Probable Fictions and Improbable Truths: The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, Notions of the Americans and Cooper’s Quarrel with History

Freddy Baveystock (Oxford University)

Presented at the 9ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1993.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1993 Cooper Seminar (No. 9), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. James D. Wallace, editor. (pp. 92-111).

Copyright © 2009, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

When Geoffrey Rans asked why the critical establishment has been so reluctant to take Fenimore Cooper seriously as an artist, he was phrasing the besetting question for anyone who works on this commonly unread writer. 1 One answer lies in the proximity of Cooper’s fiction to the sentimental novel, an art form neglected by Americanists. 2 Certainly the commonplace reading of Cooper as a formative influence on the “tradition” of the American historical romance and an “improvement” on Charles Brockden Brown’s haphazard creativity inherently privileges those writers who succeed Cooper, Hawthorne above all others; such a lineage will always cast Cooper into the role of the lesser artist. Instead, this paper takes as its starting point Cooper’s differences, rather than continuity, with the literary practices of his day. It is often noted that Cooper’s prefaces consistently define his novels against other kinds of fiction, but they also define themselves just as frequently against the products of the “sister muse,” History, which unlike the novel, is “apt to surround her heroes with an atmosphere of imaginary brightness.” 3

That does not mean, however, that Cooper would necessarily benefit from being placed within an alternative tradition of non-fictional historical writing. Although Cooper inevitably shares parts of his philosophy of history with contemporaries like William Hickling Prescott and Francis Parkman, the works produced by that philosophy are narratives of an entirely different order to The Conquest of Mexico (1843) or The Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851). Harry Henderson has defined these three historical writers as “holists,” because their works describe civilizations as distinct entities, whereas the “progressive” George Bancroft and John Lothrop Motley’s transcendent idea of progress flattens the differences between them. 4 Useful as this distinction is, it cannot do full justice to the nature of Cooper’s imagination. Prescott, Parkman and Cooper all attempt to account for cultural decline — be it of the Incas, the French colonies or the Native Americans — by setting it within a grand narrative clash of civilizations, but Cooper’s choice of the novel as opposed to more conventional narrative history marks him off from these historians for reasons not merely of literary taste or professional inclination.

For Cooper was drawn to historical configurations of a significantly different order, ones {93} that delineate much shorter stretches of time than those preferred by all these historians contemporary with him. I have chosen The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish (1829), and the non-fictional work Notions of the Americans (1828), to elucidate this difference, not the least because these two works are quite antithetical to the concerns of the more traditional historian like Prescott or Parkman. Both of these works attest to the real difficulty Cooper experienced in his attempts to negotiate the past’s relation to the present, a difficulty that his fervent nationalism could only complicate; insofar as these two books contain two quite different solutions to this problem, together they represent a crucial phase in Cooper’s relationship to history, nationalism, and narrative. For although Allan Axelrad is surely right to stress that Cooper’s world view remained consistent throughout his career, that is not to say that he did not repeatedly experiment with new narrative forms with which to articulate the different ways that unique vision apprehended American national history. 5

This formal innovation was partly made possible by the fact that the literary world of Cooper’s day did not necessarily distinguish between different kinds of historical narrative. What was important, as the North American Review of 1834 put it, was that America’s “annals, to be interesting, should be thrown into general masses, and treated with brevity, — thus will the valuable philosophy to be deduced from them ever be made practically and extensively beneficial.” 6 So the frequent calls for an American literature that could make something of the new continent’s relatively bare historical record would bracket poems, novels, plays and traditional histories all together: anything to make the dominant Jeffersonian ideology palatable — that is, consumable — to the mass of people whose endorsement it craved. (As the debates over multicultural canons and p.c. reveal, American nationalism has never lost this educative zeal.) Cooper was not alone in making the most of the broadness of these definitions of what was to constitute an American literature. Both Motley and Parkman turned to the novel in their early writing careers, while Bancroft first tried his hand as a poet. Cooper, however, was perhaps the most adventurous of these men on a formal level. For quite apart from his forays into polemic, travel writing and naval history, Cooper used his literary freedom to try to create a rather different kind of novel — one that sought, in James Wallace’s words, to “educate its audience.” 7

In the broadest sense, this is what every original novelist has to do, and the phrase is applicable to Scott too: Waverley (1814), for example, consistently links literary taste to national as well as personal character (the two are, finally, indistinguishable) and thereby hangs a cautionary tale about the dangers of an overly imaginative appreciation of literature. But it is precisely because Scott values the “orderly” imagination so highly that he must display such caution over its use. For Scott does not position himself as the sole authenticating intelligence behind the histories he presents to his readers. The knowingness of his narratorial voice, and the mass of both scholarly and mock-scholarly footnotes all inform the reader that a Scott novel is a process not so much of {94} revealing historical “truth” as of revising it. As Susan Manning puts it, “the desire to write history is inseparable from Scott’s wish to involve his reader in the creation of story.” 8

Cooper, on the other hand, does not share this confidence that the imagination can be harnessed to such healthy, rational ends as those which Scott has in mind. This is evident in his attitude to legend. When Scott uses the story about the Angel of Hadley so well-known to New England historians in his Peveril of the Peak (1822), it is put into the mouth of the Puritan Major Bridgenorth. 9 Bridgenorth is prepared to believe that the mysterious man who appeared at a critical juncture in King Philip’s War, thereby saving the village of Hadley from destruction, was a friend returned from the grave, although he says he cannot be certain. Cooper’s use of this legend in The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, however, gives it a rational explanation — the stranger is made of flesh and blood. No matter, then, if certain individuals persisted in a fanatical belief in heaven-sent saviors: the reader at least knows what “really” happened.

Thus Cooper heads off the riddling question raised both by Scott and by Hawthorne’s version of this legend, “The Gray Champion” (1835), which is whether unenlightened belief can make a progressive contribution to the course of history. (Edward Waverley plays a not unimportant part in history as the result of his fondness for romantic legends, while the superstitious belief of Hawthorne’s Puritans strengthens their anti-royalist resolve.) Cooper, however, is uncomfortable with such a possibility, although as a religious novelist he can hardly afford to abandon imagination and belief altogether. Instead he attempts to divide his Puritans’ progressive qualities off from their fanatical ones — and I will return to this because such a division cannot be counted wholly successful. First it is necessary to consider how Cooper perceived the relationship between history and fiction.

Cooper’s prefaces initially give the impression that he treats these two categories as distinct from one another. In his 1846 preface to The Deerslayer, Cooper writes of “the great struggle for veracity, that is carrying on between History and Fiction”; 10 to his distress, readers are in the habit of equating fiction with distortion, the opposite of real history — as evinced by The American Quarterly Review’s use of this pair of opposites when it speaks of “historical truths, and romantic fictions, connected or associated with the progress of this nation.” 11 Cooper refuses to accept the rigidity of this opposition between truth and fiction, persistently making a case for their cohabitation in the carefully researched, probable historical novel. In the same preface, he advises his readers, with mordant irony, to “try the experiment of reading works of the imagination as if they were intended for matters of fact. Such a plan might possibly enable them to believe in the possibility of fiction.” 12 But note that Cooper does not suggest they read works of fact as if they were intended for the imagination — never does he acknowledge the circular relation between these two disciplines. On the contrary, he attempts to transcend that relation altogether.

{95} Thus it could be said that Cooper gestures towards upholding this distinction between fiction and history in order to prove its redundancy. In this respect he was remarkably consistent, for he maintained this position right from the outset of his career as a novelist. In his 1823 preface to The Pilot (1824), he distinguishes between the “Privileges of the Historian and the writer of Romances”: the historian must “record facts as they have occurred, without a reference to consequences, resting his reputation on a firm foundation of realities.” 13 We know from Cooper’s early critical essays and his History of the Navy (1839) that he never wavered from a scrupulous attention to accurate information when it came to formal history. This preface determines that the novelist, meanwhile, is “permitted to garnish a probable fiction, while he is sternly prohibited from dwelling on improbable truths.” But what are improbable truths? The phrase deserves a closer look, for it encapsulates Cooper’s attitude to historical narrative, be it fictional or formal.

On the one hand this phrase suggests there are certain facts, or historical occurrences, that simply do not deserve to be preserved for posterity since they have no place in the rational progress of civilization that, for Cooper, is history. We will see this impulse — that stresses the “improbable” part of the phrase — at work in Notions of the Americans. His belief in the essential truth of fiction, on the other hand, enabled Cooper to co-opt a certain amount of dubious material onto the historical record for the sake of its utility. This returns us to the status of legend once again. In Cooper’s Sketches of Switzerland (1836), there is the following reflection on the heroic stories surrounding William Tell: “There are certain great events embalmed in history that it will not do to question, and which, even when false, it is unwise to disturb, as they are so many incentives to noble deeds.” 14 So in fact, like Scott, Cooper was prepared to consider the contribution fiction could make to history — but only if it is passed off as history itself.

What the preface to The Pilot reveals, therefore, is that Cooper is in fact claiming both sets of privileges for himself, rather in the manner in which his ideological position amidst his contemporaries can neither be properly described as either Democrat or Whig, being grounded instead in a system of class and property that transcended such differences. 15 What enables Cooper to position himself in a similar relation to the literary practice of his day is his commitment to the category of “truth” which, as we have seen, embraces both the factual and the imaginative. Furthermore, this truth gains an added transcendent power through its association with both religious and national dogma, as inseparable in those days as they remained under Reagan and Bush. (Clinton we will have to see about.) As Benedict Anderson has persuasively argued in Imagined Communities, it makes greater sense to interpret nationalism culturally, in other words “as if it belonged with ‘kinship’ and ‘religion,’ rather than ‘liberalism’ or ‘fascism.’” 16 And since well into the nineteenth century the pulpit in America “retained its ancient function as a chief medium of instruction for the people on the essentials of their historical tradition as well as on {96} questions of faith,” 17 the religious springs of Cooper’s art within such a culture could only make his claim for this “truth” on behalf of the historical novelist all the more convincing.

In fact Cooper maintains there are, quite simply, different levels of truth, and the novelist occupies one of the higher levels. This, incidentally, is why I am not wholly convinced by James Franklin Beard’s attribution of an 1822 review of Catharine Sedgwick’s A New-England Tale to Cooper in his edition of the novelist’s Early Critical Essays. 18 Quite apart from the complete lack of external evidence (not the case for the four articles on non-fictional subjects), the familiar, occasionally breezy style of this piece is not in keeping with Cooper’s ponderous tone in the other reviews, and nor does it contain the multiple subclauses which are his hallmark. Furthermore the reviewer approvingly cites Fielding’s aversion to formal history: “Those dignified authors who produce what are called true histories, are indeed writers of fictions, while I am a true historian, a describer of society as it exists, and of men as they are.” 19

Nowhere else in Cooper’s oeuvre can a statement be found to support this one, for it seems to contain a dismissal of the work of the formal historians to whom Cooper frequently appeals as collateral for his own fiction. Unlike the Fielding of this quotation, he never suggests his work exists in some kind of competition with the dryasdusts of this world; it is, instead, an improvement of their work. Nonetheless, Cooper the novelist would still have been in sympathy with the basic thrust of this review. Like Edgar Allan Poe’s description of Bulwer’s historical romances, it sees the novel as “History in its truest — in its only true, proper, and philosophical garb,” a form elevated above the merely prosaic practice of history. 21

Yet considering Cooper’s own historical practice, first as a novelist, and then as the author of Notions of the Americans, his desired transcendence of the slippery relation between fiction and history is far from complete. Similarly, his elevated or neutral category of truth proves to create as many problems as it seeks to solve. Perhaps this has something to do with the particular position in which Cooper found himself as he embarked on a new phase in his writing career. One could call this the European phase, although it does not precisely coincide with the commencement of his travels in 1826 because the first two books he published in Paris, The Prairie and The Red Rover (both 1827), were continuations of Cooper’s first flush of success with novels set on the American frontier and at sea. The Wept and Notions, on the contrary, were new departures for Cooper insofar as they respectively explore a more distant American past and the actual present; the first follows the fortunes of a remote Puritan settlement in New England at the time of King Philip’s War (1676), while the second purports to be a European Count’s epistolary account of his tour of the States in 1824 in the company of an American gentleman. These two books also express something of Cooper’s increasingly ambivalent attitude to his native land, for while Europe only strengthened his confidence in the validity — he would have said truth — of American principles, it {97} also taught him to be far more skeptical of their application. 21

As is well-known, this conflict came to preoccupy a great deal of Cooper’s work from this time, and perhaps one of the reasons why Cooper never found an adequate way of resolving it lay in his inability to approach it historically. The Wept marks an attempt to do so, since it charts the degeneration of its pious settlement over two generations; but turning from that book to Notions, from the Puritan past to the Jacksonian present, the total disjunction between the two reveals that Cooper could not make a full historical connection between them. One is a gloomy, degenerative narrative, and the other, a relentlessly sunny series of tableaux. How did the same man come to write these two books within the same year? 22 And yet while in Switzerland, the country in which he wrote The Wept, Cooper was struck by a similar kind of disjunction in his own “narrative” of European history, He wrote: “Our knowledge is much like the recollections of the aged, who can recall the events of the last few years, and whose memories then take a backward leap to the period of youth. We read of the present, and of that past which relates more immediately to present things, when we make an enormous stride into the annals of the ancients, stepping over the diademed heads of hundreds of sovereigns, of whose empires, even, we scarcely ever make mention.” 23

But such enormous strides are precisely the kind that The Wept and Notions, in their different ways, take. Cooper offers his novel of Puritan life as a lesson in founding principles which, in their implied contemporary relevance, are clearly perceived also to be detachable from their historical context. Meanwhile in Notions Cooper actually inscribes that “classical” American heritage onto the present, deliberately disavowing his knowledge that the transmission of those values has its own troubled narrative. In heading off any such challenges from the past to America’s present happiness, Notions simply avoids genuine historical narrative altogether.

The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish tells the story of the Heathcote family, who, following the dictates of their strict Puritanism, uproot themselves from their East coast colony and establish a walled farming settlement in the garden of the American wilderness. The novel is split into two parts. The first, set around 1665, paints a largely admiring portrait of the arduous farming community headed by Mark Heathcote, a stern but impressive patriarch, At the end of this first part the settlement is attacked by Indians and razed to the ground; the second half of the novel, set about ten years later in 1676, shows us how the settlement has been rebuilt — and joined nearby by a flourishing little hamlet replete with church and inn. Cooper observes the windows of these two buildings with unease, for “in the form, dimensions, and style of the two there was no visible difference.” 24 Cooper’s unease here becomes clearer later when we realise that Mark Heathcote’s formerly unified civic and religious authority has been divided; Content Heathcote, Mark’s son, may be the head of his extended family, but that family no longer represents the whole {98} community. 25 The Heathcotes are now but a part of a wider community whose religious observance is controlled by the pastor Meek Wolfe. The similarity between the church and inn’s windows indicates that this is an artificial and disturbingly unnatural division of labour, one which the outcome of the novel shows to have tragic consequences.

To some extent, therefore, The Wept assumes the same form as some of its source material — the Puritan jeremiad, with its persistent call for a return to origins. But if the jeremiad seeks to bind the past back into the narrative of the present, the form Cooper gives it in The Wept renders this project distinctly problematic, for his novel can as little connect the Puritan past with the Democratic present as it can the first part of its narrative with the second. These divided historical moments stand primarily in typological relation to each other; no causal chain — historical narrative, in other words — is shown to bridge these great divides. This is why Cooper has the original settlement entirely burnt to the ground, with only an admonitory charred ruin remaining. Cooper surveys the devastation in chapter 16, and, inviting us to believe that the whole community has perished in the conflagration, notes that “it appeared as if the silence of the wilderness had once more resumed its reign.” 26 One whole cycle of human development has run its course, as in Thomas Cole’s series of paintings, The Course of Empire. 27 Thus when the Puritans emerge from their subterranean stronghold, phoenix-like from the ashes, they symbolically re-possess “virgin land”; the representative settlement of America has to start all over again, from scratch. Although the family remains essentially the same, Ruth is unhinged by the traumatic loss of her child which also makes her husband Content less keen to join his father in grateful prayers to providence.

The novel offers us, therefore, two distinct settlements which, despite their obvious relation, are at the same time quite discontinuous. They are only partially connected by plot, for although they are both subjected to Indian attacks, there is no causal reason for this. The Indian Conanchet’s involvement in both attacks establishes, on the contrary, an important distinction between these two violent outbreaks, for the second time around he seeks to avert the destruction of the Heathcote clan. All in all, Cooper is more interested in stressing difference than continuity between the two halves of his book, while he uses that difference to bind them into the degenerative narrative he wishes to construct. This essentially typological relationship, in which events at one time prefigure events in another, simultaneously underscoring the congruity and difference between them, can also be used to describe this historical novel’s relation to its own day. Lawrence Buell has identified this kind of ambiguity in nineteenth century practices in fictionalizing America’s Puritan heritage, in which he finds “documentary sometimes rubbing provocatively or uneasily against melodrama or mythification,” as in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Such an approach manages to imply “both that the era depicted marks the beginning of the continuum of our prosaic time and that it belongs in some premodern arcadia” — and for both Cooper and Hawthorne, that arcadia itself is ambivalently rendered. 28 George Dekker explains {99} something of this ambivalence in his description of Hawthorne as “an ambitious young American historical fictionalist reaching out for community with both the America of Andrew Jackson and the America of Cotton Mather.” 29

There is much of Scott’s attitude to Puritans here too. They made for stirring fictional material but could not be offered as exemplary figures to Scott’s modern audience. Some distortion of historical realism was thus inevitable. In the Prefatory Letter to Peveril he answers the dryasdust historian’s accusation that he has made his Puritans milder men than they really were: “I agree to the charge; but although I still consider hypocrisy and enthusiasm as fit food for ridicule and satire, yet I am sensible of the difficulty of holding fanaticism up to laughter or abhorrence, without using colouring which may give offence to the sincerely worthy and religious.” 31 This is also Cooper’s position, which was only exacerbated by his being a New Yorker. For during this period New York writers often went against the grain of New England’s preferred vision of itself as the home of religious toleration, depicting the Puritans as witch-burning fanatics instead. One has only to think of the satirical glances of Irving’s History of New York (1809), or Cooper’s more serious comments On seventeenth century New England in Notions of the Americans: “no country possessed a more odious and bigoted set of laws on the subject of Conscience.” 31 In that work, Cooper denies the Puritans their representative role in American history by defining them not as reformers — the essence of American “common sense” — but as “dissentients” and “though dissent may, it does not necessarily, infer liberality.” 32 Their more admirable qualities, furthermore, such as the fearless, disinterested habit of mind, are not theirs alone: “in this respect, every American ... is more or less a Puritan.” 33

From this perspective it is possible to read The Wept as a critical account of why New England lost its hegemonic cultural position (to New York, one would infer). 34 But since there are aspects of Puritanism that Cooper wants to recommend to his contemporary audience, the novel can be said to contain two conflicting ways not only of reading New England but history itself. For these Puritans are depicted as occupying a historical epoch which is both discrete — i.e. quite separate from the present — and representative, and thus directly connected to that present. Cooper would like the reader to see Puritan intolerance and cruelty as an aspect peculiar to that time, and their noble devotion to God and the family as an ongoing American tradition. But there is little to prevent the reader from reversing this formulation, and interpreting Puritan hypocrisy and intolerance as what has endured instead. One might think of the rapacious, Old Testament-toting Ishmael Bush of The Prairie who is representative of an “early,” more primitive form of the law-abiding American settler. At the end of the novel he and his family “disappear” into the great country; it remains ambiguous whether this means they become extinct or blend seamlessly into America’s historical development.

One explanation for this apparent tension could be found in Cooper’s distinction between {100} profane, worldly history, and sacred history. The former runs through recurrent cycles while the latter describes one long cycle from original sin to redemption. 35 This would allow Cooper to imagine that the Bushes’ and Puritans’ cycles are completely end-stopped, while what they apparently bequeath to future cycles was not theirs in the first place, but the word of God that has its origin in the meta-cycle which represents the only true (unbroken) continuity for man. This would make the difficulties in reconciling these two historical modes that I am ascribing to Cooper the property, in fact, of the profane reader who is incapable of appreciating the centrality of this sacred history to Cooper’s art. Whatever the plausibility of this explanation, it still does not account for Cooper’s difficulty in relating the separate cycles of human experience to one another meaningfully.

This difficulty can be detected in Cooper’s dedication to the novel under discussion. He addresses his friend the Reverend J.R.C. of Pennsylvania with what is obviously intended as a compliment: “You have every reason to exult in your descent, for surely, if any man may claim to be a citizen and a proprietor in the Union, it is one that, like yourself, can point to a line of ancestors whose origin is lost in the obscurity of time. You are truly an American.” 36 This appears to praise racial purity — the long, well-established family tree 37 — while simultaneously downplaying any need for precise genealogy in a democratic culture. Either way, Cooper’s praise of obscurity sets his investment in historical accuracy into dramatic relief. It suggests that the mists of time prove a useful covering for the imprecision in the novelist’s own thought.

For as George Dekker has pointed out, the “authentic American” of The Wept turns out to be the newcomer from Europe, the mysterious regicide and Angel of Hadley that Cooper calls Submission. 38 This hardly sits comfortably with the novel’s dedication, unless the defining American characteristic is to be taken as “obscurity,” something in which Submission is shrouded that is, until the final part of the novel. It is as if Submission’s decisive hand in saving the new settlement from the inroads of King Philip’s war allows him to step from the shadows of the Old World and into the piercing sunlight of the New. The hereditary stain of his regicide is cleared, and it is perhaps this opportunity for redemption that Cooper would like to think of as one of the distinctive opportunities offered to those who manage to span separate cycles of human history, especially if that involves a fresh start in America. The fourth chapter of the novel, however, suggests that this correlation between loss of original sin and settlement might take somewhat longer than the length of a Cooper novel, for we learn that “in the older districts of America ... art and labour have united for generations to clear the earth of its inequalities, and to remove the vestiges of a state of nature.” 39

Clearly Cooper tries to arrive at a formulation that allows him to acknowledge blots on America’s historical virtue — such as its connection to the corrupt Old World, the intolerance of its {101} Puritan heritage, and the genocidal slaughter of aboriginal peoples — while granting them the status solely of aberration, so that they do not belong to the evolution of the true America. But Cooper’s attempts at historical even-handedness only lead him into the kind of contradictions I have been exploring. He excuses nineteenth century America’s unfinished state by explaining that “high civilization, a state of infant existence, and positive barbarity” co-exist virtually side by side in the young republic, and this allows him to explain something of the nature of seventeenth century America too — the clash between different “stages” in civilization that The Wept describes. 41 But Cooper’s desire to invoke some form of developmental model for American history is undermined by his admission that the same “spirit of improvement” is still necessary after two centuries. Furthermore, if redemption of America’s apparent failings is claimed through reference to its perpetual state of becoming (as Bill Clinton suggested in his inaugural address), then that must also mean that those hereditary stains can never be fully absolved — they must be perennially worked out, thus retaining their power to return at any point in the future with all the primal fury of the repressed. Perhaps this explains something of what p.c. represents.

Certainly Cooper elucidates the dangers of seeking to explain the past in terms that reflect well upon the present — the anti-historicism that p.c. occasionally displays, whereby history could be said to provide us either with a catalogue of our ancestors’ crimes or with a handy selection of role models. These ancestors are simultaneously, therefore, both thankfully dead and gone as well as being our “contemporaries.” But if history is pressed into political service too firmly, it is likely to prove a rebellious subject. Cooper’s preface to The Wept explains that he wants his narrative foray into history to rectify the prevailing tendency to regard the days of Anglo-Indian conflict as belonging to America’s “dark ages”; he wants to rescue for his audience those “practices and events peculiar to the early days of our history” that are worth remembering. 41 Just as Rufus Choate was to suggest four years later in his 1833 Salem address, “The Importance of Illustrating New-England History By a Series of Romances Like the Waverley Novels,” the Puritans were ready to be co-opted into the nationalist, progressive history of America. The extent to which The Wept turns out to be remarkably unoptimistic about that project reveals, as it were, early colonial history’s resistance to nineteenth century historiography.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Puritans’ relations — and, one might add, Cooper’s also with the Native Americans. The preface to the novel states that had it been the Wampanoags’ fortune “to have lived in a more advanced state of society” the names of their heroic warriors would have been enrolled “among the worthies of the age”; Cooper’s age is thus “yielding a tardy tribute to the high daring and savage grandeur of their characters.” 42 What is unclear is whether this advanced state of society in which Cooper positions himself would have found it similarly “necessary” to extirpate its Native American neighbours. (It did, after all; the Removal Bill hardly fits Cooper’s belief that such atrocities are the result of the conflict of frontiersman and Indian.) {102} There is a suggestion in this preface of a historical mismatch which in the novel is translated into the metaphor of the different trees of the forest. Governed by a Darwinian survival of the fittest species, the forest nonetheless displays the whole range of that evolutionary progress, from the fungi on the forest floor to the “high, unbroken columns” and “vaulted arches” of those trees who symbolically belong to a superior civilization. 43 This is an elegant way of suggesting historical inevitability until one recalls that the native strains do not die out but are killed off, and that the people responsible for the slaughter in this novel are also partially associated with America’s honourable political heritage.

To some extent the two-part structure of the novel solves this particular problem for Cooper, for he makes Mark Heathcote tolerant of and, indeed, respectful of the captive Conanchet, even if his way of showing that respect is to attempt a religious conversion. The colonists of the rebuilt settlement, however, send the heroic Narragansett to an ignominious death, “this act of seeming justice” possibly, Cooper admits, fulfilling “some deeply pondered scheme of policy.” 44 Thus the Puritan heritage which Cooper wishes to claim for the nineteenth century resides only in the first part of the novel and is shown, up to a point, to be racially tolerant. In this respect Mark Heathcote is like one of those “avant-couriers of thought” who Cooper describes in chapter 30 of The Heidenmauer (1832). These intellectually premature people “in general, so far precede their contemporaries, as to be utterly out of view at the effectual moment of the reformation, or revolution, whatever name these sudden summersets are styled.” 45

This quotation from The Heidenmauer speaks volumes about Cooper’s conception of how historical epochs manage to leak a little into one another while remaining essentially watertight. But what it fudges is the question of influence. If these “avant-couriers” go unnoticed in their own day, it is difficult to ascribe the credit for disseminating the ideas they represent and which are belatedly grasped en masse at moments of revolutionary transition. Notions avoids this question by redefining the American Revolution as a gradual, and therefore “natural,” reformation of ideas. In The Wept, this peaceable American tradition is represented by the Puritan patriarch, and the character most influenced by him — who, as Wayne Franklin points out, symbolically becomes Heathcote’s “true” son — is Conanchet; 46 but since he is murdered, Heathcote’s influence on surviving future generations is equivocal to say the least. He is lost in the obscurity of time until he is rediscovered by the lonely eye of a novelist in a distant epoch searching the historical record for some sense of kin.

