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SCOTT MICHAELSEN Cooper's Monikins: Contracts, Construction, and Chaos That angel form, in light enshrined, Beside the living throne, Is Justice, still to heaven confined — For God is just alone. This Angel, of celestial birth, Her faint resemblance here on earth Has sent, mankind to guide — Yet, though obscured her brightest beams Still with too vivid ray she gleams For mortals to abide. —John Quincy Adams, "Justice. An Ode" Our constitutions are yet green, said the politican. Inflexions are easy. It is construction makes the constitution; and these vary with the men in power. —H. H. Brackenridge, Modern Chivalry, pt. 2, vol. 2 (1805) In its own day, James Fenimore Cooper's The Monikins (1835) was roasted royally. "In the politico-literary critical language of the [eighteen ] 'thirties and 'forties, 'Monikins' was synonymous with dullness and perversity . . ."; '"the man who read The Monikins' became a designation foi a type of odd character" (Dekker 151; Shulenberger 46-47). The Hudson Hawk or perhaps the Heaven's Gate of its time, The Monikins , with few exceptions, has remained a novel without readers. It has Arizona Quarterly Volume 48 Number 3, Autumn 1992 Copyright © 1992 by Arizona Board of Regents issn 0004- 1610 Scott Michaelsen been neglected in seminal studies of Cooper's political thought, and scholars ofAmerican literature, too, generally have either ignored it or attacked it.1 The text undoubtedly presents a number of problems for the reader. As perhaps the period's most complex John Bull/Brother Jonathan scenario , The Monikins involves an American (Cooper) speaking for a wealthy Englishman (Sit John Goldencalf) who joins with an American sailor (Captain Noah Poke) to visit England and America in allegorical disguise — the lands of Leaphigh and Leaplow, respectively (see the 'Appendix" fot a summary of the tale). The voice of this text is quite unsteady, as are its objects of study. Leaphigh, for example, is not merely England; much of what Cooper criticizes in Leaphigh would be equally true of Ametica in the 1830s. And even if one could master these textual mechanics, the book remains highly unreadable in a conventional sense, testing a reader's limits with the tenacity of an Andy Warhol film. Chapter 10, for example, is entirely taken up with Goldencalf , Poke, and the "monikins" of Leaphigh developing "protocols" for inter-species discussion. Ten points for discussion are drafted three times, and the results critiqued. Chapters 20 and 21 (Captain Poke's trial) are given over completely to attorneys' arguments concerning the meanings of laws and judicial decisions, and the significance of the word "forthwith" is debated at length. Chapter 26 witnesses two prolonged debates on legislation and treaties: fot many pages the characters argue whether the color black is "black," "white," ot "lead-colored." These sections have been called "dull" and "perverse"; indeed, they ate exasperating chapters, but they ate not inept. Cooper is practicing satire of a type that enacts certain problematics of construction, or interpretation, in order to criticize the relatively new and shifting canons of interpretation.2 Divisive issues of political and philosophical construction are at the heart of the book, and most of its major conversations bear on questions of contractual construction — specifically, the interpretation of wills, business agreements, protocols, declarations of independence, marriage contracts, laws, (dematetialized) promissoty notes, affidavits, treaties, and charters, all presented in the text fot the reader's inspection. If, as has been suggested, the structure of Cooper's novels is simultaneously bipartite — "natrative" and "theme" running alongside each other' — then the natrative of The Monikins is designed to allow Cooper Contracts, Construction, and Chaos to make as many specific comments as possible about Btitish and American social institutions. The theme of the book, however, which is in evidence in nearly every chapter, is the relationship of contractual obligation to the social order. As Charles Hansford Adams has noted, "law in Cooper's time was the lingua franca of social relations" (4), and The Monikins, perhaps more than any of Cooper's fictional works, reflects what Eric Sundquist has called Coopet's "anxious concern with legal or documentary modes of performance" (9). In the end, it is this thematic focus on the contract and its interpretation that justifies...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-26
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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