Cooper: The Arabesque and the Grotesque

Stephen Arch (Michigan State University)

Presented at the 17ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2009.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2009 Cooper Seminar (No. 17), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 7-11).

Copyright © 2011, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

“Every intellectual being has a longing to see distant lands.” 1

— James Fenimore Cooper

We do not normally associate Cooper’s work with the grotesque or the arabesque. More commonly, we associate his novels with the aesthetic modes of the picturesque and the sublime. Blake Nevius, H. Daniel Peck, Allan Axelrad, and a number of others have studied Cooper’s novels through an emphasis on visual thematics, and their analyses have tended to return repeatedly to the central terms of the picturesque and the sublime. Many readers, like Donald Ringe, have also associated Cooper’s novels with another visual/aesthetic mode, the gothic, particularly in novels like Lionel Lincoln, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Bravo in which Cooper attempts to project uncertainty and fear experienced by characters as they confront natural, social, or political uncertainties. In the gothic mode, Cooper crafts the landscape and/or architecture to project the tight spaces, closed compartments, and labyrinthine passages that create terror in characters and in readers.

My interest today is in thinking about two other aesthetic modes that were fashionable during Cooper’s most productive years, modes that necessarily place Cooper in contexts broader than “American literature.” While it is true that Poe famously uses these two terms in the title of his 1840 collection of stories, stories that he had been publishing throughout the 1830s, the aesthetic modes and literary concepts themselves have long and tangled histories before and after they arrive on American shores.

Both terms begin as descriptions of ornamental designs. In 1856, the American Encyclopedia tried to define the two terms:

Grotesques, in painting, are often confounded with arabesques. All ornaments compounded in a fantastical manner, of men, beasts, flowers, plants, &c are called sometimes arabesques, and sometimes grotesques; but there is a distinction between them. Arabesques are flowerpieces, consisting of all kinds of leaves and flowers, real or imaginary. They are so called from the Arabians, who first used them, because they were not permitted to copy beasts and men. ... The Romans ornamented their saloons with paintings, in which flowers, genii, men and beasts, buildings, &c, are mingled together according to the fancy of the artist. These ornaments are properly called grotesques, because they were found in the ruined buildings of the ancient Romans, and in subterranean chambers, which the Italians call grottoes. 2

Indeed, in the history of the two terms there is some consistency in the way in which “arabesque” is used to describe lined geometric forms that echo the forms of plants, but that branch and proliferate in fantastic ways, whereas “grotesque,” deriving as a term from the grottoes in which Roman wall paintings were discovered in the 16ᵗʰ century, denotes “the confusion of heterogenous elements, the interweaving of plant, animal, human and architectural forms.” 3 This connection — the way in which each ornamental design confuses categories, releasing the artist into the realms of unbounded fantasy — is precisely how two of Cooper’s contemporaries, Walter Scott and Edgar Allan Poe, link the two terms. Scott in his 1827 review of the works of E. T. W. Hoffman makes the case that “the grotesque in [Hoffman’s] compositions partly resembles the arabesque in painting in which is introduced the most strange and complicated monsters, resembling centaurs, griffins, chimeras, rocs, and all the other creatures of romantic imagination, dazzling the beholder as it were by the unbounded fertility of the author’s imagination.” 4 Scott condemns the wild imaginative fertility in Hoffman’s stories, suggesting that such fantasies leave the reader’s understanding or judgment unsatisfied and probably signify the author’s morbid or even diseased mind. Of course, Poe courted that fertility, and in his preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque he takes for granted that the “epithets “grotesque” and “arabesque” indicate with sufficient precision the prevalent tenor of the tales here published.” 5 For modern readers, the terms do not indicate with any such “precision” of the tenor of Poe’s stories, and, indeed, critics have expended a lot of energy trying to sort out which of Poe’s stories are “grotesque” and which are “arabesque.” Patricia Smith has argued that the terms were fairly clear and relatively interchangeable to Poe and his contemporaries, as the entry in the American Encyclopedia in 1856 had outlined, and that they have in essence gone their separate ways since. Resisting what he claims some readers saw as an excessive “Germanism” and “gloom” in the stories, Poe claims that “terror” is the thesis in many of his productions in Tales, and that this “terror’of the soul” is a fundamental and natural reaction of human nature.

