previous next

V. James Fenimore Cooper

Cooper, whose name is with his country's woven

First in her ranks; her Pioneer of mind.

These were the words in which Fitz-Greene Halleck designated Cooper's substantial precedence in American novel-writing. Apart from this mere priority in time,--he was born at Burlington, New Jersey, September 15, 1789, and died at Cooperstown, New York, September 14, 1851,--he rendered the unique service of inaugurating three especial classes of fiction,--the novel of the American Revolution, the Indian novel, and the sea novel. In each case he wrote primarily for his own fellow countrymen, and achieved fame first at their hands; and in each he produced a class of works which, in spite of their own faults and of the somewhat unconciliatory spirit of their writer, have secured a permanence and a breadth of range unequaled in English prose fiction, save by Scott alone. To-day the sale of his works in his own language remains unabated; and one has only to look over the catalogues of European booksellers in order to satisfy himself that this popularity continues, undiminished, through the medium of translation. [48] It may be safely said of him that no author of fiction in the English language, except Scott, has held his own so well for half a century after death. Indeed, the list of various editions and versions of his writings in the catalogues of German booksellers often exceeds that of Scott. This is not in the slightest degree due to his personal qualities, for these made him unpopular, nor to personal manoeuvring, for this he disdained. He was known to refuse to have his works even noticed in a newspaper for which he wrote, the “New York patriot.” He never would have consented to review his own books, as both Scott and Irving did, or to write direct or indirect puffs of himself, as was done by Poe and Whitman. He was foolishly sensitive to criticism, and unable to conceal it; he was easily provoked to a quarrel; he was dissatisfied with either praise or blame, and speaks evidently of himself in the words of the hero of “Miles Wallingford,” when he says: “In scarce a circumstance of my life that has brought me in the least under the cognizance of the public have I ever been judged justly.” There is no doubt that he himself-or rather the temperament given him by nature — was to blame for this, but the fact is unquestionable.

Add to this that he was, in his way and in what was unfortunately the most obnoxious way, a [49] reformer. That is, he was what may be called a reformer in the conservative direction,--he belabored his fellow citizens for changing many English ways and usages, and he wished them to change these things back again, immediately. In all this he was absolutely unselfish, but utterly tactless; and inasmuch as the point of view he took was one requiring the very greatest tact, the defect was hopeless. As a rule, no man criticises American ways so unsuccessfully as an American who has lived many years in Europe. The mere European critic is ignorant of our ways and frankly owns it, even if thinking the fact but a small disqualification; while the American absentee, having remained away long enough to have forgotten many things and never to have seen many others, may have dropped hopelessly behind-hand as to the facts, yet claims to speak with authority. Cooper went even beyond these professional absentees, because, while they are usually ready to praise other countries at the expense of America, Cooper, with heroic impartiality, dispraised all countries, or at least all that spoke English. A thoroughly patriotic and high-minded man, he yet had no mental perspective, and made small matters as important as great. Constantly reproaching America for not being Europe, he also satirized Europe for being what it was. [50]

As a result, he was for a time equally detested by the press of both countries. The English, he thought, had “a national propensity to blackguardism,” and certainly the remarks he drew from them did something to vindicate the charge. When the London Times called him “affected, offensive, curious, and ill-conditioned,” and “Fraser's magazine,” “a liar, a bilious braggart, a full jackass, an insect, a grub, and a reptile,” they clearly left little for America to say in that direction. Yet Park Benjamin did his best, or his worst, when he called Cooper (in Greeley's New Yorker ) “a superlative dolt and the common mark of scorn and contempt of every well-informed American” ; and so did Webb, when he pronounced the novelist “a base-minded caitiff who had traduced his country.” Not being able to reach his English opponents, Cooper turned on these Americans, and spent years in attacking Webb and others through the courts, gaining little and losing much through the long vicissitudes of petty local lawsuits. The fact has kept alive their memory; but for Lowell's keener shaft, “Cooper has written six volumes to show he's as good as a lord,” there was no redress. The arrow lodged and split the target.

