Cooper Country in Fiction

by Thomas L. Philbrick (University of Pittsburgh)

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.7-14).

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

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

The true country of Cooper’s fiction is the world, stretching from Venice to Antarctica, from the deserts of northwestern Africa to the islands of the Pacific. It is a mistake, I think, to insist upon Cooper as a novelist of one region, for few writers have been as interested as he was in the varieties of human behavior that are produced by differing landscapes, climates, and cultures. Yet one principle of his fiction is unarguable: place is important. In a Cooper novel, the reader always knows what the land looks like, what the season is, what the weather is, what the local religious beliefs, legal system, class structure, and political assumptions are, for they all contribute to the shape and meaning of human experience.

In this Cooper differs strikingly from a novelist like, say, Jane Austen, whose fictional world is an eternal village, almost a diagrammatic abstraction of certain personal and social relationships that we take, so long as we are in the novel, as timeless and universal. There is the rectory; there is the heroine’s house; there is where the two gossiping maiden ladies live; there is Mr. Knightley’s house. In the course of the novel, we move from point to point, rarely aware of the season (unless the walking is “dirty”); oblivious to hill, river, meadow, or woods; unconscious of the fact that in other times and other places there have been vastly different values, beliefs, manners, and assumptions.

But remember how it is in a Cooper novel. At the opening of The Sea Lions, for example, we know we are in eastern Long Island because the topography of Shelter Island and Sag Harbor have been set before us; because the speech of the characters has been infected by the Yankee twang; because agriculture, commerce, even architecture follow certain distinctive patterns; because Congregationalism forces ministers to beg and wheedle for their support; because old idlers pick up a living by catching sheepshead in the bay.

Our concern, then, is with one of the many countries of Cooper’s fiction, the one known as Otsego County. I don’t mean to suggest, however, that all of the regions of his imagination are of equal weight and carry equivalent significance, as if all existed in some bland and indifferent relativism. One recent commentator on Cooper’s art, Daniel Peck, has proposed that the geometry of Cooper’s imagination can be described as a series of concentric circles; within the inmost ring is a lake, Otsego. Perhaps we can appropriate something of that scheme as a means of categorizing and differentiating Cooper’s various settings. At the outermost ring are those locales he knew only by report: the plains of The Prairie, the ice-bound Antarctic sealing islands of The Sea Lions, and the Pacific Northwest coast of Afloat and Ashore. For these novels, Cooper was entirely dependent on the written accounts of explorers, missionaries, and merchant captains. Second-hand though such settings are, they are remarkable for their imaginative power and coherence. See, for example, how firmly The Prairie set the terms for the nineteenth-century imagination of the American West as it can be traced in Bryant’s The Prairies, in Irving’s Tour, in Parkman’s The Oregon Trail, and in the Western Prints of Currier and Ives. Settings of this sort tend to function as the vehicles of Cooper’s widest meanings, perhaps by their very remoteness encouraging a movement in the direction of myth or allegory. At the next ring, as we move toward the center, are those fictions which are set in places Cooper knew as a visitor or traveller: the Switzerland of The Headsman, the Michigan of The Oak Openings, or the Mediterranean of The Wing-and-Wing. Here his use of written sources is buttressed by an obviously direct recollection of landscape, climate, and local custom, and here, too, the meanings become more localized and specific, applied, as they often are, to particular historical or political situations, movements, and forces.

At the center of the scheme, we said, is a lake, the axis mundi of the little world of Otsego County. It is a world that in an almost literal sense his father created, the scene of his boyhood, and the place to which he returned in the embittered years after his residence in Europe. As one might expect, the fictions that are set in the Otsego region depend only incidentally on written sources; here experience, observation, and family traditions are the primary sources. And here, again as one might expect, the meanings tend most directly toward the autobiographical, the personal, the private. No group of Cooper’s novels gives us more direct access to the heart of the writer than this one. Indeed, the Otsego novels supply an index to the things he cherished and the things he loathed, to his best hopes and darkest apprehensions. There are four books that are set in Otsego County, distributed over twenty years of Cooper’s literary career: The Pioneers of 1823; Home As Found of 1838; The Deerslayer of 1841; and Wyandotté of 1843. In a sense, Home As Found might serve as the title of all four novels, for each of them gives us an insight into the writer’s sense of the bases of his own identity at four different points in his life.

