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Cooper's Fictional Use of the Oral Tradition

Warren S. Walker
(Texas Tech University)

Presented at the 3rd Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1980

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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1980 Conference at State University College of New York, Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 23-39)

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If we were to view all literature as being derived from two systems of cultural transmission, that of the written tradition and that of the oral tradition, we should have to conclude that James Fenimore Cooper's debt was primarily to the first. An educated man, he was well read in the classics and familiar with the works of major English authors. The frequent appearance in his novels of lines from Shakespeare is but the most obvious evidence of this fact.1 And yet, despite his strong literary orientation, Cooper had an ear for the oral heritage, and he often used folk material, in a variety of ways, in his fiction. Sometimes it adds texture, a dimension of realism in otherwise romantic works; sometimes it provides comic relief; at still other times it is used thematically.

This brief study has two purposes: (I) to cite examples (not exhaustive catalogues) of the different kinds of oral genres found in Cooper's novels, and (II) to provide a bibliography of the scholarship to date on the subject.


Folk Speech

Dialect is the simplest type of folk speech since it is often a matter of nonstandard treatment of individual sounds. Three general categories of dialect appear in Cooper's novels: regional dialect, occupational dialect, and second- language dialect. His more than fifty Yankees speak a documentable New England dialect.

The common dialect of New England [Cooper wrote] is as distinct from the language of the rest of the republic...as those of many of the English counties are from that of London.... Foreigners often mistake NewEnglandisms for Americanisms.2

Various vowel shifts occur, such as those involving the letter o: whole becomes whull; stone, stun; roof, ruff; and took, tuck. According to George P. Krapp, "...there was a growing tendency in this direction at least in New England, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries."3 Yankees use I. P A [AI], the diphthong in buy, for I. P. A. [OI], the diphthong in boy. In Home as Found (1838) and The Sea Lions (1849), voyage is pronounced v'y'ge; in The Chainbearer (1845), enjoy becomes enj'y; boys, b'ys; and joint, j'int. Oil becomes ile and oyster, yster in The Sea Lions. Occasionally syncope takes place in Downeast language, as in individ'le for individual in The Monikins (1835), sin' for since in The Oak Openings (1848); something almost always becomes suthin. The New England intrusive r (which Lowell was later to use for comic effect in The Biglow Papers) appears in Homeward Bound (1838) and Home as Found in the speech of Steadfast Dodge, who always says warnt for want. Terminal a, especially in proper names, is often frontalized to a y, Seneca becoming Senecky, for example.

In his eleven nautical novels, Cooper and scores of his characters speak a salty lingo that leaves a landlubber reaching repeatedly for a marine dictionary. His technical terminology for marine equipment, parts of vessels, sailing tactics, and shipboard activities can be verified in the Oxford English Dictionary or in W. H. Smyth's The Sailor's Word-Book.4 Such jargon develops into a peculiar amphibious dialect when it is used outside its professional context. More than a century before Joanna Carver Colcord published her fascinating study Sea Language Comes Ashore,5 Cooper's old salts had begun to carry their argot inland. Speaking of the uncertainties of life ashore, Charles Cap of The Pathfinder (1840) observes

"Even religion on land isn't moored in exactly the same place it was in my younger days. They veer and haul upon it ashore, as they do on all other things, and it is no wonder if now and then they get jammed...." [Italics mine.]6

Numbered among those who speak English as a second language (and thus have the kind of dialect commonly called a "foreign accent") are Dutchmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Indians, Irishmen, Italians, Negroes, and Scots. With the possible exception of his Indian speech, about which there are differing views, Cooper's representations of foreign dialects are accurate if at times limited.7 Since this is not the place for detailed analysis of the vocal struggles and shibboleths of all groups speaking English as an adopted language, we shall limit our comments here to the language problems of Irish immigrants. In such early novels as The Spy (1821) and Lionel Lincoln (1825), the Irish dialect of Betty Flanagan and Dennis M'Fuse, respectively, is limited to two or three vowel changes: long a for a long e (beastly becomes baistly and decent, dacent); short i for short e (devil becomes divil, and friend, frind); ou for long o (old become ould). By the 1840s, however, Cooper has added several consonant shifts, with the result that his sons and daughters of Erin speak in a heavy brogue. The r is now rolled; medial t often becomes th; d sometimes becomes the Gaelic dh. The following speech of Biddy Noon, Irish servant in Jack Tier (1848), illustrates these and other additions:

