Monday, June 13, 2016

James Fenimore Cooper


If you thought this was going to be about Last of the Mohicans or The Deerslayer, or The Leatherstocking Tales you are wrong. I read Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief. The story is truly an autobiography about a pocket handerchief.  :)

According to the very interesting forward notes by the secretary of the James Fenimore Cooper Society, who transcribed this work for Gutenberg, this was Cooper's first serious attempt at magazine writing. The editors at Graham's magazine must have gotten a good number of positive reviews of the novelette because they happily published other Cooper works over the years as well, including a novel that stretched out for two years! 

Set in Paris in the 1830s, this story is told from the point of view of fibers woven into a handkerchief, surprise! But those fibers have fiber memory and fiber empathy and can tell us about progenitor stories as well as stories about the person holding the fabric made from the fibers. I couldn't say that everyone would love the idea of this story told by an inanimate object, but I do. I so enjoyed hearing the fiberous memories from the growing field. I also enjoyed reading about where the seeds came from, how they were sprouted... Kept me interested when I thought it wouldn't.

During the hanky's early years in the growing field, an astronomer would bring students out to the growing field to look at the stars and to discuss the Parisian knowledge of the solar system and of the stars in 1830. I was delighted with the tales being told, as were the fibers. In fact, the handkerchief, now woven into the finest linen, fondly recalled their astronomical education from the growing fields for much of their lives and they, actually she, felt that this knowledge made her more worldly and cultured than most fabrics.

We follow the handkerchief through the July Revolution, a political revolt that further reduced the wealthier Parisians in station. Through our hankychif we experience a society with an elegant upper crust that falls apart and that loses value of their precious and sophisticated articles and notions, namely handkerchiefs, apparently. No more is a lovely linen handkerchief highly-prized or appreciated, rather such an article is derided as a throwback to the unfairly-wealthy aristocracy. But some people still appreciate the finer things.

It's almost like les Miserable for hankies.

James Fenimore Cooper, 1820s
Our handkerchief has a fondness for a former fine lady, the lovely  Adrienne de la Rocheaimard. Adrienne, of a formerly noble family that has now fallen into extreme poverty, creates a beautiful work of needlework, embroidered art on the hanky over the months that the handkerchief is in her possession. We share in the hanky's affection for this young woman who is trying to stay afloat in the underbelly of Parisian society by creating an exquisite piece of needlework to sell for high dollar, er, sou.

Eventually our handkerchief finds her way to America where all of the fabrics she has contact with reflect the ethos of America at the time, while our narrator maintains her high society noble Paris ethic. Our narrator finds the nouveau riche of New York incredibly gauche, which is interesting to me because we all know of the excessive wealth of the French aristocracy, including their freaky proclivities, possible only because of the generations of money behind it. Perhaps it is the observation that the accumulation of wealth, generations back in French society, looks like a gaudy social climber from this angle.

 Read this story and absorb the observations of America of the 1840s, its customs, mannerisms, social constructs, defects through the handkerchief's interaction with American fabrics.

I enjoyed it tremendously. The subtle humor and satire, the history and culture, I give it a strong six stars.

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