Cooper’s Attitudes Toward England
Presented at the 4ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1982.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1982 Conference at State University College of New York, Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp.33-54).
Copyright © 1982 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
JAMES Cooper was a fifth-generation American when, quite anonymously in 1820, he published his first novel Precaution. If imitation is the sincerest of flattery, then Precaution demonstrates a profound reverence for the society and literature of the country from which the first James Cooper (of Stratford-on-Avon) emigrated in 1679. Precaution is not the work of the American Scott — a title later inaptly thrust upon Cooper — but of an American Jane Austen. This complexly plotted novel of manners depicts the pursuit of the gentle Emily Moseley by the unutterably noble and selfless Earl of Pendennys. Interestingly, the thirty-year old novelist and future author of The American Democrat adopts the persona of a British female writer conversant with the highest reaches of the aristocracy. Occasional phrases like “our noble king” and “the parliament of this realm” ¹ create a community of shared political and social values appropriate to the silver-fork gentility of pre-Dickensian British fiction. The plot labors to conclude with the Austen-like aphorism that in finding a mate “prevention is at all times better than cure”; ² the dense population of British nobility of the highest order betrays a slavish fascination with a social system Cooper was later to criticize keenly. As a social document, little about Precaution shows signs of Cooper’s desire, as later expressed in the Preface to his England travel book, to “write a close, philosophical, just, popular, and yet comprehensive view of the fundamental differences that exist between the political and social relations of England and those of [our] own country.” ³ As a novel, nothing about Precaution suggests an author who within two years would create Natty Bumppo. Yet by setting his first work of fiction in England rather than America, Cooper reveals a fascination with writing about British society that continued through his career.
Cooper’s attitudes towards England were of course far more complicated than shown by Precaution. What I wish to examine in this paper is the complexity of Cooper’s response to the country of his great-great-grandfather, the seventeenth- century emigrant James Cooper. The evidence to be investigated is Cooper’s biography through the third and most important of his visits to England in 1828; second, two of his social writings, the 1828 Notions of the Americans, completed in London during the 1828 stay,and the record of Cooper’s British sojourn, published in 1837 as Gleanings in Europe: England; and third and most significant, his fiction before the crucial turning point in his career of his return to the United States in 1833 after seven years in Europe.
Cooper’s description, written in 1836, of his feelings upon arriving in England at the beginning of his longest and most important visit in 1828, captures movingly the novelist’s mature and ambiguous response to the country of his forebears.
We looked at this view of England with very conflicting sensations. It was the land of our fathers, and it contained, with a thousand things to induce us to love it, a thousand to chill the affections. Standing, as it might be, in the very portal of the country, I imagined what was to occur in the next three months, with longing and distrust. Twenty-two years before, an ardent boy, I had leaped ashore, on the island, with a feeling of deep reverence and admiration, the fruits of the traditions of my people, and with a love almost as devoted as that I bore the land of my birth. I had been born, and I had hitherto lived, among those who looked up to England as to the idol of their political, moral, and literary adoration. These notions I had imbibed, as all imbibed them in America down even as late as the commencement of the last war. I had been accustomed to see every door thrown open to an Englishman, and to hear and think that his claim to our hospitality was that of a brother, divided from us merely by the accidents of position. Alas! how soon were these young and generous feelings blighted. I have been thrown much among Englishmen throughout the whole of my life, and for many I entertain a strong regard — one I even ranked among my closest friends — and I have personally received, in this kingdom itself, more than cold attentions; and yet among them all I cannot recall a single man, who, I have had the smallest reason to think, has ever given me his hand the more cordially and frankly because I was an American! With them, the tie of a common origin has seemed to be utterly broken. ⁴
This passage discloses a Wordsworthian interplay of layers of time, as Cooper in 1836 broods upon his “emotion recollected in tranquillity” from eight years earlier (1828) when he revisited the country he had first seen in 1806 — “twenty-two years before.” As the passage indicates, the teenage Cooper’s first visit occurred prior to the experience of the “last war” of 1812-14 and prior to the increasingly shrill series of publications of British writers hostile to the United States, which combined to chill the “deep reverence and admiration” of the “ardent boy” of 1806.
Whatever the ultimate source of Cooper’s “conflicting sensations” about England, his first important contact with English character, again as recorded as a mature man in the England travel book, certainly presented a contradiction in values. Writing to his childhood friend William Jay, Cooper recalls Thomas Ellison, their Albany tutor of 1801-02.