     "Is it meself, then? Sure am I, that if I had a qua-r-t of good swate wather from our own pump, and that's far betther is it than the Crothon, the best day the Crothon ever seed -- but had I a quar-r-t of it, every dhrap would I give to you, Miss Rose, to app'ase your thirst, I would."[Italics mine.]8

The fact that Cooper constructed a special eclectic patois for his greatest character creation, Natty Bumppo, is indicative of his sensitivity to the variety of nonstandard English. As Louise Pound long ago demonstrated, much of Natty's dialect is made up of British English archaisms.9 His favorite verbal ejaculation is anan [anon], an obsolete expression meaning "I beg your pardon," or, if followed by a question mark, "What do you mean?" As had long been common in British usage, short e before r may be sounded as broad a: service becomes sarvice; term, tarm; earth, arth. Other substitutions were apparently arrived at more arbitrarily. Before n the short e moves to short i: envy becomes invy; venerable, vinerable. Short i in a terminal syllable is often lengthened: active becomes actyve; favorite, favoryte; and instinctive, instinctyve. The prefix un- almost invariably becomes on-, as in oncommon and onlikely.

Hundreds of proverbs and proverbial expressions salt the language of Cooper's characters. These pithy statements of folk wisdom seem to have been acquired by Cooper through listening rather than through reading, for they occur in greater profusion in those novels set closest to his own time and locale. A few seem to be of American coinage, but most of them are part of the English- language heritage and can be found, in one form or another, in The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs.10 A majority of those who use proverbs are, in all honesty, reinforcing their own convictions with the consensus of the ages. A few, like Shakespeare's Iago, attempt to manipulate people by altering slightly the wordings of these statements of accepted truths. This verbal stratagem is most noticeably practiced by some of the Yankees in the "Littlepage Trilogy" of Anti- Rent novels of the 1840s.

Naming practices constitute a third language pattern which is at least partly a matter of folk speech. Names given to his Negroes, his Yankees, his Indians, and his common seamen are too consistently similar to be accidental.

In a species of cruel humor American slaves were often given grandiose names ridiculously at odds with their lowly and servile condition. They were named after classical heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses, statesmen and philosophers, and renowned literary figures.11 Virtually all (77%) of Cooper's black bondsmen and manumitted slaves have such names: Achilles, Agamemnon, Brutus, Caesar, Chloe, Desdemona, Diogenes, Euclid, Hector, Jupiter, Pliny, Pompey, Romeo, Scipio, and Venus.

Although Puritans and their descendants gave their children names of all kinds, they seemed to favor especially Biblical names and names based on those abstract nouns and adjectives which described admirable qualities or states of being. Most of Cooper's Yankee characters have names drawn from these two categories. Usually the Scriptural names are those of minor prophets and leaders: Elnathan, Ichabod, Ithuel, Reuben, Seth. Among the abstractions used as names are Abundance, Faith, Meek, Prudence, Remarkable, and Steadfast. It should be noted, however, that Cooper's general dislike of Yankees led him to undercut both groups of given names with denigrating surnames. Hiram Doolittle is ineffectual; Ithuel Bolt is restless and footloose; Joel Strides scrambles ahead for success. Broad irony is obvious in such qualified qualities as Meek Wolf, Remarkable Pettibone, and Steadfast Dodge.

Most of the Indians who people Cooper's thirteen novels of the wilderness have metaphoric names based on natural objects, creatures, and phenomena. These names and epithets point out (1) physical features or general appearance (Big Pine, Skipping Fawn, Thunder Cloud, Withered Hemlock); (2) distinctive skills or prowess (Bounding Elk, Leaping Panther, Streak o' Lightning, Swooping Eagle); (3) traits of character (Cunning Fox, Flintyheart, Reed-That-Bends, Weasel).

