James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]
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. 71-80)
Return to SUNY Seminars | Articles & Papers
James Fenimore Cooper has always been associated by his admirers and detractors alike with New York State, and rightly so, for although he was born in New Jersey, he was brought here an infant of fourteen months, and he remained legally if not always physically a resident for the rest of his life. He knew the land and he knew its people both in his own time and during the two preceding centuries of its history since the first Dutch settlers arrived in the area.
Some of his knowledge of the state came from printed sources -- and we know many of the books from which he acquired his information. But more of his knowledge came from his firsthand acquaintance with York State and Yorkers, from his own involvement and that of his family in contemporary issues and events. That he was especially sensitive to the social history of New York State is evidenced in his letters and in his fiction. Of the latter, fifteen of his thirty-two novels and all four of his shorter pieces were set wholly or partly in New York.
Cooper had a special vantage point from which to view New York State in the first half of the nineteenth century. On the one hand, he shared the perspective enjoyed by the landed gentry. As the son of William Cooper -- judge, Congressman, and prominent frontier entrepreneur -- he was "to the manor born" and moved comfortably among many of the leading families in the state: the Van Rensselaers, the Livingstons, the Clintons, the Jays; and later, through his marriage to Susan DeLancey, he was equally at ease among the Schuylers, the Van Cortlands, and the Heathcotes. On the other hand, his late-blooming career as an author brought him into contact with a wide range of intellectuals, especially writers and artists. Some of his closest friends were New York City literati and members of the Hudson River School of landscape painters.
This is not to suggest that Cooper was always a favorite son of the state, for at times he was anything but that. Nor is it to suggest that he always wanted to be its fair-haired boy, for he consistently placed principle above popularity. During the 1830s and 1840s he was slandered and libeled by a host of New York State newspaper editors who seemed to enjoy Cooper-baiting as a favorite form of indoor sport. He was misunderstood and maligned by many Yorkers, especially his neighbors in Cooperstown. And the last fifteen years of his life were eroded by the stress and strain of numerous lawsuits and other confrontations, almost all of which occurred within the borders of New York State. Not all but much of this mutual disaffection was the negative side of a love/hate syndrome. Both Cooper and his critics were well aware that this was where his roots were, that this was where he belonged.
The New York State in which Cooper grew up was still primarily an agrarian world with strong pastoral overtones. Although the destruction of the American Eden had begun, the machine had not yet entered the Garden. This is especially manifest in The Pioneers (1823), in which the rape of the wilderness is all too evident but in which the dream of the good life on the land informs much of the action. William Cullen Bryant, among other contemporaries, sensed this strong pastoral mood in The Pioneers, as he indicated clearly in his 1852 memorial lecture:
It was several years after its first appearance that I read the Pioneers [Bryant said], and I read it with a delighted astonishment. Here, said I to myself, is the poet of rural life in this country -- our Hesiod, our Theocritus, except that he writes without the restraint of numbers, and is a greater poet than they. In the Pioneers, as in a moving picture, are made to pass before us the hardy occupations and spirited amusements of a prosperous settlement in a fertile region....1
Discounting somewhat the hyperbole and rhetoric of a close friend delivering a memorial tribute, one is still struck by the metaphor with which Bryant defined The Pioneers and described its author.
However much one may have to qualify the pastoral tradition to accommodate it to the American scene, it nevertheless retains a certain applicability. Its most visible and powerful exponent in this country was Thomas Jefferson, whose agrarian philosophy (influenced by French physiocrats and other eighteenth- century theorists) was at different times partly a cause, partly an effect of pastoral thinking. Repeatedly he stressed the idea that virtue resided in the land. In one of the best-known passages in his writings, he declared in his Notes on the State of Virginia, "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people." And he went on to decry industrialization and its concomitant urbanization as evil developments to be avoided in America at all costs.
Jefferson's message was not lost on Cooper. Although he grew up in a Federalist household where the Republican leader was mocked for his liberal views, his red breeches, and reputedly vulgar manners, Cooper came in time to admire greatly the "sage of Monticello." His conversion began in 1823 when Cooper first saw at West Point Thomas Sully's portrait of Jefferson and was impressed by his apparent strength and dignity.2 By 1830, when he was reading in Rome a four-volume edition of Jefferson's writings, Cooper had become fully committed.
