James Fenimore Cooper and the Apocalypse
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. 81-92).
Copyright © 1980, State University of New York College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
The Book of Revelation has played a significant part in the interpretation of the American destiny. The shaping principle of the American experience from colonial times has been the literal interpretation of the Apocalypse, the idea of millennium for the elect and catastrophe for the transgressors. The phenomenal prosperity following the westward expansion and technological progress of the post-revolutionary period generated an ebullient optimism in nineteenth century America, resulting in a chiliastic interpretation of the Apocalypse which drove the dread of Jehovah’s wrath underground, and gave rise to a spiritual myopia that troubled some of the major literary figures of the time. Drawing upon a hermeneutic tradition which has given form and pressure to American history, James Fenimore Cooper becomes the first American writer to establish a genre of fiction which uses the motifs of the Apocalypse to structure a vision of America as tending towards the doom rather than the millennium.
Cooper sees the reckless spoliation of nature and the vulgar arrogance of what he considered a mindless democracy as a reenactment of the Fall, and concludes that the American Dream may turn out to be a nightmare. On the way to this dire conclusion, he articulates the tension in his mind between what America ought to be and what it actually was becoming, creating an Edenic vision along with the image of man as a compulsive spoiler of every Eden provided by the grace of God. According to Cooper, this very act of evil carries with it the consequences of divine judgment and retribution. Natty Bumppo becomes an archetypal prophet of doom, and his caveat to a heedless society runs like a leitmotif in the Leatherstocking Tales. Cooper travels a long way from his melioristic attitude in The Pioneers to a pessimistic posture in his last novels, the result of growing scepticism about human perfectibility. The Last of the Mohicans separates Cooper’s ideal myth of a wilderness-paradise from the ironic reality, while The Prairie portrays the death of this myth. The Deerslayer, the last of the Leatherstocking Tales, both resurrects this myth as well as prefigures the final cataclysm that Cooper envisions for the godless, an apocalypse that finds culmination in The Crater, written four years before his death.
Cooper’s first novel in the Leatherstocking series portrays a Genesis of America through the reduction of the chaos of the wilderness to the order of white, Anglo-Saxon, Episcopalian civilization. However, The Pioneers also depicts an evil lurking within this civilization, the settlers’ wanton destruction of natural resources. Judge Temple’s utopia of academies and churches, roads and neat houses, bound by a “dominion of mild laws” (TP, 2) * has been created by annihilating the virgin forest and a whole way of life that goes with it. Natty the frontiersman and Chingachgook the Indian become victims of dispossession, a recurring motif in the novel. Natty takes on a prophetic role when he warns the settlers that if they continue to turn the wilderness into an inferno by their indiscriminate shooting, “the Lord won’t see the waste of creatur’s for nothing, and right will be done to the pigeons as well as others, by and by” (TP, 251).
The devastating forest fire depicted at the end of the novel is one of the premonitions of the Apocalypse that Cooper envisages in one form or another in the Leatherstocking Tales in his condemnation of man’s abuse of God’s bounty. It is a sign of divine judgment for turning the verdant forest into a barren tract of dry stumps. Several biblical images converge in the description of the awesome spectacle. The fire sweeps the slopes of “Vision,” transforming it into the burning mountain, a Mosaic analogue that Cooper uses to remind his countrymen of God’s omnipotence. In a scene paralleling that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Nebuchadnezzar’s inferno, the trio Elizabeth Templeton, Oliver Edwards, and John Mohegan, face the “body of fire, as if a furnace were glowing in their path” (TP, 423). Natty emerges a Christ figure symbolically harrowing hell to save Elizabeth and Oliver, Cooper’s elect preserved by divine grace for consummating an ideal union between republican liberalism and aristocratic conservatism. John Mohegan’s stoic death in the fire marks the apocalyptic end of the American Indian culture. As for Natty, the frontier near Templeton is no longer a livable place. Unable to bear the grating sound of the pioneer’s axe, he turns westward, the symbolic direction of the mythical paradise.