Because Cooper's predecessor Smollett had named some of his seamen after parts of ships and after nautical activities (Hatchway, Pipes, and Trunnion, for example, in Peregrine Pickle), it has sometimes been assumed that Cooper's source for such labels was exclusively literary. Whatever his indebtedness to the written tradition here, Cooper could also have heard such epithets and nicknames (if not real names) among the many seamen and sailors of his acquaintance. Ship carpenters, for example, had long been called "Chips," as in the twentieth century radiomen aboard ships have often been dubbed "Sparks." That such epithets were often meant to be humorous might be deduced from the fact that they occur with far greater frequency among common seamen than among officers -- a survival perhaps of the old two-level plot which separated "heroes" from "clowns." Of the seventy-six common white seamen, twenty-eight (30%) have nautical names, 35 opposed to only ten (11%) of his eighty-seven officers. Readily recognizable as shipboard terms are such names as Boltrope, Fid, Handlead, Knighthead, Reef, Tier, Tiller, and Trysail.

Folk Types

Among the 1,286 characters in Cooper's fiction12 are a great many types, some inherited wholly or partly from literary history, others observed at first hand on the American scene. Those of the latter who had appealed to the imagination of the common man had often become the subjects of folktales, folk songs, and folk humor. Cooper not only enlisted these folk types for his dramatis personae but he also heightened the images of some of them until they acquired mythical proportions.

This was certainly the case with his treatment of the frontiersman in the Leatherstocking Tales. Natty Bumppo was a composite of the admirable qualities of a number of frontiersmen, among them Daniel Boone, one or more residents of Cooperstown, and such Indian fighters of New York State as Nat Foster, Tim Murphy and Nick Stoner. Although a man of action and physical prowess, Natty is strongly religious and uninterested in materialistic concerns. He is benevolent and selfless, a righter of wrongs and an aid to those in need of help. He was the beau ideal of the frontiersman who attained a kind of moral permanence in the American mind. As Henry Nash Smith has shown, Natty's avatars were to appear in biographies of the "Mountain Men" of the fur trade, among the heroes of the Dime Novel, and most frequently among the protagonists of the Western.13 Generations of frontier experience created the folk type, but it was Cooper who crystallized its image for all time.

To a lesser degree Cooper served in the role of mythographer for such other folk types as the Indian and the Yankee. However unscientific and simplistic was his dichotomy between the "good" Indian (the noble savage) and the "bad" Indian (the fiendish barbarian), his picture of the red man proved indelible. Even historians sometimes failed to look beyond it and focus on the real Indian. And despite Cooper's hostility toward New Englanders, his sketches of Yankees in more than a dozen novels add up to an extended and bigger-than- life delineation of the type.

Other recognizable folk types play parts in Cooper's fiction but are not aggrandized by these roles. Stock seamen of stage and fictional fame often man the ships of his nautical novels; the hard-driving Yankee skippers of Homeward Bound and The Sea Lions belong to an American sub-type apart from the traditional British damn-my-eyes, heart-of-oak old tar. Most (though not all) of Cooper's blacks conform to the Uncle Tom pattern common in nineteenth century American literature, notable exceptions being Neb of Miles Wallingford (1844) and Scipio Africanus of The Red Rover (1828). Dutchmen in novels set in New York State tend to be either the hearty, expansive figure that one sees in Guert Ten Eyck of Satanstoe (1845) or the sturdy, stolid and sedentary stage Dutchman (established by Irving in his caricature of Wouter Van Twiller) who appears in The Water-Witch (1830) in the person of Oloff Van Staats, Patroon of Kinderhook. Even the dominant folk type of the Old Southwest -- ring-tailed roarer, gamecock of the wilderness, half horse and half alligator -- is glimpsed momentarily in the behavior of Paul Hover in The Prairie (1827). After Paul, Natty, and their friends have successfully stormed the Bush fortress, Paul expresses his jubilation in a way reminiscent of Davy Crockett and Mike Fink:

     The first act of Paul Hover, on finding himself the master of Ishmael's citadel, had been to sound the note of victory, after the quaint and ludicrous manner that is so often practiced among the borderers of the West. Flapping his sides with his hands, as the conquering gamecock is wont to do with his wings, he raised a loud and laughable imitation of the exultation of this bird; a cry which might have proved a dangerous challenge had any one of the athletic sons of the squatter been within hearing.14
The Supernatural

Most of Cooper's fiction is set out-of-doors in a sunshine world alien to many of the phenomena of the occult. Few of his characters hallucinate, suffer fantastic delusions, or indulge in that morbid introspection which may populate the internal landscape with monsters of the deep. Unlike Coleridge and Poe and, at times, Hawthorne, Cooper does not ask the reader to suspend his disbelief in the irrational. What little suggestion of the otherworldly is present in his work is usually given credibility only by people of a time earlier than his own or by characters of limited education.

In The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829) there are omens which foretell dire events: a clap of thunder on a cloudless day, the sudden disappearance of a deer after it has led a hunter to a confrontation with a mysterious stranger, and loud notes from a conch shell hanging at a palisade gate at a time when there is no one present to blow such blasts. Set in seventeenth-century New England, The Wept ... is informed throughout by that Puritan weltanschauung which accepted all unexpected and unexplainable events as "wonders of the invisible world." Given the time and place, a suspicion of supernatural agencies is entirely appropriate.

There are few suggestions of the possible presence of demons, witches, or ghosts in the Cooper canon. In The Spy. the dying father of Harvey Birch is thought by the marauding Skinners to be a ghost, and, as a result, these unscrupulous predators are temporarily frightened from the premises. Harvey, the titular hero, is finally thought by some to be the devil himself because of his seeming ubiquity and his apparent ability to transform his body into different personae. But the reader never has any doubt about the spy's mortality.

Traditionally seamen have been more superstitious than most other groups of people, especially about wind and weather, and Cooper's mariners are no exceptions. In such early novels as The Pilot (1824), The Red Rover, and The Water-Witch there are references to various nautical taboos: it is bad luck to sing or whistle in the wind15; it is even worse luck to commence a voyage on a Friday.16

Although no really supernatural events may take place in a given novel, the belief that they occur may be integral to the plot line. British sailors in The Water-Witch are near rebellion when they conclude that their elusive quarry, a smuggler's vessel, is in fact a ghost ship, a Flying Dutchman. And in The Red Rover the crew of the Royal Caroline actually mutinies and abandons ship when it suspects that its new captain is in league with a silent, spectral craft (in reality a pirate barque) that glides past them in a howling gale. The mutiny alters the entire course of action in the novel, and thus the unreal becomes the real.

In "The Lake Gun" (1850), a short political allegory, Cooper combines two widely disparate legends containing supernatural elements. A still-unexplained natural phenomenon causes loud booming noises periodically on Seneca Lake in Central New York. White settlers called it the "Lake Gun," but Indians deemed it the voice of Manitou (God). So much of the story is historical, but the remainder is Cooper's creation for his own polemical purposes. Once among the Senecas there arose a great demagogue, See-wise, who, for his blasphemy, was finally metamorphosed into a log that floated back and forth endlessly in the lake, borne hither and yon by winds and currents and threatened by the thunderous voice of the Manitou. Not knowing this Seneca "legend," the white characters in the yarn refer to the buffeted log as the Wandering Jew, one of the best-known cursed figures in Western civilization. See-wise, according to Robert Spiller,17 was meant to represent William Seward, whom Cooper disliked strenuously, and thus the combination of the ersatz Indian legend with the Wandering Jew motif was intended to cast a double anathema at this contemporary politician. "The Lake Gun" is, of course, a minor work, but it does serve here to illustrate Cooper's awareness of the prepotency of folklore.


