Cooper’s Emblems of History

Ernest H. Redekop (University of Western 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. 40-54).

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

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

Recent Doonesbury strips by Garry Trudeau picture the all-together-too historical Donald Trump ordering the decorating of the gigantic bathrooms on the Trump Princess. Wallowing in post-modernist kitsch, the Trump imagination moves unhesitatingly and without historical hang-ups from the parting of the Red Sea to the more recent coronation of Catherine the Great and (without pausing) to the almost contemporary eviction of his tenants. The depiction in the foyer to what is presumably the Grand Bathroom of the labors of Hercules in the manner “of Michelangelo. Or Picasso. One of those famous guys” adds an entirely new meaning to the efforts of someone like Pope’s Belinda. The truly magic realism of his proposed two-dimensional library is its apparent ability to transform all historical, philosophical, mythical and literary complexities into an image for public consumption. The unashamed vanity of the text is only matched by the even more unbridled egotism of the sub-text, which tells us that all art, and indeed all history, may be appropriated easily and instantly if you have enough money and enough chutzpah. Trudeau’s brilliant pun, “Trump l’oeil” conflates the problem faced by any critic of the historical novel in dealing with the relations among historical fact, fictional representation, natural and human emblems and ever-slippery “truth.” It is a kind of conceptual cloverleaf, in which history, fiction, landscape and human artifacts intersect. Since an analysis of the complex historical fictional relations in Cooper’s novels would be beyond the scope of an essay like this, I intend to examine some elements of this intersection in four of: Cooper’s novels, The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Heidenmauer (1832), Satanstoe (1845) and The Crater (1847). In these novels, I will focus only on what one might call “emblems” — using the word metaphorically for landscapes or human artifacts, or “emblematic moments,” i.e., passages in the narrative which act as centripetal forces, condensing the meaning of the historical-literary continuum into visual and temporal set-pieces. All four novels, in one way or another, emphasize the historical and emblematic functions not only of landscape but of ruins within landscape, of human artifacts reduced by war, and time to fragments. In Cooper’s case, these fragments are not “shored against [his own] ruins,” but enlarged by the writer’s imagination to mementi mori which typify a universal and ultimately divine plan for history, moving through time to an eschatological revelation.

Although the choice of these particular novels may seem somewhat arbitrary, they illustrate techniques in the writing of historical fiction which are typical of Cooper’s writing. The Last of the Mohicans and Satanstoe, although separated by almost two decades in their publication, operate within a single historical context of only about one year — roughly from the beginning of August, 1757 to the end of July, 1758, the period from Montcalm’s attack on Fort William Henry to his defeat of Abercrombie’s attack on Fort Ticonderoga. In each of these novels, I will deal only with Cooper’s symmetrical framing of the central historical event within a pair of extended descriptions of landscape and human accessories, descriptions which act, like {41} coulisses to focus our attention on the foreground of a temporal/spatial picture whose theme is historical change.

The other two novels, The Heidenmauer and The Crater, both concentrate symbolic and allegorical meaning in human artifacts but are, in some respects, opposite in their relations to history. In the former, Cooper begins with three ruins which trigger his imaginative reconstruction of early sixteenth-century history in the Palatinate. In the latter, he creates an analogue in the South Seas to the discovery of America and the progress of American civilization; this historical analogue becomes an allegory of the rise and fall of empires, an allegory, in turn, allegorized by the concluding reference to another allegory, Thomas Cole’s series of paintings, The Course of Empire.

The Landscapes of The Last of the Mohicans

In the first two novels, Cooper describes a landscape which had itself hardly changed in the years between the time of the historical action in The Last of the Mohicans and Satanstoe (1757-58), and 1825, when he visited Lake George. Almost unaffected by the quickly-changing affairs of soldiers, the Lake becomes an emblem of non-human time, of another kind of history altogether, one closer to the larger cycles of nature and of myth.

Cooper begins and ends the relatively short description of the battle, surrender and massacre at Fort William Henry with descriptions of landscape; these stand like the outer wings of a triptych, flanking the central historical action of the novel.

Keeping in mind the pervasive influence of late eighteenth century associationalism on Cooper, we see these landscapes not only as settings for action but as techniques for arousing carefully choreographed associations in the reader’s mind. These are both temporal and affective, so that the landscapes and their human accessories become emblems of human mutability.

Cooper leads up to the high point of the perspective in the first landscape of this pair (Albany, 1983, 140) by describing an encounter between the American party and one of Montcalm’s sentries, who challenges the party in French. Major Duncan Heyward, fluent in the language, passes himself off as a “’capitaine de chasseurs’” (137) and says he is conducting the women to General Montcalm. The encounter is between enemies; but the object of the Americans is to avoid killing the sentry and to slip past him by pretending to be friends. The conversation, in which Cora joins as easily as Heyward, is polished and affable. The sentinel, “little suspecting an enemy of so much effrontery,” is thrown completely off his guard, and allows the party to pass, humming a French tune to himself (“vive le vin, vive l’amour”) — the last happy sound he makes before the “long and heavy groan” with which he takes leave of wine, love and life, as Chingachgook tomahawks and scalps him (137).

This action, meritorious as far as Chingachgook is concerned, but a violation of the white idea of fair play, sets the tone for the “bloody path” (138) along the pond toward the Fort. Still unable to accept the sudden killing, the Americans look “in vain for the form [the sentinel] they had so {42} recently seen stalking along its silent shores, while a low and regular wash of the little waves, by announcing that the waters were not yet subsided, furnished a frightful memorial of the deed of blood they had just witnessed.” (139)

This is an clear example of the way in which, according to associationist psychology, a landscape may acquire associations. For Cooper, as for other novelists and painters of the nineteenth century, history is never simply a matter of human acts or events; these become more or less quickly inscribed in nature itself, so that the landscape becomes a kind of palimpsest on which a sensitive observer, skilled in the reading of the aesthetic signs of a given culture, may read human history. This is not merely the projection of the emotions of a narrator onto a landscape; nor is it simply that relation between human emotions and their natural corollary which Ruskin misnamed the “pathetic fallacy.” It is rather the use of a language of description which was then, and remains now, instantly readable to anyone versed in the aesthetic conventions of the language.

The killing of the French sentinel and the resulting associations acquired by the landscape anticipate the much larger scale of the coming central historical action and landscapes. Hawkeye guides the party, threading a “’delicate needle,’” as he says, through the Indian scouts of Montcalm toward the Fort, crossing an antagonistic landscape which serves not only as realistic setting for the action but as a foil for the landscape which is to come. It is still night; they walk in deep shadows cast by the “high and broken summits” of the mountains, “over ground ragged with rocks, and intersected with ravines,” finally hitting on a path along which they climb to the summit of the mountain overlooking the Horican at the very moment that, day breaks:

When they issued from the stunted woods which clung to the barren sides of the mountain, upon a flat and mossy rock, that formed its summit, they met the morning, as it came blushing above the green pines of a hill that lay on the opposite side of the valley of the Horican. (161)

Their viewpoint from the top is significant for two seemingly diverse reasons: they are able to “’spy out the nakedness of Montcalm’s camp from this spot,’” as Hawkeye says, giving the scout’s utilitarian evaluation, and they are also able to see a landscape as evocative as any imagined or drawn by artists of landscape, a landscape that meets almost every criterion of the beautiful and the picturesque, in its scope, its variety of islands and variegated shorelines, its “fantastic headlands,” its vapors that open a narrow view to the north, from which all present dangers have come. The threat in this landscape lies partly in the forgetful domesticity implied in the narrator’s comparison of the “clouds of light vapor” to “smokes of hidden cottages”; but it also lies in the “single, solitary, snow-white cloud” which appears to mark “the spot beneath which lay the silent pool of the ‘bloody pond’” (140).

Immediately after this passage comes the description of the artillery bombardment of the Port by Montcalm’s forces, a moment which corresponds in {43} history to 5 August 1757, and which led inevitably to the surrender of the Fort on 9 August and to the notorious Massacre.

I omit consideration of this central historical event, the account of which is so brief that we may well believe Susan Fenimore Cooper’s contention that although the “siege of Fort William Henry is the central point about which revolve all the incidents” of the novel, “it was not the intention of the author to write a historical romance”; rather, he “purposely avoided taking that course, as he wished to throw the chief interest of the narrative over the forest scenes, and some few individuals among the pale-faces and the red men” (Boston, 1876, xxii).

While Cooper had more than enough historical information on which to base his fictional narrative, and while his description of the massacre is probably as accurate as Parkman’s later account (a version which embellished the facts with interesting inventions), his description of the landscape of 12 August, 1757, three days after the fateful day of the Fort’s surrender after the battle is almost entirely an imaginative construct.

At the centre of this landscape lies that symbol of human mutability, the ruined structure, accompanied by the more ephemeral ruins of dead humans, blackened by the heat of the preceding days and now “stiffening in their deformity, before the blasts of a premature November.” The key phrase here is “frightful change” — change in the central human artifact, the fort, in the weather and thus in the landscape. The snowy vapors of the first landscape with their opening vistas have given way to “an impenetrable mass of vapor” which hides the sun. Lake George, the Horican, no longer reflects the beauty and serenity of nature. The Claudian atmosphere of the first landscape, critically important to the lover of the picturesque for its numinous ability to stimulate the imagination, is gone; in its place is the harsh detail of Mantegna painting:

That humid and congenial atmosphere which commonly adorned the view, veiling its harshness, and softening its asperities, had disappeared, and the northern air poured across the waste of water so harsh and unmingled, that nothing was left to be conjectured by the eye, or fashioned by the Fancy (181).