After The Pioneers, Cooper may have done some reevaluation of Western civilization and wondered about its utopian possibilities. Cooper expresses his ambivalence through an ironic juxtaposition of the dream with the reality. In the next Leatherstocking novel, he depicts nature rather than civilization as a haven of innocence, and the venue of a universal millennium symbolized by the ideal friendship between Natty and Chingachgook. In The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper structures his vision of the wilderness paradise as a fusion of two primitivisms, the white primitivism of the frontier embodied in Natty as Hawkeye, and the red in Chingachgook, both representing the quintessence of their respective cultures. But Cooper is also aware of the dream nature of his millennial vision. The reality that he sees in the forest is constant war between the white man and the red, and the defilement of the wilderness in the process. The Horican is stained with the blood of Indian and white alike. Its “green and angry waters lashed back its impurities on the polluted strand,” and reflected, Cooper tells us, “the sombre gloom that fell from the impending heavens” (LM, 214). The spocalyptic theme of divine wrath in punishment of man’s violation of the wilderness Eden is emphasized in the description of the forest as a wasteland which “appeared as if all who had profanely entered had been stricken at a blow, by the relentless arm of death” (LM, 215).
Cooper allows the fusion between the two cultures to take place only at the ideal level of brotherly friendship and not at the pragmatic level of intermarriage. This homoerotic heaven, an archetype which Leslie Fiedler, in particular, sees as representing the American Dream, 1 becomes possible with the death of Uncas when close ties develop between Chingachgook and Hawkeye. But when it comes to heterosexual love between the races, Cooper does not favor the mixing of colors. His subconscious taboo on miscegenation becomes embodied in the premature death of Uncas, Magua, and Cora Munro. Neither Uncas nor Magua succeed in their love for Cora. It is also significant that it is the dark-eyed Cora with “tresses shining and black, like the plumage of a raven” rather than the blonde, golden-haired, blue-eyed Alice, who becomes involved in the eternal triangle of mixed races. As a mulatto, Munro’s daughter by a West Indian woman (LM, 187-188), Cora is already tainted, but apparently not sufficiently to warrant her union with a full-blooded Indian!
Cooper introduces two minor variations of the millennial theme in the novel, the one romantic, and the other comic, to underscore the irony of the millennian dream. The Delaware girls do not rule out the poetic possibility of marriage between the two cultures. They project the union of Uncas and Cora in the happy hunting grounds of the Indian when they sing the Mohican youth’s funeral dirge. Even Munro, Cora’s bereaved father, believes for a moment that the lion may lie down with the lamb. When requesting Hawkeye to convey a father’s thanks to the Indians, Munro says: “Say to these kind and gentle females that a heartbroken and failing man returns them his thanks. Tell them, that the Being we all worship, under different names, will be mindful of their charity, and that the time will not be distant when we may assemble around his throne without distinction of sex, or rank or color” (LM, 420). But the wily scout knows better than to earn the derision of the Delawares by telling them something that is so far from the truth of the earth as they know it. And, he is perhaps not unmindful of the irony that the idea of a universal millennium should come from Munro, who is trying to establish the white new heaven in America by the sword.
Open satire of the dream of millennium in the wilderness is Cooper’s mode when he creates the comic figure David Gamut who attempts to convert the Indians through his psalmsinging. 2 This evangelist of the wilderness is one of Cooper’s naive innocents who, like Hetty Hutter in The Deerslayer, tries to establish Christ’s kingdom among the savage Hurons through the Scripture. Bearing the name of the great biblical figure, David imagines himself a latter-day King of Israel and reaches the height of ludicrousness when he sings to a pack of beavers.
The death of Uncas also symbolizes the apocalyptic fate of the Indians, who must make room for the superior white Christian civilization. An elegiac strain runs through the novel emphasizing the doom of the red man. Tamenund, the Ezekiel of the Indians, prophesies the end of the red culture: “Go children of the Lenape, the anger of the Manitou is not done. Why should Tamenund stay? The palefaces are the masters of the earth, and the time of the redmen has not yet come again. My day has been too long. In the morning I saw the sons of the Unamis happy and strong, and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans” (LM, 423). For Tamenund, the hoary seer for whom history is only a part of eternity, Apocalypse is cyclic, and the rebirth of Delaware glory is inevitable. He warns the white man not to be too proud lest he too should fall as others have done before him: “I know the paleface are a hungry race. I know that they claim not only to have the earth, but the meanest of their color is better than the sachems of the redman. ... But let them not boast before the face of the Manitou too loud. They have entered the land at the rising, and may yet go off at the setting sun” (LM, 368).
