Cooper’s Reputation One Century after His Death

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. 9-19).

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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. The first, “What Fenimore Cooper Has Meant and What He Still Means to Me,” 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.


Cooper’s Reputation One Century After His Death

A few considerations on what it is and on what it could and should be. 1

One of the principal objects of the Cooper Centennial Conference is, in the words of Professor James F. Beard, Jr., chairman of the Program Committee, to effect “a summing-up and re-assessment of Cooper’s place in American and world literature and civilization”.

All Cooper scholars will of course agree that this re-assessment cannot result in a further reduction of the scanty plot of ground now left to the once unquestioned ruler of the forest and of the sea, but that, on the contrary, it ought to bring about a reoccupation of much of Cooper’s former domain, and even spectacular gains in new and unexpected directions.

It is to be feared, however, that such conclusions will be deemed to savour of megalomania in those very circles which pride themselves on discovering forgotten geniuses, and we should make it quite clear that Cooper’s friends and admirers have never put forward unreasonable demands, and that, as a matter of fact, they have {10} waited with exemplary patience for a Cooper revival now long overdue.

They have always recognized that it was but natural that Cooper’s world-wide fame should diminish considerably when third-rate imitations of his original creations began to glut the literary market and to intensify the normal desire of the reading public for a change of subject and of artistic treatment. They have thought it natural (though highly regrettable) that the popular misconceptions of Cooper’s character which had injured the sale of his works in the last period of his life should continue to operate against him for several decades after his death. But, in their eyes, it is both unnatural and unjust that the irregular but inevitable swing of the pendulum of fashion should have failed to bring about a powerful reaction in favour of Cooper at some favourable period, for instance in the early years of the present century, in the days of Theodore Roosevelt, of Rudyard Kipling, and of the “strenuous life “, when the passing of time was already conferring on Cooper’s work a much grater historical value and when the newer generations might have been expected to look dispassionately on the quarrels of their great grandfathers.

This persistent, though comparative, neglect of Cooper was perhaps partly due to the fact that, if he neither forgot nor forgave the ” faint praise” of the North American Review at the outset of his career, the New Englanders never forgot that “nothing Yankee seemed to agree with him”, not even Boston biscuits! (And New England was almost supreme in literary criticism during the second half of the nineteenth century). Another possible explanation is to be found in the lasting prestige of Lounsbury’s “model biography” (1883) which, in spite of Susan Fenimore Cooper’s criticisms and qualifications, practically crystallized the opinion of American intellectuals for many decades.

In Europe, British opinion was either indifferent or glad enough to see that one of -England’s most searching critics had come to be neglected by his own compatriots after he had exhorted them to shake off their former mother-country’s intellectual yoke. As, for the Continental intelligentsia, it was so impressed by the apparent hopelessness of Cooper’s case that it became afraid. of showing a {11} “boyish enthusiasm” for a “second-rate” or even “third-rate”, author.

The first World War, however, with those gallant American volunteers who made appointments with death “somewhere” on the soil or an the skies of invaded France, the war, culminating in the spirited and decisive intervention of Pershing’s “Sammies”; all this reminded the average Frenchman of Cooper’s stirring prose epics, and a great scholar and statesman like Gabriel Hanotaux joyfully exclaimed that the spirit of Leatherstocking was still alive in the hearts of the Americans, thus paying a very high tribute to Cooper’s character as well as to his genius. After such a pronouncement a Sorbonne national doctorate on Fenimore Cooper came within the range of possibilities, and official permission to study his life and work was granted to me in 1922 at the request of Charles Cestre, first professor of American literature and civilization in the University of Paris.

In the United States, the questionings and revaluations entailed by the war, together with the increasing attention paid to American literature in colleges and universities, led several first-rate scholars to undertake full-length portraits of Cooper from various angles, while many aspects of his life and work were being studied in Ph. D dissertations. At the same time, book-collectors were becoming increasingly aware of the fact that “Cooper firsts” were exceedingly scarce and therefore valuable. In short all the conditions required for a “Cooper boom” seemed to be fulfilled at long last.

