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 of the American Revolution.
Since our understanding of both Cooper and his novel is greatly enriched by Taylor’s analysis of the relation of Cooper’s work to historical reality, Taylor’s history is in part a work of literary criticism. But only in part. Most of the book is an account of a man, his family, and a community. It is a biography of William Cooper, the founder of Cooperstown in upstate New York in the 1790s. But it is also a meticulously detailed social history of Cooper’s town and state during a period of astonishing change. In 1790 New York was only the fifth largest state in the nation, with three quarters of its population living in the Hudson valley or along the Atlantic coast. By 1820 it had become the most populous state in the country with three quarters of its population now living in the newer counties to the north and west of Albany. Probably more than any other single figure, William Cooper was responsible for this rapid settlement of the New York frontier.
No one in 1754 when Cooper was born could have predicted his spectacular rise. His Quaker parents were poor farmers living in a village on the outskirts of Philadelphia. He had little education, and though he loved to tell stories and play with words, he never learned to write grammatically or spell consistently. With three brothers and four sisters, none of whom ever prospered, and with no possibility of inheriting a decent share in the tiny family farm, Cooper apprenticed himself as a wheelwright and began his career making and repairing carriages. What he had going for him was a commanding presence, a hearty and winning personality, and his eventual marriage in 1774 to Elizabeth Fenimore, the daughter of a well-to-do Quaker family. By the early 1780s, with help from his father-in-law, Cooper set up as a storekeeper in Burlington, New Jersey, the largest urban center in the state. Here he cultivated both Quaker patrons and himself, reading all the books he could get his hands on that would show him the path to gentility.
Taylor rightly makes a great deal of the eighteenth century’s distinction between gentlemen and commoners and of Cooper’s lifelong struggle to become genteel and be accepted as a proper gentleman. The first prerequisite was, of course, sufficient wealth to make one independent of having to work with one’s hands, but it was by no means enough to establish one’s gentility. Manners, bearing, learning, taste, refinement, disinterestedness, restraint, self-control—all were important aspects of a reputation for gentility. It was William Cooper’s fate, rich as he became and try as he might, never to be fully accepted as a proper gentleman. His son James Fenimore always knew this, and this knowledge became the source of the writer’s lifelong long quarrel with an America that was filled with shrewd and aggressive bourgeois strivers like his father.
In the mid-1780s William Cooper and a partner bought up shares in a defunct land company that claimed tens of thousands of acres in the Otsego area in upstate New York. The legal arrangements were immensely complicated, and Cooper hired the best lawyer in New York, Alexander Hamilton, to untangle them. Before other claimants could act, Cooper began selling off the land to settlers and speculators and promoting development of the town he called Cooperstown. Every step of the way he gambled, risked all, and won. By the early 1790s he had become not only the richest man in Otsego County but also the premier land developer in the nation and an international celebrity whose advice on the sale and settlement of frontier land was sought by aspiring speculators from as far away as Holland and France.
His timing was perfect. In the aftermath of the Revolution people were ready to move to better themselves, particularly the Yankees of New England, where a fast-growing population made land more and more scarce and expensive. At the same time the defeat of the British and their Iroquois allies forced the Indians westward and opened up the Otsego country to settlement. And so the Otsego area grew and prospered.
Taylor devotes many pages to describing Cooper’s methods of development and in doing so he gives us a remarkably insightful picture of entrepreneurship in the early Republic. Despite Cooper’s spectacular success, land speculation in the post-Revolutionary era was risky, and many rich and established figures, including Robert Morris, the financier of the Revolution, and Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, overextended themselves in speculative schemes and ended their lives in debtors’ prison or bankruptcy. The secret of Cooper’s success as a developer was to build up a critical mass of settlers as quickly as possible and to promote their enterprise. Unlike other landlords Cooper made available all of his best land at once and sold it at modest prices with long-term credit and as freeholds, not as tenancies, in order to get the settlers to work as hard as they could on land they owned outright. At the same time he realized that he needed to live among his settlers, to patronize and encourage them, and to work to develop saleable products and their access to markets. Cooper’s idea of development was to tap into each settler’s own interest in improving himself and make that self-interest redound to the community’s interest and his own. By “the simple measure of letting things take their own course,” he said, “I find my interest and that of the whole community promoted.”
