His historical romances of frontier and Indian life in the early American days created a unique form of American literature. He lived most of his life in Cooperstown, New York, which was founded by his father William on property that he owned. Cooper was a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church and, in his later years, contributed generously to it. He attended Yale University for three years, where he was a member of the Linonian Society, but was expelled for misbehavior.
Before embarking on his career as a writer, he served in the U.S. Navy as a midshipman, which greatly influenced many of his novels and other writings. The novel that launched his career was The Spy, a tale about counterespionage set during the Revolutionary War and published in 1821. He also wrote numerous sea stories, and his best-known works are five historical novels of the frontier period known as the Leatherstocking Tales. Among naval historians, Cooper's works on the early U.S. Navy have been well received, but they were sometimes criticized by his contemporaries. Among his most famous works is the Romantic novel The Last of the Mohicans, often regarded as his masterpiece.
James Fenimore Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey in 1789 to William Cooper and Elizabeth (Fenimore) Cooper, the eleventh of 12 children, most of whom died during infancy or childhood. He was descended from James Cooper of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, who immigrated to the American colonies in 1679. James and his wife were Quakers who purchased plots of land in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Seventy-five years after his arrival in America, his great-grandson William was born on December 2, 1754. Shortly after James' first birthday, his family moved to Cooperstown, New York, a community founded by his father on a large piece of land which he had bought for development. Later, his father was elected as a United States Congressman from Otsego County. Their town was in a central area of New York that had previously been occupied by the Iroquois of the Six Nations. The Iroquois were forced to cede their territory after British defeat in the Revolutionary War, as they had been allies.
Shortly after the American Revolutionary War, the state opened up these former Iroquois lands for sale and development. Cooper's father purchased several thousand acres of land in upstate New York along the headwaters of the Susquehanna River. By 1788, William Cooper had selected and surveyed the site where Cooperstown would be established. He erected a home on the shore of Otsego lake and moved his family there in the autumn of 1790. He soon began construction of the mansion that would be known as Otsego Hall. It was completed in 1799 when James was ten.
At age 13, Cooper was enrolled at Yale, but he incited a dangerous prank that involved blowing up another student's door — after having already locked a donkey in a recitation room. Cooper was expelled in his third year without completing his degree. Disenchanted with college, he obtained work in 1806 as a sailor and, at age 17, joined the crew of a merchant vessel. By 1811, he obtained the rank of midshipman in the fledgling United States Navy, conferred upon him on an officer's warrant signed by Thomas Jefferson.
At 20, Cooper inherited a fortune from his father. He married Susan Augusta de Lancey at Mamaroneck, Westchester County, New York on January 1, 1811 at age 21. She was the daughter of a wealthy family who remained loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolution. They had seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood. Their daughter Susan Fenimore Cooper was a writer on nature, female suffrage, and other topics. She and her father often edited each other's work. Among his descendants was Paul Fenimore Cooper (1899–1970), who also became a writer.
Service in the Navy
In 1806 at the age of 17, Cooper joined the crew of the merchant ship Sterling as a common sailor. At the time, the Sterling was commanded by young John Johnston from Maine. Cooper served as a common seaman before the mast. His first voyage took some 40 stormy days at sea and brought him to an English market in Cowes with a cargo of flour. There Cooper saw his first glimpses of England. The Sterling passed through the Strait of Dover and arrived at Cowes, where she dropped anchor. Britain was in the midst of war with Napoleon's France at the time, so their ship was immediately approached by a British man-of-war and was boarded by some of its crew. They seized one of the Sterling's best crew members and impressed him into the British Royal Navy.
Their next voyage took them to the Mediterranean along the coast of Spain, including Águilas and Cabo de Gata, where they picked up cargo to be taken back to America. Their stay in Spain lasted several weeks and impressed the young sailor, the accounts of which Cooper later referred to in his Mercedes of Castile, a novel about Columbus.
After serving aboard the Sterling for 11 months, Cooper joined the United States Navy on January 1, 1808, when he received his commission as a midshipman. Cooper had conducted himself well as a sailor, and his father, a former U.S. Congressman, easily secured a commission for him through his long-standing connections with politicians and naval officials. The warrant for Cooper's commission as midshipman was signed by President Jefferson and mailed by Naval Secretary Robert Smith, reaching Cooper on February 19. Along with the warrant was a copy of naval rules and regulations, a description of the required naval uniform, along with an oath that Cooper was to sign in front of a witness and to be returned with his letter of acceptance. Cooper signed the oath and had it notarized by New York attorney William Williams, Jr., who had previously certified the Sterling's crew. After Williams had confirmed Cooper's signature, Cooper mailed the document to Washington. On February 24, he received orders to report to the naval commander at New York City. Joining the United States Navy fulfilled an aspiration Cooper had had since his youth.
