James Fenimore Cooper’s New York: Crossing the Border from Fiction to History
Placed online with the permission of the author.
Presented at the New York College English Association Conference, Rochester Institute of Technology, October 2004.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
Please note that many of James Fenimore Cooper’s political, social, cultural, and historical comments and assertions featured in this paper are based on his opinion rather than actual fact or research. By the time Cooper wrote New York he had reached a point in his life where beliefs or sentiments dominated his perceptions and his work tends toward broad, sweeping statements heavily tainted with Cooper’s estimations, supportable or not. I, along with many students of Cooper, do not believe he cared what others thought of his opinions, but his perceptions certainly are fodder for discussion and interest.
Contemporary readers of James Fenimore Cooper’s works associate him primarily with his adventure and romance novels, especially the Leatherstocking Tales. This series featuring Natty Bumppo as “hero” is enduring for it helps to set in motion the creation of truly American literature, as realized later in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and other major figures of mid-nineteenth century American letters. Unfortunately, this perception of Cooper tends to dismiss him beyond this peculiar niche in American literary history. Additionally, Cooper’s often-difficult personality and perceived reactionary political leanings cloud the power of his creativity and the breadth of his work beyond fiction. Retrospectively, Cooper’s non-fiction is as powerful in defining early nineteenth-century American culture and politics as is his fiction. In fact, for Cooper, “literature and politics were equally absorbing studies for much the same reasons” (Dekker and Johnston 9). The posthumously published, unfinished manuscript of his conceived series about the history of New York City, New York: The Towns of Manhattan, situates Cooper’s perception of his nation and evaluates his “American” experience as a culmination of his fiction and non-fiction.
His birth in 1789 brought Cooper into American history with the United States Constitution but after the American Revolution; his death in 1851 predated the War Between the States or the American Civil War, yet he acknowledges its inevitability (New York). Cooper resembles the Kenneth Burke-inspired conversationalists Frank Lentricchia cites in Criticism and Social Change. Burke’s “characters” are a part of a “little fable of history as conversation” where they pose “simultaneously” as “innocent targets of history and its responsible executors, both subject to the coercive power of the past and the accountable makers of the future” (Lentricchia 160). Lentricchia relates, from Burke, the following scene:
Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. ... You listen a while, until you decide you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent. ... However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (160)
Cooper, at his birth, enters the “conversation” of American history after it has begun, for it is at Lexington and Concord and with the Declaration of Independence that the United States asserts its political sovereignty. He also leaves the “conversation” before the climax of the War Between the States and the mending prose of the Gettysburg Address. Cooper enters late and departs early from the experience he most wants to understand, American history, and thus he is target and executor, coerced and accountable for what he writes and believes.
New York was to be Cooper’s final estimation of American culture, society, history, and politics, as he had examined earlier the same aspects of his nation in The American Democrat (1838). New York proves to be far more darkly conceived and pessimistic than The American Democrat:
It is the work of a badly shaken but still convinced liberal, whose unfavorable impressions of European political systems are still fresh, but who has had very recent and unnerving personal experience in America of the party press, exaltation of public opinion, migratory habits, crudity of manners and language, lack of respect for privacy, lack of frankness, casual attention to property rights, leveling of tendencies generally, etc. etc. [sic]. Some of his complaints are petty and snobbish — grievances of an unappreciated Enlightener in the midst of provincial darkness. (Dekker and Johnston 32)
And by the time Cooper begins to write New York, many saw that the great experiment that the United States was had come upon hard times. Thus, it is ironic that, in the same way that he is born after the history of the nation begins and dies before the upheaval that redefines the nation, Cooper leaves behind, unfinished, his final commentary on the state of the nation and of the New World. Appropriately, this “concluding” effort is insistently historical in both intent and realization, bringing into greater focus both his fiction and his non-fiction.
Initially, New York praises the city of New York; Cooper builds a positive image of a city he once denigrated in Home as Found by citing its rise as a commercial center and how that ascendance has made it develop from “a city of the fifth or sixth class to be near the head of all the purely trading places of the known world” (1). To Cooper, New York is the only New World city that meets the standards of the Old World. In asserting this position, Cooper intensifies a complication that weaves through both his writing and his personal life, for he counters his past notion — that is, a belief in an American identity realized through the benevolence of a natural aristoi — by contradicting himself through approval of those features of American civilization he once resisted and oftentimes ridiculed. John P. McWilliams, Jr. addresses this contradiction thusly: “By 1851 ... Cooper is driven to rest his hopes upon aspects of American life he bitterly opposed in earlier years: the city, commerce, and the power of property” (396). New York demonstrates this shift in Cooper’s thinking, but it does not indicate a surrender of the man to the masses, for he still warns and instructs.
By forcing this paradox upon his readers, New York has the effect of refiguring Cooper’s issues as his final comments are set in the non-fictional reality of Manhattan. Through this confrontation of his past and his present, his fiction and non-fiction, Cooper asserts and sustains the conviction that the New World has become what was once anathema to him: A replica of the Old World. The evidence of this loss of identity emerges everywhere for Cooper, and he believes that the Americans of his era have no one to blame but themselves for this dilemma. Remember, Cooper writes his first novel, Precaution, on a challenge from his wife, Susan. The “dare” emerges when Cooper complains to Susan, while reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion, that there is no true American literature, no literature that reflects the American experience. Susan, tired of her husband’s grousing, invites him to rectify the situation. Thus begins Cooper’s career as a writer, a writer with a clean slate before him, challenged to begin a new literature. This same attitude is realized in many of his novels, and even in The American Democrat, when Cooper articulates what the New World could be, given the tabula rasa of its origins. This New World of Cooper’s would sustain itself free of a selfish aristocracy, where the mass of New World “citizens” are manipulated for the benefit of the few, as developed in the opening paragraph of The Last of the Mohicans. But then, realized in the context of 1840s New York State, the descendents of these same citizens, supplemented by settlers from New England, are driven by selfish demagogues of the Jacksonian ilk to revolt against the very landholding system that sustains their well being in The Redskins of the Littlepage Trilogy. Thus, the Old World aristocrat and the New World demagogue come to play similar damaging roles in their respective civilizations.
Noting that Americans retain the opportunity to become inhabitants of a truly New World, in New York Cooper compares political and journalistic demagogues, those who threaten both independence and identity on their very “breaths” as “master” of the public, to the restricted rule that limits liberty throughout Europe in the mid-nineteenth century:
A hundred thousand electors, under the present system of caucuses and conventions, are just as much wielded by command as a hundred thousand soldiers on the field; and the wire-pullers behind the scenes can as securely anticipate the obedience of their agents, as members of the bureaux in any cabinet in Europe can look with confidence to the compliance of their subordinates. Party is the most potent despot of the times. (38-39)
From The Last of the Mohicans, set in 1757, to 1851 New York City, the issue remains the same and perhaps over examined throughout Cooperian discourse, but the conclusion both restates and judges America: Despotism has existed in American politics and cultural life before the declaration and institution of democracy, and tyranny is merely shaped differently.
To say that democracy itself is not all that it could be to Cooper’s way of thinking is an understatement; his disenchantment with the direction of the nation and its politics leads him beyond the demagogue’s designs for power (42). His concern now shifts from this Jacksonian-type’s abuse of power to a more fully realized critique of the American political system. Cooper believes that America’s population is outpacing the capabilities of the nation’s institutions. In this evolution he contends that, considering the power of demagoguery in a democracy, the nation will tend more toward the limited monarchy of France politically than toward what he considers the original intent of the Founding Fathers by the acceptance of a single “despot” as leader (43-44). Paradoxically, however, Cooper finds some solace in a liberalized monarchy’s lack of turmoil and expense that seems to be a part of regularly scheduled elections:
Recourse to electors has become an idle form, ponderous and awkward, and in some of its features uselessly hazardous . ... We entertain very little doubt that the cost of a presidential election fully equals the expenditures of the empire of Great Britain, liberal as they are known to be, for the maintenance of the dignity of its chief magistry. Nor is it the worst of it; for while much of the civil list of a monarch is usefully employed in cherishing the arts, and fostering industry, to say nothing of its boons to the dependent and meritorious in the shape of pensions, not a dollar of the millions that are wasted every fourth year among ourselves in the struggle of parties, can be said to be applied to a purpose that has not a greater tendency to evil than to good. (46-47)
Ultimately Cooper does not prefer monarchy to democracy, but he has come to question the very integrity of the system when his ideals are challenged (44-45).
This paradox that runs throughout New York remains oddly consistent with Cooper’s overall political and historical vision. Considering his affections for the stabilizing culture of a liberal aristocracy in the New World, it is a short ideological leap for Cooper to acknowledge the positive characteristics of a limited monarchy. Despite his satirical depictions of those who admire European culture and society, most effectively portrayed in The Pioneers (Richard Jones) and in Home as Found through fervent Anglophiles and country bumpkins, Cooper maintains a consistently respectful regard for the Old World as a reasonable cultural and social model for his homeland. Consider how he praises Eve Effingham and Paul Powis in Home is Found and Hugh Littlepage from The Redskins. These characters are certainly just as much cultural citizens of the Old World as they are natives of the New World. Cooper’s paradox becomes more clear when it is understood how these “natives” represent property and an aristocratic lifestyle: They represent and reflect what Cooper perceives as a reasonable approach to American cultural, social, and political evolution — the benevolence of a natural aristocracy perpetuates a link to understanding the Old World and its role in the progress of civilization. As counter to the “knaves” and demagogues who permeate Cooper’s Jacksonian and antebellum world, the aristocratic minority is an integral element of American civilization; they act as a social shield that, in a sense, protects the democracy from its own excesses (Slotkin 73-74). Through the maintenance of this landed class the New World achieves a balance that preserves the advantages of a diverse social, political, and economic polity that the Old World, despite its many “attractions,” can never realize.
Certainly by 1851 Cooper had realized that his self-defined aristocracy no longer existed; and in New York he decides to concede more fully that “his” New World had taken on aspects that he had never approved or favored, but now understood and accepted. And he sees these very aspects of the nation percolating in New York City (McWilliams 396). The city of New York had not only become a desirable city of the first rate, but Cooper acknowledges its prime activities (commerce and exchange) as integral to the progress of the nation as a whole. To this end, Cooper theorizes that there exist three institutional nations within the United States, each operating independently of the others: the political, the social, and the economic. Failure within the political realm, no matter how destructive, ultimately has little effect on the economic and social progress of the nation. Cooper defends this assertion with the idea that America’s growth has transcended the political origins upon which it was founded: The political institutions of the past have fostered an “atmosphere” that nurtures other independent institutions that are able to operate beyond the political realm. Despite its selfish politics and consequent alteration of its political systems, America has a destiny that endures because of its nurtured institutional diversity (New York 37-38).
Cooper again concedes that no perfect state exists, but suggests that the state alone is not the measure of human progress. America, with its flaws, when measured against other political and social systems that have emerged historically, remains a viable nation (58). It, too, remains, however, vulnerable to many of the indiscretions that affect more oppressive systems-perhaps, when considering the tyranny of the masses he identifies throughout his fiction and non-fiction works, even surpassing them:
The wrongs committed by democracies are of the most cruel character; and though wanting in that apparent violence and sternness that marks the course of law in the hands of the narrower governments, for it has no need of this severity, they carry with them in their course all feelings that render injustice and oppression tolerable. (59)
Within his understanding and experience, Cooper believes that, regardless of the political system, communities and peoples survive (58).
This fatalism leads Cooper to conclude that, “What is true in the Old World will, in the end, be found to be true here” (61). He injects this statement at a peculiar moment in his argument and it becomes a linchpin for his paradoxical discussion, for it simultaneously responds to one point and contends another. The issue to which it responds is possession. Cooper argues here that regardless of the tyranny of any political system, those with property will have enough power to defend and protect themselves and their interests, while those who lack property will be overcome. He asserts that this result has largely been the case in Europe, despite its series of revolutions and tyrants (59-60). This position indicates another major shift in Cooper’s views, for in the Littlepage series the very future of possession and property appears threatened by the tyrannical element of democracy, the majority. In both his fiction and non-fiction, Cooper’s political reflections oppose the pure power of possession, emphasizing the influence of a natural aristocracy in a republic that uses land possessions as a moderating factor in a society convulsed by change. Through this ideological shift, Cooper again acknowledges the realities of American politics. McWilliams contends that Cooper asserts this view, this seemingly contradictory belief, because of a desperation that emerged as he began to realize his public and literary image through his own paradox; he needed to affirm his sense of patriotism while qualifying his contentiousness (396-398).
Considering such pronouncements, much of New York ultimately conveys confidence in the future of the United States, which is a major concession for Cooper. Consistent with his faith in the early republic and his more recent contention that a people can overcome a bad political system, he argues that America is a land of diversity and energy that will reach a level of maturity that will elevate it to the status of the leading nation of the world. Cooper in 1851 does not deny that the nation has its inadequacies, but he has reached a point where he now understands that his perception of the nation, when compared to his understanding of others and their systems, has been revived to the point of pride (New York 37-38). This admission further legitimizes McWilliams’s reading of Cooper as a self-conscious, desperate patriot who comes to realize the complications of his paradox (396-97). Thus, when Cooper states his concern that the New World will become like the Old, he attempts to reconcile both his own position and America’s position: He seeks an end to the political, cultural, and historical chaos he has investigated throughout much of his work. He comes to admit, generated through his own perceptions and observations, to both the positive and negative aspects of the Old World’s influence on the New World and to accept the tensions generated in the continuing search for New World identity within the context of a colonial past.
Within this argument about the fate of the New World, Cooper asserts a final contention about the effects of slavery and abolitionism, one that reflects well Cooper’s internal and public confrontation between his idealism and his understanding of the realities of the antebellum United States. Here, again, Cooper places himself in a bind, one in which many nineteenth-century Americans found themselves, for he argues that if slavery, an institution he despises on both moral and constitutional grounds (20), were to continue and expand, and the abolitionists were to continues their efforts to destroy slavery, the nation would be hard pressed to avoid either a civil conflict or further government intervention to control the tensions generated by each faction (61-62). Rather than allowing the conflict over slavery to bring about a tyranny by the government, as so often occurs in the Old World when serious issues force confrontation, he suggests that the majority of the population should persuade both factions to “cease their meddling and wanton invasion of the security and property of their brothers and neighbors. ...” and allow the question of slavery to die a natural death, which was also a common perception of the era (62). Cooper is certainly naïve in this regard, but he demonstrates the great faith he has rediscovered in American democracy; he now believes the system can solve national problems in a legal and rational manner. This final contention leaves Cooper in a precarious position, however. The first sentence of this New York paragraph concerning slavery refers to the Old World and the New World and puts forth a notion of hopelessness: Cooper seems to restore his faith in the potential of the people of the nation to be rational and moral while he reverts to his fear that political and social chaos will nevertheless bring about the horrors often identified with the Old World, as he defines them, to the New “in the end” (61).
As is so often the case, Cooper’s argument collapses; he exhibits both hope and despair when he addresses the future of the nation in New York. Through his acceptance of commerce as an element in the nation’s evolution towards greatness, Cooper appears to appreciate the America he seems to never comprehend fully. By praising New York City as an urban giant, the spokesman for the natural, talented landed aristocracy accedes to a world beyond the shores and the myths of his beloved Glimmerglass. Cooper tries to remain apart from the world and his paradoxes, but the island of Manhattan proves to be far too “crowded” for his purposes; it was never his blank slate to do with as he wished.
Cooper’s entrance into the Burke/Lentricchia conversation of American history and politics leads him to paradox, for he can never claim the power to make a meaningful comment to alter the “conversation.” His input, literary or historical, to the conversation remains subject to the coercive power of the past, and thus he needs to create his own vision that feeds off the conversation yet maintains a credible and desirable distance from the controlling factors of his era. Cooper accomplishes this by manipulating and idealizing the past for the benefit of instruction; he wants to be both ideologue and teacher. In the process he reflects what Sacvan Bercovitch identifies as the ability of antebellum literature to sense an inevitable cataclysm in American civilization, the Civil War (86). Bercovitch cites Cooper’s work, especially The Crater, among the works of Hawthorne, Melville, Stowe, and other nineteenth century writers as literature that responds to the uneasy social, political, and cultural conditions of the nineteenth century (86). Cooper’s reaction to the national issues leading to this impending cataclysm is twofold: He seeks to inform the public of the faults of American civilization and offers solutions in the process. He maintains a traditionalist position in his instruction as he examines the New World past as a time of opportunity and regeneration while defending a way of life that both preserves the past and protects, at least to his way of thinking, the present and the future from the abominations that foretell destruction. The utopia that Cooper alludes to in his novels represents a retreat to a seemingly better time, but one he could never fully explain or grasp because of his paradoxical sense of reality. New York appropriately places this Cooperian world before the reader as his final comment.
- Bercovitch, Sacvan, The Office of the Scarlet Letter. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
- Cooper, James Fenimore, The American Democrat. Eds. George Dekker and Larry Johnston. London: Penguin, 1989.
- ------. The Crater; or Vulcan’s Peak. Ed. Thomas Philbrick. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1962.
- ------. Home as Found. New York: Capricorn Books, 1961.
- ------. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1983.
- ------. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. 6 vols. Ed. James Franklin Beard. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1960-1968.
- ------. New York: The Towns of Manhattan. New York: William Farquhar Payson, 1930.
- ------. The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1980.
- ------. The Redskins; or, Indian and Injin. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892.
- Dekker, George and Larry Johnston, eds., Introduction. The American Democrat. By James Fenimore Cooper. London: Penguin, 1989.
- Lentricchia, Frank, Criticism and Social Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
- McWilliams, John P., Jr., Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
- Slotkin, Richard, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1985.