Cooper’s Use of Setting in the European Trilogy

Constance Ayers Denne (Baruch College, City University of New York)

Presented at the 3ʳᵈ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1980.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1980 Conference at State University College of New York, Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 52-70).

Copyright © 1980, State University College at Oneonta.

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

“ ... damn it, if I had been a painter what a picture I should have painted.”

— Letter to William Dunlap

James Fenimore Cooper lived for most of his life with expansively beautiful views of nature. He grew up in a prosperous community created by his father, Judge William Cooper, in the lovely wilderness of central New York State. Both the boy’s first home in Cooperstown as well as a mansion built by his father in 1799, Otsego Hall, had splendid and memorable views of Lake Otsego. Later this lake became the “Glimmerglass” of The Deerslayer. For almost four years as a sailor and midshipman, 1806-1810, Cooper enjoyed the panoramic sights that are the staple of life aboard ship, and memories of these days, too, provided material for his novels. Of Cooper’s descriptions in his sea tales, Joseph Conrad was to write that they “have the magistral ampleness of a gesture indicating the sweep of a vast horizon.” 1 Marriage in 1811 to Susan Augusta DeLancey kept Cooper conscious of natural vistas. The couple were married at Heathcote Hill in Mamaroneck, the family home of the DeLanceys, whose extensive grounds overlooked Long Island Sound, and nearby, in a smaller house appropriately called “Closet Hall,” the Coopers lived for a short time before moving to Cooperstown.

Cooper obviously liked the scenery around Lake Otsego. From the couple’s temporary home on Fenimore Farm, they took frequent rides on horseback to Mount Vision, a favorite eminence at the southern end of Lake Otsego, and so named by Cooper’s father on his first visit to his newly acquired territory. When Cooper decided to build a new stone house for his family, he selected a “charming” setting, “on a rising knell, commanding a lovely view of the lake and village.” 2 The Coopers, however, never lived in the house: while they were waiting for its completion, they made plans to return to Westchester. In 1817, after a farewell outing to Mount Vision with their children, they left Cooperstown for Scarsdale, not to return for seventeen years, seven of which were to be spent in Europe.

The Cooper home in Scarsdale, Angevine Farm, was about four miles from Mamaroneck and high on a hill. Again they had an exceptional vista; Cooper’s daughter, Susan, recalls in “Small Family Memories”: “The view from the hill was fine, including a long stretch of the Sound, and Long Island beyond.” 3 The site, Spiller says, was one which “invariably appealed to Cooper.” Moreover, of Cooper’s temporary homes in Europe, “all but those in a city’s heart were of this description.” 4 Cooper’s response to his surroundings was not passive, for in an effort to enhance the natural beauty of the setting, he turned to landscape gardening. Susan says: “I can remember trotting around after him while he was planning a sweep, and a ha-ha fence — a novelty in those days. He set out many trees.” 5

The facts of his life up to this time suggest an interest in the visual that is corroborated by Cooper’s experiences during his residence in New York, to which he moved in 1822, two years after he began his career as a writer. Although he lacked, in the city, the physical presence of a spacious landscape, scenery was not out of his mind; the novels of this period reveal an abundance of visual detail. In fact many contemporary artists read them to find subject matter for pictorial scenes and natural landscapes. 6 James F. Beard writes: “practically all of the more prominent painters of Cooper’s time turned to his fiction for subjects,” and he adds that, “if the records were complete, they might show that almost every major scene in his early novels was transferred to canvas.” 7

This interest was mutual. New York, when Cooper lived there, was a center for writers and painters who sought out one another. Cooper’s daughter recalls that “Artists, and literary men, were frequently at the house ... as guests at dinner [among them] Mr. Cole the artist.” 8 She remembers too that her father was “partial to the society of artists, all painters; ... Mr. Dunlap and Mr. Cole, I remember especially.” Conversations with men like Cole, Dunlap, Jarvis, and Morse, in a room christened “The Den” by Cooper, in the back of Wiley’s bookstore probably gave him the idea for a club. Susan recalls: “It was about this time that my Father planned and founded a Club to which he gave the name of The Lunch. Most of the prominent men of ability and character in New York belonged to the club. ... Conversation was the object.” 9 Among those conversations there were undoubtedly many that reflected the affinity among the arts that dominated the sensibility of the time.

“Good, great, and magnanimous New-York” treated Cooper well as he pursued his “dirty employment” 10 of writing, but he had long wanted to see Europe again. 11 In a letter written in 1825 he mentions that he and his wife “talk very seriously of making an effort to get to France for a year or two. Nothing but poverty prevents.” 12 By February 1826 he informed his English literary agent, John Miller, that he intended to sail to Europe “some time in the month of June, either for France or Italy, which I have not yet determined. As I shall be accompanied by Mrs. Cooper, and my family it is my intention to remain in Europe a year or two. My object, is my own health and the instruction of my children in the French and Italian languages. Perhaps there is, also, a little pleasure concealed in the bottom of the cup.” 13 The pleasure he was to find was not “little,” but overwhelming, and it was to consist in the simple act of seeing.

