Last reviewed: June 2018
September 15, 1789
Burlington, New Jersey
September 14, 1851
Cooperstown, New York
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
James Fenimore Cooper
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.