Authors: James Fenimore Cooper

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist

September 15, 1789

Burlington, New Jersey

September 14, 1851

Cooperstown, New York

Biography

Novelist, social critic, historian, and myth maker, James Fenimore Cooper was perhaps the most productive and versatile American writer of his generation. In his comparatively short literary career, from 1820 to 1851, he published thirty-three substantial fictional works, three books of explicit social and political commentary, five travel works, a monumental history of the United States Navy, a book of naval biographies, and an impressive quantity of miscellaneous writing, much of it anonymous and some of it still unknown to scholars. His purpose as man and author, as he declared it, was the intellectual independence of his country, whose thought and art were, he believed, too much dominated by foreign models; his bold experimentation with indigenous literary materials exerted a powerful formative effect on the literature of the early United States. His interest for readers lies mainly in his artistic triumphs in the form of the romance and in his pungent and pertinent insights into the development of American and European civilization—especially in his examination of the American frontier.

James Fenimore Cooper

(Library of Congress)

Born in Burlington, New Jersey, in 1789, Cooper was reared by his wealthy, land-holding father, the Federalist leader of western New York State, in the burgeoning frontier community of Cooperstown at the foot of Lake Otsego. As a lad, he explored the hills, forests, and lake near his home, devoured fiction, and spun yarns of his own. From his father and his father’s associates, he derived a lifelong reverence for the US Constitution (“on the framing of which all the experience of the past was early brought to bear”) and for the exalted ideals of the Federalist Founding Fathers. Expelled from Yale College for a high-spirited prank before he was fifteen, he made an apprentice voyage before the mast and became a midshipman in the then-infant Navy, only to have his dream of glorious service afloat shattered by relatively inactive assignments at Oswego and New York City. In 1810, Cooper resigned his commission and decided to enjoy his considerable patrimony as a gentleman farmer. He married Susan Augusta De Lancey of the well-known Tory family in 1811 and for the next several years devoted himself to various domestic, agricultural, military, political, religious, and cultural activities in Westchester and Otsego Counties.

When the depression of 1817 to 1819 swept away his inheritance, Cooper had to seek means of paying his debts and supporting his increasing family. His first novel, Precaution, a deliberate attempt to produce a best-seller, failed like his other speculations, but writing so intrigued him that he continued with The Spy, a historical romance based on an anecdote of John Jay and on intimate knowledge of the legends and terrain of Westchester County. Its unexpected success at home and abroad turned Cooper decisively to authorship. Moving to New York City in 1822, he soon became a dominant literary figure, founding the Bread and Cheese Club and rallying writers and painters to the cause of distinctively American art. In The Pioneers, the earliest installment of the Leatherstocking series, he drew heavily on nostalgic memories of his frontier boyhood; in The Pilot, he initiated the vogue of nautical romance; in Lionel Lincoln, he attempted in fiction an almost unprecedented exactitude of historical detail; and in The Last of the Mohicans, second of the Leatherstocking Tales, he gave his first extended treatment of American Indians in a wild forest setting. Though uneven artistically, these experimental romances proved the value of American literary materials and the serious thematic potentialities of the form.

In 1826, after petitioning to add Fenimore, his mother’s maiden name, as his legal middle name, Cooper took his family to Europe, where he wrote such favorite romances as The Prairie, in which Leatherstocking reappears as an aged trapper-philosopher on the western plains, and The Red Rover, a second sea tale. Close observation of European aristocracy led to such strenuous efforts to expound and defend American democratic ideas as Notions of the Americans, an idealized description of the United States, and The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, and The Headsman, fictional interpretations of European history. These efforts were misunderstood at home, however, and Cooper returned to New York in 1833 depressed and discouraged, convinced that his countrymen did not understand their own principles. In the allegorical satire The Monikins, in a series of travel books, and in The American Democrat, he sought to bring Americans to self-knowledge and to correct the excesses of the Jacksonian era. Despite the cogency of their observation, however, these works were almost totally disregarded.

