Fenimore Cooper in Our Time

James H. Pickering * (Michigan State University)

Published in New York History, Vol. LI, No. 5 (October 1970), pp. 545-555.

Copyright © 1970, New York State Historical Association, and placed online with its kind permission.

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

GIVEN the increasing critical attention being paid to the works of James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) — a phenomenon which is surely one of the more optimistic signs of our literary times — it continues to be a source of no little embarrassment that we lack sufficiently clear, much less definitive, biographical information to place the man and his writings in their proper perspective. Had Cooper been a less complicated human being, had his life been the comparatively quiet and orderly affair that we often encounter in a professional man of letters, the biographical record would now, no doubt, be reasonably complete. But Cooper’s career, as man and artist, was as varied and complex as it was stormy, and the documentary evidence that it left behind is extraordinarily voluminous, diverse, and widely scattered. Small wonder, therefore, that today, almost a full century and a quarter since his death, the received image of Cooper should remain so misunderstood, distorted, and, in places, patently false. It is for this reason that the publication of James Franklin Beard, Jr.’s six volume edition of The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper 1 marks such a turning point in the history of Cooper scholarship. Though a full reconstruction of Cooper’s life must await the appearance of the critical biography on which Professor Beard is now at work, the Letters and Journals themselves are a pioneering effort that deserve close and {546} careful scrutiny. The separate volumes, of course, have been reviewed as published (in this journal by Willard Thorp and Warren S. Walker, 2 noted authorities on Cooper and American literature). The completion of Beard’s task provides another — and perhaps even better — occasion to pause and take inventory of just how far we have now come towards our goal of redefining and understanding the man who was Fenimore Cooper.

James Franklin Beard Jr.

James Franklin Beard, Jr. Photo by Michael J. Novia.

Professor Beard’s interest in the Cooper papers goes back a full twenty-five years, to the late 1940’s, when as a doctoral candidate at Princeton University he was forced to confront the fact that “little substantial progress could be made in Cooper scholarship until the primary sources were consolidated for study and until systematic searching revealed what additional sources were discoverable. As a result, in 1948, Beard entered into an agreement with Cooper’s two great-grandsons “to exercise, for a stated period, the rights and prerogatives of the Cooper family with respect to the novelist’s unpublished papers, to collect facsimiles of all discoverable and available letters to and from Cooper (and other pertinent {547} documents) with the idea of creating a permanent reference file to be deposited eventually in an appropriate institutional library. ... ” Once negotiated, an act which in and of itself apparently required no little diplomacy, work on the Letters and Journals, the first and obvious desideratum, began in earnest.

That the task itself should take some twenty years to complete should surprise no one familiar with the very enormity of the undertaking. Thanks to the labors of Cooper’s grandson and namesake, James Fenimore Cooper, who brought together the family holdings preparatory to publishing his own two volume edition of the Correspondence in 1922, a considerable number of Cooper letters (mostly from Cooper to the members of his family) and other documents became immediately available. From this point on, however, Beard was on his own. The search that followed can only be regarded as a model of scholarly sleuthing and dogged persistence. The final index of the Letters and Journals consists of some twelve hundred letters, a full two-thirds of which are here published for the first time. They are drawn from well over a hundred private and public manuscript collections, in this country and abroad, and from more than fifty printed sources. And though the editor’s annotations and notes barely hint at their number and range, it is equally clear the Beard’s research has unearthed an equally staggering number of collateral documents in the form of letters to and about Cooper, deeds, mortgages, wills, legal proceedings, financial records, government documents, and newspaper and magazine articles. When Beard’s biography is finally published, the full weight and import of these documents will become readily enough apparent, for they shed inestimable new light into the nooks and crannies of Cooper’s life.

Professor Beard deserves special commendation as well for scrupulously avoiding the danger inherent in such editions; namely, that while they serve the cause of the scholar-specialist, they hold little intrinsic appeal for the general reader. While Beard has faultlessly met the exacting standards of modern editing, he has, at the same time, kept the needs and limitations of this general reader in mind from first to last. The six volumes are divided into thirty-seven chapters, each coinciding with a particular period in Cooper’s life, and each {548} section is prefaced by a brief, yet complete, introduction which places the letters (and journals) that follow in their proper historical and biographical perspective. Taken together, these introductions provide an informal “life” of the novelist. And though by no means definitive, as Beard himself is careful to point out, this biographical narrative far surpasses in its balance, and, to a certain extent, in its detail, the extant biographies on which we have had for so long to rely. The “apparatus” which Beard has chosen to govern the whole — especially the amazingly complete yet non-intrusive explanatory notes — is admirable in the extreme.

