Cooper in Europe: The Travel Books

Thomas L. Philbrick (University of Pittsburgh)

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. 1-8).

Copyright © 1980 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

After an extraordinarily long period of gestation, the collaborative enterprise known as the Cooper Edition is about to give birth. As in most efforts at planned parenthood, the result will not be quite the same as the intention, but the main element of the original scheme for the first group of volumes, two sets of quintuplets, will be realized. As one might expect, the best known of Cooper’s novels, the five Leatherstocking Tales, will be among the first volumes to be published, but as one might not expect, the other series of five will be perhaps the least familiar of his writings, the travel books called collectively Gleanings in Europe. Published from 1836 to 1838, the five travel books created a momentary stir and then quickly fell out of print, playing virtually no part in the subsequent restoration of Cooper’s reputation in the last decade of his life and always being excluded from the many posthumous editions of his collected works.

The reasons for that neglect are various. First of all, the times were against him, not only because of his alienation from his public but because most of them appeared in the middle of a severe financial panic, a time when the book market, like all other forms of economic activity, was in a state of collapse. Then, too, that market, or what was left of it, was saturated with books of European travels, both American and English, a fact that Cooper acknowledged when he referred to his own series as “gleanings of a harvest already gathered.” Most important of all, Cooper’s readers and reviewers, quite naturally, resented the travel books as a waste of talent, a poor substitute for those tales of the forest and the sea by which he had won his initial audience in the 1820’s.

To the modern reader, safe in the possession of the thirty-two novels that Cooper eventually did write, the five travel books seem not a diminishment of his literary achievement but an enlargement of it. In the perspective of the twentieth century, they become something far more than simple travel books, lively accounts of alien places and manners like, say, Mrs. Trollope’s Paris and the Parisians in 1836, one of the more prominent competing books of the day. Taken together, Cooper’s Gleanings in Europe comprise a kind of counterpart to Tocqueville’s great Democracy in America, the first two volumes of which appeared in 1835. In a way that is far less systematic than Tocqueville’s, but just as alert and ranging, Cooper concerns himself centrally and persistently with the relation of political institutions and assumptions to the entire spectrum of social and domestic behavior. Indeed, the collective title of the series might have been something like Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Oligarchy in Europe, for always the perspective is that of an American democrat, one who seeks out, notes, and interprets the manifestations of the impact of non-democratic political forms on the texture of life, not only in the large public spectacles but in the furnishings of private houses and in the behavior of passengers in a coach toward one another. That view is hardly a cool and objective one, oscillating as it does between an admiration of the dignity and richness of European culture and outrage at the injustices worked by European systems of privilege, between cutting side- comments on the mediocrity and thinness of American society and sturdy defenses of the sanity and equity of the American political order. Cooper is not a dispassionate observer, nor is he a simplistic one, the sort that reduces everything to the tidy structures of a dogma. But, like Tocqueville’s, his is an intensely political intelligence, a mind which sees politics as the fundamental reality underlying society. The result is travel writing which is both extraordinarily rich in ideas and coherent in point of view. The randomness implicit in the title Gleanings in Europe is deceptive. The books on Switzerland and Italy are particularly rich sources for the study of his concern for the aesthetics of landscape, as he brings his thoughtful awareness of the values of composition, lighting, and perspective to bear on the rugged scenery of the Alps or the softer landscapes of Italy. And throughout the travel books runs a line of important reference to art and to artists, to galleries of paintings, to architectural details, and to the design of gardens, of tapestries, of porcelains. Everywhere in the travel books there is evidence of the fact that his remarkable powers of scenic description and their close parallels to the modes of such visual artists as Thomas Cole are anything but accidental. Rather, as the books demonstrate, Cooper’s descriptive technique is the outgrowth of an informed understanding of contemporary aesthetic theory and of a passionate dedication to the widening of his own aesthetic experience.

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of the travel books is their function as autobiography. Their pages provide an engaging and comprehensive record of some six crucial years of Cooper’s life. They are the most personal and revealing of any of his writings intended for publication, so much so that nothing else gives a more intimate and thoroughgoing sense of the man himself. Deliberately though he tried to subordinate himself to the scenes and incidents that he recorded, the very design of the series required him to present it as the narrative of his own experiences in Europe, from his departure from New York in 1826 to the conclusion of his second tour of Switzerland in 1832. Thus we get everything from his intense response to his first encounter with the Alps to his difficulties in coping with the logistics of traveling abroad with a large and very young family. He tells us of his meetings with the great men of the era — with Coleridge, Scott, and Lafayette — and of his reunion in Paris with an old and rather boozy naval chum. And everywhere in the travel series one is aware of the presence of the personality of the author, with all of his idiosyncratic preoccupations, his quick resentments, his powerful memory, his surprising humor, and his nobility of principle. George Washington Greene, who first met Cooper in Paris in 1827, remarked that Cooper wrote the travel books “exactly as he talked.” No other of his works brings us closer to that speaking voice or persuades us more fully that at last we know Cooper.

