Plainly Bred in the Woods: Manners in The Pioneers
Presented at the 11ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1997.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 11), Papers from the 1997 Cooper Seminar (No. 11), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 39-46).
Copyright © 1999, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
Alan Taylor has provided students and scholars of James Fenimore Cooper with an invaluable resource for understanding the man and the origins of his literary career. In many ways, Taylor’s book ties together in a single volume the diverse work of such figures as Robert Spiller, Stephen Railton, and Robert Clark (among many others), and in so doing fills in many of the blank spaces in the Cooper family saga. I am thinking here especially of the loss of William Cooper’s fortune, James’s flight to the sea, the death of the Judge, as well as other interesting aspects of the family narrative.
The problem that Taylor’s work poses for the continued study of James’s literary career is how best to integrate the work of an historian with the work of students and scholars of imaginative literature. In short, what is the relation between a text and its context? In the last twenty years, historical approaches have come to the forefront of literary studies. Yet one result has been that there are as many different uses of history as there are critics who take an historical approach. The diverse and often conflicting conclusions reached by Cooper’s critics bear witness to the fact that the interdependence between a text and its context is never self-evident.
This is especially true of The Pioneers, a book whose autobiographical dimensions render its relation to the history of both William Cooper’s town and William Cooper’s family especially complex. Writing in the 1930’s Spiller posited that, “There are no more reliable documents upon which to draw for a picture of the conditions which William Cooper faced in 1786 than the novels of his son” (12), but, he added almost immediately, ” ... the problem of the identity of Cooperstown and Templeton is a real one” (12). Writing half a century later, James Franklin Beard downplayed the autobiographical dimensions, noting in the “Historical Introduction” to the SUNY edition that even:
if every individual detail could be documented, the feat would still not invalidate Cooper’s contention that The Pioneers is fiction and not history or autobiography. ... Once assimilated to the specifications of an imagined world, the detail, whatever its origin, whether it relates to character or to setting, has its proper reference only within that created cosmos and the experience of the reader it informs (Beard xxviii-xxviii).
Given its pains-taking attention to detail, and its compelling narrative, Taylor’s book has emerged as a provocative voice in this discussion. Unlike Beard, who admitted the relation between fact and Cooper’s fiction but tried to discourage autobiographical readings, Taylor’s book and the chapter devoted to Pioneers bring the work’s connections to its historical referents into high relief. As he puts it:
In The Pioneers James Fenimore Cooper remembered, encoded, and modified the painful events ... that undercut his father’s prestige and authority. As in so much of the novel, Cooper felt impelled both to recall the alarming and to reshape it into a more reassuring form. ... What his father had lost in the Otsego of 1799-1801, James Fenimore Cooper meant to revive in the Templeton of fiction (288).
As someone interested in both the material conditions of literary production and rhetorical theories of narrative, ¹ the focus of my work is on the same interdependence between text and context that other critics find so intriguing. But my own approach is to try and give equal play to both sides of these frameworks. Taylor’s book makes it impossible to cut off a discussion of Pioneers from an understanding of its referential field. But like Beard, and like many critics interested in narrative and narratology, I find it just as difficult to ignore the extent to which a fictional narrative is always also an imagined world and thus an invitation to a transaction made by an author to an audience. As James Phelan describes it:
In saying that narrative is a transaction, I mean that the text is an invitation to an experience that is dynamic in at least two ways: first, the experience is crucially influenced by the movement of the narrative through time. Second, the experience is multi-layered, one that engages a reader’s intellect, emotions, judgments, and ethics simultaneously (Phelan 2-3).
I follow Phelan in referring to the idea of “narrative-as-dynamic-experience” as progression. Further, there is another term which rhetorical theories of narrative have to offer to the study of texts like Pioneers: Wayne Booth’s distinction between the implied author and the writer in the real world or, to use Booth’s term, the flesh-and-blood author. The implied author is the persona to whom we ascribe agency for structuring the progression in the manner it has been structured. We arrive at a conception of this persona by inferring back from our experience as readers to the set of  qualities we think such an agent must embody given the choices made in the production of that text. This figure is distinct from the flesh-and-blood writer, whom we arrive at an understanding of based on our reading of the historical record. Although there is inevitably some overlap between these two figures in our understanding, the hermeneutic value of this distinction should not, Booth and subsequent critics have argued, be overlooked.
Given this framework, the interpretive problems associated with the first Leatherstocking Tale are recast as the following question: what is the relation between the implied author of the progression of Pioneers and the son of William Cooper? Given the limited space available in this setting, I will focus on an area that allows me to address this problem with a high degree of specificity. Namely, how Cooper used manners as a mode to drive the progression of the first Leatherstocking Tale. What I hope to show is that in Pioneers the manners of the upper-class characters, although certainly indices of their social status and values, are used just as often to reveal the limitations and the hypocrisy of Cooper’s ladies and gentlemen as they are to critique the aspirations and ignorance of the lower classes. Further, I will show that Cooper’s use of this mode for such purposes was a product of his own ambivalent attitude toward gentility, especially toward the extent to which manners were an accurate reflection of “character” in a normative sense-an ambivalence a boy bred in the woods could not but have maintained given his experiences in drawing rooms and parlors both here and abroad.
I want to begin by distinguishing my own focus from other work on Cooper’s treatment of manners. Donald Darnell’s book, James Fenimore Cooper: Novelist of Manners, is the only full length study of this aspect of Cooper’s career, and for Darnell, manners is a thematic issue. Briefly, he argues that Cooper was “a serious and often didactic writer” very much interested in teaching his readers about proper social behavior. As a consequence, the manners theme appears throughout Cooper’s books, with upper-class characters functioning as repositories of genteel values and intended to instruct by both “example and admonition.” Further, unlike Jane Austen and Henry James, both of whom maintained an objective if not critical detachment from the upper-class world they depicted, Cooper was an unabashed apologist for the Effinghams and Temples in his fictions. The final component of Darnell’s analysis is that Cooper’s manners themes do not simply admonish his audience to respect the nobility of the upper class, but also warn the lower classes to avoid aspiring to social heights they cannot hope to reach. Presumably, those denizens of the lower classes who failed to acknowledge this were responsible in Cooper’s eyes for all the vagaries of Jacksonian democracy run amuck, and thus in his books such characters met tragic fates which emphasized the need in a republic for men and women to respect their betters.
Darnell’s analysis should sound familiar to anyone who has read Cooper criticism from the last sixty years. As Spiller wrote:
... Judge Cooper realized that the next step in the process of civilization was the training of his children to bring to the new settlement from the seats of culture in the East those indefinable elements which he had left behind him. The next step was assuredly not more pioneering. The son of the frontier must reestablish the severed links with tradition (36).
In short, the judge wanted his children to acquire the manners and mores of the upper class world to which he was admitted with reluctance by the great landed families that had survived the upheavals of the Revolution. Accordingly, conventional wisdom in regard to James’s attitude toward nobility has been that, as a result, James was acutely conscious of class distinctions, sought to distinguish himself and his family from the masses whenever he could, and waged a multi-front war to maintain the semblances of those distinctions, punishing those who would question them. Because so much has been written on this topic, I will not be reviewing this aspect of the biography or of the critical record in any detail, except to note that Taylor’s book has added much to this well-accepted understanding of the Cooper family history. ²
My approach to Cooper’s treatment of manners is slightly different from the approach represented here by Darnell — that is, treating manners as a theme to be traced throughout Cooper’s fiction and non-fiction alike. Rather, I want to show what Cooper’s use of manners as a narrative mode in Pioneers reveals about the sensibility of its implied author. By this I mean that it is clear that James understood the value manners had as forms of social capital, and that he was acutely self-conscious about the extent to which he measured up to the standards he encountered in the parlors of New York and Europe. But as I will show, the manner in which Cooper used manners to delineate character and to drive his progressions reveals an imagination that was keenly aware of the extent to which social forms could be used as smoke screens to hide immorality and hypocrisy regardless of the apparent gentility or class of the individual.
 As James Wallace has shown, Cooper began his literary career by emulating and modifying the narrative techniques of both Austen and Amelia Opie, combining Austen’s penchant for comedies of familial relations with Opie’s didacticism to produce Precaution. Unsatisfied, Cooper quickly began altering the forms available to him, and in The Spy transformed the “Opie” novel to meet the demands of both the structure of the historical romances of Walter Scott and the book’s distinctly American setting. ³ Although in his third book Cooper would return to the comedy of manners, a detailed look at the narrative strategies employed in Pioneers reveals that by 1823 he had mastered the craft of representing in prose the nuances of the social sphere, but as he had in The Spy, Cooper would continue to transform available narrative strategies to meet his own purposes.
The opening scene is as good a place as any to begin. After the buck has been killed, the Judge and Natty bicker over who is responsible, and Natty’s use of the vernacular immediately sets him off from the Judge in terms of their social standing:
“Let who will kill him,” said the hunter, rather surlily, “I suppose the cretur is to be eaten. If there is two balls through the deer, I would ask if there wasn’t two rifles fired-besides, who ever saw sich a ragged hole from a smooth-bore, as this through the neck? — and you will own yourself, Judge, that the buck fell at the last shot, which was sent from a truer and a younger hand, than your’n or mine ‘ither. ... ” (21-22).
Cooper develops and accents the differences between the two characters by describing in detail the physical appearances of the two men as well as their companions. First the Judge:
[He wore] a great-coat, that was abundantly ornamented by a profusion of furs, [that] enveloped the whole of his figure, excepting the head, which was covered with a cap of marten skins, lined with morocco, the sides of which were made to fall, if necessary, and were now drawn close over the ears, and fastened beneath his chin with a black ribbon. ... From beneath this masque were to be seen part of a fine manly face, and particularly a pair of expressive, large blue eyes, that promised extraordinary intellect, covert humour, and great benevolence (18).
The description of Natty follows closely on the heels of the above:
There was a peculiarity in the manner of the hunter ... he was tall, and so meager as to make him seem above even the six feet that he actually stood in his stockings. On his head, which was thinly covered with lank, sandy hair, he wore a cap made of fox-skin, resembling in shape the one we have already described, although much inferior in finish and ornaments. His face was skinny, and thin almost to emaciation; but yet it bore no signs of disease; — on the contrary, it had every indication of the most robust and enduring health. The cold and the exposure had, together, given it a color of uniform red; his grey eyes were glancing under a pair of shaggy brows, that overhung them in long hairs of grey mingled with their natural hue; his scraggy neck was bare, and burnt to the same tint with his face; though a small part of a shirt collar, made of the country check, was to be seen above the overdress he wore (22-23).
Here, Natty’s coarse features and coarse dress combined with his “surliness” and diction firmly set him off from the genteel Judge and Elizabeth Temple, who are both physically attractive and dressed in furs combined with expensive foreign materials.
In additional to language, dress, and appearance, however, there is a third component to manners as a mode; namely, using how a character behaves given the expectations or norms of a particular setting to establish how well he or she fits into that realm. Take, for example, the dance near the beginning of the consummate novel of manners, Pride and Prejudice, where Bingley and Darcy interact with their new neighbors for the very first time:
Mr. Bingley had soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people in the room; he was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, was angry that the ball closed so early, and talked of giving one himself at Netherfield. Such amiable qualities must speak for themselves. What a contrast between him and his friend! Mr. Darcy danced only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening in walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party. His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everybody hoped that he would never come there again (9).
Here, the quality of Darcy’s character is delineated precisely in terms of how he carries himself and how he acts given the expectations and actions of the others. “Manners” as a mode can thus also be understood as deportment or what a character says and what a character does given a particular situation or context. For manners to be a useful means for delineating a character’s values, the reader must be able to tell when a character has either spoken or acted appropriately  and when they have not. In Darcy’s case, although we might share the implied author’s detachment ultimately, we are not meant to overlook the fact that he has failed a test of manners which Bingley has not.