Thirty-six years ago, you and I were schoolfellows and classmates, in the house of a clergyman of the true English school. This man was an epitome of the national prejudices, and, in some respects, of the national character. Re was the son of a beneficed clergyman in England; had been regularly graduated at Oxford and admitted to orders; entertained a most profound reverence for the king and the nobility; was not backward in expressing his contempt for all classes of dissenters and all ungentlemanly sects; was particularly severe on the immoralities of the French revolution, and, though eating our bread, was not especially lenient to our own; ... spent his money freely, and sometimes that of other people; was particularly tenacious of the ritual, and of all the decencies of the church, detested a democrat as he did the devil; cracked his jokes daily about Mr. Jefferson and Black Sal, prayed fervently of Sundays; decried all morals, institutions, churches, manners and laws but those of England, Mondays and Saturdays; and, as it subsequently became known, was living every day in the week, in vincolo matrimonii, with another man’s wife! ⁵
Cooper first visited the county Ellison admired so uncritically during his earliest experience on the sea in a merchant vessel in 1806. Witnessing the impressment of American seamen at the hands of the British navy made Cooper a life-long advocate of a strong American navy to defend American rights. Being invited into Green Park in London as a privilege extended to a royal subject rather than as a right of a citizen gave Cooper “the first perception I had of the broad distinction that exists between political franchises and political liberty.” ⁶ And the tour of the capital with an old customhouse officer provided the seventeen-year old seaman with an example of Cockney boosterism which the mature author put to good use in creating Benjamin Pump in The Pioneers.
Cooper first grappled head-on with the differences between British and American character in Notions of the Americans, written at the behest of Lafayette to explain American life to European audiences. Cooper conceived of Notions of the Americans as the most important work as yet in his career an exercise in gravity more significant than what he himself describes in the book as the “light work” of his earlier “series of tales, which were intended to elucidate the history, manners, usages, and scenery, of his native country.” ⁷ In contrast to the abasing admiration for things British of Washington Irving’s sketches, the earliest important American writings on England, in this series of fictional letters to European aristocrats, Cooper boldly stands forth to defend American institutions against European ignorance and malice. Employing shrewd argument and masses of statistics, Cooper aims to provide for the fair-minded reader the ideas and facts needed to un-learn prejudice and to grasp the truth of the social experiment of the United States. Cooper sets the tone for the whole work in a long and important footnote appended to the first letter, which recounts the response of the imagined John Cadwallader — the real James Cooper — to the absence of impartial accounts of America among European travellers.
The note argues that while the American can share with his English cousin in the pre-1783 glories of their common achievements in literature, politics, and arms, the proper attitude for the American is towards the future — looking for the creation of a new and distinctly American culture:
There is little in the past ... of which England can fairly boast, in which America may not claim to participate. The arms of our ancestors were wielded in her most vaunted fields; the geniuses of Shakspeare and Milton were awakened in the bosom of a society from which we received our impressions, and if liberty and the law have been transmitted to us from the days of Hampden and Bacon, we have not received them as boons, but taken them as the portions of a birthright. Glorious and ample as has been our heritage, we challenge the keen-eyed and ready criticism of the rest of the world, to decide whether we have imitated the example of the prodigal son. And yet, if it be permitted to a people, to value themselves on any thing, it is surely more reasonable to exult in the cheering prospects of a probable future, than to turn their eyes through the perspective of recollections, in quest of a sickly renown from the past. The greatness of the ancestor may, and does often, prove a reproach to him who would claim a vain distinction from circumstances that he could not have controlled, while he who looks ahead, may justly point with pride to the foundations of glory which his own hand has laid. ⁸
In assessing the development of a distinctly American literature, Cooper finds some auspicious signs. The British have overplayed their hand, according to Cooper; “the falsehoods and jealous calumnies which have been undeniably uttered in the mother country, by means of the press, concerning her republican descendant” ⁹ have begun to extinguish the natural affinity many Americans feel for British opinions and letters. Nonetheless, as Cooper points out, “the literature of the United States has, indeed, too [sic] powerful obstacles to conquer before ... it can ever enter the markets of its own country on terms of perfect equality with that of England.” ¹⁰ The first obstacle is the ready availability of British literature in the United States, caused by the absence of international copyright, which permits American publishers to obtain British letterpress without cost. Consequently, the flood of free British writers drowns out the native stock.
