Hollowed and Hallowed Trust within James Fenimore Cooper’s The Crater

Edward Harthorn (Williams Baptist College)

Presented at the 19ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2013.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2013 Cooper Seminar (No. 19), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn, editor. (pp. 9-11).

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

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

The use of the phrase “In God We Trust” as our national motto has prompted much debate about the relationship between religion and government. Some say that it is an illegal merging of church and state, while others argue that such a reminder is essential to the nation’s welfare. The speaker’s or reader’s opinion does not concern us here; however, it seems plausible that James Fenimore Cooper in his 1847 book The Crater would support the motto. His book contains much discussion and debate about trust in general, within and without the storyline; in this paper, I will be broadly focusing on the two most distinctive types exhibited in the story. The first category of trust is the characters’ failure to trust in themselves, their neighbors, and their institutions, which leads to problems in their lives and setbacks to the colony. The second category of trust is the main characters’ remarkable faith in God, which leads to blessings in their lives and prosperity in the colony. As the colony grows, these two trusts hybridize due to an ever-present humanness; what results is a mixture of divine trust and failed human trust in the form of interdenominational rivalries. Although it sounds minor, it pollutes the colony’s spiritual faith, and a divine judgment is eventually pronounced that leaves the colony no better than Sodom or Gomorrah. The trends of hollowed and hallowed trust thus closely follow the milestones in the story, and that proves useful in the unified study of a work that is often only studied in sections.

It does not take long to find instances of broken trust in the novel. Commencing the plot is a feud between the rival patriarchs of the Woolstons and Yardleys, both fictitious families of Pennsylvania in 1793. Although Cooper credits the strife to their rival medical practices and theories, the effects are much broader. Mark Woolston, the main character and the oldest son of Mr. Woolston, is once openly denied from seeing his wife-to-be Bridget Yardley because her father cannot bring himself to welcome a despicable male Woolston (18-19). Although this dynastic dispute is later tamed, its scars seem to have lasting effects. Its presence gives a foreshadowing of other, more consequential failures of trust yet to appear in the story.

Arguably the most influential breach of trust occurs at sea. By this time, Mark has been promoted to first mate of his merchant ship, the Rancocus. Captain Crutchely is recovering from drinking a tad too much grog, when a startling announcement is made from the crow’s nest: “Breakers ahead!” (36) Breakers, implying shallow water, were not shown on the “reliable” nautical charts (37). To complicate matters, no one besides Mark and the original lookout admits to spotting the alleged danger, and the second mate even disavows the claims (37-39). Captain Crutchely must then decide his orders for navigation, testing his confidence in a handful of reliable and convinced eyewitnesses against printed charts, his second mate, and his desire to profit greatly on the voyage. Fatefully, the captain in his impeded judgment decides to sail ahead.

The ship forges on in the moonless night, and eventually gets stuck on a reef after all. Right before that happens, Mark’s friend and mentor, sharp-eyed Bob Betts, owns up to the fact that he had in fact seen and later even heard breakers. However, just as the disciple Peter denied his connection to Jesus in the aura of danger surrounding Jesus’s trial (Matthew 26:69-75), Bob had been too cowardly to admit his sighting in the face of opposition from those in power. This dishonesty is very important, as Bob’s earlier testimony could have saved the ship and prevented the lengthy, solitary sentence that the pair of sailors would thereafter serve. Perhaps this guilt might even have contributed to the great humility he shows to his former trainee for the duration of the book, although Cooper only mentions that this was due to Mark’s greater rank before their stranding (64).

The colonists’ (for others had since joined the duo) ill-fated peace with their opponent Waally, a crafty islander who lives four hundred miles from them, is another striking example in the book of the consequences of a breach of trust. After attacking the Craterinos’ domain twice, Waally is forced by Mark to agree to a treaty in which he agrees to not attack his American neighbors for fear of having his own islands pulverized by cannonballs. For a while, the treaty seems to be effective, until the day three pirate ships appear — with Waally as their guide. Waally seems to get his just fortune, however, when he is killed by an explosion in the subsequent battle (426). Nonetheless, his breach of the treaty proves to be inconvenient for both parties.

These incidents seem to culminate with the Craterinos’ eventual distrust of the governor and council, which inevitably leads to a peaceful but forceful coup, in which the people of the colony, many of whom do not know the {10} Woolstons as fully as the original settlers, force the adoption of a new constitution and leaders. The causes of this coup are ripe for debate. Scholar Lynda Salamon argues that the event can be attributed in part to the colonists’ laziness and the deception caused by the unwelcome lawyer and newspaper editor — agents put into play because of Cooper’s aim to expose the fallacy of man-made establishments such as civilization. While Salamon’s points are excellent, she neglects Mark’s faults in the matter, though few. Mark does have reason for wanting to distance himself from the general population (we are told that he is thought of as snobby for not blowing his nose with his fingers) but he seems to be too effective in that quest. He voices surprise when his wife tells him about the colonists’ secret plans to bring over more pastors, and the later immigrants do not seem to receive the same governmental attention to citizenship that earlier immigrants had (430).

