Cooper Today: A Partisan View

Donald A. Ringe (University of Kentucky)

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. 162-171).

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

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

The two hundredth anniversary of James Fenimore Cooper’s birth is an appropriate time for us to consider the current state of scholarship on his life and works. How far have we come? Where are we now? And what are the prospects for the future? Some of the conclusions are obvious. Much has been accomplished. The publication of the six-volume Letters and Journals between 1960 and 1968 put the study of Cooper’s life on a firmer basis than it had ever been before, and the appearance of each volume in the SUNY edition of Cooper’s writings adds further to the foundation by providing the scholar with accurate texts of Cooper’s books, both fiction and non-fiction; with textual commentaries that reveal much about both Cooper’s revisions and the history of the texts; and with historical introductions that establish the genesis, composition, publication, and contemporary reception of each of the books. We lack only a modern biography and additional volumes of the SUNY edition to place the study of Cooper on the most solid of historical grounds. We can only hope that this work, so well begun, can be completed in the not too distant future.

While the Letters and Journals were appearing during the 1960s, a number of critical works added significantly to our understanding and appreciation of the novels and helped to establish Cooper as a writer worthy of serious scholarly study — a position not widely conceded before that time. Thomas Philbrick, Kay House, Warren Walker, and I all came independently to an interest in Cooper. Philbrick’s study of the sea fiction, House’s treatment of the American characters, and Walker’s and my more general surveys of Cooper’s writing appeared within a few years of each other, and in ways we did not anticipate, I believe, we became part of a group of scholars whose lives would become involved with the re-establishment of Cooper’s reputation. As persons who had paid serious attention to Cooper, we became logical candidates for membership on the Editorial Board of the new edition of Cooper’s writings that was soon to get under way. Under the leadership of James F. Beard we committed ourselves to the task, and three of us — again unexpectedly — prepared ourselves by becoming textual editors and assuming responsibility for individual books.

I do not want to claim too much for our work, for many others have also contributed to Cooper studies. Some preceded us. In his biography of the novelist published in 1949, James Grossman included detailed and sensitive readings of all of Cooper’s novels, many of which had not been so thoughtfully discussed before. And a group of scholars came together in 1951 to commemorate the centennial of Cooper’s death. The papers delivered during that conference examined the novelist’s works from many points of view. Published in 1954 by the New York State Historical Association, they remain an important contribution to scholarship. Others have come after us, most especially the many scholars who have attended the seven week-long conferences, including this one, arranged by George A. Test beginning in 1978. {163} They have brought together scholars from many different places, both here and abroad, in an informal setting conducive to the exchange of ideas. These conferences have been particularly useful in helping Cooper scholars keep in touch with one another, and the published papers have enabled us to share our special knowledge with the profession at large.

Add to these the many other books and articles that have appeared over the last fifteen or twenty years and we must conclude that Cooper’s works have begun to attract the critical attention they deserve. All of these studies have their interest, and many add to our knowledge of the man and to our understanding of his fiction. But taking them in the aggregate, I must confess that I find them somewhat disappointing in that they tend to concentrate on a relatively small part of his work — mainly the Leatherstocking tales and a few of his other books — leaving large and important areas relatively untouched. To encompass all of Cooper is, admittedly, a formidable task that few, perhaps, are willing to undertake, and the Leatherstocking tales are especially attractive to critics because they undoubtedly represent his most important contribution to American literature. But we cannot appreciate the full range of his thought and artistic expression without going beyond them to examine his other books, both early and late. Until we do, Cooper’s work will be known only in fragments, the breadth of his accomplishment will go unrecognized, and his position in the development of American literature will continue to be seriously underestimated.

Part of the reason for this unfortunate situation derives from a problem that is not limited to the study of Cooper but affects the criticism of other writers as well. It is the tendency of scholars to base their work, unconsciously perhaps, on current fashions in thinking: to see a writer not so much in terms of what he was attempting to do, but in relation to ideas prevalent in the critic’s own milieu. I am aware, of course, that we all inevitably approach the works of the past with a twentieth-century cast of mind, but I do not believe that we must necessarily recreate them in our own image. We can, through an act of historical imagination, attempt to see the writer in his own terms, to let him speak for himself. With Henry James, I would grant him his donnée and try to understand him before beginning to criticize his works. The attempt is all the more important because we know — or should know — the distortions that have been created when critics or scholars have ignored this caution and presented us images of Cooper influenced by the intellectual position of the critic and his age.

