Ramshackle Residences and Severed Arms: Architectural Foibles and Family Values in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers

Signe O. Wegener (University of Georgia)

Presented at the 15ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2005.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2005 Cooper Seminar (No. 15), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 103-106).

Copyright © 2007, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

“Your home is a reflection of you.”

— Radio commercial for Taylor Construction, Atlanta, 2005

Judging from the many advertisements, magazines, television shows and books devoted to architecture and design, the above slogan seems more than apt. However, our homes show not only who we are but who we want to be. Architects and design gurus sell more than fashion, they sell lifestyles. Our nineteenth-century ancestors, especially those living during the “heyday” of what Barbara Welter has called “The Cult of True Womanhood,” or, as I prefer, “The Cult of Domesticity,” 1820-1860, would have felt right at home with such ideas. Not only did they believe that character decided a person’s physical environment, they also subscribed to the tenet that these surroundings influenced character formation.

Thus, residences indicated not only a family’s economic condition, but its moral standing: they became social and moral gauges and furnishings and accessories presented a family’s aspirations to wealth, education, and moral worth. According to John Demos’s text Past, Present, and Personal: The Family and Life Course in American Literature (1986), the highly sentimentalized “home” became the embodiment of family values, a place for religious instruction, and a repository for “the ways and values of an older America” (31). Our ancestors also insisted on the wife’s central role in maintaining the family home, providing this comfortable, moral, and reputable domestic sanctuary regardless of the family’s finances. John Abbot’s The Mother at Home (1832), Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife (1829), Henry Humphrey’s Domestic Education (1840), and Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The American Woman’s Home (1869) attest to this trend, as do the myriad articles and advertisements appearing in nineteenth-century ladies magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book. 1 For, as Harvey Green observes in The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America (1983), women “were the organizing force and marshals of this domain. ... they were charged with transforming the rude brick, stone, and wood of the exterior and the blank walls and empty rooms of the interior into places which would both communicate a family’s status and provide it with repose and moral uplift” (93). But, as Colleen McDannell has observed in The Christian Home in Victorian America 1840-1900 (1986), the father was indispensable as well, not only as provider but as the family’s moral and religious ruler. Shawn Johansen’s 2001 work, Family Men: Middle-Class Fatherhood in Early Industrializing America, using representative letters, also present a positive view of nineteenth-century fathers.

This preoccupation with the home as financial and moral gauge persists also in fiction, especially in works written by women. But male writers also presented the home as a financial and moral gauge: Washington Irving’s story of Rip van Winkle is a case in point. The van Winkle home, with its tumble-down fence and poorly appointed interior, reflects the fiscal and moral irresponsibility of the family breadwinner. Of course, Rip is a good and helpful neighbor; however, he fails miserably in his role as provider. And eight decades before Thorstein Veblen’s seminal work The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), a satiric discussion of conspicuous consumption and waste and a “telling attack on the foibles of the rich” (Heilbroner 205), James Fenimore Cooper, in The Pioneers, critiques American manners and American family life, in part through his description of Judge Temple’s home and its excesses. In this comedy of American manners, Cooper’s concrete, hilarious descriptions of Judge Marmaduke Temple’s dwelling — both description and house not only border on, but overstep the boundaries between the ostentatious and the ludicrous — ought to alert the reader to the building’s symbolic significance. If one sees the building — I deliberately use this word here: there is little “home-like” about it — as a financial and moral reflection of the Temple family, the details provided indicate the lack and dysfunction underlying the trappings of wealth. With their specificity, Cooper’s words force the reader to reach beneath the surface and consider what Judge Temple’s mansion — architectural warts and all — tell about its owner’s character and his relationship to his closest relatives, his daughter and his officious, bumbling cousin Richard Jones. The physical details emphasize, for instance, the judge’s most obvious character deficiency. He may be the ruler of Templeton; however, he lacks control in his domestic arrangements.

The ramshackle building not only showcases Cousin Richard’s and Hiram Doolittle’s lack of construction skills, thereby offering a measure of comic relief, it cleverly sets the stage for the novel’s implied criticism of family dynamics and the failed attempts at living up to a domestic ideal. Nineteenth-century readers might have felt inclined to conclude, once they stopped laughing at Cooper’s burlesque description, that the Temple family is similarly incapacitated: like the building, it sports significant “structural flaws” (60). 2 The hastily and ineptly augmented house is even resting on a shaky foundation, as is the family due to the lack of the wife and mother. Lofty family ideals remain unsupported, a superstructure suspended in air. Male workmanship, the text implies, needs female aesthetic control just as the family needs the mother’s moral guidance. The Judge attempts to hold the whole together, but fails.

