Introduction to The Crater (1847)

Susan Fenimore Cooper

Introductions to novels by her father, with significant biographic and literary information, were written by Susan Fenimore Cooper as prefaces to excerpts from 25 Cooper novels in Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, with Notes by Susan Fenimore Cooper (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1861). She also wrote introductions to 15 (not all the same) novels published between 1876-1884 as the Household Edition of the Works of J. Fenimore Cooper (New York and Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. [Hurd and Mifflin]).These introductions are collected for the first time on the Cooper Society website. Lengthy quotations have been reproduced in indented form, but retaining the quotation marks of the original, and their sources have been indicated in [square brackets].

Topics Covered: Opening of The Crater; Cooper’s love of horticulture and domestic animals; method of writing; continuation of The Crater; its title-page motto (Vox Populi, Vox Dei); Coopers views on democracy and universal suffrage [quotation].

Household Edition

[ix] AFTER the publication of “Afloat and Ashore” several years passed, during which the pen of the author was occupied with series connected with the land. It was not until 1847 that another tale of the sea appeared. This was “The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak,” a tale of the Pacific.

“Thus arise  Races of living things, glorious in strength,  And perish, as the quickening breath of God  Fills them, or is withdrawn.” [William Cullen Bryant, “The Prairies,” lines 86-89; Title-page epigraph, The Crater]

The motto, from a poem of Mr. Bryant, reveals the idea, the scene of the narrative, as its name implies, lying on an unknown volcanic island amid the more remote solitudes of the Pacific Ocean. The earliest date of the tale is very nearly that of Miles Wallingford, 1793; the opening scenes, however, are not laid on the picturesque Hudson, but on the tame shores of the lower Delaware. Home ground is almost immediately left behind. Mark Woolston, the principal character, goes to sea in a Chinaman, the Rancocus, a fine Philadelphia-built ship — the best ships in America coming at that period from the Philadelphia yards. After a couple of voyages the youth returns, marries, sails again in the Rancocus as first mate, bound for certain sandal-wood Islands of the Pacific, thence for Canton to dispose of the cargo. The Rancocus was the first craft the author carried into the Pacific, and very singular and original were her adventures. There came a night, intensely dark and misty, when the good ship in mid-ocean is suddenly [x] discovered to be in the midst of breakers, in a latitude where no breakers mere supposed to exist, a fact accounted f the imperfect knowledge of the remote Pacific in the last century. Breakers heard ahead, breakers heard abeam, and at length white water gleaming dimly under the very bows of the ship. There, in a narrow channel of a mysterious reef, the Rancocus is stranded on the rocks. Captain, second mate, seamen, and boats are washed overboard or driven hopelessly to sea by the storm rolling over the reef. Mark Woolston and one man are left alone in the stranded ship.

In this desperate situation, more desolate, even, than that of Crusoe, months, aye, years, pass over, bringing with them, however, in gradual succession, many changes. The naked reef proves to be of volcanic origin, and not of coral, was first supposed; an extinct volcano is the centre of the desolate region; a barren mound, the crater, is discovered. The good ship has not been wrecked, but stranded in a narrow channel of the reef, amid the breakers. Though closely imprisoned on all sides, her hull has not been materially injured; much of a mixed cargo prepared for trading with the islands of the Pacific is still in good condition and turned to account. A goat, several hogs, and some poultry, are turned adrift on the reef, where they feed at first on fish and seaweed. By careful husbandry, collecting ashes from the crater, seaweed, and guano, and a small deposit of loam on one of the islets, the elements of a soil are brought together with much toil and patience; seeds found in the ship are planted in tiny hills, the showers of the rainy season and a tropical sun bringing them rapidly forward. These first steps of civilization, collecting the soil by the handful, the planting and tilling in the heart of the desolate crater, are carefully followed in detail, and have a simple interest of their own. They are all told in a quiet matter-of-fact way which gives them an air of truthful reality.

