A discussion of the growth of American Literature, in particular the works of James Fenimore Cooper.
America! America! God shed His grace on thee And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea! -America the Beautiful, Katherine Lee Bates The growth of American Literature was further developed in the era of American Romanticism. In this period, stirrings of national consciousness appeared more and more strongly with the emergence of a truly American literature. During this time, as Americans began to understand the meaning of being “American”, they also began to grow culturally. This paralleled the time when, the world as a whole was experiencing a change in ways of thinking: there was a move from classical ideas to romantic ones. This change was taking place in all areas of culture around the world, including the arts, education, philosophy, and even science, but it was clearest in literature. Romantic literature became the vessel of thought for most of the American writers at this time. Among them was James Fenimore Cooper, whose contributions of American literature is unarguable, as his novels were the quintessential representative of American romanticism. America produced many renown authors during the age of American romanticism. During this time, writers, such as: Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, Edgar Allen Poe, and James Fenimore Cooper emerged. Romantic writers emphasized intuition, an inner perception of truth that is independent of reason. To discover this truth, Emerson wrote in The American Scholar (1837), a man must “learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within.” The main key to this inner world is the imagination. Man’s imagination leads to expression. Our expression makes each of us a unique human. Romanticism became the way of ‘expressing’ for this generation of writers. Among the giants of this time, Cooper achieved more worldwide fame than Irving or Bryant. The creation of the famous Leatherstocking saga has cemented his position as America’s first great national novelist and his influence pervades American literature. In his thirty-two years (1820-51) of authorship, Cooper produced twenty-nine other long works of fiction and fifteen books. He is widely read in Europe, where his Leatherstocking Tales contributed to the romantic notion of American frontier life. “English novelists such as Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence praised his work; American writers have been of differing opinions. Herman Melville admired Cooper’s sea tales; Mark Twain questioned his knowledge of wilderness survival and ridiculed his handling of character and dialogue (Encarta.)” Although Cooper’s writing ability may be perceived in modern standards as dubious. Cooper’s talent found expression through indigenous materials. His greatest monument to American literature is seen in the Leatherstocking tales. Natty Bumppo, the main character of the pentology contains all the trappings of the American hero. These included “youth (or childlike qualities); innocence; a love of nature and a distrust of town life, [and] a corresponding uneasiness with women (Arpin, et al 120.)” The setting of his stories represented an unspoiled America we cannot return to, explored by an ideal character we cannot attain to. His characters achieve difficult goals in circumstances beyond their control. They do so with unerring adherence to their principles. Cooper’s books, are often sought after for his exciting stories. As Brookhiser states in his essay, “readers went to Cooper not for his sociology but for his hero, Natty Bumppo (62).” Interestingly enough, Brookhiser goes on for a length to convince the readers that Cooper’s sociology is the most vital component of the stories. Further stating that Cooper’s books helped to define Americans, through morals, “ethical earnestness”. Also meditating the thought that the Leatherstocking tales reflects people by “the poetry of action, that tension of the soul between the hero each of us aspires to be and the transgressors we too often are.” It is hard for modern day readers to appreciate Cooper’s works for what they are. By today’s standards, these novels may not be great literature, but they are an important part of the history of American literature. Readers should remember that when Cooper was writing these stories, they were very popular with the readers of the period. Those readers found the adventures and return to nature very exciting. The Romantic period celebrated man’s freedom with nature, virtue found in innocence, and intuitiveness over the rational. Cooper’s books best exemplifies these traits, and spread the word of America to many people. Through his informative and entertaining tales, he fascinated multitudes of people, and is so important to American literature, that it is impossible to think about it without him. Critics of Cooper often lambaste him by his unperfected writing style, use of words, unrealistic situations, etc. Many of these are caviling, Cooper was (and still is) beloved by readers through his many fictions. His achievements include: the first successful American historical romance in the vein of Sir Walter Scott (The Spy, 1821); the first sea novel (The Pilot, 1824); the first attempt at a fully researched historical novel (Lionel Lincoln, 1825); the first full-scale History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839); the first American international novel of manners (Homeward Bound and Home as Found, 1838); the first trilogy in American fiction (Satanstoe, 1845; The Chainbearer, 1845; and The Redskins, 1846) and the first and only five-volume epic romance to carry its mythic hero – Natty Bumppo – from youth to old age (Reuben 3). With these in mind, it is impossible for one to declare that James Fenimore Cooper’s works had no literary value. It is because they did, his works are the among the enduring legacies of American romanticism. James Fenimore Cooper was an author, more importantly a romantic, whose tales have become bedtime stories, whose influence is still felt today.