Carl Van Doren (1885–1950). The American Novel. 1921.Chapter 2. James Fenimore Cooper
During the nine years that followed there is no evidence that Cooper ever thought of authorship, even as an amusement, much less as a profession. Except for three years at Cooperstown, where he stood more less as heir to the manor, he lived in his wife’s native county of Westchester. Perhaps nowhere else in the United States could Cooper have led an existence so nearly resembling that of an eighteenth-century English squire. Westchester had been favored by the country gentry in colonial days and still cherished aristocratic traditions. Here Cooper was further confirmed in his theological opinions, which were orthodox and grew steadily stronger, not to say more intolerant, during his entire life; in his political doctrines, by which he belonged with few reservations to the idealistic, irascible, somewhat crude, and considerably aristocratic older democracy which had achieved the Revolution; and in his social prejudices, which were all that might have been expected from a man of his theology and politics. He believed in a propertied governing class, the subordination of the lower orders, and clear-cut caste distinctions. Rank, according to his opinions, naturally demanded of the men who possessed it a proper dignity, magnanimity, courage, knowledge, public service, and chivalry toward women; women of rank he expected to be less positive but to unite to domestic competence and loyalty a certain elaborate yet timid decorum. Toward the less fortunately placed classes Cooper believed he had the feelings of a good American democrat. As a matter of fact, he was full of that “condescension” which the eighteenth century mistook for a virtue. He tended to admit humbler personages to his fiction for the diversity they brought and to admire them preëminently for their devotion to their superiors. Even his greatest characters drawn from the people, Harvey Birch, Natty Bumppo, and Long Tom Coffin, have about them each some touch of the faithful body-servant, though they are saved by a larger element of loyalty to a cause, Birch to the Revolution, Bumppo to the life of unspoiled nature, and Coffin to the deep sea. Besides the typical opinions of his class, Cooper had also its typical information. He read the accepted classics, interested rather in modern than in ancient literature, and concerned more with history and biography than with poetry, philosphy, or science. He knew little of the fine arts. Later something of a traveler in Europe, during his formative years he saw, except upon his ocean voyages, only America, and little besides New York, its cities and its frontier. American history generally—and particularly that of New York, including its sparse antiquities and its topography—Cooper knew unusually well, though here again his knowledge came generally from the commoner sources. As a true New Yorker of the old breed, he had, of course, a tender and intimate acquaintance with the British peerage. Of the European continent he had no very wide knowledge, and like the average American of Federalist sympathies, he distrusted the French. In seamanship, his actual profession, he was better grounded than any man, English or American, who had ever used the ocean as the scene of a novel.
The accident which threw Cooper, thus equipped by 1820, into fiction was a challenge which his wife made him to write a better novel than one which he had been reading with great disgust. He accepted the challenge, wrote an unimportant domestic-sentimental romance, Precaution (1820), and found himself so much attracted by authorship that within three years he had written three of his best novels, each of them in one of the types he later clung to, and had completed his experimental stage. In The Spy (1821) American fiction may be said to have come of age with a tale of the recent Revolution. Love of country is its theme, and its hero a spy who had served John Jay against the British, as Jay himself had told Cooper, with singular purity of motive. The share of historical fact in it, indeed, is not large, but the action takes place so near to great events that the characters are all invested with something of the dusky light of heroes, while the figure of Washington, disguised as Mr. Harper and yet always looming gigantically through his disguise, moves among the other personages like a half-suspected god. Such a quality in the novel might have gone with impossible partiality for the Americans had not Cooper’s wife belonged to a family which had been loyalist during the struggle for independence. As it was, Cooper made his loyalists not necessarily knaves and fools, and so secured a fairness of tone which, aside from the mere question of justice, has a large effect upon the art of the narrative. It is clear the British are enemies worth fighting. Perhaps by chance, Cooper here hit upon a type of plot at which he excelled, a struggle between contending forces, not badly matched, arranged as a pursuit in which the pursued are, as a rule, favored by author and reader. In the management of such a device Cooper’s invention, which was naturally great and now was thoroughly aroused, worked easily, and the flights of Birch from friend and foe alike exhibit a power to carry on plots with sustained sweep which belongs to none but the masters of narration. To rapid movement Cooper added the virtue of a very real setting. He knew Westchester, where his scene was laid, the “Neutral Ground” of the Revolution, as Scott knew his own border; the topography of The Spy is drawn with a firm and accurate hand. In the characters Cooper was not so successful—by strict canons of realism was not successful at all. Cherishing already an aristocratic and traditional conception of women, he accepted for his narrative the romantic ideals of the day, the ideals of Scott and Byron. Writing of violent events in which, of necessity, ladies could play but a small part, he cast his heroines into the straightest mold of helplessness and propriety. With the less sheltered classes, such as were represented by Betty Flanagan the sutler, Cooper could be more veracious. Of the men who appear in The Spy, most are mere gentlemen, mere heroes, although Captain Lawton, the Virginia dragoon, is drawn with spirit and truth, and here and there among the inferior soldiers and the slaves appear a few individual characteristics. Harvey Birch, however, peddler and patriot, outwardly no hero at all and yet surpassingly heroic of soul as he prowls about on his subtle errands, is memorable and arresting. The skill with which he is presented, gaunt, weather-beaten, canny, mysterious, should not conceal the fact that his patriotism is actually as supernatural as are the dæmonic impulses of Brown’s characters. Patriotism drives Birch relentlessly to his destiny, at once wrecking and honoring him. This same romantic fate condemns him to be sad and lonely, a dedicated soul who captures attention by his secrecy and holds it by his magnificent adventures. All this is pure romance, but it is romance extraordinarily realized.
Cooper’s imagination, having worked first upon Revolutionary material and having succeeded with an historical romance which won the loudest applause, was approved on the American stage, and promptly reached European readers, now turned with characteristic energy in another direction, to the matter of the Frontier. The Pioneers, with a bumptious, challenging preface, was published early in 1823. Technically this book made no advance upon The Spy. Cooper had only the method of improvisation, then or later. With a few characters and the outlines of a situation in mind, he began composition, perhaps not even aware what the outcome would be, and then found himself swept forward with impetuous haste. In one respect The Pioneers falls behind its predecessors in interest: it has no definite scheme of pursuit and flight, and consequently, though it has certain thrilling moments, no general suspense. But in another respect it was a more important experiment than The Spy: now for the first time Cooper had set himself to the realistic representation of American manners. Dealing as he did with the Otsego settlement where his boyhood had been spent, and with a time (1793) partly within his memory, he could write largely with his eye upon the fact. Whatever romance there is in the story lies less in its plot, which is a conventional story of a worthy line for the moment dispossessed but eventually to be restored again; or in its characters, which are, for the most part, studied under a dry light with a good deal of caustic judgment—less in these things than in the essential wonder of a pioneer life. In its costumes and gestures the novel is not as heroic as The Spy. Indian John, the last of his proud race, is old and broken, corrupted by the settlements; only his death dignifies him. Natty Bumppo, a composite from many Cooperstown suggestions but in his main outlines undoubtedly suggested by Daniel Boone, is nobler than Indian John because he has not yielded but carries into the deeper forest his virtues, which even in Cooper’s boyhood were becoming archaic along the New York frontier, and now in 1823 had become a legend. Natty stands as a protest, on behalf of simplicity and perfect freedom, against encroaching law and order. In The Pioneers he is not of the proportions which he later assumed, and only at the end, when he withdraws from the field of his defeat by civilization, does he make his full appeal; but he is of the tribe of heroes to which Harvey Birch had belonged, lowly men of lofty virtues.
