How Rhetoric Figures in Cooper’s Fiction; or, Epitaph upon Epitaph

Lawrence Mate (University of Chicago)

Presented at the 8ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1991.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 8), Papers from the 1991 Conference, State University of New York College — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 48-66).

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

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

I caused to be erected, in the extensive grounds that were laid out around the new dwelling at the Nest, a suitable monument over the grave of Chainbearer. It bore a simple inscription, and one that my children now often read and comment upon with pleasure.

The Chainbearer

Here, near the end of our seminar on James Fenimore Cooper, it is appropriate that we attend to the text that appears in the last or the next-to-last chapter of so many of his novels: the epitaph inscribed on a stone that marks the site of a grave. For the epitaph imposes or incises itself as a certain writing of the ending. That writing is what we find ourselves called upon to read, here and now, at the beginning of the end. In the altogether preliminary reading for which we have time, we will never get beyond this question: “What is supposed to have ended with the ending announced by the epitaph and what is supposed to begin?”

Starting with the final paragraph of The Chainbearer, the opening sentences of which our epigraph cites, let us sketch an answer to this question and open some of the complexities that trouble the supposed simplicity of this text.

The most obvious ending announced by the “simple inscription” borne by the “monument over the grave of Chainbearer” is that of the life of the man who answered to this name. Chainbearer had come to the estates of the Littlepages with a surveying party, of which the chainbearer is a subordinate member, where he encountered his ideological opposite, the lawless squatter Aaron Timberman (also called Thousandacres). When Chainbearer refuses to ally their families, by a marriage between his niece Ursula Malbone and Aaron’s son Zephaniah, and he cannot be persuaded to forget their differences, his objections are silenced by a bullet that takes his life. Knowing this, do we yet know who or what has come to an untimely end?

To elaborate a further answer, we need to be able to read the text of the epitaph, the text that names that which was ended. His epitaph, I would suggest, announces that what has passed away is one entitled to this distinctive appellation: Chainbearer. For if we take the word “simple” in its radical sense of “single, onefold,” then we are led to believe that this “inscription” consists of nothing more than what the texts of this period (Cooper’s included) called the “named name” — in this case, Chainbearer or The Chainbearer. 1 This reconstruction is borne out by the author’s insistence on the exclusivity with which they refer to the man by this name in the sentence {49} that follows: “We all speak of him as ‘Uncle Chainbearer’ to this hour, and his grave is never mentioned in other terms than those of ‘Uncle Chainbearer’s grave.’” 2

Having made out the inscription, the first thing that reading calls to our attention is that this name is not naked but is already a clothing, that is to say, a figure or, more precisely, a metonymy. A cause is named by its effects: the man is named by his “services.” Thus what is mourned by the epitaph is less an individual human being than one who occupied a certain station, who fulfilled a certain duty. But what’s a chainbearer to us, or us to it, that we should weep far it? Given the preoccupation of the Littlepage trilogy (1845-46) with the “anti-rent troubles” in New York State, which the novels attribute to a disrespect for the principle of property, we don’t have to look far for an answer. As a member of a surveying party, the chainbearer is instrumental in imposing a given order of property relations, which Cooper argues are a necessary condition of civilization, upon what was undifferentiated wilderness. While Cooper describes property as simply a material precondition of civilization (A man must work for himself to do his most; and he cannot work for himself unless he enjoy the fruits of his labour” (I, 110)), it could also be argued that the concept of property articulates the essence of Cooper’s concept of civilization. For property to be property, the decision of what is proper (and to whom) must be made by reference to some guideline that is not itself subject to variation. As Mordaunt Littlepage explains to an Indian who does not understand the determination of ownership by invisible signs, “When the rights of property are first established, they must be established fairly, on some admitted rule; after which, they are to remain inviolable — that is to say, sacred” (Ibid). For Cooper, “the art of a surveyor” (I, 16) consists in his absolute subordination of self to this “rule,” in his mere instrumentality in establishing the rule of this rule, which is to say, in his becoming an instrument of his own instruments — the compasses that remain “true to their governing principle,” the chains that are “periodically” measured against another standard (I, 166). 3 While the practice of surveying thus represents an admirable self-devotion, the chainbearer, as “the humbel post” (I, 69) in this practice of humility, hyperbolizes yet also literalizes the condition of being bound that is instituted in the “rights of property” and has inaugurated civilization. With this anthropological freight that he bears, the Chainbearer is a natural to oppose the “semi-barbarous” (II, 88) perspective of Aaron that there should “be no boundaries to farms but the rifle” (II, 14), that might is the measure of right — a measure, which as Chainbearer retorts, knows no bounds (II, 95). Thus the murder of Chainbearer at the hands of the squatters suggests the destruction of a tool of property, which at Cooper’s hands is inflated to mean the denial of the rule of any fixed rule, and the re-emergence of a more primitive condition of almost unbounded desire.

In articulating links that bind this figure within the anthropological narrative of Cooper’s fiction, we have only just begun to decipher what ending and what beginning might be supposed to be announced by an epitaph that reads The Chainbearer. For these alternatives, between civilization and near-barbarity, are themselves linked to generational, historical, and metaphysical narratives, which are all interlinked by the concept of paternity. The {50} survivors who have interred Chainbearer on their grounds or property, erected a monument to him, and taught their children to read his name as if it were a horn-book, thereby acknowledge or appropriate him as a common forefather. 4 Chainbearer was the uncle and sole guardian of the romance heroine, and the romance hero served in the Revolutionary War under his command and says of him that he “was the man whom I loved without knowing why” (I, 19). One reason is that, by virtue of his “services,” he is identified with the founding fathers. Mordaunt Littlepage informs us that it “was a source of great exultation [and of exaltation]” with Chainbearer “that Washington had practiced the art of a surveyor for a short time in his early youth” (I, 16). The connection between their occupation and the foundational struggle in which they take a leading part is not accidental; on the contrary, it represents the essence of a struggle in which “we had fought more for principles” (I, 19). In Cooper’s version of the Revolution, Americans fought more to bear their chains than to lose them. Thus it is entirely appropriate that, “After serving most gallantly through the whole war, [Chainbearer] has gone back to his chains; and many is the joke he has [to bear?] about remaining still in chains, after fighting so long and so often in the cause of liberty” (I, 69). If the concepts of personal generation and national foundation are structured by that of paternity, then we need to interrogate it in turn and ask, to what or to whom does the Chainbearer ultimately refer us? What makes or fathers the father? “Principle,” we have already said. But what’s the source or principle of principle? In other words, what distinguishes a “principle” from an arbitrary “rule”? According to Cooper, “principle” is principled by its link to a metaphysical realm, in which God the Father is the principal. The father, in this “principled” or strong sense, is constituted or engendered neither when a man erects himself as an absolute and irresponsible authority, like Aaron Timberman, nor when he begets a child, but when he effaces himself before the original of all authority or when he instills or revives the faith in this origin in another. Thus when Chainbearer pronounces judgment on Aaron, he does so in the name of the Father; his words refer them to The Word: “You pegin wit’ your morals, at t’e startin’ place t’at’s most convenient to yourself and your plunterin’ crew, insteat of goin’ pack to t’e laws of your Lort ant Master. Reat what t’e Almighty Got of Heaven ant ‘art’ sait unto Moses, ant you’ll fint t’at you’ve not turnet over leafs enough of your piple” At this point we can begin to see the immense stakes involved in the death of the father that is announced by the epitaph with which so many of Cooper’s novels end. In the breaking of this body of principle we are to read yet another destruction of the temple, another crucifixion of Christ, which presage the loss of the nation’s identity, founded in the Revolution, as a new world, and the demise of the latest best hope of western civilization.” 5

But the father has not entirely departed from us; something of him remains to recall us to our origin and destination. First of all, he has not died without issue; he has “fathered” two children, and their union at the end of the novel holds out the hope that his life will not be fruitless, that we may all yet be reborn as children of our heavenly Father. And they prove themselves to be children of this father by cherishing his remains — by bringing them home to be buried, by erecting a monument over them, by inscribing his name upon it, and by teaching their children to read it. In case we are not yet to be counted among their children and cannot read what is {51} said in the simple inscription of Chainbearer, it is amplified for us in Mordaunt’s eulogy, the concluding sentence of the book: “Excellent old man! ... so long as he lived, he lived a proof of how much more respectable and estimable is the man who takes simplicity, and honesty, and principle, and truth for his guide.” This eulogy epitomizes what has already been said by the book that it concludes. And the author of the eulogy is the first-person narrator and the supposed author of these little pages. In other words, this exemplar of filial piety has done more than preserve the name of the father within a domestic circle; he has also written the text that fleshes it out for a wider audience or, since this name is already a clothing, that embroiders upon it for more than four hundred pages (in comparison to which our six indeed seem “little”). 6 Thus the monument that he “caused to be erected” over the remains of his father, which “bore the simple inscription” of the father’s burden as The Chainbearer, appears as the prototype of the Littlepage manuscript that executes variations on this burden and bears the same name for its title. In the terminal text of the epitaph, the manuscript traces its origin to an inscription that speaks of the father who spoke the Word of the Father.

But this relation that we have just reconstructed, in which the epitaph announces or prefigures the redoubling of its deed by the manuscript, is part of the fiction that we have to read. As we all know, what is inscribed as a petrel original, erected over the literal remains of the father and inscribed prior to and independently of a script that then follows it, is actually a part of the script, a prefatory post-face erected by the novel itself over itself. In the test of the epitaph, the novel denies, writes away, its novelty. In the same stroke, it inscribes its truth as text. It is precisely because the written word — and all that it entails: imitation, simulation, doubling, counterfeiting, in short, the totality of the field of rhetoric — arises in the absence of the father that Cooper wants to ground his fictions in a kind of writing that is literally grounded upon the remains of the father. If the writing that papers over the void made by the passing away of a body of truth is not to be a pure fiction that buries it deeper out of sight, then it should be bound by an epitaphic text that speaks the truth of the father, it should erase itself before a “simple inscription” that names the father as “simplicity” itself. 7

This is the same as saying that the emergence of textual complexities of the kind that we are engaged in reading, whereby legion announcements are folded into the simple text of the epitaph, are only tolerated on the condition that they ultimately divest or dispossess themselves and leave us with the word that gives us over to the f/Father. Just such a resolution is promised and supposedly effected by the epitaph. Since the novel is also called The Chainbearer, the epitaph that announces his death announces simultaneously, albeit proleptically, the conclusion of all this writing, its resolution into a single word — the almost — naked name of the father. In the figure of the epitaph, Cooper’s fiction writes itself off, signs off, hands us off to the simple, petrel inscription of the name of the father.

Do we yet know what’s in a name? Who or what, after all, is the Chainbearer? We have established that the text of the novel delivers us over {52} to the text of the epitaph, which, in turn, delivers us over to the Chainbearer, but is this a father who, in turn, delivers us over to our original, heavenly Father or, on the contrary, is The Chainbearer a fiction which keeps us from the perception of the truth? In tracing these links, do we find ourselves bound over to chains that set us free or to chains that keep us from perceiving our abject enslavement? Is the epitaph the opening of text to its outside, to all that is original, real, and true, or merely the figure of such an opening, projected or retrojected from within a general textuality? Is it the true word or one of the canniest figures whereby rhetoric disguises itself as truth? And does our inability to decide between these alternatives mean that in the last analysis the fiction is as much a father as the father, which is the same as saying that the father is as much a fiction as the fiction?

