James Fenimore Cooper’s Brave Old World

“Despite his penetration of the nation­al psyche, and his status as more or less the George Washington of American letters, the respect Cooper has received at home has rarely been more than grudging”


The Father of Us All

James Fenimore Cooper, once the most familiar of American writers, has by now become very nearly the strangest. He is an ancestor just remote enough to be im­penetrable, the voice of an origin to which we no longer feel intimately linked. Only a generation separates him from Melville, but that generation marks a great divide: in our perspective Melville seems the first of the moderns, and Cooper the last of the ancients. Yet this alienation from Cooper will perhaps enable us to read him fully for the first time. For Cooper’s scope is vast, and only a portion of his work — The Leatherstocking Tales, The Spy, a handful of the sea stories — was ever assimilated into the national canon. His extraordinary range en­compasses tendentious novels of ideas (Home As Found, The Chainbearer), idyllic regional chronicles (Satanstoe), grotesque satire (The Manikins), ideological dissec­tions of European history (The Bravo), travel books (Sketches of Switzerland), controversial political treatises (The Ameri­can Democrat), and increasingly experimental flights of social and religious allegory (The Crater, The Oak Openings). Taken as a whole, his work reveals him as a primordial inventor of genres, the cosmogra­pher of a new literature and a new mind. Traditionally, however, his books have been valued not so much on their own quirky terms as for their wealth of suggestive and infinitely plunderable images and situ­ations. He has functioned as a psychic com­post heap; until recently, any American writer could be counted on to have passed, usually at an early age, through Cooper’s primal landscapes of sea and forest. The glades and rapids and rocky barricades of The Last of the Mohicans and The Deer­slayer have served American literature as an internalized theme park, a terrain where every cranny became absorbed into the col­lective unconscious.

Yet despite his penetration of the nation­al psyche, and his status as more or less the George Washington of American letters, the respect Cooper has received at home has rarely been more than grudging. The writer who so profoundly affected Balzac and Schubert and Belinsky was definitively classed by his compatriots as a maker of children’s adventures. There is hardly a lit­erary sin of which he has not been accused. His conception of novelistic form was said to be clumsily appropriated from Sir Walter Scott; his characterizations were wooden, his plots perfunctory. Worst of all, he was — ­and is — widely considered the most incom­petent of stylists. His prose, more than any­thing, has kept readers away from him — a style usually described as inexpressive, stilted, convoluted. It isn’t simply that his writing is old-fashioned; Cooper’s prose has been making problems for people right from the start. Early on, Poe took aim at “an awkwardness so remarkable as to be a matter of absolute astonishment, when we consider his long and continual practice with the pen,” and Mark Twain, elaborating irritably on the thesis that ”Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language,” testified to the queasiness that Cooper’s style can induce: ”When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn’t say it. This is Cooper.”

I have my own rueful associations with that style, since Cooper was the first grown­up writer I ever attempted to read. Driven by a childhood obsession with war-whoops and musket-fire, and having exhausted ev­ery available synopsis, retelling, and comic book adaptation of the Leatherstocking novels, I felt it was time to enter the real forest. No doubt I envisioned some fabulous intensification of experience: the wooded playland glimpsed in N.C. Wyeth’s splendid illustrations would, if I could read the original, be brought to life. The disappoint­ment that ensued sent me back to Dr. Seuss and Little Lulu for another year. Where I had anticipated lakes and clearings and bracing wilderness air, I was assailed by thickets of subordinate clauses, labyrinths of circumlocution, and the meanderings of a syntax that seemed to move away from the reality I wanted it to reveal.

Cooper’s literary mannerisms can un­questionably be a trial. Despite his almost somnambulistic methods of composition —­ he wrote rapidly and prolifically, often without pausing to revise or even read over what he had done — his language is remark­able not for its fluency or forward drive but for its tentativeness, its tortuous entangle­ments, the sense of heavy lifting which in­forms its minutest transitions. Repeatedly we encounter the sentence that turns back on itself, the sentence that struggles to es­cape from its own beginning, the sentence that hauls itself breathlessly to shore: “Mabel was becoming used to a situation that, at first, she had found not only novel, but a little irksome, and the officers and men, in their turn, gradually familiarized to the presence of a young and blooming girl, whose attire and carriage had that air of modest gentility about them, which she had obtained in the family of her patroness, an­noyed her less by their ill concealed admira­tion, while they gratified her by the respect which, she was fain to think, they paid her on account of her father, but which, in truth, was more to be attributed to her own modest, but spirited deportment, than to any deference for the worthy serjeant.”

Cooper’s admirers tend to get around such sentences by calling him a great or near-great writer who by chance wrote bad­ly — in which case he would seem to achieve by sheer ineptitude that discomfiture with language that some postmodernists inten­tionally induce. But I don’t think the sub­liminal implications of his style can be dis­missed as accidental side effects. The smoothness he lacks may be a smoothness that on some level he rejected; the torsions of his syntax may denote not a technical failure but a deep and unresolved debate over what is to be seen and what is to be said. This would make Cooper the first of a long line of American writers who have sought to crash through the web of “fine writing” to reach a rawer sense of things as they are. The unease and incompleteness of Cooper’s sentences are associated with an opening up to the things of the world, a desire to include everything.

In all his writings, Cooper is aware that he is the first full-scale imaginer, the progenitor of a literature. He has a blank book in which to transcribe a new world, but the only language available to him is that of the old world. The struggle starts there. He must shift that language around so that it can show something its makers never saw: a task, all the harder in that Cooper wasn’t much of a literary type to begin with. (An ex-Navy man living the life of a gentleman farmer, he had backed into a writing career at 31 — supposedly out of exasperation on reading a popular novel.) He becomes visi­bly frustrated at the difficulties of saying exactly what he means, but he persists, sac­rificing grace to honesty: Writing of a young girl unable to draw her lover’s face from memory, he compares her to “the author, whose fertile imagination fancies pictures that defy his powers of description”: a simi­le from the heart. In Cooper’s temperament one senses a rough impatience, an urge to seize hold of language and push it where he wants it to go. His prose is a battlefield, and sometimes the author himself seems to feel he is losing the battle. At such moments there is an impression of something just missed, an equation not quite completed, a mental flailing in which the boundary be­tween words and what they describe is momentarily smudged. His rocks have commas in them; the trees are made of paper; you part the glistening branches and find an unwieldy cluster of abstractions staring you in the face.

“The season and the night, to represent them truly, were of a nature to stimulate the sensations which youth, health and hap­piness are wont to associate with novelty.” This might be a snapshot by John Locke, and it requires a leap of faith to find in it the weather of Lake Ontario on an autumn evening. Nevertheless the underlying sense of physical reality is so strong in Cooper’s books that some readers make the leap. We never doubt that there is a world there; its dynamics are evident in the very inarticulateness to which he is sometimes reduced. Seeing is rarely a simple process, least of all for Cooper. When he tries to say what is in the woods he finds himself caught between conflicting systems: there is the tree in it­self, the tree as the Indians see it, the tree as the whites see it. Cooper charts contradictory viewpoints with cumbersome preci­sion. Judge Temple, in The Pioneers, sees the woods with the foresight of a real estate developer: “To his eye, where others saw nothing but a wilderness, towns, manufactories, bridges, canals, mines, and all the other resources of an old country, were constantly presenting themselves.” The mental baggage people bring to the wilderness is part of the scene, and the abstract nouns which haunt Cooper’s landscapes can be seen as the ghostly harbingers of the civili­zation which has come to despoil the lakes and forests. A phrase such as “vast sublimi­ty” hovers above the treetops like a malevolent helicopter.

We should take nothing for granted about Cooper’s writing; it’s too easy to focus on what he fails to do and thereby miss what he does. Even to think of his books as novels may be misleading. While they bear a close external resemblance to the romances of Sir Walter Scott — complete with poetic epigraphs and orotund expository preludes — their internal workings are en­tirely different: looser, more open to digression, more various on texture. A Cooper nov­el can be as much a hodgepodge of disparate elements as The Cantos or The Maximus Poems or any other example of that most American of genres, the universal collage, the Book of Everything. Although he was demonstrably capable of writing a polished, unified novel — The Bravo, his claustrophobic exercise in Venetian in­trigue, is a superb example — he often didn’t choose to do so. His books, become clearer if we read them as a succession of scenes,

sentences, fragments. Some are fragments of novels, some of other things: a descrip­tive geography, a manual of carpentry, a dialect comedy acted by off-duty militia­men, a pamphlet on land rights, a philosophical disputation, a demonstration of the art of wooing, a sermon, a bill of lading, the rant of a bearded prophet spawned by the wilderness. Cooper discon­certs by his unpredictability. One minute he evokes, with reverent awe, the glories of God; the next he’s muttering about the money-grubbing habits of Connecticut men or discoursing on the fine points of canoe construction. Jokes and massacres are found side by side. The balance is always uneasy, always improvisational.

Essentially Cooper wants to do far more than his chosen form will let him. The stan­dard novel imposes standard destinies, but Cooper is trying to talk about things that have never happened before. His own origi­nality undermines the structures of his books, so that they are often most powerful just where the cracks in the design begin to show. How else account for the undeniable impression of reality he creates out of the most unreal elements? The Prairie, for, in­stance, features a plot that is clumsy to the point of incoherence; its characters shift about like peculiar operatic marionettes, and its scenes of comic relief are tedious even by Cooper ‘s standards. Yet the stagi­ness and the static rhythms fuse into an insistent solemnity. The melodramatic epi­sodes open up to reveal other scenes latent within them, the flowery speeches reverber­ate against an arid silence, and the stereo­typed characters startle into sudden life, as if without warning a mask became a dis­turbingly real face. Rocks and vegetation work their way into the story and somehow take it over: ”A solitary willow had taken root in the alluvion, and profiting by its exclusive possession of the soil, the tree had sent up its stem far above the crest of the adjacent rock, whose peaked summit had once been shadowed by its branches. But its loveliness had gone with the mysterious principle of life … The larger, ragged and fantastick branches still obtruded them­selves abroad, while the white and hoary trunk stood naked and tempest-riven. Not a leaf, not a sign of vegetation was to be seen about it. In all things it proclaimed the frailty of existence, and the fulfillment of time.” Such are the gnarled epiphanies of Cooper’s art.

If we assume that Cooper wrote the way he intended to write, even his most annoying traits begin to look like meaningful strategies rather than the result of haste and slovenliness. Take, for example, the verbiage he lavishes on the most fleeting of incidents. In The Deerslayer he spends nearly a page analyzing the way Natty Bumppo lifts his rifle and fires at a concealed target. In the midst of this split-second action, Cooper even finds time for a flashback, recalling “the long practices Deerslayer as a hunter” which enables him to aim without sighting; and when, an instant later, a wounded Mingo comes hurt­ling out of the bushes, Cooper informs us that Natty stands there “steady as one of the pines in the calm of a June morning.” He deliberately dilates the moment, creat­ing an effect curiously like slow motion by introducing images which crudely insert the idea of long duration.

When his scenes of action really get rolling, Cooper’s methods sometimes anticipate cinema. In The Pathfinder, the lone survi­vor of an Indian massacre hides in an attic and stares helplessly at its open trapdoor: “As yet nothing was visible at the trap, but her ears, rendered exquisitely sensitive by intense feeling, distinctly acquainted her that some one was within a few inches of the opening in the floor. Next followed the evidence of her eyes, which beheld the dark hair of an Indian rising so slowly through the passage that the movement of the head might be likened to that of the minute hand of a clock. Then came the dark skin and wild features, until the whole of the swarthy, face had risen above the floor.” Again the effect is obtained by a distension of time, here made intolerable by the deadly simile (and time-consuming, with so little time to spare) of a minute hand. At moments of crisis Cooper evokes those dreams in which one cannot run. A kind of stupor overtakes him in the heart of the action, a suspended lurch, like the feeling of being in the top car when a ferris wheel stops turning. The apparently halting rhythms of his prose can also be experienced as a vibrant stasis.

This uncertain relationship to time is perhaps what is most American about “the American Scott,” as his contemporaries in­sisted on calling him. In Scott the perspec­tives and durations are of a piece; he preserves a fixed distance from the events depicted, an undisturbed frame; he has made his peace with space and time. The result is harmony, balance, unity of tone. But no terms had been set for what Cooper was trying to do. “On the human imagina­tion,” he notes at the beginning of The Deerslayer, “events produce the effects of time.” The opening up of the American wil­derness was a rent in the spatio-temporal fabric, and the coordinates by which the event could be measured remained indeter­minate. As a consequence, point of view and depth of focus shift erratically in Cooper’s fiction, and the unfolding of events is some­what random. Nothing is given to him; he has to work out on his own where he’s standing and where he’s going.

The groping, lumpy quality of his plots has often been criticized, yet their awk­wardness — like the awkwardness of his lan­guage — is what saves them from petrifac­tion. The Last of the Mohicans, for instance, consists largely of circuitous criss­crossing movements through different kinds of space: sieges, concealments, infil­trations, pursuits. Characters are defined by how they get from one point to another, which in turn is determined by their con­ception of place. In a typical scene, Cooper assembles his beleaguered protagonists in a clearing and for a few pages sustains a box­like little tableau — a hermetic salon — only to have an alien presence intrude from the underbrush and shatter the frame. The sweetly soporific tinkle of civilized chitchat is interrupted by “horrible cries and screams, such as man alone can utter, and he only when in a state of the fiercest bar­barity.” The woods become a collage of dis­similar noises. The Indians are acquainted with “the extremes of human sounds,” have access to shrill or guttural limits unknown to the whites, who cautiously stick to the middle register of the larynx, just as they hew to the main path through the woods and try not to think about the tangled shadows that border it.

