Second Thoughts on Cooper as a Social Critic

Robert E. Spiller * (University of Pennsylvania)

Published as New York History, Vol. 35, No. 4 (October, 1954), pp. 540-557 (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.]

FIFTEEN years ago I promised myself that I would never write another word about James Fenimore Cooper. He and I had maintained an uneasy intimacy for a decade or more and we were wearing each other down. Living with the master of Otsego Hall must never have been a very relaxing experience; and I had specialized in reexamining his quarrels. My admiration for him as man and writer had risen constantly with the years, but I wished by then — this was in 1936 — to move on to further if no greener fields.

He agreed, as we both felt that my view of his work, however friendly, was somewhat restricted; and he was happy to turn the management of his reputation over to younger scholars. But the centenary of the death of this great romancer stirred my conscience. Here was my chance to satisfy another and quite contradictory promise to myself — the promise that someday I would review my thought on Cooper and try again to solve a problem that I had left unsolved — namely the relationship of his theory and practice of romance to his intense concern for social criticism. My generation had stated the problem more precisely than had Cooper’s contemporaries and his first biographers and critics; but we had not solved it. Perhaps my impatience with Cooper in the middle thirties was in part caused, not by his recalcitrance, but by my own feeling of inadequacy. The more intensively I explored his criticism of America, of society at large, of life itself, the more hopeless I became of arriving at a formula which would resolve the critical dilemma.

But now I could do what he could not — except in spirit — I could return to the problem after an interval of absorption in other matters. Cooper couldn’t escape from himself, but I had succeeded in escaping from him. In those fifteen years I had grown older and American literary scholarship had matured. Further exploratory research on Cooper had been done by others. A restatement and review of the case might bring results now which would have been impossible before even though the corrosive action of time on the memory might rob me of the knowledge of detail that I once had. In fifteen years one could forget a good deal.

When I began to work with Cooper in the early twenties, the two volumes of his correspondence had just been published and there were three biographies in addition to Bryant’s “Memoir”: an illustrated sketch by Mary E. Phillips, an excellent short one by W. B. Shubrick Clymer, and the classic American Men of Letters life by Thomas R. Lounsbury. To the last we owed, and still owe, most of our fundamental concepts of the author of The Last of the Mohicans, as well as of the master of Three Mile Point — not always the same person. It is a sane, scholarly, well-informed, but largely and admittedly unsympathetic view. The closing or destruction of his personal records by the death-bed wish of the author had not only limited the sources available, but had irritated the biographer to the point where he was in no happy mood about his task. At the same time that he gives us a just analysis of all of Cooper’s works and speaks of the author as a manly upholder of principle, he so emphasizes Cooper’s prejudices and irritability by repeated apologies for these traits that the final impression is one of a writer whose great gift of narrative was sadly damaged by his addiction to ideas. “Nature,” says Mr. Lounsbury, “he could depict, and the wild life led in it, so that all men stood ready and eager to gaze on the pictures he drew. He chose too often to inflict on them, instead of it, the most commonplace of moralizing, the stalest disquisitions upon manners and customs, and the driest discussions of politics and theology.” 1 So the biographer’s own prejudices and irritability are excited to statements as narrow as Cooper’s at the worst.

The injury done by this authoritative biography stems from its perpetuation of the contemporary notion that Cooper’s system of political and moral ideas intruded upon his art as a novelist and destroyed an otherwise great talent. This is the genteel perversion of the sound romantic theory that the primary aim of literature is to give pleasure, a view which in the last years of the nineteenth century withheld recognition from Whitman and Melville, distorted our pictures of Poe, Hawthorne, and Emerson, and exalted Longfellow and Irving to absurd heights of adulation. When the time came — in the later 1920’s and early 1930’s — for a general reversal of our classic literary judgments, Cooper also came in for reconsideration. Perhaps it was his good fortune that his reputation was then at a low ebb. Instead of a debunking of idolatry, the new biographical and critical studies set about systematically to restore a damaged reputation. Henry W. Boynton explored Cooper’s personal life from the few remaining family documents which the novelist’s grandson now was giving to the public, emphasizing the strength and sweetness of character that Lounsbury so often mentioned without conviction. But the rest of us concentrated on the more difficult task of discovering intellectual and aesthetic values in his system of ideas and in its form of expression. Vernon L. Parrington, Marcel Clavel, Dorothy Waples, Ethel R. Outland, John F. Ross and I suddenly realized that we were working on essentially the same job: the analysis of Cooper’s social criticism, and an attempt to discover an organic connection between his ideas and his romantic narrative.

