[Transcriber's note: Obvious printer's errors have been corrected. The original spelling has been retained.]
AMERICAN MEN OF LETTERS.
CHARLES DUDLEY WARNER.
AMERICAN MEN OF LETTERS.
JAMES FENIMORE COOPER.
THOMAS R. LOUNSBURY, Professor Of English In The Sheffield Scientific School, Yale College.
BOSTON: HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY. New York: 11 East Seventeenth Street. The Riverside Press, Cambridge. 1884.
Copyright, 1882, By THOMAS R. LOUNSBURY
All rights reserved.
The Riverside Press, Cambridge: Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Co.
When Cooper lay on his death-bed he enjoined his family to permit no authorized account of his life to be prepared. A wish even, that was uttered at such a time, would have had the weight of a command; and from that day to this pious affection has carried out in the spirit as well as to the letter the desire of the dying man. No biography of Cooper has, in consequence, ever appeared. Nor is it unjust to say that the sketches of his career, which are found either in magazines or cyclopaedias, are not only unsatisfactory on account of their incompleteness, but are all in greater or less degree untrustworthy in their details.
It is a necessary result of this dying injunction that the direct and authoritative sources of information contained in family papers are closed to the biographer. Still it is believed that no facts of importance in the record of an eventful and extraordinary career have been omitted or have even been passed over slightingly. A large part of the matter contained in this volume has never been given to the public in any form: and for that reason among others no pains have been spared to make this narrative absolutely accurate, so far as it goes. Correction of any errors, if such are found, will be gratefully welcomed.
JAMES FENIMORE COOPER. (p. 001)
In one of the interior counties of New York, less than one hundred and fifty miles in a direct line from the commercial capital of the Union, lies the village of Cooperstown. The place is not and probably never will be an important one; but in its situation and surroundings nature has given it much that wealth cannot furnish or art create. It stands on the southeastern shore of Otsego Lake, just at the point where the Susquehanna pours out from it on its long journey to the Chesapeake. The river runs here in a rapid current through a narrow valley, shut in by parallel ranges of lofty hills. The lake, not more than nine miles in length, is twelve hundred feet above tide-water. Low and wooded points of land and sweeping bays give to its shores the attraction of continuous diversity. About it, on every side, stand hills, which slope gradually or rise sharply to heights varying from two to five hundred feet. Lake, forest, and stream unite to form a scene of quiet but picturesque beauty, that hardly needs the additional charm of romantic association which has been imparted to it.
Though it was here that the days of Cooper's childhood were (p. 002) passed, it was not here that he was born. When that event took place the village had hardly even an existence on paper. Cooper's father, a resident of Burlington, New Jersey, had come, shortly after the close of the Revolutionary War, into the possession of vast tracts of land, embracing many thousands of acres, along the head-waters of the Susquehanna. In 1786 he began the settlement of the spot, and in 1788 laid out the plot of the village which bears his name, and built for himself a dwelling-house. On the 10th of November, 1790, his whole family—consisting, with the servants, of fifteen persons—reached the place. The future novelist was then a little less than thirteen months old, for he had been born at Burlington on the 15th of September of the year before. His father had determined to make the new settlement his permanent home. He accordingly began in 1796, and in 1799 completed, the erection of a mansion which bore the name of Otsego Hall. It was then and remained for a long time afterward the largest private residence in that portion of the State. When in 1834 it came into the hands of the son, it still continued to be the principal dwelling in the flourishing village that had grown up about it.
On his father's side Cooper was of Quaker descent. The original emigrant ancestor had come over in 1679, and had made extensive purchases of land in the province of New Jersey. In that colony or in Pennsylvania his descendants for a long time remained. Cooper himself was the first one, of the direct line certainly, that ever even revisited the mother-country. These facts are of slight importance in themselves. In the general disbelief, however, which fifty years ago prevailed in Great Britain, that anything good could come out of (p. 003) this western Nazareth. Cooper was immediately furnished with an English nativity as soon as he had won reputation. The same process that gave to Irving a birthplace in Devonshire, furnished one also to him in the Isle of Man. When this fiction was exploded, the fact of emigration was pushed merely a little further back. It was transferred to the father, who was represented as having gone from Buckinghamshire to America. This latter assertion is still to be found in authorities that are generally trustworthy. But the original one served a useful purpose during its day. This assumed birthplace in the Isle of Man enabled the English journalists that were offended with Cooper's strictures upon their country to speak of him, as at one time they often did, as an English renegade.
His mother's maiden name was Elizabeth Fenimore, and the family to which she belonged was of Swedish descent. Cooper himself was the eleventh of twelve children. Most of his brothers and sisters died long before him, five of them in infancy. His own name was at first simply James Cooper, and in this way he wrote it until 1826. But in April of that year the Legislature of New York passed an act changing the family name to Fenimore-Cooper. This was done in accordance with the wish of his grandmother, whose descendants in the direct male line had died out. But he seldom employed the hyphen in writing, and finally gave up the use of it altogether.
The early childhood of Cooper was mainly passed in the wilderness at the very time when the first wave of civilization was beginning to break against its hills. There was everything in what he saw and heard to impress the mind of the growing boy. He was on the border, if (p. 004) indeed he could not justly be said to be in the midst of mighty and seemingly interminable woods which stretched for hundreds of miles to the westward. Isolated clearings alone broke this vast expanse of foliage, which, covering the valleys and clinging to the sides and crowning the summits of the hills, seemed to rise and fall like the waves of the sea. The settler's axe had as yet scarcely dispelled the perpetual twilight of the primeval forest. The little lake lay enclosed in a border of gigantic trees. Over its waters hung the interlacing branches of mighty oaks and beeches and pines. Its surface was frequented by flocks of wild, aquatic birds,—the duck, the gull, and the loon. In this lofty valley among the hills were also to be found, then as now, in fullest perfection, the clear atmosphere, the cloudless skies, and the brilliant light of midsummer suns, that characterize everywhere the American highlands. More even than the beauty and majesty of nature that lay open to the sight was the mystery that constantly appealed to the imagination in what might lie hidden in the depths of a wilderness that swept far beyond glance of eye or reach of foot. This, indeed, may have affected the feelings of only a few, but there were numerous interests and anxieties which all had in common. The little village had early gone through many of the trials which mark the history of most of the settlements in regions to which few travelers found their way and commerce seldom came. Remote from sources of supply, and difficult of access, it had known the time when its population, scanty as it was, suffered from the scarcity of food. Sullivan's successful expedition against the Six Nations did not suffice to keep it from the alarm of savage attack that never came. The immense forest shutting in the hamlet on every side had (p. 005) terrors to some as real as were its attractions to others. Its recesses were still the refuge of the deer; but they were also the haunt of the wildcat, the wolf, and the bear. All these characteristics of his early home made deep impression upon a nature fond of adventure, and keenly susceptible to the charm of scenery. When afterward in the first flush of his fame Cooper set out to revive the memory of the days of the pioneers, he said that he might have chosen for his subject happier periods, more interesting events, and possibly more beauteous scenes, but he could not have taken any that would lie so close to his heart. The man, indeed, never forgot what had been dear to the boy; and to the spot where his earliest years were spent he returned to pass the latter part of his life.
The original settlement, moreover, was composed of a more than usually singular mixture of the motley crowd that always throngs to the American frontier. The shock of convulsions in lands far distant reached even to the highland valley shut in by the Otsego hills. Representatives of almost every nationality in Christendom and believers in almost every creed, found in it an asylum or a home. Into this secluded haven drifted men whose lives had been wrecked in the political storms that were then shaking Europe. Frenchmen, Dutchmen, Germans, and Poles, came and tarried for a longer or shorter time. Here Talleyrand, then an exile, spent several days with Cooper's father, and, true to national instinct, wrote, according to local tradition, complimentary verses, still preserved, on Cooper's sister. An ex-captain of the British army was one of the original merchants of the place. An ex-governor of Martinique was for a time the village (p. 006) grocer. But the prevailing element in the population were the men of New England, born levelers of the forest, the greatest wielders of the axe the world has ever known. Over the somewhat wild and turbulent democracy, made up of materials so diverse, the original proprietor reigned a sort of feudal lord, rather by moral qualities than by any conceded right.
