Cooper and Sedgwick: Rivalry or Respect?

Patricia Larson Kalayjian (California State University, Dominguez Hills)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1993 Conference of the American Literature Association in Baltimore.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 4, September, 1993.

Copyright © 1993, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

Within the parameters of the traditional study of American literature over the past one hundred and fifty years, Catharine Maria Sedgwick and James Fenimore Cooper would appear to share little more than a common birth year — 1789. Even considering the occasional downturn in his reputation, literary histories have generally agreed that Cooper was the dominant American author during the 1820s and 30s, a writer whose work helped determine a national literature, while Sedgwick has been portrayed as either a relatively insignificant imitator of Cooper’s historical romances or as the purveyor of a moralistic or sentimental fiction of the type popularized by Maria Edgeworth. He the professional, she the dilettante; he the legitimizer of American fiction, she a pallid didact who had some temporary popularity with the less-demanding reading public. This received history is not only inaccurate, it defuses and decenters a literary relationship far more complex on a variety of levels — personal, professional, and public.

Cooper and Sedgwick’s contemporaries had not as yet institutionalized the hierarchy of fame or talent I outlined above. In the 1820s and 30s, the two writers shared the spotlight, and their novels were greeted with equal interest and equivalent attention by the critics. Sedgwick was generally classed with Cooper, Irving, and Bryant as one of the founders of a uniquely American literature, although her gender did intrude to some degree, so that she was often referred to as the first American “authoress” — both in chronology and in esteem — usually with all of the cultural engenderment that accompanies such terminology. Although Cooper’s ultimate output was vast relative to Sedgwick’s — he published, for example, thirty-two novels, she only six — her work was discussed in the same periodicals, often by the same reviewers, and was received with much the same level of appreciation as was his.

If he was praised for his engrossing adventure plots and fine descriptions and pilloried for his stilted dialogue and unbelievable female characters, she was likewise praised for her descriptions and also for her fine characterizations, while being criticized for her too-fortuitous plot turns and her pattern villains. Both gained approval for their devotion to American characters, locations, and situations and were censured for their hurried constructions, their over-romanticized Indians, their occasional failures to keep a character’s voice consistent, and for that most heinous of nineteenth-century crimes — bad grammar. It was not uncommon for critics to draw comparisons between their fictions and between their talents in particular areas. In 1837, one British critic, for example, remarked that, between the young women in Redwood, Sedgwick’s second novel, “the conversations are strained and pedantic, like those of all the ladies in Cooper’s novels, which have led not a few English readers to imagine that American young ladies speak differently from all other human beings — an error which Miss Sedgwick is not assisting to rectify. ... ” 1

Sedgwick’s Redwood, published anonymously in 1824, was in fact believed at first to be by Cooper — a mistake soon corrected in the United States, but one sustained long enough abroad that both the French and Italian versions of this contemporary novel of manners were originally printed under Cooper’s name — an error that rather amused Sedgwick, who commented that she “hoped Mr. C’s self-complacency will not be wounded by the mortifying news.” 2

In spite of the favor in which Sedgwick’s work was held in the second quarter of the century, her fame was to begin a steady decline after the mid-1800s. So swiftly and completely did she reach obscurity that, in his 1931 study Literary Criticism in America, George DeMille observed with unmistakable surprise that the “great American novelist prior to 1830, if greatness is measured in space in the reviews, was Catherine Sedgewick [sic],” and then, with noticeable sarcasm, DeMille begged rhetorically, “Has anyone alive read Hope Leslie or The Linwoods?” 3

When Sedgwick does appear in the larger and more comprehensive literary histories, Cooper is often identified as having had a strong influence on her, an influence “as clear” says Arthur Hobson Quinn, “as that of Maria Edgeworth.” 4 Alexander Cowie cites as evidence of her debt to Cooper the preface to Redwood, in which Sedgwick makes admiring reference to the “one individual (whom it would be an affectation to call unknown) who has had eminent success in the delineation of former periods, or what is called historical romance”; he concludes that this individual is Cooper. 5 There are three reasons to disagree with Cowie’s conclusion: first, Sedgwick is not speaking in her preface about American literature but about the literature of the world; secondly, therefore, a much more likely candidate, both in terms of international and personal esteem, would be Sir Walter Scott, whose work Sedgwick greatly admired for his ability to overcome cultural prejudices against both race and gender; and, thirdly, Cooper was a relative newcomer to the field himself — this was after all 1824 — and he would hardly have deserved as yet such praise.

