Fenimore Cooper is one of the puzzling figures of his generation. In his substantial character was embodied what may well appear no more than a bundle of contradictions. Romancer and social critic, feudal-minded yet espousing a republican faith, he pretty much baffled his own generation in its testy attempts to understand him, as he has pretty much baffled later times. No other major writer, unless it be Whitman, has been so misunderstood, and no other offers a knottier problem to the student of American letters. The stubborn clay of his nature was molded to a pattern unlike that of his fellows, and the difference was long accounted to him as a grave shortcoming. His outspoken individualism was a constant irritant to a sensitive majority, and his aloofness from the common enthusiasms was reckoned no better than treason to his native land. The right of the individual to question the herd pronouncements was a right not acknowledged by the herd, and the more it tried to silence Cooper's tongue the more caustic and loquacious it became. He refused to be silenced though it should come to open warfare. His later years in consequence were rendered unhappy by a thousand petty vexations, and his creative work was brought only this side of shipwreck.
How and why so great a misadventure befell him are questions of prime importance to which little attention has been given. That his tactlessness was at fault is commonly believed-his tactlessness and a certain pugnacious virtue that would inculcate righteousness by means of a broken head. But such an explanation, true enough so far as it goes, does not go far enough. The trouble lay deeper than that; it lay in the mind of Cooper himself, in the doubts and uncertainties that dwelt side by side with stubborn dogmatisms, troubling his speculations and perplexing his plainest counsels. And that trouble must be traced to an underlying conflict between the man and his age, between the ideal and the real, between high loyalties and petty Fact. Fenimore Cooper was the barometer of a gusty generation, sensitive to every storm on the far horizon. No ether observer of that changing generation suffered so keenly in mind and conscience from the loosening of ancient ties, and none labored so hard to keep his countrymen to the strait path of an old-fashioned rectitude. His busy life covered the middle years of the great shift from an aristocratic order to a capitalistic order, and this revolutionary change provided him ample materials for brooding speculation. At every turn in the road fresh doubts assailed him. The perplexities and dogmatisms that clutter so many of his later pages, playing havoc with his romantic art, are a testimony to the confusions of a generation in the midst of epic changes. As honest a man as ever spoke his mind frankly, he endeavored to reconcile the irreconcilable, and establish sure standards amid the wreck of all standards. He could not drift. He must discover some working agreement between the old America and the new, between the reputed excellencies of the traditional aristocratic order, and the reputed justice of the democratic ideal. But unfortunately for this difficult business he was temperamentally ill equipped. He was always at war with himself. His loyalties and his conscience ran at cross-purposes. His mind was packed with prejudices as an egg with meat. He was too partisan to compromise, and too honest to be content with the shoddy. His instinctive romanticisms were always being buffeted by fact, and his troubled mind in consequence was forever constructing laborious defense mechanisms.
For those deep confusions that marred his later work and brought such bitter misunderstanding upon him, his heritage was much to blame. A romantic at heart, he was out of sympathy with the dominant romanticisms of his generation. Certain hold-offers from the past held him back from hearty participation in the present. He loved the world that was falling into decay too much to put away its virtues with its smallclothes; he would preserve what was excellent in the old to enrich and dignify what was excellent in the new; he would have the young democracy learn the decorum of a staid aristocracy. It is this fond lingering between worlds that sets Cooper apart from his fellows. He was an English squire of the old school turned republican, who did not quite like the company he found himself in He was equally puzzled at the bumptious leveling of the coonskin democracy, and the exploitative spirit of Wall Street Whiggery. But though he railed at the newfangled ways with the testiness of a squire, he was too confirmed a republican, too deeply concerned that the great venture in republicanism should demonstrate its wisdom, to over look its shortcomings. He would have it be so true to it ideal that the world would acknowledge its excellence. Hi could not circumscribe his duties to election-day hurrahs he must ferret out treason in the market place; he must bi faithful in counsel though he utter unwelcome truths.. I was the very faithfulness of Cooper to his conception of an ideal republic that brought him into collision with his fellows and filled his later days with bitterness.
