The Aesthetics of History in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish
Presented at the 20ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, June, 2015.
Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
Imagination is a social bond that brings together the minds of the past with the present. It is what makes each of us unique in our individual responses to experience while allowing us the power to share a common vision. In his 1765 publication of the Encyclopédie, Voltaire claimed that imagination was “the power which every sentient being feels within itself to represent in its mind sensible objects. This faculty depends on the memory. One sees human beings, animals, gardens; these perceptions enter via the senses, the memory retains them, and the imagination composes them.”
Cooper well understood the relationship of memory to mental visualization. His ability to acquire each reader’s individual sensory experiences and orchestrate the imagery inspired by these into specific moments within his story is an important reason why his works continue to carry such weight. Cooper’s skill, along with the timing of his writing, make his work an excellent point of reference to examine photography’s evolution and its impact on the author’s influence on the reader’s visualization. As photography evolved it expanded what imagery was accessible to the reader outside of the immediate sensory experiences Voltaire describes, changing the arena for storytelling forever. This paper is an attempt to reference the moment in writing before photography became such a powerful influence on the reader’s sensory experiences through a close reading of Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish.
Cooper’s writing was published, for the most part, during the birth of photography. With the world’s earliest surviving photograph dated at 1827, and the publishing of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish two years later, the relationship between these is a powerful one. It is unlikely that Cooper had seen a photograph before writing his novel, but soon after its publication photography had made its mark. By 1839 photography had been introduced and the concept of “capturing” reality had moved beyond anything conceivable.
Reading Cooper offers opportunity to revisit a time when author’s had to consider the experiences available to their readers, drawing from these to create imaginary landscapes where their story could unfold. Cooper’s living audience was the last generation of readers left with only the author’s text and their individual sensory experiences to conjure the mental imagery that was associated with experiencing a literary work. Most people’s exposure to manufactured imagery of the time was limited at best, and what was available was nothing close to the accuracy and accessibility that photography provided. Therefore, people had to rely on their imagination and actual sensory exposure as Voltaire stated to create their mental picture of the words they read or stories they heard. This mental exercise of visualization changed with the introduction of the photographic image, and realism became the tether to which our imagination was tied. In its early years, the photographic image was considered to be a sun painting that combined science and nature in a way that was so pure it was thought to be the fingerprint of God 1 . The idea was that finally there was a means to replicate reality faithfully, a means to project an objective representation for the world to see. Photography expanded the mental compass of one’s visual referencing, and this had a significant influence on how author’s “transported” their audience.
From the perspective of one interested in the relationship between text and image, primarily that of photography and the reconstruction of visual narrative through the use of appropriated historical photographs, Cooper becomes a fascinating reference since most of his work was published before, or during, photography’s introduction to mainstream America. I remember the exact passage that opened my mind to Cooper’s visual choreography as he constructs scenes with such eloquence and control. It was the infamous pigeon shoot in The Pioneers, chapter XXII. So many things are happening during this scene, from the striking visual slaughter to the symbolism that every action of each character suggests. Cooper takes this place and this moment of the story and creates layers of imagery and allegory that seem to extend infinitely from the opening transition of seasons to the very last scene that has the children of the Templeton running through the fields covered in half-dead pigeons wringing their necks. This space enticed me. I had never before been so visually engaged in a text, in the specific moment of writing, as if I was looking at it from some strange perch, on which Cooper had placed me, in a particular location to see the world, at that moment, in the way that he had intended. Being a photographer, I understood this; to frame the world in a way that would direct the visual experience of the viewer felt familiar. I began looking for other moments in Cooper’s stories that opened themselves up to consideration of the relationship of image to text, soon discovering The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish.
The role our imagination plays in composing sensory input into visualized ideas has changed with the development of technology. If we consider the individual, like Cooper, who lived before photography and the enormous range allowed to create for oneself interpretations of descriptive scenes from stories, either written or spoken, and then compare this with the modern individual in our image-oriented world, we can quickly conclude that our facilities of imagination have changed. Before the photograph, the realm of visual reference material available to the author and audience was limited to the input of actual experiences, everyday experiences that were shared by those in an ordinary community or culture. The stories that were told relied on the author’s ability to provoke the audience’s visualization of the narrative. The shared experiences of actual engagement with one’s surroundings were the sources for almost all of one’s imaginative fortitude. Most people’s exposure to manufactured imagery of the time was limited at best, and what was available was nothing compared to the accuracy and accessibility that photography provided. Therefore, people relied solely on their imagination and actual sensory exposure. As photography brought with it the realistic imagery of different cultures and places to those who had never before visited them, the “experience” of the audience shifted. This opportunity provided for the evolution of the story to wed together within a narrative the use of imagery, or the influence of imagery, to traditional literary elements authenticating a story in ways previously unparalleled.