Preparations for the trip to Europe began in earnest. “We are all studying French, old and young, great and small,” reports Susan. “Europe now loomed up more clearly in the distance. A French governess was provided for us. ... Your Grandfather also took lessons with Monsieur Monesca, a refugee from St. Domingo who had a system of his own, a very clever but peculiar man. After a while your Grandfather took me with him, and I had regular hours also; we walked down hand-in-hand to Liberty Street, a long walk, three times a week.” 14 Shortly before the family left, the “Bread and Cheese” Lunch club, also called the “Cooper Club,” gave a testimonial dinner for Cooper, attended by many illustrious guests, at which Charles King, then editor of the New York American and later President of Columbia College, offered the toast to the honored guest. He referred to Cooper as the pride of the Association and one who, by looking “with a poet’s fancy and a painter’s eye upon the grandeur and magnificence of our mountain scenery,” refuted the notion that literature could not grow in America. 15

On the first of June, 1826, “the author of The Spy embarked in the good ship Hudson, with all his family, including his nephew William, the son of his brother William, whom he had adopted.” 16 Thirty-one days later, on 2 July they arrived at the Isle of Wight. After completing his business in England and taking up residence at Paris, Cooper wrote his first letter from Europe to his sister, Ann Pomeroy; his subject was his visit to Carisbrooke Castle, the day after they arrived at Cowes. “I enjoyed these old remains of other days, with as much gusto as though I had been fresh from the new scenery of home, for the first time. ... From the battlements ... is one of the loveliest landscapes in Great Britain. We stood looking down, on Carisbrooke, on Newport, the Isle, the channel, and far into the opposite county of Hampshire, as though it were on a glowing and glorious picture.” 17 Indeed, for Cooper, a landscape was analogous to a picture.

Howard Mumford Jones, in an essay entitled “James Fenimore Cooper and the Hudson River School,” takes as his theme the fact that “Cooper touched upon, and was touched by, the cultural activities of the painters in many ways.” After mentioning Cooper’s friendships with Cole, Morse, Doughty, Jarvis, Dunlap, and Greenough, Jones states: “Cooper was abroad ... at precisely the period when Cole and Morse were also in Europe, and Morse, Greenough and Cooper were much together in Paris.” 18 He feels that the “relation of landscape painting by the Hudson River School to Cooper’s fictional techniques and to his view of life” is most important. To clarify his idea he offers a summary of the technique of the painters:

Now the characteristic formula for landscapes by the founders of the Hudson River School is this: a dark foreground, usually with one or two trees, commonly dead, and tiny figures looking into the picture; theatrical perspective, so that one views as from a height a vast expanse; winding water in the middle distance extending to the plain of the horizon; the highlight on the central scene and on the distant sky; and silvery clouds or vapor, shedding sentiment and vagueness over interminable leagues of earth beyond. This combination of the picturesque and the sublime can be seen in most of Thomas Cole’s landscapes, in works like Doughty’s Raft and in Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits, wherein Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant are portrayed admiring a mountain waterfall, and the tree, not blasted this time, occupies a fourth of the picture.

According to Jones, “Cooper’s landscape is composed precisely as landscape paintings by his friends are composed.” Further, says Jones, “he found the effect so efficient that he never abandoned it,” and he takes his evidence from two of the novels of the European trilogy: “The Venetian scenes in The Bravo, the Swiss scenes in The Headsman ... are painted in words by Cooper precisely as a painter would render them.” 19

Cooper’s letter to his sister is characteristic of his experience in Europe in two ways. It reveals his mode of observation, and his habit of recording what he saw. Cooper remained in Europe for seven years, 1826-1833, and during his extended residences in Paris, London, Bern, Florence, Sorrento, Rome, and Vevey, he explored their environs, guidebooks in hand, on foot, on horseback, and for longer tours, by small sailing vessel and by carriage. He kept detailed notebooks which he published between 1836 and 1838 as a series of letters in ten volumes. These accounts of his daily life, of course, reveal the keen observer of men and manners, as well as the shrewd commentator of differences in national opinion and practice. 21 A substantial portion of these volumes, however, records in details what he saw on his daily tours — natural views and their man-made accessories, the impressions these occasioned, and the thoughts to which these visual experiences gave rise. Cooper was indefatigable in his search for sights. The thoroughness with which he saw his surroundings is as astonishing as his energy was boundless. Robert E. Spiller notes that ” ... attention to details of direction and distance ... coupled with the feeling for tone and the dim recollection of historical associations, are characteristic of all Cooper’s impressions of European scenery.” 21 James F. Beard writes that “Cooper’s travel books, especially the volumes on Switzerland and Italy, are redolent of his feeling for color, mass, space, and atmosphere.” 22 Both the extraordinary sense of place which his travel narratives reveal, and his painter’s way of seeing, were to serve him well in Europe in his craft as a novelist.

James F, Beard, in the essay contributed to James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal, considers the extent to which the painterly habit of Cooper shaped his art: “The inceptions of at least one-third of his romances can be traced to the strong impressions of some particular scenes on his sensibilities.” The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, The Headsman, The Two Admirals, and The Wing-and-Wing, written as a result of his stay in Europe, all are set in places Cooper knew and admired. Moreover, Beard says of Cooper:

... his imagination appears to have been of that inward and withdrawn kind which conceives best in visual images, and for which the act of writing is essentially an act of transcription from one medium to another. ... It follows, therefore, that the best way to read much of Cooper’s fiction is to read it rapidly, allowing the text to recreate the painter’s image. ... Though I speak under correction, I do not believe Cooper is read today in this manner, except by the few readers who instinctively visualize and who can escape the mold of photographic realism. 23

His readers who were able to visualize, however, have always admired Cooper’s rendition of place. William Cullen Bryant praised The Pioneers for the way the scenes “as in a moving picture are made to pass before us.” In The Bravo he saw how ” ... the magnificent city of Venice ... stands continually before the imagination, and ... the gorgeous ceremonies of the Venetian republic pass under our eyes.” The Two Admirals and The Wing-and-Wing he singled out for the mastery with which Cooper made “his grand procession of events pass before the mind’s eye.” 24

Another reader who seems to have read Cooper as Beard suggests is Francis Parkman, who wrote of The Last of the Mohicans: “Its dark and rugged scenery rises as distinctly on the eye as the images of the painter’s canvas, or rather as the reflection of nature herself.” 25 Balzac, referring specifically to The Pathfinder, said that the descriptions “make up a series of marvellous pictures. ... Never has topographical writing encroached further upon painting. This is the school where the literary landscape painter should study; all the secrets of the art are here.” 26

Beard asserts that Cooper was profoundly interested in painting and that he had the painter’s “ambivalence of attitude” toward his subjects and scenes. That is, he had “a passion for exactitude of representational detail and, at the same time, a striving towards the harmonization of those details which reaches at times beyond the expressive limits of [the] media.” Yet, Beard says, for all of its literal qualities, “the art of Cooper was not intended as photographic realism. ... That is why Cooper’s effects are untranslatable on the moving-picture screen. In the final effect, Cooper believed, the realistic details should be sublimated by a process of selection, arrangement, and poetic heightening to a single unified impression.” 27 Beard is, of course, talking about Cooper’s technique with any particular scene; Beard’s insight, however, may be carried one step further. The harmonization of details and the single unified impression may be as true of full-length “pictures” as of isolated scenes. 28 In fact, each of the novels of the trilogy Cooper wrote in Europe, The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, and The Headsman, creates the dominant impression of a setting so heightened as to be symbolic.

Beard points out that although “the narrative artist can never achieve the same degree of immediacy in the expressive values of color, mass, and space as the painter, [Cooper] understood these values and instinctively used them in a definite pictorial style or styles. ... There is in his fiction a remarkable variety of painterly expression.” All of Beard’s remarks are applicable to the trilogy:

The tonal qualities which permeate many of his books, contributing to their unity and remaining fixed in the reader’s memory long after the incidents themselves are forgotten, vary markedly from novel to novel. This tonal consistency within individual books, as well as the variety from book to book, seems largely the result of Cooper’s allowing certain sites or landscapes, with their peculiar clusters of association, to determine not only the settings of his fiction but the qualities of characterization and action as well. The idea for The Deerslayer ... came as the sudden result of a glimpse of Lake Otsego ... and it is not difficult to feel reverberations of this circumstance in its limpid, slightly nostalgic tone. The action and characterization of The Wing-and-Wing seem to have been projections of Cooper’s haunting memory of a sense of “secret and subtle danger” he experienced while cruising along the lovely shores of Italy in a Genoese felucca. 29

Cooper’s use of natural settings as a shaping device, and as a source of action, has been noticed by many critics. William C. Brownell believed that nature was to Cooper:

A vision of beauty and force unrolled by Omnipotence, but a panorama, not a presence. There was nothing Wordsworthian, nothing pantheistic in his feeling for her — for “it” he would have said. No flower ever gave him thoughts that lay too deep for tears. He was at one with nature as Dr. Johnson was with London. There is something extremely tonic and natural in the simplicity of such an attitude, and as a romancer the reality and soundness of it stood Cooper in good stead. It is due to it that nature in his books is an environment, an actual medium, in which his personages live and move rather than a background against which they are relieved, or a rival to which their interest yields. It is the theatre of their action. It simply never occurs to Cooper to “paint the phenomena of nature” except as thus related to his people or their story — though generally more closely related than an accessory, and never less so than an atmosphere. 31

Marius Bewley considers the action of The Deerslayer convincing, for example, because “the world in which it occurs is created with vividly realized circumstantial detail. It is less mere description than it is the evocation of the tangible reality of things.” 31 R. W. B. Lewis sees scene as “the distinguishing element in Cooper’s best compositions.” 32 He is using the term “scene” in the sense suggested by Kenneth Burke, that is, as container of, and metaphor for, the action and the characters. 33 The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, and The Headsman are particularly good examples of Cooper’s use of settings as containers of entire actions. Usually regarded primarily as socio-political works, they deserve to be examined as novels, artistically constructed around settings. 34

Beard speaks of Cooper’s varying his pictorial effects for maximum expressive values within the tonal range he set for himself in particular novels, and he concludes that Cooper’s best scenes “contain their own implicit symbolism.” 35 It may be demonstrated that, just as this is true of the individual scene, so it is also true of those novels in which the setting has much to do with their genesis. In the last two novels of the trilogy, The Heidenmauer and The Headsman, Cooper describes his process of creation in his Introductions. In both cases, the setting acts as a catalyst, and the completed novels practically illustrate Beard’s comment about individual scenes: “The Setting is not simply a backdrop to the action, and hence incidental to the meaning: it is an integral part of the action and the meaning.” 36 To go a step further, the setting of each novel of the European trilogy may be regarded as intrinsic to the artistic design of the entire novel and as a structural, shaping device meaningfully related to every other part of the action. The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, and The Headsman are not only artistic structures in which the settings are architectonic; they are meaningful symbols in themselves.

