Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Fenimore Cooper made his reputation with tales of high adventure on the sea or on the American frontier. He was not satisfied, however, with being classed in the same league as Sir Walter Scott. He had opinions. And what is a man with opinions to do except write a satire after the manner of Swift?
When The Monikins was published in 1835, the American critics were savage. It was not at all what they expected from Cooper (and they had begun to grow tired of Cooper anyway).
What the work is about, passes our comprehension. It is said to be a Satire; but the eyes of an Argus, were they twice the fabled number, could not discern it. The volumes have neither consistency of plot, nor grace of execution. Every thing is cloudy, distorted, and unnatural. Man is degraded to a monkey, and made to play such antics as could scarcely be conceived of, except by one of the race. The author has become a convert, we should fancy, to the theory of Buffon; at least he has furnished, in the production of this work, the most plausible and practical illustration of the Frenchman’s hypothesis, that we have ever met with.
So wrote a critic in the Knickerbocker, the most influential American literary magazine of the time. He was not alone. In fact, the American critics began to pile on Cooper—even as the European critics were calling him America’s greatest contribution to literature. “While the author of The Spy receives the applause of Europe,” wrote Rufus Wilmot Griswold; “while the critics of Germany and France debate the claims of Scott to be ranked before him or even with him, his own countrymen deride his pretensions, and Monikin critics affect contempt of him, or make the appearance of his works occasions of puerile personal abuse.”
Griswold’s explanation was that the critics were annoyed by Cooper’s independent mind. “I shall not discuss the causes of this feeling, further than by remarking that Mr. Cooper is a man of independence; that he is aware of the dignity of his position; that he thinks for himself in his capacity of citizen; and that he has written above the popular taste, in avoiding the sickly sentimentalism which commends to shop-boys and chamber-maids one half the transatlantic novels of this age.”
Nevertheless, it must at least be confessed that The Monikins is a strange book. The outline of the story is this: an English aristocrat and a Stonington sea captain travel to the regions around the South Pole, where they find civilized monkeys—the monikins—living in a warm climate produced by steam escaping from the earth’s core. No more needs to be said to establish the strangeness of the tale.
Of course the intent of the story is satirical. Our heroes visit the monikin kingdom of Leaphigh, which bears more than a passing resemblance to England, and the republic of Leaplow, which will remind the observant reader of the United States of America. Whole chapters are devoted to the absurd political institutions of the two nations of monikins. Sometimes these institutions are explained by Brigadier Downright, a wiser-than-average monikin from Leaplow, who often punctuates his explanations with an apology: “But this is the way with us monikins; no doubt, men manage better.” And we, the readers, are expected to admit to ourselves that men do not manage any better at all.
Cooper seems to have made the assumption that satire gives him the license to be less scrupulous about the plausibility of his characters, and this is probably the single mistake that was fatal to the book. (It was a mistake Swift never made.) His narrator, Sir John Goldencalf, is simply too unpredictable to be much of a character at all. He is carried along on the tide of his latest enthusiasm, whatever it may be—and yet even this tendency does not seem like a characteristic, but only a convenience for the author. Most of the monikins are likewise feebly drawn, although Brigadier Downright stands out as a plausible personality.
But there is one character who almost redeems the whole book. Captain Noah Poke of Stonington, an old seal-hunter drawn into the voyage to the South Pole by Sir John’s money, is a superb character looking for a better book to inhabit. He is drawn with such colorful strokes that one is tempted to think Cooper might actually have made a humorist of himself if he had put his mind to it. In his first encounter with the titular monikins, he responds to the news that, in deference to the delicate sensibilities of the monikin ladies, he will be required to strip naked, with a Rabelaisian torrent of arguments, oaths, and pleas. This shows keen observation. It is exactly the response of a man who has been attacked at his most vulnerable intellectual spot: the unexamined assumptions that lie at the base of all social intercourse. Because he can think of no reason for not wishing to leave his clothes behind, he is obliged to think of every reason.
Mr. Poke listened to my account of all that had passed, with a very sedate gravity. He informed me that he had witnessed so much ingenuity among the seals, and had known so many brutes that seemed to have the sagacity of men, and so many men who appeared to have the stupidity of brutes, that he had no difficulty whatever in believing every word I told him. He expressed his satisfaction, too, at the prospect of hearing a lecture on natural philosophy and political economy from the lips of a monkey; although he took occasion to intimate that no desire to learn anything lay at the bottom of his compliance; for, in his country, these matters were pretty generally studied in the district schools, the very children who ran about the streets of ‘Stunin’tun’ usually knowing more than most of the old people in foreign parts. “Still a monkey might have some new ideas; and for his part, he was willing to hear what every one had to say; for, if a man didn’t put in a word for himself in this world, he might be certain no one else would take the pains to speak for him.” But when I came to mention the details of the programme of the forthcoming interview, and stated that it was expected the audience would wear their own skins, out of respect to the ladies, I greatly feared that my friend would have so far excited himself as to go into fits. The rough old sealer swore some terrible oaths, protesting “that he would not make a monkey of himself, by appearing in this garb, for all the monikin philosophers, or high-born females, that could be stowed in a ship’s hold; that he was very liable to take cold; that he once knew a man who undertook to play beast in this manner, and the first thing the poor devil knew, he had great claws and a tail sprouting out of him; a circumstance that he had always attributed to a just judgment for striving to make himself more than Providence had intended him for; that, provided a man’s ears were naked, he could hear just as well as if his whole body was naked; that he did not complain of the monkeys going in their skins, and that they ought, in reason, not to meddle with his clothes; that he should be scratching himself the whole time, and thinking what a miserable figure he cut; that he would have no place to keep his tobacco; that he was apt to be deaf when he was cold; that he would be d——d if he did any such thing; that human natur’ and monkey natur’ were not the same, and it was not to be expected that men and monkeys should follow exactly the same fashions; that the meeting would have the appearance of a boxing match, instead of a philosophical lecture; that he never heard of such a thing at Stunin’tun; that he should feel sneaking at seeing his own shins in the presence of ladies; that a ship always made better weather under some canvas than under bare poles; that he might possibly be brought to his shirt and pantaloons, but as for giving up these, he would as soon think of cutting the sheet-anchor off his bows, with the vessel driving on a lee-shore; that flesh and blood were flesh and blood, and they liked their comfort; that he should think the whole time he was about to go in a-swimming, and should be looking about for a good place to dive”; together with a great many more similar objections, that have escaped me in the multitude of things of greater interest which have since occupied my time.
This is splendid: it gets funnier and funnier as it goes on, and at the same time it is exactly true to nature. Unfortunately, Cooper seems to have realized himself just how splendid it was. He attempts the same thing several more times in the book, but never equals the effect of this first instance.
Captain Poke takes control of the story briefly during the voyage toward the South Pole, and he is magnificent, a study drawn from life of an instinctive navigator and born commander. The passage through the ice barrier is intensely exciting, the kind of rip-roaring sea story that made Cooper’s reputation.
Much of the rest of the book is more satire than story, which is to say that the events seem nothing more than contrivances to make some satirical point about life in England or America. And one of Cooper’s problems is that he has entirely too many targets. He might have been much more successful if he had limited his satire to the differences between the English and American constitutions, but he must also satirize the English love of property, and the American emulation of European standards, and anything else that pops into his head. There is no care taken to make the incidents seem to arise naturally from what has come before; over and over again, our narrator tells us “I ought to have mentioned” or “I omitted to say,” which a reader cannot help interpreting as “something just occurred to me, but I am too lazy to revise the earlier part of my manuscript to make way for it.”
So is it worth reading The Monikins? It is if you have the right expectations. Expect hit-or-miss satire, and know that some of the misses will go on for whole chapters—but some of the hits will be spot on. Expect characters that are more vehicles for satire than developed personalities—except for Captain Poke, of course, who has nearly enough personality to carry everyone else. Expect a story that seems to have been improvised as the author sat furiously scribbling, with no attempt to revise the earlier chapters to set up the later ones more effectively.
There is a curious epilogue to the story of this curious book, which is that—after having been largely neglected since it was brought out, and republished mostly in sets of Cooper’s complete works—it has gained a reputation as an early work of science-fiction. The idea of a warm climate at the South Pole is actually rendered quite plausible, and Cooper’s description of the city of Bivouac, the New York of Leaplow, shows considerable imagination.What would a city built by monkeys look like?
In the first place, I remarked that all sorts of quadrupeds are just as much at home in the promenades of the town, as the inhabitants themselves, a fact that I make no doubt has some very proper connection with that principle of equal rights on which the institutions of the country are established. In the second place, I could not but see that their dwellings are constructed on the very minimum of base, propping each other, as emblematic of the mutual support obtained by the republican system, and seeking their development in height for the want of breadth; a singularity of customs that I did not hesitate at once to refer to a usage of living in trees, at an epoch not very remote. In the third place, I noted, instead of entering their dwellings near the ground like men, and indeed like most other unfledged animals, that they ascend by means of external steps to an aperture about half-way between the roof and the earth, where, having obtained admission, they go up or down within the building, as occasion requires. This usage, I made no question, was preserved from the period (and that, too, no distant one), when the savage condition of the country induced them to seek protection against the ravages of wild beasts, by having recourse to ladders, which were drawn up after the family into the top of the tree, as the sun sank beneath the horizon. These steps or ladders are generally of some white material, in order that they may, even now, be found in the dark, should the danger be urgent; although I do not know that Bivouac is a more disorderly or unsafe town than another, in the present day. But habits linger in the usages of a people, and are often found to exist as fashions, long after the motive of their origin has ceased and been forgotten. As a proof of this, many of the dwellings of Bivouac have still enormous iron chevaux-de-frise before the doors, and near the base of the stone-ladders; a practice unquestionably taken from the original, unsophisticated, domestic defences of this wary and enterprising race. Among a great many of these chevaux-de-frise, I remarked certain iron images, that resemble the kings of chess-men, and which I took, at first, to be symbols of the calculating qualities of the owners of the mansions—a species of republican heraldry—but which the brigadier told me, on inquiry, were no more than a fashion that had descended from the custom of having stuffed images before the doors, in the early days of the settlement, to frighten away the beasts at night, precisely as we station scarecrows in a corn-field.
The Monikins can be found at Project Gutenberg.
The first edition, in a very good scan, is at archive.org.
A fine edition with strikingly good illustrations (from which the monikin at the head of this article is taken) can be found on Google Books.
Friday, October 5, 2012
“To say that the author has made the most of his materials would be far from the truth; for when did ever Mr. Paulding write a book, without provoking nearly as much as he pleased the reader?”
This reviewer (who was speaking of Paulding’s Westward Ho!) has captured exactly what I think will trouble most readers about anything by James K. Paulding. Everything he writes seems to be dashed off in a hurry, with little revision, and with no real attempt to consider the work as an artistic whole. As the same reviewer says, “A want of due elaboration is the great defect in almost all his writings.”
But this is also what makes Paulding’s work worth reading, when any number of better-constructed adventure stories might bore us. The hours we spend reading Koningsmarke are hours spent in the company of James K. Paulding. He does not become a different man when he sets out to tell us a story; on the contrary, he devotes whole chapters simply to being James K. Paulding, spouting whatever ideas have popped into his head at the time while the story patiently waits for him to continue. And the ideas are always clever and amusing, often worth remembering and repeating.
Parody was Paulding’s literary instinct. He first came to prominence in partnership with Washington and William Irving: the three of them published Salmagundi, a bracingly silly periodical full of what we can only call sophomoric humor. (”Pindar Cockloft” and “Launcelot Langstaff” were two of the fictional contributors to the magazine, just to give you an idea of how sophomoric the humor could actually be.)
In Koningsmarke; or, Old Times in the New World, Paulding set out to write a parody of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels. At the time (1823) Sir Walter Scott was an unstoppable juggernaut of historical fiction, easily the most popular novelist in the history of the English novel. Paulding finds these historical romances laughably implausible, and in setting out to imitate them he tells us what he imagines the method must be.
