PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide - An Ongoing Project

© Paul P. Reuben

Chapter 3: James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)

Outside Link: James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal: Literature in the Early American Republic

Page Links: Primary Works Major Themes Contributions of Cooper JFC and the American Indian The Leatherstocking Tales Selected Bibliography 1980-Present MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

A Brief Biography

Site Links: Chap 3: Index Alphabetical List Table Of Contents Home Page October 4 , 2011




Primary Works

Fiction: Precaution,1820; The Spy,1821; The Pioneers, 1823; The Pilot, 1824; Lionel Lincoln,1824; The Last of the Mohicans, 1826; The Prairie, 1827; The Red Rover, 1828; The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish,1829; The Water Witch,1830; The Bravo,1831; The Heidenmauer,1832; The Headsman,1833; The Monikins,1835; Homeward Bound,1838; Home as Found,1838; Mercedes of Castile,1840; The Pathfinder, 1840; The Deerslayer, 1841; The Two Admirals,1842; The Wing-and-Wing,1842; Le Mouchoir; an Autobiographical Romance,1843; Ned Myers, 1843; Wyandotte, 1843; Afloat and Ashore,1844; Miles Wallingford: A Sequel to Afloat and Ashore,1844; Satanstoe,1845; The Chain Bearer,1845; The Redskins,1846; The Crater,1847; Jack Tier,1848; Oak Openings, 1849; The Sea Lions,1849;The Ways of the Hour,1850.

The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground. Elliott, James P. (ed. and introd.); Pickering, James H.; Schachterle, Lance, and others. NY: AM, 2002.

Ned Myers, or, a Life before the Mast. Madison, Karen Lentz (ed.) NY: AMS, 2009.

The Water-Witch; or, The Skimmer of the Seas. Philbrick, Thomas (ed. and introd.) NY: AMS, 2010.

Non-Fiction: Notions of the Americans: Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor, 1828; Sketches of Switzerland,1836; Gleanings in Europe,1837; The American Democrat,1838; The History of the Navy of the United States of America,1839.

Major Themes in Cooper's Writing

1. The American Society.
2. The American History.
3. The Backwoods - Frontier.
4. The Sea.

Contributions of Cooper

The creation of the famous Leatherstocking saga has cemented his position as our first great national novelist and his influence pervades American literature. In his thirty-two years (1820-1851) of authorship, Cooper produced twenty-nine other long works of fiction and fifteen books - enough to fill forty-eight volumes in the new definitive edition of his Works. Among his achievements:

1. The first successful American historical romance in the vein of Sir Walter Scott (The Spy, 1821).

2. The first sea novel (The Pilot, 1824).

3. The first attempt at a fully researched historical novel (Lionel Lincoln, 1825).

4. The first full-scale History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839).

5. The first American international novel of manners (Homeward Bound and Home as Found, 1838).

6. The first trilogy in American fiction (Satanstoe, 1845; The Chainbearer, 1845; and The Redskins, 1846).

7. The first and only five-volume epic romance to carry its mythic hero - Natty Bumppo - from youth to old age.

Top Cooper and the American Indian 

Cooper's Indians Notions of the Americans

The idea that the American Indian was doomed to fade away wherever he came into contact with European settlers was certainly a well-established one in the early 19th Century. The principle reasons for this belief (aside from, in many circles, a good deal of wishful thinking) was that:

1) Indians seemed unwilling or unable to adapt successfully to the newly dominant European economic and social systems (not that those who did best at it, like some of the Cherokee, reaped much advantage from their success).

2) Where Indians persisted on the fringes of settler culture (which was, of course, where most people saw them) their social degradation seemed all too obvious, typified by their tendency towards alcoholism.

3) It was an observable fact (even without any appreciation of the effects of European disease vectors to which Indians were terribly susceptible) that the numbers of Indians in settler-populated areas seemed to diminish rapidly.

4) Persistant beliefs in White and/or European superiority, and economic and social interests that furthered such beliefs, certainly played an equally important part in this.

James Fenimore Cooper shared the view (even if he did not welcome it) that co-habitation of Indian and settler was in the long run impossible. As he noted in Letter XXXIV of "Notions of the Americans" (1828):

"As a rule the red man disappears before the superior moral and physical influence of the White, just as I believe the black man will eventually do the same thing, unless he shall seek shelter in some other region. In nine cases out of ten, the tribes have gradually removed west, and there is now a confused assemblage of Nations and languages collected on the immense hunting grounds of the Prairies....