I have to admit, that when I started my investigations into the correlation between design and family interactions, I saw Cooper’s version of family life solely in terms of the relationship between Judge Temple and his daughter Elizabeth. This is, of course, what Cooper sets up in the initial exposition. At the novel’s opening, the attractive young woman returns to manage her widowed father’s household after having finished her education in the city. Her descent toward Templeton seems cloaked in an almost gothic mantle: the approach is a journey from the light and beauty of the mountaintop into a valley of gloom. Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where the weary traveler arrives at dusk, traversing a depressing landscape, comes to mind. The sleigh carries the young woman “through an avenue of young and leafless poplars” until “nothing stood before her but the cold, dreary stone-walls of the building” (65). To Elizabeth, “all the loveliness of the mountain view had vanished like the fancies of a dream” (63). This, her proud father announces, is her “resting place for life” (63) — a rather ominous statement.

The sense of paternal indulgence and lack of expertise instead of guidance characterize his treatment of his daughter. On the surface, this proprietor of a great estate is the embodiment of success: dressed in rich furs, he is a man of “large stature” with a “fine, manly face; and expressive large blue eyes that promised extraordinary intellect, covert humor, and great benevolence” (18). He seems solicitous enough: Elizabeth has obviously received all kinds of material consideration, witnessed by the many trunks and bandboxes that comprise her luggage — an example of his substituting money for guidance and personal contact. As any good parent ought to, he has seen to his daughter’s education, and, presumably, the development of her character. However, his consideration seems motivated by selfishness: her only function within the family is to be a substitute of her deceased mother. The good judge seems singularly oblivious to his daughter’s emotional well-being. As the two are entering the “mansion-house,” they are both lost in thoughts about wife and mother; however, no verbal exchange expresses their sorrow, they mourn separately. This behavioral pattern repeats itself throughout the opening chapters. There is formality and distance between the two, a mirroring of the British system where in upper-class families the raising of children was left to nurses and governesses and the children spent very little time with their parents. The grown woman is to be accorded respect from the household employees, and the father seems to emphasize this when he commands that Elizabeth from now on, as the mistress of the household, will be addressed as “Miss Temple” (an appellation, judging from the housekeeper Remarkable Pettibone’s reaction, completely alien to the citizens of Templeton).

If the judge seems distant from his daughter, he has, however, accepted the role of indulgent parent vis-á-vis his closest male relative. When Elizabeth faces her father’s house, the narrator shifts the focus from her, the actual child, to Richard, the “quasi-child.” That is, the narrator spends almost a page dwelling on the numerous architectural inadequacies stemming from his bumbling, cementing the information he has already conveyed in his earlier several pages long discussion of Templeton. Richard and his cohort Hiram Doolittle (perhaps an allusion to Washington Irving’s Yankee hotel proprietor in “Rip van Winkle”) have been “improving” on the building’s plain entrance with disquieting results. Seeking to give it a more classical appearance, in keeping with the judge’s prominent social position and popular building styles, they have erected “four little columns of wood” on the porch, “which the frost had already begun to move from their symmetrical position.” The whole construction is “superficial” and ramshackle: as the steps lower due to the frost, “the platform necessarily fell also, and the foundations actually left the superstructure suspended in the air, leaving an open space of a foot between the base of the pillars and the stones on which they had originally been placed.” To remedy the problem, the builder has resorted to disastrous jury-rigging, anchoring “the canopy of this classic entrance so firmly to the side of the house that, when the base deserted the superstructure ... and the pillars, for the want of a foundation, were no longer of service to support the roof, the roof was able to uphold the pillars.” However, “the steps continued to yield, and ... a few rough wedges were driven under the pillars to keep them steady, and to prevent their weight from separating them from the pediment which they ought to have supported” (60).

