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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2003 Cooper Seminar (No. 14), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 93-100)
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Writing from Paris in June of 1831, Cooper recalls, "So well was I grounded in the Latin" at an early age that "I read [Latin] as easily as English," and while at Yale "I scarce ever look'd at my Horace" until called on during recitation.1 The influence of the Roman poet is evident in Cooper's novels as the characters attempt to negotiate a means of governing frontier society. For Cooper, as for Horace, government most of all concerns how one should govern oneself.
In The Deerslayer, Natty's "soliloquizing" summarizes and justifies his decisions and behaviors. These soliloquies, as well as Natty's descriptions of red men's and white men's actions, identify self-control as a primary virtue. The connection between self-control and individual freedom in The Deerslayer parallels Horace's linkage of the virtue and the ideal in his Sermo II.7 which describes the man who controls his own passions as the freest, happiest man:
Quisnam igitur liber? sapiens, sibi qui imperiosus,
quem neque pauperies neque mors neque vincula terrent,
responsare cupidinibus, contemnere honores
[Who, then, is free? The wise man who is master of himself,
who is frightened neither by poverty,
nor death, nor bondage,
who defies his passions, and scorns ambition]2
Further, these passages of The Deerslayer share with their Horatian antecedents the goal of forging a hybrid individual identity in a changing society, a goal presented with satiric irony by Horace and troubled ambivalence by Cooper.
Cooper is certainly not unique in early America in deriving aspects of his thought from Horace. In addition to studying the works of Horace during his early education and at college, Cooper and his peers would have had daily doses of Horace any time they picked up an early American periodical. In fact, while translations and imitations of many classical authors, both Roman and Greek, appeared frequently in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English and American newspapers and magazines, translations and imitations of the work of Horace in early American periodicals outnumber those of any other classical author by a ratio of twenty-five to one.3
Indeed, the label "Horatian" was high praise in early America. However, the label was not primarily used, as in modern literary parlance, to distinguish kinds of satire, even though eighteenth-century belle-lettrists recognized, as we do, the distinction between Horatian and Juvenalian satire. Instead, to be a "Horatian" poet was to write in short lyric verse, instead of epic, georgic, or other popular long genres, and to be a Horatian, in poetry or prose, was to write on distinct themes: the pleasures of country life and the ingredients of contentment, although Horace himself wrote in a greater variety of forms and on a greater variety of topics.
Cooper's work reflects his era's attraction to the same Horatian themes as his own contemporaries, both at home and abroad, yet with greater emphasis on the theme of self-governance. It may be that the life and times of Horace, as they paralleled those of Cooper, provided the link.4
Quintus Horatius Flaccus, who lived from 65 B.C.E. to 8 B.C.E., was the son of a freedman who provided him with the education typical for young men of much higher social standing, including study in Rome and Athens. While Horace was a young man, his family lost their home, a rural estate, when the parties in the long civil wars following the assassination of Julius Caesar confiscated properties to give them as rewards to their military supporters. As a result, Horace earned his living as a government clerk in Rome until fellow-poet Virgil introduced him to Augustus's counselor Maecenas, a patron of writers. Maecenas gave Horace an estate in Sabinia which allowed him financial independence and a peaceful retreat for writing poetry.
Many of Horace's poems, especially those beloved in early America, praise the georgic life, the life of the small plantation owner, unaffected by urban and commercial troubles, whose situation and community would allow him to live a life of virtue. The writings of this freed slave's son who came to live the life of a gentleman through the exercise of his own talent, a difficult achievement in the socially-shifting world of late Republican and early Imperial Rome, inspired the ambitions of many persons in the shifting social world of early America.
The parallels to Cooper's life are readily apparent: born into a socially-climbing family, Cooper was vexed throughout his lifetime with questions over land ownership, whether inherited or acquired. Provided with at least the beginnings of an aristocrat's education, Cooper found himself forced to earn a living in a kind of government service, yet glorified in his writings the frontier setting that engenders, if not a life of virtue, at least the delineation of a code of virtue.
To Cooper, as to other early Americans living remote from urban centers, or even from sizeable towns, Horace's georgic and unpastoralized praise of the rural life was comforting, as was his emphasis on the moral superiority of the rural lifestyle, a source of pride for those whose lifestyle was, of necessity, rural. In addition, Horace praised personal independence and self-determination as the greatest goals and self-control as the greatest virtue, values that were important and would become touchstones during the revolutionary and early national eras.
As for Cooper's The Deerslayer, the Horatian context is well-established in Chapter I as Hurry Harry and Deerslayer "both set themselves about making the preparations necessary for their usual frugal but hearty meal" (20). This description signals a connection to an important text in early America: Horace's second epode. In Epode 2, Horace praises the self-sufficiency of the rural man who can provide for himself and his family without engaging in commerce and in the urban and political connections commerce entails. He praises the "unbought meal," a phrase that would reappear frequently in anti-British and nationalistic early American periodicals. The "unbought meal" as part of the apparatus of virtue is indicated by the opening words of the poem, beatus ille qui (happy, or blessed, is he who...), which indicate its connection to a substantial body of European and American poetry, called macarisms, which, like the earliest known macarism, in the pre-Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and the best known macarisms, the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, prescribe the necessary constituents of human happiness:
Beatus ille qui procul negotiis
ut prisca gens mortalium
paterna rura bobus exercet suis
solutus omni faenore
neque excitatur classico miles truci
neque horret iratum mare
Forumque vitat et superba civium
Ergo aut adulta vitium propagine
altas maritat populos 10
aut in reducta valle mugientium
prospectat errantes greges
inutilesque falce ramos amputans
aut pressa puris mella condit amphoris
aut tondet infirmas oves
claudensque textis cratibus laetum pecus
distenta siccet ubera
et horna dulci vina promens dolio
dapes inemptas adparet:
non me Lucrina iuverint conchylia
magisve rhombus aut scari 50
si quos Eois intonata fluctibus
hiems ad hoc vertat mare
non Afra avis descendat in ventrem meum
non attagen Ionicus
iucundior quam lecta de pinguissimis
oliva ramis arborum
Happy the man who, far from the troubles of commerce,
just as the venerable ancients,
works his inherited fields with his steers,
free from money-lending,
neither roused by grim battle signal, as a soldier,
nor fearing the angry sea.
He avoids the Forum and haughty doorways
of more powerful citizens.
And so he either props well-grown vines
with tall poplar branches 10
or in a secluded dale looks out at
grazing herds of lowing cattle,
and pruning useless branches with a sickle
engrafts better ones,
or stores pressed honey in fresh jars,
or shears the gentle sheep.
[while his wife]
closing a fertile flock in a woven fence,
draining their swelling udders,
and bringing out this year's vintage from the jar,
prepares an unbought meal.
Then Lucrine oysters would not please me more,
nor scar-fish, nor turbot, 50
if winter thundering on the eastern waves
should turn them to our shore.
Not African fowl or Greek pheasant
would descend more pleasingly to my stomach
than olives gathered
from the most fertile tree branches.
Themes of Epode 2 appear again and again in American literature: urban life is deceitful; rural life is physically and morally superior; rural man's independence, especially his ability to produce an "unbought" meal (ll. 48, 65), more than makes up for his lack of refined urban pleasures (ll. 49-60).
Just as Cooper's frontiersmen self-sufficiently provide their own meal, they have provided their own clothes, which indicate their frontier state: Cooper writes, "Their attire needs no particular description, though it may be well to add that it was composed in no small degree of dressed deer-skins, and had the usual signs of belonging to those who pass their time between the skirts of civilized society and the boundless forests" (21).
The frontiersmen's rural lifestyle provides not only physical independence, but also mental independence. Deerslayer's "expression," writes Cooper in Chapter I, "was simply that of guileless truth, sustained by an earnestness of purpose, and a sincerity of feeling, that rendered it remarkable. At times this air of integrity seemed to be so simple as to awaken the suspicion of a want of the usual means to discriminate between artifice and truth; but few came in serious contact with the man, without losing this distrust in respect for his opinions and motives" (20-21). Cooper returns to this characteristic in Chapter III, differentiating Deerslayer's habits of mind from Harry's: "Deerslayer...manifested a very different temper, proving by the moderation of his language, the fairness of his views, and the simplicity of his distinctions, that he possessed every disposition to hear reason, a strong, innate desire to do justice, and an ingenuousness that was singularly indisposed to have recourse to sophisms to maintain an argument" (49).
