James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
This page is: http://www.oneonta.edu/external/cooper/writings/utopia/chaptwo.html

History and Utopia:
A Study of the World View of James Fenimore Cooper
(Chapter Two -- pp. 49-79)

Allan M. Axelrad
(University of Pennsylvania)

Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1978
Limited to 200 Copies

© 1978, Allan M. Axelrad
Placed on-line with permission of the copyright holder
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Return to History and Utopia (home page) | Writings

CHAPTER TWO: History and Social Change

{49} Cooper came of age at the end of the Era of Democratic Revolution, entering Yale College in 1803. The memory of the French Revolution's endeavor to put into social and political practice the rational ideology of the Enlightenment remained a lively topic in the young nation, as did current Napoleonic militarism. No wonder scholars wishing to reconstruct his intellectual heritage look to the eighteenth century, and seek it in the rich intellectual milieu of the French Enlightenment. Indeed, they are probing the right time period, but the wrong place. Throughout his life Cooper remained true to the basic thrust of the conservative political ideology espoused by the majority of the intellectual leaders of the Era of the American Revolution. But it was in England, not France, that the primary ideological principles voiced by the American revolutionary generation were germinated.1

Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, a conservative, eighteenth-century English political philosopher, had a major impact on the ideological formulations of the generation of the American Revolution. His pessimistic appraisal of history and government, according to Bernard Bailyn, is a reflection of the thinking of his age, whose fundamental adage was "what happened yesterday will come to pass again."2 In his 1738 essay, "The Idea of a Patriot King," Bolingbroke succinctly gives his contemporaries' opinion of history, anticipating the political philosophy and idea of history expounded a century later in The Crater:

Absolute stability is not to be expected in any thing human; for that which exists immutably exists alone necessarily, and this attribute of the Supreme Being can neither belong to man, nor to the works of man. The best instituted governments, like the best constituted animal bodies, carry in them the seeds of their own destruction; and though they grow and improve for a time, they will soon tend visibly to their own dissolution. Every {50} hour they live is an hour the less that they have to live. All that can be done therefore to prolong the duration of a good government, is to draw it back, on every favorable occasion, to the first good principles on which it was founded. When these occasions happen often, and are well improved, such governments are prosperous and durable. When they happen seldom, or are ill improved, these political bodies live in pain or in languor, and die soon.3

Bolingbroke's gloomy assessment of the course of human history is founded in the belief that all governments, all societies are mutable, just as are all organisms in nature. God alone is immutable -- He transcends the built in flux of earthly existence. Profane history is cyclical. Social change is verbalized through the language of organic analogy and metaphor. Societies "grow and improve," but eventually "live in pain or in languor, and die." Mortal civilizations, "like the best constituted animal bodies," contain within themselves "the seeds of their own destruction." Like Cooper in The Crater, he insists, "Absolute stability is not to be expected" in the temporal sphere; the best that can be done is "to prolong the duration of a good government" as long as possible. And like Cooper, he rests the sustenance of society not in the hands of fallible man, but in the strength of institutions, in "the first good principles on which it was founded."

Bolingbroke's commitment to a cyclical model of history was not an isolated incident in the eighteenth century. The triumph of the idea of progress in England and America did not occur in the eighteenth century, contrary to much literature on the subject. In the revolutionary and constitution-making era, the orthodox creed in America of the educated and politically dominant class of men was the cyclical idea of history.4 As a statement about social and political reality, the cyclical mode is conservative and defensive. Although the consensus among late eighteenth-century Americans was that the New World was currently in an early stage of growth, they nonetheless recognized the transient character of civilizations and were well aware this idyllic phase would not last forever. So the constitution-makers erected firm institutions, hoping to overcome the follies of man's imperfect nature, at least for a time, and by so doing prolong the idyllic period. The historical record, as they {51} read it and as Cooper would later read it, was ripe with evidence of the fragility of social bodies. All civilizations are subject to providential judgment; and the inevitable fall of civilization represents the harsh sentence cyclically meted out to corrupt human beings. To sustain virtue and avoid corruption, a right relationship must be obtained with the land; hence the idyllic period in the cycle, Cooper's proximate utopia, occurs when the moral health of the community and also its economic base are in accord with the rural virtues assigned to the pastoral condition. Ownership and sanctity of property is one measure of the moral rectitude of society, which is a prominent theme in the Littlepage trilogy, Home As Found, and also in The Crater. Indeed, the good society, in the late eighteenth-century view, gives allegiance to most of the same principles underpinning the proximate utopian society and government overseen by Mark Woolston in The Crater.

One clue to the persistence of the cyclical idea of history is contained in the classical instruction received by many of its adherents. The Greek and Roman perception of time was directed by the cyclical model.5 The Revolutionary Age and Early National Period were dominated by American public figures steeped in classicism. It was also an era marked by great popular interest in the classical past.6 Cooper received a traditional, though spotty classical education, and came of age in the waning years of the American obsession with the classical, especially the Roman past. For Americans at this time, writes Howard Mumford Jones, "classicism remained a powerful force, whether for propaganda, historical precedent, warning, or the theory of a republic."7 Not only did the Roman mind conceive history to be cyclical, but the rise and fall of Roman civilization provided a vivid illustration of the cyclical course of empire. During this formative stage in his intellectual growth, given the widespread acceptance of the cyclical mode of history, the great public interest in classical antiquity, and his own classical education, it is not surprising that young Cooper would be thoroughly familiar with the cyclical idea of history and the lessons it held.8

Neo-classicists enthusiastically interjected ruins of the past into their literature and art.9 Whether ruins in nature or ruins of past civilizations, the message of mutability and impermanence was clearly signalled. Count Volney's The Ruins: Or A Survey of The Revolutions Of Empire, published in 1791 and translated for an {52} American edition in 1802, is an important landmark linking a Romantic idea of history to neo-classicism and also to a view of history held in the Enlightenment and in the Age of Democratic Revolution. Although Volney was committed to many of the basic tenets of the Age of Reason, his Ruins had a noticeable impact on Cooper and the Hudson River School. Jones speaks of "the American vogue of Volney" in the early nineteenth century,10 and it is easy to see that the Romantic motif of moral-giving ruins which plays a significant role in The Course of Empire and The Crater was influenced by Volney's treatise.

History for Volney, as for Cooper, characteristically revolves in analogous cycles according to prescribed stages. The difference between the two is that ignorance, not sin, is the chief culprit in Volney's eyes and the ultimate cause of the impermanence of civilizations. So Volney's chiliasm, in contradistinction to Cooper's neo-orthodox Christian eschatology, has the millennial state appearing when ignorance is eradicated. Each acknowledges that the moral health of the community, in conjunction with its relationship to nature, determines its position in the cycle of history. But where Cooper finds moral deterioration due to man's fallen state, Volney blames it on his lack of knowledge.

Cooper and Volney have an identical understanding of the mechanics of the historical process. According to Volney's immutable rule of history, "If a people were powerful, if an emipire [sic] flourished, it was because the laws of convention were conformable to those of nature," but if a people were decadent or civilization fallen to ruin, it was because the relationship of man to nature was out of kilter.11 The right relationship of man to nature is one of close communion, but this does not sanction primitivism for Cooper or Volney. Volney affirms the pastoral in an analogy of the superiority of cultivated and sweetened fruit to wild and bitter fruit: "to say, that such a state is unnatural, because it is more advanced toward perfection, is to say that a fruit, which in the woods is bitter and wild, is no longer a production of nature, after having become sweet and delicious in the garden in which it has been cultivated." He rejects Rousseauian primitivism, telling that "philosophers" who call "the savage state of life a state of perfection" are deluded; "man in a savage state" is "A brute and ignorant animal."12 Consistent with the pastoral ideal, his proximate utopia is neither the "savage state," nor the state of indolent luxury. When "every man ploughed his own field," he explains, a simple "purity of manners" is obtained. {53} "rendering luxury impossible."13 The social excellence attained through the balance of nature and society is lost as the cycle of history advances: society becomes increasingly complex, nature recedes, and immorality ensues, With phraseology anticipating Cooper's in The Crater, Volney warns that once the cycle of history passes zenith, "The relations of men becoming complicated, the interior order of society was more difficult to maintain. Time and industry having created affluence, cupidity awoke from its slumber."14 Like Cooper, he fixes the blame for decline on "love of accumulation," "licentiousness," and a "diminished" ability to resist.15 And like Cooper, he is concerned that once life becomes too easy the people will wax soft, such that "Hordes of barbarians" will find little resistance penetrating into the very bosom of an advanced civilization.16 Time and again Volney repeats the message of The Crater -- that the ruins of time are memorials to "terrible catastrophes" of the past, which will reoccur in the future, as history cyclically returns.17

The sameness of language in The Ruins and The Crater establishes a similarity of world view. Volney uses "desolate" and "solitude" to depict civilization in "ruin;" and "vicious" defines the condition of society late in the cycle.18 Identical language, in conjunction with a cyclical and apocalyptic idea of history, argues for an affinity of view; but it is their fundamentally different opinion about the cause of imperfection that separates the cosmology of the French rationalist from Cooper's Christian cosmology.

The cyclic mode of history depicted in The Ruins became the official version of the Hudson River School once Volney's eighteenth-century rationalism was replaced by the mystery and irrationalism of the Romantic imagination. Certainly the triumph of the idea of progress was not as complete at this time as often supposed.19 Cooper was not alone in his rejoinder to the optimistic ethos of Jacksonian go-aheadism. His idea of history did not result from a private quibble with the press, nor antagonism to anti-rentism, nor a general quarrel with the excesses of egalitarianism. Rather, it was the outgrowth of a widely accepted European and early American view of history, endorsed by the Hudson River School, which was an integral part of his conservative world view prior to his return from Europe in 1833 and purported disillusionment. The motif, the-ruins- of-time, which frames The Crater, is a rich part of the literary expression contained in Cooper's early as well as his later novels. The motif of ruins is [54} not merely decorative and mood enhancing. Ruins are significant symbols of the temporality of human constructions and inseparable from a cyclical idea of history.


The cyclical idea of history is an historical rendering of archaic man's envisionment of time as endlessly repeating cycles. This myth of the eternal return is as old as human society;and the particular preoccupation of classical civilization with both the memory and future expectation of a golden age, influenced historical thinking in the eighteenth and at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The analogy of time as a cycle, impregnated in Cooper's and the classical mind, is rooted in one of the oldest and most persistent analogies in Western thought, the metaphors of growth and decay. In his study of the nature and meaning of analogy and metaphor in Western man's perception and comprehension of history and social change, Robert Nisbet states: "Metaphor is a way of knowing -- one of the oldest, most deeply embedded, even indispensable ways of knowing in the history of human consciousness. It is, at its simplest, a way of proceeding from the known to the unknown. It is a way of cognition in which the identifying qualities of one thing are transferred in an instantaneous, almost unconscious, flash of insight to some other thing that is, by remoteness or complexity, unknown to us."20 Man has repeatedly borrowed terms from the world of nature having to do with the life cycles of plants and animals -- such as genesis, development, growth, unfolding, or sickness, decay, degeneration, death -- and used them for analysis of human society and social change. These terms are not literally applicable to society, they are metaphors.21

Mircea Eliade explains, for archaic man, "the cosmos is a living organism, which renews itself periodically. The mystery of the inexhaustible appearance of life is bound up with the rhythmical renewal of the cosmos."22 For archaic man the cosmos is wholly sacred. The modern cosmos is largely desacralized, but not entirely. Age-old, organic symbols and metaphors have survived the impact of Christianity and modern secularism, often with new connotations added, but with their basic structure intact. Likewise, there remain vestiges of sacrality attached to nature not completely divorced by modern man from the original sacred content.23 This, perhaps, begins to explain why the Hudson River esthete, Cooper, with his deep reverence for nature, could not resist analogies between {55} nature, history, and the cosmos.

The language employed by Cooper for discussing social change and identifying stages in the historical process is pregnant with organic metaphors. Frequently he chose the human organism for his analogue, with metaphors like infancy, youth, maturity, old age, and death designating stages of civilization. The life cycle analogy and the metaphors of genesis and decay, applied to social change, were strongly embedded in the classical mind. "Metaphors," Nisbet suggests, "can be lasting as well as powerful. Generations, even centuries and millennia, may be required to liberate the mind from ways of thinking which began in analogy and metaphor."24 He believes Western man has still not fully extricated himself from his heritage of applying biological metaphors to social change. Organic analogues of the historical process are abundantly evident in the writings of eighteenth-century Americans, especially conservative thinkers.25 For Cooper, who came of age at the end of the eighteenth century, and who was preoccupied much of his adult life with writing about social change, it was only natural that he express his perception of change through the time-proven language of organic analogy and metaphor.

Analogues of change in nature and social change abound in Cooper's works. A correspondence exists between nature and society: "It would seem," he says, "that, as Nature has given its periods to the stages of animal life, it has also set limits to all moral and political ascendency." He then contrasts "youthful" America with the diseased and dying physique of Mediterranean civilization, which he compares to "the human form shrinking into 'the lean and slippered pantaloon.'"26 This is the basic format of his perception of the difference between the New World and the Old. America is a "seed recently sown."27 It is in "the infant state."28 Or, America "is in its infancy, though advancing toward maturity with giant strides."29 For inhabitants of European lineage it is, perhaps, a "second childhood."30 Its strength is its "young vigorous" communities.31 In another vein, drawing on the seasonal cycle, the metaphor "spring" suits the New World."32 It was commonplace for American Romantics to equate the cycle of seasons with the human life cycle, with spring the metaphor of childhood, summer-youth, fall-maturity, and winter-old age.33 "If the spring is the time of hope," he explains, "autumn is the season of fruition" and "may be justly likened to the decline of a well-spent life."34 Such is the {56} destiny of civilizations, to "come and go like the changes of the seasons."35

"Of all the fallacies with which man has attempted to gloss his expedients," he tells, "there is none more evidently false than that which infers the duration of a social system, from the length of time it has already lasted. It would be quite as reasonable to affirm that the man of seventy has the same chances for life as the youth of fifteen, or that the inevitable fate of all things of mortal origin was not destruction."36 Civilization has "mortal origin," is organic, and is governed by the rules of nature. Europe is "the old man of seventy;" now far past its prime, its future is precarious. Venice, like an old man, is "a little tottering with its years."37 Italy is in its "autumn," the season "in which the harvest is gathered, and where one begins already to see the fall of the leaf."38 Decay is the metaphor most frequently applied to societies on the downward are of the cycle.39 Whole "communities, like individuals," he says, "draw near their dissolution, inattentive to the symptoms of decay, until they are overtaken with that fate which finally overwhelms empires and their power in the common lot of man."40 Individuals reflect their environment which, in turn, reflects its stage in the cycle of history. A European character is described as "one of the lowest class of those fungi that grow out of the decayed parts of the moral, as their more material types prove the rottenness of the vegetable world."41 In Europe he beheld examples of civilizations in two stages of the cycle; those in decay, symptomatic of a late stage, and those remaining only as ruins, now in "hopeless decay."42 In Cooper the motif of ruins easily combines with the organic metaphor decay to pass moral judgment on fallen people, such that, he maintains, 'ruins in a land are, like most of the signs of decay in the human form, sad evidence of abuses and passions which have hastened the inroads of time."43

The next-to-last chapter of The Deerslayer is headed by an epigraph from Shelley:

The flower that smiles today
     Tomorrow dies;
All that we wish to stay,
     Tempts and then flies:
What is this world's delight?
Lightning that mocks the night,
Brief even as bright.44

{57} Here organic analogy, the life cycle of a flower, illuminates the temporality of human life and all earthly constructions. The epigraph serves as an epitaph for Hetty Hutter and for the microcosmic society Floating Tom Hutter built upon the Glimmerglass. The final pages reverberate with an elegiac note, as Leatherstocking revisits the lake after fifteen years' absence. The metaphor "decay" is repeatedly used to depict the residuum of Hutter's miniature quasi-civilization.45 Hutter's community had its brief moment, then disappeared, save for a lingering, "picturesque ruin."46 Nature predominates, and we are told "that a few more recurrences of winter, a few more gales and tempests, would sweep all into the lake, and blot the building from the face of that magnificent solitude."47 The short history of Hutter's residence on the Glimmerglass reiterates the course of human history. Civilization is temporary, fleeting; it intrudes upon nature, but in the end nature prevails. The conclusion of the tale opens with an organic analogy of the time cycle and closes with a series of organic metaphors defining the final phase of an historical cycle. Solitude reigns, and in Cooper "solitude" is often associated with the last stage of a cycle, desolation. As in The Crater, emersion and immersion frame the time cycle. Floating Tom's mock castle, his quasi-civilization, emerged from the lake, built upon piles. In the final scene we are told the "piles" are fast "rotting," soon to disintegrate.48 In the end the castle will immerge into the lake from which it came, reclaimed by the sin-absolving waters. Such is the life cycle of the Hutters, "They lived, erred, died, and are forgotten," a microcosm of profane history."49

Like other Hudson River figures, Cooper uses ruins of civilizations to indicate the cyclical course of human history and natural ruins to suggest the cyclical way of time in nature. Often he combines or interchanges the two, applying Volney's motif of ruins to nature, and organic symbols to society. A common symbol of ruins in nature is the gnarled trunk of a dead tree, which, placed in a sublime natural setting, testifies to the transitoriness of all organisms. Trees, animals, human beings, and, of course, civilizations, are all governed by the immutable cycle of time. The blasted tree trunk in nature, as the crumbling archway of a bygone civilization, symbolizes the finalization of a cycle. In Cooper's prose elegy to the vanishing American, The Last Of The Mohicans, Chingachgook says at the tale's end, "I am a blazed pine, in a clearing of the palefaces . . . I have no kin."50 As a "blazed" tree, the last Mohican is {58} figuratively a ruin, while literally embodying the end of a cycle. The Indian was vanquished with the destruction of the trees of his forests. The felling of trees, a phenomenon commented upon in virtually every one of Cooper's American novels, marks the wastefulness and destructiveness of white civilization, and portends the time when it, too, will be destroyed due to this wanton violation of nature. In The Pioneers, Judge Temple's effort to conserve the forests is clearly identified with the preservation of Templeton in the proximate utopian phase of the cycle of history. In nature the blasted tree trunk tells of the end of a life cycle; in civilization dead trees symbolize the human propensity toward self-destruction. The symbols of ruins of time in nature and society are combined by Leatherstocking, who notes, discoursing on the destruction of trees under the onslaught of civilization, that in towns the great trees are torn down and only "their disabled trunks" remain, "marking the 'arth like headstones in a graveyard. It seems to me," he continues, "that the people who live in such places must be always thinkin' of their own inds, and of universal decay; and that, too, not of the decay that is brought about by time and natur', but the decay that follows waste and violence."51

Leatherstocking's world view differs from Cooper's, the former finding the idyllic in wild nature, the latter in domesticated nature, but they concur about the moral-giving meaning of trees. In The Prairie the Old Trapper, who was driven from the eastern forests by falling timber, has, ironically, come to inhabit the Great Plains whose desert wastes represent the end of a cycle, the treeless ruins of time. Many years before, as Pathfinder, he cautions, there are "spots" on earth "marked by the vengeance of heaven,"

which, perhaps, have been raised up as solemn warnings to the thoughtless and wasteful, hereaways. They call them prairies; and I have heard as honest Delawares as I ever knew declare that the finger of God has been laid so heavily on them that they are altogether without trees. This is an awful visitation to befall innocent 'arth and can only mean to show to what frightful consequences a heedless desire to destroy may lead.

The western plains ("prairies") mark the desolate stage in the cycle of history and are compared by Pathfinder to "a desert island,"52 which, in The Crater, was specifically designated the desolate state and equally lacking in the vegetal prerequisite to the renewal of {59} history, achieved in the novel only after Woolston proceeds to plant trees on the reef.

The centrality of trees in Cooper's view of the world is manifest at several levels of his thought. The presence, absence, and society's regard for trees, are associated with different stages in the historical cycle. Deserts or desert islands have felt the wrath of God and "are altogether without trees;" they designate the desolate state at the end of a cycle. Great forests mark the beginning of a cycle, but are fit habitats only for heathen savages. Only in the garden do man and nature form a Christian environment; signified, perhaps, by man's cultivation of trees and, in return, their bearing flowers and fruit for his pleasure. In the cyclical turning away from the garden, the disappearance of trees is linked to the loss of esthetic, moral, and religious values. Hence the well-being of the community is inextricably bound to man's reverence and regard for trees. On a deeper level in his consciousness, as will be shown, the tree is the prime exemplar of the organic life cycle. More than that, I would suggest, the prominence of the tree in Cooper's imagination is a vestige of archaic man's envisionment of the cosmos as a gigantic tree, the tree of life, whose periodic regeneration, in Eliade's words, reveals "the mystery of life and creation and the mystery of renewal, youth, and immortality."53 As the organic archetype of life, the tree's regular regeneration is linked to the sustenance of life; and the death of our world or, by extrapolation, our civilization, is linked to the death of the tree. This is clearly seen in Black Elk's "Great Vision." The death of his nation is signified by the death of the "holy tree," the tree of life; and its anticipated rebirth is signified by the replanting of the tree of life at the center of the world, and its sprouting anew with its nurturing branches and leaves.54 Although the sacrality of the cosmos is never so real for Cooper as for archaic man, the inescapable association of the tree with life, or the good life, is as evident to Cooper as to Black Elk.55

In a dialogue between Dr. Obed Bat and Leatherstocking in The Prairie, the tree, as the exemplar of the organic cycle of time, provides a vehicle for repudiating the idea of progress. Dr. Bat, who is as blind as his namesake, is a foil for Cooper, whose position is eloquently put forth by the crotchety Old Trapper. Dr. Bat argues that reason, education, scientific advance, cultural refinement, and the progress of civilization go hand-in-hand. If properly directed by human reason, the course of history would be unrelenting {60} progress. Leatherstocking turns to nature for his reply. The frontier philosopher's response is an analogism, conceived through the life cycle of the tree.