Cooper's first naval assignment came in March 21, 1808 aboard the USS Vesuvius, an 82-foot bomb ketch that carried twelve guns and a thirteen-inch mortar. For his next assignment, Cooper served under Lieutenant Melancthon Taylor Woolsey near Oswego on Lake Ontario, building the brig USS Oneida for service on the lake. The vessel was intended for use in a war with Great Britain which had yet to begin. The vessel was completed, armed with sixteen guns, and launched in Lake Ontario in the spring of 1809. It was in this service that Cooper learned shipbuilding, shipyard duties, and frontier life. During his leisure time, Cooper would venture through the forests of New York state and explore the shores of Lake Ontario. He took frequent cruises among the Thousand Islands where he spent time fishing. His experiences in the Oswego area later inspired some of his work, including his novel The Pathfinder.
After completion of the Oneida in 1809, Cooper accompanied Woolsey to Niagara Falls, and was then ordered to Lake Champlain to serve aboard a gunboat until the winter months when the lake froze over. On November 13 of the same year, he was assigned to the USS Wasp under the command of Captain James Lawrence, who was from Burlington and a personal friend of Cooper's. Aboard this ship, Cooper met his lifelong friend William Branford Shubrick, who was also a midshipman at the time. Cooper later dedicated The Pilot, The Red Rover, and other writings to Shubrick.
In 1820, Cooper's wife Susan wagered that he could write a book better than the one that she was reading. In response to the wager, Cooper wrote the novel Precaution (1820). Its focus on morals and manners was influenced by Jane Austen's approach to fiction. He anonymously published Precaution and it received favorable notice from the United States and England. By contrast, his second novel The Spy (1821) was inspired by a tale related to him by neighbor and family friend John Jay. It was more successful and became a bestseller; the setting of this Revolutionary War tale is widely believed to have been John Jay's family home "The Locusts" in Rye, New York. In 1823, Cooper published The Pioneers, the first of the Leatherstocking series. The series features Natty Bumppo, a resourceful American woodsman at home with the Delaware Indians and their chief Chingachgook. Bumppo was also the main character of Cooper's most famous novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826), written in New York City where Cooper and his family lived from 1822 to 1826. The book became one of the most widely read American novels of the 19th century.
In 1823, Cooper was living in New York on Beach Street in what is now downtown's Tribeca. While there, he became a member of the Philadelphia Philosophical Society. In August of that year, his first son died.
In 1824, General Lafayette arrived from France aboard the Cadmus at Castle Garden in New York City as the nation's guest. Cooper witnessed his arrival and was one of the active committee of welcome and entertainment.
In 1826, Cooper moved his family to Europe, where he sought to gain more income from his books as well as to provide better education for his children. While overseas, he continued to write. His books published in Paris include The Red Rover and The Water Witch, two of his many sea stories. During his time in Paris, the Cooper family was seen as the center of the small American expatriate community. During this time, he developed friendships with painter Samuel Morse and with French general and American Revolutionary War hero Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.
In 1832, Cooper entered the lists as a political writer in a series of letters to Le National, a Parisian journal. He defended the United States against a string of charges brought by the Revue Britannique. For the rest of his life, he continued skirmishing in print, sometimes for the national interest, sometimes for that of the individual, and frequently for both at once.
This opportunity to make a political confession of faith reflected the political turn that he already had taken in his fiction, having attacked European anti-republicanism in The Bravo (1831). Cooper continued this political course in The Heidenmauer (1832) and The Headsman: or the Abbaye of Vigneron (1833). The Bravo depicted Venice as a place where a ruthless oligarchy lurks behind the mask of the "serene republic". All were widely read on both sides of the Atlantic, though The Bravo was a critical failure in the United States.
In 1833, Cooper returned to the United States and published A Letter to My Countrymen in which he gave his criticism of various social mores. Promotional material from his publisher indicated that:
A Letter To My Countrymen remains Cooper's most trenchant work of social criticism. In it, he defines the role of the "man of letters" in a republic, the true conservative, the slavery of party affiliations, and the nature of the legislative branch of government. He also offers her most persuasive argument on why America should develop its own art and literary culture, ignoring the aristocratically and monarchically tainted art of Europe.
Cooper sharply censured his compatriots for their share in it. He followed up with novels and several sets of notes on his travels and experiences in Europe. His Homeward Bound and Home as Found are notable for containing a highly idealized self-portrait.
