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Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 30.2 (Summer 2019), pp. 54-62
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Often we can perceive that famous masterworks outclass the minor creations of their intellectual creators so that these are eventually missed and forgotten. Examples of this can be found in every area of art. Looking at the plays of Shakespeare, his sonnets have been forgotten; Handel’s oratories are world famous—but who knows that in the area of opera he was likewise brilliant? Even the fame of the poet Scheffel, chronologically much closer to us, is mainly grounded on his two most famous works, Ekkehard and The Trumpeter of Säckingen.2 However, of the many thousands who know these works, comparatively only a few have read his Bergpsalmen, his Epistles and Travelpictures. We have a similar situation with the works of James Fenimore Cooper whose world-famous Leatherstocking novels every refined person is acquainted with and which forms a part of the base stock of world literature. With this we do not mean the shortened editions for juvenile readers3 but the original novels. That he created works also in the field of the sea novel, whose very father he must be considered, which are of equal value as his novels of the forest, is mainly lesser known. But who of the contemporary generation knows anything about his European travel books and of those of his novels that have different European countries as settings?
In the mind of the reader, Cooper is so much connected to his narratives of the American primeval forest that many are not able to imagine him in another setting. But this perception is only half correct. Indeed, he grew up at the border of the wilderness and spent the later part of his life at Lake Otsego, surrounded by forests and mountains, which became famous through his pen. In his middle years, he became acquainted with the new and the old world during extended travels. For years he went to sea as a sailor, which was later exploited in his sea novels, and during another period of six years (from 1826 to 1833)4 he undertook a journey through Europe with his family, which led him above all to England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. During this journey he established personal connections with some of the most prominent men of his time, witnessed world-historical events, and learned much about the countries and the people of the visited states.
The literary result of these journeys were six volumes of travel books and several novels whose settings were different countries in Europe that form a main part of his production during his middle-aged years. Two of his travel works, which are written in letter form have Switzerland as a topic and are published 1836 under the titles of Excursions in Switzerland and A Second Visit to Switzerland5 when the author was already back at his home at Lake Otsego. We can add at once that just his narratives from Switzerland and Italy represent the first rank of his travel books regarding the vivacity and the warmth of the representation.
Also, the setting of one of his novels using European contexts he locates in Switzerland. This is The Headsman, or the Abbaye des Vignerons, which he composed during his sojourn in Italy and published in 1835. He got the incitement to this novel, as we shall see, during his second travel to Switzerland that took place in 1832, and the main advantage of this work represents the description of nature, in which Cooper was a master. We recognize the romanticist of the primeval forest and the creator of those terrific sea descriptions from a different side and it should not be without interest for the Swiss admirers of Cooper’s to meet him at the native grounds and remark how Switzerland was painted in his head and what he had to say about the country and the people of Switzerland one hundred years ago.
The first of his two extended travels into Switzerland took place in 1828. At that time, he was titular consul of the United States at Lyon. The adventures of this trip form the content of his Excursions in Switzerland.
He started in Paris, where shortly before he had the first meeting with his famous contemporary Walter Scott, accompanied by his multi-headed family in the manner of noble travelers of that time in a comfortable carriage. They headed through the Jura Mountains to Neuchatel and further on to Berne, and he was delighted by the beauty of that area. He writes about it: “One hears a great deal of the magnificent mountains of Switzerland, while too little is said of the rare beauty of its pastoral lowlands… Putting the Alps and Jura (both of which in fact form prominent objects in most of the views from this canton) entirely out of the question, Berne would be in the center of one of the most lovely landscapes in Europe.”6 Quickly he decided to establish his fixed quarters for some time in Berne and to start some excursions into the Swiss alpine world from this point. In Lorraine7 he rented a “nice little country house, that decorate the landscape half a mile outside of the town.”8
He draws an as interesting as descriptive picture about Berne and the relationship of town and country at that time and his notations show his intimate knowledge of the history and the constitution of the canton. Discourses of this kind give a special value to Cooper’s travel pictures. Professor Friedrich Nippold who had been director of the university of Berne during the 80s and 90s of the last century9 and, one of the best connoisseurs of Cooper’s wrote about it: “Cooper’s travel books had been always of high merit as a source of history for me since they present conditions everywhere, which are long gone, and the pictures delineated by the same are alike in currentness and in authenticity. For example, it was of great contrast for me when getting acquainted with the large quarter of Lorraine in Berne and remembering that Cooper knew the same Lorraine as a single county estate. There was no talk at all about the railroad bridges that traverse the Aare.”10 You can make comparisons of this kind on every page of the book, which of course has its special charms.
