Research Notes: Tolstoy and Cooper

Susan Jarrett (Independent Scholar)

Originally published in The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 31.1 (Whole No. 8, Spring 2020): 73-78.

Copyright © 2019 by James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

Rereading War and Peace was the catalyst to my rediscovering James Fenimore Cooper’s work. Recently, when reading Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Cossacks, I discovered a reference to “Cooper’s Pathfinder“ (364).

Much as Cooper drew on memories of his naval service as a young adult when he wrote The Pathfinder (Franklin, EY 12, 111-119), Tolstoy biographer Rosamund Bartlett says that “Tolstoy drew on his own life as raw material”, (Bartlett 98). The Cossacks recounts Tolstoy’s experiences in the Caucasus while serving in the Russian Army. The central character, Dmitri Andreich Olenin, “had squandered half his fortune and had reached the age of twenty-four without having done anything or even chosen a career” (Tolstoy 284), much as Tolstoy had become “painfully aware of the emptiness of Moscow society. ... The Caucasus offered ... a chance [for Tolstoy] to leave behind his debts and his bad habits, and embrace a life of danger and adventure” (Bartlett 97-98). Similarly, for Olenin, “[t]he old life was wiped out and a quite new life had begun in which there were as yet no mistakes” (Tolstoy 327).

The lifestyle of the Cossacks is a revelation to Olenin; Tolstoy writes, “Long long ago their Old Believer ancestors fled from Russia and settled beyond the [River] Terek among the Chechens ... intermarried with them and adopted the manners and customs of the hill tribes,” while still retaining their Russian language and Old Faith; elsewhere, he notes that “[T]he love of freedom, of leisure, of plunder and of war, still form their chief characteristics” (293-94, 294). Rosamund Bartlett claims that, for Tolstoy, “They had a dignity which came from centuries of defiant independence. ... Catherine the Great ... brought Russia into the Caucasus when she graciously came to the aid of the struggling Orthodox Christians, but her ulterior motive was to have a line of defense against the Persians.” However, the Chechens “strongly resisted the Russian presence ... Russia soon found itself fighting a protracted war against a tenacious resistance movement” (Bartlett 101, 99, 100). In Tolstoy’s portrayal, the Cossacks also despised the Russian soldiers as alien oppressors (Tolstoy 294).

The fort where Olenin is stationed is “on the most dangerous frontier of the Russian Empire” (Bartlett 98). Here we have a key correspondence to The Pathfinder because, for Cooper, Oswego on Lake Ontario was, as Wayne Franklin states, “his first full experience of the frontier” where the fortifications of the British were “[c]ritical for [74] military control of the [great] lakes” and “played a strategic role in the struggle of two European powers for dominance in North America” (EY 12, 112, 113). In The Pathfinder, Cooper notes that “Oswego was one of the extreme frontier posts of the British possessions on this continent” (122).

Both forts are colonial outposts. In each instance there is manifest an aristocratic attitude by the officers. In The Pathfinder, quartermaster Muir is concerned that when pursuing Mabel, he might be refused “by the child of a non-commissioned officer.” Corporal McNab, who is left in command at one point, is “much disposed to fancy the British empire the center of all that is excellent [such that] he considered the American as an animal inferior to the parent stock” (185, 381). The aristocrat Olenin comments, as he first encounters the Cossacks, that “‘These people whom I see are not people’... in the sense that his Moscow acquaintances were” (Tolstoy 290).

When Olenin arrives in the Caucasus, he meets an older Cossack named Eroshka, who is known for his hunting and shooting skills: “where there is no one to compare him with. ... He carried over one shoulder a screen to hide behind when shooting pheasants, and a bag containing a hen for luring hawks, and a small falcon; over the other shoulder, attached by a strap, was a wild cat he had killed; and stuck in his belt behind were some little bags containing bullets, gunpowder, and bread, a horse’s tail to swish away the mosquitoes, a large dagger in a torn scabbard smeared with old bloodstains, and two dead pheasants” (Tolstoy 304). Eroshka most resembles Natty Bumppo, who is “a hunter so celebrated as already to have gained the honorable appellation he then bore [Deerslayer]” (Cooper 5).

