Cooper by Carl Van Doren: Cambridge History of American Literature

James Fenimore Cooper

Cambridge History of American Literature (1917-1921), Book II, Chapter VI

by Carl Van Doren

James Fenimore Cooper, 1822, John Wesley Jarvis

James Fenimore Cooper, 1822, John Wesley Jarvis

§ 12. James Fenimore Cooper; Youth; Naval Career.

….Born at Burlington, New Jersey, 15 September, 1789, the son of Judge William Cooper and Susan Fenimore, James Cooper[8] was taken in November, 1790, to Cooperstown, the raw central village of a pioneer settlement recently established by his father on Otsego Lake, New York. Here the boy saw at first hand the varied life of the border, observed its shifts and contrivances, listened to tales of its adventures, and learned to feel the mystery of the dark forest which lay beyond the cleared circle of his own life. Judge Cooper, however, was less a typical backwoodsman than a kind of warden of the New York marches, like Judge Templeton in The Pioneers, and he did not keep his son in the woods but sent him, first to the rector of St. Peter’s in Albany, who grounded him in Latin and hatred of Puritans, and then to Yale, where he wore his college duties so lightly as to be dismissed in his third year. Thinking the navy might furnish better discipline than Yale, Judge Cooper shipped his son before the mast on a merchant vessel to learn the art of seamanship which there was then no naval academy to teach. His first ship, the Sterling, salied from New York in October, 1806, for Falmouth and London, thence to Cartagena, back to London, and once more to America in September of the following year. They were chased by pirates and stopped by searching parties, incidents Cooper never forgot. In January, 1808, he was commissioned midshipman. He served for a time on the Vesuvius, and later in the same year was sent with a party to Lake Ontario to build the brig Oneida for service against the British on inland waters. He visited Niagara, commanded for a time on Lake Champlain, and in November, 1809, was ordered to the Wasp In the natural course of events he would have fought in the War of 1812, but, having been married in January, 1811, to Miss Susan Augusta DeLancey, he resigned his commission the following May and gave up all hope of a naval career.

§ 13. Precaution.

Thus at twenty-two he exchanged a stirring youth for the quiet, if happy, life of a country proprietor. He spent the next eleven years, except for a stay at Cooperstown (1814–17), in his wife’s native county of Westchester, New York. There, in a manner quite casual, he began his real work. His wife challenged him to make good his boast that he could write a better story than an English novel he was reading to her. He attempted it and wrote Precaution (1820), which, as might have been expected from a man who, in spite of a juvenile romance and few doggerel verses, was little trained in authorship, is a highly conventional novel. Its scene is laid in England, and no quality is more notable than stiff elegance and painful piety. Cooper was dissatisfied with his book. “Ashamed to have fallen into the track of imitation, I endeavoured to repay the wrong done to my own views, by producing a work that should be purely American, and of which love of country should be the theme.”[9] He chose for his hero a spy who had served John Jay during the Revolution, according to Jay’s own account, with singular purity of motive. The work was carelessly done and published at the author’s risk, and yet with the appearance of The Spy (22 December, 1821), American fiction may be said to have come of age.

§ 14. The Spy.

This stirring tale has been, for many readers, an important factor in the tradition which national piety and the old swelling rhetoric have built up around the Revolution. The share of historical fact in it, indeed, is not large, but the action takes place so near to great events that the characters are all invested with something of the dusky light heroes, while the figure of Washington moves among them like an unsuspected god. Such a quality in the novel might have gone with impossible partiality for the Americans had not Cooper’s wife belonged to a family which had been loyal during the sturggle for independence. As it was, he made his loyalists not necessarily knaves and fools, and so secured a fairness of tone which, aside from all questions of justice, has a large effect upon the art of the narrative. It is clear the British are enemies worth fighting. Perhaps by chance, Cooper here hit upon a type of plot at which he excelled, a struggle between contending forces, not badly matched, arranged as a pursuit in which the pursued are, as a rule, favoured by author and reader. In the management of such a device Cooper’s invention, which was great, worked easily, and the flights of Birch from friend and foe alike exhibit a power to carry on plots with sustained sweep which belongs only to the masters of narration. To rapid movement Cooper added the virtues of a very real setting. He knew Westchester and its sparse legends as Scott knew the Border; his topography was drawn with a firm hand. In his characters he was not uniformly successful. Accepting for women the romantic ideals of the day and writing of events in which, of necessity, ladies could play but a small part, Cooper tended to cast his heroines, as even that day remarked, into a conventional mould of helplessness and decorum. With the less sheltered classes of women he was much more truthful. Of his men, too, the gentlemen are likely to be mere heroes, though Lawton is an interesting dragoon, while those of a lower order have more marked characteristics. Essentially memorable and arresting is Harvey Birch, peddler and patriot, outwardly no hero at all and yet surpassingly heroic of soul. The skill with which Birch is presented, gaunt, weather-beaten, canny, mysterious—a skill which Brown lacked—should not make one overlook the half-supernatural spirit of patriotism which, like the daemonic impuless in Brown’s characters, drives Birch to his destiny at once wrecking and honouring him. This romantic fate also condemns him to be sad and lonely, a dedicated soul who captures attention by his secretary and holds it throughout his career by his adventures. No charcter in American historical fiction has been able to obscure this first great character, whose fame has outlasted every fashion for almost a century.

§ 15. The Pioneers.

With The Spy Cooper proved his power to invent situations, conduct a plot, vivify history and landscape, and create a certain type of heroic character. His public success was instant. The novel reached a third edition the following March; it was approved on the stage; European readers accepted it with enthusasm. Pleased, though perhaps surprised, at this reception of his work, Cooper threw himself into the new career thus offered him with characteristic energy. He removed to New York and hurried forward the composition of The Pioneers, which appeared in February, 1823, with Cooper’s first bumptious preface. Technically this book made no advance upon The Spy. Cooper had but one method, improvisation, and the absence of any very definite pursuit deprives The Pioneers, though it has exciting moments, of general suspense. But it is important as his first trial at the realistic presentation of manners in America. Dealing as he did with the Otsego settlement where his boyhood had been spent, and with a time (1793) witing his memory, he could write largely from the fact. Whatever romance there is the in the story lies less in its plot, which is relatively simple, or in its characters, which are, for the most part, studied under a dry light with a good deal of caustic judgment, than in the essential wonder of a pioneer life. The novel is not as heroic as The Spy had been. Indian John, the last of his proud race, is old and broken, corrupted by the settlements; only his death dignifies him. Natty Bumppo, a composite from many Cooperstown memories, is nobler because he has not yielded but carries his virtues, which even in Cooper’s boyhood were becoming archaic along the froniter, into the deeper forest. Natty stands as a protest, on behalf of simplicity and perfect freedom, against encroaching law and order. In The Pioneers, however, he is not yet of the proportions which he later assumed, and only at the end, when he withdraws from the field of his defeat by civilization, does he make his full appeal. Cooper may have felt that there were still possibilities in the character, but for the present he did not try to realize them.

§ 16. The Pilot.

Instead, he undertook to surpass Scott’s Pirate in seamanship and produced The Pilot, issued in January, 1824.[10] With this third success he practically ended his experimental stage. Like The Spy, his new tale made use of a Revolutionary setting; like The Pioneers, it was full of realistic detail based on Cooper’s own experience. The result was that he not only outdid Scott in sheer narrative, but he created a new literary type, the tale of adventure on the sea, in which, though he was to have many followers in almost every modern language, he remains unsurpassed for vigour and variety. Smollett had already discovered the racy humours of seamen, but it remained for Cooper to capture for fiction the mystery and beauty, the shock and thrill of the sea. Experts say that his technical knowledge was sound; what is more important, he wrote, in The Pilot, a story about sailing vessels which convinces landsmen even in days of steam. The conventional element in the novel is its hero, John Paul Jones, secret, Byronic, always brooding upon a dark past and a darker fate. Thoroughly original is that worthy successor of Birch and Natty Bumppo, Long Tom Coffin, who lives and dies by the sea which has made him, as love of country made the spy and the forest made the old hunter.

§ 17. The Last of the Mohicans.

