Landscape of Loss, Landscape of Promise

Richard M. Magee (Fordham University)

Presented at the 12ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1999.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1999 Cooper Seminar (No. 12), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 57-61).

Copyright © 2000, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

{57} James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans inspired numerous nineteenth-century landscape painters, including Hudson River School luminaries Thomas Cole and Asher Durand, and Cooper himself seemed to recognize the visual impact of his American romance. Many scenes derive their power and impact at least partially from the sweeping sublimity of the landscape description, and, at times, the vividly portrayed settings almost become characters. These scenes of colonial New York’s virgin forests, untainted springs, and rugged mountains represent the promise and possibility of America while simultaneously mourning the loss of a quasi-mythical past. Cooper’s vision is usually directed toward the past, and his sparsely-peopled landscapes attempt to project history backwards, from 1757 and beyond to a legendary time.

On the other hand, Cooper’s daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, paints a very different sort of landscape in Rural Hours. Instead of placing her point of observation in the pre-Revolutionary past and then pushing her landscape into darker regions of prehistory, she firmly plants her easel in her present. The goal is not to provide her readers with a sublime landscape but with a picturesque one. As such, her landscape descriptions contain details of human habitation, rural domestic enterprise, and rustic beauty that catch her eye on her jaunts around Cooperstown. Fences, plowed fields, and small farmhouses domesticate her word paintings. While her father’s vision laments the loss of a heroic and romantic past, hers both delights in the present and scolds those who would endanger the rural environment’s future through rash or thoughtless acts.

Before looking at the literary landscapes of father and daughter, it is necessary to consider the painted landscapes of the time as well as the aesthetic and historical forces that informed the paintings. The Hudson River landscape artists, especially, for this discussion, Thomas Cole and Asher Durand, favored the majestic scope and sublime effects of a vividly rendered wild nature. Europe’s tradition of the sublime landscape, coupled with the more picturesque treatments of Joshua Reynolds’ English pastoral landscapes, initiated the American style, which then sought to establish a firmly American sensibility with familiar western instead of European scenes. Important scenic differences between old and new worlds at once elevated and problematized the American landscape. Thomas Cole, in his “Essay on American Scenery,” laments the meager historical context of American scenery when he says, “Where the wolf roams, the plough shall glisten; on the gray crag shall rise temple and tower — mighty deeds shall be done in the now pathless wilderness; and poets yet unborn shall sanctify the soil” (109). Without the centuries-long narrative of place that inhabited every European landscape, American artists were forced to either substitute something else for history (as in Cole’s mythical “Voyage of Life” series) or ignore it entirely (as in Durand’s wild landscapes devoid of human traces).

James Fenimore Cooper, however, provided an alternative to the classically motivated myth-making of Cole’s “Voyage of Life” with an American mytho-historical structure in the Leatherstocking tales. No other author, I would argue, had such a profound effect on American landscape painting as Cooper. Some of the influences are subtle. Sanford Gifford’s “Kauterskill Clove,” for example, does not make any overt reference to Cooper’s work, but the spirit of Natty Bumppo haunts it. Gifford’s painting depicts the steep declivity of the Clove, covered in trees turning to their autumn colors. In the middle distance a stream tumbles down the cliff while rugged rocky walls rise in the left foreground. On one of the slopes below the cliff lies a small clearing and tiny cottage. The entire scene is saturated with a golden Indian summer light almost liquid in its texture and glow. The glow extends to the far horizon as the hills and trees diminish in perspective. The painting could very well illustrate Natty’s reverent description of the Catskills, where he tells young Edwards what he could see from the high points: “Creation!” Natty exclaims, and indeed, Gifford’s painting with its golden glow does have a similar mystical or religious impact (Pioneers 279).

Thomas Cole also took inspiration from The Last of the Mohicans, painting at least three versions of the same scene. These paintings deal with the dramatic and passionate confrontation between Cora and Chief Tamenund near the end of the novel. The landscape in these images is large and sweeping, with huge, craggy mountains rising in the background. Tiny human figures form a circle near the middle of the paintings, and the main characters of the novel stand within the circle, Cora kneeling at the feet of the Indian chief. In one version of the scene, huge boulders stand between the viewer and the circle of figures, partially obscuring them, and rise in sublime crags to the left. The broken rocky space forms a frame or a barrier between viewer and the human interest in the scene. In another version of the scene, the rocky frame is absent, but the circle of figures is smaller and farther away. In place of the boulders lies a dark declivity which also serves to frame or distance the viewer, who is looking at the scene from a higher perspective.

{58} Mark Patterson, in Authority, Autonomy, and Representation in American Literature, 1776-1865, considers two of the Cole paintings as visual representations of Cooper’s historical conflict. The primary focus of the scene is the biracial Cora, who refuses to marry Magua to save herself and her sister, and Patterson argues that the crucial consideration in the crisis is not sexual miscegenation, but “the historical mixing and change it represents” (99). He further goes on to claim that this moment of standing on the rocky promontory encircled by Tamenund’s tribe is one “in which no history is at work.” The obliteration of history that Patterson sees is especially significant because the first half of the novel is intensely interested in the historical moment, and the search for Munro and the destruction of Fort William Henry serve to place all of the main characters in a particular historical moment (101).

Patterson then points out that these two Cole paintings reflect the same “images and conflicts.” He contrasts the paintings by saying that the first places the viewers as “observers of the scene” in the “space of history that, like the theater, is dramatically produced and framed by the natural setting.” The second painting, on the other hand, presents a more dangerous, more mythical, and more precarious world (100).

In order to refute Patterson’s argument, we must first go back to Cole and his aesthetic techniques. Art historian Brigitte Bailey constructs a correlation between Cole’s Italian landscapes and Cooper’s writings about Italy, and her argument has important implications for both artists’ construction of American landscapes both written and painted. Cole was fascinated by the “resolved tensions” of the Italian landscape, which illustrated the possibilities of coexistence of nature and humanity; such possibilities were not evident yet in American landscape, which had no comparable history. The Italian scene also presented an opportunity for Cole to adapt Claude’s “structure of nostalgia” to indicate the resolution of tension and the balance of the scenic reality with its “seductive ideal.” This structure is created by using various traditional framing devices or coulisses to set the balanced landscape off for the viewer’s eye to travel from the real to ideal elements. Trees standing at the margins of the painting are one such cliché device, and a wall running across the lower edge of the landscape is another. Many of Cole’s Italian landscapes used the wall both to set off the scene for “the spectator’s visionary benefit,” and also to emphasize the inaccessibility of the idealized landscape (105-106).

The two Cole Mohicans paintings discussed by Patterson are constructed in the same nostalgic structure and employ the coulisses, though in different ways. In the first painting, Cole constructs a wall of boulders, dark crevasses, and broken trees to separate the viewer from both the tribal circle and from wild nature, represented by the rugged mountains in the distance. In the second painting, the dark border between viewer and scene is not as substantial as the rocky wall, but the more elevated position of the viewer, along with the smaller and more removed human element, emphasizes the distance and keeps the viewers out of the scene. If, as Bailey suggests, the purpose of the coulisses in the Italian landscapes is to separate the American viewer from the Italian scene, then the “walls” in the American landscape separate contemporary viewers from the historical scene. Rather than indicate a moment that is removed from history, Cole’s paintings establish a backward-looking nostalgia which is forever removed from the present. Only with our eyes can we leap the wall to the circle of the historical past or travel even further back to the craggy mountains of the mythical past.

Cooper’s landscapes are similarly constructed. They are not removed from history but removed from chronology. The beginning scenes of the novel are firmly rooted in historical reality, and the events of 1757 are ever-present. As the action moves forward, the chronology begins to move backward, yet always with reference to synchronous history. In this manner, Cooper balances the tensions of the real landscape he knows with the history he reveres and the mythic past he hopes to recreate, just as Cole’s Italian landscapes consciously balance the real and ideal.

Before moving to Cooper’s first important landscape, we must first literally backtrack to the early scenes in the novel, when Heyward, Cora and Alice, and Magua begin their journey to Fort William Henry. The opening scenes are firmly rooted in a particular historical moment that is established incrementally through careful examination of details. David Gamut, the awkward singing master, most clearly illustrates the period as Cooper spends a significant amount of time describing the peculiarities of the character’s clothing and habits. On the one hand, the description serves to point out the ridiculousness of Gamut’s person with his mismatched and ill-fitting clothing. On the other hand, however, the description clearly points to period clothing, placing Gamut within a certain and specific range of time. A few scenes later, as Gamut is preparing to display his singing talents, he makes a serious production of flourishing his psalm book, noting that it is “the six-and-twentieth edition, promulgated at Boston, Anno Domini 1744” (29). As with the clothing description, this somewhat pathetic pomposity of the singing master underlines his ridiculousness while also rooting the exposition of the story in a historical moment. As the narrative progresses backwards in time, Gamut, too, reflects this asynchronous motion as he gradually loses his pitch-pipe, his book, and his European clothes and is arrayed in full Indian regalia, clothing that precedes European domination of the Americas.

{59} The movements of the main characters throughout the novel display this backward and asynchronous impetus. Heyward’s party sets out in the company of Magua on the road to Fort William Henry, a road which is, in the words of Hawkeye, “cut to a good two rods, and is as grand a path ... as any that runs into London” (42). The road, then, is clearly modern, something worthy of London, and not like the trackless wilderness in which the party soon find themselves guided by Magua. In the company of Magua, the travelers move steadily further away from modern civilization and deeper into the primeval forests, going so deep that they inexplicably lose the tracks and become completely lost. When they chance upon Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas, they stand at an uneasy point between epochs of historical dominance, between red and white supremacy, with Hawkeye the rough transitional figure.

After the duplicity of Magua becomes clear and Hawkeye takes over as the group’s pathfinder, the travelers arrive at one of the more important landscapes in the novel, the area around Glenn’s Falls. The description of this landscape consists of three parts, or four, if we consider extratextual matters: the narrator’s description of the scene, Hawkeye’s interpretation of its features, the author’s explanatory and framing footnote, and the novel’s compositional context. The first description resounds with images familiar to the Hudson River painters, and contains “cragged rocks,” a precipice, rushing water, “ragged treetops,” and a “shadowed obscurity” that lends a sublime air to the scene (58). Hawkeye’s interpretation of the scene is more geological and less synchronous as he explains how the river’s flow once carved out the sheltering caves before some unknown force altered the course. Cooper then frames the description with a footnote explaining that, although the place described is real, “the application of the water to the uses of civilized life has materially injured its beauties” (64). The overall effect of the landscape and its frame is identical to the framing devices employed by Cole in his landscapes. Just as Cole provides a wall of some sort to restrict the penetration of the viewer to the gaze, Cooper’s footnote restricts his readers’ appreciation of Glenn’s Falls to reading about the scene. Even if we were to travel to the emphatically real space, we would not be able to see the same landscape because a wall of time has separated us from it, leaving us with the task of an imaginative reconstruction of the scene.

Cooper himself had to engage in this very sort of imaginative reconstruction. As Susan Cooper points out in Pages and Pictures, her father traveled to Glenn’s Falls with a group of friends in the summer of 1825 (actually 1824), and he was especially struck by the romance of the caves which provided the shelter for the novel’s protagonists. “The actual natural features of the spot,” Susan writes, “were combined in imagination with those which had been partially defaced by man: the ancient forests were again restored, the first rude and unfinished steps of early civilization disappeared, and the waters fell once more, as they had fallen for thousands of forgotten years” (146). The daughter’s elegiac tone echoes the even more bitter recriminations of her father. James Cooper points out in the framing footnote that, “in a new country, the woods and other objects, which in an old country would be maintained at great cost, are got rid of, simply with the view of ‘improving’ as it is called” (64). The historical paradox is clear: progress, which is the only way a nation can appreciate the natural beauties of the landscape, is also the driving force of that landscape’s destruction. In order to reclaim the landscape, Cooper points out, we must move backwards, to a time before it was lost.

Cooper’s imaginative attempt to reclaim the past landscape also refutes Albert Boime’s claims for the landscapes in the novels. Boime claims that Cooper “accepts wholeheartedly” the progress that irrevocably changes the American landscape, and he bases this claim on the proudly possessive gaze Judge Temple levels on the growing village in The Pioneers (41-42). It is, however, a mistake to transfer Judge Temple’s opinions to the author, and, as Alan Taylor points out in William Cooper’s Town, the novelist was probably more critical of some of his father’s enterprises than many critics have believed (135). Richard Jones, one of the more ridiculous characters in The Pioneers, after all, stands as the representative of unimpeded progress, and he is hardly the type of character Cooper would have wished to emulate.

The retreating into past history gains momentum after the massacre at Fort William Henry, another event that firmly establishes the novel’s 1757 context. The two soldiers, the scout, and the two Indians plunge deeper into the wilderness and further away from any landmark or sign that could represent the everyday reality of the middle eighteenth century. Instead, the five men move into progressively more mythological territory, as the progressively more impressive tracking skills of Uncas lead them closer to the final confrontation of the novel. New York’s northern frontier provides the fertile ground for such American myth-making, and the mountains become more rugged and less identifiable, more the realm of the Indians’ lives before the advent of the white settlers. The resolution of the novel with such a paradoxical and troubled view of history can only take place in a setting removed from synchronous history and placed in an earlier time.

The final landscape illustrates in three parts the asynchronous history that Cooper was struggling to construct, with the fractured Delaware tribe briefly reunited in the circle around Tamenund. This landscape, which, as we have seen, inspired a number of Thomas Cole paintings, is not, as Mark Patterson suggests, a space where no history exists but a space where history is no longer linear. Magua, in his treacherously eloquent speech, presents the mythological {60} realm that the novel has traversed with a long recapitulation of the Native American origin myths, and the backward journey from 1757 to the beginnings of a sort of history is completed. Cora essentially paints the second part of the landscape when she begins her plea to the mercy of the venerable Tamenund. The ancient chief, over a century old, becomes lost in time as he recollects when he was a “laughing boy” and then a time later when he was a young chief who had only recently “laid aside the bow for the lightning of the palefaces” (361). His memory is no longer chronological, and he forcefully makes this point when Uncas appears in his true guise as the descendant of the Sagamores. When the young chief stands revealed, Tamenund wonders, “Have the winters gone backward! Will summer come again to the children of the Lenape!” (364).

The last lines of the novel combine with the title to show ultimately how the historical process is not bound by linear chronology. Chingachgook notes early in the novel that his son is the last of the Mohicans, and this line is echoed in the final words by Tamenund. Uncas is, in a strictly chronological rendering of the novel’s history, the last of his tribe, but the tragedy of the ending erases the last generation, making the penultimate generation the last. This effectively moves Indians a full generation backward in American history. Furthermore, by transferring Chingachgook’s words to the much older Tamenund, the ultimate authority of identifying the last generation is also moved back to a much earlier representative of the race.

Asher Durand’s painting, “Last of the Mohicans,” now graces the cover of the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, perfectly illustrating the novel’s longing backward gaze. In the painting, a small Indian figure stands in the lower foreground with his back to the viewer. To the left, Durand provides the ubiquitous Hudson River sublime elements: huge boulders, split and covered with lichens, tumbled and chaotic. The boulders are surmounted by large trees that overhang the figure and provide the beginnings of a visual frame or coulisse. The Indian is standing on the shore of a lake that curves and flows with bays and coves formed by mountains before fading in the distance. A soft haze and the perspective of immense distance blurs and softens the far background while clouds float overhead and the sun sets. The figure appears to be staring toward the setting sun. As much as the novel, this image exemplifies the elegiac feel of the Indians mourning as the sun sets on their dominion of the country.

If James Cooper’s novel exhibits a largely backward motion in its chronology, then his daughter’s Rural Hours, by the nature of its overall structure, adheres to a more linear direction. Because her book is arranged as a journal with daily entries, and is further organized around the seasonal changes, Susan Cooper’s approach is more heavily invested in the present moment and, by extension, the immediate future. In addition to the journal-like structure of Rural Hours that demands a present tense, Cooper’s landscapes are also in the present tense with little of the framing or walling-off that her father’s landscapes contain. James Cooper’s landscapes are elegiac and lament a semi-mythical past while Susan’s focus on their present qualities and future potential.

In an entry dated Saturday, June 2, Cooper presents a landscape that in its brevity is more of a sketch than a finished painting with all of the details brushed in place. “Cloudy morning,” she writes, “followed by a charming afternoon. Long walk. Took a by- road which led us over the hills to a wild spot, where, in a distance of two or three miles, there is only one inhabited house, and that stands on a border of a gloomy swamp, from which the wood has been cut away, while two or three deserted log- cabins along the road only make things look more desolate. We enjoyed the walk all the more, however, for its wild, rude character, so different from our every-day rambles” (60). Although it is sparse in its descriptive language — “wild,” “gloomy,” and “desolate” are the most descriptive terms — this passage creates a landscape of mood as much as of vision. The mood, in spite of the gloominess and desolation, is resoundingly upbeat as Cooper is able to manipulate the recent past, the historical context of her landscape, to aesthetic and picturesque effect. The presence of the old cabins, rather than signaling despair over their deserted aspect, adds to the interest, and therefore the enjoyment of the scene.

Two more landscapes appear in Rural Hours that are important to this discussion, and they form a pair, or sort of diptych in which each illuminates the other. The first of the pair comes in an entry dated Monday, July 23, and is perhaps one of the better- known passages in the book. Dispensing with her usual comments on the weather, Cooper begins, “Just at the point where the village street becomes a road and turns to climb the hill-side, there stands a group of pines, a remnant of the old forest” (116). She goes on to describe the last stand of old-growth trees, using much the same rhetorical technique and reverse chronology as her father. The trees, she explains, were recently a wilderness. She speculates about the number of generations of Indians passed beneath the trees and how many countless animals sheltered in their shade and lived and died in the spot. The trees stand as living history, having felt the same breezes that blew the ships of Columbus and Cabot to the Americas, and, as living repositories of history, the trees are immensely important. However, Cooper adds a warning note: the “rudest boor” can chop one of these impressive trees down in minutes. Rather than look at the history of the landscape and mourn the passing of something grand, Susan Cooper makes her landscape explicitly didactic, hoping to teach the owner of the trees their real value.

{61} In an entry on the following Saturday, Cooper returns to the “gift” of the forest. She begins by providing a description of the woods’ darkness, painting in words a scene reminiscent of Asher Durand’s “In the Woods” with lush green trees towering over dead decaying trunks and messy undergrowth. The lush landscape provides a background for more historical musings and then gives way to a long catalog of the various types of trees found in the New York forests and their relative merits and virtues. As with the previous landscape, Cooper turns to the didactic at the end by bringing in an economic argument. The forests are crucial, Cooper points out to the economy of the area, but they also have a value beyond “their market value in dollars and cents” (133). She sounds a gloomy note: “Unhappily our people generally do not yet see things in this light.” But she quickly recovers and looks into the future, saying “time is a very essential element” and will eventually allow us to see the value of the land. Like the previous landscape, this one serves a larger moral and didactic purpose, and didactic images are necessarily forward looking in that they hope to effect change in the future.

Susan Cooper’s landscapes, like those of her father, are situated in a clear historical context: they rely on a knowledge and understanding of history to realize their potential power. The forest landscapes have a greater impact on their viewers when the forest becomes a repository of historical information. James Cooper’s landscapes similarly rely on the sense of history, but this history serves to remove the viewer from the scene by blocking access. In this manner, the father’s landscapes are elegies that lament a lost historical past and long for a semi- mythological epoch. The daughter’s landscapes, on the other hand, use the past to project forward to a promise of the future when the past and present are reconciled in a moral understanding.

Works Cited

  • Bailey, Brigitte, “The Protected Witness: Cole, Cooper, and the Tourist’s View of the Italian Landscape,” American Iconology. Ed. David C. Miller. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, pp. 92- 111.
  • Boime, Albert, The Magisterial Gaze. Manifest Destiny and American Landscape Painting c. 1830-1865. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1991.
  • Cole, Thomas, “Essay on American Scenery,” American Art 1700- 1960: Sources and Documents, ed. John W. McCoubrey, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1965.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Last of the Mohicans [1826]. New York: Signet, 1980.
  • ------. The Pioneers [1823]. New York: Signet, 1980.
  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore, Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper. New York: W. A. Townsend, 1861.
  • ------. Rural Hours [1850]. Eds. Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
  • Patterson, Mark R., Authority, Autonomy. and Representation in American Literature, 1776-1865. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • Taylor, Alan, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic [1995]. New York: Vintage, 1996.