After Mark Twain’s derisive essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences” (1895), is it still possible to take America’s first major novelist seriously? In only two-thirds of a page of The Deerslayer (1841), according to Twain, Cooper committed 114 offenses against literary art; the novel was “a literary delirium tremens.” Of course, Twain exploited the humorous possibilities of exaggeration in his essay, and most literary historians think his literary criticism is as unfair as his satire is amusing. However, as Wayne Franklin notes in James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years, the first volume of a projected two-volume comprehensive biography, such judgments have had lasting detrimental effects on this early American novelist’s reputation. Franklin’s purpose as the first biographer having access to the complete Cooper papers is to provide long-missing information and overdue correctives to false impressions. In the process of writing this book, he discovers not only a novelist of considerable significance but also a representative man of his time.
Part of the fault for misunderstandings of Cooper lies with the novelist himself, and his family. They were reluctant to allow biographers access to his life. He was a controversial political figure, often attacked by newspapers sympathetic to the Whig Party; rightly or wrongly, he thought that limiting access to archival material after his death would protect his loved ones. Because Cooper has remained, in Franklin’s judgment, the last major American cultural figure without a comprehensive biography, distortions of him have unfortunately been left unanswered. If at times Franklin digresses from the main narrative of Cooper’s life, it is because he sees an opportunity to supply details that have long remained hidden from Cooper readers. Given a choice, one infers, Franklin decided to err on the side of too much detail rather than too little.
That Franklin enjoyed access to voluminous material that other biographers never had is evident in the length and thoroughness of this book. The 708-page volume includes 156 pages of notes and a 26-page index. It begins just before Cooper’s birth in 1789 and ends in 1826 when he was thirty-six and on the verge of leaving the United States for a consulship in Lyons, France. The biography details the important influence of his father, the real estate speculator and developer whose visionary founding of Cooperstown left both inspiring memories and the careless bookkeeping that would ultimately destroy his proud legacy and fray the nerves of his eleventh child. It tells of the novelist’s mother, who apparently despised her life as a pioneer woman in upstate New York and withdrew emotionally from her family, and of his beloved older sister, who acted as his second mother until she tragically died after falling from a horse. This book also describes the early years of Cooper’s marriage to Susan Augusta DeLancey, daughter of a prominent family of Loyalists, and the birth of their seven children, two of whom died in infancy. It spends considerable time exploring Cooper’s economic necessities, his various schemes for earning money, and ultimately his use of his writings to earn a living and relieve his indebtedness. Finally, it is a biography of his books: Specifically, this volume describes the inspiration, composition, and publication of a book of tales and Cooper’s first six novels.
What was Cooper’s literary legacy? Franklin strives to make his readers understand the sheer originality of Cooper’s body of work. Several novels are prototypes for subgenres of American fiction, including the Western adventure story, the sea tale, and the Revolutionary War romance. In answer to Twain’s critical satire, Franklin argues that Huckleberry Finn would not have been possible without Natty Bumppo, an earlier hero who found freedom in nature. Outweighing Twain’s...
(The entire section is 1596 words.)