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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Julian Hawthorne (1846–1934)

By James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851)

MORE than a century ago, in the town of Burlington, New Jersey, was born a man destined to become one of the best-known figures of his time. He was as devout an American as ever lived, for he could arraign the shortcomings of his countrymen as stanchly as he could defend and glorify their ideals. He entered fearlessly and passionately into the life around him, seeing intensely, yet sometimes blind; feeling ardently, yet not always aright; acting with might and conviction, yet not seldom amiss. He loved and revered good, scorned and hated evil, and with the strength and straightforwardness of a bull championed the one and gored the other. He worshiped justice, but lacked judgment; his brain, stubborn and logical, was incongruously mated with a deep and tender heart. A brave and burly backwoods gentleman was he, with a smattering of the humanities from Yale, and a dogged precision of principle and conduct from six years in the navy. He had the iron memory proper to a vigorous organization and a serious, observant mind; he was tirelessly industrious—in nine-and-twenty years he published thirty-two novels, many of them of prodigious length, besides producing much matter never brought to light. His birth fell at a noble period of our history, and his surroundings fostered true and generous manhood. Doubtless many of his contemporaries were as true men as he: but to Cooper in addition was vouchsafed the gift of genius; and that magic quality dominated and transfigured his else rugged and intractable nature, and made his name known and loved over all the earth. No author has been more widely read than he; no American author has won even a tithe of his honorable popularity.

Though Jersey may claim his birthplace, Cooper’s childhood from his second to his fourteenth year was passed on the then frontiers of civilization, at Cooperstown on the Susquehanna. There in the primeval forest, hard by the broad Lake Otsego and the wide-flowing river, the old Judge built his house and laid out his town. Trees, mountains, wild animals, and wild men nursed the child, and implanted in him seeds of poetry and wrought into the sturdy fibres of his mind golden threads of creative imagination. Then round about the hearth at night, men of pith and character told tales of the Revolution, of battle, adventure, and endurance, which the child, hearing, fed upon with his soul, and grew strong in patriotism and independence. Nobility was innate in him; he conceived lofty and sweet ideals of human nature and conduct, and was never false to them thereafter. The ideal Man—the ideal Woman—he believed in them to the end. And more than twice or thrice in his fictions we find personages like Harvey Birch, Leatherstocking, Long Tom Coffin, the jailer’s daughter in ‘The Bravo,’ and Mabel Dunham and Dew-of-June in ‘The Pathfinder,’ which give adequate embodiment to his exalted conception of the possibilities of his fellow creatures. For though portrayal of character in the ultra-refined modern sense of the term was impossible to Cooper, yet he perceived and could impressively present certain broad qualities of human nature, and combine them in consistent and memorable figures. Criticism may smile now and then, and psychology arch her eyebrows, but the figures live, and bid fair to be lusty long after present fashions have been forgotten.

But of the making of books, Cooper, during the first three decades of his life, had no thought at all. He looked forward to a career of action; and after Yale College had given him a glimpse of the range of knowledge, he joined a vessel as midshipman, with the prospect of an admiral’s cocked hat and glory in the distance. The glory, however, with which the ocean was to crown him, was destined to be gained through the pen and not the sword, when at the age of five-and-thirty he should have published ‘The Pilot.’ As a naval officer, he might have helped to whip the English in the War of 1812; but as author of the best sea story in the language he conquered all the world of readers unaided. Meanwhile, when he was twenty-one years old he married a Miss Delancey, whose goodness (according to one of his biographers) was no less eminent than his genius, and who died but a short time before him. The joys of wedded life in a home of his own outweighed with him the chances of warlike distinction, and he resigned his commission and took command of a farm in Westchester County; and a gentleman farmer, either there or at his boyhood’s home in Cooperstown, he remained till the end, with the exception of his seven-years’ sojourn in Europe.

