Cooper’s Females

Kay S. House (San Francisco State University)

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. 35-44).

Copyright © 1979 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

Mario Praz has a theory that will probably do as well as any other to get into the subject of the girls and women in Cooper’s novels. According to Praz, the Victorian Age started not when Victoria was crowned Queen in 1837, not even when she was born in 1819, but in 1812 when Lady Caroline Lamb discovered lust in her heart (as the official terminology seems to be) for Lord Byron. Her indulgent and broad-minded husband invited Lord Byron for an extended visit and left the two alone, but the behavior of the Lady drove even Byron to flight and Lady Caroline eventually had to be put away in an asylum. It was this same husband, very aware of the human wreckage caused by various experiments in domestic arrangements at the beginning of the nineteenth century, who was put in charge of Victoria’s education. He decided what books she should or should not read, and what plays she might or might not attend. The product of Lord Melbourne’s censorship was the Queen whose name became synonymous with prudery and repression in the English-speaking world.

Actually, restrictions in the United States seem to have started earlier and been more severe than those of England. Most readers of novels were women, but even books written for men were affected. For instance, an 1808 reprinting of a revolutionary narrative was bowdlerized, with a footnote explaining, “The sentences here omitted are too grossly written for reproduction here.” On looking up the original version of this sailor’s memoirs, we find that only one sentence has been deleted, an accusation that a certain British officer had “committed several rapes on the bodies of unprotected American girls.” It seems curious that such a standard piece of wartime propaganda could not be allowed even in a book that could hardly attract a general readership. In Cooper’s own time (in 1825, in fact), a review of Sherburne’s Life of Paul Jones (another work that would presumably interest few women) complains:

The publication of amatory correspondence of any kind, is exceedingly objectionable in such a work as this. But the introduction of letters from females of at least questionable character into the same volume with those of Washington and Franklin, of Adams and of La Fayette, discovers a depravity of taste, and contempt of public opinion, which cannot be too severely reprehended.

This interesting protest against the possible contamination of Revolutionary heroes occurs not in a Boston publication, as we might expect, but in a review from New York City. (I should add that the “amatory correspondence” reveals nothing more damaging than a close friendship between Jones and some European women.)

As we all know, the prudery of the age was somehow not felt to conflict at all with what were the best-sellers — those books that literary histories describe as “victim stories in the manner of Richardson.” While Richardson’s imitators were widespread, only in the United States did the novels of Cooper and Scott have to compete with a particular kind of victim story. I’m referring to the captivity narratives that were being produced by the hundreds and that I consider important in forming the American reader’s expectations. In these stories, the heroine’s psychology strikes the modern reader as strange — if not downright pathological. According to the formula, the heroine, clutching her latest babe to her breast, is captured after a bloody battle and dragged off into the forest by sub- humans (usually Indians), followed by her surviving children — who are sold into slavery. Isolated from all friends and relatives (according to the Indian practice of separating captives, a custom Cooper asserts was true in The Last of the Mohicans), the heroine prays to God for deliverance, but refuses to act. If her captivity is God’s will, she cannot commit suicide, cannot attempt to escape, can only wait passively for release. The genre seems to have culminated in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where Uncle Tom takes on the attributes of the heroine, and the connection of the captivity narrative with the sentimental novel is clear. (Anyone interested in tracing the influence of the captivity narrative on American literature might also look at Cooper’s handling of Inez in The Prairie and Melville’s of Yillah in Mardi.) At any rate, some kind of combination of piety, passivity, and violence — real or threatened — was what most American readers expected from an American book when Cooper began to write.

Another problem Cooper had that didn’t affect Sir Waiter was a matter of nomenclature that I think is important. Cooper’s insistence on referring to women and girls collectively as “females” seems like a sensible solution, as well as being common practice at the time. It may be that what’s really going on behind the sneers at “Cooper’s females” is clarified by James Watson Webb’s attack in the New York Courier and Enquirer of November 22, 1838.

We are aware that Mr. C. once said that there were not three ladies in America, and that he was peremptorily made to retract the slander; but we did not believe it possible, until we read Home as Found, that he would dare to give publicity to sentiments which go to sustain such an insulting accusation. He is, however, small game; and we hope that our ladies will show their self-respect by treating him and his volumes with the silent contempt he so richly merits.

