Elements of Folk Culture in Cooper’s Novels

Warren S. Walker * (Blackburn College; President, Illinois Folklore Society)

Published as New York History, Vol. 35, No. 4 (October, 1954), pp. 457-467.(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 literary reputation of James Fenimore Cooper has been secure for more than a century. Both at home and abroad he has long been recognized as a writer of major importance — one whose name must appear in any history of American literature as well as in any adequate history of the novel. Of the distinctive features of Cooper’s prose fiction, perhaps none is more important than his extensive use of folk material. In his novels appear for the first time a great many elements of the rich and varied oral traditions of America.

There are a number of well-defined folk types in the novels of Cooper. Some of these had their prototypes in earlier pieces of literature. There was precedent in the works of Shakespeare, Scott and others for such half-wits as Job Pray, Whittal Ring, and Hetty Hutter. The only peculiarly American note about these “naturals” is the prestige they enjoy among the Indians, who consider them sacred beings. There were comic Irishmen both in prose fiction and in the drama before Cooper presented Betty Flanagan, Captain M’Fuse, Biddy Noon, Michael O’Hearn, and others. Even the lore of pirates and smugglers, which Cooper uses so effectively to cast a romantic mantle over The Water-Witch, The Red Rover, and The Sea Lions, had been employed by earlier writers. But there are other folk types that are seen for the first time in prose fiction in Cooper’s novels, and these are important, for they were to take their places in the front ranks of the gods and demigods emerging from the folk imagination to form an American mythology.

Perhaps the most respected of these new deities in the rapidly expanding nation of the 1820’s and 1850’s were the frontiersman and the Indian killer. They are really two distinct types in American literature, though they frequently merge, as they do in Natty Bumppo. Who was the frontiersman? Sometimes he was the man who felt a romantic and unexplainable urge to keep just ahead of the new towns growing up farther and farther west; often he was the scout and guide who served the settlers and then moved on again into the wilderness; occasionally he was the adventurer who sought his fortune trapping or trading with the Indians; always, however, he was the independent person who chose deliberately to lead a solitary existence, pitting his strength and wits whenever necessary against the various forces of nature. The beau ideal of the frontier type was probably Daniel Boone, and there is no question about Cooper’s debt to this worthy, for he calls attention to him in the opening pages of The Prairie. Cooper may also have borrowed from the legends of Davy Crockett and Mike Fink for some of Natty’s great shooting feats. The peak of enthusiasm for these two folk heroes came after Cooper had started the Leather-Stocking series, but by then they had long been a part of oral tradition. Whatever the source for this aspect of Natty’s character, Cooper established him in the American mind as a symbol of the frontier spirit.

When Cooper wrote the prefaces for the 1849 edition of his novels, he commented on his source for the character of Natty:

The author has often been asked if he had any original in mind for the character of Leather-Stocking. In a physical sense, different individuals, known to the writer in early life, certainly presented themselves as models, through his recollections; but in a moral sense this man of the forest is purely a creation. 1

Just who these “different individuals” were no one knows for sure, but there was one group of men who could easily have qualified as models for the other main folk type represented by Natty Bumppo. They were the Indian killers of New York State, men such as Tom Quick, Tim Murphy, Nat Foster, and Nick Stoner. Tom Quick died in 1795 or 1796 while Cooper was still a boy, but the others lived far enough into the nineteenth century to have been known by him. Even if he had never actually met these fighters, Cooper certainly must have heard some of the countless stories told about them. The exploits of Tim Murphy, in particular, must have come to Cooper’s attention, for Tim operated in near the Cooper country, in Otsego, Schoharie, and Delaware counties. There is too much of the Indian killer in Natty to permit one to overlook these well-known folk figures as possible originals. He is not, however, merely a copy of one of them, or a composite of all of them, for he differs sharply from the type in some respects. The regular Indian fighters often started their careers for the purpose of revenge. The Indians had killed the fathers of both Tom Quick and Nick Stoner, and reportedly they had killed Tim Murphy’s wife and children. As a result, each of these men was determined to take vengeance against all red men.

