Race and Spiritualism in Satanstoe

James D. Wallace (Boston College)

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. 112-119).

Copyright © 1993, State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

My ongoing research project involves an exploration of how Cooper’s representations of racial difference point up contradictions in the ideology of the Early Republic — not only with regard to issues of race and political freedom, which are obvious enough even in a nationalistic author like Cooper, but in subtler, apparently unrelated themes of cultural formation and the interpellation of the subject — that is, in the way individuals relate to the cultural narratives deployed around them. Over the course of his thirty-year career as a man of letters, Cooper thought deeply and wrote frequently about race. His work is uniquely suited for a study of representations of race in the US before the Civil War. Not only is it remarkably rich in its array of characters of color, but Cooper was alert to the racial politics of other writers, ethnographers, and apologists for slavery. Moreover, his analysis of racial relations traces the trajectory of the national mood, from a blithe optimism in the 1820s to foreboding in the 1850s. My larger purpose is to place Cooper at the center of an investigation of modes of representing race over that period. For today, I want to look at one node of intersecting themes, a mode that can serve as an example of how densely cultural themes involving race, spiritualism, and private property are figured in Cooper’s work. My text is a footnote in the manuscript of Satanstoe, and for my purposes, this footnote is all the more suggestive in that Cooper canceled most of it before sending his manuscript to the printer. 1

In Chapter XVIII of Satanstoe, the four male leads, Corny Littlepage, Guert Ten Eyck, Dirck Follock, and Jason Newcome all consult Mother Doortje, a Dutch fortune-teller who ambiguously but tellingly forecasts the fate of each. Cooper originally wrote a long footnote, attesting (as his footnotes usually do) to the authenticity of his fiction, to his own knowledge of Anglo-Dutch superstitions and to some of his own experiences with hypnotism. Most of the note was canceled as irrelevant to the business of Satanstoe, but the canceled portion not only reveals Cooper’s own interest, late in his life, in the burgeoning spiritualist movement but also links themes of the supernatural, private property, and race in a most revealing way.

The whole fortune-teller scene is treated serio-comically. All the characters believe in the fortune-teller’s veracity, though Corny displays at least some reservations. He makes explicit the ways Dirck and Guert marvel at Doortje’s knowledge of information they themselves have plainly fed her, and Jason is only too ready to believe her version of his own expectations for {113} advancement. But while he takes note of all this and of other mystifications and contrivances of the fortune-teller’s vocation, Corny nevertheless proclaims himself a believer:

Many persons do not believe, at all, in the art of the Fortune Teller; but insist that there is nothing more in it than trick and management, pretending that this very woman kept the blacks of the town, in pay, to bring her information, and that she never told any thing of the past which was true, that had not been previously communicated to herself. I shall not pretend to affirm that the art goes as far as many imagine, but it strikes me that it is very presuming to deny that there is some truth in these matters. I do not wish to appear credulous, though, at the same time, I hold it to be wrong to deny our testimony to facts that we are convinced are true. (263)

The question of belief is treated even more strangely by the “editor” of Corny’s memoirs, who has supplied authenticating and “authorizing” footnotes throughout the text. 2 To Corny’s declaration of faith, the editor responds with modern skepticism:

It is quite evident that Mr. Cornelius Littlepage was, to a degree at least, a believer in the Fortune-Teller’s art. This was, however, no more than was common a century since. Quite within my recollection, the Albanians had a celebrated dealer in the Black Art, who was regularly consulted on the subject of all lost spoons, and the pilfering of servants, by the good housewives of the town, as recently as my school-boy days. (263n)

The editor’s irony not only undercuts Corny’s belief in fortune-telling but also trivializes the whole cultural milieu from which it arises. This is the first in a series of “repetitions and reversals” extending below the margins of this text.

For instance, that the editor’s attitude toward the supernatural is not identical with Cooper’s own is signaled by several other ironies. 3 When Corny introduces the fortune-teller, the editor adds a note on her name: “Doortje — pronounced Doort-yay — means Dorothea. Mr. Littlepage uses a sort of corruption of the pronunciation. I well remember a fortune-teller of that name, in Albany, though it could not have been the Doortje of 1758” (258n). The information supplied here is not simply innocent or gratuitous since the name Doortje has already appeared in Corny’s text: it is the name of Mayor Cuyler’s cook in the episode of the stolen dinner, and the editor did not choose to gloss it there (see 175-187). Rather, this authorizing footnote resonates with a later passage, when the soothsayer Doortje confronts the disguised Guert Ten Eyck: “I knew your father, and I knew your mother; I knew your ancestors in Holland, and their children in America. Generations on {114} generations have I known your people, and you are the first that I have seen so ill clad!” (267). Contrary to his intentions, the editor’s note seems to confirm that Doortje is some kind of American sibyl, immortal and dispensing the wisdom of the ages.

Still another irony opens at the end of this printed version of the note about Corny’s gullibility. The editor remarks that “the somnambulist is taking the place of the ancient soothsayer, in our own times” (264n) — that is, popular interest in hypnotism and its possibilities for arriving at hidden truths has replaced the traditional fortune-teller. In the manuscript of Satanstoe, this observation is followed by a lengthy anecdote about one of Cooper’s own experiments with “the magnetic trance.” 4 The substance of the anecdote is that after the burglary of a local store, “it was determined to magnetize and consult Richard Jackson, a coloured man of very good character, on the subject.” Jackson named a local physician as the burglar, and though the man was never convicted, the circumstantial evidence was so damning and belief in his guilt became so general that he fled Otsego County. Cooper further related that he had “magnetised Richard Jackson, myself, more than once, and certainly have heard strange things from him, while in that state.” Without ever having been in Cooper’s home, Jackson had described the entrance hall; another time he described two bird cages and a pet bird that had died the morning of the experiment. All this is reported in the usual manner of spiritualist phenomena: the hypnotist records his questions and the subject’s answers as they closed in on the hidden truth, and the whole transcript testifies to the reality not of what is described — perfectly trivial details, after all — but of the method by which details are ascertained.

The entire episode as Cooper relates it is very revealing of cultural tensions underlying the representation of race in Satanstoe. First there is the issue of Richard Jackson’s qualifications as a medium. Why does Cooper specify that Jackson was “a coloured man,” and then why is it necessary to add that he was “of very good character”? Aside from the obvious social reasons (that race is the preeminent category of identity in African-American life, and that it was necessary for a white author to explain the circumstances by which he and others accepted the testimony of a black), Cooper was reflecting the extremely interesting situation of an African-American subject of a spiritualist experiment. As Alex Owen has argued, the primary requirement for a medium, in any of the various forms of nineteenth-century spiritualist mediumship, was passivity, a quality Americans normally thought of as negative:

Spiritualism ... viewed passivity in a different light. Here it was validated as the most important and powerful quality a medium could possess because it was the most necessary for effective spirit possession. Male believers strove to cultivate a passive attitude in order to counter-balance the domination of the masculine Will, thereby struggling to renounce what the medical profession held to be the very {115} cornerstone of health. 5

For Owen, this ideological contradiction serves to explain why all but a bare handful of mediums were women or children. In Jackson’s case, his social marginality and the respectful deference to authority we can infer from his “very good character” qualify him, despite his gender, as a medium. And, though Cooper does not mention it, Jackson, like old Doortje, must have worked as a medium fairly often and fairly successfully, since he was consulted on the extraordinary occasion of a robbery. Moreover, though the evidence against the accused physician remained only circumstantial, he was indeed indicted for robbery, and once he had fled, Jackson’s accusation seemed confirmed: “In Otsego, the belief of the physician’s guilt is now general. ... ” The point is not that Jackson, as a black man, was “feminized” by prevailing racist attitudes, but that his suppressed voice, speaking from the margins, is given supernatural authority in Cooper’s account.

