James Fenimore Cooper, Agriculture, and The Crater

Steven P. Harthorn (University of Tennessee, Knoxville)

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. 57-61).

Copyright © 2001, 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 ends his preface to his revised 1851 Putnam edition of The Two Admirals with a playful invitation for readers to “detect the secret process of the mind, by which some of the foregoing facts [namely, his discussion of Nelson and the Battle of the Nile] have insinuated themselves into this fiction.” 1 These “insinuations” are, for me, one of the great pleasures of reading Cooper’s later writings. Though Cooper always drew heavily on his own experiences in creating his novels, some of his last works have quirkier borrowings, as well as a desultory ease about them that reveal the honesty and confidence of a sometimes cross, but generally cheerful old man. Thus, although it bodes poorly for my sophistication as a reader, I admit to being fascinated by Cooper’s description of “bee-hunting” in The Oak Openings, and intrigued by Cooper’s enthusiasm for the so-called “cold water” treatment communicated through his character Stimson in The Sea Lions. My wife has even adopted the adjective “Stimsonian” to describe the fact that I like my water and air much cooler than hers, and attach moral overtones to the debate. In short, I am entertained, as well as enlightened, by these little insinuations, most of which would seem to have little scholarly value in themselves. These are the sorts of things that are said to provide “interest” to a narrative. Given Cooper’s great appreciation for agriculture during his later years, it was probably inevitable that his interest would “insinuate” itself into at least one novel. Such is the case with his 1847 novel The Crater. Today I want to speak briefly about Cooper’s interest in agriculture and how it affected his worldview, his moral and spiritual ethics, particularly as they are revealed in The Crater.

The Crater is usually called a utopian narrative; perhaps it could also be considered science fiction. The novel presents a blend of science and fantasy — minute details and vast improbabilities. Like his other later works, Jack Tier, The Oak Openings, and The Sea Lions, Cooper is interested in the omnipotence of God on both cosmic and personal levels, so we can attribute the improbabilities of the book to Cooper’s conviction that God can do all things (a predecessor to today’s “magic realism,” perhaps). In The Crater, the hero, Mark Woolston, becomes marooned on a barren island, devoid of any kind of vegetation. Though all of his shipmates but one, Bob Betts, are carried away in the ship’s launch during the fierce storm, his ship, the Rancocus, has not been destroyed, but only trapped among the shoals. Faced with the prospect of a long stay on the reef, until they can fashion a sea-worthy boat, Mark and Betts take inventory of their resources aboard the Rancocus. As the Quaker owners wanted to “improve” the pagan Feejees they traded with, they had stocked the ship with an improbably vast variety of seeds, as well as agricultural implements and even the materials for a large boat (as it turns out, enough material for several boats). Thus, while Mark and Bob Betts make their plans to survive and eventually get off the island, Mark decides to try his hand with some agricultural experiments. The Reef proves to be of volcanic origin, not of coral, and through finding seaweed, guano, and a species of loam near the island, as well as some hog manure on the decks of the ship, Mark assembles a primitive but fertile soil. The hogs from the ship are turned loose to help turn over the volcanic crust with their rooting, and soon the ground is ready for seed. Later, Mark adds dead fish and hogs as additional fertilizers for the soil. Having nothing to lose, Mark tries a vast variety of seed in the ground, and it is not long before he notices the beginnings of a return on his efforts.

