Lawrence on Cooper

February 4: James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, the second and most popular of his "Leatherstocking Tales," was published on this day in 1826. Later that year Cooper moved to Europe, where he lived for the next seven years. This fondness for cultured European living, balanced against a reputation based on a glorification of the American frontier, caused some to raise eyebrows. In D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classical American Literature (published in 1923, just as Lawrence was enjoying his own first taste of frontier living in New Mexico), Cooper is described as one who "did so love seeing pretty-pretty, with the thrill of a red scalp now and then":

…Fenimore, lying in his Louis Quatorze hotel in Paris, passionately musing about Natty Bumppo and the pathless forest, and mixing his imagination with the Cupids and Butterflies on the painted ceiling, while Mrs Cooper was struggling with her latest gown in the next room, and the d'jeuner was with the Countess at eleven....

Men live by lies.

In actuality, Fenimore loved the genteel continent of Europe, and waited gasping for the newspapers to praise his WORK.

In another actuality he loved the tomahawking continent of America, and imagined himself Natty Bumppo.

His actual desire was to be: Monsieur Fenimore Cooper, le grand ecrivain americain. His innermost wish was to be: Natty Bumppo.

Now Natty and Fenimore, arm-in-arm, are an odd couple....

Granting that "perhaps my taste is childish," Lawrence goes on to praise the Leatherstocking books for "some of the loveliest, most glamorous pictures in all literature":

The raw village street, with woodfires blinking through the unglazed window-chinks, on a winter's night. The inn, with the rough woodsman and the drunken Indian John; the church, with the snowy congregation crowding to the fire. Then the lavish abundance of Christmas cheer, and turkey-shooting in the snow. Spring coming, forests all green, maple sugar taken from the trees: and clouds of pigeons flying from the south, myriads of pigeons shot in heaps; and night-fishing on the teeming, virgin lake; and deer-hunting.      

Pictures

Alas, without the cruel iron of reality....

But Lawrence is on the side of the frontier: "One day America will be as beautiful in actuality as it is in Cooper. Not yet, however. When the factories have fallen down again."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

 

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