The work of man is mutable, just as are all things in nature. "It is the fate of all things," says Leatherstocking, "to ripen and then to decay," interjecting organic metaphors "ripen" and "decay" to indicate the way of nature and course of civilization. He speculates that the barren plains upon which they sit might once have been a garden for a great monarch whose entire civilization has long since vanished, leaving no traces. Civilization is likened to the fruit of the tree -- "The tree blossoms and bears its fruit, which falls, rots, withers, and even the seed is lost!"56 He then extends the analogy to the tree itself:

There does the noble tree fill its place in the forest, loftier, and grander, and richer, and more difficult to imitate than any of your pitiful pillars, for a thousand years, until the time which the Lord hath given it is full. Then come the winds that you cannot see to rive its bark, and the waters from the heavens to soften its pores, and the rot, which all can feel and none can understand, to humble its pride and bring it to the ground. From that moment its beauty begins to perish. It lies another hundred years, a moldering log, and then a mound of moss and 'arth, a sad effigy of a human grave.57

But this is not all. Leatherstocking draws out his analogy to account for why there are no traces left of the vanished civilization that might once have dominated the Great Plains. Finally natural disintegration will be so complete that even "the cunningest scout of the whole Dakota nation" will be unable to detect the spot where the great tree lay. And he concludes on a somewhat different track, unmindful of the fact that the full sweep of the analogy has lost its consistency. As if to mock the arrogance of man, he says, "a pine shoots up from the roots of the oak, just as barrenness comes after fertility or as these wastes have been spread where a garden may have been created."58 In the natural cycle of genesis and decay, death produces life, such as the pine finding sustenance in the roots of the rotting oak, and also, fertility cyclically gives way to infertility. The implication for human society is that new civilizations are born on the ruins of old ones, but sometimes (as in The Crater {61} or as on the Great Plains) they are entirely obliterated, leaving a desolate landscape in their wake. Yet the life cycle in the organic world is not precisely the same as the course of civilization. In nature the cycle of genesis and decay is perfectly natural, without moral innuendo, while the abiding presence of original sin explains the demise of civilizations. The Old Trapper asks, "how do you account for these changes on the face of the 'arth itself and for this downfall of nations," and answers his own question, saying "it is their morals."59

The overwhelming evidence found throughout his works shows that the cyclical idea of history articulated by Leatherstocking, through the language of organic analogy and metaphor, is shared by Cooper. He did not rationally select the organic metaphor "decay" from an assortment of logical alternatives. Instead, he inherited it. As such the metaphor achieves a degree of literalness indistinct from its descriptive function. Civilizations, nonetheless, are not literally organisms that grow and decay. But, in Nisbet's analysis, "Achieving the impossible is what metaphor is all about. From it spring religions, prophecies, and dogmas," and also "world views."60 Organic metaphors of social change, such as Black Elk's envisionment of the tree of life sprouting anew, or the Greek idea of the seed and growth contained in the myth of Demeter, provide bases for prophecies and world views.61 Cooper's organic metaphors of social change are relies of a sacred past, containing vestiges of sacrality in the face of the continuing secularization of Western culture. Where the Greek metaphor of the seed sprung directly from the actions of the gods and, as such, falls into the category of the miraculous, Cooper's metaphor of the fruit of the tree is less directly attributed to divine intervention. Change in nature and society in Cooper is providential, not miraculous. The fruit falling and disintegrating is an explanation of what providentially occurs once civilizations achieve their height. Although the fruit of the tree is not literally consummation of empire, the association is inescapable within Cooper's cosmology; such is the linguistic property of his analogies between the natural universe and human society. And it is this cyclical idea of history, with its attendant pattern of social change depicted through organic analogy and metaphor, that provides the foundation of his world view.


Cooper's idea of history informs of the naturalness and also {62} and also the inevitability of social change. Nature constantly undergoes alteration, in the life cycle of plants and animals, and in the daily cycle and cycle of seasons. As the world of nature is perpetually being transformed, so is the human community. Nothing in nature or in society is permanent. Cooper's sociology proceeds from his awareness of the primacy of change in nature. The single fiber threading its way throughout Cooper's voluminous writings, giving cohesion to his entire literary output, is his lifelong preoccupation with social change.

Scholars, nevertheless, have accused Cooper of little awareness of social process; of being blind to the impact of mobility, egalitarianism, evangelical Protestantism, and mechanization upon Jacksonian America.62 But Cooper was exceptionally perceptive of their impact upon the American social fabric, and he did not like what he saw. Because his idea of history posits the naturalness and inevitability of social change, because change is inescapable according to his world view, he was better prepared than most Americans to detect signs of change and foretell the consequences. His writings are saturated with the negative impact of mobility, egalitarianism, and evangelical Christianity upon the staid, hierarchical, social order he revered. He wrote repeatedly of the role of technology, exemplified by the axe out West and the railroad back East, in changing the exterior countenance of the continent. Certainly the most frequently debunked character-type in his novels is the upstart Yankee, who epitomizes for him the forces of social change in Jacksonian America.63

Cooper's first significant novel, The Spy (1821), is about a revolution, and his final novel, The Ways Of The Hour (1850). as suggested in the title, studies the continuing impact of time and change upon American society. In the intervening years virtually everything he wrote bore upon his appreciation of the relentlessness of social change and its consequences for society. What set American civilization off from others and made it unique in his estimation, was the remarkable speed with which change was occurring. He marvels at the extreme difficulty in keeping pace with changes in American society, where "nothing seems to be stationary."64 "Five years," he writes, "had wrought greater changes than a century would produce in countries where time and labor have given permanency to the works of man." Civilization literally "rushed" into the American hinterland.65 The "rapidity" of change "wears the appear{63}ance of magic."66 Speaking of the "mighty changes" that have occurred here, he concludes that "Ages have not often brought about as many in other portions of the earth, as this short period of time has given birth to among ourselves."67 Change is normal and expected within his world view, but it was the speed and reckless quality of change that was so unsettling to the conservative author. Cooper likens what was happening in America to "the act of the man who fancied he could teach his horse to live without food -- just as he believed the poor beast was perfect, it died of inanition!"68

The Pioneers, Cooper's most successful treatment of the relationship between social change and change in nature, obtains unity through the passage of the four seasons, with a careful correspondence made between natural events and human events. In the novel, writes Thomas Philbrick, "both nature and man exist in ceaseless and rapid fluxion." "The initial and most forceful impression conveyed by the passages of natural description in The Pioneers," he continues, "is that nothing is static or permanent in nature but that everything is caught up in a cycle of incessant transformation. The only certainty in the natural world is the fact of change itself. When Cooper extends the field of vision in his landscapes to include the works of man as well as the objects of nature, he makes it apparent that the human community of Templeton is involved also in the flow of change, change to which it both responds and contributes."69

Spring is the season of rebirth and renewed activity, both in nature and among the townspeople. There is a strong sense in The Pioneers of the rhythmical renewal of the cosmos with the appearance of spring, which for archaic man was literally a rebirth of time. Yet however natural seasonal change may be, it is not exempt from tension and conflict. Cooper speaks of the "struggles between the seasons." The seasons are "adversaries." The air is filled "with discordant screams" of wild geese, "venting their complaints" about the strain and tension of change. Change is abrasive. The melting of the snow brings forth "green wheat fields," but also uncovers "the dark and charred stumps that had, the preceding season, supported some of the proudest trees of the forest."70 The snow's disappearance ushers in a time of rebirth and growth in nature and in the community, but also exposes some of the "unpleasant"71 changes which are solely the work of man. Spring should be a season of growth and promise, but in the novel it is a {64} season of growth and destruction. The town grows, while the townspeople engage in the rapid decimation of their natural environment. Templeton, as a young community, is in the springtime of its existence -- "no unreal picture of human life in its first stages of civilization."72 This, like its counterpart in the cycle of seasons, is the most promising and dynamic stage in the cycle of history. But the community is changing too quickly, too carelessly. The epigraph, from the pen of Waiter Scott, to a chapter set in early spring gives warning:

Speed! Malise, speed! Such cause of haste
Thine active sinews never braced.73

If the townspeople do not heed the conservation measures proposed by Judge Temple (Cooper's persona), the community will rapidly degenerate due to the dissonance of man and nature.74 Cooper's late eighteenth-century, American tales (The Pioneers, the Wallingford novels, and The Chainbearer) each recount the idyllic era of the nation's cycle of existence, and also the forces of change at work -- change that can never be entirely halted, but change that might be slowed and controlled through conservation and conservative social and political practices, extending the duration of proximate utopia.

Social change presupposes a changed relationship between man and his environment, between man and nature. So long as they exist in equipoise, proximate utopia will endure. But Americans were rapidly destroying the requisite balance. No wonder, when Cooper drew a full portraiture of proximate anti-utopia in The Bravo, he selected Venice as the site of his tale, a city-state offering its inhabitants no recourse to rejuvenating contact with nature. In the New World, the reduction of the Indians' domain, the forests, and the Indians' ensuing deterioration, presages the fate in store for white civilization. The Indians suffered first because their cultural/racial gifts75 mandate intimacy with wild nature. But the self-same technology that violated the reds' wild paradise to produce the subdued landscape of white proximate utopia, will eventually also destroy the moral foundation in nature of white society. Richard Slotkin writes, "From Heckewelder" Cooper "took what he believed to be myths expressive of the Indians' own conception of their history and an idea of the importance of their sense of spiritual intimacy with the land -- an intimacy that gave them strength while it lasted but made them vulnerable to moral degeneration when the {65} preemption of the land by the whites had displaced them."76 The Pioneers clearly shows the degeneracy which follows Chingachgook's removal from his ancestral hunting grounds. Still, long before reading Heckewelder's History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations, published in 1818, Cooper was culturally conditioned to acknowledge that spirituality is conferred upon human society through its relationship with nature, and so prepared to empathize with the plight of the Indians. His version of historicism informs of a difference between red gifts and white gifts, but reds no less than whites require a right relationship to the land for moral and spiritual vitality. The belief that man and nature should co-exist harmoniously is a central idea in classical and eighteenth-century conceptualizations of the cyclical course of history -- so, too, was it for Cooper and the Hudson River School. Indeed, the belief that nature and the human community should relate in proper balance was a fundamental part of his intellectual and cultural trappings. In his world view, it is a precondition to moral solvency and to the good life.


The regeneration, through contact with unpolluted nature, of transplanted Europeans who had crossed the Atlantic to begin anew in America, was a central component of the Romantic imagination. Though ex-Europeans might be rejuvenated in the virginal New World, the descendants of these new Adams cannot, according to Cooper, escape the genetic moral flaw handed down by the original Adam to his posterity. The vainglorious conceit of the idea of progress, that open-ended improvement might occur in the rich New World environment, was heatedly disputed by Cooper throughout his literary career, and put to death to his satisfaction with the burial of the adamic but childless Leatherstocking at the end of The Prairie.77 Due to the unavoidable consequences of original sin, no people can be shielded from the recurring ravages of time. Certainly, Cooper's view of the world is unintelligible unless his understanding of the full burden of man's Fall from Grace is wholly comprehended.

In the allegory of birth and death in The Crater, one full cycle of time is enacted: the emersion of the island and regeneration of time, the growth and decay of civilization, followed by the immersion of the island and destruction of its sinful inhabitants. The Crater's message is portended in a conceit in The Deerslayer: the emersion of Floating Tom's castle, his quasi-civilization, out of the {66} life-bestowing waters of the lake, and its subsequent immersion into the lake whose waters also function to wash away sins. Both fables address the upshot of the verdict handed down to Adam for his misbehavior at the beginning of time, and neither betoken a happy ending for American civilization.

The life cycle of Leatherstocking is Cooper's most eloquent statement on the immutability of cycles of time. The waters (whether lake or sea) have a continuing symbolic function in the successive volumes of the Leatherstocking cycle.78 Deerslayer, born by the sea, is initiated at the Glimmerglass. It is the Lady of the Lake herself who presents him with the symbol of his new-found manhood, Killdeer, an implement of destruction -- no promising symbol about which to construct a society upon a new kind of morality, that might confound the legacy of the first Adam. Somewhat older, as Pathfinder, he foretells, "there are fearful signs of what we may all come to, to be met with" out on the barren western plains.79 At the end of the cycle, in The Prairie, now in "Decay." the "withered" Old Trapper, a "lingering remnant of human frailty."80 fulfills his own prophecy. Upon this desolate sea of grass, "not unlike the ocean when its restless waters are heaving heavily after the agitation and fury of the tempest have begun to lessen,"81 the "fearful signs" to which he earlier alluded are now made manifest. In dying words he says, "My father lies buried near the sea, and the bones of his son will whiten on the prairies."82 Such is the cycle of his life: he emerged "near the sea," and is buried in a treeless desert, his bones forever immersed in a richly symbolic sea of`grass. "There is a deception of natur' in these naked plains," he suggests. "in which the air throws up the images like water, and then it is hard to tell the prairies from a sea."83 The vast plains, which are literally a state of desolation, are figuratively a sea of death. "a deception of natur';" and Leatherstocking's immersion into this waterless sea signifying the final stage in the cycle of history concludes the allegorical cycle of his life and death, making a powerful commentary on the myth of a second Adam, and administering a telling blow to the wishful hope for open-ended progress.


One of the widely held paradigms in American intellectual and cultural history informs of the ascendency of the idyll of progress in nineteenth-century American thought. Faith in progress, according to the paradigm. coupled the fledgling nation's expected {67} manifest destiny with Enlightenment optimism held over from the Era of the American Revolution, to promulgate a view of the world that assumed the unlimited perfectibility of mankind, or at least of white Americans. In turn, the Enlightenment had brought together a confluence of Christian and scientific optimism, which produced the belief that mankind is being progressively redeemed through the happy drama of history inexorably unfolding a better and more perfect world. The idea of progress exudes temporal optimism, and is profoundly contraposed to the cyclical idea of history, which, for post-archaic man, is part and parcel of a world view founded in temporal pessimism. The two ideas of history, and the view of the world implicit in each, are incompatible and contradictory.