Eventually, the Neshamony, Mark and Bob’s boat, is finished, but while giving it a trial run, Bob Betts is carried away from the island through a sudden gale. Mark, now left alone, begins to fully appreciate the precariousness of his position, and his reliance not only on his own wits, but also on Providence. His spiritual motivation becomes even greater after a debilitating illness lays him low for several weeks. Still, Mark’s desperate situation is tempered by the consolations and enjoyments he possesses. His work pleases him, as does his leisure, which consists of studying the stars, bird-watching, and exploring his territories. He enjoys the company of beasts, having chickens, ducks, and hogs available for food, but showing a special esteem for Kitty the goat, whom Mark keeps around out of respect for the Providence that saved him. Perhaps Mark’s greatest joy, though, comes through the vast abundance of crops that carpet the island. An incomplete list of them includes peas, beans, onions, “ochre” (okra), eggplant, asparagus, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, watermelons, and muskmelons (it is easy to get hungry while reading this book). Having planted some citrus seeds, too, young trees begin to shoot up at a rapid rate. Mark is also pleased to find that the timothy grass and clover he scattered has taken hold at numerous spots over the island, giving his goat Kitty plenty to eat, improving the soil, and greatly softening the harsh landscape of rock. After a volcanic disturbance raises portions of the reef formerly underwater, Mark’s territory is more than doubled, giving him vast new areas to explore and name. Eventually, {58} Mark builds his own boat, sails to explore the nearby island he has dubbed “Vulcan’s Peak,” and is rescued by Bob Betts, who had made it back to Philadelphia. Betts had not come alone, and Mark is soon reunited with wife, family, and friends after more than a year’s absence. Soon a small colony is thriving, and the second half of the book deals with its rise, corruption, and sudden destruction in a manner that Cooper likens to Thomas Cole’s series of paintings, “The Course of Empire.” 2 But it is Mark’s involvement in the “primitive” state of things that concerns us here.

Susan Fenimore Cooper, in her introduction to the Houghton Mifflin “Household Edition” of The Crater, draws attention to the vividness of her father’s narrative in these first portions of his book by sharing anecdotes of his experiments in farming, his caring attention to domestic animals, and his joy in sharing his hobby with friends and family. Certainly these anecdotes indicate how Cooper’s interests “insinuated” themselves in his novel. Yet despite being a naturalist herself, Susan gives little suggestion of the significance of these passages, how they should be interpreted or appreciated, apart from being faithful pictures. She mainly claims that the “quiet matter-of-fact way” in which these details are told “gives them an air of truthful reality”; they “have a simple interest of their own.” 3

It seems to me that, consciously or not, Cooper intends the agricultural detail of the first half of The Crater to be more than just “interest.” When this book is called a “novel of ideas,” it is often in reference mainly to the second half of the book, where Cooper offers his social commentary. Yet in its own way, the first half of the book is equally deserving as a “novel of ideas.” Indeed, when Cooper first conceived of The Crater, he probably had no clear idea of what would come later in the book. Reporting to his British publisher Richard Bentley on March 27, 1847, Cooper writes,

I have a new book about half done, which I now offer to you. It will be called “Mark’s Reef, or the Crater; a Tale of the Pacific Ocean.” It is a Robinson Crusoe story, but with features entirely original. What the peculiar feature is I can not state, unless you purchase, though I think it safe enough in my hands. No one else can deal with it, as it should be, without the same mixture of peculiar knowledge. 4

Later, on May 28, after Bentley begged a summary, Cooper describes the work in more detail. Now calling it “The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak, A Tale of the Pacific,” he describes how the vessel gets “embayed” rather than shipwrecked, and how active soil and vegetation must be created from the elements of soil on the reef. As for the colony, Cooper says “Every thing comes round, in time, and a charming little colony is formed and flourishes.” 5 It would seem, then, that Cooper’s plans for the second half of the book were sketchy, the original idea for the book being his “Robinson Crusoe” story filled with his “peculiar knowledge” of agriculture, the sea, and whatever else. What I want to suggest is that, for much of the novel, especially as he originally “planned” it, 6 Cooper is proposing to illuminate his readers on certain scientific, physical, and spiritual aspects of agriculture. I believe that Cooper came to think these things intertwined, and I wish to discuss the personal ethic that Cooper derived from working with the land — an outlook or a way of life that becomes invested with physical and even spiritual qualities.

