The International Politics of Friendship in James Fenimore Cooper’s Novels

Sarah Sillin (University of Maryland)

Presented at the No. 2 Cooper Panel of the 2011 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 28, May, 2011.

Copyright © 2011, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

While a long line of theorists have explored sympathy’s role in nation formation through its ability to connect citizens, in this paper I want to consider how James Fenimore Cooper’s novels complement this tradition; rather than simply emphasizing sympathy’s potential to create a coherent nation by affectively uniting citizens, Cooper often also depicts international sympathy as central to America’s development. Specifically, his historical romances of the 1820s employ images of friendship to depict affiliations and cross-cultural exchange as central to colonial American history. Though scholars have usefully elucidated the ways in which Cooper’s images of exchange convey anxieties about cross-cultural encounter, as well as imperial desires, his novels also express a sense of optimism that America had benefited and could continue to benefit from foreign affiliation in Cooper’s own day. Cooper thus responds to a moment when national leaders were making formative decisions about America’s continued expansion and position in the larger world through a range of policies including the Missouri Compromise and the Monroe Doctrine. If we conceive of nations as dependent upon “a rich legacy of memories” or “a heroic past,” as Ernest Renan argues, Cooper’s fiction also contributed substantially to this process of U.S. development. His depictions of a colonial America that is characterized by foreign encounter and exchange suggest that the nation’s foundations equip it to form affiliations with a wide range of peoples.

Cooper’s work proves important to understanding America of the 1820s because it reflects a profound engagement with both domestic and foreign politics. It positions him as a “cosmopolitan patriot,” to borrow a phrase from Kwame Anthony Appiah, for Cooper displays his national pride by imagining America contributing to and benefiting from international affiliation. His images of friendship provide readers with an accessible figure or metonym for such affiliations. Indeed, prior studies on Cooper have often commented on the significance of his depictions of friendship, examining his representations of Anglo Americans’ relations with Indians, as well as of tensions between British and Americans. However, I suggest that when we consider the larger pattern of Cooper’s various depictions of friendship, we see that he defines Americans through their sympathetic encounters with the foreign. As critics like Ivy Schweitzer argue, early nineteenth-century Americans understood friendship as an elective affiliation in which individuals’ feeling for each other was based upon the recognition of equality-whether of class, education, or merit-across difference. In this conception, the friend is a double who cannot quite be conflated with the self and serves two primary functions: he affirms one’s own value by the display of his merits, and he fosters one’s sympathetic connection to the world outside oneself. When Cooper’s Americans learn to feel for English, French, Dutch, African, and Native American characters, they suggest that these peoples can interact on terms of equality and that this sense of equality prompts Americans to feel concern for the larger world. Though there are memorable scenes of cross cultural and interracial violence, Cooper’s characters often collaborate in everything from warfare to courtship while maintaining their national differences. In this paper, I will explore how this optimistic narrative of exchange emerges in The Pilot (1823), near the start of Cooper’s career and then turn to The Prairie (1827), which emphasizes the importance of cross-cultural exchange to the national future.

Cooper’s depiction of international friendship in The Pilot insists that individuals’ sympathies can transcend national borders. While The Pilot is largely concerned with reconciling divisions between Americans, namely between loyalists and patriots, it concludes with a particularly sentimental vision of an American-British friendship that suggests these men and the nations they represent are equals. 1 The novel centers on Barnstable and Griffith, two Americans fighting for independence, as they attempt to court the cousins Katherine and Cecilia. The courtship has been interrupted by the Revolutionary War, as the young women’s guardian and uncle, Colonel Howard, is a Tory who removed them to Britain at the start of the Revolution and objects to the men’s pursuit of his wards. Barnstable and Griffith follow their love interests to England, where they are allied with John Paul Jones (disguised as a “Mr. Gray”) who spearheads a secret mission. Though the mission fails, over the course of the novel, Barnstable and Griffith defeat Howard’s defense of his estate, win a sea battle against the British, and Howard dies, blessing his wards’ marriages and conceding that the American Revolution may be just.