Tamenund’s prophecy that the paleface may yet go off at the setting sun materializes ironically enough for at least two types of frontiersmen, the ideal and the actual, in Cooper’s next Leatherstocking novel. In The Prairie, Leatherstocking and Ishmael Bush, both fighting a losing battle against the settlement civilization, reach a dead end on the western frontier. The novel dramatizes the last retreat not only of the white man’s frontier but also that of the Indian. Cooper tells us that the great prairies are “the final gathering place of the redmen” (TPr, v). Within the shadow of Leatherstocking’s death in the novel lurk other shadows deepening the sense of doom that prevails over the entire novel.
The Prairie portrays the demise of Cooper’s myth of ideal America, a myth based on Jefferson’s political and social ideology of a natural aristocracy of worth nurtured by an agrarian society. 3 As the nation pushed westward, the Jeffersonian idyl seemed fated to wither away and give place to Jackson’s squatter-type democracy. The tension between the conflicting images of the dream and the actuality may be seen in Cooper’s antithetical delineation of the westward movement: Leatherstocking embodying the ideal frontiersman whose death in the novel is symbolic of the end of Jeffersonianism; and Ishmael Bush, the material reality of the new Jacksonian egalitarianism towards which America was drifting at the time the novel was written. The Prairie also dramatizes the choice between natural freedom and moral freedom. In the mythical Leatherstocking alone do the two freedoms converge. This in real life leads Cooper to do some rethinking about the possibility of natural goodness existing without social restraints. Leatherstocking modifies his attitude towards law in this novel from the stand he had taken in The Pioneers, where he found the law to be one-sided and detrimental to the rights of the individual. He tells Ellen Wade that the law is a friend of the individual and that it is necessary in man’s present depraved state (TPr, 23).
Both Ishmael Bush and Abiram White are living examples of the necessity for law. Ishmael is a fugitive from the law trying to escape a conviction for trespassing on private property. Patterned after the biblical figure, the archetypal wanderer without caste, this outlaw from society sums up the economic philosophy of what V. L. Parrington calls the “coonskin voter” in his description of the squatter of the Jackson era. 4 Bush tells Leatherstocking: “I am as rightful an owner of the land I stand on, as any governor of the States! Can you tell me, stranger, where the law or reason is found, which says that one shall have a section, or a town, or perhaps a county to his use, and another have to beg for earth to make his grave in? This is not nature, and I deny that it is law. That is, your legal law” (TPr, 64-65). Greed is another motive that drives Ishmael westward, for he, in collaboration with his wife’s brother Abiram White, is abducting Inez, Captain Middleton’s wife, in the hope of extorting a rich ransom. As D. H. Lawrence points out, Ishmael and Abiram are “different pioneers from Judge Temple. Lurid, brutal, tinged with the sinisterness of crime, these are the gaunt white men who push against the natural opposition of the continent.” 5
The intractable West becomes a symbol of the nemesis that awaits man in punishment for his cupidity. Nature, in this novel, is no longer a passive victim of man’s violation of it but an active agent of retribution. Leatherstocking, resuming his prophetic role in this novel, launches a series of jeremiads, warning Ishmael that whoever ignores the signs of divine wrath does so at his own peril. He interprets for the squatter the penal purpose of the desolate plains: “I often think the Lord has placed this barren belt of prairie behind the States, to warn men to what their folly may yet bring the land!” (TPr, 19). The trapper further predicts the very fate that awaits Ishmael and Abiram: “Look around you, men; what will the Yankee choppers say, when they have cut their path from the eastern to the western waters, and find that a hand, which can lay the ‘arth bare at a blow, has been here and swept the country in very mockery of their wickedness. They will turn on the tracks like a fox that doubles, and then the rank smell of their own footsteps will show them the madness of their waste” (TPr, 83). As the novel advances, Leatherstocking’s prophecy materializes ironically when Bush and his family are forced to retrace their steps towards the east. The west turns out to be an image of the horror instead of the promise that lures Bush like so many others before him.
Of the several apocalyptic scenes that enforce the theme of God’s omnipotence and man’s powerlessness without divine grace, the buffalo stampede and the prairie fire are the most spectacular. The miraculous escape of Leatherstocking and his party from these two disasters symbolizes the apocalyptic concept of the preservation of the elect. The Mosaic parallel in the Gothic description of the fire is rather striking. Like the biblical bush which “burned with fire, and ... was not consumed” (Exod. 3:2), the trapper, an archetypal Moses, manages to put the fire out with fire and save his party. He diverts the fire in one direction, leaving a small section clear in which his friends are enveloped in “a cloud of smoke” but perfectly safe (TPr, 294).
