Kindred Spirits: Cooper and Thoreau
Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1994 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Diego.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 5, November, 1994.
Copyright © 1994 by the James Fenimore Cooper Society.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
Most of us, most of the time, do not think of Cooper and Thoreau as “kindred spirits.” Yes, it is true that, in certain works, both of them write about living in and learning a kind of wisdom from the natural world; indeed, I always teach a Leatherstocking tale and Walden in the first half of my course in American nature writing. But the differences between the two writers are equally obvious and considerably more numerous.
Though their lives overlapped substantially (Cooper died only three years before Walden was published), the two were a crucial generation apart. Cooper, though born in the year in which the U.S. Constitution was adopted and the French Revolution began, in many ways looks back to the eighteenth century; in many respects, he seems old-fashioned by the standards of the “American Renaissance.” Thoreau in many ways looks forward to our own century; he stands out as a progressive figure even in the company of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville. Personally, Cooper is a serious landowner, a kind of archetypal country squire; Thoreau, who builds even his famous cabin on a friend’s property, comes close to being a simple vagrant. Politically, Cooper is on the whole deeply conservative, an advocate of aristocracy and a foe of Jacksonian leveling tendencies; Thoreau is a radical, an opponent not only of aristocracy but at times of government itself, arguably the inventor of civil disobedience. In terms of genres, Cooper is a writer of romances, which came to seem frivolous to Thoreau — whose own greatest work might well be labeled an extended sermon. ¹ In terms of prose style, Cooper, with his always measured, often elaborate periods, again looks back to the eighteenth century. Thoreau, by contrast, with his dense, gnarly sentences and fondness for the vernacular, seems, like Dickinson in poetry, almost a modernist misplaced in the nineteenth century. Finally, and certainly not least importantly, the two writers’ attitudes toward the possibilities of human change seem almost diametrically opposed. On the social level, Cooper is ambiguous about change; at the level of the individual, I think that John McWilliams is basically right in suggesting that, in the course of a Cooper novel — and again this trait tends to place the writer in the eighteenth century — a character is essentially revealed; he or she does not develop (35-36). But Thoreau believes profoundly in the necessity for change. Socially, no town or nation can be saved unless it reforms itself; individually, it is a central Thoreauvian tenet that each of us can fundamentally change his or her life. “I know of no more encouraging fact,” as he puts it in Walden, “than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor” (62). ²
Obviously my goal is to argue that, despite all these significant differences, Cooper and Thoreau share certain essential attitudes. Before I turn to specific details of that underlying kinship, it may be useful to summarize Thoreau’s familiarity with Cooper’s work. We know that, while he was a student at Harvard in the mid-’30s, Thoreau read at least some of Cooper’s earlier novels, since he entered excerpts in his commonplace books (Harding, Days 38). But we also know that Thoreau later developed a “disdain for fiction,” including Cooper’s, evidently on the (classic Puritan) grounds of its falseness and frivolity (Harding, Handbook 102). ³ My argument is based not on influence but on certain deep-seated and profoundly American similarities.
Surely the most obvious such link — and the one which has received most critical attention — is that, seen chiefly in the Leatherstocking Tales and Walden, which grows out of the relationship with the natural world. There are some important differences between Cooper’s and Thoreau’s attitudes toward the physical creation, of course. Though for the most part in the Leatherstocking tales nature, including the wilderness, is benevolent, Cooper is quicker than Thoreau to see the other side of the nonhuman. In The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, for instance, Mark Heathcote and his fellow Puritans essentially share William Bradford’s attitude toward the wilderness; it is a place of “darkness” and “obscurity” (152), “broad, nearly interminable, and seemingly trackless” (164). Even occasionally in Natty Bumppo’s experience, chiefly in The Last of the Mohicans, the wilderness is “a fatal region” (12), full of darkness and danger, quick to swallow up the whites who dare to enter it, as Wayne Franklin has noted (228-33). By contrast, in the great majority of Thoreau’s work — not only Walden but A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “Walking,” most of the journals, etc. — nature is peaceful, serene, mild. ⁴
But despite such differences, in the Leatherstocking tales, at least, the natural world for Cooper as for Thoreau is normally not dark and threatening but beautiful and exalting — “sublime” or “picturesque.” As various critics have noted, Cooper’s panoramic descriptions of vast unsettled territories, like those at the beginning of The Pathfinder (7-9) and The Deerslayer (16-17), emphasizing the grandeur and majesty of the wilderness by contrast with the puny presence of human explorers, remind one strongly of the Hudson River painters. ⁵ If Thoreau’s descriptions of Walden Pond and its environs are more “picturesque” or even “beautiful,” rather than “sublime” — partly because they are made from a less panoramic, more intimate, perspective, and partly because they glow with a sacramental light — still, they are analogous to the paintings of those descendants of Cole et al., the Luminists. ⁶ Both writers, like both schools of painters, stress not only the beauty but the moral presence of the natural world. As Natty Bumppo phrases it, “land and water, alike, stand in the beauty of God’s Providence!” (Deerslayer 37). Or, in Thoreau’s words, Walden Pond is a reminder of Edenic origins, “intermediate in its nature between land and sky,” “Sky water,” “distiller of celestial dews” (188-89, 179).
Not only do the Leatherstocking Tales and Walden share numerous descriptive touches — as in the descriptions of “the Glimmerglass” in The Deerslayer and of Walden itself, ⁷ or of the breaking up of the ice on Otsego in The Pioneers (242-43) and on Walden; they share many basic assumptions about the meaningfulness of such scenes. At least in these works Cooper and Thoreau share, that is to say, the basic theory codified by Emerson in the 1836 Nature: namely, that the created world is a language — ultimately a book — which can be read and thus can be a means to moral “discipline.” As Deerslayer puts it when he gazes on the lake, “’This is grand! — ‘Tis solemn! — ‘Tis an edication of itself, to look upon!’” (36). He cannot read literal books, he tells Judith Hutter; “’My edication has been altogether in the woods; the only book I read, or care about reading, is the one which God has opened afore all his creatur’s in the noble forests, broad lakes, rolling rivers, blue skies, and the winds and tempests, and sunshine, and other glorious marvels of the land! This book I can read, and I find it full of wisdom and knowledge’” (418). Thoreau, writing only about a decade later, tells us that he wants to read not only the classics but the “hieroglyphic” of a leaf, “the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard” (Walden 308, 111) — in short, the book of nature.
Despite Leatherstocking’s insistence that he finds wisdom and knowledge in the natural text, I’m not aware of any instance in which he actually learns a specific ethical or religious lesson from nature. Rather, his moral lessons are those of the Bible which he was taught by the Moravian missionaries. ⁸ Thoreau, on the other hand, for all his reading of literal books, does repeatedly learn particular lessons from natural texts, particularly Walden Pond itself. Specifically, he deduces three chief lessons, each of which has both an ethical and a religious level. From the pond, he learns the importance of depth and clarity. Ethically, the pond’s depth calls us to avoid the shallowness of materialism and the herd mentality (cf. 186); its clarity and purity, to be honest and pure ourselves. ⁹ Religiously, the pond’s qualities tell us something about God: its seemingly bottomless depth confirms our instinct to “believe in the infinite” (287); its clarity proves that its creator was “a brave man surely, in whom there was no guile!” (193). The third great lesson which Thoreau learns at Walden — both from the pond and from other natural texts — involves constant renewal. Ethically, this lesson, which Thoreau is taught by “a striped snake” underwater (41) and by the dawn (88-89) as well as by the pond itself, reminds us, in the words of King Tching-thang: “’Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again’” (88). Religiously, springtime around the pond and the beautiful bug in the apple-wood table remind us of the ultimate renewal, the immortality of the soul. “O Death, where was thy sting? O Grave, where was thy victory, then?” (317). “Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this?” (333).
When we thus crudely list these three central lessons of Walden, two things jump out at us: first, that the religious and ethical lessons are precisely those of that other book of revelation, not the natural text but the New Testament; ¹⁰ second, that the ethical lessons — depth, honesty, purity, and constant renewal — are precisely those acted out in the character of Leatherstocking. ¹¹ Thus, as so often in the long tradition of American nature writing, we see both in Cooper and in Thoreau the reenactment of Milton’s and Sir Thomas Browne’s faith that the twin books of revelation, that of nature and the New Testament, will reveal the same fundamental gospel.
It remains to mention briefly one other great attitude toward the natural world which Cooper and Thoreau share not only with each other but with many other writers in the American nature-writing tradition: a profound sense of loss, an elegiac note throughout their descriptions of the creation. This seems to be an inescapable component of anything we would call “nature writing” or “nature painting”: the very genre arises only in reaction to the destruction of the wilderness; nineteenth-century nature writers, like landscape painters, celebrate the glories of the creation partly because it is being destroyed before their very eyes. Throughout the Leatherstocking tales, Cooper never lets us forget this destruction. He strikes the elegiac note most heavily, perhaps, in The Pioneers, where Natty laments that “’the game is becoming hard to find, indeed, ... with all your clearings and betterments’” (22), where we see fish and pigeons, and the forests themselves, being destroyed in appalling wastefulness, and where Natty “’begin[s] to weary of life,’” since “’There is scurcely a tree standing that I know’” (423). That note is echoed in all of the other Leatherstocking tales. In The Pathfinder, for instance, which looks back to the middle of the eighteenth century, the memorable opening description of the “inland sea” of virgin forest is framed by the final paragraphs of Cooper’s preface immediately preceding — which remind us that, in the historical present (1840), the eastern Great Lakes region is no longer one of virgin forest but of cities, “commercial places of great local importance” (5). Thoreau — writing, again, only about a decade after The Pathfinder — likewise mingles elegy with celebration in his description of Walden Pond. He notes not only the construction of the railroad — “That devilish Iron Horse” — beside the pond, but (shades of Billy Kirby) the logging of the trees on its shore. “Now the trunks of trees on the bottom, and the old log canoe, and the dark surrounding woods, are gone, and the villagers, who scarcely know where it lies, instead of going to the pond to bathe or drink, are thinking to bring its water, which should be as sacred as the Ganges at least, to the village in a pipe, to wash their dishes with!” (192). ¹²
Little that I have said so far, in summarizing Cooper’s and Thoreau’s visions of nature, ¹³ is surprising, really; both of them share, in large measure, the ethos of Emerson, Bryant, and their kindred spirits the landscape painters. In the rest of this discussion, I want to move beyond mountains, trees, and lakes, and the lessons they teach, to look at several issues which are essentially political — and here, I would say, the kinship between Cooper and Thoreau may indeed surprise us.
Of these shared political ideas, that which is most directly linked to attitudes toward nature involves property — certainly a central issue throughout Cooper’s fiction. Here we might expect to find something close to outright opposition between these two writers — but, again, at least to an extent, we find kinship.
