creating the archetypal american hero -- 1/15/14

In today's selection -- from William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic by Alan Taylor. In the 1820s, James Fenimore Cooper, author of such novels as The Last of the Mohicans, invented the archetypal American hero, "the socially marginal and rootless loner operating in a violent no-man's-land beyond the rule of law but guided by his own superior code of justice." In doing so, he became America's first successful novelist:

"James Cooper became a novelist during the early 1820s, at the same time that his familial estate crumbled into ruins. ... It seems that the shock of his collapsing fortunes and the novelty of writing fiction combined to jar James Cooper's mind into new powers. Crafting fictional worlds filled a need prompted by his decaying property and status. By creating characters, scenes, and plots, he discovered a reassuring power to control that was especially intoxicating because he was so impotent to preserve his cherished position as a landed gentleman. ...

"Because no previous American novelist had sustained commercial success, James Cooper could not have begun a novel with any expectation that he would make money. Before 1820 American readers and publishers preferred to import or pirate their books from England, because English texts were at once less expensive and more fashionable. For want of copyright protection for imported works, it was cheaper for American publishers to reprint English works than to pay native authors. Indeed, although Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1791) sold phenomenally well, she reaped almost none of the profits, because it was originally published in London and then pirated in America. Moreover, English novels offered more romantic characters and exotic settings -- lords and ladies in castles or grand estates -- than seemed possible in common and commercial America. Professing themselves a people of equality and common sense, Americans doubted that their society could ever inspire a novelist. So doubting, they continued to read the imports. Consequently, the most promising American novelist of the previous generation, Charles Brockden Brown, had failed to support or sustain himself. ...

The Last of the Mohicans, endpaper illustration, 1919

 "Upon completing (and before publishing his first, unsuccessful novel) Precaution, Cooper began a new, more innovative and ambitious novel with an American setting and a patriotic theme: The Spy. Assuming the daunting 'task of making American manners and American scenes interesting to an American reader,' Cooper elaborated upon a story John Jay told of a selfless American spy active in bitterly contested Westchester County during the Revolutionary War. Published in December, Cooper's second novel proved instantly and phenomenally popular. Although highly priced at $2 apiece, the first 1,000 copies sold out within a month. By the end of the year, bookstores had ordered and retailed at least 6,000 copies, and Cooper had reaped royalties worth nearly $4,000 -- an extraordinary success for an American novelist. A popular play based on The Spy began a long run in New York City in March 1822.

"Cooper discovered that there was a great new public demand for an adventure tale derived from memories of the American Revolution. In the early 1820s, as the revolutionary generation relinquished public control and life, their heirs sought, by reading The Spy, a vicarious participation in their Revolution. Cooper also benefited from the examples provided by the English historical romances written by Sir Walter Scott, which proved so immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Scott's novels were sufficiently 'manly' and moral to disarm the opposition to the genre by leading Americans like John Jay. The publication in 1819 of Ivanhoe established the new popularity and respectability of the historical romance in America as well as England. In effect, Scott convened the American audience that greeted Cooper's similar works. Moreover, those readers responded so enthusiastically to Cooper because they longed for an American who could compete with Scott. They cherished The Spy in the belief that Cooper had so precisely and patriotically captured American manners, character, and setting. ...

"In combination, The Spy and [his third novel] The Pioneers persuaded American readers that at last their Republic had produced a novelist who could refute the British scoff that no one bothered to read an American book. The popularity of Cooper's novels reassured anxious publishers, painters, and writers that there was a public for American arts. Most of the American cultural elite considered Cooper not merely as a successful novelist but as their great champion in a struggle for domestic self-respect and international regard. He suddenly became the American novelist, the new nation's counterpart to the celebrated Sir Walter Scott. ...

"[Cooper] became the single most influential American writer of the early nineeenth century. In particular, Cooper created the stock characters -- the noble but doomed Indian, the resourceful frontiersman, and the loyal slave -- as well as the favorite settings, especially the violent frontier, that characterized most historical romances through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. In Harvey Birch of The Spy and Natty Bumppo of The Pioneers, James Fenimore Cooper created the essential American hero of innumerable novels, stories, and films: the socially marginal and rootless loner operating in a violent no-man's-land beyond the rule of law but guided by his own superior code of justice. Whether imitating or deriding Cooper, his rivals and successors could never escape the long shadow of his most popular romances, could never fully transcend the expectations that he planted in the minds of their readers."


Alan Taylor


William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic


Vintage Anchor Books


Copyright 1995 by Alan Taylor


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