Cooper, James Fenimore

views updated May 29 2018

Cooper, James Fenimore

Born September 15, 1789

Burlington, New Jersey

Died September 14, 1851

Cooperstown, New York


James Fenimore Cooper introduced the themes of the frontier, white/Indian conflict, and America's westward expansion as proper subjects for literary works. Perhaps even more importantly, he began to shape the romantic idea of the American West.

James Fenimore Cooper was a pioneer of American literature and the first writer to popularize the American West. Frustrated that most novels available in America were about English society, Cooper penned several books that have since become American classics. In his Leatherstocking Tales, which include such favorites as The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer, Cooper showed that American themes—the conquest of the West, the conflict between whites and Native Americans, and manifest destiny—could produce great literature. Cooper also created Natty Bumppo, the protagonist of these tales, a rugged, romantic, nature-loving hero who has been copied in novels, films, and television Westerns ever since.

From privilege to poverty

Born on September 15, 1789, James Cooper was the twelfth of thirteen children born to William Cooper and Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper. Cooper's parents were of old Quaker stock, and they were part of the tight-knit world of wealthy New York families. With a partner, William Cooper purchased a huge tract of land near Otsego Lake, New York, northwest of the Catskill Mountains, and relocated there with his family. Cooper and his partner planned to sell the land to immigrants arriving in America, and they named the settlement Cooperstown.

In Cooperstown, young Cooper learned about the frontier firsthand. He grew up wild, playing and exploring in the surrounding woods with his brothers. But Cooper never encountered American Indians, except in books. At age eleven, Cooper was sent to boarding school in Albany, and from there, at age thirteen, he entered Yale College. He was such a wild boy that he was expelled two years later for blowing another boy's door in with gunpowder. Back in Cooperstown, Cooper spent his time reading novels, until his father determined that James would have a naval career. Cooper was sent to serve on a sailing ship, the Stirling, for a year-long voyage to England and Spain. The sea lore and nautical tall tales he heard on this voyage would later enter several of his novels.

Cooper's father died in 1809, leaving his son a very wealthy young man. Cooper married Susan De Lancey on New Year's Day of 1811 and decided to live the life of a gentleman farmer. For the next decade, Cooper and his steadily growing family lived mostly in Westchester County, New York, on Angevine Farm, which he built on his wife's family property. Involved in the social life of the region, Cooper also founded agricultural and Bible societies and was quartermaster and paymaster for New York's Fourth Division of Infantry, happily parading in his blue uniform and sword. But Cooper's wealth did not last. Land values decreased after the War of 1812 (1812–14; a conflict between the British and the Americans over the control of the western reaches of the United States and over shipping rights in the Atlantic Ocean), and Cooper's brothers lived beyond their means and invested their money foolishly. By 1818, Cooper had to sell the family's mansion in Cooperstown to pay off debts. By 1819, all of his brothers were dead, and their debts—and in some cases their children—had been left to Cooper's care.

"I could write a better book than that myself"

One day in 1819 or early 1820, Cooper was reading a new English novel that he felt was of poor quality. He became frustrated; he threw down the book and proclaimed aloud, "I could write a better book than that myself." Cooper took up his own challenge, and the result was his first book, Precaution, a novel about the efforts of an English family to marry off its daughters. Though the novel sold few copies, it gave Cooper the confidence to begin his next novel, which he modeled on the adventurous romances of the famous British novelist Sir Walter Scott. This book, The Spy, appeared in 1821 and changed the course not only of Cooper's life but of American literature.

A proudly nationalistic book, The Spy tells the story of Harvey Birch, a peddler (traveling salesman) who operated behind the lines of General George Washington's army during the Revolutionary War (1776–83). The story mixed battle scenes, romance, mystery, and historical events in the first novel that was ever written about American themes for an American reading public. The book was an overnight success and instantly established Cooper as an important novelist. Royalties from the book began to pour in, saving Cooper from bankruptcy. Cooper had found a way to make a living.

The Leatherstocking Tales

The Spy made a celebrity of Cooper and rescued him from financial disaster. For the next decade or so Cooper was a popular success. The first of what became known as his Leatherstocking Tales, The Pioneers, was published in 1823. The book explores the conflict between Judge Marmaduke Temple—representing progress and civilization—and Natty Bumppo, or Leatherstocking, an old scout and hunter who cannot abide the "wicked and wasty ways" of civilization. Leatherstocking's reaction to the growth of a town in what was once the frontier encourages readers to question the benefits of the westward march of civilization that was taking place across America. In the end, Leatherstocking heads off to join the Indians and wild animals.

After publishing two other novels that didn't fare as well as The Pioneers, Cooper returned to the Leatherstocking Tales in a series of books published over the coming years. The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper's most widely read book, was published in 1826. Natty Bumppo was a man in his thirties in that book. Then came The Prairie in 1827, featuring an eighty-year-old Natty. When Cooper returned to his hero in The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841), he explored Leatherstocking's youth. Together these books dealt with a range of American and Western themes, earning Cooper a distinctive place in American literary history.

