Adam Mickiewicz: A Catalyst for James Fenimore Cooper’s Support for Polish Independence

Barbara Rumbinas and Zygmunt Mazur (Jagiellonian University)

Presented at the James Fenimore Cooper’s International Dimensions Panel of the 2014 Conference of the American Literature Association in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 31, May, 2015, pp. 20-23.

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

Early on in his literary career, James Fenimore Cooper recognized the power of the pen to mold public opinion and to advance political ideals. During Cooper’s youth, his father, Judge William Cooper, although not a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, nonetheless held strong opinions about it and was on intimate terms with George Washington, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton (Beard 1:xx), thereby exposing the young man to a full range of republican ideology, which he would later refer to as “distinctively American principles” (Beard 1:xxv). When at last, James Fenimore Cooper put his pen into the service of his country; he was catapulted into the position of an American literary star by the cumulative and phenomenal success of his three novels, The Spy, The Pioneers, and The Last of the Mohicans. The unprecedented success of Cooper both in America and abroad lay to rest Seybert’s sarcastically posited question published in the Edinburgh Review, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? ( ... )” (Seybert 79). In fact, Longfellow commented years later, at one of Cooper’s memorial celebrations that, “I was in no country of Europe where the name of Cooper was not familiarly known ( ... ) In some of them he stands as almost the sole representative of our literature” (Beard 1:xvii). It was upon this wave of immense popularity that Cooper departed America with his family, bound for the European continent.

Meanwhile, the rising literary star of the East, Adam Mickiewicz was caught in the violent political backlash of the joint efforts of the European royalist powers and the Russian government to crush the seeds of liberty sown by the American and French Revolutions. According to Norman Davies, Poland’s Constitution of 3 May 1791 was “the first Constitution of its type in Europe, [and was] formulated, passed, and published four months before its counterpart in France” (Davies 699). This revolutionary burst of republican idealism inspired and encouraged a generation of young men like Mickiewicz and his friends at Vilnius University to come together and organize societies and associations to advocate for progressive causes and for independence from the Russian Empire. The memory of the human cost of Kosciuszko’s desperate attempt to re-establish Polish independence after the second partition, combined with the moral outrage as the third partition erased Poland from the map, provided Mickiewicz with a deep well of heartfelt republican sentiment upon which to draw for his poems. In the “Ode to Youth” (Oda do młodośi) for example, he sends out a call to, “Arise! United stand! With chains of harmony/Let us encircle the vast world, /Our thoughts into one mighty focus hurled, /Our spirits unified, yet free” (UNESCO 179: In translation). Mickiewicz’s republican activities provided the sought after justification for the Tsarist government to have him jailed and then exiled to Russia in 1824. Victor Hugo remarked in a letter written to Mickiewicz’s son dated 17 May 1867 that “To speak of Mickiewicz is to speak of ( ... ) freedom, of which he was the apostle and of liberation, of which he is the precursor ( ... )” (UNESCO v).

It would appear unlikely that two people separated by such vast distances could ever possibly come together, especially in the 19ᵗʰ century, when public transportation and modes of communication were not at the level of sophistication that they are today. However, in what can only be conceived as a case of “it’s a small world” syndrome, these two men did, in fact, meet in Italy during the first week of December 1829. Moreover, they spent many hours in conversation over the course of the next six months as they rode together exploring the countryside around Rome, and during their frequent contacts at the social gatherings of notable people of the city. In this paper, the authors argue that Cooper was greatly affected by his discussions with Mickiewicz, so much so, that an analysis of Cooper’s text, “A Letter to the American People” reveals echoes of The Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage (1832) and The Forefather’s Eve Part III (1832).

To date, there has only been one study that has looked at the literary connection between Cooper and Mickiewicz. John Mersereau (1958) made an assessment of the influence of Cooper’s The Spy and The Pioneers upon Mickiewicz’s Konrad Wallenrod and Pan Tadeusz, respectively. Mersereau argued that there had been speculation about Cooper’s influence on Mickiewicz for one hundred and thirty years, which had gained popularity largely because of the close friendship shared by the two men (Mersereau 207). The supposition was that since Cooper was enormously popular in Europe, logically, there must be echoes of his work in Polish literature (Mersereau 207). Nevertheless, after a thorough analysis, Mersereau concludes that, “There are practically no points of similarity between The Spy and Konrad Wallenrod; the parallels between Pan Tadeusz and The Pioneers arise from the fact that both Mickiewicz and Cooper were treading in the well-worn path of Sir Walter Scott” (Mersereau 216-217).

