- James Fenimore Cooper - First True American Novelist [Biography]
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Outlines of English and American Literature
James Fenimore Cooper
by Long, William J.

In point of time Cooper is the first notable American novelist. Judging by the booksellers, no other has yet approached him in the sustained interest of his work or the number of his readers.

The Man

On first analysis we shall find little in Cooper to account for his abiding popularity. The man himself was not exactly lovable; indeed, he had almost a genius for stirring up antagonism. As a writer he began without study or literary training, and was stilted or slovenly in most of his work. He was prone to moralize in the midst of an exciting narrative; he filled countless pages with "wooden" dialogue; he could not portray a child or a woman or a gentleman, though he was confident that he had often done so to perfection. He did not even know Indians or woodcraft, though Indians and woodcraft account for a large part of our interest in his forest romances.

The Storyteller

One may enjoy a good story, however, without knowing or caring for its author's peculiarities, and the vast majority of readers are happily not critical but receptive. Hence if we separate the man from the author, and if we read The Red Rover or The Last of the Mohicans "just for the story," we shall discover the source of Cooper's power as a writer. First of all, he has a tale to tell, an epic tale of heroism and manly virtue. Then he appeals strongly to the pioneer spirit, which survives in all great nations, and he is a master at portraying wild nature as the background of human life. The vigor of elemental manhood, the call of adventure, the lure of primeval forests, the surge and mystery of the sea,--these are written large in Cooper's best books. They make us forget his faults of temper or of style, and they account in large measure for his popularity with young readers of all nations; for he is one of the few American writers who belong not to any country but to humanity. At present he is read chiefly by boys; but half a century or more ago he had more readers of all classes and climes than any other writer in the world.


The youthful experiences of Cooper furnished him with the material for his best romances. He was born (1789) in New Jersey; but while he was yet a child the family removed to central New York, where his father had acquired an immense tract of wild land, on which he founded the village that is still called Cooperstown. There on the frontier of civilization, where stood the primeval forest that had witnessed many a wild Indian raid, the novelist passed his boyhood amid the picturesque scenes which he was to immortalize in The Pioneers and The Deerslayer.

His Training

Cooper picked up a little "book learning" in a backwoods school and a little more in a minister's study at Albany. At thirteen he entered Yale; but he was a self-willed lad and was presently dismissed from college. A little later, after receiving some scant nautical training on a merchantman, he entered the navy as midshipman; but after a brief experience in the service he married and resigned his commission. That was in 1811, and the date is significant. It was just before the second war with Great Britain. The author who wrote so much and so vividly of battles, Indian raids and naval engagements never was within sight of such affairs, though the opportunity was present. In his romances we have the product of a vigorous imagination rather than of observation or experience.

His literary work seems now like the result of whim or accident. One day he flung down a novel that he was reading, declaring to his wife that he could write a better story himself. "Try it," challenged his wife. "I will," said Cooper; and the result was Precaution, a romance of English society. He was then a farmer in the Hudson valley, and his knowledge of foreign society was picked up, one must think, from silly novels on the subject.

Strange to say, the story was so well received that the gratified author wrote another. This was The Spy (1821), dealing with a Revolutionary hero who had once followed his dangerous calling in the very region in which Cooper was now living. The immense success of this book fairly drove its author into a career. He moved to New York City, and there quickly produced two more successful romances. Thus in four years an unknown man without literary training had become a famous writer, and had moreover produced four different types of fiction: the novel of society in Precaution, the historical romance in The Spy, and the adventurous romance of forest and of ocean in The Pioneers and The Pilot.

Years of Strife

Cooper now went abroad, as most famous authors do. His books, already translated into several European languages, had made him known, and he was welcomed in literary circles; but almost immediately he was drawn into squabbles, being naturally inclined that way. He began to write political tirades; and even his romances of the period (The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, The Headsman) were devoted to proclaiming the glories of democracy. Then he returned home and proceeded to set his countrymen by the ears (in such books as Home as Found) by writing too frankly of their crudity in contrast with the culture of Europe. Then followed long years of controversy and lawsuits, during which our newspapers used Cooper scandalously, and Cooper prosecuted and fined the newspapers. It is a sorry spectacle, of no interest except to those who would understand the bulk of Cooper's neglected works. He was an honest man, vigorous, straightforward, absolutely sincere; but he was prone to waste his strength and embitter his temper by trying to force his opinion on those who were well satisfied with their own. He had no humor, and had never pondered the wisdom of "Who drives fat oxen should himself be fat."

The last years of his life were spent mostly at the old home at Cooperstown, no longer a frontier settlement but a thriving village, from which Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook had long since departed. Before his death (1851) the fires of controversy had sunk to ashes; but Cooper never got over his resentment at the public, and with the idea of keeping forever aloof he commanded that none of his private papers be given to biographers. It is for lack of such personal letters and documents that no adequate life of Cooper has yet been written.

