Cooperstown’s Contribution to Cooper Scholarship

Robert D. Madison (United States Naval Academy)

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. 1-9).

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

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

“I see times be altering in these mountains from what they was thirty years ago, or, for that matter, ten years.”

— Natty Bumppo

MOST talks about James Fenimore Cooper are about Cooper himself, but here I’d like to concentrate on something else: the contribution of one small area in New York to the study of a major author.

Everybody knows that James Fenimore Cooper came from Cooperstown — most outsiders think the town was named after him — most insiders know that at least during his own life Cooperstown would have been just as happy not to have had that unfavorite son among them. At least that’s the general impression. What I’d like to talk about now, though, is how, through the years since Cooper’s death, this area of New York (greater Oneonta? as they might say downstate) has been responsible for some of the major events in Cooper criticism.

I think we should begin our look at the town that made a novelist at an earlier time — back when it was trying to unmake him - that period which most readers probably have some familiarity with — and that’s the time of what we now refer to as the “Effingham Controversy” or the “Three Mile Point Controversy.” This, of course, refers to that time of the novelist’s life — about 1837 to 1845 — when some residents of this area did their best to ruin Cooper’s reputation as a gentleman and a scholar — and Cooper did his best, by means of libel suits — to maintain his own.

The story of the general public’s trespass onto the picnic area called then (and now) Three Mile Point, Cooper’s public statement warning the public off Cooper property, the resentment of the newspapers, and the legal actions Cooper took in response, have all been documented, most fully by a college English Professor teaching in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in a book published in Madison, Wisconsin. My topic isn’t the Mid=west’s contribution to Cooper studies, so I’11 simply summarize Ethel R. Outland’s excellent book, The “Effingham” Libels on Cooper, by saying that Cooper emerged victorious but unpopular, and that that unpopularity has tainted the common view of Cooper almost down to our own day. And from all the biographical evidence we have, I should add, unjustly tainted.

From almost the day of his death, those who knew the “true” Cooper either in life or through his books tried to restore the author’s popularity and his image as a kind, just man. First and perhaps foremost of any since was the novelist’s own daughter Susan, who in 1861 published the most beautiful collection of the novelist’s writings ever produced. This was Pages and Pictures, from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, with Notes by Susan Fenimore Cooper . When I say beautiful I refer mainly to the illustrations and binding: The book included the best of the illustrations by F. O. C. Darley from the edition of Cooper’s novels which was being published at about that time and contained many steel engravings made especially for the book. But Susan’s notes also produce a sentimental beauty in their reminiscence of the father-author. If her remarks on the composition of Cooper’s novels are not always faithful to historical detail, they are always faithful to the memory of the father. It is obvious that this work, whose preface is dated at Cooperstown nearly nine years to the day from the death of the novelist — and on what would have been his seventy-first birthday, was meant to be a monument more lasting than the proposed marble one which was in great danger of never being erected at all.

Susan’s notes are drawn sometimes from Cooper’s own introductions, sometimes from the novelist’s letters, and sometimes from family traditions. In her headnote to Homeward Bound — one of the Effingham novels — she began with a sketch of Cooper’s patriotism:

Love of country was a feeling which, with the author of “The Bravo,” had far more than common depth. There were many years of his life during which that feeling may be said to have partaken of the nature of a passion. Born with the country [1789], the sympathies of his own ardent youth flowed naturally in the same current with the young life of the nation. The glow of an interest almost personal was felt in every important step of advancing civilization: the opening of broad forests, the tilling of great plains and valleys, the movement of busy fleets of shipping on river and coast, the building of manufacturies and warehouses, the progress of cities and villages, where all in turn followed with a closely-observant and animated eye, and appreciated with intelligent and practical insight into details. This sense of vigorous growth was, indeed, an unceasing source of enjoyment to him. In physical activity, in energy of spirit, he was most essentially American. The higher elements which make up national feeling were, of course, still more powerful in their influences: the early history of the country, its honorable origin, its healthful colonial progress, its independence so gallantly won, its achievements in arms by land and sea, its diffusion of education, and, above all, its political and religious constitution, wise, and just, and generous in spirit, were so many sources of honest pride. No man in the country bore a heart more loyal in its allegiance than his own. And as years passed over, during a long period, they brought little change in the fervor of this feeling; the experience of maturity had no power of itself to chill the enthusiasm of his nature. ... It was no cold, abstract principle which made up patriotism in the heart which conceived the character of Harvey Birch; nay, more, it was not only that local affection of soil and scene, which is the instinctive growth of every healthful nature; it was human sympathy in one of its highest forms, it was a love of his kind, of his fellow-countrymen — ardent, generous, and active — which guided his pen (285-86).

