The Crater and the Master’s Reign: Cooper’s “Floating Imperium”

Jason Berger (University of South Dakota)

Presented at the Cooper Panel No. 1 (James Fenimore Cooper: Nation, Law, and the Sea) at the 2010 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 27, pp. 7-10. Steven Harthorn and Shalicia Wilson, Editors.

Copyright © 2010 by The James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

Published after A Letter to His Countrymen and The American Democrat as well as the allegorical Littlepage trilogy, James Fenimore Cooper’s 1847 novel The Crater; or, Vulcan’s Peak: A Tale of the Pacific clearly and repeatedly defines itself as political commentary. Indeed, The Crater is published at the onset of one of Cooper’s final political alignments (where he moves from early Federalist sympathies into a DeWitt Clinton brand of Republicanism, an embrace of the Democratic Party, and here, in the 1840s, toward a rather bitter and disillusioned political perspective). Though the novel’s dystopian and anti-Whig stance is well known, in this paper, I am interested in looking more closely at how the novel reveals Cooper’s political fantasies and anxieties. More specifically, I argue that we should not only attend to the way Cooper’s novel favors vesting power in the Constitution over and above a Whig-backed Congress, but also to how this process aims at a more formative plane: defending what he sees as the waning symbolic agency of the law.

By way of brief theoretical frame, Jacques Lacan’s concept of the master-signifier is useful for illuminating a central nexus in Cooper’s political thought during this era: the link between the law and structures of power. The master-signifier is a quilting point within an ideological field that, in essence, functions to fix and establish meaning. Importantly, this concept is not, in Slavoj Žižek’s terms, “a simple abbreviation that designates a series of markers but the name of the hidden ground of this series of markers itself” (Interrogating 202). To say that this quilting point is hidden does not mean that the term or concept is itself obfuscated, but that its function as a nodal point is veiled. This is where fantasy comes into play — as the veil that screens the role of the master-signifier.

Linking the symbolic concept of the law to the function of the master-signifier and fantasy, we come full circle to my title’s reference to a “floating imperium,” a phrase Giorgio Agamben uses to denote the fiction of a “force of law that is separate from the law,” a fiction that is necessary to sustain what he calls a state of exception (any revolution, martial state, or, in Walter Benjamin’s terms, “divine violence”) (51). According to Agamben, this state marks a foundational moment when the law is suspended in order to expand or re-define its power. In many ways, it mirrors how a sovereign exists in an ambiguous realm at once in and beyond positive law-being able to suspend the law in order to define it as such. Tying these elements to the concept of the nation, we see how the state of exception can be articulated in Lacanian terms as the power to intervene in the seemingly smooth façade of the law by manipulating the function of the master-signifier. In turning to Cooper’s specific antebellum concerns, we might more closely examine how he represents the operation of the law in relation to power. It will soon be clear that the function of the master-signifier — and its metaphoric locus of the traditional master — is paramount.

The Crater’s plot is as entertaining as is it fantastic. The back-story commences in 1793, and the action begins when Mark Woolston and his trusty natural-sailor companion Bob Betts find themselves delivered from a shipwreck in the Pacific onto an unknown volcanic reef. Though their early days on the island find Mark in power — with Betts keeping a deferential distance as Mark shapes his newfound “plantation” — this relation takes concrete alignment after a miraculous land-birthing earthquake allows Mark to begin surveying and naming new territory. Though an ellipsis separates the acts of God (Cooper’s view of the earthquake) and Mark’s behavior, the novel’s previous metaphysical asides clearly align the two. Thus, we might re-conceive Mark’s godlike status as being a master (in a Lacanian sense) aligned with a distant structural position of total agency that is filled out with the idea of God. As Mark constructs his island world, these increasingly vexed structural gaps illuminate the aspects of American civics that Cooper seeks to address.

The brunt of Cooper’s polemic appears in the latter part of The Crater, where the deterioration of the master’s reign ends in the island nation’s apocalyptic collapse into the sea (a distinctly opposite trajectory than in Cooper’s earlier maritime novels). This decline can be seen initially in the way that colonists’ anxiety about the external threat from the “Kannakas,” natives from a nearby island chain, registers less on military grounds and more on social ones, primarily in terms of protecting the settlers’ females (226). Indeed, as the colony develops, the link between foreign and domestic threats closes, especially in terms of emigration from America. At first, Mark keeps close control over the social construction of the colony, but its growth becomes unchecked. This expansion quickly effects significant changes, where Mark loses both political and social influence and Cooper most directly lays out his caustic social critique.

