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A Study of His Life and Imagination
By Stephen Railton
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1978 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
"THE SECRETS OF AUTHORSHIP"
In many respects Cooper was the founding father of the novel in America. Although other writers had earlier aspired to the role, he was the first popularly successful American novelist, the first in the land of opportunity to prove that fiction could afford a citizen of the republic with a career. The imaginative debt that such minor nineteenth century novelists as Simms and Stowe owed to Cooper is obvious, and in general popular fiction remained in the mold that Cooper had shaped for it until after the Civil War. Yet it is equally true to say that Cooper first established many of the themes with which the major authors of the century would deal. Before Hawthorne, he wrote historical romances, including one set in Puritan New England. Before Melville, he wrote sea-going fiction in which the ocean provides a setting at once realistic and symbolic. Before James, he wrote international novels. Before Twain, he wrote the kind of tale in which, at the end, the hero lights out for the territory. Before Howells, he wrote American romans de société. In these instances it would be harder to measure the precise extent of Cooper's influence, though it is certain that each of these subsequent writers had read Cooper. It is also certain that Cooper supplied them with the one thing which he himself had consciously lacked: an example, for better or worse, of what the novel in America could be. Throughout his career he was very much aware of his particular responsibilities as the first popular American novelist, and of his service as a pathfinder into the possibilities of fiction in the new world. Like the later writers of the American Renaissance, Cooper attempted to be representatively and distinctly American; he was determined, to quote what Melville said about the cisatlantic author's political obligation, "to carry republican progressiveness into Literature." At the same time, Cooper was the first novelist to acknowledge, as Hawthorne and James later did, the specific sort of difficulties faced by an American writer.
Some of these difficulties, as is well known, Cooper could not overcome. We may, however, need to be reminded that during his lifetime he not only ranked among the world's most popular novelists, but also was ranked, by such European peers as Scott and Balzac, as one of the world's greatest novelists as well. Americans, whatever their opinion of Cooper's merits, recognized his preeminence. He discovered and developed many of the nation's literary resources; in the settings and subjects of his books, he helped to introduce the young country to itself — even though it did not always like what it saw there. As part of the meeting held in New York on February 24th, 1852, to commemorate and honor the novelist's death five months earlier, Irving, Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, and most of the republic's other leading men of letters entered their praise for Cooper's accomplishments, and especially for his contribution to the cause of an American literature, into the public record. Forty years afterward, Mark Twain wrote "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" not to praise Cooper, but to bury him. Yet merely the fact that in the 1890s Twain took the trouble to destroy Cooper's reputation in his notorious and calculating essay shows how alive Cooper's presence was even at the end of the nineteenth century, two generations after his death.
Since then, despite the attention paid him by literary and historical scholars, Cooper's stature has diminished considerably. As most students learn when they are finally asked to read a Cooper novel, he himself is much better than his reputation. That they are not asked more often to read Cooper — not as often, at least, as they are asked to read Hawthorne or Melville, Twain or James — is somewhat surprising, considering the respect with which Americans generally treat founding fathers. The problem that critics have had in deciding Cooper's place among the authors of the previous century is a complicated phenomenon, one that can be attributed to a number of causes. The list of his novels suffers from the absence of a certified masterpiece, a single work whose merit or power is beyond dispute; certainly Hawthorne's preeminence would be less secure without The Scarlet Letter, Melville's without Moby-Dick, and Twain's without The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Even Cooper's best work has often been tainted by the suspicion that it is adolescent reading, although adolescents no longer read Cooper. But Twain has survived the fact that younger readers enjoy his books, and if Cooper never wrote a masterpiece, eight or ten of his novels are works of substantial merit and power. Except for Henry James, in fact, no other nineteenth century American wrote as many good novels as Cooper.
Yet there are additional reasons why Cooper's reputation is apparently at odds with his achievement. For the twentieth century reading public in general, his assumptions about aesthetics are too firmly fixed in the early nineteenth century. Part of the task of criticism should be to bridge such temporal distances, to put modern readers in a position to appreciate works which were written to satisfy their ancestors or according to extinct literary convictions. Until recently, however, Cooper's reputation has been poorly served by contemporary critical assumptions about literary value. His work has been blamed for or ignored because of its failure to meet the standards of formalist criticism. The aesthetic expectations of New Criticism were nurtured by the Modernists, and consequently it stressed technique over narrative, the working up of language over the working out of plot. By training its audience to read carefully and reread conscientiously, the Modernist Novel on the one hand made possible the retrieval of Melville's books from the uncomprehending nineteenth century; on the other, it threatened to consign Cooper's to the oblivion of critical disregard. To the modern taste, Cooper seems incredibly unconscious of most matters of literary craft. His nonchalant attitude toward the creative process, which I shall discuss later in this chapter, made him an unattractive figure to formalists. Their manifest denial of Cooper's claims upon the tradition of American literature, however, reveals the deficiencies of this approach to art at least as much as it reveals those of Cooper's own work.
