The New International Encyclopædia/Cooper, James Fenimore

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The New International Encyclopædia
Cooper, James Fenimore
Edition of 1905. See also James Fenimore Cooper on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

COOPER, James Fenimore (1789-1851). An American novelist, born at Burlington, N. J., September 15, 1789. His father came of good English and Quaker stock; his mother, Elizabeth Fenimore, was a Swede and also of Quaker ancestry. He was the eleventh of twelve children, and in his second year was taken by his father, William, to a large estate that he had acquired near Otsego Lake shortly after the Revolution. Here had been already laid out the site of Cooperstown. For some years the family lived in a log house, but the settlement prospered, and, determining to make it his home permanently, Cooper's father, who for many years represented the district in Congress, began in the year 1796 to build a manor house, Otsego Hall, which was for many years the finest residence in that region. That Cooper thus spent his boyhood years on the frontier of civilization, surrounded by primeval forests, and never far removed from the possibility of Indian raids, while in daily contact with the red men who came to Cooperstown for trade, was most important to his future literary development. The environment stimulated his imagination, made him responsive to the sense of mystery, and gave him materials for the most important section of his writings, the Leather-stocking Tales. He passed through the village school and received private instruction in the family of the Rev. Mr. Ellison, rector of Saint Peter's, Albany, whose refined culture and un-American ideals had a not altogether desirable effect on the style and character of the future novelist, who was something of an aristocrat at heart. In January, 1803, Cooper went to Yale College. Here he learned more out of doors than in the classroom. Indeed, he neglected his studies with such persistent defiance of academic restraints that he was expelled in his third year. His father resented the action of the faculty, but readers may be glad that the future novelist of the sea should have been led to choose a naval career. To fit himself for this, there being no Naval Academy at that time, Cooper entered the merchant service as a sailor before the mast (September, 1806), and after sixteen months' experience on the sea, in London, and at Gibraltar, received a midshipman's commission (January 1, 1808). He served for a time on the Vesuvius, then with a construction party on Lake Ontario, where he saw a new aspect of frontier life and became familiar with the details of ship-building. He saw also other forms of naval service before his resignation in 1811. Meantime he had been married (January 1, 1811) to a daughter of John Peter DeLancey, who came of a conspicuous Tory family. The marriage was happy, but Cooper's resignation on the eve of the War of 1812 did not escape criticism, for a Tory connection seemed to imply lack of patriotism. For the next ten years he lived chiefly in Westchester County, his wife's home, devoting himself to farming and becoming the father of six children before he conceived the idea of authorship. As it was, he began to write, less in emulation of the success of others than through conviction of their failure. He had been reading an English novel aloud, when he suddenly said to his wife, “I believe I could write a better story myself,” and proceeded to try it. But Precaution (1820), dealing with high life in England, about which Cooper knew nothing, was naturally a failure, and wholly uncharacteristic of his future work. Then when advised to deal with more local themes, he remembered a story that John Jay had told years before about a spy, and his home in Westchester, the scene of much fighting during the Revolution, furnished a fit stage for the play of his fancy. The result was The Spy (1821-22), which achieved a success till then unapproached in America, and determined its author to pursue his new-found career. It proved to a very self-conscious generation that it was not impossible for America to produce a novelist almost worthy of being ranked with the great author of Waverly. Even to-day it remains a stirring narrative that deals adequately with important events, and in Harvey Birch, the Spy, it has added to our national fiction one of its few imperishable characters.

In 1823 Cooper began what is now known as the Leather-stocking Series with The Pioneers, for he did not compose the famous five romances in their natural chronological order. Early in the next year he published The Pilot, thus practically for the first time joining the ocean to the domain of fiction, just as he had previously added the backwoods, and as he was soon to add the prairie. He also added to Harvey Birch and Natty Bumppo his third great character, Long Tom Coffin. He now removed to New York City, and shortly after had a serious illness. His next novel was Lionel Lincoln (1825), a story of Boston during the Revolution. This was not specially successful, but in 1826 The Last of the Mohicans placed him at the summit of his popularity and probably represented his highest achievement.

In 1826 he changed his name, in compliance with the wishes of his grandmother, from simple James Cooper to James Fenimore-Cooper, but soon dropped the hyphen. He could not so easily get rid of the misapprehensions caused by his act in a crude society. Immediately afterwards he went abroad and resided there for seven years, during which time he was the recipient in foreign capitals of many attentions from distinguished people, but felt called upon, as in The Bravo (1831), to proclaim vigorously the beneficent greatness of republican institutions. His pride in the better features of American government and society did not, however, prevent him from being one of the first Americans to perceive how really crude his fellow-citizens were, and he told them their faults with a frankness that was not discreet. He exploited his prejudices against New England and in favor of the Episcopal Church, and soon became in his native land a synonym of all that was unpopular and snobbish. His honest, if over-emphatic, strictures outweighed with his comically sensitive critics such fine romances as The Prairie (1827), The Red Rover ( 1828 — the dates of Cooper's books are often hard to determine exactly), and the less interesting, but creditable, Water Witch (1830). But the fault was not entirely on the side of his countrymen, for he took an injudicious part in more or less unnecessary foreign discussions of American political affairs.

