Antebellum and Civil War America, 1784-1865

 

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Major Works

  • The Spy (1821)
  • The Pioneers (1823)
  • The Last of the Mohicans (1826)
  • The Prairie (1827)
  • The Pathfinder (1840)
  • The Deerslayer (1841)

Family

  • Father: Wealthy landowner William Cooper, founder of Cooperstown, NY, and Federalist congressman 
  • Mother: Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper
  • Siblings: 12
  • Wife: Susan De Lancey Cooper
  • Children: daughters Elizabeth, Susan, Caroline, Anne, and Maria; sons Fenimore and Paul

Homes

  • Burlington, NJ
  • Cooperstown, NY
  • New Rochelle, NY
  • Scarsdale, NY
  • New York, NY
  • France
  • Switzerland
  • Italy

Occupations

  • sailor
  • author
  • U.S. Consul for Lyons, France

Chronology

1789: born Sept. 15 in Burlington, NJ

1790-1791: moves with family to Lake Otsego in New York

1800: Sister Hannah dies

1803: enrolls at Yale

1806-1807: sails on Stirling

1808-1809: serves in U.S. Navy

1809: father dies

1811: marries Susan De Lancey; settles in New Rochelle, NY; daughter Elizabeth born

1813: daughter Elizabeth dies; daughter Susan born

1815: daughter Caroline born

1817: daughter Anne born

1818: builds house in Scarsdale, NY; mother dies

1819: daughter Maria born

1820: publishes Precaution

1821: son Fenimore born; publishes The Spy

1822: moves to New York City; founds Bread and Cheese club

1823: publishes The Pioneers; son Fenimore dies; suffers “bilious attack”

1824: publishes The Pilot; son Paul born

1825: publishes Lionel Lincoln

1826: publishes The Last of the Mohicans; travels to Europe and settles in France; serves as U.S. Consul for Lyons, France

1827: publishes The Prairie and The Red Rover

1828: publishes Notions of the Americans

1829-1830: lives in Italy and France

1831: publishes The Bravo

1832: publishes The Heidenmauer and The Headsman

1833: returns to United States

1834: purchases Otsego Hall in Cooperstown

1835: publishes The Monikins

1836: publishes Sketches of Switzerland

1837: sues newspapers for libel

1838: publishes The American Democrat, Chronicles of Cooperstown, Homeward Bound, and Home As Found

1839: publishes History of the Navy of the United States of America

1840: publishes The Pathfinder

1841: publishes The Deerslayer

1842: publishes The Two Admirals and The Wing-and-Wing

1843: publishes The Battle of Lake Erie, Wyandotte, and Ned Myers, or a Life Before the Mast

1844: publishes Afloat and Ashore and Miles Wallingford

1845: publishes Satanstoe and The Chainbearer

1846: publishes The Redskins, The Lives of Distinguished Naval Officers, and Jack Tier

1846: publishes The Crater

1848: publishes The Oak Openings; or the Bee Hunter

1849: publishes The Sea Lions

1850: publishes The Ways of the Hour

1851: dies Sept. 14 in Cooperstown, NY

Resources

The James Fenimore Cooper Society maintains a World Wide Web site featuring a thorough chronology of Cooper’s life, articles about the author, and pictures.

Home As Found features a biographical sketch and links to other Cooper sites.

Abbildungen aus James Fenimore Coopers Pages and Pictures” features illustrations of Cooper, Otsego Hall, and more.

James Fenimore Cooper: The Leather-Stocking Tales, Volume I, edited by Blake Nevius, contains full texts of The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Prairie, along with a detailed chronology of Cooper’s life.

“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” a humorous treatment of Cooper’s writing by Mark Twain, criticizes the author’s dialogue, verisimilitude, and more.