The Pilot performs a series of reunions, with Cooper first reconciling the divided Americans and then in the final chapters, devoting several pages to a new, international relationship forged between two of the novel’s minor characters: Boroughcliffe (a British major) and Manual (an American captain). Their friendship revises the parent-child metaphors so often used to describe the relationship between Britain and America in the eighteenth-century, imagining a relation of amiable equality, rather than of parental authority and youthful rebellion. Boroughcliffe and Manual first encounter each other while fighting on opposing sides of the war. Though the American mission fails, the British attempts to capture the Americans are defeated, in effect rendering the Americans victorious. When Manual and Boroughcliffe assume adjacent posts at forts along the Saint Lawrence a decade later, Cooper writes that, to facilitate the friendship, “a long cabin was erected on one of the islands in the river, as a sort of neutral territory, where their feastings and revels might be held without any scandal to the discipline of their respective garrisons” (417). The creation of neutral territory frees their friendship from the formal strictures of their official, national roles. Yet it also reinforces the sense that these men’s similar military stations, what Cooper refers to as their “mutual situations,” afford them an equality that, along with their shared military experience, provides a basis for their relationship (417). Manual and Boroughcliffe can create a neutral space of affiliation because each holds authority within a national military force from which he can separate himself temporarily.

This relationship suggests a new equality between the two nations’ military might, but does not eliminate the possibility for conflict between the British and Americans. Cooper writes, “In this manner, year and year rolled by, the most perfect harmony existing between the two posts, notwithstanding the angry passions that disturbed their respective countries” (418). While the “angry passions” go unexplained, the men’s amity expands outward via synecdoche, so that their feelings for each other come to characterize their posts, though the U.S.-Canadian border would be highly contested in the War of 1812. This moment is striking given that scholars often note Cooper’s critical distance from England. 2 The scene suggests that such friendship, if not the predominate feeling between the English and Americans at the turn-of-the-century, might nonetheless prove influential. The relationship, both sweet and comic in its resemblance to a marriage, lasts through to Manual’s death, which is followed shortly thereafter by Boroughcliffe’s, and the two bachelors are buried side by side, evoking an extension of their friendship into the afterlife. Manual is ultimately killed by one of his own men because of his rigorous discipline, which appears excessive given the lack of apparent danger from his nearest enemies. Again though, Manual’s military discipline is foundational to their equality and friendship. This friendship suggests that the American characters and their nation have overcome the Revolution’s uncertainties, establishing enforceable national borders and creating the possibility for neutral territory beyond them. The friendship provides a corrective model to the events of 1812 that threatened such affiliation through contestations over national borders. At the moment when some national leaders sought to distance America from Europe, Cooper remained interested in the possibilities of affiliation and mutually beneficial exchange, even in the very simple form of two men using their national trade routes to share their favorite malts and wines.

Friendship’s function in The Pilot — expressing equality between America and Britain at the moment of national independence — elucidates why the trope was of particular interest to the young republic. As Caleb Crain argues, the language of friendship allowed Americans to express identities as equals within a republic, capable of forming sympathetic attachments that would clarify their new political and social relations to each other. 3 The figure of the friend likewise offered reassurance that Americans could assess foreign peoples, determining who would become America’s political allies, who would share their national and global concerns. Moreover, this language conveys confidence that America could form such affiliations without being subsumed into a foreign empire.

Cooper’s The Prairie, published four years later in 1827, expands on the importance of international affiliation by integrating such friendships with marriages, thereby imagining domestic relations that depend on foreign relations. The novel opens with a general description of settlers’ rapid entrance into newly acquired American territories, and then narrows the focus to the Bush family’s journey onto the prairie. In this frontier context, individuals’ loyalties quickly become suspect, and the novel follows the ensuing conflict between three parties: the Bush family of settlers, the Sioux, and an international band that forms around Cooper’s famous protagonist, Natty Bumppo. Natty’s band includes two young men, Paul Hover and Duncan Uncas Middleton, following the Bushes in order to recover their love interests: Ellen Wade and Inez Middleton. Though Ellen is the Bushes’ niece, she flees them along with Inez, a Spanish aristocrat kidnapped by the Bushes; the two women join their friends, and this group is aided in their escape by Hardheart, a Pawnee Loup chief. By the conclusion, Hardheart kills the Sioux chief Mahtoree who has taken Natty and his friends captive. The Bushes then recognize Ellen and Inez’s right to liberty, so that they may return to the settlements with their husbands. Natty alone chooses to remain on the prairie with the Pawnee until his death. These international affiliations and conflicts on the frontier therefore influence domestic relationships and the nation.