Cooper had now become a national figure, although critical judgement in New England condescended to him. He founded the Bread and Cheese Club in New York, a literary society of which he was the moving spirit; he took a prominent part in the reception of Lafayette in 1824; in the same year Columbia College gave him the honorary degree of Master of Arts. He planned a series of Legends of the Thirteen Republics, aimed to celebrate each of the original states, which he gave up after the first, Lionel Lincoln (1825), for all his careful research failed to please as his earlier novels had done. During the next two years Cooper reached probably the highest point of his career in The Last of the Mohicans (February, 1826) and The Prairie (May, 1827). His own interest and the persuasion of his friends led him to continue the adventures of Natty Bumppo, and very naturally he undertook to show both the days of Natty’s prime and his final fortunes. In each case Cooper projects the old hunter out of the world of remembered Otsego, into the dark forest which was giving up its secrets in 1793, or into the mighty prairies which Cooper had not seen but which stretched, in his mind’s eye, for endless miles beyond the forest, another mystery and another refuge. Natty, called Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, no longer has the hardness which marred his age in The Pioneers. With all his virtues of hand and head he combines a nobility of spirit which the woods have fostered in a mind never spoiled by men. He grows nobler as he grows more remote, more the poet and hero as the world in which he moves becomes more wholly his own. Chingachgook has undergone even a greater change, has got back all the cunning and pride which had been deadened in Indian John. But Hawkeye and Chingachgook are both limited by their former appearance; one must still be the canny reasoner, the other a little saddened with passing years. The purest romance of the tale lies in Uncas, the forest’s youngest son, gallant, swift, courteous, a lover for whom there is no hope, the last of the Mohicans. That Uncas was idealized Cooper was ready to admit; Homer, he suggested, had his heroes. And it is clear that upon Uncas were bestowed some of the virtues which the philosophers of the age had taught the world to find in a state of nature. Still, after a century, many smile upon the state of nature who are yet able to find in Uncas the perennial appeal of youth cut off in the flower. The action and setting of the novel are on the same high plane as the characters. The forest, in which all the events take place, surrounds them with a changeless majesty that sharpens, by contrast, the restless sense of danger. Pursuit makes almost the whole plot. The pursued party moving from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry has two girls to handicap its flight and to increase the tragedy of capture. Later the girls have been captured, and sympathy passes, a thing unusual in Cooper, to the pursuing rescuers. In these tasks Hawkeye and the Mohicans are opposed by the fierce capacity of Magua, who plays villain to Uncas’s hero, in moral qualities Uncas’s opposite. There is never any relaxation of suspense, and the scene in which Uncas reveals himself to the Delawares is one of the most thrilling moments in fiction.

§ 18. The Prairie.

The Prairie has less swiftness than The Last of the Mohicans but more poetry. In it Natty appears again, twenty years older than in The Pioneers, far away on the plains beyond the Mississippi. He owns his defeat and he still grieves over the murdered forest, but he has given up anger for the peace of old age. To him it seems that all his virtues are gone. Once valiant he must now be crafty; his arms are feeble; his eyes have so far failed him that, no longer the perfect marksman, he has sunk to the calling of a trapper. There is a pathos in his resignation which would be too painful were it not merely a phase of his grave and noble wisdom. He is more than ever what Cooper called him, “a philosopher of the wilderness.” The only change is that he has left the perils and delights of the forest and has been subdued to the eloquent monotony of the plains. Nowhere else has Cooper shown such sheer imaginative power as in his handling of this mighty landscape. He had never seen a prairie; indeed, it is clear that he thought of a prairie as an ocean of land and described it partly by analogy. But he managed to endow the huge empty distances he had not seen with a presence as haunting as that of the populous forest he had known in his impressionable youth. And the old trapper, though he thinks of himself as an exile, has learned the secrets of the new nature and belongs to it. It is his knowledge that makes him essential to the action, which is again made up of flight and pursuit. Once more there are girls to be rescued, from white men as well as from Indians. There is another Magua in Mahtoree, another Uncas in the virtuous Hard-Heart. The Indians ride horses and are thus more difficult to escape than the Hurons had been. The flat prairies give fewer places of concealment. But the trapper is as ready as ever with new arts, and the flight ends as romance prescribes. The final scene, the death of the trapper in the arms of his young friends, is very touching and fine, yet reticently handled. For the most part, the minor characters, the lovers and the pedant, are not new to Cooper and are not notable. The family of Ishmael Bush, the squatter, however, make up a new element. They have been forced out of civilization by its virtues, as the trapper by its vices. They have strength without nobility and activity without wisdom. Except when roused, they are as sluggish as a prairie river, and like it they appear muddy and aimless. Ishmael Bush always conveys the impression of terrific forces lying vaguely in ambush. His wife is nearly the most memorable figure among Cooper’s women. She clings to her mate and cubs with a tigerish instinct that leaves her, when she has lost son and brother and retreats in a vast silent grief, still lingering in the mind, an inarticulate prairie Hecuba.

§ 19. Residence in Europe.

Possibly the novel owes some of its depth of atmosphere to the fact that it was finished in France and that Cooper was thus looking back upon his subject through a mist of regret. He had sailed for Europe with his family in June, 1826, to begin a foreign residence of more than seven years which had a large effect upon his later life and work. He found his books well known and society at large disposed to make much of him. In Paris he fraternized with Scott, who enjoyed and praised his American rival. Parts of his stay were in England, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, which delighted and astonished him, and Italy, which he loved. Most of his time, however, he passed at Paris, charmed with a gayer and more brilliant society than he could have known before. He did not cease to write.

§ 20. Red Rover; The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish.

In January, 1828, he repeated the success of The Pilot with another sea tale, The Red Rover which has always held a place among the most favoured of his books. The excitement is less sustained than in The Pilot, but portions of the narrative, notably those dealing with storms, are tremendous. The ocean here plays as great a part as Cooper had lately assigned to the prairie. One voices the calm of nature, one its tumult; both tend to the discipline of man. In I829 he fared better than with Lionel Lincoln in another historical tale of New England, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, an episode of King Philip’s War. It is a powerful novel, irregular and ungenial, not only because the Puritans represented were themselves unlovely, but because Cooper had an evident dislike for them which coloured all their qualities. This was followed in the next year by The Water-Witch, which Cooper thought his most imaginative book. It has a spirited naval battle, but it flatly failed to localize a supernatural legend in New York harbour.

§ 21. Notions of the Americans; Novels written in Europe.

Novels were not Cooper’s whole concern during his years in Europe. Unabashedly, outspokenly American, he had secured from Henry Clay the post of consul at Lyons, that he might not seem, during his travels, a man without a country. As consul, though his position was purely nominal, he felt called upon to resent the ignorance everywhere shown by Europeans regarding his native land, and he set out upon the task of educating them to better views. Cooper was not Franklin. His Notions of the Americans (1828), while full of information and a rich mine of American opinion for that day, was too obviously partisan to convince those at whom it was aimed. Its proper audience was homesick Americans. He indulged, too, in some controversy at Paris over the relative cost of French and American government which pleased neither nation. Finally, he applied his art to the problem and wrote three novels “in which American opinion should be brought to bear on European facts.”[11] That is, in The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmauer (1832), and The Headsman (1833) he meant to show by proper instances the superiority of democracy to aristocracy as regards general happiness and justice. He claimed to be writing for his countrymen alone, some of whom must have been thrilled to come across a passage like “a fairer morning never dawned upon the Alleghanies than that which illumined the Alps,” but he was not sufficiently master of his material, however stout and just his opinions, to make even The Bravo, the best of the three, as good as his pioneer romances.

§ 22. Return to America and Ensuing Controversies.

Before he returned to New York in November, 1833, he was warned by his friend S. F. B. Morse that he would be disappointed. Cooper found himself, in fact, fatally cosmopolitan in the republic he had been justifying for seven years. Always critical, he sought to qualify too sweeping praise of America precisely as he had qualified too sweeping censure in Europe. But he had not learned tact while becoming a citizen of the world, and he soon angered the public he had meant to set right. The result was the long and dreary wrangling which clouded the whole remainder of his life and has obscured his fame almost to the present day. If he had attended the dinner planned in his honour on his return, he might have found his welcome warmer than he thought it. If he had been an observer keen enough, he would have seen that the new phases of democracy which he disliked were in part a gift to the old seaboard of that very frontier of which he had been painter and annalist. But he did not see these things, and so he carried on a steady fight, almost always as right in his contentions as he was wrong-headed in his manner. From Cooperstown, generally his residence, except for a few winters in New York, to the end of his life, he lectured and scolded. His Letter to his Countrymen (1834), stating his position, and The Monikins (1835), an unbelievably dull satire, were the first fruits of his quarrel. He followed these with five books dealing with his European travels and constantly irritating to the people of both continents. He indulged in a heated altercation with his fellow townsmen over some land which they thought theirs, although it was certainly his. In 1838 he published a fictious record, Homeward Bound and its sequel Home as Found, of the disappointment of some Americans who return from Europe and find America what Cooper had recently found it. He proclaimed his political principles in The American Democrat (1838). Most important of all, he declared war upon the newspapers of New York and went up and down the state suing those that had libelled him. He won most of the suits, but though he silenced his opponents he had put his fame into the hands of persons who, unable to abuse, could at least neglect him.

§ 23. Writings on Naval Affairs; Later Nautical Tales.

