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Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses

By (August 1, 2007) One Comment

James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years

By Wayne Franklin
Yale University Press, 2007

Wayne Franklin, armed with exhaustive scholarship and unprecedented access to the family papers of James Fenimore Cooper, has undertaken a new and definitive two-volume biography of that pioneer of American literature, the first volume of which, covering Cooper’s life up until he temporarily moved his family to Europe in 1826, has recently been published by Yale University Press. This is a big, masterly volume, impressively researched and edited, and its publication marks a new stage in Cooper literary studies.

So let’s talk about Mark Twain.

Of course you know what I’m talking about. In the year 2007, chances are if you’ve heard about James Fenimore Cooper at all, it’s been as a footnote to Mark Twain’s endlessly anthologized 1918 essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

For 15 wonderful pages of schoolboy taunting, 15 pages of highly prejudicial, grossly uncouth, and even now, after nearly a century, uproariously funny literary brick-hurling, Mark Twain holds up The Deerslayer, a praised and admired bestseller by one of America’s greatest literary titans, and proceeds to kick the living crap out of it. And the piece is immortal for three reasons: first, Fenimore Cooper’s New World aping of Sir Walter Scott’s historical romances left him particularly vulnerable to lampooning; second, Twain’s own literary status gives the thing the garish fascination of watching two elderly grandfathers duke it out; and third, as noted, the essay is damn funny.

It’s no use trivializing the thing, as Franklin and all of Cooper’s 20th century biographers attempt. They all say pretty much the same thing: oh sure, Twain’s piece is funny, but it’s so unfair.

Broadsheets are funny but unfair. Punch cartoons are funny but unfair. They entertain for a season, and then they die. What gives Twain’s essay the lifespan it enjoys is precisely the suspicion it arouses in its readers that Twain is not being unfair, that there’s some meat to his accusations, that such a heat of indignation must have had a spark to set it off.

As noted, this presents problems for Cooper advocates (and after nearly 700 pages for this present volume and a further volume in the works, it’s safe to say Franklin is the world’s foremost Cooper advocate). If an anonymous critic in The Boston Transcript dislikes your author’s work, you can move on without major disruption. But if the author of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn dislikes your author’s work—and worse, is funny about it—you’re in far more serious trouble. Twain’s essay has dogged Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” tales for a century and looks likely to do so forever, so the question prefacing any reconsideration of Cooper’s significance remains: is the piece unfair?

Franklin’s defense of his author (offered in his introduction, presumably because he realizes it will be on every reader’s mind) has a slightly flustered feel about it:

Insofar as Cooper failed to be Mark Twain, which one gathers was his basic offense, he was not rejecting the obvious future but rather choosing the more obvious present: he was being true to his age, which was a romantic more than a realistic one. Had Cooper written like Mark Twain, what, after all, would one expect Mark Twain to do—write like Faulkner?

But (leaving aside Franklin’s hilarious implication that Cooper could have written like Twain and decided not to) Twain in his essay is not faulting Cooper for choosing romantic fiction over realistic fiction; he’s faulting Cooper for writing lousy romantic fiction. To this end he invents nineteen rules (some say twenty-two) for the writing of romantic fiction and insists that Cooper breaks them all, as, for instance, #7:

They [the rules] require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled seven-dollar Friendship offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the Deerslayer tale.

There is an undeniable kernel of truth in that: some of Cooper’s characters, most especially Natty Bumppo himself, do indeed veer from backwoodsy consarn-it style vernacular to soaring oratory straight out of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Twain doesn’t point out how often this admittedly inconsistent dialogue is effective or even beautiful because he’s out for blood, but it’d be a fair point for a Cooper biographer to make.

Franklin doesn’t make the point, he wildly exceeds it, in his zeal to see justice done to his subject:

The spiritual father of Huck Finn is none other than Natty Bumppo—a demotic Euro-American hero who resists the confines of “sivilization” and, with a member of another race as his companion, finds his freedom in nature. No wonder Mark Twain felt the need to hunt down and kill Natty’s own progenitor.

