“Perhaps Some Day it will be Pleasant”: Reminiscences of James Fenimore Cooper as told to Dr. Christina Starobin

Christina Starobin (Culinary Institute of America)

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 presented at the the 2007 Cooper Seminar (No. 16), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York, but was not available at the time for inclusion in the published papers from that event.

Copyright © 2009, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

It is not uncommon to imagine what a writer from the past might think and say about the world of today, could he but experience it. This is one such experiment.

— Hugh C. McDougall, Editor, 2007 Cooper Seminar Papers

I hear you recently had a tragedy in New York City. You were fired on by the enemy and two of your structures collapsed. Afterwards, some saw a prediction of this in books and other works of art that no one had heeded. Maybe if we took art and the artists as soothsayer more seriously we all would be better off. Or maybe it is just in the nature of the artist to be faithful to greater laws of creation that, when obeyed without his own personal interference, render a vision of the natural scheme of things that seems almost prophetic. “Thou speakest wiser than thou art aware of,” (As You Like It, II, iv, 57).

Now, I don’t claim in my books that I foresaw all the future, but I did see a mighty lot further than most. And what is most irksome to me is that no one seemed to listen.

Case in point conservation. My observations on what you now call “the balance of Nature” when I wrote, “it’s the farmers that makes the game scarce, and not the hunters.” This was remarked on independently in the 20ᵗʰ century by Wildlife and Game wardens in Texas.

Another case in point The Sea Lions. I foresaw the dangers of clubbing seals in the Antarctic way before your Greenpeace.

Of course, you must forgive if I do not list the ways in which I was perhaps not so prescient about the future. “Sometimes even good old Homer nods,” (Horace, Epistles, bk. III, Ars Poetica, l. 359).

My detractors beginning with Mark Twain, that jealous newsmonger who would stoop to anything for a laugh, led them off.

If there is anything I would regret it is the inability to know there would be such a hue and cry about man’s supposed descent from the monkey. I more than touched upon this in my undeservedly maligned work, The Monikins, when the central character asks the half man/half monkey, “Are you related to the monkey?” and he answers, “No more than you of the same family as ... the Esquimaux,” or as you now say, the Eskimo. Although I still maintain that no such relationship between man and ape is possible, and do not even dignify them with the appellation, “species”, I am aware there is a sizable population that believes that scoundrel Darwin. Imagine! His works are taught in schools while my books languish on all too many shelves!

True, there were some other ironic turnabouts that I never could have dreamed if I lived another 157 years, which is the time that has passed since my death in 1851. What you call movies, television, telephone, computers, all these magical machines you have! But like toys in the hands of a black bear they have not made you wiser. I never thought there would be, or that we needed, so many distractions!

If I could compare your television to the novels of my times, I would find Natty Bumppo in the current karate black belt Cordell Walker of Walker, Texas Ranger and the character of Chingachgook in Jimmy Trivette, his black cohort. Although they use guns, their primary expertise is in karate which they display each episode in battles of skill with their adversaries, much as I used to display Natty’s dexterity with the rifle at several junctures in the Leatherstocking tales.

This is perhaps the latest update of a long line of characters and stories that I have chronicled running through Twain’s Huck and Jim, through Miami Vice, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, the Boston characters of Hawk and Hunter in the drama of that name and 48 Hours with Nick Nolte and Eddy Murphy.

In the latest episodes of Walker there is even a female ranger, Sydney, who also tracks the enemy with karate. How different from Cora and Alice! An interesting twist is that in Walker, the cohort is black and Walker himself is part Cherokee with the name Washo, the Lone Eagle; his mentor is the Cherokee White Eagle.

Interestingly enough, Europe seems to have fallen by the wayside in these types of adventurous entertainments. James Bond is their contribution to the pantheon of adventure series. Their mystery inspectors, on the other hand, are many like Sherlock Holmes, or the numerous detectives of Agatha Christie. They are all are derived from the inventor of detective fiction, the American writer Edgar Allen Poe! Poe who died penniless and fell into planned disrepute is now mined as a rich source of American and European income!

Thank goodness I never expressed interest in the fate of the “common people” because with inflation, the erosion of their social programs and carefully disguised unemployment they are being written out of existence. Self-employed small businesses are disappearing and the “common folk” will join the ranks of servants. Had I been concerned with their ignoble fate, I would bemoan their passing as I bemoaned the last of the simple savages.

The latest echo of my Natty Bumppo legend I see in a TV advertisement for a joint pain medicine called “Lakota” with an Indian with long white hair and feathers as its spokesperson! Never mind the vehicles erroneously dubbed the “Pathfinder”!

I was never one to romanticize the “march of progress”; although I foresaw the increasing city populations and the loss of forest wilderness, I did not bewail this despite my poignant realizations at the end of The Deerslayer.

Perhaps most strange to all of us are the things we could not foresee, the changes brought about by Time. Certain realities are constant, often so constant as to earn the title of eternal such as the beauty and force, the majesty of Nature, the tapestry of the forest kingdom, the adventures to be enacted on the plains of America or on her waters. We would like to think the honorable human traits are also unchanging or continuous, as, unfortunately, are the baser elements of the human makeup. Shakespeare charted those vicissitudes and rich interplay of emotions, motivations, and their surprising interweavings. Still today there are elements that we can recognize.

Perhaps the most universal to me is the unfolding of the landscape, interior and exterior, of the American Indian, the Noble Savage, now called “Native American”. I had occasion to meet and speak with one of these people, a woman who is of Sioux and Irish American descent. She works as a nurse, visiting people in their homes.

“When I first speak with any of my patients in a comfortable situation to establish their level of alertness, I ask, ‘What was the event that caused this?’ They eventually ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ If I ask them to guess, they might guess Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, but they never guess Native American. When I tell them they say, ‘Oh, that is so exciting! So wonderful!’ I feel, ‘No, it’s not.’ I feel out of place, pride but a certain amount of anger that’s well hidden.

“They ooh and aah, they’re sorry for all that’s been done to Indians, tortured, their lost land. I feel that’s boring and meaningless. I am tempted to say, ‘You can sign your house or land over to me and I’ll accept it, if you’re so sorry,’ but I would never say that. But my other half is Irish; if it weren’t for bad luck, we would have no luck at all. They were always striving and struggling and I can’t deny that side.

“Most Indian people appreciate an acknowledgement; I don’t want to be reminded. It raises a black anger. After I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee when I was 21 I felt a very tangible and perceptible anger at white people which I didn’t have before. How bad I feel.”

I asked her about her relatives on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. “The last time I went back it was in 1996. I was welcome. They don’t like white people. There was an unspoken sense of white people not being welcomed.” Still after a week she felt that she belonged and could stay there comfortably.

Most Native Americans were herded into reservations; the largest number were in Oklahoma.

She said her aunt still lives there in a house given to her by the government, where she pays utilities. Her cousin works as a dental technician in a hospital. “They need to be there so I can always go back if I need to,” she said.

I asked her about the casinos run by Indians. “They say we’re taking back American, one nickel at a time. Maybe they can save our culture without casinos if we have the wherewithal to teach traditional ways. All the money should be to teach the young people.”

I mentioned the movie, Dances With Wolves, which is about the Sioux. “I watch it for the language, it is original language taught by Doris Leadercharge, who is a Rosebud, a native speaker. My heart is in that.” The Sioux language is now taught on the reservation at elementary school. It was not originally a written language, but in pictographs. There was a tribe historian who knew the oral history and 100 year skins with events for each year; these had stick human figures. Now the words are written with the alphabet the way we write English.

“There is no pronoun for ‘I’ in our language. We are not individuals, but part of a group. I can identify myself as a female person; you could identify yourself as a male person. I think we are the only language to have this feature.”

This young woman also corrected me as to my representation of the idea of land ownership and the Indians. Whereas I distinguished men from animals in my novels by ownership of land (therefore the Indians, who owned land, were men and the Negroes who were owned were inferior), Indians do not believe in this concept. They consider themselves caretakers of the land. “We do not own the land; we inherit it from our children,” was a legend this woman had on a poster in her office.

When I questioned her further she said,

“About me owning that property [where she currently has a house], I consider myself “los vendidos”, the sell outs. I have sold out to the one of the basic tenets of my culture. I’m owning land and it goes against my grain that I could knuckle under to white man’s land ownership. Taking the path in the woods between our properties, I asked myself, ‘Where does my property end and yours begin?’ You can’t really tell; how can you tell? You can’t. It doesn’t fit in my mind.

“My husband wants to put up a stone wall. To do that we would have to get the President of the United States to say where the boundaries are. How do you measure? From the far side of the wall? From the middle? We would need a land surveyor to make a line.”

Looking more closely at Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, it is perhaps ironic that it was written by a white man, Dee Brown. And the title comes from a poem by another white man, Stephen Vincent Benét. The poem is titled “American Names” and the final stanza is:

I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse. I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea. You may bury my body in Sussex grass, You may bury my tongue at Champmedy. I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass. Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.

