Introduction to Homeward Bound (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: Cooper’s early patriotism; belief in need for a national literature; his defense of American culture in Europe; his “chilling and repelling” reception on his return to America; libel suits to protect his moral character; his initial astonishment at press attacks; actions taken from principle; necessity to restrain “the poisons spread by the daily press”; changes in his feelings toward his country.

Pages and Pictures, pp. 285-291

Contents: HOMEWARD BOUND. — Attacks — The author’s defence of his character — Trials — Success — His views of Freedom of the press — Extract, The Arabs and Captain Truck.

[285] Love of country was a feeling which, with the author of “The Bravo,” had far more than common depth. There were many years of his life during which that feeling may be said to have partaken of the nature of a passion. Born with the country, the sympathies of his own ardent youth flowed naturally in the same current with the young life of the nation. The glow of an interest almost personal was felt in every important step of advancing civilization: the opening of broad forests, the tilling of great plains and valleys, the movement of busy fleets of shipping on river and coast, the building of manufactories and warehouses, the progress of cities and villages, were all in turn followed with a closely-observant and animated eye, and appreciated with intelligent and practical insight into details. His sense of vigorous growth was, indeed, an unceasing source of enjoyment to him. In physical activity, in energy of spirit, he was most essentially American. The higher elements which make up national feeling were, of course, still more powerful in their influences: the early history of the country, its honorable origin, its healthful colonial progress, its independence so gallantly won, its achievements in arms by land and sea, its diffusion of education, and, above all, its political and religious constitution, wise, and just, and generous in spirit, were so many sources of honest pride. No man in the country bore about a heart more loyal in its allegiance than his own. And as years passed over, during a long period, they brought little change in the fervor of this feeling; the experience of maturity had no power of itself to chill the enthusiasm of his nature. At the moment when early manhood was passing away, a [286] new career, wholly unforeseen, suddenly opened before him; the first important step in that career gave to the world as noble a personification of the spirit of patriotism as literature can show. And the young writer had scarcely made sure of his ground — had scarcely convinced himself of his ability to maintain this new position, to move onward in the same course — ere the hope arose of rendering service to his country in the field of letters. With the power to act came simultaneously the resolution to work for good. No writer could be more fully aware than himself of the importance of a healthful moral spirit, pervading the lighter literature of a nation; entirely free from puritanical tendencies alike in nature and in education, he believed the existence of a literature in that form to be a sort Of necessity among every reading people — as much so as the existence of laugh or song, in every human household. The importance of these lesser influences he rated highly; he inclined to the opinion of him who said: “Let me make the songs of a people, and its laws you may shape as you please!” [Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun (1655-1716)] The power for good, or for evil, of this element in the education of a people, he held to be great — fearful in its facilities to excite, to pervert, to enervate, to corrupt, in the hands of the unprincipled and selfish, but capable, when worthily employed, of becoming an active agent for good in the sound, moral, and intellectual culture of a nation. A just sense of responsibility, in a mind ever nobly conscientious, might have been sufficient to point out his course in this respect. But such an appeal to principle was scarcely needed. Where there is strong feeling, there service is no longer a severe duty; the task sits lightly, is performed almost unconsciously, when a labor of love. It was no cold, abstract principle which made up patriotism in the heart which conceived the character of Harvey Birch; nay, more, it was not only that local affection of soil and scene, which is the instinctive growth of every healthful nature; it was human sympathy in one of its highest forms, it was a love of his kind, of his fellow-countrymen — ardent, generous, and active — which guided his pen.

Under influences of this character the first works of a long series were written. It required but brief reflection to show that in behalf of a young nation there was much especial mental work to be done. There was fresh seed to be sown in the new soil. The infusion of old and eternal principles into new forms was to be carried out. The cultivation of a healthful national tone, blending the self-respect of a firm position with that spirit of mental growth, of moral amelioration, becoming the period of early youth — the cherishing of clear moral truth, of sound reasoning, of strong common sense, of pure feeling, of good taste — all this needed to be carried out into detail, amid institutions partially novel in form. To be one among those who should aid in this onward progress, this upward [287] growth, of a high, free, Christian civilization, became his object as a writer; and he threw himself into the task with that ardor, that untiring spirit, and that buoyancy of a hopeful nature, which so strongly marked his course through life. “The Spy,” “The Pioneers,” “The Pilot,” “The Mohicans,” “The Prairie,” were written. He sailed for Europe. And as he touched the shores of the old world, he felt that he had acquired a right to an honest pride in the name of an American; the pen in his hand had already given something toward an honorable fame for his country. He entered into European society, courted as literary men of reputation usually are in those countries. Here, to his surprise, he soon discovered that, while far more of personal homage than he could have anticipated — far more than he sought or wished for — was offered to himself as to other distinguished writers, his country was overlooked — as he conceived, undervalued and decried. This fact he attributed in a measure to political motives — to a dread of the influence of American institutions combined with American prosperity. Believing, as he conscientiously did, that those institutions were founded on principles true, just, and generous, he conceived it a duty to uphold them, in these assaults received in European society. And this course he steadfastly pursued; no amount of personal flattery offered at the expense of his country, her history, and her political institutions, could ever draw from him even the tacit rejection often sought for. The remark was frequently made to him that American travellers very generally abandoned the political principles of their country when thrown into European society. He was resolved that no such accusation should justly be made against himself.