Not long after his arrival in Lorraine we see the American author at his first excursion that took him across the Lake Thun to Interlaken and into the Bernese Oberland. In Lauterbrunnen he admired the Staubbach Falls; then the route went uphill to Wengen and crossing the Scheidegg down to Grindelwald and through the valley of Meiringen, crossing the Lake Brienz and Interlaken back to Berne. All the beauty of the Bernese Oberland, its unparalleled triple star of alpine splendor—Virgin, Monc, and Eiger [the mountains Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger]—its delighting valleys, its meadows and waterfalls, which before and after him enchanted uncounted thousands, he also describes with enthusiastic words. However, the high mountains he looked at from below; at that time the alpinism of our time was still far away, not to mention the mountain railways, which in the meantime came a long way.
Further travel destinations were the Lake Lucerne and the mountain Rigi, which at that time was ascended with guides. He describes vividly the dreadful catastrophe of the landslide at the mountain Rossberg (Bernese Oberland) that happened in 1806, twenty-two years before his visit of this district. He himself walked around among the remaining rocks, which are known to everyone who once went to Arth-Goldau. He also paid a visit to the famous Benedictine monastery and pilgrimage site Einsiedeln and gave detailed narrations of this location, whose history and tradition he also outlined. He later moved the setting of one of the most characteristic scenes of his novel The Heidenmauer, or The Benedictines to this location, which in its main parts takes place in Bad Durkheim in Palatinate.
Later we find him on an excursion through the canton of Grisons and among the headstreams of the river Rhine. He mentioned a meeting with some English men upon the Furka pass in his satiric novel The Monikins, published in 1836 . He stops at the bottom of the Rhone Glacier and finds himself at this point as he writes: “for the first time alone with nature in Europe.”11 Then he moved further on together with his guide across the Grimsel and returned through the valley of Meiringen to his dwelling in Lorraine. The shapes of his native forests haunted him into his rural solitude, and during the rests between his excursions he worked on a novel from the early times of the colonization of America called The Borderers,12 which was completed the next year in Italy.
In this manner he crossed nearly the whole of Switzerland and was always ravished anew by the magnificence of the Alps, which he never got tired of describing in enthusiastic words.13 The interspersed reflections and comparisons between the political, cultural and societal conditions of the visited countries in Europe and America appear somewhat dry and prosaic. These comparisons were not always in favor of his own country and his countrymen took offense in that. Because he had the courage to say the truth he was accused of a lack of patriotism and the American press attacked him harshly, despite his high merits for the American literature, to which he through his brilliant works achieved prestige in the whole world. He had to suffer from these hostilities during all his later life. To what extent he was right with his explications was shown in the subsequent period.
He left Lorraine in late autumn of that year, turned to Lake Leman and went to Italy crossing the Simplon Pass. With the accounting of this trip, his Excursions in Switzerland ends.
Four years later—in the year 1832—he visited Switzerland a second time. This time also he started in France but debouched via Belgium, upstream the river Rhine passing through Frankfurt and Heidelberg and the Black Forest. “After driving through a pretty and uneven country, that gradually descended, we suddenly plunged down to the banks of the Rhine, and found ourselves once more before an inn door, in Switzerland!”14 The extremely interesting report of this trip and the subsequent residence in Switzerland outlines the versatile content of his work France and a Second Journey to Switzerland.15
This time, his first visit was the cataract of the Rhine. The way thither headed “among forges and mills,” so already at his time these embellishments of the landscape at the cataract of the Rhine existed! “What accessories to a cataract!” he continues; “How long will it be before the imagination of a people who are so fast getting to measure all greatness, whether in nature or art, by the yard-stick, will think of those embellishments for Niagara?”16 What would the author of the Leather Stocking novels say if he would remark today’s power plants at Niagara?
From the cataract of the Rhine, his way went via Zurich; he visited the Lake Lucerne again, crossed the Brünigpass, and reached the canton of Berne, which was well known to him from his first travel to Switzerland. He went to see his former residence in La Lorraine, and in Berne he did not omit “to pay our respect to our old friends, the bears.”17 But then he was attracted by the marvelous shores of the Lake Leman, which already had made an overwhelming impression during his first visit and which he could leave then only with great regret. Joyfully he greeted again the glimmering mountain-lined surface of the water of Lake Leman that reminded him of his native lake Otsego.18 Later he wrote about this: “Early in October 1832 a carriage stopped on the level with the elongated hillside, which from the altitudes of Mudon in Switzerland descends to the Lake Leman directly above the town of Vevey. The travelers got off to glance upon the lovely landscape that spread in front of them. Four years before the same family had stopped at the same place on account of the same reason. Back then they traveled to Italy and when their members overviewed the sight of the Leman with the circumjacent points Chillon, Chatelard, Blonay, Meillerie, the Savoyard mountains and the rugged Alps they sensed pain when they had to leave this faerie so rapidly. Today the situation was different, they devoted themselves to the appeal of such a sublime and yet quaint nature and after a short time the carriage was placed in a remise and the family (Cooper) had taken lodge for a longer residence in a house.”19
Since his former life as a sailor, the preference of water was still vivid in Cooper, so the marvelous water surface of the Lake Leman attracted him powerfully. He sailed the lake in all directions and also learned about its pitfalls. He strolled around in the whole neighborhood to his heart’s content, visited the Chateau of Blonay and all places at the lakeshore and learned much about the life of the people and about the customs and practices of the country that he used literarily very soon. It is quite natural that the magnificent nature in which he lived inspired literary creativity. Thus amongst his excursions in his mind he developed the concept of his next novel whose location he placed here. What therein he has to say about the picturesque shores of Lake Leman and the majestically splendor of the Savoy and Valais Alps may stand worthily next to the greatest that was ever written about it.
After a stay of several weeks in Vevey he continued his travel that led him through the valley of the river Rhone until Martigny and then crossing the Great St. Bernhard Pass to Italy. He spent one night in the St. Bernhard hospice and praised the hospitality of the monks and the excellence of the Saint Bernhard dogs. At that time a passage across the St. Bernhard was more arduous than today and the hardship of a crossover in that inhospitable, savage mountain regions he learned through his own experience. This narration composes the ending of his Second Visit to Switzerland.
The poetical benefit of this travel was his Swiss novel The Headsman of Berne or The Abbayye, published the next year (1833). As already insinuated, the settings of this novel are at first the Lake Leman, later Vevey and the Chateau Blonay, and after that the valley of the river Rhone and finally the Great St. Bernhard, thus that part of Switzerland, which he toured last. The central topic of the fascinating story is the fate of a family who has at that time the hereditary burden of the task of an executioner. It starts with a description of a cruise on the wild turbulent Lake Leman, due to the Foehn wind, in which the ship Winkelried sinks. This scenery is one of the culminating points of the book and reminds us of Cooper’s masterly sea descriptions. Also very vivid and appealing is the depiction of the Vintage Festival with its processions, dances, and chantings; further on, the crossing of the St. Bernhard by the persons appearing in the midst of a beginning snow storm; and finally, the highly dramatic last scene in the hospice, in which a surprising ending occurs for all concerned parties after fearful uncertainty. One of the love couples that was thought to be separated forever because of the circumstances comes by undreamed-of revelations to the long-desired coalescence by which the narrative gets a conciliate ending, which belongs to the essence of a novel.
In his later years, Cooper never occupied himself with Swiss matters. But with the three works presented, the literature about Switzerland has experienced a significant and peculiar enrichment by his pen. His descriptions of Switzerland a hundred years ago are unique, and the continuing interest they had when they were published in German-speaking countries is shown distinctly by the fact that all were published at the same time in different translations and some of them also underwent several editions. Today they are no longer in print, but they are easy to get in antiquarian bookshops and are to be found in every larger library. The fast-moving nature and the outsized reams of the new publications that are thrown on to the literary market every year have pushed them into the background. Also, the world has totally changed compared to the time of Cooper, and the Switzerland of today is completely different to the Switzerland of those days. But whoever likes to glance backwards, who plunges willingly into the past, for him Cooper’s books still have much to say today, and in this respect they also have their full meaning—apart from their literary value.
Notes (by Robert Becker)
1. This text by Rudolf Drescher was found in the Cooper Library at Basel. At the end of the text there is a dedication which reads: “To Miss Clare Benedict/with Kind Regards/Hanau Christmas 1928 / Rudolf Drescher.”
Clare Benedict was the great-grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper who traveled with her mother and her aunt, the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, through Europe. After her aunt’s death in 1894 and after her mother’s death in 1923, she still traveled through Europe and acted as a patron in different ways. Among others, she gave money to the Cimitero Acattolico in Rome for a wall to be repaired; she supported the German Schiller Stiftung after the First and after the Second World War with money and with articles of food; she gave money to the Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, so that the Woolson House could be opened; she also made a donation to the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice. The Cooper library in Basel was her last donation. It is named after her famous great-granduncle because it contains “twenty-two of his novels (all those which were first published before 1846), some of which having up to six copies, all his travel reminiscences, two editions of his letter and journals, and two volumes of critical essays.” Elisabeth Stöcklin, “Clare Benedict and the Cooper library at the English Seminar, Basel University” (M.A. thesis, Basel University, 1982), 54.
Drescher’s dedication shows that he and Clare Benedict must have communicated with each other. This is also shown by the fact that within Drescher’s famous collection of Cooper’s books and translations thereof, some of Cooper’s books were donated to Drescher by Clare Benedict, which is (handwritten) noted by Drescher in his listing about his collection. “The following books have been added to the collection as a present from Miss Clare Benedict.” After this remark there is the following list of books: “Satanstoe, Clark University Wisconsin, The last of the Mohicans, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, Lionel Linkoln [sic], Philadelphia, Lea & Blanchard 1840, The Spy, Philadelphia, Lea & Blanchard 1840, The Red Rover, Philadelphia, Lea & Blanchard 1840, The last of the Mohicans, Philadelphia, Lea & Blanchard 1840.” Cf. my article about Drescher in Cooper Society Newsletter no. 68, 2012.
In the named listing about Drescher’s collection there we find a remark about a publication of “Cooper’s works about Switzerland” which was published in the Swiss journal “Berner Heim” on January 16th, 23th and 30th, 1931. This publication contains the same text as this translation here, Drescher has only omitted the first paragraph and changed the second one just in the beginning a little bit.
2. Joseph Victor von Scheffel (1826-1886) was a German poet and novelist.
3. Already in 1845, the first of a series of the Leatherstocking novels “for juvenile readers” was published in Germany, which led to more than eighty different editions up to 1980. Cf. Irmgard Egger: “The Leatherstocking Tales as Adapted for German Juvenile Readers” and “Cooper and German Readers,” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and his Art 5 (1984).
4. Drescher is wrong: the whole time of the European travel spanned seven years.
5. Drescher refers to the German editions of Sketches of Switzerland, now Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland and Sketches of Switzerland, Part Second, now Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine, which in the early German translations were named Ausflüge in die Schweiz (Frankfurt, 1836), and Aufenthalt in Frankreich, Ausflug an den Rhein und Zweiter Besuch der Schweiz (Frankfurt, 1837). The translation of “Ausflüge” is “Excursions” and from the German name of the second volume Drescher here takes the last part of the German translation: “Zweiter Besuch der Schweiz” which means “Second Visit to Switzerland.”
6. I took the original passage from the beginning of Letter V of Switzerland. In his essay Drescher, instead, took the text from the German translation in Ausflüge in die Schweiz (Frankfurt, 1836), 67: “Man hört soviel von den herrlichen Gebirgsgegenden der Schweiz und nur zu wenig von den seltenen Schönheiten seiner idyllischen Niederungen.... Ganz abgesehen von den Alpen- und Jura-Ansichten, die beide vorzügliche Gegenstände des Schauens in diesem Kanton bleiben werden, kann BERN überdies als der Mittelpunkt der lieblichsten Landschaften genannt werden, die es in Europa gibt.” The omitted words in Drescher’s text are “if anything can be called low in a country that lies two thousand feet above the sea.”
7. Lorraine is today part of the town of Berne. In 1830, it was not yet connected to the city of Berne.
8. Again Drescher took his quotation from the German edition of Switzerland (Frankfurt, 1836), 69, which shortens the following text from Letter V of Switzerland: “…besides settling ourselves down in a country-house, for the next three months. We are in one of the pretty, little, retired villas that dot the landscape, and at the distance of only half a mile from the town.” Looking at these two quotations (cf. footnote 6), one can imagine the (bad) quality of the old German translations.
9. This means the 1880s and 1890s.
10. I could not identify this quotation.
11. The correct sentence of the introduction of The Monikins reads: “For the first time, during a pilgrimage of years, I felt alone with nature in Europe.” James Fenimore Cooper, The Monikins (New York: W. A. Townsend & Company, 1860), vi.
12. This title refers to The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, which was first published in England in September 1829 as The Borderers. Cf. Robert E. Spiller & Philip C. Blackburn, A Descriptive Bibliography of the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Bowker, 1934), 58ff.
13. A late reflection of this experience can be seen in Chapter XIV of The Monikins: “I can only compare the scene which now met my eyes, to a sudden view of the range of the Oberland Alps, when the spectator is unexpectedly placed on the verge of the precipice of the Weissenstein. There he would see before him a boundless barrier of glittering ice, broken into glorious and fantastic forms of pinnacles. walls and valleys.” The Monikins (Townsend), 197.
14. Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), 146. Last sentence of Letter XIV.
15. Cf. footnote 5.
16. All quotes: Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine, 147f. I took the original sentences. Drescher’s translation is a little bit different.
17. Ibid., Letter XVI, 162.
18. Obviously Drescher never saw Lake Otsego. That one is much smaller than Lake Leman.
19. This text is a shortened excerpt of the opening of the introduction of The Headsman.