Created Space: The Crater and the Pacific Frontier

April D. Gentry (Savannah State University)

Placed on the Cooper Society website with the kind permission of the author. .

Presented at the 2002 Tufts English Graduate Organization Conference, “Liminal Spaces, Liminal Places, Liminal Traces” in Boston, November 2002.

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

In the year 1796, the Pacific Ocean was by no means as familiar to navigate as it is to-day. Cook had made his celebrated voyages less than twenty years before, and the accounts of them were then before the world; but even Cook left a great deal to be ascertained, more especially in the way of details. The first inventor or discoverer of anything, usually gains a great name, though it is those who come after him that turn his labors to account.

— James Fenimore Cooper, The Crater, 1847

“I like my new book exceedingly,” James Fenimore Cooper enthusiastically wrote home to his wife from Philadelphia on 12 August 1847, “and the part which I was afraid was ill done, is the best done; I mean the close” (Letters 5: 230). The Crater, the book in question, forms an important bridge between Cooper’s frontier tales and his sea fiction. Set on an uncharted Pacific island, The Crater pushes the already hazy margins of the American frontier from the prairie to Polynesia. The novel follows the adventures of Mark Woolston, a young New Englander who sets out to make his fortune in the trans-Pacific shipping trade. Finding himself stranded on a barren volcanic reef, however, Mark becomes the founder of America’s first Pacific colony. Though the colony thrives for a time, the eventual arrival of newspapers, lawyers, and demagogues apocalyptically signals the end of the little republic. These factors exert such weight, in fact, that the island literally sinks — the colony disappears from the face of the earth in a cataclysmic eruption from which only Mark, his friend Bob Betts, and their families are saved. Thus, the close, about which Cooper was so pleased.

The Crater is in many ways an indictment of the American society and government of Cooper’s time, embodying his frustrations and fears about the increasing power of popular opinion, constitutional reform, and the press in the wake of the Jacksonian egalitarianism he had generally supported. Such issues troubled him personally as well intellectually, as a long footnote in the novel about the errant press and own libel suit suggests. Cooper himself must have recognized how greatly his passions and politics shaded the novel, continuing in the 12 August 1847 letter, “If any one else had written it, it would be the next six month’s talk. As it is, it will probably not be much read in this country. Well, there is not much love lost between us. It is a contemptible public opinion, at the best” (231). The note of resignation in the letter mirrors the overall tone of the novel’s ending, both suggesting that something had gone irreparably wrong with the American democracy he had so admired. Clearly, Cooper felt no little authorial pleasure in seeing his own representation of that “contemptible” opinion-holding body sunk to the bottom of the ocean.

Yet the fact that Cooper condemns his colony of “Craterinos,” as they call themselves, to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in particular is a salient point that critics of the novel have generally left uninterrogated. Wayne Franklin in The New World of James Fenimore Cooper, for example, argues that the Pacific setting of the novel simply lets Cooper take the action “away from the assumptions clustered about the use of any specific American place” (189), allowing for “a dreamlike expansion of the local quarrel, a pushing of county matters into universal terms” (200). Similarly, Warren Motley suggests in The American Abraham: James Fenimore Cooper and the Frontier Patriarch that “for Cooper, the Pacific is a blank slate” that lets him “inscrib[e] his major preoccupations as an American artist” (152). Even critics who elsewhere deal with America’s history in the Pacific have yet to place The Crater firmly within a context of America’s activity in the islands. Although Charles H. Adams very rightly points out that “what little [Cooper] knew about vulcanism, earthquakes, South Sea islanders, reef culture, or tropical weather patterns came wrapped in the values, prejudices, ideologies, and personal ‘preoccupations’ of those whose books he read,” his essay “Uniformity and Progress: The Natural History of The Crater“ most closely attends to Cooper’s received notion of history, rather than of the Pacific. And Steve Sumida dismisses The Crater as “entirely fictional” (86), discussing it only briefly in And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawaii to contrast it with Melville’s Typee; like those critics cited above, Sumida believes that this is a novel only about mainland America with an incidentally Pacific setting, and he asserts that Cooper “makes little or no claim to be uncovering truths about actual Pacific islands and their inhabitants” (21).

My interest in The Crater, by contrast, lies in the fact that by 1847 America had had contact with — and even dominated — some areas of the Pacific for over fifty years. Fortunes had been made in the fur, sandalwood, and whaling trades, and American missionaries had been in Hawaii for nearly thirty years. Further, at the moment of the novel’s composition, America was engaged in the Mexican-American war, in which it would obtain its Pacific coastline with a very real political view toward extending its reach into Hawaii — and Cooper’s best friend William Shubrick was Commodore of the Pacific fleet. Cooper’s depictions of sea trade and the spread of civilization into the Pacific would have resonated with a concrete cultural history, especially in New England. The Pacific of 1847, in other words, is no blank slate. Cooper may have never been to the Pacific, but he lived in a culture in which he could write about it simply by virtue of the images and texts circulating all around him. In this way, The Crater suggests how powerfully received truths about a borderland like the Pacific could create a sense of mastery within an American imagination searching for new stories to tell about itself and the spaces it sought to inhabit. While The Crater may not give us direct knowledge of the “real” Pacific, it helps us to explore some of the inconsistencies in America’s early imperialist relationship to Polynesia, specifically those dealing with the question of expansion and attendant anxieties about race and history.

American (Anti)Conquest

Although a vast array of intertextual references to everyone from Columbus to Robinson Crusoe make The Crater a direct heir to centuries of European imperialist discourse, that inheritance does not come without a great deal of discomfort. The novel strives to distance the actions of its American heroes from the lusts for gold and territory that are part of the empire-building stereotype; distrustful of the designs that the Old World still had on North America, Cooper’s novel insists on American expansion as a different kind of enterprise. Mary Louise Pratt offers the term “anti-conquest” to describe “strategies of representation whereby European bourgeois subjects seek to secure their innocence in the same moment as they assert European hegemony,” an act most often associated with a figure she calls “the ‘seeing-man’ ... the European male subject of European landscape discourse — he whose imperial eyes passively look out and possess” (7). Exemplified in the person of the botanist or natural historian, Pratt’s “seeing-man” asserts an “innocent” intellectual curiosity that is in fact a mode of dominance justified by its seeming passivity. He takes territory by viewing, naming, identifying, and classifying. If the implied counterpart of this figure might be called “the doing-man,” the traditional agent of empire who bounds zealously forth into the lesser-known regions of the world with flag and sword waving, then Mark falls somewhere in the middle of these two poles. In Mark, Cooper draws a specifically American breed of imperialist hero, building upon and “improving” those European models Pratt has in mind.

Mark carries with him a wealth of knowledge about the natural world that might qualify him to be just the kind of intellectual observer Pratt associates with the discourse of anti-conquest, but he lacks the passivity of the seeing man. He is able, after all, to transform a barren volcanic reef into a lush and fertile paradise, manufacturing even the soil in which the seeds grow. The difference here is the distinction between botany and agriculture, between astronomy and navigation; Mark’s knowledge is valuable not for its abstract contribution to some higher storehouse of Western information, but because it has vigorous, practical, and masculine applications in the real world of his lived experience. He does not simply observe-he uses that which he views and then claims the right to own it by virtue of his investment of knowledge and labor. 1 Cooper admires that “the American can usually turn his hand to a dozen different pursuits; and though he may not absolutely reach perfection in either, he is commonly found useful and reasonably expert at all,” and Mark is just such an American (368). Mark’s journal, which the narrator claims is the source for the text, is never submitted to any learned society or published as a treatise on the weather patterns of the Pacific. Its value, too, lies in practical application-for the narrator to report as a political fable to the republic.

Yet if Mark is too active to be “the seeing-man,” the American values of Christian brotherhood and democratic equality make the figure I have gestured toward above as “the doing-man” a distasteful avatar of European forms of aggression from which America as a collection of former colonial spaces sought to distance itself. I don’t mean to argue here that Mark or the America he represents for Cooper makes a habit of treating the rest of the world as brothers or equals. Rather, one story the nation told and believed about itself was that unlike the greedy European empire-builders, America set out to christianize and democratize the world — only accepting its share of spoils along the way as a rightful reward. The urge simply to take land is cast as a primitive, savage trait; the first suspicions of native designs on Mark’s islands follow from the belief that “it seemed scarcely possible that men like the natives should hear of the existence of such a mountain as that of Rancocus Island, in their vicinity, and not wish to explore, if not to possess it” (240). By contrast, Cooper’s narrator insists that “Of all the powerful nations of the present day, America, though not absolutely spotless, has probably the least to reproach herself with, on the score of lawless and purely ambitious acquisitions” (328).

Yet ambitious acquisitions of an economic nature are what have brought Mark into the Pacific on a trading vessel, and what brought American trade to the Pacific to begin with. The novel does its best to hide these broad financial interests behind a veil of morality, yet a number of moments in the text reveal how thin such a veil necessarily is. Underlying them all is the invisible but persistent presence of the kindly Quaker owner of the stranded merchant ship Rancocus, Friend Abraham White. The stranded Rancocus offers Mark its entire cargo with which to build his new world, and at each new discovery among the ship’s stores we are reminded of Friend Abraham’s benevolence in supplying seeds, farm implements, clothing, tools, and a myriad of other artifacts of civilization in addition to the usual worthless bits of iron and beads used in Pacific trade. Those reminders, however, do not fully efface one narratorial aside concerning the abundant stores the ship contains. The real explanation for the presence of these items is that Friend Abraham felt religious guilt about being involved in the trade of sandalwood, reputedly used as incense in “heathen” Chinese temples and shrines; perhaps, at a level beneath that which the text can name, the “gentle” Quaker also felt humanitarian guilt about his involvement in the subjugation of the Pacific natives from whom the sandalwood was bartered. Instead of pulling out of such lucrative trade altogether, however, he had assuaged his conscience by providing these objects “toward the civilization of the heathen” of the Pacific who provide the sandalwood (113). Blending the logic of traders and missionaries, Friend Abraham’s economic dealings are linked to (and in some measure justified by) his moral and cultural interest in Polynesian people.

The great success of Mark’s own economic affairs is likewise hemmed in moral, rather than fiscal, language. Shortly after the founding of the colony, Mark returns to the mainland in order to attempt to restore the abandoned Rancocus to its rightful owner and make some accounting of himself and his use of the cargo before the ship’s insurers. Upon so doing, he discovers that Friend Abraham has died, and the insurers are so impressed with his responsible actions that they reward him with the Rancocus itself, the beginning of what grows into a healthy trading fleet. Another of Mark’s equally successful purposes in returning to the mainland, the claiming of his wife’s substantial inheritance, passes by as a mere side note. Finally on this trip, Mark recruits the first batch of new colonists to return to the crater with him and settle throughout the small island group. In musing on Mark’s decision to only allow people with particular personalities and vocations to join his colony rather than accepting any who might pay for the privilege of relocation, Cooper’s narrator urges that “the reader will perceive that Governor Woolston was not influenced by the spirit of trade that is now so active, preferring happiness to wealth, and morals to power” (327). Yet on the selfsame page when the narrator must explain why Mark keeps these interviews of prospective colonists as private as possible instead of advertising broadly, we hear: “The reasons were numerous and sufficient for this wish to remain unknown. In the first place, the policy of retaining a monopoly of a trade that must be enormously profitable, was too obvious to need any arguments to support it” (327). Mark is not motivated by profit, the novel wants to insist, but simply protects those profitable opportunities that present themselves as rewards for his right-thinking. Similarly, at about the time new colonists are admitted, Mark becomes Governor Woolston to the narrator and to his companions alike — a rank and title that he did not bestow upon himself but which he accepts and acts upon authoritatively. Again the novel insists that Mark is free of the perceived taint of trade and economic desire, but that for his sincere beliefs he will be rewarded with exactly that power and wealth which he is too principled to actively seek.

In these moments, the novel seems at pains to distance the founding of this Pacific colony from the economic roots of real Pacific expansion. Its Americanization of the Pacific, backed by a Quaker merchant and carried out by a favored son of Providence who was born in the same year America freed itself of its own colonial status, becomes a divine democratic mission which is only incidentally lucrative enough to prove that the work carried out there is blessed. The Crater does draw useful iconography from Western imperialism more generally, yet its engagement with an American rhetoric of anti-conquest shields very real capitalist and imperial goals behind the bulwark of religious benevolence and political order. In so doing, the novel converts Pacific landscapes and those who inhabit them into mere extensions of America-and thereby conveniently obliterates the imperialist exploitation subtending American expansion. As such, the novel draws upon and reinforces not only those foundational American mythologies that enabled the Mexican-American war, but those which had for decades allowed for American domination of Hawaii as well.

Race(ing) into the Pacific

The novel’s handling of race relations between Pacific natives and white Americans further reveals the ideologically fraught nature of American expansion. The nearest island group to the colony is embroiled in a seemingly perpetual battle for control between two native chiefs, the elder and benevolent Ooroony and the younger, malicious Waally; this power struggle spills over into the colonies in several attempts by the tribe to overtake Mark’s islands. 2 At first glance, we might be tempted simply to read Cooper’s Pacific natives as analogues of the Indian characters in his better-known frontier novels, but in fact their relationship to the white world is quite different. The natives of Ooroony’s group occupy a slippery ideological and etymological place in the first section of the novel. At first they are entirely invisible, appearing only after Mark’s friend Bob Betts has found his way back to the mainland and then returned to rescue Mark. Upon his return, Betts tells Mark of his discovery of a nearby island which had “inhabitants,” the only word here used to describe Ooroony and his people; Betts had made fast friends with these “inhabitants,” and the narrator assures us they are “exceedingly mild and just” (212). As Mark and Betts decide to undertake the founding of their colony on the reef, however, those nearby “inhabitants,” implicitly dangerous as people of unknown motives, become “natives” in the discourse of the novel, “those uninstructed children of nature” who, according to Mark and Betts, can be duped into believing that the workings of the volcano or the echo of a canon’s fire are the voice of their gods (222). And when Waally ascends to power and makes his first sally into Mark’s territory, the whole of those neighboring inhabitants take on names like “savages” and “Indians,” while the colonists become “whites” and “Christians” (243). Mistaken at one point for hogs and now referred to as “the rep tyles“ by Betts, the natives continue to occupy a declining place in the Pacific order of things as their intention to possess the island group becomes more clear (289, italics in original). As the battle between colonists and natives draws on, Mark discovers that seven of his old shipmates survive and have been held as captives among Waally’s people; when two of them find their way to the colony in the midst of a battle, Betts warily asks “Are there any black fellows with you — any of the natives?” (294). The fact that Betts must clarify exactly which black fellows he means is suggestive of how misplaced that phrase is, but a telling slippage exists here between Indian and black, both terms signifying little except “not white” at this point in the narrative.

Readers of Cooper’s fiction may find here some familiar split characterizations of “good” and “bad” natives that mirror the frontier novels. But despite the seeming interchangeability of mainland and island natives, The Crater works to affix to the Polynesian a specific racial identity in order to stabilize colonial relations. After the attacks on the island have been duly repelled, contact with the natives is still desirable to provide a market for the colony’s goods, a supply of labor, and a none-too-subtle policing of native politics. The natives, in other words, become colonial subjects of Mark’s new republic. From this point forward in the text they are referred to as Kannakas, Cooper’s rendering (and appropriation) of the Hawaiian self-naming kanaka maoli, meaning “the real people” or “the true people.” But for Cooper’s world this word carried a specific economic meaning-those Polynesians taken into ships’ crews for trans-Pacific trade were called Kanakas, and the word could be used interchangeably with “sailor” as well as with “native.” Once they are given this name, their place as subjects in the text — and as subjects of the Craterinos’ imperial gestures — is solidified. The guise of anti-conquest passivity falls away as Mark secures his place of power within the region:

[O]ne hundred lads were selected and handed over to the governor, as so many apprentices to the sea. These young Kannakas were so many hostages for the good behavior of their parents; while the parents, always within reach of the power of the colonists, were so many hostages for the good behavior of the Kannakas ... . One hundred able-bodied men were added to the recruits that the governor obtained ... They were taken as hired laborers, and not as hostages. Beads and old iron were to be their pay, with fish-hooks and such other trifles as had a value in their eyes. (370-1)

Perhaps aware of the violent domination of this arrangement, the narrator hastily assures us that this is not a hostage-taking after all, but a chance to give the Kannakas the gifts of civilization: “the governor had very few misgivings, since he believed it very possible so to treat, and so to train them, as to make them fast friends ... each and all were to be taught to read, and instructed in the Christian religion,” securing the outcome that “every one of [them] got to be, in the end, far more attached to the reef and its customs, than to their own islands and their original habits” (370). As in so many other tales of empire, training in language, religion, and capitalism makes the Kannakas civilized enough to be useful and non-threatening to the colonists — even though “they would not labor like civilized men, it is true, nor was it easy to make them use tools; but at lifts, and drags, and heavy work, they could be, and were, made to do a vast deal” (372). The novel finds it safe to grant the Kannakas some racial specificity only after they have been contained and sanitized and put to work. They become Kannakas when they are no longer savages, when their place under the mastery of American imperialism no longer suits them for identification with the displaced Indian or the enslaved black. 3

As this tangled linguistic web ultimately suggests, The Crater’s Pacific is one in which race and economics become inextricably linked. Being a slave or a Kanaka in the novel denotes a labor role as much as a lineage, and the fact that favored intermarriage actually exists between slaves and natives in the novel hints at a conceptual elision of non-white categories more generally. The Crater’s handling of race provides a vision of how white dominance can be maintained throughout the non-white world, ameliorating many of Cooper’s personal worries for his own expanding republic. While the novel’s three existing slaves are not freed, no new slaves are taken, and the novel suggests that Juno, Dido, and Socrates are bound to their humane, kindly owners most strongly by ties of affection and dependence rather than by any kind of oppression. The Polynesian people are effectively integrated into the lowest echelon of island society by being christianized and put to work in a system of labor that, while racially organized, does not carry what Cooper believed to be implicit dangers of racial slavery; this type of structure not only prevents a Pacific version of the kind of race war Cooper saw as the eventual outcome of Southern slavery 4, but also saves the Kannaka from the fate of the Mohican, whom white society could not accommodate and therefore exterminated. These Kannakas are represented as having markedly less of the “nobility” of Chingachgook and Uncas, all too readily giving up their religion and culture under the colonists’ instruction and fully exhibiting the “tractability” which American missionaries so often claimed was the core of the Hawaiian character. By more or less converting racial categories to class positions, the novel preserves and even strengthens the power structures of American society to brace for expansion into the rest of the world.

(Re)Writing America’s Pacific History

The Crater exists in what Foucault would call a “heterochronic” relation to America’s activity in the Pacific, creating “slices in time” that superimpose the temporal and eternal, the past and future, alongside and within the present (“Of Other Spaces” 26). While the novel was published on the brink of the acquisition of the Pacific coast, its 1796 setting reaches back to the era of the first wave of trade and contact; declaring to be a factual document drawn from Mark’s journal, the novel situates itself with both authority and authenticity as an episode in America’s Pacific past. The novel wants to talk about the (idealized) past of the American republic, the present expansion and populist decay, and the potential future of reform or apocalypse. The Pacific setting of Cooper’s novel is both historical and timeless, both current and ancient, making it a more available stage for the novel’s action than some other less remote (or even more remote) locale might be. W.B. Gates has shown how freely Cooper borrowed passages from two key sources, The Voyages of Captain James Cook and Wilkes’s Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition. Building his own text around the geography, names, and events of these two historical texts, Gates argues, allowed Cooper “to give his airy nothings a local habitation and a name” (246). Yet in using those two texts in particular, Cooper availed himself of an entire era of Pacific history from contact to colonization; in the case of Hawaii, for example, Cook’s narrative proclaims its discovery while Wilkes’s laments its modernization. In the space between those two texts a great deal of work could be done and a great deal of history could be manipulated. Cooper himself suggests that Cook had only laid the groundwork for Western ways of knowing the Pacific, leaving others — like Cooper himself, undoubtedly — to fill in what was absent “in the way of details” and to “turn his labors to account” (37-8). How, then, do these “slices in time” come together to form one coherent text? What kind of work does The Crater ultimately do to turn Cook’s discoveries to account?

By intertwining American and Hawaiian history, The Crater negotiates the past, present and future into a seemingly coherent narrative of American-Pacific relations. Set in a nostalgic past like Cooper’s other novels of the frontier, the world of The Crater exists in a time before the missionaries, before the Monroe Doctrine and before the Mexican-American war. The Crater portrays the dreamlike Pacific of the barely post-Cook 1796 as fresh and uncluttered by a long history of contact, full of potential and just the place for the young American born “only ten days before the surrender of Burgoyne” in “a part of this great republic where the names are still as simple, unpretending, and as good Saxon English, as in the county of Kent itself“(11) to plant the seeds of American democracy in its most ideal, and fragile, variety. In one sense such heterochronic timeplay works to lengthen and augment the history of American domination of Pacific people and landscapes. Yet the novel’s 1796 setting operates even more deeply in relation to the Hawaiian past, since that was the year Kamehameha united all the islands under his rule — just as Waally seeks to do to the island group in the novel. But Mark thwarts Waally’s designs, and in Cooper’s 1796 it is Mark the “native,” not a Polynesian chief, who takes dominion of a Pacific island group. The Crater does not just build up the substance of America’s early activity in the Pacific; it creates an American figure to parallel and supercede Kamehameha, laying imaginative claim not only to the Pacific’s terrain and its people, but to its very history. Given the direct influence on The Crater of both the Cook and Wilkes narratives (and Cooper would have been familiar with John Ledyard’s popular narrative of Hawaii’s discovery as well 5), Cooper would have been amply aware of these events in Hawaiian history.

Reading Wilkes would have acquainted Cooper with fairly contemporary Hawaiian events as well as those of Kamehameha’s era, and the rise and fall of Crater society shares striking parallels with a number of Hawaiian political and cultural landmarks of the early 1840s. It was in and around that decade that all those same divisive factors that destroy the Craterinos’ republic — religious squabbling, property divisions, newspapers, lawyers, and constitutional reform — came to Hawaii, with devastating effects for the island monarchy. In 1839, for example, Kamehameha III (also known as Kauikeaouli) 6 was forced at cannon-point to accept a treaty with the French that allowed free practice of Catholicism and conversion of natives by Catholic friars; this effectively ended the religious and cultural monopoly of America’s Protestant missionaries, who had played an exclusive role in the governmental and social life of the islands for twenty years. 7 In 1840 the first Hawaiian constitution — to many a suspect document from its inception because of the Western influence that had both necessitated and shaped it 8 — was drafted. It would continue to be revised, recast, and tampered with up to annexation. By 1844, James Jackson Jarves’s newspaper, the Polynesian, was successfully operating as “the official organ of the government,” (Daws 108) and in that same year the first lawyer arrived in Hawaii and was promptly made Attorney General (both he and Jarves were Americans). The traditional system of communal land tenure overseen by local chiefs was being vehemently challenged by whites eager to own land themselves, and such challenges found favor with a government increasingly staffed by American émigrés. 9 Though these kinds of “firsts” and conflicts probably occurred in the founding of many modern nations, it is interesting that these are for Cooper the signal of an end rather than a beginning. It is even more interesting, moreover, that the full cast of Cooper’s apocalypse on the Crater could be found newly arrived in the Hawaii of his day.

