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Chapter 6: fiction I — Brown, Cooper.

Carl Van Doren, Ph.D., Head Master of The Brearley School, Associate in English in Columbia University.


The clear victory which the first great British novelists won over popular taste did not, for some years, make them masters of the colonial public. Pamela, indeed, was printed as early as 1744 in Philadelphia, by Benjamin Franklin, and in the same year in New York and in Boston. But the only other novels printed in America before the Declaration of Independence seem to have been Robinson Crusoe (1768), Rasselas (1768), The Vicar of Wakefield (1772), Juliet Grenville (1 774), and The works of Laurence Sterne M. A. (1774). Publishers, however, were less active than importers, for diaries and library catalogues show that British editions were on many shelves. The Southern and Middle colonies may have read more novels than did New England, yet Jonathan Edwards himself, whose savage quarrel with the Northampton congregation had arisen partly over the “licentious books” [possibly Pamela, among others] which some of the younger members “employed to promote lascivious and obscene discourse,” was later enchanted by Sir Charles Grandison.

Edwards did not relent in advance of the general public. After the Revolution the novel-reading habit grew, fostered by American publishers and cried out against by many moralists whose cries appeared in magazines side by side with moral tales. Nearly every grade of sophistication applied itself to the problem. It was contested that novels were lies; that they served no virtuous purpose; that they melted rigorous minds; that they crowded out better books; that they painted adventure too romantic and love too vehement, and so unfitted [285] readers for solid reality; that, dealing with European manners, they tended to confuse and dissatisfy republican youth. In the face of such censure, native novelists appeared late and apologetically, armed for the most part with the triple plea that the tale was true, the tendency heavenward, and the scene devoutly American. Before 1800 the sweeping philippic of the older school had been forced to share the field of criticism with occasional efforts to distinguish good novels from bad. No critical game was more frequently played than that which compared Fielding and Richardson. Fielding got some robust preference, Smollett had his imitators, and Sterne fathered much “sensibility,” but until Scott had definitely set a new mode for the world, the potent influence in American fiction was Richardson. The amiable ladies who produced most of these early novels commonly held, like Mrs. Rowson, that their knowledge of life had been “simply gleaned from pure nature,” 1 because they dealt with facts which had come under their own observation, but like other amateurs they saw in nature what art had assured them would be there. Nature and Richardson they found the same. Whatever bias they gave this Richardsonian universe was due to a pervading consciousness of the sex which read their novels. The result was a highly domestic world, limited in outlook, where the talk was of careless husbands, grief for dead children, the peril of many childbirths, the sentiment and the religion which enabled women to endure their sex's destiny. Over all hangs the furious menace of the seducer, who appears in such multitudes that one can defend the age only by blaming its brutality less than the pathetic example of Clarissa Harlowe.

Thus early did the American novel acquire the permanent background of neutral domestic fiction against which the notable figures stand out. A few of the early names have a shade of distinction. Mrs. Sarah Wentworth Morton (1759-1846), a “Lady of Boston,” produced the first regular novel, The power of sympathy (1789). Its two volumes of stilted letters caused a scandal and were promptly suppressed, but they called forth a much better novel, The Coquette (1797), by Mrs. Hannah Webster Foster (1759-1840). Based upon the tragic and widely known career of Elizabeth Whitman of Hartford, it saw [286] thirteen editions in forty years, but it was still less popular than Mrs. Susannah Haswell Rowson's Charlotte (1794), one of the most popular novels ever published in America. Mrs. Rowson (1762-1824), an American only by immigration, had indeed written the novel in England (1790?), but Charlotte Temple, to call it by its later title, was thoroughly naturalized. It has persuaded an increasingly naive underworld of fiction readers to buy more than a hundred editions and has built up a legend about the not too authentic tomb of Charlotte Stanley in Trinity Churchyard, New York.

A particular importance of The Coquette and Charlotte Temple was that they gave to fiction something of the saga element by stealing, in the company of facts, upon a community which winced at fiction. And this brief garment of illusion was not confined to New York and New England. In 1792-3-7 Pennsylvania saw the publication, in four volumes, of the first part of the remarkable Modern Chivalry. The author, Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748-1816), son of a poor Scotch immigrant, graduate of Princeton, tutor and licensed preacher, master of an academy in Maryland, editor of The United States magazine in Philadelphia (1776), chaplain in the Revolutionary army, author of patriotic tragedies and pamphlets, and lawyer and judge in Pittsburg after 1781, brought to his work a culture and experience which gave his satiric picture of American life many of the features of truth. Farrago, the hero, is a new Don Quixote, his servant Teague a witless and grotesque Sancho Panza, but the chief follies of the book are found not in them but in the public which they encounter and which would gladly make Teague hero and office-holder. No man was a more convinced democrat than Brackenridge, but he was also solid, well-read, and deeply bored by fools who canted about free men and wise majorities. Against such cant and the excesses of political ambition he directed his chief satire, but he let few current fads and affectations go unwhipped. His book had an abundant popularity, especially along the frontier which it satirized. The second part (1804-5), ostensibly the chronicle of a new Western settlement, is almost a comic history of civilization in America. It is so badly constructed, however, and so often goes over ground well trodden in the earlier part as to be generally inferior to it in interest. Here Brackenridge deposited [287] scraps of irony and censure which he had been producing since 1787, when he had set out to imitate Hudibras. His prose is better than his verse, plain and simple in style, by his own confession following that of Hume, Swift, and Fielding. Swift was his dearest master. Very curious, if hard to follow, are the successive revisions by which Brackenridge kept pace with new follies.

