James Fenimore Cooper and the Invention of Science Fiction
Presented at the Cooper Panel on “Style and Genre in James Fenimore Cooper’s novels” at the 2017 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts.
Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal Fall/Winter, 2017, pp. 20-26.
Copyright © 2017, Luis A. Iglesias.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
(p. 20) Histories of popular literary genres situate the origins of science fiction with either Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) or the works of Jules Verne (1860s-90s), with a passing acknowledgment to Edgar Allan Poe. ¹ This lineage argues that science fiction emerged from an evolving cultural and literary valuation of scientific consciousness, making sense of the world and social change from the perspective of scientific innovations and technological application. However, what seems lacking in this literary trajectory is an explanation for what connects Shelley’s and Poe’s gothic and fantastic tales to a narrative responsible to science to which Jules Verne’s novels are committed to in his “Scientific Romances.” In this discussion, I don’t seek to make a case for James Fenimore Cooper’s invention of science fiction (that would be an extraordinary overstatement); however, I would like to suggest that his invention of the sea novel provides a crucial conceptual narrative bridge between the pseudo-scientific fantasies by Shelley, Poe, and Hawthorne and the science-factual novels by Verne. My argument is not one of superficial and coincidental comparisons, but rather to suggest an influence of practice — particularly one that relies on the faithful description of technological know-how and expertise, which mark Cooper’s generic innovation. At its center, the genre of science fiction depends upon technological fidelity of representation, the need to show the conceptually probable in terms of what is technologically possible? so I turn to Cooper’s maritime novels as that hinge. In his invention of the sea novel, Cooper insisted for the sake of the narrative’s interest and verisimilitude on illustrating how the ship works and how the mechanic (i.e. sailor) makes it work, and he insisted on displaying understanding of seafaring technology, all of which focus the narrative form as well as the reader’s appreciation of the tale. The mechanics of navigation and the technology of maritime experience matter not only as a plot device, highlighting both character and action, but also, and perhaps most importantly, as the forming and informing essence of the new genre.
According to Robert Foulke, in his study of the sea voyage as narrative form, the sea novel shares an existential relationship with science fiction: he argues that the oceanic voyage is a “natural vehicle for the human imagination exploring the unknown, whether it be discovering strange new lands, finding out the truth about ourselves, or (p. 21) searching for more perfect worlds” or opportunities. ² And, at the genre’s center, according to John Rieder, science fiction, especially in the form of space travel and exploration, utilizes the conventions of seafaring, “treating outer [and inner, I would add] space as an infinitely extended ocean that separates exotically diverse continents, not radically different worlds.” ³ Of course, one has only to think of the USS Enterprise — and the allusion to its various incarnations leading up to the popular science fiction franchise, Star Trek, to appreciate the extent to which seafaring is a dominant plot structure of science fiction adventures. ⁴ And yet, reading through scores of histories of science fiction, not one mention is made of the sea novel’s role in the genre’s emergence, much less to Cooper’s contribution to the genre.
I would propose that we think about science fiction not as a prescriptive genre but rather as a way of reading. And, here is where the sea novel becomes a critical tool. As a way of reading, Cooper’s sea tales provide a way to fathom the oceanic world in terms navigable and mechanical — both in spatial and epistemological ways. As a result, his sea novels pay close attention to maritime technology, and how understanding it and its relationship to technical competency draw our attention to the nation’s role in an expanding transatlantic world. ⁵ But, more to the point, Cooper’s innovation was to foreground the ship and how the mechanics of seafaring focus the novel’s plot and action. They become inextricable from each other. And, his faithful attention to maritime language as well as shipboard technologies and action structure the tales in detailed and explicit ways.
We should recall, for example, that the American clipper ship was the height of maritime technology of its age — a sophisticated and highly complicated machine that required a high level of expertise to maneuver and operate. Cooper’s sea tales showcase both the beauty and complexity of various sailing vessels as well as the expertise and competence of their operators. And, what was and is read as a failing in these tales, Cooper’s over-attention to nautical language or details, I want to suggest introduces a key feature of science fiction’s emergence, a faithful attention to the practices and technology of an increasingly machine-enabled world, particularly as it foreshadows the emergence of Jules Verne’s novels at the end of the century. Verne, whose novels would be more appropriately called “technological fictions,” frequently acknowledged his debt to Cooper — which I’ll address later.
Here I follow the lead forwarded by Brett Rodgers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens who asks us to consider science fiction as “Knowledge Fiction,” insisting that as a response to an increasing technological and (p. 22) industrial world, a science fiction approach to reading provides a “nontheological mode of understanding the natural world” by focusing on how knowledge of technologies and competence in the use and application of new technologies defines the human action of the text. ⁶ So, if literary historians of science fiction are correct to index the development of the genre to scientific thinking and its relation to society — I would like to posit a precondition to this formulation, one that focuses on the understanding of and narrative attention to technology as formative to an emergent popular genre.
