James Fenimore Cooper: Biography & Books

Instructor: Margaret English

Meg has taught language arts in middle school, high school and college. She has a doctorate in Educational leadership

James Fenimore Cooper was one of America's earliest and most famous writers, but was he a great writer? In this lesson, explore Cooper's unlikely writing career and his swift rise to fame, and determine the significance of his role in American literature.

Early Years

James Cooper was born to Quaker parents on September 15, 1789, in Burlington, New Jersey. It wasn't until 1826 that he adopted the name 'Fenimore,' which was his mother's maiden name. The 12th of 13 children, he was one of only seven siblings who lived to adulthood. Cooper's father, William, had political ambitions, and the year following Cooper's birth, he moved the family to Lake Otsego in upstate New York. Here, William Cooper founded a new settlement called 'Cooperstown.' James Cooper spent his childhood in this frontier town and would later refer to the experience for fictional material.

Cooper attended Yale University, but was expelled when he pulled a prank and blew up a fellow student's door. Although he planned to run away, his father intervened and secured a commission for his son to the U.S. Navy. The Navy worked out rather well for Cooper, but after sailing for a few years, he resigned his naval commission in 1811; that same year, he married the wealthy Susan Augusta DeLancey. The marriage was apparently a happy one. However, despite a large inheritance from his father, Cooper soon found himself in financial trouble as a result of his elder brothers' mismanagement of the family fortune and his own bad luck in business.

The Beginning of Cooper's Writing Career

Cooper might have begun writing largely by accident, although a happy accident since he needed the income. James and Susan Cooper had seven children, and the family enjoyed reading together in the evenings. In her diary, Small Family Memories, the Coopers' daughter Susan (who was named after her mother) recalled one evening when her father was reading a new novel aloud that he didn't like. Susan wrote that he threw the novel down and proclaimed, 'I could write you a better book than that myself!'

And so he did. Cooper, who apparently disliked even writing letters, set to work on Precaution: A Novel. It was about morals and manners and was likely influenced by the work of Jane Austen, whose popular novels were accounts of proper protocol and behavior. Precaution: A Novel was published in 1820. Although not a huge success, it met with enough critical and financial acclaim to encourage Cooper to write more.

Cooper's Literary Legacy

The following year, Cooper produced his second novel, The Spy: A Tale of Neutral Ground. Like readers today, the public in Cooper's time loved stories of espionage, as well as the patriotic treatment of George Washington and the American Revolution. Based on a character named Harvey Birch, The Spy was an immediate popular success.

Cooper's next novel, The Pioneers, introduced his quintessential American hero Natty Bumppo, whom he featured in subsequent works, including The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deer Slayer (1841). These five novels became known as the Leatherstocking Tales. Collectively, these works brought up some important themes of conflict over ownership of the new country. Cooper added a variety of Native American characters and presented their points of view. Among the other characters were British loyalists, American patriots, farmers and hunters. Eventually, the conflicts were resolved when diverse groups intermarried, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Cooper's Literary Style

Cooper is often regarded as a romantic writer, among the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe. The romantic movement in literature originated in Europe and was characterized by an emphasis on the beauty of nature, reliance on emotion rather than reason, individuality, and the inherent goodness of all humans. Romantic characters are often very individualistic and of high moral standing. Natty Bumppo is such a romantic hero. The child of white parents, he was raised by the Delaware tribe, but educated by Christians. He is brave, skillful, and larger than life and represents a model for an idealistic American folk hero.

Cooper was more prolific than many other romantic writers of the period. He wrote many more books, including The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea (1824), Lionel Lincoln (1825), The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), and the Littlepage Trilogy (1845-46). He also wrote several books on naval history, such as The History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839), The Cruise of the Somers (1844), and Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers (1846). Cooper continued to write until his death in 1851, producing several more novels, short stories, and an unfinished history, New York: or The Towns of Manhattan. Exactly how many books Cooper published is hard to determine, but most sources list an excess of 50 works.

Cooper's Critics

Not everyone was a fan of Cooper's writing, including some of his contemporaries. American Romantic poet James Russell Lowell criticized Cooper's depiction of women, writing '... the women he draws from one model don't vary / All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.'

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