Like the subtitles of most of Cooper’s novels, that of The PioneersThe Source of the Susquehanna — is significant. It is a book about origins, beginnings. In the fictional village of Templeton, the novelist develops a complex image of Cooperstown a few years after its initial settlement. It is a time of transition, just before legal processes, religious practices, and social behavior have hardened into their permanent forms. The book offers at once a generalized picture of American settlement with its apparent conflict between the order of nature and the order of civilization and a highly particularized account of the early experience of Cooperstown, the starving time now over, and its founder struggling to give direction and stability to the rapid growth of the town.

In The Pioneers, Cooper’s recollection of the village of his early boyhood does not stop short own family. Judge Temple, of course, is a version of his father, and, for all of the novelist’s later denials, there is surely something of his sister Hannah in Elizabeth Temple. Judge Temple’s “Castle” differs in external details from Otsego Hall, the Cooper residence, but the interior scenes faithfully mirror the Hall of his childhood, accurate even to the wallpaper. Most of the other characters of the novel, beyond the Temple family, are reliably representative of the early population of Cooperstown, Some, indeed, like Monsieur Le Quoi and Major Hartmann, are directly modeled on actual figures, while others — crucially Natty Bumppo and Indian John — are evidently extensions of types present in the community or on its fringes.

Surely there is an element of nostalgia in Cooper’s reproduction of the early Cooperstown in The Pioneers, but there is also an element of bitterness. That bitterness is concentrated within the novel in the situation and feelings of its young hero, Oliver Effingham, who, with some justification, regards himself as the dispossessed rightful heir of the Temple property and Judge Temple as a usurper. If one recalls Cooper’s own situation at the time he wrote the novel, his use of the motif of the dispossessed heir seems something more than the appropriation of a stock literary device. By 1823, the family property at Cooperstown was lost to him, for it had been put up for forced sale to pay off the debts incurred by his father’s estate. The Pioneers was finished in a rented house in New York City.

Yet the ending of the novel is a hopeful one. Judge Temple, it turns out, has been the steward, not the usurper, of the Effingham interests, and young Oliver can look forward to possession of the entire property through his marriage to Elizabeth Temple. More broadly, as the leadership of the town passes from the hands of Temple to those of Effingham, Cooper seems to suggest that the turmoil and wrangling of the transitional stage of the community will give way to a stable and harmonious order. If Oliver is indeed in some sense Cooper’s own imagined surrogate, the novel predicts a return to the homeplace and a recovery of the identity that the homeplace confers.

By 1838, the year in which Home As Found was published, that prediction had come true, though not without ironies. In the summer of 1834, less than a year after his return from a seven-year residence in Europe, Cooper purchased Otsego Hall and began its renovation. By that fall, he and his family were established in the ancestral home, where, as much as by financial necessity as by choice, he was to live out the remainder of his life.

Nothing like the serene order that The Pioneers forecasts fell to Cooper’s lot. The transitional stage of Americans societal life was anything but over, as the novelist, newly returned to an America in the throes of the Jacksonian Revolution, soon discovered. Feeling alienated from his countrymen and his audience, he announced his intended abandonment of his art and struck back at his critics and libelers, beginning his protracted and bitter war with the Whig press. In the microcosmic world of Cooperstown, things went no better. The town was not quick to rejoice at the restoration of its first family, and its resentment took a variety of forms, notably the ugly squabble over the ownership of Three Mile Point.

All of this is the stuff of Home As Found, not the most attractive but surely the most immediately autobiographical of Cooper’s novels. In it the Effinghams, descendants of Oliver and Elizabeth of The Pioneers, return to Templeton after a long sojourn in Europe. They find a world in which public opinion is the toy of newspapers, a world which no longer acknowledges the value of taste, of education, or of gentlemanly principle. They find, too, a town in which gossip is the chief end of life and in which the public pleasure tramples on individual rights, as ‘prentice boys play baseball on the grounds of the Effingham mansion, and the villagers appropriate a piece of Effingham property on the lake shore for a picnic-ground. But far all this atmosphere of uproar and contention, Home As Found gives us again hauntingly beautiful images of the lake, the one area of tranquillity amid the turmoil. In the boating scenes, we establish contact with the spirit of the Leatherstocking, heard in the mocking echoes that rebound from the rocky heights of the shore. And in a tremendous white pine, a survivor from the virgin forest, we recover something of the natural order that Templeton so violates.

