The Historical Form’s Racial Imaginary: Difference and Personhood in Scott and Cooper
Though he resisted the appellation, James Fennimore Cooper was sometimes called the American Walter Scott—a comparison enlivened by the anecdote surrounding Cooper’s The Pilot (1824), written to deliberately improve upon Scott’s The Pirate (1821). Though Cooper outlived Scott, both authors were active in roughly the same span of time, and both were major figures in their nations’ respective Romantic periods. Despite the formal, ideological, and topical similarities between Cooper’s and Scott’s novels, comparing them has not been a major priority in the ever-expanding body of work on Walter Scott. Likewise, Cooper scholars share some of their author’s reticence on the connection, and thus have tended to study Cooper in the American context alone.
This transatlantic paper aims at reuniting the early nineteenth-century historical form as it existed in Britain and America, using a particular intersection of form and content as a test case: the use of literary elements to represent ethnic and racial differences. I observe that, though both authors reach for a similar literary toolbox in crafting descriptive tableaux, a major difference involves the division between race and ethnicity, much more pronounced in Cooper than in Scott. Even in Scott’s crusader novels, which feature characters native to the Middle East, racial difference appears on roughly the same level as does the kind of ethnic or national difference that might separate an Englishman from a Frenchman. This is visible as early as in Waverley (1814), where Scottish Highlanders are directly compared to Indigenous North Americans. In Cooper, on the other hand, physical and psychological differences attendant on racial particulars—especially between white Europeans and indigenous Americans—produce un-crossable gulfs between members of different racial groups. In noticing this distinction, my paper attempts to theorize and historicize how an historical form first innovated in Scotland becomes both formally and ideologically recalibrated when fitted into the early nineteenth-century American racial imaginary. In the process of reaching these conclusions, I hope to consider both legal and literary definitions of personhood and to comment on how Scottish literature’s overseas circulation influenced the development of a racial imaginary in the still-young United States when American literature was still a “minor literature.”
Adam Kozaczka, Texas A&M International University, USA