It was during this period that “The Red Rover,” “The Travelling Bachelor,” “The Wish-ton-Wish,” “The Water-Witch,” “The Bravo,” were written — unchanged in the general tone of almost enthusiastic fidelity to the country, and undiminished in mental power. After an absence of nearly eight years, the author returned home. With the exception of old personal friends, true as ever, his reception was chilling and repelling in the extreme. For this he was in some measure prepared; the reality, however, far surpassed what had been anticipated. With the publication of “The Bravo” had commenced a series of abuse in the public prints, which to an European must have appeared remarkable; that a man who had left his country some eight years earlier, one of the most popular of its public characters; should have passed those years in contributing to the literary reputation of his country, in upholding abroad her institutions and character; and then, as he again stepped on his native soil, be met with a burst of vulgar abuse only, may have seemed extraordinary to an intelligent observer from the old world. Let it be left to others — to those who take [288] pleasure in analyzing the unworthy passions of human nature, what is weak, trivial, ignoble, cowardly — to search more closely into the motives by which too many of those abusive pens must have been guided. It has been said, and by those competent to judge, that a single sentence in the introduction to “The Heidenmauer” was the first and chief cause of all the gross personal abuse with which, for many years, Mr. Fenimore Cooper was assailed: “Each hour, as life advances, am I made to see how capricious and vulgar is the immortality conferred by a newspaper!” [James Fenimore Cooper, The Heidenmauer [1832] (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1861), Introduction, p. vii] This sentence drew, at the time, from the editor of one of the leading papers in the country, a threat of lasting personal persecution: “The press has built him up — the press shall pull him down!” Which of these two remarks carried with it the larger share of truth, of justice, of uprightness of position, of honorable feeling, another generation is already deciding.

The nature of Mr. Cooper was one easily aroused by attack; while no man was more ready than he with heart, and hand, and lip, to reciprocate — nay, generously to go beyond, every friendly advance; yet assault instantly called out repelling power from him — and that, at times, perhaps, with a severity beyond what he was himself aware of. To criticism on his merits as a writer he always professed himself willing to allow the freest scope; to falsehood and prolonged personal abuse, where his moral character was concerned, he declared that he would not submit. The laws should protect that character — if need were, he would compel their protection, by the powers of truth and justice inherent in their spirit, however inert their daily action might have become where others were concerned. Those laws insuring to every citizen the rights of private character should for himself no longer be a dead letter. He chose at length, after a long period of vituperation, to assert his rights — he resolved to maintain them. The struggle lasted for years. The first step in such a course implied the necessity of others. Fresh assailants poured in upon him, until hundreds — aye, perhaps thousands — were openly arrayed against one. Single-handed, as it were, but supported by an upright conscience and a powerful intellect, truth and justice on his side, the laws of the land his only weapon, he went with his legal companions into one court-room after another, and drew from juries, often very strongly prejudiced against him, the conviction of his assailants. Seventeen different civil actions for libel were brought by him: of these, in nine cases the verdicts were in his favor; five cases were settled by the defendants publishing retractions; in one instance the case was not tried, owing to the death of the defendant; in one case a judgment in his favor was given by the Supreme Court, but afterward reversed by the Court of Errors on the ground that pub[289]lication was not a libel; one cause was still pending at the time of the author’s death. Two criminal indictments for libel were found, on his complaint. One of these cases was tried three times: on two occasions the juries disagreed, on the third occasion they acquitted the defendant; in this instance no evidence was introduced by the defendant beyond partially mutilated extracts from the book reviewed, and every reader could make up his own mind as to the value of the verdict by comparing — were he disposed to do so — the book itself with the charges contained in the pretended criticism. In the second criminal case the libel was retracted, and the prosecution dropped. It was Mr. Cooper’s intention at first that the sums awarded as damages in these causes should be thrown into a common fund, and appropriated to some public object. But his pecuniary means were very limited, and lie ultimately decided that the award of one cause should be made available in defraying the expenses of that which followed. An account was kept, and no more was received than was expended in the same way. At the close of these proceedings the sums were evenly balanced.