This amalgamation and anticipation of Walt Whitman and Henry Adams is precisely the character the novelist had given to his first great character, Harvey Birch, the spy of Cooper’s novel of that name.

Susan’s next opportunity to eulogize her father on a large scale came with the publication of Cooper’s novels by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. in the 70s and 80s. Susan wrote prefaces for the Leatherstocking Tales and for several of the sea tales in this “Household Edition.” Not surprisingly, her introductions are concerned not only with the composition and themes of the books, but also with the history of their author, as this extract on Cooper’s sociability, from the introduction to The Two Admirals, shows:

There was something in the life-long attachment of the “Two Admirals” for each other, which reflected as it were the brotherly feeling, uniting the author and his friend Admiral Shubrick from boyhood to old age. Though coveting the rank for that friend, Mr. Cooper did not live to see him promoted to an admiral’s flag. The author of “The Pilot” had many warm friends in the navy, among the older officers, and greatly enjoyed their society. There was no greater pleasure for him than “drifting about town,” as he expressed it, with an old naval friend; on one occasion there was a meeting in New York of a number of the older commdores on public business; he was in town at the time, and he wrote home that they had adopted him into their “mess,” and they were all cruising about together, for a week or two, talking over naval matters with vast satisfaction. His was a very social spirit, naturally buoyant, and full of conversation. And he was singularly happy in his friendships. His most intimate friends were all men of the highest character, and in many instances they had been friends in early youth (xiv).

The years following saw the publication of the earliest full-length biographies of Cooper, but the next person I’d like to discuss is Ralph Birdsall, rector of Christ Church and author of The Story of Cooperstown. I like Birdsall’s book because he tells the kind of history I like to read. As he says in his forewasd, he chose his persons and events for their story-interest, to the exclusion of much dull detail that history is usually expected to contain. It is impossible to write about historical Cooperstown without mentioning the novelist, not only because of his prominence as a citizen but also because of his 1838 book, The Chronicles of Cooperstown, published the same year as his Effingham novels. By the time Birdsall’s book was published in 1917, Cooper as a person was a mild memory (thanks to Susan and a more grateful posterity) and Cooperstown thought of him mainly (if not entirely) as the creator of Natty Bumppo — the Leatherstocking of the Tales. The novelist had been correct in prophesying in his Preface to the Tales beginning with the Deerslayer: “If anything from the pen of the writer of these romances is at all to outlive himself, it is, unquestionably, the series of The Leather-Stocking Tales’” (vi). Birdsall’s chapter on “The Immortal Natty Bumppo” comes well before his chapter on the novelist himself. The latter chapter, being almost obligatory and being mainly derived from other biographies, lacks the vigor of the Leatherstocking chapter: the rector in 1917 was concerned with the myth, not the man, and inadvertently included his best commentary on Cooper the man in the chapter devoted to the literary creation. If it sounds like I’m being a little harsh on Birdsall, I don’t mean to be. He is always sympathetic, and is certainly representative of the prevailing nostalgia towards the novelist, especially regarding that marble monument I mentioned earlier, the Leatherstocking monument just outside of town:

Leatherstocking Monument

Cooper’s most famous hero, carved in marble, rifle in hand, and with the dog Hector at his feet, stands at the top of the Leatherstocking monument in Lakewood cemetery, on a rise of ground hear the entrance, overlooking Otsego Lake from the east side, about fifteen minutes walk from the village of Cooperstown. That a monument commemorative of Cooper and Leather-Stocking should stand in the public cemetery, in which neither the author nor his supposed model [David Shipnan] is buried, is sometimes puzzling to visitors. It is said, however, that the site was chosen with reference to certain scenes in The Pioneers. The monument stands near the spot upon which the novelist, for the purpose of his romance, placed the hut of Natty Bumppo. It is not far below the road referred to in the opening scene of the tale, where the travelers gained their first glimpse of the village, and stands at the foot of the wooded slope upon which, in the same story, Leather-Stocking shot the panther that was about to spring upon Elizabeth Temple.

The monument itself was the result of an unsuccessful effort which was made shortly after Fenimore Cooper’s death in 1851 to erect in his memory a statue or monument in one of the public squares of New York City. To this end, ten days after his death, a public meeting of citizens of New York, at which Washington Irving presided, was held in the City Hall; two weeks later the Historical Society of New York held a meeting in copmmoration of Cooper; and on February 24, 1852, there was a great demonstration at Metropolitan Hall, with speeches by Daniel Webster and George Bancroft, and a memorial discourse by William Cullen Bryant. The raising of funds for a memorial, which these meetings set as their object, was not commensurate with the expenditure of rhetoric. The sum of $678 was contributed, chiefly at the meeting in Metropolitan Hall, and the committee organized to solicit subscriptions did nothing further.

Six years later Alfred Clarke and G. Pomeroy Keese of Cooperstown undertook to raise by subscription a sufficient sum to erect a monument in Cooper’s memory in or near the village in which he lived, having in view the transfer of whatever sum might be on deposit in New York toward the proposed monument. They raised $2,500, to which Washington Irving, acting for the defunct committee in New York, added the $678 already contributed.

The monument, of white Italian marble, with the statuette of Leather-Stocking at the top, was sculptured by Robert E. Launitz, and erected in the spring of 1860. The small bronze casts of this statuette, which one sees in some of the older homes in Cooperstown, belong to the same period (167-69).

Natty Bumppo's Cave

As historian of Cooperstown, rather than of Cooper himself, Birdsall can always be counted on to give a local context to whatever facet of Cooper’s career or art he is talking about: like Natty’s Cave, for instance. Shortly before the time Birdsall published his book, somebody “discovered” another cave just below the one that had been traditionally associated with Natty’s Cave in The Pioneers, in the woods beyond Kingfisher Tower. Anyone who has climbed up to the “true” cave knows that Cooper used much poetic license if indeed this were the cave. And Birdsall says that same local archeologists maintained that Cooper actually described the lower cave. Birdsall refuted this on the testimony of Susan and the picture she included in Pages and Pictures. Now, as I said before, Susan isn’t always accurate and I’d really like to take a look at that second cave before I made up my mind — picture or no.

Birdsall ends his chapter on Leatherstocking with another tradition that has helped Cooper’s memory to reverberate throughout the Lake Otsego region. I’m of course referring to the famous “Echo of the Glimmerglass”:

“Natty Bumppo! Natty Bumppo! — Who’s there?”

“Natty Bumppo! Natty Bumppo!”

As Birdsall concludes, “The years pass, but no other name retains such magic power to wake the sleeping echo of the Glimmerglass” (173).

In 1922, James Fenimore Cooper, grandson of the novelist, published the Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, with an introduction dated September 14, seventy years to the day after the novelist’s death. In this introduction the grandson stated what may or may not have been just another family myth: ” ... his eldest daughter [Susan], before she died, destroyed a great deal of the material which could have been used in the preparation of a biography, and had buried with her the most interesting of his Journals” (1.3). Although the letters which the grandson goes on to print — in place of the systematic biography he felt could not now be written — are edited from a concern for the personal feelings of the family, much that is personal is included. This is especially true in the section devoted to the reminiscences of Susan, published earlier in part, and here included for the first time in full (so claims the editor). While the letters were immensely valuable to scholars who were beginning to place more and more importance on Cooper as one of the founders of our literature and one of the major evaluators of American society, once again the passages that really grasp the reader are about Cooper the man rather than Cooper the novelist. Near the end of the second volume the grandson includes Susan’s account of her father’s death, “found among her papers after her death”:

Monday, September 15ᵗʰ: His birth-day. He would have been 62. Charlotte and I sat up with his dear remains! His face very noble, and calm. Dear Mother went in with us to see him; kneeling and praying beside him. She is very calm, though grieved to the heart.