Cooper's Works

There are over sixty volumes of Cooper, but to read them all would savor of penance rather than of pleasure. Of his miscellaneous writings only the History of the Navy and Lives of Distinguished Naval Officers are worthy of remembrance. Of his thirty-two romances the half, at least, may be ignored; though critics may differ as to whether certain books (The Bravo and Lionel Lincoln, for example) should be placed in one half or the other. There remain as the measure of Cooper's genius some sixteen works of fiction, which fall naturally into three groups: the historical novels, the tales of pioneer life, and the romances of the sea.

The Spy

The Spy was the first and probably the best of Cooper's historical romances. Even his admirers must confess that it is crudely written, and that our patriotic interest inclines us to overestimate a story which throws the glamor of romance over the Revolution. Yet this faulty tale attempts to do what very few histories have ever done fairly, namely, to present both sides or parties of the fateful conflict; and its unusual success in this difficult field may be explained by a bit of family history. Cooper was by birth and training a stanch Whig, or Patriot; but his wife, to whom he was devotedly attached, was the daughter of an unbending Tory, or Loyalist; and his divided allegiance is plainly apparent in his work. Ordinarily his personal antagonisms, his hatred of "Yankees," Puritans and all politicians of the other party, are dragged into his stories and spoil some of them; but in The Spy he puts his prejudices under restraint, tells his tale in an impersonal way, dealing honestly with both Whigs and Tories, and so produces a work having the double interest of a good adventure story and a fair picture of one of the heroic ages of American history.

Aside from its peculiar American interest, The Spy has some original and broadly human elements which have caused it, notwithstanding its dreary, artificial style, to be highly appreciated in other countries, in South American countries especially. The secret of its appeal lies largely in this, that in Harvey Birch, a brave man who serves his country without hope or possibility of reward, Cooper has strongly portrayed a type of the highest, the most unselfish patriotism.

The other historical novels differ greatly in value. Prominent among them are Mercedes of Castile, dealing with Columbus and the discovery of America; Satanstoe and The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, depicting Colonial life in New York and New England respectively; and Lionel Lincoln, which is another story of the Revolution, more labored than The Spy and of less sustained interest.

The Sea Stories

Cooper's first sea story, The Pilot (1823), was haphazard enough in both motive and method, [Footnote: The Waverley novels by "the great unknown" were appearing at this time. Scott was supposed to be the author of them, but there was much debate on the subject. One day in New York a member of Cooper's club argued that Scott could not possibly have written The Pirate (which had just appeared), because the nautical skill displayed in the book was such as only a sailor could possess. Cooper maintained, on the contrary, that The Pirate was the work of a landsman; and to prove it he declared that he would write a sea story as it should be written; that is, with understanding as well as with imagination. The Pilot was the result.] but it gave pleasure to a multitude of readers, and it amazed critics by showing that the lonely sea could be a place of romantic human interest. Cooper was thus the first modern novelist of the ocean; and to his influence we are partly indebted for the stirring tales of such writers as Herman Melville and Clark Russell. A part of the action of The Pilot takes place on land (the style and the characters of this part are wretchedly stilted), but the chief interest of the story lies in the adventures of an American privateer commanded by a disguised hero, who turns out to be John Paul Jones. Cooper could not portray such a character, and his effort to make the dashing young captain heroic by surrounding him with a fog of mystery is like his labored attempt to portray the character of Washington in The Spy. On the other hand, he was thoroughly at home on a ship or among common sailors; his sea pictures of gallant craft driven before the gale are magnificent; and Long Tom Coffin is perhaps the most realistic and interesting of all his characters, not excepting even Leatherstocking.

Another and better romance of the sea is The Red Rover (1828). In this story the action takes place almost wholly on the deep, and its vivid word pictures of an ocean smiling under the sunrise or lashed to fury by midnight gales are unrivaled in any literature. Other notable books of the same group are The Water Witch, Afloat and Ashore and Wing and Wing. Some readers will prize these for their stories; but to others they may appear tame in comparison with the superb descriptive passages of The Red Rover.

Leatherstocking Tales

When Cooper published The Pioneers (1823) he probably had no intention of writing a series of novels recounting the adventures of Natty Bumppo, or Leatherstocking, and his Indian friend Chingachgook; otherwise he would hardly have painted so shabby a picture of these two old heroes, neglected and despised in a land through which they had once moved as masters. Readers were quick to see, however, that these old men had an adventurous past, and when they demanded the rest of the story Cooper wrote four other romances, which are as so many acts in the stirring drama of pioneer life. When these romances are read, therefore, they should be taken in logical sequence, beginning with The Deerslayer, which portrays the two heroes as young men on their first war trail, and following in order with The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers and The Prairie. If one is to be omitted, let it be The Pathfinder, which is comparatively weak and dull; and if only one is to be read, The Last of the Mohicans is an excellent choice.