Finally, it is important to stress that the use of manners does not end with the establishment of a character’s class. Rather, such a technique’s ultimate purpose is to establish the competing value systems the author wants to bring into play. As Lionel Trilling and other theorists of the novel have argued, the novel in its classic intention is a fictional prose narrative that examines critically a society’s values. In such a work the impetus for the main action will be a cultural tension between competing social groups, as it manifests itself in interactions between characters who represent those groups and their values. In William Ellis’s words:
Taken together, the characters indicate the constellation of cultural (and moral) alternatives that the novel presents. ... [ sic] When men have the consciousness that the proper direction of their souls is a problem — indeed the problem of existence ... it is then that men turn their attention to manners with the single-minded purpose the novel requires ... for it is through them that men become aware of what their cultural alternatives and moral possibilities are (Ellis 39 and 154).
It is not at all surprising then that in the opening scene of Pioneers. Cooper uses manner to delineate his two main characters and then immediately introduces the competing values which become the dominant focus of the book’s critical project. In the Judge’s case, his gentlemanly demeanor is quickly made interdependent with the civil law he espouses. In recompense for wounding Effingham, he grants the youth the right to hunt the surrounding hills as freely as Natty. But Natty quickly qualifies the benevolence of the Judge’s offer, setting up his rough-and-tumble natural law in opposition to the values of the patriarch of Templeton:
“There’s them living who say, that Nathaniel Bumppo’s right to shoot on these hills, is of older date than Marmaduke Temple’s right to forbid them. But if there’s a law about it at all, though who ever heard of a law, that a man shouldn’t kill deer where he pleased! — but if there is a law at all, it should be to keep people from the use of smooth-bores. A body never knows where his lead will fly, when he pulls the trigger of one of them uncertain fire-arms” (25).
What I find interesting about this opening sequence is that the valences unleashed are complex and not easily sorted out. Although Natty is gruff and ill-mannered given both the conventions of the novel of manners and the expectations of the novel’s implied audience, the values he espouses are not undercut by virtue of who he is and how he speaks. Although coarse, Natty is more honest and more forthright than the Judge. Darnell and others have argued that Cooper was a great defender of the upper-class. But if this is the case, how do we explain the ambivalence present here and throughout the book, especially in regard to the values of the book’s guardian of gentility, i.e., Judge Temple? Generally, the answer has been that the marriage of Oliver to Elizabeth is Cooper’s attempt to poke fun at the provincial gentility of his father and, by means of a not-so-subtle metonymy, any other vulgarian of the Jacksonian persuasion who aspires to the ranks of the upper class. Presumably, Cooper’s representation of Judge Temple’s faux-gentility — the garish mansion, his duplicitous conduct in regard to the buck, his participation in the pigeon hunt — is intended to juxtapose the aspirations of new money to the inherited right-to-power of the landed gentry. The ambivalence at the beginning thus prepares the reader for the marriage at the end where, as Susan Scheckel has argued, “the union between Oliver and Elizabeth ... marks the beginning of a new line of American whose legitimacy [to rule] is beyond question” (147).
It is my view, however, that this ambivalence is intentionally unresolvable, and that it is a product of Cooper’s commitment to both the form of the novel of manners and to his lived experience. Geoffrey Rans has argued that in the Leatherstocking Tales generally, Cooper repeatedly addressed “the contradictory operation in history of basic intellectual positions that turn out in practice to be anything but simple” (xiv). Consequently, Cooper “constantly frustrates simple programs of solution and coerces the attentive reader into judgment and possible conclusions beyond the control of his own ... desires” (xii). Rans’s observation creates a space, I think, for an understanding of Cooper’s use of manners that acknowledges that he was deeply invested in the value of social distinctions in a democracy, but that he was also a perceptive writer whose books are more true to the reality of the social sphere than they are to the ideals of their flesh-and- blood writer. To understand this further I want to turn to a key point in the progression of Pioneers, where Cooper’s use of manners as a mode reveals the sort of complexity I believe was one of his greatest achievements as a prose stylist — the trial of Natty.
The trial in the second half of Pioneers is important not only for what takes place but for the subtle ways by which Cooper renders this important part of the book’s progression. Thematically, this chapter brings Natty’s natural law in direct conflict with the civilizing principles embodied in the Judge. At the trial Natty is charged with both assault and [p43] battery and with threatening an officer of the peace. He is acquitted of assaulting Doolittle but is convicted of resisting arrest. Natty’s refusal to recognize the authority that Kirby represents enacts the threat to order and to the values of settlement Natty and his like pose to communities like Templeton. The tension established in the opening scene is here brought to a figurative and literal head. Presumably, Natty and the ideals he embodies, although certainly intended to critique the “wasty ways” of settlement, must give way before the inroads of civilization.
The opening of the court proceedings sets the tone for the entire chapter. We are told that far from having a natural sense of decorum, the trappings of the courtroom are rough and contrived, and thus little separates the judged from the judges:
There was nothing to distinguish these subordinate judges from the better part of the spectators, except gravity, which they affected a little more than common. ... But this incongruity excited neither notice nor comment. Three or four clean-shaved lawyers followed, as meekly as if they were lambs going to the slaughter. One or two of their number had contrived to obtain an air of scholastic gravity, by wearing spectacles. The rear was brought up by another posse of constables, and the mob followed the whole into the room where the court held its sittings (359).
This courtroom is truly democratic. So much so that the attempts to establish formal or conventional differences are comical at best. There is little difference between the court officers and the “mob” that follows close on its heels and the mock-gravity and mock-formality carry over into the proceedings themselves, throughout which our attention is called repeatedly to Natty’s struggle to mind the manners of the court-room.
After Natty is brought in he is made to remove his hat. This shows he does not intuitively recognize the differences between being in a civil court of law and being in, say, the Bold Dragoon. Although this certainly brings Natty’s limits into relief, it also calls our attention to the artificial or conventional nature of the proceedings themselves. In effect, Natty’s awkwardness denaturalizes the pains to which the court goes to distinguish what happens within its walls from what happens outside of them.
The next mistake Natty makes is his handling of the plea. Asked whether he pleads guilty or not, he mistakenly launches into a hairsplitting narrative:
“That I handled the man a little rough or so, is not to be denied; but that there was occasion to make use of all them things that the gentleman has spoken of, is down right untrue. I am not much of a wrestler, seeing that I’m getting old; but I was out among the Scotch-Irishers — lets me see — it must have been as long ago as the first year of the old war ... “(362)
But the rules of the court do not allow for fine distinctions and Natty is interrupted and instructed how to answer given the forms at play in the courtroom. Natty is eventually found not guilty but remains comically out of touch with just how he is supposed to act:
“You are acquitted of this charge, Nathaniel Bumppo,” said the Judge.
“Anan!” said Natty.
“You are found not guilty of striking and assaulting Mr. Doolittle.”
“No, no, I’ll not deny but that I took him a little roughly by the shoulders,” said Natty, looking about him with great simplicity, “and that I” —
“You are acquitted,” interrupted the Judge; “and there is nothing further to be done or said in the matter.”
The pathos of these moments is certainly not subtle, but what I find deft in Cooper’s handling of these scenes is the interesting manner in which our compassion for the scout repeatedly undermines the legitimacy of the court proceedings in powerful ways. Any reader familiar with this genre, and certainly much of the book’s contemporary audience, would expect to find many such scenes in the book. And Pioneers does not let them down. The scene on Christmas eve at the Bold Dragoon, the trip to Kirby’s maple sugar operation, as well as numerous others, all use the limits of a character’s knowledge given his class to create the manners comedy associated with this form. Accordingly, one way to read Cooper’s use of comedy and pathos in Natty’s trial is that they are designed to give the reader an emotional sense of the cost of civilization. This prepares us for the end when we reluctantly watch Natty head off into the sunset, ” ... the foremost in that band of Pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent” (456). Yet I do not believe such a reading does justice to the ambivalence established in these scenes.
For example, in the middle of Lippet’s examination of Natty, Kirby and the latter come to an understanding, man to man, about what happened between them:
“Ah! Billy,” said Natty, shaking his head, ” ‘twas a lucky thought in me to throw out the hide, or there might have been blood spilt; and I’m sure, if it had been your’n, I should have mourned it sorely the little while I have to stay.”