Nevertheless the reasonable expectations of Cooper’s well-wishers were doomed to be disappointed. If the prices of first editions did soar sky-high, the scholarly publications of numerous Cooper specialists, headed by the enterprising and indefatigable R. E. Spiller, have not yet succeeded in convincing the intellectual elite that Cooper, in his way, is just as worthy of a renewal of interest as Herman ‘Melville or Henry James.

It remains to be seen, therefore, whether the conclusions of this conference (no matter how favourable to Cooper and his work) will be readily accepted by the literary public, both in America and in Europe, and the chief difficulty for us will be to agree on the precise claims that can be put forward with most effect in order to bring about a new and widespread recognition of Cooper’s real worth {12} as a man, as an American citizen, as a citizen of the World, and as a literary force of enduring character.

I speak of a “new” recognition because, in my opinion, one of our first tasks must be to remind our contemporaries that there was a time when Cooper appeared to his countrymen, and to the whole civilized world, as the most typical and admirable representative of American capabilities and American democratic virtues, not only in the field of literature but in public and private life as well.

The toast of Chancellor Kent at the public dinner offered to Cooper on the eve of his departure for Europe in 1826 represented the general feeling of the Americans of that period: “The genius which has rendered our native soil classic ground and given to our early history the enchantment of fiction”. As for British and French admiration, it was strikingly expressed by Colburn’s Magazine as late as 1833.: “He is an American, even in our English sense of the term; the amor patriae is in him a passion that never subsides; he is devotedly attached to his country, to its institutions, and (as is apparent from his works) to its rugged but magnificent scenery. His republicanism he does not attempt to conceal ... He has preferred the loss of popularity in certain circles of English society to disguising his principles ... In Paris, no man is more sought after and few so much respected ... Yet he seems to claim little consideration on the score of his intellectual greatness; he is evidently prouder of his birth than of his genius, and looks, speaks, and walks as if he exulted more in being recognized as an American citizen, than as the author of The Pilot and The Prairie“. Thus, in the age of Scott and Byron, of Coleridge and Wordsworth, a leading English periodical could speak of the “intellectual greatness”, of the “genius”, and of the uncompromising republicanism of the great American now too often remembered as a “writer for boys” or as a “quarrelsome aristocrat”!

Even after the dark days of the Effingham Libel Suits and the long period of political, social and religious controversies, many of Cooper’s contemporaries could be much more fair to him than most misinformed text-book writers of our time. And this is shown not {13} only by the obituary speeches and letters printed with Bryant’s famous “Discourse” in the Memorial of James Fenimore Cooper, but in long elaborate reviews of his life and work in the years preceding his death. Here are, for, instance, some of the things Griswold had to say of the libel suits in the International Magazine for April 1851: “It cannot be denied that Mr. Cooper is personally unpopular, and the fact is suggestive of one of the chief evils in our social condition. In a previous number of this magazine we have asserted the ability and eminently. honorable character of a large class of American Journals: The spirit of another class, also in many instances conducted with ability, is altogether bad and base; jealous, detracting, suspicious ... degrading everything that wears the appearance of greatness ... effectually dissipating all the romance of character, and all the enthusiasm of life ... insensible to the very existence of honor as a spring of human conduct, treating patriotism and disinterestedness with an elaborate sneer, and receiving the suggestions of duty with a horse-laugh”.

Such pronouncements, by one of the outstanding literary critics of the age, should more than counterbalance the virulent and often misinformed article of the North American Review on the publication of Cooper’s last novel in July 1854: “Mr. Cooper as a novelist is but the ghost of his former self. He committed literary suicide at least ten years ago ... with the publication of the Monikins. Of the novels which have come after it ... it Is enough to say that they are written by a shade of Mr. Cooper, who represents very fairly his bad taste, his garrulity and his prejudices, but bears no likeness of his manlier features. Many of them are not novels or romantic fictions, in the proper sense of the term, but tedious arguments, or querulous pleas addressed to the community’s sense of justice, grounded on the imaginary slights or wrongs which the author has suffered ... If these sketches are not libels upon individuals, they are libels upon his countrymen at large. They are ebullitions of ill-nature, petulant manifestations of an irritable and scolding temperament. Mr Cooper evidently does not like our American works and ways. But he cannot censure them in the spirit of a philosopher or a humorist, he can only croak and growl ... “.

