James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
Published by The Otsego Templeton Publishing Company, Inc., 59 Pioneer Street, P.O. Box 890, Cooperstown, NY 13326. E-mail: email@example.com
Return to Cooper's Writings
-- It is suggested that readers who haven't read much Cooper look at Reading Cooper for Pleasure, which is intended to enhance their enjoyment of Cooperstown's great 19th century author.
-- For further information on Cooperstown see the Cooperstown page.
Articles will be added approximately one week after they appear in The Freeman's Journal
1. Precaution (1820) - novel|
2. The Spy (1821) -- novel
3. The Pioneers (1823) - novel
4. Tales for Fifteen (1823) - short stories
5. The Pilot (1823) - novel
6. Lionel Lincoln (1825) - novel
7. The Last of the Mohicans (1826) -- novel
8. The Prairie (1827) - novel
9. The Red Rover (1828) - novel
10. Notions of the Americans (1828) - non-fiction
11. The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829) - novel
12. The Water-Witch (1830) - novel
13. The Bravo (1831) - novel
14. The Heidenmauer (1832) - novel
15. No Steamboats (1832) - short story
16. The Headsman (1833) - novel
17. A Letter to His Countrymen (1834) - politics
18. The Monikins (1835) - novel
19. Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland (1836) - travel
20. Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine (1836) - travel
21. Gleanings in Europe: France (1837) - travel
22. Gleanings in Europe: England (1837) - travel
23. Gleanings in Europe: Italy (1838) - travel
24. The American Democrat (1838) - non-fiction
25. The Chronicles of Cooperstown (1838) - history
26. The Eclipse (1838) - autobiographical vignette
27. Homeward Bound (1838) - novel
28. Home as Found (1838) - novel
29. History of the Navy (1839) - history
30. The Pathfinder (1840) - novel
31. Mercedes of Castile (1840) - novel
32. The Deerslayer (1841) - novel
33. The Two Admirals (1842) - novel
34. The Wing-and-Wing (1842) - novel
35. Autobiog/Pocket-Handkerchief (1843) - novelette
36. Wyandotté (1843) - novel
37. Ned Myers (1843) - biography
38. Afloat and Ashore (1844) - novel
39. Miles Wallingford (1844) - novel
40. Satanstoe (1845) - novel
41. The Chainbearer (1845) - novel
42. The Redskins (1846) - novel
43. Lives of Disting. Naval Officers (1846) - biography
44. The Crater (1847) - novel
45. Jack Tier (1848) - novel
46. The Oak Openings (1848) - novel
47. The Sea Lions (1849) - novel
48. The Ways of the Hour (1850) - novel
49. The Lake Gun (1850) - short story
50. Upside Down (1850) - play
51. The Towns of Manhattan (1851) - politics 52. Old Ironsides (1851) - history
In this section we review, sometimes tongue in cheek, twenty films and television shows based (more or less) on novels by James Fenimore Cooper. Generally speaking, we have only commented on films we have actually seen
1. Leather-Stocking (1909) - D.W. Griffith silent 1-reel|
2. The Deerslayer (1911) - silent 2-reel filmed on Lake Otsego
3. The Last of the Mohicans (1920) - silent but excellent
4. The Last of the Mohicans (1932) - 12 part serial
5. The Deerslayer (1920) - silent; German, with Bela Lugosi
6. The Last of the Mohicans (1936) - Randolph Scott
7. The Last of the Redmen (1947) - Cora's got a kid brother; Natty's got a brogue
8. The Prairie (1947) - just the Bush family, minus Natty Bumppo
9. The Pathfinder (1952) - George Montgomery
10.Hawkeye and The Last of the Mohicans (1957) - 39 part serial with John Hart
11. The Last Tomahawk (1965) - filmed in Spain, set in the 1870s wild west
12. Chingachgook; the Great Snake (1967) - East German "Deerslayer"
13. The Last of the Mohicans (1975) Hanna-Barbera cartoon
14. The Last of the Mohicans (1977) - Steve Forrest
15. The Deerslayer (1978) - Steve Forrest
16. The Leatherstocking Tales--Pt. 1 (1979) - PBS for children
17. The Leatherstocking Tales--Pt. 2 (1979) - PBS for children
18. The Last of the Mohicans (1987) - Australian cartoon
19. The Last of the Mohicans (1992) - Daniel Day-Lewis
20. The Pathfinder (1996) - Kevin Dillon
21. Cooper Films I haven't Seen
In this section we review Cooper in Classics Illustrated Comics, Cooper in Opera, and major works by his daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894).
Cooper in Classic Comics (1941-1972)|
Cooper in Opera (1834-1990)
Saverio Mercadante's Il Bravo (1839)
Susan Fenimore Cooper's Elinor Wyllys (1846)
Susan Fenimore Cooper's Rural Hours (1850)
Susan Fenimore Cooper's Other Writings
Between 1820 and 1850, James Fenimore Cooper wrote about fifty books (32 of them novels), more than half of them written at his desk here in Cooperstown. His better known books remain in print in every major language and throughout the world. Many others are still well worth the effort to find and read. This series will discuss one of Cooper's books each week, in the order that he wrote them. For each work we will describe the background of its creation; what it is about (without "giving away" the whole plot); its significance; and how to find a copy. Put together, the series will provide a capsule history of Cooper as a writer and as a thinker.
In similar fashion, we shall review films, operas, and other adaptations of Cooper's works. We shall not seek to be exhaustive, but cover primarily versions that we have seen and which are more or less available to the public in some form. We shall also briefly review the writings of Cooper's literary daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894).
Our principal purpose, however, is to interest you in reading Cooper.
1. Precaution. Novel (1820). [From the The Freeman's Journal, June 22, 2001.]
Background: The 31 year-old James Fenimore Cooper was living with his wife and four small children in Westchester County. Although he put up a brave front, he was almost broke. The fortune left him by his father William Cooper had evaporated. One day, while reading an English novel aloud to his family, Cooper threw it aside and exclaimed "I could write a better book than this, myself!" Susan Cooper, his wife, replied, "Then why don't you, dear."
Although no American would have dreamed of making a living as a novelist in 1820, Cooper accepted the challenge, if only to take his mind off his troubles. In 1820 "Precaution" appeared, and to his amazement, was reasonably reviewed, sold moderately well, and was even reprinted in England.
About the Story: "Precaution" (whose title and theme often make people think of Jane Austen) is about the efforts of Lady Anne Moseley, an upper-class English woman whose family fortunes are on the wane, to arrange suitable marriages for her son and three grown daughters. What about the social-climbing Jarvises? An intricate minuet of social activities ensues, with a huge cast of characters -- enlivened by the arrival of the young George Denbigh (whose father promptly drops dead in church), by a kindly and idiosyncratic bachelor uncle, and a mysterious Spanish lady with a shady past. There is flirting, jilting, engagements and marriages -- mostly unhappy. Through all of this sails the oldest Moseley daughter, Emily, guided in her conduct by a wise aunt, Mrs. Wilson, who takes the "precaution" of warning her against matrimonial dangers. Is to too much to add that Emily's ultimate marriage is successful beyond her wildest dreams?
Significance: "Precaution" is not a wonderful novel; Cooper was describing an English social life about which he knew little, and he was learning how to write novels "on the job." But there are hints of better things to come -- perhaps especially in the character of Peter Johnson, an outspoken and unconventional butler who in some ways resembles the Natty Bumppo of the Leather-Stocking Tales.
Finding it: Never reprinted by itself, "Precaution" was included in the many "collected works" editions of Cooper. Odd volumes turn up regularly in bookstores for less that $10 (but should you find the 1820 first edition, it's worth about $10,000). It is also available "on line." And, of course, there is the Village Library. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: "The Spy" -- our first truly American novel, and first best seller.
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2. The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground. Novel (1821). [From the The Freeman's Journal, July 6, 2001.]
Background: Encouraged by his modest success with "Precaution" (1820), James Fenimore Cooper immediately began a new novel, "The Spy." He chose a topic he knew about -- the American Revolution in the "neutral ground" that lay between British occupied New York City and George Washington's army in the Hudson highlands..
John Jay (1745-1829), one of America's "founding fathers," had directed George Washington's spy service during the Revolution. Jay -- an old friend living near Cooper's Westchester County home -- told Cooper about an unnamed Revolutionary spy who had served America bravely and without seeking reward, while pretending to be a British agent and thus incurring the hatred of his countrymen..
The Story: In 1780 Mr. Wharton has retreated from New York to his country house in the "neutral ground" of Westchester County -- caught between the British and American armies, and harried by terrorist gangs (the "cow-boys" and the "skinners"), who purport to be patriots or Tories but are really just bandits..
Wharton heads a divided family. His son Henry is in the British Army. His older daughter Sarah falls in love with a British Colonel. His younger daughter Frances, a resolute patriot, is engaged to American Army Major Dunwoodie. Through this divided land stalks the mysterious figure of Harvey Birch, a humble peddler, using his unmatched knowledge of the terrain to move secretly and at will. Accepted as a mere trader by the British, and suspect to most Patriots, Harvey Birch is really George Washington's most effective spy..
Before the story ends, we have met George Washington himself (sometimes in disguise), Wharton's British army son and Harvey Birch have faced hanging as British agents, and the "neutral ground" has been torn by battle and destruction..
Significance: "The Spy" was an immediate popular success. For the first time, Americans could read an exciting novel about their own history. James Fenimore Cooper was instantly launched into fame and -- eventually -- fortune. One Enoch Crosby even claimed, unconvincingly, to have been the "real" Harvey Birch. .
Within five years, "The Spy" had been published in England, and been translated into French, German, Swedish, Italian, and Spanish. In 1820 the cynical British essayist Sidney Smith had exclaimed "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" James Fenimore Cooper had given him the answer, and American literature was launched throughout the world..
As in all his novels, Cooper used as framework the literary formula of the "Romance" -- first popularized by Sir Walter Scott. A respectable young couple (here Frances Wharton and Major Dunwoodie), with whom readers can identify, has adventures and gets married in the last chapter. But "The Spy" is not just a story of war and espionage. In it, Cooper constantly reminds us that the Revolution was a bitter civil war, with heroes and villains on both sides, where the course of honor and justice was often hard to see. And Cooper was no longer an amateur; he had become a real novelist..
Finding it: "The Spy" has been frequently reprinted, most recently by Penguin Books (1997); and is available "on line." It is also in most libraries, and in sets of Cooper. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: "The Pioneers" -- Cooper's tale of Cooperstown.
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3. The Pioneers; or, The Sources of the Susquehanna. Novel (1823). [From The Freeman's Journal, July 13, 2001]
Background: The enormous success of "The Spy" (1821), showed James Fenimore Cooper that there was an eager audience for stories about American life. For his third novel, he turned to memories of the frontier village of Cooperstown in which he had grown up, but which -- in 1823 -- he had not visited for five years.
Cooper made full use of Cooperstown (called Templeton in the novel) with its taverns and schoolhouse, of Lake Otsego and its surrounding hills, of his childhood home of Otsego Hall, and even of some fellow villagers. But his purpose was not to write a local history (he would do that later). He wanted to generalize about the New York country scene as the heart of early America, shortly after the Revolution.
Cooper uses his "models" (even his father Judge William Cooper of Cooperstown, who "resembles" the fictional Judge Marmaduke Temple of Templeton) only as starting points on which to build fictional characters based on his own imagination.
The Story: Elizabeth Temple has returned home to Templeton on Christmas eve of 1793 with her widower father Judge Temple. She quickly encounters the romantic but mysterious young Oliver Edwards -- who shares a cabin on the village outskirts with the old hunter, Natty Bumppo, and his Indian friend John Mohegan (Chingachgook). Edwards badly conceals a deep unexplained grudge against the Temple family, but nevertheless enters the household as Judge Temple's secretary.
"The Pioneers" come from many lands, and we gradually meet villagers of many origins -- Yankees, English, French, German, Dutch, and Scotch-Irish, as well as Blacks (free and slave) and a Native American. We visit Judge Temple's mansion and the Bold Dragoon Tavern, and participate in everyday events in the life of the village (Christmas eve and Christmas, a "turkey shoot" on the frozen lake, maple sugaring, a fishing expedition, the annual slaughter of migrating passenger pigeons).
The plot then quickens. Elizabeth encounters a mountain lion. Natty Bumppo -- whose mysteriously locked cabin hides some great mystery -- is arrested for killing a deer out of season. And the story comes to a blazing climax as a forest fire rages on Mount Vision overlooking the village.
Significance: Like "The Spy," Cooper's new novel was a best-seller. Americans delighted in reading about themselves, or people they recognized, in a setting that was purely American and that seemed to typify the young nation. Its vivid pictures of American life, and its picture of American ethnic diversity, accompany a story involving major social, racial, ethical, and environmental issues, many of them unresolved today.
Finally, "The Pioneers" introduced Cooper's most immortal character, the philosophical Natty Bumppo (Leatherstocking). A solitary, restless old hunter with exceptional woodland skills, Natty was to become, after four more books, an almost mythic figure in American literature. His valiant deeds, and his eloquence on behalf of nature and the wilderness, of honor and integrity, and of the humanity of the Native American, made him a conscience for America, while with his Indian friend Chingachgook he began what would become the American "Western" tradition.
Finding it: Often reprinted (several current paperback editions), and on line. For on-line texts see Links Page. See also Reading The Pioneers as History
Next Week: "Tales for Fifteen" -- two almost forgotten short stories.
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4. Tales for Fifteen. Two short stories (1823). [From The Freeman's Journal, July 20, 2001]
Background: In the course of writing "The Spy" in 1821, Cooper began to compose a series of five moral tales for adolescent girls. Of these only two were ever actually written: "Imagination," and "Heart." The three others, which were to be called "Matter," "Manner," and "Matter and Manner," never materialized. Two years later, the two moral stories Cooper had completed were published as "Tales for Fifteen," under the pen name of "Jane Morgan."
Of "Imagination," Cooper wrote many years later that it was "written one rainy day, half asleep and half awake, but I retain a favorable impression of it."
"Imagination" is a long (124 pages) and surprisingly funny story about 16-year old Julia Warren of New York, a romantic schoolgirl who reads too many novels. Julia is led to believe, by a less-than-scrupulous friend, that she has a secret lover named Antonio, an enormously handsome young man of noble birth and great wealth, as well as being a decorated war hero. When she embarks on a trip to Niagara Falls with her aunt and a rejected real-life suitor, Charles Weston, Julia is told that her romantic lover will secretly accompany her so as to protect her from all danger. She soon identifies her Antonio as being their drunken, one-eyed old coachman Tony (her hero is evidently a real master of disguise), and proceeds to misinterpret everything the uncouth Tony says and does as concealing a secret message expressing his devotion to her. Eventually, of course, Julia's eyes are opened to reality and, as is hardly surprising, she rediscovers the merits of the worthy Charles Weston -- who has in fact saved her from drowning.
"Heart" is shorter (Cooper evidently finished it off in a hurry) and less entertaining. The story is about faithfulness in love. Twenty-year old Mary Osgood refuses to abandon a generous and gifted young musician, George Morton, who loves her, even when he contracts a long and debilitating illness. "Heart" does, however, present an interesting picture of New York City social life in the 1820s.
Significance: "Imagination" is deftly told and is often hilarious. The theme of a young girl whose romantic notions completely cloud her sense of reality is a fairly unusual one (though Jane Austen uses it in her "Northanger Abbey") but Cooper carries it off well. Cooper got no credit for it at the time -- who would associate "Jane Morgan" with the author of "The Spy" and "The Pioneers"! But it deserves to be rediscovered.
Cooper had only agreed to the publication of "Tales for Fifteen" as a gesture of gratitude to Charles Wiley, the publisher of "The Spy," who was in serious financial difficulties, and the slim volume was hardly noticed. Only four copies of "Tales for Fifteen" are known still to exist. When Boston publisher George Roberts wanted to reprint the two stories in 1841, even Cooper didn't own a copy -- and Roberts had to track one down by himself.
Finding it: Using one of the four surviving copies, a small facsimile edition was published in 1959, and reprinted in 1977. Two years ago, however, I transcribed the book, and placed it on-line on the internet (with some explanatory notes), where it can be found at a number of web sites, including that of the James Fenimore Cooper Society. For on-line texts see Links Page and, on the Cooper Society Website: Tales for Fifteen
Next Week: "The Pilot" -- literature's first novel of the sea.
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5. The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea . Novel (1823). [From The Freeman's Journal, August 2, 2001]
Background: As a young man, James Fenimore Cooper developed a love of the sea and of sailing ships -- first as a merchant sailor in 1806-7, and then as a Midshipman in the infant United States Navy from 1808-11. It was a fascination that would last the rest of his life, and some of his closest life-long friends were career US naval officers. But in the early 19th century, the sea was not considered a suitable topic for fiction: the sea was either dangerous or boring; ships were too complicated; and sailors were drunken slobs.
In 1823, however, Cooper decided to try to use the sea as the basis of a story. He was prodded into doing so by Sir Walter Scott's novel, "The Pirate" (1822), in which a few scenes occur aboard ship and in which, Cooper believed, Scott got it all wrong. In order to please the American audience that had enjoyed "The Spy" Cooper chose as his subject the American naval hero of the Revolution, John Paul Jones (disguised as "Mr. Gray" or the "Pilot").
The Story: During the American Revolution, an unnamed American warship, accompanied by the schooner "Ariel," is hovering off the English coast, planning a series of commando-like raids on shore against the British enemy. The mission is to locate and take on board a mysterious pilot (whose real identity is known only to the Captain), and to capture British officers as hostages for the good treatment of American prisoners.
Two American officers -- Lieutenants Edward Griffith and Richard Barnstable, lead the raids and provide romantic interest. But the most memorable character is "Long Tom" Coffin -- an ordinary seaman from Nantucket Island, who grew up as a whaler and still carries his harpoon with him everywhere. "Long Tom" is uneducated but outspoken, and his valor and independence make him a sort of nautical Natty Bumppo. He became an instant favorite of Cooper's readers.
Once ashore, Barnstable discovers that his fiancee Katherine Plowden and her cousin Cecilia are in a nearby mansion, held as virtual captives by Cecelia's father, a South Carolina Tory who has brought his family to England for safety.
What Cooper's public liked best, however, were the scenes at sea, as the ships are threatened by storm and rocks, and engage the British enemy in battle.
Significance: In "The Pilot," Cooper succeeded for the first time in literature in making the sea, the complex technology of maneuvering sailing ships, and the exotic characters of sailors, exciting to armchair readers. The novel was big success which he would follow up with a long series of sea novels (during his lifetime often more popular than his wilderness tales), and in doing so launched a new genre of writing that has lasted down to the present, with C.S. Foresters's Captain Hornblower and Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin. As we shall see, Cooper's novels often extended literary horizons, and his discovery that technology can make good reading has led in many directions, including the science fiction of space travel.
Finding it: "The Pilot," in addition to being included in all sets of Cooper's novels, has frequently been reprinted separately. It is currently available in an expensive ($20.00) paperback, and can also be found on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: "Lionel Lincoln" -- Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill.
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6. Lionel Lincoln; or, The Leaguer of Boston. Novel (1825). [from The Freeman's Journal, August 17, 2001]
Background: After his success describing the American Revolution at sea in "The Pilot," Cooper had what seemed a brilliant idea -- a series of historical novels about the American Revolution, each set in a different colony. The overall title would be "Legends of the Thirteen Republics." Where to start seemed obvious -- in 1825 Massachusetts would celebrate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Revolution, the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, and the patriot siege ("leaguer") of British-held Boston. Early in 1824, after visiting Boston and Cambridge to study the history of these events, and to meet with local experts, Cooper began to write.
The Story: Early in 1775 Lionel Lincoln, a Boston-born Major in the British Army, returns on duty from England to the city of his birth. At the home of a great-aunt he meets and falls in love with his cousin Cecil Dynevor -- but soon realizes that some great family mystery is being concealed by the household. Has it something to do with his own father -- who has been locked up in an English insane asylum? Who is the crazy old man who calls himself "Ralph," and follows him around? Who is the mentally retarded boy Job Pray, taunted and abused by the British soldiers, who defends the patriot cause, and whose impoverished mother is secretly helped by his great-aunt?
Accompanied by Ralph and Job, Lincoln explores British-occupied Boston in disguise, seeing the oppression under which its people now live. As a British soldier he joins in the confused expedition sent by night in April 1775 to seize the patriot arms depots in Lexington and Concord; he experiences the battles that ensue, and the British retreat back to Boston under fire from the Minute Men. As the patriots' siege of Boston tightens, he is wounded in the British attack on Bunker Hill. Lincoln's conflicting ties of loyalty to his King and affection for his native America, his efforts to gain the love of Cecil Dynevor, and the gradual uncovering of the mystery surrounding his personal history, lead to a dramatic and sometimes gruesome conclusion.
Significance: The famous American historian George Bancroft wrote in 1851 that "In Lionel Lincoln (Cooper) has described the battle of Bunker Hill better than it is described in any other work." Veterans of the American Revolution agreed. Bostonians were delighted to read an account of their city's part in the birth of the United States, but were no doubt mystified at seeing it described through the eyes of an American serving in the British army.
Critics in America praised Cooper's vivid depiction of the opening scenes of the American Revolution (British critics were generally annoyed). But many readers found the plot of "Lionel Lincoln" overly complicated, and its dark Gothic atmosphere of mystery and madness seemed more appropriate to a European setting of haunted castles and monasteries than to an American colonial town. Cooper abandoned his "Legends of the Thirteen Republics" series, and sought a different topic.
Finding it: "Lionel Lincoln" is available primarily in odd volumes from reprinted Cooper sets.
Next Week: "The Last of the Mohicans" -- Cooper's best known and most popular book.
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7. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. Novel (1826). [from The Freeman's Journal, August 24, 2001]
Background: In the summer of 1824 James Fenimore Cooper escorted a group of young British aristocrats on a tour of Glens Falls, Lake George, and the upper Hudson River. One of them (later a Prime Minister of Great Britain) suggested that the cave on the island in the Hudson at Glens Falls would be a great site for a novel about Indians. Cooper agreed, and the next summer -- after the comparative failure of "Lionel Lincoln" -- began to write "The Last of the Mohicans." Moving backward in time from the 1793 of "The Pioneers," and the Revolutionary years of "The Spy," "The Pilot," and "Lionel Lincoln," Cooper chose for his setting the last of the wars between France and England for control of North America.
The Story: In 1757 Major Duncan Heyward, a Virginian officer in the British Army, escorts two half-sisters from Fort Edward on the upper Hudson to join their father Col. Munro, commander of Fort William Henry on Lake George. Cora is beautiful, dark-haired, courageous, and (as we learn) partly African-American. Alice is a pretty but helpless blonde with whom Major Heyward promptly falls in love. Led astray by Magua, a treacherous Huron Indian with a long-standing grudge against Col. Munro, they are rescued by three British Army scouts: Hawkeye and Chingachgook (whom we met as Leatherstocking and John Mohegan in "The Pioneers") and Chingachgook's handsome and valiant young son Uncas.
After many exciting adventures, Hawkeye leads Cora and Alice safely to Fort William Henry, only to find its small garrison surrounded by the French under General Montcalm. Then follows a largely historical account of the siege and surrender of the Fort, and of the massacre that followed it -- a defeat as familiar to Cooper's readers as the Alamo and Pearl Harbor are to us today.
When the two half-sisters are carried off into the Adirondacks by the still vengeful Magua, Major Heyward and the three scouts follow in hot pursuit. They enter what was even in 1826 a largely unexplored wilderness, which Cooper peoples with vividly described Native Americans whose lives and customs are still largely uncorrupted by contact with Europeans. Here only a genuine understanding of Indian ways allows Cooper's heroes to catch up with the fleeing captives, as the story moves towards its action-packed climax.
Significance: Cooper's novel, with its thrilling adventures that have made it a favorite all over the world, is also a serious adult portrayal of how the American wilderness and its native peoples helped forge the American character, and of the complex and often tragic relations between America's three races -- white, black, and red. His descriptions of Native American customs were taken from John Heckewelder, who was the best informed and most sympathetic writer about Indian ways in early 19th century America. None of the many movie versions do the novel justice, and most -- including the most recent -- change its plot and characters almost unrecognizably.
Finding it:Available almost everywhere paperbacks are sold, and on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: "The Prairie" -- Natty Bumppo's final adventures in the vast new territories of the West acquired by America in 1804; rescuing hapless travellers, living among the Indians of the plains, and warning of a possibly bleak American future.
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8. The Prairie. Novel (1827). [From The Freeman's Journal, August 31, 2001]
Background: While studying Native American culture for "The Last of the Mohicans," James Fenimore Cooper had travelled to New York and Washington to meet personally with Indian delegations from the great plains of the West, and came to know and admire several of their leaders. He studied carefully the travel accounts of Lewis and Clark, and especially the later explorations of Major Steven Long, who had placed the "Great American Desert" stretching from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains, on the real and mental maps of Americans in the east.
From these sources Cooper -- who never did visit the high plains -- created the barren, treeless setting of "The Prairie," a setting that often resembles the endless ocean expanses of his sea novels. Unfit for cultivation or settlement, Cooper's prairie is inhabited only by nomadic horse-riding Indians and the vast herds of buffalo.
The Story: In 1805 Ishmael Bush, his family and adult sons, have ventured beyond the Missouri to escape the law and seek a life free from civilized restraints. With them are the resourceful Ellen Wade, the pedantic naturalist Dr. Bat, and, closely concealed in a tent -- well, the reader will find out. This nomadic band is rescued from its own ineptitude by a very aged Natty Bumppo (now known only as "the trapper"). Dismayed by the destruction of his beloved wilderness by the tree-chopping settlers in the east, he has fled westward to escape "the sound of their axes," and lives a meager life among his Pawnee Indian friends. The Bush party is also being trailed, for equally good but different reasons, by Army Captain Duncan Uncas Middleton, the grandson of Duncan Heyward of "Mohicans," and by a "bee hunter" named Paul Hover.
Soon the whole party finds itself in the midst of a war between two Native American peoples -- the Pawnee and the Sioux. Cooper explores the characters and ways of life of these plains Indians as carefully as he had those of the forest Indians in "Mohicans." In the Pawnee chieftain Hardhart he creates an Indian character as vivid, and as humane, as Chingachgook and Uncas in his earlier tales. There follow exciting adventures of capture and escape, prairie-fire and buffalo stampede, and a heinous murder with a grim aftermath, before the story -- and Natty himself -- come to a fit conclusion. Throughout, Cooper (in the voice of Natty) repeatedly asks whether the desolate prairie may be a sign of what all America may someday become -- if the environmental destruction and "wasty ways" of her settlers are not somehow restrained.
Significance:Begun in New York, and completed in Paris after Cooper took his family to Europe in 1826, "The Prairie" remained Cooper's personal favorite among his novels. It was the culmination of a trilogy in which he had symbolically considered America's present ("The Pioneers"), its past ("Mohicans"), and now -- perhaps -- its future. That may be why "The Prairie" is written in an epic style in which Natty himself almost assumes the role of a Biblical prophet. Cooper's own life was changing and, though he did not forget the American frontier, he would not return to write another story about Natty Bumppo for almost 15 years.
Finding it: Available in many paperback editions, and on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Pirates, sea battles, and the Newport tower in "The Red Rover," an international favorite among Cooper's novels of the sea.
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9. The Red Rover. Novel (1828). [From The Freeman's Journal, September 14, 2001]
Background: Now living with his family in Paris, Cooper turned again to the sea, and to Newport, Rhode Island, where, during the colonial period, South Carolina plantation owners spent their summers. Newport is also the site of the famous "Newport Tower" -- a stone structure long believed by some to be of Viking origin. Cooper had visited Newport and its harbor about 1820, and in 1824 -- on his way home from researching "Lionel Lincoln" in Boston -- he had explored its local history with a member of the Rhode Island Historical Society.
The Story: "The Red Rover" is about a pirate -- a noble, generous, courageous pirate in the tradition of Lord Byron's poems. As Newport celebrates Britain's victory over France at Quebec in 1759, ominous rumors circulate of a mysterious ship -- perhaps a slave trader -- lurking outside its harbor. We meet a young gentleman, Harry Wilder, and his companions, two sailors named Dick Fidd and Scipio Africanus. Wilder encounters the "Red Rover" and for unfathomable reasons agrees to become First Mate of his pirate ship "Dolphin." But he has meanwhile learned (from a conversation overheard while hiding in the Newport Tower) about a family of w0men, including the beautiful Gertrude Grayson, who plan to sail for South Carolina on board the "Royal Caroline." Fearing that the Red Rover plans to attack the ship, Wilder tries to convince them of their danger -- and when the attempt fails he takes a chance opportunity to become Captain of the "Royal Caroline" himself as it sails from Newport.
The pirate ship "Dolphin" stalks the "Royal Caroline" down the Atlantic coast, pitting the skills of the romantic pirate against those of young Wilder. There is a succession of storms and mutinies, of battles and captures, that would lay the framework for every novel (and movie) of the sea that has followed. An important subplot involves the close friendship of the two sailors -- one white and one black -- whose lives are tied up with that of Wilder.
But what is Harry Wilder's real history? Who is the Red Rover, and why has he chosen the life of an outlawed pirate? What is the secret of the beautiful Gertrude's old governess, Mrs. Wyllys? And who is "Roderick," the mysterious cabin boy who presides over the lush carpets and oriental furnishings of the Red Rover's inner sanctum on board the "Dolphin"? As usual in a Cooper plot, there are mysteries to be disclosed as well as danger to be overcome.
Significance: During Cooper's lifetime, "The Red Rover" was as popular as his frontier stories, and became the basis for plays, musicals, and other spin-offs -- in both England and in America. Cooper's romantic pirate joined Lord Byron's swashbuckling nautical heroes -- part criminal, part gentleman, and always mysterious -- as literary types who have made many a Hollywood fortune.
Finding it: The Library of America has a handsome volume of Cooper's "Sea Tales" (The Pirate" and "The Red Rover"). Otherwise look for used reprint editions, and on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: "Notions of the Americans" -- To please General Lafayette, and to contradict French and British anti-American propaganda, Cooper writes a detailed account of American government and society.
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10. Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor. Social and Political Description (1828). [From The Freeman's Journal, September 28, 2001]
Background: No Frenchman is more closely associated with America than the Marquis de Lafayette, who as a young man had become a hero of the American Revolution. In 1824-25, when Lafayette toured America to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Revolution, Cooper had been one of the welcoming committee in New York, and had covered his triumphal arrival for the "New York American." When Cooper arrived in Paris in 1826, Lafayette was leading the forces of reform and democracy against the Bourbon monarchy, and the two men became close friends.
Lafayette repeatedly asked Cooper to write a book about his 1824 American visit, and Cooper -- who thought that this might be rather dull -- finally decided that he could use the visit as a framework for a serious book describing American government and society. He hoped that it would be read throughout Europe and that it might counteract the consistently anti-American accounts of most French and British travellers to the new American republic.
The Story: Cooper chose to write his description as a series of 38 fictional letters, supposedly written by a Belgian traveler (the "bachelor") to America to his friends in various European countries. The un-named Belgian is escorted on his travels through America by "Cadwallader" -- a character evidently based on Cooper himself -- who serves as a guide and to explain American culture and institutions. For nearly 700 pages, the narrator visits various parts of America (he even comes to Cooperstown), investigates every aspect of America's government, society, and culture, and writes back to his friends to explain what the new Republic is like and how it works, providing both extensive facts and careful analysis.
No aspect of American society is left out: Cooper describes not just government and questions of public policy, but literature and the arts, popular manners, and what makes American culture special. And Cooper does not forget to include Lafayette's visit -- which was perhaps the greatest triumphal tour in American history.
Significance: One modern writer has said that "no other 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." It is certainly one of the most comprehensive accounts of America ever written, and still well worth reading for its description of early America and of the American character. Although it was published in England as well as America, and translated promptly into French and German, "Notions" received little attention, was (not surprisingly) "panned" in monarchist England and France, and even American reviewers found fault with it as too "pro-American." Cooper was bitterly disappointed by its commercial failure.
Finding it: Never included in Cooper's collected works (which were limited to his novels) "Notions of the Americans" was nevertheless reprinted several times, and is currently available in an excellent $25 paperback edition published in 1993 by the SUNY Press in Albany. Not yet, alas, available on-line.
Next Week: "The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish" -- Puritans and Indians meet on the frontier of colonial Connecticut, in one of the greatest of Cooper's "Indian" stories.
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11. The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish. Novel (1829). [From The Freeman's Journal, October 5, 2001]
Background: In 1828 Cooper spent the winter with his family in Florence, Italy, renting an apartment in the Palazzo Ricasoli (today a hostel for American students abroad). His new subject was the Connecticut frontier in the 1600's -- and the moral and physical confrontations between Puritans seeking to build Christian settlements in the wilderness and the Indians they were replacing -- often by means of violence and treachery.
The Story: In 1660 the devout Mark Heathcote and his family have left Massachusetts Bay to settle in the valley of the "wish-ton-wish" (whip-poor-will) in western Connecticut, where they hope to live a life of religious purity. In England, Cromwell has fallen and the throne of England has been "restored" to King Charles II, Puritans are everywhere in disarray, and a search is on for the English judges (the "regicides") who had condemned King Charles I to death in 1649.
Heathcote buys land honestly from the local Indians, and for a time the tiny settlement prospers and grows. The plot thickens with the arrival of a mysterious stranger on horseback, and with the capture and adoption of an Indian boy who claims to be Conanchet, the (real life) son of Miantonimoh, a Narragansett Chief murdered by the Puritans in 1643.
Then, in 1676, as "King Philip's" war spreads through New England, Indians attack the community and carry off Mark's only granddaughter Ruth -- the lost child who becomes the "wept" of the valley of the wish-ton-wish -- and the framework for the rest of Cooper's story is set. The settlement receives new colonists, including an unscrupulous and greedy demagogue, the aptly-named Rev. Meek Wolfe.
The interplay of Puritan and Indian cultures (the girl Ruth adopts the Indian name of Narra-mattah), the killing and treachery that characterized King Philip's War, and the contrast between piety and hypocrisy, all play their parts in an increasingly turbulent story. What will become of Mark Heathcote's attempt to found a settlement based on true religious virtue? Must it -- must the American dream -- inevitably break down in the face of greed?
Significance: Cooper dramatically portrayed how relations between white settlers and Native Americans got off to a disastrous start in early New England, setting patterns that would be tragically repeated for centuries. He faced squarely issues like mixed marriages, that most of his readers were horrified even to imagine, as well as probing many aspects of the complex Puritan mind. The "Wept" is one of Cooper's most powerful and exciting novels, but one that -- with its cryptic and somewhat indigestible title -- has been largely forgotten. Cooperstonians, of course, will remember that the Cooper family named a property on Estli Avenue "Heathcote" -- the family name of Mrs. Cooper's grandfather -- and that one of Lake Otsego's most beautiful mahogany launches still bears the name of Narra-Mattah.
Finding it: Available only in odd volumes from reprinted editions, and on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Back to the sea with "The Water-Witch," Cooper's most light-hearted and whimsical maritime adventure.
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12. The Water-Witch; or, The Skimmer of the Seas. Novel (1830). [From The Freeman's Journal, October 12, 2001]
Background: In mid-1829, after almost a year in Florence, Cooper chartered a sailboat in Leghorn (Livorno), which took him and his family down the Italian coast, stopping at the Isle of Elba (which he would use in a later novel) and other ports. They arrived at Naples, and Cooper rented part of a palace ("said to be the birthplace of the Renaissance poet Tasso") in Sorrento overlooking the magnificent bay -- it is now the Imperial Hotel Tramontano. The months that followed, exploring with his wife and children the beauties of the area by boat and on donkey-back, and writing on his terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples, were perhaps the happiest in Cooper's life.
Cooper's joy at his life on the Bay of Naples, which he considered the most beautiful place on earth, was reflected in the novel he wrote there -- though his story is set in and around New York harbor in about 1710, when New York was still largely a Dutch town. There is even a cameo appearance by Lord Cornbury, perhaps the most corrupt official England ever imposed on its New York colony.
The Story: Myndert Van Beverout, fur merchant and city official in colonial New York, has a country place (which he calls "Lust in Rust") on the New Jersey coast where he buys silks and other luxuries "duty free" from the mysterious smuggler who sometimes calls himself Tom Tiller. Tiller's ship, the "Water-Witch," has an almost miraculous ability to avoid capture, thanks -- as we learn -- to the cryptic advice dispensed (in literary quotations on enamel tablets) by the wicked looking figurehead at its prow for which the ship is named. Meanwhile, an American-born British naval officer, Captain Cornelius Ludlow, commander of Her Majesty's Ship "Coquette," has vowed to capture the "Water-Witch" and put an end to her contraband activities.
The plot thickens when Alida de Barberie -- Van Beverout's beautiful niece and fiancé of the stodgy "Young Patroon" Oloff Van Staats -- vanishes after negotiating for imported fabrics with the rather-too-handsome young Seadrift. Apparently she has been kidnapped aboard the "Water-Witch." There follow sea chases, battles, and struggles with the elements as the "Coquette" chases the "Water-Witch" around Long Island, leading to an exciting nautical ending.
As usual, the adventure is heightened by mystery. Who is "Tom Tiller," the skipper of the "Water-Witch" and how does he manage his amazing escapes? Who are Seadrift, who sells his smuggled wares -- and Zephyr, the cabin boy who has never set foot on land? And who, of course, will marry whom?
Significance: Lighter and more whimsical in tone than any other Cooper novel -- though there is nothing whimsical about its very real adventures at sea -- "The Water-Witch" has had a mixed reception from readers. Some think it "light weight" -- others, including myself, consider it one of Cooper's finest and most enjoyable novels.
Finding it: There have been no recent reprints of "The Water-Witch," but it is available in odd volumes from old editions, and can also be found "on line." For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: "The Bravo," set in 18th century Venice, is one of Cooper's best and most serious works, whose analysis of totalitarian terror anticipated Orwell's' "1984" by over a century as it sought to warn Americans against the dangers of corporate tyranny.
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13. The Bravo. Novel (1831). [From The Freeman's Journal, October 19, 2001]
Background: In the spring of 1830, after a winter in Rome, the Cooper family spent a week in Venice on their way back to Germany and France. Cooper was enormously impressed by Venice, and quickly decided to use it as a setting for a novel. Venice, before its conquest by Napoleon in 1797, had been one of Europe's few Republics. But Venice was in reality a totalitarian society (though the word had not been invented), ruled by an anonymous Council of Three, which controlled its nominally democratic institutions by means of an army of spies and secret policemen, bribes and torture, arbitrary arrests and assassinations, and the manipulation of public opinion.
The Story: Two couples are caught in the toils of the Venetian government. Don Camillo, a foreign nobleman, wants to marry Violetta Tiepolo, a Venetian heiress for whom the secret bureaucracy has other plans. Jacopo Frontoni, the "Bravo" (Italian slang for a hired assassin) of the title, is an unwilling criminal, forced to carry out the will of the Council of Three, and accept public responsibility for its evil acts, or see his imprisoned father executed. Jacopo is in love with Gelsomina, daughter of the jail keeper of the dungeon in which the father is held captive on false charges.
In Cooper's atmospheric novel, the daytime brilliance of Venetian public ceremonies constantly contrasts with the nighttime plotting in badly lit palaces and moonlit alleys and cemeteries. Eventually everyone is drawn into a dark world of corruption and betrayal, including Antonio, a poor old fisherman who dares to protest when his only grandson is drafted into the Venetian war-galleys; Senator Gradenigo, who can always find excuses for not letting his humanity interfere with the interests of the State; and Hosea, a Jewish merchant constantly subject to official blackmail and extortion.
"The Bravo" combines a taut and exciting plot with a vividly portrayed atmosphere of false brilliance and essential evil. And its ending is perhaps the most unexpected and compelling in all of Cooper's fiction.
Significance: Cooper's meaning is clear; just because America is a Republic, it is not safe from tyranny. Greed, inherited wealth and position, demagogy and the manipulation of public opinion, can create a bureaucratic totalitarianism worse than any individual despot, because it is secret, faceless, and without humanity. Not until the 20th century did Nazi Germany and Communist Russia show that Cooper's dark imaginings were all too prophetic. "The Bravo" is in many ways Cooper's most important book, and one of the best written. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it has been the basis for several Italian operas, one of them (Saverio Mercadante's "Il Bravo") still being performed.
Finding it: The usual old odd volumes from sets of Cooper's works, and one 1961 reprint; it can also be found "on line" on the Internet. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: "The Heidenmauer" -- Cooper continues his "European novels" with a story of sin and redemption, of morality and greed, as a feudal lord, a monastery, and a rising bourgeois town fight for mastery in a Germany on the verge of the Protestant Reformation..
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14. The Heidenmauer; or, The Benedictines. A Legend of the Rhine. Novel (1832) [From The Freeman's Journal, November 2, 2001]
Background: In September 1831 Cooper and his family were returning to Paris from a trip through Belgium and the Rhineland, and stopped for the night at The Ox Inn in Bad Durkheim, a village near Heidelburg. That evening Cooper and his eight-year-old-son Paul visited the "heidenmauer" or heathen wall -- supposed to have been built by Attila the Hun -- and heard stories about the Counts of Hartenburg who had ruled Durkheim from their castle, and of the Benedictine Monastery of Limburg that once stood on an adjoining hill. As Cooper watched his young son play among the ruins, he mused on the long panorama of European history that had come together to produce the varied ethnic face of America, and so a novel was born.
The Story: Count Emich of Hartenburg is a soldier's soldier, a crude and illiterate feudal lord, who prides himself on his valor and his capacity to hold liquor, and surrounds himself with opportunists of every sort. His great rival is the nearby Benedictine Monastery of Limburg, presided over by the hospitable but worldly Abbot Bonifacius, whose fellow monks -- save for the truly pious Father Arnolph and the fanatic Father Johan -- are as worldly as he.
Between the castle and the monastery the trading town of Durkheim is rising in importance, led by its burgomaster Hendrick Frey -- whose life revolves about his money and his desire to find a wealthy husband for his beautiful daughter Meta. Unfortunately, Meta is in love with the poor but worthy Berchtold, Count Emich's forester. The time is the early 1500s, and though everyone in the story is Catholic, murmurs of Luther and of religious and civil revolt are beginning to circulate.
In a crude hut built inside the ruins of the "heidenmauer," lives a pious but secretive hermit, who is much revered by the local populace, including Ulricke Frey, wife of the burgomaster, and Berchtold's widowed mother Lottchen. The plot thickens when Count Emich seeks to enlist the support of Burgomaster Frey for an attack on the Monastery. This begins a train of events that leads to violence (but not to murder) and to an analysis of morality in its many complex aspects. What is virtue -- and can any human being be all good, or for that matter all bad? If Cooper cannot always answer these questions, we are left with a greater understanding of human strength and frailty.
Significance: The most religiously oriented novel of Cooper's early works, "The Heidenmauer" has been likened to a medieval morality play, in which communities experience sin, penance, and redemption. Cooper, a life-long Episcopalian, was deeply moved by the beauty, pageantry, and devotion of European Catholicism. Here he explores both individual morality, and the complex relationships in Renaissance Germany between the old feudal order, the Catholic establishment, and the rising new commercial towns and classes. Above all this book reflects his belief in the essential goodness of man -- that even the worst of men have seeds of good that can be cultivated.
Fi nding It: Only available, alas, in odd volumes from old reprint sets, and on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: "No Steamboats" is a long-lost humorous story making fun of French misunderstandings about American culture, written by Cooper in French and published in Paris. It is not, however, a plea for a motorless Otsego!
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15. No Steamboats ("Point de bateaux à vapeur"). Short story (1832). [From The Freeman's Journal, November 9, 2001]
Background: During his seven years in Europe, Cooper was constantly struck by all the things that Europeans "knew" about America that just weren't so, and how often they refused to accept the word of visiting Americans to the contrary.
In 1832, while living in Paris, Cooper wrote a humorous article on the subject in French -- for a literary annual called "Paris, or the Book of One Hundred and One," No. 9. So far as is known, this is the only time that Cooper wrote for publiction in the French language (though he spoke French quite fluently, and often corresponded in it).
"No Steamboats" was reprinted (in French) in Belgium, and was even translated into English for "The American Ladies Magazine" (a predecessor of the more famous "Godey's Lady's Book") in 1834. But it has been almost totally forgotten.
The Story: The peace and quiet of Cooper's Paris apartment is disturbed by the arrival of three bizarre gentlemen, who identify themselves as the Three European Ideas (Messieurs de Trois-Idées-Européennes). They are Mr. Moneybags (M. de Portefeuille), Mr. Ancestry (M. de Hérédité), and Mr. Doe (M. Blouse -- literally, Mr. Smock, from the costume then worn by ordinary French workmen). They have come, they tell Cooper, to explore basic truths, and they are horrified by what they have learned about America.
In America, they say, "the people have rights that belong to the elite, and the consequences are frightening: there is corruption everywhere, egotism reigns, social chaos mingles social classes, Christians are savages, savages are Christians, blacks are white, whites are mulattos, and even the water has changed to rum." They can speak with authority, because they have just received extensive documents from New York on board the latest steamboat to arrive in Le Havre. When Cooper reminds them that there are no steamboats crossing the Atlantic (which was the case in 1832), they refuse to believe him, and ask how he, a sailor, can deny a fact well known throughout Europe from the Mediterranean to the Arctic.
Their litany of error continues: The official name of America is "The United States of North America," and if the American Constitution says otherwise it must be wrong. Americans pay huge taxes. American streets are blocked with chains on Sundays. It took a violent uprising before American boats could sail on the Sabbath. American women drink tea at home with missionaries while their husbands read newspapers in their clubs, and then sew shirts for the poor until midnight. Two Congressmen fought it out on horseback, with pistols and swords, on the floor of the House of Representatives, and only ceased when artillery arrived. Rejecting all corrections, the "Three European Ideas" disappear, oblivious to Cooper's protestations.
Significance: An amusing piece of light humor, reflecting Cooper's often frustrated efforts to teach Europeans about the American he loved.
Finding it: The original (French) version can be found "on line" at the French National Library website. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: "The Headsman" -- tribulations of the hereditary public executioner of Berne, Switzerland, when his son falls in love with an aristocrat. If inherited high status is bad -- what about inherited shame and detestation?
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16. The Headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. Novel (1833) [From The Freeman's Journal, November 16, 2001]
Background: In 1832, Cooper and his family spent two months -- their second Swiss vacation -- at Vevey on the shores of Lake Geneva. James visited the Castle of Blonay overlooking the town, and with a friend ventured further afield to the famous Pass of the Great St. Bernard, between Switzerland and Italy, where monks and their famous St. Bernard dogs have for centuries rescued and cared for travellers trapped in the heavy snows. Vevey has since the 17th century been famous for its periodic "Festival of the Winegrowers" ("vignerons") sponsored by the local Abbey of St. Urbain, and featuring a famous allegorical procession at which prizes are awarded for the best wines. Cooper just missed the Festival of 1833, but he learned enough about the one held in 1819 to make it a centerpiece of this novel -- nowadays the Festival is held only four times a century -- most recently in 1999.
The Story: In the 18th century an overloaded boat sets sail from Geneva. Baron de Willading is taking his beautiful but ailing daughter Adelheid to Vevey, accompanied by her suitor, a poor but honest Swiss soldier named Sigismund, and by a long-time old friend from Genoa, Signor Grimaldi. The "Winkelried" carries an unruly crowd of passengers -- not to mention two large dogs (which figure so frequently in Cooper novels) -- a St. Bernard named Uberto and a Newfoundland named Nettuno. Panic ensues when the passengers realize that the boat also carries the feared and detested Balthazar -- hereditary executioner (headsman) of the Canton of Berne -- who is blamed, and almost murdered, when the boat encounters a sudden heavy storm.
"The Headsman" revolves about the idea of an inherited title (which cannot be refused) that carries with it undeserved hatred as much as a title of nobility confers undeserved respect; it is essentially concerned with the nature of prejudice. The real identity of the honest Sigismund, and the fate of his love for Adelheid, become involved with the unhappy public executioner and his family, as the story moves through the pageantry of the Festival of the Winegrowers in Vevey to the Castle of Blonay, to end in a vivid and wintry climax at the famous Monastery at the Great Saint Bernard Pass.
Significance: As in his other two "European novels" Cooper explores moral and social evils which had always existed in Europe, but which he feared might still threaten the new democracy being built in America. Thus "The Bravo" deals with faceless bureaucratic tyranny by an aristocracy of wealth, and "The Heidenmauer" with greed and fanaticism and how men can rationalize and even sanctify deeds of profound evil. "The Headsman" is about prejudice -- of fearing, shunning, and threatening others because we believe bad things about them without valid reason. Wherever or whenever they are set, Cooper's novels always address eternal questions -- and usually questions peculiarly relevant to the American experience.
Finding it: Like "The Bravo," and "The Heidenmauer," "The Headsman" is available today only in reprint editions, and on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Returning disillusioned to America, Cooper rebukes his reading audience, and announces (prematurely) the end of his writing career, in "A Letter to His Countrymen."
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17. A Letter to His Countrymen. Non-fiction (1834) [From The Freeman's Journal, November 23, 2001]
Background: In November 1833, after seven years in Europe, James Fenimore Cooper and his family returned to America. Cooper was deeply disappointed at the generally cool reception his latest novels had received at home -- which he attributed, with some accuracy, to political animosity in the Whig-controlled American press. He was also very upset by the hostile reaction at home (and by American diplomats abroad) to an article he had written for General LaFayette, proving that democratic government in America cost less than royal government in France.
Some of his friends, notably the painter/inventor Samuel Morse, encouraged Cooper's anger; others thought it a bit over the top. But Cooper was genuinely distraught; he even refused an invitation to a welcome-home party offered by his old New York writer friends. He was determined to cease writing novels for what he considered an ungrateful audience. One novel already in the works, a few books of non-fiction he had long contemplated, and he would seek something else to do. And he would do it back home in Cooperstown. Already, Cooper had begun negotiations to buy back his father's old home at Otsego Hall, and to remodel it in the Gothic style he had come to love in Europe. In the mean time, he fired off a 116 page book outlining his discontents.
The Story: "A Letter to His Countrymen" is a strange book. Much of it is devoted to a detailed dissection of a critical American newspaper review of Cooper's 1831 novel "The Bravo," trying to prove (wrongly, as it turned out) that it had been written by a Frenchman and deliberately "planted" in order to discredit him. In rambling fashion, he goes on to denounce the tendency of Americans at home to get their opinions from foreign sources, and of Americans living abroad to poor-mouth their country's institutions in order to cuddle up to foreign aristocrats. He explores the American political system he finds after seven years abroad, discussing the roles of the Presidency and the Congress, of the press and of the parties, and finding little that he likes.
A strong supporter of President Jackson and the concept of political democracy (while at the same time defending cultural elitism and the rights of property), Cooper believed that the anti-Jackson Whig Party was pushing America into the hands of a corrupt aristocracy of wealth, using the tools of demagogy and a controlled press to mislead the people and gain their votes. Congress, he believed, was increasingly under the thumb of the new men with money.
Significance: "A Letter to His Countrymen" is a book only a biographer could love, and it did little to enhance Cooper's reputation. Nevertheless, it contains important clues as to Cooper's political and social philosophy -- ideas which he would express much more effectively four years later in "The American Democrat."
Finding it: Published in 1834, "A Letter" was not reprinted until 2000 -- in James Fenimore Cooper, "The American Democrat and Other Political Writings" (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2000). Your compiler has also placed it on-line on this website at A Letter to His Countrymen
Next Week: The Monikins," is Cooper's strangest (and perhaps his funniest) novel, a tale of biting satire in which civilized monkeys in Antarctica "ape" the political and cultural ways of England and America.
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18. The Monikins. Novel (1835) [From The Freeman's Journal, December 7, 2001]
Background: "The quill and I are divorced.... The tales are done. There are a few half unfinished manuscripts on other subjects to finish, and I turn sailor again -- or something else...." So wrote a despondent James Fenimore Cooper in 1833, just as he was about to return home after seven years in Europe. Settling temporarily in New York City, Cooper bought back his father's old home in Cooperstown (Otsego Hall) and remodeled it in the Gothic style (pointed windows, towers, and fake battlements). By 1835 he and his family were permanently established back in the village of his childhood. One of those manuscripts was "a little work, of an entirely new kind, nearly done" -- "The Monikins." It was, Cooper wrote in 1836, "my favorite book," and it is certainly one of his strangest. It would be his last "novel" for several years.
The Story: Sir John Goldencalf has risen from nothing -- his father, a foundling, had became enormously wealthy by inside trading on the stock market and marrying his employer's daughter. Determined to do good in the world, Sir John buys himself a seat in Parliament, and invests in economic enterprises all over the British empire, on the theory that only those with a "social stake" in the economy can truly represent the people. He is in love with a girl from a good family. But his life is about to change.
In Paris, Sir John and a casual acquaintance (Captain Noah Poke of Connecticut) rescue four monkeys from an organ-grinder, only to discover that they come from a civilization of talking monkeys ("monikins") living in Antarctica. Sir John escorts them home (in Captain Poke's ship "The Walrus") where he finds the twin monkey nations of Leaphigh and its former colony Leaplow. "Leap high" is a parody of aristocrat-run England, filled with snobs and empty formalities. "Leap low" is America, with political parties jockeying corruptly for power, and such a passion for equality that all its citizens have their tails (the seat of monkey intelligence) cut off to exactly the same length.
Sir John and Captain Poke explore these strange lands for months, encountering various adventures along the way and enduring the hardships of a land where nobody eats anything but nuts. Finally there begins a "great moral eclipse," in which all true values are replaced by the all-mighty dollar -- and our travellers flee back home to Europe where -- might it all have been a delirious dream?
Sir John concludes with a list of what he has learned in his travels:: as "That of all the 'ocracies (aristocracy and democracy included) hypocrisy is the most flourishing," and "That truth is a comparative and local property, being much influenced by circumstances; particularly by climate and public opinion."
Significance: "The Monikins" is a sarcastic, sometimes labored, but often hilarious satire on British and American society and politics -- a forerunner of both "Animal Farm" and "The Planet of the Apes." Reviewers at the time were not amused -- most were infuriated -- but modern readers will find it remarkably perceptive.
Finding it: "The Monikins" was reprinted separately once (in 1990) but must otherwise be sought in sets of Cooper's works, or on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: We begin examining Cooper's five travel books based on his seven years in Europe -- some of them masterpieces of travel writing.
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19. Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland. Travel (1836) [From The Freeman's Journal, December 14, 2001]
Background: In 1835, back home permanently in Cooperstown, Cooper turned to a series of travel books based on his seven years in Europe (1826-33). He made use of his extensive travel journals as well as of his phenomenal ability to recall places and events. All five books use the format of imaginary letters to friends back home, but they differ considerably in content. Some are mostly travelogue, with occasional digressions. Others comment extensively on the European political, economic, and cultural scene -- always addressed to an American audience.
The Story: Cooper's first travel book is based on a summer (July-October 1828) that the Cooper family spent near Bern, and making excursions through Switzerland's magnificent Alpine scenery.
The Cooper family (including five children and Cooper's 18-year old nephew William Yeardley Cooper, who had come to Europe as Cooper's secretary and copyist) had left Paris by carriage in early July, 1828. They settled at a villa (La Lorraine) outside the Swiss capital of Bern. From there the older members of the family (James, his wife, his 15-year old daughter Susan, and William) made two week-long excursions through Switzerland's mountains, travelling by boat, carriage, on horseback, and on foot. Then, leaving the family at La Lorraine, James Fenimore Cooper went on two trips alone, accompanied only by a guide. The first was a strenuous 10-day hike through the Alps to the source of the Rhine; the second a trip by boat around Lake Geneva. Cooper was impressed by the pilgrim shrine at Einsiedeln, which he would use as the setting for part of his novel "The Heidenmauer."
As snows began to fall, Cooper packed up his family, and took them over the mountain passes (still infested with bandits) to Florence in Italy. It would be several years before they saw Paris again.
Significance: Cooper's first travel book is mostly travelogue -- a detailed account of adventures amid Switzerland's magnificent scenery, picturesque peasants, and sometimes primitive accommodations. We follow Cooper, and share his impressions, as he makes his way among the lakes and mountains that have made Switzerland world-famous. His unique ability to "paint scenery in words" is here seen at its best. It would be easy to retrace Cooper's steps today -- even stay where he stayed -- and the going would be a lot easier! The Hotel Baren in Langenthal, outside Bern, which Cooper found more than usually hospitable, is still very much in business and proud of its Cooper connection.
Finding it: Originally titled "Sketches in Switzerland", this first Cooper travel book has been reprinted several times. However, the only edition easily available today is that published in 1980 as "Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland" by the State University of New York Press in Albany -- with extensive illustrations, notes, and useful maps of the Coopers' various itineraries.
Next Week: 1832: The Coopers live in Paris, travel up the Rhine, and return to Switzerland for a second vacation.
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20. Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine. Travel (1836) [From The Freeman's Journal, February 1, 2002]
Background: Cooper's second travel book jumps ahead four years, to February-October 1832. It covers three episodes in Cooper's European sojourn: life in Paris in the Spring of 1832; a trip through Belgium, up the Rhine to Zurich, and through Switzerland to Geneva; and a second Swiss vacation at Vevey on the shores of Lake Geneva.
In a sense, however, this book revolves about General LaFayette, the French democrat who had been a hero of the American Revolution. Soon after Cooper's arrival in Paris in 1826, LaFayette became his close friend and mentor. When LaFayette returned to public life with the French "July Revolution" of 1830, Cooper found himself caught up in French affairs. Early 1832 saw not only a cholera epidemic, but an abortive revolt against the new French King Louis Philippe, and an influx of Polish refugees fleeing from the Russians.
The Story:The first seven "letters" (like its predecessor, the book is in the form of imaginary letters to friends at home) deal with French political and social affairs in early 1832, as Cooper lived and observed them, as well as with life in Paris during a troubled time.
In July, the Cooper family returned to tourist mode for two months. Accompanied by his wife and five children -- Susan, the eldest, was now 19 -- Cooper travelled through Belgium, stopping off at the resort town of Spa, and continued to Cologne and up the Rhine through Wurtemberg to Zurich in Switzerland, and then west to Geneva. This section of the book (some nine "letters") is devoted largely to travel narrative, personal adventures and impressions, and descriptions of scenery and historic sites in Cooper's inimitable "painterly" style.
The last section (ten "letters") takes place in September-October 1832 at "Mon Repos," a villa in Vevey on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Here the family boned up on local lore (including the periodic wine festival that would form the centerpiece of Cooper's novel "The Headsman"), and boated on the lake. James made an excursion to the famous Great Saint Bernard Pass in the Alps. As winter approached the family returned to Paris, to renew their friendship with LaFayette.
Significance: While it includes a lot of fine descriptive writing reminiscent of his "Switzerland," "The Rhine" is much more a book about culture, politics, current events, and history. As always, Cooper speaks out frankly -- often controversially -- on a wide variety of subjects. He not only describes Europe, but makes important comparisons with life in America. Readers will get a vivid impression both of the regions through which Cooper and his family travel, and of the political and cultural issues of the time. Cooper has gone beyond the traditional realm of the "travel narrative" to open a window into the intellectual and cultural world of 1832.
Finding it: Originally titled "Sketches of Switzerland (Second Series)," it was reprinted in 1986 as "Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine", by the SUNY Press at Albany. Originally placed on-line by the French National Library. For on-line text see Links Page.
Next Week: We return to Cooper's first impressions of France in 1826-28.
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21. Gleanings in Europe: France. Travel (1837) [From The Freeman's Journal, February 8, 2002]
Background: For his third travel book, Cooper went back to his first impressions of Europe. The Cooper family left America on June 1, 1826, on the sailing ship "Hudson," and arrived in Southampton, England a full month later. After a brief visit (largely business) in England, they crossed the Channel (by paddle-wheel steamer) to France, and went on to Paris. Here Cooper rented an apartment upstairs from a girls' school in which he placed his four daughters. In the summer of 1826 Cooper rented a villa for five months at St. Ouen, outside Paris.
Cooper arrived in France as a celebrity -- the "American Sir Walter Scott," -- and was soon drawn into the glittering literary life of the reactionary Bourbon monarchy that had been restored to power in France after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. Cooper also made the acquaintance of General LaFayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, who became his friend and -- in some degree -- a surrogate father.
Paris would remain the family's home base until 1828. But as always, much of Cooper's time was spent in writing -- during this period he finished "The Prairie," "The Red Rover," and his first important non-fiction work, "Notions of the Americans."
The Story: Like his other travel books, "France" takes the form of imaginary letters -- this time addressed to real friends and relatives at home in America (though none are based on actual letters). But often they describe aspects of French society that might particularly interest the addressees. The book covers just two years, from 1826 until 1828, when the Coopers moved on to Switzerland and Italy.
"France" is partly a vivid account of the Cooper family's first impressions abroad (though written with the hindsight of seven years in Europe), and Cooper's lively anecdotes reflect the excitement, adventures, and occasional misunderstandings of seeing a foreign land for the first time.
But this book goes beyond mere tourism to provide a detailed, colorful, and often ironic picture of life in the Paris of 1826-28, where the tottering Bourbon regime ruled in faded magnificence over the restive nation that was to overthrow it two years later. Cooper, as a great American celebrity, was promptly drawn into France's leading intellectual circles -- where he met many literary and aristocratic notables, was invited everywhere, and had a superb vantage point from which to observe French life.
Significance: As one scholar has noted, "No other of Cooper's works...brings us closer to his speaking voice or puts us more directly in contact with the man himself, with all his idiosyncratic preoccupations, his quick resentments, his restless curiosity, his surprising humor, and his nobility of principle. The most interesting of the many notables to whom "France" introduces us is, beyond question, Mr. Cooper."
Finding it: Rarely reprinted since 1837 (when it was titled simply "Gleanings in Europe"), "France" is available in the SUNY Press edition of 1983, which has the great advantage of carefully identifying the many personalities whom Cooper describes but does not always name. Recently placed on-line (in English) by the French National Library. For on-line text see Links Page.
Next Week: A tour of England, encounters with British intellectuals, and harsh words for British aristocratic society.
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22. Gleanings in Europe: England. Travel (1837) [From The Freeman's Journal, February 15, 2002]
Background: In 1828 Cooper, accompanied by his wife and son Paul (the four girls stayed at school in Paris) spent three months in England. It was in large part a business trip -- to see his London publisher. But Cooper was a celebrity in England as well as in France, and he was wined and dined. (Mrs. Cooper, whose father had recently died, was in "deep mourning" and refused all social engagements.) In particular, Cooper was taken under the wing of the poet Samuel Rogers, whose breakfast entertainment of writers and artists was famous. He also renewed his acquaintance with Sir Walter Scott.
The Coopers made one trip inland -- to Hertfordshire to visit Mrs. Cooper's oldest sister, who was married to John L. McAdam, the engineer who invented and popularized the modern paved ("macadam") road. After three months in England they returned to Paris, and their daughters, via Holland and Belgium.
The Story: Like its predecessor "France", "England" is written in the form of imaginary letters to real friends and relatives at home. Beginning with travelers account of the Coopers' arrival in London, the letters become increasingly theoretical, as Cooper describes and analyzes (usually critically) every aspect of English society, culture, and politics. However serious in tone, each letter also includes accounts of visits to British institutions, entertainment by English celebrities, and anecdotes of London life.
While content to be invited into English society, Cooper remained almost touchily conscious of his American-ness, and often bristled at the condescension with which the English so often treated Americans. He was also highly critical of a political system that seemed still firmly under the thumb of a landed aristocracy (this was, of course, before the reforms of 1832). Though generally sticking to the three months (March-May 1828) in which the book is set, Cooper freely makes comparisons with countries he was only to visit later, as well as occasionally referring to events occurring between 1828 and 1837, when "England" was published.
Significance: Cooper's "primary interest was political and social analysis. Americans, he believed...did not know the truth about British society, and they lacked the sophistication" to admit American faults while preserving its democratic institutions. In the view of one respected English journal, the "Spectator," Cooper's book was "unquestionably the most searching and thoughtful, not to say philosophical, (book ever) published by an American on England."
Cooper considered "England" the best of his travel books so far. He had expected it to be controversial in England, but was startled and angered when it was (with some exceptions) trashed by the press at home. American reviews proved all too clearly just how correct Cooper was in believing that American cultural taste was still controlled from London. They differed from those of England in one respect. Cooper was denounced by some British conservatives as a vulgar, half-educated upstart from the ex-colonies who dared to criticize his betters; American journals accused him of being anti-American and an aristocratic toady.
Finding it: Available today in the SUNY Albany edition of 1982.
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23. Gleanings in Europe: Italy. Travel (1838) [From The Freeman's Journal, February 22, 2002]
Background: On October 11, 1828, two carriages carrying the entire Cooper family crossed the Simplon Pass in the Alps and entered Italy. For James Fenimore Cooper it was love at first sight -- with Italy's art and history, its people, and its always picturesque scenery. For him, the 18 months spent in Italy were perhaps the happiest days of his life -- and Cooper spent the rest of his years wistfully wishing that he could afford to return. It was no accident, perhaps, that in writing his travel books he saved Italy for the last.
The Coopers first settled for the winter in Florence, where they were immediately drawn into the rather aristocratic foreign colony there, renting an apartment in the Palazzo Ricasoli (now a hotel and student hostel favored by Americans studying abroad) and, when spring came, a villa on the outskirts of the city. At the end of July, following publication of his frontier novel "The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish," Cooper chartered a 40-ton sailboat to carry his family down the Italian coast to Naples.
August through November were spent at Sorrento, in a rented palace overlooking the Bay of Naples (today the Imperial Hotel Tramontano), writing "The Water-Witch," and taking his family on pleasure excursions by boat, donkey, and on foot around the Sorrento Peninsula and to nearby tourist sites like Capri and Pompeii.
The Coopers spent that winter in Rome and, in the spring, began a leisurely trek up Italy's Adriatic coast to Venice (which deeply impressed him) and on to Germany.
The Story: Cooper said he wanted "Italy" to be "more poetical than...Switzerland...and without politics...a picturesque book...." Perhaps reflecting this, "Italy" returns to the format of letters to unspecified recipients, rather than imaginary letters addressed to real people with specific interests.
"Italy" is both the most personal and the most atmospheric of Cooper's travel books: an account of events, anecdotes, people, places, works of art, and scenery that always reflects his own reactions and feelings. Though Cooper continues to compare Europe with America, he says little about Italy's complex political issues (it was still broken up into half a dozen sovereign nations). His real purpose was to share a country he had come to love, rather than to analyze it.
Significance: Not surprisingly, perhaps, Cooper was not satisfied with the result, though contemporary reviewers, like many modern readers, considered it the happiest and most appealing of his five travel books. "Italy" reflects the sights, sounds, and even tastes of the Mediterranean world, and the personal pleasure Cooper takes in them, in ways reminiscent of the modern popular books by Peter Mayle about Provence and Francis Mayes about Tuscany. Out of Cooper's Italian experience would come two novels: "The Bravo," set in 18th century Venice, and "The Wing-and-Wing, " a sea story set along the Italian coast during the Napoleonic wars. And with "Italy" Cooper's travel series came to an end, as he went on to other writing projects.
Finding it: SUNY Press in Albany published an excellent edition in 1981.
Next Week: Cooper sums up his political and cultural creed in "The American Democrat."
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24. The American Democrat Politica and Social Commentary(1838). [From The Freeman's Journal, March 1, 2002]
Background: "The American Democrat: or, Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America" was published by H. & E. Phinney in Cooperstown in 1838, and Cooper originally hoped that it would be adopted by New York State as a civics textbook. He clearly wrote it with Alexis de Toqueville's (1835) "Democracy in America" in mind. Although the two men never met, Cooper had provided Toqueville with letters of introduction to New York politicians for use on his famous trip. "The American Democrat" is a short and readable collection of 45 essays that remains the most succinct statement of Cooper's social and political views.
The Story: "The American Democrat" seeks to demonstrate that "without civilization and government, the strong would oppress the weak, and, with them, an inducement to exertion must be left, by bestowing rewards on talents, industry, and success." Cooper analyzes American republican democracy, and contrasts it with the monarchies and aristocracies of old Europe. He then goes on to examine in detail many different aspects of American political, economic, and cultural institutions and habits. As in all his writings, however, his real concern is with ethics and personal integrity.
In his introduction, Cooper states that his book "is written more in the spirit of censure than of praise, for its aim is correction; and virtues bring their own reward, while errors are dangerous." What he most fears is that American democracy has been undermined by unscrupulous politicians who promote themselves by stirring up public opinion in a money-grubbing and irresponsible press, resulting in a nation with "one party effecting its ends by fulsome, false and meretricious eulogiums, in which it does not itself believe, and the other giving utterance to its discontent in useless and unmanly complaints."
In examining American culture Cooper provides fascinating discussions of American language and pronunciation, social behavior, American humor and its use to ward off controversy, and our tendency to bow down before public opinion.
Finally, Cooper states that "the time must come when American slavery shall cease," and he disputes claims that it enjoys permanent constitutional protection. But he fears that emancipation will lead to "two races...whose feelings will be embittered by inextinguishable hatred," a dilemma for which he finds no easy solution.
Significance: Since the 1930s, "The American Democrat" has awakened new interest as a concise, enlightening, and sometimes controversial examination of what America really means. In 2002, after over a century and half, it remains readable, thoughtful, and often as applicable to the American present as to the American past.
Finding it: A deluxe edition (hardback and paperback), with a 1931 introduction by H.L. Mencken, is kept in print -- at very low prices -- by Liberty Classics of Indianapolis, and it is also included in "The American Democrat and other Political Writings" (Regnery, 2000). A Penguin Classics paperback edition was published in 1989.
Next Week: Cooper tells the story of our village in "The Chronicles of Cooperstown."
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25. The Chronicles of Cooperstown Local History (1838). [From The Freeman's Journal, March 8, 2002]
Background: By 1836 James Fenimore Cooper was settled for life at Otsego Hall in the center of Cooperstown, and he turned his attention to the history of the community founded by his father, and in which he had passed his boyhood. The result was printed here in Cooperstown in 1838 by H. & E. Phinney. In writing "The Chronicles of Cooperstown" Cooper made use of "authentic publick records, private documents, more especially those in possession of the Cooper family, and living witnesses, whose memories and representations might be confided in." He also carefully examined the files of the early newspapers: "The Otsego Herald" (1795) and "The Freeman's Journal" (1808). Cooper's stated purpose was "that posterity may know the leading facts connected with the origin and settlement of the village of Cooperstown," as well as to correct a few "erroneous notions," and provide "a convenient work of reference."
The Story: Cooper tells the story of Cooperstown chronologically, with lively anecdotes of people and places -- some of them, like the Red Lion Tavern ("The Bold Dragoon"), immortalized in his classic novel "The Pioneers" (1823) describing life here in 1795.
He carries his chronicles up to the present (1838), when, he notes, Cooperstown's 1,300 residents occupy 169 homes, and make use of 62 stores and shops, 5 churches, a bank, a court house, and a fire station. "Cooperstown has two weekly newspapers, the "Freeman's Journal" and the "Otsego Republican," the former of which has always been esteemed for a respectable literary taste." And Cooper describes and praises Lake Otsego, its famed fishing, and the scenic beauties of its surrounding hills.
Cooper concludes by predicting Cooperstown's future. "The beauty of its situation, the lake, the purity of the air...seem destined to make it...a place of resort, for those who live less for active life, than for its elegance and ease.... Were an effort made, by the creation of proper lodging houses, the establishment of reading rooms and libraries, and the embellishment of a few of the favorable spots, in the way of public promenades and walks..., it would be quite easy to bring the place into request, as one of resort for the inhabitants of the large towns during the warm months...."
What Cooperstown needs, he says, are "bed and breakfasts": "If a few persons...who possessed proper buildings, were to fit up rooms, as parlours and bed-rooms, a set in each house, furnish the breakfasts and tea..., persons of fortune...would pay liberal prices, and the village...would reap the rewards of a large expenditure."
Significance: "The Chronicles of Cooperstown" is one of the first local histories written in America, and it has been widely imitated all over the nation. It remains the starting point, and an invaluable reference, for the history of our village.
Finding it: Reprinted in many later village histories -- most recently in Harold Hollis' "History of Cooperstown" (NYSHA, 1976). Also on-line in S.M. Shaw, "A Centennial Offering....being a Brief History of Cooperstown" (1886), at the Cornell University "Making of America" website. For on-line text see Links Page. And I have prepared a detailed analytical index to "The Chronicles" (on-line at the James Fenimore Cooper Society website).
Next Week: Memories of the total eclipse of the sun in Cooperstown in 1806.
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26. The Eclipse Autobiographical Vignette (1838). [From The Freeman's Journal, April 5, 2002]
Background: In the summer of 1806 a 16-year old boy named James Cooper (he had not yet adopted the middle name of Fenimore) was living with his father at Otsego Hall in Cooperstown. He was not a happy young man -- he had been expelled from Yale College after a fight with another student, and sent home in disgrace. On June 16, 1806, Cooperstown -- for so far as I know the only time in its history -- was the scene of a total eclipse of the sun. It was an experience that somehow deeply affected young Cooper, and became a turning point in his life.
Cooper's account of the eclipse was first published in 1869, long after Cooper's death. According to his daughter Susan Fenimore Cooper, who found the manuscript among her father's papers, "The Eclipse" was written in 1833, when Cooper was still living in Europe. However, it contains so many specific details included in an article about the eclipse published in the June 19, 1806 issue of the "Otsego Herald," that I am convinced it must have been written in 1838, while Cooper was searching the "Herald" files as preparation for writing "The Chronicles of Cooperstown."
The Story: Cooper recounts the story of the Cooperstown solar eclipse in vivid fashion, describing how the villagers had awaited the event eagerly for weeks, and how -- as darkness suddenly fell on the morning of June 16 -- the cows came clattering back across the bridge from their pastures in Middlefield, and the hens settled themselves to sleep.
Among those who witnessed the eclipse was Stephen Arnold, a Burlington schoolteacher who had been sentenced to death for the murder of a child in his household, and who had spent a year in the crude log jail house (where Augur's Bookstore now stands) awaiting a final decision on his fate. Young Cooper was brought to see Arnold, as he was taken from his cell in shackles to view the eclipse from a nearby building. The sight of his "haggard face and fettered arms...was an incident to stamp on the memory for life. It was a lesson not lost on me."
As the darkness grew complete, Cooper remembered that "it seemed as if the Father of the Universe had visibly, and almost palpably, veiled his face in wrath." Perhaps he was also thinking of another wrathful father -- his own -- who had not yet forgiven him for his disgrace at Yale. But then, in the darkness, Cooper's mind wandered and, as he told it, "my thoughts turned to the sea.... My fancy was busy with pictures of white-sailed schooners, and brigs, and ships, gliding like winged spirits over the darkened waves."
Two months later James Cooper ran away to sea -- and began a career in which he would both invent the sea novel and become the first great American naval historian.
Significance: "The Eclipse" is a short article, filled with memories that were clearly very important to James Fenimore Cooper, and it remains a compelling account of a big moment in the early history of Cooperstown.
Finding it: "The Eclipse" was published in the September 1869 issue of "Putnam's Magazine." Never reprinted, it can be found today on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: A return to the novel, and to the sea, with "Homeward Bound."
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27. Homeward Bound; or, The Chase Novel (1838). [From The Freeman's Journal, April 12, 2002]
Background: Although Cooper had decided four years earlier to write no more novels, he found himself unable to resist the temptation to tell a story. But it was a more thoughtful, more cynical Cooper than the author of the often nostalgic "The Pioneers." And it was a Cooper with a stronger determination to describe his countrymen's faults, in the hope of helping rectify them, even at the cost of sales and of public support. Nevertheless, he now presented his reading public with a sequel to "The Pioneers" -- a sequel that has been almost forgotten because it does not include Natty Bumppo. It all started innocently enough, with what turned out to be a new novel of the sea.
The Story: The Effingham family (Edward, his daughter Eve, and his worldly bachelor cousin John) are descendants of Oliver Edwards Effingham and Elizabeth Temple, and they are returning home to Templeton (Cooperstown) -- their mental horizons and cultural views expanded by 14 years residence in Europe. They depart from London in a sail "packet boat" (an early passenger ship), the "Montauk", commanded by the honest old sailor Captain Truck.
Aboard are a mixed bag of passengers, thrown together by the intimacies of life at sea. Some -- both passengers and crew -- quickly prove to be mysterious characters hiding secrets from their pasts. Anything but mysterious, however, is the raucous Steadfast Dodge -- American newspaper editor extraordinary -- returning from a brief European visit with a mind crammed with wrong facts and prejudiced opinions, picked up from waiters and cab drivers, which he passes on to eager readers at home as deep analysis of the European scene. Stern in his condemnation of foreigners, Steadfast Dodge is a staunch believer in "democracy" at home -- which he interprets as blind obedience to public opinion, however misguided. He quickly begins to spar verbally with the truly informed and enlightened Effinghams.
The "Montauk" finds she is being followed by a British warship, and in an effort to elude her runs into a storm and is shipwrecked on the edge of the Sahara in western Africa. The adventures that follow, as the shipwrecked passengers and crew seek to rebuild their vessel, and to evade marauding Arab bandits, are in the best tradition of nautical adventure. Not surprisingly, perhaps, at the end of the story the Effingham family arrives safely in New York.
Significance: What Cooper originally intended as a first volume got stretched out, as he wrote it, into a whole book. Like so many other of his novels, it initiated a whole new genre of writing -- the passenger ship described as a microcosm of society. But "Homeward Bound; or The Chase: A Tale of the Sea" is also a rousing adventure story. What Cooper forgot was that many readers would interpret it as autobiographical, with the Effinghams speaking directly for himself.
Finding it:Available able primarily in odd volumes from Cooper sets, there is also a 1988 hardbound edition from Mid-Peninsula Library of Kingsford, MI. "Homeward Bound" is also available on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: The Effinghams return to New York City, and to Templeton (Cooperstown), and are appalled at what they find in "Home as Found."
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28. Home as Found Novel (1838). [From The Freeman's Journal, April 19, 2002]
Background: In writing "Homeward Bound" Cooper found he had unintentionally (and carried away by his love of sea adventures) filled a whole book before the Effinghams reached home after their 14 years living (like Cooper and his family) in Europe. So, as he would do again, he simply wrote "the end" and started the story up again as a second book. The result was "Home as Found," one of the most important and most controversial of Cooper's novels, and one of very special interest to those of us who live on the shores of Lake Otsego.
The Story: The Effingham family, including Edward, his daughter Eve, and his bachelor cousin John, have returned to New York City in 1835 after fourteen years abroad, and find a society grown increasing vulgar and money-driven, its cultural life often reduced to trivial amusement and social climbing. Only a handful of Americans have real cultural attainments, and they are lying low. Many folk consider themselves social sophisticates, although they commit one ludicrous social and intellectual error after another. Even the best of them, like Eve Effingham's new friend Grace Van Cortlandt, display their ignorance of European culture. Many are raucously patriotic, though a few can find nothing good about their own nation. Steadfast Dodge, the editor who has accompanied the Effinghams home, is in his element. Their urban stay is climaxed by the (real life) great fire of 1835 that destroyed much of the city.
After the cultural wasteland of New York high society, the Effinghams (and their servants and friends) proceed home to Templeton -- now a thriving village on the shore of Lake Otsego. They have remodeled their old family home (called "The Wigwam") in the center of the village, with the aid of an able but crudely self-aggrandizing New Englander, Aristabulus Bragg. Alas, they find many of the villagers uncouth and disrespectful. As in "The Pioneers," we are exposed to a series of local scenes: apprentice boys illegally playing baseball on the Effingham grounds; celebration of the Fourth of July (with what was apparently a special Cooperstown twist); the illiterate but nosy Abbott family, who take their names from ancient classics while they pry into their neighbors' affairs. And some of the mysterious characters from the sea voyage show up, making possible a plot of secret identity and -- of course-- romance.
Brawling Templeton contrasts with the tranquil Lake Otsego, where the contemplative "Commodore" (based on a real Cooperstown character) angles eternally for a giant fish while lamenting the days when Natty Bumppo, now only a memory, roamed the forests. Lake and village come together in a thinly-disguised version of the 1837 "Three Mile Point" controversy, when villagers briefly tried to oust the Cooper family from their family picnic spot at what the novel calls "Fishing Point."
Significance: Often called America's first "novel of manners," "Home as Found" is a scathing and often very funny portrait of American society and its pretensions that infuriated American readers at the time, but is both readable and instructive today.
Finding it: In odd volumes from old sets of Cooper's works, it was reissued in paperback by Capricorn Books in 1961 (alas, now out of print). "Home as Found" is also available on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Cooper as America's first great naval historian.
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29. History of the Navy of the United States of America History (1839). [From The Freeman's Journal, April 16, 2002]
Background: For many years, James Fenimore Cooper had been gathering materials for a major history of the United States Navy -- in which he had served as a Midshipman from 1808-1811. He had made many friends in the Navy. He kept in touch with them, and one, Captain (later Rear Admiral) William Branford Shubrick, became perhaps his closest lifelong friend. After Cooper's return from Europe, he renewed his naval friendships, and spent many hours in Washington, D.C. searching through the Navy Archives. Cooper was convinced that American security depended primarily on its navy, but also that our fleet, and its men, had been repeatedly ignored and deprived of essential resources by a careless Government.
The Story: In two volumes (totaling 875 pages), Cooper tells the story of America's wars at sea, beginning with the earliest colonies, and carrying the story through to the end of the War of 1812. His style is that of a narrative, though it is interspersed with frequent tables listing ships, officers, and naval expenditures. Each battle or skirmish has been carefully researched, and recounted with much of the verve of Cooper's fictional writings -- though his accounts are always so scrupulously balanced as to win praise from some of America's old naval adversaries. The reader therefore often comes away feeling that he or she has been present at the action.
At the same time, Cooper gives ample coverage to the more mundane matters of ship construction, naval budgets, personnel policies, and political disputes -- that lie behind the exploits and failures of American ships at sea. Here he is an unabashed supporter of the Navy, and of the vital importance of giving it full encouragement.
Most of the book is given over to the events of the Revolution, of the undeclared naval war with France in the 1790s, the naval enterprises against the Barbary Pirates of North Africa, and of course the War of 1812.
Cooper's Naval History went through a number of up-dated editions (one printed here in Cooperstown). Cooper himself edited an "abridged" (to 447 pages) edition in 1841 aimed at the general public. New editions continued to appear, even after Cooper's death, with an added volume carrying the story up to 1856.
Significance: Until well thorough the 19th Century, Cooper's "History of the Navy of the United States of America," remained the standard work on the U.S. Navy -- and one crusty old Admiral is reported to have snorted that it was the only history book a sailor needed to know. Cooper hoped, without result, that Congress would appropriate funds to place copies on every US warship. There may have been many seamen who never realized that the author of the famous Naval History also wrote novels. Even today, it remains a classic of naval history.
Finding it: Long available only as a fairly rare (and expensive) book, there have been a number of recent reprints. Cooper's own abridged 1841 edition was reprinted in 1988 by Scholar's Facsimiles & Reprints, and again in 2001 by the United States Naval Institute. A 3-volume set (the complete 1856 version) was published by University Press of the Pacific, also in 2001.
Next Week: Cooper resurrects Natty Bumppo as "The Pathfinder."
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30. The Pathfinder; or, The Inland Sea Novel (1840). [From The Freeman's Journal, May 4, 2002]
Background: By 1839 James Fenimore Cooper was at a crossroads. He had completed and published the non-fiction works he had planned, and his attempts at writing satire had been soundly rejected by a self-satisfied American public. Even more to the point, Cooper was in financial difficulties -- the financial crash of 1837 had badly affected the book trade. The amount American authors could expect to earn from a novel had dropped almost ten-fold.
For Cooper the obvious answer was to go back to the themes that had proved so popular in the 1820s -- Natty Bumppo and The Sea. So in "The Pathfinder; or, The Inland Sea" he combined both: Indians and sailors, wilderness and waves. And he resurrected Natty Bumppo -- who had died, a very old man, at the end of "The Prairie" a dozen years before. He set his new story in 1759, at a British garrison at Oswego on Lake Ontario (where Cooper had served in the US Navy in 1808). And, making use of accounts of the Belgian Jesuit missionary Louis Hennepin (1640-1701), who discovered Niagara Falls and built the first ship to sail the Great Lakes, he created an imaginary freshwater naval war between France and England.
The Story: It is two years after "The Last of the Mohicans." Mabel Duncan and her opinionated uncle -- an "old salt" named "Cap" -- are heading to Oswego to join her father, a Sergeant in the British garrison there. Natty Bumppo (Pathfinder), accompanied by his old Indian friend Chingachgook and a young freshwater sailor named Jasper Western, rescue them from a treacherous Indian guide, and escort them through many adventures to Oswego. There, it turns out that Mabel's father wants her to marry his old friend Natty -- who gradually falls in love with her himself.
Adventures follow as war breaks out between England and France. On land there is frontier Indian fighting. On the waters of Lake Ontario, Jasper Western commands the small British warship "Scud" as it clashes with French ships. But "The Pathfinder" is also concerned with the tense, competitive social life of the Oswego garrison, troubled by feuding officers, social-climbing wives, and the beautiful, virtuous Mabel who is "only a Sergeant's daughter." And an unhappy triangle develops, as Natty is torn between his feelings for Mabel and his duties as an Army Scout, and Mabel must decide between honoring her father's wishes with Natty, or following her heart with Jasper.
Since -- as Cooper's readers already knew -- Natty is really not cut out for matrimony, an alternative romantic solution is found as the adventure winds up.
Significance: If "The Pathfinder" did not attain as much immediate success as the earlier Leatherstocking Tales, the public was delighted to welcome Natty back, and demanded more. Cooper happily returned to composing novels, and thus putting food on his family's table. But the Natty Bumppo of "The Pathfinder" has changed -- Cooper has become more concerned with Natty the man than with Natty the frontier philosopher; with the workings of everyday society more than the American epic.
Finding it: Readily available in many editions, and on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Cooper sets sail with Christopher Columbus in "Mercedes of Castile."
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31. Mercedes of Castile; or, The Voyage to Cathay Novel (1840). [From The Freeman's Journal, May 24, 2002]
Background: Back on his track as a writer of Romances, James Fenimore Cooper turned to what he undoubtedly hoped would be an easy success -- the story of Christopher Columbus. 1492 had become a hot topic in America, thanks in large part to the publication of Washington Irving's "Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus" (1828) and William Prescott's "Ferdinand and Isabella" (1838). Cooper was respected and admired as the creator of the sea novel. What could be better than a novel about Columbus' famous voyage! Alas.....
The Story: "Mercedes of Castile; or, The Voyage to Cathay" closely follows the historical record set forth by Irving and Prescott -- introducing two fictional characters to play the necessary roles of young lovers, and a number of secondary parts. Dona Maria de las Mercedes de Valverde is a beautiful young orphan in the household of Queen Isabella. Don Luis de Bobadilla is a handsome young nobleman with a reputation for getting himself in trouble. As Spain occupies Moslem Grenada early in 1492, Luis meets and is deeply impressed by Columbus, and he falls in love with Mercedes. To prove his devotion and his respectability, Luis signs aboard Columbus's crew -- using a pseudonym (that of a real member of the crew) to disguise his noble status. Columbus sets sail, and eventually reaches the new world.
There, on the Island of Santo Domingo, Luis encounters Ozema, a beautiful young native girl who looks just like Mercedes. He rescues her from assorted perils and, since she is in danger of being killed if she remains among her fellow Indians in America, he brings her back home to Spain. Virtuous though his morals may be, neither Mercedes nor Queen Isabella are amused when Luis shows up with Ozema in tow. Needless to say, however, this thorny problem is resolved before the last chapter.
Significance: In his honest effort to transcribe history accurately, Cooper succeeded only in writing a sometime excruciatingly boring narrative. It didn't help that he knew little of Spain, and had only a couple of dry histories as background to Spanish culture during the 15th century. It takes Cooper almost the entire first volume (Cooper novels were originally published in two volumes) to introduce all the characters, and to trudge through the complex court intrigues that led to Queen Isabella's giving her support to Columbus' apparently mad scheme of sailing west to China. Not until volume two does Columbus leaves the Canary Islands to begin his great leap across the Atlantic. And though Christopher Columbus is duly presented as a faultless American hero -- his speech and manners are all too pedestrian.
Even after Columbus finally sets sail, Cooper's narrative often reads less like a novel than the transcript of the log. Only when the expedition has reached the New World, and Luis begins his adventures with the Indian princess, does the story begin to come to life. Back home again in Spain, the narrative bogs down once more as the social complexities of Luis' situation are unravelled.
Finding it: Only in complete sets of Cooper's novels. "Mercedes of Castile" is also available on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Cooper creates The Glimmerglass in "The Deerslayer," a book that many consider his greatest novel.
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32. The Deerslayer; or, The First War-path Novel (1841). [From The Freeman's Journal, June 7, 2002]
Background: One evening in the summer of 1840, riding back from his Chalet Farm overlooking Lake Otsego, Cooper stopped and gazed out over the water. Turning to his daughter Susan, he remarked, "I must write one more book, dearie, about our little lake!" Soon afterward he began to write "The Deerslayer; or, The First Warpath." It would be the last of the five Leatherstocking Tales about the frontier scout Natty Bumppo -- but in this novel he is a very young Natty who is just entering manhood.
Unlike the more expansive earlier volumes in the series, "The Deerslayer" tells about a small handful of characters over a period of just one week, in a setting that is restricted to the waters and shores of Lake Otsego. And yet, though the novel is one of Cooper's longest, it is very carefully crafted, and is considered by many as Cooper's best, and as one of the masterpieces of American literature.
The Story: Young Natty, called "Deerslayer" (because he has not yet killed a man) has come to the Lake -- a hidden place of beauty in the wilderness known only as the Glimmerglass (mirror) -- to meet his Indian friend Chingachgook, whose fiancée has been carried off by hostile "Huron" Indians. The time is 1745, just as war has broken out between England and France for mastery of their North American colonies.
On the way, Natty has joined forces with Hurry Harry, a crude but handsome frontiersman interested only in money and women. When they arrive at the Glimmerglass, whose natural beauty fills Natty with awe and wonder, they find there the Hutter family, living in a fortified log "castle" built on stilts over the water. Old Tom Hutter is as vicious a man as Harry, but fiercely protective of his two grown daughters -- the beautiful, resourceful, and provocative Judith, and the pious, simple-minded Hetty.
The action of the story involves a series of conflicts, on water and ashore, with the band of hostile Huron Indians who have kidnapped Chingachgook's fiancee. Young Natty is faced with repeated physical and moral challenges as he seeks to protect Tom Hutter's daughters and to assist his Indian friend. As the story develops, the action moves gradually up the Western shore of the lake from Muskrat Point (today's Sailing Club), to Three Mile Point, and finally to Six Mile (Hickory Grove) Point where the novel reaches its violent climax. The violence not only ends the story, but in a sense represents the end of American innocence.
Significance: "The Deerslayer" is part fairy tale, part adventure story, and part a poetic evocation of natural beauty. At the same time it poses probing questions about individual and ethnic morality that seem almost centuries ahead of Cooper's times. But in its intensity, in its loving descriptions of atmosphere and water, of shores and forests, this favorite of Cooper's tales transcends mere storytelling.
Above all, "The Deerslayer" is a tribute to the beauty of a very particular lake, described in loving detail and with almost photographic accuracy.
Finding it: Readily available in many editions, and on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Back to sea -- and the clash of fleets -- in "The Two Admirals."
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33. The Two Admirals Novel (1842). [From The Freeman's Journal, June 14, 2002]
Background: Cooper's many novels about the sea had so far dealt only with one-t0-one naval battles between two opposing ships, but he had long wanted to write about whole fleets of warships as well, and particularly about the British navy. He realized that to do so in an "American" context, he would have to set his tale before the Revolution, when Britain and America still formed one nation. But another more original idea had also occurred to him.
"I have had a plan for years," he wrote his English publisher in 1839, "of writing a book, a tale, in which ships should be the only actors." Ships, as Cooper well knew, take on a personality of their own -- a combination of their build and sailing qualities and the interacting personalities of their commanders and crews. In "The Two Admirals," Cooper partially realized this plan.
The Story: "The Two Admirals" is set in 1745, as war between Britain and France is complicated by a rebellion in Scotland seeking to place Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne of the United Kingdom. On land, Wycherly Wychecombe, a young British naval officer from the colony of Virginia, is claimant to an ancestral estate tied up in legal technicalities, and falls for a lighthouse keeper's daughter. At sea two British admirals -- Vice Admiral Sir Gervaise Oakes (a staunch supporter of King George II) and his deputy, Rear Admiral Richard Bluewater (who sympathizes with the Scottish rebellion) -- command the British fleet. Bosom friends since childhood, they have risen together in the British Navy, but now find their political loyalties in conflict.
The two stories come together in a great sea battle (not based on any real engagement) fought in the English Channel, between a French fleet supporting Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion, and the British fleet whose two separate wings are commanded by the two admirals. In portraying the conflict Cooper used all his expert knowledge gained in writing the "History of the American Navy" a few years before.
Significance: Thomas Philbrick (in his classic "Cooper and American Sea Fiction") says that in this novel "Cooper makes an important advance toward the discovery of an alternative to the purely romantic treatment of the sea." Besides portraying ships with personalities in an imagined major fleet battle, Cooper gives an "extraordinarily convincing characterization of the two admirals and of the fine and involved relationship that binds them together." Naval strategy is coupled with "the concerns and characters of credible human beings."
Once again, Cooper was ahead of his time -- the concept of ship as personality would not, perhaps, achieve full realization until the famous 1952-53 NBC Television Series "Victory at Sea," orchestrated by Rogers and Hammerstein.
Finding it: In old sets of Cooper's works, in the well-edited Cooper Edition of 1990, published by the SUNY Press in Albany, and on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Action at sea and religious controversy along the coast of Italy from Elba to Naples in "The Wing-and-Wing," Cooper's only sea novel set during the Napoleonic wars.
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34. The Wing-and-Wing; or, Le Feu-Follet Novel (1842). [From The Freeman's Journal, June 21, 2002]
Background: Even back in America, Cooper could not forget his love-affair with Italy, where he had lived from 1828-30, and where -- at Sorrento -- he had spent perhaps the happiest moments of his life. In 1829, after almost a year in Florence, he had chartered the 40-ton "Bella Genovese" and taken his family down the coast to Naples, stopping off at various places -- including the Island of Elba -- along the way. He made full use of that experience in imagining the scenes of "The Wing-and-Wing; or, Le Feu-Follet" [will-o'-the-wisp].
And, perhaps because of his affection for Italy, Cooper would make the love story as romantic as any he ever wrote.
The novel is loosely based around a real historical event. In 1799 British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson arrested and ordered the hanging of an Italian revolutionary patriot -- Admiral Prince Francesco Caraccioli.
The Story:. Hovering off the Italian coast, during the Napoleonic Wars, is the French privateer the "Le Feu-Follet," commanded by the French revolutionary Raoul Yvard. Though a professed Deist, Yvard has fallen in love with a devout Roman Catholic girl on shore, Ghita Caraccioli, and risks his ship and men to meet with her secretly on the island of Elba. Ably assisted by his Yankee lieutenant, Ithuel Bolt, Yvard and the "Wing-and-Wing" make their way down the coast, constantly pursued by Captain Richard Cuffe of the British warship "Proserpine."
Much of the novel is given to exciting sea adventures, as the "Le Feu-Follet" plays at cat and mouse with the pursuing "Proserpine," and the nautical abilities of both pursuer and pursued are stretched to the utmost.
At Naples, Yvard finds that his girlfriend Ghita's grandfather is about to be executed by Lord Nelson, and forms a desperate plan to rescue him, in the course of which both he and his Yankee Lieutenant are themselves captured. The climax of the novel takes place on the coast at Sorrento, as Yvard and his men are cornered by enormously superior British naval forces.
Significance: Yvard's ship -- like the "Water-Witch" in Cooper's novel of that name -- is a thing of beauty with an almost miraculous ability to evade the British ships that are in pursuit of it -- and it is as much the heroine of the tale as is the beautiful Ghita Caraccioli. Though full play is given to the religious chasm that divides Raoul Yvard and his beloved Ghita, the liveliest character is probably the New Hampshire-born Ithuel Bolt, whose daring and bravery are only equaled by his bitter cynicism and thirst for revenge.
Finding it: In old editions of Cooper's works, a new modern edition published in New York by Henry Holt (Hearts of Oak Sea Classics) in 1998, and on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: One of the most unusual, and least-known, of Cooper's books -- "Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief" as told by the only talking hankie in World literature. A sharp and amusing satire on 19th century culture, set in Paris and New York.
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35. Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief Novelette (1843). [From The Freeman's Journal, July 12, 2002]
Background: Although Cooper was back in novel-writing trim, the market for novels in the 1840s was at a low ebb after the Financial Crisis of 1837. Cooper was forced to accept as little as a tenth of what he had earned for some of his best sellers in the 1820s. And he found himself obliged to try publishing in parts in the growing periodical market.
"Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief" is a very long short-story, or a short novel, and it was first published in Graham's Magazine in New York in 1843. Cooper would maintain his relationship with Graham's -- then one of the leading popular literary magazines in the country -- for some years.
The Story: As its title indicates, "Autobiography" has one of the most unusual narrators in literary history. The purported author, however, is not a common neckerchief, but a dainty object made from the finest linen. It is beautifully embroidered by Adrienne, a poor but honest French girl seeking to provide for her ailing mother. The time is 1830, as a second French Revolution ousts the Bourbon dynasty and proclaims Louis Philippe as King of the French. It is a time of rampant, unbridled, and often amoral capitalism.
Handkerchiefs, it seems, have a sort of collective memory of their past, as well as the telepathic ability to know what is going on about them even when hidden in a pocket.
Our handkerchief narrator is purchased from the virtuous Adrienne for a pittance, and passes through a series of owners, rising rapidly in price. Brought to America by a speculator, Colonel (Kentucky variety) Silky, the hankie becomes the first of its species to sell for $100 -- and is snapped up by Eudosia Halfacre, the socially ambitious daughter of a self-made New York businessman. We refrain from revealing the rest of the story -- except that, of course, morality eventually triumphs.
Significance: "Autobiography" is clever social satire -- exposing with equal vigor those who exploited the poor in Paris, and those who lived only to make and display their wealth in America. It presents a vivid picture of an era of wide-open and unrestrained economic expansion, in which traditional cultural values bowed before the growing might of the "almighty dollar."
The social-climbing Halfacre family is one of Cooper's more entertaining social portraits, and despite its occasional pathos "Autobiography" remains a very readable story. And readers will, no doubt, become careful about what they say in the hearing of their handkerchiefs.
Finding it: Published in both serial and book form in 1843, "Autobiography" was reprinted several times in tiny editions for specialized audiences. It was never included in the many editions of Cooper's "Complete Works." It is also available on-line, and even on this website. For other on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Back to the American Revolution, to Native Americans, and to Otsego County in "Wyandotté."
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36. Wyandotté; or, The Hutted Knoll Novel (1843). [From The Freeman's Journal, August 9, 2002]
Background: For his next novel Cooper returned to familiar territory -- the American frontier and American Indians, the American Revolution, and his home turf. Behind the story is local lore about the settlement of what is now Otsego County, and Cooper's lifelong fascination with the moral ambiguities of the American Revolution.
The Story:Wyandotté; or, The Hutted Knoll" begins in 1765 when British Army Captain Hugh Willoughby brings his family and a group of retainers to a new 7,000 acre "patent" on the Unadilla River that marks the boundary between colonial New York and the Iroquois Indians. He drains a beaver pond (thus instantly obtaining fertile cleared land) and builds his home on what had been an island in its midst (the "hutted knoll" of the title).
The members of Willoughby's settlement are as varied as those of real-life Cooperstown. They include discontented New England farmers, African-American slaves, recent immigrants from England and Ireland, a Scottish stonemason (Jamie Allen -- who in real life built Pomeroy Place in Cooperstown), and an Anglican clergyman. Visiting from time to time is "Saucy Nick, " an Iroquois (Tuscarora) Indian who once served Willoughby in the Army, who calls himself "Wyandotté" (the French version of the Iroquoian Wyandot tribe of the midwest).
The settlement, with its fields and mills, prospers for a decade. Then the American Revolution arrives to divide both family and the once happy community. Though Willoughby takes the precaution of building a stockade around the "hutted knoll," he never gets around to mounting the great gates that are intended to complete it. The Revolution complicates the romantic lives of his children, and his New England retainers try to seize his property in the name of "patriotism."
The story moves to an event-filled climax, sparked by the Indian Wyandotté who "never forgot a favor or forgave an injury." Many of the great issues of the Revolution are both discussed and played out, and the ending is as action-filled as any reader could wish.
Significance: As in his earlier novels "The Spy" and "Lionel Lincoln," Cooper is anxious to remind his fellow-Americans that the Revolution was not just a simple fight between Americans and Englishmen, but a Civil War among brothers, in which good Americans ended up on both sides, and bad ones exploited the conflict for their own personal profit. "Wyandotté" also reflects the real-life early history of what is now Otsego County; in particular the pre-Revolutionary settlements made by Col. Staats-Long Morris (on the exact site of Willoughby's fictional home), and the Edmeston brothers a little to the north. The ambiguous relationships between settlers and Indians are also explored, as are questions of love and patriotism, religion and duty.
Finding it: From sets of Cooper's works, on-line, and in an excellent 1982 edition from SUNY Press in Albany. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Cooper turns to biography, in his account of Ned Myers, a real-life American seaman (and onetime shipmate) who came to Cooperstown to tell Cooper his exciting life story.
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37. Ned Myers Biography (1843) [From The Freeman's Journal, August 30, 2002]
Background: In January 1843 James Fenimore Cooper received a letter from Ned Myers, then living at the Sailors Snug Harbor on Staten Island, a home for disabled old seamen. Was Cooper the author the same Jim Cooper who had sailed with him on board the merchant ship "Stirling" way back in 1806? "I am your old shipmate, Ned," Cooper replied, and in April they met for the first time in over thirty years.
Cooper invited Ned Myers to Cooperstown, where he stayed as Cooper's guest for five months at Otsego Hall, talking of old times and sailing around Otsego Lake -- where, Myers recalled, the wind "sometimes blew two or three different ways at the same time." Cooper immediately began to write "a new book, of entirely new character.... a real biography, intended to represent the experience, wrecks, battles, escapes, and career of a seaman who has been in all sorts of vessels, from a man of war to a smuggler of opium in China." That Fall he published "Ned Myers; or, A Life Before the Mast," and rewarded Myers with "a handsome fee."
Apparently cured of his life-long alcoholism, Myers married a woman with grown children, one of whom Cooper brought to Cooperstown to train as a domestic servant. But he soon relapsed, and died in 1849; Cooper continued to aid his family.
Myers' Story: Born in Quebec about 1793, and brought up in Nova Scotia as an orphan, Myers ran off to New York in 1806 to became a cabin boy on the "Stirling", whose crew included another runaway -- young Jim Cooper. Taking down (and no doubt editing) Myers' words, Cooper here provides the only detailed account of the "Stirling's" voyage, which would so much influence Cooper's own later life.
Over the course of his seagoing career, Ned Myers served aboard 72 different ships. During the War of 1812 he was one of the few men to survive the sinking of the schooner "Scourge" on Lake Ontario; rescued by the schooner "Julia", he was captured in battle by the British, and spent several years as a prisoner of war back in Nova Scotia. During an unsuccessful escape attempt he passed through Windsor, Nova Scotia -- which, as the birthplace of Ice Hockey and home of the celebrated Canadian writer Thomas Halliburton, has recently become a "twin village" with Cooperstown.
Myers remained for decades an ordinary seaman, on both naval and merchant vessels, before ending his career (with a broken hip) on the island of Java in 1840.
Significance: Though told in the "first person" as if the semi-literate Myers had written it himself, "Ned Myers" is really Cooper's first excursion into writing biography. Though he puts Myers' words into forms acceptable to literate readers of the 1840s, Cooper tried hard to preserve "the terseness of the passages, the harshness of the scenes, and the honesty of characterization" of Myers' own voice. The result is a unique account of "life before the mast" as lived by a very ordinary sailor.
Finding it: Rarely included in sets of Cooper's "complete works," "Ned Myers" was finally reprinted in 1989 by the Naval Institute Press of Annapolis, Maryland, with an excellent introduction by William S. Dudley.
Next Week: "Afloat and Ashore" begins the story of Miles Wallingford, recreating the life of a sailor who seems very much like Cooper himself.
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38. Afloat and Ashore Novel (1844) [From The Freeman's Journal, September 6, 2002]
Background: After completing the biography of the sailor, Ned Myers, Cooper's thoughts again turned to the sea. His next novel began the fictional autobiography of Miles Wallingford, a young man from New York State who runs away to sea and gradually rises to command his own ships. It is told in the "first person," as Miles looks back in old age on his life and his career at sea.
Cooper became so enthralled with this story that after writing a novel-length manuscript he was still in the middle of Wallingford's life. So he terminated "Afloat and Ashore" in the middle of an exciting episode and followed it with a second book, "Miles Wallingford," that picks up where "Afloat" ends and tells the rest of the hero's life and adventures.
The Story: In 1797 sixteen-year old Miles Wallingford and his friend Rupert Hardinge, accompanied by Miles' young slave Nebuchadnezzar (Neb), run away from the family estate at Clawbonny on the shores of the Hudson and go to sea. They leave behind Miles' sister Grace, and Rupert's sister Lucy. Thus begins a long series of adventurous sea voyages around the world as Miles gradually rises in experience and rank, periodically returning home to visit Clawbonny in Ulster County. They repeatedly encounter storms and shipwrecks, fights at sea, captures and escapes.
A new character is introduced in the person of an older ship's officer, Mr. Marble (so called because as a baby he was found abandoned on a tombstone). Together, they travel around the world, fight Indians on America's northwest coast, are cast away on a South Pacific island, fight Spanish smugglers off the coast of South America. Other voyages take Miles to most of the ports of Europe.
Though Miles is in love with his childhood friend Lucy Hardinge, they are kept apart by mutual misunderstanding. Miles feels socially inferior (even though now a ship captain) to the intellectual Hardinge family, and both he and Lucy think the other may have different romantic interests. But the novel ends as Miles jumps overboard to rescue a package intended for Lucy -- and seems about to drown.
Significance: "Afloat and Ashore" was Cooper's first serious attempt to write in the first person, in which everything is seen through the eyes of the character telling the story. But in a sense Miles Wallingford's story is Cooper's own story -- not the real-life story as a farmer, traveler, celebrity, and author that Cooper actually lived, but rather an imagined story of what his life might have been had he stayed at sea.
In that sense, "Afloat and Ashore" is a personal meditation about himself, and surely Cooper never packed so many and so varied sea adventures into a single tale, nor covered so many parts of the globe. Moreover, since Miles is in some sense himself, Cooper could continue to express his own personal views on social and cultural issues through the musings of his hero.
Finding it: Available primarily in volumes from sets of Cooper novels, and on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Miles Wallingford continues his adventures at sea in "Miles Wallingford: a sequel to Afloat and Ashore."
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39. Miles Wallingford Novel (1844) [From The Freeman's Journal, September 13, 2002]
Background: In composing the saga of a imaginary life at sea in "Afloat and Ashore" Cooper had included so many adventures that he ran out of room with his story half-told. So he ended his novel practically in mid-sentence (as its hero is in the process of drowning) and began "Miles Wallingford; or, a Sequel to Afloat and Ashore" which picks up exactly where the prior book ended. It is not so much a sequel as a simple continuation, even more than his earlier novel "Home as Found" had been a continuation of "Homeward Bound."
The Story: Rescued from drowning in the Hudson by his faithful slave Neb, Miles Wallingford continues to relate his life story. The story opens mostly on land, as Miles' sister Grace Wallingford becomes seriously ill, and as his old friend, the supposed orphan Moses Marble, accidentally discovers his real and very much alive mother.
Miles then goes to sea again, mortgaging the family estate at Clawbonny to a cousin to finance a cargo of sugar. The year is now 1803, Britain and France are again at war, and the British Navy has resumed attacking American ships in order to draft sailors who cannot prove they are not British. Miles' ship, the "Dawn," undergoes a series of vividly described adventures as it is in turn attacked by British and then French warships, and encounters a mighty storm at sea.
Eventually Miles, his faithful slave Neb, and his old friend Moses Marble, return safely home to America, only to find themselves penniless and deeply in debt. Miles even ends up in debtor's prison. Eventually, of course, all is resolved. Miles Wallingford is happily married to his childhood sweetheart Lucy Hardinge, his fortune is recovered, those who have plotted against him get their just deserts, and he lives on to a ripe old age at his beloved Ulster County estate of Clawbonny. Moses Marble ends up a happy old sea captain. Nebuchadnezzar (Neb), marries another slave on the Clawbonny estate, and though Miles gives them their freedom they refuse to take advantage of it.
Significance: As a continuation of "Afloat and Ashore," this novel also reflects Cooper's apparent intention of imagining what his life might have been had he remained a sailor. It also represents Cooper's ideal of a brave, honest, plain-spoken American seaman, who achieves success in life without sacrificing his principles.
As he completed this double-barrelled novel, Cooper was becoming increasingly caught up in the so-called "Anti-Rent Wars" of central New York, in which tenant farmers (many on perpetual or multi-life leases) sought to gain ownership of the land on which they lived without paying for it, using both violence and political pressure as tools to that end. Cooper, though not personally affected by this conflict, became emotionally involved in the issues at stake -- which to him included rights to property, freedom from violence, and the impropriety of achieving immoral aims through legislative fiat. These issues would dominate his next three books.
Finding it: Like "Afloat and Ashore," "Miles Wallingford" is available in odd volumes from old sets of Cooper, and is also to be found on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: "Satanstoe," the first of Cooper's "Littlepage Trilogy" and one of his finest novels.
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40. Satanstoe. Novel (1845) [From The Freeman's Journal, September 20, 2002]
Background: By 1845, in parts of economically depressed Greene, Delaware, and Schoharie counties, many tenant farmers on long-term leases could not pay their rent. Sheriffs seeking to enforce eviction orders were met with protests, violence, and eventually murder. The Legislature hastily sought to change laws so as to end the controversial leases -- which might run for several lifetimes or in perpetuity.Though Cooper was not personally involved -- the troubles did not touch Otsego County and he was not a big landowner -- he sided strongly with the landlords, some of whom had spent heavily over many years to develop and support settlements whose tenants paid comparatively nominal rents. He was especially angered by legislation that sought to change contractual arrangements retroactively and without recourse. He expressed his feelings in a series of novels that follows one family from New York's colonial establishment down to the troubled times of the 1840s. And, following the example of his previous novel, he let his fictional heroes tell their own stories.
The Story: Cornelius (Corny) Littlepage begins the family saga in "Satanstoe; or, the Littlepage Manuscripts: A Tale of the Colony." Born in 1737 on his family's lands at "Satanstoe" in Westchester County, and educated at Princeton, Corny's best friend is the ethnically Dutch Dirck Follock (Van Valkenburg) , and he falls in love with Dirck's young cousin Anneke Mordaunt. Corny also encounters the avaricious Yankee schoolteacher Jason Newcome, and the snobbish English Major Bulstrode. Through Corny's eyes we experience life in colonial New York City, including its annual Pinxter slave festival, and then move north where Corny and Dirck are sent to develop two new settlements on the fringes of the Adirondacks at "Ravensnest" and "Mooseridge." In Albany, joined by Anneke, her friend Mary Wallace, and the high-spirited Guert Ten Eyck, they marvel at the still very Dutch culture of that city, and find adventure on the ice of the Hudson as it breaks up in springtime.
Moving north again, accompanied by Corny's faithful slave Jaap (Jacob) and the Indian guide Susquesus, Corny and his friends participate in a losing battle (in 1758) against the French at Fort Ticonderoga. The story then moves into the real wilderness, to climax in a series of encounters with hostile Huron Indians at "Mooseridge" and, eventually, at the fortified log bastion at "Ravensnest."
Significance: With "Satanstoe," Cooper began what would be literature's first multi-generational series of novels. But "Satanstoe" is also one of Cooper's most engaging and entertaining books. Corny and his friends make pleasant company, and no novel has better described daily life -- both English and Dutch -- in colonial New York. There is enough adventure for several books, and the issues of the Anti-Rent wars seem far off in an unseen future.
Finding it: In sets of Cooper, and several separate editions, including an excellent one from the SUNY Press in Albany in 1990, and on line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: We follow the adventures of Corny's son Mordaunt Littlepage, in the years after the Revolution, as he develops the new community of "Mooseridge" in "The Chainbearer."
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41. The Chainbearer Novel (1845) [From The Freeman's Journal, September 27, 2002]
Background: With the completion of "Satanstoe," Cooper moved on to the second in his trilogy of a family whose multi-generational lifework of community building is fated to be attacked by the uneducated, ungrateful, and cowardly thugs of the "Anti-Rent War." Cooper was -- as so often in his literary career -- exploring brand new literary ground. In addition the first-person memories of his protagonists, recorded in the three "Littlepage Manuscripts" addressed to their unborn descendants, Cooper tied the stories together with the scheming Yankee Newcome family, and with two faithful Littlepage family retainers whose lives span the century covered by the trilogy: Jacob Littlepage (Jaap or Yaap), an African-American slave, and Susquesus, an Indian guide.
The Story: The American Revolution is over, and Mordaunt (Mordy) Littlepage, son of Corny Littlepage and Anneke Mordaunt of "Satanstoe," is developing the frontier settlement of "Ravensnest" and leasing out its lands to Yankee farmers. He soon meets "The Chainbearer" -- an old, uneducated, and supremely honorable Dutch surveyor named Andries Coejemans and his beautiful niece Ursula ("Dus") Malbone, who follows her uncle in his physically arduous profession of marking out new lands in the wilderness. Ursula's handsome but poor brother Frank Malbone, and his girlfriend Priscilla Bayard, round out the quartet of "young lovers" so common in Cooper tales.
At "Ravensnest" Mordy finds that the unscrupulous Yankee schoolteacher Jason Newcome is leading the New Englanders tenant farmers to whom the lands at "Ravensnest" are being leased; he begins by manipulating an election to ensure that the community church will be Congregationalist rather than Episcopalian. Newcome also claims ownership of the mill he runs (on behalf of Mordy)-- though his real purpose is only to extract a long lease on very favorable terms.
Mordy and his friends fall into the hands of a colorful family of Vermont squatters led by Aaron "Thousandacres, " who have established an illicit sawmill to cut and secretly sell to Jason Newcome the timber on Mordy's lands. Like the thuggish Bush clan of "The Prairie," the extended Thousandacre family despise all legal restraint, and vehemently defend their right to live and act as they please. An action-packed climax is reached as Mordy and the others seek to escape their captors.
Significance: The comparative political calm of colonial New York has changed for the worse, as unscrupulous self-seekers like the Yankee Newcome family (who manipulates and evades the law), and the Thousandacre family (who scorn it) seek to dispossess the creators of wilderness settlements. In his presentation of Aaron Thousandacres, Cooper is enabled to discuss in depth many basic aspects of the role of property in American culture and society. And Andries Coejemans, the "Chainbearer" of the title, is a fine example of the many sympathetic proletarian characters -- like Natty Bumppo -- who figure in Cooper novels, demonstrating by their lives that virtue is not dependent on manners, wealth, or a fancy education.
Finding it: In sets of Cooper's collected works; it has not yet been placed on-line.
Next Week: The trilogy comes to an end in 1845, in "The Redskins; or Indian and Injin," as "anti-rent" rioters dressed up as Indians encounter the real thing.
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42. The Redskins Novel (1846) [From The Freeman's Journal, October 11, 2002]
Background: In "Satanstoe" Cooper had introduced the Littlepage family (and their adversaries, the unscrupulous Yankee Newcomes) and their first steps towards building the frontier community of "Ravensnest" somewhere on the fringes of the Adirondacks. In "The Chainbearer" he had described the construction of the settlement, and the growing social, economic, and moral tensions of post-Revolutionary America. Now, in "The Redskins; or, Indian and Injin: Being the Conclusion of the Littlepage Manuscripts" he introduced the "anti-rent war" of the time in which he was writing.
The Story: The protagonist is now Hugh Roger Littlepage, grandson of Mordaunt Littlepage of "The Chainbearer," accompanied by his cynical "Uncle Ro," for whom he has been named. Returning to America after several years in Europe, and alarmed by stories of the violence committed by the anti-renters, Hugh and Uncle Ro disguise themselves as German peddlers before returning incognito to "Ravensnest" to scout out the situation. Travelling up the Hudson, they meet Seneca Newcome (current representative of the Yankee Newcomes), and the beautiful and virtuous Mary Warren (with whom Hugh promptly falls in love).
Their disguises unpenetrated (except by the faithful aged Indian Susquesus), Hugh and Uncle Ro travel around "Ravensnest," learn of the anti-renters' nefarious designs on their property, and even attend a rally at which the anti-renters conceal their identities by dressing up as "injins." They also encounter a delegation of real Indians, who after visiting Washington D.C. have come north to honor to the aged Susquesus.
When the anti-rent "injins" attack "Ravensnest," they find they must deal not only with Hugh Littlepage and his friends, but with real Indians as well. In a reversal of most American fictional tradition -- a reversal almost unheard of in 1846 -- it is the Indians who are the "good guys" and the settlers the villains.
Significance: Often dismissed as pure polemics, "The Redskins" is indeed very talky: both the characters and the author repeatedly halt the action to declaim on the virtues or infamies of the anti-renters, their aims, and their methods. And the efforts of Hugh and Uncle Ro to imitate German peddlers come across as ludicrous rather than amusing. Nevertheless, "The Redskins" has its exciting moments, and its lengthy political discussions, though perhaps inappropriate for a novel, provide excellent insight into the views of both the anti-renters and their adversaries.
These discussions remain of considerable historical importance today, because most recent popular accounts of the controversy (especially Henry Christman's "Tin Horns and Calico" of 1945) have effectively transformed the "anti-renters" into folk heroes -- despite their use of disguise, their open employment of blackmail and coercion to achieve their ends, and their frequent recourse to personal violence. Though the long-term, "feudal," lease system -- typified by the Hudson River "patroons" -- seems obsolete today (and was understandably offensive to Yankee settlers accustomed to freehold ownership), it played an important role in the history and settlement of our State.
Finding it: Only in sets of Cooper's works; not yet placed on-line.
Next Week: Back to biography with the "Lives of Distinguished Naval Officers."
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43. Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers Biographies (1846). [From The Freeman's Journal, October 18, 2002]
Background: The 1840s were financially difficult years for Cooper. The potential earnings from publishing novels had dropped greatly, especially after the Financial Panic of 1837. Cooper himself was still embroiled in a costly dispute with the Whig-dominated New York press (which took delight in trashing his novels and thus reducing his readership). To make ends meet, Cooper for the first time tried his hand at writing for a periodical, the literary "Graham's Magazine" of Philadelphia.
In addition to a novel ("Jack Tier") and a novelette ("Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief"), Cooper wrote for Graham's, between 1842 and 1845, a series of nine biographical sketches of American naval officers, combining research he had done for his 1839 "Naval History," with his own close naval connections. Now he reprinted these sketches, with occasional slight corrections, in the form of a 516-page book.
The Story: The nine naval officers described are: John Paul Jones and Richard Dale (from the Revolution); John Shaw (from the undeclared 1798 naval war with France), William Bainbridge, Richard Somers, and Edward Preble (from the 1803 War with the Barbary Pirates); and Oliver Hazard Perry, John Templer Shubrick, and Melancthon Taylor Woolsey (from the War of 1812).
Each sketch includes an account of the subject's ancestry, upbringing, and family, as well as describing, in greater or lesser detail, his naval career and exploits, and rendering tribute to a person whom Cooper obviously admired. The accounts of the most famous of the nine men, John Paul Jones and Oliver Hazard Perry, are much longer than the others and had originally been printed in installments in "Graham's."
Of most interest to most modern readers is the sketch of Commodore Melancthon Taylor Woolsey (1782-1838), first published in "Graham's" for January 1845. This is not because of Woolsey's honorable but hardly outstanding career, but because in 1808-09 the then Lieutenant Woolsey commanded a small unit, including the 19-year-old Midshipman James Cooper, sent to Oswego on Lake Ontario to supervise construction of the "Oneida," the first American warship on the Great Lakes. Cooper included extensive anecdotes of life in Oswego, and of the boat trip he and Woolsey took along the shore of Lake Ontario to visit Niagara Falls, which remain our principal source for the details of Cooper's own life during those years.
Significance: Almost throughout his life Cooper was an enthusiastic booster of the United States Navy and of the importance of American seapower in ensuring American security. He constantly railed against successive American administrations for neglecting the Navy, letting its ships decay, and shabbily treating its officers and men. Of those he described, Woolsey had been his commander, and John Shubrick was the older brother of William Branford Shubrick, one of Cooper's closest and life-long personal friends and confidants.
Finding it: Only, alas, as separate articles in "Graham's Magazine" and in the original edition published in Philadelphia in 1846.
Next Week: A shipwreck, survival on a desert island in the Pacific, and an attempt to build an American utopia, in "The Crater; or, Vulcan's Peak."
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44. The Crater Novel (1847) [From The Freeman's Journal, November 8, 2002]
Background: After the three "on land" novels based on New York State's "Anti-Rent" wars of the 1840s ("Satanstoe", "The Chainbearer", "The Redskins"), Cooper returned to his old love -- the sea -- to write one of his most original and imaginative novels, "The Crater; or, Vulcan's Peak: A Tale of the Pacific." He relied heavily on the records, published in 1845 of the first American scientific expedition to the Pacific Ocean, led by his US Navy friend Charles Wilkes, and was encouraged by the success of Herman Melville's first Pacific novel, "Typee" (1846).
Also inspiring Cooper's concept was the famous series of paintings, "The Course of Empire" (1834-36), by Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole, depicting the rise and fall of human civilization. The result was a story that is partly vivid shipwreck adventure in the Pacific, partly the presentation of a utopian community, and partly an impassioned criticism of American society -- much of it still relevant today.
The Story: Around 1800 an American ship, the Rancocus, is cast away on a tiny Pacific desert islet. Only the hero, First Mate Mark Woolston, and the faithful sailor Bob Betts, have survived a storm. For months they harvest seaweed to convert the barren sands to fertile soil that can support the seeds salvaged from the ship (and their pet goat Kitty). After further adventures, a second ship arrives -- bringing Mark's girlfriend and colonists from his home town -- just as a new and much more fertile island, dominated by an active volcano, rises up suddenly next to the original islet.
A utopian American community is formed and prospers, with Mark as its elected "Governor," and fights off invading Polynesian islanders and pirates. Mark's idealized world is seriously threatened, however, only by the arrival of more American colonists, including contentious journalists, lawyers, clergymen, and would-be politicians. The volcano that looms over the island provides an explosive climax to the story.
Significance: Cooper's "The Crater" belongs with "Robinson Crusoe" and "The Swiss Family Robinson" as one of literature's greatest "desert island" stories. It directly inspired Jules Verne's "The Mysterious Island" (1875); Verne, a founder of modern science-fiction, was a life-long admirer of Cooper's writing. "The Crater" remains today an exciting story on many levels -- from its painstaking and realistic descriptions of desert island survival, to its portraits of Pacific Islanders and its still-controversial critique of American society. Especially where Cooper's heroes are converting barren sands to fertile soil, it reflects Cooper's own passionate interest in plants and agriculture.
In the words of critic Thomas Philbrick, "No single novel better demonstrates the full range of Cooper's mind and art than 'The Crater,'" which is both "an exciting narrative of maritime adventure," written with "inventiveness and intensity," and "a drama of ideas" intended as "a parallel and warning to America."
Finding it: In sets of Cooper's works, and in an excellent edition published by Harvard University Press in 1962. "The Crater" is also available on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: "Jack Tier," a sea novel of the Mexican-American war off the Florida Coast, with a villainous American sea captain -- who makes Captains Bligh and Queeg seem like old softies -- pursued by the American Navy, and by his past.
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45. Jack Tier Novel (1848) [From The Freeman's Journal, November 15, 2002]
Background: Just weeks before the Mexican-American War broke out in May 1846, Cooper proposed a new sea novel to "Graham's Magazine" of Philadelphia. The result was "Jack Tier; or, The Florida Reef" which appeared in monthly installments from November 1846 to March 1848, under the title "The Islets of the Gulf; or Rose Budd." Only after the serial publication was completed, did the story appear in book form.
One of the darkest of Cooper's novels, "Jack Tier" reflects Cooper's greater realism as a writer, as it explores the depths of depravity to which a man of the sea can be led. Though set in the Mexican war -- a war Cooper reluctantly supported -- its portrayal of the Mexican side as decent and patriotic suggests the careful human impartiality with which Cooper had earlier written about the conflicting sides in the American revolution. Although a booster of American military power (especially at sea), Cooper never stooped to jingoism.
The Story: When hero Harry Mulford sails from New York as Mate of the "Molly Swash" on a voyage to Florida, he finds the ship dilapidated, and Captain Stephen Spike a nasty villain. Mulford quickly becomes preoccupied with the need to protect the only passengers aboard: the beautiful young Rose Budd, her silly aunt, and their Irish servant. If the ship's cargo is only flour, why is Captain Spike so anxious to avoid both the Customs Service and the United States Navy Cruiser Poughkeepsie? And why does Jack Tier, an old sailor who joins the ship at the last moment, harbor so much concealed hatred for Captain Spike?
Among the reefs and islands off the Florida coast, the adventures begin when Mulford discovers that Spike is really smuggling gunpowder to the Mexicans. The remainder of the story is one of storms and a tornado, shipwreck, underwater salvage, and finally survival on an overturned lifeboat and on a desert island, as Mulford and his friends face both the perils of the sea and the malevolence of Captain Spike. As the novel comes to an exciting end, we finally learn the identity of the mysterious Jack Tier.
Significance: The only novel Cooper ever wrote to be published in monthly installments, "Jack Tier" as a sea tale is both exciting and grimly realistic, punctuated with regular crises timed to fit the installment system. Cooper has come a long way from the romanticism of "The Red Rover" and the whimsy of "The Water-Witch."
Although written in the midst of a war with Mexico, the principal Mexican character, Don Juan Montefalderon y Castro, is portrayed as a decent and patriotic citizen of his country, as appalled by the cruelty and deception of Captain Spike as are the American protagonists.
Finding it: "Jack Tier" is available only in collected sets of Cooper's works, and on-line on several internet sites. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Indians and settlers during the War of 1812 in the now almost vanished oak savannas of southern Michigan, in "The Oak Openings." An Indian bent on vengeance against the white man is affected by the martyrdom of a silly but enthusiastic Christian missionary.
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46. The Oak Openings (1848) [From The Freeman's Journal, November 22, 2002]
Background: Towards the end of his life, perhaps in part because he had become so disillusioned with the social and cultural directions his beloved American was taking, Cooper turned increasingly to the solaces of the Episcopalian religion in which he had always been active. "The Oak Openings; or, The Bee-Hunter" reflects this new emphasis, as well as a desire to return once more to the familiar territory of settlers and Indians on the American frontier. Though written in the familiar form of wilderness adventure, Cooper's emphasis is now also on sin and redemption.
In the mid-1840s Cooper had made several visits on business to the Kalamazoo region of Michigan, and had been impressed by the open savannas sprinkled with oak trees (now, alas, almost completely gone) that were one of its most unique features. As so often in his career, Cooper worked his life experiences into the background for a novel.
The Story: In the still pristine wilderness of Michigan a nomadic collector of honey, Ben Boden, encounters Gershom Waring, his faithful wife and beautiful sister Margery, selling alcohol (of which Gershom is all too fond himself) from his cabin at "Whiskey Centre." The War of 1812 has just begun; Ben Boden warns the Warings of the impending threat of attacks by pro-British Indians, and hires Gershom to transport his stores of honey back to the protection of American settlements. The attempt is complicated both by Gershom's continued love of liquor, and by hostile Indians of the Pottawattamie tribe. A general Indian uprising is being organized by a mysterious Indian of unknown tribal origin.
There arrives on the scene a Christian missionary calling himself Parson Amen, accompanied by an old frontier scout named Captain Flint, and a mysterious Indian called Scalping Peter. Parson Amen believes American Indians to be the Lost Tribes of Israel, but his efforts to convince them are hampered when the Indians learn how Christians mistreat Jews.
The remainder of the exciting tale, as vivid as any Cooper ever wrote, includes martyrdom, conversion, and wilderness adventure galore before Ben Boden and his new girl-friend Margery Waring (of course!) reach safety and find happiness.
Significance: As Cooper grew older, and increasingly despondent about the possibilities of political reform in America, he became increasingly involved with the Episcopal branch of Christianity with which he had been affiliated from his youth. Perhaps he felt that only divine intervention could save the America he loved so much. As always, however, he had a clear eye for the contradictions and occasional hypocrisy that accompanied genuine devotion.
Finding it: "The Oak Openings" has not been recently reprinted, and must be sought out in sets of Cooper's collected works. It is, however, available on-line from several sites. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: In "The Sea Lions," Cooper continues his interest in Christianity, in a chilling adventure set among the icebergs, the freezing temperatures, and the winter darkness of Antarctica.
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47. The Sea Lions (1849) [From The Freeman's Journal, November 29, 2002]
Background: In "The Oak Openings" Cooper had written his last novel of the American frontier; now he turned to what would be his final novel of the sea. As in his previous book, however, Cooper was now concerned with questions of Christian religion in addition to the secular issues of culture, morality, and nationality that had dominated many of his previous books.
As with "The Crater" of 1848, Cooper based his new story on the published reports of the expedition to the Pacific Ocean and Antarctic Seas led by his friend Charles Wilkes. Although American whalers (and "sealers") had plied the chilled waters of the Antarctic for years, in search of their prey, they tended -- like the characters in "The Sea Lions; or, The Lost Sealers" -- to be secretive about the lands they had discovered.
The Story: It is 1819 in Southold at the far end of Long Island, across the sound from Martha's Vineyard. Miserly old Deacon Pratt has stumbled on a treasure map showing the location of an island in the Antarctic rich with seals and sea lions (not to mention a treasure buried in Caribbean). He outfits a ship, the "Sea Lion," and sends it after these treasures under the command of young Roswell Gardiner, who has fallen in love with his orphaned niece Mary. Though Mary returns Roswell's affection, she -- as a good Trinitarian in the Episcopal mode -- is deeply troubled by his Unitarianism and his denial of the divinity of Christ.
Roswell goes to sea, only to find that his "Sea Lion" is being tailed by an identical ship -- of the same name -- whose Captain Daggett, the reader learns, knows of the treasure but does not have the map. Eventually, both ships reach the secret island in the Antarctic, and -- separately -- kill and skin the seals and sea lions that abound there. In Roswell's crew is an experienced veteran of these chilly seas, Stephen Stimson, who wordily accompanies his practical advice with Trinitarian doctrine.
Before the two ships can depart, the dark winter of the Antarctic settles in and traps them in its icy grasp. Roswell and his crew follow Stimson's sometimes strange advice (including ice-water baths and burning up most of the ship for fuel) to help them survive until the sun returns; advice not heeded by the crew of the rival "Sea Lion." Back home Mary Pratt waits and prays, and hopes Roswell is reading the Bible she gave him.
Significance: As so often, Cooper has combined vividly described adventures with a discussion of serious ideas -- in this novel the rift within Protestant Christianity between Trinitarianism and Unitarianism. If Stimson's mini-sermons seem a bit dated, the same is not true of Cooper's graphic descriptions of men struggling desperately to survive in the world's harshest climate, which remain today as exciting as when "The Sea Lions" went to press a century and a half ago.
Finding it: In sets of Cooper's works, in a 1965 reprint by the University of Nebraska Press, and in several versions on-line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Contemporary (that is, 1850) American legal practice, crime detection, and the issue of women's rights, in "The Ways of the Hour," America's first court-room drama centered around a murder, and Cooper's last novel.
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48. The Ways of the Hour (1850) [From The Freeman's Journal, December 6, 2002]
Background: By 1850 Cooper was deeply concerned about where New York was going -- legally, socially, and ethically. It was a period of rapid, generally "populist" change. The new 1846 New York Constitution provided for popular election of all judges and local officials, and extended the vote to all white males over 21. It also abolished (for the future) the long leaseholds against which the anti-renters had been violently protesting. The 1848 Code of Civil Procedure totally revised the New York State legal system -- simplifying and standardizing it, abolishing its medieval practices and use of the Latin language, and making it far more accessible to the public (this so-called "Field Code", named for its drafter, David Dudley Field, would spread throughout America and even back to England). And the 1848 Married Women's Property Act allowed married women, for the first time, to control their own property (rather than putting it totally into the hands of their husbands).
All these sudden changes troubled Cooper. On a more personal level, he bewailed the case of the wealthy Harriet Douglas (1790-1872) who married (and hen-pecked) Cooper's close friend Henry Cruger (1800-1867), of "Henderson Hall" in Herkimer County, leaving him to manage her business affairs while she gallivanted about Europe.
The Story: In Biberry, the county seat of upstate "Duke's County," a mysterious and solitary young woman, Mary Monson, is accused of burning down the house where she boards and murdering its owners to steal their cache of money. When Dr. McBrain of New York City does the autopsies, he brings in his rather stuffy New York lawyer friend Thomas Dunscomb, along with Dunscomb's orphaned niece Sarah Wilmeter and her brother Jack (who promptly falls for the accused Mary Monson), and Sarah's boyfriend Michael Millington.
The story revolves about the preparations for and conduct of Mary Monson's trial for murder. The sophisticated New York City lawyer and doctor, in collaboration with a local lawyer expert in the fine art of influencing potential jurors, are pitted against a corrupt local legal system. It doesn't help that Mary Monson refuses to help in her own defence, or that she acts so as to build up local prejudice against her as an effete sophisticate; in describing her, Cooper was clearly thinking of Harriet Douglas, who caused his friend Henry Cruger so much trouble.
Though filled with asides discussing and criticizing the "ways of the hour" that were so changing New York society, Cooper's novel is nevertheless an exciting (perhaps America's first) murder mystery novel, filled with courtroom drama and with an unexpected but perfectly logical climax.
Significance: Cooper was getting a lot of things (probably too many) off his chest, but his last novel provides a fascinating picture of 1850 life in both up- and down-state New York, as well as being a "pioneering" and often gripping murder mystery.
Finding it: In sets of Cooper, and in an English paperback edition published in 1996 (Alan Sutton, "Popular Classics"). Not yet available on-line.
Next Week: "The Lake Gun" -- a short story and satirical allegory, about Seneca Lake, an Indian legend, and New York Senator William Seward.
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49. The Lake Gun (1850) [From The Freeman's Journal, December 13, 2002]
Background: James Fenimore Cooper's son, Paul Fenimore Cooper, got his college education at Geneva College (now Hobart) in Geneva, New York, on Seneca Lake. Cooper visited his son there a number of times, on one occasion addressing a graduation ceremony. In the process he picked up a lot of local lore about Seneca Lake.
In particular, Cooper learned about two local legends. According to the first, there is an upright floating log, its top looking like a human face, that is doomed to float about the lake forever; following the old European legend, it is known as "the wandering Jew." The second legend is about the "lake gun" -- a mysterious booming sound that is occasionally heard on the lake. Asked to write a short story (and needing the money), Cooper composed "The Lake Gun," giving these two legends a distinctly New York State political twist attacking New York Whig Party leader, former Governor, and then Senator, William Seward. It was published in "The Parthenon" -- a compilation of stories and essays, in 1850.
The Story: A wandering writer named Fuller (presumably based on Cooper himself) hears the legends of the "lake gun" and the "wandering Jew" and hires a local boatman to take him around Seneca Lake in search of them. They are not successful, but they come upon an educated young Seneca Indian looking down on the lake where his ancestors once lived, who -- as they hear the thundering "lake gun," points out the floating log his people call the Swimming Seneca.
He tells Fuller and his companion an old Indian story, about a demagogue named "See-wise" who stirred up the Seneca people to disregard the laws laid down by the Great Manitou -- whose voice of anger is the "lake gun" -- and to catch fish during seasons that the Manitou had prohibited. "See-wise" disappeared, transformed into the floating log that white men call the "wandering Jew," and is condemned to float about the lake for 1000 years.
The Indian joins Fuller, and they row out to the floating log, which turns out to have a top with a retreating forehead and hatchet-shaped face (that of Senator William Seward). The parties discuss whether white men, like Indians, are not prone to be misled by evil demagogues who lead them away from divine truth. The solution, concludes the story, is that "The man or the people that trust in God will find a lake for every See-wise."
Significance: A short and deftly written political satire, with extensive roots in local Seneca Lake lore (including an educated Seneca who really did attend Geneva College). Cooper's hopes that Senator William Seward would get his come-uppance were, of course, not realized, and the then Senator went on to a celebrated career as President Lincoln's Secretary of State.
Finding it: Following its original 1850 publication, "The Lake Gun," disappeared from sight until it was reprinted in a small limited edition in 1932. We have placed it on-line, with extensive commentary, on the James Fenimore Cooper Society website. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: Cooper tries his hand at writing a comic play, in "Upside Down; or, Philosophy in Petticoats."
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50. Upside Down; or, Philosophy in Petticoats (1850) [From The Freeman's Journal, December 20, 2002]
Background: William Burton of "Burton's Chamber Street Theatre" in New York City had a wonderful idea. Why not get the famous and still-popular writer James Fenimore Cooper to write a play, which he could produce and in which he planned to star? It would, of course, be a comedy -- Burton's audiences were more interested in amusement than in edification. Cooper liked the idea and the result was a play entitled "Upside Down; or, Philosophy in Petticoats." Cooper's dramatic effort opened at the Chamber Street Theatre on June 18, 1850 -- after four performances, and despite fairly good reviews, it closed forever. Cooper, who did not try to attend any of the performances, was paid $250 for his efforts.
The script to "Upside Down" was never printed and has disappeared. Fortunately, however, William Burton was a publisher as well as a theatrical producer, and he included one scene from "Upside Down" in his "Cyclopaedia of Wit and Humor," published, in two volumes, in 1859. And one of the newspapers reviewing the play included a detailed synopsis of the plot, as wll as a list of its characters.
The Story: A rich, crotchety New York bachelor named Richard Lovel has a handsome young nephew Frank, who is engaged to his equally beautiful young ward Emily Warrington. Frank Lovel has fallen under the spell of an adventurer calling himself Dr. McSocial, an avowed Socialist who makes his living as a radical lecturer, and who teaches the sharing of women as well as of wealth. Though both old Richard and Emily are horrified, they agree to attend McSocial's lectures.
At a lecture old Richard encounters Dr. McSocial's unattractive sister Sophy, who, "acting upon the avowed principles of freedom and Socialism," defies convention and proposes marriage to him. Following Emily's advice, Lovel accepts, hoping to shock his nephew into some sense. However, Sophy moves into Lovel's house, claiming that under New York law they are now legally married, and brings Dr. McSocial with her. Life becomes a misery in the Lovel mansion.
In the last act a servant reveals that Sophy is really the wife, not the sister, of Dr. McSocial. Stunned by this revelation, young Frank sees the error of his ways, proposes to Emily, and the two live happily ever after.
Significance: A bit of fluff, with rather amusing banter between the characters, that seeks to make fun of feminism as well as of Socialism. Cooper does provide an early definition of Communism as "a great social division, by means of which the goods and chattels of our neighbors, wives and children included, are to go share and share alike...."
Finding it: The surviving scene has been reprinted by the Cooper Society, with some background, as its Miscellaneous Paper No. 1, and is available on-line on its website. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: In a long introduction to his never-completed "Towns of Manhattan," (usually referred to as "New York"), a history of New York City, Cooper sums up his views on the past, present, and future prospects of New York, as well as on the problems facing America in 1851.
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51. The Towns of Manhattan (1851) [From The Freeman's Journal, December 27, 2002]
Background: Cooper loved New York City next to his rural retreat in Cooperstown. In November of 1850 he began to write its history, and to prophesy its destiny. For Cooper, New York was a metropolis extending across the rivers to Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and even New Jersey. He proposed to call his book "The Towns of Manhattan." Only 50 years later would this vision be partially accomplished.
During the last year of his life, growing steadily weaker and forced to dictate to his daughters, Cooper worked on his great scheme -- the last part to be completed was dictated to his daughter Charlotte, against his doctor's orders, on August 4, 1851. He died on September 14.
Alas, it was not to be. Most of what he had written was destroyed by a fire at his publishers. All that remains is his long (63 page) introduction -- proof sheets of which survived. A few other surviving fragments have never been reproduced.
The Story: "It will be in their trade, their resources, their activity, and their influence on the rest of the world, as well as in their population, that the towns of Manhattan will be first entitled to rank with the larger capitals of Europe." New York City, Cooper believes, is made great by its commercial enterprise, with little help or encouragement from the national government. It is a city of constant change, with few ancient buildings, as "edifice after edifice comes down, to make way for a successor better suited to the wants and tastes of the age."
In 1850 America, greatly increased in size by the Mexican war, was more and more divided by the issue of slavery. Cooper believed that "the institution of domestic slavery cannot last," but he feared a great civil war, and hoped that New York City might escape its ravages. On the whole, however, he is optimistic.
"A century," Cooper writes, "will unquestionably place the United States of America prominently at the head of civilized nations, unless their people throw away their advantages by their own mistakes.... That which it has required centuries, in other regions, to effect, is here accomplished in a single life...." And New York City would share in this, because "she belongs already more to the country than she does to the State."
Nevertheless, America faces dangers -- especially political corruption "through the combinations of the designing to obtain a mercenary corps of voters...to hold the balance of power, and to effect their purposes by practising on the wilful, blind, wayward, and, we might almost add, fatal obstinacy of the two great political parties of the nation."
Significance: Few have read Cooper's "last words" -- more people ought to.
Finding it: First printed in a periodical during the Civil War, and reprinted (under the title of "New York") in tiny limited editions in 1930 and 1973, Cooper's introduction was available only to a handful of scholars until we placed on our Cooper Society web site and elsewhere on line. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: "Old Ironsides" -- a posthumous tribute to America's greatest naval vessel by one of its greatest naval historians.
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52. Old Ironsides (1853) [From The Freeman's Journal, January 17, 2003]
Background: Between 1843 and 1845 Cooper had published in "Graham's Magazine" a series of biographic sketches of gallant American naval officers. In 1845 he wrote his friend the historian George Bancroft that "I have been writing some Naval biographies for Graham, and have taken a fancy to write the life of Old Ironsides among the rest of them." But when "Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers" (No. 43 in our series) appeared in 1846, there wasn't room for the biography of the ship, and it remained in manuscript form until after Cooper's death in 1851.
"Old Ironsides" is the nickname of the United States Frigate "Constitution," launched in 1797, never defeated, and today the oldest ship on active service in any navy (though she spends most of her time at dock in Charlestown Navy Yard near Boston). Though sailors had used the nickname, it caught on with the general public in 1830 when a young Bostonian, Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote "Old Ironsides" in protest against Navy plans to demolish the ship. With its stirring opening lines "Ay, tear her tattered ensign down, Long has it waved on high...." Holmes' poem successfully aroused public opinion for the Constitution's preservation as America's greatest naval relic.
The Story: "Old Ironsides...has become so renowned by her services and her success as to be entitled to have her biography written, as well as those who have gained distinction on her deck. Half a century have endeared her to the nation.... It is seldom, indeed, that men have ever come to love and respect a mere machine as this vessel is loved and respected among the Americans, and we hope that the day may be far distant when this noble frigate will cease to occupy her place on the list of the marine of the republic." So opens Cooper's story, and in a lengthy two-part article Cooper describes her history from the Law of 1794 that authorized her construction until her refitting for active service in 1821. During that period, the USS Constitution had served valiantly in the wars against the Barbary Pirates, and in the War of 1812 with Britain. It was in the fall of 1812 that she won her most famous victories, when she defeated and captured the British ships Guerriere and Java; victories that helped maintain American morale through that difficult and now almost forgotten war.
Significance: The appearance of "Old Ironsides" in "Putnam's Magazine" for May and June 1853 marked the end of James Fenimore Cooper's writing career, though updated editions of his History of the Navy of the United States of America, including some bits of unpublished manuscripts, continued to appear for several more years.
Finding it: "Putnam's Magazine," Vol. I, Nos. 5-6 (May and June 1853). The article has never been reprinted, but we have placed it on-line on the Cooper Society web site. For on-line texts see Links Page.
Next Week: This marks the end of "The Cooper Bookshelf" -- 52 columns seeking to introduce Cooperstonians to 52 works by their own James Fenimore Cooper. We have been asked, however, to continue our efforts to put the Cooper back in Cooperstown. We plan to begin (perhaps after a brief vacation) with "Cooper at the Movies" and "Cooper at the Opera," introducing the readers of "The Freeman's Journal" to the more important of the many films and operas based on Cooper's novels.
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1. Leather-Stocking (1909) [From The Freeman's Journal, February 14, 2003]
Background: We begin this week a new series devoted to films based on the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. From 1909 to the present, several dozen films based on Cooper's novels have been produced -- some of them in unlikely places.
The Film: On August 24, 1909, the pioneering American film director D.W. Griffith began shooting "Leather-Stocking" (based loosely on "The Last of the Mohicans") in the unlikely Catskill community of Cuddebackville, in Orange County. Best known for his classic masterpiece "Birth of a Nation" (1915), Griffith took three days to complete the 15-minute film that would introduce Cooper to the silver screen; a month later it was showing in theaters. Cast as the treacherous Indian villain Magua was none other than Mack Sennett, who would go on to fame as the King of Comedy and the founder of the Keystone Cops.
The reviews were friendly. "Motion Picture World" called it "a free rendering...with no attempts to follow the story closely, but the favorite characters are all there and the dramatic incidents which are woven into the story are repeated.... One enters into the spirit of the characters.... It might be well, therefore, to consider this rather more than an illustration of a popular novel."
"Variety" especially praised "the race and final victorious fight between the former-scout of fiction and his pursuing Indians through raging rapids." Natty Bumppo would paddle many a mile before (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) he propelled his canoe through the rhododendron forests of North Carolina in 1992.
Significance: What do the viewers of a Cooper film expect? In the early days of cinema, movie-goers had actually read Cooper, and expected to relive exciting scenes they remembered from the book on which the film was based. As years rolled by, and fewer ordinary Americans read Cooper for pleasure, knowledge of his plots became increasingly hazy. By 1992, audiences knew Cooper's name, the titles of his most famous works, and the names of some of his characters, because they had all become part of popular culture, but they would accept almost anything for a plot.
Finding it: The Library of Congress has a paper copy of the film, from which a reference print has been made, but I know of nobody who has actually seen it.
Information on films based on Cooper's best-known novel can be found in Martin Becker and Roger Sabin's excellent "The Lasting of the Mohicans: History of an American Myth" (University Press of Mississippi, 1995).
You can also consult Edwin Harris's monumental survey of "Cooper on Film" on the Cooper Website and read Jeffrey Walker's critical article, "Deconstructing an American Myth: Hollywood and The Last of the Mohicans".
Next Time: In the fall of 1911, the Vitagraph Company -- then America's largest film producer -- came to Cooperstown to film "The Deerslayer" on Lake Otsego -- the only Cooper-based film ever made where the story took place.
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2. The Deerslayer (1911-13). [From The Freeman's Journal, February 21, 2003]
Background "The Deerslayer" was written and directed by Larry Trimble for Vitagraph, then the world's largest film studio, and filmed on location on Lake Otsego. Trimble had come to Otsego in July 1911 to film the first National Encampment of the Boy Scouts of America (from a scenario written by my grandfather, Joseph B. Cooke of 16 Chestnut Street); he returned in the fall to film the Cooper novel. Major parts were played by well known actors: Hal Reid (Hurry Harry) and his son Wallace Reid (Chingachgook), Harry Morey (Deerslayer), and Evelyn Dominicis (Judith Hutter). Extras recruited in Cooperstown provided the British soldiers whose nick-of-time arrival ends the story.
But the sensation -- the actress that had Cooperstown in a tizzy -- was Florence Turner (Hetty Hutter), -- the "Vitagraph girl. Tiny (under 5 feet), dark haired, and with an enormous talent for impersonating character, Florence Turner had moved up from the legitimate theatre and vaudeville to became the first recognized American movie star, and an instant celebrity. Norma Talmadge, a later silent star, wrote that "I would rather have touched the hem of [Florence's] skirt than to have shaken hands with St. Peter."
"The Deerslayer," was not released until 1913 (when Florence Turner and Larry Trimble had left Vitagraph and moved to England). Perhaps for that reason, Trimble's name was dropped from the credits and replaced with that of Hal Reid.
The Story: Though condensed to the single half hour of a two-reeler, Trimble's "Deerslayer" follows Cooper's story closely, including most of the memorable scenes readers of 1913 would remember and expect to find in a movie. Moving Picture World described the film as "superior to most of its kind in faithfulness of portraits and in interpeting the tendency of the times it depicts," and praised its "beautiful exteriors" and "entirely new effects, notably those of flotation.... There are conflicts in the lake as well as on houseboat, canoes and rafts, and a peculiar feature is a 'castle' or wooden fortress rising out of the water...."
Significance Cooperstown lived on the glory of "The Deerslayer" -- the only Cooper-based film ever shot here -- for some time. Postcards showing the "Muskrat Castle" that Vitagraph constructed at "sunken island," and staged incidents at Council Rock, Gravelly Point (scene of Deerslayer's first combat), and elsewhere along the Lake sold well for many years. And the film itself, though it seems primitive to modern viewers, was in fact ahead of its time in its use of extensive footage filmed on location and out of doors. It also set a model of faithfulness to the original novel that few if any of the dozens of Cooper films made since have even attempted to emulate.
Finding it: The New York State Historical Association has a copy of the film, obtained from the Eastman Kodak archives in Rochester, and showings can sometimes be arranged.
Next Time: 1920 and perhaps the best film version ever of "The Last of the Mohicans."
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3. The Last of the Mohicans (1920). [From The Freeman's Journal, February 28, 2003]
Background: This silent film version of "The Last of the Mohicans" was filmed amid spectacular scenery at Great Bear Lake and the Yosemite Valley in 1920, co-directed by the French Maurice Tourneur and the American Clarence Brown. "This epic version of the story is beautiful to watch, even to many who have lost the skills of watching silent films...." writes one modern reviewer. Many consider it one of the finest silent films ever made. It's creative camera work, its carefully orchestrated crowd scenes, its use of special effects, and even its use of tinted backgrounds were all important innovations in the development of motion pictures.
The Story: This 1920 film is truer to Cooper's novel, both in detail and in feeling, than any of those which have followed. It focuses on Cora Munro (played by Barbara Bedford) and her delicately portrayed love for the brave but shy Mohican Indian Uncas (Alan Roscoe -- who was White) -- indeed, Bedford and Roscoe were to get married in real life in 1922! The vengeful Huron Indian Magua is played with sinister verve by the equally Caucasian Wallace Beery. Cooper's complex plot is condensed into key scenes, notably the cave at Glens Falls, the events at Fort William Henry, the Council of Delaware Indians, the climactic fight on a precipice ending in the deaths of Cora, Uncas, and Magua, and the sorrowful burial scene that ends both film and novel.
Though Harry Lorraine as Natty Bumppo (Hawkeye) looks the part of an ungainly and unlettered frontier scout far better than any of the handsome heart-throbs who have followed him, his role, like those of Duncan Heyward, Alice Munro, and even Chingachgook, are reduced to near insignificance.
Like all other film versions of "Mohicans," no mention is made of Cora Munro's partial African ancestry. It also introduces "Captain Randolph," a cowardly, traitorous English officer who does not appear in Cooper's book. The psalm-singing David Gamut -- often omitted from film versions -- capers and tootles through his comic part. Boris Karloff plays one of the Indians, but I haven't been able to pick him out.
Significance: In 1915 D.W. Griffith had filmed his famous Civil War Epic, "Birth of a Nation," a cinematically beautiful but overtly racist film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, and denounced racial integration. One of its climactic scenes concerns a sweetly-innocent Southern white girl who jumps to her death from a precipice to avoid the lewd attentions of a wicked Black politician. Tourneur and Brown conceived their "The Last of the Mohicans," in part as a response to Griffith (and an improvement over his 1909 "Mohicans") by making it a tale of pure, if unconsummated, inter-racial love, and by staging its climax on a famous Yosemite precipice reminiscent of, but far grander, than that used in "Birth of a Nation."
Finding it: Fortunately, this wonderful early film is readily available in both VHS and DVD forms, in a carefully restored version with musical soundtrack first issued in 1993. It runs 72 minutes.
Next Time: Another "Last of the Mohicans" as Hawkeye fights off Magua for four hours in a 12-episode 1932 serial.
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4. The Last of the Mohicans (serial) (1932). [From the The Freeman's Journal, March 7, 2003]
Background: Although a 10 part silent serial version of "The Last of the Mohicans" was made by George B. Seitz in 1924, it does not seem to have survived; Seitz would go on to film the famous 1936 "Last of the Mohicans" in sound, starring Randolph Scott. But Cooper entered the era of sound movies with a serial issued in 1932.
Those of you who are old enough will remember how, back when a long movie lasted 90 minutes and movie theaters showed films at stated hours, a feature film was often preceded by one segment of a serial -- a serial which ran for many weeks and was intended to draw audiences back week after week.
Like the television serials that succeeded them, movie serials were repetitious and action packed, ending each episode with the heroes on the verge of extinction. Though they told a continued story, each episode began with a fairly extensive recapitulation of the plot and a reintroduction of the principal characters, and closed with a teaser for the episode to follow -- so the plot proceeded at a glacial pace.
When Mascot Films -- then a new company -- came out with its serial version of "The Last of the Mohicans" in 1932, they followed these rules through all 12 of its 20 minute episodes.
The Story: This is the stretch-limousine version of Cooper's novel, with the number of captures, escapes, and hand-to-hand battles with the Indians multiplied many times. In addition, a new character -- the evil French spy Dulac -- is introduced, and engages in extensive nefarious activities that draw the novel's more familiar characters into adventures not to be found in the book.
No rifle shot ever misses, no cinematic cliché is ever left out. A recording of incoherent war-whooping serves as background for every fight; a recording of song birds soothes every peaceful forest scene. And the only even dimly memorable actor is 16-year old Frank Coghlan, Jr. ("Junior Coghlan"), a one-time famous child actor who went on to a long career both in films and in the US Navy, who at least manages to sound earnest. Harry Carey goes through the motions as Hawkeye, and the innumerable and indistinguishable Indians (one or two played by real Indians) are, well, wooden.
In the end the girls both survive, and it is Chingachgook, not Uncas, who dies.
Significance: One modern reviewer said "this appalling nonsense has to be seen to be believed," and noted that "every possible motif has been drawn in: hidden gold, French spies, tricks and counter-tricks, biblical references....yet all within a just-recognizable framework." It is probably better to view it, if you must, the way the original moviegoers of the Great Depression did, a little at a time.
Finding it: Despite its dubious quality -- whether as Cooper or as film -- this serial version is widely available at modest prices as a VHS videotape.
Next Time: Oops! We forgot one. Next week we shall go back to review a 1920 "Deerslayer," filmed in Germany, with Bela Lugosi (who would come to America to make his fame as Dracula) as Chingachgook. Oddly enough, it's quite good.
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5. The Deerslayer (1920). [From The Freeman's Journal, March 14, 2003]
Background: This silent film was made in Germany in 1920, and originally titled "Der Wildtoter und Chingachgook" (Deerslayer and Chingachgook). It was released in the United States in 1923, cut by about half (so it runs just one hour) with English-language story panels between images. Though not indicated on my version, it was directed by Arthur Wellin and starred Emil Memelok as Deerslayer and Bela Lugosi (later famous as Dracula) as the Mohican Indian Chingachgook.
Filmed in a war-ravaged Germany, on a pretty lake (but with much lower hills than those of the real Glimmerglass), the film shows signs of the austerity under which it must have been made. The props (except for a couple of canoes) seem to have been gathered locally: the British soldiers of the 1740s wear what seem more like Prussian uniforms of the period, while the civilian women are dressed in dirndls and other German peasant garb. An African leopard skin adorns "Muskrat Castle," the home on stilts of the Hutter family. Perhaps appropriately, the added soundtrack consists entirely of classical music -- much of it from the Brandenburg Concertos -- played without regard to the story taking place on the screen.
The Story: Though the film's basic storyline is a fairly accurate reproduction of the plot of Cooper's 1841 novel "The Deerslayer," certain elements from "The Last of the Mohicans" have been grafted onto it, including the surrender and massacre at what is here called "Fort William," -- presented as justification for the massacre by British troops of Indians on the lake shore that closes Cooper's novel. "General William Monroe," commander at the British fort, is also revealed to be (unbeknownst to him) the real father of Judith and Hetty Hutter. Otherwise the plot closely follows Cooper's original, and ends as it should with Natty Bumppo (Deerslayer) rejecting Judith's advances and returning alone to his Mohican friends.
One scene grates today, as it would not in 1920. Deerslayer is quoted on an intertitle screen as indignantly refusing an Indian bride -- a WHITE MAN would never stoop to marrying an Indian!
Mysteriously, the film three times cuts into a brief image of American Boy Scouts in full uniform reading aloud (presumably from Cooper's novel) around a campfire. Is this an indication of what American distributors assumed to be the movie's natural audience? Significance: Germany has produced two film versions of "The Deerslayer" (the other was in 1969, as we shall see), and they are by far the best that have been made of this particular Cooper novel. Given the time and circumstances of its filming, this silent version does ample justice both to Cooper and to the developing art of film making.
Finding it: Available as a VHS videotape, but you may have to look around.
Next Time: 1936 and one of the most famous film versions of "The Last of the Mohicans," though one that badly strained both Cooper's text and Americans' understanding of his story.
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6. The Last of the Mohicans (1936). [From The Freeman's Journal, March 28, 2003]
Background: The second important film version of "The Last of the Mohicans" was a major Hollywood production released in 1936. Putting the story into a cowboy-and-Indians framework, it starred Western screen idol Randolph Scott as Hawkeye and the then popular actress Binnie Barnes as Alice Munro. It was directed by George Seitz, who had done a silent "Leatherstocking" in 1924 (now lost except for a few stills).
The Story: If the 1920 "Mohicans" was a tale of inter-racial love, the 1936 "Mohicans" is a combination of "cowboy vs. Indian" and "American patriot vs. English tyrant." Although the fatal "romance" between Uncas and Cora Munro (turned both blonde and mousey) is rather tepidly retained, down to their interlocked fingers as they die, this is not a movie about real Native Americans. Instead we find two conflicts. One is a typical Hollywood battle between good whites and bad Indians The other is an anachronistic conflict -- totally alien to the novel -- between rebellious American colonists and sneering English overlords. Hawkeye keeps up a constant verbal skirmish with a snobbish Duncan Heyward (converted into an Englishman), while both vie for the heart of the courageous, outspoken, and dark-haired Alice (yes! that's Alice). You can guess who wins. When Chingachgook vanishes from the film at the end, he presumably goes his way alone.
The Indians (played by whites) are, except for a stolid Chingachgook and Uncas, standard bloodthirsty Western savages, whooping, drumming, and brandishing tomahawks. The wise Delawares who make up so much of Cooper's novel have disappeared -- even the aged "Tamenund" figure is turned into a stereotypical sadistic Indian chief. That the French were complicit in the massacre that followed the surrender of Fort William Henry is conveniently forgotten. And at film's end Hawkeye -- who has been loudly anti-British all through the film -- joins the British Army!
Significance: No wonder, perhaps, that Philip Dunne -- who wrote the original screenplay -- later complained that Hollywood "had turned our authentic eighteenth-century piece into a third-rate Western." And clearly, between 1920 and 1936, viewers' interest in Cooper had changed -- where once they had read the book and wanted to see it on the silver screen, now they only remembered its title.
The Randolph Scott "Mohicans" was a step backward -- both in its unimaginative, studio camerawork (there is almost none of the magnificent scenery of 1920) -- and in its stereotyped cowboy-and-Indian racism. Ominous for the future (as we shall see) was the introduction of a supposed conflict between "American" colonist and British overlord that can no more be found in Cooper's novel than in the real America of 1757.
Finding it: Despite its obvious faults the Randolph Scott "Mohicans" was very popular at the time, and can still be easily obtained on videotape.
Next time: Skipping over two films -- "The Pioneers" (1941) and "The Deerslayer" (1943) -- which we've never managed to see, and are not available on videotape, we shall continue with "The Last of the Redmen" (1947).