"The ordinary manner of the disappearance of the Indian is by a removal deeper into the forest. Still, many linger near the graves of their fathers, to which their superstitions no less than a fine natural feeling lend a deep interest. The fate of the latter is inevitable; they become victims of the abuses of civilization without ever attaining to any of its moral elevation...."

Cooper estimated that, in 1828, there were only some 120,000 Indians within the then-limits of the United States, from Atlantic to Pacific.

He endorsed a plan, which he stated had been detailed by a recent report of the Indian Office, that Indians be encourage to migrate west of the Mississippi, where they should be given in perpetuity a formal United States Territory, with the right to send delegates to Congress. "If the plan can be effected there is reason to think that the constant diminution of the numbers of the Indians will be checked, and that a race about whom there is so much that is poetic and fine in recollection will be preserved. Indeed some of the Southern tribes have already endured the collision with the white man, and are still slowly on the increase. as one of these tribes, at least (the Chicasaws) is included in this plan, there is just ground to hope that the dangerous point of communication has been passed, and that they may continue to advance in civilization to maturity...."

Cooper wrote a great deal further, in his novels, about Indians, had a number of Indian friends, and I think his views towards them tended to mellow.

While the notion that Indians were doomed by fate to extinction proved, happily, not to be true, our criticism of the theory should also recall that it was held in opposition to another theory -- based originally on the Old Testiment accounts of the destruction of the Canaanites to make room for the Jews. This view considered the active extermination of Indians to be a good thing, and blessed by God. It was one to which many well-known "Indian haters", such as Louis Cass and later Mark Twain, not to mention a large portion of less educated and literate frontiersmen, gave either tacit or explicit endorsement.

(E-Mail from Hugh C. MacDougall, Secretary/Treasurer, James Fenimore Cooper Society, to the AMLIT list, September 17, 1999.)

Top The Leatherstocking Tales

The Pioneers, 1823; The Last of the Mohicans, 1826; The Prairie, 1827; The Pathfinder, 1840; The Deerslayer, 1841.
Publication Date
Natty Bumppo's Age
Set in Year
The Pioneers
Natty Bumppo first appears as a seasoned scout in advancing years, with the dying Chingachgook, the old Indian chief and his faithful comrade, as the eastern forest frontier begins to disappear and Chingachgook dies.
The Last of the Mohicans
An adventure of the French and Indian Wars in the Lake George county.
The Prairie
Set in the new frontier where the Leatherstocking dies.
The Pathfinder
Continuing the same border warfare in the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario country.
The Deerslayer
Early adventures with the hostile Hurons on Lake Otsego, NY.

Top Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Darnell, Donald. James Fenimore Cooper: Novelist of Manners. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1993.

Doolen, Andy. Fugitive Empire: Locating Early American Imperialism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005.

Franklin, Wayne. The New World of James Fenimore Cooper. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982. PS1438 .F67

- - -. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007

Krauthammer, Anna. The Representation of the Savage in James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville. NY: Peter Lang, 2008.

Long, Robert Emmet. James Fenimore Cooper. NY: Continuum, 1990. PS 1431 .L57

MacDougall, Hugh C. Where Was James? A James Fenimore Cooper Chronology from 1789-1851. Cooperstown: James Fenimore Cooper Soc., 1993.

Packard, Chris. Queer Cowboys and Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Rans, Geoffrey. Cooper's Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1991.

Reid, Margaret. Cultural Secrets as Narrative Form: Storytelling in Nineteenth-Century America. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2004.

Ringe, Donald A. James Fenimore Cooper. Boston: Twayne, 1988. PS1438 .R5

Romero, Lora. Home Fronts: Domesticity and Its Critics in the Antebellum United States. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Smith, Lindsey C. Indians, Environment, and Identity on the Borders of American Literature: From Faulkner and Morrison to Walker and Silko. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Tawil, Ezra F. The Making of Racial Sentiment: Slavery and the Birth of the Frontier Romance. NY: Cambridge UP, 2006.

Thomson, Shawn. The Fortress of American Solitude: Robinson Crusoe and Antebellum Culture. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2009.