The other impediment to the growth of an indigenous literature is strikingly analyzed, in terms most often attributed to Henry James in the 1880s not Cooper in the 1820s:
The second obstacle against which American literature has to contend, is in the poverty of materials. There is scarcely an ore which contributes to the wealth of the author, that is found, here, in veins as rich as in Europe. There are no annals for the historian; no follies (beyond the most vulgar and commonplace) for the satirist; no manners for the dramatist; no obscure fictions for the writer of romance; no gross and hardy offences against decorum for the moralist; nor any of the rich artificial auxiliaries of poetry. ... I very well know there are theorists who assume that the society and institutions of this country are or ought to be, particularly favourable to novelties and variety. But the experience of one month, in these States, is sufficient to show any observant man the falsity of their position. The effect of a promiscuous assemblage any where, is to create a standard of deportment; and great liberty permits every one to aim at its attainment. I have never seen a nation so much alike in my life, as the people of the United States, and what is more, they are not only like each other, but they are remarkably like that which common sense tells them they ought to resemble. No doubt, traits of character that are a little peculiar, without, however, being either very poetical, or very rich, are to be found in remote districts; but they are rare, and not always happy exceptions. In short, it is not possible to conceive a state of society in which more of the attributes of plain good sense, or fewer of the artificial absurdities of life, are to be found, than here. There is no costume for the peasant, (there is scarcely a peasant at all,) no wig for the judge, no baton for the general, no diadem for the chief magistrate. The darkest ages of their history are illuminated by the light of truth; the utmost efforts of their chivalry are limited by the laws of God; and even the deeds of their sages and heroes are to be sung in a language that would differ but little from a version of the ten commandments. ¹¹
In short, as this wryly satiric passage suggests, the plain commonsense of Americans obviates the kinds of problems and situations of which the stuff of European literature is typically wrought.
Cooper acknowledges that a few American writers have already surmounted these barriers. “There are a few young poets” — Halleck, Bryant, Percival and Sprague are mentioned by name — “who have known how to extract sweets from even these wholesome, but scentless native plants” ¹². Brockden Brown’s Wieland shows the “never-failing evidence of genius” ¹³ by imparting ineffable images to the imagination, and Irving demonstrates a rare quality in the sober American — humor. And this early survey of American literature concludes with a description of native romance, which clearly discloses Cooper’s own estimation of his eight novels to date:
All the attempts to blend history with romance in America, have been comparatively failures, (and perhaps fortunately,) since the subjects are too familiar to be treated with the freedom that the imagination absolutely requires. Some of the descriptions of the progress of society on the borders, have had a rather better success, since there is a positive, though no very poetical, novelty in the subject; but, on the whole, the books which have been best received, are those in which the authors have trusted most to their own conceptions of character, and to qualities that are common to the rest of the world and to human nature. This fact, if its truth be admitted, will serve to prove that the American writer must seek his renown in the exhibition of qualities that are general, while he is confessedly compelled to limit his observations to a state of society that has a wonderful tendency not only to repress passion, but to equalise humours. ¹⁴
However, the primary concern of Notions is not the arts, but society and politics. In describing.the American electoral system, Cooper addresses his imaginary letters pointedly to the English aristocrat, Sir Edward Waller, Baronet — and this, four years before the First Reform Bill of 1832 began the slow process of bringing political power in England into the hands of those classes rapidly acquiring social and economic importance, Cooper stresses repeatedly that the breadth of suffrage in America permits men of little substance to vote and to hold public office; such men necessarily check the excesses of the wealthy, and create a government which avoids the selfishness and prodigality of the British aristocracy. Though the American congressman may occasionally “yield to the mistaken prejudices of a majority of their constituents, ¹⁵ such aberrations are preferable to the truckling subservience to aristocratic ministers and the lack of independence of those few commoners who attain distinction in British politics. The division of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches — explained in some detail — maintains appropriate checks and.balances without paralyzing the ability of the government to act reflectingly.
Cooper refuses in Notions to hide the warts in his picture of the New World; two letters towards the end review the treatment of the slaves and the Indians. Though the author cannot approve of the extreme New England Abolitionists, slavery receives the harshest condemnation of any American institution: “It is the deep moral degradation, which no man has a right to entail on another, that forms the essence of its shame.” ¹⁶ The letter devoted to the American Indian makes most interesting reading, coming as it does from the pen which had by 1828 created Uncas, Chingachgook and Hard-Heart (in The Prairie). Though the rare Noble Savage is still to be found in North America, the norm is the fallen Indian reduced to basket and broom making (Chingachgook’s fate in The Pioneers); Cooper, with Jackson, sees necessarily that the “red man disappears before the superior moral and physical influence of the white.” ¹⁷ Yet when viewed on the scale of the world’s great power clashes, the white Americans’ treatment of the Indian ranks favorably.