It is easy to see where Cooper got those stubborn notion that marked him as the last of our eighteenth-century squires and left him obsolete after the adoption of the Constitution of 1821. From his father, from the Tory recto: of St. Peter's, Albany, who first schooled him, from the Loyalist family of De Lancey into which he married, from Governor Jay and the old gentry with whom he was brought up, he imbibed certain stalwart conservatisms--political, religious, social, economic-that mingled in hi, blood and nourished the tissues of caste prejudice from which his maturer social philosophy struggled in vain to escape. In spite of his deliberate acceptance of the democratic principle, as he understood that principle, he remained at heart as sturdily eighteenth-century as any fox hunting master of English acres. He had early been bred in the old traditions at Otsego Hall where he spent hi boyhood. His father, judge William Cooper, "a testy and choleric gentleman easily wrought into passion,"-whop he idealized as judge Temple in The Pioneers-was an old school politician of high Federalist persuasion, a vigorous not to say truculent, embodiment of the stake-in-society principle of statecraft. Smitten with the common itch for large land holdings, he had got his hands on a huge virgin tract which he managed in the old baronial fashion. He was a real lord of the manor and late in life he recalled that "there were 40,000 souls holding land, directly or indirectly, under me"; and in the year 1800 "he set up claim to having placed the plough upon more acres that any other man in America" (quoted in D. R. Fox, The Decline of Aristocracy in the Politics of New York, p. 136)
Otsego Hall in Cooperstown was a frontier citadel of Federalism defending the western marches against Jeffersonian democracy, and judge Cooper used his economic power over tenants with telling effect. He "rode far and wide in the cause of Jay and later Aaron Burr, always preaching the musty doctrine that government had better be left to gentlemen, and that simple folk should vote as they were told" (ibid., pp. 136-137). When persuasion failed he resorted to threats, and in 1792 he was before the legislature on impeachment charges. From the testimony it appears that the patriarchal judge used direct methods with tenants in arrears; he "had been round to the people and told them they owed him, and that unless they voted for Mr. Jay, he would ruin them" (ibid., p. 140). By such arguments it was thought some seven hundred votes had been brought into the Federalist column by this exemplar of the old virtues.
But Cooper had drifted with his age far from such old fashioned methods of class domination. In spite of his great love for his father he seems never to have espoused the latter's political creed. With the disintegration of Federalism the young man went with the country in its turning towards French romanticism. When and why he adopted the democratic faith is not apparent, but until middle life it would seem that he concerned himself little with political theory. He remained a provincial American with an intense pride of patriotism. But his long stay in Europe, lasting from June, 1826, to November, 1833, and the Jacksonian revolution that took place during his absence, put him upon an anxious examination of first principles, and thereafter to the end of his life the social and political problems of America were a burden on his conscience. He arrived late at a reasoned political faith, as he arrived late at his literary art, and it is impossible to trace the steps of his intellectual development; yet confused though his thinking was, and shot through with narrowing prejudices, he persistently sought for the light; and the germinal source of his dissatisfactions was the deepening conviction that, in Franklin's phrase, the affairs of this world are preposterously managed. From this conviction Cooper never swerved. The contrast everywhere between the real and the ideal took hold of his mind as an obsession, and put an end to his contentment. His romantic art suffered from the intrusion of realism; the romancer was constantly impelled to turn critic. It was his travels more than anything else that destroyed his provincial contentment. The perturbing influence of that experience abroad has never perhaps been adequately considered by his critics. No other American was so unsettled by contact with European civilization. It was a Europe in the throes of revolution and Cooper threw himself with enthusiasm into French politics, hoping for a wise republican issue from the overturn. But it was a Europe also of dignified and generous culture that was a challenge to his Americanism. It made a critic of him and turned his mind to political and social problems. Europe appealed to his native aristocratic prejudices, but repelled his democratic; Jacksonian America appealed to his democratic prejudices, but rode roughshod over his aristocratic. He found himself nowhere at home. Puzzled and perturbed, he leveled his shafts at both worlds and sought a haven of refuge in vicarious existence, at times in the wilderness beyond the soil and smutch of the Jacksonian frontier, at times in the Utopian world of
