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Posted October 18, 2010
James Fenimore Cooper's late (1847) novel THE CRATER can be read on several levels: for its sea adventure plot; for its hero's knowledge of carpentry, whaling, volcanic geology and the like; for its diversity of religious beliefs and practices; for its views on women, marriage, especially inter-racial marriage and for its politics. ***** ??The story is that of Mark, a Pennsylvania boy 16 years old in 1793. He goes to sea to trade with China under a captain related to his Woolston family (pronounced "Wooster"). Promoted to first mate for the third voyage of the good ship Rancocus, Mark finds himself hopelessly stranded with one companion off a volcanic island in the tropical Pacific, two weeks sail from Valparaiso, Chile. His Captain is drowned. The second mate has been swept away in the ship's launch with most of the crew. *****??The two men release the chickens, pigs and a goat onto the volcanic ash and rock. They sow abundant seeds stored in the ship's hold. Grasses and crops grow with amazing speed. In a few years the crater and reef sections of the little kingdom for two are an Eden. The two build a boat from a kit found in the hold. A storm sweeps Mark's companion away. But he makes his way to Philadelphia and returns fairly soon with a rescue party financed by Mark's young heiress wife. Members of the rescue party decide to stay and form a secret all-American colony. Mark is elected the Governor of the Colony and keeps the peace, notably by allowing only one minister of religion to join the group. Over decades the group is augmented and trades profitably (buying sandalwood from natives 400 sea miles distant and selling in Canton). The colonists also take up whaling (as author Fenimore Cooper himself had done in real life). Regarding that new, immensely profitable whaling venture and the colonists' enthusiastic taking it up, the narrator says: "Man must have something to do -- some main object to live for -- or he is apt to degenerate in his ambition, and to fall off in his progress" (Ch. 24) *****??Slowly the colonists grow complacent and disinclined to obey their Governor. A group of new colonists arrives with several preachers of different denominations, plus a printer and a lawyer. Ere long, the colonists depose Mark. He and his family return to Pennsylvania intending to return with more trade goods. On his return, however, Mark finds the colony sunk into the waters of the Pacific after a mighty earthquake. All souls are lost. ***** ??At one level, THE CRATER is an American re-telling of Plato: both the REPUBLIC and the fall of Atlantis. Mark Woolston creates an island Eden drawing upon his Princeton education in science, his marketing skills gained in China voyages and lessons he has drawn from American politics, including the disruptive nature of religious diversity. In the end, the colony is doomed by believing every bit of idiocy printed in the new island journal, by enriching lawyers who encourage colonists to engage in land grabbing and by tricks worthy of Athenian sophists used by a small number of colonists to outmaneuver a "silent majority" who support their governor and their original constitution. In the process, Cooper waxes sarcastic about American social and political practices of the late 1840s. A slow-moving epic, but meaty. -OOO-Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.