There are many other pieces of folklore scattered here and there throughout Cooper's fiction but occurring less frequently than those cited above. There are, for example, several folk customs. Seamen bring aboard Neptune (in The Red Rover) to initiate passengers taking their first voyage; on Saturday nights (as in Homeward Bound) they gather on the deck to drink ritual toasts to their ladyloves, a-practice known as "Sweethearts and Wives"; they pay off indebtedness to the ship owner for advanced pay by working (as they say in Miles Wallingford) for a "dead horse," and after their indebtedness is cleared, they will probably follow the old tradition of parading the "dead horse" (a burlap and straw effigy) around the deck and heaving it overboard. Frontier settlers often pool their efforts in order to accomplish projects too heavy or difficult for any single man: cooperative construction (a church raising in The Chainbearer) and community hunting and fishing expeditions in The Pioneers (1823). One of the most colorful customs is the "Pinkster Celebration" described in Satanstoe. During the week following Pentecost (Dutch Pinkster) black slaves in Dutch New Netherlands were given a vacation and permitted to enjoy a kind of carnival on the outskirts of New Amsterdam (New York) and Fort Orange (Albany). This was one of the rare occasions when blacks could gather in large groups to reenact the songs, dances, and rituals of their African heritage.

A few folk cures are mentioned. Sea baths supposedly cure a variety of ills ranging from rabies (in The Water-Witch) to tuberculosis (in Jack Tier). Characters in The Spy, The Monikins, and Afloat and Ashore (1844) express the belief that a wound is healed most quickly by leaving it alone and treating instead the object which caused it. Katy Haynes (in The Spy) impugns Harvey's intelligence with an account of his having failed to practice this curative method:

     The substance of her tale was, that a child who had been placed by the guardians of the poor in the keeping of Harvey, had, in the absence of its master, injured itself badly in the foot by a large needle. The offending instrument had been carefully greased, wrapped in woollen, and placed in a certain charmed nook of the chimney; while the foot, from a fear of weakening the incantation, was left in a state of nature. The arrival of the pedler [Harvey] had altered the whole of this admirable treatment, and the consequences were expressed by Katy, as she concluded her narrative, by saying --
     "'Twas no wonder the boy died of a lock-jaw!"18

Despite his own facility as a storyteller, Cooper created few raconteurs among his characters. There are garrulous individuals (like Natty Bumppo of the Leatherstocking Tales and Stephen Stimson of The Sea Lions), but their narratives are all supposedly factual. Cooper's best yarn spinner is probably Captain John Truck, who entertains his passengers in Homeward Bound with a hilarious tale about another American captain, Joe Bunk, who was awarded a silver teapot for predicting via his rheumatism a typhoon in the Canton harbor. In the sequel, Home as Found, Truck swaps big-fish stories with his boating companion on Otsego Lake, a landlocked old seaman known as "The Commodore."

Although these and other borrowings by Cooper from the oral tradition may seem quite obvious today, it is noteworthy that only in recent years have critics been aware of them. It will be observed that all but six of the studies on the following bibliography were published since 1950.


Studies in Specific Areas
Note: When only the author's name appears, it means that the study belongs primarily in another area and that in that other area you can find the complete bibliographical reference.
Folk Speech
Folk Types
Myths (Classical, Biblical and Other) and Archetypes
Occupational Lore


1. W. B. Gates, "Cooper's Indebtedness to Shakespeare," PMLA, 67 (1952), 716- 731.

2. The Chainbearer, p. 256. All page numbers for Cooper's novels are those of the Townsend edition (New York, 1859-1861).

3. The English Language in America, II (New York, 1925), p. 149.

4. (London, 1867), passim.

5. (New York, 1944), passim.

6. P. 102.

7. See Lewis and Marguerite Herman, Foreign Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors and Writers (New York, 1958), passim.

8. P. 257.

9. "The Dialect of Cooper's Leatherstocking," American Speech, 2 (1927), 479- 488.

10. Ed. F.P. Wilson, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1970), passim.

11. See Murray Heller, ed. Black Names in America: Origins and Usage -- Collected by Newbell Niles Puckett (Boston, 1975), pp. 23-24.

12. Warren S. Walker. Plots & Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, Conn., 1978), p. vii.

13. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950; rpt. New York, 1957), pp. 59-76.

14. Pp. 211-212.

15. The Water-Witch, p. 263; The Pilot, p. 316.

16. The Red Rover, p. 278.

17. The Lake Gun by James Fenimore Cooper, with Introduction by Robert E. Spiller (New York, 1932), pp. 11-15.

18. P.163.

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