Sculpted by Absence: The Passive Voice of Cooper
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. 27-34.
Copyright © 2016, James Fenimore Cooper Society.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
Introduction: Gathering Venerable Air
Twain skinned The Deerslayer (1841) alive as a tale that “accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air” (196). But arriving in the air is no slight trick. Watch what Balzac called Cooper’s “magic prose” conduct this sleight of hand: “The sail was then lowered, and by slow degrees the scow drifted up to the building, and was secured” (qtd. in Rust xx; Cooper 99). The passive voice enables this hands-free arrival. Cooper’s passive prose abounds with phenomena that “could be seen” (78) or “were heard” (522) and he typically truncates the agent doing the action altogether. For example, in the line “the bays were seen glittering,” who is doing the seeing (46)? The agent is a blank.
Cooper uses the passive voice much as a sculptor molds positive space through the negative. Here’s an explanatory doodle: [Positive space/ Synecdochical Stub] → “[T]he bays (←subject acted upon) were seen glittering (←passive voice verb) .” ←[Negative space where the agent (i.e. “by so and so”) should be] (46). He gives the reader what I’m calling the negative space of the passive voice but also a synecdoche — a stub, so to speak, in the form of the subject acted upon plus the passive verb — with which to extrapolate the traits of his characters. This is a gesture similar to the nineteenth-century academic practice of conceptually restoring the partial remains of classical statues in order to, as Tim Armstrong says, “educe the totality from the fragment” (134). Cooper’s sculptural passive voice does arrive in the air in the sense that it effects fullness from absence.
Here, I will claim that there are two related ways in which Cooper’s passive prose creates a sculptural syntax in The Deerslayer. Firstly, his passive style shapes the positive with the negative by attending to a negative sculptural space of effects and actions by removing actors and objects who normally boast syntactical dominance. Such subjects typically hog space at the beginning of a sentence — primary and positive real estate. Listen here to Cooper sculpt Deerslayer into a model of caution by making him invisible to the reader and inaudible to his enemies: “The paddles were lifted, and returned to the water in a noiseless manner. ... ” (276). Privileging actions rather than actors with the passive voice, Cooper cloaks Deerslayer from the reader but he also creates a productive negative space that connotes his “sagacity” in being so stealthy (68).
(p. 28) Secondly, I want to explore the way that Cooper’s agentless prose is akin to a sculptural fragment that the reader must complete cognitively to locate Cooper’s characters physically and psychologically. See here how the passive voice slides into a synecdoche: “[T]he bayonet was seen gleaming. ... That terrible and deadly weapon was glutted in vengeance” (521-22). The passive voice wipes out the Hurons as effectively as does the synecdochical bayonet standing in for the King’s soldiers. But whether we arrive at a complete sculpture through the process of removal — a chiseling out of negative space — or through a process of extrapolation — filling in the rest of a fragment — the sculptural passive voice qualifies the agency of Cooper’s characters and limits their primacy in their environment. The sculptural passive voice also, contradictorily, characterizes them more completely.
1. Chiseling out Character
Leonard Ashley admitted that Cooper “was all thumbs as a stylist” (44). Not exactly meant as a compliment, Ashley’s dig nevertheless keys in to the haptic quality of Cooper’s prose. Let your eye trace along as Cooper’s delicate hand finishes a “glorious picture of affluent forest grandeur” by sculpting the following scene with the subordinate and passively-acting agents of “the balminess of June” and the “presence of so broad an expanse of water.” I’ve italicized the passive verbs:
On all sides, wherever the eye turned, nothing met it, but the mirror-like surface of the lake, the placid void of heaven, and the dense setting of wood. So rich and fleecy were the outlines of the forest, that scarce an opening could be seen, the whole visible earth, from the rounded mountain-top, to the water’s edge, presenting one unvaried hue of unbroken verdure. As if vegetation were not satisfied with a triumph so complete, the trees overhung the lake, itself, shooting out towards the light, ... a glorious picture of affluent forest grandeur, softened by the balminess of June, and relieved by the beautiful variety afforded by the presence of so broad an expanse of water. (35-6)
Cooper’s charming hypothesis about dissatisfied vegetation would not have been as vibrant if it had resided in the head of his protagonist, who would be unlikely to make such an observation anyway. Note how the passive voice fastens the reader’s attention on the animation of the woods, “not satisfied” “overhung” “shooting,” which merely “could be seen,” rather than on what Deerslayer sees or surveys. The passive voice permits Cooper to foreground the dynamism of the environment rather than its effects on his characters or their acts of perceiving it.