Whereas the conservative Scott felt that the modes of the grotesque and the arabesque were unnatural, many younger or more liberal Romantics did not. In the famous Preface to his unpublished play, Cromwell, Victor Hugo blasted the classicists for ignoring the darker, bestial, brutal side of human nature. Mankind is both bestial and spiritual, grotesque and sublime, Hugo argued. Realism in art “arises from a natural combination of two elements, the sublime and the grotesque, which intersect in drama just as they do in life and the created universe.” 6 His own next novel, Notre Dame de Paris (1831), or T he Hunchback of Notre Dame in most English translations, exemplified this combination in Quasimodo the grotesquely shaped “monster” and Esmerelda the sublimely beautiful girl associated with love, trust, and magic. Symbolically, at the end of that novel, their two skeletons are held in a tight embrace.

Grotesque as a concept had come into English in the 16ᵗʰ century to describe “A kind of decorative painting or sculpture, consisting of representations of portions of human and animal forms, fantastically combined and interwoven with foliage and flowers.” 7 But it was only in the 18ᵗʰ century, in England and Germany, that the term took on a broader meaning of things that are “Ludicrous from incongruity; fantastically absurd,” 8 and therefore could be used to describe characters, behavior, and literary modes. The 18ᵗʰ century read the grotesque more often through the lens of the ridiculous, the distorted, the unnatural — as in caricature of the sort that Hogarth employs — than through that of the horrifying or the eerie. For Cooper, then, the grotesque would have signified in a range that included Hogarth’s prints and Goya’s paintings, Swift’s poetry as well as Blake’s, Hugo’s novels and Rabelais” narratives.

Arabesque came into English only in the 18ᵗʰ century, 9 and its meaning was immediately both literal and figurative: “A species of mural or surface decoration in colour or low relief, composed in flowing lines of branches, leaves, and scroll-work fancifully intertwined.” 10 Whereas in the grotesque wildness or extravagance is figured as unnatural or bestial or terrible or disfigured, in the arabesque wildness or extravagance is figured as decadent and extravagant, in part through association with the east or Arabia, as in The Arabian Nights, which was first translated into English in the early 18ᵗʰ century, or as decadent and decaying in such stories by Poe as “Ligeia.” 11 This affective interpretation of the concept, it has been noted, is not inherent in arabesque’s original meaning within Muslim and Arabic culture, but comes about through the work of Friedrich Schlegel and other Romantics, who employ the arabesque in much the same manner that Hugo uses the grotesque: as a counter-aesthetic to classical, enlightened conceptions of art, perception, and order. Cooper would have encountered this affective aesthetic, of course, in any number of works that we know he read, such as Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh and Byron’s poems beginning with The Giaour and including The Corsair, Lara, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and Don Juan.

In his important study entitled The Grotesque in Art and Literature, Wolfgang Kayser concludes that on the one hand the grotesque represents “the estranged world,” while on the other hand it attempts “to invoke and subdue the demonic aspects of the world.” That is, Kayser argues that the grotesque reveals the world to be unfamiliar and unnatural to us; things previously separated, like Quasimodo and Esmerelda, like Beauty and the Beast, are revealed to be in fact fused. The world at first appears strange and terrifying in the grotesque: death is life, caricature is character, the beast is beautiful. And then, he argues, by revealing this previously hidden fact of nature, the grotesque liberates us from the fear of the bestial, the dark, the hidden. 12 The arabesque by analogy functions in just the way that Said has argued western “Orientalism” more generally grasped the “east” — as a figure for the weak, feminized, decadent, irrational Other, to be invoked with the grotesque as unnatural by a conservative like Scott and embraced by radicals like Byron as a rejection of the establishment.