In the face of such malignant exaggerations (the most glaring of which is the omission of poetical masterpieces like The Pathfinder {14} and The Deerslayer, published in the very midst of the libel suits) we well might, as impartial observers, adopt the attitude of the British historical novelist G.P.R. James, when he “summed up” as follows at the end of the great Cooper demonstration of February 1852: “I will sum up as best I can, and I ask, to what is it that you are about to erect a statue? Is it simply to a novelist? No, no, no, — far more than that. It is to genius, whose triumphs are as far superior to those of the military man as mind is superior to matter — as the power that can sway millions is to that which can slay hundreds of thousands. But is this all? No! far from it! It is a statue to truth — straightforward truth — truth, worthy of more statues than were ever raised to it. Is it to truth alone? No; but to truth, genius and patriotism combined. I say he was a patriot in the fullest sense of the word, for, though he spent a considerable part of his life out of this great land, he was every where an American — true to his country, and true to himself. With this summing up, I would ask if there is any man or any woman (and woman’s voice is more powerful to plead than man’s) — I would ask, is there any one who leaves this hall to-night who will not contribute, nay, who will not, use every exertion to procure contributions from their friends and neighbours, to erect a statue that will go down to posterity as a testimony of your reverence for genius, truth, and patriotism?”

This glowing tribute, so eloquently voiced a hundred years ago, before the New York Historical Society and the intellectual and social elite of the metropolis, ought to be brought to the attention of the improvised critics of our generation when they overlook the importance of historical perspective and think Cooper an easy prey on which to sharpen their claws.

Another urgent task of the Cooper scholars is to counteract the tendency of most readers to remember the witty strictures of a biographer while forgetting or minimizing his most sincere praises of the subject of his biography. I was once literally appalled by the caricature of Cooper’s personality that a good French student had managed to extract from Lounsbury’s biography, notwithstanding the latter’s striking tributes to Cooper’s character and genius. Simi{15}larly, a serious review of Mr. Grossman’s carefully balanced biography in a leading periodical shows, by its very title: “Quarrelsome Fenimore Cooper”, that a Cooper scholar should take particular care to tone down his criticisms and emphasize his eulogies if he does not wish to be enlisted at times among Cooper’s detractors.

A third obvious way of helping to bring about a Cooper revival is to lay stress on those aspects of his life and work which are practically unknown to the general public, especially if they happen to fit in with the tastes and preoccupations of the moment. Professor Spiller certainly compelled the reading public to “sit up and take notice” when he repeatedly presented the “writer for boys” as a critic of his time and a man of ideas, an attitude further emphasized by H.L. Mencken’s preface to the republication of Cooper’s American Democrat. As a counterpart, the psychoanalytic approach of D. H. Lawrence in his Studies in Classic American Literature certainly raised Cooper’s stature in the eyes of advanced intellectuals, and it is probable that Mr. Grossman’s occasional use of these methods will further impress them, as is shown by the review of his book by Richard Chase in the Nation for January 14, 1950. It is also likely that a new detailed study of the Anti-Rent Trilogy (with special reference to the present interest in the growth of socialistic and communistic theories in various political surroundings) will encourage more Americans to consider Cooper as a notable political thinker.