In order that our readers and ourselves may at once come to a proper understanding, we will confess without any circumlocution, that we sat down to write this history before we had thought of any regular plan, or arranged the incidents, being fully convinced that an author who trusts to his own genius, like a modern saint who relies solely on his faith, will never be left in the lurch. Another principle of ours, which we have seen fully exemplified in the very great success of certain popular romances, advertised for publication before they were begun to be written, is, that it is much better for an author to commence his work, without knowing how it is to end, than to hamper himself with a regular plot, a succession of prepared incidents, and a premeditated catastrophe. This we hold to be an error little less, than to tie the legs of a dancing master, to make him caper the more gracefully, or pinion a man’s arms behind his back, as a preparative to a boxing match.
As for the historical aspect of the historical novel, Paulding obviously thinks little of Scott’s research.
Another sore obstacle in the way of the free exercise of genius, is for a writer of historical novels, such as we have reason to suspect this will turn out to be, to embarrass his invention by an abject submission to chronology, or confine himself only to the introduction of such characters and incidents as really existed or took place within the limits of time and space comprised in the groundwork of his story. Nothing can be more evident than that this squeamishness of the author must materially interfere with the interest and variety of his work, since, if, as often happens, there should be wanting great characters or great events, coming lawfully within the period comprised in the said history, the author will be proportionably stinted in his materials. To be scared by a trifling anachronism, in relation to things that have passed away a century, or ten centuries ago, is a piece of literary cowardice, similar to that of the ignorant clown, who should be frightened by the ghost of some one that had been dead a thousand years.
And finally, of course, the incidents themselves strike him as implausible:
Another determination of ours, of which we think it fair to apprize the reader, is, that we shall strenuously endeavour to avoid any intercourse, either directly or indirectly, with that bane of true genius, commonly called common sense. We look upon that species of vulgar bumpkin capacity, as little better than the instinct of animals; as the greatest pest of authorship that ever exercised jurisdiction in the fields of literature.
Having set us up for an utterly ridiculous parody of the Walter Scott school of historical fiction, Paulding goes on to play a rather clever trick on us—and perhaps on himself as well. Setting out to write an “extempore” novel according to the absurd methods he has described, he spins out a story that keeps us entertained through two volumes. Instead of a ridiculous parody of Scott, he has given us a real historical adventure, with characters we remember, a mystery that keeps us turning pages, and enough adventure to satisfy any fan of Scott or Cooper.
The tale is set in the colony of New Sweden, which in itself is an interesting choice. Koningsmarke may not be the only novel ever set in New Sweden, but there can’t be too many others. The town of Elsingburgh is the capital of the colony (there was such a town, or at least a fort by that name, though it was not the capital), a little outpost of Sweden in a land otherwise divided among Indians, Quakers, and Dutch.
Right away Paulding throws out any semblance of historical chronology, deliberately piling on as many anachronisms as he can fit into one narrative. The governor Peter Piper (references to Mother Goose rhymes are one of Paulding’s running gags), who for some reason is German, represents the king Gustavus Adolphus the Great, who died in 1632; New Sweden was founded in 1638. William Penn and his Quakers are just up the river; Pennsylvania wasn’t founded until 1680, by which time New Sweden had long since been absorbed, first by the Dutch and then by the English.
Nevertheless, Paulding has an innate instinct for plausibility; instead of bringing out the ridiculousness of the anachronisms, he builds up a little world that makes complete sense to us internally. (This, by the way, is just what Scott would do.) It’s almost as if he’s enjoying putting one over on us. How many critics, he must have been asking himself, will even notice the anachronisms? And how many of the ones who notice will pedantically point them out as faults, even though the author has warned us in the first chapter that he fully intends to drown us in anachronisms? The little world of Elsingburgh seems real as we enter into it, and every intrusion of the world outside seems to fit, unless we start trying to remember the real history of the seventeenth century.
We may as well say at the start that the hero (Koningsmarke, the Long Finne) and heroine (Christina, of course—what else would you name a Swedish heroine?) are good for nothing but to move the story along. The hero is conventionally young and brave, with a conventional dark secret in his past; the heroine is conventionally pretty, and just independent-minded enough to keep her in a perpetual quandary between Duty and Love. The love scenes fall flat, with a sound like wet towels hitting the floor.
