Behind the Article: Rediscovering James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Legacy
Join us as Literary Traveler takes a look “Behind the Article” with Victor Walsh, author of our August 17th article, “James Fenimore Cooper: Cooperstown’s Literary Ghost.” We were fascinated by the town’s oft forgotten literary history and were eager to hear more about the writer, whose father gave the town its name.
Literary Traveler: What first piqued your interest in James Fenimore Cooper?
Victor Walsh: Probably seeing the film, The Last of the Mohicans, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye. I thought the cinematography, the acting and sets were superb, although the film does take literary license with the novel’s plot and characters. As Michael Mann, the director acknowledges, the film was based on the 1936 film version starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye.
Cooper is part of a larger theme. He didn’t go West, but others did, venturing beyond the trans-Missouri frontier into a world they could scarcely imagine. What they saw—vast herds of bison and antelope, the great horse tribes, the incredible geological formations, the maddening prairie winds and hailstones big as turkey eggs—had an irrevocable impact on them and our national heritage. The overland experience—its astonishing range of landscapes and numbers of never before-seen animals and the first signs of their decimation—caused some westward-bound ’emigrants’ to question the very notion that the westward advance was a “march of progress.” No other experience in the 19th-century Republic with the exception of the Civil War elicited such an outpouring of letters, journals, diaries, memoirs, and reminiscences—a veritable ‘folk literature.’ It’s a story that I hope someday to write about.
LT: How do you think Cooper’s imagined West compared to the reality of the West? How do you think his writing would have been affected had he personally experienced the frontier?
VW: I think his prose is too elaborate and sentimental; the action too slow—you are forever waiting—and many of the situations too contrived and invented. In an essay entitled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Mark Twain skewered the Leatherstocking tales, dismissing them as “a literary delirium tremens.” He faulted Cooper for 18 literary ‘defects,” among them, “Use the right word, not its second cousin,” and “Employ a simple and straightforward style.”
Cooper’s work has literary merit. He not only gave voice to one of the seminal themes—the ongoing tension and struggle between civilization and wilderness—of 19th-century America, but he was also far ahead of his times in terms of his characters. He was the first major American novelist to include African and African-American characters. In The Last of the Mohicans, Colonel Munro’s eldest daughter, the raven-haired Cora is the daughter of a West Indian mulatto woman, not the typical sentimental European heroine. Cooper certainly used stereotypical and often idealized characters in his portrayal of native peoples and African Americans, but he portrays many of them with positive human qualities.
LT: You talk about Natty Bumppo being a precursor to Huck Finn, as well as Western dime novels. What can you say about Cooper’s impact on such a wide range of works?
VW: The impact of Cooper’s most renowned character, Natty Bumppo, on American literature is not something that I can summarize in a few paragraphs. Cooper, suffice to say, grasped the essential myth of America: the ‘white Indian’ and the allure of the wilderness. It was vanishing before the oncoming pioneers like a mirage. This was Cooper’s basic tragic vision. Natty Bumppo embodies Cooper’s vision of the frontiersman as the preeminent individualist, a “natural aristocrat,” who is better than the society he protects. Poor and isolated, yet pure, he prefigures Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. Cooper’s novels reveal a deep tension between the lone individual and society, nature and culture, spirituality and organized religion.
LT: Does your love of frontier literature and the Western genre extend past Cooper? If so, can you suggest any other authors or texts for further reading?
VW: The westward advance during the 19th-century was fundamentally a story of paradox, as the historian William H. Goetzmann notes. Something precious and irreplaceable—a continental wilderness—would be lost as the Young Republic advanced further westward. Some early westward-bound ‘emigrants,’ the wildlife artist John Audubon, the Indian painter George Catlin, the English adventurer George Ruxton, the trapper Rufus B. Sage, the Mormon leader Brigham Young, and the Austrian nobleman Alexander Maximilian expressed a prophetic regret over what would surely be lost as a result of crossing and settling the Last West.
Primary accounts left by those who saw a vast, unspoiled West before it was forever overrun and changed by California’s great Gold Rush of 1849 are a rich lodestone of literature Among the best are John James Audubon, The Missouri River Journals (1843); Rufus B. Sage, Scenes in the Rocky Mountains (1846); James Henry Carlton, The Prairie Logbooks; George Frederick Ruxton, Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains (1847); Maximilian, Prince of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834 (1843), and George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians (1841).
LT: How do you feel about James Fenimore Cooper, an American legacy himself, sharing his Cooperstown legacy with the Hall of Fame of our National Pastime? Is the town big enough for the both of them?
VW: I don’t really have a problem with that. As mentioned, the family’s physical connection to Cooperstown had disappeared before the town’s transformation as the home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The 600-acre Glimmerglass State Park overlooks the northern end of Lake Otsego. Just up the hill from the parking lot of Hyde Hall, an early 19th-century limestone mansion with no association to Cooper, is a hiking trail that plunges into a dense forest of white birch and hemlocks. It evokes to some degree the setting of the great forest that once surrounded the 18th-century village. Perhaps, something could be done here to commemorate James Fenimore Cooper and his father, Judge William Cooper.
LT: Next time our literary travels take us through Cooperstown, we will be sure to check it out and pay homage to the Cooper family, and I am sure our readers will be tempted to do the same. Thank you!