In a garden the author felt almost as much at home as on shipboard. In his own garden he took very great pleasure, [xi] passing hours at a time there during the summer months, directing and superintending the work with his usual lively interest in whatever he undertook. It was his great delight to watch the growth of the different plants, day by day. His hot-beds were always among the earliest in the village, and great was his satisfaction when he proclaim in early spring days to this or that friend, while strolling in the main street, the important fact that radishes or spinach were fit for the table, the tomatoes and melons growing rapidly. On these garden matters many were the communications between himself and his friend and constant companion, Judge Nelson of the Supreme Court, recently deceased, after half a century of upright service on the Bench, and so deeply regretted by the whole country. Many were their conversations on legal and political questions, and, by way of interlude, many were the visits the friends paid to the author’s hot-beds or melon-hills. Ah, those muskmelons! What an important place they filled in the village garden! How carefully they were watched, how closely they were examined, their color, shape, size, fragrance studied with the zest of a connoisseur. He usually gathered them himself, and was very fastidious regarding their flavor. When a successful vine had produced the fruit desired, perfect in its kind, the seed was carefully preserved and labeled, fruit and seed being usually shared with more than one friend. Only a short time since a little package of muskmelon, seed, more than thirty years old, was accidentally found in an old envelope, labeled in the author’s handwriting: “August 7, 1847, very fine indeed.” 1 It must he frankly confessed that the author was not a little proud of his melons, their early growth, and fine flavor. And pride, we are told, must have a fall. It chanced one spring that an especial effort was made to bring some very superior melon-seed forward unusually early. A box was prepared and placed in the southern vestibule of the house, a warm and light exposure. Very soon, much sooner than was ex[xii]pected, tiny green points appealed, and ere long neatly formed leaflets showed themselves. The fact was immediately communicated to Judge Nelson; and those two fine, venerable heads were soon to be seen bending together in a close scrutiny over the young plants, and a pleasant sight it was, the eager interest of the author, the genial sympathy of the judge. The leaves were coming forward so rapidly that it was held to be certain that the fruit must ripen several weeks earlier than usual, a fact mentioned with some exultation to several neighbors. A brilliant triumph was expected. Alas, there was disappointment in store. Neither the legal dignitary nor the author was a botanist. A day or two more proved that the friends, instead of studying young melon plants, had been tenderly nursing the first leaves of that vagabond weed, the wild cucumber vine. But it was not only the melons in which the author was interested; other fruits, and the choice vegetables, had their turn. In his boyhood the plums grown in the same grounds had been celebrated; peaches and grapes had also occasionally ripened. These were all tried again, but with little success. The curculio killed the plums; peaches and grapes only ripened in favorable seasons. The occasional frosts of the Highland climate generally prevented their coming to perfect maturity in the open air. With vegetables he was very successful, having been the first to introduce several of the choicer kinds to the village gardens, such as egg-plants, okra, and Brussels sprouts. The first and choicest, whether fruit or vegetable, was usually gathered by himself, and reserved as a little offering for Mrs. Cooper, whether radish, pepper-grass, strawberry, raspberry, or melon, placed by him near her plate at table. Later in the season, as the yield became more plentiful, he took great pleasure in carrying with his own hands baskets of fruit or choice vegetables to different friends and neighbors. During one summer there was an old jack tar, a former shipmate of his own in early youth, who passed several mouths at the house, at a time when he was partially lame, and many were the baskets of fruit or [xiii] early vegetables that the author and his comrade, Ned Meyers [sic], carried about the village to different homes. There are those now living who remember seeing the two moving to and fro with their baskets.

The importance given to the melons on the Pacific reef may be thus naturally accounted for. It was the reflection of a partiality of the author. And the same remark would apply to the domestic animals which are introduced into the book; the poultry, the pigs, the cows, Kitty, the goat — he had a very kindly feeling for all creatures belonging to farm life. Over those under his own care he was remarkably watchful, taking pleasure in providing for all their wants, seeing them comfortably sheltered and supplied with abundance of good food and wholesome water. All these creatures, from the cats and dogs of the house to the poultry, cows, oxen, horses — all learned to know him, and would gather about him when he appeared, and frequently follow him in a mixed procession, often not a little comical. He was partial to cats as well as dogs, and a pet half-breed Angora frequently perched on his shoulder while he was writing in the library. Insignificant as these simple details may appear, they are truthful touches, and as such have a portion of interest.