Cooper's early instruction was received in the village school, carried on in a building erected in 1795, and rejoicing in the somewhat pretentious name of the Academy. The country at that time, however, furnished few facilities for higher education anywhere; on the frontier there were necessarily none. Accordingly Cooper was early sent to Albany. There he entered the family of the rector of St. Peter's Church, and became, with three or four other boys, one of his private pupils. This gentleman, the son of an English clergyman, and himself a graduate of an English university, had made his ways to these western wilds with a fair amount of classical learning, with thorough methods of study, and as it afterwards turned out, Cooper tells us, with another man's wife. This did not, however, prevent him from insisting upon the immense superiority of the mother-country in morals as well as manners. A man of ability and marked character, he clearly exerted over the impressionable mind of his pupil a greater influence than the latter ever realized. He was in many respects, indeed, a typical Englishman of the educated class of that time. He had the profoundest contempt for republics and republican institutions. The American Revolution he looked upon as only a little less monstrous than the French, which was the sum of all iniquities. Connection with any other church than his own was to be shunned, not at all (p. 007) because it was unchristian, but because it was ungentlemanly and low. But whatever his opinions and prejudices were, in the almost absolute dearth then existing in this country of even respectable scholarship, the opportunity to be under his instruction was a singular advantage. Unfortunately it did not continue as long as it was desirable. In 1802 he died. It had been the intention to fit Cooper to enter the junior class of Yale College; that project had now to be abandoned. Accordingly he became, at the beginning of the second term of its freshman year, a member of the class which was graduated in 1806. He was then but a mere boy of thirteen, and with the exception of the poet Hillhouse, two weeks his junior, was the youngest student in the college.
Cooper himself informs us that he played all his first year, and implies that he did little study during those which followed. To a certain extent the comparative excellence of his preparation turned out a disadvantage; the rigid training he had received enabled him to accomplish without effort what his fellow-students found difficult. Scholarship was at so low an ebb that the ability to scan Latin was looked upon as a high accomplishment; and he himself asserts that the class to which he belonged was the first in Yale College that had ever tried it. This may be questioned; but we need not feel any distrust of his declaration, that little learning of any kind found its way into his head. Least of all will he be inclined to doubt it whom extended experience in the class-room has taught to view with profoundest respect the infinite capability of the human mind to resist the introduction of knowledge.
Far better than study, Cooper liked to take solitary walks about (p. 008) the wooded hills surrounding New Haven, and the shores of the bay upon which it lies. These nursed the fondness for outdoor life and scenery which his early associations had inspired. In these communings with nature, he was unconsciously storing his mind with impressions and images, in the representation and delineation of which he was afterward to attain surpassing excellence. But the study of scenery, however desirable in itself, cannot easily be included in a college curriculum. No proficiency in it can well compensate for failure in studies of perhaps less intrinsic importance. The neglect of these latter had no tendency to recommend him to the regard of those in authority. Positive faults were in course of time added to negative. A frolic in which he was engaged during his third year was attended by consequences more serious than disfavor. It led to his dismissal. The father took the boy's side, and the usual struggle followed between the parents and those who, according to a pretty well worn-out educational theory, stand to the student in place of parents. In this particular case the latter triumphed, and Cooper left Yale. In spite of his dismissal he retained pleasant recollections of some of his old instructors; and with one of them, Professor Silliman, he kept up in later years friendly personal relations and occasional correspondence.
It had been a misfortune for the future author to lose the severe if somewhat wooden drill of his preparatory instructor. It was an additional misfortune to lose the education, scanty and defective as it then was, which was imparted by the college. It might not and probably would not have contributed anything to Cooper's intellectual development in the way of accuracy of thought or of statement. It (p. 009) would not in all probability have added materially to his stock of knowledge. But with all its inefficiency and inadequacy, it would very certainly have had the effect of teaching him to aim far more than he did at perfection of form. He possibly gained more than he lost by being transferred at so early an age to other scenes. But the lack of certain qualities in his writings, which educated men are perhaps the only ones to notice, can be traced pretty directly to this lack of preliminary intellectual drill.
His academical career having been thus suddenly cut short, he entered in a little while upon one better suited to his adventurous nature. Boys are sent to sea, he tells us in one of his later novels, for the cure of their ethical ailings. This renovating influence of ocean life he had at any rate a speedy opportunity to try. It was decided that he should enter the navy. The position of his father, who had been for several years a representative in Congress, and was a leading member of the Federalist party, naturally held out assurances that the son would receive all the advancement to which he would be legitimately entitled. At that time no naval school existed. It was the custom, in consequence, for boys purposing to fit themselves for the position of officers to serve a sort of apprenticeship in the merchant marine. Accordingly in the autumn of 1806, Cooper was placed on board a vessel that was to sail from the port of New York with a freight of flour to Cowes and a market. The ship was named the Sterling, and was commanded by Captain John Johnston, of Wiscasset, Maine, who was also part owner. Cooper's position and prospects were well known; but he was employed regularly before the mast and was never admitted to the cabin. The (p. 010) vessel cleared from the port of New York on the 16th of October. The passage was a long and stormy one; forty days went by before land was seen after it had once been left behind. The ship reached the other side just at the time when the British Channel was alive with vessels of war in consequence of one of the periodical anticipations of invasions from France. It went to London, and stayed for some time there discharging its cargo and taking in new. Cooper embraced the opportunity to see all the sights he could of the great metropolis. "He had a rum time of it in his sailor rig," said afterward one of his shipmates, "but hoisted in a wonderful deal of gibberish, according to his own account of the cruise."
The Sterling sailed with freight in January, 1807, for the Straits of Gibraltar. It took on board a cargo of barilla at Aguilas and Almeria, and returned to England, reaching the Thames in May. Both going and coming the voyage was a stormy one, and during it several of the incidents occurred that Cooper worked up afterward into powerful passages in his sea novels. In London the vessel lay several weeks, discharging its cargo and taking in more, which this time consisted of dry goods. Towards the end of July, it left London for America, and reached Philadelphia on the 18th of September, after another long and stormy passage of fifty-two days.
This was Cooper's introduction to sea life. During the year he had spent in the merchant vessel he had seen a good deal of hard service. His preparatory studies having been completed after a fashion, he now regularly entered the navy. His commission as midshipman bears (p. 011) date the 1st of January, 1808. On the 24th of the following February he was ordered to report to the commanding naval officer at New York. But the records of the government give little information as to the duties to which he was assigned during the years he remained in its service. The knowledge we have of his movements comes mainly from what he himself incidentally discloses in published works or letters of a later period. The facts we learn from all sources together, are but few. He served for a while on board the Vesuvius in 1808. During that year it seemed as if the United States and Great Britain were about to drift into war. Preparations of various kinds were made; and one of the things ordered was the dispatch to Lake Ontario of a party, of which Cooper was one, under the command of Lieutenant Woolsey. The intention was to build a brig of sixteen guns to command that inland water; and the port of Oswego, then a mere hamlet of some twenty houses, was the place selected for its construction. Around it lay a wilderness, thirty or forty miles in depth. Here the party spent the following winter, and during it the Oneida, as the brig was called, was finished. Early in the spring of 1809 it was launched. By that time, however, the war-cloud had blown over, and the vessel was not then used for the purpose for which it had been constructed. More permanent results, however, were accomplished than the building of a ship. The knowledge and experience which Cooper then gained was something beyond and above what belonged to his profession. It is to his residence on the shores of that inland sea that we owe the vivid picture drawn of Lake Ontario in "The Pathfinder" and of the wilderness which then surrounded it on every side.
After the completion of the Oneida, Cooper accompanied Lieutenant (p. 012) Woolsey on a visit to Niagara Falls. The navy records show that on the 10th of June, 1809, he was left by his commander in charge of the gunboats on Lake Champlain. They further reveal the fact that on the 27th of September of this same year he was granted a furlough to make a European voyage. This project for some reason was given up, as on the 13th of November, 1809, he was ordered to the Wasp, then under the command of Lawrence, who afterwards fell in the engagement between the Shannon and the Chesapeake. To this officer, like himself a native of Burlington, he was very warmly attached. The next notice of him contained in the official records is to the effect that on the 9th of May, 1810, permission was granted him to go on furlough for twelve months. Whether he availed himself of it is not known. An event soon occurred, however, that put an end to his naval career as effectively as one had previously been put to his collegiate. An attachment had sprung up some time before between him and a Miss DeLancey. On the 1st of January, 1811, the couple were married at Mamaroneck, Westchester County, New York. Cooper was then a little more than twenty-one years old; the bride lacked very little of being nineteen.
