James Fenimore Coope Essay - Critical Essays

Coope, James Fenimore


James Fenimore Coope 1789-1851

American novelist, essayist, historian, travel writer, and satirist.

For additional information about Cooper's life and career, see ; for discussion of Cooper's Leatherstocking novels, see .

Cooper, who created a uniquely American myth of the pioneer with his historical romances, is considered the first major American novelist and is often credited with establishing the United States as a major force in world literature. Most American critics concur with regards to the historical importance of his works, although some scholars still dismiss him as an artist because of his crude style. However, praise from such writers as D. H. Lawrence, combined with a recent increase in Cooper scholarship, has brought his achievements to light as one of the first American novelists to undertake the creation of a distinct national literature, appropriating his country's history as the central theme of his work.

Biographical Information

Born in Burlington, New Jersey, Cooper moved with his family in 1790 to Cooperstown, New York, an upstate town founded and governed by his father and which later served as a model for the frontier communities of Cooper's fiction. Cooper was sent to Yale at age thirteen, though he was eventually expelled for misconduct. In 1805 he entered the Navy, serving for six years and later drawing on his experiences to write such factually accurate sea tales as The Pilot (1824) and The Red Rover (1828). An inheritance from his father enabled him to leave the Navy in 1811, marry, and lead a leisured existence for about a decade, during which time he fell deeply in debt. In 1826, Cooper left the United States for Europe, where he both defended American democracy and developed sympathy for the aristocratic point of view; he returned to the United States in 1833. By 1850 he had fallen ill, and, returning to Cooperstown, he died the following year, leaving behind a vast and varied body of work.

Major Works

In response to a declaration to his wife that he could write a better novel than the one they were reading, Cooper began his literary career with Precaution (1820), a weak imitation of Jane Austen. Although this novel was largely ignored, his next, The Spy (1821), met with astounding success and established Cooper as the most prominent American writer of his time. Two years later he published The Pioneers (1823), the first of his "Leatherstocking Tales," a series of five novels that also includes The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). Presenting a fictional rendering of United States history, the Leatherstocking Tales established a number of cultural archetypes, including that of the noble native American as well as the savage and treacherous counterpart of this figure. The Leatherstocking novels also feature Cooper's most enduring character, the backwoodsman Natty Bumppo, who has become a national legend and representation of a fictional paradigm of the American character. For The Pioneers, Cooper took as his model the historical romance made popular by Sir Walter Scott, telling a story of the American frontier in a form that had traditionally depended on the cultural background of European history. The uniquely American characters, settings, and themes of The Pioneers engaged the nation's nostalgia for an appealing and historically rich period of the recent past, and Cooper developed the frontier romance and the central character of Leatherstocking further in The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie. For more than a decade thereafter, Cooper espoused republican social and political convictions in fiction and nonfiction which criticized European forms of government and condemned American reliance on foreign culture. These works were not well received: the readers and critics who extolled Cooper as America's first historical romancer did not accept him in the role of social and political critic. After writing several politically-oriented travel books, Cooper returned to fiction, completing the Leatherstocking Tales with The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, often considered his finest works. While there are indications that he had intended to conclude the series with The Prairie—which depicts Leatherstocking's death and the retreat of the westward vanguard of settlers—some commentators suggest that he returned to the Leatherstocking saga primarily to recoup the critical and popular regard that had attended the earlier novels in the series. In 1845, Cooper began the "Littlepage Trilogy," a defense of landed aristocracy which sprang from the "Anti-Rent" conflict and pitted the landowners of New York against rebellious squatters. In his last few novels, particularly The Crater (1847) and The Ways of the Hour (1850), Cooper turned to more religious and aristocratic themes, defending his notion that democracy could survive only if privileges were granted to the gentry.

Critical Reception

Critics have often noted the influence of the wilderness on Cooper throughout his writing career, praising his depictions of the American landscape. However, some scholars have asserted that his detailed natural descriptions overshadow his plots and characters. Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century and in the first part of the twentieth, literary historians generally acknowledged Cooper as a leading figure in the development of American literary nationalism, but considered his actual achievement of little importance. Beginning in the 1960s, Cooper's works have undergone a revaluation, focusing for the most part on the Leatherstocking novels. Individual studies have examined Cooper's use of historical sources; his treatment of women and native American characters; his facility with landscape description, an aspect of Cooper's literary art that is almost universally commended; and the explication of the hierarchy of class distinctions that is a salient feature of the series. Many commentators have also suggested that Cooper has been undervalued, contending that as America's first popularly successful man of letters, his contribution to the literary and cultural life of his country was considerable. Current study of Cooper has concentrated on his social and political views, noting that the conflict between his democratic and aristocratic sympathies, which he tried to reconcile in his writing, contributed to the decline of his reputation both at home and abroad.

