James Fenimore Cooper: Contribution as American Author

Also Read

      YOUTH.—James Fenimore Cooper's place in American literature is chiefly based on his romantic stories of the pioneer and the Indian. We have seen how Captain John Smith won the ear of the world by his early story of Indian adventure, how Charles Brockden Brown in Edgar Huntly deliberately selected the Indian and the life of the wilderness as good material for an American writer of romance. Cooper chose these very materials and used them with a success attained by no other writer. Let us see how his early life fitted him to write of the Indian, the pioneer, the forest, and the sea.

James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper

      He was born in Burlington, New Jersey, in 1789, the year made memorable by the French Revolution. While he was still an infant, the Cooper family moved to the southeastern shore of Otsego Lake and founded the village of Cooperstown, at the point where the Susquehanna River furnishes an outlet for the lake. In this romantic place he passed the most impressionable part of his boyhood.

      At the close of the eighteenth century, Cooperstown was one of the outposts of civilization. Few clearings had been made in the vast mysterious forests, which appealed so deeply to the boy's imagination, and which still sheltered deer, bear, and Indians. The most vivid local story which his young ears heard was the account of the Cherry Valley massacre, which had taken place a few miles from Cooperstown only eleven years before he was born. Cooper himself felt the fascination of the trackless forests before he communicated it to his readers.

      He entered Yale in 1802, but he did not succeed in eradicating his love of outdoor life and of the unfettered habits of the pioneer, and did not remain to graduate. The faculty dismissed him in his junior year. It was unfortunate that he did not study more and submit to the restraints and discipline of regular college life; for his prose often shows in its carelessness of construction and lack of restraint his need for that formal discipline which was for the moment so grievous to him.

      After Cooper had left college, his father decided to have him prepare for the navy. As there was no naval academy, he adopted the usual course of having the boy serve a year on a merchant vessel. After this apprenticeship, Cooper entered the navy as a midshipman. From such experiences he gained sufficient knowledge of the ocean and ships to enable him to become the author of some of our best tales of the sea. He resigned from the navy, however, in 1811, when he married.

      BECOMES AN AUTHOR.—Cooper had reached the age of thirty without even attempting to write a book. In 1820 he remarked one day to his wife that he thought he could write a better novel than the one which he was then reading to her. She immediately challenged him to try, and he promptly wrote the novel called Precaution. He chose to have this deal with English life because the critics of his time considered American subjects commonplace and uninteresting. As he knew nothing of English life at first hand, he naturally could not make the pages of Precaution vivid with touches of local color.

      This book was soon forgotten, and Cooper might never have written another, had not some sensible friends insisted that it was his patriotic duty to make American subjects fashionable. A friend related to him the story of a spy of Westchester County, New York, who during the Revolution served the American cause with rare fidelity and sagacity. Cooper was then living in this very county, and, being attracted by the subject, he soon completed the first volume of The Spy, which was at once printed. As he still doubted, however, whether his countrymen would read "a book that treated of their own familiar interests," he delayed writing the second volume for several months. When he did start to write it, his publisher feared that it might be too long to pay, so before Cooper had thought out the intervening chapters, he wrote the last chapter and had it printed and paged to satisfy the publisher. When The Spy was published in 1821, it immediately sold well in America, although such was the bondage to English standards of criticism that many who read the book hesitated to express an opinion until they had heard the verdict from England. When the English received the book, however, they fairly devoured it, and it became one of the most widely read tales of the early nineteenth century. Harvey Birch, the hero of the story, is one of the great characters of our early fiction.

OTSEGO HALL, COOPERSTOWN Cooper now adopted writing as a profession. In less than thirty years, he wrote more than thirty romances, in most cases of two volumes each. When he went to Europe in 1826, the year of the publication of The Last of the Mohicans, he found that his work was as well known abroad as at home. Sir Walter Scott, who met Cooper in Paris, mentions in his diary for November 6, 1826, a reception by a French princess, and adds the note, "Cooper was there, so the American and Scotch lions took the field together."