His wife belonged to a Huguenot family, which towards the end of the seventeenth century had fled from France, and had finally settled in Westchester. During the Revolutionary War the DeLanceys had taken the side of the crown against the colonies. Several of them held positions in the British army. John Peter DeLancey, whose daughter Cooper had married, had been himself a captain in that service. After the recognition of American independence he went to England, but, (p. 013) having resigned his commission, returned in 1789 to this country, and spent the remainder of his life at his home in Mamaroneck. The fact that his kinsmen by marriage had belonged to the defeated party in the Revolutionary struggle led Cooper in his writings to treat the Tories, as they were called, with a fairness and generosity which in that day few were disposed to show, at least in print. This tenderness is plainly to be seen in "The Spy," written at the beginning of his career; it is still more marked in "Wyandotte," produced in the latter part of it, when circumstances had made him profoundly dissatisfied with much that he saw about him. One of the last, though least heated, of the many controversies in which he was engaged was in regard to the conduct on a particular occasion of General Oliver DeLancey, a cousin of his wife's father. This officer was charged unjustly, as Cooper believed, with the brutal treatment of the American General Woodhull, who had fallen into his hands. The discussion in regard to this point was carried on in the "New York Home Journal" in the early part of 1848.
It seldom falls to the lot of the biographer to record a home life more serene and happy than that which fell to the share of the man whose literary life is the stormiest to be found in the history of American men of letters. Cooper, like many persons of fiery temperament and strong will, was very easily managed through his affections. In theory he maintained the headship of man in the household in the extremest form. He gives in several of his works no uncertain indication of his views on that point. This only serves to make more conspicuous the fact, which forces itself repeatedly upon the attention, that his movements were largely, if not mainly, (p. 014) by his wife. This becomes noticeable at the very beginning of their union. She was unwilling to undergo the long and frequent separations from her husband that the profession of a naval officer would demand. Accordingly, he abandoned the idea of continuing in it. The acceptance of his resignation bears date the 6th of May, 1811. He had then been regularly in the service a little less than three years and a half.
After quitting the navy Cooper led for a long time a somewhat unsettled life. For about a year and a half he resided at Heathcote Hall, Mamaroneck, the residence of his wife's father. He then rented a small cottage in the neighborhood, and in this remained about a year. His early home, however, was the spot to which his heart turned. To Cooperstown, in consequence, he went back in 1814, taking up his residence at a place outside the village limits, called Fenimore. He purposed to devote his attention to agriculture, and accordingly began at this spot the building of a large stone farm house. While it was in process of construction his wife, anxious to be near her own family, persuaded him to go back to Westchester. Thither in 1817 he went, leaving his dwelling at Fenimore unfinished, and in 1823 it was completely destroyed by fire. In Westchester, a few months after his return, he took up his residence, in the town of Scarsdale, on what was called the Angevine farm, from the name of a French family that had occupied it for several generations. The site of his dwelling was a commanding one, and gave from the south front an extensive view of the country about it and of Long Island Sound. It remained his home until the literary profession, upon which he unexpectedly entered, (p. 015) forced him to leave it for New York city.
Great changes had occurred during these years, or were occurring, in his personal surroundings. His father had died in 1809, and his mother in 1817. Before 1820 five daughters had been born to him. The first of these did not live to the age of two years; but the others all reached maturity. The second, Susan Augusta, herself an authoress, became in his later years his secretary and amanuensis, and would naturally have written his life, had not his unfortunate dying injunction stood in the way. A son, Fenimore, born at Angevine, in 1821, died early, and his youngest child, Paul, now a lawyer at Albany, was not born until after his removal to New York city. Surrounded by his growing family, he led for the two or three years following 1817 a life that gave no indication of what was to be his career. His thoughts were principally directed to improving the little estate that had come into his possession. He planted trees, he built fences, he drained swamps, he planned a lawn. The one thing which he did not do was to write.
CHAPTER II. (p. 016)
Cooper had now reached the age of thirty. Up to this time he had written nothing, nor had he prepared or collected any material for future use. No thought of taking up authorship as a profession had entered his mind. Even the physical labor involved in the mere act of writing was itself distasteful. Unexpectedly, however, he now began a course of literary production that was to continue without abatement during the little more than thirty years which constituted the remainder of his life.
Seldom has a first work been due more entirely to accident than that which he composed at the outset of his career. In his home at Angevine he was one day reading to his wife a novel descriptive of English society. It did not please him, and he suddenly laid down the book and said, "I believe I could write a better story myself." Challenged to make good his boast, he sat down to perform the task, and wrote out a few pages of the tale he had formed in his mind. The encouragement of his wife determined him to go on and complete it, and when completed the advice of friends decided him to publish it. Accordingly, on the 10th of November, 1820, a novel in two volumes, entitled "Precaution," made its appearance in New York. In this purely haphazard way did the most prolific of American authors begin his literary life.
The work was brought out in a bad shape, and its typographical (p. 017) defects were unconsciously exaggerated by Cooper in a revised edition of it, which was published after his return from Europe. In the preface to the latter he said that no novel of modern times had ever been worse printed than was this story as it originally appeared. The manuscript, he admitted, was bad; but the proof-reading could only be described as execrable. Periods turned up in the middle of sentences, while the places where they should have been knew them not. Passages, in consequence, were rendered obscure, and even entire paragraphs became unintelligible. A careful reading of the edition of 1820 will show something to suggest, but little to justify, these sweeping assertions. But the work has never been much read even by the admirers of the author; and it is a curious illustration of this fact, that the personal friend, who delivered the funeral discourse upon his life and writings, avoided the discussion of it with such care that he was betrayed into exposing the lack of interest he sought to hide. Bryant confessed he had not read "Precaution." He had merely dipped into the first edition of it, and had been puzzled and repelled by the profusion of commas and other pauses. The non-committalism of cautious criticism could hardly hope to go farther. Punctuation has had its terrors and its triumphs; but this victory over the editor of a daily newspaper must be deemed its proudest recorded achievement. The poet went on to say that to a casual inspection the revised edition, which Cooper afterward brought out, seemed almost another work. The inspection which could come to such a conclusion must have been of that exceedingly casual kind which contents itself with contemplating the outside of a book, and disdains to open it. As a matter of (p. 018) fact the changes made hardly extended beyond the correction of some points of punctuation and of some grammatical forms; it was in a few instances only that the construction of the sentences underwent transformation. Not an incident was altered, not a sentiment modified.
Such ignorance on the part of a contemporary and personal friend, if it proves nothing else, shows certainly the little hold this novel has had upon the public taste. Nevertheless, the first work of any well-known author must always have a certain interest belonging to it, entirely independent of any value the work may have in itself. In this case, moreover, the character of the tale and the circumstances attending its production are of no slight importance, when taken in connection with the literary history of the times. It was accident that led to the selection of the subject; but as things then were, Cooper was not unlikely, in any event, to have chosen it or one very similar. The intellectual dependence of America upon England at that period is something that it is now hard to understand. Political supremacy had been cast off, but the supremacy of opinion remained absolutely unshaken. Of creative literature there was then very little of any value produced: and to that little a foreign stamp was necessary, to give currency outside of the petty circle in which it originated. There was slight encouragement for the author to write; there was still less for the publisher to print. It was indeed a positive injury ordinarily to the commercial credit of a bookseller to bring out a volume of poetry or of prose fiction which had been written by an American; for it was almost certain to fail to pay expenses. A sort of critical literature was struggling, or rather (p. 019) gasping, for a life that was hardly worth living; for its most marked characteristic was its servile deference to English judgment and dread of English censure. It requires a painful and penitential examination of the reviews of the period to comprehend the utter abasement of mind with which the men of that day accepted the foreign estimate upon works written here, which had been read by themselves, but which it was clear had not been read by the critics whose opinions they echoed. Even the meekness with which they submitted to the most depreciatory estimate of themselves was outdone by the anxiety with which they hurried to assure the world that they, the most cultivated of the American race, did not presume to have so high an opinion of the writings of some one of their countrymen as had been expressed by enthusiasts, whose patriotism had proved too much for their discernment. Never was any class so eager to free itself from charges that imputed to it the presumption of holding independent views of its own. Out of the intellectual character of many of those who at that day pretended to be the representatives of the highest education in this country, it almost seemed that the element of manliness had been wholly eliminated; and that along with its sturdy democracy, whom no obstacles thwarted and no dangers daunted, the New World was also to give birth to a race of literary cowards and parasites. With such a state of feeling prevalent, a work of fiction that concerned America might seem to have small chance of success with Americans themselves. It would not, therefore, have been strange, under any circumstances, that in beginning his career as an author Cooper should have chosen to write a tale of English social life. The fact that he knew (p. 020) personally nothing about what he was describing was in itself no insuperable objection. That ignorance was then and has since been shared by many novelists on both sides of the water, who have treated of the same subject. Relying upon English precedent, he might in fact feel that he was peculiarly fitted for the task. He had cruised a few times up and down the British channel, he had caught limited views of British manners and customs by walking on several occasions the length of Fleet Street and the Strand. Knowledge of America equivalent to this would then have been regarded in England as an ample equipment for an accurate treatise upon the social life of this country, and even upon its existing political condition and probable future.
