The Bravo: Social Criticism in the Gothic Mode

Donald A. Ringe (University of Kentucky)

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. 124-134).

Copyright © 1991, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

Of the many books that James Fenimore Cooper wrote during his thirty year career as novelist, historian, and social critic, The Bravo: A Tale was among the most unfortunate in its critical reception. Published on 15 October 1831, this novel of early eighteenth-century Venice was accepted at first, as Dorothy Waples has shown, “as a good piece of fiction and as an obviously republican work” (86-88), precisely what Cooper had intended while he was writing it. But by June of the following year, with the appearance of the well-known “Cassio” review in the New York American, the book became involved in partisan politics, and comments upon it were deeply colored by the political views of the various writers. It is not my purpose here to rehearse the controversy that swirled around the book in what was eventually to become Cooper’s war with the Whig editors. That task has been thoroughly done by Waples and others, and it needs no repetition here. I merely wish to point out that almost from the very beginning The Bravo was denied the objective critical reading that its quality — and it is indeed a very good book — clearly deserved.

Many important critics of the twentieth century have agreed with this critical estimate. For W. C. Brownell, writing in 1909, The Bravo “is an extremely good story made an extremely effective one by the fact that Cooper’s democracy gave him a point of view from which the mockery styled the Republic of Venice appeared in a particularly striking light” (36). For Robert E. spiller, in 1931, it is “one of the best of Cooper’s romances” (218), a book whose moral purpose” determines “the pattern of the plot structure and the entire motivation of the story” (258). For Yvor Winters, in 1938, The Bravo is to be praised for “the profundity of [its] conception” (117), and for the moral portrait of the corrupt and corrupting Venetian aristocrats, a portrayal which Winters considers “worthy of Hawthorne” (34). He ranks the book with the Leatherstocking tales, the first two Littlepage novels, and The Water-Witch — another neglected book — as “indispensable” to “the American who desires a polite education in his own literature” (49). And for James Grossman, in 1949, the “brilliant reversal” at the book’s conclusion “stuns us into enlightenment” (79). But because these critics were all primarily concerned with general estimates of Cooper’s career, they did not analyze the book in detail.

A different approach was taken by Marius Bewley in 1954. Bewley makes no claim for the artistic success of The Bravo. He stresses, rather, the intellectual content of the book to show its relation to the contemporary American scene, especially the way Cooper has the Venetian oligarchs express ideas that were held by the moneyed aristocrats among the American Whigs. By treating the book in this manner, Bewley makes clear that Cooper’s purpose in writing it was not only to voice “a warning of what might come to America,” but to satirize “what he believed already existed” there (182). Bewley’s analysis does, of course, have something to say about artistic merit. He sees {125} “a really biting irony” in the way the book treats one school of “American political thought” (183). He finds brilliance in Cooper’s description of the social and political opinions of Signor Gradenigo, one of the members of the ruling Council of Three (186). And he at least suggests that there is a degree of literary value in the book when he considers it and Cooper’s other European novels as “distinguished expressions of the liberal viewpoint in American fiction — and what is more, a liberalism solidly grounded in a sense of history that is rare” (187).

What is clear from the comments of these distinguished critics stretching over the last eighty years is that The Bravo has a great deal to recommend it in both content and form. It deserves to be more widely read, and it needs to be critically evaluated with the same care that Cooper devoted to its composition. For the book was carefully written over a period of many months. About half done in December 1830, it was still unfinished in April 1831 and not completed until August. Part of the delay was no doubt caused by the fact that during the spring Cooper was also revising three of his earlier books for Colburn and Bentley’s Standard Novels and did not work on The Bravo for six weeks. But when the British publishers urged him in April “to move forward with” it because they wanted to publish in June, he was quick to reply, “I wish to make a hit with Bravo, and if you don’t hurry me I think I shall, but if we go too fast, we shall spoil all” (L&J, II, 71-72). Cooper’s concern for the quality of the book would seem to suggest that he took the time to work very carefully on it.

