The Cambridge History of American Literature

By William Peterfield Trent; John Erskine et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
Fiction II CONTEMPORARIES OF COOPER

IT is mere coincidence that Cooper was born in the year which produced The Power of Sympathy and that when he died Uncle Tom's Cabin was passing through its serial stage, and yet the limits of his life mark almost exactly the first great period of American fiction. Paulding, Thompson, Neal, Kennedy, Simms, Melville, to mention no slighter figures, outlived him, but not, as a current fashion, the type of romance which had flourished under Cooper. Although by 1851 tales of adventure had begun to seem antiquated, they had rendered a large service to the course of literature: they had removed the stigma, for the most part, from the word novel. For the brutal scrapes of eighteenth-century fiction the new romance had substituted deeds of chivalrous daring; it had supplanted blunt fleshliness by a chaste and courtly love, and had tended to cure amorous sentimentalism by placing love below valour in the scale of virtues. Familiar life, tending to sordidness, had been succeeded by remote life, generally idealized; historical detail had been brought in to teach readers who were being entertained. Cooper, like Scott, was more elevated than Fielding and Smollett, more realistic than the Gothic romancers, more humane than Godwin or Brown. The two most common charges against the older fiction, that it pleased wickedly and that it taught nothing, had broken down before the discovery, except in illiberal sects, that the novel is fitted both for honest use and for pleasure.

In Europe, at Cooper's death, a new vogue of realism had begun, but America still had little but romance. With so vast

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