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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Masculine Heroes James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)

[1161] John Wesley Jarvis, James Fenimore Cooper (1822), courtesy of the New York State Historical Assocation.

At the height of his fame in the early nineteenth century, James Fenimore Cooper was America’s foremost novelist and one of the most successful writers in the world. Judgments on his stature as a novelist have been less generous since that time, but few would dispute the cultural significance of his innovative tales. Building on the example of the British novelist Sir Walter Scott, Cooper wrote the first American historical novels and in the process made subjects such as Native Americans, the western wilderness, and the democratic political system compelling and popular topics for fiction.

Cooper was raised in Cooperstown, the village his father founded in the forests of upstate New York. His third novel, The Pioneers, is closely based on his memories of growing up in this frontier community. Cooper was sent to Yale as an adolescent, but was quickly expelled for his poor academic performance and his habit of playing pranks. In need of a career, he enlisted in the merchant marines and the navy, experiences he would later draw on in his popular seafaring novels, including The Pilot and The Red Rover. Cooper inherited a substantial estate from his father in 1810, left the navy, and married Susan De Lancey, a woman from a wealthy New York family. Expecting to live as a privileged landowner, he was distressed when the following years brought financial setbacks, debt, and the loss of much of his inherited land.

In 1820, Cooper changed the course of his life when he wrote his first work of fiction, Precaution, a conventional novel of manners set in England. According to legend, Cooper wrote the book only because his wife challenged him to make good on his boast that he could write a better novel than the one she was reading. Despite his initial offhand attitude toward writing, Cooper took the American Revolution as the subject for his second book and composed the first important American historical novel, The Spy (1821). It met with enormous critical and financial success. In 1822 he moved his family to New York City to pursue his new career in earnest. Cooper founded the “Bread and Cheese” in the city, a social club for men committed to nurturing American culture. Through the club, Cooper associated with leading New York merchants, professionals, and artists, including many of the Hudson River School painters, whose depictions of nature are so frequently associated with Cooper’s literary descriptions of the American wilderness. In 1823 Cooper published The Pioneers, the first of his five Leather-Stocking novels and the most autobiographical of his books. In it he introduced Natty Bumppo (known as the “Leather-Stocking”), who seized the American imagination as the independent backwoods hunter and friend to the Indians. Figured as a sort of personification of the American wilderness, Natty helped construct the mythology of the frontier and fuel American nostalgia for an idealized past before “civilization” intruded into the woods. Cooper followed The Pioneers with other successful novels, including The Last of the Mohicans, which chronicles Natty’s adventures in upstate New York during the French and Indian War of 1754-63.

At the peak of his success, Cooper took his family on a grand tour of Europe, where they were introduced to prominent political figures and artists. He continued writing and publishing novels from abroad, but many of these works were poorly received by the American press. Bitter at what he perceived as the American public’s betrayal of him, Cooper announced in 1834 that he was going to give up novel writing and retire in seclusion to Cooperstown. From that point on he had a vexed relationship with his American audience, a problem exacerbated by his frequent involvement in petty lawsuits and his increasingly conservative harangues about the sociopolitical state of the country. Despite his threat to stop writing, Cooper actually wrote prolifically until his death, producing a total of thirty-two novels, along with several political tracts, works of history, and biographies.

Teaching Tips

  • Because it was set in England and featured only English characters, Cooper’s first novel, Precaution (which he published anonymously), was assumed to be the work of a British citizen. Reviewers also concluded that the author was a woman because the novel centered on domestic scenes and social manners. Perhaps distressed by this misreading of his nationality and gender, Cooper focused many of his subsequent novels on American subjects and masculine heroes. After you give your students this background information, ask them to think about the strategies Cooper uses to identify his work as both “manly” and “American.” What does Cooper see as appropriate behavior for a man and for an American? Which characters represent his ideals of American masculinity? How might his books respond to the notion, current in nineteenth-century America, that novel reading was a frivolous and feminine pursuit?
  • Although Cooper features prominent Native American characters and describes tribal customs in detail in his most famous novels, he was not personally familiar with Native American culture. In fact, even though many of his American readers took him to be an expert, Cooper’s knowledge of Indian culture came largely from books, legends, and stereotypes. Ask your students to think about how Indians are portrayed in Cooper’s novels, especially in The Pioneers and/or The Last of the Mohicans. You might have them pay special attention to the way he creates two separate versions of Native American character, celebrating “noble savages” like Uncas and Chingachgook while portraying other Native Americans as ferocious, barbarous, and inhumane. How does the Mohicans’ doomed fate work to make them sympathetic and nonthreatening to Cooper’s white audience? What kinds of prejudices do Cooper’s negative depictions of the Mingo tribe appeal to? How are Cooper’s stereotypes similar to or different from twentieth-century stereotypes depicted in Westerns, comic books, and other popular media?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Settings in works of fiction are often invented to symbolize or encapsulate the conflicts that will be developed in the story. How does Cooper describe the frontier community of Templeton in The Pioneers? How does the town function as a contact point between “civilization” and the wilderness? What kinds of hardships do the townspeople face? What is their vision of “progress”?
  2. Comprehension: In 1863, German critic Gustav Freytag argued that the typical plot of a five-act play had a pyramidal shape. This pyramid consists of five stages: an introduction to the conflict, rising action (complication), climax, falling action, and a dénouement (unraveling). Although this pattern, known today as Freytag’s pyramid, originally referred to drama, critics have applied the concept to fiction as well. How might we use Freytag’s pyramid to analyze the plot development of The Pioneers? In what stage of the pyramid would the chapters “The Judge’s History of the Settlement” and “The Slaughter of the Pigeons” fall? What is the nature of the conflict between Judge Temple and Natty Bumppo? How are their values opposed?