Like Scott and most other novelists, Cooper was rarely successful with his main characters, [51] but was saved by his subordinate ones. These were strong, fresh, characteristic, human; and they lay, as I have already said, in several different directions, all equally marked. If he did not create permanent types in Harvey Birch the spy, Leather-Stocking the woodsman, Long Tom Coffin the sailor, Chingachgook the Indian, then there is no such thing as the creation of characters in literature. Scott was far more profuse and varied, but he gave no more of life to individual personages, and perhaps created no types so universally recognized. What is most remarkable is that, in the case of the Indian especially, Cooper was not only in advance of the knowledge of his own time, but of that of the authors who immediately followed him. In Parkman and Palfrey, for instance, the Indian of Cooper vanishes and seems wholly extinguished; but under the closer inspection of Alice Fletcher and Horatio Hale, the lost figure reappears, and becomes more picturesque, more poetic, more thoughtful, than even Cooper dared to make him. The instinct of the novelist turned out more authoritative than the premature conclusions of a generation of historians.

It is only women who can draw the commonplace, at least in English, and make it fascinating. Perhaps only two English women have done this, Jane Austen and George Eliot; while [52] in France George Sand has certainly done it far less well than it has been achieved by Balzac and Daudet. Cooper never succeeded in it for a single instant, and even when he has an admiral of this type to write about, he puts into him less of life than Marryat imparts to the most ordinary midshipman. The talk of Cooper's civilian worthies is, as Professor Lounsbury has well said,--in what is perhaps the best biography yet written of any American author,--“of a kind not known to human society.” This is doubtless aggravated by the frequent use of thee and thou, yet this, which Professor Lounsbury attributes to Cooper's Quaker ancestry, was in truth a part of the formality of the old period, and is found also in Brockden Brown. And as his writings conform to their period in this, so they did in other respects: describing every woman, for instance, as a “female,” and making her to be such as Cooper himself describes the heroine of “Mercedes of Castile” to be when he says, “Her very nature is made up of religion and female decorum.” Scott himself could also draw such inane figures, yet in Jeanie Deans he makes an average Scotch woman heroic, and in Meg Merrilies and Madge Wildfire he paints the extreme of daring self-will. There is scarcely a novel of Scott's where some woman does not show qualities which [53] approach the heroic; while Cooper scarcely produced one where a woman rises even to the level of an interesting commonplaceness. She may be threatened, endangered, tormented, besieged in forts, captured by Indians, but the same monotony prevails. So far as the real interest of Cooper's story goes, it might usually be destitute of a single “female,” that sex appearing chiefly as a bundle of dry goods to be transported, or as a fainting appendage to the skirmish. The author might as well have written the romance of an express parcel.

His long introductions he shared with the other novelists of the day, or at least with Scott, for both Miss Austen and Miss Edgeworth are more modern in this respect and strike more promptly into the tale. His loose-jointed plots are also shared with Scott, but Cooper knows as surely as his rival how to hold the reader's attention when once grasped. Like Scott's, too, is his fearlessness in giving details, instead of the vague generalizations which were then in fashion, and to which his academical critics would have confined him. He is indeed already vindicated in some respects by the advance of the art he pursued; where he led the way, the best literary practice has followed. The “Edinburgh Review” exhausted its heavy artillery upon him for his accurate descriptions of costume and [54] localities, and declared that they were “an epilepsy of the fancy,” and that a vague general account would have been far better. “Why describe the dress and appearance of an Indian chief, down to his tobacco-stopper and buttonholes?” We now see that it is this very habit which has made Cooper's Indian a permanent figure in literature, while the Indians of his predecessor, Charles Brockden Brown, were merely dusky spectres. “Poetry or romance,” continued the “Edinburgh Review,” “does not descend into the particulars,” this being the same fallacy satirized by Ruskin, whose imaginary painter produced a quadruped which was a generalization between a pony and a pig. Balzac, who risked the details of buttons and tobacco pipes as fearlessly as Cooper, said of “The Pathfinder,” “Never did the art of writing tread closer upon the art of the pencil. This is the school of study for literary landscape painters.” He says elsewhere: “If Cooper had succeeded in the painting of character to the same extent that he did in the painting of the phenomena of nature, he would have uttered the last word of our art.” Upon such praise as this the reputation of James Fenimore Cooper may well rest. [55] [56]

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
September 14th, 1851 AD (1)
September 15th, 1789 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: