Bragging and Dodge-ing in America, or Domestic Manners As Found

John McWilliams (Middlebury College)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2005 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts, May 2005.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 21, July 2005, pp. 1-4.

Copyright © 2005, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

Homeward Bound and Home As Found (1838) show Cooper’s recent, shocked, half-unwilling assent to Mrs. Trollope’s most infamous observation. Her insistence that the American notion of equality has led to “coarse familiarity” of manners exactly accounts for the pretentious vulgarity of Steadfast Dodge and Aristabulus Bragg. Attacking any distinction of quality as “aristocratic,” Dodge can practice go-aheadism under the editorial banner of ‘The Active Inquirer,’ because he is armed with the cagy premise that “men are every way equal and no one can pretend to be better than another” (HB, 108). To Aristabulus Bragg, as to Cincinnati’s would-be merchant princes, all land is for sale, all dishes at table contribute to his plate, and any single gentlewoman, if she is lovely and wealthy, must long to be his wife. Aristabulus eats with his knife, and whittles as he proposes marriage. Steadfast, who is more self-aware, looks no one in the eye; only when alone does he blow his nose with his fingers.

Mrs. Trollope had been fascinated by the disintegrating, degrading influence egalitarianism exerted upon the spirit of American religious community. Although there are none of Mrs. Trollope’s sordid camp meetings in Templeton (men and women entangled equally together under the revivalist tent), the spires of “seven hostile denominations” dominate the town horizon, all of them protestant, and each one bitterly envious of its six rivals (HAF, 168). “God never intended an American to kneel,” says Steadfast Dodge (HAF, 219). Aristabulus Bragg’s notion of church reform is: to remove the pews, lower the pulpit, eliminate liturgy, and encourage lay preaching so that everyone in God’s house will be wholly visible to one other. Loud-mouthed Mrs. Abbott could have come directly from Mrs. Trollope’s pages. A “rabidly devout” woman, who longs for “a real, active, regenerating, soul-reviving, spirit-groaning and fruit yielding conversion,” Mrs. Abbott spends her time gossiping about, and spying on, the Effingham family, whose belief in church as a holy place where diverse social classes meet to worship God she regards as retrograde (HAF, 260, 270). Cooper, however, ascribes a social not theological cause to her search for spiritual certainty. Mrs. Abbott is less the Second Great Awakening convert than a socially marginal woman, “a widow-bewitched of small worldly means,” deeply worried about supporting her five children, “a demi-relict ... on the verge of what is termed the ‘good society’ of the village” (HAF, 260). Her vulgarity and envy are not caused by go-aheadism and egalitarianism only; she is a displaced, or rather an unplaced person, lost between the shifting value systems and changing economies of the Republican and Jacksonian eras.

There are no hogs and no mud in the Templeton of Home As Found. Perhaps the only mention of spitting in the 1,000 pages of Cooper’s two ‘Home’ novels is a passing slur upon the “tobacco saliva” of the carmen who drive the Committee members of Tammany Hall (HAF, 56). Provinciality and vulgarity are for Cooper, as for Mrs. Trollope, the besetting sign of contemporary American egalitarian culture, but to Cooper the causes of provinciality and vulgarity are not so easily visible, not so completely defined by revolting body manners

As Steadfast and Aristabulus demonstrate, schmooze not spit has become the issue. Schmooze as a tactic for personal ingratiation, like demagoguery as a tactic in democratic politics, poses a question that, unlike spittle, does not smack one in the face. How can the American people, assured by the media of their equality and unfailing wisdom, detect the self-interest of those who, envying anyone above them, flatter the common taste in order to level distinctions?

Mrs. Trollope remained convinced that Americans are, in fact, a common, uncultured populace who either spit because they know no better, or who pretend to a (British) gentility of behavior they cannot begin to understand. Cooper’s understanding of the fundamental problem is not nearly so simple. His America, unlike hers, incurs the problem of multiplicity. Americans, as the Effinghams rediscover them, have no definable culture and no definable identity. Taken together, Aristabulus Bragg, the Commodore, Mrs. Abbott, Mr. Wenham, Mr. Howel, Lather the barber, the gang of apprentices, and the Effinghams form a bewildering variety of opposed and contentious character types. Templeton has in fact no center of cultural values, no true commonality, except what the press may claim for it. Mr. Lather the barber now refuses to come to Mr. Effingham’s home to cut his hair, both because Lather wants to avoid the loss of time and money, and because he does not wish to be seen favoring, or being beholden to, a wealthy man. Conversely, Grace Van Cortlandt, who prides herself on her republican patriotism, is positively elated at the prospect of marrying into titled British nobility. While the Commodore and Jack Effingham retreat to the lake and long nostalgically for the days of Leatherstocking, the various schemes of Aristabulus and Steadfast serve to erase all memory of Leatherstocking’s values.

Amidst such confusion, there can be no standard of domestic manners. Mrs. Abbott, Cooper tells us, felt “a total confusion on the subject of deportment” (HAF, 473). The underlying truth about Steadfast Dodge is that “in fact, he did not know his own meaning, except as he felt envy of all above him” (HAF, 470). While writing Home As Found, Cooper kept in mind “that well-known line of Pope, in which the poet asks ‘What can we reason but from what we know’” (HAF, 360). Pope’s dictum, Cooper remarks, “contains the principles of half our foibles and faults” (HAF, 360). Americans, he has discovered, know less than they think they do, and what they think they know is itself contradictory. Amid such a vacuum of values, as long as a go-ahead American like Steadfast Dodge is “expert in the language of association,” most anything goes (HB, 49).

