Cooper and Nuttall: the Course of Empire

Robert D. Madison (University of Arkansas)

Presented at the Cooper Panel No. 1 (Fenimore Cooper: Fresh Biographical and Historical Contexts) at the 2009 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 26, pp. 9-10. Steven Harthorn and Shalicia Wilson, Editors.

Copyright © 2009 by The James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

It’s pretty well known that early in his career Cooper had a plan for “Legends of the Thirteen Republics.” It’s not so well understood how or why he abandoned that plan. By the time he got around to writing his Connecticut book, The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, he had already been seduced by the west and had published The Prairie (1827). Even if we include colonial legends as belonging to the “Republics” and consider Mohicans (1826) the New York book, it didn’t take Cooper long to depart from his plan after he started it with Lionel Lincoln (1825).

Scholars have copiously studied the sources of The Prairie, but there is, I think, a larger vortex of geographical writing that was making history as well as reporting it. Cooper’s New York frontier was closed before he wrote about it, but the prairies were still wide open. The Prairie is, therefore, both an historical and a contemporary novel.

Years later, when he was working on Afloat and Ashore (1844), Cooper was regularly hobnobbing with Lt. Charles Wilkes, the son and namesake of his friend. Wilkes was preparing the narrative of his exploring expedition, a work and event that nearly every writer contemporary with Wilkes exploited. I suspect, however, that this was not the first time Cooper deliberately rubbed shoulders with the makers and writers of the history of exploration: beginning with Jedidiah Morse’s Report on Indian Affairs (1822) I believe Cooper had a fundamental oral as well as a print relationship with his sources.

The most intriguing of these possibilities is Thomas Nuttall. At first part of the Philadelphia, rather than the New York, intelligensia, Nuttall makes his lasting appearance in American literature on the beach in California in Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840). He worked at Harvard from 1825 to 1834, just missing the period of Cooper’s intense research for Lionel Lincoln. Although the adjectives “eccentric” and “curious” are often applied to naturalists, I stated in 1993 that I suspected that it was Nuttall who inspired the character Obed Bat (and I think I’m the only one to have expressed that suspicion in print). Nuttall was in Philadelphia in late 1821 when the celebrated Ongpatonga delegation went through (his preface to A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory, published by Thomas H. Palmer in Philadelphia, is dated November 1821). Did Nuttall and Cooper meet as the latter stalked the delegation on their return to Washington (see Franklin [2007], p. 480)? Whether or not Cooper ever met or cracked a volume of Nuttall’s, I think that an examination of the personality and peregrinations of Nuttall might define Cooper’s new historicism the way spinning electrons define an atom: elusively, perhaps, but usefully.

First, we need to talk about Obed Bat, M.D. Wayne Franklin links Dr. Battius with Cooper’s mentor Benjamin Silliman (p. 51). A more unfortunate trio of synonymous names for scientists could hardly be imagined: batty, nutty, silly. Nuttall, in fact, would later publish in Silliman’s A merican Journal of Science and the Arts, known colloquially as “Silliman’s Journal” (Graustein, p. 403). There’s no direct evidence that Obed Bat had published anything, but his claim to be a graduate of two universities (CE Prairie, p. 123) parallels Nuttall’s election to two learned societies (Graustein, pp. 114, 119). In those days, acronyms of societies regularly followed names the ways higher degrees do today: on the title page of his book, Nuttall’s name is followed by “Honorary Member of the American Philosophical Society, and of the Academy of Natural Sciences, &c” (Journal, p. [3]). Perhaps the change, if deliberate, is structural: Obed Bat’s role as a minion of Ishmael Bush in The Prairie is based on his medical training — not unusual for a scientist, as Nuttall’s biographer Graustein notes: “The dominance of physicians in American science continued throughout the first half of the nineteenth century; for instance, John Torrey and Asa Gray had medical degrees, and Benjamin Silliman attended medical school although he did not take a degree” (25). Obed Bat really has two roles in the first half of the novel: he is the idiot savant, as David Gamut had been in Mohicans, but he is also, much more importantly, I think, the ever-present reminder that Prairie is “about” breeding. Obed Bat pays constant attention to classification — he is in many more action scenes than one would expect, but is always distracted by some rare breed of plant or animal. Not even Natty or Ishmael Bush, it seems to me, offers such an uninterrupted commentary on origins and species, despite the former’s dwelling own his whiteness till the hour of his death and Ishmael’s clear recognition of his own breed.