Belief in an idea of history, a delineated pattern of social change, no matter how close the pattern appears to conform to historical evidence, is ultimately an article of faith. Such a belief defines and demarcates the boundaries of historical reality; it admits, limits, and precludes possible conclusions the believer can draw from cultural data. In giving order to the world and making the passage of time and social change intelligible, faith in an idea of history confers a degree of comfortable predictability, but it narrows and circumscribes the universe.

Clearly, comprehension of the mode of history in which Cooper believed is a vital step toward understanding the world as he understood it, and, consequently, being able to accurately assess and adjudicate critical and scholarly controversies over his novels and social thought. Just as Cooper's idea of history provides definition and order to his world, so too, what modern scholars think his idea of history is, gives direction to and orders their interpretations of his writings. This is born out in the scholarly division over the meaning of the Leatherstocking saga. In every study which imposes the paradigm of progress on the Leatherstocking Tales, the death of Leatherstocking at the end of The Prairie is understood to herald the dawn of an even more promising future for America, as the old makes way for the new in the inexorable progress of civilization.84 However, some scholars, unrestricted by the paradigm of progress, feel the death of Leatherstocking symbolizes the death of the hope for a more perfect world in America.85 Although these latter scholars have not been guided to their pessimistic interpretation of the Tales through a recognition of the paradigmatic significance of Cooper's cyclical idea of history, nevertheless, their interpretation {68} is consistent with the cyclical mode, and is also, I would recommend, consistent with the message Cooper wished to impart in the five-part epic.

The paradigmatic restrictiveness of the idea of progress has severely circumscribed interpretations of other Cooper novels, most notably The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, and The Headsman, and it has also circumscribed analyses of his social thought. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn reveals the powerful agency of paradigms to define the nature of reality such that, once a paradigm is embraced by a discipline, the range of viable explanations of observed phenomena is sharply delimited.86 This is patently true of the paradigm of progress, imposed as it is upon the nineteenth-century mind by twentieth-century scholars. Once it became established truth for scholars that the idea of progress reigned supreme in nineteenth-century America, the forcefulness and restrictiveness of the paradigm made it extremely difficult to detect and accurately assess anomalous phenomena. The paradigm of progress states that the history of Western civilization is a linear development, with our Westward Movement the advance guard in the march of improvement. It was only logical to think that the nineteenth-century author, Cooper, writing about the Westward Movement, would consider it part of the open-ended progress of civilization. Indeed, the paradigm of progress mandates that this be so. But the paradigm of repeating cycles explains cultural phenomena in radically different terms. And when the correct paradigm is applied to the appraisal of the Westward Movement contained in the Leatherstocking stories, it is difficult to mistake the author's intent, and the unhappy message he wished to impart.

There is a long established scholarly tradition of imposing the paradigm of progress upon Cooper's mind and interpreting his writings within its prescriptions. As it is axiomatic that nineteenth-century Americans believed in unilinear progress, it logically follows that Cooper, who lived in nineteenth-century America, also believed in progress. So the proof is contained within the premise. In his seminal study, The Idea Of Progress In America, 1815-1860, Arthur Ekirch reports of a pervasive acceptance of the idea of progress in ante-bellum America. The few dissenters, in his analysis, deny the doctrine and are adjudged pessimists. Given his almost inclusive premise, it is no wonder that he includes Cooper among the apostles of progress. Cooper, among other conservatives, he {69} feels, "considered true progress to embrace a slow, gradual, and conservative advance without danger to the status quo."87 In a limited sense he is right; true progress is possible, indeed it is certain, within Cooper's schematic of history. The passage of time from the savage state to the pastoral toward consummation of empire, implies progress. But it cannot be diagrammed linearly. Rather, it can only be charted curvilinearly, as part of an as yet to be completed cycle. Although progress is assured within Cooper's model of history, it is nonlinear and limited; and it is misleading and incorrect to say Cooper accepted the idea of progress. Ekirch explains that the idea of progress was used to justify "contradictory tendencies;" and he finds that after the novelist's purported youthful optimism sours, Cooper still adheres to an idea of progress, which he calls "a progress in degradation."88 No matter how "contradictory" Cooper's attitude toward progress appears, the paradigm will not permit alternative explanation.

Not only do most scholars axiomatically assume Cooper believed in progress and interpret his writings within the paradigm's scope, but they generally identify the source of his idea of history in the eighteenth century, and by implication, in the French Enlightenment.89 Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet's Sketch For A Historical Picture Of The Human Mind, published shortly after the French Revolution, is identified by Henry Nash Smith, in Virgin Land, as the specific source of Cooper's model of historical development. The Enlightenment philosopher's universe is a mechanical contrivance that functions according to immutable laws, to which mankind's contribution "is like a well-made machine" at "work towards a single end" -- "the absolute perfection of the human race."90 Condorcet envisages the attainment of utopia through a process in which history is unfolded, stage by stage, in a linear development that "will never be reversed as long as the earth occupies its present place in the system of the universe."91 Smith finds that Cooper, among other early nineteenth-century Americans, was greatly attracted to Condorcet's theory of history, with its unlimited faith in human reason and unclouded vision of the future. Smith reproduces this passage from The Prairie to demonstrate the impact of Condorcet's idea of history upon Cooper:

The gradations of society, from the state which is called refined to that which approaches as near barbarity as connexion with an intelligent people will readily allow, {70} are to be traced from the bosom of the states, where wealth, luxury and the arts are beginning to seat themselves, to those distant and ever-receding borders which mark the skirts and announce the approach of the nation, as moving mists precede the signs of the day."92

The apparent meaning of the passage is that the Westward Movement reproduces the stages of development of the nation, from West to East, and the implication is that Cooper and Condorcet share a faith in unilinear progress.93 But read in the context of the entire paragraph from The Prairie, the passage Smith quotes takes on a different meaning. The opening sentence of the paragraph reads: "Although the citizen of the United States may claim so just an ancestry [descended from good English family], he is far from being exempt from the penalties of his fallen race."94 So Cooper enters his discussion of the stages of development of civilization by recalling, not the perfectibility. but the imperfectibility of mankind due to its "fallen" condition. Cooper's Christian concept of sin and Condorcet's enlightened faith in progress, are antonymous and mutually exclusive. In its total context this paragraph in The Prairie warns that due to a moral flaw in man's inborn nature, the result of original sin, progress is limited and impermanent. Perfection is unattainable within profane time.

The Prairie (1827), published early in Cooper's literary career, affirms his belief both in a cyclical idea of history and in the doctrine of original sin, and also his thorough distaste for the basic tenets of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment platitudes uttered by the foolish Dr. Obed Bat, who cannot even recognize his "own ass,"95 represent a self-conscious parody of the naive rationalism contained in Condorcet's Sketch For A Historical Picture Of The Human Mind. Cooper contradicts Condorcet. The historical time which Condorcet envisions, "when the sun will shine only on free men who know no other master but their reason,"96 will never be a reality. The spoof of Enlightenment thought contained in the character of Dr. Bat signifies Cooper's repudiation of the prospect for scientific, technological, social, and moral progress. The Old Trapper asks Dr. Bat, "is it not a plain consequence that" the "children" of "the first man in the garden" will "inherit his gifts?" Dr. Bat exclaims that his "reading" of "the Mosaic account" is "far too literal!"97 Yet it is clear with whom Cooper sides in this debate. Over and over in his works he reminds his readers that God, as Moses was informed upon {71} the Mount, "will visit the sins of the fathers upon the children."98 Sin is generic to the human species, and its consequences upon the historical process and social change are telling. Reason, education, science, technology -- none of the properties linked to the idea of progress will prevail over original sin and hasten the millennium. All advances in human history are illusory; conditions will improve at times and just as surely worsen, in recurrent cycles. After all, history does not redeem fallen human beings; God does.

