Out-Coopering Cooper? Hoffman’s Greyslaer and the Critics
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. 45-49).
Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
Charles Fenno Hoffman’s novel Greyslaer is one of those many works from the past that is now a footnote in literary history — a novel that once attained a degree of popularity in its own day but has since become almost completely forgotten. Greyslaer, at least, had more staying power than some. Published in July 1840 by Harper & Brothers, it quickly sold out its first edition and went on to a second shortly after. A stage adaptation of his novel ran at New York’s Bowery Theatre for about a week — a good showing for the times. A third edition of Greyslaer came in 1841, and a fourth appeared nearly a decade later in 1849. That was the same year, incidentally, in which Hoffman at the age of forty-three was committed to a mental institution, where he would spend the last thirty-four years of his life. The causes of his insanity are not completely clear, but one contributing factor may have been when his chambermaid unknowingly used the manuscript for his second novel, Red Spur of the Ramapo, to kindle the fire in his room. ¹
I first started taking notice of Greyslaer and its author while researching Cooper’s place in the literary marketplace of the 1830s and 1840s and became interested in them because of the number of interesting intersections they had with Cooper. I knew little about Hoffman at the time but have since found that he lived a (pardon the pun) storied life. He was born in 1806, and when he was eleven years old, his right leg was crushed between a boat and a wharf and had to be amputated above the knee — an incident that dampened his prospects as a dancer but at least evoked a sympathetic letter from family friend Washington Irving, who was in England at the time. Hoffman went on to study law but gravitate toward literature, and in spite of his injuries he became an avid outdoorsman who ardently traveled west in 1833 to the frontier of Illinois and St. Louis. He memorialized his travels in A Winter in the West (1835) and earned further recognition through his poetry, short stories, essays, and editorial contributions to several of the leading papers and journals of his day — including, most notably, The Knickerbocker, which he helped found, as well as the American Monthly Magazine, The New-York American, The New-Yorker, and later, The Literary World. Rufus W. Griswold, a friend and sometime-coworker of Hoffman, featured Hoffman more prominently than any other poet in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, a decision that provoked considerable discussion in the literary world. If Griswold’s enthusiasm was excessive, Hoffman nevertheless was widely admired as a spirited, eloquent, and charming personality, a favorite at social gatherings.
It would have been impossible for Hoffman to ignore Cooper’s tremendous influence, and indeed Hoffman was well acquainted with Cooper’s work. His admiration for Cooper’s talents is made clear in several of his writings. In his 1837 memoir Wild Scenes in the Forest and Prairie, he recounts how he re-read The Pioneers after a lapse of years and found himself “as much delighted as ever with the best character he ever drew — ‘The Leather-stocking.’” ² In an 1845 letter to Griswold (who by that time maintained a very close connection to Cooper as editor of Graham’s Magazine), Hoffman defended Cooper’s genius with “a brace of arguments that would mortally offend Mr. Cooper himself,” pointing out that Cooper should be renowned not for the exactness of his woodcraft or his seamanship, as some had supposed, but for the poetry with which he could portray forest and sea. ³ And in a review of The Pathfinder in The New-Yorker thought to be written by him, Hoffman gushed about Cooper’s revival of Natty Bumppo and the amazing circumstance of placing “Leather-Stocking in love!” Hoffman’s estimate of Cooper’s personal character is more difficult to gauge. In the same New-Yorker piece, he points out the widespread objection to the turn Cooper’s career had taken in the 1830s:
No man has been a greater favorite with his countrymen than Mr. Cooper, so long as he condescended to amuse them; but the moment he placed himself in the ungrateful light of an instructor his interest in their affections began to diminish. ⁴
Certainly Hoffman’s politics diverged significantly from Cooper’s. Cooper, though non-partisan, sided with Democrats and even contributed to William Cullen Bryant’s New York Evening Post for a time during the 1830s. Hoffman, however, was a confirmed Whig who kept company with many of Cooper’s fiercest critics, some of whom Cooper was suing for libel by the time Greyslaer came out. Horace Greeley operated the New-Yorker at the time of Hoffman’s Pathfinder review, and Park Benjamin was another close associate; these men and others had undertaken a merciless campaign of character assassination against Cooper in the 1830s. These circumstances and relationships would become relevant when Greyslaer was published, as we shall soon see.
