Paradise Lost: James Fenimore Cooper and the Pursuit of Empire in the American Pacific

Erin M. Suzuki (University of California, Los Angeles)

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. 11-15.

Copyright © 2005, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

In his influential survey of American literature, Virgin Land, cultural historian Henry Nash Smith notes that the idea of American empire comprises two seemingly disparate yet interrelated concepts: the development of trading interests abroad through the increase of sea power, and the growth of domestic wealth and population through the settlement and cultivation of the continental frontier. Of the two, Smith argues that the continentally-based, agrarian version of empire “more nearly corresponds to the actual course of events during the nineteenth century” (Smith, 12). However, the level of involvement and interest in Asia and the Pacific during that same time period indicates that the oceanic frontier played a far more active role in the development of the American attitude towards empire than Smith’s study might suggest. The emergence of a Pacific frontier engaged the imagination of several major American writers, including James Fenimore Cooper, an author best known for his depiction of frontier societies in his Leatherstocking Tales. While endorsing the Americanization of new territories through settlement and economic expansion, Cooper expresses uneasiness about the international implications of the move to push beyond continental borders. Cooper’s 1847 novel The Crater articulates this profound ambivalence about the American will to empire, using a Pacific island setting to highlight the connections and contrasts between the discourse of frontier nationalism and the rhetoric of international empire.

The United States’ involvement in the Pacific began as early as 1784, when American ships began crossing the sea to establish trade with China. By 1800, the American presence in the Chinese port city of Canton was second only to the British. 1 Thomas Philbrick notes that a spirit of “maritime nationalism” coinciding with the explosive growth of the American whaling industry in the 1820s through the 1850s made the ocean, and particularly the Pacific ocean, the “primary frontier to most citizens of the new republic.” 2 However, the importance of this oceanic frontier later became obscured by the increasing focus on Western territorial expansion on the North American continent, expressed through the idea of manifest destiny.

For modern scholars, the emphasis on the continental frontier is due in large part to historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s influential thesis on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner proposed that the continental frontier, with its potential for “perennial rebirth” along a “continually advancing frontier line” (Turner, 2) provided the conditions necessary for the development of a uniquely American character. It was this experience of settling and taming the frontier wilderness, Turner argued, that developed an American concept of nationhood: in particular, it fostered a kind of radical individualism that Turner viewed as an essential characteristic of American democratic institutions.

However, as continental settlement established reliable trade routes across North America, proponents of American empire began to set their sights even further westward into the Pacific towards Asia. In this context, the Pacific islands were seen as lands inviting cultivation and conversion as well as strategic acquisitions for the advancement of international trade, embodying both agrarian and mercantilist approaches to empire. Yet while the agrarian approach to empire is primarily domestic, based on an assumed sovereignty and ownership of the land to be cultivated, a mercantilist idea of empire is necessarily international in scope, focusing on commerce and negotiations with other nations. This apparent contradiction in aims created a great deal of uncertainty in American representations of the Pacific.

Cooper’s writing career coincided with the opening of this Pacific frontier. Cooper himself had gone before the mast as a seventeen-year-old, in a transatlantic voyage to England and Spain on the merchant ship Sterling, and later served as a midshipman with the United States Navy. Thomas Philbrick argues that Cooper’s early experience with the sea informed his later writings, as he turned “nautical materials to the purposes of fiction,” and notes that the stylistic patterns and concerns of Cooper’s sea-novels reappear in his famous Leatherstocking tales, most notably in The Prairie, which some critics have claimed is a sea-novel in disguise. In this novel, the oceanic dominance of Cooper’s prairie as “a force that interrupts and overshadows the conflicts of human beings” emphasizes the theme, explicit in this novel, of the transience of human endeavor. 3

The Prairie, chronologically the last of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, presents his hero Natty Bumppo as an old man. Fleeing from encroaching civilization, Natty finds refuge on the barren prairielands. The action of the story is cyclical and episodic: characters wander in and out of the narrative, alliances are formed and sundered, and at the novel’s conclusion most of the protagonists leave the prairie, all traces of their sojourn swallowed up by the endless, oceanic expanse of land.

The relative insignificance of human actions set against the vast landscape of the prairie emphasizes the folly of human pride and achievement, a topic that Natty takes up in a debate with a scatterbrained naturalist named Dr. Battius. Natty observes that “This very spot of reeds on which you now sit, may, once have been the garden of some mighty King. ... It is the fate of all things to ripen, and then to decay” (241). This vision of decline and fall is Natty’s judgment on the enterprise of empire: the greatest “garden” that man constructs in his pride is doomed to oblivion. Here, the works of mankind are insignificant when compared to the eternal, represented by the boundless, dominating landscape. Against this backdrop, even Natty Bumppo’s heroic life pales in significance: at the conclusion of the novel he passes away, facing the western horizon that extends out beyond the prairielands to the sea.