The epitaph has always been supposed to announce the laying to rest of such ultimate questions and the re-establishment of an order that is all the more reassured for having entertained them. But what is announced by an epitaph upon epitaphs? Does it promise to lay these questions about epitaphs to rest or, on the contrary, does it announce the ending of the ending itself and the beginning of something altogether unheard-of? And where is such an epitaph inscribed — in the text unfolding here and now or, rather, in a text destined to us, his “children,” by the father himself, whose word we are only now beginning to read? If I ask you to follow me now on a long and sometimes tortuous detour that will further complicate, inflect, or sharpen these questions, I do not lure you with the promise of restoring you to a father that you thought you knew. To follow the windings of his word most faithfully is to take the chance of finding oneself bereft. In short, no promises — at once the truest and the falsest of promises.

Perhaps a retracing of the steps that brought us to edge of the abyss should begin with the question of methodology or reading. My title, “How Rhetoric Figures in Cooper’s Fiction,” solicits you to engage in a rhetorical reading of Cooper’s texts with the promise that this method will disclose what it is that they have to say about rhetoric, among other things. Before you accept this invitation, you might want to object: what justifies my assumption that Cooper’s writing is figural, that the ultimate horizon of his concerns is encoded in rhetorical figures, which then have to be deciphered, rather than being all-to-directly uttered in what the author and his mouthpieces have to say about the issues of the day — democracy, property,nd slavery, for example? It’s important to meet this objection at the outset, to take it seriously and respond patiently, because I think that, in order to begin to read the promise of Cooper’s writing, we have to begin again at the beginning and reflect on the question that confronts every first-time reader: what kind of writing is this/ how does it mean?

Now, you’re probably expecting me to tell you. After all, George Test has kindly invited me to speak at this seminar on the presumption that I have at least made it to first base or first grade and know how to read. If I tell you, you’ll know what I think, but will we have begun to learn how to read Cooper? I could enjoin you, “Read figurally!,” but even if you were to swallow this literal dictum, we would not yet have begun to read as we should. {53} In other words, you shouldn’t take my word for it. So, first, we must simply read Cooper figurally. Once we begin reading this way, we can hear what he has to say, and part of what he has to say is that this is the way he should be read. As with Jesus’ famous parable of the sower, one must already know how to take the word in order to hear what the parable has to say about how one should take the word. “For he that hath, to him shall be given; and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath? (Mk 4:25). Cooper is often called “the father of American literature,” and in his texts the person who is most attentive to the word of the father, who is sometimes alone in hearing his voice, is someone who is already of his party, someone who is very close to him, someone who stands next to him. Of all the father’s partisans, the one most likely to stand by him in the struggles that are the subjects of all Cooper’s novels is a daughter. So if we would hear what the father has to say, we must listen with the ear of a daughter or with the ear of one who only has eyes for her. — These are not idle figures. On the contrary, they are indications of just how much has yet to be read. It’s now high time for us to begin to read figurally. Let’s look at a magnificent scene from Cooper’s second novel, The Spy, in which a daughter overhears the father of her country read the scene before him as a figure for the struggle in which he is engaged.

... a change in the weather occurred. ... The rain yet continued to beat against the eastern windows of the house with fury; in that direction the heavens were dark and gloomy. Frances was gazing at the scene with the desire of youth to escape from the tedium of confinement, when, as if by magic, all was still. The rushing winds had ceased, the pelting of the storm was over, and, springing to the window, with delight pictured in her face, she saw a glorious ray of sunshine lighting the opposite wood. The foliage glittered with the checkered beauties of the October leaf, reflecting back from the moistened boughs the richest lustre of an American autumn. In an instant, the piazza, which opened to the south, was thronged with the inmates of the cottage. The air was mild, balmy, and refreshing; in the east, clouds, which might be likened to the retreating masses of a discomfited army, hung around the horizon in awful and increasing darkness. At a little elevation above the cottage, the thin vapor was still rushing towards the east with amazing velocity; while in the west the sun had broken forth and shed his parting radiance on the scene below, aided by the fullest richness of a clear atmosphere and a freshened herbage. Such moments belong only to the climate of America, and are enjoyed in a degree proportioned to the suddenness of the contrast, and the pleasure we experience in escaping from the turbulence of the elements to the quiet of a peaceful evening, and an air still as the softest morning in June.

{54} “What a magnificent scene’” said Harper, in a low tone; “how grand! how awfully sublime! — may such a quiet speedily await the struggle in which my country is engaged, and such a glorious evening follow the day of her adversity!”

Frances, who stood next to him, alone heard the voice. 8

Almost all of the elemental figures of Cooper’s fiction are condensed in this scene. I have rendered the contrasts schematically, as a sort of primer to the only story that Cooper has to tell (see Figure 1). The house to which everyone is confined becomes a fixed point for running an imaginary line North and South, dividing the landscape into East and West. The storm, which is now confined to the East, is associated with a number of qualities that will be familiar to a reader of any of Cooper’s tales: turbulence (which is a transparent figure for the historical struggles that he takes for his subjects), obscurity and darkness (which figure the mystery that is an essential component of the romance plot), harshness, staleness, deprivation, and captivity (all of which figure the consequences of the passing away of the principle of regeneration). The narrative movement, in this microcosmic scene and in Cooper’s stories as wholes, is from these states to those of stillness, clarity, radiance, mildness, freshness, richness, and deliverance.

East West
fury, storm, turbulence      quiet, stillness, peace
cloudy, obscure clear
darkness, gloom sunshine, light, radiance
[hardness, harshness] softness, mildness
[staleness] freshness
[deprivation] fullest richness
confinement, captivity escape, freedom, expansion
day evening
evening morning
October, autumn June, early summer
[old age] youth

Figure 1.

Yet its magnificence is not so much due to the fullest richness of Cooper’s description as to the multiple subjects of his figuration. Not only does the “change in the weather” foreshadow the successful conclusion of the revolutionary struggle, but then, in the figure of the “paternal” Mr. Harper (which is a fictitious name assumed by the fiction’s George Washington), Cooper reads the prefigurative force of the scene he has just written, while, in the figure of the patriotic Frances, he finally anticipates the one who will have picked up on this scene as one of self-reading, who alone will have heard the plurivocal or many-tongued nature of the father’s voice (see Figure 2).

the struggle between the elements      the struggle between England and America
Harper’s reading of the scene Cooper’s reading of his own figures
Frances’ overhearing this reading the reader’s reading this self-reading

Figure 2.

