Cooper’s Columbus

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. 75-85).

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

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

NEARLY five hundred years ago, a long way to the south of us, a religious zealot or geographical monomaniac watched the rays of the rising sun light up the low shores of a scrap of island in a clear turquoise sea. The light of that sunrise has inspired New World dreamers ever since.

That’s a big claim, and perhaps it is true that for over three hundred of those years most of the dreaming was done in Spanish or Portuguese. But when in 1827 an antiquarian in Madrid unearthed a long-lost transcription of Columbus’s own journal of that philosophy-shattering first voyage, one of the fascinated minds was an Anglo-American one — the mind of Washington Irving.

Irving was a moderately successful American writer living in England who was approaching what today we might call a mid-life crisis. As part of his solution, he accepted an invitation to go to Spain to translate into English the new collection of Columbiana recently collected by Martin Fernandez de Navarrete. But Irving apparently found the work of merely translating too constraining, and instead went on to write one of the greatest biographies of an age rich with great biographies. In the best leisurely, lucid Romantic style, Irving’s Columbus told the story of the life and voyages of the great dreamer. And while Irving may have told that story in a relatively simple manner, the story itself was heroic by all definitions.

And that was the problem for James Fenimore Cooper.

In 1839 — over ten years after the publication of Irving’s Columbus — Cooper responded to a suggestion from his English publisher, Richard Bentley, that yes, indeed, he would undertake to write a novel about Columbus. Right from the start Cooper had high ambitions for the book: he wishes it to be “a high wrought and standard fiction — to rest my credit on.” But he also recognized from the start that there would be some problems;. First, who had ever heard of a novel without a love story? “There must be a love story, of course,” he wrote to Bentley — and then he went to work inventing one that would fit into the Great Voyage itself. Second, what novelty could Cooper bring to his book? “The subject is trite,” Cooper wrote to another friend, “but minute knowledge can give it freshness and interest.”

Cooper went to work, researching and writing, and by March of 1840 had written the first third of the book. But — ironically — this third had not even gotten the Admiral of the Ocean Sea afloat. Cooper must have realized that something was out of line here — he wrote to Bentley to say that the “character” of the book would depend on the “last” volume. But what did Cooper mean by “character”? By August the book was between a third and a half printed, although the printing was halted because Cooper had not yet finished the manuscript. Apparently Cooper was writing in a very linear manner, but had fallen into a slump. It lasted until October, when Cooper wrote that he had “revived” or “revised” the manuscript (the transcriptions of this letter differ) while afloat with his friend Shubrick. Apparently there was little left to be done: Cooper saw the book through the press by early November, and Mercedes of Castile: or, The Voyage to Cathay was published at the end of the month.

What had happened to cause that slump? And how had the book been so quickly completed? What had gone wrong? Or right? At first, no one seemed to know. The reception of the book was poor, and after a year Bentley had simply to report to Cooper that Mercedes had not been up to snuff. Three years after its publication, Cooper had this painfully drawn comment to make about the book for which he had had such high expectations: “’Mercedes’ failed; [and] [simply] [principally] [because] the story was too familiar.” It didn’t sound like he really knew what had happened either.

In the one-hundred-forty years since Cooper so resignedly gave up on the book, there have been exactly three intelligent analyses of the book’s failure. None is more than a paragraph long, and so there is room to quote them here. In 1882, Thomas Lounsbury made the first comment:

[Mercedes] had several obvious defects. It was marred by that prolixity of introduction which was a fault that ran through the majority of Cooper’s tales. The reader meets with as many discouragements and rebuffs and turnings aside in getting under way as did the great navigator the story celebrates. There was, moreover, an excess of that cheap moralizing, that dwelling upon commonplace truths, which was another of Cooper’s besetting sins. The only effect these discourses have upon the reader is to make him feel that while virtue may be a very good thing, it is an excessively tedious thing. As a novel, “Mercedes of Castile” must be regarded as a failure. On the other hand, as a story of the first voyage of Columbus, told with the special knowledge of a seaman, the accuracy of an historian, and with something of the fervor of a poet, will always have a peculiar interest of its own.           (Lounsbury, 242)

Lounsbury here is on the right track, but is not entirely accurate. It is not prolixity that mars Cooper’s introduction; it is the irrelevance of that introduction to the rest of the book. By similar standards one might say that the introduction to Pathfinder is prolix — but its descriptive node and powerful conjunction of theme and setting establish its relevance to the rest of that work. And there is no excess of cheap moralizing in Mercedes. Perhaps Lounsbury is confusing the presence of the historically pure-minded Isabella and her reflection in the heroine Mercedes (a reincarnation of Inez from The Prairie) with the kind of political ranting that occurs, for instance, in the “Home” novels. But Lounsbury’s phrase applies more to Uncle Tom’s Cabin than to any Cooper novel. Mercedes is not Eva.

