The Magazine

America's Storyteller

Our vision of the early republic owes much to James Fenimore Cooper.

Dec 10, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 13 • By PATRICK J. WALSH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

James Fenimore Cooper

The Early Years

by Wayne Franklin

Yale, 752 pp., $40

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), America's first successful novelist, dramatized the American experience to the world. Once highly regarded in Europe and America, his adventure novels are not appreciated in our day. Yet through Cooper's art, the world got its first pictures of the American wilderness, plains, frontiersmen, and Indians--all the romance and promise of America. These "pictures!" wrote D.H. Lawrence, were "some of the loveliest, most glamorous pictures in all literature."

Cooper was born in New Jersey and was moved in infancy to Cooperstown, New York, on Otsego Lake, where his father, a Federalist judge and congressman, owned great stretches of land. Until recently the area had been a wilderness; to the youngster the place was magical. Stories from the original settlers stimulated the boy's imaginative capacity and love of history. His creative eye returned again and again to the region.

His writing career began on a bet with his wife, Susan De Lancey, sister of the Episcopal bishop of New York. One evening, reading aloud to her from one of the penny-dreadful romances popular at the time, Cooper grew weary of declaring that "I could write you a better book than this." The result was Precaution (1820), an account of English high society that received little critical acclaim. Finding a more appealing subject in the union of history and adventure, Cooper tried again, and his second attempt met with better success. The Spy (1821) was based on information supplied to Cooper by John Jay about an actual spy recruited by Jay during the Revolution. This was followed by The Pioneers (1823), where he introduced Natty Bumppo, one of the most famous creations in all fiction, a figure who continues to haunt the American psyche and is a staple of Hollywood westerns.

Four other books about this character, also known as Hawkeye, would complete Cooper's famous Leather-stocking Tales, which form an epic of sorts about America. Curiously, the tales move backwards through time. In The Pioneers Natty (or Hawkeye) is an old man, yet by the time of the final Leatherstocking tale, The Deerslayer (1841), Natty is a golden youth. In Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence speaks truly when he writes that this is the "true myth of America. .  .  . She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin towards a new youth. It is the myth of America."

Wayne Franklin's is the first assessment of Cooper in many years, and this opening volume (of two projected) contends with Cooper's life until 1826, when he left the United States for a seven-year hiatus in Europe with his family. Previously unavailable archival materials were made available to Franklin, and one fault here is that the author spends a little too much time on Cooper's finances and legal transactions and not enough on his ideas and beliefs. Perhaps this will be rectified in the second volume.

Either way, Cooper deserves reevaluation. His reputation received a drubbing from Mark Twain in his humorous essay--Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses (1895)--but after all, Twain found fault with other major American writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and that apex of craft and style, Henry James. Writers as diverse as Balzac, Sir Walter Scott, and Leo Tolstoy had all praised Cooper. He not only trail-blazed the new literary landscape of the frontier and prairie but invented the sea novel with The Pilot (1823) and The Red Rover (1827). Both Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville praised Cooper's talent for narrative and his skillful use of detail. Melville remembered the "vivid and awakening power" Cooper had over him in his youth and, later in life, declared Cooper "a great, robust-souled man." He predicted that "a grateful posterity will take the best care of Fenimore Cooper."

Among American writers in his time, Cooper expressed the greatest faith in American democracy, and would become the most disappointed. He had hoped that democracy would make men self-sufficient and independent enough to think for themselves. The democratic experiment, he believed, depended on the responsibility of an independent citizenship to think and make judgments for the common good.

But upon returning to America in 1833, Cooper became embroiled in a lawsuit to recover property that had been taken by neighbors while he was abroad. In the legal battle that Cooper ultimately won, the newspapers libeled him, and so he sued them as well. During this long period of litigation, he published The American Democrat, an important, though often overlooked, critique of democracy. (The historian John Lukacs has called Cooper "our native Tocqueville.")