You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Glamorous Pictures

James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years
By Wayne Franklin
(Yale University Press, 705 pp., $40)
Click here to purchase the book.

Like Poe, Stowe, and Longfellow, James Fenimore Cooper--"Fenimore" to his friends--is a giant of world literature with a sharply diminished stature at home. We all think we know what the novels are about: innocent white women (Cooper called them "females") held captive by evil Indians; a heroic white man dressed in deerskin who comes to their rescue, and goes by the name of Hawk-eye or Pathfinder or Deerslayer or Natty Bumppo; a vanishing remnant of good Indians with unpronounceable names; a background of war, incessant war, and the little town of Templeton--modeled on Cooperstown, built by Cooper's own father in central New York--perched precariously at the border of nature and civilization. Even people who never read Cooper's novels in their youth are convinced that they have outgrown him. And for every grown-up lucky enough actually to have read The Last of the Mohicans or The Pioneers, there are a hundred others who have taken on faith Mark Twain's supposedly definitive demolition, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," unleashed in 1895.

Twain rightly considered Cooper, who died in 1851 on the day before his sixty-second birthday, an enemy of his own postCivil War code of realism. Just as Twain, only half in jest, blamed the war on the swashbuckling novels of Walter Scott--"Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war"--he accused Cooper of contaminating American prose with the same melodramatic absurdities that Scott, Cooper's model in many ways, had unleashed on the South. Cooper, he wrote, "saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly."

Twain's jibes are so delicious that it's hard to take Cooper seriously after reading of his supposed offenses. "For instance," wrote Twain in one of his memorable sallies: "one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest."

Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I could ever have guessed out the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were that person's moccasin tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases--no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader.

It's true that if we look for late nineteenth- century realism in Cooper--the accurate representation of ordinary people in plausible circumstances that we find in Howells or Wharton--we are bound for disappointment.

Too embarrassed to risk our own assessment of Cooper, we are forced to accept his greatness secondhand: from Goethe, who admired Cooper's "rich material and its subtle presentation"; from Balzac, who drew his idea of the linked Comédie Humaine from Cooper's Leather-Stocking novels; from Conrad, who admired Cooper's sea tales and passionately defended him against Mark Twain ("whose dismal jargon ... smirches whatever he touches"). Isaiah Berlin was surprised to find that the Russian critic Belinsky considered Cooper the equal of Shakespeare. These writers wrote so extravagantly about Cooper that one sometimes feels they drew the breath of life from him. "I am very ill," Franz Schubert, on his deathbed, wrote to a friend in 1828. "Be so kind as to help me in this desperate situation with some books. By Cooper I have read: The Last of the Mohicans,' The Spy,' The Pilot,' and The Pioneers.' In case you have anything more of him, I implore you ... to send it to me."

For modern readers, it was D.H. Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature in 1923, who revealed the visionary power of Cooper's novels. Lawrence conceded the absence of the "cruel iron of reality" in Cooper's narratives, but unlike Twain, he did not stop there. "Now let me put aside my impatience at the unreality of this vision, and accept it as a wish-fulfillment vision, a kind of yearning myth," Lawrence wrote. "Because it seems to me that the things in Cooper that make one so savage, when one compares them with actuality, are perhaps, when one considers them as presentations of a deep subjective desire, real in their way, and almost prophetic." The visionary author of The Rainbow found in The Pioneers, Cooper's fictionalized account of the founding of the town of Cooperstown, "some of the loveliest, most glamorous pictures in all literature," specifying such indelible scenes as the turkey shoot in the snow, the clouds of passenger pigeons obscuring the sky as they fly in from the south to meet the waiting rifles of the settlers, and night fishing on the Glimmerglass lake. "Perhaps my taste is childish," Lawrence wrote, "but these scenes in Pioneers seem to me marvelously beautiful."