If this house mirrors the material and moral qualities of Judge Temple and his family, then the ludicrous, incongruous portico reflects unfavorably not only on Richard Jones but on Judge Temple himself. The latter is, after all, the head of the household, the man holding the purse strings and he must ultimately bear the burden of the failures. Therefore, the architectural flaws embody the judge’s impotence in family management. Not even the employment of a housekeeper can remedy this lack: Remarkable Pettibone is like the “rough wedges” holding the establishment together; however, she cannot give it a proper foundation. Furthermore, the Judge has abdicated the responsibility for the construction of the building to his cousin, an officious, over-confident, yet bumbling character one suspects has been employed merely because he is a close relative (Richard and Judge Marmaduke are, we learn, sisters’ sons). Despite Richard’s over-inflated ego — he even claims medical expertise — he has little to recommend himself. The judge’s indulgence vis-á-vis his relative has led to the incongruity and architectural failure of his residence — his only demands were that the house be “of stone; large, square, and far from uncomfortable” (43). Embellishments were “peaceably assigned to Richard and his associate” (43). Ironically, the faulty construction of the porch and the roof provides the first impression of the Temple mansion, and the first impression of the judge’s shortcomings as a parent.

The vivid descriptions of the exterior and interior of the building enhance the ambiguous tone of the novel’s representations of paternal control. Increasingly, Marmaduke, who suffers the “deformity in his dwelling with great good nature,” comes across as lacking in moral judgment and strength of his convictions. He is either exceedingly naïve or exceedingly indulgent — both clearly negative characteristics in a man. Significantly, in domestic issues he backs away from any kind of confrontation, instead working, one feels, almost on the sly, to counteract Richard’s foibles and inadequacies — actions that undermine his own decisions. His unwillingness to be firm appears to be a consistent character flaw. In the episodes with Oliver Edwards after the hunting accident, and Natty Bumppo after the latter’s illegal hunting, he quite literally throws money at the problems. His personal improvements to his home show a similar state of mind: everything displays the same kind of financial patchwork. However, this practice cannot eradicate the underlying problems. Even when he “contrived, by his own improvements, to give an air of respectability and comfort to his place of residence; still there was much of incongruity, even immediately about the mansion-house” (45). His indulgent character cannot quite make up for the shortcomings of himself and others.

The building’s interior appears equally suggestive. Once inside the large, almost dark hall, Elizabeth confronts a similarly inept construction; again, no female hand has tempered the “decorator’s” excesses. Cooper cheerfully burlesques these over the following pages, producing a cataloguing worthy of an auction house, all items attesting to what Veblen would call “consumption as a means of reputability” (Ch. 4). Elizabeth views the hall’s centrally placed “enormous stove,” its “substantial furniture ... brought from the city’” or “manufactured by the mechanics of Templeton” and the imposing mahogany sideboard, “inlaid with ivory, and bearing enormous handles of glittering brass, and groaning under the piles of silver plate.” There are “prodigious tables,” a “brass-faced clock ... from the seashore,” and “an enormous ... settee ... covered with light chintz ... along the walls for nearly twenty feet on one side of the hall” (63). The room has a “Fahrenheit’s thermometer ... with a barometer annexed,” “glass chandeliers,” “busts in blacked plaster of Paris,” supposedly of Homer, Shakespeare, Franklin, George Washington, “Julius Cæsar or Dr. Faustus” and an urn, “intended to represent itself as holding the ashes of Dido” (63-64). In keeping with Victorian principles of interior design, the room’s appointments signal wealth and education alike, down to the requisite piano (68). In all its incongruity, the room still proclaims that there is wealth and even elegance on the frontier. However, the room’s appointments attest more to Richard’s lack of moderation and aesthetic sense than to the judge’s wealth and supposed education.

The feature that best illustrates the Temple family is the historic, “lead-coloured” English wallpaper, showing “Britannia weeping over the tomb of Wolfe,” a most “un-American” wallpaper. On it, “[t]he hero himself stood at a little distance from the mourning goddess, and at the edge of the paper. Each width contained the figure, with the slight exception of one arm of the General, which ran over on to the next piece.” However, Richard has bungled the execution, “and Britannia had reason to lament, in addition to the loss of her favourite’s life, numberless cruel amputations of his right arm” (64). The amputated arm serves as a poignant reminder of the family situation: the Temples are equally amputated, “husband and child” are mourning “the figure of [their] lamented mistress” (65). Note that the text states “mistress,” not “wife and mother,” despite the use of the words “husband and child”; the family connection has been severed by her death and her influence usurped by men incapable of creating a home.