Go on to Chapter Three: The Continuity and Consistency of Cooper's World View

Return to History and Utopia (home page) | Writings

Return to Top of Page

NOTES TO CHAPTER TWO

1. In The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968), Bernard Bailyn shows that American revolutionary ideology originated in a dissenting English tradition, not in France.

2. Bailyn, p. 28.

3. Quoted in Stow Persons, "The Cyclical Theory of History in Eighteenth Century-America," The American Culture: Approaches to the Study of the United States, ed. Hennig Cohen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1968), p. 112.

4. Persons, in "The Cyclical Theory of History in Eighteenth Century America," and Bailyn, in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, each divulge the significance of cyclical ideas at this time, and their relationship to social, political, and economic thought. For my discussion I am particularly indebted to Persons. See also: Stow Persons, American Minds. A History Of Ideas (New York: Henry Holt, 1958), pp. 120-128; Howard Mumford Jones, O Strange New World, American Culture: The Formative Years (New York: The Viking Press, 1967), pp. 242-243.

5. These studies, among many, establish the hold of the cyclical mode on the classical mind: J. B. Bury, The Idea Of Progress: An Inquiry Into Its Origin And Growth (New York: Dover, 1960), p. 12; Mircea Eliade, Cosmos And History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1959), pp. 87-89, 119-124, 132-137; Robert Nisbet, Social Change And History: Aspects of the Western Theory of Development (London, Oxford, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 29-44.

6. In O Strange New World, Jones studies this fascination of the new nation with classical antiquity, pp. 227-272.

7. Jones, p. 251.

8. Persons comments on the likely relationship between a classical education and the wide acceptance of the cyclical mode in American Minds, p. 122.

9. Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963), p. 336.

10. Jones, p. 430. He recognizes that Volney had an impact upon Cooper, p. 361. In The Pictorial Mode: Space & Time in the Art of Bryant, Irving & Cooper (Lexington: The Univ. Press ofgentucky, 1971), p. 129, Donald A. Ringe also notes the influence of Volney.

11. Constantin François de Chasseboeuf, Count de Volney, The Ruins: Or A Survey Of The Revolutions Of Empire. To Which Is Added. The Law Of Nature (London: Edward Edwards, 1822), p. 53.

12. Volney, The Law Of Nature, n. pag.

13. Volney, p. 58.

14. Volney, p. 55.

15. Volney, pp. 47, 69, 56.

16. Volney, p. 71.

17. Volney, p. 76.

18. Volney, pp. 16, 51, 53.

19. Nisbet writes, "the idea of progressive development is far from being the whole story in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries," p. 125. He thinks this particularly true of post-French Revolution conservatives, pp. 130-131. There is a variety of evidence of the less than universal acceptance of the idea of progress. For example, in Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1967), p. 163, James T. Callow cites a number of early nineteenth-century works yielding evidence of cyclical thinking based upon organic analogy, including Irving's Bracebridge Hall, Wetmore's Lexington, with Other Fugitive Poems, Halleck's "Twilight," Bryant's "Ruins of Italica," and Willis' American Scenery. In American Thought And Religious Typology, trans. John Hooglund (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1970), Ursula Brumm develops a strong case for a cyclical view of history in Hawthorne, pp. 128-161. And in Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1962), John William Ward notes that it was commonly thought that Europe was a degenerating civilization, located on the downward "curve" of history, while America was located on the upward "curve" of the cycle, p. 36.

20. Nisbet, p. 4.

21. Nisbet, pp. 3-4.

22. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred And The Profane: The Nature Of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959), p. 148.

23. Eliade, The Sacred And The Profane, p. 151.

24. Nisbet, p. 6.

25. Persons, "The Cyclical Theory of History in Eighteenth Century America," pp. 116-117, 123; American Minds, p. 123.

26. James Fenimore Cooper, The Water-Witch Or The Skimmer Of The Seas (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1895-1900), p. 2.

27. James Fenimore Cooper, The Sea Lions Or The Lost Sealers (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1895-1900), p. 451.

28. James Fenimore Cooper, Lionel Lincoln Or The Leaguer Of Boston (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1896), p. 263.

29. Cooper, The Sea Lions, p. 451.

30. James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie (New York and Toronto: The New American Library, 1964), p. 248.

31. James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings In Europe: France (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1928), I, p. 236.

32. James Fenimore Cooper, Homeward Bound Or The Chase (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1895-1900), p. 286.

33. Joy S. Kasson, "The Voyage of Life: Thomas Cole And Romantic Disillusionment," American Quarterly, 27 (March 1975), pp. 50-51.

34. James Fenimore Cooper, The Wept Of Wish-Ton-Wish (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1895-1900), p. 98.

35. James Fenimore Cooper, The Crater Or Vulcan's Peak, ed. Thomas Philbrick (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), p. 140.

36. James Fenimore Cooper, The Bravo, ed. Donald A. Ringe (New Haven: College & Univ. Press, 1963), p. 273.

37. Cooper, The Bravo, p. 187.

38. Cooper, Homeward Bound, p. 286.

39. Frank M. Collins remarks on the frequency of appearance in Cooper's European tales of "the metaphor of the decaying garden," in "Cooper And The American Dream," PMLA. 81 (March 1966), p. 85.

40. Cooper, The Bravo, p. 107.

41. James Fenimore Cooper, The Headsman Or The Abbaye Des Vignerons (New York and London: G. PĚ Putnam's Sons, 1895-1900), p. 57.

42. James Fenimore Cooper, The Heidenmauer Or The Benedictines (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1895-1900), p. 19.

43. James Fenimore Cooper, The Red Rover: A Tale (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1895-1900), p. 52.

44. James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer (New York: Washington Square Press, 1961), p. 540.

45. Cooper, The Deerslayer, pp. 564-565.

46. Cooper, The Deerslayer, p. 565.

47. Cooper, The Deerslayer, p. 565.

48. Cooper, The Deerslayer, p. 565.

49. Cooper, The Deerslayer, p. 566.

50. James Fenimore Cooper, The Last Of The Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (New York and Toronto: The New American Library, 1962), p. 414.

51. Cooper, The Deerslayer, p. 265.

52. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pathfinder Or The Inland Sea (New York and Ontario: The New American Library, 1961), p. 92.

53. Eliade, The Sacred And The Profane, p. 150.

54. John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), pp. 32, 24.

55. Cooper's almost archaic reverence for the tree was not wholly atypical of Romantics. Throughout his works the tree is a symbol of a strong, healthy society, and the destruction of trees is consistently associated with the destruction of time-honored values. In Lionel Lincoln the liberty-tree, itself a vestige of the cosmic tree of life, is the symbol of the birth and enduring strength of the new nation. The English with "Their axes have succeeded in destroying the mother plant" in Boston, "but her scions are flourishing throughout a continent!" The revolutionaries regard the "Liberty-tree" with "reverence." It is a "marvellous tree," capable of working "miracles," pp. 74, 75.