Wisely, however, Paulding gives us as little of these two as he can get away with. The other characters are the ones who live: Peter Piper in particular, who begins as a satire on every petty tyrant, but rapidly fills out into the one human being we can actually feel for and understand; and above all Bombie.
Bombie of the Frizzled Head is an extraordinary creation, as good as anything Scott ever drew. She is an old slave who was once (so she says, and we believe her) a princess in Africa, and she is the one character in the whole book who behaves with real dignity. Her function in the narrative is to spout dire prophecies of doom just when they are most inconvenient to the other characters; she alone knows Koningsmarke’s secret, and she could tell it, but she won’t. “I have seen what I have seen—I know what I know,” she says over and over, along with many other mysterious oracles that hint of some great tragedy to come. To give dark hints is obviously the purpose for which she was introduced in the narrative; but Paulding, refusing to bind himself to anything premeditated, found her irresistibly fascinating, and let her grow into one of the central characters in the story. “The farther we advance in our history,” our narrator tells us at the beginning of the second book, “the more do we perceive the advantages of extempore writing. It is wonderful, with what a charming rapidity the thoughts flow, and the pen moves, when thus disembarrassed of all care for the past, all solicitude for the future.”
It’s almost shocking to discover elsewhere that Paulding was an apologist for slavery, when Bombie can give us such an account of herself as this:
“Who, and what are you, in the name of God?” cried the Long Finne, starting up from his straw.
“I am a being disinherited of all the rights, and heir to all the wrongs to which humanity is prone. I was born a princess in one quarter of the globe—I was brought up in another, a beast of burden. I am here the slave of man’s will, the creature of his capricious tyranny.” The voice of the apparition was hollow, and rung like a muffled bell.
Detached amusement is Paulding’s usual attitude, and he seizes any opportunity for satire. Sometimes the satire works well, and sometimes it interrupts the story more than it ought to do. An Indian captivity (narrated in a very Cooper-like way, which may well be a coincidence, since Cooper’s first Leatherstocking tale came out the same year as Koningsmarke) is interrupted by a theological debate between our hero and a wise old Indian, in which the Indian has much the best of it. The dialogue is clever, but completely and vexingly out of place.
Paulding’s Indians, incidentally, are very plausible creatures. They are not noble savages, although they certainly have more of nobility in them than anyone in the Swedish colony (except our hero, of course). They are not caricatures, either; they are simply believable people in a believable situation, acting and thinking the way American Indians might well have acted and thought when confronted with growing European settlements.
The deeper emotions are difficult for Paulding. Love, fear, grief—these things seem not to interest him very much. They need to be there in the story, but he observes his loving or grieving characters as one might observe the antics of squirrels, without really understanding how they feel, or caring about it very much.
The one thing that seems to affect Paulding deeply is reconciliation. There are several scenes of reconciliation between enemies; here Paulding genuinely feels emotion, and it comes out in his writing. One feels that it would almost have been worthwhile having a minor disagreement with the man so that one could experience the genuine joy of reconciling with him.
As for the story itself, there are enough incidents to keep the hero and heroine apart until the end of the second volume, which—as Paulding very candidly observes—is the main object of fiction. An author of a two-volume novel, he says, “is obliged to use all the art of his profession, not in bringing his story to a catastrophe, but in preventing it from, as it were, running ashore before the voyage is completed.” This Paulding does well enough that he may keep you awake past bedtime waiting to find out what happens next; and, after all, what better recommendation is there than that for an adventure story?
It’s easy to find faults in Koningsmarke. But the faults are in many ways the strengths as well. Paulding interrupts his story annoyingly at times; but then those are times when we have the inestimable privilege of sitting down in conversation with James K. Paulding, surely one of the most charming literary men our country has ever produced. One always has the feeling that, with a little more attention, Paulding could have written a very competent and straightforward adventure story; but then he would not have been James K. Paulding, and we might not have enjoyed ourselves half as much.
The second edition of Koningsmarke is available on Google Books:
Koningsmarke, or, Old Times in the New World. New edition revised and corrected. In two volumes. New-York: Harper & Brothers, 1834-1835.
Here is Volume I:
…and Volume II: