James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)
Contributing Editor: Geoffrey Rans
Classroom Issues and Strategies
I have found it better not to insist on Cooper's formal powers at the outset, nor even on his obvious importance as an innovator and initiator in American fiction. Rather, it is effective to invite the students to discuss the substantive issues that arise in a reading of Cooper. Their importance and typicality in the American literary experience remain alive to students in various historical transformations, and Cooper presents them in unresolved and problematic formations.
While the passages selected in The Heath Anthology raise obvious and important issues--of empire, of political theory, of nature versus civilization, law, conservation, religion, race, family, American history--one Leather-Stocking novel should be studied in its entirety. Depending on where the instructor places most emphasis, The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Deerslayer are the most accessible. In any case, any study of even the selected passages requires some "story-telling" by the instructor.
The discussion of The Pioneers or other novels can become, as well, a discussion of the competing claims on the student's attention to form and content: whether form is always possible or desirable; whether the unresolved issues in history are in any sense "resolved" in works of art; how the desire for narrative or didactic closure competes with the recognition of an incomplete and problematic history and political theory. Approach questions of empire, race, progress, civilization, family, law, and power, and lead back from them to the literary issues.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. Historical myth and ideology. How do they differ? How do they interact?
4. Power and property
5. The land
8. Gender and family
9. Cooper's contradictory impulses: see Parrington (10)
11. The environment
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
1. Didacticism, resolved and unresolved
2. Romance--the Scott tradition: see Orlans (10)
5. Conventions of description and dialogue, epic and romantic
7. For advanced students: the question of the order of composition, and the literary effect on the reader of anachronism
I stress how the issues that were urgent to Cooper and his readers (they are evident in the novels, but see also Parrington) are alive today. Some attention should be given to the demand for a national literature, and the expectations of the American Romance (see Orlans).
Indispensable reading for this period is Nina Baym's Novelists, Readers and Reviewers (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Here are some pursuable issues:
1. Crèvecoeur: slavery, Indians, the agrarian ideology and its betrayal.
4. The nonfiction writers of the Revolution and the New Republic: Jefferson, the Federalists.
5. Faulkner: race, history. Carolyn Porter's chapters on Faulkner (see 10) might seem relevant to Cooper to some instructors.
6. Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Before starting Cooper, an assembly of the issues raised in the course about form, the canon, and the literature of Colonial, Revolutionary, and New Republican times should be given by the instructor.
2. I have found the following areas particularly fruitful for student essays on Cooper:
(a) Confusion, contradiction, and resolution
(b) Myth versus reality
(d) Law and justice
(e) Power in all its forms: class, race, military, political, and property
(f) Attitudes toward nature and the environment
The chapters on Cooper in the following books (subtitles omitted):
Bewley, Marius. The Eccentric Design. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.
Fisher, Philip. Hard Facts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.
Orlans, G. Harrison. "The Romance Ferment after Waverly." 3 (1932): 408-31.
Parrington, Vernon L. Main Currents in American Thought. Vol. 2. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1927.
Porter, Carolyn. Seeing and Being. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1981. The chapters on Faulkner.
Rans, Geoffrey. "Inaudible Man: The Indian in the Theory and Practice of White Fiction." Canadian Review of American Studies VII (1977): 104-15.
Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land. New York: Vintage, 1950.
Tompkins, Jane. "Indians: Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History." Critical Inquiry 13 (1986): 101-19.
--. Sensational Designs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.