Here, as throughout the novel, Deerslayer demonstrates a characteristic attributed to the noble savage, displaying the moral reasoning of the untaught that is superior to the inherited knowledge of the scholar, just as later his manner of speaking is described as an "untaught, natural courtesy" (153). The primitivistic concept is usually attributed to the parallel drawn in Enlightenment philosophy between moral laws and physical laws: both, as laws of nature, are eternal, immutable, universal, uniform, and knowable by all men. (This succinct summary is from Lois Whitney's monograph on eighteenth-century primitivism.)
Yet belief in the superiority of the autodidact's moral reasoning has older roots, as shown in Maren-Sofie Rostvig's two-volume study of beatus ille poems which describes the development of the tradition out of a Renaissance merging of Horatian and Virgilian elements, supported by related Stoic, Epicurean, and Christian ideals (1.7). Although Rostvig locates the genre's birth in the second half of the fifteenth century on the European continent in neo-Latin verse, I find it particularly significant that in English poetry, the beatus ille poem's appearance, in John Ashmore's 1621 publication of his own Horatian poems, coincides with the early settlement of the American colonies and, hence, the emergence of American literature itself. Rostvig identifies this publication as initiating English beatus ille imitations, which remained popular through the nineteenth century, extolling various beatus ille virtues, including the moral superiority of the man who, like Deerslayer, reasons from observations of nature and natural law.
Horace presents the virtue of living according to Nature in Epistle I.10, written from his country estate to a friend in the city:
Urbis amatorem Fuscum salvere iubemus
Tu indium servas; ego laudo ruris amoeni
rivos et musco circumlita saxa neusque.
quid quaeris? vivo e regno, simul ista reliqui
quae vos ad caelum effertis rumore secundo,
Vivere Naturae si convenienter oportet,
ponendaeque domo quaerenda est area primum,
novistine locum potiorem rure beato?
(ll. 1-2, 6-9, 12-14)
To Fuscus, lover of the city, I,
a lover of the country, send greetings.
You keep the nest; I praise the pleasant country's
brooks, groves, and moss-covered rocks.
In a word: I live and reign, as soon as I leave behind
all that you praise to the skies.
If we are to live according to Nature,
and first must choose where to build a home,
do you know any place better than the blessed countryside?
Horace quotes the duty of living according to Nature from the Greek Stoic rules of life:
Deerslayer frequently identifies Nature as his teacher, guide, and reference book. For example, as Deerslayer discusses with Harry the character traits of Tom's daughters he assumes that the Hutter family must have the Stoic virtues gained by living in the woods. On seeing the lake, he exclaims, "This is grand! 'Tis solemn! 'Tis an edication of itself, to look upon...your Judith ought to be a moral and well disposed young woman, if she has passed half the time you mention, in the center of a spot so favored" (36). And, of course, as we later learn, it is the influence of the soldiers' urban ways that has corrupted her.
His narrator, too, identifies the effect of natural scenery at the end of Chapter II by describing the "soothing of the spirit which is a common attendant of a scene so thoroughly pervaded by the holy calm of nature" (47) and again in Chapter V by describing the lakeside scenery as having "a character to lull the passions into a species of holy calm" (82).
Deerslayer attributes moral guidance to the natural world when he says of the echoes of Harry's shot which had missed a buck, "they sound like the voice of natur' calling out ag'in a wasteful and onthinking action" (57).
One of "Nature's laws," as Deerslayer has here identified, is self-control. The Horatian Stoic Wise Man is at peace because he has self-control and limits his desires. In the words of Horace's Sermo II.7, he is sibi imperiosus, or his own master.
Quisnam igitur liber? sapiens, sibi qui imperiosus,
quem neque pauperies neque mors neque vincula terrent,
responsare cupidinibus, contemnere honores
fortis, et in se ipso totus, teres atque rotundus,
externi ne quid valeat per leve morari,
in quem manca ruit semper Fortuna.
[Who, then, is free? The wise man who is master of himself,
who is frightened neither by poverty,
nor death, nor bondage,
who defies his passions, and holds honors in contempt,
who in himself is whole, smoothed and rounded,
so that nothing external can attach to the surface,
against whom Fate cannot prevail.]
Again, Horace quotes the Greek Stoics, but their ideas were known in early America primarily via the works of Horace and translations and imitations of Horace, such as this imitation of Horace's Ode I.22 published "by a young Gentleman in New-York" in the New York Weekly Post Boy for June 25, 1744:
Contemning death, and ev'ry hideous form,
Out-braves the tempest, and derides the storm,
Calm and compos'd; for say, what can controul
Th'unconquer'd valour of his god-like soul?
Similarly, this anonymous poem published in the February 28, 1748/9 Pennsylvania Gazette quotes Horace's Ode II.10 to associate self-control with rustic living:
A Monarch in my rustic bower,
O'er whom even fortune has no power,
Can neither raise, or sink me lower,
Move how she will.
This calm self-control is the opposite of man's usual state, described by the Stoics as peri mempsimoirias, which Horation scholar Eduard Fraenkel famously translated as man's "permanent dissatisfaction with his own lot and his incorrigible desire to be in somebody else's shoes" (Fraenkel 61).
Deerslayer recognizes the difficulty of maintaining emotional equilibrium. On seeing Hutter's home, he laments, "I invy that man! I know it's wrong, and I strive ag'in the feelin', but I invy that man! Don't think, Hurry, that I'm consarting any plan to put myself in his moccasins, for such a thought does not harbor in my mind, but I can't help a little invy. 'Tis a nat'ral feelin', and the best of us are but nat'ral, a'ter all, and give way to such feelin's, at times" (38).
Nevertheless, the virtue remains central to Cooper as for other early Americans and Horace was, for early American readers, the locus classicus for texts supporting the virtues of mental equilibrium and self-control. Benjamin Franklin, for example, in his third "Busy-Body" essay, printed in The American Weekly Mercury in February 1728 uses the third through sixth lines of Horace's Ode III.3 as an epigraph:
non vultus instantis tyranni
mente quatit solida neque Auster,
dux inquieti turbidus Hadriae,
nec fulminantis magna manus Iovis;
[He] is not shaken from his firmness of mind
by a threatening foreign tyrant's face,
Nor by the South Wind, stormy master of the restless Adriatic,
nor by the mighty hand of thundering Jove.
Franklin develops the epigraph idea to support his theme that the development of virtue is the most important element of education:
[I]t is certainly of more Consequence to a Man that he has learnt to govern his Passions; in spite of Temptation to be just in his Dealings, to be Temperate in his Pleasures, to support himself with Fortitude under his Misfortunes, to behave with Prudence in all Affairs and in every Circumstance of Life; I say, it is of much more real advantage to him to be thus qualified, than to be a Master of all the Arts and Sciences in the World beside.
In spite of the difficulty of attaining it, self-control is clearly Deerslayer's most desired virtue, as he repeatedly makes clear. To give just a few examples:
In Chapter 26, after recklessly killing the eagle, Deerslayer exclaims, "What a thing is power!...and what a thing it is, to have it, and not to know how to use it. It's no wonder…that the great so often fail in their duties, when even the little and the humble find it so hard to do what's right, and not to do what's wrong" (447).
In Chapter 29, while in captivity, Deerslayer maintains "a command of nerve that rendered his whole body as immovable as the tree to which he was bound" (498).
Elsewhere, describing both red men and white men, the virtue is called "self-possession" (107, 118).
Likewise, lack of self-control is condemned. When Hutter and Harry loot the Huron camp, they are propelled "by the basest of all human motives, the thirst of gain" and "could scarce control their feelings" (265).
But what is the source of this virtue? On the one hand, it is identified as a natural human attribute, for the uneducated Hetty is described as having "self command sufficient not to put...in execution" her impulse to cuddle the playful bear cubs (173), and both Hetty and Wah-ta!-Wah "manifes[t]…self-possession" when they first encounter each other in the woods (175). If it is displayed by uneducated females, both red and white, perhaps it is untaught.
