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The first popularly successful novelist of America, James Fenimore Cooper contributed greatly to the nation’s literary and cultural life. His five Leather-Stocking Tales, which included his two great novels, The Pioneers (1823) and The Last of the Mohicans (1826), led the way to a specifically American form of literature. in romances of forest and sea, tales of colonial and revolutionary history, novels of politics and society, and provocative essays, Cooper helped give the young country its own literary identity.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Son of a Pioneer
On September 15, 1789, five months after George Washington’s inauguration as the first president of the United States, James Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey. (He later added Fenimore, his mother’s maiden name, to his own name.) As an infant he was carried from his birthplace through the woods of New York State, where his father, William, was making the wilds habitable for settlers. William Cooper founded the village of Cooperstown, on the edge of Ostego Lake, where James spent much of his youth, at play in the woods and on the water. William Cooper became a major figure in the early history of New York: a judge, congressman, and prosperous landlord. He was also a very demanding father.
Cooper was tutored at home and sent to private schools in Burlington and Albany. in 1803, before his fourteenth birthday, he was enrolled in Yale College.
Two years later, after pulling numerous pranks, he was expelled. In 1806, Cooper went to sea aboard a commercial ship. His experiences on the Atlantic served him later when he wrote nautical novels. More immediately, they qualified him to join the U.S. Navy as a midshipman at the beginning of 1808. He saw no active duty at sea, however, and left the service in 1810, after his father’s death. He received a substantial inheritance, and in 1811 married Susan Augusta DeLancey, daughter of another wealthy New York Federalist. They had seven children, of whom four daughters and one son survived to adulthood.
In the 1810s, Cooper lived the life of the rural gentry in Scarsdale, New York. However, between his meager talent for business and his brothers’ prodigal spending habits, much of the family fortune had been squandered by the end of the decade. At the age of thirty, he made a surprising and impromptu decision that altered the course of his life. one day, he was reading a current British novel aloud to his wife, and found the book so bad that he threw it down, declaring that he could write a better one himself. He took his wife’s laughter as a challenge, and sat down immediately to compose a tale. He stuck with it, and by late 1820, he had completed Precaution, a novel of manners in the style of Jane Austen, set in England. He published the book anonymously that year.
First Professional American Writer
For his second effort, he turned to the manlier model of historical romance popularized by Sir Walter Scott. The Spy (1821) is not only set in America but also is about a patriot during the Revolutionary War. Giving his readers the formal elements they expected from British fiction, and a story they could be proud of as Americans, was a brilliant strategy. The public bought the book eagerly.
Now Cooper’s career was firmly established. At age thirty-two, he became a man of letters, the first professional novelist in the United States. He moved to New York City in 1821 and stepped directly into the role of celebrity. The next book he wrote was among his most autobiographical, and by scholarly consensus, his greatest work. The Pioneers (1823) is based fairly closely on his memories of the village he grew up in. It is the richest account in existence of the infancy of an American frontier community.
The Pioneers recreates the founding of Cooperstown, with Judge Marmaduke Temple as a surrogate for William Cooper. At the novel’s center is a profound ambivalence toward both the figure of the father and the enterprise of civilizing the continent. In their haste to acquire the forms of civilization, the settlers strip the mountains of their trees, the lake of its fish, and the forest of its animals—not to mention the land of its aboriginal inhabitants. The tone remains respectful toward Judge Temple and what his settlers achieve, but the reader is given more and more reasons to wonder.
Natty Bumppo Heads for the Sunset
This ambivalence is brought into focus by the one white character who is in alignment with nature, a character with no precedent in European fiction. He is Natty Bumppo, the Leather-Stocking. Living alone in a hut across the lake from the village, he embodies in his own person the spirit of the frontier; and Natty is not pleased with the way the settlers are driving the game from the woods he has lived in for forty years. Natty’s presence grows steadily throughout the novel, and at the end, he leaves the settlement, becoming the first fictional American hero to disappear in the direction of the sunset.
The character of Natty appealed powerfully to con temporary readers. He is featured again, under the name Hawkeye, in Cooper’s next Leather-Stocking Tale, The Last of the Mohicans (1826). At the start of this melodramatic adventure novel, set during the French and Indian War, two half-sisters, Cora and Alice, stray into the wilderness in an ill-advised attempt to join their father. The woods are full of hostile Indians. Twice the women are captured by the fierce Magua and have to be rescued by Hawkeye, accompanied by the Mohican chief Chingachgook and his son, Uncas. Cora and Uncas develop a quiet attraction, but the prospect of intermarriage is forbidden. Consequently, the only possible resolution to all the passions the novel stirs up is violence: first a massacre of whites at Fort William Henry, and finally the slaughter of Indians at a Mingo village in the woods. The title makes clear from the start that the story can only end with a funeral, not a wedding.
The Last of the Mohicans was among the nineteenth century’s most popular novels; its breathless combination of sex and violence, capture and pursuit, enthralled audiences worldwide. But it satisfied white American readers in a specific way. In 1826, when the novel was published, most of the relocations and wars that came close to destroying Native American culture were still in the future. The novel, though, treats the extinction of ”the red man” as an accomplished fact of the distant past, one that white readers could simultaneously mourn and celebrate.
Cooper wrote three more Leather-Stocking Tales, including The Prairie (1827). He launched another sensation with The Pilot (1823), his first sea novel, an adventure full of accurate details garnered from his experiences with the Navy and at sea. He wrote two more nautical novels in the 1820s. By the end of the decade, he ranked only behind Walter Scott in worldwide popularity.
In 1826, Cooper and his family left New York to spend seven years in Europe, where he also had a large following. He befriended the Marquis de Lafayette, the hero of the American Revolution, and grew interested in writing about political questions. In Notions of the Americans (1828), Cooper intended to answer conservative European attacks on American democracy. He also penned his “European trilogy”: three romance novels set in Europe and subtly critiquing aristocratic society. From Cooper’s perspective, he was fulfilling his vision as an American novelist, but while he put the accent on “American,” his readers expected it to fall on “novelist.” They wanted adventure, not serious fiction. From this point forward, Cooper fell increasingly out of step with his audience.
A Quarrel with His Country
Cooper returned home, to the mansion his father built in Cooperstown. He lived there for the rest of his life, and was something of a recluse. In A Letter to His Countrymen (1834), Cooper laments that Americans are too culturally enslaved to foreign ideas to support a literature of their own. He published no fiction for the next four years but did produce five travel books and a broader political tract, The American Democrat (1838). His return to fiction, in Homeward Bound and Home as Found (both 1838), used narrative as a vehicle to expand on his social critique about the excesses of democracy. The argument resembled that of French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59), who had also, in his travels to the United States, observed a dangerous ”tyranny of the majority” during the days of Andrew Jackson’s presidency.
Late in his career, Cooper told others that the only motive he still had for writing was financial, yet the 1840s were the most prolific period of his career. He composed sea yarns, romances, several novels with religious themes, and the final two Leather-Stocking Tales, which brought Natty back to life as a young man. He also wrote three polemical novels, the Littlepage Manuscripts (1845-46), to defend land owners, or ”patroons,” against insurgent ten ants in the anti-rent battles of New York state. Cooper died of dropsy in 1851, a day before his sixty-second birthday.
Works in Literary Context
Cooper said that his mother, Elizabeth, imbued him with a taste for fiction that led to his eventual choice of a literary career. When he began to write, he made explicit use of British models: first, Jane Austen, whose Persuasion became a blueprint for Cooper’s Precaution, and then, Sir Walter Scott, master of the historical romance. There was a reason for these choices. At the time Cooper took up the pen, America was still suffering from the cultural inferiority complex that was a legacy of its colonial dependency on England. Soon enough, Cooper was being identified as ”the American Scott.” His aim was not merely to emulate British models, however, but to surpass them.
