James Fenimore Cooper

From New World Encyclopedia

James Fenimore Cooper portrait by John Wesley Jarvis, 1822

James Fenimore Cooper (September 15, 1789 – September 14, 1851) was a prolific and popular American writer of the early nineteenth century. He is particularly remembered as the novelist of the American frontier. He wrote numerous sea-stories as well, but is best known for the historical romances known as the Leatherstocking Tales, featuring frontiersman "Natty Bumppo." Among this series is his most famous works, including The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer and the Romantic novel The Last of the Mohicans, which many people consider his masterpiece.

Cooper was excoriated by Samuel Clemens for his supposed "literary offenses," but he successfully captured the spirit of "rugged individualism" that characterized frontier life in the New World and which accounts for his great popularity during his era.

Early life

Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey, on the 15th of September 1789, the eleventh of William and Elizabeth Cooper's twelve children. When James was one year old, his family moved to the frontier of Otsego Lake, New York, where his father established a settlement on his yet unsettled estates which became modern-day Cooperstown, New York, later home to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. His father was a judge and member of Congress. James was sent to school at Albany, New York and at New Haven, Connecticut, attending Yale College 1803-1805 as its youngest student. He was expelled, apparently for a dangerous prank involving blowing up another student's door as well as stealing food.[1]

Three years later he joined the United States Navy; but after making no more than two voyages in a merchant vessel to perfect his seamanship, and obtain his lieutenancy, he married Susan Augusta de Lancey in Mamaroneck, New York, on May 18, 1810. He resigned his commission in 1811. He had married into one of the wealthiest families in the state.

His father William died in 1810, when James was 20 years old, but the legacy he left his son influenced his entire career. Almost one half of Cooper's novels are about populating the wilderness; in The Pioneers his father appears directly, as Judge Marmaduke Temple of Templeton.

Literary career

James Fenimore Cooper

Cooper settled in Westchester County, New York, the “Neutral Ground” of his earliest American romance, anonymously producing his first book, Precaution (1820), a novel of the fashionable school. This was followed by The Spy (1821), which was very successful at the date of issue; The Pioneers (1823), the first of the Leatherstocking series; and The Pilot (1824), a bold and dashing sea-story. The next was Lionel Lincoln (1825), a feeble and unattractive work succeeded in 1826 by his most famous novel, the Last of the Mohicans, largely considered to be Cooper's masterpiece. Quitting America for Europe he published in Paris The Prairie (1826), the best of his books in nearly all respects, and The Red Rover, (1828).

At this period Cooper's unequal and uncertain talent would seem to have been at its best. These novels were, however, succeeded by one very inferior, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829); by The Notions of a Travelling Bachelor (1828); and by The Waterwitch (1830), one of his many sea-stories. In 1830 he entered the lists as a party writer, defending in a series of letters to the National, a Parisian journal, the United States against a string of charges brought against them by the Revue Britannique; and for the rest of his life he continued skirmishing in print, sometimes for the national interest, sometimes for that of the individual, and not infrequently for both at once.

The opportunity to make a political confession of faith appears not only to have fortified him in his own convictions, but to have inspired him with the idea of elucidating them for the public through the medium of his art. His next three novels, The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmauer (1832) and The Headsman: or the Abbaye of Vigneron (1833), were expressions of Cooper's republican convictions. The Bravo depicted Venice as a place where a ruthless oligarchy lurks behind the mask of the "serene republic." All were widely read on both sides of the Atlantic, though The Bravo was a critical failure in the United States.[2]

Photograph by
Matthew Brady c. 1850

In 1833 Cooper returned to America and immediately published A Letter to My Countrymen, in which he gave his own version of the controversy in which he had been engaged and sharply censured his compatriots for their share in it. This attack he followed up with The Monikins (1835) and The American Democrat (1835); with several sets of notes on his travels and experiences in Europe, among which may be remarked his England (1837), in three volumes, a burst of vanity and ill temper; and with Homeward Bound and Home as Found (1838), notable as containing a highly idealized portrait of himself.

