Cooper’s Mode of Expression

Donald A. Ringe (University of Kentucky)

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. 26-34).

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

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

To discuss Cooper’s mode of expression in the space of an hour or so is an impossible task. There are too many books of too many different kinds. Cooper wrote thirty-two novels and some dozen works of non-fiction. Among them are border romances, like The Prairie (1827) or Wyandotté (1843); romances of the sea, like The Pilot (1824) or The Sea Lions (1849); historical romances, like Lionel Lincoln (1825) or Mercedes of Castile (1840); and novels of social criticism, like Home As Found (1838) or The Ways of the Hour (1850) — books with divergent purposes and different modes of expression. Even in the nonfiction, we find the same diversity: Sketches of Switzerland (1836) filled with fine picturesque descriptions of Alpine scenery, and Gleanings in Europe: England (1837) developed through keen social analysis of British institutions.

Cooper was a master of narrative, as witness such engrossing episodes as the night ride on the thawing river in Satanstoe (1845), the passage of the shoals in The Pilot, or, indeed, the brilliant action of The Last of the Mohicans (1826). He is also a master of description. The Pioneers (1823) is filled with excellent genre scenes, not only such well-known ones as the Christmas turkey shoot and the fishing at night for bass on Otsego Lake, but also the depictions of court day and the mustering of the militia. It also contains some of the earliest and most effective of his great landscape descriptions — a form he was to develop throughout his life in the four remaining Leatherstocking tales and other romances set in both Europe and America.

Hence, any brief discussion of Cooper’s mode of expression compels us to make a choice. What shall we select to focus on? I have chosen the descriptive, the pictorial, not only because it has been a specialty of mine over the years, but also because it is usually the most difficult for twentieth-century readers to grasp. We ought to be a visual people. Our main forms of entertainment — film and television — ostensibly appeal to the sight, but both rely heavily on language — and especially conversation to communicate their themes. Few in the modern world, one may suppose, are trained to perceive the meaning of a graphic image or to understand a picture presented in words. Our nineteenth-century ancestors were, I suspect, better able to read pictures, both verbal and graphic, than we are, and contemporary writers appealed directly to their visual sense. Unless we recapture the ability to read a page of description, a large part of the artistic expression and thematic meaning of our nineteenth century authors will be lost on us.

To read a verbal picture in one of the novels is not an easy task, for Cooper was adept at adjusting his descriptions to suit his artistic purposes. In Lionel Lincoln, for example, he describes two battles — the British retreat from Concord and the assault on Bunker Hill — in remarkably different ways. Lionel Lincoln, a major in the British army, witnesses both, but in the retreat from Concord he is a participant, the center of a confused and chaotic action that swirls around him. He sees the farmers’ attacks and the British counterstrokes. He perceives the growing weariness of the royal troops and their sinking morale. He even pauses once to look down the road they have passed and sees it spotted with the red coats of dead and dying soldiers. The battle is described, in other words, from the point of view of a soldier who is so deeply involved in the action that he cannot be fully aware of all that is going on around him. It is very effectively done. There is, indeed, nothing quite like it in American literature until Henry Fleming enters the battle of Chancellorsville some seventy years later.

Bunker Hill, on the other hand, is described as a panorama seen from the fixed point on Copp’s Hill in Boston. Here Lionel stands with Generals Burgoyne and Clinton to watch Howe marshal his battalions against the entrenched farmers. Cooper first describes the scene like a carefully composed landscape to orient the reader to the general topography. He then describes the successive stages of the battle: the initial bombardment, the deployment of troops, the burning of Charlestown, and the repeated British attacks, much as a knowledgeable observer might have reported the action. The difference between the descriptions of the two battles is controlled by the point of view Cooper selects in each. In the retreat from Concord, Lionel is the center of a moving circle of confused action; at Bunker Kill, at least until the time he joins the final assault, he stands on an elevation, and his sight encompasses an arc, within which a formal, sequential action takes place. One battle is experienced; the other, for the most part, observed.

Some eighteen years later, in Wyandotté, Cooper described both of these battles again, this time from the point of view of observers who report what they have seen after the events have occurred. Major Willoughby, like Lionel Lincoln a participant in the retreat from Concord, tries to explain what has happened, first to his incredulous father and then to his concerned mother. But describing a battle to others is a very different thing from actually experiencing it, and Major Willoughby has some difficulty in explaining what has happened. Others break into the conversation with their comments, and the full story is told only through bits and pieces of description that the major mentions as the conversations develop. When his father reports the news to the people on his patent, however, he gives only a dry, factual account:

“About six weeks since, the commander-in-chief sent a detachment out as far as Concord, Massachusetts, to destroy certain stores. This detachment had a meeting with the minutemen, and blood was drawn. A running fight ensued, in which several hundreds have been killed and wounded; and I think I know both sides sufficiently well, to predict that a long and bloody civil war is begun. These are facts you should know, and accordingly I tell then to you.” 1

This is the detached report of a man who has neither experienced nor observed the conflict, and who seeks to avoid raising the passions of either side.

A very different narrator, however, describes the assault on Bunker Hill. Wyandotté, or Saucy Nick, a Tuscarora Indian, returns to the Willoughby patent from Boston just after witnessing the battle, the first he had ever seen on such a scale. Nick is thus a kind of naive observer who tells what he has seen in a highly individual way. The description, embedded in conversation, runs to some length, but its character can be readily perceived from a short excerpt.

“Did they all go together, Nick?”

“No; one time go first; fight, run away. Den two time go, fight good deal — run away, too. Den try harder — set fire to wigwam — go up hill; Yankee run away.”

“This is plain enough, and quite graphical. Wigwam on fire? Charlestown is not burnt, Nick?”

“Dat he — look like old Council Fire gone out. Big canoe fire — booh — booh; Nick nebber see such war before — wah! Dead man plenty as leaves on tree; blood run like creek!” [pp. 189-190]

Nick’s final comments are particularly telling in the judgment they make on the white man’s manner of waging war.

I’ve started with these battle descriptions because they are relatively simple and illustrate clearly how Cooper adapted his expression to serve his artistic and thematic purposes. The descriptions are controlled by the nature of the observer, his point of view, and the situation in which he finds himself. The same may be said of the great landscape descriptions he composed, but they are a great deal more complex and demand more careful study. Consider, for example, his use of description in The Pioneers, an early novel that I would like to discuss in one of its earliest forms, the revised edition of 1825, 2 so that we may see how, at the very beginning of his career, Cooper had already achieved a high degree of art in his descriptive technique.

Unlike the later Leatherstocking tales, The Pioneers begins with a settled landscape, depicting, in one paragraph, the state of the countryside in New York in 1823. The mountains are pictured as “generally arable to the top,” the vales are “narrow, rich, and cultivated” with a stream winding through each. Here and there on the lakes and streams are “beautiful and thriving villages,” some placed with a view toward manufacture, while “neat and comfortable farms, with every indication of wealth about them, are scattered” across both vale and mountain. Roads run through the valleys in every direction and cross “the most rugged and intricate passes of the hills,” while schools and churches everywhere meet the eye (p. 1). The elements Cooper selects are not only signs of settlement, but of union, community, knowledge, and faith, qualities that characterize the social values of the pleasant and peaceful world he depicts.

The spatial dimension is not the only one, however. Cooper goes on to develop a temporal aspect in the succeeding generations that occupy the land. “The expedients of the pioneers who first” settled the country “are succeeded by the permanent improvements of the yeoman, who intends to leave his remains to moulder under the sod which he tills, or, perhaps, of the son, who, born in the land, piously wishes to linger around the grave of his father.” A good society based on the independent spirit of the people flourishes “under the dominion of mild laws,” a society in which continuity is established through the successive generations that occupy the land. Up to this point, everything in the description suggests an attained ideal. Then, in a very sharp turn, Cooper ends his paragraph with one contrasting sentence: “Only forty years have passed since this whole territory was a wilderness” (p. 2). In a single descriptive paragraph, Cooper has established the two ends of a process of change that he will develop throughout the book: the wilderness world of 1783, the date of the end of the Revolution, and the good society that Americans have since succeeded in building.

The rest of the book presents an early stage of that process. It depicts the Templeton of 1793-94, when the costs and rewards of the settlers’ efforts were first becoming clear, and it shows through a series of pictures the complexity of the process and the difficulty of estimating its price. Our first view of the early settlement is seen through the eyes of Elizabeth Temple, who has spent four years away from the town that had been founded by her father. As she looks down into the valley from the side of the mountain, she is made aware of how quickly the hands of man are altering “the picture she had so often studied, with delight, in her childhood” (p. 27). Only the broad outlines remain the same, the mountains whose forms stretch far away in the distance, the frozen lake, and the great expanse of trees. In contrast to the description with which Cooper opened his book, the view that Elizabeth sees is much more spacious. It also retains much of its wildness, symbolized by the mighty oak on the side of the lake that has freed itself from the thraldcm of the surrounding trees “and threw its gnarled ad fantastic arms abroad, in all the wildness of unrestrained liberty” (p. 28).