What does it mean, then, that The Crater’s fictional American history so neatly overlaps real Hawaiian history? How might the eminent fall of traditional monarchy be connected to the fall of the Crater’s corrupted republic? One potential connection exists as part of a larger relationship between fiction, history, and nationalism that operates throughout Cooper’s fiction. In The Insistence of the Indian, Susan Scheckel considers the role that depictions of Indians played in the construction of American identity throughout the nineteenth century. As part of her study she examines the historical strategies of Cooper’s The Pioneers, finding that

Cooper redefines the meaning of the Revolution in American history. In place of models that imagine the new nation emerging as a consequence of violent rupture with the past, Cooper offers a model in which continuity with a more distant, pre-Revolutionary past becomes the fundamental principle underlying US national identity. ... Cooper attempts to purify the national inheritance of violence and guilt ... [and to] set the stage for a ritual mourning of the ancestors, both English and Indian, who willingly bequeathed their authority and property to the new nation. (25)

Such a description of the way Cooper sets a version of history into the service of his fiction readily applies to most of Cooper’s frontier novels, making it possible to account for the seeming tension between admiration of a character like Chingachgook and acceptance of Indian displacement (extinction?) as an inevitable fact of American growth, or the contradictory desires to break with England while embracing elements of America’s British heritage. By creating a past in which American nationalism (with its inherent component of territorial expansion) could be seen as a natural outgrowth of processes in which dispossessed natives and overthrown colonial powers had both consented and participated, Cooper’s historical vision could ameliorate the violence and un-democracy of dispossession and overthrow.

Further, Scheckel’s concept of a Cooperian narrative process that substitutes historical and cultural continuity for “violent rupture” opens up the subtextual relationship between Hawaii and America in The Crater as well. Without exception, the key players in the Hawaiian events of the 1840s discussed above were Westerners, and most were Americans. They had the potential to “sink” their colonial project just as the last wave of colonists to the Crater had done, by bringing with them the same patterns of popular excess and moral deficit that Cooper saw threatening the mainland nation. But The Crater gives those events a place within a national history that aligns new conquest with the original founding of the American republic. Absent the noble Indian companion of Cooper’s other frontier protagonists, Mark’s struggle to create and maintain a Pacific republic embodies both the young American and the “native” islander fighting off and finally losing to an encroaching world. And by making Mark simultaneously the Kamehameha (and Kamehameha III, plagued by priests, the press, and the property system) of his islands as well as the American who can neatly and effectively put the natives in their place, The Crater brings Pacific history and Pacific conflict safely within the larger nationalist narrative of growth and progress. The Crater presents two kinds of colonialist forebearers for its readers: Mark and Friend Abraham who earn the right to an empire as a moral reward, and the later Craterinos who lose their empire and their lives as punishment for their democratic (far more than moral) sins. American and Hawaiian history mingle and interweave, as they had done in the writing of missionary Hiram Bingham 10 and others, making the process of displacement seem like one of cooperation 11

Although the colony is ultimately destroyed, Mark survives and returns to live forty more years back in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where, we are told, although “he regarded all popular demonstrations with distaste ... , he strictly acquitted himself of all his public duties, and never neglected to vote” (8). Though the colony itself was lost, that is, we are to understand that Mark himself is not punished and remains a “good” American democrat — perhaps better, even, (and certainly richer) for his experience as a colonizer. The post-Jacksonian democracy of the world into which Cooper’s novel was published lacked the classical Jeffersonian vision of the novel’s dream, and the colony’s fate stands as a pointed admonition to the nation: “If those who now live in the republic, can see any grounds for a timely warning in the events here recorded, it may happen that the mercy of a divine Creator may still preserve that which he has hitherto cherished and protected” (8). But what exactly is the timely warning Cooper wanted American to see as it stood ready to win the war with Mexico? That warning, I suggest, was not just about how democracy should operate, but how democracy should operate an empire. The Crater creates an American history of contact with the Pacific, founded by a hero born twin to the new republic, one who takes the most effective symbols and patterns of European imperialism and molds them into a distinctly American shape. It integrates Hawaiian and American nationalist struggles into one history, paving the way for Pacific domination by removing its violent disruptions of native culture and native space. The contrasts between Mark’s ethical success as a colonialist and the degeneration and destruction of the colony itself are not, finally, contradictions so much as two sides of the same coin. In that sense, The Crater serves as a cautionary tale for the expansionist moment of 1847, presenting the possibilities and consequences of pushing America beyond its current borders. As the nation stood poised on the California coast, ready to venture further west, Cooper’s novel gives that motion the feeling of a second try, a return mission informed by the lessons of Mark’s individual success and the colony’s collective failure.