In 1961, Thomas Philbrick made a series of short, good points about the book:

In Mercedes Cooper attempts to supplement the Naval History by extending his study of American marine activity back to its origins, the first voyage of Columbus. The subject would seen to offer all the materials of a successful romance: the color and glamour of the Spanish court in the fifteenth century, the high excitement of a voyage which Cooper considers “the greatest adventure of modern times,” and above all the grand and visionary character of Columbus. Yet even with these materials Cooper is unable to recapture the hard brilliance and exalted mood of The Red Rover, for his attempts to evoke a romantic atmosphere and to deal in sublimity are continually smothered by his still more urgent concern for historical accuracy and completeness. In no other novel are Cooper’s powers of invention so circumscribed by fact, for none is so dominated by the character and deeds of a historical figure. And by 1840 Cooper no longer allowed himself to take the liberties with fact that he had taken in The Pilot. The result is that Mercedes is source-bound; The narrative is punctuated by discussions of the claims of conflicting authorities, and the descriptions of ships and seamanship turn into disquisitions on the evolution of naval architecture and navigational instruments. To compound the confusion of Mercedes, Cooper tosses in a flamboyantly fictitious love story which points up by contrast the unromantic solidity of the rest of the book. Unable to decide whether he is a romancer or historian, Cooper alternates between one role and the other. (Philbrick, 125-26)


And certainly this is true. But is it the main problem? Are the powers of invention so circumscribed in fact? And is a work dominated by an historical figure bound to be a failure? I don’t think historical fact itself can account for the failure of Mercedes; Mohicans is certainly dominated by fact; The Right Stuff is dominated by fact; Irving’s Columbus is dominated by fact. What really determines that “unromantic solidity” that is so indisputably there?

Donald Ringe understated the answer in 1962:

He [JFC] was perfectly capable, therefore of writing a thoroughly wretched book, like Lionel Lincoln, immediately after one of his most successful ones; and he could sometimes abandon his fine techniques of narrative and description to write so dull and wordy a tale as Mercedes of Castile. ... Mercedes of Castile (1840), a slow-paced story of the discovery of America, must be quickly passed over as the worst mature novel that he wrote. Despite the inherent drama of Columbus’ first voyage, the book is intolerably dull; the lifeless characters recite long set speeches to one another; and Columbus, like Washington in The Spy, is dignified to the point of woodenness and helps set the tone of pompous solemnity from which the book never really emerges. Cooper was not at his best when writing true historical romance. He was always much more successful when dealing with a kind of symbolic history. ... (Ringe, 23, 80)

Why did Cooper abandon narrative and description? The simple — and true — answer — is that Irving had already written an unsurpassable narrative of Columbus. Prescott himself, in severe apprehension of the impossibility of competing, shied completely away from the voyage in his history Ferdinand and Isabella: “The adventure of Columbus,” he wrote, “which form so splendid an episode to the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, cannot properly come within the scope of its historian. ... ” Cooper had read Prescott’s work and took heed of its awkward but safe lacunae in its account of Columbus.

In fact, Cooper almost totally abandons narration and description in Mercedes. In order to dramatize the story of Columbus, all that was left to Cooper was dialogue. And Mercedes ought to be regarded as an experiment in dialogue. All those facts that could bog down a novel, are integrated into dialogue which does. The purpose of the dialogue is to tell the story (an odd match-up), to get across the facts. This kind of dialogue is different from that used in Precaution, a mildly successful imitation of the Austen-type of novel of manners in which language and dialogue together play so important a part. I mention Precaution here especially because it is far from being a failure as Ringe hinted when he said that Mercedes was Cooper’s worst mature novel — Precaution is the only novel that could possibly be called immature.

