A Historical Background of the Tenth Chapter of Cooper’s The Monikins

Robert Becker (Independent Scholar)

Presented at the 18ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2011.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2011 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 18), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn and Hugh C. McDougall, editors. (pp. 11-15).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

Most of those who have been occupied with Cooper’s work will know that quite a few of the many Cooper scholars have perceived or estimated The Monikins in their respective works. As early as its first publication in 1835, it baffled readers as well as critics. So, Thomas Lounsbury, W. B. Shubrick-Clymer and Carl van Doren detested the book, and James Grossman, George Decker and John P. McWilliams did not really like it. 1

This novel never reached the literary and commercial success of the Leather-Stocking novels, for example. Therefore, the novel has found only a few friends since it was published up to the present day and thereby found only little thematic dispute. And thus, the immense opulent and multifarious references of the novel to Cooper’s time have not yet been explored and outlined adequately.

Robert E. Spiller, one of the few authors who worked intensively on that novel, judges that during all his life he, Cooper, has been trying to understand, to express and to criticize the American character without any fear of consequences. Spiller also mentions about The Monikins that it is far from being unreadable; it rather contains the seed of nearly all of Cooper’s ideas. 2 Christina Starobin shows some parallels between The Monikins and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels 3 as did the German Willi Müller years ago. 4 The thesis of Scott Michaelsen’s article from 1992 is that The Monikins substantially deals with “the relationship of contractual obligation to the social order.” 5 Steven Arch claims that beginning with Chapter 9, The Monikins turns from “another European novel” into “satire, the fantastic, and the grotesque,’ modes that normally are not associated with Cooper’s work. 6

My experience with this book during the last few years in translating it into German unearthed a wealth of information. My major discovery was that the book is not at all “perverse and dull” as it was characterized by some of the above mentioned scholars in secondary literature. I want to demonstrate that explicitly Chapter 10 of the book deals with a real historical background, which up to now has not yet been noticed and analyzed.

Cooper himself termed his novel in a letter three years before its publication, a comico-serio, romantico-ironico tale and he was hopeful for success: “’Twill be a comico-serio, romantico-ironico — tale — This description, however forms no part of the title. Well executed it will be a hit, for the design is good.” 7 And in a letter one year after its publication he wrote to his British publisher Bentley: “It is my favorite book, and I think it will be better understood hereafter.” 8

The story of the novel in short: The Monikins tells the story of a young man, John Goldencalf, who is the heir to one of the wealthiest persons in England, a stockbroker, and who falls in love with a young lady, Anna, the daughter of his foster-father. Because of a quite peculiar theory of a social stake system he denies himself the love he feels for her and goes off to travel. In Paris, Goldencalf receives a letter from Anna, which tells him that she follows his social stake theory and will love many other persons in future and, in consequence, not him alone anymore. In this emotional crisis, he runs out of the hotel and into some obscure bars, where, at Montmartre, he meets Noah Poke, an American captain without a ship. They manage to free four monkeys, who were in possession of some street artists (Savoyards). Waking up from a deep sleep, Goldencalf remarks that these monkeys turn out to be monikins, beings with language, thoughts, ideas and philosophy and who deem themselves ethically and morally far more developed than mankind and whose homeland is close to the South Pole, a country called Leaphigh. Goldencalf decides to take them back to their country by ship with Noah Poke as their captain.

The ship sails south, crosses a ring of pack ice in a very adventurous way with an ingenious invention of Noah Poke and arrives in a mild “steam” climate in Leaphigh. Already in Paris and during the journey southward Goldencalf and Poke listen to the deliberations of the chief monikin and philosopher, Dr. Socrates Reasono, about the monikin philosophy on nature, moral and politics and their opinion of the planetary system.

