Critical and Popular Response

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"In all the world, who reads an American book?"

On the eve of publication of The Pioneers, Sydney Smith published this taunting remark in The Edinburgh Review. The answer to Smith's question is the source of Cooper's popular and critical success and the reason why he is credited with having established the American novel.

Cooper's ingenious was not expressed in his development of the American novel, rather, in his ability to find an audience for it. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the American public read what Margaret Fuller called "the dingy pages" of imported European novels. Unable to find an audience for his version of the American novel, Charles Brockton Brown set an ominous precedent for Cooper. With The Pioneers, Cooper facilitated an American literary awakening: from awkward imitations of popular imported novels to a truly indigenous literature. "Quite simply, Cooper created the community of readers whose taste would dominate the market for fiction in America . . . throughout the nineteenth century" (Wallace, 171).

Cooper's audience is generally assumed to have been parochial, populist, rural, and Jacksonian. But the effect of The Pioneers on American art and drama speaks to the presence of a more sophisticated audience. In the Preface to The Pioneers, he aligned himself with this American audience and scoffed at critics who saw literary success as completely unrelated, if not at odds with popular response. Cooper chose to "ignore the arbiters of public taste; he . . . dared to call them asses and to doubt the objective principles upon which criticism was founded" (Wallace, 174).

Thus, Cooper bypassed the critics and went straight for the public with the pre-publication printing of extracts from the novel in The New York Commercial Advertiser. Critics scoffed at Cooper, naming him parochial and crediting the literary impact of his work on its reliance on mythic archetypes, and not what Cooper saw as the integrity of his work, his respect for the capabilities of the common mind.

Cooper expounded upon his theory of the novel in this review of Catherine Sedgewick's A New England Tale, the composition of which coincided with that of the The Pioneers. "Our political institutions, the state of learning among us, and the influence of religion upon the national character, have been often discussed and displayed; but our domestic manners, the social and the moral influences, which operate in retirement, and in common intercourse, and the multitude of local peculiarities, which form our distinctive features upon the many peopled earth, have very seldom been happily exhibited in our literature" (The Literary and Scientific Repository, May 1882).

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