“The Paradise of Women”: The Domestic Sphere in Notions of the Americans

James D. Wallace (Boston College)

Presented at the 6ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1986.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1986 Conference at State University College of New York — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 78-93).

Copyright © 1987 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

The household is the home of the man, as well as of the child. The events that occur there are more near and affecting to us than those which are sought in senates and academies. Domestic events are certainly our affair. What are called public events may be or may not be ours. And if a man wishes to acquaint himself with the real history of the world, with the spirit of the age, he must not go first to the state-house or the courtroom. The subtle spirit of life must be sought in facts nearer. It is what is done and suffered in the house, in the constitution, in the temperament, in the personal history, that has the profoundest interest far us.

— Emerson, “Domestic Life”

IN spite of its obvious importance to Cooper, Notions of the Americans has never found a receptive audience (with the possible exception of Robert Spiller). The tone of the book strikes most people as unbearably smug, and after reading that Americans have the most natural manners in the world, that they lie less than any other culture, that their government costs less and accomplishes more than any other, that their navy is the most daring, their language the most regular, their institutions the most permanent, their cities the cleanest, their buildings the most beautiful, their slaves the best fed and cared for, their armies the fiercest, their harbors the fairest, their orators the most eloquent, their crowds the best behaved, their roads the best maintained, their inns the cheapest and most hospitable, their firemen the most expert and adventurous, and their landscapes the most interesting in the world, one can only marvel that Cooper ever hoped to foist this partisan rant onto a cynical world as the work of a European traveller.

In addition to these peccadilloes against objectivity and taste, however, a more serious flaw is commonly attributed to Notions of the Americans. In recent years a number of scholars, including Eric Sundquist, Wayne Franklin, William Kelly, Robert Clark, and Gordon Brotherston, have examined Cooper’s handling of the ideological and social contradictions of nineteenth-century American culture as a kinetic principle to drive the plots of his tales. To be sure, these critics have frequently expressed dissatisfaction with the solutions Cooper proposed or contrived for dealing with the history of the dispossession of native Americans, the popular roots of the American Revolution and so on, but they have also recognized Cooper’s willingness to engage the most difficult questions of his culture. William Kelly writes:

As Cooper recrafts The Pioneers’ narrative in the subsequent volumes of the Leatherstocking Tales, he becomes increasingly more aware of the contradictions that impede his efforts to plot America’s past and ceases to repress them. By the conclusion of the Leatherstocking series, Cooper’s fiction offers both a coherent exposition of national history and an insightful meditation on the duality of American consciousness (Kelly 43).

In Notions of the Americans, on the other hand, in order to display to full advantage the many excellencies of his nation, Cooper seems far more interested in covering over passing than in confronting those same contradictions. Wayne Franklin contrasts a landscape description from The Pioneers with one from Notions of the Americans and notes that “the very line of conflict in novel after novel by Cooper — the border rendered ... as a set of antitheses” becomes, in the bachelor’s letter, “little more than a visual boundary between coalescent facts” (57). In this ersatz travel book, conflict cannot be entertained or analyzed; it must be explained away or contained. Written at the behest of General Lafayette, Notions of the Americans was intended to vindicate Lafayette’s support of republican institutions by showing Europe that democracy was not only viable but produced social and administrative systems in every way superior to those of monarchy. Cultural contradictions had therefore to be suppressed in order to produce a text that would neither expose the nation’s flaws nor embarrass General Lafayette.

Central to Cooper’s project was his representation of the ideology of the domestic sphere as the primary force for the containment of cultural contradictions. In Notions of the Americans the domestic sphere functions as a metonymic “sheltered space,” a protective enclosure not only for domestic values and religious ideas, but for gentlemanly honor, literary creation, and the very republican principles on which America was founded. The result is a text which is both static and unstable, fraught with the tensions that reveal the very contradictions Cooper’s strategy was at such pains to contain. Throughout, Cooper hides his awareness of the cultural contradictions inherent in his portrayal of America. He deploys the ideology of the domestic sphere in a conscious effort to contain those contradictions — to provide a psychological space in which the necessity of living with contradictions is endurable and the hope of eventual melioration is preserved.

As the anonymous European bachelor enters the boat that will carry him on the last leg of his journey to the shores of America, he is surprised to note that his travelling companion, John Cadwallader of Cadwallader, New York, yields his proper seat in the boat so that a domestic servant can sit next to Isabel, the young lady who is her mistress. When the bachelor asks Cadwallader about this surprisingly democratic gesture, the American “coolly” answers, “Notwithstanding all that the old world has said of itself on this subject ... you are now in the true Paradise of women. They receive, perhaps, less idolatry, but more manly care here, than in any country I have visited” (I: 31). The bachelor does not yet know the distinction between “idolatry” and “manly care,” though he has had some preliminary indications. He has noticed, for example, that although the lovely Isabel is quite “natural and happy” in Cadwallader’s presence, laughing, chatting and arguing with him, whenever the bachelor approaches her, “merriment was instantly changed into the cold and regulated smiles of artificial breeding. Nature seemed banished at my footstep. ... ” (I: 26). The bachelor is a little inclined to be jealous until Cadwallader, that indefatigable explicator, points out that with the bachelor Isabel employs European manners, and with Cadwallader she behaves as an American: “In no other country, is the same freedom of intercourse between the unmarried of the two sexes, permitted, as in America. In no other Christian country, is there more restraint imposed on the communications between the married: in this particular, we reverse the usages of all other civilized nations” (I: 27). Europeans cannot be trusted to understand the principle, but every true American knows that “Women are, literally, our better halves” (I: 28) and rare indeed is that American male who would abuse youth and innocence with corrupt intentions.

