Reading Cooper

Christina Starobin (Ramapo College )

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1995 Conference of the American Literature Association in Baltimore.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 6, August, 1995.

Copyright © 1994, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

While doing my dissertation on James Fenimore Cooper I was surprised to find that he was not everyone’s favorite author. Not by a long shot. When I had to keep renewing the over 100 library volumes necessary for my research, the check out clerk said to me, “Do you actually read all those books?” I told him that I did, although because others did not read Cooper (only three of my selections were recalled for another reader in the three year period of my research), I could in effect say almost anything about this author, and it would be accepted by all. All, that is, except the select group of aesthetes that comprise the Cooper Society and its extended circle.

I was to learn that this was just the beginning of my education regarding the ignorance that surrounds one of America’s great and original authors, James Fenimore Cooper. In order to dispel some of the unwonted gloom and misinformation that is foisted on America, often by the movie industry that blithely stuffs yet another version of The Last of the Mohicans upon the viewing public, I undertook to teach Cooper to my classes, whether they wanted it or not. Let me pass some of my hard won knowledge on to you.

Three main difficulties surround Cooper from the outset: 1. His vocabulary. 2. The length of this books. 3. Mark Twain’s famous con demnation. The first of these two problems come from students, and a general public, that has forgotten or never, sadly, learned how to read. The third comes from a more knowledgeable segment of the populace.

To counter the first two problems I tell students of my own experience with Cooper. I was working as an executive secretary in a large organization. My boss was absent from the office for days at a time, leaving me to answer the occasional telephone. And to read. I was in graduate school and had all five of the Leatherstocking Tales on my plate. I began to read. And read. And read.

And I found, to my surprise, that I was transported to a land far away in space and time, an idyllic forest, a place of great natural and American beauty. A land similar to the America of the 19ᵗʰ century, but enriched by the vision of my guide, trusty James Fenimore Cooper, one of the first great American novelists.

Analyzing this amazing discovery, I realized that every time I read, I read for at least two hours. I came to be jealous of that quiet time stretch. I needed at least that time to get into the Cooper world, and once there, I wanted to stay there as long as I practically could.

Recommending Cooper to literature friends who were anxious to share the mystical experience, I found that they were baffled. “The language is too tough,” they said. They admitted they read it at night half an hour before bed. “But you can’t do that!” I exclaimed. “You need at least half an hour just to get into it!” And this is so. It’s like a canoe trip on a great lake; you need half an hour to paddle down the estuary before you even get to the open water.

The language: well, I have students look up words in a dictionary. Extra credit for every twenty five vocabulary words. Remember, we are dealing with a culture here that has sadly dismissed reading from its top ten list of pleasurable activities. Selling people on Cooper means in a way also selling them on reading. But it has the double bonus of also opening other worlds to them through the reading skill gained with Cooper as a serendipitous result.

Now we come to the old chestnut of Twain. “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” is a very humorous piece. I’ve laughed at it myself. Unfortunately, since more readers can digest Twain than Cooper, too many have accepted Twain’s verdict on James Fenimore without ever giving Cooper a chance. Then, aided and abetted by the movie industry, they dismiss Cooper as a racist, sexist bloody adventure writer. And feel justified in doing so.

The way I see Twain is this: Twain was undoubtedly one of America’s greats. He could wield a pen with the best of them. But Cooper could write something Twain never managed to master: Cooper could write profound prose in the grand style. Don’t forget, he was called “The American Scott”. Of course, Scott, too, is now in disfavor, so that label doesn’t really impress anyone.

But Cooper’s style impressed Twain, who never got that grand sweep of countryside, of wilderness, of serious forest eternal quiet and majesty: the things that Cooper does so well.

Also, Cooper got there first. This is something many people forgot or never knew. Cooper was part of the foundation of American literature. He was the first to write a sea novel, a novel taking place entirely aboard a boat. Many people credit Joseph Conrad with this, but it was, in reality James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper served in the navy and knew ships. He, in fact, was motivated to write about ships because of the inaccuracies of other novels dealing with the sea. He was very careful in all of his descriptions of boats on the water. Twain finds this not so, because Twain was dealing with the Mississippi River and Cooper was not. Different bodies of water behave differently, as Cooper tells us in The Pathfinder, or the Inland Sea.