In The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper depicts Natty—here called Hawkeye—as a scout for the British during the French and Indian War in 1757. The title of the novel refers to two other main characters—Hawkeye's Indian friend Chingachgook and the Indian's son Uncas—who are "good" Indians (those who are friendly and helpful toward whites and don't resist whites' taking their territory). Chingachgook and Uncas are the last of their tribe and representatives of the "noble savage" (a stereotype of Native Americans that was common at the time; see sidebar on p. 64). Contrasted to them are the evil Magua and his Mingo or Iroquois brethren who represent the dark side of savagery. Magua twice captures the white Munro sisters, Alice and Cora, and has designs on making Cora his wife. But Hawkeye, helped by his trusted friends Chingachgook and Uncas, saves the ladies from this fate. In the midst of several chase scenes is the violent massacre of the British at Fort William Henry by the native allies of the French. In the end, Uncas, Cora, and Magua are all killed, and Hawkeye and Chingachgook go off into the forest, leaving the civilized world behind.

The Noble Savage

Many of the Indian characters portrayed in James Fenimore Cooper's novels were versions of the "noble savage" stereotype of Native Americans. From the very first contact that white Europeans had with indigenous peoples in North and Central America, some Europeans chose to romanticize the people they found living so differently from Europe's "civilized" ways. Europeans recognized that Indians lived without many of the benefits of civilization; they thought that this made the Indians more pure and that the Indians had a more "authentic" relationship with the natural world.

There was another side to this stereotype, of course—the "savage" side. Europeans felt that the Indians' lack of Christian beliefs and their "primitive" cultural ways made them less than human. Many believed that anything that could be done to convert Indians to white ways was acceptable, and this belief allowed them to inflict incredible brutality and destruction on the Native Americans.

Cooper's treatment of Indian characters revealed both sides of the stereotype. Some of his Indian characters seem to possess real wisdom while others are cruel and barbaric. In the end, however, Cooper failed to present a realistic picture of Native Americans.

Cooper wrote the next Leatherstocking Tale, The Prairie, while living with his family in Europe. Having headed westward to the prairie, Natty Bumppo, now in his eighties, once again finds the civilized world overtaking him. Borrowing the plot line from Mohicans, The Prairie also features a kidnapped white woman and rival Indian tribes. But the real story here is in the theme: the questioning of the rightness of manifest destiny. From the old scout's point of view, the prairie should be left alone; in fact, at the end of the book the main characters turn back and recross the Mississippi, while Natty is left to die facing the setting sun. Most critics agree that The Pioneers and The Prairie, in which Natty Bumppo appears in old age, are the strongest of the Leatherstocking Tales.

For more than a decade, Cooper left the Leatherstocking Tales. Two sea novels—The Red Rover (1828) and The Water-Witch (1830)—allowed Cooper to do the same thing for an ocean setting and sailing as he did for the frontier: make them proper subjects for American literature. But Cooper soon found himself drawn into politics and writing nonfiction. His political essay called Notions of the Americans (1828) defended American democracy to the aristocratic-minded British reading public. He also wrote History of the Navy of the United States (1839); a book on politics, The American Democrat (1838); and several travel books about his experiences in Europe. None of these books appealed much to readers.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Cooper returned to the Leatherstocking saga with The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer. These two books relate the earliest adventures of Natty's youth, on the trail of the Mingos with his friend Chingachgook. Young Natty is even allowed love interests, though he never considers marriage or settling down. Taken together, the five Leatherstocking books remain the core of Cooper's achievement and are still widely read today.

Cooper's legacy

Cooper continued to write until the very end of his life. Though he continued to earn a living from his writing, he never again felt secure with his American audience. By the early 1850s Cooper's health was failing; he was suffering from a chronic deterioration of his liver. He died one day before his birthday, on September 14, 1851.

Though Cooper's body of work—more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction—was uneven, his Leatherstocking Tales left an important legacy. They introduced the themes of the frontier, white/Indian conflict, and America's westward expansion as proper subjects for literary works. Perhaps even more importantly, they introduced American readers to seemingly authentic frontier heroes such as Natty Bumppo and began to shape the romantic idea of the American West that influenced many later fictional works about the West. The images Cooper created have lasted to this day, as evidenced by the continued interest in his writings and the frequency with which his stories are adapted for film, television, and radio.

For More Information

Clark, Robert, ed. James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays. New York: Vision and Barnes & Noble, 1985.

Darnell, Donald G. James Fenimore Cooper: Novelist of Manners. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993.

Long, Robert Emmet. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Railton, Stephen. "James Fenimore Cooper." In Antebellum Writers in New York and the South, vol. 3 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, pp. 74–93. Detroit: Gale, 1979.

