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"Singularly Situated" in Antarctica: Transatlantic Imaginaries in James Fenimore Cooper's The Monikins

Keat Murray
(California University of Pennsylvania)

Presented at the Transnational Panel of the 2015 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Mass.

©2015 by James Fenimore Cooper Society
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Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal Winter, 2015-16, pp. 8-10

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The publication of James Fenimore Cooper's The Monikins in July 1835 prompted a slew of American critical reviews, none of which were complimentary. Called "an entire failure," "a monument of human delusion," and a "remarkably stupid affair," Monikins was berated as a "fatal error" of a "superannuated" mind for sacrificing his literary "empire" and for undermining American writers competing with their European counterparts.1 Whether critics accounted for the "fatal error" of Monikins as a result of the author's senility, excessive pride, or sheer stupidity, the charge was largely the same: Cooper had "injure[d] the cause of American literature."2 That the "high name" of a "great American" had authored his own tragic "fall" in Monikins was a setback for the young republic in creating a literary "empire" of its own.3 In response to Monikins, some critics noted its appearance on the market only to refuse to review it; others assessed the book as a feeble attempt at Swiftian satire; still others reproached the author for disgracing his countrymen with a book that brandished questionable national loyalties. The apparent political waywardness of Monikins drew angry protests from American critics, one of whom, writing for The Portland Magazine, complained "Cooper should remember that, as an author, he belongs to his country."4 Even critics of his own political persuasion reasoned that his extensive travel abroad had disrupted his brilliant manner of "enter[ing] warmly into abstract discussions of the republican oeconomy."5 Indeed, it was said the tenor of the "social and political strife" that Cooper had witnessed in Europe had soured him to his home, reducing him to "a pugnacious spirit" and his literary productions to "froth."6 Critics disparaged Monikins as yet another inferior European novel from a writer who was supplanting grand American themes with an arrogant affront to national pride and interests.

Cooper's letters reveal that he was not dumb to the controversy Monikins might spark with American critics who remained willfully ignorant to the political mess the novel bares. Indeed, while he anticipated the risk of offending his countrymen with a satire "bearing equally hard" on the United States and England, he remained confident his "favorite book" would "be better understood hereafter" for its "tolerably plain prediction of the present state of this country."7 Whether or not Cooper's satirical vehicle for delivering his "plain prediction" is marked by genius, "palpable unfitness," or something in between is not at issue in this paper.8 Rather, the discussion to follow marks Cooper's intensifying discomfort as an author "singularly situated" between his "cool" audience at home and his warm reception abroad.9

Although Monikins has never been a staple of Cooper studies, the author's comments about the novel's evaluation of "the present state of this country" do align with his abiding interest in American sociopolitics. Recently, Jerome McGann argued that historically-informed readings of Cooper aptly privilege the novelist's purpose "to provoke critical reflection" (126) rather than perpetuate the misguided trend that has anachronistically imposed later aesthetic standards on his writings. In a similar vein, Gerald Kennedy traces Cooper's inclination toward critical analysis in the details of Cooper's "quarrel with America" (91), which is so evident in the author's nonfiction in the 1830s, especially in his volley of critical remarks chronicled in the Gleanings of Europe volumes (1836-1838). Yet, despite the fact that Cooper's 1835 transatlantic political satire is sandwiched between his political nonfiction, and despite Robert Spiller's assertion that Monikins "contains the germ of almost all of Cooper's ideas," the novel has received scant attention, it seems, because it has been deemed an aesthetically insipid book (237). Thankfully, a few critics, such as Scott Michaelson and Stephen Arch, have begun to refute the notion that Monikins is "unreadable" by attending closely to its contractual and satirical underpinnings.10 I will extend this work by rethinking Monikins in contentious conversations about nationalism in the early nineteenth century and Cooper's precarious position in those conversations.