Updated August 22, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002
mark.canada@uncp.edu

James Fenimore Cooper, 1789-1851

By Mark Canada
Assistant Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

 

One of the more controversial figures in American literature, James Fenimore Cooper occupies the strange position of being among the first and the last of America’s great novelists.  He is first in time, preceding Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain and, some would argue, influencing some or all of these writers in one way or another.  He may be among the last in artistic achievement, however, as critics sometimes call attention to what they perceive as flaws in his characterization and other aspects of his novels.  In any case, Cooper is an important figure in American literature, known particularly for his creation of the idealized hero Natty Bumppo and for his treatment of the American frontier in The Leather-Stocking Tales, a series of five novels that include The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), and The Deerslayer (1841).

 

Life

 

By the time Cooper was born—on Sept. 15, 1789, in Burlington, New Jersey—the frontier was disappearing from the northeastern United States.  Indeed, his father, William Cooper, would become a major figure in the civilization of the wilderness.  In 1790, the elder Cooper brought his family to Lake Otsego in upstate New York and established a settlement that would bear his name, Cooperstown.  Some three decades later, his son would recapture some scenes from his childhood in Cooperstown in his novel The Pioneers, even modeling Marmaduke Temple’s home on his own father’s Otsego Hall.  While he was still a boy, Cooper left the settlement for New Haven, Connecticut, where he enrolled at Yale in 1803 at the age of 13.  Not exactly a model student, Cooper was expelled from Yale when he was a junior.  According to tradition, he played a number of pranks involving, among other things, a donkey in a professor’s chair and gunpowder in a student’s door.  In 1806, he went to sea as a sailor-before-the-mast on the Stirling, a merchant vessel that traveled to the Isle of Wight, London, and Spain.  After a brief stint in the U.S. Navy, he married Susan Augusta De Lancey in 1811.  As their family grew—Susan gave birth to five daughters over the next eight years, eventually giving birth to two sons, as well—the Coopers moved around New York, trying farming at various locations.  By 1819, Cooper was in debt, despite the $50,000 inheritance he received after his father’s death in 1809.

 

In 1820, according to legend, Cooper became exasperated with a novel he was reading and threw it down, saying he could do better.  His wife challenged him to live up to his word, and he wrote a novel of manners called Precaution (1820).  His next novel, a Revolutionary War novel called The Spy (1821), was highly successful, and Cooper was on his way.  Over the next three decades, he published some 30 novels, the most noteworthy being those of  The Leather-Stocking Tales, a series of five novels featuring the frontier hero Natty Bumppo.  Not merely winning over readers, Cooper did something few writers of literature managed to do in America at that time: he made a tidy income from his books.  According to Blake Nevius, Cooper expected to make $20,000 in 1831 (1325).  Nevertheless, Cooper also managed to anger many Americans in the later decades of his life, when he expressed some controversial political opinions, criticized American culture, and sued several newspapers for libel.  In Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination, Stephen Railton writes: “In his books, Cooper quarreled with his country; in life, with his neighbors and countrymen; and in reality, with himself” (8).

 

The latter part of Cooper’s life was marked by a combination of wanderings and a return to his roots.  In 1826, he took his family to Europe, partly to benefit his health and the education of his children, and the family spent the next seven years traveling and living in such places as Paris, France; Berne, Switzerland; and Florence, Italy.  After returning to the United States, Cooper bought Otsego Hall, the home where he had grown up in Cooperstown, and moved there.  It was here that he died on September 14, 1851.  He was buried, along with other members of his family, in Cooperstown.

 

Literature

 

In a preface he wrote for an 1850 edition of his most famous novels, Cooper wrote: “If anything from the pen of the writer of these romances is at all to outlive himself, it is, unquestionably, the series of ‘The Leather-Stocking Tales.’  To say this, is not to predict a very lasting reputation for the series itself, but simply to express the belief it will outlast any, or all, of the works from the same hand” (844).  Today, a century and a half after Cooper wrote those words, titles such as The Bravo and Satanstoe would probably elicit only blank stares from many English professors, while The Last of the Mohicans and the name of Natty Bumppo are likely familiar even to people who have never read a novel.  Indeed, in his creation of the frontier hero Natty Bumppo—known variously as the Leather-Stocking, Hawk-Eye, Pathfinder, and Deerslayer—and the novels recounting his adventures, Cooper made a lasting and important contribution to American literature.