Chechen resistance to the Russian presence had them fighting a guerilla war, whose ambushes and assaults were like the supposed cunning of the American Indian. As Pathfinder comments, “‘[I]t is an Injin’s natur’ to be found where he is least expected. No fear of him on a beaten path, for he wishes to come upon you when unprepared to meet him, and the fiery villains make it a point to deceive you’” (46). The Chechen resistance fighters were known as abreks, according to David Hunt, who remarks that “The rustling or stealing of other people’s animals has long been a traditional pastime of the young men in the Caucasus, as it is among other horse-riding populations, such as the North American Indians” (364, 130). One of Tolstoy’s translators further connects the abreks with Indians: “Among the Chechens, a dzhigit is much the same as a ‘brave’ among the Indians, but the word is [75] inseparably connected with the idea of skilful horsemanship” (Tolstoy 294n2, translator’s comment).

Along with the Cossacks, the Russian soldiers are constantly on guard for abreks attempting ambushes, and one young Cossack named Lukashka has recently killed an abrek who was attempting to cross the River Terek for just such a purpose. The abrek is hiding behind a tree that is “floating in a strange way right down the middle of the stream, neither rocking nor whirling” (300, 314, 313). This scene is reminiscent of the scene in The Pathfinder where Chingachgook “is pushing something before him as he swims, and his head resembles a drifting bush” in order to escape from the Mingos during their attempted ambush of Pathfinder and his party. Pathfinder warns “‘Of all the risky journeys, that on an ambushed river is the most risky’” (86, 35).

Olenin and Eroshka become drinking buddies and good friends, so Eroshka invites Olenin to go hunting with him. The landscape evokes Cooper’s forests: “The hunters walked along together ... Olenin knew that danger lurked in the forest, that abreks always hid in such places.” Soon, the homage to Cooper becomes more overt: “On coming up with him [Eroshka] Olenin saw a man’s footprint to which the old man was pointing ... Involuntarily a thought of Cooper’s Pathfinder and of abreks flashed through Olenin’s mind” (362, 364).

Olenin is attracted to a beautiful young Cossack girl, Maryanka, who, Eroshka says, “‘is sought after, [because] she’s a fine girl...[Lukashka] has been wooing her for a long time ... because he is the best Cossack in the village, a brave, who has killed an abrek and will be rewarded with a cross’” (360). Up to now Olenin “had never yet been in love.” He had imagined that on coming to the Caucasus, he would find a woman to love, and on seeing Maryanka, thought, “‘Yes, it must be she’” (284, 289, 326). Because of his aristocratic background, he asks, “‘Now what can there be in common between us and women like these?’” Yet he knows he loves her with his “whole being” which makes him feel “an integral part of all God’s joyous world” (386, 422). He proposes to her, but she replies, “‘Do gentlemen marry Cossack girls? Go away!’” In a later scene he realizes “that there was no hope for him, and that his first impression of this woman’s inaccessibility had been perfectly correct” (425, 426, 450).

In The Pathfinder, we find Natty Bumppo for the first time with a love interest. Mabel Dunham has the sophisticated background, while Natty sees himself as “‘too rude, too old, and too wild [for] Mabel, who has been unused to our wilderness ways.’” Never having been in love before, he now opines that “‘if the girl could fancy a rude hunter and [76] guide, that I would quit some of my wandering ways, and try to humanize my mind down to a wife and children’” (149, 148). Toward the end of the book, a young sailor named Jasper reveals his love for Mabel. Mabel gives way to “feelings that had gathered an ungovernable force by being so long pent ... falling into the young man’s arms.” Pathfinder suddenly realizes “that this glorious young creature was lost to him for ever” (508, 519, 520).

Besides correspondences in the plots of both books, there are many correspondences between the lives and philosophies of Cooper and Tolstoy. The most obvious is a love of nature and a concern to preserve the environment. Wayne Franklin writes that “In Cooper, landscape is not a series of pretty pictures; it takes on moral value in itself,” and “His vision of a continent ravaged in its ‘settlement’ called his fellow citizens — and the world — to imagine a better way of being on the earth ... a relation to nature that did not destroy the wild but rather cherished and internalized it” (EY xxviii, xxix). As Franklin notes, “In the wooded landscape along Lake Ontario, Fenimore Cooper reclaimed the sense of nature’s inexhaustible and sustaining wholeness,” “an almost spiritual entity ... Nature in Cooper is thus filled with moral and religious meaning” (EY 12, 53). When running Fenimore Farm, he organized the Otsego County Agricultural Society. The goal, according to Franklin, was to “help steer individual farmers toward prudent choices of crops, animals, and methods ... The democratization of knowledge was in itself a profound social good” (EY 203, 205).