Three days after the massacre, the landscape shows macabre signs of resurrection, “the earliest fruits of a soil that had been fattened with human blood” (181).

The apparent objectivity of the passage is soon transformed into both a moral and an aesthetic analogue to the historical action:

The whole landscape, which, seen by a favoring light, and in a genial temperature, had been found so lovely, appeared now like some pictured allegory of life, in which objects were arrayed in their harshest but truest colours, and without the relief of any shadowing.

The solitary and arid blades of grass arose from the passing {44} gusts fearfully perceptible; the bold and rocky mountains were too distinct in their barrenness, and the eye even sought relief, in vain, by attempting to pierce the illimitable void of heaven, which was shut to its gaze by the dusky sheet of ragged and driving vapour (181).

The differences between the two landscapes are expressed in the language of late eighteenth-century aesthetic convention, in which the concept of visual relief is central. The major difference between the two landscapes is in the nature of the observer’s perception, relieved by the soft atmosphere and details of the first landscape, but finding no relief in the second. The earlier landscape allows some play to the romantic imagination; the observer sees both beauty and sublimity, hardly differentiated, so that the terror which is such an integral part of the Burkeian Sublime is missing here. The possibility of miraculous rescue still exists; all is not yet lost. In the later landscape, every detail, from the wind that acts like a second invasion from the north to the ravens stooping “to their hideous banquet,” is designed to communicate to the reader the “truth” of the historical event which has intervened between the two descriptions, not through the piling-up of historical “facts” about the Massacre, but through a poetic discourse operating through an accepted aesthetic convention on the emotions of the reader. There is no escape for the observer, however; the stark immediacy of this world, from blade of grass to mountain, cannot be avoided through an aesthetic exercise within the convention. This is the sublimity of desolation, as Cooper describes it in his travel book on Switzerland, and from this sublimity all delight is missing.

The Landscapes of Satanstoe

The kind of historical “truth” presented by Cooper in the landscapes preceding and succeeding the Massacre at Fort William Henry is, of course, different in kind from that which most historians think that they are communicating. It is close to the “truth” of Richard III or the Henry plays, showing a remarkable awareness of the instability and unpredictability of history as seen from a close perspective, on the one hand, and of pattern and order emerging from randomness in history as seen from a more distant perspective.

In his preface to Satanstoe, a novel closely related to The Last of the Mohicans in historical context, Cooper expresses an anti-deterministic view of history which is remarkably in tune with contemporary chaos theory:

It is perhaps a fault of your professed historian, to refer too much to philosophical agencies, and too little to those that are humbler. The foundations of great events are often remotely laid in very capricious and uncalculated passions, motives, or impulses. Chance has usually as much to do with the fortunes of states, as with those of individuals; or, if there be calculations connected with them at all, they are the calculations of a power superior to any that exists in man (Boston, 1876, v). 1

Although the central historical event in the novel is the {45} British-American attack on Fort Ticonderoga in July, 1758, less than a year after the French capture of Fort William Henry, the “great events” have perhaps as much to do with the history of Cooper’s own time, which, in the year of the novel’s action (1758), was still almost a century in the future but which, in 1845, the year of publication, was actually happening, viz., the Anti-Rent War on the lands of Stephen Van Rensselaer, the recently deceased Great Patroon. The history of the Littlepage/Mordaunt patent begins in this novel, but reaches its climax only in the third novel of the trilogy, The Redskins. This kind of long-drawn-out development is necessary, since Cooper’s concept of a well-ordered society — offering rights and demanding responsibilities in return — cannot be made meaningful without his painstaking establishment of the (white European) concept of ownership and the consequent rightness of the Littlepage/Mordaunt claim. In this context, we may see Cornelius’s description of the historical attack on Fort Ticonderoga as a full-dress, large-scale rehearsal, not only for the War of Independence but, much more specifically, for his description of the seemingly much less important (fictional) Indian attack on the patent of Ravensnest. Abercrombie’s historical abysmal defeat thus foreshadows not only the historical failure of the British in America but the failure of the fictional attack on Ravensnest, a defeat for the Indians who have not accepted a covenant, and indeed a system of law, which they do not recognize. This defeat anticipates, in turn, the defeat of the false Indians (the disguised white anti-renters) in The Redskins.

The attack on Fort Ticonderoga, then, is itself emblematic history, and its description, as accurate as most historical accounts of the time, is flanked by another emblematic diptych of landscapes. Once again, Cooper gives us pictures before and after a major historical event, and once again he encapsulates the event’s historical significance for the novel within natural setting and human artifact.

The first landscape is, in fact, composed of two views, the first on the evening of 4 July 1758, the day before Abercrombie’s army sets out from its encampment near the ruins of Fort William Henry. Although Cooper’s provincial narrator has never left his native colony, he nevertheless makes a comparison to Alpine and Mediterranean landscapes which he bases on hearsay, but which for Cooper makes an essential point about the unique sublimity of an American landscape that is about to become the scene of yet another European conflict. Passages such as this description owe their aesthetic schema not only to Cooper’s own critical eye and his knowledge of European aesthetic conventions but also to his intimate first-hand knowledge of European scenes. The picturesque desiderata apparent in the first view are more detailed than in the 1826 view in The Last of the Mohicans:

Beneath us, at the distance of near a thousand feet, lay a lake of the most limpid and placid water, that was beautifully diversified in shape, by means of bluffs, bays, and curvatures of the shores, and which had an extent of near forty miles. We were on its eastern margin, and about one third of the distance from its southern to its northern end. Countless islands lay almost under our feet, rendering the mixture of land and water at that particular point, as various and fanciful as the human imagination {46} could devise. 2 To the north, the placid sheet extended a great distance, bounded by rocky precipices, passing by a narrow gorge into a wider and larger estuary beyond. To the south, the water lay expanded to its oval termination, with here and there an island to relieve the surface. In that direction only were any of the results of human industry to be traced. Everywhere else the gorges, the receding valleys, the long ranges of hills, and the bald caps of granite, presented nothing to the eye but the unwearying charms of nature. Far as the eye could reach, mountain behind mountain [see Pope’s “alps on alps”], the earth was covered with its green mantle of luxuriant leaves, such as vegetation bestows on a virgin soil beneath a beneficent sun. The rolling and variegated carpet of the earth resembled a firmament reversed, with clouds composed of foliage (355-356).

Note again the broad sweep of the composition, foreground, middle ground and background, its aerial perspectives, its suggestions of immense fecundity and, above all, its scope for the free exercise of the imagination.

All of these elements find their complements in the narrator’s view at sunrise the next morning:

A glorious sight awaited me! The sun had just tipped the mountain-tops with gold, while the lake and the valleys, the hill-sides even, and the entire world beneath, still reposed in shadow. It appeared to me like the awakening of created things from the sleep of nature ... I could only gaze on the wonderful picture presented by the strong contrast between the golden hill-tops and their shadowed sides — the promises of day and the vestiges of night (357).

Cornelius is excited by the sheer spectacle and the chiaroscuro of the scene, but Susquesus draws his attention to the human elements in the picture — the embarkation of Abercrombie’s army (on 5 July). Immersed in nature, but not in the European aesthetic conventions which underlie the narration, unlike Cooper’s narrator, the Onondago finds “the principal point of interest” in the progress of the army. Nevertheless, the principal effect is visual, of a harmonious union of natural tranquility and a superimposed human order:

Abercrombie’s army was actually in motion! Sixteen thousand men had embarked in boats, and were moving toward the northern end of the lake, with imposing force, and a most beautiful accuracy. The unruffled surface of the lake was dotted with the flotilla, boats in hundreds stretching across it in long, dark lines.

Cooper has placed his narrator so that he perceives this military maneuver all at once, creating for the reader an historic emblem of apparently unlimited potential for conquest, an emblem embedded in a landscape which, because of the language of its description, is filled with the implied promise of a new day:

{47} The last brigade of boats had just left the shore when I first saw this striking spectacle, and the whole picture lay spread before me at a single glance. America had never before witnessed such a sight; and it may be long before she will again witness such another. For several minutes I stood entranced; nor did I speak until the rays of the sun had penetrated the dusky light that lay on the inferior world, as low as the bases of the western mountains (357).

The final version of the first landscape, then, is a carefully developed description in three parts, in which the narrator’s aesthetic focus on landscapes at sunset and sunrise gives way to an emblematizing of a non-fictional history with which his readers were familiar.

Again, I omit consideration of most of the succeeding narrative. Cooper describes the final actions and the death of Lord Howe, whom Cornelius had described as being “’the very soul of the army,’” and whom Bulstrode now describes as “’literally the soul of this entire force’” — both phrases anticipating Francis Parkman’s description of Howe, almost forty years later, as the “soul” of the army (Montcalm and Wolfe, 418). He focusses almost entirely on the military actions of the fictional characters, whose familiarity with Indian guerilla tactics offers both implicit and explicit criticism of the foolhardiness of Abercrombie’s tactics after the death of Howe. The detailed description of close combat, which takes up half of Chapter 23, acts as a fictional counterweight to the grand historical emblems which precede and follow the rout of the British-American army.