Ringe, Donald A. James Fenimore Cooper. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Walker, Warren S. James Fenimore Cooper: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1962.

James Fenimore Cooper

views updated May 17 2018

James Fenimore Cooper

Novelist and social critic James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was the first major American writer to deal imaginatively with American life, notably in his five "Leather-Stocking Tales." He was also a critic of the political, social, and religious problems of the day.

James Cooper (his mother's family name of Fenimore was legally added in 1826) was born in Burlington, N.J., on Sept. 15, 1789, the eleventh of 12 children of William Cooper, a pioneering landowner and developer in New Jersey and New York. When James was 14 months old, his father moved the family to a vast tract of wilderness at the headwaters of the Susquehanna River in New York State where, on a system of small land grants, he had established the village of Cooperstown at the foot of Otsego Lake.

Here, in the "Manor House," later known as Otsego Hall, Cooper grew up, the privileged son of the "squire" of a primitive community. He enjoyed the amenities of a transplanted civilization while reading, in the writings of the wilderness missionary John Gottlieb Heckewelder, about the Native Americans who had long since retreated westward, and about life in the Old World in the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen. Meanwhile, he attended the local school and Episcopal church. The lore of the wilderness learned from excursions into the surrounding forests and from local trappers and hunters, the stories of life in the great estates of neighboring Dutch patroons and English patentees, and the gossip of revolution-torn Europe brought by refugees of all classes furnished him with materials for his later novels, histories, and commentaries.

For the present, however, Cooper was a vigorous and obstreperous young man who was sent away to be educated, first by a clergyman in Albany, and then at Yale, from which he was dismissed for a student prank. His father next arranged for him to go to sea, first in a merchant vessel to England and Spain, and then in the Navy; these experiences stimulated at least a third of his later imaginative writing.

When Cooper returned to civilian life in 1811, he married Susan Augusta DeLancey of a formerly wealthy New York Tory family and established himself in Westchester County overlooking Long Island Sound, a gentleman farmer involved in the local militia, Agricultural Society, and Episcopal church. It was here, at the age of 30, that he published his first novel, written on a challenge from his wife.

First Period of His Literary Career

Precaution was an attempt to outdo the English domestic novels Cooper had been reading, which he imitated in choice of theme, scene, and manner. But he soon realized his mistake, and the next year, in The Spy, he deliberately attempted to correct it by choosing the American Revolution for subject, the country around New York City he knew so well for scene, and the historical romance of Scott for model. Thereafter, although many of his novels combined the novel of manners with the historical romance, as well as with other currently popular fictional modes, he never again departed from his concern for American facts and opinions, even though for some of his tales he chose, in the spirit of comparative analysis, scenes in foreign lands and waters.

All of the novels of the first period of Cooper's literary career (1820-1828) were as experimental as the first two. Three dealt with the frontier and Native American life (The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Prairie), three with the sea (The Pilot, The Red Rover, and The Water Witch), and three with American history (The Spy, Lionel Lincoln, and The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish).

Discovering the "American Problem"

The success of his first America-oriented novel convinced Cooper that he was on the right track, and he decided to turn to his childhood memories for a truthful, if not wholly literal, tale of life on the frontier: The Pioneers (1823). Judge Temple in the novel is Judge Cooper, and Templeton is Cooperstown; and originals for most of the characters can be identified, as can the scenes and much of the action, although all of it is given what Cooper called "a poetical view of the subject." Though the traditional novel of manners deals realistically with a group of people in a closed and stable community using an agreed-upon code of social ethics, Cooper tried to adapt this form to a fluid and open society, thereby illuminating the core of the "American problem": how could the original trio of "unalienable rights"—life, liberty, and property (not, as Jefferson had it, the pursuit of happiness)—be applied to a society in which the rights of the Native American possessors of the land were denied by the civilized conqueror who took it from them for his own profit, thus defying the basic Christian ethic of individual integrity and brotherly love?

Natty Bumppo (or Leather-Stocking as he is called in the series as a whole) is neither the "natural man" nor the "civilized man" of European theorists such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau; he is the American individualist who is creating a new society by a code of personal fulfillment under sound moral self-guidance, improvising as he goes along. In The Pioneers Natty is a somewhat crotchety old man whose chief "gift" is his ability to argue his rights with both Indian John and Judge Temple. The central theme which knits this complex web of people and adventures into the cycle of a single year is the emergence of Leather-Stocking as the "American hero."

At this point Cooper was feeling his way toward a definition of his social concern, but in the novel itself the problem is almost submerged in the excitement, action, and vivid description and narrative. In the next of the Leather-Stocking series, The Last of the Mohicans, Natty is younger and the romantic story line takes over, making it the most popular of all Cooper's novels. In The Prairie Natty in his last days becomes a tragic figure driven west, into the setting sun, in a futile search for his ideal way of life. To most of Cooper's readers these stories are pure romances of adventure, and their social significance is easily overlooked.