“Well, Leather-stocking,” returned Billy, facing the prisoner, with a freedom and familiarity that utterly disregarded the presence of the court, “as you are on the subject, it may be that you’ve no” —
Here the Judge interrupts the exchange, telling Lippet to get on with the examination. Lippet does so but quickly loses control of things:
“You look like a hardy man; where were you born, sir?” “Varmount state; ‘tis a mountaynious place, but there’s a stiff soil, and it’s pretty much wooded with beech and maple.”
I have always heard so,” said Mr. Lippet, soothingly. “You have been used to the rifle yourself, in that country?”
“I pull the second best trigger in this county. I knock under to Natty Bumppo there, sin’ he shot the pigeon.”
Leather-stocking raised his head, and laughed again, when he abruptly thrust out a wrinkled hand, and said —
“You’re young yet, Billy, and haven’t seen the matches that I have; but here’s my hand; I bear no malice to you, I don’t” (367).
Lippet allows the two men to shake hands but the Judge interrupts again, telling them that “This is an improper place for such dialogues.”
By this time, however, the mock-decorum of the courtroom and the trappings of justice and order embodied there pale in comparison to the simple but earnest values of community and forgiveness embodied in Natty and Kirby’s handshake. The comic pathos that emerges from Cooper’s handling of this part of his manners comedy, with its repeated rupture of the seriousness of the courtroom, prevents the rupture from being easily sutured — it will take more than the marriage of Effingham to Elizabeth to heal this split.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when Pump joins Natty in the stocks. The touching sentiment established in Pump’s gesture in the courtroom quickly sours once he joins Natty in the town square. Although our heart goes out to Pump, Natty’s reaction makes it clear that his presence is as galling as it is comforting:
Natty sighed, and gazed about him on the crowd, that already begun to disperse, and which had now diminished greatly, as its members scattered in their various pursuits. He looked wistfully at Benjamin, but did not reply; a deeply-seated anxiety seeming to absorb every other sensation, and to throw a melancholy gloom over his wrinkled features, which were working with the movements of his mind.
Only the most condescending reading of the trial can fail to recognize the contrast between Natty’s inherent nobility and his degraded circumstance. Here Natty is reduced to Pump’s level and there is horror along with pathos in our reaction to the plight of the scout. In short, the equivalence between the two men’s social status and manners belies a glaring difference in the values embodied by each. This suggests that far from serving as a triumph of civil law over Natty’s cruder, less “civilized” notions, the trial and its immediate effects are meant to complicate any easy resolution of the book’s principal thematic tension. Cooper could very well have skipped this scene, making Natty’s imprisonment the sole punishment for resisting arrest and so have moved on to the escape and the events which follow it. That he did not is explained by the fact that he wanted it clear that Natty’s punishment does not fit the crime. Templeton is not a rugged frontier but a sleepy, silly village where the perceived need to enforce the law is disproportionate to the real need to maintain order. In such a place, manners are no longer clear signifiers of an individual’s values or self-worth. Instead, manners emerge as empty forms, arbitrary and capricious, equally as present in an Effingham as they are in a Richard Jones.
The author of Pioneers was someone who had a keen understanding of the power both positive and negative of social forms. In Pioneers this negativity manifests itself as a powerful ambivalence that reveals the conventionality of social decorum and thus the limits to which manners can serve as metonymies for positive normative values. Later, in Mohicans, this negativity will become even more sinister, as manners become mere masks behind which lurk the vagaries of genocide and Empire. How are we to reconcile the sensibility of the implied author of such books with what we know about the youngest son of William Cooper? In short, how are we to resolve what appears to be a glaring contradiction?
