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JAMES FENIMOR E COOPER.
MR. COOPER, who is considered by many as the head of American literature, was undoubtedly the first whose writings gave it a prominent position in the eyes of Europe, his works having been translated into several of the continental languages.
Till his time the literature of this vast Republic was rather Colonial than National ; for without intending any invidious comparison, Mr. Irving must be considered more of an English classic than an American author. We are not aware of any passage in his numerous writings which an Englishman might not have thought and written; but in Mr. Cooper we have throughout the most unmistakable evidences of the Republican and the American. We are not sure but that he very unnecessarily, if not offensively, forces this upon our attention. We do not make this as a complaint against either of these distinguished writers, but merely point out the fact to the attention of our readers. With this preliminary observation we shall enter upon the consideration of Mr. Cooper's writings.
Mr. Cooper first secured his hearing with the public, by his historical novel “the Spy,” the scene of which is laid in New York; this, though deficient in that more stirring incident
which distinguished some of his later works, contains some admirable scenes, and well entitled him to that respectful attention he enjoyed for many years. In this, he singularly developes the peculiarities of his nature, which are so strikingly displayed in most of his after productions. It is curious to observe how very much the ingredients of his novels resemble each other; and how very early he fell into that amplitude of execution which has been so great a drawback on his success.
Of late years, Mr. Cooper's novels remind us of Mr. Canning's illustration of Brougham's incessant advocacy of reform, which the facetious statesman said was ever brought forward as a nostrum for all evils. Was there an epidemic? try Reform in parliament, cried Mr. Brougham !—was there an earthquake ? it was all occasioned by the aristocracy, in refusing reform to the people! Mr. Canning said there was a parallel case in the monomania of a young village painter, of whom he had read when a boy.
He had succeeded in painting to the perfect satisfaction of Boniface, the sign of a Red Lion, which adorned a village alehouse of that name. The squire of the hamlet, anxious to encourage rising merit, sent for the youthful Raffaelle, and said that he wished him to embellish with pictures a few panels in his great oak dining-room. “Here,” he observed, “is a large space over the fire hearth—what do you suggest as the best subject ?" The painter put on a profound air, rubbed his chin in all the agony of cogitation—looked up at the panel—then down on the ground—and then in a very oracular tone of voice said, “My deliberate opinion is, that nothing will so well become that space as a very large Red Lion! what does your worship think ?” The squire seemed somewhat surprised at first, but acquiesced, and at last began to think it a Red Lion very well drawn, and colored, and in an extra rampant attitude, might after all be a very striking object on entering his Hall. It would have been better had that been the family crest, but as that emblem of Heraldic distinction happened to be an owl, and as no ingenuity on the part of the painter could reasonably be expected to make a red lion altogether like a bird, why it could not be helped.
This little difficulty thus satisfactorily arranged to both patron and painter, they proceeded to the other end of the room, and there the squire put the same question as to what would be the most becoming to the opposite panel: here, however, there was some difference, as the space was much smaller. The artist now buried himself in the profoundest reverie; while he stood thus lost in abstraction, the squire said to himself, “ Ah! now we shall have a subject worthy of Salvator Rosa, Murillo, and Rubens! His mind is now ransacking history and romance, for some stirring subject to astonish all my friends: I like the idea, after all, of that Red Lion for the fire hearth : there is something touchingly simple in it—a truly noble idea. The lion is the king of the forest :--a bold idea, and shows the man of original mind." He was himself aroused from his brown study by the voice of the other saying, “I have it at last;—what say you of another Red Lion-smaller than the other, but made very much redder, in order to compensate for the loss of dimensions : it will make an admirable companion picture.” The squire now found that he proposed to fill up all the spaces with the same animal, and so convert his Hall into a gallery of Red Lions.
Mr. Cooper has some little spice of our artist's weakness, and is somewhat too fond of Red Indians, diversifying them by occasionally painting some much redder than others.
There is likewise too great a similarity in his plots ; we have the same scenes over and over again, until at length we seem to have lost our path in a primeval forest of novels, out of which it is almost impossible to read our way.
The greatest charm about Cooper's novels is the perfect truthfulness of their forest scenery ; there is nothing artificial in a single word—the very trees seem to grow around you: it is not scene painting, it is nature. In many of Bulwer's novels we cannot shake off the feeling that the whole is theatrical: we acknowledge the picture, but we see it by the light of the footlamps. It is very good, certainly, but it is not life. We cannot do better than illustrate this by an anecdote we once heard of a very acute critic. A party of friends one evening were discussing the acting of the elder Kean and his son; all agreed in praising the felicity with which the son imitated the father : one went so far as to declare he saw little difference between them. This called up our critic, who said he would endeavor to describe the difference.“ Let us select,” said he, “ the celebrated tent scene of Richard the Third: it is, of all others, that in which the younger is the most successful in imitating the elder one. When I saw old Edmund lying on the couch, writhing as it were beneath all the horrors of a guilty conscience, his restless and disturbed action told me more than words : when, finally, under the paroxysm of the terrible dream, he
starts up, and staggers to the very brink of the orchestra, my attention was riveted on the terrible picture before me—that was nature : I saw the remorseful conscience-stung tyrant, and him alone. But in the case of his son 'twas very different ; true, he did it physically precisely as his father had done : nothing pantomimic was omitted, but the soul was wanting, and as he came reeling towards the audience, I said to myself, By heaven he will cut his knees upon the footlights.” Thus differ Bulwer and Cooper.
With regard to his Indians, we have heard some Americans declare that they are not natural, but, as they termed them, Mr. Cooper's Indians : we can only speak as they impressed us. It must always be borne in mind that a novelist labors under a disadvantage when he is drawing human nature, which he does not when he is painting nature's scenery; as a matter of necessity, he must exaggerate, or, as they term it, idealize the living characters in his works. But it is not so with the scene he chooses to describe ; he may be as literal as he pleases in the one case—then he is pronounced graphic, and wonderfully true to nature; but if he portrays with equal fidelity the beings he brings forth upon his canvas, he is condemned as tame and common-place. It thus requires a double power to produce a successful romance; and it is in this twofold capacity that we consider Mr. Cooper so admirable a writer.
Even in the very worst of his novels, there are glimpses of nature so exquisitely painted as to justify the highest praise it is possible to bestow.
It is just probable that the very success of this description of writing has led Mr. Cooper to persevere in a course which has