The problem thus proposed could have been treated either in general terms or with reference to the specific case, for its implications extend far beyond the mere body of Cooper’s thirty-two romances. There is the larger question as to whether the romance, as developed by Scott, Dumas, Hugo, Cooper, and others of that day, is by its nature antipathetic to the concept of art as a means of commenting upon life. Is it inevitably and always an escape from life, a mere instrument of entertainment? Certainly throughout its history it has been used, especially by lesser writers, for the creation of thrills and horrors far more than for bridging the meaning of the past to the meaning of the present; but the greater romancers, from Shakespeare to Thomas Mann and William Faulkner, have taken it as perhaps the most versatile and effective form for serious fiction. Hawthorne, Melville, George Eliot, and Tolstoi cry out against the idea that romance and triviality are in any way synonymous. Cooper always claimed, as a writer of romance, the right to “a poetical view of the subject,” 3 [sic] at the same time that he argued that the only distinctive trait that could be expected of American literature is “that which is connected with the promulgation of their distinctive political opinions.” Part of the “poetical view” 4 was the right to be faithful to ideas rather than limited to facts. Cooper’s attempt to use romance as it had been developed in his day to contain his whole reading of life challenged critical intelligence on the highest level.

My own work with Cooper never aspired to such heights; instead it attempted a more circumstantial consideration of the problem. I asked, and I now ask again: Were his social and moral ideas, as Lounsbury seemed to believe, merely narrow prejudices which interfered with a richer form of narrative art? Or had they validity both in themselves and as an organic and necessary component of that art?

The first task was obviously to reexamine Cooper’s system of ideas without reference to his art of romance. The formula as it presented itself to us in the early twenties was a simple one. James Fenimore Cooper was recognized as “the American Scott” (however much he might protest the implications), the writer of romance, the literary discoverer of the American wilderness, the first seaman-novelist to keep his ropes and sails as well as his tenses straight, the first American novelist to undertake the task of creating a “usable past” for American literature. But he was also, in his own view, a commentator on the American way of life and the principles of democracy, and his romances were often merely a means of conveying his views on the political and social evils of his day. Should we continue to apologize for him in the second role? By a series of coincidences, some more subtle agency in human affairs, a half dozen of us suddenly shouted, “No!” at the same time — after criticism had remained virtually silent on the point for almost half a century.

There are times in the affairs of men when ignorance has its uses. My special qualification for this task of reexamining the neglected side of Cooper’s work was the fact that his social criticism was the only part of his work that I knew. I probably had read The Last of the Mohicans as a boy, but I had no interest whatsoever in Indians or wilderness scouts or crackling twigs when in 1922 I first discovered Cooper. I came to the study, so to speak, by the back door. I was not concerned with Cooper; I was concerned with social criticism. And I discovered that, whatever his excellences as a writer of romance, he was the leading literary critic of American society prior to Thoreau and Whitman. It was not long before I also discovered that this was the way Cooper had, at least in his own opinion, undertaken his career as a writer. From Precaution in 1820 to The Ways of the Hour in 1850 he thought of himself as a critic and reformer of the ways of men. His first concern was with the moral duty of parents, and his last preface begins: “The object of this book is to draw the attention of the reader to some of the social evils that beset us.”

An author’s own judgment of his work may not be the best index to its value, but it is always a factor in determining that value. An author may succeed or fail either because of or in spite of his intention, but without that intention, the work would be something quite different from what it actually turned out to be. Unfashionable as the historical method may be at this time, it seemed to me in 1922 — and it still seems to me — important to consider an author’s plan and purpose as the starting point for critical analysis. And Cooper’s primary conscious purpose was always that of the social critic, an intention but vaguely realized in his early novels but becoming consistently stronger and clearer as he studied his own work and developed his methods.

