Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Daily Dose of Literature: James Fenimore Cooper

James Fenimore Cooper - Image attributed to Samuel Morse

Born in 1789, James Fenimore Cooper may be one of the earliest authors we cover in this series, but nevertheless, he was a key figure in popular adventure literature, whose works would bear a major influence on later pulp writers. He is perhaps best known for his seminal work, The Last of the Mohicans, but was a prolific and wildly popular author in his day.

Like many early adventure writers, Cooper lived an interesting life that would serve to inform his later writing. He was born in New Jersey to William and Elizabeth Cooper. His father was a judge and a Quaker, who later went on to become a Congressman. The town in which they lived was siezed from the Iroquois nation following the defeat of the British in the Revolutionary War, at the time a forced cession of land in penance for the Iroquois having supported the British.

James enrolled at Yale at the age of 13, but was expelled in his third year after a number of pranks including locking a donkey in a lecture hall and detonating another student's door. At age 17 he became a sailor and by the age of 21 was a midshipman in the U.S. Navy, given an officer's warrant by Thomas Jefferson. These experiences later influenced several novels of his, including the Pathfinder and The Spy, about a counter-terrorism operation in the Revolutionary War.

By the age of 20, he was comfortably well-off after his father passed, leaving him a considerable fortune and in 1811, the same year he became a Navy officer, he married Susan Augusta de Lancey. Their daughter, Susan, would go on to become a noted writer on women's suffrage and nature, among other subjects.

The Spy was a bestseller and launched his literary career. He followed it up not long after with The Pioneers, the first of his Leatherstocking series (though not the first chronologically, which would be The Deerslayer), which would center around the character of Natty Bumpo, also known as Hawkeye. The second book in this series would prove to be Cooper's masterpiece, a book that would stand the test of time for the next 150 years (give or take): The Last of the Mohicans. 

From 1826 to 1833, he lived in Europe with his family, seeking a better education for his children while simultaneously becoming actively involved with political issues, battling against what many viewed at the time as European anti-republicanism--at the time many Europeans had imperialistic and/or oligarchic political views which sharply contrasted with the Republic-based ideals of the United States.

In 1833 he returned to the United States and for the rest of his life his writing career oscillated between politically-charged fiction, essays and history. He was enmeshed in controversy due to the political nature of his writings often, but never stopped. He also explored other genres of fiction; 1847's The Crater, or Vulcan's Peak was an experiment in Gothic science fiction and supernatural horror.

After his death, he was celebrated at a public dinner by such notable figures as Daniel Webster, Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant. His legacy lives on to this day. He was one of the first authors to include Native American, African-American and African characters in his works and put them on the same level as the white characters. His Leatherstocking stories present an incredibly complex and nuanced view of the Native Americans, varying between the points of view of the Native Americans themselves and the white settlers in the region. Victor Hugo considered him one of the great masters of Romantic literature, while he had his detractors--Mark Twain thought his writing over-wrought and cliched.

Regardless, his stories in many ways are a prototype for the historical adventure tales that would fill the pulps of the late 19th through mid-20th centuries.

For more about Cooper:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

IMO, Cooper's most important contribution to literature was triggering Mark Twain's criticism of him, which are hilarious.