Cooper expands upon the cyclical world-view established in The Prairie in his Pacific novel, The Crater. The epigraph to The Crater is taken from William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “The Prairie,” which, like Cooper’s novel of the same name, meditates on the progress of westward expansion and the transience of man’s glory. The lines chosen by Cooper are taken from the turn in Bryant’s poem, where after imagining the rise and fall of an ancient prairie society Bryant observes that “thus arise races of living things, glorious in strength, and perish, as the quickening breath of God fills them, or is withdrawn” (1). Cooper illustrates the sentiment expressed by Bryant’s lines in The Crater, which begins with two American sailors shipwrecked on a desert island in the Pacific, who set about constructing a utopian society with the materials at hand. Soon, more people are brought from America to populate the growing settlement, and the new colonists successfully defend their home from the depredations of hostile natives. However, the success of the colony fosters excess and decadence. With the advent of new immigrants — including lawyers, dissenting preachers, and an unprincipled newspaperman — the once-utopian society becomes more and more degenerate, and eventually meets an apocalyptic end when the entire island collapses into the sea.

In the first half of The Crater, Cooper describes — and appears to encourage — an American colonial enterprise. When the ship-wrecked sailors Mark Woolston and Bob Betts first survey their new home, they find that “nakedness and dreariness were the two words which best described the island” (59). Like Robinson Crusoe, the two men must scramble for survival by seeding and cultivating the land using the provisions and livestock they have stored on board their ship. The cultivated garden paradise that Woolston and Betts eventually raise on the island is a romanticized allegory of nation-building, yet the act of planting and cultivating virgin land is also an explicitly colonial endeavor. Jill Casid notes that the apparently benevolent transplantation of Western crops onto a desert island is an ideological transformation by which imperial intentions of conquest and exploitation are disguised in the fiction of the “seemingly innocent dreamspace” of a garden. Casid points out that the very act of sowing seed into the ground is “the founding paternal gesture of possession” and that the re-landscaping of the territory tends to reinscribe segregation and native submission by repeating, in nature, the hierarchical superiority of Western transplants (Casid, 279). Certainly, Cooper is complicit in maintaining this hierarchy: his narrative whole-heartedly supports the changes that Woolston and Betts have wrought. The new verdure of the crater where Woolston has created his island garden is favorably compared to the barrenness of the island before the advent of American man. Woolston’s grasses are not only self-propagating, but also healthy, strong, and “vigorous”: the roots that he lays are strong and deep, and promise to last for “ages” (149). By using the transplantation of American agriculture as a metaphor for the human colonization of the island, Cooper appears to support the creation of an agrarian empire which propagates an agenda of colonization within the pastoral idyll of the garden.

In the second part of the novel, however, Cooper’s tone begins to shift. Woolston loses his appeal as a sympathetic character, and as he withdraws from the people of his colony he withdraws from the reader’s sympathies as well: power and authority have made him an admirable, but no longer appealing or sympathetic, character. Cooper’s ambivalence towards the portrayal of Woolston fits in with the novel’s overriding theme of decline and fall. At the conclusion of the first successful skirmish against the neighboring islanders, Woolston has reached the height of his power, and becomes arrogant in his authority. He becomes a benevolent tyrant who did not mix with the lower classes of settler and “seldom ate with his people” (273). Moreover, he denies freedom of religion to his followers in a way that makes him appear stubborn and imperious, revealing the prideful behavior that sets him up for a fall.

Woolston’s strictures are eventually overcome when a new group of settlers arrive on the island, including four ministers from different Protestant sects and a newspaper editor, who starts up a journal called the “Crater Truth-Teller.” This newspaper sows dissent among the colonists by purporting to be a disinterested advocate of that people while actually representing the editor’s personal agenda. Additionally, the sudden influx of religious competition proves disastrous, sectarian competition causing men and women to lose sight of their God, and instead begin to “pray at each other” (431). This dissent appears to vindicate Woolston’s authoritarian ideas about religion; however, the strife caused by the colonists’ factionalism comes about primarily because they have become as arrogant in their success as Woolston. Following the successful repulsion of foreign pirates from their shores, the colonists found that

a great change [had come] over their feelings ... inducing them to take a more exalted view of themselves and their condition than had been their wont. The ancient humility seemed sudden-ly to disappear; and in its place a vainglorious estimate of them-selves and of their prowess arose among the people. (429)

The Crater islanders’ loss of their “ancient humility” and their newfound vanity and pridefulness expresses the hubris of empire that Cooper so strenuously opposes. Caught up by the idea of their unique importance, the colonists grow neglectful of their inter-connection to the land. No longer focused on the concrete work of agriculture and settlement, the colonists’ focus on the abstractions of religion and politics allows them to fall into a “luxurious idleness” (430).

In the end, Cooper portrays the cataclysmic submergence of the island community as a divine judgment brought down upon a prideful nation. When Woolston returns to the islands from a trading expedition to Philadelphia, he is horrified to find that the entire archipelago has sunk beneath the ocean, and the only landmark that remains above water is the top of Vulcan’s Peak, which was once the highest mountain in the island chain. Cooper compares this peak to the “sublime rock” (456) that unites Thomas Cole’s painting cycle The Course of Empire. This cycle is a series of paintings that depict the rise and fall of civilization in a sequence that closely resembles Cooper’s cyclical interpretation of the rise and fall of society. The five paintings portray the five stages of civilization as Cole conceived of it: barbarism, civilization, luxury, the vicious state, and the state of desolation. By representing the full cycle of Woolston’s island colony, from a state of “savagery” to the state of “desolation,” Cooper challenges the constantly forward-looking narrative of progress that dominated the rhetoric of manifest destiny and expansionism. As Natty Bumppo notes in The Prairie, “it is the fate of all things to ripen, and then to decay”; however, unlike Natty’s philosophical musings — which represent the rise and fall of civilizations as something natural and more or less inevitable — The Crater wants the reader to interpret the cataclysmic fall of Woolston’s island society as an explicit punishment for its overreaching imperial ambitions. Cooper concludes his novel with a dire authorial warning, in which he calls attention to the folly of empire by noting that even the most “boasted countries” have only “temporary possession” of their holdings. These possessions are merely “small portions of a globe” (459), indicating the insignificance of glory on the human scale as opposed to the might and omnipotence of his God.

The decision to set the novel in the Pacific, rather than on the continent, indicates to me that Cooper was particularly concerned about American involvement in the region. Woolston and Betts are shipwrecked after being on board a trading ship in search of sandalwood for trade in China, an enterprise that Woolston considers morally questionable because of its use in heathen religious practices. Whaling, another branch of commerce which enlarged the American presence in the Pacific, comes to play a large part in the growth and enrichment of the colony. The practice of whaling is depicted by Cooper as being generally salubrious in comparison to the sandal-wood trade: the dangers and hardships of whaling encouraged “industry, courage, perseverance” and kept the colonist, for a while at least, from becoming “degenerate in his ambition” (358). However, the value of the oil gathered from the islanders’ successful whaling trips is measured in terms of a world market; as a result, the entrance of the crater islanders into the whaling industry involves them in a network of trade that stretches from Canton to Hamburg. The riches that accumulate to the colonists from the sale of their oil also allows them to purchase goods from abroad, such as the Chinese mats that adorn Woolston’s mansion. Although the crater islanders desire to be left alone, once they involve themselves in international commerce the boundaries keeping them separate from the rest of the world becomes more porous, and the untenability of their isolation becomes clear.

While Cooper approves of the agrarian ideal of empire as a colonial garden, he rejects the hubris that leads to the excess and extravagance which he associates with the trade for Oriental luxuries. Yet Cooper acknowledges the relationship between his nationalist vision and the mercantile imperium. The Crater islands are represented as territories inviting cultivation and conversion, yet their sustenance is dependent upon the network of international trade that brings them into contact with corrupting influences. Moreover, in the character of Mark Woolston, Cooper illustrates how youthful nationalist zeal can eventually harden into authoritarian luxuriousness.

“Everything human is abused; and it would seem that the only period of tolerable condition is the transition state, when the new force is gathering to a head, and before the storm has time to break“(444) Cooper observes, striking a note that would be echoed in Frederick Jackson Turner’s eulogy on the frontier fifty years later. Like Turner, Cooper mourns the passing of an era of progressive development; however, Cooper did not share Turner’s optimistic view of the future. The Crater served as a warning to Cooper’s contemporaries, a cautionary tale intended to curb the national pride that would lead to the folly of empire. It also represented his late attempt to articulate the troubling connection between the two faces of empire — the benevolently colonial vision of the island as garden, and the implications of international domination that the garden metaphor hides. In his novel of the Pacific frontier, Cooper’s crater island becomes a space that blurs the boundaries between nationalism and imperialism, exposing the connections between these two apparently contradictory ideals and questioning the true motives behind the pursuit of American empire.

Works Cited

  • Casid, Jill, “Inhuming Empire: Islands as Colonial Nurseries and Graves.” The Global Eighteenth Century. Ed. Felicity Nussbaum. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, pp. 293-250.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak (1847). Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1962.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Prairie (1827). New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.
  • Dudden, Arthur Power, The American Pacific: From the Old China Trade to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Philbrick, Thomas, “ Cooper and the Literary Discovery of the Sea ”. James Fenimore Cooper Society Website. 2002. James Fenimore Cooper Society. 23 December 2003
  • Smith, Henry Nash, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978
  • Turner, Frederick Jackson, The Frontier in American History (1920). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962.


1 See Arthur Power Dudden, The American Pacific: From the Old China Trade to the Present, 4

2 From Thomas Philbrick’s article on “Cooper and the Literary Discovery of the Sea” from the James Fenimore Cooper Society Website

3 . Ibid.