Given the political satire's anomalous qualities, Monikins was swiftly dismissed by American critics who questioned Cooper's national loyalties in the early 1830s, when he published his three European novels—namely, The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmauer (1832), and The Headsman (1833)— and A Letter to His Countrymen (1834). Apparently reviewers were responding to Cooper's turn from more subtle, covert presentations of historical and social awareness in his early novels to more overtly provocative writings in the 1830s permeated with, as Geoffrey Sanborn notes, "dramatic illustrations of argumentative claims" (10). For a time, Cooper did not resign from pressing his American audiences, whose distaste for critical didacticism he knew so well, as he admits in his preface to the 1832 edition of Lionel Lincoln: "there is no blunder more sure to be visited by punishment, than that which tempts a writer to instruct his readers when they wish only to be amused" (6).11 By 1834, when Cooper resumed writing the "entirely new kind of book" he called Monikins, his spirit was deflated by his sense of estrangement from his native country: "were it not for my family, I should return to Europe, and pass the remainder of my life there—indeed, but for my family, I do not think I should ever have returned [to the United States]."12 In the same letter, dated January 14, 1834, Cooper reasons the discomfort he feels at home stems from America's intolerance for substantive literature that overtly grapples with real world issues of social and political consequence, a current he hopes will change, should more American publications prod readers to accept the critical function of literature. In the meantime, he feels "singularly situated" for attempting to nudge the country's literary and political evolution with books, such as Monikins, destined to be deemed "too ambitious" by critics:

This is not a country for literature, at least yet, nor do I believe that our people will bear much of the same thing, even though it should be godliness. I am singularly situated. In Europe, though assailed both from personal and party motives, I believe I stand very well, and that, could I consent to become a European writer, the way to fortune is open before me, while at home, I am daily flattered with communications to tell me that, if I am not too ambitious, I may still occupy a fourth or fifth stature among the illustrious talents of this country! (28).

Having survived, and to a degree benefited from, disputatious conversations in Europe about his writings set on the continent, Cooper seems to expect change at home, even as he anticipates reproach for publications, such as Monikins, that will roil nationalistic discourse in transatlantic literary markets.

In the passage quoted above, Cooper's sentiments are akin to the alienation and dislocation that Paul Giles sees in Frederick Douglass and Henry James, who, when "looking at their country from the outside" (2), produce "virtual Americas" that expose fractures in a national imaginary. A "virtual America," Giles posits, is like a mirror image that flattens the three dimensions of the original object into two, thereby "depriv[ing] the objects reflected of their traditional comforts of depth and perspective, illusions by which their claims on natural representation are traditionally sustained" (2). He further posits that a position of estrangement from one's home country and its cultural narratives, when coupled with a close acquaintance with cultural narratives of other countries, denaturalizes those narratives by disclosing the fictions and assumptions framing them. In this way, a "virtual America" is a "hollow[ed] out cultural formation" (1) born from vantage points situated in transnational experience that preclude the tautological repetition of cultural narratives within the "charmed circle" of one's home country (2).

Before exploring the virtual imaginary in the Monikin world, let's glimpse at the transnational world that John Goldencalf sees on the European mainland to inform Cooper's critique of "the present state" of the United States. In Chapter VIII, for instance, readers get a close look at Goldencalf's correspondence through which he manages capitalist enterprises in global markets and attempts to shape legislative actions that favor his investments on multiple continents. In a handful of letters, we see Goldencalf map out strategies to press his cronies in Parliament to pass legislation serving his financial interests on multiple continents. Whether he must deal with a bad sugar crop at his West Indies plantation, a bountiful sugar harvest in his East Indies holdings, "popular tumults" in post-Napoleonic Spain (1: 126), or destitute tenant farmers on his English estate who wish to see the Corn Laws eased, Goldencalf's course of action invariably steers his investments toward profit as he lobbies legislators and statesmen to cement his interests in law, even if the resulting measures contradict one another.13 Moral consistency is no matter to Goldencalf where profit and dividends are at stake. In the case of his cotton-producing plantations in the American South, a law prohibiting the importation of slaves does not discourage Goldencalf but prods him to seek an upper-hand in the "profitable internal [slave] trade" in America (1: 124). Simultaneously the slaveowning Goldencalf is a benefactor to the Philo-African anti-compulsion-free-labor Society, which is merely a philanthropic front for a speculative venture in mining gold and harvesting palm oil for high dividends to its shareholders. In the span of a few pages detailing Goldencalf's global correspondence and the legal protections afforded his capitalist ventures, Cooper depicts the first of two transatlantic worlds in the novel and introduces transnational contexts for both.

