The story is a familiar one: one evening in 1819 James Fenimore Cooper, rather unimpressed with a novel he had been reading, boasted to his wife, “I can write you a better novel than that myself.” Calling her husband’s bluff she replied, “Well, do it then.” And so the writing career of the first truly American author was born. Cooper was the first to use and celebrate American themes, settings, characters, and history in his works. The writing career of James Fenimore Cooper was long and storied. During his thirty-one-year career he wrote thirty-two novels, a history of the US Navy, a play, and other various pamphlets, fliers, etc. Cooper’s novels have received various critiques over the years. Some critics lauded his social commentary, while others dismissed his works as “boys’ books.” What cannot be denied was the popularity of his more famous works as noted by James Grossman: “His popularity soared so high that Americans, clamoring for a literature of their own, as a compliment, dubbed him the “‘American Scott'” (698). Now, with the emergence of ecological criticism, we have another reason to once again examine and interpret Cooper’s works. And once we begin this new examination, we find an entirely new emphasis in many of his novels-an emphasis on the landscape and the influence the landscape can have on a character and an entire work, as Donald Ringe notes, “We must always take into account, therefore, the interrelation of man and nature in Cooper’s work. To do otherwise is to court the serious danger of misunderstanding completely the fundamental meaning that Cooper is trying to express” (5-6). We have for sometime been aware of the environmental consciousness Cooper displayed (most notably by Natty Bumppo and Cooper’s commentary in the Leatherstocking Tales), but now we see that he also had a substantial interest in the landscape in a work, especially as milieu. Throughout his novels, Cooper used five distinct types of landscape: the wilderness, the island, the sea, the old country, and most importantly, the garden. While all of these landscapes had their uses for the main characters in the work, none were so influential or beneficial as the garden. The garden, to Cooper, was that area positioned between the city and the wilderness. This “middle state” was the absolute best place for the emergence of his new American gentleman, and no garden was as beneficial as his beloved Hudson Valley.
The Hudson River was first discovered by a European in 1524 by Giovanni da Verazano, who was exploring the North American coast for Francis I, king of France. In 1609, on a voyage sponsored by the Dutch, Henry Hudson sailed up the river as far as Albany, as Tim Mulligan points out, thinking the river might lead to a passage to the Orient (xv). This beautiful valley which lies between the Catskill and Taconic mountains was a centerpiece in our early history, especially during the Revolutionary War; as Rebecca Haynes points out, it was famous for “the chain across the Hudson, Benedict Arnold’s treason, and the site of Washington’s headquarters (2). The residents of this valley were one of our first groups of land owners to become an early American version of a landed gentry. Some residents obtained wealth and status from their early patents. Others (farmers, merchants, and tradesmen) were able to realize considerable wealth because of the ease of transportation the river provided to New York City and the fertile soil on which these farms rested-and, as Thomas Wermuth informs us,as went the farmers, so went the rest of the economy of the valley (25). This wealth allowed some of these residents to purchase more land and to rival original patent holders in acreage and, therefore, wealth.
This affluent life in the beautiful rolling hills along the Hudson River was the perfect setting for the emergence, according to Cooper, of a new American gentleman. Here the residents could benefit from several circumstances: the close relationship with the natural world, distance and disassociation from the corruption of the city, yet proximity to the city to take advantage of the good traits of the city-the arts and refinement of higher society, as I have stated elsewhere:
The American landscape was the perfect milieu for the emergence of [Cooper’s] “new gentleman” because of its rolling hills and rich farmland that lay in close proximity to both the wilderness and the city. Cooper could take the best of the wilderness (Edenic qualities) and the best of the cities (refinement) and merge them into the characteristics of the American gentleman. These rolling hills and rich farmlands constituted what Thomas Jefferson had termed the “middle state,” or garden. This was the critical area that defined America. (Newman 2)
To show how beneficial this landscape was to his potential gentleman, Cooper use a variety of other landscapes, some of which could be a malevolent influence on his characters.
This first of these landscapes to discuss is the wilderness, a landscape for which Cooper is perhaps most famous. The wilderness was a proper location, or milieu, for a gentleman’s right of passage, a good area for the gentleman to help it evolve into a garden, but not a good location to live. Notable tales which fall under this category include all the Leatherstocking tales, The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, Wyandotte, or The Hutted Knoll, and The Oak Openings. In all of these tales, the harsh conditions of living in wilderness conditions and surroundings are brought to the fore, conditions and surroundings which make the gentleman’s evolution impossible.
