James Fenimore Cooper — 200 Years of Admiration
Presented at the 14ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2003.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2003 Cooper Seminar (No. 14), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 41-44).
Copyright © 2005, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
The name of James Fenimore Cooper was first heard in Russia at the end of the 1840s, when his first major novel, The Spy, was translated into Russian. This novel and those that followed were published in so-called “fat magazines” or literary journals, such as Bibliotheque for Reading and some others. Needless to say the new writer (for Russia) was met with great enthusiasm in educated Russian society. For many people in Russia, America was in those days a terra incognita, and so descriptions of “prairies”, “redskins”, and “palefaces” were new for Russian readers. America’s wild nature, artistically described by Cooper, the romance of conquering new lands, the development of the American colonies, the relation between the colonists and their British homeland, the images and specific language of Indians and Blacks — all these attracted attention and created genuine interest in the minds of inquisitive readers.
Cooper has left a great literary legacy. Besides his familiar novels he created many non-fiction masterpieces; his sketches about his long stay in Europe, his works about European history, his utopian social novels such as The Crater, are all of great interest to the modern reader. Literary fame came to Cooper after the appearance of his books based on the American Revolution and on American history. The Spy was well received in Russia because, until 1861 in our country, legal slavery was still practiced: peasants worked for landlords who could sell them to anyone. Whole families, for instance, were given to other landlords in payment of debts at cards.
In such a society, where more than half the population depended on the will of their owners, ideas of liberation struggle were received with urgency. The situation culminated in December 1825, when the famous Senate Square rebellion in St. Petersburg took place. A handful of Russian aristocrats (the “Decembrists”), resentful over the humble situation and lack of civil rights of the Russian peasantry which alone had won the Patriotic War with Napoleon, felt they could not remain indifferent to the fate of the common people. These noble men sought to overthrow the Tsarist Government and introduce a Constitution to Russia. But we know from history that this first effort at a civilized struggle for liberty in Russia failed, and the five main Decembrists were executed.
But the spirit of struggle, sounding in unison with Cooper’s freedom-loving heroes, still lingered in Russian society. Of greatest interest to Russian readers were The Spy, and the five novels of the Leatherstocking saga which ended with The Deerslayer in 1841. These novels, and especially The Last of the Mohicans, made Cooper’s name well known in many countries.
The heroic image of a courageous and honest Indian — Uncas — noble and devoted to his vanishing traditions, became an example for imitation by many generations of young people. The very title of the novel became significant. Even today, when someone wishes to refer to a man who is devoted to a disappearing tradition, he may call him “the last of the Mohicans.”
The strict limits of a short paper do not permit me to analyze all of Cooper’s novels. His legacy is truly vast. But we can choose several main characteristics from works which brought him everlasting fame. Why were Cooper’s novels admired by his contemporaries, and what in his talent attracted attention to his creative work and made him a leader of American literature in the world of fiction. Most important was his series of novels about Leatherstocking: Natty Bumppo is a complete person, and as an emblem of the brave hunter, the American pioneer, and of a noble man, he is the connecting link of the whole cycle. But interest in the series cannot be explained only by Bumppo’s adventurous life and attractive image. No less significant are the other heroes of these novels, and what is most important, the reader’s strong interest in the historical background and the circumstances in which the stories take place.
In the Leatherstocking series, Cooper tells of some half a century in the colonization of America, from 1745 until 1805. This period was marked by the increasing invasion of the patriarchal settled life of the pioneers, by the new times as hunters and trappers created the epoch of settlement of capitalist America. And the story of Natty Bumppo is a chronicle of American colonization advancing farther to the west, inland from the eastern shore that had been conquered in the 17ᵗʰ century. It is a story of the conquest of new lands, the subjugation of the wilderness, and a narrative of the surrender of Nature itself to the axes of the woodsmen.
Cooper analyses in depth the stratification of American society of that time. He emphasizes how many towns (Albany and, in part, New York) and others in the East were founded by people of Dutch extraction. It is impossible not to admire Cooper’s remarkable gift for reproducing the specific speech and pronunciation of each of his characters, as he vividly depicts the customs, morals, and habits of a wide spectrum of American society of that time. He not only admires aristocrats like the Van Cortlandts or the Rensselaers, but is fond of the common people who make their living by hard work.
The most typical example of this is the image of the Chainbearer — Andries Coejemans — in the novel The Chainbearer, which forms the second part of the Littlepage trilogy. This man is not educated: he is a simple soldier and hard worker, he is a bit rough and without superficial polish, but he is imbued with genuine nobility, is reliable and loyal to his new nation. Cooper opposes his modest heroes to arrogant and pompous English aristocrats like Major Bulstrode, a character in the first novel of the trilogy — Satanstoe — who is primarily concerned with his career and a profitable marriage. Displaying deep knowledge, Cooper describes the natural features of the Hollanders, and gives details of their houses and churches, noting their predilections for tidiness and corpulence. He good-humoredly depicts Dutch pronunciation and turns of phrase.
As a translator I sometimes found it difficult to preserve the specifics of different speech patterns as presented by Cooper. But it was necessary to do so in language suitable for heroes, so that their speech would not sound grotesque. It should be mentioned here that Cooper has, as an artist, a remarkable sense of language, as he presents the speech of different characters in his novels. Thus we see the even, correct speech of “educated” people — Anneke, Corny Littlepage, and so on, in the novels Satanstoe and The Chainbearer mentioned above — the abrupt, “torn” phrases of his Indians; the illiterate, incorrect speech of Black slaves; the pompous but desperately distorted lexicon of the rogue Jason Newcome from Connecticut.
And at the same time we enjoy the high-spirited descriptions of nature. There are many such descriptions in his novels. One of the most magnificent is the sunrise on Lake George before the battle in Satanstoe. Before the reader appears a magnificent picture of English warships, led by Admiral Howe, gliding on the “placid bosom of the lake.” Such picturesque images of nature impress readers with their beauty and great feeling, and could be the subject of a separate article.
Another aspect of Cooper’s works which has inspired an everlasting interest is the relationship between the “redskins” and the “palefaces.” Perhaps for the first time since Voltaire and Chateaubriand, Cooper’s Indians were given a new dimension, were described with sympathy as living people, not as idealistic symbols. Cooper tells with exoticism of a dramatic and even tragic period of American history. He writes with great sympathy about his Indian heroes — Uncas or Susquesus — but at the same time he stresses how they are lonely. Uncas is the last of the Mohicans; Susquesus, the Onondago, has abandoned his tribe and lives by himself. The artist depicts the honesty of these men, their fidelity to their word and to their new friends. But at the same time, Cooper does not idealize them. In all his novels Cooper demonstrates that the notion called “the penetration of civilization” was in fact just the robbery, conquest, and devastation of native Americans, the original race of Indians. And the ruthless struggle between the English and French for Canada brought in the “redskins,” although their interests were not those of the war between the “civilized” warriors.
It is interesting to note here how Cooper describes the Delawares, Oneidas, and other tribes who fought on the English and American side. He depicts them as savages, but at the same time as just and reliable people. On the other hand, Cooper presents the Hurons as a cunning, dodgy, and very cruel people. Of course this can be explained by Cooper’s patriotism: the author was seeking to oppose French interests to those of the English, and that is why he sometimes steps aside from the truth. It is impossible to depict a whole nation with one color; in every nation there exists both good and not-so-good people with their own personalities — this is an axiom.
At the same time Cooper has not just shown impartially the insidiousness of European states. He has risen above national prejudices, since he was sincerely sorry for the dying out and degeneration of the entire Native American race, which had in former days been prosperous and strong. He was not so naïve as to suggest that there is another, “humane” way of colonization, which could be benevolent for Indians. But we must not forget that the writer lived and wrote in the 19ᵗʰ century, and that despite his shrewdness it was difficult for him to understand the objective tendencies of the historical process. We can find the same respectful attitude towards American Indians in a poem of the great American poet Henry Longfellow — The Song of Hiawatha, which was artistically rendered into Russian by Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin.
And so, why does Cooper attract our attention nowadays? Why is he interesting to modern Russian readers? Why are his books popular in Russia?
Ladomir Publishing House, which I represent, has been publishing works by James Fenimore Cooper for nearly thirteen years. We place emphasis on those of his novels which have never been translated before. This series is called “The Unknown Cooper,” and though the edition is not very large (about 2000-3000 copies, for various reasons), they have been received with pleasure and interest by our readers who are fond of this author. The series is being continued, and has proved profitable to Ladomir.
The features of Cooper that are attractive to modern Russian readers may be described in a few words. First of all, his plots are entertaining. The story itself, the distinctive structure of his novels, the development of topics, the intrigue and the romance of his chief characters, all create a permanent interest and hold readers in tension from the title page until the end. For historians and philosophers the great interest is in his “asides.” For instance, in describing some city or other subject, Cooper never fails to provide a detailed picture of it: architecture, interiors, etc. If he describes holidays, he tells about the traditions which gave rise to them. If he is concerned with religion, he also demonstrates an outstanding sense of observation, filled with common sense and good humor. This is especially vivid in the witty characterization of the Reverend Mr. Warden, a Minister from Satanstoe, who his shown as a rather pragmatic and calculating man at the same time that he pretends to be a true and moral servant of God. One admires Cooper’s observation and wit, as he exposes the real character of this hypocritical man as a true bigot and bon vivant.
Cooper’s plots are also very interesting, and even the epigraphs — which, according to an old tradition, he placed at the beginning of each chapter — demonstrate his broad mental outlook. I must here express my acknowledgement to Hugh C. McDougall, Secretary of the James Fenimore Cooper Society, who has supplied me with the list he has complied of Cooper’s “mottoes.” Without this valuable material, translators and editors would have had a tiresome, detailed task in trying to find unknown authors from whom Cooper had often quoted.
For my own part I might add that, working on the translation of Satanstoe, I came upon several archaisms and obsolete expressions. For example I could not find in any encyclopedia the meaning of the coin described as a “half joe.” Mr. MacDougall gave me an exhaustive answer to this question, and also provided valuable information about the Six Nations, and other questions. His comments are of great interest to us.
Thus, the adventurous plot, the incomparable descriptions of nature, the philosophical and historical background, the constant interest in the developing story, the entertaining narrative — all these create a steady interest in Cooper’s novels, and make them bestsellers despite the traditional Russian notion of Cooper as a classical writer of literature for youngsters. This is quite understandable, for a large number of his works have not yet been translated into Russian, and his non-fiction and some of his novels are not known to broad circles of Russian readers.
I must add that in Russia school teachers, because of a tight schedule, have little time to devote to foreign literature. Pupils have no more than two or three hours a week devoted to literature. Schoolchildren study many Russian authors, from the first to the eleventh grades, and all too little time is left for the study of foreign literature. That is why the most outstanding European and American authors are sometimes mentioned only casually. Of course, children get a notion of, and read some stories by Jack London, O. Henry, and Mark Twain. They are told about Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. This book was published in 1959 as part of a good series — The Library of Adventure — which since that time has become a basic part of children’s libraries. Unfortunately, overburdened by other subjects, the school program does not permit teachers to pay more attention to foreign classics.
The study of foreign literature in Universities and Institutes of the Humanities is a different story. Many hours are devoted to the study of literatures of different countries (10 to 30 hours per semester). Students study foreign literature thoroughly and consecutively, in chronological order, from antiquity through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and on to modern times. At the University of Foreign Languages students become acquainted with the original texts of different authors, giving would-be scholars the opportunity to study the styles of various authors and enjoy them in their original languages. In seminars and other lessons students analyze the texts of foreign authors, the language of their characters, and penetrate deeply into the historical realities of their periods. When I was a student at Moscow State University, I studied the classics of American literature already mentioned — Mark Twain, Jack London, O. Henry, Longfellow, Hemingway, Dreiser, Fitzgerald and Williams, and so on. Cooper was in that list as well, but — again due to the limits of time — we could not dwell thoroughly on each of his novels, but studied several of the most popular ones.
There is an Institute of Foreign Literature in Moscow (IMLI) — a specialized, non-academic organization. The whole staff — scientists, specialists in literature, philosophers, historians — conduct deep research into the creative works of different foreign writers. The Institute conducts scientific conferences, and specialists publish their scientific articles in a journal — Questions of Literature. I am planning to contact the Director of the IMLI and discuss ways of forming a Russian branch of the James Fenimore Cooper Society in Moscow. I think that the establishment of such a branch will help further popularize this famous American writer in Russia.
As I have already mentioned, Cooper’s best-known novels are those devoted to heroic liberation struggle and adventures. One of Ladomir’s priorities therefore is to translate and publish Cooper’s History of the Navy of the United States of America, with detailed commentary. In our opinion this fundamental work, which, á propos, exists in a single copy in the Moscow State Historical Library, will be of great interest to military historians studying the development of navies in various countries, to naval officers, and also to ordinary readers. We have not doubt that, translated and published by Ladomir, this book will certainly find Russian admirers.
It should also be mentioned that the works of James Fenimore Cooper’s daughter Susan are also practically unknown in Russia. We hope to publish — in addition to one of the “family” novels of her father (or perhaps his sketches about his stay in France) — her “Three Stories for Children.” I am sure that Russian children will read them with genuine interest.
Ladomir Publishing House does not just specialize in Cooper’s works. We publish more than twelve titles a year, books written by different Russian and foreign authors, modern and old. These include historical and philosophical works, fiction and non-fiction, etc. But the publishing of Cooper’s works has always been and remains one of our priorities. The genuine humanism of this classic America writer, especially his great divergence from the common views of his countrymen about people belonging to another race, shows how seriously Cooper considered the “Indian problem” in the United States. The ruthless rush to devastation of Native Americans, helped along by “fire water,” led to their being forced to live in reservations, to being perceived as exotics from another age. This is a complex problem which goes beyond the scope of this paper; perhaps one day it will be solved.
Many generations of writers for teenagers have tried to imitate, and even to rival, Cooper. I can mention here Gustav Aimard, Mayne Reid, Jules Verne and some others — their names are well known. Some were successful, others not. Honorable women writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Margaret Mitchell were sympathetic towards people of different races, and may be called ideological followers of Cooper. But despite the great success of his works in Europe, the critics have done much to blunt his sharp protests against the ruthless, conquering policy of American colonists. Not by accident did the word “Indian” become a synonym for a cruel and brutal savage. But admirers of Cooper’s works, and of Cooper as a humanist, feel sympathy for his unhappy but noble heroes. That is why his books have not lost their topicality since the 19 th century, and are still received with pleasure by readers in different countries of the world.
For nearly 150 years Cooper’s books have been an excellent example of noble sentiments, and clear intentions and aspirations; they help younger generations to form notions about duty and conscience, and honor and dignity. That is why the activities of foreign publishing houses popularizing the works of this great American writer deserve great respect.
From our vantage point Ladomir has an object — to destroy the old notion of Cooper as a writer for children, and as only a romantic writer, a defender of Indians. And so we put emphasis on also publishing his non-fiction. We hope that such a publishing policy will broaden the notions of modern Russian readers about Cooper’s literary legacy.
In conclusion, I would like to express my deep gratitude to the organizer of the Conference in Oneonta, Professor Richard Lee, who was so kind as to send me an invitation to the Conference in July 2002.
Unfortunately, unexpected visa problems prevented me from direct participation in the Conference, but I hope that I will be able to establish contact with literary specialists studying Cooper’s works, both in the United States and in other countries. Maybe I will be able to take part in the next Cooper Conference, all aspects of which would be of great interest to me. A token of this interest is my everlasting admiration of the creative work of this famous American classic writer, who has made a significant contribution to the treasure house of world literature.