Cooperstown’s Cooper

Hugh C. MacDougall (James Fenimore Cooper Society)

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. 156-161).

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

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

Why are we meeting here, in the nearest academic institution to the tiny Village of Cooperstown? Why not in New Jersey, or Westchester County, or New York City? The answer, I think, is not just that James Fenimore Cooper spent much of his life in Cooperstown. What is more important is that Cooperstown — both as the raw new settlement of The Pioneers and as the crude Jacksonian community of Home as Found — molded Cooper’s perceptions of nature and of society, of what America was and what it ought to be.

In this perspective, Cooperstown is to be found not just in the three tales set on Otsego Lake, but in virtually everything that Cooper wrote. And it is to this Cooperstown of Cooper’s mind, and not the vanished bricks and mortar of Otsego Hall, that I want to address these introductory remarks.

In 1786 William Cooper, perhaps the first New Jersey developer to cast envious eyes on the Upper Susquehanna Valley, founded the settlement at the foot of Otsego Lake that would soon bear his name. To Cooperstown, and to the frame house overlooking the Lake he called the Manor House, he brought his family in 1790, including his infant son James.

The Cooperstown in which Jim Cooper lived as a child, and which he would later remember with affection, was in physical terms raw and crude, with stump-filled streets and half-completed buildings. It did not conform, however, either to the “frontier town” of American western legend, or to the nostalgic New England village of American folklore.

No external threat hung over Cooperstown’s early inhabitants. The expulsion of the Iroquois from their New York lands during and after the American Revolution had left only a scattering of native Americans, many of them refugees from the Hudson Valley and New England. The Indians known to Cooperstown’s settlers were like John Mohegan, living on the fringes of society, isolated and often alcoholic and demoralized. The white hunters and trappers still living in the woods around the village, prototypes of the Leatherstocking, were also relies of a dying past, their traditional role as mediators between White and Indian long gone. The fur-trade on which their livelihood had been based was rapidly receding before the cleared fields of the settlers.

Though the surge of Yankees into New York State that followed the Revolution had begun, Cooperstown’s early inhabitants had cosmopolitan origins — and included Englishmen, Scots, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, Palatine Germans, and French.

William Cooper recruited settlers wherever he could, and many followed him north from New Jersey. Not all were mere yeomen; after the French Revolution William Cooper acted as land agent for French aristocrats and their {157} followers seeking refuge in the New World, and a number — including The Pioneers’ “M. Le Quoi” — lived for at least a time in Otsego County. It was not just happenstance that Talleyrand, the famous French diplomat, came to visit Cooperstown in 1795, here to admire the beautiful Hannah Cooper.

Young Jim Cooper enjoyed a privileged childhood. The youngest child of the family, he was a pampered favorite of his mother, and perhaps of his adored older sister Hannah as well. As son of the powerful Judge Cooper, he roamed freely in the village and its surroundings, and was no doubt both welcomed and deferred to by villagers anxious to keep on the right side of his father. A bit, perhaps, like a college president’s kid on a campus today! A little wild, as his sisters thought, young Jim explored the woods around the Lake, and came to know nature in a way that his eighteenth-century father — who was proudly described as having cut down “two millions of trees” — could never have understood or appreciated. Moreover, equipped with sharp and retentive eyes and a keen ear for dialect, young Cooper profited from his unique opportunity to observe the varied characters of the growing community through which he moved so freely.

But his life was not completely idyllic. Judge William Cooper must have been a difficult father to live with, or to try to live up to, “Half silk-stocking, half leather-stocking,” he could speak eloquently in Congress on the sanctity of treaties and the evils of deficit financing, and a week later wrestle with farmers in front of Cooperstown’s Red Lion Tavern. But though Judge Cooper was devoted to the welfare of his settlers, he was an imperious man who brooked no opposition and expected his underlings — and certainly his sons — to do as he commanded. Bigger than life, and held in some awe by those around him, William Cooper was not a safe man to cross, as Jedediah Peck and others found to their sorrow. It is little wonder that young Jim, like his older brother William, sowed more than a few wild oats when he encountered the comparative freedom of college life.

Nevertheless, the community of Cooperstown, with its camaraderie among men of different social classes, and its real — if perhaps reluctant — deference to the leadership of Judge Cooper, became a societal model for Cooper the novelist. It was, as he described it later in Home as Found, a pastoral period, with “much of that sort of kind.feeling and mutual interest, which men are apt to manifest towards each other, when they are embarked in an enterprise of common hazards. ... ” and in which “men, and even women, break bread together, and otherwise commingle, that, in different circumstances, would be strangers.”

This ordered but closely knit community that Cooper remembered from his childhood is one that as novelist he would seek to recreate many times, on land and at sea, and for which he felt all the nostalgia and affection evident in The Pioneers. But, it was also, he seems to have realized at least subconsciously, a community of childhood remembrance which could not persist in real life. In novel after novel, the feeling of community is no sooner achieved than it falls apart from greed, bigotry, and the weakness of its leaders, and the community is punished. Thus the failed utopia of The Crater sinks into the sea; and Captain Willougby’s microcosmic little world in Wyandotté, its failings symbolized by its unhung protective gates, is massacred by savages.

{158} As he grew into manhood, Jim Cooper left his father’s village for school and college, acquired the first-hand knowledge of the sea he would later transform into a dozen novels, and found a bride in the self-effacing and supportive Susan DeLancey, who was to provide an oasis of happiness and domestic tranquillity in an otherwise turbulent life.

In 1813 Cooper brought his young family back to Cooperstown, to try life as a gentleman farmer at Fenimore Farm. Cooper was a progressive farmer and an active civic leader, serving as a Vestryman of Christ Church, and as a founder and Corresponding Secretary of the Otsego Agricultural Society, which in 1817 sponsored New York State’s first County Fair. Once again he came to know the village of his childhood, this time during the benign social epoch that historians have termed the Era of Good Feelings. But neither his farming nor a variety of speculations proved financially successful, and the successive deaths of his four older brothers and the entanglements of his father’s estate led him to near bankruptcy. In 1817, following his mother’s death, Cooper returned to his wife’s Westchester County, but remained in financial difficulties.

In 1820, then, James Cooper was still without a true vocation, still struggling — as the Freudians have suggested — with the memory of an all-too successful and powerful father. Then, reputedly in response to a challenge from his wife, he turned unexpectedly, and without any apprenticeship, to the novel writing that would rapidly make him world-famous. Within a few years he had built himself a secure place in the small but growing artistic community of New York City, and in 1826 he embarked with his family on a long European sojourn that would solidify his fame, and enormously broaden his cultural and intellectual horizons.

In 1834, after seven years abroad, Cooper — now calling himself Fenimore Cooper — returned to America a bitter and angry man, announced to the world that would write no more, retreated to the still-remote village of Cooperstown, bought back his father’s Otsego Wall, and went into virtual hiding. Just why Cooper thus fled the world has never been fully explained, at least to my satisfaction. Some of the elements are well known, among them the rejection, by American officials and by the Whig-dominated American press, of Cooper’s spirited defense of American public finance before the French National Assembly, and the increasingly sour reviews and consequent poor sales of novels Cooper had intended to reflect and defend American political values. But the full story of what was clearly a major emotional trauma has never been told — certainly not by Cooper himself, who, despite enormous volubility on all public subjects, was always reticent about himself. What seems certain is that, in some deep sense, Cooper sought to come home.

But, as Cooper wrote his wife after first setting foot again in Cooperstown, in 1834, “the faces of the people are mostly strangers to me.” It was more than individuals who had changed. America itself was transformed from the comparatively ordered world of Cooper’s childhood; it had changed significantly even during the seven years Cooper had lived abroad. In terms both of Cooper’s Jeffersonian vision of a stable, agrarian democracy, and of the standards of culture and manners he had learned to appreciate in Europe, most of this change was for the worse. The new America was politically freer than ever-before, which the Democratic Cooper could only applaud. But it was subject to a growing tyranny of populist mediocrity, tnat disparaged social refinement and intellectual activity as elitist and aristocratic. It seemed {159} dominated by commercial and speculative greed rather than solid economic growth.

The Cooperstown of the 1830s and 40s was a microcosm of America, with much of its population transient New Englanders who were mere sojourners on their gradual way west to the flatter and more fertile lands of Western New York and the Great Lakes. Though a few old inhabitants remained, and were, as Cooper said, “glad to see me,” the village had changed greatly, and few remembered the traditions of William Cooper and The Pioneers. It was not a community in which a sensitive and often pugnacious writer like James Fenimore Cooper could easily find a happy niche, and though he persevered until the end of his life in 1851, the relationship between town and author remained a troubled one.

For several years, modifying a little his renunciation of the pen, Cooper turned to non-fiction. He published five lively books of European travels, a monumental history of the United States Navy, and a perceptive collection of socio-political essays, The American Democrat. But fiction remained Cooper’s true vocation, and he returned to it in 1838 with the biting satire on the village to which he had returned called Home as Found.

Much, perhaps too much, has been made of the Three Mile Point controversy of the 1830s, which pitted Cooper’s firm defence of a family picnic spot an the lake against the villagers’ mistaken notion that Judge Cooper had somehow left it to the community. Cooper had himself to blame for this, since he insisted on including the controversy in Home as Found, and on launching a series of successful, if unpopular, libel suits against newspapers publishing distorted accounts of the squabble. On the facts, Cooper’s position was entirely correct; but the Point is today, by purchase from the Cooper family, a Cooperstown village park, so perhaps the villagers really won in the end.

In the novel, Cooper set his critique of Jacksonian society in the Templeton of The Pioneers, and used as protagonists the descendants of Judge Temple, returned to America after a long residence in Europe. He could not, therefore, effectively refute the charge that Home as Found was in some sense autobiographical, and that the caustic views of its characters were his own. The Whig-dominated New York press was positively gleeful in its accusations, based on a careless reading of the text, that the novel proved Cooper, the self-proclaimed Democrat, to be in fact an effete, aristocratic, and unpatriotic snob. Home as Found’s sharp portraits of Jacksonian Americans like the versatile hustler Aristabulus Bragg, equally qualified “to practise law, or keep school, or to go to Congress, or to turn trader, or to saw lumber,” the weather vane journalist Steadfast Dodge, adjusting his views to the slightest shifts of public opinion, or the semiliterate but pretentious gossip, Mrs. Abbott, cut too close to home.

Cooper’s relationship with the village in which he had settled remained an ambiguous one. An 1845 New York State gazetteer describing Cooperstown discusses William Cooper at some length but ignores his author son. As Cooper returned to the writing of novels, and his literary reputation again climbed, his local position strengthened and he was recognized as a notable of whom the village could boast. If he rarely mingled with Cooperstown’s ordinary citizens, his friends attributed his apparent aloofness to literary preoccupation; the mind of the man who failed to recognize you on the street {160} was roaming somewhere far away in the wilderness or at sea. But it was only after his death that monuments to Cooper were erected, and that names from the Leatherstocking Tales were appropriated by Cooperstown merchants and applied to local landmarks.

It has been suggested, by Stephen Railton in his psychoanalytic biography of Cooper, that by returning home to Otsego Hall Cooper sought to take over his father’s role. But in marked contrast to his father, James Fenimore Cooper did not seek a place in the public life of Cooperstown. Rather, he led here an essentially private life divided between his writing at Otsego Hall and his essentially amateur agricultural efforts at Chalet Farm overlooking the eastern shore of Lake Otsego. Other local activities included the Gothic-revival remodelling of Christ Episcopal Church in 1840, and leading a village Irish famine relief appeal in 1848. But Cooper’s extensive and often stormy public life was conducted at state and national levels, and expressed in political novels, articles, and extensive correspondence.

As his disenchantment with his countrymen grew, Cooper was increasingly attracted to the beauty and serenity of Lake Otsego. The lake gradually becomes “The Glimmerglass.” In The Pioneers, written in 1823, Lake Otsego exists purely as background to the village and woods; even the scenes set on its shore mention it only in passing. In Home as Found, written in 1838, Lake Otsego plays a larger role, with the placid rowing expeditions of Captain Truck and the Commodore serving as vivid contrast to the brawling of the villagers on shore. Finally, in the last and perhaps the greatest of the Leatherstocking Tales, The Deerslayer, written in 1841, the Lake becomes the focus of the story, indeed almost its central character, and by setting the tale in the 1740s Cooper has dispensed entirely with the village and its inhabitants. Cooper’s intense sense of place has been diverted from community to man’s relationship with nature.

If we turn back to Cooper’s first novel of Cooperstown, The Pioneers, we find, full-blown or in embryo, many of the themes that characterize his work as a whole: The beauty of natural creation, as a pathway to God as much as for its own sake. The American myth of the frontiersman, embodied in Natty Bumppo, the Leatherstocking. The tragically insoluble conflicts of justice between Indian and settler, between loyalist and patriot, between natural law and human law. The struggle between scheming Yankee and cosmopolitan Yorker. For each generation, Cooper offers something that seems newly relevant. Today readers may turn to The Pioneers for its message on the conflict between ecological preservation and unbridled development or that between community good and individual greed.

James Fenimore Cooper drew on many aspects of his own life, experiences and feelings in composing his works. Like other novelists, he found in fictional creation a means of expressing ideas and emotions that he was not prepared to deal with more directly. But none seem more important than those stemming from his romantically remembered childhood in Cooperstown, from his adult disappointment with the social order into which it developed, and from his abiding and deepening love for the lake, hills, and woods that surround it.

The homes in which James Fenimore Cooper lived are long gone, though many buildings survive that he would recognize. The village of Cooperstown has grown, changed, and matured, and is today a mecca for interests as diverse {161} as baseball, history, and opera. But it remains a small country village, with much of the scenery and landscape he loved still intact.

As we gather to celebrate the bicentennial of Cooper’s birth, and to enhance our knowledge of and appreciation for his monumental life work, I invite you to devote a little time to exploring the environment which so shaped his life, and by consequence the vision embodied in his books.

Cooperstown, NY