Sunday, June 12, 2011

Gather the Bones, 9: To the Lady of the Lake

If you ask me,  The Pioneers: Or, the Sources of the Susquehanna, is, in the last analysis, politically engaged. The framing event is the Whiskey Rebellion, with Judge Temple standing in for George Washington, and Hiram Doolittle as some people's villain of the piece, Alexander Hamilton. On where to fit Richard Jones into the story, I defer to Lauren Groff, with perhaps more charity to Cooper, who could hardly have got away with character assassination had Richard Cooper's descendants not perceived him in the same unfavourable light.

So if we're telling a story about the Whiskey Rebellion, we need Whiskey rebels. Cooper has an idea about what Whiskey Rebels looked like, and thus we get old Natty Bumppo's role in the story. And the fact that Bumppo turns out to be such an interesting character tells us that Cooper has an interesting reading of the Rebellion. (Inevitably.)

So that might be all there was, originally, to Natty Bumppo. Two years later, when Cooper was acting as tour guide to a group of British visitors interested in the battlefields of 1757, and, as it turned out, the "sublime" scenery on the route from New York to Fort Ticonderoga, his very distinguished guests demanded a romantic, "Indian" story set in this dramatic scenery. And whatever his reasons for recycling material from Pioneers, the result was Last of the Mohicans.  And Cooper found himself the proprietor of the first genuinely American hero, Leatherstocking/Hawkeye/Le Longue Carabine/Natty Bumppo.

It's quite possible that this was pure serendipity, but that doesn't mean that Cooper did not now have an asset with which to carve his idea of America into the American body politic like a ritual scar. I've called Killdeer the American Excalibur, and Elizabeth Temple the Lady of the Lake. So clearly there was a story in the  original gift of Excalibur.

On second thought, let's not go there. 'Tis a creepy place.

Anyway, to the extent that I've got Cooper's inspiration right, his vision  will be informed by the 1816 edition of Le Morte d'Arthur, which apparently caused quite a stir even before Lady of Shallot (1835), and the big deal here is the end. And that's where Cooper goes in The Prairie, the next Leatherstocking Tale. Natty is going to die, and that death is going to be Meaningful. There'll be ironic comment about race and religion, as Natty is buried, accompanied by his dog. And Cooper will play with issues of identity. In all of The Prairie, that name is never once uttered. Natty is only "the Trapper." Now, at the end, Natty asks Captain Middleton for a headstone, simply engraved with his name and dates. (As always, he is ignored, and gets a motto, too.) But Cooper fails to give the full inscription on the headstone. This isn't how he did it last time, and it is very reminiscent of this odd choice:

"Hannah Cooper's tomb in Christ churchyard, within the Cooper family
plot, is inscribed with some plaintive verses that her father composed
and caused to be carved upon the slab, with the singular omission of her 
name, which was not added until many years afterward."

Above all, Natty doesn't want to be buried with his arms, as his Pawnee adopted son proposes to do. To the contrary:

"Little that I have ever seen is forgotten," returned the trapper: "I am at the close of many weary days, but there is not one among them all, that I could wish to overlook. I remember you with the whole of your company; ay, and your grand'ther, that went before you. I am glad, that you have come back upon these plains, for I had need of one, who speaks the English, since little faith can be put in the traders of these regions. Will you do a favour to an old and dying man?"
"Name it," said Middleton; "it shall be done."
"It is a far journey to send such trifles," resumed the old man, who spoke at short intervals, as strength and breath permitted; "a far and weary journey is the same; but kindnesses and friendships are things not to be forgotten. There is a settlement among the Otsego hills—"
"I know the place," interrupted Middleton, observing that he spoke with increasing difficulty; "proceed to tell me, what you would have done."
"Take this rifle, and pouch, and horn, and send them to the person, whose name is graven on the plates of the stock,—a trader cut the letters with his knife,—for it is long, that I have intended to send him such a token of my love....."
.....but then I know, it will give the boy pleasure to hang the piece in his hall, for many is the deer and the bird that he has seen it destroy.

Killdeer is going back to the Lady of the Lake, to hang in that curious hall that Judge Marmaduke Temple built, Elizabeth inherited, and John renovated. That very curious hall.

Does it still look like this?

into a large hall, that was dimly lighted by two candies, placed in high, old-fashioned, brass candlesticks. The door closed, and the party were at once removed from an atmosphere that was nearly at zero, to one of sixty degrees above. In the centre of the hall stood an enormous stove, the sides of which appeared to be quivering with heat; from which a large, straight pipe, leading through the ceiling above, carried off the smoke. An iron basin, containing water, was placed on this furnace, for such only it could be called, in order to preserve a proper humidity in the apartment. The room was carpeted, and furnished with convenient, substantial furniture, some of which was brought from the city, the remainder having been manufactured by the mechanics of Templeton. There was a sideboard of mahogany, inlaid with ivory, and bearing enormous handles of glittering brass, and groaning under the piles of silver plate. Near it stood a set of prodigious tables, made of the wild cherry, to imitate the imported wood of the sideboard, but plain and without ornament of any kind. Opposite to these stood a smaller table, formed from a lighter-colored wood, through the grains of which the wavy lines of the curled maple of the mountains were beautifully undulating. Near to this, in a corner, stood a heavy, old-fashioned, brass-faced clock, incased in a high box, of the dark hue of the black walnut from the seashore. An enormous settee, or sofa, covered with light chintz, stretched along the walls for nearly twenty feet on one side of the hail; and chairs of wood, painted a light yellow, with black lines that were drawn by no very steady hand, were ranged opposite, and in the intervals between the other pieces of furniture. A Fahrenheit's thermometer in a mahogany case, and with a barometer annexed, was hung against the wall, at some little distance from the stove, which Benjamin consulted, every half hour, with prodigious exactitude. Two small glass chandeliers were suspended at equal distances between the stove and outer doors, one of which opened at each end of the hall, and gilt lustres were affixed to the frame work of the numerous side-doors that led from the apartment. Some little display in architecture had been made in constructing these frames and casings, which were surmounted with pediments, that bore each a little pedestal in its centre; on these pedestals were small busts in blacked plaster-of-Paris. The style of the pedestals as well as the selection of the busts were all due to the taste of Mr. Jones. On one stood Homer, a most striking likeness, Richard affirmed, “as any one might see, for it was blind,” Another bore the image of a smooth-visaged gentleman with a pointed beard, whom he called Shakespeare. A third ornament was an urn, which; from its shape, Richard was accustomed to say, intended to represent itself as holding the ashes of Dido. A fourth was certainly old Franklin, in his cap and spectacles. A fifth as surely bore the dignified composure of the face of Washington. A sixth was a nondescript, representing “a man with a shirt-collar open,” to use the language of Richard, “with a laurel on his head-it was Julius Caesar or Dr. Faustus; there were good reasons for believing either,”
The walls were hung with a dark lead-colored English paper that represented Britannia weeping over the tomb of Wolfe, The hero himself stood at a little distance from the mourning goddess, and at the edge of the paper. Each width contained the figure, with the slight exception of one arm of the general, which ran over on the next piece, so that when Richard essayed, with his own hands, to put together this delicate outline, some difficulties occurred that prevented a nice conjunction; and Britannia had reason to lament, in addition to the loss of her favorite’s life, numberless cruel amputations of his right arm.

(Emphasis mine.)

We do know that all of this has been swept away by 1837 in favour of a new architectural allegory. The thing is that the ashes of Dido, and the busts with their dubious likenesses to Homer and Shakespeare, Caesar/Faustus,  George Washington and Benjamin Franklin are all gone away, so in that limited sense, they're with the American Excalibur, mysteriously absent.

So, Cooper doesn't always wield his allegories very subtly.  That's not a universal thing. I really don't get the whole "might be Caesar, might be Faustus" thing unless it's a reference to Judge Temple, for example. I am, however, going read the rest. Shakespeare, Homer, Washington, and Dido look like an ancestral gallery. Homer and Shakespeare are poetic ancestors for a novelist (so the crack about blind Homer is the self-deprecation that you only find in Cooper if you look very, very close), while Washington is the father of his country. Chingachgook is eventually burnt to death on his own funeral pyre, just like Dido (albeit out in Nature rather than at a temple), and I could extend that parallel indefinitely from Cooper's fiction, and even go back to Tammenund/Tammany.

So what about Franklin? Well, the Purcell version of Dido was performed at the Inner Temple. And while Cooper doesn't explicitly name the English school where Edward Effingham gets his gentlemanly polish, the Inns of Court were the place that American notables sent their sons. With three separate strands of reference to temples, I think it's fair to note that Benjamin Franklin famously had a natural son, William Franklin, and William, in turn, had his own illegitimate son as heir, William Temple Franklin.

Since the Temple Franklins and Coopers were partners, and, later, litigants, in the development of the old Croghan grant, I find it hard to believe that this subtle double reference is unintended. Given that the way the story comes out, with the revelation of a private arrangement between the exiled, Loyalist Effinghams and Judge Temple, I find it hard to believe that it is not echoed by a private settlement between the real-life Coopers and Franklins/Temple Franklins.

Now, it seems reasonable to me to infer that neither William Cooper nor Elizabeth Fenimore were children of their parents of record. We know that William Temple was raised by a private family until his paternity was discovered. Old Benjamin's natural daughter (or daughters, as we're arguing from the use of a plural where a singular is warranted) passed as children of another. It's hardly an uncommon thing, and it would explain the many anomalies of their marriage. So my suggested private settlement is that the children of Judge William Cooper are actually the descendants of George Croghan and Benjamin Franklin.

Eh, it's a theory. And if you think that it's speculative now, I haven't even brought in the Barbary Coast, the trans-Atlantic horse trade, the descendants of Uncas the Mohican, William Penn's treaty with the Indians, and the descendants of Erik the Red.

What the heck; if it isn't history, it might make a good novel.

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