The tale of Greyslaer itself bears obvious debts to Cooper. It is a frontier story, set mainly around Tryon County in upstate New York on the verge of the Revolutionary War. Cooperian passages of description abound, particularly in the opening chapters of the novel, though Hoffman’s occasional bookishness sometimes makes even Cooper’s prose look downright Twain-like in its vigor and ease. Most notably, Hoffman features a character named Balt, a crusty, garrulous woodsman, uneducated but brimming with forest know-how and backwoods philosophy. Although Hoffman drew some of the details of this character from a real-life mountaineer he knew named John Cheney, whom he described in Wild Scenes in the Forest and Prairie, much of Balt is classic Natty Bumppo. True, the copy is not an exact one: Balt, like Natty, carries a rifle so legendary it has its own name, but his is called “Tender Tavy” instead of “Killdeer.” Unlike Natty, well known for his lifelong friendship with the Mohican warrior Chingachgook, Balt hates Indians, leaving the diplomacy to the socially superior main character, Max Greyslaer, who can speak Oneida. Hoffman’s change here might well have suited his fellow author Robert Montgomery Bird, who had complained that Cooper had portrayed Native Americans too favorably in his frontier romances and had written his 1837 novel Nick of the Woods as a corrective to Cooper’s “poetical illusion.” ⁵ Despite Hoffman’s small-scale tinkerings with the Natty Bumppo formula, his indebtedness to Cooper remains obvious.
What interested me about Greyslaer, though, was not so much these connections of artistic influence, intriguing as they are, but the critical reception that Hoffman’s tale received upon its publication. In this light, coming to Greyslaer from the perspective of studying Cooper makes perfect sense, because comparison to Cooper — implicit or explicit — was a key issue on many reviewers’ minds when reviewing Greyslaer.
Hoffman’s timing (or rather the Harpers’ timing) in issuing Greyslaer could be considered either good or bad, depending on how lucky it might be considered to follow up a blockbuster from the greatest American novelist of the day. In March 1840, just four months prior to the appearance of Greyslaer, Lea ∓ Blanchard published Cooper’s Pathfinder to great acclaim and commercial success. Word that Cooper was preparing a new Natty Bumppo story, more than a decade after portraying Natty’s death in The Prairie (1827), had leaked out well before its publication, and Lea & Blanchard had actually held back shipment for several months until ice on northern rivers had cleared enough to free up transportation. The Pathfinder marked a much-anticipated return to the kind of writing many readers — and certainly many critics — most widely admired from Cooper. It marked a departure for Cooper from a decade of controversy in the 1830s, in which he had pronounced his disgust with the current state of America in A Letter to His Countrymen, announced his intention to lay down his pen (a vow he never really kept), published a series of unsuccessful travel memoirs, and returned to novel-writing with the scathing satire of Homeward Bound and Home as Found. As William Cullen Bryant would note in his memorial address on Cooper in 1852,
People had begun to think of him as a controversialist, acute, keen, and persevering, occupied with his personal wrongs and schemes of attack and defence. They were startled from this estimate of his character by the moral duty of that glorious work — I must so call it; by the vividness and force of its delineations, by the unspoiled love of nature apparent in every page, and by the fresh and warm emotions which everywhere gave life to the narrative and the dialogue. ⁶
Of course, even though reviews of The Pathfinder were overwhelmingly positive, opinion was not as unanimous as Bryant’s recollection may make it appear. For many reviewers, praise of The Pathfinder was tempered by a hope that Cooper, having recovered his good sense, would remain in his proper place as an author and abandon the politics that had occupied him so much before. More significantly, a number of editors most hostile to Cooper attempted to lower expectations by insinuating that Cooper’s creative powers had long since deserted him. Park Benjamin of the New York Evening Signal and The New World wrote:
There was a time when the above announcement [of Cooper’s name] on the title-page of a book, or at the head of an advertisement would, in theatrical parlance, draw; but that time has passed away. ... It is a pity for the remnants of Mr. Cooper’s reputation that this book should have been written. ... Mr. Cooper has seen his best days. His wand is broken; and he can never again charm “the judicious” with its waving. ... If any one besides ourselves has read the book through, we give him joy — he has had a tough time of it, and may thank his stars that it is well over. Our belief is, however, that this is a distinction wholly our own. We do not imagine that any other mere man has accomplished the task. ... ⁷
Similarly, the New York American, long hostile to Cooper despite editor Charles King’s friendship with Cooper in the 1820s, had its reviewer announce his unsuccessful attempt to read The Pathfinder, closing with a lament of “Alas! that a wand of such potency should be broken. But, broken it too surely is; and few are those, we apprehend, who now look with eagerness for any new publication, by the author of the Spy and the Pioneers.” ⁸
Clearly, the bad blood between Cooper and some in the press had not dissolved, and for some Whig editors caught up in the fever pitch of rhetoric approaching the 1840 election — the first in which the Whigs would win the presidency — the time for letting Cooper off the hook entirely was not at hand. Indeed, in mid-May 1840, James Watson Webb of the Morning Courier and New York Enquirer was mocking Cooper for his libel suits (he himself was a defendant in one), suggesting that if Cooper won awards from all of them, he could “abandon novel writing and live en grand seigneur at his seat at Cooperstown, contemplating his ancestral cabbage garden.” ⁹ And just a week after reviewing Greyslaer, Park Benjamin (another libel suit defendant) ran a two-part article in The New World entitled “Cooper Coopered,” which was little more than a reprint of a scathing review of Cooper’s Letter to His Countrymen originally printed several years prior. But even in less hostile quarters, critics throughout the 1830s had cast about for new writers to take Cooper’s place as a romancer of frontier or sea. For a time, John Pendleton Kennedy and Robert Montgomery Bird had seemed to be viable possibilities (and their Whig leanings probably did not hurt), but their output was limited to a couple novels apiece by the late 1830s. William Gilmore Simms, while quite active, never quite generated the fervor one might expect, partly because of his Southern sensibilities in a predominantly northern marketplace. ¹⁰
With the publication of Greyslaer, Hoffman stood to fill that place — or, now that Cooper was once again “active,” at least to take a place alongside him. Hoffman’s extensive connections in the literary world certainly did not hurt him in winning reviews or favor: on the New York literary scene in particular, he was as popular as Cooper was unpopular. And indeed, Greyslaer was reviewed widely and overwhelmingly positively. The New-York Mirror, revealing the power of these connections, prefaces its approbation of Hoffman’s novel by taking time to praise Hoffman not only for his professional ability as an editor but also his “refined deportment and warm-hearted amiability of character which have made a friend of all who know him.” ¹¹
What is striking about the reviews of Greyslaer is just how ubiquitous Cooper is in them. Even in those few reviews where Cooper is not directly mentioned by name, Greyslaer is evaluated on decidedly Cooperian terms: exciting incidents of historical interest, vivid and picturesque description, and romantic treatment of the frontier. Godey’s Lady’s Book found the novel’s setting “beautiful and picturesque” and its story “full of graphic description and stirring incidents.” ¹² The reviewer for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine states in an August 1840 review that “The author has so vividly described the various thrilling passages in the history of the hero and heroine, that the reader is insensibly carried along, and almost imagines himself to be a witness of the dark deeds enacted in the valley of the Mohawk.” The reviewer praises Hoffman’s decision to set the tale on the Mohawk, “a spot well known to the lovers of scenes where the imagination may picture romance on every hill and in every vale.” ¹³ In another review a month earlier, the Burton’s reviewer, again not naming names, tactfully praises Hoffman’s “delineation of forest scenes” and “conduct of the story,” and adds, somewhat less tactfully, that “[Hoffman’s] backwoodsmen are rather more naturally characterized than those of some other popular novelists; and they are not such intolerable bores as some that we could mention.” ¹⁴
