Novelist and social critic James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was the first major American writer to deal imaginatively with American life, notably in his five "Leather-Stocking Tales." He was also a critic of the political, social, and religious problems of the day.
James Cooper (his mother's family name of Fenimore was legally added in 1826) was born in Burlington, N.J., on Sept. 15, 1789, the eleventh of 12 children of William Cooper, a pioneering landowner and developer in New Jersey and New York. When James was 14 months old, his father moved the family to a vast tract of wilderness at the headwaters of the Susquehanna River in New York State where, on a system of small land grants, he had established the village of Cooperstown at the foot of Otsego Lake.
Here, in the "Manor House," later known as Otsego Hall, Cooper grew up, the privileged son of the "squire" of a primitive community. He enjoyed the amenities of a transplanted civilization while reading, in the writings of the wilderness missionary John Gottlieb Heckewelder, about the Native Americans who had long since retreated westward, and about life in the Old World in the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen. Meanwhile, he attended the local school and Episcopal church. The lore of the wilderness learned from excursions into the surrounding forests and from local trappers and hunters, the stories of life in the great estates of neighboring Dutch patroons and English patentees, and the gossip of revolution-torn Europe brought by refugees of all classes furnished him with materials for his later novels, histories, and commentaries.
For the present, however, Cooper was a vigorous and obstreperous young man who was sent away to be educated, first by a clergyman in Albany, and then at Yale, from which he was dismissed for a student prank. His father next arranged for him to go to sea, first in a merchant vessel to England and Spain, and then in the Navy; these experiences stimulated at least a third of his later imaginative writing.
When Cooper returned to civilian life in 1811, he married Susan Augusta DeLancey of a formerly wealthy New York Tory family and established himself in Westchester County overlooking Long Island Sound, a gentleman farmer involved in the local militia, Agricultural Society, and Episcopal church. It was here, at the age of 30, that he published his first novel, written on a challenge from his wife.
First Period of His Literary Career
Precaution was an attempt to outdo the English domestic novels Cooper had been reading, which he imitated in choice of theme, scene, and manner. But he soon realized his mistake, and the next year, in The Spy, he deliberately attempted to correct it by choosing the American Revolution for subject, the country around New York City he knew so well for scene, and the historical romance of Scott for model. Thereafter, although many of his novels combined the novel of manners with the historical romance, as well as with other currently popular fictional modes, he never again departed from his concern for American facts and opinions, even though for some of his tales he chose, in the spirit of comparative analysis, scenes in foreign lands and waters.
All of the novels of the first period of Cooper's literary career (1820-1828) were as experimental as the first two. Three dealt with the frontier and Native American life (The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Prairie), three with the sea (The Pilot, The Red Rover, and The Water Witch), and three with American history (The Spy, Lionel Lincoln, and The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish).
Discovering the "American Problem"
The success of his first America-oriented novel convinced Cooper that he was on the right track, and he decided to turn to his childhood memories for a truthful, if not wholly literal, tale of life on the frontier: The Pioneers (1823). Judge Temple in the novel is Judge Cooper, and Templeton is Cooperstown; and originals for most of the characters can be identified, as can the scenes and much of the action, although all of it is given what Cooper called "a poetical view of the subject." Though the traditional novel of manners deals realistically with a group of people in a closed and stable community using an agreed-upon code of social ethics, Cooper tried to adapt this form to a fluid and open society, thereby illuminating the core of the "American problem": how could the original trio of "unalienable rights"—life, liberty, and property (not, as Jefferson had it, the pursuit of happiness)—be applied to a society in which the rights of the Native American possessors of the land were denied by the civilized conqueror who took it from them for his own profit, thus defying the basic Christian ethic of individual integrity and brotherly love?
Natty Bumppo (or Leather-Stocking as he is called in the series as a whole) is neither the "natural man" nor the "civilized man" of European theorists such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau; he is the American individualist who is creating a new society by a code of personal fulfillment under sound moral self-guidance, improvising as he goes along. In The Pioneers Natty is a somewhat crotchety old man whose chief "gift" is his ability to argue his rights with both Indian John and Judge Temple. The central theme which knits this complex web of people and adventures into the cycle of a single year is the emergence of Leather-Stocking as the "American hero."
At this point Cooper was feeling his way toward a definition of his social concern, but in the novel itself the problem is almost submerged in the excitement, action, and vivid description and narrative. In the next of the Leather-Stocking series, The Last of the Mohicans, Natty is younger and the romantic story line takes over, making it the most popular of all Cooper's novels. In The Prairie Natty in his last days becomes a tragic figure driven west, into the setting sun, in a futile search for his ideal way of life. To most of Cooper's readers these stories are pure romances of adventure, and their social significance is easily overlooked.