Yet, here we become entangled in Cooper's unresolved attitude toward this virtue. Hetty's self-command is natural, even if Wah-ta!-Wah's may have been learned in her Indian village, but for Judith, lack of self-command is natural and self-command must be learned. Judith is "a girl of quick sensibilities, and of impetuous feelings, and, being under few of the restraints that curtail the manifestation of maiden emotions, among those who are educated in the habit of civilized life, she sometimes betrayed the latter with a freedom that was so purely natural" (268). Self-command is also an acquired virtue for Tom. Hetty encounters her captive father, who "expressed neither alarm, nor surprise, at her sudden appearance. In these particulars, he had caught the stoicism of the Indians, well knowing that there was no more certain mode of securing their respect than by imitating their self-command" (185), the "trained self-command" that temporarily fails Chingachgook when he sees the scarlet coat in Tom's trunk (211), and who is "patient looking, but really impatient" (274). Is this "phlegm of manner" (185) innate or learned? And if it is innate, is it innate to all men, or only to red or to white? Or is it innate to the red and learned by the white, which would account for Deerslayer, and, here, for Tom? But if so, then how do we account for Hetty?
A further complication involves the acceptable domains of exercising self-control. In social relations, especially in conflict, self-control is described as dishonest and unfair. Apparently, when it is displayed by a Huron, it is evil, but when displayed by a Delaware, it is virtuous. As Wah-ta!-Wah is summoned to interpret for the Huron council, she "resolved to use every means that offered, and to practice every artifice that an Indian education could supply, to conceal the facts" (189). When is self-command "native refinement" (208) and when is it "clever artifice" (208)? To answer, this question, we must ground it in another frame of reference and turn to motive. Does the self-control result from seeking revenge or from seeking justice?
To explore this complexity, Cooper develops what Leland Person has called Natty's "separate-but-equal notion of racial gifts"5. Native Americans and Caucasians are distinguished by their different desires and the means by which they can fulfill or control these desires. Men and women who are borderers, living in hybrid conditions which are neither nomadic nor urban, may manifest gifts of both races, for better or for worse. Tom Hutter is an unacceptable hybrid of white and red gifts: Rivenoak calls him "The Muskrat," and says he "is neither white, nor red. Neither a beast nor a fish" (295) desiring to scalp but not redeem the scalps either for honor or reward. He is, of course, a foil for the affable Deerslayer, who amalgamates not the worst of each race, but the best. He claims, "I'm white in blood, heart, natur' and gifts, though a little red skin in feelin's and habits" (295-296). Much earlier in the novel, when Deerslayer attempts to explain natural law to Harry, Harry responds that Natty is following customs of urban white men: "Damme, Deerslayer, if I do not believe you are, at heart, a Moravian, and no fair-minded, plain-dealing hunter, as you've pretended to be!" (29). Natty responds that it is Harry who is inappropriately white: "this giving way to sudden anger is foolish, and proves how little you have sojourned with the red man" (29-30).
Nevertheless, we cannot pursue this alignment between the use and misuse of racial gifts as sources of virtue too far without encountering Natty's and Cooper's ambivalence over the hybridization of racial gifts by frontiersmen. Deerslayer tells Hutter, "My gifts are not scalper's gifts, but such as belong to my religion and colour. I'll stand by you, old man, in the Ark, or in the castle, the canoe, or the woods, but I'll not unhumanize my natur' by falling into ways that God intended for another race" (85-86) and later, "I'm ready to enlist in any interprise that's not ag'in a white man's lawful gifts" (101).
Since this concept of racial gifts has been thoroughly explored, by Person and other scholars, we need not linger on it. Similarly, I refer you to the prior work of other scholars concerning the relationship between individual virtue and social relations.6 Instead, I can close by exploring the way in which Cooper's use of it as an attempt to resolve his ambivalences over the source of personal and social virtue is thoroughly Horatian.
Even though early American translators and imitators of Horace, for the most part, treat the Horatian self-control and contentment themes as desirable and attainable, Horace, on the other hand, often treats them ironically. Horace's poems are complexly structured and display ironic attitudes about his topics. For example, many translators and imitators, and even texts of Horace's Epode 2 include only its first 66 lines, the praise of rural self-sufficiency, and don't include the satiric last four lines:
Haec ubi locutus faenorator Alfius
iam iam futurus rusticus
omnem redegit Idibus pecuniam
quaerit Kalendis ponere.