Works Cited

  • Adams, Charles H., “Uniformity and Progress: The Natural History of The Crater.” James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts. Ed. W.M. Verhoeven. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993. 203-13.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Crater; or, Vulcan’s Peak. 1847. New York: D. Appleton, n.d.
  • ------. Letters and Journals. Ed. James Franklin Beard. 6 vols. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960-1968.
  • Daws, Gavan, Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1968.
  • Dougherty, Michael, To Steal a Kingdom: Probing Hawaiian History. Waimanalo: Island Style Press, 1992.
  • Foucault, Michel, “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics 16.1 (1986): 22-27.
  • Franklin, Wayne, New World of James Fenimore Cooper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Gates, W.B., “Cooper’s The Crater and Two Explorers.” American Literature 23 (1951): 243-46.


1 This is precisely the model of American imperial rationalization that Twain would later attack in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Many significant parallels exist, in fact, between The Crater and Connecticut Yankee (the Yankee as a figure of ingenuity and modernity, the hero stranded in a “primitive” space, the creation and destruction of a modernizing project); compounded by the Hawaiian antecedents of Connecticut Yankee, as well as by Twain’s denunciation of what he saw as Cooper’s frontier con-game, the connections between the two texts offer a provocative nexus for considering formulations of American imperialism. Twain’s novel figures as a sort of “anti- Crater“ that tries to reveal the violence Twain feared from a character like Mark Woolston.

2 W.B. Gates suggests that these names come from the chiefs Opoony and Owalle of Cook’s narrative.

3 Another sign of the corrupted society of the Craterinos is revealed after the sinking of the colony: those who take power and destroy the government had also “begun to oppress [the Kannakas] by exacting more work than was usual, and forgetting to pay for it” (503).

4 See Cooper’s The American Democrat. 1838. New York: Penguin, 1989.

5 See Ledyard’s A Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage. [1783]. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1963.

6 The 19ᵗʰ-century Hawaiian scholar and activist David Malo derisively dubbed Kamehameha III “The Little King” in response to the monarch’s decision to sell land to foreigners — against which Malo, always a vocal advocate of native rights, had strongly advised.

7 This was one of the incidents Wilkes had cited as evidence that the Hawaiians needed better allies — namely, America. See Wilkes, 4:6-20.

8 Michael Dougherty writes: “Because of the fear of a takeover by a power other than America and the knowledge that a legal document was necessary for the maintenance of a Yankee business community, Hawai’i gave birth to a constitution. The document conceived by [US missionaries] Judd and Lee was eased from the passive Hawaiian womb by frock-coated midwives” (94).

9 In the traditional Hawaiian land system, all of Hawaii belonged to the king, and though he might parcel out sections to individuals, it was understood that such grants were given for use, rather than ownership, and that the agreements existed at the whim of the king; tradition holds, however, that the whim of the king most often fell in the direction of making sure each chief provided for his people via the communal maintenance of fields and groves. The result of American pressure on Kamehameha III to open up the traditional land tenure system was the Great Mahele (division) of 1848, in which private ownership of every inch of Hawaii was assigned and sold; not surprisingly, American missionaries and their descendents profited greatly under the Mahele, while most native Hawaiians were harmed by it. Many Hawaiian activists continue to mark the Mahele as the epicenter of Hawaiian oppression, since by turning the communal lands into private property, it effectively secured the dispossessed and starving Hawaiian commoners as a labor base for the plantation boom that soon followed.

10 See Bingham’s Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands. [1849]. New York: Praeger, 1969.

11 This trope of native acquiescence in their own displacement would continue to grow in American discourse surrounding Hawaii up to and through the 1898 annexation. See for example Trumball White’s depiction of the annexation ceremony in his 1898 Our New Possessions.