The ending of Home As Found is far less sanguine than that of The Pioneers. The Effinghams consolidate their forces as the heroine, Eve Effingham, marries her second cousin, also an Effingham, and prepare for the long state of siege to which culture and high principle are subject in Jacksonian America. The homeplace has become an embattled island. It is no longer the center from which one’s influence and power radiate to act upon and shape society, but rather a place of refuge to which one withdraws to preserve the little circle of excellence that is threatened by the surrounding ocean of mediocrity.

Nothing would seem more different from Cooper’s acid rendition of contemporary manners and morals in Home As Found than The Deerslayer, written three years later, with its extended celebration of the holy beauty of the Otsego country in its primal state of nature. But there is a lake at the center of both books, and we should be careful. By setting The Deerslayer in the 1740’s, Cooper moves back to a time before settlement, to time before his father’s will and energy had set in motion the train of events that would produce the unhappy village world of Home As Found. That leap backward in time is an impressive act of the poetic imagination, surely, but perhaps it is something more as well. F that act, Cooper expunges the village and its inhabitants from the landscape, wipes the slate clean, and returns us to a time before there were newspaper editors and lawyers, clearings and roads, before even Otsego had its name. If it is a poetic act, it is also, I should think, an act of violence, less explicit than the one that concludes The Crater of 1847, by which Cooper sinks a community not unlike the Templeton Home As Found beneath the sea, but no less severe.

The natural world of The Deerslayer is more benign than it is in any other Cooper novel. The season is early summer, and one splendid day follows another in the perfect ritual regularity of sunset and dawn. It is a place where Hetty Hutter, Cooper’s holy idiot, can walk unmolested in the company of a mother bear and her cubs, an image of the peaceable kingdom if there ever was one. Everywhere the language of the novel emphasizes the sanctity and serenity of the lake and the encircling forest, to the point that the human presence, except for Hetty’s, becomes a contamination, a desecration of the order, beauty, and peace of nature.

Like all Edens, this one is the scene of a fall, in this case, that of the youthful Leatherstocking, who enters the novel as a deerslayer and leaves it as a man-killer. At the beginning, in his innocence and goodness, he seems not unlike Hetty. By the end, he has given himself to the ambiguous world of the warpath. At the beginning, he speaks for the Christian principle of mercy; at the end, he speaks the pagan principle of retribution. Perhaps we are meant to construe Natty’s initiation as a fortunate fall, but I don’t think so. It is a necessity, surely, but it points to the alienation of man from the perfect world of nature in this novel, as if to suggest that no human achievement can compensate for the loss of a harmony that is divine in its perfection.

At least this is clear: the first of the Leatherstocking Tales, The Pioneers, looks, as we have seen, toward a bright future in which human society achieves something of the order and stability of the natural world; the last of the Leatherstocking Tales, The Deerslayer, ends, not with a vision of the civilization to come, but with Natty’s return to the lake at a time when even Tom Hutter’s Muskrat Castle, the only previous evidence of human presence in the scene, has been wiped away. We end not with settlement, but with a still purer nature; not with progress, but with reversion.

Between The Pioneers and Wyandotté, the last of Cooper’s Otsego County novels, the contrast is still more pointed. Though both books take settlement as their major theme, Wyandotté is a novel of failed settlement. Where The Pioneers ends with a restoration and a vista of prosperity, Wyandotté ends with abandonment and exile.

The principal scene of Wyandotté, unlike those of the previous three books, is not Lake Otsego and its shores, and that fact requires some consideration. Let me remind you of the geography of the novel. Here is Cooper’s account of Captain Willoughby’s first journey to his patent in the wilderness of what was then, in 1765, western Albany County. Leaving his wife and children in Albany, Willoughby and his party travel westward along the Mohawk and then turn to the south:

Our adventurers made most of their journey by water. After finding their way to the head of the Canaderaga, mistaking it for the Otsego, they felled trees, ho1lowed them into canoes, embarked, and, aided by a yoke of oxen that were driven along the shore, they wormed their way, through the Oaks, into the Susquehannah, descending that river until they reached the Unadilla, which stream they ascended until they came to the small river, known in the parlance of the country, by the erroneous name of a creek, that ran through the Captain’s new estate. The labor of this ascent was exceedingly severe, but the whole journey was completed by the end of April, and while the streams were high.

