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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Literary and Personal Characteristics of Cooper

By Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury (1838–1915)

[Born in Ovid, N. Y., 1838. Died in New Haven, Conn., 1915. James Fenimore Cooper. 1888.]

MORE than sixty years have gone by since Cooper began to write; more than thirty since he ceased to live. If his reputation has not advanced during the period that has passed since his death, it has certainly not receded. Nor does it seem likely to undergo much change in the future. The world has pretty well made up its mind as to the value of his work. The estimate in which it is held will not be materially raised or lowered by anything which criticism can now utter. This will itself be criticised for being too obvious; for it can do little but repeat, with variation of phrase, what has been constantly said and often better said before. There is, however, now a chance of its meeting with fairer consideration. The cloud of depreciation which seems to settle upon the achievement of every man of letters soon after death, it was Cooper’s fortune to encounter during life. This was partly due to the literary reaction which had taken place against the form of fiction he adopted, but far more to the personal animosities he aroused. We are now far enough removed from the prejudices and passions of his time to take an impartial view of the man, and to state, without bias for or against him, the conclusions to which the world has very generally come as to his merits and defects as a writer.

At the outset it is to be said that Cooper is one of the people’s novelists as opposed to the novelists of highly-cultivated men. This does not imply that he has not been, and is not still, a favorite with many of the latter. The names of those, indeed, who have expressed excessive admiration for his writings far surpass in reputation and even critical ability those who have spoken of him depreciatingly. Still the general statement is true that it is with the masses he has found favor chiefly. The sale of his works has known no abatement since his death. It goes on constantly to an extent that will surprise any one who has not made an examination of this particular point. His tales continue to be read or rather devoured by the uncultivated many. They are often contemptuously criticised by the cultivated few, who sometimes affect to look upon any admiration they may have once had for them as belonging exclusively to the undisciplined taste of childhood.

This state of things may be thought decisive against the permanent reputation of the novelist. The opinion of the cultivated few, it is said, must prevail over that of the uncultivated many. True as this is in certain cases, it is just as untrue in others. It is, in fact, often absurdly false when the general reading public represents the uncultivated many. On matters which come legitimately within the scope of their judgment the verdict of the great mass of men is infinitely more trustworthy than that of any smaller body of men, no matter how cultivated. Of plenty of that narrow judgment of select circles which mistakes the cackle of its little coterie for the voice of the world, Cooper was made the subject, and sometimes the victim, during his lifetime. There were any number of writers, now never heard of, who were going to outlive him, according to literary prophecies then current, which had everything oracular in their utterance except ambiguity. Especially is this true of the notices of his stories of the sea. As I have turned over the pages of defunct criticism, I have come across the names of several authors whose tales descriptive of ocean life were, according to many contemporary estimates, immensely superior to anything of the kind Cooper had produced or could produce. Some of these writers enjoyed for a time high reputation. Most of them are now as utterly forgotten as the men who celebrated their praises.

But, however unfair as a whole may be the estimate of cultivated men in any particular case, their adverse opinion is pretty certain to have a foundation of justice in its details. This is unquestionably true in the present instance. Characteristics there are of Cooper’s writings which would and do repel many. Defects exist both in manner and matter. Part of the unfavorable judgment he has received is due to the prevalence of minor faults, disagreeable rather than positively bad. These, in many cases, sprang from the quantity of what he did and the rapidity with which he did it. The amount that Cooper wrote is something that in fairness must always be taken into consideration. He who has crowded into a single volume the experience of a life must concede that he stands at great advantage as regards matters of detail, and especially as regards perfection of form, with him who has manifested incessant literary activity in countless ways. It was the immense quantity that Cooper wrote and the haste and inevitable carelessness which wait upon great production, that are responsible for many of his minor faults. Incongruities in the conception of his tales, as well as in their execution, often make their appearance. Singular blunders can be found which escaped even his own notice in the final revision he gave his works….

In the matter of language this rapidity and carelessness often degenerated into downright slovenliness. It was bad enough to resort to the same expedients and to repeat the same scenes. Still from this charge few prolific novelists can be freed. But in Cooper there were often words and phrases which he worked to death….

There were other faults in the matter of language that to some will seem far worse. I confess to feeling little admiration for that grammar-school training which consists in teaching the pupil how much more he knows about our tongue than the great masters who have moulded it; which practically sets up the claim that the only men who are able to write English properly are the men who have never shown any capacity to write it at all; and which seeks, in a feeble way, to cramp usage by setting up distinctions that never existed, and laying down rules which it requires uncommon ignorance of the language to make or to heed. Still there are lengths to which the most strenuous stickler for freedom of speech does not venture to go. There are prejudices in favor of the exclusive legitimacy of certain constructions that he feels bound to respect. He recognizes, as a general rule, for instance, that when the subject is in the singular it is desirable that the verb should be in the same number. For conventionalities of syntax of this kind Cooper was very apt to exhibit disregard, not to say disdain. He too often passed the bounds that divide liberty from license. It scarcely needs to be asserted that in most of these cases the violation of idiom arose from haste or carelessness. But there were some blunders which can only be imputed to pure unadulterated ignorance….

There are imperfections far more serious than these mistakes in language. He rarely attained to beauty of style. The rapidity with which he wrote forbids the idea that he ever strove earnestly for it. Even the essential but minor grace of clearness is sometimes denied him. He had not, in truth, the instincts of the born literary artist. Satisfied with producing the main effect, he was apt to be careless in the consistent working out of details. Plot, in any genuine sense of the word “plot,” is to be found in very few of his stories. He seems rarely to have planned all the events beforehand; or, if he did, anything was likely to divert him from his original intention. The incidents often appear to have been suggested as the tale was in process of composition. Hence the constant presence of incongruities with the frequent result of bringing about a bungling and incomplete development. The introduction of certain characters is sometimes so heralded as to lead us to expect from them far more than they actually perform. Thus, in “The Two Admirals,” Mr. Thomas Wychecombe is brought in with a fulness of description that justifies the reader in entertaining a rational expectation of finding in him a satisfactory scoundrel, capable, desperate, full of resources, needing the highest display of energy and ability to be overcome. This reasonable anticipation is disappointed. At the very moment when respectable determined villany is in request, he fades away into a poltroon of the most insignificant type, who is not able to hold his own against an ordinary house-steward.

The prolixity of Cooper’s introductions is a fault so obvious to every one that it needs here reference merely and not discussion. A similar remark may be made as to his moralizing, which was apt to be cheap and commonplace. He was much disposed to waste his own time and to exhaust the patience of his reader by establishing with great fulness of demonstration and great positiveness of assertion the truth of principles which most of the human race are humbly content to regard as axioms. A greater because even a more constantly recurring fault is the gross improbability to be found in the details of his stories. There is too much fiction in his fiction. We are continually exasperated by the inadequacy of the motive assigned; we are irritated by the unnatural if not ridiculous conduct of the characters. These are perpetually doing unreasonable things, or doing reasonable things at unsuitable times. They take the very path that must lead them into the danger they are seeking to shun. They engage in making love when they ought to be flying for their lives. His heroes, in particular, exhibit a capacity for going to sleep in critical situations, which may not transcend extraordinary human experience, but does ordinary human belief. Nor is improbability always confined to details. It pervades sometimes the central idea of the story….

