Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak by James Fenimore Cooper

From Robinson Crusoe to Utopia
James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak, harkens back to the days of great maritime explorers like Captain Cook, when unknown lands were ripe for discovery. Though published in 1847, the story begins in 1796. Mark Woolston (pronounced “Wooster,” as Cooper goes to great lengths to point out) is a skilled seaman from Pennsylvania. Shortly after marrying his sweetheart, he ships out as second mate on the Rancocus, a vessel bound for Fiji and Canton. Along the way it stumbles upon some uncharted rocks in the middle of the Pacific. To make a long story short, Woolston and his faithful sidekick Bob Betts end up marooned alone on a small volcanic island (the “crater” of the book’s title). The ship remains intact, but is surrounded by rocky barriers that prevent its escape to the open ocean.

The two set about to “Robinson Crusoe it” on their new island home. Like the hero of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, the survival of the duo is greatly aided by access to their ship’s stores. The environment of the crater, however, is far less forgiving than Crusoe’s island. Since the crater is merely barren rock, devoid of vegetation, Woolston and Betts must first set about creating soil before they can engage in agriculture to feed themselves. Through ingenious means, they manage to eke out an existence in their forced isolation, but will Woolston ever see his bride again?

About halfway through the book, the story takes an unexpected turn, one that to some extent defies belief, but in the spirit of adventure the game reader should be willing to overlook improbability. I don’t know much about Cooper’s writing process, but it appears to have gone something like this: He decides to write a novel of 30 chapters. He establishes the setting, introduces the characters, and gives them a problem to solve. When that problem is solved, he creates another one, and so on, until he hits his 30 chapter limit. His plotting lacks any overall structure or buildup of momentum. It’s the same meandering approach one finds in The Deerslayer. The Crater starts out with the makings of a thriller, but it ends up being an experience similar to sitting next to Cooper on the couch while he plays Minecraft, constructing his own private utopia out of blocks of adobe brick, sandal wood, whale oil, and volcanic tufa. What the story really lacks is adversity. Things are just too easy for Woolston. Only in the final chapters does Cooper introduce some trouble into paradise.

Though The Crater may not be the most artful story he ever constructed, Cooper fans will enjoy the book for what it reveals about its author. Cooper uses Woolston’s island as a microcosm in which to express his social and political views. He outlines his ideal of a democratic society and the roles that law, commerce, journalism, religion, and politics should play in it. Sadly, Cooper won’t let go of class distinctions, continually asserting that a gentleman must be born a gentleman. Once white trash, always white trash in Cooper’s world. His dream democracy is surprisingly monarchical. Though he explicitly refutes the hereditary divine right of kings, one gets the idea he would have been very happy had George Washington been made ruler for life.

Though Cooper is best known for his Leatherstocking Tales of early America, he wrote books in an admirably diverse assortment of settings and genres. Those who enjoy the Natty Bumppo novels should really explore some of the author’s more off-the-beaten-path works. The Crater can be frustratingly slow, monotonous, and disorienting at times (if ever a book needed a map, it’s this one!), but if you’re a Cooper fan, it’s definitely worth reading.
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