A close analysis of The Bravo strongly supports this conjecture. In the city of Venice Cooper found a subject that was admirably suited to the development of an important theme, one that he believed his fellow Americans needed to understand. His meaning is not solely political. It is true, of course, that in his depiction of the Venetian oligarchs, Cooper is aiming part of his criticism at the aristocrats who held the real power in England and at the moneyed class who wanted to establish a similar system in France. It is also true, as Bewley has argued, that another likely target was the rising commercial class in his own United States. In all three groups, Cooper saw a threat to the democratic principles that he held dear. But be also saw in them a more fundamental danger. What sort of society would result, he seems to say, if the only guide to human behavior, the only principle on which men would act, the only value to be recognized was the acquisition of wealth? In his novel of the Venetian republic, he gives us a picture of what that society might be.

At the heart of the book are the Venetian senators, a group of hereditary aristocrats, whose collective concern is to maintain their power and wealth. Although at the time of the action Venice is already in a state of decline, “her commerce, though waning, [is] yet sufficient to uphold the vast possessions of those families, whose ancestors had become rich in the day of her prosperity” (2). As one senator puts it, “Venice is to the last degree prosperous. Our ships are thriving; the bank flourishes with goodly dividends;” and there have not been “so ample revenues for most of our interests, as at this hour” (294). For the Venetian senate, wealth and power are the driving force that motivates their actions. All other considerations {126} are secondary. A senator, Cooper writes, “stood in relation to the state as a director of a moneyed institution is proverbially placed in respect to his corporation; an agent of its collective measures, removed from the responsibilities of the man.” Though he may speak ably of virtue, religion, and human rights, he acts as if “property [were] not a subordinate, but the absorbing interest of civilized life” (82).

To maintain their privileged position, the senators rule the state through a series of councils. Since all who descend from families enrolled in a register called “The Golden Book” can, with few exceptions, become senators and, “at a certain age,” take part in the affairs of state, the senate had become so large that a Council of Three Hundred was formed, from which is chosen an executive Council of Ten to conduct the more general of the public interests. But the real power in Venice lies in a Council of Three, chosen by lot, from whose authority not even the doge is exempt. Their identity is known only to themselves and “to a few of the most confidential of the more permanent officers of the government;” they meet in secret; and their decrees are “enforced with a fearfulness of mystery, and a suddenness of execution, that resemble ... the blows of fate.” Because their primary duty is to protect the interests of the patrician class, the principles by which they conduct their business “set at defiance every other consideration but expediency, — all the recognized laws of God, and every principle of justice which is esteemed among men” (145-47).

The effect of their self-serving principles on Venetian society is made apparent in both the main and the subplots of the novel. The romantic plot involving Don Camillo Monforte and Violetta Tiepolo establishes the theme. The Neapolitan duke is descended from the younger branch of a Venetian family, the elder of which has been extinguished, and he has petitioned the senate to have the rights and possessions of his ancestors restored to him. The logic of aristocracy and the simple demands of justice would require that his request be granted. But Venice is jealous of her privileges and possesses a law which holds that “the patrician of St. Mark [may not] be a lord in other lands” lest his devotion to the republic be weakened (46). As both a Venetian senator and Duke of St. Agata, Don Camillo would be too independent of the Venetian state and therefore a threat to its interests. Yet the senate does not simply deny his petition. They keep him waiting for five years, meanwhile assigning him diplomatic missions where his influence can be of use and suggesting that loyal service to the republic may lead to a favorable judgment in his case.

Violetta is caught in an even worse predicament. An orphaned Venetian heiress, she has been made the ward of Signor Gradenigo, a member of the Council of Three, and by law she may not “be given in marriage to any of note, in a foreign state, without counsel and consent from those who are appointed to watch over the interests of all” (46). But the senate is less concerned with Violetta than with her possessions. Since her wealth, some of which lies in the States of the Church, is great, its final disposition is to the senators very much a matter of public policy. The council is deeply interested in the use to which the girl can be put to advance the policies of the state, and though Signor Gradenigo in his official capacity echoes their {127} concerns, in private he urges his profligate son to try to win her, but to do it with such discretion as not to arouse the suspicions of the senate. Violetta, in other words, is treated like a pawn in all of their scheming, and no thought is given to her personal desires, except to the extent that her love for Don Camillo interferes with their plans.

The problem posed by Don Camillo and Violetta is a delicate one for the council to handle. Though the simplest solution, suggested by Signor Gradenigo, would be “to make a speedy determination of” the Neapolitan’s claim and “recommend a compromise, that he may return without delay to his own Calabria” (168-69), the others are unwilling to part with any advantage that might accrue to the state from the affair. Hence, they decide to keep his claim “in deeper suspense, if it were only to occupy his mind.” As for Violetta, the other members of the council have already penetrated Gradenigo’s designs. They remove her from his custody and inform him for the first time that “a negotiation is already near a termination, which will relieve the state from the care of the damsel, and at some benefit to the Republic. Her estates lying without our limits greatly facilitate the treaty.” Gradenigo must pretend to be pleased with the news, which, he is told, “hath only been withheld from your knowledge by the consideration that of late we have rather too much overloaded thee with affairs” (175). Though well aware of his colleagues hypocrisy and deceit, Gradenigo has no choice but to submit.

In making their decisions concerning Don Camillo and Violetta, the Council of Three ignores all principles of justice and human rights. Their concern for the wealth controlled by the patrician class overrides all other considerations. Despite their machinations, however, Camillo and Violetta are able to subvert the plans of the state. They avow their love and are married in a ceremony witnessed by one of the senate’s spies. Yet despite these facts, the state does not scruple to seize Violetta, separate her from her husband, and continue to use her for its purposes. Not even their marriage vows, we are told, will be honored by the rulers of Venice, who “set the anger of the Holy See itself at defiance, when there is a question of their interest. ... There is no obligation so solemn as to be respected, when their policy is concerned” (314). Though Don Camillo manages to rescue his bride, escape the prison that is Venice, and flee to the States of the Church, where he is protected by his uncle, a powerful cardinal, their experience in Venice well illustrates Cooper’s theme of the corruption that results when money becomes the sole principle that motivates men.

Of those who remain in Venice, none escape the influence of that worldly principle. Even the patrician class, privileged though it may be, is affected by the corruption. Though Signor Gradenigo holds an important post in the government of the republic, he is willing to betray the trust of both Violetta and the state that has made her his ward if he can acquire her wealth for his son. The profligate Giacomo, on his part, cares nothing for the girl but woos her solely for her possessions, which he desperately needs to pay off his debts to Hosea, the Jewish money lender. When Giacomo learns that Don Camille has become his serious rival for the girl, he tries first to denounce him anonymously to the senate, and he eventually borrows another large sum from Hosea for the purpose of hiring Jacopo, a reputed Bravo, to kill Don Camillo {128} and so leave the way open for him to gain Violetta’s wealth. The corrupting power of money is everywhere. It turns father and son into conspirators, tempts Signor Gradenigo to try to subvert the policy of the state, and leads the son to attempt the assassination of his rival.

Other patricians, less practiced in deception, are also drawn into the corruption. To show what happens to them, Cooper introduces, late in the book, Signor Soranzo, who takes Gradenigo’s place on the Council of Three when the lot falls to him. Soranzo is a good man, devoted to his wife and children and desirous of doing what is right in his new position. Still rather young and inexperienced in the affairs of state, however, Soranzo at first believes appearances and only gradually becomes aware at the first meeting of the council that the policies of the republic are devious. The more experienced members are forced “to overcome the generous disposition of [their] colleague, before the action of the terrible machine could go on” (361). Though Soranzo does not fully understand what is happening, the effect on him is profound. He begins to doubt himself and returns to his family with a heavy heart, “for he had taken the first step in that tortuous and corrupting path, which eventually leads to the destruction of all those generous and noble sentiments which can only flourish apart from the sophistry and fictions of selfishness” (381). In time, Cooper implies, Soranzo will become another Gradenigo.

The common people of Venice, on the other hand, are helpless before the mysterious power wielded by these patricians, and though most perhaps never feel the displeasure of the senate, some are not so fortunate. The republic is ever vigilant, and where its interests are involved, it will concern itself with even the humblest of its citizens. Thus, when old Antonio, a fisherman, seeks the release of his young grandson from the galleys, he is repulsed at every turn. He appeals to Signor Gradenigo for help, for the men are foster brothers, Antonio’s mother having nursed Gradenigo when he was an infant. The senator feels the tie, treats the fisherman at first with kindness, and even offers him money if he is in need. But when Antonio begs that he use his influence to free the lad, Gradenigo’s countenance freezes. His look becomes “cold, unanswering, and void of human sympathy.” The maritime interests of the state are paramount, and the wily senator “saw the hazard of innovation in the slightest approach to interests so delicate, and his mind was drilled by policy into an apathy that no charity could disturb, when there was a question of the right of St. Mark to the services of his people” (64-65).

Antonio’s request has much to support it. He is himself a battle-scarred veteran of the republic’s wars, and the boy’s father was killed in a bloody engagement with the Turks. Yet Antonio’s concern is not with his grandson’s service, but with his extreme youth. Since he is only in his fourteenth year, Antonio fears that he will be corrupted in the galleys, and he uses every opportunity to plead for his release, even appealing directly to the doge. Such importunity attracts the attention of the authorities, and after Antonio is examined by the Council of Three, a secret order is given that he be drowned in the lagoons. When his body is discovered, his fellow fishermen rise in protest. To head off this insurrection, the state lets it be known that Jacopo is suspected of the crime, public masses are said for the fisherman, and the state gives him a funeral, where the grandson appears, {129} “liberated unconditionally from the galleys, in pity, as it was whispered, for the untimely fate of his parent” (363). The fishermen are flattered by the attention accorded one of their trade, their protests are quieted, and the state succeeds in ridding itself of a man who openly questioned its policies.

Jacopo meets a similar fate. Though thought to be a bravo, he is actually an agent of the state, albeit a coerced one. Many years before, Jacopo’s father had been accused of breaking the customs laws and he was imprisoned for the offense. Although Jacopo’s family was able to bring “such proof before the council, as ought to have satisfied the patricians of their own injustice,” the state could not admit to error, “for it would be proof against the merit of their system” (389-90). Instead, the council delays for years to do them justice, Jacopo’s mother and sister die, and his father, an innocent man, languishes in prison, lodged in a damp cell beneath the canals in winter and moved to the attic under the leads of the roof in the heat of summer. Eventually Jacopo is allowed to visit him. So moved is he by his father’s suffering that he agrees “to serve the state, as its secret agent, for a certain time” in exchange for the promise of his father’s freedom (390). The rumor is spread abroad that Jacopo is a bravo. In this supposed role he is able to acquire much information, which he reports to the council.

Jacopo’s reputation is such that when Antonio’s murder is discovered, the council finds it easy to put the blame on him. But Father Anselmo, a Carmelite used by the state to hear Antonio’s confession before they killed him, was present during the episode and knows Jacopo is innocent. When he and Gelsomina, the prison keeper’s daughter who loves Jacopo, appeal to the doge for his release, they reveal what they know in the presence of a council member, and although their hopes are raised as a result of the interview, Jacopo is doomed. They still expect him to be freed on the morning of the execution, and Gelsomina even pleads with the fishermen who have come to witness it that Jacopo is no bravo and is innocent of Antonio’s murder. At a signal from the doge’s palace, however, Jacopo is beheaded and Gelsomina arrested as a lunatic, presumably to be placed in an asylum. Only Father Anselmo escapes, spirited away in the crowd by the agents of Don Camillo. All other witnesses to the state’s mendacity are effectively disposed of in this public display of false justice, and the patricians of Venice remain secure in their power and wealth.

The common thread in all these plots and subplots is the way the state interferes in the most private and personal relations. Through a network of paid spies, the senate is able to reach even into the households of man like Don Camillo, who exclaims at one point: “This undermining of the security of families is to destroy society at its core” (235). In Venice, all normal social relations are subordinate to the all-powerful state. It separates bride and groom in Don Camillo and Violetta, destroys a pair of innocent lovers in Jacopo and Gelsomina, breaks the tie of foster brothers in Signor Gradenigo and Antonio, and comes between parents and children in its treatment of Antonio and his grandson and of Jacopo and his father. When money rules, Cooper seems to say, all other considerations go by the board. Even the members of the Council of Three, who occupy the seats of power, who have been friends all their lives, and who can still reminisce with pleasure on their {130} youthful escapades, distrust one another in their official capacity, dissemble their true motives, and act and express themselves openly only in terms that the policy of the state permits.

In such a society human beings are forced to live in uncertainty, insecurity and fear. Agents of the state are everywhere to report on the activities of its citizens, and anyone may be denounced to the senate through the simple device of dropping an anonymous note in one of the Lion’s Mouths, receptacles in the wall of the doge’s palace intended for that purpose. Such notes are regularly examined by the Council of Three, which quickly disposes of most of them as dealing with indifferent matters or deriving from personal animus. But when anything of serious import appears — as when Giacomo Gradenigo accuses Don Camillo of an intent to carry off Violetta — the council investigates carefully and deliberates on the matter. The eyes of the state are everywhere. No one can escape its vigilance when it believes its vital interests are involved. High position, as Don Camillo discovers, is no protection against the machinations of the senate; innocence, as Jacopo learns, is helpless before its false accusations. The state is a mysterious power whose decisions are unpredictable and whose acts are all but inescapable. The citizens of Venice must therefore always live in dread of it.

To portray this grim reality, Cooper turned to the Gothic mode. It served his purpose well. Though the earliest Gothic novels had been tales of the supernatural, the mode had undergone considerable development in the early nineteenth century. The main function of the Gothic, after all, is to project the uncertainty and fear experienced by the characters as they confront the unknown, and it makes no difference whether the source of their uncertainty is the apparently supernatural or some other cause. Cooper had used the mode in a number of his earlier novels: in The Spy (1821), to suggest the danger and insecurity of the characters on the Neutral Ground, the setting for the book; in Lionel Lincoln (1825), to project the psychological unease of his hero in Revolutionary Boston; and in The Last of the Mohicans (1826), to depict the insecurity and fear of the white characters who penetrate a wilderness filled with hostile Indians. 1 It was perfectly natural, therefore, that he should use the Gothic again to suggest the similar feelings of the citizens of Venice. Indeed, in its history and politics, the Italian republic provided him with elements that had already become a staple of Gothic fiction.

The Council of Three, for example, bears a marked resemblance to the German Secret Tribunal, or Vehmic Courts, that had appeared in Gothic novels from Christiana Naubert’s Herman of Unna (1794) to Sir Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein (1829), and the pervasive influence it exerts throughout the republic resembles that of the mysterious Society of the Illuminati, a group of eighteenth-century utopian planners, that figures in Karl Gross e’s Horrid Mysteries (1757) and in Charles Brockden Brown’s “Memoirs of Carwin, the Biloquist,” partly written in 1798, and Ormond (1799). 2 By 1830, in other words, when Cooper was writing The Bravo, the device of the powerful secret group had long been used in Gothic fiction, and Cooper freely adapted it to his purpose. His group of mysterious rulers is simply a class of wealthy oligarchs who wish to maintain their privileged position, and there is no {131} suggestion of the supernatural in the way they manage their affairs. Yet they achieve their ends in as secret and mysterious a fashion as any depicted in the earlier Gothic romances, and their methods are equally designed to strike terror in the hearts of those who become the victims of the senate’s machinations.

The council meets in a Gothic atmosphere that is designed to intimidate those who are brought before it. The chamber is reached “through many dimly lighted and obscure passages,” a labyrinthine way that leaves the prisoner confused as to the direction he has taken (141). At last he reaches the gloomy antechamber of the dreaded tribunal. When finally admitted to the council room, he finds it “draped in one common and somber dress of black cloth” and lighted by a single lamp of dark bronze [that is] suspended over a solitary table in its centre, which, like every other article of the scanty furniture, [has] the same melancholy covering as the walls” (149). All of the doors are “concealed from casual observation by the hangings, which [give] one general and chilling aspect of gloom to the whole scene.” Here the prisoner confronts his inquisitors, three men whose masks and flowing robes prevent “all recognition of their persons.” One wears “a robe of crimson, as the representative that fortune had given to the select council of the Doge, and the others,” who were chosen by lot from the Council of Ten, wear “robes of black” (150). A few subordinate officials are similarly dressed.