Perhaps it is in the nature of the present to distill the past. So Benét’s over 300 pages of John Brown’s Body have become “John Brown’s body lies a moldering in the grave.”

Since that war monger Lincoln squandered our audiences, audiences happy with two hour orations, scandalized them with his miserly Gettysburg Address, only three minutes long, words have been truncated, speeded up. Take the Readers’ Digest condensed books, or Cliff Notes! Soon the entire world will be reduced to an advertising slogan, or just initials! Abbreviations! Does my “truth” distill into an automobile called “Pathfinder”?

By seeking to break free of classical rhetoric we have chained ourselves into faddish codes words, spoken electronically or displayed as medallions. Speed and brevity are our new prizes and instant replay becomes our prayers that are repeated over and over until we die of boredom.

My mind turned to the idea of sign language. The Native American tribes of the Great Plains of the United States and Canada had a common sign language, although they did not have a common spoken language! The white man might learn from this; the sign language for the deaf is different in each country, even sometimes in each city! And the sign for different groups, like the Chinese or the Irish, are what you would term “racist” today.

When I created my Leatherstocking Tales I could predict the actions of my characters, but now the world appears like a series of movies with the main character played by different actors, or the sons of different actors. Part II and Part II are more and more changed from the original with some echoes of themselves, but like ripples going further and further from outwards to the shore.

How do we measure the passage of Time? When it begins to snow it seems the flakes fall without stopping and have little effect but to lend a pretty dusting, but if they continue to fall and to fall they can become a blizzard leaving two or three feet, paralyzing traffic, air traffic, stopping schools, business and even endangering lives.

The same hour that was so atmospheric as we watched the white flakes soundlessly blanketing the meadow becomes a hot, tiresome, difficult and sweaty hour when digging out a path or an automobile.

And then come the years, the decades and the centuries. Inventions may make life easier or harder, change the path of people and centuries, but emotions and the flow of Nature is not so easily a matter of fashion. Love, loyalty, longing, pride, honor, anger, the majesty of a mountain, the mystery of night, stars and planets are all still in the minds and hearts of humans as they were centuries even millenniums ago.

But there is change. And to deny it or to make too much of it are both inaccurate. Returning to Cooperstown today after 300 years is an experience not afforded to everyone. So I intend to absorb and respond to this privilege and this challenge. Now I understand you have at your disposal machines that can take a skeleton and create a portrait of the person whose body they supported or take you on a tour of a mansion as if you were a bird in flight. So perhaps this journey of 300 years could also be created by this machine!

But the emotions and memories cannot be mechanically created. Even your robots or mechanical people as in the cinematic creation Blade Runner with human memories cannot fully duplicate the jumps in consciousness and inventiveness of us modest and often fumbling “humans”.

Because people no longer have to communicate face to face, because they have more masks and layers of masks to hide behind, they have lost fear and become more bold in their baseness (their wickedness). The natural fear and temerity, the natural modesty that makes us consider our actions and words when we must be accountable for them has been replaced by sophisticated and speedy greed. Superficial logic can pass for thought and by the time the deception is uncovered it is too late.

How, then, can we tell if the path we chose is correct? “Time will tell,” is the slogan I prefer or “Time will explain it all/ He is a talker and needs no questioning before he speaks” (Euripides, Mad Heracles). What is a fad? What is a classic? Often that which seems most awkward and wrong because of its newness ends up enduring and the “tried and true” disintegrates into boredom.

Look to the trusty hound, my old Hector, “Man’s best friend”. While still a friend to the end, the dog is now bred into many shapes, sizes with electric collars emitting a shock to tell the dog what not to do. What a far cry! And yet his faithfulness has not been yet bred out of him!

It is perhaps we who have ceased to look for aithfulness and look instead for riches and fame. We find them not, but find our great monuments crumbling, like Ozymandias,

I met a traveler from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, kings of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.

— Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

My own version of this is the forest recapturing its own, at the end of Deerslayer. Your contemporary version is perhaps that of the Twin Towers as the “vast and trunkless legs of stone.”

I just remembered something I hadn’t thought of in centuries. I remembered a meadow which I used to walk in, not the part I usually think of when I remember my walks, but beyond the stone wall. So much running around and achieving makes us forget the important things. What are the important things? Those things we have forgotten until we stop looking.

Complain and find faults thought I may, it is possible in centuries to come further changes will render so obscure our hopes and ideals that we now hold as important as to render true these words of Virgil, “Perhaps some day it will be pleasant to remember even this.”

— as told to Christina Starobin, May 2007