In the second half of the book, Obed as comic sidekick is largely replaced by the Pawnee as a serious companion to the Trapper. He no longer affects the plot structurally: he is regarded as a “Great Medicine” by the native plainsmen, but any freedom he might have gained thereby is compromised by his beast of burden Asinus, who earlier in Prairie is clearly stated to be “your own ass” (72). While I think Thomas Nuttall has nothing to do with Obed Bat’s structural role in the novel, I think his characterization is nevertheless based on Cooper’s knowledge of the character and habits of his contemporary. Nuttall was 22 in 1808, when he arrived in America from England. He quickly became an enigmatic and persistently eccentric member of the Philadelphia scientific community, which itself could be characterized as a remarkable blend of eccentricity and intolerance. Nuttall moved in and out of this community as he trekked around and beyond the borders of the early republic in the name of science. He botanized the Jersey Pine Barrens in 1818 with a William Cooper (identified by Graustein as the 1798-1864 one [p. 160] and confused with a relative by Cooper himself [Franklin, p. 517]) and explored the Arkansas territory in 1819. But it is an earlier trip — one Nuttall did not turn into a book — that made him most eligible as an associate of Ishmael Bush.

In 1810 Nuttall found himself accompanying naturalist John Bradbury and the “Astorians” right smack through the territory that would become the setting of Prairie. Bradbury was perhaps a less colorful version of the explorer-scientist, but he did write a brief account, published in England in 1817 and dedicated to Cooper’s associate De Witt Clinton. In his review of the source study devoted to Prairie (CE xvii ff.), Jay Elliott focuses on the James’s account of the Long expedition (published by Nuttall’s associate Lea, and Carey) and departs from earlier analysts in noting that James was not only an important source but also a catalyst for Cooper’s imagination. I think Cooper might already have been catalyzed by Bradbury’s book — not only in his mention of the slaughter of passenger pigeons, meeting with Daniel Boone (or “Boond”), discussion of bees, and the very specific “500” mile marker that turns up early in Prairie (Bradbury, pp. 16, 33-4, 44-5, 272; CE p. 17) but also in introducing one of Nuttall’s worlds to Cooper. As Melville mentions about Captain Riley in Redburn, seeing the man himself brings a reality to the literature not otherwise transferable. I believe Cooper heard of Nuttall from his acquaintances and probably met Nuttall in Philadelphia or later when Nuttall was migrating through New York in 1822 on his way to New Haven and ultimately Cambridge. Cooper, by the way, probably missed Bradbury the man: he had moved to Kentucky, where he died in 1823 (Graustein, p. 120).

There are many “coincidences” in the characters of the real and fictional scientific peregrinators (as either might have said) — too many for a talk, enough perhaps for an MA thesis that would go through Prairie and Nuttall’s and Bradbury’s writings microscopically (as befits the subjects). But I want to go on here to contrast briefly the characters of Obed Bed and David Gamut. Gamut was a self-absorbed singing-master. Obed Bat, however deluded in his observations and however timid in the face of nature (his favorite Latin tag, as you remember, was “horribilis”), was externally absorbed. A man who could repeatedly — perpetually — disregard personal safety and comfort in the name of exploratory science is not only a man created in the image of Nuttall. He is also a man emblematic of the trans-Mississippi. Obed Bat presumably returned to New Orleans. But he left his Ass — his better self — in the Pawnee country. Where would Nuttall go? On to California, of course. When Cooper turned to first-person sea fiction in Afloat and Ashore, he re-turned to Astoria and the worlds of Nuttall and — by then — the whole scientific community of the fledgling United States: they watched for the return of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, whose planning had engaged nearly every American scientist of note and whose results would affect every writer.

Cooper’s vision of history, during the composition of The Prairie at least and perhaps extending to the composition of The Crater (1847), featured a strain of futurism rather than retrospection: the Cole cycle of the course of empire may work for Mohicans and The Crater, but I think it is balanced by the view of history in Cooper’s two “westerns,” Prairie and Oak Openings (1848). Cooper was drawn ceaselessly into the present.

Works Cited

  • Bradbury, John. Travels in the Interior of America. Liverpool: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1817; rpt. Readex Microprint, 1966.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Prairie: A Tale. Ed. James P. Elliott. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.
  • Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Graustein, Jeannette E. Thomas Nuttall Naturalist: Explorations in America 1808-1841. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.
  • Nuttall, Thomas. A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the Year 1819. Ed. Savoie Lottinville. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.