Adam Mickiewicz and James Fenimore Cooper: A Reappraisal
Presented at the Forma of Transnational American Literature Panel of the 2012 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.
Copyright © 2012, James Fenimore Cooper Society.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 29, May, 2012, pp. 25-29.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
Several reports mention that the two great stars of nineteenth-century Romantic literature, the American James Fenimore Cooper and the Pole Adam Mickiewicz met in Rome in the spring of 1830 while traveling through Italy. ¹ Cooper and his family set off to Europe mostly for cultural appreciation and somewhat for business because Cooper wanted to resolve overseas copyright issues. By contrast, Mickiewicz had been jailed and then exiled to Russia in 1824 from his home in Lithuania for his participation in republican activities that aroused the ire of the Tsarist government. On May 12, 1829, while in the fullness of health, Mickiewicz wrote to his friend, Edward Antoni Odyniec from St. Petersburg that, ” ... I shall go abroad to restore my health, with the benevolent, and for me flattering, permission of His Imperial Majesty ... ” (A. Mickiewicz Tom 1:31). Mickiewicz and Odyniec arrived in Rome on 18 November 1829, while Cooper and his family arrived two weeks later, on 2 December 1829 (Wòjcicki xlviii-xlix; Beard 1:346).
To date, four noteworthy studies have touched upon various aspects of the relationship between these two men. Robert Spiller (1935) was the first to acknowledge Cooper’s financial support for the Polish Uprising on 29 November 1830. Leopold Wellisz (1948) published an article in the Polish press that included a theretofore-unpublished letter from Mickiewicz to Cooper, which he offered as proof of a long-term friendship between the two men. Ludwik Krzyżanowski’s (1951) seminal paper postulated that Cooper and Mickiewicz had a literary friendship. Finally, in 1958, John Mersereau presented a paper that analyzed two of Mickiewicz’s texts, with the intent of finding a literary influence from Cooper. Unfortunately, direct evidence that might elucidate the exact nature of the Cooper-Mickiewicz association is scattered and fragmentary. After a critical review of previous studies and additional primary source documents, we suggest in this paper that perhaps the two men connected initially because of literature; however, their lasting association was based on their shared republican idealism.
Krzyżanowski opens his seminal paper, in which he analyzes the nature of the relationship between Cooper and Mickiewicz, with a quote from the wiadomosci, or the gossip section, of the 25 April 1830 issue of Kurier Litewski reprinted from the Gazeta Warszawska: “Mickiewicz continues his stay in Rome. He may be often seen roaming through the city with the famous American novelist Cooper and the Russian authoress M-lle (sic) Klustine” (Krzyżanowski 245).
Mickiewicz’s activities and the people with whom he associated were of great interest to the Eastern European media. Other bits of gossip about Mickiewicz’s activities in Rome can be found throughout April and May of 1830 in the Kuryer Litewski, Kuryer Warszawski, and the Gazecia Lwowski (See Żywot, 2:80). The cult of celebrity that surrounded both men had a particular focus on the Mickiewicz, although Cooper was also well known in Poland by this time. The Spy (1821) had been pirated and translated into Polish very soon after its American publication. The 1825 edition of the Biblioteka Polska contains a summary of The Spy and a brief biography of Cooper. Of course, it is natural that when two literary giants had repeatedly been seen exploring the ancient city of Rome and her ruins in the company of a young beautiful and single female Russian author, Mlle Anastasie Klustin, that the Polish gossip columnists would be hard at work.