His was a bodily frame built to endure a hundred years, and the robustness of his intelligence and the vivacity of his feelings would have kept him young throughout; yet he died of a dropsy, at the prime of his powers, in 1851, heartily mourned by innumerable friends, and having already outlived all his enmities. He died, too, the unquestioned chief of American novelists; and however superior to his may have been the genius of his contemporary Walter Scott, the latter can hardly be said to have rivaled him in breadth of dominion over readers of all nationalities. Cooper was a household name from New York to Ispahan, from St. Petersburg to Rio de Janeiro; and the copyright on his works in various languages would to-day amount to a large fortune every year. Three generations have passed since with ‘The Spy’ he won the sympathies of mankind; and he holds them still. It is an enviable record. And although in respect of actual quality of work produced there have been many geniuses greater than he, yet it is fair to remember that Cooper’s genius had a great deal of stubborn raw material to subdue before it could proceed to produce anything. It started handicapped. As it was, the man wasted years of time and an immensity of effort in doing, or trying to do, things he had no business with. He would be a political reformer, a critic of society, an interpreter of law, even a master grammarian. He would fight to the finish all who differed from him in opinion; he fought and—incredible as it may seem—he actually conquered the American press. He published reams of stuff which no one now reads and which was never worth reading, to enforce his views and prove that he was right and others wrong. All this power was misdirected; it might have been applied to producing more and better Leatherstockings and Pilots. Perhaps he hardly appreciated at its value that one immortal thing about him,—his genius,—and was too much concerned about his dogmatic and bull-headed Self. Unless the world confessed his infallibility, he could not be quite at peace with it. Such an attitude arouses one’s sense of humor; it would never have existed had Cooper possessed a spark of humor himself. But he was uncompromisingly serious on all subjects, or if at times he tried to be playful, we shudder and avert our faces. It is too like Juggernaut dancing a jig. And he gave too much weight to the verdict of the moment, and not enough to that judgment of posterity to which the great Verulam was content to submit his fame. Who cares to-day, or how are we the better or the worse, if Cooper were right or wrong in his various convictions? What concerns us is that he wrote delightful stories of the forest and the sea; it is in those stories, and not in his controversial or didactic homilies, that we choose to discover his faith in good and ire against evil. Cooper, in short, had his limitations; but with all his errors, we may take him and be thankful.

Moreover, his essential largeness appears in the fact that in the midst of his bitterest conflicts, at the very moment when his pamphlets and “satires” were heating the printing-presses and people’s tempers, a novel of his would be issued, redolent with pure and serene imagination, telling of the prairies and the woods, of deer and panther, of noble redskins and heroic trappers. It is another world, harmonious and calm; no echo of the petty tumults in which its author seemed to live is audible therein. But it is a world of that author’s imagination, and its existence proves that he was greater and wiser than the man of troubles and grievances who so noisily solicits our attention. The surface truculence which fought and wrangled was distinct from the interior energy which created and harmonized, and acted perhaps as the safety-valve to relieve the inward region from disturbance.

The anecdote of how Cooper happened to adopt literature as a calling is somewhat musty, and its only significant feature is the characteristic self-confidence of his exclamation, on laying down a stupid English novel which he had been reading to his wife, “I could write as well as that myself!” Also in point is the fact that the thing he wrote, ‘Precaution,’ is a story of English life, whereof at that time he had had no personal experience. One would like to know the name of the novel which touched him off; if it was stupider and more turgid than ‘Precaution’ it must have been a curiosity. Cooper may have thought otherwise, or he may have been stimulated by recognition of his failure, as a good warrior by the discovery that his adversary is a more redoubtable fighter than he had gauged him to be. At all events, he lost no time in engaging once more, and this time he routed his foe, horse and foot. One is reminded of the exclamation of his own Paul Jones, when requested to surrender—“I haven’t begun to fight!” ‘The Spy’ is not a perfect work of art, but it is a story of adventure and character such as the world loves and will never tire of. ‘Precaution’ had showed not even talent; ‘The Spy’ revealed unquestionable genius. This is not to say that its merit was actually unquestioned at the time it came out; our native critics hesitated to commit themselves, and awaited English verdicts. But the nation’s criticism was to buy the book and read it, and they and other nations have been so doing ever since. Nothing in literature lasts longer, or may be oftener re-read with pleasure, than a good tale of adventure. The incidents are so many and the complications so ingenious that one forgets the detail after a few years, and comes to the perusal with fresh appetite. Cooper’s best books are epics, possessing an almost Homeric vitality. The hero is what the reader would like to be, and the latter thrills with his perils and triumphs in his success. Ulysses is Mankind, making sweet uses of adversity, and regenerate at last; and Harvey Birch, Leatherstocking, and the rest are congenial types of Man, acting up to high standards in given circumstances.

