The Cooper Connection: The Fall Regional Meeting

September 12, 2016 – On Saturday September 10, members of JASNA-NY joined together an hour earlier than usual, braving both the lingering September heat and the Labor Day Parade, to hear Dr. Barbara Alice Mann’s thought-provoking talk on James Fenimore Cooper and his unlikely connection to Jane Austen. With the Library of The General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen as the perfect literary setting, it was not hard to imagine Mr. Cooper in his own library, writing one of his 36 novels.

Regional Coordinator Laurie Morison opened our meeting promptly, and our program chair, Kerri Spennicchia, then introduced the day’s Keynote Speaker, Dr. Mann. Dr. Mann hails from the University of Toledo where she is a full professor and Ph.D. scholar in the Jessup Scott Honors College. Additionally, she holds a Ph.D., M.A. and B.A from the same institution. Currently in press with AMS is her critical narrative, Cooper Connection: The Influence of Jane Austen on James Fenimore Cooper.

Dr. Mann began her talk by explaining that James Fenimore Cooper and Jane Austen were “near contemporaries” with Cooper living from 1789-1851 and Austen from 1775-1817. She then went on to list amusing similarities between Cooper and Austen’s own Mr. Darcy. Coincidentally, they were both tall, handsome men with a great deal of familial pride. Dr. Mann, in her best proud and pompous voice, comically stated that like Mr. Darcy, Cooper believed that he was always “above his company.” Interestingly enough, Dr. Mann believes that Cooper’s wife was “very much an Elizabeth Bennet.”

It is believed that Cooper became inspired to try his hand at writing after he dramatically threw down an Austen novel he was reading to his wife one afternoon. After famously exclaiming, “I could write a better novel!” he set out to do just that. Not believing this story to be accurate, however, Dr. Mann did a great deal of research on the subject and now concludes it was not Austen that Cooper threw down in disgust that day, but rather a lackluster novel called Emily.

According to Dr. Mann, Cooper had a very high regard for Austen and knew her “inside and out.” She also noted that while “Austen spotting” is very common throughout all of his fictional works it is most obvious in his first novel, Precaution. For example, not only are his sister-pairs uncommonly similar (one of the Moseley daughters is even named Jane) but the leading men are akin as well (George Denbigh of Precaution is much like Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pride and Prejudice). Also Cooper’s strong dislike for clergymen was well known and quite prevalent in his writing so it’s highly possible that Austen’s descriptions of the odious Mr. Collins struck a chord with him. Dr. Mann then made an interesting point that while Austen kept her heroines steadfastly in the spotlight and the heroes more in the “peripheral action,” Cooper basically just reversed this model for his own novels. Was this, perhaps, another clear sign of Austen’s influence?

Furthermore, Dr. Mann had some intriguing ideas on Austen and Cooper’s more scandalous characters, such as Mary and Henry Crawford of Mansfield Park and Rose Budd and Henry Mulford of Jack Tier. She was passionate in her belief that we must no longer read these authors “as if we were eleven years old…and not with a Victorian mind but with a modern mind.” As expected, her bold suggestions elicited a wide range of emotions: some were nodding their heads in staunch approval and others appeared to be rather weary of all that was said…to be sure, there’s never a dull moment amongst Janeites!

And with an array of delicious treats to conclude the stimulating day, my only regret is that it was just too hot to enjoy a warm cup of tea. No matter, though, the cold lemonade was equally as refreshing!

– Amanda Forker

Photo courtesy of Amanda Forker