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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers
No. 24, August 2007, pp. 9-14
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In the Harvard University Archives, boxes of student notebooks document the writing assignments Professor E.T. Channing gave his rhetoric students in 1824. Many of these required students to articulate their feelings on controversial topics of the day. One such was phrased, "How should the calumnies of British travelers and journalists with respect to this country be regarded and treated by us?" Student W. H. Fowler began his response, which is in line with those of his classmates, with a motto adapted from Hamlet"Use men to your own honor and dignity," as if to demonstrate that the Americans would listen to the Bard, even if the Brits had forgotten him. In the body of his essay, Fowler went on to ask, "Do three thousand miles make such a difference in intellect? [shall we] repay evil for evil? No! We will take a more honorable part".
Through the 1820s and beyond, Americans complained of travel writing they referred to as "the calumnies" published by foreign visitors to the States. Like the student in Cambridge, James Fenimore Cooper felt the best way to quiet the calumnies was to take the high ground, and so to disprove by his own example aspersions cast against the national character. In the two texts I'm discussing today, two Cooper narrators do try to "take a more honorable part," remaining cool and collected when confronted with unpleasant European opinions of their homeland. Both Notions of the Americans Picked Up By A Traveling Bachelor, published in 1828, and "Point de Bateaux ŕ VapeurUne Vision" (hereafter referred to in translation, as "No Steamboats") which appeared four years later, attempt to correct European misinformation and prejudice by offering new perspectives to an ongoing conversation. The most common aspects of American life that European writers ridiculed were the scarcity of physical comforts in the U.S. and the comportment of American citizens. The controversy such writing could generate was exacerbated by the fact that the so-called "Travelers" were visiting the United States before large numbers of Americans had inclination and opportunity to become tourist/travelers themselves. The first Americans to travel abroad would write back with their own reports. In the meantime, petulant Americans railed against the injustice and pettiness of such travelers' (as they called it) slander for decades. American editorials declared the travelers' reports unjust. The complaints subsided only when, by mid-century, so many answers had been published by American tourists writing about Europe that both the novelty and the sting of unfavorable opinions of foreign travelers were removed; travel writing, both by Americans and about America, had become routine rather than newsworthy. Then, with the benefit of hindsight, a commentator like Mark Twain could look back on the controversy and avow that the travelers who had been so "handsomely cursed and reviled" were "merely telling the truth, and this indignant nation knew it" (391).
When Cooper returned to his native country after his long sojourn in Europe, he, like Twain, would come to see the "calumnies" in a new light, and acknowledge that it was neither impossible to find fault with American ways of doing things nor particularly surprising that foreign travelers might do so. More important, he would sense that finding fault and taking offense were not effective ways of producing travel writing if such writing was meant to transmit information about other cultures. During his time as an expatriate, he went through phases of cultural adjustment, experiencing his own evolving responses to the unfamiliar. He found himself acting as a representative for his nation, and sought ways to defend its reputation. As he did, he worked hard to maintain his dignity, as he was, like most of his countrymen, most sensitive to accusations that Americans were unrefined bumpkins. Like many foreigners adjusting to a new culture, he was more than ordinarily self-conscious, aware that he could be seen as a curiosity. Nervous that the national reputation was based at least in part on the comportment of its citizens, even the most strident of the offended editorials, like Channing's students, had called for the calumnies to be met with "national courtesy." This was what Cooper sought to do.
It was not always easy; to respond to accounts of one's home country from the comfort and provincialism of one's own hearth is one thing, but to do so from a foreign country is another. Criticizing the actions of a traveler who fails to "do as the Romans do" might be defensible; Cooper was wary of becoming the kind of close-minded, opinionated traveler who wrote "calumnies." Significantly, the American voices in both of these texts express their views passively-that is, only when asked; they do not seek to broadcast their opinions uninvited. This restraint illustrates Cooper's hope that Americans could be better travelers than their European counterparts had been.
Cooper undertook to write Notions of the Americans at the request of Lafayette, by that time a figure much beloved in the U.S. but undergoing criticism in France. The book was an effort to present an accurate picture of American society and political economy. The feeling was that much was at stake. The waves of revolution that swept Europe in the nineteenth century were gathering strength, and many Americans felt a patriotic affinity to such movements, excited that the success of their democracy could set off a domino effect that would topple European monarchies and affirm the rightness of the American way. Cooper's statement in the opening prelude of "No Steamboats" that "the last, the most sublime of all of the acts of the Drama, is yet to come" (71) is a reference to this sense of the global destiny of the U.S.
Cooper's growing experience as a novelist helps explain his decision to present his argument for the United States in the form of a fictional travel account. Notions is narrated primarily by a European philosopherbon vivantthe "traveling bachelor" mentioned in the title. As the book goes on, his erroneous and/or absent ideas about the U.S. are replaced by those gathered while traveling there with a local he had met "between Moscow and Warsaw" (13). The book is dedicated to this young man, John Cadwallader, who shares more than his initials with Cooper, and is presented throughout the book as a quintessential gentleman relentlessly devoted both to his nation and to a common sense approach to intercultural understanding. The Bachelor is a member of a Club composed of self-identified cosmopolites who devote their lives to travel, study and pleasure. The fact that he earnestly wishes Cadwallader to accept a place in the Club indicates the American's success in attaining the highest level of cosmopolitan sophistication, while Cadwallader's unshakable desire instead to return to his home country and settle suggests a rejection that, to the Bachelor, seems nearly as inexplicable and powerful as had been the rebellion of the Colonies decades earlier. Cadwallader inspires the Bachelor with the idea that there may be something in the United States worthy of the Club's attention, so he decides to accompany the American home, and tour and report on the U.S. under his supervision.
The issue of the "calumnies" comes up very early in the book, during their passage to New York. The Bachelor proudly shows Cadwallader the "little library of travels, pamphlets, and political dissertations" on America he has acquired (15). The Bachelor writes of his anxiety "to impress [his] companion with a favorable opinion of [his] earnestness in…research." He is eager not only to impress Cadwallader with his efforts at resource-gathering but also to acknowledge and rectify the deficiency his ignorance of the U.S. creates in his otherwise unimpeachable credentials. To his disappointment, after viewing the collection, Cadwallader offers only a "singular air of indifference" and "cold eye" (15). But Cadwallader's coolness does not go deep. Back in his cabin, he writes a carefully-argued response to the collection - which includes, of course, many of the very travelers' reports that had been labeled "calumnies." The Bachelor attaches Cadwallader's lengthy exposition as a note following the letters that compose the book.
Throughout the Bachelor's letters, Cadwallader is an often-quoted mouthpiece for the American point of view. Yet this attached note is the only instance where the book directly addresses the calumnies. In it, Cadwallader explains that the tensions surrounding these traveler's books in the U.S. and England are rooted in Americans' feelings of betrayal from a nation they looked upon as a parent. While he admits that there is truth in some of the accusations made against his country, he insists that for uninitiated strangers to point out such imperfections and expect no offense is unrealistic. More upsetting and less forgivable are erroneous observations published as facts, and corrections of these prompt most of Cadwallader's speeches throughout the book, just as they had ostensibly prompted Cooper's writing it. Cadwallader claims that he is above the pettiness of cross-cultural name-calling and that "at present the feeling in America in respect to England is rather that of indifference" (554), but his note has a threatening tenor common to American responses to perceived calumnies. The United States, he explains, is not afraid of English disapproval, for it knows the Empire is now rendered powerless to act against its former colonies: "England has already done and said her worst" (555) reminds Cadwallader, and besides, "Willful ignorance is sure to entail its punishment" (551). Even when made calmly and in a gentlemanly manner, such ominous observations undermine Cadwallader's air of indifference.