What do you think of Jefferson's letters? [he asked in a letter of his own to Charles Wilkes] Have we not had a false idea of that man? I own he begins to appear to me, to be the greatest man, we ever had.3
Like Jefferson, Cooper favored the man on the land, and, like Jefferson, he believed that the leading citizens would be an agrarian elite, a class of gentleman farmers who would inevitably exceed their peers to form a natural aristocracy, an aristocracy of worth or merit rather than one of rank or title.4 Also, like Jefferson, Cooper saw two potential threats to this ideal agrarian society in America: on the one hand, the excessive emphasis on property and money exerted by the rising commercial class; and, on the other hand, the corruption and excesses of the masses which could lead to what Jefferson called "elective despotism."5
Cooper was, in short, an ardent advocate of Jeffersonian democracy, and he continued to fly its tattered banner long after it had lost place to the new ultra- egalitarian thrust and commercial spirit of the 1830s. During his seven years in Europe (between 1826 and 1833) Cooper was an unpaid, unofficial champion of America, and the America that he had in mind was that of Jefferson; when he returned to this country, he discovered that the America he had been promoting had all but disappeared -- and this is one (just one) of the reasons for his becoming what James Grossman called "an uneasy American"6 during his later years.
I am, of course, greatly oversimplifying a number of things here, but I think it is demonstrable (1) that Cooper cherished Jeffersonian tenets, (2) that he valued "rural virtues," and (3) that he believed patterns of taste and manners should be set by an enlightened gentry. Cooper saw these agrarian dynamics at work in New York State, where a kind of squirearchy prevailed. There was an increasing number of small independent farmers (many of them on the post-Revolutionary War plats of 160 acres), and much of the pace and tone of life was being set by this successful (though not rich) class of what Cooper called "yeoman" freeholders.
Eight of Cooper's novels set in New York Stare picture sympathetically both the gentry and the way of life which they represent. In The Pioneers the country gentleman is Judge Temple, leading citizen of a thinly disguised Cooperstown; Edward Effingham, a descendant of the Judge, fills the same role in Templeton roughly forty years later in the novel entitled Home as Found (1838); in Wyandotté (1843), set just west of Cooperstown during the Revolution, the founder of a frontier settlement and member of this class is one Captain Willoughby; Miles Wallingford, protagonist of two linked novels (Afloat and Ashore  and Miles Wallingford ), begins life on an estate along the lower Hudson, deserts it to go to sea, and then (after long years of initiatory trials and suffering) acquires both the wisdom and the means to repossess the family holdings and fulfill his function as a squire; and in the three Anti-Rent novels a succession of Littlepages try, with diminishing success, to retain their land and maintain the tradition of the rural gentry.
The landed families seemed to represent certain values which the eighteenth- century side of Cooper's character admired: 1) order, 2) stability, 3) awareness of place in society, 4) humanitarianism with a sense of noblesse oblige, and 5) a contemplative view of life in which property was only a means, never an end in itself.
But the gentry, the benevolent proprietors of this pastoral world, are not unopposed. Their principal antagonists are interlopers from colonies and then states farther east, namely, the Yankees. The conflict develops both on the physical and the ideological levels, for the two groups operate according to markedly different value systems. Yankees play important roles in thirteen of Cooper's novels, and they are almost always opposed to the gentry or (as Cooper suggests) to other right-minded people who live by principles similar to those of the gentry.
Yankees in Cooper's fiction are usually unsympathetic characters, ranging from petty nuisances to formidable villains. All are unattractive unless they come under one of two special dispensations: (1) that of seamanship, and (2) that of fervent patriotism. Yankee mariners may retain a few negative traits, but they are forgiven in proportion to their nautical know-how and their commitment to the ocean world. In The Pilot (1824), Cooper's first sea novel, Long Tom Coffin is undeniably a Yankee, but he is also undeniably a member of one of the greatest maritime families in American history, a family which often led the whaling industry, and which (among its many achievements) made Hudson, New York, the world's farthest inland whaling port. Tom Coffin, who carries his harpoon with him when he enters the Revolutionary War Navy, is an honest, bluff heart-of-oak cast in the heroic mold, and when he finally goes down with his ship, no Yankee stigma can deny him immortality.
