The Mature Marriage in Cooper’s Fiction
Presented at the 16ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2007.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2007 Cooper Seminar (No. 16), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 80-86).
Copyright © 2009, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
“Reader, I married him (or her)” is the explicit or implied ending to many nineteenth-century novels. Cooper follows this convention, with only one novel, the late Wing-and-Wing (1842) concluding without at least one marriage among the young protagonists. ¹ What interests me in this essay, however, are the Cooper novels depicting at some length what happens after the wedding — the long-term marriages among mature partners, especially those in which the marriages provide models to offspring of the married couple. Such mature marriages in Cooper are comparatively rare, and vary from happy and largely productive (Wyandotté, The Prairie, The Heidenmauer, The Crater) to coldly formal and unhelpful to the children (Precaution) to destructive (Jack Tier). I have chosen Howells’ 1885 Rise of Silas Lapham as a mature example of depicting the mature marriage in nineteenth-century fiction, and compare in some detail Cooper’s strongest presentation of a successful marriage, that of Ishmael and Esther Bush, to Howells’ Silas and Persis Lapham.
How Cooper depicted mature married women helps us to understand a subset of Cooper’s female characters that have been overlooked even as critics in the last four decades have paid more attention generally to Cooper’s women. By actually reading his novels with care, such critics have dismissed James Russell Lowell’s famous slur that
And the women he draws from one model don’t vary,
All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.”
A Fable for Critics (1848)
Kay Seymour House began this re-examination in 1965 with her “Woman is Woman” chapter in Cooper’s Americans, where she distinguished between women characters who study to please men (“the douce heroine”) or refused such accommodation (“the virago”); most interesting were the few independent women that constituted a third group which “emerges only in tales about the frontier, wilderness, or sea” (18) such as Elizabeth Temple. These women have both the social context and personal self-confidence to transcend this simple dichotomy, and the plot is affected in important ways by actions they take. House notes Cooper rarely portrayed a mother with children, surmising his plots required daughters especially to become embroiled in the kinds of dangerous plots a wise mother would have avoided. Of competent married women, only Prudence Thousandacres (The Chainbearer) and Esther Bush are mentioned, but only briefly. ²
Nina Baym’s important 1971 article on the Leather Stocking Tales treats with great sophistication the young women in these five novels, emphasizing that (with the partial exception of Judith Hutter and entirely so for Ellen Wade), most of the heroines are artifacts of a patriarchal society designed for goods exchange in order to a perpetuate the existing class system. Only Esther Bush (curiously called “Hester,” an interesting slip on 708!) demonstrates Cooper’s capacity to portray an effective wife and mother. By sticking only to these five novels, she is able to say with some accuracy that “Cooper’s women have no power over the men” (698); as I shall show by looking at examples from outside the Leather-Stocking Tales, this generalization fails when a broader perspective is enlisted. ³
Leland Person’s article on Judith Hutter explores in more detail than Baym perhaps Cooper’s most interesting young woman, for modern readers. Most recently, John P. McWilliams goes beyond the canonical five to remind us that young women in the Revolutionary war novels often both speak and act vigorously to promote the American cause — Katherine Plowden (The Pilot), Frances Wharton (The Spy), Agnes Danforth and, to a lesser degree, Cecil Dynevor (Lionel Lincoln). The wrestling with their Loyalist friends and family these young women must engage in makes them anything but flat and sappy. ⁴
Signe O. Wegener, in her James Fenimore Cooper versus the Cult of Domesticity alone of modern critics treats with distinction Cooper’s handling of both pre-marital and marital love. As her title clearly states, she vigorously distinguishes Cooper from the flat and sappy sentimental tradition to which Lowell ignorantly assigned him, and her discussions of Prairie and Chainbearer should be consulted to complement my remarks. Her chapter on “Marriage and Motherhood” is especially helpful for its social and cultural contextualizations, with valuable comparisons to Hobomok, Hope Leslie, and The Wide, Wide World. ⁵
Precaution (1820) figures more married couples than any other Cooper novel but in the moral sense so important in this novel of manners, none of these marriages are mature (that is, until the hero and heroine are united at the very end). The husbands and wives of the Moseley, Jarvis and Chatterton families spend most of their time trying to engineer “good” matches for their children. But opportunism and lack of moral grounding make the Moseley, Jarvis and Chatterton marriages themselves deeply flawed; all three matches result from a marriage marketplace where money and superficial manners have trumped moral forethought. The failure within these families to exercise appropriate precaution in assessing the true character of their own mates dooms them to expose their often-thoughtless children to repeating their own mistakes.
Emily Moseley, the heroine, is an exception. Not only is Emily endowed with strong (and of course Christian) principles, she is fortunate to have as mentor a prudent and pious aunt, Mrs. Wilson, childless and widow of a general. (Here, Cooper, like Jane Austen, understands that only someone without great personal stakes in the marriage market is likely to be able to rise above it.) Early in the novel Emily is attracted to George Denbigh, but refuses his first proposal when she and her aunt (who have been carefully collecting favorable evidence of Denbigh’s virtue) wrongly believe he is fatally flawed. True rectitude triumphs in the end, of course, as identities and complex family lines are disentangled and George Denbigh is revealed as both an exemplar of proper and moral behavior as well as a fabulously wealthy nobleman. The Earl of Pendennyss, after serving heroically at Waterloo, returns to domestic tranquility with Emily, his new countess. In the last chapter we see them in a full domesticity enriched with his sister Marian, Mrs. Wilson, and Emily’s sister Jane (who as consolation prize for offering her affections to a man who jilts her for a fortune, moves in with her sister and perhaps in time will learn the role Mrs. Wilson played for the Moseley children.) We are left to assume that after surviving perhaps the most complex plot Cooper ever devised, the Earl and Countess of Pendennyss surely will be happy; but oddly no scene offers us direct evidence of their maturity. The picture of mature marriage presented in Precaution is a dark one, with parents foolishly trying to manage their children’s couplings but succeeding, for the most part, only in passing the vacuity of their own marriages on to their offspring. (Perhaps no other Cooper novel has as many characters and plot twists; first-time readers are advised to use the same tactic needed in Russian novels of keeping a detailed list of names, patronymics and alliances as a handy reference.)
Nothing in Cooper’s fictional world matches Jack Tier (1848) for pervasive nastiness and mean spirits. James Grossman convincingly argues that in Jack Tier, Cooper set out to invert the ebullient and free-spirited nautical romances of The Red Rover (1828) and The Water Witch (1830). ⁶ In all three books, women — either in their usual gendered roles or in disguise — interact closely with men running ships. Among the shocks Cooper eagerly inflicted on readers of Jack Tier is the discovery that “Jack Tier,” a dumpy unattractive sailor brought on board as steward for the women, is in reality Mary or Molly Swash, abandoned wife to the villainous Captain Spike. Spike had deserted her twenty years earlier to pursue a more attractive woman; Molly has worked her way back to New York, disguised as a male sailor, and gained passage on Spike’s current ship — ironically named the Molly Swash!
Molly remains faithful to her faithless husband, and on the voyage (in which Spike is trying to sell gunpowder to the Mexicans during the Mexican-American War) often acts to avert Spike’s worst deeds, including his lustful pursuit for the heroine Rose Budd. In the most horrific scene in the novel (and perhaps all Cooper), when Spike throws shipmates into the shark-infested waters to escape a US naval vessel trying to capture him, she herself is cast overboard. (She survives.) Nonetheless her unexplained fidelity to her husband remains true, and she forgives the dying man. No other wife in Cooper’s works endures so much perfidy yet remains faithful to her husband. Nothing in the novel suggests Spike ever had human qualities to arouse such affection, and Molly Squash-Spike’s fidelity thus becomes an astringent comment on how love can be sadly misplaced and marriage perverted, when the partners are so unequal in character.