In his study of the grotesque, Philip Thomson notes that “It is no accident that the grotesque mode in art and literature tends to be prevalent in societies and eras marked by strife, radical change or disorientation.” 13 Several recent articles and book have probed this revealing of the bestial, the dark, the hidden, the irrational, and the decadent in Jacksonian and antebellum America. Sarah Burns” Painting the Dark Side looks at the gothic underside of paintings by Thomas Cole and David Gilmour Blythe; David Wall looks at the welling up the grotesque and carnivalesque in Blythe’s paintings, Hawthorne’s stories, and Barnum’s freak shows; and Duncan Faherty analyzes the themes of misrule and fractured identity in Poe’s 1840 Tales as a window into the chaos of antebellum culture. 14 It is precisely in this sense, I believe, that we can read Cooper through the lenses of the grotesque and the arabesque in the long moment when he is terrifically stressed by the poor reviews of the European trilogy, by his decision to return home and his dis-ease at what he found there, by his anger over attacks on his motives, and by the Panic of 1837.

Like Scott, Cooper would seem for the most part to find the grotesque and arabesque to be too fantastic for his realistic romances. Both of them find the gothic to be more appealing or more useful. Thus, a scene like the wedding of Lionel and Cecil in Lionel Lincoln is impressively gothic — the wind howling, the church nearly vacant, the mysterious and ambiguous shadow on the walls — but it is not grotesque or fantastic. Or any number of scenes in the Leatherstocking Tales make use of the gothic “interiors” of caves or wooded groves, 15 but again are not conceived as fantastic or bestial or unnatural or absurd. Yet at several points in the 1830s, beginning with “No Steamboats — A Vision” (1832), Cooper edges toward the fantastic. I want to look at two of these moments.

Cooper’s satirical novel, The Monikins, was begun in the spring of 1832 but not completed and published until 1835. It seems to have been originally conceived as another “European” novel that, like The Bravo, would offer republican lessons to Cooper’s readers. Cooper himself remarked early in the novel’s composition that “’Twill be a comico-serio, romantico-ironico-tale.” 16 Given Cooper’s usual method of composition, he would have been writing the narrative of John Goldencalf’s ancestry, birth, childhood, and youth in May and June of 1832, the comedy and romance inhering in the young man’s inevitable marriage to the proper young woman, the irony inhering in the way he mistakes a financial investment in property (“the social stake”) for an emotional investment in real social relations (marriage). Set in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century London, the novel would indeed have been a “European” novel; there is hardly a whisper of the United States in the early chapters that recount Goldencalf’s life story. But by September 1832, Cooper had set The Monikins aside. The novel “requires time and thought,” 17 he told Morse.

In the three year interim between then and his completion of the novel, Cooper became exasperated with the way he was treated in the American press, suffered negative reviews of The Heidenmauer and The Headsman, watched the success of Mrs. Trollope with some envy, experienced a jolt of alienation upon his return to the US, and stated publicly that he was done with novel writing. These events and his reactions to them altered the trajectory of The Monikins from a ” comico-serio, romantico-ironico-tale“ to something completely different. The dream-vision of John Goldencalf that begins in Chapter 9, like the dream-vision of “M. Cooper” in “No Steamboats — A Vision” in 1832, puts us obliquely in the realm of the fantastic.