In The Pilot (1824) Cooper was drawn to the sea by what he felt was Scott's mishandling of the subject, and he thus discovered a whole second world in which to explore his moral problem. The American hero, John Paul Jones, like other patriots of the time, is in revolt against the authority of the English king, and yet, in his own empire of the ship, he is forced by the dangers of the elements to exert an even more arbitrary authority over his crew. There is a similar problem in The Red Rover, the story of a pirate with a Robin Hood complex, and in The Water-Witch, a tale of a gentleman-rogue, which is less successful because Cooper turned from the technique of straight romantic narrative to that of symbolism.
Cooper's two historical novels of the period (other than The Spy), Lionel Lincoln and The Wept of Wishton-Wish, are set in New England, where Cooper was never at home. The former, although thoroughly researched, is trivial, but in the latter, in spite of lack of sympathy, Cooper made a profound study of the conflict between Puritan morality and integrity and the savage ethic of the frontier.
His reputation as a popular novelist established, Cooper went abroad in 1826 to arrange for the translation and foreign publication of his works and to give his family the advantages of European residence and travel. He stayed 7 years, during which he completed two more romances, but thereafter, until 1840, he devoted most of his energy to political and social criticism—both in fiction and in nonfiction. Irritated by the criticisms of English travelers in America, in 1828 he wrote a defense of American life and institutions in a mock travel book, Notions of the Americans Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor.
Settling his children in a convent school in Paris, he traveled from London to Sorrento, Italy, and also stayed in Switzerland, Germany, France, and England. Europe was astir with reform and revolutionary movements, and the outspoken Cooper was drawn into close friendships with the Marquis de Lafayette and other liberal leaders. One product of this interest was a trio of novels on European political themes (The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, and The Headsman), but the American press was so hostile to them that Cooper finally declared, in his 1834 A Letter to His Countrymen, that he would write no more fiction.
This resolution, however, lasted only long enough to produce five volumes of epistolary travel essay and commentary on Europe (Gleanings in Europe and Sketches of Switzerland ); The Monikins, a Swiftean political allegory; and various works on the American Navy, including a definitive two-volume history, a volume of biographies of naval officers, and miscellaneous tracts.
In 1833 Cooper returned to America, renovated Otsego Hall in Cooperstown, and settled his family there for the rest of his life. There is much autobiography in the pair of novels Homeward Bound and Home as Found (1838), in which he reversed himself to attack the people and institutions of his own land with the same keen critical insight that he had applied to Europe. One reason for this was that a series of libel suits against Whig editors helped personalize his quarrel with the equalitarian and leveling tendencies of the Jacksonian era. He won the suits but lost many friends and much of his reading public. His social and political position is succinctly summed up in The American Democrat (1838).
The third period of Cooper's literary career began in 1840-1841 with his return to the Leather-Stocking series and two more chapters in the life of Natty Bumppo, The Pathfinder, in which Cooper used his own experiences on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812, and The Deerslayer, which fills in the young manhood of his hero. These romances were followed by equally vigorous tales of the sea, The Two Admirals and Wing-and-Wing.
But the most significant development of this period was Cooper's final success in blending the romantic novel of action and the open spaces with the novel of manners and social concern. Returning for subject to the scenes of his first interest, the estates and villages of early upstate New York (with their mixed population of Dutch patroons, English patentees, small farmers and woodsmen, and variegated adventurers carving out civilization in a wilderness peopled by Native Americans and rife with unexploited wildlife of all kinds), he wrote five novels in two series: Afloat and Ashore (1844) and its sequel, Miles Wallingford, and the "Littlepage Manuscripts" (1845-1846), depicting in a trilogy (Satanstoe, The Chainbearer, and The Redskins) the four-generation history of a landed family from their first days of settlement to the days of the disintegration of their privileged way of life in the face of rampant, classless democracy. Largely unread and unappreciated in their day, these five novels, especially Satanstoe, have since become recognized as Cooper's most successful fulfillment of his intention. He had always wished to write a chronicle of his times in fictional form in order to interpret for his countrymen and the world at large the deeper meanings of the "American experiment" in its formative years.
Meanwhile, Cooper's concerns for individual and social integrity and for change had hardened into moral and religious absolutes, and the novels of his last 4 years were less story and more allegory. The best of these, The Crater (1847), succeeds where The Water-Witch and The Monikins failed, in using symbolism to convey a narrative message.
The power and persistence of this first major American author in attempting a total imaginative redaction of American life, coupled with an equal skill in the description of place and the depiction of action, overcame the liabilities of both the heavy romantic style current in his day and his substitution of the character type for the individual character. Appreciated first in Europe, the most action-packed of his novels survived the eclipse of his reputation as a serious literary artist (brought about through attacks on his stormy personality and unpopular social ideas) and have led to a restudy of the whole of his work in recent years. In this process Cooper has been restored to his rightful place as the first major American man of letters.
Further Reading on James Fenimore Cooper
Probably the most satisfactory short biography of Cooper is James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper (1949), although Donald A. Ringe, James Fenimore Cooper (1962), gives fuller critical treatment of Cooper's works, and Robert E. Spiller, Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times (1931), provides more background analysis of Cooper's social ideas. None of these biographers had the advantage of James F. Beard, who edited The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (6 vols., 1960-1968), and a new biography is needed.