Cooper and his Critics on Character: Distinctiveness, Design and Plausibility

Peter C. Lapp (Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario)

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. 21-39).

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

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

Cooper’s aim in writing the Leatherstocking Tales was, as he says in one of his last critical prefaces, to examine Natty’s character in order “to illustrate the effect of seeds cast into the wilderness.” Elsewhere in his prefaces, references to such qualities as “distinctness” and “peculiarities” in his characters are common. From such claims we might expect to witness in his novels the organic growth of strikingly formulated characters, but the responses of Cooper’s critics, both his contemporaries and their successors, have indicated that these were frequently not the effects that he achieved. Perhaps this should not be surprising in itself: author’s aims are rarely fully realized and critics disagree, for novels fortunately do not produce the narrow band of response typical of B. F. Skinner’s notorious boxes. The confused chorus of responses to Cooper’s fictional figures, nevertheless, raises the question of how best to read their actions and inner lives, an important issue given the power of the character “effect” on the reader and its role in narrative generally. In pursuit of an answer to this question, I want to consider, first, the role of character as a reading code or strategy in the novel, second, the value of faculty and trait psychology as a means of understanding the generation of literary character and, third, Cooper’s poetics and practice and the responses of his critics and how they can be better understood in light of the particular versions of trait psychology that inform them.

Character and the Novel

Despite any intuitive certainty that character has a major claim on our attention as readers, most discussions of narrative theory, or narratology as it is now sometimes called, tend to focus on the construction of plot presumably because it has the appearance of being the overarching structure under which the concepts of narration and focalization, the nature of what constitutes an “event” and so forth, can achieve their meaning and relevance. Not surprisingly, character too is relegated to secondary status and seems to attract less theoretical interest because it can be constituent of the plot in models of narrative that are formal, syntactical and hierarchical. Neither, for that matter, is character deemed as significant as “events” since they are usually accorded the role of the “elemental” particles of narrative; in a formal theory, they appear to explain how the other features of the text are constructed, and that which serves as explanation always seems “primary” in such theories. Seen as pure text character of course, dissolves completely. Character thus exists in some middle realm of narrative, an entity partially constructed and not easily seen as pure text and yet, as construct, below the order of plots that ascend into the realm of myth and cultural criticism. Finally, the modern and post-modern disintegration of self continues to make for an intellectual atmosphere that is less than hospitable to the concept of coherent fictional character rather than character as merely textual shards. Though character has been effectively neglected, the need for an adequate account of the fictional {22} figure in narrative has, nevertheless, been recognized recently by a number of narrative theorists including Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan (92) and Wallace Martin (116-22). Models exist, such as that proposed by A. J. Greimas, which treat character within reductive linguistic analogy and there is some recognition that the notion of character “traits” is relevant to developing a theory of character, but current models of narrative tend not to represent literary character in a manner that takes into full account either the extent to which character is implicated in our anticipatory reading strategies or the need to preserve the sheer psychological salience of character. Rather than viewing character along with the inanimate props in the novel or merely as an element in a narrative grammar, we would do better to borrow the concept of “play” from Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois as a means of giving intellectual credibility to the experience of most readers who find themselves imaginatively exploring the fates of characters often beyond the bounds of what is strictly represented as action, dialogue and so forth in the novel. The game-like quality of hypothesizing in this manner produces characters that are inevitably confounded with what is purely textual. We must grant the experiential claim of character best described by Seymour Chatman who notes that “It is character we remember”; this mnemonic value can be seen as a tangible if rough measure of the structural importance of character in our processing narrative so as to make it aesthetically satisfying.

In the antebellum era of American literature, as James Wallace (106-09) and Nina Baym (85) have both demonstrated, character rivals and in some respects displaces plot as the main object of interest for readers and reviewers. Though the absence of any formal critical dialogue on the poetics of the novel during the pre-Civil War years complicates the task of moving beyond the obvious concern with character to a general description of the narrative principles of the antebellum novel, Cooper’s prefaces demonstrate his own theoretical preoccupation with character as “design” just as his novels confirm it in practice. Together with the reviews of contemporary critics they provide the basis for constructing Cooper’s poetics of character and some sense of the literary conventions that author and reader needed to share if character was to be realized.

In addition to the centrality of character to the literary conventions that collectively establish an “horizon of expectations” for readers and writers, our experience of character is a function of the real-life codes that allow us to recognize agency, coherence and self-hood in the behavior of our fellows. This perception and creation of character has been treated as a gestalt experience by a number of social psychologists who argue that the process of “closure” most aptly described the synthesis of character we make of speech, behavior, the remarks of other observers and so forth during the course of our own social interaction (Hollander, Ch. 4, 7). The three dimensions of the character gestalt, agency (plausible cause), coherence (harmony or coherence of traits) and self-hood (recognizable pattern of traits), produce a type of closure that is only provisional. Once a character exists for us, it has a degree of stability that allows us to predict those behaviors that are likely and those which are improbable. At the same time, however, actions of the character which are not congruent with our expectations can modify the character gestalt providing that such “data” does not deviate too dramatically from that predicted. More recently research carried out on the border between social psychology and cognitive psychology has attempted to investigate the mental representation or mnemonic status of {23} character concepts synthesized from trait description and behavioral “data,” the value of the central concept in interpreting new information and its resistance or susceptibility to modification. These new paradigms on the whole support the general theory of “character” which accounts for it within the terms of strategy and closure, but the cognitive approach also places new emphasis on the role of trait language and how it dovetails with representations of behavior and types, an important development from the point of view of literary theory (Bower; Wyer & Martin).

Within a novel, where we are faced with additional complexities such as the relation of character to setting and faced with additional aids such as the guidance of the narrator, character becomes a competence or code that permits the detection of a thread of salience across the vast surface of the text and thus serves as a major source of our perceptions as readers of relevance and irrelevance. At the core of the process by which literary character is created is the language of psychological traits, nobility, cravenness, selfishness, generosity, alertness, lassitude and so on. These are the endless hues of the human personality to be mixed and collected into various fictional selves that as a group compose a matrix-like structure within the novel. Each trait represents a behavioral tendency and we expect that each self can be described in terms of traits that are compatible with one another. The logic of the harmony of traits is as subtle as the pleasing voicing of musical chords, and if “reliable” and “neglectful” seem obviously incompatible as traits, then “resentful” and “generous” less obviously fail to achieve harmony, while “caring” and “gentle” seem easily reconcilable. Trait language, of course, is the medium of our everyday discussion of character where inferences from first-hand observation of behavior are the norm; in narrative, however, trait language increases its control of our perceptions when the narrator introduces characters with sketches containing explicit trait terms that provide us with a tentative reading strategy.

The importance of establishing the traits central to a novel’s characters accounts for the consistent appearance of introductory character sketches in all nineteenth-century novels and for the formal consistency of such sketches. The character is momentarily anonymous, their outward appearance is momentarily given priority and their speech is that of conversation interrupted in mid-utterance. By some means we learn the character’s name, often as it is inadvertently mentioned by another figure in the scene. All of these techniques mimic a “real-life” meeting with a stranger and encourage us in employing our “real-life” social strategies so some trait qualities will be inferred. Unlike real-life, however, we are also accompanied by a narrative voice and are given in a few central trait terms an abstract rendering of the character that is typically consistent with the speech and actions we have observed.

The description of traits and their relationship to one another constitute a psychological theory proper and though its history is long, beginning with the clusters of traits that compose the four humours, it continues as a school of personality psychology into the twentieth century where, though overshadowed by the Freudian school and its offspring, it achieves its greatest sophistication in the hands of Raymond Cattell and Gordon Allport (Mischell; Lazarus & Opton). Because the classic form of the novel implies the psychology of traits, the use of alternate theories to describe fictional character really consists of overlaying one theory with {24} another rather than of the application of a theory to behavior itself. Such second-order interpretation is not invalid, since allowing character its psychological reality is a condition of realizing its role in the novel and successfully subjecting it to psychological analysis is some measure of whether verisimilitude has been achieved. My aim here is not to undertake this sort of second order interpretation — common-sense, Freudian or otherwise — but to explore how character emerges as a component of narrative through the medium of traits whether explicit or inferred. Cooper inherits the faculty psychology of the eighteenth century which is particularly amenable, as I will argue, to translation into the language of traits. Readings of his characters are more likely to be unsympathetic, then, to the extent they fail to recognize Cooper’s particular use of the psychology of faculties and traits and their philosophic status in his time.

Traits and Psychological Theories

Cooper was not a self-conscious psychologist, but various formulations of faculty psychology were implicit in the theology that had been current in America since the eighteenth century and if the religious factions differed in their analysis of the relative strengths of the faculties that composed “human nature” they were, nevertheless, consistent in ascribing to man a stable and enduring basis for self-hood. Reason, moral or religious sensibility, will and the claims of the passions are the particular psychological features of human nature that typically appear in the discussions carried on in the theology of the Puritans, Anglicans and Quakers who were the main participants in the American version of the debate and whose beliefs can be traced to the Augustinian theory of faculties (Leahy; Curti; Fulcher). In some versions of faculty psychology the faculty of reason gradually assumes a more significant role in the conception of man’s nature and, insofar as material and institutional factors are assumed to be the chief obstacles preventing its proper exercise, human nature, by the late eighteenth century, seems, in the view of some, to be capable of being perfected; still that which is to be perfected — man’s nature — itself pre-exists in a stable form waiting for circumstances under which it can be made manifest. Related to faculty dynamics was the issue of whether man is intrinsically good or bad, a corollary of the outcome of the debate on the conflict between man’s self-interest and his “affection and love to mankind”; if the faculties interact so as to give self-interest an intrinsic advantage, man is likely to be seen as innately bad, whereas a predominance of the social instinct would lead to the conclusion that man is innately good. No perfectly consistent image of man emerged in the course of this debate and the points of contention that characterize the conflicting positions of Jefferson and Hamilton on the question of human nature nicely exemplify the range of theories consistent with faculty psychology.

This is a brief and highly orthodox account of the historical debate on human nature as it is treated by various cultural critics from Basil Willey to Lewis Perry and Merle Curti more recently. Given this consensus on the universality of the faculty model of human nature during the eighteenth century it is well to ask how it allows for the vast array of individual personalities that exist in any conception of social reality. How can faculty psychology be extended to encompass traits as well? The faculty theory assumes that, not only do the faculties vary in strength within the individual, according to context, but also that the basic balance amongst {25} faculties varies from individual to individual; it thus accounts for various personalities and, in addition, justifies a social hierarchy based on merit, as it attaches to certain configurations of traits. The faculty psychology that describes human nature in general, then, also provides the profile of dispositions that both allows and describes individual personality. It does so, however, only in the hands of those who abandon the more technical and abstract terms of the general faculty theory of human nature; that is, only when faculties are further particularized into the vocabulary of individual traits is individuality possible. We speak not of the quantifiable strength of “passions” but of “affection” versus “lust”; we speak not of the relative strength of “social love” but of “craven” versus “noble” or of “miserly” versus “generous” and so forth. Briefly tracing the history of faculty psychology and its relationship establishes by extension the general psychology common to virtually all novels in the classical nineteenth-century tradition.

Cooper inherits a faculty psychology that operates through and is highly consistent with the very vocabulary that he must use to create character for his readers, but he also inherits with it the epistemology of the Scottish common sense school of philosophy. As William Charvat points out in his landmark study, The Origins of American Critical Thought 1810-1830 and as numerous commentators have confirmed since, the influence of Thomas Held et al. directly and through their American disciples, was pervasive during the antebellum era, and if Cooper did not read and discuss these thinkers during his stay at Yale his record as writer and publisher, nevertheless, shows the marks of their aesthetic. The point to be made here is that the Scottish common sense view of faculty and trait psychology would be realist rather than nominalist. Although in our post-Kuhnian era scientists, particularly psychologists, are disposed to regard their representations of reality simply as models whose “truth” is ultimately a function of some form of utility, a realist faculty and trait psychology would posit an objective personality structure that, coupled with the faith of the common sense philosopher in the general reliability of our insights and intuitions, would assume both that these traits were knowable and that knowledge of motivations is possible both to the self and to others. The implications of this unusual compatibility of language, psychology and epistemology for the creation of literary character becomes evident in Cooper’s poetics and practice, the authorial pole of the circuit of expectations between writer and reader.

Cooper’s Prefaces and the Poetics of Character

Nothing like a thorough-going poetics of character emerges in Cooper’s own limited theorizing on the novel. In his prefaces he doesn’t distinguish, for instance, the psychology of types from psychology as it refers to the description of intellectual and emotional processes, nor does he even clearly develop any of the distinctions, such as character versus plot, which were eventually to become common in Anglo-American narrative theory as it evolved in the line that includes Henry James, Percy Lubbock, Edwin Muir and Wayne Booth. Still Cooper signals the centrality of character as a literary concept to his aims as a novelist by the very frequency with which the term appears in the prefaces, and what emerges is, first, a model of literary character that conforms to the aesthetic parameters of Scottish common sense thought, insofar as it posits an inferable and recognizable self which doesn’t strain the bounds of trait language, and, second, an aesthetic of the novel that might be {26} called “character-paradigmatic,” to borrow the current critical term for a “vertical” apprehension of literary structures. Cooper’s conception of character and its role in narrative favours a novel in which character maximizes stable pattern and minimizes the sense of play and evolution that constitute the “horizontal” or “syntagmatic” dimension of reading.

“Common sense,” “facts,” and a conception of human nature as “fettered by reason” and “moral restraint” rather than by “laws” are the terms of Cooper’s description of the fundamental American character from the third preface to The Spy (Shulenberger), and they both reflect the era’s dominant philosophical mood and are examples of the language of general traits. The point of this passage is of course to distinguish America from Britain, with all the motivation, both personal and ideological, that entails on Cooper’s part; trait terms here serve to create national distinctness, but on the level of individual character, and for less obviously ideological reasons, Cooper intended to achieve the same effect in his novels where, in The Pilot for instance, he hopes to “exhibit ... a few traits of people” about whom “little is known” (21).

The structural value to narrative of such identifying traits is echoed in Cooper’s concern to create “distinct varieties of the human race” (65) and to use these “different peculiarities” in the service of a “main design.” Cooper’s preference, as he remarks in his review of Lockhart’s Life of Scott, for “invention” over “embroidery” seems consistent too with a poetics of character in which aesthetic value is attached to the initial creative act of identifying the distinct trait clusters that establish a “main design” of mutually defining characters and that attaches less importance to the “embroidery” or elaboration of the character structures through incongruous behaviors that test the basic trait conception (54).

Visual metaphor subtends this fragmented poetics; Cooper himself remarks in the preface to The Pilot that “he has considered what Smollett has painted as a picture which is finished and which is not to be daubed over ... ” (21) and while critics have argued that the term “picture” is evidence of Cooper’s “concern with the panoramic element in art” we ought to recognize as well the connection between the term “design” as it applies to the matrix of characters and the term “picture.” The aesthetic value of the novel in this view is a result of reading the text in such a way that its elements are no longer removed from one another by the chronicity of reading but are susceptible of simultaneous representation. What Cooper proposes, in effect, is a theory of the novel’s structure that rests finally on the psychology of traits and the stable “picture”-like patterns of “distinct” and “peculiar” characters that it allows. The influence on Cooper of aesthetics developed in the visual arts is treated by Donald Ringe in The Pictorial Mode; he argues persuasively that many of Cooper’s literary techniques can be traced to the theories of painting developed in the work of Thomas Cole and others who were well known to the writer. Cooper’s handling of the psychology of character seems to reflect a general awareness and appreciation of the quality of design in Hudson River painters’ version of realistic imagery and something of their peculiar concern to represent both the general and the particular simultaneously, but these are not such obvious debts to the “pictorial mode” as Cooper’s treatment of time and space.

{27} Cooper is not blind of course to change or to linearity in the novel. He uses the term “plot,” for instance, and periodically gives us glimpses of a some of its philosophically problematic aspects; the paradox of change within sameness and identity and the creation of self through narration. The term “plot” appears in the preface to The Bravo (43), but Cooper largely downplays the connection with narrative cause and effect that most modern discussions of “plot” have entailed. “Minor plot” is the precise term in the preface and it describes the dramatization of a “ruthless” state maxim, specifically the use of blackmail by the government of Venice to recruit spies. The implied concept of “major plot” is, as James Wallace points out, identical with “theme” and this too need not involve causality (106-107). “Conflict” is the term Cooper finally uses to describe the dramatic value of both these themes, and the concept presupposes a matrix of distinct characters some of whom will be at cross-purposes. In this preface, then, “design” again seems to preoccupy Cooper. Whether he regarded character and plot as existing in some hierarchical relationship, however, is not clear based on his remarks in the prefaces, but character seems logically antecedent to plot, if plot is identified with theme and theme then identified with a conflict that requires distinct characters. Certainly, character is more frequently central to Cooper’s thinking about the form of his novels.

Elsewhere, Cooper tantalizingly hints that his preoccupation with character as it contributes to “design” still allows some awareness of what is unpredictable and unknowable in human nature. In the general preface to The Deerslayer, for instance, Cooper claims that it was his intention in the Leatherstocking series “to illustrate the effect of seed scattered by the wayside”; here, at least, the apparent interest in the interaction of intrinsic disposition with the environment holds out the possibility that a developmental trait psychology is dramatized in the five novels. The image of Natty later in the same preface, however, picking and choosing amongst the “better qualities of both conditions,” savage and civilized, quickly replaces the earlier image of a being in the midst of organic interaction and evolution with the picture of a fully formed character already morally predisposed to take into itself only “better qualities.” In The Red Rover too Fid’s meta-narrative awareness of his own life-story appears to represent what from a modern view is a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of both real and literary character, a conception of self-hood as both constructed and conditional. Fid explains to Mrs. Wyllys, in the course of his reply to her inquiries about Wilder, that he has begun his own biographical sketch at the eighth year thus “overlooking all about my birth and name, and such other matters as are usually logged in your everyday narratives.” Interrupted for a moment Fid recovers his story and begins “Ah! here I have it [his story] again, clear of kinks fake above fake, like a well-oiled cable; so that I can pay it out as easily as the boatswain’s yeoman can lay his hand on a bit of ratline stuff” (346). Plot rather than character, environment rather than intrinsic nature and a view of self as constructed narrative all represent challenges to a poetics in which character is chiefly “design”; despite these alternatives to Cooper’s tendency to conceive of character in terms of stable traits, it is character as “distinctness,” “peculiarity” and “design” that typifies Cooper’s practice.


Cooper’s Practice

I have argued thus far that Cooper’s theoretical pronouncements on character are largely consistent with what a faculty and trait psychology would seem to predict concerning the role given to character in the novel; that is, because fixed clusters of traits lend themselves less to character development than to establishing “distinctness,” characters collectively work as pictorial design in the service of novelistic structure. The role of character as structure is most evident in those of Cooper’s novels that verge on outright allegory, such as The Monikins, but is more usefully examined in those works such as The Pioneers, Wyandotté, and Satanstoe that are less obviously schematic. In addition, Cooper’s handling of the “inner life” of his characters, his concept of “gifts” and his use of first-person narration all show a similar consistency to trait principles.

The Pioneers, Wyandotté, Satanstoe, and The Prairie, are not only amongst Cooper’s best “designs” but are also representative of Cooper’s most notable themes and how they rest on his carefully drawn distinctions between characters. The overall design of these novels is most easily grasped if we temporarily adopt the thematic terms that are realized in the individual characters. The characters in The Pioneers, for instance, are grouped according to their beliefs concerning the law. In The American Democrat Cooper himself distinguishes between natural laws and those arbitrary customs and manners that are specifically human in origin, but this distinction is also the organizing principle in his third novel some twenty-five years earlier. Natty Bumppo and his companion Chingachgook live in harmony with natural law, hunting when they are hungry and keeping their property “instinct” carefully in check. On the side of what he will later refer to in The American Democrat as the purely “human” and “arbitrary,” Cooper positions Hiram Doolittle, an architect in Judge Temple’s settlement, who is guided by aesthetic principles transplanted from abroad without consideration for context and Richard Jones the local sheriff who exploits the formal letter of the law in his conflict with Natty. Both Jones and Doolittle represent the empty prescription of strictly human design. Cooper recognizes the necessity of human law if “civilization” is to be achieved, but there are only to be customs and rules as they are required to achieve that end. Though our sympathies don’t lie with Judge Temple when he sentences Natty to the stocks for hunting out of season, he stands for the middle-way that in Cooper’s view leads to the state of “civilization.” Behind these differences in characters’ behavior lies their origin in the action of the human faculties as they are manifest in the traits of personality: the mechanical application of man’s cognitive power in the form of mere “fancy” on the one hand and the constructive application of “imagination” on the other, or, in terms of individual psychology, the traits of avarice and conceit opposed by Natty’s pure integrity, with the imperfect sympathy and justice of Judge Temple balanced between. The Prairie presents similar character-based design that likewise lends itself to translation into the same theme of law. The novel is dominated by Ishmael Bush and his nomadic family who represent what for Cooper was the nightmare spawned when man fully took unto himself the law-making of the deity. Ishmael and family are cast out of the Eastern settlements. Because of their insistence on untempered assertion of self-hood they cannot exist within a community; collectively they are both a perversion of Romantic ego at its most inward focused and inheritors of the mark of Milton’s Satan, the misalignment of will, reason and God’s law. Following a {29} sequence of Gothic events, that sees Ishmael Bush’s brother-in-law Abiram White kill one of Ishmael’s sons, the patriarch, with the assistance of Biblical misinterpretation, sits in judgement and condemns the killer to death by hanging. At the level of personal psychology, the Bushes are one of Cooper’s greatest successes: physically powerful, intellectually sluggish, dogmatic and evidencing the fierce loyalty of the pack, they are his most dramatic rendering of the mix of traits that mark the failure of reason and sympathy. Natty again stands against this most extreme example of the humanly arbitrary, but the middle way towards civilization is only hinted at in the genteel figures in The Prairie, Duncan Uncas Middleton and his eventual wife Inez. During the time frame that contains the main events of the story it is Natty who guides the fate of the band of whites that fate has thrown together, and there is little to suggest that the couple will be effective in guiding the growth of civilization; but the epilogue shows just that, for Middleton becomes a legislator and also gentrifies Paul Hover the robust but impulsive woodsman from Kentucky.

Cooper’s Littlepage trilogy, Satanstoe, The Chainbearer, The Redskins, traces the genesis and subsequent disintegration of the relationship between the tenants and landowners in upper New York state from the middle of the eighteenth century to the latter stages of the antebellum era. The attitudes of characters to property are the basis for the definition of the fictional figures. “Property” had, in Cooper’s time, a corresponding psychological disposition or instinct designed by God to contribute to the creation of the bonds of society and nation; beliefs and actions involving property are assumed to engage a fundamental dimension of character and are directly representative of ingrained traits, as he argues in The American Democrat. Cooper uses various generations of the Littlepage family to embody the proper democratic view of property as a symbol of invested labour and the view that both property laws and the rights of inheritance formally ensure the motivation to work is preserved and with it the possibility of “civilization.” Opposing the Littlepages’ beliefs and motivations are those of the Newcome family who represent the worst of the New England type, hypocritical, avaricious and, in their advocacy of self-serving levelling, lacking an appreciation of the natural gentleman and what for Cooper are his legitimately superior but, nonetheless, democratic tastes and characteristics. Beliefs in property and the traits that realize them in individual characters may be the most obvious dimensions of the design in the “Littlepage Manuscripts” but others enrich the three novels; Cooper opposes the New York Dutch to the Yankee, the true Indian to the ignoble whites in Indian disguise and, at least early in the series, the English aristocracy to the American gentleman.

Wyandotté is, in the formal terms of Cooper’s character poetics, one of his most successful novels. As in Satanstoe landowners and tenants are at odds and again the basic distinction as it is manifest in character traits to the reader is between the democratic gentleman, Captain Hugh Willoughby, and his Yankee tenant, Joel Strides. The settlement Willoughby founds is on the periphery of the initial scenes of the American revolution, and Strides sees the opportunity to make the founder out to be a Tory sympathizer and take his lands in the ensuing outcry. Where Wyandotté is superior to Satanstoe which follows it by three years, is in the subtle pattern of characterization that the political and historical setting allows for. The members of Willoughby’s family are divided by their differing loyalties, some sympathizing with Britain, others with America, and Willoughby himself holding the “neutral {30} ground.” This familial division serves not only as a microcosm of the larger political conflict but represents the difficulty of fully rationalizing the choices the Willoughbys make under the impetus of their shared traits of social sympathy and loyalty. Variations on loyalty are played out as well in the persons of Sergeant Joyce, who is totally committed to the beliefs of Captain Willoughby and forfeits much of the moral significance that attends loyalty born of reasoned self-examination, Joel Strides, who is loyal to the American cause out of expedience, and the Indian Wyandotté who is blindly antagonistic to the captain for whipping him in the past but profoundly indebted to Mrs. Willoughby for her charitable treatment of him during an illness.

Such an overview as this can only hint at the architectural quality of Cooper’s “design” and the complexity of the trait-based patterns in his writing which provide the grounds for the more abstract terms required to describe the formal thematic effect of Cooper’s characters. Cooper’s careful creation of patterns of characterization is facilitated both by the occurrence in his novels of clear social divisions of class or political persuasion and by the stability of the psychological constitutions of his characters. To appreciate this aspect of his writing, it is necessary only to turn to his own prefaces in order to recognize that the technique realizes his stated intent of basing novelistic design on character. Such an admission may not still the critic who complains that the casts of Cooper’s novels are too “neat” in outline, but it at least acknowledges that aesthetic grounds for such a clearly drawn pattern might exist.

The “inner life” of characters must exist to some degree. It may be directly related by some form of privileged insight on the part of the narrator but may, on the other hand, be based solely on the inferences the reader is compelled to make from the observed behavior of characters. Given the stability of the trait composition of character and the reliability of moral sense and insight in Cooper’s fictional world, it is not surprising that the narrated accounts of the “inner life” of Cooper’s characters consist almost exclusively of their highly rational self-reflections concerning what action to take and of the perceptions that inform these decisions; nor is it surprising that between characters misconstruction of inner lives rarely occurs except in cases where fools, madmen or lovers are involved. When Jason Newcome is described by Corny Littlepage as having “a certain evasive manner that caused one to suspect his sincerity,” Cooper conflates raw observation and interpretation and then moves quickly to inference. Likewise Corny’s remark that “something like displeasure settled on the fair, polished brow of Miss Mordaunt, who, I could soon see, possessed much character and high principles” demonstrates a confidence of insight that makes inner states of emotion and psychological structure self-evident (41, 91). By way of comparison, this conflation of observation, interpretation and inference is very rare in the opening character sketches found in even the early work of William Dean Howells. In A Foregone Conclusion, Don Ippolito the priest and inventor, who is tempted to leave the church by love and the entrepreneurial paradise in America, is initially described without the language of traits or temperament: “Don Ippolito gave a quick sigh, hesitated a moment, and then seized the bellpull and jerked it” (2). The absence of the language of concealed interpretation is a mark of the shift in psychological beliefs that took place between 1840 and 1870 and on a larger scale, as in A Foregone Conclusion, the opacity of single gestures forms the basis for the chronic {31} incomprehension that distances the characters from one another.

The use of first person narration occurs late in Cooper’s career in Ned Myers, the two volumes of Afloat and Ashore, and the three volumes of the “Littlepage Manuscripts,” and while this technique can facilitate the representation of the flux of experience and the unreliability of interpersonal perception and communication, such is not the case with Cooper who, as demonstrated above, largely grants to his narrators the reliable common-sense powers of insight possessed by his third-person narrators. The footnotes of the “editor” in the “Littlepage Manuscripts” serve to prevent us from acceding without any resistance to the accounts of the Littlepage narrators, but this device is a rather bloodless experiment with point of view and poses little threat to reliable interpersonal knowledge or to a knowable trait-self.

What of Cooper’s reference to traits under the guise of Natty’s sermons on the “gifts” of whites and Indians? Given that the “gifts” are intended not only to distinguish clearly the two races but to serve as the rationale for the impossibility of full intercourse, social, intellectual and sexual, between Indians and whites, they are a forthright use of trait theory in the service of social hierarchy. Yet at the same time the role of environment is hinted at sufficiently and the moral equivalence of all “gifts” is suggested often enough that, as Merle Curti observes, Cooper’s willingness to confront the threat of relativism makes him something of a “transitional herald” in American intellectual history (146); nevertheless, beyond the vistas of Natty Bumppo’s rhetoric, Cooper’s relativism is as difficult to track and pin as Magua in The Last of the Mohicans, and any moral equivalence that is implied by the notion of “gifts” certainly does not extend to withholding judgement of the Mingos, to accepting a union between Uncas and Cora or even to allowing the marriage of the Pathfinder to Mabel. The implied relativism in Natty’s abstract ruminations on racial and even class traits may translate into little more than dramatizing the temporary influence of social context on the identities of Chingachgook-John in The Pioneers or Wyandotté-Nick both of whom lose their nobility of character in the settlements. Cooper takes tentative steps towards the dissolution of stable trait-based character but he cannot bring himself to a full elaboration of the possibility that character is purely a function of socialization; relative in facts as Melville does in White Jacket where the crew all derive the “distinctness” and “peculiarities” that colour their inner whiteness from the social stations they occupy on board the “Neversink.”