If one traces Willoughby’s watery way on a modern map of Otsego County, one arrives at or near the present village of Morris on Butternuts Creek, close to the western border of the county. That location is supported by what seem to be clues in the text. Cooper, specifies, for example, that the boundaries of the patent are marked by “butternut corners.” More significant is the peculiar topography of Willoughby’s lard, where an isolated knoll rises from the floodplain of the stream. Similar knolls rise from the floodplain of Butternuts Creek, though they are rapidly being leveled for their sand and gravel.

Captain Willoughby’s patent thus seems to coincide roughly with land that in actuality had been granted originally to the Morris family. An abortive attempt at settlement had been made before the Revolution at Colonel Staats Morris’ patent on the Butternuts. Abandoned during the war, the land was reoccupied and settled by Jacob Morris, Judge Cooper’s contemporary and friend, in the 1780’s. In the early nineteenth century, the ties between the Morris and Cooper families were strengthened by marriage. In a sense, then, the history of the Morris patent, known as Butternuts, was assimilated into the traditions of Cooper’s own family.

The Morris patent held one particularly poignant association for Cooper, for it was the scene of the death of his older sister Hannah, who was thrown from her horse while on a visit to Butternuts in 1800 — a memorial stone still marks the spot of her fall on the road just outside of Morris. Any student of Cooper is aware of the depth and longevity of his response to Hannah’s death. Writing about it in 1840, he confessed to his correspondent that a “Lapse of forty years has not removed the pain with which I allude to this subject at all.” Perhaps the somber ending of Wyandotté owes something to that persistent memory of Hannah Cooper’s death, if only in the gratuitous death of Beulah, killed with her infant in her arms by a random shot.

But the autobiographical implications of Wyandotté are broader than this. Indeed, there are good reasons for believing that, at some level of Cooper’s imagination, his account of the rise and fall of the settlement at the Hutted Knoll is a version of the history of Cooperstown — that we have here, in other words, another tale of the homeplace. In Wyandotté everything is displaced: shifted westward in space, moved back twenty years in time, distanced and objectified by all sorts of imaginative strategies. Still, the fundamental linkages between the Hutted Knoll and the homeplace seem evident enough. Centrally there is the figure of the father who, at a site by a body of water in the wilderness — Captain Willoughby’s beaver pond in the novel — founds a community; a father, moreover, who is at last struck down, as Judge Cooper 1 was, by a vindictive enemy. Then there are small details that reinforce the association, like the importation into the Willoughby community of the elderly Scottish stone mason Jamie Alien, a very real person from the Cooperstown of the novelist’s boyhood.

The most curious and compelling of these links between the Hutted Knoll and Cooperstown, however, is Cooper’s highly deliberate association of the Willoughbys with Lake Otsego in the second chapter of Wyandotté. In his account of the Captain’s second journey to his patent, this time a year later and in the company of Mrs. Willoughby, Cooper traces a route that carries his characters to the head of Lake Otsego, “a sheet that we have taken more than one occasion to describe.” The season is early spring, and the Willoughbys must wait far the ice to thaw and break up in the southerly wind. As they wait, immense flights of passenger pigeons sweep overhead. It is all a direct evocation of The Pioneers, written twenty years earlier, a little like the echoes of The Marriage of Figaro in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Perhaps we should dismiss the episode as a self- indulgent literary reminiscence, but it seems to me that its function is more serious than that: it establishes a rough equivalence between the early novel and the late one, invites us to read Wyandotté as a re-imagination of the earlier fiction and to be attentive to the crucial differences.