In June 1834, Cooper decided to reopen his ancestral mansion Otsego Hall at Cooperstown. It had long been closed and falling into decay; he had been absent from the mansion nearly 16 years. Repairs were begun, and the house was put in order. At first, he wintered in New York City and summered in Cooperstown, but eventually he made Otsego Hall his permanent home.
On May 10, 1839, Cooper published History of the Navy of the United States of America, a work that he had long planned on writing. He publicly announced his intentions to author such a historical work while abroad before departing for Europe in May 1826, during a parting speech at a dinner given in his honor:
Encouraged by your kindness, I will take this opportunity of recording the deeds and sufferings of a
class of men to which this nation owes a debt of gratitude – a class of men among whom, I am always
ready to declare, not only the earliest, but many of the happiest days of my youth have been passed.
His historical account of the U.S. Navy was first well received but later harshly criticized in America and abroad. It took Cooper 14 years to research and gather material for the book. His close association with the U.S. Navy and various officers, and his familiarity with naval life at sea provided him the background and connections to research and write this work. Cooper's work is said to have stood the test of time and is considered an authoritative account of the U.S. Navy during that time.
In 1844, Cooper's Proceedings of the naval court martial in the case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, a commander in the navy of the United States, &c:, was first published in Graham's Magazine of 1843–44. It was a review of the court martial of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie who had hanged three crew members of the brig USS Sommers for mutiny while at sea. One of the hanged men, 19-year-old Philip Spencer, was the son of U.S. Secretary of War John C. Spencer. He was executed without court-martial along with two other sailors aboard the Somers for allegedly attempting mutiny. Prior to this affair, Cooper was in the process of giving harsh review to Mackenzie's version of the Battle of Lake Erie. Mackenzie had previously given harsh criticism to Cooper's interpretation of the Battle of Lake Erie contained in Cooper's History of the Navy of the United States, 1839. However, he still felt sympathetic to Mackenzie over his pending court martial.
In 1846, Cooper published Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers covering the biographies of Commodores William Bainbridge, Richard Somers, John Shaw, William Shubrick, and Edward Preble. Cooper died in 1851. In May 1853, Cooper's Old Ironsides appeared in Putnam's Monthly. It was the history of the Navy ship USS Constitution and became the first posthumous publication of his writings. In 1856, five years after Cooper's death, his History of the Navy of the United States of America was published. The work was an account of the U.S. Navy in the early 19th century. Among naval historians of today, the work has come to be recognized as a general and authoritative account. However, it was criticized for accuracy on some points by other students of that period. For example, Cooper's account of the Battle of Lake Erie was said to be less than accurate by some naval historians. For making such claims, Cooper once sued Park Benjamin, Sr. for libel, a poet and editor of the Evening Signal of New York.
Cooper's books related to current politics, coupled with his self-promotion, increased the ill feeling between the author and the public. The Whig press was virulent in its comments about him, and Cooper filed legal actions for libel, winning all his lawsuits.
After concluding his last case in court, Cooper returned to writing with more energy and success than he'd had for several years. On May 10, 1839, he published his History of the U.S. Navy, and returned to the Leatherstocking Tales series with The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841) and other novels. He wrote again on maritime themes, including Ned Myers, or A Life Before the Mast, which is of particular interest to naval historians.
In the late 1840s, Cooper returned to his public attacks on his critics and enemies in a series of novels called the Littlepage Trilogy where he defended landowners along the Hudson River, lending them social and political support against rebellious tenant farmers in the anti-rent wars that marked this period. One of his later novels was The Crater, an allegory of the rise and fall of the United States, authored in 1848. His growing sense of historical doom was exemplified in this work. At the end of his career, he wrote a scornful satire about American social life and legal practices called The Ways of the Hour, authored in 1850.
He turned again from pure fiction to the combination of art and controversy in which he had achieved distinction with the Littlepage Manuscripts (1845–1846). His next novel was The Crater, or Vulcan's Peak (1847), in which he attempted to introduce supernatural machinery. Jack Tier (1848) was a remaking of The Red Rover, and The Ways of the Hour was his last completed novel.
Cooper spent the last years of his life back in Cooperstown. He died on September 14, 1851, the day before 62nd birthday. His interment was in Christ Episcopal Churchyard, where his father, William Cooper, was buried. Cooper's wife Susan survived her husband only by a few months and was buried by his side at Cooperstown.