Read in their entirety, as of course they must be, the Letters and Journals present us with a more complete and coherent Fenimore Cooper than we have yet known. It is a truly fascinating introduction. To be sure, there are gaps. There are, for example, only some eighty-nine letters covering the crucial formative years between his birth in 1789 and his departure for Europe in 1826. As a result there is less than we need and would like to know about Cooper’s short-lived experience as a Yale undergraduate, his first trip to sea in 1806 and his subsequent tour of duty as a United States midshipman, his courtship of Susan Augusta De Lancey and the early years of their married life, and, most importantly, about the years at Angevine Farm in Scarsdale that directly preceded his momentous decision (was it really the result of Cooper’s good-humored jest that “I could write you a better book myself”?) to enter upon the precarious arena of professional authorship.

The early letters are curiously silent as well on the subject of Cooper’s serious, even desperate, financial situation, which, interestingly enough, reached its culmination almost simultaneously with the publication of Precaution in 1820 and The Spy in 1821. While the root causes of Cooper’s financial embarrassments were not entirely, it appears, of his own making — the insolvency of his father’s sizable estate and the early death of his brothers were contributing factors — they were compounded by Cooper’s own bad judgement, so that by the early 1820s he had not only virtually exhausted his father’s handsome cash bequest of $40,000 and sold off most of his inherited lots in Otsego County, but had mortgaged and remortgaged his wife’s Westchester property and opened a {549} breach with the De Lancey family that took years to close. The story of the Angevine years is an amazingly complex one, and without intruding further on Professor Beard’s right to tell it, one fact is sufficiently clear: At the time he wrote Precaution, Fenimore Cooper was most decidedly not, as Robert Spiller and others have tried to picture him, “firmly established in his own privileged place in a stable society.” 3 Fortunately, however, the record after 1826 — the years of Cooper’s intellectual and literary majority — is far more complete. The period began auspiciously. Cooper departed New York in 1826 at the very height of his reputation as the celebrated “American Scott”; he was confident of his country’s future and at peace with himself. The European interlude (1826-1833) and the period that immediately followed marked the turning point of Cooper’s career. The perspective which the Letters and Journals offer on these years is particularly instructive. Day by day and year by year they chart the successive stages of Cooper’s growing frustration and the resulting loss of confidence and sense of alienation that ever afterwards served to define the author’s relationship with his native country.

The impact of Europe, it is clear, came not so much from the discovery that reactionary forces were firmly entrenched in England and on the Continent, for Cooper was well-schooled in the traditional aristocratic biases and contemporary politics of the Old World. Rather, what struck Cooper most sharply — a lesson brought home by his own developing cosmopolitanism and by his remarkable sensitivity to the political nuances of the hour — was the extent to which the anti-American, anti-democratic parties of Europe willfully misrepresented to the world at large the fundamentals of American life. The even more alarming fact that these distortions and falsehoods were echoed by a significantly large portion of a deferential and undiscriminating American press, brought Cooper to the absolute conviction that, unchecked, such malignancies constituted a serious threat to the success of the republic itself.

Cooper’s patriotism was aroused. Heretofore he had used {550} his pen chiefly to amuse his readers — now he felt the necessity to enlighten, and, if possible, to educate them. He began innocently and temperately enough with Notions of the Americans (1828), a travel book of sorts, in which he sought to correct European misconceptions by sketching in broad detail the whole panorama of pre-Jacksonian America, its distinctive characteristics, and its supporting republican institutions. Though Cooper made his case and made it brilliantly, its reception, especially in America, was disappointing. And predictably, Cooper saw its failure as adequate confirmation of his emerging thesis: that European opinion exerted a deleterious influence upon an unsettled American public mind. Had Cooper gone home in 1828 or in 1829 his subsequent career might have been far different. But Cooper stayed on, and his increasing familiarity with the vagaries of European politics only convinced him of the essential correctness of his initial observations.

The Letters and Journals are helpful here for the additional light they throw on Cooper’s blundering involvement in the French Finance Controversy of 1831-1832, when, at the request of his friend, the aging Lafayette, Cooper boldly sallied into French politics in a series of published attempts to vindicate American institutions on the basis of their economy. It was a battle, given the terms of the engagement, that Cooper could not win, and in the end he stood alone, rebuked by the press of two continents for the impropriety of interfering in the internal politics of a foreign country. By 1832, the handwriting was on the wall. Attacks from home by the Whig press, which found in Cooper a convenient target for their own partisan purposes and deliberately fanned the flames by reprinting some of the more caustic reviews of his three European novels, were mounting in severity. Cooper was shocked and “heart-sick.” America’s “mental independence” from its “slavish dependence on foreign opinion” remained his “pride and object”; but “One thing is beyond dispute,” he prophetically announced to artist William Dunlap in March of 1832, ” — I am not with my own country — the void between us is immense — which is in advance time will show.” The rumblings from home were ominous, but Cooper was still willing to reserve judgement. “I am afraid, by all I hear,” he wrote on the eve of his departure (June, 1833), “that the {551} country has made a sad movement to the rear, in the last seven years. I shall look and judge for myself.”

