IT is with keen pleasure that an American man of letters accepts the privilege of commemorating again the genius of Fenimore Cooper, — the earliest of our authors to be widely read beyond the boundaries of our own language, as Irving, his elder contemporary, was the earliest to win attention outside the borders of our own land. It is well for us that the first American novelist to reveal American character to the nations of Europe was himself stalwart in his own Americanism, full of the faith that sustains us all. As Parkman has declared, “Cooper’s genius drew aliment from the soil where God had planted it, and rose to a vigorous growth, rough and gnarled, but strong as a mountain cedar.” And as Lowell has finely phrased it, Cooper “looked about him to recognize in the New Man of the New World an unhackneyed and unconventional subject for art; ” he “studied from the life, and it was the homo Americanus, with our own limestone in his bones, and our own iron in his blood, that sat to him.”
The American whom Cooper painted in his pages is the American in the making; and it is the earlier makers of America that he has depicted with sympathetic sincerity, — the soldier, the sailor, the settler, the backwoodsman, sturdy types all of them, that gave no false impression of us to the rest of the world. And in thus portraying the men who made possible the nation as we know it to-day, he performed a splendid service to the country he loved devotedly. And his service to our literature is equally obvious. He wrote the first American historical novel, which remains to this day one of the best. He was the first to venture a story of the sea; and no one of the writers who have followed in his wake has yet equaled his earlier attempt. He was the first to tell tales of the frontier, of the backwoods, and of the prairie. He stands forth even now the foremost representative in fiction of the United States as a whole, — for Hawthorne, a more delicate artist in romance, is of his section all compact, and his genius lacked fit nourishment when its tentacles did not cling to the stony New England of his birth. Well might Bryant assert that the glory which Cooper “justly won was reflected on his country, of whose literary independence he was the pioneer.”
“There is no life of a man faithfully recorded,” so Carlyle has declared, “but is a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed or unrhymed.” The life of Cooper has been faithfully recorded by Professor Lounsbury, in the best biography yet devoted to any American man of letters. Cooper was born in New Jersey in 1789, just after the United States had adopted the constitution which has given stability to our government. When he was only a year old he was brought to Cooperstown, where he was to die three score years later. His far-seeing and open-minded father had settled more acres than any other man in America; and forty thou - sand souls held under him, directly or indirectly, most of them along the shores of the Susquehanna, the crooked river, “to which,” as Cooper tells us, “the Atlantic herself had extended an arm in welcome.” It was at Cooperstown that the future novelist passed his childhood, “with the vast forest around him,” so Bryant has recorded, “stretching up the mountains that overlook the lake, and far beyond, in a region where the Indian yet roamed, and the white hunter, halfIndian in his dress and mode of life, sought his game, — a region in which the bear and the wolf were yet hunted, and the panther, more formidable than either, lurked in the thickets, and tales of wanderings in the wilderness, and encounters with these fierce animals, beguiled the length of the winter nights.”
In due season he was sent to school at Albany; and then he entered Yale, only to be expelled before he had completed his course. Thus it was that he lacked the chastening influence of the prescribed programme of studies, narrow enough in those days and yet broadening to all who knew how to profit by it. His own college never made up to him for what may have been her mistake or his own; but a score of years later Columbia honored herself by granting him the degree of master of arts. As a preparation for the navy, Cooper made a long voyage to Europe before the mast; and on his return he was appointed a midshipman. He remained in the service only three years. He was on the Vesuvius for a season; he was one of a party that went to Oswego to build a brig on Lake Ontario, then girt in by the primeval forest; and he was, for a while, left in command of the gunboats on Lake Champlain; and all these posts gave him a knowledge of his native land and of its conditions which was to stand him in good stead later, when he turned novelist. Afterward he was ordered to the Wasp, where he served under the heroic Lawrence, — who was to die a few years later, crying “Don’t give up the ship!” But. there seemed then little likelihood of war; so Cooper resigned his commission, and married Miss de Lancey, with whom he was to live most happily for the rest of his life, and who was to survive him only a few months.
His father and his wife’s father were both well-to-do; and for nearly ten years Cooper was content to live the placid life of a country gentleman, sometimes at Cooperstown, and sometimes in Westchester, near New York. He reached the age of thirty, not only without having written anything, but even without any special interest in literature; and when at last he did take a first step into authorship, it was in the most casual fashion. Throwing down a contemporary British novel of slight value, he expressed the belief that he could write a better book himself. Encouraged by his wife, he completed a story of British manners and customs, about which he knew little or nothing from personal observation. But so complete was our American subservience to the British branch of our literature, that this did not seem strange then, even to Cooper, an American of the Americans. This first, novel, Precaution, was published without his name; it was even reprinted in England, where it was reviewed with no suspicion that it had not been written by an Englishman. However insignificant in itself, this first book revealed to its author that he could tell a story.