The origins of the European experience on which the travel series rests long antedate the day in early June of 1826 when the Coopers set out from Whitehall Wharf in lower Manhattan to board the packet ship which would carry them across the Atlantic. Beset by debt and ill-health, Cooper made plans for the trip as early as 1823, when the family began French lessons. By the fall of 1825, his intentions were taking definite shape, as he wrote to a young European acquaintance:

Mrs. C — and myself, talk very seriously of making an effort to get to France for a year or two — Nothing but poverty prevents — I wish you would make a few enquiries as to what a plain man, like myself, might live on in Paris — and also near a provincial town — say Orleans — . ... If I had influence enough to get a good consulate, or some such thing, my mind would be relieved, and I do think I would venture — As it is, I feel afraid to take a wife and five children, the former well born and all tenderly educated, to a strange land — mais, nous verrons —

Cooper’s researches yielded encouraging results. One could live well in Europe as cheaply as in America, and the facilities there for continuing the tender education of his son and four daughters were unequalled. Besides, once upon the European scene, he might be able to secure a British copyright for his next book, The Prairie, and to extract some return from the French publishers who regularly pirated his novels. In February 1826, he informed John Miller, his English publisher, that he intended “to sail from here, some time in the month of June, either for France or Italy, which I have not: yet determined,” for a stay of “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.” In that same month, he asked DeWitt Clinton, then governor of New York, to exert his influence with the federal government in securing “any Consulate, that would yield me a moderate sum,” preferably a post on the Mediterranean, as a support for a projected European residence of “three or four years.” Acting on Clinton’s recommendation, Henry Clay, the secretary of state, offered Cooper the post of minister to Sweden or, alternatively, the consulate at Lyons. Unlucrative though the latter position would be, it carried with it no burdensome diplomatic responsibilities, and it conferred upon the novelist an official identity in one of the two countries which he had in mind for his residence. Accordingly, he wrote to Clay in early May to request the post at Lyons and to announce that he would “sail for London on the first of June — My Stay in England will not exceed ten days, after which I shall proceed direct to Paris.” John Quincy Adams promptly signed Cooper’s commission, the Senate approved it, and, after attending an elaborate farewell banquet given by his club, the Bread and Cheese Lunch, on the evening of 29 May, he and his entourage — Mrs. Cooper, thirteen-year-old Susan Augusta, ten-year-old Caroline Martha, nine-year-old Anne Charlotte, six-year-old Maria Frances, two-year-old Paul, and the novelist’s nephew William Yeardley Cooper, sixteen, who was to act as his secretary and copyist — were ready to depart.

The trip that was originally planned as a one- or two-year visit to France or Italy turned out to be something considerably more. The packet ship Hudson carried the Coopers to the Isle of Wight, where they landed on 2 July 1826. After exploring the island for a few days, the novelist left his family with relatives at Southampton and went to London for ten days to negotiate the British publication of The Prairie, most of which still remained unwritten. When he returned to Southampton, the Coopers took a steamboat to Le Havre, where they landed on 18 July. Travelling leisurely up the Seine by steamboat to Rouen and from there by road, they reached Paris on 22 July. There the four girls were installed in a secular school in the Faubourg St. Germain, and the family rented an apartment on the floor above the school. Though the first months were difficult — several members of the family were ill with scarlet fever and Cooper himself was hard at work on The Prairie — the Coopers soon found themselves drawn into the brilliant society of Paris in these last years of the Bourbon Restoration. The American minister, James Brown, and his wife were friendly, as was the Princess Galitzin, a middle-aged Russian widow with a sharp eye for literary lions. Most important, Lafayette sought out Cooper, introduced him to his circle of liberal friends, and invited him several times to his country estate, La Grange. But it was not all diplomatic balls, intellectual soirees, and political dinners. There were the succession of warm and cordial meetings with Scott in the fall of 1826, the exploration of the environs of Paris, including a residence in a suburb on the Seine during the summer of 1827, visits to industrial exhibitions and art galleries, an eighteen-mile walking tour of the walls of Paris, attendance at military exercises and a session of the French Academy, and always the persistent examination of French political life, its intrigues and factions, and its curious mixture of feudal traditionalism and capitalistic enterprise.