It was different with Natty Bumppo. He did not hate all red men nor agree with Artemus Ward that “Indians is pizen whereever found,” for Natty had lived among the Delawares and had a sworn brother in Chingachgook. His enmity was generally limited to the Iroquois, the red rulers of New York and their allies. Of the many Indians killed by La Longue Carabine, nearly all are Iroquois. It should be noted, however, that Natty never kills without immediate provocation. Even Iroquois are safe from the deadly fire of Killdeer they they leave the rifle’s owner and his friends unmolested. Although he has the distrust of a true Delaware for these he never sets out deliberately to hunt them as his friend Chingachgook sometimes does. The desire for revenge, he says frequently, is understandable in an Indian, for it is part of the red man’s creed, but it is not, he has learned from Moravian missionaries, an honorable motive for a white man. Cooper had much too great a sense of Christian morality to create a hero who is a wanton murderer. This role is relegated to a foil, Hurry Harry, in the opening scene of Natty’s biography. But even with this restraint on Hawkeye’s trigger finger, when will he cease to be remembered as the scourge of the red man?

After the frontiersman and the Indian fighter, the Indian himself was the next definite folk type to be identified and described by Cooper. Whether Cooper’s Indian was of the school of Heckewelder or of the school of Nature is not necessarily of prime importance to the folklorist, for he immediately became one of the great American myths — and to its devotees a myth is sacred and above such cavils. But the Indian and his lore is a full study in itself and is merely mentioned here.

The “old salt” did not make his first appearance in literature in the novels of Cooper. He had played a prominent part in Smollett and had had roles in the drama long before that, but Cooper developed this folk type much farther than any of the earlier writers had done. Like Pipes, Trunnion, Hatchway, and the other members of Smollett’s crew, Cooper’s seamen carry with them everywhere their seagoing habits and their nautical language. But beyond these superficial features, which are really no more than character tags, they also have a whole seagoing philosophy that was unknown to the tars of Smollett or Scott. Cooper’s old salts have a romantic love of the sea that will not permit them to remain on land for any length of time. They must go down to the sea again, for there they find a meaning and an order in life that are lacking ashore. In the opening pages of The Pilot, Long Tom Coffin remarks:

Give me plenty of sea-room, and good canvas, where there is no occasion for pilots at all, sir. For my part, I was born on board a chebacco-man, and never could see the use of more land than now and then a small island to raise a few vegetables, and to dry your fish. I’m sure the sight of it always makes me feel uncomfortable unless we have the wind dead off-shore. 2

Here is the first appearance in the novel of that romantic old salt that Melville and Conrad were later to employ.

The stage Yankee was a common figure on the literary scene in the nineteenth century, appearing in prose fiction for the first time in Seba Smith’s Major Jack Downing and running through Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee. He was the vehicle for satire on the down-East temperament, but it was ordinarily satire of the jovial kind, for Brother Jonathan was essentially a comic character. In the novels of Cooper, however, there lives a Yankee of an entirely different type. He is a mean, scheming hypocrite who embodies all the evils inherent in a democracy. He is a vulgarian of that mobocracy that Cooper could paint all too vividly. He is a symbol, too, of all that Yorkers hated in a culture that not only differed in many respects from their own but which was beginning to engulf them. In Cooper’s novels the Yankee is usually an out-and-out villain. Except for Harvey Birch — whose birthplace was probably determined by that of his real-life original — the only Yankees that Cooper can tolerate are seamen and half-wits. Among the seamen, one thinks immediately of Long Tom Coffin and Captain Truck. In Job Pray, Whittal Ring, and David Gamut, Cooper presents sympathetic pictures of Yankees, but unfortunately all three of these individuals are mentally deficient. The folk types in Cooper — whether native Americans or European immigrants — are consistently well-drawn. From their numbers come almost all the unforgettable characters in the novels.

Lore of the supernatural appears in eleven of Cooper’s novels. It is used more often for purely decorative purposes than are many of the other elements of folklore in his fiction. It is never as functional to the plot as his Indian material, for example, for — unlike his fellow New Yorker, Washington Irving — Cooper never makes a whole tale turn upon the supernatural. It lends atmosphere to the story at times; it reveals character at other times. In only one or two cases, however, does it change materially the course of action in a novel.

It is not surprising that the largest body of supernatural lore in Cooper comes in his novels of the sea. He wrote about life on shipboard at greater length and with more realism than any of his predecessors in prose fiction had done. If he was only slightly acquainted with Indians, he was fast friends with a number of seafaring men, for he had gone to sea himself both as a common seaman and as a naval officer. The beliefs and superstitions that he attributes to seamen probably form the most authentic part of his material about the supernatural.

Ghost ships have been operating off the northeast coast of America since the middle of the seventeenth century, 3 and it is quite appropriate to find Cooper’s old salts making frequent reference to them. Although none of these phantoms of the sea is actually sighted in a Cooper novel, such strangely elusive vessels as the Red Rover, the Water-Witch, and the Wing-and-Wing are all mistaken for specters at times, and so the effect in these novels is much the same. There are several pieces of sailors’ luck lore in the novels: it is unlucky to weigh anchor on a Friday, for example; or it is unlucky to sing or whistle in a gale. There are numerous bad omens such as deviations in the compass needle and the cries of drowned seamen — both of which, incidentally, were to be used later by Melville in Moby Dick.

Compared with the attention he has given to seagoing apparitions, Cooper’s treatment of their landlocked relatives is rather meager. Despite the fact that Cooper’s native state of New York is a favorite haunt of ghosts, 4 we are never forced to meet any of these revenants in his novels. There is ghost lore in four of the books, but it concerns either the treatment of ghosts in general or cases in which live people are mistaken for ghosts.

Among the other items pertaining to the supernatural — of which there are some two dozen — are instances of devil lore, portents, divine and otherwise, and a belief in the power of numbers. Some of Cooper’s surest artistry is to be observed in the deft way in which he uses lore of the supernatural for the purposes of fiction without going beyond the bounds of the credible.

Fragments of Negro lore appear in sixteen of Cooper’s novels. It is not the lore of the Negro, such as we get in the writings of a Joel Chandler Harris or a Zora Neale Hurston, but the lore about the Negro — what others say or think about him. There is little evidence that Cooper was interested in the Negro as a person, for there is no full-length portrait of him nor any real insight into his character. In the novels he is merely a curious and picturesque part of the American scene that Cooper was painting. He has certain physical differences from white people: he can stand more heat and less cold; he is astonishingly hard-skulled; he is frequently subject to convulsive fits of merriment. This last bit of lore, the uncontrollable laughter of the Negro, finds rather extravagant but none the less serious expression a number of times. At one point in Satanstoe Cornelius Littlepage notes this strange behavior:

We dashed from the door of the old Ten Eyck house; all the blacks in the street gazing at us in delight, and shaking their sides with laughter — a negro always expresses his admiration of anything, even to a sermon, in that mode. I remember to have heard a traveller who had been as far as Niagara, declare that his black did nothing but roar with laughter, the first half-hour he stood confronted with that mighty cataract. 5

Cooper also seems to have appreciated the sense of humor that led colonial America to name its slaves after ancient worthies: after Roman statesmen — Cato, Caesar; after classical heroes and heroines — Hector, Dido; after pagan deities — Juno, Vulcan; after Biblical figures — Samson, Nebuchadnezzar; after Shakespearean characters — Romeo, Desdemona. In all, there are thirty-six Negroes in the novels who bear such illustrious names.