Krzyżanowski had suspected that when all of Cooper’s papers were finally made available to scholars, additional details would emerge which could better illuminate the Cooper-Mickiewicz connection (Whitfield 345). He was correct; not only do details emerge of a Cooper-Mickiewicz connection, but also of Mickiewicz’s connections with other Europeans, including the Marquis de Lafayette, as well as of Cooper’s relations with other Poles. The tone and style of a letter, dated June 15, 1833, that Cooper wrote on behalf of Mickiewicz to Lafayette suggests a long intimacy between the two men, an intimacy that was comfortable enough for Mickiewicz to be able to speak to Cooper about his private affairs and personal difficulties. Further, the statement in the letter, “after you left us last night”, suggests that Lafayette, Cooper, and Mickiewicz had attended a common social event (Beard 6:321). Mickiewicz had refused to speak to Lafayette directly, “from delicacy” and Cooper “presumed to do it for him” (Beard 6:321). This presumption is revealing, both of Cooper’s regard for Mickiewicz, and of the deference that Mickiewicz paid to Lafayette, who was clearly at the top of the social hierarchy. Cooper took it upon himself to intercede on Mickiewicz’s behalf, indicating a concern for his welfare. His additional reference to Mickiewicz as having a “purity of character” and being a man of “high celebrity” reveal that Cooper held Mickiewicz in high esteem (Beard 6:321). Implicit in these statements is sustained, long enough for Cooper to develop a depth of knowledge necessary to form such a lofty opinion of Mickiewicz. This line of reasoning appears to be substantiated by the placement of two of Mickiewicz’s calling cards at the center front of an Italian Screen, which he used to display painting, prints, and other mementos of his time in Italy. Such a prominent placement indicates both Cooper’s pride in knowing Mickiewicz and the high esteem in which he was held by Cooper (MacDougall). Meanwhile, Lafayette’s gracious reply to Cooper’s request for assistance, dated two days later and addressed to Mickiewicz, assures him that he will have no difficulties in traveling (A. Mickiewicz Tom 2:107). He also invites Mickiewicz to La Grange, his estate, so that he can extend his personal “amity” to him so that Mickiewicz should never again feel that he could not appeal directly to Lafayette for help (A. Mickiewicz Tom 2:107).
Once we leave this letter however, we move into secondary observations and the representations of others who both outline and interpret the scope and meaning of the Cooper-Mickiewicz association. Krzyżanowski used a travel letter dated March 9, 1830, to set the date and place of the first meeting between Cooper and Mickiewicz. In doing so Krzyżanowski defines the boundaries within which Cooper and Mickiewicz developed their friendship in Rome as beginning on March 9, 1830, and ending when Cooper left the city on April 15, 1830. However, having contact for only six weeks seems hardly sufficient to establish the depth of friendship necessary to justify Cooper’s intercession with Lafayette on his behalf. This apparent disconnect suggested a need to deconstruct the events of Cooper’s stay in Rome to see if a clearer picture could emerge, one that might account for Cooper’s level of emotional engagement in Mickiewicz’s intervention.
Since Mickiewicz wrote virtually nothing about his time in Rome or his impressions of his travels with Odyniec, we, like Krzyżanowski, were forced to consult Odyniec, who did record the events in his notes and letters. In the aforementioned letter, Odyniec confides to his reader:
In turn I must tell you about a new acquaintance which you will envy me, I’m sure. I met Fenimore Cooper! He had come here from Paris, and since he had from there letters to Mlle Anastasie Klustine (sic), her mother arranged for him a splendid soirée at which all local and artistic celebrities could see, welcome and honor this star of the other hemisphere, who out of simple curiosity had come to glance at ours and sweeps across it like a comet with the whole constellation of his family, that is, his wife and four daughters (Krzyżanowski 247-248, Krzyżanowski translation).
However, if we compare the above account with the notations made in Wojcicki’s, Wspomnienie O Życiu Adama Mickiewicza (Remembrances of the Life of Adam Mickiewicz, 1858), whose publication predates Odyniec’s travelogue by some twenty years, but draws heavily upon the raw travel notes taken by Odyniec during his time with Mickiewicz, we can gain some insight into the events surrounding the Cooper-Mickiewicz meeting. Odyniec appears to have taken notes recording the various cities Mickiewicz and he visited and listed names of people and events he wanted to recall later when writing his travelogue. His choice of vocabulary and the linguistic marker used when introducing the Cooper-Mickiewicz meeting communicates his desire to remember the significance of the event. He relates that, among the foreigners they met in Rome during this time, the “Ze znakomitości”, or celebrities among them were the romantic writer Cooper, and the artists, Cammucini, and Thorwaldsen (Wójcicki lii; italics in the original). Clearly, the naming of Cooper and the others is significant since Odyniec goes on to mention that he and Mickiewicz met other artists, but fails to name them. Further, the order of the names and Odyniec’s italicization of Cooper’s name taken together with his choice of vocabulary, suggests that he wanted to remember specific people and to capture the importance of this event.
