Cooper and German Readers

Irmgard Egger (University of Vienna)

Presented at the 5ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1984.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1984 Conference at State University of New York College — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 35-39).

Copyright © 1985 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

The reception of Cooper’s works in German-speaking countries has always been different from that in the United States. While his compatriots at first approved of his presentation of American themes on the one hand, but could not help sharing the British skepticism towards the newcomer on the other, Cooper’s German contemporaries welcomed his novels with undivided admiration from the very beginning, and only few German reviews were influenced by the ambivalence of their English predecessors. Most critics and all of the reading public, however, literally devoured his books, which, though mostly in pirated editions, had been published in Germany in great numbers from as early as 1824 onwards. Goethe, for instance, who, like other German writers, is said to have been influenced by Cooper, admired him very much, and it is his judgment recorded in his diary of 1826 that paved the way for Cooper among the highbrows, when he stated:

I admire the rich material and its subtle presentation; hardly ever have works of art been organized as consciously and thoroughly as Cooper’s novels.

And the Austrian composer Schubert, a week before his death in 1828, wrote in his very last letter to his friend Schober:

I am very ill. ... Be so kind as to help me in this desperate situation with some books. By Cooper I have read: ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’ ‘The Spy,’ ‘The Pilot,’ and ‘The Pioneers’. In case you have anything more of him, I implore you ... to send it to me.

Apart from their general merits, there are some specifically German reasons to explain this tremendous enthusiasm aroused by Cooper’s “reports from the New World,” for that is what Biedermeier-Germans mainly saw in them: oppressed worse than ever by the totalitarian old regimes restored in 1815, many of them sought liberty and progress in America — and if only in their minds, the United States assumed the significance of arva beata, of blessed fields, to which they could flee from the needs and despairs of their hic-et-nunc, a way of reception well illustrated by the following quotation from a review (Literarisches Conversationsblatt 1825: no. 4):

This picture of active life and brave death ... has lifted me from my paralyzing work-day life by offering an exciting set of ideas ... enabling me again to endure the frustrations that my middle-class destination imposes upon me.

Being absorbed in Cooper’s fiction has thus become a popular way of vicarious living, even more so as it offered a platform for political discussion beyond the reach of the censor: talking about America provided the Germans with a convenient disguise for talking about their own country. Quite a number of Germans, however, were not only dreaming but also trying to put their escapist ideas into practice, and for than Cooper’s tales meant realistic immigrant information, guidebooks to their new home-country. In addition to these political motives, the desire for and lack of novels in Germany at that time certainly contributed to Cooper’s wide popularity as well.

That particular background makes it clear how the Germans could succeed in never being irritated by the image of the “two Coopers,” which has weighed upon his reception in the United States for a long time: they simply ignored it and cut off the second half of the picture by refusing to take any notice of Cooper’s political writings and activities or his criticism of his countrymen or theirs of him. Instead, up to our day, most Germans have stuck to their own image of Cooper as a true democrat, a fighter for progress and liberty and for ethnical and social justice, a devoted advocate of and a sound expert on America and the red Indians as well as a thoroughly authentic and original writer, an image that had been created by his first admirers, because Cooper’s ideas — a step backward for the United States even of his day — still meant progress when applied to the German situation. As Cooper was criticizing a stage of democracy too far advanced for the Germans even to dream of, they failed to realize that he was skeptical at all. Besides, criticism of their ideal country and society or of its worshipped representatives was definitely not what the Germans wanted to hear, and up to the present the few German attempts to deal with the actual Cooper have usually met with violent rejection, indicating the strength of the emotional bonds between the Germans and their image of Cooper and his America, in which the latter (undisturbed even during wartime) does not have much to do with the actual United States, either.