I have never been able to find the retraction Cooper was forced to make, according to Webb, but if he did, he retracted the retraction when he has Michael Millington declare in Ways of the Hour that “There is no hope [of public sympathy] for one who bears about her person, in air, manner, speech and deportment, the unequivocal signs of a lady.” Millington goes on to make Cooper’s point:

“The terms ‘gentleman’ and ‘lady’ have as defined meanings as any two words we possess, signifying persons of cultivated minds and of certain refinements in taste and manners.”

Later, responding to the innkeeper’s wife’s remark that one of the murdered persons was a “lady,” a second young attorney says, “Dr. McBrain says that both were females — or lady-murdered — as I suppose we must call them. ... “

The techiness of Cooper AND his critics on this subject seems to have affected the American criticism of his “females.” What is behind all this is a peculiarly American problem that the founding fathers spent a lot of time worrying about — as those of you who have been reading their papers during the Bicentennial know. Once we abolished hereditary titles, some U. S. citizens felt that no one should be allowed a special term of address, and the evolution of “Mr. President” was painful. Sherburne’s reference to Paul Jones, in the book previously alluded to, by his French title of “Chevalier” brought forth protests from reviewers and Sherburne dropped the title in the revised version.

At the same time, and this is more pertinent for Cooper, a lot of people had decided that democracy meant that everyone was elevated to the status of “lady” or “gentleman.” Julian Hawthorne wrote about an American woman traveling in Europe and registering in hotels as “Lady Soandso.” She fully exploited the deferential treatment she consequently received, and Julian thought it was a great hoax to pull on the unsuspecting Europeans. A little later, we find Henry James (in The American Scene) trembling in Jamesian horror as he describes a “rustic cynically squalid” who knocks at the front door of a house, demands to see the “woman of the house,” and delivers a message from the “washerlady.”

Leaving, for the moment, cultural pressures on Cooper, what can we say about his females in a purely literary sense? I suppose that most of us have been influenced by criticism like this:

So far as I know it, his [Cooper’s] romance has never the grace that Scott wins now and again for his from the presence of a genuine heroine. But on this point I was willing to own myself not very well fitted to judge, since my knowledge of Cooper was at best vague and of remote date; and in my misgiving I turned to a literary friend who had made rather a special study of him, and entreated him to help me out with a heroine from him. He answered in effect that the heroines of Cooper did not exist even in the imagination of his readers; there were certain figures in his pages, always introduced as “females,” and of such extremely conventional and ladylike deportment in all circumstances that you wished to kill them. But he added, in a magnanimous despair, that if would I might read “The Last of the Mohicans,” and possibly came away with a heroine. I have just finished the book, with a true regret that I was not a boy of fourteen, or else a man in the second quarter of the century, when I read it; but I have not come away with a heroine. This is not because I have killed either Cora Munro or her sister Alice; but since I am guiltless of their death I am glad they are dead.

This is William Dean Howells, writing in 1901, and I suspect that most of us could guess who the literary friend might have been. To put these remarks in perspective, we should remember that Howells is also critical of most of Scott’s heroines, using such arguments as this:

Both Rowena and Rebecca might be left out of “Ivanhoe” and the story would not be poorer for their absence. Rowena, in fact, is a large, blond, calm nonentity, not only passionless, but traitless. Rebecca is conventionally filial, conventionally noble and pathetic; but she is without inconsistency, without variation, which are the soul of feminine identity. ... “

Here Howells tips his hand and lets us glimpse, in passing, his own Ideal Woman. I doubt that the modern woman would be flattered by his equation of inconsistency and variety with the essence of womanhood, and I know that Cooper, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, could afford no such heroines in his fictional world.

Yet Howells’ judgments are not idiosyncratic; a hostile review of Cooper in 1838 contains similar assumptions about fictional characterization.

Novels are pictures of life; and the characters presented in them must have that diversity and even contrariety of feeling, motive and conduct, that inconsequence of thought and action, which we daily witness among our friends, or we do not acknowledge the fidelity of the imitation.

The same critic goes on to complain that Cooper’s “women” lack “variety” and “life” and are “utterly characterless and insipid.” Lest I lead you into the mistake of thinking that nineteenth-century critics were asking for, and Cooper failing to provide, another Cleopatra or Moll Flanders, Howells says that Defoe’s “heroines must remain under lock and key and cannot be so much as named in mixed companies.”