The classic example is, of course, Mark Twain’s notorious essay on Cooper’s supposed “literary offenses.” Although much of the effectiveness of Twain’s piece derives from his misrepresentation of Cooper’s novels and his technique of exaggeration, at the heart of Twain’s critique are the assumptions of critical realism, the standard of taste of the late nineteenth century. It is fair to assume, I think, that many who took Twain’s comic essay as a fair assessment of Cooper’s novels shared the same critical principles. The piece has certainly had a long-lasting influence and so seriously damaged Cooper’s reputation that as late as 1949, one critic was ready to clear the shelves of Cooper’s books and simply throw them away (Sutton 9-10). Others, like Howard Mumford Jones, in an essay printed in Tulane Studies in English in 1952, defended Cooper, but in doing so, he, like {164} Yvor Winters before him, assumed a similar critical position. Both Winters and Jones argued for the credibility of the frontier deeds Cooper describes, and Jones, in particular, made the point that to understand the remarkable feats of marksmanship that occur in The Pathfinder, we need only realize that a hand-wrought nail, with a head almost as big as a penny, was the target! (135; Winters 40-44) The principles of realism lay behind both Twain’s critique and the rebuttals.

Even more instructive is the work of those scholars who began the serious study of Cooper during the 1920s. Both Vernon L. Parrington and Robert E. Spiller grew up in an era when literary realism was dominant. Hence, in their treatments of Cooper, they mention only in passing those works by him that are most romantic to focus their attention on the later books, in which Cooper is more realistic. But Parrington and Spiller were also working at a time when academic interest in social and political liberalism was strong. As was to be expected, therefore, they concentrated their attention on Cooper the social critic. In the second volume of his Main Currents in American Thought (1927), Parrington presents a now familiar Cooper. He is the American democrat, the man of integrity who “loved justice and decency more than popularity,” but who, because of his strong opinions, found himself at war with his countrymen (237). Parrington touches only briefly on Natty Bumppo and the Leatherstocking tales, and barely mentions the sea novels. He treats instead such works as The American Democrat, The Monikins, Home as Found, and The Redskins — just those books with the strongest appeal to the academic liberal of the 1920s.

Spiller took the same approach in Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times (1931), a book that builds on material he had already treated in The American in England During the First Half Century of Independence (1926). The subtitle of the biography announces the Cooper it will present, the man who, in Spiller’s words, possessed the “most thoroughly critical mind that early America produced” (317). Like Parrington, Spiller does not discuss the Leatherstocking tales or the sea fiction. He is primarily interested in the Cooper whose experiences in Europe sharpened his mind and gave him the intellectual basis for the criticism of American society that would occupy his attention on his return to the United States. Thus, a full third of Spiller’s book is devoted to the years 1826 to 1833, and the final third concentrates on the remaining years of the 1830s. The three novels on Europe, the five travel books, The Monikins, the “Home” novels, and The History of the Navy come in for the fullest treatment. The allotment of space is justified, of course, by the theme Spiller develops, but that theme, one suspects, was influenced by the intellectual milieu In which Spiller, like Parrington, was working when he turned his attention to Cooper.

Parrington and Spiller were enormously influential. In courses in early American literature during the 1930s and 40s, Parrington was secondary reading and Spiller’s The Roots of National Culture (1935) was a popular text. The selections from Cooper in that book are revealing. Fiction was allotted less than half the number of pages — about twenty-two — of which chapters from The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans made up thirteen. Twenty-seven pages, on the other hand, were devoted to non-fiction: excerpts from the History of the Navy, Notions of the Americans, Gleanings in Europe: [France], and The {165} American Democrat. Students could not help but be influenced by the amount of space devoted to the non-fiction and left the study of Cooper believing that he was significant primarily for his social criticism. Such a view could only have been confirmed by the Representative Selections, the anthology of critical prose that Spiller published with an historical introduction in the old American Writers Series in 1936, or even by the treatment of Cooper as a man of letters in The Cycle of American Literature: An Essay in Historical Criticism (1955), where Spiller maintains that “social criticism was integral to [Cooper’s] conception of romance” (42-43).

I do not wish to argue with what Parrington and Spiller did. Given the time in which they were writing, their focus on Cooper as a social critic was probably inevitable, and their work was important in that they revived at Least part of Cooper’s reputation after Twain’s assassination of him a generation earlier. The image of Cooper they present is, up to a point, a legitimate one, and their treatment of him as a social and political thinker has been extended in the work of a number of scholars who have come after them: Marius Bewley, for example, in his article, “Fenimore Cooper and the Economic Age,” first published in American Literature (1954) and reprinted in The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classic American Novel (1957), and, more recently, John P. McWilliams in Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America (1972). But seen in the context of Cooper scholarship as it developed in the twentieth century, Parrington’s and Spiller’s approach had at least one unfortunate consequence. By placing so much emphasis on Cooper the social critic, they failed to appreciate, we now can see, the full range of Cooper’s art. As a result, they unwittingly distorted for many years the general perception of both the man and his accomplishment.

So too did those scholars and critics who took up the serious study of the Leatherstocking tales in the 1940s and 50s. No longer so concerned, as Twain had been, with the tenets of literary realism, they read the novels as expressions of American belief. Behind their works lay the frontier hypothesis of Frederick Jackson Turner, who, beginning in the 1890s, attempted to explain the uniqueness of American culture in terms of the westward movement, and the new interest in American Studies, which, at that time, was much concerned with myth and symbol. Cooper’s frontier novels fit neatly into these concepts. Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950) is the classic treatment of this material, and although the Leatherstocking tales come in for only a brief treatment in a book that covers the whole sweep of nineteenth-century American culture, Virgin Land, coupled with Smith’s introduction to the Rinehart edition of The Prairie, published in the same year, was certainly influential in bringing to the attention of a whole generation of students those works which, only a few years before, had been relegated to the status of children’s literature.

Smith was not solely responsible for recovering the Leatherstocking tales for serious study. Roy Harvey Pearce had already published an article, “The Leatherstocking Tales Reconsidered,” in the South Atlantic Quarterly in 1947, and a few years after Virgin Land appeared, R. W. B. Lewis, in another important and very influential study, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (1955), devoted part of a chapter to {366} Cooper’s frontier novels, most especially The Deerslayer. Scholarship feeds on scholarship, and over the last four decades critic after critic has returned to Cooper’s border romances. I need mention only a few of the more important studies: Edwin Sill Fussell’s Frontier: American Literature and the American West (1965). Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (1973), and more recently, Wayne Franklin’s T he New World of James Fenimore Cooper (1982) and Warren Motley’s The American Abraham: James Fenimore Cooper and the Frontier Patriarch (1987), two books devoted exclusively to Cooper which also go beyond the Leatherstocking tales to discuss other of Cooper’s frontier romances as well.

Whatever might be the merits of these books and the host of articles that have been published, one can only rejoice at seeing Cooper’s books on the American West come in for so much attention. And yet this volume of work on the Leatherstocking tales and other western novels also has a negative side. Like the emphasis on the social criticism a generation earlier, it leads to a distortion of our perception of Cooper as an artist, for it encourages the view that to read these tales is to encompass the whole of Cooper’s work that is worth discussing. Thus, in a book entitled The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James (1969), Joel Forte treats only the Leatherstocking tales, as if to imply that no other part of Cooper’s work is pertinent to his subject. Worse, it can lead to critical blindness. I am thinking of Leon Howard’s insulting review of Thomas Philbrick’s excellent book on Cooper’s sea fiction. So strong was Howard’s apparent commitment to the myth of the frontier that he would not even consider the suggestion that the sea was the major American frontier during the early nineteenth century and that Cooper’s greatest achievement at that time may have been in the maritime novel (194-95).

Howard’s review is an extreme example of how received opinion can distort critical judgment, but it is not the only one. An even more pervasive influence on Cooper studies than the frontier hypothesis has long been with us — so long, in fact, that it is simply assumed in book after book as if it were beyond challenge. I am speaking, of course, of D. H. Lawrence’s treatment of Cooper in his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). As entertaining as Twain — and as wrong-headed — Lawrence created an image of Cooper that is only marginally related to the man himself and described his books as a projection of that imagined personality. His two chapters on Cooper are shot through with errors, as Allan M. Axelrad has recently shown in detail, but the approach he took has caught the imagination of many American critics, and we have been given a long series of studies, beginning with Richard Chase’s The American Novel and Its Tradition (1357), derived first from Lawrence and then, I suspect, from one another. Over a period of time, the Lawrentian view, though based on a shaky biographical and historical foundation, has taken on an aura of absolute truth.

