What Fenimore Cooper Has Meant and What He Still Means to Me

Marcel Clavel (Faculté des Lettres d’Aix-en-Provence)

Originally published in A Propos du Centenaire de la mort de FENIMORE COOPER et du Congrès de Cooperstown de Septembre 1951 — A FRENCH TRIBUTE To JAMES FENIMORE COOPER , Annales de la Faculté des Lettres d’Aix-en-Provence, 1956 (pp. 2-8).

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Introductory Note

In 1951 the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, NY, organized what was in effect the first scholarly conference devoted to the life and works of James Fenimore Cooper. The papers read at this conference were published in 1954 as a special number of New York History. However, two papers submitted by the eminent French Cooper scholar, Prof. Marcel Clavel (1894-1976) were not included. They were, however, reprinted by Prof. Clavel in 1956, and are now reproduced here online. The first, “What Cooper has Meant, and What He Still Means to Me,” reproduced below, was read at the conference but not included in the printed version because Prof. Clavel had been unable to attend the conference in person. The second, “Cooper’s Reputation One Century after his Death,” was not read at the conference.

— Hugh C. MacDougall, Secretary, James Fenimore Cooper Society, November 2006.

Malgré de brillant succès de ce congrès, organisé par la New York State Historical Association, le compte rendu détaillé des trois journées d’études et de discussions n’a pu paraître que trols ans après, dans un numéro spécial de New York History (octobre 1954). De plus, au dire du professeur R. E. Spiller, grand spécialiste américain de Cooper, seules les communications lues par leurs auteurs en personne, et discutées en leur présence, ont pu être insérées dans le compte rendu imprimé * 

Notre collègue, le professeur Marcel Clavel, n’ayant pu effectuer le voyage, avait envoyé deux communications en sa qualité de premier biographe européen de Fenimore Cooper **, communications où il avalt tenu à emprimer avec force son admiration persistante pour un des écrivains les plus caractéristiques de la jeune république amérlcaine, et ses raisons d’espérer un renouveau d’intérêt du grand public pour une œuvre et une personnalité que de nombreux critiques ont présentées depuis cinquante ans sous un jour de plus en plus favorable.

Ce sont ces deux communications que nous imprimons ci-après {2} dans leur intégralité, avec les notes explicatives et justificatives indispensables.


French scholars generally devote between ten and fifteen Years of their lives to the writing of the two literary theses required for the national doctorate (doctorat-ès-lettres) which qualifies them for university professorships. The result is that the choice of the author they will study, day after day and year after year, in addition to their professional work, is almost as important for them as the choice of a wife.

Some get tired of their author after a few years and never complete their theses, others are heartily glad to specialize in other men and other periods after they have secured their doctor’s degree (even only if their theses deal with only one phase of their author’s career and if the remainder of his life and work offers them ample opportunity for further useful research).

If therefore, a French doctor continues to work with pleasure and even enthusiasm on the author he has studied for ten, fifteen or twenty gears, it is a sure sign, that the said author is not only a very important literary figure but a likeable and congenial character.

Now, it so happens that such has been my case as regards Cooper, and Professor James H. Beard Jr. suggested to me that a candid account of my personal relations (so to speak) with your great pioneer novelist might induce some Americans to think better of Cooper, the man, and, by way of consequence, of Cooper the author 1

I complied without hesitation, first because I am always ready {3} to bear witness in favour of Cooper, and secondly because I happen to share with him the tendency to speak of myself as naturally and as frankly as of other human beings, - a tendency, by the way, which seems to increase among modern men and women.

Of course the man Cooper hardly existed for me while I read some of his novels as a boy, first in French and later in English. I did not read him simply for the sake of the story but I was not mature enough to piece together the autobiographical hints, which proved so illuminating years later when I undertook to write his biography. Yet I did like the poetical and artistic temperament which had made the American forests and prairies a land of romance and enchantment, quite as glamorous as the lochs and glens and mediaeval forests of Scott’s novels. I also appreciated the broadminded tone of the author of The last of the Mohicans because he had managed to pay his tribute to the noble qualities of a passing race without minimizing the achievements of the white men on the American continent, and because he had succeeded in painting the cruelties of the French and Indian wars and the fierceness of the Anglo-French duel for North America without making either party the villains of his stories.

