Cooper’s Other Americans: Cultural Diversity and American Homogeneity

Thomas S. Gladsky (Central Missouri State University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1992 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Diego.

Reproduced with the consent of the author.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

In Cooper’s Americans, Kay Seymour House describes Cooper’s novels as a “coherent fictional world containing hundreds of characters that represented the possibilities of American life” (3). Categorizing his “Americans” by race, gender, nationality, region, and social class, she presents Cooper as one who embraced cultural diversity and helped to create an image of America as a melting pot. House cites a scene from Wyandotté as a paradigm of Cooper’s world. New England Yankees, a Irishman, Scot, Black, Indian, Dutchman gather to listen to news of the American Revolution — an emblem, so to speak, of a multi-national society. In effect, House crystallized thinking about the kinds of Americans who populate Cooper’s world by reinforcing and influencing scholarly assessment of him as a writer with a liberal vision of a culturally diverse America. Except for insightful feminist criticism that has enriched Cooper’s portraits of women and a few reexaminations of his Native American characters 1 House’s presentation of Cooper as one who promoted and appreciated diversity remains the standard view.

The prominence of ethnic scholarship, including such studies of Cooper as Alide Cagidemetrio’s “A Plea for Fictional Histories and Old-Time ‘Jewesses,’” prompts, however, a rereading of Cooper and diversity, especially in the context of the Nativist movement that swept the nation in the 1830s and 40s and that culminated in the Know-Nothing party. About this cultural development, as with many other issues of his day, Cooper seems to have maintained a relative silence. His writings include no extensive discussion or treatment of immigrants, foreigners or Catholics — those who were the object of nativist attacks. Cooper’s letters and novels from the mid-1830s to his death do demonstrate, however, that this “threat,” as it was characterized, was never far from his thoughts. Over the course of those years Cooper revealed his attitudes on this issue in various ways: in brief but telling comments in his letters and his fiction, in ambiguous generalizations, in references buried deep in his fictional monologues, and in his frequent railings about the new majority. What emerges is a portrait of an American writer increasingly worried about cultural diversity, the effects of immigration, the influence of Catholicism, and the forging of new masses with values antithetical to the landed gentry and to American character as Cooper understood it.

Cooper’s discontent with the new Americans coincides with his return from Europe and his disillusion with a changing America, a situation well known to Cooper readers but heretofore described in a socio-political context devoid of ethnicity and otherness. Cooper returned at the outset of a determined and at times ugly Nativist movement directed against Blacks, Catholics, foreigners, and immigrants. Soon after Cooper settled himself in New York, a mob burned an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Anti-Catholic hysteria swept the country and armed attacks against foreigners, especially Irish, occurred in St. Louis, New York City, and in Philadelphia where in 1844 thirty people were killed and three Catholic churches were burned. All this was fueled by a propaganda barrage led by such prominent Americans as Horace Bushnell, Lyman Beecher, and Samuel Morse. 2 At the same time, candidates running on Nativist platforms sought and won elective offices and organized politically into the Native American Party and assorted off-shoots that later assumed national importance.

At least one historian of this movement has indicted Cooper as an example of the kind of prominent American who supported this frenzy. Carleton Beals writes, “Novelist James Fenimore Cooper called foreigners excessive drunkards who controlled American seaports and influenced diplomatic appointments“(71). While Beals is more interested in documenting Nativist excesses than in accurately appraising Cooper, he, nonetheless, correctly links Cooper with the movement in spirit if not in deed, an association ignored even by those who have most closely studied Cooper’s politics. In truth, there is no evidence that Cooper joined or actively supported the movement either in the 1830s or afterwards — Cooper had no tolerance for demagoguery from any source. Equally true, however, he took no public position against nativism, its physical and verbal excesses, or its spokespersons.

For example, one of the most prominent and influential nativist leaders was none other than Cooper’s close friend, Samuel Morse, 3 with whom Cooper met and corresponded frequently in the 1830s. In 1834, Morse published 12 letters in the New York Observer, entitled “A Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States”; and a year later he wrote a new series for the Journal of Commerce, “Immigrant Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States through Foreign Immigration.” In 1836 he ran for New York City mayor on the Nativist ticket. About his good friend’s involvement, Cooper says nothing except to remark lightheartedly on Morse’s difficulties. To Horatio Greenough, he jokes about Morse’s poor showing in the Mayoral race and that “Morse might marry Maria Monk“(Letters III 219). To Mrs. Cooper, he notes that “Morse is here, and Monkish as ever“(Letters III 224 ).

His public silence about Morse notwithstanding, Cooper was neither uninformed nor apathetic about nativism. His 1836 letter to Greenough reveals the depth of his feelings:

The foreigners have got to be so strong, among us that they no longer creep but walk erect. They throng the presses, control one or two of the larger cities, and materially influence public opinion all over the Union. By foreigners, I do not mean the lower class of Irish voters, who do so much at the polls, but the merchants and others a degree below them, who are almost to a man hostile in feeling to the country, and to all her interests, except as they may happen to be their interests.” (Letters III 220)

In this stinging statement, Cooper for the first time identifies the enemy by name and, more importantly, links the presence of immigrants to the deterioration of the nation, an issue that would occupy him from the 1830s on. He further suggests, as others would later in the century, that certain cultures may be incompatible with democratic principles.

Cooper’s notions of the “new” Americans surface elsewhere in his correspondence in a variety of ways. To Mrs. Cooper he humorously writes that “Morse is on the Catholic scent still” but then his thoughts turn dark as he reveals the extent of his own anti-Catholicism. He informs her that “Some terrible disclosures are about to be made, touching the Canadian monasteries, which are described as no better than brothels, in which murder is a common pastime. That the conventional system is infamous, and that it was framed to comfort the priests ... who are kept in celibacy to wheedle the women, and thus extend the influence of the papists, I make no doubt” (Letters III 174).

In effect, many of Cooper’s statements are double-edged — to be read as high-minded concerns about the direction of the nation or as nativist fears about cultural diversity. Cooper’s letter to James Mead is such an example. He complains that “the state of things in the Atlantic towns is, I fancy, but little understood in the interior. Here we all lie at the mercy of foreign hirelings, and I see no remedy for it” (Letters III 247). Who exactly the “foreign hirelings are seems, at least to Cooper and to Mead, to need no further definition. This cryptic allusion assumes clarity only when juxtaposed against other letters. For example, in a later exchange with his good friend William Shubrick, Cooper warns once more of foreign domination of American letters; but his complaint takes on a nativist tones when he adds that “immigration weighs us down“(Letters III 300). He writes in 1839 of his visit to a Catholic church in Philadelphia, telling his wife that the chapel was “filled with Irish of a class better than usual” (Letters III 455). And on another occasion he tells Mrs. Cooper that New York City is taking on the appearance of “an encampment or a caravancy,” and that “If New York were left to real New Yorkers it would be a town, that ... every man ... might be proud of” (Letters IV 277).

Like his letters, Cooper’s fiction from the mid-1830s contains many such questionable and somewhat insensitive responses relative to the question, who and what is an American? In one sense, Cooper speaks by not speaking. Despite the fact that the 1830s and 40s witnessed massive immigration that forever changed the country’s cultural makeup, Cooper ignored the rich fictional possibilities inherent in this demographic shift. Except for a sprinkling of Dutch and Native American characters who, for all intents, represent America as it was in Cooper’s youth, a few African Americans of dubious authenticity, and a stray American of French, Scot, or English descent, his novels include virtually no “new” Americans. Those who do appear, a handful, are decidedly one-dimensional and de-ethnicized. In Home as Found, Mademoiselle Viefville is a secondary character without a cultural identity, and in The Ways of the Hour, Dr. McBrain is a protestant, prerevolutionary war “ethnic” who has lost his Irish past. Germans and Irish are conspicuously absent. In short, in the score of works he wrote from 1838 to 1850, Cooper represented American types as if the world of The Pioneers were still intact, despite the immigration of a million and a half Irish and a like number of other non-anglo peoples to U. S. shores. One might conclude from this that Cooper preferred his “own times.” One might also conclude that Cooper deliberately turned away from an increasingly culturally diverse America which he feared and disliked.

Despite the paucity of European ethnics, his novels offer a sustained point of view on nativism. As in his letters, Cooper’s point of view is not easily discernible. Nonetheless, sandwiched among the monologues of the Effinghams in Homeward Bound and Home As Found are the kind of sentiments Cooper had exchanged with Morse, Mead, Shubrick, and with Mrs. Cooper. He worries at one point about the many ‘knaves who migrate to America” (HB 506) and he frets that New York City is now comprised of two-thirds immigrants from the interior or from “some foreign country” (HB 530). More specifically, John Effingham, Cooper’s spokesperson, cites the country’s “growing indisposition to receive immigrants at all” and agrees that “their number is getting to be inconvenient to the native population” (HB 506). Surprisingly, however, when Eve Effingham tours the city in Home as Found, she observes no immigrants or ethnic enclaves. Cooper notes only that the “sprinkling of Europeans of various nations and conditions” adds to “local peculiarities” (HF 189). But his sustained attack on social instability and political change together with John Effingham’s defense of Anglo Saxon superiority suggests that more is amiss in New York City than Cooper cares to particularize.

In Afloat and Ashore, Cooper identifies these problems with “current immigration.” While Miles Wallingford is in this case referring to immigrants from neighboring states, the association of immigration and America’s decline is unmistakeable. In the novel Cooper, for example, compares contemporary New York to former days, preferring the provincial appearance and beauty of the early 1800s; and he remembers the Battery of 1802 when it was frequented by “the better classes.” What appears to be nothing more than a melancholy sense of lost youth is also Cooper’s way of distinguishing between authentic and non-authentic Americans. He pines for “the true, native portion of the population, and not the throng from Ireland and Germany, who now crowd the streets, and who, certainly as a body, are not in the least remarkable for personal charms“(358). And he reduces the Irish to a caricature: a “droll medley of fun, shrewdness, and blundering“(57).

In the Littlepage trilogy (1845-47), he continues to speak to the issue of cultural diversity, especially the Dutch. But, like his Native Americans, the Dutch are only a remembrance of things past. One need only survey Cooper’s description of Dutch character in Satanstoe to see that the Dutch are highly regarded because they are, like the Irish, merely children: fun-loving, innocent, ignorant, emotional, friendly, superstitious, candid, and authority-bound. The Dutch, as Cooper sees them, are fringe Americans precisely because they are still tied to their ethnicity.

When all is said in the trilogy, Cooper comes not to praise diversity but to bury it as he had previously sought to bury Native American culture from The Pioneers to Oak Openings. The prologue and epilogue in Satanstoe make it clear that the historical plot is an historical justification to attack those who lack appreciation for the culture of “our ancestors” (495). At the outset, he warns of the advent of a “new race” of Americans “who will neither understand nor appreciate colonial society and its construction“(l). And he ends as he had begun by criticizing the new majority of his day and by implying that the Connecticut Yankees in the novel are actually surrogates for the real enemies that he cautiously identifies only as a “throng of strangers.”

Cooper’s sentiments grow more explicit as the trilogy moves closer to present time. In The Chainbearer, he offers advice to those newly arriving in New York state: “Our immigrant friends should remember one thing ... he who migrates is bound to respect the habits and opinions of those whom he joins“(127). For the first time in his fiction, he refers to the Irish and the Germans. In both instances, Cooper uses these real and fictitious immigrants to distinguish between America as it is and as it should be. In The Redskins, Barney, an Irishman newly arrived, eavesdrops on private conversations; Roger characterizes him as a “bogtrotter”; and Dunning complains that he has no more influence on political events than Barney, “who will vote to suit a majority“(82). Cooper’s narrator agrees with Dunning that most “Americans” do not favor universal suffrage and thus he connects Cooper’s distrust for the majority with immigrants such as Barney. Cooper uses an Irish analogy to explain the problem when he has the immigrant Pat, a tender of pigs, explain with simple-minded directness that the runt is now “getting the majority of the rest, and will make the best hog of ‘em a11“(437). While not necessarily directing enmity at the Irish, Cooper nonetheless uses them to illustrate his greatest fears: majority rule and accompanying social disorder. And when he searches for an example to document the lawlessness and low-class behavior of the anti-renters, he turns to the Irish once again. Seneca Newcome, the New England leveller and political threat, is, we are told, little better than an Irishman when he attempts to court women outside his class. The only difference, Hugh points out, is that “an Irishman would have included my grandmother in his cast of the net“(465). Similarly, Germans are portrayed as comic inferiors. Roger and Hugh Littlepage disguise themselves as immigrant peddlers, speak with stereotypical German accents, and act comically. Their quaint ethnicity is nothing more than a vehicle for Cooper to offer anti-populist arguments from supposedly neutral observers.

Immediately after the Littlepage trilogy, Cooper wrote two radically different kinds of novels, both of which express his uneasiness with America’s future. In Oak Openings, he chronicles disturbing demographic changes from 1812 to 1848. Now “Romanists abound” he tells us, and the “chants and prayers of the mass-books” may be heard everywhere(229). Then he warns that Catholicism and democracy may be incompatible because “monks, nuns and Catholics revere authority“(229). Perhaps the ultimate expression of Cooper’s attitude occurs through the character of Scalping Peter who, in the course of the novel, is transformed from a Native American warrior into a de-ethnicized Christian and, a Euro-American who accepts not only the white man’s religion but also the destiny of Europeans to spread their civilization across the continent. “How wonderfully changed.” Cooper says of Peter. “The Spirit of the Most High God had been shed freely upon his moral being, and in lieu of the revengeful and vindictive savage, he now lived a subdued, benevolent Christian“(489).

Oak Openings serves to summarize the ideological direction of all Cooper’s historical works beginning with The Pioneers, In The Ways of the Hour, however, Cooper puts aside the exotic settings of the frontier, the sea, and history so as to comment directly on the issues of his day, not the least of which is immigration. Ostensibly, the novel criticizes about the corruption of justice and law, and the rise of demagogues and majority rule. Although Cooper as usual talks almost exclusively in general terms, he suggests, however, that the majority consists to a great degree of “other Americans.” For example, early in the novel he describes New York as a “mottled” city, populated from all parts of the Republic with “European representatives amounting to scores of thousands“(10). Ultimately, these veiled comments turn into clear denunciations of immigrants and foreigners. At one point, he defines a “real” American: “Stephen,” he writes, “was neither an Irishman nor a black, but a regular, old-fashioned, Manhattanese coachman, a class apart, and of whom, in the confusion of tongues that pervades that modern Babel, a few still remain, like monuments of the past scattered along the Appian Way“(89). In addition, Cooper chooses to identify the primary suspect in the murder plot as a German immigrant. This allows Cooper opportunities to call attention to stereotypical, unflattering characteristics of other cultures. Jack Wilmeter, a respected character, explains that “These German immigrants have brought more than their share of crime among us. Look at the reports of murders and robberies for the last ten years, and you will find that an undue proportion of them have been committed by this class of immigrants“(l02). In effect, by 1850, Cooper had assimilated national prejudices about immigrants to the degree that he could repeat them without second thoughts. Thus the novel offers a summary of “immigrant traits” that one might just as easily read in reactionary works of the times:

Far more than their share of the grave crimes of this country have, within the period named, been certainly committed by immigrants from Germany; whether the cause be in the reason given, or in the national character. This is not according to ancient opinion, but we believe it to be strictly according to fact. The Irish are clannish, turbulent, and much disposed to knock each other on the head; but it is not to rob or pilfer, but to quarrel. The Englishman will pick your pocket, or commit burglary, when inclined to roguery, and frequently he has a way of exhorting, in the way of vails. ... The natives, out of all proportion are freest from crime, if the blacks be excepted, and when we compare the number of the convicted with the number of the people. (103)

Although Cooper closes this passage by reminding the reader that “such results ought not to be taken as furnishing absolute rules by which to judge of large bodies of men“(l03), his disclaimer does little to alter the negative portrait of ethnics.

By and large the thumb-nail sketches of the immigrant as criminal are rooted in comments that permeate Cooper’s letters and novels of the 1835-1850 period. That Cooper intended these remarks to serve the interests of nativists and Know-Nothings is open to debate; that he sympathized with the spirit of nativism if not all its particulars is not. What Cooper would have thought about the period of great immigration later in the century can only be conjecture; but nativist charges then, as in the 1830s and 1840s, that condemned immigrants for their Catholicism, brutality, ignorance, anti-democratic tendencies, and lack of high culture find their parallels in Cooper. This is not to say that Cooper should be regarded as an unadulterated Fascist, racist, or homogenist. At the very least he should be included among those of whom it is said, “For evil to triumph all it takes is for a good man to do nothing.” At most, it might be said he did a bit more.


1 Although scholars, such as Reuben Ellis (“Cooper’s Imps: A Way of Talking about Indians”), Kay Seymour House (“Cooper’s Indians After Yet Another ‘Century of Dishonor’”) and James S. Hedges (“Oak Openings: Fenimore Cooper’s Requiem for the American Indian”), have added new dimensions to our way of thinking about Cooper, they have yet to discuss Cooper’s “other” Americans in terms of current scholarship in literary ethnicity.

2 Beginning in the 1830’s, nativists produced a stream of scurrilous works from Six Months in a Convent, or the Narrative of Rebecca Theresa Reed. who was under the Influence of the Roman Catholics about Two Years, and an Inmate of the Ursuline Convent ... nearly Six Months in the Years 1832-32 (1835), to Maria Monk’s best-selling Artful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery (1836), to Beecher’s Plea for the West, an expose of a supposed Jesuit plot to capture the American West for Rome (1835), to Bushnell’s Barbarism the First Danger (1847).

3 While in Europe, they served together on the American committee to aid Poland. In addition, Morse copied paintings for Cooper, chose Cooper’s gifts to the new National Academy of Design in New York City, was rumored to have a romantic interest in Cooper’s daughter, Susan, and even rented a house for Cooper on his return from Europe in 1833.