Cooper’s Pacific: The Crater and Theories of History in the South Seas

Lisa West Norwood (Drake 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. 13-19.

Copyright © 2004, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

In 1847, James Fenimore Cooper published The Crater to little fanfare. The date is relatively late for Cooper, when his popularity had waned both on personal and professional fronts. The date and subject matter are particularly noteworthy when we consider that Melville’s Typee was published in 1846; we have an unusual situation of Cooper’s work coming before the public after Melville’s popular entry onto the literary scene. We can actually recognize that these authors have a moment when they are engaged with similar subjects and issues at the same time: American presence in the Pacific, natural history, and human experiences of history.

These three ideas come together in Typee hen Kory-Kory takes Tommo to see the ancient remains in the island. Before this foray, Tommo, presumably like most Americans, saw in the island luxuriant nature — not, perhaps, Eden, but a place overgrown and underwritten, so to speak, by nature itself rather than by human design. But in the very depths of this new greenness lie ruins that speak to a different form of human civilization:

At the base of one of the mountains, and surrounded on all sides by dense groves, a series of vast terraces of stone rises, step by step, for a considerable distance up the hill side. These terraces cannot be less than one hundred yards in length and twenty in width. Their magnitude, however, is less striking than the immense size of the blocks composing them. Some of the stones, of an oblong shape, are from ten to fifteen feet in length, and five or six feet thick. Their sides are quite smooth, but though square, and of pretty regular formation, they bear no mark of the chisel. They are laid together without cement, and here and there show gaps between. The top-most terrace and the lower one are somewhat peculiar in their construction. They have both a quadrangular depression in the centre, leaving the rest of the terrace elevated several feet above it. In the intervals of the stones immense trees have taken root, and their broad boughs stretching far over, and interlacing together, support a canopy almost impenetrable to the sun. Overgrowing the greater part of them, and climbing from one to another, is a wilderness of vines in whose sinewy embrace many of the stones lie half hidden, while in some places a thick growth of bushes entirely covers them. There is a wild pathway which obliquely crosses two of these terraces; and so profound is the shade, so dense the vegetation, that a stranger to the place might pass along it without being aware of their existence.

These structures bear every indication of a very high antiquity, and Kory-Kory, who was my authority in all matters of scientific research, gave me to understand that they were coeval with the creation of the world; that the great gods themselves were the builders; and that they would endure until time shall be no more. Kory-Kory’s prompt explanation, and his attributing the work to a divine origin, at once convinced me that neither he nor the rest of his countrymen knew anything about them.

As I gazed upon this monument, doubtless the work of an extinct and forgotten race, thus buried in the green nook of an island at the ends of the earth, the existence of which was yesterday unknown, a stronger feeling of awe came over me than if I had stood musing at the mighty base of the Pyramid of Cheops. There are no inscriptions, no sculpture, no clue, by which to conjecture its history: nothing but the dumb stones. How many generations of those majestic trees which overshadow them have grown and flourished and decayed since first they were erected! (154-155)

Tommo (and I think Melville) here speaks to the unbelievable sensation of experiencing a different model of human history than the prevalent American one of the times. Nature is overgrowing the past. Reading nature here reveals not answers to the past but the way the human past itself can be obscured by history. We encounter not only the “new” in exploring the Pacific and the new worlds, but also the ancient. Each discovery perhaps only suggests what cannot be known. Each discovery perhaps only reveals what has been submerged into oblivion.

In The Crater, it is the land itself, not human history, that is submerged into oblivion. The easiest point of comparison to make with Cooper’s literary foray into the Pacific is that he uses it to shore up “conservative” notions of the Creator, whereas Melville clearly focuses more on the distance between human history and natural history. (And you can even hear the implicit pun here: Creator/Crater). But there is more interesting material here. The Crater revolves around Mark Woolston’s experience in seeing the “new world” of the Reef and the Peak both begin and end. He is there, not perhaps as an allegory of God himself, which would defeat Cooper’s larger purpose, but as a witness to powers beyond human possibility. He has seen natural history in action. To put it another way, geologic time is compressed to within a human life span; this is the opposite position of the human experience from Melville’s epiphany that generations of trees had witnessed the increasing oblivion of the human past.

My purpose in this paper is to look at the significance of Cooper’s needs to frame his narrative this way. I will look at some views of history in the Pacific but also take time to talk about narrative. I believe that the power of Lyell’s theories and the increasing expanse of geologic time posed particular threats to writers as well as theologians; not only was American culture grappling with the role of the Creator in this “new” vision of natural history, but writers were grappling with how to talk about progress and change, how to put accounts of natural history and human history (or progress) in relationship to each other.

As a way of introducing ideas about narrative, I will provide a brief summary of the plot of The Crater, which I assume is not too familiar with scholars today. As I started writing this part of the paper, I realized how important this issue of narrative is, because the novel itself resists being retold in one telling.