It is a commonplace of criticism that novelists flower late. Fielding and Scott, Thackeray and Hawthorne, had spent at least the half of the allotted three score years and ten before they blossomed forth as novelists, — as though to exemplify the Arab proverb that no man is called of God until he is forty. But Fielding and Scott, Thackeray and Hawthorne, had been writing abundantly from their youth up, plays and poems, sketches and short stories, whereas Cooper had served no such apprenticeship to literature. But when he had once tasted ink, he enjoyed it; and in the remaining half of his life he revealed the ample productivity of a rich and abundant genius. Toward the end of the next year, 1821, he published the Spy, followed swiftly by the Pioneers, and by the Pilot; and by these three books his fame was firmly established, in his own country, in Great Britain, and all over Europe, where he was hailed as a worthy rival of Scott. In these three books he made good his triple claim to remembrance, as a teller of tales, as a creator of character, and as a poet (in the larger sense of the word).
The Spy was followed in time by another tale of the American revolution, Lionel Lincoln, wherein, so Bancroft has testified, “he has described the Battle of Bunker Hill better than it is described in any other work.” It was accompanied later by other historical novels, some of them dealing with themes in European history, the Bravo, for one, and the Headsman, for another, — good stories in their way, but without the solid support which a novelist has when he deals with his own people and his own time. The Pioneers was made more important by the composition of four other “ Leatherstocking Tales,” completing the interesting drama in five acts, which culminates at last in the simple hero’s death, told with manly pathos. The Pilot had in its track the Red Rover and eight other tales of the sea; and it was also succeeded in time by a History of the American Navy and by a series of Lives of Naval Officers, in which Cooper proved his loyalty to his first profession. He was the author also of various volumes of travels at home and abroad.
Perhaps it is not strange that he who could describe fighting with contagious interest should not shrink from controversy. Cooper was large-hearted, but he was also hot-headed and thin-skinned. A high-minded man, beyond all question, he was high-tempered also, generally opinionated and occasionally irascible. Even in Cooperstown he became involved in a dispute which calls for no consideration now. In his travels in Europe he had been quick to repel ignorant aspersion against his native land; and on his return home he had not hesitated to point out the failings and the faults of his fellow-citizens, not always with the suavity which persuades to a change of heart. Bitterly attacked in the newspapers, he defended himself with his pen and in the courts of law.
That he was meanly assailed by mean men is shown by the fact that he was successful in the several libel suits he brought against his traducers. But the echoes of these “old, unhappy far-off things and battles long ago” have died away now these many years; and they need not be recalled. Cooper was independent and uncompromising; “his character,” so Bryant testified, “was like the bark of the cinnamon, a rough and astringent rind without, and an intense sweetness within.”
Although these needless disputes may have saddened the later years of his life, he was happy in his family and in his friends, whom he bound to him with hoops of steel. These friends, with Bryant and Irving at the head of them, were making ready for a public dinner to testify the high esteem in which they held him, when they heard that his health had begun to fail. He was then contemplating a sixth“Leatherstocking Tale;” but he did not live to start on his new story. And it was at Cooperstown that he died, in the fall of 1851, on the last day of his sixty-second year.
Fame has its tides, its flood and its ebb, like the ocean; and the author who is lifted high by a wave of popularity is certain in time to sink into the trough of the sea, perhaps to be raised aloft again by a later billow. The fame of Cooper soared after his first successes, only to fall away sadly during the later controversies. It was proclaimed again by Bryant and Bancroft and Parkman in the stress of emotion evoked by his sudden death, only to be obscured once more in the two score years that followed, as other literary fashions came into favor. Now, at last, in this new century, it has emerged once more, solidly established on his real merits and not likely again to be called in question. Time has made its unerring choice from out his many books, selecting those which are most representative of his genius at its finest. It is by its peaks that we measure the height of a mountain, and not by its foot-hills and its valleys. Irving had Cooper in mind when he remarked that “in life they judge a writer by his last production; after death by what he has done best.” No author can go down to posterity with a baggage-wagon full of his complete works; he can descend that long trail laden only with what will go in the saddlebags.
Cooper is a born story-teller; and the kind of story he excels in is the tale of adventure, peopled, now and again, with vital and veracious characters, having a life of their own, independent of the situations in which they may chance to be actors. Of this kind of story the Odyssey is the earliest example, as it is the greatest. Professor Trent is only just when he insists that Cooper lifted “the story of adventure into the realms of poetry.” It may be acknowledged at once that he is not a flawless artist, never quitting his work till he has made it as perfect as he can; and his best books are not always kept up to their highest level. Even though he is denied the gift of verse, he is essentially a poet; but he is no Vergil, no Racine, interested in his manner as much as in his matter, and joying in his craftsmanship for its own sake. He had the largeness of affluent genius, and also the carelessness which often accompanies this, such as we may observe also in Scott and even in Shakespeare, rich creators of character, in whose works there is much that we could desire to be different and not a little that we could wish away.
