At a June 4 ceremony here in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted eight writers into the New York States Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-born or based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2013 included living writers Marilyn Hacker, Alice McDermott, Walter Mosley, and Calvin Trillin, as well as James Fenimore Cooper, Countee Cullen, Miguel Piñero, and Maurice Sendak.
My father once told me that people who talked too much about their ancestors were like potatoes: The best part of them is underground. I always try to remember that, but it may be a tough piece of advice to follow tonight.
with Sage Mehta in the background
Photograph by Tatiana Breslow
My father, when my brother and sisters and I were young, used to read The Leatherstocking Tales to us out loud. We would lie on the floor, put our heads under the couch, and go to sleep. It was a great many years before I finally came around and learned to appreciate the books in their own right.
One of the important things about Cooper is that, as a novelist, he has chalked up a great many “firsts.” This may not have been as difficult for America’s first well-known novelist as it would be for writers today; back then, the field of “firsts” was fairly open. For example, he wrote our first international blockbusters. He wrote the first Westerns. He wrote the first novels of the sea by someone who had actually been to sea. He was the first American novelist to make a living from his writing. And, of course, he was, in The Leatherstocking Tales, the first novelist to bring the American wilderness, and the American Indian, to a national, and then an international, audience.
Cooper’s love of the wilderness led to his being a very early, and major, source of the conservation movement in this country. He came by his love of the wilderness naturally. He grew up in Cooperstown, a village founded in 1789 by his father. It is at the foot of a large lake—the Glimmerglass of The Deerslayer. It was, and is, surrounded by woods. Cooper, and his next older brother, William, grew up in these woods and on the lake. “They are quite wild,” their older sister Hannah wrote of them. When their father was elected to Congress in 1797 in Philadelphia, his wife, who hated the wilderness, wanted to move the family with him; but her two youngest children put their collective feet down and refused to go. She remained. Cooper wrote in the introduction to The Pioneers, published in 1823, that it was his childhood in Cooperstown that gave him his strong feelings about nature; it was these feelings that later in his writings he broadcast across the country and around the world.
He was also an early source in this country of the environmental movement. Environmentalism, of course, goes a step beyond conservation, because by conserving nature, you preserve that which sustains you. The whole succession of the five Leatherstocking Tales is a steady progression westward, as Leatherstocking and his friend Chingachgook keep moving on in order to stay ahead of the settlers with their axes, chopping down the forests that Leatherstocking and his friend depend upon for a living. In The Pioneers, much is made of the “wasty ways” of the settlers. They cut down trees indiscriminately, including the sugar maple, which uniquely supplied them with the makings of maple sugar, a major product of the woodlands. They haul in fish by the net-full, leaving most of them to rot on the shore. One of the great scenes in The Pioneers is the migratory flight of the passenger pigeons over the Lake, darkening the sky. The settlers run out with their shotguns, peppering the sky with shot and bringing down the birds by the thousands; Leatherstocking shoots just one, leading to a homily about never killing more birds or fish than you actually need, lest you destroy that which sustains you. As you know, the last passenger pigeon died early in the last century.
In a sense, Cooper still lives. For one thing, his books have not been out of print since the early 1820s, not true of any other American novelist. And environmentalists in Cooperstown, which include some members of my family, are very apt to quote him in their never-ending battles against local unplanned developers. Cooper’s descendants are still in Cooperstown; indeed, the story of Cooper children compelling their mother to stay there has been repeated at least once. Cooper is at his best when he is writing about nature, whether it be the wilderness or the sea. Melville and Conrad have acknowledged their debt to him. Cooper’s writing can at times be turgid—if two old pioneers, or two old salts, are cracking jokes, it is time to turn the page. But give him a break. He was writing before almost any American novelist you ever heard of. When he is in the woods or at sea, he is unbeatable; at its best, his writing is powerful and lyrical. He was the most prominent literary pioneer of this country. I am very happy that The Empire State Center for the Book and The New York Library Association have selected him for the New York State Writers Hall of Fame.
Now I will stop, lest you think I really am a potato.
A recent Story of the Week selection:
“Storm and Shipwreck,” from James Fenimore Cooper’s Ned Myers
Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Honor Moore on Marilyn Hacker
Charles Molesworth on Countée Cullen
Dan Barry on Alice McDermott
Daniel Gallant on Miguel Piñero
Paul O. Zelinsky on Maurice Sendak