Cooper, Richardson, and the Frontiers of Nationalism

Edward Watts (Michigan State University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2002 Conference of the American Literature Association in May,2002 in Long Beach, California.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous PapersNo. 17, September, 2002, pp. 14-19.

Copyright © 2002, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

In 1837 and 1838, open conflict broke out in both upper and lower Canada. In lower Canada, the conflict had to do with longstanding Quebecois disputes; then as now, a difficult problem peculiar to Canada. In upper Canada, what we now know as eastern Ontario, the issue is of more immediate interest for students of both nineteenth-century North American culture and the more general process whereby colonies become nations. There, led by the newspaperman, activist, and politician William Lyon Mackenzie, a staunchly democratic rebellion, building since Mackenzie printing-house was first destroyed in 1826, was coming to a head. Mackenzie protested the imperial control of Ontario by the notorious “Family Compact,” a group of four interbred and well-connected families who ruled Ontario with very little interference from the lower and middle classes. Mackenzie argued for greater commercial and industrial expansion and greater empowerment of the voting populace.

Mackenzie had traveled through Andrew Jackson’s America, published a book about it, Sketches of Canada and the United States (1833) and, while he disparaged slavery, found much to admire in its efficiency, literacy, and openness. While there, Mackenzie allied himself with so-called “Hunting Clubs” along the border, from Port Huron, Michigan, to Plattsburgh, New York — a de facto militia for his Rebellion. By accident though, Mackenzie awakened the Canadian ghosts of the War of 1812, a conflict understood in Canada as a Yankee invasion driven by the racism, greed, and disloyalty intrinsic to the American character. Or at least that’s how the War had been defined in the Canadian press controlled by the Family Compact. Mackenzie’s rapprochement with both democracy and the United States was then viewed as an act of disloyalty; if he won, Canada might as well become part of the States, it was thought.

To make a long story short, the Rebellion was squashed, violently; however, according to the history told in Canadian schoolhouses and textbooks until very recently, it started conversations about bringing democratic reforms in the Canadas — “Responsible Government” — a gesture that did little to unseat the Family Compact. This movement eventually resulted in the formation of the Canadian Dominion in 1867, a prototype for the British Commonwealth. In short, as a result of the Rebellion, Canada began to become more democratic and carefully commercial, under the aegis of a top-down Commonwealth power structure. The power of the British imperial administration diminished gradually, and was replaced by a conservative and structured government run by the elite; simultaneously, feudalism was replaced slowly and selectively by a more market- driven system.

Moreover, in Canada, between the Rebellion and the Dominion, a less anti- British, post-Mackenzian nationalism emerged gradually. It was the result of a planned process of disengagement with the British empire, not as the result of a propaganda campaign needed to craft national cohesion in the moment and aftermath of violent Revolution, as was the case in the States. As a result, it was very different from the type of Nationalism usually associated with the US — Jacksonian jingoism. Even today, in Canada as well as in the other former colonies (such as Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa), nationalism is more subtle. Because the jingoistic populism associated with Jacksonian democracy never caught on abroad, it has been suggested that American nationalism is a particularly virulent and unique strain irrelevant as white colonists elsewhere pondered Nationhood. John Eddy and Deryck Schreuder in The Rise of Colonial Nationalism, for example, claim that, the US was born of “pre-industrial social and intellectual avatars.” On the other hand, the other settlement colonies “were essentially products in their state-making of a new post-industrial age of capital, laissez faire, and of bourgeois democracy” (56).

I disagree. Nationalism in the US has always been a shape-shifting and sharply contested arena containing a diversity of perspectives and agendas. David Waldstreicher writes that “those who see nationalism as a realm of unthinking consensus ... have conceded too much to those who have used parades to recreate that myth of consensus” (14). For Waldstreicher and other recent students of the subject, nationalism is strikingly unstable. Unlike the early republic of the United States, the Jacksonian era was part of a “new industrial age of capital, laissez faire and of bourgeois commercial democracy” and new forms of Nationalism developed in the US in response. Jacksonian nationalism was neither static — stuck in a pre-industrial paradigm — nor was it the only form of American nationalism afoot either at home or abroad.

