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date: 23 February 2018

Fenimore Cooper, James

James Cooper (he legally added “Fenimore,” his mother's maiden name, in 1826) was born on 15 September 1789, in Burlington, New Jersey, a little more than five months after George Washington took the oath of office as the first president of the United States. He was the twelfth of thirteen children born to William Cooper and Elizabeth Fenimore, one of only seven to survive childhood. William Cooper was the quintessential early American: a religious man, a shrewd land developer, and a willing public servant. By the time James was born, William had amassed great wealth; had founded the settlement of Cooperstown on the shores of Otsego Lake in central New York State, where he built the family estate; and had been selected to serve as the first judge of the court of common pleas for Otsego County. He served as the county's representative in the Fourth (1795) and Sixth (1799) U.S. Congresses and was a leading figure in the history of the state. A staunch Federalist, Judge Cooper agreed with Alexander Hamilton that men of property should govern the American masses. As his ambitions grew, so did the number of his enemies; he died after being attacked from behind by a political opponent in 1809.

Judge Cooper ruled his family as sternly as he ruled his community on the edge of the wilderness and insisted that his sons receive the best education possible. James attended lessons in Cooperstown and Burlington and was sent to board with an Episcopal priest, Thomas Ellison, who taught him Latin and gentlemanly behavior. There was, however, much of the untamed wilderness in Cooper when he entered Yale in February 1803. He was an indifferent student who enjoyed playing pranks on his professors and fellow students. After enduring his unruliness for three years, Yale sent Cooper home to his father. Judge Cooper determined that a career in the navy would give his son the discipline he sorely needed, and to that end arranged for his training aboard a merchant ship. Cooper served as a sailor before the mast aboard the Stirling from October 1806 until September 1807.

On 1 January 1808 Cooper began his service in the U.S. Navy as a midshipman stationed at Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario. When his father died, Cooper was acting as a recruiter aboard the Wasp, anchored in New York City. He requested a year's furlough to put his father's affairs in order. But since his older brother was still living and would ordinarily handle family business, it would appear that the real reason for the request was to be free to court Susan Augusta De Lancey, the daughter of a prominent New York family. When the two were married in 1811, Cooper resigned his navy post, and with the help of an inheritance from his father of $50,000 plus a share of the interest earned from the family estate, established himself as a gentleman farmer. He built a home for his growing family close to Cooperstown and became active in the county agricultural society, the militia, and the Episcopal Church.

From Farmer to Author

There are two versions of how Cooper the agriculturalist became Cooper the author. One version, told by his daughter Susan in her introduction to his collected works, claims that Cooper—always an avid reader—became disgusted by the poor quality of a British novel he was reading and, hurling it across the room, declared that he could write a better one. His wife bluntly stated her doubts and challenged him to do so. The other version claims that he desperately needed money and had tried every other way he could think of to raise it. The War of 1812 had thrown the country into an economic depression, and Cooper tried to retrieve the family fortune by investing in various enterprises such as purchasing a whaling ship, The Union, in 1819. Lacking his father's shrewdness, however, he lost more money than he made. Whether provoked by his wife's taunt or driven by economic need, Cooper completed his first novel, Precaution, and in November 1820 paid a printer to publish it. Cooper fashioned his first work to the popular tastes of his day, using the novels of Jane Austen as his guide. Yielding to the prevailing sentiment in America that only imported cultural works had any artistic merit, Cooper had produced a work that was thoroughly British. Precaution, however, was a disappointment, not even selling enough copies for Cooper to regain his costs. Instead of looking for another source of income, Cooper decided to produce another novel, this time using the enormously popular historical romances of Sir Walter Scott as his model but making the work uniquely his own and uniquely American. Indeed, The Spy; A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821) is considered the first American historical novel.

Cooper found the right combination of ingredients to make The Spy an immediate success: adventure, mystery, patriotism, romance, and a strong moral and ethical message. The novel's subtitle, A Tale of the Neutral Ground, refers not only to the lawless physical space that existed between American and British outposts during the American Revolution but also to the valueless wasteland in the hearts of those who would seek material gain during a time of social unrest. The system of values that Cooper believed must be embraced by Americans in order to overcome corruption is embodied in his title character—the spy, Harvey Birch. Assuming the disguise of a peddler, Birch travels between the camps of the contending armies gathering and dispensing information. Most Americans believe him to be a British spy and revile him, but in fact he is General Washington's most trusted and able double agent. A deeply religious man, Birch patiently suffers the indignities heaped upon him, content in the faith that he is advancing a greater cause. His virtues of self-sacrifice and self-discipline find full expression in the adventures of Leather-Stocking, a character Cooper introduces in his next novel, The Pioneers; or, The Sources of the Susquehanna (1823).