All these books tended to increase the ill feeling between author and public; the Whig press was virulent and scandalous in its comments, and Cooper plunged into a series of actions for libel. Victorious in all of them, he returned to his old occupation with something of his old vigor and success. A History of the Navy of the United States (1839), supplemented (1846) by a set of Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers, was succeeded by The Pathfinder (1840), a good “Leatherstocking” novel; by Mercedes of Castile (1840); The Deerslayer (1841); by The Two Admirals and by Wing and Wing (1842); by Wyandotte, The History of a Pocket Handkerchief, and Ned Myers (1843); and by Afloat and Ashore, or the Adventures of Miles Wallingford (1844).

From pure fiction, however, he turned again to the combination of art and controversy in which he had achieved distinction, and in the two Littlepage Manuscripts (1845—1846) he wrote with a great deal of vigor. His next novel was The Crater, or Vulcan's Peak (1847), based in the Pacific, in which he attempted to introduce supernatural machinery. His next book Oak-Openings, or The Bee-Hunter described his time in Schoolcraft, Michigan, and the main character in the story, the Beekeeper, was patterned after a real person, Basil Harrison, the area's first pioneer. Jack Tier (1848), the latter a curious rifacimento of The Red Rover was followed by The Sea Lions (1849); and finally by The Ways of the Hour (1850), written with a purpose, considered to be a sociological novel and commentary on social mores of the time; which was his last book.

The Leatherstocking tales

The five Leatherstocking novels chronicle the life of Nathaniel "Natty" Bumppo, who lives in the frontier (which moves steadily westward with each successive novel,) at the intersection of European and Native American culture. Bumppo is a hybrid of these cultures; in each book, he has a different Native American name, and it is by these names that he is known. These books are a lucid and insightful study of the encounter between the two cultures, from the point of view of a man who manages to straddle the divide between them.

The Last of the Mohicans

The Last of the Mohicans first published in January 1826, was one of the most popular English-language novels of its time, and helped establish Cooper as one of the first world-famous American writers. Although stylistic and narrative flaws left it open to criticism since its publication, and its length and distinctive prose style have reduced its appeal to later readers, The Last of the Mohicans remains embedded in American literature courses. It is the most famous of the Leatherstocking Tales.

Plot introduction

Mohicans was the second book by Cooper, following Pioneers in 1823, to feature the pioneer Nathaniel "Natty" Bumppo, who is usually called Hawkeye. Bumppo was a personification of rugged individualism and pioneer spirit that remains central to the American identity to this day. Purportedly, this was supposed to be a novel of the American Indians, and not a tale of romantic relationships that Cooper had found dissatisfactory and prompted him to begin his writing career.

The story is set in the British province of New York during the French and Indian War, and concerns a massacre of a colonial garrison and a fictional kidnapping of two sisters, who were the daughters of the commander of Fort William Henry. Parts of the story may have been derived from the capture and death of Jane McCrea, in July 1777 near Fort Edward, New York, by members of an Algonquian tribe.

Plot summary

Two Native American tribes (Mohican and Huron), typified in the characters of the noble Chingachgook and Uncas and the gothic evil of Magua, are stylized and deeply inaccurate, but were also influential on the public imagination, particularly as it was debating the means and morality of Indian removals.

The plot involves Hawkeye and his Mohican companions Chingachgook and Uncas escorting the Munro sisters, the dark-haired Cora and the blonde Alice, through the woods of New York to Fort William Henry. Also in the party are British army Major Duncan Heyward and a psalmist named David Gamut. They engage in deadly fights along the way against Hurons led by Magua in a cycle of capture and rescue and recapture. An encounter with another American Indian tribe called the Delaware in the second half of the novel will prove crucial towards the end.

The book ends in tragedy, with Uncas and Cora perishing. Magua perishes from Hawkeye's rifle as he hangs off a ledge.