He explains in the note why he feels a need to write it, and so address the travelers' reports; he cannot allow untruths to stand unchallenged. He claims that he holds no grudge against the British authors of the calumnies. Even though "so many English have been journeying in America to ridicule, to caricature, and to misrepresent," he explains that, with the rest of the American public, he laughs at these foreigners' "paper bullets" (562). Even so, he wishes the writers would stop, as he senses an ill-will in the calumnieswhich he calls "this war of innuendos" (557)that could escalate from literary to political realms and end in real conflict. Cadwallader hints that the Bachelor must feel embarrassed at the actions of the British travel writers. Since he claims no American traveler has "retaliated" by writing against England - even though that would be an "easy task" (562)the United States clearly occupies the moral high ground. The behavior of the English travelers is beneath their dignity.
Cadwallader/Cooper clearly tries to maintain that position of moral superiority throughout Notions, aware that "retaliating" for the travelers' calumnies could undermine his authority. By giving the book a traveling European narrator, Cooper created a model of how such travelers should write of their journeys; he wrote the travel writing he thought he would like to see written about the United States. And by framing the book as he did, Cooper had a European voice both retract the calumnies and "retaliate" by painting an unflattering picture of European life. Even American readers found Cadwallader's condescending and fact-laden lectures insufferable, and the Bachelor's tolerance and unquestioning admiration of his American friend difficult to believe(xxxiv). Cooper's desire may have been to maintain the higher ground and establish authorial credibility by "sticking to the facts" and keeping the transatlantic discussion on an objective, mutually educational level, but his emotional connection to his subject remains transparent. He acknowledged this in his personal correspondence, wherein he admitted that while writing he was "tempted to decorate rather than to describe" (qtd Williams xxi). As a result, via his depiction of the Bachelor and of Cadwallader's continuous transatlantic comparisons, he presented a very critical picture of European society, criticizing Europeans as artificial in manner (150), overly-regimented in behavior (305), and intolerant of diversity (298).
Cooper's decision to express these opinions by obscuring them, as it were, in an American travelogue, demonstrates his firm grasp on the problems inherent in understanding, and so in depicting, a foreign society. The newness of the United States meant that accessing its culture was especially difficult. On the one hand, the Bachelor affirms that "all the books in the world cannot qualify a man to estimate the power of his species, half so well as personal observation" (245), but on the other, "there is perhaps no Christian country on earth, in which a foreigner is so liable to fall into errors, as in the United States" which is
in some measure new and peculiar. The European, under such circumstances, has a great deal to unlearn, before he can begin to learn correctly. [...] [It is a bad compliment to human nature, but not the less true, to say that] no young traveler enters a foreign Country without early commencing the task of invidious comparison. This is natural enough, certainly, for we instantly miss the things to which we have been accustomed, and which may owe half their value to use, and it requires time and habit to create new attachments. (6)
Cooper's understanding of the culture shock that can cloud all travelers' reactions to foreignness is clear here, as is his sense of the effort that adjustment to new cultures requires. He condemns travelers for making uninformed judgments, but sympathizes with their inability to do otherwise without substantial investment of time and energy.
Cooper wanted Notions of the Americans to be descriptive and informativea text that would bring Anglo-American discourse to a more productive plane. His strategy of doing this by "setting the record straight" arose from his appreciation of the difficulty of describing not only a foreign culture, but one's own. Having had an introduction to living abroad, dealing with foreign responses to his presence as well as his own responses to the new environment, Cooper found refuge in the less-tangled realm of factual information, avoiding less definable aspects of culture. Although the Bachelor's preconceived notions of the United States seem outlandish, and paint hima representative sophisticated Europeanin an unflattering light, the disclaimers on the failures of travel writing to convey knowledge of countries traveled to that are sprinkled liberally throughout the book testify to Cooper's understanding of the problems inherent in the transmission of cross-cultural insights, and thus his patience with misinformed Europeans like the imagined Bachelor.