Not only is this a foolish bit of overreaching (particularly the Oedipal undertone—Freud has much to answer for), but it takes a risk no Cooper biographer should dare: it tempts the reader to make a direct, pound-for-pound comparison of The Deerslayer and Huck Finn. With all due respect to the reappraisal Franklin is attempting, Cooper cannot come out ahead in such a comparison.

Franklin risks it because he believes in his subject against all comers. The tangled, torturous path of the Cooper family papers has wended its way to him, and he has pored through their boxes (yes, boxes) like a gimlet-eyed magpie, collecting everything, storing everything, treasuring everything. It’s impossible for the reader to know exactly when Stockholm Syndrome set in, but by the time Franklin is declaring Cooper responsible for Mark Twain, it’s in full bloom.

The problem with the watchdog archivist actually writing the book are twofold: the archivist thinks every little detail is important, and the watchdog thinks his subject can do no wrong. Franklin is guilty on both points – in fact, given the ultimate length of his undertaking, it’s fair to say he’s incredibly guilty on both points.

The guilt of the archivist is bad enough for reader. Through dint of his research, Franklin very likely knows more about the day-to-day minutiae of Cooper’s life than anybody else in the world. But such minutiae are parts of a biography, not the finished work itself. A cruise director doesn’t require passengers to inspect the bilges before they commence enjoying themselves, but Franklin has done enough work so he doesn’t care; his readers are taken down every last little crawlspace of Cooper’s life. Events that would take up a line in someone else’s version of that life take up long paragraphs in Franklin’s, as in the case of Cooper meeting with a Pawnee chief in New York:

There is every reason to believe that Cooper’s further account of Petalesharo in “Notions of the Americans” was fairly true to the novelist’s own experience. Even so, some details derived from published sources. Cooper borrowed a tale, first printed in Jedidiah Morse’s “Report to the Secretary of War” (1822) from the diary of one of Stephen Long’s officers, about how the Pawnee had intervened to save the life of a Comanche woman captive about to be put to death in an ancient spring ritual. Morse’s version of the tale, which anticipated that of Edwin James, was widely reprinted in the press, and his volume also used an image of Petalesharo as its frontispiece, making the warrior and future chief an even more appealing figure. With the publication of Edwin James’s “Account,” which contained a claim (not wholly accurate) of how Petalesharo’s intervention had abolished the ritual of “sanguinary sacrifice” that had long been practiced among the Skidi Pawnee, he was well on his way to heroic apotheosis. Obviously attractive to those who took a high view of Native American character, the rescue was given a prominent place in Edward Everett’s review of James’s “Account,” and “a doggerel poem describing and sentimentalizing” the episode appeared, as Orm Overland discovered, in the New York Commercial Advertiser. When Cooper retold it in Notions of the Americans he therefore hardly was breaking the news. Nor was his conclusion (Petalsharo had destroyed “a baneful superstition”) [Notions 2:288] in the least unusual. Whether the highly valued peacock feathers that his fictional Count presents to the Pawnee in “Notions of the Americans” were based on an actual gift by the novelist, we may doubt.

Such a paragraph (quite apart from openly documenting the lack of originality that was one of Twain’s criticisms of Cooper) arises purely out of the author’s desire to show that he has done every last drop of his homework. In the context of writing Cooper’s life, it simply need not have been written, and it has lots of company in this book.

(And this is in the main text, despite reading like a footnote—the actual footnotes are ever so much worse, for instance:

11. [Peter A. Jay?], notes on 3/23/1824 trial, Sedgwick v. Cooper, New York State Supreme Court, copy in JFB paps., box 18, AAS.; in his ca. January 1826 draft deposition, Cooper summarized the Sedgwick’s logic in this manner: “H.D.S. testified on said trial that he did not think the said Bond was usurious because his Brother the Plaintiff had told him he had taken great pains to [keep?] it from being so. And that when called on to explain, why pains should be taken to [keep?] a Bond that was not usurious from the taint of usury, he had no sufficient answer to give. And this deponent says, that he has understood the Plaintiff in this cause to say, that he did not think a Bond usurious, in which the usurious money was not included notwithstanding an agreement to pay usury, and he has also been told, that the Plaintiff has advocated a similar principle before the court.” JC, draft deposition [ca. January 1826].