My first attempt at appraising this side of Cooper’s work came in a brief chapter in The American in England (1926), a study in the growth of American cultural independence, as seen by American travelers. I had not thought Cooper important to this study when I first made up my list of names to be included. Irving, Willis, and the official envoys were of course the important travelers, but there were, it appeared, some travel books on the Cooper list which Lounsbury had grudgingly called, “the best of their kind.” 5 An effort to obtain copies of these works testified to their rarity; a reading of them confirmed Lounsbury’s impression of their vigor. Cooper forced himself into the position of climax in my story. The appearance of his five books of travel (1836-1838) was simultaneous with and confirmatory of Emerson’s plea for the cultural independence of the American Scholar (1837). Here was the American “Man Thinking”; and his struggle to discover a meaningful relationship between literary expression and American life was the epitome of the birth-struggle of a national culture. Because of Cooper, my book suddenly became something pore than a review of travel writings of a given time and place. He made me re-shape and completely rewrite a nearly finished book-length manuscript.

The rest of my Cooper story is very much like his own. Just as he was drawn further and further into the writing of fiction almost against his will by a series of challenges, so I was drawn to him by the opening up of one problem or question after another. Once the value of the Sketches and Gleanings was established, it was obvious that their scarcity should be corrected, and new editions were called for. Examination of the circumstances of original publication of these works led to the astounding discovery that no one knew why Cooper’s novels were usually issued in England prior to their American appearance. A study of international copyright conditions followed, with the establishment of a formula that goes far toward explaining the practical difficulties in an American writer’s career during these formative years of our literature. 2 [sic] And the intimate knowledge that I had thus gained of the seven central and formative years, 1827-1839, challenged me to broaden my perspective, to study the early and the late novels, and to produce works of over-all bibliography and criticism for which biography supplied a convenient pattern. The reprinting of a couple of minor works and the inevitable anthologizing followed as the excitement of the chase led me further and further into territory where I continued to think of myself only as a pioneer and never as a colonizer. But in 1936, with my special job of resurveying done in a half dozen different ways, I felt that it was time to turn Cooper over to others who could bring to him more of the old and primary spirit of romantic adventure that my work with him might have tended to obscure.

In spite of my emphasis on social criticism, I have tried through all of this work never to reduce Cooper to the role of social critic at a sacrifice of appreciation of his gift for romantic narrative. His social criticism is a part — perhaps the most important part — of the material of which his stories are made, but they are still stories. The two elements in his art enhance each other. His moral, religious, economic, and political ideas furnish the equipment of a writer of fiction rather than of a preacher, statesman, journalist, or politician. Literary ideas need not add up to a final and consistent position on any one problem because they are parts of human experience and human experience is always fluent. We sometimes try too hard to pin our writers down to intellectual systems; we should try more earnestly to study their ideas as controlling elements in their art.

Nevertheless I was worried by my own failure to relate him in any significant way to the political wars between Jackson and the Whigs, to the economic theories of Malthus, Ricardo, and Adam Smith, and to the breakdown of Puritanism or the position of the Anglican Church in the colonies. Against such specific correlations I revolted instinctively, even though my conscience was not altogether easy. I see now that my primary concern was that of the literary rather than the social historian. I was interested in discovering the relationship of Cooper’s work to the domestic novel of manners and morals, to the novel of political and social purpose, to the Gothic and historical romance, as they flourished in the literature of England and of Europe in his day; and I was even more interested in figuring out just how and just how well he had succeeded in defining and expressing the distinctively American body of facts and opinions which, according to his own theory, alone could make his work original and native. Miss Waples tried to be charitable when she charged me with dismissing very lightly the whole — matter of politics and being “as anxious as other critics to ignore that subject as if for Cooper’s sake.” 6 Her own work did that job much better than mine, for I was always inclined to relate him more to the instincts of the Federalist squire that was his father than to the battles of the Democratic and Whig parties of his own day because he accepted the terms of non-existent Federalism much more deeply and emotionally than he could the political partisanship of his own times. The correlation was psychological rather than consciously intellectual. Similarly I tried to relate his economic ideas more precisely to general economic theory and history by inviting an economist to collaborate with me on a new edition of Satanstoe, only to find that he had studied enough literature to realize that Cooper’s economic ideas were not precise and that the fact of their vagueness did not seriously injure their use in his novel. After all, Corny Littlepage was a gentleman of taste and action, not a scholar, and to have pictured him studying Adam Smith rather than the rules of surveying would have been a falsification of fictional truth.