As mentioned, though Mark’s status as a master is figured as naturally stemming from God’s will, it exists on tenuous social ground. Much like the way the Lacanian master acts to quilt a social and ideological field, Mark’s position is maintained by and functions through its effects on the population. In initially fortifying the peak, for example, Cooper describes how Mark “issued his orders with a show of authority” (246). The need for such differentiating performance is reiterated when Mark begins to eat apart from the colonists because “authority was best preserved by avoiding familiarity” (303).

In this light, the Democratic Review’s claim that The Crater outs Cooper as a monarchist is on target in terms of the issue of localization of power. Yet such an aspersion does not hold up when one considers Mark’s political views. Though such views include an ambiguous array of positions, they are, in sum, marked by a distinctly anti-Whig flavor more than a pro-monarchist one. On the salient issues of executive power and territorial expansion, Cooper’s novel clearly leans toward Democratic sentiment. Not only does he portray the need for a totalizing commander in the guise of Mark (aristocratic tenor aside), but also obliquely addresses popular attacks on executive power by qualifying colonists’ impassioned cries that Waally (the leader of the Kannakas) was a tyrant. Here, he suggests “hatred of tyranny is innate in man, but it is necessary to distinguish between real oppression and those restraints which are wholesome, if not indispensable, to human happiness” (279). (In other words, Cooper’s interest in defending the structural position of master here leads him to pen a Hobbesian defense of one his novel’s villains.) When Mark subsequently lays out the “great principles” of his government, we see that the restraints he has in mind resemble those put forth by the old Jeffersonian lot. After decrying antebellum-era utopian projects as “modern absurdities on the subject of equality” (331), Mark determines that his government should “[p]rotect all in their rights equally, but, that done, let every man pursue his road to happiness his own way; conceding no more of his natural rights than were necessary to the great ends of peace, security, and law” (358). Cooper re-contextualizes Mark’s rule based on this “theory,” suggesting that Mark merely held power “for the greater good” and that he would gladly abnegate his position if another could more effectively fill it (359).

Although such notions, coupled with the horizontal growth of the colony, bespeak a broad alignment with Jackson-era and Polk-era platforms, when one looks more closely at the way Cooper’s ideal settlement crumbles, a political vision emerges that transcends antebellum party lines.

Cooper ushers in the beginning of the end when whaling is introduced into the colony. While he lauds the way such labor infuses the settlement with much-needed “interest,” the activity effects important changes to both the economic and symbolic economies (394). In addition to generating new wealth, allowing middling men such as Bob to amass fortunes, the industry’s labor shifts the colony’s fantasy coordinates. This latter transition is apparent in the way that Kannaka whalemen rose in public esteem, forcing Mark to lead hunts in order to maintain his public image. Instead of controlling the colony’s relations in absentia, Mark is forced to act (literally to perform) within the social fray. In this sense, Mark’s role as master is already in a precarious state before the arrival of what Cooper deems the worst enemies of all: “religion, law, and the press” (472).

Although the closing events of the novel include ongoing external threats, it is the internal dangers to Mark’s rule in the form of the above triad that prove most fatal. Religion plays the smallest part in this cabal, but the roles of the press and the law prove formative. After lamenting the effects of newfound wealth on the now “vain-glorious” colonists, Cooper stages the infective influences of a printer and a lawyer. In what is the linchpin of his critique, he argues that the lawyer taught the settlers that “they were wronged by their neighbors,” thus using law not for “justice” but for “speculation and revenge” (474). In a similar manner, he suggests that the press, taking up the topic of human rights, secured its own private ends by convincing the people “that they had hitherto been living under an unheard-of tyranny” (475).

The action of this dual-headed monster quickly undercuts Mark’s power. The press, here represented by the so-called “Crater Truth-Teller,” is shown to have two operative effects: allowing a minority position underhandedly to yolk the public “we” to a “biased perspective” as well as engendering a cynical eye in its readers (478).

As with the case of whaling, when the paper begins promoting its theory of majority rule, Mark is forced to operate as an agent within social discourse as opposed to as a determining structural reference. Here, Mark pens a series of defenses of the “fundamental law” that made him “ruler for life” and attacks dangers inherent to majority rule (481). According to Mark, the primary concern is not tyranny over the minority à la de Tocqueville, but the structural concern that if the majority completely rules “it has the right to set its dogmas above the commandments” (479). Mark frames civic laws as ideally conditioned by a domain of higher principles, asserting that “the laws of God were nothing but the great principles which ought to govern human contact” and, therefore, “there was a power to which majorities should defer” (479). The previous claim that Mark would gladly give up his position “had there been another suited to such a station” is thus retroactively illuminative in terms of the real issue at hand: preserving the traditional and, in Cooper’s view, just symbolic “station” of master. Though the rest of the novel’s action finds this task defeated — with Mark replaced by a new governor after the press rallies a constitutional convention — contextualizing Mark’s betrayed ideals with Cooper’s broader political writings from the era not only reveal the way the novel rearticulates Cooper’s anti-Whig arguments, but also what may be the essence of his late political fantasy in toto.