Another apocalyptic motif prominent in the novel is that of judgment. Though Ishmael tries to dodge human law, he cannot escape divine judgment. The cruel murder of his first-born is the grim punishment that awaits him for his complicity in Inez’s abduction and for his insatiable landlust. Abiram re-enacts the role of Cain by killing his kin Asa. Ishmael himself has a crude sense of justice. He sentences Abiram to death judging him according to the stern justice of the Old Testament of an eye for an eye, in spite of Esther’s plea for Christian mercy. Gothic images of death and desolation reinforce the doomsday theme in Abiram’s execution scene: “The naked prairie began to assume the forms of illimitable and dreary wastes, and the rushing wind sounded like the whisperings of the dead. It was not long before he [Ishmael] thought a shriek was borne past on a blast. It did not sound like a call from the earth, but it swept frightfully through the upper air mingled with the hoarse accompaniment of the wind” (TPr, 432). The bleak willow tree on which Abiram hangs, a mocking semblance of its former fertility, symbolizes the folly of man’s acquisitiveness since all things must come to an end, in the fulness of time’ (TPr, 424).
And so it goes with Leatherstocking, the epic hero of the myth of the wilderness-Eden, who too must come to an end. His quest for a sanctuary free from the corruption of man is a futile one, for the western prairies offer him only further disillusionment, and the paradise of nature forever remains a far-off dream. Cooper tells us in unmistakable terms that Leatherstocking’s lifestyle can only be a myth, and not the reality of American experience. The mythical aspect of the trapper is emphasized in the opening chapter, in the description of his uncanny appearance larger than life as he emerges like some god from the sun- drenched west and as the golden light forms a surrealistic halo around his head. In the closing chapter likewise, Leatherstocking appears as if he is proceeding towards some mythical paradise still in the west, as his “gaze seemed fastened on the clouds which hung around the western horizon. ... ” (TPr, 460). The myth is fated to be interred with the person who has given rise to it. When Middleton, quoting his grandfather’s tribute to Leatherstocking, points out that the myth is deficient because it “grew in the forest” (TPr, 130), he is indirectly giving expression to Cooper’s own ultimate message in the novel which emphasizes man’s depravity, and de-emphasizes natural goodness, an attitude that Cooper progressively adopts in the subsequent novels of social criticism.
When Cooper returned to America in 1833 after a seven-year stay in Europe, he found to his consternation that the country had changed considerably. Under Jacksonian democracy, America was far different from Cooper’s ideal image of his country formed in Europe. As Robert Spiller points out, the years in Europe had formed a “wedge between the new Cooper and the new America, the one deeply moved by the culture, the ideals, and the corruption of the Old World society; the other grown vigorous and vulgar with restless strength of the open west.” 6 Cooper realized, in his maturer years, that his dream, springing out of the deepest level of patriotic consciousness, could find fulfillment only in pure myth. Deerslayer, the final avatar of Cooper’s epic hero in the last Leatherstocking novel, is more an incarnation of Cooper’s dream than a realistic revival of the garrulous old trapper whose burial we witnessed in The Prairie.
The Deerslayer is structured as a second genesis which follows an apocalyptic destruction of the evil that threatens to violate the sanctity of the forest-universe. The motif of redemption provides a matrix to the plot of the novel, following a ritualistic pattern of journey (Deerslayer’s first war-path), initiation (his first killing of a human being), suffering (his capture by the Mingos and torture at their hands), and final regeneration (his own rescue and subsequent contribution to British sovereignty in America). The forces of evil take two forms: the Mingos of the Indian world and the Hutters and Marches of the white world.
The Mingo is the scourge of the Delaware and the white man alike, and needs to be wiped out to establish the white new heaven and new earth. The evil that springs from the heart of the white civilization is symbolized by Tom Hutter, once a freebooter on the high seas, now engaged in the nefarious trade of scalping Indians. Harry March, a burly, handsome, unscrupulous borderer without moral scruples, is Hutter’s accomplice, and the suitor of Judith Hutter, a product of citified culture who enjoys a dubious fame as a great beauty and a flirt. Cooper preserves the pure and virtuous Deerslayer from taint by making the hunter refuse Judith’s proposal for marriage. Cooper depicts her as the scarlet woman, the mistress of Sir Robert Warley, her favorite captain in the settlement garrison.