Cooper’s visit to Venice, in April of 1830, provided the material for The Bravo, the first novel of the European trilogy. He was able to have the whole plan of the novel in mind as he began to write, for The Bravo is organized around a setting so vividly imagined that it supplied the action. To examine The The Bravo from the point of view of setting is to find that the city of Venice provides the underlying structural principle for the novel. Once Cooper had the setting clearly in mind, all the other elements of the novel such as plot, theme, character, narrative point of view, and structure suggested themselves. The setting is both a means and an end. It initiates and controls the action of the novel and is itself ultimately transformed to symbol by that process. Only at the end of the novel, when the tale has become in linear form a structural counterpart of the visible world of Venice, does the symbolic value of the setting emerge as the final meaning of the interplay among all the elements of the action.

The Bravo is shaped by the contrasts Venice suggested to Cooper. Its very geography made it different from any other city he had ever visited; as he wrote in his travel volume on Italy: ” ... it is the land that is artificial here, and not the water.” 37 This insight, together with the memory of his first delusive impression of the city, gave him his theme of appearance and reality, as well as his method of contrast. Further, since setting was to structure the novel, he could use a pictorial technique in two ways. He could sketch a broad panoramic canvas to give a sense of place, and he could focus on particular scenes. The use of setting as the shaping element of his design enabled him to employ methods of composition at which he excelled. 38 The setting of Venice also allowed him to use the history he had read while in residence there. This background which he discusses in the Preface, gave Cooper his thematic concerns and the moral for the action.

In his Preface to The Bravo, Cooper laments the misunderstanding of governments that is the result of the undiscriminating use of political terms. “Governments,” he says, “are usually called either monarchies or republics. The former class embraces equally those institutions in which the sovereign is worshipped as a god, and those in which he performs the humble office of a manikin. In the latter we find aristocracies and democracies blended in the same generic appellation.” 39 According to Cooper, a republic is “a state in which power, both theoretically and practically, is derived from the nation, with a constant responsibility of the agents of the public to the people” (p. vi). The assumption upon which The Bravo rests is that Venice, “one of the soi-disant republics of the other hemisphere” (p. [vi]), is not a true republic, and Cooper’s concern, the subject of his novel, is to describe this state from the inside and to define the reality for which the term republic inaccurately stands.

To understand the novel fully, it is imperative to see that what has been regarded as Cooper’s subject is really only an assumption. Cooper is not primarily concerned with social criticism; he is not solely contrasting a true with a false republic, or America with Venice. This contrast comes up, of course, but it is not the shaping idea of the novel. Having assumed a difference between a true and a false republic, Cooper takes as his true subject the difference between what the state of Venice appears to be and what it actually is. When it is understood that Cooper “has endeavored to give ... a picture ... to set forth the familiar operations of Venetian policy” (pp. v-vi), The Bravo becomes the fictional form of the theme of appearance vs. reality, and may be more profitably read not as political analysis but as literature. Approached in this way, The Bravo reveals its intrinsic artistic merits. Less historical than literary in method, The Bravo evokes the experience of “evil of the first magnitude” (p. vii) through the meaningful symbol, Venice. Indeed, as Nathalia Wright has pointed out: “the scene of this novel is more expressly symbolic than that of any other by him.” 41

The final form of the novel is a pictorial vision. The setting, related intrinsically to every other element of the action, dominates all of them and becomes their apt symbol. The Bravo is meaningful, as a poem or a picture is meaningful, through Cooper’s architectonic use of Venice as a setting. Its celebration of justice, through the detailing of its opposite, is a beautifully crafted and compelling vision, authenticated in its soundness and wholeness by the novel itself.

The second novel of the trilogy, The Heidenmauer or The Benedictines: A Legend of the Rhine, suggests in its Byronic motto, “From mighty wrongs to petty perfidy, /Have I not seen what human things could do?” Cooper’s interest in the evil of which men are capable. Again, in this novel, as in The Bravo, the setting is the shaping metaphor defining all the elements of the novel as the action moves from place to place on a chessboard-like landscape associated with different centers of interest and power — aristocratic, ecclesiastical, and commercial. Considered by some to be less successful than its predecessor, The Heidenmauer, however, has an integrity that The Bravo lacks.

The Introduction is an autobiographical account of the author’s journey to Duerckheim, Germany, the setting of the novel. Since it is a true account, it provides a vivid picture of the setting Cooper actually saw. At the same time, the Introduction is a conventional device which creates the persona of the travelling American and his apocryphal conversation with a character named Christian Kinzel, who, Cooper disingenuously says, is responsible for the tale. Christian Kinzel’s tale conjures up a series of three sixteenth-century views of the landscape of Duerckheim, which Cooper recreates in the novel proper as a “landscape series” (the setting “before,” the destruction of the Abbey, the setting “after”). 41 These panels contrast with the modern panel of the Introduction, which comments ironically on the past views of the tale. The interplay between the three perspectives of a world long gone and the setting perceived by Cooper in 1831 structures The Heidenmauer. Indeed, this contrast, with its thematic concerns, is the true action of the novel.

In its concern with setting, the Introduction appropriately prepares the reader for the narrative, which is shaped by the metaphor of the setting as the dream vision of the Introduction takes on artistic form. At the same time, the image of the ruins described so vividly in the Introduction hovers over the action, putting it in perspective. The ruins suggested a theme to Cooper, and, using the technique of “before and after,” he reconstructed the ruins to illustrate that theme. A setting conceived of symbolically as a history of the mutability of man suggested the dramatic counterpart of change and conflict. Conflict — of powers, of people, of ideas — viewed with irony, became his method of dramatizing the inexorability of time, and of shadowing forth values, beyond the mutability of things, that are immutable.

