James Fenimore Cooper, born on September 14, 1789, was not young America’s first novelist, but he was the first successful one. His adventure romances, especially his sea yarns and his frontier Leatherstocking Tales won wide readership around the world. Later, his disputative nature and the savage mockery of Mark Twain would nearly destroy his American reputation. But he remained widely read and admired in Europe cited as an inspiration by Alexandre Dumas père, Victor Hugo, and later writers including D. H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad.
James was the eleventh of twelve children of Judge William Cooper and Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper. He was descended from a long line of Quakers who had invested in land in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. From his home in Burlington, New Jersey, the William rose to prominence and a lawyer and to vast wealth in post-Revolutionary War land speculation in Pennsylvania and upstate New York partly by buying land warrants awarded to Revolutionary veterans.
William was serving in Congress when young James was born in Burlington. But he had dreams of building a great dynastic estate. When James was just a year old the family moved to the wilds of upstate New York where his father had large holdings on the shores of Lake Otsego and the source of the Susquehanna River. He platted a town there which officially became known as Cooperstown in 1807.
The family lived in a cabin by the lake at first and the boys were free to roam the forests, streams, and the lake becoming accomplished woodsmen. The village was also in the heart of the territory of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, and the boy learned much of their lore. He also grew to admire a rugged long hunter who visited his family regularly on his rambles between the woods and the town where he sold his meat and pelts.
William started construction on his grand Otsego Hall which was completed in 1799 when James was 10 years old. Already several of the children had died. William impressed the survivors with his dynastic dreams, but also with a philosophy that great generosity and charity were the responsibility of the wealthy. The family converted to the Episcopalians and young James was particularly devout.
At the age of 13 James entered Yale where he was a good, but rebellious student. He was expelled in his third year, supposedly for blowing up another student’s door with gun powder. An older brother had been similarly expelled from Princeton in 1802 being the most likely culprit in the burning of Nassau Hall. Their sister Hannah wrote of her brothers, “They are very wild and show plainly they have been bred in the woods.”
The family fortunes were already in a steady, long decline when James was cut loose from formal education. The 17 year old decided to make his own way by going to sea in 1806. He signed on as a common sailor on the merchant ship Sterling. Sailing first to England with a cargo of flour, Cooper witnessed the ship being boarded by a press gang of the Royal Navy, who made off with at least one of the crew. Later he sailed on the Sterling to the Mediterranean. He stayed ashore for several weeks in Spain as the captain strove to obtain a cargo for the long voyage home. His experiences there would be incorporated into later work.
After almost a year at sea and with a fine record as a seaman, Cooper returned to the States where his father’s political connection secured him a place in the Navy. He received his commission as a midshipman on January 1, 1808. He was first assigned to the USS Vesuvius, an 82 foot bomb ketch that carried twelve guns and a thirteen inch mortar based in New York.
His connections and knowledge of up-state New York next got him a plum assignment, service under Lieutenant Melancthon Taylor Woolsey near Oswego on Lake Ontario, building the brig USS Oneida for service on the lake. What he learned of naval construction and by roaming the woods once again in his leisure time became incorporated in his later writing.
Next, he accompanied Woolsey to Niagara Falls and then to service on a Lake Champlain gun boat until the lake froze over in 1809. Then he was assigned to the USS Wasp under the command of Captain James Lawrence, who was also from Burlington and a personal friend of Cooper’s. Had he been able to stay on board, he might have share in Lawrence’s later War of 1812 glory.
But despite his love for the Navy, the death of his father that same year called Cooper home to inherit his share of the estate, which was dwindling under the management of his older brothers.
Back at home he met and fell in love with lovely Susan Augusta de Lancey a member of a wealthy family who had been Revolutionary War Tories. The couple was married on January 1, 1811, exactly two years after he entered the Navy, at her family’s home in Westchester County. They returned to Cooperstown to help manage the estate.
Between 1812 and 1814 all four Cooper’s surviving elder brothers died in a succession of accidents and calamities, each of them having served briefly as executor of their father’s estate. Under their management the family wealth had virtually vanished. Cooper was left with large debts and financial responsibility for his brothers’ wives and children. He managed, barely, to save Otsego Hall and some property in the immediate vicinity of the village, but large holdings elsewhere had to be sold, often at distressed prices as the War devastated the American economy.