An important element of these contexts appears in Chapter VI when Cooper pinpoints Goldencalf's arrival in Paris on a historically significant date, May 17, 1819 (1: 95), which marked the passage of a French law that "outlawed offenses against the king or the Chambers" (Reddy 193). While Goldencalf is not cognizant of the turmoil in France, Cooper targets the power of repressive measures in Monikins that expose the manipulative means politicians and parties use to appropriate control of public discourse by limiting the topics, tone, and direction of conversations circulating in the press. The reach of the 1819 law in France extended into the 1830 Revolution and the rise of Louis- Philippe, the Citizen King who imposed restrictions on the press and public conversations about the legitimate powers of the new monarch (Reddy 194-95). Furthermore, the reign of repressive laws in France intersected with a situation of greater concern for Cooper, the intensifying crisis over France's refusal to pay reparations to the United States as dictated in the 1831 Franco-American treaty.14 The politically-minded Cooper felt so compelled to comment on the matter and on the partisan constitutional politics it amplified in the United States that he authored a series of letters under the pseudonym A.B.C. for the Evening Post from 1834 to 1836, a period concurrent with the composition of Monikins. Numbering twenty in all, Cooper's letters pit A.B.C. against the Whig press and politicians on several topics that become satirical fodder in the Monikin world and, in effect, contribute to the "hollowing out" of the imagined world across an imagined Antarctic sea.

The "hollowing out" in Monikins is evident in the allegorical mode that dominates the novel. The juxtaposition of Cooper's typical realistic mode of narration, which begins and ends the book, and the extended allegorical adventure that fills the interim at once refracts the image of the former and magnifies the wholly representational quality of the latter. So too does the juxtaposition of realistic romance and allegory set the reader at a distance for critical reflection and heighten the absurdity that proceeds incessantly from the moment Dr. Reasono delivers his very first sophistic utterances. One should not overlook, for instance, that whereas the human world is ostensibly driven by the material and pecuniary interests of the elite, spoken words and promises are legal tender in Monikin societies, where one risks nothing more by purchasing something for 4,000 promises than for two (1: 244-45; 2: 5). The absurdity of a currency valuing verbal promises, along with many other facets of the Monikin world, suggests that it operates principally on the exchange and economy of ideas, on a constructed discursive level, on words and appearances without substance. In this way, the political allegory in Monikia duplicates the transatlantic world in flattened virtual images that, as Giles says of virtual mirrors, "highlight[] the manifestly fictional dimensions of their construction" (2). To this point, the repeated references to Leaplow's foundational constitution as a "national allegory"—or what Cooper calls a "national conceit" in Gleanings: England (248)—fixes the country's guiding principles and its practices in an imprecise "doublecoded" relation (Coleman 132). Whether or not Leaplow practices correspond to its stated principles is a matter left to the dominant party's "merely inferential" interpretations of the national allegory (Monikins, 2: 155). But more fundamentally, the constitutional history of Leaplow reveals a more striking aspect of Cooper's virtual image of the United States. Leaplow's official allegory, says Cooper's mouthpiece Brigadier Downright, initially declared that a "free and independent" (2: 31) country would "build [its] social system on not only a sure foundation, but on sure principles" stemming from natural law (2: 31). A closer look at natural law in Leaplow reveals the political shenanigans underwriting this framework and the claims of autonomy said to proceed from natural law. Reckoning that "nature dealt in duplicates" from the anatomical fact that "a monikin has two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two lungs, two arms," and so on (2: 31), the scripters contemplated writing the natural law of duplicates into the constitution, but then decided to omit it, knowing that inscribing the "leading idea" into the constitution would only "weaken the nature of the obligation" (2: 32). They reasoned, instead, that the most effective way to put the "fundamental law" into practice is by "the way of construction" (2: 32). Here, of course, are echoes of Cooper's campaign against Whig liberal constructivism, which he undertakes in the A.B.C. letters and other writings, but Monikins goes further to show that radical construction in Leaplow spurs exponential disagreement about contesting analogies that purport to make sense of the National Allegory.15 Consequently, Goldencalf's goal of reaching "a legitimate construction" of the Leaplow constitution remains elusive amidst the incompatible analogies competing for authority (2: 163).16 There is little substance in the conversations that belabor the metaphorical vehicle for imagining the nation, and, in the process, discussants in Cooper's "virtual image" of American political discourse do not move beyond meaningless prattle about the unfixed signification of the allegorical compact.

What's more is that the analogies and political slants that shape these conversations do not originate in Leaplow but arrive through the slavish importation and duplication of Leaphigh's public opinions via transnational discourse, a state of affairs that recalls A.B.C.'s vilification of America's persisting deference to English opinions about American life and politics. These opinions, then, upon reaching Leaplow's shores are recast by Leaplow journalists into "two public opinions" (2: 40), one for each of two parties, both of which boast that Leaplow is "the most enlightened nation on earth" (2: 39) for guaranteeing every citizen equality and, without exception, "hold[ing] every citizen as amenable to public opinion, in all he does, says, thinks, or wishes" (2: 39). Indeed, in this supposed "free and independent commonwealth" (2: 39), citizens have the freedom to think in one of two ways, both of which are fabricated by a consortium of journalists and politicians who have taken "the finer parts of [monikin] intellects to be ground up and kneaded together" and then "utter[ed] anew" as "the united wisdom of the country" (2: 39).17 It is this "united wisdom" about Leaplow as a "free and independent" state and its citizens as free-thinking champions of liberty that Cooper exposes as naturalized, tautological chatter, and by doing so, Monikins presents a "hollow[ed] out cultural formation" by defamiliarizing a national culture as a virtual image, as a construct that projects the illusion of depth and substance through mere reiteration.