At the time Cooper seems to have seen no larger possibilities in his pioneer than in his spy. He was still experimenting. The Pilot, later in 1823, took him to another region of the frontier which he knew—the sea. The instigating motive was his desire to surpass Scott’s Pirate in seamanship, but his imagination caught fire no less remarkably than when he had decided to write a purely American tale of heroism or to make a record of his youthful environment. Like The Spy, his new novel made use of the Revolutionary matter; like The Pioneers, it was full of realistic detail from his own experience. Not only did he outdo Scott in sheer accuracy, but he created a new literary type, the tale of adventure on the sea, in which, though he was to have many followers in almost every modern language, he has not been seriously surpassed for vigor and swift rush of narrative. Smollett had already discovered the racy humors of seamen, but it remained for Cooper to capture for fiction the mystery and beauty, the shock and thrill of the sea. Experts say that his technical knowledge was sound; what is more important, he wrote, in The Pilot, a story about sailing vessels which convinces landsmen even in days of steam. The novel has, of course, its conventional element: its hero, John Paul Jones, who is always dark and secret, always Byronic, always brooding upon a dark past and a darker fate. As in the earlier stories, much is made of chase and escape, complicated by the fact that here ships, not merely men or horses, must be manœuvered, in a time of bitter war, among the rocks and storms of the Scottish coast. And once more, too, the central personage is a democratic hero, Long Tom Coffin, of Nantucket, who lives and dies by the sea which has made him, as love of country made Harvey Birch and love of the forest made Natty Bumppo. Long Tom is as real as an oak; he is also as romantic as storms and tides. Thus at the outset of his career Cooper made clear his conviction—one of the most important of all the convictions which lie back of his work—that character is shaped by occupation. Aristocratic though he might be in his own prejudices, he understood the rich diversities which may be brought into fiction by the representation of men drawn from different callings, which, more than different ages or landscapes, produce differences among men.
These three successes made Cooper a national figure, though New England, where criticism was solemn, still condescended to him. He founded the Bread and Cheese Club in New York, a literary society of which he was the moving spirit; he took a prominent part in the reception of Lafayette, who returned to a magnificent welcome in 1824; in the same year Columbia College made Cooper honorary Master of Arts. In the excitement of being a national romancer, he planned a series of Legends of the Thirteen Republics, aimed to celebrate each of the original states, but he gave up his scheme after Lionel Lincoln (1825), dealing with Boston in the days of Bunker Hill, failed to please as his earlier novels had done. His account of the battle is in his best vein; but for the rest, Cooper was too unsympathetic toward the New England character and, in spite of all his research, too little at home in Massachusetts for his imagination to be inflamed by this material. Beguiling as his conception of the series was, Cooper was not fitted, by breadth either of knowledge or of temper, to succeed in it; and his initial failure seems his ultimate good fortune. His future did not lie along the path of history which he had taken in The Spy, but along the path of frontier adventure which he had strayed into with The Pioneers.
The persuasion of friends led him to resume his narrative of Natty Bumppo, and in Cooper’s next two years and his next two novels he reached probably the highest point of his career. With The Last of the Mohicans (1826) he undertook to show the days of Natty’s prime, and with The Prairie (1827) his old age and final end. In each case Cooper projected the old hunter out of the world of remembered Otsego, into the dark forest which was giving up its secrets to the ax and the plow in 1793, or into the mighty prairies which stretched, in Cooper’s mind’s eye, for endless miles behind the forest, another mystery and another refuge. Natty, called Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, no longer has the hardness which marred his disgruntled age in The Pioneers. He appears instead as erect, swift, shrewd, contented, and wise. With all his virtues of hand and head he combines a nobility of spirit which the woods have fostered in a mind never spoiled by contact with human meanness and injustice. He has grown nobler as he has grown more remote from quarreling Otsego, more the poet and the hero as the world in which he moves has become more wholly his own. Chingachgook has undergone even a greater change, has got back all the cunning and pride which had been deadened in that victim of civilization, Indian John. Both Hawkeye and Chingachgook are of course considerably limited by their former conduct in The Pioneers: one must still be the canny reasoner, the other a little saddened with the passing years. The purest romance of the tale lies in Uncas, the forest’s youngest son, gallant, skilful, courteous, a lover for whom there is no hope, the last of the proud race of the Mohicans. That Uncas was idealized Cooper then and always freely admitted; Homer, he suggested, had his heroes. And it is clear that upon Uncas were bestowed the standard virtues which the philosophers of the age had taught the world to find in a state of nature. Still, after a century many can smile upon the state of nature who are yet able to find in Uncas the perennial appeal of youth cut off in the flower. The action and the setting of the novel are on the same imaginative plane with the characters. The forest, in which all its events take place, surrounds them with a changeless majesty, a venerable calm, a depth of significance that sharpens, by contrast, the restless sense of danger. Pursuit makes almost the whole plot. The pursued party moving from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry has two girls to handicap its flight and to increase the tragedy of its capture. Later the girls have been captured, and sympathy passes, a thing unusual in Cooper, to the pursuing rescuers. In these tasks Hawkeye and the Mohicans are opposed by the fierce capacity of the Huron Magua, who plays villain to Uncas’s hero, in physical qualities Uncas’s match, in moral qualities his opposite. There is never any relaxation of suspense, though there are certain preeminent moments which belong with the most thrilling episodes in fiction.