Lawrence’s book has been especially influential on those critics whose approach to Cooper has been psychological. Leslie Fielder acknowledges his debt to Lawrence in his preface to the 1960 edition of Love and Death in the American Novel, and Fiedler’s influence has been so strong among some in the profession that Freudian readings crop up in the works of many critics. {167} Foremost among them is Stephen Railton, whose Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination (1978) is thoroughly doctrinaire in applying Freudian psychology to Cooper and his novels. He is not alone. One recalls the chapter on Cooper in Eric Sundquist’s Home as Found: Authority and Genealogy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (1977), reprinted from Nineteenth-Century Fiction, and incidental references to the psychology in books that are focused on other subjects: H. Daniel Peck’s A World By Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction (82, 86-87), for example, or Motley’s American Abraham (16, 122). The Freudian point of view is simply taken for granted by these critics. It becomes, in effect, like the theories of Lawrence, part of the received opinion that is never critically examined. It is applied to the study of Cooper and his works as if it were beyond question.

Not all of Cooper scholarship, of course, falls into one of these categories, but much of it does. Time and energy are being expended on critical approaches that have been with us for thirty or forty years and which derive from attitudes, assumptions, and theories that have been around for more than sixty. The results have been mixed. The depictions of Cooper as social critic and mythopoeic romancer, whatever their limitations, are at least based on demonstrable elements in his works, and for that reason they contribute to our understanding of at least part of his accomplishment. The influence of Lawrence and Freud, on the other hand, has, in my opinion, been more negative. Although any approach is likely to reveal qualities in the man and his works that are worth knowing, reliance on these two thinkers has, on balance, been unfortunate. A psychological study may claim to be based on biographical evidence gleaned from historical sources — most recently the Letters and Journals. But the theory controls the selection and interpretation of the evidence, and the image of Cooper and his works that emerges, far from resembling historical realities, is simply a construct of the modernist mind.

These well-known approaches to the study of Cooper also encouraged the mistaken belief that there was a bifurcation in Cooper’s mind and art, typified, it was said, by the mythopoeic Leatherstocking tales and the more socially concerned Littlepaqe novels. As Charles A. Brady pointed out in his essay on Cooper in American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal, this cliche of Cooper criticism was inaccurate because the two series are not so different in subject matter and treatment as that view might suggest (78). The same could not be said, however, of the contrast between the social criticism that Parrington and Spiller emphasized and the frontier romances. The idea has persisted, therefore, that Cooper was a divided man who wrote two entirely different kinds of books. This view of Cooper could only have been strengthened by the division Lawrence makes between the white novels — mainly Homeward Bound and Home as Found — and the Leatherstocking tales, and by the image he creates of Cooper as a man torn between two aspects of his personality. Though this idea may seem attractive to some, it can only be sustained by a selective reading of his books. It cannot survive the close examination of his work as a whole.

It is precisely here that much contemporary scholarship on Cooper is open to challenge: its tendency to follow well-trodden paths and leave large areas of his work relatively unexplored. Not every book or article on Cooper {168} can examine all of his work. We will continue to need specialized treatments of individual novels and groups of novels. But each study should be informed by an understanding of Cooper’s total accomplishment. It is well that we have examined the social criticism and the frontier romances, but why has so little attention been paid to the sea fiction, books that make up at least a third of the canon? And why do we have so little concern for Cooper’s development as a writer? The Littlepage series alone excepted, most scholars have slighted the novels he wrote after The Deerslayer. Yet Cooper went on to write for another decade, and though a few of these books have received some commentary, most have been largely ignored. Again, these novels make up about a third of his works. It is astonishing to me that scholars and critics who have shown some interest in Cooper should be so incurious about what he did in his late novels.

It is time, I think, for Cooper scholars to address the problem: to engage the entire corpus of Cooper’s writings and see his works, not as material, to support some modern theory, but as historical documents that have meaning in their own right and give us access to the complex mind that created them. All of Cooper’s works are expressions of that mind as it developed over his thirty-year career as a writer of fiction. Because he was a man who thought and felt deeply about the issues of his own day and was quick to embody his ideas in both his fiction and his non-fiction, we can surely work back from those books to discover his world-view: the values in which he believed and the fundamental principles which formed the basis for his political, social, and moral judgments. If we work by induction, I think we can arrive at a juster understanding of Cooper’s meaning than we can by approaching him with some modern theory in mind. Only when we understand the man and his hooks in their own terms can we hope to arrive at a just appreciation of his artistic achievement.

The point at issue here is Cooper’s belief. Rather than simply record the contrast between his social criticism and the frontier romances, the apparent contradiction in his democratic and elitist leanings, and all the ambivalences that critic after critic has found in his works, we should look for the principles that lie behind them and form the intellectual background out of which such diversities emerged. In a similar fashion, we should seek in the various turns his career took between 1820 and 1850 the underlying beliefs that made such changes appropriate responses to the experiences he encountered both here and abroad. Neither modern psychology nor any of the other social sciences can help us here. People act in accordance with what they believe. We will therefore find the springs that motivated Cooper to write as he did in his philosophical position. Not that Cooper was in any sense a philosopher. He was not. He was a writer, and like most other writers produced his works out of a system of thought that, perhaps only partially conscious, was neither intellectually rigorous, nor perfectly consistent. But out of it grew those multifaceted novels that are his chief claim to our attention today.

Such a study must eventually come to grips with Cooper’s religion, a subject that most scholars have been reluctant to touch. We have long been aware that Cooper’s religious position was unusual among American writers. As long ago as 1952 Howard Mumford Jones observed that Cooper “was the only {169} American novelist of international stature to take Christianity seriously both as personal motive and as social force” (137). Six years later, Charles A. Brady went even further to say that Cooper was “the only major nineteenth-century creative writer — short of the great Russians — to work within a specifically religious dimension” (81). Jones and Brady are right. Cooper’s religious views are of the utmost importance in the interpretation of his novels, and though neither discussed the beliefs at any length, they did call our attention to the importance of a subject that, in Brady’s view, had a far-reaching effect on Cooper’s reputation. The “religious dimension” in Cooper’s fiction, he writes, may be “an extra-literary reason for Cooper’s enormous popularity” in his own day and for its decline in ours. “To today’s sophisticate his deeply pondered orthodoxy and his firm moralizing are alike obnoxious” (96).

But one need not agree with a writer’s intellectual position to understand his work and appreciate his accomplishment. Don’t we accept the Calvinism of William Bradford and Anne Bradstreet, the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, and the naturalism of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris as central to their art? It may be that their intellectual positions are easier to codify or summarize than is Cooper’s. All the more reason, then, that his be studied. It is indeed a Christian one, but we must remember that it is only in his late novels, like The Oak Openings (1848) and The Sea Lions (1849), that he is most specifically orthodox. We need also to understand the less obvious tenets that underlie the earlier works, not only as they involve the portrayals of Episcopal clergymen like Mr. Grant, in The Pioneers (1823), but also the depiction of other Christians, of whatever shades of belief, that can be found in his works. We cannot simply take orthodox Christian doctrine and apply it to all of his books. Cooper was a novelist, not an apologist for his creed, and his religious opinions must be derived inductively from a study of his writings.

Religion in Cooper is always something more than mere adherence to a particular sect, for in his books good and bad are found among all kinds of believers. Ithuel Bolt, in The Wing-and-Wing (1842), takes great pride in his New England religion, but his actions reveal him to be less honest and honorable than the unbelieving Raoul Yvard, and less truly religious than the Catholic Ghita Caraccioli, whose church be scorns. Cooper’s low opinion of religion in New England is, of course, well known, but in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), he draws a rather sympathetic picture of the Puritans, especially in the Heathcotes’ treatment of the Indians and acceptance of the child their daughter Ruth had borne to an Indian father. In The Heidenmauer (1832), moreover, he presents a group of Catholics who range from the fanatic to the good and humble believer. On some occasions, he even criticizes the ministers of his own church. The Reverend Mr. Worden, in Satanstoe (1845), for example, is far from being a spiritual man. He seems to care more for his own safety, comfort, and pleasure than he does for the good of the people under his care.

True religion, on the other hand, can appear, in Cooper’s view, even among the unchurched. Leatherstocking is, of course, the prime example. Deriving his religious view of the world from a long life in the wilderness, he professes a belief that has a Christian coloring because he has lived among {170} the Moravians. In developing this character, Cooper was drawing upon the contemporary religion of nature that saw the material world as a revelation of its Creator. Cooper shared this view with many of his fellow artists, most especially the poet William Cullen Bryant and the painter Thomas Cole. The artistic relation among these men has been much discussed, and their view of the natural landscape has been seen, quite correctly, as an aspect of their romanticism. But Cooper makes it abundantly clear that he entertains no romantic notion that every man will derive from his experience of nature so sound a moral view as Leatherstocking’s. Other frontiersmen, like Hurry Harry and Tom Hutter in The Deerslayer (1841), are so utterly unaffected by the beauty of the Glimmerglass and the surrounding hills that they engage in the business of killing Indians for the bounty on their scalps.