Cooper foregrounds the Louisiana Purchase as the historic incident giving rise to the novel’s cross-cultural encounters, suggesting how expansion produced close relations between the young republic and foreign peoples, including former Spanish colonists and native tribes. The Prairie also calls attention to the centrality of marriage as a means of creating national coherence in this moment of expansion and exchange: “some little time was necessary to blend the discrepant elements of society. In attaining so desirable an end, woman was made to perform her accustomed and grateful office. The barriers of Prejudice and religion were broken through by the irresistible power of the Mater Passion, and family unions, ere long, began to cement the political tie” (156). Here he renders explicit the role that the marriage between the Protestant Middleton and Catholic Inez plays in representing a route to national unity. Notably, Cooper’s band of sympathetic characters facilitates such marriage through their network of friendships, integrating Americans’ foreign relations with their domestic future.

Though prior studies of male friendship in Cooper’s fiction often argue that he situates it in opposition to romantic, heterosexual relations, I would suggest that in his early novels, Cooper repeatedly depicts a potentially productive connection between friendship and marriage that resonates with nineteenth-century understandings of these relationships. 4 Both Richard Godbeer and Caleb Crain assert that for nineteenth-century American men, sympathetic friendships could also co-exist with marriage; young men might help their friends court wives, and then maintain their homosocial attachments, which were sometimes also modeled on women’s friendships. Recognizing this contemporary understanding of heterosexual and homosocial relations as mutually reinforcing draws attention to Cooper’s integration of international friendships and domestic romance in The Prairie. 5

Indeed, Cooper depicts a number of friendships — between Ellen and Inez, Paul and Middleton, and Natty and Hardheart — that connect these characters to each other and the nation. These relationships are especially significant because the Bushes threaten Inez’s national incorporation, kidnapping her at the moment of her marriage, when Cooper suggests she and other former Spanish colonials would be absorbed into the nation; instead the Bushes move her outside of civilization, aligning her with the slaves commonly stolen by Abiram White. 6 By contrast, Inez’s friendship with Ellen connects Inez to the inhabitants of the settlements. Inez describes Ellen as “’having shown so much commiseration and friendship,’” because she provides the daily care of her companion, and promises to live with Inez should the two escape the Bushes. This promise evinces the women’s mutual sympathy and shows their ability to act in each others’ interests (173). The shared feeling between the two women sanctions Inez’s marriage to Middleton by demonstrating that she fits into an American community, reducing the apparent difference created by her heritage and religion. While the relationship between these women is afforded relatively little space, it is critical in drawing both female characters into the future of the U.S. nation. Duncan and Paul likewise rely on their friendship to strengthen their connections to American society; collaborating in pursuit of their heterosexual relationships brings them together, and helps draw Paul, a denizen of the frontier, into settler life. 7 Rather than valorizing an escape from society, Cooper celebrates Paul’s and Duncan’s contributions to the domestic government.

Perhaps the most significant friendship within the novel is that between Natty and Hardheart. The strength of their bond offers a reminder of why readings of Cooper’s novels often emphasize his representations of Anglo/Native friendship. Natty and Hardheart play pivotal roles in protecting their band from danger throughout the novel, ensuring that the couples will live to help forge the national future. Natty and Hardheart’s friendship is essential to this future because it is what prompts their collaboration in the interests of the larger group and the nation. When the Sioux capture them, Natty declares, “’my heart yearns to you, boy, and gladly would I do you good,’” and their growing affinity culminates in Hardheart’s election of Natty as his adoptive father (278). This shift attests to the significance of their relationship by associating their elective affinity with the naturalness and strength of ties of kinship. Their friendship evinces the potential for cross-cultural encounters to produce strong, affective attachments, one possible result of U.S. expansion that The Prairie portrays amidst other, more violent effects.

