Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2872
Article abstract: Cooper pioneered the historical novel based on American themes and characters. He also wrote the first sea novel. In his fiction and nonfiction, he proved himself an astute social critic of the excesses of democracy.
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The eleventh child of William Cooper and Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper, James Cooper—he was to add the Fenimore in 1826—was born in Burlington, New Jersey, on September 15, 1789. When Cooper was thirteen months old, the family left the urban Burlington for the wilderness at the southern shore of Ostego Lake. Here William Cooper built Ostego Hall and developed the surrounding area as Cooperstown. This frontier village would serve as the model of Templeton in The Pioneers (1823), as the novelist’s father would become the aristocratic Judge Temple in that novel and Ostego Lake turn into Lake Glimmerglass. By the time the Coopers settled in New York, the Indians had departed; Cooper’s Indians derive from books, not personal knowledge. The wilderness remained, though, and figured prominently in many of his novels.
Cooperstown soon established a local academy, which Cooper attended before going to Albany to study under the Reverend William Ellison. In 1803, Cooper entered Yale. At the age of thirteen, he was more interested in pranks than studies. After blowing up a classmate’s door with gunpowder, Cooper was expelled.
The following year, he was sent to sea aboard the Stirling, where he encountered a series of adventures he would later use in his nautical novels. Off the coast of Portugal, the ship was pursued by pirates. Entering British waters, they found themselves no safer. With the Napoleonic Wars raging, Britain was impressing American seamen into its navy; the Stirling was boarded and several sailors removed.
Cooper returned safely to the United States, where he was eligible for a commission as midshipman in the navy. His first assignment was to a ship in dry dock in New York; his second was to a ship still under construction on Lake Ontario. Eager to see active service in open water, he maneuvered to secure a berth aboard the Wasp, an eighteen-gun sloop. Again, though, he was disappointed, for the commanding officer was so impressed with the midshipman that he made him his recruiting officer, a post that required Cooper to remain onshore. Despite this series of disappointments, Cooper had learned much about ships, and this knowledge found its way into both his fiction and his nonfiction.
In December, 1809, Cooper’s father died; in May, 1810, Cooper therefore requested a twelve-month furlough to attend to family business. This business included wooing Susan Augusta DeLancey, daughter of a country squire. On January 1, 1811, the two were married.
Cooper had promised Susan that he would surrender his commission in the navy, so he turned his attention to earning a living as a gentleman farmer and speculator. Between 1813 and 1819, his six siblings died, making him heir to his father’s extensive land holdings but also leaving him responsible for his brothers’ dependents and debts. As he struggled with these various financial difficulties, a happy accident changed the course of his life and of American letters as well.
In 1820, the Coopers were living in Scarsdale. Among the popular recreations of the family was reading aloud. One day, Cooper began Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818). After a few pages, Cooper threw the book down in disgust and announced, “I could write you a better book than that myself.” Since Cooper disliked any writing, even letters, his wife expressed her incredulity and challenged him to make good his boast. The result was Precaution (1820).
In itself, this first book is not noteworthy, for the work is a novel of manners typical of female British writers of the period. Precaution is important, though, because it launched Cooper’s literary career. He next turned his attention to an American theme, though he found the writing difficult. As he wrote to Andrew Thompson Goodrich, “The task of making American manners and American scenes interesting to an American reader is an arduous one—I am unable to say whether I shall succeed or not.” The popular response to The Spy (1821) resolved any doubts. The book quickly went through three editions and was adapted for the New York stage; a French translation appeared within a year. Critical appraisals were equally favorable: The North American Review called Cooper “the first who deserved the appellation of a distinguished American novel writer.”
The novel was based on the actual life of a spy who served under John Jay during the American Revolution. Harvey Birch’s wanderings between the British and American lines in Westchester County allowed Cooper to depict the landscape and manners of New York. The book is American in more than setting, though. Unlike the heroes of British fiction, Birch is an outsider, who, despite heroism and integrity, is never integrated into society.
With his next novel, The Pioneers, Cooper struck an even more responsive chord. The book sold some three thousand copies on the day of publication and introduced a character as enduring as Robinson Crusoe. Natty Bumppo, the pioneer, is a mythic figure whose image was to descend through the dime novels of Erastus F. Beadle to the Lone Ranger (whose companionship with Tonto mirrors Bumppo’s relationship with the Indian Chingachgook) and similar television and film heroes. In this self-reliant frontiersman, Cooper produced an archetypal American and a microcosm of the nation moving ever westward.
The Pioneers was the first of five novels collectively known as the Leatherstocking Tales, which together trace Bumppo’s life from his youth (The Deerslayer, 1841) in the 1740’s to his death on the Great Plains in 1804 (The Prairie, 1827). Not only did Cooper create the mythic pioneer in these works but also he painted a mythic frontier that was to reappear in the histories of Francis Parkman and Frederick Jackson Turner. This frontier is majestic and overwhelming. Armies enter the wilderness to emerge as tattered remnants. The small forts are dwarfed by their harsh, rugged surroundings.
