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Featured Books

Featured Books

James Fenimore Cooper: The Leatherstocking Tales (Library of America)Summary and Reviews of James Fenimore Cooper: The Leatherstocking Tales (Library of America)
James Fenimore Cooper: Sea Tales: The Pilot/The Red Rover (Library of America)Summary and Reviews of James Fenimore Cooper: Sea Tales: The Pilot/The Red Rover (Library of America)
The Pioneers (Penguin Classics)Summary and Reviews of The Pioneers (Penguin Classics)
Last of the MohicansSummary and Reviews of Last of the Mohicans
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James Fenimore Cooper

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James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was the first successful American novelist.  Like Irving, he pursued other paths and, at least out of financial need, if not desperation, turned to writing after inheriting huge debts from his father.  After he was born in New Jersey, Cooper spent most of his life in Cooperstown, New York, which was founded by his father and is now notable for being the site of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Cooper is the classic example of an innovator surpassed by his artistic descendants.  He invented the sea fiction, the international novel, and the American versions of the novel of manners and allegorical fiction.  More people read Melville and his other literary progeny, but literary scholars recognize him as the innovator that he undoubtedly was.

Cooper wrote thirty-two novels but is best known for his Leatherstocking Tales.  The Leatherstocking Tales is a series of novels written over eighteen years.  The series defines Cooper as a novelist, and it puts him at the head of a long line of writers who wrote about the mythical and almost mystical American frontier.  What appeals to modern readers about the Leatherstocking Tales is Cooper's sympathetic treatment of Native Americans.  While some believe that Cooper might just have been romanticizing Native Americans as a way of dismissing them as living, breathing human beings, many believe Cooper actually recognized the injustice that Native Americans faced with the encroachment of Europeans on their land.

Cooper's first novel was Precaution, but it was his second less derivative and more successful novel, The Spy, that set Cooper on a path to greatness.  After The Spy, and its success, Cooper was able to begin his major body of work with The Pioneers, the first of the Leatherstocking Tales.  The Pioneers was set in frontier New York-yes, there was a frontier in New York once-and revolved around the patriarchal small town environment of Templeton.  Templeton was clearly a fictionalized Cooperstown, and the central character of the novel, Judge Marmaduke Temple, was clearly his father, William.  The central theme of the novel is the land and the conflicting claims on it.  Cooper establishes many characters with differing reasons for asserting ownership of the land in Templeton, from Native American original ownership to claims of a free wilderness by the character who would become the unifying figure of all the Leatherstocking Tales, Natty Bumppo.

After The Pioneers, Cooper changed themes and made his biggest innovative contribution to literature with his novel, The Pilot.  Considered by most the first true novel of the sea, The Pilot uses the American Revolution as its setting as Cooper had done before in The Spy, but the maritime themes set this novel apart as a model for later novelists like Herman Melville to use to develop the form.  John Paul Jones appears as a central character in The Pilot, as George Washington had appeared in The Spy before him.  For this reason, and for their common setting, The Spy and The Pilot can be paired as a sort of an unfinished series.

Cooper's next novel after The Pilot is his most well known.  The Last of the Mohicans may be the only novel of Cooper's that is widely read today.  With its adaptation into a feature movie, its popularity increased.  Natty Bumppo appears as a much younger man and in a more central role in this novel.  The novel is set during the French and Indian Wars, and the Native American character from The Pioneers, Chingachgook, also appears with his son Uncas as they deal with the European culture that is, as they see it, invading their territory.

After publishing The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper who was now an icon in the United States, traveled to Europe for a seven-year tour.  While in Paris, he published The Prairie, the third Leatherstocking Tale.  In this novel, Natty Bumppo as an old man is a national hero leading the way west.  Themes of the novel include, as in previous volumes of the series, Native dispossession with the resulting violence committed by the Natives and other frontier issues.

After The Prairie, Cooper stopped writing novels for roughly a decade.  He came back to America in 1833 and quickly realized he did not like the current state of affairs in his country.  He believed the current trend in American democracy set in motion by President Andrew Jackson was too extreme in its confidence in the will of the majority.  From 1833 until he died, Cooper used his pen to pass judgment on everything he thought was wrong with the American government and society.  This preoccupation with politics and society took all his writing time until, suddenly, he produced two more Leatherstocking Tales in relatively quick succession, in 1840 and 1841.  The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer moved Natty Bumppo back to early in his life as a vigorous young man with a youthful interest in women.  These last two Leatherstocking Tales differed from the earlier ones somewhat because of the European influence Cooper picked up from his travels in the continent, and they also included some symbolic attacks at Cooper's enemies.  Hence, they reflected the experience and perspective Cooper had developed over the years.

Cooper returned to his obsessive attacks on his enemies after The Deerslayer and until the end of his life used his skills in novel writing as his primary weapon.  For example, in The Littlepage Trilogy, the conflicting character groups were landowners and tenant farmers, but Cooper made pointed jabs at his own enemies in America, including libelous newspapers.  The Crater followed with its story of the demise of the United States due to its excesses.  Cooper finished his writing career by reinforcing his bitterness toward the social and legal systems of America in The Ways of the Hour.  He died in 1851 not having made peace with his country.


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