Virtualization in Monikins also extends to partisan politics in Leaplow, where the three-dimensional world of party politics is comically flattened in terms of two dimensional linear geometry. The dominant political parties in Leaplow are plotted as lines on a single plane and are designated the Horizontals and the Perpendiculars. Their directional orientation suggests that the two parties stand in stark contrast to each other, but in reality, Leaplow parties and their politicians constantly reposition themselves along "the constitutional meridian" which, as it shifts in conjunction with public opinion, reaffirms Brigadier Downright's insight that "nothing is really stationary in Leaplow," not even "the fundamental law" of its National Allegory (2: 35, 40). In the practical politics of Leaplow, the parties essentially differ by name only and are but virtual illusions, as the point of intersection between the two party lines really functions as a convenient pivot for Leaplow politicians to complete a most remarkable gyrational shift with perfect rotational symmetry from one political party to the other, all achieved in one swift leap. And those who do master the gyration of the "rotatory principle" are deemed "Patriotic Patriots" for reinventing themselves in the party-in-power (2: 35). To Cooper's contemporaries the maneuver of the "rotatory principle" would call to mind politicians such as the Democrat defector Augustin Smith Clayton, whom Cooper, Augustin Smith Clayton under his A.B.C. pseudonym, condemned for realigning his party affiliation in crafty rhetoric.18 In Leaplow, Cooper repeats his disdain for prevailing artful practices that make reduplication and "moral saltation necessary to political success," the latter of which is best guaranteed by maintaining the false integrity of the two-party virtual image (2: 239).

In this light, Cooper's Monikins can be likened to a virtual representation, given the author's cultural dislocation and the allegorical satire's replication of a Euro-American transatlantic world. Duplication is not only the chief vehicle of the satirical congruence between the human and monikin worlds but also the organizing principle of America's virtual counterpart operating on an extra-constitutional two-party political order. The greater work achieved through the virtual image of the second transoceanic world in Monikia is to reveal the naturalized constructedness of the first. Cooper's intolerance for the naïve nationalism of his countrymen who demand that "an author...belongs to his country" is but one aspect of his greater aggravation with America's unwillingness to confront its debt and dependence on the European intellectual and political traditions that inform early republic national imaginaries. In many ways, Monikins, which Cooper conceived as "an entirely new kind" of novel, batters such thinking with precepts that resemble what we might see as theoretical underpinnings of transatlantic studies. Intimations of the direction of Monikins come at the end of Volume I when the British baron John Goldencalf, whose worldview has been jostled by the Monikin philosopher Dr. Reasono, admonishes the American sealer Noah Poke about the interference of national prejudice: "We are all addicted to the weakness of believing our own customs are best" (1: 247).19 The end of Volume II of Monikins subsequently finalizes this line of thinking with a proposition similar to Benedict Anderson's concept of nations as "imagined communities": in the voice of Goldencalf, Cooper writes, "national allegories exist everywhere, the only difference between them arising from gradations in the richness of imaginations" (2: 243-44).20 Moreover, punctuating the book is a constructivist epistemology that disrupts tautological nationalist discourse in a litany of lessons revealed to Goldencalf during his journey to Monikin societies in the interior of Antarctica: "truth is a comparative and local property" (2: 239) and "civilization is arbitrary" (2: 239).

While Cooper's writings, particularly those in the 1830s, lend themselves quite easily to transatlantic studies, The Monikins has been overlooked, despite the ways in which the satire complicates and fractures national imaginaries. Considering that critics rushed to silence Monikins in the contest over a national literature at a time when countries were racing to extend their presence in Antarctica by mapping and exploiting its resources, Cooper's satirical venture to (re)map a transatlantic world in virtual dimensions awaits more critical attention.


1. Southern Literary Messenger 1.11 (July 1835): 652; The American Monthly Magazine 5.6 (August 1835): 487; Atkinson's Saturday Evening Post XIV.729 (July 18, 1835): 2; "Critical Notices" 136.