His failure in characterization was undoubtedly greatest in the women he drew. Cooper’s ardent admirers have always resented this charge. Each one of them points to some single heroine that fulfils the highest requirements that criticism could demand. It seems to me that close study of his writings must confirm the opinion generally entertained. All his utterances show that the theoretical view he had of the rights, the duties, and the abilities of women, were of the most narrow and conventional type. Unhappily it was a limitation of his nature that he could not invest with charm characters with whom he was not in moral and intellectual sympathy. There was, in his eyes, but one praiseworthy type of womanly excellence. It did not lie in his power to represent any other; on one occasion he unconsciously satirized his inability even to conceive of any other. In “Mercedes of Castile” the heroine is thus described by her aunt: “Her very nature,” she says, “is made up of religion and female decorum.” It is evident that the author fancied that in this commendation he was exhausting praise. These are the sentiments of a man with whom devoutness and deportment have become the culminating conception of the possibilities that lie in the female character. His heroines naturally conformed to his belief. They are usually spoken of as spotless beings. They are made up of retiring sweetness, artlessness, and simplicity. They are timid, shrinking, helpless. They shudder with terror on any decent pretext. But if they fail in higher qualities, they embody in themselves all conceivable combinations of the proprieties and minor morals. They always give utterance to the most unexceptionable sentiments. They always do the extremely correct thing. The dead perfection of their virtues has not the alloy of a single redeeming fault. The reader naturally wearies of these uninterestingly discreet and admirable creatures in fiction as he would in real life. He feels that they would be a good deal more attractive if they were a good deal less angelic. With all their faultlessness, moreover, they do not attain an ideal which is constantly realized by their living but faulty sisters. They do not show the faith, the devotion, the self-forgetfulness, and self-sacrifice which women exhibit daily without being conscious that they have done anything especially creditable. They experience, so far as their own words and acts furnish evidence of their feelings, a sort of lukewarm emotion which they dignify with the name of love. But they not merely suspect without the slightest provocation, they give up the men to whom they have pledged the devotion of their lives, for reasons for which no one would think of abandoning an ordinary acquaintance. In “The Spy” the heroine distrusts her lover’s integrity because another woman does not conceal her fondness for him. In “The Heidenmauer” one of the female characters resigns the man she loves because on one occasion, when heated by wine and maddened by passion, he had done violence to the sacred elements. There was never a woman in real life, whose heart and brain were sound, that conformed her conduct to a model so contemptible. It is just to say of Cooper that as he advanced in years he improved upon this feeble conception. The female characters of his earlier tales are never able to do anything successfully but to faint. In his later ones they are given more strength of mind as well as nobility of character. But at best, the height they reach is little loftier than that of the pattern woman of the regular religious novel. The reader cannot help picturing for all of them the same dreary and rather inane future. He is as sure, as if their career had been actually unrolled before his eyes, of the part they will perform in life. They will all become leading members of Dorcas societies; they will find perpetual delight in carrying to the poor bundles of tracts and packages of tea; they will scour the highways and byways for dirty, ragged, hatless, shoeless, and godless children, whom they will hale into the Sunday-school; they will shine with unsurpassed skill in the manufacture of slippers for the rector; they will exhibit a fiery enthusiasm in the decoration and adornment of the church at Christmas and Easter festivals. Far be the thought that would deny praise to the mild raptures and delicate aspirations of gentle natures such as Cooper drew. But in novels, at least, one longs for a ruddier life than flows in the veins of these pale, bleached-out personifications of the proprieties. Women like them may be far more useful members of society than the stormier characters of fiction that are dear to the carnal-minded. They may very possibly be far more agreeable to live with; but they are not usually the women for whom men are willing or anxious to die.

These are imperfections that have led to the undue depreciation of Cooper among many highly cultivated men. Taken by themselves they might seem enough to ruin his reputation beyond redemption. It is a proof of his real greatness that he triumphs over defects which would utterly destroy the fame of a writer of inferior power. It is with novels as with men. There are those with great faults which please us and impress us far more than those in which the component parts are better balanced. Whatever its other demerits, Cooper’s best work never sins against the first law of fictitious composition, that the story shall be full of sustained interest. It has power, and power always fascinates, even though accompanied with much that would naturally excite repulsion or dislike. Moreover, poorly as he sometimes told his story, he had a story to tell. The permanence and universality of his reputation are largely due to this fact. In many modern creations full of subtle charm and beauty, the narrative, the material framework of the fiction, has been made so subordinate to the delineation of character and motive, that the reader ceases to feel much interest in what men do in the study which is furnished him of why they do it. In this highly rarefied air of philosophic analysis, incident and event wither and die. Work of this kind is apt to have within its sphere an unbounded popularity; but its sphere is limited, and can never include a tithe of that vast public for which Cooper wrote and which has always cherished and kept alive his memory, while that of men of perhaps far finer mould has quite faded away.

