JAMES FENIMORE COOPER
James Fenimore Cooper, whose writing has evoked both admiration and disdain, is considered to be the first true American novelist. His most popular work, The Last of the Mohicans, has remained one of the most widely read novels throughout the world and it, along with the other four novels that make up The Leatherstocking Tales, has tremendously impacted the way many view both the American Indians and the frontier period of American history. The romanticized image of the strong, fearless, and ever resourceful frontiersman (i.e. Natty Bumppo), as well as the stoic, wise, and noble "red man" (i.e. Chingachgook) was borne more from Cooper's characterizations than any other source.
Born in Burlington, New Jersey on September 15, 1789 as James Cooper, the young boy began life with all the advantages of wealth and social prominence. James was one of thirteen children of Judge William Cooper, an early visionary who was able to obtain great financial success despite his own humble beginnings. The judge settled vast tracts of land in Pennsylvania and New York, became a congressman, actively promoted public service, established an expectedly dynastic financial and political family, and founded Cooperstown, NY, which became the boyhood home of James. William Cooper tried to instill in his children an understanding of the financial potential which the young republic had, balanced with his philosophy that with wealth came many responsibilities for the good of others (he was notoriously charitable, some would say, excessively generous). It appeared as though the Cooper family, with such a potentially bright future, could expect to leave a prolific and powerful legacy. Fate though, with its often tragic consequences and unexpected derailments, was waiting to strike. Meanwhile, the Cooper children enjoyed a life of leisurely wonder in upstate New York.
James and his brothers roamed and explored what was then a frontier village with a freedom that most children today would find enviable. The wilds of the forests and mountains beckoned the boys and aroused their unrestrained curiosity. The passion for the wilderness which developed in the wandering lads prompted their sister Hannah to write, "They are very wild and show plainly they have been bred in the woods." It was here in the Hudson River region that James became acquainted with the Indians of central New York state, the art of wilderness survival, the game-bearing Hawkeye prototype who, along with his long rifle and canine companions, visited the Cooper home, and the settlers whose wasteful tendencies disturbed the youth who had fallen in love with the natural beauty of the surrounding wilderness. It was here, during his innocence, the future author developed his sentiments regarding the very things that would later serve as central themes of The Last of the Mohicans.
Cooper attended Yale from 1803 to 1805, a stay that was cut short by the school's invitation that he leave. It is probable that he would have gone instead to Princeton had his older brother not been expelled in 1802 due to his being the most likely culprit in the burning of Nassau Hall. Mischievous behavior appears to have been a family trait. Though James is not known to have burned down any buildings at Yale, the school's request for his premature departure was the result of a series of pranks and violent confrontations. Perhaps Hannah was accurate in her description of her wild brothers.
Hannah, the pride of the family, who had penned her words in 1798, died two years later of injuries received by falling off a horse. Perhaps this loss, along with the events surrounding the capture and murder of Jane McRae, influenced Cooper's creation of Cora and Alice whom he presents as delicate and vulnerable. (Note: Jane, the fianc�e of a British officer, was captured by Indians in 1778. She was released and handed over to a party of Gen. Burgoyne's Indian scouts, but while being escorted back to Fort Edward, Jane's escort was unexpectedly attacked. The leader of the ambushing Indians pulled Jane from her horse, scalped, and murdered her. Could this be a bit of Magua also?) Nine years later, in 1809, Cooper's father died. The sudden death of the patriarch was devastating and the family soon began to unravel. During the years 1813 to 1819, Cooper lost four brothers to tragic deaths. Overlapping this period of sorrow was yet more hardship for those who were left. Financial ruin began to run its course in 1817 and continued through 1823, virtually wiping out the once substantial holdings of the Coopers. Their wealth dwindled away as a series of judgments against the estate, along with the apparently poor management by the surviving brothers who in turn acted as executors, all took their toll. Eventually, only James and a sister were left, the sole survivors of a family whose fortune was rapidly transformed into misfortune. The dynastic legacy that once seemed so certain was not to be. The resulting void was painfully felt by James and soon became a dominant theme in his life, one which would permeate his thoughts and later, his novels. Despite the enormity of the successive tragedies, Cooper was spared total ruin through the accidental discovery of his literary talents. This new twist of fate couldn't have come at a better time.
As heir to what was left of the family's possessions, Cooper also inherited the huge debt that accompanied it. Faced with the impossible demands of creditors and having very little income, the gentleman farmer had the good luck of reading a bad book. His dislike of the novel so irritated him that he boasted to his wife that he could do better. Her response was that he should prove it, and consequently, James Cooper, at the age of thirty, unexpectedly embarked upon a successful literary career. (NOTE: FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION ON COOPER'S WRITING OF MOHICANS READ COOPER, CHALLENGES & CAVES, as well as the follow-up post.)
