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James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years
James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years
Wayne Franklin
Yale University Press, 2007
752 pp., 53.36

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Steven D. Ealy


The Founder of American Literature

James Fenimore Cooper.

This volume, the first installment of a projected two-volume study of James Fenimore Cooper, covers Cooper's life from his birth in 1789 to his departure with his family in 1826 for an extended sojourn in Europe. What Wayne Franklin, director of American studies and professor of English at the University of Connecticut, sets out to accomplish with this work is much more than simply a biography of Cooper—it verges on being a cultural history of the era, as seen through the eyes and actions of James Fenimore Cooper. This exhaustive study seems to cover every aspect of Cooper's life in detail, and it provides monumental documentation in its 150 pages of endnotes. It is the first major biography of Cooper to make use of primary materials belonging to Cooper's descendants and until recently unavailable for public inspection.

At times Franklin's treatment of the minutiae of Cooper's life threatens to convert his exhaustive study into an exhausting one. The four pages on the horserace between New York's "American Eclipse" and Virginia's "Sir Henry" at the Union Race Course in Jamaica in 1823, for example, will tell most readers much more about the New York racing scene than they want to know. And occasionally, given Franklin's tendency to delve into every nook and cranny in any way related to Cooper's life, there are surprising (though small) gaps. For example, after a lengthy discussion of the massive land losses suffered by the loyalist DeLancey family (Cooper's wife Susan was a DeLancey) during the Revolution, and the tracing of Major John Peter DeLancey's movements as a member of the Pennsylvania Loyalists during the war and his relocation to England, we suddenly find DeLancey back in Pennsylvania living at Heathcote Hall, with no indication of how it came into his possession.

But these are minor complaints, for this is a well-written and well-researched study of the man who was, in the judgment of Robert Penn Warren, "the founder of American literature." [1] Franklin's study of the first half of Cooper's life lends support to Warren's evaluation. Cooper self-consciously set out to build a career as a novelist, was intimately involved in the development of the book industry in the United States, created new genres of writing with the pioneer story and the sea novel, and used his novels to articulate a vision of the United States that would help establish not only its political but also its cultural independence from England. On this last point Franklin offers a powerful commentary:

the American cultural revolution began not with the publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson's The American Scholar in New England in 1837, but rather with the appearance of The Spy in New York sixteen years before. Cooper's book, written in Scott's mode but very much against his grain, did not call for cultural independence, as Emerson's lecture did; it enacted it.

In addition to his writing geared to this end, Cooper was the founder of the "Bread and Cheese Club" in New York City. The "Lunch," as it came to be known by its intimates, had a membership consisting of writers, artists, professionals, and politicians; its chief shared aim was the enhancement of America's cultural independence.

Cooper's beginnings as a novelist, so the story goes, can be traced to his exasperation with a new English novel he was reading aloud to his wife, Susan. (Alas, the specific novel remains unidentified.) He became so irritated with the story that he cast it aside and exclaimed, "I could write a better book than that myself!" Susan suggested that he do just that, and his efforts led to his first novel, Precaution, modeled along the lines of Jane Austen's Persuasion.

Later in his career a similar incident led to his decision to write a sea novel, and Cooper thus become the precursor of Melville and Conrad (both of whom admired his sea tales). Cooper attempted to shape his career as successful writer and businessman by following the model set by Sir Walter Scott. In general Cooper was an admirer of Scott's poetry and prose, but his response to hearing praise of Scott's technical knowledge of the sea in The Pirate was to argue that its author "had very little 'seamanship.' " To prove his point, Cooper wrote The Pilot, showing "how a real sailor might manage the sea."

Cooper had originally hoped for a career in the navy, and actually spent four years in active service. He left, in large part, because his service wasn't active enough—he was assigned to recruiting duty while he wanted naval engagements on the high seas. These years were not without benefit for his future career as a writer, however, for his knowledge of shipboard life led him to embark on The Pilot. In addition to a number of sea novels, he also wrote a two-volume History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839) and the biographical Ned Myers; or, a Life before the Mast (1843). Cooper had first met Myers while both were young crewmembers on the merchantman Stirling in 1806, and years later he helped Meyers with his memoirs.

The incorporation into hisfiction of experiences, events, or scenes that Cooper himself had actually been involved in was not unique to The Pilot, but was a general characteristic of most of his novels. The setting for his Leather-Stocking Tales is his childhood Cooperstown and its surrounding mountains, lakes, rivers, and forests. So the fictional Glimmerglass is a reflection of Otsego Lake, where Cooper canoed and played as a child. Not all of the personal experiences thus incorporated into his fiction reached as far back as his childhood. The cave behind the waterfall that plays a crucial part in The Last of the Mohicans was first seen by Cooper at Glens Falls while leading a group of young Englishmen on a tour through upstate New York just as he was beginning to write the novel. While climbing over the rocks, Cooper was so struck by the dramatic setting that he exclaimed, "I must place one of my old Indians here!"

Given this pattern, Franklin tends to assume that most, if not all, of the descriptions contained in the various volumes of the Leather-Stocking saga are based on Cooper's own observations and experience. In describing Cooper's travels, for example, Franklin requently treats Cooper's fictive descriptions of certain locations or routes as an actual description of the hardships Cooper himself encountered. One of the beneficial results of this approach that that the reader is introduced to examples of Cooper's writing which occur much later in his life than the period covered by this volume.

As a novelist, Cooper learned by trial and error. One early mistake, never to be repeated, was to have the final chapter of The Spy typeset, including page numbers, before he completed the middle part of the novel. This decision forced Cooper to race through many events covered in the novel's middle chapters, and to eliminate some intended scenes entirely. He mastered his trade sufficiently well. Franklin's chronological narrative in this volume ends with Cooper as a very successful writer— embraced by his countrymen, perhaps the best-known American around the world outside of major political figures —at the age of 37. His departure for Europe occurred at the height of his American popularity, and on his return after seven years abroad he became embroiled in many controversies, both literary and legal, that prevented him from again achieving that level of popular acclaim. He became alienated to the point that he announced his retirement from his career as a writer, which proved to be temporary.

Cooper was a pioneer when it came to interest in understanding Native American culture.

Franklin's introduction, which provides an evaluation of the importance of Cooper's entire oeuvre, along with his references to many of Cooper's later writings and his foreshadowing of certain later events, allow us to address the broader question of Cooper's lasting significance. Franklin's catalogue of items marking Cooper's importance may be summarized in the following points. 1) "Cooper invented the key forms of American fiction—the Western, the sea tale, the Revolutionary romance." 2) A distinctive "combination of literary innovation and business acumen" allowed Cooper to invent "the very career of the American writer." 3) Through the five novels of the Leather-Stocking Tales, Cooper "invented the core myth of the expansive new nation." 4) The "American environmental conscience" begins with the unfolding story of Natty Bumppo as outlined in the five Leatherstocking novels. As Franklin argues, "In Cooper, landscape is not a series of pretty pictures; it takes on a moral value in itself." 5) "Cooper's elegiac response to the crisis of Native American character and culture" is an early effort to understand Indian culture in its complexity rather than reducing it to a depiction of either the blood-thirsty or the noble savage. Combined with Cooper's concern for the wanton destruction of the American wilderness, this perspective provides an early critique of the Lockean view of the improvement of nature, unlimited expansionism, and Whiggish optimism as practiced by European settlers in interest in North America. 6) Cooper was a "representative man" in the turbulent and expanding new republic. He was a combination of creative genius, acute businessman, economic speculator, and community activist.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote of the rich associational life of Americans:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. [2]

Cooper was an example par excellence of Tocqueville's joiner, and a review of his major associational connections both supports Tocqueville's assessment of the pervasive nature of associations in American life and shows Cooper's wide-ranging social involvements and interests. During his truncated stay at Yale he was a member of the Linonia Society, one of the two debating clubs on campus. As an adult he was an active member in the Otsego Bible Society, and was selected as one of its three delegates to the national founding meeting of the American Bible Society in 1816. The primary aim of the society was to promote "the wider circulation of the Holy Scriptures without note or comment." As Franklin notes, "This was a profoundly democratic principle," in tune with Cooper's developing political views; he was steadily moving away from the high Federalist position of his father, Judge William Cooper, and toward open support for the emerging Democratic Party. Cooper was one of the active founders of the Otsego County Agricultural Society in 1816, and later helped draft the constitution for (and became an active member in) the Westchester Agricultural Society. Again, Franklin argues, there was a democratic (with a small "d") impetus to the efforts of these agricultural societies.

As noted earlier, Cooper founded the Bread and Cheese Club, a weekly gathering of community and literary leaders. He was a member of the New York Association for the Improvement of the Breed of Horses, which he referred to as "The Jockey Club." While not a serious horse breeder himself, he did occasionally attend the races the association sponsored—perhaps this is the reason for his jocular designation of the group. On a more serious note, he was a member of the planning committee for the New York City gala honoring Lafayette during his visit in August, 1824. Later, while in France, Cooper was invited to visit Lafayette at his estate on a number of occasions.

While Cooper was just one ofthe American crowd when it came to joining or forming civic associations, he was a pioneer when it came to interest in understanding Native American culture. As a child he had had some contact with the tribes located near Cooperstown, and as an adult he had occasion to meet various Native delegations traveling to or from Washington. He also read the available literature, and incorporated the latest "anthropological findings" (even if incorrect) into his fiction. Cooper had read An Account of the History, Manners, and Customs, of the Indian Nations, who once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States, written by Moravian missionary John Heckewelder, and he took the name for perhaps his most important Native character, Chingachgook, from that volume. Franklin argues that the notion of "totem" is not only important in the way that Cooper understood the Native view of life, but that The Last of the Mohicans "has a totemic principle at its core."

It strikes me that Cooper may be particularly helpful to us today as we sift through the contemporary arguments over multiculturalism to find a foundation for understanding human experience. Natty Bumppo, self-described in chapter 17 of The Deerslayer as "white in blood, heart,natur', and gifts, though a little redskin in feelin's and habits," spends much time in this novel reflecting on the differences between "white man's gifts" and "red man's gifts." Beyond the differences in "gifts," however, Natty recognizes a common humanity that unites white settlers with Native Americans. It is worth the effort to briefly reconstruct what this untutored frontiersman of early American fiction has to say on this score.

This theme is announced in the opening chapter of The Deerslayer, when Hurry Harry declares that he is free to eliminate any suitor to Judith Hutter, whom he hopes to marry. Harry states the classic Lockean state of nature position: "[W]hen we live beyond law, we must be our own judges and executioners." Natty disagrees and articulates a rough-hewn natural law argument: "I know we live in the woods, Hurry, and are thought to be beyond human law,–and perhaps we are so, in fact, whatever it may be in right,—but there is a law and a law-maker, that rule across the whole continent."

Throughout the novel Natty guides behavior in accordance with his understanding of his "white gifts," and therefore refuses to help Hurry Harry and Thomas Hutter when they plan to take Indian scalps to sell to the Crown. He does not begrudge Chingachgook his desire or right to take scalps, however, because doing is among "red gifts." But there are limits what these "gifts" allow. After Harry and Thomas Hutter are taken prisoner by the Iroquois and Judith suggests using an ivory chess piece carved as an elephant to ransom them, Natty at first refuses because thinks the carving is an idol. When Judith suggests that idolatry may be an Indian gift, Natty disagrees: "God grants no such gifts to any of his creatur's, Judith … . He must be adored, under some name or other, and not creatur's of brass or ivory. matters not whether the Father of all is called God or Manitou, Deity or Great Spirit, He is none the less our common Maker and Master."

Later in The Deerslayer (chapter 25) Judith once again questions Natty on his understanding of gifts. Natty says, "You find different colors on 'arth, as any one may see, but you don't find different natur's. Different gifts, but only one natur'." Judith asks, "In what is a gift different from a nature? Is not nature itself a from God?" Natty thinks that Judith is quick-witted but on the wrong track. "A natur' is the creatur' itself; its wishes, wants, idees, and feelin's, as all are born him. This natur' never can be changed the main, though it may undergo some increase or lessening." Gifts, however, are not as essential (in manifold ways) as is nature. Natty continues,"Now, gifts come of sarcumstances. Thus, if you put a man in a town, he gets town gifts; in a settlement, settlement gifts; in a forest, gifts of the woods … . All these increase and strengthen until they get to fortify natur' it might be, and excuse a thousand acts and idees. Still the creatur' is the same the bottom."

Natty, of course, is too busy to develop this rudimentary distinction into a fully developed theological or philosophical position. And the relationship between Natty's views and those of James Fenimore Cooper remains an open question. The author of the Leather-Stocking Tales tends to use the language of Providence rather than Natty's language of "gifts." Nor have worked out a theology of gifts and nature in Natty's terms, but at least initially it strikes me as worth further reflection as way to recognize the importance of cultural autonomy within a context that avoids cultural relativism.

In sum, James Fenimore Cooper provides much food for thought, not only his fictional portrayal of the development of America from wilderness to developed community, but in his later explicitly political reflections, especially the essays contained in The American Democrat. But reflections on those later writings must wait until the appearance of Wayne Franklin's concluding volume. In the meantime, it can be hoped that the appearance of the first volume of this comprehensive biography will lead to rediscovery and renewed appreciation a premier chronicler of the American experience.

Steven D. Ealy is a senior fellow at the Liberty Fund.

1. Warren was the primary author for the chapter on Cooper in Cleanth Brooks, R. W. B. Lewis, and Robert Penn Warren, American Literature: The Makers and the Making (St. Martin's Press, 1973), vol. 1, pp. 280-289; quotation at p. 283.

2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 489.

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