On the other hand, it is possible that Sedgwick was making a passing reference to Cooper, a kind of reciprocal nod of recognition, an oblique thank you for his warm critical assessment of her first book, A New-England Tale, which he reviewed at some length in the The Literary and Scientific Repository of May, 1822. Cooper saw in this representation of modern Massachusetts an opportunity to discuss what he considered to be the paramount issues facing writers like himself and “anonymous,” both of whom wished to use the United States as a source of inspiration for fiction. In his study of early Cooper and his audience, James Wallace concludes that Cooper “made A New-England Tale the occasion for expressing his belief in the power of democratic literature.” 6

In reviewing this anonymous work, Cooper probably knew that Sedgwick was the author, considering his then-friendship with two of her brothers, but he maintained her deception, referring to the author, “whomsoever he or she may be,” as “a person of fine feelings” and of “fine observation,” 7 and thus avoiding the kind of gender judgments that intrude into many later critiques. By way of opening his discussion, Cooper makes a strong assertion then amends it oddly — almost as an afterthought — inserting an equivocation he fails to explain or account for: “Of books that profess to illustrate American society and manners, we have never met with one which so perfectly and agreeably accomplishes this design, to a certain extent [italics mine — PLK], as the little volume before us.” What he goes on to admire is the tale’s depiction of American “domestic manners, the social and moral influences, which operate in retirement, and in common intercourse, and the multitude of local peculiarities, which form our distinctive features upon the many peopled earth,” and which “have very seldom been happily exhibited in our literature.” He contrasts the accuracy of depiction with the “burlesque” of “ludicrous subjects” he finds in Irving, who is amusing but does “little towards forming a history of the diversities of passion, sentiment, and behavior, as they are manifest in any of our little communities.”

Cooper distinguishes between two types of literature, and, although he admires the variety which is “the delight of pure imagination” and which transports the reader beyond the commonplace and “into conditions which fancy has devised and fancy only could sustain or enjoy,” he nevertheless doubts “whether the susceptibility of the excitement is universal” or even “whether it is a healthful employment” for many readers. The other, less fanciful variety of literature, a category which includes A New-England Tale and other novels like it (he mentions the works of Goldsmith, Edgeworth, and Hamilton) also has its unique virtues, among which are its very accessibility for the common reader, its adherence to the realities of everyday life, and the challenge such novels make to the reader to exercise his or her moral judgment as prompted by the author’s aptly contrived situations and characters. Cooper also compares this author to Henry Fielding, who considered himself an historian who described “society as it exists and people as they are.” Cooper adds that “we love an interesting fiction, because, however paradoxical the assertion may appear, it addresses our love of truth.” A good novel, then, “addresses itself very powerfully to our moral nature and conscience, and to those good feelings, and good principles, which Providence has planted within us, constantly to remind us that ‘we have, all of us, one human heart.’”

After these musings on the role of literature in a democracy and the relative value of literature that “soars” to that “which moves and teaches more widely,” Cooper finds much to admire in A New-England Tale. He, like the reviewers who followed him over the next two decades, is particularly taken with Sedgwick’s ability to draw faithfully characters who depart from the ordinary and thereby attain a special accuracy. Such a one, Cooper says, is “Crazy Bet,” who is “one of that extraordinary class of females which Shakespeare, Otway, and the author of Waverly, have employed with such effect.” This character, whom Sedgwick based on a local woman of infirm mind, speaks, Cooper notes, with a “maniac’s broken discourse” which “displays a fine power of imagination, and an equal command of expression in the recorder of the character. ... ” Yet another characterization Cooper admires is that of the servant Mary Hull, whom he finds to be both an accurate and appropriate depiction of and a perfect model for the American domestic helper, who, unlike her European counterpart, has a value to her employer which is only enriched by her efforts at self-improvement.

Although he wrote critical essays himself, Cooper claimed not to pay any attention to reviews of his own work; on the other hand, much evidence exists to suggest that Sedgwick clearly did read and react to her reviews. At this early moment in her career, she must have found in Cooper’s critical reception an affirmation both of her modest aspirations and of her subject matter, an assurance that she had something valuable and useful to say to her readers. Because of her gender and her enculturation, any writing that Sedgwick did she had to believe met these criteria of use and value; her personal correspondence clearly shows that she could not (consciously) pursue authorship for personal aggrandizement or fame. Cooper’s response to her work must have given her a sense that it was neither a mistaken nor a futile endeavor to write this kind of local “history” — that its moral lessons were complemented by its documentary purpose as a record of a peculiarly American place and time. All of these issues she takes up in the preface to her next novel, Redwood, the very preface in which I questioned earlier whether she paid a tribute to Cooper. Perhaps she did do just that — not in her reference to the unnamed historical romancer — but in the very subject she considers in her introductory comments, which is the relative utility of novels which document a moment in history and do not aspire to an ageless impact, those which aim to be consumed and absorbed into the culture they help define.