Additional clues to this first meeting can be found in Beard’s introduction to Cooper’s Italian journal, which mentions in passing that:
The mother of Anastasie Klustin gave a brilliant reception for him, the Bonapartes renewed their courtesies, and the numerous Americans in Rome invited him to preside at a patriotic dinner on Washington’s Birthday (Beard 1:347).
We must keep in mind however, that during George Washington’s lifetime, England, Ireland, Wales, and the British Colonies changed from using the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. This means that the dinner at which Cooper was asked to preside could have taken place on or near February 11, 1830 — Washington’s Birthday under the Julian calendar. Additional evidence from both the Żywot and the Wspomnienie push the timeline even further back. These sources reveal several occasions in December 1829 when many of the people present at Cooper’s reception had gathered at soirées in the home of Madame Klustin. Mickiewicz also attended soirées and dinners held at the homes of a number of prominent foreigners, including Prince Gregoire Ivanovitch Gagarine, William Caleb Rives, Lady Karoline Hamilton, Lady Elizabeth Russell, and Princess Zinaida Volkonskaya (Koropeckyj 133-138; Żywot, Tom. 2:68-73). The Żywot indicates that all the prominent foreigners attended these events (W. Mickiewicz Tom. 2:75-76). Even though Cooper’s name is not recorded as attending any of the events, his position as US Consul to Lyon and his close association with Rives, as well as his friendship with many of the other guests, suggests that in all probability he almost certainly attended them, especially given the implicit statement recorded above. Yet ironically, it is Odyniec once again, who offers the most telling evidence that the Cooper reception occurred in the early part of December:
His wife [Cooper’s] and daughters did not attend [the reception], although they were [had been] invited. He [Cooper] excused their absence claiming they were ill-of-health and fatigued by the journey [to Rome on December 2, 1829] (Odyniec 249, Mazur translation, emphasis added).
One thing becomes abundantly clear when we analyze these sources side by side; it is unlikely that the reception took place on March 9, 1830. In all probability, it took place early in December of 1829 instead.
Irrespective of the specific date of the soirée, Odyniec sketched some of the evening’s events in his letter; regrettably, the content of the conversations cannot be precisely documented. However, Odyniec reported that Cooper spoke at length with Mickiewicz and was especially interested in “the spirit and the character of the Slavs and nomad tribes in the steppes” (Krzyżanowski 248; in translation). Although Cooper’s inquiry about the “tribes in the steppes” may appear a bit strange to modern readers, during the nineteenth century, the frontier border region of Poland that today encompasses Belarus and Ukraine was referred to in this manner. There were competing factions, or tribes, who were in conflict with some of the Polish nobility over Polish expansionist land claims. The similarity with the situation on the border of the American frontier undoubtedly intrigued and fascinated Cooper. A discussion about frontier land claims and Slavic spirit and character would logically have to include political elements, given that Mickiewicz had been exiled for his republican activities, and because Cooper was an unabashed republican idealist.
Cooper was ardently political, weaving political statements into the majority of his letters, even the otherwise personal ones to his daughters. The correspondence that Cooper exchanged with members of various soirée circles indicate that he enjoyed meeting people who shared his political interests. In a letter dated 1832, Lady Russell hopes she will not incur Cooper’s displeasure for presuming to make an introduction of a Hungarian gentleman who desires to meet him, saying, “He is full of generous sentiments and love of liberty, though an Austrian subject” (P. F. Cooper 1:254 Emphasis added). Cooper’s correspondence reveals extensive political and social discussions with Polish, Russian, French, and American recipients (Beard vols. 1-6).