The Crater is the story of the creation and destruction of an island in the Pacific. Mark Woolston and his companion, Bob Betts, are shipwrecked on the shoals off South America. They make their way to a barren reef, which is referred to as “The Reef.” On the Reef is an extinct volcano crater, called “The Crater,” whose inner bowl provides shelter and ashes that they use to start soil. Mark and Bob bring guano from a neighboring island they name Guano Island and decompose seaweed and other material found on another island they name Loam Island. With these materials and the seeds they have from their ship (melons, asparagus!!??) they start the process of making soil and growing enough to live. They also sow grass seed, which takes root and helps change the barren rock to an Eden that sounds remarkably like an upper New York State garden. A second beginning occurs once they feel stable. An earthquake uplifts the land, providing fresh springs and revealing new land to make productive — not only the newly emerged section of the reef, but new islands as well. The highest point is called “The Peak.” These lands become fertile. Eventually, there is another earthquake and the lands sink even farther than before, leaving only the tip of The Peak above water.

I stressed the place names on purpose: these places clearly are representative of those of their kind — it is the story of the rise and fall of land, the creation of islands, the process by which rock becomes soil, the decomposition of seaweed, etc. This is natural history, and some of the players themselves are the natural features, the protagonists of a human-less narrative. This natural history is fascinating to put alongside Lyell’s theories. Not only does it emphasize elevation, which was a key concern of his (his frontispiece to Principles of Geology showed the Temple at Tivoli, which had clearly sunk beneath the sea and risen again, as evidenced in the shell fossils mixed in with the man-made stone structure), but it also juxtaposes slow change and fast change.

But while this natural history — and witnessing of natural history — frames the novel, most of it happens before the middle of the book. It is not the whole story. The Crater is also the story of the American republic as Cooper sees it from his pessimistic viewpoint of the 1840s, after his encounters with libel and the problems with the respect of his own property. It is a warning of the possible fate of America that draws not only on narratives of American history but notions of the history of civilization and progress. Most criticism of the novel focuses on this social and political allegory.

Let’s try again. The Crater is the story of America, the rise and fall of a republic, and how it moves from a barren land to an agricultural, commercial and political success-and eventually self-destructs. New industries emerge, like shipbuilding, and new lands are gradually incorporated. The men do not remain alone. Bob Betts gets caught in a hurricane and, picked up by a Spanish ship, makes his way back to Philadelphia. There he tells his story to Mark’s wife, who, with Mark’s sister and her spouse, go back with Betts to join Mark. (There is a lengthy explanation why they go to him rather than rescue him). This small colony cemented by Mark’s presence is idyllic, and Mark becomes referred to as “the governor” in a casual way. Mark goes back to bring more self-selected inhabitants, and the settlement grows. But eventually, conflict arises with newer members with fewer personal connections to Mark. Religious difference is dangerous, some are greedy, newspapers fling mistruths and newcomers fail to respect the claims of those who came before. “None of the older inhabitants denied this claim. It is the last comers who are ever the most anxious to dispute ancient rights” (406). “In the age of which we are writing, a majority of mankind fancied that a statement made in print was far more likely to be true than one made orally” (391). The evils are not the same as in common stadialist views of over-indulgence and aristocratic taste but rather those Cooper perceived in 1840s America.

This version of the narrative emphasizes the tension between a national history (or at least a collective one) and autobiography or personal narrative, the history of the Peak and the history of Mark’s history of the Peak. It also puts the earlier stadialist theory of history against notions of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. To get back to Typee, in a way this shows that Cooper, like Melville, is exposing and criticizing American exceptionalism, although for different reasons and in a different way.

But this still is not all. The setting of The Crater clearly is not insignificant, the “blank slate” or Utopia earlier critics mentioned. By the 1840s, America was involved in expansion toward the Pacific, as evidenced by the Mexican War, whaling trade, and interest in Hawaii. Setting the novel in the uncharted — but becoming — charted waters of the Pacific removes the narrative from closest ties to More’s Utopia and the Atlantic world of Western Civilization and forges more links to what were then exotic peoples, new lands, and lands believed to be undergoing more rapid change.

Let’s go again. Mark goes to sea on a trading expedition, in which the ship is to buy sandal-wood from the Polynesian Islands and take it to Canton (where it presumably will be made into idols) and then bring tea back to America. The owner of the vessel, a Quaker, included benevolent items like seeds and farming implements to give to the islanders as well — a gesture that proves important to the plot but also shows notions of benevolent imperialism and expansion of things American, including food and landscape. Mark and Bob Betts establish a colony in the Pacific — and the word “colony” is used frequently, especially early in the novel, which stresses the way this Eden is not really original but based on the exportation of certain virtues and goods. Their colony is threatened after the earthquake when native tribes see the new volcano and want to expand their own territories. These islanders themselves are enmeshed in civil conflict between their own leader, Ooroony, and the challenger Waally. Mark and his companion help restore Ooroony’s leadership and begin trading with him. As the colony grows, they engage in trade with America as well as with the islanders.

South America and the islands off its Pacific coast were important not only in this new wave of expansion but also in the generation of new models for history. Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent was hugely influential in generating descriptions and an ethos of scientific observation for other scientists and writers, setting a possible model for Darwin’s writings from the Beagle. The historical introduction to the Penguin edition by Malcolm Nicolson explains how Humboldt followed Kant in distinguishing between a true history of nature and mere description of natural objects such as had been provided by the older Linnaean system (xvii). Catalogs and encyclopedias were being exchanged for narratives, travelogues and other modes of writing that apparently captured a history. In literary terms, such writings become more narrative, even as they became more enmeshed with scientific theory.

To write of islands in the Pacific, therefore, is not only to write of the new continent and its politics, but also to position oneself in a literary history with writers like Humboldt and Darwin: to put one’s own observations of these lands in context with existing views of history. One critic, Adams, explains:

What little he knew about volcanism, earthquakes, South Seas islands, reef culture, or tropical weather patterns came wrapped in the values, prejudices, ideologies, and personal “preoccupations” of those whose books he read. What his imagination made of the Pacific — its people, geology, and role in western history — is inextricable from the shape in which his imagination received it. (204)

To this wonderful article about historicizing the natural history of The Crater I would like to add an additional point: Cooper’s experience of the concepts not only draws on the ideology of Cook, Wilkes, Humboldt, etc. but also their narratives. Or, to take that literary observation as an invitation to reword Adams’ view of influence, what Cooper’s imagination made of the Pacific is 100% extricable from the shape in which his imagination received it; he seizes facts and theories from those other writings and embeds them in his own fictional/allegorical/time narrative.

Cooper himself stresses the setting in the Pacific in his preface, linking the location with a certain kind of truth and a certain license in narrative:

The reader of this book will very naturally be disposed to ask the question, why the geographies, histories, and other works of a similar character, have never made any mention of the regions and events that compose its subject ... . The fact is, that the authors of the different works to which there is any allusion, most probably never heard there were any such places as the Reef, Rancocus Island, Vulcan’s Peak, the Crater, and the other islands of which so much is said in our pages. In other words, they knew nothing about them ... . In a word, much as is now known of the globe, a great deal still remains to be told, and we do not see why the “inquiring mind” should not seek for information in our pages, as well as in some that are ushered into public notice by a flourish of literary trumpets, that are blown in by presidents, vice-presidents and secretaries of various learned bodies. One thing we shall ever maintain, and that in the face of all who may be disposed to underrate the value of our labors, which is this: — there is not a word in these volumes which we now lay before the reader, as grave matter of fact, that is not entitled to the most implicit credit. We scorn deception. Lest, however, some cavilers may be found, we will present a few of those reasons which occur to our mind, on the spur of the moment, as tending to show that everything related here might be just as true as Cook’s voyages themselves ... . The fact is, there is a beginning to everything; and now there is a beginning to the world’s knowing the history of Vulcan’s Peak, and the Crater. (3-4)

In “Created Spaces: The Crater and the Pacific Frontier,” a recent conference paper, April D. Gentry demonstrates how the novel actually both builds on and rewrites what Americans knew of Hawaiian history, putting America’s presence in the Polynesian Islands into the past, the moment of the start of the nation (Mark is born in 1777, and the colony is in the 1790s). She sees the intertwining of American and Hawaiian history as an attempt to create a coherent narrative of American presence in the Pacific. While I definitely appreciate her work on Hawaiian elements in this work, I think one of the points in the novel is that Cooper resists formulating a coherent narrative. As you can see, the plot can be retold in different ways, but in ways that feel at least partially exclusive. The novel itself does not intertwine them in its larger narrative but recounts them successively. The natural history comes first, then elements of international contact, followed by the strongest suggestions of political allegory. The Mark of the start, the observer of geologic phenomena, is not really the same as the close-minded, slightly possessive Governor near the end — or if he is the same, that too is a narrative of personal change. The reason critics tend to focus on one of these threads is that they do not work well together — which I think is part of the point: different narratives of history may all seem sufficient on their own, but when placed next to each other, they fail to create a coherent notion of history.

Once we recognize the lack of coherence, events are just events — observations that can be lifted and moved around. Cooper exposes the difference between detail and history, experience and history. The way he lifts passages and parodies writings about discovery, conquest, and “history” should make us question any narrative of history. He is, in a word (or two), revealing that narratives about history are intrinsically like the Reef — stories that don’t just deal with the empirical or observable, as they claim, but instead lay claim to hidden or submerged territories.

Works Cited

  • Abrams, Charles H. “Uniformity and Progress: The Natural History of The Crater.” James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts. Ed. W.M. Verhoeven. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993. 203-213.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Crater; Or Vulcan’s Peak, A Tale of the Pacific. New York: The Publishers’ Plate Renting Co. Reprint. 1847.
  • Gentry, April. Created Space: The Crater and the Pacific Frontier . Presented at the 2002 Tufts English Graduate Organization Conference.
  • Humboldt, Alexander von. Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. New York: Penguin, 1995.
  • Melville, Herman. Typee; or a Peep at Polynesian Life. New York: Penguin, 1996.
  • Nicolson, Malcolm. Historical introduction. Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. By Alexander von Humboldt. New York: Penguin, 1995.