American Millennialism and The Crater

John Hales (California State University at Fresno)

Presented at the 7ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1989.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the Bicentennial Conference, July 1989, State University College of New York — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 143-155).

Copyright © 1991 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

The ending of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Crater — the part of the book he judged to be “the best done” (Letters 5: 231) — has moved more than one reader to expressions of anger and incredulity. For some, the geological cataclysm that destroys the island is explainable only in terms of Cooper’s own anger and bitterness, a petty literary fantasy that “punishes America,” as Daniel Peck puts it, “for what it had done to the Cooper family” (157). James Grossman was offended less by Cooper’s gleeful vindictiveness than by his bringing God into what was and should have remained a personal argument between Cooper and his country: “We resent the judgment in The Crater because %t is presented not as the novelist’s but as the judgment of the divine will, for the moment no longer inscrutable, passed on mankind when it violates Cooper’s laws of the universe” (225).

Perhaps more troubling are the contradictions apparent among the theological assumptions that drive Cooper’s story and determine its cataclysmic conclusion. Those of us who are accustomed to Cooper’s willingness to cite scripture in support of his political opinions have a right at least to expect that the religious subtext remain consistent, but in the course of the book Cooper expresses at least two mutually exclusive formulations regarding God’s intentions for the last days. Cooper brings the book’s next-to-last chapter to a close by explaining in no uncertain terms that the end of the world is inevitable, and its time preset and unalterable: the world is “advancing slowly but unerringly towards that great consummation, which was designed from the beginning, and which is as certain to arrive in the end, as that the sun sets at night and rises in the morning. The supreme folly of the hour,” Cooper concludes, “is to imagine that perfection will come before its stated time” (444). It is difficult to imagine a clearer statement of the belief that humans are powerless to tamper with the divine timetable of the apocalypse, let alone play a significant part in establishing a millennial world.

Cooper returns to this deterministic view of the universe in the paragraph that concludes the final chapter, one that underlines the insignificance of human action in the face of the divine will by pointing out that human beings are “mites amid millions of other mites, that ... providence has produced for its own ends,” temporarily occupying “a globe that floats, a point, in space, which will one day be suddenly struck out of its orbit, as it was originally put there, by the hand that made it.” The next sentence, however, the final sentence of the book, undermines Cooper’s view of human insignificance by suggesting that all this divine certainty is somehow subject to revision and even cancellation; that God, under the right circumstances, will never again visit cataclysmic destruction upon the world: “Let that dread Being, then, be never made to act a second part in human affairs ... ” (459).

{144} Theologically, at least, this is a clear contradiction. Either the date is set and the end of the world is inevitable, or the date is flexible and the end may be postponed indefinitely. As a contradiction, however, it is much more profound than other famous Cooper inconsistencies, the consequence of the kind of editorial carelessness that leads him in The Crater, for example, to kill off his hero’s unfortunate mother-in-law twice. The two competing views regarding the end of the world represent fundamentally opposite estimations of human responsibility for history, mutually exclusive judgments regarding the significance of human action. We are either “mites” watching passively as the Divine Will is acted upon us, or we are conscious and culpable beings creating our own individual and social destinies, determining by our actions whether the world will be destroyed by an angry God or preserved by a suitably pacified one. The two competing theologies differ dramatically with regards to the possibility of human perfectability, the modern-day relevance of covenant theology, the relative significance of cataclysmic or millennial last-days events, and even, in the context of Cooper’s book, the United States’ responsibility for ensuring the survival of the world. Cooper’s placing such profoundly contradictory statements side-by-side in so conspicuous a position as the last paragraph demands that we take it seriously as something other than a careless mistake. What was Cooper thinking of?

One answer has to do with the fact that Cooper is working towards two different goals in The Crater: he wants to document the fact that America’s slide into demagoguery is so precipitous as to be irreversible, and he wants to persuade his readers to change their fatal ways before it really is too late. He therefore finds himself in a situation familiar to writers working within the forms of the venerable Jeremiad, sermons that are required to document the overwhelming pervasiveness of a society’s failure to live up to its spiritual obligations — and the inevitable apocalyptic consequence of that failure — yet hold out the possibility that such a downward course is reversible. It is this complicated rhetorical context that explains the disagreement between Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch concerning the meaning and the significance of the American Puritan Jeremiad.

But the most important reasons for Cooper’s apparent confusion regarding the end of the world are the result of ambiguities that exist at the center of Protestant millennialist theology, especially as it was interpreted and applied by the first American Puritans, who also found themselves on the verge of contradicting themselves regarding the sort of loose inevitability of the last days. There is a form of reasoning inherent in American Puritan millennial theory that results from circumstance, not theology; a kind of logic that argues, often in defiance of the scriptures and established theology, precisely what Cooper argues in The Crater: America’s actions will determine the will of God concerning the last days.

This logic exists outside theology because it effectively posits a human choice between two mutually exclusive approaches to explaining the last days: pre-millennialism and post-millennialism. Christian eschatologists agree on few basic points: the millennium will be a thousand-year period of peace and worldwide regeneration; Christ will come at some point to rule the world; the last days will feature widespread destruction of unregenerate people and {145} places; and the world will ultimately be destroyed. Pre-and post-millennialists disagree on the order in which these events take place: pre-millennialists believe that Christ will come at the beginning of the thousand years and that His coming will be preceded by wholesale destruction which will be survived by only a select few. Post-millennialists believe that Christ will come after or during the period of worldwide regeneration and peace has been established by human hands; regenerate people and, more importantly, regenerate nations will be ushered unharmed into the millennium proper. Post-millennialism, perhaps the most significant legacy of the Reformation, has the effect of blending secular history and sacred history. Instead of passively awaiting a day of doom in which the world is transformed and made perfect by divine intervention, post-millennialists work their way slowly in the direction of earthly perfection, trying to get as close as it is possible to get.

As dedicated post-millennialists, the Puritans believed that the Reformation required Christians to create a millennial nation, a responsibility the first generation of American Puritans took especially seriously. Millennialist literature written in New England before 1650 is characterized by a sense of optimistic urgency that contrasts dramatically with that written later; indeed, it would take the war of American independence to rejuvenate a comparably positive sense of national millennialism. American Puritans based this optimism on their perception of England’s imminent fall, their appropriation of the modern Israel type, their acceptance of a specific covenant with God that included significant last-days responsibilities, and, most important of all, their belief that they were making rapid progress toward achieving the complete purification of church and state. The widespread belief that the numerology of Revelation indicated most would live to see the reign of King Jesus added to their sense of millennial urgency, resulting in a body of literature that argued strongly (if often covertly) for a millennial age that would be initiated in large part by the efforts of New England saints, and perhaps even headquartered in America.

Their experience therefore placed the Massachusetts Bay theologians in essentially the same position James Fenimore Cooper would find himself two hundred years later: struggling to divide responsibility for events of the last days between human effort and divine will, to find some way of reconciling their responsibility for building the New Jerusalem with a Biblical timeline that seemed to indicate that the millennium would proceed on schedule regardless of what earthly saints might or might not accomplish. John Cotton, certainly the most respected and arguably the most careful of New England’s theologians, published two books in 1642 that cover essentially the same complicated ground Cooper covers less carefully in the last paragraph of The Crater. One of the books, The Powring Out of the Seven Vialls, is a kind of annotated countdown to the apocalypse, a checklist of historical events that match with the enigmatic prophecies listed in Revelation. Like most other last-days tracts of its kind, the hook is a remarkably passive document, Cotton’s role that of an informed observer of events over which he has no control. Although Cotton’s analysis is intended in part to encourage Puritan participation in the specific historical events that herald the pouring of the fifth vial, the book reinforces the idea that history is a spectator sport, a {146} preplanned series of events enacted according to a predetermined timetable.

