James Fenimore Cooper

From Academic Kids

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Cooper portrait by John Wesley Jarvis, 1822

James Fenimore Cooper (September 15, 1789September 14, 1851) was a prolific and popular American writer of the early 19th century. He is particularly remembered as a novelist, who wrote numerous sea-stories as well as the historical romances known as the Leatherstocking Tales, featuring frontiersman Natty Bumppo. Among his most famous works is the novel The Last of the Mohicans, which many people consider his masterpiece.

His daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813—1894), was known as an author and philanthropist.


Early life

Cooper was born at Burlington, New Jersey, on the 15th of September 1789. Reared in the wild country round Otsego Lake, New York, on the yet unsettled estates of his father William Cooper, a judge and member of Congress, he was sent to school at Albany and at New Haven, and entered Yale at fourteen, remaining for some time the youngest student on the rolls.

Three years afterwards he joined the United States Navy; but after making a voyage or two in a merchant vessel, to perfect himself in seamanship, and obtaining his lieutenancy, he married and resigned his commission (1811).

Literary career

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James Fenimore Cooper

He settled in Westchester County, New York, the “Neutral Ground” of his earliest American romance, and produced anonymously (1820) his first book, Precaution, a novel of the fashionable school. This was followed (1821) by The Spy, which was very successful at the date of issue; The Pioneers (1823), the first of the Leatherstocking series; and The Pilot (1824), a bold and dashing sea-story. The next was Lionel Lincoln (1825), a feeble and unattractive work; and this was succeeded in 1826 by the famous Last of the Mohicans, a book that is often quoted as its author's masterpiece. Quitting America for Europe he published at Paris The Prairie (1826), the best of his books in nearly all respects, and The Red Rover, (1828), by no means his worst.

At this period the unequal and uncertain talent of Cooper would seem to have been at its best. These excellent novels were, however, succeeded by one very inferior, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829); by The Notions of a Travelling Bachelor (1828); and by The Waterwitch (1830), one of his many sea-stories. In 1830 he entered the lists as a party writer, defending in a series of letters to the National, a Parisian journal, the United States against a string of charges brought against them by the Revue Britannique; and for the rest of his life he continued skirmishing in print, sometimes for the national interest, sometimes for that of the individual, and not infrequently for both at once.

This opportunity of making a political confession of faith appears not only to have fortified him in his own convictions, but to have inspired him with the idea of imposing them on the public through the medium of his art. His next three novels, The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmaue (1832) and The Headsman: or the Abbaye of Vigneron (1833), were designed to exalt the people at the expense of the aristocracy. All were widely read on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Photograph by
Matthew Brady c.1850
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Engraving by
F.O.C. Darley

In 1833 Cooper returned to America, and immediately published A Letter to my Countrymen, in which he gave his own version of the controversy he had been engaged in, and passed some sharp censure on his compatriots for their share in it. This attack he followed up with The Monikins (1835) and The American Democrat (1835); with several sets of notes on his travels and experiences in Europe, among which may be remarked his England (1837), in. three volumes, a burst of vanity and illtemper; and with Homeward Bound, and Home as Found (1838), noticeable as containing a highly idealized portrait of himself.

All these books tended to increase the ill-feeling between author and public; the Whig press was virulent and scandalous in its comments, and Cooper plunged into a series of actions for libel. Victorious in all of them, he returned to his old occupation with something of his old vigour and success. A History of the Navy of the United States (1839), supplemented (1846) by a set of Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers, was succeeded by The Pathfinder (1840), a good “Leatherstocking” novel; by Mercedes of Castile (1840); The Deerslayer (1841); by The Two Admirals and by Wing and Wing (1842); by Wyandotte, The History of a Pocket Handkerchief, and Ned Myers (1843); and by Afloat and Ashore, or the Adventures of Miles Wallingford (1844).

From pure fiction, however, he turned again to the combination of art and controversy in which he had achieved distinction, and in the two Littlepage Manuscripts (1845—1846) he wrote with a great deal of vigour. His next novel was The Crater, or Vulcan's Peak (1847), in which he attempted to introduce supernatural machinery; and this was succeeded by Oak Openings and Jack Tier (1848), the latter a curious rifacimento of The Red Rover; by The Sea Lions (1849); and finally by The Ways of the Hour (1850), another novel with a purpose, and his last book.

