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Cooper's Status and Stature Now

Kay Seymour House
(Editor-in-chief, Cooper Edition)

Presented at the 7th Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1989

©1991 by State University of New York College at Oneonta
[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 Bicentennial Conference, July 1989, State University College of New York -- Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 1-11)

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Let's start right off by defining status and stature. Status is, according to my dictionaries, one's position in society, or a profession, or a community. It consequently depends on what others think of you -- what, particularly in the United States, that ubiquitous and omnipotent THEY that Cooper so loathed think of you. Being dependent on public opinion, status (what THEY think at a given moment) is subject to change -- often quickly. And a change in status is often signaled by the acquisition, or the loss, of what we know as status symbols -- BMW's, platinum credit cards, corner offices, or whose boss must pick up the phone first.

Stature, by contrast, is literally "the height of an animal body, especially a human body, in its normal standing position." It is a physical attribute which is permanent and measurable, and the literal meaning often supports a metaphorical extension, as when Montaigne writes, "The beauty of stature is the only beauty of man. Where smallness dwells [and here he lists a long series of physical attributes that add up to mean nothing] can make a handsome man." The contrasts and conceptions here are based on largeness as opposed to smallness, and man's only beauty rests on the kind of largeness alluded to in words that have to do with magnus -- as in magnificent or magnanimous. Again, the literal meaning of stature supports a metaphorical extension in Luke 2:52 where we read, "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man." I don't think Luke intends for us to picture God standing Jesus up against the doorjamb and marking his height with a pencil.

To put the distinction as simply as possible, let's agree that status is achieved in a kind of popularity contest and is often transitory while stature is judged in comparison with universal and historical examples, and is not subject to changes of fashion.

Now it seems to me that what we have in the United States at present is a question of Cooper's status. I haven't seen the latest crop of anthologies for classroom use, but I'm willing to bet that Cooper is represented in most of them by a few snippets from his prefaces and most of all by Twain's description of his alleged literary offenses (Schachterle and Ljungquist).

Twain's blast may have been responsible for John Erskine's protest fifteen years later that Cooper's "great imagination" was [being forgotten1]. Erskine wrote:

....As time goes on, the sterling worth of [Cooper's] Americanism will win a broader credit, and the lofty ideals of the man will atone, as they should, for the excess of militant criticism that bred up detractors from his fame. That he was almost invariably on the right side can hardly be disputed, and no other American man of letters, not even Lowell, gave his {2} genius so passionately and so continuously to the welfare of his country and the prospering of the cause of humanity. (119)

The quotation is from Erskine's Leading America Novelists, which was published in 1910, and it's interesting that his leading American novelists were, besides Cooper, Charles Brockden Brown, William Gilmore Simms, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Bret Harte. Herman Melville was not included because, as we know, he had been temporarily misplaced. But Mark Twain is not included either -- and there's no way you can misplace Mark Twain. See what I mean by status in the United States?

Twain's influence is currently strong, however, and probably explains Edmund Fuller's remark when he reviewed the Library of America's publication of the Leatherstocking Tales for the Wall Street Journal on 9 June 1985. Here Fuller said that The Deerslayer is the "last written of the series and the most flawed."

Before I left San Francisco, I did a small job for the Committee on Scholarly Editions of the MLA which involved a forthcoming volume in the Mark Twain Project to be called Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians and Other Unfinished Stories. Here I encountered such Explanatory Notes as this: "Mark Twain was especially eager to find narratives that would help him refute the romantic portrayals of the Indian popularized by James Fenimore Cooper and others. He had become skeptical of Cooper's 'noble savage' by 1861, when he journeyed overland from Missouri to Nevada Territory, observing Indians along the way and after his arrival."

Actually, we know -- and the editors should know -- that Twain came from a family, on his mother's side, of Indian Killers, and that he had detested Indians all his life. But the editors cite without question Twain's statement (in Roughing It) that he had always been "a disciple of Cooper and worshipper of the Red Man," and that only on first encountering Indians in Nevada did he wonder if he "had been over-estimating the Red Man while viewing him through the mellow moonshine of romance." (My italics.)