I’d like to use two related contexts to ground my discussion of The Crater — though I’ll only have time to gloss over them here: (1) Cooper’s anti-Whig writings from the 1830s and 40s; and (2) the New York anti-rent controversy.

With a public career in the 1830s marked by confrontations with prominent Whig critics, Cooper’s major political texts from this era clearly portray critiques of the press and the legislature that mirror events in The Crater. As opposed to his earlier 1827 Notions of the Americans, which figures public opinion as organically leading to truth (where the “precious grains of truth gradually get winnowed from the chaff ... and become the mental alignment of the nation” [Qtd. in Dekker “Introduction” 21]) in the 1838 The American Democrat, Cooper casts the public as a mass “liable to popular impulses” (61). (A clear development of his earlier claim, in the 1835 Monikins, that the masses are monkey-like.)

But even more directly relevant to Mark’s role of master is his warning about Congress’s and state institutions’ potential to redefine Constitutional law and executive privilege. This comes to head over issues such as Nullification (where he argues that by ratifying the Constitution, states ceased to be sovereign) and the Bank War (where, in A Letter to His Countrymen, Cooper rails against what he deems an unconstitutional Congressional resolution declaring that President Jackson’s dealings with the Bank of the United States were illegal).

Such defense of executive power and the law that sustains it may reveal much about the events in The Crater. But Cooper’s views on antebellum land and labor-rights controversies such as the “Anti-Rent War” of 1839-46 are even more telling. Cooper’s notion of property rights might be seen to align with Henry Charles Carey’s Principles of Political Economy (3 Vols. 1837-40), the first two volumes of which Cooper had available in his study (While Cooper clearly wouldn’t have agreed with Carey’s broader “American System” theories at this time, their notions of property/rent rights align to a degree. And, of course, Cooper begins to gravitate toward the politics of Clay and Webster in the 1850s). Carey takes on David Ricardo’s critique of rent practices, 1 arguing that instead of a decline in labor productivity and profit as poorer soils are leased out, both labor and capital are “daily increasing” (I: 212). Thus, for Carey, protection of rent practices and, more broadly, “perfect security of ... property” leads to greater prosperity for all parties (II: 465). Carey’s polemic undoubtedly has a stake in the aforementioned New York “Anti-Rent War” — a debate Cooper was quite interested in during the composition of The Crater. Centered on tracks of land along the Hudson owned by the Van Rensselaer family since 1637, the controversy involved tenants refusing to pay back rent when Stephen Van Rensselaer III died in 1839. Arguing that the patroon system that dictated their rental terms (what Cooper defines as a lifetime “durable lease”) was antiquated, protesters resisted authorities until their cause won out in 1846.

As Robert Spiller notes, the rent war catalyzed Cooper because the anti-renters “defied their contracts established in law” and thereby provided “evidence that the new America had lost sight of its principles” (37). More pointedly, in both the rent controversy and in the novel, the alignment of moral principles, legal precedent, and property rights link to the symbolic position of a master figure. In both scenarios, Cooper appears to long for an arrangement where a socio-economic master (Stephen Van Rensselaer and Mark Woolston, respectively) acts as, metaphorically speaking, an ideological master-signifier that quilts the legal and social planes. That is to say, for Cooper, the law’s waning reign is directly linked to masters’ loss of agency. (This can be seen, as well, in Cooper’s 1846 novel Redskins, a novel dedicated to the anti-rent controversy. Here, he applauds John Jay’s earlier gubernatorial administration for “putting down” rent protests. And he laments: “[T]his is not the age of John Jays” [22]).

By coupling The Crater’s critique of what George Dekker calls “mobocracy” (James 248) and Cooper’s political arguments of the 1830s and 40s, we can see more clearly what is at stake in both forums. The Crater does not merely offer a religious critique of antebellum political economy or a partisan invective against Whig positions, but, in cutting across both at once, illuminates a more formative political desire that undergirds many of Cooper’s later critiques.

