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Lecture Notes on James Fenimore Cooper

by Prof. John Stauffer (2001)

(Harvard University, English 175h (American History/American Literature), Autumn 2001, Lectures 2 and 3).

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COURSE DESCRIPTION:

Why have so many canonical American writers turned to American history as sources for their fiction? Why did they reinvent history through fiction? How did they define their narratives?

How should we? This course explores American historical fiction from its foundations to the present.

We focus on historical novels written by Americans with an American setting, examine the uses of history within them, and compare them to contemporaneous history, literature, historiography, and criticism. The emphasis is on fiction and history as rival (and complementary) narrative forms, and on constructions of national identities and ideologies.

TEXTS:

Cooper and the Origins of the American Historical Novel

English 175h; Lecture 2; September 18, 2001

Outline
A) Origins of the Novel
B) Rise of Historical Novel
C) Cooper and the Origins of American Historical Novel

Lecture 2, September 18, 2001
Cooper and the Origins of the American Historical Novel
A) Origins of the Novel

Number of things coincided with rise of novel:

Preconditions

The novel in many respects reflected these social conditions. The distinguishing feature of the novel, according to Ian Watt, is its "formal realism": that is, the emphasis on the everyday, on the colloquial, rather than on traditional forms such as the epic or tragedy.

While epic, tragedy, and romance can be aspects of the novel, in themselves they differ from the novel because they don’t conform to formal realism. Another way to put this is that there are not everyday characters interacting-shaping and being shaped by-their environment, which you have in the novel.

The Rise of the Historical Novel

What is lacking in historical narratives before Scott are specifically historical themes: individual characters who fit well into the age in which they live.

The rise of the historical novel coincided with the rise of a strong sense of national identity held by everyday common people. And the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the Revolutionary era in America, especially the War of 1812, produced a profoundly patriotic and nationalistic fervor.

Historical novel, in seeking to understand national character, tends to highlight a historical awareness either of class struggle (esp. in Europe), or of race struggle (esp. in America). Cooper highlights the essential whiteness and middle-class status of Natty Bumppo.

C) Cooper and the Origins of the American Historical Novel.

Cooper was profoundly influenced by the example of Sir Walter Scott’s enormously popular historical fiction (as were most English and European writers), but he applied Scott’s form to an American setting.


Cooper’s Frontier: From Mohicans to Americans

Lecture Outline, September 20, 2001
English 175h
A) Regeneration of America Through Violence
B) Mirroring of characters
C) Last of the Mohicans gives way to the first of the Americans
D) Thomas Cole: visual analog to Cooper:

Last of the Mohicans: From Mohicans to Americans

Two long weeks of reading.

A) Regeneration of Americans through violence
B) Mirroring aspects of the novel: characterization; narrative; form.
C) Birth of a Nation.
D)Thomas Cole

Impact of the novel: phrases that are still in common usage derive from this book: Hawkeye; Football teams (Crimson tide) (p. 176).

A) Regeneration of Americans Through Violence:
B) There is a mirroring among the characters that emphasize the theme of individual regeneration through violence and the permanence of race:
C) These formal elements, the racial typing, mirroring, and regenerative theme of violence all point to the overarching theme in the book: That the last of the Mohicans gives way to the first of the Americans:
D) Cooper explicitly embraced the cyclical view of history in his praise of Thomas Cole.

Bibliography

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