The conclusion of Notions reminds the European, especially the Englishman, that America will soon be a power to reckon with. Though manifest destiny is not a term yet in the national vocabulary, Cooper prophesies the expansion of the population numerically and geographically; with that inevitable increase will come the creation of a manufacturing empire which will quickly surpass England’s. In the debate of agrarian vs. industrial utopias, Cooper clearly favors the latter. “The great Lord Chatham declared it should be the policy of England to prevent her colonies from manufacturing even a hobnail; and this plan of monopolizing wealth was tolerably successful, so long as the Americans were dependent on England, and even for many years afterwards.” ¹⁸ But as the triumphant building, without British help, of the Erie Canal shows, American ingenuity and energy were creating an industrial and commercial system which soon would be rivaling and overpowering the mother country in areas like cloth manufacturing where England falsely assumed a perpetual superiority.
In Notions of the Americans, then, Cooper defends the new country against British attacks, primarily by arguing from the facts at hand that Englishmen misjudged their lost colony. Writing eight years later in his travel book about England, Cooper employs a different tactic for comparing the two countries: here he carries the debate home to England by analyzing British institutions in light of the American experiment. Having been back home for several years, Cooper can see the merits and demerits of both old and new countries clearly, and view each nation in the perspective of the other.
The English travel book is not a conventional exercise in the description of the “picturesque,” “charming,” or “quaint,” though Cooper occasionally satisfies those readers in search of such diversions. Gleanings in Europe: England is fundamentally a probing analysis of British institutions, comparable in conceptual scope if not rhetoric to Carlyle’s essays in the 1830s and 40s on the “Condition of England Question.” In keeping with the dual aim here of inspecting both American and British ways, Cooper seeks both to break down British prejudice against Americans (as in Notions) and also to liberate America from thralldom to British opinion.
A British woman’s incredulous response to Cooper’s statement that American woods are not saturated with poisonous reptiles elicits’ this protest from the traveler:
Such notions is the American condemned to meet with, here, not only daily, but hourly, and without ceasing, if he should mingle with the people. The prejudices of the English, against us, against the land in which we live, against the entire nation, morally, physically, and politically, circulate in their mental systems, like the blood in their veins, until they become as inseparable from the thoughts and feelings, as the fluid of life is indispensable to vitality. I say it, not in anger, but in sorrow, when I tell you, that I do not believe the annals of the world can present another such instance of a people, so blindly, ignorantly, and culpably misjudging a friendly nation, as the manner in which England, at this moment, in nearly all things, misjudges us. ¹⁹
Yet despite this hostility, many Americans receive the judgments of British critics and reviewers as final truths:
Much the greater proportion of our writers still manifest a dependance on English opinion, a dread of its censure, and a desire to secure its favour, in a way that cannot easily be mistaken. God forbid! that any one should indulge in the low calumnies that mark equally ignorance and vulgarity; but it is painful to see the truckling manner in which flattery and homage are interwoven in so many of our works, with a manifest design to secure the favour of a people, who do not care to conceal their contempt. ²⁰
Thus Cooper agrees with Jefferson about the paramount need of Americans to attain an intellectual independence from the mother country to match the political independence already achieved through arms:
While this work is going through the press, Tucker’s Jefferson has appeared. In allusion to the principles of a memorial written by himself, Mr. Jefferson’s language is quoted to the following effect. “The leap I then proposed was too long, as yet, for the mass of our citizens.” Nearly seventy years have since passed by; we have become a nation; numerically and physically a great nation; and yet in how many things that affect the supremacy of English opinion and English theories, is “the leap” still “too long” for the “mass of our citizens!” It is these “long leaps,” notwithstanding, that make the difference between men. ²¹
To accomplish this “long leap,” Americans need to recognize more fully the soundness of their own political organization. Too many Americans indulge in atavistic sentiments about the British social and political system, which Cooper identifies as a conservative caste system steeped in artificial distinctions and emblems of rank. Rather than create social stability, the dominance of a landed aristocracy, reinforced by the strict laws of primogeniture not practiced in Europe, creates an atmosphere of jealousy and instability.