A closing passage from The Crater bridges all such concerns. Through Mark, Cooper avers that “[c]onstitutions, or the fundamental law ... were meant to be the expression of those ... general principles which should control human society, and which should prevail over majorities” (479). Thus, for Cooper, it is not the declaration of independence that acts, in Fredrick Douglass’s terms, as the “ring-bolt” for the country’s development (a position also embraced by anti-renters), but, the Constitution. Again, in context of The American Democrat and A Letter, it is the Constitution’s inability to prevent change or curb Congressional power that is the problem. Both Mark’s society and the antebellum political landscape are in jeopardy because they leave open the possibility for alterations of the alignment between “general principles” and the law. On one level, this casts Cooper as a simple organic conservative, seeking to erase the constituent power of a growing population with a stabilizing constituted power. It seems that what Cooper most desires is to maintain the symbolic coordinates shaped in an originary state of exception. This is seen in The Crater with the law of right that follows the eruption of the islands and in the U.S. with the Constitutional ratification that follows the revolution.

But on another level, Cooper’s vision is much more radical: critiquing all historical states of exception. This is hinted at in his aforementioned novel Redskins, where Cooper argues that land treaties from before the revolution should hold sway. Thus, the law of possession here trumps both the exception of the American Revolution and the Constitution proper — the Constitution itself being just because it aligns with the general principle of property ownership (27).

These issues come to the fore in a final aside in The Crater. Here, Cooper caustically argues: “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.” Such teleological logic aligns with the revolutionary thought of a Jefferson or a Paine, whereby periodic rebellion is necessary in an on-going struggle for freedom. But Cooper adds an essential turn: “In the meantime, the earth revolves; ... communities are formed and are dissolved; ... the whole, however, advancing slowly but unerringly towards the great consummation, which was designed from the beginning. ... The supreme folly of the hour is to imagine that perfection will come before its stated time” (488). A Christian eschatological scenario such as this undercuts any historical change or agency. Yet, it is essential to see how this Christian narrative operates within The Crater.

By aligning Mark’s reign and the “fundamental law” that supports it with divine agency, Cooper casts an otherworldly intervention (where the originary real-world state of exception is here quite literary a “divine intervention”) as the structural source for an ideological quilting point in earthly time. Of course, such a fantasy has clear precedent in feudal narratives, but here it operates in relation to a pseudo-constitutional democracy with clear ties to the antebellum republic. Although Cooper would undoubtedly adhere to the letter of Paine’s resounding claim that “in America Law is King,” as mentioned, he is far from inhabiting the same revolutionary perspective.

But even this may be an understatement. We might safely locate American “constitutional democracy” as the central concern and, hence, as the central ideological master-signifier at stake in the work here discussed. In returning to the theoretical frame that I opened with, contemporary scholars such as Žižek assert that “democracy” as a master-signifier, as a concept that structures the symbolic coordinates of the modern political world, works so well because its lack is “directly inscribed into the social system, it is institutionalized in a set of procedures and regulations” (“Robespierre” xxxiii). Isn’t it this socio-political manifestation of the lack of the master-signifier that seems to bother Cooper? The problems he diagnoses within antebellum political and social formations seem to irk him because they reveal a correlative lack in symbolic coordinates themselves (most apparently manifest in the Constitution). As such, The Crater may be a pivotally important text because of the way its fanciful maritime setting allows us to glimpse how Cooper’s cognizance of this symbolic lack leads him to repair it, as it were, with a fantasy of a totalizing arrangement based on “general principles.” As such, Cooper’s fantasmatic reign of law is undoubtedly also a reign of the master, a master he sees falling from grace as the nineteenth century progresses.

Works Cited

  • Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Print.
  • Carey, H. C. Principles of Political Economy. Vols. I & II. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837, 1838. Print.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Crater; or, Vulcan’s Peak: A Tale of the Pacific. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Fredonia Books, 2002. Print.
  • ------. The Redskins; or Indian and Injin: Being the Conclusion of the Littlepage Manuscripts. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1900. Print.
  • Dekker. George. Introduction. The American Democrat. By James Fenimore Cooper. 1838. New York: Penguin Books, 1969. 7-55. Print.
  • ------. James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1967. Print.
  • Spiller, Robert E. James Fenimore Cooper. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965. Print.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. Interrogating the Real. Ed. Rex Butler and Scott Stephens. New York: Continuum, 2005. Print.
  • ------. “Robespierre, Or, the ‘Divine Violence’ of Terror.” Virtue and Terror: Maximilien Robespierre. Ed. Jean Ducange. Trans. John Howe. New York: Verso, 2007. vii-xxxix. Print.


1 See Ricardo’s On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817).