James Fenimore Cooper
Photograph by Mathew Brady, 1850
|Born||September 15, 1789
Burlington, New Jersey
|Died||September 14, 1851 (aged 61)
Cooperstown, New York
|Notable work(s)||The Last of the Mohicans|
This Oswego home at West second street stands in the area of Oswego where Fort Oswego once stood on the west bank of the Oswego river, it was also at one time the residence of James Fenimore Cooper.
James Fenimore Cooper (September 15, 1789 – September 14, 1851) was a prolific and popular American writer of the early 19th century. His historical romances of frontier and Indian life in the early American days created a unique form of American literature. He lived most of his life in Cooperstown, New York, which was established by his father William. Cooper was a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church and in his later years contributed generously to it. He attended Yale University for three years, where he was a member of the Linonian Society, but was expelled for misbehavior. Before embarking on his career as a writer he served in the U.S. Navy as a Midshipman which greatly influenced many of his novels and other writings. He is best remembered as a novelist who wrote numerous sea-stories and the historical novels known as the Leatherstocking Tales. Among naval historians Cooper’s works on the early U.S. Navy have been well received, but they were sometimes criticized by his contemporaries. Among his most famous works is the Romantic novel The Last of the Mohicans, often regarded as his masterpiece.
Early life and family
James Fenimore Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey, to William Cooper and Elizabeth (Fenimore) Cooper, the eleventh child of twelve children, most of whom died during infancy or childhood. He was descended from James Cooper, of Stratford-upon-Avon, England, who emigrated to the American colonies in 1679. James and his wife were Quakers who purchased plots of land in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Seventy five years after his arrival in America his great-grandson, William, was born on December 2, 1754, father of the author James Cooper. Cooper lived the first year of his life in New Jersey. Shortly after his first birthday, his family moved to Cooperstown, New York, a community founded by his father, who was a United States Congressman. Their house was in the wilderness on the shore of Otsego Lake, an area in central New York that was surrounded by the Iroquois of the Six Nations.
Shortly after the American Revolutionary War, Cooper’s father purchased several thousand acres of land in upstate New York along the head-waters of the Susquehanna River. By 1788, William had selected and surveyed the site where Cooperstown would be established. He erected a home on the shore of Otsego lake, and in the autumn of 1790 and, after moving belongings, servants and carpenters to the location, he began construction of what would become Otsego Hall. Otsego Hall was completed in 1799 when James was ten years old.
At the age of 13, Cooper was enrolled at Yale, but, after inciting a dangerous prank that involved blowing up another student’s door, Cooper was expelled in his third year without completing his degree. Disenchanted with college, Cooper obtained work in 1806 as a sailor and at the age of 17 joined the crew of a merchant vessel. By 1811, he obtained the rank of midshipman in the fledgling United States Navy, conferred to him on an officer’s warrant signed by Thomas Jefferson.
At twenty, Cooper inherited a fortune from his father. On January 1, 1811, at age twenty one, he married Susan Augusta de Lancey, at Mamaroneck, Westchester County, New York. the daughter of a wealthy family that remained loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolution. They had seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood. His daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, was a writer on nature, female suffrage, and other topics. She and her father often edited each other’s work. Paul Fenimore Cooper (1899–1970) a writer during the 20th century, was a great-grandson of James Cooper.
In 1806, at the age of seventeen, Cooper joined the crew of the merchant ship Sterling as a common sailor. At the time, the Sterling was commanded by the young John Johnston from Maine where Cooper served as a common seaman before the mast. His first voyage, taking some forty stormy days at sea, brought him to an English market in Cowes with a cargo of flour. There Cooper saw his first glimpses of England. After passing through the Strait of Dover and arriving at Cowes, the Sterling dropped anchor. Because Britain was in the midst of war with Napoleon’s France at the time, their ship was immediately approached by a British man-of-war and was boarded by some of its crew. They seized one of the Sterling’s best crew members and impressed him into the British Royal Navy. [note 1]
Their next voyage would take them to the Mediterranean at points along the coast of Spain, including Águilas and Cabo de Gata where they picked up cargo to be taken back to America. Their stay in Spain lasted several weeks and greatly impressed the young sailor, the accounts of which Cooper would later refer to in his Mercedes of Castile, a novel about Columbus.