What interested me even more, however, was the editors' Explanatory Note for page 80, lines 18-19, where Huck wrote "Injuns...are afraid to hurt a crazy man." After identifying Richard Irving Dodge, an army officer whose Our Wild Indians was published in 1883, as Twain's chief source, the editors say "Dodge claimed that the Indians avoided 'madmen or idiots' believing them to be 'directly under the malevolent influence of the Bad God.' As evidence he cited the case of 'a prominent scientist.'"

In a country full of hostile Sioux, without a blanket or mouthful to eat, he started alone, armed only with his butterfly net and loaded only with his pack for carrying specimens. One day, when busily occupied, he suddenly found himself surrounded by Indians. He showed no fear, and was carried to the village. His pack was found loaded with insects, bugs, and loathsome reptiles. The Indians decided that a white {3} man who would come alone into that country, unarmed, without food or bedding, for the accumulation of such things, must be crazy.

The editors also suggest that Twain might have been influenced by Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods (1837). "In that novel," they say, "Nathan Slaughter paints lizards, snakes, and skulls on his skin and feigns an epileptic fit to frighten Indians." I suggested that they might also consider Chapter 27 of The Prairie (1827). My point is that among certain influential and well-educated people, Cooper's present status has passed the vanishing point.

Where Cooper does appear in contemporary criticism, he seems to be used chiefly to prop up the thesis of an article or book. For instance, in an article about negative characters in American fiction, Terence Martin singles out Natty Bumppo as the classic example of a character who is defined primarily by what he lacks -- such as family, people, or home. In another article, Martin uses Natty and Chingachgook as a "doubled consciousness" to let Cooper come down on both sides of an old American question and get by with it. "To an Adamic nation afflicted with an either/or mentality, experience, like knowledge, derives ultimately from the serpent," he writes. Cooper "gives us innocence which is completed and made almost as much fun as sin by rendering in Natty Bumppo the consciousness, but not the act, of savage experience." The act, of course, is carried out by Chingachgook, the Serpent, and excused by his "gifts."

Cecilia Tichi, writing of American culture and history in New World, finds Cooper's thought useful to oppose to Bancroft's Utopian millennial imperatives. James Grossman contributed to a collection of essays entitled The Chief Glory, where he insists that Cooper's great contribution is the theme that life and history are both an unending series of dispossessions. (This is also the burden of H. Daniel Peck's recent good essay in the Columbia Literary History of the United States). Grossman, incidentally, tells us that Constance Fenimore Woolson discovered only in Florence that her great-uncle had written a charming book on Italy. Constance was a writer herself, and her ignorance of her great-uncle's literary productions suggests that his status was low at the end of the nineteenth century.

Richard Slotkin, in Regeneration through Violence,2 finds Cooper useful for his portrayal of the "problematic character of the frontiersman -- the troubling blend of European, American, and Indian elements that made him both a figure of promise and a nightmare to Cooper's contemporaries" (493). In Plotting America's Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales, William P. Kelly is interested primarily in originality as an American quality and claims that in the last two tales "Against the force of his culture's confidence and the precedent of his own canon, Cooper indicts originality as a fantasy of childhood, an illusion unworthy of his generation" (158).

Critics chiefly interested in William Faulkner find Cooper useful as an author to compare Faulkner with. At the 1980 Faulkner conference, Charles H. Nilon concluded that the restraints that Cooper "wished to impose through the authority and power of his aristocracy, were essentially denials of freedom." By contrast, "Faulkner assumes and suggests through his aristocrats that {4} denials of freedom are harmful to the American venture." Nilon's decision was that "Faulkner's aristocrats show that a landed gentry of the sort that Cooper wished to establish could not fix in time [which means fix for all time, not fix soon enough] the civilization that Cooper admired" (198). For an earlier Faulkner conference, John Pilkington had used Cooper's work to clarify his idea of Faulkner's relationship to nature, saying:

