The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VII. Fiction II

§ 2. The Influence of the Frontier

In Europe, at Cooper’s death, a new vogue of realism had begun, but America still had little but romance. With so vast and mysterious a hinterland free to any one who might come to take it, novelists, like farmers, were less prompt in America than in Europe to settle down to cultivate intensively known fields. There is a closer analogy, indeed, between the geographic and the imaginative frontier of the United States than has been pointed out. As the first advanced, thin, straggling, back from the Atlantic, over the Alleghanies, down the Ohio, beyond the Mississippi, across the Great Plains and the Rockies to the Pacific, the other followed, also thin and straggling but with an incessant purpose to find out new territories over which the imagination could play and to claim them for its own. “Until now,” wrote Cooper in 1828, “the Americans have been tracing the outline of their great national picture. The work of filling up has just seriously commenced.” He had in mind only the physical process, but his image applies as well to that other process in which he was the most effective pioneer. Two years after his death the outline of the national picture, at least of contiguous territory, was established, and the nation gave itself to the problem of occupation. In fiction, too, after the death of Cooper the main tendency for nearly a generation was away from the conquest of new borders to the closer cultivation, east of the Mississippi, of ground already marked.