Faith on Ice: The Failure of Cooper’s Sea Lions

R. D. Madison (University of Arkansas)

Presented at “God and the American Writer: an ALA Symposium,” San Antonio, Texas, February 26-28, 2015.

Copyright © 2015 Robert Durwood Madison.

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

Of all of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, two were given a boost for posterity because they were reviewed by Herman Melville in The Literary World. One of these, The Sea Lions (1849), is a novel of conversion to Trinitarianism during a harsh Antarctic winter. Melville noted the irony of the protagonist’s being awarded with a “houri,” but the real difficulty of the work is the gap between religious epiphany and literary justification through theme and plot. That problem had been both articulated and violated in the ambiguous ending of Cooper’s The Wing-And-Wing (1842), in which the protagonist is converted from atheism to a general acceptance of God. Cooper’s intermediate Christian novel, The Oak Openings (1848), solved the problem of that gap through its examination of conversion through the example of martyrdom. Cooper’s recidivism in The Sea Lions may be explained by the structure of his three “conversion novels,” and if viewed as a trilogy, one can see the variously successful treatments of conversion as a systematic exploration of Christian art rather than sporadic forays into an unfamiliar art form.

Complicating Cooper’s treatment of conversion is the convention of a God immanent in Nature. As early as 1823, Cooper has the Moravian-raised but illiterate Leatherstocking reading the book of nature: “[N]one know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness, but them that rove it for a man’s life.” 1 Natty, as readers have always recognized, was merely paraphrasing Bryant:

For his simple heart

Might not resist the sacred influences

Which, from the stilly twilight of the place,

And from the gray old trunks that high in heaven

Mingled their mossy boughs, and from the sound

Of the invisible breath that swayed at once

At their green tops, stole over him, and bowed

His spirit with the thought of boundless power

And inaccessible majesty. 2

But for Cooper, the book of nature, at least in the form of the groves as God’s first temples, was insufficient when it came specifically to a conversion involving doctrine beyond the simplest form of Deism.

In The Wing-and-Wing, Cooper’s “atheistical scamp” 3 and his beloved Ghita Caraccioli have a running religious argument more sustained than any of the actual sea-chases in the book, tracing Cooper’s travels by hired felucca Bella Genovese around Elba and his beloved Bay of Naples. As seascape, nothing in Cooper’s imagination surpassed the Bay of Naples: “[To] the north and east of us, opened the glorious Bay of Naples, with thousands of objects of interest, that, by their recollections, embrace nearly all of known time.” 4 This is the landscape, or seascape, in which Cooper’s first conversion narrative is set, prefaced by Cooper’s remarks on the struggle between human reason and divine revelation exemplified by the French Revolution: “From arrogantly claiming a right to worship a deity we comprehend, we soon come to feel that the impenetrable veil that is cast around the God-head, is an indispensable condition of our faith, reverence, and submission. A being that can be comprehended, is not a being to be worshipped.” 5 Cooper underpins his thesis with the motto of the book: “Know,/Without star or angel for their guide/Who worship God shall find him.” Cooper seems to be saying that God is not immanent in nature, and that even though the materialist Raoul Yvard has been placed in the most beautiful setting on earth, witnessing that beauty or processing it through human reason will not lead to God. Many of Cooper’s readers would have recognized that the quotation slightly revised from Young’s Night Thoughts would have continued

Humble love,

And not proud Reason keeps the door of Heav’n:

Love finds admission where proud science fails. 6

For Cooper, freethinking equals arrogance; faith equals humility.

As the plot develops early in the romance, Yvard, disguised as one “Captain Smees,” undermines the skepticism of Elban officials to reinforce Cooper’s theme that our senses are not to be trusted. Deception of the senses is more firmly rooted in the disguises of the lugger Le Feu-Follet herself, carrying the double identity of the English vessel Wing-and-Wing.

So, to be brief, the sublimity of the Bay of Naples, which Cooper in all likelihood felt was the most beautiful spot on earth, will be of no use to Raoul Yvard’s spiritual progress. An entire volume could be devoted to Christian imagery in The Wing-and-Wing (and I’ll be happy to share my notes with anyone who wants to undertake it). Skipping to the end of the book, Raoul has been mortally wounded and now lies on a rock in the bay; darkness falls; Ghita returns to pray for him. His ironic last words in battle, “Nom de dieu — sauve mon Feu-Follet” [“In the name of God — save my little folly”], predict a death-bed conversion, but the one we get is not the one the previous four hundred pages have prepared us for:

“That star haunts me, Ghita!” Raoul at length muttered. “If it be really a world, some all-powerful hand must have created it. Chance never made a world, more than chance made a ship. Thought — mind — intelligence must have governed at the formation of one as well as of the other” 7

Raoul is becoming a rational Deist at last. These are, in fact, his last words — an ontological proof derived not only from the star but also the presence of his angel Ghita, in direct defiance of the motto from Young. In a further wonder, Raoul is given a Roman Catholic burial.

I have to believe that Cooper knew exactly what he was doing in this book, and that he knew when he added the book’s motto that it not only didn’t fit but was contradicted in every essential in the denouement. Did Cooper really believe he could get away with this?

Apparently so. In the middle of the book Ghita exclaims, “I worship my God, while you believe in the new opinions of your own nation,” 8 as if the opposite of one belief had to be another belief instead of no belief. Speaking in his own voice in the 1842 preface, Cooper merely distinguished between “profound belief and light-hearted infidelity” 9 Cooper may well have been started on his theme by the extraordinary claim by Sir Walter Scott, in his Life of Napoleon, that license and infidelity were the source of the extremes of the French Revolution (not its causes). And to Scott, the infidelity was almost a direct result of licentious literature itself. 10 According to the same source, Napoleon himself called for priests at his deathbed and asserted the existence of the deity among prevailing materialism and atheism: 11

“They will say I am a papist — I am no such thing. I was a Mahomedan in Egypt — I will be a Catholic here, for the good of the people. I do not believe in forms of religion, but in the existence of a God!” He extended his hands toward Heaven — “Who is it that has created all above and around us?” This sublime passage proves that Napoleon (unfortunate in having proceeded no farther towards the Christian shrine) had at least crossed the threshhold of the temple, and believed in and worshipped the Great Father of the Universe.

When Cooper returned to Deism in The Sea Lions (1849), he had just completed The Oak-Openings, a work which successfully integrated the witness of martyrdom with the conversion of the heathen to Christianity. 12 Cooper’s religious landscape in that work contributed nothing to the recognition of God’s sublime hand in nature; if anything, the oak-openings of southern Michigan at the onset of the War of 1812 present one of Cooper’s most prosaic landscapes. In that work, Cooper abandoned the reason-versus-faith argument in favor of the much more powerful twin martyrdoms of Corporal Flint and Parson Amen, who represent the two sides of Christian manliness. These two characters, as predecessors of The Sea Lions, can be read as a preliminary experiment with twin-ship in the latter book. But there is nothing prosaic about the seascape into which the two identical sealing schooners immerse themselves, and Cooper dramatically returns to Bryant-like claims of the power of landscape to shape religious thought in a variation on the reason-versus-faith argument: “One of the consequences of this disposition to disregard the Almighty Hand, as it is so plainly visible in all around us, is that of substituting our own powers in its stead”: 13

In this period of the world, in enlightened countries, and in the absence of direct idolatry, few men are so hardy as to deny the existence and might of a Supreme Being; but, this fact admitted, how few really feel that profound reverence for him that the nature of our relations justly demands!

“How completely and philosophically does the venerable Christian creed embrace and modify all these workings of the heart,” Cooper continues a page later, and this sets him up for the difficult task of the sublimities of an Antarctic winter leading directly to the acceptance of Jesus Christ as lord and savior.