One of the forces destabilizing popular and populist forms of nationalism in Jacksonian America was James Fenimore Cooper. His challenging of the excesses of Jacksonian nationalism represents an important diversification of the subject. Why then is American nationalism presented as monolithic in studies of its international presence, or, more accurately presences? It is my contention that the more conservative and structured form of postcolonial national cultural identity dramatized by Cooper was in fact quite influential throughout the anglophone world of the mid- and late nineteenth century. Studying his popularity and the replication of his type of romantic nationalist historical fiction expand our understanding of the international significance of the United States in the nineteenth century, as well as revealing more about the role of writing in the construction of new communities and nations.

More specifically, I am in the early stages of a project that will explore the role of Cooper — the Leatherstocking series in particular, whose popularity throughout the anglophone world was immense — in the development, imagining, and literary articulation of settler nationalism in other colonies. White settlers in places like Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and, I would add, the American South, read Cooper voraciously, and the modern literary histories of each feature him without fail. Alongside Scott and Dickens, Cooper was perhaps the best-known writer in the international English book trade. The book I hope to write will chronicle and study his influence on issues such as land use, indigenous populations, commercial capitalism, and, of course, the role of literature in the shaping of national self-perception in other settlement colonies.

To regard to each of the other colonies, I hope to focus on how Cooper and his ideas about settler nationalism were used around the moment of political independence for purposes that are seemingly contradictory. Writers in each, following Cooper, advocated, simultaneously, the need for political independence from an over-extended Mother Country and a careful preservation of the cultural institutions of the colonial period. Cooper and his followers around the world were not anti-Nationalist. Rather, they viewed the leap from feudalism to democracy as too much, as a dangerous departure from tradition too likely to let loose the basic selfishness, materialism, and violence intrinsic both to individuals and to communities not held in check by a dense fabric of social, political, and economic order. This can be seen in their fictions retelling the violent struggle on their respective frontiers. In these long novels, settlement is represented as a complex processes fraught with many potential missteps, some of which, one might say, Cooper saw his own nation as having taken as it embraced commercial capitalism and Jacksonian democracy.

Nonetheless, their novels usually end with corrections of those errors and a cathartic purging of frontier disorder prior to the establishment of a more reliable national order. In each of the settlement colonies, some form of political detachment from the Empire and democratization was viewed as inevitable and, in the end, necessary. The self-assigned cultural work of those novels and novelists was to create a mythology for an appropriate postcolonial nationalism that a assured a smooth transition from colony to country.

Had he lived until 1867, I think James Fenimore Cooper would have approved of Canada’s transition from Colony to Commonwealth-based Nation. In it, he would have seen decolonization as a supervised process assuring the discouragement of the democratic anarchy he saw in Jacksonian America and the exploitative excesses of commercial culture he disparaged in so many of his novels. In turn, that was the hope of the Loyalists who oversaw the processes of defining Dominion in the wake of the Rebellion in upper Canada. Immediately following the Rebellion, they brought John Richardson back to Canada. His immediate task was to edit a Loyalist newspaper and to write, with the help of a government grant, a history of the War of 1812 that would distinguish the virtues of Canadian loyalty and hierarchy from American disloyalty and anarchy. A big part of the Loyalists’ attraction to Richardson, however, was his Cooperian credentials.

Richardson was a Canadian-born, part-Odawa Indian, British officer and novelist. He admitted that while writing his first novel of the American frontier, uWacosta (1832): “I have certainly robbed that first of vigorous American novelists — the Last of the Mohicans’ Cooper — which tale, albeit I have never read a novel by another author twice, I have absolutely devoured three times.” But Wacousta was written prior to the 1837 Rebellion and captures little of Richardson’s use of Cooper’s historical revisionism to explore Canadian national ism. Before 1837, Canadian nationalism had yet to be presented as either a possibility or a necessity. The full extent of Cooper’s influence on Richardson is more visible in Wacousta’s sequel, The Canadian Brothers (1840), a novel first drafted in 1833 but then radically revised as Richardson was returning to Canada after military service in Spain.