As the photograph removes the experience of a moment from being bound to a retelling by becoming a device of speculation for a reflective consciousness, it provides more immediate access to the cultural caché of that moment, and all it becomes from that moment forward. Until photography’s entrance, this cultural caché was preserved through the expansion of time through the compositions of artists, performers and writers. What remained were the impressions of the audience and their visualization of the text they encountered. It is crucial to look at such efforts in their original context if we want to measure photography’s contribution to literature. Returning to the work of James Fenimore Cooper provides such an opportunity. If we consider the individual who lived before photography and the enormous range allowed to create for oneself interpretations of the descriptive scenes from the stories, either written or spoken, then compare them with the modern individual living in our image-oriented world, we can quickly come to the conclusion that our range of imagination has changed over time. Cooper offers an opportunity to revisit a time when authors had to consider these tangible experiences of their readers as the primary palette from which to create imaginary landscapes in which their stories could unfold.
Cooper’s fascination with history paired with his creative delivery makes his work a bridge connecting the appreciation of aesthetic principles to the value of historical context inherit to a literary work. By looking back at Cooper’s time, and then, once again retreating into the past through the passage of Cooper’s narrative, we are awarded an objectivity needed to understand how history itself can be a form of aesthetic experience as represented in the story. His construction of such a distant reality offers an excellent opportunity to examine the structuring of such “otherness” in the writing of American authors before the influence photography presented to the imaginative qualities of the reader’s mind. This “visualization” that takes place in the reader’s mind centers itself on varying aesthetic experiences. As Jerry Farber states in What is Literature? What is Art? Integrating Essence and History,
When aesthetic experience is at its fullest, however, we are, in experiential terms, inhabiting not our world but the world of the image. We are provided not only with a respite from an oppressive self-concern but also with an opportunity to perceive and think and feel within this space that has been liberated. (17)
If we approach Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish with the aim of pinpointing the content that triggers such experiences, we can then begin to peel back the layers of his style to examine his treatment of that which is historical. By doing so, we can determine the value of the historical influences as an aesthetic experience, one that is representative of pre-photography writing.
Cooper sees fiction not as an opposing force to history, but instead as a means of bringing clarity and understanding to the historical episode centered in his novel. As he stated in The Last of the Mohicans, “History, like love, is apt to surround her heroes with an atmosphere of imaginary brightness” (353). By delivering his audience to the Heathcote’s settlement Cooper enables us to experience the mood of the time, to believe in the prevailing themes of that time by narrowing our vision so that there is no other choice than to live inside the space he has created. Cooper himself suggests to his audience to “try the experiment of reading works of the imagination as if they were intended for matters of fact. Such a plan might enable them to believe in the possibility of fiction” (Baveystock). This is the higher form of truth that Cooper dedicates himself to, not merely restating or reordering the events of the past, but by breathing life into them so that they may continue to remain a part of the national identity that Cooper and other contemporaries are committed to defining. He created an entirely unique moment of visualization in the American experience of developing and preserving the literary identity of our history.
Cooper worked from the position that all other writers before him did, that of writing one’s audience into the space of the story, using only reference to the sensory experiences shared by all that defined the imaginary limits of his audience. These limits on the reader’s ability to visualize expanded with contact to photography. Instantly, one who had never seen a Native American was presented with the image from a photograph that would become the face of every Native American character they were ever to read about again. The implications of this visual exposure are vast, but for Cooper, they place a value on his words and their descriptive eloquence as being representative of the writer’s art of creating before photography. It is not my assertion that there is less creativity or ease of burden on writers since Cooper, only that photography presented a different landscape for the author, the telling of the story changed as the readers’ minds expanded with the referential information associated with the experience of viewing photographs.
When considering authors who have inspired great works of fine art, very few have as strong a connection as Cooper. The inspiration that Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School found in Cooper’s works is a testimony to the power his words had on the reader’s imagination. This connection between painting and story wasn’t merely illustrative, where scenes and characters from Cooper’s works were recreated. Instead, the qualities that these painters tried to capture were more atmospherically inspired, scenes that “felt” like the places in Cooper’s writing. With his interest in historical fiction, his scenes were ones he had to visualize for himself, reconstructing the inaccessible into an experience so profoundly felt by those who entered through his words. The space created in his stories has become representative of the periods he depicted, finding imagery through his words that remain embedded in our imaginative view of those times. Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish forms a credible coordinate to use when charting the function of imagination in interpreting texts and the efforts of writers to engage their readers’ ability to visualize. This experience remains entirely literary allowing for the imagination of the reader to be still in control of how the scene or character is represented in form. Through careful examination, it becomes evident how Cooper utilizes this process of the reader’s visualization of the text in an effort to create a stronger and lasting image of time recreated.