But writers from abroad are not the only ones who have felt the power of Cooper's novels. If we read our American classics more carefully, we might, as Wayne Franklin argues in his leisurely and deeply researched canvassing of the first half of Cooper's life, find Cooper's imprint in such landmark books as Walden, Moby-Dick, and even Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Thoreau's debt to Cooper is obvious enough: "in going to his pond in his cabin," Franklin remarks, "Thoreau was reenacting in ritual form the solitary life Cooper had imagined for his forest hero in the Leather-Stocking saga." Melville acknowledged the "vivid and awakening power" of Cooper's sea tales, and it is easy to see why. The Pilot (1824), undertaken as an "unpremeditated decision, purely an impulse," according to Cooper, remains an exhilarating read. A fictionalized account of John Paul Jones's Revolutionary War exploits along the British coast, it was written as something of a corrective to Walter Scott's nautical romance The Pirate (1821), and meant to show off Cooper's superior knowledge of seamanship.

As for Huckleberry Finn, Franklin discerns an oedipal conflict between Cooper and his critic Mark Twain:

Anyone who reads the Leather-Stocking Tales and the Mississippi River books of Mark Twain, especially Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, sees at once that in terms of setting, theme, and indeed characterization, the latter book owed much to Cooper's series.... The spiritual father of Huck Finn was none other than Natty Bumppo--a demotic Euro- American hero who resists the confines of "sivilization" and, with a member of another race as his companion, finds his freedom in nature. No wonder that Mark Twain felt a need to hunt down and kill Natty's own progenitor.

For Franklin, Cooper wasn't just a major American writer; he was one of the supreme inventors of the American imagination. "Almost single-handedly in the 1820s," Franklin writes, "Cooper invented the key forms of American fiction--the Western, the sea tale, the Revolutionary romance--forms that set a suggestive agenda for subsequent writers, even for Hollywood and tele- vision." He might have added the international spy novel to this list; Cooper's second novel, The Spy, of 1821 anticipates Ambler and Le Carré in its evocation of ambiguous attachments in love and war. Even the detective novel, often attributed to Poe, may owe as much to Cooper's bent twigs and footprints in the forest. An exhilarating run of pages in Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project traces the origins of the genre to Cooper's narratives of pursuit, with examples in French literature such as Dumas- fils's Les Mohicans de Paris.

Cooper's business sense, his improvisatory response to a changing and burgeoning literary marketplace, made him also an inventor of another kind. A major aim of Franklin's volume is to demonstrate how "Cooper can be said to have invented not just an assortment of literary types but the very career of the American writer." The evidence for this claim, a dogged accumulation of financial and contractual detail, is tedious at times, and I wish that in other ways Franklin were not quite so attentive to the professorial pressures of the moment, specifically with respect to Cooper's alleged "treatment" of race, class, and gender. Still, the book is clearly and sometimes vigorously written, and scrupulous about what is firmly known and what remains conjectured. Much of the research into lesser-known portions of Cooper's career is sensible and fresh.

Cooper's early life has the fascination of one of his own novels. In his appetite for varied and often dangerous experience, he sometimes seems deliberately to have lived his life according to novelistic plots. Like a picaresque hero, his origins were inconspicuous. He was born plain James Cooper--he added the vivid "Fenimore," his mother's maiden name, much later-- in New Jersey in 1789, to a family of Quaker origins and modest means. The following year, his father moved the family to the banks of Lake Otsego in central New York, and founded the town of Cooperstown. Educated by local tutors and given the free run of the woods, Cooper developed an early taste for popular novels by Scott and others as well as for Shakespeare, declaimed in childhood performances for the simple folk of Cooperstown.

There is comedy in Cooper's brief career at Yale, which he entered at thirteen. The undergraduates had just undergone a rousing revival under Ezra Stiles, president of the school, but there was nothing saintly about their behavior. Cooper in particular "earned himself a reputation as a hellion while at Yale," according to Franklin. He was taken under the protection of the young instructor Benjamin Silliman, who distinguished himself as a chemist during the early decades of the discipline. Silliman described Cooper as "a fine sparkling beautiful boy of alluring person & interesting manners." Selected to serve as Silliman's lab assistant, Cooper repaid his mentor by using his newfound expertise to blow up the door of a classmate he had quarreled with.