    Freytag’s Pyramid

  3. Context: Catharine Maria Sedgwick drew upon Cooper’s development of the American historical novel when she wrote Hope Leslie in 1827. How does Hope Leslie compare to The Pioneers? Why do you think Sedgwick chose to write about the Puritans rather than the French and Indian War and post-Revolutionary period that Cooper chronicled? How does each book narrate the settlement of new territory by European-Americans? How are the novels’ portraits of Native American characters similar? How are they different?
  4. Context: Cooper was an enthusiastic admirer of the paintings of the Hudson River School artists. In a review of one of Thomas Cole’s paintings, Cooper asserted that the picture was “the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced” and “one of the noblest works of art that has ever been wrought.” Cole, in return, was an admirer of Cooper’s prose and painted several scenes based on Cooper’s descriptions of the landscape in The Last of the Mohicans. Why do you think Cooper and Cole were so interested in and enthusiastic about one another’s work? How are their interests and subject matters similar? What do their attitudes toward land and landscape have in common?
  5. Exploration: In both “The Judge’s History of the Settlement” and “The Slaughter of the Pigeons,” Cooper describes the way “settlement” and “civilization” exploit and disrupt the natural abundance of the wilderness. While the Judge tends to view this process as “improvement,” Natty condemns it as destructive and wasteful. What is Cooper’s position, on the environmental impact of European-American settlement? In what respects does he seem to side with the Judge’s position, and in what respects does he seem to side with Natty? How does The Pioneers raise environmental issues that still concern us today? How do contemporary debates about issues such as logging old-growth forests, salmon fishing, and drilling for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge grow out of some of the same controversies raised in The Pioneers?
  6. Exploration: In 1895 Mark Twain published “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences,” a hilarious indictment of Cooper’s unrealistic dialogue and heavy-handed plots. What, in Twain’s view, are Cooper’s biggest “offences” against “literary art”? Why do you think Twain singled out Cooper? How did the development of both realism and regionalism (styles with which Twain is associated) represent a break with Cooper’s style?
  7. Exploration: Natty Bumppo has been described as the “first American hero” in U.S. national literature. What qualities make Natty heroic? How does he deal with the tensions between “wilderness” and “civilization” that structure life in and around Templeton? How does he deal with his existence on the border between Native American and Euro-American culture? How did Cooper’s creation of Natty influence American literature? What subsequent literary heroes share some of Natty’s qualities?
  8. Exploration: In her article “I Have Been, and Ever Shall Be, Your Friend’: Star TrekThe Deerslayer and the American Romance,” critic April Selley argues that the male-male bonding between Natty and his Native American sidekick Chingachgook laid the groundwork for later American heroes and their ethnic sidekicks (Journal of Popular Culture 20.1 [Summer 1986]: 89-104). These ethnic sidekicks, Selley argues, tend to be more effeminate, and thus enhance the masculinity of the European-American hero. Two famous examples of European-American heroes and ethnic sidekicks are the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and Captain Kirk and Spock. Do you agree with Selley’s reading of Cooper’s characters? Can you think of other examples that fit this model?

Selected Archive Items

[1161] John Wesley Jarvis, James Fenimore Cooper (1822),
courtesy of the New York State Historical Association.
Cooper is best known for his frontier novels of white-Indian relations. The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder(1840), and The Deerslayer (1841) are known collectively as the Leatherstocking Tales.

[6974] Matthew Brady Studio, James Fenimore Cooper (c. 1850),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. Brady photographed a number of famous Americans around 1850. This portrait of Cooper was taken shortly before the author’s death in 1851.

[7314] Thomas Cole, Landscape Scene from The Last of the Mohicans (1827),
courtesy of the New York State Historical Association.
A founder of the Hudson River School, Cole painted several scenes from James Fenimore Cooper’s novels. Cole was concerned that such industrial developments as the railroad would spoil the beauty of the Catskills.

[7734] Blake Allmendinger, Interview: “Male Bonding/Homo-Eroticism in Cooper’s Novels” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Blake Allmendinger, professor of English at UCLA and author of The Cowboy: Representations of Labor in American Work Culture and Ten Most Wanted: The New Western Literature, discusses male bonding and homo-eroticism in Cooper’s novels.

[7735] Richard Slotkin, Interview: “Cooper’s Critical American Hero, Relationship to Indians” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Richard Slotkin, professor of American Studies at Wesleyan University, discusses Cooper’s hero and his relationship with Native Americans. Slotkin’s trilogy on the myth of the frontier in America includes Regeneration through ViolenceThe Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation.

[7530] F. O. C. Darley, The Watch [from the Cooper Vignettes] (1862),
courtesy of Reed College.
Cooper established a pattern in American literature of different races relating outside the bounds of society. In the example of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, white masculinity is developed through an ethnic “other” in the American wilderness.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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