2. The American Monthly Magazine 5.6 (August 1835): 487; The Portland Magazine 1.11 (August 1, 1835): 351.

3. Atkinson's Saturday Evening Post XIV.729 (July 18, 1835): 2; The American Monthly Magazine 5.6 (August 1835): 487.

4. The Portland Magazine; Devoted to Literature 1.11 (August 1, 1835): 351.

5. The Knickerbocker, or New York Monthly Magazine 6.2 (August 1835):152.

6. The Knickerbocker, or New York Monthly Magazine 6.2 (August 1835):152.

7. The phrase "favorite book" appears in Cooper's letter to Richard Bentley, dated 20 March 1836. See Volume III of The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, edited by James Franklin Beard (Cambridge, MA, 1964): 206-08; "Tolerably plain" is from Cooper's letter to Rufus Wilmot Griswold, dated 10-18 January 1843. See Letters and Journals, 4: 344.

8. The Knickerbocker, or New York Monthly Magazine 6.2 (August 1835):152.

9. Cooper, "Letter to John Whipple, 14 January 1834." See Letters and Journals, 3: 27-30.

10. George Dekker's more complete comment about Monikins reads, "although various twentieth-century critics have found things to admire in it, I believe that the consensus still is that, as a whole, The Monikins is well-nigh unreadable and certainly does not deserve a revival" (151).

11. Sanborn cites this passage from Cooper's 1832 preface to Lionel Lincoln, which is reprinted in the Cooper Edition's established text of the author's 1825 novel. See Lionel Lincoln (Albany, 1985), edited by Donald A. Ringe and Lucy B. Ringe.

12. Cooper's remarks about his "entirely new kind of book" and his feeling of being "singularly situated" appear in his "Letter to John Whipple, January 14 1834," Letters and Journals, Vol. III, 27-30.

13. All page citations for Monikins correspond to the first edition published in Philadelphia in 1835 by Carey, Lea, and Blanchard. It is worth noting that the Philadelphia text does not contain Cooper's last authorial revisions. Working under the auspices of the Cooper Edition, I have determined that Cooper revised the sheets pulled in Philadelphia before sending them to his London publisher, Richard Bentley. None of the revised sections come into play in this article. An established text of The Monikins is forthcoming from the AMS Press.

14. Despite the terms of the 1831 Franco-American treaty, which required the French to pay reparations for plundering American shipping vessels during the Napoleonic wars, the lower house of the French government refused to appropriate funds for payment. After patience and diplomacy had all but expired in December 1834, President Jackson declared in his 6th Annual Message to Congress that failure to pay was "just cause of war." On the French side of the matter, Louise Philippe argued the assistance the U.S. received from France during the Revolutionary War constituted an American debt to the French. He severed relations with the U.S. in 1834 when Jackson demanded payment.

15. Among the metaphors considered by the discussants are analogies involving family relations, tripods, machines of state, great social beams, and nautical life.

16. Some statements about "radical construction in Leaplow" previously appeared in my 2014 A.L.A. paper "Political Prattle in James Fenimore Cooper's "Favorite Book": Reciprocal Readings of the A.B.C. Letters and The Monikins."

17. Cooper repeatedly interrogated the formation of public opinion as A.B.C. and in his other writings, and he does so for two principle reasons: the first involves the reception of his writings; the second, the vicious partisan politics of the day, which he surmised was at the root of America's domestic and international troubles. Some statements about public opinion in Monikia previously appeared in my 2014 A.L.A. paper "Political Prattle in James Fenimore Cooper's "Favorite Book": Reciprocal Readings of the A.B.C. Letters and The Monikins."

18. Cooper's references to Clayton in the A.B.C. letters and his personal correspondence are concurrent with the composition of Monikins. Clayton, a U.S. Congressman from Georgia, changed his party affiliation from the Jacksonian Democrats to the Whigs in 1832 and 1833 over the Nullification Crisis of 1832 and the Second Bank of the United States, which he opposed as a Democrat in 1832, but then supported as a Whig the following year. At one point, Clayton voiced his opposition to the bank by publishing articles under the pseudonym "Atticus."

19. The phrase "interference of national prejudice" borrows terms from the last chapter of Volume I, when the narrative voice of Goldencalf describes the belief perseverance of the Captain Noah Poke from Stonington, Connecticut: "Noah, like most other men, was very reasonable on all subjects that did not interfere with his prejudices or his opinions" (1: 239).

20. Anderson's Imagined Communities has, of course, informed countless works of scholarship, but his full definition of the nation bears repeating: "an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign" (6).

Works Cited

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