No, Mercedes of Castile is a kind of play, but a play without action. Action, after all, good-old-fashioned-Cooper-action , comes in only in two of the shortest sections of the book. But before we look at these two sections, let’s look at how the whole work is put together — not “conceived,” because I don’t think that Cooper knew just how that last third was going to turn out as he was completing the first two thirds of his manuscript.

Mercedes falls naturally into seven parts:

  1. The Ferdinand and Isabella Introduction — 40 pages (8%)
  2. The Petition of Columbus — 162 pages (34%)
  3. The Voyage to the New World — 132 pages (28%)
  4. Haiti — 32 pages (7%)
  5. The Return Voyage — 27 pages (6%)
  6. Spain after the Voyage — 73 pages (15%)
  7. Luis and Mercedes Live Happily Ever After — 12 pages (3%)

This shows the approximate relation of these sections to the total 478 pages of text. The first forty pages, or a twelfth of the whole book, are devoted to the courtship, marriage, and reign of the Spanish monarchs. This long section probably found its inspiration in Irving’s own chapter on these monarchs, and its purpose is overtly similar to Irving’s — to show that the character of the monarchs will set the tone for the age. But if there is any theme at 611 in Mercedes, it is that the individual has very little effect on history by virtue of his or her dreams, wishes, or, beliefs. At the end of this section there is a twenty-year jump. Perhaps Cooper had seen such a device in Scott’s Heart of Midlothian and thought it worked. But it did not work for Scott — instead he made it almost impossible for a reader to get directly involved in the work. And it does not work for Cooper. Instead, we must be introduced to a new setting, new characters, and a new plot. And worse, the character of Ferdinand changes during the hiatus, from brilliant young suitor to crafty, greedy king. The reader is never told of this change; it just happens. Thus there is a very rough transition to the second section.

Of forty pages in the first section, ten are of unbroken exposition. I use the term “exposition” loosely, and what I mean to show is that narration, description, or even straight exposition are at a premium in this book: At the beginning of the section there are four connected pages of exposition, near the middle are four more unbroken pages of it, and at the end of the section are two more. To say that every remaining page is interrupted by dialogue is to understate the truth. Most are dominated by it. And yet this average — one in four — is high for the book. In the whole work there are eighty-four such pages (out of 478 pages of text), about a sixth. That’s not alarming: the characters certainly have to talk. What’s alarming is the distribution — and even more, what goes on in between.

In the second section, which introduces the hero (Luis), the heroine (Mercedes) and the moral visionary (Columbus), there 162 pages of text, but only about twenty-one of uninterrupted exposition, as usual clustered about chapter heads and tails. Dialogue which dominates the rest includes a seventeen page uninterrupted conversation between Luis and Mercedes.

And there is no plain-old-fashioned-Cooper action in this section at all. It is a dialogue of facts: the character of Mercedes, of Luis, of Columbus, the history of Columbus’s attempts to find a backer in Spain, his demands, his frustrations, his ... all via someone talking about it. And while that dialogue is mighty rough going, there are some good things going on there: Cooper is incredibly sensitive to the ideas that must have been exchanged in those conversations just before Columbus set sail. From the sketchy outline Irving provides, Cooper creates a very moving scene between Columbus and his confessor and friend Fray Juan Perez, and another in the wholly imagined scene between the common seaman Pepe, his wife Monica, and Columbus himself. In these scenes, Cooper’s dialogue surpasses anything narration could do.

But Columbus doesn’t leave Spain until 200 pages into the book! What is going on? Two-fifths of the book gone and Columbus is still just another face on the dock, staring out to sea.

In relation to the rest of the book, the voyage — the third section — must be considered extremely compressed. This book has usually been categorized as a sea novel — an appelation it barely earns. It is in this voyage section that Philbrick’s summation tolls most ominously: “Source-bound.”

In this section Cooper went beyond Irving, back to a translation of Columbus’s journal itself, scratching, digging, trying to find the unnoticed fact, the overlooked detail — anything that would give Cooper’s narrative more detail — and therefore, Cooper supposed, more interest — than Irving’s account. Cooper not only scooped up every detail of weather from Samuel Kettell’s translation of the journal Las Casas had transcribed hundreds of years before, he also plundered Kettell’s own explanatory notes for “different” facts.