The minor officers provide the council with the information it needs, drawn from the state records, and a secretary conducts the Inquisition with the council members intervening as they see fit. Although these subordinate officials are trusted members of the bureaucracy, they too live in dread of the council they serve. When a fact adduced in Antonio’s case proves to be false, the responsible attendant trembles before the displeasure of one of the council members, and the matter is smoothed over only when another brushes it aside. Before the inquisition begins, a long pause allows the prisoner to be duly impressed by his surroundings, and the affair is conducted with a deep sense of mystery. The prisoner confronts a court whose members he cannot identify, yet whose power over him is absolute, and he is dismissed from the chamber without being told the disposition of his case. The judgment is made in secret and executed in such a manner that the council bears no responsibility for it. Antonio is set free, only to be murdered the same night; Jacopo is turned over to the public courts, but “a private order to the criminal judge” (381) seals his fate.

The Gothic image that Cooper creates in describing the Council of Three is central to the meaning of the book, for it serves as an epitome of the entire society. Just as the council’s power reaches everywhere in Venice, so too does Gothic fear pervade the entire society. To develop this theme, Cooper fills the book with the labyrinthine ways and gloomy enclosures familiar from Gothic fiction. Venice is a silent city, traversed by canals that serve as its major thoroughfares, but threaded as well on its islands by a network of “still, narrow, paved, commodious, and noiseless passages ... which communicate with each other by means of a countless number of bridges” (24). This labyrinth parallels those in buildings: the maze of passages through which Jacopo leads Antonio as they approach the Council of Three, or the {132} “vaulted galleries” and “the gloomy corridors” through which Jacopo and Gelsomina must pass when they visit his father’s cell (254). Much of the action of the book takes place as characters thread their way through such winding passages, and the reader soon perceives that they are no bad symbol of both the devious policies of the state and the devices one must use to try to circumvent them.

The buildings serve a similar function, for the dark enclosure of the council chamber is repeated in both the public and private buildings of the city. We expect the prison to reflect this mood, but so too does the doge’s palace. “No light [is] shed from the windows,” and the whole building, with its “melancholy and imposing air” presents a fitting “emblem of that mysterious power which was known to preside over the fortunes of Venice and her citizens” (35). The private homes are much the same. The palace of Signor Gradenigo possesses “all the solemn but stately magnificence which then characterized the private dwellings of the patricians in that city of riches and pride,” yet it is “a residence of more than common gloom.” Though impressive in its facade, “within, the noiseless steps and the air of silent distrust among the domestics, added to the gloomy grandeur of the apartments, rendered the abode no bad type of the Republic itself” (53). Even the palace of Don Camillo takes on a similar aspect. When he prepares to depart from Venice, he has most of the precious paintings removed from the walls, and the “dimly lighted” rooms take on “an air of more than Venetian gloom” (323).

Cooper includes such Gothic devices even when he describes the home of a common person. The dwelling of Annina, a minor character who figures significantly in the book, is presented in terms of both labyrinth and dark enclosure. It lies on a “narrow, gloomy, and little frequented” canal (29), but may also be approached through a maze of streets on the island. It is “a low and dark” building, and one must, on entering it, grope “his way among casks, cordage, and rubbish of all descriptions” to reach “an inner and retired door that [opens] into a small room, whose only light [comes] from a species of well,” descending between its wall and those of the adjacent houses (24). Annina leads a secret and dangerous life. She is an agent of the state, yet, with her father, she carries on an illicit trade in imported wine. The shop, therefore, small and dark, set within a labyrinth of streets and canals, and containing an inner room reached through yet another maze, is a fit symbol for the devious policy she pursues as both a spy for the republic and a smuggler who must elude “the vigilance and severity of [its] police” (32).

Nor is this all. Most of the novel’s action takes place under cover of darkness. Of the thirty-one chapters, twenty-five take place at night, the gloom relieved, as it frequently is in Gothic fiction, by the flickering light of torches or the pale glow of the moon. Most of the citizens go abroad disguised and masked to enjoy the thoughtless diversions of the piazza, to put into practice their own devious plans, or to spy on their fellows. The people of Venice, Cooper seems to say, live in a Gothic nightmare from which there is no escape. The daylight scenes, by contrast, are filled with brilliant ceremony — the public appearance of the doge, the passage of the Bucentaur, the marriage of the Adriatic, and the various gondola races — but these are only a {133} glittering show to conceal the horror of a state run solely for the benefit of a wealthy few. They are a mask that hides the real features of the republic. Nothing that appears on the surface of Venice is true. 3 One must penetrate the mask, as Cooper has done with his novel, to perceive the rule of terror through which the patricians maintain their power.

