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Eclipse and Rebirth: The Four Incarnations of James Fenimore Cooper

Hugh C. MacDougall
(James Fenimore Cooper Society)

Presented at the 11th Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1997

©1999, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the 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 (No. 11), Papers from the 1997 Cooper Seminar (No. 11), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 75-80)

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A total eclipse of the sun comes to any particular spot on earth only about once every four hundred years. On Monday, June 16, 1806, such an eclipse came to the young village of Cooperstown. In mid-morning, as the shadow of the moon crept over the sun, chickens retired to their roosts and the call of the whippoorwill echoed from the woods. Cows grazing in the common meadows across the Susquehanna thought night had come, and clattered back across the village bridge to their respective cow sheds. By a little after eleven o'clock the eclipse was total.1

Though the community had eagerly awaited the expected event, to one troubled sixteen year-old, James Cooper, the scene was an ominous one. "It seemed," he later wrote, "as if the great Father of the Universe had visibly, and almost palpably, veiled his face in wrath."2 The wrath of fathers may well have been on his mind. A year before the eclipse, Cooper had been expelled from Yale College after a fight. Now, studying at home under the local Presbyterian minister, he pondered his future. During the period of darkness of the eclipse, he remembered, "my thoughts turned to the sea.... [M]y fancy was busy with pictures of white-sailed schooners, and brigs, and ships, gliding like winged spirits over the darkened waves."3

For James, the solemnity of the occasion was enhanced when, early that morning, he was invited to visit Stephen Arnold, a convicted murderer who, after a year awaiting final sentence in a windowless jail cell, had been taken in chains to a nearby building to view the celestial event. The sight of his "haggard face and fettered arms...was," Cooper wrote, "an incident to stamp on the memory for life. It was a lesson not lost on me."4

An eclipse seems to symbolize death and rebirth, and also the comparative insignificance of humans in the face of nature. Cooper summed up his experience by writing that "never have I beheld any spectacle which...so forcibly taught the lesson of humility to man as a total eclipse of the sun."5

Cooper was, of course, the youngest son of Judge William Cooper, the rough-hewn, self-educated developer who had founded Cooperstown and become the political ruler of Otsego County. The Judge wanted his five sons to become the refined gentlemen that he could never be. Although too busy with business and politics to give them much personal attention, he spent freely on their educations. Young James well knew what was expected of him: to become Gentleman James, a man of education and culture living off the wealth of the estate created by his father. He had been sent to school in Albany, to a select establishment whose other boys were sons of New York State's most aristocratic families. From there, at the tender age of 13, he entered Yale College -- where he showed himself to be both intellectually precocious and socially immature. A fist fight with a classmate ended for the time the career of Gentleman James; he was expelled and sent home to Cooperstown. During the eclipse, James seems to have been thinking about how to remake his life. When he did so, he followed the road of many young men in trouble; Gentleman James ran away to seek adventure, and was reborn as Sailor Jim.

By the beginning of August young James was, unbeknownst to his family, in Philadelphia. He was apparently thinking of enlisting in General Francisco Miranda's Quixotic attempt, well advertised in Cooperstown's weekly newspaper, to liberate Venezuela from Spanish rule. Instead, however, James decided to go to sea. Alerted by friends, Cooper's family intervened and arranged a berth for him as a common sailor on the American merchant ship Stirling. In September of 1806, as he was turning seventeen, he departed on a year-long voyage to England and Spain. Despite the hard and unfamiliar work, Sailor Jim thrived, and the experience deeply imprinted itself on his very retentive mind. On his return to America, Sailor Jim joined the infant American Navy. Appointed as a Midshipman in 1808, he was sent to Oswego, on Lake Ontario, to help supervise the construction of America's first Great Lakes warship. In the hope of going to sea, he eventually arranged a transfer to New York City but to his chagrin found himself mostly ashore, assigned to recruiting duties.6

Until recently scholars accepted James Fenimore Cooper as he tried to present himself: a bluff, outspoken, and confident man, serious in his opinions and over-eager to express them. Much was made of his lionization by the world as America's first great novelist. That he often battled with his countrymen over social and political issues was attributed by his friends to high moral principles, and by his many enemies to a quarrelsome nature and a dedication to aristocratic elitism.

