Bierce and the Cooperian Uncanny
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. 24-28).
Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
Let me begin by saying that I am acutely aware of the fact that at the moment I am all that stands between members of my audience and a box lunch, to say nothing of the delights of a bus trip to Cooperstown, Lake Otsego, an ice cream cone, and perhaps a visit to Will Monie’s bookstore, with its shelves bursting with Cooperiana. I will, therefore, make every effort to be, if not so laconic as the youthful, at least not so loquacious as the elderly Natty Bumppo. And with that as apologia I move on to a preliminary caveat. In literary circles both James Fenimore Cooper and Ambrose Bierce may be names to conjure with, but they are rarely encountered in the same necromantic incantation, and not merely because Cooper has always appeared to be one of the Elect while Bierce seems clearly of the Devil’s party. Cooper, who died in 1851, and Bierce, born in 1842, shared a portion of a century, a national identity, and a vocation, but where form, plot, style, personal history, philosophy, theology and ideology were concerned they had very little in common, Cooper’s essentially romantic and nostalgic though conflicted conservatism standing in emphatic contrast to the more liberal Bierce’s bitter satire and even nihilism expressed in works of psychological realism masquerading as fantasy. I cannot find that Bierce ever mentioned Cooper in print, and we know relatively little about the former’s reading habits — we are not even absolutely certain, in fact, where and when and how Bierce died, a remarkable fact given that he lived well into the twentieth century.
Given such obvious differences, and absent any very obvious evidence in support of the desired conclusion, it might seem ill-advised to suggest that Bierce might have been influenced by Cooper in any significant fashion, and I must confess at the outset of my talk today that the premise remains highly speculative. Where the question of a Cooper-Bierce relationship is concerned, it is not so much that the jury is still out as that the trial itself has yet to commence. It does seem to me, however, that the possibility (not that Bierce was an heir or disciple but that he was aware of Cooper and might, on occasion have used his work as a convenient point d’appui, or as something to satirize or critique) is worth exploring, and thus I stand here before you today — whether as prosecutor of the case for Cooper’s influence upon Bierce or as a prisoner in the dock, the perpetrator a literary crime of darkest dye, only time will tell — in order to lay out a small portion of the evidence in the case. Any apparent hint of Cooper’s influence on Bierce may be explained, of course, in a number of ways only some of which might tend to confirm my own supposition. What might appear to be echoes or similarities may be merely coincidental, or attributable to the fact that although they charted very different courses both men were inevitably sailing in the turbulent wake of the majestic literary ocean liner that was Sir Walter Scott. Just as Hawthorne located much of his work in what he referred to as Faeryland, a sort twilight zone between the realms of the actual and the imaginary, both Cooper and Bierce located their own literary kingdoms in frontiers or debatable territories analogous to Scott’s Borderland, and it is also possible to detect echoes of Scott’s pervasive nostalgia for a romantic past both (for example) in the sprawling tragedy of The Last of the Mohicans and in Bierceian texts such as one of the chillingly concise definitions to be encountered in The Devil’s Dictionary, both a cogent distillation of the tragic premise that lies at the heart of Cooper’s romance and a summary of several centuries of American history: “ABORIGINES, n. Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They will soon cease to cumber; they fertilize.” Then too, given the alluring Borgesian notion that all great writers create their own precursors, I may be merely reading Cooper through Bierce darkly, the Claude glass of Bierce’s somber perspective imparting to Cooper’s fancy a grotesque tinge that would not have been apparent to his contemporaries. My suspicion, however, is that from time to time Bierce did in fact appropriate specific notions from Cooper, and I assume this because in the Leatherstocking Tales in particular we encounter certain uncanny notions, undeveloped, embryonic germs or hints, as it were, that appear to have come to luxuriant bloom only later, in the dark and fertile garden of Bierce’s imagination. (It may seem too obvious to mention, but we might also recall that Cooper was an extremely popular writer in his day, so much so that, like Scott, he was in the literary air and would almost certainly have been internalized or metabolized by any American author of the day, just as (and this may seem too ghoulish) all of us here today now carry in our bodies at least a minute quantity, a particle or two, of the radioactive material released into the earth’s atmosphere during the recent disaster in Japan). I should also mention that I am using “uncanny” not so much in the sense that Scott, whose antiquarian sensibilities led him far into the realms of folklore, demonology and witchcraft, typically employed it (as indicative, that is, of a connection with the black arts), but as Bierce would have understood it later in the nineteenth century: “Partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortable, strange or unfamiliar.” (The O. E. D. dates the first use of the word in this sense, clearing the way for the Freudian unheimlich, to 1843). Despite Cooper’s reputation as the American Scott, the uncanny is literally or linguistically absent from the Leatherstocking Tales, for the word itself never appears therein. Nor do we encounter, for example, the word “eerie,” and “Gothic” is used only once, in The Deerslayer, and then only in a bit of Natural Theology describing “the temple of nature.” And yet there are many uncanny moments in the Tales, as when, in The Deerslayer, Judith is unable to raise the lid of her father’s mysterious chest, and concludes that her “unhallowed attempt” is being resisted by “some supernatural power.” (This is, by the way, the only appearance in the novel of the word “supernatural”). There is a similarly uncanny element in the scene in which Judith and Hetty approach Tom Hutter’s shrouded head after he has been “scalped, though still living,” and in a more general sense certainly a powerful aura of the uncanny surrounding the symbiotic relationship between Deerslayer and Killdeer, whose names, as Emily Dickinson must have noticed, are mirror images of each other. [Since the question of a Cooper/Dickinson relationship has been on our minds this week, I might mention in passing that there is no question, in my own mind at least, but that Dickinson was familiar with the Leatherstocking Tales, and indeed that she was intrigued by Cooper’s repeated hints, ignored by many readers, that Killdeer is the great love of Natty’s life. Dickinson’s “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun — ” has inspired a vast amount of scholarship, but if we leave aside for the moment “readings” and “meaning” we are left with a dramatic monologue in which the speaker experiences her (or his) own life through Killdeer’s consciousness (Natty always treats Killdeer as though he/she/it is sentient), taking us through every stages of the relationship with Natty: the dark time before Natty came into Killdeer’s life; the mythical first encounter and bonding; their many blissful years of connubial slaughter and slumber; the sad time, after Natty’s death, when the disconsolate rifle, reduced to the role of sacred relic or relict, is hung, never to be fired again, in the hall of Edward Effingham.]
I mention this in part because I suspect that Bierce, on occasion, made similar use of material borrowed from Cooper, but in any case, having said this much, I would like to return to my proper topic by offering, as in any good fairy tale, three examples, one of each kind (lead, silver, gold), of possible overt or more-or-less-subterranean connections between the Leatherstocking Tales and various tales by Bierce. The first may be evidence only of a shared interest in traditional tradition; the second of the possibility that Bierce encountered in Cooper material that he thought susceptible of further development; the third, of Bierce’s appropriation of material from Cooper in order to respond to it. I will try to provide some context for each.