Cooper held an interest in farming well before he turned his pen to writing, and that interest, after a lull during residences in New York City and Europe, revived with new fervor after he settled at Otsego Hall in Cooperstown. In addition to acquiring the Hall, the long-neglected home of his late father, Cooper secured for himself a hillside tract overlooking Lake Otsego from the east. He called it “The Chalet,” and proceeded to have it cleared and cultivated to his liking. Susan Fenimore Cooper credits him with introducing crops such as okra and Brussels sprouts to his area (much to the delight of cruel parents and the dismay of children, most likely), but among the plentiful variety grown there, his favorites seem to have been asparagus and especially muskmelons (or cantaloupe). 7 No doubt Cooper’s agricultural interest was a hobby, one that never made him any money, but it is hard to quantify the immense satisfaction he seems to have gotten from his pastime.

As with many of his other pursuits, Cooper threw himself into his farming with enthusiasm. His letters to Mrs. Cooper frequently report on the state of melons or peaches in Philadelphia, and give instructions for Paul to exercise his horse, Pumpkin. With Richard Bentley, he makes transatlantic comparisons on the state of the potato crops, reports on collections of grain for starving people in Ireland, and boasts that he can grow hops far superior to that in England for a fraction of the price. 8 His journal entries also note his farming activities. Visiting his farm became an almost daily activity for Cooper; usually he would leave in the morning around eleven, after his writing was done. His daughter claims that the animals became especially partial to him, because of his familiarity and gentleness. 9

It is tempting to view Cooper’s interest in farming as a retreat from the cares of his world. In the decade or so since he came back from Europe, Cooper endured a woeful decline in the book market and bitter battles with the press. The attention some critics (including Beard) give to the unprofitability of Cooper’s farm further gives the impression that Cooper intended an alternative livelihood through farming, yet was unable to pull it off. At best, these theories of retreat suggest a partial explanation why Cooper may have gone back to farming, but they do little to explain the {59} continued pleasure Cooper gained from his hobby. In fact, it seems that Cooper used his agricultural interest as a means of interaction. He usually insisted on bringing a companion to the Chalet on his daily visits — if not his wife, then a daughter, or perhaps a young person from the village. Moreover, his daughter Susan tells how he would bring baskets of produce to townspeople, after he had presented his first fruits as a gift to his wife. 10 Granted, this may be a partisan view, but it suggests that farming, for Cooper, was not necessarily an antisocial escape.

The extent to which Cooper devoted himself to his agrarian pursuits can be seen in a letter of January 6, 1846, to Luther Tucker, editor of The Cultivator, an agricultural periodical. This monthly magazine, founded by the New-York State Agricultural Society in 1834 with the aim to “Improve the Soil and the Mind,” originally sought its audience among farmers, mechanics, and especially young men seeking useful knowledge to help further their aspirations, much in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin. 11 In 1840 it merged with The Genessee Farmer and came under the editorial supervision of Willis Gaylord and Luther Tucker. It advertised itself as “A monthly journal, devoted to agriculture, horticulture, floriculture, and to domestic and rural economy, illustrated with engravings of farm houses and farm buildings; improved breeds of cattle, horses, sheep, swine and poultry, farm implements, domestic utensils, &c.” 12 In its own way, it is part Better Homes and Gardens, with its illustrations of English-style farm cottages quite likely beyond the means, but not the aspirations, of the average farmer. Still, it was not just for the gentleman farmer. The content of The Cultivator consisted of articles and hints from its editors, but also devoted a great deal of space to letters from correspondents. Around the time Cooper submitted his letter, ongoing discussions about the recent potato blight occupied a good deal of space in the magazine, with contributors suggesting their theories and suggestions for avoiding the disease. Such is the nature of Cooper’s contribution: “Facts being the very foundation of science,” he begins, “it has struck me that the following might assist some inquirer into the causes of the ‘potatoe-cholera.’” 13 Cooper goes on to describe how in 1843 and 1844 he discovered potato rot among a batch of potatoes he had grown from seed imported from Lancashire, England. Despite excellent storage conditions and soil almost identical to that in which he planted pink-eye, trout, and orange potatoes, the English breed was found to “molder away,” presumably from disease. Cooper is careful to note the conditions under which the potatoes were planted, grown, and stored. He also seems to take satisfaction in noting that these decayed potatoes could be fed to hogs “with perfect impunity,” having no apparent loss in nutritional value.