[76] Instead, I would argue, Cooper was an often troubled man, ill at ease with his surroundings and himself. Although truth would remain Cooper's "pole star," as he would later write of Deerslayer,7 the nature of that truth was subject to change. Cooper's life was marked by several turning points when, as in 1806, he responded to crises by creating a new image of himself and his role in life, and escaped to a new environment where he could live it. Not surprisingly, this pattern also found its way into the imagined worlds of his novels. And the image of the eclipse would remain with him as a powerful symbol of destruction and rebirth.

After his father's death in 1809, Sailor Jim reverted, with apparently little internal struggle, to the career of Gentleman James for which he had been groomed. He married and settled down to a life as a country squire. It was this Gentleman James who, said his early biographers, turned to novel writing in 1820 as a lark, because his wife bet him he couldn't do it. Gentleman James had become a writer, as a gentleman should, as a hobby.

Closer examination has recently shown that the Cooper who began to write in 1820 was a lonely and financially desperate man. By 1820 his parents and four brothers, and two infant children of his own, had all died. Beginning with the collapse of land values that followed the War of 1812, the estate he inherited from his father had gradually vanished, and he was rapidly becoming insolvent. In his somewhat feckless efforts to recoup his fortunes, Gentleman James seriously alienated his in-laws.8

It seems likely that Cooper turned to the pen more to blot out his financial troubles than to resolve them, since writing was not then a credible way of earning a living. But to his surprise he found that it could help pay the bills, and that he had a talent and liking for it. In a very few years, with the publication of best-sellers like The Spy, The Pioneers, The Pilot, and The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper was a national and even an international celebrity. A new Cooper, whom we may call Author Fenimore Cooper, had been born.

Fenimore Cooper combined the conventions of popular British novels, especially the romances of Sir Walter Scott, with American settings. Confounding those who believed America was too drab for romance, these novels explored America's short history, traveled into its unique wilderness, and introduced its multiplicity of ethnic, occupational, and racial groups. Making use of his career as Sailor Jim, Fenimore Cooper also created a whole new literary genre -- stories focused on the sea, on the complexities of sailing ships, and on American sailors.

The transformation from Gentleman James to Author Fenimore Cooper took several years. In October 1822 Cooper moved from Westchester County to New York City and enthusiastically joined the city's literary and cultural circles. He even changed his name; he wanted to be known as James Fenimore, after his late mother. In April 1826 the State Legislature authorized him to add the Fenimore, but only as a middle name.9 Overnight, he abruptly changed his signature from James Cooper to J. Fenimore Cooper,10 the signature he would use for the rest of his life. Gentleman James had been like his father a staunch Federalist, and had even campaigned for the party in Westchester County. Author Fenimore Cooper found new virtues in Thomas Jefferson, whom Gentleman James had been brought up to loathe, and became a life-long Democrat.11 Above all, the new Fenimore Cooper saw himself as an embodiment of America's claim to culture; an answer to the British critics who scoffed at the very notion of American literature.

But despite his literary success, Cooper's financial woes did not immediately end; late in 1823 his personal property was inventoried for possible sale at public auction.12 Now in 1826, 20 years after he had run away to become Sailor Bill, Cooper took his family to Europe for what proved to be a seven-year sojourn. He gave several logical explanation for going: it might help his always precarious health; he could provide good educations for his son and four daughters, then ranging from 2 to 13 years old; he could see the famous sights of Europe; he could extract more money from European editions of his works.13 Unstated was a possibly overriding consideration; in Europe, where nobody knew about the insolvent Gentleman James, Author Fenimore Cooper could live his new role as an exemplar of and spokesman for American culture and American civic institutions.

At first, Cooper's years in Europe were very good ones. He continued his life-long grueling writing schedule, but found time for travel and limited participation in European literary circles. He made good money -- on the order of $20,000 a year -- paid off his debts and started building up a nest egg for his family. He enjoyed France, and fell in love with Italy. But now a new major crisis came to trouble his life, and led to new change.

In 1828, at the behest of his new Parisian friend, the aging LaFayette, Cooper published a monumental account of America, its culture and institutions, entitled Notions of the Americans.14 He wanted the book both to educate Europeans about the civic virtues of America, and to give Americans confidence in their own institutions despite the constant carping of British and other foreign travelers and critics. In retrospect, in the words of editor Gary Williams, "no book of Cooper's day set forth so clearly the structure of the American government or illustrated so well the practical impact of that structure on the self-concept of those who lived within it."15

[77] But many British reviewers trashed Notions of the Americans as pure boasting16 and Americans -- their literary tastes still reliant on British criticism -- ignored or deprecated the book. The failure was compounded in 1832 when the publication in French of an article by Cooper praising the American fiscal system, requested by LaFayette as political ammunition, was criticized at home and by American diplomats as interference in French internal affairs.17 Finally, Cooper was deeply hurt by American criticism of his last three novels, which used European historical settings to compare autocracy with American democracy.

