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He was never slow to make use of the inalienable American privilege of speaking one's mind. In 1835 the theory of the entire perfection of the American character was seldom challenged, at least by a native writer. That Cooper should entertain doubts on the subject was thought monstrous. It was resented in him the more because of his manner. Opinions quite as radical might have been uttered wittily and the end accomplished. Cooper had little wit. His touch was heavy and he was in dead earnest. He lacked neither courage, nor honesty, nor highmindedness, nor generosity, nor yet judgment (if his temper was unruffled), but he was entirely wanting in tact, and largely wanting in geniality of the useful, if superficial, sort, which lessens the wear and tear of human intercourse.
A philosopher divides famous men into two classes: those who are admired in their own homes (as well as in the world), and those who are admired anywhere but at home. Cooper belonged to the first class rather than the second. This proud, irascible, contentious, dogmatic man of letters enjoyed the unswerving loyalty and deep affection of every member of his family. And from this his biographer argues an essential sweetness of nature.
Cooper somewhere says: 'Men are as much 'indebted to a fortuitous concurrence of circum'stances for the characters they sustain in this world,
as to their personal qualities. It was his ill-luck to have the accidents of his character often mistaken for the character itself.
Cooper's English at best, though fluent and spirited, is without grace; at worst it is clumsy and intractable. This writer of world-wide fame is singularly wanting in literary finish. He is not careless but colorless, not slovenly but neutral. He succeeds almost without the aid of what is commonly called 'style. He is read for what he has to say, not for the way in which he says it. There are surprises in store for the reader, but they are not to be found in the perfect word, the happy phrase, or the balance of a sentence, but always in the unexpected turn of an adventure, in a well-planned episode abounding in incident, in the release of mental tension following the happy issue out of danger. As was said of another copious writer, ‘he weaves a loose web;' one might add that it is often of coarse fibre. In few writers of eminence is form so subservient to contents. The defect was due to haste, to the natural and lordly contempt of a spontaneous story-teller for the niceties of rhetoric.
ROMANCES OF THE AMERICAN
THE SPY, LIONEL LINCOLN
Life in that unhappy strip of country known during the Revolution as the neutral ground, Westchester County, New York, is the subject of The Spy. Here frequent and bloody encounters took place between skirmishers from the opposing armies. Marauding bands, ostensibly loyal' or “patriotic,” though often composed of banditti, made life a misery and a terror to peaceably inclined householders. Cooper wrote from first-hand traditions. The family of his wife had been loyalists, and the most famous of Westchester County raiders was a DeLancey.
The chief character is Harvey Birch, the Spy. Professing to be in the employ of the British, he is the most trusted of Washington's secret agents. His devotion to his chief is a passion, almost a religion. Mean of appearance, niggardly in his mode of life, he is capable of the last degree of personal sacrifice. His patriotism is of the most exalted kind, since it can have no proportionate reward. He must live (perchance die) detested by the people for whom he risks his life daily. Cooper makes us deeply
interested in this uncouth being, who, persecuted
gambled with his life in stake. It was a desperate throw when he destroyed the bit of paper signed by Washington.
The romantic hero of the story is Peyton Dunwoodie, a youth whose dark and sparkling glance' played havoc with the hearts of impressionable ladies. But Peyton was true, and loved but one. More to the modern taste are the humors of Lawton and Sitgreaves, of Sergeant Hollister and Betty Flanagan. “Mr. Harper' is impressive, and the mystery of his character well sustained. The ladies of “The Locusts' have the quaint charm inseparable from other-day manners and costume. To be sure one of them, who seems likely to die of love, is mercifully killed by a random bullet, and another becomes a maniac. Novel-readers wanted a deal for their money in 1821. But Frances Wharton is a likable little creature, though her talk does not in the least resemble that of Miss Clara Middleton.
As an Irish bishop said of Gulliver's Travels, the book contains improbabilities. The device of a masque which converts young Henry Wharton into the counterfeit presentment of an old grayheaded negro is far-fetched. The Spy was not intended to be a realistic novel. Cooper projected another story on the back
ground of the Revolution. Lionel Lincoln, for all the work
put on it, was not a success. It had merits among which the merit of spontaneity is not conspicuous. Had the failure been less apparent, the novelist might have been tempted to continue the Legends of the Thirteen Republics.'
THE LEATHER-STOCKING TALES AND
OTHER INDIAN STORIES
A French critic once remarked that nothing was so like a chanson de geste as another chanson de geste. Readers have deplored the fact that nothing was so like a Leather-Stocking tale as another Leather-Stocking tale. But The Pioneers, the first of the series in order of composition, bears little resemblance to the others, and as a picture of life in a New York village at the end of the Eighteenth Century has a historical value. The narrative is firm in texture. The characters are thirty in number, and every man in his humor. The Judge, Cousin Richard, Mr. Grant the clergyman, all the town oddities, Monsieur Le Quoi, Major Hartmann, Doolittle, Kirby, and Benjamin are real and humanly interesting. The dialogue is fresh, racy, and appropriate. There is no effort at compression ; winter evenings were long in 1824.