Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Benefits

When writing of James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain had pedantic satire in mind. His purpose, really, had little to do with the possibilities of enjoyment through Cooper’s work; his goal was amusement of his own audience. Cooper’s reputation was well established and, I am sure, Mark Twain thought he would have little impact upon it. One current parallel would be all the fun that is had at the expense of Ernest Hemingway. The sale of his books has been little affected.

But literary reputations are fragile, especially when attacked by those at the top of the current literary establishment. Where, by 1895, Mark Twain surely resided.

Half a century later, Edmund Wilson lived there, too. Like Mark Twain, he was in a position for the easy breaking of a reputation and, like Mark Twain, he did so–for American scholars, at least. In a New Yorker article published on June 8, 1946, he wrote:

It has happened to me from time to time to run into some person of taste who tells me that I ought to take Somerset Maugham seriously, yet I have never been able to convince myself that he was anything but second-rate. His swelling reputation in America[…] seems to me a conspicuous sign of the general decline of our standards.[…] There are real writers, like Balzac and Dreiser, who may be said to write badly. Dreiser handles words abominably, but his prose has a compelling rhythm, which is his style and which induces the emotions that give his story its poetic meaning. But Mr. Maugham, whose use of words is banal, has no personal rhythm at all, nor can he create for us a poetic world.

That clearly echos Mark Twain on Cooper:

Cooper’s word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate words.

The impact, in both cases, has been long-lasting. Look at syllabi for 19th Century American Literature and for 20th Century British Literature courses in most American universities: you won’t find much of either Cooper or Maugham. Yet Cooper remains well read and even loved, and Maugham is still one of the most popular writers in English, worldwide.

Both Maugham and Cooper were extremely prolific. Perhaps, following Ben Jonson’s plaint about Shakespeare, it would have been better had they blotted out thousands of lines. But they remain two of the most popular writers from their times and need to be recognized as real contributors to the great tradition of English-language fiction–and not just in passing.

I have long disagreed with Wilson about Maugham. Among my favorite novels are The Razor’s EdgeCakes and Ale, and The Moon and Sixpence. Maugham’s short stories, I find, are always worth returning to–and I do, often.

This comes to my mind as I re-read The Pioneers, the first time I’ve looked into Cooper since a class with Cooper biographer Wayne Franklin thirty years ago. I have been a bit shocked by what I have found, for one rather personal reason and for another due to events of this summer. Through the combination, I am learning that I have long underestimated Cooper–basically by ignoring him–to my own loss. And I have been doing it through buying in to the commonplace attitudes toward him best exemplified by Mark Twain.

The personal reason for my surprise results from my subway reading. With two hours a day on trains and buses, I realized two years ago that I have the perfect opportunity to catch up on some of the 19th-century British fiction that I skirted in graduate school. I’ve been reading (and loving) things like Charles Dickens’ Domby and Son, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, George Elliot’s Adam Bede and Middlemarch, Anthony Trollope’s The American Senator and Doctor Thorne, and William Thackery’s Pendennis and Vanity Fair–and loving them. Steeped in all of this, I returned to Cooper with a better frame for reading him than I ever before had.

What I found is a delightful, engaging, and smart writer every bit the peer of his fellow novelists on the other side of the Atlantic. His flaws are their’s as well (especially in relation to class and assumptions about breeding) yet his strengths are his own. He is not the tedious novelist, master of ‘over-writing’ that I had imagined and even remembered.

Then there’s the greater reason: As we finally begin to face the reality of the human impact on global warming through a summer of drought and forest fire, I am struck by the three stances toward European interaction with ‘natural’ America presented by Cooper: Natty Bumppo’s ‘zero footprint’ approach, Marmaduke Temple’s concern for sustainability, and Richard Jones’s take-as-much-as-you-can attitude. These aren’t so different from major attitudes today (which is why I couch them in contemporary terms), though Bumppo’s has been rendered obsolete.

Furthermore, the fire at the climax of the novel is exacerbated by cutting that left the tops of trees in the forest where they dried into a kindling-like mass that allowed the fire to spread with rate and force that it never could have achieved on its own.

Cooper, to my surprise, is not only a better writer than I had thought, but he is much more relevant to problems we face today than I could ever have imagined. Not only does he lay out attitudes we still struggle to understand and, in some cases, to overcome, but he provides recognition that these are not modern creations but are things that have come down to us through generations of Americans. If we don’t deal with that fact, we will never manage to build any sort of consensus allowing us to successfully address what is quickly becoming a critical problem. Using Cooper to bring our contemporary debate into context is a very good idea.

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