met his typical men (woodsmen, plainsmen, lumbermen,
lonely trappers or timber-cruisers) in their own environment and
experienced their rare courtesy and hospitality. In a word, Cooper knew
what virtue is, virtue of white man, virtue of Indian, and he makes us know
and respect it. Of a hundred strong scenes which he has vividly pictured
there is hardly one that does not leave a final impression as pure and
wholesome as the breath of the woods or the sea.