The Novels of James Fenimore Cooper

Illustrated with Steel Engravings from Drawings by Darley. New York: W. A. Townsend & Co.

THE "British Museum, it is said, has accumulated over twenty-seven thousand novels written since the publication of “ Waverley.” With the general diffusion of education the ambition of authorship has had a corresponding increase ; and people who were not inspired to make rhymes, nor learned enough to undertake history, philosophy, or science, as well as those who despaired of success in essays, travels, or sermons, have all thought themselves capable of representing human life in the form of fiction. Very few of the twenty-seven thousand, probably, are wholly destitute of merit. Each author has drawn what he saw, or knew, or did, or imagined ; and so has preserved something worthy, for those who live upon his plane and see the world with his eyes. The difficulty is, that the vision of most men is limited; they observe human nature only in a few of its many aspects ; they cannot so far lift themselves above the trivial affairs around them as to take in the whole of humanity at a glance. Even when rare types of character are presented to view, it is only a genius who can for the time assimilate himself to them, and so make their portraits life-like upon his canvas. In every old-fashioned town there are models for new Dogbcrrys and Edie Ochiltreea; our seaports have plenty of Bunsbys ; every great city has its Becky Sharpe and Major Pondennis. One has only to listen to a group of Irish laborers in their unrestrained talk to find that the delicious non sequitur, which is the charm of the grave-diggers’ conversation in ‘‘ Hamlet,” is by no means obsolete. But Who can write such a colloquy ? It would he easier, we fancy, for a clever man to give a sketch of Lord Bacon, with all his rapid and profound generalization, than to follow the slow and tortuous mental processes of a clodhopper.

To secure the attention of his readers, the novelist must construct a plot and create the characters whose movements shall produce the designed catastrophe, and, by the incidents and dialogue, exhibit the passions, the virtues, the aspirations, the weaknesses, and the villany of human nature. It is needless to say that most characters in fiction are as shadowy as Ossian’s ghosts; the proof is, that, when the incidents of the story have passed out of memory, the persons are likewise forgotten. Of all the popular novelists, not more than half a dozen have ever created characters that survive, — characters that are felt to be “ representative men.” After Shakspeare and Scott, Dickens comes first, unquestionably ; although, in analysis, philosophy, force, and purity of style, he is far inferior to Thackeray. Parson Adams will not be forgotten, nor that gentle monogamist, the good Vicar of Wakefield. But as for Bulwer, notwithstanding his wonderful art in construction and the brilliancy of his style, who remembers a character out of his novels, unless it he Doctor Riccabocca ?

After this rather long preamble, let us hasten to say, that Cooper, in spite of many and the most obvious faults, lias succeeded in portraying a few characters which stand out in bold relief,— and that his works, after years of criticism and competition, still hold their place, on both continents, among the most delightful novels in the language. Other writers have appeared, with more culture, with more imagination, with more spiritual insight, with more attractiveness of style ; but Leatherstocking, in the virgin forest, with the crafty, painted savage retreating before him, and the far-distant hum of civilization following his trail, is a creation which no reader ever can or would forget, — a creation for which the merely accomplished writer would gladly exchange all the fine sentences and wordpictures that he had ever put on paper. It is also due to Cooper to say, that “ The Pilot” was the first, and still is the best, of nautical novels ; we say this in full recollection of its brace of stupid heroines. The very air of the book is salt. As you read, you hear the wind in the rigging,—a sound that one never forgets. The form and motion of waves, the passing of distant ships, the outlines of spars and cordage against the sky, the blue above and the blue below, all the scenery of the sea, here for the first time found an appreciative artist.

We have not space to mention these novels separately. We are glad to see an edition which is worthy of the author's genius, — each volume graced with the designs of Parley. The style in which the work has been issued is creditable to the publishers, and cannot fail to be remunerative.