Cooper, indeed, seems to be the first to express one of the distinguishing traits of the American nature-writing tradition, the espousal of what Richard Poirier has called “visionary possession” (50-84 passim.). This involves the idea that we cannot properly own land in any selfish legal sense, by means of deeds or conveyances, but can only possess it through an imaginative appreciation or love of it. This is the constant attitude of the Leatherstocking tales, implied strongly in The Pioneers and made explicit in both The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer. ¹⁴ While ownership is associated with the waste of natural resources, with fraud, with piracy and war, Leatherstocking opts for visionary possession of the land:
“I’ve often thought ... that he is happiest who has the least to leave behind him, when the summons comes. Now, here am I, a hunter, and a scout, and a guide, although I do not own a foot of land on ‘arth, yet do I enjoy and possess more than the great Albany Patroon. With the heavens over my head, to keep me in mind of the last great hunt, and the dried leaves beneath my feet, I tramp over the ground as freely as if I was its lord and owner, and what more need heart desire?” (Pathfinder 431-32)
This call for visionary possession of the land — open to all — rather than selfish ownership echoes throughout the tradition of American nature writing after Cooper, down through Faulkner in The Bear, Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire, and Leslie Marmon Silko in Ceremony in our own time. The second earliest exponent of that view, as far as I know, is Thoreau in Walden. In describing the clearest ponds around Concord, Thoreau repeatedly notes that they are too pure to be owned by mere human beings — but also notes that many of his neighbors would like to own, and sell, them (195-200). These people, like the ice-cutters who sell Walden’s pure ice (296-97), fail to see genuine wealth. “I respect not his labors,” says Thoreau, “his farm where every thing has its price; who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get any thing for him; ... on whose farm nothing grows free, whose fields bear no crops, whose meadows no flowers, whose trees no fruits, but dollars; who loves not the beauty of his fruits, whose fruits are not ripe for him till they are turned to dollars. Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth” (196). Likewise he tells us about the time he almost bought a farm. He finally decided not to exercise his option to buy “the Hollowell place,” he says. “But I retained the landscape, and I have since annually carried off what it yielded without a wheelbarrow. ... I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only” (82).
Such an attitude is not surprising in Thoreau; it is altogether consistent with his general radicalism, his specific distaste for materialism, his life. But Cooper? I recognize full well that Natty Bumppo is not Cooper, that he represents only one element in Cooper’s complex vision; but surely it is still remarkable to find the idea of visionary possession in anything written by this man so obsessed in his own life and in his writings with property rights — and whose formal position, in the Littlepage trilogy and The American Democrat, among other works, is so staunchly supportive of property rights. As Cooper puts it in the latter work, for instance, “property is the base of all civilization” (186); “all which society enjoys beyond the mere supply of its first necessities, is dependant [sic] on the rights of property” (187).
And yet, when we look more closely at Cooper, the idea of visionary possession becomes less surprising. Cooper, after all, believes in an aristocracy of merit, not of birth or wealth — and thus he not only contemns but condemns crude materialism. Even in The American Democrat, alongside his many words of praise for aristocracy, his emphasis on the “sanctity” of property (188), his praise of the true gentleman, in his very chapter “On Property,” Cooper recognizes the limits of material wealth. “[O]f all the sources of human pride,” he reminds us, “mere wealth is the basest and most vulgar minded” (190). With all too great foresight, he worries that his countrymen may be in danger of becoming “A people that deems the possession of riches its highest source of distinction.” He even preaches, in language and tone very similar to those of the opening chapter of Walden, that “he who lives as if the acquisition of property were the sole end of his existence, betrays the dominion of the most sordid, base, and grovelling motive, that life offers” (191).
Thus, I think, Natty Bumppo’s lack of interest in material wealth, and his pursuit of visionary possession, are less surprising than we might think from the usual clichés about Cooper. Natty represents both the sane side of Cooper’s conservatism and the triumph of Cooper’s imagination over the limits of mere discursive thought, political, social, or economic. ¹⁵
What his imagination, in creating Leatherstocking, does for Cooper’s formal views of property it may also, on occasion, do for his views of the law. As a number of critics have helpfully suggested, ¹⁶ Cooper’s dominant attitude here, again, is conservative: on balance, he believes that human law, most often associated with the English common law, is a necessary evil. Given the fallen state of man, we need human laws, however imperfect, to protect us from each other. But, again, throughout the Leatherstocking tales Cooper can imagine a more radical, and thus more Thoreauvian, view of the law: namely, that human law is valid only to the extent that it approximates a higher “natural law.” In The Pioneers Natty Bumppo opposes the laws of Judge Temple and “the settlements,” which establish fixed seasons when it is lawful to hunt deer, to those of the hunter: “’You may make your laws, Judge,’ he cried, but ... Game is game, and he who finds may kill; that has been the law in these mountains for forty years, to my sartain knowledge; and I think one old law is worth two new ones’” (160). Again in The Pathfinder, Natty seeks to pursue not man-made laws, which would allow him to take the beavers out of the trap of a Frenchman illegally hunting on the British side of the lines, but the higher laws of hunters: “’I remembered that such [human] laws was’n’t made for us hunters’” (435) and thus, thinking of the Frenchman’s good rather than his own, Pathfinder leaves the beaver pelts alone. Finally, in The Deerslayer, on several occasions Natty distinguishes between laws which come “’from the colony’” or “’from the King and parliament’” and those which “’God has given us.’” Deerslayer concludes that, “When the colony’s laws, or even the king’s laws, run ag’in the laws of God, they get to be onlawful, and ought not to be obeyed’” (51). It is ultimately that clash between man-made and natural laws, and his conviction that the latter are higher, which lead to old Leatherstocking’s imprisonment in The Pioneers.