A second issue is that of the medium’s knowledge of a hidden truth — where and why it is hidden, how access is obtained, whether the truth is worth knowing. In spiritualist experiments, the medium is always presented with a problem whose solution she or he could not know. Cooper’s note remarks that “Richard, in his ordinary state, has assured me, that he had never seen Doctor — — , and, that he had barely heard of him, as practicing in behalf of a friend.” The other demonstrations of Jackson’s powers are similarly structured. “Among other things, he was taken to my residence, in the trance, and was asked what he saw, in passing the outer door.” Jackson gives the correct dimensions of the entrance hall. This moment has no power unless we can assume that Jackson has never been inside Cooper’s home — that in this anecdote, as in so many of his novels, the house functions as a citadel, as the locked casket, like that of Thomas Hutter in The Deerslayer, harboring a precious family secret.

Such secrets, however, are extremely difficult to keep in a world of servants and gossip. In The Spy, the faithful family servant, Caesar, “had established a regular system of espionage” in the Wharton domicile, and the maiden aunt in the house, finding that he already knows some open secret, remarks, “Really, Caesar, I find I have never given you credit for half the observation that you deserve.” 6 In Satanstoe, as we have already seen, many people believed Doortje “kept the blacks of the town, in pay, to bring her information” (263). Yet Corny dismisses that possibility, and Cooper himself seems never to have considered (at least in writing this note) that Richard Jackson might have had information from another source about what went on at Otsego Hall.

The image of Cooper leading a hypnotized black man past the door of his residence and asking what lay inside is doubly poignant. It suggests just how far Jackson was willing to go to please his patron. But for Cooper, the idea of the impregnable house expresses a longing for {116} privacy and security so powerful that he cannot imagine Jackson’s knowing anything about life in the Cooper household. Yet Cooper’s privacy had more than once been under serious assault. In 1837, after his return from Europe and New York to Cooperstown, he had begun feuding with townspeople and journalists over that very issue. In 1848 he wrote to his niece about Otsego Hall’s associations with his father:

I have had a good deal of difficulty in keeping possession, there being a very strong disposition in this country to make common property of any thing that takes the fancy of the public. I suppose one half of this village would gladly pull down this house, because they can not walk through the hall whenever it suits them; but I am firm, and they begin to feel that what is my property is not theirs. 7

The hall in question is, of course, the very one he asks Jackson to describe:

“It looks like a hall.” “Is it large, or small?” “It looks large.” “How wide is it?” “About twelve feet.” “How high is it?” A long pause, and after a heavy sigh, “It’s fifteen feet high.” “You say, then, that this hall is fifteen feet high, and twelve wide?” “It’s wider.” “How wide is it, then?” A long pause, and a sigh like one fatigued with “labor”. “I wish I had something to measure it with.” — “Pace it.” Another long pause. “It’s twenty four feet wide.” These were the true dimensions.

What signifies here is not Jackson’s discovery (if that is the proper word) of the “true dimensions” of Otsego Hall, but that he has discovered them — that is, the confirmation of the validity of “magnetism” as a vehicle for penetrating to the truth. But if, as seems likely, Jackson got his information as old Doortje is rumored to have done, from “the blacks of the town” and a network of domestic spying, then Jackson becomes the figure of Cooper’s own anxious credulity, a satire on his fears and ambitions as the successor to his father, as the father of American literature, as the investigator of psychic phenomena. Through Cooper’s own usage, in other words, Jackson becomes “the Signifying Monkey” at the margins of Cooper’s text.

The chiasmus, the trope of repetition and reversal, that takes place here parodies one of the fundamental contradictions of American culture. The history of black slaves in American life, the attempt to hold human beings as private property, has corrupted the very concept of private property, the keystone of the Lockean construction of bourgeois life. In other words, first through the possession of slaves as house and body servants, cooks and nurses, later through the employment of “coloured people of good character” in the same roles, the whites whom Cooper claimed as his genealogy and portrayed in his fictions have made impossible the very privacy and secrecy they so fervently desired. Their halls and parlors, their homes, have been penetrated by a {117} network of “spies” and gossips who report to the Doortjes of their communities; their lives are open secrets. In the Albany of Satanstoe, and in the Cooperstown of the canceled footnote, “spiritualism” is the device by which open secrets become public knowledge — and by which the most ardently held belief of American republicanism is reversed: private property becomes public space.

I claimed earlier that Cooper’s cancellation of his footnote only made it more useful for my purposes. In the final text of Satanstoe, knowledge of the dweller at the margins of discourse, this Signifying Monkey, 8 is repressed; all that remains is his mocking spirit, whose echo is even fainter than that of Natty Bumppo in Home as Found 9 My point is not that Cooper “intuited” the same cultural form that Gates so brilliantly limns in The Signifying Monkey; rather, the same cultural contradictions that give rise to DuBois’ concept of “double consciousness” and that underlie Gates’ educement of a black literary tradition also put Richard Jackson in the position of a trickster in any “reading” of him by Cooper. For this American Romantic, spiritualism marks the return of his repressed knowledge of the tainted foundations of private property and the autonomous American self — the foundations laid by the labor of black slaves.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Afloat and Ashore: A Sea Tale. 1844; rpt. Townsend, 1861.
  • ------. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. 6 vols. Ed. James Franklin Beard. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960-1968.
  • ------. Satanstoe, or The Littlepage Manuscripts: A Tale of the Colony. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
  • ------. The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground. New York: Townsend, 1859.
  • Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room: Woman, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
  • ------. “The Other Voice: Women, Children and Nineteenth-century Spiritualism.” In Carolyn Stedman et al., eds., Language, Gender and Childhood. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985, 34-73.
  • Sundquist, Eric. Home As Found: Authority and Genealogy In Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
  • Wallace, James D. Early Cooper and His Audience. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.


1 The MS is in the superb Cooper collection at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.

2 One typical example of. the editor’s authorizing function in Satanstoe is an early reference to Colonel Caleb Heathcote, who attempted to enforce religious habits among the people of New York colony upon his arrival there in the early eighteenth century. The editor’s footnote claims to have seen a letter “that agrees almost verbatim, with the account of the matter, that is here given by Mr. Cornelius Littlepage” (20n). The question of “authority” is complicated by the fact that Colonel Heathcote was the great-grandfather of Cooper’s wife; he is conveying de Lancey family tradition through his editor. Still, that editor is not to be identified with Cooper himself, as I argue in note 3.

3 It is common for critic’s to read Cooper’s texts as transparent renderings of his own attitudes toward the big issues of his day — politics, race, the role of women — and to refer to his opinionated characters as “the author’s spokesman” and so on. This lazy habit vexed Cooper in his own day, too. For example, the preface to Afloat and Ashore concludes with this paragraph:

The author — perhaps editor would be the better word — does not feel himself responsible for all the notions advanced by the hero of this tale, and it may be as well to say as much. That one born in the Revolution should think differently from the men of the present day, in a hundred things, is to be expected. It is in just this difference of opinion that the lessons of the book are to be found. (ix)

The same condition applies to all Cooper’s fictions, including the fictitious editors of his first-person narratives.

4 The manuscript for the second half of Satanstoe is at the American Antiquarian Society. The footnote in question was written, as was Cooper’s custom, on the verso of leaf 142; it fills the entire page, in a handwriting that grows ever smaller and more cramped as Cooper tried to squeeze everything he wanted to relate into a diminishing space. All quotations in the following discussion are from the manuscript.

5 “The Other Voice: Women, Children and Nineteenth-century Spiritualism,” in Carolyn Stedman et al., eds., Language, Gender and Childhood (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), p. 38. See also the related discussion of passivity in Owen’s The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), pp. 10 and 209-210.

6 The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (New York: Townsend, 1859), 57 and 281. I discuss a parallel idea, the usefulness of social marginality for the spy (i.e. Harvey Birch) in Early Cooper and His Audience (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 102).

7 Letters and Journals, V, 369. The sense of inhabiting a “citadel” under attack is linked by Eric Sundquist to Cooper’s relation to his father and to his own identity as the “father” of American literature in Home As Found: Authority and Genealogy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

8 I borrow this term, of course, from Gates’ richly suggestive study.

9 Of the echo the townspeople attribute the dead Natty, Sundquist remarks, “Cooper could not have found a more chilling way to frame the Effinghams’ dynasty than by deriding them with the voice of the very dream their ancestors drove away in the original act of settlement” (31).