The Would-Be Gentleman

William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic

by Alan Taylor
Knopf, 549 pp., $35.00

Who reads James Fenimore Cooper anymore? The archaic diction, convoluted sentences, stilted dialogue, awkward characterization, and implausible incidents in his novels do not seem to appeal to young people today any more than they did to Mark Twain a century ago. Indeed, it is probably true, as a colleague recently said to me, that more people today read Mark Twain’s spoof of Cooper than read Cooper himself. Twain said there were nineteen rules governing literary art in romantic fiction, and Cooper broke eighteen of them. His humor was pathetic, his pathos was funny, and his use of English was “a crime against the language.”

Literary scholars these days seem no less critical of Cooper’s romantic excesses and historical absurdities. Besides, his works are too much drawn to patriarchalism and elitism, not to mention racism, to find favor among contemporary teachers of literature. Scholars still write about him, of course, but less now as a novelist and more as a historical figure who can tell us something about the society in which he lived. Literary critics, as Alan Taylor points out in his Pulitzer and Bancroft-Prize-winning history of the world of Cooper’s father, today read Fenimore Cooper’s works “as ambivalent dialogues with histor,” and emphasize his distortions of history in order to understand both his personal anxieties and the ideological imperatives of his society in the early nineteenth century.

That certainly is how Taylor, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, has read Cooper’s third novel, The Pioneers (1823), which, as Taylor says, secured Fenimore Cooper’s “reputation as the first great and popular novelist in the United States and the premier literary spokesman for his generation.” In the novel Cooper vividly recreated the New York frontier town of the 1790s that his father William Cooper had founded. He drew many of its characters from his recollections of growing up in Cooperstown, turning his father into the central figure of Judge Marmaduke Temple, the founder, developer, and ruler of the fictional community of Templeton. Cooper pictured Judge Temple, says Taylor, as “a man of good intentions but loose scruples, of expansive vision but flawed manners, of benevolent paternalism but blundering execution.” Cooper’s portrayal of Judge Temple turns out to be an accurate account of the historical William Cooper that Taylor himself has created.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Taylor’s remarkable book is the way he discusses the relation of The Pioneers to the actual history of the world of Cooper’s father. Although the novelist in many important respects re-created the historical reality of his father’s world, he also left out significant parts of that world and imagined a past that never existed. Indeed, in the end he turned his novel into what Taylor calls “the very antithesis” of what actually took place in Cooperstown and in the America of the early Republic. Ultimately Fenimore Cooper imagined a stable and reassuring past that denied the radical meaning …

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