      LATER YEARS.—After Cooper's return from Europe in 1833, he spent the most of the remaining seventeen years of his life in writing books at his early home, known as Otsego Hall, in Cooperstown. Here in the summer of 1837 there occurred an unfortunate incident which embittered the rest of his life and for a while made him the most unpopular of American authors. Some of his townspeople cut down one of his valuable trees and otherwise misused the picnic grounds on a part of his estate fronting the lake. When he remonstrated, the public denounced him and ordered his books removed from the local library. He then forbade the further use of his grounds by the public. Many of the newspapers throughout the state misrepresented his action, and he foolishly sued them for libel. From that time the press persecuted him. He sued the Albany Evening Journal, edited by Thurlow Weed, and received four hundred dollars damage. Weed thereupon wrote in the New York Tribune:—

      "The value of Mr. Cooper's character has been judicially determined. It is worth exactly four hundred dollars." Cooper promptly sued The Tribune, and was awarded two hundred dollars. In the heat of this controversy Thurlow Weed incautiously opened Cooper's The Pathfinder, which had just appeared, and sat up all night to finish the book. During the progress of these suits, Cooper unfortunately wrote a novel, Home as Found, satirizing, from a somewhat European point of view, the faults of his countrymen. A friend, trying to dissuade him from publishing such matter, wrote, "You lose hold on the American public by rubbing down their shins with brickbats, as you do."

      Cooper, however, published the book in 1838, and then there was a general rush to attack him. A critic of his History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839), a work which is still an authority for the time of which it treats, abused the book and made reflections on Cooper's veracity. The author brought suit for libel, and won his case in a famous trial in which he was his own lawyer. These unfortunate incidents, which would have been avoided by a man like Benjamin Franklin, diminished the circulation of Cooper's books in America during the rest of his life.


      Even on his deathbed he thought of the unjust criticism from which he had suffered, and asked his family not to aid in the preparation of any account of his life. He died in 1851 at the age of sixty-two, and was buried at Cooperstown. Lounsbury thus concludes an excellent biography of this great writer of romance:—

      "America has had among her representatives of the irritable race of writers many who have shown far more ability to get on pleasantly with their fellows than Cooper…. But she counts on the scanty roll of her men of letters the name of no one who acted from purer patriotism or loftier principle. She finds among them all no manlier nature and no more heroic soul."

      GREATEST ROMANCES.—Cooper's greatest achievement is the series known as The Leatherstocking Tales. These all have as their hero Leatherstocking, a pioneer variously known as Hawkeye, La Longue Carabine (The Long Rifle), and Natty Bumppo. A statue of this great original creation of American fiction now overlooks Otsego Lake. Leatherstocking embodies the fearlessness, the energy, the rugged honesty, of the worthiest of our pioneers, of those men who opened up our vast inland country and gave it to us to enjoy. Ulysses is no more typically Grecian than Leatherstocking is American.

      The Leatherstocking Tales are five in number. The order in which they should be read to follow the hero from youth to old age is as follows:—

      [Footnote: The figures in parenthesis refer to the date of publication.] The Deerslayer; or The First War Path (1841). The Last of the Mohicans; a Narrative of 1757 (1826). The Pathfinder; or the Inland Sea (1840). The Pioneers; or the Sources of the Susquehanna (1823). The Prairie; a Tale (1827)


      This sequence may be easily remembered from the fact that the first chief words in the titles, "Deerslayer," "Mohicans," "Pathfinder," "Pioneers," and "Prairie," are arranged in alphabetical order. These books are the prose Iliad and Odyssey of the eighteenth-century American pioneer. Instead of relating the fall of Ilium, Cooper tells of the conquest of the wilderness. The wanderings or Leatherstocking in the forest and the wilderness are substituted for those of Ulysses on the sea. This story could not have been related with much of the vividness of an eye-witness of the events, if it had been postponed beyond Cooper's day. Before that time had forever passed, he fixed in living romance one remarkable phase of our country's development. The persons of this romantic drama were the Pioneer and the Indian; the stage was the trackless forest and the unbroken wilderness.


      The Last of the Mohicans has been the favorite of the greatest number of readers. In this story Chingachgook, the Indian, and Uncas, his son, share with Hawkeye our warmest admiration. The American boy longs to enter the fray to aid Uncas. Cooper knew that the Indian had good traits, and he embodied them in these two red men. Scott took the same liberty of presenting the finer aspects of chivalry and neglecting its darker side. Cooper, however, does show an Indian fiend in Magua.

      Cooper's work in this series brings us face to face with the activities of nature and man in God's great out of doors. Cooper makes us realize that the life of the pioneer was not without its elemental spirit of poetry. We may feel something of this spirit in the reply of Leatherstocking to the trembling Cora, when she asked him at midnight what caused a certain fearful sound:—

      "'Lady,' returned the scout, solemnly, 'I have listened to all the sounds of the woods for thirty years, as a man will listen, whose life and death depend so often on the quickness of his ears. There is no whine of the panther, no whistle of the catbird, nor any invention of the devilish Mingos, that can cheat me. I have heard the forest moan like mortal men in their affliction; often and again have I listened to the wind playing its music in the branches of the girdled trees; and I have heard the lightning cracking in the air, like the snapping of blazing brush, as it spitted forth sparks and forked flames; but never have I thought that I heard more than the pleasure of him, who sported with the things of his hand. But neither the Mohicans, nor I, who am a white man without a cross, can explain the cry just heard.'"

      In addition to the five Leatherstocking Tales, three other romances show special power. They are:—

 The Spy; a Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821). The Pilot; a Tale of the Sea (1824). The Red Rover; a Tale (1828).

      The last two show Cooper's mastery in telling stories of the sea. Tom Coffin, in The Pilot, is a fine creation.

      Some of the more than thirty works of fiction that Cooper wrote are almost unreadable, and some appeal more to special students than to general readers. Satanstoe (1845), for instance, gives vivid pictures of mid-eighteenth century colonial life in New York.

      The English critic's query, "Who reads an American book?" could have received the answer in 1820, "The English public is reading Irving." In 1833, Morse, the inventor of the electric telegraph, had another answer ready—"Europe is reading Cooper." He said that as soon as Cooper's works were finished they were published in thirty-four different places in Europe. American literature was commanding attention for its original work.

      GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.—Cooper's best romances are masterpieces of action and adventure in the forest and on the sea. No other writer has so well told the story of the pioneer. He is not a successful novelist of the drawing-room. His women are mediocre and conventional, of the type described in the old Sunday school books. But when he leaves the haunts of men and enters the forest, power comes naturally to his pen. His greatest stage of action is the forest. He loved wild nature and the sea.

      He often availed himself of the Gothic license of improbability, his characters being frequently rescued from well-nigh impossible situations. His plots were not carefully planned in advance; they often seem to have been suggested by an inspiration of the moment. He wrote so rapidly that he was careless about the construction of his sentences, which are sometimes not even grammatical.

      It is easy, however, to exaggerate Cooper's faults, which do not, after all, seriously interfere with the enjoyment of his works. A teacher, who was asked to edit critically The Last of the Mohicans, said that the first time he read it, the narrative carried him forward with such a rush, and bound him with such a spell, that he did not notice a single blemish in plot or style. A boy reading the same book obeyed the order to retire at eleven, but having reached the point where Uncas was taken prisoner by the Hurons, found the suspense too great, and quietly got the book and read the next four chapters in bed. Cooper has in a pre-eminent degree the first absolutely necessary qualification of the writer of fiction—the power to hold the interest. In some respects he resembles Scott, but although the "Wizard of the North" has a far wider range of excellence, Leatherstocking surpasses any single one of Scott's creations and remains a great original character added to the literature of the world. These romances have strong ethical influence over the young. They are as pure as mountain air, and they teach a love for manly, noble, and brave deeds. "He fought for a principle," says Cooper's biographer, "as desperately as other men fight for life."

Previous Post Next Post