In temperament and outlook this later Cooper was another John Adams modified by changing times. A realist in his long brooding over social and political evils, he was at heart an idealist greatly concerned with justice amongst men, with a romantic fondness for dwelling on the virtues of, earlier days. Like Adams he understood very well that equality is a Utopian dream; that social classes exist in every society that has accumulated property, and that sovereignty in the long run will fall into the hands that control the social economics.' The problem he set himself to consider was the problem of reconciling this universal fact with his own predilection in favor of democracy. That he regarded himself as a democrat his emphatic assertions suffice to prove; but no more than Emerson was he deceived by the spurious democracy of the times. "The writer believes himself to be as good a democrat as there is in America," he said in the Introduction to
But though Cooper might deny the validity of the eighteenth-century social-stake theory, he saw no valid reason to abandon his eighteenth-century economics. In his preference for a social order founded on agriculture he was as confirmed a Physiocrat as Franklin or Jefferson; and this preference determined his judgment on the economic revolution under way in America. A people living close to the soil was living more wholesomely, he believed, than a city people immersed in trade and manufacture. For the capitalistic expansion that followed the new fiscal system of the seventeen-nineties, he felt an instinctive repugnance. Banking and the manipulation of credit seemed to him mean and sordid, and the spirit of speculation that was overrunning the land he believed was destructive of common morality. The activities of Wall Street he looked upon with the eyes of an English squire. To expect any sane progress from such worship of money, to assume that a high and excellent civilization could result from such worship, seemed to him plain madness. "God protect the country that has nothing but commercial towns for capitals," he wrote his wife in 1839 (Cooper,
From these germinal sources-his love of the dignified ways of the old manorial families, his contempt for the middle class, his dislike of a bumptious leveling, his hatred of brag and cant and enterprise-came those sharp contrasts in his pictures that set the vulgar present over against the dignified past. His criticism was in no small part the reaction of a romantic to the unlovely works of an economic revolution. From his loyalty to the old came that subtle rromanticizingof the eighteenth century that lends a charm to his tales, and from it carne also that vindictive hatred of the frontier that spurred him to ill-balanced criticism. He could not like the new that was destroying the old. Like Emerson he was a man without a party, but unlike him he sought consolation in the past rather than the future. The excellence he yearned for he found in that older world whose stable ways were as yet unsettled by the romantic revolution, and from the meanness of the present he stole away to find consolation in the dignity and worth of honester times. The late eighteenth century became, therefore, his romantic haven and City of Refuge to which he returned gladly. He was always seeking to revitalize the old in an environment where, as he lamented, "the eighteenth century may be set down as a very dark antiquity."
That Cooper unconsciously romanticized the past is only too evident. Too often he accepted its self-proclaimed virtues as sober fact and created a race of squires that never existed outside his pages. Realist though he was in certain moods, he abandoned his realism in the presence of the tiewig gentry. His father was as graspingly eighteenth century as Gouverneur Morris and saw to it that his own nest was well feathered; yet the son failed to perceive that the dignified professions of those old gentlemen were little more than splendid gestures. He made the mistake of taking them at their face value. Honest himself, he attributed an equal honesty to the older generation, and he watched with unfeigned regret the disintegration of an order that seemed to him the repository of much that was excellent. Fragments of its ideals he clung to; its dignity, its concern for breeding and manners, its fine distinction. Fragments also of its political convictions: its concern for law and order, its belief that all just law is founded in morality, its insistence that American government is one of principles and not of men. He put his finger shrewdly on certain fallacies of eighteenth-century theory, but he took too many of its values at par. The twilight is a mighty sorcerer and Cooper was bewitched by the half light that lingered softly on the familiar past.
This suffices to explain the grounds of the charge of aristocratic leanings that Cooper was persistently brought under. His bold defense of the landed gentry gave mortal enmity to the Jacksonians, and the tactlessness with which he pointed out the crude provincialisms of America--the
bumptious plebeians he set over against the priggish gentlemen-was rubbing salt on open sores. -
It is not hard, indeed, to understand Cooper's preference for Stephen Van Rensselaer the Patroon, to John Jacob Astor the fur trader, or Commodore Vanderbilt the ferryman; yet such preference was charged against him as un-American.
It was this revulsion from the meanness of the present that sent Cooper into the wilderness or out on the high seas, to seek adventure in the company of nature's noblemen, and forget the sordidness of the real. Here again the French school prompted his thinking, if only to supplement the romance of his boyish recollections. Natty Bumppo is quite evidently man as he came from the hand of nature, uncorrupted by the vices of the settlements; indeed one might question whether the back-to-nature literature can show another figure so enduringly vital as the Leatherstocking. From this same material is fashioned Uncas and the younger Chingachgook and still other lovable figures of his romances. They belong to the free wilderness beyond the settlements, where the dramatic flight and pursuit go on unchecked by impertinent fences. Here their native virtues expand and their generous gifts find ample play. They shunned the settlements as Cooper shunned them. On the frontier, the middle ground between nature and civilization, Cooper's spirits flagged. He had no love for the stumpy clearings, the slovenly cabins, the shiftless squatters; the raw devastation of the ax grieved him and he breathes contentedly only after he has left the scars behind and is in the deep woods beyond the smell of rum. Such a man obviously was unfitted to write a just account of the frontier as it straggled westward. He hated its ways too fiercely to do justice to it, and when he comes upon it in his tales, when he introduces a frontier figure such as Ishmael Bush in
Democrat though he professed to be, Cooper shrank from the logical application of the democratic principle. -The adoption of manhood suffrage in New York brought
its train a sorry scramble of demagogues to sway the popular will, a debasement of the press, and a vulgarizing of political life that proved a sore trial to Cooper's faith. Be was too severely moralist to enjoy the little weaknesses of human nature, but must set himself up as custodian of public morals. Affronted by a bumptious vulgarity, he be
came the assailant rather than the critic of Jacksonian ways. The land to which he returned in 1833 was a broad target for his shafts and he sent them into the white. The America of log cabins and hard cider seemed to him to have repudiated the traditional standards, moral as well as cultural, and he attributed the disintegration to the corruption that came from the extension of the suffrage to classes unprepared to use it wisely. It was this that embittered his criticism in the caustic pages of
It was during the bustling decade of the forties, when the agrarian unrest in York State was putting in jeopardy the old manorial system, that Cooper's antagonisms to the spirit of leveling became bitterest; and it was in,, defense of the old system that he wrote the Anti-Rent trilogy that should always be set over against the Leatherstocking tales. Taken together the two series contain pretty, much the whole of Cooper, his sea tales excepted; either alone gives an inadequate and partial view. The one is a. social study, the other a romantic epic. The one gives. a picture of the changes the years have brought to a given region, the other follows the retreating wilderness as the frontier moved westward. The Anti-Rent novels present the reverse of the romantic picture of the Leatherstocking tales. Their central figure is Aaron Thousandacres the squatter, who has come out of Connecticut to possess what pleases him, regardless of legal rights. Offspring of
generations of covetous, psalm-singing Puritans, he has no difficulty in justifying his lawlessness by Yankee logic. The devil can quote Scripture, and in this respect old Thousandacres is the devil's own son. When Scripture fails the easy gospel of natural rights comes to his aid; the written law may be on the side of the title-holder, but natural law is on the side of the squatter.