Long after Cooper left Rome, he received letters with news about Mickiewicz, such as this one from Lady Elizabeth Marlay, dated 1832 illustrates: “Poor Michiewitz (sic) is come, agreeable as ever, but out of health, and out of spirits ... He and Chodzko (sic) are printing another edition of his Poems (sic) ... [the purpose of which] I suppose [is] half patriotic, half pecuniary” (P. F. Cooper I: 288). The information conveyed about Mickiewicz, again presupposes a shared intimacy among Marlay, Mickiewicz, and Cooper. Yet, one of the clearest descriptions of the esteem in which Cooper held Mickiewicz is offered by Cooper’s daughter Susan: “Mickiewicz [was] a man whose appearance, manner, and conversation were full of originality and genius, while the sad fate of his country enlisted Mr. Cooper’s warmest sympathies in his behalf” (S. F. Cooper 270).
By the time Cooper reached Paris in August of 1830, he had spent several months riding daily among the ruins of the Compagna with many European friends, but according to Susan Cooper, there were few among those who rode with Cooper whose company gave him more pleasure than Mickiewicz (S. F. Cooper 270). Well traveled and well informed after living and touring in Europe for four years, Cooper had witnessed the abuse of power within the feudal system in several locations. He had wined and dined with high-ranking political figures from all over Europe and Russia. His social circle routinely included members of royal families representing several countries. In practical and philosophical terms, he supported the revolutionary spirit that swept across Europe after the July Revolution in Paris. Cooper’s deep love of liberty was fortified by his frequent and lengthy visits with Lafayette whom he not only respected, but also loved “even more for his kindness of heart than I admired his constancy and courage” (Beard III: 49). Lafayette had great sympathy for Revolutionary causes. According to Kramer, “no other prominent figure of his generation lived through so many revolutionary events” as did Lafayette (521). The shared history of France and Poland and the moral obligation that some in France felt they owed Poland for the troops she lost on their behalf spurred many to action.
Direct correspondence between Cooper and Mickiewicz during the winter of 1830-31, has yet to be uncovered, however, there is evidence that Mickiewicz had contact with the Polish émigrés living in Paris. Examination of Cooper’s correspondence for the six months prior to the establishment of the Polish American Committee shows he held ample political discussions; however, his correspondence makes critical commentary about English, French, Belgian, and even Neapolitan politics, but there are no references to Poland or Polish politics (Beard vol. 2).
This makes Cooper’s passionate and sustained response to the Polish insurrection of November 1830 even more striking in its complexity and emotional involvement. It is quite difficult to explain even in terms of what one would call an ordinary friendship between Cooper, Lafayette, and Mickiewicz. Lafayette made repeated impassioned pleas in the Chamber of Deputies to come to the aide of the Polish people. However, according to Lloyd S. Kramer, King Louis-Philippe refused to become embroiled in a war that had the potential to unite the radical elements in France and lead to his own downfall (531). Stymied by Louis-Philippe and frustrated with France’s conciliatory stance toward Russia, Lafayette decided to take his campaign directly to the people. Naturally, he turned to Cooper for help. Lafayette founded the French Polish Committee; then Cooper formed the American Polish Committee, assuming the chair ad in. The first meeting at which Cooper’s presence is documented was held on July 9, 1831 (Beard vol. 2). The American Polish Committee met at the Cooper’s Paris home almost every week. Funds were collected and a letter to the American people drafted, signed, and in all likelihood, written by Cooper. Cooper helped Elizabeth Marlay to establish one of many lotteries organized to raise money for the Polish cause. A substantial amount of money was collected. According to Samuel F. B. Morse, some “twenty thousand francs” was entrusted to Dr. Samuel G. Howe, the permanent chair of the Committee, who was dispatched to Prussia to convey the funds to Polish refugees there (Morse 430). Dr. Howe was imprisoned in Prussia while discharging his duties, forcing Cooper to carry out the collection of funds and other activities in Paris until June 30, 1832, when the Committee disbanded.
The letter of appeal to the American people that Cooper composed on behalf of the American Polish Committee is a long and stunning piece of rhetoric. It contains statements about Polish history, Polish people, and elements of a uniquely Polish perspective on life that Cooper undoubtedly absorbed through his sustained contact with the Polish émigrés living in Paris and his extended contact with Mickiewicz in Rome. There is no direct evidence that Cooper read Polish history texts, although Leonard Chodżko, aide-de-camp to Lafayette and an associate of Cooper published a revised and updated edition of Malte-Brun’s, Tableau de la Pologne ancienne et moderne sous le rapport géographique, statistique, géologique etc. (1830). Chodżko also had written to Mickiewicz in May 1828 to inform him that he was in the process of publishing and distributing his poems in the French language (A. Mickiewicz T. II:53). It is unknown if Cooper read these texts, but he could have had access to them if he so desired.
The text of Cooper’s appeal to the American people is four and a half pages long, consisting of approximately 1600 words, making it an unusually long letter of financial appeal. One can hear echoes of Mickiewicz in terms of his perception of the history of the Polish Republic and of the predicament of the Polish people throughout Cooper’s letter:
When Poland was overcome, the fifth Power of Christendom was trodden upon ... The crime of Poland was too much liberty; her independent existence, in the vicinity of those who had reared their thrones on arbitrary will, was not to be endured ... (Beard 2:124-125).
This excerpt of a speech given by Mickiewicz, although from a slightly later period, is representative of his lifelong vision of Poland, in which he once again inter-mingles romanticized republican idealization and Catholic religiosity:
The glory of Poland, its only glory truly Christian, is to have suffered more than all the nations ... But conquered Poland, slave and victim of sovereigns who were her sworn enemies and executioners — Poland, abandoned by the governments and the nations, lay in agony on her solitary Golgotha. She was believed slain, dead, buried ... The nations forgot that Jesus Christ came down from heaven to give liberty and peace to the earth. The nations had forgotten all this ... (Krzyżanowski 263; in translation).
The partitioning powers had disseminated propaganda that Poland was in a state of disrepair, its political system was disintegrating and reaching a state of anarchy; it was becoming dangerous to its neighbors, who had no choice but to invade it and take it apart. It is unlikely that Cooper knew that Poland was in fact a major European power before the partitions, even with a political system with the inherited defects of feudalism; it was still “among the freest of this hemisphere ... ” (Spiller 66). He could not have apprehended how threatened other nations felt by the liberty in this country, “With the liberty of Poland fell the sovereignty of the State itself. Nor was this all; allegiance was not only transferred, but it was divided. Pole can be summoned, at the word of his master, to contend with Pole ... ” (Spiller 67). The powers that had cooperated in the partitioning of Poland later went to war against one another, drafting Poles who were forced to fight Poles who had been drafted in another partition. The United States would not know this kind of experience until the Civil War; however, Cooper was made aware of this situation during his interactions with Poles in Rome, Paris, and in other European cities.
Another clearly Polish influence on Cooper’s letter of appeal is in the attitude conveyed about the relationship between Polish culture and that of Russia, one of three countries who occupied her, “When Poland was subdued, by far the larger portion of her territory became subject to a people less advanced in civilization than her own citizens. She ( ... ) was doomed to witness the gradual decay of those arts and opinions which form the basis of national prosperity” (Beard 2:125). This is a uniquely Polish perspective which is still very much alive today, i.e. the perception that Russian civilization and culture is far less advanced, and in fact, inferior to that of Poland. Cooper himself spoke quite highly of the Russians, “Every where (sic), indeed that I went [in Rome], and met with Russians, I met with friends; and I have reason to believe that other Americans have similar kindnesses from the same quarter” (Beard 5:48). Cooper believed that America in general, and he in particular, should “manifest a public preference to those who treat their country and countrymen ... with liberality and justice” (Beard 5:48). The perception of Russian culture being retarded in comparison to Polish culture is therefore more likely to reflect the beliefs of Cooper’s Polish colleagues, including Mickiewicz, rather than those of Cooper.