My final case rested, therefore, on such proofs as I could gather that Cooper’s general ideas about men and society were important to his own intentions and methods as a novelist; and that his novels were far more important than they otherwise would have been as a result of the serious and critical interest their author had in the life of his own times. I failed — more or less deliberately — to sort out and organize any single body of those general ideas apart from their share in his equipment as an artist; and I failed — even more seriously, but more excusably too because Cooper also failed in this — I failed to show that his general ideas operated within his fictional method to help or hinder his art. It is this second failure rather than the first that makes me willing at this late date to come back to Cooper and raise the old questions about him again. Perhaps I am foolish to hope that some future Cooper scholar may come closer to success than have the scholars of the past.

The first two volumes of Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought appeared the year after my American in England and was the chief incentive to my further work with Cooper. His challenge was sufficiently thrilling to a beginning scholar who had already opened up the trail. “No other major writer, unless it be Whitman, has been so misunderstood,” he wrote. 7 “That America has been so tardy in coming to know him as a man and a democrat, as well as a romancer, is a reflection upon its critical acumen.” 8 Here was my laying on of hands by an elder scholar, and I took it in that spirit.

The fine mixture of economic and political theory of which the Jeffersonian Parrington was master gave his brief essay an authority which none of the full-length books on Cooper that soon appeared would command. But his book was not a history of American literature as its author believed it to be, and the weakness in his interpretation of such writers as Poe and Emily Dickinson, where specific social content is almost non-existent, is also apparent in his interpretations of writers like Cooper and Whitman, where social content is central if not paramount. His essay on Cooper was a vigorous and needed correction of both the genteel critical perversions of Lowell and Lounsbury and the non-critical acceptance of the general reader of the day; but it did not go far enough to help with a new understanding of his art, Rather it prepared his novels for use as social documentation by the social and cultural historians from Dixon Ryan Fox to the present.

Two other books on Cooper as social critic appeared within the following decade. Both made their contribution to the subject by doing what I had hesitated to do. Both developed theses as to what Cooper’s position on the political issues of his day might have been and both assumed or stated that his primary importance lay in his defense of a political position. Mr. Ross 9 opens his monograph with the statement, “James Fenimore Cooper, ‘one of the great romancers of the world,’ [quoting Brownell], was not primarily a romancer, but a purposeful critic of American civilization.” For Mr. Ross, Cooper represented “individualism thwarted by conflict with the herd,” 10 and served as a useful prophet of the degeneration of twentieth century society at a time when young followers of H. L. Mencken were imitating his braying tactics. It is a comment on the young Mr. Ross and his times rather than on Cooper and his.

Miss Waples is to be taken more seriously. Building upon the earlier monograph of Ethel Outland, 11 she analyses the political context in which Cooper found himself between 1833 and 1851, and reaches the valid conclusion that because Cooper’s legal battles were prompted by his Whig detractors they were of specific political significance. She then carries her argument one step further and concludes, I think without evidence, that Cooper was therefore a partisan Jacksonian Democrat. We must put her statement over against Cooper’s to appreciate the positive misuse she has made of negative evidence. She says, “Comparing Cooper’s publications and his letters with the network of intrigues which politicians were weaving in the state, we can discern in Cooper’s remarks a pattern of conscious adherence to such Democratic party as there was.” 12 Cooper, on the other hand, declares his non-partisanship: “Party is the most potent despot of the times. Its very irresponsibility gives it an energy and a weight that overshadows the regular action of government.” 13

None of these critics realized that Cooper was merely doing what any thoughtful historical novelist must do: he was attempting to recapture his own past and to establish a critical relationship between himself as artist and the material, past and present, of his art. In so far as they supply insight into one half of the equation — i.e., the facts of Cooper’s political thinking and associations — , they contribute to our understanding; but in so far as they warp the artist out of his orbit and point to his political actions and conclusions as ultimate values in themselves, they befog the issue more than they clear it.