The terms of this reversal of civilized usages and Cadwallader’s ostentatious pride in them seem remarkable. If in fact there is so little danger of seduction or bad marriage among the young, why should so much restraint be imposed on the married? Does corruption enter the relations between the sexes with marriage? Is adultery more common, or more devastating, among Americans than among Europeans? What exactly is a married woman, that, she should be so restrained from communications?

The solution to this puzzle lies in the ideology of the separate spheres, the notion that “There is something repugnant to the delicacy of American ideas in permitting a lady to come, in any manner in contact with the world” (I: 199). The bachelor himself already believes wholeheartedly in this doctrine; what surprises him (and astonished the rest of the world as well) is the extent to which American society seems to have put the ideology into practice. Reporting on his trip through New England, the bachelor remarks that “I traversed the country In harvest time, and scarcely recollect to have seen six females in the fields, and even they appeared there only on the emergency of some passing shower” (I: 104). Americans have cultivated to an unusual degree the “habitual respect of the strong for the weak,” and women are both expected and required to limit themselves to those labors to which they are suited by “nature.” Here the bachelor makes explicit exactly what he means by the “Paradise of women”:

To me, woman appears to fill in America the very station for which she was designed by nature. In the lowest conditions of life she is treated with the tenderness and respect that is due to beings whom we believe to be the repositories of the better principles of our nature. Retired within the sacred precincts of her own abode, she is preserved from the destroying taint of excessive intercourse with the world. She makes no bargains beyond those which supply her own little personal wants, and her heart is not early corrupted by the baneful and unfeminine voice of selfishness; she is often the friend and adviser of her husband, but never his chapman. She must be sought in the haunts of her domestic privacy, and not amid the wranglings, deceptions, and heart-burnings of keen and sordid traffic. (I: 105)

As the bachelor’s rhetoric of “repositories” and “sacred precincts” indicates, the domestic sphere was considered an enclave sheltered from American business, which was considered a realm of moral chaos, even when the business was simply harvesting crops. Within the domestic sphere the woman held sway, raising children in a pure atmosphere, tending to the domestic economy, influencing her husband through the force of his love for her and by her own immaculate example, and, above all, inculcating the family with the religious sentiments that men, whose sensibilities were necessarily corrupted by continual exposure to “keen and sordid traffic,” were apt to forget. The Americans’ unusual commitment to this ideology, the bachelor remarks, has transformed the characters of a whole people: “It leaves the heart and principles of woman untainted by the dire temptations of strife with her fellows. The husband can retire from his own sordid struggles with the world to seek consolation and correction from one who is placed beyond their influence” (I: 105-106; emphasis added).

The doctrine of the domestic sphere was hardly new in 1828. It had its origins in those British evangelical writers whom Susan Cooper named as among the favorite reading in the Cooper family: William Wilberforce, Hannah More, and Amelia Opie (17). But Cooper’s bachelor was not the only observer to remark on the peculiar zeal with which Americans put this British invention into practice. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that “In no country has such constant care been taken as in America to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes, and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways which are always different.” For Tocqueville, this separation marked the greatest accomplishment of American democracy, and he extols it in terms which echo Cooper’s bachelor:

Although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is, in some respects, one of extreme dependence, I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked, now that I am drawing to the close of this work, in which I have spoken of so many things done by the Americans, to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply, To the superiority of their women (II: 258-62).

On the other hand, in her Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) Mrs. Frances Trollope, a genuine traveller in America between 1827 and 1830, was repeatedly dismayed by the strict segregation of the sexes. Everywhere she saw men and women dining, travelling, and attending church and amusements separately, and Trollope attributed to that separation the lamentable lack of refinement in American manners. Indeed, most of the pleasures of society were unavailable to Americans, she reported, because men and women were so little accustomed to the company of one another: “What we call pic-nics are very rare, and when attempted, do not often succeed well. The two sexes can hardly mix for the greater part of a day without great restraint and ennui; it is quite contrary to their general habits; the favourite indulgences of the gentlemen (smoking cigars and drinking spirits), can neither be indulged in with decency, nor resigned with complacency” (269). At the beginning of the twentieth century Henry James, visiting his native land for the first time in twenty years, was as struck as Trollope by the total absence of men from American “society,” the absolute separation of social and business life, though James, typically, interpreted men’s “default” of the social world as an “unexampled opportunity of the woman — which she would have been an incredible fool not to pounce upon. It needs little contact with American life to perceive how she has pounced, and how, outside of business, she has made it over in her image. She has been up to now, on the vast residual tract, in peerless possession, and is occupied in developing and extending her wonderful conquest, which she appreciates to the last inch of its extent” (345-46).