In this setting, Cooper plays out the conflict between savage Indians and the forces of white civilization. Cooper’s novels thus serve as an apology for the displacement of the American Indians, many of whom, like the Iroquois and Sioux, are portrayed as too evil to deserve survival. Not all of Cooper’s Indians are bad; he incorporates the myth of the noble savage into his descriptions of the Delaware and the Pawnee tribes. These good Indians, though, are doomed by their very virtues, which render them easy prey to less scrupulous members of both the white and red races. Further, despite their nobility, they remain savage.
Though Cooper’s frontier novels justify the conquest of the West, they also recognize the tragic consequences. The Indians are displaced, but so are the pioneers. Natty Bumppo’s life is a series of migrations westward, because he brings a civilization that cannot tolerate his ways. Nor is Cooper unaware of the beauty of this wilderness vanishing beneath the ax of civilization. When Judith Hunter in The Deerslayer asks Bumppo where his love is, he replies,
She’s in the forest, Judith—hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain—in the dew on the open grass . . . and in all the other glorious gifts that come from God’s Providence.
Cooper’s next novel also broke new ground. At a dinner party in New York City, Cooper’s companions of the Bread and Cheese Club were praising Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate (1822) for its realism. Scott, unlike Cooper, had never been to sea; Cooper quickly demonstrated numerous flaws in the work. When challenged to do better, Cooper responded with The Pilot (1824). Though Cooper is best remembered as a writer of the frontier, he was to produce eleven nautical novels, all replete with precise detail; later writers of the sea, among them Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, praised Cooper’s efforts in this area. Set, like The Spy, during the American Revolution, The Pilot was also successful.
Cooper’s popularity led to his appointment to the committee that welcomed the Marquis de Lafayette when he returned to the United States in 1824. In that year, too, Columbia University recognized his achievements by awarding him an honorary master of arts degree.
The Last of the Mohicans (1826), another of the Leatherstocking Tales, further enhanced his reputation. In 1826, on the eve of his departure for Europe, Cooper was feted by the Bread and Cheese Club. Among those present were De Witt Clinton, governor of New York; General Winfield Scott; Charles King, later to be president of Columbia University; and James Kent, former chancellor and chief justice of New York. In one toast, King placed Cooper on the same level as Sir Walter Scott; in another, Kent called Cooper “the genius which has rendered our native soil classic ground, and given to our early history the enchantment of fiction.”
Cooper went to Europe nominally as American consul to Lyon, but his real intent was to see Europe and to arrange for the publication of his novels abroad. While in Europe, Cooper was urged by Lafayette to dispel certain misconceptions about the United States. The result was Notions of the Americans (1828), a glowing account of his native land. At Lafayette’s prompting, he also involved himself in a pamphlet war between French monarchists and republicans.
Despite his defense of democracy, Cooper’s reputation was declining in the United States. He was criticized for intervening in the political affairs of France, and his European novels—The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmauer (1832), and The Headsman (1833)—were not well received back home. By the time he returned to the United States on November 5, 1833, he was no longer the hero he had been seven years earlier. Nor was he pleased with what he regarded as the excesses of democracy that had accompanied the presidency of Andrew Jackson. In A Letter to His Countrymen (1834), Cooper began a series of criticisms of the United States, and he announced his retirement as a novelist.
He was to return to fiction in 1838, but he was not idle during the intervening years, publishing a series of travel books and a social satire on both England and the United States, The Monikins (1835). In his European novels, Cooper had warned his countrymen to beware of oligarchies and not to sacrifice their freedoms to powerful commercial interests. Now that he was home, he saw greater danger to the Republic from the lower, rather than the upper, classes. The American Democrat (1838) offers Cooper’s clearest vision of the United States, where “acts of tyranny can only proceed from the publick. The publick, then, is to be watched in this country, as, in other countries, kings and aristocrats are to be watched.” He still believed in democracy as the best form of government, but his ideal democracy was Jeffersonian, not Jacksonian. Merit should have the chance to succeed regardless of pedigree, but the natural aristocrat should govern. While people should enjoy equality under the law, social distinctions should remain.
The American Democrat aroused little controversy, but the two novels issued that year to incorporate its ideas received harsh treatment: Homeward Bound and Home as Found were sharply attacked in the press. Cooper’s aristocratic appearance did not help his popularity, either. In Mathew Brady’s photograph he looks like a stern autocrat, with high forehead, penetrating gaze, Roman nose, and firm chin.
As the new decade began, Cooper briefly regained his popularity when he produced the last two of the Leatherstocking Tales, The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer. His next two novels, The Two Admirals (1842) and The Wing-and-Wing (1842), also mark a return to his earliest writing, in this case the sea adventure.
He could not keep away from controversy for very long, though. In 1839, the Antirent War began in New York, as tenants insisted on owning their land instead of renting it. Cooper’s sympathies were with the landowners, and the Littlepage novels—Satanstoe (1845), The Chainbearer (1845), and The Redskins (1846)—justify their position. Cooper was as disgusted with the politicians as with the tenants, and in his preface to The Redskins, he wrote that if the government could not curb the antirent faction, the sooner that government was abolished, the better.
Cooper’s next novel, The Crater (1847), allowed him to achieve that wish, at least in fiction. An island arises in the South Pacific, and at first its government is a perfect Jeffersonian democracy. With the arrival of lawyers, journalists, and Fundamentalist preachers—all of whom Cooper regarded as the bane of American life—this ideal is corrupted. As if in divine retribution, the island then sinks back into the ocean.
Despite Cooper’s long-standing feud with his countrymen, after his death at Cooperstown on September 14, 1851, Washington Irving arranged a memorial tribute for him in New York City. William Cullen Bryant delivered the eulogy, Daniel Webster attended, and leading literary figures sent tributes. Whatever the editorialists and general public thought of him, these men recognized the great contribution that Cooper had made to American letters.
In Notions of the Americans, Cooper complained that the United States did not offer material for a national literature. In his thirty-two novels, though, Cooper gave the lie to this statement. He proved that the United States did offer the fabric for the romancer and dramatist to create a truly American literature.
Cooper’s novels are American not only because of their setting but also because of their characters: pioneers, Indians, slaves, and the hero who is an outsider, shunning and shunned by society. The themes, too, are native; even when they criticize contemporary society they do so from the perspective of the ideals of the Founding Fathers.
Cooper, however, did not simply create American novels; he also created an audience for them. Early in the nineteenth century, Sidney Smith had asked in The Edinburgh Review, “Who reads an American book?” He might have asked, too, “Who publishes an American book?” Cooper’s own publisher, Carey of Philadelphia, had issued only two American novels before 1820. Between 1830 and 1840, it published 142. Other publishers in this country followed suit, and abroad Cooper’s novels were printed in more than thirty cities.
As such works as The History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839) demonstrate, Cooper knew history and could present it well. His historical novels are not so much history, though, as myth. They established the prevailing image of the Indian as treacherous foe or doomed noble savage. They created the fiction of the empty wilderness waiting for the white man to settle it and so fueled the imagination of those who sought to fulfill America’s manifest destiny to rule from sea to sea. Drawing on the already existing stories about Daniel Boone, Cooper provided in Natty Bumppo the American hero, whom Henry Nash Smith in Virgin Land (1957) calls “the most important symbol of the national experience of adventure across the continent.”
Quintessentially American, Cooper nevertheless saw the dangers of rampant democracy. His social criticism was not popular, but it established a literary mode that, like his frontier and nautical novels, influenced later writers. William Dean Howells, Frank Norris, and Sinclair Lewis are but three who followed in this mode. Like his most famous creation, then, Cooper was indeed a pathfinder and pioneer.
Boynton, Henry Walcott. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Century Co., 1931. Focuses on Cooper the man rather than Cooper the writer. Boynton notes Cooper’s faults but tends to gloss over them or explain them away.
Franklin, Wayne. The New World of James Fenimore Cooper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Through a close reading of five of Cooper’s novels—The Pioneers, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), Wyandotté (1843), The Crater (1847), and The Last of the Mohicans—Franklin examines Cooper’s attitude toward the frontier. Maintains that for Cooper, the wilderness begins as a place of hope and promise but ends as the source of tragedy.
McWilliams, John P. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. Argues that Cooper remained a dedicated republican all of his life. McWilliams shows that while Cooper’s views are consistent, American society changed dramatically between 1820 and 1850 and hence produced a darkening vision of the fiction.
Railton, Stephen. Fenimore Cooper: A Study in His Life and Imagination. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. A psychological approach to Cooper’s life. Railton sees Cooper as dominated by his father and reads the life and fiction in the light of an Oedipal complex.
Spiller, Robert Ernest. Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times. New York: Minton, Balch and Co., 1931. Concentrates on Cooper’s social views and sees him as a writer who sought to analyze and express as well as criticize the United States of his day.
Walker, Warren S. James Fenimore Cooper: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962. A biography organized around the various themes in Cooper’s writing—the frontier, the sea, American democracy. A concluding chapter reviews critical response to Cooper from 1820 to the middle of the twentieth century.
Waples, Dorothy. The Whig Myth of James Fenimore Cooper. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1938. Claims that many of the attacks on Cooper during his lifetime came from Whigs who distorted his character. Stresses Cooper’s political views.