Looking then over the history of the science fiction genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein pays no attention to technology and material effects. It contemplates the effects of the irresponsible use of science, but not the technology itself. In Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” or “The Birthmark,” science functions as allegory, where these tales focus on fantastical effects but do not explain how those effects are arrived at or accomplished: they just happen. Both Hawthorne’s tales and Shelley’s novel care little for technological plausibility: the technologies of reanimation or physiological transformation are never revealed in the text.
To come closer to a stronger, early form of the genre, we must turn to Edgar Allan Poe, in particular “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” (1835), to see the potential for a relationship between fidelity to technological plausibility and an emergent science fiction genre. However, Poe’s tales rarely take science itself seriously — instead these tales are staged as hoaxes, emerging from plagiaristic pastiche. And, while stories like Hans Pfaall are concerned with process, focusing on technological details, such as aerial travel, they turn on the hoax undercutting their reality and stressing their fictiveness. Poe’s tales blur the line between scientific possibility and fictional probability. Therefore, as Franklin argues, “despite all his dabbling with scientific and technological speculation, Poe’s outlook was essentially antiscientific ... he preferred to look away from physical and social reality and toward his own phantasmagoric theories, unworkable inventions, and imagined terrors.” ⁷
Tracing the history of science fiction as a genre further, it is not until we arrive at Jules Verne that the first fully realized science fiction tale appears by adhering to the scientifically probably by virtue of what is technologically possible. And, while Verne acknowledged his debt to Edgar Allan Poe both in text and through imitation, I would argue that it was from James Fenimore Cooper that he got his adherence to technical fidelity and probability.
(p. 23) Cooper’s accurate representation of nautical technology and language reveal a novelistic enterprise dedicated to a faithful rendering of the conditions of seafaring. In his preface to The Pilot (1824), Cooper dedicates the novel to William Branford Shubrick whose professional knowledge validated the novel’s “strictly nautical features” (Preface, 1849) ⁸ and whose experience as an expert seaman best suits him to appreciate the novel’s technical portrayal of the maritime world. Following up in the Red Rover (1827), Cooper again emphasizes that the “object of the book is to paint sea scenes and to describe nautical usage and nautical character” (Preface, 1834). ⁹ His novels would be accurate to seafaring know-how and legitimate themselves through their faithful representation of technical expertise, unlike Sir Walter Scott’s amateurish and technically flawed novel The Pirate (1822).
Though Cooper worried that the novel’s fidelity to nautical language and technology would alienate the common reader, Cooper was dedicated to “record[ing] facts as they have occurred ... paint[ing] scenes which only belong to the ocean.” ¹⁰ Sir Walter Scott complained that there is too much of nautical language, suggesting “it overpowers everything else.” ¹¹ However, Cooper dismissed the criticism, stating the he wrote the novel for “nautical men.” For the sea novel as an emergent genre, skill and appropriate use of technical language, and how to read that language, play a critical part in legitimating its seafaring characters and, by extension, the sea novel as form. By integrating maritime technology into plot, Cooper was faithful to both the descriptions of nautical maneuvers and the vernacular expression of seafaring men. As Thomas and Marianne Philbrick note in their historical introduction to The Red Rover, “Cooper’s steady ... attention to the technology of maritime life: the details of ship handling and marine hardware, the accurate use of nautical terminology, the precise observation of weather and sea conditions” all shape not only the story but also the new genre of the sea novel. ¹²
Moreover, in the sea tales Cooper animated the ships with vitality — “sea-birds, skimming the foaming brine with [their] wings and gracefully riding the contours of the waves” ¹³ — yet complementing this graceful language, the sea novels never let the reader forget these vessels are complex machines handled with expert care. In appreciating the sailing ships of Cooper’s novels, I would echo David Nye’s term the “technological sublime.” Nye argues that the Romantic concept of the sublime — that feeling of awe and terror as one is overcome by the spectacle of nature — shifted in nineteenth century America, developing out of a new fascination with technological innovations: “The sublime, (p. 24) no longer exclusively associated with the wonders of God’s creation or man’s insignificance in the face of a powerful Nature, is focused instead on technology, such as railroads, bridges, skyscrapers, and factories” (and I would add Clipper and steam-powered ships). ¹⁴
Which brings us back to Jules Verne, whose Voyages Extraordinaires are generally considered foundational to and recognizable within the genre of science fiction. Verne took from Cooper’s sea novels a way to plot remarkable adventures beyond the scope of contemporary experience but present them as challenges that required skilled labor and technological know-how, inviting the reader, in the words of Margaret Cohen, “to share at the level of pragmatic imagination.” ¹⁵