Last years and legacy

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James Fenimore Cooper statue

Cooper spend the last years of his life in Cooperstown, New York (named for his father). He died of dropsy on the 14th of September 1851 and a statue was later erected in his honor.

Cooper was certainly one of the most popular 19th century authors. His stories have been translated into nearly all the languages of Europe and into some of those of Asia. Balzac admired him greatly, but with discrimination; Victor Hugo pronounced him greater than the great master of modern romance, and this verdict was echoed by a multitude of inferior readers, who were satisfied with no title for their favourite less than that of “the American Scott.” As a satirist and observer he is simply the “Cooper who's written six volumes to prove he's as good as a Lord” of Lowell's clever portrait; his enormous vanity and his irritability find vent in a sort of dull violence, which is exceedingly tiresome. He was most memorably criticised by Mark Twain whose vicious and amusing "The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper" (http://users.telerama.com/~joseph/cooper/cooper.html) is still read widely in academic circles. It is only as a novelist that he deserves consideration. His qualities are not those of the great masters of fiction; but he had an inexhaustible imagination, some faculty for simple combination of incident, a homely tragic force which is very genuine and effective, and up to a certain point a fine narrative power.

His literary training was inadequate; his vocabulary is limited and his style awkward and pretentious; and he had a fondness for moralizing tritely and obviously, which mars his best passages. In point of conception, each of his three-and-thirty novels is either absolutely good or is possessed of a certain amount of merit; but hitches occur in all, so that every one of them is remarkable rather in its episodes than as a whole. Nothing can be more vividly told than the escape of the Yankee man-of-war through the shoals and from the English cruisers in The Pilot, but there are few things flatter in the range of fiction than the other incidents of the novel.

It is therefore with some show of reason that The Last of the Mohicans, which as a chain of brilliantly narrated episodes is certainly the least faulty in this matter of sustained excellence of execution, should be held to be the best of his works.

Cooper's writings

1820 Precaution: A Novel (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/10365) novel England, 1813-1814
1821 The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/9845) novel Westchester County, New York, 1778
1823 The Pioneers: or The Sources of the Susquehanna novel Leatherstocking, Otsego County, New York, 1793-1794,
1823 Tales for Fifteen: or Imagination and Heart (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2282) 2 short stories written under the pseudonym: "Jane Morgan"
1823 The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/7974) novel John Paul Jones, England, 1780
1825 Lionel Lincoln: or The Leaguer of Boston novel Battle of Bunker Hill, Boston, 1775-1781
1826 The Last of the Mohicans: A narrative of 1757 (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/940) novel Leatherstocking, French and Indian War, Lake George & Adirondacks, 1757
1827 The Prairie (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/6450) novel Leatherstocking, American Midwest, 1805
1828 The Red Rover: A Tale (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/11409) novel Newport, Rhode Island & Atlantic Ocean, pirates, 1759
1828 Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor non-fiction America for European readers
1829 The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish: A Tale (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/8888) novel Western Connecticut, Puritans and Indians, 1660-1676
1830 The Water-Witch: or the Skimmer of the Seas (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/12445) novel New York, smugglers, 1713
1830 Letter to General Lafayette politics France vs. US, cost of government
1831 The Bravo: A Tale (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/10363) novel Venice, 18th century
1832 The Heidenmauer: or, The Benedictines, A Legend of the Rhine novel German Rhineland, 16th century
1832 No Steamboats short story  
1833 The Headsman: The Abbaye des Vignerons (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/10938) novel Geneva, Switzerland, & Alps, 18th century
1834 A Letter to His Countrymen politics Why Cooper temporarily stopped writing
1835 The Monikins (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4092) novel Antarctica, aristocratic monkeys. 1830s
1836 The Eclipse (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/CooEcli.html) memoir Solar eclipse in Cooperstown, New York 1806
1836 Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland (Sketches of Switzerland) travel Hiking in Switzerland, 1828
1836 Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine (Sketches of Switzerland, Part Second) travel Travels France, Rhineland & Switzerland, 1832
1836 A Residence in France: (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/12990) With an Excursion Up the Rhine, and a Second Visit to Switzerland] travel  
1837 Gleanings in Europe: France travel Living, travelling in France, 1826-1828
1837 Gleanings in Europe: England travel Travels in England, 1826, 1828, 1833
1838 Gleanings in Europe: Italy travel Living, travelling in Italy, 1828-1830
1838 The American Democrat : or Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America non-fiction US society and government
1838 The Chronicles of Cooperstown history Local history of Cooperstown, New York
1838 Homeward Bound: or The Chase: A Tale of the Sea (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/9826) novel Atlantic Ocean & North African coast, 1835
1838 Home as Found: Sequel to Homeward Bound (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/10149) novel Eve Effingham, New York City & Otsego County, New York, 1835
1839 The History of the Navy of the United States of America history US Naval history to date
1839 Old Ironsides (http://external.oneonta.edu/cooper/texts/ironsides.html) history History of the Frigate USS Constitution, 1st pub. 1853
1840 The Pathfinder: or the Inland Sea (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1880) novel Leatherstocking, Western New York, 1759
1840 Mercedes of Castile: or, The Voyage to Cathay novel Christopher Columbus in West Indies, 1490s
1841 The Deerslayer: or The First Warpath novel Leatherstocking, Otsego Lake 1740-1745
1842 The Two Admirals novel England & English Channel, Scottish uprising, 1745
1842 The Wing-and-Wing: le Le Feu-Follet (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/11957) (Jack o Lantern) novel Italian coast, Napoleonic Wars, 1745
1843 Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2329), also published as
  • Le Mouchoir: An Autobiographical Romance
  • The French Governess: or The Embroidered Handkerchief
  • Die franzosischer Erzieheren: oder das gestickte Taschentuch
novelette Social satire, France & New York, 1830s
1843 Richard Dale    
1843 Wyandott: or The Hutted Knoll. A Tale (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/10434) [1] (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/eafbin2/browse-eafall?id=eaf073v1&data=/texts/eaf/browse&tag=public) novel Butternut Valley of Otsego County, New York, 1763-1776
1843 Ned Myers: or Life before the Mast (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/9788) biography of Cooper's shipmate
1844 Afloat and Ashore: or The Adventures of Miles Wallingford. A Sea Tale (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/8647) novel Ulster County & worldwide, 1795-1805
1844 Miles Wallingford: Sequel to Afloat and Ashore (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/11243) novel Ulster County & worldwide, 1795-1805
1844 Proceedings of the Naval Court-Martial in the Case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, &c.    
1845Satanstoe: or The Littlepage Manuscripts, a Tale of the Colony (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/8880) novel New York City, Westchester County, Albany, Adirondacks, 1758
1845 The Chainbearer; or, The Littlepage Manuscripts novel Westchester County, Adirondacks, 1780s (next generation)
1846 The Redskins; or, Indian and Injin: Being the Conclusion of the Littlepage Manuscripts novel Anti-rent wars, Adirondacks, 1845
1846 Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers biography  
1847 The Crater; or, Vulcan's Peak: A Tale of the Pacific (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/11573) (Mark's Reef) novel New Jersey & Pacific desert island, early 1800s
1848 Jack Tier: or the Florida Reefs (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4796)
a.k.a. Captain Spike: or The Islets of the Gulf
novel Florida Keys, Mexican War, 1846
1848 The Oak Openings: or the Bee-Hunter (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4215) novel Kalamazoo River, Michigan, War of 1812
1849 The Sea Lions: The Lost Sealers (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/10545) novel Long Island & Antarctica, 1819-1820
1850 The Ways of the Hour novel "Dukes County, New York," murder/courtroom mystery novel, legal corruption, women's rights, 1846
1850 Upside Down: or Philosophy in Petticoats play satirization of socialism
1851 The Lake Gun (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2328) short story Seneca Lake in New York, political satire based on folklore
1851 New York: or The Towns of Manhattan (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2482) history Unfinished, history of New York City, 1st pub. 1864

Sources for this table include:

External links

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