But much more than the choice of a foreign subject did the pretense of foreign authorship prove the servility of feeling prevailing at that time among the educated classes. This was in the first place, to be sure, the result of the freak that led Cooper originally to begin writing a novel; but it was a freak that would never have been carried out, after publication had been decided upon, had he not been fully aware of the fact that the least recommendation of a book to his countrymen would be the knowledge that it was composed by one of themselves. "Precaution" was not merely a tale of English social life, it purported to be written by an Englishman; and it was so thoroughly conformed to its imaginary model that it not only reechoed the cant of English expression, but likewise the expression of English cant. To talk about dissenters and the establishment was natural and proper enough in a work written ostensibly by the citizen of a country in which there was a state church. But Cooper went much farther than (p. 021) this in the reflections and moral observations which are scattered up and down the pages of this novel. These represent fairly views widely held at the time in America, and may not impossibly express the personal opinions he himself then entertained. He speaks in one place, in his assumed character of an Englishman, of the solidity and purity of our ethics as giving a superior tone to our moral feelings as contrasted with the French. He goes out of his way to compliment George III. One of the personages in the novel was tempted to admit something to his credit that he did not deserve. The love of truth, however, finally prevailed. But it was not because the man himself had any innate love of truth, but because "he had been too much round the person of our beloved monarch not to retain all the impressions of his youth." Passages such as these are remarkable when we consider the sentiments in regard to England that Cooper subsequently came to express. If they do not show with certainty his opinions at that time, they do show the school in which he had been brought up: they mark clearly the extent and violence of the reaction which in after years carried him to the opposite extreme.
In its plan and development "Precaution" was a compromise between the purely fashionable novel and that collection of moral disquisitions of which Hannah More's Coelebs was the great exemplar, and still remained the most popular representative. As in most tales of high life, nobody of low condition plays a prominent part in the story, save for the purpose of setting off the dukes, earls, baronets, generals, and colonels that throng its pages. A novelist in his first production never limits his creative activity in any respect; and Cooper, (p. 022) moreover, knew the public well enough to be aware that a fictitious narrative which aimed to describe aristocratic society might perhaps succeed without much literary merit, but would be certain to fail without an abundance of lords. The leading characters, however, whether of higher or lower degree, are planned upon the moral model. They either preach or furnish awful examples. It would certainly be most unfair to an author to judge him, as in this case, by a work which he had begun without any view to publication, and which he afterward learned to think and to speak of slightingly. Still, though, compared with many of his writings, "Precaution" is a novel of little worth, it is, in some respects, a better guide to the knowledge of the man than his better productions. The latter give evidence of his powers; in this are shown certain limitations of his nature and beliefs. Peculiarities, both of thought and feeling, which in his other writings are merely suggested, are here clearly revealed. Some of them will appear strange to those whose conception of his character is derived from facts connected with his later life, or whose acquaintance with his works is limited to those most celebrated.
Cooper was, by nature, a man of deep religious feeling. This disposition had been strengthened by his training. But there is something more than deep religious feeling exhibited in his first novel. There runs through it a vein of pietistic narrowness, which seems particularly unsuited to the man whom popular imagination, investing him somewhat with the characteristics of his own creations, has depicted as a ranger of the forests and a rover of the seas. Yet the existence of this vein is plainly apparent, though all his surroundings would (p. 023) seem to have been unfavorable to its birth and development. He shared, to its fullest extent, in the jealousy which at that time, far more than now, prevailed between the Middle States and New England. He was strongly attached to the Episcopal Church, and he had, or fancied he had, a keen dislike to the Puritans and their manners and creeds. To these "religionists," as he was wont to call them, he attributed a great deal that was ungraceful in American life, and a good deal that was disgraceful. But the Puritan element is an irrepressible and undying one in English character. It can be found centuries before it became the designation of a religious body. It can be traced, under various and varying appellations, through every period of English history. It is not the name of a sect, it is not the mark of a creed; it is the characteristic of a race. It is, therefore, never long put under ban before it comes back, and takes its turn in ruling manners and society. The revolt against it in the eighteenth century had stripped from religion everything in the shape of sentiment, and left it merely a business. The reaction which brought the Puritan element again to the front was so intensified by hostility to what were called French principles that the minor literature of the latter half of the reign of George III. exhibits a cant of intolerance from which many of its greatest writers were rarely great enough to be wholly free. This influence is clearly visible in the earliest work of Cooper. There is no charge, probably, he would have denied sooner or disliked more, but in his nature he was essentially a Puritan of the Puritans. Their faults and their virtues, their inconsistencies and their contradictions, were his. Their earnestness, their intensity, their narrowness, their intolerance, their pugnacity, their serious way of looking at (p. 024) human duties and responsibilities, all these elements corresponded with elements in his own character. His, also, were their lofty ideas of personal purity and of personal obligation, extending not merely to the acts of the life, but to the thoughts of the heart. Like them, moreover, he was always disposed to appeal directly to the authority of the Supreme Being. Like them, he had perfect confidence in the absolute knowledge he possessed of what that Being thought and wished. Like them, he considered any controverted question as settled, if he could once bring to bear upon the point in dispute a text beginning, "Thus saith the Lord." No rational creature, certainly, would think of contesting a view of the Creator, or acting contrary to a command coming unmistakably from Him. But at this very point the difficulty begins; and in nothing did Cooper more resemble the Puritans than in his incapacity to see that there was any difficulty at all. It never occurred to him that there might possibly be a vast difference between what the Lord actually said and what James Fenimore Cooper thought the Lord said. It is hardly necessary to add, however, that this characteristic of mind has its advantages as well as disadvantages.
It was not unnatural, accordingly, that "Precaution" should exemplify in many cases that narrowness of view which seeks to shape narrow rules for the conduct of life. For its sympathy with this, one of the most distinguishing and disagreeable features of Puritanism, the novel has an interest which could never be aroused by it as a work of art. Extreme sentiments are often expressed by the author in his own person, though they are usually put into the mouths of various actors in the story. Their especial representative is a certain Mrs. (p. 025) Wilson, who was clearly a great favorite of her creator, though to the immense majority of men she would seem as disagreeably strong-minded as most of Cooper's female characters are disagreeably weak-minded. This lady is the widow of a general officer, who, the reader comes heartily to feel, has, most fortunately for himself, fallen in the Peninsular war. From her supreme height of morality she sweeps the whole horizon of human frailties and faults, and looks down with a relentless eye upon the misguided creatures who are struggling with temptations to which she is superior, or are under the sway of beliefs whose folly or falsity she has long since penetrated. In her, indeed, there is no weak compromise with human feelings. The lesson meant to be taught by the novel is the necessity of taking precaution in regard to marriage. One point insisted upon again and again is the requirement of piety in the husband. It is the duty of a Christian mother to guard against a connection with any one but a Christian for her daughters: for throughout the whole work the sovereign right of the parent over the child is not merely implied, it is directly asserted. "No really pious woman," says Mrs. Wilson, "can be happy unless her husband is in what she deems the road to future happiness herself." When she is met by the remark that the carrying out of this idea would give a deadly blow to matrimony, she rises to the occasion by replying that "no man who dispassionately examines the subject will be other than a Christian, and rather than remain bachelors they would take even that trouble." Nor in this was the author apparently expressing an opinion which he did not himself hold in theory, however little he might have regarded it in practice. He takes up the same subject in another place, (p. 026) when speaking in his own person. "Would our daughters," he says, "admire a handsome deist, if properly impressed with the horror of his doctrines, sooner than they would now admire a handsome Mohammedan?" On the matter of Sunday observance the narrowest tenets of Puritanism were preached, and the usual ignorance was manifested that there were two sides to the question. Some of the incidents connected with this subject are curious. One of the better characters in the novel asks his wife to ride out on that day, and she reluctantly consents. This brings at once upon the stage the inevitable Mrs. Wilson, who always stands ready to point a moral, though she can hardly be said to adorn the tale. She draws from the transaction the lesson that it is a warning against marrying a person with a difference of views. In this particular instance the respect of the man for religion had been injurious to his wife, because "had he been an open deist, she would have shrunk from the act in his company on suspicion of its sinfulness." It is justice to add that many of these extreme opinions, at least in the extreme form stated in this work, the author came finally to outgrow if in fact he held them seriously then.