After eighteen months in the French capital, Cooper, his wife, little Paul, and nephew William set out for England to complete and oversee the printing of a new book, Notions of the Americans. Leaving his daughters behind in their Paris school, the Coopers reached London on 1 March 1828, where they soon established themselves in a small apartment on St. James’s Place. Despite the writer’s intention to limit his English visit to six weeks, the stay extended to more than twice that length, for the work on Notions went slowly amid the pressing demands of a surprisingly full schedule of social engagements. Though Cooper brought to his English hosts an attitude that some of them thought truculent, he was accorded access to a wide circle of English writers and Whig aristocrats, thanks largely to the kindness of the wealthy poet Samuel Rogers. As Mrs. Cooper reported to her sister, her husband “has had an excellent opportunity of seeing English society; he does not like it much.”

The progress of Notions of the Americans was so slow that Cooper was forced to abandon his intention to settle his family in Germany for the summer and undertake a tour of Scandinavia and Russia with his friend Gouverneur Wilkins. Instead, when he was at last able to leave England on 28 May, he returned to Paris by way of Rotterdam and then took the entire family to Switzerland for the summer. By 26 July, they were comfortably settled in a villa outside Berne. From there he made four long excursions, one of which, a walking tour of three hundred miles, took him into the sublimity and desolation of the north central region of the country. By now Cooper was keeping a journal of his travels with an eye to publishing an account of them within a year. The journal, printed in James Beard’s splendid edition of Cooper’s Letters and Journals, gives only a barebones notation of the facts of the tour and provides little indication of the rich and thoughtful response to Switzerland which was to pervade the book that at last, eight years later, did come from the experience.

Retreating south before the approach of winter, the Coopers arrived in Florence in late October 1828 where they took up a residence of nine months, relishing their introduction to Italian art and culture and enjoying the company of Florentine society, including the several families of Bonapartes then living in Florence. At: the end of July 1829, the Coopers left for Naples. After a summer and fall of sightseeing and excursions by water, they wintered in Rome and then in mid-April 1830 set out on a leisurely journey north to Dresden, reluctant to leave the country in which Cooper most delighted, the only country, Mrs. Cooper noted, that her husband “quit, looking over a shoulder.”

Their residence in Dresden lasted only from late May until August, for Cooper was anxious to return to Paris to observe the effects of the revolution that had overthrown Charles X and brought Louis Philippe and, ostensibly, Lafayette and his liberal friends to power. Installed once again in Paris, he heavily involved himself in Lafayette’s affairs and watched with dismay as the old general was maneuvered out of a position of influence in the new government. By now the Coopers were eager to return to America, but the obvious benefits of Europe both for the education of his children and for the management of the novelist’s dealings with foreign publishers delayed the move. This second residence in Paris extended to a period of three years, broken only by a brief tour of Belgium and the Rhine in September 1830, a second tour of Belgium, the Rhine, and Switzerland in the summer and early fall of 1832, and a business trip to London in June and July of 1833.

Throughout this time there was much to see and do. In the aftermath of the July Revolution of 1830, Paris was the scene of controversy and unrest. Cooper found himself at the head of the American Polish Committee, one of the centers of liberal political association in Paris, and enlisted himself in print on the side of republicanism in the French finance controversy of 1831-32. He witnessed the terrible cholera epidemic in Paris in the spring of 1832 and the street rioting by Republicans in June of that year. And there were personal matters to attend to, like the death by illness of young William Cooper in late 1831 and the need to fend off European offers of marriage to his eldest daughter, Susan, now grown to womanhood.

But the primary task throughout the years in Europe was that of authorship. The list of works written during the seven years abroad supplies convincing evidence of the fact that Cooper was a tourist only in the off hours. As we have noted, most of The Prairie was written during his first months in Paris. That novel was followed by The Red Rover in 1827, Notions of the Americans in 1828, The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish in 1829, The Water-Witch in 1830, The Bravo in 1831, The Heidenmauer in 1832, and The Headsman in 1833, not to mention the variety of incidental newspaper and magazine contributions that Cooper wrote during the period. Sadly, that energetic and often brilliant literary activity led not to the enhancement of his reputation but to the near destruction of it. The novelist who left New York in 1826, fresh from the triumph of The Last of the Mohicans, was by the early 1830’s the object of attack not only in the journals conducted by his political enemies in Europe but in the Whig newspapers of New York, the editors of which he had long regarded as his friends. Taking their cue from the hostile foreign reviews of his recent work, the American papers fell into the habit of treating Cooper as if he had betrayed his birthright and alienated himself from his homeland. The charge was ironically and cruelly false, for Cooper, not without damage to his European popularity, had steadily and even belligerently maintained his American identity and championed American interests.