If Taylor’s complex story has any single theme, it is to emphasize that, in the words of one New York politician in the 1790s, “money is the deity to whom all pay adoration.” People in Taylor’s history seem always willing to sacrifice their scruples for financial gain, whether they hire a minister of a strange denomination because he was cheaper or vote for someone because their palms were greased. Despite all his desires to become a proper gentleman, Cooper himself could not avoid this interest-mongering and moneymaking. He suffered the fate of nearly all would-be aristocrats in America of these years: he could not simply receive his income, as Adam Smith said the English landed aristocracy did, without exertion; he necessarily had to engage openly in commercial and entrepreneurial activities. And insofar as he was successful in scrambling to make money, he was unsuccessful in being thought genteel.
Cooper certainly tried to be a gentleman and sought to display his wealth as aristocratically as he could. He bought a carriage and erected his substantial Manor House in the middle of Cooperstown, stocked it with books, and supplied it with indentured servants and slaves. Yet at every turn he betrayed his lowly origins, his crude manners, and his bourgeois temperament. He had no taste and no refinement. The wooden, unornamented Manor House, as his son James recalled with embarrassment, was “low and straggling.” He had to hire men to walk alongside his pretentious carriage to keep it from jolting on the uneven rocky roads of the county. He never learned to keep a proper gentlemanly distance from the common settlers of his village; he not only jostled and joked with them but engaged in wrestling matches with them. He could not even remain superior to his servants: one of them could write better than he could.
More than anything else Cooper wanted to be a father to his people, which meant that he required political authority commensurate with his social position and wealth. When Otsego became a county in 1791, Coopers-town became the county seat and Cooper became the county’s first judge, a powerful and influential position. In 1794 he was elected to the US Congress; he was narrowly defeated in 1796 but re-elected in 1798. From a distance Cooper appears to have had the county pretty much in his pocket (Jefferson called him “the Bashaw of Otsego”) and to have become in fact the dominant patriarchal figure he yearned to be. Historians have commonly seen him much as Jefferson did, picturing him as an overbearing landlord and political tyrant ruling his county with an iron hand. It is one of the achievements of Taylor’s book to dispel this and other mistaken images of Cooper as a man firmly in control of things. In Taylor’s account Cooper becomes a flawed gentleman desperately hanging on, more confused, more vulnerable, and less powerful than we have usually thought him to be. He was a Federalist in a dynamic democratic world that was rapidly undermining everything the Federalists stood for.
The decade of the 1790s—the decade of Federalist dominance—is the most awkward in American history, a decade seemingly unrelated to what preceded or followed it, a fleeting moment of heroic patriarchal dreams of a classical republican order where only those who were learned, wise, and genteel were in authority. Cooper never fit this Federalist ideal; he never came close to possessing the self-assurance and politeness of someone like John Jay, the Federalist chief justice of the United States and governor of New York. Indeed, as Taylor suggests, he was much closer in origins and manners to the rough enterprising upstarts who supplied many of the leaders and much of the support for the Jefferson Republican party in the North.
The quarrel between the Federalists and the Republicans in the 1790s, in which Cooper was deeply implicated, was no ordinary party conflict. It cut through the country and its society and aroused violent passions up and down the continent; in 1798-1799 it even brought the United States to the verge of civil war. The stakes were nothing less than the future character of the nation. The Federalists sought to build a European type of fiscalmilitary state and to tame the democratic and egalitarian impulses of the Revolution. They described the Revolution as a conservative affair, undertaken not to acquire but to protect liberty. With the adoption of the Constitution, the Revolution was over; the need now, they claimed, was to maintain order, not to expand liberty and popular rights. The Republicans saw everything differently. They described the Revolution as a radical social upheaval that had released the aspirations and energies of common men. It had destroyed the power of the British monarchy in America, but it was not yet finished. The unfulfilled equal rights and liberties of ordinary folk were still restrained by Federalist aristocrats, who were latter-day Loyalists seeking to restore much of the monarchical world the Revolution had presumably destroyed. Throughout the 1790s, as Taylor points out, “the Federalists and Republicans competed to determine the meaning of the American Revolution.”
Because of his desperate desire for patriarchal authority and for acceptance by genteel elites, Cooper cast his lot with the Federalists, and it was his undoing. The democratic future of America lay not with the Federalist aristocracy but with common men like Jedediah Peck, a shrewd, uneducated Connecticut Yankee who taught himself to read by memorizing the Bible. He was one of the early migrants to the Otsego region and a jack-of-alltrades, trying his hand at farming, surveying, carpentry, and millwrighting; after traveling about as an evangelical preacher unaffiliated with any denomination, he finally turned to politics. Although Peck began his political career as an ally of Cooper, he had little of Cooper’s wealth and none of his need for Federalist gentility. Consequently, he eventually became a fiery Republican devoted to the egalitarian and democratic principles he saw in the Revolution.
Peck and other common folk like him lashed out at all those privileged and leisured aristocrats who never had to work for a living. Sick and tired of being humiliated for being unrefined or not having read Montesquieu, Peck turned his deficiencies back on his Federalist critics. He ridiculed booklearning, genteel manners, and aristocratic arrogance and, to the amazement of the Federalist gentry, won popularity with his arguments. Unlike the Federalists who stood for office by writing each other letters and lining up influential gentlemen, Peck and other Republicans campaigned hard for office and used the newspapers to reach out to other common people in order to challenge the Federalist assumption that only well-to-do educated gentlemen were capable of exercising political authority. Like other Federalists, Cooper saw all his aristocratic dreams endangered by Peck’s behavior, and in 1799 he tried to bring about his arrest and indictment for sedition under the Sedition Act recently passed by the Federalist Congress.
With the election of Jefferson to the presidency in 1800 this Federalist world finally fell apart. Even before the election Cooper sensed that his uncouth and overbearing behavior had become such an embarrassing liability to the Federalist cause in Otsego that he needed to withdraw from politics. In the fall of 1799 he resigned as county judge and announced that he would not stand for re-election as US congressman. But the Federalist cause was doomed. The Republicans swept to power in New York, and Jedediah Peck took Cooper’s place as first judge of the county. But that was only the beginning. In 1804 Peck was elected as state senator and a member of New York’s Council of Appointment. This common Republican upstart, who, as one Federalist sputtered, could “scarcely write a line without misspelling a word,” had replaced William Cooper as the most influential man in Otsego County.
In New York, Jefferson’s election was as much of a revolution as he said it was. The New York Republicans, Taylor says, brought about “two momentous transformations: the creation of a political party and the construction of a new democratic political culture.” Where the Federalists had maintained the traditional elitist politics of building alliances among prominent and well-to-do citizens, the Republicans, lacking the private wealth of the Federalist gentry, were compelled to innovate by creating a party of committees and conventions to recruit candidates and mobilize voters. At the same time they changed the standards for public honor and office. They declared that friendship to the people was now the only proper basis of authority in a republic. Nothing else mattered any longer—not wealth, birth, connections, manners, or even education; indeed, these traditional attributes of authority were now seen as actually inimical to popular government. The age-old unity between social authority and political authority was broken, and modern democratic politics was born.
Toward the end of his book Taylor questions this radicalism of the Revolution by stressing that the changes that took place in the early nineteenth century, “contrary to popular myth,” did not lead to an egalitarian redistribution of wealth and power; in fact, wealth in the new Republic became more unequally distributed than it had been in the colonial period. True as this is, it misses the point of what happened as a consequence of the Revolution and misunderstands why people in the early Republic could legitimately believe they were living in a more egalitarian world. Wealth, compared to birth, breeding, family heritage, gentility, even education, is the least mortifying, the least humiliating means by which one person can claim superiority over another; and it is the one most easily matched or overcome by exertion. From this point of view, the popular myth of equality in the early Republic was based on a substantial reality.
William Cooper, however, had built his career on Federalist assumptions of gentility, and they were collapsing all about him. Cooper was unable to repeat elsewhere his initial success in recruiting settlers to Otsego, and in a series of misconceived speculations on the frontier he overextended himself with bonds and mortgages that would never be repaid. His dreams of being a father to his people in a harmonious community dissipated in the rough competitive climate of the early Republic. The settlers of his town grew in numbers and diversity and became strangers to Cooper and to one another. Cooperstown was increasingly racked by law suits, bankruptcies, disobedient servants, vandalism, thefts, and incidents of violence and arson. Cooper himself was caned in a Cooperstown street in 1807. Indeed, political violence became so pervasive that it was easy for his great-grandson later in the nineteenth century to conclude falsely that Cooper had been murdered by a political opponent and thus to mislead several generations of historians and biographers. Although Cooper actually died in 1809 of natural causes, his family nevertheless had a growing dread that anarchy and chaos were all about them.