The other work John Cotton published in 1642, The Churches Resurrection, describes a much more active role for New England in determining the shape of the last days. As he does in The Powring Out of the Seven Vialls, Cotton explains that the events of the millennium will take place according to God’s hidden timetable. But Cotton also suggests that a rare opportunity exists for a national gathering of churches to actually serve as the millennial nation if those churches are found to be sufficiently regenerate upon the commencement of the millennium, at that moment when the Jews are converted, the Antichrist destroyed, and Satan bound. Congregations that are judged fit, Cotton explains, “shall have their part in Christ, and reigne with him for the space of a thousand yeeres in the government of the Church on earth’ (11). If no earthly gathering of churches is sufficiently purified, however, the millennial nation will be shaped by the hand of God and populated by those scattered saints who were allowed to pass individually into the millennium. Cotton’s argument comes down to this: America’s Puritan churches have the power to determine whether the New Jerusalem would rise from the soil of New England, or to descend from heaven, as the pre-Reformation Augustinian eschatologists had long maintained.

While The Powring Out of the Seven Vialls is a scholarly attempt to read God’s mind, The Churches Resurrection is a more practical exercise in evaluating New England’s spiritual progress in order to determine the likelihood of national resurrection, an effort that requires not only a good hard look at New England’s successes and failures, but also a close comparison with other national gatherings of churches — possible competitors in the race for status as the world’s millennial nation. Cotton goes about his work with characteristic caution, reluctant to exaggerate New England’s accomplishments, lest he encourage his readers to rest in their efforts to build the New Jerusalem: “But if I should say there is a Resurrection [of churches] in New England,” Cotton writes, ” ... I should say more then I could justify, or more then my text will give me leave to say” (21).

But the context of his discussion undermines this disclaimer. Cotton spends a good deal of time measuring the progress of reformation in other protestant countries, and New England definitely benefits from the comparison (things are so bad in Scotland, for example, that “sometimes Elders keep Alehouses”). No longer required to make the kind of political and theological compromises that continue to undermine the Reformation in England, New England’s Puritans are making real progress, and if an earthly church is to achieve national resurrection, Cotton suggests that it will most likely happen in America. “I cannot say, here is a Resurrection of Churches,” Cotton writes; nevertheless, “here is a great reformation of Churches ... a greater face of reformation then in any churches are to be found” (20, 21).

The logic of Cotton’s argument places a great deal of responsibility on New England’s millennial efforts. Cotton’s reasoning is relatively simple. The coming of Christ and the resulting first resurrection and millennium is a kind of train scheduled to leave the station at a specific but undisclosed time: if a nation’ doesn’t get to the station on time, it can’t board the train. While it is true that a nation can’t influence the set and secret time {147} of Christ’s coming, the citizens of New England — the Puritan theocracy most likely to reach the necessary level of millennial perfection in time — will nevertheless determine whether there will be a millennial nation on earth to greet him, and it is this either/or last days scenario that opens the door to a set of theological possibilities that are problematical, if not downright heretical. For one thing, this reasoning leads almost inevitability to a decidedly non-Providential conclusion; humans beings, not God, will ultimately determine whether the end will be governed by post-millennial rules — and by a resurrected nation that has, on its own, achieved something approximating millennial perfection; or according to pre-millennial rules — instituted solely by Christ and witnessed by a few scattered saints.

It is this logic that leads inevitably to James Fenimore Cooper’s theological contradictions regarding the influence human societies appear to wield over the supposedly unalterable will of God. Both Cotton and Cooper would, of course, object to my lumping them together in a discussion of Puritan theology. Cooper made his objection to Calvinism clear throughout his literary career, and The Crater includes the obligatory attack on those Calvinist Bible-thumpers who threaten community consensus by engaging in the kind of theological hair-splitting Cotton was prone to, and any similarity in the world of The Crater to the millennial beliefs of the first American Puritans is less the result of their being Puritans than the result of their being Americans. As Alan Heimert, Ernest Lee Tuveson and Sacvan Bercovitch (among others) have pointed out, Americans would come to define themselves and their national mission in the terms first defined by the Puritans, and along with other Americans living in the first half-century of the American republic, Cooper’s world view was influenced by the secular doctrines of progress and national destiny that continue to be the legacy of seventeenth-century Puritan millennial belief. It may be that Cooper’s own religious beliefs, though not explicitly post-millennial, contributed a kind of religious fervor to his view of America’s role in determining the last days that is so remarkably similar to Cotton’s in its blending of secular nationalism and Protestant millennialism.

