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History and Utopia:
A Study of the World View of James Fenimore Cooper
(Preface -- pp. vi-x)

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
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{vii} James Fenimore Cooper was born in 1789, the year the Constitution was ratified. At the time of his birth the newly conceived country was an ill-defined property, stretching up and down the Atlantic seaboard, and penetrating but a few hundred miles into the interior. His childhood was spent in the frontier community of Cooperstown, New York, founded and named after his father Judge William Cooper. James Fenimore Cooper's lifetime spanned the greatest epoch of national enterprise, physical growth, and social change that had ever been witnessed anywhere in the world up to that time. With the admission of California into the union in 1850, one year before Cooper's death, the foundling nation of his youth was now firmly established as a giant among nations, bordered by two oceans, with thousands of miles of rich and varied lands reaching across a great continent.

Cooper was the first American novelist to gain national and international fame. In many respects he is the father of our national literature. Not only was he the first fiction writer to successfully exploit indigenous materials, but he introduced basic genres that would long outlive him, such as the sea story, the western, the novel of social criticism, and the narrative of the American traveller abroad. A definitive modern biography of Cooper is yet to be written. The most revealing study of his life and personality is contained in the six-volume edition of Cooper's letters and journals, edited and informatively annotated by James Franklin Beard. The composite portrait of Cooper which issues from his letters, Beard's commentary, and a number of older biographies, is of a self-possessed and proud man, who was sometimes pompous, stand-offish, yet intensely partisan. The modern scholarly appreciation of Cooper began with Robert E. Spiller's 1931 study of his social criticism. The continuing importance of Cooper's legacy to the social historian results from Cooper's perceptiveness of the main currents of social change during an era that witnessed an incredible transformation of the face of the nation. Virtually everything he wrote bore upon his appraisal of the impact of social change upon the national countenance. The scholar{viii}ship has been so preoccupied with Cooper's social commentary that it is only in the last generation that the real literary merit of his novels has reemerged. I owe an appreciable debt to a number of modern critics, particularly to the excellent studies of Cooper by Donald A. Ringe and Thomas Philbrick.

The primary focus of this study is, however. of a somewhat different order than literary criticism or biography or even social thought, though it incorporates all of these. It is a study of Cooper's world view -- his cosmology -- as it is expressed everywhere in his voluminous writings. It is about how Cooper looked at this world, the world of profane existence; and also how he looked at the next world, the sacred and eternal domain of his almighty God. For this reason, in addition to utilizing literary and historical perspectives, I have taken the liberty of drawing upon ideas from disciplines not ordinarily associated with the study of a novelist: the work of Robert Nisbet in sociology; Mircea Eliade in the anthropology of religion; the ideas of the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr; Karl Mannheim in the sociology of knowledge; Hannah Arendt in social philosophy; and Thomas Kuhn in the history and philosophy of science.

Cooper's writings and beliefs, like those of so many seminal figures, are steeped in scholarly controversy. The controversy that continues to surround his thought and fiction is, in many ways, a creature of his own making. Cooper was quick to take stands on public issues, and became the self-appointed guardian of America's customs and institutions, its morality, and even its religious practices. Much of his creative energy was taken up with political, social, and economic issues. Some of his novels were overtly directed to specific problems in his home state, New York, and also to general problems in the nation at large. Most of the remainder of his novels at least covertly confront social questions. Relatively early in his career he spent seven years in Europe. Through his association with Lafayette and other European liberals he attained an image, which has largely remained with him even today, of a liberal democrat, a champion of the rights of the common man. A breach caused by mutual distrust, however, was opened between Cooper and the American people, where he returned home in 1833. To make matters worse, he soon became embroiled in public controversies in which he all too often took the unpopular side for his cause. For this activity, and because of public misunderstandings which his arrogant posture did little to alleviate, his image as a liberal was rapidly eclipsed. Modern scholars view Cooper as a youthful liberal, who, in growing {ix} older, adopted an increasingly negative picture of humanity, and became a dour conservative.

In my research three facts gradually became clear to me that have had an important bearing on what I have written. First of all, I found that by the time Cooper began his literary career in earnest with the publication of The Spy in 1821, a fully formulated view of the world existed in his mind, which remained virtually unchanged at his death, some thirty novels and thirty years later in 1851. Secondly, I discovered that the almost unanimous consensus in Cooper scholarship contradicted my findings. And finally, it became clear to me that literary critics are enormously, and quite properly, influenced by the way they believe the author views the world. It is now apparent to me that the often- repeated view of Cooper as a liberal turned conservative is stridently out of accord with the record of his thought as it is revealed in his own words in his novels, letters, and non-fiction. By contrast, the picture that emerges is of a coherent and consistent conservatism -- a profound conservatism that issues from a theological evaluation of man's essential nature, and which extends from the religious sphere to all walks of life. What I have written is a brief in defense of my findings. And in both my textual development and frequently annotated footnotes, I have tried to make it clear where I differed on major questions with previous scholarship, and why.

There is a methodological logic to this study which I hope and trust will become clear in its reading, but about which I would like to make a few prefatory comments. The basic methodological assumption that underlies and gives coherence to this study from beginning to end is that Cooper's world view derives from and is made intelligible through the interaction of history and utopia in his thought. Cooper, as has already been observed, was acutely aware of the dramatic character of social change in America during his lifetime. It was his awareness of the mutability of beliefs, social institutions, and even the moral character of man, that structured much of his creative energy. It is within the patterned organization of time -- of history -- that social change occurs. History has design and is deterministic. In Cooper's schematic, time and social change operate in cycles. He believed that a series of prescribed stages exist within the cyclic pattern of the history of every society. One stage, early in the cycle, approximates utopia; while another, further on in the cycle, approximates anti- utopia. The ideological character of his thought results from his appraisal of a given society at a particular {x} moment in its history, with respect to either its utopian or anti-utopian possibility. The closer the likeness of an existing society to its utopian possibility, the more ideologically acceptable it is. And the closer the likeness of an existing society to its anti-utopian possibility, the more ideologically objectionable it is. A full understanding of these antipodal utopian forms of society, within the preestablished curvilinear pattern of social change, is a crucial step toward understanding Cooper's world view in its entirety. It facilitates an accurate interpretation of the ideological pronouncements he made about his own country. More than that, it yields access to the ideological substratum of thought that pervades his novels. For Cooper, the here and now, the ongoing present, resides on a preconceived continuum between the past and the future. And it is within this sequential unfolding of time that his expectations and laments, aspirations and disappointments are made manifest and coherent.

Chapter One provides a detailed examination of Cooper's 1847 novel, The Crater. The Crater, an allegory of the historical process, affords a compact and comprehensive statement of Cooper's world view. Chapter Two examines the historical and linguistic basis of Cooper's idea of history and perception of social change. Chapter Three addresses the question of the consistency of Cooper's world view. It is here that I dispute the widely-held critical and historiographical opinion that Cooper underwent an ideological metamorphosis during his career. Chapter Four examines Cooper's temporal ideal, which, for reasons that will become clear, is called proximate utopia. Chapter Five is a study of proximate anti-utopia. It focuses, in part, on the almost necropolitan society depicted in Cooper's 1831 novel, The Bravo. And Chapter Six probes the relationship of Cooper's religious orthodoxy to his idea of history.

I wish to express my appreciation to Professors Michael Zuckerman and Hennig Cohen of the University of Pennsylvania, for their interest in this study and for the encouragement they have given me.

Allan M. Axelrad, September 1975

Go on to Chapter One: The Crater: An Introduction to Cooper's World View.

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