Embittered by the American reaction against him, Cooper as early as 1832 decided to renounce his profession as novelist. Thus, upon his return to the United States in the fall of 1833, he was a man between two fires, homesick and weary of the years of travel and yet uneasy with the sense that the country and the reputation that he had left behind seven years ago had suffered some monstrous and unaccountable change. Over the next few years, his worst fears for his country, now transformed by the Jacksonian revolution that had been accomplished during his absence, and for his own strained relation to his countrymen seemed realized. It was in that dark atmosphere that in 1835, still adhering to his renunciation of fiction, he at last turned to the composition of the travel books.

It used to be thought that the epistolary form of the travel books indicated that they were, at most, slightly reworked versions of actual letters that Cooper had written over the years of his European residence. It is now clear, however, that the epistolary form is a device merely, and that the books were written from scratch in 1835-37. Cooper drew some material from his journals and occasionally from guidebooks and histories, but his primary resource in the composition of the series was his own remarkable memory, helped out, one can be sure, by the recollections of Mrs. Cooper and the children.

At first Cooper apparently contemplated a sequential narrative of his travels in two or three volumes, beginning with his first residence in France. But when the writing began in the summer of 1835, the project took on a larger scope and a less strict organization. Perhaps because no journal existed for his first year and a half in Paris, he turned first to his tours of Switzerland. The result was a book that he called Sketches of Switzerland, published in May 1836 and dealing with his visit to Switzerland in 1828, and a second work called Sketches of Switzerland. Part Second, published in October 1836 and treating in a highly selective way his second residence in Paris in 1830-32 and his 1832 tour of Belgium, the Rhine, and Switzerland. With that rather catch-all book behind him he now proceeded to work more systematically. Gleanings in Europe, published in March 1837 in America, dealt with the passage across the Atlantic, the brief stopover in England, and the eighteen-month first residence in Paris. Gleanings in Europe. England, published in September 1837, concentrated on the ensuing three-month visit to England. A last work, Gleanings in Europe. Italy, dealing with the residence in Italy in 1828-30, appeared in May 1838.

The entire series thus consists of five works in ten volumes, in all some 2500 pages in the original American editions. To reduce the confusion of Cooper’s haphazard titling of the books, a confusion compounded by the still different titling of the British editions, the Cooper Edition has chosen Gleanings in Europe, a name that the author himself adopted midway through the series, as the collective title for the travel books. Thus Sketches of Switzerland becomes Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland, Sketches of Switzerland. Part Second becomes Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine, and Gleanings in Europe: France, England, and Italy complete the series.

At one time Cooper intended a still more extensive series of travel books, planning “another, and far more elaborate book on France, a second on England, and one on Germany” but “want of encouragement,” he told a correspondent in late 1841, “has induced an abandonment of the design.” The depth of his disappointment at the reception of the travel books and the width of the gap between him and his countrymen can be gauged by a paragraph from that same letter of 1841:

There are two reasons why such works as mine should not succeed. This is a country of obstinate prejudices, and of a mental dependence that is not easily measured. While all talk, fewer think for themselves than in any other country of my acquaintance. The newspapers are the moral lungs of the nation, and what they tell the people they think, the people do think. The papers have said that the Gleanings are poor books, in the public estimation, and the public estimation is made up accordingly. I speak frankly when I tell you that, in my judgment, public opinion in this boasted country of ours, is worth as little as in any country I know. I have conversed with many travellers, and in answer to my strictures on their having said this or that incorrectly, the answer has uniformly been, the nation will not bear the truth. It certainly gets very little, and is likely to get less.

In his disappointment and bitterness, Cooper repeatedly thought of returning to Europe, where a writer was respected or at least let alone. But with characteristic courage, he decided to stick it out on the home ground and to resume his art, which, if nothing else, might become a vehicle for the instruction of his countrymen in the unwelcome truth. The result was The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer, the Littlepage trilogy, The Wing-and-Wing, Afloat and Ashore, The Crater, and all the other work of the extraordinarily productive last decade of his life. In the perspective of his entire literary career, the travel books are an anomaly, the product of that interim period when he wrote no novels, resisted the demands of his popular audience, and renewed himself through the recollection of a seven-year visit to another world.