Principal Works

Precaution (novel) 1820

The Spy (novel) 1821

*The Pioneers; or, The Sources of the Susquehanna (novel) 1823

The Pilot (novel) 1824

Lionel Lincoln; or, The Leagues of Boston (novel) 1825

The Last of the Mohicans (novel) 1826

The Prairie (novel) 1827

Notions of the Americans (travel essay) 1828

The Red Rover (novel) 1828

The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (novel) 1829; published in England as The Borderers; or, The Wept of Wish-tonWish

The Water-Witch; or, The Skimmer of the Seas (novel) 1830

The Bravo (novel) 1831

A Letter to His Countrymen (essay) 1834

The Monikins (satire) 1835

Sketches of Switzerland (travel essays) 1836; published in England as Excursions in Switzerland

Sketches of Switzerland: Part Second (travel essays) 1836; published in England as A Residence in France: With an Excursion up the Rhine, and a Second Visit to Switzerland

Gleanings in Europe (travel essays) 1837; published in England as Recollections of Europe

Gleanings in Europe: England (travel essays) 1837; published in England as England: With Sketches of Society in the Metropolis

The American Democrat; or, Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America (essay) 1838

Gleanings in Europe: Italy (travel essays) 1838; published in England as Excursions in Italy

Home as Found (novel) 1838

Homeward Bound; or, The Chase (novel) 1838

History of the Navy of the United States of America (history) 1839

Mercedes of Castile; or, The Voyage to Cathay (novel) 1840

The Pathfinder; or, The Inland Sea (novel) 1840; published in England as Lake Ontario

The Deerslayer; or, The First War Path (novel) 1841

The Two Admirals (novel) 1842

The Wing-and-Wing; or, Le Feu-Follet (novel) 1842

Wyandotté: or, The Hutted Knoll (novel) 1843

Afloat and Ashore; or, The Adventures of Miles Wallingford (novel) 1844; published in England as Lucy Hardinge; also published as Miles Wallingford

The Chainbearer; or, The Littlepage Manuscripts (novel) 1845 Satanstoe; or, The Littlepage Manuscripts (novel) 1845

The Redskins; or, Indian and Injin: Being the Conclusion of the Littlepage Manuscripts (novel) 1846

The Crater; or, Vulcan's Peak (novel) 1847; published in England as Mark's Peak; or, The Crater

Jack Tier; or, The Florida Reefs (novel) 1848; published in England as Captain Spike; or, The Islets of the Gulf

The Oak Openings; or, The Bee Hunter (novel) 1848; published in England as The Bee Hunter; or, The Oak Openings

The Sea Lions; or, The Lost Sealers (novel) 1849

The Ways of the Hour (novel) 1850

*Although Cooper claims that this novel was published in 1822, all bibliographic sources consulted give 1823 as the date of publication.


James Fenimore Cooper (essay date 1849)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Spy, Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, 1849, pp. iii-vii.

[In the following introduction to The Spy, Cooper discusses the basis of the novel and the state of the union since the Revolutionary War.]

The author has often been asked if there were any foundation in real life for the delineation of the principal character in this book. He can give no clearer answer to the question than by laying before his readers a simple statement of the facts connected with its original publication.

Many years since, the writer of this volume was at the residence of an illustrious man, who had been employed in various situations of...

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William Cullen Bryant (lecture date 1852)

SOURCE: "Discourse on the Life, Genius, and Writings of J. Fenimore Cooper," in Precaution: A Novel by J. Fenimore Cooper, D. Appleton and Company, 1881, pp. v-xli.

[In the excerpt below, from the text of a lecture delivered in 1852 at a Public Memorial Meeting in honor of Cooper, Bryant surveys Cooper's career and assesses its significance.]

It is now somewhat more than a year since the friends of JAMES FENIMORE COOPER, in this city, were planning to give a public dinner in his honor. It was intended as an expression both of the regard they bore him personally, and of the pride they took in the glory his writings had reflected on the American name. We thought of what...

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Thomas R. Lounsbury (essay date 1883)

SOURCE: "1850-1851," in James Fenimore Cooper, Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1883, pp. 265-89.

[In the following excerpt, Lounsbury assesses the positive and negative characteristics of Cooper's writing.]

More than sixty years have gone by since Cooper began to write; more than thirty since he ceased to live. If his reputation has not advanced during the period that has passed since his death, it has certainly not receded. Nor does it seem likely to undergo much change in the future. The world has pretty well made up its mind as to the value of his work. The estimate in which it is held will not be materially raised or lowered by anything which criticism can now utter....

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Mark Twain (essay date 1895)

SOURCE: "Fenimore Cooper's Further Literary Offenses," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. XIX, No. 3, September, 1946, pp. 291-301.

[In the following essay, originally composed in 1895, Twain criticizes Cooper for his inflexible style and verbosity.]

Young Gentlemen: In studying Cooper you still find it profitable to study him in detail—word by word, sentence by sentence. For every sentence of his is interesting. Interesting because of its make-up, its peculiar make-up, its original make-up. Let us examine a sentence or two, and see. Here is a passage from Chapter XI of The Last of the Mohicans one of the most famous and most admired of Cooper's...

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C. Hartley Grattan (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "A Note on Fenimore Cooper," in The Double Dealer, Vol. 7, No. 45, July, 1925, pp. 219-22.

[In the following essay, Grattan considers Cooper to be an overrated writer who is remembered today mostly for his personality rather than his writings.]

Among all the figures in American literature who have lately been under critical fire, Cooper has suffered as little as any. A curious chapter indeed could be written on the antics critics have gone through in swallowing him. Such a situation is not astonishing in the light of a knowledge of the dominant critics but it is astonishing to find so keen a man as Van Wyck Brooks concluding "the characters of Cooper lighted up...

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Van Wyck Brooks (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "Cooper: The First Phase," in The World of Washington Irving, E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1944, pp. 167-82.

[In the following essay, Brooks discusses the influence of the sea on Cooper's early fiction.]

While Irving was exploring England, another New Yorker, six years younger, who had served for a while in the navy after going to Yale, had married and settled in Westchester county, where he lived as a country gentleman without so much as a thought of writing a book. In 1819, James Fenimore Cooper was thirty years old, and he was looking forward to a farmer's life, planting trees at Angevine, the house he had built at Scarsdale, grading his lawns, building...

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James Grossman (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "Chapter IX," in James Fenimore Cooper, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1950, pp. 221-64.

[In the following essay, Grossman discusses Cooper's political views and the influence of European values on his writings.]

Cooper's literary career, beginning haphazardly without conscious preparation or plan and advancing rapidly to world fame, in its apparently eccentric course from the time of the European experience onward touches on almost every situation that can confront the American writer or that criticism insists on confronting him with. The questions so often argued since are thoroughly argued in Cooper's work and in contemporary criticism of it: whether an American...

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John P. McWilliams (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Red Satan: Cooper and the American Indian Epic," in James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays, edited by Robert Clark, Vision and Barnes & Noble, 1985, pp. 143-61.

[In the following essay, McWilliams contends that Cooper failed to employ the epic and romantic imagery that his contemporaries used to describe American Indians.]

Americans who first conceived of heroic historical romance about the American Indian may have lacked facts about the red man, but they were familiar with conflicting preconceptions of him. Cooper, Bird, and Simms had all read historical sources which portrayed Indians as Homeric warriors living on in the American forest. They were...

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Russell Kirk (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Liberal Conservatives: Macaulay, Cooper, Tocqueville," in The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, revised edition, Regnery Books, 1987, pp. 185-204.

[In the following excerpt, Kirk discusses Cooper's political views, especially how his aristocratic sympathies shaped his views on democracy.]

In Democracies there is a besetting disposition to make publick opinion stronger than the law. This is the particular form in which tyranny exhibits itself in a popular government; for wherever there is power, there will be found a disposition to abuse it. Whoever opposes the interests, or wishes of the publick, however right in principle, or...

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Charles Hansford Adams (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "'A Parental Affection': Law and Identity in Cooper's America," in "The Guardian of the Law": Authority and Identity in James Fenimore Cooper, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990, pp. 1-24.

[In the following essay, Adams contends that Cooper was ambivalent toward the law in America because he "was impelled to believeemotionally and intellectuallyin the law's ability to achieve both social and individual integrity by the same set of historical and psychological conditions that encouraged him to reject the law as divisive. "]


Early in The Prairie, deep in the long night that opens the novel,...

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Further Reading


Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949, 286 p.

Biographical and critical study that includes discussion of the Leatherstocking novels.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. "James Fenimore Cooper." In American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey, pp. 53-76. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1936.

Survey of Cooper's career, naming the Leatherstocking novels as his best works.


Baym, Nina. "The Women of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales." American Quarterly...

(The entire section is 1095 words.)