At the time his political world was disintegrating Cooper had already concluded that the gentility he had so relentlessly sought was beyond his grasp and that he must look to his five sons and two daughters to finish what he had begun. But in 1800 his cherished and graceful eldest daughter Hannah died in a fall from a horse. He sent William, Jr., to Princeton where the boy became a dissipated dandy, spending lavishly on clothes, wines, and cigars before being expelled in 1802 on suspicion of setting a fire that burned Nassau Hall. He next sent James to Yale, where the future novelist ran up debts and behaved as foolishly as his brother had. In 1805 he too was expelled—for fighting and using gunpowder to blow off his opponent’s dormitory door; he then ran off and joined the navy. When Cooper died in 1809, the situation only got worse. The children thought they could continue to live extravagantly and genteelly in accord with their upbringing. But Cooper’s great wealth was more apparent than real, and within fifteen years his entire estate was gone, eaten up by debts, failed speculations, unpaid mortgages, and legal suits.
The family was devastated. Ill-equipped to deal with financial problems, four of the Cooper sons succumbed to some combination of stress and high living during the next decade and one by one died prematurely—all in their thirties. By 1819, a decade after the father’s death, only two children were left—the second daughter, Ann, and James. The family property in Cooperstown was bought up by a new breed of upstart, William Holt Averell, the son of a Cooperstown shoemaker and a shrewd, hard-nosed capitalist who would have nothing to do with wasteful spending on gentility: he trained his sons to be businessmen, not gentlemen, and succeeded where Cooper had failed.
James, as the last surviving son, was responsible for the final liquidation of the Cooper estate. In the early 1820s he remained in New York City, dodging creditors and beginning his career as a writer, strangely detached from the dissolution of the family property. Taylor suggests that James’s passivity in these years came from his relief in escaping at last from the tangle of responsibilities and debts that he had not been trained to handle. Once the property was gone, he was free to establish a new identity. In 1826 he legally added Fenimore as a middle name.
Taylor devotes his final chapter to The Pioneers. In it, Taylor argues, Fenimore Cooper imagined the past of his father and his town as it ought to have been. Despite all Cooper’s vivid and accurate recollections of scenes and incidents from the 1790s, ultimately he distorted and re-created the past in order to reaffirm his self-worth and reclaim what he took to be his rightful legacy. In his novel Judge Temple is the well-meaning but flawed patriarch and gentleman that his father had wanted to be. But the novel ends not with the dissolution of Temple’s property into the hands of a scrambling businessman but with its passing to the long-lost heir of an aristocratic Loyalist family who were its rightful owners. Oliver Effingham, the heir, is the perfect gentleman (and, Taylor claims, the character with whom the novelist identified), and his marriage to Judge Temple’s genteel daughter brings the property and the world together in a just and lasting harmony. “In his imaginary Otsego,” writes Taylor, “James Fenimore Cooper enjoyed a mastery denied to him in the real world.”
Cooper yearned for a stable and genteel America that the Revolution had destroyed and in his novel sought to deny the Revolution’s divisiveness and radicalism. He wanted Americans to believe that wealth and property could become truly civilized and legitimate only when they were inherited rather than developed by competitive hustling and entrepreneurial shrewdness. In Cooper’s imaginary world there was no place for such people as Jedediah Peck and William Averell, no place for unprincipled demagogues and greedy businessmen. So too was there no place in a civilized society for his character Natty Bumppo, the aging hunter who departs at the end of The Pioneers for the wilderness, but who eventually becomes the mythic Leatherstocking in Cooper’s later novels. In 1823, the year The Pioneers was published, Cooper was dreaming of an America of peaceful communities of stable hierarchies governed by genteel aristocrats who naturally commanded the respect and deference of the common people.
It is an extraordinary story that Taylor has told—an American tragedy, involving a man’s family and his entire community—in its poignancy and power even reminding one of the failed “design” of Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen. Taylor has told the story in astonishing and often repetitious detail. His research was so prodigious, creating in many respects a model of historical reconstruction from difficult and disparate sources, that the apparently did not want to leave out any of his hard-earned findings. Probably only specialists will be willing to make their way through his long and detailed discussions of land speculation, maple syrup marketing, and legal disputes. Yet the book is worthy of all the acclaim and prizes it has received. It might even get some people to read The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper.
August 8, 1996
For examples of some recent criticism of Cooper see Robert Clark, editor, James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays (Barnes and Noble, 1985), W.M. Verhoeven, editor, James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993); and Geoffrey Rans, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading (University of North Carolina Press, 1991). ↩