The first texts to be juxtaposed are the “panther scene” in Chapter XXVIII of The Pioneers and Bierce’s short story “The Eyes of the Panther.” Elsewhere I have discussed Cooper’s account of a panther attack in some detail as an “Imperial Nightmare,” and today I will merely mention a few of the milestones in the apparently un-killable Anglo-American literary fantasy (it has certainly had more than nine lives) in which Native Americans or other “Others” are identified with savage and rapacious cats intent on subjecting white females to the unmentionable “Fate worse than Death”: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “Circumstance,” Dickinson’s “’Twas like a Maelstrom, with a Notch,” Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. That Cooper occupies a prominent place at the heart of the remarkably robust American branch of this tradition will be obvious to any reader of the Leatherstocking Tales, in which both Bad and Good Indians are repeatedly compared to panthers. In “The Eyes of the Panther” Bierce describes the aftermath of a primal scene in which a frontierswoman, terrified by a panther, gives birth to a daughter with a panther’s eyes. Barton Levi St. Armand is very probably correct in his assumption that the tale was “probably based in part” on Spofford’s “Circumstance,” in which a frontier woman is attacked by a panther and carried up into a tree where she endures a night of torture until rescued when her husband arrives to shoot the beast dead, but there are also echoes of other precursor texts, including the above-mentioned Mather and his Magnalia, Hawthorne’s “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” and (perhaps) Cooper’s tales. At the outset of Bierce’s tale Irene Marlowe seems only a beautiful young woman, “blonde, graceful, with something in her figure and movements suggesting the word ‘lithe.’” Her eyes are particularly intriguing — “gray-green, long and narrow, with an expression defying analysis.” A young man, Jenner Brading, is an ardent suitor, but she refuses to marry him, believing herself to be insane or possessed. In an attempt to deter him, she tells him what she knows of her own pre-history. She is the daughter of Charles Marlowe, a “woodman pioneer,” and his young wife. One evening while Marlowe is out on an ill-advised hunting expedition, his wife, already haunted by an obscurely motivated sense of dread, realizes that a panther is gazing at her with “malign interest” through the open window of their “little log house.” Terrified, unable to flee or defend herself, incapable even of “withdrawing her gaze from the luminous orbs that were killing her,” she sinks to the floor. Her husband returns to discover that she has lost her wits, and that their only child is dead in her arms — “pressed to death in its mother’s embrace.” Three months later the wife dies in giving birth to Irene, who inherits not only her mother’s beauty but the beast’s “devilish eyes.” Given the shared Gothic emphasis on the overwhelmingly powerful, irresistible and transformative gaze of the male aggressor (Dracula looms in the distance), there is a degree of consanguinity, as it were, between Irene Marlowe and Cooper’s Elizabeth Temple (whose own eye, during her own ordeal, never shrinks from that of the panther, insuring that “long after the event, her thoughts would recur to her passing sensations, and the sweetness of her midnight sleep would be disturbed, as her active fancy conjured, in dreams, the most trifling movements of savage fury, that the beast had exhibited in its moment of power”) and between Elizabeth and the speaker in Dickinson’s “’Twas like a Maelstrom,” itself a response to her reading of Spofford’s tale, in which the panther appears as an “Indian Devil.” (Dickinson deflected an inquiry from the inquisitive Thomas Wentworth Higginson by telling him that “I read Miss Prescott’s Circumstance, but it followed me, in the Dark, so I avoided her”). The notion of prenatal influence is an ancient one, still widely accepted by the learned in the seventeenth century (the curious may consult, as Bierce probably did, classics such as Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy or lesser-known works such as Levinus Lemnius’s The Secret Miracles of Nature: in four books. Learnedly and moderately treating of Generation. ...  or Johann Jacob Wecker’s Eighteen books of the secrets of art and nature ) and it still seemed plausible to many in the eighteenth (see James Augustus Blondel’s The Power of the Mother’s Imagination over the Fœtus examined  or Daniel Turner’s The Force of the Mother’s Imagination upon her Fœus in Utero, Still farther considered ) but survived much longer (certainly into the nineteenth century) in folklore and popular culture. Bierce’s occult hints regarding “possession” and so on, however, suggest that he is also bringing the repressed heart of the traditional panther scene to the surface, for Irene is also, as it were, the daughter never born to Shakespeare’s Miranda and Caliban, to Scott’s Rebecca and Ivanhoe, to Poe’s Ligeia and her lover, to Hawthorne’s Miriam and Donatello, to Spofford’s anonymous heroine and her Indian Devil, to Twain’s Becky and Injun Joe, to Cooper’s Cora and Uncas, to Elizabeth Temple and the ardent but purportedly savage Oliver Edwards in his guise as the interracial (or “crossed,” as Natty would have it) grandson of Chingachgook. (And later, to Marion Lenoir and Gus in Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, who would reprise their roles as Flora and Gus in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation). Irene represents, that is, a union involving both miscegenation and interspecial intercourse, and as such she can never be normal; cannot be happy; cannot, even, be allowed to survive. Bierce being Bierce, “The Eyes of the Panther” ends in tragedy: seeing her uncanny eyes gleaming in the darkness, fearing that she is a panther about to attack, Brading shoots and kills the guilty, haunted woman of his own guilty, haunted dreams. In these two episodes, then, Cooper and Bierce are on the same page, exploiting the same fears in the dark recesses of the white American psyche.