Only two other books of importance on Fenimore Cooper appeared during the period of my own active work, both of them by the same man, a French scholar to whom I owe a lasting debt of gratitude for his generous aid, especially while I was working on the bibliography of foreign editions. Marcel Clavel’s biography of the young Cooper — up to 1826 — and his study of contemporary foreign criticism of all of his novels are each standard in its field, 14 but neither is immediately relevant to my present inquiry.

There was a lapse in publication of books about Cooper between this date, 1938, and 1949 when Mr. Grossman’s biography appeared; but this lapse is not reflected in the publication of articles. Once the Cooper revival might be said to be established — about 1928 — there were each year in learned and popular journals an average of three articles about Cooper or about some subject closely related to him. The total of such articles between 1920 and 1945, the period covered by the Leary list, 15 is sixty-seven, as compared with almost exactly the same number for Irving, a few less for Bryant, 138 for Melville, 177 for Emerson, and 381 for Poe, The period 1946-1951 shows a swing from Poe and Emerson to Melville and Henry James, but Cooper’s average does not change greatly. This evidence seems to indicate a revival of interest in Cooper — principally in his social ideas — between 1926 and 1936 which had sufficient momentum to continue but not to advance it for another decade or so. Interest in other American authors, notably in Melville, Thoreau, James, and Twain, shot forward in the forties, but that in Cooper, Irving, and the earlier group seems so far to have been static or retrogressive.

A dozen of the Cooper articles on the Leary list appeared in the journal American Literature, four in New York History, and only one in the Publications of the Modern Language Association (a deficiency which was somewhat corrected after 1945). Many of these articles are, however, brief bibliographical or biographical notes or single unpublished letters in such journals as Modern Language Notes, Publishers’ Weekly, Notes and Queries, and Colophon. Several of them are French or German; a half dozen are of local interest through Cooper association. Single articles of more general critical interest appeared in Saturday Review of Literature, Yale Review, and American Mercury.

An assessment of the value of these articles is a somewhat depressing experience. Trivia is the word to describe most of them. Among the subjects discussed are the Bread and Cheese Club, Cooper’s Naval career (fit subject for the careful study it is now beginning to get), his visits to Michigan, Long Island, Italy, and France, his association with Scott, Lafayette, and others, the discovery of his one play, “Upside Down,” and further historical information on upper New York State politics, particularly the Anti-Rent War, and biographical information about his daughter Susan. Articles by the social historians in general carry more weight than do those by the literary historians, but neither group really comes to grips with any of the central critical problems suggested by the novels themselves the specifically critical prose.

The classic type of article on literary sources and influences shows slightly more encouraging results. Recently scholars have begun to take up the hint provided by Thomas R. Palfrey in his article on “Cooper and Balzac”, 16 and by Dorothy Dondore in her piece on Satanstoe, 17 that Cooper’s material was, in appreciable part, supplied by his reading, and that he was an avid reader of travels and treatises as well as of the novels published in his day and of the Bible and Shakespeare. We have long known that such novels as Lionel Lincoln, The Bravo, and The Spy were the products of genuine research, but the destruction of the personal diaries and many of the letters and books has obscured the facts of his reading and study to an extent that is not true of Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Emerson, for whom such sources are extant. Fortunately, Mr. James Beard has already shown by collecting many new letters that at least some of these sources are merely hidden and were not destroyed. H. H. Scudder, W. B. Gates, and others have made special source studies of Precaution, The Crater, The Sea Lions, and several other novels and have demonstrated that internal evidence alone is often enough to establish sources and demonstrate reading and study habits. More extensive studies of this nature (for example, the influence of Shakespeare on Cooper’s plots, themes, characters, and general ideas) are in process, but much is still to be done.

The existence of such studies is not so surprising as is the long time it took to produce them, even in the hey-day of the source-hunting method in American literary scholarship. Yet it is obvious that such stories as Mercedes of Castile, The Two Admirals, The Crater, The Monikins, and The Ways of the Hour must have specific sources. The influence of Scott too has been generally recognized but never closely examined, probably because of Cooper’s own horror of the idea; but Cooper was troubled by the idea of a confusion of his democratic political ideas with the feudal world of Scott and not necessarily by the possibility of a literary influence. Palfrey’s suggestion of a possible direct influence from Balzac has not been followed up, nor until very recently has Cooper’s debt to contemporary treatises like that of Henry Carey on economics or to Cook, Wilkes and other travel narratives been determined. It is apparent that the influence of his reading began with Precaution and continued straight down the thirty-two volumes of his romances. The rule works the other way too, for no one would protest the evidence of influence of Cooper on Simms, Kennedy, Bird and other writers of American backwoods romances as well as on other writers of Germany, France, and throughout the world. There are enough subjects of this kind to keep graduate students busy for a decade.

