The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Cooper, James Fenimore

Edition of 1920. See also James Fenimore Cooper on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

COOPER, James Fenimore: b. Burlington, N. J., 15 Sept 1789; d. Cooperstown, N. Y., 14 Sept. 1851. His father, Judge William Cooper, removed in the year following the novelist's birth to recently acquired tracts of land, in the wilderness of central New York, about Otsego Lake, on the shore of which he had already fixed the site of the village of Cooperstown. Here he built the mansion called Otsego Hall, which his son acquired in after years, and in which he wrote the greater number of his works. Young Cooper received instruction in the family of the Rev. Mr. Ellison, rector of Saint Peter's Albany, and then entered Yale College at 13. He neglected his studies so persistently that he was expelled in his third year. In 1806 he went to sea in a merchantman, and served in the navy in London and at Gibraltar, receiving a midshipman's commission in January 1808. He served for a time on the Vesuvius and then with a construction party on Lake Ontario, where he saw a new aspect of frontier life and became familiar with the details of shipbuilding. In 1811 he resigned and married a daughter of John Peter De Lancey, who came of a conspicuous Tory family. Cooper's resignation from the navy on the eve of the War of 1812 was criticized as unpatriotic and influenced by his Tory connections. For the next nine years Cooper was engaged mainly in managing and improving his farm possessions, first near Cooperstown, then in Westchester, with no discovered or suspected bent toward literature. Chancing to read a book of fiction that aroused his dislike, he professed himself able to produce a better, and being held half jocularly to the task, wrote ‘Precaution,’ published in 1820. It was only an indifferent novel, but it was praised by friends, and Cooper was drawn to give himself to authorship. In 1821 ‘The Spy’ appeared, winning immediate popularity both in England and at home. Cooper's chance of success lay, not in graces of style, which he showed small disposition to cultivate, nor in imitation, but in his large knowledge of colonial and pioneer life and of the sea. In ‘The Spy’ he had utilized his acquaintance with many details of the Revolutionary struggle, and with Westchester as “the neutral ground.” His next work, ‘The Pioneers’ (1823), concerned itself with life and folk in the wilderness about Cooperstown, where he had been brought up, and which he introduced under the name of Templeton, as the centre of the action. It was the first of the “Leatherstocking Series.” In 1824 he published ‘The Pilot,’ in which he first makes use of his knowledge of seafaring. Suggested by ‘The Pirate’ of Scott it was written to show how much more might be made of expert nautical knowledge than Scott had been able to effect. It really created a new literature of the sea. In another year Cooper had completed ‘Lionel Lincoln,’ a painstaking novel of Boston and the Revolution, but never popular. This was followed (1826) by ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’ which became quickly famous, being translated widely into foreign tongues. Its popularity was mainly due to skilful handling of the Indian characters, Uncas and Chingachgook, and still endures.

Beginning with 1826, Cooper spent seven years in Europe, continuing his authorship, and supplying much needed knowledge of men and things. ‘The Prairie,’ ‘The Red Rover,’ ‘The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish’ and ‘The Water Witch’ continued the series begun before he sailed. On account of distorted notions held abroad concerning the people of his country, Cooper wrote ‘Notions of the Americans; Picked up by a Traveling Bachelor’; but the book failed of its purpose, edifying Americans rather than enlightening Europeans. He wrote, besides, three novels, “The Bravo,” “The Heidenmauer” and “The Headsman,” dealing with continental scenes and characters, but their American bias tended to lessen his popularity. His manner of meddling with unpersonal matters got him into some trouble at this time. He determined in consequence to write no more. Coming back to America, near the close of 1833, he found the general crudeness of taste and the greed of wealth more pronounced, after his foreign stay, and he did not spare his criticism. The result was greater unpopularity at home than he had incurred abroad. His combative temper prompted his putting out the satiric novel of ‘The Monikins’ (1835), which had small effect. In the three years following he published ‘Sketches of Switzerland’ and ‘Gleanings in Europe,’ in which he gives his impressions of the Swiss, the French, the English and the Italians, and renews his strictures on foreign and domestic faults. The result was increased bitterness and abuse. A dispute with the people of Cooperstown, over his rights in Myrtle Grove, on Otsego Lake, made matters worse, for the press of the State took sides against him, misrepresenting his motives and spirit in the case. Relief was at length secured from this sort of persecution; Cooper pursued the chief offenders for libel, and won his suits. In 1838 he published the two novels, ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘Home as Found,’ and in the next year ‘The History of the Navy of the United States,’ a work long had in contemplation, and received with fresh abuse from the press. The resulting trouble was settled, by a board of arbitration, in Cooper's favor. In 1840 he published ‘Mercedes of Castile,’ and the famous ‘Pathfinder,’ followed the next year by ‘The Deerslayer,’ generally considered, with the preceding novel, the best of the the Leather-Stocking Tales, which include, with these, ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’ ‘The Prairie’ and ‘The Pioneers.’ Cooper's powers of description and portraiture were now at their best. In 1842 ‘The Two Admirals’ and ‘Wing and Wing’ appeared, and in 1843 ‘Wyandotte’ and ‘Ned Myers,’ the latter being the true story of a sailor comrade of earlier years. In 1844 ‘Afloat and Ashore’ came out in two parts. Three anti-rent novels, ‘Satanstoe’ (1845), and ‘The Chainbearer’ and ‘The Redskins’ (1846) followed; and in the last-named year ‘Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers’ appeared. ‘The Crater’ (1847); ‘Jack Tier’ and ‘Oak Openings’ (1848); ‘The Sea Lions’ (1849) and ‘The Ways of the Hour’ (1850), all indifferent novels, complete the list of his more considerable works. His death was at Cooperstown, where he had lived mainly since 1833. Cooper was of a social temper until opposition withdrew him from society. His judgments, except in matters of tact and policy, were generally acute and sound, and his integrity was heroic. His conceptions of the Indian character have been frequently disapproved, but were the fruit of deliberate study. In spite of the faults in style, he had splendid narrative ability and the power of creating characters which are clear and strong. Harvey Birch, Natty Bumppo, Long Tom Coffin and his Indian personalities are very noteworthy. His particular value to the literature of his country lies in the fact that he opened up the course of the novels concerning the origin and heart of America, and of novels of the prairies and the sea. Balzac and Hugo gave him enthusiastic praise. The standard biography is Lounsbury's in ‘American Men of Letters’ series, which also contains a full bibliography and an excellent criticism. (See Deerslayer, The; Last of the Mohicans, The; Pathfinder, The; Pilot, The; Spy, The). Consult also Clymer, ‘James Fenimore Cooper’ (1901); Richardson, ‘American Literature’ (Vol. II, New York 1887-88); Wendell, ‘A Literary History of America’ (ib. 1900); Brownell, ‘American Prose Masters’ (ib. 1909); Erskine, J., in ‘Leading American Novelists’ (ib. 1910); Phillips, M. E., ‘James Fenimore Cooper’ (ib. 1912); and essays by Mark Twain, T. W. Higginson and Brander Matthews.

Professor of Literature, University of Nebraska.

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