On his return to America, in 1833, he at first spent his winters in New York City, but soon took up his permanent abode at Cooperstown. Here he published several volumes of travels, and still not restraining himself from criticism of his countrymen, especially in his story, Home as Found (1838), he was again embroiled in bitter controversy and exposed to almost incomprehensible vituperation, which was increased through the fact that in 1837 a dispute had arisen with regard to the claims of his townspeople upon a certain tract of the Cooper estate. The great author's determination to enforce his plain rights was distorted by the newspapers into a heinous crime. And, ironically enough, just at that time this proud aristocrat was being denounced in England for his obtrusive republicanism. But Cooper still plied his pen and produced his History of the Navy of the United States (1839), his Pathfinder (1840), his Deerslayer (1841), The Two Admirals (1842), and Wing-and-Wing (1842). For the admirable English and Mediterranean setting of the last two stories he was as much indebted to his European stay as he was to his return to the home of his boyhood for his equally admirable setting of the two novels preceding. Mention should be made here of an ‘anti-rent series’ of novels, dealing with the well-known demagogic agitation against the proprietors of certain large estates in New York. These were Satanstoe, The Chain-Bearer, and The Red-skins (1845-46). The first of them contains one of the best pictures that we have of life in colonial New York.

Yet, while Cooper was thus composing novels which have been translated into many languages, and have gained him an undying reputation abroad, especially in France, he was bringing libel suits against many of the Whig editors of his native State, among them Horace Greeley, Thurlow Weed, and James Watson Webb. He was Quixotic enough to conduct these suits himself, and he proved able to win verdicts which finally brought his critics to their senses, although they did little to restore his popularity. A later generation smiles wonderingly at the whole matter, but sympathizes with the pugnacious author. The last few years of Cooper's life saw the publication of enough novels to occupy an ordinary lifetime, but they added little to his reputation. He maintained his proud independence to the last, and just before his death forbade his family to give any biographer access to his papers, an injunction which has been obeyed, but which has not prevented the life written by Prof. T. R. Lounsbury (q.v.) in the “American Men of Letters Series” (Boston, 1885) from being an admirable piece of work. Cooper died at Cooperstown, N. Y., September 14, 1851. Six months after his death a public meeting in New York, addressed by Daniel Webster and William Cullen Bryant did something to atone for the evil treatment America had accorded one of the very greatest of her writers.

But even after the lapse of half a century, it can hardly be said that Americans are prepared to do full justice to Cooper. His great romances are frequently spoken of as if they were, in the main, fit reading for boys only. His undoubted defects, such as his careless style, his exploitation of his prejudices, his stilted conversations, his inability, as a rule, to draw women who were not distressingly prim, the fact that he wrote entirely too many novels, and that not a few of his men are as wooden as his women — these grave faults have been put forward, while his greater merits have been kept in the background. For, when at his best, as in nearly all the romances named above, Cooper was a very great novelist. He had the narrative faculty of carrying his readers along, however much they might grumble at this detail or that. In “Leatherstocking” he added a character to the small gallery of the world's fictitious personages — something no other American has ever done, except Mrs. Stowe — and in Harvey Birch, Long Tom Coffin, and other sailors, as well as in Uncas, Chingachgook, and other Indians, he created characters of undying power. His Indians, at whom it was once the fashion to sneer, as the creations of a romantic fancy, are now said by ethnologists to be far from overdrawn portraitures. He was, as we have seen, practically the first writer to extend the domain of fiction over the sea, the primeval forest, and the prairie. If he was in a way a follower of a still greater romancer, Scott, he won the enthusiastic commendation of another great writer of fiction, Balzac, and he has the unique credit of having written a prose epic of the planting of his native country, which is as spacious and free as the virgin woods and lakes amid which its scenes are laid. In other words, Cooper is a large genius, who ranks well with his fellow-romancers. It is almost absurd to judge one of Cooper's rapidly written romances by the canons one might legitimately apply to a short story by Daudet or Maupassant. When the man is judged in the large by the effects of his best works, and when he is compared with his rivals like Simms and Bird, and with his predecessor, Brockden Brown, his full genius and the service he did American literature emerge splendidly. For carrying power his work has probably had no equal in America; with fewer crying faults he would in all likelihood have been our greatest author.

A full bibliography of Cooper is not needed here, but to the works already named may be added: The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829); The Heidenmauer (1832); The Headsman (1833); Sketches of Switzerland (1835); The American Democrat (1838); The Chronicles of Cooperstown (1838); Homeward Bound (1838); Mercedes of Castile (1840); Wyandotte (1843); Ned Myers (1843); Afloat and Ashore (1844); The Crater (1847); Jack Tier (1848); Oak Openings (1848); The Sea-Lions (1849); and The Ways of the Hour (1850); Lounsbury's Life, already mentioned, contains a good bibliography and the best criticism that has yet been devoted to Cooper. Consult, also: Clymer, James Fenimore Cooper (1901); Richardson, American Literature, vol. ii. (New York, 1887-88); Wendell, A Literary History of America (New York, 1900); and essays by Mark Twain, T. W. Higginson, and Brander Matthews.