There are certain other peculiarities of Cooper's beliefs that "Precaution" exemplifies. He has been constantly criticised for the unvarying and uninteresting uniformity of his female characters. This is hardly just; but it is just in the sense that there was only one type which he ever held up to admiration. Others were introduced, but they were never the kind of women whom he delighted to honor. Of female purity he had the highest ideal. Deference for the female sex as a sex he felt sincerely and expressed strongly. Along with (p. 027) this he seemed to have the most contemptible opinion of the ability of the female individual to take care of herself. On the other hand, if she had the requisite ability, the greater became his contempt; for helplessness, in his eyes, was apparently her chiefest charm. The Emily Moseley of his first novel is the prototype of a long line of heroines, whose combination of propriety and incapacity places them at the farthest possible remove from the heroic. She is worthy of special mention here, only because in this novel he describes in detail the desirable qualities, which in the others are simply implied. He furnishes us, moreover, with the precise training to which she had been subjected by her aunt, Mrs. Wilson. Accordingly, we learn both what, in Cooper's eyes, it was incumbent for a woman to be, and what she ought to go through in order to be that woman. A few sentences taken at random will show the character of this heroine. She was artless, but intelligent; she was cheerful, but pious; she was familiar with all the attainments suitable to her sex and years. Her time was dedicated to work which had a tendency to qualify her for the duties of this life and fit her for the life hereafter. She seldom opened a book unless in search of information. She never read one that contained a sentiment dangerous to her morals, or inculcated an opinion improper for her sex. She never permitted a gentleman to ride with her, to walk with her, to hold with her a tete-a-tete. Nor was this result achieved with difficulty. Though she was natural and unaffected, the simple dignity about her was sufficient to forbid any such request, or even any such thought in the men who had the pleasure, or, as the reader may think, the grief, of her (p. 028) acquaintance. In short, she was not merely propriety personified; she was propriety magnified and intensified. This particular heroine, who could not consistently have read the book in which her own conduct is described, finally disappears as the wife of an equally remarkable earl. Her story, as it is told, however, strikingly exemplifies the carelessness in working up details which is one of Cooper's marked defects. The novel received its name, as has already been implied, because it aimed to set forth the desirability of precaution in the choice of husband or wife. What it actually taught, however, was its undesirability. The misunderstandings, the crosses, the distresses, to which the lovers were subjected in the tale all sprang from excess of care, and not from lack of it; from exercising precaution where precaution did nothing but harm.
The work excited but little attention in this country. In the following year it was printed in England by Colburn, and was there noticed without the slightest suspicion of its American authorship. In some quarters it received fairly favorable mention. It could not be hid, however, that the novel, as regarded the general public, had been a failure. Still, it was not so much a failure that the author's friends did not think well of it and see promise in it. They urged him to renewed exertions. He had tried the experiment of depicting scenes he had never witnessed, and a life he had never led. He had, in their opinion, succeeded fairly well in describing what he knew nothing about; they were anxious that he should try his hand at the representation of manners and men of which and whom he knew something. Especially was it made a matter of reproach that he, in heart and soul an (p. 029) American of the Americans, should have gone to a foreign land to fill the imagination of his countrymen with pictures of a social state alien both in feeling and fact to their own. This was an appeal of a kind that was certain to touch Cooper sensibly; for with him love of country was not a sentiment, it was a passion. As a sort of atonement, therefore, for his first work, he determined to inflict, as he phrased it, a second one upon the world. Against this there should be no objection on the score of patriotism. He naturally turned for his subject to the Revolution, with the details of which he was familiar by his acquaintance with the men who had shared prominently in its conduct, and had felt all the keenness of a personal triumph in its success. The very county, moreover, in which he had made his home was full of recollections. Westchester had been the neutral ground between the English forces stationed in New York and the American army encamped in the highlands of the Hudson. Upon it more, perhaps, than upon any other portion of the soil of the revolted colonies had fallen the curse of war in its heaviest form. Back and forth over a large part of it had perpetually ebbed and flowed the tide of battle. Not a road was there which had not been swept again and again by columns of infantry or squadrons of horse. Every thicket had been the hiding-place of refugees or spies; every wood or meadow had been the scene of a skirmish; and every house that had survived the struggle had its tale to tell of thrilling scenes that had taken place within its walls. These circumstances determined Cooper's choice of the place and period. Years before, while at the residence of John Jay, his host had given him, one summer afternoon, the account of a spy that had (p. 030) been in his service during the war. The coolness, shrewdness, fearlessness, but above all the unselfish patriotism, of the man had profoundly impressed the Revolutionary leader who had employed him. The story made an equally deep impression upon Cooper at the time. He now resolved to take it as the foundation of the tale he had been persuaded to write. The result was that on the 22d of December, 1821, the novel of "The Spy" was quietly advertised in the New York papers as on that day published.
The reader, however, would receive a very wrong idea of the feelings with which the author began and ended this work of fiction, should he stop short with the account that has just been given. The circumstances attending its composition and publication are, as a matter of fact, almost as remarkable as the story itself. They certainly present a most suggestive picture of the literary state of America at that time. Cooper, for his part, had not the slightest anticipation of the effect that it was going to have upon his future. In writing it he was carrying out the wishes of his friends full as much as his own. Nor, apparently, did they urge the course upon him because they conceived him capable of accomplishing anything very great or even very good. They felt that he could produce something that was not discreditable, and that was all that could reasonably be expected of an American. There was no other novelist in the field. Charles Brockden Brown had been dead several years. Irving and Paulding were writing only short sketches. John Neal, indeed, in addition to the poems, tragedies, reviews, newspaper articles, indexes, and histories he was turning out by wholesale, had likewise perpetrated a novel; but it was never known enough to justify the mention of it as having been forgotten. (p. 031) Here, consequently, was a vacant place that ought to be filled. Cooper was never the man who would be eager to take a place because there was no one else to occupy it; and the way he went at the task he had undertaken gives indirectly a clear insight into an American author's feelings sixty years ago. He entered upon the work not merely without the expectation of success, but almost without the hope of it. The novel was written very hastily; the sheets passed into the hands of the type-setter with scarcely a correction; and so little heart had he in the task that the first volume was printed several months before he felt any inducement to write a line of the second. The propriety of abandoning it entirely, under the apprehension of its proving a serious loss, was debated. "Should chance," he said, in a later introduction to the book, "throw a copy of this prefatory notice into the hands of an American twenty years hence, he will smile to think that a countryman hesitated to complete a work so far advanced, merely because the disposition of the country to read a book that treated of its own familiar interests was distrusted." In this respect the difficulty of his position was made more prominent by its contrast with that of the great novelist who was then occupying the attention of the English-speaking world. Scott, in writing "Waverley," could take for granted that there lay behind him an intense feeling of nationality, which would show itself not in noisy boastfulness, but in genuine appreciation; that with the matter of his work his countrymen would sympathize, whatever might be their opinion as to its execution. No such supposition could be made by Cooper; no such belief inspired him to exertion. He might hope to create interest; he could not (p. 032) venture to assume its existence. One other incident connected with the composition of this work marks even more plainly the almost despairing attitude of his mind. While the second volume was slowly printing, he received an intimation from his publisher that the work might grow to a length that would endanger the profits. The author hereupon adopted a course which is itself a proof of how much stranger is fact than fiction. To placate the publisher and set his mind at rest, the last chapter was written, printed, and paged, not merely before the intervening chapters had been composed, but before they had been fully conceived. It was fair to expect failure for a work which no bookseller had been found willing to undertake at his own risk, and which the author himself set about in a manner so perfunctory. The indifference and carelessness displayed, he said afterward, were disrespectful to the public and unjust to himself; yet they give, as nothing else could, a vivid picture of the literary situation in America at that time.