To stand next to the father is to be in a position to hear that more is going on than meets the eye. To read figurally and to read that one should read figurally is to begin to read the promise of Cooper’s writing. It begins simply by remarking that Cooper’s writing makes a promise. In the scene before us, Mr. Harper’s prayerful reading of the “struggle” between the elements tells us that a certain narrative resolution is promised by this “change in the weather.” Yet, other than the discomfiture of the English army and its retreat back east, we are left in the dark about what this magical scene of enlightenment promises. At the same time, it’s clear that this promise is of the greatest moment. For it concerns nothing less than the identity of the new nation that is to be brought forth from the revolutionary struggle. At the moment, all we can see clearly is what is promised in this scene is the reemergence of a more promising state of affairs. The fruit of all the father’s labors, of which he has a foretaste at the close of the day, near the end of the year, is, paradoxically, another blossoming, a renewed promise as figured by earlier periods in the cycles of the day, of the seasons, and of human life. It would not be too much to say that Cooper’s career as the father of an American Literature begins here, with the articulation of a universal and eternal promise — the content of which still escapes us — and its identification with the specific, historical promise of the “new world.” Whether the American colonies and, later, the new Republic was to make good on this promise is the question that preoccupies all his subsequent writing.

With respect to these interlinked promises — eternal and historical, global and local — I have pledged to limit myself in this talk to so much of them as concerns rhetoric. Within these limits, it may seem as if there’s nothing to talk about, since it’s not immediately obvious that Cooper had anything to say about rhetoric at all. Rhetoric is of an entirely different order than the personal, social, and theological topics that are usually considered to govern his oeuvre — namely, the struggles between Judge William Cooper and himself, between fathers and sons, law and lawlessness, old world and new, settlement and wilderness, culture and nature, redemption and sin. While we are continually refining our sense of Cooper as someone intensely (if not always acutely) conscious of social process and the responsibility of the individual at any moment within it, we continue to think of him as someone largely unconscious of the literary means by which he attempted to fulfill those responsibilities, as someone who did not bother to reflect upon the place of literary or figural discourse within the process it records. In other words, we separate the issue of what he says from that of how he says it and subordinate the latter to the former, as if rhetorical figures were the neutral medium of a social message. In fact, Cooper’s mode of speech is equally determined by the social situation to which it responds. In broaching the subject of how rhetoric figures in Cooper’s writing, I am inviting you to explore the extent to which the two issues are inseparable, the extent to {56} which the medium is the message or, in the case of Cooper, the story is in the figure. : this means both that what is figured matters more The story is in the figures than what is plainly said and that Cooper’s figures are part and parcel of the story that he has to tell. Rhetoric is not just the way in which Cooper promises; Cooper’s writing also makes a promise about rhetoric. In fact, rhetoric is the subject of his first promise; as in the scene we have just analyzed, Cooper’s writing promises that a figural reading is the way to realize everything else that it promises.

Having claimed so much for rhetoric within the conceptual scheme of Cooper’s fiction, I immediately need to confront the hard fact that, so far as I know, Cooper never uses the word “rhetoric.” So what is rhetoric that Cooper can talk about it all the time without once mentioning it by name? It is nothing other than the knack of representing something to be while it is not actually present — using its name is only one means of doing so. In addition to their proper names, things can be represented by improper names — that is, by figures of speech. More generally, rhetoric works with same secondary, external, and inessential quality of a thing — not its substance but its shape, form, fashion, image, shadow, appearance, decorations, ornaments, accessories, auxiliaries, aides, and supplements (and these are all words that Cooper does use) — in order to create the illusion of its presence. This illusion is the basis of everything that Cooper opposes, whether he denounces it as a falsehood, fraud, cheat, imposition, simulation, imitation, deception, trick, or chicanery. Such terms of indictment are derived entirely from the classical, philosophical rhetoric of rhetoric — the arche — rhetoric that inscribed rhetoric as the obliteration of the arche or ruling principle itself. 9 In the short space that we have left, we will be beginning to read the figures by which Cooper represents the process of representation or figuration itself. For it may be that this conceptual system, by which the emergence of the sign, of writing, is linked to the violent removal of the father, may indeed constitute the “original” deed of violence, the deed of (self-)violence by which rhetoric attempted to bring something other than itself into being or, at least, to hide its inessentiality from self.

After all, that’s the classical trick of rhetoric: while it traffics in semblances, it is able to make them pass for substances. Cooper acknowledges this trick and its danger in The American Democrat. In the chapter “On Language,” he warns that “society is always the loser by mistaking names for things,” and American society needs to be reminded of this order to counter an active “effort to subvert things by names.” 10 It is no accident that this chapter appears in the center of a book that, as Cooper acknowledges in its introduction, could well have been titled “something like ‘Anti-Cant’” and whose “voice of simple, honest, and ... fearless truth” seeks to confute “notions that are impracticable, and which if persevered in, cannot fail to produce disorganization, if not revolution” (69-71).

Never mentioned by name, rhetoric figures as the greatest scandal of Cooper’s writing. For while his text is rhetorical through and through, what it promises is synonymous with the overcoming or passing away of rhetoric. What justifies this claim for rhetoric? What about the particular threats that Cooper does name — the sins of pride, envy, and covetousness, which are {57} committed when “passions” and “interests” are given free rein, which they are whenever the “idol of self” is worshipped? Rhetoric is the tongue of self; it is the means by which self keeps the knowledge of itself — of the solitary, accidental and contingent nature of self — from itself and thereby makes its idolization possible. Rhetoric makes the arbitrary dictates of self sound like the law of our being.

For Cooper, the law of our being is that we are creatures, and, as such, we are subject to the laws of He who created us. How are those laws to be known? Where are they to be found? As we were told by the Chainbearer, they are to be found in the leaves of the Bible and can be reduced to “what t’e Almighty Got of Heaven ant ‘art’ sait unto Moses” or the Ten Commandments. Cooper conceives of this petrel inscription is as the original of all others, the original text of the law or the text of the original law. 11 But if the Law exists in this form alone — as a text transcribed by the hand of the father, as recorded by his pious “children” — then only faith distinguishes it from the productions of rhetoric. The written word remains a dead letter. In order for the Law to live, it must be present in those whose lives it is supposed to guide. Thus “the inherent sense of right” is also “implanted in every man by nature.” 12 To differentiate itself still further, to guide us more compellingly, it must supersede writing altogether and become animated. This it does in “the voice of mercy,” 13 “the dictates of justice,” “the plain, direct dictates of common honesty,” 14 and even the “dictates” of sentiment. 15 Finally, the Law should not have to be uttered at all but simply be present in the rebuking glaze of that “inward monitor,” conscience, whose radiance is the interior double of that of the sun, which we saw burst forth in the scene from The Spy. 16

Cooper’s writing tells two stories about the relationship between rhetoric and the Law. The first blames rhetoric for eclipsing a Law whose light was once clearly seen. The Law remains present, but unseen, unheard, unread, forgotten. In this story, the “turbulence” — the struggles, contests, strife, bloodshed, and revolutions that always appear in the background of Cooper’s novels — is inaugurated by rhetoric’s effacement of the Law. And it is because it is in the nature of fallen man thus to fall away from the Law again and again that the Law must be uttered, that it must come before us in the commanding voice and searching gaze of external, social authority. In time of revolution or, better, rebellion, the Law is to be laid down by the father who, so often in Cooper’s fiction, also occupies high social, political, or military station. In addition to the Chainbearer, I will just mention a few other examples. The calumniated spy, Harvey Birch, draws consolation from the fact that his father is “one who read by heart.” The only other one to “know” him truly is George Washington, who combines the figural status of father with his literal status as gentleman, general, and the executor of justice. 17 For the guilty, the reflection of the light of their own conscience in the eye of the father is more terrible. In Lionel Lincoln, Abigail Pray describes Ralph as one who “can read our secret thoughts as I had supposed man could never read them,” and she can read them reflected in his eye for “he reminds me of all I have ever known, and of all the evil I have ever done, by his scorching eye.” 18

{58} Just as rhetoric serves to shield the guilty from their self-condemnation, rebels of Cooper’s fiction always appear in disguise, or with their faces blackened, or under the cover of darkness, in order to hide deeds that could not bear the light of day or the eye of justice. If the father who utters their condemnation should fall into their hands, then he is banished, effaced, or decapitated. When society cuts itself off from the one who tells it of its delusion, then delusion becomes absolute. The effacement of the gentleman marks the absolute rule of rhetoric. In addition to the Chainbearer and Captain Willoughby who are murdered outright, you might think here of gentlemen who are more or less forced to emigrate — M. LeQuoi from the revolutionary West Indies in The Pioneers, Hugh Littlepage from the anti-rent United States in The Redskins, Mark Woolston from his island utopia in The Crater. This effacement can assume more subtle, figural forms. Upon their return to the United States in The Redskins, Uncle Hugh and Hugh Roger, Jr., find themselves compelled to adopt disguises in order not to be literally defaced by the anti-renters, who would tar and feather them if they knew them.

As 1 noted before, while Cooper does not want to tell this story, his texts open themselves to a second reading of how it is that rhetoric comes to rule. This second possibility does nothing to mitigate the instability and arbitrariness that characterizes its rule, but shifts the responsibility for it. If we are wholly given over to our passions and the imagination that caters to them, perhaps it is because the Law has withdrawn from us and abandoned us to them. For instance, when Hugh Roger, Junior, returns to Paris and is greeted with the news of the anti-rent troubles in New York, he acknowledges that he and his uncle “had been absent from home fully five years. 19 If rhetoric rules, it may only be because the father is absent, because he has not dared to show his face. Such a critique is implicit in all the disguise adopted, in turn, by the romance heroes and their fathers. While Cooper and the latest of his Littlepages bluster about how a simple declarative statement, “calling a ‘spade a spade,’ and not effecting to gloss over the disguised robbery of these anti-renters, and laying just principles fairly before the public mind, would of itself have crushed the evil in its germ,” the fact remains that Cooper resorts to writing a novel while his protagonists return home “incognito.” 21 This is not an isolated act of self-oblivion on the part of the natural aristocracy; I will just cite numerous masqueraders: The Earl of Pendennyss, Captain Wharton, and Mr. Harper, Oliver Effingham, Sir Lionel, Jack Effingham. In most cases, these masquerades are not innocent; they cause pain to individuals, and they lead the community to the very brink of serious bloodshed. Let’s look in greater detail at one example: the seemingly innocent or, at worst, capricious deed of Sir George Templemore to travel under another name in Homeward Bound. The whole narrative, “the chase” or the pursuit of signs, can be traced to this act: it is only because of his incognito, because he has vacated his name and abandoned it to another, that a fraudulent imposter is not exposed until the ship has reached America.

The effect of this absence or abdication on the part of the father is most legible in his children. The father who is not at home or who is not what he should be abandons his children to become either victims or creatures of art. In Precaution, without the direction of her parents or of a guardian, {59} Jane Moseley falls “under the influence of her fancy,” a faculty that gives her over to the appearance of things, such as that of the trustworthiness of Colonel Egerton. 21 Then the daughter who, instead of being seduced by rhetoric embodies the attempt to seduce by means of rhetoric, becomes the site of rhetoric’s production. In the absence of the truly repentant mother who spoke to them of their religious duties and under the authority of a father without God, Judith Hutter is given over to the production of a seductive show; let me cite at length a scene in which we can read the daughter’s domination by appearances:

A single glance sufficed to show that the apartment belonged to females. The bed was of the feathers of wild geese, and filled nearly to overflowing, but it lay in a rude bunk, raised only a foot from the floor. On one side of it were arranged on pegs, various dresses of a quality much superior to what one would expect to meet in such a place, with ribbons and other similar articles to correspond. Pretty shoes, with handsome silver buckles, such as were worn by females in easy circumstances, were not wanting, and no less than six fans of gay colours, were placed, half open, in a way to catch the eye by their conceits and hues. Even the pillow on this side of the bed, was covered with finer linen than its companion, and it was ornamented with a small ruffle. A pair of long gloves, such as were rarely used in those days by persons of the laboring classes, were pinned ostentatiously to it, as if with an intention to exhibit them there, if they could not be shown on the owner’s arms.