Expelled from Yale, he sought a career in the navy, going to sea first on a merchant vessel, in 1806, and then serving on various naval ships, on Lake Ontario and in the Atlantic, at a time when the American Navy barely existed. In 1810, he met Susan De Lancey, a young woman of French background whose family had fought on the British side in the Revolutionary War (in The Spy, the Revolution is portrayed as primarily a civil war). "I loved her like a man," Cooper famously and ambiguously reported to one of his brothers, "and told her of it like a sailor." They were married on New Year's Day the following year and had their first child, punctually, in September.

Seeking a more settled life for his aristocratic wife and his growing family, and finding his in-laws a more reliable source of stability than the messy finances and garbled inheritance that followed his father's death, Cooper settled in Westchester County, eventually building a house in Scarsdale, and took up farming. His first signed article concerned animal husbandry. Balked in his repeated attempts to restore his family fortunes, he invested in a whaling ship in 1819. When this quixotic enterprise also failed to provide the reliable source of income he sought, he took up--like that other failed whaler, Melville, twenty years later--the even less certain craft of novel-writing.

What is there to say about Cooper's novels, especially those early successes--The Spy (1821), The Pioneers (1823), The Pilot (1824), and The Last of the Mohicans (1826)--that were written during the "early years" of Franklin's biography, before his departure with his family for an extended sojourn of seven years abroad? The first thing to say is that the books are more varied, more interesting, and better written than we have generally been allowed or encouraged to believe. In an otherwise positive assessment of Cooper's work, Poe observed in passing that "the mere English of our author was never, at any period, remarkable for precision." Mark Twain went far beyond Poe in claiming that Cooper "wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language." But when he combed the books for schoolmarmish examples, he came up with such supposedly egregious offenses as the confusion of "meretricious" for "factitious," "treacherous" for "hostile," and "rejoined" for "remarked"--the sort of slips, if indeed they are slips, that any writer might be guilty of.

It is true that Cooper's novels--he eventually wrote thirty-two, in addition to travel books, a history of the United States Navy, and essays in social criticism--seem written on the run, with their impulsive openings, their zigzag plots, their leisurely sags when the author addresses the reader. Franklin blames what he calls "the venturesome quality" of Cooper's first novels on his "deepening indebtedness" during the early 1820s. Franklin notes that the first volume of The Spy "not only was set in type but also was proofed, and a thousand copies of it printed, before Cooper even sat down to begin the second one." A rigid page limit on the second volume resulted in what Cooper himself conceded was a "crowded and hurried" dénouement. The pressures of the marketplace, in Franklin's view, determined the shape and nature of such novels. "If there is a single motivating factor driving my narrative," he writes, "it is economics." Of course, there is some truth to this wolf-at-the-door scenario, but I suspect that a more careful Cooper would have been a less interesting writer.

Early and late, Cooper was an improvisatory writer. He took up writing on a whim, when his wife challenged him to write a better novel than the pulp they were reading. Always drawn to risks of all kinds, competitive and contentious, he relished ambitious undertakings and impossible deadlines. Nothing is better in his novels than their superb openings, the first casting out of the sweeping narrative net. The magisterial first sentences of The Last of the Mohicans recall Gibbon's elegiac rhythms and balanced oppositions:

It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet. A wide and apparently an impervious boundary of forests severed the possessions of the hostile provinces of France and England. The hardy colonist, and the trained European who fought at his side, frequently expended months in struggling against the rapids of the streams, or in effecting the rugged passes of the mountains, in quest of an opportunity to exhibit their courage in a more martial conflict. But, emulating the patience and self-denial of the practiced native warriors, they learned to overcome every difficulty; and it would seem that, in time, there was no recess of the woods so dark, nor any secret place so lovely, that it might claim exemption from the inroads of those who had pledged their blood to satiate their vengeance, or to uphold the cold and selfish policy of the distant monarchs of Europe.

The maze-like sentences seem themselves a forest in which the combatants are momentarily lost.

