James Fenimore Coope

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(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...

(The entire section is 980 words.)