Critical Essays Cooper's Literary America


In the Edinburgh Review for January 1820, Sydney Smith, the British denouncer of everything American, wrote disdainfully: "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" At the time, he was in general right, but by 1826, when The Last of the Mohicans was published, an honest appraisal would have been very different indeed. And no writer from the Americas was more responsible for the change than James Fenimore Cooper, whose novels were becoming about as widely read as were those of Sir Walter Scott, who has been credited as an influence on Cooper and with whom Cooper has often been compared. In order to extend a deserved appreciation to The Last of the Mohicans, the student will want to keep in mind two broad aspects of Cooper's unique situation as an American author: his status as a literary founding father and his native subject matter.

Cooper has rightly been called the first American novelist. Not that he wrote the first novel in the United States: that was William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy (1789). Neither was he the first to concentrate on the form of the novel, for in a remarkably short and productive period (1798-1801) Charles Brockden Brown had earlier turned out half a dozen full novels. But Cooper is properly heir to the title because he was the first American to make a life-long and successful career of writing novels and because his settings were mostly those of the New World, encompassing its social, political, and pioneer characteristics. Far more than any other writer up to his time, he fictionally presented the new nation and its background to the whole world, sometimes idealizing and sometimes criticizing.

As a dedicated writer without anything like a native literary tradition, Cooper was as handicapped as any of his American predecessors. Consequently, he relied on tradition from abroad and developed some of his own from the setting and folk tradition of his native land. The former tradition can be seen, for instance, in sentimental treatment such as the overstated, coquettish, and stiltedly articulated love between Major Heyward and Alice Munro. But Cooper's sentimentalism is never as thoroughly developed or as strictly committed as that, say, of Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette (1797), which apes Richardson's classic Pamela right down to its form, a series of letters. It is a surprising paradox when one realizes that The Coquette is based on actual events in Connecticut, with the fiction only a thin veneer; but the story as presented, far from relying on its setting, could easily be shifted to another country like England. Such is not true of Cooper's work. The quality of events in The Last of the Mohicans is as indigenous as Hawkeye's cap of skins and his buckskin leggings, which made the scout known the world over as Leather-Stocking. The love between Heyward and Alice, sentimental though it is, could not have progressed in its precise way except on the American frontier and amid the events peculiar to the frontier condition. Cooper is fusing an established literary tradition with something of his own as a member of a new, green, and hitherto non-literary nation. In the fusing, that which is new becomes primary, as can be seen in the conclusion of the novel where the perfunctory pairing off and disposing of sentimental lovers is almost lost from sight in such overriding concerns as the dignity, ritual, and tragic passing of the Indians. The bringing together of the foreign and the native (witness Hawkeye's "ability" at times to use rather literary language and at other times to talk in the strict vernacular) is sometimes an uneasy amalgam, but the good reader will be careful not to take Cooper too much to task. The alchemy of innovation often means that some fool's gold will crop up with the real metal, and it would be as unfair to criticize the Wright brothers for being unable to fly a jet airliner as it is to insist upon Cooper's writing like a modern American novelist.

For one thing, Cooper never meant to be writing realism. In the 1850 preface to the collected Leather-Stocking novels, he quite sensibly answered his critics thus:

It is the privilege of all writers of fiction, more particularly when their works aspire to the elevation of romances, to present the beau-ideal of their characters to the reader. This it is which constitutes poetry, and to suppose that the red-man is to be represented only in the squalid misery or in the degraded moral state that certainly more or less belongs to his condition, is, we apprehend, taking a very narrow view of an author's privileges. Such criticism would have deprived the world of even Homer.

The term beau-ideal is a key one. Cooper is true to the spirit of the American frontier, but he is writing romance as distinguished from realism and naturalism. For his characters, even those rounded and relatively three-dimensional ones like Hawkeye and Magua, he abstracts in order to make them recognizable and representative. When we note that a Cooper Indian, for instance, is usually all good or all bad, it may be well to remember that Milton's Satan, though at times admirable, is all evil, his Christ all good. Both writers abstracted certain qualities in order to present a worldview that was also a belief strongly tinted with tragic sadness. Cooper, who seldom did any rewriting, was far from the careful craftsman that Milton was; nonetheless, Cooper too, though working on a national rather than a cosmic scale, wrote of the sin of Man and a consequent vanishing way of life and of an ideal human messiah image that could point the way to rectifying a bad situation. Cooper's was a lesser achievement than Milton's, but both men worked with what, from any broad consideration, must be called romance.

Cooper, then, should be appreciated as a writer blazing new ground, an entertainer unable to divest himself of certain stock traditions like sentimentalism which had proved its ability to hold a reader, an artist slowly and with reasonable success experimenting his way into a new, native, and to-be-established tradition. He did this by abstracting from frontier rifle lore, from the Indian lore personally seen or found in the factual writings of the Reverend John Heckewelder and others, and, along with his own observations, from the history and the oral or written folklore about frontiersmen like Daniel Boone. What he did achieve is worthy of understanding and appreciation. Only that way can a reader realize how quickly Sydney Smith was proved wrong. Only that way can one properly withhold or offer applause.

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