Verne frequently acknowledged his debt to Cooper, citing in an interview that he “never tire of Fenimore Cooper; certain of his romances deserve true immortality and will ... be remembered long after the so-called literary giants of a later age are forgotten.” ¹⁶ And, citations (explicit and implicit) to Cooper’s novels are often found in the pages of the Voyages Extraordinaires, borrowings from the sea-tales most often of all. For example, The Mysterious Island (1874) owes much to The Crater (1848), replete with pirate attacks, a threatening volcano, cast-a-away adventurers, and the island’s disappearance into the ocean as a grand finale. For Verne, citing Cooper and adopting his form of the sea novel gave readers of his Voyages Extraordinaires a strong grasp on “the real” both in technological and literary terms. Verne not only instructs his readers but he also stresses the veracity of his technological and scientific romances by drawing attention to the educational and authoritative value of Cooper’s fidelity to seafaring know-how and required skills. ¹⁷
It is worth recalling that like outer space narratives, Cooper’s sea tales enable strong feelings of alienation where proto- and extra-national figures find themselves estranged from their homelands and, as a result, allow them an externalized perspective looking toward home. Echoes of Cooper’s disaffected seamen find later expression in the character of Captain Nemo, each who stare out from the bow of their ships toward the world to be? scenes from Nemo’s Nautilus recall the instance when Cooper’s Rover sees the nation’s rise “as certain as that star will set in the ocean, or that day is to succeed to night” even though there is no nation as such to witness (Red Rover 302).
Science fiction, as a literary and popular genre, developed in concert with and out of an industrial society, expressing both its technological confidence and alienation. It is linked to the rise of modern globalization and technology, growing with these forces, reflecting and expressing (p. 25) them, evaluating them, and relating them meaningfully. I argue that there is a lineage of influence, in terms of plot and narrative popularity from sea fiction, invented and promoted by Cooper, which influenced a larger literary process when later writers reimagine the nineteenth century adventure novels to twentieth century science fiction. And, it is Cooper’s sea novels with their attention to the technology of sail that makes that narrative and generic bridge possible. The oceanic imagination activated and promoted through his maritime tales are engrained in the world of science fiction — and influences both the fictive and the real.
In his address to the nation, President John Kennedy in 1962 averred that “Now is the time to take longer strides, time for a great new American enterprise, time for this Nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement. ... Space is the new Ocean, and we must choose to sail upon it.” ¹⁸ In his speech, President Kennedy underscored the spirit of Cooper’s sea tales, calling upon the nation to expand its influence and technological skill through its rich history of maritime achievements.
1. See Roberts, Adam. The History of Science Fiction. New York: Palgrave/Macmillian, 2005, among others. Also see Franklin, H. Bruce. Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
2. Foulke, Robert. The Sea Voyage Narrative. New York: Routledge, 2002: 10.
3. Reider, John. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008: 146-147.
4. It is worth recalling that Gene Roddenberry famously called Star Trek “Wagon Train to the Stars” in his 1966 pitch for the innovative series.
5. Here I am indebted to the work of Thomas Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961: 54.
6. Rodgers, Brett M. and Benjamin Eldon Stevens. “Introduction: The Past in an Undiscovered Country.” Classical Tradition in Science Fiction. Ed. Brett M. Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015: 14.
7. Franklin, H. Bruce. Future Perfect: American Science Fiction for the Nineteenth Century. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995: 94.
8. Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea. Preface  Albany: SUNY Press, 1986: 7.
9. Cooper, James Fenimore. The Red Rover: A Tale. Preface  Albany: SUNY Press, 1991: 7.
10. Cooper, The Pilot. Preface : 3.
11. See Sir Walter Scott, from The Journal of Sir Walter Scott (14 January 1828), quoted in Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973) 139. The irony in Scott’s criticism for scholars of Cooper is found in the fact Cooper “invented” the sea novel with The Pilot in direct response sloppy descriptions and maritime ignorance of Scott’s The Pirate.
12. Philbrick, Thomas and Marianne. Historical Introduction. The Red Rover: A Tale. Albany, SUNY Press, 1991: xx.
13. From Sainte-Beuve’s review of The Red Rover. qtd in Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage, 138.
14. Nye, David. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994: 60. For a review, see M. LuÍsa Sousa, “Technology as a social collective experience of nation building: David Nye’s American Technological Sublime,” Journal of History of Science and Technology 4 (Fall 2010).
15. Cohen, Margaret. The Novel and The Sea. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010: 213-214.
16. Evans, Arthur B. “Literary Intertext to Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires.” Science Fiction Studies, 23.2 #69 (July 1996): 171-187. [http://jv.gilead.org.il/evans/literary.htm] [Link no longer extant. – Ed.]
18. “Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort,” September 12, 1962.