Our Revolution

I am reading a book that is a collection of letters, papers, journal and diary entries written by people who lived and fought during the American Revolution. It is intriguing, since it provides conflicting points of view — both pro-American and pro-English. It is fascinating, for example, to read an account of the battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina in 1780 first from the American point of view and then from the British. They read like there were two such battles! So much for objective reporting.  Several other things have already struck me about those articles.

To begin with, it is quite clear that the British simply do not understand why the colonists have rebelled. They remain bewildered throughout. They held the colonists in low regard to begin with and thought they would never be foolish enough to take on the British army; when it happened in Lexington and Concord they were dumbstruck. But through it all they simply couldn’t grasp why these “rebels” as they called them did not want the protection of the mighty British army and navy. After all, they had recently fought together to toss out the French from the colonies and why on earth would they not want to remain as loyal citizens of Great Britain?

During the war Britain made several attempts to settle the conflict peaceably, even to the point of promising no taxes whatever! But they never would accept the idea that America was an independent nation. Indeed, they scoffed at the notion. But it was American independence that was the sticking point — together with skepticism about the reliability of the word of the British parliament.

There were innumerable instances of utter brutality on both sides. The Hessians, who fought as allies with the British, along with various Indian tribes, were particularly brutal, raping, pillaging, and burning homes seemingly at will — despite orders form the British to cease and desist. But, on the other hand, there is an entry in a journal written by a colonial soldier who describes the killing of two Indians, who were scalped, and who were then stripped of their flesh from the waist down in order to provide the soldier with a pair of trousers! The entry is written in a casual matter-of-fact style that makes the reader shudder.

We read about the chronic inability of Washington to maintain a fighting force. His frustration with the unpredictable and undisciplined militia is palpable in reading his repeated requests for a standing army. And there were repeated requests for clothes and support as well. The militia was weakened by lack of discipline and short terms of enlistment; desertions were commonplace. When deserters were caught they were summarily shot (as were spies on both sides), but they were seldom caught and Washington’s forces were rarely numerous enough or well enough clothed, fed, and armed to successfully defeat the enemy. Three years into the war the army was exhausted and many, in the South especially, were unwilling to fight. Victories were rare. If the French had not decided to join the colonists the war would have been over fairly quickly and with a completely different outcome.

One entry warmed my heart since it was written by a soldier who fought in one of the rare successes Washington experienced early in the war: the battle of Princeton. The author describes the behavior of one of my ancestors — a Brigadier General who fought with Washington and who died from wounds sustained in that battle — as “courageous.” I was pleased to read that, but there were numerous examples of courage along with examples of awful brutality on both sides and the material provides us with a remarkable glimpse into the way people behave during  times of great upheaval. One reflection written by Thomas Brown to his friend David Ramsay about the war in Georgia in 1781 is worth quoting:

“A civil war being one of the greatest evils incident to human society, the history of every contest presents us with instances of wanton cruelty and barbarity. Men whose passions are inflamed by mutual injuries, exasperated with personal animosity against each other, and eager to gratify revenge, often violate the laws of war and principles of humanity.”

Additionally, we are allowed to glimpse into the lives of those who refused to fight. The Quakers, of course, but also many who remained loyal to England — even to the point of writing letters to local papers satirizing the behavior of the colonists. Many of these Tories, loyal to the King, later joined on the side of the British as the war wore on. But neutrality was itself a battle. We are allowed to see the conflict, even within homes, between those who thought the colonists were warranted in rebelling against Britain and members of the same family who remained loyal to the British throughout. In fact, James Fenimore Cooper write a novel about those very conflicts between two daughters within the home of a wealthy farmer in New York whose house was large and well suited to provide shelter and food for tired and hungry soldiers (usually officers, of course) on both sides of the conflict.

In a word, we rediscover the fact that war brings out the best and the worst in folks, which is not new. But we also come to realize that the issues that brought on that war were never clear to many who participated in it, many did not want to have anything to do with the war, and it may or may not have been worth such widespread death and destruction for so many years.

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Twain On Cooper

Book Cover for a Child's version of the Leatherstocking Tales (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Book Cover for a Child’s version of the Leatherstocking Tales
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

I think everyone who ever wrote a book of any sort wants a review. I have had a number of them, mostly mixed — including a couple that seemed to have been written by a person who never opened the book! But what the author fears worse than anything is the scathing review. One can only imagine how James.F. Cooper might have felt had he read Mark Twain’s review of his “Leatherstocking Tales.”  As it happens, Twain wrote it long after Cooper’s death, largely in response to such exaggerated praise as that of Wilkie Collins who called Cooper “the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.” Twain’s review essay is  not only scathing, it is hilarious! Cooper’s tales were read and enjoyed by young and old alike, all over the world. Hawkeye was the Indiana Jones of Cooper’s day.  Not only Collins but many other reviewers praised the author to the skies and couldn’t find enough compliments to heap on the books themselves. But not so Mark Twain who couldn’t find anything good to say about Cooper or his books. In this famous (infamous?) essay review that focuses on Deerslayer, Twain begins by chastising several reviewers (including Collins) for praising the books without having read them (!) and then tells us that “in two-thirds of a page Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” He then goes on to list twenty-two “rules governing the art of romantic fiction. Cooper violated eighteen of them.” (Actually, all twenty-two, as it turns out.) But then Twain gets rolling and the results are very funny. One portion of the review is especially delightful and I copy it here for your enjoyment. It focuses on one suspenseful episode in Deerslayer that Twain thought especially objectionable. Of special concern to Twain is Cooper’s “flawed inventive faculty” — which had been highly praised by one reviewer. The scene is a river flowing from a lake on which the Hutter family is fleeing in their floating home to escape angry Indians who are in hot pursuit.

Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a “sapling” to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are “laying” for a settler’s scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions “it was little more than a modern canal boat.” Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of “greater breadth than common.” Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies “two-thirds of the ark’s length” — a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say — a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms — each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa’s bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream’s exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians — say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper’s Indian’s never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations filed down to exactly the right shade, as he judged, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did — you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat — for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper’s inadequacy as observer.

Cooper was fortunate not to have lived long enough to read this essay, which Twain wrote to get some pocket money and in response to learned critics who, he was convinced, totally lacked critical acumen.  His essay was itself criticized by other readers as a “deliberate misreading” of the tales that was “devastating.” To be honest, the essay used Cooper as a foil and Twain turned his comic genius loose against a writer who was defenseless (given that he was on the other side of the grass). In the end Twain had written what his critics called a “satirical but shrewdly observant essay” on Cooper’s romantic, sometimes flowery style which Twain simply didn’t like: he preferred his own more economical and straight-forward style. It is hilarious and worth reading, but it certainly does not stand as an example of a fair and honest appraisal of an author’s writing — which is what a review ought to be, one would think. Still….

Pioneer Parable

In 1823 James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Pioneers, the first of what came to be called his “Leatherstocking Tales.” The story features the aging Natty Bumpo, a white man more at home in the forest with his Mohican friend Chingachgook than in what was loosely called “civilization.” Cooper tends toward the Romantic and glorifies the native people somewhat, but his tales are one of the first serious attempts by an American intellectual to deal with the problems of an expanding white population and its effects on the wilderness and the native people.

James Fenimore Cooper (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

James Fenimore Cooper (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In a fairly lengthy episode in The Pioneers Cooper describes an annual fishing assault by the people of the fictional village Templeton, New York located on the very edge of the wilderness. I call it an assault because it is described that way by Cooper who draws a fascinating contrast between the way the white inhabitants of Templeton net the fish by the thousands and the way Bumpo, accompanied by his native friend, catch their fish. After the eager citizens of Templeton have pulled their straining net to land and unloaded an estimated two thousand fish which they plan to pass around to the villagers, Marmaduke Temple, the founder of Templeton and one of the main characters in the novel, confronts his daughter Elizabeth holding “a bass that might have weighed two pounds, and, after viewing it a moment, in a melancholy musing, [says] ‘This is a fearful expenditure of the choicest gifts of Providence. These fish, Bess, which thou seest lying in such piles before thee . . . by tomorrow evening, will be rejected food on the meanest table in Templeton.'”

Elizabeth worries about the waste, since she knows it is not possible for the villagers to eat all of the fish. Most will rot or be eaten by the wild animals. Marmaduke sympathizes with his daughter briefly and then joins the other villagers in their attempt to make a second haul!  As the scene is drawn before us we see in the dwindling light Natty Bumpo appear in a canoe with his friend Chingachgook as they cruise the lake quietly and Natty calmly spears several fish which he plans to take back with him. Marmaduke and the others upon seeing him offer him some of their fish: “Approach, Mohican. . . approach leatherstocking, and load your canoe with the bass. It would be a shame to assail the animals with the spear when such multitudes of victims lie here that will be lost as food for the want of mouths to consume them.” Natty turns him down, “I eat of no man’s wasty ways. I strike my spear into the eels or the trout when I crave the creatures, but I wouldn’t be helping myself to such a sinful kind of fishing for the best rifle that was ever brought out from the old countries…”

As is so often the case with Cooper’s tales — which were widely read in England and Europe and had a powerful effect on people like Thackeray and even George Eliot — the author has crafted a parable for our times. We can work past the romantically exaggerated picture of the “noble savage” and we will find in the end a tale that tells us a great deal about ourselves, things we may not want to recognize or admit are true. Cooper was one of the first to see clearly the damage we could do to the environment and the wilderness in our voracious attempt to get as much from the earth as possible in the shortest amount of time.