As his devoted daughter has admitted loyally, “He never was, in the sense of studied preparation, an artist in the composition of a work of fiction. He wrote, as it were, from the inspiration of the moment.” But even in this improvisation his native gift of narrative did not desert him. “It is easy to find fault with The Last of the Mohicans,” said Parkman; “but it is far from easy to rival or even approach its excellence. The book has the genuine game-flavor; it exhales the odors of the pine-woods and the freshness of the mountain wind.” In this story, as in others, the author may be sluggish in starting, over-leisurely in exposition, not always plausible in the motives assigned for the entanglements in which his creatures are immeshed; he may be inconsistent now and then; but these are minor defects, forgotten when the tale tightens to the tensity of drama. Then the interest is beyond all question; and we cannot choose but hear. We read on, not. merely to learn what is to happen next, but to know more about the characters as they reveal themselves under the stress of danger. We are not mere spectators looking on idly; we are made to see the thing as it is; we feel ourselves almost participants in the action; we are carried along by the sheer power of the writer, — breathless, delighted, convinced.
There are two reasons why Cooper has come into his own later than was his right, and why full recognition of his genius has been delayed. The first is a consequence of the enduring vogue of realism, which has failed to perceive that he was one of its precursors, and which has no relish for his more evident romanticism. Yet sharp-eyed critics ought to have been able to see that Cooper’s detailed descriptions of customs and of costumes, when these were truly characteristic and needful to relate the character to the background, set a pattern for Balzac, the romanticist thus serving as a stimulus to the realist. They might even have noted that Cooper is a romanticist who is often a realist, just as Balzac is a realist who is often a romanticist. In all later fiction there are no more sternly veracious characters than Natty Bumppo and Long Tom Coffin; and though the method of their presentation is not so modern, they can withstand comparison with Huckleberry Finn and Silas Lapham, and with Colonel Newcome and old Goriot.
A second reason for the tardiness of Cooper’s recognition may be found in the fact that the vicissitudes of literary reputation seem to be more or less dependent on the historians of literature, and, as it happens, Cooper’s deficiencies as a writer are of a kind obnoxious to the ordinary literary critics, who are rarely broad-minded or keen-sighted enough to perceive beneath Cooper’s more obvious defects the larger merits, which are clear to the plain people, insensitive to the lesser blemishes that send shivers down the spine of the dilettante. These critics are unmoved by Cooper’s fundamental force, which the plain people feel fully, while they are acutely sensitive to his lapses from literary conventions and traditions. Cooper came to story-telling late, without any apprenticeship to writing. He was not at all bookish; he was not a man of the library, but a man of the open air, — of the ocean and of the forest. In a sense, he was not a man of letters at all; he was interested not so much in literature as in life itself. And we must recall the pitiful fact also that there are always fastidious criticasters who think that whatever wins wide popularity must be poor stuff, ignorant that nearly all the really great artists have achieved indisputable popularity while they were alive to enjoy it.
Cooper’s lack of early training cannot be gainsaid; and therefore his style appeals but little to those who cherish a rare word for its own sake and who delight in verbal marquetry. Even if he is essentially a poet, he is no sonneteer, polishing his lines until he can see his own image in them. He is careless of the rules of rhetoric,—sometimes unforgivably careless. Even in grammar he was no purist, no precisian; and his use of words is not always defensible, even if it is an overstatement of the case to charge him with “linguistic astigmatism.” But if there is clumsy writing in his pages, this is never the result of the failure of any attempt at fine writing. Awkward he may be at times, but he is always sincere and direct; he is always unpretentious and simple, He has something to say, and he says it, so as to stamp “on the mind of the reader the impression he desired to convey.” He achieves the primary object of all good writing, in that he makes himself clearly understood, even if he sometimes fails to attain the secondary purpose of giving added pleasure by the mere expression. In describing nature and in depicting character, his style is nervous and unerring; and it can rise on occasion into genuine eloquence. When Bryant first read the Pioneers, he declared that here was “the poet of rural life in this country;” and Parkman praised the vigor and the fidelity of Cooper’s descriptions of scenery, asserting that they who cannot feel the efficiency of his “strong picturing have neither heart nor mind for the grandeur of the outer world.”