In The Heidenmauer (1832) Cooper presents a mature marriage in a different way, setting off the happy marriage of middle-aged Burgomeister Heinrich and Ulricke Frey against Ulricke’s memories of past loves. The young Ulricke, daughter of a Burgomeister, had been pursued by two noblemen, Emich von Leiningen and Odo von Rittenstein. She rejected Emich out of respect for his noble father’s wishes that he marry in the noble class, and gently reminds him of her current married status when he adverts to his former love: “’We are no longer young, Emich,’ she answered, withdrawing her hand, under a keen impulse of its propriety — ‘and that which thou speakest belongs to a former age.’” (216) Odo she truly loved but as a faithful Catholic, she broke off their engagement when he committed an offense against the Church. (The novel is set in the turbulence of the German Reformation, with nobles, the clergy, and the middle class all vying for power.) When Odo makes it possible for Ulricke’s daughter Meta to marry her beloved Berchthold by willing his estate to the young forester, her love for him is poignantly reawakened.
Yet throughout the novel she remains faithful to Heinrich, himself initially a poor man her father recognized was likely to make his fortune within the bourgeoisie. Though she rarely speaks at length with him (unlike her long conversations with Emich and Odo), their marriage appears to be sound, in large part because she skillfully advises him in ways that do not threaten his masculine assumption of control. “Notwithstanding Heinrich’s obstinacy and masculine swaggering, many occasions had arrived, in the course of their matrimonial life, to produce a latent conviction in both, that the order of things was a little inverted, as respects judgment and moral authority, by inclining one to lean, though with but an indifferent grace, where he should have supported; and tempting the other, at times, to overstep her sex’s duties, though it was always done with an intuitive perception of her sex’s seemliness and means.” ⁷
Ulricke Frey is the most interesting protagonist in the novel, and indeed one of Cooper’s most able women characters. Unlike all the men in the novel (usually pictured as quarreling, plotting or fighting — when they are not drunk), she is caring and thoughtful. Indeed, the best that can be said of the men is that they usually take her advice, and cause only trouble when they fail to. She is content with her middle-class lot and happy to effect her daughter’s marriage (to whom she has passed on her traits of faith and obedience). But in Heidenmauer Cooper overlays and complicates Ulricke’s conventional good fortunes with her memories of youthful expectancy through the poignancy of her comment to Emich, “we are no longer young.”
Thomas Philbrick, in his 1982 edition of Wyandotté (1843), characterized the novel as “less expansive and melodramatic than Cooper’s earlier work and more familiar and subdued,” and explicates numerous sources and influences in Cooper’s own life and reading. ⁸ Interestingly, Philbrick does not speculate if Cooper’s own mature and happy marriage influenced his depiction of that of Hugh and Wilhelmina Willoughby. Cooper’s description of Mrs. Willoughby bears out Philbrick’s observation that in Wyandotté Cooper was following the lead of the then-popular Frederika Bremer whose novels focusing on domestic intimacy were “overshadowing even Dickens as a topic of literary comment in the magazines and newspapers.” (xx) “She [Wilhelmina] lived entirely out of herself, and altogether for her husband, children, and friends; a woman less selfish, or one more devoted to the affections, never existed.” (229) Her warm nurturing of her son Robert and daughter Beulah, and her adopted daughter Maud, enables them to grow into able and productive adults.
Cooper determines, however, that the plot will not reward her selflessness. Given her nature, her sinking into madness when Saucy Nick kills her husband (a melodramatic turn here indeed) is at least appropriate to her character. While she and her husband enjoy numerous conversations of affection and support throughout the novel, all are brief and none deal with issues beyond the fears natural to a woman whose family is threatened by frontier hostilities in 1776. Captain Willoughby never seeks her advice on the issues of greatest concern, since of course they are military — and he fails to heed her request to secure the gates to the Hutted Knoll in times of peace. In Wyandotté, the relationship between the married couple is displaced almost entirely by the more complex one between the moderate, well-meaning but disciplinarian Willoughby and the more complex, conflicted titular character, split between the nobility of the Indian chief (Wyandotté) and the degradation of the alcoholic fallen Indian Saucy Nick.