Much like a photographic image is framed and defined by the edges of the surface it is presented on, Cooper sets the boundaries of the moments he offers by beginning with observations that extend beyond what is physical. There are many moments in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish that demonstrate Cooper’s approach, each with unique qualities. As in my earlier reference to the passage from The Pioneers, Cooper begins the reader’s journey with a discussion of a passage from winter to spring. In this instance, however, he challenges the literary interpretation of spring in the hands of poets. It is Cooper who is speaking here, to us the contemporary reader on the receiving end of his words. They are timeless in their direction, cerebral in their content, and by the act of causing the reader to bring their relationship with spring to the surface; Cooper has prompted the reader to envision a timeless picture of something abstract. What spring feels like becomes illustrated through the concrete images of the reader’s personal history with the idea of spring. These individual images are the boundaries that Cooper proceeds to fill with a narrowing of focus. He directs this visual creation with precision, as he is careful not to cloud the imagery that each has conjured while reading his discourse on Spring and Autumn, but continues to zoom into the precise moment he is patiently delivering to his audience. Careful not to allow the textures of the fictitious reality to overpower the personal vision of the reader as he draws them back to the Heathcotes’ world, time is the element Cooper discusses first, not place or person. The readers arrive with a thoughtful and personal image to where the story is waiting for them. This is introduced with the thought of passing time, “more than half a year”, which begins the introduction to place. It is April, but as Cooper has already demonstrated in his earlier discourse on Spring, this location on the calendar means little. Everything is frozen, and the reader feels this, sees this, without Cooper ever physically describing the scene; it is the essence of a timeless place that is composed, somewhere accessible to everyone.
The first descriptive details of this moment in the story are of Content leading a group into the forest. Cooper doesn’t say anything other than the word “forest,” yet this forest exists in the reader’s imagination through Cooper’s eloquent crafting of imagery leading up to this exact moment. The reader finally arrives at the story, once again transcending the distance of time between their life and that of the Heathcotes. To make this visual journey final, Cooper plants the reader into the story with the sound of a foot touching the frozen earth. Without ever describing the sound, the reader hears it, and at that moment the story becomes alive. Cooper has accomplished this through establishing an atmosphere that invites the reader’s imagination to visualize the moment, without dictating how that moment looks. This is what makes Cooper such a technician of the visual, and why his works have inspired so many to interpret his literary moments in painting. His aesthetic allows an openness of space to fill with imagery generated through personal histories, making the relationship between readers and story an intimate one.
For many, Cooper is a gateway to the experience of the American wilderness, an experience he saw diminishing during his life. His work is an attempt to preserve this experience, much like a photograph captures a moment, to be viewed by later generations, providing imaginative access to a time that would otherwise be inaccessible. By choosing the setting of 17ᵗʰ-Century Puritan Connecticut, he pushes his story to one of the furthest points in the collective Euro-American consciousness that his imagination can travel. His ability to create such visual impressions makes this journey imaginable, establishing access not only to the physical real setting and customs of the Puritans, but also the atmospheric qualities as well. The situations he creates carry with them worth that extends past their descriptive and symbolic value, offering an aesthetic generated through a pre-photography visualization by both author and audience. These lasting images that Cooper orchestrates exemplify the literary imagination at the moment just before photography began to alter the reader’s imaginative process of envisioning. He demonstrates a literary approach to recreating the essence of historical events, by connecting his reader with the distant past with imagery he incorporates into his writing. Recognizing how valuable a mental picture is in validating this connection, Cooper’s authorship records these efforts in a way that inspired historical referencing to these precise moments he recorded. The imaginary images inspired by his writing were the beginning of a national identity cataloged within a visual cache that would soon collaborate with photography in preserving this “idea” of how specifics are remembered; and how these specifics continue to shape our cultural biases.
As the photographic image exponentially spread throughout society, it became a familiar record of time, place, and event for most of society. Those who grasp the relationship a photograph has in historical terms, projecting its “story” onto future viewers as a record of the past, were able to manipulate these images and their historical relevance. James Fenimore Cooper well understood the relationship of memory to mental visualization. His ability to activate each reader’s individual sensory experiences and orchestrate the imagery inspired by these into specific moments within his story is a valid reason why his works continue to carry such weight. Cooper’s skill, along with the historical timing of his writing, makes his work an excellent point of reference in examining photography’s evolution and the impact author’s influence has on reader’s visualization. These social images continue to recreate a historical narrative accessed through the text these images generate. The continuum from Cooper to contemporary authors encapsulates almost two centuries of photography’s relationship with the literary efforts of narrative generation and offers a window to society’s evolving literacy with the photographic image. Natalie Davis clearly demonstrates the importance of our “reading” of the past, as historians are the ones who bridge the past with the future. She states,
History is simultaneously a form of literature; a mode of inquiry and proof, about whose fruits we have an obligation to fellow historians, to dead subjects of the past, and to readers of the future; and an arena for struggles of power and collaboration. Of especial importance to me is the historian’s compact with the past — and the historian’s promise to the future. It is a compact sealed in the blood of birth and death, and our stories must respect that stain. (209)
Before photography, memory was rooted in the experiences from traditional sources of communal identity. As Jennifer Green mentions, “Following the invention of photography, the value of historical knowledge became quickly and directly correlated to an ability to see the material of one’s study” (148). The Nineteenth Century brought with it the means to challenge such deeply embedded characteristics. One of these was the means to preserve an instance with film that could be shared later. These “shared” memories that photography has framed have helped construct a modern identity of our society. Folklore is the result of the passage through time of the stories we share, defining a commonality. With photography becoming more and more accessible to the population, these stories become more individualized and permanent as they were recorded with film. This permanence afforded the recorded moment an “afterlife” so to say, the ability to continue to exist. Green articulates this clearly when she says, “It is impossible to describe what a photograph shows without suggesting the history it relates because we read a photograph literarily; that is to say, we read it as though it were a text capable of telling us something” (149).
Through the image’s immortality a new type of story becomes defined, a narrative that reflects upon a moment that, by the nature of its framing, is just that, a moment. The decisions that contributed to the formation of that moment, the stimuli that arranged all that carried that moment to fruition, become left to interpretation. All things happen as part of a chain reaction. No moment could ever exist outside of what has happened before, or after unless it is the moment of a photograph. This inert quality of the photograph makes it unique. The fact that photography projected a sense of realness that authenticated the existence of the subject of the image, and simultaneously separated this “reality” from the natural “reality” from which it was derived, makes the reading of photographs complicated. The framing of the image, that is to say, the chosen subject, the placement of the subject within a setting, and then the actual composition that takes place within the boundaries of the two-dimensional image, becomes an important part of establishing the narrative. This narrative doesn’t necessarily stem from only one image, but instead, it is something compiled from the complete experience that forms the one image into something larger. This larger “text” provides many reference points in time and place that when compiled can validate an altered reality. Not that this is a fictional reality; instead, it is one that is defined by changing contexts of how and when the justified existence of photographic imagery is read.
Imagination is a social bond that brings together the minds of the past with those in the present; it is what makes our individual responses to experience while also allowing us the power to share a common vision. In his 1765 publication of the Encyclopédie, Voltaire claimed that imagination was “the power which every sentient being feels within itself to represent in its mind sensible objects. This faculty depends on the memory. One sees human beings, animals, gardens; these perceptions enter via the senses, the memory retains them, and the imagination composes them.”
James Fenimore Cooper well understood the relationship of memory to mental visualization. His ability to activate each reader’s individual sensory experiences and orchestrate the imagery inspired by these into specific moments within his story is a valid reason why his works continue to carry such weight. Cooper’s skill, along with the historical timing of his writing, makes his work an excellent point of reference in examining photography’s evolution and the impact author’s influence has on reader’s visualization.
- Baveystock, Freddy. “Probable Fictions and Improbable Truths: The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, Notions of the Americans and Cooper’s Quarrel with History.” James Fenimore Cooper Society. Web.
- Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last Of The Mohicans : A Narrative Of 1757. [Auckland, N.Z.]: The Floating Press, 2009. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web.
- ------. The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish. Bibliobazaar, 2006. Print.
- Davis, Natalie Zemon, “Narrative as Knowing,” cited in Joan Scott, Storytelling, History and Theory 50 (May 2011), 203-209. Web.
- Farber, Jerry. “What is Literature? What is Art? Integrating Essence and History.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 39.3 : 1-21. Web.
- Green, Jennifer M. “Stories in an Exhibition: Narrative and Nineteenth-Century Photographic Documentary.” Journal of Narrative Technique 20.2 (1990): 147-66. Print.
- Voltaire. “Imaginer.” Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Web.
1 Daguerreotypes were referred to as Apollo’s Paintings.