Another of Cooper’s landscapes which is not very beneficial to the potential gentleman is the island. The island, however, is rather uncertain; for one character it can be a Tartarus, for another a milieu for his right of passage or even a potential garden (an Eden). The novels in which Cooper employs the island landscape include Jack Tier, The Sea Lions, and The Crater,-the The Sea Lions being prime example of the island’s enigmatic influence on the characters. The island is indeed an ambiguous landscape in Cooper’s works. One of the prime reasons for this ambiguity is the island’s location-it is surrounded by the ocean, always “the unstable element” in Cooper’s words. The image of the sea is so pervasive in Cooper’s works that even when he discusses the American prairie-hundreds of miles from any saltwater-he uses maritime images (Cooper, Prairie 13). The parallels between the prairie and sea are evident in Cooper’s works, but his sea tales did more than to extend landscape similes and metaphors from the sea to the land and visa versa; in fact; his sea tales, as Thomas Philbrick notes, although overshadowed by his frontier tales, comprise more than a third of his works and were “regarded as a major achievement by many of his contemporaries, here and in England” (ix).
One of his sea tales which vividly illustrates the ambiguity of the island landscape is The Sea Lions. In this tale Cooper uses the island as a wilderness, a milieu in which his potential gentleman, Roswell, can undergo his right of passage. Throughout the tale, the island brings out the dominant traits of one’s moral composition; hence, Roswell becomes one of Cooper’s gentlemen because of his faith and kindness; Daggett, another character who also has a chance to complete a rite of passage, dies because of his duplicity and greed, as I have posited before:
Thus, The Sea Lions is more than a tale of greed and conversion- it is a test. . . . The result of this test illustrates that one of Cooper’s gentlemen can overcome the negative influence of the island on his psyche and morals, while another man, without the proper traits, will succumb to his depravity and perish. (Newman 69)
The island, therefore, is a rather ambiguous landscape. While the wilderness is not a proper place for a gentleman to reside but is the proper milieu for his right of passage, the island may be a proper place for a character to undergo a right of passage, depending on the character’s morals. While this ambiguity exists in the island landscape, there is no such ambiguity in the landscapes of the Old Country and of the sea.
The tales of the Old Country include The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, and The Headsman. In each of these tales the main character and potential gentleman is defeated in his quest to become a gentleman by Old World customs and mores. And the reason is quite simple: these characters are on unacceptable landscapes. The Headsman and The Heidenmauer are set in the treacherous Alps of Switzerland and in the mountains of Bavaria; The Bravo is set in canals of Venice. Neither of these landscapes even remotely resemble the rolling hills of the American garden (such as the Hudson Valley), the seat of democracy and free of Old World restraints, such as history, tradition, and heritage.
In the tales that deal with the sea and Old Country landscapes, the potential gentleman never attains gentleman status. There are just too many negative influences on these characters. In the sea tales such as Ned Myers and Wing and Wing, the cause for these characters’ inability to reach gentleman status is rather obvious-they spend too much time on the sea, the unstable element. Ned Myers is indeed a sad tale, for Ned seals his fate early in his life by deciding on a life at sea; as I have said before, “his life becomes one long, tragic, existence at sea, spiraling downward until his final days spent in an old salt’s haven”; during this tragic life, Ned sailed on approximately 72 ships, watched 108 men die, was a prisoner of war, and was finally wounded bad enough to be crippled. His 33 years at sea have left him a cripple with a wound in his side, creating a somewhat warped maritime Jesus Christ figure (Newman 79). This is what a life at sea on the “unstable element” results in for Cooper’s potential gentleman.
Another unhappy ending is in store for Raoul Yvard of Wing and Wing. He too has spent too much time at sea, albeit fighting for his country, France. And while Ned Myers’ life is indeed a sad tale, the tale of Raoul is perhaps even more of a tragedy. Ned’s life does not affect the happiness or quality of another persons life; Raoul’s does. With his death, his true love, Ghita, is resigned to a tragic life of her own: “. . . she retired to a convent, not so much to comply with any religious superstitions, as to be able to pass her time uninterrupted, in repeating prayers for Raoul. . . .” (Cooper, Wing 385). A life spent at sea results in the early death of one character and life in a convent at prayers for another.
