A Geography of the Imagination: James Fenimore and Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Regional Legacy

Alfred Siewers (Bucknell University)

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.]

In our global era, regionalism as a cultural phenomenon is associated often with disconnectedness and even oppressiveness, as if it were a kind of problem. But a geography of the imagination, evident in the overlapping legacies of the writings of James Fenimore and Susan Fenimore Cooper at the Headwaters of the Susquehanna at Otsego Lake, arguably can help redeem regionalism as a source of resistance both to a neocolonial globalism and reactionary localism. The Coopers’ legacy of imaginative region illustrates a kind of mediation between the universal and the particular, which is significant for a sustainable sense of community and environment today.

An article in the Financial Times recently about Chicago illustrated the problem of regionalism today. It discussed the decline of Chicago as a region and the emergence subsequently of an extreme binary of two Chicagos — one of poverty and discouragement, the other of global connectedness and opulence. The regionalist phenomenon of Chicago historically has been detailed by the environmental historian William Cronon. It was in many ways a logical outcome of the processes of American development around the Great Lakes, paralleling the development of the upper Susquehanna Valley fictionally chronicled and critiqued by James Fenimore Cooper in his Leatherstocking Tales.

Yet in recent decades, as the article noted, Chicago’s regionalism has faded as globalization has grown. Gone is the name Chicagoland, coined by Col. Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and a controversial Old Right Midwestern isolationist, along with the so-called Chicago School of Journalism, the Chicago School of Television, Chicago and Midwest regionalist literature and art, and accompanying Prairie Schools of architecture, landscape, and parks. Even Chicago’s Democratic political machine with its odd combination of community, dictatorship, and racism, has hooked up with globalizing financial interests. On a broader scale, recent generations have also seen the fading of the problematic regionalism of the American South as formerly commemorated by Southern Agrarianist writers or more skeptically chronicled by Flannery O’Connor and Zora Neale Hurston among others.

But the fading of such other regionalisms makes more intriguing the endurance of what is promoted as the Leatherstocking Region, in continued engagement with its geography of the imagination around the world, as well as with the Cooperstown area. It is both a smaller and larger region in certain ways than either Chicagoland or the South. But arguably as an overlay landscape of a particular place it has had some remarkable successes in terms of historic preservation, natural conservation, and development of a non-smokestack economy around Otsego Lake, as well as in reinventing itself across generations. The Leatherstocking Tales helped also to inspire Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation efforts on a national scale, and arguably the legacy both of James’ fiction and Susan’s essays and philanthropy still have much to contribute to ideas of urban agrarianism and urban sustainability in the twenty-first century on a scale far beyond Cooperstown.

But to return to a sense of mediating imaginative regionalism in their legacy, there are a few helpful ideas from place studies and environmental philosophy that can help unpack what can be called the Cooper effect. These can be summed up using terms drawing on the Greek root oikos or household, from which we get the modern terms for ecology, economy, and ecumencal.

First, the English philosopher and aesthetician Roger Scruton has written in his book Green Philosophy, about oikophilia, or the love of place, as crucial to environmentalism in the 21ˢᵗ-century. This concept of oikophilia sums up the regional effect of the Coopers’ writings, affecting the Susquehanna Headwaters as what in the British Isles has been called a thick place, a landscape of richly layered meaningfulness. Scruton writes that the experience of the sanctity of landscape “is deeply tied to memory. ... Memory corrects and straightens our recollections, and shapes the remembered oikos in terms that are as much imagined as real. ... The beautiful and the sacred are contiguous objects of ecological concern.” Scruton concludes that, “We must discard the habit of using things and learn instead to praise them.”

There is an element of sacral piety in James’ celebration of and mourning for the great Eastern Woodlands, an American literary green wood. We see this movingly in The Deerslayer, in Natty Bumppo’s first encounter with the lake at the source of the Susquehanna, and then tragically in the description of environmental decimation in The Pioneers.