... Nor did he fail to perceive the distinction that existed between the appearances on the different sides of the bed, the head of which stood against the wall. On that opposite to the one just described, every thing was homely, and uninviting except through its perfect neatness. The few garments that were hanging from the pegs, were of the coarsest materials, and of the commonest forms, while nothing seemed made for show. Of ribbons there was not one, nor was there either cap, or kerchief, beyond those which Hutter’s daughters might be fairly entitled to wear. 22

The point of Hetty’s plainness is not so much that it speaks of her self-abasement as that it speaks of who she is, it does not exceed her titles. When Judith hesitates to surrender the finery that is discovered in the trunk, Deerslayer says reproving, “In my eyes, Judith, a modest maiden never looks more becoming, than when becomingly clad, and nothing is suitable that is out of character.” The suit does not suit unless it is in character, as Chingachgook emphasizes when Hawkeye remarks that “Hist would show uncommon” in the dress: “Wah-ta!-Wah is a red skin girl ... like the young of the pigeon, {60} she is to be known by her own feathers. I should pass by without knowing her, were she dressed in such a skin. It’s wisest always to be so clad that our friends need not ask us for our names.” 23 The rhetoric or clothes with which we cover our nakedness should nevertheless be like a second “skin” in speaking of who we are, in uttering our names.

Deerslayer is just such a skin or name — as are Pathfinder or Chainbearer: a sobriquet, nickname or nom de guerre, it is a figure, a covering, that nevertheless names the “gifts” or essential qualities of the man who bears them. Is the same true of the novels that take these names for their titles? Are the novels clothing of the same kind as the name? Is fiction the form “suitable” to the f/Father of the word, does fiction become the f/Father? These considerations about the propriety of the name and the propriety of the texts that appropriate these names for themselves return us to the pressing question from which we started: given what Cooper says about the father as a body of truth, how can he justify clothing it in fictions, in which the father’s simplicity is represented by means of such complex figures as that of the Chainbearer? Is it conceivable that Cooper simply failed to grasp the complicity, the complete solidarity, of his writing with the very rhetorical operations that it unfailingly identifies with sin? Can we set this discrepancy down as perhaps the most unsettling of Cooper’s compositional lapses? This interpretation would be most flattering to ourselves, but, since flattery is the very thing against which Cooper warns us, we must consider another explanation, humiliating to ourselves. Cooper would be required to deploy figures against figures, to seduce us to an abhorrence of seduction, to fight fire with fire, if his readers were already in the grip of a consuming passion for fiction. In other words, to appreciate the figural, parabolical character of cooper’s writing is to appreciate that it arises in a social context of rebellion, in which the father can no longer make himself heard. It addresses itself to the sinful, so that hearing they may feel, and feeling they may revert to their better nature and have their sins forgiven them. Such an explanation is entirely in keeping with the psychology implicit in Cooper’s narratives, where the characters who have transgressed God’s commandments are never made to repent when they appear, like Hiram Doolittle, “in front of” “the man he had so cruelly injured.” 24

Since the direct appeal of the father, the explicit sight of his broken body, only confirm the guilty in their sins, how is one to circumvent the sophisms by which they justify their deed, how is one to give renewed force to the Law that lies within them, surcharged with fallacy? If, as I am proposing, we read what Cooper’s stories have to say about the kind of address that is necessary in this case, we should rephrase the question. How does one address the guilty? Who speaks to them? Has the father a daughter? In Cooper’s books, the sinful father (that is, the negation of the father, the anti-father) is written off as a dead loss, whereas the prodigal son can be recouped by his love for the father’s daughter. At the moment of crisis, Oliver Edwards confesses to Elizabeth Temple, “I have been driven to the woods in despair [which is as much as to say, he has been bewildered]; but your society has tamed the lion within me.” But she, thinking that she cannot escape the fire, commends him to her father: “You will see my father; my poor, my bereaved father! Say to him, then ... how dear, how very dear, was my {61} love for him. That it was near, too near, to my love for God.” 25 Elizabeth, whose Christian name also refers to the house of God, here refers her prodigal lover to the father who is a Temple in deed as well as in name. The daughter does not lay down the law; instead, she recommends the body or the letter of the law to us. For instance, Emily Moseley answers the rhetorical question of her unprincipled suitor about where certain principles are to be found by replying, “’I would recommend that book to you,’ ... pointing to a pocket Bible which lay near her.” 26 This referential chain can be extended indefinitely. Since the writing of the law in our breast is as much a deed of nurture as of nature, 27 the daughter also recalls the prodigal to himself by reminding him of the mother who first recommended the Law to him. 28

The daughter recommends the text of the Law or reminds us of a recommendation all the more, the less she seems to do so, the more she refers us to or recites another, more primitive, original language that speaks of the Law. Her power to arrest the son in mid-career is never greater than when he cannot see her, than when he cannot even understand her, than when her voice thus becomes pure song, than when her song seems altogether inhuman and artless, like the call of a bird. Mordaunt Littlepage is stopped in his tracks, “entranced,” by such a song, the notes of which “struck me as the fullest, richest, and most plaintive I had ever heard.” “I thought I knew the air,” he writes, “but the words were guttural, and in an unknown tongue.” He likens the singing to that “of the feathered race,” and his Indian companion, to whom the “tongue” is native, nevertheless corroborates his characterization of the singer, saying, “Bird, pretty bird — sing like wren.” While the Onondago stands over the grave of Chainbearer, at the close of the book, the song is repeated — it is the book’s swan song. Then Mordaunt accounts for its effect, adding, “The words had been explained to me, and I knew that they alluded to a warrior’s grave.” 29

