Wednesday, February 08, 2017

eReadings - James Fenimore Cooper

  • A Residence in France; with an excursion up the Rhine, and a second visit to Switzerland (1836)
  • Recollections of Europe (1837)
  • Homeward Bound, or, The Chase. (1871)
  • Home as Found, Sequel to "Homeward Bound" (1871)
All of these books are available on Project Gutenberg, my favorite place to find free books I can download to my tablets. By the way, my current ebook reader of choice is Aldiko. Aside from having a very nice layout, good choice of font (and therefore good readability), I can use Aldiko with my Magic Catalog of Project Gutenberg E-Books, and have Aldiko automatically download my selections into its library.

The first two of these books I found to be very pleasant reading, since they represent narratives of Mr. Cooper's many years on the European continent. At this point he was obviously independently wealthy. I suppose that he may have done some writing during that time, but there is no mention of writing in his narratives, mainly his observations and various occurrences that happened during his travels.

It's interesting to read almost 200 years later how one traveled in those times. It doesn't seem that railroads existed as a mode of travel then, so travel came about with variably-sized carriages, pulled by horses and/or oxen. Most often one traveled by postilions, so that in other words, you traveled some distance, then had to stop for a change of horses. Often these places of horse-changing had taverns or inns, so you would catch a meal while you waited, and late in the day perhaps stay overnight. There was also sightseeing to be done, so depending on the location of your stop, you might stay a day or two and do some looking about at cathedrals and various ruins, and indeed, much of the books consist of comments on various examples of architecture.

He stayed with his family for some time in Paris, so there is much to learn about Paris of those days. This was, of course, a time not so long after the American Revolution and the subsequent war of 1812, but also after the French Revolution, its dissolution and reestablishment of the monarchy under King Louis Phillippe. Interestingly, Cooper found himself by various means able to attend various events of the upper classes, and even some which the King attended.

There is little mention of money or expenses in these narratives, but the style of living is interesting if not astonishing. Not only was there Cooper's family, but also various servants accompanied him. Thus he would rent out suites of rooms for months at a time, typically including all the furniture and other needs, with meals early in the day at these same locations, then dining at various restaurants during the day, and then often some dinner party in the evenings.

Something I particularly enjoyed while going through these books on his travels was Googling various cathedrals, or looking up locations on a Google Maps to follow their course as they traveled. In addition, one could look up historical events and personages of the time.

Cooper obviously saw himself as well-educated, and in particular found himself in a position to defend the United States from various misapprehensions of Europeans of the time, as well as go off on variable-length digressions on the nature of America and the principles by which it stood. One gets the impression that politics was a common topic of conversations with him wherever he went. These digressions sometimes get preachy and therefore tedious, but overall I found the narratives fascinating to read, especially since I don't think we ever were taught much about this time.

The Novels

Homeward Bound, and Home as Found turn out to be novels, centered around a fictitious family and other passengers making their way from England to the United States after a number of years spent in Europe. As I began these books I had thought they might be continuations of the narratives I had read, and considering their timing, we must presume that Cooper's experiences fed this fiction to a great extent.

In particular, the story revolves largely around an American family, the Effinghams -- Ned, his cousin John, and Ned's daughter Eve, along with Eve's French governess, Eve's nurse and Eve's handmaiden. There is also John Effingham's servant Mr. Monday. This group has spent quite a number of years in Europe, and finally returning home to America. Early in the story there are curious occurrences, such as two cabinmates named Mr. Sharp and Mr. Blunt, an English baron and other assorted characters.

This beginning strangeness is then followed by a series of events of intrigue, starting with an attempt to separate a newly-married couple based on some legal proceeding in England, thwarted by the intervention of the captain, John Truck. Some time after this is resolved the ship is pursued by an English naval sloop, obviously in pursuit. The defiant Captain Truck then leads the ship into the chase that forms much of the story.

There follows a series of seemingly increasing events of improbability to the point that it all becomes rather tedious, especially so because of the great verbosity of seemingly everyone on the ship. Not only are there extended discussions of the unfolding events, but much in the way of philosophical debate on all sorts of topics. While it reminded me of the European narratives, in a novel this becomes exceedingly tedious.

Somewhere in the middle of this first book I had recalled a title by Mark Twain about Cooper, and went to find it. The book is entitled, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, which is a litany on what Twain considers to be the errors of Cooper's story-telling, mainly revolving around the unreality of the story lines, and the unrealistic language in Cooper's novels such as The Pathfinder, and while I did not spend much time reading Twain's book, I could immediately understand this criticism. Every single person in Homeward Bound expounds with great length, detail, and literary precision, in a way that just doesn't ring true in terms of understanding these people as real human beings. I can imagine that there are differences in how we converse now and how they did then, but the verbosity and complexity of language in the book is nothing short of astounding. Surely no one talked like this then, regardless of how well-educated they were.

Taken as a whole, since the book Home as Found is a continuation of what happens with these same characters, the story line is also incredibly contrived, with coincidence after coincidence, surprise after surprise, so that it seems all too much like a soap opera, and not such a good one at that. Of some interest is that the fictional country home of the Effinghams, Templeton, NY, seems to be a stand-in for Cooperstown, where Cooper lived.

In the end, I can nonetheless recommend these first two books, since they offer a window into this 19th century world as it was then, and in particular some of Cooper's comments on politics and the state of America of the time are quite interesting seen from the perspective of the 21st century.