Author Fenimore Cooper, the spokesman for American culture and institutions, had been rejected by his own people. "I go home...," he wrote a friend in 1832, "to ascertain whether for the rest of my life I am to have a country or not.... I am tired of wasting life, means and comfort in behalf of those who return abuse for services."18 "I am," he wrote the following year, "the object of constant attacks in the American papers, and chiefly...because I have defended American principles...in foreign countries.... The tales are done. There are a few half finished manuscripts on other subjects to finish, and I turn sailor again, or something else."19

What he did turn into was Cooper the Critic. The Coopers returned to America in 1833. Largely avoiding his literary friends in New York, Cooper bought back his father's old mansion in the center of rural Cooperstown, remodeled it, and by 1836 was settled in. In an angry pamphlet entitled A Letter to his Countrymen,20 Cooper the Critic divorced himself from the American public he had once served, and renounced literature as a career. Instead, he turned to political commentary,21 a long-cherished plan to write the history of the American Navy,22 and five travel books about his European experiences.23

But Cooper also completed and published The Monikins,24 a satirical novel unlike anything else he ever wrote. The Monikins are intelligent monkeys, living in a temperate Antarctica, where the realms of Leaphigh, an aristocracy presided over by an invisible King, and Leaplow, a corrupt democracy whose inhabitants cut off their tails the same length as a symbol of monkey equality, are ironical stand-ins for England and America.

At the end of the novel, Leaplow experiences what the Monikin observatory calls "a great moral eclipse," in which "the great moral postulate" of "Principle," is occulted by "the great immoral postulate" of "Interest." The eclipse begins with the disappearance of charity, followed by truth, honesty, disinterestedness, and patriotism, and finally Principle is totally obscured and Interest reigns triumphant.25

Cooper's human protagonists observe the eclipse as it falls on the Monikins of Leaplow. The monkeys talk only about dollars -- churches, works of art and literature, are valued only for their cost. Monikins become cynical and greedy, and those who do good works are denounced as fools or liars. Patriotic public service is discredited, "for," as Cooper explains, "during these eclipses, long service, public virtue, calculated amenity, and all the other bland qualities of your patriot, pass for nothing, when weighed in the scale against profit and loss."26

And what happens to Leaplow's proud democracy? In the words of one philosophical Monikin, "so far as monikin experience goes -- men may have proved to be better disposed -- no government that is essentially influenced by commerce has ever been otherwise than exclusive, or aristocratic."27

Disillusioned with this great moral eclipse, Cooper's human protagonists hastily sail away home. The disillusioned Cooper moved to Cooperstown; what he found only reinforced his view that America's values had been obscured by a spreading contagion of greed, speculation, demagogy and cultural decay. No longer seeing himself as the spokesman for American civic virtues, Cooper the Critic's often keen analysis of the American political and social scene, and his essentially moralistic criticism of it, was outlined as a series of essays in The American Democrat, published in Cooperstown in 1838.28

The Monikin moral eclipse was scheduled to last for nine years; Cooper's own disillusionment and depression took almost as long to clear. Gradually he came to relish his new role as Cooper the Critic. He did return to writing novels in the late 1830's, at his old heavy schedule of one or more titles per year. Many of his new tales, however, were infused with his new critical tone, to the disgust of entertainment-seeking readers and an increasingly hostile Whig press, and at a heavy cost in book sales. But though he would never again be America's literary darling, Cooper's readership gradually recovered when he resurrected Leatherstocking in The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, and added to his long list of sea adventures.

Cooper the Critic remained shut up in Cooperstown, living an essentially private life with his family. He took only occasional part in village activities (to the annoyance of some Cooperstonians) and had little contact with other writers or with the changing American literary scene. Never again did he go abroad, except in imagination, and he showed no inclination to explore his own country. His excursions outside Cooperstown were largely confined to regular [78] visits to New York or Philadelphia to see his novels through the press; in the big city he lived in hotels and socialized only with a few old friends and acquaintances.

