Cooper’s Career in the First Person

Hugh Egan (Ithaca College)

Presented at the 13ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2001.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2001 Cooper Seminar (No. 13), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 41-45).

Copyright © 2001, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

{41} James Fenimore Cooper’s literary output from 1843 to 1846 was distinguished by an enormous productivity and, above all, by the author’s use of first-person fictional form. Cooper of course wrote in first-person throughout his career in a variety of genres — in his letters, in his early work Notions of the Americans (1828), in his angry “Letter to his Countrymen” (1834), in his travel books, and in his essays (in which he often adopted a first-person plural form), and even in previous experimental novels, including The Monikins (1835) and Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief (1843). However, he had never put the form to personal use — that is, constructed fictional first-person narrators who were versions of himself — until the publication of his double novel, Afloat and Ashore and Miles Wallingford (1844), and the Littlepage trilogy that followed — Satanstoe (1845), The Chainbearer (1845), and The Redskins (1846). Prompting the whole movement was Cooper’s more obscure work, Ned Myers; or, A Life Before the Mast (1843), a composite autobiography in which Cooper claims to have taken down directly the words of his ex-shipmate Ned Myers, who visited Cooper in Cooperstown for five months in 1843. In my view, these five works, the as-told-to autobiography and subsequent four novels, constitute something of a coherent unit in Cooper’s career — with the initial non-fiction work prompting a two-volume novel, and that novel prompting another three volumes of fiction.

Specifically, I believe the work Ned Myers opened up formal possibilities that Cooper wished to pursue in his fiction, including the investigation of alternative and counter identities, leading eventually to the rhetorically baroque performance in The Redskins. Central to my argument is Cooper’s increasing self-consciousness about authorial voice — including a heightened sensitivity to the narrator as writer, to the use of narrative personae as versions or inversions of self, to the process of editorial framing (both inside and outside the fiction), to the textual representation of belief, and to the stability or instability of language itself. By transcribing Ned Myers’ life story, Cooper was able to write in the voice and mind of someone distinctly different from himself. But as his subsequent narrators begin increasingly to resemble James Fenimore Cooper, the shaping distinctions between author and narrator are less obvious, producing a discourse that is inward, self-examining, and even experimental. In the end, this movement produces The Redskins, a novel in which commentary overwhelms the plot, and given the extremity and outlandishness of the discourse, in which it is difficult to decide just who “speaks for” Cooper. I will concentrate largely on the first and last works of this period; these will, ideally, provide a frame for the narrative trajectory that intervenes.

Ned Myers had sailed with Cooper aboard the merchant vessel Stirling in 1806, when Cooper was seventeen and Myers was twelve. After this voyage their lives took sharply different directions, with Cooper ascending to a position in the Navy and eventually becoming a nationally renowned author, and Ned remaining in the perpetual “dog’s berth” of the common sailor. Thus, the circumstances contain a pleasing symmetry in that Cooper is brought face-to-face with an alternate life that shared a common point of departure with his own.

Very little is known about the actual composition of Ned Myers, apart from Myers’s and Cooper’s own statements that Cooper acted merely as editor and transcriber. “I wish it understood, that this is literally my story, logged by my old shipmate,” says Myers at the end of his tale. ¹ Cooper says in the Preface that “the editor” he has transcribed “the very language of his subject,” and in a letter to his publisher he explains why Ned Myers is shorter than his customary two-volume effort: “I was writing truth, and did not feel justified in the spinning out facts, and as to any comments of my own they would have impaired the identity of the whole affair. I was forced to stop, when Ned had no more to say.” ²

Indeed, Ned Myers is unique in the Cooper canon for its oral quality, for its haphazard, directionless narrative, its amoral accounts of the opium and slave trade, and for its relentless accumulation of incident. Ned mentions having served on 72 vessels, and the second half of the autobiography, especially, becomes an itinerant summary of ships and ports. Before we get carried away with its vernacular qualities, however, we should look at the opening page:

In consenting to lay before the world the experience of a common seaman, and, I may add, of one who has been such a sinner as the calling is only too apt to produce, I trust that no feeling of vanity has had an undue influence. I love the seas; and it is a pleasure to me to converse about them, and of the scenes I have witnessed, and of the hardships I have undergone on their bosom, in various parts of the world. Meeting with an old shipmate who is disposed to put into proper form the facts which I can give him, and believing that my narrative may be useful to some of those who follow the same pursuit as that in which I have been so long engaged, I see no evil in the course I am now taking, while I humbly trust it may be the means of effecting some little good.

{42} This is not exactly Huck Finn explaining how Mr. Twain helped him write a book” — if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it.” In fact, this opening passage sounds suspiciously like Cooper, as do others in the autobiography. Cooper opens this editorial door when he says in his preface:

In a few instances he [the editor, Cooper] has interposed his own greater knowledge of the world, between Ned’s more limited experience and the narrative; but, this has been done cautiously, and only in cases in which there can be little doubt that the narrator has been deceived by appearances, or misled by ignorance.

Complicating the question of authorship is the existence of a handwritten outline in Cooper’s papers at Yale, which presents major events of Ned’s story in compressed, almost shorthand form. ³ The outline is not in Cooper’s hand, nor is it in Ned’s, and this raises the possibility that a third party took dictation from Myers and that Cooper re-created Myers’ life from these notes. Regardless of these logistics, the book does contain passages found nowhere else in Cooper, some reminiscent more of twentieth century fiction than nineteenth. In his account of the aftermath of a battle in the War of 1812, after his vessel the Scourge has fired on a New York town, Myers recounts walking among the dead enemy soldiers:

As went through the wood, open pine trees, we came across an officer lying dead, with one leg over his horse, which was dead also. I went up to the body, turned it over and examined it for a canteen, but found none. We made a few idle remarks, and proceeded. (Ch. 5)

The flat, passionless tone of this gives credence to the assessment made by Thomas Philbrick about Ned Myers: “if Cooper modified Ned’s discourse, Ned in turn had apparently modified his; in none of Cooper’s previous writings is there the clarity of syntax, the precision of diction, and the racy concreteness of metaphor. ... ” For purposes of symmetry if nothing else, we are reluctant to give up the image of the genteel author sitting across the writing desk from the broken-down sailor — in a “contact zone” of exchange in which control over the discourse is genuinely shared. Even as the established author/editor re-shapes or comments on the language of his subject, so too he recognizes its vernacular authority and thus the ultimately submissive role the editor must play. The image is charged all the more if one thinks of Myers’ tale as a version of what Cooper’s own story might have become had he remained a sailor all his life.

There is little doubt that the Ned Myers experience prompted Cooper to conceive of his next novel, Afloat and Ashore, as a first-person novel, one whose narrator, Miles Wallingford, was much more a fictionalized version of himself. Cooper wrote his publisher that the new novel would contain the adventures of a sailor, ” something in Ned’s way,” and again Thomas Philbrick has written convincingly about the autobiographical quality of Afloat and Ashore. Afloat and Ashore allowed Cooper “to imagine how it would have been if, instead of entering the Navy as a midshipman after his first voyage, he had, as his character Miles Wallingford was do to, remained in the merchant service and risen to the eventual command and ownership of a vessel.” From this initial conception, one might plot the course of the four novels that follow Ned Myers in terms of the increasing gentrification of the narrator figure. Miles Wallingford inherits an estate but runs away to sea, lives an active sailor’s life, loses and then regains his fortune, and only at the end of the novel does he become one of the landed gentry. While Miles’ life is repeatedly threatened, in the Littlepage novels that follow, Cornelius, Mordaunt, and Hugh Littlepage are, apart from distinct episodes in their lives, aspiring gentlemen whose pursuits include marriage and legacy rather than adventure and commercial success.

Despite the increasing resemblance of author and narrator in the Littlepage novels, it remains important to Cooper to convince his readers that the narrators are not simply stand-ins for the author. In his role as “editor,” Cooper makes this point by providing footnotes to the novels, often verifying or updating the narrator’s commentary. In the Preface to The Chainbearer, Cooper speaks directly to the issue of whether the narrators speak for the author: responding to Corny Littlepage’s prejudice against New Englanders, Cooper writes:

In the first place, we do not pretend to be answerable for all the opinions of those whose writings are submitted to our supervision, any more than we should be answerable for all the contradictory characters, impulses, and opinions that might be exhibited in a representation of fictitious characters, purely of our own creation.

Having been labeled “Mr. Effingham” in newspaper reviews of his Home novels a few years earlier, and having initiated litigation based upon those reviews, Cooper was sensitive on this issue — and obsessed with it to a certain degree. In the years following the Effingham controversy, Cooper had embroiled himself in other controversies which turned on issues of authorship and intentionality. These included the Somers mutiny trial, in which the accused, Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, presented a florid written defense of his actions. Cooper dissected this with the precision of a literary critic, and paid particularly close attention to a document that Mackenzie put forward as a direct transcription of Philip Spencer’s last words. In another dispute involving Mackenzie, this over the proper interpretation of the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812, a great deal turns on how one responds to Captain Oliver Hazard Perry’s “after action” report {43} of the battle, and in particular whether he was being straightforward or ambiguous in his description of the behavior of his second-in-command, Jesse D. Elliott.

So at this point in his career Cooper was certainly charged with an awareness of how texts are assigned multiple motives, and he thus thought it important to maintain a rhetorical distance from his first-person narrators. Unfortunately, the presence of “the editor” in the Littlepage novels is so intrusive it undermines this very intention: if anything, the footnotes — often condescending remarks in which Cooper qualifies the tone of a narrative comment but verifies the substance — give the impression of throat-clearing, or precious self-correction. At its best, however, Cooper’s use of the first-person with his gentleman-narrators occupies its own “contact zone” in which Cooper’s presence is evident, but not intrusive, and in which personal and historical consciousness are in balance. This passage from Satanstoe, in which Corny Littlepage describes his ambivalent reaction to the British soldiers, has almost Jamesian echoes:

These young men, I knew, had enjoyed the advantages of being educated at home, some of them quite likely in the Universities, and all of them amid the high civilization and taste of England. I say all of them, too hastily, as there were young men of the Colonies among them, who probably had not enjoyed these advantages. The easy air, self-possession, and quiet, what shall I call it? — insolence would be too strong a word, and a term that I, the son and grandson of old King’s officers would not like to apply, and yet it comes nearest to what I mean as applicable to the covert manner of these young men — but, whatever it was, the peculiar air of metropolitan superiority over provincial ignorance and provincial dependence, which certainly distinguished all the younger men of this class, had an effect on me, I find it difficult to describe. ¹⁰

Here the hesitations and qualifications speak for a mind caught in the act of remembering, so that we feel the presence both of young Corny Littlepage in the 1750s, who is perhaps a little intimidated and envious of the soldiers; and the older Corny who is recalling events from a post-Revolutionary perspective in the 1780s. There is a layered quality and richness that convinces one that Cooper’s narrator has an imaginative life with its own preoccupations, its own integrity.

It should be said, too, that despite the refinement of his narrators, Cooper does not abandon the vernacular figure, but rather interiorizes the Cooper/Ned Myers relationship into the fictions themselves. In Afloat and Ashore, the relationship between Miles Wallingford and Moses Marble mimics Cooper and Myers, in that Marble is a colorful sea dog, a life-long sailor who moves from one berth to another, and who (much like Myers) yields to a religious impulse in the end. The role of vernacular figure — the man of regional dialect and ultimate good heart — is filled in different ways by Guert Ten Eyck in Satanstoe and the character of Chainbearer himself in The Chainbearer. Each is distinctly associated with a certain historical epoch in American history, and each serves as a kind of measuring-stick of the narrator’s own moral courage.

Significantly, there is no such figure in The Redskins, and in this novel both the historical and rhetorical distance between author and narrator have all but collapsed. Threats from piracy, the French, the British, and the Indians that dominated his previous novels are replaced in The Redskins by the threat from the anti-rent mob of local land tenants. Action is replaced by talk, much of it presenting and rebutting arguments associated with the anti-rent controversy. The book has been roundly dismissed as a failure for its ranting and polemics, on the assumption, of course, that the narrator, Hugh Roger Littlepage, Corny Littlepage’s great grandson, speaks directly for Cooper. Given the evolution of his first-person career, however, I think this assumption is problematic. In fact, The Redskins has an over-the-top quality, both in terms of its plot and its rhetoric, that appears to push the gentrified narrator to a new place. It seems very much as if Cooper is staging outlandish and even cartoonish versions of his own beliefs as a means of examining his own argumentative authority. Reading The Redskins, in fact, makes one appreciate Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s conception that the “refracting discourse” of a first-person narrator is “double-voiced and internally dialogized.” ¹¹ Bakhtin usefully unhinges internal narrative from direct authorial control, given the porous and polyglot nature of social discourse. In Ned Myers, Cooper quite literally transcribed “another’s speech in another’s language” ¹² (to use Bakhtin’s formulation) and it’s worthwhile to reinvoke that model as we look at what has been called Cooper’s most transparent and polemical novel.

The Redskins opens with another scene worthy of Henry James: two dandified, male American bachelors, both named Hugh Roger Littlepage, are pleasantly adrift abroad, wandering here and there to finish the younger Hugh’s education — and decrying the economic condition of their investments in America. The narrator is the younger Hugh, whose uncle, called “Uncle Ro,” is the sort of perfumed expatriate not found elsewhere in Cooper, a nearly precise inversion of a character like Chainbearer. From his “male boudoir” Uncle Ro denounces the anti-rent movement in terms that even the narrator feels the need to correct. In the course of the novel, in turn, “the editor” intrudes occasionally and comments on the narrator’s heated language. This constant play of jostling discourse, heightened when they come back to the States disguised as German musicians and must speak in vaudevillian German accents, undermines Hugh’s oft-stated desire to be direct and straightforward:

{44} And here I wish to say one thing plainly, before I write another line. As for falling into the narrow, self-adulatory, provincial feeling of the American who has never left his mother’s apron-string, and which causes him to swallow, open-mouthed, all the nonsense that is uttered to the world in the columns of newspapers, or in the pages of your yearling travellers, who go on “excursions” before they are half instructed in the social usages and the distinctive features of their own country, I hope I shall be just as far removed from such a weakness, in any passing remark that may flow from my pen, as from the crime of confounding principles and denying facts in a way to do discredit to the land of my birth and that of my ancestors. ... He who reads what I write, therefore, must expect to find what I think of matters and things, and not exactly what he may happen to think on the same subjects. (Ch. 1) ¹³

It is this very kind of rant that Cooper is condemned for in the novel, although if this were a passage in Henry James it might be seen as a masterful and comic piece of self-indictment. After saying he wishes to say one thing plainly, he engages in a syntactically complicated statement which turns out not to be very plain at all. It leads us to the question: at what point do we free this novel from we assume is Cooper’s direct intention, and respond to it as it appears to us sentence by sentence? Read in a different way, The Redskins becomes, at least at times, a record of narrative pathology and self-absorption. There is a willed perversity in this novel that convinces me that Cooper was not merely attempting to convey his case on the anti-rent controversy, but was enacting deliberately outlandish postures of his position — such as when he compares the plight of landlords to the position of the colonists in the Revolution — in the jury-box of his own imagination.

There is, in other words, a self examining quality to The Redskins that is intriguing. It is almost as if Cooper were testing the strength of his case by presenting it in a discourse that is meant to deliberately undermine it. In certain passages, for example, the intellectual shape of the argument appears pointedly at odds with its emotional content:

I do not say that there is not a vast difference between the means of acquiring intelligence, the cultivation, the manners, the social conditions, and, in some senses, the social obligations of an affluent landlord and a really hard-working, honest, well-intentioned husbandman, his tenant — differences that should dispose the liberal and cultivated gentleman to bear in mind the advantages he has perhaps inherited, and not acquired by his own means, in such a way as to render him, in a certain degree, the repository of the interests of those who hold under him; but, while I admit all this, and say that the community which does not possess such a class of men is to be pitied, as it loses one of the most certain means of liberalizing and enlarging its notions, and of improving its civilization, I am far from thinking that the men of this class are to have their real superiority of position, with its consequences, thrown in their faces only when they are expected to give, while they are grudgingly denied it on all other occasions! (Ch.7)

Hugh’s polemic throughout the novel, and subverting it, is an attentiveness to counter-arguments and opposing positions. An intellectual delicacy regularly alternates with an emotional aggression, creating an oddly patterned rhetorical mix in The Redskins.

Many commentators have noted that, after Cooper’s return from abroad in 1833, he changed from being a defender to a critic of American culture. It may well be that he ceased to think of himself as an “omniscient” spokesman for American institutions, prompting his turn to the first-person limited point of view. Whatever the reason, Cooper found it a productive mode of self-examination and literary ventriloquism. And while I think it is inappropriate to see Cooper’s narrators in terms of a modern conception of “unreliability,” I think it is entirely appropriate to think that Cooper imaginatively inhabited authorial voices distinctly different from himself. Even in the composition of The Redskins, if Cooper was not literally across a writing table from Hugh Roger Littlepage, he was certainly engaged in the act of “taking down another’s speech in another’s language.”


1. Ned Myers; or, A Life Before the Mast [1843], ed. James Fenimore Cooper, notes and introduction by William S. Dudley (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989), p. 278 (Ch. 19). Further quotations will be from this edition and will be cited in the text by chapter number.

2. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), v. 4, 440.

3. This outline is mentioned in John H. Clagett, “Cooper and the Sea: Naval History in the Writing of James Fenimore Cooper,” Diss. Yale University 1954. It is in the Cooper Collection, Yale University Library.

4. Thomas Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 129.

5. I borrow the “contact zone” formulation from Mary Louis Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York: Routledge, 1992), 1-11.

6. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, v. 4, 441.

7. Thomas Philbrick, “Fact and Fiction: Uses of Maritime History in Cooper’s Afloat and Ashore,” The American Neptune, 57:4 (Fall 1997), 317. [ See online text on our website.]

8. Cooper, The Chainbearer [1845] (New York: Co-operative Publication Society, n.d.), 6.

9. For accounts of Cooper’s participation in the Somers and Lake Erie affairs, see Hugh Egan, “Introduction,” Proceedings of the Court-Martial Trial of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie (Delmar, NY: Scholars Facsimiles & Reprints, 1992), and Egan, “Enabling and Disabling the Lake Erie Discussion: James Fenimore Cooper and Alexander Slidell Mackenzie Respond to the Perry/Elliott Controversy,” The American Neptune, 57:4, 343-350. [ See online text on our website.]

10. Cooper, Satanstoe [1845] (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1990), 79-80.

11. M.M. Bahktin, The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 324.

12. Ibid.

13. Cooper, The Redskins [1846] (New York: W.A. Townsend and Company, 1860), 23-24. Further quotations will be indicated by chapter numbers in the text.