Cooper’s Oak-Openings: A Christian Novel

Robert D. Madison (University of Arkansas)

Presented at the No. 1 Cooper Panel of the 2013 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 30, May, 2013, pp. 10-12.

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

Sequential plotting and psychological consistency are enemies to the novel of revelation. Insofar as the western novel by and large values cause-and-effect in plot and characterization, a work which attempts to address the theme of revelation positively has an uphill struggle.

In his thirty-year career as a novelist, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) explored the full range of American religious experience. In The Oak-Openings (1848), Cooper identifies Parson Amen’s denomination as Methodist, but Amen’s interpretation of Indian origins owes much to Elias Boudinot’s A Star in the West; or, A Humble Attempt to Discover the Long Lost Ten Tribes of Israel (1816). Boudinot, like Cooper’s wife a descendent of Huguenots, was Presbyterian. Although Boudinot lived in Cooper’s native town of Burlington, New Jersey, Cooper may have became familiar with A Star in the West through geographer Jedidiah Morse, father of Cooper’s lifelong friend Samuel F. B. Morse and an old-school Congregationalist minister. Some prominent details in The Oak-Openings — like the fierce gleam in Peter’s countenance and Pigeonswing’s Ojebway name “Waub-ke-newh” — come from George Copway’s 1847 autobiography Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bohw: Copway was a Methodist convert and missionary. As an adolescent, Cooper (a birthright Quaker) studied in Albany with Episcopal rector Thomas Ellison. Although Cooper’s brother-in-law, William Heathcote DeLancey, was the Episcopal bishop of the diocese of western New York, Cooper himself did not become a member of any church until shortly before his death. “In that country,” Copway had written, “we ought not to know each other as Presbyterians, Methodists, or Baptists, but only as missionaries of the cross.”

Few readers are familiar with The Oak Openings. More are aware of his penultimate novel, The Sea Lions, from Herman Melville’s 1849 review in George and Evert Duyckinck’s Literary World. Melville saw through the theological aridity and evangelical sterility of Cooper’s antarctic novel: “Somewhat in the pleasant spirit of the Mahometan, this; who rewards all true believers with a houri.” (236). That’s “houri,” not “whore,” although Melville’s preceding “moist rosy hand” of Cooper’s heroine hinted at synonymity.

Cooper’s preface to The Sea Lions is illustrative:

If any thing connected with the hardness of the human heart could surprise us, it surely would be the indifference with which men live on, engrossed by their worldly objects, amid the sublime natural phenomena that so eloquently and unceasingly speak to their imaginations, affections, and judgments (1:3).

This is no more than second-hand Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” — “To him who in the love of Nature holds / Communion with her visible forms, she speaks / A various language” — itself perhaps more or less derivative of Wordsworth (Baym 1.810). But while Wordsworth’s Nature returns him to the empirical “Still, sad music of humanity,” Cooper’ s leaps all to easily to the “majesty, mercy, truth, and justice, of the Divine Being that has set him, as an atom, amid the myriads of the hosts of heaven” (1:3). Cooper’s Nature is useless unless it leads directly to the American (or Anglican) Protestant god, complete with theology and dogma. So much for an original relation to God and Nature.

Beyond being an insult to Nature, Cooper’s teleology fundamentally degrades the art of The Sea Lions, as sublime Nature is reduced to a Sunday-school lesson on the divinity of Christ. It may be true, as I once discussed with colleague David White, that æsthetics (whether art or nature) is insufficient to display God, but whereas David might argue that this arises from the insufficiency of mere beauty, I would argue it comes from the artificiality of the god-proposition as delivered through (in the case of Sea Lions) nineteenth-century Protestantism (there was a reason so many Americans, including at times Cooper himself, wanted to be seduced by Catholicism).

In continuing his diatribe (unfortunately one of the major literary genres indulged in by Cooper in his late works), Cooper establishes his anti-humanistic position dismissing reason:

We hear a great deal of god-like minds, and of the far-reaching faculties we possess; and it may all be worthy of our eulogiums, until we compare ourselves in these, as in other particulars, with Him who produced them. Then, indeed, the utter insignificance of our means becomes too apparent to admit of cavil. (1:4)

“Thus far shalt thou go and no farther,” continues Cooper (1:4-5), echoing Marlowe’s chorus in setting a boundary to the limits of science:

Faustus is gone, regard his hellish fall, Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise, Onely to wonder at unlawful things, Whose deepnesse doth intise such forward wits, To practice more than heavenly power permits. (194)

“The pride of reason,” Cooper writes, “is one of the most insinuating of our foibles, and is to be watched as a most potent enemy” (1:5). Cooper presents The Sea Lions as a novel of Faith, and if we don’t have his particular brand of it, we can go to hell — or at least not get the girl. Even otherwise pious and otherwise God-fearing Unitarians like Roswell Gardiner (pronounced “Garner” — take it on faith, not the evidence of the language).

