Network Culture in James Fenimore Cooper and Catharine Maria Sedgwick

Robert Daly (University at Buffalo)

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. 29-32).

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

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

So free will seems to involve some kind of time delay, of the order of a second. (135)

— Roger Penrose

Families and conventional expectations about them take a bit of a beating in Cooper and Sedgwick. Nathaniel Bumppo never marries, never amasses a passel of little bumpkins, never has a family. Or rather, he has several. He forms alliances with many families, to whom he is intensely loyal but in whom he is never quite subsumed, instead turning aside, with friends or dogs, to disappear once more into his oceanic forest. These alliances have less to do with filiation, with whose child one is, than with affiliation, a voluntary and often enduring cooperation that is, nevertheless, more chosen and created than merely inherited.

As Barbara Mann has noted in “Sex and the Single Mixed-Blood”: “Critics have long harped on the bachelorhood of Natty Bumppo” (57), and less scholarly fans have sought to correct it, to hook him up. In the Daniel-Day Lewis film of The Last of the Mohicans, the producers do not mention Cooper’s book and claim the film is based on an earlier movie, while the screenwriters merrily throw plot and probability to the winds in order to have Duncan Heyward reduced to a contestant for Monty Python’s upper-class twit of the year award, then strung up, burned, and shot. They have Alice Munro walk off a cliff and Chingachgook chop down Magua, only to leave Hawkeye, with Chingachgook on his right-hand side, and with his left arm round Cora Munro, as all three contemplate a lovely valley in the Carolinas, and the orchestra just plays its collective heart out. It’s boffo cinema, and it suggests how determined we are to collect stray characters into families.

Meanwhile, back in the world of books, Shirley Samuels suggests one reason for our doing so. In Romances of the Republic: Women, the Family, and Violence in the Literature of the Early American Nation , she notes that, in Cooper and Sedgwick’s time, the new nation was often figured as a large family, the family as a small state. For that reason, in her reading of Sedgwick’s novel The Linwoods, Samuels argues that “Isabella’s marriage, like that of other characters in the novel, involves her discovery of self in a political world, a founding of a family that is a founding of the state” (64). And she’s right. But something else is also going on in Cooper and Sedgwick, something less clearly delineated but still important, something on the order of what Raymond Williams calls a “structure of feeling.”

A structure of feeling is socially effective but not yet named and defined. We may think that we can see it more clearly now than they could then, but Williams is quick to warn us off that bit of presentism and self-congratulation: “Almost any formal description would be too crude to express this nevertheless quite distinct sense of a particular and native style. And if this is so in a way of life we know intimately, it will surely be so when we ourselves are in the position of the visitor, the learner, the guest from a different generation: the position, in fact, that we are all in, when we study any past period” (64). So what are we to do? We do not wish simply to retrofit Cooper and Sedgwick to 2011 and to claim that they are our contemporaries. Nor do we wish to condemn them to a merely nostalgic or antiquarian interest.

One way forward now is suggested by Ralph Cohen in the 9 June 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books: “Properly practiced, in short, interpretation protects the works of the past from becoming disposable junk by astonishing the readers, making them take a second look. It keeps the past alive” (35). Though I doubt that this paper will be all that astonishing, unless you’re astonished by how bad it is, it does essay a second look at one aspect of Cooper and Sedgwick, their notion that an American nation could and should be founded not only on filiation, a line of parents and children in families, but also on affiliation, covenants and networks based on choice and volition.

So Hawk-eye allies with Chingachgook. Their blood may not be mixed, but their loyalties are. Their politics, their sense of the wider polis beyond the self, enables them to develop as complex selves, as human beings. And they widen that sense to include the Munro sisters, Duncan Heyward, David Gamut, and others. Not one of them, not even Hawk-eye, is self-sufficient. Hearing a strange sound, he asks, “Can any here give a name to such a cry?” He needs Heyward to explain that it is “the horrid shriek that a horse will give in his agony” (63). When challenged by the French sentinel in Chapter 14, Hawk-eye whispers, “What says it? ... it speaks neither Indian nor English” (136). Again it is Heyward, out of place in the American forest but skilled in French language and culture, who answers effectively, converses in French with the sentinel, and skillfully one-ups him.