In his Leather-Stocking Tales and other works, Cooper created American myths of the frontier, the lone pioneer, and the Indian that remain part of the national consciousness. In some ways, Cooper’s portrayal of Native Americans is complex; he differentiates between good Indians (heroic, dignified, and noble) and bad Indians (ferocious and dangerous). This decision was very popular with the majority of readers, but it has also contributed to cultural stereotypes that have proven hard to dispel. Ultimately, Native Americans are a lesser people than whites in his books, although some whites are portrayed as cruel, as well.
Ideals in Tension
The power of Cooper’s best writing, especially in The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans, stems from its ambivalence, its refusal to resolve the contradictions upon which American society rests. The claims of the wilderness versus the pursuit of progress, the freedom of the individual versus the obligations that come from membership in society—these are cultural issues that remain alive to this day. The Last of the Mohicans can be read as justifying the conquest of the West, but it is also mindful of its darker consequences. These ambiguities are embodied in the character of Natty Bumppo, which the author himself acknowledged as his greatest literary accomplishment. Natty represents the unspoiled wilderness, a place outside the conventional social order—a world that, in reality, neither he nor anyone else has ever lived in. Of course, the Leather-Stocking was not the first American to escape the evils of society by fleeing to the innocent world of nature; he was later joined there in spirit by such significant figures as Henry David Thoreau and the fictional Huckleberry Finn.
In these respects, James Fenimore Cooper was himself a literary pioneer. He established some of the central images, themes, and ideas in American literature. Countless writers have followed in his footsteps by imitating, elaborating, or countering his creations. He is credited as a progenitor of that hardy American literary species, the western, as well as the genre of nautical fiction, in which the sea serves as a primeval setting not unlike the frontier. Cooper set American letters on a path which has never ended.
Works in Critical Context
James Fenimore Cooper achieved a remarkable degree of fame early in his career. Looking forward to the latest work by the author of The Spy, Americans bought 3,500 copies of The Pioneers on the morning of its publication, an extraordinary number for the time. The nation’s first celebrity novelist, Cooper was also the first to become trapped inside the literary image he himself had created, the expectations he had fostered in his readers. He never quite got over the commercial failure of his European trilogy. Some of his later, politically motivated work was attacked by reviewers with a vehemence that was unprecedented in American literary culture. Although his prestige was somewhat tarnished, and the rupture with his readership never quite mended, Cooper remained the foremost American novelist at his death in 1851.
Cooper’s seminal writing garnered critical attention for generations after his death. An outrageously funny and notoriously unfair essay by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), titled ”Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895), helped to damage Cooper’s artistic reputation. The Leather-Stocking Tales remain the principal focus of critical interest. Beginning with D. H. Lawrence’s provocative discussion of them in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), scholars have found that the tales dramatize the ideological forces surrounding the nineteenth-century American settlement (or conquest) of the continent. Cooper’s prose style and narrative approach have not aged well; his writing never seems ”modern,” compared with authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. However, his body of work will continue to command attention due to its prominent place in American cultural history.
- Adams, Charles Hansford. The Guardian of the Law: Authority and Identity in James Fenimore Cooper. University Park. Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.
- Clavel, Marcel, ed. Fenimore Cooper and His Critics: American, British and French Criticisms of the Novelist’s Early Work. Aix-en-Provence: Imprimerie Universitaire de Provence, 1938.
- Dekker, George. James Fenimore Cooper the Novelist. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.
- House, Kay, Cooper’s Americans. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1966.
- Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Seltzer, 1923.
- McWilliams, John. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley, Calif.:University of California Press, 1972.
- Motley, Warren. The American Abraham: James Fenimore Cooper and the Frontier Patriarch. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
- Peck, H. Daniel. New Essays on The Last of the Mohicans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
- Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.
- Phillips, Mary E. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: John Lane, 1913.
- Railton, Stephen. Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.
- Spiller, Robert E., Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times. New York: Minton, Balch, 1931.
- Walker, Warren S. James Fenimore Cooper: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1962.
- Clemens, Samuel Langhorne (Mark Twain). ”Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” North American Review 161 (July 1895): 1-12.
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