For an example of what may be a specific borrowing by Bierce from Cooper, we might look to a passage in Bierce’s Civil-War tale “A Horseman in the Sky” (1889), in which a Federal officer, standing at the base of a “gigantic face of rock, towering to so great a height above him that it made him giddy to look up to where its edge cut a sharp, rugged line against the sky,” looks up to see
an astonishing sight — a man on horseback riding down into the valley through the air! Straight upright sat the rider, in military fashion, with a firm seat in the saddle, a strong clutch upon the rein to hold his charger from too impetuous a plunge. From his bare head his long hair streamed upward, waving like a plume. His hands were concealed in the cloud of the horse’s lifted mane. The animal’s body was as level as if every hoof-stroke encountered the resistant earth. Its motions were those of a wild gallop, but even as the officer looked they ceased, with all the legs thrown sharply forward as in the act of alighting from a leap. But this was a flight!”
This passage marks the uncanny center of a story in which a young sentry in the Union army must kill a Confederate officer who, not knowing that he has been seen, has observed, from his own vantage point atop a precipice, the five regiments of Union troops that are hiding in the forest below, and if not killed will warn his own forces of the impending attack. The twist is that the Confederate officer who plummets to his death with such eerie aplomb is the father from whom the tale’s young protagonist has learned the necessity of doing his duty. The incident from which the tale derives its very title is thus not inherent in crucial to the plot, and yet one senses that the remainder of the plot appears to have coalesced around it. But how does a horseman get into the sky? How does one conceive of a horseman in the sky? One explanation is that Bierce did not conceive of it but merely adapted to his own purposes a similar episode that he had encountered in Cooper, for his description of this uncanny event is itself uncannily reminiscent of the passage in The Pathfinder (1840) in which Natty Bumppo recalls a young Delaware’s foolhardy attempt to reach an island in the midst of the river above Niagara Falls:
“The canoe was no sooner fairly in [the rapids], than down it went, as it might be that one sails through the air on the ‘arth, and no skill of the young Delaware could resist the stream. And yet he struggled manfully for life, using the paddle to the last, like the deer that is swimming to cast the hounds. At first, he shot across the current so swiftly that we thought he would prevail, but he had miscalculated his distance, and when the truth really struck him, he turned the head up stream, and struggled in a way that was fearful to look at. I could have pitied him, even had he been a Mingo! For a few moments his actions were so frantic that he actually prevailed over the power of the cataract; but natur’ has its limits, and one faltering stroke of the paddle set him back, and then he lost ground, foot by foot, inch by inch, until he got near the spot where the river looked even and green and as if it were made of millions of threads of water, all bent over some huge rock, when he shot backward like an arrow and disappeared, the bows of the canoe tipping just enough to let us see what had become of him. I met a Mohawk, some years later, who had witnessed the whole affair, from the bed of the stream below, and he told me that the Delaware continued to paddle, in the air, until he was lost in the mists of the falls.”
One of the more interesting ancillary aspects here is that the anecdote in question did not originate with Cooper himself, who could have encountered various versions in a number of earlier works dating back at least as far as the late eighteenth century. In these earlier accounts, however, the fated man is asleep or intoxicated and when alerted to his imminent death dies stoically but passively: in most he lies down in the bottom of the canoe and there submits to his fate. The uncanny image of the young Delaware paddling as he falls through the air toward certain death, then, the detail that seems to have engaged Bierce’s imagination, appears to have originated with Cooper, whose textual landscapes are, as we have noted, littered with pregnant improvisations of this sort.
There are similar echoes of the Cooperian uncanny in other tales by Bierce, including “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Chickamauga,” and “A Son of the Gods,” but we will turn our attention at last to “One of the Missing,” in which the protagonist is the clearly Bumppoesque scout Jerome Searing, “a brave man ... intrusted with perilous duty” and “an incomparable marksman, young, hardy, intelligent and insensible to fear.” Chosen because of his “extraordinary daring, his woodcraft, his sharp eyes, and truthful tongue,” Searing has been ordered to “get as near the enemy lines as possible and learn all that he [can].” After crawling through a “dense thicket of underbrush,” he enters an abandoned building from which he hopes to observe the movements of the enemy. Just after he has cocked his rifle, a Springfield with a hair-trigger, a stray round from a Confederate artillery piece obliterates the already ruinous structure, and when he regains consciousness, he finds himself trapped in the rubble, unable to move and with a “ring of shining metal” — the muzzle of his own rifle, also partly buried in the debris — pointing directly at his forehead. After an apparently lengthy ordeal (any movement on his part may set off the rifle) he succumbs to despair and deliberately presses the trigger with a piece of board. Although the rifle proves to be unloaded, this genuinely brave man dies anyway, and shortly thereafter he appears, to the experienced eye of a passing officer, to have been “dead a week” even though we are informed that in fact his ordeal lasted only twenty-two minutes. This study in subjectivity is also a sardonic commentary, as it were, on the very different conduct of Natty Bumppo as, in The Deerslayer, he undergoes a preliminary form of sadistic “torture by the rifle” at the hands of Rivenoak’s band of Hurons:
“The face of Deerslayer, indeed, was just removed sufficiently from the ends of the guns to escape the flash, and his steady eye was enabled to look directly into their muzzles, as it might be, in anticipation of the fatal messenger that was to issue from each. The cunning Hurons well knew this fact, and scarce one leveled his piece without first causing it to point as near as possible at the forehead of the prisoner, in the hope that his fortitude would fail him, and that the band would enjoy the triumph of seeing a victim quail under their ingenious cruelty.”
Natty, however, even more stoic than his captors, for whom stoicism in such circumstances was de rigeur (and here we might recall Thoreau’s recollection, in Walden, that “The Jesuits were quite balked by those Indians who, being burned at the stake, suggested new modes of torture to their tormentors”) — Natty, as I say, endures the psychological torture inflicted by his captors, taunts them as inept, and is eventually rescued. By contrast, the ostensibly Bumppo-like Searing crumbles in the face of similar psychological pressure, perhaps because he has a more active imagination than Natty is allowed to possess. (Cooper analyzes Natty’s response in considerable detail, noting that his “indomitable resolution, which so much exceeded everything of its kind that any present had before witnessed, might be referred to three distinct causes. The first was resignation to his fate, blended with natural steadiness of deportment; for our hero had calmly made up his mind that he must die, and preferred this mode to any other; the second was his great familiarity with this particular weapon, which deprived it of all the terror that is usually connected with the mere form of the danger; and the third was this familiarity carried out in practice, to a degree so nice as to enable the intended victim to tell, within an inch, the precise spot where each bullet must strike, for he calculated its range by looking in at the bore of the piece. So exact was Deerslayer’s estimation of the line of fire, that his pride of feeling finally got the better of his resignation, and when five or six had discharged their bullets into the tree, he could not refrain from expressing his contempt at their want of hand and eye”). This is, of course, just the sort of thing in Cooper’s writing that so infuriated Mark Twain, and one suspects that Bierce, Twain’s more-or-less friendly rival, would have reacted in similar fashion in part because he himself had been seriously wounded and seen too much genuine carnage and death during in the Civil War. In any case the tale (like the devastating “Chickamauga,” some of Melville’s Battle-Pieces, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn) can be read as more or less overt rejection of the Anglo-American masculine cult of violence and war that is certainly present, though not in an unambiguous way, in Cooper.