A Comparison of the Themes of James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott
The Fight of the Nineteenth Century!
In 1820, after squandering the inheritance his father had left him upon losing a duel, James Fenimore Cooper published his first novel, The Precaution. An imitation of the works of Jane Austen, The Precaution was not well received and Cooper's decline into poverty seemed imminent. He had been taken with the writing bug though, and gave it another shot, publishing The Spy, in 1821. Based upon the theme and styles of Sir Walter Scott's Waverly novels, The Spy was the success that The Precaution was not and launched the career of America's first major novelist.
Scott had made the historical romance novel palatable and popular to the reading public. He was arguably the progenitor of the acceptable romantic fiction novel for England. Cooper partook in a similar revolution of popular American literature, borrowing upon Scott's themes and composition. Although The Spy borrowed heavily from Scott's influence it was Coopers more mature Leatherstocking Tales that demonstrated the author's best assimilation of Scott's thematic principles.
Among the principal themes of both Cooper and Scott is the character of a hero and man's relationship with Nature. In The Leatherstocking Tales we are presented with a hero, Nattie Bumpo, who is at peace with his surroundings. He is the very portrait of the ideal woodsman. He also embodies many of the gifts that the Author believes are noble and heroic. Nattie is bold, accurate, and his prowess is unquestionable. He is honest to a fault, and although we are told that he is not a prime physical specimen, he still saves the day, rescues the girl and wins admiration.
Nattie is a virtual mirror of the characteristics of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy. All are men of the highest Honor, warriors who fight, not necessarily because they thirst for battle or blood, but because they have no other recourse. The fact that they excel at combat despite their reluctance to participate, is of little or no consequence. These men are archetypes of the ideal romantic hero and although they have weakness to maintain believability and drama, they were never intended to be accurate or historical accounts of individuals or actions.
One can also disregard the historical accuracy of the figures that Scott based his characters on as having little consequence. Few people can live up to the standards of a romantic hero and the historical Rob Roy has little in common with his novelized counterpart other than place setting and circumstance. Scott has chosen to draw readers in by portraying historical figures, involved in historical actions and accomplishing them in the most heroic of manners. Cooper utilized a different methodology, by creating heroic characters to participate in fictional actions against a historic background.
The difference may seem minimal but the impact on the reader and the novel's ageless qualities are tremendously affected. Nattie Bumpo and Chingachgook are never dealt the scrutiny that Rob Roy is. Scott's readers of the future are left with the very real possibility that their hero is less than the icon the author presented him as. Like children who discover that Santa Claus isn't real, the reader is left doubting the hero's capacity to complete the tasks the author has set before him.
Coopers assimilation of Scott is however, most clear in his descriptions of nature and his dramatization of the westward movement against the American frontier and the harm that civilization brings with it in the wake of progress. Both authors promote the idea of stadialism. Stadialist theory postulates that historical movement of civilization progresses through a series of stages from savage, barbarian, pastoral and ultimately to civilized. The changes in these stages are marked by the technique of subsistence used by a culture such as hunting, herding, farming, commerce and industry.
We see stadialism used by Scott as he moves his characters north and south. The civilized south comes into conflict with the more rugged and pastoral highlands of northern Scotland. We see the characters of the highlanders portrayed in similar fashion to the Native Americans of Coopers novels. Scott sets the Scottish Highlands as completely removed from the readers more urban environment and portrays the northern clans as if they are noble barbarians, who live with the land but are consequently in conflict with the encroachment of urban and more civilized settlements from the southern regions of Britain. Scott uses this cultural conflict to dramatize the political dissent of his time as the "savage" northern invaders tread upon the soil of the "civilized" south, and to polarize the contrast between the two regions and its inhabitants.
In Scott's work, progress and romance can only be achieved by the steady movement north. The civilized characters travel through a historical and geographical change that can only be experienced by someone from a more urban setting transported out of their natural environment.
Cooper seems at first to follow the same theme, replacing Scott's north south conflict with the steady western movement of civilization from the eastern seaboard of the United States. We are witness to the same noble efforts of the wild inhabitants to deal with the encroachment of civilization. Cooper is clearly fond of the wilderness of America and goes into great detail about the landscape and the nature of the men that choose it above the growing urbanization of the cities.
He explores historical change in a way that Scott does not, seeming to imply that although his stories are set on the expansion of the frontier, that geographical distance from an urban environment is not necessary to find romance or conflict. On the surface, Cooper details a conflict with the invasion of the white man and his moral progress westward against the native inhabitants of America, who are often better examples of the moral character preached by the invaders. Closer inspection however, reveals a subtext of conflict amongst the aboriginal population that is not measured by the movement of white men through their land. Many of the savages encountered have longstanding conflicts with each other, that do not correlate with a simple east versus west, or savage versus civilized paradigm.
It's not the simple politics of cultural subsistence that drives men to fight, or act indecently to each other but rather the character of the man that propels his reactions to the world around him. Scott's theme implies that men affect nature, and Cooper claims that nature can affect the man.
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