When the first World War unexpectedly sent me to the wilds of New Mexico as a military adviser, the sight of Indian relics, and especially that of an Indian map carved on the rock near Cook’s Peak, were made doubly impressive by my memories of Cooper’s romances, and, a few years later, when I decided to choose an American subject for my doctorate, Cooper was one of the first congenial names that occurred to me. I was told however that the Sorbonne Ph. D written by G. D. Morris on Fenimore Cooper and Edgar Poe and their influence in France, although a mere “doctorat d’université” might cause my theses to look less original, and so it was agreed with professor Cestre that I should work on a wider field including many authors besides Cooper: the feeling for nature in American literature.

Of course Cooper was one of the first authors I began to study in this connection, and it was then, during my first months of teaching at the University of Michigan, that I read Lounsbury’s {4} biography and that I learned to admire Cooper the man as well as the prose poet of American scenery.

Soon afterwards professor Cestre passed through Ann Arbor on a lecture tour, and he announced to me that Norman Forster was going to publish an important book on the very subject I had chosen! So I asked permission to concentrate on Cooper, pointing out that G. D. Morris had only studied one of the many aspects of his life and work, that the French public did not realize the tragedy of Cooper’s relations with his countrymen, and that a thorough and impartial biography by a foreigner might prove particularly useful. Professor Ceetre readily assented to my proposal, and thus, in the spring of 1922, Cooper became for me an honoured and valued friend, a constant presence at my elbow, and a real inspiration in my studies, in my teaching and in my private life.

That same year I brought to Ann Arbor an intellectual wife 2, who was not only willing to share my admiration for Cooper but to help me in my work. It was in her company that I visited Cooperstown and the Cooper Country in the summer of. 1925, and her memories of the Glimmerglass, the Sleeping Lion and the old-world .hospitality of Cooper’s grandson at Fynmere are just as vivid and unforgettable as mine. After our return to Europe she worked with me at the British Museum, making with pencil and carbon paper ,duplicates of many a page of Cooper criticism, and she typed a great part of my theses. Like Cooper I discovered that my wife’s comments were always valuable, and when, in 1938, the Sorbonne found my work worthy of the “mention trés honorable” we literally shared the joy of realizing the imposing proportions of the monument we had planned together in honour of our common friend 3

For some weeks, however, I occasionally thought with sorrow of the harsh criticisms of Cooper’s character by one of the members of my “jury de thése” and also of the strictures of another against the exaggerated amount of work I had devoted to the study of Cooper’s critics. But the very encouraging reviews of my books {5} by professor Cestre, Jean Simon and Lucien Escarti in French scholarly publications, by R. E. Spiller in American Literature, and by Rudolf Drescher in the German periodical Anglia, together with the award of a Montyon prize by the French Academy, strengthened my determination to devote the rest of my life to the completion of Cooper’s biography (1826-1851) and to that of various studies connected with it, such as American history in Cooper’s novels, Fenimore Cooper and France, the early masters of the sea novel, etc.

When the war broke out a year later, though mobilized as a liaison officer at the headquarters of the French military mission attached to the British forces in France, I did not lose sight of my future work on Cooper, and I was gratified to learn that a Swiss publisher was contemplating a German translation of my main thesis while the editor of Les Nouvelles Littéraires was planning to make it the occasion of a Cooper revival with the enthusiastic help of André Bellessort, who had written the report for the Montyon prize in the French Academy 4

But the tidal wave that submerged France in the sombre days of 1940 put an end to all these plans and hopes, and the sale of my Cooper books was practically stopped when it had barely started!

At present, with printing costs rising to unheard of heights, I do not think I shall ever be able to find a publisher for the four volumes of biography and criticism the materials of which have been assembled years ago, and yet Cooper is still one of my most constant and congenial companions. I can picture him in Marseilles, inhaling the marine smells on the quays of the Old Harbour (as young Conrad did half a century later), or on the road from {6} Nice to Aix and Marseilles at Carnival time in 1829. In my visits to Paris I like to imagine the leisurely life he led there at the end ,of the Restoration and in the early years of the reign of Louis-Philippe. On my way to the Bibliotèque Nationale I often pass through the galleries and quiet gardens of the Palais Royal and I can almost believe that he is walking there with Lafayette, discussing the best kind of government for France.