The reluctance and half-heartedness with which Cooper began and completed this work stand, indeed, in sharpest contrast to the existing state of feeling, when it is only the prayers of friends and the tears of relatives that can prevent most of us from publishing some novel we have already written. But almost as it were by accident he had struck into the vein best fitted for the display of his natural powers. In it he succeeded with little effort, where other men with the greatest effort might have failed. The delicate distinctions that underlie character where social pressure has given to all the same outside, it was not his to depict. Still less could he unfold the subtle (p. 033) workings of motives that often elude the observation of the very persons whom they most influence. Such a power is essential to the success of him who seeks to delineate men as seen in conventional society; and largely for the lack of it his first novel had been a failure. It was only at rare intervals, also, that he showed that precision of style and pointed method of statement which, independent of the subject, interest the reader in men and things that are not in themselves interesting. It was the story of adventure, using adventure in its broadest sense, that he was fitted to tell: and fortunately for him Walter Scott, then in the very height of his popularity, had made it supremely fashionable. In this it is only needful to draw character in bold outlines; to represent men not under the influence of motives that hold sway in artificial and complex society, but as breathed upon by those common airs of reflection and swept hither and thither by those common gales of passion that operate upon us all as members of the race. It is not the personality of the actors to which the attention is supremely drawn, though even in that there is ample field for the exhibition of striking characterization. It is the events that carry us along; it is the catastrophe to which they are hurrying that excites the feelings and absorbs the thoughts. There can be no greater absurdity than to speak of this kind of story, as is sometimes done, as being inferior in itself to those devoted exclusively to the delineation of manners or character, or even of the subtler motives which act upon the heart and life. As well might one say that the "Iliad" is a poem of inferior type to the "Excursion." Again, it is only those who think it must be easy to write what it is easy to read who will fall into the mistake of fancying that a novel of (p. 034) adventure which has vitality enough to live does not owe its existence to the arduous, though it may be largely unconscious, exercise of high creative power. No better correction for this error can be found than in looking over the names of the countless imitators of Scott, some of them distinguished in other fields, who have made so signal a failure that even the very fact that they attempted to imitate him at all has been wholly forgotten.
"The Spy" appeared almost at the very close of 1821. It was not long before its success was assured. Early in 1822 the newspapers were able to assert that it had met with a sale unprecedented in the annals of American literature. What that phrase meant is partly indicated by the fact that it had then been found necessary to publish a second edition. In March a third edition was put to the press; and in the same month the story was dramatized and acted with the greatest success. Still in the abject dependence upon foreign estimate which was the preeminent characteristic of a large portion of the educated class of that day, many felt constrained to wait for the judgment that would come back from Europe before they could venture to express an opinion which they had the presumption to call their own. Contemporary newspapers more than once mention the relief that was afforded to many when Cooper was spoken of in several of the English journals as "a distinguished American novelist." This, it has been implied, was then a condition of the public mind that no writer could dare wholly to disregard. When the project of abandoning this novel, already half printed, was under discussion, the principal reason that finally decided the author (p. 035) to persevere was the fact that his previous work had received a respectful notice in a few English periodicals. It was thought, in consequence, that in his new venture he would be secure from loss. Still, it is due to his countrymen to say that it was to them alone he owed his first success. In later years the declaration was often made that he would never have been held in honor at home, had it not been for foreign approbation. The assertion he himself indignantly denied. "This work," he said afterward, in speaking of "The Spy," "most of you received with a generous welcome that might have satisfied any one that the heart of this great community is sound." Certain it is that the success of the novel was assured in America some time before the character of its reception in Europe was known.
The printed volume was offered to the London publisher Murray, and for terms he was referred to Irving, who was then in England. Murray gave the novel for examination to Gifford, the editor of the "Quarterly." By his advice it was declined,—a result that might easily have been foretold from the hostility of the man to this country. He had made his review an organ of the most persistent depreciation and abuse of America and everything American. A new writer from this side of the ocean was little likely to meet with any favor in his sight, especially when his subject was one that from its very nature could not be flattering to British prejudices. Murray having refused, another publisher was found in Miller, who had also been the first to bring out Irving's "Sketch Book." Early in 1822 the work appeared in England. There its success was full as great as it had been in America. This novel, in fact, made Cooper's reputation both at home and abroad. It is (p. 036) important to bear this in mind, because it is a common notion that it was his delineations of Indian life that brought him his European fame. They established it, but they did not originate it. "The Spy" was a tale of a war, which in character was not essentially different from any other war. So far as the story painted the incidents of a struggle in which the English had been unsuccessful, it could have no right to expect favor from the English public unless there was merit in the execution of the work independent of the subject. The interest with which it was read by a people who could not fail to find portions of it disagreeable, who were moreover accustomed to look with contempt upon everything of American origin, was the best proof that a novelist had arisen whose reputation would stretch beyond the narrow limits of nationality. This was even more strikingly seen, when it came to be translated. If the English opinion was favorable, the French might fairly be called enthusiastic. A version was made into that tongue in the summer of 1822, by the translator of the Waverley Novels. In the absolute ignorance that existed as to its authorship, the work was ascribed by several of the Parisian papers to Fanny Wright, who subsequently achieved a fame of her own as a champion of woman's privileges and denouncer of woman's wrongs. In spite of its anonymous character and of some extraordinary blunders in translation, it was warmly received in France. From that country its reputation in no long space of time spread in every direction; translations followed one after another into all the cultivated tongues of modern Europe; and in all it met the same degree of favor. Nor has lapse of time shaken seriously its popularity. The career of success, which began sixty (p. 037) years ago, has suffered vicissitudes, but never suspension; and to this hour, whatever fault may be found with the work as a whole, the name of Harvey Birch is still one of the best known in fiction. No tale produced during the present century has probably had so extensive a circulation; and the leading character in it has found admirers everywhere and at times imitators. Of this latter statement a striking illustration is given in the memoirs of Gisquet, a prefect of the French police under Louis Philippe. In his chapter on the secret agents employed by him during his administration, he tells the story of one who by the information he imparted rendered important services in preventing the outbreak of civil war. He thus describes the motives which led the man to pursue the course he did. "Struck with the reading," he writes, "of one of Cooper's novels called 'The Spy,' he aspired to the sort of ambition which distinguished the hero of that work, and was desirous of playing in France the part which Cooper has assigned to Harvey Birch during the American war of independence.... Harvey Birch—for he adopted this name in all his reports—never belied his professions of fidelity. He rendered services which would have merited a competent fortune; but when the term of them ended, he contented himself with asking for a humble employment, barely enough to supply his daily necessities." The belief in the reality of the hero has, indeed, been part of the singular fortune of the book. In his account of Nicaragua, published in 1852, Mr. E. G. Squier furnished incidentally interesting testimony to the truth of this statement as well as to the wide circulation of the tale itself. At La Union, the port of San Miguel, he stayed at the house of the commandant of the place. His (p. 038) apartments he found well stocked with books, and among them was this particular novel. "The 'Espy,'" he went on to say, "of the lamented Cooper, I may mention, seems to be better known in Spanish America than any other work in the English language. I found it everywhere; and when I subsequently visited the Indian pueblo of Conchagua, the first alcalde produced it from an obscure corner of the cahildo, as a very great treasure. He regarded it as veritable history, and thought 'Senor Birch' a most extraordinary personage and a model guerillero."
CHAPTER III. (p. 039)
Cooper would have been more or less than mortal if the unexpected success achieved by "The Spy" had not incited him to renewed effort. It definitely determined his career, though at the time he did not know it. As yet he was not sure in his own mind whether the favor his book had met was the result of a lucky hit or was due to the display of actual power. There can be no question as to the honesty of his assertion when he published his third novel, that it depended upon certain contingencies whether it would not be the last. But from this time on he wrote incessantly. From 1820 to 1830, including both years, he brought out eleven works. In many respects this was the happiest period of his literary life as well as the most successful. During it he produced many of his greatest creations. One decided failure he made; but with this exception if each new story did not seem to exhibit any new power, it at least gave no sign of weakness, or misdirection of energy. This period is in fact so supremely the creative one of Cooper's life as regards the conception of character and scene that nearly all he did demands careful examination.