Within an unchanging natural landscape, Cooper has drawn a “picture of life” lived amid mutable objects. The device of “before and after” enabled Cooper to represent pictorially a truth about human nature without being either cynical or moralistic. The change in the landscape which the novel sketches is directly traceable to selfishness; yet, from the perspective of the time of the Introduction, and against the scene of the ruins of Duerckheim — a destruction more complete than even man can cause — the sixteenth-century panels testify to the ultimate futility of greed. Although the juxtaposition of the past and present views of Duerckheim powerfully convey Cooper’s sense of the mutability of things, his informing sense of the value of life itself offers an antidote to a perishable world. Despite the fact that life, too, ends, Cooper affirms in the novel those immutable qualities of goodness and love which alone deflect the ironical point of view suggested by his Introduction. Superimposed upon what he sees, they impart a tone to his point of view which meliorates the bleak outlook for goodness in the world of The Bravo and anticipates the last novel of the trilogy, The Headsman, in which these forces not only appear within the picture but, indeed, triumph.

Setting is again intrinsic to artistic design in The Headsman or, The Abbaye Des Vignerons, the third novel of the trilogy; it also structures its action. Each of five places within the environs of Lake Geneva provides a background for the events of the novel. These five points are linked by a journey which moves from the lower world to the heights of the Great St. Bernard. The five stages of the journey include a debarkation from Geneva, a passage across the Leman, a stay at Vevey, an ascent up a mountain, and a sojourn at the Great St. Bernard. Because the events at each stage of the journey move the action forward inevitably, the journey takes on the character of a progress; and the change in their fortunes, which the characters experience as they move from low to high, corresponds directly or inversely to the metaphor of the progress. Ultimately, when the setting has been transformed into a fictional landscape, it becomes the appropriate symbol of Cooper’s thematic concerns.

Cooper’s task in The Headsman was a challenging one. He had to keep in focus the artistic structure of the whole and, at the same time, sustain interest in his multifarious characters, episodes, and events. He had to construct a unitive form in which all of the diverse elements would have meaning, and also to endow each situation with sufficient dramatic conflict, in ascending intensity, to justify the implicit requirements of the metaphor of the journey. Finally, he had to make the journey a real one and yet subsume its events into one dominant symbolic action. This he succeeded in doing by the way he used his Swiss setting. In The Headsman, the picturesque landscape, invested as it is with ideas, with values, and with meanings, becomes the heart of the final meaning of the completed action of the novel.

The Headsman examines many serious concerns — authority; justice and its relation to opinion; friendship; parental and social responsibility; love and marriage — all in the light of Cooper’s vision of society as a “community of mutual support” (p. 441), a community symbolized in the personages of the pilgrimage. The fact that any consideration of the journey through the Swiss setting reveals so many of these concerns indicates the settings’ structural centrality. By the end of the novel, the setting is seen to be both the track for the horizontal thrust of the action and the base for vertical developments. Indeed, all the elements of the completed pilgrimage have become organic to the structural metaphor of the perilous journey that is the human condition.

The metaphorical journey ends far from the lower world. In a rarefied atmosphere, where true values are made visible, legal structures become meaningless and only charity matters. In this final novel of the trilogy, where the setting is conceived of as a “vast natural altar, reared expressly in honor of God,” 42 Cooper synthesizes his vision of Christian hope and “mutual support” with his fictional world. This setting may be, perhaps, the “wholly adequate symbol” for which, as James Grossman says, Cooper was always searching. 43

Cooper seems to be saying that, although the natural setting may shadow forth the Deity, it is the individual who fulfills omnipotent values in time. In The Headsman the place of illumination becomes a place of innovation and of change for the better only because the characters, through choice, transform the world from what it is to what it should be, a feat not possible in the world at any point earlier in the novel. Having seen the need for mutual support, they return to live out their lives in time. When one compares the symbolic pattern of the novel of Jung’s “myth of psychic reintegration: the escape, the plunge, the journey, the dangerous and the saving encounters, the magical guidance to the journey’s end, and the final healing of the personality,” 44 one sees that Cooper’s allegory or progress (an odyssey illustrating the journey toward insight) clearly has the mythic dimension of serious and profound art. Behind this consistent vision, and indeed structuring it, is the setting. Cooper’s imagined “fragment of life” (p. ix) is enacted against a background that is the heart of the novel and the core of its action. Cooper’s Swiss setting is truly a microcosm of the world in detail.

In his introduction to Cooper’s Early Critical Essays (1820-1822), James F. Beard writes: “Gifted with one of the most thoroughly critical intellects of his generation, Cooper was habitually at odds with professional reviewers. ... He invariably preferred the verdict of readers on his own fiction to the verdict of formal criticism.” 45 As with much else with Cooper, his preference for these estimates must have had a cause. A critic himself, he either consciously recognized their criticism to be valid or gave tacit approval to opinions which corroborated his own. In either case, time has shown his good judgment, and critical opinion since his death has been reversing the verdict of earlier critics. Cooper’s critics are now beginning to sound more and more like Cooper’s popular readers.