Cooper’s letter is singular amid the vast collection of his later correspondence, being the only letter penned to an agricultural publication, strictly about an agricultural matter. Still, there is little in Cooper’s letter to distinguish it from the other contributions to The Cultivator. To me, that is significant. Cooper wants to identify with the group associated with this publication. In his letter, we see Cooper taking his role in a community of mixed classes, and displaying a decidedly scientific interest in agriculture. Cooper uses controls, notes conditions, and attempts experiments methodically. His History of the Navy, when it was reviewed fairly, was noted for its objectivity and thorough methodology, and that same mindset comes into play here. Cooper’s appreciation for agriculture goes beyond just “liking plants,” even though his agricultural knowledge may not be sophisticated. The strange thing about Cooper’s letter is that he never really does get at the cause of the disease. As Susan humorously notes, her father was “no botanist,” having once lavished meticulous attention on what turned out to be a weed. 14 Whatever the case, things turned out well, since Cooper reports to Bentley in August 1847 that his Lancashire potatoes, which had been rotting for the past two years, were thriving. 15

As it turns out, Cooper probably used The Cultivator as reference material for the agricultural portions of his book. In the issues for 1846, around the time when Cooper submitted his letter, numerous exchanges on the uses of guano were taking place in the magazine. 16 One can also find contributions about the effects of salt upon soils and crops. Seeing as how little damage occurred to most crops, Cooper’s scheme of fertilizing the soil of the reef with seaweed and sea “loam” could be scientifically accurate.

Cooper also may have wanted to identify with The Cultivator because the views and values expressed in it were quite similar to his own. Material from The Cultivator shows Cooper to be very much a man of his times in terms of his moral approach to agriculture. Both Cooper and The Cultivator connect agriculture with self-improvement as well as Providence. The magazine’s motto, “To improve the soil and the mind,” points to more lofty aims than simple earth-tilling. Luther Tucker (most likely) writes in the January 1844 issue: “Believing as we do, that every man is responsible to the public for the manner in which he manages the property of which a kind Providence has made him the steward, we have been anxious that our farmers should understand their privileges and their true position, and act accordingly.” Another passage states: “The only honorable man is he who earns his own bread by honest industry in some useful pursuit. Industry is a blessing, not a curse.” 17

{60} These passages could easily serve as “mottoes” [Cooper’s term for “epigraphs”] to the first part of The Crater. There are a number of things worth noting about them. The first is the promotion of what we usually call a “work ethic.” The Cultivator, started under its Franklinian auspices, insists that a man must work for his bread (literal and figurative). The magazine does not specify which pursuits are “useful pursuits,” but farming is definitely one of them. What the state of authorship might be, especially authorship of fiction, is another matter. Cooper was a man of action, in many ways, and a look at his pursuits over his lifetime suggest that there were many times when he felt the want of a “useful” profession. Farming gave him a physical, tangible product from his own hands, and the evidence suggests that this fact gave him great satisfaction, the same kind of satisfaction Mark Woolston received from his crops in The Crater. Certainly Cooper did not place his novels as great physical productions; once out of his hands, they were largely forgotten (he did not even own copies of some of his works). When farming, Cooper was doing something — something with an obvious use. Of course, the objection naturally arises that Cooper did not do all of the work himself, having hired hands to conduct most of the manual labor. But the work was getting done because of him, and Cooper did attend to some matters himself: he was not above the idea of getting his hands dirty. More importantly, in contrast to the purely mental world Cooper occupied during his writing, Cooper when farming was mentally interacting with the physical world. Recent authors such as Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, like Wordsworth before them, have emphasized the necessity and value of this interaction. Merely doing the work unthinkingly causes one to be little better than a brute.