Trollope and James, like Captain Basil Hall, Charles Dickens and dozens of other travellers, attested to the peculiar alienation of the sexes in American society — an alienation which was enforced as consideration for propriety, good breeding, the delicacy of women and the influence of religion but which, over the course of the nineteenth century, intensified to the point where relations between men and women could be represented, if at all, only in the mutilated love stories of Norris’ McTeague, Wharton’s House of Mirth or Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Talented women writers like Louisa May Alcott, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Charlotte Perkins Gilman began to imagine feminist utopias, idyllic communities freed entirely of the presence of men. Evidently Cadwallader’s “Paradise of women” could neither guarantee the happiness of individuals of either sex nor provide the basis for fulfilling relationships between the sexes.

Of course, none of this is what Cooper had in mind in 1827 when he portrayed America as the nation where common sense routinely overthrew dogmatic theories of government and society. Nevertheless, even Cooper’s own representation of the ideology of separate spheres is problematic. As both a metaphor for the relationship between a government and its citizens and a metonymy for the function of a spectrum of social institutions, the ideology of the domestic sphere is essentially paradoxical, an amalgam of quite different ideas about the legitimacy of government. In addition, Cooper’s deployment of the rhetoric of the domestic sphere extends far beyond the family to his discussions of the army, the Revolution, slavery, dueling, the treatment of American Indians and literary life, and his rhetoric carries with it an inherent contradiction which casts doubt on the entire project of Notions of the Americans.

As Catherine Gallagher has shown, the ideology of the domestic sphere has two distinct and contradictory roots. One root reaches back to Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (c. 1636), an apology for absolute monarchy which employs the family as a metaphor for the nation. Filmer “argued that the nation was a veritable family of which the king was actual father, the direct descendant of Adam.” Since a father enjoyed absolute cower over the persons and lives of his entire family, a king was entitled to the same privileges, and his subjects were bound to lifelong filial obedience. Although Filmer’s metaphorical equation of family and nation was specifically attacked by John Locke in the First Treatise of Government and hardly can be said to have survived the Glorious Revolution of 1688, “it had many modified descendants in the metaphoric patriarchal and paternalist social ideologies of the nineteenth century” (Gallagher 117). Thomas Paine was obliged to refute Filmer’s arguments in Common Sense, and the American Tory Jonathan Boucher revived them still later in attempting to refute the doctrine of natural freedom in his A View of the Causes and Consequences of the American Revolution (1797) (19; Fliegelman 4, 96-7, 135-36).

Cooper was certainly no Tory, yet traces of Filmer’s metaphorical linking of family and nation are to be found everywhere in Notions of the Americans. in Cooper’s hands, however, the family metaphor becomes the occasion for the problem of establishing the legitimate, benign foster father against the negligent and tyrannical natural father. The greatest concentration of the family metaphor is in Cadwallader’s long note on what he sees as British attempts to suppress or deny American cultural independence. As Stephen Railton has noted, “throughout it Cooper treats the relationship between England and America as a family drama”: England is portrayed as the bad father who alternately neglects and terrorizes his children, America as the bemused son who asserts his independence through a cautious but determined rebellion (126). Although Railton’s psychoanalytic analysis links Cadwallader’s account to Cooper’s own relations with his father, the themes of oppression, rebellion, subjugation and independence with which Cadwallader adorns his portrait of relations between the two nations were already well established in the discourse of British constitutional debates, and Cooper had only to apply them to the question of American “mental independence.”

The three figures who provide both the ideological grounding and the structural unity for Notions, Lafayette, Jay and Washington, are manifest images of paternal benevolence and authority. Lafayette’s visit is the occasion for a general reassessment of fifty years of the republican experiment, and Lafayette himself repeatedly induces outbursts of filial piety among his American hosts: “To me,” comments the bachelor, “he appeared some venerable and much respected head of a vast family, who had come to pass an hour amid their innocent and gay revels. He was literally like a father among his children” (I: 184). Jay represents the standard of the American gentleman through his ownership of land and the gracious manner of life on his Bedford estate. Both these heroes, however, are mere epigones of the dead Washington, the father of his country, a man who defies criticism or even mere description. The sight of his name painted on a fire bucket inspires all the complex of feelings, attitudes and ideas that mark what James Franklin Beard has called the “Revolutionary Mythos” (85), and his proper monument is not the pile of stone the bachelor had formerly wished for, but his only child, America itself: “when foreigners ask for the monument of their hero, let them be referred, with honest pride, to that liberty, and to those institutions which grew on the confidence of the world, under his wise and patriotic guidance” (I: 197). As Mike Ewart has noted, the three fathers of America stand somehow above the general representation of American life in the bachelor’s account:

What differentiates these three figures from the rest of the people the Bachelor meets is the manner of their ndividualization: all other characters act, have their actions commented on, and are used as examples of national enterprise, achievement, or virtue; only the actions of Jay, Washington, and Lafayette are, in a deep and crucial sense, self-sufficient, standing in no need of explanation or exegetical comment. They do not exemplify characteristics, they sum them up; they require no approbation, virtue is inherent in the form of their presentation (71).

Cooper’s focus on the three revolutionary fathers constitutes his attempt to provide a legitimating genealogy for a nation born in revolution. With their sober characters, their ties to landed estates, their principles of manly independence and their personal sacrifices to the public cause, they fill a gap in the paternal metaphor of British ancestry and veil the disruptive violence of revolution with the discreet mantle of reform.

If the three fathers of America represented Cooper’s only employment of the image of the family, Notions of the Americans would simply endorse a modified form of Filmer’s Patriarcha. However, there is a second root to the ideology of the domestic sphere stemming remotely from Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1690). Locke argued that familial and political societies were quite distinct institutions and laid the groundwork “for those nineteenth-century thinkers who believed the public and private spheres operated on dissimilar, even antagonistic principles.” For William Wilberforce, Hannah More and other British evangelicals who sought to reform eighteenth-century industrial society, the method of social regeneration was metonymic: family and society were viewed as “contiguous entities, families forming a series of enclaves that are at once a part of and separate from the larger society” (Gallagher 119, 118). In this view, the family manifests an hierarchical structure with the patriarch at its head, while the world in which men act manifests structures based on politics, economics and the struggle for survival — that is, structures in which power, greed and chance are the controlling factors. The family is primarily conceived as a repository of moral and religious value, and in order to preserve those values, it is necessary to keep the family sheltered from the world of action, which is typically described in tropes of the marketplace and the battlefield.

The purpose of this metonymic image of the family was the conservation of traditional religious values through the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, but the inherent tensions in such a view are even greater than those of the paternal metaphor. The rhetoric of the metonymic family reveals a profound anxiety that continually undercuts the message of regeneration which the evangelicals broadcast. In 1818 Hannah Mather Crocker, a descendant of Cotton Mather and an admirer of Hannah More, published Observations on the Real Rights of Women, a book designed to bring the evangelical message to America. For all her optimism about the power of women to influence the characters of their husbands and through them the affairs of the world, Crocker presents the family as an institution beleaguered from without and within: “Family government should, in some measure, resemble a well regulated garrison; there should be sentinels continually on the watch-tower, and general orders should be given for the day, and these should be attended with the morning and evening orisons, that should ascend like holy incenses, with gratitude of soul, for the divine care and protection” (54-5). The family exists as an isolated unit of precarious safety amid hostile and powerful forces of business, politics and sexuality, forces which are fended off only through the constant vigilance of the wife-mother. The patriarchal husband, venturing out into that world of predators, is continually subject to temptations with which the wife must be prepared to deal. Crocker warns:

It is most undoubtedly the duty and privilege of woman to regulate her garrison with such good order and propriety, that the generalissimo of her affection, shall never have reason to seek other quarters for well disciplined and regulated troops, and there must not a murmur or beat be heard throughout the garrison, except that of the heart vibrating with mutual affection, reciprocally soft. The rights of woman displayed on such a plan, might perhaps draw the other sex from the nocturnal ramble to the more endearing scenes of domestic peace and harmony (21).

While the threats of the hostile world keep the woman confined to her garrison, she is threatened as well with the defection of her “generalissimo,” whose nocturnal rambles evidently are so common that even her best efforts only “might perhaps” keep him safely within the family circle. Meanwhile, the “generalissimo” is not without problems of his own. Within the garrison, he must treat his wife as a spiritual equal lest he reenact the fall from grace which destroyed the original harmony of humanity and nature and precipitated Adam and Eve from the Garden into the world of labor and death: “Family worship must be mutual, as any jar or animosity will disorder the whole garrison, and a mutiny may ensue and throw the whole into confusion, and thus frustrate the cause of religion and virtue, and the demon of discord may enter, with all the accumulated miseries of Pandora’s box, and perhaps storm and carry the garrison” (55).

The rhetoric of Crocker’s Observations is unusually transparent in its representation of the beleaguered family enclave, but the same anxieties are implicit in every account of the metonymic domestic sphere, including Cooper’s. Cadwallader maintains that “the influence of woman is more felt and revered in American society than in any other,” but the reason for this unparalleled influence is that the American woman “rarely or never exceeds the natural duties of her station, she forgets none of those distinctive features of her sex and character, which, by constantly appealing to the generosity of man by admitting her physical weakness, give strength and durability to her moral ascendancy” (I: 197). Appeal to anything other than her physical weakness would constitute mutiny in the garrison, one way to assure its destruction. Similarly, she is strictly limited to the “sacred precincts of her own abode,” the “haunts of her domestic privacy,” in order that she may be “preserved from the destroying taint of excessive intercourse” with the “wranglings, deceptions, and heart-burnings of keen and sordid traffic” in the world (I: 105). “There is something repugnant to the delicacy of American ideas,” explains Cadwallader, “in permitting a lady to come, in any manner in contact with the world. A woman of almost any rank above the labouring classes, is averse to expose herself to the usual collisions, bargainings, &c. &c., of ordinary travelling” (I: 199). Both woman’s physical weakness and her moral strength are inadequate to the corrosive influences of the most routine contacts with the world of men.