Since he was even more impressed with their reactions if his pleased readers also happened to be friends, Cooper must have been extremely delighted when, for example, Peter Jay wrote to him from New York in February of 1832: “Your Bravo is greatly admired among us, as well as in Europe. It contains scenes splendidly painted.” 46 Cooper was not self-deluded about the next book of the trilogy. From Frankfort he wrote to Morse in August 1832: “The Heidenmauer is not equal to The Bravo, but it is a good book.” 47 His own opinion echoes in a letter from Dunlap in October 1832. Speaking of The Heidenmauer, Dunlap offers some friendly advice: “I wish that your next may have more of incident and stirring excitement for common readers (I am an uncommon one). The grand view you take of the effect of Luther’s reformation ... is great and worthy of yourself.” 48

Just before Cooper left Europe for home, he received from Baltimore, in October 1833, a letter from Commodore Shubrick which refers to the last novel of the trilogy: “I have just finished The Headsman and I only echo the common opinion among the reading world here when I say that it has added greatly to your already enviable reputation; after the first half of the first volume I read it with breathless anxiety, and you know I am not very excitable.” 49 These three evaluations are not very different from the judgments that must be made on the basis of even a cursory formal examination of the trilogy.

It is clear that each novel of the trilogy owes its origin to the view of a particular setting that suggested an action with a moral theme. Each demonstrates a painterly technique. The Bravo is a picture of injustice against a contrasting background. The Heidenmauer presents three panels on which the Introduction comments ironically. In The Headsman the entire landscape functions as a symbolic picture. Because setting is intrinsic to the artistic design of each novel, an analysis based on this point of view shows Cooper’s technique more fully. An awareness of the visual elements leads to a recognition of the artistry of individual “scenes” as well as of the entire novel itself Cooper as viewer of the setting becomes the narrator of the novel, and ultimately the fictional landscape he creates symbolizes his thematic concerns. Just as Venice comes to symbolize evil, so too does Duerckheim symbolize mutability and the Swiss setting the world.

The viewer or the narrator imparts a tone to the action just as a painter creates a tonal quality in painting. Cooper’s point of view in the trilogy evolved from his setting just as surely as did his theme and characters. Perhaps it was Cooper’s method of imagining and executing each novel that accounts for the organic quality of the action, for certainly each of the novels of the trilogy demonstrates a coherent unity at the heart of its structural complexity. Whatever the cause, each of the novels has an organic wholeness of conception.

Some of the particular merits of each European novel have already been mentioned. They share, too, many common characteristics, and some conclusions about Cooper’s method and artistry can be drawn from a consideration of them as a group. Not only is the genesis of each due to Cooper’s experience of a setting, but in all of them the setting is a shaping element meaningfully related to plot, theme, character, point of view, and structure. In each there is a realistic plot and a romance, subserving the humane but ironical point of view of the narrator. Each contains, besides a significant theme, a cast of memorable characters. Cooper’s method of contrasting his characters within a novel contributes to the detail with which they are delineated. His romantic heroines — Violetta (The Bravo), Meta (The Heidenmauer), and Adelheid (The Headsman) — and their heroes — Don Camillo, Berchthold, and Sigismund — are engaging, particularly when they break the “stock” mold. Howells to the contrary notwithstanding, Adelheid, for example, “exists” and remains with the reader. 51

Not only do the novels show similarities of method in the techniques of parallel and contrast, in the use of setting, and in characterization and point of view, but they also reveal at the deepest level of the action recurrent patterns and motifs. In all there is a tremendous sense of movement set in relief within a visible and static natural setting that suggests or is a type of the Deity. Cathedrals or cathedral-like sets recur. In The Bravo there is both the natural cathedral in which Antonio drowns and St. Mark’s. In The Heidenmauer the abbey is the focal point of the landscape of the novel. In The Headsman the monastery of St. Bernard is the final setting of the action. In each of the novels the church image has been transmuted to suit the thematic concerns of the novel and takes its symbolic value from Cooper’s treatment of the entire action. More than to any other set, Cooper gives importance to nature and to church-like edifices. His use of churches recalls both his daughter’s comment about his life-long “reverence for the Christian religion” 51 and H. M. Jones’s statement that “he was the only American novelist of international stature to take Christianity seriously both as personal motive and as social force.” 52 The meanings inherent in Cooper’s pervasive symbolic use of churches corroborate both of these evaluations.

Another consuming interest of Cooper’s was the idea of justice. This concern shapes the entire action of The Bravo, in which the injustice of the city of Venice is amply illustrated in the trials that parody justice. In The Heidenmauer there are suggestions of trials in a drinking match, in the sacking of the Abbey, in the burghers’ meeting, and in the pilgrimage to Einsiedeln. The The Headsman begins with a trial of sorts at the dockside and ends with a real one in a church. Again, the trilogy reveals a recurrent motif important to an understanding of Cooper as artist. Marius Bewley writes in The Eccentric Design:

... the excessive claims made for symbolism today have a tendency to blind us to those subtle, but more modest, achievements of symbolic technique where the method itself is working quietly hand in hand with the materials and pressures of external reality, and where the symbolic process is not defined by the operation of some one overwhelming symbol such as Moby Dick, but is a quality of imagery and organization in the texture of the prose, gradually gathering towards a concentration of effect that is, in fact, a symbol although it may not overtly present itself as one.

Both church and court work in this way, as does the entire setting of each of the novels of the trilogy.

Bewley says elsewhere that Natty of “The Leatherstocking Tales” embodies a meaning that his “recorded sets do not adequately explain.” So, too, do Venice, the Palatinate, and Switzerland embody meanings that their use as settings does not entirely explain, and cumulatively the church and the court embody meanings that their use as sets does not completely explain. All the sets, both small and large, are “related to the objective world in which [Cooper] lived; the final effect [of each] is one of moral judgment on that world.” 53 Through his use of settings Cooper translated his own moral vision into fictional terms and used his novels to communicate that vision analogically. Among his successful works must be placed the three novels of the European trilogy.