A looker-on here, has described the social condition of England to be that of a crowd ascending a ladder, in which every one is tugging at the skirts of the person above, while he puts his foot on the neck of him beneath. After the usual allowances, there is truth in this figure, and you will, at once, perceive, that its consequences are to cause a constant social scuffle. When men (and more especially women) meet under the influence of such a strife, too much time is wasted in the indulgence of the minor and lower feelings, to admit of that free and generous communion that can alone render intercourse easy and agreeable. There must be equality of feeling to permit equality of deportment, and this can never exist in such a mêlée. ²²
After witnessing the embarrassing incident of the banker and poet Samuel Rogers pausing to permit Lord Essex to enter a house before him, Cooper remarks that the ingrained deference thus illustrated debased the servile commoner without raising the preferred noble:
The usages of polite life, sentiment and training are accessible to all, and nothing is effected by dividing the community into castes, but depressing all beneath the highest. When you give a man education, manner, principles, tastes and money (and all are the certain fruits of civilization) you do not change his positive position by adding titles, though you do change it relatively, and these relations can only be obtained at the expense of the inferior. You compel the latter to stop in the middle of the stairs, without walking like a man to the top, but you do not elevate the other an inch. My companion and myself got into the drawing-room later, for this coupe de politesse, but Lord [Essex] got there no sooner. ²³
Americans must resist, with manly independence, the temptations to praise such a caste system wherever and however it is advocated — including in the popular novels of Walter Scott:
These very works of Sir Walter Scott, are replete with one species of danger to the American readers; and the greater the talents of the writer, as a matter of course, the greater is the evil. The bias of his feelings, his prejudices, I might almost say of his nature, is deference to hereditary rank; I do not mean that deep feeling, which, perhaps, inevitably connects the descendant with the glorious deeds of the ancestor ... but the deference of mere feudal and conventional laws, which have had their origin in force, and are continued by prejudice and wrong. This idea pervades his writings, not in professions, but in the deep insinuating current of feeling, and in a way, silently and stealthily, to carry with it the sympathies of the reader. Sir Walter Scott may be right, but if he is right our system is radically wrong, and one of the first duties of a political scheme is to protect itself. ²⁴
Cooper’s sense that the American system is right and Scott wrong is reinforced by an amusing incident when a number of Whig aristocrats with whom the novelist — to his surprise — found himself on friendly terms, asked him to explain the American process of secret elections. Cooper complied with their request with pleasure, and presented the system of balloting in detail. His explanation was met with silence, except for the baffling question of how are the electors kept honest. Only later did Cooper realize what his interlocutor had meant by honest — not, Cooper recognized, honest in terms of voter independence as desired by the Constitution, but honest in the British sense of suffrage, of voting for the man who has paid him for his influence! American secret elections would prevent British canvassing agents from assuring their masters that the money expended on purchasing votes bought the desired results.
The consequence of this caste system is to lodge political control in a narrow social class whose self-interest benefits only the conservative land-owning aristocracy. Cooper shrewdly links the expenses of the Napoleonic wars — fought mainly, he believes, to preserve the privileges of the aristocracy — to the fragility of the British economy in the 1820s and 1830s.
In order to counteract the effects of the French revolution, the aristocracy carried on a war, that has cost the country a sum of money which, still hanging over the nation in the shape of debt, is likely to produce a radical change in the elements of its prosperity. In the competition of industry which is now spreading itself throughout Christendom, it is absolutely necessary to keep down the price of labour in England, to prevent being undersold in foreign markets, and to keep up the prices of food, in order to pay taxes. These two causes united have created an excess of pauperism, that hangs like dead weight on the nation, and which helps to aid the rivalry of foreign competition. Taking the two together, about one hundred and thirty millions of dollars annually are paid by the nation, and much the greater part as a fine proceeding from the peculiar form of the government; for the sacrifices that were made, were only to be expected from those who were contending especially for their own privileges. ²⁵
The resulting emigration of capital and talent.is of course reinforced by the unwillingness of the aristocracy (Cooper writes of the period before the First Reform Bill of 1832) to share political power with the new industrial classes.
Cooper is fair-minded about the British caste system, which he recognizes as having its merits. It does keep the lowest orders in their places. It fosters social and intellectual independence, born of certainty of place. English men do not need to turn to reviewers to be instructed on thought or taste. Here truly is where Americans should learn from their English cousins:
A more wrong-headed and deluded people there is not, on earth, than our own, on all such subjects, and one would be almost content to take some of the English prejudices, if more manliness and discrimination could be had with them. ²⁶
Yet given the crippling effect of such a caste system, England, Cooper prophesies in conclusion, will inevitably fall behind the expanding economy of her former colony — if America can accomplish that “long leap” to the mental independence both Cooper and Jefferson longed for. “Alas! it is much easier to declare war, and gain victories in the field, and establish a political independence, than to emancipate the mind.” ²⁷
As a group, no other American works served better to “emancipate the mind” than the Leatherstocking series of romances. In the period before Cooper’s return to the United States in 1833, three of these tales were published — The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), and The Prairie (1827). Though in Gleanings in Europe: England, Cooper ironically questioned those who asserted American readers wanted distinctively American themes, no author in fact did more in the first half of the nineteenth century to create an indigenous literature dealing with themes, characters and settings recognizably American.
Perhaps as a corrective to what Cooper describes as the habitual American deference to British opinion, in the first three of the Leatherstocking tales Cooper denies any significant roles to British characters. The memorable scenes of The Pioneers — the pigeon-shoot, the lake fishing, the forest fire, and the panther scene — capture experiences illustrative of life in the burgeoning wilderness, not the exhausted countryside of the Old World. The only memorable British character in all three works is Benjamin Pump, Judge Temple’s major-domo, whose stock-response admiration of all things British helps to etch him as a figure of grotesque humor comedy incapable of growth. Pump epitomizes all the Britons in the novel. In the great Christmas Eve scene where “half the nations in the north of Europe had their representatives,” only the British settler stands out for his inability to adapt:
... all had closely assimilated themselves to the Americans, in dress and appearance, except the Englishman. He, indeed, not only adhered to his native customs, in attire and living, but usually drove his plough, among the stumps, in the same manner as he had before done, on the plains of Norfolk, until dear-bought experience taught him the useful lesson, that a sagacious people knew what was suited to their circumstances, better than a casual observer; or a sojourner; who was, perhaps, too much prejudiced to compare and, peradventure, too conceited to learn. ²⁸
Contrasting to this stasis are the Americans, at their best depicted by the still- fallible Judge Temple, who strives to bring rule and order to the wilderness. Temple acts as an American gentleman free of the bondage to an artificial caste system; no British aristocrat could have recognized the true gentility behind the “Oliver Edwards” disguise.
Only the shadowy figure of the English commander who refuses to aid the Scot Colonel Munro introduces a British character into The Last of the Mohicans. Even Major Heyward, who, unlike the French, still has much to learn from Hawkeye about Indian warfare, is a colonial Virginian rather than a Briton.
The third of the early trio of Leatherstocking tales, The Prairie, is the most distinctively American, in theme and setting, of all Cooper’s pre-1833 fiction. The first of Cooper’s novels to take place in the nineteenth century, The Prairie, as the title reminds us, presents a landscape wholly unknown to England. For the first time in Cooper’s fiction, not a single British character appears, even in a minor role. Instead of exploring, as in the two earlier Leatherstocking tales, the conflict between on the one hand British values born of the caste system analyzed in Cooper’s social criticism, and on the other hand American values epitomized by the shrewdness of Natty Bumppo, the main theme of The Prairie involves the education of the archetypal American paterfamilias, Ishmael Bush. Through the prairie Bush leads a family straight out of the pages of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. Like Prospero in Shakespeare’s final play, whose lines about his brother’s usurpation give the novel its epitaph, Ishmael must learn how Natural Law imposes inescapable limits upon the human will. Bush’s education, in an American setting as broad in scope as the theme itself, is in universal values not in the artificiality of a social caste system.
On the whole, then, the early Leatherstocking tales represent American people and institutions favorably, depicting the ability of both colonials and free citizens to create a way of life appropriate to the new world. Interestingly, though, the three revolutionary war novels of the 1820s — The Spy (1821), The Pilot (1823) and Lionel Lincoln (1825) — are less certain than the Leatherstocking tales that the new American society will be able to preserve essential social stability. These books might be expected to contain rousing defenses of American liberty wrested from British tyranny. On the contrary, they present a profoundly ambiguous response to the Revolution. Sympathy for the colonials standing up for the natural and political rights is mingled with an uncertainty whether their rebellion against royal government is intellectually and morally justified. In all three works Cooper questions whether the rebels are motivated by love of country the selfish desire to enact their wills outside the just boundaries of a stable social order.
