Monday, August 16, 2010

James Fenimore Cooper and Property

One of my favorite authors is James Fenimore Cooper. Let me state out the outset that, yes, I have read Mark Twain's screed attacking him. In my ongoing informal poll of English departments, it sadly seems that no one has read Cooper, but everyone has read Twain's uncharitable dismissal. A review in The New Criterion of a recent biography of Cooper, for instance, can't resist by starting with Twain instead of Cooper. Twain certainly is very skillful at poking fun at people. However, I prefer Yvor Winters' take on Cooper in his underrated essay, "Fenimore Cooper or The Ruins of Time," included in his book, In Defense of Reason.

It is true that the openings of Cooper's novels often proceed at, shall we say, a leisurely pace. However, I think it is best to embrace his style by approaching his books as if he was an invited dinner guest and, after the meal is finished, we've all retired to the living room and he begins to tell us a story from his particular point of view.

I like Cooper's work in general because it gives us a glimpse of the world-view and ideologies current in the early years of our republic, when we still had a republic. It also reveals the thorough influence of Christianity on our culture. One cannot hope to understand Cooper's characters and their actions if he has little understanding of Christianity. Cooper clearly assumes a general understanding, not only of the Scriptures and basic Christian doctrine, but also a basic understanding of various denominational and theological differences.

Cooper is also to be valued because he causes us to contemplate the virtues and costs of civilization and, although his fiction is certainly in the romance genre, his descriptive and historical realism is too often underrated. Certainly his characters inhabit the real world of good and evil.

I recently completed the cycle of books known collectively as the Leatherstocking Tales by reading The Prairie. It is a tremendous work dealing (somewhat ambiguously) with the juxtaposition between nature and civilization and between justice and the law of the wilderness. It quickly became my favorite of the cycle, being the most profound of the five and certainly is the most quick to draw the reader in. Those who criticize it for being boring simply do not know what they are talking about.

It is possible, however, that some of my appreciation for the work is due to my already being familiar with the life of Leatherstocking, Natty Bumpo, from earlier reading. If one has never read any of the series, I would not suggest beginning with The Prairie. The thoughts and behavior of Bumpo make the most sense if you have already become acquainted with him throughout his life in the other four tales.

Nevertheless, The Prairie contains some of Cooper's best prose of the series. That assumes, of course, readers are able to read compound sentences and possess a vocabulary above that of a seventh grader. I have read Cooper's writing criticized as wordy, stilted, and ponderous. Well, I for one do not mind pondering language. And it might do us good to expose ourselves to a bit of formality in our hyper-informal age. Perhaps these criticisms say less about what is wrong with Cooper's writing and more about what is lacking in us as readers of his writing.

Anyone wishing to better understand the heritage of America should read the entire series. Some critics allege Cooper to be historically inaccurate regarding Native Americans and misogynistic toward women.  These criticisms, however, merely castigate him for being insufficiently contemporary. As Yvor Winters wrote, "For the American who desires a polite education in his own literature, the five novels of the Leatherstocking series are indispensable." He's right. 

The Prairie relies heavily on the best geographic and sociological information available to Cooper. The book is set in that part of the Midwestern plains now known as Nebraska. I was born and raised there and I can vouch for the accuracy of Cooper's description of the pre-settlement prairie. Zebulon Pike did not refer to Nebraska as "the Great American Dessert" for nothing.

To those interested in learning more about The Prairie, I commend to them William H. Goetzmann's essay, "James Fenimore Cooper: The Prairie" that appeared in Landmarks of American Writing. He provides great insight on Bumpo's character and its relevance to Cooper's vision when he writes:
More important than his powers, however, are his values for they denote what he represents in Cooper's myth of America's beginnings. The twin keys to Leatherstocking's values are freedom and a reverence for nature. Having been arrested by Judge Temple for making free use of nature's bounty when he killed a deer, Natty rejects "the law of the clearings" for the most part, favoring instead the freedom of nature's laws -- even as applied to the Indians who make "free" with the settlers' horses because, being natural beings, they have little feeling for or need of private property. Leatherstocking does not, however, violate nature or nature's laws, and, embodying Cooper's basic ambivalence in this matter, he does not entirely scorn civilization's laws. Speaking to Ellen Wade, he declares, "The Law -- tis bad to have it, but I sometimes think it is worse to be entirely without it. Age and weakness have brought me to feel such weakness at times. Yes-yes, the law is needed when such as have not the gifts of strength and wisdom are to be taken care of." Here Cooper gets at the heart of his theme, and for that matter the theme of most "westerns" down to the present day. This is the role of law and order which is synonymous with the best aspects of civilization in that it provides justice and protection for the weak against the vicious, {82} the violent, and the rapacious -- in short the spoiler who is in Cooper's terms the unnatural man. The good law is, by implication, Jeffersonian law which is in harmony with nature, indeed derives from it, but which nevertheless allows a man to be as free as possible without injury to his fellow creatures. It depends fundamentally upon tolerance and mutual respect.

While the issue of private property is dealt with more explicitly in Cooper's Littlepage novels, one issue that struck me as I pondered The Prairie was the relationship between property and civilization. As alluded to by Goetzmann, Natty Bumpo, known is this work as "the Trapper," kept moving west because he did not like the idea of private property hemming him in from walking about and hunting game wherever he wanted. It seems that this sort of freedom is a virtue that attracted Cooper. On the other hand, Cooper always keeps this virtue in tension with that of civilization that is organically linked with the establishment and defense of private property.

Natty Bumpo and the Native American characters described by Cooper were lax about private property not merely because they lacked moral fiber, but because land was relatively abundant and there was no necessity to economize on land because there was so much of it compared to people there to use it. Cooper's description of the early American frontier lends credence to Hans Hermann-Hoppe's theory of the development of property as an institution necessary to avoid potential conflict over economic goods.

In the second chapter of his book, A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, Hoppe explains the practical benefits of private property and its necessary for social peace and cooperation wherever goods are scarce:
To develop the concept of property, it is necessary for goods to be scarce, so that conflicts over the use of these goods can possibly arise. It is the function of property rights to avoid such possible clashes over the use of scarce resources by assigning rights of exclusive ownership. Property is thus a normative concept: a concept designed to make a conflict-free interaction possible by stipulating  mutually binding rules of conduct (norms) regarding scarce resources. It does not need much  comment to see that there is indeed scarcity of goods, of all sorts of goods, everywhere, and the need for property rights is thus evident. As a matter of fact, even if we were to assume that we lived in the Garden of Eden, where there was a superabundance of everything needed not only to sustain one’s life but to indulge in every possible comfort by simply stretching out one’s hand, the concept of property would necessarily have to evolve. For even under these “ideal” circumstances, every  person’s physical body would still be a scarce resource and thus the need for the establishment of property rules, i.e., rules regarding people’s bodies, would exist.
Property rights were relatively less important on the open prairie upon which there are very few inhabitants. As populations grow and society develops, private property is absolutely necessary to prevent a barbaric and violent struggle for survival. Private property and civilization do indeed progress together.


  1. Thanks for this post. I agree with your assessment of Christianity's influence on Cooper. I've read The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans and thought highly of both. Now you have inspired me to resume the series.

    The Twain thing is so irritating. When I recommended Cooper on LRC, I had at least at two or three readers write in asking me if I had read Twain's "demolition" of him.

  2. I know EXACTLY what you mean. I know of hardly any other instance when someone's work is referenced, that the FIRST not second, third, or fifty-fourth response is have you read so-and-so's piece destroying him.

    A very good and revealing direct response to Twain's piece is this article from Studies in American Renaissance: