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The Ways of the Hour

An 1850 book by James Fenimore Cooper.

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"The people are beginning to govern; and when they can't do it legally, they do it without law."

  • Aug 22, 2010
It was a pleasant surprise to me to find themes hotly debated in the USA of 2010 convincingly portrayed in an American novel published in 1850. In THE WAYS OF THE HOUR, his last full-length work of fiction before he died the following year, James Fenimore Cooper (author of THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS), touched many a hot button issue. Debated among his leading male and female characters are such themes as

-- men's oppression of women:

     "Men have not dealt fairly by women. Possessing the power, they have made all the laws, fashioned all      the opinions of the world, in their own favor" (Ch. 18).

-- slavery as a constitutionally protected institution but not thereby a good idea (cf. today's divisions over a mosque at Ground Zero in Manhattan); 

-- failings of the revised New York State Constitution of 1846, and the rising abuses of the American jury system;

-- the growing influence of ignorant public opinion and willful people's determination to have their way, the law be damned: 

     "Things are changed in Ameriky, Mr Dunscomb.The people are beginning to govern; and when they            can't do it legally, they do it without law." (Ch. 8).

The reference includes such practices as jury tampering, dispossessing the wealthy of their inheritances and bribing legislators. 

Like Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, Cooper's novel is a courtroom drama with its own Portia as a victorious female cross-examining witnesses. Twenty-something Mary Monson is put on trial for arson and the murder of an elderly couple with whom she boards. Mary is not her real name. She is a rich American heiress who has run away from her French Vicomte husband because he uses too much snuff. Is she mad? Possibly yes, feigning lIke Hamlet (Act II, Scene 2)  "I am but mad north-north-west." Or insane in a more disguised fashion? Is she Mary Monson or Madame de Larocheforte? In the end this mysterious, strong-willed young woman emerges as long forgotten Mildred Millington, taken to Europe as a child and only now returned to New York. She is defended in her trial by eminent lawyer Thomas Dunscomb. Towards trial's end crusty old bachelor Dunscomb learns that Mary Monson is really the granddaughter of his onetime fiancee who had jilted him for a richer swain.

Mainly through lawyer Dunscomb, author Cooper criticizes the decline of manners in America since Colonial and Revolutionary days. Dunscomb's onetime student and partner in the defense of Mary Monson is called Timms. Something of a country rube, but shrewd and likely to end up a U.S. Senator, Timms may not, be it conceded, indulge  in the rising American passion for spitting, but he never uses a handkerchief to mask his sneezes. 

Dunscomb also faults the new constitution of New York for allowing married women to keep their own inherited property (instead of turning it over to their husbands) and for creating an environment in which women can run away from their mates over trivial issues (such as a husband's excessive use of tobacco) and the growing ease women have of winning divorces.

Cooper also brings to life an 1840s, pre-Civil War America in which even in the North social classes were still marked and strong though railed against by ignorant majorities. He also shows us little details, e.g., how different levels of lawyers use better or worse grade candles to read by at night. Ominously, Fenimore Cooper puts the strongest defense of women's rights and their need for and right to independence in the mouth of a woman who turn out to be hereditarily, albeit mildly, mad.

A good read, THE WAYS OF THE HOUR is not at all a bad mirror for beholding America of both 1849 and 2010.


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September 03, 2010
Great review! Thanks for being the resident expert on Cooper's works! I really enjoy reading your thoughts about his books.
About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #96
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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Purchase of this book includes free trial access to www.million-books.com where you can read more than a million books for free. This is an OCR edition with typos. Excerpt from book: CHAPTER HI. " I am informed thoroughly of the cause. Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew f" Merchant of Venice. Such was the substance of the communication that Doctor McBrain now made to his friend, Tom Dunscomb. The latter had listened with an interest he did not care to betray, and when the other was done he gaily cried— " I 'll tell the widow Updyke of you, Ned !" " She knows the whole story already, and is very anxious lest you should have left town, to go to the Roekland circuit, where she has been told you have an important case to try." "The cause goes over on account of the opposite counsel's being in the court of appeals. Ah's me! I have no pleasure in managing a cause since this Code of Procedure has innovated on all our comfortable and venerable modes of doing business. 1 believe I shall close up my affairs, and retire, as soon as I can bring all my old cases to a termination." " If you can bring those old cases to a termination, you will be the first lawyer who ever did." "Yes, it is true, Ned," answered Dunscomb, coolly taking a pinch of snuff, "you doctors have the advantage of us, in this behalf; your cases certainly do not last for ever." "Enough of this, Tom—you will go ...
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