In The Pilot (1824) Cooper was drawn to the sea by what he felt was Scott's mishandling of the subject, and he thus discovered a whole second world in which to explore his moral problem. The American hero, John Paul Jones, like other patriots of the time, is in revolt against the authority of the English king, and yet, in his own empire of the ship, he is forced by the dangers of the elements to exert an even more arbitrary authority over his crew. There is a similar problem in The Red Rover, the story of a pirate with a Robin Hood complex, and in The Water-Witch, a tale of a gentleman-rogue, which is less successful because Cooper turned from the technique of straight romantic narrative to that of symbolism.

Cooper's two historical novels of the period (other than The Spy), Lionel Lincoln and The Wept of Wishton-Wish, are set in New England, where Cooper was never at home. The former, although thoroughly researched, is trivial, but in the latter, in spite of lack of sympathy, Cooper made a profound study of the conflict between Puritan morality and integrity and the savage ethic of the frontier.

Second Period

His reputation as a popular novelist established, Cooper went abroad in 1826 to arrange for the translation and foreign publication of his works and to give his family the advantages of European residence and travel. He stayed 7 years, during which he completed two more romances, but thereafter, until 1840, he devoted most of his energy to political and social criticism—both in fiction and in nonfiction. Irritated by the criticisms of English travelers in America, in 1828 he wrote a defense of American life and institutions in a mock travel book, Notions of the Americans Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor.

Settling his children in a convent school in Paris, he traveled from London to Sorrento, Italy, and also stayed in Switzerland, Germany, France, and England. Europe was astir with reform and revolutionary movements, and the outspoken Cooper was drawn into close friendships with the Marquis de Lafayette and other liberal leaders. One product of this interest was a trio of novels on European political themes (The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, and The Headsman), but the American press was so hostile to them that Cooper finally declared, in his 1834 A Letter to His Countrymen, that he would write no more fiction.

This resolution, however, lasted only long enough to produce five volumes of epistolary travel essay and commentary on Europe (Gleanings in Europe and Sketches of Switzerland ); The Monikins, a Swiftean political allegory; and various works on the American Navy, including a definitive two-volume history, a volume of biographies of naval officers, and miscellaneous tracts.

In 1833 Cooper returned to America, renovated Otsego Hall in Cooperstown, and settled his family there for the rest of his life. There is much autobiography in the pair of novels Homeward Bound and Home as Found (1838), in which he reversed himself to attack the people and institutions of his own land with the same keen critical insight that he had applied to Europe. One reason for this was that a series of libel suits against Whig editors helped personalize his quarrel with the equalitarian and leveling tendencies of the Jacksonian era. He won the suits but lost many friends and much of his reading public. His social and political position is succinctly summed up in The American Democrat (1838).

Third Period

The third period of Cooper's literary career began in 1840-1841 with his return to the Leather-Stocking series and two more chapters in the life of Natty Bumppo, The Pathfinder, in which Cooper used his own experiences on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812, and The Deerslayer, which fills in the young manhood of his hero. These romances were followed by equally vigorous tales of the sea, The Two Admirals and Wing-and-Wing.

But the most significant development of this period was Cooper's final success in blending the romantic novel of action and the open spaces with the novel of manners and social concern. Returning for subject to the scenes of his first interest, the estates and villages of early upstate New York (with their mixed population of Dutch patroons, English patentees, small farmers and woodsmen, and variegated adventurers carving out civilization in a wilderness peopled by Native Americans and rife with unexploited wildlife of all kinds), he wrote five novels in two series: Afloat and Ashore (1844) and its sequel, Miles Wallingford, and the "Littlepage Manuscripts" (1845-1846), depicting in a trilogy (Satanstoe, The Chainbearer, and The Redskins) the four-generation history of a landed family from their first days of settlement to the days of the disintegration of their privileged way of life in the face of rampant, classless democracy. Largely unread and unappreciated in their day, these five novels, especially Satanstoe, have since become recognized as Cooper's most successful fulfillment of his intention. He had always wished to write a chronicle of his times in fictional form in order to interpret for his countrymen and the world at large the deeper meanings of the "American experiment" in its formative years.

Meanwhile, Cooper's concerns for individual and social integrity and for change had hardened into moral and religious absolutes, and the novels of his last 4 years were less story and more allegory. The best of these, The Crater (1847), succeeds where The Water-Witch and The Monikins failed, in using symbolism to convey a narrative message.

Cooper's Achievement

The power and persistence of this first major American author in attempting a total imaginative redaction of American life, coupled with an equal skill in the description of place and the depiction of action, overcame the liabilities of both the heavy romantic style current in his day and his substitution of the character type for the individual character. Appreciated first in Europe, the most action-packed of his novels survived the eclipse of his reputation as a serious literary artist (brought about through attacks on his stormy personality and unpopular social ideas) and have led to a restudy of the whole of his work in recent years. In this process Cooper has been restored to his rightful place as the first major American man of letters.