With respect to romantic marriage, The Crater (1847) is unusual in that the romance and marriage are conducted in the first 20 pages of a novel that runs almost 500 pages in the Darley edition. Young Mark Woolston (pronounced “Worcester”), born and raised near Cooper’s birthplace in Burlington, NJ, falls in love with the daughter of a physician who is a rival to his own father for local medical leadership. Bridget Yardley returns his preference, and they marry privately after the young Mark begins to establish his skill as a mariner. To reconcile their warring fathers, Mark agrees to another voyage before claiming Bridget as his sexual mate, and on this voyage, after a shipwreck, he and a companion find a paradisiacal island in the South Pacific. To the few modern readers of The Crater, probably the most agreeable parts are Mark’s “Robinson Crusoe’ing it” on the island, with and without his subservient friend Bob Betts. Cooper’s interests in geology and scientific farming inform the rich detail of how Mark transforms a barren reef into a fertile Eden, and a Providential earthquake rewards his efforts by greatly enlarging his domain.
Roughly half way through the book, Bridget and a group of her friends, seeking the lost Mark, arrive and the two enjoy the life of Adam and Eve in an oceanic Eden. Now united physically, Bridget — too often distanced for modern taste as the perfect “charming” wife — soon “presents” Mark with a daughter (254), then a son (365). ⁹ Their amorous life is described using cloying domestic clichés, Cooper even linking Mark’s love for Bridget to his love of gardening in a striking comparison: in their paradise “The radishes were half as large as Bridget’s wrists, and as tender as her heart.” (231) Bridget and Mark have only one serious conversation on the island, late in the novel, when Bridget warns Mark of trouble ahead by maintaining only one religion and priest — Episcopalian of course. (418-20) For the most part, Bridget’s role in this Eden is limited to producing children to enlarge the Colony. Cooper, however, has some difficulties in remembering exactly how many children — before the recorded birth of the second child, the son, (365) he refers to Mark wanting to embrace “Bridget and his children” (342). Later, an idyllic scene (416-418) names the two children after their parents, but when Mark determines to return to Philadelphia after being deposed by demagoguery from his role as “governor for life,” the reason given is to educate Bridget’s “two eldest children.” (479)
This confusion in domestic life can perhaps be explained by understanding that Cooper’s real theme in the book is yet another attack on social and political change in the 1840’s, especially the New York Constitution of 1846 and the anti-rent attacks on the patrician Hudson River estate owners. Punctuated by Indian and pirate raids the settlers drive off, the latter half of the novel concentrates on social growth and collapse à la Thomas Coles’s Course of Empire paintings. Cooper portrays Mark as the ideal governor; the lesson in this tendentious novel clearly is that the settlers are better off under his paternalistic hand than under the pretence of a “democracy” manipulated by the various devils who corrupt Eden (p. 464) by professing sectarian views of religion, law and politics to gain their own selfish ends. (In case the reader misses this point, Cooper as authorial dispenser of divine justice sinks the entire Colony at the very end of the novel.)
Yet, as often is the case in the late novels, Cooper’s “ideal” gentleman-proprietor is subtly undercut. Mark Woolston is too much the gentleman to contest his political opponents, and like the ineffectual later Effinghams and Littlepages, he withdraws from public life rather than fight for what he believes is right. (Note this difference between Cooper’s fictional gentlemen and James Fenimore Cooper.) And Cooper questions Mark’s morals early on by underlining the initial sacrilege of his first voyage, to obtain sandalwood for heathen worship in Asia (39 and again at 111); and stressing his disobedience of the commandment to obey his parents in marrying Bridget secretly. Worst of all, Mark is incapable of listening to anyone else — most especially to Bridget, who in their one serious conversation in the novel, about the need for religious diversity, makes a strong case Mark (but not Cooper) smugly dismisses. Indeed, this conversation is remarkable as the only one between mature adults treated as equals, much less married partners, in the whole novel, in terms of Bridget’s unprecedented vigor in making her case. Here but only briefly, Cooper’s capacity dramatically to embody different points of view, his Keatsian “negative capability,” interrupts his final lurch towards the Jeremiad. Had Mark listened here with care to his “charming wife,” he might have recognized the limitations of his zealous Episcopalian, Rev. Hornblower — a name clearly chosen to suggest the inability to see another’s point of view. But such a recognition late in the novel could have moved the plot in a direction Cooper, for polemical reasons, clearly was not prepared to go, and Mark and Bridget are left at the novel’s end with much of their wealth transferred to Philadelphia but brooding on the mysteries of a Providence that destroyed their Paradise.