Everywhere Cooper maintains the distinctions between the creator and the creation, the doctrine of transcendence. Man learns in the wilderness, but the wilderness is not an animate teacher. The precepts that must govern man's life, Cooper thought, come from God, whom both Natty and the Indians often refer to as the Master of Life.... Faulkner often seems to take a position close to pantheism. Sam Fathers and Ike possess something that comes from a secret, mystical communion with the wilderness that is itself alive. Emerson would have understood it, but not Cooper. (117)

John Seelye's "ramble" (as he calls it) through the ideal worlds of Gardens, Arcadias, Edens, and what-have-you in "Some Green Thoughts on a Green Theme," credits Cooper with being a creator of the American literary landscape and of, with Leatherstocking, the mythic link "between the Good Hunter, Dan'l Boone, and the Bad Renegade, Simon Girty" (598). More recently, writing of Davy Crockett and the folklore that grew up around him, Seelye suggests that the Crockett of the almanacs is drawn partly from Cooper's Paul Hover, but that then the almanac Crockett was in turn reappropriated by Cooper to produce Charles Cap of The Pathfinder (110).

Cooper also crops up in the writings of feminists, although most of them would agree with Nina Baym, who says that while "estimation of Cooper's seriousness and depth has risen sharply since 1848,...the view of his women has changed little" and that the women are an "embarrassment to his critics." Her point -- and defence -- is that Cooper's "theme is society, and he defines women as the nexus of social interaction" (697). Annette Kolodny writes in The Lay of the Land that "even if [Cooper's] novels do not label things for us as engulfment or incest fantasy -- vocabulary not even available to Cooper -- we can hardly ignore the narratives' strong suggestions of sexual tension and infantile regression surrounding Natty's response to and spatial movement within the landscape" (90). "Infantile and presexual as he is," she concludes, "Natty Bumppo remains, in many ways, an embodiment of The American Dream. A pastoral landscape still seems to beckon to us...urging us to withdraw from the current and go back to an initial moment of perfect peace, absolute harmony, and freedom from want, within a feminine and wholly gratifying natural world" (115).

In "No Apologies for the Iroquois, A New Way to Read the Leatherstocking Novels," Jane P. Tompkins faults most critics of Cooper and argues that

instead of comparing Cooper's plot and characters to those of classical nineteenth century fiction, where individual moral choice is at the center of attention, we must recognize that Cooper's novels {5} constitute a...drama whose purpose is to work out the rules of coexistence that make human society possible in the first place. His characters are elements of thought, things to think with, and the convolutions of the plots, the captures, rescues, and pursuits of the narrative are stages in a thought process, phases in a meditation on the bases of social life that is just as rigorous and complicated in its way as the meditations of Strether by the river (41).

Another feminist, Joyce W. Warren, in The American Narcissus, uses Cooper's females to bolster her thesis that "Like the Legendary Narcissus, the American individualist focused on his own image to such an extent he could grant little reality to others" (4). One of the more interesting connections with American women is Albert Gelpi's article, "Emily Dickinson and the Deerslayer: The Dilemma of the Woman Poet in America." Relying chiefly on her poem "My Life had stood--a loaded gun," Gelpi says that Emily Dickinson "wants the independence of will and the power of mind which her alliance with the woodsman [Deerslayer] makes possible. Specifically, engagement with the animus unlocks her artistic creativity: through his inspiration and mastery she becomes a poet" (87-88).