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7. The Last of the Redmen (1947). [From The Freeman's Journal, April 4, 2003]
Background: As the years went by, Cooper's "Last of the Mohicans" was more and more relegated to children. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that movie versions should follow in the same direction. When "The Last of the Mohicans" was "adapted" for this Columbia Pictures production in 1947, a new character was introduced into the story -- Cora and Alice's kid brother Davy -- played by aging child actor "Buzz" Henry, then 16 years old, but acting younger. In standard Hollywood fashion, Davy is a smart-aleck (his favorite remark is "Aw, gosh!,") who hogs both the camera and the action. He is at least livelier than the wooden Duncan Heyward (an Englishman) played by Jon Hall.
Alice Munro -- as a snooty, blonde, over-dressed Englishwoman -- is played by Evelyn Ankers (once known in Hollywood as the "Queen of the Screamers" for her roles in thrillers). Cora, who dons a quasi-frontier dress, is a red-head played by Julie Bishop (aka Jacqueline Wells). Both feature long hair, permanent waves (untouched by outdoor action), and fashionable costumes.
While he was at it, Director George Sherman transformed Hawkeye into a stage Irishman, played by Michael O'Shea -- and gave him a brogue, Irish jokes, and an eye for the girls. Among the Indians, Uncas (Chingachgook is dispensed with altogether) is performed by a slightly paunchy Rick Vallin, and the villainous Magua by Buster (Tarzan/Flash Gordon) Crabbe. The extensive cast of "Indians" features the versatile "Chief Many Treaties" (aka Bill Hazelitt), not to mention "Sky Eagle," "War Eagle," and "Little Plant." Some of them may even be Native Americans.
The Story: In order to allow for Davy's antics (mostly performed bare-chested, in what the 18th century called "small clothes") and a seemingly interminable canoe race, the Fort William Henry sequence has been left out altogether. We only meet the retreating column of surrendered English after the event. Well, money may have had something to do with it: stage fortresses under siege by heavy artillery cost money.
The climax of the film begins with a long chase between Indians and a wagon train Eventually the wagons form the classic circle, and are attacked by a horde of circling, horseback-riding, whooping savages. A mortally wounded Uncas comes to the rescue with a posse of English soldiers, while blonde Alice is killed by an Indian, and dies in Irish Natty's arms. Red-headed Cora goes off with a wounded Heyward, leaving Irish Natty alone to mourn over Uncas' grave.
Significance: This version of the story (known in England as "The Last of the Redskins") is a classic combination of smart-aleck kid movie, cowboy-and-Indian movie, and comic Irishman movie. On the whole I like it better than the 1936 Randolph Scott version; it is more fun and a good deal less pretentious, and is even shot in color.
Finding it: Readily available from video distributors as a VHS tape.
Next Time: "The Prairie" (1947) -- black-and-white, but not bad, even though both Natty Bumppo and Cooper's official hero and heroine are left out of it altogether. I believe this is the only film version ever made of Cooper's 1827 novel.
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8. The Prairie (1947). [From The Freeman's Journal, April 11, 2003]
Background: By the end of World War II, movies based on Cooper were increasingly being shoehorned into the familiar cowboy and Indian genre. This, the only film ever made of Cooper's 1827 novel "The Prairie" -- and his only novel set in the Great Plains that would become cowboy country -- certainly falls into this category. But Director Frank Wisbar's real purpose seems to be to celebrate the great trek westward that formed the American nation. This is essentially the story of the Bush clan, and Scriptwriter Arthur St. Claire has left out the romantic hero and heroine (Duncan Middleton and the mysterious Spanish Inez), the comic scientist Dr. Battius and -- horror of horrors -- Natty Bumppo himself!
Instead, Paul Hover -- given Duncan Middleton's job description as an Army surveyor and Natty Bumppo's familiarity with Indian culture -- carries many aspects of all three roles. Indians, although frequently on the scene, play a much smaller role than in the novel. Nevertheless, the film follows closely many aspects of the novel's plot.
The Story: In 1803 the patriarch Ishmael Bush is leading his family wagon train across the prairies in a search for new lands -- an epic beginning underlined by a narrator and a map of the Louisiana purchase. The Bush family rescues Ellen Wade (played by the well-coiffed Leonore Aubert -- once described as "the Femme fatale in 40's Hollywood suspensers") when her family is trampled by buffalos, and she immediately becomes a bone of contention between the smooth and slick Abiram White (brother of Ishmael's pious wife Esther), and the illiterate but well-meaning Asa Bush (Ismael's oldest son). The plot thickens when Army surveyer Paul Hover shows up to guide the Bush family to a hidden stream and later, when Indians have run off their horses and cattle, to a defensible knoll in the midst of the prairie. More to the point, Ellen loves Paul and Paul loves Ellen.
Asa proposes to Ellen (and is turned down), but the jealous Abiram White shoots him in the back. Paul Hover (as stand-in for Natty Bumppo) is accused of the murder and sentenced to hanging by Ishmael; only when Paul's Indian sidekick Eagle Feather (played by Oklahoma Indian Victor Daniels, a.k.a. "Chief Thundercloud") proves that Asa had been shot with a Bush family bullet is the truth revealed, and Abiram's crime uncovered. Evidently too squeamish to include Cooper's dramatic ending, in the movie Abiram is left behind on the knoll, where he goes mad and dramatically hangs himself.
Ishmael Bush and his family continue their trek west -- with voice over commentary on how this was the way America was built, and that the only real law is that of (presumably Christian) religion.
Significance: If one is willing to do without Natty Bumppo, this is a fairly engaging film, even though it whitewashes the lawless and brutish family of Ishmael Bush.
Finding it: Available from Nostalgia Family Video for about $15.00
Next Time: George Montgomery plays Pathfinder in a 1952 film that seeems oblivious to historical reality -- and shows little interest in Cooper's novel.
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9. The Pathfinder (1952). [From The Freeman's Journal, April 25, 2003]
Background: By mid-century Cooper was reduced to the frontier scout, Natty Bumppo, known by all as young, handsome, romantic, and sporting a permanent coonskin cap. So when Sidney Saltow directed the first film version of Cooper's novel "The Pathfinder" (1840), he took from Cooper mostly Pathfinder (Natty), played by ex-heavyweight boxer and box-office star George Montgomery, and Chingachgook, played by Jay (Tonto) Silverheels.
For no discernible reason, the time is 1754 (before "The Last of the Mohicans"), instead of 1759 as Cooper intended, as the French and British are fighting it out somewhere (the location is pretty vague). The Mingoes, described as "Iroquois," are allied with the French, and are led by the evil Chief Arrowhead (played by genuine Indian Rodd Redwing, whose extensive movie career included teaching the fine art of gun-slinging to most post-war movie cowboy stars, including Ronald Reagan).
The Story: The film opens as the Mohicans are being massacred in their tipis by the Mingos (all Indians in this film live in Western tipis), leaving only Chingachgook and his little boy Uncas. At Fort Blaine Pathfinder and Chingachgook agree to spy on the French post at Fort Vincent, where a ship delivers supplies from (presumably) Montreal. Since they don't speak French, they are saddled with the beautiful Welcome Alison (played by ex-Powers model Helena Carter), who does. As they go through the wilderness, they bicker as Pathfinder shows Alison the wilderness ropes.
They reach Fort Vincent by canoe, where Pathfinder is signed on as a guide. The Fort appears to be a lavish modern hunting lodge, lit with kerosene lamps (not invented until 1857). Pathfinder has a private duel with Arrowhead (but lets him live), kisses, fights with, and eventually clinches with Alison. With Chingachgook he sneaks off to blow up a vital French bridge, and to destroy the Mingo camp with firelogs filled with gunpowder. Meanwhile one Captain Bradford, Alison's former lover and now a drunken French agent, appears and recognizes her but offers to dump his Indian wife if Alison will come back to him; naturally she won't.
On their return to Fort Vincent, Pathfinder steals the French defense plans, and sends them off to the British via Chingachgook. He fights with Capt. Bradford, is exposed, and he and Alison are sentenced to be shot at dawn. He escapes from his cell just as the British attack. The women and children (including Alison) are herded aboard the ship at the dock. Capt. Bradford sneaks aboard (a coward as always), and orders the Captain to weigh anchor (a difficult order to execute, since the ship appears to be bolted to the dock). When the Captain refuses Bradford kills him, is killed in turn by Pathfinder, and Pathfinder and Alison walk off in an embrace.
Significance: Not much really, except to enjoy the egregious cultural errors and anachronisms.
Finding it: Not at the moment readily available.
Next Time: Four episodes from a TV serial "Last of the Mohicans," (1957) with coonskin-capped John Hart as Hawkeye and Lon Chaney, Jr. as Chingachgook.
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10. Hawkeye and The Last of the Mohicans (1957). [From The Freeman's Journal, May 8, 2003]
Background: In this 39-part television serial, “The immortal pen of James Fenimore Cooper brings you thrilling tales of excitement -- blazing action on the early American frontier – stirring adventures filled with the daring and courage of Hawkeye, first of the long rifles, and his blood brother, Chingachgook, Last of the Mohicans.” Handsome John Hart (ex-Jack Armstrong; ex-Lone Ranger) plays Hawkeye, whose thinning, graying hair is kept in place with Brilliantine, on indoor occasions when he must doff his coonskin cap. His buddy is Chingachgook, played by the ageing, affable, and overweight Lon Chaney, Jr. (ex-Wolfman), with two feathers in his cap. Neither hero seems to have a past or a future, but in each half-hour episode, they rescue women, children, and other innocents from dire fates at the hands of assorted scoundrels in a vaguely pre-Revolutionary frontier (filmed in scenic Canadian woods). All the Indian chiefs wear full feather head dresses, and live in Western tipis, and the sound track repeatedly plays themes from the film “Stagecoach.”
The Story: I have seen only four, apparently typical, episodes in the series.
In “False Faces” frontier trader Happy Jack Sealy and three thugs disguise themselves in “Mingo” false face masks to terrorize a frontier community, and plant stolen rifles on honest Indian Raven and his bride Snowbird. H & C force the thugs to confess, Raven’s trial for sedition is called off, and the villains are arrested.
In “The Truant,” H & C escort Greg, an orphan boy, to his uncle’s frontier home. Aunt Emma is the salt of the earth but Uncle Mort (not a blood relation) wants the silver mine Greg has inherited. He and his Indian crony Long Knife arrange a series of “accidents,” to kill young Greg. H & C foil them all, and Uncle Mort is exposed and carried off to jail. Greg stays on with his innocent and loving Aunt Emma.
In “Winter Passage,” villain Hanlon promises to take a wagon train of women and children to join their husbands on the frontier, via a secret pass through the wintry hills. H & C know there isn’t any such pass, and follow the group – who, it turns out, are to be sold as slaves to Chief Temisca of the Ottawas. H & C convince Chief Temisca that buying slaves isn’t approved of by the Manitou, and the women and children are saved.
In “The Reckoning,” newly-commissioned Lt. Ewing, son of a high-ranking officer back East, thinks he can head off an Indian attack on Fort Osh Kosh, by reasoning with his childhood Indian friend Eliwasset. Instead Eliwasset captures Ewing, and extracts valuable information from him by torture. H & C rescue Ewing, and then lead a militia attack against Eliwasset. Lt. Ewing bravely kills Eliwasset in single combat, and – his reputation restored – is recommended for a medal and promotion.
Significance: As long as you don’t expect Cooper, these tales are rather fun; for some reason this series still seems to have a couple of fan clubs with websites.
Finding it: Over a dozen episodes, in various forms, are available on videotape.
Next Time: Filmed in central Spain in 1965, “The Last Tomahawk” (“Der Letzte Mohikaner”) sets Cooper’s tale, or mangled bits of it, in the American West of the 1870s; a joint German/Spanish/Italian film with dubbed English soundtrack.
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11. The Last Tomahawk (1965). [From The Freeman's Journal, May 23, 2003]
Background: This is “The Last of the Mohicans” (its original German title was Der Letzte Mohikaner) in Spaghetti Western format – a joint German/Italian/Spanish production filmed among some unique rock formations in Spain. While the German-text original credited Cooper (and used both his title and characters) this dubbed American version in (faded) color makes no mention of Cooper and renames Hawkeye as Strongheart, Uncas as Hooga, and Magua as Payowee! What “The Last Tomahawk” does to the story is even stranger.
The Story: Somewhere out West in the 1870s evil Indians led by Payowee (Magua) massacre the Mohicans – a dying Chingachgook carries the sad news to Hooga (Uncas) and his blood-brother Strongheart (Hawkeye). A gang of bandits allied with Payowee lays siege to a ranch owned by retired US Army Colonel Munroe, where a cavalry shipment of Army gold has been given refuge. Meanwhile, another cavalry detachment led by Captain Bill Hayward is escorting Cora and Alice to join their father, stopping to build a rather weird bridge along the way. Dark-haired, sarcastic, Cora drives the cavalry nuts playing her harmonium (she only seems to know “Yankee Doodle”), while blonde Alice makes nice to a distinctly middle-aged Capt. Hayward.
Payowee shows up and offers to guide Hayward’s cavalry to safety at the Munroe Ranch – his real purpose is to capture the girls -- and of course leads them into a trap. Strongheart and Hooga come to the rescue. Payowee escapes with Cora, who is rescued (with much soulful meeting of eyes) by Hooga. As Strongheart and Hooga lead diversions, the surviving soldiers and the girls make it safely to the besieged Munroe Ranch. Hayward (wounded) proposes marriage to Alice and is accepted.
The evil bandits concoct a plot to blow up a cliff overlooking the Ranch, and do so, but Col. Munroe and his friends – alerted to the danger by Hooga -- have time to dig a shelter that saves their lives. They then fight off the bandits, and kill its leader. In the confusion, however, Payowee runs off with Cora (again), and Strongheart and Hooga follow in pursuit. They catch up with them in the village of the Mingoes, where Hooga asks the great chief Tamenund to restore Cora to him. Tamenund decides to leave it all up to the spirit Manitou, via a hand-to-hand combat between Hooga and Payowee (remember, that’s Uncas and Magua). Hooga wins, but is treacherously slain by Payowee, who is in turn executed just as yet another detachment of cavalry shows up.
Significance: Oddly enough, “The Last Tomahawk” – despite its transfer of the story in both time and place – is closer to the essence of Cooper’s plot than most other movie versions. Though the film kills off Chingachgook in the opening scenes, and adds bandits, a shipment of gold, an apparently inexhaustible supply of American cavalry units, and an exploding cliff, most of the events in Cooper’s story are included. We don’t, however, learn what will happen to the surviving (and grieving) Cora.
Finding it: Available from a number of video dealers, for $15.00 and up.
Next Time: “Chingachgook, The Great Snake” – an East German version of “The Deerslayer” from 1969, and one of the better ones at that.
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12. Chingachgook, the Great Snake (1967). [From The Freeman's Journal, May 30, 2003] ]
The second in this series was “Chingachgook, the Great Snake,” based on Cooper’s “The Deerslayer” (1841), filmed in the picturesque Tatra mountains of the Czech Republic and in Bulgaria. DEFA sought earnestly (rather too earnestly) to be ethnologically correct about American Indians, with “authentic” costumes and wigwams, and even constructing one (count ‘em) one authentic birchbark canoe that appears repeatedly (sometimes apparently chasing itself). Equally earnestly, DEFA portrayed Cooper’s novel as a tale of Native American resistance to Anglo-American racist colonialism. The result, oddly enough, is perhaps the most accurate film portrayal of Cooper’s novel yet made, though it leaves out Hetty Hutter, and adds a lot of horses.
The Story: As British and French employ Delaware and Huron Indians to fight their colonial wars (with the secondary purpose of allowing them to exterminate each other), pro-French Hurons kidnap Chingachgook’s betrothed Wahtawah and carry her off on horseback to the shores of Lake Otsego. Chingachgook (played by the handsome Gojko Mitic) and his young white friend Deerslayer (played by Rolf Romer – nearly as chinless as he is beardless) follow, and come upon the ruthless Hurry Harry, the mysterious Tom Hutter and his beautiful daughter Judith, along with Muskrat Castle and the Ark transferred faithfully from Cooper’s novel.
Cooper’s story has been condensed, with Chingachgook given a few of Deerslayer’s scenes. Departing from Cooper are the many horses, scenes of Captain Warley’s fort full of mostly racist British soldiers, and a series of set-pieces in which the Indians break into stylistically choreographed “tribal” dances (set to full orchestra) that seem to belong on the ballet stage rather than in the forest. At the end, following Cooper, British soldiers massacre the Hurons, Deerslayer rejects Judith (who goes off with Captain Warley), and Chingachgook returns to his Indian friends determined, however (in this film version) to unite the Indians tribes against the White invader.
Significance: The color photography is spectacular, the action vigorous, and the music attractive. The characters wear realistic clothes rather than Hollywood “costumes,” and East German viewers (obviously assumed to have actually read the book) could relive many of their favorite Cooper scenes. The subtitles are occasionally strained (“kayak” for canoe), but generally adequate.
Finding it: Available in VHS videotape from several distributors, including Icestorm and German Language Video Center.
Next Time: A rather silly, but sometimes entertaining, Hanna-Barbera color cartoon version of “The Last of the Mohicans.”
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13. The Last of the Mohicans (1975). [From The Freeman's Journal, June 2, 2003]
Background: I remember a short cartoon about “Moe Heekan,” a wealthy Oklahoma oilwell owner, who – aided by his butler – hunts moose in his mansion, and eventually lights (and sits on) a campfire in the living room, with the classic closing remark: “Me smell burning Mohican, me last of the Mohicans, must be me.”
But Hanna-Barbara produced the first feature cartoon (48 minutes) of “The Last of the Mohicans,” in 1975 and took the story a bit more seriously. Alas, they used the “modern” and cheap system of projecting moving cartoon figures against fixed backgrounds, rather than the painstaking redrawing of the entire scene every few seconds as pioneered by Walt Disney.
The Story: On the whole, the film sticks to the main lines of Cooper’s novel, with a couple of significant changes. Duncan Heyward is escorting dark-haired Cora and her (dumb) blonde sister Alice to “Fort William,” and they are rescued (a number of times) from the evil Magua by Hawkeye and his Indian friends Chingachgook (pronounced here as “Chingachook”) and Uncas, the last of the “Mohegans.” There is no David Gamut, but his role is partially taken over by Pip, Alice’s pet Pekinese dog, whose barking gives the heroes away at regular intervals.
But it is Chingachgook, rather than Uncas, who falls to his death from a cliff (copied from the 1920 film) after a life-and-death struggle, but not before he has given Alice his “turtle” amulet. Heyward and the girls are captured in the cave scene (thanks to Pip), are duly rescued by Hawkeye and Uncas, and eventually reach an abandoned and ruined “Fort William.” It seems Col. Monro has led his forces north to Fort Ticonderoga – there is no massacre. Magua (again) captures Uncas, Cora and Alice (and Pip).
We then have an approximation of the second half of the novel, as Hawkeye and Heyward trail the captives. Hawkeye, dressed as an Indian “medicine man,” rescues Cora from Magua’s camp, and even captures Magua. They all then proceed to the Delaware Indian Camp, where Alice and Uncas are being held, but the Delaware Chief recognizes the amulet he had once given Chingachgook and everybody is freed.
Final scene: Fort Ticonderoga, where Col. Munro welcomes his daughters. Heyward and his girlfriend Cora will remain there. Hawkeye renounces civilization and heads back to his beloved forests. Uncas goes off on horseback to seek possible “Mohegan” survivors from his tribe, accompanied by – guess who – blonde Alice! Pip, the Peke, joins them for the closing shot of equestrian bliss.
Significance: Except for Chingachgook falling over the cliff (we don’t see his body) nobody seems to get killed in this cartoon; the frequent gunshots and arrows all apparently miss. Hanna-Barbara have rightly guessed that Cora is the most interesting of the two girls – but, in what earlier films would have deemed obscene, end the film with Alice and Uncas riding off to start a new life together with the blessing of both Col. Munro and everybody else.
Finding it: Can be found on VHS if you look around.
Next Time: Steve Forrest plays Hawkeye in an adventure pot-boiler.
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14. The Last of the Mohicans (1977). [From The Freeman's Journal, June 13, 2003]
Background: Television gradually discovered Cooper, and in the 1970s NBC sponsored two Cooper films starring handsome Steve Forrest – kid brother of Dana Andrews -- as Hawkeye and generic ethnic portrayer (Indian or Hispanic) Ned Romero as Chingachgook. Steve Forrest wears a mustache, loves his Indian friends, and is actively committed to doing good in this G-rated film.
Filmed “entirely on location” out West, they combined scenery, action, and a new element of inserted Native American culture (of the late 20th century politically correct variety).
The Story: This “Mohicans” sticks fairly closely to the basic plot of Cooper’s novel, except that it leaves out the Fort William Henry scenes entirely. The film opens as Hawkeye and Chingachgook rescue a settler family from an Indian attack, and the grateful father tells his children the story of Hawkeye’s adventures in 1757 during the French and Indian Wars. This narrator’s voice intervenes from time to time, “voice over,” during the course of the film.
The movie itself follows the first half of the novel fairly closely, though with many added details, a good deal more active fighting, and lots of horses. Hawkeye is even given a past in which parents and sister were massacred by evil Huron Indians. Cora and Alice Munro are both dark haired, and while Alice quickly starts flirting with Duncan Heyward, Cora shows little of the courage and common sense (nor, of course, the racial background) of Cooper’s African-American heroine. Tidbits of supposed Indian lore are introduced at regular intervals, and Hawkeye expresses pro-Indian sentiments which, however well intentioned, are sometimes historically inaccurate; thus he positively asserts the false proposition that scalping was introduced to Indians by white settlers!
Just when the characters are finally approaching Fort William Henry, the screenplay veers from the novel. Instead of reaching the fort (no doubt expensive to build) Heyward and the girls are captured again by Magua and carried off north (on horseback), followed by Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas in a canoe.
The remainder of the film follows a rather condensed version of Cooper’s ending, though David Gamut is killed off, and Cora Munro spared! The dual villages – Delaware and Huron – of the novel are retained, in abbreviated form (no dressing up as a bear here). In the final scenes, Uncas is shot by Magua as he shields Cora, Chingachgook fights Magua to the death, and a couple of soldiers show up (telling about the surrender of Fort William Henry and the massacre) to take Duncan Heyward and the Munro sisters back to Fort Edward, while Hawkeye and Chingachgook head back into the forest.
Significance: The film reflects the growing concern for at least visual accuracy in TV/films (wigwams instead of tipis), as well as for clearly expressed sympathy for Native Americans (and remorse for their oppression by whites).
Finding it: The VHS video version (apparently cut from 120 minutes to 96) is out-of-print but used copies are widely available for as little as $1.67.
Next Time: Steve Forrest does Deerslayer.
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15. The Deerslayer (1978). [From The Freeman's Journal, June 20, 2003]
Background: The 1977 “Last of the Mohicans” was duly followed by a 1978 “sequel” in the form of “The Deerslayer.” Like its predecessor it starred Steve Forrest as a mature Natty Bumppo and Ned Romero as an even older Chingachgook. That Cooper’s novel was about a young man coming of age was ignored, and “The Deerslayer” was presented as telling what happened AFTER the death of Uncas in “Mohicans.” Indeed the film opens with a five-minute replay of scenes from the end of the earlier movie. The cast includes John Anderson, with a beard suitable for a 19th Century Nebraska farmer, as the ex-pirate Tom Hutter, and a virginal Madeleine Stowe as Hetty Hutter, whom we shall meet again as the very unvirginal Cora Munro in Michael Mann’s 1992 “Mohicans.”
The Story: After a massacre or two, Deerslayer and Chingachgook come to Lake Otsego to rescue an Indian maiden, and while they are at it save Tom Hutter and his two daughters, from evil Huron Indians allied with the French. Two new characters are introduced into the story. A dashing French soldier named Beaujeur advises the Huron Indians, and by his willingness to adopt Indian ways is presented as showing the cultural snobbishness of British soldiers; he has periodic moral doubts about Indian atrocities, but ends up dead anyway. A young English officer named Plowden, of noble blood, is weaned of his prissy habits and trained in the ways of the woods by Deerslayer – thus, in effect, becoming a surrogate Deerslayer himself!
Tom Hutter lives in a rather grandiose rustic castle built on stilts in the Lake, with his secret past and his chest of pirate treasure. Judith is strong-willed but virtuous, fighting off the lecherous Hurry Harry with ease; Hetty is a flower-child in tune with nature. Plowden is astonished to find her chatting amiably with a large bear and advising it (in English) where to find the best honey.
There are enough raids and rescues to satisfy the young, some of them vaguely recalling Cooper’s novel. Unpleasantries like the scalping of women and children, and the massacre at the end of the novel are left out. Unlike Cooper’s novel, there are lots of horses. At the end Deerslayer undergoes his torture ordeal from the nasty Hurons, to be saved by Chingachgook, Judith, Hetty (who gets killed), Plowden, and Tom Hutter. Tom Hutter finds virtuous death (his piratical past now revealed) by arming himself with a crate of hand grenades, enticing the Hurons to surround him, and becoming a suicide bomber! Judith and Plowden head for Albany – presumably to live happily ever after; Deerslayer and Chingachgook head back into the woods to find other people needing rescuing.
Significance: Unlike their version of “Mohicans,” the Forrest/Romero “Deerslayer” so mangles Cooper’s plot as to be barely recognizable, but it has added 1970s ecological sensibilities, overtones of American hostility to the British, and even an innocent flower child.
Finding it: Available in VHS if you look for it.
Next Time: A 1979 Public Broadcasting Service “Leatherstocking Tales,” melding three of Cooper’s novels into a continued story.
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16. The Leatherstocking Tales (Pt. I), (1979). [From The Freeman's Journal, June 27, 2003]
Background: In 1979 Public TV Station WQED (Pittsburgh) produced a four-part series of The Leatherstocking Tales in its “Once Upon a Classic” series. Obviously intended for a youthful audience, this four episode production condenses four of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (“The Deerslayer”, “The Pathfinder”, “The Last of the Mohicans”, and “The Prairie”) into a single connected story.
Cliff de Young, who plays Natty Bumppo, was born in 1948 and got his start as a singer in the Broadway production of “Hair.” He had his film debut in 1974 and has been active ever since, most recently in the forthcoming film “Last Flight Out” (2003) about narcotics in Columbia. Film critic Leonard Maltin once said of him that “Something about De Young's pleasant features suggests lack of character, and he is particularly suited to play treacherous yuppie careerists.” Perhaps that’s why he is not entirely convincing as the constantly moralizing and rather ostentatiously noble Natty Bumppo.
Chingachgook is played by Roger Hill, a rather wooden, if handsome and well-spoken, actor who in the 1970s appeared briefly in the TV soap opera series “One Life to Live,” and in a couple of movies, but seems to have vanished from the film scene.