Smollett had something to do with another novel which, though less read than Modern Chivalry, deserves mention with it, The Algerine Captive (1797) of Royall Tyler, poet, wit, playwright, and jurist.2 The first volume has some entertaining though not subtle studies of American manners; the second, a tale of six years captivity in Algiers, belongs with the many books and pamphlets called forth by the war with Tripoli.3 Historically important is the preface, which declared that the American taste for novels had grown in the past seven years from apathy to a general demand.

Apparently the time was slowly ripening to the point at which taste begins to support those who gratify it, and it is notable that the first American to make authorship his sole career had already decided for fiction. Charles Brockden Brown came of good Quaker stock long settled in Pennsylvania, where, at Philadelphia, he was born 17 January, 1771. He was a frail, studious child, reputed a prodigy, and encouraged by his parents in that frantic feeding upon books which was expected, in those days, of every American boy of parts. By the time he was sixteen he had made himself a tolerable classical scholar, contemplated three epics — on Columbus, Pizarro, and Cortez-and hurt his health by over-work. As he grew older he read with a hectic, desultory sweep in every direction open to him. With his temper and education, he developed into a hot young philosopher in those days of revolution. He brooded over the maps of remote regions, glowed with eager schemes for perfecting mankind, and dabbled in subterranean lore as an escape from humane Philadelphia. He kept a journal and wrote letters heavy with self-consciousness. Put into a law office by his family, he found that his legal studies only confirmed him in his resolution to be a man of letters. His [288] parents and brothers, who supported him in his adventure, urged him from a path so unpromising, but Brown, though he felt the pressure of their distress, clung stoutly, if gloomily, to the pursuits of literature. He speculated, debated, and wrote for the newspapers. His first identified work, a series of papers called The Rhapsodist, which appeared in The Columbian magazine, August-November, 1789, glorified the proud and lonely soul.

Little is known of the next few years of his life. In 1793 he seems to have gone to New York to visit his friend Dr. Elihu Hubbard Smith, formerly a medical student in Philadelphia. Removed from the scenes of his old solitude, Brown became less solitary. Smith's friends, among them S. L. Mitchill, James Kent, and William Dunlap, Brown's future biographer, who belonged to a club called the Friendly Society, forced the young misanthrope to cast part of his coat. In 1795, after another visit to New York, he began an unidentified work, apparently speculative but not a romance, to “equal in extent Caleb Williams,” a book in which Brown saw “transcendant merits.” In spite of the first ardour which had made him sure he could finish his task in six weeks, he lost faith in its moral utility and never got beyond fifty pages, but he had gradually given up Dr. Johnson for Godwin as his model. July, 1796, saw him cease to be even a sleeping partner in his brother's counting house. Thenceforth he was nothing but an author.

The spirit of Godwin stirred eagerly in Brown during the early days of his freedom. Toward the end of 1797 he bore witness by writing Alcuin, a dialogue on the rights of women which took its first principles from Mary Wollstonecraft and Godwin. On the last day of December he says he finished a romance which appears to have been Sky-Walk, the manuscript of which was lost before it could be published. Early in 1798 he became a contributor to the new Philadelphia Weekly magazine, which contains, among the fragments which always mark Brown's trail, the first two parts of Alcuin, called The rights of women, and nine chapters of Arthur Mervyn.4 He announced Sky-Walk 17 March, 1798, in a letter to the Weekly magazine signed “Speratus.” In this earliest public statement of his ideals of fiction Brown spoke of the need of [289] native romances and ascribed the “value of such works” to “their moral tendency.” Only by displaying characters “of soaring passions and intellectual energy,” he believed, could a novelist hope “to enchain the attention and ravish the souls of those who study and reflect.” But Brown was too good a democrat to write for geniuses alone. “A contexture of facts capable of suspending the faculties of every soul in curiosity, may be joined with depth of views into human nature and all the subtleties of reasoning.”

With these opinions, and his apprenticeship already served, Brown took up his residence in New York during the summer of 1798. In two ardent years, which were more social than any that had gone before, Brown did all his best work. The single month of August served to produce Wieland, which made a stir and is still commonly held his masterpiece. The source of its plot has been shown5 to be, in part, the actual murder of his whole family by a religious fanatic, “Mr. J — Y--,” of Tomhannock, New York, in December, 1781. To this Brown added the mysteries of spontaneous combustion and ventriloquism to make up the “contexture of facts capable of suspending the faculties of every soul in curiosity.” These were for the vulgar. The apparent scene of action is laid upon the banks of the Schuylkill; this was patriotism. But the real setting is somewhere in the feverish climate of romantic speculation, and the central interest lies in the strange, unreal creatures “of soaring passions and intellectual energy,” Wieland, crushingly impelled to crime by a mysterious voice which, however, but germinates seeds of frenzy already sleeping in his nature, and Carwin, the “biloquist,” a villain who sins, not as the old morality had it, because of wickedness, but because of the driving power of the spirit of evil which no man can resist and from which only the weak are immune. These were cases of speculative pathology which Brown had met in his morbid twilights, beings who had for him the reality he knew best, that of dream and passion. It is the fever in the climate which lends the book, in spite of awkward narrative, strained probabilities, and a premature solution, its shuddering power. Here at least Brown was absorbed in his subject; here at least he gave a profound unity of effect never equalled in his later works. [290]