After serving aboard the Sterling for eleven months, Cooper joined the United States Navy on January 1, 1808 when he received his commission as a midshipman. Because Cooper had conducted himself well as a sailor, his father, a former U.S. Congressman, easily secured a commission for his son through his long standing connections with various politicians and naval officials. The warrant for Cooper’s commission as midshipman was signed by President Jefferson and mailed by Naval Secretary Robert Smith, reaching Cooper on February 19. Along with the warrant was a copy of naval rules and regulations, a description of the required naval uniform along with an oath that Cooper was to sign in front of a witness and to be returned with his letter of acceptance. Cooper signed the oath and had it notarized by New York attorney William Williams, Jr., who had previously certified the Sterling’s crew. After Williams had confirmed Cooper’s signature, Cooper mailed the document to Washington. On February 24 he received orders to report to the naval commander at New York City. [note 2] Joining the United States Navy fulfilled an aspiration Cooper had kept since his youth.
Cooper’s first naval assignment came in March 21, 1808 aboard the USS Vesuvius, an 82 foot bomb ketch that carried twelve guns and a thirteen inch mortar. For his next assignment Cooper served under Lieutenant Melancthon Taylor Woolsey near Oswego on Lake Ontario, building the brig USS Oneida for service on the lake. The vessel was intended for use in a war with Great Britain which at the time had yet to begin. The vessel was completed, armed with sixteen guns and launched in Lake Ontario in the spring of 1809. It was in this service that Cooper learned shipbuilding, ship yard duties and frontier life. During his leisure time Cooper would venture through the forests of New York state and explore the shores of Lake Ontario. He also took frequent cruises among the Thousand Islands where he often spent time fishing. His experiences in the Oswego area would later inspire some of his work, including his novel The Pathfinder. [note 3]
After completion of the Oneida in 1809, Cooper accompanied Woolsey to Niagara Falls, and was then ordered to Lake Champlain to serve aboard a gunboat up until the winter months when the lake froze over. On November 13 of the same year he was assigned to the USS Wasp under the command of Captain James Lawrence, who was also from Burlington and a personal friend of Cooper’s. Aboard this ship Cooper met his lifelong friend William Branford Shubrick, who was also a midshipman at the time. Cooper would later dedicate The Pilot, The Red Rover, and other writings to Shubrick.
In 1820, Cooper’s wife Susan wagered that he could write a book better than the one she was reading. In response to the wager, Cooper wrote the novel Precaution (1820). Its focus on morals and manners was influenced by Jane Austen‘s approach to fiction. He anonymously published Precaution and soon wrote several other novels. In 1823, he published The Pioneers, the first of the Leatherstocking series. The series features Natty Bumppo, a resourceful American woodsman at home with the Delaware Indians and their chief Chingachgook. Bumppo was also the main character of Cooper’s most famous novel, The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Written in New York City, where Cooper and his family lived from 1822 to 1826, the book became one of the most widely read American novels of the 19th century.
In 1823, while living in New York on Beach Street in what is now downtown’s Tribeca, Cooper became a member of the Philadelphia Philosophical Society. In August of this year his first son died.
In 1824 General Lafayette arrived from France as the nation’s guest aboard the Cadmus at Castle Garden in New York City. Cooper witnessed his arrival and later was one of the active committee of welcome and entertainment.
In 1826 Cooper moved his family to Europe, where he sought to gain more income from his books as well as provide better education for his children. While overseas, he continued to write. His books published in Paris include The Red Rover and The Water Witch, two of his many sea stories. During his time in Paris, the Cooper family was seen as the center of the small American expatriate community. During this time he developed friendships with the painter Samuel Morse and with the French general and American Revolutionary War hero Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.
In 1832 he entered the lists as a political writer; in a series of letters to Le National, a Parisian journal, he defended the United States against a string of charges brought against them by the Revue Britannique. For the rest of his life, he continued skirmishing in print, sometimes for the national interest, sometimes for that of the individual, and not infrequently for both at once.
This opportunity to make a political confession of faith reflected the political turn he already had taken in his fiction, having attacked European anti-republicanism in The Bravo (1831). Cooper continued this political course in The Heidenmauer (1832) and The Headsman: or the Abbaye of Vigneron (1833). The Bravo depicted Venice as a place where a ruthless oligarchy lurks behind the mask of the “serene republic”. All were widely read on both sides of the Atlantic, though The Bravo was a critical failure in the United States.
In 1833 Cooper returned to the United States and published A Letter to My Countrymen, in which he gave his own version of the controversy and sharply censured his compatriots for their share in it. He followed up with novels and several sets of notes on his travels and experiences in Europe. His Homeward Bound and Home as Found are notable for containing a highly idealized self-portrait.
In June 1834, Cooper decided to reopen his ancestral mansion, Otsego Hall, at Cooperstown. It had long been closed and falling into decay; he had been absent from the mansion nearly 16 years. Repairs were begun, and the house was speedily put in order. At first, he wintered in New York City and summered in Cooperstown, but eventually he made Otsego Hall his permanent home.
On May 10, 1839, Cooper published History of the Navy of the United States of America. It was a work he had long planned on writing. Before departing for Europe in May, 1826, at a dinner given in his honor, he publicly announced his intentions during a parting speech that he would be authoring this great historical work while abroad:
- Encouraged by your kindness, I will take this opportunity of recording the deeds and sufferings of a
class of men to which this nation owes a debt of gratitude — a class of men among whom, I am always
ready to declare, not only the earliest, but many of the happiest days of my youth have been passed.
- Encouraged by your kindness, I will take this opportunity of recording the deeds and sufferings of a
His historical account of the U.S. Navy was first well received but later was harshly criticized in America and abroad. It took Cooper fourteen years to research and gather material for the book. His close association with the U.S. Navy and various naval officers and his familiarity with naval life at sea made him more than qualified to research and write this work. Cooper’s work is said to have stood the test of time and is largely considered an authoritative account of the U.S. Navy during that time.
In 1844 Cooper’s Proceedings of the naval court martial in the case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, a commander in the navy of the United States, &c:, was first published in Graham’s Magazine of 1843-44. It was a review of the court martial of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie who while at sea, had hanged three crew members of the brig USS Sommers for mutiny. One of the hanged men, nineteen-year-old Philip Spencer, was the son of Secretary of State John C. Spencer. He was executed without court-martial along with two other sailors aboard the Somers for allegedly attempting mutiny. Just prior to this affair Cooper was in the process of giving harsh review to Mackenzie’s version of the Battle of Lake Erie. Mackenzie had previously given harsh criticism to Cooper’s interpretation of the Battle of Lake Erie contained in Cooper’s History of the Navy of the United States, 1839). However he still felt sympathetic to Mackenzie over his pending court martial at the time.
In 1846 Cooper published Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers covering the biographies of Commodores William Bainbridge, Richard Somers, John Shaw, William Shubrick and Edward Preble.
In May 1853, Cooper’s Old Ironsides appeared in Putnam’s Monthly, It was the history of the Navy ship Constitution, and became the first posthumous publication of his writings.
In 1856, five years after Cooper’s death his History of the Navy of the United States of America was published. The work was an account of the U.S. Navy in the early 19th century. Among naval historians of the period the work has come to be recognized as a general and authoritative account, however it was criticized for accuracy on some points by other students of that period. For example, Cooper’s account of the Battle of Lake Erie was said to be less than accurate by some naval historians. For making such claims Cooper once sued a Park Benjamin, Jr. a poet and also editor of the Evening Signal of New York, for libel.
His books related to current politics and Cooper’s self-promotion increased the ill feeling between author and public. The Whig press was virulent in its comments about him, and Cooper filed legal actions for libel, winning all his lawsuits.
After concluding his last case in court, Cooper returned to writing with more energy and success than he had had for several years. On May 10, 1839 he published his History of the U.S. Navy, and returned to the Leatherstocking series with The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841) and other novels. He wrote again on maritime themes, including Ned Myers, or A Life Before the Mast, which is of particular interest to naval historians.
He turned again from pure fiction to the combination of art and controversy in which he had achieved distinction with the Littlepage Manuscripts (1845–1846). His next novel was The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak (1847), in which he attempted to introduce supernatural machinery. Jack Tier (1848) was a remaking of The Red Rover, and The Ways of the Hour was his last completed novel.
Cooper spent the last years of his life back in Cooperstown. He died of dropsy on September 14, 1851, the day before his 62nd birthday. His interment was in Christ Episcopal Churchyard, where his father, William Cooper, was buried. Cooper’s wife Susan survived her husband only by a few months and was buried by his side at Cooperstown. Several well-known writers, politicians, and other public figures honored Cooper’s memory with a dinner in February 1852; Washington Irving served as a co-chairman for the event, along with William Cullen Bryant and Daniel Webster.