It is no surprise that Cooper's prose is derived from eighteenth-century models and modes. The "glamorous pictures" that D.H. Lawrence admired owe much to the American landscape painters of the Hudson River School, whom Cooper knew in New York. His scenes, like theirs, are constructed around the eighteenth-century conventions of the beautiful and the sublime. Nature has two faces: a welcoming world of grassy valleys and settled prospects, and a fearsome world of looming mountains and cataracts and thunderstorms. The future site of Templeton--as described by Judge Temple himself, who has climbed a tree for a better view--mingles both aspects:

Not an opening was to be seen in the boundless forest, except where the lake lay, like a mirror of glass. The water was covered by myriads of the wild-fowl that migrate with the changes in the season; and while in my situation on the branch of the beech, I saw a bear, with her cubs, descend to the shore to drink. I had met many deer, gliding through the woods, in my journey; but not the vestige of a man could I trace during my progress, nor from my elevated observatory. No clearing, no hut, none of the winding roads that are now to be seen, were there; nothing but mountains rising behind mountains; and the valley, with its surface of branches enlivened here and there with the faded foliage of some tree.

Some of the stranger features of Cooper's novels draw on more distant and exotic sources. Rereading The Last of the Mohicans, I was struck by how many of the epigraphs to chapters are drawn from Shakespeare's comedies. In an earlier monograph, The New World of James Fenimore Cooper, Franklin suggested that these allusions provide comic relief from the grim violence that pervades the novel. But Cooper insists on a deeper connection between his own fictions and Shakespeare's world of mismatched couples, humiliated killjoys, magic forests, and masquerade. The plot of The Last of the Mohicans has all these, and the mood of the novel is often closer to The Magic Flute than to Cormac McCarthy. A bear lumbers into the cave where the younger sister, Alice, is held captive; but have no fear, it turns out that the bear is really Natty Bumppo in disguise. The epigraph to the chapter is Snug's question from A Midsummer Night's Dream, "Have you the lion's part written? Pray you, if it be, give it me, for I am slow of study." Other episodes, such as the unhinged Calvinist singing-master trying to teach beavers to sing, seem to come from the enchanted Forest of Arden rather than the Adirondacks of the French and Indian War.

Franklin suggests another source for these scenes of animal-human transaction. He has gone deeply into Cooper's familiarity with American Indian traditions and rituals. Cooper learned what he could about Indian languages, and shared the nineteenth-century assumption (given its fullest expression in Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha) that Indians, in their intimacy with nature, spoke in more concrete and poetic turns of phrase than educated Europeans. But he also knew something of the meaning of totems among the Indians, and in The Last of the Mohicans he was the first to use the Ojibway-derived word in a literary work. "The facility with which Cooper's human characters merge with natural creatures," writes Franklin, "suggests that he was self-consciously seeking to model this first of his Indian' tales on the mental habits of the Native Americans, not just on the outward plot of their history."

The wrenching love story between one of those Native Americans, Uncas, the "last of the Mohicans," and Cora Munro has lost none of its power. "For the first time we get actual women," Lawrence writes, "the dark, handsome Cora and her frail sister, the White Lily. The good old division, the dark sensual woman and the clinging, submissive little blonde, who is so pure.'" It is a surprise to learn, well into the novel, that they are actually half-sisters, and that Cora's West Indian mother was "from that unfortunate class, who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people." As so often in his novels, Cooper surprises us with his sophistication, and prefigures the tragic women of mixed race who will people the novels of Stowe and Cable and Faulkner.

Franklin's first volume leaves Cooper flush with the success of The Last of the Mohicans, on the eve of his departure for France. Already a world-renowned writer, he crossed the Atlantic to meet his admirers face to face, not through a glass eye darkly. In Paris he wrote such books as Notions of the Americans (1828), his defense of the United States against negative attacks from European travelers, and The Prairie (1827), his strange and moving fantasy (he had never seen the Western plains) of the last days of Natty and Chingachgook. On his return to his native country, he incurred the wrath of his neighbors when he asserted his family's possession of a piece of land on Otsego Lake, and the wrath of nativist critics for the popularity of his novels abroad. A sturdy democrat to the end--in 1838 he wrote a book called The American Democrat--Cooper wasted a lot of time defending himself against charges that he was an elitist and would-be aristocrat. On the occasion of Cooper's death in 1851, Emerson wrote of "an old debt to him of happy days." It is a debt that American critics and readers, in their still-grudging admiration and still-automatic disdain, have yet to repay.