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James Fenimore Cooper and the Establishment of the American Local Event

Michael J. Pikus, Ph.D.
(Niagara County Community College)

Placed on line August 2009

Presented at the 16th Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2007

©2009, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta
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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2007 Cooper Seminar (No. 16), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 74-79)

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Richard Slotkin asserts that when Europeans “discovered” the New World, a new world was both actually and mythologically established (Regeneration 16). Among the many aspects of this hemisphere that fascinated explorers and colonists alike was the vastness of the land and the space it afforded. It seemed to these discoverers that North and South America went on forever. The land and the potential it held for wealth and prosperity similarly appeared infinite. And this held true for the cultural potential of the New World as well. But with this potential came complexity, a complexity derived from a search for identity. As the New World began to shape and form within the context of world culture with the establishment of the United States, the new nation sought its own identity, its own cultural foundation. And it is within this very complex of national identity and national aspirations that James Fenimore Cooper emerges as the writer who is able to establish American literature through his use of the local event where he mixes setting, character, and theme into an American literary gumbo that draws from European traditions yet realizes the uniqueness of the New World experience by focusing on possession and ownership in a particular manner. This same sense of America’s unique settings and its proprietary nature is later used by William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Cormac McCarthy, among others, and is now very much a part of the American literary experience.

Slotkin and Doris Sommer both contend that as an alternative to Europe and the Old World, the New represented almost contradictory potentials (Regeneration 3-5; Sommer 142). One vision of some Europeans associated the Western hemisphere with death, dreams, and cryptic illusion, what Slotkin calls a “dark, hidden realm” where “abide the forces that silently and inscrutably shape the destiny of men, nations, and the physical universe” (Regeneration 28). Many more viewed the New World, however, as the locus of humanity’s unencumbered renewal. They developed an image of the Americas removed from Old World myths and literature (More’s Utopia and Bacon’s New Atlantis) that idealize a world untouched and unhindered by European corruption (29-31).

This sense of romance and renewal followed the settlers and inspired the revolutionaries. John Winthrop suggests this prospect for regeneration in his “A Modell of Christian Charity” (Miller and Johnson, eds., 195-199; Milder 416). But the ideals supposed in his ideas and those of others faded quickly as the reality of the European struggle for world domination and the selfish policies of religious and political movements became apparent. But the belief in regeneration of civilization predicated upon the opportunities the vastness of the New World offered did not fade in the world of ideas and influenced literature, philosophy, and history well into the nineteenth century. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s remarks indicate just this continuing intellectual and emotional attachment to the Old World, for he identifies and summarizes the historical dynamics of the Old World-New World relationship. In The Philosophy of History (1830-1831), surveying the importance of geography to history, Hegel stresses that “[t]he world is divided into Old and New (Hegel’s italics)...,” but that the New World is ultimately merely a geographic and cultural extension of Europe:

America has always shown itself physically and psychically powerless, and still shows itself so. For the aborigines, after the landing of the Europeans in America, gradually vanished at the breadth of European activity. In the United States of North America all the citizens are of European descent, with whom the old inhabitants could not amalgamate, but were driven back. (80-81)

and:

The original nation having vanished or nearly so, the effective population comes for the most part from Europe: and what takes place in North America, is but an emanation from Europe. (82)

And Hegel’s assertions about the superiority of European civilization and European man were commonly accepted during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Origin fashions destiny for Hegel and he evaluates the historical and cultural predicament of the New World on just this premise. Chief among his criticisms is that the United States lacks a “fixed and determined” political system, and thus its lack of established distinctions among social classes. For, to Hegel, “a real State and a real Government” (Old World) can only arise once a social class system stabilizes (85). But this shortcoming serves as a strength as well, as Hegel attributes the lack of a social system—and thus perceived social conflict—in the United States to the vast expanse of the western lands for a growing population (85-86).1 Hegel predicts, however, that the West can function in this capacity for only a limited time. Eventually, once the population no longer “presses outwards,” America will enter the realm of the civilized Old World: “North America will be comparable with Europe only after the immeasurable space which that country presents to its inhabitants shall have been occupied” (86). Once the New World becomes like the Old, Hegel argues that the future of the world, “the burden of World’s history,” will occur in the North American and South American continents (86). Hegel concludes his examination of the New World with the following observation: “It is for America to abandon the ground on which hitherto the History of the World has developed itself. What has taken place is the New World up to the present time is only an echo of the Old World—the expression of a foreign Life...” (87). Here Hegel calls for a unique New World to exist beyond the parameters of Old World history and culture after emphasizing earlier America’s need to conform to European standards. This analysis reflects the dilemma of the New World and of its cultural identity.

Political independence failed to achieve absolute autonomy for the former British colonies as the new nation’s identity, as theorized by Hegel, relied primarily on the European cultural origins of its inhabitants. David Simpson contends that the “Revolution” demanded a total disengagement from Old World traditions in order to be called successful (24). Slotkin asserts that the early colonists of the New World transferred the cultural history of their native lands to their new home and thus maintained Old World elements that were “responsive to the psychological and social needs of their old culture.”2 He argues further that the need for Old World cultural ties sustained the early colonists and settlers and provided cultural security for those who followed. Thus, European tradition informed and dominated New World identity. To Slotkin colonial literature tends to be highly self-conscious, tending toward “polemic and apology” where the colonist simultaneously argued the importance and constancy of European tradition and the superiority of the New World’s opportunities, land, and lifestyle (Regeneration 15).

Although the United States proclaimed and asserted its political autonomy, to Simpson a complete revolution never occurred, for the culture and internal social organization remained largely Old World and primarily British (43). Retrospectively, the process of total disengagement was more evolutionary than revolutionary, for cultural unity required nurturing. Thus, early American writers were unofficially conferred the task of developing a literature that reflects within a cultural context that which had not yet been fully defined. They could not draw from a domestic mythology or a unique tradition. Because America was such a “new world,” these writers had to emphasize the people’s unprecedented experience while mirroring their complex heritage. Moreover, the constant transformations that characterized early American life forced writers to focus on regional and social concerns rather than on national interests. Harry B. Henderson and Renata R. Mautner Wasserman, among many others, argue that ultimately the early American author had to identify the historical, cultural, and psychological requirements of a diverse nation (Henderson 9; Wasserman, “Reinventing the New World” 139).

To writers of the early American period, this vastness posed problems. How were they to simmer this undefined vastness into a usable and properly reflective literature? How could they portray this vastness within that literature so that the land did not dominate ideas? And how could literary characters find their identity in such a manner that they could accurately portray New World culture without losing the human element that inhabited the land? James Fenimore Cooper probably did not expect to answer these questions when he sat down to write his first novel, Precaution, but that is at least when he began to inadvertently address these issues American.

With Cooper, American literature became both imitative as well as original, and his initial foray into writing was largely a response to a dare from his wife, who had tired of James’s condemnation of British writers of the period. In fact, what set the writing career of Cooper into motion were his frustrations while reading an English novel of the period, which he condemned as unreadable for any self-respecting American, for it had little relevance to New World culture and experiences, an incident that Wayne Franklin recounts in James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years as a mixture of both fact and anecdote (248). Although Cooper’s first attempts at writing, a short moral piece (untitled and unpublished) and Precaution, were “naïve and sympathetic,” they sustained Cooper’s interest and he proceeded to write his first successful novel, The Spy (Beard, ed., L&J, I: 24). The Spy is an historical romance, and it establishes the structure and pattern Cooper was to rely upon through the remainder of his career. This pattern of historical fiction was relatively imitative in itself, for Sir Walter Scott popularized this genre in both England and America.3 Although Cooper conforms to Scott’s model, James D. Wallace asserts that his intent was purely American, for he strove to not only create a piece of American literature, but to establish a direction for American literature (39-40). To do so, Cooper felt that he had to overcome two obstacles: lack of sufficient profit for American writers and the seeming dearth of American characters, themes, and settings (40). With The Spy Cooper overcame both challenges, for this tale was immensely popular, thus profitable, and distinctly American (40).

Cooper succeeded with The Spy by utilizing effectively Scott’s concept of what Georg Lukacs identifies as the “authenticity of local colour” or the local event to establish American themes and characters (43, 64; Fisher 14-21). In this technique, as applied by Cooper, local settings and events serve as a microcosm of larger, more remote occurrences. Thus, in The Spy, a small valley in Westchester County, New York, portrays the complexities of American life during the later years of the War of Independence. In the same manner, the variety of Natty Bumppo’s “local” experiences throughout the Leather-Stocking Tales represent the evolution of the American experience from the early French and Indian Wars to the early nineteenth century.