Sometimes the conversion of the Yankee from "bad guy" to "good guy" through the nautical connection is even more obvious. Captain John Truck of the two Effingham novels (Homeward Bound  and Home as Found ) is one who undergoes such a sea change. Truck begins with the boorishness and intrusiveness characteristic of Cooper's Yankees, but he demonstrates such superior seamanship throughout a long and trouble-beset voyage that he redeems himself, is invited to "join the club" of his genteel passengers, and (in the second volume) becomes a moral yardstick against which to measure the shortcomings of more typical Yankees.
New Englanders may also be regenerated by selfless patriotism, and nowhere is this more manifest than in the case of Harvey Birch, the hero of Cooper's first successful novel, The Spy. (1821). Harvey is introduced as a Yankee pack- peddler who hard sells his customers and hoards his gold. But once Harvey commits himself to the role of key espionage agent for George Washington, Cooper takes away his gold and burns down his house in order to cleanse him of the stereotypical Yankee avarice, and near the end of the novel, Harvey indignantly refuses the payment Washington offers him for his hazardous service and for the ostracism he must henceforth bear. On a less grand scale, Yankees in Lionel Lincoln (1825), an unsuccessful historical romance, behave so well at Lexington, Bunker Hill, and the siege of Boston that they are spared the exposure of their peculiarly Down-East qualities.
One final example of a Yankee who receives special exemption from damnation is Ithuel Bolt, a character in an all-but-forgotten nautical novel called The Wing-and-Wing (1842). Redeeming Grace #1: Bolt leaves the New England farm, goes to sea, and (though always a bit lubberly) acquires a modicum of seamanship. Redeeming Grace #2: He is a victim of British tyranny on the high seas, an American impressed into the service of John Bull's navy during the Napoleonic Wars. He thus becomes a symbol of American rights in one of the great issues that led to the War of 1812. Thus, though he is a hypocrite, a smuggler, and a cruel person, he is accorded some limited, if grudging, admiration.
But what of the other Yankees in Cooper's works? What are they like? Most of them are pictured as liars, cheats, sneaks, schemers, connivers, "con men" who are out for the "main chance" in their scramble for material success -- and they are all these things under the guise of piety and sanctimonious gesture. Descendants of those reverent Puritans who were motivated by spiritual concerns, they have lost the real faith of their ancestors and have retained only the empty forms of their religion. They are great hypocrites. The "Puritan work ethic" which once drove men to success in order to show God's approval becomes now simply a means to acquire worldly goods. The Puritan concept of Divine Election now serves mainly to rationalize their demands for special privilege. Although they do not speak often of Divine Election (because it would "blow their cover" of egalitarianism), it is, nevertheless, implicit in their behavior. They cannot tolerate the notion that anyone might be entitled to more wealth or power or position than they, and so they are continuously engaged in a variety of activities (often in the name of Christianity or democracy) to dispossess those who, through their efforts, have attained some measure of prominence. Of Steadfast Dodge, Cooper remarked in Home as Found:
[H]e felt envy of all above him in which, in truth, was to be found the whole secret of his principles, his impulses, and his doctrines. Anything that would pull down those whom education, habits, fortune, or tastes, had placed in positions more conspicuous than his own, was, in his eyes, reasonable and just -- as anything that would serve him, in person, the same ill turn, would have been tyranny and oppression.7
One sees Yankees' unscrupulous stratagems at work perhaps most clearly in those novels in which the gentry have made the mistake of hiring Yankees to manage their estates. In Wyandotté, for example, Joel Strides acts as foreman on the holdings of the Willoughby family. When the Revolutionary War breaks out, however, Strides secretly organizes the tenants and laborers to exploit the Willoughbys' Tory sympathies as a means for seizing their property. Joel Strides is not only an insidious scoundrel who is disloyal to his employer, but he is also, indirectly, a murderer. A less sinister but equally disloyal role is played by Aristabulus Bragg, the Yankee lawyer who is the agent for the Effingham estate in Home as Found. And in the Anti-Rent trilogy, the Yankee Newcome family (in some ways not unlike Faulkner's Snopeses) prey steadily upon the interests of successive generations of the Littlepages, for whom they work. Jason Newcome, in The Chainbearer (1845), purchases at a low price hundreds of thousands of board feet of lumber illegally cut from the Littlepage woodlands by another Yankee, a squatter ironically dubbed Aaron Thousandacres. Aaron and his numerous sons not only steal great amounts of timber, but they then also have the Yankee audacity to declare that the Littlepages owe them money for clearing and thus improving the land. With what they put forward as righteous indignation, they even talk of suing the Littlepages to collect this imagined debt. In fact, the whole Anti-Rent War as it is shown in the Littlepage trilogy could be viewed as a Yankee conspiracy against the landed gentry of New York State.
One of the most offensive Yankees is Steadfast Dodge, a newspaper editor in Homeward Bound and Home as Found. Dodge takes a "quickie" tour of Europe, and, though he is incapable of understanding the cultures of the various countries he visits, he presumes to enlighten America about the life and manners of the Continent. Knowing nothing whatever of seamanship, he feels, nevertheless, that he should have some voice in running the ship on which he is traveling. To that end, he organizes a committee of passengers to advise the captain and to determine the precise position of the ship each day -- not by the use of navigational instruments but by a democratic vote of the committee members!
The reputed frugality of New Englanders often hardens into parsimony in Cooper's Yankees. The most miserly character in his novels is Deacon Pratt, who, in The Sea Lions (1849), dies clutching a bag of gold, but Cooper indicates that Pratt's avarice is but an extreme example of a general trait:
...Now one of the marked peculiarities of Connecticut is an indisposition to part with anything without a quid pro quo. Those little services, offerings and conveniences that are elsewhere parted with without a thought of remuneration, go regularly upon the day-book, and often reappear on a "settlement," years after they have been forgotten by those who received the favors.... So marked, indeed, is this practice of looking for requital, that even the language is infected with it. Thus should a person pass a few months by invitation with a friend, his visit is termed "boarding," it being regarded as a matter of course that he pays his way. It would scarcely be safe, indeed, without the precaution of "passing receipts" on quitting.... The free and frank habits that prevail among relatives and friends elsewhere, are nearly unknown there, every service having its price.8
Of course Cooper was not alone in this antipathy toward immigrants from the east. There had been from the beginning bad blood between Puritans and the residents of what was first New Netherlands and subsequently New York. From actual border warfare in the seventeenth century, the hostility had changed by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to economic and social conflict, often marked by petty provocations and prejudices. Yankee peddlers, with their cartloads of knickknacks, paper pills and wooden nutmegs, were among the lesser irritants. But it was the mass invasion of New York by Down-Easters which led to widespread and resolute antagonism.
Leaving the thin soil of New England for the rich river bottoms of Illinois and Iowa, where the topsoil in some places lay twenty feet deep, the westering Yankees had to pass through the Empire State, and this they did by the thousands. Itinerant and sometimes indigent, Yankees were to Yorkers in the 1820s and 1830s what "Okies" were to Californians in the 1930s. Had they simply passed straight through, the friction might have been minimal, but the movement of many was slow and halting. Working their way along, they filled, all but emptied, and then refilled villages and towns along their route. They became a name for wandering, for restlessness. The "Commodore," an aged resident of Templeton, observes (in Home as Found),
"...I often go away of a morning to pass the day on the water, and, on returning home at night, find half the houses filled with new faces."
"Well, well, my good friend [his companion says], take consolation. You'll meet all the faces you ever saw here, one day, in heaven."
"Never! Not a man of them will stay there, if there be such a thing as moving. Depend upon it, sir," added the commodore, in the simplicity of his heart, "heaven is no place for a Yankee, if he can get further west, by hook or by crook. They are all too uneasy for any steady occupation."9
Occupationally versatile, they were ready, on a moment's notice, to turn their hands to some new opportunity. Whatever virtue this adaptability might have had in some eyes, it was viewed as a vice by many Yorkers. Perfectly obvious is Judge Temple's contempt (in The Pioneers) for Jotham Riddell, who has just sold his recently acquired farm to free himself for more speculative if less certain ventures, but Jotham seems unaware of the Judge's disapproval:
"...If times doesn't get wuss in the spring, I've some notion of going into trade, or maybe I may move off to the Genessee; they say they are carrying on a great stroke of business that-a-way. If the wuss comes to the wust, I can but work at my trade, for I was brought up in a shoe manufactory."10
Whether they remained at a given site for a month or a year, they exerted disruptive forces both physical and ideological.
Better educated, on the average, than their Yorker counterparts, these egalitarian exponents of the Town Meeting produced a yeasty social and political ferment wherever they went. They knew their rights, demanded them, and encouraged others to do the same. Their skills, crafts, and traditional ingenuity they brought with them. They opened law offices and founded newspapers. They asked questions, raised issues, and fostered political activism. Clearly, they posed a threat to the status quo.
As one encounters Yankee after Yankee in Cooper's fiction -- there are more than fifty distinctly identifiable -- one could easily conclude that Cooper was somewhat psychoneurotic in his response to these characters. He often seemed to exaggerate the significance of patently minor failings. He could, for example, be quite carping in his criticism of their nonstandard English. Besides giving his Yankee characters heavy dialects [analyzed in another paper by the same author in this collection], he called further attention to their regional pronunciation of specific words by citing, in parentheses, the standard pronunciation. Thus, in The Sea Lions appear such corrections as these: "'...the vineyard folks' (Anglicé folk)...,"11 and "'...should bear up cluss' (Anglicé close)...."12 it should be noted that Cooper's repugnance for New England dialect was not limited to his fiction but was also evident in his personal life. Before departing for Europe in 1826, the Cooper family lost the services of an excellent maid and children's nurse because of her faulty English. Yankee Abigail's many good qualities "...were put in the balance against her 'bens,' 'an-gels,' 'doozes,' 'nawthings,' 'noans,' and even her 'virtooes,' (in a family of children, no immaterial consideration) and the latter prevailed."13
However much justification there may have been for some of Cooper's reservations about Yankees, in instances such as this, one senses a failure of objectivity. By the end of another decade when, home from Europe, Cooper grew dejected over the direction his countrymen were taking, his loss of perspective increased, and beginning in the mid-1830s, Yankees often became scapegoats for what Cooper considered to be the shortcomings and ills of his native land.
Jefferson himself was at times aware that the agrarian society he envisioned for America was an ideal, perhaps not fully attainable. As Leo Marx has pointed out,14 even in the declining years of the eighteenth century when the Virginian was responding to queries about his recently expounded philosophy, he suspected that he had developed it at too late an hour. Perhaps it was already an anachronism.
Were I to indulge my own theory [Jefferson wrote], I should wish them [the American states] to practice neither commerce nor navigation.... But this is theory only, and a theory which the servants of America are not at liberty to follow. Our people have a decided taste for navigation and commerce....15
By Cooper's time, a full generation after the Jeffersonian heyday, the divergence between reality and the ideal had widened so markedly that even a hope of closing the gap was illusory. Much of Cooper's bitterness was born of despair as he sensed that the Jeffersonian Garden had become a myth, an American Paradise Lost.
1. Precaution, p. xiii. Bryant's speech was used as a foreword in this first volume of the Townsend Edition (New York, 1859-61) of Cooper's novels. Page numbers for all subsequent quotations from and references to the novels are from this edition.
2. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James F. Beard, 6 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1960-68), I, 95. This work will be cited hereafter simply as Letters and Journals.
3. Letters and Journals, I, 411.
4. See also his letter of 19 January 1832 to Samuel Rogers, Letters and Journals, II, 180.
5. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Albert E. Bergh (Washington, 1907), II, 163.
6. "James Fenimore Cooper: An Uneasy American," Yale Review, 40 (1951), 696-709.
7. Home as Found, p. 470.
8. The Sea Lions, p. 23.
9. P. 329.
10. P. 174.
11. P. 69.
12. P. 135.
13. Gleanings in Europe, Volume I: France, ed. Robert E. Spiller (New York, 1928), p. 2.
14. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York, 1964), p. 134.
15. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd, et al. (Princeton, New Jersey, 1952), VIII, 631-634.
Return to Top of Page