Moreover, this relationship models affinity across difference. Even in his dying wishes, Natty insists he is distinct from the Pawnee by refusing their funerary customs in preference to Christian rites. In Natty’s reflections on religion, a cosmopolitan perspective begins to emerge: “’There is much to be said in favor of both religions, for each seems suited to its own people, and no doubt it was so intended’” (382). Natty evinces a respect for Pawnee culture on which his friendship depends. Their relationship thereby parallels the marriage between Inez and Middleton; though Cooper depicts the husband’s Protestantism more sympathetically than the wife’s Catholicism throughout the novel, Middleton comes to appreciate that he cannot challenge his wife’s faith. The same kind of mutual respect acquired through and essential to foreign affiliation becomes useful to domestic relations in the context of expansion. At the same time that the elective father-son relation resembles this marriage, though, the greater difference between Natty’s and Hardheart’s faiths lessens the apparent difference within the Catholic and Protestant marriage, providing reassurance of the strength of their union. In The Prairie, tension emerges between the desirability of preserving cultural differences and recognition of the fundamental connections between domestic and foreign relations. Yet by creating characters who can negotiate their recognition of connection and respect for difference, Cooper suggests that affiliation is as important to the nation as expansion.

In a longer version of this argument, I draw on several of Cooper’s other novels to examine his depiction of sympathy’s risks, as well as the specific traits he hopes to foster through affiliation: from republicanism to artistic excellence. Even in this abbreviated version, though, I want to suggest that Cooper’s characters and their relationships convey enthusiasm for America’s participation in an international political sphere and its potential influence on the nation and the larger world; while this sometimes reads as a justification for expansion, based in exceptionalism, at other times Cooper seems to value foreign autonomy. His vision of nationalism depends upon a larger sense of global connection. The vitality of friendly sympathy in his novels from the 1820s becomes all the more apparent through a contrast to his later work, such as The Deerslayer (1841), which amplifies his earlier attention to the violence of colonial America. Observing this trope of friendship in Cooper’s fiction reveals that his representation of the nation shifted over his career, as well as calling our attention to similar patterns in the work of other writers. Cooper’s early emphasis on the powerful influence of friendship resonates with Lydia Maria Child’s and Catharine Sedgwick’s depictions of Anglo-Native relationships in their novels of the 1820s, as critics have often noted. And his later work anticipates that of Herman Melville, as both men represent friendship as quite limited in its ability to inspire a broader sense of sympathy, evoking what Hsuan Hsu refers to as “cosmopolitan despair.” Thus the possibilities and problems that these fictional friendships convey do not simply reflect Cooper’s vision of the nation, but rather attest to his engagement with domestic and global concerns influencing a broader body of early American literature. Cooper’s novels can, therefore, help us to think about the literary archive of nineteenth-century Americans’ aspirations, fantasies, and anxieties about the nation’s connections to and effects on the world.

Works Cited

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1 James Crane briefly comments on this friendship in his analysis of the relation between Cooper’s and Scott’s maritime fiction; however, he interprets it as part of Cooper’s larger emphasis on the value of the U.S. republic, which he suggests here wins out over the Old World traditions. By contrast, I suggest that Cooper is establishing Americans as the equals of British who can engage in productive exchange.

2 See Person and Franklin.

3 Caleb Crain writes, “as a metaphor and model for citizenly love, romantic friendship was more congenial to republican ideology than either filial or marital relationships. Romantic friendship was egalitarian. It could bind men without curtailing their liberty” (5).

4 Take, for instance, Leslie Fiedler’s description of Natty and Chingachgook’s friendship as, “the pure marriage of males — sexless and holy, a kind of counter-matrimony, in which the white refugee from society and the dark-skinned primitive are joined till death do them part” (211, italics mine).

5 Readings like Barbara Alice Mann’s examination of Jane Austen’s influence on Cooper have pointed the way for this analysis, attesting that his fiction likewise affords considerable importance to sisterly relationships, including female friendships, thereby fundamentally challenging the conception that Cooper’s most significant writing is about men’s relationships that are predicated upon the exclusion of women.

6 The connection between Inez and slaves is foregrounded when a criminal who steals slaves to resell them sells Middleton knowledge of Inez’s whereabouts (165-7).

7 Natty also helps return Paul to life in the settlements, asserting that it is his duty to consider his betrothed’s preference for life within the settlements, despite his own preferences for the frontier (373).