 

As Donald A. Ringe has noted, Cooper may have based the character of Bumppo on an old hunter named David Shipman who came to his house in Cooperstown when Cooper was a boy (viii).  It has also been suggested, however, that the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone and General George Washington served as models for Cooper’s character.  Boone had blazed the Wilderness Road into Kentucky back in 1775, and Washington had led the Continental Army in its defeat of the British in the American Revolution between 1775 and 1783.  Like the legends that surround men such as these, Cooper’s portrayal of his hero is highly idealized.  Natty Bumppo is a noble, wise figure who demonstrates extraordinary physical prowess—in short, the exemplar of a certain brand of man.  In The Pioneers, for example, he staunchly stands by his principles of individual liberty, has intimate knowledge of the wilderness, and is a master of both the rifle and the fishing spear.  What perhaps makes him most notable among all this is his intimacy with nature.  Indeed, it is this intimacy that makes Bumppo so distinctively an American hero.  From the early pioneering efforts by John Smith and the Puritans at least until the virtual disappearance of the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century, America was in part a mysterious, challenging, and promising wilderness—in the famous words of Pilgrim William Bradford, “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men” (29).  Bumppo, like many literary creations who would follow him, not only occupied this wilderness, but also became a part of it.

 

Bumppo’s difficult relationship with the civilization that was encroaching upon this wilderness is one of Cooper’s most important and influential themes.  In The Pioneers, for example, Bumppo deplores the settlers’ wasteful destruction of nature, their attempts to regulate interactions with it, even what he perceives as their unmanly habit of shooting pigeons with a cannon instead of a rifle (249).  In The American Novel and Its Tradition, Richard Chase writes:

 

In different terms the contradiction between the values of a traditional society and those of the lone individual in the marginal hinterland is as much a part of Faulkner’s view of things as it was of Cooper’s.  With some modification the same contradiction lies behind the works of Melville and Mark Twain, among others.  It is clear that crotchety as Cooper’s thinking sometimes was, he exemplified a dilemma, and explored some of the aesthetic uses to which it might be put, that was not peculiar to him but was at the heart of American culture.  (52)

 

Cooper may have done more than set a precedent for later American heroes and treatments of civilization and the wilderness, however.  Several writers, including D.H. Lawrence and Richard Slotkin, have suggested that he helped create an American myth.  In Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence discussed the portrayal of Bumppo in Cooper’s The Deerslayer in this way: “You have there the myth of the essential white America.  All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play.  The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer” (quoted in Slotkin 466).  Slotkin writes in Regeneration Through Violence that Cooper’s “vision of the mythic hero became a figure in the popular imagination, to which all subsequent versions of the hero had perforce to refer, whether in emulation or denigration” (468).  Indeed, in “James Fenimore Cooper: Myth-Maker and Christian Romancer,” Charles A. Brady suggests that “Cooper’s genius was mythopoeic rather than comic; . . . dealing at its rare purest, in archetypes rather than types” (12).

Cooper’s achievement and influence, in short, was large.  “The imaginative debt that such minor nineteenth century novelists as Simms and Stowe owed to Cooper is obvious,” Railton notes, “and in general popular fiction remained in the mode that Coper had shaped for it until after the Civil War.  Yet it is equally true to say that Cooper first established many of the themes with which the major authors of the century would deal” (3).  Railton further points out that contemporaries Sir Walter Scott and Honore de Balzac regarded Cooper as one of the finest novelists in the world (4).  Neverthless, his reputation has suffered considerably so that scholars are inclined to place him beneath Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and others who followed him.  Railton suggests a number of reasons for this position, noting that Cooper did not produce a masterpiece on the level of The Scarlet Letter or Moby-Dick and that his work suffers from “contradictions” (4-6).  As Mark Twain pointed out in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Cooper’s novels also tend to strain some readers’ expectations of realism in areas such as dialogue.  In The Pioneers, for instance, a character threatened by a forest fire proclaims: “Let us endeavor to retire” (411).  Indeed, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Tales are best read as fancifiul romances and thus do not fit the strict definition of “novel” as a highly realistic form.  As Chase argues in The American Novel and Its Tradition, however, many of America’s greatest “novels”—including The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick—are actually romances.