His solid History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839) turned his attention once more to naval affairs, with which he busied himself during much of his remaining career. He wrote Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers (1842–5), and Ned Myers (1843), the life of a common sailor who had been with him on the Sterling. The History led to a furious legal battle, but generally Cooper left his quarrels behind him when he went upon the sea. As a cosmopolitan, he seemed to feel freer out of sight of land, on the public highway of the nations. His novels of this period, however, are uneven in merit. The Two Admirals (1842) contains one of his best naval battles; Wing-and-Wing (1842) ranks high among his sea tales, richly romantic and glowing with the splendours of the Mediterranean. Mercedes of Castile (1840) has little interest beside that essential to the first voyage of Columbus. The two parts of Afloat and Ashore (1844), dealing powerfully as they do with the evils of impressment, are notable chiefly for sea fights and chases. Jack Tier (1846–8) is a lurid piratical tale of the Mexican War; The Crater (1847) does poorly what Robinson Crusoe does supremely; The Sea Lions (1849) has the distinction of marking the highest point in that religious bigotry which pervades Cooper’s later novels as thoroughly as the carping spirit which kept him always alert for a chance to take some fling at his countrymen.

§ 24. Later Border Tales; The Pathfinder.

The real triumph of his later years was that he wrote, in the very midst of his hottest litigation, The Pathfinder (March, 1840) and The Deerslayer (August, 1841). One realizes, in reading them, that the forest more than the ocean was for Cooper a romantic sanctuary, as it was for Pathfinder the true temple, full of the “holy calm of nature,” the teacher of beauty, virtue, laws. Returning to these solemn woods, Cooper was subdued once more to the spirit which had attended his first great days. The fighting years through which he had passed had left him both more mellow and more critical than at first. During the same time he had gone far enough from the original character of Leather-Stocking to become aware of traits which should be brought out or explained. It was too late to make his hero entirely consistent for the series, but Cooper apparently saw the chance to fill out the general outline, and he did it with such skill that those who read the five novels in the order of events will notice relatively few discrepancies, since The Deerslayer prepares for nearly all that follows. In The Pathfinder, undertaken to show Natty in love and to combine the forest and a ship in the same tale, Cooper was at some pains to point out how Pathfinder’s candour, self-reliance, justice, and fidelity had been developed by the life he had led in the forest. Leather-Stocking, indeed, does not seem more conscious of these special gifts, but Cooper does. Still there is abudant action, another flight through the woods, a storm on Lake Ontario, a siege at a blockhouse. Chingachgook, unchanged, is with Pathfinder, who varies from his earlier character in little but his love for a young girl whom he finally surrenders to a more suitable lover. His love affair threatens for a moment to domesticate Natty, but the sacrifice restores him to his old solitude.

§ 25. The Deerslayer.

In the final book of the series, The Deerslayer, Cooper performed with full success the hard task of representing the scout in the fresh morning of his youth. Love appears too in this story, but Deerslayer, unable to love a girl who has been corrupted by the settlements, turns to the forest with his best devotion. The book is the tale of his coming of age. Already a hunter, he kills his first man and thus enters the long career which lies before him. That career, however, had already been traced by Cooper, and the distress with which Deerslayer realizes that he has human blood on his hands becomes immeasurably eloquent. It gives the figure of the man almost a new dimension; one remembers the many deaths Natty has yet to deal. In other matters he is near his later self, for he starts life with a steady philosophy which, through all the many experiences of The Deerslayer, keeps him to the end as simple and honourable as at the outset.

The novel is thus an epitome of the whole career of the most memorable character American fiction has given to the world. Leather-Stocking is very fully drawn; Cooper’s failure to write a sixth novel, as he at one time planned, which should show Natty in the Revolution, may be taken as a sign that he felt, however unconsciously, that the picture was finished. It is hard, indeed, to see how he could have added to the scout without taking something from the spy. More important still, the virtue of patriotism, if carried to the pitch that must have been demanded for that hero in that day, would surely have been a little alien to the cool philosopher of the woods. Justice, not partisanship, is Leather-Stocking’s essential trait. In him Cooper exhibited, even better than he knew, his special idea that human character can be brought to a noble proportion and perfection in the school of pure nature. Now this idea, generally current in Cooper’s youth, had an effect upon the Leather-Stocking tales of the greatest moment. Because their hero, as the natural man, had too simple a soul to call for minute analysis, it was necessary for Cooper to show him moving through a long succession of events aimed to test the firmness of his virtues. There was thus produced the panorama of the American frontier which, because of Cooper’s incomparable fusion of strangeness and reality, at once became and has remained the classic record of an heroic age.

§ 26. The Littlepage Manuscripts.

He wrote more border tales before his death. Wyandotte (1843) deals largely with the siege of a blockhouse near the upper Susquehanna, and The Oak-Openings (1848), the fruit of a journey which he made to the West in 1847, is a tale of bee hunting and Indian fighting on the shores of Lake Michigan. Full of border material, too, is the trilogy of Littlepage Manuscripts, Satanstoe (1845), The Chainbearer (1846), and The Redskins (1846). Having tried the autobiographical method with Miles Wallingford in Afloat and Ashore, Cooper now repeated it through three generations of a New York family. In the last he involved himself unduly in the question of antirentism and produced a book both fantastic and dull; the second is better by one of Cooper’s most powerful figures, the squatter Thousandacres, another Titan of the brood of Ishmael Bush; the first, if a little beneath Cooper’s best work, is so only because he was somewhat rarely at his best. No other novel, by Cooper or any other, gives so firm and convincing a picture of colonial New York. Even Cooper has no more exciting struggle than that of Corny Littlepage with the icy Hudson. But the special virtue of Satanstoe is a quality Cooper nowhere else displays, a positive winsomeness in the way Littlepage unfolds his memories (now sweetened by many years) and his humorous crotchets in the same words. There are pages which read almost like those of some vigorous Galt or Goldsmith. Unfortunately, Cooper did not carry this vein further. His comedy Upside Down, produced at Burton’s Theatre, New York, 18 June, 1850, was a failure, and his last novel, The Ways of the Hour (1851), lacks every charm of manner. With his family and a few friends he lived his latter days in honour and affection, but he held the public at a sour distance and before his death, 14 September, 1851, set his face against a reconciliation even in the future by forbidding any biography to be authorized. The published facts of his life still leave his personality less known to the general world than that of any American writer of equal rank.

§ 27. Cooper’s Rank as a Romancer.

This might be somewhat strange, since Cooper was lavish of intrusions into his novels, were it not that he wrote himself down, when he spoke in his own person, not only a powerful and independent man, but a scolding, angry man, and thus made his most revealing novels his least read ones. One thinks of Scott, who, when he shows himself most, wins most love. The difference further characterizes the two men. In breadth of sympathies, humanity, geniality, humour, Cooper is less than Scott. He himself, in his review of Lockhart, said that Scott’s great ability lay in taking a legend or historical episode, which Scotland furnished in splendid profusion, and reproducing it with marvellous grace and tact. “This faculty of creating a vraisemblance, is next to that of a high invention, in a novelist.” It is clear that Cooper felt his own inferiority to Scott in “creating a vraisemblance” and that he was always conscious of the relative barrenness of American life; it is also tolerably clear that he himself aimed at what he thought the higher quality of invention. Cooper’s invention, indeed, was not without a solid basis; he is not to be neglected as an historian. No man better sums up in literature the spirit of that idealistic, irascible, pugnacious, somewhat crude, and half aristocratic older democracy which established the United States. No one fixed the current heroic traditions of his day more firmly to actual places. No one else supplied so many facts to the great legend of the frontier. Fact no less than fiction underlies the character which, for all time, Cooper gave to the defeated race of red men, who, no longer a menace as they had been to the first settlers, could now take their place in the world of the imagination, sometimes idealized, as in Uncas and Hard-Heart, but more often credibly imperfect and uncivilized. It was his technical knowledge of ships and sailors which led Cooper to write sea tales, a province of romance in which he still takes rank, among many followers, as teacher and master of them all. True, Cooper had not Scott’s resources of historical learning to fall back upon when his invention flagged, any more than he had Scott’s resources of good-nature when he became involved in argument; but when, as in the Leather-Stocking tales, his invention could move most freely, it did unaided what Scott, with all his subsidiary qualities, could not outdo. This is to credit Cooper with an invention almost supreme among romancers. Certainly it is difficult to explain why, with all his faults of clumsiness, prolixity, conventional characterization, and ill temper, he has been the most widely read American author, unless he is to be called one of the most impressive and original.

Footnotes


8. The family name was changed to Fenimore-Cooper by act of legislature in April, 1826.    Cooper soon dropped the hyphen.
9. A Letter to his Countrymen, 1834, p. 98.
10. But dated 1823.
11. A Letter to his Countrymen, P. 12.

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