A Trace of James Fenimore Cooper

A Trace of James Fenimore Cooper

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A Trace of James Fenimore Cooper


 In 1828 James Fenimore Cooper spent three

months in England, chiefly to conduct business with his British publisher,

Richard Bentley, and for most of that time he lived in London at 33 St. James

Place. This is the way he described it in Gleanings in Europe: England:

  We finally took a small house in St. James's Place, a narrow inlet that

  communicates with the street of the same name, and which is quite near the

  palace and the parks. We had a tiny drawing-room, quite plainly furnished, a

  dining-room, and three bed-rooms, with the use of the offices, &c. for a

  guinea a-day. The people of the house cooked for us, went to market, and

  attended to the rooms, while our own man and maid did the personal service. I

  paid a shilling extra for each fire, and as we kept three, it came to another

  guinea weekly. (20)


As Donald Ringe and Kenneth Skaggs point out in their "Historical Introduction"

to England, St. James Place represented "a most desirable location" (xvii). It

is close to the centers of political power in England--St. James Palace,

Buckingham Palace, and #10 Downing Street are not far away. Cooper's neighbors

on the street included William Wilberforce and Samuel Rogers, a genial and

well-connected writer; Lord Spencer and Sir James Mackintosh lived nearby as



The 33 St. James Place of Cooper's time no longer exists, but I wanted to visit

the site anyway, to try to get a feel for what it meant for him to live there.

If you walk from Trafalger Square to St. James Street, you can go along The Mall

or Pall Mall, wide streets flanked by the gigantic architecture of Imperial

Britain. St. James Place opens across St. James Street from the Pall Mall;

Christie's, the famous auction house, is on the corner opposite. At the south

end of St. James Street stands St. James Palace, an imposing brick castle with

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two crenelated towers, two red-coated palace guards, and scores of foreigners

with video cameras.


St. James Place, by contrast with all this grandeur, seems small and intimate.

It is still a narrow inlet, an L-shaped dead end scarcely wide enough for

automobile traffic. The sense of a quiet retreat from the city is very strong,

especially in late July, when I was making my visit and London was swarmed under

by tourists. No one bothered to come here.


33 St. James Place is now a modern apartment building, but you can see the

character the street must have had in Cooper's time by the 5-story Georgian

townhouses across the street, solid urban housing. Nothing marks Cooper's short

residence, which was neither long enough nor important enough to interest more

than a handful of people, but there are plaques commemorating other famous

residents of the street. One at #28 reads,


  William Huskisson



  lived here.


Huskisson was a contemporary of Cooper's, best known for his advocacy of free

trade and his liberal Toryism, but Cooper, who thought of free trade as

"bottomed on a complete fallacy" (England, 129), considered him a hypocrite. In

January of 1828, shortly before leaving Paris, Cooper had meditated in a letter

to Charles Wilkes on the perfidy of politicians everywhere: "Culpable and

inconsistent as our own politicians are, they are still more respectable than

those we meet here. In England, during the last twelve months, the Duke of

Clarence, the Duke of Wellington, and Mr. Huskison [sic], Canning, etc., have

been both lauded and lampooned in the same papers with a barefacedness that is

astonishing" (Letters and Journals I, 243). He doesn't mention ever meeting

Huskisson in England, but he does take another swipe at Huskisson's integrity:

"I hold it to be a pretty safe rule that the man who is jesuitical on any one

fact, is to be distrusted on all others. That Mr. Huskisson is self-contradicted

and insincere in his Free Trade doctrines, is as obvious as any moral truth I

know" (290).


Cooper may have despised Huskisson, but he would have appreciated a much later

denizen of the street. This is the plaque posted at #9 St. James Place, the door

directly across from #33:

  Pioneer aviator, Sailor and Author,

  Sir Francis Chichester KBE


  singled-handed circumnavigator of the World


  lived here 1944-1972.


Chichester's The Lonely Sea and the Sky (1964) represents as well as any other

twentieth-century text the way Cooper liked to think of himself: a literate

salt, Long Tom Coffin as the author of his own story, the fiercely independent

sailor whose life and book are a gentle but firm rebuke to the flabbiness of

modern life. The spirit of Leatherstocking may have fled from Templeton, as Home

As Found laments, but it is still possible for human beings to generate the

romance and live the adventure that he represents, and Chichester has reminded

us of that.


A few doors down at #4 another plaque testifies to a still closer affinity:

  From this house in 1848 Frederic Chopin 1810-1849 went to Guildhall to give

  his last public performance.


Though this was well after Cooper's residence, the themes of romantic

individualism of that marked Chopin's life and work accord well with Cooper's

own. Moreover, political forces generated by the Polish rebellion had thrown the

two men into the same circles. At this last concert on 16 November 1848, nearing

the end of his long struggle with tuberculosis, in a final patriotic gesture,

Chopin played for the benefit of Polish refugees, a cause to which Cooper also

had devoted considerable energy. In 1831 he had organized an "American Polish

Committee," and his home in Paris served as a kind of focus of Polish republican

activity. As Nathaniel P. Willis recalled,


  Mr. Cooper's house . . . was, at that time, the "hospice de St. Bernard" of

  the Polish refugees, and, as the nucleus of republican sympathies in the great

  capital, his intimacy with Lafayette, personal reasons aside, was necessarily

  very close and confidential. At his daily breakfast table, open to all friends

  and comers-in, (and supplied, we remember, for hour after hour of every day

  with hot buckwheat cakes, which were probably eaten nowhere else on that side

  the water,) many a distinguished but impoverished Polish refugee ate his only

  meal for the twenty-four hours, and, to the same hospitable house, came all

  who were interested in the great principle of that struggle, distinguished men

  of many nations among them. (210-11)


According to James Grossman, Susan Cooper had "danced once in a great Parisian

house to waltzes played by Chopin and Liszt while the hired musicians were at

supper" (247). The coincidence of these two men having dwelt, however briefly,

in this unassuming street is one of those historical poignancies that gladden

the traveler's heart--at least, this traveler's heart.


I left St. James Place well satisfied with my visit. True, there were no

statues, no plaques, no James Fenimore Cooper museums where one could view the

great man's writing desk and fire bucket. Yet the quiet little street, even in

its indifference to Cooper's passing through, seemed better to harbor the spirit

of his life than all the Leatherstocking Restaurants and Mohican movies of our

much more commercial memory.


Works Cited


Cooper, James Fenimore, Gleanings in Europe: England, ed. Donald A. Ringe et al.

(Albany: SUNY Press, 1982).


______ Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard

(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1960-68).


Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper: A Biographical and Critical Study

(Stanford: Stanford UP, 1949).


Willis, Nathaniel P. "Fennimore [sic] Cooper," in Hurry-graphs; or, Sketches of

Scenery, Celebrities and Society (New York: Charles Scribner, 1851).
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