James Fenimore Cooper

James Fenimore Cooper, 1789–1851, American novelist, b. Burlington, N.J., as James Cooper. He was the first important American writer to draw on the subjects and landscape of his native land in order to create a vivid myth of frontier life.

In 1790 Cooper's family moved to Cooperstown, N.Y., a frontier settlement founded by his father near Otsego Lake. The landscape and history of the area was to greatly influence many of his most famous works. Sent to Yale at 13, Cooper was dismissed for a disciplinary reason in his third year. Soon after he went to sea; commissioned as a U.S. midshipman, he served until 1811, at which time he married and settled into life as a gentleman farmer.

Cooper's literary career, which covers a period of 30 years and includes more than 50 publications, began in 1820 with the appearance of Precaution. Imitative of the English novel of manners, this book failed to gain an audience; but his next work, The Spy (1821), a patriotic story of the American Revolution, was an immediate success. With The Pioneers (1823), the first of the famous Leatherstocking Tales, and The Pilot (1823), an adventure of the high seas, Cooper's reputation as the first major American novelist was established.

In 1826 Cooper went to France, nominally as American consul at Lyons. He spent several years abroad, publishing such novels as The Red Rover (1827), The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), and The Water-Witch (1830), romances of American life on land and sea. In Notions of the Americans (1828) he defended his country to European critics; but upon his return home, repelled by what he saw as the abuses of American democracy, Cooper became the staunch social critic of American society. Such works as The American Democrat (1838) and the fictional Homeward Bound and its sequel, Home as Found (both 1838), express the conservative, aristocratic social views that made him quite unpopular; his later life was filled with many quarrels and lawsuits over his works.

In his most important novels, the group comprising the Leatherstocking Tales—which in order of the narrative are The Deerslayer (1841), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Pathfinder (1840), The Pioneers (1823), and The Prairie (1827)—Cooper skillfully dramatized the clash between the frontier wilderness and the encroaching civilization. Named for their chief character, the forthright frontiersman Natty Bumppo, nicknamed Leatherstocking, the Leatherstocking Tales are notable for their descriptive power, their mastery of native background, and their romanticized portrayal of the Native American.

Cooper's later works include the novels Afloat and Ashore and its sequel, Miles Wallingford (both 1844), and the Littlepage trilogy—Satanstoe (1845), The Chainbearer (1845), and The Redskins (1846)—a study of the conflict between the landholding and the propertyless classes in New York state, in which Cooper shows himself a traditional defender of the rights of property.

Cooper has been criticized for his extravagant plots, his conventional characters, and his stilted dialogue. Nevertheless, he remains the first great American novelist, a vital and original writer of romances of the wilderness and of the sea, and a harshly astute critic of the growing and stumbling American democracy.

Bibliography

See his correspondence (ed. by his grandson, J. F. Cooper, 2 vol., 1922, repr. 1971); biographical and critical studies by R. E. Spiller (1931, repr. 1963), T. R. Lounsbury (1882, repr. 1968), J. P. McWilliams, Jr. (1972), S. Railton (1978), W. Franklin (1982), and W. P. Kelly (1984); bibliography by R. E. Spiller and P. C. Blackburn (1934, repr. 1969).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

James Fenimore Cooper
Donald A. Ringe.
Twayne Publishers, 1962
James Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage
George Dekker; John P. Williams.
Routledge, 1997
The Pioneers
James Fenimore Cooper; James D. Wallace.
Oxford University Press, 1999
The Deerslayer
James Fenimore Cooper; H. Daniel Peck.
Oxford University Press, 1993
The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757
James Fenimore Cooper; James Daugherty.
World Publishing, 1957
Plotting America's Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales
William P. Kelly.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1983
Cooper's Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading
Geoffrey Rans.
University of North Carolina Press, 1991
The Lasting of the Mohicans: History of An American Myth
Martin Barker; Roger Sabin.
University Press of Mississippi, 1995
"Snug Stored Below": The Politics of Race in James Fenimore Cooper's the Pioneers
Doolen, Andrew.
Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 2, Autumn 2001
Cross-Cultural Hybridity in James Fenimore Cooper's the Last of the Mohicans
Smith, Lindsey Claire.
ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), Vol. 20, No. 3, September 2006
Fire-Water in the Frontier Romance: James Fenimore Cooper and "Indian Nature." (Native Americans and Euro-American Writers)
Davis, Randall C.
Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 2, Autumn 1994
Natural Right and the American Imagination: Political Philosophy in Novel Form
Catherine H. Zuckert.
Rowman & Littlefield, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Cooper's Political Rhetoric"
Deadly Musings: Violence and Verbal Form in American Fiction
Michael Kowalewski.
Princeton University Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. II "James Fenimore Cooper: Violence and the Language of Romance"
Maritime Fiction: Sailors and the Sea in British and American Novels, 1719-1917
John Peck.
Palgrave, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "American Sea Fiction: Cooper, Poe, Dana"
The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin
Fiona J. Stafford.
Clarendon Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "New Ideas of Race: The Last of the Mohicans"
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