The contradiction here is more apparent than real. Although the religion of nature was certainly a romantic concept, we must remember that its central tenet — the ability of man to learn about God through observation of the natural scene — had been present in American Literature since Anne Bradstreet’s “Contemplations” (1678), and that in one form or another, depending upon one’s concept of God and view of man, it continued to be expressed through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by writers so different as deists and transcendentalists. The concept was, for Cooper, by no means incompatible with his Christian view. Indeed, it could even support it. In The Sea Lions, for example, Roswell Gardiner is brought to Trinitarian belief by his experiences during an antarctic winter; in The Wing-and-Wing, Raoul Yvard, a French Revolutionary who is practically an atheist, is led to at least the threshold of faith by his contemplation of the stars. Neither man, of course, arrives at the conclusion on his own. Both are under the tutelage of believers who can place the experience in a Christian context, much as the Moravians, perhaps, helped Leatherstocking to perceive his relation to the natural world and the God who created it.

Yet another aspect of Cooper’s religion can be found in the doctrine of Providence: the belief that the hand of God actively guides both the individual person and the entire nation. This concept had also had a long history in America by the time Cooper began to write. It informed the works of the Puritans from the beginning and continued as a vital force through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, assuming such well-known forms as the westward course of empire, manifest destiny, and passage to India. That Cooper subscribed to the doctrine is plain from his novels. The experience of such mariners as Miles Wallingford, in Afloat and Ashore and Miles Wallingford (1844), and Mark Woolston, in The Crater (1847), is clearly shown to be the working of Providence in their lives. So too with the nation. As a nineteenth-century American, Cooper could not fail to be influenced by the providential view of American history. One need only look at the closing lines of The Pioneers or the Preface he wrote for The Pathfinder (1840) to understand that he shared with his countrymen a broadly religious vision of their history.

To read Cooper’s novels in this way is to recognize at once that his religious vision involves a great deal more than his attachment to a traditional church that he did not formally enter until the last year of his life. Much of that vision probably came from personal conviction, but part of {171} it, at least, he shared with his contemporaries, most of whom would certainly have agreed with his view of nature as the revelation of God and his belief in the providential ordering of events. The crucial matter, it seems to me, is his view of the nature of man. He certainly did not accept the Calvinist belief in his total depravity, but neither did he entertain any romantic notion of his essential innocence until corrupted by society. In Cooper’s works, good and evil both appear in the natural man, as Leatherstocking and Hurry Harry so clearly indicate, and society can hardly be said to have corrupted Ishmael Bush or Aaron Thousandacres. Human nature, in Cooper’s view, is certainly fallible, prone to sin and error, hut it is also capable of great nobility, as characters like Harvey Birch, Leatherstocking, and even the Delaware chiefs make clear.

The difference among these characters lies in the way they comport themselves in relation to God, nature, and their fellow men. Cooper’s exemplary characters — Leatherstocking, for example, or the Chainbearer, in the second Littlepage novel. (1845) — are humble, self-disciplined men who subordinate their wills to a Higher Power and live by a strict code of behavior. Many of his young heroes, on the other hand — men like Miles Wallingford, Mark Woolston, and Roswell Gardiner — are put through harrowing experiences in the natural world to teach them their own insufficiency before the power of nature’s God. By this means they acquire the humility they need to function properly in the world. Other characters never gain such knowledge. These are the arrogant men who constantly assert themselves and their wants, and, though sometimes professing a religious belief, refuse to submit themselves to any higher law. These include not only the self-willed frontiersmen, but also such characters as Steadfast Dodge, in Homeward Bound and Home as Found (1838), Joel Strides, in Wyandotté (1843), and Jason Newcome, in the Littlepage series, who, frequently less than honest in their dealings with others, always seek a self-serving advantage in whatever they do.