Interested in language and tracing its development in The Colloquial Style in America, Richard Bridgman declares that Cooper's "observations of how psychological conditions affect language were frequent and acute. The carelessness appeared in his execution" (49). He writes as examples the Scots in The Pathfinder, and we could add the Judge's use of Quaker constructions in The Pioneers, the Dutch characters whose language becomes "more Dutch" as they become excited in Satanstoe and so forth. Bridgman says, also, that Cooper was the writer who made "a start toward the metamorphosis of American literary dialogue" (66). Unlike Hawthorne, whose characters all sound alike, Cooper did offer several kinds of speech, not only using dialogue to outline action and set scenes, as Hawthorne did, but to establish social strata and indicate racial differences. Bridgman agrees with Twain that Cooper "found it especially difficult to settle on a suitable pitch for Natty Bumppo's vocabulary" which is, he says, "a hash of dialect, Biblical simplicity, romantic effusion, old saws, and didacticism" (66). (This is precisely the kind of hash which, I have always contended, an auto-didact with Natty's background and temperament would speak.)

Finally, among the current gleanings, we have George Dekker's use of Cooper in his The American Historical Romance. Dekker says this is "a book about the Waverley tradition in American fiction" (142) and he desperately needs Cooper and a few others to furnish him with material. The difficulties he gets into are suggested by this passage:

the opposed values which are embodied in the Yankee Dutch conflict in Irving's fiction of New York are to be found not just in the Waverley-model hut everywhere in Romantic literature. Besides, the History of New York [of Irving] antedates Waverley by five years. (121)

Undeterred by the problem of influence by anticipation, Dekker carries on with {6} his detraction of Cooper:

At all events, before Cooper published The Spy or The Pioneers Irving had already domesticated some of the key themes, character types, and normative oppositions present or at least latent in the Waverley-model. (122)

Whether present or latent, the oppositions between the Yankees and the Dutch were to be found not only in Irving but in such works as Mrs. Grant of Laggan's Memoirs of an American Lady (which Cooper called attention to) and in American historical records involving such people as the Schuylers and others.

So what can we conclude about Cooper's current status in this country? He is still very visible on the literary scene, but his work is being mined largely for examples to prove one thesis or another. As these examples show, his fiction seems to be provocative, even indispensable, to people who are writing about American cultural history, literary history, or the development of American vernacular style. Those who find his works (and they are by no means limited to the Leatherstocking Tales, though these are the most used) necessary for their arguments assume, of course, that their readers will be familiar with the texts, and I am wondering how much longer this will be a safe assumption. (There were curriculum changes in 1938-40 that separated those who read The Spy in high school from those who didn't in my section of the Midwest, and I suspect that Cooper's readers among the general public have been declining steadily since then.)

A second conclusion is that Cooper's status involves an accompanying insistence on his works as possessions belonging to our past. His current status seems based on the conventions he founded, on his recognition in his own time, and on the endurance of themes, types of characters, and varieties of fiction that he invented. He is clearly part of our literary and cultural history, but the assumption is that he has nothing to say to us here -- at present. The unspoken attitude seems to be that he was a primitive who wrote crude if compelling tales that loomed large in the early nineteenth century, but that he has been surpassed by more professional, more polished, and more adept fiction writers who came later. We seem to assume, without examining the assumption, that in all things, including literature, we are steadily progressing toward perfection and that the nineteenth century writers cannot consequently be considered seriously these days. In American Literary Scholarship for 1986, James Woodress reported that one Robert Erwin, writing in the Antioch Review, offered a "witty reflection on the career and significance of 'the misadventures of our most passe, antiquated, aboriginal famous writer.' Erwin traces sardonically the history of Cooper scholarship and its efforts to keep him in the canon" (208). But then this challenge to Cooper's status is probably to be expected in a country where THEY think that God is dead and Elvis is alive.

I have been emphasizing this country because abroad now, as in his own time, commentary about Cooper seems to be different. The same edition of American Literary Scholarship that I just quoted lists the first serious study of Cooper in Japanese, one which the editor calls a "pioneering work which will serve as the starting point of the study of this great but so far neglected [in Japan] novelist. Nobody would deny that James Fenimore Cooper {7} is one of the major American writers," says Hiroko Sato.

