Introduction [James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal]

Howard Mumford Jones * (Harvard University)

Published as New York History, Vol. 35, No. 4 (October, 1954), pp. 369-373 (Special Issue — James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal).

Papers from the 1951 James Fenimore Cooper Conference, Cooperstown, New York.

Copyright © 1954, New York State Historical Association.

Placed online with the kind permission of the New York State Historical Association.

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

The papers that make up this volume are unique at least in one respect, and that is their provenance. Two historical societies and a folklore association put aside all other scholarly interest to concentrate for three days upon the work of an imaginative writer, and at that, upon a writer not presently influencing style or subject matter in books for mature readers, upon a novelist now more or less tacitly relegated by the unthinking to the books-for-boys category. That Cooper was not merely (like Mayne Reid or Captain Marryat) a books-for-boys writer is patent to anybody who will read him sympathetically, but the legend persists. If the legend is to be corrected, it can be corrected only by bringing historical knowledge to bear upon his life and achievement, and this, precisely, is what the following papers successfully do.

The recording of the penultimate panel discussion of Cooper proved to be, because of mechanical difficulties, somewhat less than adequate. The spirited discussion by members of the panel — that is, by all the scholars giving papers — was valuable in itself, valuable as an illustration of the stimulus of cross-disciplinary discussion, and valuable as a prophecy of that reinterpretation of the novelist which is long over-due. I shall try to extract from the transcript of the tape recording so many of my observations as chairman of the panel as I can, condense and rearrange them, and present them here so that the reader may have some foretaste of the riches that lie before him.

The scholarly survey of the impact of Cooper upon foreign literatures to which Professor Willard Thorp brings a wide range of knowledge and a wide curiosity, ought to convict us of neglecting a great figure so far as we have neglected him. What are some of the elements that make Cooper the international figure he became, or, for that matter, the national figure honored by the Cooperstown meetings? Let us begin with his family. In a paper that is a model of local history Mr. Butterfield explicates the settlement of Otsego County and discusses the utopia planned by the Reverend Mr. Hartwick. He notes that Judge Cooper’s arrival in the county was a perfect piece of historical timing and observes, significantly enough, that by 1850 the founding fathers had of course disappeared. By the time Cooper commenced writing novels the past was covered by a golden haze, and in this golden haze it seemed to the son that an intelligent paternalism had produced in miniature the almost perfect state of his father’s holdings, guided, I may add, by Christian principles. We are only beginning to realize what Christianity meant to James Fenimore Cooper.

Mr. David Ellis’s paper on the land systems of New York State concludes, so to speak, the real-estate aspect of the general problem. He testifies to the general accuracy of Cooper’s anti-rent novels, at least from the conservative point of view, and, what is more, by stressing the truth that Judge Cooper prospered where others went bankrupt, he leads us to a better understanding of the novelist’s attitude toward land and toward society. When one realizes that about one-half of Cooper’s novels turn in some fashion upon the acquisition, ownership, management, or loss of a landed estate, one sees how these two papers increase our apprehension of what Cooper is writing about.

However, a novelist is not an historian. Cooper as an Indian expert is more than a little to seek, as Professor Paul Wallace shows. Whatever the moral strength of the Leatherstocking Tales, they are not accurate as history, as anthropology, or as a transcript of Indian life. Where, then, did Cooper get his information? Mr. Arthur C. Parker helps us to find out. The novelist drew upon the sources easily and immediately available — books about Indians (books so inaccurate or sentimental that they enrage the modern anthropologist); local legend; casual acquaintance with very casual Indians; and a fictional formula. Cooper might have done better — he probably should have done better — but the impartial Mr. Parker reminds us that Cooper’s imagination, bounded though it was by the predilections of his generation, nevertheless stamped his legends, however synthetic, into the soil of his native country.

Cooper, however, was not a mere Indian novelist. He caught up folk figures, folk language, and folk tradition. In his essay upon the folk culture in Cooper’s novels Mr. Warren S. Walker shows how Cooper (like, for that matter, Shakespeare) was content to employ canonical material — the comic Irishman, the Indian killer, the old salt, the comic Yankee, the elusive sailing vessel, Negro lore, dialect, and popular proverbial wisdom. The leads Mr. Walker finds for us are unexpectedly rich, and provide a mild correction to Mr. Parker’s picture of Cooper as an armchair writer.

Mr. James Beard deals more directly with the novelist as artist than does anybody else. His study of Cooper’s interest in art and painters reminds the scholar of something the scholar is perpetually overlooking: books do not grow out of books, but out of contact with life, people, and the other arts. Mr. Beard tells us that romantic writing was not only engaged in exploiting the picturesque, but also that landscape (as in Humboldt’s Cosmos) was sometimes as much an instrument of cosmic philosophy as was science or metaphysics. And while we are on the subject of Cooper as an author we must not overlook the field in which he did useful work as a historian — the field of naval history. Mr. Walter M. Whitehill’s survey of Cooper’s achievement in this area is the work of a specialist who is also a clear writer.

Professor Robert E. Spiller reviews the history of Cooper scholarship. Latterly there is a shift in interest, but in previous decades Cooper has principally been studied as a social critic. Mr. Spiller’s essays is not only a calm appraisement of a phase of Cooper, it also suggest new modes of approaching that genius, and is a bridge from one phase of scholarship to another.

Two papers deal with Cooper’s achievements outside the realm of imagination. Mr. James Grossman, ablest of contemporary biographers of Cooper, re-examines the frayed problem of Cooper’s libel suits and comes up with sound, yet novel, conclusions about their historical significance in regard to the freedom of the press and the responsibility of government and of populace. As the months go by, his paper loses nothing of its cogency in an era wherein government sends up trial balloons as a means of testing opinion, and government officials then scold an “irresponsible press” for the results of “leakage.”

Unique among American scholars, the historian of writing as a professional career, Professor William Charvat emphasizes another aspect of Cooper’s crowded life — the significance of his career as a professional author. This is of immense significance for writing, publishing, and book-selling in the United States, it affected the form and structure of his novels, and it has left us a legacy by which we are both benefited and baffled as we struggle with book contracts, rental libraries, book-of-the-month clubs, paper editions, and propaganda for an increase of the reading habit in a world of radio and television.

Have these papers any general cultural significance other than their excellence as monographs? I think they have. There exists a school of literary criticism which, in its extreme form, holds that historical information is superfluous or even misleading in the case of literary works of lasting significance. Anyone who has ever consulted the definitive editions of Latin classics which gather dust upon library shelves and in which three or four lines of text float on a Sargasso sea of footnotes spreading its dull surface over the rest of the page can sympathize with this point of view. Certainly there is a valid sense — a very human sense — in which not merely what the author says, but what the author says to us today is more important than what commentators, however well informed, say that he says or say that he ought to say to us. This point of view has its legitimate triumph. For example, two of the best critical essays on Cooper I have ever read — one by William C. Brownell in his forgotten masterpiece, American Prose Masters, and one by Yvor Winters in Maule’s Curse — do not depend, except in minor degree, upon historical information.

But the theory has the defects of its virtues, and what has happened to Cooper illustrates the defects. He is reduced to the juvenile library largely because his readers are innocent of any real information about what he was trying to do in his voluminous and varied work. We cannot, however, find out what he was really trying to do until we study history. History is not everything, but in the case of these papers history illumines art. Historical scholarship brought to bear upon this library of fiction and upon its writer reveals a variety of mature ideas, a complexity of values and problems that leave The Last of the Mohicans as commonly interpreted far in the rear. Historical scholarship is the principal hope for a revaluation of one of our greatest men of letters in the light of his times and of his inheritance; it permits us to understand the qualities and defects of his style, his plots, his characters, his ideas as they are not understood by readers swallowed up in modernity; it permits us to see the richness of his themes, the method of his descriptive writing, the nature of his philosophy and of his religion as these important components of his work are not now understood. For these reasons the papers delivered at the Cooperstown meeting in memory of James Fenimore Cooper are more than a dutiful collection of monographs, they put into the hands of the literary historian, the literary critic, and the reader who is not frightened by modes of writing at the moment unfashionable, new ways of properly appraising a neglected American genius.

* Dr. Jones has been professor of English at Harvard University since 1936 and was formerly Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at that institution. He is the author of numerous works on American letters, including studies of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, Moses Colt Tyler, The Theory of American Literature, and Major American Writers.