So with Twain we have a case of jealousy. Pure and simple. This is something we would do well to dispel before we move into serious Cooper territory.

And even if it were not so, have we not accepted the willing suspension of disbelief in many other realms of our entertainment world? Talking a few months ago with the proprietor of an art film video store, he mentioned to me that the current hit movie Speed has at least fifteen to twenty inconsistencies which the movie makers ask the viewers to accept. “When he’s being dragged under the bus,” the owner told me, “on his back trying to dismantle the bomb, he would have to get his knees scraped. But he doesn’t.” He told me that there are numerous other discrepancies which the modern viewer, caring only for the thrill of the chase, the speed and velocity, never manages to question. It just goes by too fast, and, after all, we’re not in it for verisimilitude, but for the big heart stopping explosion. Which we get in abundance.

Cooper did not share this enthusiasm for violence at any cost, even inaccuracy. And, just because Twain says so, doesn’t make it so.

It’s also important to dismiss the myths of Cooper as a racist/sexist. I tell my students, “People say that Cooper’s women are two dimensional; they say Cooper’s Indians are two dimensional, but, I say his white men are also two dimensional. That’s because, with the exception of Natty Bumppo, who is, rightly, an American legend, Cooper’s hero in book after book is the American wilderness, the landscape, the land. This is where he shines, this is the subject of his portraiture.”

Cooper was one of the first real environmentalists. This is not a well known fact and there is something involved in keeping from being well known. Cooper, in the “pictures” praised so highly by D.H. Lawrence in The Pioneers showed the devastation being wrought upon our land by the wanton disregard of animal and forest populations. The villagers kill fish far in excess of their needs. Ditto the pigeons. Kirby cuts down the forest, much to Natty Bumppo’s horror, the sound of the axe echoing our national execution.

While researching my thesis, I had occasion to speak to a member of the National Wildlife Research team in Texas who was surprised to find out that what they are now positing about the balance between hunters and farmers and predators, Cooper knew all along: it’s not the hunters that make the game scarce, but the farmers who kill the natural predators and upset the balance of nature.

Why should these facts about Cooper be discredited or unmentioned? It does not make us as a nation look good if we admit that over a hundred and fifty years ago we had a prominent and well-read novelist telling us problems that would cause us much environmental hardship and we did not listen. We did not heed his voice because it was not economically profitable to do so. Today, after all, the large corporations and the polluters are only knuckling under to economic pressure and public disapproval which translates into economic pressure. It is not through the goodness of their hearts that they want us to conserve, but because we are forcing the corporations to mend their ways in order to keep our business.

Likewise Cooper as a proponent of mixed marriages as a way of further reducing tensions in America is not the popular portrayal of the artist. In the current version of The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day Lewis, a version, by the way, that took its text not from the book, but from an earlier movie version, not only does Chingachgook say, inaccurately, “I am the last of the Mohicans” (it is his son Uncas who is the last of the Mohicans, “last” meaning the latest born and the last to be able to carry on the line); the relationship between Cora and the Indians is represented.

Cora is made to look like she would never consider falling in love with an Indian; that is why she jumps off the cliff rather than wed Magua. In the book, she is in love with Uncas and so refuses Magua because she loves another Indian!

But again, it does not go with the macho gun toting massacre shoot ‘em up Cooper image that has come down to us through the cinema to show that he did believe in intermarriage along with saving the wilderness.

Is this not paradoxical? That America’s first original genius should be misrepresented because we as a people lack the guts and determination to put many of his ideals into practice? Because we do not want to admit we had ample warnings which we did not heed? Far more advantageous to present him as a reactionary pig who helped to get us into “this mess” of our current problems and so to seem to side with minority groups that now are gaining the limelight in getting their interests heard.

Cooper’s lessons of self reliance and simple clear eyed American justice can continue to guide a country with a conscience, a country that Cooper would have been proud to have fathered. But as long as the dollar is telling people how to distinguish truth from fiction, we will never correctly learn the lessons of our past in order to be able to control our present. Until we learn to read Cooper in more ways than one, all of us, not just the illiterate or disadvantaged, will be the ones that suffer.