"There's two rights to all the land on 'arth, and the whull world over," the squatter replied to Chainbearer's legal argument. "One of these rights is what I call a king's right, or that which depends on writids, and laws, and sich like contrivances; and the other depends on possession. It stands to reason, that fact is better than any writin' about it can be." (
Such lax doctrine, to Cooper, was the evil fruit of the spirit of lawlessness that was laying a blight upon America. A retributive bullet ends the fierce career of old Thousandacres, but his tigress wife, his rough sons and slattern daughters are driven from their home to plunge deeper into the wilderness, there to beget other generations of squatters whose vicious doctrines return to plague society. No romance blends with the tale of their lives; no sympathy softens the picture of the stem old Yankee. He has set himself against law and order and must yield or be destroyed. It is the old story of the struggle for land, a struggle that went on for generations between speculator and squatter, between rich and poor, with much wrong and much right on both sides; yet Cooper's sympathies are cold to the squatter's plea and he enlists God, morality, and the law, in defense of a title to forty thousand acres wheedled from the Indians for ninety-six pounds, York currency, spent in trinkets. Righteousness without a sense of humor is not easy to live with.
In much of his later work Cooper's romantic impulses are held in check by a growing tendency towards realism. It was there from the first but as he grew more critical it spread over more of his pages. He tried to hold the scales of his judgment even, but his realism was marred and distorted by his vehement nature. A mind exuding prejudice is ill equipped to deal objectively with material, and Cooper was too inveterate a moralist to accept the principle of impersonal detachment. He prided himself on facing fact, but he loved to preach; and having pointed out the wrongfulness of vicious morals he must follow it with a vigorous homily on right conduct. And yet despite his gross shortcomings there is a deal of realism scattered through his volumes. He consciously tried to be a chronicler of manners, to depict America truly, to recreate fairly present and past, red man and white, Dutch and Yankee. His prejudices certainly got the better of him in dealing with New England, and his romance certainly got the better of him in describing the Mohicans. Yet though he might romanticize Uncas he did not romanticize Saucy Nick in
Politics was all about Cooper while he was writing these tales, and his sporadic incursions into criticism led him into the field of political theory. So doughty a warrior must break a lance when all America was engaged in a great political tourney. While Whig and Democrat were loudly professing allegiance to the new doctrine of a majority rule, Cooper was making his way back to the principles of the eighteenth century and discovering the essence of good government in self-restraint. The mistake of the new school, he was convinced, lay in confusing the present will of the majority with the rule of the people; the mistake of the old school lay in confusing the will of the minority with the rule of the people. Above and beyond both majority and minority is the eternal principle of justice, and any government that flouts that principle is bad government, no matter how sanctioned. In a republic which foolishly believes that the voice of the people is the sole criterion of right, the problem of justice is peculiarly difficult, for what remedies are available in cases "in which
Like Hugh Henry Brackenridge before him, Cooper was a democrat who criticized the ways of a reputed democracy because of his love for an ideal republic. Too few of his kind have arisen in America; too few who dare to speak their minds unterrified by public opinion. An individualist of the old English breed, he could not be intimidated or coerced in the matter of his rights by any clamor, whether of newspapers or mobs. He had his shortcomings in plenty, both as romancer and critic. Testy, opinionated, tactless, forever lugging in disagreeable truths by the ears, he said many wise things so blunderingly as to make truth doubly offensive, and he hewed at his art so awkwardly as well-nigh to destroy the beauty of his romance. Yet the more intimately one comes to know him, the more one comes to respect his honest, manly nature that loved justice and decency more than popularity. His daily life became a long warfare with his fellows, who exacted of him a great price for his idealism; but later generations should love him none the less for the battles he fought. That America has been so tardy in coming to know him as a man and a democrat, as well as a romancer, is a reflection upon its critical acumen.