Again, the students of the relations between literature and politics, and of the burning question of “la littérature engagée”, will find much to learn in Cooper’s novels of ideas, whether of the liberal European type like The Bravo, or of the apparently conservative type like the Anti-Rent Trilogy or The Crater. They will perhaps come to the conclusion that Cooper had too high a conception of his calling as a novelist to consent to act as a mere entertainer, giving his readers “more Indians” or “more ship” as requested. They may also realize that it was natural, for a man of his frank and broad-minded temperament, to point out the defects that he gradually discovered in those republican and democratic forms of government which he had honestly extolled in his earlier writings, always in the hope that the French maxim: “On peut {16} tout dire à un grand peuple” could apply to the Americans, and that his criticisms would result in, the strengthening of true American principles.

A fourth point is that, from the purely literary angle, it does pay (both in America and in Europe) to present Cooper as “the American Walter Scott” especially now that most Anglo-Saxons have forgotten that Walter Scott, the poet, effected the romantic break-through in the grand spectacular manner while Wordsworth only “acquired a public by dint of living on”. Cooper, it is true, objected to this appellation, but it was not simply because he always considered Scott as a poet, or because he hated the pretentiousness implied in the comparison. It was also because he felt that such a “nickname” (as he dared call it in his Letter to his Countrymen) failed to do justice to his original contribution to the literature of his time. If we put together the important autobiographical statements he sent to Griswold in the early forties, we realize that he did claim (and not unjustly) that The Pilot and The Last of the Mohicans had, each in its own way, “formed a totally new class of romance” owing to their complete originality “as to manner and subject” and to their extraordinary success and influence at home and abroad.

All the friends of Cooper should therefore quote and requote Stevenson’s happy phrase: “Cooper of the wood and wave” since it so aptly sums up Cooper’s original contribution to world literature, but without neglecting to add that it ought to be understood as meaning: “Cooper was the Walter Scott of the wood and wave“, that is a gigantic literary figure of the romantic era with an immense domain of his own, and not a mere writer of boyish adventure stories in the virgin forests and on the sea. In other words, the most effective defence of Cooper as a creative genius is to state, most emphatically, that he did for America what Walter Scott had done in his novels for his native Scotland, making it “classic ground” for ages to come, but with an original outlook which is due not only to his American background and ideals but also to personal literary “gifts” of the highest order.

Modern Englishmen are apt to be particularly impressed by the presentation of Cooper as the real creator of the sea novel: They honestly believe that, if Smollett introduced the sailor into higher {17} literature, Captain Marryatt was the father of the sea novel as a literary genre. They have forgotten what their ancestors did realize with some envy, and they ought to be reminded that Cooper deliberately set to work to demonstrate the possibility of writing a genuine sea novel and that he published two masterpieces of the kind (The Pilot and The Red Rover) before the appearance of Captain Marryatt’s first book, Frank Mildmay, in 1829. This was fully understood at the time since the Edinburgh Review emphatically stated in 1835 that “the Empire of the sea had been conceded to him by acclamation”, a statement that should go far with British critics. As for the American critics who, through ignorance or diffidence, fail to uphold Cooper’s claims in this respect, they should be informed of the gratifying “piece of news” that, as late as 1856, a great British review, The Dublin University Magazine, could end as follows an elaborate parallel between Marryat and Cooper: “Such were Marryat and Cooper. If the former was the King of the naval novelists of Great Britain, Cooper was the Emperor of the naval novelists of all countries; and there is this enormous difference between the King and the Emperor — the former was an estimable writer of versatile talent, and the latter a glorious prose-poet of the very loftiest genius. The gulf between the two is, and ever will be, impassable. We have done, Signed: W. H.”

This praise of, Cooper as a “glorious prose-poet” echoed as it was in our day by that great literary craftsman, Joseph Conrad, ought to remind us that it is high time to put an end to the textbook platitudes on the “clumsy style” of the self-made novelist (who missed the incalculable advantages of a senior year at Yale!) or on those foreign translations (manufactured at top speed!) which could not fail to surpass their mediocre originals. Though these platitudes are sometimes derived from the exaggerated (or misunderstood) statements of renowned critics, the fact remains that, notwithstanding the haste in which most of Cooper’s books were written and printed, and notwithstanding the stilted character of American phraseology at that period, Cooper has a style, and a grand style, because he has power, vision, eloquence and poetry. His first biographer, Lounsbury, acknowledged on this point the accuracy of Balzac’s famous verdict, and I think I have shown in {18} my major thesis how much Defauconpret’s translations fall short of the originals. If a high-school boy ‘finds it so easy to correct Cooper’s mistakes, let him attempt the far more difficult task of discovering the secret of the haunting charm of those pages in The Pioneers and The Deerslayer, owing to which the shores of the “Glimmerglass”. have become part of many a cultured man’s dreamland!