However, by approaching the question of literary influence from an Anglo-American orientation, Mersereau failed to consider that Cooper may have been influenced by Mickiewicz. Mersereau’s approach places Cooper in the dominant role, the master to be copied; however, the European critical reception of Mickiewicz does not support this supposition. German Professor Johannes Scherr remarked of Mickiewicz, “He is without question the greatest poet yet to appear in Poland or in any other Slavic country” (“Mickiewicz in Foreign Eyes” 175). In France, writer Charles de Montalembert, echoes this sentiment declaring, Mickiewicz is “undoubtedly the first poet of our epoch” (“Mickiewicz in Foreign Eyes” 195). While the Italian politician and journalist, Giuseppe Mazzini called Mickiewicz simply, “the greatest of living European poets” (Damiani 225). Mersereau raised the topic of friendship between Cooper and Mickiewicz in relation to information outlined by Ludwik Krzyżanowski (1951) in his seminal article “Cooper and Mickiewicz, a Literary Friendship” (Krzyżanowski 245). Krzyżanowski had argued that Cooper and Mickiewicz had become acquainted in Rome at a dinner party held in Cooper’s honor on March 9, 1830. His assumption was that, “since both [men] were authors they certainly spoke about literature” (253) while riding together in the countryside surrounding Rome. He speculated, “Mickiewicz probably interpreted Polish history for Cooper” (253). Although he raises the issue of Polish history as a possible point of connection between the two men, he notes that Cooper’s activity with regard to Polish history “is a separate subject and transcends the scope” (254) of his article. He concluded that the two men never saw one another again after Cooper left Rome on April 15, 1830 (255).

However, Zygmunt Mazur and Barbara Rumbinas have argued in a recent publication that while the two men may have been initially attracted to one another because of their literary pursuits, their lasting association was based on their shared republican idealism. Using primary source documents not available to Krzyżanowski in the 1950s, they have deconstructed the timeline of when Cooper and Mickiewicz met in Rome, pushing the date back to the first week of December 1829. During this winter season, there were many recurring soirées and dinners, such as the ones held at the homes of a number of prominent foreigners, including Prince Gregoire Ivanovitch Gagarine, William Cabell Rives, Lady Karoline Hamilton, Lady Elizabeth Russell, and Princess Zinaida Volkonskaya (Koropeckyj 133-138; Żywot, 2:68-73). These prominent people were politically active to a greater or lesser degree; William Cabell Rives was minister to France, Lady Russell was married to Lord George William Russell, Duke of Bedford, while Prince Gregoire Ivanovitch Gagarine was Russian minister in Rome while Cooper was there (Beard 1:389, 406; 5:48). It is highly probable that Mickiewicz met Cooper repeatedly during this winter social season. Cooper was ardently political, weaving political sentiments into the majority of his letters, including correspondence that he exchanged with family, friends, and members of various soirée circles. Cooper appears to have delighted in meeting people with whom he could discuss history and politics. If you look at a letter Mrs. Cooper wrote to her father dated March 23, 1827, we get a sense of just how politically oriented Cooper’s friendships and associations actually were. Mrs. Cooper relates that Mr. Cooper had just come home from spending a week at the estate of General Lafayette and then moves on to list the names of people with whom they had recently dined and socialized, The Duchesse de Broglie, Mme de Staël, the American envoy, Mr. James Brown and his wife, the president and ex-Ambassador from Spain, the Prussian Ambassador, the Buonapartes (sic) and the list continues (J. F. Cooper 1:126-127). Therefore, it would be more in keeping with Cooper’s personality, and that of Mickiewicz, to assume that the discussion mentioned by Mickiewicz’s companion, Edward Odyniec, in his travelogue that took place at a dinner party on March 9, 1830, in which Cooper referenced “the spirit and the character of the Slavs and nomad tribes in the steppes” (Krzyżanowski 248. In translation) was a continuation of an ongoing discussion about the people, history, and politics of Poland.

Cooper finally had the opportunity to discuss his cherished beliefs about liberty, both at the level of government, and that of the people, with someone who held a perspective that was not abstract, theoretical, or even American. Mickiewicz was the perfect person, perhaps the only person, who could have broadened Cooper’s perspective on liberty and freedom. He was Cooper’s literary and social equal, welcomed and celebrated by the same aristocracy, as was Cooper. However, Mickiewicz was a man who had been jailed, exiled, and abused for beliefs very similar to those espoused by Cooper. His first-hand account of the real, as opposed to Cooper’s theoretical struggle for liberty, made a lasting impression on Cooper. It also made Mickiewicz a favored companion of Cooper during his stay in Rome. Susan Fenimore Cooper, the author’s daughter, records that

Among those who rode with him, there was none, perhaps, whose society gave the author more pleasure than that of the distinguished Polish Poet Mickiewicz, 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)

Exposure to Mickiewicz’s real world experience and perspective is a plausible explanation for Cooper’s passionate and sustained response to the Polish insurrection of November 1830, which was striking in its complexity and emotional involvement. The “Letter to the American People” that Cooper composed on behalf of the American Polish Committee is a long and stunning piece of rhetoric. Its text is four and a half pages long, and contains statements about Polish history, its people, and a uniquely Polish perspective on life that Cooper likely absorbed through his extended contact with Mickiewicz in Rome, and later sustained by contact with the Polish émigrés living in Paris after the July Revolution.

There is no direct evidence that Cooper read Polish history texts, although Leonard Chodźko, aide-de-camp to Lafayette, an associate of Cooper and friend of Mickiewicz, 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). Chodźko 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 (Mickiewicz 2:53). It is unknown if Cooper read these texts, but he certainly could have had easy access to them if he so desired. However, without direct evidence that Cooper studied Polish history prior to his meeting Mickiewicz, it is probable that Mickiewicz was at a minimum, one source and likely, Cooper’s first introduction to Polish history and politics.

Ludwik Krzyzanowski was probably the first critic to suggest that Mickiewicz had “interpreted Polish history ( ... ) and spoke of the Polish conception of freedom” (253) with Cooper. In his “Letter to the American People,” Cooper explains to the Americans that they do not know the details of Polish history, and that the details they may know, they misunderstand. He suggests that the things “they know to be false, as respects [to] yourselves” (Beard 2:125) are also “false in respect to Poland” (ibid). He explains his understanding of the issue as follows:

The [fault] (sic) crime of Poland was too much liberty; her independent existence, in the vicinity of those who had reared their thrones on the foundation of arbitrary will, was not to be endured. Fellow-Citizens, neither the ancient institutions nor the ancient practices of Poland have been understood. The former had, in common with all Europe, the inherited defects of feudal opinions, but still were they among the freest of this hemisphere. (Beard 2:124-125)

The influence of Mickiewicz is apparent since it is unlikely that Cooper knew that Poland had been one of the top European powers before the partitions. In The Books of the Polish Nation, Mickiewicz explains that Poland alone, was rewarded for not falling victim to the “three blasphemies” (Noyes, Writings, 140) of the three rulers of Europe, “Frederick, Catherine, and Maria Theresa” (ibid). Polish kings and men of knightly rank, never “seize[d] neighboring lands by force” (141) but rather united them with Poland by “the gracious gift of faith and freedom” (ibid):

For that union and marriage of Lithuania and Poland is the symbol of the future union of all Christian peoples in the name of faith and freedom.

And God gave unto the Polish kings and knights freedom, that all might be called brothers, both the richest and the poorest. And, such freedom never was before. But hereafter there shall be ( ... ) And finally Poland said: “Whosoever will come to me shall be free and equal, for I am FREEDOM.” (Noyes, Writings, 141)

Cooper reminds his American audience of a truth that they had learned during their struggle for independence. The political intrigues of Europe are not restricted to the European continent. There are always those who will try to manipulate, distort, and deprive freedom from the people for their own personal and political ends:

( ... ) as ever has been, and as ever will be the case, until man shall generally enter into the possession of those rights of which he has so long been deprived by political combinations and lettered monopolies, were calum[n]iated and distorted to serve the ends of [tyrants] th[os]e (sic) few who desire to live on the toil of the many. (Beard 2:125)

The image Mickiewicz paints in The Books of the Polish Nation is a reflection of the political intrigue and clandestine negotiations associated with the Congress of Vienna (1815), where the Great Powers of Austria, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Prussia, redrew the map of Europe with limited or no participation of the people most affected.

But the kings when they heard of this [the declaration of a free Poland] were terrified in their hearts and said: “we banished freedom from the earth; but lo, it returneth in the person of a just nation, that doth not bow down to our idols! Come, let us slay this nation.” And they plotted treachery among themselves.

And the King of Prussia came and kissed the Polish Nation and greeted it, saying: “My ally,” but already he had sold it for thirty cities of Great Poland, even as Judas for thirty pieces of silver.

( ... ) And they martyred the Polish Nation and laid it in the grave, and the kings cried out: “We have slain and we have buried Freedom.” (Noyes, Writings, 142)

Cooper explains the tragedy of the Polish partitions by employing symbolism that was sure to touch the growing fear in America during the 1830s. The issue of the expansion of slavery into the western states threatened to unravel the Union, “Pole can be summoned, at the word of his master, to contend with Pole” (Beard 2:125), linking the image of the Polish Nation as a slave with that of the powers that cooperated in the partitioning of Poland as the slave owner. Cooper’s rhetoric foreshadows the experience that the United States would endure when the Union would be rent and brother would be forced to fight against brother during the American Civil War.

