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JANET E. DEAN The Marriage Plot and National Myth in The Pioneers In james FENiMORE cooper's fiction and in his life, marriage plots and the formation ofnational identity could be curiously intertwined . "I had proposals for Susan last week, coming from a Frenchman of good fortune, noble family, and very fair hopes," Cooper wrote from Paris in 1833, reporting on the prospects of his eldest and best-loved daughter, "but the thing would not do. We mean to continue Americans " (Letters 2: 375). Biographers have cited the comment as evidence of Cooper's close attachment to Susan—his confidant, his later literary executor, and also the daughter who pleased her father by remaining unmarried. The significance of the comment, however, lies not in Cooper's rejection of Susan's suitor but in his larger justification of the refusal along family and national lines. Cooper's use of the plural pronoun reveals an unexpected tenuousness in his sense of national identity as it simultaneously implicates romance in Cooper's project of defining American character. It suggests that Susan's private romance carries public import: her potential marriage to a foreigner could radically alter group identity, not just that of the representative American family, the Coopers, but, by extension, that of America in general, the genealogy implied in Cooper's "we . . . Americans." This was not the first time Cooper had made the connection between marriage and nationhood. In The Pioneers, published ten years earlier, the possibility of an American daughter's marriage to a Frenchman holds comparable national consequences. Near the end of the novel, Monsieur Le Quoi, a French nobleman and successful frontier entrepreneur, offers the young heroine, Elizabeth Temple, "his hand Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 1996 Copyright © 1996 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004-1610 Janet E. Dean together with his 'amis beeg and leet', his père, his mère, and his sucreboosh '" (425). The French Revolution has left Le Quoi twice exiled, first from France, and then from his plantation in the French West Indies ; his name in translation, literally "the what," indicates the tenuousness of his own national identity. Le Quoi's proposal comes, however , as he prepares to return to his homeland and reassert his French citizenship, and it carries with it the assumption that his bride will become French. Should she agree to his proposal, Elizabeth would acquire not just a husband, but allies (amis), kin (père and mère), and property (his West Indian sugar plantation, or "sucre-boosh"), the social and material trappings ofnational identity. There are broader consequences as well. If Elizabeth would gain a sugar plantation in the marriage, she would also be obligated to give up the substantial property held by the Temple family in America, a valuable tract of frontier land to which she is entitled as her father's only heir. An earlier reference to the French "Sallick law" (Lex Saltique) points up the sacrifice of property required by a marriage to-Le Quoi: the French statute denies the right ofinheritance to daughters. The territory has meaning beyond its material value, however,.since it represents the promise of the American future, an ideal agrarian-industrial commonwealth. In an opening vignette that looks forward forty years, Cooper notes that the territory that serves as a setting for his novel boasts "manufacturing [sites] . . . neat and comfortable farms, with every indication ofwealth about them . . . academies . . . and places for the worship ofGod," all of which evidence a population of"moral and reflecting people" (13). Elizabeth holds cultural as well as material entitlement to this young America: groomed in a New York finishing school, "the Heiress" represents the most advanced symbol of culture available to Templeton, and she stands to assume her father's position of social leadership as well as his land. As Le Quoi's proposal threatens the Americanness and the American property of a prominent American family, then, it also implicitly threatens the future ofAmerica. Here and elsewhere, Cooper's real and fictional American daughters are figured as national properties whose circulation potentially undermines the nation's idea of itself.1 The circulation of woman can be particularly destabilizing where and when national and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-29
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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