A Tribute to James Fenimore Cooper, A Literary Romance

July 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

I must confess, I haven’t read a single work by James Fenimore Cooper, but that shouldn’t stop me from paying tribute to one of the preeminent writers of American fiction. I know he’s preeminent because my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. (Miss?) B*tts, told us he was preeminent. A rather fussy and formal woman sometimes given to flights of rapture that didn’t lift, whose voice could slip at spots into notes falsetto, who slaughtered Julius Caesar, the man and the play, in her mincing presentation designed to marshall our undivided attention and unwavering respect, she may be one reason why I haven’t read him.

We weren’t assigned Cooper in her class, but one day she waxed at length the Leatherstocking Tales and a character named Natty Bumppo. After what she did to Julius Caesar, it is hard to get excited about what looked then to be a lot of tedious prose. And Natty Bumppo. What kind of name is that for a character? He sounds like a clown in a ’50s kids show or a third-rate rapper.

Also she didn’t approve of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22—I had a copy visible in class one day. Too scattered! she said. He jumps around! And she had a habit of calling me David, my oldest brother’s name (we called him “Bub”), who preceded me in her class by six years and had achieved preeminence there as well, a mark I fell short of in Mrs. (Miss?) B*tts estimation. But it was Bub who introduced me to Catch 22!

Boy, wouldn’t Mrs. (Miss?) B*tts be surprised to know I became an English instructor!

I don’t know if my brother (no longer with us) or Joseph Heller read Cooper, either. I read my brother’s copy of Catch 22, which he had fully annotated with comments as to its various types of humor and their degree, the extent he had been moved sideways and up and down. I didn’t get all the jokes, but I loved getting bounced around in Catch 22. The novel was an opening for me into a world that hadn’t been nailed down as much as I was told.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about James Fenimore Cooper:

James Fenimore Cooper (September 15, 1789 – September 14, 1851) was a prolific and popular American writer of the early 19th century. He is best remembered as a novelist who wrote numerous sea-stories and the historical novels known as the Leatherstocking Tales, featuring frontiersman Natty Bumppo. Among his most famous works is the Romantic novel The Last of the Mohicans, often regarded as his masterpiece.

See, I wasn’t making Natty Bumppo up. But here’s the part I like:

At 13, Cooper was enrolled at Yale, but he did not obtain a degree due to being expelled. His expulsion stemmed from a dangerous prank that involved him blowing up another student’s door.[1] Another less dangerous prank consisted of training a donkey to sit in a professor’s chair.[2]

I hope the story about the donkey is true. If Mrs. (Miss?) B*tts had told us that, I might have been tempted to read him. Then I again we might have been tempted to pull that trick, or at least contemplate it those moments our attention started to drift, probably the reason she didn’t tell us. It reminds me of a another literary prank of some years ago. My roommate at VCFA for several semesters was Les Edgerton, preeminent in his own way (Monday’s MealThe Death of Tarpons). Prior to our first residency together, he sent a letter warning me of his flatulence problem. The first night, after we (finally) went to bed, I heard strange rustling noises from his side of the room, followed by swear words of frustration—he couldn’t get his Whoopee cushion to work! And that’s not the only time that has happened. My son, about 7 at the time, came home from a birthday party with a bag of party favors which included a Whoopee cushion and we couldn’t get it to work either.

What does that say about modern times if we can’t make decent Whoopee cushions anymore? What hope do we have for the future? If we can’t get a simple parlor gag device right, what can we expect when we stand up and leave the room and face our vastly complex outside world? I’m thinking now I should have paid more attention to Mrs. (Miss?) B*tts. The country is slipping, and it is taking me with it. Perhaps it is time to bolster our spirits and recapture our resolve. Perhaps it is time to read James Fenimore Cooper.

I bet they made things right in Cooper’s time. For example:

and:

The Tom Thumb, above, is one of the first locomotives built in America, by Peter Cooper (any relation?) in 1829 for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Actually, I don’t think the Tom Thumb worked that well, but you get the idea. At any rate, 1829 is important because it is also the year James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish appeared, a “fairly realistic story of the early American wilderness experience.”

Apparently James Fenimore slipped on the realism part, though. James Thurber, in “Wild Bird Hickok and His Friends,” writes on popular French novels about the American West he read while in France. In one of them he found this sentence:

The wishtonwish was seldom heard west of Philadelphia.

tantalizing in its many possible meanings and confusion. Thurber explains:

It was some time—indeed, it was not until I got back to America—that I traced the wishtonwish to its lair, and in so doing discovered the influence of James Fenimore Cooper on all these French writers of Far West tales. Cooper, in his novels, frequently mentioned the wishtonwish, which was a Caddoan Indian name for the prairie dog. Cooper erroneously applied it to the whippoorwill.

So now I’m starting to wonder.

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Wishtonwish (left) and whippoorwill (right)

Not even close!

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From left to right: Joseph Heller, Les Edgerton, and Bub

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Here’s Wikipedia on the Whoopee cushion:

The Roman Emperor Elagabulus was known to employ whoopee cushions at dinner parties[1] although the modern version was re-invented in 1930 by the JEM Rubber Co. of TorontoCanada, by employees who were experimenting with scrap sheets of rubber[2]. The owner of the company approached Samuel Adams, the inventor of numerous practical jokes and owner of S.S. Adams Co., with the newly invented item. Adams said that the item was “too vulgar” and would never sell. JEM Rubber offered the idea to the Johnson Smith Company which sold it with great success. S.S. Adams Co. later released its own version, but called it the “Razzberry Cushion.”[2]

What a coup! But it looks like you dropped the ball on this one, Canada. Johnson Smith was an American concern.

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I hope you didn’t step on that twig up there, because that’s another problem with Cooper (James Fenimore). According to Mark Twain, a preeminent American humorist:

Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

from “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” which can be found here. In fact Twain says that Cooper breaks 18 of the 19 rules governing romantic fiction.

Here are the 18 rules Cooper breaks:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s 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.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

I don’t know. I feel like breaking some of them myself—the rules, not the twigs—especially #10. But that’s a lot of rules to break, and I don’t see anything about donkeys so I assume Cooper was playing us straight.

Then there’s Cooperstown. Cooper spent his early years in Cooperstown—his family had its own claims to preeminence and went way back—and died there. Cooperstown is also the place given credit for the creation of the game of baseball by Abner Doubleday in 1839, where the Baseball Hall of Fame now stands. But evidence is overwhelmingly clear that Doubleday had no such role in a game that had been played throughout America in one form or another years before. In fact:

. . . the primary testimony to the commission that connected baseball to Doubleday was that of Abner Graves, whose credibility is questionable; a few years later, he shot his wife to death, apparently because of mental illness, and he was committed to an institution for the criminally insane for the rest of his life.[1]

There is clear evidence Cooper at least had knowledge of the game, well before its supposed creation. While it’s not clear he participated in this hoax, such complicity had to be in the zeitgeist of the town and it’s hard not to assume some influence.

This country is built on sand.

Still, Victor Hugo, a preeminent French writer, “pronounced [Cooper] greater than the great master of modern romance, and this verdict was echoed by a multitude of readers, who were satisfied with no title for their favorite less than that of ‘the American Scott’” (also from Wikipedia, though they say a citation is needed). Then again, Hugo was French. The Soviet Union, however, back when they were a soviet union, issued these stamps depicting scenes from Cooper’s novels, and apparently he was widely read there as well:

as he was in other countries around the world. I’m swimming in preeminence and international opinion. I’d better withhold judgment.

Here’s some Cooper in French:

I haven’t read Scott either.

Here’s a list of all the Cooper works I haven’t read:

1. Precaution (1820) – novel

2. The Spy (1821) — novel

3. The Pioneers (1823) – novel

4. Tales for Fifteen (1823) – short stories

5. The Pilot (1823) – novel

6. Lionel Lincoln (1825) – novel

7. The Last of the Mohicans (1826) — novel

8. The Prairie (1827) – novel

9. The Red Rover (1828) – novel

10. Notions of the Americans (1828) – non-fiction

11. The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829) – novel

12. The Water-Witch (1830) – novel

13. The Bravo (1831) – novel

14. The Heidenmauer (1832) – novel

15. No Steamboats (1832) – short story

16. The Headsman (1833) – novel

17. A Letter to His Countrymen (1834) – politics

18. The Monikins (1835) – novel

19. Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland (1836) – travel

20. Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine (1836) – travel

21. Gleanings in Europe: France (1837) – travel

22. Gleanings in Europe: England (1837) – travel

23. Gleanings in Europe: Italy (1838) – travel

24. The American Democrat (1838) – non-fiction

25. The Chronicles of Cooperstown (1838) – history

26. The Eclipse (1838) – autobiographical vignette

27. Homeward Bound (1838) – novel

28. Home as Found (1838) – novel

29. History of the Navy (1839) – history

30. The Pathfinder (1840) – novel

31. Mercedes of Castile (1840) – novel

32. The Deerslayer (1841) – novel

33. The Two Admirals (1842) – novel

34. The Wing-and-Wing (1842) – novel

35. Autobiog/Pocket-Handkerchief (1843) – novelette

36. Wyandotté (1843) – novel

37. Ned Myers (1843) – biography

38. Afloat and Ashore (1844) – novel

39. Miles Wallingford (1844) – novel

40. Satanstoe (1845) – novel

41. The Chainbearer (1845) – novel

42. The Redskins (1846) – novel

43. Lives of Disting. Naval Officers (1846) – biography

44. The Crater (1847) – novel

45. Jack Tier (1848) – novel

46. The Oak Openings (1848) – novel

47. The Sea Lions (1849) – novel

48. The Ways of the Hour (1850) – novel

49. The Lake Gun (1850) – short story

50. Upside Down (1850) – play

51. The Towns of Manhattan (1851) – politics

52. Old Ironsides (1851) – history

Look at all those books! He must have been onto something to keep cranking them out. At the very least, the law of averages gives him at least one hit in all these tries.

The Last of the Mohicans is his best known work (see Wikipedia entry, above), and in the spirit of this tribute I have decided to ring up a paragraph from the novel:

On that day, two men were lingering on the banks of a small but rapid stream, within an hour’s journey of the encampment of Webb, like those who awaited the appearance of an absent person, or the approach of some expected event. The vast canopy of woods spread itself to the margin of the river, overhanging the water, and shadowing its dark current with a deeper hue. The rays of the sun were beginning to grow less fierce, and the intense heat of the day was lessened, as the cooler vapors of the springs and fountains rose above their leafy beds, and rested in the atmosphere. Still that breathing silence, which marks the drowsy sultriness of an American landscape in July, pervaded the secluded spot, interrupted only by the low voices of the men, the occasional and lazy tap of a woodpecker, the discordant cry of some gaudy jay, or a swelling on the ear, from the dull roar of a distant waterfall. These feeble and broken sounds were, however, too familiar to the foresters to draw their attention from the more interesting matter of their dialogue. While one of these loiterers showed the red skin and wild accouterments of a native of the woods, the other exhibited, through the mask of his rude and nearly savage equipments, the brighter, though sun-burned and long-faced complexion of one who might claim descent from a European parentage. The former was seated on the end of a mossy log, in a posture that permitted him to heighten the effect of his earnest language, by the calm but expressive gestures of an Indian engaged in debate. His body, which was nearly naked, presented a terrific emblem of death, drawn in intermingled colors of white and black. His closely-shaved head, on which no other hair than the well-known and chivalrous scalping tuft was preserved, was without ornament of any kind, with the exception of a solitary eagle’s plume, that crossed his crown, and depended over the left shoulder. A tomahawk and scalping knife, of English manufacture, were in his girdle; while a short military rifle, of that sort with which the policy of the whites armed their savage allies, lay carelessly across his bare and sinewy knee. The expanded chest, full formed limbs, and grave countenance of this warrior, would denote that he had reached the vigor of his days, though no symptoms of decay appeared to have yet weakened his manhood.

What a solid block of prose. It just impresses with its heft, its bulk, with what looks to be moral fiber. It is the kind of prose that can keep a country regular. One of these days I will have to read it.

But there may be realism issues again. According to Wikipedia:

Cooper named a principal character Uncas after a well-known Mohegan sachem who had been an ally of the English in 17th-century Connecticut. Cooper seemed to confuse or merge the names of the two tribes – Mohegan and Mohican. Cooper’s well-known book helped confuse popular understanding of the tribes to the present day. After the death of John Uncas in 1842, the last surviving male descendant of Uncas, the Newark Daily Advertiser wrote, “Last of the Mohegans Gone”, lamenting the extinction of the tribe.[2] The writer did not realize the Mohegan people still existed. They continue to survive today and are a federally recognized tribe, based in Connecticut.

Yet what are a few details vis-a-vis the spirit of the thing, its unassailable bulk?

But look at J. T. Merrill’s illustration from the 1896 edition:

Geez. I dunno.

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