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Taken as a whole, Notions of the Americans is essentially a largely fictitious travel narrative written by James Fenimore Cooper after touring the United States. Structured as a series of letters from a Belgian tourist to correspondents in Europe, the book describes events and people from the White House and Washington politics to the conditions of slavery, which he witnessed on his tour through the South. Like many observers of the young nation, particularly Alexis de Tocqueville, the Belgian was not without reservations concerning the nation's future, but Cooper structures the book in such a way as to leave a more positive view of the democratic egalitarian spirit he believed was present in the United States. Cooper achieves this through the voice of a man who accompanies the narrator, known as Cadwallader (based, it seems, on Cooper himself), who consistently defends democracy, American government, and especially culture against the narrator's criticisms, which are themselves not that scathing.
The book was loosely based on the Marquis de Lafayette's tour of the United States in 1824-25. As mentioned above, the book provides interesting commentary on slavery, which the Belgian characterizes as "the most important characteristic which distinguishes" the southern states from those of the north. While describing slavery as a "prodigious evil," Cooper's narrator essentially defends the slaveholders themselves, arguing that as a whole they are not brutal or abusive, and that the system of slavery was foisted on them by Europeans generations before. Moreover, Cooper views what he seems to understand as the imminent destruction of Indian peoples as part of the price of progress. The overall message of the book is that of optimism and even patriotism, defending the United States against European critics.
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