After admitting that Cooper is not beyond reproach for an occasional laxity in his style, for an occasional stiffness in his dialogue, and for an occasional prolixity in his narrative, it may be as well to add that sometimes he fatigues himself and his readers in the search for comic relief. Even Scott is not infrequently tedious in his minor characters, meant to be laughed at; and as Cooper lacked Scott’s real richness of humor, he is more often tiresome and at greater length. There are passages of admirable humor scattered here and there in Cooper’s pages, seemingly unconscious, most of them; and there are quaint characters sketched with a keen appreciation of their absurdities. But it must be confessed that when he sets out to be funny by main strength, he is plainly joking with difficulty. It is as though he thrust his hand into the grabbag of our variegated humanity, willing to take whatever his fingers might find, whether it was truly a prize, like his great creations, or only a wooden doll dressed like a figure of fun and unfit to be thrust to the front of the stage.
Perhaps this may account in some measure for the flatness of a few of his female characters. He can draw women sympathetically, although some of his heroines are a little colorless. The wife of Ishmael Bush, the squatter, mother of seven stalwart sons and sister of a murderous rascal, is an unforgettable portrait, solidly painted by a master; and Dew-of-June, the girl-wife of the treacherous Arrowhead, a primitive type but eternally feminine, is depicted with equal art. Judith and Hetty, the supposed daughters of the buccaneer, are real and vivid and feminine, both of them. And it is to be remembered also that women must ever play a minor part in the tale of adventure, since the bolder experiences in life are not fit for gentle and clinging heroines; and more often than not Cooper presents them with a kind of chivalric aloofness.
These adverse criticisms need not detain us. There is no denying that there are weak spots in Cooper’s works; and there is no advantage in seeking to disguise this or to gloss it over. Cooper is what he is, — even if he is not what he is not. He is a teller of tales, a creator of character, a poet; and in his chosen form he has left more than one masterpiece. Very few masterpieces are absolutely free from defects; but defects, however obvious and however numerous, have never prevented the ultimate appreciation of a masterpiece.
That Cooper was able to leave more than one masterpiece behind him was due mainly, of course, to his own genius, but it was the consequence also of a singular piece of luck. It was his good fortune to take up novel-writing at the precise moment in the history of the art of fiction when one of his predecessors had just provided him with the exact model he needed, and when another had just revealed the richness of the material that lay ready to his hand. The year 1820, in which his imitation of a British novel had proved to him that he could at least tell a story, even though his subject might be alien to all his interests, was also the year in which Scott sent forth Ivanhoe and in which Irving completed the Sketch Book, containing “Rip van Winkle” and the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Scott supplied Cooper with the mould into which he could pour whatever he might have to express; and Irving disclosed the unsuspected possibilities of romance in American life, which had hitherto been deemed too barren and too bare for the creative artist to attempt. Irving’s delightful tales may have drawn Cooper’s attention to the kind of matter he could deal with most satisfactorily, while Scott’s historical novel certainly indicated the manner in which he might handle it most advantageously.
It is characteristic of genius to be uninventive of formulas and to take over unhesitatingly the patterns which chance to be popular. Sophocles followed closely in the footsteps of Æschylus, and Shakespeare found his profit at first in accepting the frameworks which had been put together by Marlowe and by Kyd. That author is lucky who finds a formula ready to his hand and fit for the work he wants to do, as that author is unfortunate who has no inspiring model. Perhaps we have here a reason why one of Cooper’s forerunners, Charles Brockden Brown, a man of undeniable endowment, was able to leave so little that to-day abides in our memories. He had before him only the unsatisfactory fictions of Mrs. Radcliffe and of Godwin; and it is an interesting speculation to inquire whether he might not have rivaled Cooper if he had lived a score of years later, and had written only after Scott had devised the historical novel.
Scott had begun by editing the ballads of the Border and by writing ballads of his owm. Then he rhymed the longer Lady of the Lake and Marmion, retaining the tone and color of the ballad. When he was “beaten out of poetry” by Byron, he began to do in prose what he had been doing in verse, availing himself fully of the larger liberty that prose allows for description and for character-delineation. This accounts for the romantic element in his novels; and the realistic element is the result of his desire to do for the Scots peasant what Miss Edgeworth had done for the Irish. The first eight of the prose narratives we now know as the Waverley Novels dealt, with adventures in his own country, and they were then generally called the “Scottish Novels.” But Scott wisely feared that “Scotland forever” might weary the English public sooner or later; so he crossed the border and employed in a tale of England the method he had invented for tales of Scotland. Ivanhoe is, in fact, the first English historical novel, with romantic episodes in the foreground and with realistic characters in the background. Ivanhoe appeared in 1820; and in 1821 Scott was encouraged by its success to cross the channel and to use the same framework for a tale of France, Quentin Durward.
It is easy now to see how much Scott lost when he left his native land, which he knew so intimately, for other countries with which he had only a literary acquaintance. His humbler Scots characters, whom he loved so heartily and whom he drew with such fidelity, are rooted in truth; and they abide to-day as the bulwarks of his fame. But the valiant young fellow who tilts in tourneys and fights a long fight and bears a charmed life, this bravura hero is now out of fashion, along with the rest of the frippery of romanticism. His deeds of dering-do may still please the boy in us, — the boy eternal in all of us at some stage of our mental development; but he fails to satisfy grown men, who can still relish the permanently veracious figures of Scott’s realism, — Jeanie Deans, for example, and Caleb Balderstone. Tales of adventure come and go, one after another; they please the fancy of the moment, only to sink swiftly into oblivion; but character honestly presented must survive as long as man is interested in his fellow-creatures.
There is no denying, however, that the formula of the historical novel as Scott declared it, with its core of romanticism and its casing of realism, was pleasing to the many-headed and many-minded public; and there is no cause for wonder that it was seized upon at once by other novelists in other countries. It was the formula which exactly fitted the kindred genius of Cooper, who also had the native gift of story-telling and the power of presenting simple and primitive character. Both the romantic and the realistic elements of Scott’s framework appealed strongly to Cooper, who had the same rapidity of action, the same inventiveness of situation, the same command of pathos, even though his human sympathy might be less broad and his humor far less abundant. But Cooper never imitated Scott slavishly. He found in Scott’s stories a formula fit for his use, and he availed himself of it, modifying it freely. He did in America very much what Hugo and Dumas were to do in France, and Manzoni in Italy; he borrowed the loom set up by Scott, only to weave on it a web of his own coloring.
Scott is generally considered as a historical novelist; but Cooper’s historical novels are not his chief title to fame. Indeed, the best of them are scarcely to be classed at all as historical novels in the narrower sense, since they do not seek to evoke the manners and the man of long ago. The Spy and the Pilot deal with the American Revolution; and this was hardly more remote from Cooper than were the Napoleonic wars from Thackeray when he wrote Vanity Fair, which we accept now rather as a picture of society contemporary with the author, than as a historical novel. True romance does not require the remoteness of the past; and it is not the real artist, but the magiclantern operator, who has to have the room darkened before he can display his pictures from life. The revolutionary conflict had come to a happy conclusion less than two score years before Cooper chose to put it into fiction, and he had many friends who were survivors of the strife. That war was nearer to him than the Civil War is to us to-day. There was no strain of the imagination needful before he could put himself back in the times that tried men’s souls; and he was not compelled to step off his own shadow, as Scott vainly strove to do when he composed Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward.
The Pilot is like the Spy in that it is a novel of the American revolution, although its scenes are not on the land, but on the ocean mainly, and also in that the nameless hero is a seemingly enigmatic yet fundamentally simple character, like the vaguely glimpsed figure of Harvey Birch. Although the Pilot is the result of a desire to deal more effectively with life on the blue water than has been accomplished in the Pirate, no story of Cooper’s more clearly reveals his real independence of Scott. The manner may be more or less similar; but the matter is wholly unlike, and so is the point of view. Scott is a landsman, a dweller in court-rooms and libraries; Cooper is a sailor, a man of the ocean, with a tang of the salt air in him. When he sailed before the mast in the merchant marine, he had bunked with the able seamen in the forecastle, and he knew them through and through. When he received his commission in the navy, he gained an equal intimacy with the officers of the ward-room. When he set out to tell the first sea-tale ever attempted, he was writing out of the fullness of knowledge, and he was accomplishing a labor of love.
It is not easy for us now to perceive that the Pilot was a most daring experiment in fiction. No one had ever ventured to lay a story boldly on the sea and to seek for interest in the handling of a ship. Now and again, it is true, an episode or two of a novel had taken place on the ocean; and storms at sea had tempted the pens of the poets. But the novelists and the poets were landsmen, all of them; and they could not choose but take the landsman’s attitude of dread rather than the sailor’s attitude of delight. They had never felt the joy of the seaman, when the wind blows high and the giant surges sweep ahead, and there is no land within a hundred miles. Cooper was a novelist and a poet and also a sailor-man; he knew ships because he had lived on them and loved them; he knew seamen because he had lived with them and appreciated their special qualities.
There is a storm in the Odyssey ; but Homer was a landsman who looked at the sea with the eyes of a landsman, even if he may have made a few coasting trips between the mainland and the isles of Greece. There is a storm in the Æneid also; but Vergil achieved only a studiopiece, a cento from the Greek poets. Robinson Crusoe, mariner of York, was wrecked by a gale and cast away; but although Defoe had crossed the channel and had perhaps even braved the Bay of Biscay, he dealt with the storm only as a device to get his hero alone on an island. Smollett had been a surgeon’s mate in the navy, and had sailed the Western Ocean; but his eye was open only for the strange humors of seafaring men, and there is no love for the sea in any of his comic chronicles, no understanding of its might and its mystery. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre had gone on long voyages in distant waters, and he was able to call up a tornado to make an end of Paul and Virginia; but he was only an artist in emotional description; he did not know the sea and love it as a sailor knows it and loves it. Scott in the Pirate had proved again the landsman’s incapacity to get full value out of a sea-theme; and it was this story of Scott’s which moved Cooper to undertake the Pilot.