(p. 29) Only after the gorgeous passage above, in which “the balminess of June” and “the presence of ... water” are the principal, though passive, actors, does Deerslayer get his say: “This is grand! — ‘Tis solemn! — ‘Tis edication of itself, to look upon!” (sic 36). With the passive voice Cooper skillfully sculpts the scene for the reader, not for Deerslayer. Deerslayer dissolves into the background preventing his agency in observing, and possibly absorbing, his environment in much the same way that a sculptor dissolves pieces of material into the air in order to shape that which remains. In this case what remains is a more solid sense of “affluent forest grandeur.”
If you happen to be a writing craft addict, you may know Peter Elbow’s treatise, Writing Without Teachers (1973). He describes editing with a sculptural language that, I believe, resembles Cooper’s passive voice:
Every word omitted keeps another reader with you. ... Think of throwing away not as negative — not as crumpling up sheets of paper in helplessness and rage — but as a positive, creative, generative act. Learn to play the role of the sculptor pulling off layers of stone with his chisel to reveal a figure beneath. Leaving things out makes the backbone or structure show better. (41, my emphasis)
Now, I admit that Cooper’s prose isn’t as pared down as much as Elbow recommends. Nevertheless, Cooper’s passive voice creates a generative negative space where his characters should be, removing and revealing, as a sculptor does, to help the reader arrive at the structure of the novel and, more importantly, to give that reader a vantage of the stature of his characters.
Cooper’s passive voice doesn’t just muzzle Deerslayer in order to reverence nature. After all, even though grammatically he’s absent in the passage above, we as readers know that Deerslayer is looking at the forest: that it is his eye that nature meets, and that he is doing the seeing. Much more than his direct statements about the Glimmerglass being God’s way of schooling him, or his humble observation that the lake was made to “let” him view the forest, the passive voice sculpts a material sense of Deerslayer’s humility by having him wait in the syntactical wings of this delightfully descriptive passage (36, 37). By having to educe the whole from the fragment, the reader is placed in a position of relative darkness. We are in the shadows and, like the trees in Cooper’s forest, we need to struggle towards the light, to fill in the gaps where the rest of the characterization or story action should be.
2. Air Pressure
(p. 30) Leaving a blank space where characters should be, the passive voice surrounds and creates the action of the novel as negative space surrounds and creates a sculpture. But that can mean that Cooper’s prose is pretty pressed and packed, as in the following scene where Deerslayer and Judith search for something with which to ransom Hutter and Hurry. You have to swallow this passage whole to get a sense of how pressurized the piece is with the passive voice, as italicized:
Luckily, the whole of the castles were among the pieces, and these four tower-bearing animals it was finally determined should be the ransom offered. The remainder of the men, and, indeed, all the rest of the articles in the chest, were to be kept out of view, and to be resorted to only as a last appeal. As soon as these preliminaries were settled, every thing but those intended for the bribe was carefully replaced in the chest, all the covers were “tucked in,” as they had been found, and it was quite possible, could Hutter have been put in possession of the castle again, that he might have passed the remainder of his days in it, without even suspecting the invasion that had been made on the privacy of the chest. The rent pistol would have been the most likely to reveal the secret, but this was placed by the side of its fellow, and all were pressed down as before, some half a dozen packages in the bottom of the chest not having been opened at all. When this was done, the lid was lowered, the padlocks replaced, and the key turned. The latter was then replaced in the pocket from which it had been taken. (226)
In the first portion of this paragraph, the passive voice produces a flat exposition: “it was finally determined,” “preliminaries were settled,” “articles ... were to be kept,” etc. But the second part shifts into an apparent absence of human actors; an absence that the reader experiences in relief. This peopleless prose is populated with animated objects such as the pistol and his “fellow.” The “men” in the scene are now the chess pieces. They don’t act themselves but they were “carefully replaced in the chest, all the covers were ‘tucked in,’ as they had been found.” By focusing on the objects first with the passive voice, Cooper makes the reader care a little for the fate of the pieces and the pistol in a similar way to that in which Deerslayer’s actions take care of them. The objects become the protagonists of Cooper’s passive syntax. It is fitting that Cooper uses the passive voice, which is good at hiding agents since the “by whom” clause is commonly left blank (see doodle from paragraph 2), to describe this meticulous repacking, and therefore re-concealment, of Hutter’s precious and private property.
