James Fenimore Cooper and God
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. 7-9.
Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
It is pretty well known that James Fenimore Cooper refused to join any church until his death was clearly imminent, and even then, he did so more in concession to the feelings of his wife and daughters than from any personal need. ¹ In his time, his disdain of organized religion, coupled with his open contempt of the Puritan sects of Christianity was misrepresented as disrespect for, or even a denial of, God. These calumnies might have energized his critics, but neither was true of his beliefs.
In the Deist sort way, Cooper just assumed that a Prime Mover of some sort existed, so that it was not the existence of God he debated with his contemporaries, but Christian arrogance. “Establishments,” or established churches, Cooper assured us in his Notions of Americans, “have nothing to do with the truth.” ² In a stance that got him accused of atheism in his day, Cooper openly criticized the hubris those who acted as if they were “’giving their support’ to the Deity” by “patronizing him” in this or that church. ³ He candidly doubted the claims of his contemporaries to know just what God had in mind on any given point. In an 1831 letter, he contended that any God so knowable as to be grasped by any old believer was not elevated one whit above humanity, but was instead, its mere equal — and he was averse to worshipping equals. ⁴ It was not the monotheistic God whom he hated, then, but the hypocrisy of social one-upsmanship disguised as religion. He forthrightly disparaged the Evangelical “parade of morals” as a show by humans to gain ascendency over other humans. ⁵
Woe betided any Puritans in Cooper’s novels, for their socio-political uses of God infuriated him. In The Redskins (1846), the hero, Hugh Littlepage, is palpably disgusted with the Anti-Renters. It was not so much that they were just then trying to appropriate his estate of Ravensnest, as that they were masking their cupidity as piety, and worse, as a piety superior to his. Although their “whole souls” were “wrapped up in effecting an act of the grossest injustice” against Hugh, they seemed to attend church just “to thank God that they were not as wicked as” Hugh, “whom they desired to injure.” ⁶
The entire Newcome clan of Puritans comes in for regular scourging throughout the three volumes of the Littlepage Manuscripts, with some fairly amusing events surrounding their exercises of faith. The notion that Christian congregants could vote on the nature of God or his intentions struck Cooper as just daffy, resulting in one of the most entertaining of all the Newcome antics, as Jason Newcome of The Chainbearer (1845) wrested from his fellows the power to run the community church, not for the sake of spiritual calling, but solely out of political self-interest. Having won a hotly contested vote by thirty-nine to thirty-eight, Jason presented his one-vote victory as a mandate. As his audience tried to square that circle in its mind, Jason silenced potential inquiry into this mandate as “anti-religious,” proclaiming with false piety that “it was unwise to awaken strife on any thing [sic] at all connected with religion,” thus cementing his private designs. Cooper commented sardonically that, the point at which “the polity which God himself” had “established” could be “amended by any of the narrow and short-sighted amendments of man” as Jason had done, was the point at which it “might as well be admitted at once, that Christianity is not of divine origin.” ⁷ This was the sort of irascible comment, lifted from context, that Cooper’s enemies used against him.
In The Wing-and-Wing (1842), another Puritan foil, Ithuel Bolt, comes off badly in comparison to the French Deist and privateer, Raoul Yvard, who flatly refuses to accept Christianity, even on his deathbed. Whereas Ithuel “had an affection for a lie,” deftly “finding a mode of reconciling” it with his “spirituality,” not even “death itself” could have “extorted” a lie from Raoul, whose morality exists independently of religion. ⁸ Just to force his point home, Copper twice has Raoul reject Christianity, despite the fact that accepting Christianity is the price of marrying Ghita Caraccioli, the woman for whom Raoul longs and endangers his life, novel-wide. The text is clearly in sympathy with the Deist Raoul over the extravagant Christian, Ghita, or the slippery Puritan, Ithuel.
By the publication of Wing-and-Wing, Cooper had clearly been thinking about forced conversion for some time. Sixteen years earlier, in The Prairie (1827), Cooper had satirized the frailty of conversion, especially due to poaching by one form of Christianity on another. Here, the Certavallos family attempted to bring Duncan Uncas Middleton to “the truth faith,” that is to turn him from a Protestant into a Catholic. Throughout the “systematic, vigorous, and long sustained” harangues of the Certavallos’ priest, Middleton was sustained only by glimpses of his Catholic bride-to-be, as she “flitted” past them “like a fairy being” — in other words, by knowing that his trouble would be rewarded by the gift of a nubile, sixteen-year-old virgin. ⁹ In the end, neither the priest nor Middleton prevailed, but the priest prevaricated to Certavallos, hinting that “an entering wedge of argument” had been drilled into Middleton’s head, through which “it might be rationally hoped the blessed seeds of a religious fructification” might take hold. ¹⁰ Incidentally, the noisy Christian priest was the liar, not the conversion-resistant, Middleton.
Interestingly, one of his most deeply spiritual books, The Crater (1847), is also one in which he takes the most dead-eyed aim at what he elsewhere called “religion by sects.” ¹¹ Once colonists invaded what had been previously been Mark Woolston’s private island paradise, they immediately “hated each other most sincerely” over such quibbles as their opposing “views of regeneration, justification, predestination,” and all the other “ations” of the convoluted Puritan theology, with the “most clouded” in their ideas being “the loudest in their denunciations.” ¹² Cooper’s capstone words of The Crater decried God’s being “made to act a second part in human affairs,” in which mere people could “imagine,” as in Jason Newcome’s majority vote, that “either numbers, or capacity, or success, or power in arms” were the proof of their version of spiritual truth. ¹³
The wild noise of the various Evangelical sects out stumping for God also stuck in Cooper’s craw, as prima facie evidence of social and spiritual conceit. The curmudgeonly Hugh Littlepage disdained the “vulgar” among the Episcopalians who panted after “coarse excitement,” which they mistook for “profound spiritual sensibility” instead of what it was, an adrenaline high. Worse to Hugh (and Cooper) was the intentional showmanship of “groans, and sighs, and lamentations” that had to be “not only audible to exist at all, but audible in dramatic and striking form” to get the God job done. ¹⁴
Mean-spirited critics aside, Cooper had, in fact, a fairly strong response to genuine spiritual stimulae, which is clearly evident in his novels, especially The Deerslayer and The Crater. Cooper’s spiritual sense tended to a tingling awe of the unknown, as displayed betimes in characterizations of Natty Bumppo and Mark Woolston, and also in his own, personal letters.
During a chase scene, late in The Deerslayer, Natty absconded in a canoe across “Glimmerglass,” or Lake Otsego. The better to effect his escape, he lay down in the canoe’s bottom. As Natty’s gaze moved skyward, his attention refocused from his furious dash to ecological impressions from the ineffable world of Otsego, until nature crowded out the messy actions of a fraught humanity. As his unpaddled canoe swept out with the current, a “death like stillness pervaded the spot: A quietness as profound as if all lay in the repose of inanimate life.” Drifting “as he lay on his back,” Natty saw only “the blue void of space, and a few of those brighter rays” of the declining sun. ¹⁵ This moment in the text is almost surreal, the suspension of reality mirroring the disorientation of the spiritual trauma that a seventeen-year-old Natty was experiencing, novel-long, as a new taker of human life.
Several unearthly moments like this exist in The Deerslayer. Early in the novel, Natty faces off with Le Loup Cervier (i.e., the Lynx) in an impromptu battle, gravely wounding the man. Shattered by the enormity of what he has done, Natty shows kindnesses to his wounded foe, carrying him to water and, when the man dies, respectfully resting him against a tree, scalp intact. For the first time in his young life, Natty realizes that he has murdered someone. Even though that man had been attempting to murder him, first, Natty is devastated and spends time morally debating his proper courses of thought and action. Once more, to mimic Natty’s state of shock, Cooper shifts the focus from the human-induced tragedy to the sacred world surrounding, which continues, oblivious of what mere humans have wrought. Natty sees that the morning sun had “not only risen,” but that it was also “shedding a flood of glorious light on” the lake, beyond. “The whole scene was radiant with beauty,” while Natty “felt“ rather than “thought” himself “in singular harmony” with the natural panorama (italics in the original). ¹⁶ Anyone who has ever experienced traumatic shock recognizes the out-of-body sense that Cooper is invoking with these scenes.
Although less hectic for the most part, Mark Woolston’s life was not less dire than Natty’s. Mark must fight for his life in The Crater, as a castaway on a barren island in the Pacific. As with Natty and nature, Mark’s tormented spirit was soothed by the lullaby of cosmic space. For “[h]ours at a time, did Mark linger” on the top of the island’s dead crater, gazing at the stars of the vast night sky, “his spirit struggling the while to get into closer communion with the dread Being which had produced all these mighty results.” Whereas, before, in the bustling midst of Philadelphia, Mark had viewed the stars only in a utilitarian way to measure distances for navigation, on the island, the stars “impressed him with the deepest sense of the power and wisdom of God,” as compared with the puniness of his “humble self.” Over the course of a month, Mark “passed the nights gazing at the stars,” but no longer as a scientist in search of “discoveries.” Now, “he saw the hand of God instead of the solution to a problem.” ¹⁷
Cooper certainly experienced such tinglings of awe, himself, in hushed moments when no one but himself and the spirits were about. In his letter of 15 August 1832, for instance, he told his dear friend, Samuel Morse, about his nighttime explorations of an abandoned Benedictine convent on an island in the Rhine River. Cooper sought out his midnights, when “all but Nature” was “asleep.” Then, he walked “in the long and empty corridors,” visited by “[s]trange thoughts.” He sensed the “rustling of the wind” as “the murmuring of uneasy sisters,” and “the pattering of the rain” as their “floods of tears” for “the sins of man.” ¹⁸ It was such experiences as these that he gave to his favorites, the Natty Bumppos and Mark Woolstons of his best fiction.
These moments were what the great French critic, Honoré de Balzac singled out as Cooper’s towering achievement in his Leatherstocking Tales, the replication of “l’esprit des solitudes“ or the awed sense of the limitless solitude that communes with nature once ego is foregone. ¹⁹ What Cooper lacked, then, was not a spiritual sense but any patience with self-proclaimed insiders on God’s privy council. It was dogma and institutionalized religion he loathed, seeing both as cynical power-grabs. Thus, however prissy critics like Francis Parkman might have caviled, disparaging him as crude and lewd, Cooper was exquisitely sensitive to the spiritual impetus. ²⁰ In this opinion, he stood closer to the sentiments of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution than did any of his scribbling peers — or critics.
1. For death-bed church-joining, see James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 6 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960) 2: 166
2. James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans, Picked up by a Traveling Bachelor, 2 vols. (1828; Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Carey, 1832) 2: 235.
3. James Fenimore Cooper, The Chainbearer, or The Littlepage Manuscripts (1845; New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1883) 210.
4. “ avec moi, la religion est une affair de foi et pas de rasionnements. Un Dieu que je pourrais comprendre deviendrait un égal, et les égaux ne s’adorent pas. “ (“For me, religion is an affair of faith and not of reasoning. A God that I could comprehend would be an equal, and equals do not worship one another.”) Translation mine. Beard, Letters and Journals, 2: 168.
5. James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: England, vol. 4. (1837; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982) 156.
6. James Fenimore Cooper, The Redskins, or Indian and Injun (1846; New York: W. A. Townsend and Company, 1860) 432.
7. Cooper, The Chainbearer, 138-39.
8. James Fenimore Cooper, The Wing-and-Wing, or Le Feu Follet, A Tale (1842; New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1879) 301.
9. James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie: A Tale, 3 vols. (Paris: Hector Bossange, 1827) 2: 74.
10. Cooper, The Prairie, 2: 77.
11. Cooper, Notions of the Americans, 2: 235.
12. James Fenimore Cooper, The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak (1847; New York: The Cooperative Publication Society, 1900) 481-82.
13. Cooper, The Crater, 504.
14. Cooper, The Redskins, 471.
15. James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer or, The First War-Path (1841; Albany: The State University of New York Press, 1987) 479.
16. Cooper, The Deerslayer, 129.
17. Cooper, The Crater 157-58.
18. James Fenimore Cooper, Jr., ed., The Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922) 1: 280-81.
19. Honoré de Balzac, Oeuvres complètes de H. de Balzac, vol 23 (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, Éditeurs) 585.
20. Francis Parkman, “James Fenimore Cooper,” in Allen Thorndike Rice, ed., Essays from the North American Review (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1979) as lewd and crude, 365; full essay, 358-76.