The local event technique stresses setting over character, with individuals serving largely as external participants in unfolding historical events. Usually these characters have little or no control over history because of the magnitude and importance of the specific historical event in which the novel is set. Furthermore, according to Lukacs, these participants are just as often victims as they are heroes (34-37). Lukacs praises the historical novel and the use of the local event because through both the actual conditions of individuals are depicted most accurately (38). To Lukacs the most significant representations in the historical novel are those that reflect the crises of those individuals as part of the interactions among classes and the great transformation of popular life because of historical events (38, 48). Hegel’s philosophy of history informs this aspect of Lukacs’s discussion, for to Hegel society is dynamic and thus part of history. Certain individuals become drawn into the impulses of history and become World-Historical Individuals (Hegel’s italics), those who seize historical moments and make history (Hegel 29). Lukacs asserts that the dynamics of which Hegel writes force collisions within society, such as the conflict between the Old and New Worlds (39). To Lukacs, Cooper’s work is effective and important because it portrays the downfall of an isolated, pagan society (Native Americans) as the Old World transformed the New (64-65).

By piecing together the quilt of local events that Cooper fashions in his works, the transformation of the New World by the Old becomes literary and historical. In his novels Cooper not only advocates a literature that provides Americans a cultural identity but also portrays his own historical understanding of American history; but through this personal theory or perception, Cooper establishes a paradox.

The consistent element that binds the local event to Cooper’s historical and literary vision, and thus his paradox, is the idea of possession. Ownership, dominion, authority, power, claim, asset, or any other conceptual and actual variant of the term possession stirs Cooper’s imagination and his perspective.4 His perception of the New World differs little from the idealized vision of the first explorers and settlers, for to Cooper, Robert Milder argues, America is as much both a literary and cultural blank slate as it was to the Puritans who settled New England (417). Cooper’s desire, however, did not feature the emergence of a new theocracy, but rather promoted the establishment of a new cultural state through literature, a literature that the new nation and the New World could claim unencumbered.

Although it addresses the idea of individual ownership, Cooper’s commentary on property in The American Democrat illuminates the larger meaning of possession and Americanizes the local event. Cooper exalts individual possession of land as the foundation of all civilization. With possession of property the individual commits himself to self-fulfillment and reliance; unselfish landholding allows a person to experience both toil and the fruits of that labor and benefit his countrymen (The American Democrat 186-187). Cooper believed in the possession of property as the foundation “of moral independence, as a means of improving the facilities, and of doing good to others, as the agent in all that distinguishes the civilized man from the savage” (191). If possession of property serves to elevate and identify the individual, would not the independence of a people, inhabitants of a nation in control of their own land and destiny, have a similar effect?

Although a bit of a conceptual leap, when applied to Cooper’s larger concern with national cultural independence and identity, his assertion about property realizes greater meaning. The disassociation of the New World from the Old World thus transfers property from the control of one “owner,” an illegal usurper of sorts as Cooper identifies the European monarchs in — (11), to the proper “owner.” It is the possession of this New World by its inhabitants that justifies more than just political sovereignty, for once the “land” becomes part of a political entity and subject to a new ideology, the people too must undergo an evolution. For Cooper cultural independence and national identity are the “fruits” of national ownership; but possession brings paradox. This position complicates Cooper’s work, for as a proponent of cultural independence from the Old World, he hails the expulsion of the false colonial landowners who came to dominate most aspects of New World civilization. He cites these possessors’ lack of natural links to the soil and economic and political desires to defend his assertions. Through a selective use of similar reasoning, however, Cooper condemns those who seek to interfere with or limit landholding among an American gentry class, arguing that since the gentry have the means to establish themselves on the land their rights could not be challenged or denied. To Cooper, the gentry’s link to both the soil and to American civilization were the means of elevating the entire national character (The American Democrat 186-192). According to both Douglas T. Miller and John P. McWilliams, Jr., those who sought to limit the gentry’s holdings, such as the Anti-Rent strikers of 1840s New York, severely countered Cooper’s perception, arguing the gentry had merely reestablished the Old World landholding system in the New World (D. T. Miller, ch. 3; McWilliams 406). Thus drawn between his national interests and his personal preferences, Cooper’s “knottiness” becomes an issue itself.

Marius Bewley identifies Cooper as the representative of America’s search for characteristic problems that bind a culture (17). Cooper’s work, using the local event and the power of possession, gives the nation its sense of unity, history, tension, struggle, and national self. Bewley focuses on tension in this process, for “tension was the result of a struggle to close the split in American experience, to discover a unity that, for the artist especially, almost sensibly was not there” (Bewley’s italics) (18). These tensions existed between the divisions that defined the nation and maintained the paradox of the New World experience: tradition and progress, democratic faith and disillusionment, Europe and America, liberalism and conservatism, acquisitive economics and benevolent wealth (Bewley 18). Cooper’s apprehension of possession originates in the pathways of these tensions that serve to define the new as well as the old. Cooper navigates this trail through the density of oppositions that characterize early America in the literal and figurative forests and communities, that is the localities that dominate his literature through his Americanization of the local event. The forests that surround Glimmerglass, the Horican, or Templeton are real and become part of the struggle for possession between Old World and New World powers, but the chaos of Jacksonian America about which he also writes presents an abstract forest of values and lifestyles that challenges identity once the issue of political possession and power has been decided.

In the figurative space and geographic spaces where Cooper addresses the tensions that govern the identity of the nation, the paradox of his literature and history germinate. Cooper’s notion of possession depicts the challenging national character from the colonial era through the antebellum period. Cooper doesn’t acknowledge, however, this democratically realized evolution and the inevitable mutability of the nation’s culture, society, economics, and politics. Rather he yearns for a return to the society of the early republic, an era he never experiences fully as an adult. The outstanding feature of Cooper’s idealized America is its reliance on agrarian economy and the political, cultural, and social stability nurtured through that lifestyle as realized in Templeton, the Cooperstown of his fiction. His insistent assertion of an already past moment in national history, Henderson asserts, reflects Cooper’s conservatively tempered optimism despite the inevitability of the historical progress about which he writes; he stoically attempts to avert historical chaos and yet, at the same time, acknowledge the fate of his ideology (68). Thus his allegiance to historical moment and space becomes both his philosophical identification and the point of national identity. McWilliams argues that Cooper’s idealization of America’s early republican years is an investment in the American dream. The faith Cooper has in the nation relies on what McWilliams calls “a few treasured concepts” (131). These ideals include confidence in a maximum of individual liberty, minimal governmental interference, the security of checks and balances as outlined in the Constitution, universal suffrage for white men, the influence of public opinion, and the reasonableness of the common man (McWilliams 131). Similarly reflecting his literary career, Cooper often contradicts these very beliefs, developing his historical vision through personal experience, informing his novels via a constantly evolving ideology.

Cooper’s vision accepted as historical theory reviews the nation’s condition from the late colonial period until his death. Consistent with Lukacs’ analysis of the historical novel, Cooper’s work is fraught with the tension generated by the people and the ideology of an evolving civilization. And Bewley adds that Cooper understood the ambiguities of American society and culture as no other from the period (17, 45). According to Slotkin, Cooper perceived the continuation of Old World influence as the origin of these oppositions and tensions (Fatal Environment 88). And it is within the confines of the various settings, the locales, and the events that make up Cooper’s vision of America, that American culture and literature comes to possess its fundamental identity.

Endnotes

1. By the end of the nineteenth century, Frederick Jackson Turner raises a similar point in The Significance of the Frontier in American History when he suggests that the American West served as an outlet for the nation’s diverse population.

2. See Slotkin’s explanation of the Moira and Themis elements in European and American mythology for a more particular analysis of the transference of culture from the Old World to the New (Regeneration Through Violence 6-15).

3. Although Georg Lukacs and many others have compared Cooper to Scott, George Dekker’s James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott is the most comprehensive study of this subject. Dekker also addresses this literary connection in The American Historical Novel. See also Renata R. Mautner Wasserman, “The Perception of Cooper’s Work and the Image of America” (185).

4. Wayne Franklin, in The New World of James Fenimore Cooper, attributes Cooper’s preoccupation with possession to his personal economic struggle. Although Judge William Cooper left his family more than enough means to survive upon his death in 1809 ($50,000 cash, 23 farms, and other shares of holdings per offspring), by 1820 James Fenimore Cooper faced dire financial circumstances because of his brothers’ deaths, poor investing, extravagant spending, and his father’s complicated affairs. The financial insecurity lingered with Cooper throughout his career, and Franklin claims it influenced the author’s preoccupation with possession (1-5).

Works Cited