There are other and still more troubling contradictions in Cooper’s deployment of the ideology of the domestic sphere. If the purpose of Notions of the Americans is to refute those European travellers who have reported on the boorishness of American society and the degree to which the pursuit of the main chance has infected the American consciousness, then Cooper’s portrayal of the “Paradise of women” is a poor choice of argument: it embodies precisely the same view of the predatory nature of American society as the most vicious of anti-republicans could imagine. As Charles Strickland has commented, the “sentimentalization of the home was, in fact, a severe if subtle indictment of nineteenth-century American society, but it led to no revolutionary plans for action. The rallying cry was for retreat from society rather than the reform of it, and the home was to provide refuge for the harried husband” (9). If women must indeed be as protected from the sordid business of travel and the marketplace as Cadwallader suggests, then the bachelor’s relation of the ease, safety and comfort of travel and trade in America must he repressing significant details, details which can only be found in the accounts of those other travellers who found America to be something less than Paradise.

Moreover, there is a profound ambivalence about the very heart of domestic ideology, marriage itself. In his preface to Notions of the Americans, the travelling bachelor dolorously reports the marriage of one of the members of his international club. Two other members “flew to his assistance” to try to stop him:

But remedies were too late. From the first moment the symptoms seemed threatening; and as the best advice was fortunately so close at hand, there is reason to think the malady was perfectly incurable. ... A brass plate has been let into the back of the fauteuil of the derelict, containing an appropriate inscription, and two memento mori are cut in its sides. A wedding ring has also been attached to the nose of the portrait, which, as I have often told you, is always suspended over the chair of a member (I: xii-xiii).

Elsewhere the bachelor refers to the necessity “to supply a vacancy in our numbers, from a cause so fatal as marriage,” (II: 4) and to “the sin of matrimony” (II: 148). Of course these tropes of disease, sin and death could be attributed to the fact that the bachelor is European and can hardly appreciate the felicities of American marriages, but symptoms of the same attitude and echoes of the “nocturnal ramble” of Crocker’s generalissimos manifest themselves even at the pinnacle of American society. When the bachelor is invited to the White House, he notes that after the dinner, the wives withdraw to a separate room: “No sooner was his wife’s back turned, than the President of the United States reseated himself, inviting his guests to imitate the action, with a wave of the hand, that seemed to say, ‘Now have we a matrimonial fourth of July.’” The bachelor goes on to muse over the burden of “obligations and duties” under which American husbands toil. Once married, men have only one occasion to feel free again: “It is when they feel the man within them waxing bold, as they imbibe courage with their wine, that the wife prudently retires, rather than remain to dispute a sway that she knows is about to weaken itself, by libations to victory. ... No one need seek deeper into the history of customs, than the date of this triumph, to find the origin of drunkenness after dinner” (II: 55-56). Here the rhetoric of American independence clashes directly with the ideology of the domestic sphere, suggesting that the drunkenness of the American male, which Trollope found so frequent and oppressive, arises in the “moral strength” of the American female, the very “moral strength” of whose preservation Cadwallader is so proud. To be sure, these sallies against the institution of marriage are examples of Cooper’s attempts to inject his narrative with humor, but humor itself is a sign of the unresolved tension surrounding the subject.

Cooper’s portrayal of the “Paradise of women” thus contains a number of paradoxes and contradictions. Society can be reformed along the lines of the family only if the family is stringently isolated from society. The family itself is conceived by apologists for the ideology of the domestic sphere in contradictory terms, since, as Gallagher points out, on the one hand they “present it as a repository of traditional practices, a place dominated by spontaneous emotion and often irrational responses. ... On the other hand, they present it as a moral shelter, a place where conscience is developed, behavior scrutinized, and universal ethics absorbed.” The family is at once irrational and rational, particular and universal, traditional and ethical, weak and powerful, a peaceful shelter and an endangered garrison. “For social paternalists and domestic ideologues alike, it serves as a residual category that includes incompatible elements” (120-21). In addition to these conceptual tensions, Notions of the Americans reveals profound ambivalence about the society in which the domestic sphere lodges and about the institution of marriage itself. The domestic sphere, the sheltered enclave which was to be both the defense against the contradictions of industrial society and the container of psychological contradictions within the individual and between individuals within the family, proves to be as flawed as the society it is intended to order. Just below its engaging surface, the “Paradise of women” appears as a complex nexus of contradictory forces barely contained by the rhetoric of domesticity.

The garrison mentality of the domestic sphere suggests a number of other garrisons in Cooper’s fiction beset by hostile forces from without and dissension from within: the Wharton house in The Spy, Natty’s cabin in The Pioneers, Fort William Henry in The Last of the Mohicans, Mark Heathcote’s stockade in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, the Hutted Knoll in Wyandotté, and so on for virtually every one of Cooper’s novels. In fact, despite its instability and internal contradictions, the metonymic garrison constitutes a fundamental structural principle for all. Cooper’s work. It is especially important in Notions of the Americans, where the need to contain and defend against cultural contradictions is the overriding consideration, and it emerges in a number of surprising contexts: in discussions of the military, slavery, Indians and American literature, the metonymy of the domestic sphere provides a provisional solution to Cooper’s difficulties.