But oh! the remorseless tracts of verbiage in these books, the long toiling through endless preliminaries, as of a too unwieldy army marching and marshaling for battle! It is Cooper’s way; he must warm to his work gradually, or his strength cannot declare itself. His beginnings abound in seemingly profitless detail, as if he must needs plot his every footstep on the map ere trusting himself to take the next. Balzac’s method is similar, but possesses a spiritual charm lacking in the American’s. The modern ability of Stevenson and Kipling to plunge into the thick of it in the first paragraph was impossible to this ponderous pioneer. Yet when at length he does begin to move, the impetus and majesty of his advance are tremendous; as in the avalanche, every added particular of passive preparation adds weight and power to the final action. Cooper teaches us, Wellington-like, “what long-enduring hearts can do!” Doubtless, therefore, any attempt to improve him by blue-penciling his tediousness would result in spoiling him altogether. We must accept him as he is. Dullness past furnishes fire to present excitement. It is a mistake to “skip” in reading Cooper; if we have not leisure to read him as he stands, let us wait until we have.

‘Precaution’ and ‘The Spy’ both appeared in 1821, when the author was about thirty-two years old. Two years passed before the production of ‘The Pioneers,’ wherein Cooper draws upon memory no less than upon imagination, and in which Leatherstocking first makes our acquaintance. As a rule (proved by exceptions), the best novels of great novelists have their scene in surroundings with which the writer’s boyhood was familiar. ‘The Pioneers’ and the ensuing series of Leatherstocking tales are placed in the neighborhood of the lake and river which Cooper, as a child, had so lovingly learned by heart. Time had supplied the requisite atmosphere for the pictures that he drew, while the accuracy of his memory and the minuteness of his observation assured ample realism. In the course of the narrative the whole mode of life of a frontier settlement from season to season appears before us, and the typical figures which constitute it. It is history, illuminated by romance and uplifted by poetic imagination. One of our greatest poets, speaking after the second-thought of thirty years, declared Cooper to be a greater poet than Hesiod or Theocritus. But between a poet and a prose-writer capable of poetic feeling there is perhaps both a distinction and a difference.

The birth-year of the ‘Pioneers’ and of the ‘Pilot’ are again the same. Now Cooper leaves, for the time, the backwoods, and embarks upon the sea. He is as great upon one element as upon the other: of whom else can that be affirmed? We might adapt the apophthegm on Washington to him: he was “first on land, first on sea, and first in the hearts of his readers.” In ‘The Pilot’ the resources of the writer’s invention first appear in full development. His personal experience of the vicissitudes and perils of a seaman’s life stood him in good stead here, and may indeed have served him well in the construction of all his fictions. Fertility in incident and the element of suspense are valuable parts of a story-teller’s outfit, and Cooper excelled in both; he might have been less adequately furnished in these respects had he never served on a man-of-war. Be that as it may, ‘The Pilot’ is generally accepted as the best sea story ever written. Herman Melville and his disciple Clark Russell have both written lovingly and thrillingly of the sea and seamen, but neither of them has rivaled their common original. Long Tom Coffin is the peer of Leatherstocking himself, and might have been made the central figure of as many and as excellent tales. The three books—‘The Spy,’ ‘The Pioneers,’ and ‘The Pilot’—form a trilogy of itself more than sufficient to support a mighty reputation; and they were all written before Cooper was thirty-five years old. Indeed, his subsequent works did not importantly add to his fame; and many of them of course might better never have been written. ‘Lionel Lincoln,’ in 1825, fell far short of the level of the previous romances; but ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’ in the year following, is again as good as the best, and the great figure of Leatherstocking even gains in solidity and charm. As a structure, the story is easily criticized, but the texture is so sound and the spirit so stirring that only the cooler after-thought finds fault. Faults which would shipwreck a lesser man leave this leviathan almost unscathed.

At this juncture occurred the unfortunate episode in Cooper’s career. His fame having spread over two continents, he felt a natural desire to visit the scene of his foreign empire and make acquaintance with his subjects there; it seemed an act of expediency too to get local color for romances which should appeal more directly to these friends across the sea. Upon these pretexts he set forth, and in due season arrived in Paris. Here however he chanced to read a newspaper criticism of the United States government; and true to his conviction that he was the heaven-appointed agent to correct and castigate the world, he sat down and wrote a sharp rejoinder. He was well furnished with facts, and he exhibited plenty of acumen in his statement of them; though his cumbrous and pompous style, as of a schoolmaster laying down the law, was not calculated to fascinate the lectured ones. In the controversy which ensued he found himself arrayed against the aristocratic party, with only the aged Lafayette to afford him moral support; his arguments were not refuted, but this rendered him only the more obnoxious to his hosts, who finally informed him that his room was more desirable than his company. As a Parthian shaft, our redoubtable champion launched a missile in the shape of a romance of ancient Venice (‘The Bravo’), in which he showed how the perversion of institutions devised to insure freedom, inevitably brings to pass freedom’s opposite. It is a capital novel, worthy of Cooper’s fame; but it neither convinced nor pleased the effete monarchists whom it arraigned. In the end accordingly he returned home, with the consciousness of having vindicated his countrymen, but of having antagonized all Europe in the process. It may be possible to win the affection of a people while proving to them that they are fools and worse; but if so, Cooper was not the man to accomplish the feat. It should be premised here that during his residence abroad he had written, in addition to ‘The Bravo,’ three novels which may be placed among his better works; and one, ‘The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish,’ whose lovely title is its only recommendation. ‘The Red Rover’ was by some held to be superior even to ‘The Pilot’; and ‘Heidenhauer’ and ‘The Headsman of Berne’ attempt, not with entire success, to repeat the excellence of ‘The Bravo.’ He had also published a volume of letters critical of national features, entitled ‘Notions of the Americans,’ which may have flattered his countrymen’s susceptibilities, but did nothing to assuage the wounded feelings of those with whom he contrasted them.

Now, when a warrior returns home after having manfully supported his country’s cause against odds, and at the cost of his own popularity, he feels justified in anticipating a cordial reception. What then must be his feelings on finding himself actually given the cold shoulder by those he had defended, on the plea that his defense was impolitic and discourteous? In such circumstances there is one course which no wise man will pursue, and that is to treat his aspersers with anything else than silent disdain. Cooper was far from being thus wise: he lectured his fellow-citizens with quite as much asperity as he had erewhile lectured the tyrants of the Old World; with as much justice too, and with an effect even more embroiling. In ‘A Letter to his Countrymen,’ ‘Monikins,’ ‘Homeward Bound,’ and ‘Home as Found,’ he admonished and satirized them with characteristic vigor. The last-named of these books brings us to the year 1838, and of Cooper’s life the fiftieth. He seemed in a fair way to become a universal Ishmael. Yet once more he had only begun to fight. In 1838 he commenced action against a New York newspaper for slander, and for five years thereafter the courts of his country resounded with the cries and thwackings of the combatants. But Cooper could find no adversary really worthy of his steel, and in 1843 he was able to write to a friend, “I have beaten every man I have sued who has not retracted his libels!” He had beaten them fairly, and one fancies that even he must at last have become weary of his favorite passion of proving himself in the right. Howbeit, peace was declared over the corpse of the last of his opponents, and the victor in so many fields could now apply himself undisturbedly to the vocations from which war had partially distracted him,—only partially, for in 1840, in the heat of the newspaper fray, he astonished the public by producing one of the loveliest of his romances and perhaps the very best of the Leatherstocking series, ‘The Pathfinder.’ William Cullen Bryant holds this to be “a glorious work,” and speaks of its moral beauty, the vividness and force of its delineations, and the unspoiled love of nature and fresh and warm emotions which give life to the narrative and dialogue. Yet Cooper was at that time over fifty years of age.

Nevertheless, so far as his abilities both mental and physical were concerned, the mighty man was still in the prime of his manhood, if not of his youth. During the seven or eight years yet to elapse, after the close of his slander suits in 1843, before his unexpected death in 1851, he wrote not less than twelve new novels, several of them touching the high-water mark of his genius. Of them may be specially mentioned ‘Two Admirals’ and ‘Wing-and-Wing,’ ‘Wyandotte,’ and ‘Jack Tier.’ Besides all this long list of his works, he published ‘Sketches of Switzerland’ in 1836; ‘Gleanings in Europe,’ in a series of eight volumes, beginning 1837; a ‘Naval History of the United States’ in two octavo volumes; and wrote three or four other books which seem to have remained in manuscript. Altogether it was a gigantic life-work, worthy of the giant who achieved it.

Cooper was hated as well as loved during his lifetime, but at his death the love had quenched the hate, and there are none but lovers of him now. He was manly, sincere, sensitive, independent; rough without but sweet within. He sought the good of others, he devoutly believed in God, and if he was always ready to take his own part in a fight, he never forgot his own self-respect or forfeited other men’s. But above all he was a great novelist, original and irresistible. America has produced no other man built on a scale so continental.