Natty Bumppo spends his night in jail in July of 1794 — precisely fifty-two years before Thoreau’s own celebrated night in the Concord jail for refusing to pay his property tax because of his opposition to the Mexican War. Thoreau does not explicitly invoke obedience to “natural law” or “the laws of God” as a reason for disobeying human law — but the terms which he uses in “Resistance to Civil Government” are certainly the Thoreauvian equivalent of those essentially eighteenth-century terms. Against mere statutes Thoreau opposes, rather than natural law, “the right,” which is known through individual conscience. “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree,” he asks, “resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? ... It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right” (65). In his “Plea for Captain John Brown,” Thoreau argues that, “in cases of the highest importance, it is of no consequence whether a man breaks a human law or not” if he is obeying “the everlasting laws which rightfully bind man” (137). Again in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau rejects even the U.S. Constitution, which can err in recognizing slavery, and urges his countrymen to obey instead “that eternal and only just CONSTITUTION, which He” — God — “and not any Jefferson or Adams, has written in your being” (103). “What is wanted” to save the state and the Union, he writes, “is men, not of policy, but of probity — who recognize a higher law than the Constitution, or the decision of the majority” (104).
As that last quotation suggests, any thinker who believes in the superiority of “natural law,” “divine law,” “a higher law,” or “the right” to written statutes may also esteem the individual’s moral judgement a more reliable gauge of such higher laws than is popular opinion. That idea brings us to a final political attitude shared by Cooper and Thoreau: distrust of the rule of the majority. One of the recurrent fears of the The American Democrat is the possible excesses of majority rule. Cooper insists repeatedly that “The common axiom of democracies ... which says that ‘the majority must rule,’ is to be received with many limitations” (112). He fears that, in a Jacksonian democracy run amok, the tendency will be “to substitute publick opinion for law. ... No tyranny of one, nor any tyranny of the few, is worse than this” (130).
This sort of thinking may again remind us of Thoreau. We recall his distrust of public opinion or “conventional wisdom” — for him an oxymoron — in the opening chapter of Walden. And, again, in “Resistance to Civil Government,” Thoreau argues that “a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it” (64-65). Matters of right and wrong, he insists, must be decided not by any numerical roll-call, but by the individual conscience. And, in a famous passage, “any man more right than his neighbors, constitutes a majority of one already” (74) — a sentiment with which we can imagine Cooper readily agreeing in 1838. Thoreau’s powerful sense of radical individualism, and of the inviolability of the personal conscience, is most immediately a legacy of Emerson, and ultimately of low-church Protestantism. I am not sure, frankly, of the sources of Cooper’s views. He is not a low-church Protestant, and seldom if ever seems to have been influenced by Emerson. Yet he is capable, in an Emersonian moment in The American Democrat, of preaching that “All greatness of character is dependant [ sic] on individuality” (229). In some sense, surely, this final attitude which Cooper and Thoreau share comes from their shared frontier mentality, their imaginative involvement in the radical freedom associated with the frontier of the larger society. ¹⁷
My title, of course — “Kindred Spirits” — alludes to Asher Durand’s great 1849 painting of Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant (not, alas, Cooper) in the Catskills. Durand’s title is meant to be understood two ways. Most obviously, Bryant and Cole — poetry and painting — are kindred spirits. But, as the painting and their careers make clear, that kinship depends on another: the ties between man and nature. And such, I think, is the case with Cooper and Thoreau. Despite all the many and important differences between the two in terms of their ages, their temperaments, their official political views, their literary tendencies, and so on, they constitute two of the great early roots of the venerable tradition of American nature writing. Their deep involvement in that imaginative tradition, with its essentially solitary and pietistic tendencies, helps to explain most of their other — and otherwise surprising — similarities. In their appreciation of natural beauty, their attention to details of natural settings, their faith that the physical is never merely physical; in their understanding that we can never really “own” nature, but at best only possess it through imaginative appreciation, and with this their disdain for crude materialism; in their belief that human constructs, including laws, are valid only insofar as they partake of the spirit or laws lying behind nature; and in their conviction that the mass of men lead lives too far removed from that source of natural wisdom to dictate proper behavior to the rare individual who is in touch with it — in all of these ways, and others, Cooper and Thoreau help to shape a kind of vision and a kind of writing which, in the years following their lives, would continue to grow into what we now recognize as the great tradition of American nature writing.
- Adams, Charles Hanford. “The Guardian of the Law”: Authority and Identity in James Fenimore Cooper. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.
- Bagby, George F., “The Temptations of Pathfinder: Cooper’s Radical Critique of Ownership.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, No. 8. Papers from the 1991 conference. Ed. George A. Test. Oneonta: State University of New York College at Oneonta, 1992. 85-92.
- Cooper, James Fenimore. The American Democrat. Ed. George Dekker and Larry Johnston. New York: Penguin, 1989.
- ------. The Deerslayer, or the First War-Path. Ed. James Franklin Beard. Albany: State U of New York P, 1987.
- ------. The Last of the Mohicans, or a Narrative of 1757. Ed. James Franklin Beard et al. Albany. State U of New York P, 1983.
- ------. The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea. Ed. Richard Dilworth Rust. Albany: State U of New York P, 1981.
- ------. The Pioneers, or The Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale. Ed. James Franklin Beard et al. Albany: State U of New York P, 1980.
- ------. The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish. New York: W.A. Townsend, 1859. Franklin, Wayne. The New World of James Fenimore Cooper. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.
- Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. New York: Knopf, 1965.
- ------, and Michael Meyer. The New Thoreau Handbook. New York: New York UP, 1980.
- McWilliams, John. “Revolution and the Historical Novel: Cooper’s Transforming of European Tradition.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, No. 8. Papers from the 1991 conference. Ed. George A. Test. Oneonta: State University of New York College at Oneonta, 1992. 25-36.
- Nevius, Blake. Cooper’s Landscapes: An Essay on the Picturesque Vision. Berkeley: U of California P, 1976.
- Novak, Barbara. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.
- Peck, H. Daniel. A World by Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977.
- Poirier, Richard. A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature. New York: Oxford UP (Galaxy ppbk.), 1966.
- Ringe, Donald A., “James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole: An Analogous Technique.” American Literature 30 (1958): 26-36.
- St. Armand, Barton Levi, “Luminism in the Work of Henry David Thoreau: The Dark and the Light.” Canadian Review of American Studies, 11 (1980): 13-30.
- Sattelmeyer, Robert. Thoreau’s Reading: A Study in Intellectual History with Bibliographical Catalogue. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988.
- Schneider, Richard J. “Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Painting.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 31 (1985): 66-88.
- Seelye, John. “Some green thoughts on a green theme.” TriQuarterly, No. 23/24 (1972), 576-638.
- Thomas, Brook. “The Pioneers, or the Sources of American Legal History: A Critical Tale.” American Quarterly 36 (1984): 86-111.
- Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; or, Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod . New York: The Library of America, 1985. 589-845.
- ------. “Resistance to Civil Government,” “Slavery in Massachusetts,” and “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” Reform Papers. Ed. Wendell Glick. In The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973. 63-138.
- ------. Walden. Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.
