September 5, 2014

Cooper and Wyandotté: Merciful Providence!

With the last of his Leatherstocking novels two years behind him, James Fenimore Cooper turned to another historical period for his novel Wyandotté, or, The Hutted Knoll: the American Revolution. Published on September 5, 1843, Wyandotté was not the first of Cooper's books set in that era, though it had been some twenty years since his previous books The Spy (1821) and Lionel Lincoln (1825)

The action of Cooper's book takes place in a remote valley in Otsego County (where Cooper lived much of his life), a bit removed from the main events of the period. Despite not focusing on famous real events, the author couched his story in reality; as he noted in his preface, the stories he told in this book were "distinctive in many of their leading facts, if not rigidly true in the details." He noted his concern about the proliferation of American Revolution related stories which were quickly becoming more legend than truth because of "pseudo-patriotism." Cooper warned, "Nothing is really patriotic, however, that is not strictly true and just." He was particularly concerned about the hard-line distinction between "good guy" Revolutionaries and "bad guy" Tories, which he intended to complicate. Here is how one Tory breaks the news of the rebellion to his family in the novel:

"Merciful Providence!" exclaimed Mrs. Willoughby—"What can you mean, my son?"

"I mean, mother, that civil war has actually commenced in the colonies, and that the people of your blood and race are, in open arms, against the people of my father's native country—in a word, against me."

"How can that be, Robert? Who would dare to strike a blow against the king?"

"When men get excited, and their passions are once inflamed, they will do much, my mother, that they might not dream of, else."

"This must be a mistake! Some evil-disposed person has told you this, Robert, knowing your attachment to the crown."

"I wish it were so, dear madam; but my own eyes have seen—I may say my own flesh has felt, the contrary."

In fact, the Willoughbys are somewhat torn in deciding their allegiance in the novel. Part of Cooper's sympathy for Tories and those who were loyal to England during the Revolution may have been personal: some of his ancestors were counted among that group. Several reviews of Wyandotté focused on whether or not the history in the book was accurate.

2 comments:

  1. Were the reviews you mention from Cooper's time, or more recent?

    I grew up in Otsego County (Cooperstown, actually), so Cooper's books are close to my heart. I haven't read this one!

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  2. Yes, those were contemporary reviews to which I referred. Edgar Allan Poe wrote one, for example!

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