In Defense of Cooper

By Franklin, Wayne | Humanities, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview

In Defense of Cooper


Franklin, Wayne, Humanities


AUTHOR OF THE FAMOUS five-part Leather-Stocking series, twenty-seven other novels, and a box of historical and miscellaneous works, James Fenimore Cooper remains one of the most innovative yet most misunderstood figures in the history of American culture. Almost single-handedly in the 1820s, Cooper invented the key forms of American fiction-the Western, the sea tale, the Revolutionary romance-forms that set a suggestive agenda for subsequent writers, even for Hollywood and television. In producing and shrewdly marketing fully 10 percent of all American novels in the 1820s, most of them best sellers, Cooper made it possible for other aspiring authors to earn a living by their writings. Cooper can be said to have invented not just an assortment of literary genres but the very career of the American writer.

Despite Cooper's importance, he continues to be profoundly misunderstood, and this is partly his own fault. Although it was becoming common for writers in the early nineteenth century to indulge public curiosity about their lives, the usually chatty Cooper turned reticent when asked for biographical details. Whereas contemporaries, such as Sir Walter Scott and Washington Irving, made prior arrangements for authorized biographies, Cooper refused to follow suit. When nearing death in 1851, he insisted that his wife and children protect his life and his papers from outsiders. His private documents remained out of reach to most scholars until the 1990s.

The biographical problem is only one reason for Cooper's languishing reputation. Another reason is that he's always been the object of strong feelings, pro and con. Almost from the start of his career, Cooper was admired, imitated, recited, and memorized. In his day, he was reportedly the foreign author most widely translated into German, and what has been called "Coopermania" hit France especially hard as early as the 1820s. Yet, from the outset, he was also subjected to various criticisms that, when combined with later politically motivated assaults, have hampered true appreciation of his work. Critics at times faulted him for his unconvincing treatment of genteel characters, his occasional bad grammar, his leisurely pacing, and his general inability to eclipse his greatest contemporary, Sir Walter Scott.

The criticisms were not without merit. But the problems in Cooper's first books need to be understood in their proper context. At least some of Cooper's failings were owing to the very newness of what he was attempting. As an American venturing into a field where few of his fellow citizens had had any success, he was undertaking something quite different from what Scott had accomplished. It was hardly clear at the time how American materials (the frontier or the Revolution, for instance) might form a basis for literary art. Robert E. Spiller summed up this point in 1931 by noting that Cooper "always suffered from the crudities of the experimenter."

Nor was he a perfectionist. He couldn't afford to be, because, more than anything else, Cooper, at the start of his career, was driven by an imperious need for money. After his father's death in 1809, Cooper watched as the large inheritance he had been promised simply evaporated. By 1820, Cooper was so desperate for resources to pay current bills and old debts that, madly reasoning from Scott's literary success with the Waverley novels, he launched his own career in the expectation that it would solve all his financial ills. The need for cash kept Cooper pushing production as, had there been more time and money, he probably would not have done. Not until he had written several books was he at last in a position to enjoy a good return on new projects; then he could attend to the early criticisms.

Publishing was itself a slowly emerging trade. Before 1826, Cooper produced nis books completely at his own risk, employing first one and then a second New York bookseller as his agent. Those men made all the practical arrangements with paper suppliers, printers, binders, and wholesale and retail merchants, but they were not responsible for editing the books, reading proofs, or giving Cooper any regular form of advice-activities that would eventually form a major part of the publisher's functions. …

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