Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cooper the realist, Cooper the Romantic*

Every writer creates his own world. The relationship between the writer's world and the real one can be tricky. Cooper set The Deerslayer on Lake Otsego, a real place, at the beginning of a real war between England and France in 1745. He spends a lot of time telling us exactly how various canoes are situated on the lake, how people are dressed, the direction of the currents. This is a realistic novel, right?

Well, sometimes. But when pious, "feeble-minded" Hetty falls asleep in the woods, and is awakened by a pair of bear cubs, who, with their mother, accompany her as she walks along the shore, the novel has moved somewhere else - to Tasso's Arcadia, or The Faerie Queen.

Or how about when the Lady in the Lake gives Deerslayer his famous magic rifle Killdeer? Yes, the (or a) Lady in the Lake. Yes, the rifle has a name, just like Roland's sword Durandal, or Excalibur. We're a lot closer to Morte d'Arthur and Orlando Furioso than to Lewis and Clark's Journals. The Deerslayer is Natty Bumppo's "origin" story, written last but telling readers who already know his adventures how he got the name Hawkeye, how he got his reputation, and his rifle. It's all suitably heroic.

Perhaps this sounds dismissive. I don't mean that. I think it helps to know what a person is reading. Twain's complaints about violations of realism are funny but irrelevant. Cooper's world is fundamentally unreal. His American frontier is closer to the real world than that of, for example, Chateaubriand's Atala, with its hermit priests and Kentucky crocodiles. But as in Atala, the semi-real setting is used to emphasize other concerns. I'll try to pin those down tomorrow.

There's been a revival of scholarly interest in Cooper lately. This article from an the NEH Humanities journal is a good place to learn about that. Cooper more or less invented the spy novel, the sailing novel, and the Western. So Cooper gives scholars interested in genre and reception a lot to work with. He's also been picked up by people interested in early environmentalism, interested in, for example, the scene in The Pioneers where a flock of passenger pigeons are slaughtered. I think this is all pretty interesting, but the there are limits to how far the non-scholarly Amateur Reader can go with this sort of thing.

* Careful, son. "Romantic" is a tangled term. The Deerslayer is Romantic in that it has the qualities of the old Romance genre (Boiardo, Malory, Ariosto). It's also Romantic in that it explores or advocates post-Enlightenment ideas associated with Romanticisim. But these two definitions are only barely related. I seem to only mean the first one here.


  1. I'm curious whether this kind of genre melding (if I'm allowed the term) was common when Cooper was writing? Would it have surprised his contemporary audience as much as it surprises us?

  2. Great question. Some of our ideas about realism are retrospective - we're trained by Flaubert and naturalism and the like to expect certain things from a novel - and some of them are genre-based. A historical novel is realistic, while a Gothic novel is not, right? But Cooper's readers brought different assumptions with them about what the novel did.

    Still, the self-conscious mythologizing, the King Arthur stuff, does seem sort of modern, doesn't it? Like Joyce or John Barth or something.

    And as I write this, I keep thinking of counterexamples.

    What a complicated subject.