Along similar lines, other reviewers singled out more overtly Hoffman’s portrayal of the woodsman Balt for comparison to Natty Bumppo. The Knickerbocker, in praising Balt’s character as a “bold and striking portrait” and noting the connections to the real-life John Cheney, concludes, “Balt is a genuine woodsman, and only a mere woodsman; and not, like Mr. Cooper’s fine creation of Leather-Stocking, a poet of the woods.” ¹⁵ James Watson Webb, in the more gracious of the two notices he published in the Morning Courier, wrote that “Mr. Hoffman has imagined a character that enlists the reader’s affection in a degree scarcely, if at all, inferior to that commanded by Cooper’s Leatherstocking, of whom “old Balt” is worthy to be a friend and companion.” ¹⁶ More bluntly, Park Benjamin in the New World pronounced that “The character of Old Balt, the hunter[,] beats Leather Stocking ‘all hollow.’” ¹⁷ Such things were evidence, by extension, of Hoffman’s expertise in forest lore. Benjamin commended Hoffman for writing “from his own study and observation” — implying, perhaps, that Cooper had not — and the reviewer for The Casket declared that “Few men are better acquainted with border habits and forest scenery than the author of Greyslaer.” ¹⁸
All this heady praise led to grand assessments of Greyslaer’s achievement and significance, with Cooper’s adversaries making some of the most grandiose claims. The Knickerbocker, often but not always friendly to Cooper, congratulated Hoffman on “producing a historical novel worthy to take rank with those of his countrymen” Cooper and Kennedy. ¹⁹ Philadelphia’s The Casket reviewed Greyslaer on the same page in which they conveyed eager anticipation for Cooper’s upcoming Mercedes of Castile, declaring that “Whatever Mr. Cooper writes is generally written well” (here I’ll pause for the Cooper aficionados to chuckle at that in light of the reputation that Mercedes enjoys). Nevertheless, the review for Greyslaer argues that “Had Greyslaer appeared twenty years ago, it would have been hailed with the same rapture with which the Spy was received, and Hoffman would have been what Cooper is now.” The reviewer goes on to suggest that Hoffman may yet come to rival Cooper through further romances, but “To surpass him on the ocean, or in the forest is impossible.” ²⁰ Park Benjamin less charitably states a similar notion: after declaring that he has “sipped at Harry Franco, Captain Kyd, Effingham, Pathfinder & Co., and various and sundry of that ilk, and been effectually nauseated in the process,” he declares that “Had it [Greyslaer] appeared simultaneously with THE SPY, it would have swept that over-estimated book into oblivion; and HOFFMAN, not COOPER, would stand first among American novelists. As it is, time will accomplish what adventitious circumstances have delayed.” ²¹ In an earlier review, Benjamin had declared it “decidedly the best novel of the season” and “destined to something more than a transient popularity” (despite admitting earlier that “we have not completed its perusal”), and James Watson Webb similarly puffed that “It has made the most decided hit of any novel of the twelvemonth, and it is as much superior to the later productions of COOPER as it is to his Precaution or his Spy.” “One advantage Mr. Hoffman possesses over Mr. Cooper,” Webb added, “is in the ability of writing the English language correctly.” ²² With all the love for Hoffman, at least one publication decided things had gone too far. The reviewer for the Ladies’ Companion took fellow critics to task for their “inflated enconiums,” saying, “The unanimity with which praise has been bestowed upon Mr. Charles Fenno Hoffman’s work proves conclusively, that not one out of every hundred of the reviewers ever perused ‘Greyslaer; a romance of the Mohawk,’ for the purpose of forming an impartial opinion of its merits.” Had reviewers “devoted on hour to the duty of the critic,” they would not have classed Hoffman with Edward Bulwer, G.P.R. James, Scott, Irving, or Cooper — “impressions so utterly at variance with common sense and honest intentions.” ²³
What all this glowing praise shows, I think, is not only the obvious — that Hoffman’s book was well-liked, or at least that Hoffman was well liked by his critic friends just as Cooper was disliked. What it also shows is how thoroughly Cooper — nearly two decades after writing his first historical novels and Leather-Stocking tales — had dominated the art and the marketplace of novel-writing in America. Not only was he still the one to beat, but through his achievement he set the very terms on which American historical romance would be written and evaluated. I don’t think enough has been made in our literary histories of just how substantial Cooper’s influence was. Cooper’s shadow hung over Hoffman; it hung over Hawthorne as he sought new ground for historical fiction; it hung over Melville as he built on Cooper’s legacy of the sea novel; and, I would argue, it hung over Twain as he tried to demythologize and outdo his inexplicably persistent and pesky rival from the past.