He first set about a task that lay near his heart. This was to describe the scenes, the manners and customs of his native land, especially of the frontier life in which he had been trained. In 1823, (p. 040) accordingly, appeared "The Pioneers," itself the pioneer of the five famous stories, which now go collectively under the name of the "Leather-Stocking Tales." It was a vivid and faithful picture of the sights he had seen and the men he had met in the home of his childhood, where as a boy he had witnessed the struggles which attend the conquest of man over nature. In it appear in comparatively rude outlines the personages whose names and exploits his pen was afterwards to make famous throughout the civilized world. They are in this work of a far less lofty type than in those which followed. "The Pioneers," in truth, though not a poor story, is much the poorest of the series of which it forms a part. The almost loving interest he took in the matter about which he was writing tempted the author to indulge his recollections at the expense of his judgment. His first novel, he said in the prefatory address to the publisher which appeared in this one, had been written to show that he could write a grave tale, and it was so grave that no one would read it; the second was written to overcome if possible the neglect of the public; but the third was written exclusively to please himself. The story as a story suffered in consequence from the very fascination which the subject had for his mind. So subordinate was it made, especially in the first half, to the description of the scenes, that the details at times become wearisome and the interest often flags.
The expectation with which the appearance of this work was awaited is a striking proof of the impression that the previous novel had made. It was to have been brought out as early as the autumn of 1822. But during the summer of that year the yellow fever ravaged New York (p. 041) and largely broke up for a time all kinds of business, including printing. Causes beyond control still further delayed the publication, and it was not until the first of February, 1823, that the book appeared. The public curiosity, however, had been fully excited. Extracts from it—according to a custom then prevalent in England—had been furnished in advance to some of the newspapers, and though these were not the most striking passages, they served to direct attention and awaken expectation. At the close of January, announcement of the precise date of publication was made. Success was certain from the start; but the degree of it outran all anticipation. The evening papers of the first of February were able to state that up to twelve o'clock that day there had been sold three thousand five hundred copies. Even at this period, with a population more than five times as numerous, such a half day's sale, under similar circumstances, would be remarkable. It is little wonder, therefore, that the newspapers of that period felt that only largeness of type and profusion of exclamation points could suitably record such a success.
"The Pioneers" was the first work to display a peculiarity of the author's character, which came afterwards into marked prominence. Cooper in a sense belonged to the school of Scott; and he was so far from denying it that in one place he speaks of himself as being nothing more than a chip from the former's block. But his life would have been far happier and his success much greater had he followed in one respect the example of him he called his master. Scott ordinarily did not read criticisms upon his own writings; and when he did, he was careful not to let his equanimity be seriously disturbed even by the severest attacks. (p. 042) of this was no doubt due to prudence; but a good deal of it to contempt. For of all the rubbish that time shoots into the wallet of oblivion, contemporary criticism runs about the least chance of being rescued from the forgetfulness into which it has been thrust. This is a result entirely independent of its goodness or badness. If the criticism is both destructive and just, the very death of the subject against which it is directed causes it to perish in the ruin it has brought about. If it is unjust, it is certain to be speedily forgotten, unless he who suffers from it takes the pains to perpetuate its memory, or some later investigator drags it from its obscurity for the sake of pointing out its absurdity. The creative literature of the past is the utmost the present can be expected to read. Its critical literature, however celebrated in its day, is looked upon with contempt, or at best with a patronizing approval, by the following age, which is always confident that it at least has reached the supreme standard of correct taste, and asks no aid in making up its judgments from those who have gone before. But the philosophy which shows this to be true never lessened one iota the pain which the man of sensitive nature suffers. The extent to which Cooper was affected by hostile criticism is something remarkable, even in the irritable race of authors. He manifested under it the irascibility of a man not simply thin-skinned, but of one whose skin was raw. Meekness was never a distinguishing characteristic of his nature; and attack invariably stung him into defiance or counter-attack. Unfriendly insinuations contained in obscure journals could goad him into remarks upon them, or into a reply to them, which at this date is the only means of preserving the original charge. (p. 043) It was in his prefaces that he was apt to express his resentment most warmly, for he well knew that this was the one part of a book which the reviewer is absolutely certain to read. In these he frequently took occasion to point out to the generation of critical vipers the various offenses of which they were guilty, the stupidities that seemed to belong to their very nature, and that utter lack of literary skill which prevented them from giving a look of sense to the most plausible nonsense they concocted. By Cooper, indeed, the preface was looked upon not as a place to conciliate the reader, but to hurl scorn at the reviewer. In his hands it became a trumpet from which he blew from time to time critic-defying strains, which more than made up in vigor for all they lacked in prudence. This characteristic was early manifested. In the short preface to the second edition of "The Spy," he could not refrain from referring to the friends who had given him good advice, and who had favored him with numberless valuable hints, by the help of which the work might be made excellent. But it is the letter to the publisher, with which "The Pioneers" originally opened, that was the first of his regular warlike manifestoes. Though not very long, two thirds of it was devoted to the men who had publicly found fault with his previous works. He pointed out their discrepancies in taste and the metaphysical obscurity of their opinions. At the conclusion he wrote a sentence which some of them never forgot. He told his publisher that to him alone he should look for the only true account of the reception of his book. "The critics," said he in continuation, "may write as obscurely as they please, and look much wiser than they are; the papers may puff and abuse as their (p. 044) changeful humors dictate; but if you meet me with a smiling face I shall at once know that all is essentially well."
Little notice, however, was taken at the time of Cooper's preference of the public opinion which showed itself in buying his books, to that which made it its chief aim to teach him how they ought to be written. The country was too pleased with him and too proud of him to pay any special attention to these momentary ebullitions of dissatisfaction. On his part so great had now become his literary activity, that before "The Pioneers" was published he had set to work upon a new novel, of a kind of which he can justly be described as the creator, and in which he was to be followed by a host of imitators.
At a dinner party in New York in 1822, at which Cooper was present, the authorship of the Waverley Novels, still a matter of some uncertainty, came up for discussion. In December of the preceding year "The Pirate" had been published. The incidents in this story were brought forward as a proof of the thorough familiarity with sea-life of him, whoever he was, that had written it. Such familiarity Scott had never had the opportunity to gain in the only way it could be gained. It followed, therefore, that the tale was not of his composition. Cooper, who had never doubted the authorship of these novels, did not at all share in this view. The very reasons that made others feel uncertain led him to be confident. To one like him whose early life had been spent on top-gallant yards and in becketing royals, it was perfectly clear that "The Pirate" was the work of a landsman and not of a sailor. Not that he denied the accuracy of the descriptions so far as they went. The point that he made was that with the same (p. 045) materials far greater effects could and would have been produced, had the author possessed that intimate familiarity with ocean-life which can be his alone whose home for years has been upon the waves. He could not convince his opponents by argument. He consequently determined to convince them by writing a sea-story.
We who are familiar with the countless hosts of novels of this nature that have swarmed and are still swarming from the press, cannot realize the apparent peril which at that time existed in this undertaking. No work of the kind, such as he now projected, had ever yet been published. Sailors, indeed, had been introduced into fiction, notably by Smollett, but in no case had there been exhibited the handling and movements of vessels, and the details of naval operations. During the last half-century we have been so surfeited with the sea-story in every form, that most of us have forgotten the fact of its late origin, and that it is to Cooper that it owes its creation. That he created it was not due to any encouragement from others. He had plenty of judicious friends to warn him from the undertaking. Sailors, he was told, might understand and appreciate it, but no one else would. Minute detail, moreover, was necessary to render it intelligible to seamen, and to landsmen it would be both unintelligible and uninteresting on account of the technicalities which must inevitably be found in minute detail. A reputation already well established would be sunk in the treacherous element he was purposing to describe. Cooper persisted in his purpose, but he could not fail to be disturbed by the unfavorable auguries that met him on every side. These naturally had the more weight, as they came from men who were attached to (p. 046) him personally, and who were honestly solicitous for his fame. He was at one time almost inclined to give up the project. But a critical English friend to whom he submitted a portion of the manuscript was delighted with it. In this man's judgment and taste Cooper felt so great confidence that he was induced to persevere. Moreover, to try the effect upon the more peculiar public of seamen, he read an extract to one of his old shipmates, who was also a relative. This was the account of the war-vessel working off shore in a gale. The selection was certainly a happy one. The literature of the sea presents no more thrilling chapter than that which, describing the passage of the great frigate through the narrow channel, gives every detail with such vividness and power that the most unimaginative cannot merely see ship, shore, and foaming water, but almost hear the roaring of the wind, the creaking of the cordage, and the dashing of the waves against the breakers. As he read on the listener's interest kept growing until he was no longer able to remain quiet. Rising from his seat he paced up and down the room furiously until the chapter was finished. Then half ashamed of the excitement into which he had been betrayed, he avenged himself just as if he were a professional reviewer by indulging in a bit of special criticism: "It's all very well," he burst out, "but you have let your jib stand too long, my fine fellow." For once Cooper heeded advice. "I blew it out of the bolt-rope," said he, "in pure spite;" and blown out of the bolt-rope the jib appears in the tale.