Further Reading

Probably the most satisfactory short biography of Cooper is James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper (1949), although Donald A. Ringe, James Fenimore Cooper (1962), gives fuller critical treatment of Cooper's works, and Robert E. Spiller, Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times (1931), provides more background analysis of Cooper's social ideas. None of these biographers had the advantage of James F. Beard, who edited The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (6 vols., 1960-1968), and a new biography is needed. □

Cooper, James Fenimore (1789-1851)

views updated May 18 2018

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)



Novelist by Chance. James Cooper (he added Fenimore, his mothers name, in 1826) was born in Burlington, New Jersey, on 15 September 1789. He grew up in Cooperstown, New York, a settlement founded on Otsego Lake by his father, William, a prominent land speculator, judge, and Federalist politician. At the age of thirteen James attended Yale, but he was expelled in his third year, apparently for a prank. He then served in the U.S. Navy for several years. In January 1811, Cooper resigned his commission and married Susan DeLancey, heiress to what Cooper called a handsome fortune. With his new wife, Cooper settled down as a gentleman-farmer. There was nothing in Coopers experience to suggest that he would become a man of letters, much less a professional novelist, and nothing to suggest that he would go on to create one of the most influential Western characters in American literature. It was said that he could not bear to even write a letter. However, as Coopers daughter later recalled, in 1820 Cooper was reading aloud a new British novel to his wife when he suddenly flung it down in disgust. He found it tedious and proclaimed, I can write you a better novel than that, myself! His wife challenged him to do so, and he quickly wrote and published Precaution (1820). Precaution was well received in England and America, and in 1821 Cooper followed it with another novel, The Spy, an adventure tale set during the American Revolution. A literary career was launched.

The Creation of Leatherstocking. It was Coopers next novel, The Pioneers (1823), that established him as a successful American author. The Pioneers is set in Templeton, on the shores of Lake Otsego, in the late eighteenth century. Cooper describes the areas as a onetime primeval forest being developed into a village. The novels fundamental conflict is played out between the towns founder, Judge Temple, a Christian gentleman and proprietor of a large tract of land, and Natty Bumppo, also known as Leatherstocking, a hunter and trapper who has lived peacefully with his Indian companion, Chingachgook, on the judges land. Leatherstocking is a man of the forest, a kindred spirit of its wildlife. He is steeped in Indian lore and the moral code of nature and is disgusted by the sometimes senseless and destructive acts of the settlers. Judge Temple is also disgusted, but as a representative of refined society he sees the law as the solution to the excesses of civilization. Thus, when Natty is arrested for killing a single deer out of season, the Judge is forced to sentence him to jail. Leatherstocking chooses to leave the settlement, disappearing into the woods. The novel suggests that Judge Temple is right to apply the law and it also warns that the wilderness must not be sacrificed in the westward march of American civilization.

Nattys Youth and Death. After writing a novel of the sea, The Pilot (1824), and a second American Revolution novel, Lionel Lincoln (1825), Cooper returned to the adventures of Leatherstocking in The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Prairie (1827). Both novels examine the moral implications of Westward expansion. The Last of the Mohicans is set in 1757, when Leatherstocking, here known as Hawkeye, is a young man. The novel is primarily an adventure tale set in the wilderness during the French and Indian War. Hawkeye, more so than any of the white characters in the book, respects the wilderness and understands the Indians who live there. He warns the white characters (and by extension, Coopers white readers) of their arrogance: If you judge of Indian cunning by the rules you find in books, or by white sagacity, they will lead you astray, if not to your death. Hawkeyes humility and virtue allow him to survive in the wilderness. However, as we know from the end of The Pioneers, neither Natty nor the Indians will flourish for long. The Prairie, which portrays Leatherstocking at eighty, completes the cycle begun by the first two novels. The process of expansion has continued into the Great Plains, and the squatters and trappers who lead the way are lawless and reckless, possessing little regard for either law or nature. In his old age Leatherstocking has achieved the necessary virtue and discipline to live free, but he is pursued into the wilderness by those who, as Judge Temple once feared, abuse freedom. At the end of the novel Leatherstocking dies quietly, standing upright and calling out to his maker, Here! His grave is guarded by Pawnee Indians as the spot where a just White-man sleeps.

Europe and America. With the publication of The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie, Cooper enjoyed great success. He was called the American Scott, after the popular British novelist Sir Walter Scott. In 1826 he sailed for Europe, where he visited England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Belgium. During his seven-year stay in Europe, Cooper found that many Europeans looked down upon or simply misunderstood America. In addition, he found that many Americans admired Europe, ignoring, he felt, the dangers of aristocracy and monarchy. He wrote Notions of the Americans (1827) in order to correct European misconceptions of America, and a series of novels, most notably, The Bravo (1831), in which he attempted to realistically document European society; but when Cooper returned to America in 1833, he found that America had changed. The rise of Jacksonian democracy, emphasizing, in Coopers view, individualism and commercial gain, threatened the values America had been founded on. In the novels Homeward Bound (1838) and Home as Found (1838) Cooper commented on what he saw as the decay of democratic virtue.

