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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2009 Cooper Seminar (No. 17), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 65-68)
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On June 2, 1826, a little more than a month before the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, James Fenimore Cooper and his family sailed on the Hudson bound for Cowes on the Isle of Wight. From the Isle of Wight they would travel on to London, and then on to France and the continent. Unlike today’s mini-vacations—touted in the Sunday “Travel” section of The New York Times under the banner of “36 Hours” (fill in almost any destination)—this trip was planned as a five-year sojourn (the ocean crossing alone would take 31 days). As the Hudson was getting under way, another ship tacked close to its stern and a man on board called out to Cooper asking “How long do you mean to be absent?” When Cooper replied “five years,” the man shouted out “You will never come back” (Gleanings in Europe; France, 5). In his note on this encounter, Robert E. Spiller observes that “in Switzerland, Part II, Cooper quotes Jefferson as saying that no American should be more than five years out of his country lest he get behind it” (5).
This vignette and Spiller’s note regarding it set up part of the question that I want to explore in this paper: How does an American who stays away from his/her native land for an extended period of time retain his/her American identity? In many ways, Cooper’s account of his family’s travels through Europe is a lengthy response to the question that Crévecoeur posed in Letter III in Letters from an American Farmer: “What is an American?” In all travel—some would argue in all meaningful travel—especially for an extended period of time and at considerable distance from one’s starting point, one can experience a loss of self. In fact, until rather recently in our history, an American could experience a loss of self by moving within the United States to another region of the country away from the geographical, social, and psychological landscape by which she or he had formerly defined that sense of self.
As Carson McCuller once remarked in reference to Thomas Wolfe’s work, “Our literature is stamped with a quality of longing and unrest” (cited in Kehl, 309). In “Writing the Long Desire,” Daniel Kehl defines this American form of nostalgia for a real or imagined lost home by employing the German term “Sehnsucht ( a compound of the verb sehen, ‘to long for,’ and the noun sucht, ‘addiction’), an intense addiction of and to longing” (309). I would modify Kehl’s etymology slightly by linking sehen to a verb that refers to the act of seeing, beholding, or perceiving. Understood in this framework, sehnsucht becomes a useful way of understanding the touristic gaze: i.e. a passion for seeing or perceiving. And it is Cooper as a tourist, as a gazer, that forms the second part of my question: What does Cooper choose to look at and how does he recall it when he writes about it?
Cooper’s use of recollection is a rather more complex process than the admittedly difficult task of using scanty journal entries as spurs to jog his memory. Writing long after he first observes a scene or event, he often brings in his recollection of an even earlier encounter. In such passages we can detect the nostalgia to which I refer. In recalling what he saw when and his family arrived in England, Cooper pauses to recollect his first voyage to England some twenty years earlier. He recalls how it was easier at that time to distinguish the inhabitants by class and station according to their dress. Cooper remarks on how things have changed but not without admitting that he himself has changed.
There had certainly been so many important changes in myself, during the same time period, that it becomes me to speak with hesitation on this point; but even the common class seemed less peculiar, less English, less provincial,...in short, much like the rest of the world than formerly.... In 1806, I had seen all the lower classes of the English, clad in something like costumes. The Channel waterman wore the short dowlas petticoat; the Thames waterman, a jacket and breeches of velveteen, and a badge; the gentleman and gentlewoman, attire such as was certainly to be seen in no other part of the Christian world, the English colonies excepted. Something of this still remained, but it existed rather as the exception, than as the rule. I then felt, at every turn, that I was in a foreign country; whereas, now, the idea did not obtrude itself, unless I was brought into immediate contact with the people. (21-22)
The preceding passage captures a feeling that most of us have had if we travel back to a place that we had visited when we were younger, and more “romantic” about ourselves and the world, and our place in it. His remarks that he now (some twenty years later) no longer felt that he was in a foreign country when in England “unless [he] was brought into immediate contact with the people” speaks to the limits of observation that is not coupled with communication. These remarks reflect Cooper’s nostalgic desire for that other and, for him, more youthful, time when people could be identified from a distance by their dress that signified their rank and station. Often in recounting his travels, Cooper’s gaze is looking backward.
As Jared Gardner remarks in his observations on Cooper’s Recollections of Europe (1837), “For all of its play at immediacy through the use of the epistolary structure the book has a retrospective feel” (DLB 183: 59-60). In this work, whose American title was Gleanings in Europe, Cooper reflects on France as he and his family encountered that country in the mid 1820s. Well aware of the work’s retrospective tone, Cooper admits in the book’s preface that many of the episodes he describes represent “the gleanings of a harvest already gathered.”
Recollection of past events, either in Europe or in America, colors the lens through which Cooper views landscapes or people that he may be encountering for the first time. That Cooper wrote about his European travels after he had returned to America in 1833, culling images from his journals and notes, accounts in part for the retrospective tone and imagery in these works. However, like many travel writers before and since, Cooper sees and interprets what lies before him in terms of what lies behind him. What I think is at work in Cooper’s travel writing is a process that contemporary research on travel literature has identified as nostalgic desire. In analyzing Cooper’s travel writing (for reasons of brevity, I confine most of my analysis to his writing about Switzerland) as an expression of nostalgic desire, I hope to reclaim Cooper’s Gleanings from the margins of picturesque discourse and restore them to the genre of travel writing.
There have been a number of studies of Cooper’s writings about his European travels as examples of his response to those powerful code words: the picturesque, the sublime, the natural, the natural sublime, the romantic sublime.1 However, despite the fact that these works had their origin in Cooper’s and his family’s travels to and through England, France, Italy, Switzerland, there has been comparatively little written about them as travel narratives, especially from the perspective of recent work in the field of travel writing and the theorizing of that genre.
What I refer to as Cooper’s process of recollection and response (it bears some resemblance to Wordsworth’s formulation of an overflow of powerful emotions reflected in tranquility) is present as early as the first of Cooper’s five travel books, Sketches of Switzerland (1836). In a nostalgic tone worthy of Washington Irving, Cooper describes a tavern in Switzerland by comparing it to “the old fashioned, quiet Dutch inns that once existed on the Mohawk; and which were as much superior to their noisy, tobacco-chewing, whisky-drinking, dirty Yankee successors, as cleanliness, stability and sour-crout can be superior to the system in which a day may commence with a settlement, and end with a removal” (Gleanings: Switzerland, 88). Here and elsewhere in this work, Cooper employs a double comparison. The first part of the comparison literally equates a Swiss tavern with a snug Dutch inn once found in the Mohawk valley. The second, more figurative element in the comparative analogy is to compare the stability represented by stereotypical Swiss cleanliness and the remembered qualities of Dutch New York with the instability of a society that values pulling up stakes more than putting down roots.
At other points in this same narrative, Cooper is determined to render the scene he describes in copious, sometimes tediously picturesque detail. Writing some seven years after he has completed his travels and recalling a scene from often the scantiest of notes, he reproduces it with full emphasis upon its effect upon the emotions. Here for example, is an excerpt from his description of the landscape near Lake Lucerne:
For myself, I can fairly say, that, with the occasion of a total eclipse of the sun excepted, I never felt so deep a sentiment of admiration and awe, as at that exquisite moment. So greatly did reality exceed the picture we had formed, that the surprise was as complete as if nothing had been expected. The first effect was really bewildering (emphasis mine), leaving behind it a vague sensation, that the eye had strangely reassembled the rarest elements of scenery, which were floating before it, without order, in pure wantonness. To this feeling the indefinite form of the lake of Lucerne greatly contributed, for it stretches out its numerous arms in so many different directions, as, at first, to appear like water in the unreal forms of the fancy. (Switzerland, 112).
This passage illustrates how Cooper uses expectation (“the picture we had formed”) with confrontation (“the first effect was really bewildering”) to recreate in this recollection “the surprise” he had experienced. This passage is also a fair representation of the process of encountering the romantic sublime. Because Cooper’s so liberally seasons his account of his travels in Switzerland with code words and phrases (admiration, awe, wonder, surprise, fancy) we associate with theories of the picturesque and the sublime, his descriptions of alpine landscapes have been well analyzed for their links to these aesthetic theories.[1
However, not all of the scenes that Cooper reproduces are stereotypical renderings of the sublime or the picturesque. If Switzerland’s mountainous topography gifts it with natural grandeur, there is a price to be paid for this isolated beauty. As we now know, many of the people in the more isolated cantons were afflicted with goiters due to the absence of iodine in their diets. Observing that deformity can become conformity, Cooper recounts an incident that was supposed to have occurred in the canton of Valais, “the very focus of goîtreism” (67). In this story, a stranger enters a church during a service and the locals all stare at him. “[T]he pastor after a sharp reproach for their want of civilization, reminded them that it was not the fault of the poor man, ‘if he had no goiter!’” (67).
However, when Cooper and his party actually travel into Valais, the jocularity disappears. As if it were the setting for a fairy tale, the entrance to the canton is through a narrow passage carved by the Rhone between two mountains. After passing through two gates that, when closed, put the canton “literally under lock and key,” the party pauses for breakfast. After their obligatory café au lait, Cooper and his wife take a stroll to stretch their legs. As Cooper comments, their short walk takes them to a disturbing scene.
Had we known the hideous objects that were about to behold, the walk, most probably, would have been postponed. The Valais has long had a painful notoriety for a race of miserable objects called Crétins, beings possessing the most disgusting likeness to our species, of which they are physical abortions, but deprived in a great degree of reason. St. Maurice is the portion of the canton most afflicted with this calamity. As we picked our way through the filth of the street, (everything like Swiss neatness being wanting here,) we saw perhaps twenty of these objects basking in the sun, with goggling, unmeaning eyes, livid, slavering lips, hideous goîtres, and every other sign of physical and mental imbecility. It was like running a gauntlet of disgusts; and glad enough we were to issue from such a scene of human misery, into the beauty of the open fields. (Switzerland, 270).
Since Cooper was writing about his travels in Switzerland (mid July to mid October 1828) some seven to eight years after he first viewed the scenes he was recording, he could have chosen to overlook or not mention those scenes or events that he had found unsettling. But he does not, so why does he give us this much detail? As do travelers today, when they encounter images of poverty and/or deformity, Cooper seems both repelled and fascinated by his encounter with the cretins. The cretins with their “goggling, unmeaning eyes,” are seemingly unable to return the touristic gaze that Cooper can neither avert nor avoid recalling.
Another explanation for Cooper’s inclusion of this scene is that these deformities among the sublimities of nature provide not only sharp contrast to the natural setting but also introduce those elements that deconstruct the sublime scenes that Cooper has so consciously recreated. In mentioning the filthy streets, Cooper denies his readers the expected trope of Swiss neatness. In his speculations on the causes for cretinism, Cooper recalls that “the affliction has been attributed to the adjoining marshes; and it is said that by sending the mothers into the mountains before the births, and by keeping the children there for the first years of their lives, the evil is gradually disappearing” (270). Although Cooper suspects that something else is the cause of the malady, as “other countries are marshy” he can only conclude that the cretins are proof that “reason and a certain precise physical formation, at least, are not inseparable” (271).
Then, in a stunning rhetorical shift, Cooper converts the scene from a contemplation of physical and mental deformity to a declamation of political and social malformation. Seemingly averting the painful recollection of his encounter with the cretins, Cooper cites Jean Picot, who wrote that the Valaisians “loin de desirer d’attirer l’attention du monde, sont jaloux de leur obscurité, de leur ignorance et de leur pauvreté même, qu’ils croyent nécessaire à leur bonheur” [lack the desire to attract the world’s attention; they are jealous of their obscurity, their ignorance, and likewise their poverty, which they believe essential to their success (translation mine) 271]. Cooper uses the isolation of the Valaisians and their ignorance of the world outside and of their pride in their own impoverished state as a platform for a comment on American materialism and cupidity.
It might not be amiss to affect an infusion of American blood into them, which, I think, would thoroughly eradicate the latter singularity. Poor wretches! They have not yet learned to term a lust for money a virtue; the desire to live in a better house than their fellows, ambition; overreaching a neighbor, genius; and the restlessness of covetous desires, energy! (270).
The geographical isolation and close familial connections that we and perhaps even some people in Cooper’s time would see as a link to the mental and physical deformities that he describes have also protected the residents of the canton from diseases that afflict the American body politic.
As some American authors before him and many after him had done and would do, Cooper went abroad to see and experience Europe but that journey was also a reflective and retrospective experience. As Blake Nevius remarks at the end of his monograph on Cooper’s debt to the conventions of viewing and apprehending artistic and natural landscapes, those conventions “though controversial and somewhat anachronistic, enabled him to preserve in unforgettable lineaments the image of our lost wilderness and, as some would have it, our lost youth” (111). Returning to an America with which he had conducted something of a running feud and recounting his European travels, especially those in Switzerland, Cooper expresses a nostalgic desire for an earlier, simpler America. The comedian Lenny Bruce once said that satire is tragedy plus time. Applying Bruce’s formula to nostalgia, we could come up with the following: nostalgia is the product of distance (spatial, historical and psychological) plus time. Unlike contemporary travel writers who often focus more on themselves than they do on the people or places they encounter, Cooper is more national and less personal in his perspective. Focusing on the degree to which others remind him of his countrymen and their failings and foibles, he expands the scope of Crévecoeur’s inquiry: the question is not what is an American but what is America?
1. Blake Nevius, H. Daniel Peck, and Donald Ringe, among others, have studied Cooper’s debt to the prevailing theories of the sublime and the picturesque. Only Nevius devotes much attention to Cooper’s travel writing. Perhaps because his focus is nineteenth-century American “literature,” Ringe does not bring Cooper’s travel works into his discussion of Cooper and the picturesque, although he does mention Cooper’s essay “American and European Scenery Compared” found in The Home Book of the Picturesque: or, American Scenery, Art, and Literature. Peck similarly focuses on Cooper’s fiction.
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