Important as this description is, I focus here only on the narrator’s description of the retreat of Abercrombie’s army down Lake George. Cooper carefully establishes the symmetry of the descriptions before and after the attack by placing the second at the same viewpoint, at the same time of day and in the same natural circumstances as the first. Unlike the corresponding second description in The Last of the Mohicans, this one does not present a radically different landscape. The main difference is in the presentation of the human accessories to the landscape, in those elements which have changed by history:

... all the rest of that vast flotilla were scattered along the placid surface of the lovely sheet, forming a long, straggling line of dark spots that extended to the beach under Fort William Henry in one direction, and as far as eye could reach in the other (382).

The instant visual effect of the straggling line of boats on the reader is to recall immediately the earlier effect of the symmetrical, flowing lines of the flotilla on its way to battle. As an emblem it emphasizes the entropic direction of history seen from the losing side, the disorder verging on chaos in the British-American army. Cooper might have presented this human material elsewhere; here he takes the narrator from the kind of immediate contact with suffering and death which the reader has already encountered in the narrator’s detailed description of attack and flight (a passage which, one suspects, might have influenced Stephen Crane), and places him where he can only imagine {48} them. The importance of this panoramic view lies not only in the ironic contrast to the first landscape, but in the difference between its sweep and the preceding details of hand-to-hand combat, in which isolated disasters appear but where there can be no meditation on the enormity of the historical catastrophe. The aesthetic distance of the narrator thus functions also as the kind of psychological distance required for an overview of an event’s importance in a larger historical context. All the brutal details, isolated in themselves, become, like Gainsborough’s “scratches and marks,” part of this imaginative creation. The picture offers a paysage moralisé, a spatial and temporal setting in which human life appears mutable indeed, even in its grandest affairs.

The Ruins of The Heidenmauer

A profound sense of the human mutability revealed in history underlies the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fascination with ruins. The idea that ruins are especially evocative emblems of the course of human history, however, is apparent in Flemish, Italian and German landscapes from at least the fourteenth century. It preoccupied the imaginations of eighteenth-century European writers and artists and thus influenced greatly the imaginations of nineteenth-century Americans. One need only think of the rediscovery of an imagined past in the works of Piranesi, in Gothic romance and in the emergence of the ideas of associationalism, which continued to influence American writers well into the nineteenth century.

We may think of ruins as signs in a language conveying both complex symbolic and conceptual meaning within a cultural context which acknowledged their functions and more or less agreed on their cultural connotations. The more powerful connotations were affective; but the emotions aroused by ruins depended on associations projected by the schema-informed mind of the observer onto the object — castle, abbey, cottage, bridge, viaduct, triumphal arch. These associations resided in the memory; they could be imaginative or historical — often they were both. The imaginations of nineteenth-century American writers, formed by European aesthetic conventions, encountered such associations almost exclusively in Europe, which, as Irving explains in his “Account of Himself,” “held forth all the charms of storied and poetical association. ... the masterpieces of art, the refinements of highly cultivated society, the quaint peculiarities of ancient and local custom. The essential difference between the New and the Old Worlds, he continues, anticipating Cooper’s distinction between “recollections” and hopes,” is that America is “full of youthful promise,” while Europe is “rich in the accumulated treasures of age.” He expresses the romantic love for the past which is a crucial element in his own writing and which he shares with Scott, to whom he dedicates The Sketch Book. The very ruins of Europe, he adds, “told the history of times gone by, and every mouldering stone was a chronicle.”

I longed to wander over the scenes of renowned achievement — to tread, as it were, in the footsteps of antiquity — to loiter about the ruined castle — to meditate on the falling tower — to escape, in short, from the common-place realities of the present, and lose myself among the shadowy grandeurs of the past (The Author’s Account of Himself, from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, {49} Gent., New York, 1979, 592.

This kind of aesthetic sensibility not only added romance to the American’s view of Europe; it could operate in reverse in the imaginations of both Europeans and Americans to clothe American history and landscape with a corresponding, although different, kind of romance. Antonin Dvorak, much later in the century (1893), found in America the sublime nature and myth which inform the Ninth Symphony, which, at the end of the score, he named “From the New World.” The possibility of a radical view of the magnificence and strangeness of this world must have been in the mind of H. T. Tuckerman when in 1859 he advocated a certain kind of psychological and aesthetic distancing for readers of Cooper’s novels:

To be thoroughly appreciated, the American novels of Cooper must be read, even by his countrymen, abroad. His fresh and spirited pictures of colonial life in the West gain infinitely, as regards vividness and effect, by the perspective attainable only from a European stand-point. It is when surrounded by the visible tokens of ancient civilization, — when the effigies of national maturity and decline, the arts, the polity, the social conventionalities which centuries have made mellow, are visible and audible, — that the young life and the virgin nature of the world laid open by Columbus impress the imagination and wind the heart (“James Fenimore Cooper,” North American Review, 89 [October, 1859], 298).

These “visible tokens of ancient civilization” are central to any interpretation of The Heidenmauer, a novel which, like the other novels I have been discussing, concentrates at least some of its symbolic and allegorical meaning in human artifacts. The Heidenmauer would not have been written had it not been for Cooper’s unanticipated detour from his journey up the Rhine westward through the Hartt Mountains to Paris, and his subsequent discovery of the three ruins near Durkheim (since 1853, Bad Durkheim) which triggered his imaginative and historical imagination. Forming a pervasive spatial and temporal background to the narrative is the ancient ruin of the Heidenmauer, a massive pile of stones perhaps six kilometres long, now believed by archaeologists to be a Celtic artifact perhaps 2500 years old, but which for Cooper, as for archaeologists of the nineteenth century, appeared to be a pre-Christian Roman structure eighteen or nineteen centuries old. Despite the title of the novel, however, the two central artifacts are Limburg Abbey, whose destruction is the main plot, and the Hardenburg, a castle not yet ruined at the time of the fictional narrative (the early sixteenth century), but destroyed by the French in 1794 and thus a ruin at the time Cooper was writing.

In 1025, Kaiser Konrad II began the conversion of his ancestral fort, the Limburg, into an Abbey; in 1030, he laid the cornerstone, on the same day on which he also laid the cornerstone of Speyer Cathedral. Its ruins, together with those of the Hardenburg and the truly antique Heidenmauer itself, signify a relatively vast stretch of human history complicated by varieties of knowledge about this history (such as legend, hearsay, folktale and document). This history, as portrayed in the novel, culminates in the destruction of the Limburg in 1504 (the fact that Cooper mistakenly places {50} this event in 1525 raises the intractable problems which I have addressed elsewhere).

Hardenburg Castle

Ruins of Hardenburg Castle, Durkheim

Limburg Abbey

Ruins of Limburg Abbey, Durkheim

These ruins — the Heidenmauer itself, the Hardenburg and, most important, Limburg Abbey, each an individual expression of the vicissitudes of time — drew the attention of Cooper’s mind, as he began to write the novel, to the historical origin, roles and destruction of the original human artifacts which they still represented in 1831. Thus they focussed his imagination on the causes of historical events, and finally on the moral which might be drawn from these events. Despite the fact that at the beginning of the novel’s plot only one of these emblems (the Heidenmauer) exists as a ruin — a ruin from a history not inscribed except in artifacts — Cooper gives us a temporarily bifocal vision similar to that which introduces The Pioneers, making us understand from his Introduction that the historical fiction must indeed begin from the fact that the reader in 1832 (and therefore all generations of readers) know these ruins exist now; thus our understanding of the relations between history and fiction in this novel must begin with an historical understanding, firstly, of the way in which Cooper saw these ruins and secondly, of the ways in which he translated his perceptions into fiction.

As in The Last of the Mohicans and Satanstoe, Cooper integrates human artifacts into landscape and makes both part of the action. However, in The Heidenmauer, there is no carefully organized pair of landscapes corresponding to the novels I have just mentioned; Cooper, rather, in describing the post-destruction landscape, implies an original pastoral and sylvan landscape which he had described first in the opening pages of the novel, a landscape which acts as aesthetic and moral standard for this metamorphosed landscape with ruined Abbey:

The reader will have to imagine another view of the Jaegerthal. There was the same smiling sun, and the same beneficent season; the forest was as green and waving, the meadows were as smooth and dark, the hill-sides as bright beneath the play of light and shade, while the murmuring brook was as limpid and swift, as when first presented to his eye in these pages. Not a hut or cottage was disturbed, either in the hamlets or along the travelled paths, and the hold of Hartenburg still frowned in feudal power and baronial state, on the well-known pass of the mountains, gloomy, massive and dark (Paris, 1832, 327).

So far, all is as it was; as in Satanstoe, the function of the landscape is to present a context which initially appears to be untouched by history, even in its human accessories; but this context acts as a foil to the centre of the picture, the unexpectedly shining moral emblem, not only of one catastrophic event in history, but of entire ages of violence:

... the hill of Limburg presented one of those sad and melancholy proofs of the effects of violence which are still scattered over the face of the old world, like so many admonitory beacons of the scenes through which its people have reached their present state of comparative security; — beacons that should be as useful in communicating lessons for the future, as they are pregnant with {51} pictures of the past (327).