Actually, such hostile criticism of the heroines of Cooper (and of Scott) is not typical. English and continental critics tended to praise Cooper’s heroines more than U. S. critics did, but Poe came to Cooper’s defense in 1843, writing, “We know no female portraiture, even in Scott, which surpasses [Maud Meredith] and yet the world has been given to understand, by the enemies of the novelist, that he is incapable of depicting a woman.” French critics praised Cooper’s heroines for their “grace” and “rare firmness of resolution,” and while they complained of the custom of having two sisters, two cousins, or two friends as heroines, one defender declared that Cooper’s portrayals were so “fresh” that his doubling of heroines didn’t matter. On the contrary, when The Pilot appeared in 1824, an English critic quoted Cecilia Howard’s portrait length and praised Cooper for dividing “the interest pretty fairly among the three ladies, instead of following the common plan of allowing one character to eclipse all the rest.” Another English critic liked the “lively and malicious Kate and the beautiful and langorous Cecilia” of the same book. Cooper’s increasing ability to portray women was affirmed and followed with interest by cis-Atlantic critics, one of whom quoted at length from The Bravo (1831) as “proof of the greater delicacy of Mr. Cooper’s delineations of the feminine mind and manners, and his improvement in the power of portraying the graceful and refined.”

As a rule, European critics were more conscious than the American of the difficulty of portraying a good character as vividly as almost anyone can portray an evil one, and they were also alert to the difficulty of smuggling a heroine into an adventure story — into what was really a “man’s world.” A typical discussion of this kind says that Smollett “unceremoniously got rid of one of the great difficulties of naval novels — the non-introduction of heroines afloat” and laments that Smollett “had not the talent to invest purity with interest. His mind we fear was essentially gross, and (not to affect a paradox) his best women are his worst.” Cooper’s mind was decidedly not gross, and British critics were quick to praise his good women. Ruth Heathcote, for instance, is pronounced “the finest picture of a wife and mother ever depicted in the pages of fiction. We admit no exception to this assertion. We challenge the whole circle of literature to produce a female character like that of Ruth.” A different critic, finding Ruth a “fine conception, wonderfully wrought out,” falls back on poetry to describe her:

A perfect woman, nobly planned

To warm, to comfort, and command;

And yet a spirit still — and bright

With something of an angel light.

The same critic prefaced this outbreak by a categorical discussion of Cooper’s characters:

... As it is difficult to select instances from the cloud of creatures — composed alike of the high and the humble, the stern-featured and the humorous, that comes floating upon our recollection, we would instance a whole class, and refer to the refined power and delicacy which he has displayed in his delineation of the female character. There is at times (let it be said with reverence) an almost Shakesperian subtlety of perception in his female pictures — a majesty, and yet a gentleness, not unworthy of the highest mind, while contemplating the holiest objects that Nature has fashioned. They are not beings of the imagination, but children of Nature — not creatures “playing in the plighted clouds,” but scattering light and comfort upon the earth ... and showing that there is no situation of life into which beauty and gladness will not penetrate at last. All Mr. Cooper’s feminine creations may not have been to Court; but they have not the less lustre and dignity on that account. ... They are enveloped in graces that are seldom dreamed of in drawing-rooms. We could count up a dozen of these spiritualities at least.

What this critic called “spiritualities” Lowell would call “sappy,” but talk of spiritualities and angel light brings us straight to the conventional characterization of heroines. Let’s look at a pair of Scott’s, the sisters Minna and Brenda of The Pirate; this is the book, you remember, that prompted Cooper to write his own The Pilot, with its girl cousins, Kate and Cecilia. Scott tells us that Minna had inherited from her Scottish mother

the stately form and dark eyes, the raven locks and finely-pencilled brows, which showed she was on one side at least, a stranger to the blood of Thule. Her cheek ... was so slightly and delicately tinged with the rose that many thought the lily had an undue proportion in her complexion. But in that predominance of the paler flower there was nothing sickly or languid; it was the true natural color of health, and corresponded in a peculiar degree with features which seemed calculated to express a contemplative and high-minded character.

