“Riotous Living”: James Fenimore Cooper, Accused Aristocrat
Presented at the Transnational Panel of the 2015 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Mass.
Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society.
Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal Winter, 2015-16, pp. 3-5.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
Since at least the John F. Kennedy presidency (1961-1963), royal-mania has afflicted the United States. Kennedy’s administration was dubbed “Camelot,” and not in a negative way, by an eager press, which also reminded Americans at least once a week that the First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier, was connected to Polish royalty. ¹ Indeed, the First Couple was ballyhooed as America’s Royalty. ² Today, House of Windsor fans hang on news of the most recent royal birth in England.
Amidst the hoopla, most Americans have completely forgotten that “aristocrat” once formed one of the worst slurs that could be hurled at anyone. In the nineteenth century, even gentle writers, including Louisa May Alcott, felt righteous in flinging it about derogatively. In her midcentury, block-busting semi-autobiography, Little Women, Alcott freely shamed two of her pseudonymous March sisters, Meg and Amy, as “aristocratic,” in full expectation that her readers would tongue-cluck right along with her. ³ Mark Twain was even more overt in his dripping contempt for aristocratic elites, so that it was hardly accidental that he reviled Cooper as one. ⁴ Throughout Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain ridiculed his twin Italian aristocrats, having even presented them in his original text as conjoined “freaks.” ⁵ His scorn for the self-anointed aristocracy of the American South was heavy and especially obvious in his satire of their lofty, if cribbed, British names, including York Leicester Driscoll, the patriarch of his puddenheaded domestic disaster. ⁶ In Letters from Earth, Twain’s volcanic spite scorched a “Scion of the First Blood” as uniquely unfit for anything but a gutter, preferably an unflushed one. ⁷ Lesser nineteenth-century luminaries of literature filled in around the cultural edges with their own disdain, more clumsily than Alcott and Twain, perhaps, but in an identical vein.
This raging, public excoriation of aristocrats supplied a main excuse for the sustained battering of James Fenimore Cooper by the nineteenth-century American press and public. During his lifetime, Cooper was accused of being an aristocrat, which for the “common” folk constituted an identity about equal in infamy to Evil Incarnate. Ironically, on the other side of the Atlantic, Cooper was simultaneously being cast as an intolerable rube. On both sides, it was ideological alarm that made Cooper a target, not any actual facts of his existence.
Much of the American persiflage stemmed from Cooper’s unfortunate birth as the youngest son of William Cooper (1754-1809), one of the richest men in America in his day, who founded and owned Cooperstown, New York, and its environs. For a jealous public, being William Cooper’s son was sufficient to cement Fenimore’s credentials as a social scofflaw. Because Fenimore kept his private troubles to himself, the public at-large never knew that his father’s fortune was built upon land scams, which crumbled with the death, not only of Cooper’s father, but also of all his older brothers, in quick succession, leaving the youngest and least-prepared of the Cooper men to scramble up through legal tangles and subsequent poverty, as best he could. ⁸ As I have noted elsewhere, Cooper “made his own fortune with his own hands,” so that this end of the public’s petty spite must have been quite painful to him. ⁹
Notwithstanding, like the glowering anti-renters pervading The Redskins (1846), mean-spirited, contemporary gossips indulged in unfounded imaginings of “riotous living” among closet aristocrats — like, say, Cooper. ¹⁰ I believe that the whisper campaigns, such as that excitedly mounted by American Puritans Eliza Lee Cabot and her friend, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, in March, 1825, alleging that “Cooper gets tipsey,” were fatally tinged with the supposition that “riotous living” was widespread among morally dissolute aristocrats. ¹¹ Almost twenty years later in 1843, Sedgwick, herself, was still peddling an unforgiving version of Cooper the Aristocrat, accusing him of moving “in a belligerent spirit, waging war with classes and masses,” and criticizing American manners and mores as being “below” those of Italy, France, and “even England” — the last claim marking Cooper as truly heretical in 1843. After a paragraph’s worth of such hot and sloppy disparagement, honesty finally forced Sedgwick to acknowledge that Cooper was, withal, “good humored” and amusing. ¹² These diametrically opposed assertions, falling within the same paragraph, no less, induce whiplash in any reader not already primed to swallow whole any defamation of Cooper.
To be sure, Cooper fed the image of his aristocratic bearing, at least inadvertently. After all, he lived as a “gentleman” on his Cooperstown estate, from whence he openly urged Americans to learn and use manners (for once). He even had the elitist cheek to travel Europe for seven years, hobnobbing with its “great” men, including the literary luminaries Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as well as with governmental heroes, including the Marquis de Lafayette. ¹³ Although in his various European Gleanings Cooper did describe some of his interactions with and impressions of Scott and Lafayette, his principles revolted against purveying celebrity gossip. “Opportunity,” he affirmed, “rather than talent” was all that was required to relay stories about society’s stars. Worse, there was ” a tacit admission of inferiority in the occupation” that was “too humiliating” for anyone on an equal standing with said celebrities to indulge (italics in the original). ¹⁴ The public did not, however, appreciate Cooper’s withering condemnations of celebrity-spotting, having been too engaged in seeking out steaming-hot stories about those celebrities to stand for criticism of their low-rent behavior.
Not only did Cooper thwart the fans, then, but he also scolded them for their lack of decorum, a crime that he only compounded upon his return from Europe by offering etiquette guides to Americans, particularly in Home as Found (1838). However hilariously Chapter 12 of that book may read today, its disquisition on the failings of rustic rube-ry were received as deeply insulting by Cooper’s contemporaries. To be told that Americans were “in the least inviting condition of society” this side of “barbarism” was hardly taken as a compliment. The public was used to being petted and congratulated on its bold spirit, so to learn that its “tastes” were “too uncultivated to exercise any essential influence” in the world, that its men “lay claim to a consideration that would seem beyond their reach” in any impartial accounting, and that everyone’s “manners” suffered from the “rudest assaults of the coarse-minded and vulgar” was really to cross a bridge too far. ¹⁵
The fact that Cooper’s estimate of the condition of life in antebellum America was pretty much on target did not help him in the least. Egged on by a politically unfriendly press, the public ramped up its ire at Cooper. Never one to take abuse lying down, for his part, Cooper redoubled his barbs against the great unwashed, scorning his American social critics as “the salt of the earth in their own imagination,” only, and continuing his repulsive portraits of them through to his last novel, The Ways of the Hour (1850). ¹⁶ His unforgettable depiction of Thomas Dunscomb’s legal assistant, Mr. Timms, “sonorously” blowing his nose into his fingers, “as if he had a quarrel with that member of his face,” was undoubtedly drawn from life. ¹⁷ When Dunscomb objected to the stomachchurning practice, Timms waved off his nausea as elitism. Apparently, the finger-method signified “’republican simplicity’” happily “abusing ‘aristocracy.’” To the Timmses of 1850’s America, “aristocracy” meant “a clean shirt, clean nails, anti-tobacco chewing, and anti-blowing-the-nosewith-the-fingers.” ¹⁸ Timms fancied his exhibition as blowing “out against aristocracy.” ¹⁹
Cooper quarreled just as much with the manners of American women as with those of American men. In particular, he took offense at the American habit of styling all women, no matter how coarse, as “ladies.” As far as Cooper was concerned, women were not ladies by selfserving dispensation but by “education” coupled with “birth.” ²⁰ Thus, “[h]owever reduced in fortune” Ursula Malbone of The Chainbearer (1845) might have been, with her teacups and her evasion of male notice, she was decidedly a lady, whereas, however exalted in wealth Opportunity Newcome of The Redskins might have been, she was decidedly not. The déclassé Opportunity’s “assuming superiority over any true lady” (specifically Mary Warren) was “something quite intolerable.” If Mary was “well educated” and “well connected,” then Opportunity was the coarse spawn of ignorant and low-born Puritans. ²¹
Cooper was not opposed to modest origins, if they minded their manners, but there can be no doubt that he preferred “elevated” society to that of the determinedly unlettered and deliberately unwashed. For him, education and social connections formed the backbone of elevation, so he scorned the jealous democratization of position that seemed to define antebellum America — not to mention, increasingly, England. In particular, he loathed the new pretenders to aristocratic titles. In his English Gleanings, he railed against the knighthood-dispensing system ushered in by William Pitt, as a political bulwark against the landed aristocracy, throwing the latter into “a state of constant alarm.” ²² Pitt had devalued the meaning of “Sir” and “Lady” with his easy knighthoods and baronetcies, raising up “a dangerous social caste” by extending choice titles to this and that “ordinary citizen.” ²³
This much of his philosophy the American public understood, but Americans missed pretty entirely the fact that Cooper was just as hard on the snobbish, enervated aristocracy of Europe as he was on the species, Slobbovius americanus. In his Italian Gleanings, Cooper opined that the aristocracy was “a polity that probably works more positive wrong than any other,” with most of its “crimes of despotism” being the personal “excesses” of individual aristocrats in power. ²⁴ He condemned the English aristocracy for taking the bribes of “Indian Rajahs,” while he characterized the French “king’s mistresses” as past masters at practicing “this species of power.” ²⁵
The aristocracy of Europe was just as hard on Cooper as Cooper was on it, spewing slurs and calling names. In 1826, the grumpy British social commentator William Hazlitt belittled Cooper as a peripatetic rube, wildly running the streets of Paris. Cooper’s “looks and manner seemed to announce a much greater man,” Hazlitt sniffed, alleging that Cooper “strutted through the streets with a very William Hazlitt consequential air” and “in company,” head high, supposedly “screwed up his features and placed himself on a sort of pedestal to be observed and admired.” ²⁶La Revue Encyclopédique of October, 1834 reviled Cooper for having “meddled” in the “private affairs” of France with his financial advice, in an attack gleefully lifted and republished in America by the Commercial Advertiser. ²⁷
The most ferocious European attack on Cooper came, however, from Walter Scott’s son-in-law, John Lockhart, in The Quarterly Review. The pretext of the review was to evaluate Cooper’s English Gleanings (1837), but the covert purpose of the review was to eliminate Scott’s literary competition. Like Hazlitt, Lockhart condemned Cooper as a self-important clod. The tone was set by the article’s infamous opening sentence, which descended by degrees into a psychopathic froth. If Cooper’s work was “ill-written — illinformed — ill-bred — ill-tempered — and ill-mannered,” then Cooper, himself, was “jealous” and “captious,” altogether a “sour” egotist, a litany that more summed up Lockhart than Cooper, by the way. ²⁸ To modern eyes, the rubes or not-rubes of the situation seemed to depend heavily on the socio-political status of the percipient.
It is something for one man, all by himself, to manage to incite the literati, the sensationalist press, and the public gossips of two separate continents into screaming for his head-and on diametrically opposite grounds, no less. If Cooper’s critics in the U.S. decried him as an egghead aristocrat, living riotously in elevated sin, then his critics in Europe denounced him as a backwoods Jonathan, devoid of taste, manners, and intellect. One cannot but admire Cooper’s ability to push every psychological button in two different cultures. To modern eyes, the attacks from both sides of the Atlantic look ideological, underhanded, meanspirited, and desperate to avoid the subjects Cooper broached. Hopefully, the motivating passions now spent, we can turn to examine just what unspeakable sore spots of culture that Cooper had so expertly fingered as to have elicited such a uniformly panicked response.
1. Michael O’Brien, John F. Kennedy: A Biography (New York: Griffin, 2006) xi-xiii, 689, 946; royalty connection, 695.
2. Sandra L. Quinn-Musgrove and Sanford Kanter, America’s Royalty: All the Presidents’ Children (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983) 171.
3. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women: A Story for Girls (1868-1869; London: Ward, Locke, and Tyler, ) for Meg, 31; for Amy, 48.
4. Barbara Alice Mann, The Cooper Connection: The Influence of Jane Austen on James Fenimore Cooper (New York: AMS Press, 2014) 34-37, 44-46.
5. Mark Twain, The Comedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and The Tragedy of Those Extraordinary Twins (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1897) 311.
6. Mark Twain, The Comedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, 20-21.
7. Mark Twain, Letters from Earth, ed. Bernard DeVoto (1938; New York: Harper & Row, 1962) 103-105.
8. Wayne Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) 4, 155-56, 217, 226-35 passim, 241, 313-14, 318, 329, 410-11.
9. Mann, Cooper Connection, 31.
10. James Fenimore Cooper, The Redskins, or Indian and Injin (1846; New York: W. A. Townsend, 1860) 63, 275, 299.
11. Franklin, Cooper, 426.
12. Catharine [ sic] Maria Sedgwick and Mary E. Dewey, Life and Letters of Catherine M. Sedgwick (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1872) 285.
13. For Coleridge, see James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: England, vol. 4 (1837: Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982) 127-28; for Lafayette, see James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: France, ed. Robert E. Spiller (1837; New York: Oxford University Press, 1928) 331-45. Scott references are ubiquitous in Cooper’s English and French Gleanings.
14. Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: France, 293.
15. James Fenimore Cooper, Home as Found (1838; New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1871) 182.
16. James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: Italy, ed. Constance Ayers Denne (1838; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981) 210.
17. James Fenimore Cooper, Ways of the Hour: A Tale (1850; New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1883) quotations, 131; repetitions, 153, 454.
18. Cooper, Ways of the Hour, 512.
19. Cooper, Ways of the Hour, 137.
20. James Fenimore Cooper, The Chainbearer; or, The Littlepage Manuscripts, 2 vols. (1845; New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1852) 1: 74.
21. Cooper, The Redskins, 211.
22. James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: England, James P. Elliott, Kenneth Staggs, and Robert D. Madison, eds. (1837; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982) 146-47; quotation, 147.
23. Cooper, Gleanings: England, respectively, 147, 148.
24. Cooper, Gleanings: Italy, 43.
25. Cooper, Gleanings: Italy, 210.
26. Cooper, Letter to His Countrymen, 52-53; William Hazlitt, “Conversations of James Northcote,” in William Hazlitt: Essayist and Critic (London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1889) quotation, 482.
27. James Fenimore Cooper, Letter to His Countrymen (New York: John Wiley, 1834) 45, 111.
28. [John Gilson Lockhart], “Article II,” The Quarterly Review 69 (1837): 327-28. Some critics still doubt Lockhart’s authorship of this piece, but I see his greasy fingerprints all over it.