It does not do to say that Cooper lived in a different age when reason was revolution and piety was Protestantism, or that we have to forgive him his trespasses despite his not forgiving ours. Cooper lived in the shadow of Tom Paine, the most mercilessly and systematically discredited of the founding fathers — all because he wrote The Age of Reason, a book from which Cooper has Ned Myers describe his narrow escape while in hospital in Pensacola:

Notwithstanding my own disposition to think more seriously of my true situation, I had many misgivings on the subject of the Saviour’s being the Son of God. It seemed improbable to me, and I was falling into the danger which is so apt to beset the new beginner: that of self sufficiency, and the substututing of human wisdom for faith. The steward was not slow in discovering this, and he produced some of Tom Paine’s works, by way of stregthening me in the unbelief. I now read Tom Paine, instead of the bible, and soon had practical evidence of the bad effects of his miserable system. (186)

In Samarang and Batavia, Ned is more fortunate to have a seamen’s Bible, a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Philip Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul: “On looking through the pages, I found a Mexican dollar wafered between two of the leaves ... this I regarded as providential, and as a proof that the Lord would not desert me” (211). Ned’s referring to getting the book — not just the dollar.

I guess by the time Cooper penned The Sea Lions he was finally ready to become a communicant at his wife’s church (his brother-in-law was the bishop for upstate New York), but The Sea Lions hardly expresses the less divisive theology of the Anglican church of the Reverend Mr. Grant from The Pioneers. So who is the book written for, evangelistically speaking? For Trinitarians? They already believe. For Unitarians? You don’t get far converting reason by attacking reason. Atheists? Gardiner already believes. Structurally, the book has got to fail because it depends on a flimsy, pre-packaged revelation intended for no real seeker. The only credible audience is an already professed Trinitarian who wants to share pot shots at unchristologized interpretations of the teachings of Nature.

For Cooper, Daggett’s materialism has to be as absolute as Gardiner’s spirituality in order for this either/or book to work. Cooper’s greedy merchants have to be Deacon Pratts and Daggetts, not, say, Quaker philanthropists — a character type that has no place in Cooper’s religious dichotomy in his late works. In earlier works, Natty — a character as unrestrained by setting as Daggett or Gardiner — is restrained by his Moravian upbringing, while Ishmael Bush, likewise unrestrained by society, nevertheless faces restrain from his Old Testament theology. I think Cooper drew his Ishmael that way to create Ishmael’s agony at his role as judge at the end of The Prairie: Ishmael has no mechanism for mercy or (Cooper’s choice) leaving it up to God to judge and punish. Cooper’s attack on reason culminates in The Ways of the Hour — that is, Cooper dismisses the capacity of the average (jury)man for rational thought, and acknowledges reason only as a tool for discovering the limitations of reason itself, a circular argument which leads only to baseless classist arrogance.

Cooper’s self-debilitating severity in The Sea Lions is all the more puzzling because Cooper had already written at least two other conversion narratives. The first, The Wing-and-Wing (1842), falls flat on its face at the very point the conversion is supposed to take place and for the very reason that had been stated in the book’s motto (from Young’s Night Thoughts): “[K]now,/Without or star or angel for their guide,/Who worship God shall find him” ([iii]). The dying Raoul Yvard, a hot-blooded revolutionary Frenchman, looks up and sees a star, and with that star for a guide, sees God and dies (“Raoul answered not for some time. His eyes were fastened on a bright star, and a tumult of thoughts began to crowd upon his brain.” [477]).

Was Cooper deliberately sandbagging Faith? I don’t think so, but I think we have to admit that the Faith stuff ruins an otherwise very powerful Sea Lions and diminishes Cooper’s highly likeable “atheistical scamp” (L&J 328) in The Wing-and-Wing. The Puritan sensibilities of Old Mark in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829) contributed to a more successfully integrated religious aesthetic a decade before Cooper turned to explicitly religious themes.

That leaves us with a work that I contend is Cooper’s best religious work, a true Christian novel that has for its core theme conversion through the example of martyrdom. Martyrdom doesn’t depend on a star, or any other experience in or out of Nature. It doesn’t ask the beholder to discard reason. It works from the simple power of a credible example of one giving one’s life for what he believes (in this case both martyrs are male). The first martyr, the one who gives his life for military duty to a fledgling democracy, is Corporal Flint. His steadfastness is not by any means puritanical, and if political it is at least secular. Flint is the lowliest of non-commissioned officers, but he bears responsibility as a public rather than a private soldier. His name undoubtedly refers to that steadfastness, but also reminds us that as the most essential component of his firearm (remember Natty’s comment about the scarcity of a decent flint in Pioneers?) he fuses the responsibilities of command with those of individual competency. His martyrdom requires him to die like a soldier, not merely a wanderer on the borders but the representative of race and law fundamental to Cooper’s conception of the new republic. If Scalping Peter (named after the central feature of a presumably less-civilized form of combat) is to be swayed by Flint’s martyrdom, Flint must demonstrate that what the new republic offers Peter may replace but not obliviate who Peter is as warrior and medicine.

Parson Amen offers a different testimony, but one which is nevertheless effective with the technically unregenerate savage and ultimately becomes, as far as Peter is concerned, the primary martyrdom of the book. Peter is the rock on which Amen builds his church, and no amount of preaching could have achieved that effect with that particular heathen. The lesson is that Christ’s sacrifice, reenacted by Parson Amen, can reach Peter if it can’t reach, say, the white degenerate Gershom, whose dependence on whiskey marks him as a man in need of temporal salvation before he is ready for the spiritual. Don Ringe, who more or less defined the way we think about these last novels, saw Parson Amen’s Methodism as representing a fault; I see it as representing a foible, one that increases the value of the martyrdom because martyrdom is less expected of a heretofore comic character (586).

It is true that Cooper allows Pigeonswing his equal-but-separate dispensation and a role as secular savior, but he remains youthful, a child, compared to Scalping Peter, as if the conversion of the fathers must come before the conversion of the sons, or perhaps it means that the strength of youth is no long-term match for the wisdom of age, in this case a wisdom that has found itself in a mysticism that the atheistic or agnostic reader finds far less arbitrary than the conversion of Roswell Gardiner. But Pigeonswing is not disparaged; his is simply a different path, allowed and respected even in the context of a profound conversion narrative. Perhaps Pigeonswing did not need spiritual conversion because he was not errant in a secular way: he was, after all, already on the side of the new republic. Pigeonswing gives Flint the coup de grâce, but it is grace bestowable only in the material, temporal world; the grace bestowed upon and by Parson Amen is for the life everlasting.

In both cases, in The Oak-Openings as well as The Sea Lions, the protagonist is both action hero and love interest, and in both cases he is rewarded with a houri. In the case of Ben Boden, the son of the bumblebee, his acquisition is not derived from his own conversion but is perhaps in reverse Margery’s reward for preserving herself from the degeneration of her brother, something Cooper would be more likely to imply than state.

Scalping Peter’s spiritual regeneration leads immediately to his moral conversion (at least as it might be so recognized by the Whites). In the postscript, Flint’s martyrdom has also had its full effect, and Peter is now assimilated into the new republic — now, post Mexican War, a fairly self-assured if increasingly imperialistic nation.

Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841) has been identified as a Christian novel and has found a place in the curriculum of a segment of Christian home-schoolers. In the sense that it is a book by a professed Christian and discusses some issues of morality of particular interest to some Christians (especially in the area of “gifts”), I suppose it is a Christian novel. But to me, what we label a “Christian novel” ought to be about fundamental and uniquely Christian issues of morality and/or spirituality. The Oak-Openings, uniquely among Cooper’s works and perhaps uniquely among the most widely taught American authors, fits that definition and performs its function very well indeed: conversion through the witness of martyrdom.

Works Cited

  • Beard, James Franklin. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Vol. 4. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.
  • Bryant, William Cullen. “Thanatopsis.” In Nina Baym et al., The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Second Edition. New York: Norton, 1985. Print.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Ned Myers; or, A Life before the Mast. 1843. New York: AMS Press, 2009.
  • Cooper, J. Fenimore. The Wing-and-Wing; or, Le Feu Follet: A Tale. 1842. New York: Townsend, 1860. Web.
  • [Cooper, James Fenimore.] The Sea Lions; or, The Lost Sealers. New York: Stringer & Townsend, 1849. Print.
  • Melville, Herman. The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces 1839-1860. Evanston: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1987. Print.
  • Ringe, Donald. “Cooper’s Last Novels.” PMLA 75 (1960): 583-590. Print.
  • Tucker Brooke, C. F., ed. The Works of Christopher Marlowe. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966.