Cooper’s return to fiction with Homeward Bound and Home as Found and publication of his long-deferred The History of the Navy of the United States of America precipitated many bitter battles with Whig editors in the press and in libel courts. Despite his numerous controversies, Cooper’s final years, spent pleasantly enough in the refurbished family mansion in Cooperstown, were astonishingly productive. Concluding the Leatherstocking Tales with The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, he reasserted his reputation as a master of romance; to the end, he also experimented with means of fusing his imaginative materials and his specifically critical interests. These efforts, including Afloat and Ashore, its sequel Miles Wallingford, the Anti-Rent trilogy (Satanstoe, The Chainbearer, and The Redskins), and The Crater, were not notably successful, although Satanstoe has been widely appreciated for its evocation of early Dutch life in New York and Albany. Cooper died at Cooperstown on September 14, 1851, after a prolonged illness.

His reputation grew in the last decades of the twentieth century as criticism moved toward historical, political, and sociological orientations and away from the New Critical approach that valued aesthetic and formal qualities such as style, unity, and closure. Long ignored for its apparent lack of such artistry, Cooper’s work is increasingly recognized and read as a struggle to confront problematic issues that are as relevant today as they were in the nineteenth century: racial and ethnic issues, questions about land rights, ecological issues, and the debate about the role, size, and nature of government, among others. Cooper’s inability—or refusal—to resolve these issues neatly, once dismissed as artistic incoherence, is now seen by many as foresight and intellectual honesty.