Cooper’s remarkable capacity to imagine and enliven characters very dissimilar to himself is nowhere more evident than in The Prairie (1827), which I take as his most powerful depiction of a mature marriage. We can comfortably imagine that the domestic joys of James and Susan Cooper lie behind the portrayal of Hugh and Wilhelmina Willoughby, but socially and intellectually Esther and Ishmael Bush are as far removed from the Coopers as one could imagine.
Only in the last several decades have critics even countenanced the Bushes as admirable figures in the novel. John P. McWilliams summarizes earlier criticism as follows: “[Richard] Chase calls the Bush family “the real villains,” “mean-spirited materialists” who “have no trace of reverence for nature or man.” [Donald] Ringe calls Ishmael a “completely selfish” man “who has confused liberty with license, who takes the law in his own hands,” and Kay Seymour House goes so far as to state that Ishmael ‘embodies the great American nightmare of the early nineteenth century.’” ¹⁰ More recent critics respond more positively (without wholly dismissing the earlier negative interpretations) to Ishmael’s energy and untutored wisdom in dispensing justice in the “trial” scene, and indeed in maintaining order within a fractious family always chafing at his authority. ¹¹
Cooper invests neither Ishmael nor Esther Bush, early in the novel, with attributes likely to win the reader’s esteem. Ishmael’s lengthy introduction places him as an uncouth western “mountain man,” tricked out with “prodigal and ill-judged ornaments blended with his motley attire”; as a character, Cooper dismisses him as “low, receding and mean” with respect to the “nobler parts which are thought to affect the intellectual being.” ¹² Esther fares no better: she is described at the outset as a “sallow and wrinkled mother” (13) and later, when providing sustenance for her tribe and their visitors, as the “skillful, though repulsive spouse.” (21) Yet it is those very nouns, “mother” and “spouse,” that come to shape her larger and more favorable role as the novel advances and Cooper shifts to enrich his investiture of the Bushes.
Cooper’s altering intention with respect to the Bushes appears to begin with the lengthy authorial editorializing with which he opens Chapter VI, a long but guarded tribute to the Anglo-American race as embodying a “nation [which] may claim a descent more truly honorable than that of any other people whose history is to be credited,” though “far from being exempt from the penalties of his fallen race.” (65) Unlike the Leather Stocking, the Bushes are intentional pioneers looking in 1805 for land to settle in the northern portions of the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase. Like the Leather Stocking, they renounce the conformity of the settlements and its constricting laws. “’I [Ishmael] am as rightful an owner of the land I stand on, as any governor in the States! Can you tell me, stranger [the Leather Stocking], where the law or the reason, is to [be] found, which says that one man shall have a section, or a town, or perhaps a county, to his use, and another have to beg for ‘arth to make his grave in. This is not natur and I deny that it is law. That is, your legal law.’” (61) (Compare this with Natty Bumppo’s similar sentiments with respect to Judge Temple in The Pioneers.) In a remarkable imaginative leap, Cooper pays tribute to a life very different from his own: with their seven daughters and seven sons, Ishmael and Esther have enjoyed “a life shiftless and lawless” but which notwithstanding its uncertainty was not without its secret charms.” (119)
In the course of the novel, then, Cooper endows Ishmael and Esther Bush, characters from the very bottom of society, with a growing sense of worth and even grandeur, which makes the depiction of their marriage unusually complex. They quarrel — with Esther occasionally criticizing her husband for not attending to the immediate needs of their brood (e.g., 95). But when Ellen Wade, “with a vacancy in her air,” agrees with Esther’s earlier criticism of Ishmael, she retorts with a stout defense: “’I should like to see the man on the whole frontier, who sets a more honest example to his children than this same Ishmael Bush!’” (118)