The frame story of John Goldencalf’s ancestry, youth, and coming-of-age in chapters 1-8 and 30-31 represents the typical Cooper narrative, long on realistic social detail and heading eventually toward marriage. But where Goldencalf’s story in the first eight chapters promises sexual/romantic tension, time essentially stops in chapter 9 when John (we learn later) collapses and falls into his dream-vision. The “turn” the novel takes at that point is a turn into satire, the fantastic, and the grotesque. Goldencalf’s physical journey to the Antarctic in chapters 13-14 is similar to the journey of Arthur Gordon Pym in Poe’s 1837 novel, though of course Cooper brings his hero “back” from the world of the unknown at the end. In leaving behind the real world maps, Cooper signals to us that The Monikins is performing a different kind of work from his earlier novels. This is of course also signaled by the fantastic confusion of animal and human in the novel. Goldencalf himself reports that he nearly vomits when one of the Monikins informs him that humankind is considered by the Monikins to be “an animal in a middle state between a sponge and a monkey.” 18 The thinking monkeys both represent little men (the diminutive of “man” or “men”) and are doll-like equivalents of men (“mannequins”), a confusion of the notion of “human” that recalls another narrative of the grotesque, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, as well as the characters in a contemporary novel like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If Cooper turns away from realistic fiction in introducing the grotesque talking monkeys, with their brains in their tails, he turns back to realism in one of the most grotesque scenes in his fiction, Goldencalf’s guilt-ridden meal of roasted monikin. Returning from the ever-more etherially absurd legislative assembly of the Monikins, where black is voted to be white and lowness is accorded the highest post, Goldencalf is brought back to his physical, animal self by the smell of roasted meat. Cooper lingers on Goldencalf’s physical reaction to the smell: gastric juices, mouth watering, the mouth chewing. The scene recalls the moment when Goldencalf nearly vomited upon realizing that the Monikins saw humankind as relatively low on the scale of being. By the time he is done eating, “the dish was as clear as a table that had been swept by harpies” (388). At that moment, he realizes that he had just eaten an “unholy meal,” a roasted monikin whom he had befriended on his travels. The madness into which he has descended at that moment marks his return to consciousness and rationality, and marks as well the limits of the grotesque for Cooper. It is not a place which he visited willingly, and I would argue that his use of it in The Monikins a sign of his intellectual and cultural turmoil in 1834 and 1835.

After the failure of The Monikins, and poor sales for the first four volumes of his European travels, Cooper describes his return to writing novels as a “freak” when the idea comes to him in July of 1837. The moment coincides with two personal crises. First, the Three Mile Point controversy began in July when a vandal destroyed a tree on property owned by the Cooper family. As others, like Eric Sundquist, have shown, the ensuing controversy had a direct effect on characterization and story line in Home as Found, the sequel to the novel Cooper began in July. I want to suggest, today, a more oblique effect in that first novel, Homeward Bound. Second, upon visiting New York City in June of 1837, Cooper realized the full extent of the Panic of 1837. “We have not had a just idea of the state of things here,” Cooper wrote to his wife on June 29. ... The idol [of speculation] is at length broken.” 19

There are not many moments in Cooper’s fiction when the Arab world is invoked. Though, having said that, I now wait for a room of Cooper experts to pinpoint the several examples I am not discussing today, such as Hugh and his Uncle Ro’s two-year tour through Greece, the Holy Land, Egypt, and the Barbary states in The Redskins. But the most extended imagining of the Arab world in Cooper’s fiction occurs in Homeward Bound. Compared to the European novels of 1831, 1832, and 1833, when Cooper wrote quickly and steadily with a clear purpose and argument in mind, both The Monikins and Homeward Bound proceed episodically and digressively. Indeed, the plot of Homeward Bound turns entirely on delay and digression, as if Cooper did not quite yet know what to do with his characters once he deposited them on American soil: the packet is delayed on leaving port in England; the packet veers off course to flee the British cruiser that is following it; the packet is blown further off course in a gale, is driven upon the coast of Africa, and is crippled; the packet’s crew and passengers are choreographed in an incredibly complicated dance with the desert Arab tribes to recover the mast from another shipwreck; and finally the packet reaches New York. Even then, at the very “end,” the story is delayed once more, literally just as the passengers glimpse the Jersey shoreline, when the British cruiser that had chased the packet in the early chapters intercepts the ship and leads the main love interest of the novel away for reasons that are not explained until the second novel. Cooper himself says in the preface to Homeward Bound that his original plan as he conceived it in the summer of 1837 was to open the novel “with the arrival of the travelers at Sandy Hook, from which point the tale was to have been carried regularly forward to its conclusion,” 21 meaning in essence that the entire novel as he published it is a kind of interpolation, or delay, or insertion of events before the beginning proper. The plot of Homeward Bound is proleptic, evasive, delaying, preparatory, supplemental. The remembered beginning or origin of the novel is, in fact, its ending.

The swerve or turn that the novel takes to Africa is, I am suggesting, not unlike the swerve or turn that The Monikins takes to Antarctica via Goldencalf’s dream vision. The swerve is, indeed, one might say, a kind of arabesque, a line or ornamentation in the plot that diverges from the known or expected journey to place the passengers quite literally on the margins of the Arab world. The encounter between the Anglo-Americans and the Arabs or Moors alternates between the comic and the horrific, suggesting the unstable faultlines that Cooper has exposed. On the comic end, there is the scene when Captain Truck and his first mate Leach capture a lone Arab and, in trying to convince the prisoner that the westerners are not cannibals, act out pantomimes that seem to suggest they are cannibals. On the serious end, there are the dead bodies, the fear of slavery and suffering that Cooper as well as his characters knew from James Riley’s 1817 narrative, 21 and the unstated but everywhere implicit fear that Eve Effingham and white female virtue more generally would be raped by these primitive and wild easterners.

In turning to Cooper’s conception of these Arabs, I cannot help making a small ornamentation of my own that will, quickly, bring me back home. Under its entry for “muscleman,” or bodybuilder, the first example in the Oxford English Dictionary of the use of the word is from Homeward Bound. In the novel, the African-American steward, himself caricatured by Cooper as a shuffling, ungrammatical Jim Crow character, comments on the items that the Arabs stole from the ship by saying, “I suppose these muscle-men will not have much use for any but the oyster-knives, as I am informed they eat with their fingers.” 22 The OED incorrectly cites this comment on “muscle man” as a reference to strength: a “muscle man” can pry open oyster shell with his bare hands. The steward could have known, of course, that the word “Mussulman” derives from “Muslim man.” The world appears typographically on the page as “muscle man,” signifying not bodybuilder, as the OED incorrectly but revealingly reads it, but man of the body, of appetites, of sensuality. For the steward and perhaps for Cooper himself, a “mussulman” is too uncultured to use eating utensils, as well as so bound by sensuality and the body as to live in a world where things are literally “hand to mouth.”

Aside from the typical sort of caricature that Cooper uses to imagine the Arabs — dark skin, flashing eyes, sensual appetites, maniacal behavior, depraved tastes — I want to look at one specific instance in the novel of the “arabesque” as a suggestive aesthetic commentary. After they have safely escaped to the sea, and see clear sailing ahead of them to America, the Effinghams and Paul Powis discuss the items the Arabs stole from the ship. Paul fears that a miniature of his was stolen, one that we learn later is of his mother (John Effingham’s wife) and the mention of which sends a chill into Eve’s heart, because she fears it is of a lover. John Effingham then makes a revealing comment: “The Arabs appear to have some such taste for the fine arts as distinguishes the population of a mushroom American city, “or one that runs to portraits, which are admired while the novelty lasts, and then are consigned to the first spot that offers to receive them.” Let me unpack this comment. In this conception, Arabs are imagined to have a sensual, ill-informed, and short-lasting appreciation of beauty. Their appreciation of a portrait lasts only as long as it is “novel” or new, and then the portrait is tossed aside. It is even suggested by Paul that some of the Arabs can recognize the value of the frame, while they ignore the beauty of the portrait itself. In the minds of the Effingham crowd, this evanescent appreciation of beauty is connected to American provincialism itself, a recurrent critique in both of these 1838 novels of the untutored, ignorant, misled masses in the American hinterlands, typified by Steadfast Dodge in the first novel and Mrs. Abbott (among others) in the second. “It is almost humiliating to find one’s self a man, when beings like these Arabs are to be classed as fellows,” John Effingham concludes. 23 Ouch. This, I would suggest, is very much like the observation that Cooper encourages John Goldencalf to reach in The Monikins: monikins and Arabs are evidence of our own worst, sensual, bestial, misled nature, and while we cannot rise completely above that state, we would do our best to keep our distance from it. It may well be that “Every intellectual being has a longing to see distant lands,” but there are limits to that desire. Unlike Poe, who leaves Pym at the bottom of the world in 1837, Cooper brings Goldencalf and the Effinghams back onto the world of maps in 1835 and 1838. The grotesque and the arabesque in this sense mark the limits of Cooper’s global sympathies, affective states that he did not probe willingly but which identify for us his own cultural and intellectual crisis as he returned to America to face the excesses of democracy and capitalism in the 1830s.


1 James Fenimore Cooper, “American and European Scenery Compared,” in The Home Book of the Picturesque: or American Scenery, Art, and Literature (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1852), 51-69 (this quotation on p. 51).

2 Encyclop’dia Americana. A popular dictionary of arts, sciences, literature, history, politics and biography , 14 volumes (Boston: Mussey, 1851), Vol VI, pp. 73-74.

3 Philip Thomson, The Grotesque (London: Methuen, 1972), 12.

4 Walter Scott, “On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition; and particularly on the Works of Ernest Theodore William Hoffman,” Foreign Quarterly Review I (1827), rpt. in Sir Walter Scott: On Novelists and Fiction, ed. Ioan Williams (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968), 312-353 (this passage on p.335).

5 Edgar Allan Poe, “Preface for Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque,” in Tales and Sketches: Volume 1: 1831-1842, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott (1978; rpt. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 473-474.

6 Victor Hugo, “Preface” to Cromwell, in The Essential Victor Hugo, trans. and intro. by E. H. and A. M. Blackmore (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 16-53 (this quotation on pp. 33-34).

7 OED, “grotesque,” def. 1.

8 OED, “grotesque,” def. 3. See Thomson, 13.

9 The OED notes that there are fleeting references to arabesque as “Arabian or Moorish in ornamental design” in the 17ᵗʰ century.

10 OED, “arabesque,” def. 2.

11 See, for example, Jacob Rama Berman, “Domestic Terror and Poe’s Arabesque Interior,” English Studies in Canada 31.1 (2005): 128-150.

12 Kayser, 184 and 188.

13 Thomson, 11. One might note that even in this sentence the idea of “the east” — to be dis-orient-ed, or not aligned properly to the east or to the norm — has already imposed on it the western imagination.

14 Sarah Burns, Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); David Wall, “A Chaos of Sin and Folly”: Art, Culture, and Carnival in Antebellum America,” Journal of American Studies 42 (2008):515-535; and Duncan Faherty, “A Certain Unity of Design”: Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque and the Terrors of Jacksonian Democracy,” Edgar Allan Poe Review 6.2 (2005): 4-22.

15 See Allan Axelrad, “From Mountain Gothic to Forest Gothic and Luminism: Changing Representations of Landscape in the Leatherstocking Tales and in American Painting,” posted on the James Fenimore Cooper Society website, (accessed July 6, 2009).

16 James Fenimore Cooper, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 6 vols., ed. James Franklin Beard (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-1968), II: 258.

17 Ibid., II: 337.

18 James Fenimore Cooper, The Monikins (1835; rpt. New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1896), 125.

19 Letters and Journals, III: 267.

20 James Fenimore Cooper, Homeward Bound; or, The Chase (1837; rpt. G. P. Putnam’s, 1896), iii.

21 See Captain Truck’s reference to Riley on p. 174.

22 Ibid., 334-335. See the OED under “muscle man.”

23 Ibid., 416.