Meanwhile Cooper and his wife had their own growing family to attend to. Eventually there would be seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood. Daughter Susan Fenimore Cooper became a writer of note herself, an early suffragist, and the frequent editor of her father’s work. Other descendent also became writers.
By 1820 Cooper was living mostly in New York City pursuing business interests and continuing to pay his family’s debts. O.ne evening he was reading a popular novel when he threw it down in disgust declaring that he could write better. His wife dared him to do so.
He accepted the challenge and dashed off his first novel, Precaution, a domestic story of manners in the style of Jane Austin. It was published anonymously both the U.S. and England. It was a failure on this side of the ocean, but a critical and popular success in England where it was assumed to be the work of another gentlewoman. His British publisher stirred up a storm of publicity when he announced the true author was an American gentleman.
Cooper found that he enjoyed writing. Moreover he need the income writing could provide. He had real success with his second book, The Spy (1821) set in his wife’s Westchester County during the Revolution. It was a historical romance with elements of high adventure. The public appetite for it spurred similar efforts.
In 1823 Cooper introduced his most enduring hero, Natty Bumpo a/k/a Leatherstocking, Hawkeye, the Trapper, Pathfinder, Deerslayer in The Pioneers, set in the country around Lake Otsego just as it was in Coopers boyhood in the 1790’s. In it he established themes to which he would return again and again—the clash of civilization with the wild, the dual natures of Indians as either noble savages or sadistic murderers, dynastic family expectations and duties.
Bumpo was molded on the real long hunter of Cooper’s youth, but he would also incorporate tales drawn from the real life Daniel Boone in later installments in the series that became known as The Letherstocking Tales, which were, by the way, may father’s favorite books growing up in Missouri a century later.
Cooper used his knowledge of the sea in adventure novels like, The Pilot about John Paul Jones and his raids on English ports during the Revolution; Red Rover, a tale of piracy; and The Water-Witch about smuggling in New York waters in the early 18th Century. Another early novel, Lionel Lincoln was set during the English occupation of Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Cooper had his greatest success in the book still regarded as his masterpiece, The Last of the Mohicans set during the French and Indian Wars. A Natty Bumpo, known as Hawkeye, teams with Native American friends the noble Chingachgook and his son Uncas to save two English captive women from the clutches of the French and their barbaric Huron allies. He is accompanied by an English officer, the fiancé of one of the women, who despises him. The story is a rip roaring adventure from beginning to end, salted with descriptions of unimaginable brutality. Yet Coopers somewhat turgid style make the book a tough slog for modern readers, who none-the-less revel in the several movies and television adaptations.
Cooper followed up with The Prairie, published in 1827, chronicled 83 year old Natty Bumpo’s final year as The Trapper—offering aid and assistance to a family seeking land in the newly opened prairies of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804.
In 1826—the same year Mohicans was published—Cooper’s excellent political connections with Monroe administration for his service to the Republicans in New York politics, paid off with an appointment as U.S. Consul at Lyons, France. The duties of such a diplomatic plum were not onerous. Cooper had plenty of time to tour the continent with his family, gathering inspiration for future work.
He continued to write and to supervise his English and European publication where he was even more popular than at home. His two sea novels were written and published during this period. He also made friends with the elderly Marquise de Lafayette, who he had first met as a member of the Welcoming Committee in New York for the old hero’s 1824 American tour.
But Cooper also became embroiled in bitter controversy, the fall-out of which would consume his attention for some years. In 1832 he responded to a bitter attack on the United States published in the Revue Britannique with a series of articles in the Parisian journal Le National in which he attacked European anti-republicanism. But what should have been a patriotic rebuke, was tempered with some of his own harsh criticism of American excesses, particularly a kind of avaricious admission that over powered the loftier aims of the Revolution. The controversy was intense and when excerpts were printed back home, Cooper found himself under attack by the Whig press.