But to return to the Pacific. So clearly are the long stretch of reef, the shoals, the intricate channels amid the breakers, the rocky islets, and the extinct volcano sketched in the narrative, so skillfully is the tiny dingui navigated, month after month, in this mysterious maze of rock and white water, that we almost expect to find a regular chart in one of the chapters. But chart there was none, save that which the author held so clearly, and accurately sketched in his own mind’s eye. Seeing it vividly in all its details himself, he gives the reader also a clear impression of the imaginary region. He never prepared a sketch, or notes of any kind, while writing a work of fiction. A vague outline once drawn in his own mind, the filling up seemed to follow without effort; he frequently planned the details [xiv] of the different chapters while walking to and fro in the long hall of the house, or, sailor-fashion, on the “quarter-deck” in the grounds. Often, indeed, he seemed to write upon the suggestion of the moment, drawing fresh details from the copious fount of imagination. He was never, in the sense of studied preparation, an artist in the composition of a work of fiction. Be wrote, as it were, from the inspiration of the moment. When writing on subjects connected with history, biography, or statistics, which frequently happened, his course was very different — then he immediately became the careful, painstaking student, and would search out any interesting little detail of relative importance with great patience and close application. Wherever truth was in any way at stake he was always a remarkably conscientious writer.

Those desolate rocks, and the wild sea-birds haunting them, behold many strange events, from the moment when the Rancocus is driven into one of the narrow channels, where she lies embayed, and the two mariners, Woolston and Betts, are left alone on the reef. The first steps of civilization have scarcely been taken, vegetation thriving under the hand of man, verdure appearing on the naked rock, when an earthquake, the consequence of the outbreak of another, but a distant, volcano, changes the aspect of crater-land, raising the crust of the earth, bringing reef and rock some additional feet shove the waves. Then, at the end of a few years, the young wife left on the banks of the Delaware comes anxiously seeking her shipwrecked husband, and is accompanied by a little colony of friends and relatives. Unlike Crusoe, who returns to civilization, Mark Woolston finds civilization growing up about him. Having seen the first touches of vegetation and agriculture, we now follow the first steps of social life in the remote colony. Struggles with invading savages from a distant group of islands, appearing in a fleet of canoes and catamarans; a fierce fight with pirates of European race, a ship and two brigs, bringing the young colony into imminent peril; then [xv] a period of quiet growth and successful commerce in whale-oil and sandal-wood; these events fill up the record of a dozen more years. Woolston and his colony grow rich and prosperous. The Rancocus, with an increased force of skilled labor at command, is successfully delivered from the dangerous berth in the rocky channel where she had so long lain cradled; she is repaired and sails on her homeward voyage, bound first, however, for a cargo of sandal-wood, to be exchanged for teas at Canton, and thence to the wharves of Philadelphia, where she is honorably returned to her owners, after all those years of adventure.

The sandal-wood, so often mentioned, is a low tree, not much unlike our privet in size and foliage. When it has reached its full maturity the older portion of the small trunk — its heart, as one may say — assumes a rich yellow coloring and becomes very fragrant, while the younger wood surrounding it has no color and no fragrance. It is the yellow wood only which is so highly valued as an article of commerce, being used for musical instruments, and also for choice cabinets, and the fans skillfully manufactured by the Chinese. The tree grows on many of the Pacific Islands, the ocean air seeming favorable to its nature. The botanical name is Santalum album.

The motto connected with a closing chapter of “The Crater” is one that has often been repeated: Vox Populi, Vox Dei. The origin of the phrase is not clearly known. The words were used by Mr. Cooper in the opening sentence of an address delivered before the literary societies of Geneva College, some years before his death. The earliest trace he could find of the axiom was in William of Malmsbury, the English monk and historian, who died in 1148. The chronicler was present at the coronation of the Empress Maud, when the Papal Legate made a speech in favor of the claims of the empress, and in opposition to King Stephen. He then proceeded to declare the daughter of Henry I. Queen of England, and the whole assembly by their acclamation gave assent to the proclamation. It is [xvi] believed that it was on this occasion that the Legate — satisfied with the result which he had prepared — exclaimed, after hearing the acclamations of the assembly, Vox Populi, Vox Dei!Having no copy of William of Malmsbury within reach, and no trace of Mr. Cooper’s MS. with its reference to the quotation having been found, the writer of these notes can go no farther in tracing the origin of an axiom so familiar.

In a higher sense, the supreme control of a nation, the working out of the grand and to us often mysterious ends of divine Providence by a people, there can be no doubt of its truth; while in a lower sense, in its minute application to every popular caprice, it is one of the many political phrases liable to gross abuse in this nineteenth century, and in our own republic. In his political opinions Mr. Cooper was frankly and loyally a republican, and a democrat in the higher sense of those words. With no other forms of government had he any personal sympathy. But he was nothing of a political propagandist, believing that all forms of civilized government have their uses at particular periods, and in particular conditions of society. A sound democracy he held to be capable in this nineteenth century, and in this young and vigorous nation, of a high and generous development, if subject to Christian principle. He was in favor of a broad, liberal suffrage. In absolute universal suffrage he did not believe. He held the theory in fact to be dangerous, and utterly impracticable for any length of time, when pushed to extremes. He held it to be dangerous, as increasing the power of the selfish demagogue, by making over to his hands the ignorant foreigner and the vicious native as so many tools for mischief. He wished that something more of an educational and a moral qualification were provided as limits to the suffrage, — that gross ignorance, crime, and habitual intemperance should be deprived of the vote, so far as practicable. He did not believe that by placing the suffrage in the hands of an ignorant European emigrant you could suddenly metamorphose the indi[xvii]vidual into an American patriot. He believed that the native American criminal, or habitual drunkard, would be always ready to sell his vote to the highest bidder for any evil purpose whatever. The political characteristics of Mr. Cooper were strong and clearly marked, nay, they were rare and remarkable. He did not worship the Goddess of Liberty, or the suffrage, or the caucus, or the primary meeting. He was purely generous and unselfish in his political views and aims; he was entirely frank, candid, and fearless in the expression of his convictions. In short, as a politician, he was thoroughly honest and thoroughly manly.

We quote a few passages from his own writings in proof of what has been said. In the year 1838 he was requested, by a gentleman connected with public instruction, to write a small volume of a political and moral character for the use of the higher classes in the common schools. He gave to the little book the name of “The American Democrat.” [James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat (Cooperstown: H. & E. Phinney, 1838] Here are a few of the passages: —

“All that the best institutions can achieve, is to remove useless obstacles, and to permit merit to be the artisan of its own fortunes.”

“Every human excellence is merely comparative, there being no good without alloy. It is idle, therefore, to expect a system which shall exhibit faultlessness or perfection.”

“The words liberty, equality, right, and justice, used in a political sense, are merely terms of convention, and of comparative excellence, there being no such thing in practice as either of these qualities being carried out purely, according to the abstract notions of theories.”

“The affairs of life embrace a multitude of interests, and he who reasons on any one of them, without considering the rest, is a visionary unsuited to control the business of the world.”

“There is a prevalent disposition in the designing to forget the means in the end, and on the part of the mass to [xviii] overlook the result in the more immediate agencies. The first is the consequence of cupidity; the lust of shortsightedness, and frequently of the passions. Both these faults need to be vigilantly watched in a democracy, as the first unsettles principles while it favors artifice, and the last is substituting the transient motives of a day for the deliberate policy and collective wisdom of ages.”

“Men are the constant dupes of names, while their happiness and well-being mainly depend on things. The highest proof a community can give of its fitness for self-government is its readiness in distinguishing the two.”

“It is a governing principle of nature, that the agency which can produce most good, when perverted from its proper aim, is most productive of evil. It behooves the well intentioned, therefore, to watch the tendency of even their most highly prized institutions, since that which was established in the interests of right may so easily become the agent of wrong.”

“The disposition of all human power is to abuses, nor does it as all mend the matter that its possessors are a majority. Unrestrained political authority, though it be confided to masses, cannot be trusted without positive limitations; men in bodies being but an aggregation of the passions, weaknesses, and interests of men as individuals.”

“Under every system it is more especially the office of the prudent and candid to guard against the evils peculiar to that system, than to declaim against the abuses of others. Thus, in a democracy, instead of decrying monarchs and aristocrats, who are impotent, it is wiser to look into the sore spots of the only form of government that can do us any practical injury, and to apply the necessary remedies, than to be glorifying ourselves at the expense of charity, common sense, and, not unfrequently, of truth.”

“Life is made up of positive things, the existence of which it is not only folly, but which it is often unsafe to deny. Nothing is gained by setting up impracticable theories, but alienating opinion from the facts under which we [xix] live, all the actual distinctions that are inseparable from the possession of property, learning, breeding, refinement, tastes, and principles existing as well in one form of government as in another; the only difference between ourselves and other nations is this particular, lying in the fact that there are no other artificial distinctions than those which are inseparable from the recognized principles and indispensable laws of civilization.”


(by Susan Fenimore Cooper)

1 The year 1847 was that in which The Crater was written.