At a memorial service for Cooper held in New York a few months after his death, William Cullen Bryant delivered an address in which he said that Cooper “was one of those who, to be loved, must be intimately known.” 54 The same might be said of his novels. Vernon L. Parrington has noted that although Cooper was “forever lugging in disagreeable truths by the ears,” the more one comes to know his works “the more one comes to respect his honest, manly nature that loved justice and decency more than popularity.” 55 William C. Brownell has said: “Only critical myopia can be blind to the splendid panorama of man, of nature, and of human life unrolled for us by this large intelligence and noble imagination. ... ” 56 An appreciation of his artistry grows only with close scrutiny.

Although, as William B. S. Clymer has pointed out, “the art of writing engaged his attention far less than the panorama and the story,” 57 this is not to say that Cooper was not an artist. Cooper’s artistry emerges through his panoramas. Balzac wrote of Cooper — and his exception to Cooper’s characters must be understood as a relative evaluation and not a condemnation — “if Cooper had succeeded in the painting of character to the same extent that he did in the painting of the phenomena of nature, he would have uttered the last word of our art.” 58 This is high praise indeed, and Cooper would have valued it, for Balzac was a writer, not a critic. But perhaps the most touching praise for Cooper was that uttered by another writer whose relationship to Cooper brings to mind that of Cooper to Shakespeare, whose works, as Susan Fenimore Cooper has said, were Cooper’s “constant traveling companions.” 59 That other writer, whose tribute hears witness to the artistry of Cooper, is Joseph Conrad, who, in words similar to Susan’s, said: “Fenimore Cooper is a rare artist. He has been one of my masters. He is my constant companion.” 61

Only an intimate knowledge of Cooper’s works reveals this rare artistry. h study of the novels of the European trilogy shows not only that their settings hold the key to their meanings but also that those meanings are indeed artistic.


1 Joseph Conrad, Notes on Life and Letters (Garden City, New York, 1921), p. 55.

2 Susan Fenimore Cooper, “Small Family Memories,” in Correspondence of James Fenimore-Cooper, ed. James F. Cooper, 2 vols. (New Haven, 1922), I, 9. Susan wrote “Small Family Memories” for “the pleasure of my dear nephews and nieces, none of whom have known personally their Grandfather and Grandmother Cooper,” p. [7].

3 Ibid., p. 35.

4 Robert E. Spiller, Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times (New York, 1931), p. 69.

5 “Small Family Memories,” p. 35.

6 The Spy, The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Prairie, on the last of which he was working when he sailed for Europe in 1826, were especially attractive to artists. The following painters of the Hudson River School took subjects from Cooper’s novels: Durand and Dunlap, from The Spy; Doughty, Matteson, and Quidor, from The Pioneers; Cole, from The Last of the Mohicans; and Glass, from The Prairie. Cooper himself commissioned Cole, in 1828, to paint a scene from The Prairie as a gift for Samuel Rogers, the English poet, signifying not only an interest in Cole’s work but also a conviction that his writing was suitable matter for the painter’s brush.

7 James Franklin Beard, “Cooper and His Artistic Contemporaries,” in James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal, ed. Mary E. Cunningham (Cooperstown, New York, 1954), p. 116. This volume, published by the New York State Historical Association, contains papers delivered in 1951 at a meeting devoted to Cooper on the hundreth anniversary of his death.

8 “Small Family Memories,” p. 56.

9 Ibid., pp. 49-50.

10 The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard, 6 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1960-1968), I, 109. (Hereafter cited as Letters and Journals.)

11 He had seen London and Spain briefly as a young seaman on the Stirling, Captain Johnson. It is interesting to note that Precaution and The Pilot, both of which were written before Cooper’s seven-year sojourn in Europe,have English settings. This first trip may be the source of The Monikins (1835), which perhaps was suggested by his voyage through Gibraltar, and of Mercedes of Castile (1840), which may owe its origin to Cooper’s early view of Spain. Later Cooper was to write in “American and European Scenery Compared,” in The Home Book of the Picturesque (New York, 1852), p. 51, “Every intellectual being, has a longing to see distant lands,” an explanation, perhaps, of his own desire to go back to Europe.

12 Letters and Journals, I, 125.

13 Ibid., I, 127.

14 Small Family Memories,” pp. 54-55.

15 Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times, p. 94.

16 “Small Family Memories,” p. 60.

17 Letters and Journals, I, 147-148.

18 It was from Paris, on 16 March 1832, that Cooper wrote to Dunlap the words that serve as the epigraph for this paper. Cooper and Morse were in Paris, Paris, and Morse was copying works in the Louvre. In his letter, Cooper describes his life at the time: “I get up at eight, read the papers, breakfast at ten, sit down to the quill at 1/2 past ten — work till one — throw off my morning gown — draw on my boots and gloves, take a cane that Horace Greenough gave me, and go to the Louvre, where I find Morse stuck up on a high working stand, perch myself astraddle of one of the seats, and bore him just as I used to bore you when you made the memorable likeness of St. Peter. ‘Lay it on here, Samuel — more yellow — the nose is too short — the eye too small — damn it, if I had been a painter what a picture I should have painted.’” Letters and Journals, II, 239.