Author Works Long Fiction: Precaution: A Novel, 1820 The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground, 1821 The Pioneers: Or, The Sources of the Susquehanna, 1823 The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea, 1823 Lionel Lincoln: Or, The Leaguer of Boston, 1825 The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757, 1826 The Prairie: A Tale, 1827 The Red Rover: A Tale, 1827 The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish: A Tale, 1829 The Water-Witch: Or, The Skimmer of the Seas, 1830 The Bravo: A Tale, 1831 The Heidenmauer: Or, The Benedictines—A Tale of the Rhine, 1832 The Headsman: Or, The Abbaye des Vignerons, 1833 The Monikens, 1835 Homeward Bound: Or, The Chase, 1838 Home as Found, 1838 The Pathfinder: Or, The Inland Sea, 1840 Mercedes of Castile: Or, The Voyage to Cathay, 1840 The Deerslayer: Or, The First War-Path, 1841 The Two Admirals: A Tale, 1842 The Wing-and-Wing: Or, Le Feu-Follet, 1842 Wyandotté: Or, The Hutted Knoll, 1843 Le Mouchoir: An Autobiographical Romance, 1843 (also known as Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief) Afloat and Ashore: A Sea Tale, 1844 Miles Wallingford: Sequel to Afloat and Ashore, 1844 Satanstoe: Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts, a Tale of the Colony, 1845 The Chainbearer: Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts, 1845 The Redskins: Or, Indian and Injin, Being the Conclusion of the Littlepage Manuscripts, 1846 The Crater: Or, Vulcan’s Peak, a Tale of the Pacific, 1847 Jack Tier: Or, The Florida Reef, 1848 The Oak Openings: Or, The Bee Hunter, 1848 The Sea Lions: Or, The Lost Sealers, 1849 The Ways of the Hour, 1850 Nonfiction: Notions of the Americans, 1828 A Letter to His Countrymen, 1834 Sketches of Switzerland, 1836 Gleanings in Europe: France, 1837 Gleanings in Europe: England, 1837 Gleanings in Europe: Italy, 1838 The American Democrat, 1838 Chronicles of Cooperstown, 1838 The History of the Navy of the United States of America, 1839 (2 volumes) Ned Meyers: Or, A Life Before the Mast, 1843 Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers, 1845 New York, 1851 The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 1960-1968 (6 volumes; J. F. Beard, editor) Bibliography Barker, Martin, and Roger Sabin. The Lasting of the Mohicans: History of an American Myth. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. From the series Studies in Popular Culture. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Boynton, Henry Walcott. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Century Co., 1931. Focuses on Cooper the man rather than Cooper the writer. Boynton notes Cooper’s faults but tends to gloss over them or explain them away. Clark, Robert, ed. James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985. Each of the eight essays in this collection covers a different aspect of Cooper’s fiction; most focus on a specific novel. A complete index helps the student find references to a particular work or theme. Darnell, Donald. James Fenimore Cooper: Novelist of Manners. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993. Explores manners and customs in literature. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Dyer, Alan Frank, comp. James Fenimore Cooper: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. A good starting point for research. Fields, W., ed. James Fenimore Cooper: A Collection of Critical Essays. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. The collection of new essays at the end of this book offers much of value to beginning students of Cooper, though the essays are not indexed. The first section of the book is a selection of nineteenth century reviews of Cooper’s novels. Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years. New Haven: Yale, 2007. Part one of a planned two-part biography of Cooper covering his life from birth until he left Europe in 1826. His personal life along with the writing and publishing of The Last of the Mohicans are covered in this easy to read and informative biography. Franklin, Wayne. The New World of James Fenimore Cooper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Through a close reading of five of Cooper’s novels—The Pioneers, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), Wyandotté (1843), The Crater (1847), and The Last of the Mohicans—Franklin examines Cooper’s attitude toward the frontier. Maintains that for Cooper, the wilderness begins as a place of hope and promise but ends as the source of tragedy. Long, Robert Emmett. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Continuum, 1990. This general study of Cooper and his fiction touches on all the major works. The five-page bibliography lists the most important studies of Cooper up to the 1990’s. McWilliams, John. The Last of the Mohicans: Civil Savagery and Savage Civility. New York: Twayne, 1995. Part of the Twayne Masterworks Series, this volume provides a general introduction to Cooper’s most widely read novel as well as a particular approach to it. Divided into two sections, the first of which explores the literary and historical context of The Last of the Mohicans, followed by a section devoted to analysis of the style of the novel, as well as what Cooper was attempting to say about race, gender, history, and imperialism. McWilliams, John P. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. Argues that Cooper remained a dedicated republican all of his life. McWilliams shows that while Cooper’s views are consistent, American society changed dramatically between 1820 and 1850 and hence produced a darkening vision of the fiction. Peck, H. Daniel, ed. New Essays on “The Last of the Mohicans.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. The introduction by Peck provides information about the composition, publication, and contemporary reception of the novel, as well as the evolution of critical opinion concerning The Last of the Mohicans. Each of the five original essays that follow—such as Nina Baym’s “How Men and Women Write Indian Stories”—places the novel in a particular context, thus providing readers with an array of interesting perspectives from which to view Cooper’s masterpiece. Railton, Stephen. Fenimore Cooper: A Study in His Life and Imagination. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. A psychological approach to Cooper’s life. Railton sees Cooper as dominated by his father and reads the life and fiction in the light of an Oedipal complex. Ringe, Donald A. James Fenimore Cooper. Updated ed. New York: Twayne, 1988. The first edition of this work, in 1962, was a succinct and helpful introduction to Cooper. Ringe’s revision adds new information and updates the annotated bibliography to reflect another quarter-century of scholarship. With a complete chronology and index. Spiller, Robert Ernest. Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times. New York: Minton, Balch and Co., 1931. Concentrates on Cooper’s social views and sees him as a writer who sought to analyze and express as well as criticize the United States of his day. Verhoeven, W. M., ed. James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993. An interesting collection. Includes bibliographical references. Walker, Warren S. James Fenimore Cooper: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962. A biography organized around the various themes in Cooper’s writing—the frontier, the sea, American democracy. A concluding chapter reviews critical response to Cooper from 1820 to the middle of the twentieth century. Waples, Dorothy. The Whig Myth of James Fenimore Cooper. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1938. Claims that many of the attacks on Cooper during his lifetime came from Whigs who distorted his character. Stresses Cooper’s political views.

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