Poe and Cooper — A Comparison, Between an American Democrat and a Southern Gentleman
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. 53-55).
Copyright © 1999, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
When James Fenimore Cooper returned to America in 1833 after his seven-year residence in Europe, he was shocked because of the dramatic changes which had taken place during his absence: the new spirit in The White House after the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828 and again in 1832, and the explosive development of popular culture, especially the low standard of the sensational newspapers. In The American Democrat Cooper wrote: “The people ... which blindly yields its interests to the designs of those who rule through the instrumentality of newspapers, have only exchanged one form of despotism for another”. ¹
In the next few years Cooper became the defender of tradition and of the individual against mass-society and mass-democracy as well as the defender of private property against the state and the public. Cooper, who himself had lost his father’s estate, wrote about American democracy and tradition: “The possessions of new families are commonly exaggerated in the publick mind, while those of long established families are as commonly diminished.” ² Cooper, who in Europe had defended American democracy against the Continental version now himself became unpopular in his country, because of the famous Letter to his Countrymen of 1834, the allegorical novel The Monikins of 1835 and the famous The American Democrat of 1838, where he wrote: “[T]he entire nation, in a moral sense, breathes an atmosphere of falsehoods”. ³ It is indeed possible to see this change in his Leatherstocking Tales: the first three — The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), and The Prairie (1827) — being realistic, patriotic, optimistic; and the last two — The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841) — being poetic, critical, and first of all religious, pious, stoic, honest, all that American mass culture was not.
In the preface to the 1850 edition of the Leatherstocking Tales, he wrote: “A leading character in a work of fiction has a fair right to the aid which can be obtained from a poetical view of the subject. It is in this view, rather than in one more strictly circumstantial, that Leather-Stocking has been drawn.” ⁴ During his stay in Europe Cooper wrote his European trilogy, The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmauer (1832), and The Headsman (1833), where he showed that the revolutionary and republican tradition in Europe had always been broken by feudalism and aristocracy. You may call these novels political, but they are as well the first examples of the late Cooper’s mythological and cosmic tendency. In fact his later novels have much in common with the romance tradition of Hawthorne and Melville. Equality before law is Cooper’s universal device against developments in Europe about 1830 and in America after his return in 1833.
In fact, Cooper wrote a friend in 1834 that “were it not for my family, I should return to Europe and pass the remainder of my life there.” And he determined not to write fiction any more: “My pen is used up-or rather it is thrown away,” he wrote his corespondent, “This is not a country for literature, at least not yet.” ⁵ But he resumed the writing of his new novel, The Monikins (1835), a political satire on England, American and France. In The American Democrat Cooper defended the Classical, American republic of the 18ᵗʰ Century against Jackson’s liberalism, but — influenced by Tocqueville as he was — he also claimed the necessity of an cultural elite: “In a democracy men are just as free to aim at the highest attainable places in society, as to obtain the largest fortunes. ... An aristocrat, therefore, is merely one who fortifies his exclusive privileges by positive institutions, and a democrat, one who is willing to admit of a free competition, in all things.” ⁶
And this attitude against the new mass-democratic spirit in America was not only the reason why he became so unpopular in America, but also the reason why Edgar Allan Poe found his ideas interesting. In the Southern Literary Messenger — the periodical Poe edited between 1835-37 — Cooper, who had drawn bitter criticism on himself by his A Letter to His Countrymen, received sympathetic notice. Poe’s general attitude towards Cooper was of course negative, and indeed the old patriotic frontier writer does not seem to have much in common with the southern gentleman and first modernist writer in American literature. Nevertheless Cooper’s aggressive attitude towards his countrymen and their mass-cultural ideals attracted Poe’s interest. Cooper was a victim of mass culture, he defended the importance of an elite, and his novels became less and less patriotic, and more and more satirical (The Monikins), cosmic and poetic (The Crater) (1847).
 Poe’s writings are based on the experience of a loss, of a disappointment; like Cooper he is ambiguous towards European culture, but also against American Culture and mass culture. Poe’s roots are the 18ᵗʰ century, the rationalism of the 18ᵗʰ century, the Aristocratic South. His aesthetic writings are opposed to the irrationalism of mass culture, but always opposed to romantic transcendentalism, both Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the Concord- transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau.
Traveling means just as much to Poe as to Cooper, whose sea romance The Pilot had inspired his own Arthur Gordon Pym, and “A descent into the Maelstrom”, as well as his famous balloon-hoaxes, among them “Mellonta Tauta”. Traveling means leaving the well-known, accepted; it means the new, le nouveau, the shock of the new, to get lost in history and life, but also to find utopia, the promised land. In the preface to The Crater Cooper wrote about the terra incognito in a way very similar to Poe: “in a word, much as is now known of the globe, a great deal still remains to be told, and we do not see why the ‘inquiring mind’ should not seek for information in our pages, as well as in some that are ushered into public notice by the flourish of literary trumpets, that are blown by presidents, vice-presidents, and secretaries of various learned bodies.” ⁷. Of course Poe’s sea romances and hoaxes are much more ironical and ambiguous than Cooper’s, and above all much more aesthetic.
On the other hand it would be wrong to say that Poe is not influenced by the American patriotism or the optimism of the transcendentalists. Especially in his later writings, the cosmic and the satirical go hand in hand, not only in “Eureka”, but also in satires like “Mellonta Tauta”, “The Business Man”, “The Man that was Used up”.
Like Cooper, Poe develops a critical attitude towards mass culture; he becomes pessimistic and at the same time cosmic, and skeptical towards his own cosmic interest. In a letter to the editor of “Mellonta Tauta” Poe describes metaphysics ironically and self-ironically, as “the mare Tenebrarum — a sea well described by the Nubian geographer, but seldom visited, now-a-days, except by the transcendentalists and divers for crotchets.” ⁸ One of the divers for crochets might very well be Poe himself.
Poe’s vision of the future did not correspond with the spirit of Enlightenment which permeates other prophecies made in his time. On the other hand he himself made other prophecies, satirical and skeptical prophecies, where he used the mass-cultural language of his time, but at the same time he used language as a shield or as spectacles against his time. “Mellonta Tauta”, written just after “Eureka” in 1849, is a science fiction tale, a warning, against totalitarianism of modern society, but at the same time his alternative is not, as in the case of Cooper, mythic heroes or stable alternatives, but the problem of identity, the multiple nature of the self, society, nature and of literature.
Poe was fascinated by mass culture; as a writer, who belonged to a younger generation than Cooper, he tapped the market for sensational literature, but he was not ready to go as far as contemporary writers, he could not dispense with the rational altogether. He was at the same time a part of the Jacksonian America, and a modern moralist, who was against the “omniprevalent Democracy”.
His aesthetic principles do in fact remind one of Cooper’s more political principles: artistic style, analysis, construction, distance from the irrationalism and turbulence of society. Cooper was always much more political as Poe; even in The Crater, where the style and the cosmic plays a major role, you still hear an echo of the ideological rhetoric of The American Democrat: “Let those, who would substitute the voice of the created for that of the Creator, who shout “the people, the people,” instead of hymning the praises of their God, who vainly imagine that the masses are sufficient for all things, remember their insignificance and tremble. They are but mites amid millions of other mites, that the goodness of Providence has produced for its own wise ends.” ⁹
Compare the last lines of Poe’s “Mellonta Tauta”, where the insignificance of the individual is caused by the totalitarianism of mass-society and defended, not by ideology, but by the fragile importance of art as a bottle-message, by language, by distance from politics: “Good-bye, until I see you again. Whether you ever get this letter or not is a point of little importance, as I write altogether for my own amusement. I shall cork the MS. up in a bottle however, and throw it into the sea.” ¹⁰ But one should not forget the similarities between Poe and Cooper: aristocratism, disappointment, the cosmic Hamlet-contemplation, rationalism, and last not least the detective: Natty Bumppo and Dupin, both trying to solve the crime of American republican and individualistic ideals, both using religious and cosmic images as a stylistic shield against popular irrationalism and mass culture.
1. Cooper, James Fenimore, The American Democrat, or, Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America . Penguin Classics, 1989, p. 185 (“On the American Press”)
2. Ibid., p. 191 (“On Property”)
3. Ibid., p. 181 (“On the American Press”)
4. Cooper, James Fenimore, Preface to the Leather-Stocking Tales , in The Deerslayer; or, The First War Path. Albany: State University of New York Press, p. 6
5. Letter of Jan. 14, 1834 to John Whipple. James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1860-68, Vol. III, pp. 27-29
6. Cooper, The American Democrat, p. 153 (“An Aristocrat and a Democrat”)
7. Cooper, James Fenimore, The Crater; or Vulcan’s Peak . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962, p. 3 (Preface)
8. Poe, Edgar Allan, “Mellonta Tauta,” in The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1983, p. 1117
9. Cooper, The Crater, p. 459 (Chapter XXX)
10. Poe, “Mellonta Tauta”, in op. cit. supra p. 1129