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HomeLifestyle8 Significant James Fenimore Cooper Murals Slated To Be Lost

8 Significant James Fenimore Cooper Murals Slated To Be Lost

When he wasn’t imagining plinths in Lady Chatterley’s garden, D.H. Lawrence tried to figure America out through its literature. Where Mark Twain diagnosed ‘literary delirium tremens’ in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, Lawrence saw the ‘essential American soul’ in Cooper’s creative friction between ‘real historical narrative and true romance.’ For Cooper, this sensibility was inflected through longstanding ties to Westchester County, where he lived and wrote over some years. For Westchester, in turn, managing Cooper’s legacy has long been a bellwether for Lawrence’s maxim. How does the ‘essential American soul’ compromise past with progress, or imagination with profit? In Mamaroneck, this tension’s felt strongest in the commonplace. A Warren Chase Merritt mural depicts The Marriage of James Fenimore Cooper to Susan DeLancey, 1811 in the Public Library. At Fenimore Road, the historic DeLancey-Cooper House, once slated for demolition, has been redone in the ‘creeping New Jersey’ mode and split into apartments and an Italian restaurant. At Mamaroneck High, eight culturally-significant murals by notable midcentury artists, all depicting scenes from Cooper’s Leatherstocking and life, are mounted in the old cafeteria. In March, though, they’ll be walled over or destroyed.

Mamaroneck’s converting the old cafeteria space into a ‘STEAM Design Lab’ as part of a $50 million capital improvements bond project. Like Cooper’s blend of ‘real historical’ constraints and ‘romancing,’ Mamaroneck’s 2018 bond proposal blended physical infrastructure repairs like ‘insulate piping’ and ‘install chimney cap’ with aspirational abstractions like ‘Innovative School Design,’ ‘Path Finder Projects,’ and ‘Technology Integration.’ These ‘Goals of the Mamaroneck Union Free School District’ involve pedagogies called ‘scoping’ and capital-V ‘Visioning.’ The District’s architectural firm, LAN Associates, elaborates on these ‘pathways beyond the typical’ using a picture of overlapping circles superimposed on mechanical gears. The circles are labeled caps-lock ‘COLLABORATION,’ ‘REFLECTION,’ and ‘CRITICAL THINKING.’ The backgrounded gear images make the words ‘EMPATHY,’ ‘INQUIRING,’ and ‘BIAS FREE’ appear to interlock through implied metaphor. The most recent plan update concretizes these principles as ‘Huddle Stations’ and a wall called a ‘Launchpad.’ While a sequence of ‘Inspirational Images’ omits the historic Cooper murals, it does depict a range of other possible wall art – a chalked slogan that says ‘TURN UP THE YES,’ or ‘EVERYDAY I’M HUSTLING’ stenciled at a Huddle Station, or a series of sequentially posted post-it notes with words on them.

‘Seeing a loss like this,’ remarked John Pritts, Co-President of the Mamaroneck Historical Society, ‘the end of something of unbelievable cultural and historical value with no real public conversation,’ is a ‘resounding failure on everyone’s part.’ Of course metrics of ‘loss’ are relative. The Cooper murals have ‘no market value,’ opined Robert Shap, Mamaroneck’s Superintendent of Schools. ‘This is not akin to a Norman Rockwell painting.’ On the other hand, Susan Boyle, the Historical Society’s Co-President, points out that the murals’ value was appraised as ‘immeasurable,’ not measured as nil. ‘From a historical and literary and artistic standpoint,’ she explained, ‘they are of value.’

But the dissonance isn’t between commercial and cultural valuations at cross-purposes. Reading Cooper, D.H. Lawrence might see it as two rival versions of the historical imagination that continue to preoccupy the ‘American soul.’ In his description of the Leatherstocking Tales, Lawrence compares the ‘essential history of the people of the United States’ to a snake growing ‘a new skin underneath, a new form’ in the ‘slow sloughing of the old skin’ of the historical past. To ‘open out a new wide area of consciousness,’ he explains, ‘is to slough the old consciousness. The old consciousness has become a tight-fitting prison to us, in which we are going rotten.’ In the school district’s terms, this is historical egoism as pure ‘Visioning.’ To imperatively ‘TURN UP THE YES’ in a well-lit, unused room suited to one’s own designs alone is to embrace the ideal of a ‘New World’ as much as Cooper’s pioneer settlers – and with less sense of the liabilities. The radical ’scoping’ of American life found, for example, in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography or Crevecoeur’s Letters sketches the nation as something akin to what Mamaroneck’s bond project calls a ‘Makerspace.’

Although, at turns, Cooper’s notions of ‘true romance’ also cast the American experience this way, the ‘Mamaroneck Cooper’ commemorated in the murals is an emblematic figure of how ‘real history’ imaginatively implicates us in it – how it’s already made us. In 1811, Cooper married Susan De Lancey, a ‘fair damsel of eighteen’ from a prominent family of former Westchester Loyalists. Her father, John Peter De Lancey, a British officer who had returned to America in 1789, deeded James and Susan a fifth of his land in Mamaroneck, Scarsdale, and Harrison. Cooper, in turn, built an ersatz ‘French chateau house’ in Scarsdale and spent the better part of a decade living in the De Lanceys’ orbit. He mortgaged land from Susan’s Long Island relatives. He disputed local politics with his brother-in-law, Thomas. He sat in John Peter’s pew at Christ Church, Rye. 

It’s not surprising that Cooper’s first bestseller, The Spy, written with Susan’s ‘female Mentor[ship],’ depicted the Revolution as a Westchester ‘family quarrel.’ How, after all, does one write an American ‘true romance’ in which the real in-laws make their fictional guest appearance as Tories? Whatever grand, aspirational, national mythologies we might credit Cooper with, Westchester County – White Plains, Scarsdale, Mamaroneck – is the imagined landscape where he first worked out how ambiguous and conflicted that mythmaking might be.

‘We do understand why these murals evoke strong memories for the community members who have written us,’ Superintendent Shap stated. But the concept of ‘why’ always implies a broader context of meaning. If the metrics of value are the pure imagined futurities of design concepts at a ‘Launchpad,’ then historical appeals involving ‘local color’ murals in a high school seem a bit quaint. What’s to be said? In 1934, Miss Roxie Hall’s Creative English class selected five dramatic scenes from the Leatherstocking Tales. The class fundraised enough to hire Yale School of Art students to paint murals of those scenes. The PTA hosted the artists in local homes during the project. Mimi Jennewein, a graduate of Mamaroneck Junior High, painted three murals of Cooper’s life. The murals were dedicated on 15th September 1941 – Cooper’s birthday. There’s a plaque to that effect in the high school. There are a lot of plaques in Westchester that describe things that aren’t there anymore.

Local Resident X or Y might remember Miss Roxie Hall or the murals and feel outraged and send a letter to the School Board. Someone will perhaps respond on behalf of the District as the District, noting that it/we ‘understand(s) why these murals evoke strong memories.’ Citizen X and Y’s sort of civic-minded dissent will invariably have less rhetorical weight than ‘TURN UP THE YES’ if the essential context of meaning – the ‘why’ of civic life that underpins board meetings and bond updates – defines the historical subject as ‘Makerspace’ end-user.

On the other hand, the figure of the ‘Mamaroneck Cooper’ invites us to ask different kinds of questions about value. In 1941, Miss Roxie Hall’s Creative English class astutely described Cooper as a ‘TYPICALLY AMERICAN AUTHOR’ tied to Mamaroneck. Typical’s apt in multiple senses – as a ‘representative specimen of,’ to be sure, but also as something closer to the Latin sense of typicalis, meaning ‘figurative’ or ‘symbolic of.’ This ‘Cooper’ bridges American cultural mythmaking with a range of imaginative possibilities that are only evident with a hyperlocal sense of ‘real historical’ texture. We get some sense of this if we contextualize the impetus to fund the murals in the first place against events like the 1930 ‘Spirit of Mamaroneck’ pageant. ‘5,000 persons,’ The New York Times reported, applauded ‘a cast of 350 persons’ from the village who had been involved in writing, directing, and acting out scenes from Colonial Mamaroneck. In one sense, the ‘Spirit’ Cooper was legion.

‘James Fenimore Cooper’ proper, the Times continued, ‘played by S. Charles Hannah, saw depicted scenes from his famous books.’ In twentieth-century Westchester, conflating scenes from the Leatherstocking Tales with one depicting the ‘Purchase of Town from Two Indians in 1641’ is a simplistic form of mythmaking. But depicting Cooper-as-writer watching scenes from his novels is an act of critical interpretation, however unintentional, for it reinvents the very mythmaking it represents. Who concocted this pageant? Who rewrote Cooper as writer in this manner? Why?

Asking these questions about the Cooper murals leads us to a sense of their continuing capacity to make unanticipated – undesignable – meaning. Harold Thresher, for example, the Yale student commissioned to paint The Defense of the Rock (The Last of the Mohicans), served in World War II after the mural’s unveiling and went on, with Sam Petrucci, to create the iconic packaging and images for GI Joe.

John Potter Wheat, who painted Ambushing the Ark (The Deerslayer), served in the OSS during World War II, became a prominent landscape painter and muralist, and depicted the tragic Tet Offensive as an official Combat Artist in Vietnam. No less than with David Morrell’s First Blood or Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter – both of which draw their inspiration from Cooper – the Mamaroneck murals provide an accidental Rosetta Stone for exploring important intersections of violence, myth, art and civic life that characterize the ‘TYPICALLY AMERICAN’ conditions of living memory.

Between GI Joe and Tet, romance and real history, whose Leatherstocking Tales have unfolded since 15th September 1941 as our mural of the world? In such a context, one must have more to say than ‘TURN UP THE YES.’

Mimi Jennewein’s three murals of Cooper’s life are particularly striking, partly for the fact that they’re depictions of American heroic iconographies at the beginning of World War II, produced by the daughter of a German-Italian family. Was she a ‘local junior-high graduate’ with an interest in art? Yes, but her work also appears in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. People have more than one angle when you ‘scope’ them long enough. Indeed, her undated Mary Mac reflects a similar approach to the relationship between human form and emblematic social situations as her ‘Merrimack Cooper’ paintings.

Jennewein’s Cooper studies share the WPA aesthetic of the Leatherstocking murals – the color palate, the figural emphasis, the social-narrational sense of visual movement – but move away from the Thomas Hart Benton-styled backgrounds of the other murals. In this regard, they’re humanistic counterpoints to the utilitarian ethos of the renovation project’s ‘Inspiration Images.’ In the latter, visual relations between human figures are depicted to represent how they might function within a space. The true protagonist of that space is production. In the former, Jennewein’s focus is almost exclusively on who the social ‘Merrimack Cooper’ is.

Eighty years since, what does it mean to reclaim Jennewein’s sense of Cooper? As Wayne Franklin, author of James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years and James Fenimore Cooper: The Later Years, remarks, ‘two centuries ago, James Fenimore Cooper honored Westchester by using its Revolutionary War landscape as the setting for the first great American novel.’ Cooper didn’t just invent or develop wildly popular genres of modern literature such as the spy novel, the sea novel, and the historical novel. Starting with The Spy, he took the risk of claiming that the imaginative possibilities and problems of those genres were America’s. ‘Westchester’s current Board of Education can acknowledge Cooper’s gift,’ Franklin continues, ‘by preserving the murals an older Westchester generation dedicated to him and his art. That takes visioning, too.’

If I’m being honest about it, I’m not that different from one of those old pageant-goers who would’ve passed the hat for Miss Roxie Hall’s class project. I probably ‘vision’ my own half-invented Cooper – indebted and quarrelsome – more than James Fenimore Cooper but that’s the point. I live on East 239th Street and smirk when I read that one of his gentleman in-laws was called ‘Outlaw of the Bronx.’ What a real American loser like me. Driving north past Yonkers, the nondescript ‘Cheever nexus’ of Mad Men commuter towns, upgraded to Bronxville chic, makes it hard to picture Cooper’s Revolution. Scarsdale’s La Dentelliere advertises ‘totally on-trend’ upmarket oval bowls. The Chopt Creative Salad Co. parking lot’s no ‘bloody field’ from The Spy. But Mamaroneck, with its Leatherstocking Lane, Cooper Ave, and Fenimore Street, still evokes that stratum. An Alfa Romeo dealership, then Mamaroneck High on the left. ‘And they’re calling it Path Finder Projects,’ my wife laughs, ‘that’s funny.’ ‘Sure,’ I shrug, ‘if you know Cooper. Otherwise, it’s just some buzzwords.’ Old White Plains Road, Deerfield Lane, Leatherstocking Trailhead to where.

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