James Fenimore Coope Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.