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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers
No. 23, August 2007, pp. 15-20
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Thanks to the work of, especially, George Hastings, modern Cooper critics take it for granted that James Fenimore Cooper admired the writings of Jane Austen1 and even set out to equal her feats of narrative splendor. Knowing this much, most Cooper scholars look only as far as Hastings did, to Cooper's first novel, Precaution (1820), thereafter dismissing both the novel and the lady as false leads.
Some of this hasty dismissal has to do with the failure to locate in Cooper's later works the same, one-for-one substitutions that Hastings pointed out between Austen's Persuasion and Cooper's Precaution.2 Some further direct parallels certainly do existfor instance, in fun with boastfully bad drivers, Cooper's Dickon Jones, that "jerk" of The Pioneers, and Austen's John Thorpe, another jerk, in Northanger Abbey.3 However, by the time that Cooper had passed his "Jane Morgan" stage, in which he actually wrote women's fiction under a female pseudonym, and certainly by the advent of The Leather-stocking Tales, Cooper had shifted from sheer plagiarism (for that is all Precaution is) into actual artistry.4 From there on, imagination rather than copy-cat rote fueled his borrowings.
Much more of the scholarly oblivion of the Cooper-Austen connection has to do with a failure to peer beyond the widespread yawn that the Leather-stocking ladies have traditionally inspired in critics, against the lively interest generated by Austen's Regency ladies. Alternately, the hair-raising adventures of Cooper's ladies seem unrelated to the lack of overt violence in Austen's world. These objections are more apparent than real, however.
As a scholar of both Austen and Cooper, on closer examination, I find that Cooper was not deceiving himself that he paralleled Austen, and I would like to pick up here on some of the more striking literary devices they shared, particularly with:
Due to time constraints, I can but touch on these themes here today, so let me briefly address each item.
Behavioral Juxtapositions. Even as Austen riddled her tales with alpha-beta opposites to investigate competing theories of female and male deportment, so was Cooper intent on opposites to explore behavioral possibilities in young America. Austen's alpha-beta sister pairs litter her pages so obviously as hardly to need calling up, but for starters, in alpha-beta order, there are Elinor and Marianne Dashwood (S&S), Elizabeth and Jane Bennet (P&P), and Anne and Mary Elliot (P). Also modeling different approaches to identical issues are less central pairs, including Lucy and Anne Steele (S&S) as well as putative pairs including Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith and Augusta Elton and Jane Fairfax (E). Less remarked upon are Austen's alpha-beta males as they approach and interact with women, from Colonel Brandon and John Willoughby (S&S), Fitzwilliam Darcy and George Wickham (P&P), and Edmund Bertram and Henry Crawford (MP), to Frank Churchill and George Knightley (E) and Captain Wentworth and William Elliot (P).
Cooper copied this alpha-beta pairing to explore behavioral models. Importantly in females, he played the specifically American "Amazonian" model off against her "Frail Flower" counterpart in, respectively, Elizabeth Temple and Louisa Grant (Pi), Cora and Alice Munro (M), Ellen Wade and Isabella de Certavallos (Pr), Dew of June and Mabel Dubham (Pa), and Judith and Hetty Hutter (D).5 Importantly in males, he considered moral versus corrupt behavior in Oliver Effingham and Dickon Jones, in their approaches to Judge Temple (Pi); Colonel Munro and Duncan Heyward, in their approaches to race and duty (M); Ishmael Bush and Abirham White, in their sociopathology (Pr); Jasper Western and Davey Muir, in their attitudes towards women (Pa); and Hurry Harry and Captain Warley (D), in their treatment of "fallen women." Of course, throughout the Leather-stocking Tales, Natty and Chingachgook embody the noble form of Native behavior against which both Native and settlers males are measured.