Close upon this August followed the plague in New York. Brown was then living with Dr. Smith in Pine Street, and Smith, firm in the opinion that yellow fever could not be contagious, insisted upon taking into the house a stricken young Italian. Of the three only Brown escaped death. He thus came hand-to-hand with a hard reality, and, like other men of many dreams and few experiences, was deeply impressed by it. The effect upon his work, however, of this month of pestilence may be easily overstated. Five years before, Brown's family had left Philadelphia for a time to escape the great plague of 1793, and Brown had put memories of that visitation into The man at home, in The weekly magazine, and the earliest chapters of Arthur Mervyn, both written before his removal to New York. Curiously enough, the Dr. Stevens of the novel, by his hospitality to Mervyn, behaves much as did the Dr. Smith of reality, but invention was before fact. And when, in December, 1798, Brown wrote Ormond (1799), he not only laid his scene in Philadelphia in 1793, but he borrowed a whole chapter from The man at home. What the plague had been to Brown in 1793 it remained: a chapter in the annals of his native city, mysterious, the stuff of passion, and therefore fully congenial to his temper and ideals of art. He used it with sombre and memorable detail, as a background for mental or social ills.

It is characteristic of Brown that, while two of his notable romances recall his most vivid personal experience, all four of them wear the colours of Caleb Williams. From Godwin, Brown had his favourite subject, virtue in distress, and his favourite set of characters, a patron and a client. Perhaps he comes nearest to his master in Ormond. Constantia Dudley won the passionate regard of Shelley, to whom she was the type of virtuous humanity oppressed by evil customs. She is Brown's picture of feminine perfection, learned, self-reliant, pure, priggish. Ormond is quite clearly the child of romance and revolution, a hero who is a villain, a creature of nature who is the master of many destinies, a free will which must act as the agent of inevitable malice. All this seems pure Godwin, but it has a certain spirit of youth and ardour which Godwin lacked. In Arthur Mervyn the hero has to undergo less than the cumulative agony of Caleb Williams. for the simple reason that [291] Brown worked too violently to be able to organize a scheme of circumstances all bearing upon a single victim. At least in the second part of the book, the plot frays helplessly into flying ends which no memory can hold together, and the characters and “moral tendency” of a story rich in incident suffer a sad confusion. Brown was no match for Godwin in the art of calm and deliberate narrative, partly because of his vehement methods of work, partly because he lacked Godwin's finished and consistent philosophy of life. The leaven of rationalism stirs in his work, but it does not, as with Godwin, pervade the mass.

Passion, not hard conviction, gives Brown his positive qualities. He had a power in keeping up suspense which no clumsiness could destroy. In presenting the physical emotions of danger and terror he had a kind of ghoulish force. Without the deftness to get full value from his material, he had still a sharp eye for what was picturesque or dramatic. In Edgar Huntly, for which Brown was considerably indebted to the memory of Sky-Walk, he made notable use of that pioneer life which was to bulk so large in American fiction for half a century. His preface repeats his earlier plea, as “Speratus,” for native matter in native fiction. From that ideal he never swerved. The plague, Wieland's frenzy, Queen Mab in Edgar Huntly,these he had studied from the facts as he knew them. That his books are not more realistic proves merely that he was a romancer interested primarily in ideas and abstruse mental states which he saw with his eyes closed. “Sir,” he told prying John Davis, “good pens, thick paper, and ink well diluted, would facilitate my composition more than the prospect of the broadest expanse of clouds, water, or mountains rising above the clouds.” But when Brown opened his eyes he always saw Pennsylvania. His strangest supernaturalisms, too, turn out in the end to have rested on acts of nature which science can explain. It was his characters he romanticized. He saw in man a dignity which only the days of hopeful revolution can bestow, and he was thus urged to study souls with a passion which took him past the outward facts of humanity to a certain essential truth which gives him, among his contemporaries, his special virtue.

In April, 1799, Brown began to edit The Monthly magazine [292] in New York and so entered the decade of journalism which closed his life. He wrote, indeed, besides fragments of fiction, two other novels, Clara Howard (1801) and Jane Talbot (1801), but they lack his old vigour. In Jane Talbot he seemed to renounce Godwin; gradually he became subdued to humanity and lost his concern with romance. He returned to Philadelphia in 1800, where, two years later, he founded The literary magazine. The stolid orthodoxy of his prospectus makes it clear that he was no longer a philosopher of the old stamp, although he did write two acts of a tragedy for John Bernard, and, told the play would not act, burned the work and kept its ashes in a snuff-box. In November, 1804, he married Miss Elizabeth Linn of New York, and was thereafter an exemplary husband, father, and drudge, who produced pamphlets, large parts of his magazine, and practically the whole of the useful American Register (1807-11). The fame of his novels, of which he claimed to think little, became a legend, but new editions were not called for. In 1809 he was elected to honorary membership in the New York Historical Society, with such notables as Lindley Murray, Noah Webster, Benjamin Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, Josiah Quincy, and George Clinton. He died of consumption 19 February, 1810. In England he was well known for at least a generation. Blackwood's praised him with the fiery pen of John Neal; Scott borrowed from him the names of two characters in Guy Mannering; Godwin himself owed to Wieland a hint for Mandeville. In his native country Brown has stood, with occasional flickerings of interest, firmly fixed as a literary ancestor.

