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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

James Fenimore Cooper

James Fenimore Cooper was the first American novelist to gain international stature and the first to earn his living from royalties. A prodigious innovator, he has been credited with inventing sea fiction (Melville and Conrad expressed their indebtedness), the international novel, and distinctively American forms of the novel of manners and allegorical fiction. Cooper’s thirty-two novels, spanning the period from 1820 to 1850, include works in all these genres. But, as Cooper himself knew, the novels for which he would be best remembered are his five Leather-stocking tales. In these tales, Cooper explored the meanings of American frontier experience, creating the prototypical Western hero, Natty Bumppo (the Leather-stocking), whose wilderness adventures dramatize some of the central cultural tensions of antebellum America.

The writer was the son of one of the early republic’s most ambitious land speculators and developers, William Cooper, founder of Cooperstown in central New York State and later a U.S. congressman from that region. William Cooper, having struggled to surmount his lowly beginnings as a Philadelphia wheelwright, expected his sons to assume a place among America’s Federalist gentry as lawyers, politicians, or gentleman farmers. Thus, James Fenimore Cooper seems an unlikely figure to have become a novelist. Indeed, he did not become one until he was thirty years old, after serving briefly in the merchant marine and the U.S. Navy and then living as a gentleman farmer in New York’s Westchester County and in Cooperstown.

But during this period the vast real estate empire of William Cooper, who died in 1809, collapsed under the claims of creditors. By 1820, James Cooper (he added the Fenimore later) was the family’s only surviving son and thus the primary bearer of its rapidly accumulating indebtedness. Although Cooper may not have become a writer in order to gain solvency (family legend has it that he wrote his first novel in response to a dare from his wife), his literary career, once undertaken, was driven by both creative passion and financial necessity.

That career began in 1820 with Precaution, an unsuccessful and imitative novel of manners set in England and published anonymously. But in the following year, Cooper found his form and his audience with The Spy. In this bestseller, set in the Hudson River highlands above New York City during the American Revolution, the novelist exploited the immense appeal of American history, characters, and settings during a time when the Revolutionary era and its leaders had become a subject for reverence and nostalgia.

While The Spy established Cooper’s reputation as a novelist, his next work, The Pioneers, published in 1823, more directly reveals his family legacy and his concerns for American life. In this first of the Leather-stocking tales, Cooper depicted the frontier settlement of Cooperstown, situated at the foot of Lake Otsego and called Templeton in the novel, as he remembered it from his childhood. (Born in New Jersey in 1789, Cooper was brought to Cooperstown in the first year of his life.) At the center of the novel, which probes the issue of rightful land ownership and use, stands Judge Marmaduke Temple—clearly a representation of William Cooper, the patriarchal founder and developer of Cooperstown.

The novel is organized around the perspectives of the land’s historical claimants: old Indian John (Chingachgook), the last survivor of Native American life in the region; the seventy-year-old woodsman Natty Bumppo, whose spiritual claims to a free wilderness life long predate the property claims of Judge Temple; Oliver Effingham (known as Edwards for much of the novel), a descendant of an aristocratic Tory family dispossessed by the Revolution, who believes that Temple usurped his family’s rights; and the multi-ethnic group of settlers attempting to secure their own more limited forms of land tenure. Although Temple ultimately is exonerated from the charge of usurpation, Cooper’s ambivalence toward the authority of the patriarch—the novel both shores up such authority and undercuts it—is an interesting and energizing aspect of this novel and of the Leather-stocking tales as a whole.

After his publication of The Pioneers,  Cooper went on in the following year to repeat the success of The Spy. The Pilot, one of whose central characters is John Paul Jones, is regarded by many literary historians as the first authentic novel of the sea.

Shortly thereafter, in 1826, Cooper published the second of the Leather-stocking tales, The Last of the Mohicans, set during the French and Indian War when Natty Bumppo was in vigorous middle age. This novel is centrally concerned with the issue of Indian dispossession and with the conflict of cultures. The fast-paced action and elegiac portrayal of Native Americans made this work an enormous success with the reading public. Cooper’s sympathetic and epic treatment of Native Americans in The Last of the Mohicans has been viewed in our time in two distinct ways: as a romantic strategy for dismissing Native Americans from national experience and as Cooper’s authentic identification with and sympathy for Native American dispossession. These views, while opposing, are in fact not mutually exclusive and suggest the complexity of Cooper’s literary legacy.

Soon after publication of The Last of the Mohicans in 1826, Cooper, now a national hero, left America for a European sojourn of seven years. In 1827 he published from Paris what he must have thought was the concluding volume in the Leather-stocking series, The Prairie. In this novel, Natty Bumppo has become a fully mythic figure leading the nation’s westward movement.

When Cooper returned to America from Europe in 1833, resuming residence in Cooperstown, he was shocked by what he regarded as the excesses of Jacksonian democracy, and from this point forward until the end of his life he waged an insistent argument—in his writings and in lawsuits (mostly against newspaper editors he believed had libeled him)—with his country. During the 1830s, in fact, Cooper published little fiction. Then, surprisingly, in the early 1840s, he brought the Leather-stocking hero back to life in two novels, The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841) and thereby revived his own languishing career. In their more classical depiction of the American wilderness, these novels reflect an altered sense of landscape that Cooper had derived from his European travels. The Deerslayer, set like The Pioneers at Lake Otsego but in a much earlier time (Natty here is a youth of twenty), renders a particularly serene and classical picture of the American forest prior to settlement.

Later in the 1840s Cooper resumed his overt polemical attack on his enemies in a series of novels called the Littlepage Trilogy. In these works, he became the defender of landowners in the Hudson River Valley, taking their side against rebellious tenant farmers in the so-called anti-rent wars of this period. Cooper’s late novel The Crater (1848), an allegory of the rise and fall of the United States, confirms the novelist’s ever-deepening sense of historical doom. He ended his career with a bitter satire about American social life and legal practices called The Ways of the Hour (1850).

Through the course of his long career, Cooper explored in his fiction some of nineteenth-century America’s most important issues, especially the role of elites in a democracy and the conflicting meanings of frontier experience. That experience was embodied and made mythic in Cooper’s Leather-stocking hero, one of the most enduring and influential figures in American literature. Though many of Cooper’s works are unread today, he was regarded throughout much of the nineteenth century as America’s preeminent novelist, and in our own time his works are being vigorously reexamined as expressions of a troubled and ambivalent response to democratic culture.
H. Daniel Peck
Vassar College

In the Heath Anthology
The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale
      Chapter XXI (1823)
      Chapter XXII (1823)
      Chapter XXIII (1823)

Other Works
The Spy (1821)
The Pioneers (1823)
The Pilot (1824)
The Last of the Mohicans (1826)
The Prairie (1827)
The Pathfinder (1840)
The Deerslayer (1841)

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American Authors
Primary and secondary links.

Bibliomania: The Last of the Mohicans
An electronic text, divided by chapters.

Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses
Essays with Mark Twain's opinions on Cooper's work.

James Fenimore Cooper
A good biography of Cooper.

Romancing the Indian; Sentimentalizing and Demonizing in Cooper and Twain
Student project on Twain and Cooper addressing the authors' attitudes toward Native Americans, and includes links to excerpts from Cooper's "Notion's of the Americans: Indians."

Secondary Sources