But after all the returns are in, will the problem with which I began my remarks and began my work on Cooper be solved at last? I think not. We will still be asking questions about his fundamental ideas and about his use of those ideas to create works of romantic art.

It is in this spirit that Mr. Grossman reopened the Cooper case two years ago with his remarkably satisfactory biography, a warmly appreciative study of the man and a thorough and discriminating explication of his work. Doctors and lawyers are often the best literary critics because, to judge literature fairly, one must have a rich knowledge of humanity in its weakness and in its strength. Mr. Grossman is the first critic to realize fully that Cooper’s work was a quest for “a wholly adequate symbol in which to concentrate his tragic vision.” 18 He found no Dynamo and no Whale, but his intention was none the less noble for its failure.

I would like to conclude these scattered remarks by calling all the younger Cooper scholars to take up the lines of thought that Mr. Grossman has suggested. To come nearer to its solution than we of my generation did, these scholars will have to use some of the newer methods of critical and historical study that have developed since 1925; for example, the methods of Parrington and Lovejoy in the history of ideas and the methods of Richards and of Lowes in the analysis of the psychology of the creative process. Because we know more about society and the ways of humans in group action than we once did, we can now better tackle problems in the history of literary ideas, whether in the sociological method of Parrington or the concept method of Lovejoy. Because we know more about the functioning of the human mind than we once did, we can now better tackle problems related to the work of art itself and its creation, whether in terms of the method of psychological analysis of process of Lowes or of the semantic analysis of the work of art itself of Richards.

I note that in recent lists of topics of work in progress dissertations have been announced or completed on “James Fenimore Cooper: Craftsman of Democratic Fiction” and in “The Moral, Social, Political, and Economic Ideas Underlying Cooper’s Attitude toward America.” There are hints in the phrasing of both of these topics that these scholars are attacking the old problems in new ways.

The analysis of Cooper’s ideas must sort out the chaff from the wheat by distinguishing the different levels of value in them. First, there is the level of custom, fashion, manners, and etiquette. Because of his provincialism and his sensitivity as an American criticized by British travelers for social deficiencies, Cooper was over-expressive in these matters and intrudes discussion of them into his stories. This fault is especially manifest in stories where he is deliberately attempting the novel of manners, such as Precaution, Home as Found, and Satanstoe. It is responsible for the charge of snobbery in his own day and it has long interfered with just critical appraisal of his work. It is the costume part of a costume novel, of interest to the antiquarian and to the social and cultural historian, often in ways that Cooper himself did not anticipate. Where implicit in the story, it is an essential part of the fictional properties; where explicit as part of author’s comment on his work, it seems to us today to be tactless and clumsy, even though the habit of author intrusion was common in Thackeray and other nineteenth century novelists.

The next level is the body of moral, religious, economic, and political assumptions which formed the intellectual environment in which the boy Cooper grew up and which he could alter but never could totally reject. Here we find the doctrinal body of the Anglican Church, the Federalist political philosophy of Squire William and the laissez-faire economic doctrines of the philosopher-statesmen of the first republic.

Next we have the context of ideas of his own day, the Jacksonian and pre-Civil War period in our history, a confused and uneven time which we are only now coming to understand more accurately with the aid of such creative historians as Roy Nichols, Paul Buck, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. This is the territory into which Miss Waples and Miss Outland ventured, a territory which has not even yet been sufficiently charted to save the amateur historian from the perils of quick sand.