A certain fatigue is understandable)

Bad as all this is, the guilt of the watchdog is worse. Biographies in which the subject is incapable of error are now the exclusive domain of political campaigns; in mainstream publishing, they became bad form the instant Lord Nelson died. Hagiographies get written, more of them every year, but Franklin comports himself like a serious historian, and the two don’t go together. The contortions he’s forced to go through in order not only to keep his subject unsullied but to praise his stature would be funny if they didn’t have such a dark underside. Franklin knows the criticisms most frequently leveled against Cooper – that he’s sloppy, lazy, inconsistent – but after all his research, he cannot allow any of it to be true, and he’s willing to blame anything and anybody except his author. He writes:

The texture of his career was determined by seemingly irresistible economic forces. Often enough, he could not revise one book because he already was at work on the next.

Fair enough, but there’s a word for a writer who’s too busy writing to revise: hack. No slight against hackwork (a writer’s got to eat), and some of it’s made its way into the canon (Dumas pere and fils come to mind) – but a biographer hurts his credibility if he turns around and says that everything the author writes, even works dashed off in the manner described, is critically sound and aesthetically brilliant.

If it’s not economics, it can be whole cities. Dear old Boston gets a whack on the head for letting the poor author down:

Historian George Bancroft would compliment Cooper—rightly—for his spectacular handing of the Battle of Bunker Hill [in Cooper’s historical novel Lionel Lincoln]. Cooper’s accomplishment in that regard was no mere accident; he labored intensively to master both the scene and the action. One may easily conclude that his mistake in the book did not come from his decision to include such risky actualities—it came, instead, from his failure to give the rest of the story the same compelling historicity at its core, and from the implausible manner in which he resolved the tangled family relations among his characters.

… But one may also wonder whether the conservative nature of Boston memory during the period … did not play some part in the book’s lack of success in the town it seemed especially designed to conquer.

Lionel Lincoln, a novel Cooper scholar Donald Ringe refers to—rightly!—as “thoroughly wretched” (and one in which Cooper misspells the name of the book’s dedicatee). Franklin devotes 64 pages to it, always giving the unwary reader the impression it’s a work of substance.

(Ringe’s 1962 book James Fenimore Cooper is 175 pages long—shorter than the collected footnotes of Franklin’s two volumes will be—but remarkably thorough and insightful nonetheless. When he writes, “Cooper’s legal struggle against the power of a politically inspired press, a struggle which he largely won, is long and involved and needs no repetition here,” a crawler through Franklin’s bilge-water can be forgiven for simply sitting down and quietly weeping. Indeed, since Ringe states quite openly that the purpose of his book is “to state the case for James Fenimore Cooper,” that “Cooper has long been undervalued as an artist,” and that “the case should be reopened and judged once again,” it’s distinctly odd that Franklin should state quite openly that this has never been done prior to his own book. Nowhere in his 700 pages does he make any mention of Ringe).

It’s perfectly acceptable for a biographer to whole-heartedly endorse his subject; the reverse is often more fun for the reader, but still—good biography and enthusiasm aren’t mutually exclusive.

Hagiography is another matter altogether, and it’s at the heart of the aforementioned dark underside of Franklin’s portrait of Cooper.

Franklin is certainly a capable writer and researcher, and there is much that’s worthwhile in his book. His assertion that “Cooper’s most innovative work as a writer probably lay in the field of sea fiction” is eye-catching and well illustrated. His overall view of his subject can be inspiring in its breadth:

Owing to this combination of literary innovation and business acumen, Cooper can be said to have invented not just an assortment of literary types but the very career of the American writer. So deep and enduring has been his effect that it’s impossible to map the country’s cultural landscape without him.

