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Maturin, with his · Albigenses,' had appeared in astonishing power; and forthwith we find Sir Walter before us again, in bis strength and stateliness, and in the transcendent grace and vigor of the Talisman,' not only outdoing himself, but defying the possibility of being outdone, and, by one masterly effort, vindicating his great name.
This alternation may very naturally be the effect of a tendency to relaxation, consequent on strenuous exertion; and in the instance of Sir Walter Scott, to recur to the standard illustration, we think we can easily discern the author of Napoleon' taking some hours of gaiety and ease to himself, when he determines to dedicate a little work to Mr Hugh Littlejohn, and to write essays on agriculture. As to his Sermons,' he needs frame none better, or more effectual, than he has aforetime put into the mouths of his own Covenanters.
Upon the same principle therefore, that we have ever hailed the return of an author to the style of composition in which he seems peculiarly adapted to excel, we are pleased also to meet Mr Cooper once more on his favorite element.
It strikes us, that there is something a little peculiar in the history of novel-writing in this country. Starting with a principle, correct in itself, but like other correct principles requiring judicious application, that works of imagination should represent the character and manners of the country where they are written, our novel-writers, at least those of the second class, have made their works too purely of the soil. As though treason lay in too near an approach to the waters, or as though there were a fear that something transatlantic would there creep into their fancies, they have even avoided the lakes themselves, and make a dry-land story of it, among woods, and ravines, and wigwams, and tomahawks. The Indian chieftain is the first character upon the canvass or the carpet; in active scene or still one, he is the nucleus of the whole affair ; and in almost every case is singularly blessed in some dark-eyed child, whose convenient complexion is made sufficiently light for the whitest hero. This bronze noble of nature, is then made to talk like Ossian for whole pages, and measure out hexameters, as though he had been practising for a poetic prize.
Now, though we may applaud the spirit which has led some of our novelists to place the scene of their stories invariably and pertinaciously somewhere between the Rocky Mountains and the Atlantic, -and the deeper in the forest the better,--still we must wonder at the taste that peoples them with such a mass of wild and copper men; and moreover question the necessity, on the whole, of going back, as a matter of course, to the precise time when the struggle was the fiercest between the colonists and these barbarians. We are aware that we are disputing the first principle which these writers set out upon; but it appears certain to us, that there is a barrenness of the novelist's peculiar circumstance in the life of a savage, which cannot be easily got over, when we set about a story of him in his hut and in his wanderings, and it must necessarily be a troublesome tax upon the ingenuity to throw a moderate share of interest round a narrative, founded upon events connected with these simple, silent creatures. This tax has rarely been paid to our satisfaction.
In fact, the species of writing, we believe, began in mistake ; heretical as it may seem, it strikes us that there is not enough in the character and life of these poor natives to furnish the staple of a novel. The character of the Indian is a simple one, his destiny is a simple one, all around him is simple. We use the expression here in its most unpoetical sense. But mere simplicity is not all that is needed. There must be some event in the life of a hero, to keep us from growing weary of him. He must not lie upon our hands; the author must keep him in business, and he must have more business than is comprehended in the employment of the scalpingknife or the paddle, to become the subject of our refined sympathies, or to gratify a cultivated taste. He must be mentally engaged. The savage says but little; and after we have painted him in the vivid and prominent colors which seem necessary to represent him amidst his pines and waterfalls,-after we have set him before our readers with his gorgeous crown of feathers, his wampum, and his hunting-bow, it would seem that we have done as well as we could for him. Beyond this bare description, which indeed may be one of the most beautiful in the world, it is not easy to advance. Nature leaves us, as soon as we leave nature, in this case, and put our calm, taciturn son of the desert into the attitudes of civilized life. The Indians, as a people, offer little or nothing that can be reasonably expected to excite the novelist, formed as his taste must be on a foreign standard. View them in New Zealand or Otaheite, go through all Australasia, and then come to the wilderness of America, and the native will still be found nearly the same being on the continent as on the island. The cannibal or the rude hunter will alternately present himself; but neither, we apprehend, with much distinctness or individuality of character. Occasionally an individual will start forth from the herd, whom skill or strength may have raised to eminence among his brethren, and whose mind gives token of what it might have been and might have done under the hand of civilization. But the Indians exhibit little of that mixture of character in the same person, which arises from an acquaintance with the arts and artifices of life and the world, and which is the source of that adventure and interest, that must belong to a good novel.
Such seems to be the insuperable obstacle in the way of those, who venture into our early wilderness for a plot. They leave the abodes of civilization, the places where incident grows out of the nature of circumstances, and where it is probable we may realize many of those pictures and variations of life that give interest and grace to the works of fancy,-all these they leave for the reeking hut of the Indian, to hurry a hero through the ordeal of Indian cruelties and Indian mummery, through a series of scenes that have been a thousand times presented to us, and which admit of no change.