Several well-known writers, politicians, and other public figures honored Cooper's memory with a dinner in New York, six months after his death, in February 1852. Daniel Webster presided over the event and gave a speech to the gathering while Washington Irving served as a co-chairman, along with William Cullen Bryant, who also gave an address which did much to restore Cooper's damaged reputation among American writers of the time.
Beginning in his youth Cooper was a devoted follower of the Episcopal Church where his religious convictions deepened throughout his life. He was an active member of Christ Episcopal Church, which at the time was a small parish in Cooperstown not far from his home. Much later in his life, in 1834, he became its warden and vestryman. As the vestryman, he donated generously to this church and later supervised and redesigned its interior with oak furnishings at his own expense. In July 1851 he was confirmed in this church by the Reverend Mr. Birdsall.
Cooper was one of the most popular 19th-century American authors, and his work was admired greatly throughout the world. While on his death bed, the Austrian composer Franz Schubert wanted most to read more of Cooper's novels. Honoré de Balzac, the French novelist and playwright, admired him greatly. Henry David Thoreau, while attending Harvard, incorporated some of Cooper's style in his own work. Cooper's work, particularly The Pioneers and The Pilot, demonstrate an early 19th-century American preoccupation with alternating prudence and negligence in a country where property rights were often still in dispute.
Cooper was one of the first major American novelists to include African, African-American and Native American characters in his works. In particular, Native Americans play central roles in his Leatherstocking tales. However, his treatment of this group is complex and highlights the tenuous relationship between frontier settlers and American Indians as exemplified in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, depicting a captured white girl who is taken care of by an Indian chief and who after several years is eventually returned to her parents. Often, he gives contrasting views of Native characters to emphasize their potential for good, or conversely, their proclivity for mayhem. Last of the Mohicans includes both the character of Magua, who is devoid of almost any redeeming qualities, as well as Chingachgook, the last chief of the Mohicans, who is portrayed as noble, courageous, and heroic. In 1831, Cooper was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Honorary Academician.
According to Tad Szulc, Cooper was a devotee of Poland's causes (uprisings to regain Polish sovereignty). He brought flags of the defeated Polish rebel regiment from Warsaw and presented them to the exiled leaders in Paris. And although Cooper and Marquis de La Fayette were friends, it remains unclear how Cooper found himself in Warsaw at that historical moment, although he was an active supporter of European democratic movements.
Though some scholars have hesitated to classify Cooper as a strict Romantic, Victor Hugo pronounced him greater than the great master of modern romance. This verdict was echoed by a multitude of less famous readers, such as Balzac and Rudolf Drescher of Germany, who were satisfied with no title for their favorite less than that of the "American Scott." Mark Twain famously criticized The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder in his satirical but shrewdly observant essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895), which portrays Cooper's writing as cliched and overwrought. Cooper was honored on a U.S. commemorative stamp, the Famous American series, issued in 1940.
Cooper was also criticized heavily for his depiction of women characters in his work. James Russell Lowell, Cooper's contemporary and a critic, referred to it poetically in A Fable for Critics, writing, ". . . the women he draws from one model don't vary / All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie."
Cooper's lasting reputation today rests largely upon the five Leatherstocking tales. As for the remaining body of his work, literary scholar Leslie Fiedler notes that Cooper's "collected works are monumental in their cumulative dullness."
Three dining halls at the State University of New York at Oswego are named in Cooper's remembrance (Cooper Hall, The Pathfinder, and Littlepage) because of his temporary residence in Oswego and for setting some of his works there. The gilded and red tole chandelier hanging in the library of the White House in Washington DC is from the family of James Fenimore Cooper. It was brought there through the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in her great White House restoration. The James Fenimore Cooper Memorial Prize at New York University is awarded annually to an outstanding undergraduate student of journalism.
In 2013, Cooper was inducted into the New York Writers Hall of Fame.
Cooper's novels were very popular in the rest of the world, including, for instance, Russia. In particular, great interest of the Russian public in Cooper's work was primarily incited by the novel The Pathfinder, which the renowned Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky declared to be "a Shakespearean drama in the form of a novel". The author was more recognizable by his exotic to many in Russia middle name Fenimore, and this name specifically became a symbol of exciting adventures. For example, in the 1977 Soviet movie The Secret of Fenimore (Russian: Тайна Фенимора), being the third part of a children's television mini-series Three Cheerful Shifts (Russian: Три весёлые смены, see Tri vesyolye smeny (1977) on IMDb), tells of a mysterious stranger known as Fenimore, visiting a boys' dorm in a summer camp nightly and relating fascinating stories about Indians and extraterrestrials.