This is entirely true as far as it goes. There are scenes, vignettes, in the “Leatherstocking” tales that are as evocative and beautiful as anything that had been written in American literature up to that point or since. For the first time in American literature (and, it could be argued, for the first time in Western literature—with a couple of well-worn British exceptions), the natural world is presented as something that not only contains intrinsic beauty but also may be losing that beauty to the increasing depredations of man. Cooper may have, as Twain maintains, a tin ear for dialogue and circumstance, but there are scenes in virtually all of his works that rival the power of individual scenes in Twain’s own work.

But these things can’t balance out the hagiographer’s urge to overstate and airbrush. This would be bad enough if Franklin kept it to the broad and abstract, as when he writes (much to the chagrin, one imagines, of Charles Brockton Brown or that Washington Irving guy):

Americans in 1820 were certainly reading [Sir Walter] Scott far more than they were reading homebred novelists. Indeed, there were no homebread novelists to speak of …

But the tendency gets much worse when it tracks its way into detailed specifics, because a scholarly biography is supposed to be trustworthy on matters of fact. What’s the use of Franklin scouring all those boxes—and sharing such an indecent amount of their contents with his readers—if those readers can’t wholly trust him to tell the truth and the whole truth? What’s the use of reading about an author who not only can write no wrong but can do no wrong, when everybody knows this wicked old world has yet to produce such an individual? Franklin cannot bear the thought that the object of his labors could ever have written a bad book, but his protectiveness extends even to quotidian matters of fact, and that makes it dangerous.

Take for an example Franklin’s account of a trip Cooper took to Boston in 1824 to spend time with his old shipmate William Shubrick from his days in the Navy and to do some research for Lionel Lincoln. Franklin describes the epic dinner Cooper attended at Frederic Rouillard’s Milk Street restaurant, a meal at which bottle after bottle of Madeira were consumed. Franklin describes the company at Cooper’s table, the North American Review essayist Willard Phillips, Shubrick, the famous painter Washington Allston, etc. And he recounts the rumor that Cooper got “tipsey” and its origin in a letter Eliza Lee Cabot wrote to Catharine Maria Sedgwick. In his footnote he writes, “I know of no instance in which someone reported actually seeing Cooper ‘tipsey,’ but he certainly was no teetotaler.” A casual reader of the account and the footnote would think the matter closed; those paying more attention might ask, did Franklin look for an instance in which someone saw Cooper drunk? Considering that this is exactly what everyone at Rouillard’s that evening saw, can we trust Franklin to search out a point detrimental to his subject? Can we be sure, for instance, that if he read a letter from Allston to his friend Richard Henry Dana describing in detail Cooper’s drunken state he would tell us? And without that trust, what’s left of any biography?

Perhaps all this will get rectified in Franklin’s second volume. Certainly the challenges will be greater: that volume will cover not only Cooper’s greatest work (Franklin underscores an irony Ringe underscored before him: that the general reading public remembers Cooper for early, essentially journeyman works), but his most ferociously, compulsively litigious stage. Franklin will be able to properly praise the more confident measured mastery of works like The Wing-and-Wing, Satanstoe, and The Sea Lion, while hopefully dealing more objectively with the artistic shortcomings of, for instance, The Chainbearer, or The Crater. Likewise, rather than portraying Cooper as an innocent victim, he’ll be able to examine with greater distance the fact that Cooper spent half of his last thirty years in court, which is not a place non-litigious people show up quite so often.

In The Early Years we get a demigod, ably even instructively defended. In the promised second volume we’ll be looking for the man, with all his faults, fighting all his fights, both vital and redundant. Franklin will be older by then, as so will we; only Mark Twain will be forever young, but hopefully, for Cooper’s sake, not so much afterwards.

Steve Donoghue used an early inheritance to build a powerful observatory in the Rhineland, which, after Tycho Brahe’s sudden death, was the most significant source of astronomical data in Europe. He met Kepler once in a beer hall in Prague and begged him to abandon the flawed Ptolemaic system, though to no avail. Presently he stargazes for fun and, just as fun, hosts the literary blog SteveReads.