The latter is set mostly in the United States during the War of 1812, and more like Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, contemplates how the colony moves toward becoming a country. Richardson’s own transition between 1833 and 1840 reflects his growing awareness of the seeming inevitability of Canadian decolonization and fear that, after decolonization, his Canada would become the same social sinkhole Cooper described in Home as Found. Herein lies perhaps Cooper’s greatest influence on Richardson. Cooper’s model of nationalism - Whiggish, hierarchical, pastoral - should not be mistaken for the Jacksonian or Mackenzian democratic jingoism. While both Cooper and Richardson reveal themselves in their novels to be nationalist, each favors a more cautious venturing into the tempests of post-Independence cultural and political decolonization. In the brief time I have left, let me focus on how this similarity might be best viewed by how each novelist represents his nation’s separation from England and role of Natives in that process.

As you all know, and as many of you have written, Cooper’s views on Native Americans were complicated. Let me then focus on a central irony, one better expressed by Susan Scheckel in her book The Insistence of the Indian. While she is writing about The Pioneers, her point adheres to The Last of the Mohicans as well, Richard’s model for The Canadian Brothers. Concerning this triangulation, Scheckel writes,

Cooper redefines the meaning of the Revolution in American history. In place of models that imagine the new nation emerging as a consequence of violent rupture with the past, Cooper offers a model in which continuity with a more distant, pre-Revolutionary past becomes the fundamental principle underlying US national identity. ... Cooper attempts to purify the national inheritance of violence and guilt ... [to] set the stage for a ritual mourning of the ancestors, both English and Indian, who willingly bequeathed their authority and property to the new nation. (25)

Reset in Mohicans, Uncas’s death, Chingachgook’s aging, the late Cora’s multiracialism, the defeat of the corrupt French, and Heyward’s discontent with the British army’s unwillingness to deal with local American issues all signal the same process of cathartic destruction and implicit separation from Great Britain. The frontier is cleansed of its intercultural messiness and latent American identity is reconstituted on a base of British virtue and continuity, but not its bloated professional colonial administrators.

Like Cooper, Richardson often integrated real historical individuals into his fictions, and, like Cooper, his thick novels cannot be easily summarized. In The Canadian Brothers, a similar catalog of presences is purged from the frontier. In brief, though, the useless English — General Proctor — are distinguished from the good English — General Brock, and both are killed off; Tecumseh — who may as well be Chingachgook — is likewise killed; Matilda Montgomery, like Cora, the willful woman of obscure origins, is dispatched, etc. Also, borrowing from The Prairie, Richardson even has the frontiersman who rejects the class structure — his arch-criminal Jeremiah Desborough is Ishmael Bush in disguise. I could go on. The point is, The Canadian Brothers rewrites the messy violence and history of the conquest period to allow a legitimate postcolonial national identity to emerge among the survivors at the end of the book.

To rephrase Scheckel, Richardson redefines the meaning of the War of 1812 in Canadian history. Now more than simply a repulsion of Yankee invaders, it is now a crucible for reconstructing a more conservative Canadian identity in the wake of the 1837 Rebellion. The Canadian brothers of the title — Gerald and Henry Grantham — are the last remaining heirs of a curse uttered in Wacousta, Richardson’s earlier novel. A betrayed Scottish officer gone bush, Wacousta’s hostility and the curse are the result of British greed and inhumanity prior to 1763. In the novel’s last scene, both they and the last descendant of the evil Wacousta himself are dead, and the American invasion of Canada is repulsed. Cleansed and penitent for the excesses of the conquest period, Richardson’s post- 1837 Canada can now replace the violence of 1763 and the chaos of 1837 with the virtue of 1812 as a basis for a usable national past.

Oddly enough, Richardson finds his model for post-British North American nationhood in the US. In volume two of the novel, Gerald spends much time as a paroled captive of the Americans transported to Frankfort, Kentucky, as Richardson himself had been. There, among the officer class, Richardson finds a group quite identical to those with which he had opened the novel in Amherstberg, Ontario. However, one key difference emerges. There’s no Natty Bumppo on Richardson’s Canadian or American frontiers. Even though Natty constantly withdraws westward from the Nation in the Leatherstocking series, he still plays a role in the Nationalist mythology. While the Grantham brothers are Canadian-born, literate in Indian languages, and highly skilled in the woods and waters of the frontier, they are still officers — members of the elite. In Richardson’s Canada, the officers pave the way west, not the commoners. In that sense, at least, Richardson is more conservative than Cooper.

In the end, Richardson used the Cooperian model ambivalently. It was both a model for Canadian resistance to British dominion and a point of departure from the dominant American presence in North America; while he admires Cooper, he did not want Canada to become part of the United States, even a US based on Cooperian order. Therefore, Richardson’s idea of postcolonial nationalism is triangulated in a way Cooper’s was not. Richardson, appropriately enough, wants Canada to be neither a British colony nor to replicate Jacksonian classlessness nor simply to mimic the US. Worse yet, in the end, he could not supply a coherent alternative, a meaningful or popular articulation of Canadian nationalism outside of a kind of localized Loyalism. In the novel, he simply kills off too many characters. Not surprisingly, after the publication of the novel and its near-total inability to find a Canadian readership, the Loyalists found Richardson too unreliable a spokesperson and withdrew support for his newspaper.

Oddly enough, he migrated to New York, almost met Cooper at a reception, and scavenged a brief presence as a marginal novelist given to exploiting sex and violence to gain a popular audience. It didn’t work, and he died of starvation in 1852. Had Cooper been forced to rely on the income from his later novels, he might have met a similar fate. The tastes of the American and Canadian reading audiences were moving away from both the cultural politics and the literary style of Cooper and Richardson. Their resistance to (or perhaps Richardson’s cynical and desperate attempt to join) the democratization of each non-hierarchical print culture reflects the fate of many traditional cultural institutions and practices that resisted commercialization. As the inclusive colonial frontier was displaced by the exclusive national frontier in both Canada and the United States, such Whiggish hierarchies were replaced by a more leveled by racially polarized concept of who counted and who did not in the new nations. Writers who remembered and wrote about a more racially open-minded colonial past had trouble finding readers.

Nonetheless, Richardson, and, later writers such as the New Zealander William Satchell, or the Southerner William Gilmore Simms, or the South African James McClaren, or the Australian G.G. MacRae, commonly found in the Leatherstocking series an appropriate narrative of transition from which to express their own “state of interphase” between colonial subjecthood and postcolonial national identity. Cooper’s metanarrative of chaos’s displacement by order resonated among the reading classes throughout the anglophone world. His ability to absorb the intercultural and messy frontier into coherent narratives of nationalist subordination served a double purpose. His young male readers could indulge — as both readers and maybe participants — in the adventure and melodrama of the border, and do so safely within the a priori narrative resolution of order’s restoration in the form of conservative nationalism. So many books from the colonies follow this pattern that my problem will be finding the right ones to write about.

As a closing comment, let me note that I am aware of Sir Walter Scott’s direct and indirect (through Cooper) influence on settlement frontier novelists. Surely, Scott’s ideas about the role of romantic historical fiction in the crafting of a usable national past permeate the novels I will be studying. However, Scott’s ideas about nationalism are still what the scholars of nationalism call “ethnic.” By contrast, while writing about “new” societies in which the only characters with legitimate “ethnic” claims to the land are the indigenous populations, settler novelists must base their notion of nation identity around what is called a “civic” model. Such an innovation allows for the inclusion — however momentary — of Cooper’s Uncas or Richardson’s Tecumseh. Such natives, in the Cooperian model, can be included not just in their nations’ present, but as integral parts of their mythic pasts: the aristocratic Indigene who helped build the nation before conveniently vanishing, bestowing legitimacy on the transition from the old Native order to new National order. At the same time, excluded from their models of civic national membership are those who behave uncivilly — the greedy and the cruel of both races, and the ambitious white bourgeois — Andrew Jackson or William Mackenzie.