Of course, nobody consulted Hoffman about making all of these comparisons to Cooper, and, lacking any records that tell me directly, I can’t help but wonder what he thought. Being compared to someone else — even someone great — can be a mixed blessing, an attempt at a compliment that can nonetheless leave the recipient feeling robbed of an identity on his or her own terms. Cooper himself hated being labeled “The American Scott”; did Hoffman cringe at being “The Next Cooper”? And what might he have done in that now-lost manuscript of Red Spur of the Ramapo that could have helped give him a greater literary identity of his own? Hoffman may indeed be one of those footnotes of literary history; but, as we all know from our own reading and writing, many interesting things can happen in the footnotes.
1. See Homer F. Barnes, Charles Fenno Hoffman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1930) 183-190.
2. Wild Scenes in the Forest and Prairie (1837; New York: William H. Colyer, 1843) 1.29.
3. Hoffman to Rufus W. Griswold, 12 June 1845; in Barnes 260.
4. “Mr. Cooper’s New Work,” New-Yorker 8 (14 March 1840): 413.
5. Robert Montgomery Bird, Nick of the Woods; or, The Jibbenainosay: A Tale of Kentucky (1837; “A New Edition, Revised by the Author,” New York: Redfield, 1853): iv.
6. William Cullen Bryant, “Discourse on the Life, Character, and Genius of James Fenimore Cooper,” Memorial of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Putnam, 1852) 63.
7. “The Pathfinder, by James F. Cooper.” The [New-York] Evening Signal, 19 March 1840.
8. “Review of the Week,” The New York American, 28 March 1840.
9. “Cooper Again in the Field,” Morning Courier and New York Enquirer, 14 May 1840.
10. See Perry Miller’s The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville, and the New York Literary Scene (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956) for an in-depth account of the personal politics behind Simms’s woes.
11.[Review of Greyslaer], The New-York Mirror, 11 July 1840.
12. [Review of Greyslaer], Godey’s Lady’s Book 21(August 1840): 95.
13. “Review of New Books,” Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine 7 (August 1840): 107.
14. “Review of New Books,” Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine 7 (July 1840): 58.
15. “Literary Notices,” The Knickerbocker 16 (September 1840): 268.
16. “Greyslaer,” Morning Courier and New York Enquirer, 2 July 1840.
17. “Mr. Hoffman’s Romance,” The New World, 11 July 1840.
18. The New World, 4 July 1840; “Review of New Books,” The Casket 17 (August 1840): 76.
19. “Literary Notices,” The Knickerbocker 16 (September 1840): 268.
20. “Review of New Books,” The Casket 17 (August 1840): 76.
21. “Mr. Hoffman’s Romance,” The New World, 11 July 1840.
22. The New World, 4 July 1840; “Mr. Hoffman’s Greyslaer,” Morning Courier and New York Enquirer, 10 July 1840.
23. “Literary Review,” The Ladies’ Companion 13 (August 1840): 207.