The Prairie has less swiftness than The Last of the Mohicans but more poetry. In it Natty appears again, twenty years older than in The Pioneers, far away in the plains beyond the Mississippi, where the popular mind knew that Daniel Boone had recently died. Natty owns his defeat and he still grieves over the murdered forest, but he has given up anger for the peace of old age. To him it seems that all his virtues are gone. Once valiant he must now be crafty; his arms are feeble; his eyes have so far failed him that, no longer the perfect marksman, he has sunk to the calling of a trapper. There is a pathos in his resignation which would be too painful were it not merely a phase of his grave and noble wisdom. He is more than ever what Cooper called him, “a philosopher of the wilderness.” The only change is that he has left the perils and delights of the forest and has been subdued to the eloquent monotony of the plains. Nowhere else has Cooper shown such sheer imaginative power as in the handling of this mighty landscape. He had never seen a prairie; indeed, it is clear that, like many travelers before him, he thought of the prairie as an ocean of land and described it partly by analogy. But he managed to endow the huge empty distances he had not seen with a presence as haunting as that of the populous forest he had intimately known in his impressionable youth. And the old trapper, though he thinks of himself as an exile, has learned the secret of the new scene and seems naturally to belong to it. It is his knowledge that makes him essential to the action, which is again made up of flight and pursuit. Once more there are girls to be rescued, from fiercer white men as well as from fierce Indians. There is another Magua in the Sioux Mahtoree, another Uncas in the Pawnee Hard-Heart. These Indians ride horses; the flat prairies afford few places of concealment. But the trapper is as ready as ever with new arts, and the flight ends as romance prescribes. The final scene, the death of the trapper in the arms of his young friends, is very touching and fine, yet reticently handled. Thackeray imitated it in the famous death of Colonel Newcome. For the most part, the minor characters, the lovers and the pedant, are not new to Cooper and are not notable. The family of Ishmael Bush, the squatter, however, make up a new element, as realistic as the rougher sort in The Pioneers, but more sinister, more important in Cooper’s criticism of the frontier. Bush and his giant sons have been forced out of civilization by its virtues, as the trapper by its vices. They have strength without nobility and activity without wisdom. Except when aroused they are as sluggish as a prairie river, and like it they appear muddy and aimless. Ishmael Bush always conveys the impression of terrific forces lying vaguely in ambush. His wife is nearly the most memorable figure among Cooper’s women. She clings to her mate and cubs with a tigerish instinct that leaves her, when she has lost son and brother and retreats dumbly from the scene in a vast silent grief, still lingering in the mind, a shabby, inarticulate prairie Hecuba.
The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie, and the praise they won, did not convince Cooper that the frontier was his true province. His next novel, The Red Rover (1828), written in France, turned to the noisy Atlantic between New England and the West Indies. Feeling that he must take care in writing of nautical affairs to avoid the themes and characters preferred by Smollett, Cooper was at some pains to invent all his details “without looking for the smallest aid from traditions or facts.” His plot, however, follows the romantic mode: an imperial-souled hero, wounded in his sensibilities, has long been a successful pirate under the scarlet flag, but, in spite of his evil deeds, has so much conscience left that he can be converted in a dramatic moment, subsequently to expiate his sins by services to the Revolution. This story could not have made The Red Rover one of Cooper’s best tales. There must be taken into account also the solid basis of reality exhibited in the book’s seamanship and, less remarkably, in the characters of the old tar Dick Fid and the slave Scipio Africanus. The excitement is less sustained than in The Pilot, but portions of the narrative, particularly those dealing with storms, are tremendous. The ocean here plays as great a part as Cooper had lately assigned to the prairie. One voices the calm of nature, the other its tumult; both tend to the shaping and discipline of man. If the theme of The Red Rover is conventional, so is that of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), an episode of King Philip’s War, in which frontier material indeed appears but in which it is overmuch involved with colonial history and with Cooper’s anti-Puritan prejudices.
What may be called his first period had come decisively to an end. Since 1826, when he went with his family to Europe for a foreign residence of seven years, Cooper had been growing steadily more critical and less romantic. His universe was enlarging. He found his books well known in Europe and society disposed to make much of him. In Paris he fraternized with Scott, who enjoyed and approved his American rival. Parts of Cooper’s stay were in England, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, which delighted and astonished him, and Italy, which he loved. Most of his time, however, he passed at Paris, charmed with a gayer and more brilliant society than he had known before. At first his nationalism was intensified. Unabashedly, outspokenly American, he had obtained from Henry Clay the post of consul at Lyons, that he might not seem, during his travels, a man without a country. As consul, though his position was purely nominal, he felt called upon to resent the ignorance everywhere shown by Europeans regarding his native land, and he set himself the task of educating them in sounder views. Cooper was not Franklin. Notions of the Americans (1828), while full of information and a rich mine of American opinion for that day, was too obviously partizan to convince those at whom it was aimed. Its proper audience was homesick Americans. He indulged, too, in some controversy at Paris over the relative cost of French and American government which pleased neither nation. Finally, he applied his art to the problem and wrote three novels “in which American opinion should be brought to bear on European facts.” That is, in The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmauer (1832), and The Headsman (1833) he meant to show by proper instances the superiority of democracy to aristocracy as regards general happiness and justice. He claimed to be writing for his countrymen alone, some of whom, in that day of one-sided comparisons between Europe and America, must have been thrilled to come across a passage like “a fairer morning never dawned upon the Alleghanies than that which illumined the Alps”; but he was not sufficiently master of his material, stout as his opinions might be, to make good romances out of it.
He had, however, caught the contagion of the critical spirit, and he returned to New York in 1833 in no mood to lend his voice to the loud chorus of national self-approval then sounding. He found himself, in fact, fatally cosmopolitan in the republic he had been justifying from abroad for seven years. He sought to qualify too sweeping praise of America precisely as he had recently sought to qualify too sweeping censure in Europe. But he had not learned tact while becoming a citizen of the world, and he promptly angered the public he had only meant to correct. The result was the long and dreary wrangling which clouded the whole remainder of his life and has obscured his fame even to the present day. If he had attended the dinner planned in his honor on his return, he might have found his welcome warmer than he thought it. If he had been an observer at once keen and tolerant enough, he must have seen that the new phases of democracy which he disliked under the presidency of Andrew Jackson were in large measure a gift to the old seaboard of that very frontier of which Cooper had been painter and annalist. But he did not see these things, and so he carried on a steady fight, almost always as right in his contentions as he was wrong in his manner. From Cooperstown, generally his residence except for a few winters in New York, to the end of his life he lectured and scolded. His Letter to his Countrymen (1834), stating his position, and The Monikins (1835), an unbelievably dull satire, were the first fruits of his quarrel. He followed these with five books dealing with his European travels and constantly irritating to both continents. He indulged in a heated altercation with his fellow-townsmen over some land which they thought theirs, though it was certainly his. In 1838 he published a fictitious record, Homeward Bound and its sequel Home as Found, of the disappointment of some Americans who return from Europe with a passion like that with which he had recently returned, and who find America what he had found it; but he appears not to have realized that the colossal priggishness of his returning Americans would make them seem more obnoxious than any qualities he could expose in the Americans at large. With something of the same tactlessness he proclaimed his political philosophy and principles in The American Democrat (1838). Most spectacular of all, he declared war upon the newspapers of New York and went up and down the state suing those that had libeled him. He won most of the suits, but though he silenced his opponents he had put his fame into the hands of persons who, unable to abuse him, could at least neglect him.
All these controversies checked Cooper’s tendency away from romance and toward realism. How strong that tendency was few of his critics have remarked; as a matter of fact, certain of his latest novels—such as Afloat and Ashore, Wyandotté, Satanstoe—are packed with the most valuable information concerning the manners, opinions, speech, and costumes of their periods. But with Cooper, to be critical was too often to be contentious, and as a result those very novels and others still more largely abound in prejudices and arguments that continually break the strong current of romantic narrative or disturb the broad picture of reality. All his better achievements after 1830 came on those occasions when he could escape from contemporary New York to the ocean or to the old frontier. The ocean was an important relief. In 1839 he published his solid and long-standard History of the Navy of the United States, and followed it with various naval biographies. The History, indeed, led to a furious legal battle, but generally Cooper left his quarrels behind him when he went upon the sea. As a cosmopolitan, he felt freer on the public highway of the nations. His novels of this period and theme are uneven in merit. The Two Admirals (1842) contains one of his best naval battles; The Wing-and-Wing (1842) ranks high among his sea tales, richly romantic and glowing with the splendors of the Mediterranean, and yet charged with the theological bigotry which latterly possessed Cooper. The two parts of Afloat and Ashore (1844), dealing powerfully as they do with the evils of impressment, are notable also for sea fights and chases. And the inland frontier was quite as much a relief. Wyandotté (1843), its scene on the upper Susquehanna, and its subject the siege of a block house, though clumsily told is full of interesting matter. The Oak Openings (1848), fruit of a journey which Cooper made to the West in 1847, is a tale of bee-hunting and Indian fighting on Lake Michigan which has not deserved to be so much obscured as it has been by his greatest frontier stories.
Obscured it and its fellows have been, however, by The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841), which he turned aside long enough to write in the midst of his hottest litigation. The forest even more than the ocean was for Cooper a romantic sanctuary, as it was for Pathfinder the true temple, full of the “holy calm of nature,” the teacher of beauty, virtue, laws. Returning to these solemn, dim woods Cooper was subdued once more to the spirit which had attended his first great days. The fighting years through which he had passed had made him more critical, but so had they made him more mellow in the hours when he could forget his daily conflicts. He had now gone far enough from the original conception of Leather-Stocking to become aware of traits which should be brought out or explained. It was too late to make his hero entirely consistent for the series, but Cooper apparently saw the chance to fill out the general outline, and he did it with such skill that those who read the five novels in the order of events will notice relatively few discrepancies, since The Deerslayer prepares for nearly all that follows. In The Pathfinder, undertaken to show Natty in love and to combine the forest and a ship in the same tale, Cooper took unusual pains to point out how Pathfinder’s candor, self-reliance, justice, and fidelity have been developed by the life he has led in the forest. Leather-Stocking, more talkative than before, may not seem more conscious of his special gifts, but Cooper does. Again there is abundant action: another flight through the woods with a timorous maiden, somewhat too nearly resembling the flight in The Last of the Mohicans; another siege at a block house, very much like that in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish and Wyandotté; and the more novel element of a storm on Lake Ontario which calls for a seamanship quite different from that learned on salt water. A romancer less realistic than Cooper might have shown Pathfinder behaving on shipboard with the masterful competence he had on land; but Cooper did not. A romancer more sentimental than Cooper, too, would hardly have dared to let Pathfinder love the heroine in vain; but Cooper did. Even though it is with a somewhat grandiose gesture that Pathfinder is made to surrender the young girl to a more suitable lover of her own choice, much more than a gesture was in Cooper’s mind. He was drawing a sharp, true line around Pathfinder’s character. Marriage would have domesticated the scout, whereas this sacrifice restores him to the forest solitude in which he essentially belongs.
For the final book of the series, The Deerslayer, Cooper could do nothing less than to undertake the hard task of representing the scout in the fresh morning of his youth. Love appears in this story also, but Deerslayer, unable to love a girl who has been corrupted by the settlements, even though Judith Hutter seems the most real and desirable of all Cooper’s heroines, turns to the forest with his best devotion. He is naïve, friendly, virtuous with the engaging awkwardness of twenty, bound with a boy’s affection to his companion and brother-in-arms, the young Chingachgook. The book is the tale of Natty’s coming of age. Already a hunter, he here kills his first man and thus enters the long career which lies before him. That career, however, had already been traced by Cooper, and the distress with which Deerslayer realizes that he has human blood on his hands, becomes, in the light of his future, immensely eloquent. It gives the figure of the man almost a new dimension; one remembers the many deaths Natty has yet to deal. In other matters he is nearer his later self, for he starts life with a steady if simple philosophy which, through all his many adventures, keeps him to the end the son of nature he was at the beginning. Not a little of the charm of The Deerslayer arises from Cooper’s evident delight in the large, bland landscapes of the exquisite neighborhood of Cooperstown and Lake Otsego, here called Glimmerglass; in this same neighborhood Natty Bumppo had first revealed himself to his creator’s imagination nearly a score of years before.