No, a life at sea is no place for one of Cooper’ s potential gentlemen. Like the wilderness, it is an acceptable place for a character to undergo his right of passage, but he must leave “the unstable element” and return to land if he is to have any chance at becoming one of Cooper’s gentlemen. Furthermore, it is best if the potential gentleman not only returns to land, but also if he returns to a specific piece of land, the garden, which is most distinctly represented by Cooper’s beloved Hudson Valley. The beneficent influence the garden landscape has on a character is illustrated in a number of Cooper’s works, including the Littlepage manuscripts, comprised of Satanstoe, The Chainbearer, and The Redskins, and the Miles Wallingford tales.
The Littlepage manuscripts follow the title family through several generations and displays how a family and its gentlemen rise in status to become social leaders in a democracy. In Satanstoe the die is cast with life and accomplishments of Cornelius Littlepage, a.k.a. Corny. It is Corny who first ventures to the patent his family owns in up-state New York near Albany. He goes through many trials in his right of passage: leading the expedition to the patent in the wilderness; saving the life of his future wife, Anneke Mordaunt; fighting in the battle of Fort Ticonderoga; laying the foundations of Ravensnest and Mooseridge estates on the patent; and, most importantly, developing a mutualistic relationship with the land. It is this close relationship with the land that sets Cooper’s gentlemen apart. Cooper shows us there is a symmetry between the two evolutions-Corny into a man (gentleman) and the wilderness into a garden.
In The Chainbearer Mordaunt Littlepage (Mordy) completes his right of passage and makes more improvements to the land. For Mordy’s right of passage he must fight to keep what is his land. The threat to his land comes in the form of a squatter named Aaron Timberman, a.k.a. Thousandacres, who depleats all the resources from one parcel and then moves on to ruin another piece of land. In the end, Timberman dies as a result of the fighting between his clan and Mordy’s tenants, and Mordy is established as the true leader of the village that has arisen around his estate on his patent. Finally, Mordy has further developed the mutualistic relationship with the land his father started, making more improvements to the land and building an even larger home. With Mordy, the transition from wilderness to garden is complete.
In The Redskins we meet the fifth and sixth generations of Littlepages, Hugh Roger Littlepage (Uncle Ro) and Hugh Roger Littlepage (Hugh). This tale does not have the adventure or excitement of the earlier works because Cooper used this as social commentary against the Anti-Rent wars of the 1830s and 1840s. While Corny and Mordy had to go out and create the garden and fight for it, Hugh has but to maintain what his forefathers created. He does this by defeating the anti-renters, a.k.a. the Redskins, not with arms and warfare but by using legal homeowners rights. The garden his ancestors created is preserved, and Hugh can now pass on to his heirs the benefits and security of having this land. Once again, the mutualistic relationship with the land is promoted: take care of the land by cultivating the garden, and it will take care of you by providing physical and financial security. While this theme is evident in the Littlepage manuscripts, it is much more important in the Miles Wallingford tales.
The Miles Wallingford tales are comprised of two novels, Afloat and Ashore and Miles Wallingford, both published in 1844 as a series. In these two tales we see all the themes Cooper used in his other tales which dealt with gentlemen and landscapes. The difference here is that Miles is a product of the garden, more specifically, of the Hudson Valley, a farm named Clawbonny. Again and again in his adventures we see the mettle of Hudson Valley gentlemen; in fact, when it comes to Cooper’s gentlemen, Miles Wallingford is probably the epitome of the group. Miles has all the traits Cooper looks for in one of his gentlemen: he is born into a relatively wealthy family, lives in the Hudson Valley, enjoyes a somewhat elevated social status, and he is educated. As for personal traits,”Miles [is] brave, polite, religious, he felt the duty to be of service to as many as he reasonably could, he possessed a good mind for thinking quickly in critical situations,” and most importantly,love for the land (Newman 8). All of these traits put him in good stead to face his adventures.
Miles’ adventures start when he and his boyhood friend, Rupert, run away from home to go to sea. They ship onboard the John, and because Miles’ father was a captain, Miles is known to the captain and some of the crew of the John. Because of this familiarity, Miles could receive special attention, but he will not have it. He wants to prove himself, and with the help of Clawbonny, he excels. It seems that every time Miles is about face an adventure, his thoughts of Clawbonny give him the strength he needs to succeed. When pirates attack the John during Miles’ watch late one night, he is awake on deck thinking of Clawbonny; hence, he is able to sound the alarm and help his shipmates fight off the pirates. When he is adrift at sea in a jolly boat with other crew members after the John sinks, he found himself once more thinking of Clawbonny one night. The next morning he is the one who “caught a glimpse of something that seemed like a hummock of land” (Cooper, Afloat 273). A third time Miles thinks of Clawbonny and gets the courage to fight off a French privateer and is the one who notices that the other ship’s crew is hiding behind the bulwarks and warns his shipmates. Finally, on another voyage, it is Miles, after thinking of Clawbonny, who saves the ship. After the ship is taken by local savages, Miles dupes them into abandoning ship. This is the pattern in this tale. Every time Miles needs strength, he draws it from his home in the American garden.
Miles also illustrates Cooper’s theme of a new American gentleman being an improved gentleman, better than the gentlemen of the Old World. While on the Crisis, he saves a prize captured by the Crisis by pulling a “bait and switch” with a West Indiaman so that the French lugger that had been chasing them, takes the West Indiaman instead. Later, after Miles loses his ship to a French captain, he and his crew build another ship, chase down his ship, and recapture it. Finally, during the hostilities between the French and the English at the turn of the nineteenth century, Miles in just a few days and no less than four separate times bests the officers of the French and British ships, leaving them to fight each other while he sails away. And since these officers were gentleman (one had to be a gentleman in many Old World countries to get an officer’s commission), we can say the American gentleman bests the Old World gentlemen. This was one of Cooper’s themes in his formation of a new American gentleman-a meliorist, he took the best qualities of Old Word gentlemen and combined them with the best qualities of American gentleman to create a new, improved gentleman. This new American gentleman came from the American garden, which was most precisely presented in Cooper’s works in the Hudson Valley of New York.
More than an author of “boys’ books,” Cooper was a social critic, a meliorist, a teacher, and so popular he was dubbed “The American Scott.” In his vast portfolio he used a myriad of settings, from Antarctic islands, to the Alps of Switzerland, to the American wilderness, to the canals of Venice, to South Pacific islands, to the mountains of Bavaria, to the open ocean (both Atlantic and Pacific), to the American plains, and finally to the American garden. In all of these works, the setting, the landscape, had a major influence not only on the action but also on the characters, especially the character who represented Cooper’s new American gentleman. Of all of these landscapes, however, none were so influential or beneficial as the American garden, most notably illustrated by Cooper’s beloved Hudson Valley. From this land came Cooper’s prime example of a new American gentleman in Miles Wallingford. With his education, bravery, honesty, integrity, land, wealth-all the characteristics Cooper put in to his gentlemen-this is the new world leader of a democratic state.
Much like Jefferson, Cooper saw the great potential for those who lived in this “middle state,” this area between the city and the wilderness. Here they could enjoy the freedom of the wilderness as well as the refinements of the city; they did not have to live among “the savages,” but neither were they influenced by the corruption of the city. This area truly offered these people the best of both worlds. And lying between the greatest city of the new world (New York) and the vast, great American wilderness was perhaps the greatest middle state this new land had to offer. Hence, only from these rolling hills, winding rivers and streams, beautiful farms with rich, fecund soil could a new world leader arise-from Cooper’s beloved Hudson Valley.
Cooper, James Fenimore. Afloat and Ashore. 1844. New York: Peter Fenelon Collier, n.d. Vol. 4 of Works of James Fenimore Cooper. 10 Vols.
___. The Oak Openings. 1848. New York: Peter FenelonCollier, n.d. Vol. 8 of Works of J. Fenimore Cooper. 10 Vols.
___. The Prairie. 1827. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
___. Wing and Wing. 1842. New York: Peter Fenelon Collier, n.d. Vol. 9 of Works of James Fenimore Cooper. 10 Vols.
Grossman, James. “James Fenimore Cooper: An Uneasy American.” The Yale Review 40 (1951): 696-709.
Haynes, Rebecca. “Explore the Hudson Valley’s Rich History: A Region Steepedin History Preserves Its Past.” August 2004. Hudsonriver.com/history.htm
Mulligan, Tim. The Hudson River Valley: A History and Guide. New York: Random House, 1981.
Newman, Russell T. The Gentleman in the Garden: The Influential Landscape in the Works of James Fenimore Cooper. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003.
Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1961.
Ringe, Donald A. James Fenimore Cooper. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Wermuth, Thomas S. Rip Van Winkle’s Neighbors: The Transformation of Rural Society in the Hudson River Valley. Albany: SUNY P, 2001.
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