Return to Leatherstocking. Coopers critiques of America were not well received, and his difficulties increased as he found himself embroiled in a series of libel suits and a dispute between New York tenant farmers and landlords. Despite these distractions, Cooper was able to return to the saga of Leatherstocking. In 1840 he published The Pathfinder, and in 1841, The Deerslayer, which echoed Coopers earlier critiques of American democracy. Set again near Lake Otsego at the time of Nattys youth, before the settlement of Judge Temple, the soothing holy calm of nature is threatened by lawless and economically motivated settlers. Again, Natty embodies simple competence and virtue. As we know from the other novels, Lake Otsego will continue to develop, and Natty and his Indian companion, Chingach-gook, will be pushed further and further into the wilderness. As one critic has put it, the character of Natty Bumppo remains, an embodied conscience for America. Cooper died in 1851, but his explorations of the conflicts between civilization and freedom, law and nature, would be played out repeatedly in Western literature. His novels would be criticized by Timothy Flint, Bret Harte, and Mark Twain (in his famous essay Fenimore Coopers Literary Offenses) as unrealistic and inaccurate. Nevertheless, the character of Leatherstocking, blending the man of action with the man of natural philosophy, was tremendously influential. As the literary historian Richard Slotkin has pointed out, the figure of the white hunter accompanied by an Indian companion became an essential pairing in American literature and popular culture, from Herman Melvilles Moby-Dick (1851) to Mark Twains Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) to the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Further, as Slotkin writes, the image of the American hero as a man armed and solitary, plebian but worthy somehow of nobility seeking in action his hearts desire continues through Melvilles Ahab, Hemingways Robert Jordan, and the hard-boiled detective, such as Ross MacDonalds Lew Archer, who tells a woman in The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1969), My real name is Natty Bumppo. Hes a character in a book. He was a great man and a great tracker I can shoot a rifle, but as for tracking, I do my best work in cities.


Donald Ringe, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston: Twayne, 1988);

Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 18001890 (New York: Atheneum, 1985);

Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973).

Cooper, James Fenimore (1789-1851)

views updated May 21 2018

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)



Finding a Career. James Cooper (he would add Fenimore, his mothers name, in 1826) was the son of William Cooper, speculator and founder of Cooperstown, New York. He attended Yale College from 1803 to 1805 but was dismissed for misconduct and never graduated. In 1806 Cooper went to sea to prepare for a career in the navy; he was commissioned a midshipman in 1808 and served for three and one-half years. After a series of professional failures Cooper found his vocation in 1820 when, on a whim, he wrote his first novel, Precaution. Between 1820 and his death in 1851, Cooper turned out more than thirty novels, several travel volumes, and a political tract, American Democrat (1838). As one of the first professional authors in the United States, Cooper proved that an American could earn a living from writing; The Spy (1821) alone brought him $4, 000 in royalties in its first year of publication.

American Scenes. Influenced by the success of Sir Walter Scotts historical romances in the United States, Cooper used historically influenced narratives to make American manners and American scenes interesting to an American reader. The success of The Spy and The Pioneers (1823) established Cooper as the preeminent American novelist of his time. The popularity of his books abroad as well as in the United States made Cooper the man who could best challenge the scornful British question, Who reads an American book? Coopers most popular works were the novels he wrote between 1821 and 1826, including The Spy, The Pioneers, The Pilot (1824), Lionel Lincoln (1825), and The Last of the Mohicans (1826). These novels drew on the American past and centered on conflicts over land use and ownership in colonial and early republican times. Coopers best-known character, Natty Bumppo, known as Leatherstocking (also called Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans ), made his first appearance in The Pioneers as a white man who resisted the onslaught of American civilization and law and who wanted only to live in harmony with nature like his Indian friends.

Nature and Society. Cooper took an essentially moral view of natuie, believing it to be the gift of a beneficent God, designed for mans use and not for mans plunder. If Leatherstocking represented the archetypal antisocial American man resistant to culture and civilization, other characters in the novels represented the opposite extreme, the white man bent on wholesale destruction of environmental resources. By including thoughtful mediating characters, such as Judge Temple in The Pioneers, Cooper expressed hope that Americans would be able to find a balance between the demands of society on one hand and mans moral responsibility to the American environment on the other without resorting to anarchic lawlessness.