Around 1850, however, grown-ups gradually lost their interest in Cooper as up-to-date reading material for reasons similar to those which launched it same thirty years earlier: the political situation had changed and the Germans were again hoping for better days in their own country. Besides more and more novels were being written everywhere and most of them exceeded Cooper in excitement as well as in authenticity, so that his works would have sunk into oblivion soon, if it had not been for the striking idea of a certain Franz Hoffmann, a frustrated bookseller and author of children’s books, who in 1845 was the first to publish Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales “adapted for the German youth,” as he called it, and thus triggered an avalanche of editions for juvenile readers that has not come to a standstill in the present day and has preserved — and influenced — the image of Cooper in German minds. Asking again about the circumstances favoring that development, we find much the same conditions with children as with the grown-ups of the German restoration period, for both were people suffering from substantial restrictions: the latter due to political oppression, the former because of the natural limits of their age, intensified still by the rather rigid German modes of upbringing and education. Like their ancestors in the bad old days, children — and even more so German children — are thus basically unfree and dependent, rightless and powerless in their own, not free to speak of public affairs, confined to a narrow circle of home and (in their case) school, tied up and dominated by numerous rules and obligations imposed upon them by others. In short, they, too were the typical potential readers of escapist literature and therefore readily took over the blessed fields that had so conveniently served their forefathers as an asylum for vicarious living and were now about to be deserted by the grown-ups for king and country. To put it in terms of literary evolution: moving to the fringe of the literary scene, the Leatherstocking Tales were becoming free to be picked up by any other genre, while at the same time German youth literature had become a drab routine affair, badly wanting new impulses — an ideal coincidence of offer and request. This was cleverly recognized by Hoffmann and his successors who saw the high degree of structural and ideological adaptability of Cooper’s texts, which could easily be turned into children’s books on the one hand, and be fitted both to restoration morals and to approaching German heroism on the other, patterns that have worked throughout all political systems, whether it be the National Socialist era with Hess’s recommendation of the Tales, or the 1950s with their return to “timeless” values, or the German Democratic Republic linking Cooper with young Marx.

By the turn of the century, the Leatherstocking’s undisputed position as one of the first renowned German youth classics received further backing from a new development among pedagogues and publishers: the notorious fight against “trash,” raging up to our day, for which Cooper’s respectable adventure tales came in handy as valuable antidotes, especially against Karl May and later the comics and westerns, a function that has settled Cooper’s being taken in by German youth literature for good.

The fact that Leatherstocking has almost vanished from studies and libraries and has became a permanent resident of German nurseries instead does not imply, however, that Cooper’s tales are less known or well regarded among grown-ups. On the contrary, because Germans meet the man from the woods so early in their lives, they become even more — and still more emotionally — attached to Natty Bumppo and preserve his image throughout their lives, although they hardly ever touch the texts again; an image that, as time proceeds, becomes more and more idealized, being mingled and mellowed with childhood memories.

Two quotations illustrate that process: the first comes from a correspondent for Die Gartenlaube, one of Germany’s most popular home journals, who wrote in 1896:

Leatherstocking! I am convinced that the very sound of this name will arouse the sweet dream of youth with millions of Germans, the memory of a time when it was one of their favorite occupations to sit in a corner for hours, with Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, and to read of the deeds of Deerslayer and chief Chingachgook. Who of us had in those years not played the Great Serpent or the Cerf Agile himself and therefore forgotten to do his homework, for which the other day the ‘Great Serpent’ would be placed under house arrest or even be given a sound thrashing!

The second statement comes from Ulrich Greiner, a contemporary literary critic, who as a grown-up returned to Cooper out of a professional interest.

Upon reading his tales again, I was highly surprised to find out what Cooper had actually intended to convey. ... I would never have suspected anything like that, when I had been reading his books in those nights, hidden under the blanket with a secret pocket-lamp and my face burning with excitement. These novels, I thought upon re- reading them, had not been written by Cooper, but by myself. (FAZ, 1979: no. 185)

Apart from that persistently rolling juvenile Leatherstocking wave, there have occasionally also been critical voices like that of the German philosopher Adorno (Minima Moralia), seeing the roots of Hollywood in Cooper’s adventure tales, as well as periods of renewed interest in the original Cooper on part of the reading public and some scholars and authors (among them Arno Schmidt with his brilliant translations), none of which, however, has had much impact on the general reception of Cooper. Strikingly enough, though, these renaissances have always came at times of increased irritation with political, social or cultural development, that is, around 1900 and again in the 1930s and eventually also during the recent years of recession, which seems to confirm the suggestion of Peter Hacks, a contemporary German author, who states on related matters:

The quest for the unreal can only be understood as the frustration with the real, as the quest for something different. (Das Poetische, 1966)

Of course, Cooper’s tales can be called escapist only on a surface level, as he certainly does comment on reality here, too, and employs the frontier-forest/flight- pursuit patterns mainly as vehicles for the story proper. With German readers, however, he has never been that ‘critic of his times’ and never really the actual man from Cooperstown, but far more the symbolic representative, the ambassador of the blessed fields in our minds.


1. For Cooper’s reception during the German restoration period see Karlheinz Rossbacher, Lederstrumpf in Deutschland. Zur Rezeption James Fenimore Coopers beim Leser der Restaurationszeit. München, 1972.