On this particular “picture of the past” are inscribed the new signs of another rewriting of the old history:

The outer wall remained unharmed, with the single exception of the principal gate, which bore the indelible marks of the smith’s sledges; but above this barrier the work of devastation appeared in characters not to be mistaken (327).

Cooper is not as obviously symbolical as Melville, whose allusions in Moby Dick to the handwriting on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast are part of the pervasive hieroglyphic symbolism of that novel, but the characters he describes are signs which both the historical observer (the narrator) and Cooper’s reader can read, and they are written in fire:

Every roof, and there had been fifty, was fallen; every wall, some of which were already tottering, was blackened, and not a tower pointed toward the sky, that did not show marks of the manner in which the flames had wreathed around its slender shaft. Here and there a small thread of white smoke curled upward, losing itself in the currents of the air, resembling so many of the lessening symptoms of a volcano after an explosion (327).

The human violence of this inscription anticipates the natural violence of the unobserved volcanic eruption which destroys the small world in The Crater.

The Apocalyptic Ruins of The Crater

Much more catastrophic “symptoms of a volcano after an explosion” mark the ending of the novel in which Cooper addresses the limits of human history. Despite its conclusion, The Crater appears for most of the narrative to be about building, not ruination; Cooper sets out to create an analogue to recent American history, especially as it had been expressed in the 1845 Anti-Rent War in New York. The narrative, which begins, like Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels or The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, as a realistic personal history of its hero, becomes increasingly allegorical as it moves to its apocalyptic conclusion. When, at the end of the story and offstage, as it were, in the absence of the hero, the allegorical microcosm of American civilization is destroyed, Cooper makes the catastrophe into a divine comment on the ephemeral affairs of the human race; but he encloses this commentary in another (and human) set of symbols through his reference to the five paintings of Thomas Cole’s 1836 series, The Course of Empire, which deals with the mutability of history. The meaning of the catastrophe as moral exemplum, conveyed didactically through plot and narrative commentary, is given a different dimension by this specific comparison of fictional landscape and painting. The paintings of Cole, in themselves subject to teleological interpretation, thus become a teleological emblem of the course of human history.

The “tendency of things,” as Cooper writes in the novel, is “to the fulfilment of the decrees, announced to us ages ago by the pens of {52} holy men. Rome, Greece, Egypt, and all that we know of the past, which comes purely of man and his passions; empires, dynasties, heresies and novelties, come and go like the changes of the seasons; while the only thing that can be termed stable, is the slow but sure progress of prophecy.” (The Crater, Cambridge, 1962, 140).

In The Crater, Cooper sees all of history as a chaotic, irregular repetition of human lives, communal and dynastic identities, and the apparently continual triumph of evil over good, “the whole, however,” as he states in Chapter 29, “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 sun sets at night and rises in the morning” (444).

On a human level, history reaches its consummation in Mark Woolston’s rediscovery of the place in the South Pacific where he had been shipwrecked and where he had built a microcosmic American nation, only to see its social fabric destroyed by demagoguery and mob rule. Having been deposed as governor, Mark has left for a year and then returned, only to find that nature herself, in Sodom-and-Gomorrah fashion, has judged the people:

Everything ... went to confirm the existence of the dire catastrophe. These internal fires had wrought a new convulsion, and the labours and hopes of years had vanished in a moment. The crust of the earth had again been broken; and this time it was to destroy, instead of to create. ... in the Peak itself, it was not possible to be mistaken: there it was in its familiar outline, just as it had stood in its more elevated position, when it crowned its charming mountain, and overlooked the whole of that enchanting plain which had so lately stretched beneath. It might be said to resemble, in this respect, that sublime rock, which is recognized as a part of the “everlasting hills,” in Cole’s series of noble landscapes that is called “the March of Empire”; ever the same amid the changes of time, and civilization, and decay, there it was the apex of the Peak ; naked, storm-beaten, and familiar to the eye, though surrounded no longer by the many delightful objects which had once been seen in its neighbourhood. (456)

Here, at the end of what had appeared at first to be an adventure story on the pattern of Robinson Crusoe, and then an increasingly allegorical history of a microcosmic American society transposed to the South Seas, Cooper moves outside the novel to a work in another artistic mode to find the historical and emblematic analogy he is seeking.

Since emblems tend to be visual, paintings are more easily recognizable as emblems than writing is. Thus we see at a glance in each of Cole’s five paintings a spatial freezing of time; each is a kind of Keatsian urn. We see an arrow in mid-flight, a deer in mid-spring; a philosopher drawing the figure of a geometric proposition in the sand; an emperor crossing a bridge; the same bridge collapsing but not yet entirely destroyed; and that ancient emblem of mutability, the moon, twenty degrees above the horizon. If the paintings are hung together, we see them at first sequentially, then almost simultaneously, {53} aware in an instant of this five-fold expression of change.

Savage State

Savage State.

The Arcadian or Pastoral State

Arcadian or Pastoral State.

The Consummation of Empire

Consummation of Empire.





These paintings — The Savage State, The Arcadian State, The Consummation of Empire, The Destruction of Fire and Desolation — correspond loosely to five stages in the story of Mark Woolston’s small empire, although their iconography is somewhat different. Despite the obvious differences between the paintings and the novel, both deal symbolically with historical mutability, and in both works one spatial element — the peak of the mountain — appears (at first glance) static, resisting the mutations of time, remaining physically above increasing and decreasing human order and existing, therefore, outside human history.

In each case, the peak’s apparent resistance to change, while illusory and ephemeral if seen in the contexts of geological history or an eschatological transcendence of history, is both epistemologically and artistically necessary. Like the original landscapes of the novels I have discussed, it offers an apparently fixed point from which to measure historical entropy. That its stasis will ultimately be an illusion is indicated in the paintings by the shifting point of view from canvas to canvas and in the novel by the fact that Vulcan’s Peak, while still visible, has sunk seven hundred feet into the ocean. For the time being, however, it exists in paintings and fiction, the sign of difference between natural and human histories, the unruined emblem of random natural forces beyond human control and therefore beyond the kind of history which humans are willing to acknowledge.

On a superficial reading of the novel’s ending, Vulcan’s Peak thus appears to function like the peak in Cole’s series. At first glance, it does seem to have resisted the mutations of time, first in its grand isolation above the ocean and away from the increasing complexities of Mark Woolston’s social order, and finally in its survival of the catastrophic end to this order. However, only the tip of the Peak has survived the catastrophic sinking of the island. In one sense, then, the Peak is a false emblem, the sign of an apparent divergence of human and geologic time. Instead, ephemeral human time and inhumanly long geological time converge, revealing the inherent mutability both of human existence and of the earth itself. In Cooper’s historical scheme, time finally engulfs all things except its opposite: eternity expressed in the mind of God. There is therefore a profound irony in the narrator’s comparison of Vulcan’s Peak to Cole’s. The “everlasting hills,” on reflection, seem more and more Like the crashing mountains of John Martin’s “The Great Day of His Wrath” (1852).

Cooper approximates this painterly conversion of time into space by drawing on the knowledgeable reader’s memory of Cole’s paintings or of engravings based on the paintings. In imagining the composite emblem which grows out of this juxtaposition of painting and literature, we combine the spatial moments of The Course of Empire with the temporal spaces of The Crater.

In general, the effect on Cooper’s reader of his close analogy between the temporal events of fiction and the spaces portrayed and suggested by painting is to concentrate the meanings of historical change, and finally to {54} allegorize a narrative already gradually allegorized as it proceeded. We are forced to visualize its historical stages as if they were stages in American, and finally, in human history. Imagining paintings, fiction and history simultaneously, we can then begin to understand Cooper’s millenialist hope for the consummation of time itself, a consummation beyond the ephemeral courses of empires or the longer but still entropic descent of nature toward chaos.

What these four novels have in common is an imagination both historical and emblematic. Cooper moves beyond the narrating of known facts and the construction of historical models toward the concreteness of representative landscape and ruins, focusing historical meaning visually at certain points in time and space by using the literary language of aesthetic convention and, when even that is not enough, by crossing the boundary between language and art. As readers of Cooper, we too have to reach that cloverleaf where history, fiction, landscape and human artifacts intersect.

Reaching it, we discover the complexities of each, hear the resonances and discords, and see the interference-patterns as one form of temporal discourse encounters another. Cooper’s fiction, long considered by many literary critics as less complex, less self-reflexive, less open to an easy deconstruction, and therefore finally as less interesting to the reader and less rewarding to the critic than the fiction of his younger contemporaries, Hawthorne and Melville, is, as it turns out, as emblematic as theirs. It is merely harder to figure out.

University of Western Ontario


1 Emphasis in this and succeeding quotations from Cooper are mine.

2 I am grateful to Professor Kay House, editor of Satanstoe (Albany, SUNY Press, forthcoming), for pointing out to me that Cooper wrote “devise” instead of “desire,” the reading in earlier editions. The correction emphasizes Cooper’s idea of the imagination’s activity in projecting aesthetic qualities onto a natural setting.