Beginning in his youth Cooper was a devoted follower of the Episcopal Church where his religious convictions deepened throughout his life. He was an active member of Christ Episcopal Church, which at the time was a small parish in Cooperstown not far from his home. Much later in his life, in 1834, he became its warden and vestryman. As the vestryman, he donated generously to this church and later supervised and redesigned its interior with oak furnishings at his own expense. In July 1851 he was confirmed in this church by the Reverend Mr. Birdsall.
Cooper was one of the most popular 19th-century American authors, and his work was admired greatly throughout the world. While on his death bed, the Austrian composer Franz Schubert wanted most to read more of Cooper’s novels. Honoré de Balzac, the French novelist and playwright, admired him greatly. Henry David Thoreau while attending Harvard, incorporated some of Cooper’s style in his own work.
Cooper’s work, particularly The Pioneers and The Pilot, demonstrate an early 19th-century American preoccupation with prudence and negligence in a country where property rights were often still in dispute.
Cooper was one of the first major American Novelist to include African, African American and Native American characters in his works. In particular, Native Americans play central roles in his Leatherstocking tales. However, his treatment of this group is complex and highlights the tenuous relationship between frontier settlers and American Indians as exemplified in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, depicting a captured white girl who is taken care of by an Indian chief and who after several years is eventually returned to her parents. Often, he gives contrasting views of Native characters to emphasize their potential for good, or conversely, their proclivity for mayhem. Last of the Mohicans includes both the character of Magua, who is devoid of almost any redeeming qualities, as well as Chingachgook, the last chief of the Mohicans, is portrayed as noble, courageous, and heroic.
Though some scholars have hesitated to classify Cooper as a strict Romantic, Victor Hugo pronounced him greater than the great master of modern romance,. This verdict was echoed by a multitude of less famous readers, such as Balzac and Rudolf Drescher of Germany, who were satisfied with no title for their favorite less than that of the “American Scott.” Mark Twain famously criticized The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder in his satirical but shrewdly observant essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895), which portrays Cooper’s writing as cliched and overwrought. Scholars Schachterle and Ljungquist write, “Twain’s deliberate misreading of Cooper has been devastating….Twain valued economy of style (a possible but not necessary criterion), but such concision simply was not a characteristic of many early nineteenth-century novelists’ work.”
Cooper was also criticized heavily for his depiction of women characters in his work. James Russell Lowell, Cooper’s contemporary and a critic, referred to it poetically in A Fable for Critics, writing, “. . . the women he draws from one model don’t vary / All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.”
Cooper’s lasting reputation today rests largely upon the five Leatherstocking tales. As for the remaining body of his work, Literary scholar Leslie Fiedler, however, noted that Cooper’s “collected works are monumental in their cumulative dullness.”
Three dining halls at the State University of New York at Oswego are named in Cooper’s remembrance (Cooper Hall, The Pathfinder, and Littlepage) because of his temporary residence in Oswego and for setting some of his works there. The gilded and red tole chandelier hanging in the library of the White House in Washington DC is from the family of James Fenimore Cooper. It was brought there through the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in her great White House restoration. The James Fenimore Cooper Memorial Prize at New York University is awarded annually to an outstanding undergraduate student of journalism.
- At this time the British naval practice of seizing American sailors accusing them of desertion and impressing them into the British navy was common and is largely what led to the War of 1812.
- Accounts vary: Phillips, 1913, p.53 puts the date at January 12 
- Records of the government or Navy Dept provide little information regarding Cooper’s movements and activities in the Navy. Knowledge of Cooper’s life comes primarily from what he himself has divulged in his published works notes and letters of that period.
- Phillips, 1913, pp.6-7
- Lounsbury, 1883, pp.7-8
- Hale, 1896, p.657
- Phillips, 1913, p.2
- Lounsbury, 1883, p.2
- J.F. Cooper Biography
- Franklin, 2007, p.101
- Clymer, 1900, p.xii
- “Susan Fenimore Cooper”. Retrieved 21 November 2011.
- Wright, 1983,
Cooper Genealogy, NYS Historical Association
- Clymer, 1900, p.xi
- Phillips, 1913, pp.43-44
- Roosevelt, 1883 pp.1-3
- Franklin, 2007, p.89
- Phillips, 1913, p.53
- Lounsbury, 1883, p.216
- Franklin, 2007, pp.101-102
- Franklin, 2007, pp.110-111
- Clymer, 1900, p.12
- Phillips, 1913, pp.54-55
- Lounsbury, 1883, p.11
- Phillips, 1913, p.216
- Lounsbury, 1883, p.12
- Phillips, 1913, p.99
- Phillips, 1913, p.114
- Franklin, 2007, p.314
- Phillips, 1913 James Fenimore Cooper p.239
- McCullough, 2011
- James Fenimore Cooper, The Bravo, Oneonta University
- Clymer, 1900, pp.xi-xv
- Lounsbury, 1883, p.200
- Phillips, 1913, p.277
- Phillips, 1913, pp.305-306
- Clymer, 1900, pp.110-111
- Cooper, 1846, 436 pages
- Phillips, 1913, p.308
- Cooper, James Fenimore. “Old Ironsides”. James Fenimore Cooper Society. Retrieved 22 July 2012.
- Cooper, 1856 508 pages
- Clymer, 1900, p.94, 107
- . Retrieved October 17, 2012.
- Jones, Brian Jay. Washington Irving: An American Original. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2008: 391. ISBN 978-1-55970-836-4.
- Lounsbury, 1883, p.23
- Phillips, 1913, pp.340-341
- See Fowler, ‘Modern English Usage,’ Mencken ‘The American Language.’ ‘Crockford’s Clerical Directory,’ or 1969 ed. ‘American Heritage Dictionary’ for the correct use of the adjective “reverend.” It is to be used exactly as the adjective “honorable” is used. One would not call Judge John Smith “the Honorable Smith.”
- Letter from Schubert to Franz von Schober, November 12, 1828
- Phillips, 1913, p.350
- Franklin, 2007, p.xxix
- Nan Goodman, Shifting the Blame: Literature, Law, and the Theory of Accidents in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton UP 1998
- Phillips, 1913, pp.189-190
- Clymer, 1900, pp.43-44
- Phillips, 1913, p.160
- “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences”. Etext.virginia.edu. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- Schachterle and Ljungquist, p. 410)
- Porte, Joel. The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969: 20.
- Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. Dalkey Archive Press, 2008 (reprint): 180. ISBN 978-1-56478-163-5
- “SUNY Oswego – Penfield Library: Who Were Our Buildings?”. Oswego.edu. 1966-10-01. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- History of White House library
- [dead link]
- James Fenimore Cooper (2003-12-01). “Precaution”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2006-02-01). “The Spy”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2000-08-01). “The Pioneers”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2000-08-01). “Tales for Fifteen, or, Imagination and Heart”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2005-04-01). “The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2006-02-05). “The Last of the Mohicans; A narrative of 1757”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2004-09-01). “The Prairie”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2004-03-01). “The Red Rover”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2005-09-01). “The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2004-05-01). “The Water-Witch or, the Skimmer of the Seas”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2003-12-01). “The Bravo”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2004-02-01). “The Headsman”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2003-05-01). “The Monikins”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- “The Eclipse”. Etext.lib.virginia.edu. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- Thomas Philbrick (1961). James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Harvard University Press.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2004-07-22). “A Residence in France”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2006-02-01). “Homeward Bound; Or, the Chase”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2003-11-01). “Home as Found”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- “Old Ironsides”. External.oneonta.edu. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (1999-09-01). “Pathfinder; or, the inland sea”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2004-04-01). “The Wing-and-Wing”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2000-09-01). “Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2003-12-01). “Wyandotté, or, The Hutted Knoll”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- [dead link]
- James Fenimore Cooper (2006-01-01). “Ned Myers, or, a Life Before the Mast”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2005-08-01). “Afloat and Ashore: A Sea Tale”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (2004-02-01). “Miles Wallingford”. Gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- James Fenimore Cooper (1844). Lucy Hardinge: a second ser. of Afloat and ashore, by the author of ‘The pilot’. Books.google.com.
- “Satanstoe; Or, the Littlepage Manuscripts. A Tale of the Colony by Cooper – Project Gutenberg”. Gutenberg.org. 2005-09-01. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- “The Crater by James Fenimore Cooper – Project Gutenberg”. Gutenberg.org. 2004-03-01. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- “Jack Tier by James Fenimore Cooper – Project Gutenberg”. Gutenberg.org. 2003-12-01. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- “Oak Openings by James Fenimore Cooper – Project Gutenberg”. Gutenberg.org. 2003-07-01. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- “The Sea Lions by James Fenimore Cooper – Project Gutenberg”. Gutenberg.org. 2003-12-01. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- “The Lake Gun by James Fenimore Cooper – Project Gutenberg”. Gutenberg.org. 2000-09-01. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- “New York by James Fenimore Cooper – Project Gutenberg”. Gutenberg.org. 2001-01-01. Retrieved 2012-12-24.