In an oft-quoted letter to her brother Isaac, Hannah Cooper wrote, ” ... I sincerely hope you may not become intimate or acquainted with the low vicious boys of which you have so many around you. Mamma is better, the boys are well. ... They are very wild and show plainly they have been bred in the woods” (Spiller 31). This letter not only supports the usual account of the Cooper family’s aspirations to gentility, it shows that the need to learn the manners of the upper-classes was very real. The Cooper boys, it seems, although raised with the same advantages as were their peers in the great houses of New York, had a ways to go when it came to the refinements of the social sphere to which such advantages gave them access. Indeed, their wildness would get both James and William into trouble once they left the woods, as both were expelled from college under highly dubious circumstances. At Princeton, William shunned the society his father wanted him to cultivate, preferring instead to drink and cavort with blacks and poor whites at “the village’s loosest taverns” (Taylor 336). And family legend has it that after getting the worst of a fight James blew his adversary’s door off its hinges in retaliation, leading to his dismissal from Yale. In short, by their early- and mid-teen’s, the Cooper boys had yet to acquire the manners their father sought for them.
What I think the biographical information suggests, but has been overlooked, is that such an education could not but have had a complex impact on James’s attitude toward the manners and morals he was asked to master. Imagine, for a moment, a young boy from a country village, who for his entire life had been told (and could no doubt see for himself) the differences between his own situation and those of his neighbors. Although, as Taylor’s book makes clear, in later years Cooperstown had an almost glittering social life, when James was a boy Otsego Hall and its environs would have been an anomaly set amidst the cruder houses of its neighbors. Sent to mingle with the true gentry first at private schools and then at New Haven, James would have had to prove time and again that the son of a rural Judge was fit to mingle with the country’s elite. The well-documented arrogance of the Cooper sons, when confronted by the more established wealth and concomitant snobbery of the genteel families they encountered, could not but have resulted in more than one of the sort of scrape that ended with James’s expulsion. Convinced of his own nobility, faced with the haughty indifference that so often goes along with privilege, and given a father who was not above brawling in the street, James must have found fisticuffs and gunpowder to be great equalizers in the struggle to prove he was every bit as good as the Darcys he was forced to emulate.
What I am suggesting, finally, is that the answer to the contradiction I have tried to bring into relief has been in front of us all along. James Fenimore Cooper idealized the privileged world to which his father’s money gave him access, but growing up and struggling to enter that world and to master its manners would have given him a unique perspective on the performative aspect of such conventions. He would have seen first hand how manners could be used as smoke screens behind which lurked insolence, dissipation, and ignorance, as well as someone as truly noble as his beloved LaFayette. As a writer whose chosen profession required him to be able to depict that world in prose, he could not but have struck the ambivalent tone his understanding of that world gave him. In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James wrote:
A novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life: that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression ... [thus] the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer. In proportion as that intelligence is fine will the novel, the picture, the statue partake of the substance of beauty and truth (425, 433).
In Cooper’s case, Pioneers reveals that his mind was capable of representing in subtle and powerful ways the nuances he encountered as an outsider who had to struggle to be accepted amongst the ladies and gentleman he admired.
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- Spiller, Robert, Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times. New Rochelle, NY: The Knickerbocker Press, 1931.
- Taylor, Alan, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. New York: Knopf, 1995.
- Trilling, Lionel, The Liberal Imagination. New York, 1965.
- Tuttleton, James, The Novel of Manners in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.
- Watt, Ian, The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.
- Wallace, James D., Early Cooper and His Audience. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
- Wellek, René, Concepts of Criticism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.
1. See especially the work of William Charvat, Robert Zboray, and Michael Gilmore on the one hand, and Wayne Booth and James Phelan on the other.
2. Specifically, Taylor’s work suggests that:
... by training his children in gentility Judge Cooper unwittingly produced a cultural distance between the generations. They made their way into genteel circles that regarded William Cooper with condescension or suspicion. As Cooper’s children mastered refined mores and manners, they began to see their father as a bumptious upstart, as well-meaning but lamentably common. The patronizing portrayal of Marmaduke Temple in The Pioneers was the fruit of William Cooper’s investment in the genteel education of his son James. The novelist longed to assert his superior gentility by demonstrating that he recognized the moral and cultural flaws of his arriviste father (296).
3. According to Wallace, “Cooper effected the Americanization of scene by a simple reversal. The latent violence of Precaution was contained by the formal class structures of British society. In The Spy the structures of society are contained by a landscape of violence” (93).