To conclude on the personality of the great American who sleeps his last sleep, not in “a foreign grave” but near the lake and mountains he cherished throughout his life, I should like to beg his friends and admirers (now piously assembled round this “Sleeping Lion” of literature) to do their utmost to minimize the effects of the misleading phrase: “Quarrelsome Fenimore Cooper” since it may prove so harmful in obscuring his real character as a man and, as a citizen.

Thirty years ago, on an American Campus, I was painfully impressed when a quiet, agreeable professor of English, a recognized authority on XVIIth century literature, told me that, while he made it a point to read a novel of Scott’s, and one of Cooper’s every year, he would leave the States forthwith if many of his countrymen were of the Cooper type. Now, I suppose this professor could appreciate Dr. Johnson’s bluntness, and I trust he does appreciate Winston Churchill’s personality, even when this “enfant terrible” of the Conservative Party (now become the Grand Old Man of the Battle of Britain) indulges in appalling prophecies concerning the police-state to be set up in England by the Labour Party. For who would dream of painting Winston Churchill as an embittered misanthropist, only able “to croak and growl”, because he thinks and says at times that his country is going to the dogs or that Western Civilization is lost if the remedies he advocates are not speedily adopted?

The experience of life should also teach us that very peaceful men are sometimes drawn into serious quarrels, and can even be tempted to desert the village or city of their forefathers because some neighbours have caused them to fathom the darker depths of human nature. Hawthorne is reported to have shaken the dust from {19} his feet on leaving for ever his native town of Salem, and we do realize that, if we happen to weather similar storms, it is not only thanks to our easy-going and forgiving nature, but to a certain lack of energy and to the sacrifice of some of our principles.

Now Cooper, as his biographers well know, was one of those men who would consider themselves despicable cowards if they sacrificed a principle for the sake of securing a precarious truce. He also felt that considerations of private interest could not justify his staying out of an unpleasant French controversy when his help as an American citizen was urgently requested by one of the Fathers of American Independence, the venerable Lafayette. This chivalrous attitude was to result in the deplorable estrangement from his own countrymen, and eventually to transform him (in the eyes of his enemies) into the Egregious Mr. Effingham and the Quarrelsome Cooper of the later years; but let us remind our contemporaries that, once he had engaged in a fight for a principle, Cooper did actually feel like a Happy Warrior and thus did retain all his kindliness and jolliness in private life, as well as all his poetical fervour in his romances.

I see that I am going to echo Lounsbury’s almost enthusiastic conclusion on Cooper, the Man, but it is a sign that all those who study Cooper and his life dispassionately must end by saying: “We grant that such characters are sometimes Quixotic and not always easy to live with, but impartial observers cannot but recognize in them noble specimens of manhood that no one will cow into submission, such specimens as the older democracies can point to with respect and pride.”

Marcel Clavel


1 Cette communication n’a pas été lue au Congrès, d’abord parce que le comité lui a préferé la communication autobiographique, et ensuite parce que le Prof. Beard craignait de compromettre les chances dun “Cooper Revival” en donnant l’impression qu’un groupe de spécialistes voulait l’imposer à un public encore mal disposé (Lettre du 31 août 1951).

Nombreux pourtant sont les exemples de résurrections littéraires ou artistiques réalisées par des coteries sans beaucoup d’égards pour les gouts et les tendances du “public souverain” et pour des raisons infiniment moins valables que celles qui sont exposées ci-après.

* 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.