Cooper is mapping a wilderness, and to do so he must stand a little outside his civilized Christian heroes and heroines: he must spy on them like an Indian hidden in the branches. The whites carry a mental theater with them through the forest, a dia­gram of boundary lines and focal points which keeps them sane by giving them a false sense of security. The Indians, mean­while, inhabit a distinct space which happens to occupy the same ground. The colo­nists can’t see a thing, blinded by their notions of background and foreground, in­side and outside. The berries that Captain Heyward notes along the fringe of the trail are in fact “the glistening eye-balls of a prowling savage”: in other words, what seems a fringe to him is the center of a separate world.

The Indian’s relation to space is a dis­course the European cannot decipher. The eye of the treacherous Magua — “like a fiery star … fixed, as if penetrating the distant air” —  discerns invisible paths where the whites see only “thickening gloom … a dark barrier along the margin of the stream.” Civilized modes of perception be­come a positive drawback, an encumbrance like the elaborate skirts of Cooper’s endan­gered females. “What right have christian whites to boast of their learning,” cries Nat­ty Bumppo, “when a savage can read a lan­guage, that would prove too much for the wisest of them all!” Whatever can he said about Cooper’s depiction of Indian culture, he at least acknowledges that it exists and that its terms are valid within their own sphere. Much has been made of the Good Indian/Bad Indian dichotomy embodied by his Delawares and Hurons, but even the ferocious Magua is allowed a perfectly rea­sonable justification for his actions. In fact his eloquent fulmination against the whites reflects some of Cooper’s enduring preoccu­pations: “With his tongue, he stops the ears of the Indian; his heart teaches him to pay warriors to fight his battles; his cunning tells him how to get together the goods of the earth; and his arms enclose the land from the shores of the salt water, to the islands of the great lake. His gluttony makes him sick. God gave him enough, and yet he wants all. Such are the pale-faces.”

What Cooper admits through the speech of Indians is an alternate description of the world, a description suffused, like the war­-song of Uncas, with “depth and energy.” When Chingachgook discourses on the history of his people, it isn’t simply an exercise in exotic diction. Cooper attempts to convey a different way of thinking about place and personal identity and the passage of time: “We came from the place where the sun is hid at night, over great plains where the buffaloes live, until we reached the big riv­er.” Cooper’s images often seem more re­ductive than they are. It’s true that he com­pares the cave dwellings of the Hurons to “the shades of the infernal regions, across which unhappy ghosts and savage demons were flitting in multitudes.” But he isn’t saying that the Hurons are demons, only that they look that way to the whites. A troubled relativism eats away at the moral certainties of his fictions. In the end little is left unquestioned.

It was natural that his great saga should shape itself around the figure of an outsid­er, a detached onlooker. Natty Bumppo, Cooper’s infinitely serviceable hero, is both marginal and fundamental: the mystical frontiersman, Saint Francis of the Venison, “simple-minded, faithful, utterly without fear … a sort of type of what Adam might have been supposed to be before the fall.” Only Natty, of all the whites, understands the shape of the land and the code of its native inhabitants. Since he alone knows what’s out there, only he can assess the value of any particular action. The other Europeans simply flounder. Natty’s job much of the time is to conduct them from one controlled enclosure to another, the iro­ny being that the new imperial owners of the wilderness are powerless within it. They literally do not know where they are until they find themselves once again within a fortified zone. Natty is the indispensable conduit, the medium of translation, the Pathfinder who opens up connections be­tween alien cultures while fully belonging to none. Instead of being centered in one frame of reference, he stands at the edge, at the point where turfs collide.

To the hapless whites he materializes like the woodland sprite of a fairy tale. The multiplicity of his names — Deerslayer, Hawk-eye, Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, La Longue Carabine, or, in his transcendent old age, simply ”the trapper” — gives him the air of a mercurial being, and his powers of adaptation and camouflage are little short of magical. It takes all his serpentine litheness to save the whites from the conse­quences of their physical and conceptual rigidity. At the same time, the mythic ener­gies that Natty’s presence unleashes save Cooper from the stylistic rigidity into which he is ever in danger of lapsing. “His feelings appeared to possess the freshness and na­ture of the forests in which he passed so much of his time”: he is the Green Man of the American woodland, the Ariel of the vast and trackless island on which the Europeans have stranded themselves. He goes and comes silently and as he pleases. Natty might be said to embody Cooper’s imagina­tion, so much more rapid and flexible than the inherited mechanics of his storytelling.

Mostly, Natty passively endures. Like a rock or an oak he weathers the storms of history. Cooper first presented him, in The Pioneers, as a crotchety half-comical old man; brought him to his death in the mid­dle novel of the series, The Prairie; and then moved with him progressively back­ward in time, rejuvenating Natty until he recedes into a verdant prehistoric alcher­inga teeming with fish and game. From first to last he exists outside of historical progression; he carries about his person his own nimbuslike Golden Age; wherever he walks is the transient Eden that preceded the trauma of settlement. His heroism consists of refraining from action, and through all his adaptations he changes without chang­ing his surroundings. Like the Indians, he leaves no trail, and he hunts without deplet­ing: “If a body had a craving for pigeon’s flesh, why! it’s made the same as all other creaters for man’s eating, but not to kill twenty and eat one.” His experience of the new civilization is a slowly gathering sor­row: “I have lived to see what I thought eyes could never behold in these hills, and I have no heart left for singing.” The more deeply we are drawn into Natty’s view of the world, the more we understand why Cooper’s narrative halts and draws back, why he lingers so naggingly over uncompleted actions. It’s because he wants time to reverse, or to stop altogether. He doesn’t want the story to reach its appointed conclusion; he doesn’t want history to happen.

The reasons were clear from the outset. In the first book of the series we have al­ready seen the end: the regulated streets of Templeton, the tree stumps testifying to decimated forests, the heaps of wild pigeons slaughtered to no purpose, the slow stran­gulation of liberty by lawyers and bailiffs. This was the world that Cooper’s father made. William Cooper established Coopers­town in the wilderness of upstate New York, and reigned there — as squire, judge, and congressman — in baronial style. Tem­pleton is Cooperstown, and The Pioneers, that jaggedly elegiac book, is Cooper’s at­tempt to project himself into what existed just before his own birth. That region be­yond memory is his paradise, but a paradise already hopelessly tainted. The noble Chingachgook has become Indian John, re­duced by civilization to alcoholism and a debased Christianity; he sells baskets for a living and when drunk lapses into ancient chants. Natty Bumppo, unable to fend off the encroaching “troubles and divilties of the law,” goes to jail for hunting out of season. The first American novelist writes, at bottom, of the death of America: a death, as it were, in embryo. All that might have been had already been uprooted, cast aside, trampled on. The Leatherstocking Tales spring from a rankling and obsessive nostal­gia, and they oscillate restlessly between the lost paradise of the virgin woods and the “vast and naked fields” of the prairie land to which Natty is finally driven “to escape the wasteful temper of my people. The Prairie as it progresses becomes more and more an apocalyptic recitative, the bitterly resigned death-song of Natty Bumppo: “It will not be long afore an accursed band of choppers and loggers will be following on their heels to humble the wilderness which lies so broad and rich on the western banks of the Mississippi, and then the land will be a peopled desert from the shores of the Maine sea to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, fill’d with all the abominations and craft of man and stript of the comfort and loveliness it received from the hand of the Lord!”

The inward agony of the novels lies in Cooper’s inability to detach himself either from the land or from the civilization that rips it apart. They are all in him: his father the builder of towns, Natty the magical woodsman drained of his powers by prog­ress, and Hard Heart, the Pawnee chief, who exclaims: “Is a nation to be sold like the skin of a beaver!” The warring elements can arrive at no real harmony. Each novel culminates in a retreat; the pieces will not fit together; one of the parties must with­draw or die. Cooper’s Romantic tastes failed to alleviate the painful objectivity with which he was cursed. He was stuck with an aesthetic of discomfort. The simplest of longings — for some stability, some respite from America’s dizzying and horrifying se­quence of transformations — could find nowhere to nest. Not in the culture of the Indians, which Cooper might in some re­spects admire but could never emulate; not in the rapacious culture of oligarchs and demagogues toward which he saw America evolving. His imagination took refuge in a sliver-thin interval of time that had already ended, or had perhaps never existed. He transcribed its dense unsettled woods into a fictional language equally dense and equally unsettled. ■

Vol. 1: The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie.
Vol. 2: The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer
By James Fenimore Cooper
Library of America; $27.50 each

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 4, 2020