Was Cooper the Critic the last incarnation of James Fenimore Cooper? Most biographers have assumed so, chronicling his later life in Cooperstown as undergoing a gradual mellowing, but not of further major change. I sense, however, at least a growing shift of emphasis. When he returned to America in the mid-1830s, Cooper the Critic seems most upset by the moral flaws, national and local, he encountered on his return from Europe, which he scathingly exposed in Home as Found29, a fictional exposé of the cultural deterioration Cooper found in New York City and when he returned to live in the Templeton of The Pioneers.

In the 1830's, Cooper still believed that the cultural values he cherished were compatible with political democracy. He condemned as aristocratic what he called the Social Stake theory30; that the newly wealthy commercial classes, because they owned the country, were best suited to govern it. Harking back, perhaps, to the radical Whigs of 18th Century England, he saw commerce as inherently selfish and amoral.

A decade or so later, as his life drew to a close in 1851, Cooper the Critic seems increasingly concerned with structural and constitutional issues as America lurched ominously towards civil war. Demagogues, he believed, were ruthlessly exploiting the developing tools of political populism, political organization, and the press, as well as the largely immigrant urban masses of the growing big cities. In the face of a divided silent majority of more reasonable men, they might take control of government and enact radical measures that could throw society into chaos. To this threat Cooper saw no clear remedy; perhaps, he seems to have concluded, only divine intervention could save America's dream.

In 1850 there appeared Cooper's brief political allegory "The Lake Gun,"31 the last work he would see in print. It uses a supposed Indian legend of Seneca Lake to warn against demagogues like New York's radical political leader William Seward "who lift their voices in shouts of a spurious humanity, in order to raise themselves to power, on the shoulders of an excited populace."32 But this, says Cooper's Seneca Indian spokesman, may be only a divine and temporary moral eclipse. "The Manitou may have ordered it for your good. Trust to Him. There are days in which the sun is not seen -- when a lurid darkness brings a second night over the earth. It matters not. The great luminary is always there. There may be clouds before his face, but the winds will drive them away."33 "The man or the people that trust in God," concludes the Indian, can resolve even this crisis.34

On July 23, 1851, Cooper sent his publisher, under cover of a long hand-written letter, the partially completed manuscript of his last book; a history of New York City to be entitled The Towns of Manhattan.35 But if his mind was as keen as ever, his body was rapidly failing. Less than a week later, on July 28, Cooperstown experienced another eclipse of the sun36; total in some parts of America, it was only partial here. But for Cooper, this time, there would be no rebirth. He never again touched pen,37 and on September 14, 1851, the day before his 62nd birthday, his life quietly came to an end.

Notes

1. Encyclopedia Britannica

2. James Fenimore Cooper, "The Eclipse," in Putnam's Magazine (September 1869), 358. Cooper's account of the eclipse, according to an introductory note by his daughter Susan Fenimore Cooper, had been written in Europe for an English friend, about 1831, but for some reason had never been sent to him, and was found among Cooper's papers after his death in 1851. I suspect that the manuscript may date from after Cooper's return to America in 1833, as some of the specific details (including exact times) seem more likely to have come from the account of the eclipse in the June 19, 1806 issue of the Otsego Herald than from Cooper's unaided recollection. Cooper carefully read through the files of this paper in the mid 1830s, in the course of preparing his volume of local history, The Chronicles of Cooperstown (Cooperstown: H. & E. Phinney, 1838)

3. see Alan Taylor, William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 340-341 [hereinafter Taylor, William Cooper's Town]. Cooper, "The Eclipse," 357

4. Cooper, "The Eclipse," 355-356; Otsego Herald, June 19, 1806; Louis C. Jones, "The Crime and Punishment of Stephen Arnold," New York History (July 1966), 1-25

5. Cooper, "The Eclipse," 259

6. Taylor, William Cooper's Town, 342-343; Alan Taylor, "James Fenimore Cooper Goes to Sea; Two Unpublished Letters by a Family Friend," Joel Myerson, ed., Studies in the American Renaissance: 1993 (Charlottesville, VA, 1993), 45-55. For an account of Cooper's experiences on the Stirling, see James Fenimore Cooper, ed., Ned Myers; or, A Life Before the Mast (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1843 [reprinted Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989]).