There is little to note in American fiction between the close of Brown's career and the beginning of Cooper's. An absurd romance, The Asylum (1811), probably by Isaac Mitchell, was popular. Tabitha Tenny (1762-1837) produced a funny if robustious anti-romance, Female Quixotism (1808?); Samuel Woodworth6 mingled conventional history with conventional romance in The Champions of freedom (1816), which celebrated the second war with England. By this time the humane and thrilling art of Scott had already begun to be effective in America, as in Europe. At the first, however, Scott's peculiar qualities seemed to defy rivalry. [293]

“Of native novels,” said John Bristed in 1818, “we have no great stock, and none good; our democratic institutions placing all the people on a dead level of political equality; and the pretty equal diffusion of property throughout the country affords but little room for varieties, and contrasts of character; nor is there much scope for fiction, as the country is quite new, and all that has happened from the first settlement to the present hour, respecting it, is known to every one. There is, to be sure, some traditionary romance about the Indians; but a novel describing these miserable barbarians, their squaws, and papooses, would not be very interesting to the present race of American readers.”

The resources of the United States, 1818, pp. 355-6.

America, that is, without aristocracy, antiquity, and a romantic border, could not have a Scott. Seldom has time contradicted a prophet so fully and so soon as when Cooper, within three years, began to show that democracy has its contrasts, that two hundred years can be called a kind of antiquity, and that the border warfare between pioneer and Indian is one of the great chapters in the world's romance.

The task weighed less upon Cooper than it might had he been from boyhood at all bookish or, when he began his career, either scholar or conscious man of letters. But, unlike Brown, he had been trained in the world. Born at Burlington, New Jersey, 15 September, 1789, the son of Judge William Cooper and Susan Fenimore, James Cooper7 was taken in November, 1790, to Cooperstown, the raw central village of a pioneer settlement recently established by his father on Otsego Lake, New York. Here the boy saw at first hand the varied life of the border, observed its shifts and contrivances, listened to tales of its adventures, and learned to feel the mystery of the dark forest which lay beyond the cleared circle of his own life. Judge Cooper, however, was less a typical backwoodsman than a kind of warden of the New York marches, like Judge Templeton in The pioneers, and he did not keep his son in the woods but sent him, first to the rector of St. Peter's in Albany, who grounded him in Latin and hatred of Puritans, and then to Yale, where he wore his college duties so lightly as to be dismissed [294] in his third year. Thinking the navy might furnish better discipline than Yale, Judge Cooper shipped his son before the mast on a merchant vessel to learn the art of seamanship which there was then no naval academy to teach. His first ship, the Sterling, sailed from New York in October, 1806, for Falmouth and London, thence to Cartagena, back to London, and once more to America in September of the following year. They were chased by pirates and stopped by searching parties, incidents Cooper never forgot. In January, 1808, he was commissioned midshipman. He served for a time on the Vesuvius, and later in the same year was sent with a party to Lake Ontario to build the brig Oneida for service against the British on inland waters. He visited Niagara, commanded for a time on Lake Champlain, and in November, 1809, was ordered to the Wasp. In the natural course of events he would have fought in the War of 1812, but, having been married in January, 1811, to Miss Susan Augusta DeLancey, he resigned his commission the following May and gave up all hope of a naval career.

Thus at twenty-two he exchanged a stirring youth for the quiet, if happy, life of a country proprietor. He spent the next eleven years, except for a stay at Cooperstown (1814-17), in his wife's native county of Westchester, New York. There, in a manner quite casual, he began his real work. His wife challenged him to make good his boast that he could write a better story than an English novel he was reading to her. He attempted it and wrote Precaution (1820), which, as might have been expected from a man who, in spite of a juvenile romance and a few doggerel verses, was little trained in authorship, is a highly conventional novel. Its scene is laid in England, and no quality is more notable than stiff elegance and painful piety. Cooper was dissatisfied with his book. “Ashamed to have fallen into the track of imitation, I endeavoured to repay the wrong done to my own views, by producing a work that should be purely American, and of which love of country should be the theme.” 8 He chose for his hero a spy who had served John Jay during the Revolution, according to Jay's own account, with singular purity of motive. The work was carelessly done and published at the author's risk, and yet [295] with the appearance of The spy (22 December, 1821), American fiction may be said to have come of age.

This stirring tale has been, for many readers, an important factor in the tradition which national piety and the old swelling rhetoric have built up around the Revolution. The share of historical fact in it, indeed, is not large, but the action takes place so near to great events that the characters are all invested with something of the dusky light of heroes, while the figure of Washington moves among them like an unsuspected god. Such a quality in the novel might have gone with impossible partiality for the Americans had not Cooper's wife belonged to a family which had been loyal during the struggle for independence. As it was, he made his loyalists not necessarily knaves and fools, and so secured a fairness of tone which, aside from all questions of justice, has a large effect upon the art of the narrative. It is clear the British are enemies worth fighting. Perhaps by chance, Cooper here hit upon a type of plot at which he excelled, a struggle between contending forces, not badly matched, arranged as a pursuit in which the pursued are, as a rule, favoured by author and reader. In the management of such a device Cooper's invention, which was great, worked easily, and the flights of Birch from friend and foe alike exhibit a power to carry on plots with sustained sweep which belongs only to the masters of narration. To rapid movement Cooper added the virtues of a very real setting. He knew Westchester and its sparse legends as Scott knew the Border; his topography was drawn with a firm hand. In his characters he was not uniformly successful. Accepting for women the romantic ideals of the day and writing of events in which, of necessity, ladies could play but a small part, Cooper tended to cast his heroines, as even that day remarked, into a conventional mould of helplessness and decorum. With the less sheltered classes of women he was much more truthful. Of his men, too, the gentlemen are likely to be mere heroes, though Lawton is an interesting dragoon, while those of a lower order have more marked characteristics. Essentially memorable and arresting is Harvey Birch, peddler and patriot, outwardly no hero at all and yet surpassingly heroic of soul. The skill with which Birch is presented, gaunt, weather-beaten, canny, mysterious — a skill which Brown lacked — should not make one overlook the halfsupernatural [296] spirit of patriotism which, like the daemonic impulses in Brown's characters, drives Birch to his destiny at once wrecking and honouring him. This romantic fate also condemns him to be sad and lonely, a dedicated soul who captures attention by his secrecy and holds it throughout his career by his adventures. No character in American historical fiction has been able to obscure this first great character, whose fame has outlasted every fashion for almost a century.