It is only fair, also, to judge him by his successes and not by his failures; by the work he did best, and not by what he did moderately well. His strength lies in the description of scenes, in the narration of events. In the best of these he has had no superior, and very few equals. The reader will look in vain for the revelation of sentiment, or for the exhibition of passion. The love-story is rarely well done; but the love-story plays a subordinate part in the composition. The moment his imagination is set on fire with the conception of adventure, vividness and power come unbidden to his pen. The pictures he then draws are as real to the mind as if they were actually seen by the eye. It is doubtless due to the fact that these fits of inspiration came to him only in certain kinds of composition, that the excellence of many of his stories lies largely in detached scenes. Still his best works are a moving panorama, in which the mind is no sooner sated with one picture than its place is taken by another equally fitted to fix the attention and to stir the heart. The genuineness of his power, in such cases, is shown by the perfect simplicity of the agencies employed. There is no pomp of words; there is an entire lack of even the attempt at meretricious adornment; there is not the slightest appearance of effort to impress the reader. In his portrayal of these scenes Cooper is like nature, in that he accomplishes his greatest effects with the fewest means. If, as we are sometimes told, these things are easily done, the pertinent question always remains, why are they not done?

Moreover, while in his higher characters he has almost absolutely failed, he has succeeded in drawing a whole group of strongly-marked lower ones. Birch, in “The Spy,” Long Tom Coffin and Boltrope in “The Pilot,” the squatter in “The Prairie,” Cap in “The Pathfinder,” and several others there are, any one of which would be enough of itself to furnish a respectable reputation to many a novelist who fancies himself far superior to Cooper as a delineator of character. He had neither the skill nor power to draw the varied figures with which Scott, with all the reckless prodigality of genius, crowded his canvas. Yet in the gorgeous gallery of the great master of romantic fiction, alive with men and women of every rank in life and of every variety of nature, there is, perhaps, no one person who so profoundly impresses the imagination as Cooper’s crowning creation, the man of the forests. It is not that Scott could not have done what his follower did, had he so chosen; only that as a matter of fact he did not. Leather Stocking is one of the few original characters, perhaps the only great original character, that American fiction has added to the literature of the world.

The more uniform excellence of Cooper, however, lies in the pictures he gives of the life of nature. Forest, ocean, and stream are the things for which he really cares; and men and women are the accessories, inconvenient and often uncomfortable, that must be endured. Of the former he speaks with a loving particularity that lets nothing escape the attention. Yet minute as are often his descriptions, he did not fall into that too easily besetting sin of the novelist, of overloading his picture with details. To advance the greater he sacrificed the less. Cooper looked at nature with the eye of a painter and not of a photographer. He fills the imagination even more than he does the sight. Hence the permanence of the impression which he leaves upon the mind. His descriptions, too, produce a greater effect at the time and cling longer to the memory because they fall naturally into the narrative, and form a real part in the development of the story; they are not merely dragged in to let the reader know what the writer can do. “If Cooper,” said Balzac, “had succeeded in the painting of character to the same extent that he did in the painting of the phenomena of nature, he would have uttered the last word of our art.” This author I have quoted several times, because far better even than George Sand, or indeed any who have criticised the American novelist, he seems to me to have seen clearly wherein the latter succeeded and wherein he failed.

To this it is just to add one word which Cooper himself would have regarded as the highest tribute that could be paid to what he did. Whatever else we may say of his writings, their influence is always a healthy influence. Narrow and prejudiced he sometimes was in his opinions; but he hated whatever was mean and low in character. It is with beautiful things and with noble things that he teaches us to sympathize. Here are no incitements to passion, no prurient suggestions of sensual delights. The air which breathes through all his fictions, is as pure as that which sweeps the streets of his mountain home. It is as healthy as nature itself. To read one of his best works after many of the novels of the day, is like passing from the heated and stifling atmosphere of crowded rooms to the purity, the freedom, and the boundlessness of the forest.