He now felt reasonably confident of success, and any doubt that might have lingered in his mind was at once swept away by the favorable reception the work met when it came out. Its publication was for (p. 047) a while delayed. Early in the summer of 1823 the first volume had been finished and a portion of the second, but any further progress was checked for the time by an affliction that then befell the author. On the 5th of August his youngest child, Fenimore, then little less than two years old, died at the family residence in Beach Street, New York, and this calamity was followed by illness of his own. "The Pilot," in consequence, though bearing the date of 1823, was not actually furnished to the trade until the 7th of January, 1824. Its success, both in this country and in Europe, was instantaneous. Far-sighted men saw at once that a new realm had been added to the domain of fiction. "The Pilot" is indeed not only the first of Cooper's sea-stories in point of time, but if we regard exclusively the excellence of detached scenes, it may perhaps be justly styled the best of them all. At any rate its place in the highest rank of this species of fiction cannot be disputed, and in spite of the multitude of similar works that have followed in its wake and which have had their seasons of temporary popularity, its hold upon the public has never been lost.
Cooper was without question exceptionally fortunate in the materials with which he had to deal. He was never under the necessity of getting up with infinite toil what the modern novelist terms his local coloring. This existed for him ready made. He had only to call to mind the men he had himself met, the hazards he had run, the life he had lived, to be furnished with all the incidents and scenes and characters that were capable of being wrought into romance. His descriptions both of forest and of sea have all that vividness and reality which cannot well be given save by him who has threaded at will every maze of the one and (p. 048) tossed for week after week upon the billows of the other. Moreover, in this particular case, while he satisfied his patriotic feeling in the choice of the time, he displayed great judgment in the selection of the hero. The pilot, though never named, we know to be the extraordinary and daring adventurer, John Paul Jones, and the period is of course the American Revolution. In his literary art, likewise, Cooper has never been equaled by his imitators. Provided he could create the desired effect, he dared to let the reader remain in ignorance of the details he introduced. Enough of technicality was brought in to satisfy the professional seaman, but not so much as to distract the attention of the landsman from the main movement of the story. Contented with this the author did not seek to explain to the latter what he could not well understand without having served personally before the mast. From this rule he never varied, save in the few cases where the interest of the tale could be better served by imparting information than by withholding it. He had a full artistic appreciation of the impressiveness of the unknown. For, in stories of this kind, the vagueness of the reader's knowledge adds to the effect upon his mind, because, while he sees that mighty agencies are at work in perilous situations, his very ignorance of their exact nature deepens the feeling of awe they are of themselves calculated to produce. The wise reticence of Cooper in this respect can be seen by contrasting it with the prodigality of information, contained in more than one modern sea-novel, in which the whole action of the story is arrested to explain a technical operation with the result that the ordinary reader finds the explanation more unintelligible than the technical operation itself.
Still, in spite of the excellence of the tales which had followed (p. 049) it, "The Spy" continued with the majority of readers to be the most popular of his works. This fact, coupled with his intense love of country, led him to turn once more for a subject to his native land and to the period in the description of which he had won his first fame. He formed, in fact, a plan of writing a series of works of fiction, the scenes of which should be laid in the various colonies that had shared in the Revolutionary struggle. In pursuance of this scheme, his next work was projected. In February, 1825, appeared "Lionel Lincoln, or the Leaguer of Boston." The first edition had a preliminary title-page, which contained the inscription, "Legends of the Thirteen Republics," followed by this quotation from Hamlet—
"I will fight with him upon this theme Until my eyelids will no longer wag."
When the plan he had conceived was given up, this addition naturally disappeared with it. Nothing that industry could do was spared by Cooper to make this work a success. On this account as well as for its reception by the public it stands in marked contrast to "The Spy." In the preparation of it he studied historical authorities, he read state papers, he pored over official documents of all kinds and degrees of dreariness. To have his slightest assertions in accordance with fact, he examined almanacs, and searched for all the contemporary reports as to the condition of the weather. He visited Boston in order to go over in person the ground he was to make the scene of his story. As a result of all this labor he has furnished us an admirable description of the engagement at Concord Bridge, of the running fight of Lexington, (p. 050) and of the battle of Bunker's Hill. Of the last, it is, according to the sufficient authority of Bancroft, the best account ever given. At this point praise must stop. New England was always to Cooper an ungenial clime, both as regards his creative activity and his critical appreciation. The moment he touched its soil, his strength seemed to abandon him. Whatever excellencies this particular work displayed, they were not the excellencies of a novel. Accuracy of detail, even in historical romance, is only a minor virtue. The modern reader is, indeed, often inclined to doubt whether it is a virtue at all now that modern research is constantly showing that so much we have been wont to look upon as fact is nothing more than fable. So superior is the imagination of man turning out to his memory that one is tempted to fancy that instead of going to history for our fiction we shall yet have to turn about and go to fiction for our history.
"Lionel Lincoln" is certainly one of Cooper's most signal failures. In writing it he had attempted to do what it did not lie in the peculiar nature of his powers to accomplish. It is the story of crime long hidden from the knowledge of men, but dogging with unceasing activity the memories of those concerned in it. But the secret chambers of the soul into which the guilty man never looks willingly, Cooper could neither enter himself nor lay bare to others. Remorse that gnaws incessantly at every activity of the spirit, the consciousness of sin that haunts the heart and hangs like a burden upon the life, can never well be depicted save by him whose words suggest more than they reveal. Cooper was not a writer of this kind. He belonged to that class of literary artists who convey their precise meaning by exactness and fullness of (p. 051) detail. The vagueness and indefiniteness with which this story abounds is not, therefore, that impressive obscurity which springs from the mysterious; it is, on the contrary, the obscurity of the unintelligible and absurd. In all of Cooper's novels, it is a fault that the characters are often represented as acting without sufficient motive. In the story of adventure this can be pardoned, or at least overlooked; for freak plays an important part in determining the movements of many of us. It is not so, however, in tales containing a plot similar to that of "Lionel Lincoln." The mind revolts at finding the actors in the drama represented as having committed monstrous crimes, without any reason that is worth mentioning. This radical defect in the plan is not counterbalanced by any felicity in the execution. Many of the incidents are more than improbable, they are impossible. The style, likewise, is labored, and the conversations combine the two undesirable peculiarities of being both stilted and dull. The characters, female or male, are in no case successfully drawn. The inferior ones, introduced to amuse, serve only to depress the reader. The hero in the course of the tale does several absurd things; but he finally surpasses himself by hurrying away from the woman he loves, without her knowledge, immediately after he has been joined to her in marriage. The representation of the half-witted Job—a character upon which the author clearly labored hard—neither arouses interest nor touches the heart. It is, indeed, impossible to feel much sympathy with one particular imbecile, no matter how patriotic, in a story where most of the actors are represented as acting like idiots.
Nevertheless, his reputation and the real excellence of the battle (p. 052) battle scenes, saved this work from seeming at the time so much of a failure as it actually was. Certainly whatever loss of credit he may have sustained as the result of writing "Lionel Lincoln," was much more than made up by the success of the tale that followed. In 1824 he had gone on an excursion to Saratoga, Lake George, and Lake Champlain, with a small party of English gentlemen. One of these was Mr. Stanley, the future Lord Derby. As they reached Glens Falls and were examining the caverns made by the river at that spot, Mr. Stanley told Cooper that here ought to be laid the scene of a romance. In reply, the novelist assured him that a book should be written in which these caverns should have a place. The promise was fulfilled. On the 4th of February, 1826, "The Last of the Mohicans" made its appearance. It was composed the previous year in a little cottage then situated in a quiet, open country, on which now stands the suburban village of Astoria. A severe illness attacked Cooper during its progress; but whatever effect it had upon his physical frame, it certainly did not impair in the slightest his intellectual force. The success of the work was both instantaneous and prodigious. Owing, perhaps, to the novelty of the scenes and characters, it was even greater in Europe than in America. But there was no lack of appreciation in his own land. In the estimation of his countrymen, the novel at once took its place at the head of his productions. An incidental fact will not only make clear its success, but the state of the book trade at that time. The demand for the work soon became so great and so persistent, that in April it was decided to stereotype it.