Fenimore Cooper's Original Work
( Originally Published 1916 )
HIS TALES OF THE FOREST AND THE SEA — LEATHERSTOCKING AND LONG TOM COFFIN KNOWN AROUND THE WORLD.
FENIMORE COOPER is better known abroad than any other American writer except Poe. Perhaps this is due in great measure to his magnificent descriptions of wild nature, which appeal strongly to readers who live in an old and well-cultivated country, as well as to his vivid pictures of the North American Indian before the white man's vices debased and ruined him. Cooper's field was his own and it has remained his exclusive possession, for none of his imitators has proved worthy of a place with the master. The only other American writer who has utilized his knowledge of Indian life and character is the 'historian Parkman, whose sketches of the adventures of Pontiac and other chiefs are as interesting as any work of fiction.
Cooper shares with Irving and Poe the credit of making American literature known to Europe. Washington Irving was the pioneer literary man in this country whose work was recognized as the equal of the work of any European writer. After him came Poe, whose short stories and poems were received with far greater favor in France than in his own country. Cooper probably ranks third, because, despite his remarkable creative ability, he did not possess the faculty for literary style. He wrote carelessly, and much of his best work is disfigured by a prolix style that injures one's appreciation of his stories. Like Scott, whom he resembles in many ways, Cooper was so intent upon his tale that he neglected the manner of telling it. He wrote as he talked, simply, fluently, but with no heed for literary expression, and with none of that careful revision which would have omitted many redundant words and phrases. Cooper always impresses one as a man who never wrote himself out. He always had a large reserve of knowledge and impressions to draw upon. Breadth of conception, ease in writing and a certain joy in the use of his great creative powers — these are the traits that give much of its vitality to all Cooper's best work. He had no sense of literary artistry as Stevenson had, and perhaps that is one of the reasons why so much more of his work will endure than that of the greatest stylist of the last century.
Cooper is popularly known only by his Leatherstocking tales, yet his stories of the sea are as true to nature, as full of fine characters and as crowded with thrilling incidents as any of the romances that center about the enchanted borders of his favorite Otsego lake. Long Tom Coffin, the old man-of-war's man, is as fine a character as Leatherstocking, and the stories that record his adventures are classics that will endure. Cooper had received training at sea and he knew how to handle a ship, so his sea stories show that easy mastery of sails and spars and ropes that makes the reader captive from the outset.
In the same way Cooper's knowledge of woodcraft and of the ways of the Indian and the white hunter and trapper makes one accept as real not only Leatherstocking, but Uncas, Chingachgook, Hardheart, and all the other red men in his immortal romances. Not one of Cooper's imitators, however, equaled him in giving to the novel reader that sense of the mystery and the ever-lurking danger that attended the white hunter in the great woods of this country when the Indian tribes were a constant menace to any stranger. There are chapters in The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans that move with the breathless interest of Scott at his best in Ivanhoe or Quentin Durward. And Cooper's genius is the more remarkable from the fact that he had no historical back ground to lend force and color to his characters. All he had was this great trackless wilderness, which he depicted with such power as to make Balzac declare, "If Cooper had succeeded in the painting of character as well as he did in the painting of the phenomena of nature he would have uttered the last word of our art."
Cooper was far more English in his character and mind than American, but he had no narrow prejudices, for he had traveled widely and seen much of life. His early training in the navy was of great benefit when he came to write of the sea, and his life for years on the shores of Otsego lake gave him a rare chance to study the primeval wilderness and the Indian as he existed before he was corrupted by the white man's vices. It has become a stock subject for comment among many writers that Cooper idealized the Indian in such types as Uncas, but any careful reader of the Leatherstocking tales knows that Cooper's Indians are not only real and genuine, but they are as true to life as Natty Bumpo.
Cooper showed that while his Indians always remembered a favor, they never failed to revenge an injury, although they might wait years for this satisfaction of an old grudge. They are never "good" Indians in the sense of being converts to Christianity or of thinking or wing like white men. After years of association with the whites they remain as primitive savages as the true Chinese today remains a consistent pagan after a lifetime in the service of an American family. The blood lust is easily aroused in Cooper's Indians, and it is never sated without the scalp of an enemy.
Cooper came of the best English Quaker stock, mixed on his mother's side with a Swedish strain, also Quaker. Though born in New jersey, he was taken when a baby to his father's estate near Otsego lake, in Central New York, where the city of Cooperstown had been laid out. There he spent his boyhood in a wild country over which Indian bands still roamed, and he saw much of Indian life, which profoundly colored his imagination. At four-teen he entered Yale, but he was expelled in his junior year because of neglect of his studies. Desiring to enter naval life, he was forced, because of the lack of a naval academy, to spend sixteen months in the merchant service before he received a midshipman's commission. After three years of varied experience he resigned and took up farming in Westchester county on the estate of his wife. There he began authorship by writing a novel, to see whether he could not tell a better story than one which he had been reading to his wife. His first attempt was a failure, as he dealt with English aristocratic life, but his second story; The Spy, proved to be one of the best of the romances of the Revolutionary War. Its success gave Cooper confidence, and he turned to his recollections of Indian life and produced The Pioneers, one of the Leatherstocking tales. He showed his versatility by writing in the following year The Pilot, one of the finest of his sea stories. From this time, 1824, until 1850, the year before he died, Cooper averaged more than one novel every year.
In reading Cooper it is well to begin with The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans, and to follow the course of Hawkeye from his splendid youth in the first of these tales down through The Pathfinder, to his vigorous old age in The Pioneers and The Prairie. No other books in any language give one so fine a panorama of savage life as these Leatherstocking tales. Through them move the supple and treacherous Indians, masters of wood-craft and of all the methods of savage warfare that is as picturesque as the fighting of the Greeks in Homer's great epic, and the small band of white hunters and trappers led by Leatherstocking himself, whose bravery, simplicity and mastery of Indian lore were reproduced in our own day in Kit Carson and"Buffalo Bill "Cody.
These stories are full of thrilling incident, of pursuit by the relentless Indians, of narrow escapes from death by torture at the stake, of splendid shooting with the old long squirrel rifle that proved so deadly at New Orleans to Pakenham's veterans, and of many superb descriptions of the great forest that clothed upper New York State and the whole country that fringes the Great Lakes from the head of the St. Lawrence river to the western border of Lake Superior. It is difficult to conceive of this now densely populated country as once covered by unbroken forest, but thirty years ago men were living in Western New York who remembered as 'boys the cutting of roads through the dense timber in that State to allow their wagons to pass on the way to the Northern Reserve of Ohio.
Cooper knew the Adirondack region and its lower fringe that included Otsego lake. the Glimmerglass of Leatherstocking, as a man knows his own hand. Every foot of it he had tramped over; he had camped by its beautiful mountain lakes and fished in its ice-cold streams. And the joy of this free, savage life had entered into his blood so that he could picture it in his stories with a passionate ardor that warms the heart of the reader. In these days of the Boy Scout movement and the revival of interest in life in the open air, Cooper's Leatherstocking stories should come in for careful reading. Any healthy boy or girl will bless you for making known these tales of Cooper's, that tell of the golden age of adventure in the pathless woods, when physical strength, courage, coolness, endurance and skill with the old muzzle-loading rifle were pitted against Indian craft and the instinct for following the trail and divining the movements of an enemy at a great distance. The younger generation can never hope to see again the forest primeval, but the next thing to seeing it with one's own eyes is to see it in Cooper's word pictures, as it was before the ax of the lumberman laid it in ruins.
Of Cooper's sea stories, the best is The Pilot, which tells in graphic style of the exploits of John Paul Jones in English waters. It introduces Long Tom Coffin, Cooper's other great creation, as original as Leatherstocking, a Yankee sailor who showed the same qualities at sea that the hunter revealed in the forest. This tale demonstrated Cooper's command of the lore of the sea, which he afterward proved in such fine sea stories as Wing and Wing and Afloat and Ashore.
Cooper was intensely unpopular during his best years because he had the courage to criticise many unlovely traits of his countrymen. The Americans whose manners Dickens and Mrs. Trollope satirized had a wonderfully thin skin, and Cooper had an unfortunate genius for irritating his home public. He was lampooned in the newspapers, and he promptly brought libel suits, argued the cases himself, and invariably recovered damages. Not satisfied with this, he exploited his opinions on many subjects in his novels, with the result that his great abilities were not recognized until after his death.
The controversies which embittered Cooper's last years seem almost childish to us now. Nothing remains but the real work done by Cooper, who has added one supremely fine character to the world's gallery of great personages in fiction. It is to his credit also that he did such good work when he was pestered by malignant detractors. To have created Leather-stocking is a passport to enduring farne; yet Cooper added to this typical American backwoodsman Long Tom Coffin, the shrewd Yankee sailor, and a long line of other original characters.