Scott says that her habitual mood was one of melancholy, not because of anything in her past history but simply because her soul aspired to

something more important than ordinary or trivial occurrences. In short, notwithstanding our wish to have avoided the hackneyed simile of an angel, we cannot avoid saying there was something in the serious beauty of her aspect, in the measured and yet graceful ease of her motions, in the music of her voice, and the serene purity of her eye, that seemed as if Minna Troil belonged naturally to some higher and better sphere, and was only the chance visitant of a world that was not worthy of her.

Now Minna the Melancholy — angelic as she is — has a sister, Brenda, whom Scott describes as being equally lovely and equally innocent, but “of a complexion as differing from her sister as they differed in character, tastes, and expression.” Brenda is the fair heroine, her brown hair tinged with gold and her skin like drifted snow. Smaller than Minna (just as Cooper’s Kate is smaller than Cecilia), Brenda is active and cheerful whereas Minna “endured mirth rather than enjoyed it.”

Cooper’s Cecilia can’t really be described as melancholy, but she is much more serious-minded, and more “angelic,” than Kate. Scott’s Brenda and Cooper’s Kate are active to the point of audacity: both steal out for private interviews with their lovers in order to clear up misunderstandings and plan a course of action; both invent all sorts of schemes; both dedicate themselves energetically to the management of their own affairs and to foiling the plots of their deceivers and oppressors. Meanwhile, the ebony and alabaster angels seem to drift. Beyond these similarities, however, there is an interesting difference between the English romance and the American. In Scott’s book, it is the laughing and audacious Brenda who gets the hero, while angelic Minna falls in love with a deceiver (the pirate of the title) — just as the high-minded and serious Dorothea makes a bad first marriage in Middlemarch. By contrast, in the American romance — from Cooper through James’s The Wings of the Dove — the angel triumphs. If there are marriages, the angel gets the more desirable man while the active, vivacious, and more independent girl settles far a lesser figure. Or the independent girl may find a sad fate; one thinks of Cooper’s Clara, Hawthorne’s Zenobia and Miriam, or James’s Kate Croy and Isabel Archer. What I’m suggesting, of course, is that the “problem” of Cooper’s females is symptomatic of something that was going on in nineteenth-century American literature in general.

The last-ditch defense against the charge that American fiction has no acceptable heroines before James is usually to make something of a ha-ha out of Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. Yet most of us overlook Hawthorne’s insistence that she is an obsolete type. He tells us that “morally, there was a coarser fiber in those wives and maidens of old English births and breeding than in their fair descendants” and that “there was ... a boldness and rotundity of speech among these matrons that would startle us at the present day.” Hester is described as

tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. ... She was ladylike, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterized by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace, which is now recognized as its indication.

What I’m pointing out is that only by putting Hester’s type 200 years in the past and declaring her an extinct species can Hawthorne treat her so calmly. Note, too, Hawthorne’s insistence that standards of beauty and gentility have changed in two centuries. She was ladylike by the standards of THOSE days (having “state and dignity” as well as, the plot tells us, independence and passion) and not by the standards (“delicate, evanescent and indescribable grace”) of Hawthorne’s own time. Later in the book, it becomes clear that Hawthorne disapproves of Hester’s independent thought where women’s rights are concerned:

As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position. Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, [Can anyone read this phrase without detecting irony?] woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have evaporated. ... Thus Hester Prynne, whose heart had lost its regular and healthy throb, wandered without a clue in the dark labyrinth of mind. ...

Now all this has nothing to do with the Puritans — as anyone can tell in a few minutes by reading Ann Bradstreet’s lines on Queen Elizabeth I. Hawthorne was writing this passage in 1849, and I suspect that it, like Cooper’s The Ways of the Hour, also written in 1849, has a lot to do with the Women’s Rights convention of 1848. I first started to suspect that the Women’s Rights movement — as a movement — had more effect on American literature than we have assumed while working on the revisions Cooper made in The Pilot in 1849. Cooper’s major revisions of the book had been done earlier, and his 1849 revisions tend to be stylistic. One of the few exceptions, minor though it is, reveals Cooper’s heightened sensitivity about proper female behavior. Where Cooper, in 1823, had made Cecilia say, “I cannot know what stipulations have been made by my cousin” (about going on board ship with her lover), he changed “have been made” to “have been agreed to” in 1849. Taking the arrangements out of Kate’s hands and claiming for her only the right to consent, Cooper brought her behavior more in line with that being advocated in The Ways of the Hour. Yet, the larger context of what Cooper had in mind is clarified by the scene in which this change was made. In modern jargon, Kate’s lover and her male guardian are treating her as an “object,” taking advantage of an agreement she has made under different circumstances. Cecilia’s lover, willing to rescue but refusing to capture either girl, reproves Kate’s lover in terms that show clearly what is at stake: “Is it unworthy of a seaman, and a gentleman, to permit the woman he calls his mistress to be so, other than in name?” If, in other words, a female will act like a lady, a male can act like a gentleman and restore her right of decision. The conventions ruling here are as stylized as a minuet, but it was a system that had worked — and that was being threatened.

