When Peter Parley Met Natty Bumppo: Samuel Goodrich, James Fenimore Cooper, and the Invention of a Young Adult Frontier

Matthew Wynn Sivils (Iowa State University)

Presented at the Cooper and Children’s/Young Adult Literature Panel of the 2015 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Mass.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal Fall, 2015, pp. 11-13.

Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

Dissatisfied with what he viewed as the grotesque and morally corrupt content of much children’s literature available at the time — which were mostly reprints of European titles — the New England printer Samuel Griswold Goodrich set out to compose and market books expressly intended for a young American readership. He began in 1819 by creating a handful of rather unsophisticated chapbooks intended to impart historical and moral lessons. In 1827, Goodrich published the first of his so-called Peter Parley books, which are narrated by a fictional grandfatherly Bostonian of that name. These books became extremely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and they would serve as a powerful influence upon the minds of young Americans and upon the development of the nation’s literary culture. As A.S.W. Rosenbach — in his formative study of early American children’s literature — contends, the advent of Goodrich’s Peter Parley series was “one of the most momentous and influential events in the history of American children’s literature in the nineteenth century” (xlviii).

What Rosenbach and subsequent scholars have overlooked, however, is the considerable influence the early novels of James Fenimore Cooper, especially The Pioneers, had upon Goodrich’s Peter Parley series. In this paper, I draw upon my archival research in the American Antiquarian Society’s expansive children’s book collection to demonstrate the debt Goodrich’s later work, especially his bestselling Parley series, owes to the example of Cooper’s early fiction. In particular, I discuss Goodrich’s Peter Parley’s Story of Little Marion (1830), in which he reimagines Cooper’s famous panther attack scene from The Pioneers to impart an ambiguous environmental lesson. Ultimately, I argue that by recognizing Cooper’s influence upon Goodrich’s work we gain a more complete understanding of the literary development of nineteenth-century young adult literature, especially as it relates to the invention of an imagined frontier as an instructive literary setting.

When we talk about Samuel Goodrich today, it is usually within the context of his dealings with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who — along with other literary notables such as N.P. Willis, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Lydia Sigourney, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — contributed pieces to Goodrich’s popular gift annual, the Token. Indeed, over the years Hawthorne sold Goodrich around twenty-five works for the Token, and many of them went on to become some of Hawthorne’s most famous stories, including “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” and “The Minister’s Black Veil.” In her biography of Hawthorne, Brenda Wineapple writes, “Goodrich both championed Hawthorne and exploited him” (76). Despite his great admiration for Hawthorne’s work, Goodrich paid the then obscure author “between fifty-two and seventytwo dollars for the ten stories that appeared in the 1831, 1832, and 1833 Tokens“ (76). But, as Wineapple contends, the lack of copyright law and the glut of British reprints meant that underpaying authors was one way of alleviating an American printer’s financial risk. Goodrich, always a savvy businessman, probably saw underpaying his authors as a sound financial decision. Hawthorne, however, viewed it differently, writing later that Goodrich “is a not unkindly man, in spite of his propensity to feed and fatten himself on better brains than his own. ... He was born to do what he did, as maggots to feed on rich cheese” (quoted in Woodberry 70). It would be a mistake, however, to peg Goodrich as merely a printer who took unfair advantage of authors. After all, Hawthorne sold Goodrich approximately twenty-five pieces over a period of seven years. If he was dissatisfied with Goodrich, it apparently did nothing to stop them from doing business.

If we are to believe what Goodrich writes in his memoir, he was a genuine advocate for the development of a distinctly national literature, and he set out to promote and capitalize upon what was at the time an almost nonexistent marketplace for domestic works. In his memoir, he writes, “I began to think of trying to bring out original American works. It must be remembered that I am speaking of a period prior to 1820. At that date, Bryant, Irving, and Cooper — the founders of our modern literature-a trinity of genius in poetry, essay, and romance-had but just commenced their literary career” (Recollections 1.110). At this time Goodrich himself commenced upon what were actually a variety of literary careers. In about 1819 he set up shop as a printer in his native Connecticut, but relocated his business to Boston in the early 1820s. He would enjoy over three decades of success as a printer and that success was in large part due to his skill at identifying lucrative niche markets, such as the gift book trade filled by the Token.