And the fact remains that Cooper departs significantly from Puritan eschatology, especially regarding the timing of last-days events. American Calvinist theologians from Cotton’s time to the present agree that the events of the last days are predetermined, and their time preset and unalterable. Humans can do a great deal to prepare for and even to shape the millennium, but they must complete their tasks by a certain time. Cooper’s God, on the other hand, is remarkably open-ended concerning the divine timetable — like a sympathetic teacher, he’ll extend deadlines when his charges can demonstrate that they’re working hard and aren’t simply making excuses. Cooper does make reference to a “vast and beneficent design” (139) that is God’s plan for the universe, a sequence of events that will conclude at a “stated time” (444), but he also clearly states his belief that God might postpone — or even cancel — the end of the world if human actions gave him reason to do so.

It turns out that Cooper’s rather loose concept of end-time imperatives has a great deal in common with a later generation of American Puritans, those graduates of Yale and Princeton who, in their poetry written in anticipation {148} of and during the American Revolution, were forced to balance the scriptural requirement that the world must end against their own fondest wishes that the American millennial empire might reign eternally, not a mere thousand years. Timothy Dwight’s early effort to portray the way America would figure prominently in the millennial future of the world, “America; or, a Poem on the Settlement of the British Colonies” (1771), concludes in a way that is theologically correct but still a little depressing: “The mountains melt, the moon and stars decay, / The sun grows dim, and Nature roll[s] away” (12). Similar national “epics” written during the 1770s, among them Joel Barlow’s “The Prospect of Peace” and Philip Freneau and Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s collaborative “A Poem, on the Rising Glory of America” (which concludes somewhat anticlimatically with “all nature’s works / Are lost in chaos and the womb of night”), routinely subject a flourishing and world-dominating American empire to the same scriptural imperative.

In their later poems, however, the required end becomes less and less important as the poets discovered ways to excise apocalyptic cataclysm from their millennial visions of America’s future. In his 1794 Greenfield Hill, for example, Dwight simply shirks his Calvinist obligation to end the world, recording instead a vision of an ideal American community ripening into an infinitely millennial future that is terminated neither by apocalypse nor urban blight, and although Barlow’s Columbiad (1824) features a prophetic vision of the second coming and describes in some detail the republican specifics of Christ’s millennial rule, King Jesus’s “interminable reign” (10:510) determines a future that is certainly millennial but not the slightest bit apocalyptic. As American Puritan millennial theology was adapted to serve the needs of an increasingly diverse American population with increasingly secular concerns, the apocalyptic consummation of all earthly things required by St. John was the first to go.

What took its place, in Cooper’s theology at least, is apocalyptic cataclysm as an alternative conclusion to human history, not a necessary or inevitable one. Cotton’s God was required to end the world regardless of human behavior because his was a God of order and design, a diety that had made certain legal commitments — however vaguely expressed — that had the effect of limiting his options concerning the last days. Cooper’s God is much more personal, less premeditated and distant than he is impulsive and meddling, bound less by his predetermined “design” than by his personal reaction to the extremes of human behavior: Cooper’s God will “scatter” the world “into thin air when the works of His hand cease to find favour in His view” (459) regardless of any earlier scriptural commitments to a specific time and manner. On the plus side, Cooper tells us that this God can be placated forever into “preserv[ing] that which he has hitherto cherished and protected” (6). In direct contrast to his Calvinist counterpart, the possibility exists that Cooper’s God might “never” be “made to act a second part in human affairs” (459).

This difference aside, Fenimore Cooper shared with America’s first Puritans a decidedly nationalistic assumption regarding the nature of the last days: America would be responsible, on behalf of the world, for creating the millennial nation, As Cotton explains it, America’s preeminent role was the result of the remarkable progress New England had made toward national {149} reformation, combined with the lateness of the hour that had placed the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the right place at the right time. His argument that America was responsible for building the New Jerusalem is relatively straightforward, driven by his belief that the linearity of Biblical time commencing in Genesis was about to be concluded according to the events spelled out in Revelation.