Within this expansive frame, however, significant changes are already taking place, and Elizabeth’s focus narrows progressively as she examines them. Spots of white snow interspersed among the trees and smoke rising above them announce the places where people have settled and farming has begun. A few of these spots have already grown into little settlements, and to Elizabeth’s imagination, they seem to be expanding before her very eyes. The most important of these is, of course, the village of Templeton, a settlement of some fifty hastily-constructed buildings characterized chiefly by “the absence of taste” and their “slovenly and unfinished appearance.” In a few of them, “the uncovered beams that were to be seen through the broken windows of their second stories, showed, that either the taste, or the vanity of their proprietors, had led then to undertake a task which they were unable to accomplish” (p. 29). Among these incongruous buildings rises the mansion of Judge Temple, Elizabeth’s father, “towering proudly above all its neighbours” (p. 30).

Placed in this context, the description of the Judge’s house suggests an ambiguous meaning. Seen in relation to the houses among which it stands, it can properly be said to tower proudly above them. But viewed in the broader landscape of mountain, forest, and lake — a landscape in which it plays but a minor role — its proud towering may be seen as a touch of irony that adds significance to the meaning of the description. Whatever the values of the civilization to be established in this place, they are tainted by human vanity and bought at a cost that can be measured only if one views the landscape as a whole and perceives the relationship among its various parts. This point is made clear toward the end of the description when Cooper introduces the stumps and stubs, the remnants of forest trees that remain near the village, and “the ruin of a pine or a hemlock that had been stripped of its bark, and which waved in melancholy grandeur its naked limbs to the blast, a skeleton of its former glory” (p. 33). This is the symbolic counterpart of the oak mentioned earlier and sharply underscores the contrast between the forest wilderness and the desolation caused by men in the process of building the settlement.

Elizabeth does not, however, perceive the stumps and stubs. She views with distant vision that takes things “only in gross”: the village that lies at her feet, and, as her vision widens again to encompass a broader landscape, the smoke in the woods and “the frozen lake, as it lay embedded in mountains of evergreen, with the long shadows of the pines on its white surface, lengthening in the setting sun.” These are, after all, “the altered, though still remembered, scenes of her childhood and of joy” (p. 33), and she takes pleasure in what she sees. As she descends the mountain, however, she leaves behind the bright sunshine reflected off snow and rock, and glides instead “into the cold gloom of the valley.” Proximate vision reveals the harsher reality of the new settlement, and, as she enters “the open gate of the mansion-house” of her father, there is nothing “before her but the cold, dreary stone-walls of the building.” Approaching them down “an avenue of young and leafless poplars,” she feels “as if all the loveliness and the mountain-view had vanished like the fancies of a dream” (pp. 48-49).

Thus far into the book, the descriptions have been carefully arranged to suggest some of the complexity and conflict of values that result from a new settlement. Although Cooper, in his initial description, holds before the reader the goal toward which change has tended, what Elizabeth sees — and does not see — in the world of 1793 makes clear that the process of change involves some unhappy consequences, especially in the ugliness of the settlement that contrasts so sadly with the natural beauty that is being destroyed. As the book develops, however, other descriptions suggest that superior values will replace the ones that are lost. When the house of Mr. Grant, the Episcopal clergyman, is described, we find the same stumps that: disfigure the grounds of the Judge’s mansion, and the house itself exhibits — but only externally — “that cheerless, unfinished aspect, which is so common to the hastily-erected dwellings of a new country” (p. 135). Within, however, one finds the social values of neatness, warmth, and domesticity that cannot exist in the wild beauty of the winter wilderness.

As time passes, however, other values of civilization supplant those of the wilderness. The dark, charred stumps that become so starkly visible during the thaw on Christmas day (p. 207) are next seen spotting the fields of April, standing among the wheat that is just beginning to grow (p. 243). By August, they have disappeared, “hid beneath the tops of the stalks of rich wheat that were waving with every breath of the summer air, shining and changing their hues, like velvet” (p. 289). The meaning of this descriptive sequence is unmistakable. Though the ugly stumps are ever-present reminders that civilization destroys the beauty of the wilderness, they vanish beneath the growing grain that will feed a multitude of people and thus support the good society toward which change is moving. Conflicting values are thus represented in these, as in earlier descriptions, but here the communal values of an agricultural society are affirmed above those of the untouched wilderness. 3 Seen from this point of view, therefore, The Pioneers is the record — indeed, even the celebration — of the change that transformed the landscape around Otsego Lake in the space of a single generation.

But Cooper does not let the matter end here. Another extended description appears in the chapter following that of the August wheat and offers a contrasting statement to the positive values of civilization expressed through the waving grain. This time it is Leatherstocking who speaks, not only affirming the paradisaical nature of the wilderness through which he has hunted, but also suggesting that the values of civilization are not so unmixed as domestic and agricultural images might imply. Leatherstocking is fishing with John Mohegan and Oliver Edwards and reminiscing about the past. In the course of their conversation, he mentions a place in the Catskills that he especially liked to visit and from which he could “see the carryings on of the world” (p. 297). What he describes as the view from that eminence is a curious mixture of past and present, nature and civilization. Through it, Leatherstocking makes a complex statement on nature and man that must be considered seriously in any interpretation of the book.

