Cooper, James Fenimore, 1789–1851, American novelist, b. Burlington, N.J., as James Cooper. He was the first important American writer to draw on the subjects and landscape of his native land in order to create a vivid myth of frontier life.
In 1790 Cooper's family moved to Cooperstown, N.Y., a frontier settlement founded by his father near Otsego Lake. The landscape and history of the area was to greatly influence many of his most famous works. Sent to Yale at 13, Cooper was dismissed for a disciplinary reason in his third year. Soon after he went to sea; commissioned as a U.S. midshipman, he served until 1811, at which time he married and settled into life as a gentleman farmer.
Cooper's literary career, which covers a period of 30 years and includes more than 50 publications, began in 1820 with the appearance of Precaution. Imitative of the English novel of manners, this book failed to gain an audience; but his next work, The Spy (1821), a patriotic story of the American Revolution, was an immediate success. With The Pioneers (1823), the first of the famous Leatherstocking Tales, and The Pilot (1823), an adventure of the high seas, Cooper's reputation as the first major American novelist was established.
In 1826 Cooper went to France, nominally as American consul at Lyons. He spent several years abroad, publishing such novels as The Red Rover (1827), The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), and The Water-Witch (1830), romances of American life on land and sea. In Notions of the Americans (1828) he defended his country to European critics; but upon his return home, repelled by what he saw as the abuses of American democracy, Cooper became the staunch social critic of American society. Such works as The American Democrat (1838) and the fictional Homeward Bound and its sequel, Home as Found (both 1838), express the conservative, aristocratic social views that made him quite unpopular; his later life was filled with many quarrels and lawsuits over his works.
In his most important novels, the group comprising the Leatherstocking Tales —which in order of the narrative are The Deerslayer (1841), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Pathfinder (1840), The Pioneers (1823), and The Prairie (1827)—Cooper skillfully dramatized the clash between the frontier wilderness and the encroaching civilization. Named for their chief character, the forthright frontiersman Natty Bumppo, nicknamed Leatherstocking, the Leatherstocking Tales are notable for their descriptive power, their mastery of native background, and their romanticized portrayal of the Native American.
Cooper's later works include the novels Afloat and Ashore and its sequel, Miles Wallingford (both 1844), and the Littlepage trilogy— Satanstoe (1845), The Chainbearer (1845), and The Redskins (1846)—a study of the conflict between the landholding and the propertyless classes in New York state, in which Cooper shows himself a traditional defender of the rights of property.
Cooper has been criticized for his extravagant plots, his conventional characters, and his stilted dialogue. Nevertheless, he remains the first great American novelist, a vital and original writer of romances of the wilderness and of the sea, and a harshly astute critic of the growing and stumbling American democracy.
See his correspondence (ed. by his grandson, J. F. Cooper, 2 vol., 1922, repr. 1971); biographical and critical studies by R. E. Spiller (1931, repr. 1963), T. R. Lounsbury (1882, repr. 1968), J. P. McWilliams, Jr. (1972), S. Railton (1978), W. Franklin (1982), and W. P. Kelly (1984); bibliography by R. E. Spiller and P. C. Blackburn (1934, repr. 1969).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.