Time of the Red-Man

Mark Ford

  • James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years by Wayne Franklin
    Yale, 708 pp, £25.00, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 10805 7

It was a curious set of circumstances that in 1820 drove James Cooper (the ‘middle surname’ Fenimore would not be added for another six years), the son of one of post-independence America’s wealthiest land speculators, to embark on a career in the dubious and unpredictable world of novel-writing. Almost nothing in Cooper’s life up until that year, in which he turned 31, indicates an interest in fiction, or in the arts. Resolutely unliterary, Cooper ‘disliked writing even a letter’, or so family legend has it. He’d spent his twenties as a midshipman in the navy, though to his chagrin he never saw action, and as a gentleman farmer, first on land bequeathed him by his father on the shores of Lake Otsego in upstate New York; and then on a 42-acre property in Scarsdale that belonged to his wife’s family, who owned much of Westchester County. He had enjoyed dabbling in politics, and had been a leading figure in a movement intended to improve American agricultural practices. In the wake of the crash in land prices of 1819, however, and the consequent unravelling of Judge Cooper’s complex, heavily mortgaged estate, he found himself at the mercy of a slew of ruthless creditors – rather as his heroines in novel after novel find themselves at the mercy of some ruthless tribe of Iroquois or Sioux. Noting the success of Sir Walter Scott, from whose life and writing he learned so much, Cooper found in fiction a means of restoring his family’s fortunes.

His most famous creation was the frontiersman Natty Bumppo, also known as Leatherstocking (on account of his leggings), Hawk-eye (on account of his astonishingly good eyesight), La Longue Carabine (on account of his expertise with his long-barrelled rifle), as well as Pathfinder and Deerslayer. Natty first appears in Cooper’s third novel, The Pioneers, published in 1823. His debut, Precaution (1820), is a tepid comedy of manners set among the English gentry, and his second, The Spy (1821), a stirring tale of daring and intrigue drawn from the annals of the Revolution. When Cooper turned his hand to storytelling, supposedly motivated by disgust with a novel he was dutifully reading aloud to his wife, the American fiction industry was very much in its infancy. ‘In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?’ the British critic Sydney Smith had asked in the Edinburgh Review in January 1820. By this point, only around eighty American novels had been published, and the best known was Charles Brockden Brown’s macabre Edgar Huntley (1799), although Washington Irving’s collection of short stories and vignettes, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., would prove immensely popular the year Smith made his jibe. (Like Cooper after him, Irving had taken up his pen partly in response to financial difficulties.)

We don’t know which novel Cooper put aside in exasperation in the middle of May 1820, exclaiming ‘I could write you a better book than that myself!’, but by November that year the first of his 32 novels was in print, and he was halfway through his second. By the time he died in 1851, Smith’s taunt had been answered not just by Cooper and Irving, but by Poe, Melville, Hawthorne and Emerson, and the following year Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin would outsell everyone, even Dickens in his prime.

Cooper features little in F.O. Matthiessen’s canon-forming account of this golden era in American letters, American Renaissance (1941), despite the crucial role he played in creating the conditions that made possible the startling efflorescence of mid-century American prose, and the prestige he conferred on a country desperate for a national literature commensurate with its wealth and political ideals. ‘I was in no country of Europe,’ Longfellow observed in one of the many letters read out at a memorial for the novelist in 1852, ‘where the name of Cooper was not familiarly known. In some of them he stands as almost the sole representative of our literature.’ Contemporary admirers included Balzac, Goethe and George Sand.

But Cooper also had the misfortune to inspire one of the funniest hatchet-jobs ever written, Mark Twain’s ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences’ (1895), which detects 114 out of a possible 115 offences committed in two-thirds of a page of The Deerslayer (1841), and proves with a wealth of examples – and, it must be said, they’re not hard to find – that Cooper was no realist. Indeed some of his details and plot twists are so implausible that they verge on the surreal: in The Last of the Mohicans (1826), for instance, Natty rescues one of the twice-captured maidens from the grip of an especially savage, cunning and evil Indian by dressing up in a conjurer’s bear costume and imitating the animal’s loping waddle so skilfully that he goes undetected, while Chingachgook fools the warriors of an enemy tribe by donning a furry mask and pretending to be a beaver. ‘Cooper’s eye was splendidly inaccurate,’ Twain wrote. ‘He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly.’ Twain particularly relished Natty’s impossibly accurate marksmanship, which allowed him to shoot, from a distance of a hundred yards, a bullet exactly into the hole made in a tree by a previous bullet ‘without fraying the edges’. The aim of Cooper’s evil Indians is, fortunately, rarely as deadly: when one of his heroes, Duncan Heyward, comes under attack from a band of whooping Hurons, who pour fire at him until his clothes have been ‘repeatedly cut’ by their bullets, he escapes with only a slight wound in his arm.

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