Because Cooper does not share the Puritans’ obsession with deadlines, he employs another kind of theology — and a significant degree of artistry — to make clear America’s responsibility for determining either a millennial or cataclysmic conclusion to human history. Cooper accomplishes this by identifying the Crater experience simultaneously with the secular history of America and with the sacred history of the world, the same linear course that Cotton observes in the Bible. Cooper’s intention to offer up an allegory of the American experience becomes apparent early in the book; ironically, the identification with the beginning and end of Biblical history emerges later in the novel, at about the same time Vulcan’s peak emerges dramatically from the ocean. Mark’s experience on the Crater self-consciously parallels American history, a connection made even more explicit through Cooper’s repeated allusion to Columbus, and the difficult task of surviving an the barren island parallels the difficult experience of America’s earliest settlements — one is reminded of the “starving time” alluded to in The Pioneers, a crisis the early settlers survived through a combination of hard work, wise leadership and divine providence.

It is the emergence of Vulcan’s Peak — a lush, fertile landscape that is “created” as a garden requiring little or no cultivation — that locates Cooper’s book firmly in the beginning chapters of Genesis, an identification Cooper drives home through repeated allusions to the Garden of Eden and frequent descriptions of Mark and Bridget as Adam and Eve. This Biblical context does not subsume the American allegory, however. Instead, it links national and Biblical history in a way that demonstrates what is for Cooper an important truth: America is the world’s last chance to create a millennial nation, and to avoid apocalyptic destruction. The cataclysmic destruction of the Crater empire heralds at once the end of America and the end of the world.

In spite of the depressing possibility that America might self-destruct and take the world with it, this Linking of American behavior and world survival results in The Crater in a surprisingly optimistic context for national achievement. Unlike Cotton’s world, and, as I will show, unlike Thomas Cole’s, Cooper’s world is doomed neither by the divine imperative of Revelations, n the secular imperative of the course-of-empire paradigm. His placing the American experience in the linearity of Biblical time allows the United States to function according to a different set of rules, rules that do not necessarily require that an empire’s success must inevitably lead to the slippery-slope of decline and fall, the depressing imperative of the cyclical theory of secular history.

This is not to argue that the course-of-empire paradigm does not have something relevant to say to Americans and Craterinos alike.Cooper clearly intended the cyclical theory to serve an educational function in the book, and {150} scholars have discussed the significance of Cooper’s bracketing his story between an epigram taken from William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairies,” a poem suggesting that decline and ruin is the inevitable fate of all nations, and a last-pages allusion to Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire, a pictorial version of essentially the same theme. Thomas Philbrick believes that by the time Cooper wrote The Crater, his “cyclical view of history was fully formulated, and its relevance to the course of America was appallingly clear” (xv), and John P. McWilliams, Jr. writes that the book marks a clear change in Cooper’s perception of America’s ability to avoid the fate of earlier empires: “Not until writing The Crater was Cooper willing to subject the destiny of America to the remorseless cyclical law to which he had long since consigned the old world” (373). In perhaps the most complete study of Cooper’s view of the cyclical theory of history, Allan Axelrad argues that Cooper’s pessimism was consistent throughout his career, the result of his profound belief that human history was unalterably determined not by only by the inevitably declining cycles of history, but by chronic insufficiencies in human nature.

Savage State

Savage State.


The Arcadian or Pastoral State

Arcadian or Pastoral State.


The Consummation of Empire

Consummation of Empire.







There is little doubt that Cooper believed Americams could benefit from pondering the sobering example of earlier failed empires, especially as his country entered the most dangerous stage in which material success leads to enervating luxury and moral decline. But the story Cooper tells in The Crater is much more notable for the way it departs from the course-of-empire paradigm, especially as it is interpreted by Cole’s series. In the first place, Cole portrays stages that are irrelevant to Mark’s — and to America’s — situation because the crater and the New World were settled by people who had already participated in advanced stages of civilization, individuals who were not required, for example, to invent geometry, as the scholar, in Cole’s pastoral stage is required to do. Mark bypasses the savage hunting-and-gathering stage altogether. and he begins immediately a program of scientific agricultural improvement that denies nearly all possible assumptions native to the pastoral stage. While Cooper follows closely Cole’s argument that the consummation stage links the height of empire with the beginning of imperial decline, there is in The Crater no destruction stage that is even remotely equivalent to Cole’s — we have little reason to believe that the colony has fallen victim to the violence of war — and there remain no melancholy ruins that indicate a stage of desolation to be pondered by future tourists and political scientists.

Indeed, it is the beginning and the conclusion of the Crater’s national experience — and the geological assumptions that determine the colony’s fate — that indicate the extent to which Cooper departs from both Bryant’s and Cole’s interpretation of the cyclical theory. “The Prairies” and The Course of Empire depend on a natural background that is essentially static: Bryant’s mounds have, over the course of centuries, eroded slowly and peacefully into suggestive shapes, and the single static element that unites Cole’s five very dynamic canvasses is the natural geography of the harbor. We know that Cole made a conscious choice to minimize the role geological change would play in determining the fate of the empire he portrays. An early (1827) annotated sketch of the canvas that would eventually be called “Desolation” featured evidence of cataclysmic geological change, including “broken mountains with huge rocks which seem to have broken from them,” a “river having changed its course,” and “pyramids rising in the midst of the waters ... The sea having {151} encroached since they were erected” (An Exhibition of Paintings by Thomas Cole 14). In a very different version Cole completed nine years later, the harbor changes its contours only under the management of its human inhabitants, and its most prominent geographical feature — the peak to which Cooper alludes in the final chapter of The Crater — has been deliberately capped with a precariously situated rock that remains balanced throughout the tumultuous activity below, communicating a remarkable degree of geological stability.

Certainly, Cooper employs what Donald Ringe calls an “analogous technique” in making similar use of the summit of Vulcan’s Peak to unify the story and make clear its theme. But the theme of The Crater is vastly different, and the rocky peak presides over a very different kind of geology that is the result of a very different kind of historical perspective. Bryant’s and Cole’s worlds are drawn according to European models, and they reflect the kind of sleepy nature that allows its human inhabitants to create empires that rise and fall as a result of their own efforts and mistakes; destruction is the result of internal moral decline and external military invasion, and desolation is the result of the slow processes of erosion and decay. As Bryant and Cole portray them, the cycles of history proceed through similar stages of rise and fall against the backdrop of a comfortably static natural world.

Cooper’s world, on the other hand, like the world of the American Puritans, is drawn according to Old Testament models. The beginning is cataclysmic, the creation of nature from nothingness, and the conclusion is defined by a cataclysmic return to nothingness. The Crater’s destruction stage leaves no ruins because its destruction is intended to parallel the destruction of the world, when the earth, as Cooper explains, will be “suddenly struck out of its orbit, as it was originally put there, by the hand that made it” (459), an event that will similarly leave no ruins — and, not incidentally, no future tourists to ponder them. Cooper’s meaning is clear: no ruins remain of the Crater empire because it has been destroyed by the same forces that will simultaneously destroy the United States of America and the planet on which it is precariously situated.

It is this relationship between human behavior and geological cataclysm that links Cooper’s book most closely with linearity of Old Testament history. Cooper follows his description of the end of the world with the sentence that offers a kind of ambiguous hope: “Let that dread Being, then, be never made to act a second part in human affairs.” Whether God’s acting the first part in human affairs alludes to the creation or to the Biblical flood, the logic reminds us of the covenant that connected Old Israel’s behavior with the hand of God as it appeared in cataclysmic geological processes. The allusion to this “second part” makes clear Cooper’s belief that the United States, like Old Israel and Puritan New England, operates under a special covenant with God that spells out worldwide cataclysm as the price for national failure. Cooper’s view therefore has less in common with Cole’s The Course of Empire than it has in common with the work Cole paused in mid- Course to paint, The Oxbow, a painting that depicts an American community occupying a landscape that is at once socially peaceful and geologically threatening. Whether or not the clearings in the background actually spell out “NOAH” in Hebrew {152} (Baigell and Kaufman 136), it is clear from the less ambiguous features of the painting — a river oxbow threatening to change its course, a populated floodplain, and ominous departing rainclouds — that the United States, like Old Israel, exists at the mercy of a God that once again operates actively through the geological processes of the landscape. For those who occupy the floodplain of the Connecticut River, as for the Craterinos, the lessons of secular history are less relevant than the lessons of divine history as they are spelled out in the Old Testament.

Thomas Cole

The Oxbow

The Crater tells us that the future of the United States — and the future of the world therefore be determined not by the cyclical imperatives of the secular course of empire, but by the controllable linearity of the Bible, made more open-ended by the theological innovations of James Fenimore Cooper. The result is a book that is as optimistic in its overall world view as it is pessimistic in its specific social criticism. It is difficult, in fact, to imagine a more anti-deterministic view of human possibilities. Cooper’s readers need not fear even the inevitable destruction of the planet earth; they are required only to exercise their choice between millennial stability and apocalyptic cataclysm by acting on correct social and political principles. One senses that the Craterinos need not even worship in the correct church, as long as they agree not to “pray at each other” (431) and don’t demand the right to vote.

Even divine providence, generally a deterministic force that seems to deny the importance of human action by subordinating it to the divine will, operates in The Crater less as inevitable destiny and more as a reward for piety and hard work. Indeed, Cooper’s annoying insistence on giving credit to providence for nearly every individual and societal accomplishment is a direct consequence of the book’s emphasis on the power of human action. Whether Cooper intended it or not, The Crater presents remarkable evidence of the ability of intelligent and hard-working human beings to create, with little apparent help from God, their own world, and Cooper’s constant attempt to remind us that God is ultimately responsible for what humans create is finally a form of protesting too much. Perhaps Cooper believes that God, not Mark, is ultimately responsible for transforming the barren crater into a productive truck garden, but the reader sees Mark hauling the guano, and Cooper’s point regarding providence is ultimately edged aside by the sheer mass of human accomplishment that makes up the bulk of the book.

Finally, The Crater is not exactly a Jeremiad, and it is definitely not a document written in the apocalyptic tradition, its cataclysmic world-ending conclusion notwithstanding. A book that posits a choice between infinite progress and apocalyptic destruction is not in the same category with The Powring Out of the Seven Vialls or, to cite a more recent example, Hal Lindsay’s bestselling The Late, Great Planet Earth, works that view the end of the world as a series of inevitable events that can be studied and anticipated but not really manipulated. Instead, the book is, like Cotton’s The Churches Resurrection and Cooper’s own The Pioneers, a fairly straightforward evaluation of America’s progress towards what may be a glorious — and infinite — future. Freed from the depressing cycles of secular history, Americans, in Cooper’s view, are free to create their own history.

{153} It is this belief in-America’s nearly unprecedented opportunity to determine its own national destiny that may have led Cooper to mistakenly refer in The Crater to Cole’s The Course of Empire as “the March of Empire” (456), a mistake he repeats in an 1849 letter to Louis Legrande Noble, Cole’s biographer and spiritual executor (Letters 5:398). I have found nothing to indicate that Cole’s series was alternately referred to by that title, and the difference between “march” and “course” speaks to the problem of theological determinism that Cooper addresses in The Crater. “Course,” as Thomas Cole well knew, implies a paradigm, a set pattern in which the actions of the participants have little influence over an inevitable outcome. “March,” on the other hand, connotes human action and choice, a word that Cooper consistently associates with American civilization when he comments on the variety of wise and foolish paths Americans choose to follow. The Pioneers concludes with a sentence that describes a wholly positive vision of America’s millennial destiny: Natty Bumppo is leading “the march of the nation across the continent” (456). Years later, a less optimistic Cooper assigned the word march to the bigoted and greedy “Hurry Harry” March of The Deerslayer. Both uses of the word evidence Cooper’s belief in a freedom peculiar to Americans to shape their own history. Americans can march hand-in-hand with Natty and Marmaduke in carrying correct values and benign government across the continent, or they can march westward with Hurry Harry through the American wilderness, slaughtering Indians and exploiting nature in the name of progress and profit. Either way, Cooper tells us, the choice is America’s, the outcome to be determined not by the predetermined course described by the cycles of history, but by America’s marching, for better or worse, in its chosen direction.

Finally, the most significant evidence for the essential optimism of The Crater is the fact that the book is offered to America as a warning, not a prediction. Cooper’s preface to the book is straightforwardly positive: unlike the aging Mark Woolston, whose “hopes for the future, meaning in a social and earthly sense, were not very vivid” (5), Cooper’s hopes are placed in the possibility that a properly educated America might change its behavior: “If those who now live in this republic, can see any grounds for a timely warning in the events here recorded,” Cooper writes in the Preface, “it may happen that the mercy of a divine Creator may still preserve that which he has hitherto cherished and protected” (6). There is something very American about this sense of national possibility that transcends the weaknesses of its individual citizens. As a Puritan, John Cotton believed in the essential depravity of the individual human soul, but he was nevertheless capable of discussing matter-of-factly the real possibility that an American gathering of those souls might well create a millennial nation fit to receive Christ. To be sure, Cooper was deeply troubled by the overwhelming evidence of his country’s political and cultural shortcomings, and he spent much of his career documenting the errors of America’s ways. Nevertheless, he couldn’t keep himself from believing that a ‘timely warning’ might have the necessary effect, and he worked hard in The Crater to find ways around the secular and theological imperatives that might prevent America from recovering from its moral and political slump.

California State University Fresno

Works Cited

  • Axelrad, Allan M. History and Utopia: A Study of the World View of James Fenimore Cooper. Norwood: Norwood Editions, 1978.
  • Baigell, Matthew, and Alien Kaufman. “Thomas Cole’s ‘The Oxbow’: A Critique of American Civilization.’ Arts Magazine 55 (Jan. 1981): 136-39.
  • Barlow, Joel. The Works of Joel Barlow. Ed. William K. Bottorff and Arthur L. Ford. Vol. 2: Poetry. Gainesville: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1970.
  • Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1978.
  • Brackenridge, Hugh Henry, and Philip Freneau. “A Poem, on the Rising Glory of America.” Colonial American Poetry. Ed. Kenneth Silverman. New York: Hafner, 1968.
  • Bryant, William Cullen. Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant. New York: Appleton, 1906.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Crater; Or, Vulcan’s Peak. Ed. Thomas Philbrick. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962.
  • ------. Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Ed. James Franklin Beard. Vol. 5. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968.
  • ------. The Pioneers, Or the Sources of the Susquehanna. Ed. James Franklin Beard. Albany: SUNY Press, 1980.
  • Cotton, John. The Churches Resurrection, or the Opening of the Fifth and Sixth Verses of the 20ᵗʰ Chapter of the Revelation . London, 1642.
  • ------. The Powring Out of the Seven Vialls. London, 1642.
  • Dwight, Timothy. The Major Poems of Timothy Dwight. Gainesville: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1969.
  • ------. Greenfield Hill: A Poem in Seven Parts. 1794. Facsimiles & Reprints. New York: AMS Press, 1970.
  • An Exhibition by Thomas Cole N.A. From the Artist’s Studio, Catskill, New York. New York: Kennedy Galleries, 1964.
  • Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949.
  • Heimert, Alan. Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.
  • Miller, Perry. Errand Into the Wilderness. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1956.
  • McWilliams, John P. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
  • Peck, H. Daniel. A World By Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
  • Philbrick, Thomas. Introduction. The Crater; Or, Vulcan’s Peak. By James Fenimore Cooper. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962. vii-xxix.
  • Ringe, Donald A. “James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole: An Analogous Technique.” American Literature 30 (March 1958): 26-36.
  • Tuveson, Ernest Lee. Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.