Glance At Colonial And Revolutionary Literature
Literature At The Dawn Of The Century
Charles Brockden Brown
Washington Irving And The Knickerbocker Group
William C. Bryant
James Fenimore Cooper
The Early Literary Magazines
New England Literature
Read More Articles About: American Literature
James Fenimore Cooper
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
As Bryant may be regarded as the pioneer American poet, and Irving as the pioneer essayist and man of letters, so James Fenimore Cooper may be styled the first American novelist of true distinction. It is the fashion nowadays to criticise Cooper's style even such a public jester as Mark Twain having taken that office upon himself. There can be no doubt that Cooper was too prolific, too tediously prolix in his style, and actually trashy and insipid in his novels of society. But this should not blind us to the real merits of his greater romances, which far surpassed the writings of Irving in their intense Americanism, and which are almost as fascinating to-day as when they were first published. So great was their appeal to mankind that Morse, the electrician, declared in 1833: "In every city of Europe that I visited, the works of Cooper were conspicuously placed in the windows of every book-shop. They are published as soon as he produces them, in thirty-four different places in Europe. They have been seen by American travelers in the languages of Turkey and Persia, in Constantinople, in Egypt, at Jerusalem, and Ispahan." Cooper was one of the world's great story-tellers, whose defects of style are abundantly compensated by the invention of his narrative in plot and incident. He became, furthermore, the first voice of primeval America, of her virgin wilderness and her aboriginal children. He created the Indian as a life-size figure of literature, impressive even if idealized. And as he originated the novel of the forest, so to a certain extent he originated the novel of the sea. The early child-hood of Cooper was mainly passed in the wilderness at the very time, as his biographer says, when "the first wave of civilization was beginning to break against its hills. . . he was on the border, if he could not justly be said to be in the midst, of mighty and seemingly interminable woods. The settler's axe had as yet scarcely dispelled the perpetual twilight of the primeval forest. The little lake lay enclosed in a border of gigantic trees." When afterward in the first flush of his fame Cooper set out to revive the memory of the days of the pioneers, he said that he might have chosen for his subject happier periods, more interesting events and possibly more beauteous scenes; but he could not have taken any that would lie so close to his heart. The spell of this scenery rests upon the reader of "The Pathfinder" in particular.
Cooper (1789-1851), was born at Burlington, New Jersey, but in infancy was taken to the wilderness of Central New York. Finding his nature unadapted to the college life at Yale, he shipped as a lad before the mast. After an apprenticeship on a merchant vessel he entered the United States Navy as midshipman in 1806. He married and resigned his commission just before the War of 1812. His few years of sea service fitted him to be a great romancer of the salt water. A special expedition to Lake Ontario in 1808 enabled him to draw, as well, that vivid picture of the great fresh-water sea in the novel just cited, and to make the amusing contrast between the old salt and the fresh-water sailors. Mere accident, however, led Cooper to the writing of any kind of novel. At the age of thirty he had written nothing, nor had he collected any material. Writing in itself was distasteful to him. He was one day reading to his wife a novel descriptive of English society; suddenly he laid down the book and said : "I believe I could write a better story myself." The result was a novel (1820) entitled "Precaution." It was not merely a tale of English social life, but it purported to be written "by an Englishman," echoing English cant and even complimenting George III. It was a practical failure, but Cooper resolved to try his hand upon a native theme. John Jay had told him the story of a shrewd, fearless, unselfish spy on the American side in the bitter struggle of the Revolution, in the Highlands of the Hudson. With this inspiration Cooper produced "The Spy, a Tale of the Neutral Ground" (1820). Its best characters are its skillfully drawn hero, Harvey Birch, and the commanding figure of Washington. "The Spy" made Cooper's reputation, both at home and abroad, and he now set about the task that lay near his heart to describe the frontier life in which he had been trained. Two years later appeared "The Pioneers," itself the pioneer of the five famous romances now known as the "Leather Stocking Tales," of 'which series it is the poorest. Perhaps the best of the series, the "Last of the Mohicans," was next to appear. The former novel introduced a solitary old white hunter, whose home in the hills is being invaded by the advancing tide of settlement and of that civilization which he loathes. In the latter novel, this hunter had become idealized; he represents the knowledge, mystery and virtue of the silent forest. Cooper's Indians, Chingachgook and Uncas, also became idealized, until it became a joke that "Cooper's imaginary Indians belonged to a tribe that never existed."
But if he gave a prominence to some virtues, real or imaginary, of the Indian race, he was careful not to pass over their vices. Most of the warriors he introduces are depicted as crafty, bloodthirsty and merciless. Throughout the whole civilized world, whether his representation be true or false, the conception of the Indian remains as Cooper drew it in the two tales mentioned and in "The Prairie," "The Pathfinder," and the "Deerslayer," which completed the series. "Leatherstocking," the trapper, scout and backwoods philosopher or Natty Bumpo, to give the hero his other name was inspired by the actual personality and career of Daniel Boone, the pioneer of Kentucky. This man of the woods was the first real American in fiction.
Of Cooper's sea tales, the two best were the "Pilot," founded upon the daring exploits of Paul Jones, and the "Red Rover," the introduction of which opens in the harbors of Newport. Cooper's other tales include an Indian story of King Philip's War, "The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish," published in England as "The Borderers" and in France as "The Puritan in America," although the Puri-tan minister in it bears the repellent name of the Reverend Meek Wolf; "Satanstoe," a picture of colonial life and manners in New York during the middle of the Eighteenth Century, unsurpassed elsewhere and taking rank among his best stories; its sequel, "The Chain-Bearer"; and the "Water Witch."
Cooper's tales reflected to a certain extent the new era of national expansion, for which a motto might be found in Bishop Berkeley's famous line, "Westward the course of Empire takes its way." The westward march and struggle are also dealt with in Irving's "Tour on the Prairies" and in Paulding's "Westward Ho !" as well as his poem, "The Backwoodsman." It was not long indeed before the new West was to produce a literature of its own.