In Leaphigh the behavior of the monikins changes dramatically. They begin to show themselves as leaders. Dr. Reasono for example tells the story of their, the monikins journey to Europe and to mankind in just the contrary way as Goldencalf has perceived it. But predictably, as it is demonstrated in several situations in Leaphigh and further on in Leaplow and is commented on by the Leaplow Monikin Downright — the wedding ceremony of two of the monikins who have been traveling with the ship south, the scene with the archbishop of Leaphigh, the accusation and condemnation of Noah Poke, the travel to and the situation in Leaplow, the men’s elections into monikin parliament of Leaplow, the different tasks in parliament, finally the great moral eclipse — the supposed morally and ethically esteemed monikins act no better than man. They have the same reasons for their doings as mankind: both act often due to egotism and selfishness and not by reason. Basically, the story in the land of the monikins mostly consists of these tidings. In the end Noah Poke and Goldencalf eat Downright for dinner. Goldencalf realizes this, and he falls into agony again — only to awake in the same hotel in Paris from a long trance. In the very end Anna and Goldencalf get married and the book concludes with a series of nuggets of universal wisdom.

It can be shown that the novel, with its critical-satirical delineation, aims at many shortcomings of the political and societal institutions of England and the USA of Cooper’s time, which can be classified under the title of “pretension and reality.” It is not my intention to go into detail, but one bundle of aspects of the history may be quoted: When Cooper wrote this novel there had been a great discussion in the US about the question whether the earth is open at its poles — the hollow earth theory, established by John C. Symmes (1780-1829). He and one of his proponents, Jeremiah N. Reynolds (1799-1858) asked the Congress to equip ships to explore the South Sea and the South Pole. This expedition took place in 1836 with Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) as commander, a great nephew of the John Wilkes (1725-1797), the famous English rake who is mentioned in the book with the expletive “Wilkes and Liberty.” A nephew of this John Wilkes was also named Charles Wilkes (1764-1833), president of the bank of New York who was a longtime acquaintance of the de Lanceys and Coopers and who knew James Cooper even as a child. One can see that there are many connections from the book to historical figures and events and to Cooper himself.

Also topics of human nature are objects of the sarcasm and satire of the novel, for example, human vanity and greed for money. One of the many examples in the book: Noah Poke as a congressman in Leaplow subordinates himself in his political opinions to a “God-like,” who removes the task of thinking and deciding, so that Poke can concern himself with other, non-parliamentary, means for more income aside from his eagerness of getting a larger salary for his parliamentary work. But in the case of a vote about the construction of a causeway in Biouvac, which signifies New York, Poke makes a decisive “error” that leads to his political downfall. The error is that he has no material or pecuniary reason for his vote. The Leaplow monikins don’t trust a congressman who has no own material interests or, if he in fact has such, does not defend them. This may be deemed as a “comico-serio, romantico-ironico” example of Cooper to show how politicians act in reality. In the novel Noah Poke consequently writes a letter of resignation to the speaker of the house in which he claims to be of poor health as a reason for his demission — embarrassing like so many politicians before and after him.

Among others, the tenth chapter of The Monikins has led to the widespread opinion of the “unreadability” of the book. In this chapter, a protocol is drafted in different versions, which shall adjust the conditions of a speech of Dr. Reasono on the subject of the monikin philosophy of nature and morals. A controversy arises about the first draft between Goldencalf and Chatterino, one of the traveling monikins on the subject of the number of advisors of the protagonists. In sequel, Goldencalf and Chatterino fall into a rage so that only a tender woman’s hand, respectively an ape’s paw, put on the mouth of one of the squabblers lead to an end of the controversy. The next version of the protocol, created by Poke and Reasono, again is a target of a silly quarrel between Goldencalf and Chatterino, with partly ludicrous arguments. Again, this violent debate is calmed down by the same ape’s paw. A third version, composed by the monikin ladies, is at once attacked and the dispute nearly starts again. But this time, Noah Poke calls for discretion, silence and reason. The protocol is accepted and the speech of Dr. Reasono, in the eleventh chapter, can begin.

This tenth chapter however has already been an object of considerations. Scott Michaelsen called it in the above mentioned article from 1992 “the first of the truly ‘perverse’ sections in the book. ( ... ) So not only is Chapter 10 ‘perverse’ and ‘dull’: its action is unnecessary.” 9 At first glance that opinion cannot be denied, especially, if you consider that the content of the discussions about the protocols have really nothing to do with the development of the story of the novel. For what reason did Cooper write this chapter? We have to ask this question, if we do not want to accuse him of senselessness. Supposedly, he has written this chapter only with critical and satirical intentions.

