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James Fenimore Cooper

Take a man as American as can be and teach him how to write.  What results--in this case--is the first great American novelist.  That is the legacy of James Fenimore Cooper.  Born in Burlington, New Jersey, on September 15, 1789, Cooper was one of six surviving children out of thirteen siblings.  He was the son of Quakers Elisabeth Fenimore and Judge William Cooper, a representative of the 4th and 6th Congress who had attained wealth by developing virgin land. 

The family moved to Cooperstown, New York, named after Cooper's father.  Within a few years, William Cooper acquired a judgeship, a seat in Congress as a Federalist, and a sprawling mansion.  He was kind to his tenants, but less so to his political opponents.  His heavy-handed tactics in dealing with his political foes contributed to the destruction of the Federalist party in New York.

When young James reached school age, his parents sent him to the local Academy for a few years before transferring him to the care of an Episcopal clergyman in Albany.  The Reverend Thomas Ellison's small school offered all of the advantages to which the son of a wealthy Federalist was entitled: connections to powerful people and instruction in the grand, prejudiced style of the old country. 

In 1803, following Ellison' death, Cooper entered Yale College.  He was thirteen, "a fine sparkling beautiful boy of alluring person and interesting manners," as one of his teachers wrote.  His charm never ceased for those who loved him.  Nevertheless, he managed to get expelled from Yale in his junior year for traditional undergraduate misconduct, with references to an explosion in a college room and a donkey placed in a professor's chair.  His own brother's career at Princeton had already been cut short by what seemed to be an attempt to burn the college down.

Encouraged by his father, Cooper joined the Navy and served on the Sterling from 1806-07.  On his return to the United States, he received a warrant as a midshipman.  In 1808, he served in the Atlantic on the Vesuvius and on the Wasp the following year.  The experiences later inspired his sea stories. 

Cooper had spent his youth partly on the family estate on the shores of Otsego Lake, where he roamed the primeval forests and developed a love of nature that would later mark his works.  Upon his father's death in 1809, the son became financially independent.  He resigned his commission in 1811 and married Susan Augusta De Lancey, who was a descendent of the early governors of New York colony.

From the early 1810s, Cooper took up the comfortable life of a gentleman farmer.  He lived in Mamaroneck, New York, from 1811 to 1814, before moving to Cooperstown.  From 1817 to 1821, he lived in Scarsdale, New York.  A change of fortune connected with his father's estate ended Cooper's idyllic lifestyle.  He was forced to move to Westchester, where the couple lived on Susan's land.

Cooper's early frontier experiences influenced his writing, although his greatest mentor was his wife, to whom he often read out loud.  Once, after he had become frustrated with Jane Austen's Persuasion (1818), his daughter recalled, "After a chapter or two he threw it aside, exclaiming, 'I could write you a better book than that myself!'  Our mother laughed at the idea, as the height of absurdity ...."

Cooper had never even enjoyed writing letters.  But he was serious about his intentions, and he began writing seriously.  His first novel, Precaution (1820), was set in England.  But Cooper was a thoroughly American writer.  He wrote about the American landscape and spirit, as well as the mythic frontier wilderness. 

"Few men exhibit greater diversity, or, if we may so express it, greater antithesis of character than the native warrior of North America. In war, he is daring, boastful, cunning, ruthless, self-denying, and self-devoted; in peace, just, generous, hospitable, revengeful, superstitious, modest, and commonly chaste." - The Last of the Mohicans

His most well known hero, the intrepid if somewhat naive Natty Bumppo, was the original American frontiersman.  Bumppo was featured in the series Leatherstocking Tales, which included the American classics, Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Deerslayer (1841).

From 1826 to 1833, the Coopers lived in Europe, where James wrote romances and unsuccessful books about democracy, politics, and society.  He served as the U.S. consul at Lyons and traveled around the Continent.  He became friends with Sir Walter Scott and the Marquis de Lafayette, who partly inspired his essay Notions of America (1828).  He was especially inspired by Italy while living in Tasso's villa at Sorrento, but literary meetings in London annoyed him.

During the last decades of his life, Cooper was earning less from his books but was forced to continue writing for income.  He returned to the Unites States in 1833, living first in New York City and then in Cooperstown.  Feeling ill-treated by journalists, he fought the press with libel suits, winning most of his cases.  However, with his biting opinions he also lost friends, and his lack of circumspection was especially vulnerable to such criticism as presented by Mark Twain in his essay Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences (1895). 

Cooper's later works include Satanstoe (1845), a historical novel of manners, The Chainbearer (1845), and The Red-Skins (1846), which form the trilogy called The Littlepage Manuscripts.  The novels deal with the anti-rent controversy and its historical background.  In the work, Cooper defended the landlords' rights--the tenants of the New York had refused to pay rent and the author saw in the controversy a crisis in American democracy.  In The American Democrat, Cooper also expressed his political and social views. 

James Fenimore Cooper died at Otsego Hall, on September 14, 1851.  He was buried in the cemetery at Cooperstown.  His wife followed him four months later.

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