To this point I have argued that while narrative theory has tended to neglect character qua character, fictional figures are so psychologically salient in the experience of the reader that an account of this effect is essential in general and certainly in the case of Cooper. Reader competences contribute significantly to the creation of character and can be usefully described as a gestalt process that involves, in the context of the novel, the principles of faculty-trait psychology, the particular historical form of which contributes to Cooper’s theory of character as design. I want to proceed on the assumption that Cooper’s readers shared the trait psychology which seems to inform his poetics and that from these shared expectations stem critical judgements of plausibility. Later critics make superficially similar judgements but they reflect different beliefs concerning human psychology.


Antebellum Critics and Cooper’s Characters

The realist trait psychology that I have argued structures Cooper’s characters and their interaction would have provided a general framework the expectations of his readers, and Cooper’s hopes of achieving “distinctness” and portraying “peculiarities” in his fictional figures thus rested on their realization in the responses of this audience. Even allowing for such shared literary and psychological conventions, critical opinion of Cooper’s characters varied markedly amongst his contemporaries. Three basic critical concerns are voiced in those reviews that consider Cooper’s achievement as a creator of character: first, the plausibility of characters, second, the variety of types that Cooper creates and, finally, the inner life of his characters.

The reviewer of The Pioneers in the journal Portfolio addresses the issue of plausibility when he praises “the fidelity of the situation” and the characters, each of whom “speaks and acts with perfect fitness and congruity” and is the “very kind” of person “who may be expected to be found in such situations” (Dekker & McWilliams 70-72). The New York Review in discussing The Last of the Mohicans laments the implausibility of the characters’ behavior: Uncas is attracted to Cora while Heyward is not; the journey of the Munro sisters through hostile territory merely to visit their father is absurd; Magua’s escapes are improbable (93). In short, even “In a high wrought romance ... the motives of the agents must be sufficient, and consistent with their actions, or our credulity is staggered.” (35) Francis Bowen reviewing Homeward Bound criticizes Cooper for having “no facility in drawing characters. With two or three exceptions his personages are mere wooden images.”

These remarks on the plausibility of Cooper’s characters need to be seen in light of two implications of faculty and trait psychology for literary characterization. First, the development of static types that consist of trait clusters, is encouraged by the nature of the psychological theory as is the view that the traits are objective. Cooper’s characters, then, draw praise as “the very kind of persons” and yet at the same time draw fire for their “woodenness,” because Cooper effectively delineates regional, racial and class types by “real” trait but is less successful, even less interested, in animating them or, perhaps, in getting them to speak, for his stilted dialogue was frequently cited as a shortcoming. Second, trait theory would not be psychological without providing some account of motivation for the purposes of animation, but traits by their very nature tend to restrict the range of action; thus traits do “explain” and allow for animate character, but the bounds of the “explainable” are easily exceeded since otherwise the trait “disposition” would cease to be and with it the novel’s “design.” The use trait theory in Cooper’s time may also show traces of those elements of Puritan faculty psychology which serve to account for “good” and “evil” as both intrinsic to the individual personality and as unchanging. Traits su as “forthrightness” and “circumspection” concretize good and evil personalities and were such traits unstable the moral absolutism that faculty psychology can serve to justify would be threatened. Quite apart from Cooper’s well documented interest in preserving a social hierarchy, then, there is reason to suppose that, actions incongruent with established character traits threaten the moral order, that intolerance for them would be {33} common to both Cooper and his readers and that there is, paradoxically, a greater likelihood that the link between author and reader will fail. Shared expectations, normally, facilitate communication, but in the case of fictional figures based on rigid traits the “band” of “signal” from author to reader is narrow because the characters are so strictly formulated and so lacking in ambiguity. Likewise, readers are less likely to engage in the play that creates hypotheses concerning characters and increases the likelihood the character will seem comprehensible under one of the proffered hypotheses. To move into the domain of seafaring analogy appropriate to Cooper, little “leeway” is available, in effect, in which expectations concerning behavior can vary, and, unable to manoeuvre, writer and reader are more likely to “sail” by one another as character is “read.” Certainly the apparent inconsistencies of behavior that conventions of realism in the tradition of Howells and James can accommodate are neither regarded as a source of psychological complexity nor likely to find favour with Cooper’s reviewers. For them Munro’s breakdown in Last of the Mohicans, for instance, cannot be other than an error in characterization given the presumed fixity of his “martial” character traits, and Harvey Birch’s heroism and subterfuge are such an exceedingly poor fit for one another that they tax the patience of even Cooper’s apologists. These examples can also seem troublesome even to modern readers who value problematic character, of course, and Cooper may well have overstepped some upper limit of tolerance for trait incoherence. Cooper’s genteel heroes demonstrate more subtly the “lack of leeway” effect. A quick perusal of the collections of reviews assembled by Marcel Clavel John P. McWilliams and George Dekker reveals opinion to be roughly equally divided on the success or failure of these figures to convince readers of their humanness.

The epistemology of Scottish common sense philosophy further shuts off the avenues of explanation for inconsistent behavior, for its uncompromising realism and its faith in the veracity of interpersonal insight argue against the possibility that character traits might be misperceived in the first place. Among Cooper’s characters are those, Magua, the Newcomes and Joel Strides, for instance, whose real traits are not immediately made apparent to us, but rather are figures whose basic personality is simply hidden; they are characters about whom we are not misled but simply not informed. Likewise, as I argued above, with the exception of madmen and lovers, extensive mistaken inference by one morally sound character concerning the motivation of another are very rare even in Cooper’s first person narratives such as Ned Myers, Afloat and Ashore, and the “Littlepage Manuscripts” where the subjective experience of reading or misreading other characters should be most easily represented in narrative.

The second preoccupation in those reviews which provide some analysis of Cooper’s technique of characterization is with the degree of social complexity evident in his work. Like the question of “plausibility” this is in part simply a mimetic issue having to do with the correspondence between the representation of reality in novels and the readers’ experience of it; but quite apart from whether the novelist composes this sort of “real” picture, social complexity in the novel increases the range of character types available and becomes an aesthetic issue. Settings that include a range of social classes allow for a more elaborate matrix of traits, the construction of more distinct characters and make character as pattern more valuable as a source of form and structure in the novel. The observation that America was {34} barren of social materials suitable to the task of writing novels was hardly uncommon in Cooper’s time, and even The Pioneers in which Judge Temple’s fiefdom contains a relative wealth of detail and a variety of types comes in for criticism in the North American Review whose critic still remarks on the absence of social complexity in Cooper’s fiction. This would suggest that the sort of social variety which this critic had in mind was of a very high order indeed, since at least three distinct social strata are evident in The Pioneers and are further subdivided by Cooper’s customary delineation of character according to allegiance to the New World or the Old. The concept of “complexity” seems in the words of this reviewer, moreover, to be a “natural taste” as opposed to the temporary aesthetic appeal of the latest fictional fashion, Gothic, social novel and so forth. Failure to provide “complexity” is, therefore, a significant shortcoming, but claims that Cooper fails in this regard are contradicted elsewhere by praise for the variety of his characters. Whether Cooper’s skills are lauded or not, the crucial point is that his readers in their concern for social complexity are attending to the overall “design” of the dramatis personae, though this critical term of Cooper’s may not be the one they adopt.

The social self and “plausibility,” insofar as the latter refers to observable cause and effect sequences, are the outward manifestations of character, those aspects of literary character that exist in the realm of hard facts. The “inner life” of characters, if itself not entirely distinct from questions of “plausibility,” also enters into the judgements of Cooper’s readers though much less frequently and extensively. Discussing both Scott and Cooper, the Russian reviewer Belinsky regrets the “absence of the inner subjective principle” in their “fictional figures.” The two romancers both resemble, complains Belinsky, “a man ... whose heart seems not to quicken its beat at the sight of good or evil, and who seems not even to suspect the existence of the inner man” (Dekker and McWilliams 193-95). Likewise, in the American South, and perhaps not so distant in some respects from Russian Romantic sensibilities, William Gilmore Simms also found fault with Cooper’s neglect of the “inner life.” Natty Bumppo, says Simms, does not exist for us except when he is “at work” and Cooper, in portraying his chief character, “gives no process of reasoning” and leaves us with only “the ideal of an abstract but innate power” (270-71). Now, “inner life,” even in experimental novels dedicated to a direct portrayal of consciousness, those of Virginia Woolf, for instance, is always created at least partly as a function of reader inference and even projection, and Cooper’s technique doesn’t preclude such activity on the part of the reader. Numerous psychologically flavoured treatments of Natty and Chingachgook are evidence of such reading into the text (House; Lawrence; Fiedler). Nor does Cooper portray Natty as completely unreflective; on the contrary his often prolix digressions at inopportune moments serve this end even though they are mimetic lapses in the eyes of many of his readers and though they create a different quality of inner life than the narration of unspoken thoughts. In what respect, then, might Cooper fail to deliver up some sense of the “inner life”? Here again, we might look to the influence of trait psychology as it exists in tandem with Scottish common sense philosophy. If a character’s traits are fixed and they are in possession of moral intuition, then the role of self-reflection seems if not superfluous then at least limited to simply enunciating the obvious. “Inner life” as a realm of experience in which psychological order breaks down and where misrepresentation of the self to itself can occur is not consistent with the combination of trait psychology and Scottish common sense philosophy. If {35} character traits are fixed, then, whether the behavior of the character demonstrates ethical sensibility or its absence, confusion of motivation itself is, again, not an issue. In either case, traits and moral instincts do not by themselves constitute a psychology that easily lends itself to conceiving and representing an inner life that is overtly complex in structure and rich in uncertainties (Perry 201). Only The Pathfinder meets Belinsky’s approval, and there Natty’s confusion concerning Mabel is more frequently viewed by Cooper’s contemporaries as trait inconsistency, an unfortunate and even implausible weakness in a character otherwise so noble and sure of hand and judgement. We should take account again of Belinsky’s nationality, for his views on Cooper’s characters anticipate a later realist sensibility in American literature that by the admission of both William Dean Howells and Henry James was nurtured by the great Russian novelists.

Later Critics and Cooper’s Characters

In the decades following Cooper’s death at mid-century, the intellectual forces that conspire to alter the American conception of character are emergent. American Romanticism, though its intuitionist epistemology too seems to provide the unassailable knowledge justified by the assumptions of the Scottish school, has, however, a nominalist strain that unsettles the correspondence between concept and reality, and ensures that theories of human character are not so easily regarded as reliable mappings of a neatly compartmentalized inner life. By the last quarter of the century, the science of psychology proper is established and the objects of the method of introspection, as it was used in the laboratories of Wundt and later those of his American disciple E. B. Tichener, become merely units of consciousness analogous to the basic elements in those theories of chemistry which served as models for the nascent science of man. Introspection continued to hold a privileged place in the investigation of human nature, but the nature of motivation and of what could be introspected changed with the rise of the psychology of adaptation at least partly under the influence of Darwin. The spread of Darwinian principles extended to the human realm, resulting in the doctrines of social Darwinism when applied to groups and playing a role in the emergence of a functionalist psychology, in the hands of Dewey and James, that could be applied to individuals. Both social and individual were, in the Darwinian scheme of things, under the influence of forces that could no longer be detected by introspection (Leahy, Ch. 7, 9).

Not long after the appearance of American functionalist psychology, the reliability of introspection and the possibility of first-hand knowledge of the self became further suspect with the rise of the psychoanalytic movement and the disappearance of a more personal order of motives from the realm of consciousness; the effect was to give even filial affection dubious origins. Trait language of course doesn’t — can’t — likewise vanish but a gradual separation occurs between traits as they describe character, and traits as an actual explanation for behavior. The American school of realism develops in the midst of this transformation of character psychology and with it emerge characters who, as Harold Kolb has said, “have mixed motives and confused consciences and ... invariably discover that life is a complicated and ambiguous affair. All of the leading characters have devious and confused struggles with the perplexities of social and moral experience” (110).

Thomas Lounsbury scatters comments on characterization throughout his {36} 1883 critical biography of Cooper, and though they don’t compose a systematic critique three concerns recur: Lounsbury complains that Cooper fails to “penetrate the secret chambers of the soul”; he is too precise in characterization and his language not sufficiently suggestive; and, finally, Cooper doesn’t provide sufficient motivation. These observations are not unrelated and taken together we see in them a shift away from the notions of “motivation” and “plausibility” as they relate to the presence of traits that explain action to the correspondence of “plausibility” to mental states of rumination and confusion that precede action. An interesting exception to the view that Lounsbury represents appears in Appleton’s Journal in 1872; the reviewer criticizes but also describes the new psychological realism: “It is a good and healthful thing, in this age of the modern novel, to look back now and then into the sturdy manliness of Cooper’s works. ... We pore nowadays over misty psychological analyses of morbid ‘problematical natures,’ given us by the brains of dyspeptic women or perilously ‘sensitive’ men (Clavel 328).

The decades bracketing the turn of the century see on the one hand ever finer-grained realism extended to its logical conclusion in the works of Virginia Woolf, for example, and on the other the growth of the theory of the novel in the writings of Henry James, Percy Lubbock, Edwin Muir and E.M. Forster. It was Forster’s distinction between “flat” and “round” characters that became and remains the most commonly used tool for discussing character qua character. The key attribute of “round” characters is their capacity for “surprise” and this criterion does not contribute to Cooper’s reputation as a novelist since it doesn’t take into account degrees of trait coherence and therefore degrees of predictability of behavior. The tendency of this stream of criticism is also towards valuing character as consciousness not character as trait-based design. Thus George Dekker in his generally appreciative study of Cooper in 1967, still maintains that Cooper’s casts of characters tend to be “too deliberate” and show “excessive neatness that is objectionable” (35). Kay House’s study Cooper’s Americans is not concerned primarily with Cooper’s narrative technique, but it remains the authoritative treatment of Cooper’s characters and while the concept of “surprise” is one of the critical tools she uses to praise certain of Cooper’s characters she nonetheless recognizes the role of types in the formal design of the novel.


Despite efforts to provide an account of the principles behind his construction of the fictional figures who populate Precaution, The Spy and twenty-nine more novels, Cooper seems not to have had great success in encouraging consistent appreciation of either his aims or the aesthetic under which he laboured and through which his characters lived after their own fashion. Critical views of Cooper’s characters are far from uniform but not nearly so arbitrary as the hues of the privateer’s vessel in Red Rover. What we are to make of the variations in the pattern of critical response if we are not to dismiss its lack of consensus as merely evidence of individual taste? Beneath the differences within and between the periods of Cooper’s fame and decline are the psychological principles that might go some way towards accounting both for how character is generated within the circuit of writer and reader and for how the circuit can weaken. Trait psychology is the theory implicit in the language of literary character, but the status of traits changes from Cooper’s time to our own: traits cease to be understood in relation to a model of the mind that consists of faculty structures from which {37} traits draw the power to explain behavior; traits become instead descriptive terms at some remove from the primary ductile reality of consciousness. Faculty and trait psychology are consonant with Cooper’s emphasis on design and with the beliefs of Cooper’s early readers, but the character types need to be a good “fit” for the expectations that guide reading or individual characters will not be convincing even though Cooper’s overall “design” may still be apparent. The psychology of consciousness and adaptation, on the other hand, is best represented by directly rendering the inner self, and Cooper’s characters neither evolved under the influence of such assumptions concerning human nature nor are they either plausible in its terms or likely to be valued as design.

Simply describing the constraints that Cooper faced when creating character has some value in itself, certainly, but it also allows us to adjust our own reading strategies to appreciate Cooper’s use of trait psychology and the importance in his work of character as narrative code and pattern. Awareness of Cooper’s concept of design increases the intertextual pleasure we take in recognizing how his patterns of social and political types are modified from novel to novel, and it allows us to recognize too the careful balance the novelist must achieve between subtlety of motivation and clarity of character traits if the figures are not to “intrude” on one another, blurring “peculiarity” and “distinctness.” Preservation of design means character is more tightly bound to consistency with traits, to a narrower range of behavior that demands less playful and novel hypothesizing to explain and give it sense. Engagement and empathy with character are more difficult to effect under such limits, and Cooper’s struggle with these aesthetic trade-offs places him as a creator of character and as a writer in a not unflattering light.

In proposing that trait psychology is essential to understanding Cooper’s use of character in narrative, I have touched only briefly on evidence that Cooper did not entirely subdue either his characters or his own awareness that life and human psychology are not easily schematized. Dick Fid’s narration of himself ought to remind us that Cooper recognized character won’t always do what it’s told and that his search for order and design is not a failure of insight but informed, guided and perhaps limited by the psychology available to him and by Cooper’s own predisposition to principled action.

Queen’s University

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