The most striking of those differences, at least on the level of imagery, is ominous indeed. One of Captain Willoughby’s first acts on his patent is to drain the beaver pond that is its most distinctive feature in order to secure the advantage of 400 acres of fertile land without the labor of clearing. Cooper’s language is worth quotation:

The first blow was struck against the dam about nine o’clock on the second day of May, 1765, and, by evening, the little sylvan-looking lake, which had lain embedded in the forest, glittering in the morning sun, unruffled by a breath of air, had entirely disappeared! In its place there remained an open expanse of wet mud, thickly covered with pools and the remains of beaver- houses, with a small river winding its way slowly through the slime. The change to the eye was melancholy, indeed; though the prospect was cheering to the agriculturist. No sooner did the water obtain a little passage, than it began to clear the way for itself, gushing out in a torrent through the pass already mentioned.      The following morning Capt. Willoughby almost mourned over the work of his hands. The scene was so very different from that it had presented when the flats were covered with water, that it was impossible not to feel the change. For quite a month it had an influence on the whole party.

The reader of The Deerslayer will appreciate the seriousness of Willoughby’s act of desecration, muffled though it is in Wyandottéby Cooper’s subsequent emphasis on the neatness, prosperity, and tranquillity of the estate that over the course of the next ten years is constructed on the patent. No exercise of the Captain’s English taste for landscape gardening will compensate far the destruction of a holy lake.

There are other ominous signals. Unlike Judge Temple’s house in The Pioneers, Captain Willoughby’s Hutted Knoll depends for its values and its preservation on its isolation. Situated on a hill in a wilderness, fortified against intruders, it is an image of withdrawal, a refuge from the external world. The lands that surround it are all the Captain’s own property; the inhabitants are his employees, his tenants. In this respect, the novel seems not only to embody but to criticize Cooper’s own fantasies of withdrawal and embattlement, for Captain Willoughby, the character who acts upon that fantasy, is portrayed as a man whose reading of reality is fatally obtuse.

The most difficult and most interesting questions that Wyandotté poses, I think, involve the issue of judgment. Who is responsible for the catastrophe of the novel, by which Willoughby’s pleasuredome is swept away, and he and his family are either killed or driven from the American field, as if they and their values and assumptions were incapable of surviving in the New World? Are we to regard Captain Willoughby’s career as the history of a good and honorable man who falls victim to American demagoguery and envy as they are embodied in Joel Strides and his followers? If so, I suppose the book becomes a not-so-admirable exercise in self-pity on Cooper’s part, a tragic version of Home As Found.

But that reading of the novel really won’t do. Cooper too carefully sets before us Captain Willoughby’s own responsibility for his downfall to permit us to see him as the mere victim of external evil. On the level of character, we have Cooper’s attention to the Captain’s complacency, lack of foresight and insight, and his easy indulgence in the formulas and dogmas of his class and military training. On the level of symbol, we have the desecrated pond, the neglected gates, and the whole false serenity of the Hutted Knoll. On the level of action, finally, we have the tremendous fact that Captain Willoughby is struck down not by Joel Strides and his fellow plotters but by the Indian Nick, whose tribal name gives the novel its title. Whatever the significance we may attach to Nick, it is not political, not social. Nick’s enmity is not inspired by the motives of Joel Strides but, in the first instance, by Willoughby’s practice, decades ago, of disciplining the Indian by flogging, and in the second instance by his threatening Nick now in the moment of crisis with that same intolerable humiliation. Nick’s determination to kill Willoughby is thus all the Captain’s doing.

One could go on in this vein, but I hope that the outlines of my argument are apparent. If we can identify Cooper with elements of Willoughby’s situation and attitude, we must at the same time see the novel as an act of self-perception and self-criticism by which the novelist released himself, it would seem, from the need to imagine and re- imagine the lake and the father. Perhaps the way out of self-pity and paranoia is indicated in the figure of Corporal Blodget, the young Rhode Islander who, late in the novel, more and more displaces Willoughby’s son, Robert, as the supporter and confidant of the older man. Cooper assures us at the end of the book that Blodget is to have a long and honorable American career, a career that makes the baronetcy and British military rank which Robert Willoughby achieves seem irrelevant. If Blodget is in a symbolic sense the true son and heir of the Captain, he, at least, can not only survive but flourish in the New World.


[by Hugh C. MacDougall, May 2000]

1 The family tradition that William Cooper died a violent death has been disproved since this paper was given, though his effective ouster from political and judicial power by the Jeffersonian “revolution” of 1800, in part at the hand of men whom he thought owed him loyalty, may still support Professor Philbrick’s point.