When the sentinel asks him, “Etes-vous officier du roi?” [Are you an officer of the king?], Heyward puts the emphasis on officer and replies, “Sans doubt, mon camarade; me prends-tu pour un provincial! Je suis capitaine de chasseurs” [Of course, my friend. You take me for a provincial! I’m a captain in the cavalry.] Cooper does not translate the French. If you cannot make your way in that network, you will get no help from him. Yet he does add parenthetically, “(Heyward well knew that the other was of a regiment in the line)” (137). Why? Because Heyward has overwhelmed the poor lad three times. Both know that officer outranks sentinel, Paris outranks the provinces, and cavalry outranks infantry. After that, the sentinel is more likely to defer than challenge.

One of Hawk-eye’s many strengths is his openness to living in multiple networks with people whom he does not fully understand, his willingness to be surprised and change his mind, to choose and choose again, to make mid-course corrections at an argument from Chingachgook or a suggestion from Cora. It takes, for example, several tries for David Gamut to explain to him what an instructor in psalmody is and does, but Hawk-eye allows: “Well, friend, I suppose it is your gift and mustn’t be denied any more than if ‘twas shooting or some other better inclination” (58). Later, when he finds David’s pitch-pipe, he picks it up and carries it with him until he can give it back to his strange friend. As a result of his voluntary affiliations, among other causes, Hawk-eye survives and thrives. Magua, also quite impressive at the beginning of the book, is cut off from networks by his sense of grievance and endless manipulations of others. It is no accident that his propensity to curse his enemies causes him to linger on the cliff just a little too long and to be shot by Hawk-eye. His fall is compared to that of the Prince of Darkness, the brightest of the archangels and, like Magua, far more impressive at the beginning of his career than at its end.

As the untranslated French suggests, Cooper thought the American language would be built by selective accumulation, not by exclusion or purification. Lance Schachterle argues that Cooper spends “considerable energy registering ... a large variety of dialects ... the New England Yankee as well as the English patois spoken by various emigrant groups such as the Africans, Irish, French, Cornish, Dutch, and Germans” (49). This complex “amelioration” of our language helped to “constitute his own significant contributions to creating an American English” (68), in which his own neologisms are woven into a new network with strands from many other languages.

Sedgwick publishes Hope Leslie; Or, Early Times in the Massachusetts in 1827, the year after Mohicans, and scholars believe that she alludes to that book in her own: “IT IS NOT OUR PURPOSE to describe, step by step, the progress of the Indian fugitives. Their sagacity in traversing their native forests, their skill in following and eluding an enemy, and all their politic devices, have been so well described in a recent popular work, that their usages have become as familiar as household words, and nothing remains but to shelter defects of skill and knowledge under the veil of silence ... ” (81). As Mary Kelley puts it, “Sedgwick almost certainly refers here to The Last of the Mohicans (1826) by James Fenimore Cooper” (358).

Like Cooper, Sedgwick focuses not only family but also on voluntarily chosen networks of association. She taps into the convention of the marriage plot but then tells us only that the wedding happened and was much like other weddings. She focuses Hope’s choice to include her teacher, Master Cradock, within the family she forms with Everell and to form a network of friends between her family and others. Cradock had taught her languages, including Italian, the knowledge of which had helped her escape the pirates and learn what she could from Antonio Batista, a nice reminder that early America contained more than just Native Americans and English colonists, or, as Batista, an aggrieved Roman Catholic, puts it, “heathen savages and heretic English” (242).

Her knowledge of several cultures enables the character Hope Leslie, whose name puns on the word hopelessly, to avoid the hopelessness of letting her circumstances determine her, to make her own choices and connections. She takes Master Cradock into her household and forms a network of friends with Digby, Tuttle, and their families, a “friendship” that “subsisted through their lives, and descended, a precious legacy, through many generations of their descendants, fortified by favours, and gratitude, and reciprocal affection” (349). So family and network are not mutually exclusive: indeed, they can perpetuate each other.

In Cooper and Sedgwick the determinists, those who mistake “the fashion of the age” for “immutable principles” (206), who think they already know the patterns of fate and therefore never change their minds, do not fare well. They live in the same world of flow, change, and surprise as the rest of the characters but are less able to navigate it. Indeed, they live hopelessly because they cannot imagine that things have ever been or will ever be different from what they are now. Yet Hope, like Hawk-eye and the wiser characters in both books, can say, as Sedgwick writes in her preface, “We are confined not to the actual, but the possible” (6).

In this way, they transcend, as I have argued elsewhere (95), what Cicero and Kant called the ignava ratio, the notion that all is predetermined and known, “any principle,” as Kant puts it, “that makes one regard his investigation into nature, whatever it may be, as absolutely complete, so that reason can take a rest, as though it had fully accomplished its business” (615, A690 / B718). As Cicero puts it in De Fato (of fate), “This kind of reasoning is justly called lazy or inert, because with the same reasoning one would suppress every activity in life” (Kant 750). The Latin phrase is usually translated as “lazy reason” or argument, idle reason or argument, but the late classicist Albert Cook argued that it could also be translated as “the cowardly argument,” since whether we have choice and free will or not, it is cowardly to live as if we did not.

To deny or transcend the ignava ratio is to get outside ourselves and to engage with larger historical, philosophical, and biological networks in which we participate but which we do not control. Doing so enables us, in Quentin Meillassoux’s words, “to achieve what modern philosophy has been telling us for two centuries is impossibility itself; to get out of ourselves [italics in original], to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are nor not” (27). This participation takes us beyond the necessary truths of tautological argument, since, as Alain Badiou argues, “tautologies say nothing [italics in original] of the world. And rightly so! To say something of the world is always to affirm (or deny) that this or that state ‘happens’” (129). Though Spinoza, long before Badiou, argued that “we have no free will to make an affirmation or denial,” he too distinguished between “Desire (or cupiditas),” which “means any inclination,” and “voluntas,” which requires “affirmation or denial” (83). They reach different conclusions about free will but operate with similar terms. If Roger Penrose is right about our neural processes, “it takes about half a second of activity in the brain before a person becomes passively aware of something” (135). Choosing takes a little longer, and “there is some clear indication of such electrical activity about a full second ahead of the time that the subject believes that the actual decision was made. So free will seems to involve some kind of time delay, of the order of a second” (135). That’s a net difference of half a second and may be a price worth paying. We may have the ability to choose whether to drift or to navigate.

Cooper’s and Sedgwick’s characters and readers learn to navigate historical, philosophical, and biological networks characterized by what Stacy Alaimo calls “open dynamism” (157). The networks move, change, flow, surprise, and keep going well beyond us. The characters and we learn truths that may be universal but are contingent and unpredictable. So, like Hawk-eye and Hope, we have to choose to keep learning as we go.

Filiation is inherited; affiliations are chosen. In our own time voluntary network culture is far more obvious than in Cooper and Sedgwick’s, as evidenced in books by Michael Joyce, Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture, and Mark Taylor, The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture. Through their own epigraphs, allusions, and massive intertextuality, Cooper and Sedgwick drew from and contributed to literary networks. Their characters formed homologous networks with each other. And these both served American culture.

Now that the country has made and is making this change toward multiple networks, both circumstantial and voluntary, we can reread this aspect of Cooper and Sedgwick’s artistry and be astonished, not by me, but by them.

Works Cited

  • Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
  • Badiou, Alain. Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy. Trans. Bruno Bosteels. London: Verso, 2011.
  • Cohen, Ralph. “The Revelations of Frank Kermode.” The New York Review of Books. 9 June 2011. 34-36.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. 1826; ed. James A. Sappenfield and E. N. Feltskog. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.
  • Daly, Robert. ” Mohicans, Virtue Ethics, Literature, and Life.” Leather-Stocking Redux; Or, Old Tales, New Essays. Ed. Jeffrey Walker. New York: AMS Press, 2011. 86-102.
  • Joyce, Michael. Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. 1781; Trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Mann, Barbara Alice. “Sex and the Single Mixed-Blood.” Leather-Stocking Redux; Or, Old Tales, New Essays. Ed. Jeffrey Walker. New York: AMS Press, 2011. 57-85.
  • Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Trans. Ray Brassier. London: Continuum, 2008.
  • Penrose, Roger. The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind. Ed. Malcolm Longair. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Samuels, Shirley. Romances of the Republic: Women, the Family, and Violence in the Literature of the Early American Nation . New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Schachterle, Lance. “James Fenimore Cooper on the Languages of the Americans: A Note on the Author’s Footnotes.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 66.1 (2011): 37-68.
  • Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie; Or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. 1827; ed. Mary Kelley. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987.
  • Spinoza, Baruch. Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being. 1662; Spinoza: Complete Works. Trans. Samuel Shirley. Ed. Michael L. Morgan. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002.
  • Taylor, Mark C. The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
  • Williams, Raymond. The Long Revolution. Chatto and Windus, 1961; Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2001.