The Story: Part I of the two-part series, consisting of two 25 minute episodes, is based entirely on a condensed version of “The Deerlayer,” minus both Hetty Hutter and the “Muskrat Castle” built on stilts. A diffident Natty Bumppo – much given to abstract moral judgments -- arrives at the lake in the company of a bumptious and fiercely racist Hurry Harry, and finds aboard the Ark the ex-pirate Tom Hutter and his handsome, resolute, and good-natured daughter Judith. Fighting with Huron Indians begins immediately and continues throughout the film.
Natty and his Delaware Indian friend Chingachgook rescue the Indian’s captured bride, Judith fends off Hurry Harry’s crude advances, and the plot moves rapidly to a final confrontation with the Hurons. Hurry Harry and Tom Hutter go after Huron scalps, and Tom gets killed (offstage). Natty kills his first Indian in a fair fight – and only after trying to avoid violence – and earns the name of Hawkeye.
Natty is captured, displays his courage, engages in a tomahawk throwing contest (perhaps loosely based on the shooting match in “The Pathfinder”), and is about to be burned at the stake by the Hurons. His friends launch a rather goofy rescue effort (partly taken from the novel), and everybody is finally saved by the timely arrival of British troops led by Sergeant Dunham (borrowed from “The Pathfinder.”) Judith moves to Albany; Natty and his Indian friends paddle off into the wilderness.
Significance: Handsomely filmed on a lake that rather resembles Lake Otsego, this first part of the PBS “Leatherstocking Tales” is good, if rarely thrilling, adventure. Despite careful costuming, and scenic forest backgrounds, the film’s cultural world seems relentlessly modern, with a noticeable stress on both race and gender equality.
Finding it: Released in videotape by Mastervision (Family Classics No. 714) in 1984, used copies can occasionally be found on-line.
Next Time: Part II of this PBS series, in which three novels are combined in one.
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17. The Leatherstocking Tales (Pt. II) (1979).[From The Freeman's Journal, July 4, 2003]
Background The second half of the WQED Public Television version of “The Leatherstocking Tales” is, like the first, divided into two programs. Cliff de Young continues to play an earnest young Natty Bumppo (Hawkeye), and Roger Hill rather woodenly continues his portrayal of Natty’s Indian sidekick Chingachgook. This second half is loosely based on “The Last of the Mohicans” and “The Pathfinder.” “The Pioneers” and “The Prairie” – though cited on the videotape jacket – are neither included nor referred to, and Natty is apparently doomed to eternal youth in a timeless colonial forest.
The Story: The first program is based on the beginning of “The Last of the Mohicans” – with a gallant but inept colonial officer named Duncan Heyward escorting Cora Monro (earnest, courageous, Indian-loving, and fond of sketching) and her sister Alice (whining, rather spiteful, and racist) from (not to) their father’s fort to a blockhouse commanded by Sgt. Dunham (of “The Pathfinder”).
Bumppo and Chingachgook duly rescue them (Uncas does not appear), there is a cave scene, and lots of hand-to-hand fighting with Huron Indians. Natty is even more intent on spouting woodland wisdom and pro-Indian sentiments than in the Deerslayer segment, and Cora is distinctly a modern woman. All ends well, presumably, but rather vaguely – the heroes don’t actually seem to end up anywhere.
The final program is more or less from “The Pathfinder,” set in the woods and in a tiny British army camp headed by Sgt. Dunham (and manned by Pennsylvania colonial “re-enactors”). Cora, Alice, and Heyward have vanished without explanation, and instead we are introduced to Sgt. Dunham’s resourceful daughter Mabel (re-christened “Molly”) and to a young trader who should be Jasper Western but has been dubbed “Jeff Sweetwater”. Lake Ontario and the good ship “Scud” have been left out of the story. Aside from fighting Hurons, the sketchy plot centers around a shooting match between Sweetwater, Natty Bumppo, and a nasty Hurry Harry (who has been shoehorned into the plot from “The Deerslayer”). Natty, knowing himself to be socially inept, throws the match, leaving Jeff to marry Molly; he and Chingachgook head back into the woods.
Significance: The squashing of the plot leaves even less of Cooper’s original than did Part One. As usual in recent “Cooper” movies, a few “settlers” – whom Cooper includes only in “The Pioneers” -- have been thrown into the pot. There is much philosophizing about Native Americans and the unspoiled wilderness, and most of the women are distinctly late-20th century liberated types. Not bad fun (if rather confusing, I suspect) for a young audience, but hardly deserving commendation as a presentation of Cooper – though the series is supposed to have won a childrens’ program award.
Finding it: Like Part I, it has become rather hard to locate, but may be available on the second hand video market.
Next Time: Another cartoon version of “The Last of the Mohicans” – made in Australia and showing it. But it’s an improvement over the last cartoon version we reviewed.
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18. The Last of the Mohicans (1987). [From The Freeman's Journal, July 11, 2003]
Background: In 1987, the Australian animation company Burbank Films – a veteran down-under transformer of classics into cartoons – turned its hands to “The Last of the Mohicans.” Filmed with tongue ostentatiously in cheek, the various characters are all ethnic and national caricatures.
Natty Bumppo (Hawkeye) is a wise-cracking frontiersman (spoken by leading Australian actor John Waters), who looks forward to American independence. Col. Munro and his two daughters have thick Scottish accents. Duncan Heyward (as is so often the case in recent Cooper films) is deprived of his American nationality and turned into a stage Englishman, as snooty as he is snotty. General Montcalm is pure comic Frenchman, with accent and mistress to match. The Indians – good and bad – are tomahawking, tipi-dwelling comics, devoted to fake Indian drumming and saying “ugh,” and periodically mouthing modern politically correct sentiments. David Gamut, although ideal for caricaturing, has for some reason been left out altogether.
With everybody a caricature, nobody can claim to be maligned, and what might otherwise provoke resentment seems quite acceptable. Of course, in a sense, the whole film represents Australia having fun at the expense of American history.
The Story: Chingachgook is tomahawked in the opening scene, leaving coon-skin capped Hawkeye and Uncas to rescue Cora and Alice repeatedly from the scheming Magua. Back at besieged Fort William Henry (flying a Scottish flag), a valiant Col. Monro is aided by a colonial “Captain Washington.” General Montcalm is primarily concerned with his moustache, his mistress Josephine, his epicurean dinner (accompanied by Gypsy fiddler music), and making his cannons go “boum-boum.”
After a version of the traditional cave scene, Cora and Alice are carried off to a Huron village; Hawkeye and Uncas try to rescue them, but are themselves captured. Tamenund (the Delaware chief) intervenes to object to Indians fighting each other, and Uncas and Magua (guess who wins) duel to the death on the edge of the steep precipice required by almost every Mohican film since 1920.
Fort William Henry, running out of ammunition, surrenders, but General Montcalm and Col. Munro lead a joint expedition to rescue Cora and Alice (not to mention Uncas and Hawkeye) from the Hurons. Afterward, the Brits and French return home, but Uncas and Hawkeye remain in the wilderness. Uncas has been charged by Tamenund to end disunity among the Indians; Hawkeye to attempt the doubtful task of teaching white settlers to “treat my people with respect.”
Significance: Nothing fancy, and the animation cinematography is almost as wooden as the stock characters, but it’s a lot of fun so long as you don’t try to take it seriously.
Finding it: A remastered DVD version is widely available for about $10.00.
Next Time: The BIG ONE. Michael Mann’s blockbusting big time movie of 1992, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe, with painstaking attention to accuracy in every detail except the author’s intentions in writing the book.
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19 The Last of the Mohicans (1992). [From The Freeman's Journal, July 18, 2003]
Background: When experienced film director, screenwriter, and producer Michael Mann decided to film Cooper’s novel, he realized while most Americans knew the title, few had read the book. Most – including himself - knew the story, primarily through the 1936 Randolph Scott film, and its transformation of Cooper’s tale into a flag-waving polemic about virtuous American colonists fighting British imperialists. Mann was thus free to loot and trash Cooper’s novel as a thief would raid an empty home, knowing that none would contest him, and few even notice.
The Story: Using bits and pieces of Cooper’s plot – most notably the French siege of Fort William Henry, its surrender, and the ensuing massacre -- Mann has converted Hawkeye (“Nathaniel Poe”) into a sexy hunk and proto-Revolutionary, who loves and beds Cora Munro (leaving Alice to Uncas and destruction), and Duncan Heyward into a nasty Englishman (who nevertheless earns martyrdom at the end). The entire film is filled with bullets, tomahawks, and lovingly portrayed gore and suffering. Oddly enough, there isn’t a bow and arrow on the premises.
Significance: It was the best of films – it was the worst of films. The cinematography is brilliant and often beautiful, with alternating sequences of drawn-out, almost dreamy, slow motion scenes and bursts of sudden violence. The scenery, in the beautiful (and non-union) mountains of North Carolina, is often spectacular. No effort has been spared to present an accurate visual picture of the 1750s, whether in the clothing of the actors or the accoutrements and genuine Delaware language of the numerous Native Americans. The haunting film score deservedly won an Oscar.
On the other hand, everything important that Cooper had to say has been left out – whether about human character or about the American condition. If “Nathaniel Poe” – played by the handsome Daniel Day-Lewis, discovers sex, it is not with Cooper’s African-American Cora, but with an all-British beauty played by Madeleine Stowe (who under his influence is politically reborn as an American patriot). American frontier colonists are shown as democratic nationalists, living, feasting, and playing lacrosse in peaceful harmony with friendly Indians (like the Pilgrim’s mythical Thanksgiving feast). The American militia serving at Fort William Henry are betrayed by the nasty British, and with “Nathaniel’s” assistance, desert to defend their families at home.
“Nathaniel” is portrayed as a “white Indian,” raised from childhood in Indian culture by Chingachgook (played by Native American political leader Russell Means) and as a brother to the ill-fated Uncas. Despite all this political correctness, however, most of the Indians in the film are shown as whooping savages who get their only pleasure out of bloodily slaughtering whites. As with the British characters in the film, their humanity is stated but not demonstrated – the only sympathetically presented people are white American frontiersmen and their dependent Indian chums.
The film’s repeated mayhem, and not its sex, earned it a deserved “R” rating.
Finding it: Widely available in VHS and DVD, in a variety of formats and “cuts.” The film has spawned an ardent fan club, with a huge On the Trail of the Last of the Mohicans website.
Next Time: A second, and improved, attempt to film Cooper’s “The Pathfinder.”
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20. The Pathfinder (1996). [From The Freeman's Journal, July 25, 2003]
Background: Like its predecessors in 1920 and 1936, Michael Mann’s 1992 “Last of the Mohicans” set a new style for Cooper-based films – both as to the portrayal of Natty Bumppo and that of Native Americans. The 1996 film of Cooper’s “The Pathfinder,” heavily marketed as “The Final Chapter to ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ Saga” painstakingly sought to imitate the new style, though on a smaller budget.
Kevin Dillon, evidently chosen for his resemblance to Daniel Day-Lewis, plays a young, virile, and bashful Natty Bumppo in the title role. Laurie Holden is the blonde and beautiful Mabel Dunham who loves him, while Jasper Western (here called Ensign Weston) is played by a likable and very young-looking Canadian named Jaimz Woolvett.
As for the Indians, veteran Native-American Oneida actor Graham Greene, noted for his Oscar nomination in “Dances With Wolves,” was picked for Chingachgook. Michael Mann’s Chingachgook, the Indian political activist Russell Means -- in a reversal of roles -- makes a “Special Appearance” as the treacherous Tuscarora, Arrowhead. He leads a “posse” of hostile, war-whooping Indians, whose sometimes pudgy bellies seem rather to conflict with their carefully applied tattoos, war-paint, and “authentic” breech clouts.
Veteran actor Stacy Keach, dressed like a pirate, has seemingly been inserted into the cast solely to get his name on the credit list; he plays the French General “Compte du Leon” – wholly unknown to Cooper’s book -- who periodically issues orders from a Montreal palace but seems totally unnecessary to either the script or the film itself.
the Story: “The Pathfinder” fairly accurately follows the action of Cooper’s 1840 novel: racing rapids in canoes, holding a shooting contest at the 1759 British fort at Oswego, sailing Lake Ontario through a storm in the warship Scud (though the ship is not named), and at the blockhouse where the final excitements take place. The story is presented as a series of flashbacks, as on New Years Eve in 1799 an aged Mabel Dunham relates her adventures as a bed-time story to her grandchildren, while at the end (faithful to the novel) a mysterious old man lays a bundle of furs at her doorstep.
The scenery, costumes, and fortifications seek to emulate the realism of Michael Mann’s epic, but on a low budget and with only partial success, while the dialogue and social attitudes seem relentlessly 20th century. In the end Pathfinder is true to Cooper’s novel as he nobly allows his young rival “Weston” to win the hand of Mabel. The action on land and sea is spirited, and the constant violence is more conventionally “bang-bang, you’re dead” than the often gruesome 1992 “Mohicans” film. Though Pathfinder is presented as more “Indian” than in Cooper’s tales, the anachronistic proto-Revolutionary War sentiments of recent “Mohicans” have happily not been imitated.
Significance: Lively fun in a rather conventional historical adventure film setting.
Finding it: Available in VHS, though you may have to look for it.
Next Time: We plan to wind up “Cooper on Film” with a survey of a few Cooper-based films we know about but haven’t been able to lay our hands on.
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21. Cooper Films I Haven’t Seen (1910-1994). [From The Freeman's Journal, August 1, 2003]
To conclude this part of The Cooper Bookshelf, I want to note a number of films based on the works of James Fenimore Cooper about which I have heard, but which I have never succeeded in seeing or buying on VHS. There are a number of others, possibly based on Cooper, about which I have very little information.
Finding them: Most of these films appear to be unavailable on videotape or DVD.
Next Time: Cooper in Comic Books – with eight titles in “Classics Illustrated.”
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Cooper in Classic Comics (1941-1972). [From The Freeman's Journal, August 8, 2003]
Background: In 1941 Albert Kanter, President of the Gilberton Company, launched a series of “Classic Comics,” based on famous works of literature. In 1947 the name was changed to “Classics Illustrated.” Kanter hired writers to adapt dozens of literary classics to styles familiar to every young admirer of “action” comic books.
Over the next thirty years, “Classics Illustrated” published 169 titles – many of which were re-issued in England, Australia, Sweden and elsewhere. Though drastically simplifying the plots of the novels concerned, and emphasizing their “comic book” action features, the plot lines were not materially changed or added to, though original dialogue rarely survived. Parents and teachers were assured that these “comics” were in some sense faithful to the original. Many titles went through multiple editions, with revised covers and texts. They first sold for 10, then 15, and finally 25 cents.
The Stories: Of the 169 “Classics Illustrated” titles, eight were by James Fenimore Cooper—more than by any other author. They were the five Leatherstocking Tales, plus “The Spy”, “The Pilot,” and “The Red Rover.” Reading them the (presumably) youthful reader could enjoy an entertaining hour, and acquire some familiarity with Cooper’s basic plot and with the historical background in which it was placed. However, as with film versions, significant moments—such as the killing of the colt in “Mohicans,”—were omitted, while bloodier bits (like the massacres in “The Deerslayer” and “The Last of the Mohicans”) were hastily skimmed over, and no mention was made of Cora Monro’s Afro-Caribbean ancestry. At least Natty Bumppo’s celibacy was preserved intact.
Following the end of the Classics Illustrated series in 1972, several other publishers have issued comic book versions of “The Last of the Mohicans.” In 1992 Dark Horse Classics issued a new “Mohicans,” adapted by Jack Jackson, which—though printed only in black and white—is far truer to Cooper’s novel in both detail and language than any of its many predecessors; for the first time in any adaptation of Cooper’s novels, Cora Monro’s “mixed creole” ancestry is admitted.
Significance: Whether “Classics Illustrated” or similar juvenile simplifications of Cooper’s novels encouraged boys (their readers seem to have been mostly boys) to go on to the novels themselves, or simply served as entertainment and a way to avoid real reading, may never be known. But the genre seems to have ended. One nostalgically minded reader recently mused:
“Practically every novel that had ever been published had as its counterpart a more sophisticated comic book called a Classics Illustrated; titles such as Last of the Mohicans; Moby Dick; Tom Sawyer or any of the other thick books we were assigned to read. So, whenever I had to read a long, boring book…I read the tale in a Classics Illustrated. It followed the original story line closely enough so that I was able to get enough information to fake my way through a report.” Bruce Osburn, Hamlet, NC.
Finding them: Classics Central.com is a good starting place. Many “classic comics” are now valuable collectables.
Next Time: From the Glimmerglass to La Scala; Cooper at the Opera.
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From The Glimmerglass to La Scala: Cooper and Opera (1834-1990). [From The Freeman's Journal, August 15, 2003]
Background: On November 29, 1825, the first genuine opera to be produced in the United States opened at the Park Theatre in New York City. The opera was Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” performed by the Garcia troupe from Italy. Manuel Garcia and his extensive singing family (including the beautiful and exotic Maria) had been brought to America for the season by a group of New York opera lovers, including Columbia College Professor Lorenzo da Ponti (who just happened to have written the Libretto for Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”) and Dr. John W. Francis (who just happened to be James Fenimore Cooper’s life-long friend and personal physician).
Not surprisingly then, the opening night audience included James Fenimore Cooper, along with poet Fitz-Greene Halleck and other notables -- even Joseph Bonaparte, the exiled brother of Napoleon and one-time King of Spain.
But Cooper’s connection with opera was not just in front of the footlights. His novels were the basis for the librettos of a number of important operas -- at least one of which can be heard on CD today.
Cooper-based Operas: The five known operas based on Cooper operas are:
Significance: Opera composers and the librettists who write their scripts often turn to favorite works of popular authors, and Cooper was no exception.
Finding them: The 1990 Valle d’Itria production of Mercadante’s “Il Bravo” is available through any large record outlet in a three-disk CD set: Nuova Era - #6971/73.
Next Time: More about the Mercadante opera.
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Background: Probably the most important Italian composer of operas between the “bel canto” composers Rossini, Bellini, and Donazetti, and the revolutionary Verdi, was Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870), director for 30 years of the Naples Music Conservatory. Of his over 60 operas, Mercadante’s series of five “reform” operas, extending the operatic range set by Bellini, are best known and admired today. Among them is “Il Bravo,” based on James Fenimore Cooper’s 1831 novel “The Bravo,” which opened on March 9, 1839 at Milan’s famed La Scala.
Cooper’s novel, as readers of this column may remember, is a powerful story, set in 18th century Venice, of a man forced to act as a hated government hatchet-man (in Italian, a “bravo”) in order to prevent the secretive and vindictive Venetian regime from executing his imprisoned father. It is a powerful indictment of what we would call today “totalitarianism,” written -- as a warning to Cooper’s fellow Americans -- almost a century before modern totalitarian regimes came into being.
The transition from Cooper’s novel to Mercadante’s libretto (written mostly by Gaetano Rossi) is a complicated one; Rossi worked primarily from a French play, “La Venetienne” by Anicet Bourgeois, which was in turn based on Cooper’s novel, but which changed the names of the characters, and added a flamboyant courtesan to the cast of characters. But the main thrust of Cooper’s novel -- the condemnation of governmental tyranny and injustice -- is fully retained.
The Opera: Despite its “dark and complex plot,” writes the Grove Dictionary of Opera, “Il Bravo is one of Mercadante’s most interesting and successful operas. The musical structures show a real attempt to fuse the varied elements of the early 19th century Italian opera into a more continuous dramatic texture. It had a prodigious success at La Scala…and anyone interested in Mercadante’s influence on [Verdi] can hardly miss the overtones of Sparafucile, and indeed Rigoletto, in the chief character.”
Interviewed in 1976, Placido Domingo said “I’d like to record…Il Bravo by Mercadante. It has a gorgeous duet for two tenors with a B-flat finish. I’d like to record it with Carreras or Pavarotti….”
Finding it: Produced all over Europe (and even in Philadelphia) during the 19th Century, “Il Bravo” was revived by the Rome Opera in 1976 (I have a CD recording), and more importantly at the 1990 Valle d’Itria Festival (easily available, with libretto in Italian and English, on 3 CD’s as Nuovo Era #6971/73). Canadian opera critic John Cragg, describing Mercadante as “one of the most underrated of neglected composers” said of this recording that “the principals…sing well, indeed at times ravishingly, the conducting is firm and effective, the sound for a live recording is exemplary.”
The piano-vocal score was reprinted by Garland Publishing in 1989, and the full score is available in several repositories. I have obtained a non-commercial video of the Valle d’Itria production, if anyone would like to watch it with me.
Glimmerglass Opera please take notice!
Next Time: Susan Fenimore Cooper, and her "“Elinor Wyllys.”
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Susan Fenimore Cooper 1. Elinor Wyllys -- the Lost Novel (1846). [From The Freeman's Journal, August 22, 2003]
Background: In 1846 Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894), oldest daughter of James Fenimore Cooper, wrote and published a novel: “Elinor Wyllys; or, The Young Folk of Longbridge.” Issued under a pseudonym (“Amabel Penfeather”) in the midst of an economic depression, the book sold few copies and was quickly forgotten, even by the Cooper family itself. When Susan published her very successful “Rural Hours” in 1850, most people assumed it was her first book. But “Elinor Wyllys” is not just a forgotten novel -- it is a very good novel. And it has now just been republished for the first time, by New York’s Fort Schuyler Press, in a handsome 590-page paperback edition with an introduction by Richard Magee, and with a Forward by your columnist (who has been involved in this project for almost five years).
The Story: Elinor Wyllys is a young orphaned woman, living with relatives in a small New Jersey community in the 1830s, who is intelligent, kind and talented; indeed she has but one personal problem -- she is so ugly that people turn and stare when she enters the room.
Elinor’s personal story, and those of her boyfriend Harry Hazleton and of her numerous friends and relatives in Longbridge, are interwoven with American literature’s first serious court-room mystery: a drunken sailor shows up claiming to be the heir to a Longbridge fortune. The action of “Elinor Wyllys” moves from the rural environment of Longbridge (rather like Cooperstown) to New York City, the fashionable summer resorts of Saratoga Springs and Lake George, a courtroom in Philadelphia, and even to Paris -- where American tourists flock to soak up “European culture.” The dual stories are resolved in an exciting nautical climax in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard.
Susan Fenimore Cooper not only presents an engrossing story with a large cast of distinctive characters, but goes far beyond the confines of the “domestic romance” to give a vivid and carefully analyzed portrait of American life in the 1830s, including many aspects of daily domestic life omitted in the more “adventurous” novels of her father.
“Elinor Wyllys” is both an enjoyable novel to read, over a century and a half after it was written, and a perhaps unique window into a largely forgotten period of American life and history.
Significance: Long forgotten, the rediscovery and reprinting of “Elinor Wyllys” is long overdue. Your columnist (admittedly prejudiced) wholeheartedly recommends it.
Finding it: The new edition of “Elinor Wyllys,” priced at $19.95, is available through local Cooperstown bookstores, as well as on-line from amazon.com.Your columnist, Hugh MacDougall, will be signing copies (in his capacity of writer of the new edition’s forward), on sale at the Pioneer-Smith Gallery on Pioneer Street, from 5-7 p.m. on Monday, August 25, .
Next Time: Susan Fenimore Cooper's "Rural Hours."
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Susan Fenimore Cooper 2. Rural Hours (1850). [From The Freeman's Journal, September 9, 2003]
Background: Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894), James Fenimore Cooper’s oldest daughter, once wrote: “My dear grandfather (De Lancey) soon commenced my botanical education…. He taught me to distinguish the different trees by their growth, and bark, and foliage…. Such was the beginning of my Rural Hours ideas.” In the Spring of 1848, while living in Cooperstown, she commenced her “simple record of those little events which make up the course of seasons in rural life,” which was to win her enduring fame as a writer and a naturalist. From this journal came “Rural Hours,” “by a Lady”, first published in 1850.
The Story: “Rural Hours” covers one year -- Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter -- from March 4 to February 28. The journal entries on which it is based -- all from 1848 and 1849 -- are not from one continuous year. Susan spent the summer of 1848 with relatives in Geneva, New York, and so the entries for May-August have silently been taken from the summer of 1849 when she was back in Cooperstown. Entries are identified by day of the week, month, and date (not by year); Susan never made entries on Sundays.
“Rural Hours” is not just a journal; the entries on weather, plants and animals, and Cooperstown village life form the basis for varied mini-essays, on everything from natural history to American culture to Christian religion. Susan’s descriptions of what she sees and hears on her walks around her “village” and its surroundings, are always specific and local, but her commentary brings into play her deep knowledge of natural science, geography and history. But her deep love of Cooperstown, a love based on knowledge and understanding, comes through on every page.
The tone of “Rural Hours” is a quiet one -- that Susan never shouts only adds to the strength of her strong convictions. She appeals to the moral instincts and better judgment of her fellow Americans. The viewpoint of her anonymous journal-keeper is always from out of doors -- never moving inside -- and while she graphically describes places, no identifiable individuals enter her story. Her story is of the natural world, which humans beings must share with the plants, birds, and animals around them.
Significance: “Page by page, the larger purposes of Cooper’s book emerge: she hopes to educate Americans about their natural world, to instill in them a pride of place based on this deeper knowledge, and finally to convince them of a moral obligation to preserve their environment.” So writes Cooper scholar Rochelle Johnson in her introduction to the most recent full reprint of “Rural Hours.” If so, Susan exceeded beyond her expectations: “Rural Hours” rapidly went through several editions -- one with fancy illustrations -- and in 1868 Susan herself edited an abridged version. Thoreau is known to have read it before writing his account of Walden Pond.
Finding it: The best edition, especially for Cooperstonians, is that published by the University of Georgia Press in 1998. Syracuse University Press has reissued (1961 and later) the “abridged” 1868 edition, which took out a lot of local material.
Next Time: Summing up Susan Fenimore Cooper, and “The Cooper Bookshelf.”
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Susan Fenimore Cooper 3. Other Writings [From The Freeman's Journal, September 9, 2003]
Background: Although known primarily for her nature book, “Rural Hours” (1850) -- and, we hope, in years to come, by her rediscovered novel “Elinor Wyllys” (1846) -- Susan Fenimore Cooper continued to write shorter pieces throughout her long life, as well as editing several works written by others.
The Story: These are just a few of Susan Fenimore Cooper’s published works:
Significance: Although Susan Fenimore Cooper was too busy with family and philanthropic efforts in Cooperstown to devote herself entirely to writing, what she did accomplish is still very much worth reading, and often both entertaining and relevant to modern American concerns.
Finding Them: All but “Mount Vernon,” as well as many of Susan’s other writings, can be found on-line from the Susan Fenimore Cooper page Cooper Society website.
Next Time: This concludes our series on The Cooper Bookshelf. We are looking into the possibility of publishing the first 52 columns, on the writings of James Fenimore Cooper, in booklet form.
As readers may remember, your columnist was recently appointed the Cooperstown Village Historian. We plan to return to The Freeman’s Journal shortly with a new series of articles drawn from the long history of Cooperstown, to be called “Behind the Glimmerglass.”
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