James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was one of the most popular American novelists of his time and he gained a great deal of fame both in American and abroad with his romantic tales of adventure. He produced a large body of work that is the subject of many literature reviews, much of it dealing with romanticized tales of the frontier or of the sea. Despite his extensive writings, in modern times, his work “The Last of the Mohicans” and the other tales of Leatherstocking remain most vivid in the literary canon.
James Fenimore Cooper was one of the first novelists to enjoy great fame as a result of his literary career and although some may argue that this is because the subject matter was entertaining (rather than instructive or socially conscious, for example) the fact remains that he was able to introduce Americans to their own frontier. A writer in the style of romanticism, James Fenimore Cooper was enamored with tales of the outdoors and encounters with strange and often hostile people or forces. This material was well-received and because of his literary success James Fenimore Cooper was able to produce his large body of works throughout his lifetime.
James Fenimore Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey, although the family soon moved to New York where his father, a prominent judge and member of the government set up a new town called Cooperstown. After an unsuccessful stay at college, James Fenimore Cooper joined the Navy and enjoyed some deal of success commanding a ship as a lieutenant. Many of his works would eventually reflect his knowledge of the ocean as a wild frontier just as he also wrote about the American frontier in a number of other stories and novels. Interestingly, aside from his military background, James Fenimore Cooper knew little about the American frontier although in many ways his story came to define it.
He began writing as a young married man and his stories that involved sentimental and highly romanticized plots, settings, and characters were extremely popular with the ever-growing number of readers in the United States. Many of his stories were simply tales of adventure although his most important work, “The Last of the Mohicans“ remains in the literary canon today because of its complex portrayal of white and Native American interactions. While there are certainly elements of the tale that would be, at least in modern times, rather “politically incorrect” the novel does offer a striking realistic understanding of this relationship.
The Last of the Mohicans (as well as the other books featuring Natty Bummpo) explored such themes as the wide open country, the new population of the frontier, battles at sea, and living by one’s wits. While these themes were intensely popular with the general American public and gained Cooper notoriety with a number of other contemporary authors, his works were not always well-received in literary circles. For instance, Mark Twain thought Cooper’s works were akin to romantic drivel and he wrote a long piece entitled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” in which he criticized James Fenimore Cooper’s stories for being formulaic, too much enamored with romanticism, and highly implausible. At one point, he writes, “In his little box of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, and artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go” (Twain 89). Still, despite such harsh criticism from an American literary master, Cooper managed to continue enjoying great success.
James Fennimore Cooper seemed to have little trouble creating stories rapidly and although they generally dealt with the same general settings and themes, they brought him a great deal of success, both in terms of money as well as literary prestige. By the time The “Last of the Mohicans“ appeared on the scene, “James Fenimore Cooper had become a national figure, although critical judgment in New England condescended to him. He founded the Bread and Cheese Club in New York, a literary society of which he was the moving spirit” (Van Doren 288). This club flourished in the city as writers, both romantics and the emerging early realists came forth. Interestingly, James Fenimore Cooper was quite politically active in his community in support of liberal causes but he saved his views for the newspapers and other forms of non-fiction. Despite what he may have thought politically, his stories were usually removed from current debates and set in a land where such things did not matter. While he may have had something to offer readers politically, he instead offered them a chance to consider the American landscape and their relations with Native Americans. In addition to this, he also opened new avenues in romantic writing by incorporating adventure.
Aside from The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper’s most important literary contributions include The Spy andThe Pioneers. Fenimore Cooper also wrote a host of short stories. Again, both of these texts are romanticized adventures that offer his readers, both past and present, a new way to look at the American landscape and offers us a unique chance to consider how our relationships with our land and native peoples have changed throughout the years.
Twain, Mark. Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses. 1838.
Van Doren, Carl. The Cambridge History of American Literature Book II/Chapter VI: Brown-Cooper. New York: 1921.