In my professional work, besides the public courses I can give in Marseilles on subjects connected with Cooper’s life and work (American history, the sea novel etc.) I have always been able to devote to him a large share of my university courses at Aix and Nice. The Spy, The Pioneers, The Pilot and Satanstoe have each been studied for periods of four years, and now The Last of the Mohicans is a main item on the syllabus for the newly-created Certificate of American Literature and Civilization. Several generations of students at Marseilles, Aix and Nice have thus learned to respect and admire the Knickerbocker School, so often ignored by modern French highbrows.

In, my occasional lectures in various cities of the coast I never fail ‘to press the claims of Cooper as the real creator of the sea novel and as one of the great prose-poets inspired by the glories of the Mediterranean which he used to call “a sea of dreams”. As regards his character, my experience has been that French audiences always respond to an outspoken and impartial statement of his evolution after 1826, and those who listen to me generally approve of the title of such lectures; ” Fenimore Cooper, un homme“. (A Man)!

At every turn, whether in the classroom or in the lectureroom, I find countless opportunities to go back to Cooper’s experiences, or utterances, for illuminating comment or comparison. For instance Emerson’s English Traits is often studied in French universities, but a parallel with Cooper’s England is seldom thought of, although it shows that Cooper emphatically proclaimed the need of American intellectual independence before Emerson’s famous address, and also that he had gone as deep as Emerson in the diagnosis of some of England’s idiosyncrasies and limitations. This very year a comparative study of Hawthorne’s Tales and Cooper’s Wept of Wish-ton-Wish helped me to throw additional light on Amer{7}ican puritanism as well as on Hawthorne’s indebtedness to Cooper’s historical methods.

Personally, the study of Cooper has compelled me to go into the detail of Scott’s career and to examine his work in its true historical perspective, thus allowing me to realize how much modern critics minimize Scott the poet while they exaggerate his originality as a novelist and his “saintliness” as a man. Curiously enough, one of my major interests, the comparative study of English and French rhythms, has been fostered by Cooper’s inability to appreciate French classical poetry on the stage. I often wish I had been able to show him that his knowledge of latin versification (on which he prided himself not a little) might have given him the means to enjoy Corneille and Racine just as much as his favourite Shakespeare. And, speaking of Shakespeare, I often ask myself how far his practice and example may be responsible for various flaws in Cooper’s technique, for instance in the matter of disguises and in a certain disregard of verisimilitude in the plots.

As regards American civilization, my knowledge of Cooper’s political and social views constantly offers me original ways of approaching all sorts of questions, .and his American Democrat will soon be included in the program for the new American certificate which already proves a favourite with my students.

In connection with the American language (so puzzling to a Frenchman who never knows whether to “speak English” or “talk American” I often ponder over the fact that, 120 years ago, Cooper’s pronunciation was not very different from that of the Englishmen he met in London society, and I constantly think that America could take advantage of her present leading position in world affairs to become less sensitive on the question of language and to discourage the growing estrangement between the two great branches of English. The true friends of Anglo-Saxon culture are sincerely appalled at the idea that English and American may, some day, become as different as Spanish and Portuguese, and I believe Cooper’s uncompromising patriotism would not, in our day, object to Anglo-American conferences on the standardization of a sort of public-school English, spoken by all educated Anglo-Saxons the world over.

To come back to Cooper’s personality, I frankly acknowledge {8} that, at fifty-six, I still consider him as a sort of Mentor, and this in spite of the fact that I have taken part in two World Wars (while he never saw real active service on sea or land) and that my religious and philosophical experiences have certainly been more varied than his. I realize that he was Quixotic at times in his appreciation of Lockhart’s Life of Scott, but his moral rectitude is none the less impressive. I do not think other American writers could mean so much to me, for Emerson’s avowed contradictions leave a “logical Frenchman” nonplussed, while his reserve (to make use of a Cooper expression) throws a chill over one’s affections.

It is possible that Susan Fenimore Cooper’s hero-worship has impressed upon us an idealized moral picture of her father, as Boynton suggested towards the end of his biography, but, if the religion of humanity ever becomes a living reality, the saints of the new creed will no doubt undergo a much greater amount of idealization, as is already shown by the biographies of some scientists and benefactors of mankind.