The sacred sense of forest evoked by James Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales in his mythic storytellng about the source of the Susquehanna found its way into the hearts of other cultures internationally, including that of America’s Cold War enemy, Russia. The notion of the sacred forest in Russia comes from the transplanting of desert monasticism there to woods that became known as the Northern Thebaid. That monastic tradition from the sacred Russian forests also found its way to the Leatherstocking Region in tangible form at Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminar in Jordanville NY, many of whose monks and seminarians are very aware of and appreciative of the Coopers’ legacy.

Likewise, Susan’s exploration of the details of the landscape and ecology of her home region, relative to human dwelling there, adds to the mythic overlay landscape of her father’s writings, by extending a transcendent meaningfulness of the region to the here and now of shaping a sustainable American community of landscape. In her writing about village improvement societies and of human society as embedded and interwoven in nature, there emerges a sense of the sacral garden and the ghost of the sacral forest, a potent invocation of imaginary regionalism anchored in detailed observations about the physicality of the Headwaters region.

The combined effect of the writings of this father and daughter is a reconciliation of universal and particular in region. This trans-generational region of the imagination, which includes but extends beyond the physical region of the Headwaters, as a landscape overlay, marks the legacy of the Coopers. In the intersection of beauty and memory or piety in this imaginative geography lies what Erazim Kohák meant when he said that we live authentically as persons, relationally, when we live at the intersection of time and eternity. An experience of beauty in the world is an experience of time, yet that combined with memory that is sanctifying becomes also piety that partakes in Kohák’s sense in eternity. This geography of the imagination becomes relational rather than objectifying. This involved also what in the Coopers’ time was known as the sublime, in particular Edmund Burke’s more physiological or environmental version, emphasizing the intersection of beauty and terror on a boundary between worlds.

Beside and related to oikophilia, the Coopers’ regional legacy can be understood as oikologia, or the story of home, related to the roots of the term ecology. An imaginative memory of landscape, evoked in different but complementary ways in their writings, shapes an overlay landscape through the readers’ experience of time-plexity. Such an experience of different dimensions of time simultaneously models empathy and the environmental workings of the human mind. This is partly what the sustainability studies scholar Leslie Thiele suggests by arguing that sustainability is not merely environmental, social, and economic, but also involves adaptive cultural creativity, which involves sustainability as meaningfulness.

The phenomenological approach of examining the Coopers’ regional legacy as oikologia suggests also Martin Heidegger’s symbolic evocation of the fourfold of place as experience or participatory story rather than object. Heidegger’s fourfold consisted of the coming together of what he called gods, mortals, heavens, and earth. It translates well into Timo Maran’s semiotic model of nature-text, in which meaningful landscape involves the coming together of environmental context, or Heidegger’s earth, textual context, or Heidegger’s heavens, the context of the authors, or symbolically Heidegger’s gods giving the imaginary geography, and the context of the readers in the plexity of time, the intersection of beauty and memory already mentioned. This working of oikologia, or discourse of home as experience, can also be identified with what the literary critic Northrop Frye called the green-world effect — integrating human storytelling with a sense of the greater-than-human, the natural world, and establishing their reality not in one world or in another but in their dynamic inter-relation.

Such American myth-making has rightly been critically examined, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t needed in a new republic whose relation to the land was marred by the removal of native peoples and by slavery. Washington Irving helped provide literary myth-making of regional place, or oikologia, for the Hudson River, the symbolic capital of which is still drawn upon today in regional conservation and preservation efforts there as well.

What enables such oikologia to escape being merely a re-objectification of the land through myth is the quality of oikumene, or dwelling in the household, the sense of a region as a dwelling place engaged with the larger oikumene or experience of human dwelling across the earth. This helps to explain the Coopers’ imaginative geography extending to Russia and elsewhere in effect, and not narrowly being a promotion of Cooperstown. Ellen Davies of Duke Divinity School, a writer in what has been called the New Agrarian movement started by Wendell Berry, has written about the ecumenical aspect of biblical agrarianism, whose symbolism she has applied to urban agrarianism in Brooklyn and Detroit today. Urban agrarianism can be defined as an overlapping of realms of economy and ecology usually separated in modern culture. Susan Fenimore Cooper’s central metaphor of the garden for human community life, what has sometimes been called American Arcadianism and eco-sentimentalism, connects again the universal and particular ecumenically in this sense. She clearly draws on a Christian universalism in doing so, and on a model of desire and self reminiscent of the contemporary Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor’s idea of the porous self as opposed to an atomized buffered self. Arguably while a more atomized sense of self has been identified with globalization, that connection itself is a particularism of modern Western culture masked as globalism. Susan Cooper’s idea of a garden community is regional but also deals with a universal aspect of human relationship with nature in an anti-consumerist sense of region.

We can see that regional legacy in the digital world today as well. The cyberscholar Paul Edwards has called for a hybridization of what he termed closed and open worlds, of the closed world of cyberspace and the green world of imaginative geography, exemplified by the legacy of the Coopers at the Susquehanna Headwaters. Edwards has argued for using cyberspace wisely to help shape more thick places of the green world, more of what Scruton calls sacred landscapes. Today digital mapping and storytelling are being enlisted for interpreting the landscapes and stories of the Susquehanna Valley in various projects, and time will tell what their contribution to the imaginative regional legacy of the Coopers will be.

Finally to touch on oikonomia or the laws of the household, economics, the Coopers’ regional legacy evokes a sense of sustainable living as realization of human life as a gift economy amid the gift of God’s Creation in Nature. This effort at imaginatively posing an alternative to American industrialism can be seen in Susan’s philanthropy and metaphor of community as a garden, reminiscent of Wendell Berry’s New Agrarianism and again Ellen Davies’ urban agrarianism. Her philanthropic work and conservation writings helped shape the significant involvement of the Clark family and foundation in the economy of the region around Otsego Lake. James’ patronal and somewhat aristocratic view of American republicanism set up his critique of commercial Whiggery, and his allegorical critique of a rule by business oligarchy in his fiction about Venice. A paradoxical aristocratic Jacksonian Democrat (opposed to Jackson’s policy of Indian removal), such ideas in his writings, both political and fictional about the Headwaters, and his daughter’s Christian communitarianism, also left a regional legacy of resistance to neoliberal globalism or a reactionary isolated conservatism.

The merged idea and fact of Headwaters in the Coopers’ legacy, describable in the mutiple but related terms of oikophilia, oikologia, oikumene, and oikonomia, together yield a theological aspect that is apophatic. In medieval theology apophaticism was that which is beyond speaking, and that idea influenced postmodern environmental thinking and place studies. An apophatic approach to place involves an unobjectifiable or even unspeakable essence lying behind the mystery of a region’s origins. Environmentally the very notion of a Headwaters connotes an unknown of exactly where the origins of the river or the landscape truly lie. Appropriate to such a theologically tinged mystery in the Coopers’ writings is the description by some hydrologists of the marshes on the lands of the Russian monastery at Jordanville as a prime source of the Susquehanna Headwaters. Otsego Lake with the beautiful patio of the Otesaga resort Hotel is not an end in itself but even geographically is a symbolic headwater for a river that has an almost unlimited number of hydrological sources. Yet Otsego Lake as headwater is a symbolism of course rooted in the physical reality of its outflow as the main branch of the Susquehanna. Both Coopers pointed beyond that physical source to the mystery of the origins of the beauty of the Headwaters in God’s Creation, in a cosmic gift economy of relationship, which was the source of their critique of the emerging impersonal matrix of a globalized consumerist landscape. In that evocation of the mystery of relationship, spanning the material and the spiritual, their legacy of region lives. And perhaps we had best let the origins of their geography of the imagination rest apophatically there.