Presented at the 1ˢᵗ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1978.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, or Getting Under Way, Papers from the 1978 Conference at State University of New York College at Oneonta and Cooperstown, New York. Edited by George A. Test. (pp. 1-3).
Copyright © 1979 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.
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The uniqueness and magnitude of James Fenimore Cooper’s contributions to American life and letters burst upon his contemporaries with startling clarity at his death in September 1851. To honor his memory, his friends organized a mass meeting at New York’s Metropolitan Hall the following February. Invited literary notables and other dignitaries who could not be present in person sent letters to be read and published. The little Memorial volume containing their speeches and letters is one of the most remarkable tributes Cooper, or any American writer, ever received. Among the letters, including expressions of the warmest respect and regard from Irving, Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Prescott and Parkman, is a characteristically thoughtful and discerning one from Herman Melville, written not long after the publication of >Moby- Dick. Praising Cooper as “a great robust-souled man, all whose merits are not seen, yet fully appreciated,” Melville predicted that “a grateful posterity will take the best care of Fenimore Cooper.”
Implicit in Melville’s prophecy is a recognition that, for whatever reasons, Cooper’s contemporaries had not taken “the best care” of him, that, despite his national and international renown, they had been guilty of a certain negligence. Today, more than a century after his death, Cooper is probably the least understood, least appreciated, of our major nineteenth-century writers. Scholarly and critical studies now in preparation may soon begin to change this situation. But another, more immediate means of assisting a more general understanding of Cooper — a means suggested by the Seminar these papers report — is to find ways of bringing together interested readers, students, scholars and critics under auspices permitting informed exchanges of information, perceptions, responses and ideas. Fashionable literary circles in the United States have long denied Cooper stature as an artist (and foreign scholars have remarked the irony of that). The new Norton Anthology of American Literature (Copyright © 1979) states, in its introduction to Cooper, and states as a matter of fact: “It now seems clear that no revolution in taste will lead to widespread admiration of Cooper as a literary artist.” The statement begs the question. If Cooper was the artist many critics of his own and our own generation have believed, only a sustained, disciplined effort to comprehend could possibly lead to a widespread modern appreciation. That kind of effort is never easy. If it required a full generation for some of our ablest scholars to rediscover and rehabilitate Melville, whose writings could be approached without preconceptions because they had been conveniently forgotten, haw much more difficult may it be to rediscover Cooper about whom, as our anthologist unconsciously illustrates, irresponsible preconceptions circulate freely on the highest levels.
Whether or not admiration of Cooper’s art is or is likely to be widespread, his books — the comparatively few available — are still widely read, as paperback publishers can testify. Something there — whatever it may be — still attracts readers in considerable numbers; and it would be difficult indeed to explain what that something is unless one assumes that it is Cooper’s art, understood or not. Herein lies the opportunity for discovery and the need for these Cooper Seminars, as they were conceived by Dean Carey Brush, Academic Dean and Vice President of the New York State University College at Oneonta. The first Seminar, entitled “Cooper and His Country” was successfully conducted at the College from 16 to 21 July 1978 in Oneonta, near Cooperstown, the heart of the Cooper Country. The Program, carefully orchestrated by the College Administration under the direction of Professor George Test, assisted by Dr. Minor Wine Thomas, Director of the New York State Historical Association, and their colleagues, was ingeniously designed to provide maximum opportunities for the participants to learn about the Cooper Country and to discuss and share their experience and ideas in a wide variety of informal situations. The meetings seemed to the participants to demonstrate clearly that Cooper and his writings can be profitably discussed with the care and respect one customarily bestows on Hawthorne or Melville or our more modern writers — suggested, in fact, that Cooper is most likely to yield his meanings with just the kinds of stimuli the Seminars provided. If my own conversations with most of the three dozen or so participants are indicative, they left Oneonta with the conviction that Cooper was indeed a difficult, rewarding artist, with almost more to say to conscientious modern readers than they were prepared to assimilate.
Good conversation — spontaneous by definition — does not necessarily convey the sparkle of the occasion when reduced by type; and much, very much of our most valuable experience at Oneonta consisted of insights spontaneously generated and shared. These conversations, some of which were continued until late at night, were enormously assisted by papers or brief presentations which defined areas of concern, aspects of Cooper and his writings that might be usefully pursued in discussion or question sessions. All of these “papers” were informal, some more so than others; and all. were intended to provide orientation and structure for the conversations to follow. Informal as they were, the specific usefulness of the presentations on the original occasion may presage some larger usefulness, and it is in this spirit that they are reproduced here. Each of the speakers was and is an authority or person thoroughly informed on his or her topic, and each of the topics is a door opening to a neglected vista bearing on Cooper’s mind and art.
Professor Larkin tells us succinctly what we may wish to know about the physical geography of Cooper Country. Professor Elliott speaks of the treacherous terrain of Cooper’s texts, until recently a little known territory, but one crucial to an understanding of the novelist’s intentions. Professor Philbrick begins the infinitely complex exploration of Cooper’s psychic geography, asking such fundamental questions as what effect his growing up a Cooper and living in Cooperstown had on the materials and forms of his writings. Professor Ringe asks us to consider the implications, for our own understanding of Cooper’s art, of his preeminently visual imagination and of the fact that his themes and effects are conveyed in large part through structured verbal landscapes — a kind of expression modern readers, with their photographic orientations, are almost totally unprepared to comprehend. Dr. Williams reminds us that Cooper’s imagination was informed and directed also by his historian’s conscience and that, to an extent we may find it difficult to conceive, Cooper’s fiction and nonfiction are pervaded by historical concerns. Professor House suggests that we would do well, in our effort to understand Cooper’s art — his treatment of women, for instance — to summon up our own historical awareness, to attempt to see his world in somewhat the way he saw it before permitting our preconceptions to prejudge for us. Mr. Madison, with the indomitable energy of one of Cooper’s mariners, demonstrates that the technical vocabulary of Cooper’s sea tales is not an insuperable barrier to their comprehension and enjoyment, and so, encourages us, in his own special way, to “Get Under Way with James Fenimore Cooper,” an excellent motto for this Seminar and this collection! Melville would have liked it.