In her power to return the prodigal to his father, to reach him with her plaint, to hold him still and play upon his inborn feelings, by imitating an original, figural language, the daughter figures the identity to which Cooper’s writing aspires. In “that form, ... so winning and lovely,” 31 Cooper conceives the writing of which she is simultaneously a conception. And her song, the effacement of her self in song, figures the ultimate ambition of Cooper’s writing: not to convince our reason with his arguments, not to have his dicta taken for gospel, not to impose his authority upon us, but for all his words to shed their weight of intelligibility, for them to dissolve or resolve into a natural cry or melody that would speak to us (all the more openly eloquently for being in “an unknown tongue”) of the father’s absence.

While figurality, taken to the limit, is thus conceived as recovering an original language that has the power to reanimate the Law that slumbers within us, Cooper represents it at the same time as the height of mendacity or delusion. The prodigal regenerated by his love for the father’s daughter, like the Indian, is able to identify birdsong as the original of her song, but this attribution is not without its ambivalences. For Cooper knew that the Indian expression “Singing birds” was a figure for “Tale bearers — story tellers — liars.” 31 Further. the very conditions in which this “music” is produced or in which it produces its effect are also the conditions of maximum {62} delusion: at night, in a dark wood — the conditions of darkness and obscurity that we first read in the passage from The Spy, in which the senses are put out, while fancy, imagination, and poetry become active. Thus, if such song is a figure for Cooper’s own fiction (and we have only examined a fraction of the evidence that links the two), then Cooper’s text entertains a profound ambivalence about whether its figures will recall a bewildered readership or whether they will bewilder us beyond recall.

It is ambivalence or uncertainty that calls for the text of the epitaph, that provokes Mordaunt’s explanation of his beloved’s song. It is precisely because this complex chain of links — by which the figural language of his fiction represents itself as linked to the father’s daughter’s song, which is an imitation of an Indian song, which, in turn is an imitation of a “natural” melody — may not be a fact of history but a figment of rhetoric (the fiction by which it disguises its identity as rhetoric) that Cooper needs to be able to translate the primitive song into civilized prose, to reduce the figure to a simple letter. This necessity finally imposes the text of the epitaph upon him. The epitaph in The Chainbearer is the modern version of the “song” that it describes but cannot and dare not imitate, which has “alluded to a warrior’s grave” before it. The epitaph is the text that is supposed to guide us out of a wilderness of figures, to translate us, into the clearing of the simple Word. 32 It is not a matter for us here and now, at long last near the end, of questioning the adequacy of this translation, but simply of remarking that the epitaph is as much a fiction as the song that it retrojects in order for it then to translate it. For, as we established at the outset, the epitaph is a figure of simplicity, which is the same as saying that it is not simple at all. If the song is totally unreliable means of recalling us to the father because of its non-originality, its figurality, then the epitaph is no more so. It remains a highly complex, overdetermined figure in the history of the rhetoric of rhetoric, the history of the figures in which rhetoric imagines its overcoming, its resolution, its passing away, and the beginning (which, of course, is necessarily imagined as the restoration) of a real world of true being, in which we would, finally, be. Rather than signifying such an end of rhetoric, the epitaph has to be re-imagined as a punctuation mark within a general fictivity or rhetoricity. Only once we have begun to read, to re-imagine, and redestine such figures will their days — the days that promise an end to this alternation of day and night, the days that divide them into radically distinct alternatives, which is the basis of all that Cooper’s fiction promises — only then will such days, finally, be numbered.


1 Cf. the statement by William Wordsworth that men, who, “by the greatness of their services in the employments of peace and war, the surpassing excellence of their works in art, literature, or science, have made themselves not only universally known, but have filled the heart of their country with everlasting gratitude,” need only “their naked names” as epitaphs (“Essay Upon Epitaphs, I,” The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Symser [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974], II, 61). All the complexities that we will be engaged in unravelling are writ small in this paradoxical formulation. The proper or “naked name” of the epitaph does not refer us immediately to the great man himself — as it should, according to this conception of it as his innermost surface, his skin or flesh; instead, it refers us away from him, to the “services” or “works” with which he has clothed his name and by which our hearts have been “filled.” A natural order of things is simultaneously posited and described as functioning inversely: the body reminds us of the clothes that made the man.

2 The Chainbearer; or, The Littlepage Manuscripts, in two volumes (New York: Burgess, Stringer & Company, 1845; rpt. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1973), II, 228 (my italics). Subsequent references to the volume and page number will appear parenthetically in the text.

3 It is important to note that Cooper seems to conceive of the “rule” by which the survey is conducted as one of divine institution and not arbitrary, human convention. Cf. his description of compasses in Homeward Bound or The Chase: “These faithful but mysterious guides, which have so long served man while they have baffled all of his ingenuity to discover the sources of their power, were, as usual, true to their governing principle” (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, n.d.), The Leather-Stocking Edition, 361).

4 It is the norm rather than the exception for the hero and heroine to figure as one family before their actual marriage, as they do in The Pioneers. The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, Home as Found, and Wyandotté. If they are “suited” for each other, it is because they are cut from the same cloth.

5 On his death-bed, Chainbearer echoes Christ, saying, “I forgif them. T’ey are an ignorant, ant selfish, and prutal preed” (11, 152), as does the spy when he relates that at the scaffold, “I even thought that HE had forgotten that I lived” (The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896], The Leatherstocking edition, 360). “Know ye not that your body is a temple?”

