James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
Placed on line June 2016
©2016, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]
Return to SUNY Seminars Articles & Papers
When he rose and turned to her
she thought that he had at once become an old man.
Anthony Trollope, The Duke's Children
For a young man, Cornelius Littlepage is remarkably diachronic. Though keenly aware of the present moment, he imagines and narrates it in the context of both past and future, and he can see the differences as well as the connections. In this regard, he is quite unlike those episodic Americans whose (what we would now call) presentism Cooper had lamented in Home as Found (1838): for them "'always' means eighteen months, and . . . 'time immemorial' is only since the last general crisis in the money market" (212).
By contrast, young Corny argues, in a nice allusion to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), "something surely is worthy to be saved from the wreck of the past" (436). He introduces himself by describing the need for his narrative, since, without something like it, "there is little hope that any traces of American society, in its more familiar aspects, will be preserved among us," and "I see scarcely a mode by which the next generation can preserve any memorials of the distinctive usages and thoughts of this" (7). He will attempt such a memorial, but it will not be either just history or fiction: "I shall not attempt the historical mood at all" or "a silly attempt to write a more silly fiction" (8). He is less specific about what it is, but one clue is given by the epigraph for the first chapter. "—Look you who comes here; / a young man, and an old, in solemn talk. As You Like It, II. Iv. 19-21" (7). A more complete answer to that question will, however, depend upon a little context.
Satanstoe has been read, and read well, in the context of the "anti-rentism" that followed the death of Stephen Van Rensselaer in 1839. Though I have no desire to diminish the importance of that reading, I wish to investigate here another aspect of the book. Several early estimates of Satanstoe remark on its author's age. An anonymous critic writing in a journal called The Critic for 28 June 1845, complains that Cooper's "prosiness grows with age" (xxxii). Young Charles A. Dana, writing in The Harbinger for 2 August 1845, asserts that the "later productions of our 'American Walter Scott,' are so unspeakably dull, that only the most omnivorous and senseless appetite can succeed with them." He urges Cooper "to invent something new," as he and his contemporaries at Brook Farm are doing, since the "truth is, that land should be held not by individuals but by communities, in joint stock proprietorship [italics in original]. By this means, and by this only, the rights of individuals can be secured and the old conflict between the wealthy and those who are not entirely done away" (xxxi), another problem solved. At 25 Dana was the harbinger of the new dispensation and poor old Cooper was, at 55, both an antiquarian and an antiquity. To be sure, Cooper did not last long after this, only six more years, dying on 14 September 1851, the day before what would have been his 62nd birthday. But in that time, he managed seven or eight more books ("The Towns of Manhattan" burned at the printers, so I think it should count, though it is sometimes not counted). And of course he outlived Brook Farm, which collapsed in 1846. Still, Francis Parkman, looking back on "The Works of James Fenimore Cooper" in the North American Review for January of 1852, writes that his remarks will "have reference only to those happier offspring" of Cooper's youth, since, "of that numerous progeny which of late years have swarmed from his pen, we have never read one. . ." (xxxiv).
So why am I wasting your time with this book? I, too, take age more seriously with every passing day, and, from what I've heard, there's a lot of it going around. Even so, these early critics' judgments are not universal. In August of 1845, George Sand writes to Pierre-Jules Hetzel, praising "le roman nouveau de Cooper" (xxxvii), and in 1856 she praises Satanstoe as one of his best novels, "all the more thrilling" for its granular realism: "These descriptions, in the form of straightforward and matter-of-fact report, are among Cooper's finest qualities." Then, sounding like one of the speculative realists among our own contemporaries, she praises Cooper's dramatized narrator, Cornelius Littlepage: "the narrator has the calm objectivity of a mirror which reflects the great crises of nature, without adding any frills out of his own head, and, I repeat, this course flexibly taken, constitutes at times an important property which we perhaps underestimate a little" (xxxiv).
With her emphasis on flexibility and the humility of assertion suggested by "at times . . . perhaps . . . a little," she emulates the tone of Corny Littlepage himself, something fairly new in Cooper, a dramatized narrator who is also a central character, a main agent in the action he describes. Corny's dramatized narration is not a laying down of the law, but a humorous and self-questioning pluralist dialectic, a consideration of multiple times, cultures, and customs, through which he attempts to build his own character and find his own way, both for himself and for his country, which he sees as quite liminal, indeed still in its adolescence: "This period in the history of a country, may be likened to the hobbledehoy condition in ourselves, when we have lost the graces of childhood, without having attained the finished forms of men" (383). Corny at 21 and Cooper at 55 are well beyond the liminality of adolescence but capable of diachronicity, of being all the ages they have ever been, looking back and forward in order to give a gift to both old and young, or as Corny puts it at the end of his narrative, "leaving the old to draw on their experience . . . and the young to live in hope" (440).
In his own last book, On Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain, Edward Said argues for an advantage to this late and diachronic style: "This is the prerogative of late style: it has the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradiction between them. What holds them in tension . . . is the artist's mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile" (148). In their book on Said, Bill Ashcroft and Pal Ahluwalia explore his distinction between filiation, or line of descent, and affiliation, a spreading out into networks. They suggest affiliation as both a way of being and way of reading: "affiliative reading allows the critic to see the literary work as a phenomenon in the world, located in a network" (25) that stretches beyond itself.
The dynamic pluralism implicit in affiliative writing and reading is evident in Wittgenstein's self-correction in his own later work. In the Tractatus the only language game on offer was the picturing of fact. Later, in the Philosophical Investigations, he turns his attention out to that and more language games, broadening the ways in which language can lead to actions. In paragraph 534, he argues that "this sentence is the beginning of a transition to these sentences, pictures, actions," since a "multitude of familiar paths lead off from these words in all directions" (152). Even as words lead to actions, so, in paragraph 543, actions can lead to words: "Can't I say: a cry, a laugh, are full of meaning?" This is a rhetorical question: the implicit answer is yes, since "that means, roughly: much can be gathered from them" (154). Late style and diachronic writing tend to ramify, to branch out into wider and wider networks of language, action, and meaning. Though Cooper never, of course, read Wittgenstein, we have, and we can see, in these terms, more aspects of what his literary choices might mean to us here and now.
In Satanstoe Major Henry Bulstrode and Guert Ten Eyck are defined primarily by filiation, respectively English and Dutch. Bulstrode never marries, and Guert is killed, loved by Mary Wallace but unmarried. The characters developed through affiliation—Susquesus, an Onondaga who lives with the Mohawks and scouts for the whites; Corny, both English and Dutch; and Anneke Mordaunt, a character both aware and proud of her familial networks—tend to live longer and richer lives than their more narrowly defined contemporaries.
When Bulstrode attempts to defend his ignorance of Pinkster, the African-American-Dutch celebration of Whitsunday or Pentecost, the conclusion of Eastertide, Anneke draws an important distinction between them: "Our ancestors, Miss Mordaunt, never heard of any Pinkster" (90), he offers, and she replies, "But some of mine have long understood it, and observed the festival" [italics in original in both quotations] (91). Her family provides her with both filiation and affiliation, and she and Corny extend that process with a son named Mordaunt Littlepage, who will continue the family and the next part of the narrative. Even Corny's lament about "everybody seeming to be related to Anneke Mordaunt but myself" (91) turns out to be too narrow, first because it turns out that he is related to her, and second because these affiliations continue to grow among their family and friends. As Wayne Franklin makes clear, the Albany Cooper knew "had a composite cultural heritage" and was a "polyglot community," which "Cooper went out of his way in Satanstoe to develop . . . in his extensive and subtle portrait of the old Afro-Dutch festival of Pinkster, which had been especially evident in the Albany of his youth" (42). Matthew Sivils adds that "Cooper's nation is an amalgam of identities" (139), all the more powerful for its multiplicity.
The reductive contrast is, of course, the puritanical Jason Newcome, who wishes to accelerate a cultural narrowing that did in fact take place. In the Treaty of Paris (1763), after the last of the French and Indian wars, France ceded to Britain her settlements along the St. Lawrence valley and all her land claims west to the Mississippi. The language and culture of America became more narrowly English. In his aggressive and dogmatic provincialism, Jason would continue that reduction and make America a rather larger version of his own town in Connecticut. As Cooper, in his own voice in a footnote, makes clear, Jason is like the American "who, until corrected by communion with the world, fancies the south-east corner, of the north-west parish, in the town of Hebron, in the county of Jericho, and the state of Connecticut, to be the only portion of this globe that is perfection" (61).
There are alternatives, however, and Claude S. Fischer makes explicit what Cooper implies. America can be defined less by filiation than by affiliation. It is possible that even New Yorkers and New Englanders may establish a wary truce, and America may move "from a society of small, hierarchical circles" to "a society of vastly more choices, where individuals are much more empowered and are expected to build their own social bonds, to control their lives, and to constantly improve themselves" (246). They can move from being episodics, who, as Galen Strawson argues, "are likely to have no particular tendency to see their lives in Narrative terms," (191) to diachronics, whose "[n]arrativity always carries with it some sort of tendency to revision" (202). That's what young but aging Corny is up to. And he does it, not through being right from the start and right all along, but through lively cycles of embarrassment and self-correction, through what is called in scholar-speak metanoia, an ongoing conversion and complication of a self developed through interaction with others. Hanna Meretoja argues that "both experience and narrative are phenomena constituted by interpretative activity. This shared interpretative structure is a helpful starting point" in "reconstructing the fragile fabric of our narrative existence" (105).
By writing through a dramatized narrator, a young but growing character in a liminal period of American history, Cooper could take us back to our nation's adolescence and offer us a chance to interpret better through an interior Socratic dialogue that complements conversations with others and both depends upon and helps to set up larger networks of thought and society. In his earlier works, Cooper had staged Socratic dialogues between, for example, Hawkeye and Chingachgook, as well as Hawkeye and Heyward. Here the dialogue becomes interior as Corny thinks to himself and writes to us in a work that is not just history and not just fiction but a rather philosophical combination of the two in conversations both internal and external.
With luck, we tend to get better at this process of metanoia as we get older and, as Said suggested, less nimble at jumping to conclusion and stasis, less eager to get one-up and become part of a category labeled, in the taxonomy of my millennial students, the "toppers," the people who can top whatever anyone else has said or done or been. Instead, we can consider what Bruno Latour calls "navigation advice": "we shift attention from these domains to NETWORKS [all caps in original]: then we look at the way the networks expand" (477), rather than trying to purify them or narrow them down, as Jason Newcome and the episodics were trying to do.
Throughout his long and productive career, Cooper worked to preserve "from the wreck of the past" America's cosmopolitan origins and prospects. Like Erich Auerbach, he recognized that "our philological home is the earth" [italics in original] (264), and many nations of the earth responded. In 1896 Brander Matthews noted that Cooper "was the first American author whose works gained a wide circulation outside of his native tongue" (56). Like Albany at Pinkster, Satanstoe celebrates this Pentecost, a diachronic and multilingual descent of the Paraclete, in which quite different people come to understand each other just a bit better. That is, I think, what Corny and Cooper are doing, and that, my fellow cosmopolitan Americans, is why I am wasting your time with this book.
Return to Top of Page