So I am not ashamed to confess that I often speak to Cooper’s portrait on my desk or on my piano. When the unaccountable omission of my main thesis in the selective bibliography of the new Literary History of the United States came to me as a terrible blow from an unexpected quarter 5, I appealed, to Cooper in my distress, and I set to music his melancholy and disillusioned lines written on the grave of his former shipmate, Captain Gamble 6 And, only a few days ago, after I had finished my first centennial paper and pleaded with all my heart for his full rehabilitation as an author and as a man, I went to him with tears in my eyes and sobbed aloud “I have done my level best! 7


1 ” ... well-selected though your quotations are [in your paper on Cooper’s reputation] your audience will prefer to know, even more fully, how you - who have worked on Cooper longer than any scholar alive - feel about him. The quotations don’t give the feeling of intimacy with a great figure that you yourself could give, speaking for yourself.” Lettre du 31 août 1951.

2 a daughter of the French chemist Robert LESPIEAU.

3 Cf. James GROSSMAN, James Fenimore Cooper, new American Men of Letters Series, New York 1949, bibliographical note, p. 270: “M. Clavel’s book is on a monumental scale and with meticulous scholarship corrects even slight errors of its predecessors, at times somewhat severely ... “.

4 Voir lettres de Frédéric LEFÈVRE:

“Paris, 3 avril 1940. Monsieur et cher Confrère, J’ai bien reçu votre belle these sur Fenimore Cooper. C’est tellement important qu’au lieu du compte rendu que j’avais envisagé tout d’abord, je serais désireux de publier une importante chronique. Auriez-vous un nom à me suggrer ? Parmi ceux qui vous ont ecrit leur admiration, connaissez-vous un écrivain capable de faire une éblouissante chronique sur Fenimore Cooper, sa vie, son œuvre, son temps? Un mot, je vous prie..

Paris, 15 avril 1940 ... J’ai une heureuse nouvelle à vous annoncer: ne cherchez plus qui rendra compte de votre livre dans les Nouvelles Littéraires; je viens de voir M. André Bellessort qui m’a parlé de votre livre avec tant d’enthousiasme que je lui ai immédiatement demandé une chronique. II a accepté avec joie de la faire et doit me la donner d’ia quelquas semaines. Ce sera tout à fait bien...”

5 Cet oubli fut déploré ensuite par le Professeur SPILLER qui l’expliqua par une étourderie de son “collaborateur bibliographique”. Dans une lettre à la Macmillan Company (en date du 29 novembre 1949) ce dernier écrivait: “I find a note on my original copy to the effect that the item is an important biographical study, but for some reason past recall the note never got acted on.” La même lettre proposait d’insérer une allusion à la thèse principale à la place du sous-titre de la thèse secondaire, ce qui a été fait dans la 2e édition.

6 Un disque souple de cette mélodie a été apprécié par un groupe de congressistes à la fin d’une des sèances (Lettres du Directeur de la New York State Historical Association et du professeur BEARD: 10 et 23 septembre 1951). La partition qui sera jointe au tiré à part du présent article constituera la première impression de cette composition musicale.

7 Les prévisions du Professeur BEARD sur l’intérêt d’une communication d’allure autobiographique ont été pleinement confirmées par des réactions très favorables des congressistes. Cf. Lettre du Prof. Beard en date du 23 septembre 1951: ” ... Of your papers, we considered the second the best for the purposes of the conference, since it illustrated so well the appeal of Cooper even today to at least one sensitive and thoughtful intellectual in Europe. The autobiographical note in no way detracted from the value of the paper (Spiller also, as you will see, was autobiographical), and it gave the paper some of its charm. Carleton Hayes, who presided at the session at which your paper was read, gave a fine introduction ; and your paper was beautifully and appreciatively read by James Taylor Dunn, librarian of the NYSHA ... “.      Voir encore une lettre de Mrs Hecker Winders, auteur de: James Fenimore Cooper: Leatherstocking Boy: ” ... With congratulations on your delightful, unusual, and one of the most enthusiastically received contributions to a notable program, I am etc ... “

* Cf. lettre du 17 octobre 1955: “Probably because of lack of space, only the papers which were actually read by their authors and discussed by the members of the panel were included.”

** Cf. Thèses de doctorat ès-lettres (Sorbonne 1938): Fenimore Cooper, sa vie et son œuvre (la jeunesse: 1789-1826) et Fenimore Cooper and his critics (American British and French criticism of the novelist’s early work). Printed by the author. Prix Montyon de littérature 1939.