Juxtaposed with these figures of evil are Deerslayer and Hetty Hutter, two types of prelapsarian innocence: the one mature and skilled in the ways of the forest, and the other infantile, with a barely developed moral perception. Deerslayer is Cooper’s poetic vision of the American Adam, synthesized out of the best qualities in white civilization and placed in a natural environment most conducive for their fullest development. This man of the forest, Cooper writes, “is a living embodiment of white gifts” and has been “removed from nearly all temptations of civilized life, placed in the best associations of that which is deemed savage, and favorably disposed by nature to improve such advantages” (DS, v). We notice here a shift from Cooper’s view in The Prairie, of nature as sanctuary for fostering the best virtues.
Hetty is another type of innocence in The Deerslayer, representing pre- immersion into experience. One is not sure whether Cooper, along with other romantics, is saying that only the witless can remain innocent, or whether he is being ironical. Though Hetty’s feeble-minded innocence serves as a shield of grace, and a Providence which has the power to “temper the wind to the shorn lamb” (DS, 54-55) guards over her, her death soon after Hutter’s indicates that her type of untried innocence cannot survive too long in an evil world. In spite of the cruel death meted out to her, Cooper is not above introducing a comic interlude based upon the millennial theme, and making her the butt of his irony. Like David Gamut, she imagines, in her extreme naiveté, that the word of God has taken root among the savage Mingos — a fancy doubly ironical because neither paleface nor redskin is obeying Christ’s command of love, charity, and forgiveness. When attempting to save Deerslayer by scattering the firebrand prepared for his torture, she miraculously escapes death only because of the Mingo taboo on killing an imbecile, but subsequently she is fatally shot in the skirmish between the Mingos and the whites.
An apocalyptic devastation precedes the final vision of the forest-Eden as an expression of Cooper’s denunciation of the godless opportunists that were abroad in the country. Although Glimmerglass serves as Deerslayer’s sanctuary, it has also been an asylum for murderers and plunderers like Hutter. His wilderness fortification, Muskrat Castle, is a citadel of evil, lying adjacent to what Cooper describes in Edenic terms as a bower. Hutter’s summer residence is an ark, concealed among the dense branches of the trees overhanging the water, symbolic of his alienation from human fellowship. It is a parody of Noah’s sanctuary from the apocalyptic deluge. Fifteen years later, when Deerslayer and Chingachgook visit the area, they find both the “castle” and the ark in ruins symbolizing catastrophic visitation. The artifacts of the human world are razed and the natural world (an Edenic world) alone remains intact.
In his advancing years, Cooper came to the bitter conclusion that man’s depravity was beyond redemption, and that the vulgarity and unenlightenment of Jacksonian mobocracy were manifestations of this depravity. Cooper’s writings from 1834 till his death took the form of social criticism with occasional resort to allegory when he found that his pessimism could not be contained within the mold of the social novel. The shift from the golden vision of romance to the iron one of satirical allegory becomes complete in The Crater in which Cooper’s warning to his countrymen takes the form of a penal cataclysm that destroys the island paradise of the arrogant and impious Craterinos.
Several apocalyptic motifs converge in The Crater: prophecy, destruction of a corrupt order, a second genesis, growth of Babylonian luxury and consequent decadence and apostasy, the final catastrophe to end evil, and the saving of the elect. The novel was written during the administration of Polk when an ebullient messianism contained in doctrines like “Manifest Destiny” became the ruling principle of the nation at large. In Cooper’s vision, the mindless egalitarianism, growing philistinism, and the imperial career of the country became alarming manifestations of decadence.
At the very outset, Cooper assumes the role of prophet. We hear his voice in the preface when Mark Woolston, imitating St. Paul, urges Americans to profit by examples and be warned of impending disaster through the sin of pride: “Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall” (TC, vi). Cooper’s mene, mene, tekel, upharsin becomes explicit in the later authorial admonition: “If those who now live in this republic, can see any grounds for a timely warning in the events here recorded, it may happen that the mercy of a divine Creator may still preserve that which He has hitherto cherished and protected” (TC, vi). The strong note of warning in the preface and the didactic purpose implicit in the portrayal of the apocalypse as far removed from America, stem from Cooper’s sub-conscious wish that his country may yet be saved through grace, a religious conviction that he adhered to throughout his life.
The destruction of a corrupt order takes place when all but Mark Woolston and Bob Betts (the elect) are destroyed in the wreck of the Rancocus in mid- Pacific, en route to China, while carrying a freight of sandalwood, “a branch of commerce ... which ought never to be pursued by any Christian man, or nation,” since the commodity was used for idol-worship by the heathenish Chinese (TC, 28-29). What remains of the Rancocus contains plenty of supplies to sustain Mark and his friend for a lifetime. Mark thus becomes an archetypal Noah in contrast to Tom Hutter in The Deerslayer. Instead of giving way to despair, Mark, with the help of Bob, is carried away in a pinnace by a storm, and, till his return some months later with a number of Americans including Mark’s wife Bridget, Mark becomes the sole inhabitant on the island, drawn closer than ever to God, in his solitude.
Cooper uses two variants of the Adamic myth in his portrayal of Mark Woolston; as a primal Adam, and as a regenerate version of the post-lapsarian Adam. As a builder of the island paradise, Mark becomes Adam before the Fall, cultivating the garden, and prospering day by day because of his obedience to God, a connection made clear when Cooper uses a passage from Paradise Lost as an epigraph for the sixth chapter of the novel:
That done, partake
The season, prime for sweetest scents and airs,
Then commune how that day they best may ply
Their growing work; for much their work outgrew
The hands’ despatch of two gard’ning so wide.
Mark is also Adam chastened and made regenerate by the experience of the Rancocus. His illness (raging thirst, burning fever, and frequent bouts of unconsciousness), and miraculous recovery without any medicine after three days, is a symbolic death and rebirth into a new life. His ritual baptism takes the form of immersion into a tub of water from which he emerges a “new man” (TC, 136-37). He makes use of his knowledge, not for vain display, but for carrying out God’s purposes.
The tranquil picture of the island in the first half of the novel stands in sharp contrast to the feverish activity of the second in which the agrarian paradise is transformed into a Babylon of decadent luxury. The colonists remain united in the beginning, preoccupied with the problems of settlement and the common peril of invasion from the neighbouring islands. But once the dangers are past and they begin to prosper, they grow arrogant and unmindful of God’s grace.
Cooper portrays the political and social slogans, and sectarian religious dogmas as a form of apostasy. In denouncing the new ideas, he projects his own conservative conception of ideal government when he exalts Mark’s paternalistic regime along the lines of the Jeffersonian concept of an aristocracy of worth in an agrarian society. Demagogues, the press, religious sectarians, and lawyers together become targets of Cooper’s attack. The newspaper, which perverts the minds of the gullible public, is, in Cooper’s estimation, “a species of luxury, which, like the gallows, comes in only as society advances to the corrupt condition” (TC, 392). In religion, the essence of Christianity is submerged in the sectarianism of the denominations. Instead of protecting the legal rights of the citizens, lawyers merely foster endless dissension and litigation. The analogue of the Fall images Cooper’s scathing condemnation of perverted knowledge manifested on the island in politics, the press, religion, and the legal profession. The subversive elements of the island are subtle forms of the “serpent of old” about to corrupt “this Eden of modern times” (TC, 408).
Another type of apostasy on the island, according to Cooper, is the advocacy of socialistic doctrines. Cooper makes a veiled reference to such communitarians as Fourier, Owen, and Brisbane, who flourished in America in the 1840’s, when he states that “one or two individuals” tried to persuade Mark to “form an association in which all property should be Shared in common,” and that “community-labor” was better than “individual labor” (TC, 313). 7 Cooper had defended the right to private property from time to time, in the Point Controversy against the Cooperstown public, and the Anti-rent “war” in New York state (1839- 1846). With his life-long belief in Providence, Cooper denounces in eschatological terms the folly of trying to bring about the millennium through human agencies before the appointed time. In chapter ten, almost a discourse on the Book of Revelation, Cooper points out that the Coming Kingdom will materialize only after the entire prophecy of the Bible is fulfilled (TC, 143).
The closing chapter of The Crater portrays the consummation of the prophecy prefigured in the novel several times (the volcanic and seismic disturbances of the island, the frequent foreign invasions, and Mark’s own misgivings about the colonists) that catastrophe will overtake those who are blind to the sovereignty of God through reckless pride. Cooper’s version of divine retribution takes the form of the apocalyptic deluge. The seismic susceptibilities of the island which had once been benign to the devout and humble Mark, now become instruments of divine wrath with devastating effects for the godless Craterinos. Mark once again becomes Cooper’s elect when he and his family miraculously escape the submergence of the island through earthquake action, a disaster which takes place at a time when Mark, ousted from office by the machinations of the self- serving demagogues, is forced to leave the island paradise that he had so diligently built up.