Goodrich’s first attempts at juvenile fiction appeared in 1819, when he printed several chapbooks containing one or two animal tales or fables like The Man and the Snake, Two Doves and the Owl, and The History of a Little Silver-Fish. Apparently these earliest forays into juvenile fiction were less than fruitful. In his memoir, Goodrich writes that in 1819 “I turned my attention to books for education and books for children, being strongly impressed with the idea that there was here a large field for improvement. I wrote, myself, a small arithmetic, and a half a dozen toy-books, and published them ... but none of these were very successful at that time” (2.112). The failure of these first children’s books was probably due to their generic and unoriginal content. They have nothing of the allure found in Goodrich’s later Peter Parley books, but they constitute the first efforts of a man bent on re-making juvenile literature for an American audience.

Goodrich was above all a savvy student of the publishing trade, and he was particularly fond of James Fenimore Cooper whom he had placed along with Bryant and Irving as one of a “trinity of genius” and one of the “founders of our modern literature.” It is likely Goodrich was impressed with how Cooper had succeeded in the challenge of writing books that took as their subject American topics and scenes. In fact, Goodrich’s fondness for Cooper is reflected in his recollection of a trip he made to visit Sir Walter Scott in about 1823. When asked by Scott about American authors he knew, Goodrich responds that he knew Cooper well (2.177), and this apparently intrigued Scott’s son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart who replied, “I have lately been reading an exceedingly clever American novel, entitled the Pioneers, by Cooper. His descriptive power is very great, and I think he has opened a new field of romance, especially in the hunters along the frontiers, who, in their intercourse with savages, have become half savage themselves. That border life is full of incident, adventure, poetry; the character of Leatherstocking is original and striking” (2.201-202). To this, Goodrich writes that Scott said, “I have not seen the Pioneers, but I have read the Pilot by the same author, which has just been published. It is very clever, and I think it will turn out that his strength lies in depicting sea life and adventure. We really have no good sea-tales, and here is a wide field, open to a man of true genius” (2.202-203). As Goodrich relates, whether set on land or at sea, Scott and his son-in-law Lockhart admired Cooper’s American adventure novels, and for a keen bookseller like Goodrich it was probably just one of several instances confirming the economic potential of such tales.

By 1827, Goodrich had begun experimenting with new approaches to his juvenile book trade. To create an inviting frame for his stories, he invented the narrator of Peter Parley, a kind, elderly Bostonian with a cane and a talent for regaling children with his tales. These books, a mixture of history and fiction dispensed with Goodrich’s earlier generic settings in favor of stories specifically placed in New England and its surrounding wilderness and populated with overtly American characters. Goodrich even had the first Parley book announce this shift in its title, The Tales of Peter Parley, about America. In this book, the narrating Parley makes good on the promise in its title, telling stories about America’s history and at times directly addressing his young American readers. In the lead up to one tale, Parley says, “Then, there were no roads, or very different ones, and travelling was attended with danger, from the Indians, and the wild beasts, that lurked in the forests” (86). In this book that marks the invention of juvenile American historical romance, Goodrich traded the brief anecdotes that had filled his earlier books for more developed narratives, ditching allegorical animals for more realistic ones and infusing his stories with the conflicts and dangers of the American wilderness. In this, the first of what would be scores of Parley books, the narrator tells his readers of how he was captured by Indians during the Revolutionary War, only to be freed by a friendly American Indian named Wampum whom Parley’s father had saved earlier in the book. Goodrich presents Wampum as a sympathetic character who bemoans the crimes of the European- Americans against the Indigenous population. In short, Goodrich infused his late 1820s Parley books, whether they presented fiction or history, with the drama of the frontier. He adopts those very ingredients Cooper had popularized in The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans, and that had so enthralled audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

One example of how Goodrich borrowed from Cooper’s novels is Peter Parley’s Story of Little Marion. This slim book, published in 1830 and comprised of just sixteen pages, begins this way:

You have heard, I suppose, of Ohio. It is one of the American States, and lies far to the west. To go from Boston to Ohio requires six or seven days’ travelling. It is now a well settled country, there being many towns and villages and many people there.

But the time of my story is more than twenty years ago, and then there were few inhabitants there, and the country generally was covered with vast forests. (3)

Parley then narrates a tale of the Leslie family, farmers who had, two decades before, immigrated from New England to the banks of the Ohio river where they settled in the wilderness frontier of the then newly-minted state. As this opening reveals, Goodrich’s narrator speaks directly to the intended audience of young New Englanders, not taking for granted that they have ever heard of Ohio far to west. Parley describes the Leslie family’s log home itself as “destitute of beauty,” nevertheless he pronounces their homestead a “charming spot” because of its proximity to the river, to beautiful hills, and to the “vast forest,” filled with “luxuriant wild flowers.” Stunned by the beauty of their new home, eight-year-old Marion Leslie proclaims to her father, “Oh! ... how much more beautiful is this, than the cold shorn hills of New Hampshire, where we used to live!” (5).

The story that follows bears a more than passing similarity to the panther attack scene in Chapter 28 of Cooper’s The Pioneers. One September morning Marion’s thirteen-year-old brother, Alexander, decides to go hunting, so he takes up his gun and disappears into the woods. Hours pass without his return, and Marion becomes worried about her brother, so she goes into the woods in search of him. She enters into a wilderness that is almost dreamlike. The woods are, as Parley says, “as tranquil as sleep” and the young Marion becomes so caught up by the land’s peaceful beauty that after a couple of hours of wandering the forest picking flowers she loses her way. Finally tiring, she sits down under an oak near a brook, and, with her dog Hart joining here there, falls fast asleep. Then, as Parley relates:

The little girl had slept about an hour, when a catamount who was lurking in the forest perceived her. The catamount, I suppose you know, is a fierce and cruel animal, shaped like a cat and as large as a dog. ... How dangerous then was the situation of Marion, sleeping and defenceless, while the sly catamount was stealing towards her. He came as silently as a cat, his eye fixed on his victim, and flashing with excitement. (9-11)

Then the panther readies to spring upon the child, and the ensuing action reveals how much Goodrich’s tale owes to that similar moment in The Pioneers. Her spaniel fights the panther but is injured and fails to stop the predator’s advance upon the terrified Marion. But, at the last moment Marion’s brother emerges from the woods and (as Natty Bumppo does in The Pioneers) shoots the panther.

Essentially, Goodrich recreates the drama of Cooper’s panther scene for a work of juvenile fiction. He makes the tale a little more appealing to young readers by replacing Natty Bumppo with the young Alexander. Goodrich also makes sure the family dog survives its fight with the panther and is carried home by a grateful Marion. What is most notable about Goodrich’s take on the scene, however, is how he uses it to deliver a complicated environmental message to America’s youth. This message is most overtly stated in the story’s conclusion, when Parley tells his young readers: “Let us all be thankful, my dear children, that we live in a land where there are no wild beasts” (14). It seems clear that for Goodrich the American frontier environment, for all of its wild beauty, still held dangers best eliminated by expansion and industry. In other words, he promotes an argument common in American land use policy, that the benefits of environmental degradation outweigh its costs, especially when safety or financial gain is at stake. In stating this idea, Goodrich does not so much veer from Cooper’s The Pioneers, as underscore one of the main questions of Cooper’s book. What do we really lose when settlers take hold of a region? One factor that makes Cooper’s handling of that question more complicated is Natty Bumppo himself, who bemoans the destruction wrought by settlers and ultimately flees to the untamed west. Perhaps that is why Goodrich replaces Cooper’s old hunter with a young boy, and why, unlike most frontier stories, there is no mention of Native Americans. By erasing other human stakeholders, Goodrich simplifies the equation so that humans — here alone represented by the Leslie family — stand only to gain in security by the removal of all that contests European-American superiority over the land.

Works Cited

  • Goodrich, Samuel Griswold. Peter Parley’s Story of Little Marion. Boston: S. G. Goodrich, 1830.
  • ------. Recollections of a Lifetime, or Men and Things I Have Seen. 2 Vols. New York: Miller, Orton, Mulligan, 1856.
  • Rosenbach, A.S.W. Early American Children’s Books. Portland, ME: Southworth Press, 1933.
  • Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. New York: Random House, 2004.
  • Woodberry, George E. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1902.