(p. 31) Despite the tone of discretion, all of this hiding away of objects and agents, all of this negation of actors, all of these passive phrases lumped together — “the lid was lowered, the padlocks replaced, and the key turned“ — pop out at the reader to sculpt an image of Deerslayer’s scrupulousness. Although he isn’t mentioned, the reader can infer from the passive voice that Deerslayer is predominantly responsible for taking such care in the prickly and invasive action of rifling Hutter’s valuables. Deerslayer avoids the task and then reassures himself of his moral standing when he says that he is only “prying into another man’s chist ... to sarve its owner, in the best way. ... ” (205-6, 208, sic 214). But his overt apology for his actions is much less effective than the passive voice at conveying to the reader his consideration of Hutter’s privacy. His grammatical absence gives a better sense of his character than his words do. The passive voice in Cooper’s hands is a productive and generative removal. I think that the palpable piling up of Cooper’s passive voice fulfils the qualifications for what Marion Thain calls a sculptural aesthetic: “In pictorial terms, much is lost, but within a sculptural aesthetic ... the focus on outline shape offers a corporeality, phenomenologically present on the page” (76, emphasis in original). Oxymoronically, by removing his characters from the scene of action with the passive voice, Cooper chisels completely tangible — or, in Thain’s vein, corporeal — characters that take on a realistic density through their absence.
3. Synecdochical Sculpture
Cooper’s passive voice relies on the reader’s ability to surmise what his absences indicate. As Hawkeye scoffs at Uncas’s incredulity over his ability to make a long shot in The Last of The Mohicans (1826), “’Does he think when a hunter sees a part of the creatur, he can’t tell where the rest of him should be!’” (34, sic Cooper). Similarly, the scant and suppressed details of the passive voice allow Cooper to provide sculptural fragments that, to borrow his words, “need scarcely be laid before the eyes of the reader” in order to arrive complete (Cooper, Deerslayer 523). Gail Smith and Lisa Norwood both convincingly argue that The Deerslayer requires readers to fill in the blanks with only fragments, or relics, to guide them. My aim is to extend their arguments a little further: to argue for the fruitfulness of considering those fragments as sculptural, rather than as “scraps”; and also, more specifically, to argue that the passive voice at times bears the stylistic burden for creating that fragmentation (Smith 30). Smith argues that Cooper prods the reader to enact what she calls a “syntactical detective process” — “a process of ‘filling in the blanks’ to construct a whole (p. 31) reading” (32). This detective process, I think, is at times dependent on Cooper’s passive voice.
Cooper makes his characters somewhat scarce but he animates the canoes they affect with their actions so that readers can triangulate those characters’ location: “The motion of the canoe had been attended with little, or no noise, the frontier-men from habit getting accustomed to caution in most of their movements, and it now lay on the glassy water, appearing to float in air, partaking of the breathing stillness that seemed to pervade the entire scene” (Deerslayer 56). Not only is the passive voice present here in the canoe’s not being accompanied by noise (“with” works to fill the place of the preposition “by” that normally marks the passive voice), but there is a passivity to this syntax that foregrounds the canoe, or more specifically its motion, as the subject. As a result, the abstract “frontier-men” find themselves sandwiched syntactically. The reader must conjecture that not the canoe but the paddlers are enjoying the peaceful lake. Cooper makes a sculptural gesture in tracing the movements of the men in order to arrive at them from their actions, rather than placing them at the fore. This is an example of what Tim Armstrong calls “a literal re-membering” (136) of a sculptural remnant. The scene inverts syntactical and physical space, encouraging the reader to extrapolate from the synecdochical movements of the canoe, in order to derive a sense of Deerslayer’s admiration for the Glimmerglass.
Further, the passive voice makes possible Cooper’s “imagining rather than relating” (Deerslayer 355) Hutter’s scalping:
The reader must imagine the horror that daughters would experience, at unexpectedly beholding the shocking spectacle that was placed before the eyes of Judith and Esther. ... We shall pass over the first emotions ... and proceed with the narrative, by imagining rather than relating most of the revolting features of the scene. The mutilated and ragged head was bound up, the unseemly blood was wiped from the face of the sufferer, the other appliances required by appearances and care were resorted to. ... (355)
The spectacle “was placed,” the head — and notice how Cooper doesn’t label it as Hutter’s head, it’s just the head — “was bound,” appliances “were resorted to,” and, later, “[w]ater was brought and administered to the sufferer” (356). All of these passive constructions may be to pander to reader delicacy, to protect the reader by removing the principal actors from the scene. Judith is not given possession of her actions nor is the “mutilated and ragged head” grammatically or viscerally Hutter’s (355). The passive voice is often ambiguous, agentless, and apathetic. It does (p. 33) credit to Cooper’s craftsmanship then that we readers do feel terror, and, unexpectedly, tenderness, even though the horror doesn’t grammatically touch the characters themselves.
This partial “imagining” rather than complete “relating,” as the narrator says at the beginning of the novel, does “convey a tolerably correct notion of the whole” despite its eclipsing of actors (16). In the end, Hutter isn’t even called by name. He is only called “the sufferer” as though he were a prototypical “soul surprised by death,” thereby continuing the passive prose (356). Smith says of Hutter’s post-scalping stuttering: “Lacking proper nouns, that story seems to the reader a timelessly applicable narrative, with peculiar resonances for the dying Hutter’s present situation” (33). This “lacking” is a productive negation that gives Hutter not only a “tolerably” complete death scene, but also makes him a sculptural study of death with “that anxious and distended gaze” (356). Cooper’s passive voice excels in erasing characters in order, it would seem contradictorily, to better carve out their characteristics.
Nathalia Wright has documented Cooper’s commissioning of a sculpture from Horatio Greenough that rendered a portion of Raphael’s The Madonna del Baldacchino into sculpture. When Greenough winced under an implication that it was possibly plagiarism to copy the painting, Cooper countered in Greenough’s defense that the backs of the figures were “entirely original” (180). In Cooper’s use of the word “entirely” I hear an echo of the process of the passive voice: a process that lops off the agent in the sentence and yet lets us fill in the missing portion as a student of sculpture fills in the relic in study, or, in Greenough’s case, the backs of one-dimensional cherubs. The passive voice all too often perpetrates vacuous, yet pompous, prose. But in Cooper’s hands, or thumbs rather, the passive voice sculpts synecdochical slabs into intact entireties of action and character.
- Armstrong, Tim. The Logic of Slavery: Debt, Technology, and Pain in American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Ashley, Leonard R.N. “The Onomastics of Cooper’s Verbal Art in The Deerslayer and Elsewhere.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art; Papers from the 1980 Cooper Seminar. Ed. George A. Test. Oneonta: SUNY Oneonta, 1980. 40-51.
- Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
- Cooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer or, The First War-Path. 1841. Albany: SUNY Press, 1987.
- ------. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. 1826. Albany: SUNY Press, 1983.
- Norwood, Lisa West. “Fragments, Ruins and Artifacts of the Past: The Reconstruction of Reading in The Deerslayer.” James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 18 (August 2003): 3-7.
- Rust, Richard Dilworth. “Historical Introduction.” The Pathfinder: or the Inland Sea by James Fenimore Cooper. 1840. Albany: SUNY Press, 1981. xv-xxvi.
- Smith, Gail K. “Relics and Repetitions in The Deerslayer.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art; Papers from the 1993 Cooper Seminar. Ed. James D Wallace. Oneonta: SUNY Oneonta, 1993. 28-36. James Fenimore Cooper Society Website. May 19, 2017.
- Thain, Marion. “Affective Form: Hardy’s Poetry and a Sculptural Aesthetic.” Thomas Hardy Journal 30 (Autumn 2014): 66-82.
- Twain, Mark. “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” Nineteenth-Century American Writers on Writing. Ed. Brenda Wineapple. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2010. 195-198.
- Wright, Nathalia. “Chanting Cherubs: Horatio Greenough’s Marble Group for James Fenimore Cooper.” New York History 38.2 (April 1957): 177-197.