A Man of Letters in New York City

The success of The Spy, and an argument with his in-laws, prompted Cooper to move his family to New York City in 1822. For the next five years he enjoyed the life of a literary celebrity. He frequented the bookshop of his friend Charles Wiley and held court in a back room there that he dubbed The Den. He also established the Bread and Cheese, a luncheon club of notable New Yorkers who met weekly to discuss current affairs and American culture. Cooper's preeminence among the members is revealed by the fact that the Bread and Cheese soon became known as the Cooper Club. Feeling secure in his reputation, Cooper decided to write a novel, as he explains in its preface, solely to please himself. The Pioneers is an autobiographical novel of Cooper's childhood in Cooperstown. On the surface the story is a simple one: a stock dramatic tale of an inheritance illegally appropriated and the return of the rightful heir to claim it. But a closer reading reveals much about Cooper and his relationship with his father. The elder Cooper is portrayed as Judge Temple, founder of Templeton. Temple, although he has some regrets, is driven by an entrepreneurial desire to settle and civilize the wilderness no matter the irreparable damage to nature. Standing in opposition to this is Cooper's most famous creation, Natty Bumppo, nicknamed Leather-Stocking by the Templeton settlers. For the past forty of his seventy years, Natty has lived by his skills as a woodsman and hunter on the edge of the rapidly receding wilderness. With his friend, John Mohegan, a Delaware who has lost not only his land but also his Indian name, Chingachgook, and who represents all dispossessed American Indians, he despairs over the wanton destruction of natural resources caused by the judge and men like him. Natty prefers to keep his distance from civilized society, but when he and his particular skills are needed to rescue its members from danger, he does so willingly, returning to the forest when his work is done. Cooper makes it clear that Natty is fighting a losing battle and that it is up to the Judge Temples of the new country to find and enforce a balance between the needs of society and the wilderness that stands in its way.

The Pioneers was a commercial success; thirty-five hundred copies were sold before noon on 1 February, the first day of its publication. This, however, did little to alleviate the financial strain on Cooper. In 1823, at the age of thirty-four, he found himself responsible for the welfare of his growing family (four daughters and one son, his first daughter and first son having died in infancy); additionally, he had taken upon himself the care of his four deceased brothers' wives and children. In a flurry of creative energy Cooper published four books in the next three years: Tales for Fifteen; or, Imagination and Heart (1823); The Pilot; A Tale of the Sea (1824); Lionel Lincoln; or, The Leaguer of Boston (1825); and perhaps his best-known work, The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757 (1826). In the latter novel Cooper resurrected Natty Bumppo, now known as Hawkeye, and Chingachgook and involved them in events that occurred some thirty-five years prior to those in The Pioneers. Against the backdrop of the French and Indian War, Cooper weaves a tale of high adventure, daring rescue, and treacherous murder and romance, with very little philosophizing about social and environmental concerns. Interestingly, however, Cooper—during a time of wholesale slaughter and displacement of Native Americans—strives in this novel to make a distinction between the tribes, contrasting the villainy of the evil Hurons and Iroquois with the nobility of the virtuous Mohicans.

An American Author in Europe

The hectic pace of his life and work in New York City took a heavy toll on Cooper's health. He took his family to Europe in 1826, seeking better health for himself and a better education for his children. For the next seven years they resided in Paris but traveled to England, Italy, Switzerland, Holland, and Belgium. In Paris he became close friends with a French hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette. The aged hero, sixty-nine years old when Cooper arrived in Paris, was passionately involved in political reform throughout Europe, but his attentions were primarily focused on his native France where, in 1830, at the age of seventy-three, he led a revolt that dethroned the Bourbon king and established a constitutional monarchy. The influence of Lafayette on Cooper was immediate and profound. No longer content to be a mere literary entertainer, Cooper hastily completed two manuscripts he had brought from New York—The Prairie (1827), wherein he kills off Natty Bumppo, and The Red Rover (1827)—and turned his talents to what he thought were more important matters.

Encouraged by Lafayette to educate Europeans and correct some misconceptions regarding his native land, Cooper wrote a stirring but often strident defense of American principles and ideals called Notions of the Americans; Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor (1828). As Cooper became more involved in the politics of Europe, however, his readers in America became more puzzled by the direction their national author was taking. When Cooper wrote a pamphlet in support of Lafayette's position regarding France's finances in 1831, the American press soundly condemned him for his increasing involvement in European matters. He further distanced himself from his readers by writing three historical romances located in Europe: The Bravo (1831), set in Italy; The Heidenmauer; or, the Benedictines (1832), set in Germany; and The Headsman (1833), set in Switzerland. Each is serious in tone and lacks the adventurous element that made his previous works so popular. Cooper was outraged by the attacks from the press and bewildered by the lack of interest shown in his new work. He briefly considered not returning to America, but changed his mind in 1833 and sailed for New York with his family.

Back to His Origins

Cooper spent a little time in New York City settling his affairs and avoiding old acquaintances. In 1834 he moved his family into his boyhood home in Cooperstown that he had purchased and restored and from whose grounds he rarely ventured for the rest of his life. In June 1834 he began A Letter to His Countrymen, in which he decried the lack of a truly American culture and declared that he would write no more. That resolve lasted less than one year. Over the following three years Cooper wrote a satire, The Monikins (1835); several nonfiction accounts of his impressions of Europe; and a sharply worded attack on American politics and provincialism, The American Democrat (1838).

A dispute with his neighbors in Cooperstown drove Cooper back to fiction. A dispute arose over the public use of a piece of land known as Three Mile Point. The Cooper family had long allowed picnickers and fishermen to enjoy this piece of their property on Otsego Lake. However, when Cooper noticed that some of his trees had suffered damage, he printed a notice in the local newspaper warning that anyone found on Three Mile Point would be prosecuted as a trespasser. The townspeople and the newspaper reacted strongly to this affront. Cooper defended his position in two novels, Homeward Bound; or, The Chase (1838) and Home As Found (1838). In both he asserts that the rights of the individual are in danger of being overtaken by a democracy that is out of control and calls upon his readers to return to the republican principles of the country's founders. The books were intensely disliked, and Cooper retreated even deeper into feelings of failure: not his own, but his country's failure to heed his warnings.

Perhaps to alleviate his pain, Cooper turned his imagination toward his earliest success. Natty and Chingachgook return in The Pathfinder; or, The Inland Sea (1840) and The Deerslayer; or, The First Warpath (1841). The two novels, set in 1759 and the 1740s, respectively, feature the coming of age of the two men of the wilderness. Interestingly, Cooper chose to add a new element to the suspense and adventure of the three previous Leather-Stocking novels: he allowed young Natty to experience the love of a young woman, the love, perhaps, that Cooper wanted again from his readers.

As much as he may have desired the love and admiration of the American public, he never passed up an opportunity to chastise and correct what he saw as its tendency toward mob rule. An event known as the Anti-Rent War (1844–1845) justified Cooper's pessimism. Large numbers of tenant farmers staged a rent strike in protest of the quasi-feudal system of land ownership in New York State. Violence broke out against the large landowners, and the state militia was called upon to quell the riotous behavior. Cooper addressed the issue in three novels known as the Littlepage Trilogy. The novels tell the story of the Littlepage family from their establishment of a settlement in colonial New York in Satanstoe (1845), through the American Revolution in The Chainbearer (1845), and culminating in the Anti-Rent War in The Redskins; or, Indian and Injin (1846). Cooper, in his growing conservatism, sided with the wealthy landowners and thereby brought down the condemnation of his readers and the press, who branded him as a would-be aristocrat.

Cooper found a harmless way to dispel the anger and disappointment he felt toward his countrymen in his next novel, The Crater; or, Vulcan's Peak (1847). One can imagine how pleasing it must have been for Cooper to write this tale of a man, Mark Woolston, who is shipwrecked on a deserted, volcanic island in the South Seas. His idyllic life is interrupted, however, when American settlers discover the island and transform Woolston's Eden into an unbearable hell. It must have given Cooper some measure of satisfaction to allow Woolston to escape from the island just before it and its inhabitants are destroyed in a volcanic explosion.

As he grew older and it became clearer to him that his countrymen would not heed his calls to reform, Cooper turned his thoughts to God and the hereafter. His final novels concern such end-of-life themes as conversion experiences, in The Oak Openings; or, The Bee-Hunter (1848), and travel to uncharted lands, in The Sea Lions; or, The Last Sealers (1849). Looking toward his own acceptance into eternity, Cooper was confirmed in the Episcopal Church in July 1851. Shortly thereafter his health, which had declined during the past several years, failed him and he died peacefully on 14 September 1851. He lies buried on the family estate in Cooperstown.

Cooper's reputation has waxed and waned over the years. Once the most popular author in America and Europe, he is rarely found on any school's recommended reading list in a time of cultural sensitivity and political correctness. He was held up to ridicule by Mark Twain in Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses (1895), but recognized as a major literary figure in D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). His innovative use of the sea as a setting greatly influenced Melville and Conrad, and his tales of a larger-than-life hero and his noble Indian companion find their imitators a century and a half later. Like his creation, Natty Bumppo, Cooper fought a losing battle to preserve and protect an America he cherished, and like Bumppo, he fought his battle courageously and skillfully.