56. Cooper, The Prairie, p. 250. In his poem "The Prairies," which was written in 1832, five years after The Prairie was published, William Cullen Bryant also speculates that this vast grassland once held a great civilization which vanished in accordance with the cyclical motion of history.

57. Cooper, The Prairie, pp. 250-251.

58. Cooper, The Prairie, p. 251.

59. Cooper, The Prairie, p. 249.

60. Nisbet, p. 241. The italics are mine.

61. Nisbet, p. 21.

62. See, for example: George J. Pecker, "James Fenimore Cooper and American Democracy," College English, 17 (March 1956), p. 333; Dixon Ryan Fox, "James Fenimore Cooper, Aristocrat," New York History, 22 (Jan. 1941), p. 21.

63. Cooper's opinion of the role of New Englanders in the pre-Civil War United States is strikingly similar to Daniel J. Boorstin's in The Americans: The National Experience (New York: Random House, 1965). Each sees the New Englander as dynamic, enterprising, versatile, as ambitious transients out to get ahead. However, where Boorstin views New Englanders as the architects of the nation in its National Period, Cooper sees them as avaricious destroyers of all that is sacred in human society.

64. Cooper, Homeward Bound, p. v.

65. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers (New York: The New American Library, 1964), pp. 43, 85.

66. Cooper, The Wept Of Wish-Ton-Wish, p. 205.

67. James Fenimore Cooper, The Oak Openings Or The Pee-Hunter (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1895-1900), p. 462.

68. Cooper, The Sea Lions, p. 451.

69. Thomas Philbrick, "Cooper's The Pioneers: Origins And Structure," PMLA, 79 (Dec. 1964), p. 587.

70. Cooper, The Pioneers, p. 207, 231.

71. Cooper, The Pioneers, p. 42.

72. Cooper, The Pioneers, p. 219.

73. Cooper, The Pioneers, p. 220.

74. In "Conservation In Cooper's The Pioneers," PMLA, 82 (Dec. 1967), 564-578, E. Arthur Robinson analyzes Cooper's pervasive and far-sighted concern about conservation in the novel.

75. Charles Boewe studies Cooper's gifts doctrine in "Cooper's Doctrine of Gifts," Tennessee Studies in Literature, 7 (1962), 27-35.

76. Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1973), p. 485.

77. My reading of the Leatherstocking Tales is consistent with the interpretation of the Tales given by David W. Noble in "Cooper, Leatherstocking and the Death of the American Adam," American Quarterly, 16 (Fall 1964), 419-431. Although Noble is not specifically concerned with the structure of history that directs the Tales, it is clear from his analysis that it cannot be the idea of progress. He demonstrates the fallacy of D. H. Lawrence's often repeated opinion that the Tales should be read in the order in which they were published, which takes Leatherstocking from old age to youth. Instead, the Tales should be read in the chronological order of Leatherstocking's life, from youth to old age and death, from the birth to the death of the myth of the new Adam.

78. My discussion of the symbolic role the waters play in the Tales has profited from Slotkin's analysis, pp. 494-497.

79. Cooper, The Pathfinder, p. 92.

80. Cooper, The Prairie, pp. 395, 17, 401.

81. Cooper, The Prairie, p. 14.

82. Cooper, The Prairie, p. 398.

83. Cooper, The Prairie, p. 205.

84. Scholars who think Cooper embraced the idea of progress, and, consequently, interpret Leatherstocking's death optimistically, include: John P. McWilliams, Jr., Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper's America (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: Univ. of Calif. Press, 1972), p. 275; Arthur K. Moore, The Frontier Mind (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1957), p. 145; Roy Harvey Pearce, "The Leatherstocking Tales Re-examined," South Atlantic Quarterly, 46 (Oct. 1947), pp. 531, 535, and Savagism And Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1965), p. 207; Slotkin, p. 485; Warren Walker, "The Frontiersman As Recluse And Redeemer," New York Folklore Quarterly. 16 (Summer 1960), pp. 115-116; John William Ward, Afterword to The Prairie (New York and Toronto: The New American Library, 1964), p. 410; William Wasserstrom, "Cooper, Freud and The Origins of Culture," The American Image, 17 (1960), pp. 426-427.

85. Scholars, unrestricted by the paradigm of progress, who arrive at a pessimistic interpretation of Leatherstocking's death include: Richard Chase, The American Novel And Its Tradition (Garden City: Doubleday, 1957), p. 61; Noble, pp. 429-431; Joel Porte, The Romance in America: Studies In Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville. And James (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1969), p. 52; Donald A. Ringe, "Man and Nature in Cooper's The Prairie," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 15 (March 1961), p. 323.

86. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd Ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970).

87. Arthur Alphonse Ekirch, Jr., The Idea Of Progress In America, 1815-1860 (New York: Peter Smith, 1951), p. 194.

88. Ekirch, pp. 37, 179.

89. Here is a partial list of scholars who state that Cooper accepted the idea of progress: Henry Seidel Canby, Classic Americans: A Study of Eminent American Writers from Irving to Whitman (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1931), p. 139; Harry Hayden Clark, "Fenimore Cooper And Science," Part I, Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, XLVIII (1959), pp. 186, 190, 191, 196; Edgar A. Dryden, "History and Progress: Some Implications of Form in Cooper's Littlepage Novels," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 26 (June 1971), pp. 52, 58, 59; Leslie A. Fiedler, Love And Death In The American Novel (New York: Dell, 1966), p. 185; Edwin Fussell, Frontier American Literature and the American West (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965), p. 65; Thomas R. Lounsbury, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1882), p. 85; Moore, p. 212; Russell Blaine Nye, Society and Culture in America, 1830-1860 (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 31; Pearce, "The Leatherstocking Tales Re-examined," p. 525, and Savagism And Civilization, p. 82; Slotkin, pp. 485-486; McWilliams, p. 244; Ward, p. 410, Wasserstrom, pp. 426, 437.

90. Antoine-Nicolas De Condorcet, Sketch For A Historical Picture Of The Progress Of The Human Mind, trans. June Barraclough (London: William Clowes, )955), pp. 168, 184.

91. Condorcet, p. 5.

92. Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol And Myth (New York: Random House, 1950), p. 256.

93. The following scholars were influenced by Smith's analysis of Condorcet's social stages of development theory in Cooper: Fussell, p. 46; McWilliams, p. 262; Wasserstrom, pp. 425, 437.

94. Cooper, The Prairie, p. 68.

95. Cooper, The Prairie. p. 74.

96. Condorcet, p. 119.

97. Cooper, The Prairie, p. 205.

98. Cooper, Lionel Lincoln, p. 173. Cooper repeats this passage from Exodus in The American Democrat Or Hints On The Social And Civic Relations Of The United States Of America (New York: Minerva Press, 1969), p. 74; in The Chainbearer Or The Littlepage Manuscripts (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1895-1900), p. 233; in The Crater, p. 281; twice in The Heidenmauer, pp. 246, 256; and also in The Headsman, p. 183.


Go on to Chapter Three: The Continuity and Consistency of Cooper's World View

Return to History and Utopia (home page) | Writings

Return to Top of Page