By the time the satirical "No Steamboats" was published in 1832, Cooper had had several more years in Europe. He had also experienced the lukewarm-at-best reception of Notions, and come to understand some of the calumny-writers' complaints about his fellow citizens as well as the pitfalls and nuances of looking from the outside in on a foreign culture. But despite the fact that his Cooperstown neighbors would later accuse him of holding unpatriotic affinities, he had not turned European-he was just a cosmopolitan expatriate looking forward to his eventual return home. The publication of "No Steamboats" in French in a Parisian magazine is a marker of his deepened cross-cultural engagement.
The story is "a vision." Cooper wakes at the end as from a dream. The piece opens with a sweeping narration of world history building to the crescendo of the formation of the United States. We soon get a glimpse of Cooper's assimilation into French habits: the "truly Parisian" chimney, the Louis XV furnishings, the violinist friend, and the Swiss butler (72). Enter three highly-caricatured, abstracted and imaginary European visitors, who wish to present Cooper with their "dreadful picture" of his "unhappy country" (73). When they assert that their information is unquestionable because it came from the "last steamboat which arrived at Havre" (73), Cooper is relieved; he can dismiss their arguments because he knows that could not be true, as to that time, ships crossing the Atlantic went under sails. But his visitors accuse him of fixating too much on that mistake; they have come to urge him to correct or at least answer for what they perceive as the failings of his native country, and they insist that he should not quibble. Cooper coolly responds that "the evident falsehood" of his visitors' "fact" about transatlantic communication (corrected in the title) convinces him that they "may be mistaken with regard to things less evident" (75). If these Europeans can't get the simplest of facts straight, they don't have the ability to understand the nuances of cultural difference, which are less easy to discernless evidentthan simple maritime comings and goings. Information from travelers who are similarly careless about their cross-cultural observations should not be trusted.
In the face of the ignorance of these foreigners, Cooper maintains a cool, knowing stance similar to the one Cadwallader sought to maintain. This is best exemplified at the story's climax, when, after meeting his visitors' accusations with apt retorts, he "remained with folded arms, like a deputy under a volley of hisses" (78). Cooper triumphs by calm adhesion to common sense. Unlike in Notions, which, though fictional, was meant to convey realistic scenarios, the Europeans here are only "ideas," and appear in fantasy. That shift means that Cooper's messagethough not significantly alteredcomes across in a more diplomatic, or more cosmopolitan, manner. The satire provides a layer of insulation that prevents Cooper's ideas from reading as direct insultor calumny. Abandonment of the "chronicle" form enables Cooper to process his own impressions of the European ideas he's encountered in a more personal, less assailable, and potentially more understandable vein. Cooper discusses much more than transportation with the visiting Messieurs, but in sum, his statement about "things less evident" is a reference to cultural difference, and his imagined interaction with the Europeans in "No Steamboats" points to his belief in the potential inaccessibility of cross-cultural knowledge, and so, the need for care when writing foreign subjects. Without such care, one may not only depict foreignness poorly, but also, in so doing, render oneself ridiculous, as do Cooper's unusual visitors.
The importance of facts and misinformation in cross-cultural relations is a significant theme in Cooper's "Vision," as is the difficulty of European acquisition of reliable information on the United States. "No Steamboats" thus reads as an interesting coda to Notions, both of which are studies of the United States' image abroad. Whereas, in the earlier text, Cooper eschewed the attempt to discuss "things less evident" in American culture in favor of a factual description, in the second, he acknowledges that cultural differences, though difficult to understand and to articulate, can't be ignored. In "No Steamboats," Cadwallader's faith in a "common sense" approach to intercultural exchange is revised; the more slippery, "less evident" aspects of culture are as important as facts even if they may not be as easily demonstrated.
Both of these texts are not exactly "travel writing," but they belong to that body of literature. Cooper did not want to ape the earlier travel writers who wrote on America, but rather to address the role of cultural difference in foreign travel, and in learning about foreign cultures via travel literature. These texts' complication of the genre of travel writing mean that while they may not answer the questions about cultural difference raised by the calumnies, they seek to understand how such difference can be explored. Cooper's strategy in writing travel enabled him to look for fresh insights on the meanings and mechanics of intercultural exchange.
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