7. James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1841), II:279 [Cooper Edition: Albany, State University of New York Press, 1987, 545]

8. The new perspective of James Fenimore Cooper's sorry financial troubles was explored in detail in James H. Pickering, "Fenimore Cooper as Country Gentleman: A New Glimpse of Cooper's Westchester Years," in New York History, 72:3 (July 1991) 299-318. See also Taylor, William Cooper's Town, 392-405

9. Laws of New York State (1826), Chapter 177, passed April 13, 1826: "Be it enacted...that it shall...be lawful for James Cooper, formerly of Cooperstown...to assume and take the middle name of Fenimore, and [he] shall hereafter be known and distinguished by the name of James Fenimore Cooper."

10. See, JFC to Luther Bradish, Feb. 12, 1826 (James Franklin Beard, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961-68), I:130), signed "James Cooper" and JFC to Carey and Lea, Apr. 4, 1826 (Beard, Letters..., I:131), signed "J. Fenimore Cooper" [hereinafter Beard, Letters...].

11. As Cooper told it, his "conversion" to Jefferson was touched off in 1823 when he saw the new portrait of Jefferson by Thomas Sully hanging at the United States Military Academy in West Point. JFC to Charles K. Gardner (Beard, Letters..., I:95-96)

12. Beard, Letters..., I:84

13. See, e.g., JFC to J. Miller, Feb. 1826 (Beard, Letters..., I:127) [education and health]; JFC to S.C. Hall, March 1831 (Beard, Letters..., II:58) [health]

14. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Carey, 1828 [Cooper Edition, edited by Gary Williams: Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.]

15. Gary Williams, introduction to Cooper edition of Notions of the Americans, lxi

16. See, e.g., London Literary Gazette XII (July 1828), 385-87, cited in George Dekker and John P. McWilliams, eds., Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), 150-52.

17. Le Général Lafayette à ses collègues de la Chambre des Députés. Paris: Paulin, Libraire-Editeur, 1832 [Facsimile text; with bibliographical note by Robert E. Spiller: New York: Facsimile Text Society (Columbia University Press), 1931.]

18. JFC to Horatio Greenough, July 1832 (Beard, Letters..., II:268)

19. JFC to Horatio Greenough, June 13, 1833 (Beard, Letters..., II:383-384)

20. A Letter to His Countrymen (New York: John Wiley, 1834).

21. In 1834-1836, before permanently settling in Cooperstown, Cooper wrote a series of articles (signed "A.B.C.") in the New York Democratic daily newspaper The Evening Post, commenting critically on US and foreign affairs. The authorship of these articles has only recently been definitely ascertained to be Cooper (see Beard, Letters..., III:61-62

22. James Fenimore Cooper, The History of the Navy of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1839).

23. James Fenimore Cooper, Sketches of Switzerland (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1836); Sketches of Switzerland: Part Second (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1836); Gleanings in Europe (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837); Gleanings in Europe: England (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837); Gleanings in Europe: Italy (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1838)

24. James Fenimore Cooper, The Monikins (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1835).

25. Ibid., II:184-199 {Chapter XII} [reprinted in one volume: Albany: New College and University Press, Inc. {NCUP, Inc.}, 1990, 278-288 {Chapter 27}]

26. Ibid., II:194 [NCUP, Inc., 285]

27. Ibid., II:196 [NCUP, Inc., 286]

28. James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat (Cooperstown: H. & E. Phinney, 1838)

29. James Fenimore Cooper, Home as Found (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1838)

30. The arguments for and against the "social stake" theory are to be found throughout The Monikins. In the words of one wise Monikin: "'Your [social stake] principle supposes, that in taking care of his own, the elector of wealth must take care of what belongs to the community; but our experience shows that a monikin can be particularly careful of himself, and singularly negligent of his neighbor. Therefore do we hold that money is a bad foundation for power.'" II-214-15 [NCUP, Inc., 298]. See also The American Democrat, 168-71 {"On Commerce"} [reprinted: London: Penguin Books, 1989, 216-17]

31. James Fenimore Cooper, The Lake Gun (New York: William Farquahar Payson, 1932) [orig. published in The Parthanon (New York: George W. Wood, 1850)]

32. Ibid., 54

33. Ibid., 54

34. Ibid., 54

35. JFC to G.P. Putnam, July 23, 1851 (Beard, Letters..., VI:279)

36. See Phinney's Calendar or Western Almanac for...1851 (Buffalo: Phinney & Co., [1850], [1]; Albany Argus, Aug. 4, 1851. The issue of the Otsego Herald covering the event has not survived

37. Cooper's only recorded letter of later date (Aug. 5, 1851) is entirely in the handwriting of his daughter Charlotte (Beard, Letters..., 281-82 and note)

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