James Fenimore Cooper

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 121

What is James Fenimore Cooper’s explanation for the feeble state of American literature when he began writing? What is the basis of his conviction that American literature would become a powerful influence in the world?

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Cooper was one of the earliest exponents of several subgenres of the novel other than that represented by the Leatherstocking Tales. These include the spy novel, the sea novel, and the novel of political satire. Which works exemplify his achievements in these modes of fiction?

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Explain how the stages of Natty Bumppo’s life mirror changes in American society over several decades.

Is Cooper’s Chingachgook a plausible character?

In what respects is Mark Twain’s essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences” unfair to Cooper?

Other literary forms

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 121

Although James Fenimore Cooper was primarily a novelist, he also tried his hand at short stories, biographies, and a play. Among these works, only the biographies are considered significant. He also wrote accounts of his European travels, history, and essays on politics and society. Among his political writings, The American Democrat (1838) retains its appeal as an analysis of contemporary political and social issues and as an expression of Cooper’s mature political and social thought. His The History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839, two volumes) is still considered a definitive work. Cooper was an active correspondent. Many of his letters and journals have been published, but large quantities of material remain in the hands of private collectors.


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Though he is best known as the author of the Leatherstocking Tales, James Fenimore Cooper has come to be recognized as America’s first great social historian. The Leatherstocking Tales—The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie, The Pathfinder, and The Deerslayer—are those novels in which the frontier hunter and scout Natty Bumppo is a central character. Along with The Spy and The Pilot, two novels of the American Revolution, the Leatherstocking Tales are familiar to modern readers, and critics agree that these are Cooper’s best novels. Less well known are the novels he began writing during his seven-year residence in Europe, his problem and society novels. In these books, he works out and expresses a complex social and political theory and a social history of America seen within the context of the major modern developments of European civilization. Because his problem and society novels often are marred by overstatement and repetition, they are rarely read for pleasure, but they remain, as Robert Spiller argues, among the most detailed and accurate pictures available of major aspects of American society and thought in the early nineteenth century.

Cooper achieved international reputation with The Spy, his second novel, which was translated into most European languages soon after its publication. With this work, he also invented a popular genre, the spy novel. He is credited with having invented the Western in the Leatherstocking Tales and the sea adventure with The Pilot, another popular success. His ability to tell tales of romance and adventure in convincingly and often beautifully described settings won for him a devoted readership and earned a title he came eventually to resent, “The American Scott.” His reputation began to decline when he turned to concerned criticism of American society. Though his goal in criticism was always amelioration through the affirmation of basic principles, Cooper’s aristocratic manner and his frequent opposition to popular ideas made him increasingly unpopular with the public. The political and social atmosphere was not favorable to his opinions, and his works routinely received scathing reviews as pretentious and aristocratic, also as politically motivated and self-serving. As Spiller argues, Cooper was too much a man of principle to use consciously his public position for personal ends. His suits against the press to establish a definition of libel, his exploration of the principles of democracy in his novels and essays, and his careful and objective research in his naval histories and biographies reveal a man who passionately sought truth and justice regardless of the effect on his popularity.

Though his popularity declined after 1833, Cooper continued writing with energy. In his thirty-year writing career, he wrote more than thirty novels, the naval history, several significant social works, and many other works as well. Howard Mumford Jones credits Cooper with early American developments of the international theme, the theme of the Puritan conscience, the family saga, the utopian and dystopian novel, and the series novel. By general agreement, Cooper stands at the headwaters of the American tradition of fiction; he contributed significantly to the themes and forms of the American novel.


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Barker, Martin, and Roger Sabin. The Lasting of the Mohicans: History of an American Myth. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. From the series Studies in Popular Culture. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

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.

Clark, Robert, ed. James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985. Each of the eight essays in this collection covers a different aspect of Cooper’s fiction; most focus on a specific novel. A complete index helps the student find references to a particular work or theme.

Darnell, Donald. James Fenimore Cooper: Novelist of Manners. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993. Explores manners and customs in literature. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Dyer, Alan Frank, comp. James Fenimore Cooper: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. A good starting point for research.

Fields, W., ed. James Fenimore Cooper: A Collection of Critical Essays. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. The collection of new essays at the end of this book offers much of value to beginning students of Cooper, though the essays are not indexed. The first section of the book is a selection of nineteenth century reviews of Cooper’s novels.

Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years. New Haven: Yale, 2007. Part one of a planned two-part biography of Cooper covering his life from birth until he left Europe in 1826. His personal life along with the writing and publishing of The Last of the Mohicans are covered in this easy to read and informative biography.

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.

Long, Robert Emmett. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Continuum, 1990. This general study of Cooper and his fiction touches on all the major works. The five-page bibliography lists the most important studies of Cooper up to the 1990’s.

McWilliams, John. The Last of the Mohicans: Civil Savagery and Savage Civility. New York: Twayne, 1995. Part of the Twayne Masterworks Series, this volume provides a general introduction to Cooper’s most widely read novel as well as a particular approach to it. Divided into two sections, the first of which explores the literary and historical context of The Last of the Mohicans, followed by a section devoted to analysis of the style of the novel, as well as what Cooper was attempting to say about race, gender, history, and imperialism.

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.

Peck, H. Daniel, ed. New Essays on “The Last of the Mohicans.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. The introduction by Peck provides information about the composition, publication, and contemporary reception of the novel, as well as the evolution of critical opinion concerning The Last of the Mohicans. Each of the five original essays that follow—such as Nina Baym’s “How Men and Women Write Indian Stories”—places the novel in a particular context, thus providing readers with an array of interesting perspectives from which to view Cooper’s masterpiece.

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.

Ringe, Donald A. James Fenimore Cooper. Updated ed. New York: Twayne, 1988. The first edition of this work, in 1962, was a succinct and helpful introduction to Cooper. Ringe’s revision adds new information and updates the annotated bibliography to reflect another quarter-century of scholarship. With a complete chronology and index.

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.

Verhoeven, W. M., ed. James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993. An interesting collection. Includes bibliographical references.

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.

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Critical Essays