The dark meaning of the novel goes beyond the scope of the universe of the tiny island. The awesome apocalypse is an object lesson in humility for America, whose career seemed to Cooper, dangerously similar to that of the Craterinos. God’s grace is infinite, but man’s depravity, Cooper concludes, is beyond redemption. He will continue to corrupt the fairest of Edens. The novel closes with this gloomy vision of the human condition, a vision enforced by lines from Richard Henry Dana’s “The Buccaneer” which Cooper uses as an epigraph to the twenty-eighth chapter: “Oh sin! what hast thou done on this fair earth? / The world, O man! is wailing over thy birth” (TC, 434).
With his total alienation from a society governed by material rather than spiritual values, Cooper’s fictional art becomes his sole means of fulfillment. His final vision of the American Dream is the Jeffersonian idyl. In the Leatherstocking Tales, this idyl becomes embodied in the myth of nature with Deerslayer and the virgin forest as its symbols. In The Crater, Cooper’s ideal becomes translated in the myth of the garden, with Mark Woolston representing the squire-farmer turned benevolent administrator. Though Cooper sees his dream turn into a nightmare hecause of human depravity, he still entertains a hope that his country may yet be saved through divine grace. Subsequent writers during the last century and the present one seem less optimistic than Cooper. Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, Melville’s The Confidence-Man, Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, and Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet are in the tradition of the apocalyptic vision in American fiction. These authors, however, portray an apocalypse more grotesque and more appalling than Cooper’s because, unlike him, they entertain no hope of salvation through grace.
* All references to Cooper’s novels cited parenthetically in abbreviations are to The Complete Works, Leatherstocking Edition, New York, c. 1893.
1 Fiedler points out that Mark Twain (one of Cooper’s severest critics), Melville and others create a myth of an all-male heaven, “one in which a pure love between males, colored and white, triumphs over witches and ghosts and death itself. It is ... a world already dreamed in the fiction of Cooper and Poe, Dana and Melville.” Love and Death in the American Novel, revised edition (New York, 1966), p.273.
2 As a New Yorker, Cooper seldom lost the opportunity for satirizing the New Englanders. David Gamut’s literary ancestry may be traced to Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane, the psalm-singing Yankee schoolmaster. Cooper’s satire is also based upon certain seventeenth century New England millennial myths which the Puritans of the time literally believed in. One of these was that the Indians were one of the lost tribes of Israel, and that their conversion was a precondition to millennium. Cooper uses the conversion motif also in The Oak Openings, his last Indian novel. For a literal interpretation of the millennium in early New England, see Althea Joy Bourne Gilsdorf’s “The Puritan Apocalpyse,” unpublished doctoral dissertation, Yale University, 1965. This theory was advocated by Manasseh ben Israel (1650), and James Thorowgood in Jewes in America (1652).
3 Jefferson advocated a type of political democracy with a strong agrarian base which, at the social level, would foster an aristocracy of natural worth. Eulogizing a society of landed gentry, he wrote: “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. ed. Andrew A. Lipscomb, Vol. II (Washington, D.C., 1904), p. 229.
4 The Romantic Revolution in America 1800-1860 (New York, 1927), p. 146. Quoting Frederick Jackson Turner, John F. Ross points out that “squatter doctrines and individualism have left deep traces upon American conceptions.” The Social Criticism of Fenimore Cooper (Berkeley, California, 1933), p. 61.
5 Studies in Classic American Literature (New York, 1964), p. 57.
6 Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times (New York, 1931), p. 101.
7 According to Thomas Philbrick, Cooper had personal reasons for condemning Fourierism. Horace Greeley, the Yankee editor of The Tribune, for whom Cooper did not have too much affection, and who had twice been sued by him for libel in the 1840’s, had adopted Fourieristic philosophy. At the time The Crater was written, Greeley was conducting a debate on Fourierism with Henry J. Raymond through the columns of The Tribune. Greeley had always been on the opposite camp from Cooper, from his Whig politics and support of the tenants in the Anti-rent War to his espousal of the Westward Movement in 1845. See The Crater, ed. Thomas Philbrick (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), p. xxii.