Mickiewicz took a great deal of interest in American ideas even though the United States was less populous than Poland in the first half of the nineteenth century, quite on the margins of European and world politics, and at the edge of progress in western civilization. Wellisz claims, that for Mickiewicz, the United States was a country that guaranteed freedom and individual liberties (Wellisz). Mickiewicz immortalized his messianic vision of the United States in his poem, Kartofla (The Potato), in which the New World becomes a beacon of hope for future generations after the Old World has been torn apart by endless wars. After the July Revolution, Mickiewicz published The Books of the Polish Nation and of the Polish Pilgrimage (1832) in which he describes America as “the land of freedom, a holy land” (Whitfield 346). Columbus, “the last knight of the cross in Europe, and the last who undertook an enterprise in the name of God, and not for himself” brought to America all that “Mickiewicz found noblest in the European tradition” (347). Cooper shared Mickiewicz’s lofty view of America’s place on the globe saying, “People of America! Of all the nations of the earth you are the most favoured ... Your great example is silently wearing away the foundations of despotism. The moral ascendancy, of which others boast, you exercise, and exercise only, because you are the true repositories of the persecuted rights of human nature” (Spiller 68). The commonalities that Cooper and Mickiewicz shared in their vision of America and in republican idealism formed a basis for the two men to establish a relationship that would span more than twenty years and two continents. Even after Cooper left Europe, for the remainder of his life, he endeavored to help all Poles fleeing conflict in their own country to find a safe haven in America. The letter that Mickiewicz wrote to Cooper in 1848 states that Mickiewicz had been receiving news about Cooper from mutual friends. In a letter dated at the end of 1849, Cooper updates his wife with news about different Poles they knew, including Mickiewicz. Although nearly twenty years had passed since Cooper met Mickiewicz in Rome, he was still happy to share news with his wife that Mickiewicz was “still flourishing” (P. F. Cooper 2:640). The star of the West dimmed two years later when Cooper died, while the star of the East, Adam Mickiewicz, passed away in 1855.
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1. Their public association was mentioned in the April 25, 1830 edition of the Kuryer Litewski, citing it as a reprint of a Gazeta Warszawska notice, that simply reads, “Mićkiewicz ciągle bawi w Rzymie. Widzié? go można często po przechadzkach z sławnym amerykańskim romansistą Cooperem i z rossystką literatką panna Chlustin”. The same wording appears again April 26, 1830 in the Gezeta Polska (No. 111): 3. The April 30, 1830 edition of the Kuryer Warszawski mentions Mickiewicz being in Italy, but does not mention either Klustine or Cooper. Żywot, Tom 2:80, mentions follow-up articles about Mickiewicz, but these do not mention the people he is associating with during this time. The following articles also discuss the Cooper-Mickiewicz association; however, all of them rely on the above information as the foundation for their claims that the two met. See for example, L. Krzyżanowski. “Cooper and Mickiewicz, a Literary Friendship” in Adam Mickiewicz — Poet of Poland: A Symposium. edited by Manfred Kridl (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951) 245-258; J. Mersereau. “The influence of James Fenimore Cooper on Adam Mickiewicz: An Assessment,” Études Slaves et Est-Européennes 3.4 (Hiver/winter 1958-1959): 207-218; F. Whitfield. “Mickiewicz and American Literature” in Adam Mickiewicz in World Literature. A Symposium. edited by Wacław Lednicki. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1956) 339-351. Although Mickiewicz’s achievements are mentioned often in the French press during the winter of 1829-1830 and he continues to be mentioned often through thereafter through his connection with Leonard Chodżko, Cooper’s name does not appear in association with Mickiewicz. See Żywot, Tom 2:88-101. To date, no mention of the Cooper and Mickiewicz meeting has been discovered in the English, French, or Italian press. Some Cooper scholars have mentioned Cooper’s meeting with Mickiewicz in passing. See, Henry Walcott Boynton. James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Century, 1931) 203; James Grossman. James Fenimore Cooper: A Biographical and Critical Study (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1949) 75; Thomas R. Lounsbury. James Fenimore Cooper (The American Men of Letters Series; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1886) 107. However, none of these authors cites the source of their belief that Cooper and Mickiewicz met in Rome. Mary E. Phillips, in James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-appraisal (New York: John Lane, 1913) 218-219, appears to draw on Susan Fenimore Cooper. Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (1861; Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1980) 269-270.