Introduction to James Fenimore Cooper

JAMES FENIMORE COOPER: A LIFE
Paperback, 376 pp (Winchester, UK: John Hunt/Chronos Books, 2016)
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Prologue
New York City
February 25, 1852

It is five months since the death of James Fenimore Cooper, an evening in late winter. The island of Manhattan glows softly against the darkness. Some four-and-a-half thousand street lamps are blazing between the East River and the Hudson. Crowds in their multitude assemble outside Metropolitan Hall on Broadway opposite fashionable Bond Street. The great avenue is always busy with people. From the Battery to Union Square, Broadway is a carnival of shops, hotels, theaters, grand homes, and restaurants. A British tourist around this time likened the congestion of people here to all the traffic of the Strand and Cheapside in London squeezed onto Oxford Street.

Metropolitan Hall is a jewel of the avenue. The imposing theater is the largest in America. Only the opera houses of Milan, London, and Havana are larger. It anchors an entertainment district that spans south to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and north to the Astor Place Opera House. Tonight the traffic of Broadway, still a two-way street, seems to converge upon the theater. 

People arrive by horse-drawn carriages. They arrive on foot. The night is cold, coming off of a balmy day. Temperatures hang just above freezing. By morning the city will be blanketed in fog. The Hall is illuminated, inside and out, by modern gas lamps. The people now filtering in are bathed by warm light. They enter a vast space of brightness and ornament; they greet one another as they take seats. This is, an early biographer of Cooper would later write, “the most cultivated audience the city could boast.”

A number of famous men take seats upon the stage: Daniel Webster, the former senator from Massachusetts and sitting secretary of state; Washington Irving, the great essayist and author; Ambrose Kingsland, mayor of New York; and William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Post. At eight o’clock, Irving steps forward to address the crowd. He says only a few words, praising “the genius of one” who is entitled “to the love, respect, and admiration of every American.” He is speaking of Cooper.

The event is a public memorial for the late author of The Last of the Mohicans. It is, on the surface, unremarkable that such an event should be held. James Fenimore Cooper was America’s first novelist and one of its first celebrities. Over the course of a prolific career he created an enduring national mythology. Yet there is a deeper significance to this gathering.

Irving introduces Daniel Webster, who steps forward. The great orator praises Cooper for his “literary productions, taste, talent, and genius.” The audience applauds when he says that Cooper’s writings “were patriotic—American throughout.” Letters are read from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Herman Melville, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, honoring Cooper. 

The man is to be remade in marble—figuratively, through these accolades—and, perhaps, literally, as the proceeds of the evening will go toward the commission of a statue. All of this is natural, of course. But the man of flesh and blood and passion does not yield so easily to the transformation. There is a hint of controversy. In Melville’s letter, the author of Moby Dick writes of Cooper, “It always much pained me, that for any reason, in his latter years, his fame…should have apparently received a slight, temporary clouding, from some very paltry accidents, incident more or less to the general career of letters.”

William Cullen Bryant takes the podium. He was a personal friend and speaks at length about Cooper’s life. During the course of his address he names the controversy to which Melville had alluded. “Scarce any thing in Cooper’s life was so remarkable,” Bryant says, “as his contest with the newspaper press.”

Cooper had become embroiled in the politics of the Jacksonian period. Through a series of mutual provocations and misunderstandings, Cooper, a Jackson Democrat, embarked on a long, bitter, public war of words against the newspaper editors aligned with the rival Whig party. The field of battle advanced from the printed page to the courtroom. Bryant paints a flattering portrait of Cooper’s conduct and outcome in the affair: he “behaved liberally toward his antagonists,” while “vindicating himself to his readers,” and chastening the press into “docility” and “good manners.” In fact, Cooper lost much to the controversy. At the time of his death he had only just begun to repair a career that had been brought almost to ruins.

It is significant that Washington Irving and Daniel Webster are involved in the proceedings. Indeed, Irving is chairman of the memorial committee. Notwithstanding their national prominence the involvement of these two men is counter-intuitive. Cooper had treated Irving poorly in life, rebuffing his friendship and insulting him to mutual friends. It was a private matter, tangential to Cooper’s larger public battles, but well known within their literary circle. Although Cooper and Webster had no history, Webster was, is, and always shall be the most celebrated figure associated with the Whig party.

Some critics take issue with these speakers. Some find the selection of Webster unsuitable, dismissing his eulogy as commonplace or without substance. But the audience seems, by their applause, to understand the extraordinary gesture being made: Cooper is now reconciled with his country. The controversies of his life are put to rest, the wounds healed. Let there be no question of his genius or his patriotism.

The man begins to fade from memory. His books alone are left to posterity. Cooper’s vision of America was romantic and ambiguous, focused on the meeting point of wild places (forest, sea) and hard, persevering men. His greatest creation, Natty Bumppo, the frontiersman featured in his most enduring work, became a symbol of the American spirit. Natty, like his author, chafes against the limits of American life. Over the course of five novels Natty serves the cause of civIlization while retreating from its encroachment. His final bitter victory is to die with the frontier rather than submit himself to human law or join the company of his fellow men.

Cooper was at once a champion and critic of American society. While abroad in Europe he defended his country against foreign opinion with crusading zeal. At home he was the devil’s own advocate toward American democracy and culture. He opposed the great men of his day. Yet here they were, at Metropolitan Hall, to honor him. These contradictions cannot be untangled without losing some truth about the man and his age.  

What do we learn by studying Cooper? According to Daniel Webster, “we may read the nation’s history in his life.” Let us go back then to the beginning. The life of James Fenimore Cooper and the history of the United States begin, together, in a different, younger land.


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