James Fenimore Cooper

James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper

Portrait by John Wesley Jarvis
Born September 15, 1789(1789-09-15)
Burlington, New Jersey
Died September 14, 1851(1851-09-14) (aged 61)
Cooperstown, New York
Occupation Novelist
Genres Historical fiction
Literary movement Colonial Realism
Notable work(s) The Last of the Mohicans

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



Early life

James Fenimore Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey, the son of William and Elizabeth (Fenimore) Cooper. His father was a United States Congressman. Shortly after his first birthday, his family moved to Cooperstown, New York, a community founded by his father.

At 13, Cooper was enrolled at Yale, but he did not obtain a degree due to being expelled. His expulsion stemmed from a dangerous prank that involved him blowing up another student's door.[1] Another less dangerous prank consisted of training a donkey to sit in a professor's chair.[2] He obtained work as a sailor on a merchant vessel, and at 18, joined the United States Navy. He obtained the rank of midshipman before leaving in 1811.

At age 21, he married Susan DeLancey. They had seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood. The writer Paul Fenimore Cooper was a great-grandson.


He anonymously published his first book, Precaution (1820). He soon issued several others. In 1823, he published The Pioneers; this was the first of the Leatherstocking series, featuring Natty Bumppo, the resourceful American woodsman at home with the Delaware Indians and especially their chief Chingachgook. Cooper's most famous novel, Last of the Mohicans (1826), became one of the most widely read American novels of the 19th century. The book was written in New York City, where Cooper and his family lived from 1822 to 1826.

In 1826 Cooper moved his family to Europe, where he sought to gain more income from his books as well as provide better education for his children. While overseas, he continued to write. His books published in Paris include The Red Rover and The Water Witch—two of his many sea stories.

In 1832 he entered the lists as a political writer; in a series of letters to the National, a Parisian journal, he defended the United States against a string of charges brought against them by the Revue Britannique. 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.

Otsego Hall, Cooper's ancestral home

This opportunity to make a political confession of faith reflected the political turn he already had taken in his fiction, having attacked European anti-republicanism in The Bravo (1831). Cooper continued this political course in The Heidenmauer (1832) and The Headsman: or the Abbaye of Vigneron (1833). The Bravo depicted Venice as a place where a ruthless oligarchy lurks behind the mask of the "serene republic". All were widely read on both sides of the Atlantic, though The Bravo was a critical failure in the United States.[3]

In 1833 Cooper returned to the United States and immediately published A Letter to My Countrymen, in which he gave his own version of the controversy and sharply censured his compatriots for their share in it. He followed up with novels and several sets of notes on his travels and experiences in Europe. His Homeward Bound and Home as Found are notable for containing a highly idealized self portrait.

In June 1834, Cooper decided to reopen his ancestral mansion, Otsego Hall, at Cooperstown. It had long been closed and falling into decay; he had been absent from the mansion nearly 16 years. Repairs were begun, and the house was speedily put in order. At first, he wintered in New York City and summered in Cooperstown, but eventually he made Otsego Hall his permanent home.[4]


Photograph by Mathew Brady c. 1850

His books related to current politics and Cooper's self promotion increased the ill feeling between author and public. The Whig press was virulent in its comments about him, and Cooper filed legal actions for libel, winning all his lawsuits.

After concluding his last case in court, Cooper returned to writing with more energy and success than he had had for several years. He wrote a history of the US Navy, and returned to the Leatherstocking series with The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841) and other novels. He wrote again on maritime themes, including Ned Myers, or A Life Before the Mast, which is of particular interest to naval historians.

Later life

He turned again from pure fiction to the combination of art and controversy in which he had achieved distinction with the Littlepage Manuscripts (1845–1846). His next novel was The Crater, or Vulcan's Peak (1847), in which he attempted to introduce supernatural machinery. Jack Tier (1848) was a remaking of The Red Rover, and The Ways of the Hour was his last completed novel.