Jack Effingham and Mrs. Bloomfield agree that, at least in America, there is no center of truth, only a cultural pendulum swinging forever toward and away from Truth, touching it only momentarily. The citizens of Templeton lurch through a series of serio-comic crises (playing ball on private property, church reconstruction, Three Mile Point etc.) fomented by Steadfast Dodge’s “Press-ocracy” for purposes of ‘going ahead’ in any direction that will serve self-interest. Jack Effingham remarks, about American culture as a whole, that “a change of administration, the upsetting of a stage, or the death of a cart horse ... are all equally crises in the American vocabulary” (HAF, 250). Until a community can define its values, it cannot agree on what constitutes a crisis. And because Templeton cannot even agree on its crises, Cooper’s novel, strikingly unlike his frontier romances, can have no sustaining narrative. Although Cooper super-imposed a double marital plot that ends in dispensing his two happily married couples upon European honeymoons, he could not fashion a coherent narrative from the Effinghams’ return to Templeton. A coherent narrative demands a clear sense of authorial priorities and of desirable eliminations. In the midst of Templeton’s cultural confusion, Home as Found can consist only of troublingly contradictory observations. Cooper had returned home to find, as T.S. Eliot was to phrase it, only “a heap of broken images” (Eliot 34).

Because Cooper had been convinced, before returning home, that Mrs. Trollope had “calumniated her own sex in America,” his characterization of Eve Effingham should be regarded, in part, as his rejoinder to Mrs. Trollope on behalf of American womanhood. There is never a trace of provinciality or vulgarity about Eve Effingham. Her manners are as unfailingly polite, her dress as modestly elegant, as her taste is finely cultivated. Of American birth, but extended exposure to European culture, Eve respects no one simply because of noble title, and repeatedly insists, as she returns to America, “I have never quarreled with my country” (HB, 15, 85).

When Eve steps out on the streets of Manhattan, she does so speaking alternately in English and French, accompanied by Pierre, the Effinghams’ butler and by Mademoiselle Viefville, her former governess. When Templeton’s apprentices play ball without permission on the Effinghams’ lawn, Eve remarks from behind her window “They are mistaking liberties for liberty, I fear”, but then refrains from further confrontation (HAF, 181). When Aristabulus proposes marriage to Eve, she first replies by “a slight motion of her parasol that implied a check” and then, when Aristabulus doesn’t take the hint, urges him to depart to the west where his talents will find a more suitable field (HAF, 342). Given Cooper’s characterizations of the vulgarity of the American people and of the American press, did he truly believe that Eve Effingham would or could be admired as the epitome of American womanhood? Did he not realize that Eve’s arch courtesy was likely to be received as snobbish silence of the most grating kind?

Writing in The American Democrat, while the notoriety of Home As Found was at its height, Cooper attempted to formulate a definitive position on the importance of manners to civilization:

Deportment may be divided into that which, by marking refinement and polish, is termed breeding; and that, which, though less distinguished for finesse and finish, denoting a sense of civility and respect, is usually termed manners. The first [“breeding”] can only be expected in men and women of the world, or those who are properly styled gentlemen and ladies; while an absence of the last [“manners”] is a proof of vulgarity and coarseness, that every citizen of a free state should be desirous of avoiding (AD, 200-201).

To subdivide “deportment” in this way was to risk further contempt as an “aristocrat.”. Manners alone are clearly insufficient to make “men and women of the world,” “gentlemen and ladies.” To possess true “refinement” and “polish”, “breeding” is also required. The word “breeding,” which Cooper does not define, suggests genetic bloodlines as well as a privileged cultural education. “Manners are indispensable to civilization,” Cooper continues, but “it is just as unreasonable to expect high breeding in any but those who are trained to it, from youth upward, as it would be to expect learning without education” (201).

Exactly how, one wonders, does Cooper expect an ordinary American citizen to attain “breeding” through training, while also learning “manners” from civic associations said to be available to everyone? It would seem that only the child of parents already born to “breeding,” “education” and “manners,” — like, say, Eve Effingham — would ever qualify as a possessor of true “deportment.” In 1840, a member of the House of Lords might have clung to a political definition of “aristocracy,” but any son of a family long re-elected to the House of Commons could hardly have defined his heritage, and his hoped-for future, any better. In mid-nineteenth century America, however, except for the very few who possessed deportment, ability, ambition and money, any continued legacy of gentlemanly preeminence was becoming an increasingly vain hope (vide Henry Adams’s Education). But is it not also apparent, as one surveys the American cultures and manners portrayed on the 125 plus channels of today’s cable television networks, that Mrs. Trollope and Cooper’s concerns remain as timely as their solutions are outdated? Vulgarity and provinciality aplenty but, to adapt Gertrude Stein’s remark about Oakland, there seems to be no there there. As the Effinghams prepared to disembark in America, Cooper suggested that multiplicity and a presentist mentality could be leading to a cultural void: “The morrow never came, for some new incident took the place of the promised narration: a people who do not give themselves time to eat, and with whom ‘go ahead!’ has got to be the substitute of even religion, little troubling themselves to go back twenty-four hours in search of a fact” (HB, 531). The home Cooper found seemed to be little more than a succession of ever-new newspaper incidents bridging over the emptiness.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The American Democrat (1838). Penguin Books, 1989.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, Home as Found (1838). New York: W.A. Townsend and Company, 1860.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, Homeward Bound, or, The Chase (1838). New York: W.A. Townsend and Company, 1860.
  • Eliot, T.S., The Waste Land (1922), afterword by Christopher Ricks. New York and London: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
  • Trollope, Fanny, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), ed. Pamela Neville-Sington. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1997.