As further evidence of Sedgwick’s susceptibility to the urgings of some of her critics, when William Cullen Bryant reviewed Redwood, he suggested that her talents would better serve the national interest if she considered important moments of American history rather than the everyday affairs of common folk. Her next novel, Hope Leslie, took up the Puritan settlement, and in 1835 she published The Linwoods, an historical romance set during the revolutionary war; both novels are set in periods specifically suggested by Bryant. Sedgwick may also have responded years later to Cooper’s indirect promptings in his review of A New-England Tale, for one of her later didactic novels, Live and Let Live (1837), takes up the very topic to which Cooper had alluded in his appreciation of Mary Hull: the unique American relationship between servant and master, in which the servant is not a part of a permanent underclass as in European models but rather a socially mobile — and therefore temporary — worker.

Perhaps an even more familiar relationship to those of you who study Cooper is a personal one, not between Cooper and Catharine Sedgwick — although they certainly had met, they had no personal context beyond acquaintanceship — but between Cooper and Sedgwick’s brother Robert — a relationship that began as a friendship, moved onto that treacherous ground of borrower and lender, and finally soured into alienation and bad feelings. Throughout the teens and the 20s, Cooper was beset with financial problems both inherited and self-generated, in consequence of which he borrowed quite heavily from Robert Sedgwick. Both Cooper and his biographers considered this Sedgwick’s dealings with the author to have been rather questionable; loans were made at interest rates called usurious by Cooper and his defenders (approximately 1% per month on a few thousand dollars) with the “Fenimore” lands serving as collateral. According to Wayne Franklin, when Cooper could not redeem his notes, Robert Sedgwick was empowered to sell the land either as a single piece or in smaller lots; this latter option Cooper believed would net greater profits. Sedgwick instead apparently decided to sell “in gross,” and the sale price failed even to cover the balance of the note. Legal battles ensued, until a settlement was reached in which Sedgwick vacated his suit in 1826 and Cooper picked up the tab for the costs. 8

The Sedgwick family version understandably made Cooper the villain of the piece, and Catharine’s letter to another brother in February of 1825 confided “a piece of Cooper malignity,” wherein Cooper had “repeatedly solicited Robert in the most eager manner” to join a literary club, presumably the Bread and Cheese Club, and then blackballed him when he applied. Robert, said Sedgwick, “has been making an effort to get security for his debt and Cooper is enraged.” Although clearly exercised over the insult to her brother, Sedgwick took good Christian comfort by rhetorically demanding if “the possession of such feelings [was not] sufficient punishment for their exercise?” 9

James Beard must have found other examples of a similar nature on her part, for he refers to Sedgwick’s attitude toward Cooper, after her own reputation was established, as being “a trifle malicious.” 10 Sedgwick’s letters — for the most part to members of her rather large family — do occasionally refer to Cooper in a tone that may show a certain lack of generosity on her part; for example, in 1827 she wrote to a sister-in-law that she had begun reading The Prairie, found it much like Mohicans, and — this with perhaps a perceptible glee — reported that she had heard that it was “not received with much favor.” 11 For his part, after his review of A New-England Tale, Cooper seemed unconcerned with either the work or the existence of Catharine Sedgwick; she isn’t mentioned in his letters or journals at least through 1839, although he occasionally corresponded with her brother Theodore.

If Sedgwick and Cooper did not engage in an open literary rivalry, the reading public and periodical reviewers enjoyed pitting the work of one against another and hypothesizing about the influence exerted at various moments. One such provocative juncture occurred in the late 1820s: Cooper published The Last of the Mohicans in 1826, Sedgwick her most popular novel, the Puritan romance Hope Leslie in 1827, and Cooper his own Puritan romance, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish in 1829. Hope Leslie seems in several ways a response to Mohicans: where Cooper shows an historical, unprovoked massacre by the Indians, Sedgwick shows an historical massacre of Pequot Indians by the Puritans; where Cooper invents an engaging and intelligent young woman in the person of Cora and then kills her in the end, Sedgwick produced a similar heroine who not only survives but appears to be the very embodiment of her eponym, the Hope of her community; where Cooper flirts with and then recoils from miscegenation, if Sedgwick doesn’t precisely endorse marriage between whites and Native Americans, she allows it, probably on the strength of a similar true incident in her own distant familial past (the story of Eunice Williams, who, taken as a child in an Indian raid, refused years later to be redeemed by her own white relations, preferring to stay with her Indian family); and, finally, to Cooper’s Chingachgook and Uncas, Sedgwick contrasts an Indian woman of great courage and intellect, Magawisca, who elicited in Sedgwick’s readers both great admiration and great scorn, much of the latter in decidedly racist terms.