Selected Works

Precaution (1820)Find this resource:

The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821)Find this resource:

The Pioneers; or, The Sources of the Susquehanna (1823)Find this resource:

Tales for Fifteen; or, Imagination and Heart (1823)Find this resource:

The Pilot; A Tale of the Sea (1824)Find this resource:

Lionel Lincoln; or, The Leaguer of Boston (1825)Find this resource:

The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757 (1826)Find this resource:

The Prairie (1827)Find this resource:

The Red Rover (1827)Find this resource:

Notions of the Americans: Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor (1828)Find this resource:

The Borderers (1829) (published in America as The Wept of Wish Ton-Wish [1829])Find this resource:

The Water-Witch; or, The Skimmer of the Seas (1830)Find this resource:

The Bravo (1831)Find this resource:

The Heidenmauer; or, The Benedictines (1832)Find this resource:

The Headsman (1833)Find this resource:

A Letter to His Countrymen (1834)Find this resource:

The Monikins (1835)Find this resource:

Sketches of Switzerland (1836)Find this resource:

A Residence in France; with an Excursion up the Rhine and a Second Visit to France (1836)Find this resource:

Recollections of Europe (1837) (published in America as Gleanings in Europe [1837])Find this resource:

England; with Sketches of Society in the Metropolis (1837) (published in America as Gleanings in Europe)Find this resource:

England (1837)Find this resource:

Excursions in Italy (1838) (published in America as Gleanings in Europe)Find this resource:

Italy (1838)Find this resource:

The American Democrat (1838)Find this resource:

Homeward Bound; or, The Chase (1838)Find this resource:

Home as Found (1838)Find this resource:

The Chronicles of Cooperstown (1839)Find this resource:

The History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839)Find this resource:

The Pathfinder; or, The Inland Sea (1840)Find this resource:

Mercedes of Castile (1840)Find this resource:

The Deerslayer; or, The First Warpath (1841)Find this resource:

The Two Admirals (1842)Find this resource:

The Jack O'Lantern (1842) (published in America as The Wing-and-Wing [1842])Find this resource:

Le Mouchoir: An Autobiographical Romance (1843)Find this resource:

The Battle of Lake Erie (1843)Find this resource:

Wyandotté; or, The Hutted Knoll (1843)Find this resource:

Ned Myers; or, A Life before the Mast (1843)Find this resource:

Afloat and Ashore; or, The Adventures of Miles Wallingford (1844)Find this resource:

Satanstoe; or, The Littlepage Manuscripts (1845)Find this resource:

The Chainbearer; or, The Littlepage Manuscripts (1845)Find this resource:

Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers (1846)Find this resource:

Ravensnest; or, The Redskins (1846) (published in America as The Redskins; or, Indian and Injin [1846])Find this resource:

Mark's Reef; or, The Crater (1847) (published in America as The Crater; or, Vulcan's Peak [1847])Find this resource:

Captain Spike; or, The Islets of the Gulf (1848) (published in America as Jack Tier; or, The Florida Reef [1848])Find this resource:

The Bee-Hunter; or, The Oak Openings (1848) (published in America as The Oak Openings; or, The Bee-Hunter [1848])Find this resource:

The Sea Lions; or, The Last Sealers (1849)Find this resource:

The Ways of the Hour (1850)Find this resource:

Further Reading

Cooper, Susan Augusta Fenimore. Pages and Pictures from the Writings of Fenimore Cooper. New York, 1861; repr. Secaucus, N.J., 1980. A good source of biographical information from Cooper's devoted daughter and amanuensis.Find this resource:

Dekker, George. James Fenimore Cooper: The Novelist. London, 1967. A study of Cooper as American historian.Find this resource:

Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper. Stanford, Calif., 1949. The authoritative biography.Find this resource:

House, Kay S. Cooper's Americans. Columbus, Ohio, 1966. A good study of the social structure in Cooper's time.Find this resource:

Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York, 1975. First published in 1923. “Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Novels” and “Fenimore Cooper's White Novels” together offer an interesting appraisal of Cooper's America from the renowned British author.Find this resource:

Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge, Mass., 1961. An exhaustive study of an often-neglected area of Cooper's works.Find this resource:

Spiller, Robert E., and Philip C. Blackburn. A Descriptive Bibliography of the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper. New York, 1934. Invaluable to any serious student of Cooper's work.Find this resource:

Twain, Mark. How to Tell a Story and Other Essays. New York, 1996. Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses is riotously funny but often inaccurate and unfair.Find this resource:

Walker, Warren S. James Fenimore Cooper: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York, 1962. A handy guide to the life and work of Cooper.Find this resource:

Winters, Yvor. In Defense of Reason: Primitivism and Decadence, A Study of American Experimental Poetry. Denver, Colo., 1943. “Fenimore Cooper, or The Ruins of Time” is one of the best early modern appraisals of Cooper's life and work, along with his place in American literature.Find this resource: