Cooper, a librarian, examines the place of the gentry in James Fenimore Cooper’s Littlepage trilogy.
As James Fenimore Cooper (JFC) was born to New York state’s frontier gentry, he brought an insider’s romanticized notion to the role played by that class in the development of colonial and post-colonial society. The author follows the evolution of the landed gentry, from its origins in a quasi-feudal patron system with its fiefdom of fealty and service, through its transformation by the English to landlords and merchants on the lookout for trade, troop provisioning and land speculation—a definite shift from gentleman to businessman—and finally, through class identification and intermarriage, the upper crust fancied themselves as “a group with similar interests and lifestyles like the English landed gentry,” fox hunting and all. Cooper delineates their aristocratic pretensions, their ties to the Episcopalian Church and the Federalists, and their sense of entitlement due to wealth, education and breeding. JFC came out of a tradition that looked with horror upon the hoi polloi exercising political power, and approached his own political responsibilities with “a noblesse oblige attitude of duty.” In the gentry, JFC argued, resided the qualities of bravery and charity, wisdom and honesty, a class that radiated comfort and gentility. Certainly there were exemplars within the gentry who lived up to these standards, but Cooper feels JFC overstates their superiority. The gentry held no divine writ to civilize the great unwashed masses, and they were hardly above self-interest: “In actual fact, the landed gentry’s interests”—namely the production of wheat and enhancement of property value—“dominated their attitudes toward their tenants and their political actions, and much of their culture and education was due to their wealth, and not some inherent good.” Cooper could have used more specific examples of Janus-faced gentry, as well as more examples of the messy republican spirit of the frontier to buttress his argument, though few will quarrel with his class critique of JFC.
A healthy reminder that James Fenimore Cooper’s mythicized frontier was seen through the eyes of, and measured against, a smug aristocracy.