Class consciousness. Although both Cooper and Austen have been accused, with some justice, of shoring up the existing class structure, both were keen observers of people in all levels of society. Unlike modern American biases, which assume that people of lower stations in life must be worth/less compared to those in higher stations, neither Cooper nor Austen consistently liked to see "the distinctions of rank preserved."6
Elizabeth Bennet (P&P) and Marianne Dashwood (S&S) freely pop back at the exalted Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the Dowager Mrs. Ferrars, respectively, even as Natty Bumppo is comfortable correcting his "betters," including, for instance, the brash and inexperienced Captain Duncan Heyworth (M) and the local land baron, Judge Marmaduke Temple (Pi).7 Austen's upper-crust ladies are consistently portrayed as know-nothings often lacking in simple civility, while Cooper's alpha males among the settlers, Judge Temple and Dickon Jones (Pi) are out-and-out crooks.
Instead of supporting the current class structure, both Cooper and Austen reify the middle class at the expense of the ruling class, while giving fond portrayals of people below the gentleman class. Austen gives us the Musgroves (P), all of them, or Harriet Smith and the Martins (E), while Cooper memorably creates the lowly, mixed-blood scout, Natty Bumppo (LT), as well as Mabel Dunham and Jasper Western (Pa), Ellen Wade and Paul Hover (Pr), or Remarkable Pettibone and Ben Pump (Pi).
Fish-out-of-water Buffoons. Austen is justly famous for her wonderful portraits of such clerical buffoons as Mr. Collins (P&P), on the harmless side, and Mr. Elton, on the cruel side (E). Both find themselves out of their element in elegant society, with each eventually sinking to his appropriate level. Interestingly, for Mr. Collins, that level is Charlotte Lucas, not too much of a downward slide, and satisfyingly, for Mr. Elton, that is the breath-takingly declassée Augusta Hawkins. At upscale parties, both behave inappropriately, with Mr. Elton monopolizing his hostess, Emmaa major faux pas at the timeand Mr. Collins hilariously showing his lack of "breeding" through execrable dancing, among other drawing-room transgressions. Both pretend to a class they were not really bred to, their lack of polish eventually apparent to all.
Cooper's clerical buffoons are more extremely drawn, reflecting their more extreme environments, but they tend toward the same end as Austen's, of showing the damage done by people foolishly assuming a station for which they are unfit. In particular, Dr. Grant (Pi), David Gamut (M), and Hetty Hutter (D) point up the arrogance of trying to graft Euro-Christian religion onto the American continent, at least without grounding the graft first. As ineffectual, even in his own family, as his namesake, Dr. Grant of Mansfield Park, Dr. Grant of The Pioneers manages to do nothing but give the townsfolk of Templeton something to criticize on the one hand while losing his family members, on the other.
Like Austen with Fanny Price (MP), Cooper uses David Gamut of Mohicans to quiz the lunacy of high-toned European musical theories of the sublime, as something to sooth the savage breast or, alternately, to demonstrate passion inappropriately, concepts that Austen has all her women apply to her men.8 If the musician Marianne attracts Colonel Brandon while losing John Willoughby, conveying her passion musically (S&S), the musician David Gamut winds up missionizing a beaver colony and teaching a medicine bear to sing, because the presumed abilities of western music turn out to be utterly incomprehensible to Native Americans (whom Cooper has settlers regularly confuse with beasts in one of his many running jokes).9 Magua is ultimately more lethal to Cora than Willoughby is to Marianne, but Gamut's music is as unable to subdue Magua as Marianne's is to tame Willoughby.
Meantime, if William Collins is stupid to the point of confinability, Hetty Hutter, the self-annointed missionary of The Deerslayer, actually has Downs Syndrome. Both stroke their own egos with their religious pretensions, while exposing all around them to danger. Granted, Lady Catherine is not quite as formidable as Rivenoak, but each in her/his way has the power to disrupt lives rather permanently.
Hidden Identity. As I show in my article in LEAR, Austen tiptoed around the edges of acceptable discourse with some rather stunning, if veiled, commentary on slavery and racial identity, especially in the creole Crawfords of Mansfield Park, but also in sidelong references in Emma and Persuasion. Emma's crass merchant heiress, Miss Augusta Hawkins, hailed from that busy slave port, Bristol, while the invalid Mrs. Smith was put figuratively back on her feet by "recovering her Husband's properly in the W. Indies."10 Indeed, it is astounding to me that no one picked up on Austen's broad commentary until Avrom Fleishman took on the issue in 1967. Thereafter, Brian Southam glanced off it in 1969, Frank Gibbon delved into the Crawfords in 1982, and, most famously if least effectually, Edward Said mentioned Antigua in 1989 and 1993, lending it the visibility it has today.11 Given the Austen's own family involvement in an Antiguan plantation,12 however, I should have expected that this aspect of her work would have been thoroughly explored by now.
Hidden identity, especially racial, is perhaps one of the most stunning Austen-Cooper connections, for Cooper copied Austen's "breadcrumb" method, as as Arnie Perlstein calls it, dropping little hints along her way to address "secret subtexts" of racial mixture and slavery.13 First and foremost, despite his manifold insistence on his crosslessness, Natty Bumppo could only have been a Lenape-English mix, based on the equally manifold references throughout The Leather-stocking Tales, as I have shown elsewhere.14 Next, Isabella de Certavallos, the tri-racial woman of The Prairie, abducted for sale into slavery, and Cora Munro, the mulatta of The Last of the Mohicans are touching examples of hidden identity and the dangers it posed both society and the women embodying racial mixture.15 Isabella is quite literally hidden in a tent throughout the first third of The Prairie, and called a "beast," to boot, while we reach chapter sixteen of Mohicans, before Colonel Munro spills the family secret of Cora's small-c "creole" descent.16
Small Neighborhoods. Cooper also noted the famous "little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory" on which Austen worked "with so fine a Brush" (Austen letter of 16 December 1816), for he, too, confined himself to small neighborhoods. At first, this seems almost absurd to claim of Cooper, with his Hudson Valley vistas, rapids-shooting canoes, and fireland prairies, yet a closer examination of his cast of characters does reveal small numbers acting in relatively restricted locales. Emma's Highbury with its Crown Inn is not more claustrophobic than The Pioneer's Templeton with its Bold Dragoon Tavern. Marching from Fort Edward to Fort Henry in Mohicans is not more of an excursion than traveling from Longbourn to Hunsford in Pride and Prejudice, and Elizabeth Bennet's trip north to Lambton is not farther than Alice Munro's trip to Magua's Wyandot village. The Citadel of The Prairie is a main locus of action, just as the citadel of Bath is in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Meantime, the family parties that compose the cast are invariable at each location.
Natty Bumppo may encounter different parties in each of the five Leather-stocking locales, but, once encountered, each ensemble remains stable: the Temples and the Effinghams (Pi), the Munros and Heyward (M), Middleton and the Bushes (Pr), the Dunhams and Jasper Western (Pa), and the Hutters and Hurry Harry (D). Like Austen, Cooper sets up particular families with particular difficulties which must be surmounted on the way to marriage: Oliver Effingham and Elizabeth Temple (Pi), Ellen Wade and Paul Hover (Pr), Alice Munro and Duncan Heyward (M), Mabel Dunham and Jasper Western (Pa). Alone in the case of The Deerslayer does Cooper leave a heroine unmarried. Even here, however, he borrows from Austen in his extensive replay of Sense and Sensibility's Eliza Williams story, exploring the possibilities open to already fallen women, who in Cooper are Judith Hutter and her mother before her.
Of course, least noticed of all is Cooper's comic debt to Austen, largely because Cooper's critics have unfortunately sniffed away his comedy as too low-brow to contemplate. Although delightful bumblers and contretemps enliven the pages of both, I am unable to explore them here, as my time is up.
1. Regarding my title, Jane Austen was affectionately known to all her multifarious nieces and nephews as "Aunt Jane," while James Fenimore Cooper is considered the "Father of American Literature."
2. George E. Hastings, "How Cooper Became a Novelist," American Literature 12 (March 1940): 20-51. See, also, Harold H. Scudder, "What Mr. Cooper Read to His Wife," Sewanee Review 36 (April, 1928): 177-94.