Meanwhile Cooper expounded on his raillery against privilege and power in three new novels. The Bravo set in the Republic of Venice where the shadowy rule of an oligarchy subtlety—and not so subtly—thwart the will and needs of the people. The Heidenmauer set during the turmoil of the Reformation in the Rhineland Germany laid out the conflicts between the old Church, the new, the aristocracy and the rising new bourgeoisie with all parties coming off as corrupt and unsympathetic. A was town caught in the conflict between its feudal baron and a wealthy monastery. The Headsman set among the Alps and in Geneva, Switzerland explored similar themes. Although all sold well in Europe, they were failures in the United States where readers were frankly uninterested in European politics. Victor Hugo would find them inspirational.
When his diplomatic posting ended with the election of Andrew Jackson, Cooper and his family returned to New York. He was stunned by both the failure of his European trilogy and by the vicious response the books in the press. Wrapped in self-righteous rage, he penned A Letter to My Countrymen, an account of the controversies and an indictment of many aspects of American society. Naturally the uproar in the press, particularly the Whig press, only intensified and included many sharp personal attacks on Cooper and his family.
Cooper announced that he was retiring from writing novels. He spent much of the next four years filing law suit after law suit charging his critics with slander. Although he won every suit his contentious behavior drew scorn among the public.
For several years he only published a series of travel books, recounting his European travels. This was a highly popular genre in America at the time and helped win back reader loyalty.
In 1834 Cooper decided to reopen Otsego Hall, which had fallen into disrepair in his long absence. At first he spent his winters in New York City and summered in Cooperstown, but after 1839 he made it his primary residence once again.
During those years Cooper worked hard researching—including conducting extensive interviews with surviving figures—his long dreamed of History of the Navy of the United States of America which he finally published in 1839. It won praise, but also attacks from some officers who felt they had been slighted. Details of some battles, including those on Lake Erie were challenged. But modern naval historians now regard it as the most authoritive early history of the Navy.
Other naval non-fiction followed. He came to the defense of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, one of the leading critics of his naval history, Mackenzie was court-martialed after he hanged three young sailors, including the son of the Secretary of War, for mutiny aboard the USS Somers. It was this sensational case that inspired Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers was published in 1846, and Old Ironsides, about then USS Constitution was issued posthumously.
14 years after The Prairie, Cooper finally returned to novels with a new installment in the Leatherstocking Tales. The Pathfinder followed Natty Bumpo’s further exploits in the French and Indian Wars along the shores of Lake Ontario. It is the only one of the novels where the hunter, called La Longue Carabine in this book, falls in love with a sweet younger woman, who in the end he nobly releases to the arms of a younger man. It was followed by a prequel going all the way back to the hero’s coming of age in The Deerslayer.
In his final years, Cooper remained prolific turning out fiction and non-fiction alike. Too numerous to mention all, his output included Autobiography of a Pocket-Handerchief. A social satire in France and New York, told by an expensive handkerchief; the three volumes of the multi-generational The Littlepage Manuscripts accounting a family spanning well established and genteel Westchester County to the frontier settlements in the Adirondacks; The Crater; or, Vulcan’s Peak a novel set in the South Pacific with utopian themes and supernatural elements; and The Ways of the Hour considered America’s first murder mystery novel with courtroom scenes and touching on women’s rights
On September 14, 1851, just a day short of his 62nd birthday, Cooper died of dropsy at Otsego Hall. He was buried in the church yard Christ Episcopal Church, which he had loyally served as a vestryman since 1836 and generously endowed. His wife Susan was laid at his side only a few months later.
In New York City a large memorial program was held the next February co-chaired by Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, and, surprisingly, an old Federalist and Whig, Daniel Webster.
As noted above, despite his early popularity, Cooper’s literary reputation was pretty much destroyed in this country by Mark Twain in his 1895 essay Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses perhaps fitting for the writer who Balzac hailed as “the American [Sir Walter] Scott—another writer famously scorned by Twain. Most modern American critics have echoed Twain’s harsh assessments. With the possible exception of The Last of the Mohicans, which is frequently assigned in college American Literature survey classes, he is seldom read here.
He is memorialized in his home town with a statue and his name on an art museum. Once elegant Otsego Hall has long vanished. Cooperstown is now better known as the faux birthplace of baseball and home of the Hall of Fame than it is for the once most famous writer in America.
On the other hand the French are still wild for him. Go figure.