1. This distinction in preferred genres points toward a significant difference of temperaments; Cooper distrusts and mocks those inflexible Puritans of New England, while Thoreau is, in a least two important respects — the asceticism which he displays in “Higher Laws” and his preoccupation with purity as a central virtue — unquestionably a descendant of Mark Heathcote. On the other hand, the distinction is not absolute. As Wayne Franklin notes, Cooper too had occasional tendencies to preach. In terms strikingly reminiscent of Thoreau, Franklin notes, for instance, that “Cooper’s larger goal in The Crater was to wake his neighbors up ... and for this purpose his ‘intrusion,’ as they are usually called, were right. He consciously trespassed against the proprieties of fiction because he no longer was seeking to be merely a fiction-maker” (192).
2. In this respect, Cooper and Thoreau nicely represent the two poles of what John Seelye calls the “drama of American political life,” the central “contest between the Romantic principles of the Declaration of Independence, with its foundation in the concept of natural rights, and the Augustan principles of the Constitutionn, with its foundation in the rational, mechanistic formalism of the 18ᵗʰ century. The one is founded on a belief in the sanctity and perfectability of man, the other on their infinite capacity for mischief” (620-21). How appropriate that Cooper, the representative of the latter (Constitutional) attitude, should have been born inn 1789!
3. Harding’s information is confirmed by Sattelmeyer (24,68)
4. As Seelye (611,622-24) and others have pointed out, there is one great exception to the benevolence of Thoreau’s wilderness: the Maine Woods, particularly Mount Katahdin. At its summit, Thoreau writes, the climber feels that “Vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature has got him at disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty” (Maine Woods 640)
5. See, for example, Ringe, Nevius, and Novak. The latter also notes (150-60) that both Cooper, in The Prairie, and Thomas Cole, in many of his paintings, use stumps to suggest the destructive inroads of human “civilization” into the sacred wilderness.
6. On the link between Thoreau and the Luminists, see (for example> St. Armand and Schneider.
7. Daniel Peck (passim, but especially 10-13 fruitfully compares Cooper’s description of the Glimmerglass with Thoreau’s of Walden Pond.
8. I think, nonetheless, that Seelye overstates the case when he says that “Natty is no pantheistic transcendentalist, but a conventional Christian, whose goodness is the result of his Moravian upbringing — it is institutional, not intuitional virtue” (600). Though we never see Natty learnning specific lessons from the wilderness, and though many of his ideas are orthodox (if not “conventinal”) Christian ideas, he certainly tells us on numerous occasions that, unable to read the Bible, he finds comparable (indeed confirming) lessons in the forests.
9. Thoreau’s quest for purity edges into asceticism in the chapter on “Higher Laws.” In this tendency he certainly leaves Cooper (if not altogether Natty Bumppo) behind.
10. Likewise “a pleasant spring morning” teaches Thoreau the central ethical lesson of the New Testament, that “all men’s sins are forgiven” (314-15).
11. The honesty and purity of Leatherstocking are self-evident. His depth is shown by his spirituality, his lack of interest in material wealth. I would argue that both his multiplicity of names and his constant heading off to new adventures at the ends of all the Leatherstocking Tales — except, of course, The Prairie — suggest something like Thoreau’s idea of constant renewal.
12. On this occasion, at least, Thoreau’s elegiac note is modulated by the paragraph following that quoted. “Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore and then that,” Thoreau says, “and the Irish have built their sties by it, and the railroad has infringed on its border, and the icemen have skinned it once,” Walden “is itself unchanged,” “perennially young,” perennially renewed.
13. And I have not even touched on the similarities and differences in Cooper’s and Thoreau’s attitudes towards Indians — that would be another paper altogether.
14. On this issue, see Bagby.
15. Moreover, as Wayne Franklin has suggested, Cooper knew something about visionary possession in his own life. Franklin reads The Deerslayer as Cooper’s effort to relive or repossess his father’s original legendary view of Lake Otsego from “Mount Vision”; “Cooper could possess only in spirit, only intangibly through words, what his father had possessed in utter fact” (61-62).
16. See especially Brook Thomas and Charles H. Adams.
17. See Franklin; and Seelye 598.