Both The Cultivator and The Crater reveal a belief that a work ethic ought to be properly informed by a sense of stewardship. Given gifts by Providence, one should use them. The biblical parable of the talents certainly comes to mind here, as it probably did for these men in the 19ᵗʰ Century. If God’s gifts are used wisely, there will be a reward — certainly in heaven, but perhaps on earth as well. When Mark brings his first crop of melons down to share with Bob Betts, he has “the gratification of tasting some of the bounties of Providence, which had been bestowed, as a reward of his own industry and forethought.” 18 There is definitely a “God helps those who help themselves” component here, an element of self-interest, even self-righteousness. Mark begins his planting out of largely self-interested motives: facing the eventual possibility of scurvy, since the ship supplies no fresh fruits or vegetables, he foresees the need to try his luck. Mark gets mental satisfaction and physical rewards for his efforts. It takes him some time to move beyond those interests. After finding materials for a boat, Mark nearly forgets his plants out of the excitement his thoughts of home generate. By contrast, when he finally does leave the island for the first time, he feels an attachment to his crops and lands, not just for their physical pleasantness or his pride in his hard work, but for the way in which they remind him of the blessings of Providence.

Mark is able to move beyond self-interest. His curiosity has led him to explore his lands, study the stars, and observe the habits of sea-birds. His curiosity becomes a way of seeking out the ways of Providence — God’s will. The first half of The Crater gives much attention to this kind of internal development; when colonists arrive, its focus on Mark’s internal growth virtually ceases. By the time he is “rescued,” though, Mark has come to understand his place in the universe. In the words of The Cultivator, Mark has learned to recognize his “privileges” and “true position, and act accordingly.” Both Cooper and The Cultivator emphasize agricultural pursuits as a way to gain this understanding, with both social and spiritual overtones. Knowing one’s place in the universe, as “mites among millions of other mites,” 19 a person will become more aware and more accepting of his place in society — thus the second half of The Crater.

There is much here that I have not talked about, but I hope I have sketched some main ideas about Cooper’s agricultural ethic as it informs The Crater and other of his later works. Cooper’s lasting legacy rests on many things, but among them is his ability to capture a sense of place, perhaps most famously in The Pioneers. More recently, writers such as Wendell Berry likewise have gotten many people thinking about the value of place and work. Obviously, Cooper does not think of these things nearly as self-consciously as Berry, and there are many differences in their approaches, but the similarities are there, too. Berry also gets us thinking about the relationship of symbols to their counterparts in reality. A thing is not important only as a symbol — the thing itself has value. Cooper’s thought grew more symbolic, even Platonic toward the end of his life, but The Crater is not just allegory or social commentary. When we look at Cooper’s agricultural interest in terms of “settlement” or “Jeffersonian agrarianism,” or even perhaps aesthetics we may end up leaping over Cooper’s more “mundane” interest in farming itself. Cooper makes me think of the joy I get from a ripe tomato or a handful of berries from my poor excuse for a backyard garden. I am glad some of that joy, as well as his more serious thoughts, have “insinuated” themselves into The Crater.


1 James Fenimore Cooper, The Two Admirals: A Tale [1842] (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), 9.

2 James Fenimore Cooper, The Crater [1847], Ed. Thomas Philbrick (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962), 456. Cooper mistakenly refers to Cole’s piece as “The March of Empire.”

3 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Introduction to the “Household Edition” of The Crater (New York & Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin, & Co., 1884) x. [See online at this website.]

4 James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968) V, 199.

5 Beard V, 215.

6 Susan Fenimore Cooper notes that her father never “prepared a sketch, or notes of any kind” in planning a novel, but “wrote, as it were, from the inspiration of the moment,” with a “vague outline” in his mind. S. F. Cooper xii-xiv.

7 S. F. Cooper xi-xii. See also the Letters and Journals and the text of The Crater for evidence of Cooper’s fondness for these crops.

8 Beard V, 199.

9 S. F. Cooper xiii.

10 S. F. Cooper xii.

11 The Cultivator 1 (March 1834): 1.

12 The Cultivator n.s. 1 (1844): title page for bound volume.

13 Beard V, 113-14.

14 S. F. Cooper xi-xii.

15 Beard V, 228.

16 See, for instance, in n.s. 3 (1846): 19, 37, 45, etc.

17 The Cultivator n.s. 1 (1844): 1.

18 J. F. Cooper, The Crater, 114.

19 J. F. Cooper, The Crater, 459.