3. Judge Temple rebukes his bad-driver cousin, Dickon Jones, as "Thou jerk!" in James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale , ed. James Franklin Beard (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1980) 52. "Jerk" originally referred to a driver so inept that he confused and exhausted the horses (mules, oxen, etc.) by jerking the reins every which way. This is not a bad description of John Thorpe in Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey , Chapman, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) 61-66, 88.
4. See Cooper's "Jane Morgan" [James Fenimore Cooper], Tales for Fifteen, or Imagination and Heart (New York: C. Wiley, 1823).
5. For the "Amazon" v. "Frail Flower" motifs in colonial and antebellum American cultural ideology, see June Namias, White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).
6 Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice , Chapman, 3rd edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) 161
7 Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 165-66, 211-12, 353-58; Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility , Chapman, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) 235-36; James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans , ed. James Franklin Beard (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983) 37-38, 69-70, 213, 217, 227; James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale, , ed. James Franklin Beard (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1980) 21-25.
8. Kathryn L. Libin, "Lifting the Heart to Rapture: Harmony, Nature, and the Unmusical Fanny Price," Persuasions 28 (2006):143-45; Robert Peebles-Lawson, "The Lesson of the Massacre at Fort William Henry." New Essays on The Last of the Mohicans, ed. Daniel H. Peck (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 129-31, 133.
9 For instance, in addition to Gamut's beavers and medicine bear (who is actually Natty), Cooper, Mohicans, 222, 253-54, 268, Oliver Young Eagle Effingham is mistaken, and shot for, a deer Cooper, Pioneers, 24, and Hard Heart is mistaken for a buffalo, James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie: A Tale , ed. James Franklin Beard (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1985) 255-56.
10. Jane Austen, Emma, 183; Jane Austen, Persuasion, 273.
11. Avrom Fleishman, "Mansfield Park in Its Time," Nineteenth Century Fiction 22.1 (June 1967); 1-18; Brian Southam, "Jane Austen and Antigua," Jane Austen Society Report, 1969; Frank Gibbon, "The Antiguan Connection: Some New Light on Mansfield Park." Cambridge Quarterly 11.2 (1982): 298-305; Edward Said, "Jane Austen and Empire," in Raymond Williams, Criticial Perspectives, ed. Terry Eagleton (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989) 150-64; Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1st ed. (New York: Knopf, 1993) 366.
12. Gregson Davis, "Jane Austen's Mansfield Park: The Antigua Connection," Antigua and Barbuda Country Conference Pre-Prints, University of West Indies, posted 21 April 2004, accessed 21 May 2007, http://www.cavehill.uwi.edu/bnccde/antigua/conference/papers/davis.html.
13. I am indebted to the imaginative and generous personal communications of Arnie Perlstein, an independent Austen scholar from South Florida, for setting my critical juices in motion on the issue of hidden identity and slavery in Austen's works. Go to http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/ for more on what he calls the "secret subtext" in Austen's novels.
14. Barbara Alice Mann, "Race Traitor: Cooper, His Critics, and Nineteenth-Century Literary Politics," in A Historical Guide to James Fenimore Cooper, ed. Leland S. Person (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) 157-69.
15. Barbara Alice Mann, "Fancy Girls: The Creole and the Quadroon in Cooper's Leather-stocking Tales," in Reading Cooper, Teaching Cooper, ed. Jeffrey Walker (New York: AMS Press, 2007) 222-43.
16. Despite insistence in some modern circles that "creole" just meant a European born in the "New World," people at the time made a careful distinction between the large-C "Creoles," the aforementioned Europeans, and small-c "creoles," or middle-class people of mixed racial descent. This distinction was alive and well in contemporary reviews of The Last of the Mohicans, in which Cora, the indisputably mulatta heroine, was described as a "creole," [Unsigned] "Review of The Last of the Mohicans," New-York Review and Atheneum Magazine 2 (March 1826) 288.
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