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The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Cooper, James Fenimore

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COOPER, James Fenimore, an American novelist, born at Burlington, N. J., Sept. 15, 1789, died at Cooperstown, N. Y., Sept. 14, 1851. His father was Judge William Cooper, a man of great energy and high social position, and his mother was the daughter of Richard Fenimore, who belonged to a New Jersey family of Swedish descent. Judge Cooper, owning a large tract of land near Lake Otsego in central New York, established the settlement of Cooperstown, and moved thither with his family in 1790. In this wild frontier region the future novelist spent his boyhood. At the age of 13 he was sent to Yale college, but remained there only three years, when he entered the United States navy, where he continued six years, attaining the rank of lieutenant, and acquiring an experience which he found useful in his literary career. In 1811 he married a sister of Bishop De Lancey of western New York, and soon after resigned his commission and removed to Mamaroneck, a few miles from the city of New York. Declaring his belief that he could improve upon the popular novels of the day, he set about making the experiment, and produced “Precaution,” a story of country life on the English model, which was published anonymously in 1819, at his own expense, and attracted little attention. In 1821 appeared “The Spy, a Tale of the Neutral Ground.” It was founded on incidents of the revolution, introduced some historical characters, and was written with so much power and originality that it gained a remarkable popularity at once, not only in this country but in Europe, being translated into almost all the continental languages. It was followed two years later by “The Pioneers,” in which are introduced many exciting incidents of frontier life and glowing descriptions of forest scenery. It is the first in order of publication of the famous “Leatherstocking series.” “The Pilot,” the first of his romances of sea life, appeared also in 1823, being prompted, it is said, by the inaccuracies in the nautical incidents and descriptions of Scott's “Pirate,” which had been recently published. This outstripped even “The Spy” in the popular enthusiasm which it excited. “Lionel Lincoln,” another story of the revolution, which was comparatively unsuccessful, was published in 1825, followed the next year by “The Last of the Mohicans,” in which Cooper continued his fascinating delineations of Indian character and of adventure among the pioneers in the American wilderness. In 1827 he went to Europe, where he remained six years, residing successively in the principal cities and continuing his literary labor. During his first year abroad he published “The Red Rover,” the second of his sea stories, and “The Prairie,” another of the Leatherstocking tales. To correct the numerous false impressions regarding American characteristics which he found prevailing in England, he published in 1828 “Notions of the Americans, by a Travelling Bachelor,” purporting to be a book of travel in the United States. The next year appeared “The Wept of the Wish-ton-Wish,” and in 1830 “The Water Witch.” He was in Paris at the breaking out of the revolution of 1830, and took great interest in the changes then going on. Soon after this he replied to an article in the Révue Britannique severely criticising the government of the United States, and became involved in a controversy in which he wrote a series of letters in the National newspaper, defending his country against numerous slanders and misrepresentations. During the same period he wrote “The Bravo” (1831), a novel the scene of which is laid in Venice, and which the author considered his masterpiece. This and his two next works, “The Heidenmauer” (1832) and “The Headsman of Berne” (1833), were intended in part to illustrate his political views, which had been developed in the newspaper controversy in Paris. These discussions were read with interest at home and excited much criticism, not all of which was favorable to the novelist. On his return in 1833 he published “A Letter to my Countrymen,” in which he gave an account of the controversy, and complained of the censures which had been passed upon it in this country, and of the general deference paid to foreign opinion. This was followed in 1835 by “The Monikins” and “The American Democrat,” in which he satirized the failings of his own countrymen, and gave occasion to fierce assaults upon himself in the newspapers. These were multiplied and intensified by his “Homeward Bound” and “Home as Found” (1838), in which the newspaper editor was caricatured, and the satire upon American peculiarities continued. The strictures of the press were not confined to severe criticism upon the author, but in some cases degenerated into personal abuse, which led him to commence a remarkable series of libel suits. These involved a great expenditure of time and money, but served to fix more clearly than before the responsibility of journals in matters of libel. He says in one of his letters, “I have beaten every man I have sued who has not retracted his libels.” During this strife with the newspapers he continued his literary work. He had already published the results of his observations in Europe in the “Sketches of Switzerland” (1836) and “Gleanings in Europe,” “France," and “Italy” (1837-'8). In 1839 appeared his “Naval History of the United States,” which served to increase the attacks already mentioned. Cooper now returned to the field of fiction, and sent forth in rapid succession “The Pathfinder” and “Mercedes of Castile" (1840), “The Deerslayer” (1841), “The Two Admirals” and “Wing and Wing” (1842), “Wyandotte, or the Hutted Knoll,” the “Autobiography of a Pockethandkerchief,” and “Ned Myers” (1843), and “Afloat and Ashore” and “Miles Wallingford” (1844). In 1844 he also published a “Review of the Mackenzie Case,” in which he severely censured the course of the commander of the Somers. The same year he became interested in the anti-rent controversy, and began the series of “Littlepage” tales for the purpose of denouncing the anti-rent doctrines, which he regarded as dangerous to society. These consisted of “Satanstoe” and “The Chainbearer” (1845), and “The Redskins” (1846). Maintaining as they did the unpopular side of the question, the real merits of these works were in a measure overlooked. In 1846 he also published “Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers,” forming a fitting companion to the “Naval History.” In 1847 appeared “The Crater, or Vulcan's Peak,” a romance introducing supernatural characters and incidents, the scene of which was on a reef in the Pacific ocean, and in 1848 “Oak Openings, or the Bee Hunter,” a story of woodland life. The last of the series of stories of the sea were “Jack Tier, or the Florida Reefs” (1848), and “The Sea Lions, or the Lost Sealers” (1849). The last of all his novels was “The Ways of the Hour,” intended to expose the defects of trial by jury (1850). He had in press at the time of his death a historical work, “The Towns of Manhattan,” and was contemplating a sixth Leatherstocking tale. He died somewhat suddenly of dropsy. His later novels did not gain the popularity accorded to some of the earlier ones. The entire series of his novels has been published in various editions since his death, and they have taken their place at the head of American fiction. Several of them have been translated into nearly all the European and some of the oriental languages.—Personally, Mr. Cooper was a noble specimen of a man, possessing a massive and compact form, a countenance strikingly marked with the indications of intellectual strength, and glowing with manly beauty. His published portraits, though imposing, by no means do justice to the impressive port and vivacious presence of the man. In his social traits, so far as his native reserve and strong predilections would permit, he was magnanimous, hospitable, and kind. Frank, generous, independent, and not over-refined either by native constitution or culture, enemies were as plentifully made as easily reconciled by his singular admixture of opposing qualities. His intellectual life was checkered by much the same variety of lights. There were the elements of genius, originality of invention, keen insight into character, and creative skill, shaded by defects both of original mental structure and of literary culture, not less conspicuous. But taken all in all, no American writer has attained a wider fame.—Susan Fenimore, his eldest daughter, born in 1815, is the author and editor of several popular works, chiefly descriptive of rural life. The first, “Rural Hours,” was published in 1850, during the later years of Mr. Cooper's life, and won a permanent and honorable place in literature. It was followed in 1854 by “Rhyme and Reason of Country Life,” a fine selection of choice descriptive passages, in prose and verse, relative to country life and its incidents, illustrated with suggestive and graceful notes, and introduced by a genial essay. An annotated edition of an English work, “The Journal of a Naturalist,” was published in 1852; and in 1858 she wrote a little book for youth on the character of Washington, the proceeds of which were given in aid of the fund for the purchase of Mt. Vernon. Various popular contributions to periodical literature have also from time to time proceeded from her pen, though generally anonymous.