James Cooper's first book, Precaution, was a failure. His second, The Spy, was published a year later (1821) and fortunately for James (who not only carried the burden of debt and care of his own family, but had also assumed responsibility for his brothers' widows and children), became an instant success. Published both in the U.S. and Europe, it was the first of a long line of both fiction and non-fiction that brought Cooper fame and respect. Though his books were printed in English, French, and German, were adapted for the stage, and frequently reprinted as new editions, Cooper was unable to escape the strangling debt. While it is obvious that Cooper enjoyed writing, he labored as much from necessity as he did for pleasure. His prolific output was the result of an almost frenzied pace of book after book, a pace which was taking its toll on Cooper's health.
Early in his career, Cooper enjoyed immense popularity at home. His Leatherstocking Tales were especially well liked, each a continuation of the adventures of Natty Bumppo and the American frontier. It was the second book of the series that revealed Cooper's preoccupation with the discontinuation of both a way of life & a family line; the tale being The Last of the Mohicans. 1826, the year of its publication, was when Cooper first used the name Fenimore as a legacy to his mother, whose maiden name he had now assumed. He continued his career as a writer while he served as U.S. Consul at Lyons, France from 1826 to 1833.
Upon his return to the U.S., Cooper began writing A Letter to His Countrymen, the first of several works in which Cooper expressed a sharp criticism of American culture (a theme that was already present in his previous works, though more subtly) and his own views towards democracy and wealth. The book was published in 1834 and immediately unleashed a furor in the press. Cooper's name appeared in newspaper editorials almost daily as a villain who sought to undermine democracy. So bitter were the accusations against him that James Fenimore Cooper soon found himself spending an inordinate amount of time in courthouses defending himself against what he saw as libelous allegations.
While many people find fault with Cooper's style, it must be remembered that he and his works were products of their own time. Generally, European authors have held a favorable view of Cooper's talent while Americans have been more critical. ( D.H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad have held him in high regard, while Mark Twain ridiculed his character development.) However one assesses Cooper's skills, it should at least be recognized that he was brilliant. An avid reader, he had an insatiable appetite for knowledge and a strong desire to share what he knew with his readers. This hunger is revealed at times in the dialogue of his characters as well as in his somewhat excessive usage of footnotes.
Cooper spent his later years in Cooperstown, where he continued writing until a few years prior to his death. Perhaps the return to his boyhood home where he first experienced his love for the wilderness was an attempt to find peace and tranquility in a world that Cooper saw slipping away. While there is much disagreement regarding Cooper's talents, few could fault him for his lamentations for an unspoiled wilderness.
James Fenimore Cooper died on September 14, 1851 at his home, one day shy of his 62nd birthday. The first great American novelist, a man who incited & provoked his contemporaries to ponder social issues that are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago, had literally left his mark upon American culture & her literary development.
For samples of LOTM and their corresponding scenes in the 1992 film, use these links:
JAMES FENIMORE COOPER'S TALE ... The Escort and Tracking the War Party || JAMES FENIMORE COOPER'S TALE ... The Magua/Montcalm Meeting || JAMES FENIMORE COOPER'S TALE ... Under The Falls || JAMES FENIMORE COOPER'S TALE ... The Cliffs
The Complete Novel
Precaution (1820) A novel of English manners
The Spy (1821) A novel about the American Revolution
The Pioneers (1823) The first of five novels that make up The Leatherstocking Tales, a tale of the American frontier
The Last of the Mohicans (1826) The second novel
The Prairie (1827) The third novel
The Pathfinder (1840) The fourth novel
The Deerslayer (1841) The fifth and final novel of The Leatherstocking Tales all of which feature the frontiersman Natty Bumppo
The Pilot (1823) The first of many sea tales
The Bravo (1831) The first novel in a trilogy about medieval Europe
The Heidenmauer (1832) The second of the trilogy
The Headsman (1833) The final novel of the trilogy
A Letter to His Countrymen (1834) A social criticism
The Monikins (1835) Satire of American life
The American Democrat (1838) Satire of American life
Gleanings in Europe (1837-1838) A four volume description of Cooper's travels in Europe
Littlepage Manuscripts (1845-1846) A trilogy of a New York family through several generations; a defense of landed wealth against the industrial based aristocracy that was then just beginning. The titles follow:
The Chainbearer (1845)
The Redskins (1846)
There is an element in The Last of the Mohicans that deserves a mention. In developing a romance between Uncas and Cora (Mann's film version contains an Alice/Cora role reversal), Cooper was breaking new ground (literally a literary novel idea!). Never before in American literature did there exist such a relationship. Interracial love stories were rare enough, but Cooper had taken it further. His romance involved a European woman and an American Indian man, most unusual, to say the least. The author may have been treading dangerous waters by including an Indian male/European woman love plot. It was, after all, early 19th century America. So what were the ramifications of his 1826 thriller? Instant success!
For a look at Cooper's Natty Bumppo see NATTY BUMPPO: Trailing The Pathfinder
For capsule summaries of Cooper's most famous works, see THE LEATHERSTOCKING TALES ... IN REVIEW
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