“If anything from the pen of the writer of these romances is at all to outlive himself,” Cooper declared, “it is, unquestionably, the series of ‘The Leather-Stocking Tales.’” The truth of this prophecy steadily increases. At present the series is accepted as the quintessence of his achievement, and Leather-Stocking by any large ballot—both national and international—would be voted the most eminent of all American characters of fiction. “The spirit of Leather-Stocking is awake,” said a French statesman in the spring of 1917, meaning that the United States had entered the World War, and by his remark surprising a good many Americans who had not realized how clearly Leather-Stocking still seems to the rest of the world a symbol of America. In Cooper’s most definite summary, Natty was “simple-minded, faithful, utterly without fear, and yet prudent, foremost in all warrantable enterprises, or what the opinion of the day considered as such.… The most surprising peculiarity about the man himself was the entire indifference with which he regarded all distinctions that did not depend on personal merit.… His feelings appeared to possess the freshness and nature of the forest in which he passed so much of his time, and no casuist could have made clearer decisions in matters relating to right and wrong; yet he was not without his prejudices, which, though few, and colored by the character and usages of the individual, were deep-rooted, and had almost got to form a part of his nature.… In short … he was a fair example of what a just-minded and pure man might be, while untempted by unruly or ambitious desires, and left to follow the bias of his feelings, amid the solitary grandeur and ennobling influences of a sublime nature.” Nature in America is no longer so solitary, and perhaps no longer so ennobling, but much of this older simplicity, downrightness, courage, competence, unsophistication, and virgin prejudice still marks the national type. No wonder then that generation after generation of American boys have read these romances as they have read no others. No wonder, either, that boys of other nations and races have admired in Leather-Stocking qualities generously transcending merely national ones. Cooper’s failure to write a sixth novel, as he at one time planned, which should show Natty in the Revolution, may be taken as a sign that he felt the difficulty of endowing the scout with the virtue of patriotism in the partizan degree which must have been demanded from that hero in that day and which would surely have been alien to the cool philosopher of the woods. Justice, not partizanship, is Leather-Stocking’s essential trait: justice as conceived, somewhat out of space and out of time, by the universal spirit of youth. Being so universal, Leather-Stocking has naturally too simple a soul to call for minute analysis, and needs no more than the opportunity, which Cooper gave him, to move through a long succession of events aimed to display his valor and test his virtues. There was thus produced the panorama of the American frontier which at once became and has remained the classic record of an heroic age.
The classic record of an heroic age!—although not classic at all in the stricter sense of fidelity to all the circumstances of the frontier. And yet in spite of the many charges that have been brought against Cooper’s accuracy, charges well founded and well proved, his fame holds steadily up. He may not have recorded his universe at all points exactly, but he created one. His mighty landscapes lie still unshaken in a secure district of the human imagination. Over such mountains through such dim and terrifying forests to such glorious lakes the mind still marches, for the moment convinced. His Indians, whatever their authenticity, are securely established in the world’s romantic memory as a picture of those belated and unfortunate men of the stone age who were fated to oppose the ruthless advance of a more complex civilization. It is to the credit of mankind that those naked savages, unjustly as they were dealt with while alive, should be a little honored with a chivalrous reputation when dead or conquered. In this manner all high-minded peoples remember their ancient defeated enemies. And recent studies of the art and ritual of the Indians have gone far toward showing that the race possessed, if not precisely the qualities Cooper ascribed to them, at least a fineness and elevation of mind which are worlds closer to Cooper’s representation of them than to the picture as corrected by those subsequent critics who called the Indians mere squalid savages. That Natty Bumppo, to the contemporary eye doubtless hard and crude enough, should have been made a hero is no more remarkable than that the same fortune should have come to Daniel Boone or Robinson Crusoe, plain men who like Natty clung to the dearest human virtues in the face of a nature which would as readily have destroyed as dignified them. And finally, the unending charm of these diversified adventures inheres not only in the narrative itself but in the human disposition which cherishes memories and hopes of a larger experience, free, abundant, glorious, and on but casual provocation will follow a great storyteller to the ends of the earth.
The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer seem to have left Cooper nearly exhausted, for his last decade saw him rise but once above the sensationalism which always menaced the romancers of his school and the contentiousness to which he himself was prone. Most of the novels of the period do not deserve even to be called by name. He had still enough energy, however, to undertake and to complete his trilogy of Littlepage Manuscripts, Satanstoe (1845), The Chainbearer (1845), and The Redskins (1846). Having tried the autobiographical method with Miles Wallingford in Afloat and Ashore, Cooper now repeated it through three generations of a New York family. In the last he involved himself in the question of anti-rentism then stirring—of course fiercely on the side of the landlords—and produced a book both fantastic and dull; the second is better by one of Cooper’s most powerful figures, the squatter Thousandacres, another backwoods Titan of the breed of Ishmael Bush; the first, if a little beneath Cooper’s best work, is so only because he was never at his best except when he dealt with Leather-Stocking and his fortunes. No other novel by Cooper, or by any other writer, gives so firm and convincing a picture of colonial New York, when Pinkster, the annual holiday of the slaves, was still a great day in Manhattan and at Albany the Patroon still kept up something like baronial state. Even Cooper has no more exciting struggle than that of Corny Littlepage with the icy Hudson. But the special virtue of Satanstoe is a quality Cooper nowhere else displays, a positive winsomeness in the way Littlepage unfolds his memories (now sweetened by many years) and his humorous crotchets in the same words. Unfortunately Cooper did not carry this vein further. With his family and a few friends he lived his latter days in honor and affection, but he held the public at a sour distance, and before his death in 1851 set his face against a reconciliation even in the future by forbidding any biography to be authorized. The published facts of his life leave his personality less known to the general world than that of any other American writer of equal rank.
This might be somewhat strange, since Cooper was lavish of intrusions into his novels, were it not that he wrote himself down, when he spoke in his own person, as not only a powerful and independent man but also a scolding, angry man, and thus made his most revealing novels his most forbidding ones. One thinks of Scott, who when he shows himself most wins most love. The difference further characterizes the two men. In breadth of sympathies, humanity, geniality, humor, Cooper is less than Scott. He himself, in his review of Lockhart, said that Scott’s great ability lay in taking a legend or historical episode, such as Scotland furnished in a splendid profusion that Cooper envied, and reproducing it with marvelous grace and tact. “This faculty of creating a vraisemblance, is next to that of a high invention, in a novelist.” It is clear that Cooper felt his own inferiority to Scott in “creating a vraisemblance” and that he was always conscious of the relative barrenness of American life; it is also tolerably clear that he himself aimed at what he thought the higher quality of invention. Of Leather-Stocking Cooper specifically said: “In a physical sense, different individuals known to the writer in early life certainly presented themselves as models, through his recollections; but in a moral sense this man of the forest is purely a creation.” Cooper’s invention, however, though his highest claim to greatness, is not without a solid basis; he is not to be neglected as an historian. No man better sums up in fiction the older type of republican—rather than democrat—which established the United States. No one—unless possibly Irving—fixed the current heroic conditions of his day more firmly to actual places. Though Cooper might have supplied more facts to the great legend of the frontier, no one else supplied so many. Certainly it was his superior technical knowledge of ships and sailors which helped him to write such sea tales as give him, in that province of romance, still a high rank among many followers. True, Cooper had not Scott’s resources of historical learning to fall back upon when his invention flagged, any more than he had Scott’s good-nature when he became involved in argument; but when his invention escaped from the world of settled customs on which Scott’s art was built up, Cooper did with his invention alone what Scott, with his subsidiary qualities, could not outdo. After all else that can be said, one returns to Cooper’s invention, which is almost supreme among romancers, and which lifts him solidly above all his faults of clumsiness, prolixity, conventional characterizations, and ill-temper. Merely the multiplication of incidents could not have preserved him. Merely his good fortune in being first to celebrate the frontier would not have been enough. There had to be in him that intensity by virtue of which he so completely realized imagined, and often imaginary, events. How far this quality of his raises the quality of his invention may be observed in certain of his “recognition” scenes—scenes of that kind which Aristotle considered to be of the very essence of dramatic effect. Uncas revealing himself to the Delaware’s, the old trapper discovered on the prairie by the grandson of his former comrade—surely Euripides, had he been a writer of hasty prose romances, need not have been ashamed of scenes like these.