Most picturesque of all the Negro lore that Cooper includes in the novels is the account in Satanstoe of the Pinkster festival. Pinkster was originally the Dutch celebration of Whitsunday, or Pentecost — from which the word is derived — but by the eighteenth century in New York State it had become a week-long carnival, following Pentecost, that was given over completely to the black population. It was a week of banjoes and tom-toms, of song and dance, of drinking and laughter. Besides the entertainment and emotional release that this Saturnalia provided for the slaves, it also afforded direct contact with their cultural heritage, for among the participants were always a few late arrivals from Africa. In Cooper’s description of Pinkster we have one of the best pictures available of that festival.

Beginning in 1809, a great revival of interest in things Dutch took place in New York, stimulated by a group of writers and historians headed by Washington Irving. Although Cooper never belonged to this Knickerbocratic school, he shared to a certain extent its interests, for in Satanstoe he includes a number of Dutch customs. Since the hero of Satanstoe is a gay young man, it is not surprising that the elements of Dutch lore which Cooper included in the novel are mainly concerned with amusements. Corny Littlepage is delighted to find that sleigh riding is a favorite sport of both young and old in Albany. Another of the winter sports enjoyed by Albanians in Satanstoe is riding on the frozen river in horse-drawn cutters. Parties from Albany thought nothing of taking a jaunt on the Hudson as far south as Kinderhook, a distance of some twenty miles. For those young men who demanded excitement of a more rakish order — Albany as well as London had its bucks and bloods — there was the quaint custom of supper snatching. It was thought to be the height of good fun to wait until almost the hour for the evening meal and then make off with the roast from one of the better-stocked kitchens. The prank was effected by having a few of the conspirators create a disturbance in front of the victim’s house while the rest slipped into the deserted kitchen and made off with the luscious loot before the domestics returned. All the Dutch material in Satanstoe, in addition to being colorful in itself, is very skillfully handled, for wherever it appears in the novel it is made to further the action of the story.

There are in Cooper’s novels several hundred proverbs and proverbial expressions. Most of these seem to be genuine folk products, though one can never be certain about proverbs. There are a few which are obviously drawn from literary sources — from the Bible, for example; there are many others which had been used at least once before in writing and thus force upon the folklorist the difficult question as to whether, in this instance, they are folk or literary in origin. The distribution of proverbs in the novels seems to indicate that Cooper is drawing most of them from folk sources. Wherever there is a language barrier or cultural difference between him and his subjects, he is careful to omit proverbs almost completely. The closer his own life is to the scene and time of the story, the more proverbs he uses. In the thirteen novels about people who are foreign to him — five about Europeans and eight about Indians — there are only a handful of proverbs. In the novels revolving about Natty Bumppo, incidentally, Cooper’s portrait of the hero as one largely outside the white man’s oral tradition further restricts the use of proverbial expression. Almost all the proverbs are in the nineteen novels which deal primarily with the white population of England and America. It is significant that in three of the novels with the greatest number of proverbs — Homeward Bound, The Redskins, and Miles Wallingford — the characters are drawn from Cooper’s own New York State.

Cooper’s proverbs fall easily into two main divisions: proverbs of wisdom and proverbs of poetry. 6 Among the proverbs of wisdom are many dealing with thrift and industry: “A nimble sixpence is as good as a lazy shilling.” “All at once makes light work.” Some advise caution: “A good cow may have a bad calf,” “A miss is as good as a mile.” Other proverbs offer comfort: “The hardest gale must blow its pipe out,” “A fly may bite an elephant if he can find a weak spot in his hide.” Still others express irony or cynicism: “Half-way rogues are the bane of honesty,” “[Don’t] look for the fur of a marten on the back of a cat.” Among the proverbs of poetry are such colorful comparisons as “Helpless as a halibut in a tub,” “Clear as a church five minutes after the blessing,” “Gaping like a greyhound,” and such humorous and vigorous metaphors as “[They] dig their graves with their teeth,” or “An Irishman’s hurricane — right up and down.”

Cooper was aware of some of the potentialities of the proverb for the purposes of prose fiction. He uses it frequently, for example, to point up a moral that the omniscient observer is drawing. In The Redskins, he snipes at universal suffrage: “Many men, many minds,” and “What is everybody’s business is nobody’s business.” The proverb serves quite often as a device to reveal character. At one time Cooper will put a proverb into the conversation of his subjects in order to mellow their personalities and give them an air of homely wisdom. Captain Truck and Moses Marble, two of his favorite old codgers, both use a number of proverbial expressions. At other times he will make the proverb accentuate unpleasant qualities — deceit or hypocrisy. In The Water-Witch, Van Beverout, with his pithy remarks about thrift and industry, sounds most honest and deserving to the other characters. To the reader, however, each of his proverbs is a further indication of hypocrisy, for Van Beverout, it is quite clear, made his fortune by smuggling. The proverb is thus quite often functional as well as decorative in Cooper’s novels.

Cooper was not the first major novelist to make use of dialect. Scott had used it earlier and had established it firmly as an accepted element of the genre. Nor was Cooper by any means the first American author to take advantage of this device of characterization. Royall Tyler had included Yankee dialect for the first time in the American drama in The Contrast (1787), and beginning in 1792, Hugh Henry Brackenridge was employing dialects in his novel Modern Chivalry. But if a number of writers had preceded Cooper in exploiting this element of folk culture, none of them used it more extensively, for dialect appears in nearly all of Cooper’s thirty-two novels. Among the dialects spoken by various characters are Yankee, Negro, Irish, Dutch, Scottish, German and French. Besides these, there is a special dialect that Cooper seems to have created just for Natty Bumppo, one that is derived in large part from archaic English. 7 Both the authenticity of Cooper’s dialects and the orthography by which he represents them are worthy of much more detailed comment than can be given here. By and large, his dialects are remarkably accurate as far as they go. The speech peculiarities of his Yankees, for example, were completely corroborated by the first volumes of the new Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada. If the conversation that Cooper puts into the mouths of his characters is stilted and artificial at times, it must in fairness be granted that he at least gave them wholly realistic dialects.

It has been possible in this paper merely to outline those folk elements that occur most frequently in Cooper’s novels. Scattered throughout the thirty-two volumes are also an occasional tall tale, a fable or two, remedies and cures, a couple of work songs, and some animal lore. Besides these regular types of folklore, there are numerous instances of frontier folk ways — methods of clearing land, for example, shooting matches, barn raisings, and community hunting and fishing expeditions. In all, there are hundreds of items of folk culture at the heart of Cooper’s novels, and here is perhaps the principal reason for his greatness. Cooper’s appeal to readers for more than a century has certainly not been the result of his unpopular ideas, or his contrived plots, or his stiff romantic characters, or his improbable dialogues. His fame has been built on something more fundamental, something that lies much deeper than the mere literary trimmings. It has been based to a great extent on the strong and solid foundation of folk material in his novels.


1 The Deerslayer, p. viii. All citations in Cooper’s novels refer to the Darley Edition 1859-1861.

2 The Pilot, p. 20.

3 See Ralph deS. Childs, “Phantom Ships of the Northeast Coast of North America,” New York Folklore Quarterly, v (1949), 146-155; and B. A. Botkin, A Treasury of New England Folklore, pp. 284-288.

4 See Louis C. Jones, “The Ghosts of New York,” Journal of American Folklore, lvii (1944), 297-253; and Harold W. Thompson, “Legends and Ghosts of Cooper’s Land,” New York Times Magazine, August 25, 1940, pp. 18-22.

5 Satanstoe, p. 234.

6 The classification of proverbs used here is taken from Harold W. Thompson, Body, Boots & Britches, pp. 481-504. For a complete list of proverbs in the novels, see Warren S. Walker, “Proverbs in the Novels of James: Penimore Cooper,” Midwest Folklore, iii (1953), 99-107.

7 See Louise Pound, “The Dialect of Cooper’s Leatherstocking,” American Speech, ii (1927), 479-487.

* Dr. Walker, who received his Ph. D in American literature at Cornell where he held a teaching fellowship, is a Professor of English at Blackburn College, Carlinville, Illinois. He is currently president of the Illinois Folklore Society.