All of these factors have contributed to the uncertainty about the rightful place of the first successful American novelist, about the value of his work and the meaning of his career. The critic who would enlist in Cooper's cause could address any one of them. But these are essentially aesthetic issues; redressing them will not finally clear up the confusion about Cooper. He has been a problematic figure almost since he began to write, and the problems have involved questions of personality and temperament as well as literary merit. The course of Cooper's career has always puzzled his critics. "In his substantial character," concludes Vernon L. Parrington, "was embodied what may well appear no more than a bundle of contradictions.... No other major writer, unless it be Whitman, has been so misunderstood, and no other offers a knottier problem to the student of American letters." believe that the contradictions in Cooper — whether in his character or in his career — are what have most interfered with a proper evaluation of his significance. To critics and historians he is a major but intractable figure, an author whose inconsistencies and perplexities make him exceedingly difficult to deal with for the purposes of either literary criticism or cultural history. Unable to decide what to make of the novelist, scholars have often been vexed in their desire to make conclusions about his novels.
Parrington's cautionary observation was made in 1927, when only three book-length studies and a score of essays and articles treating Cooper were available. Since then, of course, a rapidly increasing number of scholars have interested themselves in him, have researched neglected portions of his life, have focused on specific aspects of his career, have examined different novels in his bibliography, and have published their conclusions. Cooper now is better understood. Yet the knotty problem posed by the contradictions he embodied still, as we shall see, remains unraveled. Perhaps the best way to establish the meaning and importance of Cooper's achievement would be to give his life, his career, and his work a sense of coherence. This they have so far lacked, and without it, it has been impossible truly to understand his relationship with literature or society in nineteenth century America.
Cooper's contemporaries, including the sympathetic ones, were often at a loss to comprehend his temperamental behavior. Even in his own time he had two reputations: that of the romancer who entertained his society with indulgently constructed novels of adventure, that of the critic who took his society to task in unattractive and aspersive novels of social commentary. After a certain point in Cooper's career, a reader must have picked up the newest tale wondering how he would find its author — with a smile or a scowl on the face of his prose. Too often for their liking, Americans found him in print in nonliterary contexts: on the front page of their newspaper they might have read the report of his most recent public controversy or law suit; on its editorial page, either the latest journalistic attack on Cooper's social opinions or the novelist's testy defense of them in a letter. No doubt the ordinary American gave up the attempt to come to terms with this extraordinary American author. The country's first popular novelist was also its first aggressively unpopular one; the first writer to make a career out of fiction kept threatening to retire. At some moments in his work Cooper basks in his and his countrymen's mutual esteem for each other; at others, he relieves himself of his disgust with America in line after line of invective. In his books, Cooper quarreled with his country; in life, with his neighbors and countrymen; and in reality, with himself. Old friends privately expressed dismay and uncertainty. Unfriendly critics publicly and positively reached their own conclusions: Park Benjamin, an influential newspaper editor and a victim of Cooper's penchant for libel suits, pronounced him "the craziest loon that ever was suffered to roam at large without whip and keeper." To this Cooper responded with another subpoena. His numerous attempts to explain himself, however, in pamphlets, prefaces and letters, even in courtrooms, did little good.
After the novelist's death, relatives and friends insisted that his character had been badly misunderstood, and especially that the bitterness of the quarrels should be forgotten. What William Cullen Bryant, who had known him for thirty years, wanted somewhat apologetically to direct the public's attention to when he addressed the Cooper Memorial Meeting in New York were "the creations of his genius, fixed in living words, [which] survive the frail material organs by which the words were first traced." Yet contradictions also survive in the various books. Ideas set forth in them directly refute each other. Antithetical judgments are made upon the very same subjects. Within particular novels, two conflicting sets of values often compete not for the reader's sympathy only, but, one feels, for the author's.
We shall examine specific conflicts later, in the context of the novels and events in which they make their presence felt. I want now to turn to what others have said about this problem, without attempting to do full justice to their analyses, but simply to outline the dimensions of Cooper's contradictory character. Some of Cooper's critics ignore his inconsistencies. Others consider them unimportant: "essentially a man of fragments" is Yvor Winters' description of Cooper. Winters is primarily interested in the writer's stylistic achievements, and this characterization amply serves his purpose by permitting him to discuss those passages that succeed as prose. Aesthetically, Cooper's greatest moments are fragmentary, but psychologically, he is of course indivisible, and unfortunately, the attempt to come to terms with him cannot license one to dismiss bad art.
A different kind of division is made, either explicitly or implicitly, by the majority of commentators. To most of them, Cooper still has two reputations, and their procedure corresponds to D. H. Lawrence's in Studies in ClassicAmerican Literature, where he sorts the novelist's work into two categories — "Fenimore Cooper's White Novels" and "Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Novels." Some critics locate the "real" Fenimore Cooper in the first of these classes, which contains the novels of social commentary, and some in the second, which contains Natty Bumppo, Chingachgook, and the pathless wilderness. Most would agree that he could not be equally in both, since the two groups seem written from antithetical literary perspectives and affirm radically different ethical codes. Robert E. Spiller, a pioneer critic of the "White" novels, labels the two groups "novels of purpose" and "romances," terms which imply the value judgment Spiller in fact endorses. About the romances he has little to say; his thesis is that Cooper's remaining novels "are at once a reflection and an interpretation of the emerging American civilization about him." Spiller's purpose is primarily sociological. The "White" novels have been appropriated by a number of others with a similar interest. Parrington, for one, calls Cooper "the barometer of a gusty generation." He traces the tensions and contradictions in Cooper's thought to "an underlying conflict between the man and his age. ... The perplexities and dogmatisms that clutter so many of his later pages ... are a testimony to the confusions of a generation in the midst of epic changes." Examined separately, however, Cooper's social novels are by no means unambiguous, and even within the ranks of their critics conflicts exist. About half have decided that despite a superficial allegiance to republican democracy, Cooper was at heart an American aristocrat; half, that his inconsistencies can best be explained by regarding him as an orthodox Jacksonian Democrat. The study of the relation between an author and his age is undeniably important. Yet such a study should always recognize that society is only one of the forces that shape an individual's mental and emotional responses. Whatever cultural ideals a writer may subscribe to or reflect have to some degree been determined by his own particular history. At least in Western society we are all members of a family before we acquire membership in a community. To ignore personal influences would distort the meaning of anyone's interaction with society. And in the case of James Fenimore Cooper, a purely socio-historical perspective is especially distorting for two reasons.
The title of Spiller's book is Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times. Its index reveals the limitations of this conception of him. Listed there are Cooper's opinions on New England, a large navy, personal liberty, England, France, and women, but not slavery, manifest destiny, the Mexican War, and the other really major social issues of the times. An opinionated man, Cooper did have things to say about all of these, but in the main his most firmly held beliefs, the ones he developed at length in his books, are too idiosyncratic to be construed into judicious social commentary. For example, a local New York crisis, the Anti-Rent War of the 1840s, provoked Cooper into writing a trilogy of novels of purpose; abolitionism, briefly mentioned in many of his books, he considered exclusively a southern issue; it was his opinion that if the nation ever went to war with itself, it would fight over leases, not slaves.
In addition, the emphasis on Cooper's role as a social critic distorts his own opinion of his achievements: "If anything from the pen of the writer of these romances is at all to outlive himself, it is, unquestionably, the series of 'The Leather-Stocking Tales.'"
With this opinion later generations of readers have unquestionably agreed, and it is with the five Leather-Stocking Tales that the study of Cooper usually begins and ends. By this means most people remain unaware of the blatant contradictions in Cooper's thought, although inconsistencies are embodied in the Tales as well. Leslie Fiedler, who is interested in the romances, perceives the problem. To solve it, he splits the novelist in two, into the "myth-maker and the man of letters," into "a half-conscious framer of legends" and "a fully conscious moralist and polemical social critic." This second man is not very interesting: "Cooper was, whenever he wrote self-consciously, above all things a gentleman"; but the first, the creator of Natty Bumppo, possesses a "mythopoeic power which, in a handful of books, delivered him from the limitations of his class and his time."8 Consequently, one can dismiss the "White" novels entirely, a quick operation and for many critics completely painless. "It should be evident by now," writes one,
that any mature approach to an assessment of Cooper's essential qualities must be, primarily, neither personal nor stylistic — though, in a very real sense, it is possible to speak of Cooper's art — nor sociological — though it is also clear that Cooper's insights into the mainspirngs of society are, while limited in their scope, extraordinarily clear. No, Cooper's genius was mythopoeic rather than comic; ... dealing, at its rare purest, in archetypes rather than types.
Excerpted from Fenimore Cooper by Stephen Railton. Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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