James Fenimore Cooper: thoughts on a life
By John McWilliams
It is hard to conquer the contemporary prejudice that a “Classic” must be an old boring book written by a dead white male, but the prejudice must be faced down. To Herman Melville, Fenimore Cooper was “our national novelist.” To Walt Whitman, Cooper’s great hero Leatherstocking (alias Deerslayer, Pathfinder, Natty Bumppo) was “from everlasting to everlasting.” To Joseph Conrad, Cooper’s descriptions of the sea had a “sureness of effect that belong to a poetical conception alone.” And to D. H. Lawrence, Cooper’s descriptions of the forest and its contentious settlement in The Pioneers were “marvelously beautiful, some of the loveliest, most glamorous pictures in all literature.” Although we now appreciate pictorial description through visual media, and have become impatient of pictures in words, these four tributes by Cooper’s literary peers offer judgments that should remain widely shared.
The development of American fiction is inconceivable without Cooper’s achievement and influence. He published novels in almost every conceivable genre of fiction, on almost every subject important to his times, and achieved lasting influence in most of them. The Spy (1821), long regarded as the first American novel of lasting significance, was the first of five historical novels that rendered the American Revolution in complex, often self-divided patriotic terms. The five Leatherstocking Tales form a grand myth of the white settlement of the American continent at the admitted expense of both Native Americans and the environment. The image of the Indian in the Euro-American mind owes more to The Last of the Mohicans than to any other written text. For readers who can still entertain the possibility that heroism exists, there is no more engaging or convincing here in American fiction than Leatherstocking, troubled by the killings he necessarily commits, and forever opening paths for a commercial civilization he scorns. The tributes by Melville and Conrad attest to the power of Cooper’s seven sea novels, especially Cooper’s renderings of storm and sail in The Pilot, and of icy Arctic Seas (foreshadowing Melvillean whiteness) in The Sea Lions. Willa Cather’s novels of the Nebraska prairie, and Jack London’s novels of Alaskan and sea frontiers, gain great resonance by comparison and contrast to Cooper’s precedents.
Cooper’s daunting, lifelong energies led him to venture down still other fictional paths, nominally imaginary but rendered realistic through trenchant social commentary. He experimented with the unreliable first person narrative, the biography of an inanimate object, urban satire, the beast fable (The Monikins), and dystopian fiction (The Crater). His three-volume trilogy titled The Littlepage Manuscripts (Satanstoe, The Chainbearer, The Redskins) forms the first sustained family chronicle in American literature, a precursor of William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy, and of John Cheever’s Wapshot novels. Cooper’s five European travel volumes implicitly challenge Washington Irving’s resort to nostalgia and sentimentality as Irving’s easy way to curry transatlantic approval. Cooper’s The American Democrat, as H.L. Mencken knew, remains a remarkably perceptive analysis of the merits and problems of New World republicanism, somewhat like Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but one-sixth its length.
The last sentence of the first Leatherstocking tale, The Pioneers, pictures Leatherstocking retreating from the rapidly growing community of Templeton toward a west that is still inhabited almost entirely by Indians: “He [Leatherstocking] had gone far towards the setting sun—the foremost in that band of pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent.” The identity here claimed for Leatherstocking is not unlike Cooper’s own: the foremost of American literary pioneers. Periodically, there are movements to denigrate Cooper by emphasizing the limitations he shares with many others of his era and by seeking to replace Cooper’s stature with rediscovered writers, often women or minorities. Such fictional rediscoveries can and should supplement Cooper’s achievement, but they have not displaced it. Cooper possessed–in spades–the merits of moral courage, broad historical knowledge, and the power of imagination. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis.
John McWilliams is College Professor of Humanities at Middlebury College, Vermont. He teaches courses in the Departments of Art History, History, Literary Studies and Religion. His most recent book is ‘New England’s Crises and Cultural Memory’. He edited and wrote the Introduction and Historical Essay in the Oxford’s World’s Classics edition of The Last of the Mohicans.
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Image Credit: Portrait of James Fenimore Cooper by John Wesley Jarvis. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.