6 It is important to note that the composition of the manuscript is an act of filial piety for his natural father, Cornelius Littlepage, since, as he explains in his Preface to the first of the trilogy, “I have made a solemn request in my will, that those who come after will consent to continue this narrative, committing to paper their own experience, as I have here committed mine, down as low at least as my grandson, if I ever have one” (Satanstoe, eds. Robert E. Spiller and Joseph D. Coppock [New York: American Book Company, 1937], 5).

7 As indicated in these brief remarks, Cooper’s concept of the origin and destination of writing locates him? within a? that has been analyzed by Jacques Derrida. See particularly, “la pharmacie de Platen,” in Dissemination (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1972), 69-196.

8 The Spy; A Tale of the Neutral Ground (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, n.d.), the Mohawk Edition, 45-6.

9 As just one index of the extent to which Cooper’s conception of rhetoric is indebted to the classical tradition, I will cite his warning that “Power always has most to apprehend from its own illusions. ... In a democracy, the delusion that would elsewhere be poured into the ears of the prince, is poured into those of the people” (The American Democrat, ed. George Dekker and Larry Johnston [Penguin Books, 1969], 69-70). This warning against flattery should be articulated with the scheme that Plato elaborates in Gorgias, where rhetoric and sophistic are identified as two complementary species of “flattery” that dissimulate the true art of politics (462b-465e). This passage also establishes the analogy between “justice” and “medicine” which opens the way for the construction of justice’s impersonation, namely rhetoric or “the falsehood in words,” as “poison [pharmakon]” (cf. Republic, 382c-d, 389b, and 401b-c), which Cooper is drawing on in this reworking of the regicide in Hamlet.

10 Ibid., 173-4. Subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text.

11 That this inscription is not original either, but, rather, the reinscription, in a human hand, of a prior word that has been “broken” (and whose break is inscribed in its mode of reinscription), is a point that I hope to pursue elsewhere, in a reading of the figure of the ark.

12 Gleanings in Europe: England, ed. Robert E. Spiller (New York: Oxford University Press, 1930), 306; see also The American Democrat, where he claims that “God has bestowed” “that consciousness of right” (75) and speaks of “those convictions of right which God has implanted in our breasts, that we may know good from evil” (144).

13 The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, intro. Richard Beagle Davis (Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1970), 386.

14 Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine, ed. Ernest Redekop, Maurice Geracht, and Thomas Philbrick (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), 31.

15 Gleanings in Europe: France, ed. Thomas Philbrick and Constance Ayers Denne (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), 89.

16 Homeward Bound or The Chase (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, n.d.), The Leather-Stocking Edition, 478.

17 Ibid., 183.

18 Lionel Lincoln; or, The Leaguer of Boston (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984).

19 The Redskins; Or Indian and Injin, Being the Conclusion of the Littlepage Manuscripts (Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1909), 15.

20 Ibid., 7, 40, 64, 66.

21 Precaution: A Novel (Grosse Pointe, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1968), 98. This story is repeated in The Spy with Sarah Wharton.

22 The Deerslayer; Or, the First War-Path, ed. Lance Schachterle et al. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), 42-3. Judith should be aligned with other women in the later novels suspected of artfulness, such as Priscilla Bayard, of whom Mordaunt Littlepage sometimes believes that “her nature [was] the very perfect of art” (Ibid., 60).

23 Ibid., 215.

24 In this phrase, Cooper delivers his authorial judgment on Hiram’s treatment of Natty in The Pioneers or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale, ed. Lance Schachterle et al. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), 376, 377. Among other egregious offenders, one should cite Aaron Timberman (also known as Thousandacres), who is not brought to repentance by the remonstrances of the Chainbearer, whom he has mortally wounded.

25 The Pioneers, 412.

26 Precaution, 349.

27 Within the hierarchical scheme of Cooper’s fiction, it would seem proper to say that the Law is planted in our breast by God, but cultivated by our education at the hands of our guardians, yet Cooper regularly speaks of principles being “implanted” by parents or guardians.

28 ? the theme of incest here.

29 The Chainbearer, 1, 98, 99, 103, 143, 1I, 215. Cooper would seem to be indebted to Lord Monboddo for his conception of birdsong as an original of the first human languages, to which Indian languages are supposed to have remained quite close — a source which is specifically supposed to account for their tonality and gutturality. See Of the Origin and Progress of Language (Edinburgh: printed for J. Balfour and T. Cadell, 1774), second edition, 470, 478. Particularly relevant to Cooper’s treatment of Dus Malbone as “a perfect mocking-bird” (I, 144) is this comment: “In short, it appears to me, that we resemble very much an American or West India bird that I have heard of, called the Mock-bird, which has no tune of its own, but imitates the notes of any other bird: For we seem to set out in life without any original stock of our own, or any natural talent besides that faculty of imitation, which nature has bestowed upon us in so high a degree that Aristotle has denominated man, very properly, the most imitative of all animals” (207-8). That the totality of language is imitative is another way of saying that it is figural.

30 Homeward Bound or The Chase (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, n.d.), The Leather-Stocking Edition, vol. XIII, 319.

31 John Heckewelder, History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States (n.p.: Arno Press, 1971), a reprint of the 1876 edition, intro and notes by William C. Reichel, 138. See also A Narrative of the Mission of the United Brethren Among the Delaware and Mohegan Indians, from its Commencement in the year 1740, to the Close of the Year 1808. ... (Philadelphia: M’Carty & Davis, 1820), 118, where Heckewelder writes, “The ‘singing of a bird,’ as the Indian phrase is, applies to all such accounts, sayings, or even messages, which do not appear to bear the stamp of authenticity.”

32 This description of the final ambition of Cooper’s text as one of “translation” is indebted to the reading of his works opened up by Eric Cheyfitz in “literally White, Figuratively Red: The Frontier of Translation in The Pioneers,” in James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays, ed. Robert Clark (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1985), 55-95. For a more extended theoretical and historical elaboration of this concept of translation and its deployment in the reading of other texts, see his recent book, The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from the Tempest to Tarzan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).