The dinner table evokes the same sense of “paternal” indulgence. Again, the emphasis is on glorious excess and wealth: the Judge keeps no mean table. Physically, the “spacious” dining room displays “the same diversity of taste, and imperfection of execution ... as existed in the hall.” For instance, the chairs have “cushions of moreen, taken from the same piece as the petticoat of Remarkable,” the housekeeper. A huge, gilt-framed mirror, reflects table displays that, with its table-linen of “the most beautiful damask, and the plates of real china” are “not only comfortable, but even elegant” (106-7, my emphasis). Of course, the descriptions demonstrate the exact opposite.

The dishes covering the table indicate excessive and ostentatious consumption and waste, attempting to express the judge’s wealth, reputation, and solidity, yet somehow accomplishing the opposite The handful of diners feast on not only one, but two turkeys — one roasted, one boiled — plus squirrel fricassee, fried and boiled fish, venison, bear, and “a boiled leg of delicious mutton.” In addition come “every species of vegetables that the season and country afforded” and an array of sweets, among them a “motley-looking pie, composed of triangular slices of apple, mince, pumpkin, cranberry, and custard, so arranged as to form an entire whole” as well as “brandy, rum, fin, and wine, with sundry pitchers of cider, beer, and one hissing vessel of “flip,” were put wherever an opening would admit of their introduction” (107-8). And, the narrator comments drawing his description to a close, “The object seemed to be profusion, and it was obtained entirely at the expense of order and elegance” (108), again neatly critiquing the lack of domestic control.

The ending to Elizabeth’s homecoming reveals the judge’s lack of paternal concern. The reader finds the young woman alone in an incongruously decorated house, a testimony to family dysfunction, on Christmas — a family holiday. After the Christmas Eve service that follows the meal, the men, having constructed a quasi-family of friends enjoy the convivial atmosphere of “The Bold Dragoon,” while Elizabeth, sole female of her class, is left to her own devices. She has been installed as the mistress of her house, has had her alimentary and religious sensibilities catered to, and should therefore be content to amuse herself on her own. The exposition of the judge’s character has come full circle: he is first and foremost “a man’s man,” more interested in celebrating with his friends and his “son” Richard than accepting his role as Elizabeth’s father. Again, the Temple “home” is a hollow display case. What familial substance once inhabited this building has gone elsewhere.

Works Cited

  • Beecher, Catherine E. and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman’s Home. Ed. and Introduction by Nicole Tonkovich. 2ⁿᵈ paperback edition. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
  • Child, Lydia Maria, The American Frugal Housewife. Carter and Hendee, 1832. Sandwich, MA: Chapman Billies Inc., 2004.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale [1823]. Albany: SUNY Press, 1980.
  • Demos, John, Past, Present, and Personal: The Family and Life Course in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Green, Harvey, The Light of the Home. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.
  • Heilbroner, Robert, The Worldly Philosophers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953.
  • Tonkovich, Nicole, “Introduction.” Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The American Woman’s Home. 2ⁿᵈ paperback edition. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
  • Veblen, Thorstein Bunde, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Online at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/veblen/ veblenhp.htm.
  • Welter, Barbara, “The Cult of True Womanhood 1820-1860.” T he American Family in Social-Historical Perspective. 2ⁿᵈ ed. Ed. by Michael Gordon. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. 313-333.


1 Child’s text, complete with moral and practical advice (warnings against “bad children” (2), recipes, etc.,) claims to be “dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy”; however, it is unabashedly rooted in a middle-class value system. It promotes “gathering up all the fragments; so that nothing be lost ... fragments of time, as well as materials“ and advocates that “every member should be employed either in earning or saving money” (1). More importantly, the author claims that “Neatness, tastefulness, and good sense may be shown in the management of a small household ... these qualities are always praised, and always treated with respect and attention” (5). The American Woman’s Home gives, as Nicole Tonkovich points out in her introduction to the 2004 edition, “encyclopedic advice” on virtually everything from “indoor plumbing ... to child rearing, from cookstoves and religion to picture frames and geriatric care” (xi).

2 All parenthetical quotes from the primary text, The Pioneers, are from the 1980 SUNY Press edition, ed. James Franklin Beard, with the text established by Lance Schachterle and Kenneth M. Andersen, Jr.