When the first attacks, full of personal abuse, were published at home, so clear was the author’s conscience toward the country, that he was wholly unprepared for them. They took him entirely by surprise. When these attacks increased in number and in virulence — when he found the whole current of public feeling yielding with thoughtless indifference, with pitiful weakness, to such guidance, until at length it had turned into a flood of enmity against an absent man — he was amazed. He paused awhile; he stood awaiting and listening for some friendly voice to be raised in his favor — for some generous and indignant word to be heard above this low clamor, this prolonged unmanly iteration of the most vulgar abuse. For that voice — for that word — during years he listened in vain. There were, no doubt, many who, in private,spoke in his behalf. In public there was not one to defend him. This silence on the part of his friends may have been in a measure owing to the fact that all who knew him personally were well aware that his was not the timid, sensitive nature which sinks under attack; they knew him to be in every sense capable of self-defence. But if the power of his intellect was great; if he had physical vigor and nerve beyond most men; if in moral courage he was wholly dauntless — did they then believe the man who had conceived Harvey Birch — could they believe the man who created Natty — entirely without a heart! The country he had been striving to serve was casting him off; very many among those whom he had looked upon as friends were turning against him — nay, were now active in swelling the general outcry of the throng. His spirit was deeply wounded. The very enthusiasm of devotion which from boyhood had marked his love of country, its self-forgetful [290] disinterestedness of character, gave greater force to the revulsion of feeling. Foul were the blasts which now poured about that noble head from every quarter of the land. No gallant ship of his own, storm and tempest raging fiercely about her ocean path, ever rode through gale of louder fury; none ever bore aloft more bravely the colors confided to her. Never was he known to quail. “He writes like a hero!” had been the language already applied to him by a great English critic, Christopher North. As he wrote, so he lived. He now aroused himself in the fulness of his strength, a very lion at bay. Had this been a mere personal struggle, the single arm stemming that fierce current might have been swept away; the result might have been different. He would himself have wearied of such work, in very disgust. But, in reality, there was something far beyond personal interest at stake; the struggle soon became one between principle and the spirit of tyranny, working under the form of a regular combination — a banded conspiracy, many against one! “The King’s name is a tower of strength,” says the wise man. With habitual firm trust in Providence, in the inherent and inalienable powers of Truth and Justice when worthily upheld and steadfastly adhered to, he moved onward in the course he had marked out for himself; gradually, as weeks and months passed over, what there was of personal feeling, on his side, yielded more and more to motives involving general principles. The public press was, in his view, a power for life, or for death, to this nation. On the healthful uses or the criminal abuses of this single element, he considered that the lasting good or the eventual corruption and fall of the country must inevitably depend, more than on any one other earthly influence. The poisons spread by the daily press — the spirit of error, of untruth, of dissension, of licentiousness — becomes blended with the daily life of every man, and woman, and child in the land — is necessarily infused into every vein of the body politic. No power for general corruption so great as that of the daily press; no tyranny more selfish, more reckless, more shameless, where individual interests are concerned, if left unchecked to work its own will; nay, no power so truly inimical to the eventual freedom and healthful action of that press itself, as its own abuses. Laws, few, but clear and stringent, he believed absolutely necessary to counteract this tendency to corruption in the daily press — laws for the protection of public morals, for the protection of private rights. To see that these laws were carried into execution he held to be an obligation essentially connected with the very birthright of every citizen of a republic.

It has been said that silence under similar attacks should have been the author’s course. It is to be hoped — nay, we may feel confident — that there are many in the country who could have borne in worthy silence obloquy even great and [291] general as that with which the author of “The Prairie” was assailed; such might, perhaps, have been the course of the writer, and of the reader, of these lines. Bat let as turn our eyes abroad; let us inquire of each other if there was at the time in the whole republic one other nature so resolute, so untiring, so independent, so disinterested, so intrepid, as thus bravely to face single-handed the spirit of tyranny in that particular form most trying to American nerve — a form dangerous, insidious, intolerant, remorseless, manifold — a mob armed with a show of mental power! Upheld by principle, and unappalled by the vituperation of half the nation, the author moved steadily onward. As he advanced in his course, the bitterness of personal feeling, the disappointment which had chilled his warm heart when the fickleness of popular favor was first discovered in its fulness, lessened almost daily; reliance on Providence, the consciousness of innate integrity, the buoyancy of a naturally happy and joyous temper upheld him. His feeling toward the country underwent a change: the enthusiasm of that glowing devotion which he had carried with him for so many years had passed away, but not from the effects of time, which had no power of itself to chill affections strong, and generous, and deep as his own. It was now a sadder and a more sober feeling — still ready to give, still ready to serve, still gladly noting all of good — but it was the feeling which no longer looked for return of sympathy.

Excerpt: “The Arabs” [James Fenimore Cooper, Homeward Bound [1838] (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1960), Chapters 19-20, pp. 289-299].