James Fenimore Cooper
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
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
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
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).
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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