But with the exception of the weather and the dates, which regularly provide the thin connecting tissue for this section, he put most of those facts into dialogues.

All the way across the Atlantic.

There was a brief stop — in the Canaries. And what was that stop remarkable for? Acting on a hint in Kettell, Cooper expanded the mention of the presence of a noblewoman into a nine-page uninterrupted conversation on islands and discovery.

(And to me, those sidetracks on ships or navigation that Philbrick objected to are all-to-short resting places — I welcome them as a weary voyager.)

Cooper was telling the story of Columbus, while saying hardly a word himself as narrator. He was staying away from Irving’s graceful narration, all right, but he was also staying away from action. His love plot was languishing at sea. Fortunately for the novel Cooper did not let it die, flamboyantly fictitious as it was.

In his fourth section — what I call the Haiti section, Cooper returns to the narrative mode. In a section of only thirty-two pages, nineteen are uninterrupted by dialogue — nearly sixty percent. And here also is the action of the book — for all intents, all of it. I think this must be the place where Cooper returned to his manuscript after his slump. For once he did not eschew narrative: he was on his own basically, not referring to many of the facts of Columbus’s first voyage at all. Where he did go to Irving — and he did, for names and characterizations — it was to the second volume. Caonabo, who would become the villain of Mercedes, is already a Magua in Irving, relentless in his hatred of whites. Luis’ character and predicament here are pretty clearly inspired by the account of another young Spaniard’s sojourn:

A young Arragonian, named Miguel Diaz ... having a quarrel with another Spaniard, fought with him, and wounding him dangerously ... he fled from the settlement, accompanied by five or six comrades. ... Wandering about the island, they at length came to an Indian village on the southern coast, near the mouth of the river Ozeme. ... The village was governed by a female cacique, who soon conceived a strong attachment for the young Arragonian. Diaz was not insensible to her tenderness, a connexion was formed between them, and they lived for sane time very happily together (Irving 2: 308-09).

At least that’s the way it could have worked out — Cooper, however, would not have it so.

If you have been to Santo Domingo, you’ll know that the true name of the river is Ozama. Ozema, the tragic heroine of Cooper’s tale, was probably named after a textual corruption, one that Irving grappled with for several years in his revisions of the biography. The poor girl, named in misunderstanding, was doomed from the start.

Her character was based on Anacaona, widow of the fierce Caonabo, as described by Irving: “She was one of the most beautiful females of the island. ... She possessed a genius superior to the generality of her race, and was said to excel in composing those little legendary ballads, or areytos, which the natives chanted as they performed their national dances” (2: 420-21).

The action of this section — and this is where nearly all the action is — is not so implausible as the critical comments may have suggested. Cooper was riding his own horse, but was being faithful to the kind of things that were going on in 1492 and 1493 — and slightly later. But the real difference in this section is that Cooper here is able to introduce real — not merely threatened — conflict. There is a lot of threatened conflict on the voyage out: the threat of an attack by the Portuguese, the threat of a mutiny, the threat of starvation — but readers of Cooper novels know that Cooper’s plots do not form themselves around mere threats. They may be slow, but they are sure.

And yet even after his emancipation in the Haiti section, Cooper felt constrained to go back to dialogue the minute he returned to the documented voyage. In the fifth section — the return voyage — Cooper is at least provided with an historical storm to exploit. Yet even here, what is this veritable Cooper storm interrupted by? Crashing masts? Dead bodies rising out of the sea? No — a conversation. Between Luis and Ozema. In the midst of the blinding, howling, storm ... the crisis of the love plot, the major misunderstanding where Ozema thinks that Luis’ gift of a cross is a pledge of his earthly love.

There are maybe five pages of uninterrupted exposition in the fifth section — but at least the return trip is quick. If you’ve got to read dialogue all the way across the Atlantic, at least make it a quick trip. Twenty-seven pages.