The chief problem in Cooper’s literature may be simply its lack of polish and originality.  All other considerations aside, novels such as Moby-Dick and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shine because of their lyrical, highly crafted prose.  Despite notable digressions, these novels also have a quality of tightness about them.  Melville used a lot of words, and Twain a lot of scenes, but one rarely has the sense that they have wasted them.  Cooper, on the other hand, appears to have written without the deliberation that one might expect of a great novelist.  His daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, who had worked for him, provides this glimpse into her father’s creative process: “On this occasion, as on all others when writing a book, he first adopted some general leading idea, sketched vaguely in his mind a few of the more prominent characters, and then immediately began his work in its final shape, leaving the details to suggest and develop themselves during the progress of the volume.  Excepting when writing history, he is not known to have ever drawn up a written plan, and in one or two instances only were a few brief notes thrown on paper, regarding some particular chapter.  In all the details he depended in a great measure on the thought and feeling of the moment” (qtd. in Railton 25-26; see “Pages and Pictures,” from Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, 29-30).  Furthermore, Railton explains that “he regularly sent manuscript to the publisher without waiting until he had finished the tale” (23).  Cooper also paid little attention to revision.  In a letter quoted by Railton, Cooper admits: “I ought in justice to myself to say, that in opposition to a thousand good resolutions, the Pioneers, has been more hastily and carelessly written than any of my books—Not a line has been copied, and it has gone from my desk to the printers—I have not to this moment been able even to read it—“ (23).  Finally, as Railton notes, Cooper was not one to provide readers with highly original conceptions.  “No writer was more committed than Cooper to contemporary literary conventions,” Railton writes.  “He was, for example, simply unable to conceive a tale without a love story, without a comic character, without a narrow escape . . . . In the nineteenth century literary conventions fulfilled the terms of an unwritten, tacit contract that a popular novelist had agreed upon with his audience: readers demanded novelty and suspense, but they also expected to be entertained in a familiar way, and the writer was pledged to satisfy those expectations (27).

Cooper may have fulfilled those expectations and thus enjoyed great popular success, but he may have done so at the expense of artistry.  In an essay entitled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Mark Twain writes of Cooper’s novel The Deerslayer:

A work of art?  It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are—oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

Counting these out, what is left is Art.  I think we must all admit that.  (1250)

Art or no art, James Fenimore Cooper created an influential character in Natty Bumppo and helped launch a literary discussion of the relationship between humanity and nature in America.  It is for these contributions he is perhaps best remembered.

Works Cited

Bradford, William.  Of Plymouth Plantation.  The American Tradition in Literature.  Vol. 1.  Ed. George Perkins, et al.  7th ed.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.  26-41.

Brady, Charles A.  “James Fenimore Cooper: Myth-Maker and Christian Romancer.”  American Classics Revisited.  Ed. Howard C. Gardiner.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958.

Chase, Richard.  The American Novel and Its Tradition.  Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957.

Cooper, James Fenimore.  The Pioneers.  James Fenimore Cooper: The Leather-Stocking Tales, Volume I.  New York: Library of America, 1985.  1-465.

---.  “Preface to The Leather-Stocking Tales.”  The American Tradition in Literature.  Vol. 1.  Ed. George Perkins, et al.  7th ed.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.

Nevius, Blake.  “Chronology.”  James Fenimore Cooper: The Leather-Stocking Tales, Volume I.  New York: Library of America, 1985.  1319-1331.

Railton, Stephen.  Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Ringe, Donald.  “Introduction.”  The Pioneers.  New York: Penguin, 1988.  vii-xxii.

Slotkin, Richard.  Regeneration Through Violence.

Twain, Mark.  “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”  The Unabridged Mark Twain.  Philadelphia: Running Press, 1976.