Here at last was the real thing, a story of the ocean, of vessels manœuvring, of sailors as they are, — the work of a sailor who was also a teller of tales, a creator of character, a poet. Here was the formula to be handed down to those who might come after, to Melville and to Marryat, — good story-tellers, both of them, but lacking in Cooper’s double experience as a sailor before the mast in a merchant vessel, and as an officer on the quarterdeck of a man-of-war. The very novelty of the Pilot, its originality, seemed to the author’s friends dangerous, and they discouraged him. Perhaps this is the reason why the story is a little slow in getting under way, and why the author sometimes tacks more than once before coming to close quarters. There are a few scenes on land, far less interesting than those at sea. But how veracious and convincing is the character of Long Tom Coffin! How vigorous and how humorous is the pinning of the British officer to the mast by Long Tom’s harpoon! How superb is the account of the ship working off-shore in a gale! It is no wonder that the French naval historian, Admiral Jurien de la Gravière, declared that “he could never read it without his pulse thrilling again with the joy of seamanship.”
Heartened by the cordial acceptance of this first sea-tale, Cooper soon spun another yarn, the Red Rover, the action of which was laid wholly on the water, — after the opening chapters. In none of his novels does Cooper better display his mastery of narrative, and his power of sustaining interest. Thereafter Cooper could not long be kept away from saltwater; he wrote sea-tale after sea-tale, until there were half a score of them, setting forth the most varied aspects of the unstable element. In Wing-and-Wing he skirted the lovely shores of the Mediterranean; and in the Two Admirals he set in array a goodly fleet on the Atlantic. Although these ten sea-tales are not all of equal excellence, they are all proofs of his love for life afloat, of his insight into the shifting moods of nature, and of his understanding of the hardy men who go down to the sea in ships. They all reveal his ability to make the average reader perceive and enjoy technical operations. They are all more or less touched with the poetry of the sea, and instinct with the gliding grace of the vessels themselves. Cooper’s “ships live,” so Captain Mahan has informed us; “they are handled as ships then were and act as ships still would act under the circumstances.” And the historian of sea-power holds that the water is “a noble field for the story-teller, for of all inanimate objects, a sailing ship in her vivid movement most nearly simulates life.”
“Cooper of the wood and wave,” as Stevenson affectionately termed him, is not more at home on the ocean than he is in the forest. Fine as are the sea-tales, they are surpassed in power and in popularity by the five stories in which the career of Leatherstocking is traced from youth to old age. In the character typified in Leatherstocking, Lowell found “the protagonist of our New World epic, a figure as poetic as that of Achilles, as ideally representative as that of Don Quixote, as romantic in his relation to our homespun and plebeian myths as Arthur in his to his mailed and plumed cycle of chivalry.” And Thackeray declared that he liked Scott’s manly and unassuming heroes, but he avowed that he thought Cooper’s were quite their equals and that “perhaps Leatherstocking is better than any one in Scott’s lot. La Longue Carabine is one of the great prize-men of fiction. He ranks with your Uncle Toby, Sir Roger de Coverley, Falstaff — heroic figures all, American or British; and the artist has deserved well of his country who devised him.” Perhaps there is no better proof of Cooper’s genuine power than that he can insist on Leatherstocking’s goodness, — a dangerous gift for a novelist to bestow on a man, — and that he can show us Leatherstocking declining the advances of a handsome woman,—a dangerous position for a novelist to put a man in, —without any reader ever having felt inclined to think Leatherstocking a prig. We believe in his simpleminded goodness; and he keeps our sympathy in his rejection of Judith as in Mabel’s rejection of him.
Cooper was shrewd in his judgment of his own works; and he said himself that “if anything from the pen of the writer of these romances is at all to outlive himself, it is, unquestionably, the series of the Leatherstocking Tales.” For the deserved popularity of this series, abiding now nearly three score years since the author’s death, there are many reasons besides the noble simplicity and the sturdy veracity of the central character. There are other figures as fresh and as real. There is Hurry Harry; there is Ishmael Bush; both of them necessary types of men bred on the border. There are Chingachgook and Uncas and Hardheart, good men and true. There is all the glamour of frontier life, now faded forever. There is the underlying poetry of the unbroken forest and of the sweeping prairie, of the broad lakes, and of the rapid streams. There are linked adventures of breathless interest, studded with moments of poignant emotion, — the death-grip of the wounded Indian over the falls, in the Last of the Mohicans, the implacable execution of the traitor in the Prairie, and many another in the other tales, scarcely less tense with tragedy. There is the rich gift of narrative; there are vigor and accuracy of description. There is unfailing fertility of invention; and there is also the larger interpreting imagination. There are pictures of resourcefulness in the presence of danger, and of courage in the face of death. There is unstrained pathos. And behind all these things, there is the author himself, delighting in his work and sustaining his story by his manly wisdom and his elemental force.
There would be no need to say more about this series, if it had not been attacked for one of its most salient characteristics, — for its presentation of the red men with whom the white men of the forest and the prairie were ever at war. Scorn has been heaped high on Cooper’s Indians; they have been denounced as wooden images, fit only to stand outside cigar stores; and they have been described as belonging to “an extinct tribe that never existed.” The first of these criticisms may be dismissed as foolish; whether true or false, Chingachgook and Uncas and Hardheart are alive. The color on their cheeks is not redder than the blood in their skins. Just as West, when he first beheld the Apollo Belvidere, was made to think of a Mohawk brave, so Longfellow, at a performance of Corneille’s Cid by the Comédie Française, was reminded of Cooper’s Indians “by its rude power, and a certain force and roughness.” The second charge, however, that they are not taken from life, calls for consideration. Parkman, for example (to be cited always with the utmost respect), held Cooper’s Indians to be false to the fact as he had seen it himself. But the aborigines have been studied more sympathetically in the sixty years that have elapsed since Parkman tramped the Oregon trail; and our riper knowledge has revealed a poetry in the red man and a picturesqueness very like those with which Cooper endowed him.
It is often assumed that we are indebted to Cooper for the idealized “noble savage,” whom Rousseau evolved from his inner consciousness, and who is as remote as possible from the real man at any stage of his social evolution. But this noble savage is not to be discovered anywhere in Cooper’s stories. As Mr. Brownell has recently pointed out, Cooper does not at all idealize the red man; “in general, he endows the Indian with traits which would be approved even by the ranchman, the rustler, or the army officer.” And his Indians are the result of early intimacy and of conscientious study. His daughter has told us how he followed the frequent Indian delegations from town to town, observing them carefully, conversing with them freely, and impressed “with the vein of poetry and of laconic eloquence marking their brief speeches.”
If there is any lack of faithfulness in Cooper’s presentation of the Indian character, it is due to the fact that he was a romancer, and therefore an optimist, bent on making the best of things. He told the truth as he saw it and nothing but the truth; but he did not always tell the whole truth. The Indian was rising from savagery into barbarism, with all that this implies; and Cooper puts before us the Indian’s courage and his fortitude, leaving more or less in the shadow the Indian’s ferocity and his cruelty. That this was Cooper’s intent is plain from a passage in the preface to the Leatherstocking Tales, wherein he declares that “ it is the privilege of all writers of fiction, more particularly when their works aspire to the elevation of romances, to present the beau ideal of their characters to the reader. This it is which constitutes poetry, and to suppose that the red man is to be represented only in the squalid misery or in the degraded state that certainly more or less belongs to his condition, is, we apprehend, taking a very narrow view of an author’s privileges.” Here again Cooper was akin to Scott, who chose to dwell only on the bright side of chivalry and to picture the merry England of Richard Lionheart as a far pleasanter period to live in than it could have been in reality. Cooper’s red men are probably far closer to the actual facts than Scott’s black knights and white ladies. And when all is said, Chingachgook and Uncas and Hardheart, even if not absolutely truthful, justify themselves; they linger long in the memory; they stand forth boldly, for their author has breathed into them the breath of life.
Parkman might find fault with the validity of Cooper’s Indians, but he had been taken captive by their vitality. There was a time when [the [historian was “so identified with the novelist’s red heroes that he dreamed of them.” Just as it was the reading of Scott’s romances which stirred Thierry to write the history of the Norman Conquest, so it was the reading of Cooper’s romances which started Parkman on his life-long task, the history of the protracted struggle between France and England here in America. Probably it was Cooper also, quite as much as Parkman, who moved another American historian to narrate the successive stages of the Winning of the West; and Mr. Roosevelt has been glad always to testify to the stern reality of Cooper’s steadfast borderers.
This reveals to us that, underlying the Leatherstocking Tales and lending significance to them, is the fact that they set forth imaginary episodes in a real struggle, — in that long and inevitable conflict between two opposing civilizations, which looms larger than any mere war, and which has true epic grandeur in the clash of contending racial ideals. This is what lends to the Leatherstocking Tales their largeness; and this is what gives them their major meaning for us. They help to explain how it was that these United States came to be what they are.
Cooper has told us in the introduction to the Spy that, after he had published his empty imitation of a British novel, it became a matter of reproach among his friends that “he, an American in heart as in birth,” should have depicted “a state of society so different from that to which he belonged.” This reproach it was which moved him to undertake the Spy, in which “he chose patriotism for his theme.” And patriotism is the theme of all his greater books.
Cooper was intensely American in his feeling, and yet broadly cosmopolitan in his outlook on the world. Not for nothing had he been an officer in the American navy and also a long sojourner in Europe. He had a noble detachment from all that was petty and temporary. In his novels he is curiously fair to all manner of foreigners, possessing apparently the subtle sympathy which gives understanding. And here he stands in striking contrast with only too many of his countrymen four score years ago, who were at one and the same time provincial in their boastfulness and colonial in their subservient deference to the opinion of the mothercountry. Cooper was stanchly patriotic; “with him,” so Professor Lounsbury tells us, “love of country was not a sentiment, it was a passion.” Perhaps because of his unbounded faith in the future of his native land, he was not blind to her present faults; and while he “defended his country from detractors abroad, he sought to save her from flatterers at home,” — to borrow Bryant’s apt phrase. Lowell was to perform a similar service half a century later; and it is a gratifying proof of our growth in independence, that Lowell aroused scarcely a tithe of the vindictive animosity which vented itself on Cooper, and which not only assailed the man, but also depreciated the author.
The elder Dana dwelt upon Cooper’s “self-reliance and civil courage, which would with equal freedom speak out in the face of the people, whether they were friendly or adverse.” Civic courage is a virtue none too common, even nowadays; and Cooper possessed it in a high degree. It needs to be noted also that Cooper’s opinions upon public matters were not casual or freakish; they were founded on principle. He had given careful consideration to the affairs of state; and he had a political philosophy of his own, more solidly buttressed than we can discover in the equipment of any other writer of romance of our century, whether American or European. Recall the thinness of Dickens’s political theories, for example, or of Hawthorne’s. Even Hugo’s are found on analysis to be vague and fantastic. “Cooper’s politics,” so Mr. Brownell has reminded us, “are rational, discriminating, and suggestive. He knew men as Lincoln knew them — which is to say very differently from Dumas and Stevenson.” There is no demand on any of us that we shall accept Cooper’s political theories, or reduce them to a system. It is enough that he had a body of doctrine, complete and clear, which gives a certain solidity to his fiction, lacking in that of all the others who have undertaken the tale of adventure.
It is the triple duty of the novelist and of the dramatist to make us see, to make us feel, and to make us think. Cooper succeeded in making his readers think, even though they might resent it, because he had done his own thinking in advance. And his thinking had not been done in a vacuum; he was not only shrewd and sagacious, he had also an immense variety of information, not merely upon the ocean and the forest, but upon subjects as remote as horticulture and agriculture and stock-raising. His friends were “struck with the inexhaustible vivacity of his conversation and the minuteness of his knowledge in everything which depended upon acuteness of observation and exactness of recollection.”
When all is said, Cooper stands forth a large man, in himself, in his work, and in the range of his influence. If we may judge an author by the variety of those he has stimulated, Cooper must take high rank. He has stirred a host of other writers, often men who pursued wholly different artistic ideals. He drew from Balzac “roars of pleasure and admiration;” and Dumas avowedly imitated him in the Mohicans of Paris. Mr. Kipling once remarked to me, after a rereading of Cooper, that he had come across scene after scene which he knew already in the narratives of later novelists, and that a host of later writers had been going to Cooper’s works, as to a storehouse of striking situations where they could help themselves, so fertile in invention was the earlier American author. Even Thackeray did not disdain to borrow from him the hint of one of his noblest chapters; and Poe may have taken over the suggestion of the method of his marvelously acute M. Dupin from the skill with which Cooper’s redskins followed a trail blind to eyes less acute than theirs. Better than any other American author, save Poe, so Professor Trent has asserted, Cooper “stands the test of cosmopolitan fame;” and his share in the swift spreading of the romantic movement throughout Europe is almost, if not quite, equal to the share of Scott and of Byron.
A poet, a teller of tales which moved many others to imitation and from which many others might borrow, he was above all else a creator of characters, which could not be taken from him. It is by the characters he brings into being that a novelist survives; and it is by this test that he must abide. And certain of the wisest critics of the nineteenth century have testified to Cooper’s power of giving life to creatures that the world will not willingly let die. Lowell made sure that Natty Bumppo
Than Adams the parson and Primrose the
Sainte-Beuve declared that Cooper possessed that “creative faculty which brings into the world new characters, and by virtue of which Rabelais produced Panurge, Le Sage Gil Blas, and Richardson Pamela.” There can be no higher praise than this. Cooper deserved it; and by so deserving it, as Thackeray said, he has deserved well of his country.