Introduction to Home as Found (1838)

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: On his return to America [in 1833] Cooper found a lack of moral progress; absent were frankness of speech and independence of action; people were actually afraid to criticize anything American; society was interested only in material wealth; young men were physically and mentally lazy; Home as Foundwas an attempt, perhaps imperfect, to inspire something better.

Pages and Pictures, pp. 299-301

Contents: HOME AS FOUND. — Provincial spirit — Mr. Cooper’s views as to the duties of literary men — His frankness — Extract, The Commodore of the Lake.

[299] AFTER a long absence, the writer, on returning from abroad, was struck with the fact that, in some important particulars, the country had lost ground. The progress hoped for in certain points of moral strength had not been attained. The timidity, the want of self-reliance, which had marked the first steps in the mental independence of the country, had passed away, and was now replaced by a vapid and sensitive public vanity, fostered by the fulsome flattery of selfish demagogues; a spirit different, in its very essence, from a manly, and honest, and generous love of country, and from which no healthful fruits, whatever, could be expected. To counteract this puerile spirit — to distinguish clearly between the strong and the weak points open to observation — he considered to be a duty on the part of every honest writer, who had the good of his country at heart. To aid in holding up a public standard, which should be at the same time high, and yet practical, he believed an especial duty in the citizen of a democracy, and of a nation isolated in position, immature in age; a standard high and rational on all points of principle, of judgment, and of culture. “A une grande nation l’on peut tout dire!“ was [300] his principle. There were two particulars, in the growth of national character, by which he was especially disappointed. One might have supposed that, among the citizens of a republic, frankness of speech, independence of action, would scarcely appear as individual virtues; we should have believed them natural consequences of that form of society. But far, indeed, was such from being the general state of the moral atmosphere which surrounded the writer on his return. He had not been at home a week, when, at an evening party, he had the ill luck carelessly to observe, that, on the evening of his arrival, he had been sadly jolted by the bad state of the pavement; and that he had also been surprised to find the town so poorly lighted. Anxious friends immediately gathered about him, cautiously making a diversion in his favor; and, at length, leading him aside, earnestly implored him to be more prudent. He had professed to enjoy exceedingly the bright November sunshine, the soft Indian-summer breezes, after the gloomy fogs and damp chills of the same season in London and Paris; this was very well; let him pursue that track, and all might yet be safe; but — by the shade of Washington! by the memory of John Jay! — of the pavement, not a word! of the lamps, not one syllable! He happened, at a dinner party, to allude to the fact that the Alps were some ten thousand feet higher than the White Mountains, and covered with perpetual snow. A severely reproving salutation, the next day, from those who had sat at table with him, was the consequence. He was heard, in answer to repeated inquiries, to affirm that the natural scenery, and the classical interest of the shores of the bay of Naples, far surpassed any claims of the bay of New York, beyond those of a maritime harbor; his fate was sealed. He was, clearly, devoid alike of taste and of patriotism! And again anxious friends gathered about him — imploring him, with increased earnestness, to avoid all such dangerous remarks; or, if it were really true that the Alps were fifteen thousand feet high, and that Baiæ and Pompeii actually lay on the shores of the Neapolitan waters, let him, at least, attest the fact in a corner, and lower his voice to a whisper! The effect of all this puerile weakness, this pusillanimity in the general tone of society, at that moment, on a nature frank as his own, may be conceived. At first, this Krähwinkel spirit made him laugh; when he met it continually, at every turn, it chafed and annoyed him; and when he found it actually carried into matters of grave importance, it produced indignation and disgust. This state of things — this want of frankness, this morbid public vanity in connection with trifles — led him, perhaps, to the opposite extreme of carelessness and freedom of speech and pen. But a point still more grave, even, than this puerile sensitiveness about pavements and lamps, took him by surprise, gave him pain. He was too often struck by the generally low and selfish vein of those [301] about him — the want of an elevated tone on points of taste, of morals, of practice. Among individuals, this tone was found as high and vigorous as in his own mind and life; yet, in general society, the aim openly sought, the object constantly avowed, seemed to him little beyond the acquirement of wealth, or the enjoyment of it in the way of wine and canvas-back ducks. Among the young men, especially, the lack of noble and generous impulse, the lethargy, the torpid inaction — both physical and mental — actually amazed him. Far different had been his own youth. And latterly, in Europe, he had been accustomed to hear men feign, at least, some honorable trim in life; utter just sentiments with their lips, even when they could not be supposed to feel them very deeply. Rut, with the low tone prevailing at the day, in American society, men seemed actually ashamed to adopt, or to avow, any object above those of the market. In connection with this subject, he frequently alluded to an observation made to him by a friend of his — a distinguished Englishwoman — that it gave her great pleasure to observe the marked improvement in tone, among her countrymen of the present generation, whose moral education, acquirements, and objects in life were far superior to what they bad been half a century earlier. The author could but hope that some similar change for good might yet appear in American education — something to excite a higher spirit; to infuse motives more generous; to arouse to action more decided, among the men of the country. To aid, in some degree, in pointing out the evil, pin holding up this higher standard, became his ohject in “Home as Found” That the principle was just and honorable, is clear. That he may have erred in some of the details of his task is very possible. Which, among the wisest of the sons of earth, has had, in pursuing a course just in itself, no error of detail to regret?

The shores of Lake Otsego were chosen for the scene of this book, solely from the fact that the same ground had been already described in an earlier stage of American society. The plot and characters of the book are, of course, entirely fictitious — repeatedly declared so by the author. One exception only must be made for a figure avowedly and minutely drawn from life — a figure long familiar to those living on the lake shores — a venerable figure, tall and upright, to be seen for some threescore years moving to and fro over the water, trolling for pickerel or angling for perch, almost any day in the year, excepting when the waters were ice-bound in winter.

Excerpt: “The Commodore” [James Fenimore Cooper, Home as Found (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1860), Chapter 14, pp. 226-235].