To read the book in this way is to confirm the judgment of those critics who have found much in it to praise. They are right. The Bravo is a first rate novel that ought to be valued, along with the Leatherstocking tales and Satanstoe as one of Cooper’s major achievements. Growing out of his experience in Europe, it is an important work of social criticism, brilliant in its analysis of the corruption that lay behind the attractive appearance of European aristocracy, and chilling in its warning to Americans of what could happen in the United States if a class should come to power whose only claim to distinction is money. The critique, however, is not merely social, for, as is always the case in Cooper, it is based on a solid moral foundation. The point of Cooper’s attack on aristocratic systems is the evil they generate, most particularly in their effect on human beings: the denial of their natural rights and the disruption of their normal human relations. We in the twentieth century who have come to know the totalitarian state can fully appreciate Cooper’s meaning. Indeed, considering what has happened in our century, we may even call his book prophetic.

For the modern reader, of course, the Gothic mode of expression that Cooper chose for his novel may be something of a stumbling block. During the century that elapsed after the book was published, the mode fell into disrepute. A realistic age intervened, and for many today the Gothic may still be remembered as merely the “explained” supernatural of Ann Radcliffe, the extravagant devices of Horace Walpole, or the horrors of Monk Lewis — hardly the stuff, some may believe, of serious fiction. We must not forget, however, that the American writers who followed those early practitioners of the mode found it attractive and adapted it to their needs. In their hands it became an effective means for projecting the psychological state of their characters, especially the insecurity and fear experienced by those who face a mysterious power before which they are all but helpless. That power need not be supernatural. It may simply be the patricians of Venice seeking to maintain their position of privilege and wealth by overawing those who might challenge them. Once we recognize this fact, we can readily perceive that for Cooper the Gothic was precisely the mode he needed for the development of his important social theme.

Works Cited

  • Bewley, Marius. “Fenimore Cooper and the Economic Age.” American Literature 26 (1954): 166-95).
  • Brownell, W. C. American Prose Masters. Ed. Howard Mumford Jones. Cambridge: Belknap — Harvard University Press, 1963. (First published in 1909).
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Bravo. Mohawk ed. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912.
  • ------. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Ed. James Franklin Beard. 6 vols. Cambridge: Belknap — Harvard University Press, 1960-68.
  • Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949.
  • Levine, Robert S. Conspiracy and Romance: Studies in Brockden Brown, Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Ringe, Donald A. American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982.
  • ------. “Chiaroscuro as an Artistic Device in Cooper’s Fiction.” PMLA 78 (1963): 349-57.
  • ------. “Cooper’s Lionel Lincoln: The Problem of Genre.” American Transcendental Quarterly 24 (1974): 24-30.
  • ------. “The Last of the Mohicans as a Gothic Novel.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 6). Ed. George A. Test. Oneonta, N.Y.: State University College, 1987, 41-53.
  • Spiller, Robert E. Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times. New York: Minton, Balch, 1931.
  • Waples, Dorothy. The Whig Myth of James Fenimore Cooper. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968. (First published in 1938).
  • Winters, Yvor. Maule’s Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1938.


1 For Cooper’s use of the Gothic in these works, see my discussions in American Gothic, 107-108; “Cooper’s ,”, 24-30; “Mohicans as Gothic Novel,” 41-53.

2 For a discussion of the device in both European and American fiction in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see American Gothic, 32-34, 38-41, 72-74. When I wrote this piece, I had not yet seen Robert S. Levine’s Conspiracy and Romance: Studies in Brockden Brown, Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), which discusses the Illuminati and other conspiratorial groups, and contains a fine analysis of The Bravo.

3 For a discussion of Cooper’s use of light and shadow in its relation to truth and concealment, see “Chiaroscuro,” 353-57.