Cooper’s narrative draws, therefore, on both the progressive and holist, as well as sacred and profane, models of history, and in so doing falls short of any resolution. On the one hand, he wants to suggest that the Native Americans cannot but be the losers of a confrontation between two different stages of the evolutionary model of civilization; while on the other, because he wishes to leave the Puritans to a past well lost, Cooper suggests that their murderous intolerance of their {103} native neighbours is an accidental result of this confrontation, an aberrant fact of American history with no serious consequences for the future of the republic. Because Cooper positions both Puritan and Indian within this past well lost, he is, in fact, able to claim the better qualities of each for his emergent American tradition. Both, as the English title to the novel, The Borderers, suggests, belong to an intermediary stage in America’s evolution into the superior phase of the nineteenth century.

At several points in the novel the two separate races are likened to each other. Cooper describes both of them as capable of great reserves of secrecy, sharing a dislike of “indiscreet haste,” and revealing their better qualities in war. Perhaps Cooper had one of his sources, William Hubbard, in mind when he called the Heathcotes “borderers”; for Hubbard’s Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New-England (1677), uses precisely that noun to describe those who “were contented to live without, yea, desirous to shake of all Yoake of Government, both sacred and civil, and so transforming themselves as much as well they could into the Manners of the Indians they lived amongst.” 47 In Cooper’s novel the two races are blended in actuality in the form of Narrah-mattah and Conanchet’s half-breed child. This child is Cooper’s way of positing a cultural model for the next generation that is neither Puritan nor Indian but retains the better qualities of each. That the child will be raised as a white boy indicates that this combination is, nonetheless, a predominantly white one. Yet this child is also the product of a fusion of cultures that costs both its parents their lives. The progress from one evolutionary stage of civilization into the next would seem to involve as much tragic loss as welcome gain.

Thus what The Wept of Wish-ton-wish could be said to reveal is how painfully ambiguous nineteenth century nationalist ideology rendered the historical novelist’s job. Cooper’s need to interpret the past in terms flattering to the present clearly does violence to the autonomy of the past, if one can call it that: certain people always need to be killed off before Cooper can conclude his narratives. The scrupulousness of the historian suffers too, and with it, as I have shown, the very possibility of a coherent theory of historical development in itself — the foundation not only of Cooper’s craft as a novelist, but of the dominant ideology of Jacksonian America. That ideology had such confidence in the test of history that it believed that not only would the future bear out the westward sway of democracy but that the past would too, thereby endowing the present with awesome powers of prescience. If the huge panoply of the past could be interpreted as a prologue to the flowering of the true civilization, then such bold moves as the Indian Removal Bill were no more than attempts to speed up “historical inevitability.” Having seen the future, Jackson had no need to wait for it.

Yet for all its sustained and explicit investment in that ideology, Cooper’s Notions of the Americans goes out of its way to avoid any suggestion of audacious American self-creation. On the {104} contrary, the new republic’s authority is shown to derive from a stately, organic model of historical development that is as slow as it is sure. The fact that Cooper set his book in 1824 and completed it before Jackson assumed the Presidency is beside the point here, for his chosen method of presentation in Notions virtually dispenses with narrative altogether and with it, the question of historical change. Cooper seeks instead to depict America’s greatness for his audience in terms of the actual present. The best illustration of this is the decisive moment that occurs in Letter 14 when the European bachelor abandons his doubts about America. It occurs as he stands atop a hill in upstate New York with his American travelling companion and surveys a “glorious panorama” of grazing sheep and well-ordered individual farms which are clearly linked into a symbolic whole. 48 In adopting this romantic, ahistorical picture of America as a rural idyll Notions clearly leans more on static iconography than narrative argument.

Consequently Cooper has no need to place his huge mass of information about America in the 1820s into either a carefully worked out travel narrative or, indeed, the wider narrative of America itself. The bachelor simply has to be made to move around the country to witness a series of such iconographic moments and the reader, Cooper hopes, will agree with the book’s extremely crude equation between how much has already been achieved with what will surely be achieved in the future. In this respect Cooper’s method in this book is not unlike his fictional practice of making a small span of the past stand in representative relation to his own century; only in Notions it is the small span of the present standing in such a relation to future centuries. There is a further, more important, difference between this work of non-fiction and a novel like The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, and it lies in the kind of small timespan these works employ. Cooper’s novels gravitate towards configurations of time that can be made to represent “pivotal” moments in history — King Philip’s War, the American Revolution, the last of the Mohicans, the first warpath, and so on. But since none of these transitions is achieved without a violent loss of life, such an approach to historical development is inappropriate to Cooper’s purposes in Notions. Thus the very ordinariness of Jacksonian America — its simplicity and common sense are stressed throughout — is made to argue that the uniqueness of the new republic is the extent to which it has managed to avoid such violent transitions altogether. “Peace was concluded in 1783,” he writes, not war. 49

This is a persistent theme in the book, which means that although Cooper frequently mentions the American Revolution, he will not enter into any discussion of what actually occurred in it. The revolution is made to seem a rather legalistic affair; it is described as “purely a war of principle” in which there was only a minor loss of blood. The European Count’s American friend, Cadwallader, explains: “We have ever been reformers rather than revolutionists. Our own struggle for independence was not in its aspect a revolution. We contrived to give it all the dignity of a war from the first blow.” 51 This distinction between revolution and reform is developed at greater length in a sustained analysis of the differences between the vainglorious Napoleon and the {105} altruistic Washington. Clearly there is some sleight of hand in making Napoleon a representative of the French model of revolution, so that the rhetorical contrast between two kinds of change is accentuated. Reform is thus positioned as the distinctively American way of managing change. Thus the Count can later say that the “Americans had no revolution, strictly speaking; they have only preceded the rest of Christendom in their reforms, because circumstances permitted it.” 51

So much for history, then. In fact it is one of the more striking aspects of Notions that despite Cooper’s profound pride in American history, he uses so very little of it in this work. What little there is relates solely to the formation of America’s recent political independence, and thus there is nothing of colonial history. As a proud New Yorker, Cooper has no desire to privilege the Puritan contribution to the course of American history. Three men all associated with the War of Independence are, instead, all singled out for the same iconographic treatment the American landscape receives — Washington, Lafayette and, to a lesser degree, John Jay. The extent to which their emblematization into representative Americans stands in for any discussion of the War itself also indicates Notions’s extraordinary scanting of American history — not the least because the representative American thereby becomes a member of the landed gentry.

It is hardly surprising, then, that this aspect to Notions of the Americans has been described as an “emasculation of history.” 52 Indeed, one finds Cooper actually encouraging this impression in the book. For when the two travellers visit the Washington Navy-Yard at the beginning of book two, they are horrified to find that a monument to the American war dead carries an inscription explaining its mutilated state, for the English forces that invaded under General Ross in August 1814 vandalised this monument. The European Count comments: “It is permitted for the defenders of Bunker’s hill to allude to their defeat, but the chisel of the Americans should have been industriously employed to erase every vestige of, and not to commemorate, even thus indirectly, the occupation of their capital by an enemy.” He concludes that “wisdom would prescribe silence as the better course.” 53 Once again Cooper opts not to dispel the mists of time.

The war of 1812 with the English is noticeably, in fact, one of the only pieces of American history that is discussed in any detail in Notions and mainly, given the tone of the book, to point a moral: in this case, that America needs a powerful navy. The kind of history found more frequently in the book is of the anecdotal variety; little tales about John Jay’s sagacity, or how New York combats outbreaks of disease, or the superior military skill of the American armed forces. But this is to fall back upon precisely the kind of hearsay information that English travellers in America used in their less sympathetic accounts of the country. Similarly, Cooper’s discussion of American political practice explains it by way of custom, which can never be less than imprecise history; he is more interested in results than reasons why. Thus we tend to be presented with conclusions but not the process by which they are reached.

{106} However there is one point in the book at which we do get to trace Cooper’s footsteps with some detail, and this is during the Count’s discussion of what he calls the subdued or grave manner of Americans which apparently never fails to strike visitors to the country. The Count’s explanation seeks to locate the origin of this manner, and in that respect at least gestures towards a historical answer to the question. But the first thing he does is to dismiss all the incorrect explanations: it is not the effect of climate, nor Germanic phlegm, nor the “insulated pride of the Spaniard,” nor the “repulsive hauteur of the Englishman,” nor religious dogma, nor any degree of unhappiness. Almost immediately one can see how the terms of this discussion are not the slightest bit historical, but seek instead to reinforce nationalist assumptions. In the next turn of the “argument” Cadwallader accordingly explains that America’s distance from Europe has given it “great leisure for reflection” which, in turn, has made common sense “the sovereign guide of the public will.” He elaborates this notion by comparing American reason with the despotism of the French ancien regime; and then with reference to the “sounder View of life” America has inherited from its English ancestors. 54 Thus Cooper’s argument rests, in turn, upon geographical, political, and genetic reasons which can all be summed up as appeals to an emotional rather than logical frame. 55

This is a crucial point in Notions, for it reveals how completely Cooper’s justification of republicanism is dependent upon cultural factors, in other words those national “traits” that nineteenth century travel writers enjoyed identifying wherever they roamed. But that manner of defining culture was nothing if not the product of nationalism, and so Cooper’s reinscription of the nationalist ideology of American republicanism by recourse to such a “cultural” argument is another part of that circular, self-legitimating process. But in fact at Cooper’s time of writing, nationalism was still a relatively new and unsophisticated phenomenon, and it is for this reason that Notions of the Americans remains such a fascinating document. It allows us to perceive the almost total absence of logic, certainly of the historical kind, in attempts to rationalise nationalism; and thus, one is tempted to add, in nationalism itself. Nationalism cannot but distort history; it is itself a distortion of history. Notions confidently asserts that the “past speaks for itself, and in language sufficiently plain for any man to comprehend.” 56 The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, on the other hand, cannot but foreground the narrative difficulties and historiographical contradictions to which such distortions give rise. Its closing pages face the nineteenth or, for that matter, the twentieth century reader with a gravestone that is difficult to decipher. That difficulty is now ours: the gravestone, Cooper’s.


1 Geoffrey Rans, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels (Chapel Hill and London: The University of Carolina Press, 1985), Preface.

2 Jane Tompkins has perhaps done the most to meet this question head on, in Sensational Designs (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985). Geoffrey Pans’ own book suggests another answer lies in the vestigial influence the New Criticism’s aesthetic criteria still retain.

3 The Leatherstocking Tales, vol 1 (New York: The Library of America, 1985), p. 677.

4 Harry B. Henderson III, Versions of the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), Chapter 1.

5 Allan M. Axelrad, History and Utopia (Norwood, Penn.: Nor wood Editions, 1978).

6 North American Review 38 (January 1834), p. 137.

7 James D. Wallace, Early Cooper and His Audience (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

8 Sir Walter Scott, Quentin Durward, ed. Susan Manning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. xvi.

9 See G. Harrison Orians, “The Angel of Hadley in Fiction”, American Literature 4 (November 1932), pp. 257-269, and George Dekker, “Sir Walter Scott, the Angel of Hadley, and American Historical Fiction”, American Studies 17 (1984) pp. 211-227.

10 The Leatherstocking Tales, vol 2 (New York: The Library of America, 1985), p. 486.

11 The American Quarterly Review 1 (June 1827), p. 341, quoted in G. Harrison Orians, “The Romance Ferment After Waverley” American Literature 3 (January 1932), p. 416.

12 Cooper, The Leatherstocking Tales vol 2, pp. 486-7.

13 Cooper, Sea Tales (New York: The Library of America, 1991), p. 3.

14 Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland (Albany: State University of New York, 1980), p. 121.

15 The question of Cooper’s precise political allegiances is complex in ways I cannot address here. Although he was capable of being a fiercely partisan Democrat, my contention is that it was for reasons of moral principle rather than political pragmatism.

16 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2ⁿᵈ ed. (London and New York: Verso, 1991), p. 5.

17 Wesley Frank Craven, The Legend of the Founding Fathers (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1956), p. 123.

18 Cooper, Early Critical Essays, ed. James F. Beard, Jr. (Gainesville, Florida: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1955).

19 Op. cit., p. 98.

20 Edgar Allan Poe, Essays and Reviews (New York: The Library of America, 1984), p. 145.

21 In Switzerland, Cooper noted that Schaffhausen’s government was only “aristo-democratique,” while the republic of Berne’s form of democracy did not prevent it from becoming a rapacious invader of its neighbours. Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland pp. 30, 81.

22 Although I agree with Allan Axelrad that Notions is dramatically one-sided and thus on the surface inconsistent with the beliefs displayed by Cooper’s fiction, I do not accept his statement that it is “an ideological aberration, and not a reliable source for Cooper’s early social and political convictions (Axelrad, p. 85). This paper maintains instead that in writing this book Cooper consciously detached his habitual focus on America’s past in order to be able to present his native land in the most positive, albeit partial and superficial, terms available to him. Thus he might have sacrificed ideological complexity and depth, but not consistency.

23 Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland, p. 46.

24 Cooper, The Borderers, or, The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, 3 vols (Paris: A. and W. Galignani, 1829), vol 2, p. 179. This edition, henceforth referred to as The Wept, was “printed at Florence during the Author’s residence in that city.” I have silently omitted some of the original’s commas in keeping with Cooper’s later deletion of them in his own annotated and interleaved copy in the Berg Collection, New York.

25 John P. McWilliams, Jr., Political Justice in a Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 253.

26 Cooper, The Wept vol 2, p. 143.

27 See Allan Axelrad’s book for a detailed account of the relation of Cole and Cooper.

28 Lawrence Buell, New England Literary Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 243-244.

29 George Dekker, The American Historical Romance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 148.

30 Sir Walter Scott, Peveril of the Peak (London: Oxford University Press, 1912), p. xlviii.

31 Cooper, Notions of the Americans (Albany: State University of New York, 1991), p. 454.

32 Cooper, Notions, p. 454.

33 Cooper, Notions, p. 151.

34 I owe this point to John McWilliams’ most helpful response to this paper.

35 Axelrad, p. 2.

36 Cooper, The Wept vol 1, p. ii.

37 Hugh C. McDougall has made the intriguing suggestion that Cooper might be alluding to the Rev. J.R.C.’s possible descent from Native American stock.

38 Dekker (1987), p. 71.

39 Cooper, The Wept vol 1, p. 111.

40 Cooper, The Wept vol 2, p. 172.

41 Cooper, The Wept vol 1, p. iii.

42 Cooper, The Wept vol 1, pp. vii & xiii.

43 Cooper, The Wept vol 3, p. 231.

44 Cooper, The Wept vol 3, p. 266.

45 Cooper, The Heidenmauer, Mohawk ed. (New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896), p. 377. This has something of the quality of a covert self-description, which is also true of parts of Cooper’s portrayal of Mark Heathcote, whose ability to keep secrets makes him an analogue of the novelist, who says of his creation: “had he mingled in active life at a later period, it might readily have been his fate to have shared in the persecution which his countrymen heaped on those who were believed to deal with influences it is thought impious to exercise.” The Wept vol 1, p. 132.

46 Wayne Franklin, The New World of James Fenimore Cooper (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 123 ff.

47 William Hubbard, The History of the Indian Wars in New England, 2 vols, ed. Samuel G. Drake (Roxbury, Mass.: W. Elliot Woodward, 1865), vol 2, pp. 256-7.

48 Cooper, Notions, p. 212.

49 Cooper, Notions, p. 382.

50 Cooper, Notions, pp. 418 & 228.

51 Cooper, Notions, p. 534.

52 Mike Ewart, “Cooper and the American Revolution: The Non-Fiction”, Journal of American Studies 11 (1977), p. 74. My analysis in the previous paragraph is indebted to this article.

53 Cooper, Notions, p. 274.

54 Cooper, Notions, pp. 147-154.

55 Lest this seems overly critical of Cooper, it should be said that such “arguments” remain common. The problem is that we haven’t learnt to disregard the question in the first place.

56 Cooper, Notions, p. 239.