Apart from the impossibility of remaining true to his subject, and still making the native a being of true interest in the bustling and social parts of his book, the Indian novelist has to contend with the spirit of the age, which demands, for the most part, descriptions of real life, and the display of characters who talk and act like ourselves or our acquaintance, and who have not cast off allegiance to common sense. Many by no means grey-haired among us, can remember reading the works of Mrs Radcliffe, and of Lewis, with all due reverence for their secret passages, their murtherous castles, their spectres, trap-doors, and dungeons. We can ourselves recollect, with wbat supreme horror we read the Mysteries of Udolpho ' in broad daylight. But how does our terrible respect for Ambrosio diminish before the dignity of Father Eustace, and Udolpho lose its glory beside the Tolbooth of Auld Reekie. The reign of terror is over. Eidolon has but waved his wand, and the castles of romance, those formidable piles of mystery and mischief, have vanished before its flourish, as monks and monasteries vanished before the heretical hands of the defender of the faith.' But the public taste has undergone a change. Manners, as peculiar to some chosen period, and associated with certain events of importance that have become matter of history, must now fill up the descriptive department of works that aspire even to the title of romances. Dialogue has superseded narration; and in the true spirit of the drama, into which many of the best tales of the day may be resolved, characters are made to act their parts. This change of taste subjects the Indian novelist to an arduous task. He will feel the necessity of going wide of nature, in any attempt to make a varied and imposing story out of such materials as the situation of the colonies, considered in their isolated state, or in their relation to the Indians, would probably afford. Hardly, indeed, from our young annals could a tale be woven, that should meet the prevailing feeling of propriety and interest in relation to this subject.
Moreover the elements of society, considered implicitly as the society among the early settlements of this country, offer little in the shape of sects or classes, that is calculated to meet and satisfy the popular taste. Our retrospection affords us no privileged and important tribes of togati, full of lore and prophecy ; no bands of merry archers whose very thievery is full of romantic adventure; and no minstrels overflowing with chivalry and song. We have no Robin Hoods, or Blue Gowns, no Vidals nor Cadwallons, and no gypsies to lend just mystery enough to our stories, and preside over the destinies of our heroes and ladies. We have none of these dim and ancient things to season our fiction withal. But it will be said, if we have anything like legendary lore, we must seek for it among the children of the forest, for the good reason that it is nowhere else to be found. But there is a fallacy in this. We belong as a people to the English school of civilization. It is not necessary that the scene of an American work of imagination should be laid in America. It is enough that it represent our character and manners either at home or abroad. Whatever of romance, or tradition, or historical fact England may boast, as material for her novelists and poets, rightfully belongs as well to us as to herself. Neither would we be understood to say, that a stirring novel may not be drawn out from Indian life and character. It can be, and it has been done. But we hold, that once done, it is, comparatively, done for ever; and our complaint is, that we are overdoing the matter, or have been overdoing it. It is a mistaken idea also, that to constitute an American novel, either the scene must be laid in the early wilderness of this country, or that events of so recent date as those connected with our revolution, must occupy a prominent portion of its pages. It is the author, not his theatre or his matter, that nationalizes his work. Our accomplished countryman Geoffrey Crayon in his beautiful Sketches of Old England, has given us a book as essentially American as it is possible for any book to be, which is written in good taste, by a person belonging to the English school of civilization. An American work of taste cannot differ from an English, as a tragedy of Racine differs from one of Shakspeare.
We have been thus diffuse in our observations upon this species of fiction, which we cannot better distinguish than by the denomination of Indian novels, because a class of our best writers have been drawn to it, by a mistake, as it seems to us, of principle, that ought to be corrected, and because our author himself has contributed his share to this class of productions. On him, indeed, the severity of our remarks will not fall; yet he certainly must be considered as coming within the scope of them. He had portrayed to us enough of the Indian before the appearance of the Prairie,' and we mistake if the public had not begun to give signs of impatience. With full sensibility to the merit of Mr Cooper's occasionally admirable and extraordinary descriptions, we believe that Indian life and character have never been touched off to better effect than by Brown, and we doubt whether any one can improve upon his portraits. The great difficulty now is, that to fit the savage for our modern novel, the author cannot rid himself of the idea, that he must strip him of half the solitary but still homely and revolting royalty of his nature; and when he does that, he is apt to render him ridiculous. The case is still worse with the native heroines of the forest, in the attempt to bring them upon the stage, arrayed for eyes polite; and thus, instead of a faithful example of Indian character, we have before us a piece of mere fancy-work, and are gazing on a poetic savage, instead of the true aboriginal in the naked and strong relief which he naturally presents.
While we acquit Mr Cooper, therefore, of gross violations of probability and truth, in these delineations, and charge them upon others, who may be called his imitators, still we cannot release him from all responsibility on this score. We are con sequently disposed to greet him the more heartily on his own element. We are always well inclined to take a sea-breeze, after toiling for long days in tangled wildernesses and heated towns. To no one, moreover, are we better inclined to submit