“Rigid adherence to truth, an indispensable requisite in history and travels, destroys the charm of fiction; for all that is necessary to be conveyed to the mind by the latter had better be done by delineations of principles, and of characters in their classes, than by too fastidious attention to originals."
During the era in which he wrote, James Fenimore Cooper preached that the mission of American literature was to “find its own identity in the expression of its national ideals." Many would agree that Cooper’s greatest gift was in conveying the image of prototypical American landscapes of forests, lakes, and prairies, and the free men who moved between them.
The early years
Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey, in 1789, the 11th of 12 children. He was a son of Judge William Cooper and Susan Fenimore. When James was one year old, Cooper the elder moved his family into the wilderness surrounding Lake Otsego, New York, to eventually establish the hamlet of Cooperstown.
While growing up, James was fascinated by his rural, occasionally otherworldly, surroundings, which would play a major part in his development as a writer. His path to authordom, however, took a circuitous route. First it was to the Abbey St. Peter's in Albany, New York, for a prep-school education. Then it was on to Yale University, where studies were not among James' highest priorities. He was asked to leave in his third year.
No matter, really. James enjoyed not only his father's financial backing, but that of his father-in-law as well, each seeing to it that the silver spoon would remain untarnished.
Thus, in the manner of a country squire, James produced his first work, Precaution, a story that relied upon traditional flight and pursuit themes set against the high seas of the Atlantic and unknown frontiers to the west. Although the book would not be classified as his best, James soon became one of the young nation's most popular romantic writers of fiction.
Cooper's second try, The Spy (1821), a fascinating tale of the not-so-long-ago War of Independence, was based on the adventures of an agent during the British occupation of New York. Various scholars aver that in The Spy, American fiction is said to have come of age, with love of country as its theme, and its hero, a spy who had served John Jay against the British.
The following year, Cooper moved to New York City to begin work on his riveting Leatherstocking Tales. Natty Bumppo*, Cooper’s protagonist, takes center stage as a principled and resourceful frontiersman who overcomes the rigors of nature and the villainous conduct of man.
In 1823, Cooper published The Pioneers, whose hero was an old scout living in a frontier village with his loyal Indian companion, Chingachgook. That novel was quickly followed the same year by a hearty seafaring tale, flush with romance, The Pilot (1824), a novel reminiscent of the brooding Byronic style. The story drew upon Cooper's brief experiences as a midshipman in the ersatz navy of his time, and starred John Paul Jones as the leader of the pack.
Bunker Hill in Boston was the setting for Lionel Lincoln (1825), not one of his better works.
However, Cooper rebounded to create his immortal character, "Hawkeye," who springs to life the following year, in The Last of the Mohicans and his adventures during the French and Indian War in the Lake George area.
Beginning in 1826 and continuing until 1833, Cooper traveled throughout Europe, with his headquarters in Paris.
While in Europe, Cooper extolled the virtues of American-style democracy, in Notions of the Americans (1828). Cooper also published a number of romances set in the U.S. or on the high seas, including The Red Rover (1828), The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), and The Water-Witch (1831).
Cooper's adventures through the German countryside prompted the novels The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmauer (1832), and The Headsman (1833), which satirized the feudalism of the day, spiced with romanticism typical of the Cooper style.
Cooper’s return to America
Upon Cooper’s return to the U.S., he immediately became embroiled in the politics of the time, which he felt had taken a giant step backward in his absence. He defended his stance on the rights of the genteel and the concept of "The Gentleman."
His aristocratic notions met with derision and much criticism by the press. He responded with A Letter to His Countrymen (1834) and The American Democrat (1838), as well as other rebuttals.
Cooper returned to his formula for success in 1840 with The Pathfinder, set in the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River region. The Deerslayer, set in the frontier of 1740 New York, concluded the Leatherstocking series.
Cooper the prolific
The copious amount of literature Cooper produced, both classic and mundane, is a tribute to his commitment. The author Henry James described Cooper’s infatuation with America as his donnee, his “given."
Renowned French author Honore de Balzac reviewed The Pathfinder, saying in part, “Leatherstocking . . . will live as long as literatures last. I do not know that the extraordinary work of [Sir] Walter Scott furnishes a creation as grandiose as that of this hero of the savannas and forests."
Mark Twain was less charitable. In his The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper, Twain wrote:
Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.
There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them.
James Fenimore Cooper died at his home Otsego Hall in Cooperstown, New York, on September 14, 1851.
*The adventures of Natty Bumppo can be followed in chronological order by reading The Deerslayer , The Last of the Mohicans , The Pathfinder , The Pioneers , and The Prairie .
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by James Fenimore Cooper.
The publick is to be watched in this country, as in other countries kings and aristocrats are to be watched.
The American Democrat
Few men exhibit greater diversity, or, if we may so express it, greater antithesis of character than the native warrior of North America. In war, he is daring, boastful, cunning, ruthless, self-denying, and self-devoted; in peace, just, generous, hospitable, revengeful, superstitious, modest, and commonly chaste.
"The Last of the Mohicans", 1826
Quotes regarding James Fenimore Cooper.
By Mark Twain
Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in Deerslayer, and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.
Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences
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Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper.
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