If Mark had devoted slightly more attention to his position, it is possible that, from the storyline’s perspective, the crisis could have been avoided; however, according to Thomas Philbrick, it seems apparent that Cooper did not want to change the ending once he had decided on it (vii). I agree with Philbrick’s sensible inference, which is based on Cooper’s mentioning in a letter that the end was the best part of the novel, despite earlier qualms about it. Because Cooper’s health was probably not improving by 1847 (four years before he died), he might have chosen such an ending to reinforce the biblical concept that worldly belongings are meaningless after death, projecting his stage of life and beliefs simultaneously. As he says in the final chapter, “For a time our efforts seem to create, and to adorn, and to perfect, until we forget our origin and destination ... .” (458)

That brings us to the other related theme in The Crater, that of trust in the divine Creator, which Cooper seems to emphasize as much as or even more so than breaches of human trust. When first stranded on the island, Mark Woolston and Bob Betts simultaneously and voluntarily decide to renew their covenant with God, and from that moment the two become veritable disciples, endeavoring to remain humble and compassionate despite their increasingly luxuriant surroundings. Mark affirms to Bob that although his wife’s absence is heart-wrenching, his faith will remain steadfast, and that, of the situation, hopefully “something good will come of it” (73), calling to mind the story of Joseph’s bondage in Egypt in the Old Testament. One of the castaways’ first objectives is to observe a Sabbath, for before that on the Rancocus, there had been no choice but to work seven days a week. Mark especially strives to reflect on his blessings in the tough situation, “[a]s the seasons of adversity are those in which men are the most apt to bethink them of their duties to God” (86). Despite their differences in doctrine, the two founders of the colony set a high standard of toleration and compassion, as they are fast friends and treat each other’s viewpoints with dignity. Yet this compassion and dignity does not lead to a religious compromise between the two; Bob Betts makes the solidity of his views very clear in his actions during their first Sabbath (93).

Although mentioned less in the later parts of the book (minus the last few chapters), the theme of a nation trusting in God is implicitly present; most of the discussion concerns the expansion of Mark and Bob’s territory into a veritable civilization. Even the language of the book has biblical overtones, everywhere from the establishment of “Eden” on the island of Vulcan’s Peak to the Bible verses occasionally dropped into the characters’ and narrator’s thoughts. Although the book has occasionally been thought of as a Jeremiad or apocalyptic work, John Hales in his paper “American Millennialism and The Crater“ presents valid points to balance these thoughts. Hales points out that it is not wise to jump to labeling based on the last few pages while ignoring the first couple hundred, and that the book is essentially a warning, not an oracle. Still, the mere comparison of the book with these genres points to some parallels. In the introduction to the 1962 edition, Thomas Philbrick emphasizes Mark’s similarities to the situations of Lot and Noah, while holding that there are instances of Mark’s moral slide later in the story (xxv). This is surely due to Cooper reluctantly pointing out time and time again that a perfect government in this world is unattainable due to man’s lack of trust in God (444), a position that sets up the concluding crisis in The Crater.

The demise of the colony occurs when the colonists’ distrust amongst themselves and trust in God fuse — with disastrous consequences. Religious strife in the colony seems likely to be weathered, as it is less concrete than the destructive lawsuits and newspapers, but the exact opposite proves true. In the last days of the colony, it is described that “[t]he next-door neighbours hated each other most sincerely, because they took different views of regeneration, justification, predestination and all the other subtleties of doctrine” (438). As they focused on the minutia, they forgot the broad ethical and spiritual principles that were held in common between the denominations and were much more important. Nor is this phenomenon without precedent in the story, for in the first chapter, Mark’s mother-in-law and mother find themselves at odds over religious mindsets, adding fuel to their fires of wrath towards one another (12).

{11} Even worse in Cooper’s view, the population of Mark’s Reef gradually but decisively prioritizes and exalts itself before God. This last step towards not trusting in God, Cooper makes clear, is what leads to the divine judgment of the colony shortly afterwards. As he writes, “Let those who would substitute the voice of the created for that of the Creator, who shout ‘the people, the people,’ instead of hymning the praises of their God, ... remember their insignificance and tremble” (459). According to Daniel Ringe, this call to return to God is present in some form in most of Cooper’s last five novels, especially in The Oak Openings and The Sea Lions (583). I find notable Ringe’s mentioning that Deacon Pratt in The Sea Lions “betrays his God for a bag full of gold” (586), echoing the Craterinos’ betrayal of God in prosperous times. These similarities confirm that Cooper’s insistence on the theme of divine trust was no coincidence in The Crater.

Although often subdivided based on different plot divisions, The Crater is foremost a continuous book exploring the inner quality of trust. The characters’ abundance of or lack of trust influences how they react to the challenges presented to them, no matter how lonely, drunk, scared, or surprised they may be. James Fenimore Cooper emphasizes trust as a powerful tool that can empower or weaken people in the scenarios they face, and seems to advise readers of The Crater to strive to eliminate their hollowed trusts and strengthen their hallowed trust.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak (1847). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962. Print.
  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore. Introduction. The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak. By James Fenimore Cooper. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884. ix-xix. Cooper Society Website. Web. 6 Apr. 2013.
  • Franklin, Wayne. The New World of James Fenimore Cooper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. 183-212. Print.
  • Hales, John. “American Millennialism and The Crater.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art 7 (1989): 143-55. Web. 6 Apr. 2013.
  • Harthorn, Steven P. “James Fenimore Cooper, Agriculture, and The Crater.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art 13 (2001): 57-61. Web. 6 Apr. 2013.
  • McWilliams, Jr, John P. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. 359-74. Print.
  • Philbrick, Thomas. Introduction. The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak. By James Fenimore Cooper. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962. vii-xxix. Print.
  • Ringe, Donald A. “Cooper’s Last Novels, 1847-1850.” PMLA 75.5 (1960): 583-90. Print.
  • Salamon, Lynda B. “’A Life in the Woods’: Failure of Leadership in The Wept of Wish-ton- Wish, The Pioneers, and The Crater.” James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 4 (1993). Cooper Society Website. Web. 6 Apr. 2013.