When Edwards asks him what he could see from that place, the old man answers with a highly evocative word, “Creation!” Then, “sweeping one hand around him in a circle,” he reiterates, “all creation, lad.” This word implies much more than landscape, no matter how grand and beautiful. It describes the natural scene as the handiwork of God and thus places it in a supernatural context. Leatherstocking’s next words, however, sharply contrast with this concept: “I was on that hill when Vaughan burnt ‘Sopus, in the last war, and I seen the vessels come out of the highlands as plain as I can see that lime- scow rowing into the Susquehanna, though one was twenty times further from me than the other” (p. 298). The military expedition of 1777 and the lime-scow of 1794 suggest the distance between the view of nature as God’s creation and the use of it as the setting for commerce and war.

The rest of the paragraph develops the same complex vision. Leatherstocking broadens the context again to draw a spacious landscape. “The river was in sight for seventy miles, under my feet, looking like a curled shaving, though it was eight long miles to its banks. I saw the hills in the Hampshire grants, the high lands of the river, and all that God had done or man could do, as far as eye could reach — you know that the Indians named me for my sight, lad — and from the flat on the top of that mountain, I have often found the place where Albany stands. ... ” He has not forgotten the most significant human incident he saw from that spot, however, for he immediately returns to what he had witnessed during the Revolution: “and as for ‘Sopus! the day the royal troops burnt the town, the smoke seemed so nigh, that I thought I could hear the screeches of the women” (p. 298). This one detail is especially effective, coming as it does just after the glorious landscape that the old hunter has been describing.

This paragraph is only one part of an extended description of the natural world drawn from the point of view of Leatherstocking, a vision that goes on to include not only the domestic “farms and housen [sic]” to be seen from the eminence (p. 298), but also a leaping mountain brook that has “been playing among than hills, since He made the world,” a stream that “not a dozen white men have ever” seen. Leatherstocking’s vision of life is fundamentally religious. Having roamed the woods for a lifetime, he knows better than most “how often the hand of God is seen in a wilderness” (p. 299), but he also knows that some men are unaffected by the beauty and grandeur of the natural world through which they move. Even in so glorious a landscape as that which he has described, men may succumb to their passions and commit the acts of violence so well typified by the burning houses of Esopus and the screeching women.

What makes this description especially interesting is that it is perfectly in character. The garrulous old man might well describe his experience in just this way, the remembrance of the spot in the Catskills naturally calling to mind the time he saw the British attack on Esopus. For Leatherstocking, this is merely a normal association of ideas; for the readers, however, it juxtaposes sharply contrasting statements that carry thematic meaning. The passage comes late in the book, long after the initial description of New York in 1823 or Elizabeth’s view of Templeton in the winter of 1793, and it closely follows the passage in which the stumps are finally concealed beneath fields of waving grain, one of the major statements of social value in the novel. Yet it does not contradict any of them. All make valid statements on the meaning of nature, man, and society. It does present, however, a new perspective on the subject and adds at least two dimensions that the earlier descriptions did not embody: the view of nature as the handiwork of God, and the view of men as passionate beings who sometimes engage in the organized violence of war. It serves, therefore, as a useful corrective to any interpretation based on the social views of Templeton alone.

I have covered only a very few pages in The Pioneers and have by no means exhausted its pictorial elements. I have merely tried to demonstrate the significance of Cooper’s descriptions and to suggest that they be examined with care as a significant element in his mode of expression. What little I have done, however, ought to indicate how large a part of his complex meaning they embody. God’s wilderness and man’s improvements, the good society of 1823 and the cost in ugliness and destruction, the reward in plentiful food to sustain a truly civilized life, but also, and most ominously, the passions of human beings that can lead to the horrors of war — all these conflicting concepts are embodied in the long passages of description on which Cooper relied so heavily to suggest thematic meaning. To read them with sensitivity is to perceive the importance of the pictorial mode in Cooper’s fiction, to understand the complexity of his social and moral themes, and to appreciate the mastery of the descriptive technique that he had already achieved in this, only his third novel.


1 James Fenimore Cooper, Wyandotté; or, The Hutted Knoll, Darley ed. (New York: W. A. Townsend and Co., 1859), pp. 119-120. The passage quoted in the next paragraph is also from this edition.

2 This text is most easily found in the Rinehart Edition of the novel (New York: Rinehart and Co., 1959). Hereafter, documentation in my text is to page numbers in this edition.

3 For a fuller discussion of this sequence of images, see my book, The Pictorial Mode: Space and Time in the Art of Bryant, Irving, and Cooper (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1971), pp. 85-86.