In his twelfth letter, the travelling bachelor takes up the story of Major Andre and his execution as a spy during the Revolution. Cooper had already treated the Andre case in The Spy, and he returned to it in Notions for the same reason: Andre had been a popular officer and a perfect gentleman, and the British had denounced his execution as an unconscionable barbarism. In Notions Cooper carefully distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate modes of spying: “while an officer may communicate with, and employ a spy, he can scarcely with impunity, become a spy himself.” There are exceptions to this general rule; Alfred could wander through the Danish camp while “seeking to vindicate the unquestionable rights of his country,” just as Washington could disguise himself and travel behind enemy lines in The Spy because both were in the service of just causes of national importance. Andre, however, was motivated only by “personal preferment” in a war the British fought “to aggrandize its power, and not to assert any of the natural rights of man.” In acting as a spy, Major Andre “overstepped the coy and reserved distance which conscious dignity preserves, even while it stoops to necessity, and entered familiarly and personally into the details of the disgusting bargain.” Like a woman who ventures into the marketplace, Andre placed himself outside the “rules which are to soften the horrors of war” (I: 218). In other words, Andre left the moral garrison of the officer’s sphere, which functions amid the “horrors of war” in precisely the same way that the domestic sphere functions amid the horrors of an industrial society, and like any wife who leaves the bosom of her family, he could only reasonably expect vitiation and hanging.

The most important implication of Cooper’s account of the Andre affair is that, with all his careful delineation of principles, citing of historical precedents and weighing of final causes, Cooper knows perfectly well that the concept of the officer’s sphere is nothing more than a polite fiction. In reality, wars are horrible. No “mere technicalities of posts and sentinels” can completely conceal that fact, and in his very next letter the bachelor observes that Americans have a strong tendency to ignore polite fictions about war: “The battles of this country, both by sea and land, when there has been sufficient inducement to make their undisciplined bodies fight at all, have always been distinguished for their destruction” (I: 227). For the same reasons, duels in America are far more dangerous than those in Europe; having noted that “in addition to the absurdity of fighting at all, they had incurred the absurdity of fighting with so little danger, as to make the practice doubly ridiculous in the eyes of those who determined to look at the naked truth,” Americans “began to take aim, and to practise, and to get skill, until they reached the present honourable standard,” in which one man falls in two out of every three duels (II: 300). The rules which soften the horrors of dueling or of war are therefore important not because they can actually protect anyone from the power of death, but because they induce a kind of forgetfulness, a psychological defenestration like that which the bachelor recommends for the burning of Washington during the War of 1812: “It is permitted for the defenders of Bunker’s Hill to allude to their defeat, but the chisel of the Americans should have been industriously employed to erase every vestige of, and not to commemorate ... the occupation of their capital by an enemy” (II: 17).

The same deliberate ignorance governs the bachelor’s discussions of slavery and the treatment of Indians. The bachelor rehearses all the usual arguments for a conservative approach to the vexing problem of slavery: slavery was foisted on the new world by those nations which now raise the loudest cries of protest; European peasants are worse off than American slaves; the blacks are a “lighthearted and a laughing race” who seem not to feel the full horror of their condition; no one has legal authority to emancipate slaves except their particular masters; emancipation would constitute an enormous economic burden; there is little prospect of blacks ever blending into American society in general; preservation of the union is too important to allow one region to impose its will on another. At the same time, the bachelor makes no attempt to conceal the fact that he considers slavery to be a “prodigious evil” and a “deep moral degradation” which affects not only slave but master: “It is not the smallest evil of slavery, that it begets in the master an indifference to its existence, and that it gives birth and durability to cruel and lasting prejudices” (II: 268). The solution to the dilemma posed by slavery, then, is another version of the domestic sphere in which the nation must be careful to nurture what the bachelor calls “the sentiment which I think is silently working its way throughout the nation” (II: 262). That sentiment must remain silent: the abolitionist’s impatience, the bachelor warns, “may retard the very consummation he wishes. Mildness, candour, and conciliation, are his weapons; and I think they will be irresistible” (II: 276). In this nationalized domestic sphere, those favoring abolition adopt the role of woman as the “better half” of the union, leading by moral persuasion, sustaining a meek demeanor, and avoiding confrontational tactics of any kind in the hope that they might perhaps draw the slaveholder from his nocturnal ramble to the more endearing scenes of domestic peace and harmony.

The rhetoric of the domestic sphere is equally important to Cooper’s justification of the Jacksonian removal of native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi. The Indians are represented as members of an infant civilization, savages who need time to “grow up” to European standards. The bachelor comments, “I saw reservations in which no mean advances had been made in civilization. Farms were imperfectly tilled, and cattle were seen grazing in the fields. Still, civilization advances slowly among a people who consider labour a degradation, in addition to the bodily dislike that all men have to its occupations” (II: 282). Like children, the Indians are inevitably corrupted by “blighting influence” with the rough-and-tumble of the elder culture: “they become victims to the abuses of civilization, without ever attaining to any of its moral elevation” (II: 278). Removal is therefore merely the creation by a benign patriarch of a separate sphere to shelter these children from contact with corrupting influences while their education proceeds: “there is just ground to hope that the dangerous point of communication between the races has passed, and that the Indians may continue to advance in civilization to maturity” (II: 286; Rogin, Fathers ch. 4-7). Once that maturity is achieved, intermarriage should assure that an amalgamation of the two races would in time occur” (II: 287). 1

Finally, the garrison mentality of the domestic sphere controls Cooper’s representation of his own place as a man of letters in America. The bachelor’s comments on American literature and art are strikingly apologetic in light of the fact that Cooper himself was already lionized as the triumphant reply to Sydney Smith’s notorious slur, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” 2 American literature and art, the bachelor remarks, are so “meagre” that to describe them “would require no small portion of the talents necessary to figure in either, in order to render them of interest” (II: 93). In other words, it takes a great deal of imagination to find the American imagination interesting. This limitation is particularly evident in American literature: “As respects authorship, there is not much to be said” (II: 99). Cooper’s comments on writing in America are well known; since the country can ill afford the “luxury” of a class of “learned idlers” (II: 95), most Americans have been too busy to write, and those who have written have found few subjects to occupy them. The form of prose fiction that Cooper had forged into the first distinctively American novel the bachelor labels as “certainly an inferior branch of imaginative writing,” leaving the task of vindicating America’s reputation in world letters to Halleck, Bryant, James Coates Percival and Charles Sprague. Even within this inferior branch, the peculiar features of Cooper’s works are denigrated, All American historical romances (including Lionel Lincoln) have been failures; border tales have been somewhat more successful but are crippled by the tendency of American society “Not only to repress passion, but to equalize humours” (II: 112). But there has been no American fiction of lasting value. As the bachelor disparagingly remarks, “It certainly would be possible for an American to give a description of the manners of his own country, in a book that he might choose to call a romance, which should be read, because the world is curious on the subject, but which would certainly never be read for that nearly indefinable poetical interest which attaches itself to a description of manners less bald and uniform” (II: 111). It is as if Cooper had designed the whole section to diminish his own achievements and minimize his presence on the American literary scene. What motive, other than the doubtful need to conceal his authorship of Notions of the Americans, could Cooper have had for such a strategy?

The answer lies at the center of the bachelor’s letter in a passage on law in America, a passage whose rhetoric betrays a deeply rooted anxiety about the consequences of becoming a public figure. At issue is the American custom of printing in newspapers the proceedings of trials, and the bachelor argues vigorously that the practice merely caters to “a vicious appetite for the amusement of the public.” The common argument, the bachelor notes, is that since the court is “open to the world, there can be no harm in giving the utmost publicity to its proceedings” (II: 103), but the threat of publication, be argues, will discourage “the unfortunate man who is wrongfully brought out of his retirement to repel an unjust attack against his person, his property, or his character.” A man of “virtue” will necessarily be a man of “sensibility” who will find it extremely distasteful to have himself and his family served up “in order that a depraved appetite should be glutted.” In effect, the virtuous are thus denied equal access to the courts in the American system: “Men daily shrink from resistance to base frauds, rather than expose themselves to the observations and comments of those who enliven their breakfasts by sporting with these exhibitions of their fellow-creatures” (II: 104).

Ironically, within a few gears Cooper would prove himself only too willing to sacrifice himself and his family as morsels far the voracious public to batten on. As the sudden density of oral imagery suggests, however, the anxiety behind these remarks on the publication of trials arises from Cooper’s own ambiguity about the consumer economy which he had entered with the appearance of Precaution and which he had very successfully learned to manipulate. Throughout his career Cooper displayed a curious combination of reticence and self-promotion. His early fictions were all published anonymously, and Cooper’s letters simultaneously enjoin his publisher to secrecy and crave the latest gossip about who the author may be. By 1828 it was impossible for Cooper to fool the public about his authorship, but he nevertheless published Notions of the Americans anonymously and seemed actually to hope that it would be taken as the work of a Belgian count. A Letter to His Countrymen and the extraordinary series of lawsuits undertaken in the 1830s and ‘40s were all quixotic attempts to protect the integrity and privacy of Cooper and his family. On anything touching his own character Cooper could neither remain silent nor resign himself to being a public figure. In order to prove the moral purity and defend the structural integrity of his domestic sphere, he felt constrained to throw it open to the curiosity of journalists and their readers. He was the most public of private men.

The strategy of the bachelor’s letter on literature and the arts, then, is the construction of a private space, a sheltered sphere within which Cooper could pursue his own imaginative interests safe from the strictures of critics and scholars. The emphatic denigration of the forms in which he chose to work, the pointing at other figures, from Bryant to Irving, as representative American writers, the emphasis on the meagre and the failed in American literature, the valorization of the general as opposed to the particular in literary creation, all are calculated to direct critical scrutiny away from his own work and to deflect the expectations and pressures that had developed in the anxious search for a “national author.” For this strategy, as for so many others in Cooper’s heroic effort to comprehend the culture of his country, the domestic sphere supplied the metonymic core.

In the last analysis, Cooper’s deployment of the domestic sphere as a defense against the contradictions of American culture is a failure. Not only is the concept of the domestic sphere itself riddled with paradox and unresolved tensions, but Cooper’s every exercise of its metonymic function, whether he is discussing the military, slavery, Indian removal or the privacy of his own imaginative space, only compounds its inherent paradoxes. That he could not maintain the privacy of his imaginative sphere was apparent to Cooper almost immediately; that he was wrong in his hope for a solution to the problem of slavery would he demonstrated within a few years; and our century has exposed and regretted the duplicity of Indian removal.

More important than these failures to foresee developments in American social life, however, is the fact that Cooper could not or would not ignore the conceptual gaps in the controlling ideology of the Jacksonian era. By 1828 he had already explored many of those gaps in the brilliant series of novels that had brought him fame and financial independence: the first three Leatherstocking novels had staged the irresolvable conflict over the ownership of the American landscape, the missed opportunity for a true amalgamation of Indian and white races, and the tragedy of Indian removal; The Spy, The Pilot and Lionel Lincoln had tested the frail fiction of the privileged sphere of military officers; The Red Rover had portrayed the horrors of the slave trade in the darkest symbolic terms possible (Rogin, Subversive 3-11); and while marriage functions as a traditional device of closure and reconciliation in all these novels, Cooper’s ambivalence about the claims of the domestic sphere was fully embodied in the figures of Natty Bumppo and the other unmarried, socially marginal heroes of his narratives.

Cooper’s failure to control the evident ideological contradictions of Notions of the Americans, then, is paradoxically the victory of Cooper’s awareness that those contradictions were deeply rooted in American cultural life. The republican paean that Cooper conjured to gratify the wishes of Lafayette could hardly confront them directly, but his habitual honesty and the intelligence that informed his fiction prevented his contriving a more effective concealment. Beneath the smug and inert facade of patriotic fervor, Notions of the Americans manifests all the tensions that drive Cooper’s best fiction. By a final paradox, his failure to resolve those tensions is the best claim that the travelling bachelor can make on our attention.

Works Cited

  • Beard, James Franklin. “Cooper and the Revolutionary Mythos.” Early American Literature 11 (1976): 84-104.
  • Brotherston, Gordon. “The Prairie and Cooper’s Invention of the West.” James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Clark. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1985.
  • Clark, Robert. History and Myth in American Fiction, 1823-52. New York: St. Martin’s, 1984.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Notions of the Americans: Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor. 2 vols. New York. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1963.
  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore. Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper. New York: W. A. Townsend, 1871.
  • Crocker, H. Mather. Observations on the Real Rights of Women, with their Appropriate Duties, Agreeable to Scripture, Reason and Common Sense . Ed. Leon Stein and Annette K. Baxter. New York: Arno, 1974.
  • Ewart, Mike. “Cooper and the American Revolution: The Non-Fiction.” Journal of American Studies 17 (1977): 61-79.
  • Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel, rev. ed. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.
  • Fliegelman, Jay. Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Franklin, Wayne. The New World of James Fenimore Cooper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Gallagher, Catherine. The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form 1832-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
  • James, Henry. The American Scene. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.
  • Kelly, William P. Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
  • Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Selections from the Works of Thomas Paine. Ed. Arthur Wallace Peach. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1928.
  • Railton, Stephen. Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.
  • Rogin, Michael Paul. Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indians. New York: Vintage, 1975, rpt. 1976.
  • — — . Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983, rpt. 1985.
  • Strickland, Charles. Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott. University: University of Alabama Press, 1985.
  • Sundquist, Eric. Home as Found: Authority and Genealogy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Baltimore: John Hopkina University Press, 1979.
  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Trans. Henry Reeve, rev. Francis Bowen. 2 vols. Cambridge: Sever and Francis, 1863.
  • Trollope, Francis. Domestic Manners of the Americans. Ed. Donald Smalley. New York: Vintage, 1960.


1 Since Leslie Fiedler’s characterization of Cooper’s horror of miscegenation shows no signs of subsiding in scholarly writing, it is worthwhile to point out that the travelling bachelor notices a distinct difference in American attitudes toward marriages between blacks and whites on the one hand and between Indians and whites on the other. The most important reason whites do not marry blacks, he notes, is that of class differences: “the blacks of America belong to an ill-educated and inferior class,” and caste barriers prevent intermarriage (II: 269). No such barriers exist between Indians and whites, and in fact Indian ancestry bestows a kind of nobility on a family: “Those families of America who are thought to have any of the Indian blood, are rather proud of their descent, and it is a matter of boast among many of the most considerable persons of Virginia, that they are descended from the renowned Pocahantas” (II: 287). Fiedler has characterized The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), the novel Cooper wrote immediately after Notions of the Americans, as the “first anti- miscegenation novel in our literature” on the basis of Mark Heathcote’s attitude toward his daughter’s captivity (205). But there is no basis for believing that Heathcote speaks for Cooper, and the tragedy of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish is much deeper than Fiedler’s formulation.

2 Smith’s question, which became a rallying cry in Americanist circles, was from a review of Adam Seybert’s Statistical Annals of the United States of America in The Edinburgh Review. 33 (1820), 79-80.