In the Preface to Forefathers’ Eve Part III, Mickiewicz accuses the Russian government of an “instinctive hatred” (Noyes, Poems, 247) of the Polish people once Senator Novosiltsev became involved, saying that he had made the “annihilation of the Polish nationality” (ibid) the foundation of his policy; “There was then inaugurated against the whole Polish race a general persecution, which, as time went on, became more and more violent and bloody” (ibid). Cooper appears to have accepted and absorbed Mickiewicz’s point of view referring to the Poles as fighting “in this very war of existence” (Beard 2:125) echoing Mickiewicz’s view that there have been “manifold wrongs” (ibid) done to the Polish nation. Cooper writes that the partition “of this fine country [was] more odious, and unhappily, this too is [was] to be enumerated among its sufferings” (ibid). Cooper points out to America, that “before Russia can ever again rule in Poland, Russia must again conquer Poland” (Beard 2:126). Cooper’s suggestion that Poland would never peacefully resubmit to Russian rule is an unusual statement for him to make, given his close personal associations with a number of highly influential Russians; it more likely reflects Mickiewicz’s view on the subject. Cooper spoke well of 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). This predisposition for Russian friendship makes the last part of his appeal to the American people all the more curious.

Cooper concludes his letter with an incredible appeal: The United States should not hesitate when choosing between Poland and Russia in the present conflict, but choose Poland as a friend/ally and view Russia as enemy despite a lasting friendship that had developed between Russia and the United States. He continues saying, “our philanthropy is not quickened, [but rather opposed] (sic) by national interests” (Beard 2:127), which suggests that the people of America should support Poland against the wishes of their government (ibid). Cooper was politically savvy and fully cognizant of the implications of what he was writing. He was aware that an alliance/friendship with Russia was in the national interest of his country, and even praises Russia for her “wisdom, foresight, and liberality,” (2:127). Nevertheless, his conclusion is unequivocal and unusually strong, “The wrong exists, [Poland disappeared as a sovereign state] and we should be false to our origin, our principles, and that mild religion in which we are nurtured, could we hesitate between Poland and her enemies” (ibid; emphasis added). For Cooper to publicly express this politically and diplomatically ungrounded, unsound, and unpopular conclusion, contrary in fact to his own personal experiences with Russians, is the final demonstration of the powerful, intimate, and influential role that Mickiewicz held in Cooper’s life.

Works Cited

  • Beard, James Franklin, ed. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. 6 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-1968. Print.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, ed. Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922. Print.
  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore. Pages and Pictures, from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, with Notes. 1861. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1980. Print.
  • Damiani, Enrico. “Mickiewicz’s Position in Italy.” Adam Mickiewicz: Poet of Poland. Ed. Manfred Kridl. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951. 224-229. Print.
  • Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. London: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.
  • Koropeckyj, Roman. Adam Mickiewicz: The Life of a Romantic. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2008. Print.
  • Krzyżanowski, Ludwik. Adam Mickiewicz: Poet of Poland. Ed. Manfred Kridl. New York: Columbina University Press, 1951. 245-258. Print.
  • Krzyżanowski, Ludwik. “Cooper and Mickiewicz: A Literary Friendship.” Adam Mickiewicz Poet of Poland: A Symposium. Ed. Manfred Kridl. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951. 245-258. Print.
  • Mersereau, John Jr. “The Influence of James Fenimore Cooper on Adam Mickiewicz: An Assessment.” Etudes Slaves et Est-Europeennes/Slavic and East-European Studies 3.4 (1958-1959): 207-218. Print.
  • “Mickiewicz in Foreign Eyes.” Adam Mickiewicz: Poet of Poland. Ed. Manfred Kridl. Trans. Ludwik Krzyzanowski. New York: Columbinas University Press, 1951. 128-276.
  • Mickiewicz, Adam. Korespondencja. 2 vols. Paryz: Ksiegarnia, Luxemburg, 1870-1872. Print.
  • Noyes, George Rapall, ed. Konrad Wallenrod and other Writings of Adam Mickiewicz. Trans. Jewell Parish, Dorothea Prall Radin and George Rapall Noyes. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1925. Print.
  • ------. Poems by Adam Mickiewicz. Trans. George Rapall Noyes. New York: The Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, 1944. Print.
  • Seybert, Adam. “Statistical Annals of the United States of America.” Edinburgh Review or Critical Journal Jan. 1820: 69-80.
  • UNESCO. Adam Mickiewicz 1798-1855: In Commemoration of His Death. Zurich: UNESCO, 1955. Print.