The setting of The Spy is the “Neutral Ground,” the territory contested by British and American forces in West Chester county. The genius of the “Neutral Ground” is the wealthy Mr. Wharton, whose “natural imbecility” of character leads him on to the self-destructive path of refusing to commit himself and his fortune to either side. Though regular forces of both sides engage in a textbook battle in the climax, most of the actual combat is at the hands of lawless guerrillas, nominally affiliated with one side or the other but in reality (like Faulkner’s Snopses a century and a half later) fighting only for themselves. Indeed, of the two bands of irregulars, the “American” Skinners are the more destructive. Since the young romantic officers on both sides are driven by personal honor more than by political commitment, only two figures in the novel emerge as putting love of country before love or self. These are George Washington and the pedlar-spy, Harvey Birch. However, Washington’s role as a deus ex machina hovering above the story line prevents him from being the engaged advocate who can justify the rebellion on principle. And like Natty Bumppo and Ike McCaslin later, Harvey Birch pays the price for preserving his innocence and purity by being misunderstood and ultimately becoming impotent.
Though the principal British spokesman, Colonel Wellmore, is involved in a melodramatic subplot his taunts that the rebels have unleashed the greed of the lower classes are unanswered. No one can assure him or the reader that the misrule portended by the Skinners will be contained if the rebellion attains its goals. Though the rebels are successful at arms in the conclusion, no one of the winning side articulates how the passions of self now freed from the restraint of royal command will be checked.
A persuasive dramatic argument to justify the Revolution is also absent from The Pilot. The first paragraph of the novel informs the reader that the period of the story:
... has a peculiar interest for every American, not only because it was the birthday of his nation, but because it was also the era when reason and common sense began to take the place of custom and feudal practices in the management of the affairs of nations. ²⁹
Yet in fact “reason and common sense” are little in evidence among the American officers engaged in a raid on a country-house in Northumberland. The two leading young male roles unreflectingly endanger their mission to win possession of their mistresses, losing sundry of their men along the way with no apparent regret. Like The Spy, The Pilot contains a portrait of a well-known historical figure, here, John Paul Jones. But Cooper leaves no doubt that Jones is motivated by personal spite against the British monarchy; Jones spends much of his time on stage fixing his dark eye upon less strong-willed men, in approved Byronic-hero fashion, rather than presenting an argued defense of liberty. When challenged by his old lover, Alice Dunscombe, to think through the consequences of his willfulness, Jones counters only with the dismissal that women cannot understand politics.
Indeed, the strongest political arguments are put forth by Cooper’s British aristocrats, Captain Borroughcliffe and Colonel Howard. When in the denouement military discipline is desperately needed, the two young American officers fall to quarreling about rank and precedence. Colonel Howard draws the appropriate conclusion:
Behold, my dear Cecilia, the natural consequences of this rebellion! It scatters discord in their ranks; and, by its damnable levelling principles, destroys all distinction of rank among themselves; even these rash boys know not where obedience is due! ³⁰
The Colonel, who as a loyalist has left fortune and home in Carolina, traces the true course of revolution for his rebellious niece:
The tyranny and oppression of the Congress, which are grinding down the colonies to the powder of desolation and poverty, are not worthy the sacred name. Rebellion pollutes all that it touches, madam. Although it often commences under the sanction of holy liberty, it ever terminates in despotism. The annals of the world, from the time of the Greeks and Romans down to the present day, abundantly prove it. There was that Julius Caesar — he was one of your people’s men, and he ended a tyrant. Oliver Cromwell was another — a rebel, a demagogue, and a tyrant. The gradations, madam, are as inevitable as from childhood to youth, and from youth to age. ³¹
Though the story is set before the French Revolution, the references to Louis and Marie Antoinette remind the reader of how true the Colonel’s prophecy can be. As in The Spy, rebellious arms are successful, but the future stability of the nation thus created by separation from England is left in doubt.