Cooper developed his account based on existing writings and his imagination, rather than actual contact with any individuals. However, the history of the bitter, vengeful Magua, who was once beaten and humiliated by Colonel Munro, shows deep understanding of the treatment of captives by the Indian tribes. His treatment of the Native Americans shows a deep sympathy for their culture.

James Fenimore Cooper statue

Last years and legacy

Cooper spent the last years of his life in Cooperstown, New York (named for his father). He died of dropsy (probably edema) on September 14, 1851 and a statue was later erected in his honor. Much of the factual information known about the author was provided by his eldest daughter Susan Fenimore Cooper, who provided background information about Cooper's writings and as his literary executor, worked to keep his legacy alive. In 1883 she published Small Family Memories, a prime source for Cooper's early life (1816-1828), including his early writings.

Cooper was certainly one of the most popular nineteenth century American authors. His stories have been translated into nearly all the languages of Europe and into some of those of Asia. Honore de Balzac admired him greatly, but with discrimination; Victor Hugo pronounced him greater than the great master of modern romance, and this verdict was echoed by a multitude of inferior readers, who were satisfied with no title for their favorite less than that of the "American Walter Scott." As a satirist and observer he is simply the “Cooper who's written six volumes to prove he's as good as a Lord” of Lowell's clever portrait; his enormous vanity and his irritability find vent in a sort of dull violence, which is exceedingly tiresome. He was most memorably criticized by Mark Twain whose vicious and amusing "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences" is still read widely in academic circles.

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

Cooper's writings

The writings of James Fenimore Cooper
Date Title: Subtitle Genre Topic, Location, Period
1820 Precaution: A Novel novel England, 1813-1814
1821 The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground novel Westchester County, New York, 1778
1823 The Pioneers: or The Sources of the Susquehanna novel Leatherstocking, Otsego County, New York, 1793-1794,
1823 Tales for Fifteen: or Imagination and Heart 2 short stories written under the pseudonym: "Jane Morgan"
1823 The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea [3] novel John Paul Jones, England, 1780
1825 Lionel Lincoln: or The Leaguer of Boston novel Battle of Bunker Hill, Boston, 1775-1781
1826 The Last of the Mohicans: A narrative of 1757 novel Leatherstocking, French and Indian War, Lake George & Adirondacks, 1757
1827 The Prairie novel Leatherstocking, American Midwest, 1805
1828 The Red Rover: A Tale novel Newport, Rhode Island & Atlantic Ocean, pirates, 1759
1828 Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor non-fiction America for European readers
1829 The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish: A Tale novel Western Connecticut, Puritans and Indians, 1660-1676
1830 The Water-Witch: or the Skimmer of the Seas novel New York, smugglers, 1713
1830 Letter to General Lafayette politics France vs. US, cost of government
1831 The Bravo: A Tale novel Venice, eighteenth century
1832 The Heidenmauer: or, The Benedictines, A Legend of the Rhine novel German Rhineland, sixteenth century
1832 No Steamboats short story
1833 The Headsman: The Abbaye des Vignerons novel Geneva, Switzerland, and the Alps, eighteenth century
1834 A Letter to His Countrymen politics Why Cooper temporarily stopped writing
1835 The Monikins novel Antarctica, aristocratic monkeys. 1830s
1836 The Eclipse memoir Solar eclipse in Cooperstown, New York 1806
1836 Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland (Sketches of Switzerland) travel Hiking in Switzerland, 1828
1836 Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine (Sketches of Switzerland, Part Second) travel Travels France, Rhineland & Switzerland, 1832
1836 A Residence in France: With an Excursion Up the Rhine, and a Second Visit to Switzerland travel
1837 Gleanings in Europe: France travel Living, travelling in France, 1826-1828
1837 Gleanings in Europe: England travel Travels in England, 1826, 1828, 1833
1838 Gleanings in Europe: Italy travel Living, travelling in Italy, 1828-1830
1838 The American Democrat : or Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America non-fiction US society and government
1838 The Chronicles of Cooperstown history Local history of Cooperstown, New York
1838 Homeward Bound: or The Chase: A Tale of the Sea novel Atlantic Ocean & North African coast, 1835
1838 Home as Found: Sequel to Homeward Bound novel Eve Effingham, New York City & Otsego County, New York, 1835
1839 The History of the Navy of the United States of America history US Naval history to date
1839 Old Ironsides history History of the Frigate USS Constitution, 1st pub. 1853
1840 The Pathfinder: or the Inland Sea novel Leatherstocking, Western New York, 1759
1840 Mercedes of Castile: or, The Voyage to Cathay novel Christopher Columbus in West Indies, 1490s
1841 The Deerslayer: or The First Warpath novel Leatherstocking, Otsego Lake 1740-1745
1842 The Two Admirals novel England & English Channel, Scottish uprising, 1745
1842 The Wing-and-Wing: le Le Feu-Follet (Jack o Lantern) novel Italian coast, Napoleonic Wars, 1745
1843 Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief, also published as
  • Le Mouchoir: An Autobiographical Romance
  • The French Governess: or The Embroidered Handkerchief
  • Die franzosischer Erzieheren: oder das gestickte Taschentuch
novelette Social satire, France & New York, 1830s
1843 Richard Dale
1843 Wyandotté: or The Hutted Knoll. A Tale [4] novel Butternut Valley of Otsego County, New York, 1763-1776
1843 Ned Myers: or Life before the Mast biography of Cooper's shipmate
1844 Afloat and Ashore: or The Adventures of Miles Wallingford. A Sea Tale novel Ulster County & worldwide, 1795-1805
1844 Miles Wallingford: Sequel to Afloat and Ashore novel Ulster County & worldwide, 1795-1805
1844 Proceedings of the Naval Court-Martial in the Case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, &c.
1845 Satanstoe: or The Littlepage Manuscripts, a Tale of the Colony novel New York City, Westchester County, Albany, Adirondacks, 1758
1845 The Chainbearer; or, The Littlepage Manuscripts novel Westchester County, Adirondacks, 1780s (next generation)
1846 The Redskins; or, Indian and Injin: Being the Conclusion of the Littlepage Manuscripts novel Anti-rent wars, Adirondacks, 1845
1846 Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers biography
1847 The Crater; or, Vulcan's Peak: A Tale of the Pacific (Mark's Reef) novel New Jersey & Pacific desert island, early 1800s
1848 Jack Tier: or the Florida Reefs
a.k.a. Captain Spike: or The Islets of the Gulf
novel Florida Keys, Mexican War, 1846
1848 The Oak Openings: or the Bee-Hunter novel Kalamazoo River, Michigan, War of 1812
1849 The Sea Lions: The Lost Sealers novel Long Island & Antarctica, 1819-1820
1850 The Ways of the Hour novel "Dukes County, New York," murder/courtroom mystery novel, legal corruption, women's rights, 1846
1850 Upside Down: or Philosophy in Petticoats play satirization of socialism
1851 The Lake Gun short story Seneca Lake in New York, political satire based on folklore
1851 New York: or The Towns of Manhattan history Unfinished, history of New York City, 1st pub. 1864

Sources for this table include:

Modern editions of Cooper

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Long, Robert Emmet, James Fenimore Cooper (Literature and Life). Continuum, 1990. ISBN 978-0826404312.
  • MacDougall, Hugh C. (James Fenimore Cooper Society), "Reading The Pioneers as History" considers the novel as social history.
  • Verhoeven, W. M., James Fenimore Cooper:New Historical and Literary Contexts. Rodopi Bv Editions, 1993. ISBN 978-9051833607.
  • Walker, Warren S., Plots and Characters in the Works of James Fenimore Cooper. Shoe String Printing, 1978. ISBN 978-0208014979.

External links

All links retrieved March 16, 2018.


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