In these foregoing pages I have attempted to portray an author who was something more than an author, who in any community would have been a marked man had he never written a word. I have not sought to hide his foibles and his faults, his intolerance and his dogmatism, the irascibility of his temperament, the pugnacity of his nature, the illiberality and injustice of many of his opinions, the unreasonableness as well as the imprudence of the course he often pursued. To his friends and admirers these points will seem to have been insisted upon too strongly. Their feelings may, to a certain extent, be just. Cooper is, indeed, a striking instance of how much more a man loses in the estimation of the world by the exhibition of foibles, than he will by that of vices….

His faults, in fact, were faults of temper rather than of character. Like the defects of his writings, too, they lay upon the surface, and were seen and read of all men. But granting everything that can be urged against him, impartial consideration must award him an ample excess of the higher virtues. His failings were the failings of a man who possessed in the fullest measure vigor of mind, intensity of conviction, and capability of passion. Disagree with him one could hardly help; one could never fail to respect him. Many of the common charges against him are due to pure ignorance. Of these, perhaps, the most common and the most absolutely baseless is the one which imputes to him excessive literary vanity. Pride, even up to the point of arrogance, he had; but even this was only in a small degree connected with his reputation as an author. In the nearly one hundred volumes he wrote, not a single line can be found which implies that he had an undue opinion of his own powers. On the contrary, there are many that would lead to the conclusion that his appreciation of himself and of his achievement was far lower than even the coldest estimate would form. The prevalent misconception on this point was in part due to his excessive sensitiveness to criticism and his resentment of it when hostile. It was partly due, also, to a certain outspokenness of nature which led him to talk of himself as freely as he would talk of a stranger. But his whole conduct showed the falseness of any such impression. From all the petty tricks to which literary vanity resorts, he was absolutely free. He utterly disdained anything that savored of manœuvring for reputation. He indulged in no devices to revive the decaying attention of the public. He sought no favors from those who were in a position to confer the notoriety which so many mistake for fame. He went, in fact, to the other extreme, and refused an aid that he might with perfect propriety have received….

The fearlessness and the truthfulness of his nature are conspicuous in almost every incident of his career. He fought for a principle as desperately as other men fight for life. The storm of detraction through which he went never once shook the almost haughty independence of his conduct, or swerved him in the slightest from the course he had chosen. The only thing to which he unquestioningly submitted was the truth. His loyalty to that was of a kind almost Quixotic. He was in later years dissatisfied with himself, because, in his novel of “The Pilot,” he had put the character of Paul Jones too high. He thought that the hero had been credited in that work with loftier motives than those by which he was actually animated. Feelings such as these formed the groundwork of his character, and made him intolerant of the devious ways of many who were satisfied with conforming to a lower code of morality. There was a royalty in his nature that disdained even the semblance of deceit. With other authors one feels that the man is inferior to his work. With him it is the very reverse. High qualities, such as these, so different from the easy-going virtues of common men, are more than an offset to infirmities of temper, to unfairness of judgment, or to unwisdom of conduct. His life was the best answer to many of the charges brought against his country and his countrymen; for whatever he may have fancied, the hostility he encountered was due far less to the matter of his criticisms than to their manner. Against the common cant, that in republican governments the tyranny of public sentiment will always bring conduct to the same monotonous level, and opinion to the same subservient uniformity, Democracy can point to this dauntless son who never flinched from any course because it brought odium, who never flattered popular prejudices, and who never truckled to a popular cry. America has had among her representatives of the irritable race of writers many who have shown far more ability to get on pleasantly with their fellows than Cooper. She has had several gifted with higher spiritual insight than he, with broader and juster views of life, with finer ideals of literary art, and, above all, with far greater delicacy of taste. But she counts on the scanty roll of her men of letters the name of no one who acted from purer patriotism or loftier principle. She finds among them all no manlier nature, and no more heroic soul.