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.
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.
(The entire section is 2872 words.)