Sedgwick’s reviewers made little of any similarities between these two novels, perhaps because their historical time frames differed widely, but when Cooper’sThe Wept of Wish-ton-Wish appeared in 1829, the similarities between this novel and Hope Leslie did not pass unnoticed. The only critical response to Wept appeared in The Southern Review, which declared it a failure, according to George Dekker and John McWilliams, and which suggested that Cooper had so exhausted his imagination as to have resorted to imitating Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie and Scott’s Peveril of the Peak. Echoes of this intimation lasted long enough for educator Emma Willard, while traveling in France in 1833, to write a letter in which she recorded a conversation with Cooper. Willard said she

told him the report, with regard to his having borrowed the plot of his “Wish-ton-wish” from Miss Sedgewick’s [sic] “Hope Leslie.” He said that he had never read “Hope Leslie” in his life, nor had he heard of the subject of it at the time of writing his book. This would be considered incredible, but for the fact that he reads little. He prefers originals to copies, and studies nature. 12

(Whether Cooper was as ignorant of Hope Leslie as Emma Willard was led to believe calls for further scrutiny, and a comparison of the two novels seems a potentially fascinating area of investigation.)

Cooper’s move abroad and his criticisms of the United States won him few friends at home, while Sedgwick’s popularity and acclaim continued to grow, even after she stopped, as she said, “working for the poor and perishing rewards of literary ambition” 13 and turned her hand to the simple didactic fictions that would engage most of the rest of her career. In an 1837 article in the London and Westminster Review, British critic Harriet Martineau decided to take a “glance at the course of a thoroughbred popular American writer” in order to “throw some light on the state and prospects of American literature. In pursuit of our object,” she concludes, “we shall say nothing of Irving, because he is ... a mixture of the American of the present day and of the Englishman of the last century. Neither shall we refer to Cooper, because he is not very popular at home. ... Miss Sedgwick is our subject. She suits our purpose in every way. She is the most popular writer, we believe, in the United States. ... she is thoroughly American in her principles, her intellectual and moral associations, and in her more recent productions.” 14

Dismiss, if you will, Martineau’s estimate as being based on that Achilles heel of literary status, popularity, but nevertheless admit that the literary relationship between Cooper and Sedgwick, both on a professional and a public level, was more complex than most traditional histories would indicate. Rather than speak of Sedgwick’s loss of reputation and influence as a decline, I think it more apt to describe it in terms of a centrifugal force which dislodged her from the center of early nineteenth century fiction and sent her spinning outward toward the margins where she drifts today. One result of this marginalization is that her literary conversation with Cooper — so apparent and vital to their contemporary reading public — has been most effectively, but unfortunately, silenced.


1 Harriet Martineau, “Miss Sedgwick’s Works, London and Westminster Review 28 (1837):42-65.

2 The Life and Letters of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Mary E. Dewey, ed. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1872), 172.

3 George E. DeMille, Literary Criticism in America: A Preliminary Survey (New York: Dial Press, 1931; reprint, New York: Russell and Russell, 1967), 31.

4 Arthur Hobson Quinn, American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey (New York: Appleton-Century Company, 1936), 102-104.

5 Alexander Cowie, The Rise of the American Novel (New York: American Book Company, 1948), 200-212.

6 James Wallace, Early Cooper and His Audience (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 123.

7 James Fenimore Cooper, review of A New-England Tale, in Repository 4 (May 1822): 336-370. Reprinted in Early Critical Essays — 1820-1822, James F. Beard, Jr., ed. (Gainsville, FL: Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints), 96-131.

8 Wayne Franklin, The New World of James Fenimore Cooper (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 17-19. James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960-68), Volume 1, #74.

9 Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Charles Sedgwick, February 25, 1825, Catharine Maria Sedgwick Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

10 Beard, Early Critical Essays, 96.

11 Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Elizabeth Sedgwick, June, 1827, Catharine Maria Sedgwick Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

12 Emma Willard, Journals and Letters from France and Great Britain (Troy, NY: N. Tuttle, 1833), 90.

13 Life and Letters, 271.

14 Martineau, 42-43.