Similarly, Tolstoy promoted “a life of non-violence in harmony with the land,” according to Rosamund Bartlett, and commented in a footnote the “‘two Russian thinking people who have had a deep moral influence on me ... were not Russian poets, scholars or preachers, but are two remarkable men who ... have both spent their whole lives working on the land ... peasants’” (320-21). During summers, Tolstoy “threw himself into farming ... He occupied himself with forestry, planting trees ... worked in the vegetable garden and in the fields, ploughing, sowing and reaping”; later, “With the return of autumn Tolstoy went hunting as usual” (Bartlett 138, 181). Bartlett points out that his “orchard of 6,500 trees at Yasnaya Polyana ... was the second largest in Europe ... Tolstoy also became passionately interested in bees...[and] spent hours observing the patterns of behaviour of his bees. ... His absorption with the Yasnaya Polyana apiary abated after about two years, but his enthusiasm for beekeeping left its mark in his writing” (161-62). Cooper’s works include a similar fascination with bees, especially Oak Openings. [77]

Cooper and Tolstoy shared similar views about organized religion. Cooper asserted “that religion had ‘nothing to do with truth’ and that the way faith ... took precedence over specific denominations in frontier communities was salutary,” according to Franklin (LY 414). His views are reflected in Pathfinder’s comments: “‘I have attended church-sarvice in the garrisons, and ... have ende’vored to worship garrison fashion, but never could raise within me the solemn feeling and true affection that I feel when alone with God in the forest’” (105). In The Cossacks, Olenin philosophizes that “‘you need only see and comprehend what truth and beauty are ... Happiness is being with nature, seeing her, and conversing with her’” (419). Tolstoy was an unrelenting critic of the Russian Orthodox Church as part of what Bartlett calls “his rejection of organized religion in favour of belief based on personal conscience”: “[H]e realized the source of ‘goodness, forbearance and love’... was the Gospels, not the Church. It was the Church which had, in fact, obscured this message by insisting that salvation was only possible through the sacraments of christening, communion, fasting and so on” (Bartlett 76, 285). Tolstoy’s unorthodox views sometimes ran afoul of authority: as Bartlett tells, “Tolstoy’s infamous description of the Holy Eucharist” in Resurrection resulted in his excommunication; in her view, “Tolstoy’s rebellion against the Orthodox Church was driven by his perception of its supine position as the mainstay of Russian autocracy ... Supporting the state when it went to war ... was a flat contradiction of Christ’s teaching” (Bartlett 382). His views on non-violence were formed during his time in the Caucasus and Crimea, and his stories “created a furore” because they gave “a true picture of what warfare was like ... and the futility of war” (Bartlett, 115-16). Much later in life his writing on non-violence would influence Gandhi (Bartlett 343). Cooper also expressed an opposition to war with Pathfinder, commenting, “‘A man is wrong to set his head on ... success in war.’” (429).

There are some interesting parallels in the publishing histories of our authors. Cooper’s first novel Precaution was published under a pseudonym (Franklin, EY 255), and Tolstoy’s first story Childhood appeared without attribution. Both authors began writing careers because they needed money. Tolstoy’s “financial affairs were ... still in a dire state” due to his gambling (Bartlett 106, 109). For Cooper, his father’s debts were the burden on his finances (Franklin, EY 331). He was forced to sell his family properties while Tolstoy sold the “Yasnaya Polyana house ... to a local landowner who dismantled it and rebuilt it on his own estate” (Franklin, EY 275; Bartlett 109). Another parallel is [78] that the last novel each wrote focused on problems with his respective legal system when innocent people are wrongly prosecuted.

Cooper wrote respectfully about the Indians. As Franklin notes, “By giving prominence to the tragic fate thrust upon Native Americans in the process of frontier expansion, Cooper helped alter the sorry image of the Indian...[who] had enjoyed signally bad press in the colonies” (EY xxix). Likewise, as Bartlett points out, “The Chechens admire Tolstoy for making friends with them during his time in the Caucasus (this was indeed highly unusual for Russian officers, who tended to treat the natives with contempt), and for writing about them in a positive light” (7).

Works Cited

  • Bartlett, Rosamund. Tolstoy: A Russian Life. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pathfinder. 1840. Boston & New York: Colonial Press Company, 1905.
  • Hunt, David. Legends of the Caucasus. London: Saqi Books, 2012.
  • Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • ------. James Fenimore Cooper: The Later Years. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017.
  • Tolstoy, Leo. Short Novels, Vol.1. The Cossacks: A Tale of 1852. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude, ed. Ernest J. Simmons. New York: Modern Library, 1965.