19 Howard Mumford Jones, “James Fenimore Cooper and the Hudson River School” Magazine of Art, 45 (1952), 246-250. This article is a condensation of a lecture delivered at a Conference of Historians held at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in October, 1951; Tulane University published the complete text with the title “Prose and Pictures: James Fenimore Cooper,” Tulane Studies in English, 3 (1952), 133-154. This essay also appears in History and the Contemporary (Madison, 1964) pp. 61-83, where it is noted that the essay was an address prepared for the Cooper centennial in 1951; it does not appear, however, in the publication that evolved from that meeting, James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal.

20 For example, Emilio Goggio in “Cooper’s Bravo in Italy,” Romanic Review, 20 (1929), 227, says, “one needs but read his account of his journey through Italy to be convinced at once that perhaps there never was a fairer and a more impartial observer of things Italian, nor a saner, a more appreciative, and a more sympathetic judge of Italy-and her people than Cooper.” Paul R. Baker in The Fortunate Pilgrims: Americans in Italy, 1800-1860 (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), p. 228, writes: “Probably the most perceptive American study of Italy during the [early nineteenth century] was James Fenimore Cooper’s Excursions in Italy.”

21 Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times, p. 108.

22 “Cooper and His Artistic Contemporaries,” p. 122.

23 Ibid., p. 122.

24 William Cullen Bryant, “Discourse on the Life, Genius, and Writings of J. Fenimore Cooper,” in Precaution (New York, 1880), pp. xiii, xxii, xxxi.

25 Francis Parkman, “James Fenimore Cooper,” North American Review, 154 (1852), 155-156. Compare Parkman’s remarks to Cooper’s about Cole in Notions of The Americans: Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor (Phildadelphia, 1825), 11, 119: “[Mr. Cole] possesses the rare faculty of giving to his pictures the impression of nature, to a degree so extraordinary, that he promises to become eminent. You know my eye is only for nature. ... To me his scenery is like the scenery from which he drew.”

26 Quoted by Willard Thorp in “Cooper Beyond America,” in James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal, p. 530.

27 “Cooper and His Artistic Contemporaries,” pp. 120-121.

28 Arvid Schulenburger in Cooper’s Theory of Fiction, (Lawrence, Kansas, 1955), p. 21, points out that in his Preface to The Pilot Cooper refers to [a Smollett] novel as a picture. Schulenburger says: ” ... this word is one of the commonest of his literary terms. He refers to his own novels frequently as ‘pictures.’ That he applies the term here to his own and Smollett’s narratives of violent action suggests that it connoted for him no static quality in the fictions so characterized.”

29 “Cooper and His Artistic Contemporaries,” pp. 123-124.

30 William C. Brownell, “Cooper,” in American Prose Masters: Cooper, Hawthorne, Emerson, Poe, Lowell, Henry James, ed. Howard Mumford Jones (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), p. 20.

31 Harius Bewley. The Eccentric Design (New York, 1959), p. 92.

32 R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, 1955), p. 98.

33 Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (New York, 1945), p. 3.

34 See, for example, Warren S. Walker’s grouping of these novels in James Fenimore Cooper: An Introduction and Interpretation (New York, 1962), p. 26.

35 “Cooper and His Artistic Contemporaries”, p. 124.

36 Ibid., p. 124.

37 Gleanings in Europe: Italy (Philadelphia, 1838), IT, 228. The title of the English edition is Excursions in Italy (Bentley, 1838). See mention in footnote 20.

38 In A Letter to His Countrymen (New York, 1834), Cooper notes with pride that “There were several pictures from [The Bravo’s] scenes, at the French and English exhibitions of 1833,” p. 17.

39 The Bravo: A Tale, p. [v]. Subsequent references to this volume and to Cooper’s other novels will appear parenthetically in the text. All references are to the first collected edition, published by W. A. Townsend and Company, New York, 1859-1861.

40 Nathalia Wright, American Novelists in Italy: The Discoverers: Allston to James (Philadelphia, 1965), p. 130.

41 For a discussion of the use of the landscape series by Cooper and Cole, see Donald A. Ringe, “James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole: An Analogous Technique,” American Literature, 30 (March, 1958), 26-36. Ringe’s argument that Cooper derived the technique from Cole is not conclusive, However, for none of the landscape series to which he refers pre-dates 1836, four years after The Heidenmauer appeared. It seems clear that Cooper discovered in The Heidenmauer a technique that was also used by Cole.

42 Sketches of Switzerland (Philadelphia, 1836), I, 163.

43 James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper (New York, 1949), p. 264.

44 As summarized in The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century, p. 39. Lewis’ remarks refer to Holmes’ The Guardian Angel.

45 Early Critical Essays (1820-1822), ed. James Franklin Beard (Gainesville, Florida, 1955), p. [i].

46 Correspondence, p. 261.

47 Letters and Journals, p. 310.

48 Correspondence, p. 299.

49 Ibid., p. 324.

50 W. D. Howells, Heroines of Fiction (New York, 1901), pp. 111-112.

51 Susan Fenimore Cooper, The Cooper Gallery: or, Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (New York, 1865), p. 22.

52 “James Fenimore Cooper and the Hudson River School,” p. 244.

53 The Eccentric Design, pp. 106, 102.

54 “Discourse on the Life, Genius, and Writings of James Fenimore Cooper,” p. xxxviii.

55 Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (New York, 1927), II, 229.

56 “Cooper,” in American Prose Masters, p. 42.

57 William B. S. Clymer, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston, 1900), p. 59.

58 Quoted in Thomas R. Lounsbury, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston, 1882), p. 284.

59 “A Second Glance Backward,” Atlantic Monthly, 60 (1887), 476.

60 Quoted in Georges Jean-Aubry, Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters (New York, 1927), II, 73.