Finally, we have, in the Lovejoy sense, the intellectual concepts which serve as constants in Cooper’s mind, which recur and develop in his work, and which can be correlated with such constants in the American mind and with the human mind in the broader phases of its modern development. This is the ultimate form of Cooper study in so far as the history of ideas is concerned, a form to be regarded respectfully by the unseasoned scholar. Sooner or later, however, such complete Cooper concepts as the Democratic American Gentleman, the Noble Indian, and the Wilderness Garden must be sorted out and defined as constants in his work, by which he may be accurately related to the history of ideas. Some progress has been made in developing this method by Constance Rourke and Henry Nash Smith who seek the fundamental folk and myth-making elements in Cooper’s work as contributions to the creation of the American myth. 19 Difficult and tricky as this kind of scholarship is, it holds an exciting promise of enrichment of our understanding as literary historians.

The real Cooper job, however, is only just begun when the myth content of his work is thus more adequately defined. The problem still remains: How, in what stages, and to what extent was this content converted to the purposes of art? The one basic principle of which we can be sure here is that of free experimentation. Cooper was an insatiable experimenter with methods but he was constant in his aim. He knew — and no other American writer of his day approached him in the keenness of his awareness — that American literature had to be different in aim and method from the literature of the Old World because it was dealing with a new human experience. He also knew that original literary forms and modes could not be created on demand, that they would have to develop from the experimental application of the old ways of expression to the new material. His failure to evolve a literary methodology is token of his success as a pioneer, and he still has companions in his failure to solve the technical problem. Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck were still experimenting in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the problem of reducing comment on a contemporary society to the terms of fictional art. May the problem remain forever unsolved, and the creative effort always a vital and experimental process! But in comparing Cooper to modern writers of romantic fiction, we should recognize that his emphasis on social commentary rather than on mere entertainment would put him more in a class with such writers as William Faulkner than with such writers as Kenneth Roberts. His very failure at a synthesis of the narrative elements of his stories with his unflinching critical examination of human social and personal conduct in his times speaks the ambitious scope of his creative mind. The Crater is more daring as an experiment in fusing adventure with life than is The Monikins, and The Monikins is more daring than The Pioneers. The Pioneers is by far the most satisfying work of art of the three, and it is bettered by The Last of the Mohicans, yet if Cooper’s contribution to American fiction had stopped with its nearest approach to success, the Leatherstocking tales, he would have been unfaithful to the terms of the American experiment. His art and thought are vital today because they were germinal in their own. We must stretch our academic minds in this fresh mountain air of Cooperstown if we are to tackle our problem again.


1 Lounsbury, T. R., James Fenimore Cooper. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1882. pp. 169-170.

2 See the Preface to Spiller, R. E. and P. C. Blackburn: A Descriptive Bibliography. N. Y.: Bowker, 1934: reprinted in The Antiquarian Bookman VIII, 689 — 691 (September 15, 1951)

3 Preface to “The Leather-stocking Tales,” The Deerslayer, Phila.: 1841.

4 Notions of the Americans. Phila.: 1828.

5 [Lounsbury], op. cit., p. 139.

6 Waples, Dorothy: The Whig Myth of James Fenimore Cooper. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958. p. 4.

7 Parrington, Vernon L. Main Currents in American Thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1927. II, 222.

8 ibid. II, 237.

9 Ross, John F., The Social Criticism of Fenimore Cooper. Berkeley: U. of Calif. Press, 1933. p. 17.

10 ibid., p. 112.

11 Outland, Ethel R., The “Effingham” Libels on Cooper — Madison. Wis.: U. of Wis. Studies in Language and Literature #28, 1929.

12 op. cit., p. 49.

13 Cooper, James F., New York, New York, 1930. p. 39.

14 Clavel, Marcel, Fenimore Cooper and His Critics. Aix-en-P.: 1958.

15 Leary, Lewis (ed.), Articles on American Literature Appearing in Current Periodicals, 1920-1945. Durham, N. C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1941.

16 Modern Philology, XXIX, 335-341 (Feb. 1932).

17 American Literature, XII, 52-58 (March 1940).

18 Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: William Sloan Associates, 1949. p. 264.

19 See Rourke, Constance. American Humor. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1931 and Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1950.

* Robert E. Spiller is professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, President of the American Studies Association, and Honorary Fellow of the New York State Historical Association. His book, Fenimore Cooper, Critic of His Times, appeared in 1951 (N. Y.: Minton, Balch).