With The spy Cooper proved his power to invent situations, conduct a plot, vivify history and landscape, and create a certain type of heroic character. His public success was instant. The novel reached a third edition the following March; it was approved on the stage; European readers accepted it with enthusiasm. Pleased, though perhaps surprised, at this reception of his work, Cooper threw himself into the new career thus offered him with characteristic energy. He removed to New York and hurried forward the composition of The pioneers, which appeared in February, 1823, with Cooper's first bumptious preface. Technically this book made no advance upon The spy. Cooper had but one method, improvisation, and the absence of any very definite pursuit deprives The pioneers, though it has exciting moments, of general suspense. But it is important as his first trial at the realistic presentation of manners in America. Dealing as he did with the Otsego settlement where-his boyhood had been spent, and with a time (1793) within his memory, he could write largely from the fact. Whatever romance there is in the story lies less in its plot, which is relatively simple, or in its characters, which are, for the most part, studied under a dry light with a good deal of caustic judgment, than in the essential wonder of a pioneer life. The novel is not as heroic as The spy had been. Indian John, the last of his proud race, is old and broken, corrupted by the settlements; only his death dignifies him. Natty Bumppo, a composite from many Cooperstown memories, is nobler because he has not yielded but carries his virtues, which even in Cooper's boyhood were becoming archaic along the frontier, into the deeper forest. Natty stands as a protest, on behalf of simplicity and perfect freedom, against encroaching law and order. In The pioneers, however, he is not yet of the proportions which he later assumed, and only at the end, when he withdraws [297] from the field of his defeat by civilization, does he make his full appeal. Cooper may have felt that there were still possibilities in the character, but for the present he did not try to realize them. Instead, he undertook to surpass Scott's Pirate in seamanship and produced The pilot, issued in January, 1824.9 With this third success he practically ended his experimental stage. Like The spy, his new tale made use of a Revolutionary setting; like The pioneers, it was full of realistic detail based on Cooper's own experience. The result was that he not only outdid Scott in sheer narrative, but he created a new literary type, the tale of adventure on the sea, in which, though he was to have many followers in almost every modern language, he remains unsurpassed for vigour and variety. Smollett had already discovered the racy humours of seamen, but it remained for Cooper to capture for fiction the mystery and beauty, the shock and thrill of the sea. Experts say that his technical knowledge was sound; what is more important, he wrote, in The pilot, a story about sailing vessels which convinces landsmen even in days of steam. The conventional element in the novel is its hero, John Paul Jones, secret, Byronic, always brooding upon a dark past and a darker fate. Thoroughly original is that worthy successor of Birch and Natty Bumppo, Long Tom Coffin, who lives and dies by the sea which has made him, as love of country made the spy and the forest made the old hunter.

Cooper had now become a national figure, although critical judgment in New England condescended to him. He founded the Bread and Cheese Club in New York, a literary society of which he was the moving spirit; he took a prominent part in the reception of Lafayette in 1824; in the same year Columbia College gave him the honorary degree of Master of Arts. He planned a series of Legends of the thirteen Republics, aimed to celebrate each of the original states, which he gave up after the first, Lionel Lincoln (1825), for all his careful research failed to please as his earlier novels had done. During the next two years Cooper reached probably the highest point of his career in The last of the Mohicans (February, 1826) and The prairie (May, 1827). His own interest and the persuasion of his friends led him to continue the adventures of Natty Bumppo, and [298] very naturally he undertook to show both the days of Natty's prime and his final fortunes. In each case Cooper projects the old hunter out of the world of remembered Otsego, into the dark forest which was giving up its secrets in 1793, or into the mighty prairies which Cooper had not seen but which stretched, in his mind's eye, for endless miles beyond the forest, another mystery and another refuge. Natty, called Hawkeye in The last of the Mohicans, no longer has the hardness which marred his age in The pioneers. With all his virtues of hand and head he combines a nobility of spirit which the woods have fostered in a mind never spoiled by men. He grows nobler as he grows more remote, more the poet and hero as the world in which he moves becomes more wholly his own. Chingachgook has undergone even a greater change, has got back all the cunning and pride which had been deadened in Indian John. But Hawkeye and Chingachgook are both limited by their former appearance; one must still be the canny reasoner, the other a little saddened with passing years. The purest romance of the tale lies in Uncas, the forest's youngest son, gallant, swift, courteous, a lover for whom there is no hope, the last of the Mohicans. That Uncas was idealized Cooper was ready to admit; Homer, he suggested, had his heroes. And it is clear that upon Uncas were bestowed some of the virtues which the philosophers of the age had taught the world to find in a state of nature. Still, after a century, many smile upon the state of nature who are yet able to find in Uncas the perennial appeal of youth cut off in the flower. The action and setting of the novel are on the same high plane as the characters. The forest, in which all the events take place, surrounds them with a changeless majesty that sharpens, by contrast, the restless sense of danger. Pursuit makes almost the whole plot. The pursued party moving from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry has two girls to handicap its flight and to increase the tragedy of capture. Later the girls have been captured, and sympathy passes, a thing unusual in Cooper, to the pursuing rescuers. In these tasks Hawkeye and the Mohicans are opposed by the fierce capacity of Magua, who plays villain to Uncas's hero, in moral qualities Uncas's opposite. There is never any relaxation of suspense, and the scene in which Uncas reveals himself to the Delawares is one of the most thrilling moments in fiction. [299]

The prairie has less swiftness than The last of the Mohicans but more poetry. In it Natty appears again, twenty years older than in The pioneers, far away on the plains beyond the Mississippi. He owns his defeat and he still grieves over the murdered forest, but he has given up anger for the peace of old age. To him it seems that all his virtues are gone. Once valiant he must now be crafty; his arms are feeble; his eyes have so far failed him that, no longer the perfect marksman, he has sunk to the calling of a trapper. There is a pathos in his resignation which would be too painful were it not merely a phase of his grave and noble wisdom. He is more than ever what Cooper called him, “a philosopher of the wilderness.” The only change is that he has left the perils and delights of the forest and has been subdued to the eloquent monotony of the plains. Nowhere else has Cooper shown such sheer imaginative power as in his handling of this mighty landscape. He had never seen a prairie; indeed, it is clear that he thought of a prairie as an ocean of land and described it partly by analogy. But he managed to endow the huge empty distances he had not seen with a presence as haunting as that of the populous forest he had known in his impressionable youth. And the old trapper, though he thinks of himself as an exile, has learned the secrets of the new nature and belongs to it. It is his knowledge that makes him essential to the action, which is again made up of flight and pursuit. Once more there are girls to be rescued, from white men as well as from Indians. There is another Magua in Mahtoree, another Uncas in the virtuous Hard-Heart. The Indians ride horses and are thus more difficult to escape than the Hurons had been. The flat prairies give fewer places of concealment. But the trapper is as ready as ever with new arts, and the flight ends as romance prescribes. The final scene, the death of the trapper in the arms of his young friends, is very touching and fine, yet reticently handled. For the most part, the minor characters, the lovers and the pedant, are not new to Cooper and are not notable. The family of Ishmael Bush, the squatter, however, make up a new element. They have been forced out of civilization by its virtues, as the trapper by its vices. They have strength without nobility and activity without wisdom. Except when roused, they are as sluggish as a prairie river, and like it they appear muddy and aimless. [300] Ishmael Bush always conveys the impression of terrific forces lying vaguely in ambush. His wife is nearly the most memorable figure among Cooper's women. She clings to her mate and cubs with a tigerish instinct that leaves her, when she has lost son and brother and retreats in a vast silent grief, still lingering in the mind, an inarticulate prairie Hecuba.

Possibly the novel owes some of its depth of atmosphere to the fact that it was finished in France and that Cooper was thus looking back upon his subject through a mist of regret. He had sailed for Europe with his family in June, 1826, to begin a foreign residence of more than seven years which had a large effect upon his later life and work. He found his books well known and society at large disposed to make much of him. In Paris he fraternized with Scott, who enjoyed and praised his American rival. Parts of his stay were in England, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, which delighted and astonished him, and Italy, which he loved. Most of his time, however, he passed at Paris, charmed with a gayer and more brilliant society than he could have known before. He did not cease to write. In January, 1828, he repeated the success of The pilot with another sea tale, The red Rover, which has always held a place among the most favoured of his books. The excitement is less sustained than in The pilot, but portions of the narrative, notably those dealing with storms, are tremendous. The ocean here plays as great a part as Cooper had lately assigned to the prairie. One voices the calm of nature, one its tumult; both tend to the discipline of man. In 1829 he fared better than with Lionel Lincoln in another historical tale of New England, The Wept of wish-ton-wish, an episode of King Philip's War. It is a powerful novel, irregular and ungenial, not only because the Puritans represented were themselves unlovely, but because Cooper had an evident dislike for them which coloured all their qualities. This was followed in the next year by The water-witch, which Cooper thought his most imaginative book. It has a spirited naval battle, but it flatly failed to localize a supernatural legend in New York harbour.

Novels were not Cooper's whole concern during his years in Europe. Unabashedly, outspokenly American, he had secured from Henry Clay the post of consul at Lyons, that he might not seem, during his travels, a man without a country. [301] As consul, though his position was purely nominal, he felt called upon to resent the ignorance everywhere shown by Europeans regarding his native land, and he set out upon the task of educating them to better views. Cooper was not Franklin. His Notions of the Americans (1828), while full of information and a rich mine of American opinion for that day, was too obviously partisan to convince those at whom it was aimed. Its proper audience was homesick Americans. He indulged, too, in some controversy at Paris over the relative cost of French and American government which pleased neither nation. Finally, he applied his art to the problem and wrote three novels “in which American opinion should be brought to bear on European facts.” 10 That is, in The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmauer (1832), and The Headsman (1833) he meant to show by proper instances the superiority of democracy to aristocracy as regards general happiness and justice. He claimed to be writing for his countrymen alone, some of whom must have been thrilled to come across a passage like “a fairer morning never dawned upon the Alleghanies than that which illumined the Alps,” but he was not sufficiently master of his material, however stout and just his opinions, to make even The Bravo, the best of the three, as good as his pioneer romances.

Before he returned to New York in November, 1833, he was warned by his friend S. F. B. Morse that he would be disappointed. Cooper found himself, in fact, fatally cosmopolitan in the republic he had been justifying for seven years. Always critical, he sought to qualify too sweeping praise of America precisely as he had qualified too sweeping censure in Europe. But he had not learned tact while becoming a citizen of the world, and he soon angered the public he had meant to set right. The result was the long and dreary wrangling which clouded the whole remainder of his life and has obscured his fame almost to the present day. If he had attended the dinner planned in his honour on his return, he might have found his welcome warmer than he thought it. If he had been an observer keen enough, he would have seen that the new phases of democracy which he disliked were in part a gift to the old seaboard of that very frontier of which he had been painter and annalist. But he did not see these things, and so he carried on [302] a steady fight, almost always as right in his contentions as he was wrong-headed in his manner. From Cooperstown, generally his residence, except for a few winters in New York, to the end of his life, he lectured and scolded. His Letter to his countrymen (1834), stating his position, and The Monikins (1835), an unbelievably dull satire, were the first fruits of his quarrel. He followed these with five books dealing with his European travels and constantly irritating to the people of both continents. He indulged in a heated altercation with his fellow townsmen over some land which they thought theirs, although it was certainly his. In 1838 he published a fictitious record, Homeward bound and its sequel Home as found, of the disappointment of some Americans who return from Europe and find America what Cooper had recently found it. He proclaimed his political principles in The American democrat (1838). Most important of all, he declared war upon the newspapers of New York and went up and down the state suing those that had libelled him. He won most of the suits, but though he silenced his opponents he had put his fame into the hands of persons who, unable to abuse, could at least neglect him.

His solid History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839) turned his attention once more to naval affairs, with which he busied himself during much of his remaining career. He wrote Lives of distinguished American naval officers (1842-5), and Ned Myers (1843), the life of a common sailor who had been with him on the Sterling. The History led to a furious legal battle, but generally Cooper left his quarrels behind him when he went upon the sea. As a cosmopolitan, he seemed to feel freer out of sight of land, on the public highway of the nations. His novels of this period, however, are uneven in merit. The two Admirals (1842) contains one of his best naval battles; Wing-and-Wing (1842) ranks high among his sea tales, richly romantic and glowing with the splendours of the Mediterranean. Mercedes of Castile (1840) has little interest beside that essential to the first voyage of Columbus. The two parts of Afloat and ashore (1844), dealing powerfully as they do with the evils of impressment, are notable chiefly for sea fights and chases. Jack Tier (1846-8) is a lurid piratical tale of the Mexican War; The Crater (1847) does poorly what Robinson Crusoe does supremely; The sea Lions (1849) has the distinction [303] of marking the highest point in that religious bigotry which pervades Cooper's later novels as thoroughly as the carping spirit which kept him always alert for a chance to take some fling at his countrymen.

The real triumph of his later years was that he wrote, in the very midst of his hottest litigation, The Pathfinder (March, 1840) and The Deerslayer (August, 1841). One realizes, in reading them, that the forest more than the ocean was for Cooper a romantic sanctuary, as it was for Pathfinder the true temple, full of the “holy calm of nature,” the teacher of beauty, virtue, laws. Returning to these solemn woods, Cooper was subdued once more to the spirit which had attended his first great days. The fighting years through which he had passed had left him both more mellow and more critical than at first. During the same time he had gone far enough from the original character of Leather-Stocking to become aware of traits which should be brought out or explained. It was too late to make his hero entirely consistent for the series, but Cooper apparently saw the chance to fill out the general outline, and he did it with such skill that those who read the five novels in the order of events will notice relatively few discrepancies, since The Deerslayer prepares for nearly all that follows. In The Pathfinder, undertaken to show Natty in love and to combine the forest and a ship in the same tale, Cooper was at some pains to point out how Pathfinder's candour, self-reliance, justice, and fidelity had been developed by the life he had led in the forest. Leather-Stocking, indeed, does not seem more conscious of these special gifts, but Cooper does. Still there is abundant action, another flight through the woods, a storm on Lake Ontario, a siege at a blockhouse. Chingachgook, unchanged, is with Pathfinder, who varies from his earlier character in little but his love for a young girl whom he finally surrenders to a more suitable lover. His love affair threatens for a moment to domesticate Natty, but the sacrifice restores him to his old solitude.

In the final book of the series, The Deerslayer, Cooper performed with full success the hard task of representing the scout in the fresh morning of his youth. Love appears too in this story, but Deerslayer, unable to love a girl who has been corrupted by the settlements, turns to the forest with his best devotion. The book is the tale of his coming of age. [304] Already a hunter, he kills his first man and thus enters the long career which lies before him. That career, however, had already been traced by Cooper, and the distress with which Deerslayer realizes that he has human blood on his hands becomes immeasurably eloquent. It gives the figure of the man almost a new dimension; one remembers the many deaths Natty has yet to deal. In other matters he is near his later self, for he starts life with a steady philosophy which, through all the many experiences of The Deerslayer, keeps him to the end as simple and honourable as at the outset.

The novel is thus an epitome of the whole career of the most memorable character American fiction has given to the world. Leather-Stocking is very fully drawn; Cooper's failure to write a sixth novel, as he at one time planned, which should show Natty in the Revolution, may be taken as a sign that he felt, however unconsciously, that the picture was finished. It is hard, indeed, to see how he could have added to the scout without taking something from the spy. More important still, the virtue of patriotism, if carried to the pitch that must have been demanded for that hero in that day, would surely have been a little alien to the cool philosopher of the woods. Justice, not partisanship, is Leather-Stocking's essential trait. In him Cooper exhibited, even better than he knew, his special idea that human character can be brought to a noble proportion and perfection in the school of pure nature. Now this idea, generally current in Cooper's youth, had an effect upon the Leather-Stocking tales of the greatest moment. Because their hero, as the natural man, had too simple a soul to call for minute analysis, it was necessary for Cooper to show him moving through a long succession of events aimed to test the firmness of his virtues. There was thus produced the panorama of the American frontier which, because of Cooper's incomparable fusion of strangeness and reality, at once became and has remained the classic record of an heroic age.

He wrote more border tales before his death. Wyandotte (1843) deals largely with the siege of a blockhouse near the upper Susquehanna, and The Oak-Openings (1848), the fruit of a journey which he made to the West in 1847, is a tale of bee hunting and Indian fighting on the shores of Lake Michigan. Full of border material, too, is the trilogy of Littlepage manuscripts, [305] Satanstoe (1845), The Chainbearer (1846), and The Redskins (1846). Having tried the autobiographical method with Miles Wallingford in Afloat and ashore, Cooper now repeated it through three generations of a New York family. In the last he involved himself unduly in the question of antirentism and produced a book both fantastic and dull; the second is better by one of Cooper's most powerful figures, the squatter Thousandacres, another Titan of the brood of Ishmael Bush; the first, if a little beneath Cooper's best work, is so only because he was somewhat rarely at his best. No other novel, by Cooper or any other, gives so firm and convincing a picture of colonial New York. Even Cooper has no more exciting struggle than that of Corny Littlepage with the icy Hudson. But the special virtue of Satanstoe is a quality Cooper nowhere else displays, a positive winsomeness in the way Littlepage unfolds his memories (now sweetened by many years) and his humorous crotchets in the same words. There are pages which read almost like those of some vigorous Galt or Goldsmith. Unfortunately, Cooper did not carry this vein further. His comedy Upside down, produced at Burton's Theatre, New York, 18 June, 1850, was a failure, and his last novel, The ways of the hour (1851), lacks every charm of manner. With his family and a few friends he lived his latter days in honour and affection, but he held the public at a sour distance and before his death, 14 September, 1851, set his face against a reconciliation even in the future by forbidding any biography to be authorized. The published facts of his life still leave his personality less known to the general world than that of any American writer of equal rank.

This might be somewhat strange, since Cooper was lavish of intrusions into his novels, were it not that he wrote himself down, when he spoke in his own person, not only a powerful and independent man, but a scolding, angry man, and thus made his most revealing novels his least read ones. One thinks of Scott, who, when he shows himself most, wins most love. The difference further characterizes the two men. In breadth of sympathies, humanity, geniality, humour, Cooper is less than Scott. He himself, in his review of Lockhart, said that Scott's great ability lay in taking a legend or historical episode, which Scotland furnished in splendid profusion, and reproducing [306] it with marvellous grace and tact. “This faculty of creating a vraisemblance, is next to that of a high invention, in a novelist.” It is clear that Cooper felt his own inferiority to Scott in “creating a vraisemblance” and that he was always conscious of the relative barrenness of American life; it is also tolerably clear that he himself aimed at what he thought the higher quality of invention. Cooper's invention, indeed, was not without a solid basis; he is not to be neglected as an historian. No man better sums up in literature the spirit of that idealistic, irascible, pugnacious, somewhat crude, and half aristocratic older democracy which established the United States. No one fixed the current heroic traditions of his day more firmly to actual places. No one else supplied so many facts to the great legend of the frontier. Fact no less than fiction underlies the character which, for all time, Cooper gave to the defeated race of red men, who, no longer a menace as they had been to the first settlers, could now take their place in the world of the imagination, sometimes idealized, as in Uncas and Hard-Heart, but more often credibly imperfect and uncivilized. It was his technical knowledge of ships and sailors which led Cooper to write sea tales, a province of romance in which he still takes rank, among many followers, as teacher and master of them all. True, Cooper had not Scott's resources of historical learning to fall back upon when his invention flagged, any more than he had Scott's resources of good-nature when he became involved in argument; but when, as in the Leather-Stocking tales, his invention could move most freely, it did unaided what Scott, with all his subsidiary qualities, could not outdo. This is to credit Cooper with an invention almost supreme among romancers. Certainly it is difficult to explain why, with all his faults of clumsiness, prolixity, conventional characterization, and ill temper, he has been the most widely read American author, unless he is to be called one of the most impressive and original. [307]

1 Preface to Mentoria.

2 See also Book I, Chap. IX and Book II, Chaps. II.

3 See also Book II, Chap. III.

4 Published in 1799, with a second part, 1800.

5 Van Doren, C., Early American Realism, Nation, 12 Nov., 1914.

6 See also Book II, Chaps. II and V.

7 The family name was changed to Fenimore-Cooper by act of legislature in April, 1826. Cooper soon dropped the hyphen.

8 A Letter to his Countrymen, 1834, p. 98.

9 But dated 182.%.

10 A letter to my countrymen. p. 12.

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