And now the denouement. It takes seventy-three pages. Seventy-three pages to get Columbus wined and dined in historical style and to pull off the trick ending to the love plot (It’s a shocker). And only seven (count ‘em, seven) pages of uninterrupted exposition to break up the dialogue. Interviews with the queen, with Mercedes, with Peter Martyr. And yet the book still manages to “end” strongly — at least it ended strongly in the penultimate chapter, reasserting the theme that had travelled weakly to the New World and back:

Thus fled the first of those souls, that the great discovery was to rescue from the perdition of the heathen. Casuists may refine, the learned dilate, and the pious ponder, on its probable fate in the unknown existence that awaited it; but the meek and submissive will hope all from the beneficence of a merciful God. As for Isabella, she received a shock from the blow, that temporarily checked her triumph at the success of her zeal and efforts. Little, however, did she foresee, that the event was but a type of the manner in which the religion of the cross was to be abused and misunderstood; a sort of practical prognostic of the defeat of most of her own pious and gentle hopes and wishes (Mercedes 2: 220).

The cue for this conclusion came from a note in Prescott’s work: “The passage [on the conversion of the natives as the prime object of the expedition] is worth quoting, if only to show what blunders a contemporary may make in the relation of events passing, as it were, under his own eyes” (2: 171).

“Well would it be for the honor of human nature,” wrote Irving, “could history, like romance, close with the consummation of the hero’s wishes.” Well would it be for romance, if its endings were always so tidy. And yet Cooper did not absolutely close his book with the powerful and relevant ending of the next to last chapter. Instead, another jump in time leads to a very sappy conversation among the main actors, now yachtsmen on a vessel named after the ill-fated Ozema. Cooper here is succumbing to another standard fixture of romance, the “Ever After” chapter, in which the characters must live out the rest of their lives in a very few pages to the satisfaction of the curious reader who cannot bear to let them go live by themselves. This kind of chapter succeeds admirably in Red Rover and Pathfinder it is not necessary here. There are two thematic points made in this last section, however: Columbus’s own dream begins to crumble with the introduction of his two historical antagonists Fonseca and Bobadilla, and Columbus’s companion Martin Alonzo Pinzon dies of grief when his dream of being the first to bring news of the discovery back to the Old World is shattered when he finds the Nina arrived ahead of him — both facts duly reported in conversation.

So the return to the Old World is also the return to dialogue — the play without action. And what of Cooper’s own wishes? He must have known that this was a risky business, he must have known that this was experimental writing — we can hear his hedge in “simply principally because the story was too familiar.” The “story” was too familiar even when Irving’s work came out — at least the London Athenaeum thought so. But that wasn’t the point. Irving had told the story as well as it could be told. Now it could only be put “on stage.” And what of the “minute knowledge” which would insure “freshness and interest”? Cooper did use some “facts” not in his Irving or the journal translation or Prescott — there is some extra weather, a name or two gleaned from some other obscure telling. But the freshness and interest come in the Haiti section, from the manner as well as the matter, from Cooper’s story-telling brain, new and fresh and green as the Haitian hills themselves. And the rest? In the mouths of characters who tell rather than act their parts, it is as tedious as befits any twice-told tale.

Bibliographical Note

The starting point for anyone studying the genesis of Mercedes is Donald M. Goodfellow’s “The Sources of Mercedes of Castile,” American Literature 12 (1940): 318-328. The most reliable edition is still the first, Mercedes of Castile: or, The Voyage to Cathay. (Philadelphia, 1840) Irving’s work was first published in four volumes as A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. (London, 1828), although minute details in borrowed facts suggest that Cooper used a later, revised edition. William H. Prescott’s History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic provided details of the Spanish court; my citations are to the Fifth Edition” (Boston, 1839). Samuel Kettell’s translation of Las Casas’ transcription of Columbus’s journal was published as Personal Narrative of the First Voyage of Columbus to America (Boston, 1827). While Cooper lambastes the translator in his Preface, he actually found Kettell’s extra documents and explanatory notes very helpful. Thomas R. Lounsbury’s comments were published in his American Men of Letters biography, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston, 1882). Thomas Philbrick devoted a whole book to the study of Cooper’s sea tales: James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961). Donald R. Ringe’s own biography followed shortly after, in 1962; the edition I have cited is James Fenimore Cooper (New Haven: College and University Press, n.d.). Quotations from Cooper’s letters are from James F. Beard’s The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, vols. 3 and 4 (Cambridge: Belknap Harvard University Press, 1964) and James Fenimore Cooper’s (the grandson’s) Correspondence of James Fenimore-Cooper, vol. 2 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922).