When the usurer Alfius had spoken this,
almost taking up the farming life,
he called in all his funds in the middle of the month,
and on the first day of the next, seeks to lend them out again.
Of course, the satiric ending calls into question the entire project of rural self-sufficiency and the ruralness of the poet who knows the urban commercial mindset this well. Far from being a model of georgic virtue, Horace is most urbane.
Similarly, Horace satirizes the concept of personal self-governance. He presents it, in Sermo 2.7, not in his own voice, but as the contribution of his slave Davus to a conversation on Epicurean philosophy. The poem, when taken as a whole, and not in pieces, as early American translators and imitators did, seems, as David Hopkins writes, implicitly and explicitly "as concerned to reveal the potential difficulties and absurdities involved in embracing a philosophy of serene Epicurean contentment in the country as it is to celebrate its attainment" (114). After teasing his master, Horace, that he is as subject to his passions for wine, women, and song as the slave, Davus, is to his master, Davus presents the Stoic philosophy of self-control. Nevertheless, Davus admits to being enslaved to his own love of food and the harlot he visits. Furthermore, the philosophy is not presented as derived from Nature or experience. Davus says he learned it from the slave who is doorman for a teacher! Thus Sermo II.7 itself subverts the sibi imperiosus theme. Perhaps we are not far from the tone of some of the criticism Cooper endured when defending his property rights or on his return from Europe in this chiding by Horace's Davus:
fortunam et mores antiquas plebis, et idem,
si quis ad illa deus subito te agat, usque recuses,
aut quia non sentis quod clamas rectius esse,
aut quia non firmus rectum defendis, et haeres
nequiquam caeno cupiens evellere plantam.
Romae rus optas; absentem rusticus urbem
[You praise the good luck and lifestyle of peasants of long ago, and yet, if any god would suddenly take you there, you would refuse, either because you don't think that what you are claiming is true, or because you are not firm in defending the truth, and you stay stuck even though you want to pull your foot from the muck. In Rome, you wish for the country; in the country, you praise the distant city to the stars.]
In spite of the political necessity of Cooper's advancing a "meritocracy of character," as Leland Person has observed, dependent on the "democratic possibility of goodness and right behavior originating more immediately from nature," both the sources of these virtues and the possibility of their attainment remain problematic throughout Cooper's novels. If Cooper could not untangle the paradoxical web of relationships entailing desire and contentment, European American and Native American, nature and nurture, artificial civilized living and natural wilderness living, perhaps it is consolation that paradoxes often come closest to truth. I hope this preliminary investigation of the parallels between Cooper's thought and Horace's has offered to you that other Horatian virtue, being dulce et utile: as Deerslayer projects that learning to read will be:
"after it's peace," he says, "...then I'll give myself up to it, as if 'twas pleasure and profit, in a single business" (249).
1. Letter to Benjamin Silliman, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, James Franklin Beard, ed. (Harvard University Press, 1960-68), Vol. II, p. 99.
2. Quotations from Horace are from the Loeb editions. Translations are my own. Quotations from Cooper's The Deerslayer are from the Cooper Edition text, as reprinted in both the Penguin Classics and Oxford World's Classics editions.
3. This ratio is derived and explained in my dissertation, q.v. The influence of Horace on eighteenth-century British writers is thoroughly described in a two-volume study by Caroline Goad.
4. Horace's life is described in detail in a number of studies, but most readably in Peter Levi's recent Horace: A Life. (Routledge, 1997)
5. Leland S. Person, "The Historical Paradoxes of Manhood in Cooper's The Deerslayer," Novel v. 32, no. 1, Fall 1998 pp. 76-98.
6. See Lance Schachterle's essay on personal freedom and the social contract in The Prairie for the 2001 seminar, William Owen's essay on Cooper's use of the Scottish Common Sense philosophy's concept that innate moral sense governs social relations for the 1997 seminar, as well as book length studies by Terence Martin and Donald Ringe.
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