The thematic complication of this works occurs when the angel figure, here the Deacon’s niece Mary Pratt, “had reason to think that Roswell Gardiner denied the divinity of Christ.” 14 It being impossible for Mary to accompany Roswell on an Antarctic sealing voyage, her place is taken by the monotonously trinitarian Stephen Stimson, who might be a reincarnated Ithuel Bolt from Wing-and-Wing (Ithuel had turned deacon after hostilities ended). Saved from being wrecked on a lee shore,

“God is with us!” exclaimed the young master — “blessed for ever be his holy name.” “And that of his only and true Son,” responded a voice from one at his elbow. 15

As in Wing, Cooper establishes the untrustworthiness of material knowledge through confusion of places, North Carolina versus New Providence, and geographic uncertainty (where is Rio?). 16 Only Stimson knows for sure where he is: “[T]here’s no mistake. That’s the Horn.” Stimson has seen it three times; Gardiner has never seen it before. Thus trinitarianism.

Frozen in the ice and near despair despite an initially sublime landscape (“A bright genial sun was shedding its glorious rays on the icy panorama” 17), Roswell turns to Mary’s catechism:

The skepticism of Roswell was more the result of human pride, of confidence in himself, than in any precept derived from others, or of any deep reasoning process whatever. ... It did not comport with the respect he entertained for his own powers, to lend his faith to an account that conflicted with so many of the opinions he had formed on evidence and practice. 18

Cooper sets the stage for Gardiner’s conversion by eliminating the immanent landscape from view: “The night was coming in cold and still. ... The moon was young, but the stars gave forth a brightness that is rarely seen, except in the clear cold nights of a high latitude.” (It’s worth remembering here that Cooper’s “experience” of high latitudes came from Parry and Scoresby in the Arctic; Wilkes and Fanning in the Antarctic.) “Each and all of these sublime emblems of the power of God were twinkling like bright torches glowing in space.” 19

In an unintended display of narrative weakness, Cooper intrudes with an expository account of Gardiner’s conversion: after a long discussion as much in the author’s voice as in Gardiner’s (and certainly not in dialogue with Stimson) Cooper concludes, “In this frame of mind Roswell was made to see that Christianity admitted of no half-way belief; it was all true, or it was wholly false.” 21 Of course, there is no need to ask which of those two alternatives Roswell adopts — though he also required both angel and star to get there, and the hand of God so visible in nature is hidden in darkness while the conversion takes place. It is in fact through his own powers, through the teleology of his angels Mary and Stimson, that Roswell can resolve speculation about distant stars into a substitute for the failure of the immanent world at hand to produce a workable conversion.

Of course Cooper would deny this: his Gardiner “has never wavered in his faith ... [w]ith Mary at his side, he has continued to worship the Trinity, accepting its mysteries in an humble reliance on the words of inspired men.” 21 But what of Young? What of finding God without star or angel? By his own insistence on that motto, Cooper disables his first and third attempts at conversion-by-novel. Whatever his own personal beliefs (he finally became a member of his wife’s Episcopal church shortly before his death, a denominational preference he had expressed since The Pioneers), the religion of Cooper’s fictive world remains artistically unresolved.


1 Quoted in Hugh C. MacDougall, “Making a Place Historic: The Coopers and Cooperstown”.

2 William Cullen Bryant, “A Forest Hymn,” Web.

3 L&J IV.328. Print.

4 James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: Italy, ed. John Conron and Constance Ayers Denne (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981, p. 93. Print.

5 Ibid., The Wing-and-Wing; or, Le Feu-Follet. A Tale (New York: George P. Putnam,1853), iv.

6 From Young’s Night Thoughts, as quoted in “Fancies of the Learned,” Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle, 20 (1812), 348. Web.

7 Wing, p. 478.

8 Ibid., p. 248.

9 James Fenimore Cooper, The Wing-and-Wing or Le Feu-Follet, ed.Thomas Philbrick (New York: Henry Holt, 1998), p. 8.

10 Sir Walter Scott, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (Edinburgh: Cadell et al., 1827). I.57 ff.

11 Ibid., IX.279-81.

12 R. D. Madison, “Cooper’s Oak-Openings: A Christian Novel,” James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 30, May, 2013, pp. 10-12.

13 [James Fenimore Cooper,] The Sea Lions; or, The Lost Sealers (New York: Stringer & Townsend, 1849), I.iv.

14 Ibid., I.26.

15 Ibid., I.132.

16 Ibid., I.141, 167.

17 Ibid., II.102.

18 Ibid., II.137.

19 Ibid., II.141-42.

20 Ibid., II.145.

21 Ibid., II.216.