Cooper spent the last years of his life back in Cooperstown. He died of dropsy on September 14, 1851, the day before his 62nd birthday. His interment was in Christ Episcopal Churchyard, where his father, William Cooper, was buried. Several well-known writers, politicians, and other public figures honored Cooper's memory with a dinner in February 1852; Washington Irving served as a co-chairman for the event, alongside William Cullen Bryant and Daniel Webster.[5]

Legacy and criticism

Cooper was honored on a U.S. commemorative stamp, issued in 1940

Cooper was one of the most popular 19th-century American authors, and his work was admired greatly throughout the world. While on his death bed, the Austrian composer Franz Schubert wanted most to read more of Cooper's novels.[6] Honoré de Balzac, the French novelist and playwright, admired him greatly[citation needed]. Cooper's stories have been translated into nearly all the languages of Europe and into some of those of Asia.

Cooper's work is read carefully by law and literature scholars such as Nan Goodman, who argues that several of Cooper's novels, particularly The Pioneers and The Pilot, demonstrate an early 19th century American preoccupation with prudence and negligence in a country where property rights were often still in dispute.[7] However, despite his close association with the period, he also innovated in several ways. Amongst these, Cooper was the first major American Novelist to include African and African American characters. Though these black characters often fell into stereotypical roles, he still used slaves, free Negroes and mulattoes throughout his books.[8]

Statue in Cooperstown, New York

Furthermore, Cooper was innovative in his use and portrayal of Native Americans, who play central roles in his Leatherstocking Tales.[citation needed] However, his treatment of this group is a complex and highlights the tenuous relationship between frontier settlers and Indians.[citation needed] Often, he gives contrasting views of Native characters to emphasize their potential for good, or conversely, their potential for mayhem.[citation needed] In Last of the Mohicans, the stereotypical, nineteenth century view of the native is seen in the character of Magua, who is devoid of almost any redeeming qualities.[citation needed] In comparison, Chingachgook, the last chief of the Mohicans, is portrayed as noble, courageous, and heroic.[citation needed]

Though some scholars may dispute Cooper being classified as a Romantic, Victor Hugo pronounced him greater than the great master of modern romance[citation needed], and this verdict was echoed by a multitude of less famous readers[who?], who were satisfied with no title for their favorite less than that of the "American Scott.”[citation needed] The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder were criticized by Mark Twain in a satirical but vicious essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895),[9] which has often been criticized as unfair and distorted.[10] As scholars Schachterle and Ljungquist write, "Twain's deliberate misreading of Cooper has been devastating....Twain valued economy of style (a possible but not necessary criterion), but such concision simply was not a characteristic of many early nineteenth-century novelists' work. Writing with the expectation that their readers would often read their works aloud, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Cooper, and Melville favored a full, sometimes rotund, style that Twain and his fellow Realists a generation later spurned."[11]

His reputation today rests upon the five Leatherstocking tales and some of the maritime stories. Literary scholar Leslie Fiedler, however, noted that Cooper's "collected works are monumental in their cumulative dullness."[12]

Cooper was also criticized heavily for his depiction of women characters in his work. James Russell Lowell, Cooper's contemporary and a critic, referred to it poetically in A Fable for Critics, writing, ". . . the women he draws from one model don't vary / All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie."[13]

Three dining halls at the State University of New York at Oswego are named in Cooper's remembrance (Cooper Hall, The Pathfinder, and Littlepage) because of his temporary residence in Oswego and for setting some of his works there.[14] The gilded and red tole chandelier hanging in the library of the White House in Washington DC is from the home of James Fenimore Cooper. It was brought there through the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in her great White House restoration.[citation needed]


Date Title: Subtitle Genre Topic, Location, Period
1820 Precaution [1] novel England, 1813–1814
1821 The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground [2] novel Westchester County, New York, 1778
1823 The Pioneers: or The Sources of the Susquehanna [3] novel Leatherstocking, Otsego County, New York, 1793–1794,
1823 Tales for Fifteen: or Imagination and Heart [4] 2 short stories written under the pseudonym: Jane Morgan
1824 The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea [5] 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 [6] novel Leatherstocking, French and Indian War, Lake George & Adirondacks, 1757
1827 The Prairie [7] novel Leatherstocking, American Midwest, 1805
1828 The Red Rover: A Tale [8] 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 [9] novel Western Connecticut, Puritans and Indians, 1660–1676
1830 The Water-Witch: or the Skimmer of the Seas [10] novel New York, smugglers, 1713
1830 Letter to General Lafayette politics France vs. US, cost of government
1831 The Bravo: A Tale [11] 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 [12] novel Geneva, Switzerland, & Alps, 18th century
1834 A Letter to His Countrymen politics Why Cooper temporarily stopped writing
1835 The Monikins [13] novel Antarctica, aristocratic monkeys, 1830s; a satire on British and American politics.
1836 The Eclipse [14] memoir Solar eclipse in Cooperstown, New York 1806
1836 An Execution at Sea [15] short story execution of a murderer on a ship
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: With an Excursion Up the Rhine, and a Second Visit to Switzerland [16] 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 [17] novel Atlantic Ocean & North African coast, 1835
1838 Home as Found: Sequel to Homeward Bound [18] 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 [19] history History of the Frigate USS Constitution, 1st pub. 1853
1840 The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea [20] 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 [21] (Jack o Lantern) novel Italian coast, Neopolitan Wars, 1745
1843 Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief [22], 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 Wyandotte: or The Hutted Knoll. A Tale [23] [24] novel Butternut Valley of Otsego County, New York, 1763–1776
1843 Ned Myers: or Life before the Mast [25] biography of Cooper's shipmate who survived an 1813 sinking of a US sloop of war in a storm
1844 Afloat and Ashore: or The Adventures of Miles Wallingford. A Sea Tale [26] novel Ulster County & worldwide, 1795–1805
1844 Miles Wallingford: Sequel to Afloat and Ashore [27]
British title: Lucy Hardinge: A Second Series of Afloat and Ashore (1844)[28]
novel Ulster County & worldwide, 1795–1805
1844 Proceedings of the Naval Court-Martial in the Case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, &c.    
1845 Satanstoe: or The Littlepage Manuscripts, a Tale of the Colony [29] 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 [30] (Mark's Reef) novel Philadelphia, Bristol (PA), & deserted Pacific island, early 19th century
1848 Jack Tier: or the Florida Reefs [31]
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 [32] novel Kalamazoo River, Michigan, War of 1812
1849 The Sea Lions: The Lost Sealers [33] 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 [34] short story Seneca Lake in New York, political satire based on folklore
1851 New York: or The Towns of Manhattan [35] history Unfinished, history of New York City, 1st pub. 1864


  1. ^ http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug02/COOPER/cooperbiography.html
  2. ^ http://www.readprint.com/author-24/James-Fenimore-Cooper-books#biography
  3. ^ James Fenimore Cooper, The Bravo, Oneonta University
  4. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Charles Ledyard Norton (1900). "Cooper, James Fenimore". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. 
  5. ^ Jones, Brian Jay. Washington Irving: An American Original. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2008: 391. ISBN 978-1-55970-836-4.
  6. ^ Letter from Schubert to Franz von Schober, November 12, 1828
  7. ^ Nan Goodman, Shifting the Blame: Literature, Law, and the Theory of Accidents in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton UP 1998
  8. ^ O'Daniel, Therman B. (2nd Qtr., 1947). "Cooper's Treatment of the Negro". Phylon (1940-1956) (Clark Atlanta University) 8 (2): 164–176. JSTOR 271724. 
  9. ^ http://etext.virginia.edu/railton/projects/rissetto/offense.html "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences"
  10. ^ Lance Schachterle and Kent Ljungquist, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Defenses: Twain and the Text of The Deerslayer" in Joel Myerson, ed., Studies in the American Renaissance, 1988 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988) (pp. 401-417)
  11. ^ Schachterle and Ljungquist, p. 410)
  12. ^ Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. Dalkey Archive Press, 2008 (reprint): 180. ISBN 978-1-56478-163-5
  13. ^ Porte, Joel. The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969: 20.
  14. ^ http://www.oswego.edu/library/resources/buildings.html

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