If we have assured ourselves that Cooper has included many historical details in the novel, that it is even a critical-satirical attack on his time, you will find the following hint in Cooper’s book Gleanings in Europe: the Rhine from 1836, which is the second of his five travel books written after his European residence:

The Belgians have reached protocol No 67, and they begin to think it is most time now to have something more substantial. They will find King William of the true “hard-kopping” breed. 10

Following this lead, you will find another wording of the same topic in Cooper’s Journals, which he noted during his European sojourn and which he used as memory aid for the travel books:

The conference of London has just published another of its never ending protocols, making No. 67!-in which the solution of the question is deferred for two months. The history of these protocols is become so ridiculous as to render the whole affair a jest. 11

Hence the keyword to the protocol chapter is “The Conference of London” and the “Belgian Affair.”

Due to the Congress of Vienna (1814/15) the United Netherlands were established as buffer zone between France and Prussia by the Great Powers of Europe. After the French Revolution in 1830, a revolt occurred in the southern parts of the United Netherlands, which demanded the independence of Belgium. There was a storm of violence. In order to settle it and to protect the interests of the reigning Powers, a conference took place in London, on November 4, 1830, in which France, Prussia, Russia, Great-Britain and Austria participated. Up to November 1, 1832, there were seventy meetings; each time, a protocol was composed and delivered, mostly with numerous enclosures. Protocol No. 67, named by Cooper, dates from July 10, 1832 and contains four enclosures. The protocol itself consists of only a few lines:

The Plenipotentiaries of the five Courts having assembled in Conference took cognizance of the annexed communications (A. B.) which has been addressed to them by the Plenipotentiary of His Majesty the King of the Netherlands.

After having examined them in several successive Conferences, they agreed to address to the Plenipotentiary of the Netherlands the annexed answer (C.) and to the Belgian Plenipotentiary the note also annexed (D.) to this Protocol. 12

Already in Protocol No. 26 from June 26, 1831, eighteen articles had been proposed to solve the “Belgian Affair” on an international level. These articles have been discussed again and again, changed and newly drafted in the following meetings. From the documents one can extract that the King of the Netherlands could not agree to the intended changes and he often raised objections, which can easily be imagined because a part of his territory, which was conceded to him by the Congress of Vienna, should be fragmented.

However, neither in Protocol No. 67 nor in the enclosures one can find a suspension of the decision of the “Belgian Affair” for two months or a postponement of the conference’s work, as Cooper insinuates. Anyhow, Cooper was right with his note implying that the solution of the “Belgian Affair” was again deferred, for the next effective meeting of the conference, in which a final conclusion was achieved, took place nearly three and a half months after the Protocol No. 67 was drafted. The “never ending protocols” came to an end. A very last protocol from October 1, 1832, constitutes the end of the question of the “Belgian Affair” of the conference of London. As a result, Belgium became autonomous and independent. Prince Leopold from the House of Saxe-Coburg was crowned king already in 1831, and the constitution of Belgium was considered as one of the most liberal of the time. 13

In his short protocol chapter Cooper’s satirical art consists of alluding to the perpetual changes to proposed articles of a treaty between Belgium and the Netherlands in the sessions of the London Conference, at least since June, 1831. He uses a historical event, plays with it and counteracts the diplomatic efforts of the then Great Powers of Europe.

It is not my intention to find out detailed parallels between the conference of London and the actors of the “Conference of Dr. Reasono.” Rather, Cooper follows the logic of his book, to illustrate the vanity of men and their societies in the shape of the monikins. We can see one of Cooper’s merits in emphasizing the reasons for and the results of such events due to these human vanities.

The impetus in the first debate is the pure lust to look for one’s weak side within the context of the protocol; and Goldencalf sees the number of advisors of the protagonists as a “factual reason.” After the first protocol has been rejected the second becomes the object of a controversy due to menial motives, too:

Lord Chatterino and myself pounced upon the respective documents like two hawks, eagerly looking for flaws, or the means of maintaining the opinions we had before advanced, and which we had both shown so much cleverness in supporting. 14

There are no factual arguments, but rather ignorant questions about the matter itself; the opposition is trying to give their respective counterparts a wipe-down. The third protocol is composed by the monikin ladies in a very tautological manner; and again the opponents jump wildly at the document:

The cat does not leap upon the mouse with more avidity than Lord Chatterino and myself pounced upon the third protocol, seeking new grounds for the argument that each was resolved on. 15

But Noah Poke’s behavior, resembling a wise man’s, prevents further escalation.

