Plus ça Change . . .

Looking along my bookshelves last night, looking for a non-pharmeceutical distraction from one of my occasional (and mercifully now much less frequent) bouts of pain (it didn’t work, but I carried on reading it anyway) I picked out J. Fennimore Cooper’s last novel.

Why I have The Ways of the Hour, or how long I’ve had it, I can’t think; I have never read, nor really ever had any interest in even The Last of the Mohicans, though I suspect I was supposed to have read that in my last year of Junior School, along with others on a long list like Lorna Doone which I vaguely recall attempting and abandoning after half a dozen pages and near terminal boredom. Ditto anything by Walter Scott. Why books like those were supposed to have been a good literary preparation for an 10-11 year-old heading for Grammar School, god only knows.

Anyway, I came across this quite early on:

“Far more of the grave crimes of this country have, within the period named, been certainly committed by immigrants from Germany; whether the cause be in the reason given or in national character. This is not according to ancient opinion, but we believe it to be strictly according to fact.The Irish are clannish, turbulent and much disposed to knock each other on the head; but it is not to rob or pilfer but to quarrel. The Englishman will pick your pocket, or commit burglary, when inclined to roguery, and frequently has a way of extorting, in the way of vails*. The Frenchmen may well boast of their freedom from wrongs done to persons or property in this country; no class of immigrants furnishing to the prisons, comparatively, fewer criminals. The natives, out of all proportion, are freest from crime, if the blacks be excepted . . .”

It’s a peculiar novel, technically a murder mystery, but packed with aspersions on the right of women to be anything other than a subject chattel to the male—to the extent even that a central female character, with money in plenty of her own, a strong streak of individualism, cleverness, and an aversion to a bad marriage, is, at the end, dismissed as simply having inherited madness, to which an education in Europe is supposed to have strongly contributed—and the evils of elective office under the influence of an ill-educated mass. (Fennimore Cooper seems to have believed that the Anti-Rent Wars marked the end of the kind of a true Republic as it showed signs of becoming—oh horror!—something like a democracy.) Even criticism of journalism that merely seeks sensation regardless of truth and a stock market entirely motivated by greed. . . .

This was 1850, by the way.

  • A word I’d never come across. Apparently it’s an obsolete word for gratuities given to servants.


6 Responses to Plus ça Change . . .

  1. NatashaFatale says:

    I’m sure you must have read this, but I offer it anyway on the small chance that you haven’t. In which case you’ll think yourself in my debt forever.

    Not quite la meme chose in one respect: I doubt that the Oval Occupant would agree about the natural criminality of German-Americans.

  2. bluthner says:

    Squirrel, I’m late to the board but if I’d got here first I would have linked to the Mark Twain essay first- after reading that it’s not really possible to read F.C. with a straight face any longer. Or for that matter watch the Daniel Day Lewis version, which to my mind seemed to be in large part about jogging. Which was a rather popular pastime at the time it was made, it must be said.

    I especially find amusing the bit where the pretty girl is captured, and Daniel Day chews the scenery (mostly foliage) telling her “I WILL FIND YOU” and then he and his Native American pal start jogging. All the way around a corner where… they find the pretty girl and grab her back. Inside of about 3 minutes.

    I’ve had some experiance with serious criminal types from most western European Countries over the years and for me the most intimidating has to be a toss up between Germans and Dutch. Maybe because , at least the way I read them, they had far lower thresholds of tolerance for anyone or anything in their way, beyond which homicide was clearly the line of least bother and trouble.

    That impression could be all to do with my own misconceptions and cultural blindnesses, or it could be because the ones I happened to be in a room with simply were the least inclined to fuck around, and not because of their cultural background. Data is after all not the plural of anecdote, or however that saw goes.

  3. Squirrel says:

    I acknowledge myself in your debt forever. I can now happily avoid ever reading Deerslayer and call on Mark Twain in support.

    All the same, Cooper had obviously managed to refine his technique somewhat in the last year of his life, since in The Ways of the Hour it is easily possible to distinguish the live bodies from the corpses. The two distinct corpses are burnt to a cinder at the beginning. And stay that way throughout, magically without disintegrating, despite being prodded and poked by several doctors.

    As to accents, I have to admit being taken aback finding a New York coachman speaking like Sam Weller, very implausibly, for no reason I can imagine.

  4. Squirrel says:

    Had I followed the latest designer trend I would never have found that damned novel . . .

    Nor any other, of course. I’ve always believed books do furnish a room, as someone said. . .

  5. Well, if bookshelves are to be a mere visual design element, and to hell with actually reading anything, there’s only one place to shop.

  6. NatashaFatale says:

    Ha! And yet you refused to believe that the Antichrist was here, despite all the other signs.

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