Such a view of human nature had important implications for democracy, for it raised the serious question of men’s ability to govern themselves. As a patriotic American, Cooper supported the republican institutions of the United States, opposed the governments of exclusion he found in Europe, and detested aristocratic systems, which placed a privileged class at the top of society purely on the accident of birth. Rut Cooper was a realist who understood as well that democratic systems also had their faults. Men being what they are, he knew that the democratic process could be manipulated by selfish man to allow the unqualified to grasp for power. Though a republican government might, in theory, leave man free so that the virtuous and talented could rise in society, there was no guarantee that the unscrupulous might not succeed in their stead. If men are as fallible as he believed them to be, they need wholesome restraints to contain their self-serving propensities — for some, like Leatherstocking and Chainbearer, the religious imperatives that lead to self-discipline, but for others, the rule of law, which, in Cooper’s view, should derive from the same divine source and not be liable to manipulation by demagogues.

Cooper’s view of humanity also provides =he crucial link between his social criticism and his frontier romances. Because he believed in the {172} providential theory of history, he saw the westward movement as part of a great design. But by the very nature of things, fallible human beings played a role in the process and created the problems that are developed in the frontier fiction. As early as The Pioneers, men like the foolish Richard Jones, the officious Hiram Doolittle, and even the well-meaning Marmaduke Temple damage the landscape, exploit the resources, and create injustice in the name of law. The conflict between the providential vision and the grim reality, so clearly announced In this novel, continues in Cooper’s fiction throughout his career. It was one that could obviously never be resolved. He came, indeed, to contradictory conclusions on the issue in two of his late novels. Compare the apocalyptic destruction of the society he depicted in The Crater, suggesting the doom that could lie in wait for America, with the idyllic scene he describes at the and of The Oak Openings, where the providential movement of American society westward seems to be completed in an agrarian Eden.

The same view of human nature informs, I believe, the much neglected maritime novels. If we take a ship at sea to represent society in miniature, we quickly perceive that, as early as The Pilot (1824), Cooper showed in the character of John Paul Jones the need for competent authority to direct a ship, especially in times of crisis, and by implication, society as well. In Afloat and Ashore and The Crater, on the other hand, he illustrates the danger of placing in command a captain who is not fully capable of performing his duties, for in both these novels, ships come to grief because of the personal failings or their masters. The role of subordinates on shipboard also has social implications. In The Pilot, Cooper depicts the grave consequences that ensue when Lieutenant Griffith, following a personal interest, renders ineffective a mission that should have been his sole concern, and in Homeward Bound, he illustrates the misuse of the democratic process when Steadfast Dodge gets up a committee of passengers to tell Captain Truck how to manage his ship. Seen in these terms, the sea fiction has much to say about social questions.

It speaks to moral and ethical ones as well. Conflicts between belief and unbelief lie, as we have seen, at the heart of The Wing-and-Wing and The Sea Lions, and a moral basis for human behavior is established in the relation young seamen develop with God through the natural world in The Crater and Miles Wallingford. Nor is this all. Two books examine closely questions of loyalty and betray. In The Two Admirals (1842), Richard Bluewater, torn between conflicting loyalties, betrays his deeply held political convictions to save a life-long friend, who, by placing his ships in a dangerous position, forces Bluewater to act against the very cause he believes in. Jack Tier (1848), on the other hand, Cooper’s darkest sea novel, presents no moral complexities. Stephen Spike, a lecherous and avaricious sea captain, betrays his country, his wife, and his friends in the pursuit of women and gold. All of the moral issues Cooper treats have, of course, their social ramifications, but in the late sea novels, he was primarily interested in the principles on which decent men might act and just societies be based.

In this brief survey of Cooper’s religious vision and its significance for his novels, I am merely suggesting a line of thought which, in my partisan view, might profitably be pursued by future scholars and critics. It has, I {173} believe, some compelling advantages. It relies, not on some modern theory to explain Cooper’s works, but on what can be derived inductively from a careful reading of the novels, and it brings to our attention the work as a whole, dispelling thereby any lingering notion of a split in Cooper’s consciousness or a great division in his fiction. It ties together the social criticism and the romances of the frontier, brings forward the maritime novels as a significant part of his accomplishment, and provides the means for examining his development as both artist and thinker throughout his career. Cooper’s approach to the problems he perceived in American society may not be popular among those in the academic community who prefer psychological to moral analyses of the problems he treats, but surely we must read his books in his terms, rather than in twentieth century ones, if we are ever to understand them and their place in the development of American literature.

University of Kentucky

Works Cited

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  • ------. Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times. New York: Minton, Balch, 1931.
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