Political Commentator. Coopers travels in Europe from 1826 through 1833 gave him the opportunity to evaluate American democracy in contrast to the political systems he encountered in Europe. In Notions of the Americans (1828) he defended his countrys institutions, but his sensitivity to criticism from American reviewers brought Cooper a cold reception when he returned to the United States in 1833. Shortly afterward Cooper wrote A Letter to His Countrymen (1834), which included commentary on the hostile treatment he had received from the American press. In 1838 he published American Democrat, a more serious treatment of the civil and social relations of the United States, and two novels, Home as Found and Homeward Bound, that offered considerably more-negative treatments of contemporary American life. In light of his experiences abroad and at home, Cooper intended these works to be a kind of political instruction aimed at controlling the difficulties that a democratic system brought its participants. When both novels proved to be critical failures, Cooper returned to historical romances and produced two more Leatherstocking novels, The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841).

Libel. In 1837 the Whig press sharply attacked Cooper for his role in a land dispute between Cooperstown and the Cooper family, which led him to file the first of many suits against the press for libel. He included chapters devoted to the controversy in Homeward Bound and Home as Found, in response to which several newspapers used their reviews to carry the opposing side. Cooper continued to produce politically-themed novels; in 18451846 in response to antirent agitation in New York State, Cooper wrote the Littlepage Novels to present his prolandlord views. Cooper believed that the antirent struggle showed decay of a sense of values in the American mind and used the three novels to trace the history of this decay from the 1750s. But as William Cullen Bryant said in his eulogy on Cooper, The principal effect of this [political writing], as it seemed to me, was to awaken in certain quarters a kind of resentment that a successful writer of fiction should presume to give lessons in politics. Cooper remains best known for his popular Leatherstocking novels.


Ethel R. Outland, The Effingham Libels on Cooper, University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, 28 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1929);

Stephen Railton, Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978);

Alan Taylor, William Coopers Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Vintage, 1995).

Cooper, James Fenimore

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James Fenimore Cooper

James Fenimore Cooper was a pioneer of American literature. The first writer in the newly formed United States to make a living solely by his pen, he established some of the most important early American literary themes.

Early years

Cooper was born on September 15, 1789. His family was of old Quaker stock. His mother was an heiress, and his father used her wealth to purchase thousands of acres of land near Otsego Lake in central New York to develop into farm parcels. He sold these to immigrants flooding into the country. When Cooper was fourteen months old, the family moved to the settlement near Otsego Lake named Cooperstown in his father's honor.

The Cooper family lived a privileged life in a fine brick mansion. Cooper's father became a judge and a U.S. representative. Cooper spent many of his early years in the wild, playing and exploring in the deep woods surrounding his home. At age eleven, he was sent to boarding school in Albany, and at age thirteen, he entered Yale College. He was a mischievous young boy and got expelled from Yale after two years for blowing in another boy's door with gunpowder.

After Yale, Cooper joined the crew of a merchant ship, beginning a career as a seaman. He had risen to the position of midshipman in the navy in 1809 when his father died. Cooper inherited a share in his father's large estate and took up the life of a gentleman farmer. He married in 1811.

For the next decade, Cooper and his growing family lived mostly on a farm in Westchester County. There was no hint of the writer's life that was soon to come. Slowly at first, and then more rapidly, the worth of the Cooper estate dwindled. By 1819, Cooper's mother and brothers were dead. Their debts, and in some cases the welfare of their offspring, had been left to Cooper.

First writing attempt

In 1819 or early 1820, Cooper decided to try his hand at writing and self-published his first novel, Precaution, which was English in style and subject matter. It was mostly ignored in the United States and had modest sales in England. Cooper's second novel, The Spy (1821), was based on a true account of the exploits of a peddler who served General George Washington (1732–1799) behind the lines during the American Revolution (1775–83). The Spy is considered one of the first truly American novels, and it established Cooper overnight as an important novelist. Royalties from the popular book saved him from bankruptcy.

Introducing Leatherstockings

Cooper moved his family to New York City, then a town of about 100,000 inhabitants. His third novel, The Pioneers, came out in 1823 and was the first of what became known as his Leatherstocking Tales. The Pioneers takes place sometime around 1793 and is set near Otsego Lake in a place strikingly similar to Cooper's childhood home. Its protagonist, Natty Bumppo, nicknamed Leatherstocking because of the way he dressed, is an old scout and hunter who despises the ways of civilization and the destruction it entails, such as the leveling of forests for farm land and the slaughter of wildlife. Cooper, early on, had found one of his most important themes: the settling of the continent and the costs of such settlement.

After writing less successful novels on different themes, Cooper returned to his popular character, Natty Bumppo. In The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Cooper portrays the hero in his earlier years as a scout during the French and Indian War (1754–63). In his next novel, The Prairie (1827), Leatherstocking appears in his old age as a fur trapper, living in the remote regions west of the Mississippi, beyond the corrupting influences of civilization.

The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie were grounded in a view of the forest as the site of heroism and wisdom. The various Indians in the Leatherstocking books were never, even by Cooper himself, considered realistic. They always stood as symbolic figures, creatures of the wild standing in opposition to the non-Indian creatures of civilization.