And judge he did, for the situation in America was as bad, or even worse, than Cooper had feared. A raucous political, economic, and social revolution — the Age of Jackson — was abroad in the land, whose laissez-faire capitalism, rude egalitarianism, and bitter partisan politics called into question, and even seemed to undermine, many of the established verities of American life. Surveying the scene from New York City and Cooperstown, Cooper was appalled by what he saw: an “accumulated vulgarity and ignorance”; “an absence of intelligence and breeding”; an all-pervasive mediocrity which apparently had little room for the “man of tastes, sentiments, affections, or tone.” In part, of course, this disenchantment was a manifestation of Cooper’s hyper-critical sensitivity; in part it stemmed from the equally obvious fact that Cooper had simply lost touch with the emerging realities of his native country — he had tarried too long in foreign parts. To Cooper himself, however, the present danger seemed clear enough: a crisis of “American principles” was at hand.

Though Cooper at one point seriously contemplated — and even publicly announced in print — that he would put aside his pen and retire from public life, his deeply-rooted sense of civic responsibility and his democratic idealism drove him once more into the field. The result was the series of verbal engagements and bitter causes-célèbres that lasted down almost to the moment of his death: the heated dispute with his Cooperstown neighbors over the ownership of the Three Mile Point picnic grove jutting out into Lake Otsego; the tedious sequence of libel suits against editors William Leete Stone, Park Benjamin, James Watson Webb, Thurlow Weed, and Horace Greeley growing out of his representation of American life in the novel Home as Found (1838) and his version of the Battle of Lake Erie in the History of the Navy (1839); and the unpopular reaction to his defense of the property rights of large landowners which attended the publication of the Littlepage Anti-rent trilogy (1845-1846); to name just a few. Though the well-financed Whig establishment vilified him as arrogant, aristocratic, and anti-American, and though the sale of his books suffered accordingly, Cooper stood by his convictions and defied all comers.

{552} The essential tragedy of these episodes lay not so much in their final outcome — for Cooper enjoyed his share of victories — as in the fact that his underlying motives and principles were so widely misinterpreted and misunderstood. In large measure, the fault was Cooper’s own. The frequent irascibility of his manner, the querulousness and hauteur of his tone, and the ill-advised aggressiveness of his response, played directly into the hands of his Whig opponents, who found it to their interest to make Cooper’s personality, not his principles, the chief object of their ridicule. Cooper, on his part, might have fared far better had he formally embraced the Democratic party to which he was philosophically inclined and generally in agreement. But Cooper “detested party politics” and party labels. He chose, instead, to pursue his course alone — an individual in an age of quixotic individualism — without the benefit of party affiliation and without ever bothering to set forth, in a detailed and systematic way, a complete exposition of his fundamental political and social ideas. As a result, the underlying unity of his argument was lost, and Cooper was denied the hearing to which the substance of his beliefs most certainly entitled him.

It is precisely here, in fact, that careful study of the Letters and Journals proves most rewarding. Read in strict chronology, and over and against his other writings, these volumes not only serve to broaden our understanding of the ideological basis of Cooper’s cultural criticism, and, by application, our understanding of the novels themselves, but to underscore the singleness of the moral and political vision that constituted Cooper’s democratic faith. Though he shared very few illusions about the realities of the human condition in a post-lapsarian age, and though he despaired of the climate of the 1830s and 1840s which seemed to encourage mediocrity and demogoguery in government, mean competitiveness in business, and a leveling egalitarianism in social relationships, Cooper never lost sight of the first principles of the republic. What Cooper argued, above all else, was that Americans must turn their backs on the expeditious “ways of the hour” and return to the “original spirit” of American institutions in which a broadly representative government, defined and ordered by an enlightened Constitution and its evolutionary appendixes, established for each of its citizens the full and just measure {553} of his freedom within the framework of a healthy body politic. That Cooper misjudged the temper of his times is clear enough. That his analysis tended to ignore many of the visible realities of an evolving, changing America is clearer still. Yet reading these letters one cannot help but admire the courage and honesty of a man whose jeremiads, like those of the prophets of an earlier day, sought to awaken his countrymen to doctrines and tendencies whose “fearful progress” threatened to subvert the Constitution and lead the nation “towards anarchy and its successor tyranny.”

But the Letters and Journals have a good deal more to tell us as well. While it is true that hardly an event of national or international import escaped his attention, Cooper was not narrowly “political” just as he was not narrowly “literary.” It is equally true that his most characteristic response to life was that of a detached, if frequently pessimistic, observer, his tone calm and relaxed. There was, that is, another side to Cooper’s character and personality that his opponents and the nation at large did not, and undoubtedly could not, see. In this sense too, then, the Letters and Journals are something of a revelation. One has only to read Cooper’s correspondence to men like William Branford Shubrick, William Jay and Peter Augustus Jay, William Dunlap, and Horatio Greenough, among others, to learn that he was a warm, sympathetic, and generous friend. From such letters emerge the full range of Cooper’s interests and preoccupations: his concern for a strong and well-equipped navy, his patronage of the arts — painting, sculptoring, and architecture; his fondness for agricultural experimentation and landscape gardening; his regular and eclectic reading; his involvement, especially during his later years, in the affairs of the Episcopal Church; his business speculations in whaling, cotton, and western land; his abiding love for New York’s past, particularly as it was connected with the histories of the Cooper and the De Lancey families; his public-spirited gestures to provide relief for the dispossessed Poles and the famine-ridden Irish, and his more private acts of charity on behalf of the widows of his deceased brothers, the aging and impoverished William Dunlap, and his old shipmate Ned Myers.

Perhaps most revealing — because they are at such sharp variance with his public image — are the personal letters writ{554}ten over the years to the members of his family, especially to his wife Susan, with whom he shared an almost idyllic relationship and with whom he was never too busy to exchange a scrap or two of town gossip or share his concern over the smallest details of the Cooper household. Such letters suggest, above all else, Cooper’s amazing ability to detach himself from his public quarrels, they also denote a fundamental serenity and peace of mind that few of his contemporaries would have suspected.

If the Letters and Journals are disappointing at all, it is because they contain so little about the theory and substance of Cooper’s fiction. Beyond the occasional scenarios of forthcoming novels which he dangled before his publishers (where his writings were concerned Cooper was a shrewd and astute businessman, with a sharp eye for sales and profits), or occasional remarks here and there about the plight of the literary artist in America, his letters have very little to tell us about the germs of his novels, his literary aims and purposes, or his methods of composition. In fact, in reading these volumes one is only vaguely aware that Cooper was simultaneously engaged in the strenuous business of writing fiction. The most interesting letters touching on his own work are those that Cooper wrote for publication in the periodical Brother Jonathan during 1841 and 1842 in an effort to disprove the charge that the novels Home as Found (1838) and The Pioneers (1823) were intentionally autobiographical. These letters, of course, have long since been part of the public domain.

Yet given the total nature of the man, such reticence, though it will be lamented by literary scholars, is not totally strange. Rather, it suggests, and indeed the Letters and Journals would seem to prove, that Cooper conceived his purpose and function in life to be something more inclusive than simply those of a writer of belle-lettristic literature. He was a “professional” writer in one sense only — he wrote novels for a living. In almost every other particular he resembled far more closely the man of letters of an earlier, eighteenth century world, where authorship was the concomitant to the active, concerned life of an involved citizen — not a substitute for it.

It is scarcely possible, in conclusion, to exaggerate the im{555}portance of Professor Beard’s volumes. With the possible exception of Robert Spiller’s Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times (1931), a book that virtually dragged Cooper out of obscurity and forced him on the attention of students of American literature, no other single work has done so much to advance the cause of Cooper scholarship. To be sure, Beard’s critical biography is a necessary sequel if Cooper’s story is at long last to be correctly told, but in the Letters and Journals much of the primary material of that study is now plainly before us. It is difficult to imagine how James Beard could have done his job better. “A grateful posterity” now seems about ready — as Herman Melville predicted in 1852 that it someday would be — to take care of Fenimore Cooper.


1 Published by the Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press. Volumes I & II (xlv, 444; viii, 420), 1960, $20.00. Volumes III & IV (x, 466; viii, 508), 1964, $25.00. Volumes V & VI (xi, 418; ix, 460), 1968, $27.50.

2 New York History 41 (October 1960), 451-56; 46 (July 1965), 284-86.

3 Robert E. Spiller, James Fenimore Cooper, Representative Selections, with Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes (New York, 1936). p. xxv.

* Cooper scholar James H. Pickering of Michigan State University discusses James Beard’s recently completed edition of the Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. His conclusion: “It is difficult to imagine how James Beard could have done his job better.”