After nearly a century of novel writing, these five books remain our most popular romances of pioneer days, and Leatherstocking is still a wingéd name, a name to conjure with, in most civilized countries. Meanwhile a thousand similar works have come and gone and been forgotten. To examine these later books, which attempt to satisfy the juvenile love of Indian stories, is to discover that they are modeled more or less closely on the original work of the first American novelist.

Cooper's Scenes and Characters

Even in his outdoor romances Cooper was forever attempting to depict human society, especially polite society; but that was the one subject he did not and could not understand. The sea in its grandeur and loneliness; the wild lakes, stretching away to misty, unknown shores or nestling like jewels in their evergreen setting; the forest with its dim trails, its subdued light, its rustlings, whisperings, hints of mystery or peril,--these are his proper scenes, and in them he moves as if at ease in his environment.

In his characters we soon discover the same contrast. If he paints a hero of history, he must put him on stilts to increase his stature. If he portrays a woman, he calls her a "female," makes her a model of decorum, and bores us by her sentimental gabbing. If he describes a social gathering, he instantly betrays his unfamiliarity with real society by talking like a book of etiquette. But with rough men or manly men on land or sea, with half-mutinous crews of privateers or disciplined man-of-war's men, with woodsmen, trappers, Indians, adventurous characters of the border or the frontier,--with all these Cooper is at home, and in writing of them he rises almost to the height of genius.

The Return to Nature

If we seek the secret of this contrast, we shall find it partly in the author himself, partly in a popular, half-baked philosophy of the period. That philosophy was summed up in the words "the return to nature," and it alleged that all human virtues flow from solitude and all vices from civilization. Such a philosophy appealed strongly to Cooper, who was continually at odds with his fellows, who had been expelled from Yale, who had engaged in many a bitter controversy, who had suffered abuse from newspapers, and who in every case was inclined to consider his opponents as blockheads. No matter in what society he found himself, in imagination he was always back in the free but lawless atmosphere of the frontier village in which his youth was spent. Hence he was well fitted to take the point of view of Natty Bumppo (in The Pioneers), who looked with hostile eyes upon the greed and waste of civilization; hence he portrayed his uneducated backwoods hero as a brave and chivalrous gentleman, without guile or fear or selfishness, who owed everything to nature and nothing to society. Europe at that time was ready to welcome such a type with enthusiasm. The world will always make way for him, whether he appears as a hero of fiction or as a man among men.

General Characteristics

The faults of Cooper--his stilted style and slipshod English, his tedious moralizing, his artificial dialogue, his stuffed gentlemen and inane "females," his blunders in woodcraft--all these are so easily discovered by a casual reader that the historian need not linger over them. His virtues are more interesting, and the first of these is that he has a story to tell. Ever since Anglo-Saxon days the "tale-bringer" has been a welcome guest, and that Cooper is a good tale-bringer is evident from his continued popularity at home and abroad. He may not know much about the art of literature, or about psychology, or about the rule that motives must be commensurate with actions; but he knows a good story, and that, after all, is the main thing in a novel.

Again, there is a love of manly action in Cooper and a robustness of imagination which compel attention. He is rather slow in starting his tale; but he always sees a long trail ahead, and knows that every turn of the trail will bring its surprise or adventure. It is only when we analyze and compare his plots that we discover what a prodigal creative power he had. He wrote, let us say, seven or eight good stories; but he spoiled ten times that number by hasty or careless workmanship. In the neglected Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, for example, there is enough wasted material to furnish a modern romancer or dramatist for half a lifetime.

Descriptive Power

Another fine quality of Cooper is his descriptive power, his astonishing vigor in depicting forest, sea, prairie,--all the grandeur of wild nature as a background of human heroism. His descriptions are seldom accurate, for he was a careless observer and habitually made blunders; but he painted nature as on a vast canvas whereon details might be ignored, and he reproduced the total impression of nature in a way that few novelists have ever rivaled. It is this sustained power of creating a vast natural stage and peopling it with elemental men, the pioneers of a strong nation, that largely accounts for Cooper's secure place among the world's fiction writers.

Moral Quality

Finally, the moral quality of Cooper, his belief in manhood and womanhood, his cleanness of heart and of tongue, are all reflected in his heroes and heroines. Very often he depicts rough men in savage or brutal situations; but, unlike some modern realists, there is nothing brutal in his morals, and it is precisely where we might expect savagery or meanness that his simple heroes appear as chivalrous gentlemen "without fear and without reproach." That he was here splendidly true to nature and humanity is evident to one who has met his typical men (woodsmen, plainsmen, lumbermen, lonely trappers or timber-cruisers) in their own environment and experienced their rare courtesy and hospitality. In a word, Cooper knew what virtue is, virtue of white man, virtue of Indian, and he makes us know and respect it. Of a hundred strong scenes which he has vividly pictured there is hardly one that does not leave a final impression as pure and wholesome as the breath of the woods or the sea.


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