He is to be laid in his grave, Wednesday, at 5 o’clock, just one week after his darling grandchild.

I go in very often to see him, and kiss him. His face seems just as dear to me in death as in life. I could sit by him, and caress him all the time. Never before have I loved the face of death, it has always hitherto been painful to look on the dead countenance of one I had known alive. Even with dear little Hal it distressed me, there was an effort, it was a relief to turn my eyes away, the darling child was so altered. But it is not so now. There is a comfort, a blessedness in these last looks of the beloved dead. O my darling, darling Father! ...

They knelt together, Father’s arms about Mother; when he grew feeble she knelt, and he leaned his head on her shoulder.

On the morning of his death dear Mother kneeled at the bedside and said the prayers they had been accustomed to use together. He seemed to understand, and follow, though with effort — partially conscious to the very last hour. ... The morning of his death when I came into the roam dear Mother said, “Here is Susie, come to kiss you!” He partly opened his eyes, made an effort to smile, and put up his lips to kiss me — but his voice was gone (11.721-23).

It was almost thirty years after the publication of The Correspondence that another generation of scholars was represented by a gathering in Cooperstown — in the centennial year of Cooper’s death — to examine Cooper’s place in American literature. “Most of the success of the meeting,” wrote Louis C. Jones, “came as a result of the counsel and energetic cooperation of Professor James F. Beard, Jr., himself an outstanding Cooper scholar” (iii). Most Cooper scholarship can look back to that gathering in Cooperstown as the point where finally and indisputably Cooper had been accepted into the ranks of the foremost writers of America: the taint of the libel suits had dissolved with time, the ridicule of the Realists had lost its inpact with the changes of time and literary theory, and if Cooper was being read less as a popular writer he was being read more carefully as a literary artist. The meeting, presented by the New York State Historical Association, presented the current views of Cooper’s art in a dozen different contexts, from social critic to naval historian to professional author. The “local expert,” Lyman Butterfield, delivered a talk on what we now refer to generally as “Cooper Country,” while another contribution, on Cooper’s reputation, came from as far away as France. Most of the talks were published in a special issue of New York History and became standard references to which subsequent Cooper scholarship remains indebted.

It took almost thirty years to do it again. I wasn’t able to make the 1951 meeting, since I was only a year and a half old, but I had the privilege of seeing a similar group of scholars gathered on this campus in 1978, at a conference organized by George A. Test and Carey Brush with the theme “James Fenimore Cooper and His Country.” This conference began a series of gatherings unique to Cooper scholarship: week-long seminars devoted to discussing the works of James Fenimore Cooper in the context of Cooper’s own environment (or at least the forest part of it). Each conference has been followed by the publication of a collection of talks, and these publications are the closest we have come to a sustained “Cooper Journal”: these also have been edited by George Test.

I see the torch being passed through these seminars: one of the conferees of 1978 has published a major book on Cooper, several have been exposed to different views of the novelist, and most importantly — because of the local nature of the seminar — Cooper scholars have been able to return to the Leatherstocking region and its people some of what we owe for their efforts in sustaining the memory of the author we’ve come to study.

In one of the contributions to the 1951 meeting which was not published with the rest, Marcel Clavel, the French critic and biographer of Cooper, tried to capture the personal relationship he felt with the novelist: he explained how in trying moments he would address the portrait of Cooper he kept on his desk. I think his closing words capture a feeling a11 of us have at one time or another: ” ... only a few days ago, after I had finished my first centennial paper and pleaded with all my heart for his full rehabilitation as an author and as a man, I went to him with tears in my eyes and sobbed aloud: ‘I have done my level best!’” (8)