Theirs is a marriage of equals. Esther knows herself and her family well enough to criticize Ishmael to his face when she thinks him wrong, as she does when she believes Ishmael’s criticism of their oldest (and rebellious) son Asa goes too far. “’Ah! you ar’ a hectorer with the boys, when need calls! I know it, well, Ishmael, and one of your sons, have you driven from you, by your temper’.’” (128) When the listless husband fails to search for the missing Asa, shot in the back (as we later learn) by her cowardly brother Abiram, it is she who exerts authority over him, showing the equality of their roles as leaders of their extended family. “’Follow me!’ echoed Esther, stepping undauntedly forward. ‘I am leader to day, and I will be followed — who so proper, let me know, as a mother to head a search for her own lost child!’” (132) Even Ishmael’s more than casual interest in taking on a beautiful young Indian concubine does not shake her faith in herself or her husband as she corrects her wavering man: “’Hoity-toity! who set an Indian up for a maker and breaker of the rights of wedded wives!. ... The Devil has often tempted you, my man, but never before has he set so cunning a snare as this. Go, back among your children, friend, go, and remember that you are not a prowling bear but a Christian man, and thank God, that you ar’ a lawful husband.’” (298)
But it is in their shared grief at the loss of their son in Chapter XIII (142) that Cooper makes most clear the enduring strength of their bonds, in the short scene following their burial of Asa:
... taking his wife by the arm he raised her to her feet as if she had been an infant, saying in a voice that was perfectly steady, though a nice observer would have discovered that it was kinder than usual —
“Eester, we have now done all that man and woman can do. We raised the boy, and made him such, as few others were like, on the frontiers of America; and, we have given him a grave. Let us go our way.”
The woman turned her eyes slowly from the fresh earth, and laying her hands on the shoulders of her husband, stood looking him, anxiously in the eyes.
“Ishmael! Ishmael!” she said, “you parted from the boy, in your wrath!”
“May the Lord pardon his sins, as freely as I have forgiven his worst misdeeds,” calmly returned the squatter; “woman, go you back to the rock, and read your bible, a chapter in that book always does you good. You can read, Eester; which is a privilege I never did enjoy.”
“Yes, yes,” muttered the woman yielding to his strength and suffering herself to be led, though with powerful reluctance, from the spot. “I can read; and how have I used the knowledge! But he, Ishmael, he has not the sin, of wasted l’arning to answer for. We have spared him that, at least, whether it be in mercy or in cruelty, I know not.” (142)
Cooper reinforces our sense of their shared life when they discuss what to do with the chilling discovery that the law they have lived by — the patriarchal order of the clan — has been shattered by Abiram’s acting on a similar but destructive primitive law, “an eye for an eye,” in killing Asa for having struck him. Esther pleads for mercy, but Ishmael — having enacted justice for all the others in the famous trial scene — rightly argues they cannot let Abiram go free when they intended to wreak fatal vengeance on the Leather Stocking, whom they had suspected of Asa’s murder. The passage (356-364) occupies almost the entire Chapter XXXII and is too long to quote (but well worth re-reading). It begins with Ishmael’s bidding his wife “to take a seat beside him on a fragment of rock,” after which he commences: “’We have journeyed together long, through good and bad” much have we had to try us, and some bitter cups have we been made to swallow, my woman, but nothing like this has ever before lain in my path.’” (356-357) Esther produces the fragment of a bible to which Ishmael had urged her to turn for comfort at Asa’s death, and she read to her illiterate husband “all those verses which her memory suggested and which were thought applicable to the situation [weighing mercy against judgment] in which they found themselves. He made her show him the words, which he regarded with a sort of strange reverence.” (358) Ishmael contrives Abiram’s death by stringing him to a lone willow on a ledge, from which Ishmael knows in a short time Abiram will slip to his death. Movingly, after that death, Ishmael defers to Esther’s insistence that Abiram be buried, and the two dig Abiram’s grave together. “After this came the falling clods and all the solemn sounds of filling a grave. Esther lingered on her knees, and Ishmael stood uncovered while the woman uttered a prayer. All was then finished.” (364) Thus, on the following morning, with the departure back to the settlements of Ishmael, Esther and their family, the chapter closes with a profound sense of both personal and family tragedy.
Cooper is at pains to assure the reader that his conventional heroes in The Prairie, Duncan Uncas Middleton and Paul Hover, go on to great things in the new Republic, and says of the Bush children only that “some of the numerous descendants of this peculiar pair, were reclaimed from their lawless and semi-barbarous lives.” (364) Given the fundamental strength and innate decency Cooper discloses in their parents, I venture to place the Bush children among the sturdiest of the “Anglo Americans” Cooper earlier celebrated. ¹³
I hope that those who accept my characterization of the Bush marriage in The Prairie do not consider my comparison of it to the marriage of the Laphams in The Rise of Silas Lapham as far-fetched; it is intended as a compliment to both works. For starters, the books have similar underlying plots: an unsophisticated man moves from his primitive upbringing to a new location to better himself, is challenged there by a severe moral challenge but judges rightly even if at the expense of anticipated future success, his wife guides and supports him through that challenge, and in the end, both men return from whence they came, disillusioned but inwardly ennobled. Yes, the Laphams’ Boston is different from the Bushes’ South Dakota, and the Prairie Indians who threaten the whites are not terribly similar to the Boston Brahmins who threaten the Laphams. (I leave it to others to develop potentially interesting parallels there, though!) In short, in both novels, forcefully aggressive males depend on wives more discerning of social and moral values to enlighten their path to correct action.
If I may judge from my own experience, much of the interest in The Rise of Silas Lapham today emerges from Howells’ detailed embodiment of a balanced marriage between mature people who well complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. In both books one can say husband and wife are also each other’s best friends. Like Esther Bush, Persis Lapham is the better educated partner, not only literate but a former school-teacher — a position that attracted Silas to her in his recognition of his own cultural limitations. Persis passes on her love of reading to her older but less attractive daughter, Penelope; the younger daughter Irene confesses she never can keep straight the works of Scott and Cooper. ¹⁴ Silas on occasion sounds like a latter-day Ishmael when plotting his aggressive strategies to make money and secure his own place in the (to him) threatening world of Boston society (943-944). Just as Esther fears Ishmael taking an interest in a younger women, Persis has her suspicions about Silas’s relationship to his beautiful but inefficient young typist (fear that prove unfounded when the narrative discloses she is the daughter of a Civil War friend who once saved Silas’s life at the expense of his own.)
But the greatest similarities between the two books emerge from the artful dialogue between both sets of husbands and wives, as the latter try to support their husbands through the crises they face without damaging their strong masculine pride of leadership. Persis repeatedly but gently shares with Silas her uneasiness over her husband’s buying out an ineffectual early partner, Rogers, who returns to the Laphams looking for more money. When Silas, whose conscience is not entirely clear over this perfectly legal but self-serving deal, agrees to extend credit to Rogers, and when Rogers ultimately entangles much of Silas’s capital in a new project that is failing but can be saved by selling out to foreign investors who are ignorant of the high risks, Silas refuses. Throughout these scenes, the dialogue between Silas and Persis discloses their confidence in each other, as Persis helps Silas think and talk through the decision that leads to his rise in our esteem if not in worldly fortunes. While Howells clearly is the better stylist and focuses far more on character than on action, a more detailed comparison of Howells’ handling of the connubial dialogue with Cooper’s would not, I believe, be wholly to Cooper’s discredit. (And I can add, the same would be true for the skillful rendering of an awkward romance, that between Natty and Mabel in The Pathfinder.)
In conclusion, I have argued that, like most of his contemporaries, with Cooper, romance normally involves young characters of the middle (Paul and Ellen) or higher (Middleton and Inez) levels of society, and the romance ends with marriage. In The Prairie Cooper moves beyond that simple formula to depict the inevitable tensions, losses and gains of family life, in ways that look forward to later nineteenth-century fiction (Howells as well as James and Wharton) that focuses on the mature marriage. ¹⁵
1. Other interesting departures from the norm include the marriage of the secondary romantic couple in both The Bravo (1831, where Jacopo and Gelsomina’s love is crushed by the machinations of the Venetian Republic) and The Deerslayer (1841, where Natty Bumppo rejects Judith Hutter’s offer of marriage while Chingachgook and Wah!-ta-Wah! wed).