James F. Cooper: A Brief Biography

A Student Project by Roda Malco

Some refer to him as the first American novelist. Others merely admire him for his brilliant nautical, socio-political, and romantic novels. Robert E. Spiller, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says that James Fennimore Cooper understood his surroundings and "gave them voice and meaning." (5) Although Spiller argues that some critics may find it impossible &endash;or simply difficult&emdash; to understand Cooper's writing, he also suggests that understanding the writer's life would be helpful in appreciating Cooper's novels (5-6).

James Cooper- he later added Fennimore, his mother's maiden name&emdash; was born on September 15, 1789 at Burlington, New Jersey, according to a Chronology by Warren Walker (xiii). In the year following James' birth, the Cooper family moved to Cooperstown, which is named after James' father, Judge Cooper, despite the common misunderstanding that Cooperstown is named after James F. Cooper (Walker 3). James received most of his education before 1800. He entered public schools in Cooperstown, and in 1801, he became a boarding student in the home of Reverend Thomas Ellison in Albany, New York (Long 9). Soon after the Reverend's death in 1802, James entered Yale.

According to Warren Walker, Yale did not challenge the 13-year-old Cooper. He was the youngest in his class but far ahead from his peers in his understanding of the Latin language. Courses at Yale seemed tedious to Cooper. To take away the dullness in his college career, he became a prankster. He was expelled two years later for misconduct (5-6). However, it seemed that such behavior ran in the Cooper family. James' older brother had been "recently dismissed from Princeton for similar conduct." (Walker 6) Once both brothers were back at home, their father had to think of a way to keep them from being idle.

Judge Cooper, James' father, sent him (James) to the sea to prepare him for a naval career. According to Robert Long the seventeen-year-old James at 1806 was about to start a very "formative experience of his life." (15) After a year of training overseas, James returned to America. He received a warrant on January 1, 1808. This document was signed by President Thomas Jefferson, whom, according to Walker, was highly favored by young James (4).

Although naval school and Yale were remarkable events in James Cooper's life, Robert Spiller argues that "they did little to change his attitude." (11) According to Spiller it was James' marriage to 18-year-old Susan De Lancey in 1811 and their life together that had the greatest impact in his life. After all, his first novel was written on a dare from his wife. Different biographers have different "takes" on this situation; Warren Walker states:

. . . In the customary practice of the day he was reading aloud to his wife one evening from a current English novel, but found the story dull. Throwing it aside, he declared, "I could write a better book than that myself." And Susan's challenge to make good his boast resulted in his writing Precaution (1820). (12)

Cooper's first novel, Precaution, was not a success. However, his failure only motivated him to write three more novels in the immediate years that followed. Out of the three, The Pilot, which was written in 1824, was to be the most influential nautical novel Cooper produced in his 30-years authorship. At that time Cooper's financial life was reaching a dead end, and "it was only the sudden flow of money from his publishers that saved Cooper from bankruptcy." (Walker 13)

In his lifetime Cooper wrote thirty-two novels, eight of which are set in the frontiers he and his family had known. The Leather-Stocking Tales "account for five of these novels about pioneer life, and yet in popularity they have outweighed all of Cooper's other works. . ." (Warren 30) The Tales contain a five volume biography of their protagonist Natty Bumppo. They include: The Deerslayer, the Last of Mohicans, the Pathfinder, the Pioneers, and the Prairie. Most people will agree that the Tales have been Cooper's most famous works.

James Cooper has had many critics. One of the well-known people who put Cooper's novels under great scrutiny and attacked his works continuously has been Mark Twain (Long 176). Although scholars agree that some of Cooper's novels have flaws, most concur that he is usually underestimated. As Warren points out "without Coope,r America would be deprived of brilliant power of observation." (120)

America lost this brilliant author on September 14, 1851, "one day before his sixty-second birthday." (Warren xv) However, James Fennimore Cooper's writings live on to prove that Cooper belongs in the same category as other great novelists of his time.

Works Cited

Robert Emmet, Long. James Fennimore Cooper. Continuum: A Fredrick Ungar Book, 1990.

Spiller, Robert E. James Fennimore Cooper. North Central Publishing Company. Minnesota. 1936.

Walker, Warren. James Fennimore Cooper: An Introduction and Interpretation. 2nd ed. New York: Barns and Nobel, 1963.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page:

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 3: James Fenimore Cooper." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: (provide page date or date of your login).