The madness of all rebellion, even the American, is the dominate theme of Cooper’s third early Revolutionary war novel, Lionel Lincoln. The book is the weakest of three, because the gothic family romance of the Lincolns in revolutionary Boston assorts poorly with the heroic descriptions — the first in American fiction — of the battles of Concord and Bunker Hill. Curiously, the “moral imbecility” of Mr. Wharton is here displaced to the titular hero, who watches, dreamlike, the resistance of the sturdy New England yeoman to the ranks of British bayonets without participating on either side. Though Cooper’s admiration is clear for the heroism of the colonials in the face of British force, none of the patriots who attempt to articulate a principled defense of rebellion are presented favorably. At best the unnamed patriots are seen from afar by Lionel, a British officer, in a smoky and dark meetingroom where physical and intellectual clarity are obscured. At worst the advocates of rebellion — principally Lincoln’s own father — turn out to be quite literally mad. At the end of the book, Lincoln and his new bride return to England, with the novelist’s blessings, to take up the fortune and position in the very bosom of the aristocracy condemned in Cooper’s social writings. Though at its periphery Lionel Lincoln depicts battle scenes of which patriotic legend was made, at its center the book dramatizes the insanity of rebellion against the king. Here the ambiguity of Cooper’s response to England, as described at the beginning of the paper, receives its fullest dramatization in the early fiction.
What, then, can one conclude about Cooper’s attitude towards England in the early part of his career? Apparently the fiction of the 1820s shows a far greater diversity of attitudes than contained in Notions of the Americans and the England travel book, which are predominantly critical of the constricting English caste system. Can we attribute this change to a fundamental shift in Cooper’s values in the 1830s? Perhaps such a shift towards a stronger condemnation of English institutions did take place. But Cooper’s private letters from Paris in 1828 already show firmly fixed a distaste for “the abominable and all devouring aristocracy” which “is bringing” England “to ruin.” ³²
No doubt a biographical context for Cooper’s attitudes towards England can be developed. A critic disposed to psychological interpretations could readily equate domineering England with Cooper’s domineering father; Cooper’s response to England could be paralleled to his attempt as a writer to establish a personal independence apart from his father. As Cooper observes of American deference to England, “The greatness of the ancester may, and often does, prove a reproach to him who would claim a vain distinction from circumstance ... while he who looks ahead, may justly point with pride to the foundations of glory which his own hand has laid.” ³³
But I suggest Cooper’s probing questioning of both the British and American social systems, so dominant in his early fiction, results mainly from the depth of his imaginative engagement in his fiction with the issues of stability versus rebellion. Like so many authors, Cooper imaginatively gave form in his fiction to fears and contradictions which the rational mind, writing logically as in the works of social criticism, sought to abstract and resolve — perhaps to paper over.
The fullness, the fundamental ambiguity, of Cooper’s response to England is thus to be found in the fiction not in the social writing. Like Dickens in Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities, Cooper’s fiction describing revolutions discloses both sympathy with the rebels whose cause is just and fear that revolution will incite rebellion against all just forms of restraint, unleashing the worst license. Cooper’s novels of the 1820s thus show how, in the name of patriotic freedom, young men act thoughtlessly in pursuit of love, and older men act calculatingly to achieve personal ambition. More than the social criticism, his fiction displays the essential fragility of social institutions threatened by egotism. From the beginning of his career Cooper feared, as his depiction of the Skinners in The Spy shows, what de Tocqueville also feared in the new country — the tyranny of the majority. And this fear, along with an abiding respect for the stability of England, is manifested best in his fiction, for as Cooper had observed of Scott, the ideas which pervade a writer occur “not in [the] professions, but in the deep insinuating current of feeling ... in a way, silently and stealthily, to carry with it the sympathies of the reader.” ³⁴
1. James Fenimore Cooper, Precaution (New York: Putnam, n.d.), p. 177.
2. Ibid., p. 418.
3. James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: England (Albany: State University of New York, 1982), p. 1.
4. Ibid., p. 11.
5. Ibid., p. 155.
6. Ibid., p. 195.
7. James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans (New York: Ungar, 1963), 1, 254.
8. Ibid., I, 318.
9. Ibid., II, 100.
10. Ibid., II, 106.
11. Ibid., II, 108-9.
12. Ibid., II, 109.
13. Ibid., II, 111.
14. Ibid., II, 111-12.
15. Ibid., II, 25.
16. Ibid., II, 276.
17. Ibid., II, 277.
18. Ibid., II, 326.
19. Gleanings in Europe: England, p. 263.
20. Ibid., p. 291.
21. Ibid., P. 249n.
22. Ibid., p. 46.
23. Ibid., p. 65.
24. Ibid., p. 121.
25. Ibid., p. 146.
26. Ibid., p. 248.
27. Ibid., p. 206.
28. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), p. 124.
29. ------. The Pilot (New York; A, L. Burt, n.d.), p. 13.
30. Ibid., p. 381.
31. Ibid., p. 147.
32. James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and, Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960), I, 244.
33. Notions of the Americans, I, 318.
34. Gleanings in Europe: England, p. 121.