In The Monikins (1835), John Goldencalf’s courting of Anna Etherington is interrupted by a delirium (which constitutes almost the whole book) in which he visits two realms at the South Pole that satirically depict the British and American political systems. Finally, in Cooper’s sardonic last novel, The Ways of the Hour (1850), which concerns the efforts of an unbalanced woman, Mildred Millington, to escape from an unhappy marriage, both the apprentice lawyers of the confirmed bachelor Thomas Dunscomb pursue and win brides. Their romantic subplots consort oddly within a novel quite pessimistic about lasting happiness within wedlock.
2. Kay Seymour House, Cooper’s Americans. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1965.
3. “The Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.” American Quarterly, 23 (1971): 696-709.
4. Leland S. Person, “Cooper’s Queen of the Woods: Judith Hutter in The Deerslayer.” Studies in the Novel, 21 (1989): 253-67. Person has also edited the recent A Historical Guide to James Fenimore Cooper (NY: Oxford, 2007) in which appears McWilliams essay “’More Than a Woman’s Enterprise’: Cooper’s Revolutionary Heroines and the Source of Liberty.”
5. James Fenimore Cooper versus the Cult of Domesticity: Progressive Themes of Femininity and Family in the Novels . Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005.
6. James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper. NY: William Sloane Associates, 1949, 225-228.
7. The Heidenmauer. NY: Townsend, 1861. (Darley Edition), 200.
8. Thomas Philbrick and Marianne Philbrick, eds. Wyandotté, or the Hutted Knoll. A Tale. State University of New York Press, 1982, xxviii. Future references to the novel are from this Cooper Edition text.
9. Page references here are to the 1861 Townsend-Darley edition.
10. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. University of California Press, 1972, 267-268.
11. In addition to McWilliams’ own work, see, for example, Geoffrey Rans, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading, University of North Carolina Press, 1991, and my own “On The Prairie,” in Leather-Stocking Redux, ed. Jeffrey Walker, AMS Press, forthcoming.
12. Page references here are to the Cooper Edition text, edited by James P. Elliott, State University of New York Press, 1985, 12. Future references will be cited in parentheses after the quotation.
13. The virtues the Bushes pass on to their children are their own — determination and courage, if too little forethought. Cooper is interested here more in the father-sons tensions, however, than in describing any family member other than Asa (the Isaac sacrificed not by Abraham but by Abiram, seen by Freudians as Ishmael’s Dopplegänger here) who as the oldest son, threatens most Ishmael’s patriarchal dominance.
At least two studies have posited strong resemblances between Freud’s speculations on the tensions and sacrifices required to create human civilization, and Cooper’s analysis of the Bushes. See William Wasserstrom, “Cooper, Freud and the Origins of Culture,” which draws mainly upon Freud’s 1939 Moses and Monotheism and the 1913 Totem and Taboo (American Imago, 17 , 423-437). My own “Civilization and Its Discontents: Freud Meets Cooper on The Prairie,” takes Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) as its starting point ( James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers of the 2001 Cooper Seminar, Oneonta, NY, 2002 , 82-95.).
14. See William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham, in Novels 1876-1886. NY: Library of America, 1982, 964.
15. Cooper’s portrayal of Prudence and Aaron Thousandacres in The Chainbearer is very similar to that of the Bushes here. Both families are extensive clans, and are led by dominant patriarchal fathers who expound the right to squat on “free” land. Like Esther, Prudence always speaks her mind and attempts to curb the worst excesses of her husband. She has done her best to raise her twelve surviving children according to higher principles than Aaron’s, but unlike Esther, longs for a place to call legally her own. When her husband’s excesses lead to his being shot, she, alone of the clan, stays with him as nurse and attempts to console him with their Puritan assurances of spiritual conversion.