James F. Cooper was a 19th century American novelist, best-known for the ‘Leatherstocking Tales’ including ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, which is extensively regarded as his masterwork. His historical romances of frontier and Indian life in the early American days fashioned an inimitable type of American literature. Before he took to writing, he functioned as a Midshipman in the U.S. Navy; the experiences of which were seen in a number of his works and novels. Although many of his works were enjoyed by a number of people of his time, there were a few sections of society, who condemned his works for his approach. Some of his other important works include ‘The Prairie’, ‘Notions of the Americans’, ‘A Letter to his Countrymen’, ‘The American Democrat’, and ‘The Pathfinder’ and many more. At the time of his demise, he was more respected overseas than in his own nation. He was out of sync with his countrymen; but he went on to influence numerous European writers like Leo Tolstoy and Honore de Balzac. His works often played on bigoted, didactic and romantic themes.
Childhood & Early Life
James Fenimore Cooper was the eleventh of the twelve children born to William Cooper and Elizabeth Cooper, in Burlington, New Jersey. His father was a United States Congressman. Many of his siblings died during infancy or childhood. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Cooperstown, New York.
He enrolled at Yale University at the age of 13, but his mischievous nature led to his expulsion from the university in his third year and thus he could not complete his degree.
Since he lost interest in academics, he started working as a sailor at the age of 17 in 1806 and joined the crew of a merchant vessel. A few years later, he was made a midshipman in the U.S. Navy.
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In 1819, he became the head of the Cooper band after the death of his father and his brothers. Consequently, he took on full responsibility for all the wealthy Cooper manors, which was at the time, severely in debt.
He published his first book, ‘Precaution’, which was a minor success, in 1820. The next year, he authored, ‘The Spy’. This book went on to become more popular than the former publication and catapulted him to international fame and recognition.
In 1823, he wrote, ‘The Pioneers’, the first of the stories which would later go on to be published in the famous, ‘Leatherstocking Tales’. This book went on to be considered the ‘first true American novel’.
In 1826, he authored the ‘Last of the Mohicans’, which is considered to be his masterpiece and became one of the most widely read novels of the 19th century. The same year, he moved to Europe in the pursuit of a better life for his children.
He followed the previous tale, with a third inclusion in the ‘Leatherstocking series’ titled, ‘The Prairie’, in 1827. He then went on to publish, ‘Notions of the Americans’, which went on to make him an extremely controversial figure, because the book disappointed both the British and the Americans.
His writings took a political hue in the 1830s. He attacked European anti-republicanism in novel ‘The Bravo’ in 1831. In 1832, in a series of letters to Le National, a Parisian journal, he defended the United States against a string of charges brought against them by the Revue Britannique. He returned to the United States in 1833.
In 1839, he published ‘History of the Navy of the United States of America’, which he planned on writing for a long period of time.
He published the fourth book in the ‘Leatherstocking’ series titled, ‘The Pathfinder’ in 1840. This also went on to achieve moderate success. The next year, he went on to write the fifth and the last instalment of the ‘Leatherstocking’ series titled, ‘The Deerslayer’.
In 1846, he published ‘Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers’, which included the profiles of Richard Somers, John Shaw, William Bainbridge, William Shubrick and Edward Preble.
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His last work ‘The Ways of the Hour’ was published in the year of 1850. The book was a satire on the American social life.
His most famous novel, ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, was the second book in the ‘Leatherstocking Tales’ pentalogy. This book is considered his masterpiece. At the time of its publication, it was widely regarded as one of the ‘best English novels at the time’ and is still one of the most widely read novels in ‘American Literature’ courses in institutions. The novel was adapted for film countless times, a number of stage dramas, comics, animation series’, radio, operas and for television.
Personal Life & Legacy
From a very young age, James Cooper was a follower of the Episcopal Church and remained an active member of the Church throughout his life.
He married Susan Augusta de Lancey, in 1811, when he was just 21-years-old. The couple went on to have seven children, five of whom survived adulthood.
He spent his last years in Cooperstown and passed away due to dropsy or a form of ‘edema’.
He became known for being the chief American writer to use African-American, Native American and African influences and characters in his works. He was also known for having contributed greatly to ‘Romantic’ works.
In 1940, he was honored on a tribute stamp, in the ‘Famous American’ series by the United States of America.
There are a number of dining halls at the State University of New York at Oswego that are named after him.
In modern times, the ‘James Fenimore Cooper Memorial Prize’ is awarded to students who have been exceptional in the field of ‘journalism’ at the New York University.
This famous American novelist became a vestryman later in his life and he donated religiously to an Episcopal Church, even taking the responsibility to furnish the church with ‘oak’ from his own finances.