Japan is a new addition, but in Europe and Russia Cooper has long had -- and still has -- stature. Writing an introduction for a textbook edition of The Pathfinder recently, I found myself going to Russian and French critics for the most useful criticism of the book when it first came out. Recently Henry S. F. Cooper, Jr., Fenimore Cooper's great-great-grandson, updated the Cooper connection with Russia. As a science writer who publishes in The New Yorker Henry Cooper had been invited to come to Russia to talk with their space scientists. Particularly helpful in arranging his visit was Dmitri Urnov, a professor of English and American literature at the Gorky Institute of World Literature, who had come to see Henry Cooper several years ago when he was in New York to gather material for a biography of Fenimore Cooper that he is writing. A "member in good standing of the Soviet academic and literary establishments with connections in the right places," as Henry Cooper described him in The New Yorker, March 7, 1988, Urnov arranged for Cooper to speak to the Writer's Union where one member asked what the Leatherstocking Tales had to do with Henry Cooper's interest in space. At the time he was unable to answer. Later he was taken to meet Sergei Ivanko, vice-chairman of the Novosti Press Agency, who is also writing a biography of Fenimore Cooper and who showed Henry Cooper a photograph of himself in front of Cooper's bronze statue in Cooperstown. Speaking of the relationship of Fenimore Cooper and space exploration, Ivanko suggested that space is the new wilderness and that Cooper captured "for all of us, the love of wilderness." The people of both countries are, he said, explorers and it is no coincidence that they are the first into space. (As if to confirm the connection, Henry Cooper called attention to NASA's naming its new technology-development program "Pathfinder.") As a fitting end of his adventure, Henry Cooper and Dmitri Urnov discovered a well-thumbed edition of The Leatherstocking Tales in the home of Sergei Korolev, the master designer of Soviet rockets and space ships. Korolev is dead, but the house is something of a shrine which Soviet cosmonauts visit before and after flying missions.

In 1987, Aleksandr Nikolaevich Kikolyukin published his second book on Russian and American literary interrelations. F. Lyra says:

his general opinions on the similarities of and differences between American and Russian romanticism seem appropriate as are the marginal observations on the absence of a truly epic picture of Russia in the country's romantic literature...though from the beginning Russian critics kept commenting on these similarities between Cooper's and M. N. Zagorkin's as well as I. I. Lazhechnikov's romances. Lermontov's dream of creating a historical trilogy on Russia after the manner of Cooper's first four Leatherstocking Tales never materialized because of his untimely death. (433)

It seems clear that Cooper not only had but still has stature in Russia. In fact, Ivanko told Henry Cooper that thirty-one million copies of Cooper's books have been published since 1917, most of them (twenty-four million) in the past fifteen years.

{8} German discussion of Cooper's work often slides into criticism of the Austro-American writer Charles Sealsfield, one of Cooper's imitators, and a whole book on Sealsfield was published in 1987. Elisabeth Hermann's Opfer der Geschichte, Die Darstellung der nordamerikanischen Indianer im Werk James Fenimore Coopers and seiner Zeitgenossen (Lang, 1986) reportedly focuses on Cooper and only mentions his contemporaries briefly. The study contends that "Cooper and his generation were influenced by the French philosopher Condorcet.... In this scheme, the Indian appears as a member of a low-stage, static civilization, unable to change, whereas the whites represent civilization's irresistible progress. The disappearance of the Indians, tragic as it was, was nevertheless accepted as a logical step in the course of history as the works of Cooper amply prove." (Lyra 457) An opposing view crops up in a collection of papers presented at a Franco-German colloquium held at the University of Erlangen and published as Westward Expansion in America (1803-1860). Helmbrecht Breineg argues that Cooper "often used the word Providence in order to escape the responsibility to deal with history realistically." (458) Disagreeing with both these critics, I hope for the early appearance of the study of The Heidenmauer promised by the German scholar who was a Fellow at the Huntington library a few years ago.

Cooper remains a staple of North American studies in Italy, and a recent workshop took up his Gleanings in Europe: Italy. The judgment was that it was an unusually realistic image of Italy and that it shows Cooper's "ability to re-create the feeling of a particular place." Coming from Italians, this is high praise for a travel book about Italy written by a foreigner. Other proof that Cooper's work is still current in Italy arrived last fall in the form of a review of a new translation of The Spy which took half a page in a major newspaper, Repubblica.

In her fourteen-page introduction to this new translation, Cristina Bombieri says the book exudes Cooper's nostalgia for the America that was then slipping away, and shows his indulgent tenderness for the Revolutionary era. She says that the book has a mythic quality, a tendency to fable and legend, that the reviewers never identified but that readers intuited and appreciated. Besides being a creator of myths, Cooper invented the American hero who perfectly interprets the obsessions and regrets of the youngest nation on earth: this warrior-hero of the forest, ignored by the mercantile metropolis, is the secret force of the nation.

In spite of his borrowing Scott's narrative mechanisms, heroes with overturned social positions, and use of dialects and jargon, no one today would call Cooper "the American Scott." He is, she declares, more incisive, more enduring, more disquieting, and more true than Scott. She calls attention to the number of "necessary killings" in Cooper's works; one the hanged Skinner in The Spy.

Adding to the long list of Cooper "firsts," Bombieri credits him with inventing the structure that forms the foundation of every good espionage novel or spy story. With this book he inaugurates a genre a full half-century before it was developed in England. The spy story, she says, belongs within the evolution of the detective story, with two identifying traits -- flight and pursuit, and the final revelation of truth. Cooper added the false or double identity and the character of what she calls the "man-pawn," and she describes his invention of these crucial elements as "stupifying." Where detective {9} stories (like the Sherlock Holmes tales) assume the continual renewal of evil, there is also the promise that someone will arrive to conquer it. The espionage novel, however, is a tragic variant of the detective novel. History is dictated by the winners and the spy or secret agent is only a pawn in a game of disproportionate powers. Unlike the detective, the secret agent never represents only himself. There is for him no fame and no happy ending. Harvey's role and Harvey's limits Bombieri sees as continuing with the character of Natty Bumppo.

George Washington is a demigod in disguise. Caesar Thompson is the "prototype of all the faithful black domestics that go down the long literary road that passes by Huckleberry Finn and ends with Gone with the Wind." Bombieri insists that Cooper's are not "historical romances," but romances based on history. They are not "historical romances" because they make no attempt to reconstruct or explain history.

Reviewing the publication of this book, Vanna Stacchini makes the point that the spy story, like a game of chess, is played out between the writer and the readers, with the opening move being decisive. She proclaims Cooper "the most important of that great school that was the American realism of the frontier, for language spoken by the various classes, for physical details of the territory, and for realistic actions that are psychologically defensible." Yet the realistic narrative is all but absorbed in the fabulous atmosphere that surrounds Birch and George Washington. She ends with declaring it incredible that "this greatly successful writer, who is today read and reread, was abandoned in his old age by the readers of his own time." Hence the review ends by stressing Cooper's current importance in spite of past neglect.

This overview of Cooper criticism has been sketchy and could be added to, but it seems to me that Cooper is still faring better overseas than he is at home. The terms and contexts in which he is discussed abroad indicate that he still has stature as an American and world writer. At home, on the other hand, it seems to me that the accurate term is status and that while his status seems secure -- to the extent that critics assume that everyone is familiar with his works -- that security may be transitory. But then, as I said at the outset, one's status in these United States is always subject to instant change.

Payson, IL

NOTES

The published collection of papers from the 1989 Cooper Seminar, perhaps because of its unusual size, seems to have more typographical errors than usual in the series. Obvious errors, when noted, have been silently corrected in placing the articles on-line. There remain a few instances where words had to be added or dropped in order to recover what seems to have been the author's intention -- these are noted below. HCMacDougall (August 2000)

1. Words in brackets inserted -- there is an apparent error in the original, which reads "..."great imagination" was Erskine wrote:"

2. The text as printed reads: "...Regeneration through Violence. HIS theme, finds...."

WORKS CITED

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