If one would doubt that the “Conference of London” was a kind of historical model for the protocol chapter, I want to point out that in this chapter, the term plenipotentiaries is used, though the context itself tells nothing about agents or representatives. The author could have used another word in the meaning of “participant of a discussion” or something similar. Since, Reasono and Poke represent no one, they are not sent or authorized by anyone, the use of the term does not really make sense. Hence Cooper takes the term from his historical model when he names Reasono and Poke plenipotentiaries: “Some time elapsed before the plenipotentiaries returned.” 16 The usage of this term from the protocols of “The Conference of London,” in which it is stated in every document, mostly multiple times, is a hint big enough to show that Cooper has taken this historical fact as a motive for his “perverse and dull” chapter.

Last but not least, the fact that a protocol is drafted before a conference and not afterwards is in turn a part of Cooper’s “comico-serio, romantico-ironico” style. And the diction of the third version of the protocol in the grave and solemn intonation of the Ten Commandments counteracts all diplomatic conference results. In this intonation you can still see the results and intentions of many conferences, for example the just completed United Nations Climate Change Conference.

As in many of his other books Cooper presents himself in The Monikins as a critic of his time and a critic of human nature. And even in the so called “perverse and dull” protocol chapter of The Monikins, Cooper establishes himself as a farsighted critic.


1 Thomas R. Lounsbury, James Fenimore Cooper (New York, 1886) 134. W. B. Shubrick-Clymer, James Fenimore Cooper (1900; New York, 1968) 84. Carl van Doren, The American Novel, p.11. James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper (1947; Stanford University Press, 1967) 97. George Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper, The Novelist (London, 1967) 151. John P. McWilliams, Political Justice in a Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972) 341.

2 Robert E. Spiller, Fenimore Cooper, Critic of his Times (New York: Minton Balch, 1931).

3 Christina Starobin, “The Monikins,” in J ames Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art No. 8 (1991) 108-123; Rpt. online at James Fenimore Cooper Society Website.

4 Willi Müller, “The Monikins von J. F. Cooper in ihrem Verhältnis zu Gulliver’s Travels von J. Swift” (Rostock, 1900).

5 Scott Michaelsen, “Cooper’s Monikins: Contracts, Construction and Chaos,” Arizona Quarterly 48.3 (1992): 3.

6 Stephen Arch, “Cooper: The Arabesque and the Grotesque,” in James Fenimore Cooper. His Country and His Art No. 17 (2009) 7-11 (quote p. 9).

7 James Franklin Beard (ed.), The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 6 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1960-1968) 2:258.

8 Beard, loc. cit., 3:206.

9 Michaelsen, loc. cit., 12, 13.

10 James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986) 102. The original title from 1836 was Sketches of Switzerland, Part Second. German edition: Cooper, Aufenthalt in Frankreich, Ausflug an den Rhein und zweiter Besuch in der Schweiz, Erster Teil (Frankfurt am Main, 1837) S. 210f. “Die belgische Angelegenheit ist bereits bis zur Nummer 67 in den Protokollen vorgeschritten, und man gibt der Meinung allmählig Gehör, es müsse endlich etwas Tüchtigeres gehandhabt werden, als bloße schriftliche Unterhaltung. Sie werden aber König Wilhelm, als zur ‘ächt hartköpfigen’ Rasse gehörend, kennen lernen.”

11 Beard, loc. cit., 2:284, record from 07/26/1832. See also: ibid., 2:138f, letter no. 229 to Charles Wilkes, in which Cooper writes about the Belgian question too: “The Belgian question is far from settled, but we think the truce of six weeks will answer our purposes. You probably do not know how near we were to a war.”

12 Papers relative to the Affaires of Belgium. Protocols of the Conferences held at London. Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of His Majesty 1833 (London, 1833) 492.

13 Cf. Dokumente der Geschichte Belgiens, Vol. II, Belgien der Neuzeit von 1830 bis heute (Brüssel, 1978), 27ff.

14 James Fenimore Cooper, The Monikins (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1860) 141.

15 Ibid., 144.

16 Ibid., 139.