The Invisible Aristocrat: Visualizing Character in Cooper’s Early Fiction [Abstract]

Christopher Lukasik (Boston University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2004 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No.20, December 2004, pp. 11-12.

Copyright © 2004, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

Abstract — the original paper will inform a chapter in a forthcoming book.

This paper derives from the fourth chapter of my book manuscript, Discerning Characters, which argues that post-revolutionary American literature and portraiture were characterized by the desire for a permanent, involuntary, and visible relationship between moral character and the face. The earlier chapters of Discerning Characters contend that post-revolutionary authors such as Hannah Foster, Tabitha Tenney, and Hugh Henry Brackenridge turned to the principles of Lavaterian physiognomy — which read a man’s moral character from his permanent facial features-in order to counteract the dissimulation associated with books such as Chesterfield’s Letters and to curb the rapid social and political mobility of the men who read such books. Unlike continental romances, which were imagined to affect readers’ minds in a way that facilitated dissimulation, early American seduction novels such as The Coquette and Female Quixotism promised pictures that would edify, not seduce, the imaginations of its readers and the corporeal legibility of character, I argue, was a significant feature of that genre’s didacticism.

This paper examines how Cooper’s early fiction modifies the corporeal logic of the seduction novel’s didacticism so that the face no longer counters dissimulation, but confronts the problem of the invisible aristocrat — the illegibility of superior social status. Cooper’s early fiction, I contend, confronts this problem by accounting for acts of social judgment in terms of visual discernment and by understanding the substance of distinction in terms of corporeality. In contrast to the dominant critical tradition that understands Cooper’s literary pictorialism in terms of landscape, I demonstrate how the descriptive power of Cooper’s early novels was understood by its contemporary critics to be equally concerned with producing vivid portraits of men. Each of Cooper’s first three novels (Precaution, The Spy, and The Pioneers), for example, function in terms of preserving and consolidating social power by the reproduction of class through marriage, yet only the “English” narrative, Precaution, seeks to sustain that power by promoting the discernment of a marital partner’s moral character in conjunction with a thorough investigation of his or her family and title, a process that culminates in the revelation of the disguised peerage of George Denbigh. Alternatively, Cooper’s “American” narratives The Spy and The Pioneers, place far more emphasis on the discernment of moral character-with particular attention paid to discerning character from the face. In these “American” narratives, fictional characters are not presented within an existent system of aristocratic difference (as they are in his first novel Precaution) so much as seen within an emergent system of corporeal difference. By having the face assert allegedly natural differences rather than deny the imposition of artificial ones, Cooper also becomes one of the first American novelists to integrate the physical features of racial difference as a component to the prior physiognomic logic. The representation of racial difference in The Pioneers, for example, consists not simply of the opposition between white and black or master and servant, but whether a person’s face first identifies the essential features of his individual character or of his collective identity.