Writing in Europe

Cooper took his family to Paris in 1826, where he wrote The Prairie, The Red Rover (1828), considered one of his best sea tales, and The Water-Witch (1830), another sea story. Cooper's attentions then turned to more political matters. He wrote his first nonfiction book, Notions of the Americans, a strong defense of American democracy intended primarily for the aristocratic-minded British reading public. Cooper's subsequent novels concerning European politics in the early 1830s were unpopular at home, with poor reviews and even poorer sales.

Return to Leatherstocking

In 1840, Cooper brought back Natty Bumppo as a young man for a new novel, The Pathfinder, in which Leatherstocking fails to win the girl of his choice. He surrenders her to another man with good grace, a sign that he is married to his wilderness. In 1841, Cooper penned the final Leatherstocking tale, The Deerslayer, in which Natty finds himself with human blood on his blameless hands for the first time. Once again, the Leatherstocking tales brought Cooper a large and grateful readership.

Cooper continued to write to the very end of his life, but his popularity faded. Increasingly, Cooper placed himself on the side of the wealthy elite, and critics agree that he had lost touch with the magical wilderness setting that had once stimulated his imagination.


There was basically no such thing as American literature when Cooper began writing. By the time of his death in 1851, he had supplied several of what would become major American literary themes: the cost of progress, the ethics of expansion, or Manifest Destiny , and adventures on the sea. Many modern critics find his writing style to be pompous and ornate, his plots far-fetched, and his facts lacking. Nonetheless, he holds a place as one of the great American novelists of the nineteenth century.

Cooper, James Fenimore

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(b. September 15, 1789; d. September 14, 1851) American writer known for early U.S. war novels.

James Fenimore Cooper was part of the generation of writers who created the first distinctively American literature following the Revolutionary War. Critics debate whether or not he was a great writer, but it does seem safe to say that Cooper was the father of the American novel, and more specifically of the American war novel. This is probably all that can be said about him without argument. Mark Twain famously and wittily despised him, more for his squirishness, perhaps, than for his writing. He was often criticized in his own century for too greatly admiring (and imitating) British writers, and more recently he has been criticized for his patronizing attitude toward Native Americans, as well as for his turgid and overwritten prose.

early works

The scion of a landed upstate New York family (which lent its name to Cooperstown, New York), James Fenimore Cooper was raised to be a gentleman farmer, but his family's fortunes were already on the wane when in 1818, at the age of twenty-nine, he moved with his new bride Susan (née DeLancey) to her native Westchester county. There he was the owner of a substantial property called Angevine, in Scarsdale, which he managed as a gentleman farmer; but he was beset by increasing financial uncertainty, in part due to his family's financial difficulties. His decision to become a writer may well have been prompted by his need to earn money.

In 1821, Cooper published the first U.S. war novel, The Spy, which combined national pride with unabashed adulation of America's natural beauty, themes both well matched to the spirit of U.S. nationalism in the years following the War of 1812.

war novels

Within a year after the appearance of The Spy, one contemporary critic had already dubbed Cooper the first distinguished American novelist, and he was already at work on The Pioneers (1823), which he called a "Descriptive Tale" set in the frontier wilderness near the area where he grew up in upstate New York. The novel is most significant for its introduction of the character of Natty Bumppo, who went on to be the central character in the Leatherstocking series, which included Cooper's novel of the French and Indian War and arguably his best-known work, The Last of the Mohicans (1826). In 1824, he published The Pilot, which takes place during the Revolution, using the activities of the real-life war hero John Paul Jones off the coast of England as a backdrop for its plot. Cooper had been a sailor in his youth and The Pilot drew heavily on his knowledge of the sea.

In addition to The Pilot, the final volumes of the Leatherstocking series—The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deer Slayer (1841)—and Oak Openings (1848), Cooper wrote several novels portraying Americans at war or engaged in conflict with hostile native populations, including his 1829 novel, The Wept of Wish-ton-wish, which portrayed the Puritan conflict with the American Indians in King Philip's War. He also wrote a number of works of nonfiction, including The History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839), which contains a useful, although disputed, description of the Battle of Lake Erie, and a series of biographies published as Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers.

In the final decade of his life, Cooper wrote a trilogy known as the Littlepage novels (after the name of a family whose experiences are central to the story), portraying Americans involved in the Rent War of the 1840s in New York's Ulster and Delaware counties. As a member of one of the state's oldest property-owning families, he portrayed this anti-rent struggle as representative of moral decay and social decline.

Charles B. Potter

See also:Fort William Henry Massacre, Cultural Legacy; King Philip's War, Legacy of; Memory and Early Histories of the Revolution; The Spy; First American War Novel.

Cooper, James Fenimore

views updated May 11 2018

Cooper, James Fenimore (1789–1851) US novelist. One of the earliest American novelists and among the first to gain international recognition. His most successful works were the romantic ‘Leatherstocking Tales’ about the frontier, of which the best known are The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Deerslayer (1841). He also wrote a number of novels about life at sea, including The Pilot (1823).;

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