Ferment over women’s rights goes back, of course, long before 1848 — before, even, the American women were thrown out of the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. Like the Civil War, the movement often divided families — the Beecher family being an outstanding example. It accounted for much of the furor over James’s The Bostonians (1886), and is clearly at the heart of Cooper’s The Ways of the Hour. I am convinced, however, that we haven’t yet begun to detect the covert, between-the-lines effect of the movement on our literature.

The really curious thing about the reaction to the Women’s Rights movement is that most women seem to have joined the men in setting up the angelic but passive and dependent woman as an ideal. Sophia Hawthorne would have agreed with Nathaniel about Hester, and would wager that James Beard’s biography will reveal a Susan Cooper who would have agreed with The Ways of the Hour. Without making the mistake of equating Cooper with one of his characters, I nevertheless think that some of the threats to society and to domestic tranquility that lawyer Dunscomb outlines in The Ways of the Hour have much to do with the kind of heroine being portrayed as “ideal” in our nineteenth-century literature — by Cooper and everyone else, including Twain. (Twain’s “Eve’s Diary” begins, “The garden is lost, but I have found him, and am content.” Any feminist with dangerously low blood pressure would be well- advised to read it all, f comparison with Twain’s Eve, most of Cooper’s heroines look liberated.)

I said earlier that Cooper could not risk the kind of woman, (marked by “inconsistency and variation”) that Howells admired, in his fictional world. The reason is that the heroines, like Natty Bumppo, are often called upon to reconcile various contending factions. Cooper’s heroines prove capable of bridging two cultures or two races — as Mabel and Dew-in-June do fairly successfully in The Pathfinder. While the woman’s role as peacemaker extends far beyond domestic harmony in many of the books, the importance of this role can probably be understood most quickly by glancing at the grisly future sketched by a character in Jack Tier. Speaking of the war with Mexico, Montefalderon says

“We are of a race different from the Anglo-Saxon, and it will not be easy either to assimilate us to your own, or wholly to subdue us. In those parts of the country, where the population is small, in time, no doubt, the Spanish race might be absorbed, and your sway established; but ages of war would be necessary entirely to obliterate our usages, our language, and our religion from the peopled portions of Mexico.”

Cooper had already offered an alternative to “ages of war” and the extinction of a whole race in the Indian-white marriage of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish and elsewhere. His own clear statement of what he had in mind accounts for what might seem unnecessary complications of plot in The Prairie; here he says that after the Louisiana Purchase, given

such a novel intermixture ... of men born and nurtured in freedom, and the compliant minions of absolute power, the catholic and the protestant, the active and the indolent, some little time was necessary to blend the discrepant elements of society. In attaining so desirable an end, woman was made to perform her accustomed and grateful office. The barriers of prejudice and religion were broken through by the irresistible power of the master-passion, and family unions ere long began to cement the political tie which had made a forced conjunction between people so opposite in their habits, their educations, and their opinions.

I’m not sure what “make love” meant in that slogan of the ‘60’s: Make Love Not War. (And if my students are typical, they weren’t very clear about it either.) But there’s no difficulty in understanding what Cooper had in mind. Long before the massive immigrations of the late nineteenth-century, Cooper saw that the Louisiana Purchase and the war with Mexico had added strains to a national fabric already taut from racial tensions in the original states. If, however, females would only act like ladies (as Cooper defined them) so that males could act like gentlemen, religious, cultural, and racial differences could be worked out in a peaceful and civilized manner. In prophesying that love — “the master passion” — might succeed where churches and armies failed, Cooper undoubtedly thought that he was calling women to a higher “office” than any demanded by the Seneca Falls convention.